Wednesday, 28 April 2010

What Clever People Say

Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini have replied to a review of their book What Darwin Got Wrong with a letter which includes this:
Our difficulty with Darwin is very like our difficulty with our stockbroker. He says the way to succeed on the market is to buy low and sell high, and we believe him. But since he won’t tell us how to buy low and sell high, his advice does us no good. Likewise, Darwin thinks that the traits that are selected-for are the ones that cause fitness; but he doesn’t say how the kinds of variables that his theory envisages as selectors could interact with phenotypes in ways that distinguish causes of fitness from their confounds. This problem can’t be solved by just stipulating that the traits that are selected for are the fitness-enhancing traits; that, as one said in the 1960s, isn’t the solution; it’s the problem.
I cannot understand how clever people can get themselves into such a state. This is an argument against everything, as far as I can tell. Darwin isn't advising *how* to buy low and sell high. Otherwise he would be omniscient. He's identifying the mechanism. As is the stockbroker. Here's some news, for the slow of learning; stockbrokers don't know exactly *how*. Otherwise they'd all be multi-billionaires. Sometimes they get it right. The good ones get it right more than others. Nature gets it right because it has no alternative; it's what happens! But Darwin can't pre-figure it. Just because he can't, doesn't invalidate the mechanism, any more than the stockbroker getting it wrong does. Once again, that science doesn't know all the answers, doesn't invalidate it. If it predicted an answer that didn't fit the facts, it would.

This sort of reasoning from professionals baffles me. I wonder how these people get gainful employment.

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Sunday, 25 April 2010

The 'New Atheist' Fallacy

There is a flaccid thread of thoughtless commentary on the new atheists these days, exemplified by this self-important diatribe by David B. Hart. Consider the source of his gloom:
The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness.
But there is little new under the sun when it comes to arguments against theism, and the new atheists are using the same arguments as their 'forefathers'; how could it be a source of his melancholy? He carries on in similar vein, mounting various straw men in place of actual new atheist positions, before discussing in tedious detail the problem of infinite regress, which, for some reason, he thinks is the new atheists' favourite argument. One could equally say it's the theists' favourite argument, since that is where the prime mover springs from, but his discussion reaches no conclusion one way or the other, so he agrees with the new atheists! Bizarre. He then babbles on about Nietzsche in even more tedious detail, as if he was the final say on all matters divine.

His problem, as with all faitheists, is to misunderstand the new atheists as absolutist fundamentalists, when, as any fule kno, they are the very opposite; contingent agnostics prepared to admit they're atheists, and to understand the consequences of that admission.

A few quotes from some non-believers:
And, in these four things, opinion of ghosts, ignorance of second causes, devotion towards what men fear, and taking of things casual for prognostics, consisteth the natural seed of ‘religion,’ which, by reason of the different fancies, judgments, and passions of several men, hath grown up into ceremonies so different that those which are used by one man are for the most part ridiculous to another.
Lastly, amongst the points by the Church of Rome declared necessary for salvation, there be so many manifestly to the advantage of the Pope and of his spiritual subjects residing in the territories of other Christian princes that, were it not for the mutual emulation of those princes, they might without war or trouble exclude all foreign authority as easily as it had been excluded in England. For who is there that does not see to whose benefit it conduceth to have it believed that a king hath not his authority from Christ unless a bishop crown him? That a king, if he be a priest, cannot marry? (...) That the clergy and regulars, in what country soever, shall be exempt from the jurisdiction of their king in cases criminal? Or who does not see to whose profit redound the fees of private masses and vales of purgatory, with other signs of private interest enough to mortify the most lively faith, if, as I said, the civil magistrate and custom did not more sustain it than any opinion they have of the sanctity, wisdom, or probity of their teachers? So that I may attribute all the changes of religion in the world to one and the same cause, and that is, unpleasing priests; and those not only amongst Catholics but even in that Church that hath presumed most of reformation.1
I have often wondered, that persons who make a boast of professing the Christian religion, namely, love, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men, should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues they claim, is the readiest criterion of their faith.2
Hence the greatest crimes have been found, in many instances, compatible with a superstitious piety and devotion: Hence, it is justly regarded as unsafe to draw any certain inference in favour of a man's morals from the fervour or strictness of his religious exercises, even though he himself believe them sincere.3
When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.4
I am thus one of the very few examples, in this country, of one who has, not thrown off religious belief, but never had it: I grew up in a negative state with regard to it. I looked upon the modern exactly as I did upon the ancient religion, as something which in no way concerned me. It did not seem to me more strange that English people should believe what I did not, than that the men I read of in Herodotus should have done so.5
Given, a man with moderate intellect, a moral standard not higher than the average, some rhetorical affluence and great glibness of speech, what is the career in which, without the aid of birth or money, he may most easily attain power and reputation in English society? Where is that Goshen of mediocrity in which a smattering of science and learning will pass for profound instruction, where platitudes will be accepted as wisdom, bigoted narrowness as holy zeal, unctuous egoism as God-given piety? Let such a man become an evangelical preacher; he will then find it possible to reconcile small ability with great ambition, superficial knowledge with the prestige of erudition, a middling morale with a high reputation for sanctity.6

