Archive for the ‘Science & Religion’ Category


More Hot Air

In Christianity & Atheism,Science & Religion on July 7, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged:

As so often happens, Jerry Coyne is full of hot air this morning.  In a post entitled What evidence would convince you that a god exists?, Coyne wonders what evidence might convince various non-believers that God exists.  That’s a reasonable and interesting question, and even more so since some in the comments essentially admit that since any such evidence could potentially be faked (by, say, sufficiently advanced technology), they can’t be so convinced.

But I was particularly struck by the specious claims Coyne makes along the way.  Let’s take a look.

“In contrast, the faithful do not (and cannot) specify what observations would disprove their beliefs—or the whole basis of their religion.”

Nonsense.  Good evidence that Jesus never existed would cause me to abandon my Christianity.  More generally, convincing evidence that we don’t have some measure of volitional freedom (as I think naturalism demands) would cause me to abandon my theism.  It’s amazing how cavalierly Coyne makes such obviously false claims.

“Religion is not a way of knowing because it doesn’t have a way of knowing that it is wrong. And without that, you don’t know if  you’re right.  This is why science makes progress in understanding the world while religion is still mired in medieval theology.”

More nonsense.  Most fundamentally, Coyne is stuck using the wrong measuring stick.  Matters of value are incapable of conclusive demonstration.  The claim — whether religiously based or not — that “torturing innocents is wrong” can’t be proven.  It must be argued for.  But unless Coyne is trying to jettison ethics, morals, and philosophy along with religion (is he?), his claim here is incoherent.  And if he is trying to jettison everything except science as a means of figuring out how to live, he’s just plain wrong.  I can’t prove with any degree of certainty that torturing innocents is wrong — I can’t establish that I’m right.  That fact doesn’t invalidate the effort or the attempt and doesn’t necessarily invalidate any conclusions I might draw.

In looking for comments, Coyne seems to seek out believers:

“If you’re one of the faithful reading this, feel free to post those observations that would convince you that God doesn‘t exist.”

I would have loved to have commented there, but Coyne hasn’t allowed me to post.  I have been advised of a number of people who are banned from Coyne’s site also.  Apparently, he doesn’t really want people to challenge his orthodoxy.


It Didn’t Work for Me

In New Atheism,Science & Religion on July 1, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: ,

In comments here, I noted how much I admire the science writing of Richard Dawkins but, essentially, that I found The God Delusion (“TGD”) to be very disappointing in a literary sense and reassuring in a personal sense since, surprisingly, nothing in it gave me pause or any real cause for concern about my faith.  In reply, Hitch suggested the following.

What I would suggest is that you explain in more detail how Dawkins’ is naive in his arguments, how what you think can be retained, what needs modifications and what is hard or impossible to reconcile. That seems to me a possibly constructive approach and certainly educational for someone like me.

That would be a huge undertaking, obviously.  But I agree that it ought to be useful and constructive.  So I’ll begin with some general comments on TDG and why I thought it wasn’t very good.  What I say here should also be read in tandum with what I argue more completely here with respect to The Courtier’s Reply.  So read the comments below and, if anyone desires, we can begin the discussion. 

1.  TGD is insignificant.  It reads to me (despite claims otherwise) as if it were intended merely to “preach to the choir.”  At no point did I sense anything approaching a challenge or a concern about what I believe, and that was very surprising to me.  In his science writing, Dawkins is consistently eloquent and compelling.  I expected a real test and didn’t get one.  Revelation,  neuroscience and the problem of evil all offer serious challenges to faith for me, for example, but nothing Dawkins wrote gave me the remotest pause.

2.  TGD fails to connect with the audience it says it’s after.  I am supposed to be Dawkins’s target audience.  I am a believer but am open to the idea that I may be wrong.  In fact, I readily concede that I am sure to be wrong about many matters relating to faith and may well be wrong about it in the aggregate.  Yet Dawkins made no connection with me.  He seems to reject even the possibility that reasonable people of goodwill could find faith to be true, good and valuable.  He also doesn’t seem to comprehend why we might find it so.  TGD was quick to ridicule and debase both my beliefs and me, but it didn’t engage me.    

2.  TGD is lazy.  It read to me like it was transcribed from a series of talks without additional research and editing.  In fact, it seemed a lot like a freshman dorm conversation.  There is essentially no scholarship referenced and nothing is dealt with in depth.  I get that he was looking for a popular audience, but even the notes offered little of substance.  Doesn’t he realize that his constant claim that theology isn’t a proper subject because there is nothing to study isn’t an argument, but a tautology?  Yet he writes as if he has made a profound point.

