Late Sunday Cephalopod

April 4, 2010 • 8:39 pm

by Greg Mayer

As a general rule, we here at WEIT eschew involvement with the more cerebral Mollusca, leaving such matters to PZ.  But the cephalopodous creations below adorn the Kohl Center at the University of Wisconsin, so PZ is not likely to see them, especially on the evening when Jon Losos took the photo, just prior to an 8-4 shellacking of Minnesota State-Mankato by the UW hockey Badgers.

The creator of this Cthhulonic congregation seems to have awaken from some dream of dread R’lyeh, and applied the nightmare image direct to the walls of the Kohl Center, only adding diverse colors to the cuttlefish-oid creatures to relieve the horror of his vision.

Giant squid!! (Sort of!!)

February 1, 2010 • 11:25 pm

by Greg Mayer

A real giant squid, Architeuthis (from the Tree of Life).

According to the AP, giant squid have invaded California! Except that, according to the article, they’re not actually giant squid, but Humboldt squid, which don’t get nearly as large (up to about 2 meters) as real giant squid (up to about 14 meters). Fishermen in California have been reeling in the large Humboldt squid by the hundreds. Historically, their distribution was centered on the equator in the eastern Pacific, but recently they have been moving both north into California and as far as British Columbia, and south to central Chile. Despite being on the equator, the waters in their range are actually ordinarily quite cool.

We don’t normally do squid here at WEIT, but PZ occasionally does a cat, so we occasionally do a cephalopod, just to keep him on his toes. And besides, he’s in Ireland, and might miss this one.

Dosidicus gigas
Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas), base of arm (from the Tree of Life)

That’s not ratfish genitalia. That’s ratfish genitalia.

September 28, 2009 • 8:58 am

by Greg Mayer

Over at Pharyngula, PZ has linked to a story at Deep Sea News about the description of a new species of ratfish with “forehead genitals”. While it’s a great concept, the tentaculum, or cephalic claspers, of ratfish are not genitals.

Male chimaeridFig. 1. That’s not ratfish genitalia. A male ratfish (family Chimaeridae) showing the tentaculum.

The genitalia of male ratfish are the pelvic claspers, modifications of the medial side of the pelvic fins used as intromittent organs for the introduction of sperm into the female’s reproductive tract. The ratfish’s pelvic claspers are bifid and especially spectacular.

Claspers of male chimaerid.Fig. 2. That’s ratfish genitalia. A male ratfish’s (family Chimaeridae) pelvic claspers; note the bifid structure, giving the appearance distally of four claspers. The anterior of the fish is to the bottom of this photo. The medial lump anterior to the pelvic fins is the rectum, prolapsed.

For comparison, here’s a female ratfish with unmodified pelvic fins.

Female chimaeridFig. 3. A female ratfish (family Chimaeridae), showing unmodified pelvic fins.

Ratfish comprise the Holocephala, one of the two major subdivisions of the cartilaginous fishes, the Chondrichthyes, the other major subdivision being the sharks and rays (elasmobranchs). Pelvic claspers are found throughout the modern cartilaginous fishes, which therefore have internal fertilization (most bony fish have external fertilization). Although living species of sharks do not have tentacula, some fossil ones (e.g. Falcatus) did, and others had other sorts of spine encrusted bits on their front ends which may have been involved in courtship and mating.

Whether or not tentacula are genitals is a matter of the definition of genitals, of course, but the term is, to my knowledge, reserved for structures involved in the transfer and reception of gametes. If parts of the body used in courtship are considered genitals, then the throat fans of anoles and the long fingernails of turtles would have to be considered genitals, too; indeed, so would the entire human body.  Many commenters at Pharyngula  have remarked about ratfish having penises on their heads (or something to that effect), which, of course, they don’t: their genitals are in the normal place (for cartilaginous fish), alongside their pelvic fins.Female (left) and male chimaerids.

Fig. 4. A ratfish couple.

