Monday, May 19, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Scientism and the Scapegoating of Philosophy

In a Nerdist podcast, Neil deGrasse Tyson expresses the vulgar scientistic view of philosophy in something close to its paradigmatic form, so that if you looked up “scientism” in an ideal encyclopedia you’d find Tyson’s Nerdist comments featured as exemplars. Scientism, by the way, isn’t a formal argument, but a dismissive attitude shared by arrogant, Philistine scientists and engineers who judge the humanities in general to be empty or insignificant compared to the sciences. Thus, scientism is expressed by a rhetorical stance taken by one side in the culture war that’s been provoked largely by the power of science and technology.

Massimo Pigliucci, who has doctorates in both biology and philosophy and who personally debates with the Cosmos host on this issue, has responded to Tyson on his blog. Pigliucci also presents other examples of Tyson’s scientism. However, Pigliucci’s response is too conventional for me, which means that while his retort is generally accurate it doesn’t get to the root of Tyson’s dismissive attitude towards philosophy.

Here, from the transcript given in Pigliucci’s response, are most of Tyson’s anti-philosophical comments from the podcast (those comments start at 20:19 minutes into it):
That [philosophy] can really mess you up…My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, what are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?...Yeah, if you are distracted by your questions so that you can’t move forward, you are not being a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world. And so the scientist knows when the question “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a pointless delay in our progress…How do you define clapping? All of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definition of words. And I’d rather keep the conversation about ideas. And when you do that don’t derail yourself on questions that you think are important because philosophy class tells you this. The scientist says look, I got all this world of unknown out there, I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind. You can’t even cross the street because you are distracted by what you are sure are deep questions you’ve asked yourself. I don’t have the time for that.
Interestingly, the interviewers—who mostly agree with Tyson—then say that philosophy “is a bottomless pit. It just becomes nihilism.”

The Incoherence of Tyson’s Antiphilosophical Humanism

Now, all of this is very revealing, especially if you make a habit of looking under the surface of things. Perhaps the most obvious problem with Tyson’s view is that whatever faults he thinks there are with philosophy, he can’t escape philosophy because the secular humanism he presupposes even in that podcast is philosophical, not scientific. For example, he speaks of a “delay in our progress.” But if we take a purely scientific view of nature, there’s no such thing as real progress in the world, not even in the development of technology. At most, there’s subjective, relative progress when a creature makes advances towards satisfying its goals. For example, if a squirrel tries numerous times to climb a concrete barrier, coming closer to achieving that goal each time, we can speak of the squirrel progressing towards its chosen end. But should the squirrel want to climb the barrier? Suppose there’s a hunter on the other side, just waiting to shoot the squirrel so that as soon as the squirrel succeeds, landing on that greener pasture, the animal ironically loses out as it’s killed. Had the squirrel appreciated the danger it wouldn’t have wanted to climb the fence, but that’s neither here nor there: in the real world, this squirrel has that desire so as it climbs the barrier it seems like it’s progressing relative to its actual, misinformed state of mind. Is this squirrel’s progress real or just an illusion? How can there be progress that ends in disaster?

Then, of course, there’s the aesthetic, quasi-religious admiration of nature which Tyson flaunts in his remake of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos television show. That reverence or at least respect for nature, which Sagan and Einstein famously had in common with Tyson, is likewise not entailed by anything that science alone has to say. When Tyson feels that nature is sublime, majestic, or full of wonders, he’s engaging in normative, aesthetic, or otherwise philosophical judgments. For example, he’s an environmentalist, so he believes we ought to take care of the environment instead of polluting it and thus endangering all life, including ours. But again, from the scientific viewpoint all values are only subjective and thus illusory. So who says life ought to be preserved? Who says evolution ought to be allowed to continue? Not any scientist in his or her scientific capacity. Scientists only describe what’s happened, explain what’s happening, or predict what must or will probably happen. Science itself says nothing about what ought to happen.

This means that values are neutralized in the scientific picture of nature. Suppose centuries from now, we develop into a godlike but evil species, corrupted by our all-powerful technology so that we travel the galaxy, enslaving or destroying life wherever else we find it. Just as the squirrel might have been better off not progressing by pursuing its desire to climb the barrier, it’s possible that our natural environment should be rendered incapable of supporting human life, to prevent us from developing into that evil species. The point is just that environmentalism isn’t a self-evident truth; instead, it’s based on a philosophical and indeed a religious conviction that all life—but especially our life now—is precious. Cognitive scientists recognize that creatures tend to cling to life, but scientists as such have nothing to say about whether that genetic mechanism ought to meet with our approval or whether an animal’s self-esteem is warranted in the big picture of nature. Values and ideals aren’t taken seriously in science, because they’re subjective and idiosyncratic rather than objective and universal. Scientists ask mechanistic questions about how things work, not normative questions about what sort of life we should lead or even whether life in general is for the good. But these normative questions are among those that Tyson implicitly dismisses as “distracting,” “derailing,” and tending to “mess you up.” They’re philosophical or religious, not scientific, and even as he dismisses such questions he presupposes liberal, secular humanistic answers to them. That’s a no-no. (In the Cosmos episode, “The Immortals,” Tyson stresses that our “intelligence” will have to save our species from premature extinction. This is itself a scientistic thing to say, since intelligence would be necessary but insufficient. We also need a reason to want to live and such a motivation would be cultural, so that in addition to intelligence we need an artist’s nonrational creative impulses.)

Now, Tyson may only be pretending to revere nature in his public efforts to popularize science, to lure young, religious Americans into studying the sciences. But that Machiavellian act would likewise rest on philosophical principles, such as that science is good for society and that antiscientific religion is bad. Again, no purely scientific set of statements ever uttered is sufficient to justify such assumptions of modern, humanistic culture. So Tyson has a philosophy of life—even if he only presupposes his philosophical beliefs instead of becoming self-conscious about them and defending them in openly philosophical terms. Thus, his pretense at dismissing all philosophy indicates a kind of stinginess on his part: he protects his philosophical humanism by disguising it as scientific (because his philosophy is pro-science), while he denies the validity of any other philosophy and won’t deign to engage those rival stances directly or he’ll do so but he’ll call his defense protoscientific rather than philosophical or religious.  

