Question for the day: What if the science-religion conflict is hurting the economy?

My question was prompted by this editorial in science arguing that the politicization of science has led the public to oppose it. The title is “Science must be seen to bridge the political divide.”

I think I can address the question by drawing together insights from two works I’ve recently read, Alvin Plantinga’s new book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism and Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation. I will offer a speculative answer by drawing a provocative connection between the two books.

I. The Gist of It

Here’s the speculation: we’re stuck in a Great Stagnation in part because the social status of scientists is too low. Fewer smart people become scientists, who in turn engage in less research and innovation, which in turn leads to fewer economic advances. Why the decline in social status? Perhaps because many scientists and public intellectuals have conjoined science with an anti-religious ideology, naturalism, that has soiled science in the minds of the largely religious American public (in part via the political activism of naturalists). One way to raise the social status of scientists is to break this connection. Thus, one way to exit the Great Stagnation is to sharply distinguish between the social practice of science and the ideology often held by its practitioners.

Let me explain in more detail.

II. Plantinga

Plantinga’s bold thesis is this:

There is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism (ix).

For Plantinga, naturalism is the view that there is no God or anything like God but what most naturalists affirm is that all that exists and all that can be known is ultimately describable by science and, probably, by physics.

Plantinga’s thesis contradicts a view widely held by religious and non-religious people alike. Science and religion are supposed to be substitutes, not compliments, a common view among intellectuals for centuries but now almost unquestioned among a great many contemporary academics and public intellectuals. Plantinga demonstrates that it is actually rather hard to even explain science and theistic religion are supposed to contradict one another. For naturalists interested in adding to the epistemic credentials of their beliefs, it’s worth your time to grapple with the challenges in the book.

III. Cowen

Now let’s shift gears from Plantinga to Tyler Cowen. Cowen’s thesis is this:

In a figurative sense, the American economy has enjoyed the low-hanging fruit since at least the seventeenth century, whether it be free land, lots of immigrant labor, or powerful new technologies. Yet during the last forty years, that low-hanging fruit started disappearing, and we started pretending it was still there. We have failed to recognize that we are at a technological plateau and the trees are more bare than we would like to think. That’s it. That is what has gone wrong (1).

Cowen’s thesis is also bold. Everyone who thinks there is a quick fix for the American economy is wrong. We face deep structural problems that including our hitting a technological plateau.

How do we get out of the Great Stagnation? Cowen is admittedly modest in his recommendations but claims that the best way to exit the Great Stagnation is to: Raise the social status of scientists.

This may lead us to wonder why the social status of scientists is low. My impression is that the social status of scientists was at a local high after World War II. Scientists were seen as contributing to the war effort and helping the United States beat back its enemies. Plus, the Space Program hit the American populace in its romantic heart. But I have the sense that the social status of scientists has fallen significantly over the past several decades among most members of the American public.

IV. Plantinga on the Social Status of Scientists

But why is this? Alvin Plantinga makes a provocative suggestion:

The association of evolution with naturalism is the obvious root of the widespread antipathy to evolution in the United States, and to the teaching of evolution in the public schools.

This antipathy spills over to suspicion of science itself, with a consequent erosion of support for science. As a result, declarations by Dawkins, Dennett, and others have at least two unhappy results. First, their (mistaken) claim that religion and evolution are incompatible damages religious belief, making it look less appealing to people who respect reason and science. But second, it also damages science (emphasis KV’s). That is because it forces many to choose between science and belief in God. Most believers, given the depth and significance of their belief in God, are not going to opt for science; their attitude towards science is likely to be or become one of suspicion and mistrust. Hence these declarations of incompatibility have unhappy consequences for science itself. Perhaps this is not a reason for those who believe these myths to stop promoting them; if that’s what they think, that’s what they should say. What it does mean, however, is that there is very good reason for exposing them for the myths they are: the damage they do to science (54).

Say you reject Plantinga’s main thesis. You could still acknowledge that naturalists have increasingly politicized science even though naturalism is not entailed by science. Many Americans are deeply hostile to naturalism because it is seen as undermining morality and meaning in the world. Consequently, when great scientists take open stands against theism, it is hard to see how the social status of science itself couldn’t take a hit in the eyes of the (largely pretty religious) public. So if science requires naturalism, or at least it is seen that way, then no wonder so many Americans have become more suspicious of the scientific community over time.

V. Break the Connection between Naturalism and Science, Exit the Great Stagnation?

Putting it together: what if the ideological tie between science and naturalism is a major contributing factor to declining public support for science? If it is and Tyler Cowen’s recommendation to raise the social status of scientists would indeed help us make economic progress, then it is imperative for intellectuals to be very careful about publicly tying science to their preferred metaphysical and epistemological views. Now as Plantinga says, if you believe there is such a tie, you should speak out for it. But if Tyler is correct, you have an additional reason to worry: your naturalistic ideology may be dragging down science and with it economic growth!

VI. Caveats and Caution

I know my suggestion is speculative. But I don’t think the connection I’ve drawn is obviously implausible and I’d love your reflections. Before I end, however, some notes:

(1) I recognize that I haven’t come down on religious believers for resisting science regardless of whether it provides reason to doubt their views. But others have more than taken care of that for me, no?

(2a) You might respond that the way to raise the social status of scientists is to help secularize American society, to destroy religious belief. (2b) Or perhaps you think we should try to eliminate those particular religious beliefs that are incompatible with science (which might only be a small fraction of them).

I’m skeptical that 2a is realistic. There is a reason religion has evolved such that the vast, vast majority of human beings have religious beliefs. Especially after reading Robert Bellah’s magisterial Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, I find it hard to see how religion is going to go away, as it flows naturally from the combination of a number of ordinary, ancient cognitive and emotional capacities.