(I tried to post a short comment to this effect at Pharyngula last night, but found I wasn’t registered to do so, and then I thought, “Why talk about it, when you can show pictures”, so I waited to take some photos this morning and posted here.)

What am I supposed to do with Unscientific America?

July 9, 2009 • 8:55 am

At the request of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, several of us were sent pre-publication copies of their new book, Unscientific America, a discussion of America’s scientific illiteracy and a prescription for fixing it.

One of the recipients was P. Z. Myers of Pharyngula fame, who is strongly criticized in the book for his atheism and the “crackergate” affair, which Mooney and Kirshenbaum consider inimical to public acceptance of science.   Mooney and Kirshenbaum posted a note on their website that they had sent P. Z. a copy of their book, asking him to refrain from reviewing it until he had read the whole thing.

We hope that like Dr. Coyne, you will suspend judgment until reading the book, at which point we’ll be interested to hear what you think.

After reading the whole thing, Myers  posted a strongly negative review of it on his website, concluding:

The bottom line is that Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s book recites the obvious at us, that there is a fundamental disconnect between science and the popular imagination in our country, but offers no new solutions, and in fact would like to narrow our options to a blithe and accommodating compromise of science with rampant ignorance. Their own bigotry blinds them to a range of approaches offered by the “New Atheists”…a group that is not so closed to the wide range of necessarily differing tactics that such a deep problem requires as Mooney and Kirshenbaum are. It’s not a badly written book, but it’s something worse: it’s utterly useless.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum, of course, don’t like this judgment, but dismiss it on the grounds of reviewer bias:

If you want a take that throughly trashes the book, well then this is it. But of course, that’s not surprising, given that the book not only criticizes Myers but, indeed, identifies him as part of the problem. . .

. . . Indeed, it appears that judging the book based on what New Atheists say about it, alone, could lead you to make pretty strong factual errors about its contents. Consider what happens in this blog comment thread to one Jim Lippard: see here, here, here, and finally here–where after making various false claims about our book’s contents, Lippard admits to not having read it.

Perhaps judging a book critical of the New Atheists based on what the New Atheists say about it on blogs it is hazardous to your understanding.

o.k.  So my question is this: what am I supposed to do? I’ve almost finished the book, and have neither made public statements about it nor published any pre-reviews.  I don’t have a crackergate in my background, either.  However, I suppose I could be considered a “new atheist,” though I don’t like the term and I’ve been an atheist since 1967.

Does this mean that Mooney and Kirshenbaum won’t consider my review as a serious intellectual appraisal? Or will they dismiss it only if it’s negative?  I really don’t want to waste time on this if the authors of the book are going to regard any effort as biased from the outset.  So, Mooney and Kirshenbaum, what say ye?  Do you want to hear a review or not? If not, why did you send us the book?

Mooney and Kirshenbaum: Atheists turn Americans from science, strangle puppies

July 1, 2009 • 2:05 pm

Over at Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson has begun reading and posting on Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s new book, Unscientific America, an analysis of why the American public is so scientifically illiterate (I’m going by the blurbs; I haven’t read it yet). According to Mooney and Kirshenbaum, one of the main reasons for this illiteracy is — can you guess? — the ATHEISTS. Yes folks, our stridency and militancy have alienated flocks of Americans, turning them away from science. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens all get their licks, with special opprobrium reserved for P. Z. Myers. See link above for Ophelia’s first take, and the second is here.

I will reserve making my own comments until I read the book.

One other note: three liberal English theologians, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, have joined forces to prevent British citizens suffering from terminal illnesses to seek euthanasia in countries like Switzerland. Liberal religion harmless? Not in this case. See the link for Anthony Grayling’s take and the original news item.

