Saturday, 31 December 2011

Clifford and Faith

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. So says W. K. Clifford  in The Ethics of Belief (1877). Does he make the case for this very strong condemnation of faith, and endorsement of empiricism? Sadly, I think not, but along the way he makes powerful points toward this view, and against faith.

He starts his article with a story of a shipowner about to send his ship full of emigrants across the oceans. The seaworthiness of his ageing boat is doubted, but he banishes these doubts and, with a light heart, sees off the passengers and crew, who perish mid-ocean while he picks up the insurance money. Clifford considers the shipowner truly responsible for the deaths, but cites the reason for this guilt that ‘he had no right to believe on such evidence [that the ship was seaworthy] as was before him’. For Clifford it follows then that even if the ship had not sunk the shipowner is still guilty of this wrong, of believing on insufficient evidence. He cites another example, where serious charges are made against a group of professors by agitators who fail to verify the charges. He considers the agitators guilty, whether or not the charges are true, because they entertained their beliefs on inadequate grounds.

Clifford allows that a belief doesn’t inevitably lead to a particular action, and that a person may still investigate what is the right course of action. But he considers beliefs have such influence on actions that the two cannot be separated. He notes that no belief is worthy of the name that doesn’t affect our actions in some way, either now or at some future date. Layers of belief build to form a matrix that is implacably interknit, forever affecting our character. He goes on to observe that no belief is a purely private matter, and that inevitably we bear a burden in the fashioning of beliefs for posterity.

In the final paragraphs of the first section, The Duty of Inquiry, Clifford says the people in his examples are wrong because ‘in both these cases the belief held by one man was of great importance to other men’. Since  this is the reason for their guilt and, further, because all beliefs are public and affect mankind, we have a duty to investigate all our beliefs. This not only applies to those in power or authority, but also to ‘[e]very rustic’ and ‘[e]very hard-worked wife’. A belief based on insufficient evidence ‘is sinful because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind’. An atmosphere of credulity becomes permanent, and credulity betrays our 'duty to mankind'. I see this as an appeal to the common good of humanity, a concern for human civilisation. So his argument goes something like this:

Premise 1
Human civilisation is good.
Premise 2
Actions that harm people are anathema to human civilisation.
Conclusion 1
We should avoid actions that harm people.
Premise 3
Actions are inseparably linked to underlying beliefs.
Premise 4
Sufficient evidence leads to correct beliefs.
Premise 5
Without correct beliefs our actions may unwittingly cause harm.
Premise 6
Our beliefs form a matrix such that any incorrect beliefs corrupt it.
Premise 7
Everyone’s beliefs have an effect on the body of belief passed down to posterity and civilisation.
Conclusion 2
It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

P1 is implicit throughout, and I think most people would accept it (including the religious) although it is not axiomatic. However:

1.       If universal fallibilism is true and we do not know, and maybe cannot know, every last foundational fact, and grounding axioms are unavailable, this would invalidate our matrix of beliefs, per Clifford. So his standard may be unattainable. 
2.       Beliefs born from values, such as P1, may put them beyond evidence other than the presence of those values in humans. If so, believing P1 corrupts Clifford’s own matrix of beliefs.

Allowing the argument for now, how does Clifford view religious faith? He barely alludes to faith, and it’s not homogenous, so what was his target? In an article in April 2011, The New Statesman asked some notables to explain their faith, and this supplies some illustrative quotes:

First, astronomer and creationist Hugh Ross says ‘The accumulating evidence [from research] continues to point compellingly towards the God of the Bible’. He is convinced by the evidence, having moved from a secular upbringing to belief.

Secondly, biologist Kenneth Miller:
Now, I certainly do not "know" that the spirit is real in the sense that you and I can agree on the evidence that DNA is real and that it is the chemical basis of genetic information. There is, after all, a reason religious belief is called "faith", and not "certainty". But it is a faith that fits, a faith that is congruent with science...
Finally, Cherie Blair: ‘It's been a journey from my upbringing to an understanding of something that my head cannot explain but my heart knows to be true.’ Her belief cannot be explained but she thinks her feelings provide a route to knowledge.

Hugh Ross’s ‘faith’ barely conforms to the popular definition. Clifford might argue over Ross's evidence, but he wouldn’t blame him for his investigations. Clifford doesn’t explore what constitutes sufficient evidence, nor does he consider the difficulties of establishing the facts of a matter based on evidence. Peter Van Inwagen, in a 1996 piece contra Clifford, observes that intelligent political opinion is sharply divided despite exposure to the same evidence, and it’s the same for many philosophical controversies. If intelligent people with a full grasp of the evidence have different beliefs, this casts doubt on the extent to which evidence leads to truth. Maybe Clifford just asks that believers make best efforts to confirm their beliefs, not that they should all agree? But Clifford implies that evidence leads to correct beliefs (P4). Opinions could justifiably vary when they reflect different values, or different presuppositions, and this shows his premise is wrong. However, where faith makes claims about an objective reality, contradictory conclusions point to an invalid mechanism for uncovering that reality. Van Inwagen makes good objections to Clifford’s conclusion, if not his drift.

Miller’s faith is closer to Clifford’s view of faith. He places his belief beyond scientific enquiry (‘What I do not claim is that my religious belief, or anyone's, can meet a scientific test.’) Nevertheless, by claiming it’s ‘congruent with science’ he hints at reasons for believing.

