Oh, no. I’ve got to add another book to my growing stack: Frederick Crews’ Follies of the Wise: Dissenting Essays(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). If you knew how many books are piling up on that shelf…
Here’s a piece of Jerry Coyne’s review:
The quality of Crewss prose is particularly evident in his two chapters on evolution versus creationism. In the first, he takes on creationists in their new guise as intelligent-design advocates, chastising them for pushing not only bad science, but contorted faith:
Intelligent design awkwardly embraces two clashing deities one a glutton for praise and a dispenser of wrath, absolution, and grace, the other a curiously inept cobbler of species that need to be periodically revised and that keep getting snuffed out by the very conditions he provided for them. Why, we must wonder, would the shaper of the universe have frittered away some fourteen billion years, turning out quadrillions of useless stars, before getting around to the one thing he really cared about, seeing to it that a minuscule minority of earthling vertebrates are washed clean of sin and guaranteed an eternal place in his company?
But after demolishing creationists, Crews gives peacemaking scientists their own hiding, reproving them for trying to show that there is no contradiction between science and theology. Regardless of what they say to placate the faithful, most scientists probably know in their hearts that science and religion are incompatible ways of viewing the world. Supernatural forces and events, essential aspects of most religions, play no role in science, not because we exclude them deliberately, but because they have never been a useful way to understand nature. Scientific truths are empirically supported observations agreed on by different observers. Religious truths, on the other hand, are personal, unverifiable and contested by those of different faiths. Science is nonsectarian: those who disagree on scientific issues do not blow each other up. Science encourages doubt; most religions quash it.
How can I possibly resist it?
I know that science is incompatible with most religions. And I side with science, obviously. Nonetheless, when talking to creationist Christians, I will pretend that they are not. I care more about their embracing evolution than their rejecting religion. Is that bad? All of the Miller/Collins/theistic evolution discussions have made me wonder about priorities.
I’m a little more gentle about it – science is incompatible with literalist religion that tries to treat their scripture/legends as literal fact instead of metaphor.
The less literalist types I know have little difficulty integrating modern day science into their world view as things change. They still rely upon their religious faith to give them a grounding in moral and ethical issues.
PZ Myers says
Whoops. Why should religion give anyone grounding in moral or ethical issues? It’s like saying, “Well, I’ll give those people a pass because they’re Sailor Moon fans, and everyone knows Sailor Moon is a sound basis for ethical thought.”
David Harmon says
PZ, there are a fair number of religions that don’t go around blowing each other up. Unless you intend to hold Quakers, UUs, and Deists accountable for fundamentalist terrorism, you need to recognize at least some distinctions.
Also, human beings have no problem maintaining contradictory ideas simultaneously. The same neurology and epiphenomena that allow you to allow for the existence of unlikely hypotheses, or consider “how things would be” under a counterfactual (SF!), can also be used to maintain contradictory beliefs without demanding logical consistency.
Of course, when overtrained or overtaxed, this same cognitive facility (like any other) can also contribute to various mental disorders….
j writes, “I care more about their embracing evolution than their rejecting religion. Is that bad?”
My own view is that that priority is misplaced. I see no reason that most people should “embrace” evolution any more than that they embrace Dirac notation for quantum mechanics or the theory of complexity hierarchies.
The real issue is rational investigation versus faith. Evolution percolates to the surface of these debates only because it is the scientific theory that most collides with various religious views. But it’s not just evolution. Young-earth creationists also oppose geology, astronomy, climatology, and archaeology. When one believes the earth is 6,000 years old, there’s hardly a direction to look that doesn’t conflict with that belief! Any scientific finding regarding sex is likely to trigger opposition from a wide variety of religious and political groups. Sometimes from opposing direction. A genetic study was pulled from a scientific journal — after publication! — when it showed the not suprising result that Jews native to Israel were more closely related to Palestinians than to returning Jews. There are myriad areas where sciences collides with a variety of religious beliefs.
