Sunday, December 23, 2012

Dennett, Darwin, and Deity

Several times in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, the author Daniel Dennett discusses religion in order to argue that it is incompatible with Darwinian evolution. However, he tries to portray himself as a reluctant convert to this position. He begins and ends the book with a hymn and claims that it is "a song which I myself cherish, and hope will survive 'forever.' I hope my grandson learns it and passes it on to his grandson." I'm afraid I simply don't believe him. The space in between the beginning and end of his book indicates that Dennett has nothing but contempt for any and all religious conceptions. He's playacting, trying to portray himself as the loving parent who very reluctantly tells his less knowledgeable children that Santa Claus doesn't exist. But Dennett obviously delights in mocking religious ideas and those who would take them seriously. There is no such thing as a weeping iconoclast.

One particular passage stands out, partially because Alvin Plantinga has recently commented on it in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies, writing that "I'm sorry to say this is about as bad as philosophy (well, apart from the blogosphere) gets." So I would like to take a closer look at it. Dennett's passage is below, in red font, with my comments interspersed (like I did here). Note that by doing so, I am, however, putting it on the blogosphere and therefore Plantinga's qualifier is no longer necessary.

In the passage, Dennett is specifically discussing the origin of genetic information. This, allegedly, cannot be explained in a Darwinian fashion, since evolution only comes into play once this information is already in place. It is a precondition for evolution, and so cannot itself be explained by evolution. (Again: allegedly.) The probability that all of the parts that make up the simplest possible living being is so remote that it is effectively impossible by natural processes.
The probability is Vanishing indeed -- next to impossible.
First point: Dennett decides to capitalize the words Vast and Vanishing in order to draw attention to them. I found this a little silly. He also uses the word "kazillion" a disturbing number of times.
And it looks at first as if the standard Darwinian response to such a challenge could not as a matter of logic avail us, since the very preconditions for its success -- a system of replication with variation -- are precisely what only its success would permit us to explain. Evolutionary theory appears to have dug itself into a deep pit, from which it cannot escape. Surely the only thing that could save it would be a skyhook!
"Skyhook" is Dennett's name for any mind-first argument or claim, in contrast to a "crane" which explains things in a matter-first manner. Anything that ultimately suggests that mind precedes matter -- even if it only suggests it to Dennett -- is a skyhook, and such explanations are ruled out of court a priori. Of course, Dennett doesn't say this, since it would be inconsistent on his part, but he makes clear that any such explanation is disallowed, regardless of whatever merits it may have. Of course, calling such explanations skyhooks is an attempt to mock the very idea. The imagery he compares it to is deus ex machina solutions, where some god swoops in from on high (the sky) and solves the problem with a wave of his or her hand (the hook).
This was Asa Gray's fond hope, and the more we have learned about the intricacies of DNA replication, the more enticing this idea has become to those who are searching for a place to bail out science with some help from religion. One might say that it has appeared to many to be a godsend. Forget it, says Richard Dawkins:
What follows is an extended quote from Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker, wherein he makes a similar argument to what he spends an entire chapter on in The God Delusion.
Maybe, it is argued, the Creator does not control the day-to-day succession of evolutionary events, maybe he did not frame the tiger and the lamb, maybe he did not make a tree, but he did set up the original machinery of replication and replicator power, the original machinery of DNA and protein that made cumulative selection, and hence all of evolution, possible. 
This is a transparently feeble argument, indeed it is obviously self-defeating. Organized complexity is the thing we are having difficulty explaining. Once we are allowed simply to postulate organized complexity, if only the organized complexity of the DNA/protein replicating engine, it is relatively easy to invoke it as a generator of yet more organized complexity. ... But of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein replicating machine must have been at least as complex and organized as the machine itself.
I suspect that, at this point, Dennett may regret having sanctioned Dawkins's argument as it has been sent through the ringer in devastating fashion since the publication of The God Delusion. I have heard it referred to as one of the worst arguments every posited. To just make one point that I've made before (here and here): traditionally the God of monotheism is conceived as being the simplest of all beings. In fact, this has been one of the central doctrines throughout Christian history: divine simplicity. It's not as accepted among philosophers of religion as it used to be, but even those who reject do not claim that God is complex, only that he is not as absolutely simple as was traditionally argued. Dawkins -- and Dennett by proxy -- are completely unaware of this major doctrine. Since a material intelligence is composed of many parts, and is therefore complex (in a sense), they assume that an immaterial intelligence must also be complex -- and the greater the intelligence, the greater the complexity. It's difficult to take this seriously: what are the parts that an omniscient God would be composed of? Is he composed of an infinite number of God-bits? Isn't it obvious that the issue of complexity does not transfer over from material beings to immaterial beings? Of course, Dawkins and Dennett would deny that an immaterial being (much less an immaterial intelligence) could exist, but that's irrelevant. The point they are trying to make here is that the traditional concept of God as an immaterial intelligence requires said God to be more complex than what it explains, and this is obviously false. Dawkins and Dennett don't understand what they are criticizing. They simply don't have enough information to justify even having an opinion, much less expressing it as vociferously as they do.
As Dawkins goes on to say, "The one thing that makes evolution such a neat theory is that it explains how organized complexity can arise out of primeval simplicity." This is one of the key strengths of Darwin's idea and the key weakness of the alternatives. In fact, I once argued, it is unlikely that any other theory could have this strength:
It's not evident that evolution explains in general how organized complexity can arise out of primeval simplicity. Evolution is about biological organisms changing with respect to time. Dennett (and Dawkins) extend it into non-biological realms. Of course Dennett doesn't just assume this, he explains at length why he thinks this is a valid procedure, but it should be noted that it's a very contentious point. And Darwin certainly did not apply it this way: indeed, Darwin thought "the Universe is not the result of chance." What follows is a quote from an earlier essay by Dennett that was republished in Brainstorms.
Darwin explains a world of final causes and teleological laws with a principle that is, to be sure, mechanistic but -- more fundamentally -- utterly independent of "meaning" or "purpose". It assumes a world that is absurd in the existentialist's sense of the term: not ludicrous but pointless, and this assumption is a necessary condition of any non-question-begging account of purpose. Whether we can imagine a non-mechanistic but also non-question-begging principle for explaining design in the biological world is doubtful; it is tempting to see the commitment to non-question-begging accounts here as tantamount to a commitment to mechanistic materialism, but the priority of these commitments is clear. ... One argues: Darwin's materialistic theory may not be the only non-question-begging theory of these matters, but it is one such theory, and the only one we have found, which is quite a good reason for espousing materialism.
I haven't read this essay in its entirety, but Dennett brings the issue of question-begging explanations into play in Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Skyhooks are question-begging and cranes are non-question-begging. In the quote above, mechanistic explanations are (or at least can be) non-question-begging, while non-mechanistic explanations are not (it is "doubtful" that any such explanation is forthcoming). This is of a piece with Dawkins's argument: to explain the emergence of the organized complexity that is mind by appealing to a primal mind is question-begging since it uses the very concept that we are trying to explain. A non-question-begging explanation would not appeal to the explanandum as explanans.

Unfortunately for both of them Plantinga absolutely nails them on this. Mind is only the explanandum given materialism. The whole claim of theism is that mind comes first, and is the explanation of matter. Since mind is primal, there can be no explanation of it. Of course, there can be an explanation of a particular mind (especially of a mind that is composed of matter), just so long as it is not the primal mind that explains everything else. Perhaps theism is wrong about this, but Dennett and Dawkins haven't given us any reason to think so. Rather, they have assumed that mind comes after matter and so is what must be explained. They have assumed that theism is false in order to argue that theism is false. In other words, their account is question-begging -- exactly what they are accusing theistic explanations of being.
Is that a fair or even an appropriate criticism of the religious alternatives? One reader of an early draft of this chapter complained at this point, saying that by treating the hypothesis of God as just one more scientific hypothesis to be evaluated by the standards of science in particular and rational thought in general,
This is an astute objection. Dennett is assuming that theism is functioning as a scientific hypothesis, which stands or falls according to its explanatory power (and other factors). But of course, most believers do not believe in God because of its explanatory power. Some may use the concept of God in an explanatory way, but even then, the alleged explanatory power is not why they believe in God (for a vaguely similar point, see here).

