Category Archives: theology

“Divine commands” and personal conscience

Fifteen years ago I visited Israel and can vividly remember the sight of a rifle-carrying guard on a bus full of school children in the north-east. It brought home to me the reality of religious and political extremism which can drive the ideologically committed to brutal, anti-human acts like attacking kids on a school bus.

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School bus hit by Hamas rocket in southern Israel. Credit: 3Sigma Systems

My theologically inclined sparring mate, Matt Flannaghan at MandM, brought that memory back with his recent blog post Divine commands and psychopathic tendencies.” In the post he’s at his old tricks – going into a frenzy of mental gymnastics to justify divine command theory (DCT) – the idea that if his god commands something then the believer must carry it out – no matter how evil the act commanded. Matt is specifically arguing that DCT implies blowing up a bus full of children is right if that’s what God told you to do.”

Just that quoted phrase seems to encapsulate all that is wrong with the divine command morality of religious apologists.

Where are those “divine commands” coming from?

A non-believer like me has no problem with divine commands. I know a god couldn’t possibly tell me to blow up a bus. No god has ever made any command – good or bad – for a very simple reason that gods don’t exist. And, hopefully, when that day comes that I do hear a voice in my head telling me to do something that evil I will not be silly enough to think the voice is divine and must be obeyed.

Hopefully I would recognise that I had a problem and get some professional help.

Yes, some believers may well hear voices like this – or claim to have heard them when facing the consequences of their actions in a court of law. Usually that raises the prospect of a not guilty due to insanity verdict. Worth a try?

But it’s probably far more common that political and religious soldiers, rebels or terrorists, get such divine commands “passed on” to them by their Imams, Priests, and theological, political or national leaders. You know, the ones directly in touch with their god or the fount of racial, political or national wisdom. Come on!! Think about it. What other way could they possibly get a “divine command?” Why else does their god seem to have exactly the same prejudices and hatred as the messenger?

The soldier, rebel or terrorist may well believe in a god (or nation, or race) which is a divine, “omniscient, omnipotent, morally perfect person” (or race or nation). But that is irrelevant – they should really be looking at the messenger – the leader, priest, imam, politician, etc., who is claiming to speak for their god (race, state or nation). If they don’t they are just transferring these divine properties of their fictional god to the very real (and very human) “messenger.”

When can evil commands be morally “right?”

Matt argues that a divine command to blow up a bus full of schoolchildren is only hypothetical and therefore he has no qualms saying that if he did get such a command he would know it was morally “right.” He doesn’t believe it will happen because his god is a “morally perfect person.” But he is conceding that if his god commands such an act he will have to assume that the particular circumstances mean that in his case blowing up the bus of schoolchildren is not unloving, not unjust, not based on false information, and not irrational.”

Why? Because his god is an “omniscient, omnipotent, morally perfect person”

But doesn’t that argument create a huge moral minefield for him? As a believer and advocate of DCT he believes that his god is the source of “right” and “wrong.” That if his god commands something (even blowing up a school bus) then it must, by definition, be “good.” Be morally “right.” Who is he to question? Because if he does question the command (supposedly “divine” because the messenger, or the voices in his head, tells him it comes directly from his god), isn’t he attempting to use a different, human, non-divine source for his morality? Hasn’t he just shown his idea that moral truths of “right” and “wrong” come from his god to be a sham.

So someone who accepts divine command morality, either for religious reasons, or for racial, political or national reasons, must accept that, no matter how evil the command seems, it is morally “right.” It must be because it’s divine! So they must follow the “divine” orders.

“Double checking” those “divine commands”

Of course, Matt has managed to fit in another somersault to deal with that argument (after all, that’s what theology is for, isn’t it?). He has set up another moral authority to check the divine commands from his god – just in case! He is appealing to an “impartial, compassionate person (who) would knowingly, after a fully rational consideration of the facts, endorse the killings.” so when he does get commanded to blow up that bus he has another moral authority to double-check with.

Bloody hell, would this be his Priest, his Imam, his national or racial leader? Or would it be another of his gods (because this impartial compassionate person sounds pretty omniscient and impotent to me – after all he is a back-up to check Matt’s god). And come on, Matt, surely the philosopher in you must see that you have set an infinite regress trap for yourself – who is going to be the back-up for your “impartial, compassionate person?” And so on.

Or would Matt’s back-up be his own conscience? Is he going to double-check these “divine commands,” whether they come via voices in his head or the declarations of his religious authorities, by contemplating how he actually feels about them? Even applying a bit of philosophical logic to the situation and coming to a reasoned conclusion?

After all, that’s what the rest of us do. Rely on our intuitions and the feelings they generate about ethical situations. And also complementing our emotional reactions by reasoned discussion and deliberation with our mates and the rest of society.

Hasn’t the world learned from experience what “just following orders” results in?

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Does science have a cognitive privilege?

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Finding “self-evidence” and “self-justification”

You don’t often come across the term “cognitive privilege.” But  I did the other day – and knew immediately what it meant – or what was being implied by the term.

The theologian Brian Mattson used it in his blog post Does Scientific Materialism Deserve a Cognitive Privilege?  Its clear what he means, although his specific use of it is very confused. He accuses someone of, in effect, cognitively privileging “scientific materialism.”

(These theologians love to use words like “materialism” and “naturalism” when they critique science. The rarely bother defining the terms but they are usually stand-ins for scientific method or the implied scientific epistemological process.)

As he says:

“A “privilege” is a “right or immunity granted as a particular benefit, advantage, or favor.” The benefit, advantage, or favor being granted to scientific materialism is that it has the preeminent right to be the baseline. It is what we are to take for granted. There the edifice stands.”

