Posts Tagged ‘Intelligent Design’

Sargon of Akkad and Nazis Join UKIP and Break It

December 8, 2018

Okay, let’s have some fun at the expense of the Kippers and the extreme right-wingers Gerard Batten has brought into the party. Right-wingers like Count Dankula, Tommy Robinson and Sargon of Akkad.

Sargon, Dankula, Tommy Robinson and UKIP

Count Dankula is the idiot, who taught his girlfriend’s dog to do the Nazi salute when he said ‘Sieg Heil!’ and ‘Gas the Jews’. He put it on YouTube, and then, unsurprisingly, got prosecuted for hate speech. I don’t think he’s actually a Nazi, just a prat, who thinks really tasteless, offensive ‘jokes’ are hilarious. Tommy Robinson is the founder of the EDL, and has been briefly involved with that other Islamophobic organization, PEGIDA UK. He used to belong to the BNP and has a string of criminal convictions behind him. These included a number for contempt of court after he was caught giving his very biased very of the proceedings outside the court building during the trial of groups of Pakistani men accused of being rape gangs. Technically, Robinson isn’t a formal member of the party. It’s constitution bars anyone, who has been a member of the racist right from joining it, which rules him out. But he has become a special advisor on Islam and prison reform to Batten.

Sargon of Akkad, whose real name is Carl Benjamin, is another YouTube personality and ‘Sceptic’. I think he used to be one of the atheist ranters on YouTube at the time when the New Atheism was on the rise with the publication of Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. Then a number of them, Sargon included, appear to have become tired of arguing for atheism and naturalism, and started talking about politics. This was from an extreme right-wing perspective, attacking feminism, Social Justice Warriors, anti-racism, immigration and socialism. Many of them appear to be Libertarians, or see themselves as ‘Classical Liberals’. This means their liberals only in the early 19th century sense of standing for absolute free trade and the total removal of the welfare state. Sargon’s one of these, although bizarrely he also describes himself as ‘centre left’. Which only makes sense to some of the equally bizarre individuals out there, who rant about how Barack Obama was a Communist.

The presence of these three characters at a recent UKIP conference was discussed in an article by the anti-racist, anti-religious extremism organization Hope Not Hate as proof that under Batten UKIP had very definitely moved to the Far Right. And Nigel Farage was apparently so concerned with this move a few days ago that he very publicly resigned from the party. And this naturally upset many long-time Kippers. One of them was a YouTube vlogger, whose channel is called People’s Populist Press. He posted this video four days ago on his channel bitterly attacking Sargon and the others he describes as ‘YouTube Nazi punks’ for ruining the party.

Kipper Official Tries to Dissuade Sargon from Joining

It seems, however, that some members of UKIP didn’t want Sargon to join. Not because they objected to his opinions, but because they were afraid that he and his followers wouldn’t take the party seriously. The Ralph Retort YouTube channel played a recording of a conversation between Sargon, his mate Vee, and an anonymous UKIP official arguing about whether or not Sargon should be allowed to join the party. I’m not putting this up, because I’m unsure of the Ralph Retort channel’s political orientation. Sargon’s not only upset left-wing YouTube controversialists like Kevin Logan, but also members of the extreme right, including the Nazi fanboys of Richard Spencer. The argument was also played by Oof Curator on his channel, about whom I have the same caveats.

From the conversation, it appears that the Kippers didn’t really want Benjamin in the party, because they wanted committed activists. Benjamin had said that he wanted to join the party simply to show his support and not to take a more active role. They were also concerned that his followers also weren’t taking politics seriously. The Kipper believed that most of Sargon’s followers on YouTube were people in the teens and early twenties. Sargon told him that the average age of his audience is 34. The Kipper accepted this, but stuck to his point that Benjamin’s followers don’t take it seriously. This included an incident when some of Sargon’s followers got drunk in a pub and started shouting ‘Free Kekistan’ at passing cars. Kekistan and Pepe the Frog are memes taken over by the Alt Right. They were originally the creation of a Latin American cartoonist, with absolutely no racist element. But they’ve been appropriated by the Nazi right, to the dismay of the cartoon’s creator, who now wants nothing to do with it. The Kipper contrasted the flippancy of Sargon’s followers with those of Tommy Robinson, who he believed would take UKIP seriously.

UKIP Factions

The argument also gave an insight into the deep divisions and delicate internal politics in UKIP. The Kipper official stated that UKIP’s made up of three different political groupings. There are Christian Social Conservatives. These are political Conservatives with traditional views on social morality, emphasizing the traditional family and condemning promiscuity and particularly homosexuality and gay rights. Then there are the Libertarians, who also free market Tories, but with liberal attitudes towards drug taking and sexuality, although some of these have moved away and become more traditional in the moral attitudes. And then there are the Social Democrats. This means Old Labour, standing for the nationalization of utilities but rejecting immigration, feminism, and gay rights. There are clearly strong divisions between the three groups, and the Kipper did not want this delicate balance disrupted by the mass influx of new members with very strong factional views. This was one of the Kipper’s concerns when Sargon tried to argue that he’d be an asset to the Kippers as when he, Dankula and another YouTuber joined, the party’s organization rose by 10,000. The Kipper responded to that by stating that raises the question of ‘brigading’, presumably meaning attempts to take over the party through the mass influx of supporters.

Sargon and Philosophical First Principles

The argument was also interesting for what it showed about the real depth of Sargon’s own political knowledge: actually quite shallow. Sargon’s despised by his opponents on both the Left and the Right for his intellectual arrogance. He’s been ridiculed for commonly responding to any of his opponent’s points by saying ‘That’s preposterous!’ and asking them if they’ve read John Locke or Immanuel Kant. The Kipper was impressed by Sargon’s support of property rights and popular sovereignty, which he had in common with the rest of the party, but was concerned about how Sargon derived his views of them. He asked him about first principles. Sargon replied that he got them from John Locke and the 18th century Swiss political theorist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, although the latter was ‘too continental’ for him. The Kipper responded by asking about the specific derivation of his support for natural rights, as argued by Locke. Sargon responded by saying that they’d been put there by the Creator. The Kipper then replied ‘Ah! You’re a theist!’ To which Sargon replied that he wasn’t, because ‘We don’t know who the Creator is.’ This is the line taken by the Intelligent Design crowd, who argue that evolution isn’t the product of Neo-Darwinian random mutation and natural selection, but the result of planned, intelligent intervention by a Creator. Sargon’s response is strange coming from an atheist, as for many Sceptics, Intelligent Design is simply another form of Creationism. ‘Creationism in a cheap tuxedo’, as one critic called it.

Sargon objected to the question about how he derived his support for natural rights on the ground that it didn’t matter. And I think he’s got a point. I’ve no doubt that the majority of people in the mass political parties probably don’t have a very deep understanding of the fundamental basis of the ideologies they hold. I doubt very many ordinary members of the Tory party, for example, have read Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France or the works of the 20th century Tory ideologue, Trevor Oakeshott. It’s probably particularly true of the Tories, as Roger Scruton, the Tory philosopher, said in his book on Conservatism in the 1980s that Tory ideology was largely silent, consisting of the unspoken emphasis on traditional views and attitudes. But clearly, the people at the top levels and some of the real activists in the political parties, including UKIP, do have a very profound understanding of the philosophical basis of their party and its views. And Sargon didn’t.

