Tag Archives: god

Testing the God theory

I enjoyed this video.

It is a full lecture but well worth watching – especially if you are interested in the science-religion debates.

Sean Carroll presents these cosmological arguments well – and his analysis is far more up to date – and “with it” than those theologians who venture into the area. Just compare this with the rubbish W. L. Craig comes out with.

This lecture really puts the theological argument that God is a “better explanation” of life than the multiverse into perspective.

Thanks to Your Thanksgiving viewing « Why Evolution Is True.

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The origins of ethics and violence

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Are you qualified to discuss God, Heaven and Hell?

Loved this little story I picked up on Facebook. There’s a moral in it somewhere. Perhaps something to try on these God-botherers next time they come knocking on your door.


A Christian was seated next to a little girl on an airplane and he turned to her and said,

“Do you want to talk? Flights go quicker if you strike up a conversation with your fellow passenger.”

The little girl, who had just started to read her book, replied to the total stranger,

“What would you want to talk about?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the Christian. “How about why there is a God, Heaven and Hell, a magical life after death, and that evolution is a lie made up by the devil?” as he smiled smugly.

“Okay,” she said. “Those could be interesting topics but let me ask you a question first:

A horse, a cow, and a deer all eat the same stuff – grass. Yet a deer excretes little pellets, while a cow turns out a flat patty, but a horse produces clumps. Why do you suppose that is?”

The Christian, visibly surprised by the little girl’s intelligence, thinks about it and says,

“Hmmm, I have no idea.”

To which the little girl replies,

“Do you really feel qualified to discuss God, Heaven and Hell, or life after death, when you don’t know shit?”

And then she went back to reading her book!!

Moving into the mainstream – on the coat tails of the “New Atheists”

The so-called “new atheists” (or Gnus) – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, etc., generally get a very bad press from the religiously inclined. Even some atheists (usually of the “I’m an atheist, but . . “ persuasion) chip in. A common complaint is their “stridency,” even “militancy.” They are told to wind back the tone of their critique of religion, to recognise the positive side of relgion or just to STFU.

But here’s an interesting thing. Recent waves of criticism of these gnus are actually, seemingly without the awareness of the critics, an acknowledgement of their very success.

For example, this Spectator article currently much touted by religious apologists  - Richard Dawkins has lost: meet the new new atheists. It’s opening paragraph sums up its “take home” message:

“The atheist spring that began just over a decade ago is over, thank God. Richard Dawkins is now seen by many, even many non-believers, as a joke figure, shaking his fist at sky fairies. He’s the Mary Whitehouse of our day.”

But, as evidence, the article mentions the new “New Atheists.” The authors of books which belong to the new popular genre in literature – the atheist book.

Strange – before the gnus like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennett appeared almost a decade ago the genre hardly existed. Publishers thought such books just would not sell. That the bookshops and readers would not accept them – would probably be offended by them.

But all that seems to have changed. These book are not only acceptable, they are popular. They sell well. Something changed in the 2000′s. Those nasty gnus may not have created that change but their books certainly revealed it. Their publication, popularity and huge sales made this new popular genre possible. Atheist writers authoring today’s popular books are, in effect, riding on the coat tails of the original gnus. (So, of course, are many of the religious apologists who have published their own books in response – or even run Church and Bible Classes to give the “Truth” about these horrible gnus).

The spectator article was of course blinkered. It only considered new “New Atheists” who expressed hostility towards, or disagreed with, the original gnus.

“Crucially, atheism’s younger advocates are reluctant to compete for the role of Dawkins’s disciple. They are more likely to bemoan the new atheist approach and call for large injections of nuance. A good example is the pop-philosopher Julian Baggini. He is a stalwart atheist who likes a bit of a scrap with believers, but he’s also able to admit that religion has its virtues, that humanism needs to learn from it. . . . . This is also the approach of the pop-philosopher king, Alain de Botton. His recent book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion rejects the ‘boring’ question of religion’s truth or falsity, and calls for ‘a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts’.”

