Paley’s watch, Mount Rushmore, and other stories of intelligent design – 2

In the previous posting I described a popular IDC argument that things like watches and Mount Rushmore are obviously ‘designed’ objects and thus imply the existence of a designer. By analogy, it is asserted that certain biological systems are also supposed to bear the hallmarks of design and thus must require a designer (aka god) too.

This argument seems to be persuasive to many people because I repeatedly hear it various forms. The usual response to it by scientists is to argue that the appearance of biological design is only an illusion and that random mutation and natural selection are perfectly capable of producing the seemingly complex biological forms that seem to stymie the IDC people.

But there is a philosophical issue here as well and that is what I want to address. First of all, while we all supposedly can agree that a watch and Mount Rushmore could not have simply appeared without human action, how is it that we are so sure that this is the case that we can accede to it without argument? How is it that in these cases we can definitely identify them as designed objects and say that other things (like rocks) are not designed?
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Paley’s watch, Mount Rushmore, and other stories of intelligent design

One does not have to spend much time reading about intelligent design creationism (IDC) to come across the “Mount Rushmore” argument. IDC advocate William Dembski even begins an article with it as follows:

Intelligent design begins with a seemingly innocuous question: Can objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause? To see what’s at stake, consider Mount Rushmore. The evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design is direct—eyewitnesses saw the sculptor Gutzon Borglum spend the better part of his life designing and building this structure. But what if there were no direct evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design? What if humans went extinct and aliens, visiting the earth, discovered Mount Rushmore in substantially the same condition as it is now?
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Should atheists “come out”?

In a previous essay, I suggested that people tend to have a negative view of atheism. In his blog essay Sam Harris provides support for this view, saying that “More than 50 percent of Americans have a “negative” or “highly negative” view of people who do not believe in God.”

Possible reasons for this dislike were discussed earlier but here I want to focus on what, if anything, should be done about it.

One option is to just ignore it. After all, why should atheists care what other people think of them? But this ignores the fact that if atheists allow themselves to be defined by others in negative terms and do nothing about it, they allow the negative portrayals of them to dominate public consciousness.

Another option is for atheists to learn from the steady way that gay people have won increasing acceptance. This has partly come about because gays are “coming out” more to their families and friends and co-workers. They are becoming more visible in everyday life and are being seen as ordinary people. Famous actors are revealing themselves as gay without it being career suicide and gay characters are appearing in films and plays and on television, without their gayness being necessary to the storyline. The fact that they are gay is just incidental.

Richard Dawkins suggests that atheists should also “come out”, so that others can see that we are in fact numerous and everywhere and that life goes on nonetheless. Of course, no one would dream of suggesting that atheists encounter discrimination and vilification on the scale that gay people still face. I suspect that most atheists don’t “come out” because they don’t give much thought to religious matters and when they do, view religion as a private matter and that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. Atheists may think that “coming out” in any self-conscious way is a silly thing to do and so “coming out” in the way Dawkins suggests will be awkward.

But perhaps if the opportunity arises where one can make it known in a natural way, then one should do so. I, for example, have been an atheist for over ten years but felt no compunction to make it publicly known. It is only with this blog that I have really publicly stated it, and that was because it seemed relevant to some of the postings. As a general rule, I feel religion is not something that one should make a big deal out of, one way or the other.

“Coming out” might also be a source of encouragement to those who are toying with the idea that they are atheists but hesitate to say so publicly because they feel that being an atheist is somehow reprehensible.

What is interesting is that I am seeing more and more public statements questioning the fundamentals of religion, so what Dawkins is advocating may be already happening organically. For example, take this article by Justin Cartwright in the British newspaper Guardian (which I got via onegoodmove). I am quoting it at length because it articulates the atheistic point well but you should read the full article for yourself.

Near the end of his life, [philosopher and historian] Isaiah Berlin wrote these words to a correspondent who had asked the great imponderable: “As for the meaning of life, I do not believe that it has any. I do not at all ask what it is, but I suspect that it has none and this is a source of great comfort to me. We make of it what we can and that is all there is about it. Those who seek for some cosmic all-embracing libretto or God are, believe me, pathetically mistaken.”

