Mooney & the “new atheists”: another round

Another round in the ongoing Neuatheismusstreit was touched off by an opinion piece in the L.A. Times by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, authors of the new book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. They write:

It often appears as though Dawkins and his followers–often dubbed the New Atheists, though some object to the term–want to change the country’s science community in a lasting way. They’d have scientists and defenders of reason be far more confrontational and blunt: No more coddling the faithful, no tolerating nonscientific beliefs. Scientific institutions, in their view, ought to stop putting out politic PR about science and religion being compatible.

Here are some responses up to now:

My 2¢ (for now): In all the sound and fury posing this dispute as a conflict over political and cultural strategy, the question of curriculum is being neglected, even though the conflict is joined most pointedly in struggles over teaching natural science versus something else in science classes.

Without regard for political or cultural strategy, and simply as a matter of curriculum, students are not learning to understand the natural science disciplines such as biology, chemistry, or physics if they come away thinking that any of these sciences has anything at all to say, one way or another, about notions of the supernatural such as, for example, belief in the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, or belief in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Such beliefs are not even beliefs about the world that natural science investigates. The beliefs of Cardinal Schönborn and Pope Benedict concerning creation are on the same order: They are beliefs about metaphysical “substances” in the same sense as in “transubstantiation”–“substances” in a sense that makes no sense in the natural sciences, yielding no hypotheses or claims or propositions with any “sense” open to natural science confirmation or disconfirmation.

This is not because of any calculation about political or cultural strategy. This is just a matter of the difference between scientific and religious thinking. A student who does not understand this, does not know what science is; and to understand this, the student needs to understand that scientific thinking and investigation, per se, cannot make sense of things like “transubstantiation,” and have nothing to say about such things.

A biologist can say, “As a biologist, I don’t believe in the Immaculate Conception … I don’t understand why anybody would believe it … it makes no sense to me … in fact, it seems like a goofy idea to me.” But a biologist cannot rightly say, “the science of biology demonstrates that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception [or the virgin birth of Jesus, for that matter, which is a different belief from the IC] cannot possibly be true.”

It’s fine for scientists to point out that religious beliefs do not make sense scientifically (indeed, scientifically literate religious believers would not claim that they do); and while scientists should condemn the pretenses and deceptions of ID proponents claiming that Intlligent Design is “scientific,” and combat attempts to deny scientific knowledge on the basis of religious authority, such combat and condemnation does not demand any condemnation or disparagement of religion, as such. In fact, the cause of defending science against pretenders may be confounded, if the profound difference between what science and religion are about becomes obscured.

12 Comments

  1. Posted August 14, 2009 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    “But a biologist cannot rightly say, “the science of biology demonstrates that the doctrine of … the virgin birth of Jesus … cannot possibly be true.””

    No one, on either side of this debate, is proposing to make such a statement.

    A biologist could, however, rightly say, “the science of biology demonstrates that the doctrine of … the virgin birth of Jesus … most probably isn’t true.”

    • Posted August 14, 2009 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      You write:

      “But a biologist cannot rightly say, “the science of biology demonstrates that the doctrine of … the virgin birth of Jesus … cannot possibly be true.””

      No one, on either side of this debate, is proposing to make such a statement.

      A biologist could, however, rightly say, “the science of biology demonstrates that the doctrine of … the virgin birth of Jesus … most probably isn’t true.”

      I think people like Dawkins are saying, in effect “Natural science shows that life on earth is not divinely created, it’s evolved.” PZ et al. are arguing, as I understand them, that scientists should be making such assertions, while Mooney and Kirshenbaum are arguing that, while scientists do need to be engaged in educating the public about, for example, how scientific evidence shows beyond doubt that species have evolved, it’s not necessary, and doesn’t help, for scientists to defend or promote science by asserting that religious belief is incompatible with science.

      But claiming that natural science can demonstrate that creation didn’t happen involves the same problem as claiming that natural science can demonstrate that the virgin birth did not happen, or couldn’t happen. Natural science can say that the virgin birth is not possible in nature. But the doctrine of conception by the Holy Spirit is not about something happening in nature. Nobody believes that it is, so to deny that it is natural would be to deny something that nobody believes.

