Another critic writes in touting the scientific rationality of Islam and decrying the moral failures of atheism

December 15, 2020 • 9:00 am

Since Yahoo! News reprinted my essay from The Conversation arguing that science and religion are incompatible, I’ve been getting lots of emails, nearly all from people who disagree with me. The accommodationists are, of course, religionists, and don’t like to hear that their faith puts them at odds with science. Many of them, like the reader below, also takes atheism to task. I’ve redacted this writer’s name because, unlike the Vatican Vice Astronomer, I don’t think the name is relevant.

This correspondent tries to make two points. First, Islam is not nearly as strongly at odds with science as is Christianity. Second, that religion gives us a moral framework but atheism doesn’t.  Both points are wrong, and I’ll respond to each separately.  The quotes the writer gives within his/her email are put in italics and quotation marks, for the “extra indent” feature isn’t working right now.

Read and weep:

Professor,

Thank you for the article Yes, there is a war between science and religion. There are two reasons why I would argue that the article reflects atheism in denial of its own shortcomings. You write

“In the end, it’s irrational to decide what’s true in your daily life using empirical evidence, but then rely on wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions to judge the ‘truths’ undergirding your faith. This leads to a mind (no matter how scientifically renowned) at war with itself, producing the cognitive dissonance that prompts accommodationism. If you decide to have good reasons for holding any beliefs, then you must choose between faith and reason. And as facts become increasingly important for the welfare of our species and our planet, people should see faith for what it is: not a virtue but a defect.”

Here you are clearly extrapolating your own experiences with Christian apologists to followers of other religions: in particular Islam. I’d argue that Muslims have no need for “wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions” when forming a judgement about the reliability of their religion. It is common for atheists to  assume that the conflicts between the Bible and scientific evidence (e.g. the descriptions of the Flood, the Exodus or age of the earth) applies equally to the Quran. However, to my knowledge there has been no serious scholarly effort to support this assumption or more generally to show that the Quranic accounts and claims are in conflict with what we have learned through science.

For example, a reading of the Quranic account of the Flood would reveal that it occurred over a short period (a couple of days), the animals preserved were only those required to support a small human settlement and there is no mention of the whole earth being flooded. In regard to the Exodus, the Moses leads a small group of people into the desert, much less in number than the Pharaoh’s pursuing army, so one would not expect to find evidence of over 1 million people roaming the desert for 40 years. In addition, the Quran predicts the preservation of the Pharaoh’s body for future generations. Finally while there is no mention of the Earth’s age, there is a description of the creation of the universe which appears consistent with what we’ve been able to learn through science.

So I think its fair to say that atheists have a lot more work to do to make their case than many are prepared to acknowledge.

The email went on, but let me stop and respond:

As I pointed out in an email to this person, there is a growing literature on the incompatibility of science and Islam.  Here’s how I responded when the person asked for even one piece of literature pointing out an Islamic incompatibility between science and faith.

First, there’s Taner Edis’s book (click on screenshot):

Another book by Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy on the stifling of scientific thought and rationality by modern Islam (and how that contrasts with the faith’s more open attitude centuries ago). 

 

An article from Discover Magazine (click on screenshot:

 

A quote from the article:

“This tendency [of Muslim accommodationists] to use their knowledge of science to ‘prove’ that the religious interpretations of life are correct is really corrupting,” he tells me. Soltan, who got his doctorate at the University of Northern Illinois, works in a small office that’s pungent with tobacco smoke; journals and newspapers lie stacked on his desk and floor. “Their methodology is bad,” he says. Soltan explains that Islamic scientists start with a conclusion (the Koran says the body has 360 joints) and then work toward proving that conclusion. To reach the necessary answer they will, in this instance, count things that some orthopedists might not call a joint. “They’re sure about everything, about how the universe was created, who created it, and they just need to control nature rather than interpret it,” Soltan adds. “But the driving force behind any scientific pursuit is that the truth is still out there.”

“Researchers who don’t agree with Islamic thinking ‘avoid questions or research agendas’ that could put them in opposition to authorities — thus steering clear of intellectual debate. In other words, if you are a scientist who is not an Islamic extremist, you simply direct your work toward what is useful. Scientists who contradict the Koran ‘would have to keep a low profile.”’When pressed for examples, Soltan does not elaborate.”

I talk about this kind of Islamic confirmation bias in Faith Versus Fact. It’s pervasive and at once annoying and amusing.

I’ve personally encountered Qur’anic opposition to science—and especially evolution—many times, as has Richard Dawkins. It often comes in the form, as Pitock notes, of saying that the Qur’an is remarkably prescient about science, with its human creation myth coincident with the evolutionary scenario. If you think that’s true, just read about the Qur’anic account itself.  Page 105 of Faith versus Fact shows the desperate lengths that some Muslim scientists go to comport science with the Qur’an.

The resistance of Islam to evolution is not, of course, universal, even within Muslim countries. Surprisingly, Iran doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with evolution being taught in its schools, while Iraq, on the other hand, has always had problems teaching evolution, and has dropped it from secondary-school curricula. Turkey, increasingly becoming a theocracy, did the same thing a few years ago.

The problem comes because many Muslims are Qur’anic literalists. Here are two plots from a 2012 Pew Poll: the first on the proportion of people in (mostly African) Muslim-majority countries who think the Qur’an should be read literally, and then the proportion of people in different Muslim-majority countries who accept evolution. Note that countries like Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia were not surveyed.