As for secularization, whether it is occurring (in the US) is disputed. For what it’s worth, I think religious authority is on decline, not religious belief. I know there are increasing numbers of people who do not identify themselves as religious, but they still have a great many beliefs that go beyond physics and secular ethics (fate, reincarnation, bare theism, pantheism). But even if the world is secularizing, we are very likely looking at a highly religious American populace for a generation or more at least. So what I say here still applies.

2b is more interesting and plausible, though it is hard to see how elite effort to exterminate such specific beliefs won’t backfire.

(3) I’ve been an active reader of philosophy, religion and economics blogs for years, so I know that any claim remotely hostile to naturalism upsets typical blog commenters. As a result, I’m asking you in advance to remember that I’m simply throwing out a hypothesis and that I am interested in your calm, thoughtful assessments. I’m prepared to change my view. I’m especially interested challenges from people familiar with The Great Stagnation and/or debates about naturalism.

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  • BenBachrach

    What evidence is there that we are:”stuck in a Great Stagnation”?

    • j_m_h

      What Cowen was pointing to was the stagnant and even declining median income over the last couple of decades.

      I’m not sure I buy his argument but that’s the smoking gun.

      • http://www.facebook.com/michael.p.cowley Mike Cowley

        I thought it was fairly well accepted that the stagnation or decline in wage income was the result of the shift in the proportion of national income from wage to capital? So the Great Stagnation isn’t in overall national income, just that proportion which goes to workers. Which makes it unlikely that scientific development or lack thereof has anything to do with the problem?

  • http://twitter.com/JDKolassa Jeremy Kolassa

    Also, in before Steve Horwitz gets here and proclaims “THERE IS NO GREAT STAGNATION!”

  • http://twitter.com/dmaddock1 Dave

    I join Ben in my skepticism of the existence of a stagnation, but not having read Cowen’s book, I’ll work on the assumption that he has decent evidence of such.

    I think you’ve already sufficiently answered yourself in the caveats section. The sort of religious beliefs you cite as likely to continue in a more secular world tend to be less antagonistic to science. That is, “bare theism” (aka. deism), the generic idea of fate, etc. make fewer falsifiable claims about the material world. Religious modes of thinking are demonstrably inferior as a basis for investigating nature, as any cursory glance at history demonstrates. In so far as religion abstains from doing this, they need not be enemies. Unfortunately for religion though, there’s no particular reason why one couldn’t or shouldn’t use scientific modes of thinking for metaphysical or ethical inquiry, so the relationship between the two domains is not symmetrical.

  • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

    Like BenBacharach I was surprised to hear of ‘the great stagnation.’ I was also surprised to hear of the low social status of scientists. Perhaps that is just an American thing?

    I agree that science does not entail naturalism and that there need be no opposition between theism and science. The current prevalence of naturalism in academe is a fad.

    I do not think we should try to eliminate religious beliefs that are incompatible with (current) science. Science changes: some of those religious beliefs may be compatible with a state of science in the future. Indeed some of them might even be connected with metaphysical speculations which are eventually developed into testable scientific theories. That is sometimes how scientific revolution begins. If we look at the history of physics/astronomy, we had Aristotelian physics, which was replaced by Newtonian physics, which was replaced by relativistic physics. Each of these three scientific systems brings with it a metaphysical system; and the metaphysical systems contradict each other. Oh, and Aristotle, Newton and Einstein all believed in God. Newton, indeed, built theism into his metaphysics of space and time; and Einstein gave as a reason for rejecting quantum theory, ‘God does not play dice.’

    I talk more about some of the relations between theism and science in a forthcoming paper in the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, which is available (gated) here:

    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11153-012-9343-8

    and (ungated) here:

    http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick/Papers

    I am not religious, incidentally: I am agnostic.

    • http://twitter.com/JDKolassa Jeremy Kolassa

      Well, Einstein was a pantheist; that’s not quite the view of god that most people think of.

    • Sergio Méndez

      “Oh, and Aristotle, Newton and Einstein all believed in God.”

      That statement may be misleading. Aristotle believed in God as an unpersonal first cause. Newton believed as some sort of person who set the universe in armony and Einstein had more a pantheistic view of God, which makes him and Aristotle beliefs almost undistinguishable from practical atheism.

      • Robert Gressis

        I agree that, from what I know of him, Einstein was a practical atheist. But I’m a lot less sure about Aristotle; I’m especially unsure that Aristotle’s first mover was “unpersonal”. He did describe the first mover as “thought thinking itself”, after all. Moreover, aren’t there lots of passages in Aristotle’s corpus where he talks about the first mover as exerting a kind of magnetic effect on us? That is, aren’t we drawn to contemplate the first mover, and find part of our eudaimonia in that act?

      • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

        Why not say that atheism is often indistinguishable from theism? Often atheists, especially philosophers or scientists, have an attitude of reverence for, and awe of, nature (or Nature) which seems indistinguishable from a kind of theism. The theist studies nature with awe and says ‘God;’ the atheist studies nature with awe and says ‘Nature.’ Is the difference merely verbal?

        Of course, there are different conceptions of God. What makes them all conceptions of God? And what makes the atheist who reveres Nature an atheist rather than a theist?

        • Sergio Méndez

          Depends what you mean by “revere”. If you mean some sentiment of marvel and awe before somethng, maybe the atheist and the theist are indistinguishible. But then, the theist claims something more than that, usually the existence of one or more supernatural beings that are also persons or conscious, to which they offer reverence (among many things). So I guess there lies the difference between the atheist and the theist.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            But that’s the problem. Many theists do not conceive God as a person or as possessing consciousness (although the term ‘theist’ is sometimes used in a narrow sense to refer to a believer in a personal God). For some, God transcends all the categories we have and is thus beyond our understanding. I think that some kinds of theism, shade off into some kinds of atheism and vice versa.

