Archive for June, 2009

Spinal Tap and Science on BBC Radio

June 18, 2009

This is just a couple of notices about a few items on the radio next week that people might find interesting.

Firstly, 80s rockers Spinal Tap are on BBC Radio 2 at 10.00 pm Saturday night, 20th June 2009, on the programme Back from the Dead: the Retu of 187 ap. The real-life documentary-maker, writer, and failed drummer, Peter Curran, is interviewing the three mock Rock legends, David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) about the launch of their new album, Back from the Dead, which really is being launched, and the accompanying tour. The BBC Radio Times for next week also includes a piece of mock, Rock journalist interviews with them. The mock rockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap is one of the classic rock films, so the programme this Saturday could be fun.

Also, next week from Monday to Friday on BBC 3 at 11.00 pm, there’s a series on great scientific experiments, The Essay: Strange Encounters. Tuesday’s programme is on the great solar storm of 1859, which produced spectacular displays of aurora and knocked out the emerging telegraph service all over the world. Wednesday’s programme is on Peyton Rous’ experiments that demonstrated that cancer can be caused by viruses. Thursday is about the discovery of radio waves by Heinrich Hertz. Friday is on the great ‘flu pandemic of 1918. The first programme, on Monday, is particularly interesting as it’s on the search for spontaneously generated life in 17th century Tuscany.

P.Z. Myers on Science and the Irrationality of Religion

June 16, 2009

Several months ago, Wakefield made the following remarks on P.Z. Myers’ view of religion and theology, and wondered about a response to them:

‘Second, I wanted to follow up from where he’s written elsewhere that in his mind there is no real methodology to religious belief. For something to hold water and muster, it must be rigorously researched and demonstrable. Failing this, Myers places things in the “Creationist” box, which (apparently) is a rather large
residual category for every idea or notion (certainly faith qualifies) that does not meet with scientific rigor to this man’s liking. His many defenders of course would claim these rules supercede Dr. Myers and despite Dr. Myer’s antics, still apply to science at large, whether we religious types like them or not.

Observe, that when “Creationists” (meaning anyone believing God had something to do with the Known Universe, and not just “literalists”) get “cornered” on the “facts” of biology and life and the failures of prayer, whatnot:

(Quoting verbatum from Jim Lippard’s blog honoring PZ’s many insights)

They resort to,

Key features:

1. Conspiracy
2. Selectivity
3. The fake expert(s)
4. Impossible expectations
5. The metaphor
6. The quote mine
7. Appeal to consequences ’

I’m sorry I’ve taken a while to get round to answering this. However, let’s examine some of these statements and the underlying assumptions.

Firstly, Myers seems to make the Positivist assumption that science is the supreme method for acquiring knowledge about the world, and that it is indeed the only true form of knowledge. However, there are real problems with this. One major criticism of the Positivist position is that science, by itself, cannot prove that only science alone provides true knowledge of the world, contrary to the claims of philosophy. Indeed, in order to demonstrate that science provides true knowledge of the world, it requires philosophy and metaphysics, which Positivists like Von Carnap in the 1920s rejected and denounced as ‘disreputable’. So in these, areas, the Positivist claim for the unique ability of science to provide information about the true nature of the Cosmos fails.

There is also the problem in that science is merely one of a number of different methods of acquiring knowledge about the Cosmos, and that there are areas of knowledge and experience where its methods are inapplicable. For example, in history the primary method of investigating the past is through the study of texts. Now clearly science can and does add immensely to the study of history. Psychology can provide insight into the minds and motivations of the people involved in the events of the past, and archaeology has provided immense information on the development of past societies, the way they lived and their culture. The primary source for history is still historical texts, as one cannot recreate the great events of the past in a laboratory. Moreover, the philosopher Mary Midgeley has also pointed out that other areas of human culture, such as poetry, will also produce great insights about the nature of the Cosmos before or apart from those of science. So there are areas of human knowledge, investigation and experience, where science cannot be the primary method for discovering truth.

