Science, Religion, and the Knowledge of History

By Chris Mooney | June 29, 2009 11:42 am

I’m growing increasingly convinced that the lack of historical awareness is an important factor in fanning the flames of science-religion conflict. Indeed, over at Russell Blackford’s blog, John Wilkins notes as much:

As you must know, religion has played a complex and often intimate role in actual science. The equivalence classes “science” and “religion” are either abstracted in some unrealistic purity, or treated as somehow the same, and so on. But the history is that science and religion are neither separate nor identical and their degree of engagement changes over time. If all we are doing here is defending some idealised science, then we defend nothing.

Whereupon a commenter named “Matt” writes this, something that really surprised me:

Religion might have played an important peripheral role in funding or supporting (or oppressing) scientific endeavors, but but I doubt very seriously it ever played a role in the actual science.

Let me just give one sense in which religion inspired science. The point is based on my reading of John Hedley Brooke’s Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge Studies in the History of Science), which is one very important academic study of the subject. For reference see p. 192-225 in Brooke.

Back in the days of natural theology–”intelligent design” before Darwin, back when it was actual “science”–many Christians thought that the natural world provided copious evidence of the brilliance of God’s handiwork. Accordingly, parsons and priests were often inspired to become naturalists and study nature in order to provide evidence of the divine. Science was a means of finding and understanding one’s Creator.

Scientific inquiry was therefore substantially driven by faith, and much scientific progress resulted from this impulse–albeit progress in a pre-Darwinian paradigm. After Darwin much of it remained good data, though of course it had to be reordered and seen through a new lens.

There are also, to be sure, ways in which religion thwarted science in the past. But the point is, you need to understand the rich historical picture, and if you do, you find that the Galileo case–although an incredibly important event–is hardly a skeleton key to the science-religion relationship over time.

Comments (192)

  1. John Kwok

    Chris,

    One of the reasons why science took root in Western Civilization and thus, allowed it to be the predominant global civilization, is due to religion, especially the Protestant Reformation, where the Bible was translated finally from Latin into vernacular Western European languages. Leading philosophers and early “scientists” became interested in notions of progress and hierarchy analogous to those they saw in both the Old, and especially, New Testaments. This spurred interest in “natural philosophy”, in which one of the objectives was trying to understand “GOD’s creation” (the natural world). Eventually, even among the “creationists” of the 18th and early 19th Century, there arose an understanding that GOD worked his wonders primarily – if not exclusively – by natural laws, and a realization that the Earth was much older than the literal, conflicting accounts, of its age in the Book of Genesis.

    Militant Atheists seem to have ignored or forgotten the crucial role which the Protestant Reformation played in helping to shape gradually over time, a methodological naturalistic view of the world.

  2. You might as well say that universities ever played a role in the actual science, or government funding or any number of other institutions.

    There was an enormous brawl at PZ’s place because he took umbrage over some researcher at Yale who said that he’d found his religious faith important to his scientific research. PZ and his regulars didn’t like the idea, I said that the guy was the best authority on the matter since he’s the one who did the research and he’s the one who said it. I’d wonder if any other scientists have said similar things.

    I wonder if someone said that their bridge playing helped with their science if that would be controversial, though I’ve got a feeling I wouldn’t be able to find any science blog arguments saying the bridge player didn’t know his own mind.

  3. Chris,

    Scientific inquiry was therefore substantially driven by faith, and much scientific progress resulted from this impulse…

    The operative word here, I think, is “was.” I’m only speculating, but it seems reasonable to assume that Coyne, Dawkins, Myers, etc., being scientists themselves, have enough familiarity with the history of science to recognize that faith has been the impetus for scientific exploration in the past.

    I haven’t seen them criticizing Copernicus or Kepler for being religious, or Darwin’s contemporary Asa Gray for accommodationism, or even Dobzhansky for his. Criminy, even Gould isn’t maligned, even if his NOMA concept is. Maybe they have done in the past, but what I have seen lately are criticisms for accommodationists of today who perpetuate the myth that religion is epistemically equivalent to science when it quite clearly isn’t.

    We don’t owe religion a debt of gratitude for arguably driving scientific discovery in the past. Nor is it wise to leave compatibilism unchallenged today, because it just doesn’t fit the facts even if some people are able to reconcile the two for themselves. I can rather easily understand the political expediency of doing so, but I don’t think it serves anyone to be less than completely honest.

    Acknowledging that religion is and has been important to many people is one thing. Promoting the history of science to show how science has been performed by a diverse group of individuals from many backgrounds (including religious ones) is also perfectly reasonable. Minimalizing the religious implications of science, perhaps by focusing on more positive aspects of science, can (I think) also be justified. But actively working to foster the continuation of a modern myth – that religion is epistemically equivalent to science, but in other areas – is disingenuous at best.

  4. You know, I like the sentiment, and I think it has some backing. And yet, there’s something a tad suspect about the “reasons” people give for their endeavors, particularly when these mirror the pieties of the day. Honestly, how much would we care about someone’s statement about doing science for the “love of humanity”?

    Wilkins is certainly correct about science and religion not being fully separable, most notably in the past. So surely it was bound up with the other reasons Newton did science (and likely it played a role in his belief in a designed world). But even with a wildly religious person like Newton, the pieties about his wanting to understand god’s work appear rather less important than his rivalries with Hooke and desire for recognition.

    I’d be chary of Wilkins’ use of the fact that science and religion aren’t so easily separated. The mix was considerable in the past, but it’s no accident that NOMA and similar claims about the total separateness of religion and science have been seized upon by many people. Collins and other quite religious scientists simply do not use religion in their science, even if there may be some mixture of religious and scientific impulse behind their work. Collins puts god into other sciences, like cosmology, not into his own researches. Even if science and religion aren’t completely separate today, very few see the two mixing productively, save the pseudoscientists.

    More clear religious reasons for at least some science exist in earlier times, like Copernicus’s own astronomical work to improve the church calendar. Due to the problems he ran into with the church, it’s often forgotten that he was himself a churchman, paid to make astronomy observations. The church wasn’t really all that put out by Copernicus’s ideas, since there was nothing at that time which solidly meant that heliocentrism was true (or at least more true) than the Ptolemaic model.

    The Pythagorean-Platonic view of the universe as ultimately rational (indeed, ordered by mind in the Christian version), which was incorporated into the later Abrahamic religions, appears to have facilitated science–and although one may argue whether these ideas were originally “religious” in nature, it’s almost completely useless to try to try to divorce the two in medieval times. The Chinese did very well with science and technology up to a point, but their theologies and ideologies did not propose that there was any sort of ultimate coherence and rationale behind phenomena, which appears to be why, in large part, they did not develop science as such. In that sense, I think we can again see science benefiting from a particular religious tradition.

    Religion did have positive impacts upon science, along with negative impacts. And yet, that is little cause for arguing for present compatibility of science and religion, because whatever positive epistemic and rational impulses that science received from religion, the latter is no longer the source for science’s epistemology rational workings of knowledge. I can credit religion’s compatibility with science in the past, then, however present-day theistic scientists do not even see religion as important to their scientific work.

    To be fair, I still think that the creative side of science can utilize religion, magical thinking, fictions, and flights of fancy, and the creative side is too often neglected in discussions of science. Nevertheless, science is often understood to exist more where it is different from non-rational creativity (partly because creative fictions exist everywhere, and are not limited to science), hence one does not typically understand the religious as playing a role in science there either. Perhaps the distinction is artificial, but so is science, ultimately, and so it is not at all surprising that we might fictionalize science as being separate from non-rational thinking.

    Of course it’s all very complex, yet in the end there are very few who really posit that religion plays a positive role in science (even those who use their religion creatively in science know that another religion or fiction might do for that). Past roles for religion in science do little to mitigate that fact.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  5. Not unusually, I made mistakes in my comments, but only one that seems important enough to fix. This one,

    the latter is no longer the source for science’s epistemology rational workings of knowledge

    It should have been something like,

    the latter is no longer the source for science’s epistemology and rational understandings of knowledge

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  6. andrew

    The failure of theology to function as a scientific theory was widely acknowledged before Darwin, even by priests (Wilson & Green, 2007). Religious accounts utterly fail to explain elementary facts of the world. The only way in which religion inspired science was in the recognition that religious accounts of the natural could not be correct.

    Before Galileo, knowledge grew in a slow, faltering way. After Galileo the scene is transformed: scientific knowledge begins to grow with ever-increasing rapidity (Maxwell, 1998).

    I agree that we must make some kind of fundamental assumption about the ultimate nature of the universe, but this assumption must be as close as possible to the true nature of the universe. Otherwise, as Maxwell points out, we will adopt an entirely inappropraite set of methods to improve our knowledge of natural processes. Religious mythology, simply through standard emprical observation, is clearly the wrong cosmological assumption to make about the ultimate nature of the universe.

    The tendency for humnas to hold religious beliefs evolved possibly into genetically transmitted cognitive mechanisms which make us highly susceptible to these beliefs. Much like much of our intuitive physics is not correct, religion may serve an important social function either as a group-level adaption or as a non-adaptive trait which was adaptive in different contexts.

    The historical relationship between religion and science is important for understanding the history of ideas, however there are good reasons that science abandoned religious metaphor and mythology more than 200 years ago.

  7. I looked up who it was that got PZ so worked up, it was this talk by Fred Sigworth

    http://www.yaledailynews.com/articles/view/21345

    While PZ didn’t like it and I’m sure some scientists would object, he’s the best judge of his own experience.

  8. John Kwok

    @ Anthony -

    I hope Professor Sigworth heard Ken Miller’s talk at Yale about a year or so ago. Ken’s take is far more responsible IMHO than Sigworth’s. Why? Ken stresses the primacy of science over religion with regards to science, while Sigworth obviously doesn’t.

  9. Jeff

    “Lack of historical awareness” explains why people do a lot of the things we do. In cases where we have a precedent we always say “not this time” and in cases where we know something bad will happen- we wait until it’s almost too late to fix things.
    I’m glad somebody (Chris) is trying to help religious people assimilate into reality without attacking them.

  10. Wes

    There’s a very important epistemological distinction between motivation and justification. You provide an example of religion motivating science (which is all that history provides). But that’s very different from justification.

    Nazism in Germany also motivated a significant amount of scientific work, some of which was good work. The science is what it is regardless of the motivation. But the fact that Nazism motivated scientific inquiry does not in any fashion show that Nazism has anything to offer science and an intellectual endeavor.

    I certainly don’t deny that religion has been a motivation for many scientists. But that does not change the fact that faith is not a way of knowing.

  11. Wes

    Sorry. That should say “science AS an intellectual endeavor” in my post above.

  12. Erasmussimo

    The relationship of science and religion in Western Civ goes back at least as far as Thomas Aquinas, who made the third big attempt to reconcile Aristotelian logic with religion. The previous two attempts, by an Islamic scholar and a Jewish scholar, were both failures in that their teachings were rejected. But Aquinas’ work stuck. And that triggered the Western drive towards rationalism whose seeds had been planted by the Greeks. During the period between Aquinas and the Enlightenment, religion was a major driving force for scientific research. Roger Bacon and Copernicus are two prime examples of cleric scientists, but we shouldn’t forget that Isaac Newton spent more time on his religious studies than anything else; inventing physics and calculus were secondary efforts, in his mind.

    It was the religious excesses of the 17th century that drove apart religion and scientific inquiry. The Enlightenment was primarily a reaction to those excesses and it led to the secularization of much of Western thought.

    As several commenters have pointed out, none of this bears on the modern relationship between science and religion. But let me remind everyone of a point I made some time ago that has not been answered: religion is no longer a way of knowing, except in the minds of fundamentalists. To the great majority of believers, religion is fundamentally an ethical framework, not an epistemological one. And science has nothing whatsoever to contribute to ethical considerations. In this sense, science and religion are fundamentally compatible because they are fundamentally orthogonal.

  13. Walker

    Your co-blogger, Sheril, had a post a while back (at a conference, bandwidth too low to search for it) about the integration of more liberal arts into graduate level science programs. I opposed this post, simply because I believe that this is the entire purpose of the undergraduate degree, and it is too late to address this at the graduate level.

    However, your observation, as well as the lack of basic philosophy training found in many new atheists, really underscores just how badly undergraduate education is failing us in this role. The “two-cultures” has resulted in a serious divide in between science majors and humanities majors with both sides woefully ignorant of the major contributions of the other to western thought.

    For many years, I taught at a “Western Tradition” university where the number of distributive requirements was tremendous (even science majors had to take 4 history classes and 4 philosophy/theology classes). This was difficult for many of the science majors, because they had to decide on their specialization early, in order to fit in all their classes. But nearly every one of them came through the experience feeling that the breadth was worth it, and that it helped them in understanding their role in advancing science.

  14. gillt

    “Back in the days of natural theology–”intelligent design” before Darwin, back when it was actual “science”–many Christians thought that the natural world provided copious evidence of the brilliance of God’s handiwork.

    True, and many Christians still see it this way. Having read Collins’ book, I’m certain he sees it this way. However, it is not ahistorical to note how the “copious evidence” of his handiwork becomes less if not copious then obvious, or rather more allegorical, over the centuries. As science further characterizes natural mechanisms (e.g., selection, drift,) to explain phenomena, the gaps shrink. Where is it now now, at the level of a quantum? At least according a theistic biologist.

  15. gillt

    “The previous two attempts, by an Islamic scholar and a Jewish scholar.”

    It’s true that Maimonides’ negative theology was necessarily rejected because it was threatening to church authority and dogma, but it seems to me more compatible to science, neo-platonic, than Aquinas’s.

    His theodicy is a different matter.

  16. Jon

    It’s true that Maimonides’ negative theology was necessarily rejected because it was threatening to church authority and dogma, but it seems to me more compatible to science, neo-platonic, than Aquinas’s.

    I’m not familiar with the particulars, but from what I’ve read, Maimonides’ theology made it much easier for Aristotle to be assimilated into Western Theology (alongside Plato who was St. Augustine favored Greek philosopher): http://tinyurl.com/megjsj

  17. Jon

    That’s a bit confusing–Aristotle was brought in much later. Plato had a very early influence via St. Augustine. Suffice it to say, without theologians like Maimonides, Aristotle’s work would probably never have gotten the kind of purchase it did in Western culture.

  18. – It was the religious excesses of the 17th century that drove apart religion and scientific inquiry. The Enlightenment was primarily a reaction to those excesses and it led to the secularization of much of Western thought. Erasmussimo.

    Thank you. Thank you. That’s a point I really wish more people could appreciate, the role that looking at what actually has happened in the real world in history plays in progress such as the adoption of egalitarianism and the separation of church and state. It was looking at what did happen, as much a part of the history of the real world as the fossil record, that gave us those important features of modern life.

    I really wish that more history was a requirement and that instead of boring school children to death with the age of exploration they’d show them how it is really important to their lives. Maybe some scientists could use a few refreshers along those lines because a lot of them seem to think they can make absolutist pronouncements that are flatly contradicted by what actually DID HAPPEN by history.

    What has happened in history is a record as valid as any in the retrospective sciences, it’s quite a bit more detailed than the make believe history of some recent would-be sciences. Unlike a lot of that, we can be quite confident it happened, unlike their creation myths which are baseless.

  19. gillt

    It’s been too many years since my medieval philosophy class, but I seem to remember negative theology being rejected on the basis that you can only know what the supernatural isn’t and not what it is–only posit negative characteristics to God (e.g., God isn’t mortal). Any positive statement would have to be an inference, I suppose.

  20. Jon

    I think the point, gillt, is all the theological commentaries that came along with Aristotle. Without those really smart and thoughtful texts, there wouldn’t have been anywhere for Aristotle to go, given the intellectual institutions / preoccupations of the time.

  21. gillt

    “boring school children to death with the age of exploration”

    That it bored you to death is obvious.

    I double majored in lit and biology, and can say a general lack of science literacy in the humanities department was just as apparent. I blame the French.

  22. geck

    Without Reason! Based on your article, could I say we must thank all the tyrants, from whom, we realize the significance of freedom and democracy? I think you should study the history of religion and science more carefully, and don’t misguided by rumors majority believed in, like “Science is born from religion”. I think it’s time to end your meaningless quarrel and this debate.

  23. – “boring school children to death with the age of exploration”

    That it bored you to death is obvious. gillt

    Actually, I usually got the top grade in history and biology. Since you ask.

    – I double majored in lit and biology, and can say a general lack of science literacy in the humanities department was just as apparent. I blame the French. gillt

    What accounts for the lack of knowledge about the foundations of methods of science among science majors? And a few of them could obviously stand a bit of work in logic, even into the highest reaches of the profession.

  24. Jon

    One thing that seems to be confusing some people is what might be summarized from what Chris has been saying: “We differ philosophically. But we are political allies in the effort to defend scientific issues politically (such as evolution and climate change).”

    I guess the best question is *how* we express our differences when we differ philosophically, but are on the same side with regard to these issues? What kind of advice are we giving on that front? Civility, I understand as one bit of it. Differing, but making some effort in the direction of finding common cause and not alienating. This may be a problem, because with the New Atheists, this is a cause–the whole thing is predicated on not granting the other side any concession.

    Maybe there’s some sort of parallel case somewhere where you could make an analogy, where people differed philosophically, but had a mature, working relationship.

  25. andrew

    “This may be a problem, because with the New Atheists, this is a cause–the whole thing is predicated on not granting the other side any concession.”

    I don’t really see what the concessions could be. If you are a naturalist/materialist/atheist/scientist what are there in terms of concessions to religion?

    If you don’t believe in God and someone else does that doesn’t seem to be a thing which allows degrees of disagreement. It is either/or. You can’t say “I accept scientific explanations on 80% of things, and 20% on religious explanations.” Or “I believe in God 60%.” There is no fuzzy logic here, I don’t think.

    Unless you are willing to give up internal consistency, and if you do that then all bets are off you might as well be insane.

    I am all for respect and civil debate, but not at the expense of intellectual rigor and truth.

  26. Dan L.

    Religion and religious sentiment was very important in the period commonly called the Scientific Revolution, but I think it’s fair to point out that this period was neither very scientific, nor was it much of a revolution. I think the “historical” camp is actually being just as ahistorical as the so-called “militant atheists” (assuming that this doesn’t mean an atheist with a gun and uniform, I guess I’m one of them). Looking at the most influential natural philosophers (Bacon, Descartes, Boyle, Newton as a short list), one sees a diversity of approaches and theologies, many of them fairly heretical for the time. Furthermore, there was little agreement among these noteworthies as to the correct metaphysical relationship between experiment, observation, conjecture, and theory.

    At the time, the religious views of these men were central to their approach to understanding nature — that cannot be denied. But to what extent were their religious views “religious” in the sense of orthodoxy? In fact, they weren’t. Most of these gentlemen ranted and raved against scholasticism — the church’s approach to knowledge — as useless compared to specific knowledge of the natural world gained through experiment or observation. While these men approached science (or rather, natural philosophy) through the lens of theism, these men were significant in rejecting and replacing the orthodox religious approach to knowledge with…well…those four luminaries didn’t quite agree on what the correct approach should be (Newton and Descartes favoring a mathematical approach, Boyle and Bacon preferring an experimental one), but they agreed that it wasn’t scholasticism.

    This is, in a nutshell, the “anti-accomodationist” position. Religion only has two tools to approach questions of truth: personal revelation and authority. Both are antithetical to the epistemological approach of science. And they are exactly those approaches to knowledge that were rejected by the historically notable scientists that were, as this post implies, influenced by religion in their work.

    If the “anti-accomodationists” are, as Mr. Mooney suggests, wrong, then it should be no trouble for the accommodationists to explain what exactly religion brings to the table in terms of the search for truth. I have yet to hear a satisfying answer. In fact, the accommodationists don’t even seem to have a clear answer for whether religion and science seek the same truths or different truths.

  27. Jon

    “…not at the expense of intellectual rigor and truth.”

    Hey, why stop at philosophical naturalism, why not go all the way to logical positivism and shout down anyone who says anything “literally meaningless”?:

    http://www.cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/notebooks/logical-positivism.html

    Then you *really* purge life of any “non-scientific” messiness… (although you definitely create other messiness along the way. AJ Ayer taught in my undergraduate program and some lit professors used to keep a distance of at least two feet when he walked by on the sidewalk. Of course, nowadays logical positivism is looked at as an example of early 20th century naivety…)

  28. – If you don’t believe in God and someone else does that doesn’t seem to be a thing which allows degrees of disagreement. andrew

    Maybe the problem with the new atheists is that, exactly like the most obnoxious of religious fundamentalists, that they figure what other people do or don’t believe is their business. Violations of your right to not be bothered by other peoples’ ideologies are a matter of etiquette not of science. The only area which they’ve got any validity is in keeping religion out of public school science classes and, frankly, I think they’re some of the best material the creationists have to work with in organizing their side of things.

    Jon, did you ever hear those rumors about Ayers alleged near death experience? I always wondered if those were true or just a story. They say his wife said he was much easier to live with after he’d died.

  29. Anna K.

    Andrew @ #25,

    Maybe a better word than ‘concession’ would be ‘tolerance,’ in the classical liberal sense; meaning that you cooperate with people on specifically defined goals, whose philosophies you otherwise consider to be dead wrong.

    I have a neighbor whose politics are 180% different from mine. However, we share some similar goals and work together to achieve them. I consider him to be forsaking intellectual rigor and the truth when it comes to his politics; he is quite sure I forsake intellectual rigor or awareness of the truth when it comes to my politics. We both consider one another — when it comes to politics — to be wrong, wrong, wrong. Respect and civil debate is great, but as you point out, at some point there aren’t degrees of disagreement; there’s just disagreement.

    However, having strong differences doesn’t mean people still can’t work together. My neighbor and I still manage to keep an eye on each other’s kids, and to work together on civic and social projects. He patronizes my husband’s small business, we patronize his small business, and occasionally, we invite one another over to dinner (we just don’t discuss politics any more).

    So I’m not sure the word ‘concession’ applies — when it comes to politics, I think my neighbor is utterly wrong, he thinks I’m utterly wrong. I also think the New Atheists are wrong when it comes to applying intellectual rigor and truth to religion; New Atheists doubtless think I, as a religious person, am wrong.

    But that doesn’t mean I can’t work with a New Atheist to ensure that children get real science — rather than pseudoscience, creationism or ID — in the science classroom. And I would hope to find at least a few self-described New Atheists to work with a religious person like me, to get real science in science classrooms, in spite of the fact that I don’t buy what they’re selling about religion and science.

  30. Anna K.

    @ Anthony McCarthy, #27, who wrote: “They say his wife said he was much easier to live with after he’d died.”

    snuuuurk guffaw

    I can just hear my mother saying, “Aren’t they all . . . “

  31. “What accounts for the lack of knowledge about the foundations of methods of science among science majors?”

    Just laying out your prejudices for us before you say something substance? Because that looks a lot like troll bait.

    From one scientist to one piano teacher, the problem isn’t that scientists don’t understand the methods of their profession; if anything, a researcher who can publish understands scientific methodology very well. In my opinion, too many scientists today treat what they do as a trade or craft instead of a way of understanding the perceived world. The skeptic’s tool kit, which also belongs to the scientist, is just as applicable to areas outside one’s field of research, including introspection.

  32. JEM

    As a member of Chris’ silent majority I submit that the problem I have with both the new atheists and the religous fundamentalists is that both seem being trying ever so hard to make the world, or perhaps more appropriately the experience of being human, less than all it can and should be. Both camps seem to have a streak of authoritarianism that is repulsive. They are not opposite ends of the spectrum as they believe, at least in temperament. Rather they have moved in opposite directions from a point on a circle and arrived at the same place 180 degrees away.

  33. Susan

    As a fool who rushes in where angels fear to tread, I’ve spent a lot of time with these issues. A few disconnected observations.

    Atheists may not hold high office. As a self-identified atheist in stages of my life, I’ve encountered a lot of prejudice myself.

    I now call myself agnostic, acknowledging we cannot know.

    The “near death” thing can be real; I’ve been there, and was “changed” by it for a decade or so, and perhaps still carry some compassion because of it. The thing that I came away from it with was “the only person I can change is myself” and a promise to do so.