Then my correspondent goes on about morality:

The second way in which the article highlights atheist denialism an shortcomings, is in failing to tackling the issue of morality. What are the consequences of a world where ‘moral judgements’ are mere ‘value judgements’ to be decided by each individual. Magnas Bradshaw’s From Humanism to Nihilism: The Eclipse of Secular Ethics (CMC Papers, No. 6) addresses this question. One the one hand we have the teachings of New Atheism, such as Richard Dawkins who writes “‘the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pointless indifference’.” and Francis Crick who is even more explicit, “you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules… ‘‘you’re nothing but a pack of neurons’’.”

On the other hand we have its practitioners, the rationalists, those who take this stuff seriously, such as Ted Bundy, trained lawyer and serial killer, who reasons thus

Then I learned that all moral judgments are ‘value judgments’, that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured out for myself – what apparently the Chief Justice couldn’t figure out for himself – that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any ‘reason’ to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring – the strength of character – to throw off its shackles…I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others’? Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more to you than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’? That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me – after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self

Bundy’s reasoning is impeccable and based on the teachings of atheists. “Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than  any other animal?” or, “Why shouldn’t Trump tear down the institutions supporting U.S. democracy if he wants?”. Care to answer?

Yes, of course I could answer, but would this person listen? Not a snowball’s chance in hell! But wait! There’s more!

Atheism is leaving people with no guidance on how they should conduct themselves, and what they should expect from others. That’s the reality. And logically, that is what one would expect when people do not believe in a soul capable of oppressing itself through its oppression of others or even simply contemplating words of repentance and aspiration such as : “You that turn stones to gold.. change me.”(Rumi). If you want to claim that such notions are the result of “wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions” then first offer the scholarly work that demonstrates that the Quran is indeed incompatible with what we have learned through science, and hence unreliable.

Name redacted

Where to start here? First of all, neither Dawkins nor Crick would deny that there is a morality that can be derived from humanism; Dawkins, as well as his colleagues Dan Dennett and Anthony Grayling, have been quite explicit on this point.  Indeed, unless you’re one of the few “moral objectivists”, even religious morality must come from “value judgements.”  This is the crux of the Euthyphro argument: if you say that God is good, and wouldn’t give us bad moral guidance, you are assuming there are criteria for “good” and “bad” that are independent of God. (Theologians such as William Craig, who adhere to “divine command theory which stipulates that God is the sole determinant of good, are exceptions, and their morality isn’t so hot anyway. Craig doesn’t oppose the many genocides in the Old Testament, since God ordered them.) Even religious moral judgments, then, are almost always based on “value judgments”. But so what? Different judgments have different consequences for society. You can, for example, be a utilitarian, and base your morality on what acts will do the most good or cause the least harm. Other criteria lead to other moralities, but all of them are superior to the “morality” of the Catholic Church or Islam.

Further, there is a long history of writing and philosophy on secular ethics and morality, beginning with the Greeks, extending through Kant and Hume down to Rawls, Russell, and Grayling in modern times. It is not at all true that atheists haven’t grappled with the problem or morality. To use Ted Bundy as a secular arbiter of morality is simply ridiculous!

And, of course, humanistic morality is far superior to religious morality. The latter has given us things like dictates about genital cutting, the oppression of women and gays, the diktat to kill apostates and infidels, the terrorizing of children with thoughts of hell, the abnegation of modern medicine (Christian science and other faith-healing sects), the prohibition of divorce and regulations about how to have sex and when, and the propagandizing of innocent children, who get turned into little Amish people or Orthodox Jews, deprived of opportunity and education—all because of religious morality.

When I reread the email above, I realized that the writer hadn’t really investigated the rich tradition of secular ethics, and was also woefully—and perhaps willfully—ignorant of what many Muslims think about science. I’m not sure why, but I did write him/her a summary of what I’ve said above.

You should feel free yourself to address the writer’s remarks, and I’ll call that person’s attention to this thread tomorrow.

Lagniappe (h/t Peter N.):

Sale of fancy Faith Versus Fact book ends

December 9, 2020 • 11:00 am

We just cleared $5300 from the sale of the autographed and Kelly-Houle-illustrated copy of Faith Versus Fact (see below for winning bid); with all the proceeds going to the estimable charity Helen Keller International. Given that the Friends of Helen Keller International will match any donation, that means a total of $10,600 will go toward alleviating malnutrition and blindness throughout the world.

Thanks to all who bid, to the winner, to all those whose signatures made the item desirable, and especially Kelly Houle, whose wonderful illustrations made the book collectable and who also ran the auction.

I have no more books on tap, so this will be the last auction for the foreseeable future.  But Kelly is of course still doing paintings, drawings, calligraphy, and The Illuminated Origin project, and you can purchase her works at her eBay shop or her Etsy shop (I especially recommend the golden “Darwin grandeur cards,” which are a great thing to send to any science lover.)

Bids for fancy “Faith versus Fact” copy near $3000

December 8, 2020 • 1:45 pm

The eBay auction for the fancy autographed and Kelly-Houle-illustrated edition of Faith Versus Fact is almost at $3000, which means $6,000 in donations for Helen Keller International as the friends of the charity are doubling all donations. (Every penny of the proceeds goes to that estimable and efficient charity.)

But that’s not nearly enough, I think, since an illustrated copy of Why Evolution is True, with fewer autographs of notables, fetched over $10,300.  Most of us are too poor to bid that much, but if you know a gazillionaire who wants a unique secular item, this would make a swell acquisition.

You can see a fuller description of the book here, and below are two of its pages: one with an illustration and another with some of the signatures.  Kelly and I have signed it, along with 28 secular notables, including three Nobel Laureates and the three living “Horsemen” (horsepersons?)  I didn’t schlep this book around for five years to have it go cheap!

