How to talk to religious believers: A guide for atheists-5

In previous posts, I wrote about how to talk to the devout concerned believer, the devout offended believer, and the fundamentalist religious intellectual when you tell people you are an atheist. Today I continue with the last case (that of religious moderates) that was begun yesterday.

People can be persuaded to relinquish, at least intellectually, small-scale beliefs like superstitions, although the reflexive habits associated with them may be hard to give up. Deeply held religious beliefs are not like that, though, even though they have the same lack of evidence as superstitions. Believing in god has enormous ramifications and why people strongly hold on to that belief requires some explanation and understanding. Those beliefs are far more closely intertwined with people’s self-identity and are not as easily conceded to be irrational. In fact, people will go to great lengths to make them appear rational. Why this is so is the fundamental question.

In trying to answer why otherwise rational people believe in such a hugely irrational idea like a god, there are certain ideas that are not helpful in reaching an understanding. For example, just as there is no evidence that religious people are more moral or ethical than atheists, there is also no evidence that atheists are smarter than religious people. So we should rule out differences in intelligence in explaining the difference. Belief in god is irrational but that does not mean that people who believe in god are irrational in general.

I speculate that the problem is that more sophisticated religious believers know that they believe things that are not supported by any empirical evidence but have found reasons to come to terms with it. Michael Shermer in his book Why People Believe Weird Things (2002) puts it well when he says that the people who believe weird things are not stupid. He says: “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” (p. 283).

Almost all our religious beliefs and superstitions are acquired early in life, as young children, for non-smart reasons. Children arrive at their beliefs about god, Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, fairies, ghosts, etc. not on the basis of a reasoned judgment based on empirical evidence, but simply by trusting that the authority figures in their lives (especially parents, teachers, and priests) are telling them the truth. As we get older, some of these beliefs tend to get undermined and disappear while others remain. The difference lies in the level of effort made by the people around us to sustain the beliefs.

Some parents will go to extraordinary lengths to perpetuate the myth of Santa Claus while their children are young but then wean them away from this belief as they get older, because Santa Claus is not a belief sanctioned by adult society and a grown up who believes in him will be considered nuts. The same is true with the Easter bunny. As the child grows up and finds that none of the adults around him really believes in those things, he relinquishes the beliefs with perhaps only a faint nostalgic regret for a loss of childhood innocence

But that is not the case with beliefs about god. Because the adults around him continue to believe, the child continues to be given reasons to believe in the absence of any evidence and even in the face of massive counterevidence. And the reasons for belief become more and more elaborate the older people get and the more sophisticated they are.

Shermer describes a 1981 study by psychologist David Perkins who found “a positive relationship between intelligence and the ability to justify beliefs, and a negative relationship between intelligence and the ability to consider other beliefs as viable. That is to say, smart people are better at rationalizing their beliefs with reasoned arguments, but as a consequence they are less open to considering other positions. So, although intelligence does not affect what you believe, it does influence how beliefs are defended after the beliefs are acquired for non-smart reasons.” (p. 302)

If children are not taught their religious beliefs when they are young, they are very unlikely to adopt them when they are old. The very fact that the religion of children is almost always the same as that of their parents, and that they have no difficulty in dismissing the beliefs of other religions as weird and unbelievable, is a testimony to the power of this childhood indoctrination, because their own religious beliefs are learned when they were impressionable children, unquestioningly accepting the authority of their parents, while they usually encounter the beliefs of other religions later in life. The fact that parents usually teach their young children that other religions are wrong helps to maintain this allegiance.

The people who have defended the existence of god and the afterlife in the comments to my previous postings on why belief in god is irrational or the afterlife are clearly people who have arrived at sophisticated reasons for believing in both. And they are helped by the fact that many very smart people (such as theologians, philosophers, and other scholars) have devoted their entire lives to find reasons to continue to believe in the absence of evidence and in the face of massive counterevidence. As a result, one finds the curious result that people find the supernatural elements and bizarre practices of their own religions quite plausible while the equally supernatural elements and bizarre practices of other religions are seen as unbelievable.

Recently, former Republican congressman Tom DeLay said the following: “God has spoken to me. I listen to God and what I’ve heard is that I’m supposed to devote myself to rebuilding the conservative base of the Republican Party.” When religious people say things like this, there is a surprising lack of curiosity among those who claim to believe in the same religion. You would think they would ask questions like: “Really? How exciting! Was it a male voice? What did his voice sound like? Did he speak in English? Did he have an accent? Where did you hear the voice? Did you take down the exact words? Was anyone else there to hear it?” And so on. But they don’t because, I suspect, asking such questions would expose the silliness of the whole idea of god “speaking” to people. Religious moderates have learned to keep things vague and unspecific and not ask probing questions, so that they can believe what they like and shift their beliefs when convenient.

This illustrates how important it is to religion that children be indoctrinated early and that they be brought up in an environment of like-minded believers. This also explains why ‘mixed’ marriages, where the parents are practicing members of different religions, are frowned upon by religious institutions, because children in such households are unlikely to receive the kind of thorough indoctrination necessary to maintain religious beliefs into adulthood.

How to talk to religious believers: A guide for atheists-4

In previous posts, I wrote about how to talk to the devout concerned believer, the devout offended believer, and the fundamentalist religious intellectual when you tell people you are an atheist. Today I will deal with the last case.

