John Gray’s Poor Thinking on Dawkins

For a philosopher that likes to point out the nuances of the philosophy he thinks Dawkins misses out on, Gray is awfully sloppy with his own thinking – sloppy or malicious, possibly both.

“The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins – His atheism is its own kind of narrow religion”

In what way is Dawkins close minded? Closed to ideas that lack evidence to support them, Continue reading “John Gray’s Poor Thinking on Dawkins”

What do I believe ‘in’? Nothing.

I had a conversation with an atheist friend recently and I think we surprised each other.

Though an atheist she still felt she needed to believe in ‘something’, though she didn’t quite know in what; and to some extent she envied religious believers in that they had something to turn to, some belief. This surprised me, because though I know of some atheists who feel this way this was my first opportunity to hear it first hand. What surprised me more was her surprise at the nature my atheism. Continue reading “What do I believe ‘in’? Nothing.”

Empiricism, Materialism, Physicalism avoiding Solipsism

Great post on Reductionism over at Emil’s blog.

I wanted to respond to comments there by Peter and Brendan, and give my perspective on their points about solipsism, materialism, science, and how it all fits together for me. Turned out to be a long comment, so I thought I’d better post it here rather than intrude too much and go too far off-topic on Emil’s post. I’ve covered most of this before – links included below.

Peter asks, “How can anyone be sure that what they are experiencing, … In other words, what reason is there for me to refrain from becoming a committed solipsist?”

I’d say nothing is stopping you. I agree with Emil’s take on solipsism and other rationalist philosophies. But my personal perspective is that it boils down to a rational choice. Considering just solipsism v materialism, to some extent the choice is arbitrary. You could ask what the consequences would be in each case, comparing what is the case with what you think is the case:

1) Solipsism holds, and I choose to believe in solipsism. I’m not sure what I learn from this. It seems that I imagine the world, including you and this conversation. I acknowledge that it might be you that’s imagining me as part of your solipsistic experience, so that I’m a figment of your imagination. What I feel is me thinking is actually you thinking the thoughts in some subset of your solipsist consciousness. How do we tell which is which? Do we have any control over this? Instead of being a mind that imagines being a material life form on an imagined material earth, can I choose to switch arbitrarily to become a life form on the surface of the sun? I seem to be limited to imagine only the earthly being I appear to be. What if I walk in front of a bus. It’s only imagined, so will I simply continue as if I hadn’t? Our (mine or yours) solipsist experience seems to be limited by what seems like a material reality.

2) Solipsism holds, and I choose to believe in materialism. I can’t distinguish what actually happens here from (1), except perhaps I suffer less anguish over whether I am a constrained mind. Though I am a solipsist mind, I go along with the material illusion. Consequences?

3) Materialism holds, I believe in solipsism. Again, I’m not sure what the outcome might be. I could conceivably die trying to test my solipsist existence by attempting to defy gravity; or maybe I pick a fight in a dark alley somewhere. I’m not sure how I’d distinguish my mental experience here from being absorbed in a gaming system as some avatar. The physical reality might soon make itself known to my mental experience.

4) Materialism holds, I believe in materialism. No problem. Business as usual trying to figure out how all this works.

In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter if you choose solipsism. You have to do an awful lot of work to get anywhere it seems with solipsism other rationalisms, idealism, transcendence or theism. Lots of inner contemplation, meditation and maybe praying. But it seems you still need to eat. It is sometimes claimed by theists that there are no atheists in foxholes. This is clearly untrue. I’m much more convinced that there are no solipsists at lunch time.

I don’t know any committed solipsists. If I did it might be worth a charge of assault to punch one on the nose. Dr Johnson’s “I refute it thus”, while not an actual logical refutation, I do find his kicking a rock is still pretty convincing. Peter, if you’re visiting this post, do you actually know any committed solipsists yourself? Are you personally persuaded? Your answers might in part answer your own original question.

My route from Cartesian doubt to empiricism, avoiding solipsism, is here and here. The material world is so persistently in-your-face. It seems more productive to try to understand it rather than persist too much with deep scepticism about it. If it turns out that I’m wrong and that I am a solipsist mind then I just hope it comes out in the wash. In the meantime I’ll enjoy that lunch.

Once you choose to accept materialism a lot of consequences follow.

Science (evolution, biology, etc.) tells us we are physical systems no different from the rest of the material world. We are just made up of stuff in some complex way, as Emil describes well as reductionism. From evolution and biology we learn we evolved from animals with much less capable brains, and even from animals with no brain at all.

Our ancestors were very clearly interacting with the rest of the world, of which they were simply components. This interaction was physical, chemical, electromagnetic: when microbes touch there is a greater or lesser degree of chemical interaction as their outer cells come into contact, with electromagnetic interaction of the individual atoms and molecules (the machinary of chemistry). This in turn caused physical and chemical reactions within the bodies, to greater or lesser extent: the touching body is an obstacle, food, or predator.

Neurons and simple nervous systems that don’t fit our loose definition of consciousness are owned by animals that interact with the environment with a greater degree of autonomous control. Memory becomes possible. See Kandel on Aplesia and other sources. More complex brains do more complex stuff, have more complex memories, can predict more about the environment, even if not consciously: a cheetah tracking prey that is trying to evade it.

Sadly we don’t have access to our ancestors in the process of becoming conscious as we are. But it’s not too much of a stretch to infer the following.

The lighting up of human consciousness may have been quick or slow, in terms of evolution, and in terms of generations – we don’t have the details. The species distinction doesn’t really matter here: in the trail back through our ancestors there is no point, we think, where a daughter is not of the same species as the mother; and yet, if these various ancestors could be brought together, they would be classed as one or more species different from us and each other.

As an analogy for the onset of human consciousness and self-awareness take an infant. It’s not clear that a new born has much of a conscious cognitive life. It can certainly respond with basic consciousness, as much as some animals can, but less than some adult animals. Do you remember your early infancy, your birth? Conscious self-awareness seems to creep up on us; and more advanced cognition comes from the physical experiencing development of the brain: learning. It’s hard to look back as an individual, and as a species, to see and acknowledge how conscious self-awareness emerged. There is a gap, and we have had the tendency to fill it with a soul of one sort or another. I feel this gap contributes to our special respect for our conscious mind, and our deification of it – at least to the extent that we think it a spark provided by a deity.

Then there is the physical sensibility of the brain, or lack of it. Though the brain can sense the outside world and something of the inner body, through sight, hearing, touch and the other senses, the brain can’t actually feel itself in the same way. There is no sense in which the brain ‘feels’ its neurons working away, as it can feel an arm moving or touching something. Introspection seems to stop at the mushy level of concepts, thoughts, internal images and sounds – but it can’t locate them. Do you feel neurons flashing in Broca’s area and Wernicke’s as you form and interpret speech? Can you feel in your brain where the concept, the thought, the conjured image of your grandmother is located? No, but neuroscientists can detect at least some of the neurons that are associated with that sort of perception (a summary article, a particular article, recent paper from Quiroga himself).

Our working brain, our conscious selves that are self-aware are only remotely self-aware. Our introspective brains build a vague concept of self the way they build vague concepts of anything else. Our brains even build a concept of mind. And it’s a detached mind, it appears, because of these limitations on our introspective capabilities. This is the nature of the illusion of consciousness. Yes we have consciousness, we experience it. The illusion is that the conscious self is a mind detached from the physical brain: dualism.

Emil said, “Dualism may represent the majority of the population, but certainly not the majority among scientists or philosophers.” I would be more inclined to say the among scientists or philosophers most are non-dualists, intellectually, but, as with visual illusions, none of us can overcome the mental illusion as we go about our daily lives – we feel like free-thinking minds somehow embodied yet not quite part of the furniture. We feel like dualists.

On top of this there is a massive cultural history from philosophy and theology that has constructed quite a different story; one in which the mind does exist as a separate special non-material entity, a soul in some stories. These are excusable stories from an excusably ignorant past. The excuse is wearing thin.

This ancient perspective, which still exists, mainly with theologians, but also with philosophers, particularly those that don’t follow neuroscience, biology generally, or evolution, is what I refer to as the problem of The Primacy of Thought – where they feel that our primary source of knowledge is our conscious mind. I agree that we perceive the world through our minds, but the evolutionary evidence is that we are primarily experiential animals with a brain upgrade that enables us to reason (an interesting process in itself). We and our world are physical, and even though our mental experience of that world goes on in the mind, that mind itself is actually the busy active dynamic brain.

We can infer all this empirically from what we know from science. We can’t prove it logically to the satisfaction of pernickety philosophers, but it’s a more fitting explanation that any fanciful philosophical ideas. All the evidence is not in yet. The hard problem of consciousness remains in the mind (brains) of many philosophers, and particularly theologians who desperately want there to be a soul. It’s not a complete story by any means.

It’s even a bit of a just-so story, though one that is consistent with all existing evidence. I’m sure philosophers that don’t like it would be quick to point that out. But it’s a damned site better than any other on offer, better than any theology or any of the non-materialist philosophies.

And of course, being an empirical perspective on materialism it not only all holds together, it is also open to adaptation in the face of new evidence. Even while waiting for more concrete evidence of physicalist accounts of consciousness all we would need to drop the idea would be some counter evidence. I don’t see any. Not a bit.

Personally I think the evidence is overwhelming already. As Emil puts it, “If you pay attention to the history of neuroscience, you would understand why physicalism has conclusively won the argument … “. Really, start looking at the evidence. Look at all the examples of how changes to the brain, drug induced or physical, including intercranial (open skull) probe sensing, and stimulation, show a direct cause and effect relationship between the physical brain and conscious experience.

Supernatural v Natural

The notion that the Supernatural itself ‘exists’ is unsupported – equally unsupported no matter what the Supernatural metaphysics may be: gods, ghosts, fairies, wizards, …. But let’s go with the fantasy.

The question of the interaction between the Supernatural and the Natural raises its head occasionally, and it has been doing the rounds again, and specifically the question of whether the Supernatural is beyond the reach of science. So, supposing for now that there is a Supernatural, what can we know about it?