The Philistine’s Presumption about Philosophy and Religion

So much for the low-hanging fruit. Tyson is correct on one point, though: there is a lot of nonsense in academic philosophy, both in the continental and analytic traditions. Philosophers do indeed often ask foolish, counterproductive, or idle questions. Tyson says he hasn’t the time to waste on such nonsense. Again, that pragmatism or capitalistic preference for something’s efficacy or cash value will rest on philosophical rather than scientific assumptions, so that Tyson’s wholesale dismissal of philosophy is ultimately incoherent and manipulative. But there’s another aspect of Tyson’s scientism which reveals itself here. He assumes that philosophy is like science in that it’s all about cognition, that philosophers are trying to know the facts. That’s why he thinks it’s obvious that philosophers should be ridiculed for wasting time on fruitless or crazy questions that have no definitive answers. This is formally the same as the new atheist’s go-to response to theistic religion, in that the science-centered atheist likewise dismisses the religious worldview as a failed quasi-scientific theory. In other words, science-centered culture critics are liable to judge all ideas according to the criteria that apply to scientific work. This is the essence of scientism. These critics will assume that scientists want to know the facts; that religious and philosophical folks must likewise be trying merely to know the facts, but alas these disciplines lack the benefit of the scientific methods; and that therefore religion and philosophy are pitifully inferior to science and should be dismissed on putatively scientific grounds. Just as Americans don’t need the Democrats if that party is going to offer merely watered-down Republican policies, we don’t need defective versions of science when we have the genuine article.

As everyone should know, such an argument commits the strawman fallacy, due either to the critic’s ignorance of the nonscientific disciplines or to her ploy to misrepresent matters to benefit a particular group of insiders. To condemn philosophy or religion for failing to tell us the facts is to presume that the humanities are defined by their failure to be scientific. But philosophy, religion, literature, and the other humanities (including economics and political “science,” in spite of their physics envy) are primarily instrumental to practices, which is to say to ways of living. Instead of telling us the bare, objective facts that make up the real world, the humanities interpret the meaning of those facts to make for a viable way of life for sentient creatures like us.

If your mind is full of only scientific information and some inborn, genetic programming, while that science is somehow stripped of the modern humanistic values that guide its institutions and that are grappled with principally by the humanities, you’ll live like many of the other animals since you’ll have no basis for creating a culture with which to live as a human being. You’ll have a name for everything, you’ll understand how it all works according to natural laws, and thanks to your evolutionary programming you’ll be able to put that knowledge to work in helping you flourish in ways that benefit your genes. But you won’t be living as a person. You’ll have squandered the freedom provided by language and abstract thinking, because you’ll lack any inspiration to favour one life path over another. Instead, you’ll be driven strictly by your evolutionary traits, having surrendered the ideologies that prize the host organisms and not just the genes, and that motivate our cultural struggle against nature. Not even liberal humanism will comfort you, since that ideology is part of a culture that extends far beyond the content of scientific principles and theories. Humanism is based on an ideal conception of the person as free, creative, and cultured, not as a mere calculator or predator, and that ideal isn’t reducible to a science of natural facts.

In short, with just natural selection to guide you and science to inform you, you’ll be a Philistine, a churlish predator empowered and corrupted by technoscience but lacking noble ideals deriving from philosophical meta-reflection and from religious feelings, to direct your knowledge and power to some worthy end. What makes people special isn’t just that they understand the facts better than the other animals; it’s that we have the ability to act on that knowledge according to our cultural longings. We make existential choices based on leaps of faith and on whether a myth aesthetically succeeds by stirring our emotions. We choose to be separate from the other animals, to live as godlike lords of our world, to apply technoscience to replace the natural wilderness with artificial microcosms, and to distract ourselves with cultures so that our knowledge of the bare facts of nature doesn’t lead us to despair or madness.

Cold War between the Cultures of Science and the Humanities

How, then, are the frequent follies of philosophy and religion related to their cultural practices? Well, Western philosophy is the love of knowledge over opinion, and so philosophy threatens to subvert mass culture since the latter is propped up by opinions that are typically delusory. Boosters of science like Tyson like to point to the Presocratics as protoscientists, since they thought rationally about how the world works and posited material substances instead of gods to explain phenomena. Indeed, those aspects of ancient Greek culture were historically protoscientific, and the retrieved knowledge of them even sparked the early modern revolutions. But the point is that the Presocratics’ skepticism, rationalism and materialism were countercultural. This development came to a head with the execution of Socrates, which led Plato to argue that philosophy should be kept secret so as not to disturb the “noble lies” that ensure the stability of the vulgar, unenlightened society. Religion is also subversive—of our inclination to revert to an animalistic life. Religion is about ecstasy in contemplating transcendence, and faith that that which is in all ways greater than us somehow redeems us or makes up for apparent deficiencies in the world. Religion unites a community around an idea of something’s sacredness, so that religious people prioritize the sacred over the profane and the mundane, the esoteric over the exoteric.

Philosophers thus often ask foolish questions just because they habitually ask questions, piling up one upon another, most of which are thus likely to lead nowhere. They do this because they love knowledge more than opinion, because they’re boundlessly skeptical, taking nothing for granted even if that ensures they’ll be alienated outcasts. Philosophers follow the logic even of speculations, because philosophical skepticism is an art, not a science. Philosophical speculators devise artificial languages to express conceptual schemes, testing them as alternative ways of viewing the world. Philosophers are obsessed with their speculations, because those ideas are fictions that have the same attraction on philosophers as stories do on storytellers who follow a muse. Socrates himself said that he was merely a conduit for his daemon, and Wittgenstein calls this philosophical obsession a bewitchment that can be cured. Wittgenstein erred in blaming language; the culprit, rather, is the culture of skepticism itself whose ideal is that we should be unsatisfied with any trace of gullibility or delusion. The ultimate goal of philosophy, though, isn’t to end up with a list of all the facts that can be humanly known. Again, philosophy isn’t primarily about having knowledge; it’s about the virtues of skepticism that guide the philosopher throughout her life, the esoteric preferences she’s left with once mass culture is duly subverted by non-stop rationality, and the endless act of philosophizing in a person’s daily interactions with the world.

