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The scientific method is not indebted to religion June 15, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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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.

 

 

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Of Facts and Values May 7, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Over at Eric MacDonald’s blog Choice in Dying, there is a discussion about Sam Harris’ book the Moral Landscape (of which I published some early thoughts previously).

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.

Definitions

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.]

The Moral Landscape (some early thoughts) January 14, 2011

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I’m currently (finally) reading Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape (which I am enjoying so far).  I am finding that I agree with Sam Harris much more often than not, and will recommend the book.

Right now, I want to post a few short quotes concern an issue I have been thinking about, as well as arguing about on an email list for atheists.

What are our priorities?  How can we make ourselves better people?  What is a good person?

Here is a quote from the book which is tangentially related to some recent conversations I have been having via email with some atheists with varying priorities.

I am arguing that everyone also has an intuitive “morality,” but much of our intuititive morality is clearly wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective well-being).  And only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal well-being.
(page 36)

Inserted at the end of that sentence there is an end note, from which I quote the following:

Many people’s reflexive response to the notion of moral expertise is to say, “I don’t want anyone telling me how to live my life.”  To which I can only respond, “If there were a way for you and those you care about to be much happier than you are now, would you want to know about it?”
(page 202)

This is a question that is relevant to religion and faith.  I ask, sometimes, a similar question to believers.  If there were a worldview out there which could allow you to feel happier, more fulfilled, and could also survive skeptical analysis, would you want to know it?  If it were true that religion is indeed a scam, that belief in god(s) is not warranted, and that science truly is the best method we have for attaining knowledge, would you want to know that?

I can only say that I truly would want to know if there were a god.  Whether or not I would want a relationship with said being would depend upon the nature of that god.  Would theists really want to know if they were wrong? Some would, but perhaps not most.

Harris continues on the next page (in the main text):

Whatever [the Taliban] think they want out of life–like keeping all women and girls subjugated and illiterate–they simply do not understand how much better life would be for them if they had different priorities.
(page 37)

I’m finding that I agree with Harris’ main premise of the book so far.  His main idea is that because our behavior, feelings, etc are a result of a physical brain, science is, in principle as well as (possibly) practice, capable of discovering the states of being that would maximize “well-being.” Knowing what ways we might be well is a good start on how we should behave.  I will keep reading.

Science; the horse to theology’s cart of progress January 13, 2010

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Progress.  The word implies a goal, teleology, or purpose.  Some, such as Alfred North Whitehead, preferred to think about process.  And while my views differ significantly from Whitehead, I agree that process might be the better term for the improvement, over time, of our understanding of the world around us.  Purpose implies a purposer, which is what theology is all about.  Science does not carry this assumption with it into the lab (nor does it discount its possibility).

There are a multiple processes we use in our lives, and they have led to increased and subtle understanding of ourselves and of the universe that surrounds us.  But not all processes are equal, playing different parts in our lives.

Our thinking is complex, largely hidden from our conscious awareness, and often incoherent.  It is often attracted to processes which have lesser pragmatic efficacy, but which nonetheless have psychological gravitation.

The scientific method is a late addition to our intellectual toolbox.  It starts with observation, but it’s life-blood is experimentation.  It seeks to eliminate bias–to lesser and greater degrees depending upon how an experiment is structured–and thus to attempt objectivity.  I prefer the term ‘intersubjectivity,’ at the risk of encroaching on some possibly semantic hair-splitting.

Theology is the study of god(s).  More generally, it is the study of the divine, the supernatural, etc.  It is an attempt to apply logical and rational thinking to the propositions of revelational thinking which is largely primitive and based open pattern-recognition gone-awry.  It, strictly, is not science.

Now, this is not to say that theology is completely separate from science.  It is not not even a different epistemological realm of science, despite what Stephen Jay Gould thought (I am not a fan of NOMA).  We live in the same universe, under the same laws, whether we are doing theology or science.   And some theologians use science in addition to their logical approach to religious or spiritual insights.

The question is which one is pulling the other along or whether they take turns doing the work.

