There’s something obvious missing from this argument…

Andrew Brown does it again, and writes another clueless screed against one of those damned atheist scientists, in this case Harry Kroto. It’s a common sort of objection, that these scientists are all mere logical positivists (or as Brown prefers to label them, “illogical positivists”), and as we all know, the philosophers have rejected logical positivism, therefore he’s wrong. But that’s only because bad philosophers and Andrew Brown only seem able to view scientists through the lens of philosophy, not as scientists, and rather consistently screw up their perceptions in odd ways. It’s like watching poets trying to interpret plumbers, criticizing them on an arcane insistence on patterns and rhythms, not noticing that the plumbers really, really don’t care, and their criteria for accomplishment is that the pipes don’t leak, not whether they fit into a neo-classical archetype or what-the-frack-ever.

So here’s the gist of Brown’s irrelevant complaint:

By the standards of very clever men who believe some very silly things, Harry Kroto is a quite unremarkable scientist. Unlike some other Nobel prize winners, he is not an enthusiastic Nazi, a Stalinist, a eugenicist, or even a believer in ESP. He did play a prominent, and I think disgraceful part in the agitation to have Michael Reiss sacked from a job at the Royal Society for being a priest. But the video of his speech at the Nobel laureates meeting this year in Lindau, Austria, is something else. Much of it is great stuff about working for love, not money; and about the importance of art, but around eight minutes in he goes off the rails. First there is a slide saying (his emphases): “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability.” Think about this for a moment. Is it a scientific statement? No. Can it therefore be relied on as true? No.

But formal paradoxes have one advantage well known to logicians, which is that you can use them to prove anything, as Kroto proceeds to demonstrate. Or, as he puts it: “Without evidence, anything goes.” Remember, he has just defined truth (or TRUTH) as something that can only be established scientifically. So nothing he says about ethics or intellectual integrity after that need be taken in the least bit seriously. It may be true, but there is no scientific way of knowing this and he doesn’t believe there is any other way of knowing anything reliably.

It is not an auspicious beginning to announce that at least your target isn’t a Nazi, and to bring up a completely irrelevant issue (on which I also disagreed with Kroto); it’s a bit of poisoning the well with a taste of ad hominem. But let’s cut straight to the statement Brown finds objectionable: “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability.” And there, I disagree with Brown completely: it is an eminently scientific statement. It may make philosophers gack up their breakfast, but who cares?

Science is a process of empirical rationalism that produces testable answers about the nature of the universe. We learn new knowledge, knowledge that actually holds up to critical scrutiny and testing against the real world. The pipes don’t leak — not much, anyway, and we have a method that allows us to test and tighten everything up. And yes, we have evidence that it is true: I can show you a cell phone that uses the principles of quantum physics, I can show you statistics on infant mortality that are improved by vaccinations and antibiotics and hygiene. We have progressively deeper understanding of ourselves and our environment that is produced by this powerful tool.

Science works. That is the criterion for saying it is a way “to determine truth with any degree of reliability.” That is a valid statement, and yes it can be relied on as true, in the scientist’s sense of the word: provisionally and usefully. Both of Brown’s denials were simply wrong.

But there’s another part of Kroto’s statement that bugs Brown, and that he doesn’t really address. This is the missing part of his argument, and the one he fills in by telling us that we were expected to giggle at the claim…the idea that science is the only useful tool we have.

The illogical positivism of Kroto’s talk is symptomatic of a widespread problem. Although Kroto is exceptional in his self-confidence and lack of intellectual self-awareness – few other people would state as baldly as he does that science is the only way to establish the truth – no one in the audience seems to have reacted with a healthy giggle. They may have felt there was something a bit off about the idea, but the full absurdity was veiled by layers of deference and convention. The great attraction of telling everyone else to think, to question, and to take nothing for granted is that it makes a very pleasant substitute for doing these things yourself.

You know, if someone tells me there is only one way of doing something, and I want to show that they’re wrong, the very first thing I think of is to demonstrate an alternative. If someone were to say something truly false and giggleworthy, like for instance, “all cats are black,” what I’d do is go out and find a Siamese and a white Persian and wave them in his face. Isn’t that obvious?