        • Nkaplan

          Of course the difference is more than merely verbal. A theist is not someone who just emptily says the word God when they feel amazed by nature, by God they mean an non-embodied/ non-physical being, who is all powerful, all knowing, loving and who through an act of will and love created everything there is and ever will be. As an atheist (who observes nature with awe) I believe that no such being exists, this is more than a verbal difference, it is absurd to suggest otherwise.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            See my later response to Sergio (it is just above your comment).

          • Nkaplan

            That some people use the word theist in a vacuous way that means, for them, it encompasses everything and hence denotes nothing is neither here nor there. People who think you can have a meaningful term that ‘transcends all categories’ are not making any sense. This does not change the fact that there are people (commonly know as theists) who believe in a being who others (commonly known as atheists) deny the existence of and between whom there is a significant difference of opinion.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            I said ‘often indistinguishable.’ Some leading theologians (e.g. Tillich) have used the word ‘God’ in a way you describe as vacuous. Is Buddhism a religion? It is debatable, I think.

          • Nkaplan

            I would say to the contrary that they are most often distinguishable and easily so. There are some exceptional hard cases like Buddhism that do not fit any normal classification. And then there are people who use the term vacuously and create confusion. None of that changes the perfectly obvious point that most people engaged in debates about God are having a perfectly meaningful and substantive disagreement.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            “I would say to the contrary that they are most often distinguishable and easily so.”

            I agree. That does not contradict what I said.

            “None of that changes the perfectly obvious point that most people
            engaged in debates about God are having a perfectly meaningful and
            substantive disagreement.”

            I never denied it.

        • good_in_theory

          “And what makes the atheist who reveres Nature an atheist rather than a theist?”

          Whether or not they attribute something like agency/consciousness/will to “Nature,” I’d think.

  • famadeo

    I think the hostility to science in the US runs deeper. When it comes to religion, The US is historically a fundamentalist country.

    Th problem with the economic focus is the reliance on PR more than epistemology. Economic stagnation is a bad argument for rejecting naturalism.

    Having said that, I welcome the review of science’s epistemological assumptions. The reliance on naturalism has become, well, religious. What passes for “natural”? How do you determine it? I’ve never heard satisfying answers. Usually the response is something to the effect of -yes- what science can prove!

    • dmaddock1

      Great points, famadeo. In regards to:

      “I welcome the review of science’s epistemological assumptions. The reliance on naturalism has become, well, religious.”

      That’s what I was trying to get at in my “not symmetrical” comment. When working from naturalism outward in a scientific context, there’s certainly a point at which one leaves the realm of the falsifiable and starts practicing epistemological philosophy, but there’s no reason I can see for that being an inherently bad thing, but many religious critics of scientists see to think it is. And yet the reverse–starting from certain epistemological assumptions and expecting the material world to conform to them–very often is.

      If science should welcome a review of its assumptions (and I agree it should!), then it is only fair that religion should also welcome a review of its assumptions. Of the two systems, science has been far, far more responsible in this regard than religion has. We can see this epistemological double standard in the problem of fundamentalism. Danny Frederick cites the evolution of scientific thought creating contradictory metaphysical systems, but fails to note the absence of fundamentalist scientists dogmatically asserting Aristotelian metaphysical systems; this is simply not a social problem. But in the religious sphere, there are plenty of fundamentalists clinging to discredited religious ideas. Why is this? Because the scientific endeavor welcomes the assumption reviews and the religious fights against it.

      • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

        “Danny Frederick cites the evolution of scientific thought creating
        contradictory metaphysical systems, but fails to note the absence of
        fundamentalist scientists dogmatically asserting Aristotelian
        metaphysical systems; this is simply not a social problem”

        There was a long struggle between the Aristotelian and the mechanistic/corpuscularian metaphysical worldviews in the renaissance. What finally did for Aristotelian physics/astronomy was Newton. But Newton’s theory did not exactly fit the mechanistic/atomistic model, because of universal gravitation, which (in Newton’s theory) is instantaneous action at a distance. Many scientists and philosophers of the time dismissed that as ‘occult.’ It was only the empirical success of Newton’s theory that enabled them to swallow it. But even then the French physicists still held out for decades after everyone else had accepted it, because they were Cartesians who were dogmatically committed to mechanical push being the only force in the physical world. France got up to date only when that lot died out.

        But I don’t regard such dogmatism as a ‘social problem.’ It is an essential feature of vigorous, free and open debate. Even Newton was not happy with universal gravitation. If the Cartesians had been able to come up with an alternative explanation in terms of mechanical push, Newton might have welcomed it.

        • dmaddock1

          Thanks for that clarification. It illustrates exactly what I’m trying to express about what I admire about the scientific approach–that, however imperfectly science operates in practice, it does recognize its own fallibility and expects claims to be falsifiable, have explanatory or predictive power, etc. Lacking these things, the Cartesians just died off (and relatively quickly in comparison to the numerous extant mutually-exclusive theistic religions). Though religious thought evolves too (polytheism->Judaism->early Christianity->Catholicism->Protestantism->Mormonism, to trace just one such line of change), the general endeavor is not consciously aiming at a closer and closer approximation of truth (however one wants to define that). In fact, many of the stages I listed above would’ve rejected the suggestion that their view was not the final word on the world.

          • gcallah

            “the general endeavor is not consciously aiming at a closer and closer approximation of truth”

            Right. Religious innovators are hoping their new religion is further from the truth than the one they seek to replace!