Well, that may depend on your point of view.  If you are working with the Templeton Foundation, for example, you may see some give and take going both ways.  Such people tend to see that science and religion influence one-another, and an attempt to not only bridge these processes but to find ways that they intersect is a good thing.

In a larger cultural sense this is true, but perhaps only to the limited extent that they both exist simultaneously and people carry both of them in the same minds and thus they communicate.  There is certainly a sense where the ideas of religion influence how scientists think as well as the discoveries of science influencing theology (unless, of course, you are these guys).  And as time marches on, the cultural influence will continue, most undoubtedly.

But there is a difference between science and religion in another sense; one that transcends mere cohabitation.  While the language, stories, and flavor of religion has helped carve much of our culture, and thus those that live in it, our pragmatic understanding has been dominantly influenced by science rather than theology.  There is a difference between the methodologies of science and religion which results in a dramatic personality difference between them.  Neither one is misidentified as the other, except in very superficial ways.

Charlatans and shysters from various theological backgrounds have been trying to sell snake oil, utopias, and personal redemption of various kinds to people for ages.  From new age self-help, evolving messages of redemption from Christian evangelicals, and religions created by science fiction writers, there are multiple ways that theology has tried to advertise itself as a product that will help you either in this world or the next.  But it is rather interesting that with the advent of the scientific method theology has been hanging off the coattails of science, feeding off the droppings left behind in almost unnoticeably slow changes to their beliefs and attitudes.

With new age philosophies and religions loving every moment of quantum mechanics (all while getting it wrong), Christianity getting slowly more and more progressive, and with the invention of religions that even try to call themselves something that sounds scientific, it is clear that the primitive human mind is trying to adapt the “metaphysical need” (as Nietszsche called it) to the realities of scientific processes.

Just imagine what a progressive theologian of several centuries ago would say to Rick Warren now.  Imagine what a pre-Christian pagan would say to Deepak Chopra.  Imagine how Scientology would be greeted by L. Ron Hubbard ten years before he thought of the idea.  The progress of theology has made much of it more modern, tolerant, and informed (even if it only sounds this way), but this was not because of their own efforts.

All good intelligent and open-minded people of today taking the progress of the times into their lives and incorporating them into their modern theologies is quantifiable improvement on society and their religion.  The problem is that it is the wrong kind of improvement because it overlooks a more robust update to the theological software (theology 2.0 anyone?) of many religious traditions.

It has been said that Christianity (for example) has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into modernity by other cultural forces.  And with it came a new theology that was able to incorporate what science has brought to us via the blood and sweat of those that the once-great Catholic Church once considered heretical.  And now the Church accepts evolution, heliocentricism, and perhaps eventually female church leaders as other denominations of Christianity have.

But this is not progressive revelation, it is a reluctant acceptance of overwhelming facts, cultural pressure, and economic interest.  These are means to adjust theology to survive in the real world, based upon facts and theories from another method which theology does not fully understand or accept.  And even when it does understand this method, it does not employ it to the points of their theology because they believe that the two are different realms.  This is not theology growing up, it is theology listening to its better educated, more worldly, and successful little brother named science.

And while there are certainly exceptions, theology of most faiths has neither grown up to understand nor to use the methodologies that science employs.  Rather, it accepts the conclusions of those methodologies after they become overwhelmingly true–or at least overwhelmingly accepted among people that either are adherents or potential tithers.

Much of the world’s religious communities have learned to recognize the power of science, but has not quite recognized the methods that science uses as applicable to the theology they continue to adjust.  Theology does not discuss things that science cannot deal with because theology makes claims about the world, even if indirectly.  If the supernatural influences the real world, then the effects should be open to empirical study at very least.

The proclamations of theology are subject to the same scrutiny as stars, brains, or particles.  And while facts about the physical world don’t directly lead to ideas about morality, meaning, or beauty, they certainly can tell us a lot about how these things are increasingly becoming part of science’s domain.