Accommodationism: onward and downward

June 28, 2009 • 7:03 am

Well, God may have rested on Sundays, but atheists don’t. A mini-kerfuffle has begun with yesterday’s posting of science postdoc John Wilkins at his website Evolving Thoughts.  Wilkins listed six “points” for discussion, these being reasons why accommodationism is the proper strategy for addressing the faith/science dichotomy.  They are the usual mix of I-am-a-nice-guyness, religion-and-science-both-find-truth-ness, and the-atheists-are-so-uncivil-ness.

Over at Pharyngula, P. Z. Myers throws cold water on the feebly smoking embers of  Wilkins’s arguments, writing with his usual pungency:  “I may not be perfectly rational, but my magic invisible monkeys are!” He takes Wilkins down point by point; here are my two favorites (Wilkins’s arguments in bold, P.Z.’s responses in plain type):

2. The usual excuse that making nice with religion is strategic, coupled with the claim that religion is always going to be around. Other people can be strategic. Scientists just ought to be honest. As for the tired argument that religion will always be around — no. Some of us have shed the old myths. More will follow. I don’t have any problem seeing a coming future where religious belief is an irrelevant minority position. Of course, if you start out with a defeatist attitude, it becomes a bit more difficult.

Frankly, this is one of the more ludicrous arguments made by accommodationists. If carried to its logical conclusion, it would imply that we shouldn’t work to change any long-standing human behavior for, after all, it’s always been with us, so we should just learn to deal with it.  Had the accommodationists been around at the turn of the last century, they might have counseled us to forget trying to get equal rights for minorities and women: people have always discriminated, and we can’t do anything about it.  (And don’t tell me that this comparison is invidious because faith is much nicer than discrimination, because that’s not relevant. Anyway, faith continues to cause dissent, fighting, and murder throughout the world, not to mention the more passive forms of destruction like fighting against condoms in HIV-plagued countries.)

At any rate, we have ample evidence that societies can indeed become less religious: it’s happened over and over again in Europe.  Sweden and Denmark are now virtually atheistic countries, but they didn’t used to be.  France and Germany are on the way.  Don’t tell us that religion will always be with us.  I have faith — if that’s the right word! — that some day grownups will put away their childish faiths.   A corollary to the faith-will-always-be-with-us view is that atheists need to show the faithful how they can survive without religion. Well, that’s really not our responsibility, but clearly people can have full and meaningful lives without religion. See Ophelia Benson on this issue over at the Guardian website Comments are Free.

5. Religion has always been wrong about the natural world, but religion is seeking knowledge of something different. Again, first part fine, second part weird. What knowledge? Can you even call it “knowledge” if it’s nothing that anyone can know? Why should we accept any claims by religion?

Indeed.  Some time ago I ran a contest on this site, offering a free autographed book if anybody could come up with a “truth” about the world that was revealed uniquely by faith.  Nobody won — and it wasn’t for lack of trying!  The “truths” that are supposedly found by faith turn out to be nothing more than moral dictums like the Golden Rule.  This is not, of course,  a truth, but a guide to behavior (and rules like this come from secular ethics as well).  Religion is neither constructed in a way to promote the discovery of truth, nor is particularly good at finding it (think of the “truths” of Adam and Eve, the great flood, and the 6,000-year-old universe). And for every Golden Rule, there’s a “truth” like “adulterers should be stoned to death.” Finally, most of the “truths” of different religions are in irreconcilable conflict with one another.  Was Jesus the son of God? Christians adamantly agree; Muslims think that anyone holding that belief is doomed to eternal torment. Let me say it again:  asserting that science and faith are merely different ways of finding “truth” debases our very notion of what “truth” is.

In their more lucid moments, accommodationists recognize this, but you never see them attacking the common claim (made by, among others, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, and others) that science and religion are merely different ways of seeking truth.

On his website Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, philosopher Russell Blackford has two relevant posts.  The first is an analysis of Chris Mooney’s position on the faith/science dichotomy.

