December 16, 2005

"Objectivist" could benefit from a dose of objectivity

Keith Lockitch of the Ayn Rand Institute has taken exception to my characterization of his recent lecture on "Intelligent Design." He has published an editorial in the O.C. Register as a rebuttal of sorts. Unfortunately, Lockitch appears to have poorly comprehended the points I was attempting to present.

In most of his comments Lockitch reveals a somewhat shallow appreciation of the "Intelligent Design"/creationism issue compounded by a fervent desire to promote his own selection of immutable truths. His observations, similar in their intemperance to those of fundamentalists, deserve comment, if only to show that zealots can exist on either side of any issue.

His piece begins,
"Intelligent Design" Is about Religion versus Reason
With atheists like Robert Camp, who needs theists?

In his Dec. 2 Op-Ed, "Atheists can't prove it, either," Robert Camp criticized my Nov. 17 lecture in Irvine on "intelligent design" creationism, though without mentioning me by name.
Camp was unhappy that, in addition to discussing the flaws of "intelligent design," I also criticized religion in general. The creationism controversy, he feels, is a "scientific and pedagogical issue," not a clash between reason and religion.
This is the first example of a misunderstanding Lockitch proffers throughout his article. I am as relentless in observing the religious motivations behind "Intelligent Design" as one can be. There is no doubt that ID is a "theory" developed and promoted in the service of evangelical purposes and my editorial contained nothing that would suggest otherwise.

However, only those who've spent little time thinking about these issues, or by dint of personal agenda willfully misunderstand, conflate proponents of creationism with theists in general. Let me say this as plainly as I can - It may be true that all creationists are theists, but not all theists are creationists. Therefore it is an obvious category error to think that an argument against religion is an argument against creationism (or vice versa). As Lockitch's talk was diminished by this rather sophomoric mistake, and as Lockitch is clearly no sophomore, I am forced to conclude (and this was made plain during the Q&A period that followed) that this was all about having an anti-religion agenda.
But the view that "intelligent design" is a scientific position, to be answered with scientific arguments, is--as I explained in my talk--precisely the view its promoters are desperate to convey. Though they have no data supporting their claims, their arguments are carefully calculated to appear scientific and non-religious. Why? In hope of skirting the constitutional ban on religion in public schools. This is why the title of my lecture (which Camp also failed to mention) was "Creationism in Camouflage: the 'Intelligent Design' Deception."
This paragraph reflects more of Lockitch's misunderstandings. I did say that ID is a scientific and pedagogical issue because, of course, it is. This is where the conflict needs to be resolved. Lockitch implies that by saying this one is giving aid to the attempts of ID proponents to appear scientific. That is nonsense. It is obvious to anyone who has dealt deeply with the debate that arguing against religion in this context is misguided and foolish. On the other hand, arguing against the religiously motivated psuedoscience of ID accurately addresses the substance of the dispute. Lockitch's lecture met this obligation only in a surface fashion, abandoning better understanding in favor of militant, and misapplied, rhetoric. No, ID is not science, and no, there is no scientific controversy, but this debate will not be won holding up religion as the enemy, it's not. Pseudoscience is the enemy, along with those who would force it on high school students.

Regardless of what you think of religion, if you're going to address the public on these issues it is incumbent upon you to gain a better understanding of the subject than that which amounts to spouting - "it's a battle between religion and science." This is simply an inaccurate assessment of the issue, one which Lockitch has unfortunately seen fit to embrace by titling his piece as he does. It's his own brand of evangelism speaking in the disguise of reason.

Note also that this is the second time Lockitch has mentioned that I left his name out of my original piece. The reason for this is simple - it wasn't about him or his talk. A quick read will show that his lecture was merely the spark that prompted my thoughts on the issue and was of concern only for the first few paragraphs. If Lockitch is inclined to see himself in the rest of my comments then perhaps this should engender some self-examination.
What makes "intelligent design" an inherently religious viewpoint is its appeal to a supernatural "designer." This appeal brings it directly into conflict with reason, because the very notion of the supernatural--of something "beyond" nature that defies natural laws--is a contradiction. As I argued in my lecture, one cannot properly oppose the efforts of "intelligent design" creationists without rejecting their attempt to make the "supernatural" part of science.
Indeed, one cannot. It is one of my core aims in commenting upon ID to resist at all turns any attempt to restructure the scientific process (methodological naturalism - something Lockitch appears to have completely missed) to include supernatural inference. Once again, though, Lockitch bumps up against his penchant for errant conflation of creationism and religion. It should have been simple enough for him to have discovered that the great bulk of theists have no wish to entwine these antithetical concepts.