Yes, obviously, we do want to keep evolution in the biology classroom, and creationism out of it. But the core conflict will remain, and will emerge again and again, even if all religious believers were to reconcile themselves with evolution. The problem isn’t evolution. The problem is faith-based belief in myth. There is a some sense, of course, in which biologists have a greater interest in defending evolution, geologists in defending plate tectonics, and astronomers in defending the age of the universe. Without castigating the natural interest in one’s own field, I would say that is a fairly narrow viewpoint. The larger issue is more important. It’s not just evolution that needs defending, but reason. It’s not creationism that is the enemy, but faith.
Well, it’s nice to see that the idea is catching on. I’ve never really pretended that the suspension of critical faculties involved in the practice of religion wasn’t incompatible with an empirical philosophy. This summer I watched, through an act of sheer will, an interview of Michael Ruse, a priest, and two HHMI researchers as they hedged and appeased and let Ruse run his mouth unchecked. I probably wouldn’t mind that kind of fence-riding if it didn’t involve the demonization of Stephen Weinberg and Richard Dawkins at every opportunity. When you need scapegoats, your case probably isn’t very sound.
And really, I can understand religious folk not liking Dawkins very much. But Weinberg’s non-militant atheism seems to be, in the minds of these people, just as much of a failing. Thr fact he’s remained friends with John Polkinghorne seems to cause these zealots of the fence-rail no nevermind.
Pete K says
Well firstly, I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to guess what scientists “probably know in their hearts”.
Secondly, I’d say that, OF COURSE “… supernatural forces and events …” (whatever they are supposed to be) have no place in science, because science BY DEFINITION only deals with the NATURAL world. Any supernatural intervention would by definition be beyond its aegis anyway. (Science can explain everything except itself. Or maybe it can?)
And thirdly, I’d say that deism avoids all the centuries of conflicts between science and faith anyway (since the deistic God merely supervises the laws of nature, and is totally separate from reality)…
Yeah, but I am. And so are the statistics:
“Yes, yes”, I hear people say, “That was only a study of the National Academy, and probably not indicative of the general mentality of scientists.” Fine. At least we know where the best scientists stand on the issue.
Jim Harrison says
What really makes it hard to reconcile science and religion is the absence of the Gods–can’t do anything about that. On the other hand, relgion is not just a matter of belief in a series of statements, it is a system of behavior that includes ritual ways of dealing with the more alarming things that happen to people such as birth, death, and marriage. It may be that what bothers a lot of folks about secularism is the suspicion that we’re going to end up putting Uncle Ernie out in the trash when we find him dead in the living room. We can address this concern.
Dr. Spinoza says
Having just gotten booted off of Uncommon Descent, I find myself back over here.
How would this strike you:
I’m considering this point of view; I think it has something very attractive about it, and I’d like to know what those here make of it.
Hell, that’s just stupid. Everyone knows we darwinocommies hug trees and worship dirt. We’d throw him on the compost heap.
Organic entepreneurs are already ahead of you:
Bronze Dog says
Ginormous problem with this: Ethics is proscriptive. Science is descriptive. They’re talking about different things: Ethics is about the way the world should be, and science is about how things are.
Religion tries to do both: I don’t object religion playing the proscriptive role (though I often object, quite vehemently, to some of the proscriptions), but when they play the descriptive role, they’re overstepping their bounds, unless the religion is restricting its descriptive power to scientific methods.
Of course, “supernatural” things are outside of science because, by some common definitions, they either don’t exist, or don’t have effects.
I’m not willing to let religion be something stored safely in a box labeled “untouchable” and “out-of-bounds” and “not to be discussed” by science.
When that happens, the religions start to claim they are “rational.” People say: “Religion is the equal of science.” People begin to see parallels between what the Bible says and what astropysicists discover. Whatever is unexplained by science becomes the domain of religion. Religion declares it has exclusive dominion over the ethical side of life.