He is supporting the complaints of Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Nagel about modern science:

“Their point (a philosophically ruthless and perhaps uncomfortable one) is that scientific materialism is not entitled to privileged status at all. It is not self-evident, self-justifying, an edifice that must be taken for granted as the baseline. It is precisely this sleight-of-hand they are challenging, a sleight-of-hand so effective it has largely produced the widespread privileging of its construct . . . . . It is simply not the case that scientific materialism must be taken as true and that the burden of proof must be passed on to any and all challengers.”

So these guys are upset by the widespread acceptance that science is generally a reliable way of getting to know reality? They think this reputation is “privileged? That it hasn’t been earned? That we have pulled the wool over the eyes of people all these years? We have an unearned “privilege?”

They obviously haven’t really thought this through, or even looked around at our modern society. At most they will childishly chant “You can’t logically prove scientific method or knowledge is reliable.”

Crickey, do they really think that humanity should have held back. Refused to even contemplate trying to understand its environment or solve the problems it faced until someone had come up with a watertight deductive proof that science would work? Something to make it “self-evident” or “self-justifying?”

And, seriously, do they think that people would have paid any attention to such a deduction? Or taken seriously the philosophers or logicians who has produced it?

The proof of the pudding

We haven’t allowed such mental gymnastics hold us back. Humanity just went ahead and did the best it could. Trial and error has taught us what works best. The proof of the pudding was in the eating.

People respect scientific method and knowledge because of their own experience. They know it works. So they aren’t particularly interested in these complaints of lack of deductive proof.

And guess what – even scientists, those using these methods are not particularly interested in those deductive proofs either. They are practical people – if the methods didn’t work they wouldn’t bother with them. They would look for something else.

So if science has a good reputation it’s well-earned. People know from experience that it works. That’s why it’s respected. That’s why society and governments turn to scientists when there are problems and we are looking for solutions.

Science has cognitive respect – not privilege, and certainly not the unearned privilege suggested by Plantinga, Nagel and Brian Mattson.

An attempt to demand privilege as a right

Mattson’s complaint about the “cognitive privilege” of science is, however, revealing. Both Plantinga and Nagel have been critiquing the high standing of science because they are arguing for an alternative. They are in effect demanding that religious or other “way’s of knowing,” revelation and philosophy of religion, should be more acceptable to humanity. That it should be given the credibility that science gets, perhaps even more. The more honest theologian may admit that there is no obvious reason for accepting religious and similar “ways of knowing,” but because scientific knowledge and method is no more “self-evident” or “self-justifying” than religious knowledge,  the two methods should be treated as “equally valid”

But where science has won cognitive respect through experience, through successful performance, these theologians and philosophers of religion seem to think they can demand cognitive respect as a right. Without earning it through deeds.

Actually they, not science, are the ones demanding cognitive privilege.

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From evolution to belief

How reliable do you think your cognitive facilities are? Your eyes, ears, etc? Your brain,  memory and mental processes? According to philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga, not very good. He asserts any belief you form using these facilities is as likely to be untrue as it is to be true. “A probability of 0.5″ he says – like a magician pulling a rabbit out of hat.

But it gets worse. For some reason he thinks your beliefs are formed randomly – so “If I have one thousand independent beliefs, for example, the probability (under these conditions) that three quarters or more of these beliefs are true will be less than 10–58.” When he considers only 100 independent beliefs “the probability that three-quarters of them are true, given that the probability of any one’s being true is one half, is very low, something like .000001.”

So, you wonder – how the hell do you get by? You are in the middle of the road, a bus is speeding towards you, but the chance of your cognitive facilities leading you to believe you are in danger is minuscule. You are just as likely to belief you are having a pleasant bath – or a gazillion other things.

Guided evolution

That doesn’t sound right, does it? Something is fishy here. Surely natural selection will have weeded out organisms which had such poor cognitive facilities millions of years ago. Well, according to Plantinga, no! Unless evolution was guided by his god! He just thinks that unguided evolution is incapable of producing reliable cognitive facilities. In fact, he claims evolutionary science supports him saying: “The scientific theory of evolution just as such is entirely compatible with the thought that God has guided and orchestrated the course of evolution, planned and directed it, in such a way as to achieve the ends he intends.”

He argues that unguided evolution is “prohibitively improbable.” Not surprising to see that he has a soft spot for Michael Behe‘s irreducible complexity argument against evolutionary science (and for “intelligent design”). Plantinga’s recent book ( Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism) is full of theological pretzel twisting, motivated logic, unsupported logical possibilities, probability assumptions, cherry-picked quotations, and bald statements supporting his claims. But, unhappily for many of this theological supporters, he is also very careful to include qualifications for almost all his claims and arguments. This gives him deniability, wriggle room, but makes it difficult for his supporters to find supporting evidence for his claims.

Here I will deal with just his claim that evolution via inherited variation and natural section is incapable of producing reliable cognitive facilities. Even here he claims he is not arguing: “that unguided evolution could not produce creatures with reliable belief-producing faculties; I very much doubt that it could, but that it couldn’t is neither a premise nor the conclusion of my argument.”

Still, that is exactly what he does argue. He says “it is improbable, given naturalism and evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable.” That his god “could have brought it about that our cognitive faculties evolve by natural selection, and evolve in such a way that it is natural for us to form beliefs about the supernatural in general and God himself in particular.” “that God has created us in such a way that we come to know him; and the function of the cognitive processes, whatever they are, that ordinarily produce belief in God in us is to provide us with true belief.” And “According to John Calvin, God has created us with a “sensus divinitatis,” a natural tendency to form belief in God.”

So you can see where he is going with this. Belief in a god seems to be an indicator that your cognitive system is working well, whereas non-belief shows its not! You atheists have something missing from your brain.

