Vridar

2013/05/23

Science and Religion: Four Fundamental Differences

Religion has not gone away since the end of the Europe’s religious wars and the ensuing Age of Enlightenment. Indeed, scientific advances and the rise of secularism may even be largely responsible for religious revivals. Anthropologist Scott Atran writes about current research on religion, including his own. One of his online 2012 articles, God and the Ivory Tower: What we don’t understand about religion just might kill us. Now I used to love Richard Dawkins’ colourful critique of religion. Who could possibly argue with:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. (God Delusion, p. 51)

atran

Scott Atran

But Scott Atran is one scholar who is forcing me into a rethink lately. He argues that it is misguided to think that religion will go away if we can rationally disprove all of its beliefs and premises. Fighting religion with reason and facts just doesn’t work because that sort of tactic completely misunderstands what religion is. Religious people know their beliefs are counter-intuitive and do not conform to the commonsense systems of thought that govern our everyday functioning in the physical world. Indeed, Atran argues, that’s the point of religion, and there is a clear benefit to groups and individuals within groups because of this. I will explain the arguments and evidence in future posts.

Till then, there is a clue to Atran’s conclusions in the following observation:

Thus, a century ago, while visiting the United States, Max Weber (1946:46) observed that even the most hard-headed capitalist would make it his business to advertise his faith in order to display his trustworthiness to others. . . . [P]eople apparently infer that explicit professions of faith carry the implicit message that trustworthiness matters — in the unblinking and forever watchful eyes of God — and commitments will be met even at great cost and even when there is no hope of reward. Science and secular ideology are poor competitors in this regard. (In Gods We Trust, p. 276. )

I expect to post more articles referencing Scott Atran’s works (In Gods We Trust is only one of his titles that I have beside me to read) on the nature of religion in the coming year and more) but till I start in earnest I leave here his concluding distinctions between Science and Religion. (more…)

2013/02/15

Strange Bedfellows — Evolution and Christianity

Filed under: Apologetics,Evolution, Science,James F. McGrath — Tim Widowfield @ 11:30 am
Illuminated parchment, Spain, circa AD 950-955...

Illuminated parchment, Spain, circa AD 950-955, depicting the Fall of Man, the scientific cause of original sin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Grants for serious studies

Yesterday (13 February), James McGrath posted a congratulatory note to two winners of the latest Evolution & Christian Faith (ECF) grant competition. The ECF panel faced some hard choices. They fielded requests from scores of applicants, but had only about $3 million to shell out.

You’ll be happy to learn that a number of the fortunate grantees will be working on important projects related to “questions about Adam and Eve, the Fall, human identity, and Original Sin—some of the most critical interpretive issues for evangelical theology.

BioLogos: Who are these guys?

I suppose on the face of it, nonbelievers shouldn’t care if Christians want to embrace biological evolution. In fact, it sounds like a promising idea. However, if that embrace suffocates the scientific method, then we can hardly call it a victory. Indeed, if we look at the BioLogos charter do we find science and religion viewed as a partnership of equals? Hardly.

Under the heading “What We Believe,” they state:

7. We believe that the methods of science are an important and reliable means to investigate and describe the world God has made. In this, we stand with a long tradition of Christians for whom Christian faith and science are mutually hospitable. Therefore, we reject ideologies such as Materialism and Scientism that claim science is the sole source of knowledge and truth, that science has debunked God and religion, or that the physical world constitutes the whole of reality. (emphasis added)

All right. It isn’t something I would sign onto. And I confess I get a little uncomfortable when Christians use the term Scientism, since it’s clearly an invented derogatory term that doesn’t mean much outside their echo chamber.

Science is useful, as long as it conforms to what we already “know”

But it’s their deal. So if it gets them on board, “no harm, no foul,” right? Maybe not.

(more…)

2012/12/24

Richard Dawkins’ Al Jazeera Interview on Religion

Professor Richard Dawkins at a book signing fo...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richard Dawkins is confronted with all the hard questions and criticisms he has raised with his book The God Delusion in an interview on Al Jazeera — with an otherwise very intelligent interviewer who, it turns out, believes Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse!

The questions he faces pull no punches and I personally thought the interviewer had the better of him when it came to citing the evidence for the motivations of suicide bombers. Richard also faces all those other criticisms his book has provoked — is religion a force for good or evil, faith, science, liberal religion, atheism, what is the worst form of child abuse, facing up to the good done in the name of religion, the meaning of life . . . . .

Special Programme — Dawkins on Religion

(Unfortunately I cannot embed this video. If anyone can tell me how, do let me know. . . . )

Tim has since embedded the video in the Comments section below.

2012/08/30

Theistic evolutionists are creationists

Filed under: Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 6:12 pm
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From Jerry Coyne’s comments on responses to Bill Nye’s attack on creationism (reformatted), posted on his blog, Why Evolution Is True:

Theistic evolutionists are creationists, pure and simple; they differ from straight fundamentalist creationists only in how much of life God was involved in creating, ranging from

  • those who think God set the whole plan in motion, knowing it would culminate in that most awesome of species, US,
  • to those who think that God tinkered with mutations to create the right species (see the philosophical work of Elliott Sober),
  • to those who think that humans are set apart from other species because God inserted a soul in our lineage (that’s the official view of the Vatican). 

That is being anti-evolution as scientists understand it, since we see evolution as a naturalistic process that has nothing to do with deities.

Sadly, far more Americans are theistic evolutionists than naturalistic evolutionists: the proportions among all Americans are 38% to 16% respectively (40% are straight creationists, 6% are unsure). We have a long way to go.

2012/08/11

Evolved Morality

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 4:50 pm
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I  loved this video clip of Frans de Waal’s talk, Moral Behavior in Animals. (It was recently linked on Jerry Coyne’s Evolution is True blog.) It demonstrates that more animals than humans have evolved moral attributes of empathizing with others, offering others consolation, “prosocial” tendencies such as caring for the welfare of others, and a sense of fairness. The talk begins by balancing the themes we used to hear so often about our nearest animal relatives being so aggressive and territorial by showing that they also “believe in” reconciling after fights.

Or if you are short of time and want to jump to the funniest part where we see outrage over an unfair deal . . . . .

2012/07/13

The Fanboy Defense — An Excuse for Doing Nothing While the World Burns

Filed under: Atheism,Evolution, Science,Politics & Society,Religion — Tim Widowfield @ 12:03 pm

I smoke because Picasso smoked. And because Hitler didn’t.

— Albert Finney

Pablo Picasso 1962

Pablo Picasso 1962 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’re all for evolution, but . . .

Robert Wright, a senior editor at The Atlantic, in his recent piece called “Creationists vs. Evolutionists: An American Story,” explains why the U.S. has seen a recent uptick in the number of people who believe in Young-Earth Creationism (YEC). Is it because of the endless hammering by the holy hucksters on TV? Is it because of the 24-hour, nonstop Right-wing noise machine? Is it because of politicians who pander to ignorance and supernatural mumbo-jumbo?  Of course not. It’s because of those mean old “new atheists.”

Jerry Coyne’s response over at Why Evolution Is True effectively debunks Wright’s distressingly poor thesis, especially the part where we were supposed to have been in the middle of a truce between science and superstition until extremely rude people like Richard Dawkins forced people to choose. I can add very little to Coyne’s remarks.

What intrigues me is this idea that people would choose to support or not support a given scientific theory based on the people associated with it. Over at the HuffPo, Michael Zimmerman, the founder of the Clergy Project, asks: “Who’s Responsible for the Evolution/Creation Controversy?” You know the kind of article it’s going to be from the start when he adds, “It’s Not As Simple as Some Would Have You Believe.” Ah yes, the old “plenty-of-blame-to-go-around” piece, as predictable as earwigs after a hard rain. But catch what he says about men (and women, we suppose) of the cloth and their role in the debate:

(more…)

2012/07/02

Al Jazeera Interview with Richard Dawkins

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 7:53 pm
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2012/05/22

Barking Owls

Filed under: Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 7:04 am

New neighbours have moved in for a few months — two owls who think they’re dogs and bark instead of hoot.

Discovered them recently when I heard dog-barking sounds coming from up in a tree. That experience always requires investigation and this is what I found. Unfortunately I could not get a video of them but I captured the sound nonetheless.

Here’s the Wikipedia article on Barking Owls.

The last few days I’ve only ever seen the one perched in the tree. Hope the explanation is that its mate is hidden in a fork of a nearby tree caring for eggs.

Related articles

2012/05/16

Science CAN say something about the supernatural

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 5:15 pm
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Physicist Victor Stenger argues in HuffPo that

Scientists and science organizations are being disingenuous when they say science can say nothing about the supernatural. They know better. Their policy of appeasing religion for presumably political reasons only empowers those who are muddling education and polluting public policy with anti-scientific magical thinking.

His article is Science and Religion. I was alerted to it through Jerry Coyne’s post on Why Evolution Is True.

Stenger opens with

I find it surprising that most scientists, believers and nonbelievers alike, refuse to apply their critical thinking skills to matters of religion. . . . . Scientists prefer to follow Stephen Jay Gould’s dictum that science and religion occupy two “non-overlapping magisteria.”

That, of course, means individuals are required to leave moral and ethical questions to “scholars who interpret ancient texts.” Provocative Stenger opines that such a situation sounds to him like “Sharia law”. Moral behaviour certainly is observable and a matter of scientific understanding. (It was my own realization that all social animals have “moral codes”, including punishments meted out to those who break them, that helped me on my own journey towards atheism.)

Stenger addresses two (of several) types of scientific experiments that have been conducted to test what should be the observable effects of the supernatural on the natural world: the phenomena of answered — or unanswered — prayer and near-death experiences.