Chris Mooney is an atheist. Indeed, he is a philosophical naturalist – it’s difficult to be sure what this really means, but for present purposes the point is that Mooney does not believe in the existence of any spooky beings such as gods, ghosts, ancestor spirits, angels, demons, and so on. He is not just a methodological naturalist who, as a matter of policy or practice, avoids explaining the world’s phenomena in terms of the existence of spooky beings. He actually denies that these beings exist. He takes this position because he sees no evidence for the existence of such beings and because the claims made by people who claim to encounter them are so contradictory. It is more rational to explain the experiences of these people by means of some kind of psychological thesis, he thinks, than to think that the experiences are veridical . .

Chris Mooney is an atheist, taking – as far as I can work out – the position described in my first paragraph above. But he thinks it’s bad form for atheists to spell out their positions or to criticise religion in public. Instead of explaining and defending his own substantive position in a consolidated way, he prefers to write posts in which he tells other atheists to shut up . . .

Nonetheless, he calls for other atheists to shut up, in the sense that calls for them to engage in self-censorship, to stop offending and scaring the religious. He seems to imagine that this is a moderate position to take, and indeed it is more moderate (or less radical) than if he took the position of attempting to stop atheist discourse by an exercise of state power. However, this is not a moderate position. Even if he insisted on strict civility, that would not be a moderate position: we do not have to engage in strict civility when we criticise economic theories, political ideologies, or any other non-religious ideas – so why are religious ones sui generis in this regard? There is a long tradition, going back beyond Voltaire, of subjecting religious ideas to satire and ridicule. Satire and ridicule are often needed to convey what is truly absurd about an idea to people who may begin with different premises and are almost immune to argument. . .

I’ve given up on trying to explain this to Mooney. He seems to be dogmatically convinced that his position is the moderate one. Anyone who thinks that religious ideas merit scrutiny and, where we disagree with them, even criticism (let alone satire or ridicule) is taking an extreme position in Mooney’s judgment.

Yes, that’s right.  Although Mooney has repeatedly claimed that he’s not telling any atheist to shut up, I can’t see that he’s saying anything else.  As far as I can make out, Mooney wants the atheists who dislike faith/science accommodationism to simply keep quiet about it, as it’s strategically bad. If he is saying something else, what is it?

In another post, Blackford, who has always been properly concerned with definitions, goes after Wilkins’s characterization of “accommodationism” and “anti-accommodationism,” and suggests definitions that seem reasonable, at least to me.

Anti-accommodationists hold, for various reasons, that when defending science, such as evolution (but not always), defenders should not assert that science is compatible with religion. Instead, they should merely defend science.

Accommodationists, on the other hand, hold that even if science and religion are incompatible, it is politically expedient to deny this incompatibility when defending science. Moreover, for reasons of political expediency, no one should bring up the incompatibility even while doing things other than defending science.

And then Blackford notes that although Chris Mooney and others deny that they were practicing a form of intellectual censorship, they really were:

John laments that the debate got nasty very quickly, but he blames this on the so-called exclusivists. Again, I just can’t see it. The recent phase of the debate began when Jerry Coyne wrote a civil, substantial, and very thoughtful review of books by Karl W. Giberson and Kenneth R. Miller in The New Republic. Jerry has also criticised science organisations for at least hinting at the compatibility of science of religion (John agrees with Jerry on this point; i.e. John agrees that science organisations should not do this).

For his pains, Jerry was attacked very trenchantly by Chris Mooney. Worse, Barbara Forrest said that Coyne should shut up. She said that “secularists should not alienate religious moderates” and gave Coyne’s book review as an example of alienating the these people. If that is not telling someone to shut up, I don’t know what is. Chris Mooney expressed full agreement with Forrest (as he represented her – I’m relying on his representation of what she said).

If Forrest said what she is represented as saying, then she believes that Coyne should not have reviewed the books by Giberson and Miller the way he did. Only a completely favourable review would have been appropriate, and Coyne should have self-censored. If that is so, I could not have written my review of Francisco Ayala’s recent book in the way I did in Cosmos magazine last year. I should have censored myself. We would all have to censor ourselves, and not express reservations, whenever reviewing a book by what Forrest calls a religious moderate. Surely it is not unreasonable when we anti-accommodationists point out the absurdity of such a position.

