Human Thought in a Dark Room

I’m sure that many of my readers will like this little meme. But to me, it shows such total contempt for the search of knowledge that it makes me really angry. And I don’t know that I have seen a more clear example of the way that much of the atheist community deifies science.

I am, as most of you know, trained as a scientist. I have a PhD in physics. And maybe the fact that I don’t work in the field shows that I have a fundamentally different orientation. But that isn’t my experience. Most scientists I know don’t make a fetish of it. Science is to them what it is to me: a really powerful tool for learning new things of a very specific nature. And that’s it.

A Million Dollars

The whole meme reminds me of my favorite line from Citizen Kane. Bernstein scoffs at Thatcher, Kane’s guardian. The reporter says, “He made an awful lot of money.” And Bernstein replies, “Well, it’s no trick to make a lot of money — if all you want is to make a lot of money.”

The meme presents four ways of gaining knowledge. But the test is rigged. It’s defining knowledge as the kind of knowledge that science excels at. But I’ll come back to that. My point is that people who put these kind of memes together so want to limit the human experience. As Bernstein said in the script (cut from the film), “He [Thatcher] never knew there was anything in the world but money.”

Philosophy

According to the meme, “Philosophy is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat.” So it’s a way to learn things, but a really bad one.

There are a number of things wrong with this. For one, the search for knowledge isn’t as categorical as this makes out. Work by Kant and Schopenhauer laid intellectual groundwork for Darwin’s discovery. But most people have an extremely childish view of how science actually works.

Perhaps most annoying to me is that math is a branch of philosophy, not science. People get caught up in counting, and think that it is real and thus “Science!” But giving names to quantities is not math. It’s like claiming that knowing the names of different bacteria makes you a microbiologist. It’s so silly.

Metaphysics

The meme claims, “Metaphysics is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there.” Apparently, the writer doesn’t know what the word “metaphysics” means. From Merriam-Webster, metaphysics is “a division of philosophy that is concerned with the fundamental nature of reality and being and that includes ontology, cosmology, and often epistemology.” That’s right: it really doesn’t have anything to do with Edwardian mysticism.

The cosmology part of this is amusing. Most people think of this as part of science. And it is! In a limited form. But every time I hear some subgenius go on about how cosmology is settled because of the big bang, I think they sound like fundamentalists. Science said it, I believe it, that settles it. Not really.

Don’t get me wrong, the big bang is as established as natural selection. But most people do not find it a satisfying cosmological answer for the same reason they don’t find “God” a satisfying answer. It just raises another question. And that’s fine! But ultimately, cosmology is a metaphysical issue because science isn’t designed to find ultimate answers.

Theology

The meme continues, “Theology is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there, and shouting, ‘I found it!'” This is probably the most offensive part of the whole thing.

The implication is that theology is the most rigid form of religious belief. It isn’t even religious belief, much less of the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” variety. There have been many theologians who were atheists and agnostics. It’s only quite recent in the US that theology departments are overrun by theists.

And this part of the meme begs the question. Of course, the point of such simple-minded memes is to preach to the choir. No Christian is going to read it and think, “I’ve been so wrong! I’m an atheist now!”

Science

And so we come to the end of the meme, “Science is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat using a fucking flashlight.” It’s only at this point in the meme that I wondered, “Why are we looking for a black cat in a dark room?”

I’m not an idiot; I get that it’s an analogy. But as I indicated above, this is a rigged analogy. It all falls apart if you change it to being in a dark room looking for a reason not to kill yourself. Science isn’t all that helpful in gaining that kind of knowledge.

But it’s worse than that, because the example just begs to be criticized on quantum mechanical terms. Once you turn on the flashlight, it isn’t a dark room so you literally can’t find the black cat in a dark room. Consider it on more practical grounds. What if turning on the flashlight caused the black cat to run out of the room before your eyes adjusted?

I suppose I shouldn’t really complain because the kind of people who write these things have a really limited understanding of science — and pretty much everything else. But geez!

Tribalism in Meme Form

This is all about tribalism. You can love and respect science without dismissing other ways of knowing. And it really disturbs me that this is the default position of the New Atheism. It never really bothered me that theists were tribal and awful. But I thought that humans could — if they opened their minds — be more accepting of others. But no. It’s just another “I know the One True Way” of experiencing the world. This is why we will always fight wars.

5 thoughts on “Human Thought in a Dark Room

  1. Again…I think this is more a reaction to the Arnaud Amalric sort of theology and the college bull session sorts of “philosophy” and “metaphysics” than the actual critters, as well as the strong trend in anti-science emerging from the U.S. public in particular. Yes, I agree, it’s simplistic. No, I don’t think it represents the majority opinion of any particular community – tho I don’t have enough contact with the “professional atheist” community to be sure of them – other than the cartoonist over at the Oatmeal.

  2. “Perhaps most annoying to me is that math is a branch of philosophy, not science. People get caught up in counting, and think that it is real and thus “Science!” But giving names to quantities is not math.”

    I agree that math isn’t science, but for a somewhat different reason. The two disciplines have a fundamentally different standard of proof. Science is based on the falsifiable hypothesis. If you attempt to disprove your hypothesis 10,000 times and fail, then you generally accept that your hypothesis is “true.” In math, if you attempt 10,000 counterexamples to a conjecture and they all work, you still don’t say the conjecture is “proven.” You have to produce a deductive proof based on logic. A conjecture with no known counterexample is almost certainly true, but the process of proving it can lead to deeper understanding of the structures it relates to.

    Statistics is a lot closer to science than pure math, because of statements like “with 95% confidence.” There is pure math underlying statistics, but using it to make inferences about a large population is closer to science, in that you can’t deductively prove your conclusions are true. So math is seen as a science mainly because it’s useful, and often necessary, to make science work. Applied math is perhaps science or closely related, but pure math is not.

  3. Of course there are “other ways of knowing” besides science. Take history, for example. There are also degrees of knowing, degrees of certainty, and shades of gray.

    However, in regard to theology in particular, theology isn’t a way of knowing at all. Theology and religion is a way of anti-knowing, built on degrees of ignorance, and reliant on pure fabrication and pretension – indeed, the very fabric of religious rhetoric is constructed on justifications for making things up that aren’t so and pretending that these fabrications are “knowledge” and then furthermore challenging and denigrating anyone who dares to point out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

    This is the 21st century. We know better. We’re not in the dark ages any more – it’s not only perfectly okay to point out that religious myth is religious myth (i.e., it’s not real), but there is less than zero need to apologize for doing so.

    • What about negative theology? Not a way of knowing? Every time someone makes this kind of argument, I assume they know nothing about theology. There is a difference between theology and fideism. I certainly think that Thomas Aquinas provided the world with far more knowledge than all the New Atheist “heroes” combined. Judging theology on the basis of ignorant literalists is a New Atheism game that simply bores me at this point. I am an atheist. I grapple with the best theological arguments, not the worst. Attacking the worst arguments is a standard rhetorical fallacy. It is also pointless.

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