Choosing the god we want

The series of postings on the burden of proof in relation to the existence of god (see part 1, part 2, and part 3) produced some very thoughtful comments by readers that explore many facets of the issue, and I would urge those interested to read those comments.

What initiated that series of posts was Laplace’s comment that he had no need to hypothesize the existence of god to understand the workings of the universe. I agree with that point, that whether or not one believes in god is a matter of choice and that there is no evidence for the existence of god that is compelling in the way that science requires in support of its hypotheses. In the absence of such compelling positive evidence, I simply proceed on the assumption of non-existence of god.

But the issue of choice is not just between the existence and non-existence of god. Religious people who personally feel that there exists evidence for the existence of god also have to make a choice, except that in their case they have to choose what kind of god to believe in. Believing in a Christian god means rejecting a Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or other vision of god.

But the need for making choices does not end there. Even if one has chosen to believe in a Christian god, one has to make further choices. The fact is that there are many different kinds of god portrayed in the Bible – vengeful, loving, murderous, merciful, just, capricious, cruel, generous, and so on. A god who can order every living thing in the world to be drowned except for one family and two representatives of each species (in Noah’s flood) is revealing quite a different attitude to life and death from a god who tells Abraham (Genesis 18:16-33) that he cannot bring himself to destroy the wicked town of Sodom because of the possibility that it might contain even as few as ten righteous persons who did not deserve to die. It is impossible to make the case that there is a single vision of god in the Bible, unless one also asserts that human comprehension is too weak to understand and resolve the different portrayals into one non-contradictory whole.

It is clear that what most religious believers have done is chosen what type of god they wish to believe in and what type to reject. In the contemporary political context, some Christians have chosen the gay-lifestyle hating god, while others have chosen a gay-lifestyle accepting god, and so on. Depending on what choice was made results in each person having to explain away those features that seem to contradict the view of god they have chosen. This partly explains why churches tend to splinter into so many different denominations and why there are so many disagreements about what god expects from people and how god expects people to behave.

If you want to believe in a kind and loving god, you have some stiff challenges to overcome, not limited to the appalling massacre of people in the great flood. For example, take the story of Abraham and Isaac. For those not familiar with this story (Genesis chapters 21 and 22), Abraham and Sarah did not have children for a long time and finally (when Abraham was 100 years old) she gave birth to Isaac. But then god decides to ‘test’ Abraham and asks him to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. Abraham obeys, making all the preparations for this horrendous sacrifice until at the very last moment, just as he is about to kill the boy, god stops him. God is impressed by Abraham’s unquestioning obedience and rewards him.

This story is disturbing on a whole host of levels. What kind of god would ask a parent to kill his child as a test of faith? And what kind of person would be willing to kill his own child to prove his faith? If we knew of anyone today who was planning to sacrifice his child to prove his worthiness to god, would we not feel justified in labeling that person as dangerously hallucinating and do everything we could to stop him, including forcible restraint and even incarceration? So why is Abraham’s behavior seen as somehow noble? And why is god given a pass for asking someone to commit murder? Even if one were to assume that god and Abraham were engaged in some monstrous game of chicken, not believing that the sacrifice will be actually carried out but simply playing mind games, waiting for the other to relent first so that the murder is avoided, this episode still does not reflect well on either party.

Or take the tsunami which killed hundreds of thousands of people in South East Asia in December 2004. I moderated a discussion of faculty members from the major religions to discuss the question of theodicy (theories to justify the ways of God to people, or understanding why bad things happen to good people). But the very topic of theodicy assumes that what we think of as bad (such as the deaths of children) are in fact not deliberate acts of god. Why should we think that? How do we know that god did not deliberately kill all these people out of a sense of whimsy or out of callousness or because he was bored or because he likes seeing people suffer?

The answer is that we don’t really know the answers to these questions or to the ones raised about Abraham and Isaac because we have no way of knowing the true nature of god even if we believed in god’s existence. What most people have done is choose to believe in a god who would not casually murder people. They are not compelled to make such a choice by anything in the Bible.

This illustrates a paradox. Believers in a god will often explain away disturbing facts by arguing that we mere mortals cannot really understand god’s ineffable plan, but at the same time argue that they know god’s nature. The reality is that people are choosing a god that is congenial to their world-view.

Choice is always involved whether one is a believer or not. While believers choose one vision of god and reject all others, atheists go just one step further and reject all visions of god. It is not such a big step.