The liberal or moderate believer: The hardest group for the atheist to deal might be, strangely enough, the people who are religious believers of the ‘moderate’ and ‘liberal’ variety. This may seem odd because such people tend to be rational and scientific about almost all aspects of their lives, so one would think that it would be easy to have a dialogue with them. But we know that often the most severe disagreements and arguments occur within families or like-minded groups, mainly because we understand each other so well and know each other’s weaknesses.

The reason for the awkwardness between atheists and liberal or moderate religious people arises for the same reason. Most people grow up with the same beliefs as their families and their communities. Once you become an atheist, the scales fall from your eyes and you realize that many of the religious beliefs you used to cherish make no sense at all anymore. But the rest of your views and values have not changed much and the people around you still are the same. So you have the difficult challenge of trying to understand how you could have unquestioningly believed all this stuff for so long and also why the people around you still continue to do so.

This is especially true if your epiphany occurs later in life, as in my case. The whole religious belief structure seems so preposterous and outlandish to me now that I am incredulous that I could ever have believed in any of it before. How could I have possibly believed in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving but invisible god? How could I have not seen that the entire structure of the universe is consistent with the non-existence of such a god? How could I have ever taken the story of Jesus seriously? And, even more difficult to answer, how can those around me, who are like me in so many ways, not see the world as I now see it?

And it is precisely this attitude that causes problems. It is hard for you to understand how the religious people around you could be so like you and yet believe such different things from you. Author Douglas Adams captured this sentiment when he said: “I find the whole business of religion profoundly interesting. But it does mystify me that otherwise intelligent people take it seriously.” (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the quote)

Suggested response: It is tempting to think that because these religious believers are just like you in almost everything else, and are open to scientific ways of looking at the world, that one can hope to persuade them to have the same kind of epiphany that you had, that religion and god makes no sense. This is a mistake and can lead to long and fruitless discussions. While it is true that you can discuss things on a deeper level that you can with fundamentalist religious believers, I think that moderate religious people are harder to persuade because they are much better at finding sophisticated reasons for belief.

It is easier to get a handle on understanding this if you bear in mind that the world is not divided into rational and irrational people or between intelligent and stupid people, but only between rational and irrational beliefs. None of us is purely rational. All of us are irrational in some areas of our lives, in that we believe things for which there is no evidence.

There are many examples of irrationality in my own life. I think my dog is smarter and better looking than most dogs. I also think that I am a better-than-average driver. I cannot really provide any evidence in support of either belief. Sri Lankan society is riddled with all kinds of superstitions and one absorbs them as one grows up. Even now, I sometimes find myself doing something mechanically that, on reflection, turns out to be based purely on superstition.

We are not in a position to provide evidence to justify everything and in most cases this kind of belief is quite harmless. For example, most people will wish someone ‘good luck’ when they are about to go for a job interview or take an exam or take the field in a sport. Many people have their own superstitions, especially concerning sports, like wearing a lucky shirt or waving a towel when their favorite team is playing. Many people try not to say something that will jinx their team. Many read their horoscopes every day and some even take fortune cookies seriously. They will not walk under a ladder and are uneasy when a black cat crosses their path. A Friday that falls on the 13th day of a month causes them anxiety.

All these things are completely irrational and atheists are as susceptible to them as anyone else. But when questioned about any of these minor irrationalities, most people (religious and atheists alike) are sheepishly apologetic and will concede that what they believe and do is just a relatively harmless superstition and will not try to defend the practice as having any kind of real justification.

But religious beliefs do not belong in this class and understanding the nature of this difference is crucial if we are to have a cordial dialogue with moderate religious believers.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: Andrew Card booed

When President Bush’s former chief of staff Andrew Card received an honorary degree at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, he encountered overwhelming scenes of protest. Huge numbers of faculty and students in the procession wore cards on their gowns with the word “CARD” crossed out and faculty even unfurled a protest banner right behind him on the stage as he received his diploma and he was loudly booed. It was quite remarakable.

This is what happens when members of this administration attend functions which are not tightly controlled with only loyal, handpicked attendees allowed to attend.

To see this event, click here and watch the long version.

How to talk to religious believers: A guide for atheists-3

In previous posts, I wrote about how to talk to the devout concerned believer and the devout offended believer when you tell people you are an atheist.

Today, I will address the religious fundamentalist intellectual: These people are the most fun to deal with because there is usually no rancor or personal element involved in the disagreements. These are people who have essentially constructed an alternate reality. They believe that the Bible is literally true, that Noah’s flood and ark are historical events, that humans lived alongside dinosaurs, that the Earth and the universe is less than 10,000 years old, and so on. They have satisfied themselves that what they believe can be substantiated and will try to convince you of it. They are usually not offended by you being an atheist but are convinced that you are mistaken. If you are lucky enough to engage such people in conversation and have the time, you should probe their beliefs and why they believe them and you will witness the unfolding of a fascinating and complex set of hypotheses that are invoked to explain why their beliefs are so out of step with the results of mainstream science.

I met a lot of these people when I was in Kansas is 2002 to debate the intelligent design creationists. People who attended the debate would take me aside and read passages from the Bible to try and convince me why it was true and I was wrong. They were mostly very nice people. Even though they were convinced I was going to hell, they were nice about it and did not gloat, and only a few fell into the angry offended devout believers category I described earlier. But they were living in an alternate world from me. A professor of constitutional law who was on the same debate panel with me captured the situation very well when he said that he felt like he was at a Star Trek convention. Those who are on the outside cannot comprehend the devotion of such people to a fictional world, but can only marvel at it.