In fact, Sargon’s ignorance has become increasingly clear in recent months. There’s a notorious clip of him shouting down his opponent, Richard Carrier, in a debate on ‘SJWs’ or something like that at an atheist convention in America, Mythcon. Sargon is shown screaming at Carrier ‘No! No! Shut up! Just f***ing shut up!’ That went viral around the Net.

Racism and Views on Child Abuse

He’s also got some other, deeply offensive views. Sargon considers himself a civic, rather than ethno-nationalist. Which means he stands for his country’s independence but does not believe, contra the BNP, that only members of a specific ethnic group can really be its citizens. He appears to hold a very low view of Blacks, however. There’s a clip of him telling his extreme right-wing opponents to ‘Stop behaving like a bunch of N****rs!’ Quite.

There’s another clip of Sargon going around the Net of him apparently supporting paedophile. He was talking another YouTuber, who believed that underage sex was fine, and that the age of consent should be lowered to 12 or 14. When asked about the morality of adults having sex with underage children, Sargon responded ‘It depends on the child’. Which has naturally upset and outraged very many people.

Conclusions: Robinson and Sargon Will Damage and Radicalise UKIP

There are therefore a number of very good reasons why decent, anti-racist members of UKIP wouldn’t want him in their party. Sargon’s own popularity also appears to be declining, so that it’s now a very good question of how many people he will bring with him into UKIP. Furthermore, a number of people are going to leave with the departure of Farage, though he isn’t the non-racist figure he claims to be. The association of Tommy Robinson with Batten is going to drive people away, so that the party will become even more right-wing and much nastier.

The conversation between the Kipper and Sargon also shows that the party is in a very delicate position at the moment, with a very precarious balance of power between the various factions. As the Kipper official himself said, the only thing they have uniting them is Brexit. If that balance is upset, or the unifying factor of Brexit removed, the whole thing could well collapse in a mass of splits and infighting, like the various overtly Fascist groups have imploded over the years. It also shows that while some people on the extreme right have probably a far too high opinion of themselves and their intelligence, others, like the Kipper official, are genuinely bright and very well read and informed. Even in a party like UKIP, those people shouldn’t be underestimated.

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Karl Wilhelm Nageli and Purposeful Mutation

November 11, 2018

I found this very interesting piece on the 19th century biologist, Karl Wilhelm Nageli, and August Weismann in Richard L. Gregory’s Mind In Science (London: Penguin 1981). The modern theory of evolution, NeoDarwinism, is essentially a mixture of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection mixed with Mendelian genetics. Roughly speaking, it views evolution as proceeding through random mutations. These supply the variations in species on which natural selection works, weeding out those varieties that don’t help the species to survive. Those that do, or at least don’t stop it surviving, are preserved and retained. Thus the little alterations in the characteristics of different species are created, which gradually accumulate over millennia and millions of years to produce new species of creature.

Darwin, however, didn’t know about heredity, which was introduced into his evolutionary theory by Weismann. He had developed the germ plasm theory, which was the precursor to the modern theory of DNA, famously discovered by Crick and Watson. Darwin also didn’t know about mutations either. He believed that heredity was a blending of the characteristics of the parents. I’ve got a feeling this was one of the arguments his opponents may have used against his theory, and that Darwin probably recognized the weakness of his theory there. At the time Darwin proposed his theory of evolution, I don’t think he was properly able to account for the emergence of novel characteristics in living creatures, on which natural selection acted.

It was Karl Wilhelm Nageli, who did this by introducing mutations into evolutionary theory, while rejecting Darwin’s idea of Natural Selection. Unlike evolutionary biologists after him, however, Nageli believed that these mutations had a purpose. It was the Dutch biologist Hugo de Vries, who introduced Mendelian genetics and the variation of characteristics into Darwinian evolutionary theory. Gregory explains it thus:

Neo-Darwinism adds to Darwinian Natural Selection a theory of heredity, which is itself derived from the, at the time (and perhaps still), controversial writings of the German biologist August Weismann (1834-1914). His papers (1868-76), translated into English as Studies in the Theory of Descent, (1882) proposed properties of a germ plasm which are similar to the fundamental doctrine of molecular biology, that information can only genetically pass from coded DNA to messenger RNA, and not the other way round. This genetic ‘diode’ rejects Lamarckian inheritance of individually acquired knowledge, or adaptive behavior. But we jump ahead, for Darwin had no knowledge of genes or mutations of genes.

The concept of evolution by mutational jumps is due to a Swiss botanist, Karl Wilhelm Nageli (1817). Nageli however rejected Darwin’s theory, for he supposed that there is a purpose in the direction of the jumps. He is heavily criticized for failing to appreciate the significance of Mendel’s work. He was shown the manuscript of Mendel’s paper describing his experiments on the breeding of giant and dwarf peas; his lack of interest is supposed to have prevented the work becoming known so that genetics was held up by some fifty years. Nageli’s concept of mutational jumps, but without built-in directional purpose, was developed by De Vries early in the present century.

Gregor Johan Mendel (1822-84) was an Augustinian monk. At the Abbey of St Thomas in Brunn, [Brno] he carried out his plant-breeding experiments, which depended on counting the proportions of tall and dwarf peas obtained by self-pollination. He found that the varieties did not converge to a medium-height pea plant, but that the tall and dwarf characteristics were maintained, and potentially present, in each variety. This was immensely important for Darwin’s theory, but unfortunately Darwin never came to hear of it.

The mutation theory was developed by the Dutch botanist Hugo De Vreis (1848-1935) who approached Mendel’s discovery by seeing that something like it was needed to give the variataion necessary for Natural Selection. He proposed that different characteristics might vary independently, and recombine in different ways. So was born the atomic-characteristic theory of inheritance, which later was embodied in gene and chromosome code structures – from which in turn developed modern molecular biology with the discovery by Francis Crick (b. 1916) and James Watson (b. 1928) of the structure of the long helical molecules of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). This, by replication, gives the physical basis of inheritance. Random change of the DNA structure give the variation necessary for Natural Selection. The drama of this discovery is superbly presented by Watson in The Double Helix (1968). (pp. 170-1).

Back in the 1980s, the astronomers Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe attacked Darwinian evolutionary theory in their book, Evolution from Space. In their previous book, Life Cloud, they had argued that life on Earth was seeded on Earth from space. While it’s an unorthodox theory, many scientists do believe that such panspermia, as it’s called, is a possibility. And the amino acids which form the basic building blocks of organic life has been found in meteorites, on Saturn’s moon, Titan, and in the nebulae, the clouds of dust and gas in space. What is far more controversial, and has been rejected by nearly all scientists, is their theory in Evolution from Space that the chance of organic life arising on Earth, and developing through Darwinian evolution, is so minute that evolution has to be directed by alien civilisations seeding space with the necessary genetic material.

In one passage in Evolution from Space, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe take the incidence of mutations in every generation, only a minority of which could be beneficial, and the combined length of time from the split, early in our evolutionary history, between the hominid lineage and the common ancestor of chimpanzees and gorillas 9 million years to argue that even this amount of time is insufficient to produce modern Homo Sapiens Sapiens, modern humanity. I’ve no doubt that this was immensely controversial and has been widely criticized and dismissed. It’s been taken up again more recently by the Intelligent Design people. And it wasn’t the weirdest of Hoyle’s and Wickramasinghe’s ideas. I think they also believed that the civilisations seeding this genetic material were computers in parallel universes. But if they are right after all, and random mutation can’t account for the development of the vast variety of living creatures we see around us, then it may be that it proceeds through purposeful mutations after all.