Our auction is still running with three days to go: a multiply autographed and illustrated copy of Faith versus Fact

December 6, 2020 • 9:00 am

As I noted a few days ago, Kelly Houle and I are running an eBay auction for charity, with the object up for bid being a multiply-autographed hardback copy of Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible.  The copy for sale has 28 signatures of famous secularists, including the three surviving “horsemen”: Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, as well as others like Steve Pinker, James Randi, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Dan Barker, and Julia Sweeney. It’s also signed by three Nobel Laureates: Harold Varmus, Adam Riess, and David Gross. See all the signers on my post or the auction site itself. It’s also signed by Kelly and me (I added a crude cat drawing.)

Further, the book has been illuminated with the calligraphy and artwork of our favorite natural-history artist, Kelly Houle, who did a superb title-page drawing and also a few cat drawings. Her artwork on the book can also be seen at the two sites.

Kelly and I did this previously with Why Evolution is True, earning more than $10,300 for a charity, in that case Doctors Without Borders. This year all auction proceeds go to Helen Keller International, an efficient and highly-rated charity that helps alleviate blindness and malnutrition throughout the world. (Peter Singer highlighted it as one of his favorite charities.) As a bonus, the Friends of Helen Keller International have pledged to double any donation, so whoever buys the book will have the satisfaction of contributing twice what they pay to a good humanitarian cause.

The price, with three days left to go, is still lower than I expected, as you can see from the screenshot below (click on it to join the fun). Remember, I schlepped that book around for five years from meeting to meeting, all to collect signatures for this auction. And Kelly labored through long nights doing the artwork. It’s worth more!

Kelly’s illumination of the title page (there are others) and one page of autographs.

One page also has Kelly’s anamorphic mirror drawing of James Randi, one of the signers; the mirror comes with the book:

If you have the dosh and want a unique book with great artwork and a collection of signatures never to be repeated (remember, Randi passed away recently), go over and bid. Or call the auction to the attention of those who might be interested. Remember, neither Kelly nor I make a penny from this, and Helen Keller International uses 82.5% of the donations for its programs—a very high proportion.

How can you overlook a book recommended by The Pinkah? (He also reviewed it favorably in Current Biology.)

A charity eBay auction for a fancy autographed and illuminated copy of “Faith Versus Fact”

November 29, 2020 • 10:15 am

We have a lovely book up for auction, with all the proceeds going to charity! But first, some backstory.

In 2015, artist Kelly Houle and I collaborated to produce a multiply-autographed and wonderfully illustrated and “illuminated” copy of my first trade book, Why Evolution Is True (2009). I’d been collecting signatures of luminaries in the book for five years, and, when there were quite a few, Kelly added some wonderful artwork (see the preceding link) and we auctioned it off on eBay. All the proceeds went to Doctors Without Borders, and charity auctions on eBay are hosted for free, without eBay taking a cut.

Amazingly, we got over $10,300 for the book, and so the charity made out well. Kelly and I were immensely pleased. Here’s the 2015 auction result (click for the link to eBay):

Well, in 2015 I wrote another book, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, and again I’ve been collecting signatures for five years, schlepping the book from meeting to meeting, and friend to friend, with the plan of auctioning it off again for charity. Kelly again agreed to do the art, and so we were off.

The result is below: we have even more signatories than before, including three Nobel Laureates, and you can see a list and photos of the signatures (many signers wrote messages) below. I’m sure you’ll recognize most of the signers; my intent was to get as many secularists and humanists as possible. We wound up with 28 signatures—not including mine and Kelly’s, which are both in there too.

It’s now time to release the book to the buying public and see what they’ll offer for it.

It’s just gone up for auction now, at this link, and the auction will run for ten days. This time all the proceeds go to Helen Keller International, a wonderful and efficient charity that helps prevent malnutrition, disease, and blindness—largely in children (see below). The organization was founded by Keller herself along with George Kessler, and it’s worth reading a bit of the backstory in the organization’s Wikipedia entry. A bonus this time is that Friends of Helen Keller International will match our donation dollar for dollar, so the buyer will have twice the positive impact as usual.

The auction copy, a hardback:

Here’s the alphabetical list of signers, with Wikipedia links to each one:

Kelly also signed her cover illustration (see below):

Can you find them all?

Inside front cover:

Half title page:

Inside back cover:

Closeup: Annie Laurie Gaylor, James Randi, and Richard Dawkins:

Full title page (signed by JAC with his cat drawing):

Kelly drew a curled-up cat on the dedication page:

From Kelly (henceforth, her words are indented):

I illustrated the title page that falls after the introduction with a quote from Faith vs Fact: and my adaptation of a painting by Maria Sibylla Merian showing the stages of Cocytius antaeus [Giant Sphinx Moth] from her book Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. Merian observed and drew insects at a time when butterflies and moths were thought to appear spontaneously from the ground.

The whole illumination is held up by a pen, an important tool of science for recording observations. The banner has another quote from Faith vs Fact translated into Latin: “fides non virtus in scientia.”

Illustrating this page was a challenge because of the paper. I wasn’t able to use my calligraphy pen, so it’s all done with a regular ball-point pen and colored pencils. I added very dry gold mica paint to the pen nib and holder.

Pupal stage as observed and drawn by Merian:

Pen nib with caterpillar, larvae, and small moth after Merian:

Jerry’s initials “JAC”: in cat calligraphy [and Kelly’s signature]:

Kelly illuminated the chapter headings as well:

Finally, we have lagniappe from Kelly:

I’ve added something special to the book, too. It’s an anamorphic mirror portrait of James Randi. The mirror will come with the book. If you go to the page with James Randi’s signature, turn the page and set the mirror down right behind it, his image appears in the mirror. Like magic, but it’s not.

