Is conservative Republicanism epistemically incompatible with science?

It seems like a better hypothesis than that religion is epistemically incompatible with science. (Trying to replace political science with CNN? Really?)

Consider. Roughly half of scientists are religious, but fewer than 10% are conservatives. John McCain, the leader of the Republican party, denigrated astronomy education by calling a star-projector for a planetarium "foolishness" and "an overhead projector." His hand-picked successor suggested that fruit fly research should be defunded, and suggested that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth together. By contrast, the Catholic church's leader said that evolution is "more than an hypothesis," adding "The convergence in the results of these independent studiesâwhich was neither planned nor soughtâconstitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory." Over 12,000 Christian clergy have made clear "the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as 'one theory among others' is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children."

Republicans and Democrats differ by 9 points in their outright rejection of evolution (R: 39%, D: 30%). They differ by 34 points in acceptance that humans are causing global warming (R: 30%, D: 64%). Religious groups show no such split. Neither is there such a split on embryonic stem cell research: a 33 point divide between political parties, but only 14-15 points between Catholics or white mainline Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated. Seems like religion is more compatible with science than conservatism.

Is this a bit silly? Sure. Do correlations speak to epistemic compatibility? Perhaps not (but note).

But bear this in mind. On a range of issues involving science, politics matter a lot more than religion. Before dismissing concerns about the political effects of attacking religion, let's bear in mind that politics makes a real difference to the world we all live in. Philosophical disagreements about what is or isn't compatible on some metaphysical level don't, though they might, might, point to some underlying fact about the world we have to contend with.

My beef with the idea that religion qua religion is the main threat facing society boils down to one principled position and to observations. The principle is classical liberalism: Don't mess with me and I won't mess with you, the marketplace of ideas benefits from many voices and must be policed to avoid gross abuses but not to eliminate disagreement. The observations: First, that there are religious people who play well in the marketplace, who don't mess with anyone else's rights, and their rights deserve my protection. Second, that there are ideologies other than religion which are just as bad, if not worse than the most egregious abuses of religion. Thus, if we want to identify an enemy, let's identify an enemy that is universally harmful, not one that's sometimes harmful and sometimes helpful.

This is one level on which the Conservative Bible Project is so informative. Here you have people who have always read the Bible within the idiosyncratic and anachronistic framework of the fundamentalists. But, as slacktivist observes, they caught a glimpse of what a plain reading of the Bible actually says. They saw that Jesus was probably to the left of most , and was deeply concerned with the way the poorest in society were treated. Perhaps while looking for a Levitical code justifying their homophobia, they stumbled on the many laws Jews were given requiring charity and a concern for their poor neighbors.

The CBP authors freaked out upon realizing that their politics and their religion conflicted.

Now let's make a hypothesis: people will side with the stronger force when an incompatibility seems to surface. Thus, if people confronted with the Beatitudes become more liberal, we'd know that religion had the greater hold. If they tried to cut the Beatitudes from the Bible, you'd know that politics is the stronger force.

Which side of that conflict won? Was it religion, which supposedly destroys the capacity for independent reasoning, or was it conservative politics? If conservatism (or politics, if you prefer) is incompatible with science, where does that leave us as a society? Must scientists ignore politics? Is it accommodationism to reach across to pro-evolution conservatives like the generally execrable George Will, the odious Charles Krauthammer, or the occasionally tolerable John Derbyshire?


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Epistemic incompatibility is not the same as practical or political conflict. And what threatens science -- either at the epistemic or practical level -- is not necessarily the "main threat facing society."

The difference between conservatives and others is as much due to the regard in which money is held as the absolute value, Conservatives, even those who profess something they call "christianity", are generally devotees of Mammon, notwithstanding what Jesus is reported to have said about that. As seen in the climate change resistance, they're irrational enough in their actual religion to be willing to risk the biosphere that they and their closest depend on, lesser "skeptics" of climate change are less willing to risk their own sweet fat but don't mind if countless unseen, unheard others die. Or, at least, they're willing to risk it so they can burn as much fossil fuel as they like.

Most stupid people are conservative but not all conservatives are stupid, some are just selfish.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 09 Oct 2009 #permalink

Contemporary US "conservatism" (in the last decade or so, actually a leading force for changes - mostly bad ones, but still changes) has become increasingly religious in practice and personnel. Would any historic conservative from Cicero through Edmund Burke to Dwight Eisenhower recognize our right wing as his political home?

This reflects not only the takeover of the Republicans (and the right wing of the Democrats) by James Dobson, Doug Coe, & ilk, but the present heavy emphasis on tribalism, emotionalism, symbolism, and iconic leadership. From the attempts of Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich to pull churchgoers into politics after the Goldwater debacle in '64 to tonight's Beck diatribe, deliberate exercise of cultic manipulation has become the hallmark of "conservatism" in and out of the Republican Party. Economic, foreign, and even ideological concerns have been subordinated to hindbrain (sex, fear & aggression) button-pushing familiar to Elmer Gantry pulpiteers everywhere.