Going back to Nageli, even if his own theory of evolution has been discarded except for the idea of mutational jumps, I would far, far rather believe that evolution and the mutations necessary for it were shaped and guided by a loving creator, than are simply the result of blind chance as describes by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Blind Watchmaker.

Books on God and Religion

March 17, 2018

On Thursday, Jo, one of the great commenters to this blog, asked my a couple of questions on the nature of the Almighty, which I tried to answer as best I could. I offered to put up here a few books, which might help people trying to explore for themselves the theological and philosophical ideas and debates about the nature of God, faith, religion and so on. I set up this blog about a decade and a half ago to defend Christianity against attacks by the New Atheists. I don’t really want to get sidetracked back there, because some of these issues will just go on forever if you let them. And I’m far more concerned to bring people of different religions and none together to combat the attacks by the Tories and the Blairites on the remains of the welfare state, the privatisation of the NHS, and the impoverishment and murder of the British public, particularly the disabled, in order to further enrich the corporate elite. Especially as the Tories seem to want to provoke war with Russia.

But here are some books, which are written for ordinary people, which cover these issues, which have helped me and which I hope others reading about these topics for themselves will also find helpful.

The Thinker’s Guide to God, Peter Vardy and Julie Arliss (Alresford: John Hunt Publishing 2003)

This book is written by two academics from a Christian viewpoint, and discusses the Western religious tradition from Plato and Aristotle. It has the following chapters

1. Thinking About God – Plato and Aristotle
2.The God of the Philosophers
3. The God of Sacred Scripture
4. Religious Language
5. The Challenge of Anti-Realism
6. Arguments for the Existence of God
7. The Attributes of God
8. Life After Death
9. Miracles and Prayer
10. Jesus, the Trinity, and Christian Theology
11. Faith and Reason
12 Attacks on God, Darwin, Marx and Freud
13 God and Science
14 Quantum Science, Multi-Dimensions and God

God: A Guide for the Perplexed, Keith Ward, (Oxford: OneWorld 2003)

1. A Feeling for the Gods
God, literalism and poetry, A world full of Gods, Descartes and the cosmic machine, Wordsworth and Blake, the gods and poetic imagination, Conflict among the gods, Friedrich Schleiermacher: a Romantic account of the gods; Rudolf Otto: the sense of the numinous; Martin Buber: life as meeting, Epilogue: the testimony of a secularist.

2. Beyond the gods
Prophets and seers; The prophets of Israel and monotheism; Basil, Gregory Palamas and Maimonides: the apophatic way; Thomas Aquinas: the simplicity of God; The five ways of demonstrating God; Pseudo-Dyonysius the Areopagite; The doctrine of analogy; Three mystics.

3. The Love that moves the sun
The 613 commandments; Pigs and other animals; the two great commandments; The Ten Commandments; Jesus and the Law; Calvin and the Commandments, Faith and works; Theistic morality as fulfilling God’s purpose; Kant, the categorical imperative and faith, God as creative freedom, affective knowledge and illimitable love.

4. The God of the Philosophers

God and Job; Plato and the gods; the vision of the Good; Appearance and Reality; Augustine and creation ex nihilo, Aristotle and the Perfect Being; Augustine and Platonism; Anselm and Necessary Being; Evil, necessity and the Free Will defence; Creation as a timeless act; Faith and understanding.

5. The Poet of the World

The timeless and immutable God; The rejection of Platonism; Hegel and the philosophy of Absolute Spirit; Marx and the dialectic of history; Pantheism and panentheism; Time and creativity, The redemption of suffering; History and the purposive cosmos; Process philosophy; The collapse of the metaphysical vision.

6. The darkness between stars

Pascal: faith and scepticism; A.J. Ayer; the death of metaphysics; Scientific hypotheses and existential questions; Kierkegaard: truth as subjectivity; Sartre; freedom from a repressive God; Heidegger and Kierkegaard: the absolute
paradox; Tillich: religious symbols; Wittgenstein: pictures of human life; Religious language and forms of life; Religion and ‘seeing-as’; Spirituality without belief; Non-realism and God; The silence of the heart.

7. The personal ground of being

God as omnipotent person; The problem of evil; Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche: beyond good and evil; Omniscience and creative freedom; God: person or personal; Persons as relational; The idea of the Trinity; The revelatory roots of religion; Conclusion: Seven ways of thinking about God.

Bibliography

Teach Yourself Philosophy of Religion, by Mel Thompson, (London: HodderHeadline 1997)

Introduction
What is the philosophy of Religion?
Why study religion in this way?
What is involved?
The structure of this book
What this book aims to do.

1. Religious Experiences
Starting with experience
What happens when you experience something?
What is religious experience?
Induced religious experiences
Prayer
Conversion
Mysticism
Charismatic experiences
Revelation
Some features of religious experience
What can we know?
Authority and response
Conclusion

2.Religious Language
A private language?
Knowledge and description
Faith, reason and beliefs
The rational and the non-rational
Interpreting language
Cognitive and non-cognitive
Language games
The limitations of language

3. God: the concepts
God as creator
Eternal
Omnipotent
Omniscient
Transcendence and immanence
Theism, pantheism and panentheism
Atheism, agnosticism and secularism
Nietzsche: God is dead
Secular interpretations of God
A postmodernist interpretation
The Christian concept of God: the Trinity
Beliefs, language and religion
Saints?
Religious alternatives to theism
Basic beliefs

4. God: the arguments
The ontological argument
The cosmological argument
the teleological argument
the moral argument
the argument from religious experience
Conclusion

5. The Self
Bodies, minds and souls
Dualism
materialism
Idealism
Knowing our minds
Joining souls to bodies?
Identity and freedom
Freedom?
Life beyond death
Some conclusions

6. Causes, providence and miracles
Causes
Providence
Miracles
Summary

7. Suffering and evil
The challenge and the response
the problem
God as moral agent
Suffering and the major religions
Coming to terms with suffering
The devil and hell
Religion and terrorism
Summary

8. Religion and Science
The problem science poses for religion
the key issues
the changing world view
the methods of science and religion
the origin of the universe
evolution and humankind
Some conclusions

9. Religion and ethics
Natural law
Utilitarianism
absolute ethics
Morality and facts
How are religion and morality treated?
Values and choices
Conclusion

Postcript, Glossary, Taking it Further

God and Evolution: A Reader, ed. by Mary Kathleen Cunningham (London: Routledge 2007)

Part One
Methodology

1. Charles Hodge ‘The Protestant Rule of Faith’
2. Sallie McFague ‘Metaphor’
3. Mary Midgley ‘How Myths work’
4. Ian G. Barbour ‘The Structures of Science and Religion’.

Part Two
Evolutionary Theory

5. Charles Darwin, ‘On the origin of species
6. Francisco J. Ayala ‘The Evolution of life as overview
7. Michael Ruse ‘Is there are limit to our knowledge of evolution?

Part Three
Creationism

6. Genesis 1-2
7. Ronald J. Numbers ‘The Creationists’.

Part Four
Intelligent Design

10. William Paley ‘Natural Theology’
11. Michael J. Behe ‘Irreducible complexity: Obstacle to Darwinian Evolution’
12. Kenneth R. Miller, ‘Answering the biochemical argument from Design

Part Five
Naturalism

13. Richard Dawkins, ‘The Blind Watchmaker’
14. Richard Dawkins, ‘God’s utility function’
15. Daniel C. Dennett, ‘God’s dangerous idea’
16. Mary Midgley, ‘The quest for a universal acid’
17. Michael Ruse, ‘Methodological naturalism under attack’.

