Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

A doctor of the wrong philosophy

Benjamin R. Barber, Walt Whitman Professor Emeritus at Rutgers, writes in the November 29 Nation (subscription only) on "America's Knowledge Deficit." He hits the spot with me on his main point, that an "epistemological deficit . . . is putting Democracy at risk." He writes that

[F]ar too many Americans, including not just many of the new Tea Party politicians but established leaders like former president George W. Bush, honestly think the difference between, say, evolution and creationism is merely a matter of opinion: you think man is descended from apes; I think he is a creature made by God. Tolerance, to Bush, means we respect both views and acknowledge their common creditability, because, after all, we both feel deeply about the matter -- which means, in turn,we teach both views in our schools.

Well yes, except that man [sic] is not descended from apes. Prof. Barber needs to brush up on his evolutionary biology. Humans and apes have a common ancestor, which was not quite ape and not quite human. It is most accurate, probably, to say that we are apes. But this is a common misconception, which I will forgive.

However, Barber goes more seriously wrong:

There are, of course, many issues that cannot be judged by empirical evidence or objective truth. The existence of God is one of them. These are normative rather than empirical claims. . . . When as an evolutionist I claim man is descended from apes . . .I am claiming something that can be corroborated or falsified by reference to fossil records, genetic affinities, geology and other kinds of empirical data and testable hypotheses. When I claim God created man and then woman from the rib of man, there is no way to confirm or falsify this claim, no "evidence" that can counter what is subjective belief.

Err, no. The claim that God made "woman from the rib of man" is as false, and as falsifiable, as the claim that "man" is descended from apes. Religious beliefs about the nature of reality and the history of the world are completely falsifiable, and almost always false, because they derive from faulty epistemology. Barber has adopted the unfortunate attitude of many people who want to adopt the stance of reason but don't want to offend religious people by pointing out that there beliefs are, quite obviously, false. For some reason we just can't say that, so we need to put them in a separate category where "truth" means something different than it does in, well, reality.

This is just silly. God did not make a woman from the rib of a man, there wasn't any Noah's ark, and Jesus was not born of a virgin and did not walk around accosting people after he was dead. These assertions are objectively false and can be disproved by resort to our senses and reason, just like every other objectively false assertion. And believing in falsehood is bad for you.

Site news: I have indeed established a new blog, called Windham County. There isn't much there yet, but I'll be posting material there that doesn't really belong here, to keep Stayin' Alive clean and on topic, at least somewhat. Let me know if people want to exchange links. (The Dharma Bums get a freebie.)


C. Corax said...

As punishment for murdering Baldr, Loki was bound to a rock for eternity, with a venomous snake dripping poison onto him. Loki's wife, to spare him the pain of the venom, kneels beside him, catching the venom in a bucket. Everyone knows that earthquakes are caused by Loki's convulsions when his wife must empty the bucket in which she is collecting the serpent's venom--while she's turned aside, the venom drips onto Loki, causing him intense pain.

Since Barber has already told us that we can't disprove the above simply because it is a "religious" belief, it clearly should be given equal weight to any balderdash geologists might come up with.

Barber actually used the phrase "subjective belief," not "religious belief," but I suspect what he means is "the belief system of the predominant religion of the culture in which I grew up."

Hot dang! on your new blog, kiddo! I'm gonna add it to my bookmarks.

roger said...

we are not worthy.

Cervantes said...

Maybe not, but you're kind of in the same genre . . .