Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Practicing what you preach

Is religion about belief or practice? Most of us would answer “both” without much hesitation, especially if our main experience was of Christianity. But it may not be quite so simple. Sociologists of religion have long noted that while religious practices can be openly shared, beliefs are private and more difficult to get at. Many Christians are not really sure how much of the Creed they actually believe, at least in the solid everyday way that they believe that their car is a Ford Escort.

Peter Lipton, the fondly-remembered professor of the philosophy of science at King’s College Cambridge, called himself a practicing Jew. And, given that he took his family to synagogue every Saturday and observed the relevant festivals with enthusiasm, it was hard to contradict him. But he was also an atheist. He admitted that it was probably harder for a Christian to separate the practical from the faithful side of his religion. But he proved that “religion as practice” is a real phenomena and one that new atheists have never really got a handle on.

Unlike Dawkins and Co, archaeologists and sociologists prefer religion to be defined as a set of practices because these can be observed. Frankly, we haven’t a clue what the ancient Greeks really thought of their gods. And I fear if we did, it might disappoint our conception of the Greeks as a particularly rational tribe. But it is an academic commonplace to state that ancient Greek religion was a matter of performing the rituals properly rather than buying into the theology. Ramsay MacMullen’s Christianising the Roman Empire 100AD to 400AD is expressed in this mode. MacMullen tries to explain pagan conversion to Christianity without any reference to theology. Beliefs are completely irrelevant to his account. Clearly, this is not a very convincing tale but it is not clear what choice he has. Even Rodney Stark, in his far more sympathetic account of the rise of Christianity, concentrates on practice and not belief.

(By the way, there’s another reason MacMullen’s book should be treated with caution. He has a chapter on Christian persecution of pagans in the late fourth century. But his main example of such persecution is the description of the deadly force used against the pagans of Gaza in an account called the Life of Porphyry. This is odd because MacMullen is well aware that the Life of Porphyry is a fictional account written perhaps two hundred years after the events it purports to describe. Yet without it, MacMullen’s evidence of deadly Christian attacks on pagans is extremely thin.)

Peter Harrison’s chapter in Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives (edited by Thomas Dixon, Geoffrey Cantor and Stephen Pumfrey) tries to explain where we got the idea of religion as belief instead of ritual. Harrison suggests that, just as modern science did not exist until the early nineteenth century, so “religion as faith” is also a modern category. Our modern definition of a religion as a bundle of beliefs dates, he says, from the Enlightenment. Eighteenth-century philosophers created “religion” by trying to force Christianity into the same boxes that they had used to understand science. While this almost works for Christianity, it becomes wildly inappropriate for most other kinds of ritual behaviour.

That, suggests Harrison, might be where the conflict between science and religion comes from: both are defined as a collection of beliefs and as those beliefs are not the same, you could say that there is a conflict. But if it is more correct to say that religion is a series of practices, there is nothing very much for science to conflict with. Appealing though this idea might be, I don’t buy it. It seems clear to me that Christianity does have a Creed and a set of core beliefs. Whether these beliefs are more often inimical then conducive to science is an interesting question. But science and religion do interact at the level of what they both have to say about reality. We can’t spirit away any conflict by claiming religion is about what you do rather than what you think.
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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Basil Mitchell, RIP

Basil Mitchell, one of the most important contemporary Christian philosophers, passed away a few days ago at the age of 94. You can read his Gifford Lectures online, entitled Morality, Religious and Secular.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Quote of the Day

The first argument in favour of physical determinism is that from the success of science. Scientists have been singularly successful in explaining, predicting and controlling events in the last three hundred years, and it is claimed that it is a plausible extrapolation to suppose that they will go on being successful until they have explained all there is to explain. "But" as a leading physicist has cautioned, "one must beware of supposing that one can extrapolate indefinitely the range over which reasonably accurate predictions can be made. The original evidence for predictability was experimental; other experimental evidence can, and in company with most other physicists, I believe has, disproved such an indefinite extension." We may also, on a different tack, complain that scientists achieve their success in answering certain questions at the price of not addressing themselves to other questions. Many problems are ignored by the scientist on the score of their not being scientific problems. The canons of irrelevance are widely drawn. And therefore the success of science, although real, is limited.