POST SCRIPT: Update on net neutrality

As I wrote earlier, the net neutrality amendment was defeated in the House of Representatives. The issue now goes to the Senate, which is where there is the best chance of writing it into law. The excellent website Talking Points Memo is maintaining a list of which way each senator is leaning on this issue for those of you who want to try and exert pressure on your own senator.

For more information on this issue, updates, and contact information to take action, see SaveTheInternet.com.

War and Death

I always liked Chandi. He was my cousin’s cousin, not a near relative, but his family and my family and the family of cousins in-between have been close since childhood. Sri Lanka is a small country, which makes it is easy for children to spend a lot of time with one another and thus one became very close with one’s childhood friends. Although Chandi was five years older than I was, and I was closer in age to his younger brother and sister, age gaps among children in Sri Lanka are not as distancing as they seem to be in the US, and Chandi had an easy-going, friendly, warm, and generous nature that made people like him.

On my return from Sri Lanka last year, we stopped for a few days in London and Chandi and his wife Anula (who also happened to be visiting London for a family wedding) came to visit us and we caught up on all that happened to our respective families in the decades since we had last met. Chandi was that same gentle and fun-loving person he had always been. As is usually the case when you meet up with good friends whom you’ve known for a long time, we just picked up from where we had left off and it was as if no time had elapsed since our previous meeting.

Hence it was a shock to me on the first day of my return from Australia last week to learn that Chandi, Anula, and five of their friends and relatives had been blown up by a powerful landmine while they were all visiting a nature reserve in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government alleges that it was the Tamil Tigers who planted that mine in a national park, hoping to discourage tourism. The Tigers deny responsibility, counter-alleging that it was the work of the government.

This is the kind of killing in wartime where the truth will never be discovered, nor the perpetrators punished, just like the case of Rajini Rajasingham-Tiranagama many years ago. Chandi and Anula will join Rajini as another statistic, a ‘casualty of war,’ ‘collateral damage,’ ‘innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire,’ and all the other soothing phrases to lull us into forgetting that wars kill real people, people with families, and children, and parents, and friends. And in modern wars, an increasing number of casualties are innocent people, just trying to make the best of the one life we have.

Chandi and Anula were the latest victims in the long-running civil war, now experiencing a highly shaky and frequently violated truce, between the Sinhala majority government and Tamil Tiger guerrillas, a bitter irony since in their own personal lives (Chandi being Tamil and Anula being Sinhalese) they had seen through the shallowness of ethnic divisions and knew each other as simply human beings.

But the same holds true for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, East Timor. Most people live their lives without thinking of themselves and their families as fulfilling some grand ethnic or religious destiny. They have simple ambitions about creating better lives for themselves and improving their corner of the world . But such innocent people die as part of the schemes and ambitions of so-called leaders and their war-hungry supporters, who make sure that they themselves and their own loved ones are carefully sheltered from the consequences of their actions.

War is a brutal, cruel thing, destroying the lives of people and societies and leaving scars that last generations. I have little patience with those who have never known what it is like to live through war and have no idea what it does to people, and thus find it easy to act as cheerleaders for it, urging others to fight and die as if it were some kind of game, as if it were some clinical strategy exercise rather than seeing it for what it actually is: blood, guts, limbs torn apart, brains scattered, children orphaned and scarred for life, bereaved parents and spouses.

I am not a pacifist. I can see where there can be rare occasions where war may be the only option left. But what appalls me is when decisions to go to war are taken casually, rather than done after much carefully deliberation and elimination of all other options, as the absolutely last resort that it should be.

I do not wish war on anyone. The only positive thing I can see about anyone experiencing war at close range is that it would so disgust them that they would recoil from it and not wish it on anyone else. The US has been fortunate in not experiencing a protracted and bloody war on its own soil since the civil war. Thus people have been spared the sight of war up close, seeing their friends, family and neighbors killed and maimed and their homes and neighborhoods destroyed. This may also explain why there is such a casual and unconcerned response here to the frequent decisions of the US government to wage war in other countries. Even as deadly violence occurs on a daily basis in Iraq, it is scarcely even a topic of discussion here. It just doesn’t seem real, except for the families of the US troops who are killed and injured.

Veteran Australian war correspondent John Pilger describes what war really looks like and how the media sanitizes the carnage of war to make it more acceptable;

In Vietnam, where more than a million people were killed in the American invasion of the 1960s, I once watched three ladders of bombs curve in the sky, falling from B52s flying in formation, unseen above the clouds.