Dennett also makes an interesting statement here: "the standards of science in particular and rational thought in general." Failing to meet the standards of science does not mean that something fails to be rational. Science is a subcategory of rationality. To insist that theism must meet scientific standards is to ignore this distinction. I say this is interesting because Dennett is going to ignore this distinction, the very distinction he just made.
Dawkins and I are ignoring the very widespread claim by believers in God that their faith is quite beyond reason, not a matter to which such mundane methods of testing applies. It is not just unsympathetic, he claimed, but strictly unwarranted for me simply to assume that the scientific method continues to apply with full force in this domain of faith.
Testing is the hallmark of scientific knowledge, but it is not the hallmark of "rational thought in general." One reason for this is that the suggestion that testing is a requirement for all rational thought is not itself testable and so fails to be rational. The suggestion is self-referentially incoherent.
Very well, let's consider the objection. I doubt that the defender of religion will find it attractive, once we explore it carefully. The philosopher Ronald de Sousa once memorably described philosophical theology as "intellectual tennis without a net," and I readily allow that I have indeed been assuming without comment or question up to now that the net of rational judgment was up. But we can lower it if you really want to.
Here it becomes obvious that Dennett is confused. He is apparently thinking that if something cannot be supported by purely rational considerations it is therefore not rational. But, as C. S. Lewis put it in Miracles, "Reason knows that she cannot work without materials. When it becomes clear that you cannot find out by reasoning whether the cat is in the linen-cupboard, it is Reason herself who whispers, 'Go and look. This is not my job: it is a matter for the senses.'" When theologians and philosohers of religion say that faith is "beyond" reason, they are saying it in the same way that knowledge of the cat's presence in the linen-cupboard is beyond reason. To say it's beyond reason is not to say that it contradicts reason. There's nothing contrary to reason about the cat being in the cupboard. It is not irrational, it is just not something that we argue to on purely rational grounds (given a particular definition of "rational"). There are other elements involved. That's all. And of course, if he weren't so dead-set on mocking faith as irrational, Dennett would agree to this. His philosophy is heavily indebted to science, and science is empirical, it requires information beyond reason, where we have to "Go and look."
It's your serve. Whatever you serve, suppose I return service rudely as follows: "What you say implies that God is a ham sandwich wrapped in tinfoil. That's not much of a God to worship!"
Right, because if something is not a matter of pure reason, then it is irrational. Except evolution itself is not a matter of pure reason, it depends on observation like all scientific discoveries. So substitute "evolution" for "God" in Dennett's response (which, to his credit, he recognizes as rude) and see if you still think the objection has any force. Assuming you thought it did in the first place. Dennett's not only playing tennis without a net, he's playing it without a racket. And a ball. (And an opponent, since I doubt there's anyone who does philosophical theology in the manner he suggests.)
If you then volley back, demanding to know how I can logically justify my claim that your serve has such a preposterous implication, I will reply: "Oh, do you want the net up for my returns, but not for your serves? Either the net stays up, or it stays down. If the net is down, there are no rules and anybody can say anything,
So if something is beyond reason, it is completely arbitrary, "and anybody can say anything." But we can imagine Dennett responding to an evolutionist in the same way, since evolution, again, is not a matter of pure reason, but something we have to deduce from observation: we have to "Go and look" to see if it is true.

This also raises a point I've made before and will probably make again: supernatural explanations are not necessarily ad hoc or contrived. Often they are, no doubt. But not always. The idea here is that if we are allowed to appeal to supernatural causes, it would be a slippery slope, since we then could appeal to them in any situation to explain anything and everything. But if we have specific reasons for positing a supernatural cause or explanation, then it isn't ad hoc, whatever other failings you may think it has. So it's not a slippery slope to allow supernatural causation to have a seat at the table. Dennett doesn't say that it is, but I suspect it was at the back of his mind since it's a common enough claim (but of course this is speculative on my part).
a mug's game if there ever was one. I have been giving you the benefit of the assumption that you would not waste your own time or mine by playing with the net down."
You know, the thing that irritates me most about this is that Dennett's whole project is the reduction of rationality to nonrational forces. He wants to explain mind entirely and exclusively in terms of the nonrational functioning of the brain (its physical, neurological, material elements). In so doing he is evacuating rationality of its rational force. This is emphatically not the same thing as allowing extra-rational considerations come in, for the latter suggestion does not remove reason from the game, it just adds other players. Dennett, however, is removing reason. For him to turn around and accuse those who make a significantly more modest point than his of being as radically irrational as his tennis analogy makes out is just hypocritical.

I recently heard Dennett give a lecture on Alan Turing, where he said Turing's genius was in recognizing that a rational act is composed of a bunch of smaller acts which are not themselves rational (nor are they irrational; they just don't take any degree of rationality to perform). He said that, prior to Turing, we assumed that comprehension comes before competence, that in order to be competent at something one had to comprehend what one was doing. But, Dennett argued, Turing showed us that it goes the other way: competence comes before comprehension. This is very consonant with Dennett's conception of evolution. We don't figure out how to survive and procreate before we actually do survive and procreate. We don't learn to behave in certain ways, we just do, and the behaviors which were beneficial were selected -- more strictly, propensities towards behaviors were selected -- and those that were not beneficial were not selected (generally speaking). Thinking that comprehension comes before, and leads to, competence is to appeal to a skyhook.

He took a few questions after his lecture, and I was fortunate enough to be able to ask one of them. I said if competence comes before comprehension, then why would comprehension ever arise? You have everything you need, everything evolution would select for, with just the competence. He responded by appealing to sociobiology, saying that at a certain point, consciousness arises (and makes civilization possible) because some things are difficult or impossible to achieve competence in without comprehension of it. I found this answer very unsatisfactory. Certainly, consciousness does have this effect, but I don't see how Dennett has the epistemic right to appeal to it. His whole point was that we don't have to appeal to consciousness and the comprehension that comes with it in order to account for competence. To simply jump ahead to comprehension and work back to competence when it suits him, when it becomes difficult to explain competence without it, is to appeal to one of those skyhooks he otherwise decries. I still don't see the answer to my question: if Dennett is right that competence precedes comprehension, why would comprehension ever arise?

My general impression of Dennett's lecture is that he's a performance artist. Just as he reveals himself to be playacting in his writings, so he revealed himself to be playacting in his speech. I found it impossible to accept the character he presented in his lecture as his actual persona. Of course I could be wrong; I may have been biased by reading accounts like this. But completely independent of his philosophical positions, the man strikes me overwhelmingly as a sophist.

Anyway, to return to my main point, Dennett is arguing that rationality consists of behaviors that are not chosen for rational reasons. For him to then mock his interlocutors as playing tennis without "the net of rational judgment" in place is a bit much. By his own standards, there is no net.
Now if you want to reason about faith, and offer a reasoned (and reason-responsive) defense of faith as an extra category of belief worthy of special consideration, I'm eager to play.
This passage confuses me, because Dennett seems to be saying that we have to provide an explanation in terms of pure reason of why faith is not a matter of pure reason (again, given a particular definition of "reason"). He seems to be demanding that the claim be self-referentially inconsistent. On the other hand, perhaps he just means that the extra-rational elements of faith not be irrational, that being beyond reason does not mean that it contradicts reason. If this is all he means (but I don't think it is), I have good news for him: this is precisely how faith has generally been conceived. In the same way, empirical beliefs are an extra category of belief worthy of special consideration, since they are not arrived at by pure reason (they require us to "Go and look"); memory beliefs are an extra category of belief worthy of special consideration, since they are not arrived at by pure reason; belief in other minds is an extra category of belief worthy of special consideration, since it is not arrived at by pure reason; etc. (For that matter, reason is not arrived at by pure reason; you can't give a reasoned account of why we should trust reason, since any such account would be circular.)