Miller draws a distinction between knowing and believing. When I move house, I will generally assume that my new neighbours are harmless and benevolent – I might ask about them but I wouldn’t make exhaustive enquiries to confirm the fact. It’s rare that one would know such a thing. Is this wrong? Or I might believe the local hospital is in Brown Street, but not necessarily know it. Would that be wrong? As William James points out in The Will to Believe (1896), we are all ‘chock-full’ of such beliefs. There are prudential reasons for ensuring we know the truth in these two examples, but it’s not clear there is a moral duty, which is Clifford’s charge. However, if someone with a serious injury approaches us and asks for directions to the hospital, we would feel a moral duty to ensure our knowledge is well-grounded, in case the hospital was in Green Street, on the other side of town to Brown. Here there does seem to be a moral element in addition to a prudential one, because of the strength of our beliefs and the potential consequences of being wrong. Clifford does not consider the strength of our beliefs, and the benefit of the doubt we afford many day-to-day beliefs built into our culture because of their trivial consequences. This supports Clifford’s premise that such ‘community’ beliefs are significant to the body politic, but it shows that we cannot operate without presuming many of them. So, while a moral basis for justifying some beliefs seems imperative, it cannot apply to all beliefs, contra P6. James’s pragmatism wins out.

The existence of scientists like Miller is an empirical strike against P3, since he acts scientifically without his faith affecting him. Clifford might respond that Miller’s work is tainted by his faith in some way, but if Miller’s work has been subject to the full rigour of scientific confirmation, this is hard to maintain. Or he might point to Miller’s views poisoning the well of knowledge for ‘mankind’, increasing their credulity. But if we have Miller as an example of someone who can partition his science and credulity, we have no reason to believe that others cannot either.

Blair’s claim to know something without explanation is a prime target for Clifford. James, contra Clifford, argues for the probity of our ‘passional nature’ deciding our beliefs where there are no intellectual grounds, which appears to be Blair’s contention. James argues that choosing between faith and non-belief is a genuine option that faces us, because it’s:

1.       Living; both options are a possibility
2.       Forced; the choice cannot be avoided, and
3.       Momentous; the options are not trivial and the stakes are high.

James's example for the living option is:
If I say to you: "Be a theosophist or be a Mohammedan," it is probably a dead option, because for you neither hypothesis is likely to be alive. But if I say: " Be an agnostic or be Christian," it is otherwise: trained as you are, each hypothesis makes some appeal, however small, to your belief.
But by dismissing being a ‘mahomedan’ as a dead option, James’s case for faith collapses, since it exposes the false dichotomy he presents, between agnosticism and Christianity. There are many, probably countless, possibilities other than those that he considers live. Nevertheless, Clifford should have considered similar qualifications to those James discusses, since the urgency of some actions and their momentousness bears on the morality of how our beliefs are adopted, whereas the presence of many trivial unevidenced beliefs cannot be fatal to our moral character.

So values may be held with no more justification than their brute presence in our natures. The Millers and Blairs of the world appeal to such values and presuppositions to justify their faith, as does Clifford in his argument, and as we all must at bottom. Furthermore, Clifford sets an unattainable standard, if universal fallibilism is true. He could moderate his claim and make it more defensible. I think a powerful case could be made to show that beliefs that are held recklessly are always wrong. Or, just as Hume said ‘a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence’, one could claim that a wise, and good, man should proportion investigations into his beliefs according to a reasonable assessment of their potential for harm (or something snappier!). Or a case could be made that it’s immoral to say one’s beliefs are beyond scientific tests, as Miller does, because it places them outside objective democratic enquiry (if that’s what it does).

In the end, sadly, Clifford himself goes too far, and fails to offer a convincing view of religious faith.


Brown, S. (2002) Destiny, Purpose and Faith , Milton Keynes, The Open University

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Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Arguments for Vegetarianism

Peter Singer, Tom Regan, James Rachels, Stephen R. L. Clark, Henry Spira, 1979

Here I consider two contrasting philosophical arguments for vegetarianism. Peter Singer's rests on his flavour of utilitarianism; Tom Regan's on the notion of inherent rights. Both utilise the notion of speciesism.

Peter Singer’s argument is a little involved, but goes something like this:

Premise 1
We should do what minimises suffering for all affected
Premise 2
We consider equally the interests of humans in avoiding suffering
Premise 3
There is no morally relevant trait that humans have that some non human animals don’t
Conclusion 1
We should consider equally the interests of some non human animals in avoiding suffering
Premise 4
Intensive farming causes great animal suffering
Premise 5
For most of us the pleasure from eating meat does not outweigh the suffering of the animals intensively farmed
Premise 6
Most of us cannot know the provenance of what we eat
Conclusion 2
Most of us should not eat meat

P2 and P3 derive from the wrongness of speciesism, per Singer. He argues that speciesism is wrong  by comparing it to racism. Racists draw an unjustifiable moral distinction between races. Just as the colour of someone’s skin is irrelevant when deciding who or what has equal moral standing, so too is the furriness of their skin, say. It’s speciesist, then, to treat beings unequally based simply on their species - the species boundary is not morally relevant. Singer starts from the respect we show other humans; he establishes a line has been drawn between those beings we consider to have moral standing and those we don't, and then questions whether we draw it in the right place. P1 assumes that minimising suffering is good. So, we don’t baulk at kicking a rock, but we would baulk at kicking a child, because the child suffers. Suffering is a morally relevant trait, then, he thinks; so sentience is paramount, not species. Many might refer to human rationality, for example, as a morally distinguishing feature, but that introduces its own problems.  J.B.S. Haldane summed these problems up thus:
Has a hopeless idiot the right to life and care, though he or she is not a rational being nor likely to become one? If so, has a chimpanzee with considerably greater intelligence similar rights, and if not, why not?
The difficulty of finding a morally relevant trait makes speciesism a powerful argument, but it does not go unchallenged. Mary Midgley, for example, while accepting many of the comparisons with sexism and racism, also notes another -ism that we might not all agree is wrong: we might call it family-ism:
...we would have to show that the differential response to our own species was a far stronger emotional tendency than our differential response to our own tribe or our own children, because nobody doubts that our duty can sometimes call on us to subordinate tribal or family interest to that of outsiders. It would have to be so strong that all attempts to extend consideration to animals were doomed to failure as unnatural.
If Singer had a mentally incapacitated daughter, for example, and if during a visit to the ape house at the zoo a fire broke out, would he save his child in preference to the adult chimpanzees? I think we all would (save our child), and if Singer did not, in keeping with his principles, I think we would consider that the wrong decision. It seems to me that Midgley is right to point out that speciesism might not always be wrong, even if we can allow it is often wrong.