Suggested response: There is no point in trying to win such people over by arguments, especially standard scientific ones. They have heard most of them before and their responses take a standard pattern. They will start from a fairly mainstream scientific and historical position and at a crucial moment insert some piece of esoteric information that they claim throws doubt on the entire theories of evolution or geology or physics or any science that contradicts their worldview. This is then used to make a leap to justify their alternate reality. This leap will seeming totally lacking in logic to you but they are convinced it makes perfect sense.

A good example of this can be seen in the set of videos called Chatting with Charley. Charley is typical of this attitude. For example, he accepts the fact of continental drift but argues that it separated America from Africa in a couple of months, and a great flood caused the Grand Canyon to be formed in days rather than millions of years! I think that I would enjoy talking with Charley because it is just fun to listen to his ‘arguments’ because they are so weirdly fascinating.

I would similarly enjoy talking with Kent Ham, the force behind the new creationist museum that opened in Kentucky yesterday. An article in the May 18, 2007 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (page B10) has the author asking Ham how many sheep Noah’s Ark would have to contain in order feed all the dinosaurs. This question was based on an article published by Bishop John Wilkins in 1668 claiming that the Ark contained 1600 sheep, sufficient to feed the carnivores. But the existence dinosaurs weren’t known then, and their presence would increase the numbers of sheep required beyond the capacity of the Ark, prompting the question.

The author (who felt that the whole idea of the Ark being historical was preposterous) feared that Ham might feel that this question was a mocking one, but Ham answered in all seriousness. He suggested that the dinosaurs that Noah saved might be young ones, before they were full grown and thus needed less food. Ham also suggested that more animals might have been vegetarian then, becoming carnivores only later.

Ham also suggested that the Biblical ‘kinds’ of animals that were saved in pairs were not meant to be species but the higher category (the genus) thus requiring fewer. In other words, Noah did not save a pair of every breed of (say) dog, but only a single pair of dogs. Of course, this means that the present number of species had to evolve and differentiate into their separate species types in a few thousand years, but this can probably be explained with another ad hoc hypothesis.

People like Charley and Ham tend to not understand in a very deep way the nature of science and how science acquires and creates knowledge, and the basic interconnectedness of scientific knowledge. You cannot invoke ad hoc hypotheses to take care of one problem without exploring the consequences for other related situations where that hypothesis has applications.

They also skip over the basic problem of Cartesian dualism of how a non-material mind could interact with the material body. They cannot be convinced by arguments. After all, Ham has convinced religious people to spend $27 million dollars to build a museum enshrining this weird belief structure and that bespeaks a serious devotion. Because they are determined to believe at any cost, at any tricky point they invoke the Mysterious Ways Clause (Shorter version of the MWC: God has a reason for doing this and for keeping the reasons hidden from us and anyway our minds are too puny to understand god’s plan.)

What is best in such conversations is to take an anthropological attitude and try and understand how these alternative realities are created. Simply posing questions about their beliefs, asking for evidence, posing counter-evidence and seeing how they respond, are the best ways to deal with them. Since you are not trying to convince them of anything but simply trying to understand why they believe what they do, this enables you to be detached and thus subject their beliefs to a clinical examination.

When you do so, you will find yourself gazing through a window into a world that is truly bizarre, in a fascinating kind of way, as if you had entered a looking glass world.

How to talk to religious believers: A guide for atheists-2

In the previous post, I discussed how to deal with the concerned devout believer. Today I deal with a more difficult case.

The offended devout believer: Like the concerned believer, this reaction will come from someone who is devoutly and unquestioningly religious. But their reaction will be to take strong offense at the idea that you have rejected beliefs that they hold dear. Some of them will be people who are close to you. Parents often fall into this category since they are the ones who taught you their religious beliefs and your rejection of the beliefs will be interpreted also as a rejection of them.

Julia Sweeney, who grew up as a devout Catholic, in her show Letting Go of God describes her parents’ reaction when she said she was an atheist.

My first call was from my mother was more of a scream. ‘Atheist? ATHEIST?!?!’

My dad called and said ‘You have betrayed your family, your school, your city.’ It was like I had sold secrets to the Russians. They both said they weren’t going to talk to me anymore. My dad said, ‘I don’t even want you to come to my funeral.’. . . I think that my parents had been mildly disappointed when I’d said I didn’t believe in God any more, but being an atheist was another thing altogether. (The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 324)

But more likely it will be people who are little more than strangers or acquaintances. Some of these people will jump to the conclusion that because you are an atheist, you are a person with no morals or ethics and someone to be avoided for fear that you are a bad influence. Such people will also sometimes say “I will pray for you” but what they mean by this is quite different from the concerned devout believer. In this case it is merely a code for saying that they have no doubt that you will suffer the torments of hell and that they relish the prospect of looking down and seeing you suffer while they sit in their Laz-y-Boy in heaven, sipping their lemonade. They do really tend to think of heaven and hell in such concrete terms and have no doubt that they are the apple of god’s eye and have lots of treats in store for them when they die. This reaction will likely come from people who believe in the most extreme Biblical literalism, and even totally bizarre ideas like the Rapture.

Suggested response: There is no point getting angry with people who delight in the idea of their tightness with god and think that they know god’s mind so well that the things and persons they like and dislike are identical with what god likes and dislikes. God is so real to them that they would likely not understand what Anne Lamott was driving at when she said that: “You can safely assume you’ve created god in your own image when it turns out that god hates all the same people you do.” (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the quote)

Such people are hopeless. What can you say to people who actually delight the thought of other people suffering torments in hell? Sophisticated religious believers tend to think that such views are held by only ignorant people with an Old Testament mentality but that is not the case. Richard Dawkins writes (The God Delusion, p. 320) about the manifest relish with which many people write about others going to hell, smugly assuming that they are not in danger of ending up there.