No thanks. If religion is belief in miracles (73%) and transubstantiation (70%) and heaven (70%), religion is a crock and scientists should do all they can to fight it.
Six in ten American believe the Devil exists!
68% believe in angels!
The virgin birth: 58%.
How many more centuries will have to pass before this religious hokum is no longer accepted? Why are we still living in a mental Middle Ages? Dawkins is right to mock. It’s ridiculous that so many people walk around with such primitive ideas in their heads.
Dr. Spinoza says
It’s true that ethical claims are prescriptive, and that scientific claims are descriptive. But unless one wants to subscribe to some version of emotivism with respect to ethics, ethical claims are still claims to truth. And if ethical claims are claims to truth, but distinct from scientific claims, then it becomes harder to insist that religion also be excluded.
I also think that the line between the descriptive and the prescriptive can be awfully fuzzy; every prescriptive claim includes a descriptive one, and every descriptive claim carries with it the force of “therefore, one should believe it.”
By the way, I construe my proposal as consistent with a secular ethics — I have no interest in saying that only religion provides an adequate justification or motivation for ethical life. My own temperament is like that of William James: fascinated by religion, but looking at it from the outside.
Why should religion give anyone grounding in moral or ethical issues? It’s like saying, “Well, I’ll give those people a pass because they’re Sailor Moon fans, and everyone knows Sailor Moon is a sound basis for ethical thought.”
I must take issue with your inference here, PZ. I was describing how these people incorporate their faith into their lives, not making any assessment of their individual ethics.
I don’t give them “a pass” on their moral/ethics because of their religiousity, but rather I treat each individually based on their behaviour which has been both morally and ethically reasoned in my view. If they derive the foundations of their moral/ethical believes from their faith, I don’t have a big problem with that, to the extent that they are reasonable about it.
Literalists tend not to be overly reasonable – their approach to religious belief precludes any flexibility of thought.
Religious “truths” may be at first personal, but if they were truly so, there would be no conflict with other collective truths, particularly science, because the “truths” would be, well, particularistic. Because religion indulges in the tribal/cultish/herd mentality of demanding conformity of belief, and of damning those not in conformity, its model of collective truth conflicts with and cannot coexist on even terms with that of science. Science works modestly and patiently, and it relies on an absolute democracy of evidence: a single validly executed dissenting observation from anyone can upset the provisional collective truth. As a result we have the gnawing science envy that fearful and uncomprehending religionists alternately imitate and pervert.
Steve LaBonne says
I’ll have to acquire this one myself. I greatly admire Crews for his meticulous debunking efforts on Freudianism and “recovered memory”, and he writes marvelously.
I’ve read the section on Creationism and it’s good stuff. I especially enjoyed his take on Ruse, Miller and Gould and their attempts to bridge the divide between science and religion. Having not read their respective books I was kind of shocked by just how hokey they are.
Dr. Spinoza writes, “It’s true that ethical claims are prescriptive, and that scientific claims are descriptive. But unless one wants to subscribe to some version of emotivism with respect to ethics, ethical claims are still claims to truth.”
Part of the problem here is that the word “truth” carries a variety of meanings. But in the sense that “truth” concerns how things are, ethical claims are not truth-valued. The very meaning of prescriptive is otherwise. There is no way to deduce an ethical rule from purely positive claims. Hume explaine that quite well two and a half centuries past. Every such claimed deduction always includes some ethical assumption, whether stated or not.
“I also think that the line between the descriptive and the prescriptive can be awfully fuzzy; every prescriptive claim includes a descriptive one..”
“And every descriptive claim carries with it the force of ‘therefore,’ one should believe it.”
No, it doesn’t. It is a common assumption that people should believe what has been demonstrated true. But that prescription is not entailed or derivable from or otherwise “carried” by a descriptive claim.
