Category Archives: Christianity

“Divine commands” and personal conscience

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


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

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

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

Where are those “divine commands” coming from?

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

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

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

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

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

When can evil commands be morally “right?”

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

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

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

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

“Double checking” those “divine commands”

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

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

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

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

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

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A time for hypocrisy

I guess it’s the time of the year for hypocrisy. Most of us stick to New Year resolutions, promises to lose weight, etc.  But what about the whopper from the Pope? (see Pope Very Worried About World Income Inequality While Sitting On Golden Throne).

pope-throneIn his New Year speech he urged:

“world leaders, particularly those in Europe, to make long-range plans to encourage economic growth and lessen the gap between the world’s rich and poor. . . During the speech, Benedict said the financial crisis that has rocked the world in recent years came about “because profit was all too often made absolute, to the detriment of labor, and because of unrestrained ventures in the financial areas of the economy, rather than attending to the real economy.

Sound like he ready to join one of those “Occupy” demos. Truth is he prefers to sit in his golden throne while making his appeal.

Oh well, he could always pray for the poor – means he doesn’t have to think about melting down some of those riches for the sake of charity.

Pope Benedict XVI

“Man, if only we had some valuable things we could use to raise money to help the poor! Oh well … “

Historians and sociologists just as human as scientists

This great Sidney Harris cartoon reminds me of the Big Bang Theory scene where Sheldon and Leonard end up wrestling during a conference presentation by Leonard. It’s also a handy antidote for anyone with an idealistic picture of scientists and how science is done.

The human, but real, behaviour of scientists seems to be a current theme in recent discussions of the nature of science by historians and sociologists. That’s not a bad thing in itself – much of the old history may have given an unrealistic and idealistic picture of science as it was done in the past. Let alone now.

I enjoy reading about the history of science and am really pleased that biographies of famous scientists are no longer hagiographies. These days we often learn about the personal foibles and character flaws as well as the great discoveries. It doesn’t in any way destroy my picture of science to learn about Newton’s or Einstein’s character or personality defects, or about the affairs, professional jealousies and outright bad behaviour of science icons. And my own professional experience has certainly taught me about the social and political influences on science and science funding.

Given that current science history tends to be a “warts and all” coverage, and that modern scientists also experience the real sociology of science day-to-day I am a bit surprised that some UK historians and sociologists recently took it upon themselves to lecture us about this (see Historians and sociologists lecture scientists – about science) As if scientists had a naive, idealistic picture of how they do science!

Keeping us honest?

Mind you – it did start me thinking. These historians and sociologists are assuring us that they perform an important function. Revealing, and reminding us, of the social and political influences on science. And of the real non-algorithmic nature of the scientific process. Of the real scientific method. These historians think they play a key role in keeping scientists honest – perhaps they do.

But who plays this role when it comes to history and sociology? Who has described the social, political and ideological influences on the history and sociology of science? And has anybody been reminding the students and practitioners in these fields of those influences on their ideas and teachings?

Personally I think history and sociology should be subjected to the same sort of realism that these historians and sociologists have given science. This might then help overcome an attitude which comes across as “Believe me, I am a historian/sociologist and what I say represents intensive research and consensus in my profession.”

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that historians and sociologists are just as human as scientists. They also are prone to personal emotions and vanities. They are exposed to social, political and ideological influences. And they probably have less opportunity to validate their ideas against reality than do their scientist colleagues.

Where claims of consensus are false

Two areas where historians who have attempted to claim they represent a consensus view really annoy me:

Galileo is of course a key figure in the history of science – but one whose history and significance is contested among historians (although scientists generally accept his important contributions to scientific method and astronomy). Some historians really seem to hate the guy. They downplay his contributions, often appearing to argue against them. They will concentrate on his mistakes (all scientists make mistakes), set impossibly high standards of proof for his ideas and even now seem to favour alternative discredited ideas.

Paula E. Findlen, Stanford University describes “the trial and condemnation of Galileo” as having been “debated, and reinterpreted for over three and a half centuries. We are not yet done with this contentious story.” So true. The historian of science Maurice Finocchiaro has detailed this debate in his book Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992. A shorter version is in his chapter of Ronald Number’s collection Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion.

I am sure much of the controversy could be sheeted back to ideological motivations and that would be a fascinating study. But the persistent controversy among historians about the “Galileo Affair” underlines the fact that one should not take on faith the history presented by a single historian.

Some historians of sciences adamantly promote the myth that Christianity gave birth to modern science. The ideological bias is pretty obvious here but again this is an area where one should not just take the word of a single historian – no matter how much they assure you their view represents a consensus of their profession.

For an overview of that particular myth Noah J. Efron has a good chapter, That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science, in Ronald Number’s collection Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. Efron chairs the Program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and serves as President of the Israeli Society for History and Philosophy of Science.

Just imagine that we had an equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – but for history and sociobiology instead of climate science. Maybe then historical and sociological controversies could be resolved and the consumer may really get a consensus view.

But I am sure there would still be sceptics/contrarians, deniers!

