Monday, November 26, 2007

Peter Lipton

Peter Lipton, the head of the History and Philosophy of Science Department at Cambridge, where I am a graduate student, died suddenly at the weekend. He was simply the best lecturer I've ever come across. A few years ago, a course on the logic of induction that he taught was booked into a seminar room because of its specialised nature. But not just his students and those taking the relevant course turned up. I was among those who packed the room to the rafters (and it was not a small room) simply because he was doing the lecturing. Mercifully, next week we were moved into a full scale lecture theatre and everyone could get a seat.

He took religion very seriously and had many interesting things to say about its relationship with science, even if I did not agree with many of them. A debate he took part in at the London School of Economics still sticks in the mind of my wife whom I had dragged along. Reflecting on the same debate, when I had one of my all-too-few chats with him in the department, Professor Lipton delivered an important dictum of his own subject of logical inference: "Just because Peter Atkins thinks a statement is nonsense is no evidence that it is." Although an atheist, Professor Lipton took his family to synagogue on Saturdays and was fully engaged with his religious culture. He represented the honest doubter whom we can all hope has a place in heaven.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sue Blackmore Flogging a Dead Horse

Every now and again, you come across an idea that you thought must have died. But lost causes seem to walk the earth in a state of undeath long after they should have been buried at a crossroads with a stake through their hearts. Memes are one such idea. Susan Blackmore is actually still arguing that religion is a bad meme or a mind virus. Honestly, I'm not joking. It's all here. Dawkins's old insult rises again.

No, I'm not going to bother refute this nonsense. But if anyone suggests to you that God is a meme, I suggest you point out to them that we have plenty of evidence that God exists and none for memes at all.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Interruptions to Service

It has been a while since I last managed to post anything here. I've got a moment now waiting for our week-old baby to wake up and demand a feed. My wife has already departed for bed so I am alone waiting for young sir to call for his cup. I also started a new job last week which means I will have less time going forward as well. I will try to compose something over each weekend and post about this time on Sunday, but cannot promise anything for the moment.

Thank you for everyone who has signed up as interested in God's Philosophers. The list is ticking over nicely at the moment. Also, my PhD has been awarded a pass subject to one of the examiners signing off on some corrections. Not too long now, I hope, before I really am a Dr.

Anyway, thank you for your patience. Do please check back from time to time to see if I've managed to post anything. Or add this blog to your readers. I am still reading and will have thinks to say about books as I finish them.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Nature and Nurture Reprised

I have taken some flack for allegedly being a genetic determinist. Regular reader Jack Perry has written a post on his blog, Cantanima, about his son. Jack was wondering if, as a parent, he can do anything about the way his eleven-year-old has decided not to believe in God. Was this, he wonders, all determined by genes?

Let me first lay down what the science appears to tell us. Many human traits have a heritability of roughly 50%. This includes personality, religious proclivity and political allegiance. Fifty percent means half – so about half of who you are is genetic. We know this because identical twins have identical genes and we can test them to find out how different they are from each other. We find they share about half their characteristics (actually, it is more complicated than that but works out to about 50% overall). Non-identical twins have about a 25% correlation to each other, as do siblings who are not twins and children to their parents. This is because we take half our genes from each of our parents. If you share half your genes with someone then you will have a quarter of your heritable traits in common with them.

I think most of us can live with our genes having a half share in ourselves. St Augustine identified this long ago and called the propensity we get from our genes to behave other than we would like ‘original sin’. He also realised it was inherited from our parents. Clever guy, St Augustine.

The shocking fact is not that we are half made from our genetic natures. It is rather than we can find no room for nurture. If genes are half the story, we naturally assume that the other half must be our upbringing and environment. The trouble is, we have no evidence for this at all.

Over the years, scientists have conducted loads of twin studies. They take identical twins who have been separated at birth. As adults, these twins have exactly the same amount in common with each other as when both twins have been brought up by their birth parents. In other studies, it has been found that an adopted child has nothing in common with their adopted parents but the usual 25% correlation to their birth parents, even if they have never met them. This seems to mean that parenting does not have an effect on the traits contributed to by our genes. And, if parenting has no effect, it is hard to believe other environmental factors do either. For instance, in Freakonomics we learn about work in the Chicago schools system, where places are allocated at random, shows no correlation between pupils’ performance and the school they go to, once schools reach certain minimum standards.

That leaves the 50% of ourselves, for which our genes do not appear to have responsibility, unexplained. Personally, I am quite pleased that we are left with this gap. If scientists had said we are half determined by our genes and half by our environment then there would be no room left for self determination. I would suggest that the other half is who we want to be. We do have the freedom to decide. As even Richard Dawkins admits on the last page of The Selfish Gene, we can defy our DNA. Jack may not be able to make his son more likely to return to God. Instead, it is the boy himself who will decide where he wants to go and what he wants to believe in. Again, the theologians of old were right and science has just caught up.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.