In fact, this is the whole point of Plantinga and others. Plantinga's first book, God and Other Minds, compared belief in God to belief in other minds, and argued that the objections to one would apply equally to the other. Since you'd have to be a lunatic to deny the existence of other minds, the objections to belief in God don't work either. In Warranted Christian Belief (which he says functions as a sequel to both God and Other Minds and Warrant and Proper Function) he argues that there is a cognitive faculty, the sensus divinitatis, that causes us to immediately (i.e., non-inferentially) form beliefs about God when faced with certain circumstances. In the same way, we form beliefs about the physical world when faced with certain circumstances: I see a tree before me and form the belief, "There's a tree." I don't reason to this belief -- my senses indicate that a tree is before me; my senses are generally reliable; therefore there is probably a tree before me -- I just immediately form the belief. In fact, it would be irrational if I didn't. Of course, Plantinga may be wrong about this, but that has to be argued. Dennett doesn't even address it.
I certainly grant the existence of the phenomenon of faith; what I want to see is a reasoned ground for taking faith seriously as a way of geting to the truth,
You can't give a reasoned ground for taking sensory beliefs seriously as a way of getting to the truth. Or memory beliefs. Or belief in other minds. (Or reason.) In order to give a reasoned ground for taking sensory beliefs thusly, you would have to have evidence that your sensory beliefs are generally reliable. But how could you get such evidence? Because other people corroborate what your senses tell you? But you only know that these people are telling you, "Yes there's a tree in front of you" if your sensory beliefs are reliable. In other words, you have to presuppose that your sensory beliefs are reliable in order to obtain evidence that your sensory beliefs are reliable.

The point being that such beliefs are innocent until proven guilty. We do not have to provide evidence that they are reliable before we take them to be reliable. The burden of proof is on the one who demands that these beliefs be established via reason before they be taken to be reliable. Otherwise you get caught in an infinite regress: you have to have a reasoned ground that some class of beliefs is reliable; but then you have to have a reasoned ground that the reasoned ground in question is reliable; and then a reasoned ground of the reasoned ground of the reasoned ground; etc.

The claim of Plantinga, Alston, Wolterstorff, and others is that belief in God is in a similar position. It is innocent until proven guilty, and so the believer does not have to provide a reason for believing in God, anymore than she has to provide a reason for believing that there are other minds or that the physical world exists. This is a controversial claim, but again, Dennett doesn't even address it.
and not, say, just as a way people comfort themselves and each other (a worthy function that I do take seriously).
Again, I don't mean any disrespect, but I simply don't believe Dennett considers this a worthy function or that he takes it seriously.
But you must not expect me to go along with your defense of faith as a path to truth if at any point you appeal to the very dispensation you are supposedly trying to justify.
Why not? I expect him to go along with my defense of sensory beliefs and memory beliefs as paths to truth, even though they cannot be established by appeal to reason alone. Putting religious beliefs into the same category as these other beliefs is certainly controversial, but Dennett doesn't give us any reason to think that there is a category at all. Since his philosophy is dependent on science and science is dependent on observation, which cannot be established by reason alone, this is inconsistent.
Before you appeal to faith when reason has you backed into a corner, think about whether you really want to abandon reason when reason is on your side.
"Abandon reason"? Who's abandoning reason? Am I abandoning reason when I realize that I have to "Go and look" to see if the cat's in the cupboard? Once again we see that Dennett is just confused about what the claim is: there is nothing in reason that tells us that we must rely exclusively on reason and not also on, say, our senses or memories. Indeed, it would be unreasonable to to reject these sources of information.
You are sightseeing with a loved one in a foreign land, and your loved one is brutally murdered in front of your eyes. At the trial it turns out that in this land friends of the accused may be called as witnesses for the defense, testifying about their faith in his innocence. You watch the parade of his moist-eyed friends, obviously sincere, proudly proclaiming their undying faith in the innocence of the man you saw commit the terrible deed. The judge listens intently and respectfully, obviously more moved by this outpouring than by all the evidence presented by the prosecution. Is this not a nightmare? Would you be willing to live in such a land?
This, and what follows, are what Plantinga called "as bad as philosophy gets." I think Plantinga's overstating the case. Dennett is certainly guilty of extremely sloppy thinking -- of not playing with the net up -- but philosophers have blind spots just as much as laymen do. I suspect that since Plantinga has been engaged in this subject for the last half century or so, he doesn't suffer a fool who comments on it in ignorance.

I don't really need to say anything more about Dennett's story about the murder trial. It's premised on the idea that reason is the only source of justified or warranted beliefs, something which Dennett himself would never accept since he believes a) our senses are a source of justified or warranted beliefs, and b) reason can be entirely explained in terms of nonrational factors. Well, I can say this: he points to sources of beliefs (mere emotion, sentimentality) that are not reliable. But the jump from "not all extra-rational sources of belief are reliable" to "no extra-rational sources of belief are reliable" is not a valid move. And this should have been obvious to him.
Or would you be willing to be operated on by a surgeon who tells you that whenever a little voice in him tells him to disregard his medical training, he listens to the little voice?
What if the surgeon disregarded his medical training because of sensory beliefs? For example, he sees that the person's heart is in the right side of his chest instead of the left side. Would you want a surgeon who, when faced with such a scenario, continued to operate as if your heart was on your left side instead of your right? To ask this question is to answer it.
I know it passes in polite company to let people have it both ways, and under most circumstances I wholeheartedly cooperate with this benign arrangement.
Dude, seriously? No you don't. You revel in holding people's feet to the fire. You delight in mocking people who dare to disagree with you.
But we're seriously trying to get at the truth here.
Once again, we see the pose: "I don't want to have to say what I'm about to say, but the seriousness of the matter compels me to." You know who else writes like this? Flat-earth creationists. I've quoted flat-earthers before who insist -- insist -- that they are merely following the evidence where it leads and they are just "seriously trying to get at the truth." That's what you say when you know you don't really have the truth, but want to manipulate people into agreeing with you regardless.
And if you think that this common but unspoken understanding about faith is anything better than socially useful obfuscation to avoid mutual embarassment and loss of face, you have either seen much more deeply into this issue than any philosopher ever has (for none has ever come up with a good defense of this)
I'm not sure exactly what the issue is that no philosopher "has ever come up with a good defense of." If he means no philosopher has come up with a good defense of the compatibility of science and faith, this is obviously false. If he means no philosopher has come up with a good defense of faith-beliefs, such as that God exists, this is also false. Dennett may not think these arguments are successful, but he has not even told us what they are, so we (his readers) cannot tell whether the defenses in question are good or not.

On the other hand, if he means no philosopher has come up with a good defense of the claim that there are extra-rational sources of belief (like our senses) that are perfectly valid, then this may be true, but it is irrelevant, since the claim is that we don't have to defend such sources. (Although the claim that we don't have to defend them has been extensively and adroitly defended.) If he means no philosopher has come up with a good defense of measuring your words and not challenging people's dearly-held beliefs when there is no need to do so, then this may also be true but irrelevant, since I don't see how common courtesy is a philosophical subject.
or you are kidding yourself. (The ball is now in your court.)
Because . . . why? Do all the cosmological arguments fail? Why and how? Do we have to defend our senses and memories as valid sources of beliefs before we can trust them? Why, and how does Dennett avoid the infinite regress? You are kidding yourself because you disagree with Dennett, and nevermind why.
Dawkins' retort to the theorist who would call on God to jump-start the evolution process is an unrebuttable refutation,
Holy crap. Really? Does Dennett really think this? It's not only an unsuccessful argument, it is an obviously unsuccessful argument. It is question-begging (as Plantinga shows), it is premised on conditions that no form of theism accepts, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
as devastating today as when Philo used it trounce Cleanthes in Hume's Dialogues two centuries earlier.
Hume's Philo lost that debate. Moreover, I'm not confident that Dawkins's argument is all that similar to Philo's. I'd have to reread Hume first though.
A skyhook would at best simply postpone the solution to the problem, but Hume couldn't think of any cranes, so he caved in.
Right, because Hume was known for caving in. Dennett is accusing David Hume of not being as intellectually bold as himself (just like he accuses other materialists like Fred Dretske). Moreover, the "problem" that a skyhook would not really solve is only a problem given materialism. And of course, we are not given materialism.

