Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Bad Pinker and Good Pinker

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of Steven Pinker, especially his book The Blank Slate. He has generally steered clear of the new atheist controversy, preferring positive advocacy of his own ideas rather than attacking others. Of course, there has never been any doubt about where he stood on the question of religion, but he has tended to keep his language temperate. More importantly, he has played ideas and not the man. Sadly, all that changed last week, as fellow clerk Humphrey of St Andrews has noted over in the discussion forum. Pinker launched an unprovoked and, to my mind, unacceptable attack on the geneticist Francis Collins. As well as being a renowned scientist, Collins is an evangelical Christian and author of the book The Language of God (which probably did much better in the US than it has done over here in Britain). It's this public advocacy of Christianity that Pinker seems to find so offensive. But demanding that people should keep their religious beliefs, political views (Pinker and Collins are both outspoken Democrats) or even their sexual orientation in the closet amounts to discrimination. Furthermore, Pinker's use of the usual new atheist boo-words (superstitious, iron age and medieval dogmas) demeans him and lowers him to the level of Dawkins and Grayling. That is not where I want to see one of the world's most important scientific thinkers.

As if to cheer me up, Good Pinker was also in evidence this week. We've known from some time that his next book would be on violence. He probably knew that the chapter on this subject in the Blank Slate was one of the weakest (together with his treatment of art). So it is great to see that he has revisited it for a book length treatment. On the basis of this teaser article in a magazine called Greater Good (spotted by Daniel Finkelstein) the new book should be an interesting read. The central fact that Pinker identifies about violence is that it has been declining throughout history. The twentieth century, even allowing for both world wars, was far less violent than those that proceeding it. There are inevitable upticks from time to time, but the trend is clear. The question is what has caused it? Read Pinker's article for some clues. Finkelstein highlights one aspect of modern life that might make us less violent – television. Because this brings the world into our living room, it makes the alien seem familiar. This makes it less frightening and so might reduce the chances of our reacting violently when we come across it in real life.

Let's hope that Bad Pinker is put back in his box so we can enjoy the work of Good Pinker uninhibited.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was recommended the Language of God by an Anglican bishop. I did not read it all the way through because I was embarrassed by the naivity of its arguments and simply felt no need to go further. Pinker actually seems quite restrained.
While everyone accepts Collins's achievements in the Genomes Project, I think most scientists would be embarrassed by having him as their spokesman on the grounds that, outside the field of science, he is unable to put a coherent argument together.

Jamie said...

That's not really the point, Anonymous. Even if Collins believes a load of tosh, why should he not be allowed to air his views and his reasons for believing them?

Humphrey said...

"I think most scientists would be embarrassed by having him as their spokesman on the grounds that, outside the field of science, he is unable to put a coherent argument together"

Good thing his new position is firmly within the field of science then!. If he was being made Pope I might be worried since the 'I saw a trinitarian waterfall' argument got him so much flack.

Humphrey said...

Pinker writes:

'during the 20th century, a period of time that includes both world wars. If the death rate of tribal warfare had prevailed in the 20th century, there would have been two billion deaths rather than 100 million, horrible as that is.'

This is true, but the fact that there weren't many more deaths in the 20th century has more to do with the nuclear stalemate which existed between the Soviet Union and the U.S between 1945 and 1989. It's hard to see how the Cold War could have been limited to proxy wars if there had not been the threat of mutually assured destruction. I would say it's a mixed picture.

I do agree that homicide rates have declined since the Middle Ages. According to JC Russell's estimates, the murder rate in Warwick in 1232 was something like 30/100,000, and 15/100,000 in Norfolk (from 1268-69 399 homicides were reported). By contrast, the figure for present day Texas is a mere 5.9 per 100,000.

Anonymous said...