Gentlemen [believers], we can only reply, wait till you have some show of agreement amongst yourselves. Wait till you can give some answer not palpably a verbal answer, to some one of the doubts which oppress us as they oppress you. Wait till you can point to some single truth, however trifling, which has been discovered by your method, and will stand the test of discussion and verification. Wait till you can appeal to reason without in the same breath vilifying reason. Wait till your Divine revelations have something more to reveal than the hope that the hideous doubts which they suggest may possibly be without foundation. Till then we shall be content to admit openly, what you whisper under your breath or hide in technical jargon, that the ancient secret is a secret still; that man knows nothing of the Infinite and Absolute; and that, knowing nothing, he had better not be dogmatic about his ignorance. And, meanwhile, we will endeavour to be as charitable as possible, and whilst you trumpet forth officially your contempt for our skepticism, we will at least try to believe that you are imposed upon by your own bluster.7
There will always be a fungus, a star, or a disease that human science does not know of; and for this reason it must always behove the philosopher, in the name of the undying ignorance of man, to deny every miracle and say of the most startling wonders,-the host of Bolsena, the star in the East, the cure of the paralytic and the like : Either it is not, or it is; and if it is, it is part of nature and therefore natural.8
The pulpit assures us that wherever we see suffering and sorrow which we can relieve and do not do it, we sin, heavily. There was never yet a case of suffering or sorrow which God could not relieve. Does He sin, then? If He is the Source of Morals He does - certainly nothing can be plainer than that, you will admit. Surely the Source of law cannot violate law and stand unsmirched; surely the judge upon the bench cannot forbid crime and then revel in it himself unreproached.9
It is not well worthy of note that of all the multitude of texts through which man has driven his annihilating pen he has never once made the mistake of obliterating a good and useful one? It does certainly seem to suggest that if man continues in the direction of enlightenment, his religious practice may, in the end, attain some semblance of human decency.10
Do not all theists insist that there can be no morality, no justice, honesty or fidelity without the belief in a Divine Power? Based upon fear and hope, such morality has always been a vile product, imbued partly with self-righteousness, partly with hypocrisy.11
Throughout the last 400 years, during which the growth of science had gradually shown men how to acquire knowledge of the ways of nature and mastery over natural forces, the clergy have fought a losing battle against science, in astronomy and geology, in anatomy and physiology, in biology and psychology and sociology. Ousted from one position, they have taken up another. After being worsted in astronomy, they did their best to prevent the rise of geology; they fought against Darwin in biology, and at the present time they fight against scientific theories of psychology and education. At each stage, they try to make the public forget their earlier obscurantism, in order that their present obscurantism may not be recognized for what it is.
Toplady, the author of "Rock of Ages," moved from one vicarage to another; a week after the move, the vicarage he had formerly occupied burnt down, with great loss to the new vicar. Thereupon Toplady thanked God; but what the new vicar did is not known.
I am sometimes shocked by the blasphemies of those who think themselves pious-for instance, the nuns who never take a bath without wearing a bathrobe all the time. When asked why, since no man can see them, they reply: "Oh, but you forget the good God." Apparently they conceive of the Deity as a Peeping Tom, whose omnipotence enables Him to see through bathroom walls, but who is foiled by bathrobes. This view strikes me as curious.
The whole conception of "Sin" is one which I find very puzzling, doubtless owing to my sinful nature. If "Sin" consisted in causing needless suffering, I could understand; but on the contrary, sin often consists in avoiding needless suffering. Some years ago, in the English House of Lords, a bill was introduced to legalize euthanasia in cases of painful and incurable disease. The patient's consent was to be necessary, as well as several medical certificates. To me, in my simplicity, it would seem natural to require the patient's consent, but the late Archbishop of Canterbury, the English official expert on Sin, explained the erroneousness of such a view. The patient's consent turns euthanasia into suicide, and suicide is sin. Their Lordships listened to the voice of authority, and rejected the bill. Consequently, to please the Archbishop-and his God, if he reports truly-victims of cancer still have to endure months of wholly useless agony, unless their doctors or nurses are sufficiently humane to risk a charge of murder. I find difficulty in the conception of a God who gets pleasure from contemplating such tortures; and if there were a God capable of such wanton cruelty, I should certainly not think Him worthy of worship. But that only proves how sunk I am in moral depravity.
We are told that sin consists in acting contrary to God's will. This, however, does not get rid of the difficulty. Those who, like Spinoza, take God's omnipotence seriously, deduce that there can be no such thing as sin. This leads to frightful results. What! said Spinoza's contemporaries, was it not wicked of Nero to murder his mother? Was it not wicked of Adam to eat the apple? Is one action just as good as another? Spinoza wriggles, but does not find any satisfactory answer. If everything happens in accordance with God's will, God must have wanted Nero to murder his mother; therefore, since God is good, the murder must have been a good thing. From this argument there is no escape.
As soon as we abandon our own reason, and are content to rely upon authority, there is no end to our troubles. Whose authority? The Old Testament? The New Testament? The Koran? In practice, people choose the book considered sacred by the community in which they are born, and out of that book they choose the parts they like, ignoring the others.
Self-importance, individual or generic, is the source of most of our religious beliefs. Even sin is a conception derived from self-importance.
Since evolution became fashionable, the glorification of Man has taken a new form. We are told that evolution has been guided by one great Purpose: through the millions of years when there were only slime, or trilobites, throughout the ages of dinosaurs and giant ferns, of bees and wild flowers, God was preparing the Great Climax. At last, in the fullness of time, He produced Man, including such specimens as Nero and Caligula, Hitler and Mussolini, whose transcendent glory justified the long painful process. For my part, I find even eternal damnation less incredible, and certainly less ridiculous, than this lame and impotent conclusion which we are asked to admire as the supreme effort of Omnipotence. And if God is indeed omnipotent, why could He not have produced the glorious result without such a long and tedious prologue?
Of the proposed solutions of the problem of evil which we have examined, none has stood up to criticism. There may be other solutions which require examination, but this study strongly suggests that there is no valid solution of the problem which does not modify at least one of the constituent propositions in a way which would seriously affect the essential core of the theistic position. Quite apart from the problem of evil, the paradox of omnipotence has shown that God's omnipotence must in any case be restricted in one way or another, that unqualified omnipotence cannot be ascribed to any being that continues through time. And if God and his actions are not in time, can omnipotence, or power of any sort, be meaningfully ascribed to him?13
Who are these dreadful , strident, militant new atheists? - you may wonder, if you are a sensitive believer, or believer in belief. They certainly reflect many of the arguments of the current so-called 'new atheists'.