The hard problem of consciousness, the question of what really caused the universe to exist (if such a question is meaningful), and the nature of the quantum world are still beyond our reach scientifically, but theology provides no methodology for answering these questions which is better than science.  Theology provides some answers, sure, but what reason do we have to accept them?

Science is tugging theologians along the path of history and theology is redefining itself based upon what is sees science doing.  Theology dons the apparel of the strange places that science ventures, but in a sense this garb is little more than a souvenir which will make it look stylish and trendy.  Those who follow in religion’s wake in these trends will think they are modern but they miss that they are only following fashion.  Theology wears scientific-colored robes in order to maintain its own goal which is more about maintaining itself rather than pulling the cart of culture along.

Thus, by re-writing theology in order to put science in a reverential but secondary place behind these divine speculationss, one is surely putting their cart before the horse.

Intelligent design and special pleading August 6, 2009

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venn

All too often I hear from people that there is proof of god everywhere.  The trees and the birds, our hands and our feet, the flesh-eating bacteria and the natural disasters that destroy cities.  OK, those lasts two are not generally used to argue in favor of a loving god, but they are pretty complex, aren’t they?

And that’s the key here: complexity.  How could all of these things with their complex parts, elaborate interactions with the rest of nature, and our intricate brains that can think about it all just get here by chance? They could not have done it on their own, right? So there must have been some intelligence, some designer, to give the world it’s complexity.

It is unfortunate that there is such a deficiency of understanding of science and of critical thinking in our culture.  Science education may be partially to blame, but we must be willing to take the responsibility for ourselves as well.  And as a result of this there is a severe lack of understanding of the theory of natural selection (as well as the other evolutionary pressures) and thus a misunderstanding of the fact of evolution as they intersect with these questions of complexity.

There are great resources for learning about these things online, and so any person can go and find out what scientists say about evolution.  The key here is to understand that the process does not claim chaos or complete randomness.  The question about evolution is not a false dichotomy between an intelligent designer or random chance.  There are many believers in various gods that accept the fact of evolution (Ken Miller and Francis Collins being two prominent examples).  Natural selection is a definite process, is not random, and is well supported by physical evidence.

The major component of randomness in evolution is the mutation of genes.  But most of these mutations have no effect at all, and only sometimes do they have a harmful or helpful effect.  It takes environmental factors, lots of time, and other factors to make a mutation effect the population at large.  And it is the process of natural selection that does the actual work, not the random mutation.

But my point here is not to explain natural selection or to spell out the evidence for evolution.  That is the responsibility of each person to do on their own in conjunction with schools and museums.  Start with the link above, a trip to the museum, or even a recent biology textbook (and not one produced by the Discovery Institute such as Of Pandas and People, as they have been shown to be untrustworthy during the Kitzmiller case).

And so what about this claim that complexity requires intelligent design?  Well, even if we didn’t have a good scientific answer to the claim (which we do), there is another problem with it that can be shown without knowing anything about evolution.

Here is the argument as I have seen it:

  • The world (universe) is full of complex things
  • complex things need designers
  • therefore, a designer of the world (universe) exists.

Ray Comfort is known for arguing that if you see a painting we know there is a painter,  if their is a building there is a builder, etc.  It is certainly true that things we create have designers, and they certainly are intelligent.  But the analogy does not carry through to all things because not all things are constructed in a factory.  Other things reproduce biologically and are put together by very complex natural processes that we, admittedly, don’t fully understand.  And as far as universes go, I’ve never seen one made, so while I can go to the car factory, I can’t go to the universe factory.

But more importantly is the assumption that all things need intelligent designers to exist simply because they are complex.  We know that simple things can become complex through natural selection, but even if we don’t know this we can ask if all things that are complex need a designer, then wouldn’t the designer itself, being a complex thing, need its own designer?

In short, what created god?