Part Six
Evolutionary Theism

18. Howard J. Van Till, ‘The creation: intelligently designed or optimally equipped?’
19. Arthur Peacock, ‘Biological evolution-a positive theological appraisal’
20. Jurgen Moltmann, ‘God’s kenosis in the creation and consummation of the world’.
21 Elizabeth A. Johnson, ‘Does God play dice? Divine providence and chance’.

Part Seven:
Reformulations of Tradition

22. John F. Haught, ‘Evolution, tragedy, and cosmic paradox’
23. Sallie McFague, ‘God and the world’
24. Ruth Page, ‘Panentheism and pansyntheism: God is relation’
25. Gordon D. Kaufman, ‘On thinking of God as serendipitous creativity’.

Vox Political: Kipper and Conservative MP Douglas Carswell in Row with Scientists over Tides

September 20, 2016

This piece by Mike over at Vox Political is a real gem, as it encapsulates the profound anti-intellectualism and sheer bone-headed stupidity of the Tories and the Kippers. Mike has posted up a piece commenting on a report in the Independent that Douglas Carswell, the former Tory and now Kipper MP for Clacton, has got into a row with Britain’s scientists over the origins of tides. Conventional science holds that they’re caused by the Moon. Carswell, however, believes they’re caused by the Sun, and has challenged a top scientist at Sussex University’s Science Policy Research Unit over the issue.

The report also notes that this bizarre claim was made after Michael Gove declared that the British people were tired of experts after he failed to name one economist, who thought that Brexit would be good for Britain.

The title of Mike’s piece just about sums up the astonishment Carswell’s claim must cause in everybody, who has any idea about science: Both Tories and Kippers Have Made Douglas Carswell an MP. Read This and Asky Why?

Both Tories and Kippers have made Douglas Carswell an MP. Read this and ask: Why?

Quite. If you’re wondering whether the Moon does cause tides, Mike over in his piece has a clip of Brian Cox explaining the phenomenon.

I’ve a feeling that as far back as the ancient Greeks, it was known that the Moon caused tides. Certainly the great medieval philosopher and scientist Robert Grosseteste of Lincoln knew about it in the Twelfth century. As he was writing several centuries before Isaac Newton discovered the Law of Gravity, Grosseteste believed that they were caused by the Moon’s magnetism, rather than its gravitational effect on Earth. Still, you can’t expect too much of the people of that period, when science was still very much in its infancy. But it nevertheless shows the astonishing advances the people of the Middle Ages were capable of, simply using the most primitive of equipment, observation, and the power of their minds.

This simple fact, that the Moon causes the Earth’s tides, has been put in thousands of textbooks on astronomy and space for children since at least the beginning of mass education and popular science. Astronomy has been a popular hobby for amateurs since at least beginning of the 20th century, and I’ve no doubt probably as far back as the 19th. Generations of children have had the opportunity to learn that the Moon causes tides, along with other interesting and fascinating facts about space. Carswell, however, is clearly the exception, having rejected all that.

It all brings to my mind the conversation Blackadder has with Tom Baker’s bonkers sea captain, Redbeard Rum, in the epdisode ‘Potato’ from the comedy show’s second series. Trying to impress Good Queen Bess by sailing abroad as explorers, Blackadder, Percy and Baldrick plan to fake their expedition by sailing round and round the Isle of Wight instead until they get dizzy. They get lost instead as Rum believes it is possible to sail a ship without a crew. When they ask him if you really can, Rum replies, ‘Opinion is divided.’
‘So who says you don’t?’
‘Me.’
‘So who says you do?’
‘Everybody else.’
‘Bugger!’

Quite.

This exactly describes Carswell’s attitude to space physics. Everybody else believes the Moon causes the tides, except him. I can see this causing yet another panic amongst scientists and ‘science educators’. Way back around 2009, the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, various scientists like Richard Dawkins were running around demanding better science education because polls showed a majority of the British public didn’t believe in it. This was partly a response to the growth in Creationism and Intelligent Design, though both of these views of evolution have had a very limited impact over here in Britain. That controversy seems to have quietened down, though the issue of the continuing need for improved science education has carried on with the persistence denial of climate change and anthropogenic global warming by the Right in both America and Britain. One of the sceptics of global warming and climate change over on this side of the Pond is Nigel Lawson. He’s even written a book about it, which I found the other day in another of Cheltenham’s secondhand book shops. Now that Carswell’s made this statement about the tides, which flies in the face of everything scientists have known since blokes like Aristotle, it wouldn’t surprise me if today’s leading science communicators, like Dawkins, Robert Winston, Alice Roberts, Brian Cox and the rest of them started worrying about this issue as well. And I wouldn’t blame them if they did.

As for Gove’s comment that ‘People in Britain are fed up of experts’, this also reminds me another comment by the American comedian, Bill Hicks. ‘Do I detect an air of anti-intellectualism in this country? Seems to have started about 1980 [the year Reagan was elected].’

If you’re worried that the Tories and UKIP don’t understand science, and are going to take us back to the Dark Ages, be afraid: you’re right. And heaven help the rest of us with them in charge.

UKIP, Islamophobia and the Loud Atheism Website

April 18, 2015

On Thursday, Hope Not Hate published a piece UKIP’s Stretford & Urmston Candidate Thinks Islam is “Despicable” reporting that Kalvin Chapman, the UKIP parliamentary candidate for Stretford and Urmston, Kalvin Chapman, had posted a comment on the ‘Loud Atheism’ Facebook page attacking Islam. He described it as a ‘despicable’ and ‘f***ed up’.

The article’s at http://www.hopenothate.org.uk/ukip/ukip-s-stretford-urmston-candidate-thinks-islam-is-despicable-4397, if you want to see it.

Now I have the impression that this is pretty much par for the course for much of the ‘New Atheist’ movement. This is the form of organised atheism that emerged in late decade, led by Richard Dawkins, Sue Blackmore, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel C. Dennett. The movements critics have pointed out that by and large the New Atheism didn’t have any new arguments, except perhaps an extension of Darwinian theory to try and explain religious belief. In the case of Sue Blackmore and Daniel C. Dennett, it had an extremely reductive view of human consciousness that saw it as being nothing more than a series of biological computer programmes. Sue Blackmore in particular took this to its most logically absurd extent and denied consciousness actually existed.

If the arguments were largely the same, traditional arguments used against religious belief and organised religion, the presentation was quite different. It was much more vicious, vitriolic and intolerant. Atheist movements in the past have persecuted organised religion. Religious belief in the former Communist bloc was severely limited and fiercely persecuted, with religious believers killed or sent to forced labour camps. In the former Soviet Union the penalty for holding a religious service in your own home would see you arrested and your house demolished.

The older, atheist tradition in the West could be much more genteel. Angry revolutionaries like the Surrealist film-maker Bunuel and his counterparts could and did make blasphemous films and art attacking organised religion in general and Roman Catholicism in particular. In the 1950s they held a mock trial of the Roman Catholic church in a disused church just outside Paris, while the Surrealists’ leader, Andre Breton, wrote an article denouncing recent attempts to combine surrealism with Christianity, entitled ‘To Your Kennels, Curs of God’.