      Anybody who believes in the virgin birth is believing in a miracle. A miracle in this sense is not just improbable, it is impossible in nature as such. (Even if you believe in “quantum flapdoodle,” the doctrine of conception by the Holy Spirit is not about quantum probabilities).

      Even more clear is the example of eucharistic transubstantiation, where it seems more obviously off-base for anyone to say “physics demonstrates that bread and wine cannot be transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ when the right words are spoken by a priest” — and note that it would hardly make more sense for a physicist to say “the science of physics demonstrates that the doctrine of transubstantiation most probably isn’t true.”

      Those who believe in miracles are believing in the supernatural. Natural science can say nothing about the supernatural to someone who believes in it — they already know that the supernatural is not natural, and not within the probabilities that natural science knows about.

      If you go back to the Mooney and Kirshenbaum opinion piece (which will be accessible for free for only a limited time), you will see that this is exactly the question that they ask:

      Who in the United States will read Dawkins’ new book (or ones like it) and have any sort of epiphany, or change his or her mind?

      Surely not those who need it most: America’s anti-evolutionists.

      My point in commenting is to stress the implications for students understanding what the natural sciences are, and what they are not — and how this is being neglected if we focus only on the differences over strategic judgments, which is how this dispute is being framed.

      • Posted August 14, 2009 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

        I didn’t want to interject this complication within the reply above, but I do know that there are theologians who are toying with notions of quantum probabilities while they try to formulate conjectures about how God need not act in the world by intervening from outside of nature, but how God can be thought of as acting within nature, without violating any laws of nature.

        I would still contend that a natural world with God acting in it is not the natural world as known by the natural sciences, and that an understanding of what natural sciences are — and what they are not — would show why this is the case.

      • Posted August 16, 2009 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

        “I think people like Dawkins are saying, in effect “Natural science shows that life on earth is not divinely created, it’s evolved.””

        Compare this with what you originally wrote: “But a biologist cannot rightly say, “the science of biology demonstrates that the doctrine of … the virgin birth of Jesus … *cannot possibly be true*.””

        I guess you are not a scientist, or not educated in science, or not a philosopher, or not educated in philosophy. But there is a difference between a scientist saying “science shows X” and “science shows that there is no possible doubt that X”, and likewise between “science shows that X is not true,” and “science shows that X could not possibly be true.” The latter claims are unsupportable by science, and no scientist in this debate is contending any such claims.

        Do you understand this distinction? Your original post and follow-up comment seem to indicate that you do not — at least, not really. Perhaps now you will attempt to be more careful with your wording, and with your accusations.

        Natural science *does indeed* show that life on Earth is not divinely created, it’s evolved. It does not attempt to demonstrate this *absolutely*, however, as you seem to think it does.

        Science also shows that the Earth orbits the Sun due to gravity, not due to the actions of space-fairies. Science *does not* show that space-fairies *could not possibly* be the cause. It only shows that such an explanation is unnecessary, and most probably wrong. The only kind of space-fairies that could be causing Earth’s orbit are ones that are completely undetectable by any reliable means. Such space-fairies are, however, completely superfluous, and provide us with no knowledge or understanding.

        This is what science likewise says about God (or gods). The only such deities that could possibly exist are ones that are so undetectable as to be indistinguishable from no gods at all.

        Certainly, the gods which most believers believe in is *not* this undetectable god. The god of most believers tinkers in the world with observable effects, such as answering prayers and instigating true miracles. This god, this tinkerer, is shown by science to be most unlikely to exist.

        *That* is what Dawkins, Harris, et al are claiming. Not that this god is absolutely not possible, only that science shows it to be very improbable. Please read The God Delusion to see this argument straight from the horse’s mouth.

        Anyone, including you, who claims that Dawkins et al are making the stronger claim of impossibility is being intellectually dishonest. If you believe you’re right, then please *quote* Dawkins or another making an argument for the impossibility of a god.

