Philosophy and science

An interesting example of the different ways that scientists and ‘pure’ philosophers view things arose in an exchange I had in the comments of a previous post.

Commenter Kenneth brought up an interesting argument that I had not heard before for the existence of the afterlife, an argument that he said had originally been proposed by the philosopher Spinoza (1632-1677). Basically the argument boiled down to the assumption that each one of us is simply a collection of atoms arranged in a particular way. When a person (A) dies, those atoms are dispersed and join the universe of atoms that percolate through space and time. But there is always the possibility that, purely by chance as a result of random motion, a set of atoms will arrange themselves in exactly the same arrangement that made up A when A was still alive. So thus A will have been ‘reborn.’ Kenneth argues that thus the existence of life after death has been established, at least in principle.

The nature of the argument can be perhaps understood better with a simpler example of thoroughly mixing ink and water in a glass and then leaving it alone to sit undisturbed. We would think that this mixing is an irreversible process and that separation into water and ink again would not be possible except as a result of extraordinary efforts by external agents. But in fact if you simply wait long enough, there is a very remote possibility that the random motion of the individual ink and water molecules will result in a momentary spontaneous separation of the mixture in the container into two separate regions, one of pure water and the other of purely ink molecules (whatever ink molecules are).

Since all that this argument requires is the ability to wait for a very long time for which these unlikely events to occur, Kenneth has satisfied himself, from a philosophical point of view, that Spinoza’s argument is valid. And that once we concede the possibility that someone’s atoms can be reconstituted in its original form, the existence of life after death has been established, at least in principle

But science does not limit itself to these ‘in principle’ arguments. Such arguments are just the first steps. Science is always looking at the detailed consequences of such ideas in order to translate them into research programs. And this is where Spinoza’s argument for the possibility of an afterlife breaks down.

For one thing, the human body is not just an arrangement of atoms, like that of molecules in a mixture of ink and water, or the oxygen and nitrogen molecules in a container of air. The atoms in the human body are bound together in complex organic molecules, which are in turn held together by other forces to form cells and tissues and so on. It is not enough to just bring the atoms together, you also have to create the chemical reactions that fuse them into these molecules, and this requires energy from the outside used in a very directed way.

It is like frying an egg in a pan. Just breaking an egg into a skillet and leaving it there will not result in a fried egg, however long you wait, unless there is a source of energy to drive the reaction forward. A fried egg is not just a rearrangement of the atoms in a raw egg. It is one in which new compounds have been created and the creation of these compounds is a non-random process.

In addition, the probability of all the atoms that make up your body randomly arriving at the same locations that they occupied when you were alive is microscopically small. This is not a source of concern to Kenneth because all he needs is that this probability not be zero in order to satisfy his ‘in principle’ condition. But there is an inverse relationship between the probability of an event and the likely time that you would have to wait for the event to occur. For example, if you repeatedly throw a die, you would have to wait longer to get a six than to get just any even number because the probability of the former is less than that of the latter.

In the case of the body’s atoms coming together again, the probability is so small that the expected time for it to occur would be incredibly long. Again, it would not matter if this were a philosopher’s ‘in principle’ argument. But those arguments tacitly assume that nothing else is changing in the environment and that we have an infinite amount of time in the world to wait for things to occur.

But in reality events are never in isolation and science is always concerned about the interconnectedness of things. And this is where the ‘in principle’ argument breaks down. We know that the lifetime of the Sun is about ten billion years and that it will then become a huge ‘red giant’ that will grow enormously and even envelop the Earth. And later still, all the energy producing nuclear reactions in the stars will end, resulting in the heat death of the universe. So there will not be any surplus energy around, even in principle, to drive the chemical reactions to reconstitute the body’s molecules, even if they did manage to arrive randomly in exactly the right positions.

I think that this is where scientific research and philosophical speculations diverge. A scientist is not interested in just ‘in principle’ arguments for the afterlife of the kind that Kenneth says Spinoza makes. To be become interesting to scientists, Kenneth will have to provide at least numerical estimates of the probability the body’s atoms reconstituting themselves, and then use that probability to estimate the expected time for such an event to occur.

If that time is more than the expected heat death of the universe, then the question becomes moot. If it is less, then the scientist will ask if there is enough free energy at that time to drive the reaction forward and what is the probability that this energy will spontaneously be directed at the atoms in just the right amounts and directions to recreate the human body.

All these considerations, when brought together, suggest that Spinoza’s argument fails and that life after death as proposed by him is not going to ever happen.

That is the kind of difference between the approaches of pure philosophy and science.

Alternative realities

One of the things that I have noticed in recent years is the proliferation of what I call ‘alternative realities’.

In classical learning theory, it is believed that when someone confronts evidence that runs counter to that person’s prior knowledge, a state of cognitive dissonance occurs in the mind of the learner which only goes away when the learner’s knowledge structures have been adjusted to accommodate the new information.

This model of learning underlies what are known as ‘inquiry’ methods of teaching science where the teacher, having an understanding of what her students are likely to erroneously believe about some phenomena (such as electricity), deliberately sets up experiments for them to do whose results will directly confront their misconceptions, thus forcing the student into the difficult process of re-evaluation of what they already believe. By repeatedly going through this process at different levels of sophistication and context, the hoped for transformation is that the student develops an experiential understanding of the ‘true’ theory that the teacher is trying to teach.
[Read more…]

The science-religion debate

The ABC news ‘Face Off”, the ‘great’ debate between religion and atheism, was broadcast on Nightline last week. You can see the video of the program here. (You may be able to find the video of the full debate here.)