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Religion in schools – a sensible approach

Here’s a short Aussie video on the problem of religious instruction in secular schools. It’s well presented, and the situation in Australia is quite like that in New Zealand. In particular, the legal structure which allows access by religious groups to secular schools and the influence of evangelical groups within the bible in schools movement. The Access Ministries referred to in the video supplies material to New Zealand groups. So New Zealand readers can learn something from it.

The video is presented by the group FIRIS Fairness in religion in Schools (YouTube page

Mission Field: Education not Expected

See also:
Capturing kid’s minds with emotions
What really happens in religious instruction classes?
Cynical evangelisation of children.

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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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Who were Stalin’s victims?

I hate it when people talk about persecution of their ideological comrades whilst ignoring persecution of other people. Especially when their comrades may be only a small part of the total persecution.

This happens a lot with religious apologists who distort history to claim that repression by dictators like Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot were examples of atheists suppressing believers. Unfortunately, it’s not only the religously motivated who distort history this way. I mentioned an example of this in my review of James Berlinerblau’s book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom. In this Berlinerbalue wrote of the Stalin Terror as if it was a case of atheists persecuting Christians. I wrote:

“”It is just too simplistic (if ideologically satisfying to many historians) to present the myth of a persecuted and banned religion and Orthodox Church during the period of communist power. After all, the most dangerous organisation to belong to during the Stalin Terror of the 30s was the Communist Party – half its Central Committee disappeared in the space of a few years between two Congresses so imagine what it was like in the ranks. Persecution at that time was widespread so it is wrong to draw general conclusions only from persecution of church members then.”(see Secularism – its internal problems).

So, I was intrigued to find a database prepared by the Russian Memorial Society itemising specific cases of executions in Moscow at the height of the Stalin terror. The database has an associated map function – seen pictorially it does show how bad that period was.

As expected such a database may never be complete – but this one is detailed. The Memorial Group has obviously worked hard to ensure the victims of this repression won’t be forgotten. But because of the detail it’s possible to actually quantify to some extent the claim I made in the above review.

There are 11,170 names in this database. Quite a number. I spent some time searching through the details and identified 28 names of priests. Twenty eight! I tell you they were few and far between. Then I searched for communists – specifically members of the CPSU(B). They were everywhere. I counted about 5450!

I agree – a very amateurish search. After all there will be believers who were not identified as priests. Maybe some of the CPSU members were believers. And there were members of other communist parties – such as the Lithuanian, Latvian and Polish parties. But the figures give some idea.

Frankly, I think it was far more dangerous to be a communist in the Soviet Union during the Stalin Terror than it was to be a Christian.

BBC News – In Moscow, history is everywhere.

Here are the details of a few of the priests:

Vasily Karpov, born. 1901, Mordovia reg., Krasnoslobodski district, p. Spruce, Russian, b / n, the priest. Location: st. Novobasmannaya, 11, Apt. 4. Executed 11/19/1937. Place of burial: Butovo.

Zorin Dmitri Pavlovich, born. 1883, Nizhny Novgorod Province., Lukoyamsky county, p. Kemlya, Russian, w / n, the priest. Location: st. B. Vorobiev, 2. Executed10/12/1937. Place of burial: Butovo.

Kwiatkowski Vasily Yakovlevich, b. 1887, Volyn province., Zaslavsky county seats. Sudilkov Ukrainian, b / n, a priest in the Church of Danilovsky cemetery. Location: st. Don, 1, Apt. 105. Executed 11/28/1937. Place of burial: Kommunarka.

And these three from one residence:

Shekhovtsev Onesiphorus A., b. 1881, Voronezh, Russian, b / p, priest, deacon Sorokasvyatskoy church. Address: Dinamovskaya st., Building 28. Executed 10/12/1937. Place of burial: Butovo.

Tryganov Leont’ev, b. 1882, Vladimir Province., P. Butylitsy ex., Russian, b / n, the priest Dorogomilovsky cemetery. Address: Dinamovskaya st., 28, a church lodge. Executed 10/12/1937. Place of burial: Butovo.

Peter N. Mikhailov, born. 1877, Kuibyshev Region., Ulyanovsk, Russian, b / n, a priest, a deacon. Address: Dinamovskaya st., Building 28, apt. 3. Executed 10/12/1937. Place of burial: Butovo.

And here are a few of the others:

Samulenko Arseny Gerasimov, b. 1905, the Western Region., Pochinok district, etc. Glumaevo, Russian, member of the CPSU (B), Deputy. Chairman of the State Bank. Location: st. Serafimovich, 2 (Government House), app. 34. Executed 07/30/1941. Place of burial: Kommunarka.

Frost Gregory S., b. 1893, Shklov, a Jew, a member of the CPSU (b), the chairman of the Central Committee of Trade Union of Government Commerce. Address: ul.Serafimovicha, 2 (Government House), kv.39. Executed 11/02/1937. Place of burial: Don.

Israel Kleiner M., b. 1893, in Chisinau, a Jew, a member of the CPSU (b), (former anarchist), chairman of the Committee for the procurement of agricultural products at SNK. Address: ul.Serafimovicha, 2 (Government House), kv.46. Executed26/11/1937. Place of burial: Don.

