Dumb questions online: is there an “impenetrable wall” between humans and other creatures?

November 13, 2010 • 8:04 am

Lest you think that the Templeton Foundation is moving steadily away from woo and towards real science, have a look at this week’s Big Questions Online, where religious apologetics and obfuscation rub elbows with theistic evolution. First up is Mark Vernon, he of the Holy Rabbit Parody, who mangles physics in an attempt to show the real nature of God:

But where does that leave God? Subject to time too. God’s perfect knowledge of the universe is not absolute omniscience but current omniscience: God knows about what exists, not about what doesn’t yet exist.

It is a mark of Templeton’s desperation—or bad judgment—that they pay this man good money to publish such dumb apologetics about science and religion.

Right next door, Roger Scruton goes all anti-scientistic and apophatic, moving seamlessly from our love of music and literature to Jebus.

[Vladimir Jankélévitc] is right that something can be meaningful, even though its meaning eludes all attempts to put it into words. Fauré’s F sharp Ballade is an example: so is the smile on the face of the Mona Lisa; so is the evening sunlight on the hill behind my house. Wordsworth would describe such experiences as “intimations,” which is fair enough, provided you don’t add (as he did) further and better particulars. Anybody who goes through life with open mind and open heart will encounter these moments of revelation, moments that are saturated with meaning, but whose meaning cannot be put into words. These moments are precious to us. When they occur it is as though, on the winding ill-lit stairway of our life, we suddenly come across a window, through which we catch sight of another and brighter world — a world to which we belong but which we cannot enter. . .

Like my philosophical predecessors, I want to describe that world beyond the window, even though I know that it cannot be described but only revealed. I am not alone in thinking that world to be real and important. But there are many who dismiss it as an unscientific fiction. And people of this scientistic cast of mind are disagreeable to me. Their nerdish conviction that facts alone can signify, and that the “transcendental” and the eternal are nothing but words, mark them out as incomplete. There is an aspect of the human condition that is denied to them. . .

But a question troubles me as I am sure it troubles you. What do our moments of revelation have to do with the ultimate questions? When science comes to a halt, at those principles and conditions from which explanation begins, does the view from that window supply what science lacks? Do our moments of revelation point to the cause of the world?

When I don’t think about it, the answer seems clear. Yes, there is more to the world than the system of causes, for the world has a meaning and that meaning is revealed. But no, there is no path, not even this one, to the cause of the world: for that whereof we cannot speak, we must consign to silence — as Aquinas did.

Jebus is floating around in there somewhere, but about that we may not speak.

But to me the worst piece—because it involves co-opting evolutionary biology for religious causes—is the essay by Simon Conway Morris, “The persistent paradox of human uniqueness.”

Conway Morris is of course a highly respected paleontologist whose analysis of the Burgess Shale fauna gave unique insights into early metazoan life.  But his love of Jebus—he’s a Roman Catholic—has driven him off the rails, and he’s spending the latter part of his career trying to show two things:  a. humans are a unique product of evolution, qualitatively different from any other animal, including other apes, and b. this uniqueness was instilled in us by God, who tweaked evolution to make the appearance of Homo jebensis an inevitability.

Curiously, he argues for the inevitability of humans by showing examples of evolutionary convergence: those cases in which similar features arise in unrelated taxa. Some examples are the vertebrate and cephalopod eye, the convergent appearance of some marsupials and their placental equivalent (“moles” for example), and the similar appearance of New World cacti and Old World euphorbs. (I give examples of these in WEIT).

For Conway Morris, this convergence shows that evolution follows inevitable paths.  But that’s a curious argument to use for the “inevitability” of humans which, after all, arose only once.  If humanoid intelligence (and, by extension, our ability to apprehend and worship a god) was so inevitable, why did it evolve only a single time?  I won’t belabor my critique of the “convergence” argument for human inevitability, for it’s laid out in greater detail my New Republic essay, “Seeing and believing.”

Well, it’s one thing to say, as the Catholic Church does, that humans evolved like other creatures, but differ critically in the possession of a soul.  That’s bad enough, since there’s no evidence of a soul that is separate from the human brain and that lives on after corporeal death.  But it’s another thing to claim, as Conway Morris seems to do in his piece, that our mentality and brain morphology are separated by an unbridgeable gap from those of our closest “relatives” (I’m not sure, actually, that Conway Morris sees living apes as our “relatives” if the gap between us is unbridgeable by evolution.)

After a long, boring, and poorly-written historical introduction—Conway Morris seems to have aspirations to write like his erstwhile nemesis Steve Gould, but lacks the equipment—the author gets down to business:

As the ever-growing flood of scientific data first undercuts the theological bank before the citadel itself falls to ruin, so the proposal that humans are unique was first quaint, is now absurd.  Surely the twin strands of archaeology and animal behavior have finally erased the differences? Australopithecus morphs into HomoNew Caledonian crows craft tools far more complex than anything from chimp culture. So where’s the problem?

All cut and dried. Except that the paradox of human uniqueness shows no signs of dissipating. Think of the Australian philosopher David Stove’s intelligent, acerbic and hugely entertaining Darwinian Fairytales. Here, in a loosely connected set of essays, he argues that all that makes us human falls far beyond any Darwinian explanation. Yet Stove was no closet creationist.  As an atheist, his attacks on religion, and much else besides, are bracing stuff. In his essay What is wrong with our thoughts, Stove announces that as soon as humans attempt “any depth or generality of thought, they go mad almost infallibly. The vast majority, of course, adopt the local religious madness …  But the more powerful minds will, equally infallibly, fall into the worship of some intelligent and dangerous lunatic, such as Plato … or Marx.”