If the supernatural (S) is distinct from the natural (N), and they do not overlap at all, then what are all the religious claims based on? By this definition of non-interaction Natural human religious entities (theists) cannot experience the Supernatural; and since there are no interactions from S to N we don’t get any miracles to reveal the Supernatural either.

The only way the Natural human religious entities could experience the Supernatural is if there is some interaction between S and N.

So, one interaction might be that the human Natural entities have some Supernatural component that interacts with (witnesses) the Supernatural (e.g. the soul).

Another interaction is one whereby the Supernatural entities (e.g. God) have the capacity to act on the natural world. This is presumed to be the case, since He is supposed to have created the Natural in the first place.

But all interactions we know of in the Natural world are two-way. Cause and effect are mutually connected. So, for the soul to witness Supernatural experiences and transmit them to the conscious mind it must alter the conscious mind. It is the conscious mind of the theist that is making the claim of having an experience.

Both types of interaction are open to investigation by science.

Theists having religious experiences, being ‘in-touch’ with the divine, must be able to be tested. And the results of those tests must rule out (to some reasonable degree) any alternative natural cause for those experiences. All known religious experiences can be explained in terms of known psychological effects that are, at the very least, as feasible as a Supernatural explanation. Given how many alternative Supernatural or otherwise mystical explanations are offered by a multitude of cranks and variations on the religious you’d think the religious, wanting to be certain they are right, would be very concerned by these competing claims – but that’s where faith is required: belief’s cocoon of denial.

Theists claiming Supernatural effects on the Natural also clearly have some explaining to do. All modern claims are testable, and many have been tested and found wanting: faith healing, intercessionary prayer. Nothing. And any historical claims to miracles are sufficiently suspect by virtue of the period of ignorance in which they were made. Any theist who gives credibility to the resurrection must give equal credibility to fairies, imps, goblins, demi-gods, dog-head people, sea monsters (the least incredible), vampires, … Theists have no more grounds for believing in miracles than they do in any other crazy story. But, then again, faith (in one’s own beliefs) comes to the rescue of the reality deniers: no number of suspect mystical entities is sufficient to cause one to suspect one’s own.

So, either S and N interact, and those interactions are testable. Or they don’t, and all theism is just made up crap by Natural entities that have no access to the Supernatural in either direction. I mean to say, if the Supernatural is inaccessible to science, then it’s damned well inaccessible to a few fruit cakes who like to recite chants to their Supernatural Superheroes. So, theists, take your pick. Heads I win, Tails you lose.


Just to throw a spanner into the works, have a closer look at the Venn diagrams above. What’s all that empty space around the Supernatural and the Natural? Should the diagram be more like this?

Well, why should it? If theists can lay claim to the Supernatural without evidence, then I think I’ll go for the Hypernatural (H). You know, home of Hypernatural Thingymabob, that all encompassing thing that created all Supernatural creators of universes, the Thing that created God and gave Him the power to create the Natural.

How far does this stuff go on? Does the Hypernatural interact with the Natural, or just the Supernatural? Is there a Superhypernatural?

Is this getting silly? It already got silly, a few thousand years ago. And as we become more rational and sceptical, and are able to see the Emperor’s clothes for what they are, the whole religious show becomes an obvious invention of imaginative minds.

It’s one thing to hypothesise about the metaphysics of the origins of the universe, or maybe to make guesses about what is required to form an intelligent entity, and whether some such thing caused specific universes to come and go. But that’s all it is, guess work.

Far easier to let everything lie under one roof. It’s Natural all the way. Even the stuff that seems mysterious now will either one day be explained by Natural means, or will remain mysterious – but only in the sense of remaining unknown. Whatever the origins of our universe and any other, when or if they become known to us, they will be investigated, theorised about, and will take their place in our expanding field of Natural knowledge.

The strong nuclear force is something we discovered, or invented, or modelled, however you want to put it. It is now used to explain the interaction between particles in the nucleus of atoms. It was not once Supernatural and then suddenly Natural. Rather, it was once an unknown Natural phenomenon and is now a known Natural phenomenon.

BBC 4: Beautiful Minds: Richard Dawkins

Thank you BBC for another good programme: Beautiful Minds: Richard Dawkins.

There are a couple of points that are well worth taking from the programme; points which Dawkins has been struggling to make clear since he had to suffer the backlash of The Selfish Gene.

Steven Rose, like many people who object to scientific truths, fail to understand the basic distinction between the descriptive role of science, and their own desires about what they want to be the case. This was also exemplified by the response of the political right of the 70’s and 80’s. It’s also characteristic of those who oppose the notion of illusory free-will on the basis of what they think are the moral implications. Raymond Tallis, a British Humanist, neurobiologist, and writer of many books opposing illusory free-will, and the animal nature of humans, is particularly prone to the this mistake. If science tells you something and you don’t like what it says about us humans, then tough luck. You don’t get to decide what is the case by what you want to be the case.

This isn’t a new enlightenment from Dawkins. Bertrand Russell made the very same point in his 1959 BBC interview (about 7:45 in). When asked about what he would like to leave for future generations he said:

When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only, what are the facts, and what is the truth that the facts bare out. Never let yourself be diverted, either by what you would wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. Look only and solely at what are the facts.

Dawkins also made clear in his programme that it is for humans to rebel against the selfish gene, and that it does not need to be a prescription for how we should live our lives. This too was expressed by Russell, in the following:

Love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way, if we are to live together and not die together. We must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on the planet.

There are many critics of Dawkins who will want to point to his New Atheist stridency as being in opposition to this sentiment; but they get that wrong too. Dawkins is only intolerantly opposed to the intolerance of religion and its unforgiving drive to persuade by foul means, of indoctrination, religious fanatical bullying, and denial of science for religious ends – the latter being precisely what Russell was objecting to in his first point. Though it’s true that Dawkins may have a personal distaste, and a strong position on the intellectual case, as made by Russell’s first point, it is also true that he is tolerant of our freedom to believe what we want, however dumb that may be. It’s odd that the very criticisms of the supposed stridency and intolerance of Dawkins are better directed to many of those that make them.

 

The Rescue of Philosophy of/in Science

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

I obviously don’t mix in the right internet circles. For some time I’ve been seriously disappointed by what I’ve seen of modern philosophy. It’s so exasperating, and I’ve come across so many examples, that I’ve not had chance to blog about them – while I’m contemplating one, up pops another to get my goat, and in the end they pass me by.

I’ve managed to make some points, here: Plantinga, Law, Coyne: Theology, Philosophy, Science, here: Philosopher Stephen Law Doesn’t Get Science, here: Thought v Experience.

But there are plenty more examples out there, of how philosophy isn’t keeping up with science in the interesting stuff of metaphysics. It’s too much to expect of any fallible human, which accounts for all humans, that those of us who are philosophers should be perfect thinkers, just because thinking is their speciality. So we do have to cut them some slack.

Well, it’s not all bad. This piece, What Happened Before the Big Bang? The New Philosophy of Cosmology, tells us how philosophers are doing their bit. It starts with this, which carries the sentiments of may scientists:

Last May, Stephen Hawking gave a talk at Google’s Zeitgeist Conference in which he declared philosophy to be dead. In his book The Grand Design, Hawking went even further. “How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Traditionally these were questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead,” Hawking wrote. “Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.” [my emphasis]

Ross Andersen tells us about groups of philosophers in the US and UK who are staking a claim for philosophy, which is good news. There’s a real place for philosophy in both pushing the boundaries of thought, in going where science is yet unable to, and for scrutinizing science itself, and scientists that do science, to make sure their critical thinking skills are on the ball.

Ross talks to Tim Maudlin, at NYU, who puts Hawkins in his place.

Tim doesn’t reveal anything here that I’ve not already heard from scientists. Some scientists are pretty good at the philosophy associated with their subject. Lawrence Krauss, Peter Atkins, Sean Carroll, Neil deGrasse Tyson, …, there are a ton of popular scientists who tell it like it is, or how it seems it might be, without wondering off into the realms of fancy that many philosophers tend to do.

But the project seems like a good idea, so I’ll have to dig deeper and keep an eye on them.

Here’s one bit where, for me, Tim gets it dead right:

Now, one can first be a little puzzled by what you mean by “how likely” or “probable” something like that is. You can ask how likely it is that I’ll roll double sixes when I throw dice, but we understand the way you get a handle on the use of probabilities in that instance. It’s not as clear how you even make judgments like that about the likelihood of the various constants of nature (an so on) that are usually referred to in the fine tuning argument.

This is a point I’ve tried to make to a few fine tuning enthusiasts. We don’t have the first clue as to what’s required in the universe manufacturing process. We don’t know a damn about the probabilities involved.

And this:

Now let me say one more thing about fine tuning. I talk to physicists a lot, and none of the physicists I talk to want to rely on the fine tuning argument to argue for a cosmology that has lots of bubble universes, or lots of worlds. What they want to argue is that this arises naturally from an analysis of the fundamental physics, that the fundamental physics, quite apart from any cosmological considerations, will give you a mechanism by which these worlds will be produced, and a mechanism by which different worlds will have different constants, or different laws, and so on. If that’s true, then if there are enough of these worlds, it will be likely that some of them have the right combination of constants to permit life. But their arguments tend not to be “we have to believe in these many worlds to solve the fine tuning problem,” they tend to be “these many worlds are generated by physics we have other reasons for believing in.”

“I talk to physicists a lot” – Wow! This is what we want to hear. That can’t be said of many philosophers, and even less for many theologians.

Tim finish with this:

I will make one comment about these kinds of arguments which seems to me to somehow have eluded everyone. When people make these probabilistic equations, like the Drake Equation, which you’re familiar with — they introduce variables for the frequency of earth-like planets, for the evolution of life on those planets, and so on. The question remains as to how often, after life evolves, you’ll have intelligent life capable of making technology. What people haven’t seemed to notice is that on earth, of all the billions of species that have evolved, only one has developed intelligence to the level of producing technology. Which means that kind of intelligence is really not very useful. It’s not actually, in the general case, of much evolutionary value. We tend to think, because we love to think of ourselves, human beings, as the top of the evolutionary ladder, that the intelligence we have, that makes us human beings, is the thing that all of evolution is striving toward. But what we know is that that’s not true. Obviously it doesn’t matter that much if you’re a beetle, that you be really smart. If it were, evolution would have produced much more intelligent beetles. We have no empirical data to suggest that there’s a high probability that evolution on another planet would lead to technological intelligence. There is just too much we don’t know.