Now, the common reply is to state that god is eternal and has always existed.  This is special pleading.  What that means is that the point is making a special exception of the rules for illegitimate reasons.  The question here is whether a god exists, and so in deciding this issue one cannot take as given a special exception for the thing that is in question.  One cannot simply define god into existence by saying that it is not subject to the rule that all complex things need a creator.  If one did, the results would be somewhat silly.

intelligent-design-posterThe bottom line for intelligent design, and whatever people are trying to disguise creationism as these days, is that there is no evidence to support it.  Despite Michael Behe’s best attempts, there is no irreducibly complex thing that cannot be explained without the need of an intelligent designer. Natural selection is sufficient to explain complexity in our biological world.

And further, even if it could be shown that an intelligent designer would be necessary, this would still be a far cry from associating this intelligence with any particular god.  An intelligent designer would not imply that it had anything to do with any theology or mythology (as if there were a difference) of any religion.  A Christian does not win any points for his beliefs even if intelligent design were true.  Because if it were true, the Moslem, Jew, Hindu, etc would step up and claim that it is their god that is the intelligent designer.

Luckily for us, that is not an issue because the proposal of an intelligent designer does not stand up to scrutiny.  The irony, perhaps, is that intelligent design needs people of lesser intelligence, or at least understanding, to propose it.

If complexity needs a creator, so does the complex creator.  God is nothing but a pseudo-answer to a non-problem when it comes to the complexities of the world and how to explain them.

Related: Counter to the Kalam Cosmological Argument.  A favorite of William Lane Craig, Christian apologist.

Are science and religion equally valid? June 15, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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I have a friend from high school that I have been conversing with for a short while ever since we friended each-other and he has been reading this blog as I post links to them on facebook. He said, in a recent blog post of his, a number of things that I disagree with. I would, therefore, like to reply to it here. I hope he does not mind my quoting his blog entirely. The original post can be found here. [edit: no it can’t, because he has removed it.  I guess I made some good points?]

He starts off this way:

I have an old friend from high school that identifies himself as an “atheist, polymorous, geek” (if you’re like I was and unfamiliar with the term “polymorous,” best I can figure out, it means polygamy distinguished semantically from the baggage of Joseph Smith and the fundamentalist Mormons). Shaun keeps a daily blog in which he posts his thoughts in support of atheism and polymorism. At least once a week I open my web browser to find an intelligent, well written article about why atheism is the only possible rational conclusion to be drawn by carefully examining the facts about God.

Now, first off, polyamory has very little to do with polygamy. My partners are free to find other boyfriends or girlfriends as I am. Right now, I have no interest in starting a relationship with anyone else, as I am busy enough. Polyamory really is simple non-monogamy. I just don’t think that monogamy should be assumed. I’m glad he thinks my thoughts are intelligent, at least.

Seriously. He writes, “There is no God” every week, “just look at the facts.” Sometimes he writes this twice a week in essay form. As I read these short essays, I can’t help imagining what people’s reactions would look like if I were to write about the existence of God as much as Shaun writes about supreme being’s nonexistence. Certainly, the white upper-middle class politically left leaning liberal intellectual community in which both Shaun and I were educated would label me as a fundamentalist, religious freak. After all, who else would expend so much time and energy thinking and writing about God?

Clearly, this is hyperbole. I don’t say that there is no god. Why? Because that is not the atheist position as I use it. I say that I am not convinced that a god exists. I think the question is important, so I write about it. I am not really concerned if people look at me as some sort of fanatic. I am interested in what is true. If anyone else were to write bout it as much as I do, I would want to talk with them. Those who are not interested can read something else.

I’m no expert on God or Rationalism. I’m not a theologian. I’m not a philosopher. My field is Depth Psychology. I observe and write about the ways humans make meaning and the stories they tell to make sense of the world around them. I’m not interested, therefore, in discussing whether or not God exists. Using so-called rational science, the existence of an omnipotent being that resembles a carbon based earth creature is just as hard to disprove, as it is to prove. Instead, I’m interested in the concept of God: an undisputable fact.

OK. I’m waiting now for the punch line.