Dr. Spinoza says
There’s something right in Hume’s “one cannot derive an ought from an is” rule. But it doesn’t follow from that, that ethical claims are not themselves truth-claims. If one says “murder is wrong,” one is making a claim to truth, because (a) one is asserting that murder is wrong and (b) truth is implicit in assertion.
It can get very tricky, and different theories of truth and of meaning will allow for different moves. But the more I consider the matter, the more I’m attracted to the thought that radical reconstructions of ordinary language need a well-grounded justification. And it is part of our ordinary language that ethical claims are claims to truth. In order to reconstruct such claims so that they turn out not to be claims to truth, but rather expressions of attitude or of emotion, one would need to have in place a well-grounded justification. Simply saying that ethical properties (justness, goodness, rightness, wrongness) have no place within “the view from nowhere” (Thomas Nagel) or “the absolute conception of the world” (Bernard Williams) isn’t enough, because it’s left open why such a conception should be privileged.
I should have said that ethical judgments require both prescriptive claims and descriptive claims. I see a child being beaten, and I say, “that’s wrong.” In defense of that ethical judgment, I rely on both the prescriptive claim, “mistreating children is wrong” and the descriptive claim, “being a child is mistreatment.” Without the descriptive, all I have a prescriptive claim that’s hanging in mid-air, so to speak, unconnected from how things are.
But that prescription is not entailed or derivable from or otherwise “carried” by a descriptive claim.
Granted, but it’s part of the performative. If I were to say “p, but don’t believe p” you’d rightly note that my constative act undermined my performative one, and I’d be caught in a performative contradiction.
Dr. Spinoza writes, “If I were to say ‘p, but don’t believe p’ you’d rightly note that my constative act undermined my performative one, and I’d be caught in a performative contradiction.”
A “performative contradiction” is a psychological labelling. Maybe also relevant to the performing arts. It should not be confused with a logical contradiction, or applied in philosophical argument as such. It is easy to describe scenarios where someone believes some fact p, but does not want other people to believe p. It takes a little more imagination, but not beyond a good novelist’s, to draw scenarios where someone asserts p at one moment to a listener, and then the next is encouraging them not to believe p. Whatever ethical or psychological issues one applies to that, they are not carried by the fact p.
“If one says ‘murder is wrong,’ one is making a claim to truth, because (a) one is asserting that murder is wrong and (b) truth is implicit in assertion.”
Obviously, the interpretation of such a statement will depend on the context in which it is used. One interpretation that works well in a variety of circumstances is that the speaker holds ethical principles or framework, within which murder is wrong. In actual use, the speaker is trying to advocate their principles. “Murder” is always going to be wrong, because the meaning of “murder” is wrong killing. So people say “murder is wrong” precisely where they want that judgment to apply: pro-lifers when discussing abortion, pacifists when discussing war, opponents to capital punishment when discussing executions, etc.
Of course, the people who say this are hoping that their statement will be persuasive about how they delineate what killing is wrong. It rarely is persuasive. Part of the reason it’s not persusasive is precisely that so many cannot separate the moral principles they are trying to advocate from fact, and that makes their own views pretty confused.
Anonymous for Now says
The ineffable, ultimate Deity (there is only one, but with tripartite symmetry) was really fascinated by single celled life.
Kept the Omnscient one busy for a billion years, just watching the little buggers float around.
Then one day, one of these prokaryotes prayed, and “Shazam!” they became Eukaryotes.
Keith Douglas says
Dr. Spinoza: Some problems. One is that some religious claims are not normative. We’ve mentioned the claim “and an immortal soul was inserted” in previous threads, so look back there for my remarks about it. Second is that by divorcing ethics from science suggests that one cannot use one’s scientific findings to improve ethical evaluation. (I admit that this requires a weak consequentialism, but even a deontologist like Rawls is a consequentialist this far.) Third, the way I see what you presented is essentially an argument from analogy: Ethical concepts are X; religious concepts are X. Therefore if we accept ethical concepts we should accept religious ones because they are both X. Well, what makes them otherwise similar? People claim to enjoy religious literature as literature. People enjoy Shakespeare as literature. Should we adopt the factual claims made by characters in Shakespeare’s plays for that reason?
