Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Homo ideologicus

The New Atheists have made waves by loudly insisting that religion and religious belief are inherently irrational, that they are unique in their capacity to make people do stupid and destructive things. Richard Dawkins is most famous for describing religion as a virus of the mind, infecting people's brains and clouding their judgment. Or take Steven Weinberg, who famously remarked that "With or without [religion], you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion."

But is religion alone in this regard? I am inclined to think that behind the seemingly inherent irrationality and destructiveness of religion lies an even deeper human impulse which is not unique to religion but can arise from all aspects of human experience: the impulse to ideology.

What is ideology? It is not simply a system of belief or a worldview. It refers to the process by which the human mind, individually or collectively, becomes fixated on a specific idea or institution as a source of value, meaning and security. Take German Nationalism, for example: Hitler because as powerful and popular as he did because he promised the Germans the things that they had been missing since World War I: economic prosperity and a reason to be proud of their country. And these were not just frustrated desires coming to the fore: they represented a deep chasm within the very soul of Germany, that had to be filled somehow. It went beyond just wanting to have more money or seeing their country rise to prominence again: the German people could not find meaning in their existence were it not for the restoration of these things. And so they turned to a monster who promised to give it to them and so turned a blind eye on the atrocities of the new regime. (See the excellent discussion of ideology in Hope in Troubled Times, pp.31-60)

Satan astutely remarks in the book of Job, "Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life." (Job 2:4) In this simple statement we see the deepest roots of ideology: insecurity, physical or spiritual. When we are confronted with life and meaning-threatening circumstances, we are tempted to surrender power to something, anything that looks like it might save us from our predicament, regardless of the ultimate consequences for ourselves and others. That something becomes an ideology, which is then endlessly rationalized and defended with seemingly blind faith.

The important part of this process for our purposes is that ideologies are not confined to religions. To be sure, religion is very fertile ground for cultivating ideologies because it seems to promise eternal security to its adherents. But ideologies can also be found in politics (think conservatives vs. liberals, or people's adherence to revolutionary leaders), economics (Keynesians vs. neo-classicals), philosophy (think of the devotion which Marxists or Freudians shower on the writings of their founding fathers) and elsewhere. In each case we see adherents of ideology selectively read the evidence, refuse to back down in the face of critical challenge and write their opponents off as biased, irrational or even dangerous. There is no inherent difference between religious and other ideologies, with the possible difference that the consequences of being wrong in religion, as Sam Harris reminds us, are far more serious!

Ideology in any field is dangerous. The remedy for it is open-mindedness, critical thinking and in the monotheistic traditions the acknowledgment that you are not God, that the quest for truth, though it ends ultimately in God, is never ending from a human point of view.

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Monday, September 29, 2008


Reasons to Believe is a Christian ministry that deals primarily with science apologetics. A common objection to using science to defend Christianity, or any religious claim, is that appealing to supernatural causality is not falsifiable, since it does not make risky predictions, and hence is not really science. (Of course, many people who so object tend to see science as refuting -- that is, falsifying -- Christianity. This is a rather striking inconsistency.) To counter this objection RTB has come out with several books in the last few years which present models that make predictions that future scientific discoveries can verify or falsify.

The first book they published is entitled Origins of Life by biochemist Fazale Rana and astrophysicist Hugh Ross, RTB's vice-president and president, respectively. Origins of Life addresses ... wait for it ... the origin of life. The book's subtitle notwithstanding, they write

This is not a book about evolution per se. That is, it is not about the theory by which life accumulates changes over time, so that simple, early organisms change over eons into more complex, advanced ones. It is not about the entire history of life on Earth either. Rather, this book has a narrower, yet crucial, focus ... This book is about the origin of life -- the first appearances of living organisms on Earth. We address such questions as: What was first life like? When did it appear on Earth? How did it get here?
Rana and Ross contend that natural processes are incapable of bringing life into existence out of non-living material, and thus life's origin requires a supernatural agent. To this end, they take the baton from The Mystery of Life's Origin written by Thaxton, Bradley, and Olson in 1984. Rana and Ross attend the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life (ISSOL) conferences held every three years, so their knowledge of the field is extensive and up to date.

Rana and Ross specifically make eight predictions based on their interpretation of Genesis 1 which they say can be falsified. Some might suggest that basing their model on the Bible immediately excludes it from consideration as scientific. But how one comes to hold a model or hypothesis or theory is irrelevant in science; what matters (at least according to contemporary philosophy of science) is whether it can be verified or falsified. Friedrich Kekulé came up with the ring structure of benzene after daydreaming of a snake biting its own tail, but no one would use this to suggest that benzene isn't characterized by a ring structure. Of course, I don't consider the Bible to be as fanciful as daydreams; my point is that even if you think it is as fanciful, or even that it is anti-scientific in the extreme, this is no argument against Rana's and Ross's model. If it can be verified or falsified by evidence, then its origin is simply irrelevant.

At any rate, these are the predictions that Rana and Ross offer:

1. Life appeared early in Earth's history, while the planet was still in its primordial state.
2. Life originated in and persisted through the hostile conditions of early Earth.
3. Life originated abruptly.
4. Earth's first life displays complexity.
5. Life is complex in its minimal form.
6. Life's chemistry displays hallmark characteristics of design (they discuss what these hallmarks are in their conclusion).
7. Early life was qualitatively different from life that came into existence on creation days three, five, and six.
8. A purpose can be postulated for life's early appearance on Earth. ("[Our] model bears the burden of explaining why God would create life so early in Earth's history and why (as well as when) He would create the specific types of life that appeared on primordial Earth.")
They contrast this with what they claim are the predictions from a naturalistic (i.e. non-miraculous) perspective. They acknowledge that there is great diversity here, and that often the predictions made from a particular model are based on that model's specifics. Nevertheless, they are able to derive nine general predictions made by naturalistic models:

1. Chemical pathways produced life's building blocks.
2. Chemical pathways yielded complex biomolecules.
3. The chemical pathways that yielded life's building blocks and complex molecular constituents operated in early Earth's conditions.
4. Sufficiently placid chemical and physical conditions existed on early Earth for long periods of time.
5. Geochemical evidence for a prebiotic soup exists in Earth's oldest rocks.
6. Life appeared gradually on Earth over a long period of time.
7. The origin of life occurred only once on Earth.
8. Earth's first life was simple.
9. Life in its most minimal form is demonstrably simple.
Rana and Ross then test the predictions of both models against the scientific facts as we now know them, and argue that their model receives strong support, while naturalistic models are undermined. Moreover, they point out that their model can continue to be tested as future scientific discoveries will either support or undermine their predictions (as well as those of naturalistic models).

They address whether life arose early in Earth's history or late; whether it arose quickly or slowly; whether there is any evidence for a prebiotic soup; whether chemical pathways can account for the origin of proteins, DNA, and RNA; the difficulty of accounting for homochirality (that proteins and sugars must be uniformly right or left "handed"); the information content encoded in DNA and RNA; the origin of cell membranes; the lower limit of complexity that a cell must have in order to survive and propagate; the role of organisms that thrive in extreme environments (extremophiles); the possibility of life on Mars, Europa, and other extraterrestrial locations; and "directed panspermia", the theory gaining in popularity (due to the problems outlined in the preceding chapters) that an advanced alien civilization intentionally seeded Earth with life. (Indeed, it seems to me that any supernatural explanation for the origin of life amounts to divinely directed panspermia).