The side arguing for God’s existence was evangelist Ray “Banana Man” Comfort and his trusty sidekick Boy Wonder Kirk Cameron. The side arguing against was Brian “Sapient” (not his real last name) and Kelly, the creators of the Blasphemy Challenge and the people behind the Rational Response Squad.

The debate was initiated by Comfort who had contacted ABC News and requested it, saying that he could prove god’s existence. He set the bar for himself quite high. He promised ABC News that he would “prove God’s existence, absolutely, scientifically, without mentioning the Bible or faith” and added that “I am amazed at how many people think that God’s existence is a matter of faith. It’s not, and I will prove it at the debate – once and for all. This is not a joke. I will present undeniable scientific proof that God exists.”

The video of the program shows that the ‘debate’ was at a disappointingly low level, although to be fair the debate lasted for about 90 minutes and only edited portions were shown. From the outset, Comfort broke his promise, invoking both the Bible and faith. But even when it came to the ‘science’ part of his argument, he resorted once again to the tired Paley’s watch/Mount Rushmore arguments.

The shorter version of this old argument is this: “We can immediately tell when something is designed. If something is designed, it must have a designer. Nature looks designed to us and therefore must have been designed. That designer can only be god.”

The operational and philosophical weaknesses of this argument has been exposed by many people, including me, so that anyone who advances it cannot really be taken seriously unless they address those challenges to it. As far as I can see, Comfort did not do this. Although Comfort had previously alleged that the banana was the “atheist’s nightmare” (because it fits so perfectly in the human hand and human mouth, the banana and human hand and mouth had to have been designed that way) he did not bring bananas along as props. Perhaps he had been warned that his video of that claim has been the source of widespread merriment.

Kirk Cameron’s role seemed to be to undermine evolutionary theory but the clips of him doing that showed an embarrassing ignorance and shallowness. He invoked the old argument about the paucity of transitional forms but even here he brought it up in a form that would have made even those sympathetic to his point of view wince. He seemed to have the bizarre notion that evolution by natural selection predicts the existence every possible intermediate state between all existing life forms. He showed artist’s sketches of things that he called a “croc-o-duck (a duck with the head of a crocodile) and a “bull frog” (consisting of an animal that was half-bull and half-frog) and argued that the fact that we do not see such things means that evolution is wrong. Really. It was painful to watch him make a fool of himself on national TV.

Cameron seems to be suffering from an extreme form of a common misunderstanding about transitional forms. The fact that humans and other existing animals share common ancestors does not imply that there should be forms that are transitional between them as they exist now. What evolutionary theory states is that if you take any existing organism and follow its ancestors back in time, you will have a gradual evolution in the way the organisms look. So when we talk about transitional forms, we first have to fix the two times that set the boundaries. If we take one boundary as the present time and the other boundary as (say) four billion years ago when the first eukaryotic cell appeared, then there are a large number of transitional forms between those two forms. Richard Dawkins book The Ancestor’s Tale gives an excellent account of the type and sequence of the transitional forms that have been found. Of course, these ancestral forms have evolved along the many descendant forms so we would not expect to see them now in the same form they were when they were our ancestors. They can only be found in that form as fossils.

The DNA sequencing shows the connections between species as well and provide further evidence of the way species branched off at various points in time. So when evolutionary biologists speak of ‘transitional forms’, they are referring to finding fossils of those ancestors who preceded various branch points. The recent discovery of Tiktaalik, the 375-million year old fossil that has the characteristics of what a common ancestor of fish and mammals and amphibians would look like, is one such example. So is Archaeopteryx as a transitional form.

The ‘missing link’ argument against evolution, although lacking content, is one that will never die. One reason is the existence of people like Cameron who use it incorrectly. Another is that it is infinitely adaptable. For example, suppose you have a species now and a species that existed (say) two billion years ago and demand proof of the existence of a missing link. Suppose a fossil is found that is one billion years old that fits the bill. Will this satisfy those who demand proof of the missing link? No, because opponents of evolution can now shift their argument and demand proofs of the existence of two ‘missing’ links, one between the fossils of two and one billion years ago, and the other between one billion years ago and the present. In fact, the more transitional fossils that are found, the more ‘missing links’ that can be postulated!

This is what has happened with past discoveries of fossils. The fossil record of evolution has been getting steadily greater but the calls for ‘proof’ of the existence of missing links have not diminished.

POST SCRIPT: fundraising drive

The website is having a fundraiser. If you can, please support it. It is an invaluable source of news and commentary that is far broader and deeper than you can find almost anywhere else.

Respect for religion-5: Are the new atheists practicing bad politics?

There is no doubt that atheists are becoming more outspoken these days and this has led to people asking why these ‘new atheists’ are now so ‘militant’. I do not think ‘militant’ is quite the right word. What has happened is that atheists are undergoing a change of attitude about what is and is not considered respect for religion.

It used to be that when it came to discussions about religion, a different standard applied than to discussions about (say) politics. With the latter, you could come right out and say that someone was wrong, and that was not considered disrespectful. But with religion, that was not the case. It was considered bad form to say that god and the afterlife did not exist and that those beliefs had no basis.