Whatever they believe hell is actually like, all these hell-fire enthusiasts seem to share the gloating Schadenfreude and complacency of those who know they are among the saved, well conveyed by that foremost among theologians, St Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Theologica: ‘That the saints may enjoy their beatitude and the grace of God more abundantly they are permitted to see the punishment of the damned in hell.’ Nice man.

(Dawkins adds a footnote about proud Christian Ann Coulter who said ‘I defy any of my co-religionists to tell me they do not laugh at the idea of Dawkins burning in hell.’)

The only reaction to such people is to keep your sense of humor. You have to simply smile or laugh when people say these crazy things about atheists and atheism and express weird ideas about what might happen to you after you die. There is no reasoning with them because the ideas are so irrational and trying to do so is a waste of time. The best thing to do is to joke about going to hell and the like. Such people thrive on being fearful and creating fear in others. They cannot defend their religious ideas on any rational grounds. Heaven and hell are the only things they have and they use them to try and intimidate their opponents.

To treat the whole thing as a joke will infuriate them because it turns their biggest weapon into a damp squib.

Next: The religious fundamentalist intellectual.

POST SCRIPT: Comedian George Carlin on god and hell

How to talk to religious believers: A guide for atheists-1

One of the consequences of the outspokenness of the new atheists is that it enables people who are quasi-atheists to become more frank about their doubts about religion. Unlike closet atheists who are people who keep quiet about their atheism, ‘quasi-atheists’ those people who would not call themselves atheists but are already tugging at the some of the beliefs that hold together the fragile structure of belief and are thus close to bringing down the whole house of cards. Such people tend to say they are agnostics and not identify any specific religious group and instead hold on to some unspecified notion of spirituality.

Quasi-atheists’ religious beliefs are just hanging on by a thread. Most thoughtful people have serious doubts about the existence of god and the afterlife. How could they not since everyday experience provides no support at all for such beliefs? But given the climate of official piety, most people will just keep their doubts to themselves to avoid the attention that expressing views that are different from the mainstream brings.

But the new atheists, by being so public in their dissection and dismissal of religious beliefs and the lack of evidence for them, are creating room in the space of public dialogue for regular people to take their more limited and hesitant doubts public. When they find that the heavens don’t come crashing down on their heads for expressing doubts about religious dogmas, they will be on the road to a more complete disavowal of religion.

So my prediction is that within the next few years one will find opinion polls that show a dramatic rise in the numbers of people who describe themselves as non-religious, as more and more people become willing to express their doubts publicly and respond frankly to such polls. People may still shy away from the word ‘atheism’ and use euphemisms, but the shift away from belief will be palpable.

As more and more atheists and quasi-atheists speak about their lack of belief in god, it is going to be increasingly common for them to have to deal with the reactions of the religious believers around them. The kind of reaction they will experience will vary widely and require a flexible attitude, so here is my contribution to keeping the dialogue friendly.

Dealing with the concerned devout believer: This is the reaction of a devoutly religious person who knows you well, either as a family member or close friend. They will experience complete incredulity that you have rejected ideas that seem to them to be so obviously true. For them, everything that they see around them is testimony to god’s existence. They are unshakeable in their beliefs and cannot imagine how anyone could think otherwise. Since they are good people, they will not be angry with you but will worry that you risk losing your soul and going to hell. They will make earnest attempts to convince you of your error, suggesting that you try different churches and pastors and Bible study groups, they will recommend books for you to read, and they will tell you that they are praying for you.

Suggested response: It is important to realize that such people are well meaning and have your best interests at heart. One should take react graciously to their efforts to try and bring you back into god’s good books and not get upset. Such people are so wedded to the rightness of their beliefs that they do not see the irony of saying that they will pray for you to someone who thinks the whole idea of prayer is a waste of time.

With such people, one should simply and gently tell them why you don’t believe in god. Remember that these people genuinely care about you and are concerned about you, even if in a misguided way, and such people are to be valued and treasured. Eventually, over time when they realize that you are still the same person that they always knew and loved and haven’t suddenly become a mass murderer or rude and abusive and a person who is cruel to animals and children, they will learn to accept you for who you are.

Next up: The offended devout believer.

The power pendulum

It has been some time since I wrote about John Rawl’s ideas in his book The Theory of Justice but the more I see how political developments are evolving both in the US and in the world, the greater the value of implementing his ideas.

The key idea that he proposed was that when creating a system or structure for anything, we should work under a ‘veil of ignorance’ in which we do not know which particular individual or group characteristic we ourselves will have once the system is underway. What this insures is that we will try and create a system that is as fair as possible for everyone.

The problem in real life is that the people who create (say) the laws that govern us already know which group they belong to so there is a strong temptation to create a system that perpetuates and increases their own strength and influence, at the expense of those who are not influential. This is why the legal and tax systems tend to favor the already well-to-do.

In government, we have seen what has happened in the last six years. With the Republicans controlling the Presidency and the two chambers of Congress from 2000-2006, the system of checks and balances carefully instituted in the US constitution was not enforced as the Congress essentially abandoned its oversight role and gave the administration a blank check at home and abroad.

The damage was compounded by an administration that had a dangerous penchant for secretiveness coupled with the strong desire to increase the power of the administrative branch of the government to the level of an autocratic state.