Note that Singer is not arguing for an absolute ban on eating animals; if meat could be produced in a way that reduced suffering or increased utility in the world, then he would conclude that it was morally right to do so. But premises 4 to 6 show that this is not the state of affairs in the world today, so we should not eat meat as things stand. P4 and P6 I agree with; P5 I think could be challenged for some. But these premises are empirical, and I want to stick to the philosophical issues as far as possible.

When he discusses whether or not we should kill, Singer appears to flirt with rationality and self consciousness as relevant traits. He defines a person, distinct from a human, as ‘a rational and self-conscious being’. Do these traits distinguish homo sapiens? The more we discover about other species, the less unique these features appear. And, more problematically, they’re not universal in humans. Some animals appear to be as rational as babies or mentally retarded humans. We either concede these humans have a moral standing less than or equivalent to animals, or we fall foul of speciesism. 

Singer's definition of person has a whiff of speciesism about it, since it appeals to characteristics (rationality and self-consciousness) that many see as peculiarly human. A person in Singer's sense has desires and plans which will be frustrated if killed (and desires satisfied and desires frustrated are definitions of happiness and suffering that utilitarians like Singer also use). Non-persons will have no such desires and plans, so nothing to frustrate. Killing humans, then, is worse than killing chickens because humans are aware of their lives in ways that chickens aren’t. It’s not worse because the human’s human. So Singer isn’t being speciesist, because he isn’t using rationality etc. to arbitrarily draw the moral line, but is using it to quantify the utility in his calculations. But in other circumstances animals may suffer more than humans because of ‘their more limited understanding’, so a different calculus would apply.

So, if we can adjust for the capacity that different animals have to satisfy desires in Singer's scheme, can factory-farming chickens, for example, be justified because they have fewer desires? I think not, because we are not comparing cramped chickens with cramped humans, but cramped chickens with the difference between eating meat and eating vegetables. The suffering of factory chickens surely does outweigh this marginal difference (Singer has made great efforts to establish animal suffering empirically, to support P4 - see The Ethics of What We Eat, for example). His argument compares the like suffering involved, and the beings are only relevant as their characteristics affect the amount of suffering.

Direct utilitarianism suggests that non-persons can be painlessly killed if replaced. Singer seems dissatisfied with this, since he invokes indirect utilitarianism and concludes it may not be right to kill non-persons, to encourage a respect for them that, if absent, would result in their mistreatment. Does this justify factory-farming then? Again, I think not. Singer isn’t expecting an immediate move to vegetarianism, and in a gradual change-over, much lost utility will be replaced by new utility; for example, in the vegetarian food chain.

Tom Regan objects that aggregating suffering in utilitarian moral theories leads to dire consequences for individuals – a good end justifying evil means. For example, it suggests that secretly transplanting organs from, say, one orphaned child to five sick people is good. As we’ve seen, Singer could counter with an appeal to indirect utility, and argue that the benefits of such a ‘general practice’ should be included in the calculation, to safeguard individuals. It’s not at all clear to me that this does provide sufficient minority protection. If we are to include the indirect suffering caused by the general practice we must also include the indirect utility gained by five individuals going on to lead healthy lives, which could be substantial.

Furthermore I think that a sacrifice of happiness in excess of the suffering relieved would be appropriate in some cases, reducing aggregate utility. For example, if a heavy table was on a person’s toe causing some discomfort, but hardly agony, I’d still feel obliged to ask five people enjoying lollies to help lift the table, even if their lollies melted. The suffering of those who lost five lollies could be more than the suffering of the toe-crushed, but if the suffering of the toe exceeds the suffering of the lost lolly for each person, it seems right that a number of individuals make that small sacrifice. Singer would no doubt reply that this is irrational if looked at in toto, and we should jettison our intuitions. But since we are looking for a system that explains and justifies our moral intuitions it seems to me that this highlights a flaw in utilitarianism.

In summary, I agree with Singer that speciesism is wrong in a similar way to racism. If suffering is the primary consideration, the charge of speciesism sticks if we treat babies with more respect than all animals. So I agree suffering is a relevant trait, but I am not convinced it is paramount. I would note that speciesism doesn't mean we should deny our natural urge to look after our own, as even animal rights campaigners surely would. Further, the flaws I see when we make moral judgements using aggregate suffering lead me to reject P1, so I cannot endorse Singer’s argument for vegetarianism.

As mentionedTom Regan finds the focus on suffering objectionable, since it gives no value to the being per se that has the feelings. His argument tries to rectify this perceived failing:

Premise 1
Every person has an equal inherent value, affording them the right to equal respect
Premise 2
Treating a person’s inherent value less than another’s is immoral
Premise 3
A person is a being who is an experiencing subject of a life
Premise 4
Some animals are experiencing subjects of a life
Conclusion 1
Treating some animals as if they have less inherent value than humans is immoral; they have a right to equal respect
Premise 5
Treating a person as a resource breaches their right to equal respect
Premise 6
Using animals in science, agriculture and sport is treating them as resources
Conclusion 2
Using animals in science, agriculture and sport breaches their right to equal respect, so is immoral

Regan also makes a speciesist appeal, with P3 and P4. Observing inherent values grants rights to those who are ‘experiencing subjects of a life’. Many animals may not fit this description, but we should be cautious and accept that many farmed animals do experience life in this way.