They dropped about 70 tons of explosives that day in what was known as the “long box” pattern, the military term for carpet bombing. Everything inside a “box” was presumed destroyed.

When I reached a village within the “box”, the street had been replaced by a crater.

I slipped on the severed shank of a buffalo and fell hard into a ditch filled with pieces of limbs and the intact bodies of children thrown into the air by the blast.

The children’s skin had folded back, like parchment, revealing veins and burnt flesh that seeped blood, while the eyes, intact, stared straight ahead. A small leg had been so contorted by the blast that the foot seemed to be growing from a shoulder. I vomited.

I am being purposely graphic. This is what I saw, and often; yet even in that “media war” I never saw images of these grotesque sights on television or in the pages of a newspaper.

The response to the recent killing of al-Zarqawi in Iraq illustrates the callousness to death that has overtaken us. (This report by Patrick Cockburn, one of the best journalists covering Iraq, gives the background on the rise and fall of this “little known Jordanian petty criminal turned Islamic fundamentalist fanatic.”) One of the contributors on the website DailyKos wrote this:

CHEERS to finding a really evil needle in a really big haystack. U.S. forces rocked terrorist Abu Musab “Dick” al-Zarqawi’s world last night when they tossed a thousand pounds of explosive whupass down his gullet. They found his body in the bedroom. And the kitchen. And the den. And the garage. And the neighbor’s apartment. And I think I found an eyebrow in my Cocoa Puffs this morning. My only regret: he didn’t know what hit him.

What causes people to respond in such a gleeful and barbaric manner? Even though al-Zarqawi himself is charged with appallingly violent and brutal crimes that were committed with no respect for human life, how can anyone respond to another’s death with such frivolousness? The writer is clearly reveling in his ghastly descriptions in a manner that makes me suspect that for him these are just words, that sudden violent death is nothing that he has seen personally or had happen to anyone he knew.

Contrast this with the response of Michael Berg (the father of Nicholas Berg, who was beheaded by al-Zarqawi) on hearing the same news:

Well, my reaction is I’m sorry whenever any human being dies. Zarqawi is a human being. He has a family who are reacting just as my family reacted when Nick was killed, and I feel bad for that.

I feel doubly bad, though, because Zarqawi is also a political figure, and his death will re-ignite yet another wave of revenge, and revenge is something that I do not follow, that I do want ask for, that I do not wish for against anybody. And it can’t end the cycle. As long as people use violence to combat violence, we will always have violence.

The incredulous CNN interviewer tries to get a more vindictive and bloodthirsty response by reminding Berg of the brutal way his own son died, and asks him “[A]t some point, one would think, is there a moment when you say, ‘I’m glad he’s dead, the man who killed my son’?” Michael Berg replies “No. How can a human being be glad that another human being is dead?”

Michael Berg’s reaction to the death of his son’s murderer will be incomprehensible to many people because we have got so used to thinking that revenge killing is an honorable thing, something to be excused, or desired, even exulted over. The targeted killings of political enemies is now routinely celebrated, and the possibility of capturing them alive is not even considered, dismissed as a sign of pusillanimity. ‘Real men,’ it is believed, kill the ‘bad guys’ and ‘evildoers’ and then laugh and boast about it. Our childish language matches our cartoonish attitude towards grave issues of life and death.

But let’s pause and think about this for a minute. If we celebrate and justify summary executions when it is done by our own government, how can we condemn it when it is done against us by suicide bombers? Just as much as the level of our commitment to free speech is truly measured by how willing we are to protect the speech of those whose ideas we despise, so is our humanity measured by how we respond to the deaths of those whose actions we loathe.

vietnamchildren.jpgEach war has its iconic pictures and the ones that affect me most are not the headshots of the corpses of well known figures like Saddam Hussein’s sons (Uday and Qusay) and al-Zarqawi that are splashed in large color photographs across the front pages of newspapers, as if they were trophies. What moves me are the pictures of children affected by war. The picture that I will always remember about Vietnam is the one that shows a crying young child running away with others from the scene of a bombing, her clothes and skin burned from the napalm dropped on her village, smoke from its ruins billowing in the background.