The Publishers’ Weekly also mention these critics among the new authors in its article Atheists, the Next Generation: Unbelief Moves Further into the Mainstream. It adds How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom by Jacques Berlinerblau and Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious by Chris Stedman. But, more honestly, it mentions a number of other authors who are not described as critics of the original gnus. Who in fact are, in some ways, repeating and developing their original messages.

Mentioned in the article are books like:

Publishers’ Weekly draws a very different conclusion to the Spectator and other naysayers who like to see the proliferation in the genre as somehow a rejection of atheism.

Still, nonbelief, however it is defined, is moving into the mainstream. There is at least one nonbelieving member of Congress (Kyrsten Sinema, D- Ariz.); the Secular Coalition for America has a full-time Washington lobbyist; and there are atheist characters on network television (Big Bang Theory, Malibu Country). And in January, Prometheus Press, a stalwart of the category based in Amherst, N.Y., announced it had reached a groundbreaking distribution deal with Random House. On announcing the deal, Prometheus V-P of Marketing Jill Maxick told The Buffalo News, “The fact they sought us out is an endorsement for what we have to offer the reading marketplace.”

So those horrible gnus did, in fact, start something. Atheism is now moving into the mainstream. People now see normal people who are atheist, like the guys in Big Bang Theory,  in their popular TV programmes. Of course this means there are critics, as well as supporters, of the original gnus – that’s perfectly normal and as it should be. The very diversity of views these new “New Atheists” represent is a sign of the fact that atheism is now an accepted part of society. It has matured as a popular and legitimate social attitude.

So these religious apologists who are gloating at articles like that in the Spectator are being rather childish. They see them as support for their own ideology – that’s why they are busy cherry picking and hot linking them. But in fact movement of atheism into the social mainstream only supports religion in the way that a rope supports a hanging man.

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Origins of religious ethics and violence

I am spending some time dealing with family business so am reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few day.

This is an excellent book for anyone interested in a scientific understanding of morality and religion and their evolution.


Book review: In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence by John Teehan.

Price: US$16.47; NZ$39.97

Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (May 3, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1405183810
ISBN-13: 978-1405183819

In the Name of God is an excellent popular presentation of the scientific understanding of the origins of religion and morality. It also examines the origins of religious violence and opens a discussion on the way humanity may reduce these problems.

Some people will find it controversial. But not because some trends in evolutionary psychology have discredited themselves with extravagant claims. In this case the controversy will be because, as Teehan puts it, “this view of human nature – the very idea that there might be a human nature – smacks up against some strongly held political, moral, religious, and ideological positions.”

However, the time is right. “It is only within the last few decades that we have developed the tools that can give us a fair chance of setting out a scientific account of religious origins. In fact, I believe we are living in the midst of perhaps the greatest period of intellectual discovery in the history of religious studies.” One could say the same about the scientific study of human morality.

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Does religion blur understanding of evolution?

Victor Stenger has a short, but important, blog post in the Huffington Post. Appropriately (because it’s about evolutionary science) dated February 12 – Darwin Day, 204th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth.

Stenger’s article, No Belief Gap, considers Gallup Poll data on the numbers of American who accept evolutionary science and who believe in a god. But in contrast to some commentators, he differentiates between those who see evolution as guided by their god or as a so-called “naturalistic” process – defined in the polls as: “Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life [and] God had no part in the process.”

This is, of course, what we mean by evolutionary science. Guidance by gods, goblins, elves or whatever is not part of that science. (Nor is it currently part of any other science). The distinction is important and it is no accident that some religious apologists like Alvin Plantinga  misrepresent the issue and are trying to create the impression that “divine” guidance is an essential part of evolutionary science (see Naturalism and science are incompatible).

Stenger finds of those accepting a proper definition of evolutionary science:

“This is exactly the same percentage of Americans who declare themselves unaffiliated with any religion.