The Legend of the Wolf of Gubbio - Sassetta
Roger Scruton objects that only members of a moral community can have rights, because they need to be the ‘kind of thing’ that can have duties and responsibilities (to others). And David Wiggins agrees that a moral community only includes those who can owe ‘things’ to one another, ‘not least a duty to negotiate conflicts of interest’. We recognise that the events depicted in Sassetta’s The Legend of the Wolf of Gubbio, for example, where townsfolk draw up an agreement with a wolf to stop it terrorising them, are just not possible, since wolves do not understand the background duties and responsibilities to such agreements that humans do.

But it’s plain that not all humans would belong to this moral community either, since babies and the mentally retarded cannot adopt these responsibilities either. If we grant vulnerable humans a particular right, then the speciesist argument forces us to concede that we must grant animals that particular right. Regan wants to grant animals the right not to be used in science, agriculture and sport, so if we think vulnerable humans have this right, and we surely do, then his argument succeeds, or we have to show how vulnerable humans are different from animals, in a way that is relevant to the issue.

Scruton argues that babies are potential moral beings - they could sometime adopt responsibilities the way animals never could. This seems a plausible and relevant difference to me, although it raises questions about when potentiality is recognised. A human egg has the potential to be a moral being, but I doubt Scruton would grant it rights. However, to defend the standing of the mentally-incapacitated, who cannot even be potential moral beings, he claims human life is sacrosanct, which is blatantly speciesist.

P1 and P2 argue for personal rights, by suggesting that every person has an immutable value that demands respect. Regan has the laudable aim of protecting individuals, including many animals, from abuse by the majority. But in eliminating ‘evil’ means to achieve good ends, he also stops us avoiding bad ends, if ‘evil’ means are the only way to achieve that, because his approach takes no account of consequences. So, for example, if the killing of a cow is the only way to save 100 children, he would still consider the killing of the cow evil, and to be avoided. He might argue that there would always be a moral, rights based approach available to solve such dilemmas, but I cannot see this is always true. His rights based approach is too absolutist for many dilemmas that face us.

Further, I think rights are unnecessary to establish obligations to animals, and these obligations could include Regan’s aims: to remove their use from science, agriculture and sports. By granting rights, duties are imposed on others. But not every duty is spawned from a right; for example, we feel an obligation to the environment without granting it ‘rights’. So we can treat animals, and other things, well without giving them rights.

In summary, Regan’s speciesism argument works well, once we grant an inherent value to experiencing subjects of a life, and subject to the issues I raise above surrounding 'family-ism'. But inherent value would take too little account of the consequences of an act, and is an overreaction to the problem. Therefore, I cannot agree with Regan’s argument for vegetarianism eitherBoth Singer and Regan give good reasons for why we should treat animals better than we currently do, however.


Hursthouse, R. (2002) Humans and Other Animals (A211 Book 2), Milton Keynes, The Open University

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Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Observer Fails to Observe

As Andy Lewis at The Quackometer reports, The Observer have responded to the online storm caused by their failure to question the facts surrounding The Burzynski Clinic's range of treatments.

It's a poor article that ends with this:
I'll leave the last word to the deputy editor. "We had no intention of endorsing or otherwise the treatment that the Bainbridge family have chosen for Billie. The focus of the article was the extraordinary campaign to raise money for the course of action that the family, after careful consideration of the benefits and risks, had decided to pursue. It is a story of courage and generosity involving thousands of people. Of course, it is entirely legitimate to raise issues about the Burzynski clinic as a number of readers have done, and we should have done more to explain the controversy that it has provoked. But some participants in the debate have combined aggression, sanctimony and a disregard for the facts in a way which has predictably caused much distress to the Bainbridge family."
So, they admit their failure to report the facts properly, but can't resist a dig at the blogosphere (presumably), calling 'some participants' aggressive, sanctimonious and with a disregard for the facts. This is a cowardly way to smear a whole range of people who have posted on the subject, including Andy and Rhys Morgan, the 17 year old blogger from Wales, who are mentioned in the article.

This is ironic, since it's The Observer who are now coming over as aggressive, sanctimonious and with a disregard of the facts, in this piece.

It's worth noting that Andy and Rhys, among others simply raised concerns about the Clinic, and these concerns are justified. What caused the ensuing storm were the actions of an agent of the Burzynski Clinic, who adopted rough-house bullying tactics to try to silence these legitimate concerns. The Observer fail to make clear the nature of these bullying tactics. This is a serious omission.

I’ve not read any blogger who blames the families for pursuing the possibility of a cure – who wouldn’t clutch at such straws in similar circumstances? That’s what makes it important to examine the claims of potential miracle cures, and this is a duty that The Observer have failed to observe.

Donate to Cancer Research...

UPDATE: David Gorski on Burzynski's “personalized gene-targeted therapy”; "cancer is complicated":
...skirting the line between science and pseudoscience, Dr. Burzynski gives every appearance of recklessly throwing together untested combinations of targeted agents willy-nilly to see if any of them stick but without having a systematic plan to determine when or if he has successfully matched therapy to genetic abnormality.

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Monday, 28 November 2011

Bloggers Bullied by Burzynski

Somebody has been issuing illiterate threats on behalf of the Burzynski Clinic, against The Quackometer and 17 year old Welsh schoolboy Rhys Morgan. Orac gives a good account of this and the controversy surrounding antineoplastins here. I'm linking to these stories to raise their web rankings. Sadly, there's the possibility that blameless individuals like the Bainbridge family and comedian Peter Kay are simply working hard to obtain an expensive treatment that doesn't work. In the interests of all, after such a long time treating patients, the Burzynski Clinic need to get their treatment approved by medical science.

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Saturday, 26 November 2011

Cameron Opts for Blinkered Dogmatism

The Guardian has arranged for various prominent figures to ask Prime Minister David Cameron some searching and not so searching questions. Terry Wogan asked "What does the PM think the public think of him?". I mean, really, what sort of answer is that going to elicit? Nothing that is going to tell us anything interesting about Cameron or his views.