    Hallucinations are real, though unreal. A lot of people are unable to distinguish hypnotic and other psychic effects from reality.

    The word God bothers me a lot; it connotes male humanoid. The idea of a giant relative in the sky is pretty scary, as it allows people to ignore history, among other things.

    For example, as we face the climate change crisis (a good few may pounce on my assertion that there is one, but please for the sake of argument leave it alone) even those convinced of it enable inaction by believing in divine intervention. They may not be aware of it, but it’s there.

    Believing in an absolute present deity and no deity at all can work out to the same thing: actions have consequences.

    For Christians, I highly recommend instead of mean-spirited narrow Paul the wonderful “Cloud of Unknowing”. Listening is an art, and in exploring mystery, letting go is the best path.

  34. – From one scientist to one piano teacher, the problem isn’t that scientists don’t understand the methods of their profession; gillt

    They just figure you can do science when it can’t be done, in some cases. And when asked to show you how, can’t do that either.

    If someone told me they could play the first of the Two Part Inventions, I’d expect them to show me they could if I asked them to. If they refused I’d be more than skeptical.

  35. Susan, I have no idea if “near death experiences” are real or not, I just thought Ayers was kind of a pain and wanted to know if his wife really said that.

  36. Erasmussimo

    Andrew @ #25, your either-or approach works for truth, but not politics. And even for truth, there are always uncertainties to consider. A black and white view of the world is stunted.

  37. And if someone told you that a fugue was indistinguishable from a fart, you’d wonder if they had any idea what they were talking about.

    You want someone to show you how to do science? Why don’t you walk into a research lab on your day off or read the methods section of a paper? Why ask silly questions?

  38. Dan L.

    Maybe the problem with the new atheists is that, exactly like the most obnoxious of religious fundamentalists, that they figure what other people do or don’t believe is their business. Violations of your right to not be bothered by other peoples’ ideologies are a matter of etiquette not of science. The only area which they’ve got any validity is in keeping religion out of public school science classes and, frankly, I think they’re some of the best material the creationists have to work with in organizing their side of things.

    Hey, an armchair psychologist. You could always just ask a “new atheist” what they think instead of blindly speculating.

    As a member of Chris’ silent majority I submit that the problem I have with both the new atheists and the religous fundamentalists is that both seem being trying ever so hard to make the world, or perhaps more appropriately the experience of being human, less than all it can and should be. Both camps seem to have a streak of authoritarianism that is repulsive. They are not opposite ends of the spectrum as they believe, at least in temperament. Rather they have moved in opposite directions from a point on a circle and arrived at the same place 180 degrees away.

    Another one. In what regards is “new atheism” authoritarian? And how does taking a purely skeptical approach to what’s in the world make it “less than all it could be”?

    That’s a straw man anyway. Approaching the acquisition of knowledge from different perspectives doesn’t change anything about the world. The world is already what it is; skeptics try to avoid inventing causal models that involve elements that don’t actually exist.

  39. Jon

    I can’t claim to know if Ayers’ wife said that.. I had graduated by the time he passed away. I guess the reason why he went to my alma mater was because his son went there.

    I never had him for a class, but a friend of mine did. He had loosened his standards by then and was actually teaching philosophers like Wittenstein and Plato, whom he never would have taught before (Plato especially would have been “literally meaningless” to Ayers in his earlier years).

    Kind of a brusk guy, according to the friend who took his class. I guess he taught in kind of a Socratic manner, asking hard questions of random people, which I think is good. I would have liked to have taken the class, just for the experience. (I completely disagreed with him philosophically, of course.)

    A kind of surreal interlude during my last year there: Apparently Ayers ran into Mike Tyson at a cocktail party, and stood up to him telling him he should shape up, etc. Tyson said, “Do you know who I am?” And Ayers said back, “Do you know who I am? You should listen to someone like me. We’re both at the top of our fields.” I kind of had more respect for him after I heard that.

  40. Jon

    (Sorry, a bit of off topic gossip from the philosophy world.)

  41. andrew

    Another way to think about this issue is, as Dawkins has pointed out, by thinking about other religious traditions whose gods and demons we have no trouble dismissing as mythology. We are all athiests with regard to all the other religious traditions except our own.

    Of course I tolerate and respect religious people, as I do any person. And I’m sure I could paint a house or repair a bicycle with a religious person quite successfully.

    My argument is that in order for science to be possible at all, we need to make fundamental assumptions about the true nature of the universe (i.e., about that which are most ignorant!). We also need to account for the astonishing success of science over the last few centuries in increasing our understand and control over natural processes.

    Why is not difficult for people to accept that we do not include Durga, Krishna, Vishnu, Shiva and Ganesha in our scientific world-view? Yet if we would like to remove the Christian God from science people call us “Militant”, “New”, or “fundamentalist” atheists.

    Finally, there will be a scientific explanation for religion. It will be neuroscientific and Darwinian. There are already several promising candidate hypotheses.

  42. Jon

    Ayer’s friend Isaiah Berlin wasn’t impressed with him as a philosopher: “Ayers was the best writer of philosophy prose since Hume, better even than Russell, but he never had an original idea in his life. He was like a mechanic, he fiddled with things and tried to fix them.”

  43. andrew

    @myself: should be atheists, “that which we” and understanding.

  44. – And if someone told you that a fugue was indistinguishable from a fart, you’d wonder if they had any idea what they were talking about. gillt

    I don’t remember you saying anything about a fugue, gillt.

    — You want someone to show you how to do science? Why don’t you walk into a research lab on your day off or read the methods section of a paper? Why ask silly questions?

    You think condescension is an answer for everything? How about that series of questions that I know you knew the answer to but you didn’t want to answer them because you don’t like the answers.

  45. Erasmussimo

    Andrew at #41:

    Yet if we would like to remove the Christian God from science people call us “Militant”, “New”, or “fundamentalist” atheists

    When you misunderstand the arguments being offered by others, you can’t really respond to them very well. I can’t recall anybody taking so extreme a position as you describe. The conflict here is between rationalists who take “live and let live” approach to religion, and atheists who want to demonize religion.

    There really isn’t any significant movement to push religion into science; science itself is quite successful in protecting its intellectual integrity. The difference of opinion seems to arise over efforts to attack religious belief in any forum other than purely religious fora. For example, some militant atheists seem to suggest that any scientist who is not an atheist is somehow not a good scientist. I would prefer to measure a scientist’s worth by their publication record.

  46. Jon

    Another way to think about this issue is, as Dawkins has pointed out, by thinking about other religious traditions whose gods and demons we have no trouble dismissing as mythology.

    It seems likely that Dawkins has a pretty limited idea of what mythology even is, if his idea of what Christianity is is any indication.

  47. andrew

    Erasmussimo #45:

    What is the argument being offered? My understanding is that the argument is that science should leave religion alone. I disagree. Science should try to understand and explain religion.

    My position maybe is extreme and “stunted” in that regard. I think that there is no middle ground on this really. It is too easy to pick and choose beliefs based on preferences or psychological needs. Not committing here is either not being honest with the implications of your belief system, or it’s disingenuous.

    Science would benefit from making its foudational assumptions explicit. Implicit assumptions should be made explicit so that they can be discussed and improved upon. A fundamental conjecture of science since at least the 20th century is that the uiverse is governed by a pattern of physical laws, not by a deity.

    If you are scientist and you implicitly assume that the universe is ruled by a deity, yes I would argue that you are not a good scientist regardless of your published output. Eventually, science has to grapple with its fundamental assumptions – i.e., that the universe is physcially comprehensible.

    My stance is that religion should not be discussed in any scientific context unless you are trying to explain why religion exists in people’s brains.

    The point of this post from Chris Mooney seems to be that if we just understood the historical relationship between science and religion we’d what see that they are not really different? I completely disagree with that, in fact I think that the more you know about the history of science and religion the more you’d see that yes religion should be abandoned.

  48. Back in the days of natural theology–”intelligent design” before Darwin, back when it was actual “science”

    Well … yes. The difficulty with integrating a religious and a scientific worldview these days is that we know so much more science now than we did then. And the science that we know raises awkward questions with respect to the content of most popular religions.

    For instance, now that we have a some understanding of the cellular mechanics of reproduction, we cannot be intellectually honest and not ask awkward questions about the virgin birth. Back in the day when reproduction was simply a matter of the life-giving potency of “the seed”, the male principle, causing a “quickening” in the womb, there was no problem. But now, we can’t help but ask “Where did Jesus get his Y chromosome from? Did he physically look like his daddy?”. As Monty Python asked: “How jewish did he look?”

    It might be nice if there were popular religions out there that did not make factual claims that are awkward in light of what we now are confident is true of physical reality, but you go to war with the religions you have, not the ones you would like to have.

    After all – the only religion that would be compatible with science would be either a nebulous philosophical exercise which no-one would actually believe, in the sense that religions are belived in; or an unbroken string of miracles, requiring no further expanation than “goddidit”.

    Science can be, and has been, “driven” by faith … right up to the point when it starts to demonstrate that that faith is false. As most of ‘em are.

  49. – Science should try to understand and explain religion.

    Then science had better begin by not pretending that there is a single entity called “religion” that is one thing. Religions are enormously varied, dynamic and changing experiences, ideas and practices, some of which contradict others. If science can’t do that, and I don’t think it can, then it should leave the study of religion to areas or research that can encompass those kinds of large, complex areas of study. If they try and begin reducing it down to “religion” they will end up studying an artificial construct that doesn’t exist in the real world.

  50. John Morgan

    All anybody needs to know about religion is that the supernatural exists only in the human imagination. Period.

  51. @12: To the great majority of believers, religion is fundamentally an ethical framework, not an epistemological one. And science has nothing whatsoever to contribute to ethical considerations.

    That god-of-the-gaps just keeps getting squeezed out of the little crevices we try to grant Him. Cognitive science and biology have a great deal to say about ethics, these days. Even the queen of the sciences has weighed in with game theory and whatnot. How can science not adress ethics, utimately? It’s part of the real world, and everything real is the domain of science.

    Indeed, the failure of the dismal science to predict the current difficulties might very well be traced to its failure to grapple with ethics.

  52. John Kwok

    @ 32 -

    My thoughts exactly regarding the religious fundamentalists and the militant atheists. Both share so much in common with respect to their reasoning and behavioral modus operandi that, I, as a Deist, see no difference – behavior-wise – between a William A. Dembski or a PZ Myers (which is why, ever since Myers’s infamous “CrackerGate” episode from last summer, I have regarded him as the “William A. Dembski of Militant Atheism”).

  53. “I don’t remember you saying anything about a fugue, gillt.”

    The point still stands, which you’ve gone out of your way to miss it seems.

    Yes/no questions about whether any evolutionary biologist ever equated epigenetics to Lamarck is a question I can’t answer. How would I even know? You’re not interested in a meeting of minds–sophists never are–only in scoring debate points.

    And besides, you’ve shown such a willful ignorance of epigenetics and especially exobiology by a scientist who was trying to engage you in honest dialogue as you disparaged an entire field of research, what would I get out of entertaining your pseudo queries?

  54. Mike

    “That god-of-the-gaps …”

    The god-of-the-gaps is a faulty notion spun off of the scientific revolution, beloved only of Behe, Dawkins, and others of their sort. It supposes that the God of the Christians is an efficient cause that is somehow in competition with other efficient causes. But if God saw the world and it was good, as Christians are supposed to believe, there are no flaws or gaps that must be filled by theokinetics; there are only as-yet undiscovered natural mechanisms. (Even those that may allow for a virgin birth. To say that there is no such biological mechanism is really an “unGod of the gaps” argument, and stumbles into the current imagining of science as proposing tentative conclusions subject to potential falsification. There is no biological mechanism =known at present.=)

    When we read William of Conches, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Nicole d’Oresme, and others who have written on this, we find that it was their belief that God had endowed material things to act directly on one another by their own natures (immanent powers), and that they would do so “in the common course of nature.” That is, effects would be achieved “always or for the most part,” which they called “natural laws” because of their regularities. This idea of secondary (or instrumental) causation, mainstream thinking in Latin Christendom, was very nearly lacking among muslims and utterly absent in China. This was a major reason why natural science was born in medieval Christendom, stillborn in Islam, and never conceived in China. The belief that natural laws =are= there to be found remains essential to modern science.

    That “common course of nature” bit is important. Aquinas used it as his fifth demonstrations of God. The fact that nature acts “always or for the most part” toward the same ends — e.g., stones fall, tiger cubs become tigers, hydrogen and oxygen form water, etc. — demonstrates an ordering of the cosmos, and this ordering is a proof of an orderer. IOW, as far as Aquinas and the others were concerned, Darwin’s theory would be a better proof of God than any supposed exceptions. Even if Darwin’s theory could not explain B, there would likely be some other natural mechanism that did. No one should suppose that knowledge of biology came to an end in the 1920s.

    The idea that science can explain its own preconceptions is logically absurd, since the preconceptions are logically prior to the scientific methodology by which they would be studies. You would wind up essentially with a tautology, or circular reasoning. It would be like demanding empirical evidence for the existence of the physical universe. The one assumes the other. The physics deals with the qualities of material bodies; mathematics deals with those of ideal bodies; metaphysics deals with being-as-such (or with the preconceptions, if you will). These are three distinct ways of knowing.

    Similarly, one should not confuse instrumental causes with essential causes. Scientific laws are not causes, but descriptions. Anyone who thinks ethics are as they are “because” of brain states is likely to think that the physics of vibrating reeds “explains” Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A. And to suppose that it is explained (and not simply modeled or described) by game theory, or any other mathematic, is the rankest sort of neo-Pythagorean mysticism. As the physicist Feynmann once said, just because there is a term in an equation, there is not necessarily an entity in the physical world. Or, as the Franciscan monk William of Ockham said, reality may be as complex as God wills, but don’t multiply too many terms in your models or you won’t understand them. (Most people today misunderstand his razor.)

  55. Jon

    All anybody needs to know about religion is that the supernatural exists only in the human imagination. Period.

    Yes, if you want to remain ignorant about the history of Western civilization.

  56. Erasmussimo

    Andrew, I agree with you that science should attempt to understand and explain religion as a psychological phenomenon. But that’s nowhere near the entirety of the issue here. We have all of us been all over the map here, and there’s still not a solid agreement on what exactly is in dispute. However, I find your absolutist approach simplistic. The only field of intellectual inquiry in which you can reliably make absolute statements is mathematics. In science, there is no such thing as absolute truth; there are merely hypotheses that have been shown to make accurate predictions. All hypotheses are subject to amendment or rejection upon discovery of new evidence. Good scientists talk in terms of degrees of confidence, not absolute truths. I therefore find your absolutist approach rather unscientific.

    Not committing here is either not being honest with the implications of your belief system, or it’s disingenuous.

    Here I think you misconstrue the issue. I myself am a convinced and committed materialist atheist. However, I know a number of scientists with religious beliefs, and I know from talking to them that they are persons of great intellectual integrity. You declare that they cannot be honest. But you don’t know these people and I do. I have evidence and you don’t. Which of us is being unscientific?

    A fundamental conjecture of science since at least the 20th century is that the uiverse is governed by a pattern of physical laws, not by a deity.

    Actually, you can find that sentiment among some of the Greek philosophers. And some of the religious scientists I know feel exactly the same way. Surprised?

    If you are scientist and you implicitly assume that the universe is ruled by a deity, yes I would argue that you are not a good scientist regardless of your published output.

    Ruled? What do you mean by that? The scientists I know who are religious believe that a deity exists and provides us with moral significance, but I doubt that they consider their deity to meddle in the affairs of the universe. Again, does this surprise you? It shouldn’t.

    My stance is that religion should not be discussed in any scientific context unless you are trying to explain why religion exists in people’s brains.

    That strikes me as rather censorious. What’s wrong with scientists and theologians getting together to discuss the role of science and religion in informing social policy? Clearly, science provides useful information as to the likely physical consequences of various policy options, and just as clearly, religion provides useful information on the moral consequences of various policy options. What could possibly be wrong with such a discussion?

    the more you know about the history of science and religion the more you’d see that yes religion should be abandoned.

    Perhaps you need to learn a little more about the history of religion. Let me expand on this. I’ve been reading a weighty tome on the history of early civilizations. The author considers seven stone age civilizations that evolved mostly independently of each other: Aztec, Maya, Inka, Yoruba, Shang China, early Mesopotamia, and early Egypt. He goes over them in great detail and it is truly astounding how many commonalities show up in religious beliefs and practices. Over and over, in detail after detail, we see the same ideas popping up. That leads to the conclusion that many elements of religious belief are not cultural accidents; they are the natural and inevitable consequences of human psychology and sociology. When five out of seven of these civilizations practiced human sacrifice to win favor with their gods, it can’t be an accident. There’s something deep going on here, and to suggest that we should abandon religion is no different than suggesting that teenagers should abstain from premarital sex. Sure, it’s a perfectly rational suggestion — but it ain’t gonna happen. The people who declare that we should simply teach teenagers not to have sex have their heads stuck firmly in the sand. And I think you’re right next to them.

    John Morgan in #50 writes:

    All anybody needs to know about religion is that the supernatural exists only in the human imagination. Period.
    You’re wrong. Period.

    Paul Murray in #51 writes:

    Cognitive science and biology have a great deal to say about ethics, these days. Even the queen of the sciences has weighed in with game theory and whatnot. How can science not adress ethics, utimately? It’s part of the real world, and everything real is the domain of science.

    What a profound blunder! Science is descriptive, not normative. It can tell us what some people believe about ethics. It can tell us about the psychology of ethical thinking. But it can only describe. In the real world, we humans have to make decisions about what we SHOULD do, and science can never, ever tell us what we should do. That’s one thing that religion does do for many people. I disagree with those religious people who claim that religion is the only source of ethics, but I don’t deny that it is a major source of ethics for most people.

  57. John Kwok

    Jon -

    I strongly second your endorsement. If you choose to remain ignorant about religion’s important, often positive, role in the history of Western civilization, then you would miss many of the great epics, myths, poems, novels, short stories, and, of course music, which have been inspired by – either directly or indirectly – religious faith. And then of course, as I have noted earlier, there is the important role that religion played in the birth of modern science in Western Civilization.

  58. Dan L.

    Mike:

    The idea that science can explain its own preconceptions is logically absurd, since the preconceptions are logically prior to the scientific methodology by which they would be studies. You would wind up essentially with a tautology, or circular reasoning. It would be like demanding empirical evidence for the existence of the physical universe.

    So how does any sort of God hypothesis help?

    The physics deals with the qualities of material bodies; mathematics deals with those of ideal bodies; metaphysics deals with being-as-such (or with the preconceptions, if you will). These are three distinct ways of knowing.

    This is simply not true; at the very least, it is not true prima facie and you’ve presented no case for it. I would argue that this is a gross simplification of physics, mathematics, and metaphysics and that the simplification glosses over the fact that the borders between these disciplines is inherently fuzzy. A few examples: theoretical physics deals almost exclusively with ideal bodies and is largely mathematical in nature. There are many fields in mathematics that describe physical bodies as well as conceptual entities — before quantum mechanics, wave mechanics described higher level behavior of matter rather than matter itself. Mathematics is inherently metaphysical, but metaphysics is propositional, and so it is inherently mathematical (which in my opinion means incompleteness applies to metaphysics — any metaphysical system is only as good as its axioms, and that includes religion). I could go on.

    Similarly, one should not confuse instrumental causes with essential causes. Scientific laws are not causes, but descriptions. Anyone who thinks ethics are as they are “because” of brain states is likely to think that the physics of vibrating reeds “explains” Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A. And to suppose that it is explained (and not simply modeled or described) by game theory, or any other mathematic, is the rankest sort of neo-Pythagorean mysticism.

    Likewise another unargued assertion, or at least a gross simplification. The “meaning” of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A, in the sense you mean, is mainly subjective if it can’t be explained in terms of vibrating reeds. The material reality of the concerto is a cleverly arranged sequence of acoustic vibrations. This particular temporal pattern of sound, however, has a cultural significance, and that is the “meaning” you are referring to.

    I agree that one can’t reduce culture to neuropsychology without losing something, but that doesn’t mean that one needs any gods or souls to study or appreciate cultural entities. To fully appreciate culture, though, one does need to be able to appreciate its history. What wave mechanics can’t tell us about the Concerto in A, history, musical criticism, and music theory can. And ultimately, the explanation for why human beings feel the need to make and listen to music in the first place does lie in neuropsychology.

  59. If you don’t believe in God and someone else does that doesn’t seem to be a thing which allows degrees of disagreement.

    Likewise, if you believe that AC/DC is the greatest band ever and someone else thinks they suck, you probably shouldn’t talk about music.

    But who cares? These aren’t scientific questions and have no bearing on whether the people involved are good scientists.

  60. Clearly what John said – or most of it – is true. In fact, it’s a truism. I don’t think it has anything much to do with the debate. The more I consider the complex historical interractions between science and religion, something that I do happen to know a bit about, the less I think it sheds any light at all on such things as whether theistic evolutions should be criticised by people who are asked to review their books and whether the NCSE should go out of their way to present the NOMA principle sympathetically on its website.

    Some defenders of Christianity in particular – e.g. Dinesh D’Souza – seem to think that we should somehow be grateful to it for the take-off of science over the past 400-odd years. However, it’s surely much more complicated than that; the relationships between the 16th and 17th century scientists and religious orthodoxy were never straightforward. But even if D’Souza is correct (and Chris, if he agrees with D’Souza), and even if we do owe Christianity thanks for creating an historical milieu in which science could get going, it does not follow that any of the claims currently made by Christian organisations and leaders are actually true.

    I’m not sure why people repeat John’s truism so often. Again, I agree, he’s mainly correct. But no serious person in this “accommodationist” debate doubts that, as far as I know – not me, not Dawkins, not Coyne, not anybody who could be considered an anti-accommodationist.

    The place where, in context, I don’t think John is quite right is in the way he talks about “defending science”. In context, I had used the expression in a fairly down-to-earth way to refer to such things as the work of the NCSE. None of these interesting historical arguments are relevant to whether it is a good idea for the NCSE to have a Faith Project that is largely devoted to reassuring Christian believers by giving them a highly sympathetic account of the NOMA principle. I still think that’s a bad idea, and my reasons have nothing to do with ignorance of the history of science.

  61. Dammit, apart from any other typos that should say “theistic evolutionists”.

  62. Matti K.

    Mr. Mooney: “Accordingly, parsons and priests were often inspired to become naturalists and study nature in order to provide evidence of the divine. Science was a means of finding and understanding one’s Creator.”

    Scientific inquiry was therefore substantially driven by faith, and much scientific progress resulted from this impulse–albeit progress in a pre-Darwinian paradigm.”

    This is odd logic in my opinion. Is it a true surprise that in a society where just about everyone praises (sincerely) the Lord for everything, also the scientists (in their biographies) praise the Lord for their findings?

    The pace of scientific progress has increased at the same time societies have been secularized. This speaks against the idea of religious beliefs beeing beneficial to scientific discovery. Correlation, of course, does not imply causality. Scientific process is by nature a positive feedback process and may not be connected to this secularization.

    I think Mr. Mooney must make a better case for religion beeing (or having been) an effecive catalyst of scientific inquiry.

  63. outeast

    The question was whether religion has ever ‘played a role in the actual science’. The whole question of motivation is a rather obvious red herring. Showing that there has been research or a discovery that might not have been made at that time and by that person without the driver of religious belief is insufficient – that just ranks religion with any other motivational force, like political ideology, avarice, or the desire to get laid. Showing religion playing a role in the actual science would take showing a discovery that could not have been made without the input of religion.

    Of course science can be and has been inspired by religious sentiment. Science – good science! – has even been inspired by religious dogma: according to Carl Zimmer, falsification of the idea of the spontaneous generation of parasites was initially motivated by the religiously-inspired conceit that spontaneous generation is against the laws of God.