Origins of Life is a fascinating discussion of the subject. Several chapters are worth the cost of the book all by themselves. Their chapter on cell membranes, for example, addresses a subject that is rarely raised. "To date, no studies have been conducted on the long-term stability of octanoic and nonanoic bilayers." ... "Despite its importance to naturalistic origin-of-life scenarios, researchers in this field focus only limited attention on membrane origins."

Other examples are their chapters on alternate life-sites in our solar system, including Mars, Europa (one of Jupiter's moons), and Titan (one of Saturn's). The latter is particularly interesting, since the Huygens Probe landed on Titan a few years ago, although (unfortunately) several months after Origins of Life was published. Again, this book is very comprehensive in its approach, so to discuss their arguments at length would take pages.

Other books they have published employing this model are Who Was Adam? by Rana and Ross which deals with human origins; Creation as Science by Ross which deals with their creation model in general; The Cell's Design by Rana which deals with the complexity of individual cells; and just released is Why the Universe Is the Way It Is by Ross. I have not yet read these books and don't know anything about them beyond their general descriptions. But I'm looking forward to them.

(cross-posted on Agent Intellect)

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Two short stories

First, James' post on the Large Hadron Collider reminds me of a very clever short story: Some Particles Just Shouldn't Be Accelerated. Enjoy.

Second -- and please forgive the vanity, but writing a blog is an exercise in vanity already -- I sometimes post short stories on my other blog, and I thought my most recent entry would be of interest to readers of this one, as it is something of a send-up of the Brights and their ilk. Here it is.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Hitchens, God, and Morality

The Corner is National Review Online's blog that's primarily devoted to politics from the right side of the spectrum, but occasionally they veer over to more important issues. One of their bloggers saw Christopher Hitchens debate Lorenzo Albacete, and Hitchens apparently acknowledged that he believes in the numinous and the transcendent, just not in the supernatural. Moreover, his rantings against the evils done in the name of religion belie a belief in an absolute standard being violated; so much so that the bloggers muse that he's downright Puritanical (to use an oft-misused term). It starts here, and then continues here, here, here, and here.

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A Universal Declaration?

There was an interesting piece on P Z’s blog this week about the development by scholars of a new Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration is claimed to be complementary to the UN’s Universal Declaration of human rights (UDHR) but contains a number of important differences. The Islamic version for instance changes the declaration of equality of rights for all people to equality of dignity and obligations, and limits rights to those given within the shari'ah. PZ was characteristically outraged, saying that the Islamic version is ‘nothing but an open attempt to protect the privilege of religion to violate human rights in the name of imaginary gods’.

The drafting of a competing deceleration isn’t that surprising when you consider the origins of the UDHR which was really an attempt to enshrine values developed within the Christian tradition and depict them as universal, a fact noted by the author. In 1948, as he completed the original draft, the Canadian law professor John Humphrey went home and noted in his diary that what had been achieved was ‘something like the Christian morality without the tommyrot’ by which he meant all the unnecessary accretions of prayer and miracles and faith and sacraments and chapels. This is recognised by the Iranians, who refuse to ratify it because they see it as "a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition", which could not be implemented by Muslims without trespassing the Islamic law. Many have noted that the universalism of the declaration is primarily based on the teachings of Christianity, a religion which from the start promulgated its message as one for the whole world. In "A Time of Transition," the philosopher Jürgen Habermas writes:

For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love

In particular, the premise of the UNDHR is that all human lives have equal dignity and worth. This is not, however, the teaching of all the world's cultures and religions and certainly wasn’t much in evidence in the three decades before the declaration was drafted. As a result the deceleration is seen by other societies as a threatening ‘mission statement’ which undermines their culture.

How much do liberal values and the idea of human rights owe to Christianity?, after all when you read someone like Aquinus you find very little about them. Instead Aquinus is preoccupied with the duties of a leader, the good that he can achieve and the things he can do to make his people more virtuous. With the Reformation came a great shift in thinking and the gradual development of liberal democracy as an alternative structure of governance. The rationale for this process was the fracturing of Christendom and the breakup of the religious unity of Western Europe. This new situation of religious pluralism was the cause of too much war and social discontent to be bearable. The alternative was the new idea of a political structure based on a schedule of natural human rights, a polity based not on doing what you can to make people good but the inviolability of human beings who are created in the image of God.

The common narrative is that the idea of natural rights was born from the atomistic individualism of the enlightenment or late medieval nominalists such as William of Ockham. This narrative has been decisively refuted. Historians such as Tierney gone further and have traced these ideals all the way back to Rufinus and Ricardus, to Huguccio and Alanus, and to their "obscure glosses" of the twelfth century. These writers based their ideals on the concept of the Imago Dei and the belief that people, as creatures of nature and God, should live their lives and organize their society on the basis of rules and precepts laid down by nature or God. As Tierney has shown, 11th century church Canon lawyers were regularly using the concept of natural rights almost three centuries before the nominalists. Some would argue that these ideals can be traced back as far as the church fathers. To give one example, in 388 and 389, John Chrysostom, preached seven sermons on the parable of Lazerous. In one of these sermons, he preached that the extra shoes in the closet of the wealthy person belong to the poor person who has no shoes and that this poor person doesn't have to be good, all he has to be is a person in need. He then used the analogy that just as a harbormaster has to allow the pirates into the harbour when the storm comes up, so also the poor person who has the claim on the shoes does not have to demonstrate that they are virtuous. It is clear from the literature that the idea of natural rights was a presence in western thought long before it was put to new use in the reformation and enlightenment. Instead Tierney has shown that the idea of natural rights grew up in a religious culture that supplanted rational argumentation about human nature with a faith in which humans were seen as children of a caring God, that is the distinctly Christian circumstances of the High and Late Middle Ages.

Once adopted, the idea of natural rights could have been placed in a secular context. This did not happen. One of the most influential exponents of this idea was John Locke who saturated his writings with Christian references and was heavily influenced by Richard Hooker, the Anglican theologian. Locke justifies the principle of equality this way:

‘The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another's pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another's uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for our's.’

Locke’s ideals found their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights’. By contrast the US bill of rights contains no theological language and prevents the establishment of religion. However, state constitutions of the same period give the rationale for this free exercise of religion. All of them except for New York’s constitution (which mutters something about wicked priests), state that everyone has a natural duty to worship god and an inalienable right to do so in a way that suits their own conscience. The ideal of toleration therefore derived from religious dissent, that is to say from a type of religion rather than an attack on religion. So even secularism which really goes all the way back to Jesus’ statement ‘render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s’ which was developed by St Augustine, can be seen as a development from western religion not from the attack on it.

Despite his hostility to Christianity, Paine understood that such concepts as the dignity of man and human rights depended on man's special place in God's creation. Indeed the Jacobins of the French Revolution imprisoned Paine after he warned them that their atheism would undercut the basis of their declaration of human rights. Having written ‘The Age of Reason’ Paine wrote that "the people of France were running headlong into atheism and I had the work translated into their own language, to stop them in that career, and fix them to the first article . . . of every man's creed who has any creed at all – I believe in God" (emphasis Paine's).