Yes! A philosopher gets the insignificance of human intelligence on both evolutionary and cosmological scales! This is so promising.

Still, I can’t let him get off with a free pass. There’s the minor quibble that maybe, once intelligence emerges, that either there’s only really room for one intelligent species, because they wipe out the others (along with all the non-intelligent species they wipe out too); or, that there’s just one remaining intelligent species on this planet is down to just plain evolutionary bad luck – the others happened not to be fit for survival at the time they arose.

There’s the distinct possibility that, given enough evolutionary time, other species could evolve to become intelligent examples. Given that we are here, that doesn’t seem likely at the moment. But an asteroid, or human action, could cause the extinction of human and much mammalian life on this planet. Then, left to its own devices, who’s to say earth wouldn’t see the rise of intelligence again, from a completely different branch of the tree of life. We can speculate, philosophically, but we don’t have the data to be sure of or to rule out these very plausible outcomes.

As I said, I minor quibble. I’m looking forward to finding out more about these philosophers.

McGrath on Science and Religion

The Alister McGrath piece was brought to my attention by the Jerry Coyne blog post. As usual with pieces like McGrath’s there’s so much to go at that a simple comment on another blog that’s critical of it isn’t enough. Nearly every paragraph is hopelessly vague, when not outright wrong. The religious bullshit language isn’t as heavy from McGrath as from some other theologians, but it’s bad enough.

On with my rant then…

“Why talk of Christmas when any idea of God is misguided?” – Christmas and God are only related by the name given to a festival by one particular religion. As an atheist I’m quite comfortable with Christmas – even with the mythical stories about Jesus, just as I am with the ones about Santa. Christmas fairy tales.

“Science, we are confidently told, has buried God. But has it?” – If there was no God to bury, then this misses the point. What it specifically hasn’t buried is belief in God. Quite different issues. What it has buried is the intellectual case for belief in God (in terms of most religions, though it does not refute the many god hypotheses).

McGrath turns to what he thinks are questions for religion rather than science…

“Where did everything come from?” – Still a science question.

“What’s it all about?” – A very vague question that summarises our inquisitiveness and our desire to find our place in the universe. Still basically a science question, though put within some human emotional context.

“What’s the point of life?” – Whatever we make it, apparently. Other than that there’s no indication from anything we know that there need be any ‘cosmic’ point.

“Its [science’s] interim reports are always important and interesting, but they are also provisional.” – Yes. But then all our reports are provisional. Simply inventing religious stories and sticking to them (as much as that is the case, since even religions change) doesn’t give them any more lasting credability or make them any less provisional; and since religious stories are pure invention they don’t even warrant the adjective ‘provisional’.

“Some atheist scientists ridicule Christians for believing in a God whose existence cannot be proved. Yet science regularly posits the existence of things whose existence cannot be proved to make sense of our observations.” – Well, not really. They ridicule them because their God cannot be evidenced. There are no observations. The objection to ‘proofs’ of God are only raised in response to claims for proof, not because there was ever any credibility to the proofs of God’s existence.

“Thus we infer the existence of dark matter from observations that would otherwise be puzzling. We can’t see it, and we can’t prove it’s there. Yet this doesn’t stop most leading astronomers from accepting its existence.” – Again, the mistaken presumption that (logical) ‘proof’ is significant.

“We can’t see it; we can’t touch it; we can’t smell it; and we can’t hear it. Yet many scientists argue that it’s the only meaningful explanation of observed gravitational effects. Where the naive demand proof, the wise realise that this is limited to logic and mathematics.” – So, with no proof on hand, and no evidence, what has religion got going for it? Why believe?

“Christians have always held that their faith makes sense of the enigmas and riddles of our experience. It’s not about running away from reality, or refusing to think about things (to mention two shallow popular stereotypes of faith).” – Oh yes it is (about refusing to think). The point here is that many different ‘theories’ or explanations can fit the same data. The problem with religion is that it is pure fantasy invented precisely to explain as much as possible, but without any requirement that it account for anomolies. Declare that prayer works, but ignore cases that don’t fit this hypothesis and proclaim the success of prayer when any instance happens to fit.

“For Christians, faith is not a blind leap into the dark, but a joyful discovery of a bigger and clearer picture of things, of which we are part.” – And how exactly does that discovery proceed? What methodologies does it use, other than the employment of ‘feel good’ imaginative assertions.

“You judge the power of a torch, she remarked, by its ability to illuminate the world’s shadows.” – Well, taking the metaphor literally, you can do that by measuring the incident and reflective light, measuring the frequency distribution of the light source (sodium street light, for example, doesn’t illuminate too well). And, you’re illuminating what’s in shadow (that which was not illuminated), not the shadow itself. This metaphor is a prime example of the vague and incoherent nature of religious language. Most religious language puts into shadow that which would otherwise be illuminated. The shadow of mystery is highly prized ignorance, in religion.

“If Christ is indeed the ‘light of the world'” – But he isn’t. There’s no reason to think he fits this metaphor. As a humanist he perhaps contributed to some enlightenment. If indeed any of his words were in fact his – which isn’t at all clear. His actual words, instead, remain in the shadow of history and evolving religious doctrine. Religious invention is bright in its imaginitave power, but casts a shadow over historical truth.

“So how does the Christian faith light up the shadowlands of life? … This does not detract from the wonder of the universe; if anything, it adds to its beauty and grandeur.” – Yes, as any fantasy story does. That’s the point of imaginative fiction, novels, the movies. They extend our imaginative experience beyond our real experience. But it’s still finction.

“…science takes things apart to see how they work. But religion puts them back together again to see what they mean.” – Science is also used to put them back together again, which then allows all humans, not just the religious, to impart meaning in the human context. Religion is really superfluous here; or, at best, just one more fantasy interpretation of our experienced life.

“If science is about explanation, religion is thus about meaning.” – Again, religion is not the only way of imparting human contextual meaning; and for many of us it’s not only far from the best, it’s one of the worst.

“…religion [helps us] to see, however dimly, the ‘big picture’ of which they are part.” – But only in the way that Star Wars helps us to see another possible big picture of human potential. Fantasy.

“God, according to the Christian tradition, is the heart’s true desire, the goal of our longings, and the fulfiller of our deepest aspirations.” – My emphasis. It’s odd, that for one who is supposed to be ineffable, most religious people are quite content to tell us what God is. This statement is just plain old religious language abuse.

“Some see life as a random and meaningless process of meandering, in which we search endlessly for a purpose that eludes us, if it exists at all.” – Who do? Christians? It was, after all, part of the paragraph telling us what Christians think. But I guess he really intended this second statement to mean atheists? I’m not sure who it really applies to, if anyone. As an atheist I’m not assuming there is a purpose, so I’m not particularly looking for one, endlessly or otherwise. I might choose (in as much as I can) to give my life a purpose, or maybe many purposes that come and go as the feelin suits me. At one point I had the purpose of raising a family: job done. At another time I had the purpose of achieving specific educational goals: job done. I have other purposes now. Should some natural disaster strike my neighborhood, no doubt I’ll have a temporary change of purpose which might be, basically, staying alive. Of course the religious don’t like to be too specific, because that allows them to be pinned down. Far batter the vague wishy-washy ‘purpose’, as in ‘the meaning of life and everything’.

“The Christian vision, enacted and proclaimed in the Christmas story, is that of a God whose tender affection for humanity led him to enter our history as one of us.” – The Christian fantasy; until supportive evidence is available.

A View of Science: Lawrence Krauss on Cosmic Connections

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

This is based on the following talk: Lawrence Krauss on Cosmic Connections – A Vimeo video

Over at Stephen Law’s blog I’ve been responding to criticisms of Peter Atkins by Stephen Law, Mary Midgeley, and comments on Stephen’s blog.

In his talk Krauss makes two important points that distinguish science from theology, and some philosophy (the ‘only thinking allowed’ type of philosophy, as opposed by Atkins).

The first is on the nature of the scientific method, in principle. I’m not talking about some of the details: come up with the hypothesis, design experiments to falsify it, run experiments, evaluate results, test a theories predictions, etc. I’m talking about the contingency built into science as a principle.

…The big question is, how did the water get here [on Earth]? And the answer is we don’t know – sort of. Which is, by the way, the best answer in science. ‘Cause the other thing people don’t realise about science which differentiates it from religion, is that the most exciting thing about being a scientist is not knowing. Well, there’s two things. Being wrong is up there too. Because that means there’s a lot left to learn. We have some ideas [about how water came to be on Earth]…

… As wonderful as that is, it’s wrong. It’s amazing when something works out perfectly and you find out it’s wrong. I’ve had that experience many times, ’cause I’ve been wrong many times. It just looks elegant and beautiful, and it’s wrong. And that’s the other gift that science has for us. I hope all of you have that experience, at least once in your life: that something you deeply and profoundly believe in because it’s beautiful and elegant and wonderful turns out to be wrong. Because then you can open your mind.

Now, sure enough, this isn’t always how science goes. There will, inevitably, be scientists who are a little too strident in pushing their particular ideas. Not that this matters much within their specific field, because their peers will see through any bluff and thunder and criticise the protagonists without mercy.

Obstinacy in holding to the status quo can sometimes stall progress; but then being open to every new idea leads to chaos and can in its own way prevent progress. It may be that sometimes the balance isn’t right – but scientists, the ones doing the science, are only human.

But there is a problem with the wider perception of science, particular when journalists fail to explain the contingent nature of what seems like an absolute assertion, or when an anti-science theist gets hold of an misrepresents the whole of science using one over egged pudding.

What should we expect from our scientists? Perfection? But the whole point about the benefits of science is, as Krauss frames it, it’s endeavour to look for answers, to make mistakes, to look for better answers, to dare to be wrong. And this in the hands of imperfect fallible human beings – yes, again, scientists are human beings.

The other point that came out of this talk by Krauss is on the benefit of science. Science is often compared unfavourably to other human activities, which we could simply call the arts. Krauss puts things in perspective.