I have often heard apologists wax indignant at statements by scientists that science, that is this kind of objective, constantly tested, empirical rationalism, is the only way to determine the truth of a matter. Usually it’s theologians who want to insist that they have another path. But never do they actually show me something about which we have reliable knowledge that was not determined by observing, measuring, poking, testing, evaluating, verifying…all that stuff that is part of common, mundane science.

So show me something that we reliably know without testing it against consequences in the real world, and then maybe I’ll see the joke here. Of course, if you tell me “love” or “ethics”, the usual answers I get from the clueless, I’ll giggle at you, instead.


Jerry Coyne also has an opinion — we seem to be thinking alike. Also, just like me, he can’t watch the Kroto video either, because the Lindau group insists that we install some awful Microsoft abomination called “silverlight” or something.

The fascinating logic of Cosmic Pluralism

Weird ideas can flourish if enough people share a false preconception, and here’s a marvelous article on the history and philosophy of widely held certainty that other planets were inhabited by people. Not just any people, either: good Christian people.

By the 1700s, there could no longer be any doubt. Earth was just one of many worlds orbiting the Sun, which forced scientists and theologians alike to ponder a tricky question. Would God really have bothered to create empty worlds?

To many thinkers, the answer was an emphatic “no,” and so cosmic pluralism – the idea that every world is inhabited, often including the Sun – was born. And this was no fringe theory. Many of the preeminent astronomers of the 18th and 19th century, including Uranus discoverer Sir William Herschel, believed in it wholeheartedly, as did other legendary thinkers like John Locke and Benjamin Franklin. How could so many geniuses believe in something so silly?

It’s a good read. The key idea that was leading everyone to this patently false conclusion was teleology, the notion that everything in the universe had a purpose, coupled to another belief, that that purpose had to be us.

Lest you think this is just ancient history and that we’ve moved beyond it, here’s a story about a contemporary crank with peculiar ideas about alien life.

Speaking at an international forum dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life, Finkelstein said 10 percent of the known planets circling suns in the galaxy resemble Earth.

If water can be found there, then so can life, he said, adding that aliens would most likely resemble humans with two arms, two legs and a head.

“They may have different color skin, but even we have that,” he said.

Andrei Finkelstein runs a program that resembles SETI — and if I wanted to start a real argument here I’d tell you that SETI is about as quaintly absurd as Herschel’s belief that people lived on the moon. So I won’t tell you that. Yet.

I owe Nicholas Humphrey an apology

When I critized Mary Midgley the other day for her sloppy critique of Nicholas Humphrey, I also pointed out that Humphrey had apparently indulged in some unfortunate hyperbole himself, saying “So successful has it been that many scientists would now say, and even fear, that there will soon be little left for them to do.” Which is patently ridiculous, of course: every scientist I know is painfully aware of all the stuff that they don’t know.

What I didn’t take into account was that Midgley might have quote-mined him. I shouldn’t have underestimated a woman who can discern the entire content of a book from a glance at the title! Humphrey has sent a letter to the Guardian pointing out a few specific problems with Midgley’s article. It hasn’t been published yet, but here it is anyway:

Mary Midgley has been attacking me in the Guardian for twenty five years or more. But her latest piece (Face to Faith, 28th August) takes the biscuit for misrepresentation. She quotes passages from my 1994 book Soul Searching about how science has sometimes claimed to be able to provide “a sufficient explanation for everything”. What she fails to say is that in these passages I was describing how things looked to over-ambitious natural philosophers at the end of the 18th century, and how this set the stage for a romantic reaction and in particular for spiritualism and psychical research.