Naive survival argument

Plantinga’s argument centres on a naive interpretation of natural selection:

“We might think that our evolutionary origin guarantees or strongly supports the thought that our basic cognitive faculties are reliable: if they weren’t, how could we have survived and reproduced? But this is clearly an error,  . . . . . Natural selection is interested in adaptive behavior, behavior that conduces to survival and reproduction; it has no interest in our having true beliefs.”

And his followers see that as a key premise in his argument.

However, if a particular inheritable variation is selected because it aids survival or increases number of offspring this does not prevent that particular variation contributing to the life of the organism in other ways.  A cat’s paw enables it to move, to pursue prey and avoid predators but this in no way prevent cats from using their paws in grooming.

We can understand how selected variations in our ancestors perception organs, brains, and the rest of their body, would have had survival and reproduction values.  Tool-making abilities, a thickened pre-frontal cortex, language abilities, self-reflection and recall of memories would have contributed greatly to the natural selection of our ancestors.

But once selected, not only did our ancestors become more social, more able to communicate and more able to change their environment with the tools they created. They also were able to use their perception and cognitive faculties in a more advanced way. To formulate more detailed pictures of their environment and to check out the accuracy of those ideas or beliefs. And to pass on this knowledge to their offspring.

It is just overwhelmingly naive not to recognise the wider implications of variations selected by the evolutionary process beyond survival and reproduction. And it is dishonest to cherry-pick, as Plantinga does, quotes from evolutionary scientists and philosophers which stress the role of survival and reproduction in natural selection as if there were no other consequences for the evolution of the selected organisms.

Why is it so hard to see the natural selection of intelligence in our ancestors has lead to huge technological and cultural changes quite above and beyond its value for survival and reproduction? Why should Plantinga accept that unguided evolution can lead to intelligence for its value in survival and reproduction but drag in the concept of guided evolution by his god to explain the resulting cultural, technological and social changes?

Reliability of cognitive facilities – something more than chance.

I find weird Plantinga’s idea that guidance of evolution by his god is necessary for our cognitive faculties to produce reliable results. Even weirder that in the absence of such guidance natural selection would produce cognitive faculties which caused us to adopt beliefs completely randomly. Surely such faulty cognitive faculties would have been selected against? And those organisms whose cognitive faculties produced a sufficiently reliable picture of reality (or belief) to enable survival and reproduction would have been selected for.

Plantinga confuses his argument by steadfastly referring to “belief” and “true belief” whereas the day-to-day life of an organism requires (usually unconscious) perception or knowledge of its environment and reaction to what it perceives. In effect, the organism, and particularly a species like humans, is continually forming a mental image or model of its environment. The accuracy of this model relies on the abilities of the perception organs, the unconscious aggregation of perceptions and memories to form a mental image and the amount of conscious deliberation. We can be sure that this knowledge never amounts to a completely accurate model of reality. All sorts of practical assumptions are made for the sake of efficiency. And animals like us are just not able to perceive bacteria and molecules, let alone atoms or subatomic particles.

So our mental model of reality will always be imperfect. It can never be identified with Plantinga’s “true belief.” But it is good enough for what we are doing – surviving, reproducing, making tools, telling stories, formulating theories, etc. And we quite naturally pay special attention when we need to fill out details. Or we can resort to tools and instruments which aid our perceptions.

If natural selection working on genetic variation has produced animals capable of surviving and reproducing by using their perception organs, intelligence, memory and imagination why should it be impossible (as Plantinga claims) for such animals to form “belief”, or knowledge about reality, which, for all practical purposes, can be considered “true?” Why does he claim guidance by his god is necessary?

Theistic evolution?

When I hear this term “theistic evolution” used I never know what is intended. At one end it could just be that a person who claims to believe in theistic evolution is only saying they accept evolutionary science, while at the same time they are a Christian. Perhaps its just a way of avoiding criticism from their fellow church members. An assurance that their acceptance of evolutionary science does not signal rejection of their faith.

The adjective “theistic” is actually unnecessary – except for social purposes. One could equally say they believed in “theistic gravity,” “theistic chemical reactions,” etc. Sounds silly – but I guess social pressure produces silly conventions and scientifically meaningless terms.

At the other end of the spectrum I think the person is actually claiming a belief similar to Plantinga’s. That evolution is actually impossible without divine interference, specifically guidance from their god. They may imagine that their god actually fiddles with the atoms in an organism’s DNA, or aids selection with a flood, collision of an asteroid or a volcanic eruption or two. Even, as some of these people claim, the divine injection of determinism into quantum indeterminacy

Of course, people who claim such guidance is required for evolution to work just don’t accept the current scientific understanding of the evolutionary process which is very much unguided (except through the natural selection process). If adherents of “theistic evolution” mean this, something like Plantinga’s “evolution” then they don’t accept evolutionary science.

And that’s why I just don’t like the term “theistic evolution” and am always suspicious of people who describe themselves that way.

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Naturalism and science are incompatible

Well, that’s what the Christian apologist philosopher Alvin Plantinga claims. And he has written a book to “prove” it – Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Apparently its required reading for students of theology and the philosophy of religion. Probably because he declares there is a “deep concord between science and theistic belief,  . . . .  and deep conflict between science and naturalism.” The book concludes with:

“there is indeed a science/religion conflict, all right, but it is not between science and theistic religion: it is between science and naturalism. That’s where the conflict really lies”

Personally, I think Plantinga uses motivated reasoning, logical possibilities, cherry-picked “science” (he quotes Michael Behe for example) and a naive understanding of adaptive selection to come to his conclusions. On top of that he usually acknowledges that each step is only logically “possible” – he preserves deniability all the way through. But nevertheless comes to firm conclusions! This must be very satisfying for him and some of his mates but I don’t think many scientists have even noticed his book.