I do theoretical physics, and it’s kind of esoteric. And people say why the hell do you do it. What’s it good for. Which amazes me when they say that because I rarely get asked what’s a Picasso painting good for, or what’s a Mozart concerto good for. But somehow science has to do something, and somehow make a better toaster, or something like that. But the biggest and most important thing about science is not that it does anything, but that it enhances our lives with beautiful ideas that change the way we think about ourselves. ‘Cause that’s what all good art and music and literature is all about; it’s changing our perspective of our place in the universe. And that’s what science does.

Well, I’d add to that. Science is just as enlightening to our lives as the arts, if not more so, since there is much art and beauty in science. But not only that, science also does stuff! It does build better toasters. Science has both beauty and practicality.

The beauty available to the arts is available to everyone, as is the added beauty of science, for those prepared to look for it. This is from Richard Feynman on this very point (no apologies for referring to this yet again). Richard Feynman – Ode on a Flower.

The Depth of Empiricism

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

In the previous post on empiricism I looked at how philosopher Stephen Law missed a few tricks when he debated chemist Peter Atkins.

In this post I pick up on Jerry Coyne’s post making similar points: Can philosophy or religion alone establish facts?

I think the problem for philosophers is two-fold.

One is their commitment to their profession.

I see this as similar to the position of some priests who in many respects seem to accept all the intellectual criticisms of religion and faith, but can’t quite bring themselves to go the whole hog – there’s too much to give up, too much cognitive dissonance to contend with. So they fall back on faith – the only excuse left to maintain belief.

In the case of philosophers it seems to be their indebtedness to the history of the subject. This too is similar to theology – where the ideas of the ancients seem to retain some philosophical sacredness. Philosophers seem to need their ancients more than any other discipline with the exception of history. That “there’s nothing new in history” might well be applied to how some philosophers see their field.

And this brings me to the other problem. It doesn’t matter how much philosophy they claim to do, how much critical thinking they perform, how much evidence they consider, they still seem to retain a conviction to the primacy of thought and reason. It doesn’t matter how much pure reason is criticised, they still indulge in it.

I wonder if this stems from Descartes Cogito. This is a pretty good starting point, and one I use myself, in particular here. But many philosophers, even non-dualists, seem to be stuck with the idea that because we start out by discovering that we think, that this is our natural and primary mode of understanding. I don’t think they get how deep empiricism goes, how much we are empirical creatures before thinking entities.

Okay, so that’s where we start, with thinking about stuff. But before long, when we follow the trail and side-step Solipsism, we are left with a few clues to the fact that we are not primarily thinking entities.

Evolution is the big clue. You have to throw out evolution to avoid inferring the following from it.

We are evolved from creatures that didn’t have brains. Our ancestors were various in nature, ranging from the simple single cellular, through multiple cellular, to entities with multiple organs. Back then we were primarily experiential sensory creatures – and by sensory I mean in the simplest sense: physical and chemical interactions at our surfaces. And where there were neuronal nervous systems they might not be central nervous systems but distributed neural nets. An advantage of electrical communication over purely physical and chemical is the speed and the targeted nature of the connections. As early as neurons might have evolved they weren’t forming what we would call brains – though, given a physicalist perspective, that begs the question of what a brain is anyway. Nevertheless, through physical contact, chemical interaction, neuron transmission, our ancestors were empirical creatures.

This is what we still are, of course. I guess our sensing using light and sound removes us as whole entities from direct contact with much of our environment. Our actual contact with the wider environment, through touch, is often more difficult, and often undesirable: there are many things for which it’s safe to look at but not to touch; and if you can touch you may well be too close. Vision and hearing give us some protection against dangers, but they also isolate us from our environment to some extent.

This gives us the illusion that we stand alone in the world, so that we acquire (once we have thinking brains) the feeling that we are subjective individuals independent of the rest of the world.

We seem to be enclosed minds, when really we are empirical creatures that have brains connected to the outside world by remote sensing.

On top of that, this brain that we each have awakens and becomes aware of itself. This happens to each of us as individuals as we develop from an infant into a fully interactive child, teen, adult. And collectively it has come about culturally, historically, as our collective recorded awareness of our consciousness has dawned on us as a species (and maybe our ancestor species had some of this awareness too).

The dawn of recorded history and the emergent self-awareness of the infant are mutual metaphors, both beginning, or at least becoming sufficiently complex, with the acquisition of written language for the species and language generally for the infant.

The problem has been that our philosophical view has been dominated by this awakening of the mind, as if it is the primary source of knowledge, when in fact it’s our experiential empirical nature that has primacy. Our mind is merely looking at, analysing, speculating, on what we experience – and mostly with very poor access to most of our experiences.

Not only are we not directly aware of most of what our bodies or even our brains are experiencing, but we don’t have access directly to our deep past experiences – those that we have accumulated in our DNA.

I think most people accept now that we are the combination of nature and nurture – to the extent that this dichotomy is considered a very simplistic notion. We are each of us a developing complex system of our inherited biology responding to its environment, and in turn altering that environment through the decision processes that go on in our biological brains, which in turn effects how our biology responds further. We might be inclined, biologically, to be a couch potato or an athlete, but we can generally still become either, and even both – who hasn’t seen a once keen athlete turn to flab after they retire.

Though not specifically part of evolution, abiogenesis seems the only real source of what we call life. And, though there is no direct evidence to support abiogenesis, there is no good alternative hypothesis on the table. It seems that we come from inanimate matter, and we are inanimate matter – just inanimate matter that has become pretty dynamic.

So, there is nothing to suggest there is anything else going on in our heads. There is no evidence for any other source of thinking than it being matter in action. We are ultimately empirical beings, even in our reasoning in our heads. The processes going on in there are real material experiences in their own right; but it is we who categories experiences into externally sensed, or internally reasoned, as if the reason was pure and unsullied by real nasty experience.

In this respect there isn’t a significant difference between the peripheral neurons and the neurons in our brains. Neurons are communication mechanisms, whether in our arms or in our heads. While peripheral neurons connect other tissue to the brain, brain neuron connections are mostly with other brain neurons. So in a very real sense the brain neurons are sensing each other: they are empirical. We are empirical first and foremost. Thinking is an evolutionary add-on.

That some philosophers don’t get how deep empiricism goes is exemplified by the philosopher Steven Law in his discussion with Peter Atkins.

So, some philosophers seem to think that reasoning, while our primary tool of analysis, is actually our primary tool of discovery. They are mistaken. Unless one rejects evolution we can only conclude that we are experiential, empirical beings who acquired reasoning late in the day. It may be true that our reasoning provides us with far more than our sensory bumbling through life alone ever could. But it’s an even greater mistake to think that reasoning alone could do anything – especially since without sensory experience there would be no stimulus for neurons to evolve with which we could do any thinking. Some philosophers have it arse about face.


Update…

Jerry Coyne reviews a portrait of E O Wilson.

This bit strikes me as a good assessment of philosophy:

Generation after generation of students have suffered trying to “puzzle out” what great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Descartes had to say on the great questions of man’s nature, Wilson said, but this was of little use, because philosophy has been based on “failed models of the brain”.


This is part of a set of posts on Thinking.

Philosopher Stephen Law Doesn’t Get Science

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

As much as I like what Philosopher Stephen Law does to debunk theism I still don’t think he gets science and empiricism.

Here is his page where he links to a video set in which he debates with Peter Atkins: Peter Atkins vs myself on limits of science.

What I found astonishing is that in an earlier post Stephen said this, “Anyway, Atkins is not the sharpest philosophical pencil in the box, I think (though he’s obviously good at chemistry). Strong on assertion but remarkably weak on argument.”

On watching the video I found it to be that Stephen wasn’t being that sharp, with regard to science or philosophy.

Stephen’s statement that looking up Peter’s shirt to establish if Peter’s claim he has a cat up there is a simple observation and not empiricism makes me wonder what he thinks empricism is.
Continue reading “Philosopher Stephen Law Doesn’t Get Science”

The Mystery of Consciousness

Sam Harris has another post on consciousness: The Mystery of Consciousness II.

While we know many things about ourselves in anatomical, physiological, and evolutionary terms, we do not know why it is “like something” to be what we are.

Well, this is my stab at it.

Here’s an analogy. Take a long loose spring and connect it rigidly at both ends, and then impart a wave motion on the spring. What is the wave? In one sense it is only the motion of individual parts of the spring that together, because of the physical laws governing that motion, describe a wave in space. Though we can describe the wave – precisely, mathematically – we cannot capture that actual ‘wave’. We can record it on camera; we could copy it in another spring, or the same spring over time. But what we can’t do is capture the actual wave. Take away the spring, or simply stop its motion, and the wave magically vanishes.

This is how I see consciousness. Not, trivially, ‘brain waves’, though they are one aspect of consciousness – it’s output, maybe its ‘waste’, as heat is from an engine.

The one significant difference is that in consciousness the device (brain) in which this ‘wave’ is occurring is able to monitor itself – at least in terms of some vague abstracted representation of its inner operation. Just as the pressure in a balloon is the vague representation of the motion of the particles it contains, so consciousness is a representation of what’s going on in the brain.

The brain (like the entity it controls) is complex, so it’s no surprise that a representation of it would be complex too – at least one would expect complexity if that representation is to prove useful, but not so complex in use that it becomes so cumbersome it proves use-less.

An over-simplified analogy (for this would not(?) count as consciousness) would be if the spring was made of a network of microchips (retaining the connected elasticity of the spring) that could monitor accelerations and produce an overall vague representation of the action of the spring, as represented by some higher abstract level system (as an IQ figure summarises related but different task performances). What does it feel like to be a micro-chip spring? Would different waveforms emerge as different ‘thoughts’ or mental experiences?

In a sense the wave in the spring is an illusion – there is no ‘wave’ that is independent of the spring’s motion; it has no physical actuality itself, unlike the moving particles of the spring (avoiding any deeper physics and philosophy regarding the particles that make up the spring). Even if a micro-chip spring is monitoring its own (brain) wave activity, there is no actual wave.