3.  TGD is dishonest. TGD attacks accomodationists (though he doesn’t use that word) for not really getting it or getting after it in terms of what evolution really means.  But he also admits that Ken Miller is a particularly effective opponent of creationism precisely because he is a Christian.  Which is it?  Dawkins repeatedly cites statistics revealing that red states suffer higher rates of crime than do blue states, suggesting that religious people may be even less moral than atheists. But in response to the fact that the atheist Stalin committed horrific crimes against humanity, Dawkins says that we shouldn’t count heads and compare notes theist v. atheist.  Which is it? Dawkins’s key empirical claim is a related one.  Dawkins doesn’t just claim that religion is wrong, he claims that religion is a terrible thing overall.  He could be right.  Dawkins then tries to tally up the score.  He starts not by looking to what religion posits, but by what it has done.  Fair enough.  Sifting through data relating to this point is difficult and drawing even highly tenuous conclusions from it is extremely difficult, but let’s allow that to pass for now.  Dawkins repeatedly and dishonestly insists upon evaluating atheism differently.  He  insists upon comparing religion as practiced with atheism in theory, ignoring the difficult and complicated story of how atheism has worked historically.  It may be true, as Dawkins contends, that Stalin’s brutality may not have been motivated by his atheism — it surely isn’t the whole story.  But brutality by religious institutions may have motivations similarly divided or open to dispute as well.  The Inquisition may have been about politics as much as it was about religion, for example.  Dawkins ignores that.  In large measure, the 20th C. was an experiment in secularism, and the results were dreadful.  It’s understandable why Dawkins would want to ignore it.  But it’s dishonest if he insists on judging religion based upon practice alone. 

4.  TGD is incomplete.  Dawkins repeatedly proclaims that a universe where God exists would be very different from a godless one, making God a scientific hypothesis. Okay.  But if so, how would a godless universe be different and what experiments should we perform to verify God’s non-existence?  Dawkins never says.  Dawkins doesn’t address personal religious experience sufficiently (much less common religious experience), seeming to rely solely upon the obvious fact that we are often tricked.  Duh.  In any particular case, why should we determine that we were tricked?  Dawkins doesn’t say.  Does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?  If so, how does he account for the disparity with what they actually believe and why, for example, do the Gospels show Jesus weeping for the dead Lazarus right before He brings him forth from the dead?  Dawkins never says. 

5.  TGD is smug without warrant.  Dawkins seems especially proud of his argument that a God who could create a universe must be much more complicated than the universe and yet is impossible because complex beings can only appear via evolution (the “ultimate Boeing 747 gambit”).  Since time starts with the Big Bang, and since the universe came from somewhere without time (let’s call it eternity), it follows that standard probability rules can’t apply. With eternity in play, nothing can really be deemed unlikely. With respect to evolution, how could it occur without time to work in? 

6.  TGD is sadly anecdotal.  Dawkins disappoints by neglecting anything approaching serious science and relying upon anecdote to make his points.  He gives us a nurse who told him that believers fear death more than nonbelievers but offers no data to support the claim.  Good science writing uses anecdote to illustrate an argument.  TGD uses anecdote to make its arguments.

7.  TGD suffers from a failure of imagination.  Dawkins’s main criticism of those who oppose evolution is that they suffer from a failure of imagination. He suffers from that same failing with respect to religion.  The only religion he recognizes as legitimate is of the fundamentalist sort.  By failing to recognize legitimate faith as other than crude and monolithic, he skirts the challenges offered by other approaches to God.

8.  TGD is largely redundant.  Only the ultimate 747 gambit is remotely new, and even that isn’t very good.

9.  TGD is phoney.  Dawkins never even acknowledges, much less addresses Christianity (and it is essentially Christianity that he attacks) of the best sort.  I get that he’s interested in “real people/real beliefs” and not esoterica, but defeating Sarah Palin’s “arguments” doesn’t mean that Oakeshott is defeated.  At a minimum, Popper’s charity principle demands more.  Without addressing the best, all Dawkins can aspire to is to turn “our” morons into “your” morons — and that won’t do anybody much real good.  Similarly, Dawkins suggests (without quite asserting) that people of faith are mentally ill (via the carefully chosen “delusion” of the title, for example) and are child abusers.  These are phoney cheap shots that should have been beneath him.

Comments, questions and challenges are invited.


