Philadelphia Science Festival April 10, 2013Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: events, Philadelphia, science
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I just found out about this: http://www.philasciencefestival.org It runs from April 18th-28th, and there is a calendar of events which has details. I just wanted to share this, and say that I will likely be there for a day or two of it.
Reading Jonathan Haidt as a “New Atheist” December 5, 2012Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion.
Tags: atheist community, evolutionary psychology, group selection, Jonathan Haidt, Moral Psychology, new atheism, politics, religion, science, templeton foundation, The Righteous Mind
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A week ago I wrote a quick post about how I was reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and quoted a bit from early on in the book. I am nearly done the book (I have one chapter left), and although I liked much of the early book and think that some of what he thinks about the relationship between our moral instincts and subsequent rationalizations of them are worth reading, I must conclude that i am not on-board with Haidt’s approach to religion, especially his criticisms of the “New Atheists.”
In chapter 11, Religion is a Team Sport, Haidt tries to deconstruct the new atheist approach, following on his anti-worshiping of reason from earlier in the book, and says we need to address religion for what is is (a group selected set of community-building institutions) rather than what it is not (a set of beliefs, ideas, etc). He thinks that our attention to beliefs as motivators for action is too simplistic, and points out that “belonging” has to be placed along with belief and action, in the matrix of religious behavior.
Well, yes of course it does!
I don’t need to get into the details of what is wrong with the book, at least in terms of the criticism of the new atheists, because that has already been done:
PZ Myers has thoughts about Haidt’s relationship to the Templeton Foundation, and thus to accommodationism in general.
Als0, Helian has a good critique which points to another good critique from the New York Times by William Saletan.
I agree that there are parts of the book which are quite worth-while. I did just get it from my local library, after all, and didn’t spend a cent to read it. If you are interested in moral psychology, evolutionary psychology, and group selection (whether or not you agree with any of those research areas specifically), then I suggest reading at least the first several chapters.
But what was most telling was that Haidt kept on talking about the difference between what makes a group work well and what does not. His conclusion is that religion makes groups work well, at least for members of the group. Atheists who ask us to leave religion, as individuals or as a species, risk losing what Haidt sees as the glue that can hold us together.
Haidt is seemingly unfamiliar (due to lack of mention) with any new atheist thoughts past 2007 or so (the book was published in 2012). Perhaps the problem is that he is unaware that many atheists have been working, especially in the last 2-3 years, on building up an atheist community. No, we may not have anything sacred (not even science), but we are working on creating a sense of what it means to be skeptical, non-religious, and living in a world with potential for beauty and terrible atrocity.
Religion is not the only force for group-cohesion, even if it has the advantage of having sacred spaces, authority, and thus loyalty (what Haidt identifies as primarily conservative values). I believe that care, a concern for fairness/ justice, and a sense of liberty (what Haidt identifies as what liberals tend to prioritize) are means to creating community as well. We do not need to give up a concern for what is true (a value Haidt does not list, interestingly, especially because it is a high value for many new atheists, including myself) in order to create shared group identities.
Haidt, an atheist himself, is not connected to the atheist community. Perhaps if he was, then his arguments would not be so poor. Perhaps we should invite him to the party?
Facts or it didn’t happen: unhooking the bra of reality March 31, 2012Posted by shaunphilly in Religion.
Tags: creationism, evidence, evolution, intelligent design, science, skepticism
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So, you want to include Intelligent design, creationism, or some other moniker for questioning the overwhelmingly established science of evolution into our classrooms. You also, likely, equate evolution with the origin of the universe, so you want to talk about how something must have created the universe too. Like, for example, god. Well, OK. In that case, lets also include creation myths from Hindus, various Native American tribes, and (why not, it’s 2012) the Mayans? Let’s have as many challenges to evolution and cosmology as possible, if we are going there.
Or perhaps you are more concerned with the state of medical science. Perhaps you want to have your medical school include spirituality in their training, so that future doctors will be more spiritually attuned, or something. Well, OK. In that case let’s not forget faith healing, acupuncture, and homeopathy. Hell, let’s throw in some goat sacrificing as well. If we are going to include alternative medicines, why not throw in everything, just in case someone thinks they are worthwhile, eh?
Have I gone down a slippery slope? Have I taken what should be seen as a legitimate addition of alternative points of view, in comparison with established science and skepticism, and equated them with obviously erroneous methods? Am I not taking things like spirituality, real “scientific” challenges to the Darwinian conspiracy, etc seriously? Am I merely being flippant and disrespectful?
What is the difference between the more sophisticated and complex challenges to the scientific consensus and those which are, how should I say, less sophisticated? What is the difference between the Discovery Institute and the creationist screaming on the street corner (or next to the reason rally)?
There are real differences between these two types of challenge to science. One is better articulated, more gpolished, and appears more professional. The other has not been dressed up in such finery, and is obviously naked to everyone (OK, most of us). From where I stand, all of these sophists look naked, adorned in transcendent Imperial attire, even if to many out there the transparency of such cloth takes on a denseness and opacity to them. Such observations become quite illuminating to complex eyes, but not so complex to need an intelligence to evolve them, such as mine.
That is, the difference between these sophisticated attempts at “skepticism” and creationist buffoonery is one of methodological degree, and certainly not a difference of quality.
For someone to show a distinction between these two, they would need to show some empirical or methodological difference between the two claims. They cannot do this. Because there isn’t any.