What atheists and others were supposed to do when god came up was to just be quiet and not challenge religious beliefs or statements of faith. But it was never clear why this has to be the rules of the discourse. After all, if someone claimed that they believed in the fairies dancing in their garden, we are not obliged to ‘respect’ that belief by not challenging it. At the very least we might ask for evidence or say something like “Really? How interesting. What makes you believe that?” So when someone says that they believe in god, why should we not respond the same way? But if we did so, they would likely be insulted because religious beliefs are supposed to be either self-evidently true or exempt from the rules of evidence or the bar for evidence is set so low that anything goes (“I know god exists because I feel his presence when I pray.”).

The new atheists are having none of this old-fashioned notion of what constitutes respect for religion. The most that ‘respect’ can command is that we do not treat religious believers as being crazy because it is undoubtedly true that people who are perfectly rational about almost everything can have irrational beliefs in compartmentalized areas of their lives.

Respect cannot, and should not, be extended to discouraging the challenging religious beliefs. What the new ‘new atheists’ are doing is expressing their skepticism about religion directly, publicly, and sometimes in a spirit of mischievous humor.

The Blasphemy Challenge, where individuals post video clips of themselves cheerfully denying the Holy Spirit, are direct challenges to the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. The trigger for this challenge is the passage in the Bible (Mark 3:28-29) where Jesus draws a very clear line in the sand and says: “I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.” In other words, this particular sin, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, is the ultimate no-no, the sin that cannot be forgiven, ever. What the people behind the site say is that passages like this are meant to frighten people into believing in god, and the ‘respect for religion’ trope is being used to prevent people from pointing this out.

In the past, atheists would have simply ignored things like this. If you don’t believe in a god, why would you care if you were condemned by this non-existent god? But now, there are hundreds of them going online, publicly risking damnation by making jokes about the Holy Spirit. They are not calling religious people names or things like that. They are simply and publicly saying what they don’t believe.

This new atheism has ruffled quite a lot of feathers in a religious establishment that has got accustomed to having their pieties accepted unquestioningly. The Rational Response Squad, which is behind the Blasphemy Challenge, was even profiled on Nightline. In the interview, it is interesting how often the idea of ‘lack of respect’ comes up in the words of religious believers and the interviewer. But all the atheists are saying is that there is no evidence for god and they are not afraid of hell because there is no evidence that it exists either. The language of the atheists is scientific while the religious people appeal to faith and mystery and fear of hell.

Once again, it is perhaps the existence of the internet that has been the galvanizing force in this new movement. Formerly atheists were isolated. But now they are realizing that there are many, many more of them out there than they thought, and they are joining up with others, and discovering that being an atheist, far from being a lonely experience, is a lot of fun. That has to be a good feeling.

There is a political price to be paid for speaking out this way. Some religious people are using the well-known public dislike for atheism to cast doubt on science by implying that science and atheism are joined at the hip and to argue that modern science demands atheism. Richard Dawkins says that he is sometimes told even by people who agree with his views that he is helping the forces of religious fundamentalism by enabling them to portray all scientists as atheists and that hence science itself is atheistic.

This has happened to me too. As some readers know, I was on Ohio’s Science Standards Advisory Board. During the struggle to keep intelligent design creationism (IDC) out of the standards, I was told that my public atheism was actually being used by some IDC advocates on the board to argue that evolution was atheistic and thus bad. It was gently suggested that I be more discreet about my atheism. I think that what some ‘moderates’ fear is that people’s attachment to religion is so strong that if asked to choose between god or no god, and if science is identified with no-god, , they will choose god and thus science will be rejected, and the religious moderates will end up allied with the fundamentalist and extremists.

This really is the fundamental political question.

I think that the best political alliances are those formed around specific issues, not on the basis of compatible ideologies or even people. For example, in the movement that opposes the Iraq war, there are many factions, ranging all over the political and religious spectrum, who are unlikely to agree on other issues. And that is fine. Coalitions should form because they advocate similar policies on a particular issue.

The same thing arises with social issues like poverty and health care. The alliances for each will again be formed on the basis of agreement over specific policy proposals. When forming such alliances, each person and group will stay true to their own principles but come together on strategy and tactics to achieve a certain result.

For example, I work with and support a religious group, the InterReligious Task Force in Cleveland which does excellent work on highlighting issues of injustice in Central and South America. They began their work in response to the brutal rape and murder of four Catholic nuns by the US-supported dictatorship in El Salvador in 1980, and their motivation arises from the feeling that their religion calls upon them to fight for justice. I respect that. My motivation is different from theirs but we agree on the goal of justice for the people of that region and that is sufficient for joint action.

The same should apply to the science-religion question. I think that there is nothing wrong with the new atheists pointing out that the beliefs of even mainstream religions are not rational, but still joining with them to oppose the teaching of IDC as science. Presumably mainstream religions are opposed to teaching IDC in science classes because they think it is a bad policy. Thus they should be willing to work together with anyone, including atheists, on this issue even though the new atheists seek that ultimate end of religious beliefs altogether. This kind of disagreement does not have to be a barrier to working together on those things on which they agree.

I do not think there is really a problem here, except for a shallow understanding of the nature of coalition politics. The problem, if at all, is that people get offended because they are mixing the public with the personal. If someone disagrees with them because of their views on topic A, they are personally offended and will not work with them on topic B, even if they agree with them.

Respect for religion-4: Religion as Conversation-stopper

I have written in the past about how religion should be kept in the private sphere and out of the public sphere. I have since discovered that philosopher Richard Rorty wrote an interesting essay with the above title on this topic in 1994, that was published in his book Philosophy and Social Hope (1999). In the essay, Rorty challenges Stephen Carter who wrote a book The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. (Thanks to Michael Berube for bringing Rorty’s essay to my attention.)