I certainly haven’t noticed a sudden change in the way we do science, or the scientific theories we formulate.

I won’t review or comment further on his book here (although I have sort of promised to discuss one or two of Plantinga’s arguments in future articles). I recommend that anyone interested should read Maarten Boudry’s excellent review -Where the Conflict Lies, Really: Are Science and Theism Best Friends?  (I commented briefly on this in The paradoxes of theological gullibility). And I certainly don’t support Plantinga’s conclusions.

But I do agree with the statement that “Naturalism and science are incompatible.”

Before you go and quote me out of context I also agree with statements like “Theism and science are incompatible,” “atheism and science are incompatible,” “Marxism-Leninism and science are incompatible,” “Maoism and science are incompatible,” etc. You get the picture. I am saying that all philosophies or ideologies are incompatible with science in the sense that science does not, and should not, a priori, include any of these ideological/philosophical presumptions.

The conflict is not just between science and religion, but between science and all ideologies.

What about “methodological naturalism?”

OK, some people may now be revising their knee jerk reaction that the long-expected senility had finally struck. But what about “methodological naturalism” some would say – isn’t that a normal part of the scientific process. In fact, in a recent discussion a student assured me that “methodological naturalism” . .  is an assumption of science!”

Bloody hell, is this a new part of science training? I was never told during my university years that I should make such assumptions in my research. And I never went into any of my research projects with that or any other similar “assumption.” No colleagues mentioned such assumptions to me either. That claim may be coming from theology and philosophy of religion professors, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be coming from working scientists.

In fact, I have always been told, and always accepted, that we should make as few assumptions as possible in research. OK, perhaps reality exists, and perhaps we can assume that it is possible to investigate and understand at least part of that reality. But that is all. (Well, perhaps there was a strong preference for accepting the laws of thermodynamics – but even then there was a realisation that a Nobel Prize awaited anyone who disproved them.) But, on the whole, an open mind is essential for creative research.

Who is promoting this story?

So what’s all this palava about “naturalism” – and especially this “methodological naturalism” we are all supposed to assume? While such terms are not bandied about by scientists day-to-day they are used by a few philosophers and politicians. In fact this student could well have been mislead by a body no less august than the US National Academy of Sciences. In their booklet “Teaching about evolution and the nature of science” they say:

“Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance.”

This view was endorsed by philosopher of religion John Haught (“By its very nature, science is obliged to leave out any appeal to the supernatural, and so its explanations will always sound naturalistic and purely physicalist”) and  Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, who is also an atheist (“Science is a way of knowing that attempts to explain the natural world using natural causes. It is agnostic toward the supernatural – it neither confirms nor rejects it.”).

There are no shortage of atheist philosophers of science like Michael Ruse and Barbara Forrest who also provide quotes for the enthusiastic Christian apologist to cherry pick and throw at me when I discuss the subject with them. Of course these same apologists ignore philosophers and scientists, like Victor Stenger, who reject this characterisation of how we do science.

Accommodation in science

There are scientists and philosophers who argue the characterisation presented by the US National Academy of Sciences is just political opportunism. That the Academy is trying to placate religious critics by retaining a place for religion. By declaring that science had not found their god because of its own (science’s) limitations. Science is not capable of finding gods or other “supernatural” things – “Your god is safe from us.” A similar motivation is behind  similar comments from scientists and philosophers. Effectively that approach is a tactic which tries to neutralise attacks on science, and particularly evolutionary science, by ring-fencing certain issues. Making them out-of-bounds for science.

Some scientists describe the approach as “accommodation” and firmly criticise it. They see this political tactic as placing the defence of evolutionary science above science itself. The independence of science, the true lack of ideological assumptions within science, and the scientific ethos of searching for truth, are sacrificed just to get those troublesome theists off the backs of evolutionary scientists. And the political tactic fails because it allows theists to place, or attempt to place, arbitrary limitations on science, agrees to the ring-fencing of aspects of reality to exclude science, etc., just to appease the enemies of science.

This tactic also hands juicy quotes to religious apologists who cherry pick them to tell scientists how they should really do research. They can also use these quotes as an excuse for the continued lack of credible evidence for their preferred stories about life and the universe. Even, as Plantinga attempts, to try to discredit science and or leading scientists.

The philosopher Maarten Boudry has an interesting paper explaining the problems with the accomodationist approach of the US Academy of Science – How not to attack intelligent design creationism : philosophical misconceptions about methodological naturalism. I guess as a philosopher he must use the terms used by those he critiques. But he explains the problems and inadequacies of terms like “methodological naturalism,” and attempts to introduce amendments to make them more realistic.

Personally, as a scientist and not a philosopher, I feel we should just declare these terms irrelevant. They don’t describe how we do research and do encourage misunderstanding by non-scientists.

What the hell is “supernatural”?

People use this word a lot but no-one bothers with a tight definition – perhaps because that is not really possible. My dictionary describes the adjective as attributing a phenomenon or event to “some force beyond scientific understanding, or the laws of nature.” So, was lightning and thunder “supernatural” several centuries ago but not now? Is some phenomena we have recorded and do not understand “supernatural” now – even though it may become “natural” tomorrow when we do understand it? If this really means forever beyond potential understanding – how could we possibly know? Isn’t this whole thing circular? Theologians tend to define “natural” as “relating to earthly human or physical nature as distinct from the spiritual or supernatural realm.”

Surely it’s just simpler to say “I don’t know”  when we come across something we do not understand, that seems to conflict with the current state of knowledge (which the “laws of nature” represent). If we must give it a name call it something like “dark matter” or “dark energy” – place-holders acknowledging we are trumped for the moment but not preventing us from investigating the phenomenon. To call it “supernatural” has unfortunate consequences – it is usually interpreted to mean beyond scientific understanding. Such labels are of no help because they are science stoppers, preventing the progress of understanding.