Check the article for the details.

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2012/05/09

Evolution and Christianity are not compatible

Darwin fish

Darwin fish (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thanks to Jerry Coyne’s latest post at Why Evolution Is True many of us have been directed to a Mike Aus article on RichardDawkins.net that confronts what should be obvious to all thinking people: evolution and Christianity and other Abrahamic faiths are not compatible.

Some excerpts:

If there is no original ancestor who transmitted hereditary sin to the whole species, then there is no Fall, no need for redemption, and Jesus’ death as a sacrifice efficacious for the salvation of humanity is pointless. The whole raison d’etre for the Christian plan of salvation disappears. . . . .

Science has now shown us that both selfish behavior and altruistic impulses are at least partially heritable traits. The instinct for self-preservation and a concern for the well-being of other individuals appear to have both played a role in the survival and evolution of our species. If that is the case, then the tension between “sin” and selflessness might actually help define who we are as humans. The project of religion has been sin eradication, and that approach now appears to be a fundamental denial of human nature. . . . . (more…)

2012/04/26

Why Philosophical Naturalism Wins

Filed under: Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 6:55 am
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I would love to share in a series of posts here some of Jerry Coyne’s paper, Science, Religion, and Society: The Problem of Evolution in America, for those who do not have online access to it. (It is available through a paywall only — see the link for details.) Jerry Coyne’s blog post certainly assures us he would like it to be shared widely.

Not a matter of anti-supernatural bias

I am singling out here one short section in the paper in which he addresses the claim often heard among the faithful that scientists (and by extension we could also say historians) approach their studies with a bias against the supernatural.

The idea that deities don’t affect the universe, then, is not an unjustified a priori assumption, as theologians often claim, but a conclusion born of experience: the experience that only a naturalistic attitude — -that is, a scientific one — has helped us understand nature and make verified predictions about it. As our confidence that science helps us understand the universe grows, so wanes our notion that immaterial and supernatural forces exist.

So what leads to this conclusion?

Beyond this incompatibility of methodology and outcomes is a philosophical incompatibility: the scientific view that supernatural beings aren’t just unnecessary to explain the universe (“methodological naturalism”), but can be taken as nonexistent (“philosophical naturalism”). Forrest (2000, p. 21) explains the link between these two forms of naturalism:

Taken together, the (1) proven success of methodological naturalism combined with (2) the massive body of knowledge gained by it, (3) the lack of a comparable method or epistemology for knowing the supernatural, and (4) the subsequent lack of any conclusive evidence for the existence of the supernatural, yield philosophical naturalism as the most methodologically and epistemologically defensible world view.

This is where philosophical naturalism wins — it is a substantive worldview built on the cumulative results of methodological naturalism, and there is nothing comparable to the latter in terms of providing epistemic support for a worldview. If knowledge is only as good as the method by which it is obtained, and a world view is only as good as its epistemological underpinning, then from both a methodological and an epistemological standpoint, philosophical naturalism is more justifiable than any other world view that one might conjoin with methodological naturalism.

Tim Widowfield posted his own take on this in Leap of Faith Or Failure of Reason

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2012/04/13

Jesus Agnosticism: Believing vs. Knowing

What we can and cannot know

Huxley at about 55, scanned & cropped slightly

Huxley at about 55, scanned & cropped slightly. Note: The photo was cropped, but the sideburns were not. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I confess I have often shown little patience for people who hide behind the label of agnosticism when asked whether they believe in God. It smacks of evasion, since it answers a question concerning belief with an assertion about the state of knowledge. That is, it redirects our attention to the axis of knowing — how much we know or can know — instead of telling us where one stands on the axis of believing.

So you can perhaps imagine how annoyed I’ve become at myself lately for describing my own position on the historicity of Jesus as “Jesus agnostic.” Have I fallen into the same trap as atheistic agnostics, too timid to answer the question that was asked, so I answer one that wasn’t?

Does agnosticism describe anything meaningful?

Most atheists are also agnostics. We lack the belief in God in the same way that we lack the belief in many things we can’t definitively disprove. However, we hold the existence of a supernatural being that fits the description of God to be so unlikely that we operate under the assumption that he does not exist.

Do we actively believe God does not exist? Actually, no. It takes no effort at all to lack a belief. For example, if you grew up as a Christian, you probably lack the belief in the transmigration of souls. Same here. People might reincarnate after they die, but I think it’s extremely unlikely. So I can truthfully say, “I don’t believe in samsara.” But I don’t spend any time thinking about it or actively disbelieving in it.

If by knowledge we mean rational knowledge based on human reason and physical evidence, a good many Christians are also agnostics. They believe without proof — “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:29b, KJV) They have made the “leap of faith.” Should they claim to have any knowledge at all, they will maintain they possess a knowledge of the heart, a feeling of the divine presence.

So if a great many of us — theists and atheists alike — agree that we can’t know whether God exists, is the term “agnostic” all that meaningful? Well, it is if you mean it in the loose, vernacular way that the popular media often intends it, namely as a description of someone who cannot decide. Perpetual fence-sitters, they simply can’t make up their minds. (more…)

2012/02/15

Day by day with eyes wide shut (What if our conscious reasoning is an afterthought?)

Until its proved otherwise, why not assume that consciousness does not play a significant role in human behavior? Although the idea might seem radical at first, it is actually the conservative position, the one that makes the fewest assumptions. The null position is an antidote to philosophers’ disease — the inappropriate attribution of rational, conscious control over processes that may be irrational and unconscious. The argument is not that we lack consciousness but that we overestimate the conscious control of behavior. — Robert R. Provine, p. 147 in What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers On Science in the Age of Uncertainty, 2006.

Robert R. Provine is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. And I am sharing his little spiel in the book What We Believe But Cannot Prove because he expresses an idea that I have toyed with ever since I learned of those experiments testing half-brain functions that show that people really do quite sincerely and unknowingly fabricate false reasons for why thy make certain decisions. But needless to say, I’m sure, not a few people are quite disturbed whenever I even raise the possibility. So I have learned to keep my suspicions closer to my chest but here in this post I bare all with the encouragement of a leading thinker under the title “things we believe but cannot prove.”

Provine continues:

We are misled by an inner voice that generates a reasonable but often fallacious narrative and explanation of our actions. That the beam of conscious awareness illuminating our actions is on only part of the time further complicates our task. Since we are not conscious of our state of unconsciousness, we vastly overestimate the amount of time that we are aware of our actions, whatever their cause.

Robert Provine’s thoughts about unconscious control, unlike my amateur cogitations, were shaped by his field studies of “the primitive play-vocalization of laughter.” He found that when he asked people why they laughed in certain situations the answers they gave, he could demonstrate through careful observations, were wrong. They merely concocted rationalizations for their behaviour. (more…)

2012/01/05

How did Noah “do it” ? (Isabella Rossellini tells asks all)

Filed under: Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 8:33 pm
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What did Noah do with hermaphrodite, transexual, transvestite, transgender, polygamist, monogamist, homosexual, bisexual animals? (oh, and heterosexuals, too?)

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2011/11/12

Monkeys, Typewriters and Evolution

Filed under: Dawkins: Blind Watchmaker,Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 4:53 pm
The Blind Watchmaker

Probably most people curious enough to read a blog like this will know well enough already Richard Dawkins’ answer to the creationists’ analogy of the probability of monkeys typing the works of Shakespeare being used to debunk the idea of evolution.

But for the benefit of the random reader (as remotely likely and also possible as 2 monkeys with two typewriters typing two 2 character words — don’t forget punctuation keys, spaces, capitalization, numbers, etc) who has not encountered what is probably the simplest rebuttal of all of this “works-of-Shakespeare-typed-by-a-million-monkeys-at-typewriters” analogy, here is evolutionist Richard Dawkins’ rebuttal. He kind of substitutes weasels for monkeys as the main focus of attention, and then switches their roles from actants to objects, but no matter. The point is to demonstrate something real by means of a real (i.e. legitimate) analogy, and monkeys can still be kept in there as the behind-the-scenes typists.

So if we postulate that the primary mechanism of evolution is natural selection, then we will understand that natural selection favours certain genetic configurations over others. Those particular configurations that it favours for survival will be more likely to survive than the others. This is the classical model of the theory of evolution.

So with a nod to rationalwiki here is Dawkin’s monkey (sorry, WEASEL) analogy:

So much for single-step selection of random variation. What about cumulative selection; how much more effective should this be? Very very much more effective, perhaps more so than we at first realize, although it is almost obvious when we reflect further. We again use our computer monkey, but with a crucial difference in its program. It again begins by choosing a random sequence of 28 letters, just as before:

WDLTMNLT DTJBKWIRZREZLMQCO P

It now ‘breeds from’ this random phrase. It duplicates it repeatedly, but with a certain chance of random error – ‘mutation’ – in the copying. The computer examines the mutant nonsense phrases, the ‘progeny’ of the original phrase, and chooses the one which, however slightly, most resembles the target phrase, METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL. In this instance the winning phrase of the next ‘generation’ happened to be:

WDLTMNLT DTJBSWIRZREZLMQCO P

Not an obvious improvement! But the procedure is repeated, again mutant ‘progeny’ are ‘bred from’ the phrase, and a new ‘winner’ is chosen. This goes on, generation after generation. After 10 generations, the phrase chosen for ‘breeding’ was:

MDLDMNLS ITpSWHRZREZ MECS P

After 20 generations it was:

MELDINLS IT ISWPRKE Z WECSEL

By now, the eye of faith fancies that it can see a resemblance to the target phrase. By 30 generations there can be no doubt:

METHINGS IT ISWLIKE B WECSEL

Generation 40 takes us to within one letter of the target:

METHINKS IT IS LIKE I WEASEL

And the target was finally reached in generation 43. A second run of the computer began with the phrase:

Y YVMQKZPFfXWVHGLAWFVCHQXYOPY,

passed through (again reporting only every tenth generation):

Y YVMQKSPFTXWSHLIKEFV HQYSPY

YETHINKSPITXISHLIKEFA WQYSEY

METHINKS IT ISSLIKE A WEFSEY

METHINKS IT ISBLIKE A WEASES

METHINKS IT ISJLIKE A WEASEO

METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEP

and reached the target phrase in generation 64. m a third run the computer started with:

GEWRGZRPBCTPGQMCKHFDBGW ZCCF

and reached METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL in 41 generations of selective ‘breeding’.