No matter how well the Discovery Institute, the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), or any other disingenuous attempts to undermine science dresses up their creationism, that’s all it is. So no matter how slick the presentation, elevated the vocabulary (to make it sound sciency), or how many “credentialed” contributors they parade out (or pay large sums of money) there will only be a difference of degree between them and the whack-jobs on the street-corner yelling about the time being “nigh,” or someshit.
The reason for this is simple. The methodologies of science, based in logic, empiricism, and skepticism generally, are unique and powerful. Religion, faith, superstition are all powerful motivators of human behavior, but they lack that method and so they fail to predict or explain reality. There is a fundamental methodological difference between what real science does and what is done by such think tanks as referred to above. Places like the Discovery Institute and the ICR are not using the best methodologies, but are in fact using the same type of methodology used by the creationist you will meet on the street, in a church, or proposing legislation to allow discussion of creationism in schools.
They arenot using skepticism.
So when we respond to such trite sophistry with what may appear hyperbolic, the fact is that it is not hyperbole at all. It is, in fact, appropriate commentary on the ridiculousness of people’s beliefs about the world; beliefs which are not warranted by the facts or the reason that binds those facts into theories which teach us about reality.
Unhooking the bra of reality
One person’s idiocy is another’s profundity. And one person’s profundity is another’s idiocy. The difference between the two, however, is not mere subjective opinion or preference; reality can inform the difference, and reality gives up her lovely secrets only to skeptics (when she gives them up at all). Faith and superstition—ever the prompts of religion—being so obsessed with what lays beneath nature’s bodice, frees itself to imaginings and unverified declarations. But it is all rhetoric and no real experience.
Real experience requires knowing how to unhook the bra of reality, a secret revealed only by the reaching of the adolescence of our species during our philosophical and scientific development and matured in the fires of the Enlightenment with the advent of the scientific method. Many an embarrassed and inexperienced person claims to have breached such depths, claiming to have seen this or that, done that or this, and have really only masturbated such things while those of us truly entered into mysteries of the plain world in our face, seen with skeptical eyes, know the beauty of reality’s bosom.
Or, to put the analogy more succinctly; pics or it didn’t happen, you keepers of faith and superstition!
A conversation about paganism, monotheism, and science January 29, 2012Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: paganism, science
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For anyone who is interested, I am having a conversation with another (Pagan) blogger about the relationship between science and religion.
It was in response to some comments made by him about the recent video about loving Jesus and hating religion. The post is entitled Why I Like Religion (But Hate Jesus), and it is an idea I have heard before from people many times (it is even and idea I used to espouse) and which which I have a little sympathy. Very little.
I don’t often talk with pagans about religion and science, mostly because I don’t run into many, but find it a different environment for discussion than talking with Christians, Jews, or Moslems.
If you are interested in the discussion, you can find it in the comments here.
Lamarkian theology January 2, 2012Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: evolution, intelligent design, Lamarkism, science, theology
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It struck me today that one of the reasons that so many theologically-minded writers are so enamored by teleological thinking when it comes to evolutionary theory—whether it be Intelligent Design, theistic evolution, etc—is that they are so accustomed to thinking teleologically. What I mean is that because theologians seem to simply make stuff up*, they have the freedom and malleability to fit whatever environment they find themselves in, so they are always thinking about designing their ideology to fit the world. This, on the surface, might seem like what one should do, except they also hold onto the core nonsensical propositions while doing so—while reinterpreting them!
The very process of doing theology is exactly backwards to how science works, which is part of why the conversation between theologians and scientists often goes so wrong; their methods are in opposition. The idea of theistic evolution (that god created the world and subsequently guides evolution) is at odds with scientific ideas about how evolution works. There is no need for guidance for it to work, so (for example) the official Catholic Church’s acceptance of evolution as a fact, though guided by god (an idea shared by many people as well) is not the scientific concept accepted by evolutionary biologists. Similarly, Intelligent Design, the cultural political attempt to sneak creationism into us with the guise of “science,” has similar themes underneath. It all is about keeping the idea of design or purpose in a mechanism which needs none in order to work.
And what this reminds me of, this predilection for shaping oneself into the hole it finds itself sitting in, is Lamarkian evolution. You see, early in the development of evolutionary science, there was some debate about how changes in species occurred. One idea, which is now rejected by the scientific community since we know how genes, mutation, and other forces work, was that some organism would change according to the environmental pressures it finds itself in and passes along those changes to the next generation. A common example used to illustrate this is a giraffe that finds its neck too short gets a longer neck (or at least the idea of one), and passes this change onto its offspring.
Natural selection, of course, works nothing like this, but theology does work this way.
If some theological idea does not fit with the world, a newer theologian comes along and proposes a new way to see things; a new way to “interpret” the scriptures or the tradition in order to fit better. And as the progress of science has marched along, theology has followed and changed its spots to fit to not be too egregiously out of style with the current scientific consensus. But it is done in such a way as to just change enough to not be noticeable to most people. It changes slowly, little by little, such that the theological concepts talked about seriously now in universities don’t seem to most people to be absurd or too far from their original tradition (which they define, of course).
But take a sophisticated theologian from 2012 (happy new years, btw) and send him to even a comparatively liberal and open-minded seminary from 1000 years ago, and they would be cast out as heretics, unbelievers, atheists even!
But it isn’t really their fault; they have to change to survive. It’s just a shame that they can’t get rid of the core absurdities of their theologies. You know,m stuff like gods and other supernatural crap.
I’ll say it again; theology is intelligently designed, but not intelligently enough.