    But looking deeper into this strongly suggests that choosing anywhere that religion seems to have genuinely contributed to science other than through motivation is Texas Marksmanship. The fact that in the instance of the origin of parasites the religious conceit corresponded with empirical reality was coincidence: on the one hand, the same laws cited to make the case against spontaneous generation of parasites also forbid abiogenesis; and on the other, theologians had at the time of the experimental experiments already formulated ideas to reconcile doctrine with spontaneous generation (Kragh 1999). And that’s without turning to the gripping hand, which holds vast numbers of counterexamples where doctrinally-inspired hypotheses have been readily disproven.

    The question is whether (save through the fortune of the stopped clock) religion has ever actively contributed to the pool of empirical knowledge about the world. Obviously, all humans live in and experience the real world – so any human culture is bound to arrive at genuine, empirically verifiable insights simply as a side-effect of being here. But has religious contemplation (or whatever) ever led directly to the discovery of non-trivial scientific truths – with the discovery being an intrinsic result of that contemplation? So far, I have yet to hear a suggestion of any discovery that meets this criterion – let alone seen any evidence that substantial numbers of such significant discoveries can be attributed to religion.

  64. — Yes/no questions about whether any evolutionary biologist ever equated epigenetics to Lamarck is a question I can’t answer. How would I even know? You’re not interested in a meeting of minds–sophists never are–only in scoring debate points. gillt

    And you’re the one who keeps saying I’m uniformed in these discussions due to my profession. You couldn’t be bothered to google around to see who had been noting Larmarckian implications in epigenetics – about the first thing I ever stumbled across in casual reading on the subject- and the issue of “blending inheritance” in the pseudo science of memetics, two topics in an argument about the credibility of two of the champions of the new atheism. And those were the last two questions I asked you after it became clear that you were not going to answer even simpler questions you clearly knew the answers to because they impeach two of the great minds of the new atheism. And I only asked them after you’d said you were a geneticist doing research in an important area.

    Was I supposed to accept what you said on faith? Anyone who wants to look it up can see what that was all about for themselves, if you’re interested in it you don’t have to take either gillt’s or my word for it.

    — All anybody needs to know about religion is that the supernatural exists only in the human imagination. Period. John Morgan

    All anybody needs to know about psychology is that consciousness exists only in the human imagination. Period.

    All anybody needs to know about science is that a statistical norm exists only in the human imagination. Period.

    All anybody needs to know about mathematics is that the commutative property of addition exists only in the human imagination. Period.

    There, three silly things to say about three subjects that are quite a bit simpler than the huge range of ideas and beliefs about which you said a vastly sillier thing.

    Besides, unlike two of those, there is no way of knowing that your silly declaration is true. Apparently the vast majority of the human species doesn’t agree with your prejudice. And, since there is no way to falsify the supernatural, it will remain an issue of prejudice.

    Don’t be surprised when religions don’t die out the way you expect they will. When you oversimplify, reality has a way of overtaking your most cherished deductions. You might want to look up A. J. Ayer and logical positivism in that regard. He used to be about the foremost atheist in the English speaking world.

  65. – And besides, you’ve shown such a willful ignorance of epigenetics and especially exobiology by a scientist who was trying to engage you in honest dialogue as you disparaged an entire field of research, what would I get out of entertaining your pseudo queries? gillt

    That there isn’t a single species of alien life to apply any of the neat science to, is kind of a glaring problem with exobiology, if you’re allegedly studying the possibilities of alien life.
    I asked one of my in-laws who’s a biologist what he thought of exobiology, before I told him about the argument. He said “Well, they don’t have much to go on. Nothing, in fact.” If Carl Sagan, the other hero in question, was right, they likely never will either.

    I don’t recall sorbet identifying himself as a scientist. He at least, when I answered his challenge, sort of grudgingly admitted I had. And unlike you, I answered him.

    Anyone who wants to look can look at the discussion on the Sean Carroll thread from last week.

  66. And, gillt, you do realize how funny it is to have you and a bunch of bigotry spouting new atheists criticizing me for insufficient piety. Or at least you do now that you’ve read this. Too impious for the new atheists, what a funny idea.

    If I wasn’t trying to uphold Chris Mooney’s standards of conduct I’d have pressed that point quite a bit harder already.

  67. That there isn’t a single species of alien life to apply any of the neat science to, is kind of a glaring problem with exobiology, if you’re allegedly studying the possibilities of alien life.

    Oh dear. And here I momentarily hoped that its absence from #64 meant you had tacitly abandoned this silliness. Have you bothered to sit in on a Google University exo-bioclass yet? (so to speak – in other words, have you even bothered to do the most rudimentary online poking-about to see what exo-bio actually is/what it does/how it works?
    ——-
    Claim: If you are a scientist and a Marxist (or a Republican), than you’re not a good scientist.
    Consider.

    (Clearly part of the issue here is the definition of “good scientist”, which at an extreme (cf. #47) ends up divorced from any measure of actual science-doing. This whole idea sorta puzzles me, since it seems so detached from how most actual humans function. Perhaps it would be better to say that if you’re a scientist and a theist, than you’re holding ideas in your personal life that are arguably not scientific – even contradictory. (Which seems a little . . . . meh). Of course, what gets tricky – and this is, it seems, the meat of the actual argument – is when these ideas wander out of strictly personal life and towards their professional one – not (outside of creationists, who are in a very different and rather older profession anyway, whatever they say) into “the lab”, but into popular books, lectures, etc.. But even then we’re talking tricky, not cut-and-dried – and too tight a dragnet would rope in all sort of popular departures from pure science along with religious-themed ones.)

    Claim: All one needs to know about vampires is that they’re not real!
    - But what about Buffy? And True Blood? And a whole big chunk of literary and cinematic history? And even all sort of political and interpersonal metaphors? (The vampire as an allegory for selfishness and exploitation!)
    – But [Anna Paquin/Stephen Moyer] aside, does one need to know about those? Presumably ahead of cultural enjoyment in most practical hierarchy of needs is whether one best arm oneself nightly w/ alliums and religious iconography? (Jewish vampires are a real pain -ever tried making a Star of David with hastily grabbed sticks?)

    Is the existence of vampires – whether there are (un)dead peope walking around dependent on drinking blood – preferably human – for continued animation, etc., etc, etc. – a strictly scientific question?

  68. Well, the meat of this particular argument, anyway – what science advocacy orgs should be doing is a different bit, and the more approachable, it seems to me.

  69. outeast

    too tight a dragnet would rope in all sort of popular departures from pure science along with religious-themed ones

    Is that a problem? The ‘New Atheist’ position is largely that there should be no special pleading for religion – that it should be classed with other human-scale phenomena (assuming you’re talking about things like ideologies, prejudices, personal philosophies, etc etc etc). Isn’t the problem that religion makes claims to being qualitatively different from such?

  70. outeast

    Claim: If you are a scientist and a Marxist (or a Republican), than you’re not a good scientist.
    Consider.

    I had previously typed out a comment explicitly discussing (as a point of comparison) science as historically motivated by religion with Soviet science as motivated by Marxist-Leninist ideology in the early C20th. The comparison seems to me to be apt: where Soviet science allowed its investigations to be driven and inhibited by ideology, it followed blind alleys, excluded promising lines of enquiry, and positively selected bad research. Of course you can be a Marxist and a good scientist, but only as long as you are extremely cautious about letting your ideological convictions influence your work. In practice, that seems to mean serious cognitive dissonance, or constant tweaking of what ‘Marxist’ means, or failure in science. Sound familiar?

  71. outeast

    Add: or a very selective choice of areas for scientific investigation:)

  72. Dan S. I hadn’t seen your “AM in the gaps” theory. I can’t wait to show it to my friends, I haven’t laughed so hard in years.

    Exobiology. A science that doesn’t now have and likely will never have the the object of its study. And that’s no problem for you materialists. And you think you aren’t faith based in any way. And that still doesn’t mention the wild speculations such as the ones by Dawkins and Dennett which were the entire reason I brought it up in that conversation about the “science-based” new atheists.

    And that’s not a suitable object of skepticism? I thought you guys were the great promoters of the virtues of skepticism. You’re always telling me that’s what you’re all about.

    Seems like you’re mighty choosy in what skepticism is allowable, sort of like religious fundamentalists, but I’ve told you that before.

    I’ve got to find someone to give me a grant to write the book about the glaring and hilarious internal contradictions, irrationality and hypocrisy of scientism that is begging to be done.

  73. – I agree, he’s mainly correct. But no serious person in this “accommodationist” debate doubts that, as far as I know – not me, not Dawkins, not Coyne, not anybody who could be considered an anti-accommodationist. Russell Blackford 60

    I’m going to have to go to the library and look it up, I seem to recall reading something Max Planck said that might be interesting in the great “accommodationist” farce.

    I wonder if Planck would pass muster with those eminent authorities of today.

  74. Dan L.

    Anthony McCarthy:

    Exobiology. A science that doesn’t now have and likely will never have the the object of its study. And that’s no problem for you materialists. And you think you aren’t faith based in any way. And that still doesn’t mention the wild speculations such as the ones by Dawkins and Dennett which were the entire reason I brought it up in that conversation about the “science-based” new atheists.

    Theoretical physics routinely studies objects whose existence has not yet been demonstrated. In the past, this has often led to confirmation of successful theories — the discovery of black holes was a huge coup for general relativity. Until the 50′s, heritability was studied just fine under the aegis of Mendelian genetics without any actual known medium by which traits were propagated.

    If you think that science is only science if it’s done in a lab under carefully controlled conditions, then maybe you do need to take a few classes.

    Just because two people are skeptics doesn’t mean they’re going to arrive at the same conclusion. Some skeptics think it’s very likely that life will exist within a few light years of us, or even in the outer solar system — it’s conjecture, but there’s no law of skepticism preventing us from making the occasional guess. Other skeptics think the origins of life are improbable enough that any extraterrestrial life would be very distant and impossible to study.

    Given the number of exoplanets found already, I don’t think it’s unlikely that we will find evidence of microbial life within 100 light years of here. Again, conjecture — but there’s ways to figure it out. Astronomy apparatuses are getting sensitive enough to detect planetary traversals and taking a spectrograph of such a traversal could give us very clear indications of whether the conditions of life are present on the planet being studied.

    Regardless, exobiology isn’t exactly a tenet of new atheism, so not much of a criticism there.

    I’m still confused about all this hostility. Why is it so uncivil and mean of us to say that the NCSE shouldn’t adopt or promote a particular religious philosophy, especially when that philosophy is largely defined in terms of Christian beliefs?

  75. andrew

    @Anthony McCarthy

    This is already happening, if you look at the work of Pascal Boyer and other evolutionary anthropologists. I agree that religion is very complex social phenomenon. Anthropology has been documenting the world’s religions for at least a hundred years, now with modern evolutionary psychology, biology and neuroscience we can begin to understand the evolution of religious beliefs in human societies and how the brain supports these beliefs, in all their complexity.

    I agree that there are still philosophical issues surrounding epistemic and ontological objectivity when examining another person’s beliefs. However, religions are objective in the sense that they are collectively agreed upon beliefs even if the beliefs themselves are ontologically subjective – i.e., they exist only in the mind of the believer.

    Given that however, the thought occurring to a religious person is measurable with some kind of objective method, such as EEG, fMRI or intercranial electrodes, and there are several studies in the literature.

    We need to look at how information emerges and submerges from each level. For example people do not talk to people, people talk to each other’s neurons, neurons do not talk to neurons, neurons talk to the synapses of other neurons and so forth. This type of organization goes all the way up and down the hierarcy from quantum waves/particles to society.

  76. – Theoretical physics routinely studies objects whose existence has not yet been demonstrated. In the past, this has often led to confirmation of successful theories — Dan S.

    I’m sure that some of the stuff that they’re doing under the umbrella of Exobiology will prove to be valuable in some way, It’s just that, unlike theoretical physics, in order to be directly relevant to the subject matter of “extraterrestrial life” they’ll have to actually have a specimen of an organism to study. And if they get one, from one planet, there’s no way of knowing what they could find on the second, third, fourth,…. planets down the line. If Carl Sagan is right, they’d have to have samples from an enormous number of planets and have done an awful lot of work on them before they could start making general theories of life everywhere. Just think how much trouble the line of life we’re a part of is giving our scientists now, and they’ve got material to work with all around them.

    You’ll forgive me if, in light of your and gillt’s insulting and condescending reaction to my explained objections to evidence free science if I don’t take what you say about skepticism very seriously. Have you brought up gillt’s lapses of civility with him? I hadn’t noticed. Not to mention numerous other new atheists here? Show me where.

    I figure what the NCSE does is the business of its board and whoever is responsible for choosing them. They can all paint themselves blue and dance around a Bunsen Burner chanting the quadradic formula and it wouldn’t be any of my business. Or the business of other third parties.

  77. Andrew, I’m entirely skeptical about anthropology as science to begin with so maybe I’ll just say that one researcher, even if they didn’t start out with a controlling bias, would have their work cut out for them.

    I’m not too keen on the social sciences as science.

  78. “I’m growing increasingly convinced that the lack of historical awareness is an important factor in fanning the flames of science-religion conflict.”

    I’m growing increasingly convinced that Chris should stop accusing everyone who disagrees with him of ignorance. First it was ignorance of history and philosophy, and when that didn’t work (because some philosophers came along to say Nuh uh) it became just history. What will it be next week? Literary criticism?

  79. andrew

    @Erasmussimo

    Thank you for your responses. I agree with you on many counts. And I am probably making my stance extreme to make a point, I share a lot of uncertainty about these things as well.

    However a few points worth discussing for me: (this is probably an aside) but there is no certitude in mathematics either. Godel showed that and mathematics has been trying to accept that or move on ever since.

    My motivation comes from trying to explain the success of natural science and trying to understand how science is possible at all. Is it from relying on the scientific method? What exactly is that?

    Even if you talk in degrees of confidence and not absolute truths, science should not include a deity for several reasons: it is ad hoc, it violates Occam’s razor (which Bayesianism in terms of degrees of confidence automatically embodies). In other words it violates the principle of simplicity, but what is simplicity?

    I am not surprised that the Greeks believed in physical laws, however they also believed that deities directly influenced earthly affairs.

    You point out that the religious scientists you know only believe in a deity that provides morality and does not meddle in the affairs of the universe? But how is providing morality not meddling in the affairs of the universe? Furthermore, morality, like religion, evolved according to Darwinian natural selection. There are several examples of so-called moral behavior (reciprocal altruism, pure altruism) found in apes.

    I have no problem with theologians and scientists discussing social policy -I am not denying that religions exist. However, should we also include shamans and witchdoctors at public policy discussions?

    I think we agree about the universal attributes of religious beliefs – especially super-natural agency and belief in an afterlife. This strongly indicates that these beliefs evolved as group-level adaptations or provided some kind of selection advantage. Today these beliefs, I think, are mal-adapative.

  80. andrew

    @Anthony McCarthy

    You pointed out in response to me saying that science should study religion (which it does) that:

    “Then science had better begin by not pretending that there is a single entity called “religion” that is one thing. Religions are enormously varied, dynamic and changing experiences, ideas and practices, some of which contradict others. If science can’t do that, and I don’t think it can, then it should leave the study of religion to areas or research that can encompass those kinds of large, complex areas of study. If they try and begin reducing it down to “religion” they will end up studying an artificial construct that doesn’t exist in the real world.”

    My question is how do you know that there isn’t a single entity called religion, and that religions are enormously varied, dynamic and ever-changing? I would guess that you’ve had some exposure to ethnographic research about religions.

    I share your skeptism with regard to anthropology and social science – yet there are new fields such as neuro-anthropology and social-neuroscience which are formalizing and making what was previously “soft” science “hard”.

  81. Dan L.

    @Anthony McCarthy:

    I am not Dan S. Two different Dans.

    You’ll forgive me if, in light of your and gillt’s insulting and condescending reaction to my explained objections to evidence free science if I don’t take what you say about skepticism very seriously. Have you brought up gillt’s lapses of civility with him? I hadn’t noticed. Not to mention numerous other new atheists here? Show me where.

    I am also not gillt and I’m not going to take responsibility for anything he says unless I agree with it. So far, he has been fairly condescending, but then so have you.

    I would be happy to defend materialism as a rational epistemological stance, but it’s a little off-topic on this thread and I’ve already ranted a little along those lines. Feel free to email guyincognitozz at aol dot com if it’s a conversation you want to have.

    I really was hoping for an answer to my question, though: what is so offensive about the assertion that NCSE shouldn’t promote a particular religious philosophy?

  82. gillt

    McCarthy, if you go back to the original post you’ll see a self-identified biologist in the field of exobiology commenting on your ignorance. Fittingly, it’s the last comment.

    As far as epigenetics: If you think some important evolution biologists linked epi in a significant way to Lamarck, then tell us already and quit assuming I must know the answer. Provide a link or drop it.

    Besides, why are you asking me or anyone you disagree with to defend the new atheists? Why don’t you go on Dawkins’ site or PZ’s or Coyen’s and predictably get kicked off for trolling? Because I’m a scientist, a geneticist and atheist, I must be a card-carrying member of New Atheism? No. It is simply because I mock your stunted view of science that paints me the enemy.

    Your single-minded, blind hatred for the New Atheists is impressive as a sideshow attraction. I think everyone here gets how much you really really dislike them. But do you have any other point to make, or is that it?

    Intolerance, sophism, ignorance, dishonesty, and stereotyping: Congratulations, you’ve become exactly that which you rail against, McCarthy.

  83. Dan L.

    @Anothony McCarthy:

    Oh, and I assumed that by “your…insulting and condescending reaction…” you were talking about something Dan S. said earlier. If you’re talking to me, please feel free to point out such a reaction on my part.

  84. Erasmussimo

    Andrew in #79 asserts science should not include a deity, and I am in complete agreement with you on this point. We should never permit religion to intrude into science, nor into science education. My objection is to going over to the offensive and assaulting religion in society as a whole. I consider such a strategy unwise.

    However, should we also include shamans and witchdoctors at public policy discussions?

    Only to the degree that they command public respect. Since they don’t, there’s no need to include them in public policy discussions. But many Christian leaders do command public respect and so their thoughts should be included in public policy decisions.

    how is providing morality not meddling in the affairs of the universe?
    That’s easy: religion establishes moral standards: what people should and should not do. If a person violates those moral standards, then they soil themselves. This eastern way of thinking about morality is common among the religious scientists I know. And it doesn’t assume anything about gods unleashing thunderbolts, plagues of locusts, etc.

    morality, like religion, evolved according to Darwinian natural selection.
    Indeed it did. So did sex. Are you going to tell teenagers not to have sex?

    I think we agree about the universal attributes of religious beliefs – especially super-natural agency and belief in an afterlife. This strongly indicates that these beliefs evolved as group-level adaptations or provided some kind of selection advantage. Today these beliefs, I think, are mal-adapative.

    There are plenty of religious people who embrace neither supernatural agency nor belief in an afterlife, especially among scientists. I consider these beliefs to be quite adaptive to modern conditions. However, I agree that old-time religion is maladaptive. Still, the problem remains: how can you get people to abandon old-time religion when you can’t get teenagers to refrain from sex?

  85. John Kwok

    @ Russell Blackford -

    The reason why NCSE has a Faith Project is merely to serve in the dual purpose of education and reaching out to those theologians of different faiths – and not just Christianity – who, while recognizing that evolution is valid science, need additional information so that they can inform their worshoppers. I really don’t understand how I, a Deist, can see this, while you and your fellow militant atheists can’t.

    On another, somewhat related, point, you are not giving religion its proper due – especially from the context of Judeo-Christian tradition and belief – in helping to foster not only early modern science, but other, related movements such as the Enlightenment, from the 16th through 18th Centuries.

    @ Dan L. -

    I am certain NCSE doesn’t endorse any particular religion or religious view, and, moreover, emphasizes this very fact in the FAQ section of its website (http://www.ncseweb.org).

  86. Dan L.

    @ John Kwok:

    If the NCSE has a “Faith Project,” then it is promoting a particular religious philosophy — that the FAQ contains a falsehood is irrelevant to this simple fact.

    I don’t have a whole lot to say to you. I’ve seen you comment elsewhere, and frankly I think that a conversation with you would be a waste of my time. Sorry to be so rude.

  87. gillt, I wasn’t aware that you’d staked out and registered a claim on this blog for New Atheism. Have you informed the owners? If they have any problem with anything I say they are entirely within their rights to tell me, and they do have my e-mail address.

    As to my sin of insufficient piety when addressing someone who has declared themselves part of the scientist caste, sorry, I don’t feel that faith tradition is binding on me. You lectured Coyne on lying about Francis Collins on federal financing of stem cell research?

    Dan L. Sorry, a scrolling accident, tends to happen when you get two people using similar names addressing you. And, yes, you would be right that it was Dan S. I mistook you for. And I apologize for that.

    I’ve got no problem with someone being a materialist, I’ve been trying to get the other Dan to listen to a lecture by Richard Lewontin, one of my science heroes, in which he declares himself an a priori materialist. Here’s the link that Dan S. seems to be pretending doesn’t exist.

    http://internalism.blip.tv/file/812402/

    Of course I’ve known he was for decades and I’ve had nothing but the greatest respect for him the whole time. It’s when you pretend it’s an established fact or some kind of prerequisite for being a rational person who can think scientifically that I’ve got problems with it. And I’d never even talk about those if you were polite about it.

  88. — My question is how do you know that there isn’t a single entity called religion, and that religions are enormously varied, dynamic and ever-changing? I would guess that you’ve had some exposure to ethnographic research about religions. Andrew

    Because I read a lot.

  89. John Kwok

    @ Dan L. -

    The feeling is mutual, especially in light of your recent comments here. As for myself, I don’t suffer fools gladly, and IMHO you’re yet another one.

  90. Dan L.

    @Anthony McCarthy:

    I’ve got no problem with someone being a materialist, I’ve been trying to get the other Dan to listen to a lecture by Richard Lewontin, one of my science heroes, in which he declares himself an a priori materialist. Here’s the link that Dan S. seems to be pretending doesn’t exist.

    Can’t really watch it now, but from what you say, I probably come at it somewhat differently. I think that any dualistic hypothesis is simply incoherent, so all that’s left is materialism. What was getting to me about your argument with gillt is that you seem to think that someone needs to be obsessively reductionist to be an atheist, or at any rate what you folks apparently call “new” or “militant” atheists.

    Incidentally, I think you should be more optimistic about anthropology as a science. Physical anthropology is already inextricably linked with paleontology and evolutionary biology to the extent that its delimitation as a subfield of anthropology is somewhat arbitrary. Ethnic and cultural studies may not ever me prescriptive in the sense that QED or relativity are, but there are precedents for descriptive sciences. And ultimately, human social behavior arose as an evolutionary adaptation, so in some sense, anthropology is a scientific study of social behavior in a particular species of primates.

    I’m currently reading a book about a native Brazilian tribe; it’s an ethnography written by a linguist, and his findings about the culture and language of these people shook up linguistic theories. Anthropology absolutely can and does contribute to our knowledge of the world as it is and our place in it, and is scientific at least in that limited sense.

  91. Mike

    The idea that science can explain its own preconceptions is logically absurd, since the preconceptions are logically prior to the scientific methodology by which they would be studied. You would wind up essentially with a tautology, or circular reasoning.

    58. Dan L. Says:
    So how does any sort of God hypothesis help?

    Ans.: God is not a hypothesis, nor an efficient cause of natural phenomenon. Although believers in scientism, like Paley and Dawkins, think so. Rather, the existence of God is a conclusion and, in a causal sense, God is a “fourth cause,” not a “third” one. As Aristotle pointed out, the fourth cause is the cause of efficient causality. Otherwise, you fall into Hume’s irrationality, where any effect at all could follow from any cause. Thus, the existence of a God grounds efficient causation, without which science would be impossible.
    + + +

    The physics deals with the qualities of material bodies; mathematics deals with those of ideal bodies; metaphysics deals with being-as-such (or with the preconceptions, if you will). These are three distinct ways of knowing.

    58. Dan L. Says:
    This is simply not true; at the very least, it is not true prima facie and you’ve presented no case for it. I would argue that this is a gross simplification of physics, mathematics, and metaphysics and that the simplification glosses over the fact that the borders between these disciplines is inherently fuzzy.