This was to be the high point of the natural rights concept; which was derided as ‘nonsense on stilts’ by Jeremy Benthem. Under the onslaught of legal positivism, cultural relativism, and Marxism, the idea of natural rights was abandoned by most jurists and philosophers. Then came the aftermath of World War II and a great revival of the ideal of universal human rights, driven, in part, by the fact that the Nazis at Nuremberg used legal positivist principles and cultural relativism in their defence proceedings. For a time at least simple-minded cultural relativism seemed inadequate in face of the crimes of the Nazi regime and it was in this atmosphere the UDHR was drafted.

One of the oddities of the current wave of new atheism is a fundamental error in not studying how we have acquired the concepts and categories we use, how they emerged and developed in the western tradition. This mirrors the tendency of new atheists to erase or play down the significant contribution from religion to the development of western science. Trace the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to their origins and study their development and you’ll find that they were largely developed within the mental landscape of Judeo-Christianity and find their legitimacy in PZ Meyer's ‘imaginary God’. This was fully recognised in the 19th century by atheist thinkers like Nietzsche; today's crop of logical positivists seem to be in collective denial.

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The Large Hadron Collider has Broken Down

Scientists were forced to admit this week that their attempt to destroy the universe had failed. Boffins at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva in Switzerland turned on the device last week to international excitement. However, on Friday it was shut down after a rattling sound was reported as coming from within one of the meson cannons. Dr Hun-Lum Kim, on secondment from the North Korean Nuclear Research Facility, explained that it looked like one of the quark accelerators used to drive atoms at twice the speed of light had come loose. “It is very frustrating,” he said, “ we have got so close to a functioning doomsday machine and then this happened.” Blaming budget constraints and sloppy workmanship, he added “I knew it was a mistake to source the fission magnetrons from Iran but obviously most the technology is completely illegal in the West and you just have to get it from where you can.”

Sources close to the project reacting angrily to the suggestion that trying to destroy the universe was “irresponsible” or “playing God.” “Science is merely the disinterested search for knowledge,” a source insisted. “Knowing whether it is possible to create black hole big enough to swallow all reality is vital to testing the validity of string theory. Clearly, we would not want the technology to fall into the hands of dictators or Republicans but that is unlikely to happen because we’ll all be dead anyway.”

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Visions of Jesus and other spirits: were Resurrection appearances hallucinations?

Comparative religion is a tricky business, apologetically speaking. Pointing out cross-cultural similarities (or differences) between belief systems can be both an aide and a detriment to making the case for Christ. Take the Resurrection appearances, for example: many apologists argue for their uniqueness by pointing to their collective nature (i.e. Jesus appeared to many people at once) and the tangible effects of those appearances. In a recent post on his blog, N.T. Wrong attempts to provide comparative historical evidence, not for collective hallucinations per se, but for individual dreams/visions which subsequently mutated into reports of collective visions, and concludes that "The most plausible explanation for the accounts of the sightings of Jesus, therefore, is that they derive from individual vision reports, which over time have been transformed into reports of mass sightings of Jesus."

There are problems with Wrong's case stemming from the fact that all the examples of mass visions which he gives are dreams, experienced at night rather than during the waking hours by groups of awake, alert people. Furthermore, he acknowledges that some of the Resurrection appearances begin with a group of people (i.e. the three women who came to Jesus' grave) rather than an individual (Mark's resurrection account has an individual sighting, that of Mary Magdalene, tagged on to an original group vision account). He refers to Mark's account as visionary even though Mark does not present it as such on the basis of some similarities to other vision stories: the women were grieving which is known to produce hallucinations (so-called grief-induced visions), and it was in the early hours of the morning, the 'liminal' hours which are associated with visions (so this wouldn't apply to Luke's story of an encounter with the risen Lord by two disciples at around dusk). This seems pretty flimsy evidence upon which to pronounce the Markan account a vision story, especially given the distinctive nature of the Christian resurrection claim. As Robin Fox points out, "In the pagan world, visions of a person soon after death were not uncommon...Christians, however, advanced the extreme claim that the object of their visions had risen physically from the dead...These [resurrection] stories were very explicit and had no pagan counterpart." (Pagans and Christians, pp.377-378)

But suppose he is right that there is, or could be in theory, comparative evidence for phenomena similar to resurrection appearances. Would that be an apologetic weakness necessarily? Philip Wiebe's case for the Resurrection in Visions of Jesus is dependent upon there being such evidence. We should recall the oft-repeated caution not to prejudge the evidential value of vision accounts simply because they are visionary. Just because people have had visionary experiences doesn't mean they are not veridical. Of course there is the problem then of determining whether vision stories from other religious traditions are veridical. I think there is a case to be made that at least some of them are, although of course their source and meaning is open to question. The point is that each apologetic strategy (emphasizing uniqueness, emphasizing continuity) has its pros and cons. But perhaps they can be brought together to emphasize the strengths and downplay the weaknesses of each. The argument about the Resurrection is far from over.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Steven Weinberg recovers from Russell's Syndrome

Steven Weinberg has written a surprisingly good article in the New York Review of Books. It is in marked contrast to his much less successful review of the God Delusion in the Times Literary Supplement last year. For example, the new Weinberg admits he has no idea what effect al-Ghazali had on Islamic science while in his review of Dawkins’s book, he blamed him for completely destroying the Arabic scientific tradition. In his earlier piece, Weinberg wrote, “after al-Ghazzali, there was no more science worth mentioning in Islamic countries”, which is factually inaccurate as many, not least George Saliba, have pointed out. Likewise, Weinberg has abandoned the conflict hypothesis for the relationship between science and religion in favour of mere ‘tension’. Ironically, that is the same word I use in my own book, God’s Philosophers, although I refer to the tension as creative. One of the reasons why I use the word ‘creative’ is that the medieval condemnation of Aristotle’s naturalistic philosophy had a positive effect on the rise of science. Weinberg even acknowledges this point in his article. He also has a realistic attitude to science’s inability to answer many important questions. That isn’t to say that Weinberg has changed his mind about God. And he continues to make mistakes about several aspects of history (not least how Darwin lost his faith). But the improvement in both tone and argumentation is clear to see.

I want to take one point from Weinberg’s article. That in itself is a sign of progress because in his previous incarnation, his thinking wasn’t even worth engaging with. The point I want to raise is the question of authority, both moral and scientific. Weinberg thinks he can do without authority and explains that scientific authority is not absolute. This is true but, for most of us, it may as well be. In order to effectively criticise science one has to have a relevant PhD and access to peer-reviewed journals. In practice, even if we could understand the issues and do the maths (which most of us cannot), we cannot challenge scientific authority. Scientific authority is thus vested in a group of men (and a few women) that few of us have the slightest chance of ever joining. It is all very well for a Nobel Prize winner like Weinberg to laud this system, but then he is on the inside.

The thing is, I laud the system too. I want science in the hands of experts who have been properly trained and are backed up by a long tradition of similarly learned individuals. I’d like a similar level of expertise to be brought to bear on moral questions as well. Weinberg would appear to deny us this because only religion has provided such a framework. He realises that the removal of this authority on how to live one’s life creates a huge problem. The substitutes, such as Nazism and Communism, have, he acknowledges, been worse than the religion that they aimed to replace. Weinberg eloquently notes that, as atheists, “at best we live life on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.” The tragedy of being an open-minded atheist is the realisation that they need religion just they reject it.

Weinberg’s article also raises an interesting medical point. I had previously assumed that Russell’s Syndrome (whereby intelligent atheists turn stupid when they talk about religion) was incurable, but on the evidence of the NYRB article, Weinberg is well on the way to making a recovery. We should wish him well.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Who are you calling irrational?

