Tag Archives: Jerry Coyne

The limits of science and a world record

Here’s a couple of things I picked up from Jerry Coyne’s blog – whoops, website - Why evolution is true.

I have written about the “limits of science” here a few times – there are limits, of course, but not in the way some religious detractors of science claim. This cartoon illustrates what is wrong with their arguments. From The limits of science « Why Evolution Is True).


And here’s a nice video for lovers of books.

Perhaps a few local librarians could organise something like this. A bit of competition and a draw card for readers.From 2131 books go down « Why Evolution Is True.

Book Domino Chain World Record

The limits of philosophy

Or should I say - “The trouble with philosophy?”

Whatever. The title certainly makes a change from those like “The Limits of science.” How many times have I seen such titles on articles written by religious apologists, philosophers of religion, or even straight non-religious philosophers. These articles usually annoy me because they often set up a straw man – a claim that science has no limits – which no scientists is making.

So it’s nice to turn the tables for a change.

Monty Python’s Football – Philosophers often play for different teams

I often get criticised by philosophers, theologians, philosophers of religion and students of philosophy for making philosophical mistakes – or so they claim. I’ve been told that I should not write about the science of morality if I haven’t read and studied a long list of ancient, and not so ancient, philosophers. Commonly I am admonished for trying to determine an “ought from an is” – a violation of “Humes Law.” And I have been told that scientists should leave questions like origins of life and the universe, or the question of existence of supernatural beings, to philosophers. Such questions, they tell me, are outside the limits of science.

Oh yes, about now I also get accused of “scientism!”

Very often my reply to such criticisms is that there is no such thing as an accepted unified philosophical dogma. That the claims thrown at me come not from philosophy in general, but from a particular school of philosophy. There is “philosophy” and then there is “philosophy.” My critics should be up front and advance their claims as representative of their own philosophy, or the particular school of philosophy they adhere to, not as representative of philosophy in general.

“What do Philosophers Believe?

So I am pleased to see the on-line publication of the paper What Do Philosophers Believe? by David Bourget and David J. Chalmers. This study confirms that philosophers are indeed divided on a number of issues – they hold a range of beliefs which can influence their philosophical thoughts and positions. These beliefs are influenced by a range of demographic and social factors. And philosophers themselves often have a false opinion of the degree to which different beliefs are common in their professional community.

Sean Carroll, at What Do Philosophers Believe?, and Jerry Coyne at The consensus of philosophers, have commented briefly on the paper. Have a look at those articles, or the paper itself (download here), for a full list of beliefs and their degree of support among philosophers. But here are a few which seem relevant to debates I have had here. (Sorry about the briefness of the terms – that’s related to the nature of the survey):

1. A priori knowledge: yes 71.1%; no 18.4%; other 10.5%.

5. Epistemic justification: externalism 42.7%; internalism 26.4%; other 30.8%.

6. External world: non-skeptical realism 81.6%; skepticism 4.8%; idealism 4.3%; other 9.2%.

8. God: atheism 72.8%; theism 14.6%; other 12.6%.

10. Knowledge: empiricism 35.0%; rationalism 27.8%; other 37.2%.

15. Metaphilosophy: naturalism 49.8%; non-naturalism 25.9%; other 24.3%.

16. Mind: physicalism 56.5%; non-physicalism 27.1%; other 16.4%.

18. Moral motivation: internalism 34.9%; externalism 29.8%; other 35.3%.

20. Normative ethics: deontology 25.9%; consequentialism 23.6%; virtue ethics 18.2%; other 32.3%.

25. Science: scientific realism 75.1%; scientific anti-realism 11.6%; other 13.3%.

So I feel vindicated in answering my critics by pointing out the lack of consensus among philosophers on many issues. What right has a philosopher of religion to assure me their arguments against my statements are “philosophical” (and not just representative of a school of religious philosophy)? Similarly, why should I simply take on trust assurances that “philosophy” has a particular position on scientific realism, moral motivations or the nature of ethical norms?

There is “philosophy” and there is “philosophy.” If you wish to lecture me about philosophical positions at least be open about the philosophical school you are representing or adhere to.

No suprise at differences

Frankly, I am unsurprised at the lack of consensus among philosophers. It contrasts sharply with the situation in science – which on most matters has a high degree of consensus. OK, there are debates at the edges – and these can be intense. Remember the scene in “The Big Bang Theory” where a romantic alliance between two physicists broke up because one was aString Theorist while the other adhered to Loop Gravity“.  Just imagine the problems they would have raising their children!

Ben Goren commented at Jerry’s website on the poor philosophical consensus compared with science :

“Survey a bunch of scientists on comparable topics, and you’ll find overwhelming consensus that, for example: Evolution is true; Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are basically right on (and anything that replaces either is going to have to reduce to both at suitable scales); that the Earth’s surface moves in manners described by Plate Tectonics; and so on.

