Tag Archives: PZ Myers

Debates in the philosophy of science

Jerry Coyne, over at his Why Evolution is True blog does get into some important issues of the philosophy of science. Usually in debates with others. PZ Myers at Pharyngula often participates, some times agreeing, sometimes disagreeing withy Jerry.

Currently both Jerry and PZ are critiquing an article by Andrew Brown at his Guardian Blog (see Science is the only road to truth? Don’t be absurd). Andrews article itself is a criticism of a comment by Nobel prize winner Harry Kroto in a recent talk:

“Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine truth with any degree of reliability.”

Jerry Coyne’s response is in Andrew Brown: there are lots of ways besides science to find truth. PZ Myers’ response is in There’s something obvious missing from this argument….

It’s an important and interesting discussion – worth following.

Another interesting recent post of Jerry’s is Why am I reading theology?

Apparently he has undertaken a study of theology! That seems really strange to me – a complete waste of time. Perhaps he has lost a bet. or maybe he is taking those theist critics of Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion to heart. You know – the charge that Dawkins had no right to produce that book because he has not studied theology!

Jerry claims to have so far learned only three things:

1: “I am spending my middle age reading drivel about beliefs that have no basis in fact. This seems a total waste of time.  I could be reading books about real things instead.” He must have lost a bet!

2: “Theologians can’t write.  A lot of what they have to say is postmodern or obscure bafflegab, and I’m starting to believe that this obscurantism is deliberate . . .”. That’s one of the overwhelming impressions I have obtained from the little theological writings I have encountered.

3: “There seems to be no “knowledge” behind theology, and I haven’t learned anything—not even any clever philosophy.  One gets the strong sense when reading theology (and granted, I am biased) that everyone is just making stuff up.” That’s another overwhelming impression of mine – and as Jerry says this helps explain point 2.

These discussions are worth following.

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A silver lining to Expelled?

Readers are probably aware of the nasty little creationist/intelligent design film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Despite all the fanfare suggesting it was coming to a church hall or basement near you sometime soon it seemed to drop out of existence.

Perhaps that is why the company that produced the film has gone bankrupt. And the film itself, together with its assets, is to be auctioned off any day now.

I thought that would be the end of the sorry little affair. But no – there may be a silver lining – depending on who the final buyers are.

PZ Myers reports that Talk Origins, the people from Panda’s Thumb, are making a bid to buy it. That seems weird.

But think about it. Expelled misrepresented some important people like Myers, Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott, Michael Shermer and so on. These people were interviewed extensively on evolutionary science, science in general and intelligent design. However, only short clips, heavily edited to produce a misleading impression, were included in the film.

Expelled – The Uncut Interviews

So if Talk Origins wins the bidding they will have access to the full interviews. As Talk Origins suggests:

“The auction promises that besides all available rights and interests in the finished film itself (there is an existing distribution contract), the winner will get all the production materials and rights to them. Want to know what was in the rest of the interviews with Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers? I know I would like to have that material archived and made available to the public, among other things that Premise Media found inconvenient to include in their film.”

Anyone who has watched the uncut interviews available from the Richard Dawkins Foundation will appreciate the possibilities. These are interviews used initially to produce BBC films documentaries like The Root of All Evil?, The Enemies of Reason , The Genius of Charles Darwin and others.

So I look forward to a new series of documentaries – Expelled – The Uncut Interviews. Just imagine, not only will we get an interesting and extensive interview of each person (Myers says his interview last 3 hours!). But as an extra, if the clip used in the film is also included we will get to see examples of how creationists quote mine scientists.

Thanks to PZ Myers: I think the creationists would rather just forget about Expelled.

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Confronting accomodationism

Or is it accommodating confrontationism? I guess it depends on the image you wish to portray.

I have followed the accomodationism vs confrontationism (or “new atheism,” or “gnus”) debate among US atheist and science bloggers with interest. Mainly because I think it is relevant to the question of the relationship between science and religion, and the current changes in public acceptability of non-theism.

On the “confrontationist” side there are bloggers like PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Eric Macdonald and Jason Rosenhouse. Also authors like Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Ayan Hirsi Ali and Richard Dawkins.

They are vocal and unapologetic about their atheism. Rejecting the idea that one should not criticise religion because it is “disrespectful” and that religion therefore has a “go home free card” not available in other areas of human discourse such as politics, sport and science.  Generally they will assert that there are basic epistemological differences between science and religion and they should not be conflated. The boundaries are stark and should be clear. Science should be honest and uncompromising about evidence and conclusions and not feel it has to accommodate religion or superstition by giving lip service to it.

On the “accomodationist” side there are commentators, journalists and bloggers like Chris Mooney, Micheal Ruse and Josh Rosenau. Others such Massimo Pugliocci at times advance at least some of the accomodationist arguments.