The point is conceded, in practice, by most scientists. They admit that there are many questions they cannot answer, and that there are things they can learn from art criticism, moral philosophy, theology or politics. But the physicalist, who believes that everything can be explained in terms of physics, regards this as only a temporary imperfection. When all the laws of physics are known, and all predictions can be calculated, then all questions that can be properly asked will be answerable, and all that cannot be answered in his terms will be said to be unaskable, or mere coincidence. It is a Procrustean programme; but cannot be rejected simply because of that.

More telling still is the consideration that many forms of scientific explanation are not of the Hempelian form, of covering laws and initial conditions. Hardly any biological explanation is of this form, nor any geological one. Nor are most chemical ones, nor even many physical ones. Chemical explanations are very often time-independent. They show why some configuration is stable, rather than calculate how it changes with the passage of time. They are in terms of symmetries and group operators, not initial conditions and laws of development. So far as the practice of scientists go, there is little reason to fix on regularity explanation as the paradigm form of scientific explanation. Nevertheless the physicalist does so, and brushes off all other forms of scientific explanation as derivative and subsidiary. He does not disallow the questions from being asked, but is sure that he will have the answers, when his own physicalist scheme is complete.

Physical determinism is thus not a simple extrapolation from the success of science. It selects one pattern of scientific explanation in preference to others, not because the others have been found to be less sucessful in practice, but because the one is felt to be more explanatory in principle. There is a rational appeal about regularity explanation which makes us feel that it must be the paradigm of explanation, quite apart from any practical success it has had. Moreover, materialism has great metaphysical charm. We often feel that it must be true, not because it has been borne out by science but because it seems the only possible world view. Much of the pressure towards determinism is generated by a metaphysical materialism which we find compelling on its own account, quite apart from its determinist implications. In order to understand physical determinism we therefore need to appreciate the metaphysical pressures in favour of materialism.

J. R. Lucas
The Freedom of the Will
(footnotes omitted)

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Craig-Hitchens Debate

Here it is in its entirety. It's almost two years old at this point, though, so it's not really cutting edge.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Bias Sphere; or, Turning Gould into Irony

Thirty years ago Stephen Jay Gould wrote The Mismeasure of Man in which he castigated the early 19th century scientist Samuel George Morton. Morton's crime is that he measured skull capacity from different ethnic groups and managed to ensure that the caucasian skulls had the largest capacity, and thus that white people were smarter than other ethnic groups. Gould used this to show that even the most basic elements of science, such as volume measurements, were not free from potential bias.

Now some 21st century scientists got together and did something radical: they remeasured the skulls that Morton used. It turns out his measurements were accurate, and Gould's were not. In fact, nearly every specific claim Gould makes about Morton is incorrect. The few incorrect measurements on Morton's part tended to go the other way, imputing greater volume to African skulls. Their research was published in an open-access journal and you can read it in its entirety here. If you want something a bit more colorful, I strongly suggest the righteous indignation of John Hawks. There you will find such tidbits as "Gould made up the whole thing. It was an utter fabulation. It is disgraceful that later authors have cited this idea as fact." "Gould fudged his own numbers!"

Anyway, you can see why I find this outrageous. Gould used the well-documented work of a long-dead man to make an argument that unconscious bias is widespread in science. He posed as a concerned critic, but thereby cast doubt on the validity of the scientific enterprise. He picked volume measurement and tabulation of averages as his target, making it seem as if the simplest and most objective observations -- the Junior High-level science methods -- were themselves subject to all-encompassing cultural biases. His paper and book are very widely read and cited by people who will never examine the primary evidence. ...
This stuff really ticks me off. I don't think that Gould's errors can be written off as "unconscious bias". Reading back over his 1978 article, I cannot believe that Science published it.

One thing that irritates me (that Hawks doesn't mention) is the imputation of racism to Morton. An article in the New York Times about the new measurements counters this.