    Ans.: A comm box hardly has room to condense hundreds of pages of close reasoning. Do not think that your “fuzzy borders” escaped the notice of Aristotle or Aquinas. But the existence of dawn and dusk does not invalidate the distinction between night and day. I say nothing of the two axes along which the abstractions run. But I will note that while Aristotle denied the applicability of mathematics to the physics (and yes, he had good reasons), Aquinas did not. In fact, it was Aquinas who made the distinction between qualities of matter and their quantitative extensions; between, say, heat and temperature. And the Calculators of Merton who first dreamed of someday measuring these quantitative extensions. (Alas, they could only measure physical extension [length, etc.] and weight — one reason perhaps why Galileo elevated these qualities to “objective” status.)

    Nihilism, the denial of important distinctions, is ultimately destructive of science, so it is always surprising when science fanboys flirt with it. The three realms deal with subsequent and progressively higher degrees of abstraction. (And that is abstraction in the original sense of abstractio.
    + + +
    58. Dan L. Says:
    wave mechanics described higher level behavior of matter rather than matter itself.

    Ans.: Formal causation does not take matters outside the realm of the Physics. Matter has natural behaviors; the physical scientist abstracts from those behaviors for the purpose of discovering the common course. Thus: the empirical reality is: falling heavy bodies. From this is abstracted certain beaviors, such as s=0.5at^2 and the like. Over top of natural laws is laid a physical theory called gravity. Gravity is a story we tell so that falling bodies “make sense.” From the theory, we can deduce the laws and predict the facts. In different eras, the nature of gravity has been drastically re-imagined, but the empirical facts and natural laws remain the same.

    Aristotelianism, of course, has no problem with “higher level” behavior, since it rejected the reductionism of Parmenides and Heracleitus and the atomists. “Emergent” properties and “self-organizing” systems are a problem for atomists without a magic wand, but are implicit in second and fourth causes.
    + + +
    58. Dan L. Says:
    Mathematics is inherently metaphysical, but metaphysics is propositional, and so it is inherently mathematical

    Ans.: No, mathematics is not metaphysical. It is only that the modern world has forgotten what the Metaphysics was all about. Metaphysical qualities — like beauty and elegance and even Ockham’s Razor — inform mathematics; but like the physical existence of the universe is outside the realm of physics, these are outside the realm of mathematics.
    + + +
    58. Dan L. Says:
    The “meaning” of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A, in the sense you mean, is mainly subjective if it can’t be explained in terms of vibrating reeds. The material reality of the concerto is a cleverly arranged sequence of acoustic vibrations.

    Ans.: Nice use of scare quotes around meaning. Of course, “subjective” is the rug under which post-Humeans have swept all phenomena not easily dealt with by their reductions. Of course, saying “it’s all in the mind” runs into a problem when it comes time to explain the mind. It’s hard to sweep the rug under the rug.
    + + +
    58. Dan L. Says:
    I agree that one can’t reduce culture to neuropsychology without losing something, but that doesn’t mean that one needs any gods or souls to study or appreciate cultural entities.

    Ans.: Perhaps no more than one needs the theory of natural selection to rebuild auto transmissions, or one needs Frank Whittle to fly in a jetliner.

    It is a category error to confuse gods with God or to suppose soul is not a simple empirical fact. Of course, one does need a rational soul to appreciate art or to invent a scientific theory. A vegetative soul or a merely sensitive soul doesn’t cut the mustard.

  92. Dan L. I wasn’t proposing a dualistic hypothesis, though I think the real objection people make against Descartes and the dualists is that they’re out of style.

    I am an agnostic about things related to the possible interaction between the material world and any supernatural, in so far as reasoning about it goes. If it’s a matter of belief, I haven’t seen any reason someone shouldn’t believe it if they feel that’s where their experience leads them. I suspect that even the dualistic understanding of it is probably more a comment on the limits of our thinking than anything to do with the actual situation. I’m not as anthropocentric as materialism and dualism requires. I’m a person but I don’t trust us to be able to know it all.

  93. andrew

    @ Erasmussimo

    It turns on, I guess, whether there is some supernatural deity who dictates the laws of morality or if morality is seen as adaptive biological behavior. The Eastern traditions are mute on the question of why is there morality at all? Western science is not. If you are a religious scientist who uses Eastern religion as a guide for your behavior that is one thing (to which I have no objection), if however you are interested in why moral impulses or a belief in morality exists at all you have to turn to science. I certainly think that many religious traditions have valuable insights to offer, however I think that religious metaphysical assumptions are false.

    Teenagers having sex does not involve false beliefs. Humans have sex, the concept of a “teenager” is a recent social construction, presumably because of our increased longevity. I do not want to stop teenagers from having sex, nor do I think it would be possible.

    I agree that it is probably not possible to stop religious people from believing in deities, or from believing that there exist things which are not physical, or scientifically comprehensible.

    I would liken it to smoking. 50 years ago most people did not think smoking was harmful, now most people agree it is harmful. Why? Because the evidence is overwhelming. Still, some people smoke because they do not care about the harm and/or they are powerless against the addictive nature of the behavior. I imagine that eventually most people will stop having superstitious false beliefs. My argument is that religion is harmful. Even the studies which show that religious people live longer claim that it is not the belief itself, it is rather the social interaction that correlates with longevity.

  94. Thinking more about it, Let me tell you how startling it was a few years back, the first time I read something about epigenetics and saw the name “Lamarck”, and someone talking about him as being partially vindicated, sort of, in something by a scientist at the University of Toronto (as I recall). . From the time I first heard his name about forty-five years ago, Lamarck had been associated with discredited theories that no one took seriously anymore. Lamarckian evolution was also associated in memory with Lysenkoism, one of the pseudo-scientific episodes of recent times.

    With that background, to see someone, now, making an association between verified, current science and Lamarck was really startling. It jumped off the page in quite a memorable way. And then gillt, the research geneticist, in order to avoid a debating point, pretended he didn’t know anything about that connection having been made or that Lamarckian “inheritance” is an issue in the pseudo-science of memetics, while pretending to know something about it while mocking an ignorant piano teacher who apparently bothered to find out before talking about it.

    No. He doesn’t get debating points on his appeal to his own, alleged, authority and I don’t really care about the opinion of anyone who would grant those to him in this case.

  95. Most of what I need to know about the history of the conflict between evolution and religion is in the following quote of William Jennings Bryan:
    If those who teach Darwinism and evolution, as applied to man, insist that they are neither agnostics nor atheists, but are merely interpreting the Bible differently from orthodox Christians, what right have they to ask that their interpretation be taught at public expense?
    http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/bryanonevol.html

  96. Dan L.

    @Anthony McCarthy:

    I wasn’t proposing a dualistic hypothesis, though I think the real objection people make against Descartes and the dualists is that they’re out of style.

    I am an agnostic about things related to the possible interaction between the material world and any supernatural, in so far as reasoning about it goes. If it’s a matter of belief, I haven’t seen any reason someone shouldn’t believe it if they feel that’s where their experience leads them. I suspect that even the dualistic understanding of it is probably more a comment on the limits of our thinking than anything to do with the actual situation. I’m not as anthropocentric as materialism and dualism requires. I’m a person but I don’t trust us to be able to know it all.

    My complaint about Descartes is definitely not that he’s out of style. The man proved the existence of a soul by saying, in effect, “I can imagine it; therefore, it is so.” His philosophy was ground breaking at the time, but that doesn’t mean he was correct about everything, or even about anything at all. If Descartes’ ideas can’t stand up to reason without Descartes’ name attached, I don’t see any reason to respect the ideas themselves (although I respect Descartes’ contributions to western culture as a whole).

    As far as being able to “know it all,” I think the problem really lies in implicit assumptions about the nature of knowledge. Again, I get this feeling that you’re implying materialism entails obsessive reductionism, and I disagree. To try to give you an idea of what I mean, consider paleontology. I don’t think anyone labors under the delusion that we will ever have a complete fossil record of the earth’s history, but that doesn’t prevent us from gaining knowledge about evolutionary biology, ecology, and many other subjects through the study of fossils. Absolute, complete, total certainty is not required for knowledge; sometimes, understanding the basic principles and applying a little horse sense can get you a long way. Given this caveat about the limits of determinism and the nature of knowledge, I don’t see how materialism is even remotely anthropocentric.

  97. Nevohteeb

    I haven’t read the first 95 comments, so possibly this is redundant…but Arthur Lovejoy’s book “The Great Chain of Being” is a goldmine of examples of religion driving scientific inquiry (not that I mean to say it always does, or does more than it doesn’t, or draw any general conclusion). The religious idea that nature is a plenitude, with all possible creatures represented, apparently drove 18th and 19th century naturalists to search for intermediates. They wanted to find intermediates between birds and fish, mammals and fish, humans and chimpanzees, etc. etc. Of course they could have been so determined as to be biased…and in fact they liked to think of African “races” as the sought after intermediates. But generally speaking, religious ideas were making them go out and look at what exists in nature.

  98. Mel

    And given how averse you are to reading and research, Larry, that quote is likely all you know about the historical relationship between science and religion. Oh, and everyone go see Larry’s blog so you can see his ignorance and vileness on full display (including the Holocaust denial, moon landing denial, belief that meteors originate in the atmosphere, and the bizarre hatred of Judge Jones).

  99. Dan L.

    @Mike:

    God is not a hypothesis, nor an efficient cause of natural phenomenon. Although believers in scientism, like Paley and Dawkins, think so. Rather, the existence of God is a conclusion and, in a causal sense, God is a “fourth cause,” not a “third” one. As Aristotle pointed out, the fourth cause is the cause of efficient causality. Otherwise, you fall into Hume’s irrationality, where any effect at all could follow from any cause. Thus, the existence of a God grounds efficient causation, without which science would be impossible.

    Nihilism, the denial of important distinctions, is ultimately destructive of science, so it is always surprising when science fanboys flirt with it. The three realms deal with subsequent and progressively higher degrees of abstraction. (And that is abstraction in the original sense of abstractio.

    No, mathematics is not metaphysical. It is only that the modern world has forgotten what the Metaphysics was all about. Metaphysical qualities — like beauty and elegance and even Ockham’s Razor — inform mathematics; but like the physical existence of the universe is outside the realm of physics, these are outside the realm of mathematics.

    All of this comes under the heading of philosophical arguments that I don’t find convincing in the least because they’re not grounded to anything. You can posit all sorts of ontologies and metaphysical theories of causality, but they don’t necessarily correspond to anything real. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing interesting in any of the quotes above. Note that I’m not at all a nihilist, nor do I “flirt” with nihilism.

    Just as an example of a possible objection to the above, I think that the typical philosophical conception of “causality” or “causation” is actually pretty baseless. Chains of cause and effect can be reduced to the interaction of idealized theoretical particles, and when we do this, it becomes more of a causal net than a causal chain. Furthermore, the behaviors of these very particles do not correspond very well with philosophical notions of causality. Another example: I think the distinction between mathematics, physics, and metaphysics is largely an artifact of history and culture rather than inherent differences between the objects of study. In short, I think philosophers (and you certainly talk like one) overestimate the descriptive power of intuition and intuitive ideas.

    Perhaps if you could explain these notions more clearly I might find a little more worth discussing there, but it’s practically word salad from where I stand. Perhaps you can make a case against materialism that is a little less heavy on terminology and implicit assumptions?

    Nice use of scare quotes around meaning. Of course, “subjective” is the rug under which post-Humeans have swept all phenomena not easily dealt with by their reductions. Of course, saying “it’s all in the mind” runs into a problem when it comes time to explain the mind. It’s hard to sweep the rug under the rug.

    I didn’t say “subjective” means “false” or “not real”. Our reality takes place in our minds; it is inherently subjective. I just meant to say that what the concerto means is not necessarily the same as what it is. That should be obvious from the fact that the same recording played to two different people could provoke ecstasy in one, disinterest in the other. And I don’t think we need God or spirits to explain either reaction.

    It is a category error to confuse gods with God or to suppose soul is not a simple empirical fact. Of course, one does need a rational soul to appreciate art or to invent a scientific theory. A vegetative soul or a merely sensitive soul doesn’t cut the mustard.

    You’re playing fast and loose with the definition of “soul.” “Soul,” to me, obviously implies a dualistic hypothesis of “immaterial matter” whatever the heck that would be. You seem to be talking about minds.

  100. gillt

    McCarthy: “With that background, to see someone, now, making an association between verified, current science and Lamarck was really startling. It jumped off the page in quite a memorable way. And then gillt, the research geneticist, in order to avoid a debating point, pretended he didn’t know anything about that connection having been made or that Lamarckian “inheritance” is an issue in the pseudo-science of memetics, while pretending to know something about it while mocking an ignorant piano teacher who apparently bothered to find out before talking about it.”

    I’m not avoiding anything. How many different ways can I tell you that I’m unaware of a substantial connection between Lamarck and epi-genetics. You want me to defend memetics, because, according to you all new atheists believe it, and therefore I must…or something.

    I told you previously what I thought of memes. What more do you want me to say? I also asked you to quote where a prominent New Atheist supported evidence for memes, or considered it anything but a fringe science.

    And let’s not forget, all this really amounts to is a derailment of the conversation. Apparently, in order for someone to criticize McCarthy they have to defend every claim put forward by New Atheists!

    It’s a silly standard that says more about the vacuity of your own position than mine.

    The only reason I know about epigenetics is because it’s part of my research. And I can tell when someone is posing. And when it comes to epigenetics (and much science) McCarthy, you are ignorant. The piano teacher is an irrelevancy that you brought into the conversation all by yourself.

  101. Gee, Larry, I guess your Bryan quote will be relevant the second theistic evolution is being taught in public schools.

    Even the most noisy of the “New Atheists” don’t claim that Miller or Collins is trying to get theistic evolution into the public schools.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  102. andrew

    @ Mike # 91.

    In order for science to be possible at all, we must make some assumption about the ulitmate nature of the universe; in order to proceed successfully we must make an assumption that is near enought corrrect; if our assumption is badly wrong, not only will progress in knowledge be seriously impeded but, in addition, it may be very difficult for us to discover our basic mistake (Maxwell, 1998).

    The thesis of physical comprehensibility is that the universe is physically comprehensible in some way or other, everything being made up of just one kind of kind physical entity (or perhaps just one entity), all change and diversity being in principle explicable in terms of this one kind of entity. The universe is such that some as-yet-to-be-discovered unified physical theory of everything is true.

    Modern science arose when the methods associated with this view of physicalism were adopted by a few thinkers (Galileo and Kepler) and the resulting research programme began to be greatly emprically successful.

  103. Jon

    In order for science to be possible at all, we must make some assumption about the ulitmate nature of the universe

    Man, this is atrocious. Read a book on Newton.

  104. Jon

    “Assumption about the nature of the universe” yes. Laws, etc.

    “Assumptions about the ultimate nature of the universe” implies metaphysics. That was the very thing that was excluded when the scientific method was devised.

  105. Dan L.

    @Mike:

    One more thing: is metaphysics propositional? Does it require the validity of logical inference? If the answer to either question is “yes,” then metaphysics is inherently mathematical, and no amount of bluster will change that simple fact.

  106. andrew

    @ Jon

    The emprical success of that very metaphysical assumption (that the universive is physically comprehensible) was demonstrated by Newton’s Principa. The outcome is modern science.

    Trying to exclude metaphysics is what standard empiricism does, i.e., Popperian “experiment alone is the sole source of truth…in science only observation and experiment may decide upon the acceptance and rejection of scientific statements, including laws and theories.”

    Standard empricism is untenable because any theory, however well established emprically will apply to a vast range of phenomeona never observed, most of which will never occur. Thus it is easy to concoct endlessly many rivals to your theory which agree with your theory as far as all observed phenomena but disagree with your theory in arbitrary ways for specific unobserved phenomona.

    Thus we use ad hoc concepts such as simplicity or unity to accept or reject theories independently of empirical considerations. Yet, standard empricism holds that no permanent assumptions about the world should be made independently of emprical considerations. What, in terms of standard empricism is theoretical simplicity?

  107. Erasmussimo

    Andrew, I like your comparison of religious belief to smoking, although I think that the comparison to teen sex is closer. The comparison to smoking does permit the possibility that eventually we can entice people away from the vice, and I share some of that optimism with regards to religion. I agree that the world would be a better place overall if we replaced religion with rationalism, and I agree that the goal is attainable. I think our difference is in our optimism that this goal can be achieved quickly. I believe that it will take generations to accomplish, and that an abusive attitude towards the religious will only set us back.

  108. Jon

    The emprical success of that very metaphysical assumption (that the universive is physically comprehensible) was demonstrated by Newton’s Principa. The outcome is modern science.

    I don’t deny that the “universive is physically comprehensible”, but what if some people want to comprehend something else? Do we ban them from the nomenklatura of respectable intellectuals?

  109. – In order for science to be possible at all, we must make some assumption about the ulitmate nature of the universe

    Maybe, but from Eddington to Krauss, it’s obvious that it doesn’t have to be one assumption. And it only has to be about the physical universe.

  110. Jeff

    Juicy!

    For the atheists with all the answers and definitions, can physics ever determine the state of matter before-before the big bang?

    The big bang explains where our universe originated but fails to explain the origin of the cloud of dust from which it came. To believe that observable matter is eternal (without beginning or end) without any proof is a pretty big leap of faith, too. How does that differ from faith in god (without using Occam’s razor)?

    I understand I sound anti-Saganist, but I don’t think God is an extra step (only by definition), just a replacement for the eternal cloud from which the big bang arose from.

    Believing in God isn’t a bad thing unless used as a means of controlling others. If someone feels like he needs God to control himself, then that’s his business. It’s not much different than believing that matter is infinite.

  111. — Absolute, complete, total certainty is not required for knowledge; sometimes, understanding the basic principles and applying a little horse sense can get you a long way. Dan L

    What you’re allowed to get away with calling “knowledge” is a mixed matter, what you’ll let yourself get away with, what other people will let you get away with, what history lets you get away with. A lot of what we consider to be “knowledge” is really belief. Materialism is a belief no less than Dualism or Idealism.

    — Given this caveat about the limits of determinism and the nature of knowledge, I don’t see how materialism is even remotely anthropocentric.

    Unless you can produce another species that articulates materialism, it’s not known to exist anywhere except in the minds of human beings.. I made a bunch of materialists flip out with the speculation that in some other dimension, which we’re not equipped to notice or cogitate, there could be the quality of bridging the material and immaterial realms of existence. Maybe you need to access information in that dimension to comprehend consciousness, I just don’t think Dennett really has got that one nailed down.

    I don’t see how, with our present knowledge of the universe, scanty as that is, anyone could feel confident about closing the book on anything but materialism.

  112. Mike

    # 102. andrew
    The thesis of physical comprehensibility is that … all change and diversity being in principle explicable in terms of this one kind of entity. The universe is such that some as-yet-to-be-discovered unified physical theory of everything is true.

    Ans.: Yes, and no. Comprehensibility is not dependent on there being only “a single kind of entity.” The monists were almost certainly wrong, unless you deny motion, like Zeno. There must be at least two principles. But also the “theory of everything” is almost certainly unattainable in the sense that, even were one invented, it would be impossible to prove that it was a TOE. To the extent that physics is spoken in the language of mathematics, it falls prey to Goedel’s theorem: there will be true sentences within the discourse that are unprovable within the discourse. Jaki pointed this out at a Nobel symposium in Stockholm, and it was later taken up by Gell-Mann and Hawking.

    One and the same grape. The farmer, the connoisseur, the chemist, the poet and the broker all have an exact knowledge of what it is. How would it be desirable, necessary, or even conceivable to know even grapes by a single universal method or system? — J. Chastek

    + + +
    # 102. andrew
    Modern science arose when the methods associated with this view of physicalism were adopted by a few thinkers (Galileo and Kepler) and the resulting research programme began to be greatly emprically successful.

    Ans.: Peter Dear listed six essential features of the 17th century revolution in the physics of motion (which later extended itself to the rest of physics, then to chemistry). But at least four of them (and a fifth in a different form) can be found in the Middle Ages. Galileo’s technique, which he called “demonstrative regress,” is recognizably derived from the resolutio et compositio of Robert Grosseteste, quondam bishop of Lincoln. Heck, Jean Buridan even formulated Newton’s First Law in the 14th century, and his student Oresme gave us Gresham’s Law, the principle of relativity, and invented Descartes analytical geometry. Oresme also invented the + sign, so you see why things did not progress much farther, even had the Black Death not put the kibosh on a lot of things. First you need the tools. William of Heytesbury and Thomas Bradwardine came this close to modal logic, open and closed sets, and Dedekind cuts.

    (Galileo lifted the demonstrative regress without attribution from the lecture notes of Paulus Vallius, SJ, who taught at Rome on the logic and reason of Jacopo Zabarella.)

    In fact, 17th century atomism has not held up well. Those things that we call atoms are not what the atomists had in mind. It turns out that they are “splittable” and it turns out they are all different. Aritotelian minima seem a more accurate model of the real world. When Dalton re-imagined the atom, his greatest resistance came from the atomists.

    # 103. Jon Says:
    In order for science to be possible at all, we must make some assumption about the ultimate nature of the universe. Man, this is atrocious. Read a book on Newton.

    Ans.: Better yet, read Newton. I have a copy right here of the Principia.
    Of course, Newton’s basic error was to suppose that matter was “dead” matter that had to be motivated by something outside itself (which pretty much put the kibosh on emergent properties for a couple of centuries). When Newton invoked God to explain why the solar system did not ultimately fly apart, he set the stage the whole Paley-Dawkins-Behe thing. And Newton assumed that space and time had real existence (oddly, derived via Walter of Burleigh from the Real Presence in the Eucharist). Einstein saw correctly that space and time are metaphysical intrusions that had no place in empirical physics. In his general relativity he showed that space and time were attributes consequent to the existence of matter. (“Explanation of the Movement of Mercury’s Perihelion on the Basis of the General Theory of Relativity,” 1915) Oddly enough, in this Einstein echoed something Augustine of Hippo had said a millennium and a half before.

    # 104. Jon Says:
    “Assumptions about the ultimate nature of the universe” implies metaphysics. That was the very thing that was excluded when the scientific method was devised.

    Ans.: Surely. You don’t need a band saw to do electrical work; you don’t need an automobile engine to write poetry. Metaphysics is prior to physics, as its name implies. As such, it is not part of the methodology of physics. The problem with a limited methodology is that it limits the kind of conclusions you can draw. If your only instrument is a scale, you will “prove” that man is entirely explained by his weight.

    The problem was that when Hume excluded metaphysics (and recommended burning all such books) because he didn’t like where it inevitably led, he could only do so by denying causation. Any effect, he said, might follow any cause. It’s all correlation, not causation. Of course, this undermines the entire scientific enterprise. The foundation of modernism is rotten; and the post-modernists plan to tip it over.

    OTOH, a lot that was “excluded” turned out not to be excluded at all, but rather assumed “on the sly” even while being denounced.
    + + +

    # 105. Dan L. Says:
    One more thing: is metaphysics propositional? Does it require the validity of logical inference? If the answer to either question is “yes,” then metaphysics is inherently mathematical…

    Ans.: Logic is not mathematics. (That was Popper’s error when he gutted inductive science.) It is more correct to say that logic is prior to mathematics. That is, you can do logic without mathematics (Aristotle did; Locke did) but you cannot do mathematics without logic. The very notion of mathematical proof depends on the Prior and Posterior Analytics.

    That a matter is expressed in a certain language does not mean that it is “essentially” that language. I have read Darwin’s Origin of Species, for example, and I note that, unlike the hard sciences, it was expressed entirely in English; but that does not mean that the theory of natural selection is “inherently” a literary genre.

  113. #76, Anthony McCarthy:

    I’m sure that some of the stuff that they’re doing under the umbrella of Exobiology will prove to be valuable in some way, It’s just that…in order to be directly relevant to the subject matter of “extraterrestrial life” they’ll have to actually have a specimen of an organism to study. And if they get one ,,,there’s no way of knowing what they could find on the second, third, fourth,…. planets down the line. If Carl Sagan is right, they’d have to have … done an awful lot of work on them before they could start making general theories of life everywhere.

