TIA Tuesday: Does Vox really understand?

In reading Vox’s response to Daniel Dennett, in chapter 10 of TIA, it’s sometimes easy to jump to the conclusion that Vox doesn’t really understand the issues Dennett is talking about. For example:

[Dennett] raises [the] possibility that religion is merely a by-product of evolution, otherwise known as a spandrel. It’s here that the philosopher finds himself in logical trouble. Both of Dennett’s memetic proposalsand [sic] his subsequent argument against Starke and Finke’s economic case for the rational value of religion directly contradict his assertion of the way that evolution’s remarkable efficiency means that a persistent pattern amounts to proof—”we can be quite sure”—that the pattern is of benefit to something in the evolutionary currency of differential reproduction. How, one wonders, does Dennett fail to grasp that a creed which explicitly states “go forth and multiply” is likely to be inordinately successful in evolutionary terms, genetic or memetic?

Vox seems to like the argument that religious people are more likely to reproduce than non-religious people—as though nobody really cared much one way or another about sex until Moses came along and showed them in Genesis 1! This kind of silly, superficial thinking suggests that Vox hasn’t really put much effort into trying to understand how religion and evolution would interact in the real world. All he really seems to be interested in is mining the idea for talking points he can use to make religion sound better than atheism.

For instance, here’s Vox elaborating on the above idea. After quoting Dennett’s example of how a lancet fluke can cause an ant to climb a blade of grass, looking for a passing sheep to infect, Vox writes:

It somehow escapes the professor’s attention that it is not the religious portion of the population that is having trouble doing what every other species on the planet does, but rather, the irreligious one. If there is a metaphorical lancet fluke to be blamed for anti-evolutionary human behavior, then it is atheist secularism that most accurately fits the analogy now that the Shakers and Skoptsi are no more. Indeed, the demographic performance of secular post-Christian societies over the last fifty years suggests that from a grand historical perspective, modern atheist secularism will be seen as a fluke indeed.

What escapes Vox’s notice is that Dennett is talking about the origin and propagation of religion, not about the relative behaviors of religious and non-religious populations under circumstances where the dominant population has saturated its environment and is beginning to suffer shortages of food and other resources. (He’s also playing fast and loose with statistics by lumping all the social, economic, and cultural factors together under a simplistic dichotomy of religious vs. secular, but we’ll let that pass.) What Dennett is looking for is a reason for the emergence of religious beliefs and behaviors, at a time when overpopulation was not really an issue—a question Vox ignores in favor of trying to score a few anti-secular talking points.

Vox also castigates Dennett for holding that people ought to trust scientists without necessarily understanding all the scientific details, while at the same time holding that people are wrong to trust in priests to make moral decisions for them.

Dennett attempts to justify these contrary stances by stating that the difference is that the scientific priesthood really know what they’re doing, that they understand their formulas and use them to achieve amazingly accurate results, while the religious priesthood does not.

But Dennett is demonstrably incorrect on both scores. Dennett’s two favorite sciences, cognitive science and evolutionary biology, are primarily distinguished by the way in which no one understands exactly how anything works nor has managed to construct any significant formulas, let alone achieve any results demonstrating the precision of the quantum electrodynamic calculations cited in Dennett’s example. Dennett himself confesses that human consciousness is a mystery, a phenomenon that people don’t even know how to think about yet, and while he is rather more sanguine about the achievements of evolutionary biology, he admits that the science which began with the Origin of the Species [sic] still regards the way in which species begin to be a mystery too, albeit one with more of the details filled in.

Here again, Vox tempts us to conclude that he does not really understand the issues that Dennett is talking about. No understanding of how evolution works? No formulas for calculating mutation rates, genetic drift, and other evolutionary mechanisms? Vox is only highlighting his own ignorance of biology when he attempts to refute Dennett with that argument. It’s true that there are unanswered questions about how consciousness works, and how life first began, but—and here’s the distinction Vox fails to address—science does not claim to know more than it knows, and is prepared to demonstrate the objective, verifiable basis for what it claims it does know.