The very attempt to disprove God’s existence is simultaneously an acknowledgment of the concept’s structural existence and an attempt to replace the concept with another. In other words, God is an idea on which both believers and atheists expend mental energy. I agree, when the atheist labels the believer’s ideology a phantastic story that makes meaning out of chaos. However, I also label the atheist’s ideology a rationalistic story that makes meaning out of chaos.

Again, I’m not trying to disprove god. I’m talking about why I am not convinced that tthis being exists. I’m responding to the claim, the apologetics of it, and the proposed reasons to believe and showing why they do not add up.

I’m interested by the idea that we share the “acknowledgment of the concept’s structural existence”, as he says. This seems similar to a thought I have often. I do feel like I’m trying to wrap my mind around a concept of god (that concept depends on what type of theism I’m responding to), but find what concept I am able to glean unbelievable. And I’ll agree, provisionally, that I’m trying to make meaning out of chaos. How similar my method of meaning-making is from that of others I do not know.

Both the phantastic and the rationalistic are valid and real ways to approach the world. In both cases, however, imagining your own approach as “truth” is fundamentalist and dogmatic. There is space for approaching the world from both perspectives. Both perspectives (and the many other possible approaches) are fabrications or fictions that say more about the unique experience of the human species than they do about the universe’s material (or spiritual) reality.

This is where we clearly part ways. I do not accept the idea that all methods of approaching the world are equally valid. And while they are all fabrications, or at least artifacts, that does not mean that they are equally valid any more than the fact that a true and false story come from people make them both valid. Some methods are created such that they can be tested against shared experiences and be tested with the best methods we have. Others do not use these tools. Thus, some methods are clearly better at different things. In terms of discovering what is most-likely true, one stands above the others.

We live in a typhoon of positivist sound bites as dogmatic as the organized religions they criticize. Moralistic commandments with financial agendas are disguised as health tips; they are platitudes accepted as gospel. Our obsession with cleanliness and sanitizing, for example, can be seen as a remnant of a puritan believer’s attempt to wash away nature, to weed out the impure, to restore humankind to its Garden-of-Eden Godliness.

Positivism is no longer a perspective held by the majority of people, especially in science. It was a view derived from early works of Wittgenstein (and not sanctioned by him, as he later came back to academia and attacked positivism). The view is not that all metaphysical (or phantastic, as he calls them) claims are nonsense simply for being metaphysical in nature, but because they do not stand up to scrutiny. The ones that do stand up to scrutiny are then simply considered part of science’s conclusions. The skeptical community to which I belong does not have any dogmatic beliefs about such things, they have tried to test them and found that much of them do not stand up to testing.

We accept the scientific data on faith. Does the atheist examine the research on microbiology and “germs” before washing his hands? Doesn’t he see the inherent contradiction? He’s willing to take the leap of faith necessary to believe in evil creatures so small they are invisible to the naked eye but not a creator so large he cannot be comprehended by the human mind?

No. I accept the conclusions of science for two reasons. One, in some cases I’ve looked at the data myself. But the vast majority is because I understand the peer-review process. The scientific community is full of people who are clamoring for grants, respectability, and maybe even a Nobel prize. In order to get these things, you have to have your theory stand up to the rigor of hundreds or even thousands of others you are in competition with who are trying to use teh best methodology that they know of.

To accept what survives this onslaught is not faith. It is a rational acceptance based on the fact that if the theories proposed by the scientific method via the scientific community were not the best we have come up with, someone else would have proven otherwise. Theories such as the germ theory of disease, relativity, natural selection etc were all tested, retested, confirmed, re-confirmed, and so they are accepted. They are not believed in a technical sense, but accepted. And if a better idea were to replace any of these, what other method besides science could be used? No other method has proven itself to be as reliable, and so that’s why it is used by the experts in various fields…well, most of them, anyway. I’m sure young Earth creationists, for example, try different methods (yet then call it ‘science’, ironically)

We can see small organisms with tools like microscopes. The hypothesis of god has been used to explain many things in history, and as science processes in its understanding, the things some god was supposed to do are being pushed back by better understanding. In ancient times we thought gods made lightning, now we have a natural explanation. Now people think that a god is needed to design life, but science keeps showing that this is not the case necessarily. If a god exists, it is either working through nature (which does not seem parsimonious), or it is so vague a power and so insignificant that why would we continue to worship it or call it god?