Rorty says:

Carter puts in question what, to atheists like me, seems the happy, Jeffersonian compromise that the Enlightenment reached with the religious. This compromise consists in privatizing religion — keeping it out of what Carter calls “the public square,” making it seem bad taste to bring religion into discussions of public policy.
. . .
We atheists, doing our best to enforce Jefferson’s compromise, think it bad enough that we cannot run for public office without being disingenuous about our disbelief in God; despite the compromise, no uncloseted atheist is likely to get elected anywhere in the country. We also resent the suggestion that you have to be religious to have a conscience — a suggestion implicit in the fact that only religious conscientious objectors to military service go unpunished. Such facts suggest to us that the claims of religion need, if anything, to be pushed back still further, and that religious believers have no business asking for more public respect than they now receive.

Rorty adds:

Contemporary liberal philosophers think that we shall not be able to keep a democratic political community going unless the religious believers remain willing to trade privatization for a guarantee of religious liberty.
. .
The main reason religion needs to be privatized is that, in political discussion with those outside the relevant religious community, it is a conversation-stopper. Carter is right when he says:

One good way to end a conversation — or to start an argument — is to tell a group of well-educated professionals that you hold a political position (preferably a controversial one, such as being against abortion or pornography) because it is required by your understanding of God’s will.

Saying this is far more likely to end a conversation that to start an argument. The same goes for telling the group, “I would never have an abortion” or, “Reading pornography is about the only pleasure I get out of life these days.” In these examples, as in Carter’s, the ensuing silence masks the group’s inclination to say, “So what? We weren’t discussing your private life; we were discussing public policy. Don’t bother us with matters that are not our concern.”

This would be my own inclination in such a situation. Carter clearly thinks such a reaction inappropriate, but it is hard to figure out what he thinks would be an appropriate response by nonreligious interlocutors to the claim that abortion is required (or forbidden) by the will of God. He does not think it is good enough to say: OK, but since I don’t think there is such a thing as the will of God, and since I doubt that we’ll get anywhere arguing theism vs. atheism, let’s see if we have some shared premises on the basis of which to continue an argument about abortion. He thinks such a reply would be condescending and trivializing. But are we atheist interlocutors supposed to try to keep the conversation going by saying, “Gee! I’m impressed. You have a really deep, sincere faith”? Suppose we try that. What happens then? What can either party do for an encore?

Rorty captures exactly the problems raised by the ‘respect for religion’ trope. Not only does the introduction of religious ideas not advance public policy discussions, it actually hinders them by introducing a non-evidence based, non-negotiable belief and thus stops the conversation dead in its tracks.

Rorty makes the excellent point that putting religion into the private sphere is the only way that can guarantee religious freedom. Once religion gets a toehold into the public sphere, it increasingly becomes dominated by a narrower and narrower range of views that seeks to exclude all but the true believers. So all those who worry about having freedom of religion should be working to keep it out of the public sphere.

What we should be doing instead is trying, along the lines suggested by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice, to find what moral premises we all have in common despite our differing personal backgrounds and belief structures.

Religious people might complain, in the words of Carter, that they are being forced ‘to restructure their arguments in purely secular terms before they can be presented’ in the public sphere and suggests that this is somehow unfair to them. Rorty replies that all that this requires is dropping references to the premises of the arguments (i.e., not saying things like “But that violates what it says in the Book of Leviticus….”) when discussing public policy, and that “this omission seems like a reasonable price to pay for religious liberty.” He goes on that this requirement “is no harsher, and no more a demand for self-destruction, than the requirement that we atheists, when we present our arguments, should claim no authority for our premises save the assent we hope they will gain from our audience.”

Rorty in his conclusions makes an important point: “Carter seems to think that religious believers’ moral convictions are somehow more deeply interwoven with their self-identity than those of atheists with theirs. He seems unwilling to admit that the role of the Enlightenment ideology in giving meaning to the lives of atheists is just as great as Christianity’s role giving meaning to his own life.”

So when atheists (of the ‘new’ variety and others) say that religion does not have any special place in any discussions of public policy and should not be immune from criticism, they are not being disrespectful or rude to religion, they are merely pointing out that “a speaker’s depth of spirituality is [no] more relevant to her participation in public debate than her hobby or her hair color.”

The new atheists are simply advocating a model of good democratic politics.

Respect for religion-3: Challenging the privileged status of religion

It used to be that when religious people said something about their beliefs that you disagreed with, the polite thing to do was to keep quiet, even if you thought it wrong or baseless or just plain silly. What is happening now is that religious-based statements are being seen more and more as on a par with any other statements and suffer the same scrutiny. Why the new atheists are causing a stir is because of their willingness to say openly what many have thought but previously kept to themselves: that the basic ideas underlying religions are no different from beliefs in a flat-Earth or fairies or magic unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Even comparing, as I have just done, mainstream religious beliefs with these other so-called ‘fringe’ beliefs is sometimes taken as insulting. But this increased willingness to say just such things has resulted in them being called ‘shrill’ or having ‘no respect for religion.’

The way the word respect is used in this context is curious. I am a believer in respect for people. I also have respect for ideas that have merit in the sense that they are backed by evidence and reason. But the phrase ‘respect for religion’ seems to be demanding something more: that everyone must collude in maintaining the idea that god and an afterlife is a reasonable thing for adults to believe in and that to point out the flaws in those beliefs is to be somehow gauche.