It’s time that we acknowledged honestly what most people believe, that religion is at bottom nonsense. I do not deny the good work of religious people, nor the cultural effects of religion, nor its deep penetration into our consciousness, but what I think we should acknowledge is that religion contains a massive falsehood, namely that there is a God who determines our actions and responds to our plight. As AJ Ayer said, if God has constituted the world in such a way that he cannot resolve the phenomenon of evil, logically it makes no difference whether we are believers or unbelievers. The hypocritical respect now being accorded to Muslim “scholars”, people who believe that the Qur’an was dictated word for word by God, is just one example of the mess we have got ourselves into by pretending to take religion seriously. Disagreements about society can only be resolved in the here and now on liberal principles of discussion and compromise. You cannot have a sensible discussion with fundamentalists, be they Christian, Jewish or Muslim, because they start from a different point.
……

It follows that I believe we have to acknowledge happily that ethics has no rational content, that we behave morally and responsibly not because God commands us to do so, but because it is in our nature and because it makes profound common sense to do so. I am not in any sense advocating active hostility to religion, merely that we should as a nation distance ourselves from religious explanations.
….

What we have to promote above all else is the liberal society, and this is best done by observing scrupulously the principles of that society.

And that demands that we acknowledge that religion is, at base, nonsense. The sooner we eliminate the idea that life has “some cosmic, all-embracing libretto”, the better.

The next frontier will be popular culture. Since I do not watch much television, I am not sure to what extent programs that have religious themes have atheist characters. But if we do reach the stage where atheists are portrayed as just regular people whose lack of religious belief is incidental to who they are, then we would have reached a significant milestone.

POST SCRIPT 1

In a previous post, I wrote about Ockham’s razor. Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow has an example of how the razor currently is being used by some political observers.

POST SCRIPT 2

This is too late for action but I just heard that the Secular Students Alliance had a conference at OSU last weekend. The group’s website says that they are:

an educational nonprofit whose purpose is to educate high school and college students around the country about the value of scientific reason and the intellectual basis of secularism in its atheistic and humanistic manifestations….While some students are comfortable with an atheistic outlook, others identify as secular or religious humanists, and yet others prefer the emphasis of skepticism. The SSA acknowledges these differences and seeks to provide channels through which all of these students can explore their particular interests and inclinations through involvement with similar organizations once they graduate.

To any minimally astute observer of the free thought movement, it is apparent that our lack of numbers inhibits our ability to educate the public about atheism, free inquiry, critical thinking and scientific reasoning.

Some time ago, a student at Case approached me about setting up an affiliate group at Case and asked me to be its advisor. I agreed but did not hear anything about it afterwards.

Should secularists fight for 100% separation of church and state?

Like most atheists, it really is of no concern to me what other people believe. If you do not believe in a god or heaven and hell in any form, then the question of what other people believe about god is as of little concern to you as questions about which sports teams they root for or what cars they drive.

If you are a follower of a theistic religion, however, you cannot help but feel part of a struggle against evil, and often that evil is personified as Satan, and non-believers or believers of other faiths can be seen as followers of that evil. Organized religions also need members to survive, to keep the institution going. So for members of organized religion, there is often a mandate to try and get other people to also believe, and thus we have revivals and evangelical outreach efforts and proselytizing.

But atheists have no organization to support and keep alive with membership dues. We have no special book or building or tradition to uphold and maintain. You will never find atheists going from door to door spreading the lack of the Word.

This raises an interesting question. Should atheists be concerned about religious symbolism in the public sphere such as placing nativity scenes on government property at Christmas or placing tablets of the Ten Commandments in courthouses, both of which have been the subjects of heated legal struggles involving interpretations of the First Amendment to the constitution? If those symbols mean nothing to us, why should we care where they appear?