Yet these jokers are doing good just to get a slim majority that don’t think that we’re all literally outside of our brains.”

But while we should be aware of the different levels of confidence in philosophical and scientific knowledge this  does not show differences in personal capabilities between the two professions. The difference is exactly what we should expect from the different nature of the two subjects.

Philosophy could be said to be an “armchair” subject. Philosophers reason and think. They apply logic to hypothetical situations. Often scenarios which have no possible reality but are at least “logical possibilities” will get a lot of attention. It’s also not surprising that demographic and social factors can influence philosophical reasoning. Humans are just not very rational and their reasoning often suffers from ideolgical and social motivations.

Science is usually a very much “hands on” subject. Ideas are tested against reality. Scientists are just as irrational (or human) as anyone else – they also easily fall into the trap of motivated reasoning. But the final arbiter of ideas for science is reality itself. Experiments can be performed or observations made to check predictions of hypotheses.

Of course philosophy and science does merge at the edges. There is actually a field of experimental philosophy and good philosophers do pay attention to scientific knowledge. On the other hand some science cannot always be tested in practice – at least with the current technological limits. Some scientists seem to work more like philosophers – and some philosophers work more like scientists.

But let’s get away from the idea that logic or philosophy is the final arbiter of knowledge. That is taking philosophy beyond its limits.

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Talking sense about morality

Here’s a great blog post by Jerry Coyne outlining a scientific approach to morality (see How should we be moral?: Three papers and a good book) it gives a summary of his current ideas and a reading list of papers and a book which have influenced him.

I go along with Jerry’s conclusions but I would add a couple of things  to his summary:

  1. I agree that there is no such thing a objective morality – but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. I think we can show an objective basis for morality. We can understand how some of our values have an objective basis (others may not) and this is important in our evaluation of moral codes.
  2. I think we should extend our understanding of an instinctual morality model (as opposed to a rational one) beyond the simple proposition of an evolutionary origins of our instincts. We need to see that the instincts or intuitions driving our moral feelings or emotions can also develop, or evolve, via cultural mechanisms. I think this is important to understanding of the moral zeitgeist, the way that our moral codes tend to change over time.

An objective basis for morality?

There is a difference between objective morality – which implies some sort of moral truth existing independently of humanity – and objectively based morality. This latter implies that there is a basis for our morality – the nature of our species – which means that we generally come to the same moral conclusions. Our morality is not just a matter of personal choice.

I see the simplest basis of morality in the simple facts of life itself. Living organisms, even the most primitive, have the property of valuing life and its continuation. Without this basic biological value such organisms would not survive and reproduce. Just imagine a simple organism which ignored indications of nutrients in its environment and had no ability, or “desire,” to reproduce. Natural selection would soon have put paid to it.

While initial organisms may have had simple physical and chemical mechanisms putting biological value into effect evolution eventually led to development of neuronal structures and brains. Biological value could be expressed as instincts and emotions.

Evolution of social animals provided requirements for a finer structure to biological value. The interactions between organisms became more important and this finer structure became represented in the instincts and emotions of social animals – including humans.

Long story short – I see an objective basis for human morality in human nature itself. The fact that we are a sentient, intelligent, conscious, social and empathetic species.

Hijacking human instinct

Of course, there is not necessarily a direct line between our evolved instincts, objectively based in biological and social value, and the morality we profess.  Jonathan Haidt described his useful theory of foundational moral values in his recent book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (see my review in Human morality is evolving). While some of our moral codes related to life, care, harm and well-being are related to foundational human values involved with life and its survival – biological and social value – others are not. Or at least they are driven by instincts which have been hijacked. For example instincts of purity may well be related to survival and life, but moral codes related to sacredness, racial superiority and religious purity (unrelated to life and survival) rely on the hijacking of such instincts.

So while I assert that there is an objective basis for some of our morality – especially that related to life, care, harm and well-being -  some of our morality may well not have a genuine objective basis, even though it utilises basic human instincts.

Moral learning and moral zeitgeist

A simple instinctive model of morality, relying on evolved instincts and not conscious deliberation, really doesn’t explain how and why human morality changes. It doesn’t explain the moral zeitgeist.

I think it’s necessary to include both rational consideration as well as instinctive, emotional reaction, to explain this. As Jerry said, our “instinctive judgments are largely a product of evolution.” But it doesn’t stop there. Our intuitions, and hence our emotions, are produced unconsciously, without delineation, but over time they are influenced by our conscious deliberation and learning.