I have written before about author Salman Rushdie who said:

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

Rushdie admires this approach but it is good to remind oneself that not all people enjoy this kind of argumentation on a personal level. But I do agree with Rushdie on the basic premise that no ideas should be immune from criticism and that no one has the right to expect to be shielded from ideas that they might find repugnant. In fact it is essential that people’s ideas be challenged if they are ever to learn. But how one scrutinizes ideas depends a lot on the situation.

While Rushdie is perfectly right in saying that no ideas should be shielded from criticism, in the private sphere there is no point in upsetting people when it can be avoided by more careful use of language and by showing some consideration for their sensibilities, even while not avoiding saying what one believes.

But in the public world of ideas, there should be no sacred cows and no idea should be immune from close scrutiny. But the common idea of ‘respect for religion’ seems to expect more. It seems to demand an acceptance of the following premise: that religious beliefs, at least of mainstream religions, be seen as fundamentally good and reasonable, and that any evil committed in its name be characterized as aberrations. Anyone who challenges this and asserts that the problem may not be that between good and bad religion, but that religious beliefs themselves are a problem is seen as stepping over some line that should not be crossed. So when Sam Harris author of The End of Faith says: “We have been slow to recognize the degree to which religious faith perpetuates man’s inhumanity to man,” he is seen as being disrespectful to religion, because he is not distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion.

‘Respect for religion’ is sometimes taken to suggest that if someone says that they oppose equal rights for gays because their religious doctrines assert that homosexuality is immoral, we are supposed to take that as a serious argument. If someone says that he opposes giving equal rights to gays, we would ask them to provide some justification. But if he says that his religion opposes homosexuality, then that is supposed to be a serious argument, exempt from challenge. Recently I was on a panel that discussed religion and sexuality. The Muslim panel member said that his religion required him to oppose granting homosexuals the same rights as enjoyed by heterosexuals. I said that while I understood his motives for opposing the gay lifestyle, a motive is not an argument. Saying that Islam or Christianity thought homosexuality wrong is as irrelevant to a discussion of public policy as the views of Satanists or any other religious group.

The basic point is that when discussing issues of public policy, there is no reason to provide beliefs based on religion with any special standing. The basic premise of the new atheists is that religious people, when engaged in the public sphere, should conform to the same rules of evidence, logic, and reason that all arguments must follow. If we use that yardstick, then we see that there is no reason to listen to people like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell because they rarely have any arguments, and simply quote Biblical verses to support their prejudices.

It is not an insignificant detail that the idea of ‘respect for religion’ also plays an important role in shielding religious beliefs from public skepticism. This is partly why people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Victor Stenger, are causing such a stir. They are challenging the idea that religious beliefs have some kind of special status in the public sphere that exempts them from scrutiny using the normal requirements of evidence and reason that we accept as applying to everything else.

POST SCRIPT: The power of tornados

I have never lived through a tornado but this video gives a glimpse of their terrifying power.

Respect for religion-2: What are the limits?

If one wants to see how much privilege is granted to religion in the public sphere, consider what happened last week. The Congress decided to expand the provisions of so-called ‘hate crimes’ legislation. The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007 (H.R. 1592), would “provide federal assistance to states, local jurisdictions and Indian tribes to prosecute hate crimes” involving “actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.”
[Read more…]

Respect for religion-1: Are the new atheists rude towards religion?

There are two charges that are often laid at the feet of the ‘new atheists’. One is that they are rude, shrill, angry, and otherwise disrespectful towards religion. The second is that their challenge to religious beliefs in general (as opposed to just the fundamentalist and extreme variants) makes for bad politics, since they are alienating those religious elements who act as a moderating influence in our society and with whom elite science has formed useful alliances in the past.

As to the first charge of rudeness and shrillness, this is clearly not a statement about that actual tone of the discussion conducted by the new atheists. Most of the prominent new atheists are urbane academics who are not prone to yelling or using profanity or ad hominem attacks. I have seem numerous interviews with Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most prominent of the new atheists, and never once have I heard him so much as raise his voice or even seem angry. The worst charge that can be laid against him is that he can be testy with those people who make sweeping claims about evolutionary theory without seeming to understand what the theory actually says. He is actually very mild-mannered when compared with some of the other voices one hears in the media.

So whence does this charge of rudeness arise? I think it is because the new atheists are directly challenging the idea that religious beliefs should occupy a privileged place in public discourse that shields them from the kind of scrutiny that any other belief would merit. If, for example, some public official like a member of Congress or the President were to say that he or she believed in fairies and had conversations with them, that would immediately raise questions about the mental competence of the person involved. But saying that he or she converses with god through prayer not only raises no concerns at all, it is seen as wholly admirable. The fact that people do not even see a similarity between belief in god and belief in fairies is a testament to how powerfully our society has internalized the idea that ‘respect for religion’ means that one must not point this out.
In his book The God Delusion (p. 178), Richard Dawkins quotes the anthropologist Pascal Boyer who once over dinner at a Cambridge University college recounted the beliefs of the Fang people of Cameroon who believed that “witches have an extra internal animal-like organ that flies away at night and ruins other people’s crops or poisons their blood. It is also said that these witches sometimes assemble for huge banquets, where they will devour their victims and plan future attacks. Many will tell you that a friend of a friend actually saw witches flying over the village at night, sitting on a banana leaf and throwing magical darts at various unsuspecting victims.”