There is a little macro or whatever at http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Dawkins_weasel#cite_ref-1 where you can see this evolutionary process in action for yourself. One time I tried it I almost thought I saw only 7 iterations (i.e. generations) to complete the process. But obviously that is the sort of “luck” that defies anything we might expect in the real world. So try it again and see how many times it takes more than 70 iterations to achieve the goal!

I think this scientific response to the creationist analogy has more persuasive power than any efforts by befuddled theologians (e.g. James McGrath on Exploring Our Matrix) who are offended enough to modify the analogy to have monkeys use mere 4 key typewriters!

The Dawkins’ explanation is from his book The Blind Watchmaker

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2010/12/14

Let Christian ID’ers join forces with their Moslem counterparts and prove BOTH the Bible and the Qur’an

Filed under: Evolution, Science,Fundamentalism — Neil Godfrey @ 9:15 am

In following up why there has been a sudden strange peak of hits on my post about Adam’s rib really being a penis bone I find that the post was linked in the course of a creationist or ID discussion. However, the focus was not on the usual Christian fundamentalists, but on a Moslem scientist having articles arguing that the failure of geneticists to resurrect dead cells or create life proves that the Qur’an (why don’t we spell it Koran anymore?) is inspired by God or Allah.

The first post, the one worth reading, is Genomics is All Wrong. At least here in the post and additionally in the comments one learns what the actual arguments of geneticists are.

The second post (and the one including a link to my Adam’s rib post) is less savory in its tone (Wahid is Back).

I wonder what Christian fundamentalists think of Moslem fundamentalists using much the same pseudo-scientific arguments to prove their respective holy books.

2010/11/01

Evolution and God go together like Newtonian physics and Hobgoblins

Filed under: Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 9:22 pm
Tags: ,

I tried to explain a technical computer fix to someone once over the phone. I ended up saying something like, “Press the X and Y keys, and a little man inside the computer will do ABC for you.”

Isn’t that the sort of fantasy nonsense that is required to reconcile evolution with a belief in a personal God who has a special thing for humans?

How does evolution work?

The combined effects of mutation, natural selection and the random processes of genetic drift cause changes in the composition of a population. Over a sufficiently long period of time, these cumulative effects alter the population’s genetic make-up, and can thus greatly change the species’ characteristics from those of its ancestors.

That’s from Evolution: A Very Short Introduction by Brian and Deborah Charlesworth. The back cover blurb contains a panegyric by Richard Dawkins.

Now that makes humans no more unique, or pre-ordained, than sponges. There is no room for supernatural intervention in the terms “natural selection” or “random processes.”

If we like to think we can believe in evolution BUT God somehow guided it to make sure it produced us for Jesus Christ or Jehovah or Allah, then aren’t we kind of copping out, kidding ourselves, and really no different from the person who believes a computer works because there is a little man inside the thing making it work just right?

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

Image via Wikipedia

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2010/10/14

Evolution, creationism, civil discourse and “you know what”

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 5:24 pm

Yesterday I was browsing in a bookshop the many shelves of books about evolution (or “life sciences” — but most books were about evolution). I was slightly amazed how many of those books were scholarly publications that their cover blurbs explained were addressing Creationists or Intelligent Design proponents. Every one of those that I opened up was a serious, respectful, direct and fact-based book explaining the evidence for evolution and addressing Creationist’s objections and arguments. All were written by scientists.

Not one was a ridiculing or derisively putting down Creationists or their arguments.

Now I believe that Creationist arguments should not be taught in public schools. I am sure most of those scientist authors would believe the same. But it was obvious that they also believed that those arguments “deserved to be heard”. Why else would they write respectful books about them?

It is one thing to exclude certain arguments and speech from forums marked off for certain purposes that exclude that form of speech for justifiable reasons. It is quite another to say someone who is not inciting harm or invading privacy and such does not deserve to be heard. (It is also obviously legitimate to speak out strongly against ideas that we do believe to be harmful.)

Having just caught up with McGrath’s recent post, I should be clear and let it be known that I am very sure that not all scientists are always so tolerant and civil in their approach to Creationism. But fortunately in the “free market of books and ideas”, the jerks were not published and on the shelf for sale. At least not in Borders’ Singapore’s Orchard Road branch.

At the same time I have no reason to think that even those who publish respectful books are always the model of decorum, even in private company, when the topic is raised. But that’s fine. Farting is always best kept private.

I can’t speak for others, but one reason I think that even arguments, for example, about alien abductions and Atlantis and even Christianity “deserve to be heard” is because they are very often sincerely entertained by my brothers and sisters, fellow humans. It’s about respect and simply trying to be a decent human getting along with others as vulnerable as myself. I was introduced to Enlightenment literature when quite young and I still feel attached to the idea of hearing people out and sharing what I can with them and respecting them enough to continue with their own journey. And always — literally always — in the back of my mind is how wrong I have been before when I was so sure I was right, and how tentative human knowledge and understanding have always been.

Thus when people bring up the topic of alien abductions I am able to share with them my experience with sleep paralysis, and how during those years, being religious, I then understood the experience described today by some “alien abductees” to be demonic. In the case of the talk of Atlantis, I am able to share my knowledge of the history of the idea itself and origin as a myth.

Probably most of us who have had the benefit of more education than others, or some experiences that have enabled insights from uncommon perspectives, feel our lives are more worthwhile if we can give back to the community, to others, something of what we have gained. It’s all about sharing experiences and ideas and trusting enough people to make the more justifiable choices and responses.

I tend to think of creationists as being the ones who do the ridiculing and play the avoidance games and latch on to side-irrelevancies (sophistry), and of the scientists being the ones who engage in a serious, direct, respectful, evidence-based argument.

 

Street sign for Orchard Road in Singapore.

Image via Wikipedia

 

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2010/10/04

What sort of God is compatible with evolution?

Filed under: Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 9:49 pm
Phylogenetic Tree of Life

Image via Wikipedia

The fact of evolution means that humans are not some sort of distinctive “end product” any more than elephant grass or grasshoppers or lichen are “end products”. The fact that we have evolved language makes us no more unique in the grand evolutionary scheme of things than elephants that have evolved trunks. Humans have not been here very long, and given the nature of evolution, there is no reason to assume they will be around forever. Self-conscious life with our level of intelligence may even prove not to be such a good idea in evolutionary terms if it ends up wiping out most other species and even ends up extinct through destroying its own environment or through advanced technological warfare. Or if it does survive, it may find it does so in something no longer human as we understand human — in another species yet again. Evolutionary history surely guarantees it.

Yet most religions as I understand them, at least those big 3 “of the Book”, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, give a special place to humans above all other species. The more enlightened adherents of these religions claim to believe in evolution, but I try not to think too much about how they can do that. If they are thinking that there is nothing really random about the mutations or anything truly natural about the conditions that affect survival, that God somehow did pull a few strings here and there along the way, or started it in a way so that it would turn out just so, then they are no longer evolutionists but closet supernaturalists, creationists, or Intelligent Designers — only trying to be less “in your face” about it.

Or if they say that mankind is made in the image of God then they are declaring evolution has somehow come to an end with us, and they are not evolutionists at all. They are creationists who try to keep the little angels tinkering with things along the way hidden from view. Will Abraham or Jesus be relevant once a new species replaces humans as the dominant one on the planet?

The problem of evil multiplies, too. The unspeakable evil inflicted by some humans on their own kind and other animals is bad enough. But evolution has bred evils of terror and suffering too painful to contemplate among so many species, not only humans. What sort of God is opting to tinker this but not that along the way?

I can understand the need for God. Religion is one of those “human universals” I think humans by nature will always have to live with. Some religions had a hard time adjusting to relocating the Earth to a lower place in the heavens, and today the “religions of the book” are continuing to be challenged by new understandings in genetics and human nature.

If human cultures by nature are destined to always have religion of some kind, a religion that is genuinely compatible with the facts of evolution, and what we know of genetics today, will have to discard any holy book that implies homo sapiens is somehow the ‘end’ (in both the sense of finality and goal) of evolution.

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2010/09/27

The Myth of the Flat Earth Myth

Filed under: Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 10:39 pm
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The idea that the earth was flat was never part of medieval Christian doctrine.

Men and women of any education around AD1000 were perfectly well aware that the earth was a sphere.

I never knew that till I read God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam. The only thing I know about James Hannam is from the dust jacket blurb that says he is a graduate of both Oxford and Cambridge where he gained a PhD in the history of science, and that he has written a very interesting book.

So where did the idea that medieval folk believed the earth was flat come from?

