Tag Archives: God Delusion

Morality and the “worship” of reason

I have so far read about one-third of  Jonathan Haidt‘s new book – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I still highly recommend it – but I think some of his claims need strong criticism.

The first part of his book provides a really useful and fascinating (for the lay person anyway) summary  of what he calls his “first principle of moral psychology” – intuitions come first, reasoning second.  We rely on institutions for our moral reactions in most situations, but then, if asked, we will use reason to rationalise those actions. Sometimes we can’t actually provide very good justifications.

I think this aspect of human psychology in important – and relevant to lots of areas apart from human morality. But the fact that we do this should not be used to denigrate reason.

Intelligence is like sex

Human intelligence and reason may well have evolved naturally to handle situations our ancestors faced. And there was never an evolutionary requirement for an organism to know the “truth” about reality, purely to handle the situations it faced. However, like sex which humans use for other purposes than simple procreation, intelligence and our ability to reason enables us to investigate and come to understandings about reality – a reality which our ancestors never had to deal with let alone comprehend.

I think this is important to how we should consider reason. True, the individual more often uses reason like a lawyer, rather than a scientist. To justify one’s actions or support one’s predetermined beliefs, rather than get at the truth. But we can also use it to get at the truth – and I think that is valuable. So I agree – using reason like a lawyer may not be exactly noble (even though we all do it) but I certainly don’t put the discovery of truth into that class.

Delusional reasoning

After describing this modern synthesis on moral psychology Haidt asserts – “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.” I will leave aside his emotional use of the word “worship” for the moment and just point out that Haidt has put himself in a bind – how is he going to determine truth without reason?

This impossible situation seems to scream out from his next sentence – “We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.” How does he imagine taking this “cold hard look” without using reason?

Of course his problem is that he is using “reason” almost in a pejorative sense – “motivated reasoning” – the reason of a lawyer, not a scientist.

Elsewhere Haidt does clarify “I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. . . .Rather, what I am saying is that we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason.” We are all partisan and prone to confirmation bias but we overcome this, especially in scientific endeavours, by reasoning socially – in groups where “some individuals can use their reasoning powers to discomfirm the claims of others.”

Now , that’s better. Reasoning is a good thing, even though it is often motivated.  But why denigrate those who support reason by calling that “worship”? He goes further - “As an intuitionist. I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of on of the most long-lived delusions in western history: the rationalist delusion.”

The caricature of “new atheism”

Perhaps his motive is revealed by that word “delusion.”  He adds that some people see reason as bringing “us beyond the ‘delusion’ of believing in gods (for the New Atheists).” Perhaps he is really having a bash at these so-called ‘new atheists” who he has a hang-up about. (I referred to his preoccupation in that area in my recent post Conservatives, liberals and purity.) Haidt even refers to Richard Dawkins’ “childrearing advice” (“utopian program for raising more rational children”) in The God Delusion.

Haidt’s presentation of “new atheism” is a sad caricature. It is silly to characterise as a “utopian progam” the raising of one’s children to ask the question “How do you know that?”, to look for the evidence supporting ideas and claims, and to try to apply reasoning to questions they face.  After all, I can imagine discussing with my grandchildren the ideas of moral psychology Haidt describes in his book. Explaining  how humans very often reason like a lawyer rather than a scientist. And the importance of having input from a range of perspectives.  Is Haidt going to describe that as a “utopian program,” a “rationalist delusion” and the “worship” of reason? Come off it Jonathan.

Ethics education?

However, even worse than this Dawkins’ bashing” is Haidt’s apparent rejection of ethics education. He says:

“if our goal is to produce good behaviour, not just good thinking, then it’s even more important to reject rationalism and embrace intuitionism. Nobody is ever going to invent an ethics class that makes people behave ethically after they step out of the classroom.”

I think that is not only naive – it is just plain wrong. And it is denigrating what could be an effective contribution to the ethical education of children. Especially as he offers no real alternative.