Perhaps there is no real consciousness in actuality. As materialists we already accept there is nothing else but the ‘matter’ we are made of (whatever form it takes). Perhaps consciousness is only the residual analysis of the activity of (only part of) the brain, by (only a part of) the brain. So complex, yes, that it fools the entity that is ‘experiencing’ it into feeling it is something else, something additional.

This feeling of something additional seems crucial, and is possibly the cause of the feeling of consciousness, the feeling of what it is like to be something. Where does this feeling of something being additional come from? I think the clue is in the ‘only part’ aspects of what is being perceived and what is doing the perceiving. And I think it is related to the evolutionary process that got us to where we are today; and, significantly, to where we were, whenever we first realised we were conscious.

This ‘awakening’ is one that happens to us as individuals, during development, but it is so far back into our infancy, and maybe back to the early stages of brain emergence and development, in the womb, that at the time we don’t have the language, or the other experiences of self or others, that are required to register it – and certainly not enough to remember it in any senss that is meaningful to an adult. The awakening may happen gradually, or it may be a pretty sharp event, a spark – we simply don’t know.

And this awakening has a parallel in the wider sense of human culture. We have no cultural memory of when we humans (or our non-human ancestors), as individuals, and as communicated among ourselves culturally, became conscious and culturally self-aware.

So, what would it feel like to an entity (trying to avoid anthropomorphic sentiments) that had recently started to monitor its own behaviour, and then realised that, wow!, it can ‘see’ itself monitoring itself!? Wouldn’t it ‘feel’ just like this? Wouldn’t it feel like (given the unity of that feeling) that there is something that it is like to be that entity, to identify with it, to call itself, ‘I’?

Now, think of the micro-chip spring being able to have some autonomous control over its behaviour. Wouldn’t it have to develop strategies for controlling its wider entity that accounted for the fact that it didn’t have, couldn’t have, full and instantaneous control of every aspect of itself. At the limit this is a measurement problem: to monitor itself ‘completely’ it needs to monitor the monitoring system too, which would require more capacity to monitor, which in turn would require monitoring, and so on. Like all biological systems there’s a balance – and we seem to have reached ours, for now. We have limited ‘consciousness’: limited awareness and control of the wider entity that is represented by ‘I’.

A related question: What would it have felt like if our two brain hemisphere’s had been more independent, so that ‘I’ became ‘we-two’? What would that consciousness feel like? And what if we-two shared some of our self-awareness, say, but less of our motor capabilities? Or if our motor capabilities were unified, but our planning systems (our intent) were independent? Maybe evolution would have ditched these latter oddities and settled on a unified consciousness (how would a push-me-pull-you escape from threats?)

The split brain patients give us some clues, but if you ask them they don’t reveal two independent ‘consciousnesses’ – one half of the brain may be independent to some extent, but appears to be sub-consciously independent (i.e active, so not ‘un-conscious’ as in brain dead) – at least that’s how it appears from the outside. I wonder (haven’t quizzed those experienced in this area) if the other brain half is a locked in but otherwise self-aware identity.

As with the wave in the micro-chip spring I think that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon, and as such can be explained (eventually) by processes in the brain. The hard problem, what then remains of it, is like trying to capture the wave that the spring’s motion describes – or trying to attribute the higher level representation (in the micro-chip spring’s central control/nervous system) of the wave, as if the wave itself actually exists.

Finally I’d like to consider this higher level representation that I think we have, which we call consciousness. I don’t think its anything like as precise and as acute as we often like to think it is. When we talk of memories, when we recall them all the indications are that they consist of nothing more than states in the brain, probably distributed over parts of the brain. Any one memory (e.g. a face) seems to require memory ‘bits’ from many neurons, and many of those neurons may be used in forming other higher level conceptual memories too. We often get confused about memories – someone mentions the name of a person we met once, and we have a vague recollection of their face – but that recollection may be incomplete, or may even contain elements of one or more other people, so that when we meet the person again they are not quite as we remember them. We mis-remember incidents too.

We know to some extent that the act of recollection is itself somewhat an act of re-building, re-remembering, re-enforcing – and in the mush and complexity and chaotic activity of the brain we should know that our thoughts are bound to be pretty random in their content. The amazing thing is that they are precise and accurate enough (over time, shared and compared, recorded and repeatedly re-analysed) to build long standing concepts, ideas, philosophies, sciences, religions.

An additional thought that comes to me here is that this is why Plato conceived his Forms concept – the many actual and messy and very real shapes with, on the whole, three sort of sides, eventually distills out into the pure form of the triangle. It is the pure triangle and the mathematical model of it that is the approximation to messy reality of real near-triangles, rather than real triangles being approximations to pure forms, as if those pure forms exist in any objective reality. All the precise mathematical theory of our science, the assumed infinite precision of the pure maths, is never experienced in actuality. We can hold vague conceptual notions like ‘infinity’ in our heads, but do they represent anything real? We struggle too with zero, nothingness – just ask a physicist about the nothingness of space.

All this gives me the impression (and being a thought in my brain is also fairly vague at this moment, needing further development) that consciousness and its virtual particles, it’s thoughts, are just illusory phenomena. That they are patterns described by actual physical particles in the brain is where the real physical material objectivity lies. Consciousness, as we perceive it, is a representation of that activity, and nothing more.

Kant could critique ‘pure reason’ so easily because it is so insubstantial – there is nothing there in and of itself. All there is is experience. What we think we know about evolution tells us that our ancestors were experiential creatures – experience comes before and is prior to consciousness, and as such is more real in every sense: in the sense above, that consciousness is at most a pattern of behaviour, or a higher level model of that behaviour; and in the sense that evolutionarily our experiential heredity is far more engrained and powerful than our mental heredity. Mentally, on cosmic scales, we are novices. Our parochial view makes it look a big deal. When we consider our genius we have only ourselves to compare. No wonder our view is skewed.

The predominance we have given to reason, thoughts, consciousness, I feel has come about because when we first became aware, that consciousness is what we were most acutely aware of. Our thoughts about our physical experiences seem to show us that those physical experiences are fleeting passing phenomena: they change, moment to moment, and as we age. But our self-awareness unity seems to be the thing that persists, and as such adds to the illusion that it is a thing in itself, rather than a representation of the overall, average, statistically consistent patterns, in a material brain.

Confirmation Bias

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

Confirmation bias is such a tricky one that it requires persistent vigilance.

Scientific American for November carries the story based on Marc Hauser’s problems, the nature of which hasn’t been made clear yet. Some suspect fraud, but the more generous view is confirmation bias.

Two factors make combating confirmation bias an uphill battle. For one, data show that eminent scientists tend to be more arrogant and confident than other scientists. As a consequence,they may be especially vulnerable to confirmation bias and to wrong-headed conclusions, unless they are perpetually vigilant. Second, the mounting pressure on scholars to conduct single-hypothesis-driven research programs supported by huge federal grants is a recipe for trouble. Many scientists are highly motivated to disregard or selectively reinterpret negative results that could doom their careers. Yet when members of the scientific community see themselves as invulnerable to error, they impede progress and damage the reputation of science in the public eye.

The very edifice of science hinges on the willingness of investigators to entertain the possibility that they might be wrong.

The best antidote to fooling ourselves is adhering closely to scientific methods. Indeed, history teaches us that science is not a monolithic truth-gathering method but rather a motley assortment of tools designed to safeguard us against bias.

As astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife and co-author Ann Druyan noted, science is like a little voice in our heads that says, “You might be mistaken. You’ve been wrong before.” Good scientists are not immune from confirmation bias. They are aware of it and avail themselves of procedural safeguards against its pernicious effects.

[my emphasis]

At least it’s reassuring that scientists are keeping an eye on each other, given the difficulty of keeping an eye on oneself. It’s about the best we can expect. And given this is the case, it illustrates the paucity of any ‘other way of knowing’.

More on Marc Hauser here.

Morality

In the debate about Sam Harris on science and morality (links in this post) I want to side-step some of the philosophy, because much of it is influenced by the armchair philosophy of the past when science had nothing to offer at all, a time when philosophers plumbed the depths of their minds searching for something solid that indicated dry land in sight.

I see all moral codes as arbitrary in the grand scheme of things. They mean nothing outside a biological and social evolution. Prior to the evolution of consciousness, self-awareness and language what we think of as morals would have been biological imperatives. It’s our self-awareness, empathy, language and the classification of ideas that has caused us to label behaviour as good, bad, evil, right, wrong, moral, immoral. It’s our deep remaining biological imperatives that dictate which of these labels, and hence which behaviours, we prefer.

Within the contexts of separately developing cultures of the past there was still scope for moral codes to emerge as quite different from one culture to another. It may even have been possible to live by the maxim, “When in Rome do as the Romans do”, particularly for travellers who relished variety. Minority congregations that have travelled to a different culture still live by their own rules, and this can cause serious conflict of cultures – occasional ‘honour killings’ occur in the UK within cultures that value family honour greater than personal freedom and life of loved ones; and you can still get a good whisky in The United Arab Emirates, which restricts the purchase of alcohol from a liquor store to non-Muslim foreigners. We can see the social development of morals on top of biologically evolved imperatives.

Pre-TV we relied on news media that were much more susceptible of political and cultural influence. It was still possible for news reports to be so heavily censored, either for political reasons, or in acknowledgement of the sensitivity of the readers (i.e. the newspapers had a great concern for the dear ladies, and a fear of the indignant religious opinion). We were spared the blood and guts of foreign affairs. Only genuine travellers, and often soldiers, really knew the reality of events taking place elsewhere that didn’t fit our coy world view.

Innocent ignorance was real. During WWII my mother, 14 at the time, live near an aircraft factory in Manchester. During one attack a German plane strafed them in the street as she was walking to school, but it was soon shot down. She and her friends went to see the monster that had parachuted into a nearby field – they were expecting a real monster, a dreadful beast of a man, and were utterly shocked so see a very handsome blond haired terrified young man who looked not much older than them. The propaganda about the evil ‘Hun’ had been only words on a crackly radio, but those words had evoked vivid nightmarish images that had attributed evil to every member of another nation – every German was immoral.