Now let’s deal with the statement that religion is somehow wrong, because it doesn’t use the methods of science. This attitude is mistaken, because it attempts to promote the scientific method, or judge one area of human experience and culture, by scientific methods that may not apply to it. As philosophers of religion such as Martin Buber have pointed out, at the heart of religion isn’t the attempt to provide a coherent, rational description of the universe, but the sense of a personal, transcendent presence within its phenomena or beyond it. Thus the ancient Egyptian religion included a number of different gods, some of whom, offered different explanations for the phenomena they observed. Yet this did not lead to friction within the religion as the religion was based on a personal experience of these deities, not whether they simply provided a rational explanation of the Cosmos.

Now religion is a highly complex phenomenon to the point where it is difficult even to give a precise definition of it. Despite this, there are certain forms of religion – or religious investigation – that may be highly rational. For example, Neoplatonic philosophy in ancient Rome attempted to use reason to lead one into the contemplation of God, described as ‘the One’ or ‘the Good’. It was a philosophical school, but has been described as ‘the mind’s road to God’, and in this sense it could be described as a philosophical religion. So, in the case of Neo-Platonism, there certainly was a rational method of inquiry and investigation at the heart of a form of religion.

Furthermore, different religions do possess different rules governing experience and observance. Subsequent revelations or statements from transcendent entities may deepen the basic revelation at the heart of that religion, but they may not contradict it. In the Mosaic Law, any prophet who demanded the worship of any other gods than the Lord was to be rejected, as this violated the basis of Judaism in monotheism, and the revelation that there was only one God. Similarly, St. Paul recommends that Christians test every spirit they encounter, because not all spirits are from God, and some of those spirits encountered may deliberately give wrong information to mislead Christians. Judaism, Christianity and Islam also developed distinct methods to govern the interpretation of Scripture and religious worship and observance. Thomas Aquinas discussed whether theology was a science, and concluded that it was, as it possessed a distinct methodology of its own. In fact, during the Middle Ages theology used the very same methods that contemporary scientists also used in their studies – Aristotelian logic, and discussions of natural theology very often included discussions of scientific subjects and phenomena. Thus in the Middle Ages, at least, science and Christian theology certainly did possess some of the same methodology and features.

Theologians have also used science to ascertain whether some religious phenomena – miracles – are genuine. In the 18th century, the Roman Catholic clergyman leading the official investigation of reports of miracles, Prosper Lambertini, later Pope Benedict IX, compiled a handbook for their proper examination. Lambertini stipulated that this should include an examination of the miracle and the evidence for it by scientists and doctors, and his handbook has remained one of the standard, if not the standard text for the investigation of such phenomena by the Vatican until today.

Thus, while religion is a completely different area of human experience to science, nevertheless it also possesses its own relevant methodology and may include science and its methodology in order to discover the truth about some phenomena, which may be considered supernatural.

Now let’s deal with the list of seven features Myers and Lippard feel are typical of Creationists.

1. Conspiracy

This probably refers to the tactic of some Creationist groups of using two different approaches to have their views accepted by secular and religious schools. For example, some of the Creationist groups produced two different versions of their textbooks according to whether they were to be used in the public, state schools or by Christian schools. Those for use in the state schools stressed the scientific aspects of the case against evolution, but did not contain any references to the Bible, while those intended for use in Christian schools did contain references and arguments from Scripture. I suspect that Myers and Lippard consider this a conspiracy in the sense that the Creationist groups who adopt such a tactic are deliberately disguising their true intentions to reintroduce an explicitly religious doctrine into schools. Now, while some Creationists probably would like to see religious education re-introduced into schools, other Creationists traditionally didn’t, preferring that their children should be taught a view of the creation of the world and its creatures based on a literal interpretation of Genesis outside of school. These people distrusted attempts to establish a particular religious view through legislation. Thus, such tactics are only used, or have traditionally only been used, by some, but not all, Creationists.