Again, if you’re interested in this item, know someone who might be, or are willing to advertise the auction on social media, feel free to do so. Again, the link is here.

Further, Kelly has some auction artwork on her own eBay shop for which 10% of the proceeds go to HKI as well.  Those donations, too, will be doubled with a kick-in by the Friends of HKI.

ABOUT THE CHARITY:

We selected Helen Keller International as the recipient charity because of its good work in preventing blindness and malnutrition, its big bang for the donor’s buck, its sterling reputation, and the fact that the vast majority of its donations go to helping people, not to administration or promotion. Kelly found this charity when it was recommended as one of the best charities to donate to by Peter Singer on his page “The Life You Can Save“. As that site says,

“Our charities have been rigorously evaluated to help you make the biggest impact per dollar. Find an organization you support, or simply split your donation between them all. When you support one of the recommended charities, The Life You Can Save does not charge any fee or receive any monetary benefit from that transaction.”

The low overhead of HKI:

Every penny of the auction funds will go to HKI, and the bang is doubled because of HKI’s current donation-matching protocol.

Their work is international, and in several areas of help (click on all screenshots to go to the sites):

HKI receives the highest rating—four stars—from Charity Navigator:

If you have big bucks, or know someone who does—and who is a humanist or secularist—you might call their attention to this auction. We hope, of course, to raise as much dosh as possible.

Thanks to the signers, and to Melissa Pugh for collecting some of the signatures at the 2016 Reason Rally.

Bertrand Russell on faith versus fact

October 17, 2020 • 11:30 am

I was shocked when a reader mentioned, in a recent comment, that the famous philosopher, logician, mathematician and vociferous atheist Bertrand Russell had written a book about the conflict between religion and science. How could I have missed it when I wrote a book about the same issue in 2015, and spent two years reading before I wrote it? I was chagrined, and of course nothing would do but for me to get the book, which was published in 1935.

Fortunately, our library had it, and I got it and devoured it within a few days. I was happy to once again read Russell’s clear prose and dry wit, but also to see that while his topic was nominally the same as mine, there isn’t much overlap between our books. I’ll just highlight a few points of similarity and difference, and mention a few of Russell’s ideas that we still talk about on this site.

Below is the title page; you can still buy the book here, with the reissue having an introduction by Michael Ruse. As for whether you should buy it, well, if you’re familiar with Russell’s popular writings you’ve probably read most of it before, and a lot of it isn’t really about religion vs. science. I’ll be self-aggrandizing and say that if you can only read one book on the conflict—and you think there is a conflict—it should be Faith Versus Fact rather than Russell’s. (If you don’t see a conflict, there are other books by accommodationists you can read). I don’t make that recommendation lightly, as Russell was far brainier and more eloquent than I. It’s just that things have moved on in the last 85 years (NOMA, advances in physics and evolutionary biology, conflicts about global warming and faith-based healing, and so on), and I don’t spend a lot of time—as Russell does—dealing with stuff like the mind/body problem, demonology, the idea of a soul, and the notion of “cosmic purpose.”

There is some overlap between what Russell and I consider to be the “conflict” between religion and science. First, our differences.  I see it as a conflict in how to adjudicate what is true given the disparate “truth-seeking” methods of science and religion, while Russell sees the conflict largely as a historical phenomenon: the fact that religion and science have been at odds with each other since science became a discipline.  That is, Russell adheres to what’s known by accommodationists as “the conflict hypothesis”. Thus, he has whole chapters on evolution vs. creationism, the Copernican revolution and how heliocentrists like Galileo fought with the Church, and the scientific vacuity of the idea of “souls” and of some external “purpose of life.”

That said, Russell does recognize that the conflict arose from the different ways that science and religion determine truth, with the former relying on empirical investigation and the latter on revelation, scripture, and authority. Surprisingly, though, for a man who wrote the famous essay “Why I am not a Christian” (1927; read it at the link), Russell is surprisingly soft on religion, extolling its virtues as an arbiter of morality and saying that its appeal is emotional, having little to do with truth.

He further argues that, when he wrote the book above, the warfare between science and Christian theology was “nearly ended,” as theology was yielding territory repeatedly to scientific facts. But he didn’t know that creationism would still be with us decades later, and doesn’t discuss the fact that, even in his time many religious people, including Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Christian Scientists, Scientologists, Hindus, and, in fact, most faiths, still held beliefs that are contradicted by science (reincarnation, souls, karma, spiritual healing, and so on). This conflict will always be with us so long as religion asserts truths that aren’t based on empirical observation and assent—i.e., “science construed broadly.”

I’ll mention just two of Russell’s arguments with which I agree, and also deal with in Faith Versus Fact. I’ll give his quotes in indents.

Is there an objective morality? Russell discusses this in detail, and although a few modern philosophers and thinkers assert that matters of right and wrong can be discerned objectively, through science, he disagrees, as do I. At bottom, “right and wrong” are matters of subjective preference, and you cannot decide which morality is objectively “better” unless you have some personal preference for what you want morality to do. (Sam Harris, for example, thinks morality should maximize well being, and what is “right” can be determined by a calculus of well being.) But well being, like all criteria for morality are at bottom simply tastes. As Russell says,

We may desire A because it is a means to B, but in the end, when we have done with mere means, we must come to something, which we desire for no reason, but not on that account “irrationally”. All systems of ethics embody the desires of those who advocate them, but this fact is concealed in a mist of words. (p. 254)

I particularly like the concise truth of the last sentence.