      • famadeo

        Here:

        “When working from naturalism outward in a scientific context, there’s certainly a point at which one leaves the realm of the falsifiable and starts practicing epistemological philosophy”

        you lose me. I have a feeling we’re not getting at the same thing. My problem with the way science is often practiced nowadays is prescisely that it’s not philosophical enough, ie, not sufficiently grounded. That’s what I described was problematic about naturalism.

        • dmaddock1

          “I have a feeling we’re not getting at the same thing.” — Perhaps not. My comments were not necessarily directed at you per se; your comments were just what stimulated my own. Have you read any Karl Popper or Thomas Kuhn? You might find some satisfying answers therein.

          What I was trying to get across is that assessments of “grounding” should be a two-way street. Religious metaphysics (and any empirical claims) should be held to the same standard we would hold science to. In general we do not do this; we set a much higher epistemological bar for science than we do for religion, especially when it comes to metaphysical claims. (Again, generally. I have no idea about you individually.)

          • famadeo

            I’ve seen both Popper and Kuhn to a limited extent in class. Regardless of the specificity of their respective positions their work consisted of providing a basis for science. I don’t think of naturalism when I think of them.

            I don’t dissagree at all with what you say about applying the same standard to religion. Except, perhaps, in that it’s not clear exactly what religion is. Even though it contains claims that are suceptible to an epistemological trail it also expects to elude such judgement on the basis of eschatology.

            In case this threw you off, I’m not a believer of any sort. I’m an atheist.

          • famadeo

            *Sorry, that word is “trial”, not “trail”.

          • dmaddock1

            Ok, I misinterpreted your dissatisfaction with metaphysical naturalism as a general dissatisfaction with the philosophical basis of science.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joy.holowicki Joy Holowicki

    I think the backlash will die down. The field of biology is turning to less reductionistic methods of inquiry and explanations. The real problem is reductionism, and this lends itself to interpreting science as vulgarly naturalistic. The support for the evolutionary biology theories of Dawkins and company are being undermined with the new complexity science. So, I think that it is a PR problem, not an epistemology problem.

  • John Doucette

    I think it the stagnation hypothesis is probably correct, and that the proposed idea as to the cause has merit.

    Empirically, there is a decided lack of Americans (and people in the west at large) going into STEM fields, and doubtless this effect reduces the efficacy of said fields in their research. Certainly my anecdotal interactions with college age students suggests that many of those who opt for other disciplines do so at least in part because of a distrust or revulsion for a naturalistic world view, so perhaps I’m predisposed to believe the argument.

    As to whether or not the problem stems from a religious aversion, I suspect that there are at least other causes of similar weight. For instance, many students eschewing STEM seem to have received a woefully inadequate education, especially with respect to math, though perhaps this is a symptom and not a cause.

    • http://jdkolassa.net Jeremy Kolassa

      Empirically, there is a decided lack of Americans (and people in the west at large) going into STEM fields, and doubtless this effect reduces the efficacy of said fields in their research.

      Is this actually true? I keep hearing it but never see any numbers on it.

  • http://jdkolassa.net Jeremy Kolassa

    Original comment got eaten. Aaargghhh….

    1 – I’m not sure if science and theistic religion are really all that compatible. Theism, in all its myriad ways, purports that there is an omniscient deity that not only created the universe, but gets involved in humanity on a daily basis (or some other time interval.) As the intelligent design argument has shown, science has effectively ruled this out completely. You can’t really talk about physics and biology and then say there is some deity pulling all the strings so we look exactly how we are now.

    2 – *Deism*, on the other hand, may be a different matter, because all deism is about is that there is a god, who created the natural laws that lead to the universe, and then was never seen again. Although there are problems with this view too (Austin Cline notes that the universe appears much more dynamic and chaotic than one would suppose it would be if it were designed) I think deism and science are fairly compatible, and indeed, deism could easily become the new religion of the US as trends continue.

    3 – As for the social status of scientists, I don’t really think that’s the basis for the problems we face today. Leaving aside the matter of if we have a great stagnation or not, it seems clear to me that the problems really stem from cronyism, fiat monetary systems, and special interests gaming the market to the point where it is more like participatory fascism, as Randall Holscomb puts it. While there are certainly problems with science today–namely how it has been politicized over climate change and environmentalism, to the point where it has sustained serious damage to its credibility–I don’t think the lack of “Likes” on scientists’ Facebook fan pages is the reason for the problems and difficulties we’re facing today. I mean, we’re churning out new products and technologies all the time. Hell, in 20 years, we might even have an outpost on Mars, for all we know.

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  • FreeDem

    There’s a problem here.

    Religious fundamentalists oppose science (not just naturalism) because science undermines, in a fundamental sense, the core of their belief. Age of the earth. Existence of evolution. Etc.

    This even extends to the social sciences, where archaeology has invalidated traditional religious narratives, like Exodus, or the conquest of Canaan.

    And yet you’re saying that the problem is with the social activism of a few public scientists, not the fact that religious fundamentalists in the United States have embraced a world view that is disconnected with reality.

    The low social standing of scientists may partially be because of outspoken scientists who attack the very core of theistic religion. But the broader problem is that the leading theistic religion in the United States has, among its major fanatical followers, adopted as core belief several ideas that are rejected as false by science.

  • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

    I posted the following comment about an hour ago, but it seems to have disappeared. Here we go again.

    Like BenBacharach I was surprised to hear of ‘the great stagnation.’ I was also surprised to hear of the low social status of scientists. Perhaps that is just an American thing?

    I agree that science does not entail naturalism and that there need be no opposition between theism and science. The current prevalence of naturalism in academe is a fad.