*”Some time ago, when Jerry Coyne was preparing for his debate with John Haught, I recommended a book of modern theology in which a number of different theologians explained the very different ways in which Christian theology is done nowadays. The result that I hoped would derive from reading the book is what happened to me when I read it: that it would become obvious that theology in fact makes things up; that there is no basis for agreement between theologians, and that the bases for theological positions are as diverse as the positions themselves. That is, there is no basis for doing theology. Theology is like a mood that people have in the presence of sacred texts and the history of thought about them. It has no rational ground.” –Eric MacDonald (source)
Morality as an applied science November 21, 2011Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: morality, naturalistic fallacy, Sam Harris, science
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Quick note: My blogging activity has been very light lately because I have just started working again. I am going to dedicate some more time to writing so that I can have at least a couple of posts a week, and hopefully more. One the positive side, my posts may become shorter (you’re welcome)
There continues to be conversations about the relationship between science and morality in the blogosphere (here’s some from yesterday), which is no surprise since it overlaps issues such as scientism, religion, and skepticism generally. These topics are all hot tamales, at least on my google reader.
Moral philosophy can bee thought of as an application of scientifically discovered facts to a problem in social dynamics. In a sense, it is a bit like a computer programming problem in that we know what kind of program we want to create (a harmonious society with minimal ill-treatment of its citizens), but we need to figure out how to achieve this goal with the software and hardware we have. The hardware and software are (loosely) ourselves, and the program we want to write involves coming up with a way to order social relationships in a way which benefits people while preventing their harm if possible.
And what is morality? Is it the study of how humans (or other sentient beings) interact in groups, or is it the study of the how those humans should act in groups given some given desires and goals? With morality the desires are given (they are the facts of our psyches), and the goals are at least defined even if not universally shared. It is the logistics of how to achieve those goals which are where science comes in.
Is this puzzle one for the scientific method, or more generally one for empirical research? That depend son how we are defining ‘science’ here. If it is meant merely are a set of tools towards pure research, where the empirical methodology we use is utilized in order to discover laws or support hypotheses towards some theory, then no. If it is meant as a more general application of reason and the scientific method, then yes. As I have written recently, I think that the term ‘science’ in terms of these philosophical questions (such as the issue of science v. religion) should make way for ‘skepticism’ instead.
Moral philosophy is not science in the same way that physics is a science. There is science where we know the road (method) but not the goal (like physics), and then there is science where we know the goal (some achievement, technological or otherwise) but not the path by which to get there. Morality is an example the latter; we know what we want to accomplish, but we need more information and analysis before we know how to get there. Morality is an applied science.
When we are talking about doing the science of morality, we are not talking about designing a set of experiments to discover the underlying laws of morality as we would with physics. But morality is a field where we have real, physical things about which we have questions and goals. We will use reason, empiricism, etc in doing moral philosophy but most importantly doing moral philosophy will compel the need for further empirical research, some of which might be physics. It will mostly be neuroscience.
So, to deny that morality is a scientific project only makes sense if we are to define science so narrowly as to limit it to pure research, rather than the larger skeptical project of discovering what is true or how to achieve things via naturalistic means. This is why I prefer to use ‘skepticism’ in place of science in so many conversations such as this, because so many people conflate ‘science’ with pure research. I think that is the source of much of the disagreement concerning this issue.
For people such as Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, etc, ‘science’ seems to stand for that larger skeptical project. The best approach to any topic (including morality) is this skeptical method often referred to as ‘scientism’ by so many commentators, and confused with some kind of neo-positivism by others. That’s why morality is a skeptical project; it is by these empirical and logical methods that we can get real answers to meaningful questions asked.
For morality, the question asked is something like “how should we behave socially in order to allow people to maintain personal and social well being?” This goal of well being (or whatever term you prefer) is not the thing we are trying to determine or justify, it is the project of moral philosophy from the start. If we were not assuming, axiomatically, the values of well being, happiness, or whatever term we prefer, we would not be talking about morality at all, but something else. And what other method besides the empirical ones of science could we use to find out how to answer this question?
We are not using science to determine what morality is or should be, we are using it to find the best ways to solve the philosophical problem we are already aware of. That’s why this is not about the is-ought “fallacy.” We are not saying that these are the facts, and so we should do this. We are saying that here is the place we want to be, so how do we get there?
Much like how we are not using science to find or justify our desires for truth when we use it to determine what is true generally, we are not using science to discover or justify our desire for a moral society by trying to discover the best means to attain such a thing. If you don’t take that goal as axiomatic, then you don’t care about doing moral philosophy. Similarly, if you don’t care about the truth, you don’t do science.
We skeptical and scientistic moral philosophers take what the hard sciences give us through their pure research methods and apply it to this problem of creating a better society in which to live. That, to me, is applied science.
Faith and Doubt October 18, 2011Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: belief, doubt, faith, science
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I have been told by many people, over many years, that doubt is part of faith. The idea is that a person who does not challenge their faith has a weak form of faith. I sort of appreciate the sentiment here, but I wonder how genuine this is. I wonder how deep this lauding of doubt goes. I wonder if it is real, skeptical, doubt.
Skepticism is about doubt. A skeptic is a person who demands substantial evidence in order to accept something as true. Yes, a person may not be ideally skeptical about everything, and therefore may accept as true beliefs which would not stand up to even their own scrutiny if they were to apply it. But I think this is simply the nature of our cognitive limitations. In other words, we are all credulous to certain dumb beliefs, but we’re just human.
It take a certain amount of courage to dig deep into your own beliefs. To be an archaeologist of the soul, as Nietzsche put it, is a hard task. And not everyone will be up for it, nor would most know how if they tried; we sometimes need a little help from our friends, I suppose. And so when I meet a religious person who has the courage to at least make a surface or moderate attempt to doubt, to dig beneath the surface of their convictions, I find myself bestowing respect upon them, at least provisionally.