Off-but-actually-kind-of-on-topic, PZ’s review and recommendation some time ago for “Bones, Rocks, and Stars. The Science of When Things Happened” by Chris Turney was spot on.
I just finished this book, and it was very informative and written so that an intelligent layperson (like myself?) can understand.
Ramsey Wilson says
Using this terminology, is there a scientific “truth” concerning the origin of the universe?
Desert Donkey says
… dont you mean “is there a scientific ‘truth’ concerning the origin of matter.
If you are looking for the origin of ‘God’, than you need look no further than the clever machinations of mankind. He is, after all, made in our image. Of course this means that ‘God’ did not preceed matter … or the universe if you want to think small.
Loren Petrich says
As to literal-mindedness, I once knew of a believer in Scientology who believed that movies like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were literal history that took place in previous reincarnations of those movies’ creators.
Something like this is a common belief among Scientologists, at least according to Wikipedia’s Space Opera in Scientology Doctrine; “Hubbard claimed that the modern-day science fiction genre of space opera is merely an unconscious recollection of real events from millions of years ago.”
truth machine says
If one says “murder is wrong,” one is making a claim to truth, because (a) one is asserting that murder is wrong and (b) truth is implicit in assertion.
No, one is merely stating a preference: “murder is wrong” is equivalent to “I dislike murder”. Wrongness is not an intrinsic quality of an action, so the statement cannot have a truth value.
truth machine says
“Murder” is always going to be wrong, because the meaning of “murder” is wrong killing.
Actually, murder is illegal killing. But there are many cases where people consider murder not to be wrong; for instance, murders of doctors who do abortions are considered by their perpetrators, among others, as not being wrong. Another example is that there are now 14 states where killing an intruder in your home when you could avoid doing so is legal; in the rest of the states it is not. But surely such killings are not right or wrong depending solely on which states they they are committed in.
truth machine says
But the more I consider the matter, the more I’m attracted to the thought that radical reconstructions of ordinary language need a well-grounded justification. And it is part of our ordinary language that ethical claims are claims to truth.
You don’t need a radical reconstruction of ordinary language, you just need to avoid such obvious misconstruals of it. “Chocolate tastes better than vanilla”, if interpreted as a truth claim, is a truth claim about the speaker’s preferences. The same goes for other preferential language, like “torture is wrong” or “interrogating someone by stripping them and putting them into cold bare room with the Red Hot Chili Peppers playing at ear splitting volume in an attempt to get information about planned terrorist attacks is not wrong”. “wrong” here simply means “something I disapprove of”, but it is stated in this form in an attempt to give one’s own opinions the power of absolute truth. This, of course, is the same game that religious people (or pretenders) use to give their personal opinions and preferences an authority that they don’t have.
David Harmon says
Folks, social norms are quite amenable to observation — even measurement. Of course, the results of those observations are sometimes unexpected, but what else is new? “Murder is wrong” doesn’t reduce to “I don’t like killing”, it reduces to “(I claim that) killing someone without proper (social/legal) justification, will draw the hostility, and likely retaliation, of most humans you’re likely to encounter”.
Great essay by Jerry Coyne. I am definitely going to read the book. But near the end of the essay Coyne wrote this jarring sentence:
truth machine writes, “No, one is merely stating a preference: ‘murder is wrong’ is equivalent to ‘I dislike murder.'”
That doesn’t quite work, because people distinguish between their likes and their moral notions, and often act quite differently regarding the two. Martha Stewart might intensely dislike plaids with stripes, but would never think of making it a felony for someone to wear that combination, or viewing someone as evil because they do so. At least, I hope not. Her views of stealing someone’s car likely is quite different. Not simply more intense, but qualitatively different. I hesitate to guess what she thinks of insider trading. ;-)
If you were to expand the statement “murder is wrong,” ignoring context, the more accurate attempt would be “I hold to a code of morality, and according to that code of morality, murder is wrong.”