And this is, I think, one of the weaknesses in Haidt’s analysis – a mechanical tendency to see intuition and reason as opposite and ignoring their interaction. Sure our moral actions are intuitive, not immediately based on reason. However, out intutions are not static – they can actually be altered by reason. This happens in learning, when a new action or idea needs to be consciously rehearsed at the start but in time becomes incorporated into our unconscious and becomes automatic. It becomes intuitive. Haidt concedes this may sometimes occur when an individual with a different idea comments on one’s actions. But he ignores the very important role of society, at a number of levels, in helping form and change our moral intuitions.

Personally, I think ethics classes where children get to discuss and suggest solutions to common moral issues could play a valuable role in the moral upbringing of our children. Sure, no student walks out of a class and immediately applies all they have learned in a lesson (in mathematics as well as ethics). But surely Haidt can see that education, especially that supplemented by the inevitable relevant real day-to-day activities does lead to intuitional changes.

While reading this book I can’t help thinking from time to time that the book itself is an example of motivated reasoning, of Haidt’s own partisanship and prejudices. Perhaps that’s how it should be and how the reader should see any book.  And Haidt even admits the possibility of his own bias:

“I have tried to make a reasoned case that our moral capacities are best described from an intuitionist perspective. I do not claim to have examined the question from all sides, nor to have offered irrefutable proof. Because of the insurmountable power of the confirmation bias, counterarguments will have to be produced by those who disagree with me. Eventually, if the scientific community works as it is supposed to, the truth will emerge as a large number of flawed and limited minds battle it out”

Now that would be putting the best of Haidt’s scientific ideas into practice.

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Atheists aren’t shrill – just disgusting?

Perhaps the common hostile reaction to the so-called “new atheists” (or gnus) is more a matter of the disgust in the eye or brain of the beholder than any “stridency” or “shrillness” on the part of the atheist. Well, that’s what the recently published work of Ritter and Preston suggests (see  Gross gods and icky atheism: Disgust responses to rejected religious beliefs).

They used groups of Christians as subjects in two experiments to test the effect of reading material from their own group (bible) and outgroup (Muslim and atheist) sources on feelings of disgust. This was evaluated by rating  responses to  a drink before and after copying a passage from these sources.

From the paper’s abstract:

“In Experiment 1, Christian participants showed increased disgust after writing a passage from the Qur’an or Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, but not a control text. Experiment 2 replicated this effect, and also showed that contact with an ingroup religious belief (Christians copying from the Bible) did not elicit disgust. Moreover, Experiment 2 showed that disgust to rejected beliefs was eliminated when participants were allowed to wash their hands after copying the passage, symbolically restoring spiritual cleanliness. Together, these results provide evidence that contact with rejected religious beliefs elicits disgust by symbolically violating spiritual purity.”

I guess this explains this strange knee-jerk effect I have observed among Christian apologists. Just the mention of the word “Dawkins” in any discussion sends them off at a tangent. The reactions are clearly emotional, and not rational. So it does seem logical that these emotional responses utilise common intuitions or feelings – and disgust is the obvious one.

Now, I don’t suggest this phenomenon is restricted to only Christians, or even just the religious. (Although i suspect religious believers may be more prone to emotions related to purity and disgust).  I think we are all prone to react emotionally rather than logically when encountering anything conflicting with our beliefs. So I think the authors are right to conclude that disgust plays a role in the protection of beliefs, especially beliefs which hold moral value.

This paper is discussed in more detail by  Tom Rees at Epiphenom (see Is The God Delusion more disgusting than the Koran?). His discussion includes figures from the paper.

Perhaps next time I find a Christian apologists getting distracted by Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion during a discussion I should recognise they are suffering from disgust, rather than producing any logical argument. Maybe I should then suggest they go away and wash their hands before continuing our discussion.

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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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Protecting yourself against bullshit

Here’s a very useful book for those who often get into debates with people who attempt to diss science. Its called Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole. The author is philosopher Stephen Law.

