Archive for the “Religion” Category

A code to yesterday’s piece: Some of the Christian bloggers asserted that “What is needed in the face of all this is a more assertive proclamation of the value of our faith than many Episcopalians, especially clergy are comfortable giving.” To this, I would point to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and in particular:

It is not clear that arguments against atheism that appeal to faith have any prescriptive force the way appeals to evidence do. The general evidentialist view is that when a person grasps that an argument is sound that imposes an epistemic obligation on her to accept the conclusion. Insofar as having faith that a claim is true amounts to believing contrary to or despite a lack of evidence, one person’s faith that God exists does not have this sort of inter-subjective, epistemological implication. Failing to believe what is clearly supported by the evidence is ordinarily irrational. Failure to have faith that some claim is true is not similarly culpable.

So while it may make you feel better, it’s unclear that such proclamations will actually make a dent in secularism…..

Tip o’the hat to John Loftus.

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After reading a few Christian blog and Facebook pieces today, I just had to vent. Please excuse.

Please forgive this atheist if he finds it hard to take US Christians seriously when they talk about experiencing “hostility” and worry about possible irrelevance. Christianity remains the dominant culture of the USA, even if its adherents are better at talking the talk than walking the walk. As we saw in Tucson, the president of the country is comfortable using language which completely excludes non-believers, and many other national leaders are unhesitant in describing the US as a Christian country.

Even though 6% of the country may describe themselves as atheist, how many of our representatives do so? Not only could an atheist not be elected to the Presidency; even the deist Thomas Jefferson would be unelectable today.

So when a (very few) atheists voice the kind of sentiment that Christians have been dishing out for years, it seems disproportionate for Christians to complain. OK, vilification of atheists rarely comes from the Anglicans or the Methodists, but why should atheists have to sort out the distinctions between the many different groups that all describe themselves as Christian?

It seems to me that the problems faced by religious moderates have little do do with atheists. There have always been atheists and agnostics in the US, and if they are more visible today it is because modern communications technology is giving them a voice and a community. Secularism may provide a convenient windmill at which to tilt, but in the long term fighting that battle seems futile. Surely TEC and CofE should be trying to figure out how to reach those who are inclined to belief, including other Christians. If you’re trying to sell more wine, your new customers are probably going to be beer-drinkers – not teetotalers.

PS Please drop the term “militant atheist“. In matters of religion, militancy is what we’re seeing in Nigeria or Pakistan today. Publishing a book is not an act of militancy.

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The media (blogosphere and MSM) has been discussing the latest Pew findings that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than most believers. Dan Dennett offered his explanation in the NY Daily News yesterday, and at the end he mentioned a phenomenon he’s been studying recently:

My colleague Linda LaScola and I are currently studying [pastors who no longer hold the beliefs they are professionally obliged to preach, but go on executing their duties], and when discussing our first pilot study of closeted non-believing (or other-believing) clergy, we often heard two jokes about the seminary experience that was part of the training of most clergy: “If you emerge from seminary still believing in God, you haven’t been paying attention,” and “Seminary is where God goes to die.”

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Andrew Sullivan links to a soothing piece of accommodationism by Francis Collins at BigThink, and announces that it makes complete sense to him. I guess he’s taking things easy on the weekend, because Collins is as illogical as ever. Dissecting the bit that Andrew cited:

Why is it that, for instance, that the constance <sic> that determines the behavior of matter and energy, like the gravitational constant, for instance, have precisely the value that they have to in order for there to be any complexity at all in the Universe. That is fairly breathtaking in its lack of probability of ever having happened.

With all due respect, this is an appallingly naive use of the word “probability”. We have partial (and probably inaccurate) information about some properties of the region of space-time that is accessible to us. We construct models based on this information, from which we hypothesize further properties of the universe. Some of these are potentially testable, as we gain access to new data; others concern things that are intrinsically unknowable: beyond our epistemic horizon.

But probability doesn’t enter into it. If by “probability” Collins means likelihood, is he assuming random distributions of various constants? Since we don’t understand the causal relationships between the various properties involved, we have no way of knowing what kind of variability is possible. And of course there’s the fact that any universe containing sentient observers like us must be complex (otherwise we wouldn’t be here), and so our observations are necessarily constrained. Whether he takes a frequentist or Bayesian view, Collins has no rational basis for assuming a “lack of probability”.

