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On the Road

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Name: Jack Neefus
Gender: Male
Hometown: Newark, NJ
Home country: US
Current location: Baltimore, MD
Member since: 2001
Number of posts: 20,535

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It Weakens His Case

because it emphasizes its fallibility when there is no real need to do so. However, I see your point in that Daniel Fincke's goal is rhetorical rather than logical -- he is trying to illuminate the difference between everyday knowledge and faith. And that is instructive in itself.

I guess it stuck out to me because it highlights some weak areas in the new atheist argument. For example, Fincke seems to think that the scientific knowledge is uncertain only to the extent that data samples are unrepresentative (hence his belief in a tiny, tiny chance of error). An infinitely larger source is the human element in applying and interpreting the scientific method. This is easy to see from taking any of the many quaint or wrongheaded scientific consensuses a century ago. However we might correct the reasoning from 1913 today, the point is that at the time the proponents believed they were arriving at a scientifically valid conclusion. New atheism does not appear to recognize the possibility of human error or misapplicaton, although it is highly likely that in a hundred years our beliefs will seem equally quaint.

Another way of approaching this would be to say that valid scientific thought depends on there being a rational agent to apply, interpret, and evaluate it. It is difficult to see how rationality arises from the observable world the new atheists limit themselves to. It is a way of disqualifying yourself from making your own argument, so to speak.

Then there are the issues inherent in logical positivism, which seems to be the closest school of thought to any of the new atheists I have personally read. From the Wikipedia article:

Early critics of logical positivism said that its fundamental tenets could not themselves be formulated consistently. The verifiability criterion of meaning did not seem verifiable; but neither was it simply a logical tautology, since it had implications for the practice of science and the empirical truth of other statements. This presented severe problems for the logical consistency of the theory.

Another problem was that universal claims (e.g. "(all) philosophers are mortal") are problematic in terms of verification. The verifiability criterion was seen as being too strong. In its initial formulation, it made universal statements meaningless, and this was seen as a problem for science. This led to the weakening of the criterion.

And since Finke seems to feel that the consensus of scientists is relevant (“out of over 230,000 participants, roughly 63% of the survey participants have chosen “atheist” as their primary identifier”), there is this:

Most philosophers consider logical positivism to be, as John Passmore expressed it, "dead, or as dead as a philosophical movement ever becomes". By the late 1970s, its ideas were so generally recognized to be seriously defective that one of its own main proponents, A. J. Ayer, could say in an interview: "I suppose the most important (defect)...was that nearly all of it was false."

The new atheists seem to maintain a very 19th century sensibility – an unshakeable belief in logic and their ability to create a coherent, perfectible intellectual world. By contrast, 20th century thought was troubled and uncertain precisely because the limitations of those things became obvious. The most astonishing thing to me is that they have waded directly into these waters in a very public way without an apparent awareness of any of these issues. It is as if the whole 20th century never happened.

Now, new atheists may claim that their concern is not philosophy, but the public debate between atheists and evangelicals. That may be true, but by restricting their audience the only prize they might be said to win is “Congratulations – you’re smarter than an unlettered fundamentalist.”
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