And then Conway Morris argues that there seems to be an evolutionary firewall between ourselves and other species, and not one that merely involves our possession of a soul (in which he presumably believes). It is an evolutionary gap in the evolution of mind and mentality. I quote in extenso:

Nevertheless where Stove sees embodied lunacy, I see something far stranger and more creative. From whatever perspective you prefer to view the problem, it still underlines our sheer uniqueness. The paper-thin differences that separate us from such animals as apes, dolphins, crows, parrots and quite possibly octopi look tenuous to a degree — but there remains an impenetrable wall. Both briefly (Johan Bolhuis and Clive Wynne in Nature 458, 832-833; 2009) and at length (Derek Penn, Keith Holyoak and Daniel Povinelli in Behavioral and Brain Sciences 31, 109-178; 2008) have queried whether the continuum that should link the human mind to the rest of creation, be it phyletically to the ape or convergently to the crow, entails a serious delusion. Like Mivart, none of these researchers doubt either the facts of evolution or the undoubted mental capacities of animals.  But do we see eye to eye? Tantalizingly close to be sure, but at each and every turn somehow the animal key never quite fits the human lock.

And this is not so surprising.  Even compared to the primates our brains show significant differences, and not just in terms of size. But — and this is the crucial point — how these neurological differences translate into the emergence of new cognitive worlds is not obscure, it is entirely opaque. And this is a point that Mivart would have saluted. Mivart’s insistence that evolution must not be denied its metaphysical context earns as much scoffing now as it did in the time of Huxley and Darwin. Yet it is no accident that when Darwin came to explain how matter became rational he lost his nerve. Writing in 1860 to Asa Gray, he remarked on how “A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton” as we might try to discern the true nature of the universe.

Note well Conway Morris’s words: ” how these neurological differences translate into the emergence of new cognitive worlds is not obscure, it is entirely opaque.”  Translation: we don’t yet understand the evolutionary path connecting the brains of our apey ancestors with those of modern humans, so the difference couldn’t have evolved. Ergo Jesus.  This is, pure and simple, a God of the gaps argument.

And of course since Darwin’s timorous conclusion science has made great strides in understanding not just the evolution of our brain, but also in connecting our mentality and behavior with those of our closest relatives.  So far as we know, there is no “unbridgeable gap.” Even human morality, once the sine qua non of our uniqueness, yields when we see its rudiments in other primates.

No, we don’t yet understand how our neurons have assembled the construct of human consciousness (but surely other great apes are conscious in similar ways!), intentionality, and morality, but why on earth does that imply that we’re special constructs of God?  Conway Morris goes on:

Mivart would have found this an astonishing capitulation. He was no more a creationist than Darwin, but for Mivart human intelligence was far from being some sort of accidental by-product of the universe. Rather, it was the key to the universe itself.

Conway Morris is what BioLogos calls an “evolutionary creationist.”  It saddens me to do this, but I’ll make the same caveat about Conway Morris that I did about Michael Behe when reviewing Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box for Nature: “If the history of science shows us anything, it is that we get nowhere by labelling our ignorance ‘God’.”

Conway Morris has apparently been impelled by his Catholicism to make scientifically untenable assertions, and to evoke a “science-stopper” argument that we’ll never understand how evolution produced the human mind.  It’s really sad to see a first-class scientist engage in these shenanigans. I’ll paraphrase Steve Weinberg’s bon mot here:  With or without religion, there are good scientists and bad scientists, but to make a good scientist into a bad one—that takes religion.

86 thoughts on “Dumb questions online: is there an “impenetrable wall” between humans and other creatures?

  1. I’d be interested to know at what point in human evolution he thought this occurred, as there’s undoubtedly been gradual evolution of encephalization, for example. Also, what does he think about Neanderthals? Did they have souls, too? What about the recent discovery that most non-Africans are part Neanderthal in their DNA? Can homo sapiens sapiens mate with non-special creatures and create hybrids that, what, have a fraction of human super-specialness?

    1. Read carefully: Australopithecus *morphed* into H. Sapiens sapiens. There was no evolution. It’s as if a braindead monkey woke up one morning and was Sarah Palin. Oh wait, that really did happen …

  2. A friend of mine went to a Simon Conway Morris talk hosted by the Jesuits in Dublin a few years back. He said that for the most part Conway Morris talked science and criticized the ID movement. However at the end, prompted by a few religious members of the audience he divulged his major difference with the consensus scientific position on consciousness. He said that in his view consciousness is not to be primarily explained by the material matter and functioning of the brain but rather that the brain functions as a sort of receiver for the mind which is distinct from the material brain.
    In other words it is a version of the classical dualistic view of consciousness. There wasn’t anyone in the audience who challenged him on this (my friend is not a scientist so doesn’t know about the mountains of neurobiology that renders the dualistic viewpoint untenable) and I haven’t heard Conway Morris explicitly state the same point in public again (my friend mentioned that at the time Conway Morris made the claim he did it rather sheepishly – even suggesting that other scientists might consider him a little crazy to hold that view!)

    1. Neurobiology doesn’t refute dualism (the soul could be tweaking ion channels or phosphorylating PSD-95, or–for the hard core nut jobs with higher degrees–it could be regulating quantum coherence in microtubules, to what end we know not). Luckily, physics does refute dualism, and either way Occam tells us that we aren’t obliged to consider it in the first place.

      1. Well, if there is an “other” source for mind other than the brain, there would of necessity have to be a receiver of such signals in the brain.
        Which would be discernible anatomically and functionally.
        So, I think neurobiology can inform the discussion. Neurology, specifically SPECT, PET and fMRI imaging, can settle it.
        The issue’s long over. Even Morris acknowledges this when he states his ideas are thought to be crazy. I wouldn’t go that far — merely that they’ve been completely refuted.
        Dualism is as dead as a doornail, and as imaginary as any god.