    I do not think we should try to eliminate religious beliefs that are incompatible with (current) science. Science changes: some of those religious beliefs may be compatible with a state of science in the future. Indeed some of them might even be connected with metaphysical speculations which are eventually developed into testable scientific theories. That is sometimes how scientific revolution begins. If we look at the history of physics/astronomy, we had Aristotelian physics, which was replaced by Newtonian physics, which was replaced by relativistic physics. Each of these three scientific systems brings with it a metaphysical system; and the metaphysical systems contradict each other. Oh, and Aristotle, Newton and Einstein all believed in God. Newton, indeed, built theism into his metaphysics of space and time; and Einstein gave as a reason for rejecting quantum theory, ‘God does not play dice.’

    I talk more about some of the relations between theism and science in a forthcoming paper in the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, which is available (gated) here:

    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11153-012-9343-8

    and (ungated) here:

    http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick/Papers

    I am not religious, incidentally: I am agnostic.

  • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

    FYI, looks like the Disqus comment system had a bit of a hiccup this morning. Some comments may have been lost. The problem has been fixed now, though.

  • Puffy

    First off, I think the Cowen thesis is plain bizarre. Growth is slowing because regulations, lawyers and taxes are all rising. In countries where that isn’t happening (eg Asia), there is no slowdown. In countries where it’s happening faster (eg Europe), there is a bigger slowdown.

    On your main point, I think both Christian suspicion of science and general decline in scientists’ social status are coming from the same source — corruption of science. The academic culture tends to weed out religious and conservative scientists, while govt funding accelerates this process. Even non-academic scientists are impacted by the resulting shifts in “consensus” in their field; try talking religion at a Sociology convention and see how many friends you make.

    It would be natural for regular people, particularly on the right and particularly the Christian right, to be suspicious of a gang who whore their credentials to the social planners who despise them.

    By the way, I do work in academia, which is why I’m anon for this one.

  • http://profiles.google.com/entelechy77 Kurt Horner

    Plantiga acts as if naturalism has any real challengers. Frankly, it has no coherent opposition. Naturalism is so obvious as to be almost axiomatic. Anything supernatural either does not interact with the natural (and thus is irrelevant) or it does interact with it and is thus actually natural. Naturalism is thus the only game in town.

    It may be true that pointing this out makes lots of theists sad, and their resulting hostility to science is damaging to our economy. But whose fault is that, the scientists who point it out, or the religious people who refuse to accept it?

    • Kevin Vallier

      I guess Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Suarez, Leibniz, Descartes, Locke, Kant, Ficthe, Hegel, Bradley, Green, Frege, the early Russell and the panoply of contemporary nonnaturalists in metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind and normative ethics are all incoherent and have missed what is axiomatic!

      • http://profiles.google.com/entelechy77 Kurt Horner

        This is an argument from authority fallacy, since there is no consensus of experts on the topic of naturalism.

        • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

          Your are the one who started with this: “Naturalism is so obvious as to be almost axiomatic. Anything supernatural either does not interact with the natural (and thus is irrelevant) or it does interact with it and is thus actually natural.” The reason it is not so “obvious” (to many great philosophers) is that it is quite plausible that there are non-natural things, like the laws of mathematics and logic. It is clearly not the case that “Naturalism is thus the only game in town,” but simply the only one you care to consider.

          • http://profiles.google.com/entelechy77 Kurt Horner

            How exactly are math and logic not natural? They are not *physical*, but that is not the same thing and you should not conflate the two.

          • Robert Gressis

            Kurt, could you explain what you mean by “natural” or “naturalism”?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I believe that the standard philosophical usage of “natural” is “part of the natural world,” i.e. something you can see, touch or feel. So, in moral philosophy, “Moral Non-Naturalism…denotes the metaphysical thesis that moral properties exist and are not identical with or reducible to any natural property or properties in some interesting sense of ‘natural.’” See http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-non-naturalism/. You may not like non-naturalism in ethics or elsewhere, but this does not make this view absurd.

            Your interpretation of the “non-natural” in terms of its ability to interact with the physical world, is your particular interpretation, and a strange one at that. How do basic moral or logical principles “interact” with the natural world? If there is an infinite God, one beyond the laws of time, space, and physics, in what intelligent sense of “natural” is He natural? One common understanding of God is that He created the universe out of nothing–if this is your understanding of what it means to be “natural,” it is entirely arbitrary.

          • http://profiles.google.com/entelechy77 Kurt Horner

            You would be wrong. Math, logic and moral reasoning clearly exist in this universe. They are natural. They may not be physical, but they are natural. Similarly, either supernatural phenomena exist in this universe (in which case they are simply natural — just hard to analyze) OR they are irrelevant.

            This may sound tautological, because it is. The point of non-naturalist arguments is to CREATE a category of things that science cannot study in order to CREATE meaningful topics for religion to have expertise in. But this begs the question: Are there any topics in which religion has real expertise? It’s entirely possible they’re aren’t any. It certainly doesn’t look good when theists have to invent a category of “topics science can’t talk about” in order for religion to have potential value.

            (Moral non-naturalism however would get is into other topics like whether or not the is-ought dichotomy is meaningful. My comment was about metaphysical naturalism.)

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I think you are quite confused, which is why Kevin is able to so easily cite many distinguished philosophers who are non-naturalists. I guess you believe that they are the ones who are confused. You clearly don’t understand moral non-naturalism, and at least some who endorse it liken basic moral principles to fundamental axioms in math and logic. See Michael Huemer’s book Ethical Intuitionism. If you can’t understand the weakness of arguing, as you admit, by tautology, then I am unwilling to invest any further time in trying to set you straight. If that sounds dismissive, you are right.

          • http://profiles.google.com/entelechy77 Kurt Horner

            Then explain HOW I am confused, rather than resorting to the same weak sauce Argument from Authority fallacy. I recognize that there are, and have been, smart people who don’t like naturalism, and that they have thought long and hard about ways to get around it. Duh. But who cares? There is not even close to a consensus in philosophy about this topic, so there are no authorities — there are only the arguments themselves. Start making them, or I will take your silence as admission of defeat.