For their part, religious people spout supernatural hogwash to have on hand a host of symbols expressing their intuition that our cognitive powers are limited compared to what there is in the world. Religions use metaphors to comfort us in the face of the horror that the source of everything must be more monstrous than anything we can imagine. These metaphors personalize whatever’s assumed to transcend us, and like philosophical speculations, these metaphors can bewitch religious folks, instigating or exacerbating social conflicts as well as spurring numerous grotesque practices. (And yet who says the art of culture is for pantywaists? When you take it upon yourself to go to war against natural forces, to live as gods in worlds of our creation, you take the good with the bad and maybe you work over the generations to improve your microcosm.) Again, religious beliefs are usually of secondary importance to the practice. The beliefs are typically irrational and superstitious, but they’re supposed to humiliate us, to call attention to the likelihood that reality transcends what we can know, and to reconcile us to our comparative insignificance. Religious practice is about sympathizing with fellow creatures that are likewise less than God and are thus as equally doomed as the others, and it’s about distracting believers with hopeful stories that ward off despair.

The relevance of these practices is that they account for Tyson’s scientism as a tactic in a culture war. I’ll lay out some principles of Tyson’s apparent culture to show how the conflict arises. Tyson’s all-business impatience with philosophy and his allusion to progress indicate that he stands not just for the supremacy of science, but for the modern institutions (capitalism, private industry, democracy) that have exploited scientific knowledge. The liberal values (freedom of thought, environmentalism, admiration for underdog scientists) and inchoate pantheism that surface in his series, Cosmos, show that he stands also for secular humanism. Put these together and you have a culture that reduces to neoliberalism, an ideology that’s analyzed thoroughly by Philip Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste. Neoliberalism is the rebirth of the social policies that led to the Great Depression, which rebirth was made possible by some propagandists’ mastery of the double standard. Neoliberalism is what powerful Republicans and Democrats have in common, the understanding that capitalism runs counter to democracy, but that a semblance of the latter is needed as the noble lie to sustain the magic of the former. Thus, neoliberals are both populists and technocrats, depending on their audience. In any case, in so far as Tyson despises philosophy for being useless in contrast to science, he must approve of the modern applications of science—not just the medical breakthroughs and technological advances, but the egoistic, materialistic mass culture of consumerism that bankrolls the loftier work of scientific inquiry.

Evidently, then, the root of the conflict here is that philosophy and religion are poised to subvert mass culture, whereas Tyson wants to protect that culture. Tyson’s dismissiveness likely masks nervousness on the part of the powers that be, about the fragility of the science-centered institutions in this postmodern climate of cynicism and apathy. Scientism is the secular humanist’s kneejerk technique of boosterism now only because the modern myths that energized the public appetite for unchecked liberty have long been unmasked as utopian. After all, Tyson’s talk of progress is merely quaint. There was once a modern religion that was meant to replace Christianity in Europe and the US after what Nietzsche called the death of God. Thus, early modernists would have regarded the scientistic contempt for philosophy and religion as bizarrely counterproductive. Now that the myths of the free market’s fairness, of democracy’s functionality, and of the link between technoscientific and social progress have been widely exposed as noble lies, a neoliberal humanist can apologize for mainstream Western culture only by discrediting the messengers, however self-destructive the scientistic attitude may be in the long run. This is a desperate defense of the legitimacy of the science-centered modern world order even as science itself undermines all talk of legitimacy as subjective and relative. This scientific reductionism feeds postmodern cynicism and incredulity towards all myths, including the secular humanism of Cosmos, not to mention Bush’s War on Terror or the abortive myth of Obama’s transformative presidency. To be sure, there are still efficacious postmodern metanarratives, such as those seen daily in advertisements, but they operate now only as fads and are thus unsuitable to any long-term project such as that of saving the ecosystems.

Philosophers and authentic religious individuals are in the unpopular business of bursting all of these bubbles, of unmasking the noble lies and rallying the troops to revolt. But Neil deGrasse Tyson’s having none of that. He belittles philosophy as merely useless and thus as no threat to society; as he says, philosophers seem to suffer from paranoia so that they can’t even cross the street. This calls to mind Aristophanes’s play that caricatures the pretentious Socrates as having his head in the clouds so that he misses the facts on the ground. What Tyson misses is that the absentminded, angst-ridden philosophers are only harbingers of science. In so far as philosophers are hyper-skeptical and nihilistic, they’re only drawing out the implications of the scientific picture of natural reality. If academic philosophy is presently irrelevant to public debates, that institution is only the canary in the coalmine. Watch as the mass media, democratic government, fine arts, and other modern institutions are further eroded by science’s continuing disenchantment of nature! All that will remain of postmodern Western society is a dominance hierarchy of barren social mechanisms, assuming scientists continue to discover that our naïve image of ourselves as free, conscious, rational, and dignified persons is a self-serving delusion.

Romantics and Philistines

In Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins responds to that latter, romantic accusation against science. He says that because our lives are exceedingly improbable, we ought to use our limited time to understand the universe. But this is transparently a non sequitur. In so far as everything in the universe results from billions of chance interactions between particles, everything is equally improbable. That doesn’t make everything equally precious—or if it does, it means we’re no more precious than a speck of dust, in which case “precious” becomes a weasel word. Moreover, even if we are precious, dedicating ourselves to the scientific enterprise would be detrimental since science threatens that sense of our preciousness in countless ways. Biology shows the extent to which we’re continuous with all the other species, and eventually biology will demonstrate continuity between non-life and life, in which case again that which seems to make us special will be comparable to even more common natural processes.

Dawkins encourages scientists to use poetic metaphors in their depictions of commonplace natural phenomena, to revivify their sense of wonder. This shows that Dawkins doesn’t perceive the radical implications of naturalism. What’s the use of metaphors when all semantic meaning is an occult illusion? Dawkins points out that scientists are like poets in that both appreciate the wonder of nature. For example, the physicist Richard Feynman said he sees a deeper beauty of a flower than the average person who isn’t aware of the flower’s complicated interactions. Indeed, science may cause people to feel wonder or pleasure when they encounter what they think is beautiful. But nothing is credited as sublime or as beautiful in the scientific picture of nature itself. As sentimental humans, scientists can feel whatever they like, but in their actual scientific work they won’t speak of the world’s awesomeness or of its aesthetic merit. No, when they speak that way they’re indulging in philosophical reflection or they’re exhibiting some cryptoreligious faith. Science itself has no room for such qualities, because scientific methods objectify and quantify everything. So Dawkins confuses a causal relation between science and an aesthetic judgment, with a logical or a justificatory one.