Damien Thompson is a conservative Catholic and a big fan of Pope Benedict XVI. He is also the author of Counterknowledge, a book that brutally debunks faith healing, pseudo-history and creationism. Thompson is a standing indictment of those who think being a committed Christian is the same thing as being gullible and irrational.

It gets worse for the Dawkinistas. Researchers at Baylor University, including Rodney Stark, have found that conservative Christians are less likely to be superstitious than non-believers.
The Baylor Survey found that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases
credulity, as measured by beliefs in such things as dreams, Bigfoot, UFOs,
haunted houses, communicating with the dead and astrology. Still, it
remains widely believed that religious people are especially credulous,
particularly those who identify themselves as Evangelicals, born again, Bible
believers and fundamentalists. However, the ISR researchers found that
conservative religious Americans are far less likely to believe in the occult
and paranormal than are other Americans, with self-identified theological
liberals and the irreligious far more likely than other Americans to

So, it is conservative believers who are the least credulous while liberal Christians are as bad as non-believers. The rest of the report summary is pretty interesting too.

The Wall Street Journal gives us a practical example of this. Atheist comedian Bill Maher’s film Religulous is the latest ill-informed polemic against religion. Sadly, Maher himself is a fully paid up wing nut who rejects the germ theory of disease and vaccination. If he had had his way, polio would still be killing and disabling millions.

None of us are as rational as we like to believe. But it seems that atheists are even further from their self image than the rest of us.

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Gullibility and Religious Belief

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting editorial today. It basically claims that studies have confirmed G. K. Chesterton's statement, "When men stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything."

"What Americans Really Believe," a comprehensive new study released by Baylor University yesterday, shows that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology. It also shows that the irreligious and the members of more liberal Protestant denominations, far from being resistant to superstition, tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians.
In fact, the more traditional and evangelical the respondent, the less likely he was to believe in, for instance, the possibility of communicating with people who are dead.
Remember this the next time an atheist accuses Christians of being gullible simpletons who traffic in pseudo-science.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Case of Projection

Part of the whole "science vs. Christianity" metanarrative is that science has consistently shown that human beings aren't as significant as religion claims. Thus, Copernicus showed that the earth isn't at the center of the universe, astronomy has shown that we're a tiny speck in a vast cosmos, and Darwin showed that the human being is just an animal. Freud then appealed to this idea in order to validate his psychological theories, since they presumably showed that the human being is merely a sick animal.

For now I'll deal with the last link in this chain, and save the other links (as well as the chain taken as a whole) for other posts. Freud argued in The Future of an Illusion that people who believe in God were projecting a father figure onto the universe, motivated by a sense of helplessness. And, if religious beliefs are merely the result of psychological and sociological factors, then there's no point in asking whether or not they're true. This was considered by many to be proof from medical science that religion is bogus, in particular, Judaism and Christianity. The reason these two were singled out is because they most clearly define God as a father figure.

While Freud suggested that religion has a stabilizing effect on society as a whole, for the individual, belief in God should generally be treated as a psychological dysfunction. I say "generally" because psychological theories are never absolute; there are always exceptions which don't necessarily refute the theory. Nevertheless, Freudian psychologists have often held that treatment could only be considered successful once the patient has relinquished belief in God.

Of course, there were a few problems with this. Probably the most obvious is that it is a textbook example of a classic logical fallacy. The genetic fallacy is committed when you think that by explaining how a belief originates, you are thereby showing the belief to be false. But this is obviously not the case. If I was raised to believe that murder is bad, pointing this out does not show that murder is not bad.

The point here is that it's necessary to make a distinction between how we come to believe something and whether the object of that belief is true. Any belief has to be judged on its merits, not on the alleged psychological predispositions of its proponents. Freud's projection theory is guilty of reasoning in a way that has been recognized as sloppy thinking by virtually all the great intellects in human history.

Another problem with the projection theory is that Freud didn't have any actual evidence for it. As Os Guinness writes in The Long Journey Home, "the founder of psychoanalysis had astonishingly little experience either in probing the psychology of belief in God or in caring for patients who were religious." To his credit, Freud privately acknowledged that the projection theory was just his personal opinion.

But since Freud's time, plenty of evidence has been collected, and it shows the exact opposite of what Freud thought it would. Guinness writes "Religious life, in fact, has been demonstrated to go hand in hand with better physical health, greater psychological well-being, and a generally positive social influence." It doesn't show any evidence of being the psychological dysfunction Freud believed.

A final problem with the projection theory is that it's actually a better explanation of non-belief in God than belief. Paul Vitz, a psychologist at NYU demonstrates in his book The Faith of the Fatherless, that the most militant atheists had major father issues. He lists Nietzsche, Hume, Bertrand Russell, Sartre, Voltaire, Feuerbach, Ayn Rand, H. G. Wells, Stalin, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, and Freud himself among many others, stating "We find a weak, dead, or abusive father in every case." Often, this connection was openly acknowledged by the atheist. There are, of course, exceptions to this, perhaps the most prominent being John Stuart Mill. But it certainly seems to be a valid psychological theory which explains a majority of cases.

Now, it needs to be stated as clearly as possible that this does not constitute an argument against atheism. Vitz recognizes this. To think it does would be to simply commit the genetic fallacy in the opposite direction. Atheism has to be judged on its intellectual merits, not on the home life of its advocates. Rather, the point of this is that the projection theory seems to be itself a projection. Those who had a problem with their fathers and projected this into a problem with God, then projected this projection itself onto those who don't have a problem with God. They tried to explain belief in God with the same categories that influenced their disbelief in God.

In other words, Freud committed another logical fallacy. The tu quoque fallacy is committed when you accuse your opponent of something that you're guilty of. "Tu quoque" is Latin for "Oh yeah? So are you! Nyaah!" This may make for good rhetoric, but, once again, it's sloppy thinking.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Revising History

In general, ‘revisionist’ is an insult when one historian uses it of another. The reason for this is partly that most attempts to radically rewrite history are based on sloppy research and are ultimately wrong (taking David Rohl as a pretty good example). The other reason is that ‘revisionist’ has come to mean ‘right wing imperialist bastard’ (as typified by this Guardian article). This is because the historical consensus of today tends to be against the British Empire, the importance of kings in shaping events and European uniqueness in general. If you think that Western civilisation has, on balance, been a good thing and that the lives of peasants had little impact on the course of events, then you are a revisionist (as well as, I suppose, a right wing imperialist bastard). You might say that whether or not you are a revisionist is really just a historical accident. If you were writing thirty years earlier or later you could find yourself boringly mainstream.

Dawkinistas call my work on science in the Middle Ages revisionist (intended as an insult) because it upsets their view of history as a battle between superstition and reason. Finding that the medieval clerics were extremely rational and into logic like we are into celebrity gossip is to bigger shock than some Dawkinistas to handle.

So it was fun to see the boot briefly being pulled onto the other foot in the last few days. Marie Stopes is the founder of the main UK network of family planning clinics and she campaigned for abortion and birth control. Sadly for her fans, it appears the main reason she was in favour of the working classes having abortions was that she was not in favour of the working classes. Worse, she wrote poetry in praise of Hitler (at least in the mid-1930s) and had views on race and disability that one might euphemistically describe as politically incorrect. Given she is a heroine of the political left, all this historical baggage has turned into something of an embarrassment.

