#FTF1 Session 1: Sexy Secularism

Reports on the Freethought Festival coming out over the next few days. I live-tweeted most of the sessions–strangely, gaining followers instead of losing them–so you’ll get mostly tweets with notes. (Brianne is doing her own set of summaries, starting here.)

My reporting on these first sessions is sadly lacking. Due to a late start and the joys of sorting out driving on the UW campus, we missed the first three sessions. We heard plenty about them, though. Chris Calvey, who was largely responsible for the amazing speaker lineup at the conference, gave a talk on “Morality at the Beginning of Human Life”. Nobody was willing to believe he hadn’t been talking at these conferences for ages.

Darrel Ray was up next, with “Sexy Evolution: What the Pope Does Not Know About Human Sexuality”. This was the talk that made JT say, “Darrel Ray makes me want to have sex. Take that as you will.” Then there was Veronica Drantz, speaking on “The Gender Binary & LGBTI People–Myth and Medical Malpractice”. This talk was dense enough that no one could really describe it, but they all pitied us for missing it.

I’m very much looking forward to catching these talks on video once they’re released. Now, however, on to the two talks we did catch. We’d shown up too late to find out that the conference had arranged free temporary wifi logins for attendees (so smart), so these aren’t in tweet form, just notes I took.

“Atheism and Evidentialism”
Elliott Sober
Philosophy, UW Madison

  • What is evidentialism? References debate between William James and WK Clifford about evidentialism.
  • Evidentialism says it’s “wrong to believe on insufficient evidence”. Believe or disbelieve only based on evidence of truth or falsity.
  • Asking who is atheist? Who is agnostic?
  • Treating atheism as a positive belief. If no evidence against, should not be atheist but agnostic. [It became more clear over the course of the talk and questions that Sober was unfolding the atheist/theist-gnostic/agnostic diagram into a spectrum, with the gnostic positions on either end and agnosticism in the middle.]
  • Range of defintions of god: specific being to vague force. Whether you consider yourself an atheist depends on which god you’re talking about.
  • Vaguely defined gods may be so vaguely defined that no evidence is possible. Adhering to evidentialism would compel you to maintain agnosticism.
  • Clifford: believing anything without sufficient evidence, society will “sink back into savagery”. Anything? Not compelling argument.
  • Can we falsify evidentialism by a single example of something worth believing without proof? Lack of solipcism. Existence of right and wrong.
  • James: Does the existence of things worth believing without proof transfer to the existence of god? What if believing improves your well-being and productivity?
  • All raises the question: What is evidence?
  • Question from audience: How is a god we can’t find any evidence for any different than one that doesn’t exist? Answered as an evidentiary matter rather than a practical one.
  • Q: What about the burden of proof? A: Now we’re talking something other than evidentialism. Competing claims exist (atheist vs. religious) as to what should be assumed without proof.
  • Q: What is the evidence for evidentialism? A: Very good question. The talk isn’t meant to endorse evidentialism, but to familiarize people with it because it is one operating principle for many who call themselves atheists.
  • Q: ? A: theism and atheism are incompatible with each other, but either is compatible with agnosticism. Using all three in this presentation as positions on reality, however.

“Evolution, Education, and ‘Intelligent Design': Lessons from the Dover Trial”
Kevin Padian
Biology, UC Berkeley

  • “Evolution” was not a word used by Darwin because at that time, it meant development by a predetermined plan. “Descent with modification” still most encompassing definition in use.
  • “Random” as a scientific vs common (creationist) usage. Difference between randomness of distribution of an outcome (science) and randomness of cause/outcome (common usage). Outcomes of evolution are guided. Selection is not random. “Random” does not mean anything can happen.
  • Darwin’s religion was the religion of the founding fathers (not mothers, who were educated more conservatively). Darwin believed in guidance and cause, much like many who oppose “Darwinism”. His views were closer to theistic evolution than modern understandings.
  • Caution urged when interpreting poll results on scientific literacy. “God created humans in their present form” may not be young-Earth creationism. Does rule out belief in evolution followed by ensoulment of Adam and Eve.
  • 32% of Americans still consider evolution incompatible with religious belief. Correlated with those who don’t want evolution taught in schools.
  • Intelligent Design is not a belief in optimality. Optimality beliefs, while wrong, are found in modern biology. ID says instead that miraculous intervention required from time to time.
  • We should “teach the hell out of” exaptation. Destroys the irreducible complexity argument.
  • “Give me a class full of third graders to talk about Noah’s Ark, and in 30 minutes, I’ll give you a bunch of little atheists. I don’t want to go there. They don’t want me to go there.”
  • The teachers who said they wouldn’t teach from the ID textbook or have it in their schools are heroes of Dover.
  • Discovery Institute wanted a test case in Dover, but school board was uncontrollable. They would not hide that this was about Jesus for them.
  • Bruce Springsteen played a large role in the Dover trial, which he was aware of and supportive of.
  • Q: Best resources for answering questions about evolution? A: Start here: http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evosite/evohome.html