James Hannan attributes this understanding to Sir Francis Bacon:

The myth that a flat earth was part of Christian doctrine in the Middle Ages appears to have arisen with Sir Francis Bacon (1562-1626), who wrongly claimed that geographers had been put on trial for impiety after asserting the contrary. (Hannan’s citation for this is John Henry, Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision Inspired Francis Bacon to Create Modern Science, 2003. p.85)

Hannan does add that “there were a few authentic flat-earthers in antiquity, but none among the scholars of the Middle Ages proper.”

So why have some historians fallen for the idea of the flat earth idea?

One of the main reasons that some historians have previously fallen for the flat earth idea is because of the existence of mappae mundi (Latin for ‘maps of the world’) like the famous example at Hereford Cathedral.

Hannan illustrates with the map depicted here. Known as the T-O map, the O represents the ocean that encircles the inhabitable land mass, while the T represents the Mediterranean Sea, the River Nile and either the River Volga or Don. This T sea/river pattern split the landmass into the continents of Europe, Africa and Asia. Jerusalem was usually placed near the centre.

It is easy to assume from such a map that those who drew it thought the earth was flat. But in fact the map was only intended to show the area of the earth that is inhabited.

Francis Bacon, From a Painting

Image via Wikipedia


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2010/09/17

Why Evolution Is True: And Reflections on Historical Jesus Scholars

Filed under: Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 12:03 am
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Someone posted a link to a post on my blog on Jerry Coyne’s blog “Why Evolution Is True” (See his post: I get Christian email: more irreducible complexity)  — and wonderful, wonderful! I like reading books like his (I have referenced Coyne’s book twice here but never knew he also had a blog) — and I loved reading his summary explanation for the evolution of sex. He was giving a clearly reasoned, evidence-based response to a Creationist. I have read more detailed accounts of this topic, but what was refreshing was to see how real science, real argument, real logic, real evidence, really works. You don’t find arguments like that — or you certainly very rarely find them — when historical Jesus scholars respond to Jesus mythicist arguments. Actually that is misleading. Historical Jesus scholars very rarely in my experience ever respond to Christ myth arguments. They mostly pretend to, usually with a snicker or sneer, and demonstrate their ignorance or incomprehension of

  1. basic historical methodological ideals in nonbiblical studies,
  2. the arguments they think they are addressing,
  3. and the difference between logical fallacies and logical rigour. (more…)

2010/09/09

A Creationist Method of Argument (and exposing the lie of those who compare mythicism to creationism)

A dome-shelled Galápagos giant tortoise, Geoch...
Image via Wikipedia

I good friend who is a creationist recently offered me a creationist article to read (“or refute”). The article’s argument against evolution are based on:

  1. a mis-statement of, or failure to understand, the arguments for evolution itself
  2. a glossing over of arguments for evolution by misleading oversimplifications
  3. a failure to address the counter evidence for evolution cited by evolutionary scientists
  4. “bait and switch” — “sloppy language leading to sloppy thinking”

The article my friend gave me is Tortoises of the Galapagos by Lita Cosner and Jonathan Sarfati, apparently found in creation.com.

Here is the critical passage:

Evolution from goo to you via the zoo would require new genes encoding encyclopedic amounts of new information. But the tortoises’ adaptation to various island environments can be explained by the sorting out of already existing genes with some of these then eliminated by natural selection. . . .

The two sentences here do not logically follow one another. The authors have created a false argument against evolution by juxtaposing two sentences that in fact address different questions: by placing them together they confuse the question and lead the uninformed reader to think the authors have cleverly rebutted the foundation of evolution’s case. (more…)

2010/06/26

What the science says about fetal awareness and pain

Filed under: Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 4:07 pm

It’s in the various news sites, but I like to get as close to the source as possible to see what it says: Here’s the link to The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists website and its own news release.

2010/05/06

free will and the value of self-deception

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 10:07 pm
Tags: ,
choose determinism
Image by alyceobvious via Flickr

Paper of the day: “The Value of Believing in Free Will.” A scientific study that shows why many scientists and philosophers are reluctant to tell people they don’t have free will.

This is from the commonsenseatheism site, which many readers of this blog will already have seen, but for the others, it’s interesting reading. I think I can relate to its conclusions.

For those who don’t want to read the whole thing or want to test the water, some extracts:

The belief that one determines one’s own outcomes is strong and pervasive. In a massive survey of people in 36 countries, more than 70% agreed with the statement that their fate is in their own hands (International Social Survey Programme, 1998).

Yet the view from the scientific community is that behavior is caused by genes underlying personality dispositions, brain mechanisms, or features of the environment (e.g., Bargh, in press; Crick, 1994; Pinker, 2002). There is reason to think that scientists’ sentiment is spreading to nonscientists. For example, the news magazine The Economist recently ran the headline, ‘‘Free to Choose? Modern Neuroscience Is Eroding the Idea of Free Will’’ (‘‘Free to Choose?’’ 2006). What would happen if people came to believe that their behavior is the inexorable product of a causal chain set into motion without their own volition? Would people carry on, selves and behavior unperturbed, or, as Sartre suggested, might the adoption of a deterministic worldview serve as an excuse for untoward behaviors?

That’s the opener. The conclusion . . . . (more…)

2009/12/21

Latest interview with Richard Dawkins

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Evolution, Science,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 10:21 pm
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A lovely interview with Richard Dawkins on the Australian ABC TV program Elders was aired this evening — interviewer Andrew Denton. Check out video excerpt and transcript here.

2009/11/07

Appealing to Faith in a Search for Truth, Playing Tennis Without a Net

Before you appeal to faith when reason has backed you into a corner, think about whether you really want to abandon reason when reason is on your side.

(This quote and the following post are largely taken from page 154 of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Dennett.)

Many believers in God claim that their faith is something beyond reason and cannot validly be tested by the standards of science and rational thought. This is fine on a personal comfort level, but many believers also insist that it must apply just as meaningfully when they bring their faith into arguments about evolution, origins of life and the universe, and other pursuits for truth.

Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett has a beautiful response to this faith claim. He begins by referring to philosopher Ronald de Sousa who described philosophical theology as “intellectual tennis without a net“, with the net being a metaphor for rational judgment.

Let the believer who insists that the rigour of scientific method or rational argument not be allowed to touch his faith have the first serve, Dennett begins. Whatever the believer serves, suppose the nonbeliever replies:

What you say implies that God is a ham sandwich wrapped in tinfoil. That’s not much of a God to worship!

The believer volleys back demanding to know how the nonbeliever can logically make such a claim that his (the believer’s) opening serve has such a preposterous implication. So the nonbeliever replies:

Oh, do you want the net up for my returns, but not for your serves? Either the net stays up, or it stays down. If the net is down, there are no rules and anybody can say anything, a mug’s game if there ever was one. I have been giving you the benefit of the assumption that you would not waste your time or mine by playing with the net down.

Not that Dennett is opposed to faith per se. What he wants to see “is a reasoned ground for taking faith seriously as a way of getting to the truth . . .”

Before you appeal to faith when reason has backed you into a corner, think about whether you really want to abandon reason when reason is on your side.

Dennett assists the reader in answering this question with a few thought experiments:

1. You and your loved one are touring a foreign land when your loved one is brutally murdered before you eyes. Now in this land the legal system allows friends of the accused to testify their faith in his innocence. The judge listens to friend after friend tearfully, sincerely, movingly testify to their complete faith in the accused’s innocence, and by the end of the hearing this judge is far more swayed by their faith claims than the evidence of the prosecution. Would you be willing to live in such a place?

2. You are about to be operated on by a surgeon who tells you that whenever he hears a little voice telling him to disregard his medical training and do something different, he listens to and follows that still small voice. . . . .

Dennett concludes:

I know it passes in polite company to let people have it both ways, and under most circumstances I wholeheartedly cooperate with this benign arrangement. But we’re seriously trying to get at the truth here, and if you think that this common but unspoken understanding about faith is anything better than socially useful obfuscation to avoid mutual embarrassment and loss of face, you have either seen much more deeply into this issue than any philosopher ever has (for none has ever come up with a good defense of this) or you are kidding yourself. (The ball is now in your court.)

From http://gssq.blogspot.com/2008_02_01_archive.html

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2009/10/23

Response to creationist Jonathan Sarfati

Filed under: Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 11:14 am
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I will not be accepting an invitation I recently received to attend a lecture by creationist Jonathan Sarfati. I looked at Creation Ministries website and found an online book of his there, and dashed off my responses to it chapter by chapter and pasted it in Google Docs: http://tinyurl.com/jsarfati. Will respond to my invitation by directing my inviter to this page.

I’m sure someone more knowledgeable could write a better response, and I’m willing to take suggestions for improvement on board. But I had to start somewhere.

2009/10/18

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

I have just completed Richard Dawkins’ latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution. Loved just about all of it, but a few particular themes have left their mark in my mind more than others.

1. The idea of essentialism. We think of dogs and pigs and fish as having an essential character of dogs and pigs and fish. This is, after all, at the very heart of basic concept building from our earliest years that equips us with the tools we need to get by in the world. (Dawkins traces the notion back to Plato — who was of course the arch essentialist with his theory of Ideas (Essences?) — but I see the idea as having a more immediate necessity for our mental makeup.)

But we are like a mayfly trying to make sense of the world in its short 30 minute to 24 hour lifespan. While we can see changes in dog shapes we cannot expand our faculties far enough to see how what appears to be essentially a dog now was a million years earlier something we would not call a dog at all. Yet in the meantime, the chain from that earlier non-dog to our “essential” dog is smooth and we could never find a spot where one animal was a dog and the preceding one wasn’t. Every animal next in line would be classified as a natural offspring of its parent. The differences from one generation to the next would never be so great as to prove otherwise. It is only when we look back through incomprehenible millions of years that we can see that there have been such dramatic changes. Slightest changes (that would never be so great as to enable us to say a parent gave birth to a different species) accumulated over millions of years really can lead to the appearance of something quite different from what was in the family tree at the beginning.