When we learn to ride a bike, or even to walk as a toddler, our actions are deliberate. We consciously consider them and put them into effect. But with learning these actions no longer need conscious deliberation. They are incorporated into our unconscious brain and carried out automatically. Just as well – imagine that adults had to continue all the conscious activity the toddler uses when they start walking. With all the inevitable conscious mistakes. Just imagine grown-ups walking along the footpath, but every so often falling on their backside like a toddler! Because the process of walking had not been learned and incorporated into their unconscious.

I argue, that the conscious moral deliberations of individuals and society produce the same sort of learning. These deliberation may be active – as, for example, our current discussion of marriage equality. Or the learning could be almost passive. Exposure to our culture. I think many people have unconsciously shifted their attitudes towards working mothers, racial integration and homosexuals because of their exposure to TV shows, books, and life itself, where these modern moral attitudes are accepted.

Incorporation of this moral learning into our subconscious means that  homosexuality, for example, no longer automatically provokes our instincts of purity and disgust. Or meeting an atheist no longer causes us to react out of disgust or respect for authority.

So while our day-to-day moral functioning relies on these intuitional reactions and not logical consideration, these unconscious intuitional reactions have been modified by our learning and exposure to cultural changes.

Moral progress?

On the one hand, that moral attitudes related to care, life, harm and well-being can have an objective basis in biological value, in the very nature of life, means we have ways – both emotional and logical – at arriving at common agreement on what is “right” and “wrong.” On the other hand, although our morality is instinctive or intuitional and not rational (at least in common day-to-day activity) the deliberate intellectual consideration of moral issues, as well as our passive exposure to a culture which is changing because of that deliberate consideration, means that we are capable of moral learning. Of adjusting our automatic moral reactions over time. Of making moral progress.

And I think we can conclude that this has happened on issues such as human rights and discrimination – even if not uniformly and evenly.

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Sense on evolutionary psychology.

Controversy around Rebecca Watson’s recent talk on pop-psychology and media presentation of evolutionary psychology is probably having a least one positive side effect (see  Sceptical arrogance and evolutionary psychology and Sceptical humility and peer review in science). There’s now more discussion on the Internet about evolutionary psychology and much of that discussion is sensible.

I often find lately I am linking to Jerry Coyne’s website Why Evolution is True. I won’t apologise for that – he does have interesting articles – and I often find myself agreeing with his take on current issues. That’s certainly true with this new article – Is evolutionary psychology worthless? And it’s timely, because Jerry Coyne has sometimes been used as a witness for the prosecution in the current debate. So it’s good to be reminded that, as is often the case, his positions are far more nuanced.

Jerry’s article is not specifically targeting Rebecca’s talk (he had not watched the video when he wrote it), but it is relevant, as a number of the commenters showed.

Jerry says:

“I have gone after the popular distortions of evolutionary psychology that appear in the press or books (e.g., my comments on David Brooks’s New Yorker article “Social animal”—an article subsequently turned into a dreadful book). And I have criticized some evolutionary psychologists for failing to police the speculative excesses of their colleagues. But I’ve never maintained that the entire field is worthless, nor do I think that now. In fact, there’s some good stuff in it, and it’s getting better”

“. . . . I have to admit, though, that as the field has evolved, I’ve become less critical of it as a whole. That is, I think, as it should be!”

“Anyway, those who dismiss evolutionary psychology on the grounds that it’s mere “storytelling” are not aware of how the field operates these days. And, if they are to be consistent, they must also dismiss any studies of the evolutionary basis of animal behavior. Yes, there’s some dirty bathwater in evolutionary psychology, but there’s also a baby in there!”

Love that he used the same baby/bathwater metaphor I did in Sceptical arrogance and evolutionary psychology but more creatively, of course.

Both the article, and the comments, are worth reading in this case.

Paul Bloom and Steven Pinker


And here’s a related discussion also worth following. It’s a Blogging Heads programme with a discussion between Paul Bloom and Steven Pinker.

These both can be called evolutionary psychologists and there work is hard pop-psychology. Although, Pinker’s books particularly are quite popular.

There’ some interesting details in the discussion which are very relevant to the current controversy. I particularity take Pinker’s point that the science does not talk about evolution of behaviour – more the evolutionary origins of emotion and instinct underlying behaviour (discussion around 5 min, 30 sec).

Something to look forward for those who enjoy Pinker’s writings – he is currently working on a book which he describes as a “style book” for those communicating science. Sounds like a must read for those of us blogging on science issues.

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PZ Myers has now contributed his first significant article in the current discussion (αEP: The fundamental failure of the evolutionary psychology premise). I have yet to digest it but it appears he is fundamentally agin the field.

Capturing kid’s minds with emotions

I have commented on the problem of religious indoctrination at secular New Zealand schools before (see What really happens in religious instruction classes? and Cynical evangelisation of children.) That’s bad enough but a friend recently described such indoctrination occurring at a day care centre! This was a secular centre, but influenced by a church. So the obvious happened – infants came home asking about gods, devils and hell.