This is not merely epistemically incompatible with the scientific method, it's in direct antagonism to democracy and rationality. Unfortunately for the accommodationist project, among American religious groups only the Quakers (and perhaps the Mennonites and some small independent churches) have a tradition of democracy - and none have made a sacrament of reason.

[OT: Iâve attempted to upload the above several times since 11 pm Eastern Time, always running into an âAn error occurred: permission deniedâ message. A test comment at another SB blog went through without a glitch, so the problem is not at the server level. If anybody ever reads this, then I havenât been banned from tfk as a strident atheist, and I doubt that since I havenât been so notified since my last (apparently friction-free) comment here on 8/1/09 (and I was just able to comment here) - so whatâs going on?]

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 09 Oct 2009 #permalink

Nice post. Sometimes seems that people would rather fight the smoke than the fire... the smoke being the obscurantist aspects of some religious organizations, the fire being or collective inability to make rational public policy decisions.

Karen Armstrong's point about Fundamentalism is that it's a dialectical response to "modernity" by groups that feel marginalized by it (with some reason): by rule of law vs. tradition, scientific mechanization, urbanization/globalization, and so on. Understanding it as a political response that inappropriately mimics logical positivism.

The point of having an epistemic system, if there is any point, would be in producing an action plan. The thing we ought to consider is whether the action plan promotes moral behavior in the world at large, not what language is used to justify it.

If you think that humans have an epistemic system (used as part of their action planning), then the fact that certain people are able to combine eg Catholicism and Evolutionism is convincing evidence that these two indeed can exist within the same epistemic system, that is they are compatible in every useful sense. The difficulties of stating the compatibility in logical positivist language should not be seen as crucial; humans are known to be efficient in dealing with ambiguous or partial results.

The most fatal conflict is a doctrine of inerrancy.

All this proves is that a lot of people who claim to be "religious" don't actually believe the fuckwitted religious wackaloonery that their religions supposedly require them to. Just like the vast majority of religious people who supposedly believe in the "power of prayer" still go the fucking emergency room when they are bleeding to death. But this doesn't mean that these same people won't use their political power to fuck everything up because their religious leaders have taught them to hate coastal elite jew scientists.

There are other kinds of indications: a poll showed that many fewer Republicans, and whites; than the totals, believe that the Americas and Africa were once joined (as part of Gondwanaland, before the plate-conveyor process slid them apart. The magnetic ridges in the Atlantic are rather conclusive evidence on top of just the look of the fit.) Many think there's a subconscious racial factor.

In any case, in my experience Republicans are less oriented to thinking about issue in and of themselves, and more concerned with "ad hominem" considerations like resistance to the fact that so-and-so/s are saying it (as with suspicions about global warming.)

Religion sure isn't the main threat facing society, although militant sectors of Islam are very dangerous. The money/rabble coalition (blue-blood/red-neck) is the most dangerous. The plutocracy combines with "populist" haranguers like Rush to destroy middle-class power and relative prosperity.

Okay, but appeals to practical differences are a bit empty, since you and me and everybody decides on the fly what makes a practical difference every time they talk.

Epistemic incompatibility makes a practical difference to Dawkins et al.'s atheist activism, in that it provides them with grounds for doing it. The question is whether or not you mind the fact that Dawkins et al. are activist atheists, and the critique of religion that comes along with activist atheism. If you don't mind, then I suppose it makes no practical difference whether or not epistemic compatibility is true or false. If you do mind, then it does make a practical difference.

Frankly, here's my solution: marginalize criticisms spewed by anyone who doesn't know basic math or science.

Make it clear that we won't even entertain them until they show they've grasped, say, calculus and the cell theory, for example.

By Katharine (not verified) on 10 Oct 2009 #permalink

Er, cell theory. By which I mean the set of facts about organisms being made of cells, organelles, mechanisms by which the cell divides, et cetera.

Not 'the' cell theory. It's called cell theory. I misspoke.

By Katharine (not verified) on 10 Oct 2009 #permalink

Wrong, Josh. Mindlessness is incompatible with science. I don't know all their political affiliations but look at Bill Maher, Jenny McCarthy and Tom Cruse on the subject of vaccination. The Repubs are merely a prominent example.

Key difference, surely, is that it's impossible to eliminate politics from human society. There always has to be a right wing.

Whereas religion is utterly superfluous.