He can air them as much as he likes- its the question of whether he enhances his credibility in a high-status job by doing so.
I have read a number of these ‘scientist converting to God’ biographies and I note two things.
1) They usually have no background in philosophical or theological argument so their reasons for conversion are often ‘ I was overcome at the sight of a waterfall’ level.
2) There is an odd belief that if a scientist converts to Christianity this is somehow more notable than any other kind of conversion. They are given totally uncritical welcomes and their reasons for converting are never given any serious scrutiny. There are, after all, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ reasons for conversion but they are seldom separated out.
Look at the contrast in the quality of two Templeton prize recipients- the ex- scientist John Polkinghorne, who is simply embarrassing if you try and sort out his reasoning on science and religion- and Charles Taylor of A Secular Age. Polkinghorne looks like a child in such company but Templeton still awarded him the goodies.

Mike Flynn said...

Most scientists come across as amateurs outside their own field. Why should we demand that Collins be any more eriudite outside biology than Dawkins?

Humphrey said...

For what it's worth I think Francis Collins's reasons for converting were his working with terminal patients and then reading C.S Lewis's 'Mere Christianity'. The waterfall was something of a afterthought for dramatic effect if I recall. On the negative side, I think he is a but disparaging about evolutionary accounts of morality, which I think have great explanatory power; provided of course that they are not overblown.

Karl said...

The fact that Pinker did this should come as no surprise since even the most restrained and polite person will occasionally vent over certain issues. But since Pinker makes his own personal views well known to the public he should expect Collins to do the same.

And with his claim that we are less violent then previous generations before us, I have to agree with Humphrey. It is more of mixed bag then anything else. Yes, some things have improved but we didn't have the threat nuclear annihilation or the creation of some super-virus in bio-war lab somewhere hanging over our heads.

Humphrey said...

Just looking at Niall Fergusson's 'War of the World' again, I note that he writes:

'The hundred years after 1900 were without question the bloodiest century in human history, far more violent in relative and absolute terms than any previous era'

It contained over a dozen wars in which the death toll reached the million mark. That's probably enough to make me highly sceptical of Pinker's thesis that we are getting more 'cuddly'.

Knowing Thomas said...

"He has generally steered clear of the new atheist controversy, preferring positive advocacy of his own ideas rather than attacking others."
As in trying to promote the evolutionary explanation of morality...or promoting atheism?

" Of course, there has never been any doubt about where he stood on the question of religion, but he has tended to keep his language temperate. More importantly, he has played ideas and not the man."
I'm not too sure:
http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/2008/04/steven-pinker-on-religion.html

Of course he's not a Dawkins or a Dennett, but at times he surely is borderline at times.

Crude said...

Pinker's comments on Collins seem pretty tame compared to what I'd expect Dawkins or Grayling to vomit out. But the criticisms don't only seem wrongheaded - they really seem to melt down to little more than personal preferences.

Notice that Pinker is not questioning whether Collins will be effective in his role at the NIH - and given Collins' track record, that would probably be a bad move anyway. His complaints melt down to "I think science should stand in opposition to religious belief, and prominent religious scientists make that difficult!" Otherwise, he makes ominous but vague suggestions about how belief in teleology and divine purpose may negatively affect his research priorities, and perpetuates the myth that any belief science cannot verify is an "anti-scientific belief". Not impressive.

Mind you, I'm not a huge fan of Collins. I find him to be amiable, but pretty wishy-washy. On the other hand, so far the strongest attacks against him (particularly by atheists) have been downright weak, not to mention silly. At least his nomination has already served one purpose: To show what extra-scientific (anti-scientific?) importance many atheists and scientists mentally associate science and scientists with.

Turoldus said...

A scientist's job is to do good science. Collins by all accounts does. That he may be a bad philosopher or a weak theologian is off the point since, as Humphrey says, no one asked him to front a Church or a liberal arts college. All that is really a storm in a teacup.

Jamie said...

Anon:

He can air them as much as he likes- its the question of whether he enhances his credibility in a high-status job by doing so

Does his belief in God, and reasons for it, affect his ability to do good science? Given the success of the genome project, I'd say not; therefore, it should have no bearing on his appointment in the same way that Pinker's atheism should not stop him being a scientist of he wanted.

