Category Archives: Dennett

Scientists and philosophers discuss morality and meaning

I am working my way through the videos of the discussions at the Moving Naturalism Forward Workshop (see At last – Moving Naturalism Forward videos). I really appreciate these philosophical and scientific discussions because they aren’t weighed down, or diverted, by  theistic and supernaturalist philosophy.

As Daniel Dennett said in the introductions, what he really like about the workshop was not only the people participating, but also that certain philosophers were not participating.

Here’s the discussion on morality. I don’t think they covered everything they could have but what they did cover was interesting. It’s also a pity that Patricia Churchland had to withdraw from the Workshop – her contribution to this discussion would have been very helpful. I would have also like contribution from a good evolutionary psychologist.

Morality

The next discussion on meaning was also very wide-ranging and often insightful. I liked Owen Flanagan‘s description of Aristotle’s approach. When asked how he could prepare a suitably complete obituary for someone who had just died he said that one could gather all the information available but it would still not be enough. To really pass judgement on a person’s life you have to wait to see how the grandchildren turn out.

Meaning

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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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A disciplined discussion

I have commented several times that the debate format is very unsatisfactory and have favoured a discussion format for public discussion. Richard Dawkins has tried out a number of such discussion formats, I think successfully.

But I think this one is actually quite ambitious – four personalities in discussion, on stage, in front of an audience of 4000. It actually comes out very well. With no chairperson or moderator, everyone seems to get a fair go. No one dominates. And the discussion is fascinating. I would love to have been there.

It’s the panel discussion between Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali which occurred at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention
held in Melbourne last April.

Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris & Ayaan Hirsi Ali – YouTube.

It’s an hour-long – but very interesting.

Theological mental gymnastics over evolution

Darwin Day is this weekend so I thought I should do a couple of relevant posts.

Here I want to comment on a popular reaction to evolutionary science by mainstream Christians.  I am referring to the regular church-goer or adherent who will claim they accept scientific knowledge – not to creationists or similar people like the adherents of intelligent design who actively campaign against, or deny, this knowledge.

Theistic evolution?

Often these Christians accommodate the science and their religious dogma by describing their beliefs as “theistic evolution.” I have never understood that term. Evolutionary science is evolutionary science – one doesn’t go tacking on your ideological adherence. Are we going to have Marxist thermodynamics, conservative chemistry, libertarian zoology, etc? No, of course not. Science is science – it is informed directly by reality, not religious belief.

So I have always assumed that people who claimed belief in “theistic evolution” were simply saying that they believed in a god and also accepted evolutionary science.

But now I am not so sure. I recently heard a Christian speaker declare his acceptance of evolutionary science and claim it did not conflict with his religion – because he believed the evolutionary process was guided by his god! This description brought home to me that he did not accept evolutionary science – because that science explains evolution of life on earth as an unguided  process. The only “guiding” is in the process of natural selection – involving the environment and interaction with it.

The unguided nature of evolution was the great discovery, the revolutionary nature, of the ideas proposed by Darwin and validated against reality. It seems to me that to re-insert a guiding hand, as some of these “theistic evolutionists” appear to desire, is definitely throwing out the baby. Its like claiming to accept Newtonian mechanics, the laws of planetary motion, etc., and then claim they result from angels guiding the planets!

That is complete reversal of science -  a negation of the modern scientific revolution.

OK, I recognise that some people who all themselves theistic evolutionist are not saying this. They may simply mean that the accept evolution is a natural unguided process but occurrence within the nature created by their god. Well, good luck to them – my beef is with those who want to impose a divine guidance on evolution. To rewrite the science.

Religious apologists rewrite science

Alvin Plantinga, a philosopher of religion and religious apologist is one such person. He asserts, in a recent book based on his debate with philosopher Daniel Dennett, that Christian claims are consistent with “Darwinism.” (See Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?). As he describes it:

“God could have caused the right mutations to arise at the right time. He could have preserved populations from perils of various sorts, and so on. And in this way, by orchestrating the course of evolution, he could have ensured that there come to be creatures of the kind he intends. Now what is not consistent with Christian belief, however, is the claim that evolution and Darwinism are unguided or I’ll take that to include being unplanned and unintended. What is not consistent with Christian belief is the claim that no personal agent (not even God) has guided, planned, intended, directed, orchestrated, or shaped this whole process. Yet precisely this claim is made by a large number of contemporary scientists and philosophers who write on this topic. There is a veritable choir of distinguished experts insisting that this process is unguided; indeed, sometimes insisting that it is part of the contemporary scientific theory of evolution itself to assert that it is unguided so that evolutionary theory as such is incompatible with Christian belief.”