Mooney also headed his post in a way that suggested that the people who thus “alienate” the faithful are not civil, though he later disclaimed the implication that Jerry Coyne had been uncivil in his review. But the clear implication was that Coyne’s review was an example of incivility (and it also follows that my review of Ayala’s book would be such an example).

I have to agree here (surprise!).  What is Mooney asking me to do?  I have tried long and hard to figure it out, but have failed.  If it’s something other than keeping my mouth shut about the irreconciliability of science and faith, I’d like to hear it. I can’t engage in debate when I don’t know what the other side is saying.

(n.b.  Chris Mooney thinks that Wilkins’s post is “brilliant”)

Andrew Brown makes another dumb argument for accommodationism

June 20, 2009 • 4:19 pm

Apparently, accommodationist-in-chief Andrew Brown has his own blog, and is now using it to make arguments even dumber than those appearing in his recent Guardian piece. To wit: we athiests should be very careful about our tactics. According to Brown, if we persist in equating acceptance of evolution with atheism, then we’ll create a situation in which evolution can no longer be taught in the classroom. After all, teachng atheism in the classroom is tantamount to a denigration of religion, which is illegal in American public schools:

I don’t want here to get into a discussion about whether this [whether atheists embrace the “scientific worldview” more fully than believers can] is true. Christianity at least does seem to require the acceptance of at least one miracle as the most important thing that ever happened in the universe and it’s certainly reasonable for a scientist to reject this. In any case, it’s all part of a much bigger myth, which does far more than science can to explain the world: that of the triumph of reason, truth, and so forth over ignorance, superstition and stupidity. Such myths are not dislodged by argument.

Already, I can hear the voices saying not all in the tones of E. L. “But where’s the evidence?” “How can a scientist believe in miracles?” and so on. But it is precisely at this point, which the new atheists consider their strongest and most unanswerable, that Ruse’s argument takes effect. Suppose we concede that the new atheists are right, and no true, honest scientist could be anything other than an atheist. If that is true, the teaching of science itself becomes unconstitutional. For it is every bit as illegal to promote atheism in American public schools as it is to promote religion. Again, there are recent judgements from the heart of the culture wars to make this entirely clear. . .

But the American courts have never been asked to decide whether science is the negation of religion: in fact the defenders of evolution and of science teaching in schools have gone to great lengths to ensure that the question was not asked. The “accommodationists” whom Coyne so despises, have been brought out in all the court cases so far to say that that evolution and Christianity, science and religion, are perfectly compatible. If the courts were asked to decide whether not whether ID was a religious doctrine, but whether evolution was a necessarily atheist one, and if they decided that Jerry Coyne and PZ and Dawkins and all the rest are right, then science teaching would become unconstitutional in American public schools. They would, in short, have fucked themselves.

It’s at times like this when I think I’ve entered Cloud Cuckoo Land. Does anybody seriously think that teaching evolution is a deliberate promotion of atheism? If so, I haven’t met any of them, and that includes P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins. (Let me take that back — I’ve met two: Brown and his compadre Michael Ruse. Ruse once wrote that I should give my NIH grant back to the government because my research involves the unconstitutional promotion of atheism!)

Actually, we teach evolution because it’s a wonderful subject, explains a lot about the world, and happens to be true. And yes, it’s likely that teaching evolution probably promotes a critical examination of religious beliefs that may lead to rejecting faith. But teaching geology, physics, or astronomy does that, too. In fact, education in general leads to the rejection of faith. (Statistics show that the more education one has, the less likely one is to be religious.) Should we then worry about teaching physics, astronomy, or indeed, allowing people access to higher education, because those “promote” atheism? Should we constantly be looking over our shoulders because the courts may catch onto this? Well, American courts may be dumb, but even our benighted Supreme Court is more rational than Mr. Brown.