The provisional nature of this reverence is necessary, I have learned, because the institutions of religion, the insistence of doctrine, and the fragility of faith’s foundations are such that such ego-archaeological excavations often lead to one falling into holes, and thus clutching onto the ground of such landscapes in order not to feel the true exhilaration of freethought. To fall into oneself, underneath the facades of our social selves padded with commitments to supernatural hopes, is a terrifying prospect in the face of oblivious alternatives. The human condition of being, in the end, alone and finite (it’s alright) is a reality which doubts lead to, and which is less often the object of faith.
How often have you met a person committed to a faith that they will cease to exist upon death, and that there is no god that loves them? These ideas are conclusions reached upon careful thought and skepticism, not hope and desires. The claim that these ideas are equally based upon faith are absurd, and are an attempt to level the playing field. It is a rhetorical trick with no substance. Faith seems to almost exclusively own subjects which we seem to prefer (like Heaven), or at least fear as an alternate to what we prefer (Hell).
So, does this imply that faith and doubt are truly at odds? The snark-laiden answer is to point out that if people had evidence (the answer to doubt), then they would not need faith. And while I think that this snark contains an important insight into the nature of the question of faith and doubt, I think that we can go elsewhere to address this issue. The skeptical methods, science and reason, are a means to figure out what is likely to be true given our best tools for determining such things. Doubt, in other words, is the seed of science and all of our (limited) mastery of the natural world. Faith seems to be opposed to this progressive methodology, both philosophically and practically. Anyone who has a long conversation with a true believer will ultimately hear the faith card played; all of our questions, doubts, and debunking of theological apologetics runs into this wall at some point.
If the kind of questioning ”theology” that [Richard] Holloway now indulges in were to become the norm, the churches would simply fly apart from the centrifugal forces of doubt and questioning. And that is why religion will remain dogmatic at its core, and why openness to changing one’s mind is simply not accessible to the religions. It may happen one by one, as religious believers are leached away from religion by the corrosive forces of science and reason, but a religion whose leaders were open to changing their minds in the way that [Julian] Baggini suggests is necessary in order to avoid fundamentalism would spell the end of religion, because religions have no foundation. They are built on air, and openness to revision would quickly expose this.
That is, even where doubt, or questioning in general, is encouraged (whether by accommodating atheists or moderate or liberal theologians), it is a recipe for the excavation of holes in the landscape of religion and the faith which binds people to it. Doubt may be considered a part of being a faithful person, but the religion that survives this process is not the same as the religion that was handed to us from pre-scientific ages. This religion is moderated by compromise, non-literalism, etc and away from fundamentalism. Eventually, it erodes away into postmodernism, metaphors, and empty vessels with sentimental import.
And this is precisely what religious academics, such as the Bishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and King’s College president Dinesh D’Souza have been doing for some time; we “new atheists” are addressing a straw man, they say, and religion is full of doubt, questions, and nuance which are ignored by comments like Eric MacDonald above. For such people of faith, doubt is part of their lives and to imply that faith is somehow antithetical to doubt is to be unfair and biased in a way that does no justice to sophisticated theology. But it all falls apart, at some point. Eventually, in the corrosive environment of doubt, religion becomes a shade in tattered robes that haunts our ivory towers and sanctuaries, largely unseen by the masses whom insist upon feeding on the corpse of literal truth, real historical promises, and miracles.
Well, Eric MacDonald (who is no stranger to sophisticated theology), Jerry Coyne, and others have said a lot about this very subject, and I shall not try and sum up their thoughts on such things here, as this would quickly turn into a small ebook if I were to do so. So what I want to do is pose some questions which I intend to follow up on in the future. They are questions about faith which I have some perspective on already, especially in conversation with former Christians (almost exclusively) about the role of questions and doubts in religious communities. Having known people who would pose tough questions, voice doubts occasionally, etc within their religious communities, I have seen how some moderate religious communities (like Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, where I visited a couple of years ago) respond to such things. Doubt and questions are not met with curiosity or answers, they are often met with ostracism and loss of friends, as I have had it explained to me. Also, in my experience, outsider’s questions and doubts are treated with initial interest and then silence, in the vast majority of cases.
My questions are as follows (and I intend to ask them of people in positions of leadership in religious communities in coming months):
- Are questions, doubts, and criticism welcome?
- (if so) are doubts about any and all doctrines acceptable?
- Have you seen or heard of people being socially sanctioned for having questions, doubts, or criticisms?
- (if so) do you condemn such sanctions?
- Is doubt more likely to be lauded or demonized?
- Would the answer to the above change depending on the severity of the doubt?
As I said above, I have some experience with exposing religious ideas to doubt. In the extremely vast majority of cases (I have not maintained a running count, but there are few exceptions) even when questions, responses, or criticisms are proposed, they almost always fizzle into nothing. It is almost as if the leaders of these communities, whether they are priests, pastors, or whatever are so glad to hear some commentary, feedback, etc that they don’t notice at first that you have some serious objections to the message they are conveying, and then once that sinks in, they simply close off. They are not interested any longer. I suppose I am not surprised, nor should I be.
But right now, from where I sit, true skepticism, the kind of doubt which seeks to excavate the very foundations and assumptions of one’s worldview are not healthy for faith. But perhaps I err in using “faith” as the Christian scriptures do:
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
Because that seems, on the surface, to be in philosophical opposition to skepticism, and therefore to doubt. Perhaps some other religious tradition has a use of the word faith which differs from this. I don’t remember much about what the Quran says about faith (there is this, for starters), but I doubt that it says much that is friendly to skepticism. And insofar as many religious people do have and maintain doubts, how far do they push those questions, are their questions they would refuse to apply doubt to, and would they truly be open to changing their mind?