According to Dawkins, scientists unravel one mystery only to open up dozens more. Scientific findings may indeed be fruitful in that way, but this is beside the point. Science is methodologically naturalistic, which means that scientists assume that nothing is beyond our comprehension, that every event has a natural explanation. This is obviously the opposite of religious cosmicism. Scientists work to eliminate mysteries whereas religious people mean to preserve them. Scientists do this for at least two reasons: first, their humanistic philosophy of life implies that social progress depends on advances in technoscience, since those advances enable us to control natural processes; second, their neoliberalism impresses upon them the need to earn a living, and there’s a lot of money in dispelling mysteries. Meanwhile, religious people maintain that some mysteries are permanent, for two different reasons: first, they think pride goes before the fall, so it’s imperative to be humble and not to lust after omniscience; second, they trust their intuition that all of natural reality is an absurd illusion compared to some alien reality they call God.

Romantic artists such as poets side with religion against science in this culture clash. but I think the romantic contention that science is nihilistic is an oversimplification. Indeed, I’d go further than Dawkins in stressing a connection between science and aesthetics: not only does the culture of science presuppose a particular aesthetic sensibility (namely a Philistine one, fit for those who tend to have contempt for the humanities, which include the arts), but scientific objectivity itself is structurally the same as the aesthetic attitude, which is the attitude of emotionally detaching yourself from something you observe so that you can ignore the background noise of your personal preoccupations when you experience it. Scientists objectify to understand the world, while art appreciators do so for a strange sort of pleasure. To be sure, it’s ironic that the Nerdist interviewers call philosophy the source of nihilism, whereas modern philosophy is entirely reactive to science. But the threat isn’t that science drains the world of all qualities whatsoever, since scientific objectivity entails the potential, at least, for aesthetic value. No, the problem isn’t nihilism, but horror: disgust with nature’s fundamental impersonality, dread of the finality of death, resentment for being born against our will into an unfair world. Note that this aesthetic remainder is consistent with what I said above about science itself objectifying everything. In so far as someone discharges her duty as a scientist, she won’t be horrified by nature, which is to say she won’t be taking up the aesthetic attitude; as Tyson implies, she’ll be much too busy for that. The sense that the world isn’t at all what we’d prefer it to be, that it’s a grotesque monstrosity that’s perfectly indifferent to us is left for someone in the throes of the existential crisis that’s a sign of philosophical maturity or of religious fear of transcendent powers.

Scientific objectivity is only very similar to the aesthetic sense, not identical with it, so wherever there’s science there’s the potential for aesthetic appreciation. And it just so happens that the self-created cosmos that scientists explain is an aesthetically appalling place, not at all a beautiful one. Those who call nature beautiful are Philistines with an atrophied taste in art. When we call nature beautiful, in our absentmindedness, we use that word as a euphemism. Were nature beautiful because of its mathematical properties of proportion and balance, everything would be equally “beautiful” because everything can be mathematically described and mathematical rules can be arbitrarily adjusted. In so far as we’re candid, we confess that beauty is primarily a sexual matter so it’s quite preposterous to call the universe at large beautiful. But just because the universe is alien and monstrous in its undead impersonality, the negative aesthetic reaction to nature is valid. Just to the extent that they’re scientifically explained as natural, as mechanical but uncontrolled by any intelligence, natural processes are as hideous as any Hollywood monster. We fear what we don’t understand, such as how a supernatural beast in a horror movie manages to gobble people up. And the more we understand the world in mechanistic terms, the more pressing the fundamental mysteries indeed of why Being is undead, why it merely simulates order and purpose like a zombie, and how sentient creatures can learn to stomach the oppressive knowledge of that abomination.

Noble Lies and the Scapegoating of Philosophy

It’s worth pointing out that Tyson can’t afford to sneer merely at philosophy. It goes without saying that the scientismist dismisses religion too for the same (incoherent) reasons. But more than that, this homage to science entails a rejection of arts in general as equally frivolous. True, Tyson will say that painting, poetry, music, and so forth aren’t cognitive matters so they needn’t enter his sights. But I’ve shown that philosophy and religion, too, aren’t primarily about acquiring knowledge. They’re instrumental to ways of life and so are the arts. The arts have purposes following from cultural convictions. For example, medieval European visual arts were propaganda for the Catholic Church, whereas modern painting is more and more critical even of humanistic myths, not to mention traditional religious ones, until it terminates in postmodern chaos and farce. A scientismist like Tyson confesses he has no time for needless speculations that don’t help us understand the bare objective facts. Thus, we can expect he’d be able to admire art only in the materialistic Chinese oligarch’s manner: that thoroughgoing materialist in China purchases art as an investment and to show off in a biologically-determined act of conspicuous consumption; moreover, she disregards ethical restrictions, luxuriating in the decadence of elephant ivory and shark fin soup. And why not, given science-centered cultural materialism? Why take ethical norms seriously—as long as you can get away with acting on your selfish desires, because you’re too powerful for the servile public to allow to fail. Why not admit to yourself that you’re beyond good and evil, in Nietzsche’s sense, instead of retreating to politically correct myths that are fit only for the unknowing masses?

And there’s no need to stop at art; for example, romantic love should likewise be discarded as a silly nonscientific practice, if we begin reasoning from Tyson’s scientistic premises. Once we see that the humanities aren’t protosciences and that they shouldn’t be judged mainly by scientific, cognitive criteria, since they’re practices rather than inquiries into the facts, the scientist’s persistent condescension to philosophy applies across the board to all noncognitive practices. And so Tyson’s scientism ends not just in self-refutation, since the scientist is bound to have her philosophical assumptions, but in the absurdity of counting against virtually all cultural endeavours. There’s more to human life than science. Of course, elites like Dawkins and Tyson know this perfectly well since they’re highly cultured individuals. Why, then, the contempt heaped upon poor, already-unpopular academic philosophy? Is this a case of schadenfreude?

No, the best explanation is that the scientismist uses philosophy as a scapegoat to distract attention from the fact that science, not philosophy or religion, threatens indeed all culture. Naturalists like Tyson or Dawkins really ought to rail against the arts, romantic love, and all other cultural illusions, just as they castigate philosophers and theists for not keeping up with the torrent of scientific discoveries. Just as philosophical speculations can appear juvenile next to an ironclad scientific theory, so too a painting, a song, or an intimate relationship seems preposterous in light of the mechanistic facts of nature. But postmodern scientists are typically neoliberals and so they play the game of the double standard. Secretly, they may worry about the apocalyptic implications of naturalism; perhaps they even soothe themselves by blaming hapless philosophy for cultural nihilism and hyper-irony, as if philosophers weren’t just channeling the upshot of scientific naturalism. But scientists aren’t saints, so they tend not to embrace the posthuman, which is to say antihuman, perspective from which phenomena are stripped of all meaning and purpose except for the horror made plain to anyone with aesthetic detachment. Scientists cling to their neoliberal humanistic values and sacred ideas in spite of the antihuman implications of naturalism. Moreover, they need to preserve the infantilizing culture of the uninformed masses, so the peons can continue to support the scientific enterprise, the latter being self-destructively all-important to the scientists’ higher culture.