She goes on to say that, rather than trying to provide a scientific solution to the mind-body problem we should be trying “to understand the relation between our inner and outer life . . . and how to face life as a whole”. If she had been paying attention she might have noticed that in my own more more recent writings, such as Seeing Red (2006), I have begun to argue that the solution to the mind-body problem lies in the very mysteriousness of consciousness and how this changes our world-view. Since she has quoted at such length from a book I wrote 17 years ago, let me answer with these words from the cover of my new book Soul Dust (Quercus, forthcoming): “Humphrey returns to the front-line with a startling new theory. Consciousness, he argues, is nothing less than a magical-mystery show that we stage for ourselves inside our own heads. This self-made show lights up the world for us and makes us feel special and transcendant. Thus consciousness paves the way for spirituality, and allows us, as human beings, to reap the rewards, and anxieties, of living in what Humphrey calls the ‘soul niche’.”

I’m making a mental note to treat everything I see coming from Midgley with even more doubt and cynicism in the future.

An interesting thread tangent

The indefatigable Kurzweil threads do occasionally spawn some interesting discussion, and the latest has gone down a few odd byways thanks to this comment by Cerberus:

Creating a robotic brain to “download your consciousness” into or the “I’ll make a clone version of myself with all my memories” sci-fi fiction immortality ideas are kinda false immortalities.

It’s at best, assuming a complete successful procedure a process of ending one’s consciousness so that a puppet version of yourself can emulate your life possibly for all eternity.

Great, but what does that do for real you?

Real you is just as dead and gone and unable to be a part of and appreciate what your puppet is doing in its absence. I’m sure this has been repeatedly addressed in the various thread wars during my absence, but it seems kind of stupid.

I’d love to extend lifespans, I’d love to live forever if that was possible, but as long as we’re talking fantasies, asking for the power to fart sparkly flying unicorns seems less stupid than asking for a robot facsimile to live forever on your behalf.

I mean, if you’re going to be all cult about this, pick something that wouldn’t be completely contrary to your intended desire if you got it.

I would imagine that any ‘brain scan’ (the currently hypothesized method du jour for turning an organic brain into a digital analog in a computer) that broke it down to a sufficiently complete description of the whole state of the brain, would have to be destructive — you’d have to submit yourself to an imaginary technology that would rapidly peel you apart, molecule by molecule, to create a precisely specified copy. That’s death. That’s being disintegrated.

Now if there were a complementary technology that allowed a complete reassembly of a previously recorded state into a physical form, that would be interesting, and I’d argue that the perceived continuity of consciousness would mean you’d be disintegrated and reintegrated, and there’d be no perception of death, but there’d be no point to it unless it were used as some kind of transporter device ala Star Trek, or a way to store a person long term without the corpsicle problem.

But then, Star Trek always let me down — if they could do that, they should have made a few dozen copies of Captain Kirk and sent them out to conquer the universe.

Then there are all the followup concerns about identity and self in a world of cloned minds. I like the classic SMBC answer that ends with this punch line:

i-59795d4ef49586a4b0c379452c378b24-philo_engineers.jpeg

It isn’t an exclusionary filter, it’s a standard of quality

In my week long visit to Ireland, I only had one encounter that left a bad taste in my mouth. Everyone I talked to was forthright and willing to state their views clearly, even if I thought they were dead wrong and rather stupid (my radio interview with Tom McGurk comes to mind — he was an unpleasant person more interested in barking loudly than having a conversation, but his views were plain), and most of my conversations were fun and interesting. The one exception was with a creationist in Belfast.

After my talk, this one furtive fellow who hadn’t had the nerve, apparently, to ask me anything in the public Q&A, came down front to confront me with his, errm, ‘irrefutable’ argument, which came straight from Answers in Genesis. I later learned that he’s one of the leaders of a creationist organization on campus.

He first declared that creationists and evolutionists all use the same evidence, we just differ in our presuppositions. AiG makes this claim all the time, and it’s complete nonsense. The creationists deny almost all of the evidence, using their catch-all excuse: if it contradicts the Bible, it is false. It’s not just a difference in starting premises, but a willingness on the part of the faith-based crowd to stick their fingers in their ears and shout “LA-LA-LA” at the majority of the reality-based evidence.

The only way to call it merely a difference in presuppositions is if they’re willing to admit that their fundamental presupposition is an unthinking obtusity.