They usually have no background in philosophical or theological argument

The same could be said of many atheists I've read. "OOo, look! A squirrel died a mildly unpleasant death! How repulsive! There can't be a God!!!" No thought, no philosophy, no real digesting the issues. Of course, some atheists/agnostics are not as shallow in their dismissal of theism as that, but it is commmon.

They are given totally uncritical welcomes and their reasons for converting are never given any serious scrutiny.

Not on this blog, mate. We try to be as critical of believers as we are of anyone else - but if you have any particular quibble that you want to substantiate, you know where the forum is :)

bikebali said...

It’s so nice site. We love to see more on this site. Keep on updating… MonkAreRee Bali ***

Anonymous said...

John Polkinghorne believes science and religion are compatible. That is fine, of course, if you don't have any religious view which conflicts with scientific findings. God simply becomes a moveable goalpost as science develops new findings. However John Polkinghorne also believes in the physical resurrection of the body at the Last Judgement and his attempts to show why this is not scientifically impossible are wonderful to behold - actually hilarious when you begin to analyse his 'argument'. And yet the Templeton guys still hand him out the goodies. As I am hoping to publish a critique on this, I will not say more.
I agree with Jamie that the standard of debate across this whole field is lamentably low.

Anonymous said...

His "attempts to show why this is not scientifically impossible"? What the hell are you blathering on about? Any conversation about physical resurrection and such would naturally get into discussions about metaphysics and ultimate reality, neither of which science is equipped to address. Go ahead, try to "scientifically" prove - or disprove - that we live in Nick Bostrom's conceptualized simulated universe. Or Frank Tipler's Omega Point. Or any other number of scenarios, from Berkeleyan idealism to hindu pantheism. Methinks you don't know what "scientifically impossible" entails on this point, anon.

And the Templeton guys "still hand him out the goodies"? He won an award in 2002, and the scope of his writing covers far more than what you're trying and failing represent here. As for moving goalposts, did you even read what you wrote? If none of your one's about God conflict with science, what goalposts do you need to move? Let me know when this super-special-secret critique is written up - it sounds like it's going to be a hoot and a half.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it is a metaphysical question. it is Polkinghorne who says it is a scientific one!
This is from his One World (my added comments):
“Is the hope of a future life another point of conflict with science?’ is the question he asks. Polkinghorne goes on to say that the Christian approach to ‘a future life’ deals not merely the survival of the soul but the ‘reconstitution of the whole person in some other environment of God’s choosing’.
So how does he defend this? ‘ Clearly such an idea goes beyond our direct experience, but it seems to me in no way to run counter to it. There is nothing particularly important in the actual physical constituents of our bodies. After a few years of nutrition and wear and tear, the atoms that make us up have nearly all been replaced by equivalent successors. It is the pattern that they form which constitutes the physical [sic] expression of our continuing personality [sic]. There seems no difficulty in conceiving of that pattern, dissolved at death, being recreated in another environment in an act of resurrection [really?]. In terms of a very crude analogy, it would be like transforming the software of a computer programme (the “pattern” of our personality) from one piece of hardware (our body in this world) to another (our body in the world to come). [Argument fails to work if you think it through] Scientifically this seems a coherent idea [sic!!!].’
I think point proven - and he is just as bad in other area he addresses.
My point throughout this is [( e.g. my first post): that you cannot expect scientists to take religious people seriously of they cannot compose a coherent argument. As said before atheists and agnostics should be held to the same standards!

Anonymous said...

On moving goal posts - look at how the Catholic Church has changed its view on evolution -although I have not yet found a coherent argument to explain why God chose this particular form of 'creation'.

Anonymous said...

So whenever a religious person agrees that a previous way of understanding something may have been imperfect, or that there are multiple viable views on a subject, that's "moving goalposts"? Ha!

What a catch-22.