I have long said that I want to know the truth. If their is a god (or gods) I want to know. I am open to being convinced of things which I do not currently believe. Do believers share this quality? And if so, how many and to what degree?
And why aren’t more people doubting?
Robert Benne responds July 7, 2011Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: postmodernism, Robert Benne, science, separation of church and state
A few weeks back, long before the events of this last weekend, I posted a response to Dr. Robert Benne’s article in a local paper. I didn’t hear from him for a while, so i assumed I would not hear from him. Today, he wrote back.
Today’s post is a response to the vast majority of what he wrote to me.
He starts, after some initial introductory comments, by complimenting my civility. Wait, I thought I was one of those gnu atheists who are uncivil…
I appreciate your civility and attempt at fair-mindedness in your response. Those virtues were not present in many of the vitriolic and contemptuous responses from what you call “the atheist community.” I doubt if there is such a thing as an “atheist community” because there are atheists of all stripes, running from open-minded, classical liberals to those as dogmatic and nasty as any hide-bound fundamentalist Christian. I received a lot of responses from the latter group, so I appreciate your reasonableness.
I think there is still a confusion in your response between the separation of church and state and the interaction of religion and politics, which was the main topic of my op ed. When you inveigh against those Christians who want to exercise their religiously-based moral values in the political process—as in the restraint on abortion or resistance to gay marriage—you use separation of church and state language (and suggest that the efforts are somehow illegitimate) when in fact it is an interaction between religion and politics.
I, for example, am strongly opposed to the government defining marriage based upon religious ideas. For me, the definition of marriage (as an example) is NOT the union of ne man and one woman. That definition is only accepted by many because religion has usurped the cultural phenomenon of legalized santioning of people merging their lives for reasons of property, financial advantage, love (that is a recent historical reason for marriage, and not traditional in any way) etc. The conservative definition, ironically, is relatively new and culturally unsupported by actual practice in the world.
Christians, like others who have deeply held moral values, have every right to push for those values in the legislative and legal processes. You may disagree with them and will have to contend with them in many ways—arguments, political organization, etc. It will be in the rough and ready democratic process that these things will be worked out. That sort of democratic process is being worked out on the issues mentioned above. Sometimes it is also worked out in the judicial realm, though it is dangerous for judges to legislate and usurp the legislative process. That is what has been happening too often, and that overreach makes the courts look too politicized.
I agree that Christians should argue the case for their preferred public policies on as common ground as they can, but sometimes it may have to be on more particular religious grounds. It is a question of prudence and effectiveness. But as the Norwegian bishops put it when the Nazis tried to compel them to announce racist policies in their country, “we have to obey God rather than man in this case.”
Actually, Shaun, there may not be universal rational grounds for anything. Once reason was spelled with a capital R and purportedly could discern the Good, the True, and the Beautiful on autonomous grounds. But postmodernism has pretty much finished that. Reason is much tamed now, mainly being instrumental in character.
I am not a postmodernist. I reject the postmodernist, relativist, “all-perspectives are valid” view. I agree with Sam Harris, who in his most recent book tells us that science is the best (no, the only) tool that gives us real effective answers. Postmodernism has put a hiccup in the liberal worldview that I hope it transcends soon, because it is philosophically sophomoric, politically problematic, and just plain incorrect. Reason is not tamed; reason is tempered by the realization that we cannot have absolute certainty about our answers, and we must remember that all conclusions are tentative (even things like general relativity, the current explanation of gravity). Science is a empirical and probabilistic enterprise, but it is effective and achieves results. The skeptical methods utilized by science and rational thinkers is the best tool we have yet devised to determine truth. Methods of revelation, pure insight, and even pure philosophy (my field) are all problematic and inferior to science in every way. This is why I don’t want religious opinions being pushed towards public policy; it is based upon bad methodology, poor reasoning, and is not supported by skeptical inquiry. When it is shown to the light, it dies.
Reason in this more modest sense draws upon cultural streams that have been dramatically shaped by religious traditions. You are indebted to the Western Judeo-Christian tradition for your values. Your “universal” rationality would not work so well in other societies—Islamic, Hindu, Confucian, Communist.
No. religion usurps our values and calls them their own, while at the same time adding an other-worldly orientation that not only de-values reality, but poisons our ability to think clearly about this world. In fact, Eric MacDonald, a favorite blogger of mine, wrote about this subject just today. Here’s the link: http://choiceindying.com/2011/07/07/on-the-web-and-forgetfulness-or-how-the-poison-of-religion-poisons-everything/. I encourage you to read it, as it says with more eloquence what I would like to say in response to your above comment.
I am not claiming that we know or have some universal rationality necessarily, I’m claiming that if one is to be found, we must use skeptical analysis to find it. Religion, and the vast majority of its conclusions, simply fail at this. Therefore, we need to keep it away from public policy. This is not precisely what Jefferson had in mind, and in defending church/state the argument is somewhat more nuanced, but as a rationalist, atheist, skeptic I am arguing that religion would be better to be grown out of. The fact that so many representatives pander to religion tells me that either they are lying to us for sustained power or are not the pinnacle of intellectual and emotional maturity. In other words, they are indeed representatives of our current society.
That concludes my reply. I will be interested to see if this conversation continues, and what will come of it. I still think it is good to keep open dialogue with people with whom we disagree. I hope my civility was sufficient still.