The corollary of this concept is that change does not occur at the outward level of appearance, but at the embryological level. So a lizard like thing 50 million years ago might have two offspring, and each one of those another offspring, and no-one would have been able to see anything about them that made any of them a different species. But one of those final offspring would be the progenitor of what was to become a new species. But for this to occur there would have to be a geographical separation of some of that offspring’s descendants in order to narrow the range of genetic mix — either by being swept on a log to another land mass, or changes from earthquake etc.

But getting around our presumptions that each species has a certain “essential” character to it that sets it within the boundaries of that species is something that one can understand makes the idea of evolution difficult for anyone not familiar with the evidence.

2. Dating the rocks and fossils. I once was led to believe that evolutionists were so dumb that they failed to acknowledge that their methods of dating were circular. Rocks were dated by the fossils in them and fossils were dated by the rocks that housed them. Dawkins trashes this nonsense completely by discussing lucidly the wide range of dating techniques used by archaeologists and paleontologists, and how they are used for cross checking and correcting each other. For God to have somehow changed so many laws of nature after the flood to make the whole gammut of these different clocks all get out of whack to mislead us to thinking that the earth’s age is in billions of years is a bit much to swallow.

3. I had not fully appreciated the UNimportance of the fossil record for establishing the fact of evolution. Not that there isn’t an abundance of fossil evidence, especially for humans. But even if there were no fossils surviving we would be compelled to believe in evolution nonetheless. By comparing the structures of species around the world, and examining their geographical locations, it is clear that the evidence points to common ancestors of species (and a common ancestor of all life) and non-random natural selection. (Fossils are still important, of course, for understanding the pathways of evolution.)

4. One creationist in the film, Voyage that Shook the World (link is to my earlier blogpost), argued that because some finches on Galapagos Islands changed very rapidly, we ought to see them as evidence for a young earth and recent creation. Yet Dawkins cites several examples of rapid evolution alongside more common glacial changes.

2009/09/16

Surely not ALL reports of alien adbuctions, haunted houses and miracles are erroneous?

Filed under: Evolution, Science,Fundamentalism,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 7:00 pm

Eddy and Boyd in a classic case of special pleading argue for the reality of demon-possession today:

We do not wish to dispute that some, if not the majority, of these reports [of “demonization”] may be explained in naturalistic terms. But what justification is there for assuming that all such reports of the supernatural can be reductively explained in naturalistic terms? (The Jesus Legend p.70)

Roy Williams uses the same special pleading to argue for the reality of miracles:

My own view is that the consistency of such reports through human history is suggestive that miracles do — rarely — occur. Has the Catholic Church always been wrong when, as a precondition to conferring sainthoods, it has accepted reports of miracles? I doubt it. (See earlier posts on God, Actually)

This is the same as saying:

We know that natural explanations have been found for most things that we observe in the world, but there are still a few things we have not yet explained. Therefore we can have confidence that anything as of today that is still not understood in terms of natural processes is the work of supernatural powers.

Or even

If there was a natural explanation for cancer we would have discovered a cure for it by now, so we can be assured that only prayer and exorcism have the power to cure cancer.

This is certainly a strong indicator of a will to believe despite all first hand evidence to the contrary. The grounds for one’s belief are removed to hearsay, to the word of a friend of someone who knows someone who read about someone of impeccable honesty who said they saw someone who . . . . and so forth.  Or simply, my devoutly religious granny says she experienced an angel visiting her and she wouldn’t lie.

Or if we do experience something unexplained or mysterious first hand, how often are we willing to investigate alternative explanations or simply hold an opinion in abeyance until the answer does emerge.

I used to experience sleep paralysis, but since I had no idea what it was at the time, and being very religious, and comparing the experience with other reports I heard from fundamentalist friends, I did fear I was being visited by demons. One can begin to see all sorts of shapes and movements in the dark in that condition.

The Nightmare
Image via Wikipedia

Later when I read about some people’s experiences of alien abductions I recognized much of what they described as nothing more than that very mundane (admittedly scary) “sleep” condition. How one interprets or explains it depends on one’s cultural environment. Even though those alien abduction or visitation accounts added a few details that did not exactly fit sleep paralysis, I could recognize a tendency to somewhat exaggerate or mix one’s interpretations with the actual experience itself and so present something that was just a wee bit beyond the actual experience, even if personally believed to be part of it.

In a pre-scientific age there is really no way of arriving at a “scientific” explanation for such experiences, of course. So when Eddy and Boyd, and with them Roy Williams, suggest that there is no justification for believing that ALL prescientific (or current nonscientific) reports of unusual experiences have a natural explanation, they are sort of arguing in a closed box.

A passage in Mark’s gospel reminds me of The X-Files: I Want to Believe. Many people today still want to believe there is something to magic after all, that there is or was an Atlantis, that aliens do regularly visit us, that BigFoot/Yeti/Yowie really does exist, that King Arthur’s or the Bible’s adventures really happened, and that angels do exist and miracles happen today just as they always did, as we read about in the New Testament.

I seem to recall that as a child there were some stories I read that I agonizingly wished were true.

I once even had a dream in which I was playing with a toy truck, and so in love was I with this toy truck that as I felt I was coming out of a dream, my dream state told me that if I held on to the truck as tightly as I could in my dream, that when I woke I would find the truck in bed beside me. Well, I did wake up, and was disappointed, but not surprised, to find my clenched fists were holding absolutely nothing! :-(

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2009/08/19

Our Unintelligent Design

Filed under: Evolution, Science,Williams: Unintelligent Design — Neil Godfrey @ 1:44 pm

Robyn Williams is a widely recognized and highly honoured (United Nations Media Peace Prize, Australian Humanist of the Year, various honorary doctorates, etc etc) science journalist in Australia. I can never resist his radio programs and nor could I resist a book title of his I stumbled across, Unintelligent Design: Why God isn’t as smart as she thinks she is.

I’d rather quote a few passages than ditch his style with my own summaries.

Guts

Take guts. The plan in mammals was to have a table-like arrangement: four legs set at each corner, with the belly horizontal to the ground. The digestive system — long for herbivores, shorter for meat eaters — is then slung from the spine. Works well. But then our ancestors, for some daft reason best known to themselves, decided to stand up. Horrors: the peritoneum, the bag of membrane containing our guts and reproductive organs is now hanging from a vertical broomstick, with pressures at the lower end, where there are too many exits and entrances and they are compromised by gravity. Result: piles, hernias, prolapses and squashed babies. (p.60)

The female pelvic girdle

Take the female pelvic girdle, which needs to be narrow enough for walking and to excite the admiration of men, but wide enough to allow a baby’s melon-sized head through. A system for inducing pliability via hormones is the compromise, and it works quite well, but it also fails rather often. Fistulas, caused by rips during childbirth, lead to leaks from the bowel into the vagina. They may last for years. Not nice. (p.60)

Sinuses

Here Robyn Williams cites another quoting Gray’s Anatomy. “The normal opening of the maxillary sinus is high above its floor and is poorly placed for natural drainage.” Sinuses give so many so much trouble because the drainage outlet is at the top! Gravity can’t do much to help compensate for that design.

Bad backs

Then there are bad backs. You and I are supposed to have been created in the image of God, so I presume He’s got one. I hope He’s a little better at looking after His than the vast number of us mortals happen to be. When mine is really bad it takes me twenty minutes to get out of bed, so severe are the muscle spasms. According to different accounts, we originally stood up: to peer over the tall grass, as meercats do; or to be able to wade through streams; or, the latest theory, to provide a smaller target for huge predatory eagles hunting for our ancestors. I suspect God did not have to go through the standing-up process and so has a back designed for upright living . . . . Backs can’t be an example of ID. They must, like Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes, Minister, be a triumph of compromise. (pp. 61-62)

And finally

Halitosis, farting, vaginal discharge, reflux, snoring, rheumatism, warts, smelly armpits, varicose veins, menopause, brewer’s droop . . . these are not the marks of a designer at the top of his game. They are the trademarks of a natural process giving us only as much as we need to stay alive. (p. 71)

The compromised koala

Williams writes that his favourite example of compromise is the koala — with the female’s pouch for its young placed upside down! The explanation is that the koala evolved from a wombat like marsupial ancestor. Wombats are built to dig underground tunnels furiously. The flick dirt backwards with their front paws. An open pouch facing frontwards would be inviting the mothers to bury their young with dirt.

So backwards it was and, when one day the creature moved up a tree, perhaps to exploit a fresh food source, the ‘design’ came with it, too complicated to change. Yet in a few squillion years’ time adjustments may be forthcoming, if they are important enough. I suspect koala pouches may well stay as they are: as humans do with piles and hernias, koalas simply put up with the inconveniences and get on with life. (p. 63)

Koala Pouch - photo from https://www.savethekoala.com

Koala Pouch - photo from https://www.savethekoala.com

2009/08/17

Why people do not accept evolution

Cover of "Why Darwin Matters: The Case Ag...

Cover via Amazon

The simple answer is “Fear”. Creationist arguments are very often bracketed with gospel messages, and ever since Darwin’s day the lines have been starkly drawn. Religious fundamentalists fear that “belief in” evolution leads to a rejection of God, a rejection of godly values, a loss of any higher meaning or purpose for human existence, an ethic of bullying and of a “me-first” struggling for survival. The scientific arguments are secondary, if they matter at all. Hence popular fallacies about evolutionary theory are still proclaimed as facts by Creationists regardless of their having been established as fallacies ever since the days of Darwin himself. What really is at stake is the fear that evolution means there is no need for God or biblically prescribed morality, and that faith and purpose are all lost.