Moreover, it's a simple matter to note the many theistic scientists operating professionally every day without apparent damage to their capacity to reason, or the scientific method. It's commonplace to have to point out these kinds of silly misconceptions to creationists. It shouldn't have to happen in reply to a defender of science.
Although Camp, himself, claims to be "intellectually opposed to supernatural ideas," he finds it troubling that I would dare to proclaim in a public lecture that the idea of the "supernatural" provably contradicts the facts of reality. Ssshhh! Don't let the religious folks hear you!
Dr. Lockitch needs to spend a bit more time thinking about these issues. There is no provable contradiction with reality in the embrace of the supernatural. It is a contradiction born of semantic ambiguity. Nor can science offer proof against the supernatural. As science cannot prove anything, and anything "supernatural" exists in the mind of the believer, it is obviously not a matter of proof at all, but of personal choice. I think the choices of believers are illogical, but anyone asserting that he "knows" these beliefs to be counterfactual is merely promulgating his own personal mythology.

To the last comment - I have no wish to preserve the delicate constitutions of "religious folks," nor do I expect that most of them need the protection. Lockitch's condescension reveal another popular misconception among some atheists, that this is about intellect or integrity. In fact religious individuals can and do possess both, something Lockitch would understand if he could look beyond his monomania.
Especially troubling to Camp, was my rejection of the belief that supernaturalism is necessary for morality--the belief that without God there can be no absolute standards of right and wrong. "The last thing we need," he explains, "is a bunch of people who believe they have no internal moral compass to be running around without their external one."
This is an particularly curious misunderstanding since the meaning of my words is plain and those words are quoted by Lockitch directly. My comment about people running around without a moral compass is quite obviously intended as enlightened self-interest, not a philosophical position on the ontology of morality. It is, as it happens, my belief that supernaturalism is not necessary for morality (so there is obviously no way that this concept could be "especially troubling" to me). This does not mean that I think it would be a good idea for those who derive their morality from supernatural beliefs to abandon that foundation. Good grief, I have to live in the same world with them!

That Lockitch cannot parse this distinction again speaks to the influence of hasty zealotry rather than thoughtful contemplation.
What he ignores, however, is the possibility of a scientific, provable code of ethics--a moral philosophy based neither on subjective, "internal" feelings nor on "external" religious dogmas. A particularly telling omission was Camp's failure to mention that my lecture was sponsored by The Ayn Rand Institute (my employer). This is relevant because Ayn Rand's ethic of rational egoism provides precisely the alternative moral system that Camp ignores in his critique.
Of course I ignored this business, as it was irrelevant to the point of my piece. Lockitch is free to cleave to whatever "ethic" he chooses. If it promotes moral behavior in him and his fellow adherents then I'm all for it. I may think it's nonsense, but then I think all those who hold to immutable truths are misguided.
Rand locates absolute standards of right and wrong in the objective requirements of human life. In her view, morality arises from the fact that we, like all living beings, must pursue values in order to survive. Unlike the lower animals, however, we are not pre-programmed for survival. To define our values and guide our choices in life, we need a code of moral principles--principles based on the unalterable facts of human nature and of man's long-range survival needs.
Let's hope Lockitch's understanding of physics (his Ph.D.) surpasses his expertise in biology. It is quite incorrect to say that "Unlike the lower animals, however, we are not pre-programmed for survival" (and how interesting that the Objectivist is wired to see a separation between humans and "lower animals" just as the creationists do). In addition, there are no "unalterable facts of human nature" to be found anywhere but in scripture, be it religious or Randian.
Rand's ethical system--and, more generally, her philosophy of Objectivism--comprises the positive message underlying the ideas in my talk. But apparently, it is the very advancement of a positive system of philosophy that Camp really objects to. He finds it "reasonable" to be an atheist, but not to defend the view that atheism, or any other idea in philosophy, is a provably rational viewpoint. "I think they're wrong, too," he says, "but there is no, nor can there be, proof of it." Strangely, he seems to think it is "unreasonable" to defend the importance of reason.
Yes, that's it, I think it's unreasonable to defend reason (see the long-time subtitle of this blog).

It should come as no surprise that Lockitch, being an Objectivism evangelist, employs one of the most time-worn tactics of evangelists, beating up a strawman.