Thus, it is amusing to see the left deploying exactly the same arguments that conservative historians have used to defend Pius XII (aka Hitler’s Pope) and Cecil Rhodes (an arch-colonial adventurer) against the critics of Mrs Stopes. In her article in the Guardian, Kathryn Hughes says:
What is new about this revisionism, however, is its poisonously self-righteous tone. It's as if we've started handing out gold stars to historical figures whose attitudes appear to chime with our own, while hissing everyone else off the stage. This is dangerous, because sooner or later some new bit of information will come along to disrupt those lovely moral certainties.
Hear hear! Except this revisionism it isn’t new at all. It’s just pointing towards the left and, unsurprisingly, they don’t like it.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

An American Parallel to Michael Reiss

The Michael Reiss issue in Great Britain has a parallel in American politics. Sarah Palin, the Republican Vice-presidential nominee, has been accused of wanting creationism taught in schools. Before she was elected governor of Alaska, she said in a debate that both evolution and Intelligent Design should be taught. The political left has seized upon this as a primary example of why she should not be the Vice-president. Just check out the headlines on a Google search of "Sarah Palin" and "creationism".

However, immediately after the debate in question, she was asked to clarify her comments. It turns out she was just saying there shouldn't be a blanket prohibition against discussing Intelligent Design if students bring it up. But she wouldn't want ID added to the curriculum. This is a much tamer claim -- essentially that the curiosity of students regarding controversial issues should not be squelched. But you wouldn't know it from the venom being brought to the issue.

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The Darwin Wars

The Guardian, the Times and the Telegraph all feature pieces this morning on the Michael Reiss debacle. All are highly critical of the Royal Societies response and the way in which Reiss’s comments were misrepresented by the media. This has been a PR disaster for the scientific community. Intelligent design now has claim to a legitimate martyr, despite the fact that Reiss himself is opposed to it. The response by Roberts and Kroto has been lamentable, forcing even Richard Dawkins to admit that the proceedings ‘come a little too close to a witch-hunt for my squeamish taste’. It seems that it doesn't matter what the makeup of your views actually are, you can be sacked for a soundbite. Worst of all, it seems that ID is creeping into Britain’s schools from the ground up. The social and ethnic fabric of the UK is set to change dramatically over the next 30 years and the science education is going to have to face up to the challenge of a diverse range of religious traditions; many of which are opposed to evolution. Frankly an accommodationist position has a more likely chance of success than achieving some kind of mass conversion to secular humanism. By the looks of it, the establishment is wholly inadequate for the task.

Anyone wanting to see a proper dialogue between Science and Religion without the usual name calling will have to go back to the 19th century. I heartily recommend the Darwin Correspondence project, a section of which chronicles the relationship between Asa Gray and Darwin as they deliberated over the theological implications of evolution. Theos has a piece in the Times showing Darwin’s troubled musings on religion demonstrating he was a far more complex thinker than his 21st century worshippers.

Those, like me, who quite enjoy the name calling, might enjoy this bad tempered cock fight between the excretable A.C Grayling and his opponent Steve Fuller. Embarrassingly I find myself on the side of A.C in this debate. However, judging from his remarks, he appears to have got all his knowledge of the history of science from Draper’s infamous and much debunked ‘History of the Conflict between religion and science’. The argument has now even spilled over into the new humanist blog.

Lastly, Turkey has banned Richard Dawkins and a Muslim cleric has claimed that Mickey Mouse is "one of Satan's soldiers" and makes everything it touches impure. I feel the same way about Tweety Bird.

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Some thoughts on Christianity and parapsychology

What should Christians think about parapsychology? The Bible itself is chock-full of stories of parapsychological happenings, including dream visions, summoning of the dead, etc. In certain liberal Christian circles it is not fashionable to take these stories seriously anymore, or to hold that such things might actually happen today. I think that parapsychology is very important to the Christian faith. Visions and paranormal happenings should be taken seriously as intimations of contact with a spirit realm (see Philip H. Wiebe's excellent books,Visions of Jesus and God and other spirits). It is also, however, worth reflecting on how a Christian view of parapsychology differs from certain other popular views in Western culture.

First of all, in the Judeo-Christian view human beings generally do not have the ability to 'see' into the spirit realm on their own. Such occurrences generally involve an initiative from the spirit world itself. In several accounts God is said to 'open the eyes' of a person so that they can see into the spirit world (see for example the story of Balaam and the angel, Numbers 22:31 and the story of Elisha's servant, 2 Kings 6:15-17). Joseph in Egypt is adamant that the interpretation of Pharaoh's dream "is not in me; God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace" (Genesis 41:16). An implication of this is that the 'standard' arts of divination, magic, etc. are strongly frowned upon in the Hebrew Bible. There's no room for 'holy technicians', in Robert Alter's phrase, who can 'tap into' holy energies and use the Spirit of God for their own purposes. Even the prophets, who consistently reveal the Word of God, only do so as inspiration comes upon them.

Much parapsychological research today, however, centers around detecting alleged powers of the mind, which the holder can tap into at will. A Christian would expect this evidence to be ambiguous (as indeed it is), because of the above. A Christian would expect that paranormal happenings would be sporadic (because the initiative comes from 'the other side') and ambiguous (because not all persons are granted the grace to 'see' into the spirit world). Thus the findings of parapsychology, and skeptical critiques of them for that matter, are precisely what we should expect if theism is true. Evidence of paranormal powers in general (such as telekinesis, etc) would not necessarily count as evidence for the truth of theism.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Darwin’s Dangerous Cousin – Part Three

By the early 20th century doctors, psychiatrists, scientists, pundits and some of the more progressive protestant theologians had come to the belief that the modern, urban industrial society was undergoing a form of biological disintegration. Nations were being undermined by swarms of unfit individuals whose criminality, alcoholism, anti-social behaviour and mental deficiency were propagated and multiplied by inheritance and the counter productive effects of modern medicine and welfare. The answer was Eugenics.

Although it is tempting to find a direct link between Galton and the mass serialisations of the 20th century, positive eugenics was more concerned with encouraging the breeding of the fit rather than focusing on the overbreeding of the unfit. However, Galton did suggest that society should discourage weakly and incapable persons from breeding and that this could be done by compulsorily segregating them into single sex institutions. Having freed himself from the constraints of religious dogma he jocularly suggested that convents and nunneries would be ideal for this purpose. The need to discouraging reproduction by the unfit did not occur in the writings of positive eugenicist as readily, rather it was the danger of superior families diluting their gene pool and regressing through mating with ‘imbeciles’. Since it later became felt that ‘idiots’ and ‘cretins’ would, if anything, be much more likely to engage in, and hard to discourage from breeding, methods for its coercive application would later be developed, principally in the United States.

Nor was Galton an advocate of racial extermination, his eugenics were to take place within a race, not across racial groups. It was felt that the superior races represented by the northern Europeans would inevitably supplant the inferior ones through natural processes. As Galton explained:

‘There exists a sentiment, for the most part quite unreasonable, against the gradual extinction of an inferior race. It rests on some confusion between the race and the individual, as if the destruction of a race was equivalent to the destruction of a large number of men. It is nothing of the kind when the process of extinction works silently and slowly through the process of [natural selection].’