That was just his prelude, though. His real goal was to try and trap me. He asked me if I admitted that the scientific position demands that we reject all alternative explanations — whether we can consider supernatural causes. I’ve thought about this before, and I told him no. I am willing to consider other possibilities, if someone provides a useful, testable, confirmable means for evaluating truth claims.

Then I asked him what alternative method to science he was suggesting.

He didn’t give me one — he simply announced with a grin that he was just confirming that I automatically rejected alternative explanations, and as I repeated my simple statement, that no, I did not, but that he was obligated to explain what his alternative might be — after all, I reject tarot cards and entrails-reading as methods for interpreting the world, and it’s a bit silly to pretend that I should have blanket acceptance of just any alternative method without telling me what it is — he thanked me for confirming his opinion and the sneaky little git scuttled away.

That’s what I detest most. Lying weasels who won’t listen honestly, and especially won’t even speak honestly.

Anyway, what brought up this recollection was an interesting post on Sandwalk on methodological naturalism. It nicely points out that there is a convention in the scientific community that treats methodological naturalism as a straitjacket that arbitrarily binds us. I don’t think that’s true at all.

The principle of MN is often conceived of as an intrinsic and self-imposed limitation of science, as something that is part and parcel of the scientific enterprise by definition. According to this view (Intrinsic MN or IMN) – which is defended by people like Eugenie Scott, Michael Ruse and Robert Pennock and has been adopted in the ruling of Judge John E. Jones III in the Kitzmiller vs. Dover case – science is simply not equipped to deal with the supernatural and therefore has no authority on the issue. It is clear that this depiction of science and MN offers some perspectives for reconciling science and religion. Not surprisingly, IMN is often embraced by those sympathetic to religion, or by those who wish to alleviate the sometimes heated opposition between the two.

However, we will argue that this view of MN does not offer a sound rationale for the rejection of supernatural explanations. Alternatively, we will defend MN as a provisory and empirically grounded commitment of scientists to naturalistic causes and explanations, which is in principle revocable by future scientific findings (Qualified MN or QMN). In this view, MN is justified as a methodological guideline by virtue of the dividends of naturalistic explanation and the consistent failure of supernatural explanations in the history of science.

I think science is primarily a pragmatic approach that takes whatever tools work to build a better (as evaluated by testing against real-world observations) understanding of how the universe works. My major objection to creationism isn’t that it violates a set of dogmatic rules established by scientists playing a formal game, but that it provides no working alternative that I can use. The creationists mistake a series of assertions about history for a bank of operational methods for creating and answering new questions about the world.

Exclusion isn’t quite the right word for what we’re doing. Science’s job is to fill up the silos of the world with the grain of useful information, and we’ve found that applying the principles of the scientific method and operating under the guidelines of methodological naturalism means we’re productive: we can keep trundling up with wagonloads of corn and wheat and rice. The creationists are showing up with broken-down, essentially empty carts, containing nothing but chaff, a few dirt clods, and some fragrant manure, and they’re being turned away because they have nothing to contribute. You’re not being excluded if you have nothing to offer.

I imagine that Belfast creationist went back to his clique of ignorant pissants with a sense of triumph, and proudly announced that I had dogmaticly refused to include his offering of hot air and dust as nutritious and fit for a feast, and therefore was yet another tool of the establishment who unfairly discriminated against their way of knowing. Sorry, guy; a wealth of ignorance is no substitute for even a grain of knowledge.


Oh, cool: somebody standing there actually recorded the conversation in question.

Criticism deferred, but building. And no, my name is not Fermat.

Oh, no. Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini have written a book and opinion piece in which they try to claim that natural selection is a dying concept, and what do they use to justify that outrageous claim? Evo devo! That’s just nuts, and Mary Midgely compounds the crazy with terrible abuse of developmental biology — she seems to want to turn back the clock to the time of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, and throw out Jacob and Monod. I really get pissed off when I see people misusing the specialized ideas of evo devo as a replacement for, rather than an addition to, the framework of modern evolutionary theory.

