Unfortunately I can’t find the thread, but was involved in an interesting debate a few days ago. It was in one of those atheist vs theist debate groups that someone wrote a post criticizing “scientism”. In context he was attempting to refute atheism.
The post, which I can’t remember exactly, was aimed at positing that atheism, referred to as scientism, is as dogmatic as theism. My comment was a response to the author, who took offense to someone else (correctly) calling him out for a tu quoque fallacy.
But let’s rewind a little… What is scientism? According to Wikipedia:
Scientism is the promotion of science as the best or only objective means by which society should determine normative and epistemological values. The term scientism is generally used critically, implying a cosmetic application of science in unwarranted situations considered not amenable to application of the scientific method or similar scientific standards.
But what does that mean? The term seems immediately suspicious to me. Atheism is the disbelief in various god claims. One does not need to resort to philosophy (epistemology) and the meaning of truth, belief, scope, and so on, unless one is more interested in deliberate obfuscation because one has no actual evidence of god to defend.
What does it mean to apply science in unwarranted situations? The scientific method is just that, a method we use to ask that things be proven before being accepted as true. Being opposed to evidence is not a valid position because you are then left to assume faulty hypotheses are true (which is of course what the theist does unknowingly), but is rather an excuse to avoid questioning dogmatism, with the added bonus of this particular argument then accusing the opposing side of being equally dogmatic.
Science itself is what we use to explain what we don’t understand, and interesting though it may be, it isn’t the reason that I am an atheist. Science may be correct or incorrect – I honestly don’t care, but I do see when someone conflates the scientific method with science itself. And scientism is certainly not a real thing. And even if it was a thing, it would be quite different to atheism.
In the comments I went onto explain to the person what I understand a tu quoque fallacy to be, since he clearly missed the point. The simplest explanation I have is this: When a child, typically around 3 or 4 years old, figures out that they can respond to being reprimanded with “But you are also naughty”… that’s it – to accuse somebody of hypocrisy by pointing the finger and saying “You too”. It’s clever for a 3 year old, but damn childish for an adult to use the same argument.
In this case, they’re claiming that atheism is also a belief system, also dogmatic, etc. So in that sense it’s also a straw man – a convenient caricature of atheism to refute, one where atheism is somehow an equally invalid explanation of the world, one where we explain the world using science. This would be a valid criticism if that was indeed what atheism was about, but instead atheism itself is merely the rejection of made up explanations, the rejection of a specific kind of magical thinking.
Actually this follows on nicely with another post I have been trying to write for a few months, but have not yet managed to express to my satisfaction, so I’ll use the opportunity to introduce it here…
Introducing Jerome’s Law
Jerome’s Law, which I have arrogantly named after myself, states that: We inherently prefer complicated solutions to simple problems, but the complicated solutions are almost always wrong.
You can apply my law to just about everything: arguments, software design, belief, conspiracy theories… anything. Of course there is already a well known rule called Occam’s razor, which states that the solution with the smallest number of assumptions is correct. My “law” is kind of an extension of that, but focuses more on the convoluted solutions we come up with. My law is really about us tending to prefer the convoluted but wrong solution. And the more convoluted it is, the more wrong it becomes. My father used to have a few favourite expressions, one of which always sticks with me: “Bullshit baffles brains”.
For example, sticking with today’s subject, there is only one answer to the question: Where did it all come from? And that answer is: We don’t know. Any other answer, which is made up, whether it involves thousands of gods, creation myths, redefining the meaning of truth, scope and fact in order to refute those who doubt the made up answers, is wrong. And the more complicated the answers are, the more appealing they become. And also the more wrong. Entire fields of thought exist solely to obfuscate away that it is all bullshit. You can spend your whole life devoted to made up fields like theology and immerse yourself completely, lose yourself in… layer upon layer of made up nonsense that fools you into thinking it isn’t just made up nonsense. And all because we tend to think complicated solutions are correct. We gravitate towards sophistication but often can’t tell the difference between true complexity and sophisticated bullshit.
There’s a line from the original Shrek movie that I love for its irony, where he describes Ogres as complicated… layered like an onion. What makes the line so clever is that onions are not complex. They have layers, but all the layers are exactly the same. They’re just thin membranes repeated over and over again. But it sounds clever because we think layers imply complexity. In reality, bad designs, bad arguments, are always complex, always layered… always over-engineered.
I see the same pattern in software design over and over again. Look at any well written code, and one thing will always stand out: The code is easy to follow and it keeps things simple. This applies to all code, from the simplest little application to the programming framework itself. Bad code, on the other hand, is complicated. Bad code takes one or two simple concepts and then instead of representing them as easy to understand abstractions, splits them into thirty or forty obscure components, tied together in unimaginably poor ways that are difficult to comprehend the first time and easy to forget. Or we get the other end of the stick… a single method takes variable or dynamic inputs and then does different things in different cases, creating a cyclomatically complex monstrosity.
Conspiracy theories follow the same pattern… In order for them to be true, millions of people and shady organisations need to be involved in elaborate cover-ups of the truth, in setups so bizarre that such things would be absurdly impossible to achieve because of the cooperation required alone, and when you look closer, there is never any reason for the secrets. The secrets themselves are part of the reason the narrative becomes so complicated. Like any poor design or bad argument, the complexities exist as part of the solution but then twist the problem into something else, creating more problems than they solve, involving those who swear by them in even more effort to understand the complicated “solutions” which turn out not to solve anything at all.
Worst of all, debate groups are filled with idiots who can’t tell the difference between complex solutions and sophisticated nonsense. Not that it matters because 90% of complex solutions are just noise anyway. Maybe I’ll refer to Jerome’s Law again and maybe I won’t… This is the best attempt at introducing it so far, so this time I’m publishing it.