            With regard to tautology, you are confusing the rhetorical meaning of tautology with the logical meaning. A logical tautology is something which is always true for any possible circumstance. A phenomena is either part of the natural realm and can be investigated scientifically, or it isn’t and can’t. The non-naturalist contention is to try to break out of this box by creating a category of things that have real impact on this world and yet cannot be investigated scientifically. That is a very bizarre contention, since if something effects the world, you could study those effects, right?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            You started by saying that non-naturalism is absurd, and now you try to shift the burden of proof on to me, when I never claimed that either view is implausible–nice try. Second, you ignore the arguments I already made (see my comments above regarding your confused use of natural/non-natural). Third, logical, mathematical and basic moral claims claims quite plausibly cannot be “investigated scientifically,” which is what you apparently see as the crieterion for being part of the natuiral realm. I don’t claim to have a definitive proof, but it is quite plausible that such things exist, but can only be known through pure reason.

          • http://profiles.google.com/entelechy77 Kurt Horner

            On point one, the burden of proof IS on you, since you are the one proposing a special category (things which exist, are significant, and yet cannot be studied).

            On point two, my use of the word natural is EXACTLY as it is defined in metaphysical naturalism which is the topic under discussion. You are the one insisting on restricting it to physical objects.

            On point three, just as you are insistent on a narrow definition of natural, you are also insisting on a narrow definition of “investigated scientifically,” where apparently reasoned argument is some special thing off in its own category rather than part of the scientific toolkit. If a phenomenon is a meaningful part of this universe it will DO THINGS in this universe — things that we can observe and reason about.

            I suppose there could be meaningful things that are impossible to study. But the only evidence we would ever have for that category would be if something remained unexplained. In other words, there is no way for us to distinguish between the unknowable and knowable unknowns. Thus, in practice, assuming a category of things is unknowable, is just a strategy for keeping certain topics from ever being studied. Gee, I wonder why religions really like insisting upon the category of unknowable but meaningful things?

          • Nkaplan

            What do you mean when you say that non-naturalism requires a special category of things which are ‘significant yet cannot be studied?’

            I think Mark_D_Friedman’s point was not that maths/ethics etc cannot be studied at all, but that they (probably) cannot be studied by the scientific method because they (probably) are not empirical phenomena and are subject to different form of reasoning (e.g. a priori/ logical and teleological).

            This is not an unreasonable point of view. To take an example Wittgenstein gives in relation to maths not being an empirical subject: if we were to teach how to count by using water droplets we might learn that 1 drop and another makes 2 drops, but if when adding the third drop all combined into one larger drop of water we would not conclude that 2 + 1 = 1, rather we would conclude that drops of water are not good for learning maths.

          • http://profiles.google.com/entelechy77 Kurt Horner

            I am not restricting “study” to empirical methods. The word study is sufficiently broad to encompass logic as well. Furthermore, those things which are not subject to empirical analysis are still things that can be known, so your argument is sort of beside the point. Supernatural metaphysics proposes that there are aspects of universe that are unknowable, period, not just unknowable by empirical means.

            Of course, you could be suggesting that empirical means cannot demonstrate supernatural phenomena but logical means can — but then the supernatural would be knowable, and thus not really supernatural per metaphysical naturalism.

          • Nkaplan

            I do not believe in the supernatural. I am just trying to be clear about what you mean by naturalism, the way you have defined it it seems to be trivially true and something which those who believe in God could also believe in.

          • http://profiles.google.com/entelechy77 Kurt Horner

            Some theists do accept it, but the vast majority do not. Most seem to think that the lack of a supernatural realm means that religion has nothing meaningful to say about any topic at all, and as such they fight hard to maintain such a category.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Thanks. You certainly have more patience than I, and probably a better grasp of these issues.

          • gcallah

            “They may not be physical, but they are natural. Similarly, either supernatural phenomena exist in this universe (in which case they are simply natural — just hard to analyze)…”

            Of course, Kurt, if you just DEFINE natural as “existing,” naturalism is pleonastically true. But that is not what most naturalist mean by naturalism!

          • http://profiles.google.com/entelechy77 Kurt Horner

            Actually it is, gcallah. Here is the wikipedia page on metaphysical naturalism:
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphysical_naturalism
            Read it. The supernatural is excluded under a naturalistic worldview. This does not necessarily mean naturalism = atheism, just that God would be subject to analysis like any other aspect of reality. For example there are religious metaphysical naturalists (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_naturalism). So, yes, this definition of naturalism is the standard.

          • good_in_theory

            It might help disentangling naturalism/physicalism/realism here.

    • Sergio Méndez

      I think the
      problem comes when one takes naturalism as a metaphysical commitment (where I
      think it is self-defeating) and not as what is supposed to be: a methodology to
      practice science (which means that science does not necessarily is the only way
      to obtain knowledge of the world). Anyways, I think Plantinga goes further into
      the absurd position that theism is necessary for the development of science.
      Science may not disprove theism (then, theism is not falsifiable since you can
      always accommodate with ad hoc hypothesis), but then it makes theism look less
      and less necessary and likely as an explanation for multiple phenomena.

    • gcallah

      “Plantiga acts as if naturalism has any real challengers.”

      No, Kurt, in fact, there aren’t really any good arguments FOR naturalism at all!

  • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.carroll.77920 Daniel Carroll

    The coments here are more civil than I expected. As a theist, I agree that most forms of fundamentalism are incompatible with most forms of scientific inquiry. However, I don’t agree that that is entirely relevant. American fundamentalism is mostly a benign oversimplification of Christian belief with some modern overlays. Communism is an athiestic religion that purportedly elevated scientific inquiry, yet it is not fair to raise that as an objection to other atheistic philosophies, since it is not adhered to by all atheists. The goal is to arrive at the truth, not engage in name calling.