In a purely intellectual sense, the answer is that atheists (and other secularists) should not care. Since for the atheist the nativity scene has as little meaning as any other barnyard scene, and the Ten Commandments have as much moral force as (say) any of Dave Letterman’s top ten lists, why should these things bother us? Perhaps we should just let these things go and avoid all the nasty legal fights.
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The journey to atheism

In a comment to a previous post, Jim Eastman said something that struck me as very profound. He said:

It’s also interesting to note that most theists are also in the game of declaring nonexistence of deities, just not their own. This quote has been sitting in my quote file for some time, and it seems appropriate to unearth it.

“I contend we are both atheists – I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you reject all other gods, you will understand why I reject yours as well.” – Stephen F. Roberts

This quote captures accurately an important stage in my own transition from belief to atheism. Since I grew up as a Christian in a multi-religious society and had Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist friends, I had to confront the question of how to deal with other religions. My answer at that time was simple – Christianity was right and the others were wrong. Of course, since the Methodist Church I belonged to had an inclusive, open, and liberal theological outlook, I did not equate this distinction with good or evil or even heaven and hell. I felt that as long as people were good and decent, they were somehow all saved, irrespective of what they believed. But there was no question in my mind that Christians had the inside track on salvation and that others were at best slightly misguided.

But as I got older and reached middle age, I found the question posed by Roberts increasingly hard to answer. It became clear to me that when I said I was a Christian, this was not merely a statement of what I believed. Implicitly I was also saying, in effect if not in words, that I was not a Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, etc. As in the quote above, I could not satisfactorily explain to myself the basis on which I was rejecting those religions. After all, like most people, I believed in my own religion simply because I had grown up in that tradition. I had little or no knowledge of other religions and hence had no grounds for rejecting them. In the absence of a convincing reason for rejection, I decided to just remove myself from any affiliation whatsoever, and started to consider myself a believer in a god that was not bound by any specific religious tradition.

But when one is just a free-floating believer in god, without any connection to organized religion and the comforting reinforcement that comes with regular worship with others, one starts asking difficult questions about the nature of god and the relationship to humans for which the answers provided by organized religious dogma simply do not satisfy. When one is part of a church or other religious structure one struggles with difficult questions (suffering, the virgin birth, the nature of the Trinity, original sin, the basis for salvation, etc.) but those difficulties are addressed within a paradigm that assumes the existence of god, and thus always provides, as a last option, saying that the ways of god are enigmatic and beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.

But when I left the church, I started struggling with different questions such as why I believed that god existed at all. And if she/he/it did exist, how and where and in what form did that existence take, and what precisely was the nature of the interaction with humans?

I found it increasingly hard to come up with satisfactory answers to these questions and I remember the day when I decided that I would simply jettison the belief in god altogether. Suddenly everything seemed simple and clear. It is possible that I had arrived at this conclusion even earlier but that my conscious mind was rejecting it until I was ready to acknowledge it. It is hard, after all, to give up a belief that has been the underpinning of one’s personal philosophy. But the feeling of relief that accompanied my acceptance of non-belief was almost palpable and unmistakable, making me realize hat my beliefs had probably been of a pro forma sort for some time.

Especially liberating to me was the realization that I did not have to examine all new discoveries of science to see if they were compatible with my religious beliefs. I could now go freely wherever new knowledge led me without wondering if it was counter to some religious doctrine.

A childhood friend of mine who knew me during my church-religious phase was surprised by my change and reminded me of two mutual friends who, again in middle age, had made the transition in the opposite direction, from atheism to belief. He asked me if it was possible that I might switch again.

It is an interesting question to which I, of course, cannot know the answer. My personal philosophy satisfies me now but who can predict the future? But while conversions from atheism to belief and vice versa are not uncommon, I am not sure how common it is for a single person to make two such U-turns and end up close to where they started. It seems like it would be a very unlikely occurrence. I don’t personally know of anybody who did such a thing.