        “PZ et al. are arguing, as I understand them, that scientists should be making such assertions,”

        PZ et al are making the argument a) that those who want to make the argument that gods probably do not exist, should be able to do so without harassment from people like Mooney, and b) that organizations like the NCSE should just stay out of the debate, stick to defending science, and not promote specific accommodationist theology, such as Miller and Collins. If you’ve only been reading Mooney’s side of the argument, then I should warn you that he repeatedly misrepresents his opponents, claiming that they say things that they did not say. I recommend you read more of the other side to get their actual arguments, rather than Mooney’s distortions. Otherwise, you will end up repeating, as you did here, Mooney’s dishonest Straw Man.

        “while Mooney and Kirshenbaum are arguing that, while scientists do need to be engaged in educating the public about, for example, how scientific evidence shows beyond doubt that species have evolved”

        Scientific evidence *does not* show *anything* “beyond doubt”. Mooney and Kirshenbaum are not even arguing that it does, which is why I think that this misunderstanding is your own, and not merely a parroting of theirs.

        Evolution is not “beyond doubt”. Beyond reasonable doubt, definitely, but not beyond all doubt. Such is the realm of dogma, the antithesis of scientific investigation. No responsible scientist should claim anything ‘beyond doubt’.

        “But claiming that natural science can demonstrate that creation didn’t happen”

        Do you believe that space-fairies cause the Earth to orbit the Sun? If not, why not? Could it be because there is no good reason to believe that they do, and that there is no good evidence to support the case?

        ” involves the same problem as claiming that natural science can demonstrate that the virgin birth did not happen,”

        Imagine, hypothetically, that sometime in the future, somehow (again, hypothetically), scientists were able to find the DNA of both Jesus and Joseph.

        They compare Jesus’ DNA with Joseph’s DNA, and they find that Jesus shares 50% DNA with Joseph. If such a discovery were ever made, it would show that Jesus was born from a non-virgin Joseph, and a non-virgin Mary, thus demonstrating that the virgin birth most probably did not occur. It is still possible that God exists, and used Joseph’s DNA to create Jesus in Mary’s virgin womb, but the most parsimonious theory is that the story of the virgin birth is merely a legend. Again, like the space-fairies, there is no good reason to believe that the virgin birth is actually true, and there is no good evidence to support it.

        “Those who believe in miracles are believing in the supernatural. Natural science can say nothing about the supernatural to someone who believes in it — they already know that the supernatural is not natural, and not within the probabilities that natural science knows about.”

        While it is true that science cannot say anything about the supernatural, what is often overlooked is that *no one else* can say anything about the supernatural either! The supernatural is, first of all, an empty and broken concept. Those who proclaim the supernatural cannot tell us what it is, only what it is not. It is not natural, not spatial, not temporal, not this, not that. But what *is* it? No one can say. They cannot have any good reasons to believe in it, and no good evidence to support its existence.

        As such, believing in the supernatural is no good defense for religious beliefs. Faith does not illuminate knowledge.

        Likewise, the fact that science cannot describe the supernatural is no blemish on science.

        What science *can* do, however, is investigate people’s *claims* about the supernatural, and how it interacts with and influences the natural world. For example, prayer. Believers claim that a supernatural God grants prayers in the natural world. When we investigate this claim using the scientific method, we discover that it is a false claim, thus disproving people’s claims about the supernatural.

        The supernatural is indistinguishable from the non-existent. This is the claim being made by Dawkins, PZ, et al. The supernatural, as *claimed* by believers, most probably does not exist, in the exact same way that space-fairies most probably do not exist. There is no good reason to believe in the supernatural, and no good evidence to support its existence.

        Mooney and Kirshenbaum attempt to demonize ‘new atheists’ by putting words in their mouths and setting up Straw Men. They call them ‘militant’, ‘dogmatic’, even ‘violent’, when all they are doing is stating their opinion that science supports the case that gods most probably do not exist, and that if one applies scientific thinking to all of their beliefs, they will come inexorably toward the same conclusion.

        • Posted August 16, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

          “The latter claims are unsupportable by science”

          Apologies for my unclear wording here. I meant: The stronger claims (i.e. “science shows that there is no possible doubt that X”, and “science shows that X could not possibly be true,”) are unsupportable by science.

        • Posted August 16, 2009 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

          My point doesn’t depend on such differences as those between “cannot possibly” versus “unlikely,” or “beyond doubt” versus “beyond reasonable doubt.”

