Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Science Can Explain Everything”

Seidensticker splits this chapter into two separate parts. I’m not really sure why, since Seidensticker’s posts tend to be rather short and so he really should be able to cover it all off in one, but whatever. I’m going to deal with both parts in this one post, though, because I have no desire to use this to pad out my number of posts for this month, and it’s best to discuss the whole issue in the same context anyway.

So, starting in part 1:

To attempt to tie this to reality, Bannister quotes Nobel Prize winner Harry Kroto, “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine truth with any degree of reliability.” But just two sentences later, Bannister bungles that into, “Science can answer any and all questions.” Yes, that is quoted accurately. And no, that’s not even close to what the scientist said.

In previous chapter critiques, I’ve defended the atheist argument against Bannister’s attacks. But I don’t defend this argument because no one makes it. No one makes it, that is, except theists who seem to be drawn to strawman arguments like flies to garbage.

Seidensticker makes a big deal out of Bannister not paraphrasing Kroto properly … but never actually goes and tells us what Kroto really means. This is really, really bad because I’m not sure why Bannister’s paraphrase is that bad. My interpretation of that statement is that it is saying that science is the only reliable method for getting truth. This implies that science not only can but should be used to answer any question that we can get a truth value for. If there are questions that we can get true answers for that are not answerable by science, then Kroto would have to be implying that only unreliable methods could get at that truth. But as we’ve seen to be reliable a method has to produce true beliefs more often than not, and so an unreliable method would at best be a coin flip as to whether it produced a true belief or a false one. Given that, we can’t — no pun intended — rely on an unreliable method, and so couldn’t answer those questions with any degree of reliability or confidence in the answer … at which point we might as well say we didn’t answer it at all.

Thus it seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable paraphrase — given the implications — to say that science can answer any question that we can reasonably answer, because there is no other way to answer any questions. From that, Bannister’s paraphrase is only oversimplified in the sense that it arguably includes questions that simply cannot be answered. Fine, but that would only be a serious problem if Bannister was going to go after atheists for claiming to be able to answer unanswerable questions. And as far as I can tell from the posts, Bannister doesn’t do that at all. So, then, where has Bannister gone so wrong? He seems pretty close to me, except for the “any and all” possibly including ones that can’t be answered. And of course Seidensticker won’t say what he thinks the statement means, and so I’m in the dark.

Fortunately, it would only be a problem if Seidensticker would directly try to defend the purported atheist argument, and as we’ve already seen he has a strong tendency not to, so let’s move on:

Bannister challenges us: “What is the value of a human life?” How would atheists answer this with science alone? A chemist might tally the value of the salvageable chemicals inside a human body. An economist could look at the net contribution to the economy of each person. But surely humans have an intrinsic value that science can’t tell you.

We all know how a human life can be given a financial value when you look at how life insurance works. Or we can weigh the cost of an improvement in food or road safety, for example, against the number of lives it will save. This computation isn’t horrifying; it’s something we’re familiar with.

Um, I dare Seidensticker to go up to someone whose loved one has just died, ask about the life insurance amount, and then when told what it is say “Well, that sounds like a reasonable assessment of the value of their life” and see what reaction he gets. I doubt he’ll get a reaction that concludes that he has actually indeed said something about the actual value of that person’s life because that’s not how life insurance works. Life insurance is insurance about the event itself, and so provides for certain things if that occurs depending on how much you want to pay. You can take out a life insurance policy with the sole intention of covering funeral costs, or with lost income for a certain number of years, or whatever. The intention is not to pay you what the person’s life is actually valued at. He’d have a better case if he had used the idea of court settlements for wrongful death … but again those lean towards monetary replacement, compensation for emotional distress, and punitive damages, meaning that they are indeed never asking “Well, what is the value of that person’s life?”. So this first example is completely off the mark.

For the second one, it’s about pragmatics: what is it worth to the organization — often a government — to prevent that amount of loss of life? Morally, it is an entirely reasonable argument to say that saving even one life, if you can, is priceless; you should do it no matter what it costs. The question here is purely pragmatic: how much is it worth to us? But again this is not the organization tallying up what those lives are really valued at; if they looked at it that way, as if they were really humans, then a lot of their decisions would not be so, let’s say, cavalier. In fact, one of the criticisms of that approach is that it unreasonably reduces humans to numbers and refuses to consider their “real” value. So, again, this isn’t going to support a contention that what we are going there is answered the question of what the value of a human life is.