One of the functions of science popularization, therefore, is to spin the dark implications of naturalism, to tell the noble lies for exoteric consumption and to scapegoat those who won’t settle for any such spin-doctoring, namely the knowledge-loving philosophers who are perhaps foolish enough to oppose bad arguments, delusions, and myths even to the point of helping to bring civilization to ruin. Tyson implies that there’s no need to worry about nihilism and meta-questions about politics and morality, because these belong to philosophy and philosophers are merely playing empty word games. He scapegoats the one messenger (philosophy) to protect the dearer one (science itself) and to keep the masses from fearing the abhorrent facts of natural life. Privately, the scientismist may be concerned that in the case of philosophy, the medium is the message; after all, ancient Greek philosophers were just as endlessly skeptical as postmodern ones, because in either case philosophy arises as a naturalistic counterculture that condemns mass ignorance in the name of a higher ideal.

The deep reason why philosophers are never satisfied with any answer is that they’re informed and rational enough to have faced the existential crisis, due to their recognition that nature is, in short, the undead god, and after that trauma they run around daydreaming like headless chickens. Revelations of the undead god continue to pour in from science and scientismists reassure us that all is well, that regardless of what cognitive science or physics says, we can lose ourselves in our myriad cultural fairytales, including the liberal humanist’s favourites—only, avoid the subversive cultures of philosophy and religion like the plague! Let’s maintain the noble lie to preserve the institutions of science that will inevitably wash away all humanistic culture in a flood of evidence that our secular hopes are as childishly wrongheaded as the clueless ancient theist’s. Long live the tragicomedy of scientism!


  1. Neoliberalism is a very specific economic thought that the vast majority of scientists find abhorrently incorrect. I'm not sure I've met any scientist who actually feels market pricing can guide society, and indeed it is one of the primary enemies of basic science research. It's important not to confuse scientists with scientism oriented engineers/capitalists that are neoliberals.

    So I think your repeated use of that phrase is woefully incorrect.

    It is more accurate to say they believe in the march of progress and are materialists. Neoliberalism is a subset of that belief that is currently dominate, but philosophically it is a mote.

    1. In this article I'm following Mirowski's analysis of neoliberalism. He thinks it shouldn't be confused with neoclassical economics, since it's a broader worldview. I agree that most scientists consider themselves liberal in that they feel the government should help the poor and take over when the market fails. But I think there's a conflict between their secular humanistic faith in progress and their bleeding hearts. Neoliberalism is indeed dominant in the US, since it makes up the Washington consensus (which seems to be globally in decline).

      My point is that scientists and engineers are professionally part of mainstream society, compared to philosophers whose job is much more subversive. So scientists and engineers can find themselves inadvertently defending the systems that run on neoliberalism even though in their gut they don't trust the market. I expect Tyson is a bleeding heart liberal, but when he gets on his high horse to look down on philosophy, he finds himself sounding like a Philistine pragmatist who cares only about the cash value of things. So there are the beliefs we like to think we hold, and then there are the implicit beliefs that actually explain our behaviour. That's why it's hard to avoid being at least somewhat hypocritical. In other words, knowing your true self is indeed a hard ideal to fulfill.

    2. Well I'm not sure how it cannot incorporate neoclassical economics since that is inherent to neoliberalism!

      By contrast, scientific materialism is also the underpinning of communism, many forms of anarchism and post-scarcityism. Scientists share much in common with each other regardless of the political/economic system they work in.

      In my opinion, the axes of the philosophy of science are empiricism/theory and contextualism/universality.

      Scientism is extremely strong in universality and provable empiricism. In this logic, is no need to question what the underlying rationale is because you can investigate any phenomenon and derive universal rules that are demonstrably provable. This is why philosophy is pointless: if data can always be obtained to demonstrate reality and reality is the same everywhere, then what is the point of wasting time thinking about the nature of thinking?

      I'm closer to the other end of the spectrum. I'm a theoretical contextualist, in that I believe scientific is only a tool to postulate quantiative questions, but the questions you ask are wholly determined by society, philosophical intent and sensory perception. I'm not convinced that physical laws would hold up if we were a radically different life form, for instance. I also believe that while data and experiments are essential in order to test theories, they only affect the underlying probability that the theory is true. The a priori probability of it being true is a belief -- which is not wholly scientifically determined.

      Formally, you could say that Scientism is based on having only one dependent variable and frequentist statistics, whereas my systems thinking has many dependent variables (always having several hidden) and bayesian inference.

      Ironically, many people who use the tools I'm talking about have a Scientism oriented world view, even though they explicitly are modelling belief and intent into the system. I think this is because a) the tools are relatively new and b) scientists themselves have a very poor grasp of the sociology and history of philosophy of science itself.

      In any case, while I think you have a lot of good points in this post, I feel the extend primary to existentialism in particular, not philosophy as a whole. Granted, your whole blog is basically about existentialism, but the bulk of philosophical claims DO make speculations about the nature of reality itself. They do a terrible job of contextualizing the "what if," at least from an outsider's perspective. Even worse, many of the modern theorists completely butcher scientific imagery and systems in their claims, which makes it sound like complete nonsense if you know what the science is.

      So while I agree that no one should ignore philosophy completely, and certainly every scientist should question the fundamental aim of their work (not doing so has led to countless tragedies), I can sympathize with the rejection of much of non-existential western philosophy. Many scientists have an extreme affinity for eastern philosophy however, probably because it is largely existential and transcendent yet impersonal.

    3. Oh, one other thing I'll say is that philosophy (as far as I can tell) is having complete institutional failure when it comes to global warming, peak warming and general environmental issues.

      If you ever wanted grist for the mill, this is the motherlode. On a personal level there is the idea of how you live in the face of probable and growing social collapse at least on par with Rome and potential ecosystem collapse that has never occurred in civilization's history. There is a good chance that agriculture will become impossible, and thousands of years of human patterns will need to change within decades or a hundred years at most.

      There is even the outside chance of complete extinction, as global warming causes stratified oceans that lead to hydrogen sulfide emissions and kill most higher life forms. It has happened in the past, repeatedly.