POST SCRIPT

It is always interesting how the media instinctively resorts to certain standard tropes to reinforce religious beliefs, even when they are wholly inappropriate. Jon Stewart on his Daily Show skewers this way of thinking when the media quickly jumped on the “It’s a miracle!” bandwagon to “explain” the lack of any fatalities from the recent Air France plane crash in Toronto when there was a perfectly natural and even admirable alternative explanation at hand. This reason is of, course, the competence of the crew that managed to get everyone off the plane less than two minutes after the crash. And yet the media, rather than giving credit to all the emergency personnel involved, quickly started playing the “miracle” theme.

As Stewart says: “The only thing that was a miracle in that situation was the lightening that hit the plane, that was the act of God. If anything, God was trying to kill these people. His plan was foiled by the crew’s satanic competence.”

See the video here.

Agnostic or atheist?

I am sure that some of you have noticed that you get a more negative response to saying you are an atheist than to saying that you are an agnostic. For example, in a comment to a previous posting, Erin spoke about finding it “weird that atheism is so counter-culture. Looking back at my youth, announcing your non-belief in God was a surefire shock tactic.” But while I have noticed that people are shocked when someone says that he/she is an atheist, they are a lot more comfortable with you saying that you are an agnostic. As a result some people might call themselves agnostics just to avoid the raised eyebrows that come with being seen as an atheist, lending support to the snide comment that “an agnostic is a cowardly atheist.”

I have often wondered why agnosticism produces such a milder reaction. Partly the answer is public perceptions. Atheism, at least in the US, is associated with people who very visibly and publicly challenge the role of god in the public sphere. When Michael Newdow challenged the legality of the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance that his daughter had to say in school, the media focused on his atheism as the driving force, though there are religious people who also do not like this kind of encroachment of religion into the public sphere.

In former times, atheism was identified with the flamboyant and abrasive Madalyn Murray O’Hair whose legal action led in 1963 to the US Supreme Court voting 8-1 to ban “‘coercive’ public prayer and Bible-reading at public schools.” (In 1964 Life magazine referred to her as the most hated woman in America.) I discussed earlier that the current so-called intelligent design (ID) movement in its “Wedge” document sees this action as the beginning of the moral decline of America and is trying to reverse that course by using ID as a wedge to infiltrate god back into the public schools. Since O’Hair also founded the organization American Atheists, some people speculate that the negative views that Americans have of atheism is because of the movement’s close identification with her.

I think that it may also be that religious people view atheism as a direct challenge to their beliefs, since they think atheism means that you believe that there definitely is no god and that hence they must be wrong. Whereas they think agnostics keep an open mind about the possible existence of god, so you are accepting that they might be right.

The distinction between atheism and agnosticism is a bit ambiguous. For example, if we go to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words are defined as follows:

Atheist: One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.

Agnostic: One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.

The definition of atheism seems to me to be too hard and creates some problems. Denying the existence of god seems to me to be unsustainable. I do not know how anyone can reasonably claim that there definitely is no god, simply because of the logical difficulty of proving a negative. It is like claiming that there is no such thing as an extra-terrestrial being. How can one know such a thing for sure?

The definition of agnosticism, on the other hand, seems to me to be too soft, as if it grants the existence of god in some form, but says we cannot know anything about she/he/it.

To me the statement that makes a good starting point is the phrase attributed to the scientist-mathematician Laplace in a possibly apocryphal story. When he presented his book called the System of the World, Napoleon is said to have noted that god did not appear in it, to which Laplace is supposed to have replied that “I have no need for that hypothesis.”

If you hold an expanded Laplacian view that you have no need for a god to provide meaning or explanations and that the existence of god is so implausible as to be not worth considering as a possibility, what label can be put on you, assuming that a label is necessary? It seems like this position puts people somewhere between the Oxford Dictionary definitions of atheist and agnostic. But until we have a new word, I think that the word atheist is closer than agnostic and we will have to live with the surprise and dismay that it provokes.

Shafars and brights arise!