It’s quite a short book – it’s purpose is to help the reader identify arguments and techniques used by the irrational to defend their beliefs. In short, the bullshit that can often suck people into the “intellectual black holes” of irrational belief.

The author aims to unpack and explain some strategies used by people who are “powerfully committed to some ludicrous system of belief.” Strategies used to construct “an impregnable fortress . . . . around even a ridiculous set of beliefs, rendering them immune to rational criticism and creating a veneer of faux reasonableness.”

Law concentrates on eight strategies and povides his own name for these in the following chapters:

  1. Playing the Mystery Card
  2. “But It Fits!” and The Blunderbuss
  3. Going Nuclear
  4. Moving the Semantic Goalposts
  5. “I Just Know!”
  6. Pseudoprofundity
  7. Piling Up the Anecdotes
  8. Pressing Your Button

I am half way through reading the book and recommend it. His discussion of the “scientism” ploy and analysis of the bullshit used to attack Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion were spot on. I also liked his Chapter 3 on Going Nuclear – he has an early version on his blog – see Going Nuclear. A version of Chapter 6: Pseudoprofundity is also on the blog.

Anyone with a passing interest in internet discussion will immediately recognise these strategies. They are generally a sign of weakness, but are often  used to bamboozle discussion partners.  This book will help people to understand what is going on and how to handle such bullshit.

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Is atheism bad for science?

Since publication of books like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in the mid 2000′s some reviewers and commentators have argued that the “new atheists” and  vocal “atheist scientists” are “bad for science.” That they are turning people, especially students, away from science. Even that a hostile public will endanger future funding science funding.

Some of these naysayers have an obvious motive. The militant religionists who just wish the people like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers would STFU.  Their concept of a pluralist society does not extend to allowing a public voice to people who disagree with god beliefs. They are “offended” by such voices.

But there have also been the non-religious who disagree with what is being said. Or, agree but don’t think the way it is said is polite or quiet enough. Possibly these people are more honest in their concern that scientists who are up-front about their atheism could be endangering public acceptance of science and its future funding. I don’t think that is a principled position -  surely in a democratic society atheists have as much freedom to being “vocal” as believers have. But should they be concerned about public opinion?

Another myth

I suggested in my last post, Myths within a myth, that perhaps this impression of public attitudes is mistaken. Perhaps it is just another myth. Well, I have been continuing to check out data indicating public attitudes towards scientists. The US Science and Engineering Indicators: 2010 has some relevant data taken from Harris Polls (Harris Interactive 2008b). These have asked questions about public attitude to professions in the USA. The relevant question was: “tell me if you feel it is an occupation of:

  • very great prestige,
  • considerable prestige,
  • some prestige, or
  • hardly any prestige at all?”

The data in the figure below show responses of “very great prestige.” As the complaint about “atheist scientists” and “new atheists” causing a decline in support for science have come from religiously motivated people I thought I would also include the data for religious professions.

%age of US public considering professions of "very great prestige."

It seem to me that since the 70′s, attitudes to scientists has been fairly constant in the range 50 – 60%, with a mean of 55%, of the US public considering the science profession has “very great prestige.”

Contrast this with the public’s opinion of the religious professions. The mean numbers supporting “very great prestige” have been about 40% – with a minimum of 32% in 2004.

Now, I wouldn’t make too much of these sort of statistics. But they certainly don’t support the thesis that “atheist scientists” or “new atheists” are responsible for turning the US public off science. Remember – the “new atheist” phenomena that theological commenters complain about started in the early to mid 2000s. Books like “The God Delusion” and the new willingness of scientists to be open about their atheism, especially after September 2001, do not seem to have led to the feared loss in  prestige for the profession among the US public.

“New Christians” too strident?

Maybe the “new atheists,” “atheist scientists” and their books have turned the public off the religious professions? Or more likely, the decline in the mid 2000′s could have resulted from the attack on the US by religious terrorists in September 2001.

But what about the religious attacks on evolutionary science and promotion of creationism and “intelligent design” alternatives? Perhaps publicity around the Dover trial and the legislation being promoted by creationists in various State legislatures have influenced public opinion. Even the proliferation of books attacking “new atheism” – after all there have been many more of these than “new atheist’ books themselves.