      2. Well, in a way Conway-Morris is right… a brain is a sort of receiver/interpreter of sensory input… but all that input comes from material inputting devices like eyes, ears, etc. and all it’s input is all measurable as well. It’s all matter and movement. And as physics tells us, a force requires the interaction of two forms of matter… nothing moves (or stops moving) without a force.

        Talking about consciousness without these material aspects is akin to talking about sound in a vacuum; it just isn’t a coherent concept. Consciousness is a brain’s interpretation of it’s material input just as what appears on a computer screen is a result of what is put into the computer. I can’t imagine what consciousness without material aspects would be any more than I can imagine a computer program without material aspects.

      3. Not dualism but non-hidden variables *could* be regulating quantum states in microtubules. Quantum mechanics explicitly forbid hidden, say dualistic, variables.

        But as Tegmark showed the time scale for decoherence in the tubules is too short to be coupled to the brain’s processes.

    2. I attended at talk a few years ago by George V. Coyne (not to be confused with another notable Coyne), a Jesuit priest and astronomer and he gave a similar sounding talk where the theme was evolution is teleological/directed, humans are a result of natural processes but at some point imbued with a soul, if you take the tree of life, squish it up and squint your eyes just so then by gum it looks like an arrow, ergo jebus.

      Given that he cited Pierre Teilhard de Chardin as an early influence, none of this should be surprising and this may explain the similarities in the views of Simon Conway Morris and George V. Coyne.

      He started off his talk sounding very rational, taking swipes at creationism and ID and then without any sense of irony that I could see descended into the above lunacy.

      This all took place at the Newman Centre Chapel at the University of Toronto and the mostly Catholic audience lapped it all up.

      George V. Coyne also appeared in Bill Maher’s film Religulous.

      I had a chance to chat with Coyne after his talk and congratulated him on his role in Religulous, which had just come out, but he seemed uncomfortable with his “Fifteen minutes of fame”.

    3. So the brain is like a wi-fi node.
      That explains demonic possession. Sinners are walking around with unsecured nodes and they can get hacked.

      Exorcism isn’t magic or superstition: It’s spiritual IT security!

    4. I would have asked him how the mind tunes to the god channel – so I can jam the damned thing. However, I suspect his proposed mechanism is magic and I can’t jam magic.

  3. I’m sorry, I seem to have missed the bit where there’s actual evidence for these “new cognitive worlds”. Seeing as we don’t actually know what consciousness is, I don’t see how we can say scientifically that other organisms are not conscious. It seems a little anthropocentric (and not at all parsimonious) to assume that our experience of the world is qualitatively different from other organisms without compelling evidence to the contrary, particularly given the level of homology in brain structure and function across large chunks of evolutionary time. I’ve heard other scientists say stuff like this a million times, and I’m always baffled by it – it seems that they start from the assumption that humans are exceptional and work their way back from that. I would like to see some proof of the premise first, please, because it seems like every concrete, nontrivial thing that anyone has ever pointed to and said “Humans are the only animals that do THIS” has almost immediately been followed by a counterexample.

      1. Well, I think it does take a certain type of brain development to have a thought such as, “I’m a superior species”, but I suspect all life that “feels”, “feels” that the world revolves around them… that it’s perfectly suited for them and it and it’s kind.

        Toddlers think the world started when they began to get conscious of it. It’s only as we mature that we increase our circles of empathy and grasp that other people have things going on more important than the fact than the fact that we ran out of Kool-Aid.

        From my cat’s perspective, the world does seem to be perfectly suited for him. No doubt he feels superior to the primate that caters to him. I don’t think he thinks these thoughts, but I also doubt he thinks humans are the glorious things that Vernon et. al. think we are nor would he care one bit about the Mona Lisa’s smile (I’m not even sure he would perceive a person in 2d picture.)

        It sounds to me like these guys are saying, “isn’t it great that we can have thoughts about how great we are– this is proof of god!”

    1. “‘Humans are the only animals that do THIS’ has almost immediately been followed by a counterexample.”

      What’s the non-human animal counterexample of literature and science?

      1. Are literature and science defining characteristics of humans? Because if so, the hominids who lived circa 5000 years ago were not humans.

        The point at issue is not that there are things humans can do which non-humans can not. The question is whether there are any actions which *all* humans can carry out, including those of millennia ago, which no non-humans can, even in rudimentary form.

        1. I would say art, which predates written language by many thousands of years. I don’t know of any other animals that make visual representations of physical things as early humans did.

          But I don’t think this supports the “impenetrable wall” hypothesis.

          1. Same question – were humans not conscious or not human before art? Human art isn’t always representational, but very few people would say that that’s a defining characteristic of “art”. Is there a definition of “art” that is not obviously anthropocentric that includes all human works that are thought to be “art” but excludes a bowerbird’s bower, or a beehive, or any of the other awesome structures that animals build? I don’t think so.

            1. And many more animals that work in the performing arts, that seem to thoroughly enjoy their precision dancing and aerobatics.

  4. de Waal famously claimed that the most parsimonious explanation to an animal behaviour that is similar to human behaviour is that the motives or the causes of this behaviour in the animal are the same, or similar, to those in humans. See one example:

    I think the majority of the people of the field, however, feel more comfortable with explanations that are based on more simple processes. Here is a great paper on that issue: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20685155 – unfortunately, no free access.

    1. I’m a little confused by your interpretation of the second paper. It seems to me that Shettleworth is actually arguing that humans and other animals are potentially cognitively very similar, but that human behaviors that had previously been seen as being necessarily complex are quite possibly the result of much simpler mechanisms. That’s not an argument that animal behavior is fundamentally different from human behavior, if anything it argues against that idea.