I will be slashing up their nonsense at greater length, but I’m reading this in a hotel room when I should be finishing up my packing and getting my butt to the airport, and furthermore, the weather looks awful at my destination and I fear my transatlantic flight will be even longer and more uncertain than usual. For now, you’ll have to read Jerry Coyne’s brief stab at them and throw your own arguments down in the comments. I will return to this subject when I’m back in frigid blizzardy Minnesota.

The power of nonsense

Forgive me, readers, but Madeline Bunting has raised up her tiny, fragile pin-head again, and I must address her non-arguments once more. Well, not her non-arguments, actually, but the same tedious non-arguments the fans of superstition constantly trundle out. She was at some strange conference where only people who love religion spoke and came away with affirmations of the usual tripe. It’s as if the “New Atheists” have provoked a counter-attack by critics armored in pudding and armed with damp sponges.

…the Archbishop of Canterbury was brisk, and he warned, “beware of the power of nonsense”. Science’s triumphalist claim as a competitor to failed religion was dangerous. In contrast, he offered an accommodation in which science and religion were “different ways of knowing” and “what you come to know depends on the questions you start with”. Different questions lead to “different practices of learning” – for example different academic disciplines. Rather than competitors, science and religion were both needed to pursue different questions.

We’re quite aware of the power of nonsense — and I agree that it certainly has a powerful draw on some people, from those who frolic with fairies to the Archbishop of Canterbury. That’s the frightening element of this whole argument, that people get sucked into spiritual fol-de-rol and think they’re suddenly deep and perceptive thinkers, and that waving a little fluff at the atheists will make them run away.

We often get this vague claim that religion is a different methodology and a different way of knowing things, and that judging religion as a science is a category error. Very well: different way of knowing what? What are these different questions that they are asking, how do they propose answering them, and why should we think these questions are even worth asking, and that their answers are valid? They never seem to get around to the specifics.

I mean, religion might well be the only avenue for addressing the question of how many bicycles are being peddled by angels right now, but that’s because it’s an irrelevant question that doesn’t affect our lives or the universe in any way, doesn’t have any way of being answered, and is built around imaginary referents, “angels”, for which we don’t even have evidence of their existence. But if religion is a way of knowing, how do they know what the answer is? What is their methodology? How do they verify their answers? Why is it that every religion, and even every individual within a religion, comes up with different answers?

That’s an example of a trivial question, but the same problems apply to the big questions central to their beliefs. How do we even know that we need redemption from sin? Is sin even a valid concept? They can’t answer these questions in an independently verifiable way.

Even when they try to get specific, they are hopelessly vague.

The second question from the audience – from the philosopher Mary Midgley – was what comes next? What both science and religion needed, argued Conway Morris was a more fruitful conversation. He raised the possibility that religion might be needed to help develop understanding into questions which have baffled scientists such as the nature of consciousness. The future of science is a series of imponderables, he concluded, and it may require a set of scientific skills “of which we have no inkling at the moment.”

I think the fruitful conversation we need between science and religion is more of a loud roar from the science side to silence the lies of the faithful. This argument that we need more input from religion comes almost entirely from those already committed to the superstition — personally, I think we could use entirely less babbling gobbledygook from the apologists.

But Conway Morris’s suggestion is pointless. How will religion help us understand the nature of consciousness? Having someone assert that it is the product of ghosts, spirits, or other such invisible manifestations from some non-place outside our universe is, it has turned out, a useless, unproductive, and old, dead hypothesis. Just to suggest that we may need new ways of thinking to approach a complex problem does not imply in any way that a very old way of thinking has some utility.

People like Conway Morris keep claiming that science and religion are not only compatible, but that both are necessary. I don’t buy it. I have two simple questions for those who claim that the two are complementary.

  1. What specific fundamental principles of your religion do you actually use in your science? I don’t mean just general ethical principles, because atheists also have those, but tell me something specific about how you apply your religion to science?

  2. Do you apply scientific principles to your religion, and do you do so consistently? Do you, for instance, test religious claims with experiment?