It’s also the case that some groups critical of Darwinism have stated that they don’t want a particular view of Creation taught in schools. Members of the Discovery Institute, for example, have repeatedly stated that Intelligent Design makes no statement over who the Designer is, and don’t want a literal view of Creation taught in school or even see Intelligent Design itself taught, just the arguments against Darwinism presented alongside those for it. Now clearly many supporters of Intelligent Design are religious, but that does not mean that the arguments for it are necessarily flawed, or that their reasons for questioning the philosophical naturalism in some textbooks are unreasonable.

2. Selectivity.

This probably means the deliberately use of specific examples from biology and palaeontology to challenge the general Darwinian account of the development of life, without discussing or excluding the evidence for it. The problem with this is that while there are undoubtedly some texts that may be highly selective in their presentation of information and arguments, there are other that present a variety of arguments and information from a number of different approaches and sources. Michael Denton’s book, Evolution: A Theory In Crisis, which inspired the Intelligent Design movement, presents a number of arguments against Darwinism, as well as various examples from biology, where it could be argued that Natural Selection is inadequate as an explanation.

3. The Fake Experts

I’ve absolutely no doubt that there are a number of Creationist writers, who have little scientific expertise and who present spurious information and arguments to the public. A number of them have been strongly criticised by various Christian groups and writers on the net, who maintain websites attacking them and their views. This does not, however, mean that all the experts who reject Darwin are fakes. Some of the scientists who rejected Darwinism are extremely distinguished, such as Dr. Duane Gish, Wilder-Smith and Dr. Leonid Korochkin of the Institute of Developmental Biology of the former Soviet National Academy of Science.

4. Impossible Expectations

This looks like an attempt to counter the criticism of Darwinism that there isn’t enough supporting evidence for it. The assumption here is that people have too high expectations of the amount of evidence required to support Darwinian evolution. However, while there is indeed a vast amount of evidence to support Darwinism, some scientists have remarked that the evidence for it is not as complete or as strong as it has appeared, or was expected by scientists themselves. Thus, while some people doubtless expect too much from the evidence for Darwinism, there may indeed be real problems with it. Michael Denton, in his book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, indeed presents statistical arguments that there is a genuine lack of evidence for evolution, rather than the evidence exists, but has not been discovered yet.

5. The Metaphor

This might refer to the way people of faith, and particularly Creationists, view the world as an artefact created by the Almighty, often in terms very much like the way a human craftsman makes their products. However, merely because this view metaphorical does not mean it is incorrect, and that the world does not possess some of the characteristics of an artefact through its creation by an intelligent creator, in the same way that humans, who participate in God’s intelligence, also create artefacts.

6. The Quote Mine

This probably refers to use of quotes by Creationists by scientists discussing the lack of evidence, or apparent lack of evidence for Darwinism by various scientists, who may then go on in the following passage to address this problem. However, that does not mean that there isn’t a problem with the evidence for Darwinism, even if the view taken of this by a Creationist is different from that of the scientist addressing it.

7. The Argument to Consequences

This refers to the criticism of Darwinism and evolutionary theory by Creationists and other people of faith on the grounds of some of what they consider to be the social consequences of evolutionary theory. These include eugenics and the development of a worldview that apparently devalues human life, based on the view that if humanity is solely the product of evolutionary forces, then there are no transcendent values. For many people of faith, this worldview has resulted in a nihilistic culture that promotes abortion and divorce. Now the consequences of such an atheist interpretation of evolutionary theory does not mean that the theory itself is incorrect. It does, however, mean that the attempt to base morality purely on evolution, with no regard to the existence of objective, transcendent moral values, is severely flawed.

God and the Comprehensibility of the Cosmos

June 7, 2009

A few months ago, Wakefield made this fascinating comment:

‘Ooops.

Meant to add that link, which is at

http://wakepedia.blogspot.com/2008/07/whats-so-great-about-christianity.html

Also, in another conversation with Doctor Logic, whom I note is also contributing now to Rational Perspectives (see

http://rationalperspective.wordpress.com/2007/10/12/doctor-logic-on-the-argument-from-reason/)

, he asked me later on and I did not have an answer at the time for the following:

And why do we need to assume a God, assume that God is orderly, and assume that he would make an orderly universe we can comprehend, instead of simply assuming the universe is intelligible?