      1. Yes, you are right of course – Shettleworth does not claim that animal and human behaviour are fundamentaly different, and I wasn’t trying to suggest that, so I was probably not clear enough about it.
        My comment was in response to yours, and I was trying to say that while some researchers (such as de Waal), are content with explanations that might be called anthropomorphic, others prefer to rely on simpler processes – and yes, it’s becoming a trend in human psychplpgy as well.
        This is a scientific debate, and all involved are evolutionary psychologists that accept the fundamental similarity between us and other animals (why else be an evolutionary psychologist?). It has nothing to do with religion or dualism.

  5. Yes, I’m also curious as to when this unbridgeable gap was attained.

    A. Aferensis?
    H. Erectus?
    H. Habilis?
    H. Sapiens Neandertalis?
    H. Sapiens sapiens?

    And what evidence does he use to support this contention. Neandertals had as large or larger brains as us. Their DNA confirms them to be cousin species, intermediate between us and chimps.

    But no soul, apparently.

    BTW: I think Neandertals are the perfect species to argue contra Morris. They wore clothes, used tools, had big brains, and all that. Products of the evolutionary process, yet separate from us. With apparently very little mixing.

    How is it that we got the “soul”? Oh right, we probably killed the Neandertals or out-competed them for scarce food resources.

    So the ensoulment ceremony was preceded by a species genocide? And then Jesus came? Is that how it worked?

    1. I wonder if they ever get tired of trying to make sense of their religion?

      I was raised Catholic, and I gave up trying to make sense of it in my teen years. At first I was afraid to question it (the whole hell thingie), so I just put it on the back burner.

      I wanted there to be souls– they “felt” real, so I segued into new age beliefs because they “resonated” with me. (Ha!) But eventually I started bumping into some hard facts (people with brain damage, for example.) I just didn’t feel like lying to myself anymore. The world made much more sense if souls were just a product of the mind. And without souls, why even try to believe in any gods?

      All the spin in the world can’t make a lie into the truth.

    2. The current research suggests that Sapiens sapiens intermixed with Neaderthals. What happened to the souls of these hybrids?

      1. They were obviously abominations of nature – today we call them ‘homosexuals’. Well, in bizarro world anyway.

  6. A bit of an aside: if humans were inevitable, why didn’t we arise in the Permian, or the Triassic or Jurassic or Cretaceous? I mean, there isn’t much about the animals during those times that was qualitatively different from what animals have now. Eyes, ears, taste, smell, digestive systems, immune systems, kidneys and livers, circulatory systems, the general vertebrate morphology (in an even wider range of sizes and shapes), nervous systems (including brains!), all the usual behaviors (predatory, predator-avoidance, movement, mating/reproductive, care for young, etc), a diversity of limb morphology, etc.; they had it all.

    It seems that for the last 400 million years or so like the “intelligent generalist” niche remained unoccupied until primates seized the day in just the last few million years. Over that enormous time span the history of life records several large mass extinctions (and many smaller ones), and even with those restarts, many tens of millions of years went by in the current era before it happened.

    Given the record, what exactly is it about humans the suggests we were inevitable?

    1. Humans had to wait for the proper time before they could appear, the same way that there could be no “have no slaves” passage in the bible, because God had to wait for the proper time, and could only address the people of the time in their own terms (this works for genocide, etc). Hmm, yet that doesn’t seem to effect those “prophecies” of Jesus that have no connection to Jesus until one is read back into it later…pretty funny, actually…

      As for human inevitability… professional midget wrestling. The world would not be the same without it, therefore it was inevitable. I run rings around your logic!

      1. “professional midget wrestling”

        ROFL! The best (OK, the *worst*) argument for the universe I’ve heard.

    2. The answer is obvious: that wasn’t god’s plan! See how simple it is? Whenever someone asks another sensible question you have very simple choices:

      1. god made it that way
      2. that wasn’t god’s plan
      3. that’s god’s plan
      4. god’s punishing the wicked
      5. god’s testing the virtuous
      6. god doesn’t want us to know
      7. god says so
      8. god didn’t do it, man did it because he rejected god
      9. god did it
      10. the devil did it

  7. I just read you post, so I’ll have to try and read his later, but my first thought on the convergence issue is that since there are creatures that seem to evolve similar features even if unrelated, then there should be more conscious creatures, but since humans are it, there must be some other factor at work, hence Jebus!

    I would wonder how Morris can just assume that other creatures are not conscious in some fashion, since I am unaware of any test that can be done on animals. I think our best test is only for awareness of self, which is just a part of consciousness (or is this supposed to be the basis of consciousness that is absolutely necessary?). Are our tests accurate enough? I seem to recall some recent story where someone’s tests showed that another animal besides chimps (and dolphins? elephants?) connected a mirror image with their own identity, so our tests are hardly foolproof and we learn more every day.

    It’s still just a large Argument from Ignorance.

    1. We don’t really have a great definition of consciousness, but I’m willing to say that anything that seems to feel sadness, joy, and/or concern for it’s young or other animals is “conscious”. It may not be able to have the thought, “I am conscious”, but when we talk about a human being conscious or unconscious what we are talking about their capacity to feel not think. Babies don’t have a lot of thought, but we understand that they can feel pain so we anesthetize them for surgery, etc.

      I think these religious scientists are going out of their way to make consciousness something special and mystical (unknowable), but it’s more a matter of word games. It’s probably true that most other species (and many humans) don’t or can’t think about thinking. Although this is pretty cool, it’s clearly a product of evolution (and a byproduct of language evolution). Any god worth his title who thought it was important could have just inserted it from the get go. In any case, I think it’s silly to twist this into evidence for “god” (and even sillier to think that one can extrapolate that vague god to the idea that the Jesus story is true!)