Dr. Gould, who died in 2002, based his attack on the premise that Morton believed that brain size was correlated with intelligence. But there is no evidence that Morton believed this or was trying to prove it, said Jason E. Lewis, the leader of the Pennsylvania team. Rather, Morton was measuring his skulls to study human variation, as part of his inquiry into whether God had created the human races separately (a lively issue before Darwin decreed that everyone belonged to the same species).

Via Ann Althouse. Now I think Gould's overriding point -- that scientists are just as prone to bias as us lesser mortals, and that this can find ways into their experiments -- is valid. The fact that Gould illustrated this in a way he did not intend just makes the point much more humorous; in much the same way as when Carl Sagan uncritically repeated an urban legend in order to show how people are gullible. I would argue that Gould's implication that bias is widespread in science is exaggerated. Part of science's glory, after all, is its self-correcting nature. But that doesn't make it infallible.

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Thursday, June 09, 2011

Deliver us from Vomit

On this blog we tend to wax lyrical about the more prevalent myths concerning the Middle Ages; the lack of technological development, the flat earth, the ‘age before reason’ etc etc.. One of the less well known ones is that our Medieval forebears lacked a sense of humour, or as the historian Michael W George puts it in his debunking essay in ‘Misconceptions about the Middle Ages’, that the Medieval period was ‘an austere age without laughter’. Of course we moderns have no right to talk given some of the supposedly funny rubbish I have sat through on U.S and U.K TV, atrocities such as ‘Two Pints of Lager and a packet of crisps’, ‘Traffic Light ‘ and ‘Glee’ (a show the female members of my household appear to love but which forces me to bolt from the couch and leave the room in digust whenever it appears on the box).

Michael George points out that in the Middle Ages, no subject appears to have been immune from humour. Most of the cycle plays from England for example have episodes dealing with Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s pregnancy and show him convinced he has been a cuckold and demanding to know the name of the baby’s father. In these he is presented as an old man who – it is inferred – is impotent since he knows he is physically incapable of impregnating his wife. Another prominent festival, the ‘Feast of Fools’ parodied religious ceremonies with, for example, the censing performed with sausages.

In a separate essay ‘Medieval Monks, funnier than you thought’, Liam Ethan Felsen shows that humour existed amongst the clergy – many of whom argued against laughter. He draws attention to the ‘drinkers masses’, which are riotous parodies that turn the liturgies into tavern centred ceremonies administered by Bacchus the God of Wine. The Confitemini Dolio reads for example:

Pater Bacche qui es in schyphis, sanctifi cetur bonum vinum. Adveniat damnum tuum. Fiat tempestas tua sicut in schypho sic etiam in taberna.Potum nostrum da hobis hodie. Et dimitte nobis pocula nostra, sicut et nos dimittimus compotatoribus nostris. Et sic nos inducas inebrietatem, sed ne libera nos a vino.

(Father Bacchus who art in cups, hallowed be good wine. Thy ruination come. Thy turmoil be done in the cup as it is in the tavern. Give us this day our daily drink. And send forth our cups to us as we send forth to our fellow drinkers. And lead us not into drunkenness, but do not deliver us from wine.)

Another Mass – the Missa potatorum repeats this liturgy but replaces ‘do not deliver us from wine’ with ‘but deliver us from vomit’. Another example, Quondam fuit factus, describes how one solitary, sober monk witnesses his colleagues getting steadily more plastered.

Abbas vomit et Prioris;
Vomis cadit super fl oris;
Ego pauper steti foris,
Et non sum laetitia.

The abbot vomited and the prior;
The vomit fell on the floor
I, a poor man, stood outside,
and I was not happy.

…the next morning

Abbas mingit suum stratum,
Prior merdans ad cellatum
Cocus vomit in ollatum
De turpis material.

The abbot wets his bed,
The prior craps his cell
The cook vomits in the pot
A nasty substance

In a similar vein – the 'Arch poet’s confession' reads Meum est propositum in taberna mori (It is my intention to die in the tavern).

Such examples may not represent the pinnacle of humour but they do go some way to showing the Middle Ages were perhaps not as miserable as some historians have made out.

For more examples of earthy Medieval humour see 'The Civilized Man' and 'The Song of Roland'.

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