Bayer says he was dumbfounded when a Cambridge theologian turned to him and said “This is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe such nonsense.” (italics on original)

Dawkins points out that the theologian, as a mainstream Christian, did not see any irony at all in referring to the Fang people’s beliefs as nonsense even while he himself believed many or all of the following beliefs:

  • In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.
  • The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus came back to life.
  • The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.
  • Forty days later, the fatherless man went to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily in to the sky.
  • If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his ‘father’ (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.
  • If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.
  • The fatherless man’s virgin mother never died but ‘ascended’ bodily into heaven.
  • Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), ‘become’ the body and blood of the fatherless man.

Note that this set of beliefs is commonly held by mainstream religious people, not just fringe groups. There will be differences amongst the various sects as to which to believe and which to reject (Catholics believe the last one which non-Catholics find preposterous) but clearly once you have accepted any one of them, it is hard to deny credibility to any of the others or to the beliefs of the Fang people.

What has disturbed the equilibrium in dialogue between elite science and elite religion is that the new atheists are saying that the beliefs of even elite religion are incompatible with a scientific outlook that values evidence. And this is what, I think, underlies the charge of rudeness, shrillness, etc. It is not the volume or tone or language or any of the other things that we normally associate with those words, but simply the fact that the new atheists have chosen to point out that, in an intellectually coherent sense, there is no such thing as a ‘respectable’ religious belief.

POST SCRIPT: Bush no longer influential?

I usually don’t pay much attention to the periodical generation of lists of the 100 best or worst this or that. Those lists tell us more about the people making up the lists than anything else. But I was intrigued by the recent release of Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world and the fact that George W. Bush was not on it.

It seems absurd to me that the leader of the world’s only superpower, and a man with a proven record of creating disaster and chaos, should not be considered objectively influential, if even in a negative way. The Mayor of New York, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Israeli Foreign Minister, and Osama Bin Laden make the list but Bush doesn’t? Are there any reasonable criteria by which such an omission makes sense?

Yes, but only if you take the view that this list is not a measure of actual influence but simply measures the zeitgeist. And what Time seems to have decided is that Bush has become an embarrassment who is best ignored until the time comes when he slips away into obscurity at the end of his term, unless he is impeached first. His low approval rating of 28%, the lowest of any President since 1979, adds to his aura of being a loser.

Perhaps this cartoon by Nick Anderson, editorial cartoonist of the Houston Chronicle (in Bush’s home state no less), best represents how Bush is increasingly being perceived.


The new atheism-6: The biological origins of religion and morality

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.)

You would think that natural selection would work against religion because those individuals who spent their time in prayer and other rituals, and used precious energy and resources in building temples and offering sacrifices, would be at a survival disadvantage when compared to those who used their time more productively. In the previous post, I outlined the basic framework of natural selection and summarized the arguments of those who explain the survival value of religion by saying that religious ideas are passed on and evolve as a byproduct of the survival advantage that accrues from young children being predisposed to believe their parents and other adult authority figures.

But while that may explain how religions propagate once they come into being, it is harder to understand how religious ideas arose in the first place. If the outbreak of religion were an occasional event occurring here or there at random, then we could just dismiss it as an anomaly, like the way that random genetic mutations cause rare diseases. But religion is not like that. As David P. Barash says in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Volume 53, Issue 33, Page B6, April 20, 200.): “On the one hand, religious belief of one sort or another seems ubiquitous, suggesting that it might well have emerged, somehow, from universal human nature, the common evolutionary background shared by all humans. On the other hand, it often appears that religious practice is fitness-reducing rather than enhancing — and, if so, that genetically mediated tendencies toward religion should have been selected against.”

Barash summarizes the various suggestions that have been put forth to overcome this problem of how religion could have originated.

Other, related hypotheses of religion include the anthropologist Pascal Boyer’s grandly titled Religion Explained, which argues that natural selection would have favored a mechanism for detecting “agency” in nature, enabling its possessor to predict who is about to do what (and, often, to whom). Since false positives would be much less fitness-reducing than false negatives (i.e., better to attribute malign intent to a tornado and take cover than to assume it is benign and suffer as a result), selection would promote hypersensitivity, or “overdetection,” essentially a hair-trigger system whereby motive is attributed not only to other people and mastodons, but also to trees, hurricanes, or the sun. Add, next, the benefit of “decoupling” such predictions from the actual presence of the being in question (“What might my rival be planning right now?”), and the stage is set for attributing causation to “agents” whose agency might well be entirely imagined.

Boyer’s work, in turn, converges on that of Stewart Guthrie, whose 1993 book, Faces in the Clouds, made a powerful case for the potency of anthropomorphism, the human tendency to see human (or humanlike) images in natural phenomena. This inclination has morphed into a more specific, named phenomenon: pareidolia, the perception of patterns where none exist (some recent, “real” examples: Jesus’ face in a tortilla, the Virgin Mary’s outline in a semimelted hunk of chocolate, Mother Teresa’s profile in a cinnamon bun).

The same kinds of ideas are invoked to explain the origins of morality but here the work has advanced a lot more. The idea that morality comes only from religion has no validity, given that natural selection provides alternative explanations. As Barash says: “Taken together or in various combinations, kin selection, reciprocal altruism, group selection, third-party effects, and courtship possibilities, as well as simple susceptibility to social and cultural indoctrination, provide biologists with more than enough for the conclusion: God is no longer needed to explain “Moral Law.””