          My point is, precisely, that such distinctions are irrelevant to the problems here — which is why I say “involves the same problem as claiming …”

          My argument is not premised on a claim that Dawkins, PZ, et al. are making absolutist assertions that they are not making. The properly qualified claims that they can and do make don’t reach the issue of belief in the supernatural, and the more absolutist, unqualified claims are not claims that they can make. What I’m saying is that the same problem is involved in either case. I have no difficulty calling this the problem of the irrationality of religious belief. It does put such belief beyond the reach of refutation by the sciences.

          If you start with the doctrine of Eucharistic transubstantiation, that seems to me the clearest of the examples that I used. Physics can say nothing about this to someone who believes in it. A physicist can say that it’s meaningless within natural science discourse, or the norms of any naturalist discourse. A physicist (or anybody) can say it isn’t reasonable to believe in it. But if a physicist says that physics shows transubstantiation to be “improbable” or “unlikely,” I would submit that it’s the physicist who doesn’t understand the nature of the question here.

          The Jesus DNA example is less obvious, since there is a matter here that can be discussed in terms of physical evidence and probabilities. My point is that the same problem is involved here (albeit less obviously) as in the transubstantiation case. It’s not a matter of evidence or probabilities.

          You ask, “Do you believe that space-fairies cause the Earth to orbit the Sun?”

          No, I don’t. But if I met someone who did believe that, to the point of having organized their life around that belief, even though they know that science has a different answer, I would not think that the scientific understanding of gravitation would have anything to offer that would get to the basis of their belief.

          Science is not about arguing over transubstantiation or about space-fairies, one way or another. To the extent that students and/or the public are being led to think that science is concerned with such beliefs, IMHO their understanding of science is not being well served.

          • Posted August 16, 2009 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

            “My point doesn’t depend on such differences as those between “cannot possibly” versus “unlikely,” or “beyond doubt” versus “beyond reasonable doubt.””

            Then why did you take a whole paragraph to make this point: “A biologist can say, “As a biologist, I don’t believe in the Immaculate Conception … I don’t understand why anybody would believe it … it makes no sense to me … in fact, it seems like a goofy idea to me.” But a biologist cannot rightly say, “the science of biology demonstrates that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception [or the virgin birth of Jesus, for that matter, which is a different belief from the IC] *cannot possibly be true*.””

            It seems to me, as someone who can’t spy inside your head, that you were making a big deal about ‘biologists’ making claims that ‘biology demonstrates that X cannot possibly be true’ vs. ‘As a biologist, I don’t believe in X’. And now you are making a big deal that this distinction — which you yourself brought up in the first place — is *not* what your point is about. So, which is it?

            (And also, which biologists/physicists/scientists are out there making such claims that ‘science shows that X cannot possibly be true’? Or any similar claim? I think you’re arguing against a straw man. Some quotes would be nice.)

            “But if a physicist says that physics shows transubstantiation to be “improbable” or “unlikely,” I would submit that it’s the physicist who doesn’t understand the nature of the question here.”

            If the *claim* of the believer is that a cracker *actually* turns into the flesh of a man, then the physicist is utterly within his rights to say that such an occurrence is improbable and unlikely. If the *claim* of the believer is the weaker one that ‘something magic and supernatural happens that’s completely undetectable,’ then the physicist is within his rights to say, “That is indistinguishable from nothing happening at all, and there is no good reason to believe it, so it probably isn’t true.”

            Science *can* say something about the supernatural: The supernatural is indistinguishable from the non-existent. If theists are fine with that version of their beliefs (I don’t know many who are), then fine. If they try to claim more than that, we are within our rights to say, “Prove it.”

            Either way, the onus is entirely on the supernaturalist to substantiate their claims, and there’s nothing wrong with a scientist, or a scientifically-educated person, to say that until the evidence shows otherwise, science supports the case that the supernatural most probably does not exist, and is most probably simply the imagination of believers.

            There are an infinite number of mutually-exclusive supernatural things that *could* exist, and there’s no evidence for any of them. Therefore, for any *one* thing that a believer claims to exist, the odds that the believer guessed the right one, given there’s no evidence, is vanishingly close to zero.