Richard Dawkins did ask an important question:
Why do you support faith schools for children who are too young to have chosen their faith, thereby implicitly labelling them with the faith of their parents, whereas you wouldn't dream of so labelling a "Keynesian child" or a "Conservative child"?
This is an important question in a modern, secular society. Peter Robinson has today announced his intention to appeal to the whole community in Northern Ireland, to try to create a united Northern Ireland. This is probably a fool's errand until measures are taken to reduce sectarianism in that blighted province, and it's hard to see how he could get from here to there without removing the deep divide that is caused by faith schools. Of course, I don't pretend this change would be sufficient; just a necessary one.

The situation is less serious in Great Britain, probably due in no small part, I suspect, to Catholic persecution in the centuries after the Reformation - Catholicism has simply had very little standing in the body politic, so it has been unable to influence policies and attitudes sufficiently to generate conflict within communities. But in an increasingly pluralist society, the ghettoising effect of faith schools is unlikely to decrease inter-community tensions. So, can we hope for a serious engagement with the issue from David Cameron? He replies:
Comparing John Maynard Keynes to Jesus Christ shows, in my view, why Richard Dawkins just doesn't really get it. 
Clearly that would be too much to ask!

Notice, first, that Cameron simply dismisses Dawkins's view out of hand, mockingly, as the over-arch Anglican blogger Cranmer notices. So, it's often said that Dawkins mocks believers and that he fails to take their beliefs seriously. Yet here we have the Prime Minister of this country, half voted in by the populace, responsible to us for his decisions, refusing to engage with Dawkins's question seriously and effectively mocking him.

Is it fair to say he doesn't engage? I think so. Dawkins is not comparing Keynes and Christ, although I dare say Keynes's contribution to the well-being of society may be the greater. He's comparing what it's appropriate to teach kids in our publicly funded schools. Is it appropriate to teach them that Keynes's policies are the right and only way an economy should be run? I don't think so. Is it appropriate to teach them that Christ's way is the right and only way to run one's life? Again, no, I don't think so.

Now, to be charitable I suspect that what Cameron may be hinting at, but not expressing, is that there are normative elements to teaching children about Christ that are missing from an economics lesson. But this makes his case even poorer, because, in a secular society, peculiarly normative elements of any religion, or dogma, must be excluded to ensure pluralism isn't threatened by state sanction of one particular view. This point, if that is what he is hinting at, tells against faith schools.

Cameron goes on:
I think faith schools are very often good schools. Why? Because the organisation that's backing them – the church or the mosque or the synagogue – is part of the community. 
The organisation that's backing the school is part of the community? This is almost tautological. Of course they're part of the community, as is the local council. Just being part of the local community is not sufficient qualification for running a school, else local political parties, or even hoodie gangs, would qualify.
And it brings a sense of community and the backing of an institution to a school.
Again, we have many institutions that don't run schools; being an institution is not a sufficient qualification to run a school.
The church was providing good schools long before the state got involved, and we should respect the fact that it's not just the state that can provide education but other bodies, too.
Well, churches have provided bad schools long before the state got involved too, so this point has little purchase. But, more importantly, we're talking about state-funded faith schools here, not private religious schools. Again, Cameron offers an argument that barely qualifies as one, and refuses to engage properly with the important issues that are at stake. Plainly other bodies can provide education, but the question is what sort of society do we want to build? Do we want a society populated by well rounded critical thinkers, or do we want it populated by blinkered dogmatists? If the first, then what do we need to do to provide such a population?

Faith schools are more likely to teach one dogma in preference to another, else why Cameron's initial dig at Dawkins? So my contention is that faith schools are more likely to teach a specifically Christian/Muslim/Jewish dogma in preference to all others, and Cameron seems to think this is a justification for faith schools. So they are more likely to deliver blinkered dogmatists. I suppose it's possible that Cameron would prefer a society of blinkered dogmatists, in which case I understand his answer to Dawkins's question.

UPDATE 28th November 2011: 

It's ironic that Cameron is being so cavalier with his approach to faith schools when, as I mentioned above, Peter Robinson is wrestling with their effects in Northern Ireland. Here is what he said on the Today programme this morning:
We bring children up in different schools and then we scratch our heads when there's division in society.
He called for an end to "religious apartheid" in NI schools.

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Thursday, 17 November 2011

Islamic Templeton?

Oddly enough, shortly after I write a piece pointing out that Templeton is just an organisation that promotes Christianity, not 'science and religion', they announce an initiative to encourage research into science and religion that includes other religions:
As productive as it has been, we at the John Templeton Foundation believe the science-religion dialogue has yet to investigate the full range of possibilities. In particular, it has largely been carried out from a perspective that is theistic (usually Christian), Western, methodologically focused, concerned primarily with the physical sciences, and has often been pitched at an introductory level. We believe that there is value in more work, particularly advanced research, which engages other scientific fields, more of the world’s religions, a wider spectrum of cultural foundations, and a greater breadth of specific topics.
Interesting that there is an admission that the science and religion meme they've pushed has indeed been Christian. I'm sure it had everything to do with my article! Previously there was this million dollar study on Islam and science, but I can't find any fruit for all that cash.