Krejci Fritz R., b. 1897, Budapest, Hungary, a member of the German CP, political editor Glavlit. Location: st. Kalyaevskaya, 5 Blvd. 9. Executed 16/06/1938. Place of burial: Kommunarka.

Vintser-Vaytsner Martsellish-Joseph-Samuel Genrikhovich 1886, Poland, Petroc, a Jew, a member of the CPSU (b) authorized USSR Trade Representation in Spain. Location: st. Kalyaevskaya, 5 Blvd. 16. Executed 08/28/1938. Place of burial: Kommunarka.

Fishzon Abraham G., b. 1893, Rostov-on-Don, a Jew, a member of the CPSU (B), head of Gosplan. Location: st. Kalyaevskaya, 5 Blvd. 21. Executed 01/08/1938. Place of burial: Kommunarka.

Reinhold David Aaronovitch, b. 1900, s.Znamenka Irkutsk Province. Jew, b / n, head of the transport department in the office “Mospodsobstroy” in 1932-1937. Head of Sector in V / O “Sovmongtuvtorg.” Address: ul.Kalyaevskaya, 5, kv.22. Executed 31/07/1939. Place of burial: Don.

Fritz Sauer Adolfovich, b. 1904, Germany, was Cheperfeld, a German member of the German CP 1927-1931, member of the CPSU (b) 1931-1933, Training industrial “Mosoblozet”: working. Address: B. Athanasian per., 17 a / 7, apt. 32. Executed 28/05/1938. Place of burial: Butovo.

Lewites Natalia L., b. 1903, Voronezh, Russian, b / n, a typist in the Moscow office of the newspaper “Leningradskaya Pravda”. Location: Greater Athanasian per., 22, Apt. 11. Executed 14/06/1938. Place of burial: Kommunarka.

Lukichev Alexander, b. 01.02.1906, Moscow, Russian, b / n, a professor at the Moscow Institute of Electrical Engineering of energy. Address: ul.Zhukovskogo, 5, kv.21. Executed 07/02/1937. Place of burial: Don.

Baron Mikhail B., b. 1884, Tobolsk, a Jew, a former Menshevik, a member of the VKP (b) in 1919, the chief of the locomotive department st.Moskva-sorting Lenin railway Location: st. Zhukovsky, 7, Apt. 4. Executed 09/20/1938. Place of burial: Kommunarka.

Sheyhyants Vladimir G., b. 1912, Turkey city of Kars, Armenian, b / p, Deputy. Chap. engineer of the Capital Construction Stalinogorsk nitrogen fertilizer plant. Location: st. Zhukovsky, 7, Apt. 13. Executed 09/16/1938. Place of burial: Kommunarka.

Thanks to Daniel Sandford, BBC, In Moscow, history is everywhere

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Why (some) Christians support discrimination

Here’s a speech by a Christian pastor which is actually worth watching. However, it requires a bit of patience as you must watch it through to the end to get the twist.

Mind you, it’s only 3 min long – what have you got to lose?

Missouri Pastor Gives a Speech Against Gay Rights… With a Twist Ending

It’s from hearings by the Springfield City Council in Missouri. Regarding their intention to include gay people in their list of minorities protected from discrimination. If you want a sample of the arguments presented by opponents of this change have a look at the longer (47 min) video below.

Plenty of claims that removal of discrimination violates principles of religious freedom. Even that provision of exemptions for religious organisations is “forcing Christians back into their churches.” Removing them from the public square!

Craziest speeches of Springfield city council public forum on gay non-discrimination amendment

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Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life – Sin

Sex, Death and The Meaning of Life is a new series of TV documentaries fronted by Richard Dawkins. I welcome this – partly because Dawkins is an excellent communicator. But also because it’s about time some of the current ideas in the science of morality and ethics were more widely known.

The first programme in the series, SIN,  was screened last Monday, on Channel 4 in the UK. I have embedded it below. It’s very informative.

There’s even a bit of humour – look out for the David Attenborough moment where Dawkins gives a description of evolution social customs around animal mating while watching humans performing on a dance floor

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life Episode 1.

There are at least two other programmes in the series. LIFE AFTER DEATH and MEANING OF LIFE.

See Death – part 2 of a series for the second episode.

See also:
Clear Story – Sex, death and the Meaning of Life
Channel 4 – SIN
British Atheist Richard Dawkins Explores Sin and Morality in New TV Series

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From evolution to belief

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

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

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

Guided evolution

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

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

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

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

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

Naive survival argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reliability of cognitive facilities – something more than chance.

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

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

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

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

Theistic evolution?

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

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

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

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

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

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Naturalism and science are incompatible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about “methodological naturalism?”

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

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

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

Who is promoting this story?

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

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

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

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

Accommodation in science

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

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

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

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

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

What the hell is “supernatural”?

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

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

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

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

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

Scientific knowledge is counter-intuitive

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

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

The god hypothesis

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

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

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

Being open-minded

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

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

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