But Bannister probably wants a more intangible or intuitive approach. He’d probably say that we all feel that one human life is worth more than one animal life. Or do we? When Harambe, a lowland gorilla (which, as a species, is critically endangered), was killed in 2016 to protect a four-year-old boy who had fallen into his zoo enclosure, many criticized the zoo for its actions, and the boy’s mother received torrents of online outrage for her supposed negligence.

I believe that the criticism of the zoo was that they could have taken some other action so that both the child and the gorilla could have lived, or even built their enclosure so that this couldn’t have happened. And the criticism of the mother is more than if she had been paying attention, that tragedy would not have occurred. I don’t think there are all that many people insisting that the gorilla’s life had more value than that of the child’s, or even that they had equal value. At any rate, this is actually an odd example because in the case where a human was going to kill a child we would think it reasonable to kill the human to save the child, so killing the gorilla isn’t even a case where we would only do it because we don’t value the gorilla’s life as much as we do the human’s. A better example would be how we consider there to be a moral debate over killing animals for food but don’t even consider it moral to raise and kill humans for food, but even that has moral confounds. So again I’m not sure how Seidensticker thinks he can answer the question “What is the value of a human life?” with this example, let alone do that scientifically.

Another example is Peter Singer’s drowning child experiment: you pass a pond with a child drowning. There are no difficulties stopping you from wading out and rescuing the child except that you would ruin your $500 shoes. Would that stop you? Of course not—anyone would sacrifice an expensive pair of shoes to save a child’s life. But that means that saving a life is worth $500 to you. Now suppose a nonprofit organization that provides bed nets to protect children from malaria-carrying mosquitoes (or some similar project) shows you how a $500 donation would save one life or more. Most people would discard this appeal after a few seconds’ consideration, including those who would have sacrificed their shoes.

The issue here is that this trips over “special burden”, as in the drowning child case we are the only one who can save them while we aren’t the only ones who can provide those bed nets. Also, he ignores the fact that Singer uses this argument to show that we should feel as morally obligated to give that $500, which completely undercuts his case if Singer is correct. So again we aren’t calculating the value of a human life here, which is what Seidensticker is, well, supposed to be answering.

Admittedly, he admits that it’s a detour:

That was a detour, but I think it was relevant to Bannister’s challenge that we find the value of human life without appealing to something outside science. My point is first that we can indeed put a crass monetary value on human life. We do it all the time. And second, Bannister’s unstated supernatural valuation of human life is probably a cheery declaration that God made Man the pinnacle of his creation, QED, and yet it’s more complicated than that.

Well, for the first, as demonstrated above, we actually don’t put a crass monetary value on life. And second, if Bannister is right then it isn’t more complicated than that; we know precisely what value we ought to put on a human life even if some don’t agree. So, no, it wasn’t relevant.

Let me now directly respond to his challenge. Our moral programming tells us (in general) to value human life over other kinds of life. Why is this? It’s a product of our evolutionary path, which is explained by science. When legislators evaluate a proposed improvement to a dangerous intersection, they uncover and follow evidence and test hypotheses to make their decisions—and that’s the scientific method. What’s unexplained?

Well, is that valuation of human life over other kinds of life like the sweet tooth, at one time valid but now outdated and actually detrimental? Should we value non-human animals more than we do? Should we agree with Singer and insist that we ought to equally value the lives of those we’d save with that bed net? How does Seidensticker propose to answer these questions with science? The short answer is that he won’t, because he thinks that there are no objective answers to these questions. Which would suggest to me that these fall into those questions that can’t be answered because there are true answers to the questions, would then would mean that these are questions that science can’t answer. Which also happens to be the one thing that he could reasonably say Bannister misleadingly includes with his paraphrase of “Science can answer any and all questions”.