Against this, there were atheist intellectuals like A.J. Ayer and Ludovik Kennedy, who were much less personally abusive. Kennedy when he appeared on Mark Lamarr’s chat show, Lamarr’s Attacks, in the 1990s, was courteous and polite. A.J. Ayer became friends with a Jesuit priest after having a Near Death Experience choking on a piece of fish in hospital. It didn’t make him become a religious believer, but the incident does show that people of differing and opposed religious views needn’t be personal enemies.

The New Atheism, by contrast, was much more aggressive, with a far greater use of invective. Rather than merely being attacked intellectually, religious and religious belief should be actively discouraged and given much less tolerance. Richard Dawkins has been quoted by his critics as saying that religious believers should be humiliated and shamed into abandoning their beliefs.

The result of this is that some atheist websites have a reputation for abuse and invective, like P.Z. Myers’ The Panda’s Thumb, set up to defend evolution from creationism, and Raving Atheism. I was warned off the latter by a friend, who said it was just atheists being extremely blasphemous and abusive for the sake of it.

To be fair, this approach has its critics from within the atheist movement, many of whom are genuinely shocked at how extreme and bitterly intolerant the New Atheist rhetoric is. A few years ago one atheist writer published an article in one of the papers actually saying that Richard Dawkins’ made him ashamed to be an atheist. And within the last couple of years in particular a strain of Islamophobia has emerged within the New Atheist movement. Again, this has been exemplified by Richard Dawkins, who become the subject of further controversy because of his posts and tweets attacking Islam, particularly the low status of women in Islamic countries and Female Genital Mutilation. Chapman’s comments about Islam are part of this strand of New Atheism.

And the fear of Islam, or at least radical Islamism, may have been one of the catalysts of the New Atheism from the start. I was talking to a friend of mine a while ago about the origins of the New Atheism. I thought it was a reaction to the growth of Creationism and Intelligent Design, which recognises the emergence of new species over time, but claims this is due to the intervention of intelligent agencies, rather than the mechanism of random mutation and natural selection, suggested by Neo-Darwinian theory. I also wondered if it was also due to the accession to the Presidency of George ‘Dubya’, an Evangelical Christian, and the increasing power and influence of the Christian religious right in American politics.

My friend took a different view. He believed it was a reaction to 9/11 and the rise of aggressive Islamic terrorist movements, like al-Qaeda, and radical and aggressive Islamic political movements within the largely secular West, such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir. He stated that some of Atheists’, Agnostics’ and Secularists’ Societies set up on university campus in practice were little more than anti-Islam societies.

Now I don’t know how true this is. The AAS at Bristol University did not seem to be particularly interested in Islam, only in attacking religion in general. The events and lectures it organised seemed generally disrespectful, such as a social evening in which members were encouraged to dress up as their favourite religious figure. One of their lectures was a general account of traditional, religious beliefs about the creation of the world from antiquity onwards.

Now I do believe that if you are going to criticise religion, then this should extend to all religions, rather than just Christianity as the former majority, mainstream religion of the West. However, in the case of Islam at the moment, such criticism has become extremely dangerous. It can easily lead to the persecution of innocents, including racist attacks and the demonization of Islam generally because of the atrocities committed by the Islamist militants. This in turn may fuel the alienation and resentment in Muslim communities, and further the Islamists’ goal of their further radicalisation.

In the case of Chapman, I’m not surprised that his post against Islam was particularly splenetic, given the title of the website on which it was posted. What is worrying is that it comes from a prospective parliamentary candidate for a party that has developed a reputation for racism and a bitter hostility to Islam.

Have Scientists from Sheffield University Found Life from Outer Space?

September 19, 2013

A team of scientists from Sheffield University believe that they may have discovered extraterrestrial life. According to this story on MSN News http://news.uk.msn.com/uk/has-life-from-space-just-accidentally-arrived-on-earth/ a group from the University’s department of molecular biology and biotechnology under Professor Milton Wainwright sent a balloon 27 km up into the stratosphere during the recent Perseid meteor shower. The balloon was launched from Chester and came down near Wakefield. The balloon carried microscope studs, which were set to open between 22 and 27 km above the Earth. To ensure that the results were not contaminated by organisms from the Earth’s surface, the equipment was sterilised before it was launched.

When it returned, it was found that the studs had collected a variety of microscopic organisms. Some were diatoms, a form of algae, along with more unusual life-forms. Prof Wainwright said “It is generally accepted that a particle of the size found cannot be lifted from Earth to heights of, for example, 27km. In the absence of a mechanism by which large particles like these can be transported to the stratosphere, we can only conclude that the biological entities originated from space. Our conclusion then is that life is continually arriving to Earth from space. Life is not restricted to this planet and it almost certainly did not originate here. If life does continue to arrive from space then we have to completely change our view of biology and evolution. New textbooks will have to be written!”

Disease Space

The team’s finding appears to corroborate the highly controversial views of the origin and evolution of life on Earth of the late Sir Fred Hoyle and his colleague, Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe. Panspermia is the theory that life originated in space and later colonised Earth. It was first put forward in the 19th century by the Swedish astronomer, Svante Aarhenius. In the late 1970s and early ’80s Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe wrote a series of books Lifecloud (London: Dent 1978), Diseases from Space (London: Sphere 1979) and Evolution from Space (London: J.M. Dent 1981), reviving and expanding the theory. They suggested that not only had life come to Earth from space, but that it was viruses and bacteria continued to arrive from space to infect humans and another creatures here on Earth.

Most controversially, they suggested in the last book that Darwin’s theory of evolution was inadequate to explain the evolution of the Earth’s creatures. They argued that the process of evolution was actually too rapid to be cause by what they viewed as they slow processes of Natural Selection operating on random mutation. They considered instead that evolution was actually driven through viruses and other genetic material entering and mutating terrestrial organisms from space. More speculatively still, they suggested that the seeding of such genetic material on Earth was done deliberately by advanced extraterrestrial civilisations. They suggested that these would artificial, machine intelligences from another cosmos in the multiverse. Their theory that evolution has been consciously directed is extremely similar to Intelligent Design, proposed and supported by the mathematicians and scientists William Dembski and Michael Behe. Most of the supporters of Intelligent Design are religious, and the theory has been severely attacked as a form of Creationism.

Evolution Space

This is not the first time a scientific balloon has returned from the stratosphere containing what was suggested was extraterrestrial microbial life. A few years a balloon sent up by scientists in India returned to Earth with red slime. Like Prof Wainwright, the Indian scientists believed this material had been collected from too high an altitude for it to have come from the Earth. They came to the conclusion that it must therefore have come from space. Fred Hoyle died twenty or so years ago in the 1990s. The media did contact Chandra Wickramasinghe, who was then working at Cardiff University, if I recall correctly. Prof Wickramasinghe was delighted that there was now further evidence to support his and Sir Fred’s theory.

Meanwhile, Prof Wainwright’s team intend to repeat the experiment in October, when there is a meteor shower associated with Halley’s Comet. This will spread further cosmic dust. If the balloon returns again with similar material, it will confirm the team’s theory.

All this is fascinating and highly controversial. I don’t think, however, there’s any remote chance of them finding anything like the horrific extraterrestrial disease in Michael Creighton’s book and film, The Andromeda Strain.