Russell concludes that science cannot decide questions of values, which puts both of us at odds with people like Sam Harris and Derek Parfit. So be it. But I would argue that neither can religion decide questions of values. That’s because those questions can be decided only by referring to scripture, authority, or revelation, and those are at odds with each other among religions. I would further argue that since secular ethics (which has a long tradition) is not beholden to ancient scripture or the parochialism of faiths and of their gods, it produces a morality better than that of religion. And indeed, you’d be hard pressed to argue otherwise, for then you’d have to defend all sorts of ridiculous “morality” around sex, food, and so on. Is it really immoral to masturbate? Catholicism says so, as do many branches of Judaism.

Science is the only way of knowing what’s true. We’ve repeatedly discussed whether there are other ways of “knowing” beyond science, and that, of course, depends on what you mean by “knowing”.  If you construe it, as I do, as “the apprehension and recognition of facts about the universe—facts that are widely agreed on”, then yes, I conclude in Chapter 4 of Faith versus Fact that science is the only game in town, and religion, insofar as it makes factual statements about the Universe, including about the existence and nature of God, fails miserably. (See pp. 185-196 of FvF.) Science means “the empirical method that science uses to ascertain truth”, and need not be practiced by scientists alone.

Russell clearly agrees. Here’s one quote (my emphasis):

“The mystic emotion, if it is freed from unwarranted beliefs, and not so overwhelming as to remove a man wholly from the ordinary business of life, may give something of very great value – the same kind of thing, though in a heightened form, that is given by contemplation.

Breadth and calm and profundity may all have their source in this emotion, in which, for the moment, all self-centered desire is dead, and the mind becomes a mirror for the vastness of the universe.

Those who have had this experience, and believe it to be bound up unavoidably with assertions about the nature of the universe, naturally cling to these assertions. I believe myself that the assertions are inessential, and that there is no reason to believe them true.

I cannot admit any method of arriving at truth except that of science, but in the realm of the emotions I do not deny the value of the experiences which have given rise to religion. Through association with false beliefs, they have led to much evil as well as good; freed from this association, it may be hoped that the good alone will remain.” (p. 197)

In the end, morality and “ways of knowing” converge in the last paragraph of the book proper (before the “conclusions” section):

I conclude that, while it is true that science cannot decide questions of value, that is because they cannot be intellectually decided at all, and lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood. Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.  (p. 255)

Here’s Russell, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950:

Faith vs. Fact out in Polish, reviewed by my surrogate dad

July 5, 2020 • 11:30 am

There’s a gynormous post on Pinker coming up shortly, and I hope to post it today. Many of you, who have sent me the Official Call for Demonization, know what this is about, but you’ll have to be a bit patient.

In the meantime, I just received notice that Faith versus Fact has finally appeared in Polish (Title: Wiara vs Fakty; this is the eighth translation into non-English languages), and although I haven’t seen it in paper, I have just received not only a photo of the cover, but also a nice review by my surrogate father and friend, Andrzej Koraszewski at the website run by him and Malgorzata, Listy z naszego sadu (“Letters from our orchard”.)

The book was translated from English by another mutual friend, Monika Stogowska, a professional translator who lives in Warsaw; according to Malgorzata, the translation is so good that it sounds as if the book were written in Polish rather than English.  The screenshot below goes to the Polish review (Google will translate it to English if you wish), and also shows the cover. I love the chessboard with religion playing against reason and science:


Because there are several friends involved in this, the review could not possibly be completely objective, and Andrzej admits this at the outset (translations of his review by Malgorzata):

“I’ve just got a book written by my friend, translated into Polish by my friend and published in Polish by another friend, and dedicated to my wife, me and to our cat, Hili. For obvious reasons this will not be a critical review. . . .”

Yes, I did dedicate the book to Andrzej, Malgorzata, and Hili, as well as to my undergraduate mentor Bruce Grant. I did a lot of reading and note-taking when I stayed in Dobrzyn for a few weeks.

Andrzej ends his review this way:

“The book was partly written in Dobrzyń nad Wisłą so I enclose a picture of the Author who in the process of writing the book was catching facts by their tail”.

And the photo: Hili and I communing! This is the best way to write:

Książka po części pisana była w Dobrzyniu nad Wisłą więc załączam zdjęcie Autora jak w trakcie pisania łapie fakty za ogon.

 

In yet another paper, Gregory Bassham continues his criticism of my science vs. religion work

May 31, 2020 • 1:15 pm

Two days ago I analyzed former philosophy professor Gregory Bassham’s unpublished critique of my book Faith versus Fact. (I also discovered that I analyzed the paper on this site in 2017 at greater length, so it’s been unpublished for at least three years. Shoot me for forgetting!). Bassham claimed that religion has its own “ways of knowing” that aren’t based on science, much less empirical observation. His argument, I contended, falls flat.

Now I found a similar critique from Bassham on Academia.edu about my argument in the book that science does not depend on faith. I won’t say he’s obsessed with me, but if he wants to get his ideas out, he should concentrate on getting them published.

You can see his second critique by clicking on the screenshot below.

My argument in the book, also made in my Slate piece “No faith in science,” is aimed at a common jab at science made by believers. “Science,” they say, “is based on faith, just like religion.” In effect, they’re saying, “See, you’re just as bad as we are!”

Read below if you want; it’s a short paper (12 pages double spaced).

In my book and the Slate article I contend that the religionists’ argument depends on two different conceptions of faith, described in the Slate piece like this:

You have faith (i.e., confidence) that the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has, and there’s no evidence that the Earth has stopped rotating or the sun has burnt out. You have faith in your doctor because, presumably, she has treated you and others successfully, and you know that what she prescribes is tested scientifically. You wouldn’t go to a shaman or a spiritual healer for strep throat—unless you want to waste your money.