      It’s weird because theists “know” of “god” because of the writings he supposedly inspired. But those writings don’t really speak well of that god and they conflict with each other and science, so they try a round-about-way of getting to god via semantics, speculation, ignorance, and “gee whiz wonder”. And then they have to do the mental gymnastics to get the two gods together so that the god they were indoctrinated to believe in coincides with the god they pulled out of their asses. It amuses me, but it’s so… sad. How much mental power is wasted on trying to reconcile faith based notions with the facts? Don’t they see that their vague gods could be tied equally well to Zeus or Xenu or whatever other story someone has been indoctrinated to believe in.

      When people realize that souls are an illusion, then they will stop wasting their time and mental faculties on those who want to tell them about gods. What would it take for these scientists to realize that souls are an illusion? I feel like that are tap dancing like mad to keep proving to try to prove to themselves that they are not– as if believing something enough could make it true.

  8. Mark Vernon is a pretty small fish to fry. As recently as two years ago Vernon was touting his agnosticism, but he seems to have undergone a conversion since then, and now seems to believe that nonsense concatenations of words actually make sense. He is clearly so small of intellect that he will never notice how absurd he has become.

    Simon Conway Morris is a fish from a very different ocean, clearly, since he is, by all accounts, an accomplished biologist. But he seems drawn to silly arguments and statements as a moth is drawn to flame. Take this particular point from his BQ article:

    “We are in the midst of a gigantic movement … nor is any reconcilement possible between free thought and traditional authority”.

    This is from a letter of TH Huxley to his wife. SCM takes it as evidence that THH has a philosophical agenda! This is surely bizarre. The whole point of science is free thought, thought that has escaped the trammels of religious authority, and, however complex theories may become, must be cashed in in terms of evidence. If that is having an agenda, what would a scientist be without that particular one?

    But to call Mivert a visionary, and to claim that while “Huxley swooned over the primroses lining the path to his imagined utopian future, Mivart smelled the ovens of Auschwitz,” is simply to misunderstand the origins of those ovens, which are as deeply rooted in the idea of human exceptionalism as they are in any evidence based examination of the world. As we know from the terrorists who now plague the world, religion is quick to take up the tools that science provides in order to defeat the cognitive world in which science itself is the primary foundation.

    This is just the old argument that we cannot live truly human lives unless we subordinate them to an unknown something that is held to provide guidance and stablity for them. Losing that basis for crafting truly human life, SCM holds (or at least suggests) that we stand only “one step from the abyss.” Can he not see that the paths leading the edge of that abyss are almost entirely religious? It is, of course, true that scientific lore held with religious enthusiasm and attached to secular ideologies can lead to disastrous consequences. But to suppose that Huxley’s agenda led that way is a misunderstanding of the conflict between science and traditional (mainly religious) authority, which now seems to be given new life by people like SCM, who should know better. Religion, as the man says, poisons everything.

  9. But where does that leave God? Subject to time too. God’s perfect knowledge of the universe is not absolute omniscience but current omniscience: God knows about what exists, not about what doesn’t yet exist.

    Watching these people try to get around the paradoxes of omniscience is pure entertainment. The judges just have to score perfect 10’s, across the board, for those backward somersaults—perfect form, stuck the landing, etc.

    1. And, of course, this is completely contrary to the flailings of noted apologists like William Lame Craig, who assert with exactly the same amount of evidence that god is outside of time.

      A no-holds-barred cage grudge match is sure to be the next thing on the agenda. “In time” vs “out of time” apologists.

      Get the popcorn.

      1. Yes, we can watch the Pay-Per-View at my place.

        It is funny how, the ONLY thing that would throw a wrench into such an argument between Craig and Vernon…would be actual evidence of some kind.

        1. And God, according to Vernon, is no longer an ‘imperial ruler’ but a ‘fellow sufferer’ who understands and sympathises with our suffering (while being able to do nothing about it). This surely suggests (though such as Vernon and Polkinghorne are not, I think, explicit about it) that on some level we are meant to feel sorry for God, who suffers hugely and eternally (a perpetual crucifixion), whereas our suffering is (mercifully) brief and trivial in comparison. What a contemptible idea! I am reminded again of the story of the Spanish peasant told by Miguel de Unamuno: a priest was explaining the latest theological niceties (Karen Armstrong stuff, Polkinghorne stuff, Vernon stuff) to the peasant, who listened carefully, then spat and said, ‘Then what use is He?’

          1. That reminds me of the priest who came to a remote Irish parish and found the congregation woefully ignoration of the distinction between dulia (veneration of saints) latria (worship of God) and hyperdulia (the special veneration due Jesus’ Mother). When he’d finished, one old dear tottered down the aisle to the statue of the Virgin and said “Don’t listen to him, Mary! We do SO worship you!”

  10. “…even though I know that it cannot be described but only revealed.”

    It’s not much of a revelation if it can’t be described. It sounds more like indigestion.

    1. I, too, feel feelings that I can’t describe. I did when I was religious and I do as an atheist. Back then, I attributed these deep feelings to something mystical communicating some deep truth with me because I was special. I arrogantly thought that few if anyone had ever felt anything so profound.

      Now, I interpret it as part of the mosaic of emotions that come with being human. It’s a wondrous ordeal inside my head, and I want others to feel this same great thing. I try to think of what triggered it so that I can share it with others. I suspect a lot of religious proselytizing is based on a similar motive. (So, no doubt, is an offer of heroin.)

      I also feel despair to know that others have experienced the depths of anguish I’ve experiences and worse. My feelings are not unique. I don’t doubt that other animals feel similar feelings.

      I understand that emotions are hard to describe and why they seem to be coming from outside forces… ideas seem to come out of the blue– sprites? angels? muses? So does coveting and lust and irritation– demons? Satan? gremlins? A lot of times we don’t know why we do or think or say what we do; often we make up reasons when asked.