By Saint Onan (not verified) on 11 Oct 2009 #permalink

---- Whereas religion is utterly superfluous. St Onan

There isn't any evidence that it is in any part of recorded human history. Individual people get to decide if it's superfluous in their lives but it clearly never has been in any society, no matter how much people like Sam Harris like to exaggerate the alleged atheism of Sweden and Britan.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 11 Oct 2009 #permalink

Rosenau: "Roughly half of scientists are religious, but fewer than 10% are conservatives."

It appears that religion gets to be lumped into one generic term, like a single political ideology, when it suits a certain argument but is considered coarse and inconsiderate when someone else does it.

Populist conservatism and religion share a common and recurrent theme: tribal aggression.

Populism has a far from conservative branch as demonstrated by Jim Highttower, Molly Ivins and Bill Moyers, to name just three of the more well known contemporary examples.

It appears that religion gets to be lumped into one generic term, like a single political ideology, when it suits a certain argument but is considered coarse and inconsiderate when someone else does it.

Yes, frequently coarse and inconsiderate but how about beginning with blindingly inaccurate, since it's to make false statements attributing beliefs and, much more importantly, actions to people who are innocent of the charges. Of course, that works both ways, with claims of virtue that are attributed to "religion" that is, in many cases, not deserved and also unwise.

Reductionism in considering human life so often leads away from reality instead of closer. We aren't subatomic particles or elements combining into molecules. And it's always a surprise to the reductionist mind when people refuse to be treated as such.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 12 Oct 2009 #permalink

Douglas Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid" would be a good place to start for an accurate understanding of reductionism and mathematical logic.

Godel, Escher Bach

Read it ages ago, was unimpressed with the "Bach" part, since then have read some of Godel, it's better to go to the source. Never was all that interested in Escher.

Mathematical logic is notably inadequate to deal with complex areas of life due to the unwieldy number of vectors. For example, the insight of ecological and evolutionary science that habitats are "n dimensional".

If you think you can apply it, feel free to demonstrate how you would represent the variables of Roman, Orthodox and Nestorian Christianity and not leave anything important out.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 13 Oct 2009 #permalink

Not sure I understand the question. what "variables" of these sects of Christianity would you be referring to? Or is it just their variableness that you find math too inadequate for?

The insight that habitats are dimensional is not a new concept. The challenge is in accounting for all the necessary variables, which is partly addressed by defining your limits. What's surprising is that the study of niches or ecology in general are offered as examples of biological complexity for which math is "notably inadequate" to handle. Besides you, who is saying this?

That biological habitats and niches consist of potentially every increasing and interrelated parts and so probably could never be comprehensively addressed or even ranked in relative value of relevancy to your current problem (as my sister-in-law the biologist put it in one of our recent discussions) leads me to believe that the idea of subjecting as varied and probably far harder to document religious bodies and beliefs and the comparison of different religions to mathematical logic is wrongheaded. Pudding headed, would probably be more accurate.

Nothing more complex than that.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 13 Oct 2009 #permalink

This is clearly your opinion and yours alone. One which you've arrived at through a cursory and pop-culture understanding of the subject. Since you haven't answered my question, we're all to assume only you think ecology is a good example of biological complexity for which math is "notably inadequate" to handle. A truly outstanding statement I'm willing to bet no ecologist would agree with.

Anthony McCarthy: Mathematical logic is notably inadequate to deal with complex areas of life due to the unwieldy number of vectors. For example, the insight of ecological and evolutionary science that habitats are "n dimensional".

Technically, that's inefficient, not inadequate.

You CAN handle unwieldy numbers of vectors; it just means that an exact calculation process will take longer to get an answer than simply observing the universe. (Not to mention perhaps being also longer than the computationally useful lifetime of the universe will allow.) However, once you know that the answer can be recognized, you sometimes can find an approximation that is computationally efficient.

Anthony McCarthy: If you think you can apply it, feel free to demonstrate how you would represent the variables of Roman, Orthodox and Nestorian Christianity and not leave anything important out.

Your use of "not leave anything important out" looks like there's probably some implicit assumptions about involvement of a non-countably infinite data set buried in there... among others.

Otherwise, the easiest representation to generate assigns an integer multiple of three to each datum. (Integers of the form 3n+1 and 3n+2 can be reserved for denoting variables and relationships of variables.) You might start with the (finite) set of every word every spoken by any human.

Technically, that's inefficient, not inadequate. You CAN handle unwieldy numbers of vectors; abb3w

Not if you can't define them or even identify them. And with a potentially infinite number of variables, you can't. In the case of many of the ones in real life, you can't even figure out which ones are more important to your problem. The real life adequacy of mathematical logic to a problem isn't just an abstract concept of theoretical possibility, but of actual possibility. And it's not possible in this case.