The conflation of faith as “unevidenced belief” with faith as “justified confidence” is simply a word trick used to buttress religion. In fact, you’ll never hear a scientist saying, “I have faith in evolution” or “I have faith in electrons.” Not only is such language alien to us, but we know full well how those words can be misused in the name of religion.

It goes on, and I don’t want to reprise the argument, which is a short one at Slate. In the present paper, Bassham presents a variety of ways that, he thinks, science depends on “faith”, but it turns out that all of these are “confidence-justified-by-experience” construals of that word.

First, though, he reprises word for word what he wrote in the Faith vs. Fact critique when trying to argue that religion is not based on “faith = belief without evidence.” You’ve seen this before, so he’s self plagiarizing:

There are many widely accepted conceptions of faith that do not view it as evidence-free belief. Among these are the Catholic “propositional” view of faith as assent to revealed truths on the authority of God the revealer;  the Calvinist conception of faith as firm belief in key tenets of the Christian faith as a result of the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit; the modern Protestant “voluntarist” view of faith as interpretive trust in the self-revealing actions of God within human history;  and the modern “Existentialist” conception of faith as an attitude of commitment, acceptance, and “total interpretation” made by the whole person. None of these common views of faith see it as an evidence-free form of cognition, or as inherently irrational.

Where’s the beef—the bit about “evidence”? The paragraph above doesn’t do a lot of work towards showing a similarity between what scientists deem as “faith” (justified confidence) and religious faith. So let’s look at one of Bassham’s arguments that scientist really do have a religious-like faith:

Finally, what of the claims that science is based on faith because of its commitments to the orderliness of nature and an unexplained set of physical laws?

These are really separate issues, but Coyne lumps them together and dismisses both with the following quick retort:

The orderliness of nature—the so-called set of natural laws—is not an assumption but an observation. It is logically possible that the speed of light in a vacuum could vary from place to place, and while we’d have to adjust our theories to account for that, or dispense with certain theories altogether, it wouldn’t be a disaster. . . . The laws of nature, then, are regularities (assumptions, if you will) based on experience, the same kind of experience that makes us confident that we’ll see another sunrise (p. 210).

Here Coyne completely misses the point at issue. The claim that scientists’ belief in the orderliness of nature is based on faith is grounded in two obvious features of science: (1) its working assumption, based on extensive but nevertheless limited evidence, that the laws of nature always operate everywhere in the universe, and (2) its resort to inductive reasoning to predict future events based on past observations. Both points require comment.

Since Francis Bacon, it has been clear that scientists regularly make claims that are not 100 percent certain because they go beyond the available evidence. For instance, they often make universal generalizations (statements of the form “All A’s are B’s”) based upon limited evidence. This is one reason why, as Coyne himself admits (33-34), all scientific theories and claims are tentative, revisable, and falsifiable. Thus, when scientists assume that basic scientific laws like the speed of light operate always and everywhere in the universe, they are not simply, as Coyne claims, making an “observation.” It is impossible to “observe” either future events or (trivially) events in unobserved parts of the universe. Thus, when scientists assume that the speed of light is a “regularity” that remains absolutely invariant, they are making a universal generalization that goes beyond the available evidence. In other words, they are holding “a belief which is not based on proof.” This is what defenders of the “science is based on faith” argument mean when they claim that scientists’ belief in the orderliness of nature is based on “faith.”

In other words, says Bassham, our assumption that the speed of light is a constant throughout the universe is an act of “faith” comparable to the claim that “belief in Jesus as your savior will get you to Heaven”.  And that is bogus. The speed of light in a vacuum can be measured in several ways, and incorporated into physical theories that apply elsewhere than in a laboratory on Earth, and, as far as we know now, is a constant. We do have evidence, just as we have evidence that other physical constants apply in places other than on Earth. So our inference to the best explanation is that the speed of light is constant in a vacuum.

Only a faith-osculator would argue that the speed-of-light claim is bascially the same as claiming that Jesus Christ, the son of God (as well as God himself) died and was resurrected so you can go to heaven, a belief based on at least five distinct empirical claims, all of them unevidenced.

In fact, there are some who have suggested that the speed of light is variable (see here and here, for instance). I’m not sure how much credibility the VSL (variable speed of light) view has, but the important thing is that we hold to a constant c because that’s what the evidence shows, but we could relinquish it if the evidence shows otherwise.

In contrast, no Christian will abandon the Jesus idea even though there’s not a scintilla of evidence for it from the get-go.  So, “faith” in science 1, “faith” in Christianity, -100.

All of Bassham’s arguments for “faith” as a tenet of science are similar to the above, and I’ll let you grapple with them yourself.  To end, I’ll give a quote from philosophers J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig (oy!), which Bassham quotes to show how science depends on faith:

Science cannot be practiced in thin air. In fact, science itself presupposes a number of substantive philosophical theses which must be assumed if science is even going to get off the runway. . . . Here is a list of some of the philosophical presuppositions of science: (1) The existence of a theory-independent, external world; (2) the orderly nature of the external world; (3) the knowability of the external world; (4) the existence of truth; (5) the laws of logic; (6) the reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties to serve as truth gatherers and as a source of justified true beliefs in our intellectual environment; (7) the adequacy of language to describe the world; (8) the existence of values used in science (e.g., “test theories fairly and report test results honestly”); (9) the uniformity of nature and induction; (10) the existence of numbers.