I'll stop the quote here and just reiterate a point I made above: Dennett is so ignorant of the subject he is pontificating on that he has no business even having an opinion about it. He doesn't have the first clue about the subject, and his "reasoning" about it is so faulty, so sloppy, so transparently feeble, that it should embarass him. Although I doubt it will.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Friday, November 02, 2012

A salute to the London Library

We are coming up to the annual general meeting of the London Library and I’ll be attending in my capacity as a Trustee.  Founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle, the Library remains one of the leading cultural institutions of London.  Its membership has always been an eclectic mix of authors, journalists, freelance scholars and the general public.  Scattered among this potpourri of writers and readers, you find many of the greatest literary figures of every era since the Library’s foundation.  Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Charles Darwin were all members in the mid-nineteenth century.  Back then, the President of the Library was Alfred Lord Tennyson.  Today, it is Sir Tom Stoppard.  The formidable list of alumnae means that if you pick a book off the shelves, you’ll sometimes find it inscribed by the author.  
Still, all this name-dropping isn’t really the point of the Library.  After all, membership is open to everyone: just fill in the form on the website.  There is none of this business of proposers, seconders and waiting lists.  Contrary the impression sometimes given in the media, the Library is not some sort of gentleman’s club.  If it were, it would be a singularly poor one.  You can’t meet friends there, have a meal or even get a drink (although there is a coffee machine).  
The real reason to join the Library is to gain access to over a million books, spread over eight labyrinthine floors tucked into one corner of St James’s Square, off Piccadilly.  Almost all of them are on open shelves that you can browse until your feet ache from the walking.  And when you have found the books you want, you can take them home.  And keep them for months, unless another member requests them.  There is a reference section, of course, but in relative terms it isn’t very big.  So you can borrow many books that other libraries insist stay in-house.
While you are working at home, the Library provides remote access to its on-line resources including JSTOR, the OED, the Dictionary of National Biography and many more.  Access to all this is almost worth the Library’s subscription of £37 a month on its own.  And if you need a book, the Library staff will post it to you.
Of course, the serious business of writing is sometimes best done surrounded by the books you need to refer to.  If you suddenly find you need to check the eighteenth volume of Migne’s Patrologia Graeca (which you could have borrowed, but it is quite heavy) or compare the new translation of Newton’s Principia against the Latin text, it’s best to actually be in the Library.  Luckily, it is an excellent place to work.  There are many desks scattered around the stacks.  Alternatively, you can sit, surrounded by others engaged in all manner of intellectual industry, in one of the generously-sized reader’s spaces.  I wrote my PhD thesis next to John Julius Norwich as he consulted a formidable pile of tomes for his History of the Papacy, piled precariously on his desk.  Wifi and power outlets provide the modern trappings for some wonderful interiors.  
In all, I can’t recommend membership of the London Library highly enough.  And, you’ll be participating in an institution with over a century and a half of literary history behind it.
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Monday, October 22, 2012

Please tell me there's more to this story

Italian scientists have been convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison for ..... failing to predict an earthquake.

There has to be more to this, right? Some exculpatory detail that makes this story not crazy?

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Talk tomorrow in Oxford and Minneapolis in November

Sorry this is rather late notice.  I am speaking tomorrow 18 October at 8.30 in the Sutro Room, Trinity College, Oxford on ancient Greek and medieval science.  The talk is a seminar for the Ian Ramsey Centre but everyone is welcome.  Do drop by if interested.

I am also giving a Faith and Life lecture at St Philip the Deacon Church in Minneapolis at 7pm on 15 November.  Again, this is a free public event.

Update: you can watch a video of the Oxford talk here.

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Monday, October 08, 2012

Dennett contra Weinberg

There's a relatively famous quote by physicist Steven Weinberg : "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion." I think this is an incredibly naive claim. I would replace "religion" in that quote with "ideology." After all, good people do evil in the service of political ideologies all the time. But that's a post for another day. Right now I want to point to an interesting passage from Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea that contradicts Weinberg's claim. It's from page 264 of my copy, the third page in chapter 10; the emphases are mine.

Anybody as prolific and energetic as [Stephen Jay] Gould would surely have an agenda beyond that of simply educating and delighting his fellow human beings about the Darwinian view of life. In fact, he has had numerous agendas. He has fought hard against prejudice, and particularly against the abuse of scientific research (and scientific prestige) by those who would clothe their political ideologies in the potent mantle of scientific respectability. It is important to recognize that Darwinism has always had an unfortunate power to attract the most unwelcome enthusiasts -- demagogues and psychopaths and misanthropes and other abusers of Darwin's dangerous idea. Gould has laid this sad story bare in dozens of tales, about the Social Darwinists, about unspeakable racists, and most poignantly about basically good people who got confused -- seduced and abandoned, you might say -- by one Darwinian siren or another. It is all too easy to run off half cocked with some poorly understood version of Darwinian thinking, and Gould has made it a major part of his life's work to protect his hero from this sort of abuse.

So Dennett not only affirms that science can lead good people to do evil, but evolution in particular can do so. Of course, Dennett and Weinberg and I would respond to this charge that such people are obviously misunderstanding science and evolution in such cases. But then I don't see why this defense isn't available for religion as well.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Thursday, October 04, 2012

Fakes: Jesus' wife, boyfriend and brother's coffin

I have a post at On the Square, the blog for First Things magazine, looking at the Jesus' wife papyrus and some other notorious forgeries.

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Monday, September 24, 2012

Luddites and the internet

When I was young, Yellow Pages was ubiquitous. Businesses paid a modest fee to appear in the directory (or a less modest one if they wanted a bigger notice). The big yellow books of listings were delivered free to almost every household. The company brought together Balham’s plumbers with its inhabitants’ leaking taps; and summoned minicab drivers wheresoever they were needed at 2am on a Sunday morning. So Yellow Pages made a healthy profit by providing a valuable service. They also produced some outstanding television advertisements. No more. The internet has seen to that. Hibu, as the company is now called, appears to be on its last legs.

Has the internet destroyed the value in this once profitable company? It has certainly destroyed many viable businesses.  And not just Yellow Pages. It has done the same to bookshops and it is beginning to eat into other retailers as well. So where has the value gone? The answer is that it has moved to you and me. We find it more convenient to do things online. It frees up time and saves us money. But our extra free time isn’t immediately monetised and we might not spend the cash we save. Eventually, we’ll reassign our time and money to more profitable activities, but that isn’t much comfort if you publish a telephone directory.

It was the same in the late eighteenth century. New machinery like the spinning Jenny and the mule meant that fewer workers were needed to produce the same amount of cotton fabric. People saw the machines as a threat to their livelihoods. And they were right. A few went so far as to try to hold back progress by force. My old friend Jenny Jones, a Green Party London Assembly Member, recently described the luddites as fiery and reasonble. And you can see their point, even if they turned out to be on the wrong side of history (although when household appliances made domestic service obsolete, no one seemed so worried).