The Cheney/Bush/Rove regime seems to be under the assumption that they had a permanent majority and that thus they could create a system where they could simply do what they wanted and no one would challenge them. So basic human rights could be abandoned, torture allowed, the Department of Justice could be made a largely political arm, wars could be waged under false pretenses, and so on. They steamrolled legislation through Congress, not just using their majority to lock out the minority, but denying even careful scrutiny for the consequences of the legislation. The USA Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, the Iraq war authorization act, and the NSA warrantless wiretapping program are all examples of such things.

The recent revelations of the firing of US attorneys after stealthily passing legislation allowing for replacements to avoid confirmation hearings, and the astounding attempt by Gonzales and Bush’s chief of staff Andrew Card to coerce then Attorney General John Ashcroft while he was ill in hospital to authorize a program that career Justice Department officials had deemed illegal are examples of an administration that has contempt for law and propriety and seeks to get its way at all costs.

The fact that the Director of the FBI had to order his agents to not allow Gonzales and Card to force then Deputy Attorney General James Comey out of the hospital room while they tried to pressure Ashcroft shows the depths to which this administration will sink. Any self respecting Attorney General would have resigned in disgrace or been fired by any self-respecting President. But not these people. They have no shame because they have been lulled into a sense that they can do what they want. (As usual, it is Jon Stewart who best appreciates what an astounding revelation this is of the administration’s lawless mentality.)

But nothing remains the same and now with control of the Congress turning back to the Democrats, some oversight is returning. We already see Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez coming under close scrutiny for trying to replace career people with political operatives throughout the department. We see the Secretary of State coming under close examination for her role in the infamous “yellowcake from Niger” scam.

What happens is that when the Democrats take full control of all both houses of Congress and the White House, they will seek to get rid of the political operatives currently put in place. But with whom will they replace them? With people who are primarily career people or their own operatives? The temptation will be strong to replace them with their own Democratic operatives, in a tit-for-tat retaliation, so that Republicans get a taste of their own medicine.

But such pendulum swings in power and patronage do little to enhance the credibility of government or serve the people as a whole. Agencies like the Department of Justice and the IRS can only function effectively if the public sees them as at least somewhat impartial. And the only way to do that is to create systems where you take into account that different groups will inevitably rotate into power and be in control and yet the system serves everyone well.

The same argument applies to foreign policy. This administration is running roughshod over the rest of the world, and the only reason they think they can do so is because the US is the strongest military power right now and there is no danger of retaliation except by fringe groups. So they can and do invade other countries, kidnap people, put them in secret prisons, and torture them. But if there is one lesson that history teaches, it is that all great military powers eventually decline, usually because of internal decay, and there is no reason to think that the US is any exception. What will happen to the US when the major military power in the world is another country?

This is why it is so important to follow the principles that Rawls outlined, and create structures and follow patterns of behavior on the assumption that the tide will turn and that you will one day be in the weak or powerless situation. This is why things like the Geneva conventions, rules of law, and other treaties should be followed since they protect the strong as well as the weak and eventually membership in those two categories will change.

Asking the wrong questions about science history

In his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn points out that the kinds of questions we often ask about the history of science and that we think are simple and have been adequately answered (such as “who discovered oxygen and when?” “Who discovered X-rays and when?”) turn out on close examination to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to answer.

It is not that there are no answers given in authoritative sources. It is that when we actually do examine the historical record, the situation turns out to be very murky, giving rise to the strong suspicion that such questions are the wrong ones to ask about the scientific enterprise. The simple answers that are given to such questions represent a rewriting of history to give readers a simple narrative but at the expense of giving a distorted sense of how science is done, as if scientific discoveries were clear and decisive events. I remember being very impressed by Kuhn’s examples to support his thesis when I first read his book and subsequent readings of science history have convinced me that he is right.

For example, the latest issue of the newsletter of the American Physical Society’s called the APS NEWS (vol. 16, no. 5, May 2007, p. 2) has an account of the discovery of the neutron. (The article is here but the current issue is password protected and non-APS members will have to wait a month before it is archived and people are given open access.) The title says “May 1932: Chadwick reports the discovery of the neutron” and recounts the familiar (to physicists anyway) story of how James Chadwick 75 years ago this month made the famous discovery for which he received the Nobel prize in 1935.

As the article proceeds to describe the history of the process, it becomes clear that its own story contradicts the impression given in the title.

As early as the 1920s, people had suspected that there was something in the atom’s nucleus other than protons. Some thought these additional particles were made up of an electrically neutral combination of the already known proton and electron but no one could confirm this. But experiments went on trying to isolate and identify the particle, and around 1930 two scientists Bothe and Becker found radiation coming from a target of Beryllium that had been bombarded with alpha particles. They thought that this radiation consisted of high-energy photons. Other experiments done by Frederic and Irene Joliot-Curie also found similar radiation that they too attributed to high-energy photons.

Chadwick thought that this explanation didn’t quite fit and did his own experiments and concluded that the radiation was caused by a new neutral particle that was slightly heavier than a proton. He called it the neutron. He published a paper in February 1932 where he suggested this possibility and then in May 1932 submitted another paper in which he was more definite. It is this paper that gives him the claim to be the discoverer.

But like all major scientific discoveries, acceptance of the new idea is not immediate within the community and it took until around 1934 for a consensus to emerge that this neutron was indeed a new fundamental particle.

So who “discovered” the neutron and when? Was it the people who concluded much earlier than 1932 that there was something else in the nucleus other than protons? They were right after all. Was it Bothe or Becker, or the Juliot-Curies who first succeeded in isolating this particle by knocking neutrons out of materials? They had, after all, “seen” isolated neutrons even if they had not identified it as such. Or do we give the honor to Chadwick for first providing a plausible claim that it was a neutron?