Iraqchild.jpgFor Iraq, the picture that haunts me is the one that shows a blood-spattered terrified Iraqi child just after US soldiers had killed her parents as they were traveling in their car near a checkpoint. I have seen some truly grisly and stomach churning pictures of the casualties of the car bombings and shootings and bombings of the Iraq war, of children and old people, men and women, their dead and mutilated bodies captured in indelible images that have never been seen by most people. But there is something about this picture of a grief stricken little crying child, cowering under the gun of a heavily armed soldier, her upturned supplicating hands stained with the blood of her parents, that fills me with an almost unbearable sadness.

I will never forget these pictures. They are seared in my memory as symbols of the atrocity of war. Each time I see or remember them I feel sick at the level of brutality to which we have sunk.

War is not a game. It creates monsters while at the same time destroying people and societies in unspeakable ways. The cycle of killing and counter killing, death and retribution, revenge and counter-revenge usually ends up with mostly the innocent dying.

And now it has taken the lives of my friends Chandi and Anula. Ordinary people. Living ordinary lives. Just like you and me.

Saving the internet: The importance of net neutrality

[UPDATE: Read this Democracy Now transcript for clarifications on the net neutrality issue.]

After singing the praises of the internet in the last three posts, it is now time to sound the alarm. There are serious threats underway to undermine the very features of the internet that have made it the democratizing force it has been so far, and these efforts should be resisted strongly. Last night, the House of Representatives voted down (268-152) an amendment that would have placed into law a provision that would ensure something called ‘net neutrality.’ The issue now goes before the Senate. Founders of the web like Tim Berners-Lee argue that we could be entering a ‘dark period’ in which a few suppliers would be able to determine what users could do and see on the web.

Here’s the issue. Currently, you (the end user) can use any browser you like and go to any site that you want and the speed and ease with which you can access them is largely determined by the content creators and consumers: i.e., the server at the other end and your own computer. The general features of the connecting medium (whether cable, phone line, or wireless) play a neutral role in this process. Think of the medium like the role that roads play in transport. Everyone can use them equally, although each user may use a different kind of vehicle.

But the big telecommunication companies (telcos) that own that connecting medium (AT&T, Verizon, BellSouth) are arguing that since they are the ones who own that infrastructure, they should be able to use that control to generate additional revenue by providing different levels of service (affecting speed and quality) depending on how much people pay. It is as if all roads become toll roads and how much access you get to them, how quickly you could get on them, and how fast you can go on them is determined by how much you pay the road owners.

As the Washington Post reported on December 1, 2005:

A senior telecommunications executive said yesterday that Internet service providers should be allowed to strike deals to give certain Web sites or services priority in reaching computer users, a controversial system that would significantly change how the Internet operates.

William L. Smith, chief technology officer for Atlanta-based BellSouth Corp., told reporters and analysts that an Internet service provider such as his firm should be able, for example, to charge Yahoo Inc. for the opportunity to have its search site load faster than that of Google Inc.

Or, Smith said, his company should be allowed to charge a rival voice-over-Internet firm so that its service can operate with the same quality as BellSouth’s offering.

This has huge ramifications for the internet, as the website SaveTheInternet.com points out. Here’s a sample of the threats (more complete list here):

Google users – Another search engine could pay dominant Internet providers like AT&T to guarantee the competing search engine opens faster than Google on your computer.
Ipod listeners -A company like Comcast could slow access to iTunes, steering you to a higher-priced music service that it owned.
Political groups – Political organizing could be slowed by a handful of dominant Internet providers who ask advocacy groups to pay “protection money” for their websites and online features to work correctly.
Online purchasers – Companies could pay Internet providers to guarantee their online sales process faster than competitors with lower prices – distorting your choice as a consumer.
Bloggers – Costs will skyrocket to post and share video and audio clips – silencing citizen journalists and putting more power in the hands of a few corporate-owned media outlets.

The telcos are using their money (and correspondingly huge lobbying muscle) to try and get legislation through Congress to enable them to do this, and are being fought by grassroots groups. It is speculated that one reason that phone companies so easily (and secretly) gave phone records over to the government in its NSA phone monitoring program was because they were trying to curry favor with the administration concerning this legislation, hoping for this big payoff in return.

This is an important issue and could determine whether the internet remains an egalitarian force or goes down the road of big corporation control that way that newspapers, radio and TV did. In the early days of each of those media forms, it was relatively easy for people to enter into it. It did not cost a lot of money to start a newspaper or radio station, although TVs were more expensive. But then big companies aided by a friendly Congress started dominating the field and nowadays one has to have enormous wealth to start up. In the case of radio and TV, the government has colluded with the big companies by taking the public airways (the broadcast spectrum) and giving it away free to private companies to make exorbitant profits. If you or I were to start a radio and TV station and broadcast it over the public airways, we would be prosecuted.