Huxley: Evolution Does Not Rule Out Teleology

May 9, 2013

Not only did Darwin’s Bulldog, Thomas Huxley, argue that evolution did not necessarily lead to atheism, he also considered that it did not entirely rule out teleology. He considered that it demolished the older teleological view, that organisms possessed particular organs for a particular function. Nevertheless, he felt that evolution left untouched a wider teleological view, that viewed the structure of living creatures as flowing from the forces and patterns of molecules contained in the gaseous nebula of the primordial universe. He also noted that William Paley, the great defender of special creation, had stated in his Natural Theology that creatures could be produced through a series of mechanical processes established and maintained by an intelligence. Huxley wrote:

‘A second very common objection to Mr. Darwin’s views was (and is) that they abolish Teleology, and eviscerate the argument from design. It is nearly twenty years since I ventured to offer some remarks on this subject, and as my arguments have as yet received no refutation, I hope I may be excused for reproducing them. I observed “that the doctrine of Evolution is the most formidable oppoent of all the commoner and coarser forms of Teleology. But perhaps the remarkable service tot he philosophy of Biology rendered by Mr. Darwin is the reconciliation of Teleology and Morphology, and the explanation of the facts of both, which his views offer. The teleology which supposes that the eye, such as we see it in man, or one of the higher vertebrata, was made with the precise structure it exhibits, for the purpose of enabling the animal which possesses it to see, has undoubtedly received its death-blow. Nevertheless, it i snecessary to remember that there is a wider teleology which is not touched by the doctrine of Evolution, but is actually based upon the fundamental proposition of Evolution. This proposition is that the whole worle, living and not living, is the result of the mutual interaction, according to definite laws, of the forces possessed by the molecules of which the primitive nebulosity of the universe was composed. If this be true, it is no less certain that the existing world lay pontentially in the cosmic vapour, and that a suifficient intelligence could, from a knowledge of th eproperties of the molecules of that vapour, have predicted, say the state of the fauna of Britain in 1869, whcih as much certainty as one can say what will happen to the vapour of the breath on cold winter’s day …

‘… The teleological and mechanical views of nature are not, necessarily, mutually exclusive. On the contrary, the more purely a mechanist the speculator is, the more firmly does he assume a primordial molecular arrangement of which all the phenomena of the universe are the consequences, and the more completely is he thereby at the mercy of the teleologist, who can always defy him to disprove that this primoridal molecular arrangement was not intended to evolve the phenomena of the universe.”

‘The acute champion of Teleology, Paley, saw no difficulty in admitting that the “production of things” may be the result of trains of mechanical dispositions fixed before hand by intelligent appointment and kept in action by a power at the centre, that is to say, he proleptically accepted the modern doctrine of Evolution; and his successors might do well to follow their leader, or at any rate to attend to his weighty reasonings, before rushing into an antagonism that has no reasonable foundation’.

Now Huxley here appears to assume a Newtonian ‘clockwork’ universe, in which the action of every atom is predetermined and one could predict the future state of the cosmos by observing the pattern of atoms and the interactions in the present. This conception of the cosmos has been seriously challenged by quantum physics and its discovery that atoms and sub-atomic particles follow probabilistic laws. The late palaeontologist and writer on evolution, Steven Jay Gould, denmied that the pattern of life was predetermined. He believed that if the history of the Earth was replayed, then it would be completely different with entirely new creatures arising. The Roman Catholic theologian, John F. Haught, in his God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, has nevertheless argued that evolution is teleological, in that new, higher forms of life have successively appeared from more primitive forms. Alister McGrath, in his Darwinism and Divine, also notes modern philosophers and theologians who have argued that God could act in nature to create new forms precisely through quantum indeterminacy. Thus Huxley, and some contemporary theologians and scientists, still consider that evolution is still teleological. For these contemporary theologians, God is still acting in the world, shaping His creatures through the evolutionary process. It’s a view that Paley was prepared to accept. This also means that Paley’s conception of special creation could also extend into something like modern Intelligent Design theory. Huxley was an opponent of special creation, but he did not argue, and indeed respected Paley, for considering the possibility of evolution, even if Paley believed that it was driven by a divine intelligence.

Sources

John F. Haught, God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (Boulder: Westview Press 2008)

Thomas Henry Huxley, ‘ON the Reception of the Origin of Species’ (London, 1887), in D.C. Goodman, ed., Science and Religious Belief 1600-1900: A Selection of Primary Sources (Dorchester: John Wright and Sons/ The Open University 1973) 455-82.

Alister E. McGrath, Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell 2011).

Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero Pt. 2

April 29, 2013

Yesterday saw the last part of Bill Bailey’s programme exploring the work of the Victorian explorer, Alfred Russell Wallace, and his independent discovery of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. The show followed Wallace’s expedition through Indonesia, Malaya and Sarawak collecting specimens, and the creatures that spurred his discovery of the motor of evolution. In Darwin’s case, this was the famous finches he found in the Galapagos islands. In Wallace’s case, it was the different varieties of macaque and a species of tree-climbing kangaroo. Bailey pointed out the dividing line in that part of the eastern Pacific dividing the types of animals in that part of the world. Still called the Wallace Line after him, it separated animals characteristic of Indonesia and Malaya to the east, while to the west were those of Australia. The macaques Wallace found in the rest of the Indonesian and Malayan islands were grey with tales. On the island of Ternate, they were black without tails. They also had a tuft of hair which Bailey described as a mohican. In a piece of self-deprecating humour Bailey posed for the cameras, showing the apparent similarity between his own features and those of the macaques. Like David Attenborough with the gorillas in Life on Earth way back in 1979, Bailey seemed to get on well with primates. He sat very still while the macaques came up to him, investigated and sniffed him, and accepted him as one of their own. In the Australian ecological zone, Wallace discovered the tree-climbing kangaroos. With their smaller front paws and large hind legs, these animals weren’t well adapted to the arboreal existence. The programme showed a few of them gingerly making their way up the trees, with several mis-steps. This conflicted with the Natural Theology of the day, which, according to the programme, declared that each species of animal had been separately created. When the environment changed, and the animals died out, God simply created a new species of that particular animal which was better suited to its environment. Wallace also noted that some of the animals on different islands differed strongly from their cousins elsewhere. Looking at maps of the sea depth in the Indonesian and Malayan achipelagos near Irian Jaya, he theorised that whwere the sea was shallow there were once land bridges allowing species to cross from one island to another. The ease of access between 5these islands meant that these species remained closely related. The much deeper waters around the other islands meant that these islands were colonised by castaways, which drifted there. Cut off from the rest of the world, the creatures there evolved into markedly more different forms. The question remained of the actual motor of evolution, the process that brought these species into being. A bout of acute malarial fever led Wallace to remember Malthus’ Theory of Population, and he realised that quite small differences in an animal’s constitution could give it an advantage in the struggle for existence, such as larger eyes for finding insects in the case of lemurs. He thus discovered Natural Selection.

Attempt to Restore Wallace to Prominence with Darwin

Bailey was keen to take his hero out from under Darwin’s shadow, and the shadow the maneouvering that had taken place to make sure Darwin was not pre-empted by Wallace. Wallace was delighted when Darwin accepted him as one of his collectors. However, when Wallace sent Darwin a letter discussing his activities and his formation of a new theory of evolution, Darwin sent a polite reply telling him that he was working on his own, and implying that he should stay away in the tropics and not hurry back. When Wallace sent Darwin his letter outlining his theory of Natural Selection, Darwin was shaken. He had spent the last eight years working on barnacles to support his own theory, which he still had not published. Quickly consulting his friends, including the geologist Charles Lyell, Darwin decided to rush his own account, The Origin of Species, into print. He also read out a paper he wrote on evolution to a meeting of the Royal Society with Wallace’s paper. He did not ask Wallace’s permission, and Wallace was not even aware this had occurred until he returned to Britain. Bailey stated that, depending on your point of view, it was either a delicate compromise or a highly shameful episode.Nevertheless, after over a century of undeserved relative obscurity, Wallace was being accorded the honour that rightfully was his. At a meeting in the Natural History Museum, Bailey unveiled a portrait of the great man to hang alongside Darwin’s statue.

