This week “Unbelievable” was preempted for an annual fundraising drive. In place of the regular show Justin Brierley posted a recent debate between Christian apologist David Wood and skeptic Michael Shermer. I’m only about half way through the debate at this point, having listened to opening statements and rebuttals. But I can say that this is one of the worst debates I’ve ever heard.
Don’t blame David Wood. He’s a good speaker with a quick wit. And best of all, he doesn’t simply raid the standard apologist’s toolbox of cosmological and teleological arguments. Instead, he presents his own argument that theism is better attested than any scientific hypothesis. And even if I remain unpersuaded (more on that anon), I give him high marks for making the effort.
Wood distinguishes between “ordinary scientific hypotheses” and what he says is “the Scientific Hypothesis.” Ordinary scientific hypotheses are tentative claims about the world which are confirmed or disconfirmed as evidence comes in. They are, in short, the stuff of science in the day to day. However, Wood claims that all these ordinary hypotheses
“ultimately derive from the Scientific Hypothesis …. The Scientific Hypothesis is the hypothesis on which science as we know it rests. There are three key elements of the Scientific Hypothesis. One, the universe can be understood; two, we can understand it; and three, it’s good for us to understand it.”
The basic idea is that only theism can ground the rational assumption that the universe can be understood, that we can understand it, and that it is good for us to understand it. Since, so Wood claims, these three commitments are necessary to ground every ordinary hypothesis, it follows that every ordinary hypothesis rests on the truth of the Scientific Hypothesis.
The picture Wood draws suggests an epistemological foundationalism in which every ordinary hypothesis depends for its justification on the Scientific Hypothesis much as a rationalist might claim every rational argument depends ultimately on Aristotle’s laws of thought.
As a result, Wood claims that the Scientific Hypothesis is the most well attested of all scientific hypotheses since every other hypothesis depends on it.
That conclusion brings us to the first big problem with Wood’s argument: it’s guilty of a rather glaring equivocation. The so-called Scientific Hypothesis is quite obviously not a scientific hypothesis at all. Rather, it is a set of metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions on which scientific inquiry is allegedly based.
I assume Wood equivocated intentionally for rhetorical purposes, because I don’t believe for a minute that his understanding of science is so poor that he would think the Scientific Hypothesis is, in fact, a scientific hypothesis. But that’s really unfortunate for two reasons. First, this rhetorical choice is liable to generate a significant amount of confusion in those elements of his audience that cannot parse the difference between science and the philosophical presuppositions on which science rests. Second this rhetorical choice is liable to alienate those members of the audience who can tell the difference and thus who can recognize the equivocation for what it is. In other words, it seems to me this is a lose-lose scenario.
Wood defends his argument by quoting a range of long dead Christian scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. The fact that these individuals all believed theism provided the necessary foundation for science is historically important, but it really doesn’t support the conclusion, at least not without considering the state of play today. The same goes in other matters: you don’t settle contemporary debates in the philosophy of mind or the philosophy of economics only by quoting the opinions of thinkers from the 16th-19th centuries. So neither is this a legitimate method when it comes to the philosophy of science.
So what is the state of play in contemporary philosophy of science? That’s tough to say since there is a great deal of plurality. However, one thing is clear: the kind of foundationalism that Wood presents is definitely in the minority. By contrast, the main approaches to the epistemic justification of scientific inquiry tend to be pragmatic and non-foundationalist. And by not even acknowledging the current state of debate (let alone rebutting the main alternative accounts), Wood has hardly begun to make his case. (For a brief introduction to an alternative approach see this Wikipedia article on Neurath’s boat/bootstrapping.)
Lucky for Wood that Shermer doesn’t ever get around to launching a serious critique of the Scientific Hypothesis argument. Instead, Shermer dismissively suggests that the theistic commitments of scientists of the past is of no more consequence than the contingent fact (assuming it is a fact) that these scientists were also all dog owners. But this is just plain silly: dog ownership is obviously irrelevant to the conduct of scientific inquiry, but theism, by the testimony and reasoning of these very scientists, is not. Shermer would have been far better at least to acknowledge the logic behind Wood’s argument and then attempt a rebuttal. By refusing even to engage the argument, he fails to offer a rebuttal to it.
Anyway, while I have some substantive criticisms of Wood’s argument, none of them is fatal. With some retooling I think his argument could be significantly strengthened. He would just need to refashion it as a philosophical (rather than scientific) argument and to show that non-foundationalist alternative epistemological accounts do not adequately ground the scientific inquiry. If he can do that, he’s off to the races.
So what about Shermer’s argument?
Wait, did I say “Shermer’s argument”? Sorry, I meant Shermer’s hot mess, aka Shermer’s cobbled together porridge of half-baked internet atheist memes. Really, that’s all it was. In his opening statement he actually reproduced trite village atheist memes like “I just believe in one less god than you” and “God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself.”
Look pal, if that’s the best you can do then do everybody a favor and just stay home.
Even as I say that I feel compelled to acknowledge Shermer as a very bright fellow and a great writer: I’ve enjoyed several of his books. So let this be a lesson for us all of what can happen when you have contempt for the views of your opponent. When that happens, when you can’t even invest the time to consider your interlocutor’s beliefs and arguments with rigor and charity, then you’re likely to end up in a morass of memes and caricatures. And that just wastes everybody’s time.