Productivity is a good word. Businesses and governments strive for it. But basically, it means fewer people doing the same amount of work. An increase in productivity removes money from the pockets of workers and deposits it in the pockets of consumers (as well as companies’ coffers). The service sector used to be immune to this effect (which is why the number of jobs in the manufacturing sector always seems to be shrinking relative to the services sector). No one ever managed to automate salespeople or waiters. But the internet has begun to increase productivity (or destroy jobs, depending on your point of view) in the service sector as well. For instance, I’ve stopped using my firm’s helpline when I have an IT problem. Just logging into a chat room is so much easier while the worker at the other end can manage multiple queries at the same time.

But of course, this is only part of the story. Markets reassign resources, including workers, to where they are needed. We can enjoy our extra free time or work even harder if we want to. We can write blogs, play computer games and read to our children. The hole in GDP left by the loss of telephone directories is filled by App designers and delivery drivers. Companies invent things like iPads that we never knew we wanted or needed. Making things more efficient is ultimately good for all of us. Doing away with Yellow Pages increases the demand for other things. But we should not forget that, even though capitalism’s destruction is creative, the destruction is still real.

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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Islam: the Untold Story

Tom Holland wrote and presented Islam: The Untold Story for Channel 4.  The show follows on from his book In the Shadow of the Sword on the early history of Islam.  Most commentary on the show has concentrated on the complaints and threats it has engendered from the Muslim community. Holland himself deserves a great deal of praise for tackling this subject. I caught the show on Channel 4’s internet service (a screening for journalists and experts was cancelled due to security concerns). I haven’t read Holland’s book, so the comments below are based on the show rather than his more detailed written treatment.
Holland takes a sceptical approach to early Islamic history that echoes the work of the nineteenth-century higher critics on Christianity.  His thesis is that the Arab invaders who destroyed the Persian Empire and took over the Levantine provinces of Byzantium was not originally Muslim.  Islam only arrived sixty years later when it was introduced to hold the disparate Caliphate together.  
The early written sources for Islam are indeed scarce. So, what do we know?  Professor Patricia Krone, the dean of critical studies of Early Islam, summarised the situation in Holland’s film.  There is the Koran, which dates from the early-seventh century.  Muhammad certainly lived about that time.  But the Koran contains almost no historical information and exists in a vacuum.  There is no way to connect it to Mecca (which it only mentions once) and no evidence of the Arabs being Muslims until sixty years after Muhammad died.  Holland and the critics assume this absence of written evidence is evidence of absence and fill it in with their own speculations.
Let me say from the outset that I think Holland is wrong and that the traditional account of Islam’s origins, in its rough contours, is basically correct.  We can’t trust the early biographies of Muhammad to be completely accurate, but alternative accounts (that Mecca was in Syria, or that the Arab invaders weren’t Muslims) are simply implausible.  Looking only at the evidence presented by Holland in his show (which, you’d hope, is the best he’s got), his alternative hypothesis of a late adoption of Islam by the Arabs simply falls apart. 
For instance, he notes that the Arabs initially worshipped at the Jewish temple.  They were certainly monotheists, but not Christians or Jews.  Early Christian sources have no idea what they were and they would surely have recognised a Jew if they saw one.  But sixty years later, we are asked to believe that these Arabs became Muslims; that they did so right across there now vast Empire; and that no one else converted at the same time.  We know the early conquerors made no effort to proselytise their subject populations.  But a new religion coming from outside after the conquests would surely have led to conversions across the board and not just in a single narrow strata of society.  Far more likely that the Arabs were Muslims from square one and that Islam spread across their new Empire as they conquered it, not following a couple of generations later.
In fact, the earliest record of Muhammad comes from a coin minted by a pretender to the throne of the Umayyads called Ibn al-Zubair.  But, al-Zubair, who was based in Medina and controlled Mecca, lost the resulting civil war. So, Holland asks us to believe that the Umayyads defeated the rebel and then successfully adopted his new religion over their vast domains.  Again, it is far easier to imagine that both sides were already Muslims and that the rebellion only prompted the Umayyads to advertise their religious adherence more widely.  This they did with spectacular effect at the Dome of the Rock.  
Holland also notes that much of the Koran is addressed to farmers.  This is odd because Mecca was a trading entrepĂ´t in the middle of the desert.  There were no farmers to address.  What Holland forgets to mention is that Muhammad spent much of his life in Medina (he is even buried there) and it was here that he made his first converts.  Medina is an oasis city which had plenty of agriculture.  Of course, the Saudi authorities have been industriously destroying all trace of early Islam from Mecca and Medina in their misguided iconoclasm.  Many ancient mosques and monuments have been bulldozed and dynamited in an orgy of destruction that makes the Taliban look like museum curators.
Still, the traditional story of Islam’s origins is likely to be accurate in its main themes.  Admittedly, a huge bundle of traditions grew up around Muhammad’s life, many of which are not true.  These were culled into the received version of his biography and teachings between one and two hundred years after his death.  Critical analysis of these texts is likely to give us a picture of Islam’s origins with more nuance than we currently possess.  But today’s critical scholars have, like Christianity’s higher critics, gone too far in their scepticism.  None of this means this isn’t a debate worth having.  But non-Muslims need to be careful that they don’t gleefully turn it into a rod to beat Islam.  This, at least, is something Tom Holland could never be accused of. 

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Sunday, September 09, 2012


England has had a cool wet summer. The relevance of this in the debate on global warming is pretty close to nil. Likewise, the cold winters in 2010 and 2011 didn’t tell us much about the long term trends of the world’s climate either. The data that does matter, the average world temperature records, show that temperature rose to about 0.7 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels in the years up to 1998. Since then, it has basically stood still. And not all the climate alarmism of all the lefties and greens on this Earth has managed to budge it one iota.

I’ve long struggled to articulate my position on global warming. Obviously, I’m a sceptic about the silly claims about tipping points, massive rises in sea level (we’ve had about 8 inches in the last 150 years) and extinct polar bears. The world isn’t going to see temperatures rise by 6 degrees any time soon, and if it does, it won’t have anything to do with us. But there is also no point in denying the temperature records that do show moderate warming in the last half-century or that carbon dioxide is part of the reason for this. Doubling the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide from pre-industrial levels should lead to an increase in average global temperatures of about 1 degree. This means that we can expect some further moderate warming in the coming decades.

You can only reach the alarming figures of warming of 3 degrees plus by adding feedback mechanisms to the mix. The scientific justification for these mechanisms is that they are needed to explain the past. Climate scientists have found that to get their computer models to reflect temperature records from the last hundred years accurately, they need to add more factors than just carbon dioxide to the mix. Then they extrapolated their models into the future and declared, on this basis, that things would get a whole lot hotter. They might be right. But simply using a model that explains the past to make predictions about the future is scientific garbage. You cannot take a complicated model that you’ve tweaked to fit a certain curve and then rolling it forward. This is about as accurate as a predictive device as tossing a coin. Unfortunately, it is also human nature. We are very good at spotting trends and expecting them to continue. There is even a name for this: it’s called the gambler’s fallacy.

Back in 2001, the IPCC told us to expect rises in temperature of 0.1 to 0.2 degrees per decade. Since 2001, that simply hasn’t happened. Now, there might be good reasons for this tied up with long-term patterns that were not properly understood even ten years ago. But there might just as well be other even more long-term effects that could cause temperatures to fall in the next fifty years, or not, as the case may be. We simply don’t know. And until we have models that have been shown to work in advance of what they are supposed to predict, we can’t rely on them.

That’s why I am sceptical about predictions of future climate. You should be too. But that doesn’t make me a global warming denialist, since I certainly accept the solidly-based past temperature records. I also expect further moderate warming on the basis of the well-understood “greenhouse effect”.

So what am I? Matt Ridley, author of the excellent The Rational Optimist, has the answer. He calls himself a luke-warmist. And that is what I am too. As a luke-warmist, I accept the following aspects of climate change orthodoxy: the world is getting (a bit) warmer; atmospheric carbon dioxide is a major cause of this; and human activity has increased the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide from about 280 to 400 parts per million.