      But I think it’s time that we encourage the grown ups in society to understand that the origins of these feelings is natural –and to stop bleating about how they must come from some mystical magical realm that no-one but they can understand. I liken such claims to Sagan’s writers who claimed to have had alien visitations. I can believe that they really believe they had such experiences– and that their feelings about those experiences are profound– but I don’t believe that aliens are visiting our planet. I’d need evidence for that. I think they are misperceiving events based on feelings and what they’ve come to believe. I think the same of religious people and their magical experiences they can’t describe.

      Of course they can’t describe them– to describe them would give us something to test– something we could falsify! And that would spoil the whole “feeling special” thingie they get from their beliefs! Believers are desperate to get others to believe so they can strengthen their own belief in the veracity of their interpretation of what caused their feelings.

      Like Sam Harris, I think such claims should be taken about as seriously as those claimin Elvis sightings or those claiming alien probes (until the evidence warrants us taking it more seriously, of course! 😉 )

      1. Subjective experiences can be described, but can’t automatically be transferred to another. You are trapped so to speak within your subjective experience, feeling lonely, wanting others to experience it, like if they take a lick of your ice cream (even then, there’s no duplication of subjective experience, but at least there is an physical object, the ice cream that is being experienced together).

        Humans have to except that at this time, we live alone in our minds, though there are all kinds of wonderful bridges we can construct between each other, like music, art, and literature. Religion on the other hand is a cesspit of misunderstanding, bias, stale dogma, and nonsense, simply hijacking our ability to have subjective experiences and our need to share them.

        1. Yes, we humans have a strong need to share our feelings with others– it makes us feel less alone and more like our feelings matter… or perhaps it’s a form of intimacy– a way of amplifying our own emotions or weaving them into an emotional story. We are social creatures, after all.

          Religion hijacks this need. It claims to be the reason for these intense feelings and uses various means to manipulate such feelings in its membership. (Lots of cults use “love bombing”, for example…. loneliness is said to be a “Jesus shaped hole in your heart”…) Religions claim these feelings are glimpses of higher truths, messages from god, etc. Mormons are told that they will know Mormon doctrine is true because they will “feel a burning in the bosom”– this makes any feeling that one can describe as a “burning in the bosom” turn into evidence for the veracity of Mormonism. In the Mormon world, those who don’t feel a “burning in the bosom” often feel something is wrong with them– many convince themselves that they have felt it, they just thought it would feel differently. They seldom consider that the premise itself is manipulative and flawed.

          Every successful religion is doing something like this on some level. They will vilify those who don’t defer to their faith as well. These virulent memes evolve again and and infect their human hosts so well due to human emotional vulnerabilities. Then it spreads because humans have a need to share what they feel and the things that they think are responsible for their feelings.

          I notice that religionists like to use semantic games to convince themselves that their beliefs are good and true, but they’d never accept such “evidence” for the myriad of claims that conflict with theirs. They want to believe that people of their faith have something special that no on else has– they don’t really think this is true of other faiths. So, at the core, all theists are being dishonest, hypocritical, and arrogant when they talk about their faith. They want other people of faith to imagine they are including them, but they are really just talking about their own brand of woo.

          When Giberson, etc. defend faith– he goes out of his way to note that he is really just talking about his brand of Christianity. He doesn’t want anyone to think he is defending Muslims, Moonies, Mormon, or Scientologists. And yet when he defends faith as a means of knowledge he is defending them all. All theists are on the SAME side of the fence in the atheist/theist devide There is no way to separate a “true faith” (as if there was one) from a false one though everyone imagines they’ve stumbled into the true one.

  11. Religious people so often confuse mental perceptions (“that sunset is beautiful”) with reality. Sunsets may or may not be beautiful to various observers at various times, but that doesn’t mean some outside being is “designing” beautiful sunsets or that they are beautiful absent someone perceiving them as such. The beauty of sunsets like “evil” or the super duper specialness of “human intelligence” is a product of human thought; they don’t exist absent a human perceptions of such. If other animals had such a capacity for thought, I’m sure they’d find their own evolved capabilities far more enchanting than any of ours. It’s not amazing that a species should evolve to find it’s own species the most attractive and relevant of all! This seems so obvious to me, and yet theists can’t seem to grasp it at all.

    As for Mivart, human intelligence is not the key to the universe; it just the key that allows humans to understand more and more of the universe. Of course, faith throws a monkey wrench into the works.

    And if there were any evidence whatsoever that any sort of consciousness (be it souls, gods, demons, whatever) could exist outside a material brain, then there would be data that scientists could test, refine, and build upon. What scientists wouldn’t be eager to learn more about such things? But despite eons of such belief (along with faith, wishful thinking, and garbled semantics) there just is nothing. The evidence seems increasingly clear that our beliefs about such things are the product of our brains. They don’t exist outside our minds any more than beauty of the Mona Lisa’s smile.

    1. “It’s not amazing that a species should evolve to find it’s own species the most attractive and relevant of all!”

      I think the last word on the relativity of beauty is Flanders & Swann’s “Warthog”:

      (Here’s hoping this embed works!)

      1. 🙂

        When my students declare some animal ugly, I point out that to another of their species that such an animal might be a vision of loveliness (while the student might be a hideous beast.)

    2. And just because it feels meaningful doesn’t mean it is. I don’t think a sunset, or Mona Lisa’s smile, or the guitar solo in “Whole Lotta Love” are meaningful at all. Beautiful, yes. But there is no knowledge or meaning there, just beauty.

      In fact, I would say that trying to ascribe meaning to them cheapens the beauty.

  12. Its fun to see the rise of another brainwashing institute,with money making and power ambitions…been there done that.