            For example, I claim that the space-fairies wear red tunics and like to eat ice-cream. But I could just as easily imagine the space-fairies wearing blue tunics and liking to eat pizza, and not ice-cream. There are an infinite number of possible combinations of space-fairies that are mutually contradictory. Which ones are the real space-fairies? Probably none of them. That’s the reasonable answer.

            Just because you can imagine something that is indistinguishable from something that doesn’t exist, that doesn’t lend any evidence or reason in support of that thing actually existing.

            • Posted August 16, 2009 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

              “And now you are making a big deal that this distinction — which you yourself brought up in the first place — is *not* what your point is about. So, which is it?”

              My point was that the distinction is not one that makes a difference here.

              “Either way, the onus is entirely on the supernaturalist to substantiate their claims,”

              ? … If the question is what/how they believe, why should they submit to this imposition of an “onus”? If they are trying to convert you to their belief, then I would agree with you. But that’s not the issue here, is it?

              “we are within our rights to say, “Prove it.””
              Same as above. I agree if they’re trying to get you to accept their belief. But if it’s you contending that they are delusional, that doesn’t mean that they have to prove–using your standards–that they are not.

              “If the *claim* of the believer is that a cracker *actually* turns into the flesh of a man, then the physicist is utterly within his rights to say that such an occurrence is improbable and unlikely.”

              This is not imaginary or hypothetical. There are maybe a billion people who believe in transubstantion. What it is that they’re believing in is something that is untouched by any physicist’s calculation of likelihoods or probabilities of physical events. You can say it’s “indistinguishable from nothing happening,” “there is no good reason to believe it, so it probably isn’t true.” Fine. But they do believe it. You’ve uttered arguments that don’t address them. You might contend that they should find those arguments compelling, but the argument for that contention would be philosophical. The arguments for how to think when doing physics might be scientific arguments, but an argument that people in their lives should always and only think and believe as scientists do in their scientific practice, no matter how compelling it may be as an argument, would be a philosophical argument, rather than a scientific one, hence not part what science, qua science, has to offer.

              “there’s nothing wrong with a scientist, or a scientifically-educated person, to say that until the evidence shows otherwise, science supports the case that the supernatural most probably does not exist, and is most probably simply the imagination of believers.”

              Sure … within the limits of the discourse of scientific argument (and you can add “rational thought in general” if you want to). But the believer already eschews those limits before the scientist says that, so the scientist is saying nothing of any consequence to the believer.

              “Some quotes would be nice.”

              I said that scientists cannot (and I added in a comment, are not) making such claims. I could quote myself saying that.

              I think this thread may be exhausted now. I’ll be interested if you have more to say, but if it still leaves matters where they are now, I won’t come back basically repeating the same points.

              • Posted August 16, 2009 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

                “? … If the question is what/how they believe, why should they submit to this imposition of an “onus”? If they are trying to convert you to their belief, then I would agree with you. But that’s not the issue here, is it?”

                In the context of the ‘new atheism’/accommodationism debate, the question is whether science and religion are compatible. The accommodationists claim that it is. We say, “Prove it.” Chris Mooney hears this and says, “You’re so militant!”

                *That* is the issue. You seem to be under the impression that the ‘new atheists’ are saying something they are not.

                “Fine. But they do believe it. You’ve uttered arguments that don’t address them.”

                If they are making the claim that science and religion (specifically faith) are compatible, then my argument does address them.

                “You might contend that they should find those arguments compelling, but the argument for that contention would be philosophical.”

                No, the argument is scientific. There is no scientific argument *against* the hypothesis that belief in transubstantiation is mere imagination. If you apply scientific reasoning to all of your beliefs, then beliefs in the supernatural will not be able to withstand the scrutiny. *That* is the argument. According to the scientific method, you must reject your supernatural hypotheses due to lack of evidence. If you want to go on believing them *despite* the lack of evidence, fine, but that is *not* an argument that science is compatible with faith, only that you have failed to follow through with scientific reasoning.

                The ‘new atheists’ have only said: Scientific reasoning is not compatible with faith-based reasoning. Nothing more than that. It is clear that it is true. The only arguments we’ve heard against it are: “You’re so mean!” Well, tough. That’s not an argument. That’s what this whole brouhaha is about.