It will be interesting how far they will go with this, particularly with regard to Islam. I don't see that Islam is any less antithetical to science than Christianity, so there really is nothing different about its relation with science - I mean, they're similarly bad for scientific advancement because they promote ways of knowing objective truth that are inscrutable. But, any reconciliation of Islam with science would undermine the efforts that Christians regularly make to establish that Christianity is peculiar in its encouragement of science. It's good to see Ronald Numbers in a lecture for the Templeton funded Faraday Institute say:
...although Christians, as I’ve already pointed out, often contributed and made crucial contributions to the growth of science in the 16th, 17th and later centuries, I think it’s a conceit for Christians to argue that only Christianity could have produced science as we know it today.
However, Peter Harrison, in another Faraday lecture, on The Royal Society, argues for a social legitimacy for science among the religious scientists who founded it:
Whereas we often tend to think of religious influence manifesting itself unhelpfully in the content of scientific ideas, far more important for the period in question is the manner in which religion lent social legitimacy to scientific activities and institutions, provided motivations for key individuals in those institutions and, not least, informed their goals and methods. When we pose these kinds of questions, the importance of religion in the establishment of the Royal Society and in the public justification of its activities seems undeniable. 
He goes on to argue against Harry Kroto's views that "religious commitment, and certainly the clerical vocation, is necessarily inconsistent with ‘the scientific mindset’ and ‘intellectual integrity’". But while Harrison draws on much evidence for how religious people participated in the formation of The Royal Society, and how some of the ideas that sprang somewhat from their religious views informed their scientific approach, and allowed them to work at their science, he does not consider the basic religious proposition that is incompatible with science: that there is something objectively true that must be paramount to one's study of the universe. Surely everyone realises that even the most hardened dogmatist can 'do science' at some level, and most of the time this will not make the slightest difference. This still makes it incompatible in some way to free enquiry. It would be like saying that a football Premiership season is compatible with free competition if all teams competed against each other on an even footing throughout the season, but at the end Manchester United were declared the winners regardless of their standing (OK, sometimes it seems like that happens anyway). What is more likely, one can conclude, is that something mitigated the chilling effects of the religious approach, and with that in mind things look very different for science and religion.

Further, if Harrison's view are to be taken seriously, then presumably he must agree that Islam did not offer social legitimacy for science in the same way (since we're trying to figure out why science sprung up when and where it did, after all), in which case the approach that provided the encouragement for science is independent of religion. Furthermore, we can point out that secular approaches can provide social legitimacy for science too, so, all in all, these arguments for science and religion stand up to very little scrutiny. They go together like oil and water.

So a series of Templeton funded studies on how science and different religions are compatible, or not, would be a worthwhile project and may break the Christian hold on the science and religion meme. They can either hold to the idea that Christianity is pre-eminent and true, or let go and allow that any religion may be true, and Christianity therefore holds no special flame for truth. We shall see.

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Thursday, 10 November 2011

Test of Science

Massimo Pigliucci has declined funding from The Templeton Foundation, a decision I applaud, and would urge any academic to follow. The reason he cites is:
...I simply don’t like having my name associated with right wing and/or libertarian organizations like the JTF, the American Enterprise Institute or the Institute for American Values.
Fair enough, and while surely right wing organisations have every right to operate as they see fit, within the law, I think the JTF may be too right wing for comfort. Sunny Bains conducted a study of its activities and noted:
For instance, the Templeton Freedom Awards are administered by the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, a group that is perhaps most notable for its opposition to taking action against climate change and for being a defender of the tobacco industry that has traditionally given them funding.
Certainly tobacco and climate change are the typical bugbears of right wingers, but from what I've seen of Templeton, Bain's conclusion is a more disturbing aspect of the JTF:
Its agenda can at best be called unclear. At worst, its agenda is pro-religion and anti-science.
Further she says:
I call on the scientific community to boycott Templeton Foundation research funding and events. If that is too much to ask, I suggest that all those accepting Foundation funding, through whatever route, investigate the Foundation and the other activities that it funds, and to put on the record what they think about that work.
Of course, if the Templeton Foundation is benign and open-minded, as their advertising claims, then this dissent should not cause anyone to lose their funding. On the other hand if, as I suspect, the Foundation is more interested in promoting pro-religious activities than doing real science, then some people may find that their grants are not renewed when the time comes.
Well done to Pigliucci for carrying out his research, but my view is that Templeton are aiming to further the meme of science and religion so as to undermine the proper conduct of science to protect Christianity from criticism. What I mean by this is that Templeton want the Christian presuppositions to be the norm when science is conducted. For science to be untainted, it needs to follow the evidence, wherever it leads. The Christian project makes that impossible, in principle, since a dogmatic belief in the truth of Christ must always trump science, for a believer.

I've written a few times about the Templeton Foundation before, noting the corrupting effect it may well have on the proper conduct of science, and indeed, perhaps, aims to have. For example, here's a 'paper' from the The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion (note the science and religion), a Templeton funded organisation. It's called Human genomics and the Image of God, by Graeme Finlay. In the summary at the very start, it says:
Our DNA tells a story that describes our biological origins during mammalian evolution, but that is not sufficient to account for our origins as persons. We are formed as persons only as we hear and assimilate stories transmitted in our families and communities. Christians believe that the story that is essential to the development of a fulfilled humanity is that which relates God’s redeeming action in Jesus Christ.
What Christians believe is wholly irrelevant to the science of DNA. Now, by all means, Finlay is welcome to  publish papers reconciling with science whatever odd beliefs he has, but to publish such a paper under the auspices of a reputable sounding organisation (with science in its title, don't forget), based at one of the leading universities in the world is calculated to undermine the scientific project. Other dubious papers, in the scientific sense, are also listed.

A recent news bulletin from Templeton pointed me to their Test of FAITH project. Its aim is to supply "accessible materials on science and Christianity for everyone who is interested in these issues". They have sections for youthworkers, schools and kids (a work in progress at time of writing). They have produced a film which "explores the relationship between science and religion, and the generally perceived idea that they are in conflict. Scientist believers discuss how they fit their faith and professional science work together." There is a sample lesson plan for teachers, with session one entitled The myth of conflict. The myth? Oh, really? Under a section discussing evil and suffering, they suggest the teacher:
Point out that science specialises in knowledge, but wisdom tends to be associated with religious traditions. They could use Einstein’s quotation, ‘Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.’
References are made to the good that science has done for us, but apparently only as an excuse to also point out the bad things it has enabled. It's plain that the subtext of the whole project is not science-friendly, but Christian-centric.