Priests can’t do that. When you trust a scientist, you are practicing the principle that the truth is consistent with itself. You may not know particle physics personally, but you know there are people who do, and that there is constant dialog between scientists about which possibilities are most consistent with the evidence. Science is reality-based, and interacts with the real world in countless ways, all of which would conflict with and expose any attempt to pass of non-science as science. You can’t fake science and get away with it.

With priests (and prophets and other religious authorities), you just have to take their word for it, and the word of their predecessors. You not only can fake religious truth, at least most of the religions out there are faking it, and getting away with it. There is no real-world verification for what they claim, and wherever their claims interact with the real world, the discrepancies between their claims and the actual evidence only gives job security to the rationalizers and apologists. People have to just take their word for it anyway, which is the practical definition of gullibility. And here’s the real catch:

So while some sciences have proven themselves worthy enough of our complete confidence that we need not trouble our pretty little heads about them, to claim that we are justified in placing blind trust in cognitive scientists, evolutionary biologists, and sociologists because physicists really know what they’re doing is absurd. It’s a bait-and-switch worthy of Dawkins. And Dennett offers absolutely no evidence that any religious faithful are any more prone to unquestioning obedience of their priesthood than science-fetishists are of the various secular bulls issued regularly from the archbishoprics of Oxford, Cambridge, M.I.T., and Stanford.

The catch is that even if you do question the priests, you have no real-world basis for proposing any better alternative. It all boils down to whatever seems right in your own eyes. Faith in scientists is justified, firstly because they can back up their conclusions by showing the objective evidence which led to them, and secondly because of the way all the sciences are interrelated, being studies of the same cohesive, consistent, objective reality. If you’re going to pick and choose which sciences you trust and which you don’t like based on non-scientific criteria, you’re going to lead yourself into a bunch of contradictions and inconsistencies in your own conclusions. But religion has no real-world basis, and even a cursory survey of the religious landscape will confirm that Vox is correct about how easy it is to break with the theological leadership. What’s to stop you? It’s not like there’s any way anyone could come up with real-world evidence that your interpretation of the Bible was inferior to someone else’s.

In short, Vox’s objections to Dennett’s observations are shallow and irrelevant, being based chiefly on Vox’s failure to grasp the real issues Dennett is addressing, coupled with Vox’s apparent ignorance of biology and other sciences. But does this mean that Vox is ignorant, or stupid? I don’t think either term would accurately describe the reason why Vox argues the way he does. It’s not that he can’t grasp and grapple with the issues, but that he simply won’t. He’s got an axe to grind, and some talking points he wants to raise in “rebuttal” to Dennett’s essays, and he approaches each issue seeking only what he needs to reach his own goals. Which, to be fair, is his prerogative. He’s got his job to do. And I’ve got mine.

Between the two of us, we just might get to the heart of the matter.

 
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Posted in Science, TIA, Unapologetics. 15 Comments »

15 Responses to “TIA Tuesday: Does Vox really understand?”

  1. B8ovin Says:

    I always find it ironic when apologists trot out the “consistency of knowledge” inherent in religious belief, and the changing landscape of science. Duh. Those are their distinctive characteristics, and what make one useful and the other outdated. Science isn’t a faith because it lacks all the answers. And faith isn’t useful because it provides all the answers, with none of the usefulness. The argument boils down to: science is troublesome because it is science; religion is grand because it is religion.

    Then, to argue that science’s efficacy should be judged field by field is ridiculous. If any one believed as Vox argues no one would feel biology was necessary, having been proved by physics. We have biologists because we have questions about biology, not because we have all the answers.

    “Between the two of us, we just might get to the heart of the matter.”
    Hey, good luck with that.

  2. Chris Says:

    B8ovin said, “I always find it ironic when apologists trot out the “consistency of knowledge” inherent in religious belief, and the changing landscape of science.”

    I don’t find it ironic, I find it incorrect. Religious beliefs have changed, and keep on changing. Any one who tells you otherwise is ignorant or lying. What’s happening is those who are making the changes try to make the new beliefs acceptable by claiming that’s what was believed all along by the founders of the religion.