All long dead before the year 2000. So much for New Atheism.

EDIT: And one last quote, this time from a theist:
But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. - King, M.L. Letter from Birmingham Jail

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Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Warning - Priests!

In light of the many revelations of misconduct within the Roman Catholic Church around the world, it is perhaps time for these signs to be placed on the doors of their churches and cathedrals?

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Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Death of PoI

I'm a fairly long time listener to the PoI podcasts from the CFI, which were, until recently, conducted by DJ Grothe.

Grothe is a little too accommodationist for my tastes, but is an exemplary interviewer, very good at illuminating the dark corners of a subject. Grothe recently moved on to be replaced by three: Chris Mooney, Robert Price and Karen Stollznow. Alarm bells rang a little at Mooney, who is tragically accommodationist, but the first of his podcasts, on Climategate, was fine, although little could go wrong on *that* subject. Paul Kurtz, the founder of CFI, is known for his softly softly approach to religion, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised at the lurch towards theism. I'd heard some good things about Robert Price, so was hopeful that his interviews would be enlightening.

This is the first podcast by Price I've listened to, and I hope he improves! This one actually made my gym session *hurt* more, as I spluttered at the ludicrous assertions therein. It was with Thomas Altizer, a 'radical' theologian who likes Nietzsche's Death of God idea. The broadcast was an embarrassing sequence of mud-slinging, back-slapping and name-dropping. It's *possible* that there's something worth studying in all this, but this has certainly put me off! Consider this exchange; I'm quoting a commenter called Stanley Dorst on the CFI discussion forum, so I'm indebted to him for the transcript:
Early in the interview, as a followup to Altizer’s statement that he considers Nietzsche, Hegel, Blake, and others to be sources for his views, Price says, “One of the first things I question, though I think I understand it better now, is how do you know these thinkers are telling us the truth? What gives them such revelatory authority in your thinking?” Altizer’s response was to say, and I quote:

“Hegel gave us the most purely and comprehensively logical thinking that has ever been created, and it’s all grounded in an absolute self-negation. In Hegel we have this conceptual enactment, this incredible, logical, purely conceptual demonstration of an absolute self-negation, which pervades all of his thinking. In Hegel you have a total realization of the death of God, which is simultaneously a total enactment of reality itself and of totality itself. So that here we can realize a total conception or a total vision of everything, which is inseparable from absolute self-negation and the crucifixion. To me, these are enactments of Christianity, realizations of Christianity.”