“Actually, murder is illegal killing. But there are many cases where people consider murder not to be wrong; for instance, murders of doctors who do abortions are considered by their perpetrators, among others, as not being wrong.”
Well, I would say you’ve now dived down to the point where the term is amphibolous. The proof is that you easily understand this next sentence: They may recognize their act as murder under the laws of the US, but not as murder in the moral sense. Laws, of course, are meant to be formal rules that prescribe a system of judgment and punishment or recompense for acts a state decides are wrong to such a degree that they need said level of recognition.
Frank Habets says
My other big peeve after creationsim is Freudian malarky. So here we have essays debunking both of these under one book — a must-buy for me!
TorbjÃ¶rn Larsson says
John Polkinghorne, “dual aspect monism”?! Sounds very much like Chalmers ideas of the mind which tries to hide the assumed dualism by arguing against physicalism instead of facing naturalism and the physical laws of science.
“Science can explain everything except itself. Or maybe it can?”
Science is based on a method, so it is motivated (“explained”) by its success.
But certainly there are models of science too, on different levels. For a basic one, see http://pancake.uchicago.edu/~carroll/nd-paper.html . The model is compatible with science, unambiguous and complete, and is falsifiable in principle. (It claims it is a full description.)
“I’d say that deism avoids all the centuries of conflicts between science and faith anyway”
Deism and fideism seems to be based on cosmological (origin) and/or teleological (design and purpose) arguments. Origin, design and purpose are subsumed of todays science, we have possible alternative explanations.
Cremation, or more environmentally friendly freeze drying ( http://www.promessa.se/index_en.asp ), followed by burial at a secular green burial ground are also popular.
By *that* standard, atheism and homosexuality have been morally wrong in most societies and possibly still are today. In fact, this is nothing more than a restatement of social relativism – whatever most people believe is morally wrong, *is* morally wrong.
It’s troubling that this is no worse than any other definition that anyone has come up with in thousands of years of studying this problem.
It seems to me that the reason why some people claim moral statements lack a truth value is that the terms that go into them are not well-defined. “‘Snow is white’ is true if snow is white” is all very well if you have an independent ability to test objects for whiteness. But unless you posess a working wrongometer, you can’t apply a similar standard to see what is and isn’t wrong.
Most humans have a strong instinctive tendency to believe that some acts are Really Right and others are Really Wrong and that there’s more going on than their personal preference (and in the common case when someone else’s moral beliefs differ from theirs, their own are “obviously” right and the others’ are wrong).
But “most humans have an instinctive tendency to believe X” is not evidence for X. There is no actual evidence that moral absolutism is real and therefore, by the same logic that PZ proclaims we should all leave gods out of our thinking until we have evidence for them, we should likewise act as moral nihilists until we have good reason to believe otherwise.
The available evidence is much more consistent with “good” and “evil” being subjective judgments than being actual (observable or otherwise) properties of objects, conditions or actions. So why isn’t it intellectually irresponsible to assume the contrary?
It’s simple to prove that the actions of certain people five years ago today were harmful, using common definitions of “harmful”. But while some people viewed them (and probably still view them) as righteous, many others view them as horrible and wicked. Without assuming the conclusion, how do you resolve the difference of opinion? And if you can’t even prove the wrongness of mass murder without hiding an assumption under the rug, how can you say that anything is “really” right or wrong?
Like most people, I have instinctive moral feelings, but when I engage my faculty for rational thought, I have a hard time giving them any more credibility than my instinctive feelings that the earth is standing still and the sun is moving through the sky.
“How can you say that anything is ‘really’ right or wrong?”
Let’s be clear that the problem is much more than determining which standard expresses the “really” right. Rather, it is that no one has been able to say what that expression — “really” right — means.