So he is telling those Christian who do accept genuine evolutionary science that their acceptance is “not consistent with Christian belief,” ” incompatible with Christian belief.”

Now – this is Plantinga’s claim, not mine. I am happy to see Christians like Ken Miller who accept and teach evolutionary science truthfully. That accept the evolutionary process is unguided – despite the myths in the holy books. But Plantinga is asserting that one cannot accept evolutionary science, which is unguided, and be a Christian!

Plantinga is being extremely disingenuous to assert:

“There is a veritable choir of distinguished experts insisting that this process is unguided; indeed, sometimes insisting that it is part of the contemporary scientific theory of evolution itself to assert that it is unguided.”

As if these experts are somehow misrepresenting the science. Of course they aren’t. However, Plantinga is. He is trying to reintroduce a pre-scientific concept, divine guidance, into a modern science. He is attempting to portray scientific experts as somehow the rebels in this situation. He  in fact is attempting to rewrite the whole nature of evolutionary science – as I said to throw out the baby.

The ultimate in cherry picking

And what does he do to put a pseudo-scientific gloss on his distortion of science? He refers to biochemist, and promoter of intelligent design, Michael Behe. To his use of the argument from ignorance – that he cannot see how anything as complicated as a living cell could possibly have resulted from an unguided process! Bloody hell – he relies on Behe and ignores Darwin and all the other scientists, biologists, biochemists, evolutionary scientists etc. Is that extreme cherry picking or what?

Of course – there is method in Plantinga’s apparent madness. Having redefined evolutionary science to require a divinely guiding hand (turning it into its opposite) he declares that conservative and fundamental Christians can happily accept evolution – because they are not the rebels. It’s those horrible atheists and naturalists who have got it wrong. Because they don’t accept divine guidance they cannot accept evolutionary science. He finishes his presentation with the words:

“Evolution, however, is one of the pillars of contemporary science. Hence, there is a science/religion or perhaps science/quasi‐religion conflict in the neighborhood of evolution alright. But not between evolution and theistic religion. The real conflict is between evolution (that pillar of contemporary science) and naturalism.”

It’s amazing what a bit of motivated ideology and some mental gymnastics can do to the honourable subject of philosophy.

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Daniel Dennett on conflict between religion and science

YouTube – 2/8 Daniel Dennett & John Haught & David Sloan Wilson on Religion.

In this short video clip philosopher Daniel Dennett gives a succinct description of the history of religion and its relationship with science.

It’s a welcome change from the obscure discussion that often occurs around this subject. (Theologian John Haught demonstrated some of the obscurity in his contribution.)

This is a clip from a longer discussion between Daniel Dennett, John Haught & biologist David Sloan Wilson.

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A non-theist feast down under!

This just in from the organisers of the 2012 Global Atheist Convention –‘A Celebration of Reason’

Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens have been announced as speakers. (And have a look at the last sentence – a breakthrough!).


The Atheist Foundation of Australia is excited to announce that the next Global Atheist Convention – ‘A Celebration of Reason’ will feature headline speakers Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens (health permitting).

The Global Atheist Convention will be held once again at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre from13 – 15 April 2012.

”This is the first time that the Four Horsemen have spoken together publicly in five years,” said Atheist Foundation President David Nicholls. ”Their best-selling books on atheism earned the group the moniker ‘The Four Horseman of the Anti-Apocalypse’, and fittingly so as they have been instrumental in bringing forth a new enlightenment in the face of growing irrationality, fundamentalism and superstitious thinking around the world.”

The 2010 Global Atheist Convention gave local, interstate and international attendees the opportunity to hear first-rate speakers from a range of fields including science, philosophy, politics, education, stand-up comedy and more.

”Atheism has provided the perfect foundation in which people can come together to celebrate science, reason and secular values in today’s society. With the planet in a state of organised chaos and the menace of religious extremism threatening everyone’s quality of life, this 2012 world-class event will once again provide rational discussion and debate about what can be done to address the issues facing the globe,” said Nicholls.

”The 2012 Global Atheist Convention – ‘A Celebration of Reason’ will also send an important message to Australia’s political institutions that freethinking Australians are a growing force to be reckoned with.”

The entire line-up for the convention will be released gradually via official social media streams in the lead-up to   tickets going on sale later in the year. The last convention sold out well in advance, leaving many people disappointed to have missed out. The Atheist Foundation of Australia expects this event will also sell out very quickly and encourages prospective attendees to purchase their tickets as soon as they go on sale.

The Atheist Foundation has succeeded in obtaining financial support from the Victorian Government for the convention.