Michael Shermer in Why Darwin Matters quotes extensively from William Jennings Bryan of Scopes trial fame in support. One example:

The real attack of evolution, it will be seen, is not upon orthodox Christianity or even upon Christianity, but upon religion — the most basic fact in man’s existence and the most practical thing in life. If taken seriously and made the basis of a philosophy of life, it would eliminate love and carry man back to the struggle of tooth and claw. [Closing statement of WJB in Scopes trial, 1925 — p. 23 of Why Darwin Matters]

Shermer cites the syllogistic reasoning thus (p. 24):

Evolution implies that there is no God, therefore . . .

Belief in the theory of evolution leads to atheism, therefore . . .

Without a belief in God there can be no morality or meaning, therefore . . .

Without morality and meaning there is no basis for a civil society, therefore . . .

Without a civil society we will be reduced to living like brute animals.

This is what bothers people about evolutionary theory, not the technical details of science. Most folks don’t give one whit about adaptive radiation, allopatric speciation, phenotypic variation, assortative mating, allometry and heterochrony, adaptation and exaptation, gradualism and punctuated equilibrium, and the like. What they do care about is whether teaching evolution will make their kids reject God, allow criminals and sinners to blame their genes for their actions, and generally cause society to fall apart.

Where did they get such an idea?

The fact is, of course, that belief in God and the Bible or Koran or any other religion does not guarantee moral behaviour, and “accepting evolution does not force us to jettison our morals and ethics” (p.29). The Bible Belt of America is notorious for its violent crime rate and premarital pregnancy statistics. International crime statistics do not show special favours for Christian nations. I lived many years in country town Toowoomba which is dominated by very conservative Christian stakeholders, yet is also the unfortunate recorder of child abuse and domestic violence statistics among the worst nationally.

Believe in God, but Accept Gravity . . .

Michael Shermer suggests that one of the obstacles to accepting evolution for some people is that they feel they are being asked to make a choice between “believing in” God or evolution. Shermer comments:

evolution is not a religious tenet, to which one swears allegiance or belief as a matter of faith. It is a factual reality of the empirical world. Just as one would not say, “I believe in gravity,” one should not proclaim, “I believe in evolution.” But getting hung up on the idea that one is supposed to “believe in” evolution just as you “believe in” God is just one brand of resistance to evolution. (p. 30)

Shermer lists five specific reasons he believes people resist the theory of evolution (pp.30-32) — the comments are a mix of Shermer’s and my own:

1. A general resistance to science

People generally choose their religion over science, especially if they think they must opt to “believe in” one or the other. If they generally use the findings of science as supports for their religious beliefs, many religious opt to reject any scientific finding that does not support their beliefs.

2. Belief that evolution is a threat to specific religious tenets

Many religionists dismiss the geological evidence that the earth is 4.6 billion years old and reinterpret other evidence to support their belief that the earth is less than 10,000 years old.

3. Fear that evolution degrades our humanity

Shermer observes that it is one thing for science to discover that the earth is not the centre of the universe and that is one of many planets orbiting countless suns,  but it is quite another order of consciousness to think that humans might be subject to the same natural laws and natural history as other animals.

4. Equation of evolution with ethical nihilism and moral degeneration

Some people who rely on hope and revelation from higher beings for a sense of purpose and moral direction cannot imagine a meaningful and ethical life unless without a belief in God.

Comment: On the other hand many find a deep sense of purpose and basis for moral behaviour by seeing themselves as part of humanity alone. The fact that life is so temporary and unpredictable is strong incentive to make the most of our time here and now, and that includes finding a rewarding and worthwhile life through promoting and doing whatever might enhance the well-being of our fellow-beings. By identifying ourselves with our species lifts us out of more parochial self-identities based on race or any other narrow grouping. Species-identity (or what was once in less politically correct days called “the brotherhood of man” idea) gives us a higher view of our place in the world, and encourages a life in pursuit of humane causes and actions.

Evolution also explains good and evil, and offers sure foundations of ethical behaviour. People are both selfish and unselfish as a result of how each attribute has equipped us for survival as a species. Selfishness has enabled us to protect ourselves and our families or groups to survive against enemies and competitors, while unselfish acts have enabled us to cooperate as larger social units, from families to village communities. And we also have the ability to reflect on our behaviours and work at modifying or controlling them. All societies have prohibitions against murder, adultery, stealing and lying. This is because no society would be possible otherwise. And humans are among the most social of animal species. Murder obviously cannot be tolerated if people are to live together; and trust must be established between people for communities to thrive. Religions may have codified such innate views of right and wrong behaviour, but the fact that such ethics are found across all societies shows that no particular religion is necessary to inform people that such things are right or wrong.

Fundamentalists will generally point to all the negative news and behaviours in our midst, often as a sign that we are now in “the last days”. Yes there is much evil in the world, but the fact that we can view the world from within stable communities demonstrates that evil is not the whole story. For every rude person on a train who does not give up his seat for an elderly or other needy person, I have seen dozens who do give up their seats. For every time I have been spoken to rudely by strangers or colleagues, there are scores of times I have been treated with friendliness. Most people really do like to help others when given an opportunity. And it has nothing to do with their religious or nonreligious beliefs. Or at least the same is found among people whether they be Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, or “Other”.

5. Fear that evolutionary theory implies we have a fixed human nature

There is also a common fear that acceptance of evolution will mean that criminals can plead responsibility lay with “their genes” for their actions. Personal responsibility will be a thing of the past.

Comment: But people will always be held responsible for their actions, and this is a basic fact of all societies. (See “why oppose . . .“). Science may well discover certain inherited conditions that predispose a person to a certain type of behaviour (e.g. to be quick to lose one’s temper) but societies always hold each member responsible for their actions. Awareness of predispositions enables both individuals and a society to assist in treating such conditions and avoiding catalyst situations, as well as in deciding the most appropriate punishment or other response to intolerable behaviours.

The urge to rape may in our distant past have had some value to enhance the survival of our species, but we have — through our social natures — reached a point where we have been able to reflect on our actions and their consequences, and learn to control our feelings and build up social fences that encourage (or threaten) members of our community to fall into line, too.

2009/08/11

The Voyage That Shook the World

Filed under: Evolution, Science,Fundamentalism — Neil Godfrey @ 6:55 pm

2009, the 150th anniversary year since the publication of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species, Creation Ministries International have released a documentary film on Darwin, The Voyage That Shook the World, through Fathom Media, their specially created “nonreligious-looking” front organization. 6836voyage-shock-worldA Christian fundamentalist friend asked me to view it, which I eventually did. Unfortunately, predictably, there is nothing new in it as far as creationist anti-evolution arguments are concerned.

Deceptions from childhood?

The film is bracketed by references to Darwin’s own admission that he loved to fabricate (“lie”) tall stories as a child and his ability, or “gift”, to create an illusion that a simple story of origins could explain all there was to know about nature. In between (approx 45 minutes) there are numerous references to Darwin being so fixated on Lyell‘s uniformitarian ideas that he simply failed to see, or ignored, or “shoehorned” evidence that did not support what he was “looking for”. In other words, the film’s tenor portrays Darwin as entrapped by self-deceit. This is entrenched from the outset with references to both Charles Darwin’s grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgewood, as “free-thinking rationalists and humanists”, and regular reminders that Charles was influenced by Erasmus’s writings on evolutionary ideas. And finally it is noted that a notable contribution of Darwin was his ability to tell a story that could appeal to the public, and an ability to persuade readers to at least entertain some of his ideas for a while.

This, of course, is calculated to imply that the whole theory of evolution is itself grounded in delusion and denial. There is little if anything in this film to remind or alert audiences that scientific enquiry itself is all about constantly examining and questioning the assumptions underlying its interpretations of the evidence, let alone taking on board new evidence for testing.

Genesis more scientific than science?

Rather, the film attempts to convince viewers that it is the creationists who are the more scientific than evolutionists. Twice the film asserts that scientists from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries traced back to Greek philosophers their conviction of fixity of the species. Against these it is claimed that anyone who believes in the story of the Flood and Noah’s ark is also likely to believe in the adaptation of species. The message is that the wisdom of science, grounded in pagan philosophy, had either no explanation for the variation of species across geographical spans, or could only erroneously deduce that each variation had its own discrete origins. The Bible, on the other hand, is said to oblige one to believe that since all animals today originated from Noah’s ark, all the variations of species that we see “proves” that species are not fixed but can and do adapt. Within limits, of course.

The Debate rages?

The film also strongly implies that the primary debates over evolution within the scientific community are currently “raging” between those who support evolution and those who do not. Firstly the narration boldly claims that just such a debate “rages” today. The film also presents mainstream scientists who believe in evolution alongside other “doctors” and “professors” who are Christian creationists, yet without informing viewers of this distinction. Against this obfuscation it is amusing to compare the film’s consistent description of Charles Lyell as “a lawyer”, as if that disqualified him from being taken seriously as a geologist in his day!

Thus when an evolutionist (Peter Bowler) is quoted as saying that the evidence for Darwin’s theory today “stands up pretty well — with lots of additions and modifications”, another name (Cornelius Hunter) with similar academic titles is quoted to make his words sound like an indirect admission that the substantive evidence on which evolution was originally founded has since crumbled into uncertainty. The audience is left with the impression that it is the mainstream scientific community that is struggling in self-deception — evidence supposedly failing to support evolution is said to be euphemistically circuited by describing it all as “research problems” — in order to continue upholding the theory.