I would claim that all of these are inferences to the best explanation, though #6 is clearly not what scientists believe since we know that in some ways our faculties are faulty (that’s what optical illusions are about).  #7 is dubious because nobody argues that (viz., quantum mechanics), and a few of the others, like “the existence of numbers” are not articles of faith.

Knock yourself out!

 

A religious scholar goes after my book “Faith Verus Fact”, mainly because I didn’t deal with Sophisticated Theology®

May 29, 2020 • 9:30 am

An academic named Gregory Bassham has written a longish critique (18 double-spaced pages) of my 2015 book Faith Versus Fact. It apparently isn’t published (yet), but you can find it on the Academia.edu link below if you are a member (no fees, though you may have to sign in with Google or Facebook).  Click on the screenshot below, and if you can’t get access to the manuscript, email me for a pdf.

Bassham used to teach at King’s College, Pennsylvania, formerly called The College of Christ the King (a name change was clearly indicated!). It’s a Catholic school, but I don’t know whether Bassham is a believer, though I suspect you’d have to be to be hired there. His biography from Academia.edu is below:

Gregory Bassham is a former Professor of Philosophy at King’s College (Pennsylvania). A native of Oklahoma, Bassham received his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Oklahoma, and his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame. Among his nine books are: The Philosophy Book: 250 Milestones in the History of Philosophy (2016), Critical Thinking (6th ed., 2018), The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy (2010), Basketball and Philosophy (2007), The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy (2003), Original Intent and the Constitution: A Philosophical Study (1991), and C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics (2015). He is currently writing a textbook on environmental ethics. A long-distance runner, Bassham has twice run the Boston Marathon.

And the critique:

Bassham takes issue with nearly everything I say, and I’ll leave you to read his piece. I want to highlight just one of his beefs, which goes after the most important argument I make in the book. That argument is this: science and religion are incompatible because they both claim to be methods of ascertaining truths about the Universe, but only science has ways of adjudicating, refining, and deepening our understanding. (Religion, of course, does other stuff as well.) Religion’s ways of ascertaining “truth”, which involve Scripture, authority, revelation, and other things subsumed by the rubric “faith”, are not reliable, and that’s why there are so many religions making conflicting claims. We have less certainty about God than we do, say, about the reproductive behavior of the lobster.

Moreover, I argue that theology has not “advanced” in the past several millennia. What I mean by this is that although theology may have gotten more convoluted, and corrected some of its earlier errors (for example, by admitting that creationism is false, which Bassham does—but 73% of Americans don’t), it still hasn’t advanced in understanding the divine. How many gods are there? Is God all-powerful and all-loving? Was Jesus the divine son of God, a prophet, or didn’t he exist? Did God give us free will, or are we predestined? Are you saved by faith alone, or by works? Did Joseph Smith really get those golden tablets that told of Jesus’s visit to America? There are millions of questions like this, not including the question of whether there actually are any gods, but nobody—including Bassham and his much-admired Sophisticated Theologians®, can answer them. We are as ignorant as was Aquinas, Maimonides, or any other theologian in history.

It is this point—whether religious knowledge can tell us empirical facts (Bassham argues that it can)—where we part most strongly. And I have to say, Bassham’s argument for the different “ways of knowing”, whereby religion apprehends such facts, is unconvincing. Here are a few excerpts from his paper:

Second, most theologians and informed religious believers today would reject Coyne’s claim that that there is no empirical evidence for the supernatural. Though some would dispute it, I agree with Coyne that science has failed to find credible evidence of such allegedly supernatural phenomena as ESP, reincarnation, miracles, psychic channeling, near-death experiences of a heavenly afterlife, or the healing powers of prayer. But this is a far cry from saying that there is no empirical evidence for God or some higher power or transcendent realm. Few contemporary theologians would claim that belief in God is a non-rational or even contra-rational leap of blind faith. They point to phenomena such as the order and beauty of the world, the consciousness of objective moral obligations, the natural desire for eternal happiness, the “fine-tuned” nature of physical constants, testimony of miraculous events, fulfilled prophecies, the credibility of Christ’s claim to be divine, the literary beauty and spiritual power of the Bible, and various kinds of religious experience as providing an evidential grounding for acts of religious faith. Coyne offers brief rebuttals to some of these evidentiary arguments, but a great deal more would need to be said to support his claim that there are irreconcilable conflicts of philosophy between science and religion.

Yes, I should have written two books—or perhaps a big, fat, boring disquisition on religion aimed at theologians. That was neither my purpose nor my audience.

So here’s Bassham’s sophisticated evidence for God:

  • The world is orderly and beautiful (it’s also disorderly and ugly, and what order there is can be seen as resulting from natural processes)
  • We feel we have moral obligations (“objective” is a red herring here; nobody but philosophers worry about whether moral truths are objective)
  • People want eternal happiness (what people “want” is no evidence for what’s true; this is pure confirmation bias)
  • The “fine tuning” of physical constants (they say God, science says “they may not really be fine tuned by God, but a showing the weak anthropic principle or perhaps some underlying physical linking of “constants”)
  • Testimony of miracles. (SERIOUSLY? Has he read the even more sophisticated David Hume?)
  • Fulfilled prophecies (yes, and the Bible was redacted to make prophecies seem fulfilled. And which prophecies weren’t fulfilled, like Jesus promise that he’d return before some of his followers died?)
  • The credibility of Christ’s claim to be divine. WHAAAT? How is that credible, given that there’s no convincing evidence that a Jesus person, much less a divine one, ever lived)
  • “The literary and spiritual power of the Bible”.   Yes, and the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon, and the Mahabarata have similar power. As does much of Dostoevsky. Which religion, pray tell, is true: the one with the most powerful scripture?
  • Religious experiences.  This is The Argument from William James, and can be dismissed by citing the many kind of experience, like UFO abductions, seances, and the like, that many people take as showing truth.