Now it may be that there are areas of reality immune to scientific investigation, but that doesn't allow us to claim a compatibility between religion and science. Every claim that religion has made that science can test has been found to be wrong. Religion has no track record of successful epistemology; in fact, since competing religions come to different conclusions, we can be confident that they are more wrong than right, and possibly completely wrong.

More to the point, Templeton isn't pursuing a way to reconcile science and religion, but a way to reconcile science and Christianity. Under the heading Schools & Youth - UK - Test of FAITH: Live!, we find:
This is an exciting new youth and schools initiative led by Chip Kendall, former lead singer of thebandwithnoname, and DJ Galactus Jack. Events include music, video, live science experiments and a short talk from a scientist. If you are interested in hosting Test of FAITH: Live! at your school or youth event, please contact us for details.
Spreading the Christian message to schools - the promo makes it very obvious this is an evangelical operation:

"It's a great way of providing a vehicle for the gospel for people to engage with". That's pretty up front. I must say it disturbs me that these people are visiting schools spreading this unscientific message under the guise of science. I have only found evidence of two school visits though, shown above, to Wick and Thurso High Schools.

This is outside of school time, but is this really an appropriate use of state schools? What about their obligations to religious diversity? These are supposed to be non-denominational schools. The distribution of lesson plans preaching a Christian message, and rock musicians and scientist believers spreading a science and Christian message is just not what I expect our schools to be used for.

Jerry Coyne has posted a quote from physicist Robert L. Park about Templeton:
Not everyone was happy about the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) selling its soul to Templeton. Why had the most important scientific organization in America, perhaps in the world, allowed the voice of antiscience to assume the guise of a dialog between science and religion?
I agree that Templeton are simply promoting science and religion to promote their antiscience voice, as Park says,and I think the evidence above shows that.

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Friday, 4 November 2011


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Misunderstood Presentations or Misrepresentations?

I've now seen the Q & A for the Coyne-Haught Symposium, and it's a relief to see that this is where the missing scientism 'argument' appears, rather than in John Haught's presentation.

In answer to a question asking if Haught would consider not pre-supposing God before looking at his own beliefs (a good question), he ignores this and says that Coyne thinks that:
There's only one explanatory slot for everything.
But this is a bizarre misunderstanding, or wicked misrepresentation, of what Coyne said, and clouds Haught's thinking throughout the Q & A. This is perhaps the explanation for Haught's remarkable decision to try to suppress the video of the event. Because Haught starts by making such a disastrously wrong assessment of what Coyne has said (and is apparently disturbed by this figment of his imagination), he quickly runs down cul-de-sacs. He obviously considers Coyne's position to be one of scientism, but that isn't it at all. He never said there could only be one layer of explanation for phenomena (there usually is), he never said that science is the only way of knowing. The question on the table is, are science and religion compatible? Haught needs to address Coyne's case that they are not, rather than pursue his imaginary demons.

Layered explanation, which Haught is proposing, is fine. All that people ask is that arguments and evidence are presented for any particular explanation offered. Even if we have a phenomena with layers of explanation that doesn't mean we simply adopt any layer that anyone proposes; we must have a reason to consider the layer a viable explanation. We can only go on argument and evidence, not wishful thinking, at least if we are being scientific. This is not scientism, but science. To describe Coyne's ideas as scientism is an abuse of the English language.

But even if Coyne were guilty of scientism, it's still an inadequate argument to place to the assembled throngs. Scientism doesn't then mean that theology tells us something real about the world. An argument has to be made to show that, and Haught doesn't offer us one. He says:
There is no contradiction between a theological way of understanding the universe and a scientific way.
Don't say it, show it! - contra Coyne. This really is a hopeless response from Haught.

Haught is then asked where he sees the evidence for a loving God. Here he distinguishes between publicly accessible, scientific evidence, and transformative evidence - the overwhelming encounter with something that is so true and so good that it carries you away. So, he's talking about subjective experience here, and I'm rather surprised that he can't see that this is fatal to his contention that science and religion are compatible. Every inch of his tall frame seems to be denying the truth that science tells us, even if we allow that his revelations carry some weight as evidence.

Oddly he also says although this is evidence too, it's not something you can get your mind around. Well, how does he then? It's this sort of doublespeak that will be the death knell for theology, I think.

In a discussion on Occam's Razor, Haught again makes the mistake of noting that different understandings can have explanatory value, and therefore his understanding has explanatory value. It's very odd to see a senior academic making such a basic error. He needs to show that his understanding has explanatory value with argument and evidence, not just by logical compatibility. Almost anything can be logically compatible with a set of phenomena, but it doesn't follow that scientific explanations and theological explanations that are logically compatible with the same phenomena are then compatible. Maybe that's another of Haught's errors.

This was a disappointing end, since Haught didn't address any of Coyne's arguments about the methodology of the two disciplines, which to my mind are the source of claims of incompatibility. His hand waving insistence that his beliefs about the world are compatible with science flew in the face of the rest of what he said. A very odd performance.

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Thursday, 3 November 2011

Coyning It

Jerry Coyne starts by pointing out the various pointers to a conflict between science and religion, such as organisations like the Templeton Foundation who search for a resolution to the problem, how scientists are more likely to be atheist, how more people in the US believe in angels than in evolution. The suggestion here is, I think, that there is an incompatibility which gives rise to these activities and beliefs.

I think this is fine as an indication of a problem, but it doesn't show that science and religion's incompatibility is true any more than people acting and believing that science and religion are compatible makes that true. If everyone in the world but me agreed that science and religion were compatible, I think I would still think they weren't (although it would make me pause!).