"Religious people are intolerant of science! Look at these guys over here - they believe in a young earth and a literal 6-day creation! That sort of narrow-mindedness is harmful!"

'Yes, well, there are also many religious people who believe in and accept evolution. Quite a number of thomists, theistic evolutions, some ID proponents, and otherwise.'

"Look at this moving of goalposts! They're willing to accept findings of science and incorporate them rather than deny and fight them! This lack of conviction is harmful!"

There are plenty of coherent arguments for why God may have chosen evolution as a means of creation. You're likely confusing "coherent" with "personally persuasive".

As for Polkinghorne, your complaints ring hollow. All Polkinghorne is saying that there is no scientific impossibility inherent in a physical resurrection. Yes, it requires God to exist, for God to have such power over the material, etc. But all he's doing is establishing how it's possible. It's practically no different from speculations about future technology, like hypercomputers, or a moon elevator, or the other examples (Nick Bostrom's simulation theory, etc.)

The only fault I'd attribute to Polkinghorne here is that what he's talking about is more engineering (in a very broad sense of the term) than science.

Jamie said...

Er... fellas, could we maybe at least start using pseudonyms or something? Having more than one "Anonymous" is giving me a headache.

Humphrey said...

I'm rooting for Anonymous

Mike Flynn said...

Anon:
I agree with Jamie that the standard of debate across this whole field is lamentably low.

That may be so, but you didn't have to go on to prove it.

Anon [commenting]:
There is nothing particularly important in the actual physical constituents of our bodies. After a few years of nutrition and wear and tear, the atoms that make us up have nearly all been replaced by equivalent successors. It is the pattern that they form which constitutes the physical [sic] expression of our continuing personality [sic]. There seems no difficulty in conceiving of that pattern, dissolved at death, being recreated in another environment in an act of resurrection [really?]. In terms of a very crude analogy, it would be like transforming the software of a computer programme (the “pattern” of our personality) from one piece of hardware (our body in this world) to another (our body in the world to come). [Argument fails to work if you think it through] Scientifically this seems a coherent idea [sic!!!].’

This is a very sic argument. We hear all the time about human minds being "uploaded" some day into computer programs, so why qvetch because Polkinghorne repeats some technogeek mantra? Besides, we see this sort of thing all the time. A proposition that consists of compression waves in the air can be resurrected as the very same proposition in ink marks on paper. Polkinghorne seems quite techno-orthodox in equating the person [a better term than personality] with the pattern, as of neural firings in the brain. It's obvious that the human person cannot be simply matter, because the matter is being constantly replaced without replacing the person.

Mike Flynn said...

Anon:
On moving goal posts - look at how the Catholic Church has changed its view on evolution -although I have not yet found a coherent argument to explain why God chose this particular form of 'creation'.

When did they change their mind? Are they against it now? Or are they only against philosophical naturalism?

"It is therefore, causally that Scripture has said that earth brought forth the crops and trees, in the sense that it received the power of bringing them forth. In the earth from the beginning, in what I might call the roots of time, God created what was to be in tmes to come."
-- Augustine of Hippo
On the literal meanings of Genesis, Book V Ch. 4:11

infoprovider. said...

The Wikipedia article Evolution and the Roman Catholic Church is perhaps not authoritative but it does give some account of the zig-zags in attitudes within Catholicism.
See also (Times On Line) February 10th ,2009, Article headed ' Church theory evolves to allow Darwin back into the Congregation'.

Humphrey said...

^^^
Changing attitudes within theology!. Surely not!. Even still, there doesn't seem to be a lot of zig zagging there, more a kind of cautious acceptance as the scientific consensus emerged while trying to work out issues like 'ensoulment' and the specialness of human beings. They didn't go gung ho and take the Teilhard de Chardin route but they didn't launch into overt opposition either.

Karl said...

Infoprovider, considering how the mainstream scientific community 'zig-zagged' on plate tectonics for decades before finally accepting it are we supposed to view geology the same way you seem to view the Roman Catholic Church?