I have discussed “natural” and “supernatural” before in Science and the “supernatural”, Can the “supernatural” be of any use?, The “supernatural” and dogmatism in science, Scientific method and the “supernatural”, Defining natural and supernatural and elsewhere.

And I should also make the usual qualifier here. I am by no means claiming that everything is understandable by the human mind, or even that we can detect everything. Nor am I suggesting that our mental and technological abilities are potentially unlimited. We may just not be able to ever investigate some things or understand them when we do. That doesn’t stop us from being a very curious species which will continue to investigate things far into the future.

We shouldn’t be setting “limits” to science or ring-fencing parts of reality to place them out-of-bounds for science – just to satisfy adherents of ancient mythical beliefs.

Scientific knowledge is counter-intuitive

And that’s a strong reason to expel any idea that scientists should make assumptions before the undertake research. For example, exclusion of ideas considered “supernatural” would have prevented progress in our understanding of gravity (action at a distance was considered as introducing an occult force in Newton’s time), relativity (how counter-intuitive is that?), quantum mechanics (“spooky action at a distance), and field theories of matter. Excluding the “supernatural” when it is used to mean something we don’t understand or don’t think possible) would just prevent scientific progress. And we don’t.

Of course, those who advocate most strongly for inclusion of the supernatural in science don’t really mean that. They mean the automatic inclusion of their god into scientific theories, as an explanation of observed facts, without any evidence. When these people criticise “naturalism” they are really criticising the requirements for evidence, testing and validation in science. But remove those and we no longer have science.

The god hypothesis

However, on the question of gods and similar beings – science does not exclude these, providing the requirements of evidence and testing are fulfilled. In fact scientists, whatever their personal beliefs, should not exclude such beings. After all there could well be a god, or gods. We might well find evidence for that. A god hypothesis may well survive testing and be incorporated into our scientific theories. That may sound mad to some – but personally I think a few hundred years ago gravitational forces, relativity and time dilation, quantum indeterminacy entanglement would have been considered a lot weirder than a god hypothesis

Personally I don’t believe there are gods, but as one grows older one gets used to having to adjust beliefs as we learn more about reality. One thing I am pretty sure of though – if a god or gods do exist they won’t be anything like the gods humanity has invented over the years.

A last point on god hypotheses. As science has progressed we have found less and less room for gods. Scientific theories these days don’t include gods. Not through any presumptions by science or biases in scientists beliefs but because we just don’t have any supporting evidence. Another problem is that there is no agreed, clear, structured god hypothesis that can be tested. In fact, as our knowledge has progressed and the lack of evidence has become obvious theologians and philosophers of religion have progressively redefined their gods to be less and less testable. I think they have effectively redefined their gods out of existence. Or maybe in the process of making their god undetectable they have also made it impossible for her to interact with reality. Impossible to have an influence. Which is basically the same as non-existent.

Being open-minded

I said before than an open mind is essential for creative scientific research. Some critics assert science is not open-minded because it doesn’t automatically include their (the critics) gods in scientific theories. That concept of an open mind means inclusion of any old idea, without evidence and validation, and no matter how vague. That is not science – it’s silliness.

The explanatory power of science comes from its interaction with reality. Creative research must be open to new ideas and speculations but they don’t throw away evidence and validation against reality. They are not so open-minded that their brains fall out.

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The paradoxes of theological gullibility

Dr Maarten Boudry

Maarten Boudry is a philosopher I will certainly read more of. His review of Alvin Plantinga‘s book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, get’s right to the point – and clearly. Boudry responds to Plantinga’s argument that scientific theories need no more justification than logical possibility:

“But if the bar for rational belief is lowered to mere logical possibility, and the demand for positive evidence dropped, then no holds are barred. Evolution (or gravity, plate tectonics, lightning, for that matter) could as well be directed by space aliens, Zeus or the flying spaghetti monster.”

My feelings exactly. Philosophers like Plantinga should be kept well away from science. “Remarkably,” as Boudry comments, Plantinga’s “entirely gratuitous suggestion has received the support of no less a philosophers than Elliot Sober.” Perhaps scientists have really got to work harder to get through to some philosophers just what the scientific process really is.

Boudry’s review is online at Where the Conflict Lies, Really: Are Science and Theism Best Friends?

I am impressed with Maaten Boudry’s clear thinking and clear writing. But, Jerry Coyne at Evolution is True reveals that Boudry can also write very unclearly and express ideas which are, to say the least, muddled (see A Sokal-style hoax by an anti-religious philosopher). But only as a joke.

Boudry wrote and submitted abstract on sophisticated theology to two theological conferences using an invented name (Robert A. Maundy) and institutional affiliation (College of the Holy Cross). Despite the abstract being a load of old rubbish it was quickly accepted at both conferences.

This brings to mind the Sokal Hoax in which Alan Sokal, a Physics professor at New York University  submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. His paper was ” liberally salted with nonsense, . .   sounded good and . . .  flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” It was a parody on post-modernism and despite being rubbish was published.

Boudry’s paper is:

The Paradoxes of Darwinian Disorder. Towards an Ontological Reaffirmation of Order and Transcendence.
Robert A. Maundy,  College of the Holy Cross, Reno, Nevada

Jerry has reproduced the abstract in full – go to his blog to read it. It includes little gems like:

“By narrowly focusing on the disorderly state of present-being, or the “incoherence of a primordial multiplicity”, as John Haught put it, Darwinian materialists lose sense of the ultimate order unfolding in the not-yet-being. Contrary to what Dawkins asserts, if we reframe our sense of locatedness of existence within a the space of radical contingency of spiritual destiny, then absolute order reemerges as an ontological possibility.”