Mainstream scholars who are interviewed have protested that they were initially misled into appearing in a Creationist film. See their public statement in the History of Science Society Newsletter. They were unaware of the context through which their statements were being filtered and presented.

Additions and modifications are bad signs?

The film is similarly deceptive towards its viewing audience for conveying the impression that “lots of additions and modifications” to a theory represents serious foundational trouble for a theory. They are not presented with the evidence for evolution that has emerged in truckloads since Darwin. They are not, for example, informed of the predictive power of the theory of evolution and how such power establishes its superlative strength as a theory. Shubin, for example, discusses this in his recently published Your Inner Fish (to which I referred in another recent post). The similar pattern in limb bone structures across different species today, if interpreted according to evolutionary theory, means one is entitled to predict that the same structures will be found back in the fossil record in species that predated those with limbs. This is indeed the case, as with the bone structures of fins in the earliest fish. Conversely, inefficiencies in mammalian design today, such as the wastefully convoluted nerve path from the rear of the brain to the eye, for example, can be shown to be the result of gradual “stretchings” as species adapted further away from the simplest and most direct pathway in earlier marine species.

Further, although the mechanisms of the evolutionary process are debated today, this is the inevitable result of deeper understanding about cell structures and behaviours that were simply unavailable in Darwin’s time. Further explorations, discoveries and questions about processes do not undermine the substantial evidence for the fact of evolution.

Randomness again?

The idea of “randomness” makes a solitary appearance through creationist and biochemist, Matti Leisola. To the less well informed, one would be left with the impression that evolution itself is based on the notion that all changes are random. (“We cannot change bacteria into anything other than bacteria.”) Randomness is, of course, only a part of the picture. And the creationist notion that evolution is comparable to a Jumbo jet being assembled by chance from junkyard materials is simply misinformed. (Not saying Leisola himself drew this comparison but it is common enough among creationists, and his discussion of randomness was surely enough to remind creationist audiences of such arguments.) Without further qualification I found this snippet in the film conveying yet another  misleading message.

Uniformitarianism versus catastrophism?

Uniformitarianism takes a heavy beating. Darwin is chastised for not taking more account of catastrophic changes that can be introduced by earthquakes or “dambursts” from the transition from the glacial eras. But it is misleading to suggest that one must choose between the basic ideas of uniformitarianism and catastrophism. Both have played their parts in the shaping of the earth. And there can be no doubt that the former has been at work over spans of “deep time” despite punctuations of major instabilities in the earth’s crust.

Getting personal

Finally, The Voyage addresses Darwin’s deep conflicts over the idea of suffering in nature (from the loss of three of his own children to the wasp that lays its eggs in a living caterpillar it has paralyzed) and the notion of a good God. The film makes the point several times that Darwin was seeking to remove God from the workings of nature, as if his motivation was in some sense anti-theistic or anti-biblical. No suggestion is made in the film that his motivation could have been “pro-science”. It is a pity that the film did not take up the discussion we find in Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design by Michael Shermer that Darwin made a point of avoiding public religious debate. One major reason was that he had no wish to cause personal offence to religious members of his own close family — his wife in particular.

Such a positive personal trait would have made a nice balance to the film’s readiness to elaborate on some remarks of Darwin that today are racially offensive against nonwhite races. It is also regrettable that the film neglected to point out that the modern falsification of the notion that “race” is a manifestation of core biological differences has been the work of  biologists who are themselves predominantly evolutionists.

Among other reviews online are:

The Lippard Blog review

By PZ Myers – Pharyngula

The Dispersal of Darwin

shermer

2009/06/20

Blogging with Zemanta

Filed under: Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 10:12 am
Tags: , ,

I’ve downloaded Zemanta and begun using it with my blogs and other things.

It works with the open source Mozilla Firefox browsers, not with Microsoft‘s Internet Explorer, so those little “REBLOG” buttons seen on my posts won’t work if you

  • are using the IE browser, and
  • don’t have Zemanta installed.

Zemanta pops up illustrations relating to my text content automatically — it automatically searches the internet for what it “thinks” are appropriate as I type — and I can select any of them to add to my posts. It also gives me the option to create hyperlinks to keywords within the post itself, as you can see here with “Zemanta”, “open source” . . . .

Well, my job is principal librarian metadata specialist so what would you expect me to be experimenting with? The semantic web is getting closer by the month now.

WordPress needs to make a few improvements, though, to make it easier to edit pics within specific page positions — WordPress, are you listening?

Image representing Zemanta as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

2009/06/16

Fearfully and wonderfully or weirdly and clumsily made?

I suspect one part of the reason some find evolution difficult to accept is their failure to appreciate “deep time”. We can have some notion of “deep space” by looking out at the stars and through telescopes and seeing the evidence of incomprensible distances. But to appreciate “deep time” when we can only know human history of a few thousand years is not so “easy” to grasp. The evidence tells us that species have evolved through time – but we need to think of deep time. It is somehow easier for us to imagine space extending for light years into the distance than to appreciate what is meant by a few hundred million years back in time.

But the evidence is there and cannot be denied (at least not scientifically). One small facet of that evidence, from Why Darwin Matters by Michael Shermer: 

“Vestigial structures stand as evidence of the mistakes, the misstarts, and, especially, the leftover traces of evolutionary history. The cretaceous snake Pachyrhachis problematicus, for example, had small hind limbs used for locomotion that it inherited from its quadrupal ancestors, gone in today’s snakes.

Blue Whale pelvis

Blue Whale pelvis

“Modern whales retain a tiny pelvis for hind legs that existed in their land mammal ancestors but have disappeared today. Likewise, there are wings on flightless birds, and of course humans are replete with useless vestigial structures, a distinctive sign of our evolutionary ancestory. A short list of just ten vestigial strucutures in humans leaves one musing: Why would an Intelligent Designer have created these?” (pp 17-18)

1. Male nipples

“Men have nipples because females need them, and the overall architecture of the human body is more efficiently developed in the uterus from a single developmental structure.”

2. Male uterus

“Men have the remnant of an undeveloped female reproductive organ that hangs off the prostrate gland for the same reason.”

3. Thirteenth rib

Most humans have 12 sets of ribs, but 8% of of us have a thirteenth set, just as chimps and gorillas do. We share a common ancestry with chimps and gorillas, and our 13th set is retained from the time chimps/gorillas and human lineages branched apart 6 million years ago.

4. Coccyx

This tailbone is all that is left of the tails our common ancestors had for grasping branches and maintaining balance.

5. Wisdom teeth

Before the discovery of tools and fire, hominids were primarily vegetarians. Chewing lots of plants required an extra set of grinding molars. Today our jaws are smaller, but many people still have the extra teeth.

6. Appendix

“This muscular tube connected to the large intestine was once used for digesting cellulose in our largely vegetarian diet before we became meat eaters.”

7. Body hair

Another leftover from our ancestry with thick-haired apes and hominids.

8. Goose bumps (Erector pili)

“We retain the ability of our ancestows to puff up their fur for heat insulation, or as a threat gesture to potential predators.”

9. Extrinsic ear muscles

Some of us, including yours truly, can wiggle our ears. Our primate ancestors “evolved the ability to move their ears independently of their heads as a more efficient means of discriminating precise sound directionality and location.”

(Okay, so what about those people who can curl their tongues and cross their eyes??)

10. Third eyelid

third eyelid (nictitans) www.televets.com

third eyelid (nictitans) http://www.televets.com

“Many animals have a nictitating membrane that covers the eye for added protection; we retain this “third eyelid” in the corner of our eye as a tiny fold

third eyelid -- from www.toptenz.net

third eyelid -- from http://www.toptenz.net

of flesh.”

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.There are dozens more. Everyone knows our backs were not designed right. Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish includes discussions on how evolutionary genetic studies can help identify specific malfunctions that cause certain modern deformities and illnesses — and how such knowledge can help find treatments and cures.

The above are from pp 18-19 of Michael Shermer’s Why Darwin Matters (2006)

2009/05/23

A would-be Darwin book of the year

Filed under: Book Reviews & Notes,Evolution, Science,Shubin: Your Inner Fish — Neil Godfrey @ 11:01 am

BMImg_28881_28881_shubin_fish_wtnI have just completed reading one of those books that I picked up almost on a whim at a bookstore, but one where the author tricked me into thinking I was about to read about the significance of the discovery of one particular fossil, but before half way through he had enticed me to explore ever deeper understandings of the unity of all life on our planet. It’s a brilliant book, a must read, I would like to think, for anyone interested in an understanding of how and why humans are the way they are, and how our essential makeup can be studied across all other species, both today and past, back to the earliest multi-celled bodies.

Your Inner Fish, by Neil Shubin, deserves every one of the cover blurb accolades from the Financial Times, Guardian, New Scientist, Nature, Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph (the one used in this posts header).

I remember when the discovery of Tiktaalik first hit the news headlines, and have always been amused by the similarity of the name with an Australian aboriginal Dream Time frog, Tiddalik, who swallowed up all the water leaving others animals endangered until they figured out a way to trick the frog into releasing it all again. Many non-aboriginal Australian school children also know the story of Tiddalik from a number of children’s picture books that have been published about him in recent decades.

One piece of information depressed me somewhat. It was when Shubin was explaining the origin of first multicellular bodies. The means within cells that enabled them to unite to become multicellular had been there for millions of years before they actually did, but since multicellular bodies need much more energy, via oxygen, to survive, they had to wait till the earth’s atmosphere became much richer in oxygen to enable that development. But what was the catalyst that prompted the first multicellular bodies — and the beginnings of all multicelled life, and us? It was most plausibly the fact of predation, the contest between eating and being eaten. A larger multicelled body had a better chance of defence against being eaten, and then it also had a better chance of successfully consuming others.