But thereafter, luke-warmists part company with orthodoxy. For instance, I do not claim that the world’s temperature was an optimum in 1970 (or whenever). Instead, I recognise from history that warmer climates have been beneficial in the past and this is likely to remain the case in the future. I reject forecasts of future climate change based on computer models that have not been shown to make accurate predictions. I believe it is abhorrent to encourage poor countries to use expensive energy when cheaper carbon-based alternatives would boost their economic performance. I believe wind power is an expensive white elephant and using agricultural land to grow biofuels a scandal (on this last point, I find I’m in agreement with many Greens). I note most anecdotal reports on the effects of global warming turn out to be false or misleading (from Himalayan glaciers to vanishing coral reefs). I note that the best way to reduce carbon emissions is to use more gas (thankfully there is plenty of it about and the fracking technology to extract it). And finally, I note that climate change propaganda is well-funded and pervasive (unlike climate change scepticism, which has to work on a shoestring).

In short, global warming isn’t yet much of a problem and is more likely to be mildly beneficial. If it does turn out differently, then we should adapt. But the current fad for slowly destroying the world’s economy by artificially increasing the cost of energy isn’t just stupid. Cheap energy drove the industrial revolution and much of the development that has given us such high standards of living today. The oil shocks of the 1970s caused two damaging recessions. Keeping energy affordable when we know the consequences of high prices will eventually be disastrous should be a much greater priority than preventing uncertain climate change.

Note: this post was amended on 14 September to clarify certain points.  It seems that there are only two boxes allowed in this debate - denailist and true believer.  I have tried to make clearer that I am neither.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

UK and EU: A Doomed Marriage?

With the Euro-crisis dragging on without any sign of resolution, even the most excitable journalists are beginning to get a bit fed up with waiting for nemesis. The most likely scenario is not a sudden collapse. The European elites are clearly willing to spend however many billions of Euros that are required to avert that possibility. They have also managed to convince their populations that such a collapse would be worse than the current impasse. So, crisis has become the new normal and we can expect it to drag on for many years. Europe will slowly stagnate. It won’t be until a new generation of politicians arise, without any commitment to the failed Euro-project, that a major change of direction becomes possible. The tragedy is that these politicians are most likely to come from the radical left or right, although in most cases the two polarities are difficult to tell apart.

This means that the UK finds itself shackled to a corpse and makes Daniel Hannan’s new book restating the case against British membership of the EU especially timely. He has called it A Doomed Marriage (and you can read an extract in the Daily Mail). The title comes from something he once heard about marriage guidance counsellors. They say, as long as the couple are still arguing, the marriage can be saved. The very fact of disagreement means both parties value the other’s opinion enough to want to change it. It is when they settle into silent contempt that the union is finished. And that is the attitude of the British towards the EU: icy distain. There is no longer even a token effort to put a positive case for rule from Brussels. Few think joining the EU has done us any good and, aside from a few harmless cranks (one of whom, regrettably, is deputy prime minister), British Euro-enthusiasm is dead. Particularly telling is the number of ex-Europhiles now claiming that they were sceptics all along. Our marriage with Europe has now got to the stage where the only reason we stay in is for fear of life outside . It is the equivalent of a warring couple sticking it out for the sake of the children.

Realising this, Dan has begun to develop a narrative for life outside the EU centred around our shared culture and strong trading relationships with the English-speaking peoples of North America, Australasia, India and (the honorary English-speakers) of Scandinavia. In parallel, his American bestseller, The New Road to Serfdom, warned Americans to avoid the mistakes of Europe. A Doomed Marriage catalogues the arguments that have been made in favour of the EU and systematically debunks them. We learn that we joined late in the day not because we deliberately stood aside, but because our constructive suggestions about what shape the nascent EU should take were ignored. Only when we ditched all our arguments and completely accepted the federalist model, common agricultural policy (“CAP”), external tariffs and the rest were we allowed to join. And yet, Euro-enthusiasts spent decades telling us we had to be in to have influence. After forty years, it is clear that our membership has had no influence at all. CAP still extorts money from consumers and third-world farmers, there is no single market in financial services (which the British are best at) and we have not been able to stall the constant flow of regulations from Brussels. To add pecuniary injury to diplomatic insult, we have been the largest net contributor to EU funds apart from Germany.

In his most shocking chapter, Dan explains how the EU has funnelled cash through charities like Oxfam and Friends of the Earth, to buy support. Millions of Euros are paid to these organisations who, in turn, provide useful propaganda. The same has long gone for Brussels journalists who are carefully cultivated in return for uncritical coverage. The EU has learnt the hard way that it is a waste of time trying to convince the public of its virtues. Referendum defeats in Ireland, Denmark, the Netherlands and France (all duly ignored) have put paid to that. Bankrolling pressure groups and NGOs serves the EU’s purposes much better. And there are now so many articulate people on the European payroll, it is hardly surprising that our elites cannot bring themselves to accept we are better off out.

The other main reason for Euro-enthusiasm that Dan identifies has been political tribalism. Never mind the arguments: the BBC, the intelligentsia and most politicians simply defined the EU as progressive, modern and moderate. They have dismissed the EU’s opponents as lunatics. Even though the sceptics have been proven right, it is very hard for the enthusiasts to admit this (see here for a pretty good example of Michael White both trying to claim he's a Eurosceptic himself and that Dan is nuts.  White is refreshingly ignorant of Dan's politics and assumes he's a social conservative on marriage.  Dan is actually a liberatarian supporter of gay marriage). After all, pro-Europeans would have to accept that they have been the lunatics all along and they have been the ones running the asylum.

Dan’s short book eloquently sets out what is wrong with the EU and our relationship with it. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Britain’s marriage to Brussels isn’t just doomed, it is abusive.

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Defining Ignorance

In the comments to a recent post, Tim argued that agnosticism should be defined according to its provenance in T.H. Huxley. By agnosticism, Huxley meant the claim that no one can know if God exists because God is inherently unknowable. I argued in the comments that the term agnosticism is much more diverse than this: it can be personal ("I don't know") or universal ("no one knows"), it can be diffident ("we don't know") or assertive ("we can't know"), it can relate to the object ("it can't be known") or the subject ("we're incapable of knowing"). Tim argued to the contrary that while agnosticism has taken on these colloquial meanings, its technical meaning is Huxley's definition, and we should stick with the technical definition because appealing to colloquial definitions is a recipe for disaster.

The problem with this is that Tim is wrong. I'm giving the technical definition of agnosticism. Tim thinks this is due to creeping colloquialism but he's simply incorrect. Here's why: agnosticism is used by philosophers to denote the withholding of belief in any proposition. If you are unpersuaded that there is life elsewhere in the universe but don't actively disbelieve it, you are agnostic about it, you withhold belief. If you think the evidence for string theory is lacking but think it is very possible that forthcoming evidence may shore up the gaps you are agnostic about it. This may also be how it is used colloquially, but that doesn't mean it's not also the technical definition.

Can we say that agnosticism means one thing when it bears on knowledge in general but something else when it bears on knowledge of God? Well we could but that's not how it's used by philosophers (not to mention the fact that using any term in such a way would be a recipe for disaster if anything would be). For example, agnosticism about God's existence can refer to an individual's claim to not know one way or the other or to the universal claim that no one really knows. I've heard this distinction referred to as subjective/objective, personal/universal, individual/general, but regardless this is a real distinction made by philosophers regarding agnosticism about God's existence. (In a debate William Lane Craig once called it ordinary agnosticism vs. ornery agnosticism.) To insist that the technical use of this term should be abandoned in favor of how it was originally conceived is incorrect. Of course we shouldn't read our definition of agnosticism back into Huxley's writings, it just means that regardless of how a term originated, its technical definition is determined by how it is used in technical discussions. I don't know if this is considered a linguistic fallacy -- treating a term's original meaning as its technical definition -- but it strikes me as one. It's a close cousin to the root fallacy where one defines the meaning of a term according to the parts that make it up as well as the fallacy of semantic obsolescence. Perhaps we can call it the fallacy of provenance.

