Image: wikipedia. Eugene Delacroix’s painting of Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude.“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
mage: wikipedia. Atheist “evangelist” Richard Dawkins with British comedy writer Ariane Sherine at the launch of their bus billboard campaign aimed at promoting the “good news” of atheism.
The Defensiveness of Physicalism’s True Believers
Gerald R. Baron
Dec 14, 2020 · 4 min read
This is the first of 25 or more posts on why I think physicalism does not adequately describe reality despite being the dominant view of many scientist, philosophers and cultural leaders.
Here we ask the question, why are defenders of physicalism so defensive?
The famous comment is made by Queen Gertrude in Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet.” It has come to mean a lack of sincerity or an attempt to hide the truth. My suggestion here is that many of the defenders of physicalism give evidence of their own uncertainty in its basic tenets through highly emotional attacks on those who question it. Polemics, like that of Richard Dawkins and other so-called New Atheists, while very popular among convinced physicalists, have been repeatedly criticized as over the top even by those sympathetic to their arguments and intentions.
The ugliest attacks are aimed at those they believe have an agenda to introduce theism or any form of creationism in the debate on major questions in science. This is certainly true of the scientists who advocate for Intelligent Design like Michael Behe, Douglas Axe, Stephen Meyer and many more.
But one need not be a theist or creationist to draw these assaults because avowed atheists such as Thomas Nagel and David Berlinksi have come in for excessively nasty abuse. Even though these philosophers repeatedly distance themselves from theism, Intelligent Design or any form of creationism, the attacks against them are based primarily on the fear of their arguments giving encouragement and support to the theists/creationists the defenders consider the ultimate enemies of science.
The snide, snarky, childish and incessantly ad hominem attacks on these two are revealing.
For a sample, the Weekly Standard article by Andrew Ferguson of March 25, 2013 provides a sense of the response that must be embarrassing to those mentioned. The article was introduced by an illustration of Nagel being burned at the stake.
A few examples:
Steven Pinker: “the shoddy reasoning of a once great thinker.”
Daniel Dennett: [Nagel’s work] “isn’t worth anything — it’s cute, it’s clever, and it’s not worth a damn.”
Jerry Coyne called it the equivalent of astrology.
This overreaction, of course, does not disprove physicalism and most certainly does not help establish any alternative to physicalism. But it suggests a high level of insecurity on the part of those who believe physicalism must be strongly defended.
Why it seems important to them to defend it is itself an interesting question. The exclusivity of the philosophical position of physicalism in science, non-science academia, the media, entertainment, law and politics is without question. Yes, there is the “problem” that many of those actively involved in these roles including educators, scientists and philosophers still cling to the non-physicalist beliefs in God, a Higher Power or some form of spiritual reality. Since a majority of working scientists profess such beliefs even while their professional future demands adherence to the physicalist position, it appears that many are choosing to live with this cognitive dissonance. This was introduced in the initial post in this series and will be further explored in future posts, but it is likely this dissonance is one of the reasons why the defenders of physicalism believe they have to exert such extraordinary pressure on anyone who varies from true belief.
Karen Armstrong in The Battle for God has explained fundamentalism as a predictable response when a group which has held cultural hegemony or dominance sees that dominant position slipping. She explains Jewish, Christian and Islamic fundamentalism in this way. For Christians the Scopes “Monkey Trial” was a tipping point where believers saw the dominance of a narrow view of biblical teaching on creation undermined by the widespread adoption of Darwinian evolution. For Islamic fundamentalists such as Al Qaeda arising out of Saudi Arabia, the infiltration of Western culture into their beliefs and way of life through movies, entertainment and products stimulated an often extreme and violent response.
While no New Atheists or strident defenders of physicalism have resorted to violence and are unlikely to do so, the extreme language and, in some cases, extreme actions of some, suggests that the fundamentalist label fits. One example is Dawkins’ purchase of billboards in London stating:
“There’s probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
Why do they protest so much?
The suggestion here is that they are seeing a slow erosion of confidence within the science community in the basic beliefs of physicalism and they recognize that if they do not aggressively defend against this erosion, the dike may give way and the overwhelmingly dominant position held in culture will be lost. Most of all they fear that if they do not batten down the hatches, in the words of Richard Lewontin, the “Divine Foot” will find its way in the door
As the next posts on the “Case Against Physicalism” will reveal, they have good reason to worry.