      Then you have epistemological issues, particularly around the inability for empiricism to be the primary guide for action because once we can detect what is going on it will be too late. These issues are a major threat to science on a philosophical level, and the IPCC reports are falling increasingly behind reality due to their nature.

      There are also the possible reactions of "power up" (increased nuclear generation to fill energy gaps) vs. "power down" (reduce energy usage by 90%) and what they mean for social organization; particularly when it comes to how to separate intent and process from instantiation. For instance, it is widely believed that we need fossil fuels to make fertilizers and run tractors, yet the pre-Colombian Americas and Eastern Asia have had massive output through nutrient cycling and for a small time, nearly all modern farming equipment had a horse driven version. There are intensely interesting points to be discussed about what we can learn from the history, how ideas get cemented, and so forth.

      Then you have the cognitive issues of bias, herd behavior and the like.

      And of course the history as repeated tragedy vs. march of progress paradigms are in conflict and simultaneously both true and false.

      Maybe there are some philosophers grappling with some of this, but the only hint I've seen is a little bit in the singularity direction. Mostly the discussion has been driven by scientists and engineers with an understanding of history. I've heard many philosophers have a hard time even accepting the scope of environmental change.

      In a time where we're definitely on the cusp of the largest/fastest change ("progress" or "relapse") in hundreds of years, potentially going back to the beginning of civilization and maybe even in the course of humanity as a species, and yet I see few philosophers tackling what they proclaim is their job.

    4. I think we need to keep in mind the difference between having philosophical (i.e. meta) assumptions and being able to justify them with or without science. Even empiricists tend to have meta-assumptions, because empiricists are animals rather than machines; thus, their minds aren't blank slates. We have nonrational as well as rational programming from evolution and early experience. So the potential is always there for philosophical inquiry.

      The real issue is whether philosophy is viable or worthwhile as a nonscientific mode of inquiry or (more importantly) of character formation. Empiricists are pragmatic rather than philosophical about their meta-assumptions, which is to say that they have assumptions at the philosophical level, but they don't trust any nonscientific way of evaluating the merits of a statement, so they just have faith in their assumptions. For example, they're methodologically naturalistic. They just think their meta-assumptions are necessary to the businesses of science and of Western culture, and they're not interested in questioning them.

      I'm not sure what you were trying to say about existentialism (your grammar got a little garbled). Anyway, I agree that philosophers often speculate on matters of fact, but those speculations shouldn't be confused with hypotheses. The speculations operate in a philosophical rather than a scientific context. Scientists want to know the facts, but the answers to philosophical questions aren’t knowable as matters of fact. We speculate precisely when we can’t figure out the facts or when the facts underdetermine some statement. So even though philosophers assume certain statements are true or false, philosophy isn’t a proto-science. Philosophy has existential, ethical, or religious functions that make for a more heroic (or foolhardy) way of life that recognizes the philosophical dimension of knowledge. By contrast, scientistic pragmatism is a robotic, business-like, potentially cowardly approach to that dimension.

      The non-existential speculations look foolish especially when they’re treated as proto-scientific hypotheses, as opposed to stages in the practice of being philosophical about the unknown.

    5. I agree about philosophy’s institutional failure, but this should be understood in the historical context. Of course, there are lots of reasons for the current state of philosophy. There’s the impact of science which has made for the reactionary scientism of the analytic tradition. There’s the impact of capitalism (individualism, egoism, liberalism), which has made for a more advanced megamachine or technocracy (power elites plus mass of peon consumers). Then there’s globalization which has made for multiculturalism, relativism, and postmodernism, which have turned much of analytic and continental philosophy into a shallow, frustrating game.

      The thing is that wisdom has become a business. Were Western philosophers to speak out on the issue of environmentalism, few would listen or care because those philosophers have little authority. We elect politicians to deal with public policy and we choose certain corporations in the marketplace to give us what we want (by buying their products). Philosophy and religious institutions are left out in the cold. But do democracy and capitalism make us wiser? Are they meritocratic, so that the cream rises to the top? I hardly think so. Those systems are hierarchical so the natural dynamics of power apply, which means that democratic and corporate leaders tend to be more corrupt than the relatively powerless person—only because the latter has fewer temptations.

      I agree, though, this is quite an interesting topic. What should philosophers do about the big social problems of our day? What can they do? The social systems are running on autopilot; we’re merely along for the ride. We might also look at this in Spengler’s terms: philosophers may have a greater role to play in the earlier stages of a culture, when the culture’s guiding ideas are being enunciated. When a culture’s in decline, as the Western one might be, the forces of civilization take over, so it’s more a matter of categorizing everything, of cannibalizing those ideas rather than creating new ones. So non-philosophical professionals take over when the culture has exhausted its creative potential.

    6. Why do you state that philosophy should never be viewed as protoscience? I have a hard time believing this due to the fact that it directly led to frameworks about physics, medicine and governance for over 1000 years.

      Or Cartesian reductionism leading to claims about biology and optics. Which combined with Hume led largely to the scientific method.

      Many of these statements were not exactly untestable.

      I believe that philosophy is essential for intent and science does not adequately address intent. Many Christian Scientists for instance are very intelligent and objective people, who just happen to believe that upholding God's will about their fate is more important than medical intervention. They are not like faith healers who claim supernatural powers are more *effective* in material outcome, they just question the validity of having the goal be to live.

      By contrast, much of the Western mindset clearly come from Western philosophy. This philosophy made speculations that have been superceded by Science in effectiveness of delivering that mindset. Most of the anti-status quo philosophy is still immensely scientific in aspiration and merely critiques power dynamics.

  2. excellent read! i would offer more comments but it's late and i'm...tired

    1. Thanks very much. I'd like to read your thoughts on it if you find the time.

  3. I'd agree that their relations with the thing called science are laced with various personal predispositions and such. And maybe not a lot of recognition of that because they find their experiments so very clean of subjective contaminants (and they are) they assume that somehow osmotically ideas are clean (false)

    But the thing is, Ben, you seem to think they have to address you on your terms. That you don't have to address them on their terms. They have to acknowledge they are doing philosophy - which is to say, doing your philosophy. You don't have to address them within their paradigm at all because they are the young upstart punks and our philosophy has been around for thousands of years. Why should we defer to these punks at all? Especially when they mew about beauty in nature or saving the whales, when science promotes no such thing at freakin' all!