    Look, I know very, very little about exobiology, but even given that, it looksto me like you’re really kinda confused here, almost in a ‘not even wrong’ sorta way. That’s why I keep suggesting you do some dirt-basic online searching re: “exobiology” – the first few hits I find seem pretty ok. And here is what I think has happened:

    1) You read Dawkins claiming that life on other planets, if discovered, will very likely be found to have evolved mostly through the mechanism of classic “Darwinian”(ish) evolution – random variation & natural selection, etc. There’s a lot behind this statement, from specific & technical debates within science to the basic reasons this isn’t, I think, a wildly unreasonable idea. You often seem to try to understand things in a politicized & personalized way – science as politics and conflict, rather than an actual discipline – that’s not always wrong, really, there’s quite a lot of that, but I don’t think it helps you here)

    2) You don’t like Dawkins, not at all, both because of “new atheism” and because of what you see as his support of sociobio/evopsych.

    3) Dawkins’ claim gets all mixed up in your head with the idea of exobiology (which you already don’t like, perhaps, because it’s associated with Sagan, who you dislike as an invisible dragon-slayer, or something), something you perhaps don’t know a whole lot (of recent stuff, at least) about – hey, it’s a very big world out there, full of information overload.

    4) Andy hate Dawkins! Andy hate exobiology! – so you go on elsewhere, iirc, about how exobio is “pseuduoscience”, and how it’s all horribly flawed because they need to find all life in the universe before making some “general theory about life everywhere”, which 1) makes it sound like you don’t know much about exobio, 2) suggests you’re reacting to Dawkins’ comment, and 3) in that you feel like this is some fatal and ludicrous flaw, makes it sound like you don’t so much about science in general. Again, have you done some very basic googling on exobio yet? If not, why not?

  114. Mike

    110. Jeff Says:
    For the atheists with all the answers and definitions, can physics ever determine the state of matter before-before the big bang?

    Ans.: There was no “before” the Big Bang. Time is a metaphysical concept that depends for its existence on changeable matter. No matter, no time.

    [T]here are no objections of principle against the introduction of this hypothesis [gen. relativity], by which space and time are deprived of the last trace of objective reality.
    – Albert Einstein, “Explanation of the Movement of Mercury’s Perihelion on the Basis of the General Theory of Relativity,” 1915, original in German

    With the motion of creatures, time began to run its course. It is idle to look for time before creation, as if time can be found before time.
    – Augustine of Hippo, De genesi ad litteram, Book V, Ch. 5:12

    110. Jeff Says:
    The big bang explains where our universe originated but fails to explain the origin of the cloud of dust from which it came.

    Ans.: There was no cloud of dust from which the Big Bang came. The BB was the origin of all matter and hence of space and time itself.

    Nor is the Big Bang some “moment of creation.” Fr. Georges Lemaitre, the Belgian priest who first showed that a dynamic universe was a consequence of general relativity theory, was very firm on this. The beginning of space-time is not the same thing as creation. As Aquinas showed, a created world could as easily be eternal. (“On the eternity of the world”)

  115. Dan L.

    @ Anthony McCarthy:

    I don’t see how, with our present knowledge of the universe, scanty as that is, anyone could feel confident about closing the book on anything but materialism.

    Again, I’m more than happy to explain why I’m so confident in email; comments on a unrelated blog post are not the ideal place to have that discussion. If you insist, maybe I’ll give it a try here.

    Your comment that much of what we call “knowledge” is actually belief is one that I agree with. In fact, that’s a big part of why I’m so confident.

    @Mike:

    Logic is not mathematics. (That was Popper’s error when he gutted inductive science.) It is more correct to say that logic is prior to mathematics. That is, you can do logic without mathematics (Aristotle did; Locke did) but you cannot do mathematics without logic. The very notion of mathematical proof depends on the Prior and Posterior Analytics.

    That a matter is expressed in a certain language does not mean that it is “essentially” that language. I have read Darwin’s Origin of Species, for example, and I note that, unlike the hard sciences, it was expressed entirely in English; but that does not mean that the theory of natural selection is “inherently” a literary genre.

    I’ve never needed clearer evidence that someone does not understand mathematics. Logic is a formal system, and mathematics can describe any formal system. Logic can be described as prior to mathematics, but mathematics can be described as prior to logic as well. Boole did it. Goedel did it. And their results are incredibly important in the field of mathematics (and I would say not appreciated so well as they should be in the field of philosophy).

  116. Mel

    @Jeff 110

    I hold with the idea that, whereof science cannot speak, thereof it should not speak. At the present time, we have no way of testing hypotheses about what came before the Big Bang. Maybe we will one day, in which case things will change. But for now, as this is an instance in which no models may be effectively evaluated for proper fit, I say if you want to invoke God, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t if it floats your boat. You just have to be willing to revise your belief if you are actually using God as an explanatory model, and a way is found to test models of what came before the Big Bang. And of course, so long as you realize that it is your belief, and not mine :)

  117. Dan L.

    @Mike:

    I’m really getting sick of you implying that materialism requires an absolute reductionist stance. Your Origin of Species example isn’t relevant at all unless you make such an assumption.

    For example, I think studying the group dynamics of chimpanzees or wolves or ants is an absolutely worthwhile and totally scientific endeavor. I don’t think such studies can be reduced to cellular biology. Studying high order phenomena require high order terminology and methodology. But the fact that there are phenomena that cannot be reduced to ideal entities does not imply that ghosts are real.

  118. Dan L. Maybe you should think of the great materialist cause in practical terms, what will it take to convert we heathern to the good and the true way (sorry, I do like to tease, Irish, you know).

    How do you convince your opponents that yours is the more sensible thing to choose, against our own experience, even. I can guarantee you that the first thing I’ll bring up is the inability to absolutely found mathematics in logic.

    And, though it’s going to drive the other Dan mad, I’ll pose a problem to you that I posed elsewhere. If by “materialism” you mean the belief that only those things within the material universe are real, consider this. Think of a number, let’s say in the set of Real numbers, that is a trillion, trillion powers bigger than the number of individual entities in the physical universe, every subatomic particle, every everything. A number a trillion, trillion times bigger than whatever number that is. Is that number contained within the material universe? In what way is it contained in the material universe? Is it real? Is there a number even larger than that which, eventually, even you could not account for being in the material universe? Please explain in a way that will convince a skeptic of materialism as opposed to a true believer.

    And there are other barriers to clarity on the issue of materialism. That’s just one.

  119. Dan S. You do understand that the only reason we know anything about the mechanisms of genetics is because we have actual examples within living organisms to study here, in the natural environment of EARTH. You do understand that, don’t you? That it was due to information gathered in the material world around us, in living organisms, that those theories arose in the first place, not to mention their confirmation.

    I haven’t looked at it at all, and am not entirely certain I’ve got the right math to go through it, but this reminds me of what I read about that paper from the 1950s, by a mathematician who proposed, if I remember correctly, three mechanisms by which complex molecules might replicate without genes. I only read about it in the news paper as a rediscovered possible route of investigation of BSE and prions. You know how that’s panned out, in real life, based on the study of real material evidence collected from the living and, who knows what to call it, world? I don’t think anyone is calling what those kinds of molecules do “life” are they? Perhaps a few wannabee sci-rangers, excepted.

    Who knows what mechanisms of life arising independently might be like? You think it’s possible to build a sound and accurate theoretical model of those from the ground up and get it right for something of the complexity of genetic inheritance? Do you think that if they had nothing to go on that they could have gotten to where they have today on theory alone? And gotten it right? I wonder what the probabilities of that miracle could have been, if it could ever be worked out. Of course, it could apply to the next planet, which we might get to after we all go extinct here.

    And, if you had finally listed to that lecture I’ve been nagging you over (link given above) you would hear about the difficulties that arise from the ability to construct an infinity of “niches” in your head but the fact is that a niche only really comes into being when an organism inhabits it, I think he said, There are no organisms without niches but there are no niches without organisms, a paraphrase that might be a quote. So coming up with an alleged “organism” or even a part of an organism might not tell you if it could have survived at all to reproduce. You think they’ll come up with something that will actually turn out to exist somewhere?

    Call me skeptical, but I doubt it.

    How come you’re retreating into the idea that my criticisms are invalidated by my personal feelings? What do you think would happen if that standard of judgment was applied to the new atheism?

  120. Dan L.

    @Anthony McCarthy:

    Maybe you should think of the great materialist cause in practical terms, what will it take to convert we heathern to the good and the true way (sorry, I do like to tease, Irish, you know).

    I don’t consider it a cause. It’s a perspective I’ve come to through study and careful thought. I don’t need to convert anyone to make it true or special. It is what it is; I find it interesting to talk about, and so I enjoy having this sort of conversation (you guys are way better than the creationist drive bys at the atheist sites, by the way). If I don’t convince you, that’s not a big deal to me. It should be pretty obvious that I’m not trying to save anyone’s soul.

    If by “materialism” you mean the belief that only those things within the material universe are real, consider this.

    Please give me a little credit. I have a math degree and work in internet technology so the abstractions that human beings are capable of constructing have factored into all the thoughts I’ve had on this in my adult life.

    I think the anxiety and confusion such questions cause actually comes down to the fact that words like “exist” and “real” are notoriously hard to define. For example, the assertion, “I exist” is terribly problematic whatever Descartes might have to say about it. The atoms in my body are constantly recycled, as are the cells. New memories are constantly being added, and my beliefs and desires change as a function of new experiences in my life. To borrow from Nietzsche, “to be” is not the correct verb — it is “to become.” This is connected to what I was saying to Mike about problems with intuitive notions of causality.

    Another example: the U.S.S Constitution, moored right across the harbor from me, has at most one piece of wood left of the original ship. Is it still the same ship it was during the Revolutionary War? It has the same name and the hull was refurbished one board at a time as needed. I say there is a sense in which it is the same thing (the U.S.S Constitution) and a sense in which it is not (the physical matter of which it is composed has been recycled).

    Similarly, there is a sense in which numbers exist and a sense in which they don’t exist. Think about trying to make a perfect circle from a material substrate. Since the substrate is composed of a finite number of atoms, you can never get the ratio of the circumference to the diameter to be pi. It will always be a rational number. There is a sense in which pi exists and a sense in which it does not — we can calculate its value to an arbitrary degree of precision in principle, but in practice we actually can’t.

    As I’ve been trying to get across, I’m not really a reductionist. See my example in my response to Mike above — I don’t believe knowledge can in principle be reduced to statements about subatomic particles. But I don’t think the fact that we can talk intelligibly about abstractions makes souls, deities, or the flying spaghetti monster any more coherent as elements of causal models.

  121. Even better, Dan S. What do you think would happen if that standard of judgment was applied to the new atheists? Especially those who have quite freely expressed their hatred and scorn for religious people and ideas.

  122. Dan L. What do you mean by “materailism” if it isn’t that classic definition? Is there a coherent definition for “materialism”, one that would be self-apparent to a reasonable person who was given that definition? If there isn’t, then I’d contend that materialism wasn’t real in any but a subjective sense, which wouldn’t bother me but I’d imagine some materialists might have a rather strong emotional reaction to the idea.

    Is there a number so large that there would exceed a definable one-to-one correspondence with the actual number of physical entities in the material universe? Would that number be a part of the material universe? Would that number be real? You know, when I really want to be a pain, I make it a rational number and then ask how it could be represented as a ratio. I’ve never actually had to duck after doing that yet.

    I’d like an explanation of why that question isn’t a valid one.

  123. But I don’t think the fact that we can talk intelligibly about abstractions makes souls, deities, or the flying spaghetti monster any more coherent as elements of causal models.

    I believe the FSM is copyrighted and maybe even trademarked, and I do believe the creator of it is known. I don’t think any souls and no supernatural deities have such a clear historical foundation. Gogol notwithstanding.

  124. Dan L.

    @Anthony McCarthy:

    What do you mean by “materailism” if it isn’t that classic definition? Is there a coherent definition for “materialism”, one that would be self-apparent to a reasonable person who was given that definition? If there isn’t, then I’d contend that materialism wasn’t real in any but a subjective sense, which wouldn’t bother me but I’d imagine some materialists might have a rather strong emotional reaction to the idea.

    There’s no coherent definition for “materialism” any more than there is for “dualism,” which is usually taken to include various forms of animism and similarly “primitive” beliefs despite the fact that such beliefs bear little resemblance to scholastic Christianity. The categories are fuzzy. My philosophical beliefs are largely influenced by Dennett, but I don’t agree with him on everything either.

    The core of it, though, is that I reject dualism. I reject causal explanations that invoke immaterial causes. I have several reasons for doing so, but the most obvious is something that occurred to me by the age of twelve: that if the supernatural actually exists, then it is part of nature and therefore natural. If human intelligence is really mediated through a soul, then that soul must be able to transfer or transduce energy either by applying a force or through other means.

    And there is no evidence that such a thing happens, or that it is a necessary element of any explanation of human behavior or any other natural event. Positing such things is completely extraneous to the goal of actually learning about how things work. Either you posit an entity whose existence we can verify through falsifiable experimental hypotheses, or you posit an entity that is by definition impossible to study. The latter is not science; it cannot be science; it is, in fact, antithetical to science.

    Is there a number so large that there would exceed a definable one-to-one correspondence with the actual number of physical entities in the material universe? Would that number be a part of the material universe? Would that number be real? You know, when I really want to be a pain, I make it a rational number and then ask how it could be represented as a ratio. I’ve never actually had to duck after doing that yet.

    Asking whether numbers exist is, to me, like asking whether I could put a particular build of Microsoft Windows in the freezer. Microsoft Windows isn’t a thing; it’s a pattern of behaviors that occur within an electronic device of a particular architecture. It does not exist corporeally, it exists functionally. To ask me to put it in a freezer is a simple category mistake. There is an abstract sense of existence, in which we can talk perfectly coherently about unicorns, and then there is an actual state of existence in which there is no such thing as unicorns. Likewise, we can talk about pi, the ratio of the circumference of a perfect circle to its diameter, even though there is no such thing as a perfect circle. And again, none of this implies the existence of a soul or a god or anything else “supernatural.”

  125. Mike

    Mike:
    Logic is not mathematics. … It is more correct to say that logic is prior to mathematics. That is, you can do logic without mathematics (Aristotle did; Locke did) but you cannot do mathematics without logic. …

    DanL
    I’ve never needed clearer evidence that someone does not understand mathematics. Logic is a formal system, and mathematics can describe any formal system. Logic can be described as prior to mathematics, but mathematics can be described as prior to logic as well. Boole did it. Goedel did it. And their results are incredibly important in the field of mathematics (and I would say not appreciated so well as they should be in the field of philosophy).

    Mike:
    Does that mean I have to give back my Masters degree in mathematics? Will my thesis and its publication be now revoked?

    Mathematics can describe many things. But the description cannot be logically prior to the thing being described. Can you describe a jet engine before you have conceived a jet engine? To say that you can describe logic with mathematics means there is something outside of mathematics that is being described.

    Logic is prior to mathematics because you cannot do mathematics without logic. The very notion of a mathematical proof is undefined without logic. Mathematics can describe a syllogism in the same way that the English language can describe Darwin’s Origin of Species.

    For the record, Boole did not “describe mathematics as logically prior to logic.” Neither did Goedel. Goedel used logic to show that the generalized continuum hypothesis was consistent with the axioms of set theory, but could not be proven from those axioms. Teasingly, Cohen proved that the negation of CH was also consistent with the axioms! Interestingly, Sierpinski showed that if CH is assumed as an axiom, then Axiom XI (the Axiom of Choice) becomes redundant! IOW, AC can be deduced from Axioms I-X plus CH. The upshot is that in any formal system it is possible to express sentences that cannot be demonstrated from within the system. That is why the Theory of Everything cannot be known qua a theory of everything. It will still be possible to make unprovable statements within it.

    DanL
    I’m really getting sick of you implying that materialism requires an absolute reductionist stance. Your Origin of Species example isn’t relevant at all unless you make such an assumption.

    Mike
    Perhaps I was unclear. It was an analogy. You had stated that because some aspects of logic could be expressed in a mathematical form, that logic was therefore reducible to a kind of mathematics. I pointed out that natural selection was expressed in English, but that did not mean it was reducible to a kind of English lit. IOW it was a parallel to your hypothesis. I have my copy of Copi, as everyone does, but formal or mathematical logic is not the be-all and end-all of logic. There is also material logic. In the same way there is mathematical physics, but that is not all there is of physics. There is also material physics.

    My comments on reduction were with regard to another comment, not yours.

  126. Mike

    DanL
    For example, the assertion, “I exist” is terribly problematic whatever Descartes might have to say about it. The atoms in my body are constantly recycled, as are the cells. New memories are constantly being added, and my beliefs and desires change as a function of new experiences in my life. … Another example: the U.S.S Constitution, moored right across the harbor from me, has at most one piece of wood left of the original ship. Is it still the same ship it was during the Revolutionary War?

    Mike
    I have never seen a clearer expose of the main flaw of materialism! Of course, the paradox of “The Ship of Theseus” was known to antiquity, although so far as I know it never led Socrates or Aristotle to doubt their own existence. What it demonstrates is that our existence is not defined by matter alone. There is not a single atom in my body that was there when I was (say) ten years old. Yet I am the same person as that ten year old. Therefore, I am not my atoms. Dennett’s latest foray into proving that he does not exist is intriguing, but ultimately unpersuasive.

    When Theseus was sailing home, he had a barge of wood. Along the way, he kept replacing timbers in his ship. Eventually, the ship was completely rebuilt. To what extent was it the same ship? But there was an extra filip: behind him was another ship. They picked up the timbers that Theseus was replacing and used them to rebuild their own ship. To what extent did their ship “become” Theseus’ original ship?

    Aristotle made a clear distinction between inanimate forms and animate forms [souls]. Form is important [second causes]. An atom of sodium and an atom of chlorine are made up of identical parts: protons, neutrons, electrons [whatever they are]. What gives them their attributes as a flammable metal or a poisonous gas is the number and arrangement of those parts, that is, the form of the atom. This is the distinction between the material cause and the formal cause and the reason why there are “emergent properties,” properties of the whole that are not derivable from the properties of the parts but emerge from the arrangement of the parts. Galileo and his buddies were premature to discard second causes, I think, as you yourself have indicated.

    Now, one chlorine atom is essentially the same as any other. But one petunia is different from other petunias. That is, animate forms [souls] are individuating forms. That being the case, the endurance of the form despite the changes in the underlying matter can preserve the identity. IOW, the analogy of the Ship may not apply to a living being, to the extent that identity is an emergent property.

    The existence of soul is empirical: there is a difference between a live petunia and a dead one. Whatever that difference is, is what the ancients and the medievals called a soul [entelechia, anima]. In the case of the petunia, it is the vegetative soul. In the case of Fido, it is the sensitive souls overlaid on the vegetative. In the case of you and me, it is the rational soul added onto the sensitive and overlaid on the vegetative. Meanwhile, deep down, are the inanimate forms: we are all bags of chemicals, even if we are not only bags of chemicals. When life stops — and “life” is the modern term for “soul” — then what was us, or Fido, or the petunia in the garden ceases to be who or what it was and becomes and acts like a bag of chemicals.

    The nature of soul is a different matter and all muddied by Cartesian mumbo-jumbo, but the existence of soul is plain empirical fact.

  127. – Asking whether numbers exist is, to me, like asking whether I could put a particular build of Microsoft Windows in the freezer. Microsoft Windows isn’t a thing; it’s a pattern of behaviors that occur within an electronic device of a particular architecture. It does not exist corporeally, it exists functionally. To ask me to put it in a freezer is a simple category mistake. Dan L.

    So we have non-corporeal entities that seem to be relevant to the material universe, I’d imagine you would agree, at least to the extent that you can explain physical phenomena with math, in fact, science is about entirely dependent on doing so, at times with great accuracy. I’d guess you wouldn’t hazard to explain that interaction between the material and the non-corporeal, would you? Would the numbers exist without the material universe? But if they can’t then that makes my big numbers question all the more relevant. Does that number exist and if it doesn’t wouldn’t that mean that there are a finite number of numbers? Maybe that property of the numbers system is just an invented myth? Do you really want to go there?

    I’ve never thought of this before, has anyone ever described a computer program as an artificial natural law? One that governs forces towards a, one hopes, relatively fixed end? Maybe the role that numbers play in those might help, or maybe not, since those are artificial and not natural but a merely mimic the actual universe. Maybe “phony natural laws” would be a better term.

    Come to think of it “actual universe” might be a more inclusive term than “natural universe”. Who knows? Maybe it might get some materialists out of a rut?

    — There is an abstract sense of existence, in which we can talk perfectly coherently about unicorns, and then there is an actual state of existence in which there is no such thing as unicorns.

    Unicorns were alleged to exist in the physical world, you were supposed to be able to trap one because they would put their head in the lap of a virgin. They were not alleged to be suprenatural or abstract. And now you’re giving me two senses of existence, though I don’t see how unicorns are at all relevant to numbers, what properties do they share in common? Certainly not in that one is a made up story and the other is rather useful to science and other areas of real life.

    — Likewise, we can talk about pi, the ratio of the circumference of a perfect circle to its diameter, even though there is no such thing as a perfect circle. And again, none of this implies the existence of a soul or a god or anything else “supernatural.”

    I haven’t implied that numbers are implications of the existence of a supernatural, as far as I know, our only means of knowing them is in relation to the natural part of that “actual universe” that I’m liking more as this comment develops. I don’t think we have any idea if numbers would be relevant to the supernatural, just as we would have no reason to insist that logic or science would be relevant to it. There is absolutely no evidence that any of those would apply. All I wanted to do is explore the idea of real things that aren’t contained in the material universe and I’m doubting numbers are the more I think about it. At least unless they got that infinity thing wrong. Wouldn’t that be fun.

    – Logic is prior to mathematics because you cannot do mathematics without logic.

    Logic is the product of human experience of the material universe. In his Swathmore Lecture, Eddington said, “Mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience; all else is remote inference.” Logic is the product of the human experience of the world. It has no known existence outside of us, we have no idea of any other animals in the universe use logic, it could be peculiar to us, a peculiar feature of our minds using our brains to reach and interact with the outside world. Maybe we’re just interfaces, hum?

    – If human intelligence is really mediated through a soul, then that soul must be able to transfer or transduce energy either by applying a force or through other means.

    Why not? as I said there isn’t any reason to believe that what we know about physical laws would govern any supernatural, there isn’t any reason to believe that would be a necessity in the supernatural. There isn’t any reason to think that a supernatural wouldn’t be able to apply force to the material world. Many religions assert that what we do in the physical world has an effect on our souls in the supernatural, after all.

    – Positing such things is completely extraneous to the goal of actually learning about how things work.

    I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “learning how things work”. I don’t see that this is an absolutely necessary conclusion. Maybe it’s, actually, intrinsic to the way in which we, as individual beings, are conscious in the material universe. No one has ever explained how we are conscious of the physical universe, we don’t just reflect what’s out there like a mirror.

    – Either you posit an entity whose existence we can verify through falsifiable experimental hypotheses, or you posit an entity that is by definition impossible to study. The latter is not science; it cannot be science; it is, in fact, antithetical to science.

    I never thought it was science, I’d say it’s outside of the proper subject matter of science, the material universe being the only thing that science was invented to study. I think you’ve got the cart before the horse, too. Falsifiability is a tool of science to test ideas, it’s not a test of usefulness or even the existence of something, it’s a tool to test the usefulness of an idea about things.

    If I wasn’t tired I’d think of a dozen things that couldn’t be falsified that you’d really rather not do without, actual existence, for a starter, though the separation of church and state is one of my favorites in this argument and the foundation of the entirety of civil rights and democratic government. And I think you might want to take up Exobiology and Evo-psy in that regard, in which case prepare yourself to do battle with, I’d guess, the larger part of the world council of new atheism. Certainly the blog contingent. Remember to be sufficiently pious while you’re debunking them or you’ll catch it.