“It may be that the only Americans who accept naturalist evolution are those who do not participate in any organized religion.”

His last comment:

“Virtually all Christians who accept that species evolve, contrary to the Bible that they believe is the word of God, think evolution is God-guided. This is not Darwinian evolution. God-guided evolution is intelligent design creationism. How many American Christians believe in evolution, as it is understood by science? The data indicate none.”

Could we draw the same conclusion about New Zealand Christians? I would be interested to see similar poll data for our country.

See also: A specious argument for the comity of evolution and faith

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Going beyond the evidence

My theistically-inclined mate, Dale, has a a provocative little post on his blog fruitful faith. Well, provocative to me anyway, as we have often debated these sorts of issues related to how science is done – and how it is described.  It’s titled methodological indifference, critiques “methodological materialism,” and draws some conclusions with which I must disagree.

Here’s the guts of his argument:

It seems that many people (against the evidence) are under the impression that ‘science’ supports naturalism (All-is-Nature) more than it supports theism (Nature caused and sustained by Supernature). But if our scientific observations are to be truly objective, then we must admit that when we look at any particular thing or set of things (or any particular process or set of processes) in what we call the world, we do not find accompanying labels or name-tags that tell us “Made by YHWH” or “Purely Natural: No God Required”. One must go beyond the evidence (though not leaving it behind!) to make such statements. The theist knows she is doing this, though she will rightfully claim that she has followed reason in doing so. The naturalist, however, seems to not often admit that they ‘go beyond the evidence’ to their Naturalism. Why is this? Do they think the world screams “not made by any God at all”? If so, why?

The irrelevancy of natural/supernatural labels

Well, people who call themselves naturalists may believe science supports their world outlook. And theists or non-naturalists, may also think science supports their opposing world outlook. But most scientists (whatever their religious beliefs) just don’t give a stuff. They get on with investigating and attempting to understand reality.

And I don’t think terms like naturalism and supernaturalism are useful anyway. In fact dictionaries usually define them circularly – naturalism rejects the idea of supernatural things in the world while supernaturalism claims their is more than natural things in the world! Hardly helpful. No wonder scientists don’t start of their investigations by asking “Now, is this natural or supernatural?” That would be a complete waste of time. Again, most scientist wish that dogmatic ideologues, “naturalists” and “supernaturalists” alike, would just get out of the way and let them work.

Selective “name-tags”

Dale is quite correct – when we investigate reality we don’t find “name-tags that tell us “Made by YHWH” or “Purely Natural: No God Required”.” But really, perhaps there are more important name-tags we don’t find also. Like “conforms to Newtonian mechanics,” “Einsteinian relativity required here,” “best considered from a quantum mechanical viewpoint,” or “hint – consider astronomical events and their likely effects on species extinction.”

Of course “One must go beyond the evidence (though not leaving it behind!) to make such statements.” To develop any explanatory theory for our observations. That’s what science is about.

Now, Dale is presenting a very black and white picture of our investigators. They are either “theists” who “knows she is doing this (going beyond the evidence), though she will rightfully claim that she has followed reason in doing so, or “naturalist[s], [who] seem to not often admit that they ‘go beyond the evidence’ to their Naturalism.”

Why the hell didn’t he just differentiate between theists and non-theists? Why throw in this meaningless term “naturalist” which seems to be used in a pejorative sense like the use of “communist” in red-smearing?

And surely his “naturalists,” who don’t ‘go beyond the evidence’ (or don’t admit to doing so), are very funny people for scientists. What’s the point of collecting the evidence if we don’t go beyond it? Try to fit that evidence into an explanatory hypothesis? That’s what scientists do, surely. And they do it whatever their religious beliefs, theist and non-theist alike.

A close and continuing relationship with reality

But here’s the thing Dale missed. Scientists don’t just “go beyond the evidence” and stop their work when they have developed an explanatory hypothesis. Their work continues – they must test their hypotheses by comparing predictions with reality. And very often they well find their hypotheses to be wrong, or at least incomplete. This testing enables them to improve their hypothesis – or even ditch it and set to work developing a better explanation.