The scientific method is not indebted to religion June 15, 2011Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: BioLogos, Jerry Coyne, Newton, religion, Robert C. Bishop, science, WEIT
Over at Why Evolution is True (which I read religiously!), Jerry Coyne has tackled an article aimed at him on BioLogos…again. I generally agree with the perspective on science and religion espoused by Coyne, and this post was not an exception. What I want to address is a point made in the BioLogos article Coyne quotes, written by Robert C. Bishop:
Finally, Coyne completely misunderstands the force of the historical examples I gave of science/faith engagement (the Scientific Revolution and 20th century debates about steady state cosmology). They aren’t just points about the religious faith of some scientists in the past. Rather, the scientific methods these scientists created and used were intimately tied up with and motivated by their faith.
He goes on from there, explicating the old canard about how since many early scientists were religiously motivated, therefore the methods of science themselves were motivated by religion. For example:
Galileo, Boyle and Newton among others developed methods for studying created things on their own terms in such a way that their natures could be revealed to investigators as accurately as possible. This means that they didn’t treat created things as divine or as fronts for the real activity of God, or as shadows behind which genuine reality is working. Instead, they treated pendula, animals, planets and stars as having genuine natures and properties, as responding to and contributing to order, and sought to put themselves in the best methodological and epistemological position to receive all that created things had to teach about themselves.
This all sounds good enough, I suppose. It is generally true that scientists of the age used terms like “created things” and so forth, and viewed the universe as having a discoverable order, usually attributed to some intelligent force, AKA God. But watch were Bishop goes next, after the claim that western intellectual culture is dominated by concepts of hierarchical levels of order in reality.
…biblical revelation stands unique historically in recognizing only one distinction and no hierarchy in nature: There is only the Creator and what is created. Everything that is created is of the same ontological order of being. In other words, the being of everything created–terrestrial and celestial–is homogenous in being.
This sounds almost Spinoza-esque in flavor (perhaps with a dash of Leibniz), as if the universe is simply all one thing, including its creator and intelligent force. If the creator is separate, does that not imply hierarchy? Perhaps I’m splitting hairs. What makes this more interesting is that Coyne, in his post, is addressing is the fact that the scientific method, specifically concerning evolution, makes the proposition of the supernatural unnecessary towards explaining anything. If there is no hierarchy, and all the universe is subject to the same laws, then why the perpetual appeal to an intelligent designer by BioLogos’ articles, including this one?
But I’m being led away from my point.
In any case, Bishop’s assertion of this unique “ontological homogeneity” derived from Biblical theology (which is not unique to the Bible nor even really actually Biblical, in my opinion) implies that
once the likes of Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, Descartes and Newton grasped hold of ontological homogeneity, the exploration of nature was never the same. The doctrine provided the seeds motivating Galileo, Kepler and the other scientific revolutionaries to see celestial and terrestrial regions as of the same order of being: finite, composed of the same material, operating by the same laws and secondary causes.
The assertion that this ontological worldview was derived from Biblical revelation and theology needs to be justified. But even if it were true, the implication that the Christian worldview in which these scientists grew was the cause of the scientific method they employed is still dubious. This is because the scientific method, especially as it is used now, is not based upon the need for revelation, gods, or any creators. The method is simply the intellectual continuation of the proto-scientific methods that existed before Christian revelation, and was in fact put on hold by Christian history (Library of Alexandria, anyone?). The fact that these scientists held onto the linguistic conventions of creators, universal order, etc is no more to the point than today’s scientists, even secular or overtly atheist ones, use metaphors from the Christian worldview the West is still mired in. Kepler, Newton, and the rest did hold onto religious belief to some extent, but they also were not subject to the facts that Darwin brought about which tossed away the need for much of what a creator offered to them. Paley’s argument still held sway for them because they had not lived at a time when science, and its method, had swept away enough of the theological riff-raff to make them useless. That is not so anymore, and it has not been for some time.
Imagine some time in the future, say a few hundred years or so from now, where this issue is being discussed. Imagine some debate between future intellectuals about this era and its scientific community concerning religious belief. I could imagine some individual quoting Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, or PZ Myers (who will, at that time, be remembered at the first man to get tentacle implants in an attempt to take over the world) where they use Biblical imagery, metaphors, or even quote some scripture directly because the verse happens to make a point they agree with. In a world which has moved on from religion as we know it today, where Biblical language has disappeared from common use, this would look like religion to them. In the same way that Newton’s reference to a creator (or Thomas Jefferson’s for that matter) sounds like a religious reference today, the use of religious metaphors in the future will be strange and sound antiquated (in one possible future, of course).
This is not to say that Newton was not religious, only that relative to his time, his worldview and methods for finding truth were more secular and skeptical (even if he did believe in silly things like astrology). I might go as far as to say that Galileo might be on the atheist speaking tour if he were alive today (perhaps the same for Jefferson or Paine). But what is essential here is that he methods that scientists used by these people were an improvement of methods of finding truth. They were a step up towards a more perfect method that allows us to see, today, that ideas such as natural selection do not need a god to explain the state of life on Earth. Even if some of the concepts that allowed this method to develop came from Western religious traditions, this does not imply that those methods are congruent with the worldview that preceded the method’s application to the natural world.
In a sense, that would be tantamount to claiming that because the logical and rational methods used by atheists in debates with theists, atheism owes its existence to Christian revelation and tehology. When in fact atheism is the recognition that this theology is essentially nonsense, even if the tools we use to show this was originally developed by people trying to apologize for theology in the past. It’s an accidental relationship, one that demonstrates a growing up, transcending even, of our species’ adolescent eras.