    In general, academia is hostile to religious belief, sometimes overtly so, especially in the social sciences. However, academia has not cornered the market on intellectuals; indeed it appears to be a self-selected group of non-religious intellectuals. Once one travels into the private sector, one can find highly diverse, highly educated, and very intelligent contingents of theists, atheists, and deists. For instance, instead of teaching biology, a Christian might decide to become a doctor. Instead of teaching economics, many Christians work in finance. In my experience in the financial sector, I have found most individuals’ intelligence rival the brightest in academia, yet more than half hold meaningful religious beliefs. Compare to the general population, where 40% are believed to attend church on a “regular” basis (granted, church attendance does not equal meaningful religious belief, but the 40% is probably overstated).

    I do not believe that Christianity is necessarily in opposition to scientific inquiry, evolution, or the big bang theory, as long as that Christianity does not engage in an exclusively literal hermeneutic. Naturalism and logical positivism are, however, in opposition to religious beliefs.

    Does a secular academia leads to a “great stagnation”? Probably not, in my opinion. At the margin, some Christians may choose to pursue a career elsewhere (especially in the social sciences), but Christianity (especially the protestant variety) emphasizes education and rational thought. Indeed, if the great stagnation is occurring, it is occurring alongside a general decline in religious activity. The rise of socialism in the 20th century coincided with the decline in the influence of the church. I think the two are correlated, with socialism more of a cause than an effect.

    I think that the shortage of engineers and scientists is more a function of the failure of our socialized education system than a function of religious beliefs.

    • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

      “The rise of socialism in the 20th century coincided with the decline in
      the influence of the church. I think the two are correlated, with
      socialism more of a cause than an effect.”

      I am inclined the opposite way on that. I think that an important reason why socialism, and particularly Marxism, became popular was that, when people who needed religion lost their religious faith, they were desperate for a substitute.

    • John 4

      Christianity (especially the CATHOLIC variety) emphasizes education and rational thought.

      Not trying to start a fight, but I was honestly puzzled by the original comment. The Supreme Court, universities, etc.

  • Chris Callaway

    Kevin, I think you at some point need to make some determination about how much the politicization of science has actually made science more attractive for non-religious people. It’s prima facie possible that it draws more people than it repels, and that possibility needs to be addressed for your thesis to stick. A more complicated version of this issue would be this: “Has the politicization of science repelled more potential scientists than it has attracted? And if so, has it repelled potential scientists of greater quality than it has attracted, or has it produced gains in the quality of scientists that offsets the loss in quantity?”

    But it’s an interesting question you’ve raised.

    • Kevin Vallier

      Its a question of numbers. There are far more theists than nontheists in the West at least.

      • Chris Callaway

        It is a question of numbers, but it’s more fine-grained than theists v. non-theists. Even in the USA, what percentage of “theists” actually are paying more than passing attention to people like Dawkins? I’d say a small minority. The umbrage taken against the politicization of science seems to occur largely within a subset of Christianity, which is itself a subset of “theists.” So some theists are getting turned off of science. Others are just shrugging it off–the politicization has no effect. Probably there are a few who are even more motivated to enter science to prove the infidels wrong. On the other side, you have non-theists whose attraction to science is intensified. Again, from the armchair, I’d say that a much smaller percentage are turned off, and a higher percentage are actually paying attention to this kind of discourse in the first place.

        You can assume for the sake of argument, I suppose, that each theist and each non-theist is equally affected by this discourse. But that seems to be giving too much away. It is probably more acceptable for non-theists, I guess, but theists are not uniform in their responses.

        • Chris Callaway

          That is, from the armchair, it seems to me a smaller percentage of non-theists than theists are turned off by Dawkins & Co., and yet a higher percentage of non-theists than theists are following this discourse with more than passing interest.

  • Sean II

    Cowen’s thesis isn’t bold, it’s silly.

    1) In every way that counts, the social status of scientists is actually quite high. They earn more money, enjoy more occupational freedom, have grater job security, and dispose of more capital resources than people in other lines of work. Their big problem is, what? People don’t say nice things about them in opinion polls? Well, if any of them went to high school in the United States, I’m sure they got used to limited popularity long before they ever rang the register on their first fat NIH grant.

    2) The explanation hilariously fails to scale. Given the wholesale assault now being carried out against the U.S. economy, making room for a trivial factor like “people are being mean to scientists” is absurd. One might as well insist that Vitamin C deficiency was the cause of death for a man who just got shanked 57 times in prison. Sure, it’s true he might have had such a deficiency, thanks to his jailhouse diet, but let’s agree that his predicament of no longer being alive might have something to do with the multiple stab wounds covering his entire body. (The failure of this analogy is…a prison gang will stop stabbing you, once you’re dead. Central planners observe no similar restraint.)

    3) Discovery by itself is not a sufficient condition for growth. Science needs capital to makes things happen. If someone discovers the principle for a Galt engine tomorrow, but can’t get a loan because the state borrowed every dollar to pay my grandma’s MRI bills, well…he’s not getting very far, is he?

    • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

      Yeah, your first paragraph fits in with what I was thinking. What is important to Kevin’s thesis is that the social status of scientists is currently low amongst those groups whose opinion they value. I doubt that your average M.I.T. physics professor cares much about whether Joe Sixpack holds him in high regard, but probably does care about the opinion about his/her peers, which I assume would be fellow scientists, and to a lesser extent fellow academics and the intelligentsia at large. I would think that in these quarters the status of scientists remains rather lofty.