Sam Smith runs an interesting website called the Progressive Review. It is an idiosyncratic mix of political news and commentary with oddball, amusing, and quirky items culled from various sources thrown in. Mixed with these are his own thoughtful essays on various topics and one essay that is relevant to this series of posts on religion and politics is his call for “shafars” (an acronym he has coined that stands for people who identify with secularism, humanism, atheism, free thought, agnosticism, or rationalism) to play a more visible and assertive role in public life and to not let the overtly religious dominate the public sphere.
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Necessary and sufficient conditions

The problem of finding definitions for things that clearly specify whether an object belongs in that category or not has long been recognized to be a knotty philosophical problem. Ideally what we would need for a good definition is to have both necessary and sufficient conditions, but it is not easy to do so.

A necessary condition is one that must be met if the object is to be considered even eligible for inclusion in the category. If an object meets this condition, then it is possible that it belongs in the category, but not certain. If it does not meet the condition, then we can definitely say that it does not belong. So necessary conditions for something can only classify objects into “maybe belongs” or “definitely does not belong.”

For example, let us try to define a dog. We might say that a necessary condition for some object to be considered as a possible dog is that it be a mammal. So if we know that something is a mammal, it might be a dog or it might be another kind of mammal, say a cat. But if something is not a mammal, then we know for sure it is not a dog.

A sufficient condition, on the other hand, acts differently. If an object meets the sufficient condition, then it definitely belongs. If it does not meet the sufficient condition, then it may or may not belong. So the sufficient condition can be used to classify things into “definitely belongs” or “maybe belongs.”

So for the dog case, if a dog has papers certified by the American Kennel Association, then we can definitely say it is a dog. But if something does not have such papers it may still be a dog (say a mixed breed) or it may not be a dog (it may be a table).

A satisfactory demarcation criterion would have both necessary and sufficient conditions because only then can we say of any given object that it either definitely belongs or it definitely does not belong. Usually these criteria take the form of a set of individually necessary conditions that, taken together, are sufficient. i.e., Each condition by itself is not sufficient but if all are met they become sufficient.

It is not easy to find such conditions, even for such a seemingly simple category as dogs, and that it the problem. So for the dog, we might try define it by saying that it is a mammal, with four legs, barks, etc. But people who are determined to challenge the criteria could find problems (What exactly defines a mammal? What is the difference between an arm and a leg? What constitutes a bark? Etc. We can end up in an infinite regression of definitions.)

This is why philosophers like to say that we make such identifications (“this is a dog, that is a cat”) based on an intuitive grasp of the idea of “similarity classes,” things that share similarities that may not be rigidly definable. So even a little child can arrive at a pretty good idea of what a dog is without formulating a strict definition, by encountering several dogs and being able to distinguish what separates dog-like qualities from non-dog like qualities. It is not completely fool proof. Once in a while we may come across a strange looking animal, some exotic breed that baffles us. But most times it is clear. We almost never mistake a cat for a dog, even though they share many characteristics, such as being small four-legged mammals with tails that are domestic pets.

Anyway, back to science, a satisfactory demarcation would require that we be able to find both necessary and sufficient criteria that can be used to define science, and use those conditions to separate ideas into science and non-science. Do such criteria exist? To answer that question we need to look at the history of science and see what are the common features that are shared by those bodies of knowledge we confidently call science.

This will be discussed in the next posting.

POST SCRIPT

I feel that the American media have not given nearly enough attention to the recently leaked secret and explosive “Downing Street memo” from the British secret service that reveals that Bush intended to invade Iraq all along and lied about it to the American people. Juan Cole says that the memo clearly reveals what has been long strongly suspected.

The Bush administration, and some credulous or loyal members of the press, have long tried to blame U.S. intelligence services for exaggerating the Iraq threat and thus misleading the president into going to war. That position was always weak, and it is now revealed as laughable. President Bush was not misled by shoddy intelligence. Rather, he insisted on getting the intelligence that would support the war on which he had already decided.

Cole’s article, where he lays out the sequence of events, is a must read.

What is your own philosophy?

Professor Sandy Piderit of the Weatherhead School of Management at Case has a wonderful knack of finding interesting sites and posting the links on her blog, so you should check it out regularly. She recently posted the results of an on-line survey that asks you to rate your responses to a series of statements and, based on those responses, gives you an analysis of your philosophical outlook.
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