Newspapers, radio, and TV have ceased to be representative of the interests of ordinary people because they are not owned by them. They now represent the interests of their owners and shareholders. It is the internet, still an embryo medium, that still has the ease of entry to make it a democratizing force because, at least in principle, anyone can gain access to it to spread ideas. It is this that is threatened by the attacks on net neutrality. History has shown that once we let the big companies muscle in and dominate a media system, we cannot get it back.

Considering how much we all use the internet, this issue has been surprisingly below the radar. People seem to assume that the internet will always be the way it is now. But just as the democratic aspects of the internet were not an accident but deliberately designed to be so by its pioneers like Tim Berners-Lee, keeping it that way will also require deliberate efforts by us. We cannot take it for granted.

Case has many tech-savvy people who have a much better idea of the implications of surrendering net neutrality to the big telcos. Lev Gonick, Case’s Vice President for Information Technology as early as last year had a very detailed and informative post on this topic. We need to build more awareness on this important issue. Perhaps we should have a concerted effort, with more bloggers expressing their views on this issue.

For more information on this topic, see the very helpful FAQ put out by the Save The Internet coalition.

Why I love the internet-3: How blogs have changed the pundit game.

In the previous post, I discussed that the main role of columnists and pundits was to act as sheepdogs for us, herding us into pens that limit the range of opinions we are allowed to express and be taken ‘seriously.’ To be frank, I rarely read any of the newspaper columnists anymore. However, since they do appear regularly in the Plain Dealer, I occasionally glance at them while reading the paper. I can usually predict what they are going to say on any given issue and the first paragraph usually confirms my prediction. There is almost never any new information or data or perspective that I find enlightening, whether it be from the ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ columnists. But what those columns do give me one useful piece of information and that is to tell me is what the acceptable range of conventional wisdom is, what I am supposed to think.
[Read more…]

Why I love the internet-2: Bypassing the official pundits

Yesterday I discussed how blogs and other forms of alternative media on the internet prevented Stephen Colbert’s speech to the White House Correspondents Association Dinner from being ignored. But that is not the only benefit of the internet. The more important innovation may be the rise of blogs as alternative and better sources of news analysis and commentary.
[Read more…]

Why I love the internet

Stephen Colbert’s speech at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, where he ripped into the President and the assembled insider media right to their faces, was broadcast only on C-Span and initially buried by the offended media. When it became clear that many people were talking about it, the elite commentators sniffed and said that they had not thought much of the speech.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who can invariably be counted on for conventional wisdom, parroted the standard line in an unintentionally hilarious piece where he said that Colbert wasn’t funny and was in fact rude and a bully to say mean things to that nice Mr. President. In writing this, Cohen was demonstrating again how craven the mainstream press is, so anxious to curry favor with the powerful.

What made Cohen’s column so humorous was that he started out by asserting that he was an expert on comedy, saying: “First, let me state my credentials: I am a funny guy. This is well known in certain circles, which is why, even back in elementary school, I was sometimes asked by the teacher to “say something funny”- as if the deed could be done on demand.”

It is well known in every circle that anyone who actually has to say that he is funny is already pretty pathetic, and to appeal to one’s reputation in elementary school as evidence is to enter the world of self-parody and to practically beg to be made fun of. And few do ridicule better than Penn State professor Michael Berube, who has been having fun at Cohen’s expense for some time now, at one time issuing an appeal to his readers to come to the aid of Cohen because he was in danger of running out of ways to be wrong. You simply must read Berube’s brutally funny takedown of Cohen’s Colbert column.

What added to the general merriment in the blog world was that Cohen then wrote a subsequent column complaining about how so many nasty people were now being mean to him by ridiculing his original Colbert column. This brought on another round of ridicule, this time aiming at his whiny self-pitying. Ah, the fun never ends with young Richard! I do not doubt Cohen’s claim that the other children in his elementary school were in stitches when he was around, but I think he misinterprets the reasons why.

In days gone by, very few of us (especially people like me with no cable) would have heard about Colbert’s speech and even then would only have had the opinions of gatekeepers like Cohen to enlighten us. Those of us who disagreed with Cohen’s supercilious tone and suspected that there was more to the story would have seethed but would have had no recourse. He would have remained secure in his media bubble, blissfully thinking that people actually took his pontificating seriously. But with the internet, Cohen received his comeuppance swiftly and widely, and there is no doubt that he is aware that there is a different world out there. He cannot simply say ridiculous stuff and think that having an august perch in one of the major news outlets will protect him. He may not like this new state of affairs, but he has to deal with it.