  128. Dan L.

    @Mike:

    Foot in mouth on the math thing. I apologize. However, I would maintain that the boundaries between metaphysics, physics, and mathematics are not well defined until one defines them, and you’ll have to do so explicitly for me to continue having that conversation.

    All in all, though, I don’t think we’re that far away from each other:

    I have never seen a clearer expose of the main flaw of materialism! Of course, the paradox of “The Ship of Theseus” was known to antiquity, although so far as I know it never led Socrates or Aristotle to doubt their own existence. What it demonstrates is that our existence is not defined by matter alone. There is not a single atom in my body that was there when I was (say) ten years old. Yet I am the same person as that ten year old. Therefore, I am not my atoms. Dennett’s latest foray into proving that he does not exist is intriguing, but ultimately unpersuasive.

    I don’t think it’s much of a flaw, and I think Dennett’s made a pretty good career of trying to point that out. Actually, I think the crux of this argument is the same as the crux of the other: our reality is largely shaped by language, and there are often sharp divergences between our descriptions of things and the things themselves. But I still don’t think the fact of abstractions within the human mind suggests in any way that there’s such things as souls, gods, magic, or ghosts.

  129. Dan L.

    Look, guys, I’m willing to defend my ideas, but there’s a huge wall of text here. Can we please take it to another venue?

  130. Dan L. You’re proposing to limit the real to the material, you think that problem can be taken care of concisely? I’m sorry, I don’t really do concise.

  131. How come you’re retreating into the idea that my criticisms are invalidated by my personal feelings?

    I’m not – rather, I have the idea that your criticisms are invalidated by the fact that they don’t seem to have much relation to the actual discipline, methods, and aims of exobiology (to the extremely limited degree that I can tell). You don’t display much apparent familiarity or understanding of the field, nor any obvious evidence that you are attempting to gain any, even at the most superficial level. In short, you are violently and inexplicably attacking a straw-ology.

    So the question becomes, why are you doing this? I’m offering one possible explanation, based on various observations, including the context of your criticism over the last few threads (apparently, as one of several unsupportable ‘articles of faith’ for specific or generalized “new atheists”, along with memes and evo-psych) and your odd reference to how exobiologists are going to have to have to sample huge numbers of planets before that “start making general theories of life everywhere,” which seems to be a kind of response to Dawkins’ claim about evolution throughout the universe.

    —-

    What one needs for natural selection to work:

    Self-replicators – things that make copies of themselves, using
    An imperfect copying process, so that some of these copies will be different from the original (a source of variation), resulting in
    Differential rates of copying (reproductive success) among these copies as a result of this variation, So long as the variations responsible for these differences can themselves be copied.

    Of course, it generally ends up a lot more complicated, especially if sex gets involved (doesn’t it always?), but that’s the basic idea. Note that there would seem to be all sorts of hardware that evolution can run on, just so long that these basic conditions hold (to simplify).

    I’m not trying to be offensive here – if I tried to argue about music, and ended up saying all sorts of silly things (which is what would happen), I’d want somebody to let me know, even pretty firmly if I didn’t seem to be picking up on it at first.

  132. Dan L.

    You’re proposing to limit the real to the material, you think that problem can be taken care of concisely? I’m sorry, I don’t really do concise.

    That’s fine, but it’s not relevant to what I asked.

  133. John Kwok

    @ Dan S. -

    Your last set of remarks is exactly what Dawkins was stating in his classic 1980s books “The Selfish Gene” and “The Extended Phenotype”. Indeed it would be a fair analogy describing how natural selection works. Thanks for the reminder.

  134. Matti K.

    Ophelia (78):

    Mr. Mooney seems sometimes to be truly baffled when people he counts as “us” have different opinions than he has. For example, he sounded very offended when “Sizzle”, a movie by his friend, Randy Olsen, got some less flattering reviews at ScienceBlogs:

    http://scienceblogs.com/intersection/2008/07/in_reviewing_sizzle_can_scienc.php

    “So you can imagine how I felt when I surveyed the reactions from many of my fellow ScienceBloggers, who seem to be panning this film and just not getting it.”

    I agree with you that Mr. Mooney should make less generalizations of the background of his opponents and concentrate more on the arguments of each issue.

  135. – your criticisms are invalidated by the fact that they don’t seem to have much relation to the actual discipline, methods, and aims of exobiology (to the extremely limited degree that I can tell). Dan S.

    Do you think I’d get into this argument without realizing those scientists who are working under that name weren’t actually engaged in science? I’d have talked about that if mocking the work they’re doing was the focus of what I said. Do you think it was that off-topic for the theme of the thread I first mentioned it in passing, knowing I was throwing out bait? I know they’re actually doing something, my point is that the idea that they can ever know if it is relevant to life that might arise on other planets isn’t an idea that is based on actual evidence because they don’t have and almost certainly never will have that evidence because it is too far away. If they do get it within the time before which we end up destroying ourselves- with science and technology and our own inability to reign in irresponsible rates of reproduction and greed – it will be due to some external factor, likely some form of life having physics that overturn some of the most cherished limits that even Sagan liked to talk about. Given how many times his name is invoked by the lay members of the new atheist congregation, he sort of takes on magnified importance.

    Secondarily my point is about the vastly more complex conditions of life here, primarily, considering Dawkins and Dennett were the focus, that genes are hardly enough to explain even only the material form of organisms but also their relationship to their environments which are absolutely vital to their survival and which also are vitally important to their developments as communities into species and the success of those species. And that’s not talking about the all important issues of behaviors both that can be documented and those that are internal and elude detection. While the source of it would shock you, I think the comment I read on another blog thread comparing cognitive ethology to entrail reading was quite apt. It’s all a lot more complex and difficult than the EZly tossed off bromides of the “scientific” new atheists present it, both in their formal and, especially, in their pop forms.

    You didn’t really think I’d go through this without some kind of serious purpose, do you? It’s not like PZ or Amanda or other popular new atheist bloggers pointlessly and cruelly mocking their opposition because they’re sort of base and superficial or like just about any of the others making absurd and dishonest assertions about the scientific integrity of several of the major figures in the cult of the new atheism and, more generally scientism. I figured you and some of the others who visit a blog with one of the higher levels of discussion on the topic of the new atheism and religion might twig on to some of what I intended to point out. I think the over the top reaction that it got might indicate that you do.

    Less importantly, don’t you think those researchers should figure out another name and stated intent of their field, given how ridiculous the idea gets if someone looks at it seriously? Science that doesn’t have even a single example of the alleged focus of its intent and, if even one of its most famous founding members is correct, almost certainly never will have even one? And even if they ever got that one, the next one might be entirely different? And don’t you sort of suspect that anything in the way of speculation they come up with about life that arose independently, actually, could sort of be limited by the only kind of life they’ve got a model of? Who knows what range of possibilities of life chemistry are possible? Or even life forms. There isn’t any reason to suspect that the vast majority of life in the universe is going to be large, multicellular organisms, or even that it would be in a form that we’d recognize as life. Well, there is a reason that someone might suspect that, because that’s what their only model to go on is. Given the remoteness of the chance that we will ever encounter other life, why they would frame their work in terms of its possibility eludes me.

    How far away from any evidence does a speculation get to be before it’s not science anymore? As with those creation myths of Evo-psy, those champions of scientific integrity, the new atheists don’t even think you need it at all before making politically potent assertions about something they call ‘science’.

    I know it was a complicated and, maybe, subtle point but given the scientific pretensions of the new atheism, it’s about as big an issue in their credibility as the corruption in some religious institutions is for their moral authority.

    By the way, don’t get me wrong, I’d love to know, I’d even love to encounter intelligent life. Especially if they had physics that overturned some of the most cherished possessions of some of our most intolerant science guys and cosmologists. That is I’d like to if my speculation that in order to survive with that level of technology life would have to have developed peacefully, noncompetitively and, dare I say it here, in a culture of very high spiritual values. I also suspect they might be able to teach us something about hydrogen fuel. I doubt they’d be able to get here on anything rarer. If they’re any more like us, I’d just as soon not meet them.

    – I’m not trying to be offensive here – if I tried to argue about music, and ended up saying all sorts of silly things (which is what would happen), I’d want somebody to let me know, even pretty firmly if I didn’t seem to be picking up on it at first. Dan S

    I never argue about music outside of a rehearsal, which is pointless. Well, I might say something when I’m tired and grouchy. If you read my pieces on music back at Echidne’s you’ll see they weren’t critiques, except that one about Sting’s Dowland album. And I wasn’t especially mean about it, was I? I said if people liked it there wasn’t any reason they shouldn’t listen to it. I could have added, as long as they don’t inflict it on other people who wouldn’t. Sort of like what I say about religion. Short actual damage to the rights and ears of others, I don’t really think what music people make that I don’t happen to like, is my business.

  136. @ AM (#135):

    …the idea that they can ever know if it is relevant to life that might arise on other planets isn’t an idea that is based on actual evidence because they don’t have and almost certainly never will have that evidence because it is too far away.

    And yet it is a scientific question they are exploring, just as you admit in the first part of the paragraph in which this appears (c.f., “Do you think I’d get into this argument without realizing those scientists who are working under that name weren’t actually engaged in science?”). We agree that it’s a scientific question not least because it concerns physical aspects of our universe, in spite of any philosophical differences we may have with respect to interpretation.

    …don’t you think those researchers should figure out another name and stated intent of their field, given how ridiculous the idea gets if someone looks at it seriously? Science that doesn’t have even a single example of the alleged focus of its intent and, if even one of its most famous founding members is correct, almost certainly never will have even one?

    As ridiculous as their field may or may not be, you have conceded that exobiologists are “engaged in science.”

    At this point, suggesting that life exists on other planets is an inductive inference drawn partly from the evidence that life exists here on Earth. You refer to this later, saying “Well, there is a reason that someone might suspect that, because that’s what their only model to go on is.”

    Though admittedly you express a degree of frustration with their chosen field of study, complaining that they have no direct evidence and questioning how far speculation can go before it ceases to be called scientific (more on that below), you have still (rightly) labeled what they do as “science.” This you have done, in spite of the fact that postulating the existence of life on other planets exists is, at this point, equivalent to claiming that unicorns or leprechauns exist.

    How do you reconcile this with your stated view elsewhere that an event that occurred within our physical universe and is alleged (by some) to have had real effect, right here on Earth, is not a scientific question?

    Please note that I think it’s a reasonable inference to say that life probably exists elsewhere in the universe, and that it is not so the case for unicorns and leprechauns (though perhaps unicorns and/or leprechauns exist on some other planet?). This is because we have a reliable foundation for knowing at least that life exists in the universe (because it exists here), whereas we have no foundation for believing in the mythical creatures mentioned because we do not have any representative samples outside of literature.

    My objective here is simply to point out that you have seemingly demonstrated inconsistent views of what constitutes a scientific question, and seem to want to confer a special exception to calling miracles scientific questions/assertions/issues à la Giberson.

    How far away from any evidence does a speculation get to be before it’s not science anymore?

    I’d venture to say that a speculation such as, “Heaven is filled with Angels” is not scientific, because it’s entirely concerned with things proposed to exist outside the physical universe. Well, at least from the perspective of those who believe in such things.

  137. re: Mel (#98) –
    Mel, you liar, I am fed up with your lies about my blog. There is nothing on my blog about “moon landing denial” or a “belief that meteors originate in the atmosphere.” And my blog has dozens of posts explaining why I hate Judge Jones — just see the homepage sidebar’s post labels pertaining to Judge Jones and the Kitzmiller v. Dover case (the reason for multiple post labels is that my blogger software limits me to 20 posts per post label).

    I am still waiting for you to give us your last name, coward.

    Again, I challenge anyone to refute my ideas about coevolution –
    http://im-from-missouri.blogspot.com/2009/01/summary-of-thoughts-about-co-evolution.html

  138. — As ridiculous as their field may or may not be, you have conceded that exobiologists are “engaged in science.” JCS

    To take an example popular after that Nova program about it, Newton was engaged in science as he did his alchemical experiments and made speculations about religious scriptures.

    I’ve been reading about A.S. Eddington as a good example of what happens to the reputation of a truly great scientist who specifically and explicitly writes extensively and seriously about religion and the physical universe. Here’s one thing he said:

    A business man may believe that the hand of Providence is behind his commercial undertakings …; but he would be aghast at the suggestion that Providence should be entered as an asset in his balance sheet. I think it is not irreligion but a tidiness of mind, which rebels against the idea of permeating scientific research with a religious implication.

    Pretty much what has been sending Coyne and his pals into paroxysms of rage when other people suggest it.

    Sort of like the attempt to prove the probability that there was a God with Bayesian statistics, I think it’s a pretty untidy thing to construct a whole branch of science on a scaffold which is and almost certainly always will be missing a vital leg or two. Or more. I don’t think Dawkins’ attempt to do the opposite was very swift either.

    — How do you reconcile this with your stated view elsewhere that an event that occurred within our physical universe and is alleged (by some) to have had real effect, right here on Earth, is not a scientific question? JCS

    It’s exactly in support of that point that this started with gillt on the Sean Carroll thread at about # 99. You can do all kinds of science around parthenogenesis or Lord knows what the new atheists might dream up (and never actually carry through) to debunk these kinds of beliefs. But they won’t be applicable to their intended proposition because you don’t have the physical evidence or evidence of any kind to do that. You might find out some interesting stuff that got funded on the pretext of “studying the possibilities of extraterrestrial life” but without observing even the first example of extraterrestrial life, you won’t even be able to find out if you’re pointed in a direction that will get you towards that. And even if you’ve got one, how many billions of even Earth like planets do you imagine there are out there? Not to mention others that might support life that’s nothing like that found on Earth?

    If you think I’m mean, just think what a few seriously cruel comedians could do with the idea.

    – unicorns and leprechauns JCS

    Oh, those again. Is there someone getting grants to do any science on those? If you know of anyone, I’d suggest you drop a dime to the Center for Inquiry or something.

    I seem to recall on that same thread the always polite and sensible smijer said something about preferring to address things people actually believe instead of things people make up as worst case scenarios. Unless you guys can actually produce serious trouble in either unicorn or leprechaunology being passed off as science, I’d rather not discuss that again.

    The rest of your comment concerns stuff I’ve been over a hundred times. Claims of miracles that have physical evidence are open to scientific review. Those that don’t and are defined in ways that preclude them being subjected to real science can’t be.

    I’ve got a question for you. You do, actually, realize that science isn’t the result of some cultural assumption commonly held by scientists, it’s the result of actually and rigorously examining physical evidence and what can be gathered from it, don’t you? That even the most outlandish claim that can’t be examined by the actual tools and methods of science, can’t be a “scientific question”. Though scientists can dismiss it for other reasons, even if they, themselves mistake those reasons as being “science”.

    There are instances in history when scientists have considered their reasons to oppose or reject ideas that were valid and became universally accepted were on the basis of their “scientific” implausibility. Chandrasekhar sort of accused Eddington of doing that, though later apparently he changed his mind and accused J.J. Thomson of being responsible.

    I seem to get the idea that for a lot of you science is anything someone can get a grant to study on the pretext of it being science. And it might be in some cases, even if the pretext isn’t and the study of extraterrestrial life on as far as I can see on July 1 2009 is just such a pretext due to there being not even the first bit of evidence that it even exists in whatever form we might make up.

  139. Mel

    And I challenge anyone to go to Larry’s blog and try not to laugh at the pure lunacy of it all. The co-evolution part alone is a riot to anyone who has studied evolution in any depth whatsoever.

    And Larry, I challenge you to delve into at least a portion of the 150 years worth of research confirming evolutionary theory, and the several decades of work into co-evolution in all its many forms. You will quickly learn if you do just why no one takes your “ideas” seriously. I know your reading comprehension isn’t good, but it would be worth it to get at least a little education. You might even talk to your brother, Dave. He is a member of NCSE (and this seems very much the whole reason for your hatred of evolution and Judge Jones), after all, and seems fairly knowledgeable for a layperson. He could at least point you to some books, though I know you wouldn’t read them, either.

  140. John Kwok

    Mel,

    I strongly endorse your sad, but true, observation about Larry. Others, including professional scientists, have tried reasoning with him online for years, but in each and every instance, that has proven to be an utterly fruitless task.

  141. Mel

    @Anthony McCarthy

    Excuse me if I am making points that have been made before on this, as I haven’t been keeping up with your points on exobiology, but I have a bit of a perspective on this. I know some people who are funded on exobiology grants, and actually looked into working in labs on those grants before settling into the lab I am in now for my graduate work. If one tries to make the case that exobiologists actually study extraterrestrial life, then you are quite correct, there is nothing to study as yet. However, that really is not what the field studies. Exobiology in many ways may be considered more of a field of biology that aims at studying questions that regard life as a general phenomenon in the universe to the degree that we can given the biosphere we do have to study. A great deal of work has been done as a consequence on the limits of life through study of extremophiles of all sorts: hyperthermophiles, psychrophiles, barrophiles, halophiles, and so on. There are also microbial ecosystems called cryptoendoliths that have generation times on the order of thousands of years and live beneath the surface of rocks in Antarctica that have received a great deal of attention that they otherwise would not have received through exobiology work. Same thing with deep sub-surface microbes (bacteria can live up to two miles below the surface), and long dormancy sea sediment microbes (due to how starvation tolerant microbes are, bacteria and archaea have been found to survive up to several millions years in old sediments – this work has been the focus of an NAI center at the University of Rhode Island as I recall). Study of these limits and extremes is important in and of itself because it helps us to understand life better, and likely would have been studied at some point anyway, but if we want to look for life on Mars or Europa, they are even more important because they determine where on those worlds we might reasonably look, or if there is even sufficient cause to justify looking, and hence their interest to exobiology. Then there are those who are funded to do research on origin of life studies (a thriving field that is still too new to have really come up with much definite just yet – give it another several decades, though), and those who are funded to study the basic dynamics of evolution. DARPA is funding a huge grant to investigate the fundamental laws of biology with significant national security implications (hence DARPA’s interest), and some of the research directions pursued on that grant have grown out of those exobiology studies. Indeed, there is a lot work with the use of natural selection in engineering and robotics (including self-designing and replicating simple robots) that has gotten a boost via this route. Finally, and this is not an exhaustive list mind you, there is work on biosignatures that get at how life alters geochemical cycles, and how life might be detected on the basis of bio-peturbation of those cycles from a distance, and would be useful for detection of life on Mars, Europa, or even extra-solar planets. This in turn sheds light on biogeochemistry, which is a fairly new field with enormous potential for understanding global ecosystem function. So, exobiology really is science, so long as one is mindful of what the field is. No exobiologist would maintain that they study extraterrestrial life, but that their work is useful to figuring out where life might be, what it might be like, and how to detect it, as well as making it more likely that, if and when we find life on another world, we will know how to get started in studying it. It is a very exciting field that gets at many questions that would otherwise not get the attention they deserve, and it is too bad that the funding for it has gotten spotty now that the excitement over the Martian meteorite has died down.

  142. Mel

    @John Kwok

    I know. I have tried reasoning with him in the past, and learned just how much of a waste of time it is. He is amusing, though. It is odd, though, that his responses to everything are so stereotyped and unchanging. If I didn’t know better, I would almost assume he is a bot that a programmer designed as a joke.

  143. John Kwok

    Maybe he sees himself as a younger version of Ed McMahon, with an ample dose of Don Imus thrown in for good measure! He doesn’t try hard enough to be as funny as Rush Limbaugh (whom, I will admit, I might take seriously about 50% of the time, that even that’s a rather generous assessment from me).

  144. Mel, my point was about the idea that exobiology was about the biology of life other than the line we are part of on Earth and that was only interesting in so far as the topic of the discussions I brought them up in. I didn’t mean to sully the character of any particular person who works under that frame.

    I do like the idea of there being an “actual universe”. If I can’t find a citation of prior use, I’m claiming it.

  145. Mel

    @Anthony McCarthy

    No harm, no foul. I just saw your last comment and felt a defense of the field was warranted. No big deal if I missed your point, though.

  146. Matti K (# 134)

    “I agree with you that Mr. Mooney should make less generalizations of the background of his opponents and concentrate more on the arguments of each issue.”

    Yes – but I’ve just read the ‘Bruising Their Religion’ chapter of Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s new book – which might as well be titled ‘Blame the New Atheists’ – and I am not confident that Mooney is capable of that. It’s all very dispiriting.

  147. Mel moaned,
    – I challenge you to delve into at least a portion of the 150 years worth of research confirming evolutionary theory, and the several decades of work into co-evolution in all its many forms. –

    You can’t win a debate by bibliography bluffing, bozo. And “the 150 years worth of research confirming evolutionary theory” isn’t worth the paper it is printed on if the theory can’t stand up to questions about coevolution.

  148. Mel

    And you are nothing but an idiot if you think you can be taken seriously without doing your homework. Of course, having seen your blog, you are an idiot to think you can be taken seriously at all on anything.

    And I like how you call on “bibliography bluffing” to justify your ignorance. I have seen freshman bio student come up with more creative reasons for not cracking open their books. Of course, you are in your failing dotage, so perhaps I should lighten up.

    On another note, how is it that a family that has such salt of the earth, sweet people like your mom and Dave yield you? Really, Larry, what is wrong with you? Have you been diagnosed?

  149. Dan L.

    @Larry Fafarman:

    Mel moaned

    Can you get through a single conversation without resorting to this asinine tactic? I’ve told you before that resorting to petty ad hominems makes you and your arguments look weaker, and that was honest advice. You really come across as pathetic. Again, that’s an honest appraisal and not an insult.

  150. Mel

    Larry, what you don’t seem to understand is that this is not a debate. Evolutionary biology is a fully developed science with an enormous body of evidence behind it gathered through 150 years of painstaking work by hundreds of thousands of individuals. You are a pathetic crank with no credentials and no knowledge of the findings of evolutionary biology. You have not even made a case for why anyone in science should care what you think or say. Given how poorly you have behaved in general, as well as the fact that you seem to revel in your ignorance, the truth is that no one cares what you think. Aside from grad students like me who waste a bit of time now and then on line and thus run into you, no one knows who you are. You are too small and insignificant. What is more, your ideas are incoherent, old, and, again, ignorant. The old is pretty important, perhaps even more important than the ignorance. The issues you raise were dealt with decades ago. The “debate” is over, and has been over a while (which you would know if you ever read a review article). There is no reason why they should get any biologist’s attention should they happen to glance at them. To draw an analogy, you are like a physics crank who keeps yelling about how he has demolished physics because no one can account for eclipses. You may object to this, but from a biologists point of view, you are that wrong and out of date.

    If you can’t see this, you are even crazier than you seem. Again, how can Dave be such a nice, reasonable, rational guy, and you be…well, what you are?

  151. Dan L.

    @Mike, Anthony McCarthy:

    It appears neither of you are amenable to continuing the conversation elsewhere, and I don’t want to hijack this thread any longer. I enjoyed the conversation; it helped me clarify a few of my ideas within my own mind.

    It would take a lot of space to explain why I don’t think either of your objections make any sort of case against materialism, and I don’t want to do that here. If either of you are interested, my email again is guyincognitozz at aol dot com.

    I seem to have surprised Mike by bringing up the ship of Theseus paradox, though I’m not sure why it’s so surprising. As Mike says, it’s a common objection to materialism and since I actually spend a fair amount of time thinking about this stuff, I’ve considered the most obvious objections to materialism already. I hope I’ve at least demonstrated that at least a few atheists take such objections seriously and that perhaps theistic evolutionists go a little overboard in accusing us of being ahistorical or devotees of scientism or philosophically unserious or any of the other accusations commonly made against atheists.

    Regards

  152. Dan L. If you want to I’ve posted our exchange at my blog, though I am going to be either posting lightly or not at all for a while.

    I’ve never thought that all atheists were historically ignorant or star struck cultists of scientism, but those are two common traits among the new atheists. I’m at a total loss to explain how many if not most of them can discount what actually happened in recorded history as if it never happened and it doesn’t represent an incredibly more detailed account of reality than is available to many of the retrospective sciences. You’d think that someone covering a part of evolution would give a lot to have as much detail available as most historians have access to.

    There are other atheists who understand that science isn’t the only or often the most important source of useful and vital information.