Part of the problem is that Tim tried to define knowledge in an absolute way: "No-one can definitively know if something exists or not, unless they are omniscient." I presume his reason for this is that unless you know everything the possibility remains that one of the items you don't know would invalidate your claim to knowledge. But epistemologists know that knowledge doesn't work that way. The classical definition of knowledge is justified true belief but this has fallen on hard times in the last several decades. Regardless, whatever one wants to call the third condition of knowledge (or fourth condition if one wants to add something to justification) very few philosophers, if any, maintain that it requires the absolute assurance that only omniscience could provide. (Maybe Peter Unger would accept this, but I haven't really read his defense of skepticism.) Many epistemologists do make one of the conditions of knowledge be that one have a reasonably thorough knowledge of the object known in order for it to qualify as knowledge, but nothing like omniscience. Infallibilism is the view that knowledge is ... wait for it ... infallible and so would be in that general direction, but infallibilists don't make omniscience a condition of infallibility; far from it. In fact, as far as I can tell, the majority view among epistemologists today is fallibilism: knowledge doesn't have to be absolute or certain or anything like it. As long as one believes the proposition, even weakly, and the right conditions are met (and the belief is true) then it qualifies as knowledge.

The whole discussion was raised by the issue of burden of proof. Many atheists claim that only the one who is making a positive claim bears the burden of proof, therefore, they do not have to have any evidence or reason or grounds for their atheism. This doesn't really work since the claim that God does not exist is the claim to know something, just as much as the claim that he does. Disbelief is the belief that a proposition is false. Some atheists respond by saying "You can't prove a negative" which was the topic of the post (quick answer: of course you can). So the atheist has to shoulder his share of the burden of proof. Some atheists respond further by redefining atheism to mean the absence of belief in God rather than disbelief. Disbelief is hard atheism, lacking a belief is soft atheism. I've written about that before too: I understand what belief means; I understand what disbelief means. I also understand what the withholding of belief (i.e. agnosticism) means. Further, I understand what it would mean to have no conception of something: prior to hearing about Russell's orbiting teapot or the flying spaghetti monster I had no conception of them. I could see calling this last case "lacking a belief," but this doesn't help the soft atheist since he has obviously heard of the concept of God. Once I've heard of a concept I no longer lack a belief in it: I believe, disbelieve, or withhold belief in it. So I asked Tim, as I've asked others, to define what lacking a belief in God means and how it differs from belief (theism), disbelief (atheism), and withholding belief (agnosticism). Tim, much to his credit, offered the first response to this I've ever received: he said it seemed to be closer to withholding belief. The problem is that this is not atheism, it is agnosticism. Hence the discussion. I kind of suspect that soft atheists disbelieve in God, but weakly; they're right on the border of being agnostic but leaning towards disbelief. But they insist that's not what they mean, they mean they lack a belief -- a concept I can't get them to define.

The believer must shoulder the burden of proof, but so must the disbeliever, the one who believes that the proposition up for grabs is false. I, for example, disbelieve in Russell's orbiting teapot and the flying spaghetti monster. I must therefore shoulder the burden of proof, I must supply a justification or reason for my belief that these proposals are false. I've written about this before too: The reason why I don't believe these claims -- and the reason why everyone else doesn't believe them either -- is because they are completely ad hoc. The more ad hoc, or contrived, a claim is, the less likely it is true. As I wrote before, "The degree to which it is ad hoc is the degree to which it is implausible. This is particularly evident with the absurdly ad hoc propositions mentioned above: we react against such suggestions because they are completely contrived. It's not merely that we have no reason to think they are true; we think, for whatever reason, that they are just "made up," and this is a specific reason to think they are not true." Of course, these ideas were originally conceived in order to try to compare them to belief in God, and to show that, just as the rational response to the orbiting teapot and spaghetti monster is to disbelieve them until we have evidence for them, so the rational response to God is to disbelieve until we have evidence. Obviously this attempt fails: the concept of God is not inherently ad hoc, it has been present in all cultures in all times. Of course the concept of God can be used in an ad hoc way, as can other concepts (Marxists, for example, use economics in an ad hoc way), but this does not mean that the concept itself is ad hoc.

Only the withholder of belief, the agnostic, does not have to bear any burden of proof, because he is not believing or asserting anything (and of course the one who has never heard of the concept does not bear the burden of proof for it). Soft atheism strikes me as an attempt to get the negative position of the atheist and the burdenfree position of the agnostic. It looks like an attempt to disbelieve in God without having to go through all the rigmarole of having any burden of proof placed upon one's shoulders. Until I hear a definition of lacking a belief that is distinct from disbelief and withholding belief, I see no reason to question this impression.

Let me just conclude by reiterating something I posted on Agent Intellect: "Agnostic" is the Greek-based term for someone with no knowledge. The Latin-based term is "ignoramus."

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Friday, July 06, 2012

God particle found

This is so cool. The Higgs-Boson particle has been discovered.
In physics terms, evidence for a new particle requires a “3-sigma” measurement, corresponding to a 1-in-740 chance that a random fluke could explain the observations, and a claim of discovery requires a 5-sigma effect, or a 1-in–3.5 million shot that the observations are due to chance. In December representatives of the two experiments had announced what one called “intriguing, tantalizing hints” of something brewing in the collider data. But those hints fell short of the 3-sigma level. The new ATLAS finding met not just that level of significance but cleared the gold standard 5-sigma threshold, and CMS very nearly did as well, with a 4.9-sigma finding.
So let the jokes begin:

-- The Higgs-Boson particle was recently found herding two of each kind of subatomic particle into a subatomic boat of some kind.

-- The scientists who discovered the Higgs-Boson particle announced today that its first commandment was "Thou shalt not misuse the name of the Higgs-Boson particle in the science/religion conflict."

-- Scientists have successfully detected a Higgs-Boson particle but were unable to determine if there were any others. There is one Higgs-Boson particle and the Large Hadron Collider is its prophet.

-- It has been determined that the Higgs-Boson particle used to be a lowly electron, but it died and was resurrected.

Yeah I know, they suck. Supply your own in the comments.

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Proof Positive

Last night I left a few comments on another blog that reported the news that a German court had declared it illegal to circumcise children under the age of consent. The comments on the blog veered to several side issues, one of which was condemnation of religions that practice circumcision. This led to a couple of commenters making the claim that atheism is not disbelief in God, it's merely the absence of belief in God. I've written about that before so I challenged them to define what the "absence of belief" is and how it's different from withholding belief (agnosticism) and disbelief (atheism as it has been understood historically and today). The "absence of belief" position was popular in the mid to late 20th century among some atheist philosophers, but they eventually abandoned it because they couldn't define it. Their motive for suggesting it was that if one simply lacks a belief then they (allegedly) do not share any burden of proof: the burden is entirely on the person who claims that God exists. If you assert that God does not exist, however, then you're making a claim to knowledge and so must shoulder the burden of proof just as much as the theist does. So the "absence of belief" position is basically an attempt to think whatever you want without having to go to the trouble of having reasons or evidence for it.

This led to someone else making a statement that is popular among atheist laymen. He wrote, "You can't prove a negative." I responded, "You can't? Why not? I can prove negatives. Who told you that you can't prove a negative?" Really, negatives are proven all day long and are very easy: you can prove that there is no full-sized elephant in your room right now. You can prove that, under normal conditions, if you drop a pencil, it will not fall up instead of down. These are perhaps silly examples, but proving negatives is one of the most common things to prove. Here's a more realistic case. Many scientists and philosophers of science follow Popper in claiming that science cannot prove anything it can only falsify. Science cannot prove "if A --> B" because A and B may just be occuring together by coincidence. However science can falsify "if A --> B" by finding an example of A occurring without B. If we accept this account then not only is it possible to prove a negative, it means that science only proves negatives.