This comment was apparently in answer to my suggestion (as you have posted also)
that genetically (by which I mean linkage, not genes per se physically) the history
of science indicates that along with Western society, culture and morals, it is the
inheriter of values and methods bequeathed to it from Christianity. Rodney Stark and
some others like yourself have commented on this, as you did in your article at RP
on the myth of the war of science and faith, in addition to you articles on the
development of democracy in Europe in no small part due to the influence of
Christianity. That was the context.

Of course DL did not take kindly to this. Thus the query. My attempt was NOT to
demonstrate that a linkage of Christianity and modern science (also argued well in a
book called The Soul Of Science, N. Pearcy) meant that God exists, but that the
feeling among scientists and theologians at the time indicated they thought God was
orderly and would have made an orderly Cosmos, and this more than much else was the main impetus for thinking the rest of the universe was comprehensible. This stood in stark contrast to the “animistic”, “magic” realm of what so much had passed for
explanation in centuries earlier.

Nevertheless, it is a good question he poses. To say that the universe is orderly
and to say that this order had to come only from God is what the early scientists
you’ve referenced too, along with many theologians, believed and worked from. And
perhaps it meant the development of what we call modern science. But to say this
does not count out other forms or sources of order. Right? DL points out that mere
comprehensibility is NOT the same as saying it had to have a source that is
supernatural, or beyond human knowledge, or that a god was behind it all. That is
another issue. But how to proceed?

My thinking is that the very fact that order is present and that apparent “rules”
(though in the strict materialist sense rules imply oversight and intelligence, not
mere patterns that just happen to happen) indicates an Author behind the “rules” of
the game.

Your article at RP

http://rationalperspective.wordpress.com/2007/09/19/cosmic-fantasies-by-numbers/

touches on some of this with the “fine tuning” issue that some, like Hugh Ross, have touched on. But the secular scientist answer has been to date that with Big Numbers, we have in our universe virtually infiniate chances for the coming together of the most unlikely of life-giving or life-allowing parameters on things like planetary size, rotation, periodicity, photosynthesis, life evolution, etc, etc, etc. The idea being that with the trillions of systems likely to exist similar to ours we have a higher chance of evolving by random shuffling the parameters you wrote might be fantasy. After all, lucky people win the lottery here in the USA every year and get to retire with millions in chance rangers of one in billions in some cases?
Right?

In any case, many continue, as DL does, to say for example that reason and faith are eternal enemies, and that the Christians are the ones who suppressed science and created the Dark Ages, etc.’

Thanks for the link to your review of Dinesh D’Souza’s book, What’s So Great About Christianity? It’s a great review of a work by one of the brightest Christian apologists around today, who has defended Christianity with some extremely effective arguments. Thanks also for recommending the book, The Soul of Science, by N. Pearcy. That sounds like an extremely useful work for attacking the common atheist belief that somehow Christianity was an opponent of science responsible for the ‘Dark Ages’.

Now let’s tackle Dr. Logic’s view that the existence of an orderly, intelligible universe does not have to be explained as caused by the existence of God, who possesses an orderly intelligence that is expressed in the profoundly orderly structure of His creation. Now Dr. Logic’s view is based on a number of assumptions that are themselves open to criticism.

Firstly, it assumes that the intelligibility of the Cosmos is in itself nothing particularly exceptional or surprising. Indeed, the intelligibility of the Cosmos is such that it can, without too much difficulty, be assumed as a given, rather than be considered as something profoundly remarkable that requires explanation.

Secondly, there’s also an implicit assumption that human intelligence is not remarkable and the ability of humans to understand the deep structure of the universe, and see similarities between its order and that the operations of their own minds, isn’t remarkable either, but the product of chance and coincidence.