                “The arguments for how to think when doing physics might be scientific arguments, but an argument that people in their lives should always and only think and believe as scientists do in their scientific practice”

                Again. That is not the argument. That is a straw man. Please quote someone who is making that argument.

                You can think whatever you want in your spare time. We don’t care. We’re just saying that you cannot *then* go claiming that these non-scientific beliefs are somehow ‘compatible’ with science. Francis Collins, Ken Miller, and others, have made such claims. ‘New atheists’ spoke out against that position. Chris Mooney got his panties in a twist, and here we are today.

                “But the believer already eschews those limits before the scientist says that, so the scientist is saying nothing of any consequence to the believer.”

                That is not true. They do not eschew the banner (and limits) of ‘science’. Indeed, it is their very attempts to hide under that banner that we are speaking out against. If Francis Collins did not write books and publish websites publicly proclaiming that science somehow supports his god-belief, then we would not be calling him out. It is the muddying of the name of science that we are protesting. If you are not aware that this muddying is occurring, then I suggest you do a bit more research on this topic.

  2. Posted August 16, 2009 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    [quoting me:]

    “You might contend that they should find those arguments compelling, but the argument for that contention would be philosophical.”

    No, the argument is scientific. There is no scientific argument *against* the hypothesis that belief in transubstantiation is mere imagination. If you apply scientific reasoning to all of your beliefs, then beliefs in the supernatural will not be able to withstand the scrutiny. *That* is the argument. According to the scientific method, you must reject your supernatural hypotheses due to lack of evidence. [emphases added]

    As for analysis in terms of “scientific argument” (or lack thereof), or [scientific] “hypothesis,” or “scientific reasoning” — if “*That* is the argument,” then it is a scientific argument; but it’s an argument about how you would think IF you are thinking about transubstantiation scientifically, and NOT an argument for why everyone SHOULD think about it scientifically. The latter argument can certainly be made, but it’s a philosophical argument, or else it just begs the very question that’s at issue.

    If it were part of the work of physics or biology to insist that everyone must decide questions about things such as transubstantiation the way a physicist or biologist thinks about material and living things, then THIS POSITION would make physics or biology unaccomadatable with religion. But the work of neither discipline requires such a position.

    I’m really not concerned with the dispute over accommodation as a strategic matter. I’m not all that concerned with who said what and when. I’m not attacking or defending any of those arguments about strategies and claims like those of Francis Collins (whom I never would defend). I’m only interested in students being able to understand what the sciences that they are studying are and do — and not being diverted from that by collateral issues.

    If a biology student says she believes in transubstantiation, her teacher certainly can say “That’s not scientific thinking” (to which the student might say “Yes, I know”). But the teacher can continue teaching, and the student can continue learning, biology. Scientific thinking and religious thinking certainly are inconsistent with each other. It sounds like that’s where Francis Collins gets screwed up. But that doesn’t mean that science cannot proceed unless religion is annihilated. They are not incompatible in that sense. Scientific inquiry must insist on its own principles in doing its own work; but it doesn’t depend on denying other principles in other human activity. Science is separate from, different from, and compatible with non-science activity and non-science thinking. Understanding the difference between science and non-science is necessary for understanding science — what it is and what it is not. If “accommodation” means something different from compatibility in this sense, then it is different from what I have been writing about. And in that case I don’t care about the dispute over accommodation except to say, as I said from the start, that this dispute over accommodation should not be waged at the expense of students having the chance to learn what science is, and what it is not.

    You’re saying that I’m not well versed on both (or all) sides of the accommodation argument. I’ve been saying that that argument, as it’s been represented, is a distraction from matters that are vitally important in science education. When it comes to culture wars in general, I’ll side with Harris and Hitchens. But curriculum is not just culture wars.