The growth of TV was primed nicely for the Vietnam war. Horror came right into our homes. The Sixties and Seventies saw the dawning of a questioning of the morality of our own governments like never before. The threat of nuclear annihilation was real, and we questioned the immoral madness of it.

The subsequent rise of postmodernism awoke in us an appreciation of the arbitrariness of our own standards. Moral relativism seemed a logical necessity if we were to apply the Golden Rule to whole cultures – what right did we have to dictate to others how they should behave.

But as we’ve witnessed more of what goes on in other cultures, particularly with the rise of the internet, we’ve begun to question the soundness of the moral relativist argument. Do the Johnny come lately cultural customs of acceptable behaviour overrule our deeper stronger biological imperatives?

It’s difficult to pin down where the fault lies when we intuitively know there’s a fault. Many atheists have been quick to condemn Islam for it’s barbaric practices, only to learn that the cultural influence of the religion of Islam has itself been influenced by cultural values – some of the practices performed in the name of Islam are specific to one culture.

We know instinctively that female genital mutilation is ‘bad’, ‘wrong’, ‘immoral’. Our empathy tells us this. But note even here, when I’m trying to be rational, the judgemental term ‘mutilation’ rather than ‘female circumcision’, or ‘female genital cutting’.

Is the Jewish practice of circumcision also ‘mutilation’? Some adult ‘victims’ think it is. But some non-Jews don’t want to interfere with this ancient tradition, and yet are outspoken about female genital mutilation because, to us in the West, it’s news; most of us weren’t really aware it happened. Cutting was OK for Jesus, but not for some young girl? Yes, there are differences in what is cut – perhaps there might be greater outcry against circumcision if the male glans were cut off, as the clitoris is cut off in girls. What are the moral implications? Should we address this imbalance? Cut the skin but not the clitoris/glans; cut the clitoris and glans; or stop the practice altogether. Would it be immoral to interfere in both cultural practices, or just one, or to not interfere at all? Our gut feelings are in conflict with our own Western postmodern cultural relativism, resulting in a moral relativist angst.

How arbitrary is all that!

We have many instincts trying to get the attention of our conscious minds. Our empathy tells us killing is wrong. But our empathy for the killed is in conflict with our empathy for the killer, depending on the circumstances. If it’s self-defense against an aggressive assault we side with the killer. Some found it difficult to side with the killed when Tony Martin shot dead a fleeing burglar. Even within our Western culture we can’t always decide. Why? If morals are God given or absolutes, why is it so difficult to be consistent?

Morality doesn’t come from some holy book, and it isn’t written in the foundations of the cosmos. We evolved with it and invent it’s varieties. And my moral instincts tell me that we need to figure out where we stand with our morals before we pass judgment. We need to understand the moral implications of our moral behaviour. We need to stop being so parochial and arbitrary, because otherwise we are betraying our own commitment to one of our most empathetically driven moral codes – fairness.

I know what I think morality is, but others have different views. We need to figure out what morality really is. We need to decide which culturally derived morals, or customs, are acceptable to our evolved instincts. Various international human rights organisations make fair attempts, but are often thwarted by member nations with cultures where the cultural customs have a more powerful base than science and reason.

Using philosophy alone we’ve raised questions but provided no answers. So if Sam Harris wants to try going down the route of using science, then I’m all for it. And in defense of Sam Harris, I really don’t think he means that the abstract process that is ‘science’ make decisions for us, or that it (science) will dictate how we should behave. That decision is ours, using our reason, along with the science that we perform.

The behavioural act of performing science on issues relating to how we make moral decisions and how we attribute value, and how we measure value, and what we do with the data we uncover, is a complete and entirely human process that can only improve our moral behaviour. I really think this is what Sam Harris means.

Violence with Violence

Talk about selective reading. This is a joke. It’s a bit of religious promotion based on some scientific studies that are confirming common sense. And for some it’s too good an opportunity to pass up.

“You can’t fight violence with violence” doesn’t require detailed science, or God. It’s common sense that some members of most societies have figured out is a good general rule, and that goes back well before Jesus. So, it’s hardly as if it was a new idea – but fair enough, Jesus and some of his followers have made a significant contribution to the popularisation of that view and are to be congratulated on that.

And it’s not as if science was around to figure this stuff out. As a science psychology is still relatively new, has many methodological problems, and the detailed thorough science is difficult to do. So, no surprise that science is late in the game.

But hold on, who is it that creates wars, and on what basis do wars begin? It’s usually based on ignorance about differences and dogma, and religion has had a great input here (as have non-religious dogmas). It’s religious politicians, like Bush and Blair that have wanted war on terror; it’s religiously motivated political divisions that have caused conflict, from the Christian crusades to Northern Ireland and former Yugoslavia, to the continuing tribal, racial and religious divisions in Africa.

It certainly isn’t to religion’s credit that it has not sorted these problems out so far, and it is to religions discredit that it has contributed so much to the problems. Perhaps the question should be why has it taken science to step in and provide rational reasons to explain the complexities? It’s because ignorant politics and religion have failed, and reason and science have had to come to the rescue to provide a less biased view that can be taken on board whatever one’s politics or religion (dogma permitting). Science is for everyone everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, Muslim or Jew or Christian, Roman Catholic or Anglican – there are no divisions in science, and no dogma (except when fallible humans screw it up and become dogmatic about the science).

Thorough science isn’t easy. The scientific method is used to overcome the foibles of the human mind, by trying to account for biases, such as those that religion and politics is likely to enforce. It’s thanks to sciences like anthropology, sociology, psychology, and the engineering sciences and technologies like print, radio, TV and satellite that have provided a greater understanding of the natural variety of human nature and culture and education, and the dissemination of that knowledge, that has led to slow but positive progress in lifting the veil of ignorance of a non-scientific view.

But “You can’t fight violence with violence” is a general rule. We are not that good at science yet; or more specifically we are not that good at listening to science yet. We still get ourselves into some serious fixes, through political gaffs, intolerance of the religious and non-religious alike, through ignorance. And sometimes we are left with no choice but to defend ourselves, even if it’s our own fault that got us into the mess.

We are dumb apes – which is what science tells us, and helps explain quite a lot, but which many religious deny. This denial, and the ignorant notion that we of some particular religion or other are chosen in some way fuels the ignorance.

Science fails often, in the hands of fallible humans, despite attempts to develop a scientific method to overcome our fallibilities in seeking truth. Religion fails far more. So, less of the back slapping, a little more humility, and get on with promoting the views of Jesus the peace loving mortal man, and less of the religious dogma.

The Kneeler’s post is typical of the selective reading that the religious have to develop as second nature if they are to make any sense of the Bible. And of course they always apply it to science. Science is great when it’s curing ills – though it hasn’t been beyond the religious to thank God for those cures. But where are most of the religious on evolution? Still in the dark ages. It’s also typical of the religious to claim prior credit for scientific discoveries – though Muslims seem particularly good at this as they often claim the Koran said it first, no matter how vague the reference, and no matter that they got it from the Greeks. No, it only requires the holy book to come up with some common sense notion, like ‘thou shalt not kill’, which anyone can now see is an evolutionarily driven survival strategy, for the religious to claim with self righteous indignation that it’s God’s law, and
they, by association, are the righteous ones.

The Bible is just a book, written by men. Genesis has as much scientific validity and truth as The Flintstones – sure there were dinosaurs, but not at the same time as man (tell that to the curator of the Creationist Museum); see the similarity (talking snake?). The whole Bible is an invention of minds that today would be considered uneducated – not in language, not unintelligent, just ignorant of very basic science and the methods of science and critical thinking that would have debunked many of their ideas in their own day had those methods been available. So there’s no shadow of disgrace on them – they were working with what they had.

The Bible bashers of today have no excuse. It doesn’t take much to pick holes in most of the theological crap. We don’t know how our particular universe started, so we remain ignorant of many things. We have no idea whether there is some ultimate intelligent agency behind it all, or if it is really all soulless fluctuations in nothingness – the metaphysics is beyond our data, just not beyond our imagination. But it’s foolish to build whole systems of belief on that one speculative imaginary idea about the metaphysical inaccessible, and to pile theological bunk on theological bunk on top of ancient books that have to be deciphered in ever more obscure ways to make the theology fit reality (or not).

Science is the best we can do, for now. Ridicule it viciously when it’s wrong, by all means – that’s what it needs, that’s part of the very method itself. We must be challenging our knowledge all the time, because we are not capable of being certain. We don’t have the equipment, whether it’s equipment we’ve invented or that which has evolved between our ears. But for God’s sake don’t rely on religion to tell us anything useful – and I mean ‘for God’s sake’, for if there really is a God, he’s going to be very disappointed in his own creation, if he’s endowed us with brains, and we refuse to use them, to paraphrase Galileo.

Religion has nothing to do with science – and vice versa

Thanks to Alan’s comments for this link, where he say’s “Just found this story with which I agree.”:

Religion has nothing to do with science – and vice versa, by Francisco J. Ayala

Well, though I agree with some points, there are many specific ones with which I don’t agree, and I don’t agree with the general notion that Ayala makes.

Let’s start with this:

“On the other side, some people of faith believe that science conveys a materialistic view of the world that denies the existence of any reality outside the material world. Science, they think, is incompatible with their religious faith.”

and within that, this:

“denies the existence of any reality outside the material world.

First, that’s false. Many don’t deny it. They say there’s no evidence to show it. Why? Because we are material creatures. We have senses that detect the material world. We have a material brain that operates in the material realm. How the heck are we supposed to detect or otherwise see something that is non-material? Do the religious magically have access to a realm that all of science, including religious scientists, has been unable to detect in any way. Our instruments are designed especially to extend the scale of human experience – but nowhere, never, has there been evidence of supernatural forces. Everything that has been discovered has fallen within the bounds of natural laws.

“If they are properly understood, they cannot be in contradiction because science and religion concern different matters.” – Only to the extent that the religious want this to be the case, along with the odd atheist exception, such as Stephen Jay Gould, who just wanted to let us all get on.

“The scope of science is the world of nature: the reality that is observed, directly or indirectly, by our senses. Science advances explanations about the natural world, explanations that are accepted or rejected by observation and experiment.” – This bit is right.