Of course I'm not particularly concerned about the status of Lockitch's philosophical system. I know little of it, but from what I've seen (and could surmise from the numbing drudgery of the Rand excerpt I read while waiting for his talk to begin) it's based on a kind of insecure adherence to would-be absolutes just like many other belief systems. There seems to be nothing "provable" about its tenets, just as there is nothing provably irrational about theism. (Perhaps Lockitch is using a non-standard definition of "prove?" He throws the word around as if it has little specific meaning.)

Like many ideologues Lockitch is quick to invoke reason up to and until it is to be applied to his own perceptions.
What his viewpoint dismisses is the essential difference between reason and faith. In reason, one accepts only conclusions one can prove to be true--conclusions based on sensory evidence and logical inference from such evidence. Faith, on the other hand, is belief unsupported by facts or logic--the blind embrace of ideas despite an absence of evidence or proof.
This is wrong. Using "reason" one accepts conclusions that are provisionally supported by an abundance of the evidence. If one is "reasonable," one also accepts that there can be no proof in inductive matters, there can only be relative certainty. This also helps the "reasonable" individual maintain a view which is open to new perspectives and ideas, one which allows his "reason" to reach a conclusion of not enough data. "I don't know" comes easily to the lips of the truly "reasonable," and this leaves them open to the tolerant acceptance of philosophical diversity.
The only ideas that are reasonable to believe are those you know to be true by means of reason. And when you know them to be true, it is perfectly reasonable to argue in their defense and fight against false ideas, like creationism, that stand opposed to them.
Once again Lockitch appears incapable of separating threads of discussion. It is obvious from my original editorial, not to mention the totality of this blog, that I consider opposing creationism to be of paramount importance. I hope it was also clear that I think pundits who comment without understanding the issues in depth or being able to keep their own preconceived notions separate do the larger debate a great disservice. Lockitch's talk is an excellent example of the kind of help those of us who care deeply about resolving this conflict do not need. It is inappropriately confrontational, from a scientific as well as tactical perspective.

Despite his Ph.D. in physics, and an avowed respect for science, Lockitch appears to have little appreciation for its conventions. He bandies the word "proof" about as would a layman, and he betrays a complete ignorance of the epistemological underpinnings of science - mistakenly commingling metaphysical naturalism with methodological naturalism. But his most egregious mistake is to display not the slightest bit of humility in the face of incomplete knowledge. Those who truly understand science have a great respect for its operational limits.

There is a quality I look for in people with whom I discuss these issues. It is the ability to doubt. It is the capacity to examine one's own assertions with a discriminating eye, an eye that is able to identify presumptuous certainty. Lockitch appears no less certain of his own presuppositions than the average religious literalist.
In spite of his appeal to scientific methodology, Lockitch's ideas embrace the power of the individual to "know" just as does the methodology of "Intelligent Design." Rather than articulating the provisional and communal nature of knowledge he emphasizes a personal relationship with "reason."

I believe in the power of reason. But once it is deified, once it is used as a hammer against the heresy of Faith it has lost the capacity to persuade. Reason without doubt cannot intellectually engage, it can only preach.

The best thing Lockitch can do to help in the fight against "Intelligent Design" creationism is to mix a little doubt in with the Objectivism. If he can take a step back, learn more about the subject, and resist the urge to proselytize, it will do more good for "man's long-range survival needs" than he has yet imagined.


Anonymous Jack C said...

I don't think Dr. Lockitch was trying to convince people of faith that they are wrong. It is useless to argue with someone who accepts anything on faith. No argument will sway them, and if one argues with them it gives them a semblance of rationality. Publicly, a rational person should adopt the attitude that accepting an idea on faith is irrational. Then let those who aren’t sure choose what they want to be.

4:41 AM  
Blogger RLC said...

Jack C.

I think it's entirely likely that Dr. Lockitch was not trying to convince anyone that they were wrong. He was speaking to a highly receptive crowd, and made no attempt to disguise the polemical nature of his message.

You might rejoin "nor should he." To this I would take exception. If, as the title and thrust of his talk would indicate, his point was to take "Intelligent Design" to task for its many inadequacies then that goal would best have been served by removing ill-considered and poorly argued controversy from his speech. Had he the appropriate understanding of these issues he would have realized that conflation of creationism with theism turns his talk into more of a diatribe on religion than a lecture about ID.

As to your assertion that "Publicly, a rational person should adopt the attitude that accepting an idea on faith is irrational." I have no idea why this should be so. A rational, and honest, person should adopt whatever public position best reflects his beliefs. I may think those beliefs are illogical, but I recognize that empirical investigation has no ability to comment on metaphysics.

Science and reason are not enemies of the supernatural. They exist in incommensurable epistemological universes.

10:55 AM  

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