Thirdly, it assumes that chance itself is sufficient to account for the universe and the objects within it. This has itself been criticised by theist philosophers, such as Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas based his critique in Aristotelian philosophy, but some of these arguments regarding the first creation of matter are still relevant in modern Big Bang Cosmology.

Let’s examine these assumptions. Firstly, many scientists, including atheists, have expressed profound amazement at the utter intelligibility of the Cosmos. Sir Arthur Eddington, who was an opponent of the Big Bang theory stated in the 1920s that science pointed to the existence of divine Creator more strongly then that it before. His view was clearly based on the fact that the universe was rational, and obeyed orderly, predictable rules. Furthermore, some scientists have stated that they find it remarkable that beauty is an intrinsic part of the Cosmos. Mathematicians and physicists, for example, have remarked on the beauty and elegance of the equations that model the laws governing the Cosmos. Now aesthetic appreciation is part of human intelligence. It’s possible that if the universe were the product of chance, it wouldn’t necessarily be as comprehensible as it is to humanity, or have the very high level of order and mathematical elegance within it.

Moreover, if the laws that govern the cosmos were set at its very beginning, then clearly the evolution of the Cosmos isn’t a product of chance in that its development is not random, but proceeds according to those rules. This does not necessarily mean that the universe’s evolution is totally deterministic and that every phenomenon within the cosmos was predetermined at the very beginning. Nevertheless, it does indicate that the phenomena that constitute the Cosmos were shaped by a distinct set of parameters that determined their emergence and operation. In this view, the universe is not solely the product of chance.

Now if that view is taken, then the development of stars, galaxies and habitable planets are a necessary development from these initial laws, and even if there is nothing remarkable about the development of intelligent species, nevertheless the fact that the universe appears designed to allow the emergence of intelligent life in general, rather than humanity in particular, indicates that the Cosmos was designed to produce intelligent beings.

Then there’s the problem of human intelligence. As I said, part of the view that the universe is the product of chance assumes that human intelligence is itself not remarkable, and the ability of humans to understand the Cosmos is a coincidence that does not require further explanation. But as Alvin Plantinga has pointed out, according to the Darwinian view, intelligence developed purely for survival, not for a more profound understanding of the universe that may not have any immediate survival value. After all, there have been millions of species on Earth that appear to have developed and survived without possessing an intelligence like humans, and there is no guarantee that creatures like humanity would develop elsewhere in the Cosmos. Scientists such as James E. Oberg have remarked that many stars are not suitable for life, being the wrong spectral type, or having life-spans too short for life to emerge. In this view, intelligent species are likely to be extremely rare in the universe. Indeed, it could be considered that rather than an unremarkable feature of the universe that requires no explanation beyond the operation of physical law, the emergence of humanity is profoundly remarkable and our ability to understand the Cosmos a feature that goes beyond mere mathematical coincidence.

Then there is Thomas Aquinas’ view that the creation of the universe from nothing necessarily meant that chance could not have been involved in its creation. For Aquinas, matter was subject to chance. However, as the universe was created from nothing, chance could not have been involved in the production of matter. Now Aquinas’ argument is contradicted somewhat by modern Cosmology, as Aquinas believed in the creation of a fully formed Cosmos with the different creatures, objects and phenomena within it specially and individually created. Modern Cosmology sees this more as a process of separation and distinction, in which the Ylem, the plasma created after the Big Bang, cooled and separated into normal matter, which then coalesced to form stars and galaxies. Nevertheless, as this process followed the rules established at the Big Bang, this process of separation, distinction and development was not the product of chance.

Similarly, Aquinas believed that the good order of the individual parts of the Cosmos, and the way they were put together to form a supremely good whole, was due to the distinct nature of the individual parts of the universe. This in itself, he argued, demonstrated that the good of the universe existed as a final cause of its production, the creation of its individual parts and their orderly relation to each other. This was supremely good, and was therefore not the result of chance.

Thus, the profound intelligibility of the Cosmos and its order, operating according to rational laws, and having been created from nothing, argues against chance as the ultimate cause of the cosmos.


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