So, god is so large it cannot be comprehended by the human mind? Perhaps. But then how do so many people seem to know so much about it? I don’t see a need for such a being to exist to explain anything in nature. It may exist, but I am not convinced. That’s what atheism is.

The microscope-wielding ministers of science at temples like Harvard and MIT may seem to have more clout than the doctors of deities at institutions like the Vatican and the Jewish Theological Seminary. But I think that assumption imagines the mainstream as the whole stream. Instead, I would argue that our rational-discursive oppositional world is dependent on the Science/Religion dichotomy. The conflicting perspectives exist symbiotically, the debate against one point of view feeding the other.

It is not a dichotomy. There is the methods of science and the various ideas of religions, conspiracy theories, new age weirdness, pseudoscience, etc. One method is better than the others. It will continue to give us better explanations while the others cannot compete in terms of methodology. Religion is not a single methodology. It is not a monumental and coherent competitor, but an alliance of people who share similar ideologies who stand opposed to, ignorant of, or philosophically naive in relation to the best methodology humans have yet come up with that tends to demonstrate the weakness of closely held ideologies, such as the dogmas of religions.

There may be something closer to a dichotomy in terms of the ways that we think. To think critically one must train the mind to be skeptical, rigorous, and be willing to tear down your own assumptions and beliefs. To try to rationalize beliefs held is to seek out data that supports the conclusion you want. Good scientists don’t do this, as this is not part of the scientific method. This method is neutral, skeptical, and perpetually bettering itself.

A religious ideology is rigid, and only changes when it needs to. It’s why religion had to give up the earth-centric view of cosmology, the flat Earth (there still is a Flat Earth Society), the 6000 year-old earth (some still don’t accept the much older earth). It seeks data that supports it, apologizes rather than is skeptical, and it feeds off of our desires to be more than mere biological machines. It was only when science came around, providing better methods and thus conclusions, that religions started to change.

These are not equally valid pursuits. This post-modernism is damaging philosophically, epistemologically, and methodologically. So, with respect I disagree with my fellow blogger. But I do look forward to more discussion with him and others.

Conversations with Christians about science May 28, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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This is not what the actual conversation looked like

This is not what the actual conversation looked like

I spent much of last night having a conversation with someone, a Christian, about religion, evolution, the age of the earth, and atheism. These are conversations I’ve had many times, with many different people, with many different outcomes.

In the atheist community, we talk a lot about science, education, and the feeling of anti-science forces in our culture making it difficult to have well-informed people on the basics of science and to thus be competitive in the world market of science and technology. I am aware that there are others on the other side of the question, and so when I heard that many people felt as if evolution was being “shoved down our throats,” I realized there was a problem that needed to be addressed.

I feel that evolution happened. The evidence is overwhelming, the theory of natural selection supported by many observations, etc. My interlocutor agreed with most of this. What he disagreed about was that it was “proven” (proof is impossible within scientific means, I tried to explain) that the earth and universe were billions of years old; that we actually evolved from single cell organisms (or anything like that). It sounded like he had been reading creationism literature, but he had insisted that he had not.

The conclusion, from this and many other factors brought up through conversation, which I am moving towards is that the idea of “teach the controversy” is landing with much of the population. The fact is that there is no controversy, at least not in the sense that it was meant in our discussion. There are not people who are challenging the age of the earth or human evolution that are doing so on solid scientific grounds. Despite this, many people, including people who seek to understand these things honestly, believe that the scientific world is repressing challenges to prevailing conclusions; that scientists seek to stifle challenges to what is taught in biology classes; thus the “shoving down our throats” comment.