In the pre-internet days, Colbert’s actual speech would have disappeared, leaving behind barely a ripple. But thanks to the internet, the story of that dinner speech spread like wildfire thanks to blogs and millions have seen it online (start at about the 51:30 mark), read the transcript, commented on the speech, and passed it on. The ignoring of the speech by most of the traditional media only made the story even more interesting in the world of blog-driven political readership.

Read Arianna Huffington’s summary of the impact the speech has had. See here for my take on it.

This is why I love the internet and the blogs. They have broken the stranglehold of elite opinion makers who can pontificate without content and close ranks around each other and the political establishment. People can now get news and information from many more sources and have access to people who can analyze the news critically and piercingly, people who have no interest in ingratiating themselves to those in power, and thus can say what they mean, even if they become pariahs.

I.F. Stone would have loved it.

POST SCRIPT: Interesting website

I have been introduced to a fascinating new website called MachinesLikeUs. The site’s welcome message pretty clearly lays out its premises, all of which I enthusiastically agree with.

MachinesLikeUs.com is a resource for those interested in evolutionary thought, cognitive science, artificial life and artificial intelligence. It encourages relevant scientific research and analysis, posts current news and disseminates articles that promote the following concepts: 1) Evolution is the guiding principle behind life on earth; 2) Religions and their gods are human constructs, and subject to human foibles; 3) Life and intelligence are emergent properties based upon fundamental mechanics, and, as such, are reproducible; 4) Living organisms are magnificent machines – robust, dynamic, self-sufficient, precisely tuned to their environment – and deserving our respect and study. You are invited to participate in the venerable quest.

The site provides a great set of links to recent news items about scientific findings in these areas and articles that deal with the above issues. The editor has generously included some of my own blog entries on his site.

Seeing the world through Darwin’s eyes

It is good to be back and blogging again!

On my trip to Australia, I had the chance to see some of the marsupial animals that are native to that continent, and as I gazed at these strange and wondrous creatures, I asked myself the same question that all visitors to the continent before me must have asked: Why are these animals so different from the ones I am familiar with? After all, Australia’s environment is not that different from that found in other parts of the world, but the fact that most marsupials (like kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, and wombats) are found only on that continent is remarkable. I was stunned to learn that when a kangaroo is born, it weighs less than one gram. This is because much of the development of the newborn (which occurs in other animals inside the womb of the mother) takes place in the pouch for marsupials.
[Read more…]

Why scientific theories are more than explanations

(I will be traveling for a few weeks and rather than put this blog on hiatus, thought that I would continue with my weekday posting schedule by reposting some of the very early items, for those who might have missed them the first time around.)

At its heart, intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocates adopt as their main strategy that of finding phenomena that are not (at least in their eyes) satisfactorily explained by evolutionary theory and arguing that hence natural selection is a failed theory. They say that adding the postulate of an ‘intelligent designer’ (which is clearly a pseudonym for God) as the cause of these so-called unexplained phenomena means that they are no longer unexplained. This, they claim, makes IDC the better ‘explanation.’ Some (perhaps for tactical reasons) do not go so far and instead say that it is at least a competing explanation and thus on a par with evolution.
[Read more…]

Why IDC is not science

(I will be traveling for a few weeks and rather than put this blog on hiatus, thought that I would continue with my weekday posting schedule by reposting some of the very early items, for those who might have missed them the first time around.)

In the previous posting, I pointed out that if one looks back at the history of science, all the theories that are considered to be science are both (1) naturalistic and (2) predictive. Thus these two things constitute necessary conditions.

This is an important fact to realize when so-called intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocates argue that theirs is a ‘scientific’ theory. If so, the first hurdle IDC must surmount is that it meet both those necessary criteria, if it is to be even eligible to be considered to be science. It has to be emphasized that meeting those conditions is not sufficient, for something to be considered science, but the question of sufficiency does not even arise because IDC does not meet either of the two necessary conditions.