“Outside the world of nature, however, science has no authority, no statements to make, no business whatsoever taking one position or another.” – This bit is right too. But what the religious don’t get is that it applies to them too! Science uses reason and the senses – exactly the same faculties available to the religious. There is nothing the religious can get at that scientists can’t. In fact it’s the other way round. Science has given us access to the brain – albeit we’re still in the early stages – so that there are many examples of the brain doing weird things that one particular example, experiencing God, is really no big deal. We have no examples of anything that confirms that an experience of God is actually that and not some trick of the brain.

“Science has nothing decisive to say about values, whether economic, aesthetic or moral” – Simply not true. Science has plenty to say about all these.

“…nothing to say about the meaning of life or its purpose.” – Simply not true. Results of science suggest that there is no purpose or meaning in the sense that religion would like there to be.

“Science has nothing to say, either, about religious beliefs, except…” – No exceptions. Science can say quite a lot about beliefs, and I’m sure will be saying more and more as the various branches of brain science expose more.

“People of faith need not be troubled that science is materialistic.” – Only if they want to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t have anything to say. Wishful thinking will not make science go away.

“The methods and scope of science remain within the world of matter.” – True. Same applies to you.

“It [science] cannot make assertions beyond that world.” – And neither can you or anyone religious. Well, not quite true. You can make the assertions – and often do, but based on nothing at all.

“Science transcends cultural, political and religious beliefs because it has nothing to say about these subjects.” – Warning! Pseudo-intellectual postmodern claim! What the hell does it mean by ‘transcends’ in this statement? The word is usually the reserve of the religious, to say what they know of is above or beyond, bigger and better (e.g. Lesley’s Rollins video). The word is sometimes used to mean ‘encompasses’, as in Venn diagrams when one encompasses another: the outer includes all that’s in the inner but ‘transcends’ it by encompassing more than is in the inner.

“That science is not constrained by cultural or religious differences is one of its great virtues.” – True. It can address anything the human mind and senses can address, because it is an instrument that expands the human mind and senses. If science can’t get at it then we can’t.

“Some scientists deny that there can be valid knowledge about values or about the meaning and purpose of the world and of human life.” – This is true, but curiously this isn’t the point he then goes on to describe with regard to Dawkins. He’s confusing the point about what we have access to, what we can know, which this statement is about, with some things that we actually do have ideas about: the denying of purpose (in the religious sense) (not values – Dawkins isn’t denying that)

“There is a monumental contradiction in these assertions. If its commitment to naturalism does not allow science to derive values, meaning or purposes from scientific knowledge, it surely does not allow it, either, to deny their existence.” – This totally misunderstands the point. The point is that science shows there is no inherent purpose in the universe, not even the characteristics that give rise to us (essentially issues regarding Entropy – it all just happens as the universe ‘winds down’, to give a simple expression). This in no way prevents us, as organisms with brains that evaluate our surroundings and our selves (echoes of the free will issues here), and to derive values and purpose for ourselves, based on non-teleological evolutionary directives.

“In its publication Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, the US National Academy of Sciences emphatically asserts that religion and science answer different questions about the world…” – And this is supposed to tell us what? With all the kerfuffle in the US about religion, evolution, ID’s ‘teach the controversy’, etc., this is just a conciliatory nod to the religious that evolution won’t step on their toes if they don’t step on science’s. other than that, the specific issue of evolution doesn’t cross swords with liberal religion, since liberal religion accepts evolution and evolution doesn’t address ultimate origins; but it does very specifically deny Creationism’s young Earth claims.

“People of faith should stand in awe of the wondrous achievements of science. But they should not be troubled that science may deny their religious beliefs.” – Of course they should. Science, like any common sense approach to life, demands that we have evidence for what we are being told – otherwise you will be conned all to easily, by email scammers for one. The fact that these scams succeed is a testament to the gullibility of the human brain when left to it’s own devices. Belief in religion is another.

“Religion concerns the meaning and purpose of the world and human life” – for all it tries to do that, for all it makes claims, it has nothing to back that up. basically, even when you dress up liberal religion in postmodern ‘opinion’ truths, it says nothing more than, “What’s our purpose? Go is our purpose, or gives us our purpose, or demands our purpose, or loves us so we have the purpose to be loved, …”, and on and on with all sorts of unsubstantiated drivel that basically means they don’t know either, but they’ll have damned good fun making something up.

“[Religion concerns] the proper relation of people to their Creator and to each other” – Whoa! Hold on. “The proper relation of the people to the creator” – More postmodern bollocks. Without any evidence of a creator, or without the capacity to access the creator in order to establish there is a relation (remember, we are material beings. We don’t have access to the supernatural) Note how this grammatically reasonable but nonsensical sentence is given some semblance of meaning, “make sure we include something human, our relation to each other, just to give this nonsense some grounding in reality.”

“[Religion concerns] the moral values that inspire and govern their lives.” – Only because the religious make that claim, and then espouse morality as if they are the only ones with access to it.

“Science, on the other hand, concerns the processes that account for the natural world: how the planets move, the composition of matter and the atmosphere, the origin and function of organisms.” – And, one of these concerns is the workings of the human brain: neuroscience and evolution and anthropology suggest that internal personal ‘religious experiences’ are just brain anomalies, even if within normal bounds of variation; psychology and sociology and anthropology and evolution all suggest that external religious experiences and organisations are cultural memes that satisfied some requirement in the past.

“Religion has nothing definitive to say about …” – Well, about anything really. Religion is made-up stuff.

“According to Augustine, the great theologian of the early Christian church…” – And therein lies another problem. Augustine and other theologians concerned themselves with explaining what pertains once a belief in God is given. This puts anything else they have to say into doubt.

“Successful as it is, however, a scientific view of the world is hopelessly incomplete.” – Incomplete, yes, of course. It’s work in progress. Humans first appeared about 50,000 to 100,000 years ago – and this might be the point when we really began to use our brains, but the details are unclear. The first human markings on pottery go back about 5500 years. What we call science now had it’s base in Greek thought, but really took off just over a thousand years ago – about 1% – 2% of human existence? So, yes, we are still in our scientific infancy. We have no real conception of what science will be telling us about the brain, about religious belief, in another thousand years.

Because religion has been around for a while and science is so young, the religious seem to have the conceited view that theology has and continues to have access to great insights into the makings of the universe. But given that most of our current religious systems are not much different that those of two thousand years ago, give or take a bit of theological jiggery-pokery in the middle ages, I don’t see that religion has had anything to offer.

“Scientific knowledge may enrich aesthetic and moral perceptions and illuminate the significance of life and the world, but these matters are outside the realm of science.”No they are not, because that would put them outside the realm of human beings, when it’s human beings that create both science (the process) and these perceptions (in our brains).

Ayala made some similar statements at the Buckingham Palace reception where he received his Templeton Foundation prize. Probably is best statement was this:

“Properly they cannot be in contradiction because they deal in different subjects. They are like two windows through which we look at the world; the world is one and the same, but what we see is different,…”

My response to that is that they could be. If religion stuck to it’s organisational and pastoral care roles then it has a lot to contribute to human affairs. It differs from science in this respect in that science is best at finding things out, telling us how the world is – even though through understanding the brain and human social issues it can contribute data to be used by religious organisations. This also seems in accord with what Alan has said on his blog – he sees the pragmatic value in religion, what it can do for us.

But if religion wants to tell us how or who created the universe, what interaction the personal brain is having with as yet unknown agents (i.e. God), then these are real questions of science. Cosmology and particle physics tells us much more about how the universe actually is, and as much as we can yet know about how it began, and no amount of theological navel gazing is going to improve on that. The branches of brain science are examining how the brain works, and how it doesn’t, how it fools itself, how gullible it is, and no amount of theological navel gazing and introspection is going to tell us anything better.

The religious need to move on. I haven’t read anything by some of the more liberally religious, such as Richard Holloway, recommended to me by Lesley. Though science can’t yet answer many of our questions about our origins and our interactions with internal agents, neither can religion, and science is in the best position to get those answers, eventually.

Good Books and Pervasive Ideas

I watched Michael Mosley’s BBC Story Of Science (Episode 5) yesterday (get it while you can).

There were two messages I took from the programme, mainly because of the debates I’ve been having over on the blogs of Lesley and Alan. Those messages are:

  • The fallibility of the good books

  • The power and pervasiveness of science

Good/Bad Books

The story starts with Galen, the Roman physician and philosopher who mad remarkable progress in understanding the human body, its structure and it’s processes. He created what became the ‘good book’ of anatomy and physiology. This work was revered and studied for over a thousand years and became the ‘Bible’ of medicine.

The analogy with the Bible I want to draw out is the conviction with which its anatomy was held to be a true representation of the human body. The flaw lay in the fact that it was based on animal dissections. So despite it’s value it contained many inaccuracies that were propagated from teacher to student for centuries. But because of the authority of Galen’s book, and that of the teachers, the mistakes were believed to be truths.

Galen wasn’t challenged and further significant progress wasn’t made until Andreas Vesalius at University of Padua. Because the university wasn’t affiliated with the church the dissections of the human body, of criminals, as opposed to animal, at last began to give up its detailed secrets. Another break with tradition was that Vesalius got stuck in and found out for himself – where traditionally the teacher would have guided the demonstrator to do the dissecting by reading from Galen, describing, prescribing, what would be found, rather than what was found by the demonstrator, and all the students would nod and agree, they would bow to the authorities of the teacher and Galen’s good book.

Only when traditional boundaries and authorities were challenged would the good book’s flaws be exposed, and only when reality was dissected was the truth discovered. This should be a lesson for the religious. But sadly, for many, the old authority still rules. Even for the liberal Christian the Bible holds sway and influences their interpretations of what are personal experiences. That’s why there is no reasonable response to the charge that one good book, the Bible, is no better, no more true, that any other good book, such as the Quran. It’s all a matter of faith.

The Pervasive View of Science

The other message from the programme is one I’ve been trying to express in several ways. That is that science is not a completely different way of looking at the world.

It isn’t a new World View against which traditional Holy views must be rallied. It’s the same view we’ve always had. Science is, if anything, just a process of looking at the world more rigorously, in more detail and with finer precision, and with greater reliability.