This is not to say that the question of the biological origins of morality has been completely solved.

In Darwin’s Cathedral, David Sloan Wilson explored the possibility that religious belief is advantageous for its practitioners because it contributes to solidarity — including but not limited to moral codes — that benefits the group and wouldn’t otherwise be within reach. That notion, appealing as it might be, is actually a logical and mathematical stretch for most biologists, relying as it does upon group selection. The problem is that even if groups displaying a particular trait do better than groups lacking it, selection acting within such groups should favor individuals who “cheat.” Mathematical models have shown that group selection can work in theory, but only if the differential survival of religious groups more than compensates for any disadvantage suffered by individuals within each group. It is at least possible that human beings meet this requirement, especially when it comes to religion, since within-group self-policing could maintain religiosity; it certainly did during the Inquisition.

So where do things stand? The status of the game is that while there have been major advances in understanding the biological origins (based on natural selection) in the propagation and evolution of religious ideas, and the origins of morality, there still needs a lot more work to be done, especially on the question of the origin of religion. As Barash says:

We must conclude, sadly, that a convincing evolutionary explanation for the origin of religion has yet to be formulated. In any event, such an account, were it to arise, would doubtless be unconvincing to believers because, whatever it postulated, it would not conclude that religious belief arose because (1) it simply represents an accurate perception of God, comparable to identifying food, a predator, or a prospective mate; or (2) it was installed in the human mind and/or genome by God, presumably for his glory and our counterevidentiary enlightenment.

But the goal can never be to change the minds of people about the lack of necessity of god by direct arguments. That rarely succeeds for reasons to be discussed in a future posting. In fact, although I have written many posts on why belief in god is irrational, I basically agree with Charles Darwin’s approach when he said “It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follows from the advance of science.”

The reasons for my posts are not to persuade the determined believers to change their minds but to add to the universe of ideas, so that people who are not particularly committed to religion will find that their musings are not the dangerous thoughts of an apostate that will be punished by an angry god, but the perfectly rational doubts that arise in the minds of anyone who values the role of evidence and the pursuit of scientific inquiry.

What is exciting about the recent developments is that questions of religion and morality are now being investigated using scientific tools and methods, and those are bound to result in greater detailed understanding of those phenomena.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: This should be fun

Apparently ABC News has decided to stage a science-religion debate. Who suggested this idea and offered to represent religion? None other than Ray “Banana Man” Comfort and his sidekick, Boy Wonder Kirk Cameron.

Apparently Comfort requested the debate in order to counter The Blasphemy Challenge. Comfort says: “I am amazed at how many people think that God’s existence is a matter of faith. It’s not, and I will prove it at the debate – once and for all. This is not a joke. I will present undeniable scientific proof that God exists.”

Right. Frankly, if I was a religious person, I would be really worried about letting Comfort be my standard bearer. But who knows, maybe he has found a proof more powerful than the banana. (Scroll down to see the video if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) Perhaps he has managed to find god’s designing hand in the avocado also. Maybe he will bring along Peanut Butter Man to clinch the case.

The debate will occur on May 5, 2007 and apparently will be streamed live on the ABC website and later be shown on Nightline.

Of course, what Comfort and people like him really yearn for is media exposure and he probably doesn’t care if people hoot with laughter at his “proofs” of god.

The new atheism-5: The scientific approach to philosophical questions

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

The biological sciences approach to the questions of the origins of religious belief and morality is not to ask what the proximate causes are that led to belief in god and the afterlife (for which the answers may be to satisfy curiosity and provide comfort) but to see what evolutionary advantage accrues to those individuals who hold such beliefs, because natural selection works on individual organisms, not groups.

To better understand how evolutionary biology addresses these questions, it is useful to review the basic tenets of evolution by natural selection. Following Philip Kitcher’s The Advancement of Science, (p.19), Darwin’s four fundamental evidentiary claims can be stated as follows:

1. The Principle of Variation: At any stage in the history of a species, there will be variation among the members of the species: different organisms belonging to the species will have different properties.

In other words, children are never identical with their parents. Within each species there is considerable diversity in properties and in support of this position Darwin took great pains to point out how hard it was to distinguish between different varieties within the same species, and between species.

2. The Principle of the Struggle for Existence: At any stage in the history of a species, more organisms are born than can survive to reproduce.

If there is an abundance of food and other resources, the population of any species would multiply exponentially. The fact that it doesn’t is due to limitations in these necessary elements and this is what results in only some surviving and their populations reaching more or less stable values.

3. The Principle of Variation in Fitness: At any stage in the history of a species, some of the variation among members of the species is variation with respect to properties that affect the ability to survive and reproduce; some organisms have characteristics that better dispose them to survive and reproduce.

The members of a species that are more likely to survive and pass on their properties to the next generation are those that have properties that give them some survival advantage in the environment in which they find themselves. It is important to note that only some of the properties need to be advantageous for the organism to have preferential survival. Other properties may also flourish not because they have a similar advantage but because they are somehow linked to the advantageous properties and are thus carried along. Thus some properties may simply be byproducts of selection for other properties.

4. The Strong Principle of Inheritance: Heritability is the norm; most properties of an organism are inherited by its descendents.

Most properties that we have (five fingers, four limbs, heart, etc.) are inherited from our ancestors.