Like Darwin and the majority of intellectuals of the period Galton held to a strict hierarchy of racial types, although this hierarchy was different depending on who you talked to. Darwin and Galton tended to put the Britons in pole position whilst the later biologist Haeckel decided the Germans were more deserving of the top spot. This activity of sorting humanity into competing racial groups locked in a struggle for existence often bordered on farce. In a jovial letter to the Times in 1873, Galton wrote:

‘My proposal is to make the encouragement of the Chinese settlements at one or more suitable places on the East Coast of Africa a part of our national policy, in the belief that the Chinese immigrants would not only maintain their position, but that they would multiply and their descendants supplant the inferior Negro race. I should expect the large part of the African seaboard, now sparsely occupied by lazy, palavering savages….might in a few years be tenanted by industrious, order loving Chinese’.

At this point, Galton’s rather eccentric proposal degenerates into something akin to a commentary on an all-in wresting match.

‘We note how Arab, Tuarick, Fellatah, Negroes of uncounted varieties, Cadre, Hottentot surge and reel to and fro in the struggle for existence. It is into this free fight among all present that I wish to see a new competitor introduced-namely, the Chinaman!. The gain would be immense to the whole civilized world if we were to out-breed and finally displace the negro, as completely as the latter has displaced the aborigines of the West Indies. The magnitude of the gain may be partly estimated by making the converse supposition –namely, the loss that would ensue if China were somehow to be depopulated and restocked by negroes’.

In reply a letter of protest was sent to the Times by a Matthew Sprout, claiming the idea was ridiculous, not because the scheme was morally reprehensible but because the Chinaman as a citizen was ‘next to useless’ and ‘likely to have quite enough in their own country without taking Africa in hand’.

In the 20th century in a clear perversion of Darwinism the follows of Haeckel would carry the logic and the vocabulary of Eugenics much further than its founders intended; all the way to the death camps and mass graves of Eastern Europe.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Certifying the Web

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, is worried that his brainchild is harbouring a lot of rubbish. Apparently, he would like the new Foundation he has set up to offer certificates to websites with reliable content so that browsers will know how much credence to give what they read. David Aaronovitch of the Times, for one, thinks this is a good idea.

Presumably, this paragon of climate change silliness from a leading Liberal Democrat MP would get a big tick from any Foundation of concerned scientists. But actually, perhaps Sir Tim should give Pope Benedict XVI a ring. You see, the Catholic Church have used just such a certification system since the sixteenth century. If you want the official Catholic stamp of approval on your book you can apply for your local bishop for an imprimatur. That’s Latin for ‘Let it be Printed’ (in a construction called the Jussive Subjective, as you really ought to know). If you are an employee of the Catholic Church (that is, a priest or nun), you still need to get an imprimatur even to this day if you want to release something controversial.

Clearly this is the way to go. I, for one, look forward to the day when Sir Tim’s new Foundation awards the first deoneratur – ‘let it be downloaded’.

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The Dawkinistas Catch their Quarry

Following on from Humphrey's post, Professor Michael Reiss has stepped down from his role at the Royal Society.

Now, if I was a creationist, which I'm not, I'd veiw this as a God sent example of how the scientific establishment are preventing any sort of discussion of anything other than the strictest of orthodox evolutionary views.

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'Free thinking' intolerance

RichardDawkins.net’s free thinking oasis erupted into anti-clerical bloodlust yesterday at the news that Sir Richard Roberts had written a stern letter to the Royal Society president Martin Rees, asking that Professor Michael Reiss be forced to step down. The letter, which sounds like something from the 19th century German kulturekampf, reads:

We are greatly concerned by the remarks recently made by Professor Michael Reiss, who is currently Director of Education at the RS. We appreciate that there will be a clarification, but the fact that the comments were made in the first place by an official representative of the premier scientific society in the UK, if not the world, is most disturbing…..We gather Professor Reiss is a clergyman, which in itself is very worrisome. Who on earth thought that he would be an appropriate Director of Education, who could be expected to answer questions about the differences between science and religion in a scientific, reasoned way? …..We would urge that Professor Reiss step down, or be asked to step down, as soon as possible.

Leaving aside the ethics of such a move, if Richard Roberts had paid attention to the legal proceedings in this country, he would know that, as a registered charity and a recipient of large sums of public money, the Royal Society comes under the legislation which outlaws discrimination on the grounds of belief or religion. If Martin Rees were to take leave of his senses and force Reiss out for being an Anglican, the Royal Society could be taken to the cleaners at tribunal. Reiss appears to have made no controversial comments and his remarks were simply taken out of context by the media. Intelligent design is simply not on the Law Society’s agenda.

This does raise the question of whether ID should be raised in the classroom. I would say yes, for the simple reason that the current curriculum contrives to make Biology one of the dullest subjects in the school calendar. I recall when I was a snotty nosed adolescent, being made to learn about such turgid topics as the Scottish fish farming industry and the human circulatory system, as well as having to take part in some rather dry discussions about global warming and biomes. No wonder I chose to deface my biology textbook with badly scrawled genitalia as a form of escapism. Having reached adulthood I have found that biology is a sexy subject after all and forms the battleground for competing metaphysical worldviews. To enliven proceedings I propose the following. Simply divide the classroom at random into ‘Creationist’ and ‘Darwinian-Fundamentalist’ groups, then have the two compete against each other over a number of lesson periods. The task of the creationist camp will be to browse the Internet for irreducibly complex systems and to set up displays showing dinosaurs and human beings living together in blissful harmony. The Darwinian-Fundamentalist group will be asked to write self righteous essays claiming to be an expert on every facet of humanity and praising one another. Pupils will be encouraged to wax lyrical about the ‘power of the gene’, create evolutionary just-so stories to explain human attributes like love, artistic ability and birdwatching; and to attempt to derive a Judeo-Christian system of ethics from such things like the mating habits of toads. Not only will this add some much needed fun to the proceedings, it will show how symbiotic relationships can arise in nature between two supposedly adversarial organisms; a good example being the Eucharist-desecrating ‘Pharyngula’ and the lesser peer-reviewed ‘Uncommon Descent’ which mutually depend on each other for their existence. Without conflict there is no content.

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A Christian Apology

The Anglican church has recently posted several articles on evolution and Christianity online. One of the essays -- "Good Religion Needs Good Science" by Rev. Dr. Malcolm Brown -- states that the Christian Chuch needs to apologize to Darwin for reacting so negatively to evolution (via the Guardian). Of course, there is a lot of truth in this. Many Christians just give knee-jerk reactions to any argument that supports evolution, and are willing to believe just about anything that seems to go the other way.

On the other hand, it needs to be pointed out that the Church didn't react negatively to Darwin en masse right away. A book on this (that I haven't actually read yet) is Darwin's Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought by David N. Livingstone. Another good resource is the second chapter of Philip J. Sampson's masterwork Six Modern Myths about Christianity and Western Civilization.

Christian hostility to evolution built up because a group of atheists and agnostics in the late 19th century decided to initiate a cultural campaign representing evolution as the final nail in Christianity's coffin. After using evolution as a club to beat Christians over the head with, I think it's sad but understandable that some Christians eventually responded by getting mad at the club.

(cross-posted on Agent Intellect)

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Monday, September 15, 2008

A Couple of Bon Mots from Peter Singer

Here’s something from the Times Literary Supplement on environmental ethics from animal liberator Peter Singer. It is a book review of Ethics and the Environment by Dale Jamieson and not as provocative and some of his stuff. It does, though, contain a couple of gems that betray Singer’s agenda.

Firstly, can you spot the mistake in this sentence from the review?
Jamieson begins by showing how ethics can withstand a range of popular challenges posed by theists, amoralists and cultural relativists.

It is quite entertaining to find Singer claiming that theists are challenging ethics in the same way as amoralists and cultural relativists. Perhaps he missed the ‘a-’ from the beginning of ‘theist’, but given his hostility to religion, I doubt it.

Secondly, what about this as an example of declaring victory before battle is even joined?
Jamieson agrees with what now seems to be a near-consensus among philosophers that “species-ism” – the view that we are entitled to take the interests of animals less seriously than we take human interests, simply because humans are members of our species – is not a defensible moral position.

Does Singer seriously believe that “species-ism” is anything other than a game played by ivory tower bound philosophers and the nuttier fringe of the animal rights brigade? To describe it as near-consensus among philosophers can only mean that ‘philosopher’ is defined as someone who sees the world in basically the same terms as Singer does. I suppose that excludes theists, not to mention amoralists and cultural relativists.

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Darwin’s Dangerous Cousin – Part Two

Galton’s astonishing hypothesis was that some people are born smart and others were born stupid and the roots of this reached deep into one’s ancestry. He had come to this belief based on his personal experience, the prejudices of his race and class, the findings of his cousin Charles in evolutionary biology, and what he regarded as his own hereditary genius.

During the late 1800s most naturalists including Charles Darwin, accepted a blending view of inheritance, regarding offspring as a mix of their parents, and additional characteristics acquired during their lifetime in the tradition of Lamarckism. Galton’s key insight was to reject this in favour of hard hereditary, which cannot be changed during your lifetime. As he wrote:

‘Will our children be born more virtuous dispositions if we ourselves shave acquired virtuous habits during our lifetimes or are we merely passive transmitters of a nature we have received and which we have no power to modify?

To which the answer was no, and yes respectively.

‘….. We shall therefore take an approximately correct view of the origins of our life if we consider our own embryos to have sprung immediately from those embryos from whence our parents developed and those from their parents and so on forever.’

This is indeed the picture revealed by the modern neo-Darwinian synthesis and much of the work of later biologists such as R A Fischer was built directly on Galton’s work, including the statistical concept of correlation and regression toward the mean. Galton’s obsession with statistics is perhaps best illustrated by this passage from his novel ‘Kantsaywhere’ when the narrator abruptly breaks off from describing the society he lives in to begin lecturing the reader.

‘the propagation of children by the Unfit is looked upon by the inhabitants of Kantsaywhere as a crime to the State. The people are not misled by the specious argument that there is no certainty whether the anticipations of their unfitness will be verified in any particular case and the individual risk may be faced. They look on the community as a whole and know the results of unfit marriages with statistical certainty, which differs little from absolute certainty whenever large numbers are concerned. For instance, they say 1000 unfit couples will assuredly produce a number of children that can be specified within narrow limits, of each grade of unfitness, though they cannot foretell whether these children will be the offspring of A, B, C or X. .....There are many grades of expected unfitness, ranging from that of the offspring of the idiots, the insane and the feeble-minded, at the lower end of the scale of civic worth, to whom the propagation of offspring is peremptorily forbidden, whether it be by forcible segregation or other strong measures, up to the moderate unfitness expected in the offspring of parents who rank only a little below the average in eugenic worth. The methods of penalizing, taken in the order of their severity, are social disapprobation, fine, excommunication as by boycott, deportation, and life-long segregation.’

It would be easy to write this off as the bizarre ramblings of an elderly eccentric were it not for the fact that this vision came to be seen by many as cutting edge science and was transformed into reality over the course of the Twentieth century.

Galton had adopted the basic idea of Gamules from Darwin but re-christened them germs, maintaining that they guided the bodies development but were never affected by them. They were later to be renamed genes. With the overthrow of blending and a Lamarckian view of inheritance the case for Eugenics were made. With superior and inferior traits now seen as unalterable, Eugenics was to enjoy enormous scientific credibility and was to form part of the curious combination revolutionary ideas and reactionary ideology which transformed 20th century biology.

The word Eugenics was derived for the Greek for ‘well born, and one of Francis Galton’s main pursuits was to looked at the pedigrees of brilliant men, including his own, for sources of natural abilities. His finding was that genius in all its forms runs in families and that all the evidence showed the ‘vast pre-pondering effects of nature over nurture’. The response required by society was clear, ‘Society should encourage men and women of hereditary fitness to marry each other and bear many children’. This principle became known as positive eugenics. Galton wrote:

‘What an extraordinary effect might be produced on our race if its object was to unite in marriage those who possessed the finest and most Suitable natures, mental, moral, and physical…..If a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create! We might introduce prophets and high priests of civilization into the world, as surely as we can propagate idiots by mating cretins.’

Towards the end of his life the fitness of the British race, which he felt was fast sliding into ‘feeble-mindedness’, became an overriding obsession. When Lord Halesbury dared to suggest that because of the heroics of Shackleton on the Antarctic ice sheet, it was ‘now impossible to believe in the supposed deterioration of the British race’, Galton wrote indignantly;

‘It is not that deterioration is so general that men of remarkably fine physique have ceased to exist, for they do; thank God, but the bulk of the community is deteriorating, which it is, …Again, the popularity of athletic sports proves little, for it is one thing to acclaim successful athletes, which any mob of weaklings can do, as at a cricket match, it is quite another thing to be an athlete oneself.!’

Considering physical beauty as a possible marker for eugenic fitness, Galton embarked on a mission to collect data for a beauty map of the British Isles, which graphically presented the geographical distribution of attractive females ‘classifying the girls I passed in streets or elsewhere as attractive, indifferent, or repellent’. Having completed his survey Galton concluded, ‘I found London to rank highest for beauty; Aberdeen lowest’!.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Here's a pretty thing

Meaning of Life TV. It's interviews with (mostly) top scientists and philosophers of science (like Freeman Dyson, Daniel Dennett, Owen Gingerich, Arthur Peacocke, Steven Pinker, John Polkinghorne, Edward O. Wilson, etc.) on a myriad of fascinating subjects (like God, consciousness, death, evil, faith and reason, science and religion, the limits of science, the anthropic principle, etc.). I might post highlights from time to time once I've had a chance to peruse it.

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Darwin’s Dangerous Cousin – Part One

In anticipation of Darwin’s bicentenary I have written a short three part series on his less celebrated, but no less important cousin Francis Galton. In addition to furthering our understanding of evolutionary biology substantially he also founded one of the most infamous movements in history. It is a story which is no less pertinent today.

Every age refashions nature in its own image. With the publication of the ‘The Origin of Species’ in 1859 the living world was suddenly recast in the image of a competitive, industrial Britain and the worldwide struggle between colonisers and colonised peoples. A new secular order began to proclaim a struggling, progressive and law bound nature to a struggling and improving society. Among them was an extraordinary young man called Francis Galton. Born in 1822, Galton was to become a prolific scientist, a child prodigy, inventor and explorer. He also had the distinction of being a first cousin of Charles Darwin, although to begin with he was far more famous than his illustrious relative. Having been freed from the enormous inconvenience of having to make a living by a sizable inheritance, he was able to channel his considerable talents into a series of intellectual pursuits. These would include critical contributions to the study of genetics, the development of modern statistics, the coining of the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’ and the creation of a new movement to reshape humanity, eugenics. Galton also created a series of inventions, some of which are regrettably lost to posterity. These included a set of underwater reading glasses, forensic fingerprinting, the modern weather map, the silent dog whistle and a self-tipping top hat, which worked by pulling a discreet cord. He also constructed an ingenious device called the ‘gumption-reviver’, which was little more than a mobile dripping tap that soaked the head and shirt of the wearer. This enabled him to work longer hours but probably had an adverse effect on his sanity.

Galton first gained fame in the 1850s as a traveller and explorer to far flung locales like South West Africa. Technical and popular accounts of expeditions made him well known. In one of his accounts he describes taking careful measurements of a naked native woman with enormous breasts:

‘I profess to be a scientific man, and was exceedingly anxious to obtain accurate measurements of her shape; but there was a difficulty ... I did not know a word of Hottentot ... I therefore felt in a dilemma as I gazed at her form……Of a sudden my eye fell upon my sextant; the bright thought struck me, and I took a series of observations ….boldly pulled out my measuring tape, and measured the distance from where I was to the place where she stood, and having thus obtained both base and angles, I worked out the results by trigonometry and logarithms.’

All of this was, of course, performed strictly in the interest of science. Upon his return to Britain from one of these excursions to exotic climes Dalton’s life was to be transformed forever by ‘The Origin of Species’. In a letter to Darwin he wrote:

‘I used to be wretched under the weight of the old fashioned arguments for design, your book drove away the constraints of my old superstition as if it had been a nightmare and was the first to give me freedom of thought.'

In his later memoir Galton noted that:

'The publication in 1859 of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin made a marked epoch in my own mental development, as it did in that of human thought generally. Its effect was to demolish a multitude of dogmatic barriers by a single stroke, and to arouse a spirit of rebellion against all ancient authorities whose positive and unauthenticated statements were contradicted by modern science.'

Released from the perceived limitations of Christian principles, he was free to turn his considerable talents to attempting to further the cause of civilisation by a process of selective breeding. For Galton, this represented the greatest promise of applied biology and the highest mission of a scientific society. The principles of hereditary and natural selection should no longer remain safely inert on the pages of a scientific textbook, they should be put into action as guiding principles for breeding better Britons. Eugenics, Galton wrote ‘must be introduced into the national consciousness as a new religion’. Towards the end of life he began work on a novel called Kantsaywhere, which described a utopia organized by a eugenic religion, designed to breed fitter and smarter humans. Unfortunately, this work never saw the light of day and the manuscript was burned by Galton’s niece because she was offended by the love scenes; it is not recorded whether the offending passages involved any lustful measurement and trigonometry.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

‘The Kluge’ by a Kluge

Gary Marcus has an intriguing new book out called ‘Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind’. Due to a stiff but well deserved rebuke from my better half who insists that I read my current stack of books before going out and buying any more - I haven’t been able to read it yet. However, in the best tradition of the blogosphere, I am going to review it anyway.

The premise of the book, that the human brain cobbled together by evolution is a clumsy and haphazard mess with multiple defects, seems to contain a grain of truth but also to be inherently self-refuting. In particular Marcus singles out the brain’s capacity for memory, which, by comparison with that of a computer, is unreliable and prone to mistakes. This is undeniable. By way of illustration, as a rather bloodthirsty young lad I took it upon myself to spend hour after hour in my bedroom trying to memorise the dates of wars and battles in British history. I was so successful at this that to this day I am able to recall the exact date of events like D-Day the 1918 armistice and the battle of Agincourt. This has come at a considerable price in evolutionary terms, namely that I am sometimes unable to recall key dates such as my wife’s birthday and my wedding anniversary, thereby decreasing both my chances of survival and my reproductive fitness. Were my brain built on a computer like ‘postcode’ system of memory rather than contextual memory, I would not suffer from any of these difficulties. I would, however, be doomed to remember a whole host of stuff I would rather have banished from my memory. That land law course I took 4 years ago and the time I accidentally locked myself in a toilet cubicle for 3 hours to give but two painful examples. To forget is often as useful as to remember.

Furthermore, as Marcus states, human choice and decision making is often highly irrational. This observation is based on the author’s presupposition that the ideal type of belief is scientific, based on logic and the laws of evidence. The brain’s nature as a roughshod collection of interacting systems means that it often fails to live up to this lofty ideal. Since ‘Kluge’ contains multiple digs at the ‘Intelligent Design’ crowd, it is pretty certain who this last point is aimed at. To me I can think of nothing more horrifying than a world populated by Vulcan-like, logic robots and one has to ask whether such a world is preferable or likely to produce better results than the one we have got.

Throughout history most scientists have maintained a stubborn belief in their theories despite many of them being based on insufficient evidence and anathema to cold logic. The capacity to hold often irrational and counter intuitive beliefs is a major creative force and indispensable to humanity. What seems to be a flaw in some scenarios turns out to be essential in other circumstances. One thinks of heliocentrism which was largely developed by Copernicus for aesthetic reasons and was only proven by observation when the stellar parallax was observed with the greatly improved instruments of the 19th century. The scientific revolution and innumerable later advances were produced by people who believed that a creator God had created an orderly and rational cosmos based on mathematical laws. As Peter Harrison has shown in ‘The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, scientific methods themselves were originally devised as techniques for ameliorating the cognitive damage wrought by human sin and conceptualised as a means of recapturing the knowledge of nature that Adam had once possessed. We are now assured by today’s breed of logical positivist that these beliefs that drove these discoveries are not only absurd and infantile, but also invalidated by those methods of thinking which arose from their foundational metaphysic.

Above all, the book’s premise is refuted by its author, who is merely a kluge like the rest of us. My ageing laptop’s solitary method of self-critique is to present the blue screen of death to me when it suffers a fatal error. A kluge on the other hand can write an entire book an its defects and develop strategies to get around them. Accordingly, I too have been able to defy my irrational and poorly assembled brain by finding a war that started on my wedding anniversary, a role which the Boer War of 1899 fills pretty nicely. By using techniques like these we can become more than the sum of our evolutionary heritage.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Alot of Creationism in the Papers Today

One Michael Reiss suggested to the British Association for the Advancement of Science that teachers should take a conciliatory attitude towards creationism. If students ask about it in science classes, teachers should be able to deal with it rather than simply refuse to discuss the question.

There’s not much in Reiss’s comments to object to, although they will certainly be ripped out of context by the Dawkinistas. They have generated a lot of comment. An op-ed in the Times by Melanie McDonough and a piece in the Guardian’s comment is free by Adam Rutherford are broadly sympathetic (both writers, as far as I am aware, are atheists). Denis Alexander, an old foe of Dawkins, also chips in at the Guardian aiming his fire at Susan Blackmore. On the other hand, the Times leader, written by Oliver Kamm, takes a more extreme view.

My own view is that creationism, both Intelligent Design and literalistic interpretations of Genesis, is wrong. The former may or may not have something useful to say to science but has no place in science classes because it has not demonstrated anything to the satisfaction of the scientific mainstream. That said, teachers should not be dogmatic and should clearly explain that evolution does not imply, let alone require, atheism. To preach atheism in science classes is an unacceptable as preaching Christianity or Islam.

Of course, Dawkins and his disciples are not really interested in promoting evolution in itself. They just see it as a useful weapon in their real fight against religion. Their constant attempts to set up a false dichotomy between science and religion must be resisted wholeheartedly, not just by religious people but by everyone who believes in liberal values.

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