Properly Skeptical

In Christianity & Atheism,Science & Religion on June 28, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , , , , , , ,

P.Z. Myers is the attack dog of the New Atheists.  He knows his role and he plays it well.  His part is to run out ahead of the movement’s stars, saying and doing outrageous things, so as to stretch the Overton Window and make the stars seem more reasonable by comparison.  For this role, P.Z. gets lots of hits and fanboys at his website (and sometimes even some interesting and helpful comments amidst the floating waste there).  He also occasionally gets to sit with the stars at the big-boy table.  That seems to be more than enough for him in general.

Once in a while, however, P.Z. hits on something that’s really important and significant.  This past week-end offered such an occasion.  P.Z. raised an interesting question:  Should skeptic organizations be atheist organizations?  As a would-be, tries-to-be skeptic, I can fully endorse his conclusion:

The skeptic movement will be inclusive and allow anyone to participate, and participation means your ideas will be scrutinized and criticized and sometimes mocked and sometimes praised.

All ideas should be open to criticism.  But I also don’t think that skepticism should be ideological in the least.  The fact that skeptics may come to different conclusions based upon the same evidence simply means that we’re all human.  Pamela Gay is a skeptic and a good one.    So’s Bill Phillips.  Martin Gardner was too.  I think that the idea that skepticism invokes any litmus tests (with respect to religion, politics, economics, whatever) is just plain wrong.

But P.Z. does make at least one important error.  He asks the following question.

What’s so privileged about belief in general that the mere statement that someone says they believe in something means we should stumble all over ourselves running away from the possibility of challenging it?

Part of what is inferred by this question gets my full endorsement — being challenged about beliefs is perfectly appropriate.  Indeed, it’s necessary and healthy if we’re going to make progress as individuals and as a society.  However, P.Z. means more than that.

It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about skeptical organizations or the science classroom, saying you believe in something does not suddenly make it immune to criticism or insulate it from the requirements of evidence and reason (emphasis supplied).

As noted, I think that no ideas deserve immunity from examination and criticism.  But the suggestion that all beliefs must be demonstrated or at least supported by evidence and reason is a mistaken one.  Evidence and reason focus upon logic and plausibility, but logic and plausibility rarely get to the heart of the matter.  We need to try out ideas if we think they are good ones even when they are (to that point) undemonstrated or unsupported.  I still cannot support the claim that “all men [persons] are created equal.”  But I believe it and believe it to be good policy.  The Framers’ noble 1776 experiment was a good one, even if they had no reason to expect it to work. 

Look at science, for instance, where one can at least strive to approximate something approaching objective fact.  Science is not linear.  If nothing else, Kuhn taught us that.  Neither is science monolithic (which is not to say that all ideas are created equal).  Indeed, as David Freedman’s Wrong points out relentlessly, much of scientific research is simply wrong.  Mathematician John Ioannidis goes so far as to tell Freedman that “The facts suggest that for many, if not the majority of fields, the majority of published studies are likely to be wrong.”  (I want to be careful to note that that Ioannidis’s work can readily be misinterpreted to dismiss the findings of science or to try to prop up denialism — that’s not remotely what I wish to suggest).  The world of values, ethics, and morals is even more likely to provide poor answers than science because these subjects are incapable of offering conclusive demonstration.

To expand the point, each of us (and every ideology — good, bad, indifferent, benign, effective, evil, etc.) necessarily rests his or her core beliefs (or humanity if you will) on certain ideas that we must take as given since they cannot in principle be evidence-based. Examples include such statements as all men are created equal, I should marry her, representative government is good, Bach’s music is beautiful, political equality is a fundamental right, ice cream tastes great (I especially like strawberry), we should help the weak and the oppressed, and love is the most important thing.  These ideas relate to the most interesting and significant areas of our existence (at least in my view) — meaning, value, virtue, beauty, desire and worth.  Indeed, these foundational principles relate to what we, in our better moments, think of as being human.  Put another way, there are a significant number of things we existentially need to know about which evidence-based thinking can have nothing whatsoever to say.

Some of these base-line assumptions may be falsified, surely, but they may not be evidenced. Let’s look again at the idea that all persons are created equal.  You might recall the scandal when James Watson was famously quoted as saying that “he was inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa,” since “all of our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really;” that “people who have to deal with black employees find that [the belief that everyone is equal] is not true;” and that “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.” Watson was vilified for the opinions he expressed, and rightly so.  Some tried to counter his claims on evidence-based grounds, but none claimed that universal equality is evidence-based. Watson has since backtracked, at least somewhat, but the point is still made. All of us rightly base our lives on ideas which cannot be supported by evidence.