  3. Posted October 4, 2009 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    On transubstantiation and natural science:

    The doctrine of transubstantiation, discussed above, depends on its conception of substance which, I was arguing, is an idea so alien to the language of natural science that the scientist, qua scientist, has nothing to say about it to its believers. In the paragraph below, C. S. Peirce explains this with admirable lucidity:

    Substantial form: a form which constitutes a nature, i.e. a species or genus. Thus, the accidental form of a musician is music; but his substantial form is the rational soul which makes him a man. When men’s thoughts became turned from theology to the investigation of physics, those who were animated by the new spirit found themselves confronted with objections based upon allegations of substantial forms. That these substantial forms, so used, were merely a hindrance to the progress of science, was quite plain to them. But the objections were urged with a logical accuracy, born of centuries of study, with which the new men were utterly incapable of coping. Their proper course would have been quietly to pursue their own inquiries, and leave the theologians to square their results with philosophy as best they could. But circumstances did not permit this. The theologians had the popular intelligence and the arm of power on their side; and, when an apparent opposition arose, they naturally exerted themselves to put it down. Thus, the innovators were led to protest against these senseless and harmful substantial forms; and they had to formulate their objections to them — a business for which they were entirely unfitted. But since the discoveries of the physicists were plainly adding to man’s knowledge and power, while their antagonists were simply obstructive, the former soon carried the day in the general opinion of mankind. The history proves that there was something vicious about the theological application of substantial forms; but it in no degree goes to show that the physicists accurately defined the objection to that application. In reviewing the arguments at the present day, when the position of the mechanical philosophers is becoming almost as obsolete as that of the scholastic doctors, we first note that when the new men denied that the substantial forms were “entities,” what they really had in mind was that those forms had not such a mode of being as would confer upon them the power dynamical to react upon things. The Scotists, for it was they upon whom, as being in possession of the universities, the brunt of the battle fell, had in fact never called the substantial forms “entities,” a word sounding like a Scotistic term, but in fact the mere caricature of such a term. But had they used the word, nothing more innocent than the only meaning it could bear for them could be imagined. To call a form an “entity” could hardly mean more than to call it an abstraction. If the distinction of matter and form could have any value at all, it was the substantial forms that were, properly speaking, forms. If the Scotists could really specify any natural class, say man — and physics was at that time in no condition to raise any just doubt upon that score — then they were perfectly justified in giving a name to the intelligible characteristic of that class, and that was all the substantial form made any pretension to being. But the Scotists were guilty of two faults. The first — great enough, certainly, but relatively inconsiderable — was often referred to, though not distinctly analyzed and brought home to them. It was that they were utterly uncritical in accepting classes as natural, and seemed to think that ordinary language was a sufficient guarantee in the matter. Their other and principal fault, which may with justice be called a sin, since it involved a certain moral delinquency, was that they set up their idle logical distinctions as precluding all physical inquiry. The physicists and Scotists, being intent upon widely discrepant purposes, could not understand one another. There was a tolerably good excuse for the physicist, since the intention of the Scotist was of an abstract and technical kind, not easily understood. But there was no other excuse for the Scotist than that he was so drugged with his metaphysics that ordinary human needs had lost all appeal to him. All through the eighteenth century and a large part of the nineteenth, exclamations against the monstrousness of the scholastic dogma that substantial forms were entities continued to be part of the stock-in-trade of metaphysicians, and it accorded with the prevalent nominalism. But nowadays, when it is clearly seen that physical science gives its assent much more to scholastic realism (limited closely to its formal statement) than it does to nominalism, a view of the history more like that here put forward is beginning to prevail.

    From Baldwin’s Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, The Macmillan Co., New York, vol. 2, pp. 50-55 (1902). Reprinted in C. S. Peirce Collected Works, 6.361.

    Of course, the non-theologian who believes in transubstantiation may have little or no clue as to its metaphysical underpinnings. They believe, but without much understanding of the doctrine in which they believe. That may seem a bit hard to understand for the rest of us. My best guess is that what they are believing is the authority of the Magisterium from which they’ve learned that doctrine (so far as they have learned of it). But that’s not for me to say; and I know that I don’t have any argument or evidence that would dissuade them from their belief, however that may be.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Tony’s curricublog Tony Whitson’s blog on curriculum-related matters « Mooney & the “new atheists”: another round […]

  2. […] While there are some in the West who do draw such conclusions, others insist that doing so requires stepping outside of what a scientist can say, qua scientist. […]

Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *
*
*

%d bloggers like this: