Misguided journalist argues that science—and wearing of facemasks—are based on a quasi-religious faith

January 12, 2021 • 10:15 am

Despite what I consider my strong refutation of the idea that “faith” is pervasive in both science and religion, that idea persists. I won’t go through the arguments that I made in Faith Versus Fact or, more concisely, in an article in Slate, “No Faith in Science,” but people nevertheless persist in their nescience. The latest attempt to argue that science is faith-based is in the pages of The Post Millennial, a conservative Canadian news magazine. It’s just so tiresome in every way that I get no pleasure from putting fingers to keys. But since that rag is fairly widely read, I’ll say a few words.

The article is really a disguised harangue about how mandates to wear face masks during the coronavirus pandemic are infringements on our liberty. In other words, it’s the right-wing libertarian argument against masks that we see so often in the U.S. And, says Andrew Mahon—identified as “a Canadian-British writer based in London who has written for the Spectator, the Daily Wire, Conservative Woman, New English Review, Brexit Central, Catholic Journal and others”—the notion that masks reduce Covid-19 transmission is based on faith, because there’s supposedly no evidence behind it.

Click on the screenshot to read and weep:

You can read my Slate piece to see that when scientists use the word “faith”, they use it differently from believers. Scientists use it to mean “confidence born of experience.” And when people say “I have faith in my doctor” or “I have faith in Anthony Fauci’s views”, they mean that they trust authority figures who have a good track record. That’s not the same as religious faith, characterized by philosopher Walter Kaufmann as ” “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.”

Read my piece if you want more. The upshot is that the scientific notion of “faith” does not turn science into a religion, as Mahon implies in his headline. If you look up “religion” in the Oxford English Dictionary, you find this definition:

 Action or conduct indicating belief in, obedience to, and reverence for a god, gods, or similar superhuman power; the performance of religious rites or observances.

Even if science were based on a religious-like faith, which it isn’t, it couldn’t be described as a religion. We have no obedience to or reverence for gods or the supernatural. End of story.

Mahon, who I suspect is a believer, has a weird notion of religion, claiming that it is not based on evidence or claims about reality. That’s of course untrue, but it does adhere to the Gouldian “Non-overlapping magisteria” view of science and religion:

The religious impulse cannot be avoided. Alongside faith, everyone participates in ritual and follows prohibitions in one form or another. We do it in every human interaction, and we certainly notice whenever anyone doesn’t follow conventional norms. The question becomes where to direct the religious impulse. And, leaving aside the truth or falsehood of its claims, what Christianity achieved was to direct man’s religious impulse to the ideal place, away from the empirically knowable. Unlike other religions, Christianity directed it wholly towards things unknowable, unprovable and unfalsifiable. This effectively freed up the knowable world, severing it from the realm of faith, and allowed the scientific method to step in and transform human civilization.

Away from the empirically knowable? But if you’re a Christian, don’t you have to have some “knowledge” about the existence of Jesus and God,  and of their powers and their plans? In fact, empiricism is the only way to know about these things, making the term “empirically knowable” a bit of an redundancy. I guess he’s talking about “other ways of knowing,” i.e., revelation, authority, and sacred books, which are non-empirical. Neither are they a way to arrive at the truth, as we know from all the contradictory claims of the world’s diverse religions. As Mike Aus, a pastor who quit the church, said:

When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.

So, although Mahon gives credit for science to religion’s wise decision to step away from empirical claims, I can’t be all that grateful. And I wish that religion would keep its mitts off evolution.  But of course Mahon’s claim bespeaks a profound ignorance of religion, many of whose proponents really do make claims about reality that they believe absolutely, and are constantly trying to buttress with evidence (viz. Biblical archaeology, miracles, and so on).

But the “religious impulse” that “can’t be avoided” is now, argues Mahon, directed towards the pandemic, in particularly those nasty mandates to wear masks. He gets into his anti-mask argument slowly, as he doesn’t want to look like a crazy right-winger at the very beginning.

Step 1: A general assertion:

The rush to accept the claims of scientists with blind faith rather than insisting on proof is a distinct sign of our times, as is the demand for proof of unprovable tenets of Christianity. In thrall to this topsy-turvydom, many scientists expect politicians to trust them in the absence of evidence and many Christians try to construe the book of Genesis as if it were a scientific treatise.

Step 2: Mahon gets more specific:

Surely, given the unprecedented disruption to people’s lives, the suppression of basic liberties and the destruction of the economy, the decision to shut down society ought to have been evidence-based rather than faith-based. But with few exceptions, our politicians didn’t insist upon evidence, choosing instead to defer to (or should we say, hide behind) their scientific advisors, who presented them with predictions, models, worst-case estimates and beliefs.

And of course those scientific advisors, who were blindsided like many of us, initially went on the best guesses they could make from evidence derived from previous coronavirus epidemics and from epidemiology. In other words, they went on evidence, scanty as it was at the beginning of 2020. They weren’t always right, but they did not rely on revelation, sacred books, or mere unevidenced pronouncements of authorities. And of course those scientists eventually presented the politicians with a vaccine. That vaccine wasn’t, of course, based on faith.

Step 3: Mahon reveals his real animus:

Take mask mandates. People who believe in wearing masks think that they’re basing those beliefs on science. But if that were true, they’d be able to show evidence. What you get instead is a patronizing cartoon of people peeing on each other, or Paul Rudd trying to be funny and then yelling at you from his celebrity pedestal. “It’s science!” he shouts. But is it?

Wearing masks makes some people feel better. It also satisfies a naive intuition. The mask is clearly a barrier that will at some level prevent fluids travelling through fabric, just like your pants. But that doesn’t constitute scientific proof that masks prevent the spread of a virus. Scientific proof in this case would take the form of randomized controlled trials. There was one five years ago which compared medical masks to cloth masks and found that “Moisture retention, reuse of cloth masks and poor filtration may result in increased risk of infection.” This was the line that most governments were taking at first, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. But then they altered course without any new evidence, and the vast majority of people now accept it as an article of faith that masks save lives.

There has been a grand total of one randomized controlled trial conducted to determine the efficacy of masks in preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2. The Danish study that initially struggled to find a publisher conclusively showed that there is a statistically insignificant difference between wearing a mask and not wearing a mask. Add to this the fact that masks are disgusting, unhygienic sneeze receptacles that in practice are rarely washed or replaced, that people touch their masks and faces constantly before feeling up avocados in the supermarket, that because of the false sense of security, people wearing masks are less likely to do other, more effective things, like wash their hands, and finally, that there is little to no evidence of asymptomatic transmission, and we have to wonder why all these healthy people are still walking around with their faces covered. The answer is quite simply that their faith is misplaced.

Now let’s grant that we lack the direct controlled, randomized trials that we need to show with absolute certainty that masks are useful in helping contain the epidemic. (Of course other things are very useful as well: hand-washing, avoiding big social gatherings, quarantining, and so on.) Doing those types of experiments would be unethical.  But we have correlational evidence that show mask wearing by symptomatic and asymptomic people, whether the latter be infected or not, reduces the incidence of transmission; that masks contain respiratory droplets, a source of infection; and so on. All the evidence is summarized in this post on the website of my doctor, Alex Lickerman—a post I’ve mentioned before (click on screenshot to read it):

You won’t find any faith in the post above, just data—data sufficient to buttress the argument that we should all be wearing masks.

At the end, Mahon reprises his claim that mask-wearing is a religious act, and makes what I call “The Argument from the Norm”:

Not wearing masks is the norm, freedom to visit family and friends is the norm, freedom to conduct business is the norm, and evidence should be required to displace by legal compulsion each and every one of these norms. But too many people aren’t interested in that, preferring instead to trust in the government’s claim to be following “the science,” and if challenged, they often react the way a religious person reacts when his beliefs are criticized — offended and scandalized.

Well, read Alex’s post above and see if you think there’s no “science” behind mask mandates.

But the best part of Mahon’s argument is his claim, at the very end, that because the erosion of Christianity in our society has also eroded the distinction between “the knowable and the unknowable”, then perhaps a return of Christianity will actually help revive science! I kid you not:

I’m not sure whether a return to Christianity is necessary to salvage the unknowable/knowable partition and preserve the utility of the scientific method. But whatever direction our society chooses to go in future, one thing’s for sure: we will have a religion. We may not have science.

Can you believe that? Mahon’s not even wrong here. Eventually religion will largely disappear from Western society, but science never will because it cannot. In the modern world, we don’t really need religion that much, but we’ll always need science. How else would we have gotten a vaccine? Science is the only good way to materially improve humanity, whether it be through technology, nutrition, or health. And, of course, it’s the only way to satisfy our insatiable curiosity about the cosmos.

The Post Millennial was in fact irresponsible in printing this piece, implying as it does that mask-wearing has no effect on viral infection rates. Mahon may have the right to endanger Canadians with his pabulum, but the paper should exercise better judgement in allowing columnists to make misleading statements about science, particularly when they affect public health. If this column were on Twitter, it would have gotten one of those “false tweets” warnings.

h/t: Paul

p.s. If you saw a mattress ad, ignore it. I had to turn off adblocker to get the article, and accidentally copied that ad. It should be removed now.

Richard Dawkins on truth and “ways of knowing”

December 19, 2020 • 10:45 am

It’s been a while since I’ve seen an article by Dawkins appear in a magazine or newspaper, but now there’s a new one on the nature of truth and knowledge in The Spectator (click on screenshot for free access). Yes, it’s a rather conservative venue, but you’re not going to see The Guardian publishing critiques of theology and postmodern denial of objective truth. And Dawkins does take some pretty strong swings at Donald Trump, e.g. “For him, lying is not a last resort. It never occurs to him to do anything else.”

The article first defines what scientists mean by “truth”, and then attacks two areas that dismiss that definition—or at least offer alternative “ways of knowing”:

What is truth? Richard begins by analogizing scientific truth with the “the kind of truth that a commission of inquiry or a jury trial is designed to establish.” He adds this:

I hold the view that scientific truth is of this commonsense kind, although the methods of science may depart from common sense and its truths may even offend it.

I like that idea—though Massimo Pigliucci will be enraged—because it shows there’s no bright line between scientific truth and the kind of truth that people establish using “common sense”, which I take to mean empirical inquiry whose results people generally agree on. Truth is simply what exists in the universe and can be found by common assent. That’s with the proviso, of course, that there is a reality to be found, and one that’s independent of us. I’ll take that as a given, and don’t want to argue about it. And, of course “common assent” means, in science, the assent of those capable of evaluating data.

Finally, while truth is always “provisional” in science, there are some truths so well established that we can regard them as “not really that provisional”. These are the truths whose reality you’d bet thousands of dollars on. It’s unlikely, as I say in Faith Versus Fact, that normal DNA will some day be shown to be a triple helix, or a water molecule to have two atoms of hydrogen and two of oxygen. This is a point that Richard makes as well, and one we should keep in mind when we debate those who argue that, “Well, science is tentative, and can be wrong—and has been wrong.” To wit:

It is true that Newton’s laws are approximations which need modifying under extreme circumstances such as when objects travel at near the speed of light. Those philosophers of science who fixate on the case of Newton and Einstein love to say that scientific truths are only ever provisional approximations that have so far resisted falsification. But there are many scientific truths — we share an ancestor with baboons is one example — which are just plain true, in the same sense as ‘New Zealand lies south of the equator’ is not a provisional hypothesis, pending possible falsification.

Bad thinkers. Finally, the two groups Richard excoriates for rejecting the notion of scientific truths are the theologians on one hand and the PoMo-soaked philosophers and Critical Theory mavens on the other. First, the theologians, who by now are low-hanging fruit:

Theologians love their ‘mysteries’, such as the ‘mystery of the Trinity’ (how can God be both three and one at the same time?) and the ‘mystery of transubstantiation’ (how can the contents of a chalice be simultaneously wine and blood?). When challenged to defend such stuff, they may retort that scientists too have their mysteries. Quantum theory is mysterious to the point of being downright perverse. What’s the difference? I’ll tell you the difference and it’s a big one. Quantum theory is validated by predictions fulfilled to so many decimal places that it’s been compared to predicting the width of North America to within one hairsbreadth. Theological theories make no predictions at all, let alone testable ones.

Nor has theology ever, by itself, established a single truth about the universe. I keep asking people to give me one, but they either can’t or bring in truths that are empirical and can be verified not by revelation or dogma, but only by observation and testing. Ergo, theology is not a “way of knowing.”

And then the poor PoMos and Critical Theorists get their drubbing (remember, the roots of Critical Theory are in the filthy humus of postmodernism):

A more insidious threat to truth comes from certain schools of academic philosophy. There is no objective truth, they say, no natural reality, only social constructs. Extreme exponents attack logic and reason themselves, as tools of manipulation or ‘patriarchal’ weapons of domination. The philosopher and historian of science Noretta Koertge wrote this in Skeptical Inquirer magazine in 1995, and things haven’t got any better since:

Instead of exhorting young women to prepare for a variety of technical subjects by studying science, logic, and mathematics, Women’s Studies students are now being taught that logic is a tool of domination…the standard norms and methods of scientific inquiry are sexist because they are incompatible with ‘women’s ways of knowing’. The authors of the prize-winning book with this title report that the majority of the women they interviewed fell into the category of ‘subjective knowers’, characterised by a ‘passionate rejection of science and scientists’. These ‘subjectivist’ women see the methods of logic, analysis and abstraction as ‘alien territory belonging to men’ and ‘value intuition as a safer and more fruitful approach to truth’.

That way madness lies. As reported by Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh in The Nation in 1997, the social psychologist Phoebe Ellsworth, at an interdisciplinary seminar, praised the virtues of the experimental method. Audience members protested that the experimental method was ‘the brainchild of white Victorian males’. Ellsworth acknowledged this, but pointed out that the experimental method had led to, for example, the discovery of DNA. This was greeted with disdain: ‘You believe in DNA?’

You can’t not ‘believe in DNA’. DNA is a fact. . . .

While different groups of people have different interests, and that may lead them to work on areas that reveal truths heretofore hidden, that doesn’t mean that there are different ways of knowing. Barbara McClintock, for example, was touted by her biographer Evelyn Fox Keller as having a special female-linked “feeling for the organism” that led to her Nobel-winning studies on mobile genetic elements. I don’t buy that thesis, but there may be some truth to the claim that female evolutionists helped emphasize the important role of female choice in sexual selection.  If so, that means that different aspects of a problem may appeal to different groups, but in the end the truth or falsity of ideas are established the same way by everyone. McClintock did her science the way everyone else did, as do those who study sexual selection. There may be many ways of thinking, but only one way of knowing. 

And that way of knowing is what I call “science construed broadly”: the use of observation, testing of hypotheses, attempts to falsify your theory, experiments, and so on. Science has more refined methods than, say, an electrician trying to find a glitch in house wiring, but in the end they both rely on a similar set of empirical tools.

Richard will of course be faulted for attacking the beloved notion of “other ways of knowing”, but in the end he’s right. And of course there are all those people laying for him, who will claim he’s arrogant in giving science such hegemony over truth. He attacks this head on:

Some of what I have claimed here about scientific truth may come across as arrogant. So might my disparagement of certain schools of philosophy. Science really does know a lot about what is true, and we do have methods in place for finding out a lot more. We should not be reticent about that. But science is also humble. We may know what we know, but we also know what we don’t know. Scientists love not knowing because they can go to work on it. The history of science’s increasing knowledge, especially during the past four centuries, is a spectacular cascade of truths following one on the other. We may choose to call it a cumulative increase in the number of truths that we know. Or we can tip our hat to (a better class of) philosophers and talk of successive approximations towards yet-to-be-falsified provisional truths. Either way, science can properly claim to be the gold standard of truth.

Amen! I’ll finish with a quote I used to begin Chapter 4 in Faith Versus Fact. It’s from Mike Aus, a former preacher who left the pulpit after admitting his atheism on television. Since then he hasn’t fared well, but he did produce one quotation that I think is telling:

When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.

h/t: Eli

Is the NSF on board with “other ways of knowing”?

August 7, 2020 • 10:30 am

If you read this announcement that many scientists got from the National Science Foundation, and didn’t read the linked paper, you might get really queasy thinking that the NSF is touting “other ways of knowing.” Have a gander:

The part that got my hackles up was this:

The specific innovation we are advancing is that future STEM programs must dissolve the traditional silos between scientific knowledge, essential skills, and human values, nurturing what we are calling “humanistic knowledge” and “meta knowledge” alongside traditional “foundational knowledge”. More about this framework can be found here.

(What is it with “silos”? Is this some new postmodern term?)

But if you click on the link and go to the short paper, you do indeed find different kinds of “knowledge” conflated, and mixed up with subjective things like systems of ethics. Fortunately, the statement apparently isn’t saying that intuition or revelation are alternative ways of achieving “knowledge.” Rather, if you read the paper you’ll find a mishmosh of different techniques and strategies for applying the true empirical knowledge gained by science, with some of these strategies not knowledge based at all. Here’s a graph from that paper; note that all three categories are labeled “knowledge”:

Now the kind of knowledge to which I refer often is in the top circle: “Foundational Knowledge.” That means facts about the universe that must be derived empirically, and it is in that sense that I’ve maintained that science (or science “construed broadly”, derived from the empirical method) is the only “way of knowing.” This is also known as “declarative knowledge” (“knowing that . . “).

“Subjective” knowledge, like “knowing” how to ride a bike, or “knowing” that you’re hungry, is called “procedural knowledge” by philosophers (i.e., “knowing how. .  “, like knowing how to ride a bike). There is some overlap between these—science can probably determine if you’re hungry by checking your physiology or brain state), but the “ways of knowing” controversy is, by and large, about declarative knowledge.

But the (apparent) purpose of the paper—though I don’t know about the upcoming seminar—is not just to get students to acquire declarative knowledge, but to figure out how to use it: to have tactical and achievable goals (like ending global warming), and to develop a morality that involves good, humanistic goals (ending global warming is the right thing to do). The former is to some extent based on declarative knowledge. For example, if you do tests to figure out which tactics are the best for realizing a goal then that becomes declarative knowledge. But application also involves procedural knowledge honed from experience that can’t be cleared conveyed as a way of knowing that. 

The paper also promotes emotional and ethical awareness, which has nothing to do with knowledge but has to do with values. As the paper says (my emphasis):

Humanistic Knowledge (to value). Humanistic knowledge include attributes that provide a learner with a vision and narrative of the self within social contexts, scaling from local to global. It includes life and job skills, cultural competence in a global context, as well as awareness of how the actions of the individual affects others and the ability to assess those actions against a set of broader humanistic standards.

Well, yes, you need to have a value system to use science in society, but this is basically asking the reader to develop a value system that comports with “humanistic standards”, and that has nothing to do with knowledge of any sort, though it can be informed by declarative knowledge.

And there’s this:

Ethical & emotional awareness. Ethical awareness included the knowledge and skills necessary for success in a culturally diverse society, such as the ability to imagine oneself in someone else’s position and feel with that individual as well as the ability to engage in ethical decision making. It also includes the ability to intuit the feelings of others, as well as a deep understanding of human emotions and successful human interactions.

Although this is considered part of “humanistic knowledge”, it isn’t itself “knowledge.” Yet the NSF funded this, and the authors underscore it again (my emphasis):

Similarly, Humanistic Knowledge rises to the forefront as technology provides individuals with more power to effect change, thus placing a greater burden on individuals to act ethically and with an awareness of the complex ways in which technologies can both positively and negatively impact broader society.

The balance among these categories must evolve in response to economic, environmental, and societal disruptions that accompany the advance of global civilization and technology. This implies a need not merely for innovation across the substance of STEM education, but for a kind of principled innovation that seeks to account not only for what ought to be known, but also for the unique contexts, cultures, and challenges that would-be innovators need to include in their approach to improving the world. Whether we consider issues of privacy and intellectual property or bio- technology and stem-cell research, individuals today (and in the future) have to develop fine- tuned ethical and moral modes of thought and action. In contexts like these, developing a value system that respects differences and yet maintains a core of empathy and understanding becomes critically important.

Here we see a gemisch of declarative knowledge, procedural knowledge, and morality and ethics. The last of these is not “knowledge” because there is no objective morality.

In the end, though the NSF hasn’t fallen prey to theological or postmodern claims about “different ways of knowing”, they still have muddied the waters about what knowledge consists of. Worse, they’ve taken something very obvious—if you want to apply the knowledge of science to society, you have to know how how to approach and convince people and also have some foundational system of ethics—and made it into a very complicated and confusing schema.

There go your taxpayer dollars at work (if you’re an American and not a corporation)!

h/t: Bill, Matthew Cobb, Maarten Boudry

Nick Spencer returns to defend religion in Prospect magazine

December 5, 2019 • 9:00 am

Does the ubiquity and supposed beneficial effect of religion constitute evidence for God? Well, at least one intellectual (and I use the term loosely) thinks so.

Reader Michael sent me a link to Nick Spencer’s favorable review in Prospect of Stephen Asma’s 2018 book Why We Need Religion (click on screenshot below). Michael added this: “Maybe you’ll find this reviewer’s uncritical nonsense of interest. The reviewer, Nick Spencer, is a beneficiary of Templeton’s pieces of silver and you’ve written about him before.”

Actually, I didn’t write much about Spencer; I asked a reader, Mark Jones, if he’d say a few words about Spencer’s BBC program,  The Secret History of Science and Religion. Jones’s words about Spencer were not favorable, nor were mine after I watched one episode of the show. I did say this about Spencer:

Nick Spencer is a Senior Fellow at the Christian think tank Theos, and is responsible for the 2009 Templeton funded project “Rescuing Darwin” (to the tune of $600,000!!, according to page 214 of this book).

It also turns out that I’ve already discussed a New York Times article by Asma written before his book came out, and summarizing the thesis of that book, which is that regardless of its truth claims, religion is good for humans.  In his Prospect review, Spencer simply reiterates that thesis, adding that he, Spencer, thinks that the prevalence and value of religion is evidence that there is indeed a God.  (Prospect is a general magazine “of ideas,” and doesn’t seem to be particularly religious in its orientation.)

Click on the screenshot below, but be prepared for a new and mushy argument for God:

According to Spencer’s review, Asma (a professor of philosophy at  Columbia College Chicago) once disdained religion, and still sees it as “irrational”, but now thinks that its irrationality doesn’t override its value as a mechanism for coping with life:

Most of [Asma’s] early publications were “strenuously” critical of religion. He wrote enthusiastically for various sceptical and secularist publications, and even found himself listed in “Who’s who in hell,” a publication of which I was heretofore blissfully unaware.

However, some challenging encounters, wider reading and deeper reflection began to change his mind. “I’m an agnostic and a citizen of a wealthy nation,” he confesses towards the end of his provocatively-entitled 2018 Why We Need Religion, “but when my own son was in the emergency room with an illness, I prayed spontaneously.” “I’m not naïve,” he goes on to say. “I don’t think it did a damn thing to heal him. But it is a response that will not go and that should not go away if it provides genuine relief for anxiety and anguish.”

. . . [Asma] now views religion—his focus is primarily on Christianity and Buddhism, but much of what he says applies more widely—as natural, beneficial, humanising, and, indeed, indispensable.

The key is the body. Why We Need Religion takes our embodied and affective nature very seriously and shows, in detail and with impressive supporting evidence, that religious commitment—beliefs, practices, rituals, etc.—help protect and manage our emotional life with unparalleled and probably irreplaceable success. Religion is, in effect, a management system for our emotional lives that helps the human organism stay healthy and well.

Yes, there are studies that show that religious commitment can have salubrious effects on your personality or emotions. But that has no more bearing on whether it’s true than does the placebo effect of sugar pills on the hypothesis that sugar has a physiological effect on arthritis (Spencer disagrees; see below). Indeed, one can envision religion as a placebo effect on your brain: it can make you feel better regardless of whether the content of religious claims is true.

But to Asma, the truth of religion doesn’t matter: it’s still good because it makes people feel better. You’ll recognize that as the “Little People’s Argument”—the claim that religion is good for the masses because it soothes and placates them (a thesis advanced by Karl Marx), even though Asma himself doesn’t believe in God. This is an enormously patronizing argument, and also fails for reasons I discussed in my critique of Asma’s NYT article:

. . . here Asma lumps himself with “the secular world”, implying he’s an atheist too. In that case, he’s making the Little People Argument: “I don’t buy religion, but it’s good for the Little Folk.” And, in fact, you cannot fully embrace a religion, or reap its supposed consolations, if you don’t believe it’s true—really believe it’s true. If you don’t buy the Jesus story of Christianity, then you’re not going to be consoled about meeting your son in Heaven. Asma doesn’t take up this issue: if religion is irrational, and impossible to believe for many, then such people can never force themselves to believe, no matter how much they’d be consoled if they did.

Further, if religion is good because it provides this consolation, then what about those religions, like Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, in which you don’t get to meet your relatives and friends in the hereafter? Are those religions also good because they have other benefits?

Asma, and apparently Spencer, seem to want us to suspend our disbelief in religion—or at least stop criticizing it—because some studies show that it’s helpful. And yet other studies support Marx by showing that the religiosity of countries is negatively correlated with the happiness of their inhabitants. That negative correlation also holds among the 50 US states. Here’s a graph for countries produced for this site by reader Michael Coon; it shows a strongly negative relationship between how religious a country is and the United Nation’s assessment of its “Happiness Index” (higher values mean happier countries):

Now this doesn’t disprove that religion makes you happier and better able to cope with life. It is, after all, a correlation. But it surely doesn’t support that thesis, either. My own theory, which isn’t mine but one advanced by many sociologists, is that countries tend to become more religious when their inhabitants are not doing that well. When the government or your fellow humans can’t help you much, you turn to God, thinking that, even if things are crappy in your life, it will all be rectified in the next life.

Look at the happiest countries on that plot. They’re countries like Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands—countries that have a large number of atheists. The unhappiest countries are ones from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, where people are religious but not particularly well off.  As I wrote in my earlier critique of Asma:

Never does [Asma] mention that countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and France—countries in which people who really believe in Heaven and other such nonsense are in the minority—manage to sustain themselves quite well, with people finding meaning in nonreligious activities and philosophies. And those countries, as we well know, tend to be better off than religious countries in most ways, including having a populace with greater material and psychological well being, and, importantly, being happier.  If religion brings us so much consolation and happiness, and so much emotional well being, how come studies repeatedly show that a populace’s perception of their well being, and their assessment of their own happiness, are negatively correlated with the religiosity of their country? Why are the countries with the happiest and most secure people the most atheistic, while those with the least secure and unhappiest populations are the most religious? Why does religiosity go up after indices of social success go down? Shouldn’t it be the opposite, Dr. Asma?

Two more points. First, while I’ve suggested that secular humanism is a good replacement for religion, and has the advantage of not forcing you to believe silly things, Spencer—and perhaps Asma—sees secular humanism as a “substitute religion.” This is a common but ultimately ridiculous way to defend religion in general (my emphasis in the passage below):

 Human grief has both elaborate cognitive and neurochemical dimensions. . . Mammalian brains are hardwired for the calming comfort of a caregiver’s touch, and when that is denied us, especially permanently, the brain experiences a “major reduction in opioids, oxytocin and prolactin.” Religious belief attenuates the severity of that separation, and religious practices develop, codify, and authenticate grieving customs that serve to offer a kind of emotional surrogate for loss. Both cognitively and affectively, religion helps us cope with grief. That, of course, is one of the reasons why non-religious religions like Secular Humanism so often get into the funeral business. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

In what way is secular humanism a religion? Spencer doesn’t tell us.

Although Spencer casts doubt on some of Asma’s claims about the psychological values of religion, Spencer ultimately buys the thesis that religion is salubrious. But again, just because something is salubrious, does that mean it’s true? And what about the negative effects of religion? Spencer doesn’t discuss the second point but he does take up the first. And, in a stunning move, Spencer argues that the ubiquity and salubrious effects of religion are indeed evidence for a god, using arguments about our senses that have been advanced by, among others, Steve Pinker (my emphasis in Spencer’s passage below):

. . . it seems to me to be a natural step to move (or at least to edge) from religion’s affective importance to its cognitive reliability; i.e. from the kind of goodness (or at least usefulness) of which Asma writes, to its truth. Now, to be clear, this move need not be made. Just because something is (or can be) good, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true. However, we should, at least, pause here. You can make a very strong argument that religion has played a positive role in human evolution, enabling individual and group survival, strength and cohesion, thereby being selected for in the evolutionary process. True, evolution selects for survival, not truth… but the two are hardly independent.

Broadly speaking, an organism whose cognitive functions are capable of tracking “that which is the case” is likely to do better than one that doesn’t. Whether you are finding prey, sensing a predator, or responding otherwise to your environment, it helps if your evolved senses are trained on the truth. It strikes me that the same point can be made of the apparently ubiquitous human need for religion (or in some places now, religion-like substitutes). As Steven Pinker (of all people!) once remarked “we have colour vision because there are differences in wavelength in the world.  We have depth perception because the world actually does exist in three dimensions. By the same logic someone might be tempted to say that if we have a ‘God module’ there must be a God it’s an adaptation to.” Pinker of course is not tempted to say that. Nor, it seems, is Asma. I am.

“I am!”  LOL!

While there’s no strong evidence that religious belief has a genetic component, much less was installed in our species by natural selection, let’s go ahead and accept that claim. Does it then show that God exists? Not at all! For if religious belief evolved, it was likely during the period of our species’ infancy when had little understanding of how the world worked. Baffled and saddened by disease, death, natural disasters, and other enigmatic phenomena, perhaps our ancestors—as Pascal Boyer suggests—invoked a supernatural agency as an explanation. Such an “agency detection module” may well be the ultimate cause of religion, and itself might have been adaptive. After all, if you think a rustle in the brush indicates the presence of a predator, you’re more likely to survive than if you just fob it off as wind.

But if religion is a byproduct of something like that, or simply an evolved tendency to believe your elders (something that’s also adaptive), then superstitious beliefs can become embedded in our culture regardless of whether they are true. Is our “afterlife module”—part of many but not all religions—evidence that there really is an afterlife? Or is it simply a way of coping with the fact that our species is unique in apprehending our earthly mortality?

As I noted previously, there are all sorts of religions, ranging from theism to deism to panpsychism, and even the theistic ones ranging from Scientology to Hinduism to Mormonism to Catholicism. Are these simply different manifestations of the same God module? Spencer doesn’t answer, nor did Asma in his NYT piece (the book may, but I don’t know). I think a more parsimonious hypothesis is that the existents of tens of thousands of diverse faiths doesn’t attest to the truth of a single god, but to the various ways in which humans can find solace in superstition, and in which they can exert power over others by making them adhere to those superstitions.

Neither the ubiquity of a belief nor its positive effects on human psychological well being say anything about the truth of that belief. Religion is not like vision or smell; it’s a psychological rather than aphysiological trait, and many people get on perfectly well without faith. If Spencer thinks that there’s a god because belief in one brings well-being, and because religion is ubiquitous (but disappearing in the West!), then he is pretty ignorant of the way we use empirical observations to establish truth.

Curiously, the well-regarded site 3 Quarks Daily, a site that for some reason I don’t often read, has linked to Spencer’s review of Asma, not mentioning that that review takes the claim that religion is “natural and beneficial” as evidence for God. 3 Quarks is largely an aggregator of other sites, and in this case doesn’t seem to have vetted the Prospect piece very carefully. Clicking on the 3 Quarks screenshot below will just take you to a link back to the Prospect piece; I put it here just to show you how uncritical people can be, and how far the rot has spread:

h/t: Michael

Nathaniel Comfort gets all angry about a tweet from Steve Pinker

October 12, 2019 • 10:30 am

Two days ago I wrote a critique of a curiously disjointed and poorly written article by science historian Nathaniel Comfort: a critique of science and “scientism” published in Nature. It was a garbled mixture of postmodern and woke sentiments, making a bogus claim that discoveries like the microbiome and epigenetics have radically altered our “sense of self”, with an ancillary claim that “other ways of knowing” can help us define “the self”.  Here’s Comfort’s garbled last paragraph:

Since the Enlightenment, we have tended to define human identity and worth in terms of the values of science itself, as if it alone could tell us who we are. That is an odd and blinkered notion. In the face of colonialism, slavery, opioid epidemics, environmental degradation and climate change, the idea that Western science and technology are the only reliable sources of self-knowledge is no longer tenable. This isn’t to lay all human misery at science’s feet — far from it. The problem is scientism. Defining the self only in biological terms tends to obscure other forms of identity, such as one’s labour or social role. Maybe the answer to Huxley’s ‘question of questions’ isn’t a number, after all.

I won’t repeat my criticisms of Comfort’s piece; plenty of readers also found it bizarre. I’ll say only that nobody, including we biologists, defines the self only in biological terms, but in fact the use of biology to help us understand the notion of self is both uncontroversial and a non-problem.  Steve Pinker kindly emitted two tweets criticizing Comfort’s piece and calling attention to my critique. To wit:

Now, on his website Gentopia, whose motto is, oddly, “here lies truth” (Comfort is not a scientist but a historian of science), Comfort answers not me, but Pinker’s tweets, or, rather the second tweet. Click on the screenshot to read another rant. And note that he misspells Pinker’s first name—twice. In the title, too! But Pinker’s name is spelled correctly in his tweets, the ones Comfort attacks.

Apparently I am too small a fish to merit a response from Comfort, which is fine. I’ve never pretended to be as smart or influential as “Stephen”. Rather, Comfort is eager to go after Pinker’s second tweet, and can’t resist a few ad hominems, showing what a nasty piece of work Comfort is (neither Steve nor I addressed Comfort’s appearance, which of course is irrelevant). I’ll give just a few of Comfort’s responses:

I’m now used to the ritual of Jerry Coyne (@whyevolutionistrue) attempting a takedown of my stuff. To my perverse delight, though, the Harvard psychologist and hair model Stephen Pinker took a poke at me. Couldn’t resist that. What follows is the tweet stream I sent out in response, clarifying some points in the article and differentiating further between science and scientism.

Hair model? Seriously, dude, your animus is showing!

Anyway, you can look at Comfort’s “tweetstream” yourself (he goes by the name of Pomo Shaman!), none of which dispels the notion that he’s pushing a postmodernist critique of science, indicting the field because it’s been misused by people to do bad stuff (like the humanities, architecture, and nuclear physics). But the end of his piece shows both his anger and his “novel” claim that science has been misused, which of course is not novel at all, and certainly not worth a diatribe in Nature. (Or was his disatribe about how new discoveries have altered our sense of self?). I’ve bolded the telling parts, but Comfort’s anger peeks through in the interstices:

The question isn’t *whether* science and society interact, it’s *how.* We can have disagreements on the how—I show you my evidence, you show me yours, we hash it out—but not the whether.
I’m not arguing with a flat-Earther.

Historians don’t “hate realism,” for chrissakes. We’re more realistic than scientists like Pinker who live in an ideal world of pure reason, failing to acknowledge the messiness of the real world. [JAC: LOL!]

Thinking you have uniquely privileged access to reality is scientism, not science. It is to live in a sterile, blinkered world, populated only by the stately march of the anointed intellects toward the one & only Truth. That’s like the worst kind of superstitious evangelism.

It’s also chauvinistic, narrow, parochial, and bullying. It’s tyrannical, ham-handed, intolerant of dissent. How unscientific! And if Pinker knew his history, he’d know how science can be—has been—marshaled in the name of tyrannies large and small, across continents, down the centuries.

Umm. . . Pinker does know his history, and has made the point about science’s misuse several times in his writings. Comfort goes on:

Science can be great! It makes many, many positive contributions to knowledge & to society. It need not be put in the service of oppression, nor is it always. But it’s indisputable that it has been, many times. You can start with Karl Brandt and work your way down.

The thesis of my @nature piece, then, once again, is that insidious applications of science are due not to the science itself, but to the ideology that sometimes accompanies it: Scientism. Capeesh?

He also says this:

Yes, I am anti-scientism.
Scientism = science + hubris.
Scientism = science + arrogance.
Scientism = science + vanity.
Scientism = science + cruelty.
Scientism = science + ignorance.
Scientism, in other words, is science plus something shitty.

If that was your point, Dr. Comfort, why didn’t you make it explicit? What you said is this:

I want to suggest that many of the worst chapters of this history result from scientism: the ideology that science is the only valid way to understand the world and solve social problems. Where science has often expanded and liberated our sense of self, scientism has constrained it.

That’s not saying that ideology coupled to science can do bad stuff; it’s saying that the ideology that “science is the only valid way to understand the world and social problems” is what’s problematic.  In fact, one can make a case that if you mean “a general understanding of reality that is agreed on by all rational people”, science (construed broadly) is the only way to understand the world. The values that we bring to diagnosing the world’s ills don’t come from science, but, as I said in my critique, implementing those values to effect a desired solution is also an empirical problem. Capeesh?

Comfort emits a final dose of bile, not omitting his woke and postmodernist equation of Pinker’s views with the “male gaze.”

One last thing: @sapinker’s arrogant and bullying scientism is both a symptom and a cause of the WEIRD male gaze that’s dominated science for centuries is Exhibit A in the case for why we need more diversity in science. Hence the last point in my essay.

Male scientists who aren’t arrogant, scientistic pricks (and I know many): There’s no need to say, “Not all scientists.” If this doesn’t describe you, it’s not about you, and I doff my hat to you, sir.

In fact, Pinker’s tweet is not anything close to a demonstration of why we need more diversity in science. I’ll show it again:

Does “Stephen” Pinker’s claim here come from racism, the privilege of old white males, or sexism? I can’t imagine how. It is an empirical claim that has nothing to do with gender or ethnicity. Comfort’s use of the postmodern “male gaze”, his call for diversity, and his implication that Pinker is an arrogant scientistic prick (seriously, dude, look at that last word!), is a form of virtue-flaunting.

After reading this, I now think that Comfort is not only a muddled, woke postmodernist, but also a nasty one. Hair model, indeed!

h/t: Michael


Templeton-funded issue of “The New Atlantis” does down science

April 29, 2017 • 10:30 am
 Reader Michael looked over the latest issue of The New Atlantis, and was horrified. He sent me the message given below, which prompted me to look at the magazine, too. And I shared his horror, for the issue, while pretending to be about science, really does down science, criticizing it in several articles for its problems and incompleteness (it supposedly uses the flawed assumptions of naturalism and materialism, and of course, as they say, many experiments can’t be replicated). It’s no surprise that this issue was financed by—you guessed it—the John Templeton Foundation. Here’s part of Michael’s email (indented):

The current “Special Issue – Information, Matter, and Life” of The New Atlantis is financed by the Templeton Foundation (see bottom of page.  [JAC: here’s the note:]

And some of the ‘essays’ in this special issue are absolutely incredible [in a bad way]! Take the one by Stephen L. Talbott [you’ve run into him before], “Evolution & the Purposes of Life” – I really suffered reading it & I’m not going to even attempt to give an overview:

The New Atlantis is published by two bodies…
[1] “The Center for the Study of Technology & Society”, who also publish “Big Questions Online” – the latter is entirely financed by the John Templeton Foundation (https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/about/)

[2] A Washington think tank called the “Ethics & Public Policy Center” which has this on the “About” page: “About EPPC. Founded in 1976 by Dr. Ernest W. Lefever, the Ethics and Public Policy Center is Washington, D.C.’s premier institute dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy. From the Cold War to the war on terrorism, from disputes over the role of religion in public life to battles over the nature of the family, EPPC and its scholars have consistently sought to defend and promote our nation’s founding principles—respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, individual freedom and responsibility, justice, the rule of law, and limited government.”

There seems to be associations with the Templeton organisation [especially their juicy seminars] ‘hidden’ all over the place with respect to The New Atlantis & its directors, board, etc etc. Here’s one:

Take Adam Keiper, editor at The New Atlantis. I put “Keiper” into the Templeton Grant Database, and then picking a year gives me these two [no results appear for other years]:
[1] Start year: 2015. Big Questions Online Pilot and Planning Grant
Project Leader: Adam Keiper
Grantee: Center for the Study of Technology and Society
$211,634[2] Start year: 2015 Special Issue and Sections in ‘The New Atlantis’ Dedicated to Big Questions
Project Leader: Adam Keiper
Grantee: The Center for the Study of Technology and Society

I [JAC] looked over a couple of articles, which give me cause for concern. But of course we’ve always known that Templeton tries to fuse religion and science, often by doing down science and suggesting it needs to be supplemented with the other metaphysical “ways of knowing”. That’s the subject of the first article I mention. There are other articles that push a hyperconservative agenda, including one on sex and gender that claim that gender and sexual orientation is far less “hard-wired” than we think.

Here are three specimens:

“The Limits of Information” by Daniel Robinson, an Oxford philosopher. Here we see an implicit claim that science is inadequate as a “way of knowing”:

Let’s pause to summarize these main points. First, the search for universally valid physical explanations must be futile, for some physical phenomena themselves lack the requisite certainty, as we know from quantum mechanics. Second, that aspiration cannot include a systematic understanding of what counts as an explanation in the first place. Imagine a Martian, sent to Earth to discover what human beings are. Returning to Mars, the “earthopologist” submits a report accurate in every detail regarding the composition of bodies identified as “human”: potassium, water, calcium, and so forth. All the empirical data are accurate and reproducible, but nothing in the account explains anything of interest about human beings. While this might count as an explanation of the chemical composition of human bodies, it cannot be considered an explanation of what it means to be human.

. . . It is not my intention to defend anti-realism. My own stance, if it’s even worth considering, is the Kantian position that, like it or not, we are all destined to be metaphysicians, so it’s a good idea to prepare for the mission. Van Fraassen, however, draws attention to the non-scientific dispositions and orientations endemic to the pursuit of knowledge: the choice of facts we attend to in our reasoning, and the stance one adopts in that process. There are also emotional and motivational factors that contribute to our choice of explanations. Once a revolutionary challenge to a previously uncontested scientific theory is vindicated by the facts, the scientist committed to that theory undergoes something akin to an emotional breakdown. There are real personal and psychological forces at work in a realm that textbooks treat as antiseptic and “objective.”

In these moments the moral, spiritual, and aesthetic dimensions of lived life may be informed by physics and physiology, but only from the third-person perspective. From our own first-person perspective, words alone fail, and making the experience known to another requires appealing to what is common in our humanity — yet another gap.

Well, yes, you can feel in your heart that there’s a God, which you might say is part of “being human,” but that feeling gives no confidence that there really is a God. It’s just a feeling, and establishing its truth value beyond the fact of your feeling it requires science.

And some day science may indeed explain the emotions. Further, the question of “what it means to be human” is of course totally nebulous. When made more explicit, the answers are empirical—scientific. That doesn’t mean that there is no value in the humanities—in literature, art, and music. What it means is that any question about the real nature of the Universe can be answered only by what I call “science construed broadly”: the use of reason and replicated observation of nature as a way of ascertaining such truths.

Another bad piece:Saving Science by Daniel Sarewitz, professor of science and society at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation and Society (we’ve encountered Sarewitz’s misguided ideas before: here and here).

Sarewitz claims in the subtitle that “Science isn’t self-correcting, it’s self-destructing.” To save the enterprise, he says, scientists must come out of the lab and into the real world.” His thesis is that all the problems of science— confirmation bias, lack of replication, etc.—can be cured if it’s driven by technology: the need for practical solutions. Sadly, that’s not even wrong, for technology driven science would miss some fundamental discoveries about the universe (like evolution), and science driven by pure curiosity, like quantum mechanics, has had great practical payoffs not predicted if the field were driven by human “needs” alone. Some excerpts:

Science, pride of modernity, our one source of objective knowledge, is in deep trouble. Stoked by fifty years of growing public investments, scientists are more productive than ever, pouring out millions of articles in thousands of journals covering an ever-expanding array of fields and phenomena. But much of this supposed knowledge is turning out to be contestable, unreliable, unusable, or flat-out wrong. From metastatic cancer to climate change to growth economics to dietary standards, science that is supposed to yield clarity and solutions is in many instances leading instead to contradiction, controversy, and confusion. Along the way it is also undermining the four-hundred-year-old idea that wise human action can be built on a foundation of independently verifiable truths. Science is trapped in a self-destructive vortex; to escape, it will have to abdicate its protected political status and embrace both its limits and its accountability to the rest of society.

. . . Advancing according to its own logic, much of science has lost sight of the better world it is supposed to help create. Shielded from accountability to anything outside of itself, the “free play of free intellects” begins to seem like little more than a cover for indifference and irresponsibility. The tragic irony here is that the stunted imagination of mainstream science is a consequence of the very autonomy that scientists insist is the key to their success. Only through direct engagement with the real world can science free itself to rediscover the path toward truth.

Sarewitz is the Chicken Little of Science, and our field is proceeding just fine without his tut-tutting, thank you. After all, some “facts” have remained unchanged for several hundred years. DNA is a double helix regardless of what people find in the future. Smallpox vaccination prevents smallpox (the disease is in fact gone now), benzene has six carbon and six hydrogen atoms, and the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old. Sarawitz falsely implies that the whole edifice of scientific truth is rotten,.

Finally there’s “Evolution and the Purposes of Life”, by Stephen L. Talbott, described as “a New Atlantis contributing editor, [and] a senior researcher at The Nature Institute in Ghent, New York”. This piece emphasizes the teleological aspects of organisms that seem to evince purpose (“purpose” of course, involves intention and thus a mind). I quote in extenso because this supposedly evolutionary article is really a Teilhard-ian argument that evolution, materialism, and natural selection are inadequate to explain the seemingly “purposive” nature of animal life. (This is not true, of course, as Dan Dennett and Richard Dawkins have shown repeatedly.)

Even the “growth behaviors” of plants and the “chemical behaviors” of the individual cells in our bodies are in some sense intelligent and purposive, wisely directed toward need-fulfilling ends. Purposive — or teleological (end-directed) — activity is no merely adventitious feature of living creatures. Being “endowed with a purpose or project,” wrote biochemist Jacques Monod, is “essential to the very definition of living beings.” And according to Theodosius Dobzhansky, a geneticist and leading architect of the past century’s dominant evolutionary theory, “It would make no sense to talk of the purpose of adaptation of stars, mountains, or the laws of physics,” but “adaptedness of living beings is too obvious to be overlooked…. Living beings have an internal, or natural, teleology.”

The curious thing, however, is that despite this emphatic recognition of the purposive organism, we find in textbooks of biology virtually no mention of purpose — or of the meaning and value presupposed by purpose. To refer to such “unbiological” realities is, it seems, to stumble into the unsavory company of mystics. Yet we might want to ask: if purposiveness in the life of organisms is as obvious as many in addition to Monod and Dobzhansky have admitted, why should it be impermissible for working biologists to reckon seriously with what everyone seems to know?

. . . The idea of teleological behavior within a world of meaning is rather uncomfortable for scientists committed — as contemporary biologists overwhelmingly are — to what they call “materialism” or “naturalism.” The discomfort has to do with the apparent inward aspect of the goal-directed behavior described above — behavior that depends upon the apprehension of a meaningful world and that is easily associated with our own conscious and apparently immaterial perceptions, reasonings, and motivations to act.

The problem of teleology, with its apparent inwardness, has been thought to present itself on two fronts. It occurs wherever a conscious, purposive designer, traditionally taken to be God, is assumed to have created organisms, and again wherever the organism itself, once created, becomes a locus of end-directed functioning. Resolving the issue of teleology has meant, for the biologist, eliminating inwardness on both fronts, and the argument often makes little distinction between them.

. . . Everyone agrees that natural selection cannot work unless the organisms available to it are capable of carrying out all the activities necessary to their life and survival, while also reproducing and preparing an inheritance for their offspring. But these are the very activities that presented us with the problem of teleology in the first place. If natural selection must assume them in order to do its work, then to say it solves the problem of teleological origins looks very much like question-begging.

No, the “assumptions” are heredity and naturalism, both of which are not really assumptions, but methodologies that give answers. There is no question-begging!

But wait, there’s more!:

All of which takes us back to an earlier point: the organism is not so much something with a causal, physical origin as it is a power of origination — or a power of storytelling. It manifests itself in becoming — in the coordinated and directive aspect of organic processes moving toward fullness of expression — and is not something explained by the physical lawfulness of those processes. When we have understood this inward, originating power, might we not find ourselves better equipped to think about primordial origins?

Nope. What we have here is an indigestible word salad.

In the end, the article flirts with Intelligent Design: a divine force behind evolution. Or so I think from words like these (my emphasis):

Evolution-based pronouncements have somehow become far too easy. When theorists can lightly pretend to have risen above the most enduring mysteries of life, making claims supposedly too obvious to require defense, then even questions central to evolution itself tend to disappear in favor of reigning prejudices. What is life? How can we understand the striving of organisms to sustain their own lives — a striving that seems altogether hidden to conventional modes of understanding? What makes for the integral unity and compelling “personality” of the living creature, and how can this personified unity be understood if we’re thinking in purely material and machine-like terms? Does it make sense to dismiss as illusory the compelling appearance of intelligent and intentional agency in organisms?

It is evident enough that the answers to such questions could crucially alter even our most basic assumptions about evolution. But we have no answers. In the current theoretical milieu, we don’t even have the questions. What we do have is the seemingly miraculous agency of natural selection, substituting for the only agency we ever actually witness in nature, which is the agency of living beings.

But we do have answers: natural selection produces the appearance of “intelligent agency”. It’s not rocket science! Organisms live their lives as if their “purpose” was to survive and reproduce: to maximize their genetic output. Dennett thinks this is real design, just not conscious design, while others call it “designoid.” I don’t care what you call it so long as you understand how it came about. And we do!

So once again we see Templeton, while paying lip service to science, is really doing it down, claiming that it’s incomplete, that naturalism and materialism are insufficient, that there’s some kind of nebulous “purpose” behind evolution, and that we have to look at Other Ways of Knowing (read: God) to supplement science.

Shame on Templeton, and shame on those researchers who so gladly take its money!

South African students call for the “fall of colonizing Western science” and its replacement by “separate ways of knowledge”

October 14, 2016 • 9:00 am

I don’t know much about this video sent by reader Jason, but apparently it’s a meeting between the science faculty of UCT (The University of Cape Town) and a group of students calling for the “decolonization of science”—that “Western science must fall” and be “scratched out” because “Western knowledge is totalizing.” The hashtag #ScienceMustFall is apparently a going thing in South Africa.

The one student speaking demands a new science that incorporates the protestors’ own “separate knowledge”. But what is that “separate knowledge”? She mentions only one phenomenon that she credulously accepts: one group believes that you can send lightning to strike someone through black magic.  But she adduces no evidence, only the claim that “some people believe this” and then demands “can you can explain that scientifically?” I’d like to see a demonstration first!

One of our South African readers sent out this tw**t that gives a link to an article about #ScienceMustFall:

The article, by an anonymous author at My Broadband, takes apart some of this student’s claims, and you can see more discussion at the #ScienceMustFall site (most of it denigrates that “movement”).

It’s dangerous for people to claim that there are “other ways of knowledge” besides science—knowledge that includes black magic. These other ways are touted by postmodernists, humanities professors, and some feminists, but, as far as I can see, they haven’t led to substantive knowledge. Science is now a universal practice, with real knowledge produced by those of all faiths, nations, and ethnicities, but attempts to “scratch out” Western science (which is no longer Western) are doomed to failure. One example is Lysenkoism: a genetic “theory” enforced on Russia by Stalinist ideology, and the result was massive crop failure and starvation.

This is not, of course, to say that valuable knowledge can be produced by non-scientists. Many of our medicines, for instance, derive from “folk remedies” produced by indigenous people (quinine for malaria is one example). But ultimately, the value of these things must be demonstrated by scientific testing.

What are the Big Questions that science can’t answer but religion can?

September 19, 2016 • 8:45 am

Anyone who reads about science versus religion sees this claim all the time: “Science can tell us about the natural world, but it can’t answer the Big Questions.” This goes along, of course, with the claim that the Big Questions can be answered only by religion. I plan to deal with this in a future talk, and have discussed this back in June, but right now I’m trying to compile a list of the Big Questions that supposedly stymie science. Here, for example, is a list given by John Haught in his book Deeper Than Darwin (p. 133):

“It is the main business of religion to answer the big questions. . .

  • What’s going on in the universe? *
  • Is there any point to it all?
  • Why are we here?
  • How should we live?
  • Why be moral?
  • Why is there evil?*
  • Does God exist?
  • Where did the universe come from? *
  • Why does anything exist at all?  *
  • Why is there so much suffering? *
  • Why do we die?  *
  • Do we live on after death?
  • How can we find release from suffering and sadness?
  • What can we hope for?”

Now my claim is twofold. First, science can answer some of the big questions (the ones with asterisks above), though believers may not like the answers. Second, insofar as the Big Questions are moral or philosophical, religions can give answers, but different religions give different answers—so there is no general “answer” at all. For instance, “do we live on after death” will be answered differently by Christians, Buddhists, and Jews.

In other words, while religion proffers answers to many questions, they are personal answers that don’t apply even to all members of a given faith, much less to members of different faiths. And, I further claim, for questions related to “how to live”, there is no answer that religion can give that is better than one philosophy can provide.

I have more questions on my own list (e.g., “what is the meaning of life?”, “how do we know the difference between right and wrong”), but here I’m crowdsourcing not just more Big Questions, but reactions to the list above and, especially, to the claim that religion answers the Big Questions.

Templeton-sponsored essay contest: Big bucks for telling stories about accommodationism

August 29, 2016 • 8:45 am

The John Templeton Foundation, which funds many scientists who aren’t (but should be) ashamed to take money from an organization devoted to finding God in science, is up to its usual shenanigans. We have some juicy information about it that I hope I can reveal soon, but this contest, just announced, will give you an idea of how deeply Templeton is still immersed in the project to harmonize science and religion.

Reader Rob S. called my attention to a TWP (Think Write Publish) Science & Religion Project run by Arizona State University that apparently has deep pockets courtesy of Templeton, and is devoted to supporting Templeton’s own confirmation bias: that religion and science are in perfect comity. According to Templeton, TWP began as an NSF-sponsored program, but now has been injected with the “science and religion” business (I doubt the NSF would sponsor the present program.)

Here’s part of the new announcement. Note that they characterize religion as a “way of knowing” (my emphasis). Parts of their announcement are indented, with my comments flush left, and the evidence for Templeton funding of TWP’s project is at the bottom.


Science and religion, despite their rich, interwoven history, are too often portrayed as opposites in nearly every way, irreconcilable by definition. Indeed, our increasingly polarized societies seem to encourage the proposition that these two ways of knowing the world cannot productively co-exist, that they encounter each other through conflict and contradiction.

If religion is a way “of knowing the world,” I’d like to hear what it has helped us know. What exactly, dear Templeton-funded TWP, has religion told us about the world that is true? How many gods are there? Is Jesus divine? Is it immoral to get a blood transfusion? Is evolution true? Can women be priests? Is there an afterlife of some sort? Should we kill apostates? All religions differ on the answers to these questions, and there’s no way of ascertaining the answers. So how, exactly, can religion tell us anything? The announcement continues:

Our project advances a different proposition: that science and religion can reinforce each other to allow a more nuanced [JAC: If you hear the word “nuanced” in such discussions, head for the hills!], profound, and rewarding experience of our world and our place in it. We will use creative nonfiction writing to explore and advance this proposition. We are building a new community of storytellers who will write, publish, and disseminate engaging and inspiring nonfiction narratives of harmonies, reconciliation, and even productive interaction between science and religion.

It’s curious that a project that claims religion and science both advance our understanding of the world wants to use personal anecdotes and stories to buttress that proposition. Well, after all, that’s all they’ve got. . .

One of the best ways to foster collective understanding is with a good story. Creative nonfiction–true stories, well told–allows for complexity, novelty, and revelation, and through compelling voice, suspense, character development, and well-chosen details has the potential to engage the widest audiences and change the way they know the world.

If you have a true story that you would like to tell about harmonies between science and religion—drawn from your personal life, your work, your experience, your studies—we want to help you do it.

The Think-Write-Publish Science & Religion project offers several ways for you–scholars, scientists, religious figures, writers, everyday people—to become part of a vibrant new community of storytellers.

I’m not sure what they’re looking for here. Is Francis Collins’s Frozen Waterfall Conversion story suitable? Is the fact that someone went to church and was inspired to go back to her lab to study the Mind of God what they want? What about a priest getting a revelation that God worked through evolution?

By and large, we scientists don’t call ourselves “storytellers,” because that implies that we’re engaged in concocting fiction. The real community of storytellers comprises the religionists, who are completely engaged in promulgating fiction. Here the TWP is trying to mix truth and fiction—right up Templeton’s alley.

The prizes are not insubstantial, either:

Creative Nonfiction and Issues in Science and Technology editors will award two prizes—a best essay prize of $10,000, and a $5,000 runner-up prize—and up to five honorable mentions, each with a $500 prize. The two winning essays will be published in the fall 2017 issues of both magazines; honorable mentions will also be considered for publication in one or both magazines and/or online. The best essay winner and runner-up will also win a trip to Washington, D.C. where they will be honored at our publication launch event in 2017.

Templeton is apparently making a Big Push to show the public that religion and science are compatible. That make it even more important for those of us who feel otherwise to emphasize the incompatibilities. Here are the other projects of the TWP:


In fall 2017, we will be offering a four-part online course, “Telling True Stories About Harmonies Between Science & Religion.” Taught by Fellows and mentors from the program, the course offers anyone who has experience(s) related to the harmonies between science and religion to join a community of writers. Using project stories as examples, the course will provide training in narrative nonfiction research, writing, and revision and regular feedback on their writing.

Wait! There’s more!


The public is invited to these events to learn about the project and the resulting narratives, engage with the authors and mentors, and join in the conversation about harmonies between science and religion.

This is odious. Templeton is getting its sticky fingers into public museums, and of course there’s no opportunity for a response by those of us who who feel that science and religion are in opposition. I’m sure that if I, for example, gave a lecture at a public museum on the incompatibility of science and religion, people would find that rude. But those who impart the opposite message are welcomed and lionized.

But wait! There’s still more!


In fall 2017, a conference will be held to launch the special “Science and Religion” issues of Creative Nonfiction and Issues in Science and Technology. In June 2018, a two-day conference will feature best stories, compelling project participants, opinion leaders, and the media.

And if you think that’s all, no, there’s MORE! With all of this you get EXTRA GOODIES!


We will be awarding twelve $10,000 two-year TWP Science & Religion Fellowships to develop a publishable true story or series of stories.

Open to novice and experienced writers, anyone who has a compelling true story or true stories illustrating or exploring harmonies between science and religion is encouraged to apply. Over a two-year period, Fellows will develop, write, and market their creative nonfiction stories. They will be mentored throughout the project by experienced writers, editors and teachers. They and their stories will be featured in a series of regional and national events.

As part of the workshop, Fellows will participate in three intensive training workshops. . .

So, let’s see. Twelve $10,000 fellowships is $120,000. Add to that $17,500 for the essays, the public events—probably at least $10,000 each—and two national conferences (I’ll say a total of $100,000 if you throw in the online courses), and you get nearly $240,000, roughly a cool quarter million.

That’s a lot of dosh to throw at reconciling science and faith! But they must feel it’s important if they’re spending so much money on this. And yet, all the while, people are leaving faith, often because they feel it doesn’t comport with science. Maybe this program is a desperation move to counteract that. After all, America is inexorably becoming more secular, and the faithful have to deal with that.

Here’s evidence of Templeton’s sponsorship. Doesn’t Lawrence Krauss work at ASU?

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At last: a rational thinker at “The Stone”

July 18, 2016 • 10:00 am

Over the years I’ve repeatedly documented the wooly thinking, religious apologetics, and general mushbrain-y analysis at “The Stone”, a philosophy blog at the New York Times. But very rarely the editors will deign to let a rationalist or—horrors!—an atheist have a column. And today it’s Duke University philosopher Alex Rosenberg, who is about the most “militant” atheist—and “hardest” determinist—I know. You may have read his 2011 book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, a defense of scientism that had the honor of being named “the worst book of the year” by Leon Wieseltier. I thought it was a pretty good book, though a bit tendentious, but certainly much better than all the tripe that passes as criticism of “scientism” (Wieseltier has purveyed some of that stomach lining).

Rosenberg’s theme is the fallibility of our thinking that consciousness produces absolutely accurate information about our actions, thoughts, and motivations. He maintains that this is wrong: just as when we exercise our “theory of mind,” imputing beliefs, intentions, or motivations to others, so that faculty is equally fallible when turned upon ourselves. Certainly our feeling of being a free agent consciously willing an action, and thereby bringing it about, is wrong, as many experiments have no shown, and as I’ve discussed endlessly. Rosenberg goes a bit further:

We never have direct access to our thoughts. As Peter Carruthers first argued, self-consciousness is just mind reading turned inward.

How do we know this? Well, Hume would have answered that introspection tells us so. But that won’t wash for experimental scientists. They demand evidence. Some of it comes from the fMRI work that established the existence of a distinct mind-reading module, more from autistic children, whose deficits in explaining and predicting the behavior of others come together with limitations on self-awareness and self-reporting of their own motivations. Patients suffering from schizophrenia manifest deficiencies in both other-mind reading and self-mind reading. If these two capacities were distinct one would expect at least some autistic children and schizophrenics to manifest one of these capacities without the other.

That we read our own minds the same way we read other minds is evident in what cognitive science tells us about consciousness and working memory — the dual imagistic and silent-speech process that we employ to calculate, decide, choose among options “immediately before the mind.”

. . . The upshot of all these discoveries is deeply significant, not just for philosophy, but for us as human beings: There is no first-person point of view.

Our access to our own thoughts is just as indirect and fallible as our access to the thoughts of other people. We have no privileged access to our own minds. If our thoughts give the real meaning of our actions, our words, our lives, then we can’t ever be sure what we say or do, or for that matter, what we think or why we think it.

Philosophers’ claims that by reflecting on itself thought reliably reveals our nature, grounds knowledge, gives us free will, endows our behavior with moral value, are all challenged. And the threat doesn’t stem from some tendentious scientistic worldview. It emerges from the detailed understanding of the mind that cognitive science and neuroscience are providing.

There’s considerable merit in this argument, though I’ll be thinking more about it. But to the extent that Rosenberg is right, it puts the lie to the claim that introspection itself can give us truths as reliable as those obtained by “scientific” methods: empirical observation, prediction, and corroboration by others. Introspection is by definition an uncorroborated process, and if you make a claim about the nature of reality based on introspection alone, there’s no reason to trust it. Even when you say, “I’m hungry”, you may be wrong; the only truth there is that your consciousness tells you that you feel hungry. But of course your eyes could be bigger than your stomach.  One of my favorite quotes, by former pastor Mike Aus, expresses this nicely:

When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be, and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.