Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Noughties

Completely off topic, but this is hilarious:

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Sunday, 9 August 2009

The Wright Stuff

Bryan Appleyard's review in The Sunday Times of Robert Wright's The Evolution of God landed on the doormat this morning, containing some interesting insights into the story of the book. This doesn't sound like a volume that I'm going to add to my reading list.

Appleyard betrays the theist's obsession with 'proof' that shows their shallow thinking on matters epistemological. Consider:
In order to make their case meaningful, the Dawkinsians must prove that religion is demonstrably a bad thing — otherwise, why bother to stamp it out? Even after 9/11, they can’t prove this because, especially in the 20th century, non-religious nastiness was infinitely worse than religious, and because the persistence of religion in all human societies strongly suggests that, even in the most basic Darwinian terms, it has been good for us as a species.
Nonsense. Dawkins does not need to *prove* anything, nor does he want to stamp out religion. The persistence of religion *may* mean that it has been good for us, but it is by no means the only *possible* reason it has survived. A human trait may have evolved for a specific reason that no longer exists, or the tendency to religiosity could be a by-product of another evolved trait - religion could be a completely *unnecessary* consequence of our evolved ability to find patterns and agency in the world around us. Modern-day obesity may well be a result of our evolved efficiency to store fat. That doesn't mean that we should now embrace obesity as natural and 'good for us'. Humans often have addictive habits; I'm not sure what benefit this has conferred on us in the past, but just because we are naturally addictive animals doesn't mean it's necessarily 'good for us' *now*.

The persistence of religion also reflects the efficiency of the various religious memes, which is also not decided by overall benevolence of the ideas, but how good the ideas are at surviving and propagating; these are not necessarily the same thing, by any means.

Appleyard addresses Wright's disagreement with Dawkins' attack on Paley.
Dawkins said Darwin destroyed this case by showing how design arose through purely material means — evolution through natural selection is the “blind watchmaker”. Wright says this misses the point. The point is not how the watch was designed but the fact that it is designed. Some process has led to its existence and it is that process that matters because the mechanism and purpose of the watch clearly make it different in kind from, say, rocks.
If that is Wright's point then *he* misses the point. What natural selection provides is an explanation for complexity that is entirely understandable and (pretty) simple that shows that we are *not* different in kind from rocks, at the most fundamental level. We are stardust.
Equally, humans also require a different type of explanation from rocks. It may be natural selection or it may be some innate force in the universe. Either way, it is reasonable to associate this force with morality and God.
The last line is a complete non-sequitur; there seems to be nothing 'reasonable' about that leap. So after Wright has sprinkled nonsense all around, Appleyard feels the need to add some:
This is an entirely decent and persuasive argument against the intolerance of the atheists, in that it shows religion makes perfect sense, and getting irritated because you think it’s “untrue” is just silly.
'Persuasive' only if you have difficulties with assessing what's reasonable. Getting irritated and making accusations of 'intolerance' when people point *this* out is just silly.
The religious share with scientists the intuition of underlying order and neither side is in a position to say the other is wrong.
But the religious *mission* is to tell everyone else that they are wrong, and should behave the way *they* think is the right way. Scientists don't do this. The religious are arrogant *despite* the doubt, science builds humility into its methodology *because* of the doubt.

It's important to keep re-iterating that because religion arises out of human behaviour and culture, non-believers and believers share many, many properties. Theists already believe the things that atheists believe; the logic and reason that underlies our existence. Atheists are just those amongst us who have jettisoned some unnecessary careless thinking. Religious thinking isn't the only unnecessary careless thinking we indulge in; it's just one of the most dangerous, because of the patina of respectability it has been granted by our history.

Appleyard then goes on to discuss Wright's views on moral progress, which do sound a bit dodgy.

But he starts the final paragraph with this line:
Nevertheless, this is an important book in that it is a scientifically based corrective to the absurd rhetoric of militant atheism.
Well, I've yet to read any counter-arguments to the rhetoric of the so-called 'militant' atheists to show it to be absurd; just pre-suppositional theists loudly proclaiming their pre-suppositions as if they were *knowledge*, or post-modernists happily declaring everything invalid, including their own philosophy.

Meanwhile in the real world, sceptics and pragmatists have to continue to fight the good fight for logic and reason.

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Thursday, 6 August 2009

Is Collins Bad for the Health of the U.S.?

Francis Collins is shortly to be confirmed as the new leader of the US National Institutes of Health. Sam Harris has written an excellent analysis of the appointment.

The concern for me is the candidate's *qualifications* for the job on offer. On the whole, Collins (despite reservations about his previous jobs) would seem to be reasonably well qualified. What casts doubt on his *qualifications* is his explicit *scientific* pronouncements; driven, no doubt, by his religious beliefs. But I don't think people would have been as worried by, for example, Kenneth Miller, as a candidate, so it's not the fact of the religious beliefs *per se* that are at issue.

If Collins was a scientologist, with correspondingly odd ideas about *science*, I would be equally concerned (I should add that being concerned and questioning someone's qualifications is *not* the equivalent of wanting to ban someone from public office). If he were a keen astrologer, I would be equally concerned. If he were a keen homeopath, I would be even more concerned. If he were a keen chiropractor, I would be even more concerned.

So I can imagine a range of concerns depending on the candidate. What many have said is effectively this: if it can be shown that the opinions of the candidate that cause concern, when considering their qualifications, are somehow related to the candidate's religious beliefs, then they are *disallowed* as a cause for concern. Now this may be a matter of fact in the US, because of the Constitution. Fair enough, that may have to be accepted, but I don't think that should stop right-thinking people expressing their doubts about the candidate. It also doesn't stop it from being illogical. If Collins had said:
The universe was created 13.7 billion years ago when it was hatched from the egg of an enormous platypus.
instead of:
Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.
He could be disqualified by the first sentiment but not the second, because it attaches to a religious belief. This is, indeed, the strange case of Francis Collins!

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