        1. I thought it was only people who wrote titillating books about sex to which they wanted to give an aura of respectability who insisted on sticking ‘Ph.D.’ after their names. Or purveyors of woo.

  13. Let’s see if we can’t find a connecting thread here:

    (from Scruton)

    I am not alone in thinking that world to be real and important. But there are many who dismiss it as an unscientific fiction. And people of this scientistic cast of mind are disagreeable to me. Their nerdish conviction that facts alone can signify, and that the “transcendental” and the eternal are nothing but words, mark them out as incomplete. There is an aspect of the human condition that is denied to them.

    (from Morris)

    From whatever perspective you prefer to view the problem, it still underlines our sheer uniqueness. The paper-thin differences that separate us from such animals as apes, dolphins, crows, parrots and quite possibly octopi look tenuous to a degree — but there remains an impenetrable wall.

    Ah, there are apparently several “impenetrable walls” here. There is a wall that divides the humans from the lower animals — and there is a wall which divides full humans from “incomplete” humans. It may look as if it’s all connected, but the eyes of faith can see the dividing line where the unique super-specialness is separated from the not so special stuff that lacks the divine qualities. Animals and atheists on the outside.

    The Templetonians are ever so smug as they brag about reconciling science and religion so as to bring all things together in happy harmony — unlike the divisive gnu atheists and their fundamentalist brethren. But really, who is being divisive here?

    1. Exactly, Sastra.

      I can see why they need to believe that the gnu atheists don’t feel the deep feelings they feel; they are desperate to believe that their faith gives them something that faithless can’t have. What a bummer that they can’t put it into words..

      1. I know articulett – that attitude, that atheists are somehow ‘missing out’, is one of the most irritating and straightforwardly wrong ones one hears from the religious:

        “Like my philosophical predecessors, I want to describe that world beyond the window, even though I know that it cannot be described but only revealed. I am not alone in thinking that world to be real and important. But there are many who dismiss it as an unscientific fiction. And people of this scientistic cast of mind are disagreeable to me.”

        But it isn’t ‘scientistic’; it’s just scientific. It’s about not making the leap from a subjective experience to a belief in a whole entire world somehow outside the natural one.

        “Their nerdish conviction that facts alone can signify, and that the “transcendental” and the eternal are nothing but words, mark them out as incomplete. There is an aspect of the human condition that is denied to them.”

        No it isn’t, Roger. I studied music at university, and listen primarily to music from the Western classical tradition, which moves me in ways I can’t describe. It affects my whole way of seeing the world, makes problems seem inconsequential, and seems to have a language, syntax, meaning of its own. But I’m also a rationalist: I don’t see this as signifying something ‘deeper’. I believe – based on reason and available evidence – that my reaction is still essentially material; that patterns, rhythms and pitches in the music stimulate first my ears and then my brain in certain ways that produce what I experience as an emotional reaction, whose origin in turn is a product of the state of being we think of as human conciousness, itself a product of the material nature of the brain.

        The religious see this as reductionist, but I simply see it as the most likely explanation, and crucially it doesn’t impair my enjoyment one bit: it is the experience of the emotion which is the thing, not its origin. I enjoy eating chocolate, and this is not changed when I think about the experience as chemicals stimulating my tongue and firing neurons in my brain. It still feels good (I’m aware this gets more complex when dealing with human relationships and ethics etc but I think it is appropriate in this case).

        I think this difference in reaction to experience between the religious and the non-religious is axiomatic to the consequent differences in systems of thought between the two: assume a reaction signifies something ‘beyond’, but which can’t be defined and belongs in a world without parameters or rules, and you can successfully invent concepts, notions, serious-sounding terminology etc as much as you want; there is no methodology or logic to repudiate them. Start with this way of thinking, which is apparently quite prevalent in the species, mix in culture, tradition, societal pressure, argument and the odd dose of charlatanism and the tangled mess of religion seems inevitable. Untangling it is the hard part; one will go round in circles trying to pick out the internal ties and contradictions, but when the basic logic is flawed and the religious won’t understand, there isn’t much left as an option.

        1. Yes, yes, yes.

          I recognize this. I did this when I was a believer in New Agey kind of stuff. If it felt like truth it was true. I can giggle at the triteness of such a statement now. (After all, the earth “feels” flat and unmoving.)

          Other believers would even say things, like “what did it matter if it was true or not?” But I realized to me it DID matter to me. If souls and divine truths aren’t real, then I don’t want to spend time figuring out how to know more about them nor did I want to pander to those who claim to have insights about such things.

          I still feel all the same feelings that I felt as a religious person; I just no longer attribute them to some divine source revealing things to me. Religion makes people feel special and chosen for getting such “messages” and ashamed if they don’t –just like the those poor proverbial folks who couldn’t see the Emperor’s magical robes.

          I understand how people could conflate their unfathomable feelings with whatever gods or religious ideals they’ve come to believe in (and feel bad when it seems like such a god is rejecting them by not giving them such feelings), yet I know too much to fool myself in that manner ever again –even in such cases where it might make me feel better. I think it’s our desperate desire to believe in souls that allows all this religious nuttery to flourish.

          As I mentioned, my feelings are the same as when I was a believer– it’s narrative about why I’m feeling such a thing that has changed. I recognize that this is likely to be true of all those bleating about the wonders of faith and trying to convince themselves that the faithful have something special that the faithless lack.

          The more I think about it, the more I think the key to dismantling faith and the terrible hold it has on us is to challenge the idea of the immaterial soul. It seems so bold and daring to say, “there’s no such thing as a soul” or even “I’d like to believe in a soul, but there is no evidence”– yet I think progress requires this notion be out there– even louder than our challenges of their gods. Without a soul, who needs gurus, prophets, or anyone to tell you what god wants? Without souls, there’s no need to be enslaved regarding concerns about some afterlife; we are free to focus on this one.