And it does make you think that a mind might have been involved in setting the stage.

Why? We have direct experience of a relatively small number of minds. So far, all are products of neurological activity in animal brains. Depending on how one extends the definition, it’s possible that a mind might have some other kind of substrate, such as a computational system. What is quite clear is that we have no evidence of anything resembling a mind at any larger scale, or using any non-physical implementation. Is Collins claiming to know what it would mean for a mind to change physical laws or constants? I’m not holding my breath….

The most plausible explanation for Collins’ impulse to attribute things to “a mind” is a reversion to animism, to attributing agency to natural forces that we don’t understand. We gave up on the idea that Thor or Vulcan was responsible for catastrophic storms and earthquakes, and most of us no longer think that schizophrenia is due to demonic possession. And yet Collins reverts to the habits of a pre-scientific time by personifying the workings of the cosmos.

At the same time that does not imply necessarily that that mind is controlling the specific manipulations of things that are going on in the natural world. In fact, I would very much resist that idea.

Well at least that’s something. Most religious believers seem quite happy to make the leap from Prime Mover to Jehovah, with no evidence whatsoever. And yet…

I think the laws of nature potentially could be the product of a mind. I think that’s a defensible perspective.

I guess that the question for Collins is exactly what he means by “mind”. What is the relationship between a “mind” as he uses it here and the (evolved) patterns of behavior that we observe in brain-shaped collections of neurons?

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Over at Common Sense Atheism, Luke has posted an excellent commentary on the recent decision by several well-known philosophers (Keith Parsons and John Beversluis) to give up on the philosophy of religion:

The problem is not that philosophy of religion has lower standards than other areas of philosophy do. The problem is that standards in analytic philosophy in general are (compared to those in science) relatively low.
We need not look very far for examples. Consider the mainstream arguments in philosophy of mind about the possibility of zombies. David Chalmers argues that because he can imagine a world with all the same physical facts but no qualia, therefore physicalism is false. And this argument is highly respected and hotly debated in philosophy of mind, where many of the smartest people in philosophy do their work.

Such an argument from “what I can imagine” would be laughed out of a scientific conference with jeers of “Come back when you have evidence you idiot!” But standards are considerably lower in analytic philosophy, and such arguments are taken seriously and widely debated.

However Luke suggests that there is reason to hope. He points out,

In fact, one way to see the naturalistic project in philosophy since Quine is that naturalists want to raise the standards of argument and evidence in philosophy. We’ve noticed that the high standards in the physical sciences help make them so productive, and so we want to raise the standards in philosophy so that they are as close to the standards of science as possible. Thus, strict naturalists pay close attention to arguments that are roughly scientific in structure and rise close to the same standards of argumentation and evidence, and we pay less attention to arguments with lower standards, such as those that typify, say, theistic philosophy of religion or moral realism.

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Quote for the day: PZ discussing Bronowski’s wonderful TV series “The Ascent of Man”:

A dead civilization is one that has stopped progressing, that ends that dynamism in the stasis of preservation and numbing reverence for the past — when a 2000 year old myth becomes the greatest knowledge worth knowing, we have abandoned the process and begun the contraction into the shells we built while still vital.

This is one of my deepest objections to the religious stance. When one encounters a source of wisdom – an idea, a book, a teacher – the responsible attitude is not to worship it, but to ask, “How can we learn from this and do even better, so that others may learn from us?” This is the human experience, going back over tens of thousands of years. It is also our future: it’s what human beings do. The religious impulse to ascribe supernatural perfection to people and ideas of the past is defeatist. It is, ultimately, inhuman.

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Over at Sentient Developments, Russell Blackford takes on the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci and his recent piece on the limits of skeptical inquiry. Russell’s comments in general are quite convincing, but one passage particularly caught my attention.