    • http://www.facebook.com/les.nearhood Les Kyle Nearhood

      Once again I agree with you. I do not want to jump into the entire metaphysical argument, but I have far less problem with the Plantinga hypothesis than I do with Cowen. In fact we have not seen a plateau of technological innovation and are not likely to see one. (I bear as witness the revolution in Oil and Gas drilling that is causing a boom in domestic production. Are the ongoing revolution in manufacturing due to 3d printing technology.)

      Also, a lot of great discoveries are not really the result of scientists, they are increasingly the result of either serendipity, or the dogged pursuit of better methods by technicians and engineers working in private industry.

    • Fallon

      Cowen is an odd duck. This is the same “economist” associated with libertarian and classical liberal ideas that supports NASA, (Yes, that great boondoggle); calls Mises’s work “poetry” (i.e. not scientifically worthy); recommended a temporary dictatorship by the Fed Bank over the financial system; and, recently, did an introductory video that gave a partial nod to the Keynesian Aggregate Demand explanation of crisis, recession/depression. This nod was an attempt at fusing Austrian, Monetarist and Keynesian thought (if I recall correctly). … One would indeed have to be at the introductory stage of awareness to accept this synthesis.

      Re Stagnation. It is not surprising that Cowen would write such a misdirecting thesis. It’s like Krugman blaming the Chinese….

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  • CruisingTroll

    Two observations: Anybody who has actually looked at the debate over teaching evolution in schools (the debate itself, not the science) knows that it about pushing naturalism. At the K-12 level, evolution is an origin story, nothing more. Verifying adherence to evolution (ever wonder why reporters ask politiicians about evolution?) is a method of enforcing worldview compliance, and the enforcement mechanisms are ridicule, shame, ostracizing and other such wholesome pursuits. This is where the big fight is fought, and science is caught up in it.

    Second observation: This ties to the low hanging fruit. The reason why scientists have relatively low social status is because most of their work bears no fruit. The majority of science involves finding out where you’re wrong, what doesn’t work. While that’s certainly valuable, it doesn’t feed our fundamental appreciation for success.

    Third observation: I know, I said two. Social scientists screw things up for the rest. Too many “social scientists” ARE activists, and they put out too much crap, thus damaging the “science” brand.

    • Sergio Méndez

      About the second observation….what is the fruit of religion that makes it so popular? The capaicty to produce self delusion?

      • good_in_theory

        Self-delusion can be quite useful in making one think they’re successful at things.

    • TracyW

      The idea of evolution is in use elsewhere in science outside biology, common ones being genetic algorithms in software programmes, and antibiotic resistance in medicine. Both of these are ideas that you don’t need a B.Sc to grasp.

      As for pushing naturalism, evolution appears to be quite incompetent at that. There are numerous clergy who also are convinced by evolution.

      And if you don’t fight against stupidity and wilful ignorance, what do you fight against?

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  • ltf

    Very few scientists work in areas that are controversial, I think most people understand that.
    I’d say the problem is that to be a scientist, you have to be in the intellectual top 2%. However you are unlikely ever to be close to the top 2% financially. When it comes to status, earning ability is always going to outstrip intellectual ability.

  • http://www.facebook.com/les.nearhood Les Kyle Nearhood

    Let us not forget another way in which science has been politicized. That is in the pushing of the Global Warming hysteria. Now whether you believe that there has been some man made climate change is besides the point. The point I make is that the whole thing was horribly politicized and rammed down people’s throats. Hysterical and ridiculous claims were made. People were attacked and blacklisted. Things were just made up out of whole cloth.

    That had a very very deep negative effect on the public.

    • Sean II

      Or, for slightly older readers, there is the memory of a long time during which Marxism, Keynesianism, central planning, Freudian analysis, weird pre-schools, etc. were all described as “scientific” in the sense of “no-doubt-about-it-there’s-something-fundamentally-wrong-with-you-if you-disagree”.

      I’m more inclined to blame that than I am the youtube adventures of a couple (admittedly) snide Englishmen.

      Although, as I said before, I dispute the whole premise that science needs rescuing from some pitchfork mob in the first place.

      • Whiskeyjim

        Exactly. In fact the author has it wrong; we have listened too much to ‘scientists’. Science has ruined its reputation not because of its anti-religious stance, but because of its highly politicized slant and demonstrably horrific and naive bungling.

        Most of the social sciences are a joke. I don’t mean to insult anyone who makes their living in those fields.

        Or the almost annual new discovery that some food is bad for us, and then later they say, “never mind.”

        Or perhaps worst of all, the social engineering in Africa that has in some cases outright killed people (remember the powdered milk fiasco), stunted their economies and generally relegated huge swaths of the continent to a larger version of our native Indian population; dependent, poor and angry. We would never do to our children what we have done to Africa.

        The hubris of central planning is repulsive, and contrary to Mr. Cowen’s postulations, it is our scientific betters who have moved our society back to the rules of vassals and serfs that is responsible for our stagnation. And at the center of it all, you will find scientists, with economists perhaps worst of all; the new centralized religion of our time.

        Only in the cloistered monasteries of academia can the shout for more centralization survive, in a world that in every form, structure and market niche, has been decentralizing for decades now. The only industries not doing so are banking, education and health care. Now what do they have in common other than their rising prices?

        No, we are listening far too often to scientists. They have risen in station far beyond their knowledge, in a complex world they believe they can manipulate like some of kind of machine. And we are all the poorer for it.

  • Richard T

    I read Cowen’s blog often, and agree with him on much, but not on the Great Stagnation.

    More to the point, your hypothesis is susceptible to a simple test: look at Western countries less religious than the US and see if they are also less stagnant. Plenty of countries to choose from ….

  • http://twitter.com/PonziUnit Ponzi Unit

    I wonder what Jubilee looks like modeled on modern times.

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