The tools of rational thought, utilized by theology, are not enough in themselves. When built upon the foundations of empirical and skeptical methods, they can help us achieve greater insights into the workings of the universe towards a more efficient and powerful understanding of our world. But when they are used only in conjunction with speculation (AKA revelation) the conclusions are likely to be dubious. And where those conclusions are occasionally true they will be so only accidentally, as even Paley’s watch, when broken, is rights twice a day. Where theology helped developed to create the rules of logic, which is to say when it has worked to shape and sharpen the tools scientists use, it wasn’t until these tools reached the hands of people dedicated to testing their hypotheses against the world that we actually saw real progress towards the better understanding of the universe which we have today. And the longer people like Robert C. Bishop attempt to tie this method to parochial anachronisms of theology, the slower we can reach that future when religion is relegated to linguistic devices and imagery to be used for literary effect by future scientists.
Of Facts and Values May 7, 2011Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: David Hume, is/ought, philosophy, Sam Harris, science
Now, I did have some issues with Harris’s book, but they are minor. I feel like many people are not understanding what Harris’ point is. Now, it is quite possible that I am reading my own thoughts in Harris’ words, but in any case I want to discuss some of my own thoughts about this issue, as I have been talking with Eric in the comments of the post linked to above. Now, my thinking about this goes back long before Sam Harris’ book. Upon finding Hilary Putnam’s book The Collapse of the Fact Value Dichotomy, I found an expression of thoughts I have had most of my philosophical life. Thus, when I read Harris’ book, I felt at home, not challenged. His starting points seemed to be my starting points in thinking about things like science, facts, values, and morality. And so I want to take a first stab at articulating my own thoughts here. Just remember that this will be a sort of public rough draft, and I will welcome any criticism and comments. Also, at any point where I seem to be talking for Sam Harris, I recognize I may be at odds with his opinion.
What is a fact? If I am to define what the relationships between facts and values are, I ought to make sure I define my terms. I’ll give a bit of a nod to Wittgenstein when I say that a fact is something that is the case. In other words, a fact is something that is true about the state of real things. The cat is on the chair is a fact, iff in the real world there is an observable feline upon a piece of furniture designed for sitting upon, which is similarly observable, and their orientation is consistent with the use of “on” with the cat being the subject and the chair being the object. A fact is a real state of the world.
What is a value? This is slightly more difficult because this word has many uses, including in math and color. In this sense, I am using it to mean an ideal or principle accepted by an individual or group. It can be a goal, but more often than not it is a motivation, a preference, or a purpose towards some goal. When I asked Ginny what she thought, she came up with “what people should want.” We’ll get back to that later.
What is morality? I’ll hold off on that, as I believe that this actually has little to do with the philosophical point at hand.
Ontology, philosophy of mind, and sets, oh my!
But what are values? I mean, what are they made of? For that matter, what are facts made of? I think that for many people, part of the sticking point for many people with Harris’ book is this issue and its relation to the philosophical point at hand. I feel like Harris’ book addresses an ontological point that seems, at least from a metaphysical naturalistic perspective, trivial; the things we believe, value, and generally experience as conscious beings are actual states of our brains. They are observable realities about the world. The physical substance of my brain and the processes that occur there are (in some cases, but not all) my conscious experience. Observing our brain-states through tools such as MRIs or whatever is just another (low resolution) way of experiencing our brains, which we do all the time by experiencing our own thoughts.
Our brains perceive and simulate, probably very imperfectly, the objective world outside of that process. The facts about the world are removed from us (in the Kantian sense of noumenal and phenomenal) but our perception allows us to think about them. Now whether the facts in our heads and the facts of the things themselves (of which Nietzsche was so skeptical about, probably rightfully*) are the same is not the point. The point is that the facts in our heads are also verifiable and objective realities that can be quantified (at least in principle, even if our technology may be insufficient currently) by scientific analysis.
The things we value are conscious experiences as well. They are actual brain-states that can, in principle, be observed and quantified in the same way as the fact that I’m typing right now. Not only is a this fact an observable, quantifiable event in the universe, it is an experience I am currently having. And in experiencing a value, it is similarly a real event that I have at that moment. In this sense values are like facts, but are they the same things as facts? Well, let’s think of facts as being like sets. In the same way that the set of all cookies includes chocolate chips cookies and peanut butter cookies (and the set of all peanut butter cookies), values are comprised of facts (and sets of facts). My value of honesty, if I were try and define the term and it’s importance to me, would be comprised of facts in relation to one-another. And sets of facts can be facts themselves. So in this trivial sense, values are facts. They are real states of the world, even if they can be broken down into smaller real states of the world. I hope this is uncontroversial.
Are values oughts?
I’m not quite sure that the philosophical issue at hand in asking about facts and values is the same as what Hume was addressing. I think the question has changed in the few centuries between. But first I want to address a hair-splitting point; that of the distinction between the distinctions between is/ought and facts/values.
When Hume (supposedly), and others, say that there is a distinction between facts and values, what can they possibly mean? This, as I understand it, is Harris’ point. It seems to me that this distinction is a holdover from times when we thought of ideas not as physical realities, but somehow non-physical things. This distinction between facts and values is an atavism of a view of mind as a non-physical thing (whatever that means), and criticism is using these obsolete concepts to insist that there still exists a distinction. The distinction is a linguistic trick, one which is pervasive and resilient.