Now I suspect the atheist who says you can't prove negatives is really thinking something else. Perhaps he's thinking that while you can prove negatives about observables you can't prove negatives about unobservables, like God. But of course this is false as well: you can prove that God did not just create a full-sized elephant in your room right now. The atheist may counter-respond that if we appeal to God we can make any absurd qualification we want. Maybe God just created a full-sized invisible elephant in your room right now. If you object that part of your anti-elephant proof is that your room is not big enough for an elephant, you can maybe qualify it further. But these attempts are non-starters. Absent the specific qualification that the elephant is invisible (or any other ad hoc qualification) the phrase "a full-sized elephant" by itself would mean that the elephant in question is visible (or lacks the ad hoc qualification). I think the people who make this objection are thinking something along the lines of: the concept of God has been repeatedly qualified to render it immune to disproof. It used to refer to a physical person-like object, but then when that became philosophically and scientifically untenable it was upgraded to a non-physical person-like object, etc. This seems to presuppose a naive view of the origin and development of religion which was common in the second half of the 19th century. Certainly, the theistic concept of God has developed -- as it should -- but it is not clear to me that this has been a series of ad hoc qualifications like, "Well, well, maybe he's just invisible!" At any rate, atheism is guilty of the same thing, so it strikes me as a tu quoque argument.

Or perhaps the atheist is thinking you can't prove a universal negative. That's a more respectable claim: to say there are no X's would seem to require that one had searched all of reality and determined that no X's exist. Even more, it would seem to require that one had searched all of reality simultaneously: otherwise, perhaps the X's were somewhere other than where you were looking at each particular moment; maybe they moved around so that they were always behind you or something. Unfortunately, this claim is still false. It assumes the only way you can prove something is via observation, that is, through scientific methods. This is scientism and scientism is a naive and foolish position. To make the most obvious point, you can prove things via logic -- specifically you can prove universal negatives via logic. If something contradicts a law of logic then it is impossible and cannot exist anytime, anywhere. If the atheist challenges the laws of logic we can simply point out that science presupposes the laws of logic. Once you've abandoned logic you've abandoned science (not to mention knowledge and rationality). However, this has a limited application. That's why this objection is more respectable: in many cases you can't prove a universal negative. It's only when the universal negative contradicts a law of logic that it can be disproven.

A third possibility: perhaps the atheist is defining "prove" in the logical sense. You can give an argument for something, you can demonstrate that something is more likely true than false, you can even show that it is very probably true. But a logical proof is an absolute proof. It cannot fail to be true (or, conversely, fail to be false). It holds of all possible worlds. But of course, this was already dealt with: to prove a universal negative via logic is to prove it absolutely.

Finally, I would just like to point out that the claim "You can't prove a negative" is a negative. So by its own lights, it can't be proven. This doesn't necessarily render it invalid, since there are many things we can know that we can't prove. However, it does mean, at the very least, that the person who claims you can't prove a negative must give us a reason for thinking why you can't prove a negative. This is likely to lead to one of the three possibilities above.

(Updated to add a point and clean up some awkward phrasings.)

Update, 12 July: On the definition of agnosticism, a point raised in the comments, see here.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Monday, June 04, 2012

Historians on their books

A cynic might conclude that - far from being one of humanity's greatest achievements - the Internet is in fact a seething mass of banality, pornography and contemptible dribble. There is something to be said for this view but occasionally you come across a site that redeems the entire project. One such is 'New Books in History' - a podcast series which interviews historians and talks to them about their latest work.

Highlights include Adrian Goldsworthy on the fall of the Roman Empire, Robert Gellately on Lenin, Stalin and Hitler, Norman Stone on World War One, Brett Whalen on Christendom and the apocalypse in the Middle Ages and  Mark Mazower on Hitler's Empire. Probably the most engaging speaker is the chain smoking, Scottish Tory Norman Stone, whose pupils over the years have included  Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts, Richard Overy and Orlando Figes. You can find another one of his lectures here, this time on Turkey (where he is now based).

There's also Jay Rubenstien's 'Armies of God - The first Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse' which is very good & highly readable. Hopefully I will get around to posting a review of it shortly.

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Another Orlando Figes row

One year on from 'review-gate' another row involving Orlando Figes is brewing and this time it's his Stalin-era book 'The Whisperers' which has come under fire. The Torygraph reports that:

..a Russian publisher has refused to publish a translation of Figes' history of the Stalin era, The Whisperers, which explores the suppression of the family in the USSR, because it apparently contained inaccuracies and factual errors.

Varvara Gornostaeva, head of the Corpus publishing house, said that during a pre-publication check they found a "huge number of inaccuracies and factual errors," and if they didn't fix them then it could bring about serious displeasure to some of the gulag victims and their families.

Allan Massie appears to think the book was pulled for sinister motives. He writes in a piece entitled 'How Orlando Figes is being silenced by the ghost of Stalin' that:

Anna Piotrovskaya, executive director of Dynastia, the publishing house which holds the Russian Rights, explains the cancellation as follows. Publication “would definitely provoke scandal and result in numerous objections, either to the factual inaccuracies contained in the book, or to the misrepresentation of the original transcripts of the interviews, especially considering the complexity and the sensitivity of the topic to Russian society”.

It is the last part of that sentence which is perhaps the most significant, especially since Figes has offered to correct any mistakes and amend what are judged to be misinterpretations, and since Alena Kozlova, head of Memorial’s archive, while expressing concern about some mistakes, praises the book and says that Figes “really shows the atmosphere of the time”.

If it is indeed thought to do this, then, given “the complexity and sensitivity of the topic to Russian society”, it is not surprising that publication has been cancelled. For “Russian society”, one may choose to read “the Kremlin”. The Putin regime has been engaged in a gradual rehabilitation of Stalin. It has no desire for Russians to be reminded once again of the Stalinist crimes. If you ask the questions “who benefits from stopping publication and who might be harmed by publication?” it is not difficult to come up with the answer.

Not so fast say Peter Reddaway and Stephen F. Cohen writing in 'The Nation' - 'The reasons had nothing to do with Putin’s regime but everything to do with Figes himself.'. They proceed to list the errors in 'The Whisperers' which include:

§ To begin with an example that blends mistakes with invention, consider Figes’s treatment of Natalia Danilova (p. 253), whose father had been arrested. After misrepresenting her family history, Figes puts words in her mouth, evidently to help justify the title of his book: Except for an aunt, “the rest of us could only whisper in dissent.” The “quotation” does not appear in Memorial’s meticulous transcription of its recorded interview with Danilova.

§ Figes invents “facts” in other cases, apparently also for dramatic purpose. According to The Whisperers (pp. 215-17, 292-93), “it is inconceivable” that Mikhail Stroikov could have completed his dissertation while in prison “without the support of the political police. He had two uncles in the OGPU” (the political police). However, there is no evidence that Stroikov had any uncles, nor is there any reason to allege that he had the support of the secret police. Figes also claims that for helping Stroikov’s family, a friend then in exile was “rearrested, imprisoned and later shot.” In reality, this friend was not rearrested, imprisoned or executed, but lived almost to the age of 90.

§ Figes’s distortion of the fate of Dina Ielson-Grodzianskaia (pp. 361-62), who survived eight years in the Gulag, is grievous in a different respect. After placing her in the wrong concentration camp, he alleges that she was “one of the many ‘trusties’” whose collaboration earned them “those small advantages which…could make the difference between life and death.” There is no evidence in the interviews used by Figes that Ielson-Grodzianskaia was ever a “trusty” or received any special privileges. As a leading Memorial researcher commented, Figes’s account is “a direct insult to the memory of a prisoner.”

Orlando Figes replies at the bottom of the article. I'm not sure if Putin's regime have a vendetta against Figes but his fellow academics certainly do!

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