        2. If there were “Like” buttons here, I would definitely “Like” this! And I’m not a particular fan of FB.
          Signed, a fellow musician.

        3. Off-topic, but have you read “This is Your Brain on Music” by Daniel Levitin? I’m in the middle of it right now. Dense, but very informative.

          1. No I haven’t, though it’s been on my reading list for a while, I shall endeavour to get it soon. Off-off-topic, but I’ve just finished Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise, which is very enjoyable, if unrelated to the psychology of music.

        4. I used to have a similar disagreement with a theist girlfriend in college. I explained to here that knowing what stars are and how far away they are made the night sky more beautiful to me than it had been before I had learned those facts. She didn’t buy it.

          1. She didn’t believe that you felt that? Or she didn’t buy the fact that learning about such would enhance HER appreciation?

            It’s kind of hard to convince someone that you are feeling the things they’ve convinced themselves you can’t feel.

      1. Yes.

        When I was religious, the only way I could get it to make sense was to not think about it.

        (Of course the more I tried not to think about it, the more I’d be besieged with intrusive thoughts like Scruton is experiencing… I think it’s a good thing that theists are feeling compelled to define and justify their beliefs. I’m giving the gnu atheists credit for that.)

  14. Faure… Mona Lisa… sunsets… And then ‘people of this scientistic cast of mind are disagreeable to me…’ It’s all there, isn’t it? The cliches, and then the putting on of airs of prissy superiority because of his superior and hugely sensitive sensibility. Scruton is a silly little British snob, and always has been (I say this as a Briton myself). I have never understood why anyone took or takes him seriously.

  15. its meaning eludes all attempts to put it into words. Fauré’s F sharp Ballade is an example: so is the smile on the face of the Mona Lisa

    A piece of music can in fact be quite exhaustively explained. Just because Scruton finds music inscrutable (ha!) doesn’t mean it really is. I’m sick to death of this idea that the arts are SOOOOO mysterious. They’re not. And that doesn’t diminsh them one iota.

  16. Also, Scruton’s assertion that people who don’t burble about transcendence and eternity are marked as ‘incomplete’ is not only nasty and ill-minded, but dangerous. Thought-crimes, here we come, with our Great Leader, the Inscrutable Scruton, ferreting out the ‘incomplete’: ‘What, you didn’t feel the Divine Presence in that Sunset? No Intimations at all? Not the Slightest? Ah, we’ll make you feel what a Sunset’s really like, from the inside. Right lads, get those faggots piled up proper, and get the pitch ready, and get them torches flaming!’

  17. SCM: “how these neurological differences translate into the emergence of new cognitive worlds is not obscure, it is entirely opaque.”

    This is the demarcation point at which Simon Conway Morris has decided to stop being a scientist. It’s both sad and thrilling to witness the very moment a formidable intellect gives up the struggle for understanding.

  18. Jeery, Articulett, and Sastra, my friens, the supernaturalists ignore what Lamberth’s atelic or teleonomic arugment reasons that since the weight of evidence is for teleonomy, to postulate Him as having intent as referents for the Grand Miracle Monger, Grand Actor in History [ behind America’s exceptinalism and saving Jewr[ ah, the Shoa!] and so forh, He therefore, cannot exist1 Abd as He has incoherent, contradictory attributes, He cannot exist1
    That’s a triple whammy!
    Supernaturalists cannot gainsay the presumption of naturalism that not only are natural causes and explanations efficient and necessay and sufficient, they themselves are the sufficient reason, Leibniz notwithstanding! This is the common ground between naturalists and supernaturalists as Flew before His demitia into deisn notes as equivalent to the presumption of innocence and to which Aquinas himself alludes and tries to overcome with his five failed arguments.
    Scientists are investigating how and who people see the pareidolia of agency when there is no there there. So arise Lamberth’s argument from pareiidolian that just as people see the paraidolia of Marian or Jesuine appraritions, people see divine intent and design when only teleonomy and patterns exist. Lamberth’s two arguments therefore have a scientific basis as philosophical ones.
    We need to ever point out that divine teleology cannot complement science, even metaphysically [ no category mistake] but rather contradicts it and violates the Ockham.
    And theefore, we need to stress the ignostic-OC
    ckham challenge also!
    Jerry, the book and this blog serve to push forward rational inquiry [ not scientism]1 Perhaps, you might make ” S. and B.” into a book.
    And Amiel Rossows essay on the yin and yang of Miller show the latter as himself and intelleignet design champion,[ albeit as one proposing directed-evolution as you so note].
    Creationsist evolutionists like Behe obfuscate with their proposals whilst evolutionary creationists like Miller, Ayala and Giberson do so in postulating God as that director.

  19. Hey, Roger, you forgot to mention the sublime beauty of a five thousand pound monthly cheque from the Japan Tobacco Institute for planting pro-smoking editorials without revealing you were a paid hack.

    People of this viciously greedy and immoral cast of mind are disagreeable to me.

    1. What is this? The Inscrutable Scruton Smokes? And gets money from the JAPAN Tobacco Institute for planting things (not tobacco but editorials)? Please, Mike N, when? where?

  20. Why does Conway choose the exceptions in nature (examples of convergence) as his proof that “evolution follows inevitable paths”. The notion of god guiding evolution is the dumbest thing I’ve read so far this morning. Yes, humans are unique – just like all other animals. Duh – that’s evolution for you. I can just imagine Ray Comfort chiming in: Scientists have never discovered a duck that looks like a human, so there must be a god! Hmmm … Maybe that’s not the best example; on ‘apenotmonkey’ there’s a duck that looks like Deepak Chopra – it may not look human, but it’s close.

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