And finishes with:

“Creation is the condition of possibility of discourse which, in turn, evokes itself as presenting creation itself. Darwinian discourse is therefore just an emanation of the absolute discourse of dis-order, and not the other way around, as crude materialists such as Dawkins suggest.”

I think Jerry sums it up succinctly when he says:

“I defy you to understand what he’s saying, but of course it appeals to those who, steeped in Sophisticated Theology™, love a lot of big words that say nothing but somehow seem to criticize materialism while affirming the divine. It doesn’t hurt if you diss Dawkins a couple of times, either.

This shows once again the appeal of religious gibberish to the educated believer, and demonstrates that conference organizers either don’t read what they publish, or do read it and think that if it’s opaque then it must be profound.”

Yes, this little trick was probably relatively easy to perpetrate as less care would be taken with acceptance of conference papers than with publication of journal articles. Perhaps there is a challenge there – maybe some devious atheists should write some “Sophisticated Theology™” papers and submit them to the suitable journals.

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Therapeutic ranting

Book review: The Atheist Camel Rants Again!: more arguments and observations from the atheist front by Bart Centre.

Price: US$10.71; NZ$20.60
Paperback: 326 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace (May 25, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1460933915
ISBN-13: 978-1460933916

Personal passion does wonders for one’s writing. Mind you, passion is also polarising. Not everyone is going to love what you say, even though you say it forcefully and colourfully.

I am sure this is the case with Dromedary Hump’s latest book The Atheist Camel Rants Again! But that is part of what makes the book so good – for some of us at least.

The book is well named – it is a rant. But a colourful, humorous and soul-enhancing rant which will appeal to atheists and other free-thinkers. It was not meant to appeal to those who Centre satirically calls the “theologically deluded.” Nevertheless, I am sure there are some more open-minded religious people who will appreciate the humour and colour. In fact these people will probably find a lot they can identify with as they must sometimes despair at the stupidity reached by their more militant and strident co-religionists.

Like his earlier book, this one is a collection of 105 lively blog posts. They are each only about 2 pages long – which makes the book easy to dip into. You can read what you want, when you want, depending simply on what strikes your mood at the time.

In my review of his previous book (see The Atheist Camel Chronicles) I said that when Centre “calls a spade a spade” he “cleverly implies it might actually be a bloody big shovel.” Well he has lost none of that eloquence. Or humour. The satire and cynicism is just as biting.

Theist stupidity

Just as well, because there is still a lot of stupidity out there.  In “Pity the Persecuted Christians,” for example, he describes how some religious leaders:

“make it sound as though Christianity is undergoing a veritable Inquisition. . . .They cannot differentiate between their right to practice their religion (which is never implied) and the rights of non-Christians NOT to have Christian religion forced upon them . .  which is precisely what they are protesting. By impeding their holy charge to proselytize, convert, harass, badger, and impose their beliefs on others, it is they who are being persecuted. That’s about as bizarre a reversal of logic as one could conceive.”

Right on! Someone has to say it. People are fed up with the arrogant attitude demonstrated by non-consensual imposition of religious “values”, traditions and ceremonies. Centre colourfully describes this in “The Invocation:”

“the sky pilot couldn’t care less if it irks some because he sees it as his divinely directed duty to shove his God down people’s throats, welcome or not.”

In “Religion is a ‘Beautiful Thing,'” he asks:

“is it because religious charity is a way to proselytise to those desperately in need of material aid in an effort to gain converts? Is that the ‘beauty of religion’?”

Again, who else has wondered that?

And on a topical issue of marriage equality (“Those Damn Homos are Changing Word Definitions! Stop Them NOW!”) he tells opponents that “you’ll get used to gay marriage:”

“in five to ten years, gay marriage will be legal in a majority of states. And in three hundred to five hundred years, the Christian churches will apologise for their homophobic hysteria. It just takes them that long to catch up to humanity.”

And what about this depiction of a “Beffudled God” who requires a professional army of interpreters and apologists (in “Beffudled God: Good Thing he has so Many Interpreters”):

“Their God, it seems, is an articulate and confused old fool who has to rely on his creations to figure out and explain exactly what his words mean and policies should be. Liken it to a ninety-eight-year-old senile company founder who is kept locked in his office by the board of directors, and who translate his babble into whatever the board wants it to mean to the shareholders.”

Some atheists disappoint

But Centre doesn’t waste all his satire on the religiously inclined – some atheists also get a tongue lashing. He laments:

“a few atheists who, through their own stupidity, feed theist misconceptions of atheism. Some of them call for an ‘atheist church’ or at least see no conflict with the oxymoronic term. These atheists are the Uncle Toms, the embarrassing mentally impaired relatives of the activist atheist movement who are best confined to an attic or their parents’ basement.”

And later adds:

“On the other hand, if by calling every atheist organisation a church, mosque, synagogue, or coven we all get a major tax break . . .  count me in and call me ‘Reverend.'”

But, seriously, he is concerned about the knee jerk reactions of some atheists to current events:

“Perhaps my disappointment is my own fault, as I tend to credit freethinkers with using the same reasoned approach to all issues and events as when they rejected supernaturalism. More credit than we apparently deserve.”

Well, I often think we are not a rational species – even if we sometimes get some things right.

No one will be surprised to learn that Bart Centre is the creator and co-owner of the Eternal Earth-Bound Pets post-Rapture Pet rescue website (http://www.eternal-earthbound-pets.com/).

I started reading this book when I was feeling down. Before long I was laughing my head off. I had forgotten my own problems – except I was wishing I had such satirical skills.

