Mencken week: day 3

May 21, 2012 • 5:13 am

Here’s more of the imperishable Henry’s lucubrations about accommodationism. This passage is from pp. 306-309 of Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks.  I guess Millikan and Eddington were the Francis Collinses of their day.

Mencken’s first sentence is just as true now as it was decades ago.  And the arguments for accommodationism are unchanged as well: note the NOMAism and reference to “god of the gaps.”

“… The only real way to reconcile science and religion is to set up something that is not science and something that is not religion. This is done with great earnestness by Robert A. Millikan, A. S. Eddington and other such hopeful men—all of them bred so deeply in the faith that they have been unable to shake it off in their later years, despite their training in scientific method and their creditable professional use of it. The thing that Millikan describes as Christianity is simply a vague sort of good will to men: it has little more objective reality in the world than abstract justice or the love of God. And the thing that he describes as science is so halting and timorous that it is quite as unreal. The notion that science does not concern itself with origins and causes—that it leaves that field to theology or metaphysics, and confines itself to mere effects—this notion is surely quite unsound. If it could, science would explain the origin of life on earth at once — and there is every reason to believe that it will do so on some not too remote tomorrow. To argue that the gaps in knowledge which still confront the seeker must be filled, not by patient inquiry, but by intuition or revelation, is simply to give ignorance a gratuitous and preposterous dignity. When a man so indulges himself it is only to confess that, to that extent at least, he is not a scientist at all, but a theologian. This is precisely what Millikan, Eddington and their like come to. They reconcile science and religion by the sorry device of admitting, however cautiously, that the latter is somehow superior to the former, and is thus entitled to all territories that remain unoccupied. All they really prove is that a man may be a competent astronomer or physicist and yet no scientist, just as Blind Tom was a competent pianist without being a musician.

“Nor is there any more validity in the position of that other school of reconcilers (it is led at the moment by J. Arthur Thomson, the English zoologist, but really goes back to Max Muller), which teaches that science and religion address themselves to quite different faculties, the former to the intellect and the latter to the emotions, and that they are thus independent, and equally entitled to respect. Here, unfortunately, the psychology is very dubious. It must be manifest that even the most instinctive of emotions, in adult human beings, owes something to the intellect, and it must be equally manifest that no intellectual process can ever be wholly devoid of an emotional element. So much, indeed, is a commonplace to every schoolboy: the Freudian gospel has carried it, along with a great deal of racy nonsense, from end to end of the world. The evidence of the emotions, save in cases where it has strong objective support, is really no evidence at all, for every recognizable emotion has its opposite, and if one points one way then another points the other way. Thus the familiar argument that there is an instinctive desire for immortality, and that this desire proves it to be a fact, becomes puerile when it is recalled that there is also a powerful and widespread fear of annihilation, and that this fear, on the same principle, proves that there is nothing beyond the grave. Such childish “proofs” are typically theological, and they remain theological even when they are adduced by men who like to flatter themselves by believing that they are scientific gents.”

42 thoughts on “Mencken week: day 3

    1. Oops! Eddington! The other day I likened the Goran-Daveau expedition to an Eddington one (he took the eclipse photo that showed Einstein was right) – sorry gentlemen!

    2. From which you will see that Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins have both delivered Gifford Lectures. I think the Gifford Lecture specification is rather elastic.

          1. By which I mean Sagan’s *book* you mention is excellent. I think it was the 3rd or 4th “New Atheist” book I read, after The God Delusion and Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis.

  1. Hi Jerry,

    I disagree with your comparison at the top. Collins is far worse than Millikan or Eddington. The latter of whom was a Quaker, and a pretty clear thinking person. Millikan, as quoted above, seems to have ‘be nice to each other’ Christianity – nothing that breaks any scientific methodological assumptions.

    Collins, in contrast, really does think ‘Jesus died on the cross for our sins’, and performed miracles, and a wealth of other crazy ideas.

    I’d say Millikan and Eddington were serious scientists, whereas Collins can be no more than a high-functioning technician.

    1. I think Millikan and Eddington adhered to the same ideas as Collins does today, including “Jesus died on the cross for our sins”, for if they had rejected the virgin birth, trinity, resurrection or transubstantiation, how could they have professed themselves true Christians?

      If they, as you claim, were merely “be nice to each other” Christians, they weren’t Christians at all.

      1. So when did this Jesus actually exist then? And who really believes in spontaneous pregnancy among virgins. Never mind about the God being a naughty boy impregnating a married woman. Why even bother with the pregnancy. Surely the Messiah could have been left in a basket on a doorstep?

        1. I’m certain any true Christian could provide you with “convincing” answers to these questions. I’m not one of them.

    2. I’d say Millikan and Eddington were serious scientists

      An Eddinton story, oft-repeated, but I don’t know of it’s citeable source :
      A journalist was interviewing Eddington, probably after the “eclipse photo” work, and described him as being one of the three people in the world other than Einstein who properly understood General Relativity. Eddington didn’t answer the journalist’s next question, sitting there puffing his pipe and thinking. The journalist asked what was wrong, and Eddington replied “I’m trying to think who the other two people are.”
      Not, by all accounts, subject to false modesty.

    3. I disagree with your comparison at the top. Collins is far worse than Millikan or Eddington.

      Yes, and unless I am remembering incorrectly, after having become an unbeliever, Collins began to feel a sense of dissatisfaction with unbelief and was ultimately brought back into the fold by the shocking realization that mountain waterfalls can freeze.

    4. Agreed that Collins is worse. But this I doubt:

      “or Eddington. The latter of whom was a Quaker, and a pretty clear thinking person.”