  3. B8ovin Says:

    Chris, I have yet to experience a person of religious belief who argues on the basis of the “founders” of said religion. It’s true I hear reinterpretations of the Bible, or “God’s Word”, but then I’ve heard at least four interpretations of the sutext of “Charlotte’s Web”. I agree they are wrong which is exactly why I find it ironic: the consistency of their knowledge “base” inspires them to argumentative gymnastics, while they deride science’s ever-expanding knowledge base. They have answers but no questions, science has answers AND questions, and instead of that being an asset for science they treat it like a defeat and a win for belief. What I find ironic is their answers are, as you said, constantly maneuvered to provide the questions science asks, thus using faith’s deficit to answer what they see as science’s deficit. They don’t even seem to know they’re doing it.

  4. jorgaba Says:

    Vox’s other error is equating the whole of cognitive science with “explaining consciousness”. There is a helluva lot more to cognitive science than “explaining consciousness”, and the absence of a global, integrated, final formula for consciousness, verified to an “amazingly accurate” degree does not mean the entire field is just pure speculation, and that the mumblings of any yahoo with a robe and wafer are just as credible.

    Has Vox ever examined a journal in cognitive science, cognitive psychology, or cognitive neuroscience? Somehow I doubt it. We have scores of models of cognitive mechanisms and architectures, specified in excruciating quantitative detail that most certainly have successful predictive track records, verified by experiment, and accounting for numerous aspects of human cognitive performance. True, there is no integrated mechanistic theory of mental life with the kind of predictive accuracy you see in physics, but that’s irrelevant….No discipline EVER needs “amazingly accurate” formulas to outclass religion and theology in this department…even just a little accuracy is sufficient. Cognitive science in its short history has a track record of empirical success, many, many, many orders of magnitude greater than religion.

  5. Challenger Grim Says:

    Vox seems to like the argument that religious people are more likely to reproduce than non-religious people—as though nobody really cared much one way or another about sex until Moses came along and showed them in Genesis 1!

    DD… how exactly do pagans (aka non-Jews) fit into “non-religious”?

  6. Deacon Duncan Says:

    I can’t speak for Vox, but based on what I’ve read so far, I don’t think he would include them among the non-religious. Obviously, that would beg the question of how “be fruitful and multiply” would give them any advantage since it’s not part of their religion, but I expect that Vox would reply that other religions have similar precepts and therefore would enjoy the same “advantages” as the Jews and their theological offspring.

  7. Challenger Grim Says:

    Hence you’ll be retracting your statement?

  8. Deacon Duncan Says:

    No, not really, because it’s more typical of Vox to use “religious” as though the Judeo-Christian religion were the only significant religion out there. Your question merely points out the inconsistencies in Vox’s rhetoric vis à vis the real world. Remember, Vox’s original claim was that religion has an evolutionary advantage over non-religion because the command “Be fruitful and multiply” is going to increase the offspring of those who obey it. When you ask, “what about religious people who don’t have Genesis 1 in their Scriptures?” you are highlighting a fundamental problem in Vox’s argument, not my response to it.

  9. Challenger Grim Says:

    No, not really, because it’s more typical of Vox to use “religious” as though the Judeo-Christian religion were the only significant religion out there.

    Really? You should go back and reread chapter 1 (especially pages 12-13) where he deals with Harris… well how does the footnote put it?
    “I’m sure those millions of Buddhists must be deeply appreciative of a Jewish-American atheist informing them that their 2,500-year-old religion is not a religion at all.”
    In fact, Vox frequently mentions other religions in the same vein throughout the book, so there seems to be no basis for your statement. (you should go back and reread page 68 as well, where he calls out the atheists’ tendency to not attack all religions equally)

    Remember, Vox’s original claim was that religion has an evolutionary advantage over non-religion because the command “Be fruitful and multiply” is going to increase the offspring of those who obey it.