As to when the neutron was discovered, it is also hard to say. Was it when its existence was first suspect in the early 1920s? Or when it was first isolated experimentally around 1930? If we say that since the title of discoverer was awarded to Chadwick, the date of discovery has to be assigned to something he specifically did, when exactly did he realize that he had discovered the neutron? In his first preliminary paper in February 1932? Or in his more definite paper in May? Clearly he must have known what he knew before he submitted (or wrote) the papers.

All we know for sure is that sometime between 1930 and 1934, the neutron was “discovered” and that certain scientists played key roles in that process. For historical conciseness, we give the honor to Chadwick and fix the date as May 1932 and the judgment is not an unreasonable one, as long we insist on demanding that such events have a definite date and author. But it is good to be reminded that all such assignments of time and place and people for scientific discoveries mask a much more complex process, where “discoveries” involve extended periods of time involving large numbers of people during which understanding is increased incrementally. There is often no clear before-after split.

The detailed stories are almost always more fascinating than the truncated histories we are taught.

The nature of consciousness

In the model of Cartesian dualism, we think of the mind as a non-material entity that interacts somehow with the material brain/body in some way. Descartes thought that the locus of interaction existed within the pineal gland in the brain but that specific idea has long since been discarded.

But that still leaves the more fundamental idea, referred to now as Cartesian dualism, that states that I do have a mind that represents the essential ‘me’ that uses my material body to receive experiences via my senses, stores them in my memory, and orders actions that get executed by my body. This idea that there is an inner me is very powerful because it seems to correspond so intuitively with our everyday experience and the awareness that we have of our own bodies and the way we interact with our environment. Even the way we use language is intricately bound up with the idea that there exists some essence of ourselves, as can be seen by the way the words ‘we’ and ‘our’ was used in this and the previous sentences. The power of this intuitive idea of something or someone inside us controlling things has resulted in phrases like ‘the ghost in the machine’ or a ‘homunculus’ (from the Latin for ‘little man’) to describe the phenomenon.

For religious people, the mind is further mixed up with ideas of the soul and thus gains additional properties. The soul is considered to be non-material and can exist independently of the body, allowing for the possibility of an afterlife even after the body has ceased to exist. This soul model causes some problems that resist easy answers. For example, life begins with the creation of a single fertilized egg. This single fertilized cell (called a zygote) then starts to multiply to 2, 4, 8, 16 , 32,. . . cells and so on. All these cells are material things. At what stage along this progression did a non-material entity like the soul appear and attach itself to the collection of cells?

I think it is safe to say that almost all cognitive scientists reject the idea of a non-material mind, some kind of homunculus inside the brain somewhere that ‘runs’ us. This immediately rules out the religious idea of a non-material soul, at least in any traditional sense in which the word is used.

But even though the existence of a non-material mind or soul has been ruled out, the Cartesian dualistic model is still a seductive idea that can tempt even those who reject any religious ideas and accept a framework in which the material body (and brain) is all there is. The reason it is so seductive is that even if we discard the mind/body distinction as being based on a nonmaterial/material splitting, the idea of a central processing agent still seems intuitively obvious.

Consider a situation where I am responding to something in my environment. We know that we experience the external world through our five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste) and that these senses are triggered by material objects coming into contact with the appropriate sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, skin, tongue) and excite the nerve endings located in those organs. These excitations are then transmitted along the nervous system to that part of our brains called the sensory cortex after which they. . .what?

At this point, things get a bit murky. Clearly these signals enter and proceed through our brain and excite the neural networks so that our brain becomes ‘aware’ of the phenomena we experienced, but the problematic issue is what exactly constitutes ‘awareness.’

Suppose for the moment we stop trying to understand the incoming process and switch to the outgoing process. It seems like we have the ability to make conscious and unconscious decisions (pick up a cup or shake our head) and then the brain’s neural networks send these signals to the part of the brain known as the motor cortex which transmits them to the appropriate part of the nervous system that sends the signal to the body part that executes the action by contracting muscles.

It seems reasonable to assume that in-between the end of the incoming pathway and the start of the outgoing pathway that I have described that there is some central part of the brain, a sort of command unit, that acts as a kind of clearing house where the incoming signals get registered and processed, stored in memory for later recall, older memories and responses get activated, theories are created, plans are made, and finally decisions for action are initiated.

As a metaphor for this command unit, we can imagine a highly sophisticated kind of home theater inside our brain where the screen displays what we see, speakers provide the sound, and is also capable of providing smell and touch and taste sensations, and banks of powerful computers by which memories can be stored and retrieved and action orders transmitted. ‘Conscious events’ are those that are projected onto this screen along with the accessory phenomena.

Daniel Dennett in his book Consciousness Explained (1991) calls this model the Cartesian Theater and warns against falling prey to its seductive plausibility. Accepting it, he points out, means that we are implicitly accepting the idea of a homunculus, or ghost in the machine, who is the occupant of this theater in the brain and who is the inner person, the ‘real me’ and what that inner person experiences is sometimes referred to as the ‘mind’s eye.’ One problem is that this approach leads to an infinite regress as we try to understand how the Cartesian Theater itself works.

But if this simple and attractive model of consciousness is not true, then what is? This is where things get a little (actually a whole lot) complicated. It is clear that it is easier to describe what cognitive scientists think consciousness is not than what they think it is.