I’ve been hanging out at various Christian apologist websites recently, contributing the odd comment here and there and scratching my head over some of the crazier assertions that people make. And one of the common moves that apologists make, when a unique and supposedly miraculous claim is challenged, is to say that science is unqualified to judge such things because “with God, all things are possible” Of course, this is really no different from Last-Thursdayism: we can’t trust the evidence for anything, because the universe might have been arranged to create that illusion. So I particularly liked Russell’s robust rejection of such moves:

However, what if somebody replies that God arranged for the Earth to look far older than it really is, in order to test our faith? Here, Pigliucci thinks that science and hence skeptical inquiry reaches a limit. He claims, in effect, that philosophers have a reply, whereas scientists must stand mute.

I disagree with this. The scientist is quite entitled to reject the claim, not because it makes falsified predictions or conflicts directly with observations it doesnt but because it is ad hoc. It is perfectly legitimate for scientists working in the relevant fields to make the judgment that a particular hypothesis is not worth pursuing, and should be treated as false, because it has been introduced merely to avoid falsification of a position that is contrary to the evidence.

Scientists might take some interest in claims about a pre-aged Earth if they were framed in such a way as to make novel and testable predictions, but as long as all such claims are presented as mere ad hoc manoeuvres to avoid falsification of the claim that the universe is really 6,000 years old, a scientist is quite entitled to reject it. A philosopher should reject it for exactly the same reason. Philosophers don’t have any advantage over scientists at this point.

Thus, Pigliucci is unnecessarily limiting the kinds of arguments that are available to scientists. He writes as if they are incapable of using arguments grounded in commonsense reasoning, such as arguments that propose we reject ad hoc thesis-saving hypotheses.

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It’s because nobody else seems to care about this kind of crap. Why aren’t the Catholic and Episcopal Bishops of the US speaking out against this obscene kind of totalitarian warping of Christianity?

UPDATE: Blast – this video has been taken down by HBO. Never mind; you can check out the material discussed by Bill Maher and his guest, Jeff Sharlet, at Jeff’s website.

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(Via PZ.)

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I’ve been commenting on a thread over at Thinking Christian about Sean Carroll’s Discovery piece on why science and religion are incompatible. It’s an odd kind of discussion: the resident Christians excoriate Carroll, and in the same breath they assert that Christianity is always, authoritatively correct, which seems to rule out science as a way of answering questions. Anyway, I made a few comments about values being contingent, like language, rather than extra-human absolute truths, and a bunch of people piled on. I wrote:

On values: try substituting, mutatis mutandis the word “language” for “values”. Then your paragraph reads in part:

That we speak a certain language is (let us say) a physical state within the brain. Science can then look into its genesis and perhaps tell a plausible story about how it came to be. But the languages themselves are not physical states

But the last sentence doesn’t follow. In fact, languages are precisely physical states: patterns of utterance and interpretation replicated (with variations) in millions of brains, and transferred from brains to brains by socialization and education. Some have speculated that there are a set of “hardware” mechanisms which facilitate (and, presumably, constrain this process, but that’s relatively unimportant.

Nobody argues about which the “correct language” is. (Well, no sane persons.) We can’t say whether French or English is more correct. We can debate the origins of each, and the relative effectiveness of each in expressing certain things. And we would certainly note the existence of deep commonalities between different languages.

Well, values are languages. They are languages that we use to talk about patterns of behaviour that we collectively approve or disapprove of. Like language, values are contingent, in space and time. Just as it would be difficult to speak with an Elizabethan Englishman, because of the evolution of language, it would be difficult to communicate about values with an Elizabethan Christian, for who slavery, burning heretics at the stake, and treating schizophrenia with exorcism were perfectly Christian values.

Your values are patterns in your brain which influence your response to certain stimuli. Nothing magical, supernatural, or un-scientific about them. Values are not extra-human things that tell us the way things ought to be: they are linguistic expressions that we use to tell each other how we imagine things ought to be.

Most of the comments were silly, but there was one by Franklin Mason that I responded to at some length. After I’d written it, I decided that I liked it so much that I would replay it over here:

So, I take it that you think it impossible for anyone to be incorrect in the values they hold.