As for not saying enough about this, I wrote a trade book, not a tome on theology for scholars, and deal with both Sophisticated Theology® and the “theology” held by most believers, which isn’t Sophisticated.

So where does religion find its evidence? Bassham gives a few ways:

Second, Coyne’s argument relies upon a conception of faith that few contemporary theologians would accept. In defining faith as “belief without—or in the face of—evidence,” Coyne commits a strawman fallacy that Richard Dawkins and many other vocal critics of religion have also perpetrated. There are many widely accepted conceptions of faith that do not view it as evidence-free belief. Among these are the Catholic “propositional” view of faith as assent to revealed truths on the authority of God the revealer; the Calvinist conception of faith as firm belief in key tenets of the Christian faith as a result of the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit;  the modern Protestant “voluntarist” view of faith as interpretive trust in the self-revealing actions of God within human history; and the modern “Existentialist” conception of faith as an attitude of commitment, acceptance, and “total interpretation” made by the whole person. None of these common views of faith see it as an evidence-free form of cognition.

Umm. . . if faith is truly a “way of knowing”, and reveals empirical truths, as Bassham avers, then how can these “conceptions of faith” possibly tell is what is true? They can tell us what to believe but they can’t confirm it. Or if he’s simply saying that there are conceptions of “faith” that don’t align with my definition of “belief in the face of evidence”, he runs into the same problem: how do these ways tell us which beliefs are true?

As for “ways of knowing”, Bassham seems to ignore my discussion when he lists the “ways of knowing” other than science:

Third, while it is true that religion and science generally use different methods, it is far from clear that this makes them incompatible. If it did then one would have to say, implausibly, that science is incompatible with historiography, political science, legal theory, philosophy, and literary theory, for all of these disciplines make claims about empirical reality that are frequently “incorrect, untestable, or conflicting“. There are many “ways of knowing” that cannot, and do not, employ the rigorous methods of science. This makes them different from science but not necessarily incompatible with it. Historiography like religion, relies heavily upon appeals to authority. Philosophy, like theology, relies strongly on appeals to intuition, reasoning, and critically defended interpretations. Yet it would be odd and implausible to claims that either historiography or philosophy was “incompatible” with science.

In fact, I deal with these issues at length in the book, and show that insofar as “revealing facts about the world and Universe” goes, empirical investigation (“science” writ large), is the sine qua non, and historians can’t declare truth by fiat. They need evidence, not authority. Philosophy deals with logic and rational contemplation, not empirical truth, though philosophy can contribute to finding empirical truths. Insofar as any of these disciplines declare what is empirically true, but not by using empirical methods (like “appeals to authority”), they are in conflict with science.

At the end, Bassham ignores the fact that I deal with, explain, and take apart Steve Gould’s NOMA idea, so I do not overlook or understate “the many ways in which science and religion are playing quite different ballgames.” I’d argue, in fact, that my analysis of NOMA is the most complete one in print.  Of course science and religion do play different ballgames, but some of the innings overlap, and that is where the two areas become incompatible.

Fourth and finally, in saying that religion and science “are competitors in the business of finding out what is true about our universe” (xvi), Coyne overlooks or understates the many ways in which science and religion are playing quite different ballgames. In large measure, religion deals with questions of meaning, value, significance, purpose, beauty, finitude, guilt, anxiety, and ultimacy that science does not address. Moreover, the “tools” that religion uses (e.g. revelation and personal religious experience) are not necessarily faulty simply because they are unscientific. If God, as religious believers typically claim, wants to be known but not in ways that are overtly obvious or coercive, what “tools” would he provide so that even pre-literate peasants could have warranted beliefs about his existence and will? Presumably something very similar to the tools that believers claim that he has provided.

Note, too, that in the last three sentence Bassham admits that religion uses revelation and personal experience as reliable ways of knowing. The last two sentences make a virtue of necessity: we see no evidence for God, so Bassham argues that God deliberately made Himself hard to find, ergo only revelation and personal experience, things that can happen to even “pre-literate peasants”, constitute evidence. I guess the same goes for UFOs, Sasquatch, and leprechauns.

I tried to find a picture of a bass and a ham, and came up with these bass and ham cakes, whose recipe is given in Field & Stream. I don’t like the idea of fishcakes with ham, but I’d find them more palatable than Sophisticated Theology® any day! And Sophisticated Catholic Philosophy® is among the worst species in the genus.

 

 

Science broadly construed

December 13, 2019 • 8:30 am

Last night I found this quote in one of my favorite popular science books, in which Carl Sagan tells us what he construes as science. It jibes nicely with my conception of “science broadly construed” that I discuss in Faith Versus Fact. And when I’ve argued that car mechanics practice science when diagnosing a problem, or that plumbers practice science when locating the source of a leak, I’ve angered those philosophers who busy themselves with the “demarcation problem”: what is science and what is not science. While philosophers tie themselves into knots about this semantic issue (I guess they have nothing better to do), some of them simply know that plumbing and auto mechanics aren’t science. So to Massimo Pigliucci and all those philosophical pecksniffs who can’t stand the idea of plumbers doing science, I offer this quote as evidence that you’ll have to go after not just me, but Sagan as well. In fact, Sagan’s construal of science is even wider than mine.

One of the reasons for its success is is that science has a built-in, error correcting machinery at its very heart. Some may consider this an overbroad characterization, but to me every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition.

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, p. 27