See also: Government comes to atheist party

Promoting confusion

A great feature of the scientific endeavour is that our ideas, hypotheses and theories are usually tested against reality. In fact we get very worried when we can’t do this. Consequently there has been some philosophical discussion and concern around speculative ideas or hypotheses like string theory (really hypotheses not theories) and the multiple universe ideas.

But, in some areas of philosophy and theology reality can safely be ignored. And here all sorts of weird and wonderful preconceived ideas can get justified  using a logic which basically boils down to mental gymnastics. I have always found debate with post modernists and theologians is a bit like jelly wrestling. Without reality to fall back on anything goes.

The philosopher of science Daniel Dennett gave an interesting talk, “The evolution of Confusion,” on theological justification at the Atheist Alliance International convention last month. Its based on his new project interviewing clergyman who secretly don’t believe anymore. Atheist clergymen are probably far more common than we might think. And all clergymen have problems in their profession which require theological arguments to resolve, or at least to patch up for the moment. This leads to a weird style of logic and argument – hence my feeling of jelly wrestling.

This is a fascinating talk. I understand the research will be published soon. Hopefully it will also be available in a popular format like a book.

Dan Dennett is the author of many excellent books, including “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” and “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea“. He is also featured in the video “The Four Horsemen” along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

‘The Evolution of Confusion’ by Dan Dennett, AAI 2009.
From RichardDawkins.net: ‘Dan Dennett talks about purposely-confusing theology and how it’s used. He also describes his new project interviewing clergyman who secretly don’t believe anymore, and introduces a new term: “Deepity.”‘

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Defending science and reason

Book Review: The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason by Victor Stenger

Price: US$12.92
Paperback: 282 pages
Publisher: Prometheus Books (September 22, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1591027519
ISBN-13: 978-1591027515

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This book is timely. The “New Atheism” hit our awareness in the mid-part of the decade when Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith became a best-seller. This was quickly followed by more best-sellers from the authors Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Victor Stenger (the author of this book). And then there was the response. Many books have been written, mostly be theists, attacking the “New Atheists.” Although none of the later was a best-seller they did suggest that a new stage in the religion-atheism debate was underway.

Stenger’s new book is also useful because it helps put this whole debate in context. He summarises that nature of the “New Atheism movement” (although it is hardly a movement as there was no coordination in publishing these books). He briefly summarises the arguments of the “New Atheism” and the arguments employed by those attacking “New Atheism.” Then he shows the fallacies in the arguments employed by the “New Christians.” In some cases he reveals the way many of the “New Atheist” positions have been distorted and misrepresented. In others he deals with the substance of these arguments – particularly those dealing with scientific issues.

As an Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado Stenger is an ideal person to write on this subject

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It’s all in the brain

Book Review: The Crucible of Consciousness: An Integrated Theory of Mind and Brain by Zoltan Torey

Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: The MIT Press; Reprint edition (June 30, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 026251284X
ISBN-13: 978-0262512848

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The scientific study of the mind, of human consciousness, is a recent development. Obviously it isn’t easy as the mind is both the instrument and object of study. For a long time scientists ruled consciousness “out of bounds”, as not open to such rational investigations. And mystical or religious interpretations exerted too much influence in this area. The explanations and models have inevitably been mythical or simplistic – because of the reliance more on subjective feelings than empirical evidence. Dualist models have usually predominated – even though their justification has been religious rather than empirical.

These models and ideas have not helped the study of the human mind. They have, if anything, been a diversion. Zoltan Torey, author of Crucible of Consciousness, stresses that we can only make progress in this area when we have an empirically based model to work with.

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Bible a favourite for atheists!

cartoon810Michael Nugent has posted an informal survey (using Twitter and Facebook) of favouritism atheist-related books 77 Favourite Atheist Books. Richard Dawkins’ The God DelusionGod Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything came out on top. Interestingly, though, Christopher Hitchens’ was relegated to 3rd place by the bible. Well, actually there was a rider – “the bible (or holy book of choice).”

Comment on the bible include:

“Hard to beat the Bible itself as a cornerstone for fundamental atheist belief!… It deconstructs itself… If only more Christians would read it… It has a bit of everything: genocide, incest, child murder, rape pillage, incurable knee botches… Best reason to reject theism… Makes it a whole lot easier to disbelieve in a god… My favorite is Leviticus… It’s really the only one you’ll ever need… It’s the best example of the ludicrousness of religion.”

I have heard of this atheist use for the bible before. There is a website somewhere which uses the bible to proselytise for atheism.

Other books ranking high on the list include Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith, Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials Trilogy, Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer.

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