So the fact of multicelled life forms is a depressing result of the savage violence of nature.

I suppose at some level I probably sort of knew something like this before reading Shubin’s book, but the concepts were crystalized and took on deeper meaning as a result of reading about the big picture of all life.

Another image that will stick with me was the way evolution works, and how we are  really all in some distant sense modifications and mutations of each other. Take a very malleable fish and imagine twisting and stretching and pulling it into a new shape to be like a reptile or bird or mammal. (Not as completely bizarre as it might at first sound, since the same micro level processes and agents within skin that produce scales also are capable, with chemical different stimuli, of producing hair and feathers.) We might, if skilful and patient enough, be able to make the “fish” shape look like another species, but there will be trade-offs. What was a very efficient direct nerve line from the base of a skull to the breathing apparatus of the gills will become a convoluted and bizarre extended route for a nerve from the same starting point, the base of the skull, to the areas of the lungs way on the other side of the body and way further down from the skull base. Other processes will almost inevitably interfere with this most inefficient nerve route from time to time, and as a result we will get hiccups.

But other more serious problems also arise as a result of our inherited and mutated parts being used in ways for which they did not originally evolve. (Not that hiccups is not a serious problem for those who have them for years, even a lifetime.)

The beauty of the book is the way it demonstrates how all life forms share a common ancestry, that we are all related. And how understanding the DNA of life forms — and comparing it across species — enables us to understand the causes of certain diseases and deformities. I have more confidence that evolutionary science will bring us more hope for a healthier life span than faith in deities.

Not only does it demonstrate how we are all related, but how the evidence also demonstrates (as evolutionary theory predicts) how we can trace our family lineages back through time in the rocks. The picture of all life forms having one ancestor, and thus being all related, and seeing the ways in which our body parts and functions are directly a part of the whole of all living creatures, across species and back through time, is a powerful one.

There is real design in all living creatures. But it is not a perfect design. It is a remarkable and humbling design that demonstrates our shared ancestry. Some redesigned bits work well in new environments, but with tradeoffs, particularly susceptibility to certain diseases. Diseases and body vulnerabilities are not a punishment for sin, they are a tradeoff for evolutionary adaptations. Our skeletal structure was not originally meant for a creature to walk on two legs. Bad backs and easily twisted knees and ankles are something fish never experience, and we have inherited their skeletal structure twisted and extended to meet the requirements of our environment.

Not that the book is really about fish. As the author says, he could have just as easily have titled it, “Your inner fly” or “Your inner rodent” or “Your inner frog”. It would still be essentially the same book.

I did feel a little queazy, though, when I read of experiments that led to so much of this understanding of how evolution works. Deliberately testing genetic transplants across species to make two headed flies or flies with a leg where an eye should be. Did evolutionary scientists once, as children, while away bored moments by catching and pulling legs out of flies? It was when I left religion and found a new wonder and humility and poetry realizing I was a part of all life that gave me a new kind of respect for all other life forms.

Tiddalik -- from the 2009 Yungaburra Folk Festival

Tiddalik -- from the 2009 Yungaburra Folk Festival

2009/03/12

Do Bad Chimps Go to Hell?

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 1:07 am
Image from the Mail Online

Image from the Mail Online

Loved this, yet one more story from animal kingdom demonstrating that other species are “people too”.

Chimp Planned Rock Attack on Zoo Visitors? (this title links to the full BBC/AFP/ABC article)

The above pic and others of Santino in action, and original story, and links to similar stories, are found in Mail Online’s Science & Tech section.

Mathias Osvath, a Lund University researcher, says Santino’s behaviour shows convincingly that our fellow apes consider the future in a very complex way. . . . . . . . . . .

“It implies that they have a highly developed consciousness, including lifelike mental simulations of potential events,” he said.

“They most probably have an inner world like we have when reviewing past episodes of our lives.”

So an ape has memory, and the ability to work with that memory to plan future events, and to plan actions now to prepare for those future events?

I loved many of the comments tagged on the end of this story. I’m reminded of what I’ve witnessed with both mice and various Australian birds, especially magpies and kookaburras. I’ll have to write up some stories here as soon as I get some real free time. But I have learned that they, too, clearly have self-awareness and love and other feelings for one another.

But back to this topic. How do Creation Scientists or Intelligent Designists explain this sort of behaviour among animals vis a vis the evidence they assert for some sort of divinely implanted human soul? We know from other studies that chimps not only plan “bad behaviour” (we know of their plans and group activity to go out on search and destroy their fellow-kind missions) but also of their loving and magnanimous gestures towards one another too.

And we know how humans can be so easily treated from bad propensities to “good” ones by the mere addition of a bit of sleep, change of diet or a chemical added to the brain.

Would this stone-throwing “hood” chimp also be changed to go out and offer bananas or gestures of friendship to visitors with an injection of seratonin?

I used to wonder, as a Christian, how God could possibly judge such cases of a child-beater repeating the pattern of parents vis a vis another reformed misfit who could attribute all their change to a good lie-down or kind word of assurance from a significant other.

2008/08/21

Venus of Willendorf resurrected 100 years

Filed under: Evolution, Science,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 10:51 pm

25,000 year old Venus of Willendorf was discovered 100 years ago and contrary to so many texts and coffee table books whose text it is plied to illustrate, no-one really knows much about the what’s and why’s of it —

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. . . .

— as discussed in a newsbyte on Australian Broadcasting Corporation site. Reference is to Vienna’s Natural History Museum current exhibit.

2008/05/23

Fraudulent history of Intelligent Design

Filed under: Evolution, Science,Fundamentalism,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 8:09 pm

A wonderful little videoclip exposing the fraudulent history of Intelligent Design has been picked up on Exploring Our Matrix.

It shows how subpoenaed drafts of an Intelligent Design text clearly demonstrate a direct re-writing of Creationist material.

2008/05/14

A new letter from Einstein: on the childishness of religion and arrogance of some atheists

Filed under: Evolution, Science,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 3:32 pm
Tags:

Einstein has been used as a football for both religionists and atheists.

A hitherto nonpublic and largely unknown 1954 letter of Einstein has been pulled out of a private collection for public auction. Einstein wrote it to philosopher Eric Gutkind apparently in relation to a book partly titled “The Biblical Call to Revolt”. James Randerson gives a fuller account of all this in his recent Guardian article. There he quotes Einstein as saying:

The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.

And on the Jewish religion and Jews in particular? Randerson again quotes:

For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.

So we can understand how Einstein may have responded to those religionists who seize on a few of his words without understanding. And on evangelists for atheism using his words? Randerson passes on Einstein’s thoughts via Einstein expert john Brooke:

[W]hat he understood by religion was something far more subtle than what is usually meant by the word in popular discussion . . . . . Despite his categorical rejection of conventional religion, Brooke said that Einstein became angry when his views were appropriated by evangelists for atheism. He was offended by their lack of humility and once wrote. “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.”

2008/05/03

why science is not a faith

Reading the same old “tu-quoque/you too!” fallacy from fundamentalist supernaturalists that science or any position questioning the Bible is itself “a faith” or “belief” puts a responsibility however tedious, I suppose, on naturalists with a scientific disposition to continually make accessible the answer to that fatuous canard:

Tamas Pataki, from Against Religion (pp.117-118 )

The charge of scientific dogmatism is so contrary to fact and so foolish that it calls for diagnosis. Richard Dawkins is a favourite bogeyman, and McGrath and Eagleton are two of those who stalk him. How can Dawkins ‘be so sure that his current beliefs are true, when history shows a persistent pattern of the abandonment of scientific theories as better approaches emerge?’ asks McGrath. But Dawkins, of course, is not ‘so sure’: ‘My belief in evolution is not faith, because I know what it would take to change my mind, and I would gladly do so if the necessary evidence were forthcoming.’ He’s not sure (in McGrath’s sense) because although his beliefs may be indubitable in light of currently available evidence, he knows that they are not infallible. That is what science is about: conjecture (or hypothesis) and refutation.

But the religious apologists are imputing a religious conception of knowledge, characterised by inerrancy – just as the Bible is supposed to be inerrant – which allows them to stretch science on the horns of a false dilemma: either science presumes to provide incorrigible knowledge, in which case it is shamelessly dogmatic, or it is just a matter of faith, just like their turf. They have no conception of the difference between warranted but fallible belief, and faith. Finding to their satisfaction that science falls short of incorrigibility, they conclude that, after all, science and religion are in the same boat-just matters of faith.

(Pataki here footnotes by way of illustration Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism (2004), pp.93-97, 179-83. Unfortunately I have not run across a copy of McGrath’s book, so can only leave this reference here for others to follow up. But I have certainly read many of the sorts of ignorant claims Pataki refers to.)

And Anthony Grayling, from Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and and an Essay on Kindness (p.34)

People who do not believe in supernatural entities do not have a ‘faith’ in ‘the non-existence of X’ (where X is ‘fairies’ or ‘goblins’ or ‘gods’); what they have is a reliance on reason and observation, and a concomitant preparedness to accept the judgement of both on the principles and theories which premise their actions. The views they take about things are proportional to the evidence supporting them, and are always subject to change in the light of new or better evidence. ‘Faith’ – specifically and precisely: the commitment to a belief in the absence of evidence supporting that belief, or even (to the greater merit of the believer) in the very teeth of evidence contrary to that belief – is a far different thing.

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