The Know-Nothing Gambit

I was recently searching the web for criticism of Kierkegaard’s philosophy of Christian faith, which is interesting because it is attacked by both Christians and atheists. I ran across this one atheist blogger with a slicked-up site who appeared to have devoted four long posts to taking apart Kierkegaard. After reading all of them, I was dismayed to realize that this blogger actually had no argument at all to make; he was just complaining about the tendency of his religionist commenters to appeal to obscure authorities instead of making their own arguments, and then to blame him for not having read everything written by these obscure authorities.

This is a characteristic move for the Know-Nothing Atheist, who is proud of his ignorance and flaunts it as proof of his honesty. He doesn’t need to know the details of any argument for God’s existence, he says, since he’s never seen any evidence. Until some hairy old guy knocks him upside the head with a thunderbolt, he will remain resolute in his refusal to worship any goddess except Science.

Never mind the fact that most of the web-enabled acolytes of the Reason Fairy use the same appeals to obscure authorities (or worse, a website or blog) when arguing about their sacred monkey, evolution. Here are some paraphrased quotes on a similar topic from an obscure authority:

Instead of providing evidence, our competence to speak on this topic at all is challenged. The form of this argument is to say something along the lines of “You really don’t know what you are talking about. Dawkins (or Darwin or Huxley or Dobzhansky or any other eminent scientist) dealt with this issue with great depth and subtlety and until you have studied those works, you should not speak on this issue.” I call this debating ploy the ‘Dawkins Gambit’, although any other impressive name in science will do….

What is being asserted is that sophisticated scientists, people who are much smarter than me, have studied these issues in great depth and have already explained everything and we need to go to them to find answers. Evolution is so subtle that it is only through immersion in the works of these scientists that we can obtain an understanding of it. Those of us who are not professional scientists should shut up about our demands for dumb old evidence and not draw any conclusions on the question of evolution until we have devoted years to carefully studying the works of these scientists….

What creationists like me say to evolution believers is simply the following: If the existence of your evolutionary process has empirical consequences, then provide empirical evidence that supports your contention. If it has no empirical consequences whatsoever, then say so and we will not interfere with your theological and philosophical ruminations because we do not really care to speculate on the properties of what we consider to be a mythical process.

The only “empirical consequences” presented, predictably, are from genetics or molecular biology. It’s too bad that evolutionary theory has nothing to do with either of these fields, nor does it pertain to any other observational science or any technology.

Our hero, however, includes a disingenuous contradiction of the classic PZ Myers smackdown of non-scientist critics of evolution:

The nice thing about the call for evidence is that it does not depend on expertise. If someone makes an empirical claim, we do not dismiss it simply because they may not be scientists. In fact, non-professionals often turn up evidence that has implications in astronomy, geology, biology, and physics. If you have evidence to counter the theory of evolution, then it does not matter if you are not a biologist.

This is basically an argument for why scientific atheists should pay attention to every scientific creationist, IDer, and theistic evolutionist on the planet, since they are full of evidence. Yet, they are always dismissed because they don’t have a PhD, they don’t have a PhD in biology, they haven’t practiced science in 20 years, they are merely administrators, they haven’t published in a peer-reviewed journal, they haven’t published in a peer-reviewed journal in the correct field, they have never gotten a federal grant for research, or they are just out to destroy science because they are jealous of it.

Actually, one of the more believable objections to creation science is the claim that “[m]ore sophisticated religious believers want to preserve their credibility as supporters of science” (that’s an out-of-context quote from our buddy, the one who believes that living organisms are magnificent structures designed for a specific purpose).

I consider it a weakness to obsess over providing scientific explanations for everything in the Bible, and to then state that acceptance of these scientific explanations is required in order to have salvation in Christ. Yet, that is the explicit message I have heard at many of the “worldview” conferences I have attended. It is nothing more than pandering to the superstitions of the general populace, those people who have never read a scientific journal, have rarely read a scientific book, and may merely know the names of a half-dozen scientific cultural icons; yet they have an unshakable faith that science is responsible for everything good in their lives and that they must believe in it really hard in order for society to be saved.

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