  153. McCarthy said before that the new atheists were also bigots. How many common traits can they share? How much more irrelevant can you become? Only time will tell.

    “I’m at a total loss to explain how many if not most of them can discount what actually happened in recorded history as if it never happened and it doesn’t represent an incredibly more detailed account of reality than is available to many of the retrospective sciences.”

    This is daft. How much is “many of the retrospective sciences?” (hint: I’m looking for a list or a number).

  154. John Kwok

    @ gillt -

    I may not always agree with McCarthy, but he’s been quite good at reminding me, time again, how bigoted some of Jerry Coyne’s comments have been with regards to some of his risible critiques of “acommodationism” and the “compatibility” between religion and science. As for PZ Myers, I wish I could regard him merely as a harmless real-life version of Hagar the Horrible (the comic strip Viking character), but, especially, with his now notorius “CrackerGate” incident from last summer foremost in my mind, he’s well deserving of my sarcastic nickname for him as the “William A. Dembski of Militant Atheism”.

  155. Evolution, geology, how about those two encompassing ones, gillt. I’d imagine they’d like to have as much information as an historian of the 19th century has access to. Of course, the historian might like some of the methods of science, but those don’t work too well with a phenomenon as big as the realities that an historian has to work with. History just works better for studying history and understanding things like the adoption of the separation of church and state. You’d never find that with science.

    You make the mistake of thinking everyone cares about their reputation. I have a different motive for coming here. If you think I’m at all concerned about your opinion of me, state it, put a sock in it, it’s all the same to me.

    And as to bigotry, it is one of the foremost features of the new atheist fad. Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, PZ many other of the bigger names in the new atheism are as bigoted as any group of bigots. It’s just their focus is somewhat different.

  156. Good for you Kwok. Though brevity is the key to a nicknames that sticks.

    As far as Crackergate, it certainly was notorious knee-jerk behavior that a college kid was physically assaulted, sent death threats and threatened with expulsion for not immediately eating a wafer. That PZ devised a publicity stunt to take some heat off the kid was a minor media success, and a boost to his web presence: a win win for everyone.

  157. Silly man. You have it completely backwards. Evolutionary biologists have far more access to evidence than most historians. You’d know that if you understood speciation, or knew what a phylogenetic tree, endogenous retrovirus or single nucleotide polymorphism was.

    I won’t speak for geologists. Maybe one will stumble across this site like the exobiologist did a few posts ago and make you look not smart.

    Btw., why the 19th century?

    “…they’re just as bigoted as any group of bigots.” Haha. Child.

  158. gillt proves all of my points. Shallow, dishonest and bigoted.

    Child?

  159. John Kwok

    @ gillt -

    Well my “buddy” PZ has had a rather long history of bigotry, of which one of his most notorious incidents was dubbing Ken Miller a “creationist” here:

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/09/ken_miller_creationist.php

    According to PZ’s priceless example of breathtaking inanity, then if Ken Miller is a creationist, then I must suppose two prominent evolutionary biologists who are devout Christians are creationists too: evolutionary geneticist Francisco J. Ayala and molecular biologist Franics Collins.

    As for “CrackerGate”, even Jerry Coyne admitted to me in private e-mail correspondence that PZ went a bit over the top there.

    PZ seems to have a special place in his heart for misdeeds done by Roman Catholic Christian clergy and their believers. I honestly wonder what might happen to him if he showed similar dedication in exposing Islam. Care to guess?

  160. John Kwok

    @ gillt -

    Ken Miller also told me in private that PZ called him a “creationist”.

    Again, I really wonder what would happen to PZ if he was as zealous in condemning Muslims as he is in condemning theistic evolutionists and Roman Catholic Christians. Hmm, I wonder. Would he risk merely being mentioned in a “Dirty Dozen” list of anti-Muslim bigots (which was where he was placed by a leading American Roman Catholic organization, citing him for high “praise” as among the most prominent anti – Catholic bigots), or instead, be subjected to a peculiar form of Islamic justice…..

  161. McCarthy: “Evolution, geology, how about those two encompassing ones, gillt. I’d imagine they’d like to have as much information as an historian of the 19th century has access to”

    While you’re googling ERV and junk DNA, also look up fossils to address your staggeringly unschooled opinion. How else can I say it? You are unquestionably clueless.

    Kwok: “I honestly wonder what might happen to him if he showed similar dedication in exposing Islam. Care to guess?”

    You haven’t watched the video?

    Go watch the video where Myers threw away a wafer, Koran, a banana peel, coffee grounds and The God Delusion, perhaps anticipating criticisms like yours.

  162. John Kwok

    @ gillt -

    I saw the video, thank you. I know Myers did that in support of a student. But as a college professor, he should have acted more responsibly, not like the semi-lunatic agent provocateur of militant atheism that he is. Had he pulled a similar stunt against Muslims, we might be thinking about a suitable epitaph for him now.

  163. Kwok, what part of throwing a The Holy Koran, the religious text of Islam, into a trash receptacle and airing it on YouTube not qualify as a “similar stunt” inviting the indignation of the internet savvy Muslim world?

  164. @ JK:

    Had he pulled a similar stunt against Muslims, we might be thinking about a suitable epitaph for him now.

    Now, I’m no PZ defender, but I wonder why you’re throwing up this canard, particularly when it has no basis in fact? If you watch the YouTube video (not sure if your ban from PZ’s site prevents you from seeing the picture in the relevant post at his blog), the Koran/Quran is clearly visible amid the pile of rubbish.

  165. – While you’re googling ERV and junk DNA, also look up fossils to address your staggeringly unschooled opinion. How else can I say it? You are unquestionably clueless. gillt

    Actually, gillt, being the books and pencil era guy I am, I don’t think I’ve used a search once in this little spat. Which is why I got the wrong search words to recommend to Dan S, eventually I found the address when I tried others. Thinking about it, the point about non-genetic replication by complex molecules should have been something I looked up before rashly bringing it into the discussion. I’d assume you saw the point of doing that, though from experience with your level of dishonesty, you’d never say it.

    You don’t seem to have much of a problem with your fellow new atheists arguing primarily out of sources like James Randi, cable TV and the such. But, like I said, when the phony science supports your prejudice it’s just peachy with you.

    What of my opinions in this argument have been ‘unschooled’

    1. That evo-psy has never observed a single episode of Paleolithic behavior in its environment to see if one ever happened (that behaviors actually had to happen in order to exist seems to elude Richard Dawkins and a host of other new atheists, their faith doesn’t change that). Not to mention that they have no way of accessing whether or not their Just So Stories conferred a favorable adaptation and so the “genes” that are the alleged source of the “behaviors” became prevalent in the general population.

    2. That memes not only haven’t ever been shown to exist but that the proposal that they would be somehow like cultural genes is contradicted by the pseudo-science that allegedly studies and supports their existence. I won’t bring up Lamarckian inheritance in that context, it sends you too many bubbles out of level when a mere musician has that audacity.

    3. That exobiology actually doesn’t have a single example of “other life” and, considering how far away those samples definitely are, it effectively never will before the work they’ve done is more lost that the Paleolithic “behaviors” in #1. are? That the necessary prejudices caused by the one line of life, ours, which are the sole definition of life available could preclude them even knowing what actual “other life” could be like? That I was able to point to some of the statements about what an eminent geneticist made which are reasons to think trying to do so from theory alone is likely far too simplistic?

    4. Was it my really, really big numbers question? Well, I do have to admit that my math and logic are way too rudimentary to explore the task formally. But, like the issue of trying to apply probability and science where it’s impossible to make them go, none of you guys have been able to answer it. I did think Sorbet’s retreat into claiming the issues I brought up were too elementary for people as lofty as yourselves to consider was pretty funny. Though it certainly gave me more of an insight into the kind of disability that having too much of an investment in something might confer to someone.

    5. Or was it the point that history has far more detailed information about documented human culture, albeit concentrated into a relatively short period of time, than geology or those aspects of evolutionary science have access to? And so it is the better source to investigate questions like the fact that it was in the cultures dominated by the Abrahamic religions that gave rise to modern science than the cogitations of even a real scientist like Lawrence Russell or one gillt who actually hasn’t been brave enough to do anything but assert his superior mind and credentials, not even putting much of those on the lines in an argument.

    Thank you gillt, I don’t think I’d have made that outline of the past three weeks here unless you’d been so arrogant in that last remark. One does forget to review how one has spent their time in the middle of thinking about these things.

    I will admit, you do show a superior knowledge of PZ, well, relative to your other demonstrations of knowledge here or to mine of him. Once I found out that the Sage of Morris got by in the great war on religion mostly on bluster and attention getting antics I haven’t bothered to keep up with him. He’s certainly a homogeneous bigot, so you don’t need to take regular samples. Larry Moran falls into that category too. If I want to read about the science they post about, I’d rather get it from better sources. Just like I don’t run to the NY Post to look for news.

    I’m feeling so ashamed of my inadequate education and inferior reasoning abilities just now. I feel really chastened.

  166. Lawrence Russell should, of course be Lawrence Krauss.

    I guess my beginning review of Russell’s attacks on religion to see if I can discern possible traces of resentment towards Godel, Eddington and, perhaps Wittgenstein in it have him on my mind. Of course, being altogether a smarter guy and infinitely more classy than todays neo-aths he would have known how to cover his tracks. But I do seem to remember something he said about James too. Um. Another possible area of covert resentment.

    I do have to say my opinion of Russell, gained mostly on the merits of his tardy anti-nuclear activities, has gone way down in the past two weeks. What’s the use of being a great logician if you make dishonest attacks in your anti-religious scribblings? Shouldn’t reason alone be enough, if that’s what your faith hold? And I haven’t had a chance to go to the library yet. But this is only my hobby, afterall.

  167. No exobiologist would maintain that they study extraterrestrial life, but that their work is useful to figuring out where life might be, what it might be like, and how to detect it, as well as making it more likely that, if and when we find life on another world, we will know how to get started in studying it.

    This. Mel, thanks! – I was going to try to write something to this effect, but wouldn’t have done nearly as good a job.

    Anthony – well, you haven’t actually done any harm by repeatedly commenting over a number of threads – 2? 3? – about how you feel exobiology is a ridiculous pseudoscience (apparently as a way to criticize ‘new atheists’ and/or ‘scientism’. As to your point – your risible point, as John Kwok might say – about “the idea that exobiology was about the biology of life other than the line we are part of on Earth” – well, that’s an idea out of your head, as I and others have been trying to explain to you. I’m glad Mel was able to lay that all out clearly (and non-combatively) enough that you could move from (risibly!) criticizing exobiology itself to criticizing a mistaken idea about it (what? no “some say . . .”), but while not-quite-admitting-you’re-wrong does take some courage, it also seems to form a tacit admission that you didn’t bother to do the barest minimum of reading-up – googling the phrase, for goodness sakes! – that was all that would have been necessary to figure this out. What was the point of all that? (Was I right that this was, at it’s most immediate, to reaction to something Dawkins said?) What argument was this supposed to support?

    (Reminds me of the time back at Echidne’s blog when you were going on about Maryanne Robinson’s (risi – sorry, sorry) critique of “Darwinism”, and I had to haul out that interview with her where she babbled on about how scientists are horrible blind dogmatic Darwin-worshipping ideologues because they didn’t immediately accept some random geographer’s idea that Neandertals were actually iodine-deficient cretins. Same point now – if you’re going to make political/ideological/personal criticisms of science, it really helps to understand enough about the actual science to know whether or not you’re talking nonsense or making a good point (of which there are many) -or worse, burying a good point under nonsense. And while you haven’t caused any harm, it gets back to Chris’ point up-blog about the conservatives who are going ‘hey, Obama’s repressing science too! – “that disregard for scientific substance,” something which is sadly not an exclusive property of the Right (although there’s not much of a comparison here – it’s like a WalMart of disinformation vs. a little mom-and-pop of misunderstanding. (Or something).

  168. , I don’t think I’ve used a search once in this little spat.

    Make that explicit admission.

    Which is why I got the wrong search words to recommend to Dan S,
    Thank you. I wasn’t thrilled by your apparent implication that I was being dishonest to cover up laziness or whatever, rather than repeatedly asking, ‘hey, Anthony, I can’t find it, do you have a link?’ Although now that I do, I still haven’t got around to it – but that’s honest laziness, at least.

    “#3″ – you still don’t get it? wow. And it’s still not impossible that we’ll stumble across very simple life here in our solar system – not that I’m holding my breath, granted.

  169. (And of course, that’s why, as pointed out, that exobiology is very interested in the widest possible range of “weird” earth life – to consciously try to widen our understanding of what we might look for. Imperfect, but it’s what we’ve got. And very cool in its own right, too.

  170. gillt

    “Actually, gillt, being the books and pencil era guy I am, I don’t think I’ve used a search once in this little spat.”

    That explains a lot. Thanks for the admission.

    “You don’t seem to have much of a problem with your fellow new atheists arguing primarily out of sources like James Randi, cable TV and the such. But, like I said, when the phony science supports your prejudice it’s just peachy with you.”

    For the life of me, I can’t imagine where this outburst came from. I’m a new atheist why, because I disagree with you? Is it easier for you to call me a bigot now? When have any of us brought James Randi or cable TV into the conversation and how is any of this relevant?

    McCarthy: “What of my opinions in this argument have been ‘unschooled’ ”

    1. The Evo-Psych canard. You’re backtracking. You said “evolution,” of which evo-psych is a small controversial part. Again, either stand by your sweeping generalizations or get ridiculed for them. Further generalization that all New Atheists buy into evo-psych is asinine. Both Moran and Myers strongly criticize evo-psych. Here’s an example of you with unschooled opinions. Besides, I’m not here to defend New Atheists, so why do you keep insisting that I should?

    2. Memes are an analogy. Dawkins made this plain way back when he introduced the term in “The Selfish Gene.” That some chose to take it literally is hardly his problem. Academic investigation into memetics mainly takes place in humanities departments not biology. Again, memes aren’t even a part of the Modern Synthesis. Number 2 is irrelevant to your original mindless claim.

    3. You don’t appear to be on speaking terms with reality. Besides, others have already picked through your word salad on this front.

    4. This is a rambling mess of a nonstatement. I can’t made heads or tails of it.

    5. “…history has far more detailed information about documented human culture, albeit concentrated into a relatively short period of time, than geology or those aspects of evolutionary science have access to?”

    More impenetrable bluster. Historians don’t share relevant data with scientists? Anthropologists and sociologists don’t study human culture? It’s past your bedtime? What?

    “If I want to read about the science they post about, I’d rather get it from better sources. Just like I don’t run to the NY Post to look for news.”

    Bingo! The truth is you don’t want to read about the science. Of all the strange and garbled things you’ve said, that’s the one implicit thing you’ve made clear.

    The conclusion we should reach here is that McCarthy is not really criticizing anything remotely like what’s carried out in scientific journals, because his view of science is had through a pop-culture lens. It explains why he keeps returning to evo-psych and equating it with all of evolutionary biology.

    If McCarthy has a substantial point to make about exobiology, for instance, he would criticize a specific part of the research or interpretation of the data. But he can’t because he doesn’t know the research. This is often the most difficult thing about trying to argue with creationists and other science illiterates. As another commenter put it: “You get discombobulated by their most profound misconceptions, and you really do have to be prepared to start the discussion with the simplest, dumbest basics–it’s like trying to have a serious conversation about biology with a preschooler, although usually the preschoolers are far more open-minded and willing to learn.”

  171. Thank you. I wasn’t thrilled by your apparent implication that I was being dishonest to cover up laziness or whatever, rather than repeatedly asking,

    Sorry, Dan. I just assume you young folk are better at this than I am.

    “#3″ – you still don’t get it? wow. And it’s still not impossible that we’ll stumble across very simple life here in our solar system – not that I’m holding my breath, granted.

    Which could turn out to have had the same source as it did here. Were those alleged Martian squgglies promoted as exobiology? I can’t recall.

    gillt, you are a new atheist because you fulfill the requirements.

  172. Oh, and gillt, I wasn’t arguing about science, I was arguing about several of the things you folk were saying about EVIDENCE and asserting that you could so science in the absence of EVIDENCE while slamming religious people, many of whom are fully aware that the things they BELIEVE are not based in physical EVIDENCE of the kind that SCIENCE requires.

    If the word hadn’t been so damaged I might throw “epistemology” in here somewhere. Instead I’ll just say that what you folk are requiring of others, you don’t require of yourselves.

  173. – Maryanne Robinson’s (risi – sorry, sorry) critique of “Darwinism”, and I had to haul out that interview with her where she babbled on about how scientists are horrible blind dogmatic Darwin-worshipping ideologues because they didn’t immediately accept some random geographer’s idea that Neandertals were actually iodine-deficient cretins. Same point now – if you’re going to make political/ideological/personal criticisms of science, it really helps to understand enough about the actual science to know whether or not you’re talking nonsense or making a good point (of which there are many) -or worse, burying a good point under nonsense. Dan S.

    I notice you don’t mention that I specifically told you that I didn’t agree with everything Marilynne Robinson said in her essay, no more than you do with Dawkins, Dennett….. Jerry Coyne do when they use the word “Darwinism” which you oddly can’t seem to abide even after our go rounds on that piece of ScienceBlog folk etymology. I haven’t checked, has Orac ever admitted he got that one entirely wrong after I gave him the EVIDENCE?

    Here’s what she said in 1998:

    It is very difficult to discuss Darwinism because one is forever confronting raised eye- brows, forever being scolded by people who know only that one must not object to Darwinism. Of no other scientific theory is this true. Nor does any other branch of science invite or even permit this kind of faith. If cosmologists find good evidence that the expan- sion of the universe is accelerating, contrary to every pre- diction, they throw themselves into the work of assimilating this observation into revolutionized conceptions of the cos- mos. Darwinists, on the other hand, tend to object to new hypotheses on the grounds that they are incompatible with Darwinism. A recent example is the argument that Neanderthals were actually people disfigured by lack of odine—cretins. This is not a suggestion to be dismissed out of hand. Diet-related illnesses were common in Europe until quite recently. If studies of skeletal remains have not taken account of the effects of diet, this is remarkable, and it very likely reflects the narrow focus Darwinist assumptions have always encouraged. Of course the theory does not hang on the particular case of the Neanderthals, and the cretin hypothesis could only be thought of as a threat to Darwinism if it opened the whole freighted narrative of progres- sive evolution of the human species to question- ing of the same kind—and it is certainly progres- sive, despite objections to that word. If this can happen, it should happen, not because Darwinism has unsavory origins and a grim history, but because that is how science progresses. It is sure- ly ironic that, because a theory has become syn- onymous with science, it can claim the authority of dogma.

    My bolds.

    She was talking about the sacrosanct position that Darwinism held in the general culture of intellectuals, not about Neanderthals. She was talking about something that Gould, Orr, Lewontin, and a host of other scientists have either said explicitly or implicitly, that the ultra-Darwinists (Neil tend to use Darwin as a dogmatic authority.

    Wish I had the time to look up what people with credentials to match Dawkins’ or even more exaltedly, gillt’s, were saying about the issue just up to the time she said that if I had the time, which I don’t.

    So, Robinson was talking about Darwinism as a secular faith and exactly the kind of reaction that you have to someone criticizing something, not only that he said, but to any idea that you can paste his name and image to.

    I hope you aren’t going to try to paint her as a creationist, as has been your habit in the past, Dan S. because she’s certainly not. In the same interview she said “Evolution is demonstrable and obviously important.” She’s no creationist or ID in the science class, proponent. You will forgive me for suspecting you’ll fall back into the pattern you’ve used when you confront me on blogs where people aren’t familiar with what I’ve written, of trying to make them believe someone they’re not familiar with believes things they don’t. That’s certainly more serious a lapse of manners than my skepticism about you not being able to finding that video was.

  174. Sorry, I forgot to look up how to spell his name, I believe that Niles Eldridge coined the term “ultra-Darwinist”. Gould mentioned it somewhere in a critique of the neo-darwinists.

  175. John Kwok

    @ J. C. Samuelson -

    PZ must have a “death wish” for choosing to desecrate the Qur’an in that fashion (I am referring to the Koran as the Qur’an, since it seems that is the preferred spelling, and I know that is how one of my relatives, a prominent Muslim-American cleric, refers to it.). Again, I believe I made a valid point that as a college professor, he had no business making such a ludicrous stunt.

    If P. Z. spent as much time criticizing Islam as he has, for example, Roman Catholic Christanity, then I’m certain we’d be discussing a suitable epitaph for him by now. Am sure that some Muslim extremist would invoke a fatwa that would impose some horrible form of Islamic justice upon him (Note to gillt: This is what I was alluding to, not merely “CrackerGate”.

    @ Anthony -

    I believe Stephen Jay Gould coined the term “ultra-Darwinist”, not his friend and colleague, Niles Eldredge (You misspelled Niles’s name.).

  176. John Kwok, That’s what I was looking up because I always misspell that name. Guess it happened again.

  177. John Kwok

    @ Anthony -

    Am sure he, as a “godless liberal” himself, would not only forgive you, but also appreciate some of your less than flattering remarks about Richard Dawkins (Dawkins was – and may still be – one of the leading skeptics with regards to “Punctuated Equilibrium”, though I have heard a well-founded rumor that, at least, he was more than merely cordial to Stephen Jay Gould.).

  178. John Kwok

    @ gillt -

    It’s not just some New Atheists who buy into “evolutionary psychology”. I’ve heard Ken Miller say that he thinks the jury is still out on it, and for that reason, he rejects it. Notable philosopher of science Philip Kitcher is also strongly opposed to it and especially, its intellectual “ancestor”, sociobiology (The subject of a most insightful book of his that was published about a decade and a half ago.).

  179. gillt

    Kwok: “Had [PZ] pulled a similar stunt against Muslims, we might be thinking about a suitable epitaph for him now.”

    He pulled the exact same stunt at the same time.

    Kwok: “Note to gillt: This is what I was alluding to, not merely “CrackerGate”.

    Sorry Kwok, words matter.

  180. John Kwok

    @ gillt -

    I’ll ask the Muslim Brotherhood to investigate PZ then. Okay?

  181. gillt

    you have ‘em on speedial?

  182. John Kwok

    @ gillt -

    Of course there is the problem that the Muslim Brotherhood would consider me as much an infidel as PZ, and not only choose to ignore my suggestion, but instead, decide to “investigate” me too.

    Maybe you need a course in reading comprehension. I believe I said that if PZ was as zealous in going after Muslims as he is in attacking Roman Catholic Christians, then we might be here thinking of a suitable epitaph for him. I didn’t say that since he did desecrate the Qur’an too during “CrackerGate” that some rabid Islamic Fascist group like the Muslim Brotherhood would spring into action, prepared to administer “Islamic justice” in the name of Allah to one PZ Myers.

  183. John Kwok

    @ gillt -

    I sincerely hope not:

    “you have ‘em on speedial?”

    But one of my relatives is a prominent Muslim-American whom you may have heard of, former U. S. Army chaplian James Yee, and regrettably, I believe some of his friends may indeed have them on “speed-dial”.

  184. Dan S. I had about three minutes and used that google thing you guys are always mentioning. Here’s an article in the NYT from Dec. of 1998. I suspect it wasn’t the only evidence that it was an active issue as M. R. gave the interview.

    http://www.nytimes.com/1998/12/01/science/neanderthal-or-cretin-a-debate-over-iodine.html

    Are you faulting her for being aware of an issue in science at the time? Maybe you’re like one of the new atheists who asserted in response to something I wrote that we simple folk had to take what scientists asserted on faith. I’m always so interested in the caste system that apparently comes with the new atheism.

    — 4, . This is a rambling mess of a nonstatement. I can’t made heads or tails of it. gillt

    Odd, Dan L seemed to understand it. As have a couple of people who asked me to post it as another challenge. One of them said it had kind of disturbing implications for materialism, and he’s a materialist.

  185. I had about three minutes and used that google thing you guys are always mentioning

    Isn’t it great?

    Re: Robinson:

    It is very difficult to discuss Darwinism because one is forever confronting raised eye- brows, forever being scolded by people who know only that one must not object to Darwinism. Of no other scientific theory is this true.