For the sake of context, here is the section of Hume that Eric MacDonald quoted in his post:
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason shou’d be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. [Treatise of Human Nature, Book 3, Part 1, Sect. 1, paragraph 27]
But is this what Harris is doing? Is he identifying facts about the world and saying that because of these facts we should be doing this or that? No, what he is doing is more complex than that. To clarify, I want to make two points:
- First, the concept of deriving an ought from an is, in a theological context, is not comparable to deriving a value from a fact in a naturalistic worldview. In a theistic world (not the world of Harris not myself), the state of the world would be a result of the deity’s creation, and so in a sense we might be able to argue that because it is so it may be related to some intention of a god. Here, Hume’s point is that where a theologian draws the ought from the is, he does not overtly explain how or why he has done so. And even if he were to try, Hume (as well as I) cannot conceive how. It is a fair point to make. But in an atheistic universe, the state of our being, as conscious beings with various facts about ourselves, we cannot draw any ought because an ought necessitates the presence of an agent. We, the agents, are not the cause of our various facts, but as Sartre said, we find ourselves thrown into the world with them. At least within a theistic worldview it is possible to indicate some possible teleology, even if you can’t demonstrate its justification (as Hume points out). However, there is not even the possibility of drawing a logical connection between our actual state and what we should be doing within an atheistic worldview without creating, as agents, a goal for ourselves. This leads to the next point.
- Harris is saying that there are observable facts and values about us which are discoverable, and if we want to get somewhere (in his case, well being for people) then we need to use science as a means to figure out how to get there. This would include determining what values we will hold in our lives as motivation and inspiration towards those ends. The ought only comes into play upon accepting the goal, not as a direct consequence of the facts. Hume’s observation is a good one, but it seems to me to be more of a commentary on theologians (and others) inability to make this link, not that it is necessarily impossible to do so given goals which may or may not be arbitrary. Hume does not address, at least in that quote, any goals. Hume addresses only an ought, which is a means towards some not-discussed goal.
What I keep hearing critics of Harris say is that while science can allow us to find facts about us, it cannot choose what to value. And to that I can only slap my forehead, because I don’t think Harris is saying that, and I’m certainly not saying that. Science cannot choose what to value because this is a category error; science does not choose anything because science is a method, not an agent. So, in other words, science does not choose facts either; the method of science only allows us to recognize what is and is not a fact, and can give us information about its relation to and affects upon other facts. Similarly, it can allow us to see what values are and how good those values might be at achieving various goals, whether they be well being, ennui, or whatever. Hume is not talking about facts and goals, and Harris is only doing so insofar as to say that here as his goals, and if we want to reach them here is the best way to do it; science!
What our goals should be, and why that doesn’t matter in discussing facts and values
We are the choosers (Assuming free will is true, but that’s another tangent). Science is a tool we use to determine the facts about the world, including the facts about ourselves. One of the facts we can determine about ourselves is what our values are, what values are possible, and which of those values might be better at achieving some goal, which in Harris’ case is well being (which he admits is vague). So, it seems to me that the critics are conflating the values with the goal (in this case, well being) and arguing that science cannot determine what our goals should be. These criticisms miss the point completely, because for Harris it is axiomatic that ethics is about increasing well being among people. His thesis is not to defend this premise, even if it is clear that he thinks this premise is true, but rather how to best find a way to reach it. If you disagree with this starting point, then you are not addressing Harris’ book’s major thrust, but saying that its metaethical goals are wrong (which they may be), but that does not matter.
Can science determine our goals? Well, of course not. Just like logic, science is a tool. A tool can only help you on your journey towards a destination, assuming you have one. If you don’t have a destination, then the tools are useless. If you don’t have a goal, then you would not care how, let alone try, to find the best way to reach said goal. Well being, as I understand Harris’ book, is NOT the value; it is the vague, admittedly ill-defined concept that our values are being judged as being good at achieving (or not). And if not well being, then what would be the goal of morality? And whatever that may be, we still would have to use science to determine which facts and values to use towards getting there. This is why the criticisms about the definition of well being and of utilitarianism are missing the point so much. It does not matter if the goal is wrong, the method still has to be science to get there. That is what Harris’ book, as I understand it, is about.
Now, if Harris, or myself, were arguing that science can help us decide what we should think the goal should be (it can help define the parameters and factors, for sure), then I would be with the critics. But all I (and, I think, Harris) are saying is that the ideals or principles we think are important in trying to attain well being (or whatever goal we choose) are quantifiable, measurable things. And no method can compare to science in determining what those values should be, thus a science of morality is possible even if the goal of that morality is up for grabs.
Eric MacDonald’s criticisms, as well as other criticisms about the poorly defined concept of well being, are problems that Harris admits to, and so do I. We know that more research is necessary, and that implementing what we find will be a huge uphill climb to the peaks of Harris’ landscape. Problems with utilitarianism and definitions of well being are only secondary to Harris’ thesis, which are about how our values, as facts, are real things that can be measured in terms of composition and effectiveness towards whatever goals we are trying to attain. If you don’t know what well being is, or if your specific goal in being well differs from mine, that does not matter. Harris’ (and my) goal is well being, but that is a variable in the equation, not a coefficient.
Just as we can be wrong about facts, we can be wrong about valuing certain things. Values are not objects outside the realm of analysis and criticism, they are brain states just like facts and equally subject to being wrong. In other words, what you value may in fact be bad for you and whatever goals you have. And if so, science is the best tool we have to describe how and why.
*”We believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things — metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities”
[edit: I want to add that the goals we may have are also facts in the same sense as values are here. And the question of what goals to choose is indeed a philosophical one that science can help clarify. But just as science cannot choose the goals, it cannot choose the values or facts either. Again, that is a category error.]