If you are that way inclined, or even just open-minded and unafraid of satire, you will find this a book which you read through quickly. And then will start looking for his last one The Atheist Camel Chronicles.

But if you are sensitive about your beliefs (theist or non-theist) and can’t take a joke, then I recommend you avoid the book.

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William Lane Craig’s philosophy – the condensed version

PZ Myers can certainly find the right turn of phrase – or cartoon. I thought this one in his post Plaintive logic made a necessary point.

What is it with philosophers of religion and syllogisms? They seem to think that simply listing their (usually faulty) premise and a conclusion somehow provides a water-tight deduction. Good enough to prove that their loving god created the universe, was also responsible for morality and fine tuning! Apparently also responsible for the logic they use (which is convenient).

Or are they just demonstrating they can count to 3 (or 5)?


Reasonable truth?

The Reason Rally in Washington DC over the weekend caused a bit of internet debate. A lot of it pretty silly – even hysterical. At times I wonder if dogmatic religionists are getting rattled. This rally was really all about the non-religious “coming out”, standing up, being counted and doing a bit of congressional lobbying in the side. Also there were great speakers and excellent entertainment. But it seems there are some people who wish the non-religious would STFU. Hide in fear.

Some militant Christian groups angrily claimed that these horrible atheists were acting as if they owned, or were capturing, even kidnapping,  the word “reason.” One group retaliated by cobbling together a selection of already published apologist articles entitled “True Reason.” Perhaps we should complain that they were claiming ownership of the word Truth!

Never mind. As Russell Blackford says about choice of words over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club:

“it’s silly and literal-minded – and sounds carping – to complain about this sort of thing. It’s like people who complain about book titles, which are of course chosen to be memorable and attractive, not to be accurate in a way that’s defensible to all people.”

Reminds me of the local theologian who painstakingly did  in-depth theological analyses of the local Atheist billboards. You know those with simple slogan like “Good Without God;” “In the Beginning Man Created God” and “We are all Atheists About Most Gods.” I suppose theology can be used to reach any desirable outcome, no matter how silly the starting material. And there are plenty of other billboards he could now use his theological skills on.

The philosophical issues

Putting aside the nice alliteration of the “Reason Rally” slogan the debate does raise the question of what we mean by words like “reason” and “truth.” These are questions that philosophers love to debate – but I often find some their discussions sterile. They seem divorced from reality. More interested in playing philosophical games related to definition than considering how things actually work out in practice.

The problem is some philosophers are happy to actually ignore reality, to be unconcerned with practice. Or perhaps this is really only true of philosophers of religion and theologians.

On the other hand scientists are far more concerned with reality and practice than with high faluting philosophic debates. I just wish those philosophers were more amenable to catching up with what science has discover about the process of human cognition. And the way that science approaches the question of knowledge. If for no other reason than science is well known to be incredibly successful in helping humanity to understand, and interact with, reality. Scientific knowledge is important.

Reason: Rationalising rather than rational

The scientific fact is that objective rational reasoning does not come easy to humans. We are in fact a rationalising species rather than a rational one. Reasoning involves emotional brain circuits as well as straightforward cognitive ones. Apparently people who have suffered damage to their emotional brain circuits find decision-making extremely difficult. Emotional influence of reasoning is inevitable. Whatever our ideology we are all tempted to, and usually guilty of, selecting evidence to support a dearly held belief rather than being objective.

I am not suggesting that we give up all hope of objective reasoning and throw the towel in. As individuals we can attempt to overcome emotional prejudices and preconceived ideas. Of course this works more successfully when we do this together with others, especially when a wide variety of opinions are present. And even better when we do this using empirical evidence

That is why scientists, who despite their inevitable preconceived ideas and emotional preferences, can still work to understand the world as it really is. They rely on evidence to formulate their hypotheses, and they test or validate them against reality, using empirical evidence. And they do this socially, under the sceptical interest of their colleagues and the inevitable harsh scrutiny of the findings and conclusions by their peers.

This objective testing and validation against reality is vital. Relying on other members of one’s peer groups alone can actually reinforce mistaken ideas and beliefs rather than test them. We sometimes call this “group thinking.”

So no one owns “reason.” Neither does anyone own “rationalisation” or “confirmation bias.” We all do it. But some people are just better at reasoning objectively than are others. And it seems to me that the theologians and philosophers of religion whose articles are in the book “True Reason” may excel at the mental gymnastics and theological pretzel twisting required in their profession. But as they completely omit that important step of validating ideas against reality the “ownership” claim they make on reason is somewhat suspect. For example, at least one of the authors is well-known for his “reasoned” justification of biblical genocide, ethnic cleansing and infanticide! (And, no, I don’t think these are the only people who mistake their rationalisation for reason –  it’s a human problem).

Truth: relative knowledge vs unsupported conviction

Religions often act as if they have captured the sole ownership of “truth.” And not only any old truth but Truth with a capital T. So, I find it rather incongruous when these very same theologians and philosophers of religion rip into those horrible atheists, using philosophical arguments to “show” that their (the atheists) reasoning is incapable of finding truth. In the last week or so I have seen several blog posts and opinion pieces making the argument. Along the lines that one needs some epistemic criteria to judge  if the epistemic criteria you are using is producing the truth. This leaves one in a constant regression of different epistemic criteria or alternatively a circular argument using your favourite criteria. (See Defending Science: An Exchange, by Michael P. Lynch and Alan Sokal for contrasting views and How can we justify science?: Sokal and Lynch debate epistemology by Jerry Coyne for an insightful summary of that debate).

Stephen Law calls this philosophical sawing through the branch you are sitting on “Going Nuclear” (see Protecting yourself against bullshit). How can these people claim any access to truth for themselves when they deny its very possibility (for their discussion opponents)? Mixing metaphors, they think they have blown their ideological opponents out of the water, and then they realise that they themselves are sinking.