It’s bad enough when they go after children of school age – but it seems they also consider children of preschool age, other people’s children, “fair game” as well.

Unfortunately, the concentration on children is common among evangelical Christians. Consider the document is Evangelisation of Children.” This was prepared several years ago and sees indoctrination of children as part of a general plan of world evangelisation (see my post .

Jerry Coyne has a video showing an even worse side to the evangelisaiton of children – the use of emotional methods (see A Christian brainwashes two-year-olds). These people recognise that bible stories just aren’t enough. Kids go through the intellectual learning procedure and come out the other end without a strong commitment. But emotional experiences can be a lot more powerful than intellectual exercises in getting commitment.

Again, it’s one thing to know that consenting adults take part in happy clapping speaking in tongues to get their kick. But imposing it on children? Even babies? That is what this video shows.

Babies and God

Perhaps parents are a bit naive to think the religious instruction classes in our secular schools are harmless. After all, they might think, it helps kids understand how others think and won’t education in science and reason supersede these myths in the long run. That’s the message of the recent Jesus and Mo cartoon below.

But what if the evangelicals who tend to teach these instruction classes are messing with the kid’s emotions instead?

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Reports from the Moving Naturalism Forward workshop

The workshop I described in Moving Naturalism Forward took place – with a few amendments. A half day was lost because of the super storm Sandy. And medical issues led to Patricia Churchland, Lisa Randall, and Hilary Bok cancelling at the last minute. Pity – I was looking forward to all those contributions.

Turns out that the workshop basically centred on discussions and not presentations. I think these will be fascinating, considering the calibre of the scientists and philosophers present. And the fact that there are clear issues of difference between many of them.

Videos of the discussions should be up in the near future at the Moving Naturalism Forward website.

Until then we have reports about the workshop from three of the participants to go on with:

Sean Carroll‘s first report is up on his blog Cosmic Variance:
Nudging Naturalism Just a Bit Forward
He intends to post more in the coming days – probably about three.

Massimo Pigliucci has posted three reports on his blog Rationally Speaking
From the naturalism workshop, part I
From the naturalism workshop, part II
From the naturalism workshop, part III

And Jerry Coyne has post the power-point presentation he used on his blog Why Evolution is True:
My presentation on Free Will
He also has posted a summary of then workshop:
Moving Naturalism Forward: my summary, and a comment on Carroll’s assessment:
Sean Carroll assesses the Stockbridge workshop

In a nice little twist Jerry collected signatures from the workshop participants on the title page of a copy of his book Why Evolution Is True. In his post Loosen those wallets he undertakes to sell this with “every penny” going Doctors Without Borders?

That’s quite a souvenir.

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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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Finish the sentence . . .

I like this idea from Jerry Coyne (see OMG: Jesus was married!)

Here’s the problem. This old scrap of papyrus refers to Jesus – Unfortunately bits are missing and the conversation is cut off at an intriguing point.

Apparently it goes:

“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’”

So here’s the question – what do you suggest comes after “wife?”

Jerry, having the one track mind of an evolutionary biologist, suggests:

“. . . is unable to bear children because, being haploid, I am unable to produce sperm.”

What do you reckon?

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Is there room for religion in science?

Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True highly recommends this video (see Dawkins on Al Jazeera). I watched it over lunch and can second his recommendation.

It’s an Al Jazeera talk back show – The Stream – where Richard Dawkins is interviewed and other people from around the world are linked in for comments and questions. The basic question was “Is there room for religion in science?”

I think Dawkin does an excellent job of calmly and sensibly answering the questions (so much for the “strident” myth). But I was also fascinated by the way the programme was integrated with  Twitter and Google+ to get real-time feedback from viewers. Those comments themselves are intriguing.

Quite a unique experience – and fascinating to see such a well done programme presented on an international news media channel. Dawkins really seems to be getting his message across internationally.

New Atheism’s most polarising figure? – YouTube.

Must admit I wondered if I had the colour balance wrong – or does Richard have a touch of sunburn?

Update: Richard has confirmed that it was a colour balance problem. He added: “They could presumably have fixed it “in post” but perhaps they rather enjoyed the association of red face with strident anger!”

How to write a best-seller!

If you haven’t heard of Deepak Chopra you may not  appreciate this – the Random Deepak Chopra Quote Generator. It enables you to manufacture a “quote” – generated from a list of word in Deepak’s Twitter stream.

Like his normal utterances it will be “indistinguishable from a set of profound sounding words put together in a random order.”

Here’s a few I got (click on “Receive more wisdom”).

  • “Evolution experiences ephemeral reality”
  • “The world heals an expression of happiness”
  • “The universe comprehends humble space time events”

Hell – you could just about write a popular book using this generator.

Thanks to Jerry Coyne at Deepak generator!