I do not doubt that this does happen, in some places and with some people, but the scientists that I know are open-minded people who seek the truth. And with grant money available for those that can demonstrate problems with prevailing theories, it seems odd that scientists at the top are so powerful as to stifle every attempt to challenge their sacred conclusions. This strikes me as a brand of conspiracy-theory that I find implausible.

The side that I hear more often, in my experience with scientists and atheists, is that all they hear from so-called challengers is the same old tired arguments that have been refuted hundreds of times. And thus they get frustrated, annoyed, and start ignoring them. Is this the source of the feeling of being stifled? If yo are the 100th person to approach a scientist with the same objection or challenge to evolution and are simply ignored, laughed at, or mocked, doesn’t that feel like a stifled challenge? Of course it does, but scientists are human too, right? We lose patience with repeating the same thing to the same objection which, according to them, should be commonly known.

So which is it; Are some scientists simply ignoring legitimate challenges or are challengers ignorant of the fact that their objections have already been answered multiple times and thus are annoying due to repetition and not because it seeks to challenge the accepted conclusion? Mixed bag? Possibly, but I will tend to side with the latter.

The essential question is whether the challenges actually stand up to scrutiny or not. And as my interlocutor admitted, he does not have time in his busy life to research or educate himself on every aspect of this question, but he only has skeptical reservations. That’s fair, I guess. I just wonder where the skeptical reservations originate from. Because it seems like the points of challenge are researched, as if they were lifted from some source, whether it calls itself a creationist source or not (and we know that they sometimes come in disguise as Intelligent Design or simply as “teaching the controversy”), and so I am skeptical that the source of them these objections are legitimate scientific questions being ignored by scientists.

The bottom line is that there are many well-meaning people out there that have reservations about science and its ability to “prove” theories (even though I tried to explain that science’s job is to present an explanation that fits the data best, and never to prove anything). They are skeptical of what science says because humans are fallible and we can get things wrong. “Fine,” I say, “and as soon as you find a better explanation that will become the new theory.” Until that happens the best explanation is still the best explanation.

These conversations are important because it is one of the many means to keeping the conversations from stagnating among those that share the same opinions. If I only talked with scientists and atheists about evolution and the age of the earth, I would never understand why the controversy exists because I would perpectually be creating straw-men to argue with. And if those would-be straw men never talked to me, they would continue to view scientists as biased people who will not accept a challenge to the prevailing worldview they hold.

Thus, we both benefited from the conversation, even if no minds were changed. And we are able to remain friendly and get along in the future. Win!

Darwin Day February 15, 2009

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I just returned from the University of Pennsylvania Museum. There were some games, free cake, skulls, and even a couple of live specimen to gawk at but the largest draw was the teach-in, where a number of scientists talked about Darwin’s life, geological time, dinosaurs (rawr!), etc.

But what struck me the most was the human evolution exhibit that was not specific to the event, but I had not previously seen. What stood out for me was the direct approach that it took. As you walk in, there is a panel on the wall that has some description of apes, and then it simply said “you are an ape” (or something very similar). This was interesting to me because knowing that there is a significant percentage of the US population that would be completely insulted at this proposition, yet it is overwhelmingly supported by the facts. It is nice to see it spelled out so unambiguously.

I found myself trying to imagine myself in the mind of a creationist walking through this museum (let’s assume they were kidnapped, tied up, placed in a bag, thrown in a white van then driven there and forced to walk through it to escape) and seeing the words and cast bones and skulls on the wall. I simply cannot figure out what is going on in the minds of people who deny that evolution is a fact when the theory of evolution is supported as well as any other theory–say gravity.

I think what it comes down to, for most people, is mere ignorance of the nature of the theory as well as the evidence that supports it. The fact that so many charlatans exist to keep “goddidit” alive doesn’t help this either. Fear is a contributing factor, I would guess, but nobody should be surprised to find ignorance and fear in the same explanation.

But it was good to see that so many people attended. It was good to see children interested in the exhibits and being genuinely excited to be there, and not merely dragged by parents who are at least trying. At least there is that.

Happy (belated) 200th birthday Charlie Darwin!