When we try ideas on for size, so to speak, we need to evaluate them critically and skeptically.  P.Z. is quite right about that.  But if we wait for adequate support before we try anything out, little of value will get built or done.  It’s easier to destroy than to create after all.  Is doesn’t equate or point to ought

If we throw out all unevidenced belief, we lose much that is of real value.  If we throw out all undemonstrated belief, we lose most of what has real value.  The belief that we’re all created equal is one worth saving — at the very least — even though I can’t demonstrate or even really support it.


Quote Unquote

In Quote Unquote,Science & Religion on June 28, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , ,

From James Ladyman in Understanding Philosophy of Science

Kuhn’s history of various scientific revolutions shows us that individual scientists do not live up to the philosopher’s ideal of maximally rational agents, always making decisions based on the evidence independently of their own personal interests and goals. On the contrary, according to Kuhn, scientists are often very much attached to a paradigm, and sometimes particular individuals will do almost anything to retain it in the face of contradictory evidence, including perhaps, distorting experimental data, using institutional power to stifle dissent, using poor reasoning and bad arguments to defend the status quo, and so on. Indeed, sometimes the established scientists will refuse to adopt the new paradigm and, rather than being persuaded by rational argument, eventually they simply die out, while the next generation get on with developing the new approach. Of course, disreputable behaviour and fallacious reasoning seem to be features of all spheres of human life, so it would be pretty surprising if they were never found in science, and clearly the idea that all scientists are saint-like pursuers of the truth is unrealistic to the point of being ridiculous.


Laughably Typical

In Science & Religion on June 25, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , , , , , , ,

In laughably typical fashion today, Jerry Coyne attacks the Templeton Foundation for — gasppaying contributors to write for a new publication it will be sponsoring, Big Questions Online.  P.Z. Myers immediately chimed in.  Ophelia Benson had her say too.  The alleged crime is paying for a given conclusion:  “The John Templeton Foundation… has announced that, if you’re willing to toe the party line, Templeton has big simoleons for writers….”

Meanwhile, The Nation reports that “[Richard] Dawkins and [Harry] Kroto, with eight other advisory board members of Project Reason [which includes Coyne], founded by New Atheist author Sam Harris in 2007 to promote secularism, are at work on another offensive. Project Reason hired British science journalist Sunny Bains to investigate Templeton [the Templeton Foundation] and build a case against it.”  Not surprisingly, Bains “uncovered” exactly what her handlers paid for.

Her unpublished findings include evidence of pervasive cronyism: more than half of the past dozen Templeton Prize winners were connected to the foundation before their win, and board members do well obtaining grant money and speaking gigs. Bains also argues that the true atheistic tendencies of leading scientists were misrepresented in the foundation’s Big Questions advertisements. Templeton’s mission, Bains concludes, is to promote religion, and its overtures to science are an insidious trick with the purpose of sneaking in God.

Could Coyne and his cronies possibly be more predictable or more hypocritical?  Well, tomorrow is another day so we’ll have to wait and see….


Tone Trolling

In Freedom of Expression,Science & Religion on June 24, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , ,

There has been a great deal of discussion — some pretty heated — about the level of discourse in the science- religion “wars” which closely mirrors the debate within the public square as a whole.  It isn’t rocket surgery to figure out that the overall level of public discourse is pretty low.  It’s a symptom of our increasingly fractured society.  But that’s not to say that strong criticism or even harsh commentary is necessarily bad.

In my view, at a personal (especially one-on-one) level, courtesy and generosity are almost always appropriate.  I’ve never experienced a situation where anyone was convinced of his or her error through personal abuse.  Sean Carroll’s Being Polite and Being Right is especially insightful in this regard.  As he says, “I just think it’s possible to have convictions without being a jerk about them. ‘I disagree with you’ and ‘You are a contemptible idiot’ are not logically equivalent.”  On the other hand, “[i]t’s also wrong to fetishize politeness for its own sake. Some people manage to forfeit the right to be taken seriously or treated politely. But that shouldn’t be the default position.”  Thus I agree with Sean that the “obnoxionists” (Sean’s phrase) are generally in the wrong.

But I would also offer a caveat, of which I was convinced by — of all people — Malcolm Gladwell (here).  Discourse in the public square is different amd different rules should apply.  In the public arena, strong language and arguments are more appropriate and are often necessary.  Moreover, when one is attempting to overcome a cultural paradigm seen as wrong, “being nice” may well be a detriment (as Gladwell points out).  Of course, such a viewpoint doesn’t mean that courtesy is bad or even inappropriate, and I think (with Sean) that it should always be one’s default position.