The sad thing here is that Seidensticker’s “detour” raises all sorts of questions that Seidensticker doesn’t answer and that philosophers haven’t answered, and yet at the end here he seems to think that those questions either are or at least can be answered by science without ever showing how, even in a link to another post where he tried to do that. In short, he asks us what’s unexplained after demonstrating in his detour all of the things that his theory can’t or hasn’t explained.

Bannister reminds me of the child who mindlessly asks “Why?” in response to every statement. He asks, “Why is the pursuit of knowledge a good thing?” and “Why is it wrong [for a scientist] to lie about [experimental] results?”

Well, little Andy, lying slows down knowledge finding, and knowledge is good because sometimes we can use it to improve life—eliminate a disease or improve food production, for example. Why is that good, you ask? Because we seek happier, healthier lives—that’s just how we’re programmed. “Good” in this case is defined by our programming, put there by evolution. There’s no need to appeal to the supernatural to explain this.

If a scientist can lie and get away with it, and thus improve their own life, then why isn’t that “Good”? After all, it seems like our programming maximizes the happiness in our lives, not the lives of others. After all, one answer to Singer’s moral discussion is that we feel the obligation to save the drowning child because of the direct emotional trigger, which we don’t feel for distant events. “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”, as Stalin purportedly said. This does seem to be part of our programming, but does that automatically make it right? Certainly we have lots of arguments that say that it isn’t right. How does Seidensticker propose to answer this using science without merely concluding that “If our evolutionary programming says it, it’s right” … which is contradicted by the sweet tooth, which is now maladaptive?

Anyway, on to part 2:

Bannister tells us that science is a great tool, but it’s only a tool. You can’t paint a portrait with a shovel—each tool has limitations. “We need more tools in our philosophical toolkit than just science if we’re going to answer all the wonderfully rich and varied questions that are out there to be explored.”

What do you have in mind? Of course I agree that physics, chemistry, and geology have limits, but show me a discipline that gives us reliable new information (say, philosophy recommending ethical standards for a new technology or economists understanding how people respond to incentives) that doesn’t use evidence and hypothesis testing—that is, scientific thinking.

Well, what do you mean by “evidence and hypothesis testing”? Because the traditional definitions of that in science — empirical observation and specific experimentation against empirical observation — aren’t used in philosophy, at least not that directly. Nor are they used in anything primarily conceptual. Nor are they used in anything inherently subjective. All Seidensticker does here is commit the typical scientistic mistake of absorbing everything into science through redefinition and then asking “What’s left?”. If your definition means that philosophy — which spawned science — is really science, you’ve probably done something wrong.

To support his position, he quotes geneticist Richard Lewontin who states that scientists “have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. . . . Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

Seidensticker thinks that this isn’t fair criticism if we include more of the comment, which he proceeds to do:

. . . we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.

Seidensticker’s interpretation of that:

Lewontin wasn’t saying that we must conclude beforehand that the supernatural isn’t possible but rather that using science with a God option is like blowing up a balloon with a hole in it. You can’t get anywhere since everything must have a God caveat. It’s “F = ma, God willing” or “PV = nRT, if it pleases God.” When you make a measurement in a world where God messes with reality (that is, you “allow a Divine Foot in the door”), what part of that measurement is the result of scientific laws and what part was added by some godly hanky panky?

Why? Science — at least with respect to natural laws — is just about finding regularities in empirical experience. Whether those regularities exist because they are the intentional laws or decisions of an all-powerful creator God or because they are merely regularities in nature shouldn’t matter; regularities are regularities. Which means that they, well, happen more often than not, and if they didn’t happen at a particular point in time we’d go and try to figure out what was different about that case. Now, for miracles people insist that they happen because God’s nature in that specific case meant that it at least was reasonable that God would intervene there. We argue like Durkon does here, that there is a purpose behind God’s intervention, and the Christian God is, in fact, not one who will get drunk and toss lightning storms randomly around the world. So the cases where we might expect God to intervene can be at least roughly figured out using the intentional stance, and they aren’t particularly common. So why would a scientist have to worry more about God breaking a regularity than they’d have to worry about there not really being any regularities in nature at all, a fact that we might discover at any time? At least with God, we’d have a way to determine when those breaks in regularity will occur.