Incorrect according to whom? Flip back to the language analogy, and remember “My Fair Lady”. To be an accepted member of a social group is, in part, to use the language of that group. In school children learn what is, and is not, “correct” spelling, grammar, and usage. Same with values.

Second point: science itself is a value-driven endeavor. It values truth above all else. Moreover, in the construction of scientific theory, you’ll find many values called open: value is placed in simplicity, explanatory power, predictive power, etc.

Yup. Science is a human endeavor, and as such we use the language of values to express many aspects of it.

Lots of value is non-moral in nature. The values I’ve described above are epistemological in nature, but they are values nonetheless; and like all values, they don’t simply describe how things have gone, rather they describe how things ought to go.

Let’s correct your drift here. We use the language of values to describe how we think things ought to go. Values (and language) are not free-floating absolutes; they are aspects of human thought and communication.

Thus, if all value is contingent and culture-relative (as you seem to wish to say), so too is science. On your view, science, just like morality, would come to be one of a plethora of ways in which one might come to the world, with no objective reason to prefer one over the other.

You know, people seem to think that as soon as something is described as “contingent”, all bets are off: that it could be not just different, but anything at all. But “contingent” means “dependent”, and things like language and culture – and science – are strongly constrained by the facts that they depend on. Case in point: our eyes evolved to be sensitive to particular wavelengths of light and particular types of visual stimuli: they’re good at detecting vertically symmetrical patterns, not so good at horizontal or rotational patterns. There are good adaptive reasons for this (e.g. threat detection), but it’s not the only kind of vision, as a quick trawl through the evo-devo literature will explain. It’s contingent: it could have been different. We could have evolved as nocturnal creatures, in which case we might have large eyes like Tarsiers with increased sensitivity to infra-red.

Now the point about this is that while the form of our vision is contingent, it’s not random. We didn’t get to choose our vision. We could tweak it a bit (with glasses), but we couldn’t rewire it. (More on that carefully-chosen verb form later.) And the same is true of things like language and values – and science.

Our language and values are contingent on our biology. If we had evolved with enhanced infra-red vision, we would be able to directly sense many more physiological phenomena – we might be able to “see” certain kinds of emotions and pains. Our languages would reflect this. Or if, as nocturnal creatures, we had evolved an enhanced sense of smell, we might rely on olfactory evidence and prefer it over visual. Now think about all of the ways that vision, and metaphorical uses of “see” and “perceive” crop up in your language – and, yes, in your values. “Seeing is believing”. How about “smelling is believing”?

And of course you use the “objective” word, which suggests that you hold true to the obsolete dichotomy that everything is either objective or subjective: absolute, or personal. Sorry: those words don’t really mean very much. They are just another piece of the language of values: ways that we communicate about social preferences.

I take it that most scientists reject this. The values that science exemplifies are quite objectively good, they would say; and if you disagreed, they’d think you were just flat wrong.

Scientists are human; scientists use human language to communicate about science; when that communication involves “how” and “why”, scientists use those aspects of language which evolved to talk about such things, which is the language of values.

No scientist would say that there are no values. They would (mostly) say that they aren’t what you seem to think they are. Scientists have arrived at the “rules” and “values” of science because they work: they lead to repeatable results, and minimize the likelihood of fraud and deception (especially self-deception!).

I said earlier that I would comment on the “we couldn’t rewire our vision” thing. Well, of course we are now getting close to the point where we can, and things are going to get quite interesting. Will our values change as we change? They always have in the past.

We are, understandably, parochial creatures. We pay lots of attention to the time and space around us: the recent past (say, the last couple of thousand years, the next century), and the planet which we inhabit. These preferences are, of course, contingent: contingent on our physical size, our senses, our environment, our natural (i.e. evolved) life span, and historical factors like the invention of writing and social institutions. Humans had a long, rich history stretching over hundreds of thousands of years before writing emerged, but of course we have almost no record of their lives, their societies, their gods, and their values. From this point of view, the last two thousand years is just an historical blip. And if we take an even longer look, we’ll realize that this whole human thing is just a contingent blip; when the next cosmic collision wipes out 90% of life on the planet, as has happened many times in the past, what survives and flourishes isn’t going to be human. But that’s OK.

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