This close and continuing relationship with reality, with the evidence, is key to the modern scientific method. Now contrast that with a common theist approach which may use evidence like a drunk uses a lamppost – more for support than illumination. Once the “my god did it” explanation is produced the evidence (or reality) has done its job. The desired conclusion has been “confirmed.”. There is no need or desire for testing or validating the conclusion.

An opportunist use of “evidence”

This opportunist use of evidence encourages cherry-picking (using only supporting evidence and ignoring the rest) or even falsification of evidence. Just look at how the so-called “fine-tuning” argument is used. The “fine-tuning” of physical constants is exaggerated or misinterpreted to justify the desired, and predetermined, conclusion – “their god did it” (see, for example, my posts Fine-tuning fallacies, Fiddling with “fine-tuning” and When the “best explanation” is the worst explanation).

I referred at the start to the confusing use of terms like supernatural and natural because of the circularity of their definition. And I mentioned that “naturalist” and “naturalism” are general used pejoratively. But I am forced to somehow interpret these terms when they are used by people like Dale.

Perhaps it is the the attitude to evidence, rather than vaguely defined “nature” and “supernature,” which differentiates the “naturalist” from the “non-naturalist” or theist? Perhaps the “naturalist” is the one with a close and continuing relationship with reality. Who tests and validates their explanatory ideas against reality. And the “non-naturalist” has the opportunist relationship to reality – using evidence like a drunk uses a lamppost. For support rather than illumination.

I think that’s how I will interpret these terms in the future. Makes everything so much clearer.

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Death – part 2 of a series

Here’s the second episode in the series Sex, Death and the Meaning of life – fronted by “everyone’s favourite Strident Atheist.” See Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life – Sin for Part 1

It’s another laid back, non-threatening presentation of an important issue. A chance to consider different religious/philosophical approaches and to also learn some science.

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life Episode 2.

For such an evil atheist Dawkins seems to spend a lot of time in cemeteries and churches. Seems quite at home there.

The 3rd and final episode on The Meaning of Life screens in the UK next week.

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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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People saying stupid things on the Internet

I saw this young Muslim women on the TV news last night. She was demonstrating against the US over that silly video. The interview asked her _”but don’t you believe in freedom of expression.

Her answer – “Yes, but not when it comes to religion!”

My response – grow up!

That’s why I like this little skit on the current situation (thanks to YouTube video mocking Atheism greeted with global disinterest by Atheists).-  I think there are some lessons in it:


A YouTube video mocking followers of science and those who discount the probability of omnipotent deity, has resulted in complete indifference throughout the Atheist community.

Theist comments on the video claim that the video will see “atheists burning down churches the world over!” have been met with blank stares by people who consider themselves ‘atheist’.

Non-believer Simon Williams told us, “I’m not sure what reaction they were expecting, but I’m afraid people saying stupid things on the Internet doesn’t really bother me.”

“What with me being a grown adult and everything. Tantrums haven’t really been my thing since puberty.”

“Do I want to kill the people behind it? No, of course not.”

“Though I would like to give them a few science lessons that didn’t end with the conclusion ‘God must have done it’.”

“But I’m not hopeful.”

Youtube video protests

The maker of the video has gone into hiding claiming that Atheist disinterest in his film has infringed his religious freedoms.

The unnamed producer explained, “It says quite clearly in a passage of one of my holy books – a passage that is definitely open to interpretation in the way that I want – that I must take the fight to non-believers – and yet here you all are refusing to fight.”

“You are oppressing my religious freedom to claim religious oppression.”

“What will it take?! Why can’t you at least throw a rock at me or something?”

“It’s almost like you’re suppressing the evil inside each of you in order not to look like dicks.”

“I’m guessing you get the strength from the Devil himself.”

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