    Interesting to imagine what situations may have (or not) brought this about – but anyway, of course, evolutionary biology is in an unusual – almost unique – position. It’s extremely well-known and even of popular interest, but also the object of unrelenting attacks and (ginned-up) controversy. In contrast, almost all other scientific theories are basically unknown to the general public, or basically uncontroversial – certainly not constantly under assault. “It is very difficult to discuss [] because one is forever confronting raised eye- brows, forever being scolded by people who know only that one must not object to []. ” From that second category, fill in the blanks with “heliocentrism”, “gravity,” “germ theory” “HIV as the cause of AIDS” (nowadays). If this actually happened, You’d be more likely to get puzzled, nervous, or mocking laughter than raised eyebrows – but push folks long enough (and I’m imagining that she’s referring to intellectual circles of a largely humanities, etc. bent), you would find out that most of them really did know only that one must not object to – say – heliocentrism (can you explain, off the top of your head, how we know it’s true?)

    The other big exception here, also both very well known and ‘controversial’, is global warming, and I can very much see her – or a rightwing analogue – describing a very similar situation: airing a political and ideological critique of climate science and its uses and finding that “[i]t is very difficult to discuss global warming because one is forever confronting raised eye- brows, forever being scolded by people who know only that one must not object to global warming.

    Nor does any other branch of science invite or even permit this kind of faith. If cosmologists find good evidence that the expan- sion of the universe is accelerating, contrary to every pre- diction, they throw themselves into the work of assimilating this observation into revolutionized conceptions of the cos- mos.

    Remarkably, it seems Robinson’s never read her Kuhn. Of course, while this isn’t exactly wrong, it’s a bit misleading. It’s extremely impressive and important that science does get there in the end – but the trip can be a bumpier one than she suggests. Continental drift, the Big Bang, bacteria as a cause of (many) stomach ulcers, the K-T extinction resulting from an asteroid impact, the forming of the Channeled Scablands of Washington by massive flooding – these and many others stirred up quite a lot of controversy and challenged some very basic ideas and assumptions. Again, in the end, once enough evidence is accumulated, and issues hashed out, scientists go where that evidence lead, often very quickly, but that can take some time, and get kinda heated in the process. What relevance this has to evolutionary bio is unclear.

    Darwinists, on the other hand, tend to object to new hypotheses on the grounds that they are incompatible with Darwinism.

    Ah. Examples?

    A recent example is the argument that Neanderthals were actually people disfigured by lack of odine—cretins.

    Ok. Now, and this is important, her claim here is that “Darwinists” – (actually, paleoanthropologists) rejected this new hypothesis on the ground that it was incompatible with Darwinism, out of blind ideology . Specifically, with a crude narrative of evolutionary “progress” in human evolution (something that was largely confined to popular culture, not science, by the time Gould was writing about the basic idea – and note the sidestep from what you describe as the “general culture of intellectuals” – raising their eyebrows and mindlessly defending a “Darwinism” they don’t understand – to actual scientists).

    What she doesn’t supply is any evidence to suggest this is the case, and looking into other accounts (like the NY Times, article) it’s clear there are other quite plausible explanations.

    1) So, you have people who have spent their entire professional careers researching Neandertals, and suddenly some upstart geographer – a geographer – is treading on their territory, insisting that pretty much everything they’ve done is wrong. It’s not laudable, and with better evidence I’m sure the scientific passion for reality would have won out, but scientists are people; they can get into turf wars too. (It likely didn’t help continental drift that the guy proposing it wasn’t a geologist but a meteorologist.)

    2) As noted in the article, there’s a history, right from the beginning, of people trying to explain Neandertals as “regular humans” with this or that pathological condition (a tradition that continues today in creationist scribblings), attempts that simply haven’t panned out. This sort of thing, ensconced in disciplinary memory, can end up ‘tainting’ new ideas that come across as just more of the same old debunked stuff. (I’ve seen it suggested that continental drift fared even worse thanks to a succession of previous theories trying to explain some of the data by reference to increasingly implausible land bridges popping up here and there, so that this balloon-riding guy’s weird idea about continents somehow plowing through rock got lumped in as just another . . . )

    3) Simple – the facts don’t fit, so that the folks that have actually been studying the field for years can quickly reject it. (Indeed, that’s my understanding).

    Remember, the paleontologists don’t even have to be right – although at this point, it appears they are, and the whole cretin theory just an odd footnote. They just need to be dismissing it for reasons other the blind ideological allegiance to “Darwinism,” a claim for which no evidence is provided. And of course, since Robinsson doesn’t seem to have much knowledge of the field, she can’t judge that herself – she just keeps on using the tools she has – professional and personal criticism. Hammer, nail.

    This is not a suggestion to be dismissed out of hand. Diet-related illnesses were common in Europe until quite recently. If studies of skeletal remains have not taken account of the effects of diet, this is remarkable, and it very likely reflects the narrow focus Darwinist assumptions have always encouraged. Of course the theory does not hang on the particular case of the Neanderthals, and the cretin hypothesis could only be thought of as a threat to Darwinism if it opened the whole freighted narrative of progres- sive evolution of the human species to question- ing of the same kind—and it is certainly progres- sive, despite objections to that word.

  186. What she doesn’t supply is any evidence to suggest this is the case, and looking into other accounts (like the NY Times, article) it’s clear there are other quite plausible explanations.

    Dan, for crying out loud. I was a radio interview, not a written discourse with footnotes. You should write to Marilynne Robinson to ask is she can remember who she had read on the issue that supports her verbal contention that Darwinism was an issue. Or maybe you can google that yourself. My point is that it was at issue when she gave the interview.

    You’re on extremely thin ice on this one, as I vaguely recall the issue, it was pretty much an issue like the recently discovered “hobbits” between those who proposed alternatives some of them arguing for one viewpoint and others arguing out of a viewpoint of what was already “known”. As the list of scientists I mentioned as having talked about the phenomenon have also pointed out, “Darwin” is frequently brought up as a dogmatic authority in those kinds of disputes. You are faulting Marilynne Robinson for pointing out a well known and recurring phenomenon in the PROFESSION of evolutionary biology, not necessarily in the science that eventually settles out of it. Why in the world do you think that Eldredge and Gould (who I still believe credited his colleague with the term) would have made an issue of ultra-Darwinism, Darwinian fundamentalism etc.? In Dawkins and Dennett it reaches the ultimate of absurd lengths where they cite the authority of Darwin to make statements blanketing the assumed biology of the entire universe. I don’t know what anyone would call that except maybe “ultimate-Darwinism”.

    Dan, you really are just plain wrong to continually keep faulting Robinson for obviously having been aware of an ongoing controversy of the month in which she made that statement. Since you have such a deep emotional investment in discrediting her, why don’t you write a nice article citing numerous participants and why her identification of their arguments against the iodine cretinism hypothesis as an example of Darwin dogmatism is illegitimate. Why don’t you go point, by point through as many of her statements about Darwinism showing that she’s an uninformed idiot as you clearly want her to be. Though you might save yourself some time and ask her why she would have said what she has on the topic. I’ve heard a rumor that she might be writing a book on Darwinism. If she does and it’s anything like her extended essay, Mother Country, it will be quite well researched and extremely controversial. That one was about nuclear pollution and proliferation and has quite an impressive number of fully cited notes and was politically damaging enough to the British government that they suppressed it.

  187. Not sure you really responded to what I said.

    Dan, you really are just plain wrong to continually keep faulting Robinson for obviously having been aware of an ongoing controversy of the month

    Except, of course, I’m not faulting her for being aware of a then-ongoing controversy; she has every right to read the New York Times. What I’m criticizing is

    :1) the rather bad and unsupportable use she made of it,
    2) the fact that she doesn’t seem to know what she’s talking about, and
    3) by extension, a particular approach to science that is all about heavily ideological deconstruction devoid of any appreciation (in the intellectual sense) or understanding.

    (The word that comes to mind is barbarism, which isn’t fair, but . . .). At it’s best, this sort of criticism can chisel away at the (very real) political, ideological, and mythological crap that inevitably get caked onto science, not just obscuring it, but sometimes causing very real damage. What Robinson’s doing is more akin to crudely and ignorantly hacking away with an ax.

    Again, problems:

    First, she sets up a false dicotomy, between every other science, portrayed as perfectly open-minded in a way that would seem more at home in some naive paen to the wonder of Science, and the supposedly uniquely dogmatic “Darwinism”. Of course, it’s hard to imagine that she’s writing (and here, speaking) this sort of critique of science w/o ever hearing of Kuhn, or just having the kind of really basic awareness of science required to realize it’s not quite so. (Science is, after all practiced by human beings.

    Likewise, there’s also the issue of how she seamlessly jumps from “the great masses who accept it implicitly, as the schoolmen used to say, believing without reflection from a sense that good people should believe” to the contrasting “cosmologists . . . [who] they throw themselves into the work of assimilating this observation into revolutionized conceptions of the cosmos. , comparing a low-information public to professionals in another field.Of course, while the great masses simply may not have much if any familiarity with hypotheses on whether the universe is expanding or contracting, they of course usually accept implicitly, “without reflection from a sense that good people should believe,” ideas about heliocentrism and the Big Bang and many other things. Life is short, math is hard, there’s supper to make, kids to raise, bills to pay, and TV to watch.

    [It[ was a radio interview, not a written discourse with footnotes. You should .... ask i[f] she can remember who she had read on the issue that supports her verbal contention that Darwinism was an issue.

    It’s certainly true that a radio interview has different standards – but it still has standards – she doesn’t support her point at all, and while it would be interesting to see what she would say, the fact is there’s lots of reasons to think that there’s no there there. Marilynne just has a hammer, and all she sees is a nail.

    as I vaguely recall the issue, it was pretty much an issue like the recently discovered “hobbits” between those who proposed alternatives some of them arguing for one viewpoint and others arguing out of a viewpoint of what was already “known”.

    I dunno about that. Now, there are some similarities :besides researchers that Homo floresiensis was an exciting new species are other researchers claiming that it actually was a regular human with some kind of pathological condition – microcephaly, etc. – including our old friend cretinism!

    My point is that it was at issue when she gave the interview.
    Well, it got in the news, because conflict and novelty sells . . . With the Neandertal situation it was pretty much some geographer – Jerome Dobson – against the folks who actually work in the field, although the Times did get a kind head-patting quote from one fellow).

    . Why in the world do you think that Eldredge and Gould … would have made an issue of ultra-Darwinism, Darwinian fundamentalism etc.?

    I was (and am) a great fan of Gould, who along with everything else was one of the great late-20thC. popularizers of science, and a marvelous writer. But remember, they were pushing a noisily controversial new idea – whatever the other issues, of course they were going to portray their opponents – quite sincerely – as dogmatic old stick-in-the-muds.

    n Dawkins and Dennett it reaches the ultimate of absurd lengths where they cite the authority of Darwin to make statements blanketing the assumed biology of the entire universe.
    Whatever the merit of these claims, you’ve misunderstood (unless I have, I guess), what they’re actually saying. They’re not citing the “authority of Darwin“, as if he was some sort of prophet and his writings sacred scripture – rather, they’re drawing on the power and success of (Darwinian-style) evolutionary biology to make some pretty broad claims. They might be wrong, but they’re not doing what you think they’re doing.

    But this is getting a bit far afield – back to Marilynne Robinson. Remember, her argument is that “Darwinism” is uniquely (among the sciences) dogmatic, riddled with a “kind of faith” not permissible in other branches of science. The one meaningful bit of evidence she gives? That paleoanthropologists specializing in Neandertals didn’t immediately embrace some random geographer’s extremely out-of-left-field (and also, ultimately not so well supported) little theory about how pretty much everything they’ve ever done is wrong. The idea apparently is that, as good worshipful Darwinists, they opposed it because it “opened the whole freighted narrative of progressive evolution of the human species to questioning“, although this is never supported – we’re merely told that this is a recent example of how “Darwinists … tend to object to new
    hypotheses on the grounds that they are incompatible with Darwinism
    “, but no such objections are cited, and indeed most likely were never made.

    It’s hard to get across how dubious a claim that is – imagine someone arguing that Shakespeare scholars’ opposition to somebody’s idea that “Shakespeare’s” plays were actually written by Lope De Vega is evidence of a deep-seated hispanophobia, or . . . . well, something, except that’s not nearly weird enough. Perhaps that Shakespeare’s plays weren’t really written ’til the late 17th C.? Anyway, I’ve offered some (I think) rather better suggestions for why they might have responded how they did, although you didn’t respond to them. Another problem here is that while she focuses on “the whole freighted narrative of progressive evolution of the human species“, by the late 90s – iirc – Neandertals were not generally viewed (within paleoanthro) as shambling brutish subhumans (although there was – and remains – debate over their exact capacities) and very likely not are direct ancestors in any simple way (although some folks saw/see evidence of interbreeding and a Neanderthal component to modern human ancestry), -sadly, recent DNA analysis hasn’t so far supported that last idea). The guy quoted in the Times article as clearly rejecting Dobson’s idea is Erik Trinkaus, who exclaimed that “‘You cannot explain 100,000 to 400,000 years of human evolution based on a pathological condition.” Ironically, far from the caricature Robinson seems to be trying to present, Trinkaus has stressed Neanderthal capability and the likelihood of equal interactions with modern people (including interbreeding).

    This alone would raise some doubt on her writing, but one could still say that maybe she only briefly floundered out of her depth – except that the rest of what she say about evolution is worse. I’m tired and this is long, but briefly, passages like this:

    Evolution is demonstrable and obviously important. It is quite different from Darwinism. Darwinism is the interpretation of evolution to mean that change in populations of organisms over time reflects the relative survival and reproductive success of those individual organisms which are genetically better suited to survive and reproduce. The theory makes evolu- tionary change as if purposive, because such change modifies organisms to their advantage, whence feathers and lungs and so one. Plausible enough, within limits. (I will not object here to
    the archaism of the model of genetics, which comes from Mendel, Darwin’s contemporary, without significant modi- fication. Darwinism does not evolve.) The trouble comes when that great blank—fitness to survive—is filled in. Rather than looking at organisms to see how they do in fact survive, Darwinists assume that “selfishness” (their word) and a favoring of those genetical-ly nearest is inscribed in the genes, not only of amoebas, but also, and most significantly, of human beings. Fitness is effectively manifested selfishness. This is clearly arbitrary. Survival advantage could as well be a matter of lighter bones or a suppler snout. Assuming limited food supply, such traits would confer competitive advantage in the absence of any competitive intent in the organism.

    …. I think the phrase is not even wrong – she frankly doesn’t really understand what she’s talking about. She just has her little hammer of political criticism of science, and she’s gonna use it!

  188. — “My point is that it was at issue when she gave the interview.”
    Well, it got in the news, because conflict and novelty sells Dan S.

    She didn’t provide the conflict and novelty, the scientists did that among themselves. And I rather think M. R. derives most of her income from her very fine novels and her career teaching writing. So it would be the scientists who had financial motives in the conflict, though I don’t think you could call it a novelty since in various forms similar arguments predate Darwin.

    Faulting someone for noticing a recurrent feature of arguments about evolutionary biology and frequent mentions of the ultra-Darwinists dogmatic use of him is hardly a fault in a mere lay person. What you’re really upset with is that M.R. has the audacity to comment on it in a way that doesn’t match your personal preferences. I’m sorry Dan, but she is entirely within her rights to do that as I was to point out the political implications of an influential passage of what Darwin wrote. Once a scientist has thrown something like that out, it’s in the public domain. Others made far more fatal use of those ideas than either she or I did, including Galton and Leonard Darwin.

    —- They’re not citing the “authority of Darwin“, as if he was some sort of prophet and his writings sacred scripture – rather, they’re drawing on the power and success of (Darwinian-style) evolutionary biology to make some pretty broad claims. They might be wrong, but they’re not doing what you think they’re doing. Dan S.

    I’ve given you the quote from Dawkins, Dennett said even more bizarre things in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, things that are eminently suited to impeaching his sanity. I got that entirely right and I’m hardly the only one who has noticed the completely unscientific, more than quasi-religious faith in the idea.

    You bring up the great Shakespeare question. I do have an opinion about that, it’s not that we can know who wrote those plays and poems it’s that the attribution to Wm. Shakespeare (who seems to have had trouble remembering how to spell his name and whose scrawl of it looks pretty much a bad drawing instead of writing to me and who is not known to have owned a single book in his entire life) is founded on the word of two guys who had a financial interest in making the attribution. I’m agnostic on the question of the actual author as I am about the existence of natural selection in “other life”. On this morning in 2009, neither of those is a question of science. Dennett’s extension of natural selection outside of biology is since it can’t stand up to logical analysis and it is totally batty as a result.

    As for her view that evolution isn’t synonymous with Darwinism, that’s hardly a novel idea, though it’s certainly the one on which ultra-Darwinism rests. You are pretending that she doesn’t know that the questions she brings up weren’t active in the mid-1990s as she wrote that and gave that interview, I’d imagine largely in response to Dawkins and Dennett’s recent books. If you want to ignore the general validity of what she said over some alleged error in details of it I can’t stop you, no more than I’ve been able to when you have distorted what I’ve said. And I can’t keep people from choosing to believe you when you do it. But I know what I know and you seem to be in some kind of panicked salvage operation because your ideology has some problems. If you would only get over the emotional need to pretend that your belief is, in fact, not knowledge you’d find life a lot easier to deal with. Because people are not going to indulge your needs by pretending that the form of Darwinism you hold is problem free.

    Have you read Mother Country? Or The Death of Adam? I mean other than that part of the part you dug up online. While the latter are essays that don’t have the same kind of formal, scholastic requirements of citation as Mother Country, they are very well supported. M. R. isn’t a light weight thinker or writer, though I don’t think your opinion or that of her other detractors will damage her reputation among serious, open minded readers. If you do look at The Death of Adam, do what I once suggested to you and read the last one about the tyranny of petty coercion. I think you could learn something from it.

  189. She didn’t provide the conflict and novelty, the scientists did that among themselves. And I rather think M. R. derives most of her income from her very fine novels and her career teaching writing.

    I’m sorry, I wasn’t clear. I was talking about coverage of the Neandertal cretin theory, not her interview – and to be fair, at the time it was potentially quite news-making.

    I’ve given you the quote from Dawkins,
    You’ve given me a quote where Dawkins relies on Darwin as a personal, quasi-religious authority whose ideas should be taken on faith? I seem to have forgotten it; could you remind me where he says this?

    Dennett said even more bizarre things in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea
    Well, philosophers, you know . . .

    What you’re really upset with is that M.R. has the audacity to comment on it in a way that doesn’t match your personal preferences.

    Yes, my personal preference for intellectual integrity, basic standards, knowing what you’re talking about, etc. (Personal preference, I should stress, unfortunately not always personal practice.) Someone blogging about two talks she gave referred to what he saw as her “sheer indifference masquerading as principle – that’s a good way to put part of what she does.

    If you want to ignore the general validity of what she said over some alleged error in details
    Well, in part I think the “error in details” (not, as I see it, an error in details but rather a significant failure of understanding/neglect for accuracy) is striking in its own right, but that’s because I’m an obsessive pedant with an interest in and minor familiarity with the field she’s blundering into. More relevantly, though, I see what she does with the Neandertal/cretin issue as reflecting, in easily -graspable miniature, the larger errors in what she’s doing – that it’s all of a piece, just at different scales. I figure if I can show you how she gets this particular bit so wrong, you’d be in a place to possibly judge for yourself whether that is the case or not.

    So – do you agree that
    a) the failure to immediately embrace (or outright rejection of) Dobson’s Neandertal-as-iodine-deficient-cretins argument by specialists in that field does not in any obvious way serve as an example of dogmatic “Darwinists” “object[ing] to new hypotheses on the grounds that they are incompatible with Darwinism”,

    b) that no evidence or argument or chain of reasoning is provided to support this claim, excepting a vague reference to “the whole freighted narrative of progressive evolution of the human species, suggesting that Robinson wasn’t aware that paleoanthropology had by this time rather moved on from the classic illustration of ape striding into erect and triumphant (Caucasian) humanity, viewing Neandertals not as shambling proto-human ape-men ancestors, but as an impressive species in their own right, a different twig on our branch of evolution’s tree (albeit one that, some argued, just might have intertwined with ours).

    c) and that indeed, an informed look at the actual situation reveals a number of other convincing reasons for the paleoanthropologists’ reaction, some based in human nature but others in real consideration of the evidence, while what’s not in evidence is any reference (explicit or implicit) to “incompatibility with Darwinism”. To me, this suggests that this is actually an example of bullsh*t (in the technical sense from Frankfurt’s little book On Bullshi*t, – described as “complete disregard for whether what he’s saying corresponds to facts in the physical world: he “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.“, gross misunderstanding, ideologically charged ignorance, or some such other undesirableness.

    If not, what do you disagree with, and why?

    (And really, these paragraphs
    … rather than looking at organisms to see how they do in fact survive, Darwinists assume that
    “selfishness” (their word) and a favoring of those genetically nearest is inscribed in the genes, not only of amoebas, but also, and most significantly, of human beings. Fitness is effectively manifested selfishness. This is clearly arbitrary. Survival advantage could as well be a matter of
    lighter bones or a suppler snout. Assuming limited food supply, such traits would confer competitive advantage in the absence of any competitive intent in the organism. This language sounds absurdly anthropomorphic, but it is the Darwinists who lay everything to intentional behavior, as they must do if they are to derive supposed ethical implications from their theory. If passive advantage were said to shape evolution, one would arrive promptly at the conclusion that this is the best of all possible worlds. … It is the unique value attached to struggle and competition in the Darwinist model that disallows collaboration or passive advantage as factors in survival…

    is in context almost illiterate, in a sense – on top of her political and ideological opposition to competition and the alleged reification of it as the natural and ethically desirable order of things, she appears to have rather badly misunderstood Dawkins’ metaphor of the “selfish gene” as describing an organism’s intent (wrong on both counts). – And moving from there, she somehow imagines that “Darwinists” stress this supposedly intentional selfishness to the exclusion of traits like “lighter bones or a suppler snout. ” – in essence, she’s sneering at (always unnamed, vaguely defined) “Darwinists” for their absurd dogmatic views which lead them to deny a perfectly good explanation, completely unaware (or uncaring) that she’s completely misunderstood what she sees as their absurdity, and that they in fact they hold the very views she thinks they refuse to grasp (because of evilness, basically). She has no idea what’s she talking about, and doesn’t appear to realize it one bit, or doesn’t care. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Again, do you agree with my statements a-c above? If not, why not?)

  190. Dan S. While we agree on some things, don’t put words in my mouth, yet again.

    You do realize that the “selfishness” remark she made to an interviewer was directly related to what Dawkins and the evo-psy guys, most if not all of whom are faith-based ultra-Darwinists.

    As I’ve decided the two years I’ve been answering you on Marilynne Robinson are more than you deserve, I won’t respond to your attacks directly anymore. And as I’ve seen the lengths you will go to in denying even direct quotes from those you support as evidence contradicting the ideologies that you and they share, I can only consider most of what you do an effort to waste my time. I will be spending that in more directly addressing the ironies, hypocrisies, absurdities, contradictions and bigotry of scientism and the new atheism which is just another sect of that materialistic religion.

  191. Oh, just out of curiosity, have you listened to the Lewontin talk yet? You might want to listen more than once, it’s very broad in its coverage. You might want to ponder a point he made, clearly in reference to both Dawkins and Exobiology, when someone made a remark about what they’d ask an alien, Lewontin said he would ask if they knew the difference between a set and its elements. Something that Dawkins seems to have trouble with.

  192. Dan L.

    @Anthony McCarthy:

    Odd, Dan L seemed to understand it. As have a couple of people who asked me to post it as another challenge. One of them said it had kind of disturbing implications for materialism, and he’s a materialist.

    I understood what you were trying to get at. As I thought I explained, though, I think you’re making a error here. Suggesting that numbers are “real” in the same sense that a sofa or a blade of grass is “real” is a category mistake; in other words, I pretty much agree with Dan S. that your “big numbers” objection is nonsensical.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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