So, then, why can we not let a Divine Foot in the door, again?

Seidensticker then attempts to discredit Bannister’s reliance on theology which Seidensticker considers unreliable … but this in no way defends the original claim, which is that science can answer all questions that can be answere. Bannister is listing things that he says science can’t answer, and Seidensticker’s reply is to demand what else could? But that does not defend the idea that science can answer them, and Seidensticker does not in fact argue that the questions are unanswerable. Thus, again, Seidensticker abandons defending the argument and instead tries to attack Bannister’s proposed alternative … but he’s supposed to be showing that the purportedly bad arguments aren’t. Arguing that they are no worse than Bannister’s arguments for arguments that Seidensticker clearly thinks are bad arguments only ends up conceding that, yes, the original atheist arguments are, indeed, bad arguments.

Seidensticker concludes with the “Hypothetical God Fallacy”:

When I read, “If there is a god,” I might as well have read, “If unicorns exist.” Unicorns don’t exist, so what follows must be hypothetical. And gods don’t exist—certainly not as far as Bannister has convinced us—so what follows can only be speculation about a world that isn’t ours and is therefore completely irrelevant to me. (More on the Hypothetical God Fallacy here.)

Seidensticker constantly demands evidence for the existence of God. But any argument from evidence is going to be “If there is an X, then we would expect to see E. We see E, so E is evidence for the existence of X”. If Seidensticker is going to eliminate hypothetical discussions of what things would be like if God existed, then he eliminates any possibility to even discuss the existence of God. This would also eliminate, for example, “The Problem of Evil”, because it says that if God exists, there shouldn’t be evil in the world. It would also eliminate the argument from “Hiddenness of God”, because that says that if God existed He’d make his presence better known. So Seidensticker would even eliminate his most prized atheist arguments with this. That’s … not a win for his side.

What Seidensticker wants to get at here are arguments where the theist assumes that God is equally likely to exist as anything else and so artificially — to Seidensticker — puts it into the discussion on an equal plane with non-God arguments. But that’s not what Bannister is doing here. He’s doing the perfectly reasonable move of an internal discussion: looking at what we might be able to do if a God like the one he posits exists really does exist. Seidensticker gives no quote from Bannister or any argument to show that this is an invalid use of the “If God exists” hypothetical, but instead only argues that he says “If God exists” and that that in and of itself is bad because the existence of God — according to Seidensticker — is so improbable or inconceivable. That’s not an argument, and I feel no need to take it at all seriously.

And so, again, Seidensticker spends a lot of time not actually demonstrating that the purportedly bad arguments aren’t, in fact, bad arguments after all. And there are a few more to go through, and, spoiler alert, it won’t get better.

3 Responses to “Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Science Can Explain Everything””

  1. Andrew Says:

    “Our moral programming tells us (in general) to value human life over other kinds of life. Why is this? It’s a product of our evolutionary path, which is explained by science. When legislators evaluate a proposed improvement to a dangerous intersection, they uncover and follow evidence and test hypotheses to make their decisions—and that’s the scientific method. What’s unexplained?”

    Have you truncated some argument here? Because I read this, and think “He makes a claim. He makes an additional claim that science can explain it. He provides an example of applying the scientific method to something completely unrelated. He declares it proven.”

    As a work of philosophical reasoning, that paragraph is barely worth an ‘F’ grade. The only connection between his example and his original claim is that the legislators might be *motivated* by value for human life; they certainly don’t consider mechanisms for making an intersection safer and thereby conclude that human life is valuable!

    • verbosestoic Says:

      That’s pretty much the entire paragraph argument, and you’re right: he’s making two different arguments here. First, that our moral sense is simply evolved, and anything evolved can be explained by science, and second that applied morality uses evidence and hypothesis testing to come to its conclusions, which is also science. He doesn’t attempt to prove it there (although he talks about morality a lot elsewhere and does have links that I didn’t bother to reproduce in the post).

  2. Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Atheists Have No Use for Faith” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Seidensticker never actually addresses that counter argument. This is putting aside the fact that I’ve already addressed the Hypothetical God Fallacy and found it wanting. For evolution to count as a vote against God, it has to be the case that us having evolved is some […]

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