Home » Atheism, Culture, Education, Intelligent Design » James Barham at Best Schools fesses up: He’s an atheist but he thinks reality is real

James Barham at Best Schools fesses up: He’s an atheist but he thinks reality is real

James Barham, the philosopher who mostly runs The Best Schools, got collared by friends recently, and had to answer some questions. Like, why is he an atheist but not a Darwinist?

Hey, c’mere, people, this guy is interesting. Here’s the tranny:

UD: On your blog, you have been a harsh critic of reductionism in science, including neo-Darwinian evolution. And yet you distance yourself from ID and even claim to be an atheist. For many people, that does not compute. Can you clarify your views on the nature of life, mind, and evolution for our readers?

JB: That is not easy to do in a brief compass, but I’ll try.

Let’s begin with phenomenology. I have a certain direct experience of myself and the world that I ultimately base all my beliefs on. One of my beliefs is that everyone else is in the same position as I am. No one has a crystal ball or a philosopher’s stone. We all start from our own subjective awareness, and work outwards over a lifetime.

If we are interested in philosophy and in trying to construct a consistent worldview, we must naturally take the findings of the natural sciences into account. I am prepared to take most of the things I read in science textbooks and journals at face value. The men and women who report those findings have had the benefit of experiences I have not had. But I remain confident that if I put myself to the trouble, I could understand the reasons why they believe as they do. I would then come to see things as they do, and would acquire the same beliefs they have.

Now, it’s true that some of these findings of science show me that my first-person experience of the world is limited or even distorted in certain ways. For example, due to my small size, I am not well placed to see truly the shape of the earth. I accept that the earth is round, not flat as it appears, because it is quite clear to me what this means. I know that if I were to rise high above the surface of the earth, the curvature would become apparent. I know that the curved shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse is cast by the earth. And so forth. In short, I accept that the earth is round, not because Science-with-a-capital-S tells me so, and I must blindly accept whatever Science says, but rather because it makes sense to me.

When it comes to reductionism—by which I mean the denial of the existence of anything but the elementary entities posited by physical science—things stand quite differently. In that case, Science is supposedly telling me that many fundamental aspects of my first-person experience are illusions. Even including my whole first-person experience itself! But that is absurd. What kind of proof could ever convince me that my first-person experience—all of it—is an illusion? Whatever it was, it would have to be accepted by the very entity that it claims does not exist. In other words, a reductionist is someone who looks you in the eye and tells you: “I do not exist.” For this reason, reductionism is an incoherent position not worthy of being taken seriously.

I should add, parenthetically, that strictly speaking Science says no such thing, but rather certain scientists who are stepping outside their role as scientists and acting as philosophers, do. I don’t mean there’s anything wrong with a scientist delving into philosophy if he’s so inclined. But philosophy carries with it a lot less cognitive authority than science, and what is not kosher is for a scientist to switch hats, and then claim the authority of science for what he says while wearing the philosopher’s hat. Unfortunately, this switching of hats has become more and more common, especially in the popular press, and too often goes unchallenged.

Next: Why “folk psychology” is basically correct

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2 Responses to James Barham at Best Schools fesses up: He’s an atheist but he thinks reality is real

  1. When it comes to reductionism—by which I mean the denial of the existence of anything but the elementary entities posited by physical science—things stand quite differently. In that case, Science is supposedly telling me that many fundamental aspects of my first-person experience are illusions. Even including my whole first-person experience itself!

    I’m not sure that is a correct statement of reductionism. In any case, science is not telling you any such thing (as admitted in the next paragraph of the post). Some scientists make such statements. Other scientists disagree, and often quite strongly.

    These issues are vigorously debated among scientists. And when there is vigorous debate, that’s a pretty good indication that this is not settled science.

  2. Well Neil,

    all too often that philosophy- reductionism/ materialism- is being pawned off as science in public schools

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