      As I understand it Eddington did a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his later days, gave in to numerology and mysticism:

      “During the 1920s until his death, he increasingly concentrated on what he called “fundamental theory” which was intended to be a unification of quantum theory, relativity, cosmology, and gravitation. At first he progressed along “traditional” lines, but turned increasingly to an almost numerological analysis of the dimensionless ratios of fundamental constants.

      His basic approach was to combine several fundamental constants in order to produce a dimensionless number. In many cases these would result in numbers close to 1040, its square, or its square root. He was convinced that the mass of the proton and the charge of the electron were a natural and complete specification for constructing a Universe and that their values were not accidental. One of the discoverers of quantum mechanics, Paul Dirac, also pursued this line of investigation, which has become known as the Dirac large numbers hypothesis, and some scientists even today believe it has something to it.

      A somewhat damaging statement in his defence of these concepts involved the fine structure constant, α. At the time it was measured to be very close to 1/136, and he argued that the value should in fact be exactly 1/136 for epistemological reasons. Later measurements placed the value much closer to 1/137, at which point he switched his line of reasoning to argue that one more should be added to the degrees of freedom, so that the value should in fact be exactly 1/137, the Eddington number. Wags at the time started calling him “Arthur Adding-one”[citation needed]. This change of stance detracted from Eddington’s credibility in the physics community.”

      1. Hi Torbjörn,

        Thanks for the information – I didn’t not know this about Eddington.

        I guess he suffered from the same affliction as Johannes Kepler. An Pythagorean obsession with numbers that disconnected him from useful physics.

        You have now spurred me on to do some more research. I would guess there are more similarities to be found in Kepler and Eddington’s faith.

        However, i’d still say Eddington is orders of magnitude below Francis Collins when it comes to insanity!

  2. It’s interesting to see that theological arguments haven’t advanced in the >50 years since he was writing. I’m sure that someone will point out how they haven’t advanced in hundreds to thousands of years, but the explosion of rational thought that came out of the 19th Century and beyond has particularly threatened religion to my mind & yet it remains strong despite its flimsy & apparently static defences. I guess people haven’t really changed in all that time!

    1. Theology is where it was in the pre-christian era. Someone will recycle the next old idea and think they came up with something wonderful. Even John Calvin is mostly rehashed Augustine the Hippo and others while Thomas Aquinas and Rene Descartes are verbose versions of a hybrid of Plato and Aristotle. It’s all terribly dull – and yet some people think it’s actually a valid field of study.

  3. “To argue that the gaps in knowledge which still confront the seeker must be filled, not by patient inquiry, but by intuition or revelation, is simply to give ignorance a gratuitous and preposterous dignity.”

    I had two reactions to this. First, it emphasizes the extreme mental laziness of religious “thinking”.

    Second, it’s too bad that this quote is too long to put on a bumper sticker. L

    1. Yes. That sentence really stuck out for me also. This one will go up on the fridge for the kids quote of the day.

  4. Its always amusing to see something that we think of as being fairly recent already being criticised decades ago.

    Similarly we tend to think of management bollocks being an 80s Thatcher/Reagan sort of thing, but in fact Hitchhiker’s was already taking the piss in 1978.

    1. Well, some people may think NOMA is new – and yet it goes back at least 400 years and probably much more.

    1. Have you seen the Dennett/LaScala study of clergy who have lost their faith?

      It’s truly a great read, and they have more coming. L

  5. Menkin often gives aguements that are simply common sense yet have such incite. Why do we assume that a mystery in life should automatically become the domain of religion. If instead science chooses to claim rights to that very mystery it will have to wrestle it out of the hands of religion.

    1. “insight” not “incite” although it is true that Mencken’s rhetoric may incite various people in various ways.

  6. “Thus the familiar argument that there is an instinctive desire for immortality, and that this desire proves it to be a fact, becomes puerile when it is recalled that there is also a powerful and widespread fear of annihilation, and that this fear, on the same principle, proves that there is nothing beyond the grave.”

    Hit the nail on the head!

  7. I read some of Mencken’s stuff years ago and he was indeed a powerful advocate for reason. Yet it is troubling how few people have even heard of him. It seems that historical figures are often forgotten, and quickly (I find many people don’t even know who Charles Lindbergh was despite his massive worldwide fame in the 20s and 30s — Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg is a fascinating book, BTW). What is troubling is how much of an eloquent “new atheist” Mencken was, and yet religion marches onward. How much real effect did he have in stemming the tide of religious insanity? And what does this presage for the current generation of “new atheists”?

  8. Arthur Eddington was mainly an advocate of a modern Christian ethos, but not an apologist for theology. He also did pioneering work in understanding the interior of stars (establishing their interior temperature was millions of degrees and discovering the mass-luminosity relationship), ironically laying all the theoretical groundwork for Lawrence Krauss’ oft-repeated quip “Never mind Jesus, the stars died so you could live”.

    Eddington deserves better than some of the other folks mentioned here.

    1. Eddington was in fact a lifelong Quaker which is pretty loose on its creeds. In his Swarthmore lecture “Science and the Unseen World”, he argues for belief in a Supreme Being and a transcendent reality.

      A summarizing survey of the argument leaves the impression he’s going in the direction of Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA position, which is a bit different from Collin’s attempt to create a synthesis of science and theology.

    2. But it is noteworthy that his last 2 decades was devoted to another crank case besides religion.

      Who knows what would have happened if he got out of religion first?

  9. So before we had the modern Hitchslap we had the real Mencktrap.

    Analogously religion has moved from Popeyap to Collinsyap. Um, not much difference there.

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