Mr. Price seemed to believe that this was actually an answer to his question, because his response was to say, “That does make sense. Why, I wonder, are you the only one or first one to say these things?” I hope that he has the insight, at least in retrospect, to be embarrassed by how obsequious and fawning this response was.
As others have commented, this has the flavour of Sokal. I'm mindful that in any discourse, jargon is *required* to allow detailed analysis to take place, but Grothe would not have allowed Altizer to dribble on like this without some explanation of the terms, and the justifications. Altizer says that one cannot be an atheist without being a Christian atheist. Well, this is obviously incorrect by any dictionary definition of atheism, but presumably Altizer means something else by this; no-one could be that daft. So what was it that he meant? Price knew, so should have elaborated.

Altizer dismisses the new atheists, for their poor theology; but since he doesn't gainsay any of the classic atheist arguments, one cannot imagine what his complaint is - they sell more books, presumably. It raises a question that has occurred to me before; to what extent must one study a subject before one can dismiss it as nonsense. Altizer and Price presumably think that there is much of worth in theological study, but what this is eludes me. A podcast on that subject would be helpful.

It's possible that this was an elaborate April Fool's Day joke (on April 2nd), in which case I applaud the attempt; but don't take up half-an-hour of podcast time on it.

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Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Moths to the Flame

Many people agonise over the meaning of life. Why are we here? Where are we going? What's it all about, Alfie?

There's an assumption to theism of ultimate meaning, and individual personal meaning, that is satisfied in the concept of an afterlife in heaven. If we return to dust, what's the point of getting up in the morning? (This argument is deeply flawed on a number of levels, but let's put that to one side.) But *why* do we seek this meaning, if it results in such false beliefs, a theist might ask. False beliefs aren't beneficial to survival, so this wouldn't be naturally selected.

I see two answers to this apparent conundrum. Firstly, meaning-seeking has been extremely useful to homo sapiens; we are a (perhaps the only one, so far) being that tries to uncover why things are the way they are. It's difficult to see how technology could be achieved *without* such a tendency. So it's certainly *conceivable* that meaning-seeking has been selected for its own good. Secondly, it may just be a by-product of advanced brain functions that have been selected for other reasons.

Are these explanations plausible? I think so; we can see a simple example of other *behaviour* that has been naturally selected and causes problems despite that. If we light a candle outside we see many insects 'foolishly' flying into the flame, like kamikaze pilots (and what about *that* behaviour?!). Richard Dawkins as usual writes well on the subject:
Moths fly into the candle flame, and it does not look like an accident. They go out of their way to make a burnt offering of themselves. We could label it “self-immolation behavior” and wonder how Darwinian natural selection could possibly favor it. My point, again, is that we need to rewrite the question before we can even attempt an intelligent answer. It is not suicide. Apparent suicide emerges as an inadvertent side effect. Artificial light is a recent arrival on the night scene. Until recently, the only night-lights were the moon and the stars. Being at optical infinity, their rays are parallel, which makes them ideal compasses. Insects are known to use celestial objects to steer accurately in a straight line. The insect nervous system is adept at setting up a temporary rule of thumb such as, “Steer a course such that the light rays hit your eye at an angle of 30°.” Since insects have compound eyes, this will amount to favoring a particular ommatidium (individual optical tube radiating out from the center of the compound eye). However, the light compass relies critically on the celestial object being at optical infinity. If it is not, the rays are not parallel but diverge like the spokes of a wheel. A nervous system using a 30° rule of thumb to a candle, as though it were the moon, will steer its moth, in a neat logarithmic spiral, into the flame. It is still, on average, a good rule of thumb. We do not notice the hundreds of moths who are silently and effectively steering by the moon or a bright star or even the lights of a distant city. We see only moths hurling themselves at our lights, and we ask the wrong question. Why are all these moths committing suicide? Instead, we should ask why they have nervous systems that steer by maintaining an automatic fixed angle to light rays, a tactic that we only notice on the occasions when it goes wrong. When the question is rephrased, the mystery evaporates. It never was right to call it suicide.
What Use Is Religion?
Whenever someone bemoans the nihilism of atheism, I see a moth fluttering into the flame.

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