More to come. . .

Does science destroy life’s mysteries?

One of the reasons that elite science and elite religion are now coming into conflict is that science is now addressing questions that once were considered purely philosophical. By ‘purely philosophical’ I mean questions that are serious and deep but for which answers are sought in terms of logic and reason and thought experiments, with the only data used being those that lie easily at hand or appeals to common everyday experience.

The difference with science is that the latter does not stop there but instead uses those things as just starting points for more esoteric investigations. It takes those initial ideas and converts them into research programs where the consequences of the ideas are deduced for well-defined situations that can be examined experimentally and tentative hypotheses can be tested.

Daniel Dennett in his book Consciousness Explained (1991) talks (p. 21) about how science tackles what he calls ‘mysteries':

A mystery is a phenomenon that people don’t know how to think about – yet. There have been other great mysteries: the mystery of the origin of the universe, the mystery of life and reproduction, the mystery of the design to be found in nature, the mysteries of time, space, and gravity. These were not just areas of scientific ignorance but of utter bafflement and wonder. We do not yet have the final answers to any of the questions of cosmology and particle physics, molecular genetics and evolutionary theory, but we do know how to think about them. The mysteries haven’t vanished, but they have been tamed. They no longer overwhelm our efforts to think about the phenomena, because now we know how to tell the misbegotten questions from the tight questions, and even if we turn out to be dead wrong about some of the currently accepted answers, we know how to go about looking for better answers.

That passage, I think, captures well what happens when something enters the world of science. The mystery gets tamed and becomes a problem to be solved.

The charge that people sometimes make against science is that it seems to take away all the awe and mystery of life’s wonders by ‘explaining’ them. I have never quite understood that criticism. If at all, my sense of awe is enhanced by having a better understanding of phenomena. For example, I have always enjoyed seeing rainbows. Has my enjoyment become less now because I happen to know how multiple scattering of light in individual droplets of water produce the effect?

As another example, I recently listened to a magnificent concert of the Cleveland Orchestra playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1. It was a truly moving experience. Was my sense of awe at the brilliance of the composition and its execution diminished by my knowledge that the orchestra players were using their instruments to cause the air around them to vibrate and that those vibrations then entered my ear, got converted to nerve signals that entered my brain, which was then able to Fourier transform the signals into reconstructing rich orchestral ‘sounds’ that my brain used to trigger chemical reactions that resulted in my sense of emotional satisfaction? I don’t think so. I kind of like the fact that I can enjoy the experience on so many levels, from the purely experiential to the emotional and the cerebral. In fact, for me the truly awe inspiring thing is that we have reached such depths of understanding of something that would have seemed so mysterious just a few hundred years ago.

The taming of mysteries and converting them into planned research programs of investigation is now rapidly progressing in the areas of cognition and consciousness. The reason that this causes conflict is because such close examination can result in the philosophical justifications for religion being undermined.

For example, the existence of god is predicated on a belief in a Cartesian dualism. God is ‘out there’ somewhere separate from my body while ‘I’ am here encapsulated by my body, and there is some gateway that enables that boundary to be crossed so that ‘I’ can sense god. For many religious people, this contact between the ‘I’ and god is a deep mystery.

In some sense, Descartes started taming this mystery by postulating that the contact gateway lay in the pineal gland in the brain but he could not explain how the interaction between the non-material god and the material brain occurred. Of course, no one takes the special role of the pineal gland seriously anymore. But the basic Cartesian dualism problem remains for both religious and non-religious people, in the form of understanding the mind-brain split. What is the ‘I’ of the mind that makes decisions and initiates actions and seems to control my life? Does it exist as a non-material entity apart from the material brain? If so how does it interact with it, since the brain, being the place where our sensory system stores its information, is the source of our experiences and the generator of our actions?

Religious people extend this idea further and tend to think of the mind as somehow synonymous with the ‘soul’ and as a non-material entity that is separate from the body though occupying a space somewhere in the brain, or at least the body. It is the mind/soul that is the ‘I’ that interacts with a non-material god. So the mind/soul is the ‘real’ me that passes on to the next life after death and the body is just the temporary vehicle that ‘I’ use to interact with the material world.

Religious people tend to leave things there and suggest that the nature of the mind/soul and how it interacts with both the material world (including the body that encapsulates it) and god is a mystery, maybe even the most fundamental mystery of all, never to be understood. And for a long time, even scientists would have conceded that we had no idea how to even begin to address these questions.

But no longer. The cognitive scientists have tamed even this mystery and converted it into a problem. This does not mean that the problem of understanding the mind and consciousness has been solved. Far from it. But it does mean that scientists are now able to pose questions about the brain and consciousness in very concrete ways and suggest experiments to further advance knowledge. Although they do not have answers yet, one should be prepared for major advances in knowledge in this area.

And as these results start to come in, the prospects for maintaining beliefs in god and religion are not good. Because if history is any guide, the transition is always one way, from mystery to problem, and not the other way around. And once scientists see something as a problem to be solved, they tend to be tenacious in developing better and better theories and tools for solving it until only some details remain obscure. And the way the community of scientists build this knowledge structure is truly awe-inspiring.

So the answer to this post’s title is yes, science does destroy the mysteries but it increases the awe.

More to come. . .

Presidential candidates Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich

In the Republican and Democratic primaries, Reps. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) are the only ones who opposed the Iraq war authorization act in 2002 and both have been calling for US troops to be withdrawn and closing of the bases.

In the latest debate amongst the Republican presidential candidates on May 16, Paul was asked about his position.