From these four principles, we infer the crucial fifth:

5. The Principle of Natural Selection: Typically, the history of a species will show the modification of that species in the direction of those characteristics which better dispose their bearers to survive and reproduce; properties which dispose their bearers to survive and reproduce are likely to become more prevalent in successive generations of the species.

So natural selection will favor those organisms that, by chance mutation in their genes, have properties that give them better chances for survival, and thus these characteristics will appear in the next generation in greater abundance.

This is the powerful theory that Darwin and Wallace proposed and which forms the basis of all modern biology. Note that it does not deal with how life originated in the first place and Darwin was frank about this limitation and offered just the broadest and mildest speculation about that big question. There is no question that when dealing with the issue of life itself, the problem of how life evolved and diversified has received better answers than the question of how life first originated.

Pretty much the same situation applies to religious beliefs (and the evolution of language also, but that is a topic for another day). Once religious ideas came into being, it is not hard to see how they could have continued and produced the present diversity using the above principles.

It is obvious that when it comes to religion, the strong principle of inheritance applies. The best predictor of what a person’s religious beliefs are is the religious belief of the parents. Most children believe the same religious ideas as their parents except for slight variations. Most young children have very little idea that other religions even exist and don’t even think of their own beliefs as ‘beliefs’ because they have been taught them as facts and believe them because their parents told them. (Interestingly, it is found that the eldest child is likely to be more faithful in adhering to the parents’ beliefs than subsequent children.)

Applying the theory of natural selection to religious beliefs, the theory goes in the direction of religion being propagated as an accidental byproduct of selection for something else. It has been argued that in terms of natural selection, there is a definite survival advantage to favor a genetic predisposition for children to believe parents and other authority figures than to disbelieve them, and that thus this quality will be preferentially selected. In other words, natural selection does not select for religious beliefs per se, but religious beliefs are propagated as a byproduct of selection for trusting one’s parents.

To see how believing what one’s parents tell you is beneficial, we know that unlike many animals, young children are not at all capable of surviving in the wild on their own. They need parents to protect them. A child who listens to her parents (don’t touch the fire, don’t walk over the edge of the cliff, etc.) is more likely to survive than a child who ignores the authorities around her. Thus it is not hard to see how natural selection would prefer to select for a propensity to believe authority figures and that thus human children have evolved to have a predisposition to believe them.

But as Richard Dawkins points out in The God Delusion (p. 176) the catch is that the child is not able to discriminate between useful and useless bits of advice. “The child cannot know that ‘Don’t paddle in the crocodile-infested Limpopo’ is good advice but ‘You must sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, otherwise the rains will fail’ is at best a waste of time and goats. Both admonitions sound equally trustworthy. Both come from a respected source and are delivered with a solemn earnestness that commands respect and demands obedience.”

So while there is a survival value to the child inheriting a genetic predisposition to believe what her parents tell her, a byproduct of this is that the child inherits the religious beliefs of the parents as well, with slight variations. So once religious ideas gain currency in the early days of human evolution, they start propagating and diversifying like any other organism in the tree of life and become distinct entities that share a common root. Over time, just as individual biological variations became separated and formed into distinct species, so do religious beliefs. After some time, with the process often assisted by some charismatic religious leader, these religious variations became codified to become the distinct religious doctrines we see around us.

Another suggestion is that religious ideas, once they come into being, are ‘memes’ (ideas) that are analogous to genes but act like the mental counterparts of viruses, in that they act to propagate themselves and not for the benefit of the organism they inhabit. Dawkins describes the possible existence of ‘memeplexes’, a collection of memes that form the environment of ideas in which other memes have to compete for survival. He suggests that existing memeplexes might favor the survival of the following memes (p. 199):

• You will survive your own death
• If you die, you will go to an especially wonderful part of paradise where you will enjoy seventy two virgins (spare a thought for the unfortunate virgins)
• Heretics, blasphemers and apostates should be killed (or otherwise punished, for example by ostracism from their families)
• Belief in God is a supreme virtue. If you find your belief wavering, work hard at restoring it, and beg God to help your unbelief. (In my discussion of Pascal’s Wager I mentioned the odd assumption that the one thing God really wants of us is belief. At the time I treated it as an oddity. Now we have an explanation for it.)
• Faith (without evidence) is a virtue. The more your beliefs defy the evidence, the more virtuous you are. Virtuoso believers who can manage to believe something really weird, unsupported and insupportable, in the teeth of evidence and reason, are especially rewarded.
• Everybody, even those who do not hold religious beliefs, must respect them with higher level of automatic and unquestioned respect than that accorded to other kinds of belief. . .
• There are some weird things (such as the Trinity, transubstantiation, incarnation) that we are not meant to understand. Don’t even try to understand one of these, for the attempt to understand might destroy it. Learn how to gain fulfillment in calling it a mystery.
• Beautiful music, art, and scriptures are themselves self-replicating tokens of religious ideas.

I am not too familiar with the whole meme framework but I mention it here for the benefit of those who may know more about it.

I think that, just as in the case of life, there is a plausible biological explanation for how religious ideas propagate and diversify once they come into existence. The more difficult challenges are explaining what caused religious ideas to come into being in the first place, and similarly, what are the biological origins of morality.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: Amazing pool shots

I have played pool only a few times in my life, enough to give me an appreciation of how skilful this player is. It is said that skill at pool is a sign of a mispent youth. By that rule, this pool player must have completely wasted his life.

AmazingWatch today’s top amazing videos here