Accomodationists generally argue that the “new atheists” are too confrontational. That their insistence on talking about their atheism and the problems of relgion isolates the US public. Their confrontational language is offensive to the religious majority. It doesn’t win friends and in fact is turning people away from science. Scientists, and atheists, should go easy on religion, never confront it, even make concessions to religion, in the interests of winning public support for evolutionary science and science in general. If anything the “new atheists” or “gnus” should STFU – leave the defense of science and evolutionary science to religious scientists.

One of the latest discussions of this issue took place on the podcast Point of Inquiry recently where Ronald A. Lindsay interviewed Chris Mooney. (See  Chris Mooney – Accommodationism and the Psychology of Belief May 09, 2011.) It’s a good-natured discussion which I found useful because Chris does clearly present his arguments.

Several issues interested me:

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Craig brings some clarity to morality?

Interesting! Is there a second wave of interest in Sam Harris’s ideas on human morality?

Sam Harris

Sure, many religious apologists really didn’t want to challenge these ideas until WL Craig had said his bit – preferably by way of a debate with Harris. And they got that debate a few days back. But that is hardly serious – they are reacting more like faithful fans at a boxing match. A common problem with debates. Even Craig appears to have a realistic understanding of  his cheerleaders (although he attributes the phenomenon to “the free thought subculture” and not his own fans).

PZ Myers

But I wonder if that debate might have initiated some rethinking by some of Sam’s original nonreligious critics. Here’s an interesting comment by PZ Myers in his blog post Harris v Craig. He admits to having felt “bugged” after his first reading of The Moral Landscape.” Then adds:

“I kept trying to make, I think, a judgment based on whether we can declare an absolute morality based on rational, objective criteria. I was basically making the same sort of internal argument that William Lane Craig was making in his debate at Notre Dame, and it’s fundamentally wrong — it’s getting all twisted up in philosophical head-games based on misconceptions derived from the constant hammering of theological presuppositions in our culture.”

I think this is a very perceptive comment. It helps explain  my disappointment with some of Sam’s non-religious critics who fell back on the mantra that “you can’t get an ought from an is.”

Obviously Sam Harris won’t have the full story but he has made an important contribution with his book. Important because he has refused to be taken in by that philosophical mantra. Also because he has mobilised a much-needed debate among philosophers, scientists and the nonreligious about morality. And particularly consideration of the problem of moral relativism.

But Myers is also raising the problem of how theology and religious philosophy has been able to influence even the nonreligious and create “misconceptions derived from the constant hammering of theological presuppositions in our culture.”

So good for you PZ. You were able to recognise where you made a mistake. Perhaps the debate format has in this case actually had a  positive effect. PZ says:  “It was very helpful to see Harris’s views presented in contrast to a dogmatic fool like Craig, and suddenly it was clear where the truth lies.”

And thanks for helping the rest of us see an important problem. Theology and religious philosophy may currently have little influence in the natural sciences. (although they still motivate external attacks such as the legal attempts to impose the teaching of creation). But their dead hand still has an influence in areas like philosophy.

It’s important to recognise this and be aware when it sometimes affects even the nonreligious philosophers. Or scientists who accept some popular philosophical ideas uncritically.

See also: Foundations of human morality.

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Is atheism bad for science?

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

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

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

Another myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“New Christians” too strident?

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

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

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

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

 

Breaking away – an interesting case study

All parents of mature children recognise that their offspring (interesting word that) must learn to break away from their parents. That as one’s children develop their own individuality there is plenty of scope for differences of opinion and conflict. And perhaps these differences are a normal part of the child developing an independent, autonomous personality.

Unfortunately this sometimes leads to estrangement. This is particularly tragic if it becomes permanent. I personally think that this period in a family’s life provides learning situations for parents, as well as children. And perhaps the parents, as the more mature party, have an obligation to put that learning into practice and ensure they do everything to prevent estrangement becoming permanent.

So I warmly endorse PZ Myers words of advice to Michael Behe‘s son (currently estranged from his parents) to make peace with his family while he can (see Michael Behe’s son has a surprise).

Behe’s son has abandoned the Catholicism he was raised in and become an atheist. There is obvious family conflict. But interestingly, he has announced this on reddit and is discussing it with others. He proves to be very articulate – which bodes well for his desire to become a writer. And the other participants in the discussion are proving to be thoughtful and respectful themselves. So there is an interesting discussion going on.

From what I have read so far Richard Dawkins, and his book the God Delusion (which apparently played a key role in Behe’s son’s deconversion), are being discussed. Together with evolution, Behe’s role in the Kitzmiller case, intelligent design, and morality. Quite sensibly, I thought.

In fact, I am really impressed – for an internet discussion.

It’s worth following – go to IAmA son of Michael Behe, the Catholic biochemist who coined the term “Irreducible Complexity”. I turned away from my family’s Catholic faith two years ago and am now an outspoken atheist.