When you put it that specifically, most of the religious scientists I know would unashamedly and rightly say that no, they practice science in the lab or field without expectation of an intervention by Jesus to change the results, and that no, turning the skeptical tools of science against their faith would be inappropriate, or that god is not subject to our scrutiny. This is not compatibility. This is tergiversation. The only way they can claim compatibility is by pointing out that some individuals practice both religion and science, like Simon Conway Morris, but that says nothing, since people are damned good at encompassing contradictions.

For a terrifying look at what we get with religion, turn to this a review of Karen Armstrong’s What Religion Really Means. What a promising title! We godless atheists are always being told that we don’t really understand the depth of religion, so a book that promises to clearly state what it is sounds like a welcome addition to the debate. Until, that is, you read what she says it means.

She draws on 2,000 years of Christian theology and mysticism to demonstrate rich alternative ideas of the divine. Back in the 4th century AD, long before Wittgenstein and Derrida, Bishop Basil of Caesarea understood all about the limits of language, and stated them rather more clearly, too. “Thought cannot travel outside was, nor imagination beyond beginning.” God is, by definition, infinitely beyond human language. Earlier still, the Christian scholar Origen (185-254) discussed the “incongruities and impossibilities” in scripture. The fact that Dawkins et al think that pointing out the Bible’s imperfections undermine Jewish or Christian belief only demonstrates their ignorance of the traditions they presume to undermine. Of course it’s not meant to be understood literally, the early Christians seem to sigh across the centuries.

Armstrong further shows how even the words “I believe” have changed, and become scientised, to mean “I assert these propositions to be empirically correct.” Yet the original Greek pisteuo means something much more like “I give my heart and my loyalty.” In the gospels, she says, quoting the great German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus himself sees God not as “an object of thought or speculation, but as an existential demand”.

What a sodden pile of words rendered meaningless by the attempt to bloat their meaning.

Yes, we know that many rarefied theologians believe in a lot of airy nonsense, but let’s not pretend that the vast majority of Christians would not reject those claims out of hand — they are far more literal. Or, rather, they claim to be more literal, but actually hold a body of faith that is just as subjective, just as highly evolved and refined, as the set of beliefs held by the most opaque and obfuscatory theologian. There really isn’t much difference in the methodology of Rudolf Bultmann or Ken Ham — both are piling up the subjective bullshit as fast as they can shovel it, they are just using different conventions and different language tailored to their different audiences. It’s simply different…framing.

As an example of Bunting’s different way of knowing and different kinds of questions and different practices of learning, though, what do I learn from that slippery gemisch of pious protestations? One thing and one thing only: the power of nonsense.

I think we’ve all mastered that lesson by now. It’s time for the theologians to grow up and move on to questions with some heft and meaning, that are actually applicable to our lives and our culture.

Science and human rights

Guestblogger Sastra checking in:

A few years back the little Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in my area asked me to give a brief talk (!) on the topic of my choice. Seems they were looking for speakers, any speaker, and had noticed that I tend to talk a lot. So I considered the sorts of things that appeal to me, and the sorts of things that might appeal to them, and decided to try to see if I could put together an interesting speech on “Science and Human Rights,” based on the idea “that concepts such as human rights, democracy, and science are historically linked together through similar foundations and assumptions.” I studied and filled myself with great arguments and quotations by such luminaries as Jacob Bronowski and John Dewey, shook it all together, and ended up, as I recall, driving through a blizzard to pour my impassioned argument out on a polite and appreciative crowd of about 6 people (I think (hope) the blizzard was more of a factor there, than it being me.)

Since PZ graciously gave me permission to write on “whatever floats my boat” (unless it be kiddie porn), I’m going to drag out my old notes and give a quick condensed version of my basic theme. It’s ambitious, but I think it might be relevant to Pharyngula. One of the popular stances taken by some religious apologists recently is that the methods of science grew directly from the underlying theology of the Catholic church. You also frequently hear the popular claim that the very concept of people having rights “makes no sense” without a theistic, not to say Biblical, foundation.

I’ll try then to make the secular case: that the human-centered values and rights which we see today as universal, eternal, and even self-evident have actually grown out of our recent past – and were influenced by how we did science.
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