Infoprovider said...

No, Karl, because the existence of tectonic plates was established on the basis of empirical evidence, theology has to rely on speculation- of varying quality! Not nearly enough academic attention is paid to the way concepts of God evolve and how often these are defensive, grudging and belated responses to scientific advance. On a numbers count, mainstream Christianity still clings to ' earth is less than ten thousand years old' beliefs - it is a minority Christian belief - at least in the Protestant world (hard to generalise about Catholics) - to accept evolution.

Karl said...

Inforporivder, just consider the fact that when Alfred Wegener first proposed his little theory in the early 1900's and backed it up empirical evidence, quite a bit of it actually, the mainstream scientific community didn't accept it. In fact if you read the articles attacking continental drift from that area it appears quite a few people in the scientific community, especially mainstream geologists, didn't even bother to look at the evidence before attacking the theory. And that attitude of 'defensive, grudging and belated responses to scientific advance' was well present in the plate tectonics debates as Professor Steve Dutch demonstrates here: http://www.uwgb.edu/DutchS/PSEUDOSC/SCICRANK.HTM

More to the point, a good deal of science rests on 'speculation- of varying quality!' Take the multiverse theory for example, absolutely no empirical evidence to support it (we haven't opened a gateway to any other universes that I know of) but it is popular among certain scientists. Richard Dawkins used it to advance his little atheistic arguments after all. That is far from the only example.

So the question still stands: should we view mainstream science the same way you seem to view the mainstream religion? Because it seems to me you're criticizing religion and theology for the things that are present in any large organization, including the scientific community.

Mike Flynn said...

Infoprovider
...established on the basis of empirical evidence, theology has to rely on speculation- of varying quality!

Largely because they address different aspects of human experience. Science considers the abstracted qualities of material bodies. But it cannot establish by "empirical evidence" that an objective universe actually exists or that human senses, augmented or not, provide reliable access to it. No science can give a proof of its own assumptions. The difficulty lies in applying the methods of one science to the matter of another. If this were true, we would grasp the truth of the Waldstein Sonata by means of the physics of vibrating strings. Or we could prove the existence of Frank Whittle by measuring and counting the components of a jet engine.

Now, in fact, Aquinas based a great deal of his conclusions not on speculation but on common empirical experience, such as that one thing moves another, or that orderliness does not happen on its own. He never heard the word "entropy" but what the heck.
+ + +
...concepts of God evolve ... often these are defensive, grudging and belated responses to scientific advance.

Scientific advances concern only stories told about the abstracted properties of material bodies. On top of the empirical facts we raise edifices of physical theories. Falling bodies are empirical facts; gravity is a story we tell that makes sense of the facts. But the concept of "gravity" has "evolved" from Aristotle, to Buridan, to Newton, to Einstein. In each story, the very nature of the gravity was drastically altered (although, in a funny way, Einstein has returned us to something closer to Aristotle.)
+ + +
On a numbers count, mainstream Christianity still clings to ' earth is less than ten thousand years old' beliefs

That was a modernist delusion caused by applying scientific methods to a religious text. Someone evidently thought that by adding up the reputed ages of various individuals they could determine the age of the world. That was a very "scientistic" thing to do. In any case, the majority of Christians are Roman Catholic and the second biggest lump are the Eastern Orthodox. I know the former do not teach such silliness; and I'm reasonably sure the latter do not, either.

Unless you're talking about the age of the human cultural world. Six thousand years ago, people were leaving the Eden of hunter-gatherer life in the Zagros mountains and building farmer pueblos in the flood plain, living by the sweat of their brow.

Knowing Thomas said...

[sic] [sic] [Argument fails to work if you think it through] [sic] [sic]...

Anon, how about you actually explain why Polkinghorne is wrong instead of not only incorrectly using [sic], but using a massive appeal to ridicule?

But I shouldn't expect that much from you, right?