MR. WALLACE: Congressman Paul, you’re one of six House Republicans who back in 2002 voted against authorizing President Bush to use force in Iraq.

REP. PAUL: Right.

MR. WALLACE: Now you say we should pull our troops out. A recent poll found that 77 percent of Republicans disapprove of the idea of setting a timetable for withdrawal. Are you running for the nomination of the wrong party? (Scattered laughter.)

REP. PAUL: But you have to realize that the base of the Republican Party shrunk last year because of the war issue. So that percentage represents less people. If you look at 65 to 70 percent of the American people, they want us out of there. They want the war over.

In 19- — 2002, I offered an amendment to International Relations to declare war, up or down, and it was — nobody voted for the war. And my argument there was, if we want to go to war, and if we should go to war, the Congress should declare it. We don’t go to war like we did in Vietnam and Korea, because the wars never end. And I argued the case and made the point that it would be a quagmire if we go in.

Ronald Reagan in 1983 sent Marines into Lebanon, and he said he would never turn tail and run. A few months later, the Marines were killed, 241 were killed, and the Marines were taken out. And Reagan addressed this subject in his memoirs. And he says, “I said I would never turn tail and run.” He says, “But I never realized the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics,” and he changed his policy there.

We need the courage of a Ronald Reagan.

Later, he took on the myth that the reason for the 9/11 attacks was that “they hate us for our freedoms” and in the a subsequent exchange refused to bow down to Giuliani’s grandstanding on this issue. (You can see the video of that clip here.)

MR. GOLER: Congressman Paul, I believe you are the only man on the stage who opposes the war in Iraq, who would bring the troops home as quickly as — almost immediately, sir. Are you out of step with your party? Is your party out of step with the rest of the world? If either of those is the case, why are you seeking its nomination?

REP. PAUL: Well, I think the party has lost its way, because the conservative wing of the Republican Party always advocated a noninterventionist foreign policy.

Senator Robert Taft didn’t even want to be in NATO. George Bush won the election in the year 2000 campaigning on a humble foreign policy — no nation-building, no policing of the world. Republicans were elected to end the Korean War. The Republicans were elected to end the Vietnam War. There’s a strong tradition of being anti-war in the Republican party. It is the constitutional position. It is the advice of the Founders to follow a non-interventionist foreign policy, stay out of entangling alliances, be friends with countries, negotiate and talk with them and trade with them.

Just think of the tremendous improvement — relationships with Vietnam. We lost 60,000 men. We came home in defeat. Now we go over there and invest in Vietnam. So there’s a lot of merit to the advice of the Founders and following the Constitution.

And my argument is that we shouldn’t go to war so carelessly. (Bell rings.) When we do, the wars don’t end.

MR. GOLER: Congressman, you don’t think that changed with the 9/11 attacks, sir?

REP. PAUL: What changed?

MR. GOLER: The non-interventionist policies.

REP. PAUL: No. Non-intervention was a major contributing factor. Have you ever read the reasons they attacked us? They attack us because we’ve been over there; we’ve been bombing Iraq for 10 years. We’ve been in the Middle East — I think Reagan was right.

We don’t understand the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics. So right now we’re building an embassy in Iraq that’s bigger than the Vatican. We’re building 14 permanent bases. What would we say here if China was doing this in our country or in the Gulf of Mexico? We would be objecting. We need to look at what we do from the perspective of what would happen if somebody else did it to us. (Applause.)

MR. GOLER: Are you suggesting we invited the 9/11 attack, sir?

REP. PAUL: I’m suggesting that we listen to the people who attacked us and the reason they did it, and they are delighted that we’re over there because Osama bin Laden has said, “I am glad you’re over on our sand because we can target you so much easier.” They have already now since that time — (bell rings) — have killed 3,400 of our men, and I don’t think it was necessary.

MR. GIULIANI: Wendell, may I comment on that? That’s really an extraordinary statement. That’s an extraordinary statement, as someone who lived through the attack of September 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq. I don’t think I’ve heard that before, and I’ve heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th. (Applause, cheers.)

And I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn’t really mean that. (Applause.)

MR. GOLER: Congressman?

REP. PAUL: I believe very sincerely that the CIA is correct when they teach and talk about blowback. When we went into Iran in 1953 and installed the shah, yes, there was blowback. A reaction to that was the taking of our hostages and that persists. And if we ignore that, we ignore that at our own risk. If we think that we can do what we want around the world and not incite hatred, then we have a problem.

They don’t come here to attack us because we’re rich and we’re free. They come and they attack us because we’re over there. I mean, what would we think if we were — if other foreign countries were doing that to us?

Paul is quite right on the facts about the reasons for the attacks. Bin Laden published a fatwa in 1996 outlining his reasons for ‘declaring war’ on America. The pundits were surprised when in an (unscientific) Fox News poll on who won held immediately after the debate, Paul polled second (with 25%) to Romney’s 29%, after having even led at one point.

What was appalling was the enthusiastic response that some in the crowd gave when Giuliani and Sam Brownback and Mitt Romney and Duncan Hunter implicitly but enthusiastically supported torture and the denial of due process.

You can see Dennis Kucinich express his views on Bill Maher’s show and also see former Alaska governor Mike Gravel (also seeking the Democratic nomination) challenge strongly the bipartisan consensus on the war.

There have been rumors that Paul and Gravel may not be invited to future debates. That would be a travesty because it is only people like them who are really challenging the banalities uttered by the so-called leading candidates, since the media has abandoned that role.