I issued this challenge to the IDC proponents when I debated them in Kansas in 2002. I pointed out that nowhere did they provide any kind of mechanism that enabled them to predict anything that anyone could go out and look for. And they still haven’t. At its essence, IDC strategy is to (1) point to a few things that they claim evolutionary theory cannot explain; (2) assert that such phenomena have too low a probability to be explained by any naturalistic theory; and (3) draw the conclusion that those phenomena must have been caused by an ‘unspecified designer’ (with a nudge, nudge, wink, wink to the faithful that this is really God) whose workings are beyond the realm of the natural world explored by science.

Thus they postulate a non-natural cause for those phenomena and cannot predict any thing that any person could go and look for. (This is not surprising. The designer is, for all intents and purposes, a synonym for God and it would be a bit bizarre to our traditional concept of God to think that his/her actions should be as predictable as that of blocks sliding down inclined planes.) When I asked one of the IDC stalwarts (Jonathan Wells) during my visit to Hillsdale College for an IDC prediction, the best he could come up with was that there would be more unexplained phenomena in the future or words to that effect.

But that is hardly what is meant by a scientific prediction. I can make that same kind of vague prediction about any theory, even a commonly accepted scientific one since no theory ever explains everything. A scientific prediction takes the more concrete form: “The theory Z encompassing this range of phenomena predicts that if conditions X are met, then we should be able to see result Y.”

IDC advocates know that their model comes nowhere close to meeting this basic condition of science. So they have adopted the strategy of: (1) challenging the naturalism condition, arguing that it is not a necessary condition for science and that it has been specifically and unfairly adopted to exclude IDC from science; and (2) tried to create a new definition of science so that IDC can be included. This takes the form of arguing that a scientific theory is one that ‘explains’ phenomena.

There are variations and expansions on these arguments by the various members of the IDC camp but I have tried to reduce it to its skeletal elements. These variations that IDC proponents adopt are designed to blur the issues but are easy to refute. See this cartoon by Tom Tomorrow (thanks to Daniel for the link) and this cartoon (thanks to Heidi) and this funny post by Canadian Cynic about the possible consequences of using IDC-type reasoning in other areas of life.)

The rejection by IDC advocates of naturalism and predictivity as necessary conditions for science goes against the history of science. Recall for example the struggle between the Platonic and Copernican models of the universe. Remember that both sides of this debate involved religious believers. But when they tried to explain the motions of the planets, both sides used naturalistic theories. To explain the retrograde motion of Mercury and other seemingly aberrant behavior, they invoked epicycles and the like. They struggled hard to find models that would enable them to predict future motion. They did not invoke God by saying things like “God must be moving the planets backwards on occasion.” Or “This seemingly anomalous motion of Mercury is due to God.” Such an explanation would not have been of any use to them because allowing God into the picture would preclude the making of predictions.

In fact, the telling piece of evidence that ended the geocentric model was that the Rudolphine Tables using Kepler’s elliptical orbits and a heliocentric model were far superior to any alternative in predicting planetary motion.

While it may be true that the underlying beliefs that drove people of that time to support the Platonic or Copernican model may have been influenced by their religious outlook, they did not seem to invoke God in a piecemeal way, as an explanation for this or that isolated phenomenon, as is currently done by IDC advocates. Instead they were more concerned with posing the question of whether the whole structure of the scientific theory was consistent with their understanding of the working of God. In other words, they were debating whether a geocentric model was compatible with their ideas of God’s role in the world. The detailed motions of specific planets, however problematic, seemed to have been too trivial for them to invoke God as an explanation, although they would probably not have excluded this option as something that God was capable of doing.

It may also well be true that some scientists of that time thought that God might be responsible for such things but such speculations were not part of the scientific debate. For example, Newton himself is supposed to have believed that the stability of the solar system (which was an unexplained problem in his day and remained unsolved for about 200 years) was due to God periodically intervening to restore the initial conditions. But these ideas were never part of the scientific consensus. And we can see why. If scientists had said that the stability was due to God, and closed down that avenue of research, then scientists would never have solved this important problem by naturalistic means and thus advanced the cause of science. This is why scientists, as a community, never accept non-natural explanations for any phenomena, even though individual scientists may entertain such ideas.

So the attempts by IDC advocates to redefine science to leave out methodological naturalism and predictivity fly completely in the face of the history of science. But worse than that, such a move would result in undermining the very methods that has made science so successful.

In the next posting, we will see why just looking for ‘good’ explanations of scientific phenomena (the definition of science advocated by the IDC people) is not, by itself, a useful exercise for science.

What is science?

(I will be traveling for a few weeks and rather than put this blog on hiatus, thought that I would continue with my weekday posting schedule by reposting some of the very early items, for those who might have missed them the first time around.)

