The Jury Talks Back


Secularism Doesn’t Have to Be Stupid

Filed under: Uncategorized — Fritz @ 1:46 pm

Secularism doesn’t have to be stupid, but the latest crop of new atheists seem to be intent on performing a similar function that snake handlers play for the religious, i.e., fodder for reasonably justified prejudice.

Edward Feser, for all the bad-faith gibbering about the courtier’s reply fallacy*, lets Heather MacDonald have it with both barrels.  His point is that it’s almost impossible to have a reasoned discussion with such folks because they tend to hide behind purposeful ignorance.  At his blog, Feser writes,

Now, a little thought experiment. Suppose you were a professional physicist. Suppose further that that you came across the writings of someone whose knowledge of quantum mechanics derived entirely from discussions with high school science students. She had picked up from them some of the jargon – “collapse of the wave function,” “Schrödinger’s cat,” “wave-particle duality,” and so forth – but because their explanations were amateurish at best – always oversimplified, usually at least partially mistaken, and sometimes even grotesquely off-base – they failed to convey to her anything close to an accurate picture of the subject. Bizarrely, though, she used the bad information she’d picked up from them as the basis for an attack on the intellectual respectability of quantum mechanics, presenting it as clear evidence of the irrationality of contemporary physicists. “These physics oddballs claim they have a cat in a lab somewhere that is both alive and dead at the same time! And they also believe in little magic particles floating on foamy cosmic waves, or some such thing. Oogedy-boogedy, as my friend Kathleen would say. Maybe we conservatives ought to stay away from them. Maybe start a blog too. ‘Cause otherwise, you know, we might look as foolish and clueless as they do!”
Suppose also that, equally bizarrely, she seemed to be getting some respectful attention for these laughably ill-informed opinions. Annoyed, you pointed out to her that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, that she really ought to read some serious physics books before commenting further, and that in any case she ought to leave the hapless high school students out of it. Irate, she replies that the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that quantum mechanics is really worth taking seriously, and that doing so requires you to give her some “scientific evidence” that what the high school students have to say is true. She also refuses to consider the views of any actual physicists, apparently on the theory that if their complex arguments cannot be summarized for her in the comments box of one of her blog posts, then they must not be very compelling. Then she riffs a little more on some of her pet irrelevancies. “Where, pray tell, is your scientific evidence for this cat who’s alive and dead at the same time, Mr. Physicist? Show it to us, if it’s real! And what about those little ball thingies that float on the waves? Where’s your scientific test for them? Huh? HUH?!” Finally, with a flourish, she compares quantum mechanics to belief in the efficacy of Kinoki Detox Foot Pads. “So there!”

Replace “quantum mechanics” with “religion,” “physics” with “philosophy and theology,” and “high school students” with “unsophisticated religious believers,” and this is, I submit, pretty much where I find myself with respect to MacDonald. Really, what’s the point?

*: Hey, I took two 6 hour qualification exams for the explicity reason that I could prove that I had some conversance with the field that I claimed to be an expert in.  This, of course, does not prove that I actually am an expert, no more than not taking the exams would disprove claims to expertise.  It’s just that when every idiot has an opinion, do you have the decency to at least pretend that yours are informed about the basics?

1 Comment

  1. I’ve been watching the exchange as well (and also with Derb). I first heard of Feser a few years ago when he had a spat with Brian Leiter.

    Comment by Donn — 12/4/2008 @ 11:27 pm

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