    No it isn’t. He mentions an established fact, (religious breed more than non, generally regardless of creed) and uses just one religion as an example. Take out the sentence that includes the quote “go forth and multiply” and his argument suffers none.

  10. Deacon Duncan Says:

    My comment, however, was specifically about the “be fruitful and multiply” quote. Here, just for reference, is what Vox said on the subject:

    How, one wonders, does Dennett fail to grasp that a creed which explicitly states “go forth and multiply” is likely to be inordinately successful in evolutionary terms, genetic or memetic?

    Since this is Vox’s reply to Dennett’s question about the evolutionary advantage of religion, I believe my remarks are both accurate and on topic for the argument they address.

    You are correct that Vox also makes a distinction between religion in general and Christianity in particular. It all depends on the need of the moment. He boasts about the superior fecundity of the religious versus the irreligious in the quote above, but he also brags about the religious being more chaste than the unbelievers. The problem of believers being simultaneously more sexually active and less sexually active than unbelievers, is a problem that doesn’t really seem to bother him, as long as he can say the believer is superior somehow.

  11. Challenger Grim Says:

    Since this is Vox’s reply to Dennett’s question about the evolutionary advantage of religion, I believe my remarks are both accurate and on topic for the argument they address.

    Except you’re taking an example that he gives, and conflating an entire argument out of it that doesn’t exist. You end up committing the exact error you accuse Vox of in the end (‘He’s got an axe to grind, and some talking points he wants to raise in “rebuttal”’), making yourself no better.

  12. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Well I can’t agree, sorry. Vox made a specific rebuttal to Dennett, and I thought it was a spurious rebuttal, and said why. If you want to see that as axe-grinding, that’s your prerogative, but I don’t see that I personally have anything to apologize for.

  13. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Just to follow up, here’s why your “It’s just an example” approach won’t work: the context is that Vox is discussing Dennett’s search for the evolutionary advantage that would explain the development and persistence of religious belief. In other words, what is it that religion has that makes it an advantage over non-religion? Vox’s response is to suggest that there is an evolutionary advantage in the Genesis commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” (which Vox misquotes as “go forth and multiply”), however if we take the position that this is strictly a Jewish/Christian/Muslim advantage, then it is irrelevant to the question of why religion would have an advantage over non-religion, and would instead be a matter of Jews/Christians/Muslims having an alleged advantage over Hindus, Shintos, Confucians, animists, druids, shamanists, followers of various classical pantheons, and oh by the way there might be a few atheists in there too. That’s all very interesting, of course, but it really has nothing at all to do with whether Dennett is overlooking the obvious in his search for an evolutionary engine driving religion in general (as Vox implies), and is therefore a completely spurious rebuttal to his line of inquiry.

    Incidentally, Vox also vastly oversimplifies the question of what an evolutionary advantage is. High birth rate is only an advantage when resources are plentiful and/or when few juveniles survive to adulthood. A command to “be fruitful and multiply” could actually have an adverse evolutionary effect if the population is trying to cope with insufficient resources. If the environment can support a population of 1,000, and the population gives birth to 10,000 offspring, that doesn’t mean that 1,000 individuals are going to have enough and 9,000 are going to starve, that means that 10,000 are not going to have enough, and the survival rate will likely be far below what it would have been with a much lower birth rate. Grandkids are how evolution keeps score, and more offspring can mean fewer grandkids.

    Vox takes studies about populations in environmentally stressed conditions, and concludes from these that religious people have an advantage over non-religious people, but his reasoning is badly flawed in his selection of examples to cite, and in his failure to consider critical environmental factors before drawing his conclusions, and in his extrapolation of these limited, special-case examples as a model for religion’s alleged evolutionary advantages across millennia of human history in widely varying circumstances. I wouldn’t go putting too much stock in this particular argument if I were you.

  14. Ric Says:

    Another problem with Vox’s claim that a religion that “states ‘go forth and multiply’ is likely to be inordinately successful in evolutionary terms, genetic or memetic” is that humans have not needed to be told to do so. It wasn’t as if they were not multiplying before that statement.

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