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The heart of PZ Myers

Sounds like PZ Myers’ health problems are more serious than he first thought. He is currently in hospital for more tests – and from the sounds of it – an operation (see That’s not a heart! It’s a flailing Engine of Destruction!)

Hopefully things will go well. He will get the necessary repairs, a well-deserved rest and return renewed to his blogging. I try to read his blog, Pharyngula, daily and I know others do as well. I enjoy his daily dose of humour and common sense.

PZ Myers answers questions at the Melbourne Convention. Photo: Geoff Cowan

PZ is an excellent communicator and we need more people like PZ to defend science and reason. I am personally amazed at the time and effort he puts into this communication. During the last year he has been on sabbatical leave. While he has been writing a book I know this is disrupted by the traveling and large number of meetings he has been speaking at. In the USA and internationally.

I met him last March at the World Atheist Convention in Melbourne and was impressed at how eager he was to meet everyone. This willingness to make himself so available has resulted in a hectic round of speaking engagements and public appearances in this last year. While this has been great for the communication of science and reason it must have had a toll on his health.

So, hopefully, PZ will take this health alarm as a warning. Recognise that he needs to consider his own needs more and turn down some of the requests for public appearances. Hopefully Myers will return to blogging soon. And I hope to see his book published. I will be satisfied with that and I am sure most of his regular readers will be too.

PZ has appealed to his readers not to “waste your time with prayers.” After all he is getting some real help from medical experts. I wish him well and look forward to his successful recovery. Many of his readers are doing the same. One of these well wishers was Richard Dawkins, who commented: “How noble, how typical of the man and of everything he stands for, to use humour in making such an announcement.”

Which brings me to another of my concerns. Dawkins is also someone who gives his time extremely readily. His life must also be very hectic. I was aware that at the time of the World Atheist convention he was traveling around New Zealand and Australia and speaking to sell out audiences. It amazed me that he spoke in Auckland on the Saturday night and in Melbourne on the Sunday afternoon. Those who went along to hear him certainly appreciate his willingness to make himself so available. But perhaps he should also be taking a lesson from PZs current health problems.

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The origins of science?

Have a look at this short video for a humorous explanation of the origins of science. Then listen to this podcast of Professor AC Graylings version.   (Download AC Grayling on “Atheism, Secularism, Humanism: Three Zones of Argument”). A little more serious – but fascinating.

YouTube – Mr. Deity And The Equation.

I mentioned Grayling’s talk in my post Are science and religion compatible? It was presented at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne a few weeks back.

While the convention will be out on DVD eventually it’s possible to catch up with some of the lectures as audio files on-line. The ones I have seen recently are those by Taslima Nasrin, Peter Singer on “Ethics Without Religion” and John Perkins (“The cost of Religious Delusion: Islam and Terrorism”). The All in the Mind podcast is also providing audio of a number of presentations. The first of two parts (2010-03-27 A matter of mind-sets? Religion and science – Part 1 of 2) includes talks by PZ Myers, Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins.

Thanks to the ABC religion blogs Questions of Faith:  The 2010 Global Atheist Convention – Embranglement.

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From Melbourne to Copenhagen

Echos of last weekend’s Global Atheist convention in Melbourne are still reverberating around the internet and in the print media. There have been some shocking newspaper reports in Australia (eg. Speakers true love of hatred) but also some good ones (eg. Australia’s atheists are a happy bunch).

Probably what we should expect at this stage. After all this convention was unique – the first of it’s kind.

There is good news for all those atheists who missed the Melbourne convention, or did attend this awesome event and are now suffering withdrawal symptoms. The Atheist Alliance International, which co-organised the Melbourne Convention, has planned a series of such international events. The Melbourne Convention was just the first. The next International Atheist Convention will take place in Copenhagen in a few months (June 18-20). Have a look at Atheist Alliance International 2010 Copenhagen Convention for details.

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Are science and religion compatible?

“Science and Religion” seems to be a popular topic for debate on the internet these days. Even in New Zealand Richard Dawkins‘ recent visit encouraged 14 religious scientists, historians and theologians to produce their own statement on the subject (see ‘Public Statement Concerning Science and Christian Faith’ by New Zealand Religious Scientists).

That particular statement seems to be a “sour grapes” response to the public interest in Dawkins’ visit. It has little substance and resorts to straw mannery in its attacks on “Professor Dawkins’ scientism.”(That word “scientism” is a dead give away, isn’t it?) So far, I don’t think it has elicited any response or interest (except from comments on the RichardDawkins.net site which seems to be the only place reporting it).

Of far more substance were two presentations made at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne last Saturday. Given by AC Grayling and PZ Myers these covered the science – religion issue in very different but complimentary ways – both in substance and style. They are both extremely informative and entertaining speakers – each in their own way.

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