Because of my interest in the history and philosophy of science I am sometimes called upon to answer the question “what is science?” Most people think that the answer should be fairly straightforward. This is because science is such an integral part of our lives that everyone feels that they intuitively know what it is and think that the problem of defining science is purely one of finding the right combination of words that captures their intuitive sense.

But as I said in my previous posting, strictly defining things means having demarcation criteria, which involves developing a set of necessary and sufficient conditions, and this is extremely hard to do even for seemingly simple things like (say) defining what a dog is. So I should not be surprising that it may be harder to do for an abstract idea like science.

But just as a small child is able, based on its experience with pets, to distinguish between a dog and a cat without any need for formal demarcation criteria, so can scientists intuitively sense what is science and what is not science, based on the practice of their profession, without any need for a formal definition. So scientists do not, in the normal course of their work, pay much attention to whether they have a formal definition of science or not. If forced to define science (say for the purpose of writing textbooks) they tend to make up some kind of definition that sort of fits with their experience, but such ad-hoc formulations lack the kind of formal rigor that is strictly required of a philosophically sound demarcation criterion.

The absence of an agreed-upon formal definition of science has not hindered science from progressing rapidly and efficiently. Science marches on, blithely unconcerned about its lack of self-definition. People start worrying about definitions of science mainly in the context of political battles, such as those involving so-called intelligent design creationism (or IDC), because advocates of IDC have been using this lack of a formal definition to try to define science in such a way that their pet idea be included as science, and thus taught in schools as part of the science curriculum and as an alternative to evolution.

Having a clear-cut demarcation criterion that defines science and is accepted by all would settle this question once and for all. But finding this demarcation criterion for science has proven to be remarkably difficult.

To set about trying to find such criteria, we do what we usually do in all such cases, we look at all the knowledge that is commonly accepted as science by everyone, and see if we can see similarities among these areas. For example, I think everyone would agree that the subjects that come under the headings of astronomy, geology, physics, chemistry, and biology, and which are studied by university departments in reputable universities, all come under the heading of science. So any definition of science that excluded any of these areas would be clearly inadequate, just as any definition of ‘dog’ that excluded a commonly accepted breed would be dismissed as inadequate.

This is the kind of thing we do when trying to define other things, like art (say). Any definition of art that excluded (say) paintings hanging in reputable museums would be considered an inadequate definition.

When we look back at the history of the topics studied by people in those named disciplines and which are commonly accepted as science, two characteristics stand out. The first thing that we realize is that for a theory to be considered scientific it does not have to be true. Newtonian physics is commonly accepted to be scientific, although it is not considered to be universally true anymore. The phlogiston theory of combustion is considered to be scientific though it has long since been overthrown by the oxygen theory. And so on. In fact, since all knowledge is considered to be fallible and liable to change, truth is, in some sense, irrelevant to the question of whether something is scientific or not, because absolute truth cannot be established.

(A caveat: Not all scientists will agree with me on this last point. Some scientists feel that once a theory is shown to be incorrect, it ceases to be part of science, although it remains a part of science history. Some physicists also feel that many of the current theories of (say) sub-atomic particles are unlikely to be ever overthrown and are thus true in some absolute sense. I am not convinced of this. The history of science teaches us that even theories that were considered rock-solid and lasted millennia (such as the geocentric universe) eventually were overthrown.)

But there is a clear pattern that emerges about scientific theories. All the theories that are considered to be science are (1) naturalistic and (2) predictive.

By naturalistic I mean methodological naturalism and not philosophical naturalism. The latter, I argued in an earlier posting where these terms were defined, is irrelevant to science.

By predictive, I mean that all theories that are considered part of science have the quality of having some explicit mechanism or structure that enable the users of these theories to make predictions, of saying what one should see if one did some experiment or looked in some place under certain conditions.

Note that these two conditions are just necessary conditions and by themselves are not sufficient. (See the previous posting for what those conditions mean.) As such they can only classify things into “may be science” (if something meets both conditions) or “not science” (if something does not meet either one of the conditions.) As such, these two conditions together do not make up a satisfactory demarcation criterion. For example, the theory that if a football quarterback throws a lot of interceptions his team is likely to lose, meets both naturalistic and predictive conditions, but it is not considered part of science.

But even though we do not have a rigorous demarcation criterion for science, the existence of just necessary conditions still has interesting implications, which we shall explore in later postings.