Perhaps these religious militants should be told by their more liberal brethren to STFU. Perhaps the more thoughtful believers in our society should turn their attention and concern away from “atheist scientists” and “new atheists.” Maybe they should be warning their own militants to stop being so “strident” and militant”. That their brash behaviour is endangering the public’s acceptance of religion in our societies. Maybe even threatening future funding for religion.

Just imagine of the public got so pissed off they agreed to do away with the privileged position religions have with tax exemption?


The Grand Design – neither God nor 42

It seems that God, or more correctly disbelief in God, sells books. In recent years anyway. Perhaps since the religiously motivated terrorist attacks in New York nine years ago this week.

So one can hardly blame the publishers for jumping on to the advertising bandwagon with Stephen Hawking‘s latest book The Grand Design (with co-author Leonard Mlodinow).  And I am sure that is what has lead to headlines like Stephen Hawking: God NOT Needed For Creation, Stephen Hawking: God didn’t create universe, Hawking Says God Not Needed to Kick-Start Big Bang; World Freaks Out. Even Somebody’s Going To Hell! Stephen Hawking: “God Not Necessary For Universe To Exist”.

Inevitable advertising hype.

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Theological critiques of billboards required

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza prepare to charge

The atheist billboards which went up in three New Zealand cities recently have provoked some interest. Most of it has been quietly positive.

However, there are the critics. Inevitably there are those who criticise the weakness of the slogans. Lindsay Perigo had a slightly humourous article on this (see SOLO-NZ Press Release: Memo to NZ Atheists—Grow a Pair!). He said:

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The Dawkins Delusions

Actually, some people call them the “Dawkins Tantrums.”

There’s no doubt about it though – there is a controversy around Richard Dawkins. Just mention his name in the blogosphere and you get all sorts of extreme reactions. Almost always negative.

Sure, you will get some, usually milder and more reasonable, positive reactions. After all, he is a bit of a scientific rock star. His recent lectures in New Zealand and Australia were sold out. Many had to be shifted to larger venues. And his books certainly sell well.

I myself waited in a queue for 2 hours to get my copy of “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” signed by the author. As one wit said, this queue seemed to go right back to the “”Big Bang.” But I was in good company and enjoyed the conversations while waiting.

Personally I am always wary of personality cults. Elevate a person to sainthood and you will inevitably find they have feet of clay. I certainly don’t think it has come to this with Dawkins, despite the high regard many people have for him.

And he is a humble person. I heard a story of him seeing some young person wearing a “Dawkins is God” T-shirt. His rather embarrassed comment was “Does this mean I don’t exist?”

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RIP Antony Flew

If only!

Several Christian apologetics blogs have commented on Antony Flew’s recent death (see Antony Flew 1923-2010, Antony Flew dies at 87, Theology Geek, and Professor Antony Flew – Obituary…).

The unfortunate aspect of these blogs is that they indulge in a little bit of “body snatching.” Not that this didn’t happen before Flew’s death.

Here is a post I wrote on in February last year (The Antony Flew controversy).

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Richard Dawkins – wrong again!

And once again, he admits his mistake and apologises! Have a look at  ‘An Apology’ by Richard Dawkins.

I admire people who can acknowledge their mistakes. People who won’t, but will go through all sorts of mental gymnastics to justify a mistake, are really behaving like children. Their egos are overriding their logic.

This time Richard is apologising for the way he and his team handled the reorganisation going on at the RichardDawkins.net website. The changes being made to the forum on this site have upset some participants, some rather emotional and outrageous statements were made and staff reacted defensively. Richard himself responded to these attacks in what he himself describes as “insensitive ‘Outrage‘ post, which was written in the heat of the moment.” He is apologising for the tone of his post, as well as mistakes made in handling the changes. He has also introduced some changes to the reorganisation of the forums to accommodate some of the concerns expressed.

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