Indeed, I suspect that people are far too obnoxious far too often.  The internet is rife with poor behavior and poor excuses for poor behavior.  That’s not news. Yet being an “attack dog” in argument may work with some people even if their number is likely to be few.

I have no dog in the fight over tone among accomodationists and those who oppose them.  Obviously, each individual will need to decide (and keep deciding) if and when his/her message will be enhanced by moving beyond polite or if being harsh will decrease the chances of being heard and understood.  Not everyone who is concerned about how an argument is made is a tone troll and not everyone who makes a strong argument is hurting the cause (whatever one’s cause is at any given moment).

That said and as for me, I have no quarrel with strong criticisms and strong arguments.  I should even confess to a certain fondness for well crafted invective, even when it’s directed at me.  And I think we all spend too much time worrying about style and too little about substance.

Fire when ready, and as appropriate.

Addendum:  Rabbi David Wolpe has an interesting take here.  A snippet:

The growing style of debate in this nation, politically and religiously, is to speak more and more emphatically to those who agree with you and simply bypass dissenters. This is a good prescription to reinforce the convictions you already have, but it bodes ill for developing a flexible, mutually respectful polity. When you scream that loud, I can’t hear you.


Science Wars

In Christianity & Atheism,Science & Religion on June 23, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: ,

Larry Moran

Larry Moran takes his swings at Chris Mooney here (more on this subject here).  It’s more than a little typical of the genre.  And while I have no particular position on Mooney, with respect to so-called “accommodationism,” it’s pretty much same ol’, same ol’.  A brief sampling follows.

1.  “The first thing you have to realize is that atheists do not accept the premise that supernatural beings actually exist. You aren’t going to get anywhere in a discussion with an atheist if you base your arguments on that premise.”

Well, duh.

2.  “Let’s say you’re a religious person—like those on the panel—and you want to have a productive dialogue with an atheist about whether science and religion are compatible. The first thing you do is admit up front that most religions have beliefs that are in direct conflict with science.”

Religions don’t have beliefs, obviously, and none is monolithic, but these are quibbles, I grant.  That said, even though I don’t know about the “most” part, I readily concede that many religious claims are contradicted by science.

3.  “The second thing you do is either admit that you hold those beliefs, and therefore your religion is in conflict with science, or that you disavow all those beliefs, in which case your version of non-conflicting religion that’s left needs to be explained.”

I try to limit my beliefs to those which are not manifestly untrue and am willing to rethink and reconsider any which appear contradicted by the facts.  How am I doing so far?

4.  “At that point you can have a dialogue by describing your remaining religious beliefs and explaining why they don’t conflict with science.”

I’m not opposed to this endeavor, but why must it be limited to Larry’s skepticism of my beliefs?  Am I not permitted to be skeptical of his beliefs?

5.  “I know lots of serious religious people and I’ve read lots of books and articles by ‘serious’ religious people like Francis Collins, Ken Miller, Keith Ward, and Alister McGrath. I’ve also read a great deal of literature by accommodationists (atheists) like Michael Ruse and Eugenie Scott. My point of view remains the same: aside from strict deism, all other religious viewpoints conflict with science.”

Then either Larry’s reading comprehension skills are very poor or his lack of understanding of some pretty basic concepts is rather breathtaking.  If only he would explain how inductive inference morphs into philosophical certainty, he might be on to something!  It’s a pretty straightforward question that, at least so far and to my knowledge, no anti-accommodationist has even addressed. But alas….

6.  “My question to William Phillips would be based on his description of himself as a Methodist. What are the basic tenets of Methodism that you subscribe to and how are they compatible with science as a way of knowing?”

I don’t claim to know.  I claim to believe. In colloquial terms, I know that 2+2=4, that evolution is true, and that President Obama’s approval ratings are falling.  I believe that God exists, that limited government is better than the alternatives and that the Beatles are the best rock and roll band of all time.  Get the difference?

7.  “People believe all kinds of things that play an important role in their lives. If those beliefs provide them with a great deal of comfort then, of course, they are going to be reluctant to abandon them. What does that prove? It proves that we have a lot of work to do if we want people to abandon superstition and base their lives on evidence, rationality, and skepticism.”

I don’t think it proves anything, proof being for logic, math and alcohol, donchaknow.  I think that claim is way too strong (not to mention sloppy).  And it may just be me, but I think it suggests that unless and until atheists offer something affirmative worth believing in, they’ll have tough sledding.  We’re not too far apart on this point, so perhaps some dialogue is possible after all.