Your subsequent statement about assigning variables to the problem won't get you much farther in the real world than setting up an alleged representation but which anyone with any knowledge of these three large, varied, and dynamic branches of Christianity would find inadequate from the get go.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 16 Oct 2009 #permalink

A good example of leaving out stuff is gillt's last answer which shows a habit of leaving out something as seemingly innocuous as the word "comprehensive" can lead to, at best, a deceptive belief that the point has been addressed.

My real life experience tells me to expect that with gillt.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 16 Oct 2009 #permalink

McCarthy fails in addressing why ecology or biology in general shows that "mathematical logic is notably inadequate to deal with complex areas life (i.e., ecology, biology Christianity) due to the unwieldy number of vectors." These grand proclamations are unfounded until you give real-world examples, which we both know you don't have.

McCarthy: "Not if you can't define [vectors] or even identify them."

What does this even mean? What's an unidentified vector look like, McCarthy?

As it stands, you've given it your best effort and failed to make a case.

What does an unidentified vector look like? You don't know until it ceases to be unidentified. Which was my point. You can't know the unknown.

gillt, I'm kind of surprised that you don't realize that, at most, any description of a habitat is incomplete and tentative and subject to further, as yet, unknown information. And that the way in which you consider it and the aspects of it that you take up to look at will also limit how it's considered. Indeed, to a large extent, its the nature of how you decide to look at something that will determine what you can discover about it.

And that what isn't known can't be represented, never mind understood.

That is unless the gillt has superhuman abilities he's not sharing with us.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 17 Oct 2009 #permalink

Thinking a little more, as to any of this being just my opinion and mine alone, I don't think this passage I was reading just yesterday is irrelevant.

It has always been a matter of surprise with me that philosophers of the absolute should have shown so little interest in this department of life, and so seldom put its phenomena in evidence, even when it seemed obvious that
personal experience of some kind must have made their confidence in their own vision so strong. The logician's bias has always been too much with them. They have preferred the thinner to the thicker method, dialectical abstraction being so much more dignified and academic than
the confused and unwholesome facts of personal biography.

William James: A Pluralistic Universe

I'd think the problem is only magnified and multiplied when you're talking about entities consisting of the dynamic lives of many individuals and, in the case of habitats, many other species, inanimate objects and natural phenomena. To a large extent what constitutes a "religion" or a "habitat" is a human construct, often a scholars construct and not one which will be agreed to by others, and that's not to say not the actual "thing" they are talking about.

The tidy, attractive, publishable illusion that you've dealt with something rigorously can also be a delusion, never so much so as when it's an admiration of a form that you mistake for an objectively existing entity but which is really your own creation.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 17 Oct 2009 #permalink

You make a comment about modern ecology and biology that I consider groundless and in response you quote a dead philosopher. This is why I find it hard to take you seriously.

Besides, no one is arguing that there are probably now and always unknown unknowns inherent in dynamic systems, but science is a practical enterprise concerned with approximate models for making increasingly accurate predictions, which makes your observations over irreducible complexity irrelevant if the predictions are successful. In other words, if you can't come up with examples that prove your point then it's just noise.

McCarthy: "The tidy, attractive, publishable illusion that you've dealt with something rigorously can also be a delusion, never so much so as when it's an admiration of a form that you mistake for an objectively existing entity but which is really your own creation."

This arrogance deserves a blunt response. How could you know? You haven't demonstrated you know the science and you certainly haven't done the work yourself to decide these things. You're not in a position to be take seriously.

Since we're quoting philosophers:

I think a Dennett neologism applies to McCarthy's comments here. Deepity: A deepity is a proposition that seems to be profound because it is actually logically ill-formed.

It has (at least) two readings and balances precariously between them.

On one reading it is true but trivial, and on another reading it is false but would be earth-shattering if true.

If I have to be distorted by a dishonest person I'd prefer to have him do it with a superficial label invented by a superficial philosopher.

And all because gillt pretends I was talking about anything other than the fact that there were systems too complex to analyze comprehensively. After I pointed that out several times.

Let me ask you, gillt, you buy the Dennett line as laid out in Darwin's Dangerous Idea? Because that is about as "deepity" as could be, but only if you're not too deep, yourself to begin with.

Me, I'll stick with William James.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 17 Oct 2009 #permalink

Anthony McCarthy: Not if you can't define them or even identify them.

Incomplete information is a separate problem from unwieldy numbers of vectors.

Anthony McCarthy: Your subsequent statement about assigning variables to the problem won't get you much farther in the real world than setting up an alleged representation

Agreed... in the real world. However, mathematics is NOT the real world. Mathematical logic not only gets to play with Turing Machines and finite automata, but also gets to play with infinite automata.

Again: you're claiming (probably correctly) no hope of what mathematically is considered an efficient solution. This, however, is not the same being inherently inadequate for solution; and thus, philosophical existence of solution may allow efficient approximation.