Bailey and Wallace in Ternate

It was a fascinating programme. As I said in my review of the first episode, Bailey is an affable, knowledgable host. Not only did the programme have some superb footage of the animals in Indonesia and Malaya, it also showed some equally interesting episodes with the human inhabitants of these islands. Bailey attempted to recreate the style of Wallace’s expedition, including what he ate, and his historic meeting with one of the countries’ rulers. When on his expedition, Wallace was forced to eat what he found in the rainforest. Thus, in another moment worhty of Ray Mears, he was shown eating a fruit bat. Bailey picked delicately at it, while his Indonesian hosts downed it with gusto. Wallace had had to get the permission of the Sultan of Ternate before he could travel there on his collecting mission. So Bailey also sought an audience with his highness. He therefore appeared outside the Sultan’s palace dressed in white linen suit, cravat and panama hat, while liveried courtiers and guards ushered him in. Eventually he was allowed into the Sultan’s presence. As you’d probably expect, the Sultan himself spoke excellent English, and was voluble on the subject of Wallace. Wallace himself appears to have been the subject of local pride.
In a street near the waterfront Bailey found a mural of the eminent Victorian on the wall of a building. Beneath it, in Indonesian, was the legend ‘Alfred Russell Wallace, Ternate scientist born England’. Ternate clearly viewed him as one of their own.

Victorian Society Increasingly Inclined towards Evolution not Mentioned

It was an excellent programme, but as I mentioned in my previous post, I have a few, major objections to it. Firstly, it didn’t mention how Wallace’s theory differed from Darwin’s. Unlike Darwin, Wallace believed that evolution was teleological, working towards higher and better forms of life. He also believed that human intelligence and our moral sense could not have been shaped by Natural Selection, but were the result of the intervention of spiritual entities. The programme stressed that Wallace’s theory was in conflict with Natural Theology and the scientific and religious establishment. It did not mention how scientific and theological opinion in Britain was actually turning away from Natural Theology and embracing evolution. I mentioned some of the reasons for this in my last blog post on the subject. In addition to these there was the influence of John Henry, later Cardinal Newman. Natural Theology was closely associated with William Paley, whose book was the major work on the subject at the time. Paley, however, was linked with the Benthamite Utilitarians. By the 1840s there was a reaction against Utilitarian philosophy. Newman rejected Natural Theology as it reduced the existence and operation of the Lord to a purely scientific question. At the time Darwin and Wallace were working, there was already a large body of opinion, both inside and outside the church, that was favourably inclined towards evolution.

Links between Darwin-Wallace Theory and Lamarckianism

The programme also claimed that ‘Natural Selection’ was a radical theory. This is also open to question. Some of the Lamarckians, like Geoffroy, were also including it as an evolutionary mechanism before Darwin and Wallace. The Lamarckians had also discovered the theory of ‘adaptive radiation’, in which different species emerge as the parent species spreads out to colonise new territories before Darwin. Darwin even had one of their books on his shelf on the Beagle. The programme did mention that an earlier letter Wallace had written about the subject was dismissed as ‘nothing new’. There is therefore the question of how novel Wallace’s and Darwin’s theories actually were. In the case Darwin’s theory, it was still quite Lamarckian as Darwin believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Subtext of Programme against Intelligent Design?

The other problem with the programme is that it seems to be subtly written against Intelligent Design. The view that God creates new, improved species after the extinction of their predecessors sounds close to the modern Intelligent Design view that new species are created through an intelligence generating or inserting new information into the genome. For theists, this intelligence is the Almighty, though the official ID position is that the identity of the Designer is unknown.

Medieval Natural Philosophers accepted Some Speciation due to Natural Forces

Now I have to say, I don’t know how prevalent this theory of speciation by divine action was at the time of Darwin. It sounds like the views of Richard Owen, the great Victorian naturalist whose statue used to stand in the Natural History Museum until ousted by Darwin four years ago. But previous generations of Natural Philosophers had also accepted that some speciation was due to natural forces. Ancient Greek anthropologists, including the medical authority Hippocrates, believed that the different races of humanity and their different temperaments were the result of differing climates and geographical influences. In the Middle Ages authorities such as the 15th century bishop of Paris, Pierre d’Ailly, stated that new species had emerged after the Flood when different animals moved into different environments. The types of animals were roughly fixed, but new species could arise from these types through natural, environmental influences. I have to say, I don’t know if this view was still current at the time of Darwin and Wallace, but it certainly had been present in evolutionary thought before them. It would have been good if the programme had mentioned this. In this case the programme looks less like a simple attempt to restore a forgotten Victorian scientific hero and more like another piece in the attack on Creationism and Intelligent Design.

Wallace still Scientifically Disreputable

As for Wallace himself, Bailey stated that there seemed to be still some reluctance to be seen mentioning him. He said that while he was making the series, he had various scientists sidle up to him saying, ‘If you want any information on Wallace, here’s my card’, while looking around to see that they were not overheard. Bailey wondered why it was that the great Victorian should still be seen as somewhat disreputable and a danger to the careers of contemporary scientists. Though the programme didn’t say it, this might have been due to the fact that Wallace’s own theory of evolution still left explicit room for the operation of the supernatural.

Bailey’s exploration of Wallace and his almost forgotten contribution to evolutionary theory was a fascinating programme, and well worth watching. But it omitted the larger debates on the nature of the evolutionary process and the growing willingness of parts of the Church to accept evolutionary theory in favour of a simplistic narrative of lonely outsider battling class prejudice and religious ignorance. I hope that future programmes on the development of evolutionary theory will correct this view, and do more to place Wallace, Darwin and their predecessors into the context of the wider changes in scientific and theological opinion of which they were apart.

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.

Darwin, Huxley, the Nazis and the Morality of Science

July 26, 2008

One of the most controversial features of Ben Stein’s documentary about the institutional persecution of those scientists who support Intelligent Design, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, is its statement of the origins of the Nazis’ racial ideology, which culminated in the Holocaust, in Darwinism. The film’s many critics have angrily denounced it for using the horrors of the Holocaust to suggest that Darwin or his followers could ever have been responsible for one of the most horrific atrocities of the 20th century. Yet to historians the link between Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection and the genocidal racism of the Nazis is entirely uncontroversial. Regardless of their religious views, historians of the 19th and 20th century, and particularly those of Fascism and Nazi Germany, have accepted that Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection was one factor in the rise of Nazism, along with a number of others such as Hegelian philosophy and Von Treitschke’s ideas of German racial superiority. The fact that Natural Selection, and specifically the doctrine of the ‘survival of the fittest’, was a part of Nazi racial theory doesn’t mean that Darwinism is necessarily wrong. It does, however mean that scientists, and those who base their political doctrines on their ideas, aren’t automatically the best judges of morality.