Coyne then moves onto a description of scientific methodology, which he characterises as 'qualified common sense'. 'The first principle is that you must not fool yourself..'. Religion on the other hand is based on 'dogma, authority and revelation'. He notes that religious ideas have changed because of scientific advances in our understanding of the world around us (such as evolution) and secular morality. And for the better - our treatment of women and gays, for example.

This is stronger ground for Coyne. To my mind there is a fundamental incompatibility between the methods of religion and the methods of science that is almost bound to result in differences. Now, it's possible that they don't; it may be that dogma, authority and revelation are different ways of finding out the same thing as scientific methodology uncovers. The problem with this view is, it never has. On every occasion that science has come up against religious 'knowledge', the scientific knowledge has won out. So, the religious might offer that dogma, authority and revelation are a way to uncover knowledge that science cannot uncover. Again, this is possible, but the evidence suggests otherwise, because we have a history of divergent beliefs about anything that cannot be shackled in some way. How do we shackle our beliefs? Well, the scientific method is the best way, and so far, the only reliable arbiter we've discovered.

Coyne says that in science, faith is considered a vice, but in religion, a virtue.

Maybe this is a little too broad brush? I understand what he means, but there's a danger of making the same mistake that Clifford made, in The Ethics of Belief (1877) when he says:
It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.
I think William James shows in The Will to Believe (1896), that this is a practical impossibility, and a moment's thought confirms this. We are a social animal, and one of the reasons for our seemingly exponential advance in recent times is our ability, well in advance of other animals, to pass knowledge on to our offspring, and to share knowledge. This process is impossible without an element of faith in the institutions that supply this knowledge. Certainly as children we aren't in a position to gather evidence; trust in our nearest and dearest seems to be built into us without any need for evidence. One might speculate that evolution has determined that a propensity to trust without evidence when we are children has been a successful evolutionary ploy. Not surprising, if that's so, that this also spills over into our adult life. We conduct our daily lives through many trivial acts that are not fully evidenced, since we have to get on and it's impractical to gather evidence for every minor thing one does. Maybe this is equivocating between faith as trust, and faith as believing without evidence, but it seems to me there are sufficient occasions when we really do not have any evidence to discount Clifford's as a general rule.

Coyne's rule is better, however, because it notes that in science, faith is considered a vice. This, it seems to me, allows us to sanction the rule, since it lets us have faith in our every day lives as a pragmatic necessity. But in matters of scientific import, it is not fit for purpose.

Coyne continues and notes that in religion there is no way of knowing you are wrong.

A key point, this. Two religious ideas have no method, in principle, of resolving which one is right.

Coyne notes that methodological naturalism has led to the view that metaphysical naturalism is true. There's no God, just material processes, and that works. He lists a number of areas about the cosmos where religion could have got reality right, but didn't, such as special creation, Adam and Eve, the Flood and so on. He wittily observes that falsified scientific claims are discarded, but falsified theological claims are made metaphorical. Religion does make existence claims, and the Nicene Creed is used as an example. He points out that the answers to the bigger questions haven't been answered by religion, because they do not agree with each other.

And as I wrote above, there is no method of reconciling different beliefs in principle.

Coyne quotes Haught as saying that "the transience and expected death of the cosmos defy our attempts to state clearly what the 'point' of it all may be."

Funnily enough, this is the point I make in my post on Haught's talk. however, it's worth noting that this quote from Haught's Deeper than Darwin ends with this sentence:
On the other hand, recognizing the possibility that the universe is still barely emerging from the cosmic dawn, we may take them as promissory symbols of the ultimate depth into which all things are being drawn. he was saying this as a set-up to this assertion. But like his talk, he seems to have nothing but wishful thinking to back up the notion. Perhaps he's left his arguments in the book.

Coyne runs through some unscientific behaviour typical of religion, such as denying that the Bible says what it appears to say, that it doesn't involve an honest search for truth, but a rationalisation of what is already believed to be true...

I'm guessing that Haught found such accusations beyond the Pale, since I'm sure he would disagree that this is what he does. I think it's certainly clear that William Lane Craig's arguments are rationalisations, since he admits he doesn't believe in god because of the arguments he puts forward. Coyne hilariously includes a quote from Haught that certainly suggests he puts wishful thinking above scientific endeavour. To say that all religion, or all theology, is guilty of this may be unsustainable, however.

...that they make stuff up, they rationalise every new scientific observation as part of God's plan, that they understand the nature and intention of God.

Coyne quotes Haught again as 'making stuff up'. Again, I'm sure Haught denies this, but it's hard to see how what he says is anything but made up. Without some method of knowing, with verification, how does Haught know? It's not clear, I should say, that the quote that Coyne uses of Haught's is referring to the hiddenness of God exactly. It's certainly true that Haught's quote on the problem of evil doesn't come close to addressing the issue.

Coyne gives a good example of fitting science around the God idea when discussing Haught on evolution, where Haught says it is a tribute to God that the world is 'an inherently active and self-creative process'. 

Before science showed it true, no theologian would propose evolution as the obvious way for a god to make the world, but afterwards it becomes a 'tribute' to him. With this sort of post hoc analysis, there really is no hope for theology.

Coyne ends, I think, with an appeal to why science and religion shouldn't be compatible, because the consequences of the poor methodology of faith are the evils of religion, some of which he lists. These are allowed to persist because of dogmatic thinking.

This is fair, I think. None of these consequences of religion are solely a problem of religion - it's people in the end who enshrine these evils, and people can ignore the dogma. But, as a matter of principle, dogmatic thinking can more easily lead to such abuses. This is the power of Coyne's presentation. I don't see that these attacks are ad hominem, since Coyne is making an argument about the incompatible methods adopted by science and religion, the abuses of method by religion, and he illustrates these using Haught's own words. Haught could, I think, complain about the quotes if they have been quote-mined, so I would encourage him to explain that in an article as soon as possible, if that's the case.

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