    Why should a father defer to his up and coming son? Why shouldn't the son just always speak in the fathers paradigm? Respect mah philosophy! (southpark reference! ;) ) It's always going to be the fathers world, after all, isn't it?

    So you think they have to work within your philosophy?

    1. I think I see your point, but I don't think it has anything to do with philosophy being older than science. You're saying scientists don't have to engage in philosophy if they don't want to. And indeed they don't, but the alternative is to have philosophical or indeed religious presuppositions without thinking them through. So there's a difference between having such presuppositions and actually doing the philosophy (thinking them through). Scientists and engineers often do the former, but not the latter and you seem to be saying that that's OK.

      The question may be whether it's possible to not even have any such presuppositions or whether they can be dispelled with science rather than with any art, as in philosophy or religion.

  4. "They're doing things I never did as a kid and you seem to be saying that's okay - they need to grow up to be like me!"

    Think this through, Ben - whatever paradigm they are working from, as scientists they are aware of confirmation bias studies and other bias studies. So they take confirmation bias as part of their paradigm. How much as any school of philosophy taken up confirmation bias (ie, via a emperical study)? That is just not part of the philosophical paradigm - so yes, I agree they are not thinking about their thinking terribly much (if at all!). But the thinking they are doing is alien to traditional philosophy. But you want them to come over to your traditional philosophy simply because you think that's the only way to think about how we think. Think about whether your way of thinking about thinking is the only way to think about thinking! - Yeah, hell of a sentence - that's why its hard to think about!

    I think I see the same blindspot you do - they make all these aesthetic qualifications about stuff that science does not at all support. But they don't think about these aesthetics (side rant: Because most of them are priviledged chumps who just think nice things happen (actually they don't even think about it, they just behave that way) and so are not going to think how the less priviledged people in the world need efforts made to have nice things)

    It just sounds like you ragging on the music of the young folk - you complaining about their music being 'scientism' and how you've got the real good music, if they'd just get that.

    Could you sing a song in the key of scientism, taking into account the various studies they listen to like confirmation bias studies, and sing them a song that they'd both recognise and move them to think about their thinking?

    Or do you just want to try and shame them into liking your music/your philosophy?

    1. No, I don't think I'm saying that scientists need to think like I do. What I said above in response to Mikkel's comments is relevant here: "we need to keep in mind the difference between having philosophical (i.e. meta) assumptions and being able to justify them with or without science. Even empiricists tend to have meta-assumptions, because empiricists are animals rather than machines; thus, their minds aren't blank slates. We have nonrational as well as rational programming from evolution and early experience. So the potential is always there for philosophical inquiry.

      "The real issue is whether philosophy is viable or worthwhile as a nonscientific mode of inquiry or (more importantly) of character formation. Empiricists are pragmatic rather than philosophical about their meta-assumptions, which is to say that they have assumptions at the philosophical level, but they don't trust any nonscientific way of evaluating the merits of a statement, so they just have faith in their assumptions."

      As for whether I can pretend to be scientistic, sure I could. In fact, whether you can argue on behalf of a position is a good test of whether you understand it. Philosophers are like lawyers in that respect: they're trained to be able to argue on either side of an issue. The Socratic method is based on that ironic sort of empathy. In fact, I think philosophers understand the prejudices of antiphilosophers much more than the latter understand philosophy.

      How would I argue against philosophy, from a pro-science standpoint? I'd just appeal to the power of technoscience (compared to the dearth of power of philosophers), to the rigour and functionality of scientific theories, to the artsy-fartsy, pretentious nature of philosophical discourse, to the heroism of the modern ideal of being strong enough to test your convictions instead of being dogmatic about them, and so on and so forth.

      Do you think pro-science antiphilosophers could as easily take up the existentialist or religious viewpoint?

    2. Good question.

      Since you call them scientistic in a derogitory sense, are they already taking up the existenstialist or religious viewpoint - just more derogitory than you'd prefer?

      I mean, they said 'You can’t even cross the street because you are distracted by what you are sure are deep questions you’ve asked yourself.'

      Perhaps they just took up your viewpoint - perhaps too well?

      Which doesn't prove anything. It just shows the state of ill communication between the parties involved.

      Do you have kids? Sometimes you concede some of your dignities in order to try and raise them right - ie, take some poor attitude from them in order to have the chance to influence their future attitude. Otherwise you just push away from them and they push away from you - but given how powerful the toys of science are, I'm not sure that option will end up at all well.

  5. I actually found Tyson's observations rather mundane and accurate, and your and Massimo's responses, well, defensive, more keen on advocacy than accuracy. I understand why humans are prone to defend their credibility- they're pretty clearly hardwired for it! But I don't understand why so many philosophers have such a hard time biting the bullet and lampooning themselves. Think of the disparaging comments you made regarding Continental philosophy in your review of Ray's Nihilism Unbound, Ben. Tyson simply has a wider field of fire. You advance the speculation regarding the REAL milieu, which you then use to rap Tyson's knuckles (for getting the nature of the milieu wrong), then advance more speculation regarding the why and wherefore's of this wrongness's wrongness. In the meantime, the skeptic is left wondering how PILING ON MORE SPECULATION solves anything - as opposed to simply exemplifying the problem. For me, the honest thing to do is to simply bite the bullet, and suggest ways philosophy can improve.

    To me it seem pretty clearly that the conceptual definition/interpretative regress problems that Tyson describes really do describe the vast bulk of philosophy. Tyson is saying, 'Philosopher's don't know what they're talking about!' and all he really needs is a room of philosophers to make his point. Your boilerplate response, which is to insist that philosophy isn't in theoretical cognition business so much as the theoretical art of living business falls flat because, for one, the vast majority of your claims are in fact descriptive, and for another, it's hard to make sense of how theoretical art of living claims are not themselves primarily descriptive, highly speculative assertions of what is the case entirely lacking any means to arbitrate.

    So often you use 'scientism' in place of real argumentation: scientism's challenge to the philosopher is, 'Why should any sign onto any program of theory mongering outside the institutional confines of science, given all that we've learned about human cognition?' To date, I still don't know what your answer to this question is aside from extremely speculative accounts of What Philosophy Is that simply raise all the problems Tyson raises.

    When did we find it so difficult to laugh at our own excesses and foibles?