Science does no more than account for and compensate for our own limitations, which it does through its methods for devising experiments and observational techniques, which are repeated by different people at different times in different places to rule out any local or biased influences, using instruments that extend the range of our natural senses.

This isn’t a magic against which we should be fighting. It isn’t telling us anything that is unbelievable. In fact quite the opposite, because it raises our confidence that what it’s telling us is true, increasing our trust in what it is showing us. We trust science every time we go under the surgeon’s knife and the anaesthetist gases; every time we take a trip in a plane; every time we type a blog post; every time we use a phone. We know science is the best use of the only tools we have of accessing knowledge: our reason and senses.

There is no other World View to be had that isn’t make-believe. If we can’t reason about it and sense it then we don’t know much about it – effectively nothing at all. If we can’t apply science to it, from our basic reason and senses to any of the specific methods that make up the scientific method, then what can we know about it? We have nothing else! Everything else that we make up just in our minds is fantasy. Our ideas, concepts, our nightmares, dreams, our monsters, goblins, unicorns, witches and gods – they are all fantasy; unless we can back them up, corroborate them, with our reason and senses. And the more strange our ideas the more confirmation we need before we should believe them.

If you believe you communicate with God; if there is an inner experience that is so convincing that you really believe it, if you have faith in it, I can’t offer more than say that the human brain sees and hears plenty of things that aren’t there, and we all know that this is the case. If you can’t review these examples and see that this might apply to you in some way, then what more can I do? If you think the vague paradoxical nonsensical irrational mystique of religious language is offering you an explanation for what you can’t otherwise demonstrate to be true, if you are prepared to be bamboozled into your faith, then I think you’re stuck with that.

Only the sceptical application of our reason and senses, most rigorously at work in science, will be able to set you free from the strangle hold of tradition. This isn’t some other way of knowing; there is no other way of knowing.

Irrational Science Denial

TED Video: The danger of science denial:

People wrap themselves in their beliefs, and they do it so tightly that you can’t set them free. Not even the truth will set them free. And, listen, everyone’s entitled to their opinion; they’re even entitled to their opinion about progress, but you know what you’re not entitled to? You’re not entitled to your own facts. Sorry, you’re not.

There are questions and problems with the people we used to believe were always right. So be skeptical. Ask questions, demand proof, demand evidence. Don’t take anything for granted. But here’s the thing: When you get proof, you need to accept the proof, and we’re not that good at doing that.

Now, we love to wrap ourselves in lies. We love to do it. Everyone take their vitamins this morning? Echinacea, a little antioxidant to get you going. I know you did because half of Americans do every day. They take the stuff, and they take alternative medicines, and it doesn’t matter how often we find out that they’re useless. The data says it all the time. They darken your urine. They almost never do more than that.

Well, I think I understand, we hate big pharma. … So we run away from it, and where do we run? We leap into the arms of big placebo. … But, you know, it’s really a serious thing because this stuff is crap…

And you know what? When I say this stuff, people scream at me, and they say, “What do you care? Let people do what they want to do. it makes them feel good.” And you know what? You’re wrong. Because I don’t care if it’s the secretary of H.H.S. who’s saying, “Hmm, I’m not going to take the evidence of my experts on mammograms,” or some cancer quack who wants to treat his patient with coffee enemas. When you start down the road where belief and magic replace evidence and science, you end up in a place you don’t want to be. You end up in Thabo Mbeki South Africa. He killed 400,000 of his people by insisting that beetroot garlic and lemon oil were much more effective than the antiretroviral drugs we know can slow the course of AIDS.

Watch for more.

Human Fallibility

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

From my previous post, on the contingency of knowledge, I’ve arrived at the point where our working model is that we think with our minds and we have senses to sense the natural world.

But on closer examination, by our minds, these senses appear to be fallible, so we concoct methods for gaining confidence in particular sense experiences. On even closer examination we discover that our reasoning and other cognitive faculties can also be fallible, so we take steps to account for that observation too. So all we can do is construct experience and look for multiple ways of confirming what we experience to gain confidence in it, to give credibility to it, to compensate for the fallibilities. When we do this rigorously we call this science. Science gives us the best and most reliable explanation of our cognitive and sensory experiences, accounting for and accommodating for our fallibilities the best it can.

Note that this is an entirely inductive experience, from the particular to the general. It is true that induction lies on top of no firm and absolute foundation. An inductive argument indicates some degree of support for the conclusion but does not ensure its truth. So, just to make it clear, none of this is offered as a proof! Of anything.

For any of the detail along the way we might use deductive reasoning, which is often thought to be more thorough than induction, more concrete. This does not mean that deduction is always the better choice. Deduction is fine if you construct a valid argument; and if you have true premises then you have yourself a ‘sound’ argument, the most sure argument there is. But it’s an illusion to think you can have a sound deductive argument at the limits of philosophy, in metaphysics – you can never be sure your premises are true! Why? Because all we have are our thoughts and our senses – we have no prior premises and arguments upon which to build our starting premises. So, if someone tells you they have a proof that, say, God exists, it’s baloney, because it always relies on presupposition, and the presupposition can’t be guaranteed to be true. If someone wants to offer you ‘evidence’ for God, that’s a different matter and should be treated seriously.

We are fallible human beings. The very best we can do is accumulate data, examples, lots of them, and compare them and subject them to any tests we can. We create hypotheses, of which Richard Feynman said they could just as well be guesses. Any old random guess won’t usually do – we could be here forever checking every possible hypothesis – something some theists think atheist are claiming (and what Pirsig mistakenly thought was a problem, in ZAMM – more of that in another post). Of course we base hypotheses on prior experience that appears to work. This is induction and science in action.

Science concludes (this means best explanation so far, not we’re absolutely certain) that according to our senses and reasoning there is a physical world out there. It gets a bit quirky sometimes – e.g. quantum physics – but so far nothing has been found to refute this tentative conclusion. I mean, really, nothing! You have to consider what it would mean to refute this. You would have to find something that isn’t physical. This is a tall order. Before sub-atomic particles were figured out the world was still physical. Discovering the sub-atomic particles didn’t introduce some magic into the universe – it was simply that we discovered something we didn’t know was there before, but is still considered part of the physical universe.

This is what will happen with any ‘paranormal’ effect or ‘energy’ that might exist. If it exists, then when it is found, that is when there is evidence of it, then it too will become a part of our physical description of the universe. The reason the paranormal is ridiculed so much isn’t because we know it to be false absolutely, it’s that fantastic claims have been made, but no evidence has been found to support them.

Astrology? No evidence. And further more, many of these ‘crank’ pseudo-sciences, are actually shown not to fit with scientific ideas that have much more support. The moon clearly has an immediate impact on our lives, with the tides; and has influenced us over a long evolutionary period. The other planets contribute to the stability of the solar system, and provide attractors for debris that might otherwise come our way. A supernova going off too close would have a significant impact too. Some cosmic events could wipe out life on our planet. But the suggestion that the particular arrangement of planets and stars at the time of our birth has some impact on the formation of our individual character? No only is it a dumb idea, but we now know of many more personal localised biological, psychological and sociological influences that are involved in the formation of our character. Astrology is a good representation of how bad ‘mystical’ nonsense can be – it doesn’t even rate as pseudo-science.

Evidence is the route to discovery and the support and maintenance of ideas and theories and facts. No evidence? Then it might as well not exist.

Not, you note, that it doesn’t exist! Science does not have to assert that anything in particular does not exist. It only says to what extent there is evidence to support an idea or the existence of something.

In everyday life, if we can’t see it, taste it, feel it, etc., then we might as well act as if it doesn’t exist, even if it does, for how can we tell the difference. We can happily go about our daily lives as if the speed of light does not have a limit, because in our daily lives we never reach that limit, and where it does impact on our lives, we are usually ignorant of it. Many cities around the world are built as if earthquakes don’t exist, because in those regions they rarely experience any of significance – and yet on a larger scale, for thos eliving in safe zones, we not only know they exist but we consciously participate in relief for those that suffer from them.

The extent to which reality affects us has some influence over how much we live as if some aspect of relaity exists or not. So, what about God?

We can ignore God as an entity because whether he exists or not makes no apparent difference. And even based on reason alone, so many varieties of teleological entities can be dreamed up, the limited theisms of the religious don’t really cover the bases they are trying to protect. And as for actual effects, … prayer does nothing to the event being prayed for, and has only psychological effects on believers. This means that despite the fact that theists can’t prove God exists and atheists can’t disprove it, it’s irrelevant, because there is no evidence, and that’s sufficient. We can act as if God does not exist because there is no evidence that such an entity does exist.

Many theists realise this and no longer require the existence of God as an entity ‘out there’ – See Rob Bell (h/t Lesley’s Blog). But that doesn’t mean theists have dealt with the problem of human fallibility in relation to faith. I’ll get to that in another post.

Of course, those people that believe God exists do themselves exist, and they do have an impact on the reality of the rest of us, which is a bit of a nuisance at times.

Thin Blue Line

Are you worried you know nothing at all about our environmental problems? Do terms like Greenhouse Gas, Climate Change and the like have you concerned, but you simply don’t understand how basic atmospheres work and how important they are to life? Then check this programme out while you can.

Thin Blue Line, Brian Cox, BBC iPlayer

This is probably one of the best popular explanation of why we need an atmosphere that’s appropriate for life, and how fragile atmospheres can be. There’s no doom mongering, just pure unadulterated enthusiasm for how our planet’s atmosphere works. In the context of other planets and moons you get a real feel for how special our planet is, and why we should consider, at the very least, what we are doing to it.

The Problem with Faith

Following on from my previous blog, I think the crutial point is faith.

I think Stephen is right in that any point of view can be a faith (http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/ – Faith topic), and that’s certainly the case for most, if not all, religions. And I personally know at least one person for whom atheism is a faith. She has no interest in any arguments one way or the other, and certainly has no interest in science, but believes herself to be endowed with ultra reliable common sense, to the extent that she believes the whole God business is nonsense. It’s as if this faith of hers has grown out of some dissatisfaction with religion and all its trappings, a discomfort in the presence of religious people and proceedings. Continue reading “The Problem with Faith”