These people are caught on the own petard. They have a basic problem:

  1. On the one had they decline to use empirical knowledge, testing and validating against reality, to supplement their reasoning.
  2. Secondly they insist on “absolute truth” requiring a proof by deductive logic. They ignore the fact that we gain real knowledge by accepting something less than absolute.

But what about scientific knowledge? Isn’t that considered “truth?” And how does science justify this knowledge?

Scientists rarely talk about “truth,” more about knowledge. (Yes I know that sometimes words like “true” and “fact” may be used in book titles and newspaper articles – but here they are using the colloquially accepted language). And they never consider their knowledge absolute, complete. In a sense, scientific knowledge is always relative.  And as scientific knowledge is really the best knowledge we have I should think that we should see all knowledge as relative. Open to improvement, revision, or even outright replacement, as new information comes in.

“Other ways of knowing?”

OK, the militant theist may not think this is good enough – they claim that surely it would not be that hard to aim higher.” Strangely, of course, they never explain how they can get a more accurate form of knowledge. As Jerry Coyne says (see Stymied, Michael Ruse criticizes me for liking boots and cats) – when these theologians talk about “other ways of knowing” they really mean “other ways of making it up!”

We can understand that scientific knowledge, despite its relative and temporary nature, is generally accepted as the most reliable for of knowledge. And scientific method as they most effective way of understanding reality. The relative nature of scientific knowledge is one reason it is so effective. It is just silly to claim you have a higher or absolute form of knowledge by claiming it is somehow “revealed”, or “sacred”  and never allowing it to be tested against reality.

Why should we be so concerned with absolutes anyway? What do we need our knowledge for? To improve our lives, to solve problems we face, etc. So its understandable that in a sense we “get by” with our relative, incomplete, knowledge – we effectively have an “instrumentalist” approach. If it works – we use it and don’t worry too much about the complete reality behind it. And in this sense we break out of the epistemic circular and regressive  bind by adopting the great epistemic approach - “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

We shouldn’t separate our knowledge from the process of obtaining it, or from the reality we interact with. The very process of adopting an almost instrumentalist approach, of using our incomplete, relative knowledge in practice, leads to our becoming more aware of its incompleteness, of our need to review and improve our knowledge.

Scientific knowledge is really just an imperfect reflection of reality. But a constantly improving reflection.

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Galileo’s modern critics

The Gallileo Affair - a useful primary source of documents

What is it with some philosophical and historical commenters who take sides against Galileo in his 17th century dispute with the Church?

Perhaps because we now have many documents from that period (17th century) – including Galileo’s original writings, official documents from the Inquisition and the church,  and the text of complaints made to the inquisition about Galileo’s beliefs and teachings. This itself can fuel different perspectives.

However, I think another source of this lively debate lies in the preconceived notions and beliefs of the modern protagonists. That, to me, is the only explanation for a trend (a trend – I don’t blame all) among commenters on the history of science that seeks to blame the victim (in this case Galileo) for the affair. To claim that Galileo was scientifically wrong. That the Church was correct to suppress research into a heliocentric model for the solar system. And to threaten imprisonment for anyone holding these opinions. And, inevitably, when there a preconceived beliefs, sources are selected to confirm those beliefs.

We can see one example in Andrew Brown’s blog article Science is the only road to truth? Don’t be absurd  (see my earlier post Debates in the philosophy of science). Here, I want to take issue with his claim that the Church was partly correct in suppressing Galileo’s ideas on heliocentricism:

” Because if there is one thing that has been established in the history of science in the last 50 years, it is that in strictly scientific terms, and going by the evidence available to him and to his contemporaries, Galileo was wrong and Cardinal Bellarmine was right. Heliocentrism was a beautiful theory, and Galileo would have been free to teach it as such – but the observation of stellar parallax, or rather the discovery that none could be observed, should have knocked it on the head “

There are a few points in this which need challenging.

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Debates in the philosophy of science

Jerry Coyne, over at his Why Evolution is True blog does get into some important issues of the philosophy of science. Usually in debates with others. PZ Myers at Pharyngula often participates, some times agreeing, sometimes disagreeing withy Jerry.

Currently both Jerry and PZ are critiquing an article by Andrew Brown at his Guardian Blog (see Science is the only road to truth? Don’t be absurd). Andrews article itself is a criticism of a comment by Nobel prize winner Harry Kroto in a recent talk:

“Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine truth with any degree of reliability.”

Jerry Coyne’s response is in Andrew Brown: there are lots of ways besides science to find truth. PZ Myers’ response is in There’s something obvious missing from this argument….

It’s an important and interesting discussion – worth following.

Another interesting recent post of Jerry’s is Why am I reading theology?

Apparently he has undertaken a study of theology! That seems really strange to me – a complete waste of time. Perhaps he has lost a bet. or maybe he is taking those theist critics of Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion to heart. You know – the charge that Dawkins had no right to produce that book because he has not studied theology!

Jerry claims to have so far learned only three things:

1: “I am spending my middle age reading drivel about beliefs that have no basis in fact. This seems a total waste of time.  I could be reading books about real things instead.” He must have lost a bet!

2: “Theologians can’t write.  A lot of what they have to say is postmodern or obscure bafflegab, and I’m starting to believe that this obscurantism is deliberate . . .”. That’s one of the overwhelming impressions I have obtained from the little theological writings I have encountered.

3: “There seems to be no “knowledge” behind theology, and I haven’t learned anything—not even any clever philosophy.  One gets the strong sense when reading theology (and granted, I am biased) that everyone is just making stuff up.” That’s another overwhelming impression of mine – and as Jerry says this helps explain point 2.

These discussions are worth following.

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