    1. Sorry, but the dishonesty here is all on Tyson's side. His secular humanism is speculative philosophy, but he pretends he can dismiss all philosophy as useless. Meanwhile, I think philosophical speculations are literally just artworks to make us feel better by avoiding harsh truths or to elevate consciousness and character. (Who cares about "arbitration"? This is art, not legalistic pragmatism. And what entitles an eliminativist to speak of "description" or of "accuracy"? Do you mean to redescribe those things or eliminate them? If the latter, aren't those points vacuous, from your "perspective"? If the former, you've opened the door for emergent discourses like philosophy, since you've granted the reality of symbols, meaning, value, etc.)

      I don't pretend that speculations "solve anything" in Tyson's technocratic sense. Unfortunately, we animals aren't interested only in puzzles that have clear-cut solutions. Hence the persistence of philosophy--even when we pretend we're done with it. The scientismist needs to bite the bullet, not I, the bullet being the inevitability and transcendent effect of philosophical, nonscientific questioning. What's the transcendence, you ask. Answer: the transformation of animals into people. Where's my evidence of that transformation? Not from neuroscience, but from history, anthropology, etc.

      Is it the case that philosophers don't know what they're talking about? Would you raise that very same point in Tyson's presence were he to spout his liberal secular humanism? What's the scientific basis of his worship of human potential?

      As for what you call the scientistic challenge, it would be a doozy if only folks like Tyson confined themselves to cognitive scientific facts, like the cold, calculating machines we're supposed to be. Unfortunately, they presuppose a philosophy like liberal humanism. For example, they think there's such a thing as progress. So why sign on to this philosophical program? Because if you're a humanist, you've already signed on; you just haven't paid your dues.

      But I laugh at philosophy plenty. A commenter on my blog recently pointed out that philosophers are doing squat in the face of the environmental catastrophe brewing, due to our carbon emissions. Western academic philosophy is culturally irrelevant. What I admire is real self-knowledge, which requires an abhorrence of delusion. Who's more deluded about philosophy, me or Tyson? Who's kidding themselves with false expectations?

  6. Wow, I'm impressed. Since I am religious I disagree with you claims about religion. It's refreshing to meet a man who is not a sheep. Sheep cannot accept the truth if it shatters their world view. Since you are not a sheep and are open to the possibility of a non-materialist reality I thought I would leave you with what I consider evidence for God.

    Consider the Miracle of the Sun. Read up upon it and do some research and then read what I am going to say.

    There are a few standard objections to any miracle. One objection is that the event is a complete fabrication. This is not sustainable because of the huge group of witnesses, the various documentary evidence (such as photos and newspaper articles) and that fact that if it were possible to deny it altogether the anti-religious government would take it. A second objection is that religious people will interpret things in a biased matter, claiming that a non-miracle is miraculous. This is not sustainable because of hostile witnesses and men and women from various backgrounds and worldviews all attest to the event, including engineers, scientists and doctors. In fact a few atheists attended to mock the religious at the non-miracle. At least one journalist who mocked the event before it happened wrote an article attesting that the miracle did take place in his secular newspaper. He of course lost the respect of some of his readers, and a good reputation is something precious to any individual, so something made this journalist and other hostile witnesses do an embarrassing 180 on their stances.

    With those two objection unsustainable, we move on to another possible objection. The sun didn't move because no observatory noted it. It must have been an optical illusion. But this objective cannot be sustained because some witnesses who were not even paying attention to the sun miles away saw the event. And if it was an optical illusion where did all the power needed rapidly dry the mud and clothes come from? Optical illusions cannot cause such an effect.

    There are a few other objections I can think of: Aliens did it; pagan gods did it; the government with it's super secret technology did it; the devil did it. There may be more. But I think God did it. Only God can move the sun without destroying the solar system, because He is omnipotent. The lady who promised a miracle was from heaven, and the miracle was so that men would believe her messages. One of her messages was that men were falling into hell like snowflakes.

    To accept this possibility is very disturbing. This means that a majority of mankind is in hell/on the path to hell, despite widespread disbelief in hell. This also means that many are in religions that will not save them from hell. It is easier to dismiss it because of cognative dissonance, but logic shows that it is a possibility.

    But if God exists miracles are possible, and the Catholic Church has historically had such miracles because Jesus promised that his disciple would do/experience extraordinary events. This wasn't just an event out of the blue. The Catholic Church has always been open to miracles, and saints have life stories filled with miracle. So what is a philosopher who understands logical thinking to do? Interested in your thoughts.

    1. I looked into the so-called Miracle of the Sun. There are naturalistic explanations of the event, but those don't interest me so much. If you read the article I just posted on my blog, called The Incoherent of Naturalism, you'll see I'm willing to say there are things in the universe that are beyond our comprehension and that are even unnatural and thus technically miraculous in the old sense of being "wonders." In fact, this is implied by Lovecraftian cosmicism.

      The real problem I have with theistic miracle claims is that the religions in question are incoherent and thus faulty as works of ideological art. Catholicism in this case makes no sense at all. If God wants to prove his existence and the veracity of Christian theology, he could certainly do this with much less ambiguity. Why not a similarly powerful miracle every ten minutes without exception so no one has any excuse? Why wait for decades or centuries between miracles to allow reasonable doubt to settle in? If our eternal destination in heaven or hell is at stake, why take chances?

      For that matter, why create hell in the first place while likewise allowing for reasonable doubt regarding all of the Christian doctrines? Other religions have plenty of evidence for other miracles, so which religion should we adopt? We're all going to hell according to one or another religion. And where's the logical connection between a sun miracle and the particular claims of Christianity? The sun looks weird and frightening for ten minutes, so therefore we should believe Jesus rose from the dead to save us from sin?

      Christianity is far too archaic to take seriously without a drastic leap of faith. That's fine, since I think all value systems likewise rest on faith. But if faith rather than just austere reason is always involved in these sorts of issues, how could we think a god who sends most of us to hell for taking the wrong leap of faith would be remotely deserving of worship? Since faith is in fact involved, the Catholic's fetish for "rational proof" notwithstanding, the least we should expect is that the Catholic would be humble about her faith. That is, she should treat it as the artwork made of ideas that it is rather than pretending to have a quasi-scientific case supporting what are obviously grossly anachronistic claims about whatever miracles supposedly happened in a Middle Eastern desert two thousand years ago.

      Again, my problem isn't so much with the idea that strange things sometimes happen. The question is how we should interpret them, and the Christian interpretation strikes me as rather lame. At any rate, the more mystical and the less exoteric your religious beliefs, the more interesting they'll be to me.