Immoral Radition Experiments Demonstration that Science Not Guide to Morality

This should be entirely uncontroversial, even a matter of common sense. In the 20th century scientists were often responsible for the perpetration of great horror and suffering in experiments that were grossly immoral, quite apart from the Holocaust. The disclosure in the 1990s that the American authorities had conducted a series of radiation experiments on members of the armed forces and civilians, often on the poorest and most disadvantaged members of society, caused a massive scandal. The fact that this occurred, not in a totalitarian state like Nazi Germany or Communist North Korea, but in America, a country whose people feel is the most democratic nation on Earth, whose constitution is one of the most profound statements of innate and inalienable human rights, was a profound shock. Quite possibly it further contributed to the alienation and distrust many Americans feel towards the state, a feeling of suspicion and paranoia that found its reflection in the X-Files on TV. Horrifically immoral experiments like these have no doubt contributed to the suspicion many people have of science as a potentially amoral, degrading and dehumanising enterprise in which living things and people are dispensable, to be experimented upon as scientists, bureaucrats and politicians wish, and whose suffering can be entirely disregarded in the greater interests of the state and science. Of course the vast majority of scientists are as moral as their fellow citizens, and rightly view such atrocities with condemnation and contempt. Nevertheless, these episodes possess the power to shock and appall because of science’s immense power, a power which can easily appear to some to give them the ability to behave as they wish, above the moral constraints of the rest of society, regardless of the harm, cruelty and suffering they may inflict.

Scientists Expected to be more Moral due to Great Power

Part of the problem here may also be that scientists are somehow expected to behave better, to be more moral, because of their greater insight into the nature of the physical world. The immense benefits created by science are obvious, and clearly the medical professionals engaged in treating and healing disease rightly enjoy immense respect. It’s therefore particularly shocking and disturbing when instead of healing and improving life, science is directed towards inflicting pain and destroying it. Hence the horror and disgust surrounding the Holocaust, and human experimentation in Nazi Germany, wartime Japan, America and elsewhere.

Enlightenment Claim that Philosophy and Science Superior to Religion as Guide to Morals

Part of the horror and intense controversy surrounding such scientific abuse may also derive from the fact that since the Enlightenment science, or its spokesmen, have attempted to claim for it a status as the only reliable guide to morality previously reserved for philosophy and religion. In the 18th century sceptical rationalist philosophers, such as Voltaire, Diderot and Bentham, believed that it was only through the application of human reason that society could be properly reformed, and a just social order created, in contrast to what they saw as the superstition and tyranny created and maintained in traditional European society. In the 19th century, Darwin’s greater defender, T.H. Huxley, strongly believed that science was far more moral, and would be a far better guide to morality, than tradition religious belief. Indeed, ‘Huxley argued at great length to prove that Darwinism would be a greater eithical force than Christinaity had ever been.’ 1 Huxley’s view of the superiority of science as a guide to ethics in contrast to the churches wasn’t unique. In Germany during the 19th century the medical materialism of part of the scientific establishment contributed to a large proportion of the membership of liberal and left-wing movements being composed of doctors and other scientists. These doctors and scientists felt that scientific materialism would create a far more moral society than the repressive society of contemporary Germany, with its feudal social order in which religion was an integral part of the political establishment.

Questions of morality have traditionally been the province of philosophy and religion. Philosophers and theologians down the centuries have devoted much effort in defining morality, and attempting to develop practical guides for moral conduct. This has not changed with the rise of science. While science clearly has a major role to play in suggesting practical solutions to major problems, such as in the eradication of pests or the role of disease, nevertheless moral questions themselves still remain the proper subject for philosophers and theologians. Similarly, whatever their skill as scientists, it does not mean that scientists are necessarily more moral than any other member of society. Insight in one area, such as physics or biology, does not give one a greater insight into the nature of evil or what constitutes the truly good life, any more than great skill in any other field of human endeavour.

Claim that Darwinism Superior Guide to Morality than Religion Partly Responsible for Rejection of Judaeo-Christian Humanitarianism

Moreover, by claiming that Darwinism was superior to Christianity and other forms of traditional religion, Huxley, and similar evolutionary biologists like Ernst Haeckel in Germany, made it possible for some scientists and laymen to disregard traditional Judaeo-Christian humanitarian concerns as unscientific and morally backward. And from the criticisms of Stein’s movie, Expelled, for mentioning that there was a link between Darwin’s theory and the Holocaust, it seems that Huxley made it extremely difficult for some to accept that Darwinian evolutionary theory played a role in the rise of Nazism. Now as I said, the fact that Darwinism was one of the influences on the emergence of Nazism does not mean that Natural Selection is wrong, or diminish Darwin’s achievement as a scientist. It simply means that science, including Darwinism, is by no means a reliable guide to morality, and that society, and science, still needs to be morally guided by philosophy and religion.

Similarity between Religious Views of Huxley and Hitler

Hitler probably derived his bizarre racial theories from German and Austrian Volkisch neo-pagan magazines like Ostara when he was a tramp in Vienna before the First World War. HItler’s own religious views were pantheistic, in which God was considered to be the sum total of the laws of the universe, in contrast to the personal God of Judaism and Christianity. In his Table Talk for the night of 11th to 12th of July 1941, Hitler stated

‘Man has discovered in nature the wonderfull notion of that all-mighty being whose law he worships.

Fundamentally in everyone there is the feeling for this all-mighty, which we call God (that is to say, the dominion of natural laws through the whole universe). The priests, who have always succeeded in exploiting this feeling, threaten punishments for theman who refuses to accept the creed they impose.’2

He also stated that progress lay in the discovery of those laws of nature and adherence to them. ‘In any case, we shall learn to become familiar with the laws by which life is governed, and acquaintance with the laws of nature will guide us on the path of progress.’ 3 Now living a life in harmony with nature and its laws had been a moral ideal since ancient Greece. In the 18th century Enlightenment philosophes such as Rousseau had also recommended it as part of their campaign to create a more moral and humane society. In the case of the Nazis, it became immoral and sinister through their conception of racial conflict and genocide as part of the laws of nature.

Huxley also seems to have shared this pantheistic conception of God, declaring that the Almighty as ‘the sum of the customs of matter.’ 4 Huxley and Darwin were certainly not Nazis, no matter how much the Nazis may have based their own racial ideology on the idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’. Nevertheless, it does seem to indicate that Hitler was influenced by the pantheistic religious views that evolutionary biologists such as Haeckel expounded, while he elsewhere rejected Huxley otherwise very traditional Victorian morality.

Conclusion: Holocaust Example of What May Happen When Judaeo-Christian Morality Rejected in the Name of Science and Continued Need for Jewish and Christian Morals in Science

While the influence of Darwinism, along with a number of other 19th century ideologies on the Nazis certainly does not mean that Darwinism is wrong, the suffering and carnage they inflicted, along with those of the Communist states, were an example of the horror that can result when traditional religion is rejected in favour of a totalitarian political ideology claiming a basis in science, considered as being morally far superior to religion and traditional religious morality. The holocaust, and similar atrocities are instead a demonstration that science has not superseded Judaeo-Christian morality, but indeed needs to be governed by it.

Notes

1. Harry Hearder, Europe in the Nineteenth Century, Second Edition (London, Longman 1988), p. 400.

2. Norman Cameron and R.H. Stevens, trans., Hitler’s Table-Talk: Hitler’s Conversations Recorded by Martin Bormann (Oxford, OUP 1953), p. 6.

3. Cameron and Stevens, Table-Talk, pp. 6-7.

4. Hearder, Europe, p. 399.