Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Of course, Alvin Plantinga is wrong (as usual). But Jerry Coyne doesn't quite understand the subtlety here (again, as usual?).

(Originally posted by Pat in 3/2012)

Alvin Plantinga wants to defend his right to believe that the Christianity he was raised in is true. Jerry Coyne is trying to refute his argument. So far, neither position is surprising, and Coyne is of course in the right here.
But what Coyne fails to recognize is that there is a sense in which Plantinga is onto something here. Clearly we can't assert that merely because your beliefs are in any sense dependent on your society and culture, they are therefore not credible.
Indeed, this is what's wrong with the Strong Programme; it points out that science is dependent upon social institutions, and thereby immediately concludes that science is no more justified than any other socially-dependent belief.
Of course Plantinga is wrong that social dependence has nothing to do with the credibility of a belief. It really should be of concern to any rational believer (if such beings exist?) that their beliefs are critically dependent upon particular circumstances of their birth. “I was born in Kansas, and so I am Baptist; if I had been born in Saudi Arabia, I would be Muslim” really is cause for concern as to the accuracy of your beliefs.

So what's the difference here? Why is the social dependence of science less worrisome than the social dependence of religion? The key lies in understanding what kind of dependence we're talking about. Science is socially dependent in that it relies upon technology, broadly speaking. My knowledge that the speed of light is 299,792,458 meters per second does depend on a lot of things that came before me, things most human cultures in history wouldn't have had. It's not just computers, particle accelerators, and lasers (though it surely is); even just books are things that were not widely available in most human societies. The Scientific Method itself can be considered in this sense a technology that had to be invented. You can't spectrally analyze Betelgeuse with the equipment available to an Amazonian tribe.
Yet, importantly, you can spectrally analyze Betelgeuse with very few prior assumptions about what Betelgeuse is made of. You can think that all those MIT physicists are talking utter nonsense—stars are made of cheese, and you're sure of it—but when the spectrograph starts pumping out data, you'll find that it comes out exactly as the MIT folks predicted. Once you have access to the equipment, you can perform the experiment yourself; and indeed, universities around the world regularly replicate each other's experiments. (There is very little prestige in this, alas; for it really is the foundation of science itself. The rallying cry of the Enlightenment really should be this: “Don't take my word for it, try it yourself!”)
Religion, by contrast, is socially dependent not upon technology, but upon authority. The reason people born in the southern part of Ireland are Catholic while people born in the northern part are Anglican is because they are expected to be so—indeed, until recently, this was enforced by violence. It's not because Dublin has technology that Belfast doesn't have access to; it's because if you're from Dublin, everyone around you will expect you to attend Catholic church and say Catholic prayers. There isn't any independently-repeated experiment you could perform that would distinguish Catholic doctrine from Anglican doctrine (indeed, I think a pretty good case can be made in terms of evolutionary game theory that this indistinguishability is in a sense on purpose; it is an adaptation of the two memes, much like a king snake mimics a coral snake). There is no theological equivalent to a particle accelerator.
There's another way of looking at this: Science is socially dependent on things that make us smarter, while religion is socially dependent on things that make us believe.
The institutions of science—and here it's not even a stretch to include the Scientific Method itself—are such that they expand our ability to examine the world; better mathematical and computational tools, more precise measurement equipment. They extend our limited eyes and brains to see and understand things we previously could not.
Religion does not do this. They don't expand our understanding; they fix it in place, or even contract it. Far from expanding our senses, they tell us not to use the ones we already have! “Blessed are those who believe without seeing.” Religious institutions don't try to give us the tools to discover on us own; instead, they enforce their own beliefs upon us, punishing us if we doubt or challenge them.
This is also why science is open to change and religion is not. Science wants to know the right answer, whatever it may be; religion wants us to believe this answer, whether or not it is right. In fact, science changes far less than religion; our estimates of the size of the Earth have become a million times more precise, but have not changed in overall magnitude more than 5% since Periclean Athens. Our calculations of gravity have added several decimal places since Newton, but his were accurate to within 0.1% for any purpose short of space travel. Religions fight change at every turn—often with literal violence—and yet they change like the winds. Are you familiar with Zarathustra, or Apollonius of Tyana? How much do you know about Osiris? Have you ever asked yourself, “What would Amaterasu do?” It's incredibly ironic, really; the people who are most willing to accept change are the ones who least need to worry about it, and the ones who would literally kill to stop change are the ones who go through it all the time.
This in turn is a result of the different kinds of social dependence. When science changes, it is because technology has improved (or, in some cases, regressed). It moves forward, or at worst, backward; but always along the same track. But when religion changes, it is because authority has changed—a king deposed, an empire established, a war won. Because authority can change in all directions, so can religion.
So yes, science is socially dependent, and religion is socially dependent. But they are not the same kind of dependence, and that makes all the difference.

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