What Brown is really saying is that we should be worried about promoting rational values of any type, or any notion that beliefs require evidence. He doesn’t seem to realize the difference between cramming atheism down people’s throats and teaching them to think, which may have the ancillary effect of eroding faith.

Clearly, both Ruse and Brown are willing to use any rhetorical tactic to decry atheism, no matter how mush-brained it is. As I said in my last post about the Ruse/Brown twins, this smacks of desperation. Rather than engage the serious arguments of scientist-atheists, they talk about our “uncivil” tone — and now about the horrible unforseen consequences of our supposed equation of evolution with atheism. I repeat, so that Brown can get it: teaching evolution is NOT promoting atheism, it’s promoting a scientific truth. And the promotion of any scientific truth may have the ancillary effect of dispelling faith. This is almost inevitable, for the metier of science — rationality and dependence on evidence — is in absolute and irreconcilable conflict with the with the metier of faith: superstition and dependence on revelation. Too bad.

p.s. I look forward some day to Mr. Brown dropping the attacks on atheists and discussing, on their own merits, the assertions of the faithful. Does he think Jesus was the Son of God, that God answers prayers, and that there is an afterlife?


UPDATE:  Over on Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers has posted his reaction to Andrew Brown’s piece, “In which Andrew Brown gets everything wrong.”

Brown + Ruse vs. Myers: Are atheists responsible for creationism?

June 18, 2009 • 6:47 am

I swear, sometimes I think that pro-evolution accommodationists see evolutionists as a bigger enemy than are creationists.  This became clear to me earlier this week, when I received a nasty, chest-thumping email from philosopher Michael Ruse, accusing me of two things:

1.  Since I was not a philosopher, I had no credentials to pronounce on issues of philosophy, religion and theology.  You know what I think of this claim.

2.  My “anti-religion” activities are inimical to the cause of promoting evolutionary biology.  You know what I think about this as well: religion is really the root cause of creationism, which won’t dissipate until we loosen the grip of faith on America.

I’ll quote just two sentences from Ruse’s email: “But as it is, we are in a battle in America for the scientific soul of its children.  I don’t know who does more damage, you and your kind or Phillip Johnson and his kind.  I really don’t.”

This made me laugh.  Ruse is the Discovery Institute’s favorite philosopher, a guy who can always be counted on to stroke IDers and say, “Yes, yes, you’ve really been misunderstood. I understand.  It’s those nasty atheists who are really the ones cooking up trouble.”  Ruse edited a book with ID prima donna William Dembski, and has posted on the Discovery Institute website.  Fortunately, most philosophers and evolutionists don’t take Ruse too seriously. He is constantly coddling the faithful to grotesque extents, even going so far, in his book Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?, to float the idea of an intergalactic Jesus who could carry the message of salvation between every planet on which life evolved. (See my review of this execrable tome here.)

Ruse still likes to make trouble, though.  His latest shenanigan is a collaborative posting with Andrew Brown (on Brown’s column) at the Guardian website (I swear, the Guardian has published three pro-religion, anti-atheist pieces in the past three days. What’s with them?). The post is absolutely unbelievable in its hauteur — and stupidity.

Ruse reports that he visited Kentucky’s Creation Museum, where he had an epiphany.  He suddenly realized how misunderstood creationists really are.  We nasty, militant atheists don’t take the trouble to step into the creationists’ shoes and understand where they’re coming from.  From Ruse’s circular email, coopted by Brown:

Just for one moment about half way through the exhibit …I got that Kuhnian flash that it could all be true – it was only a flash (rather like thinking that Freudianism is true or that the Republicans are right on anything whatsoever) but it was interesting nevertheless to get a sense of how much sense this whole display and paradigm can make to people.

His conclusion?

It is silly just to dismiss this stuff as false – that eating turds is good for you is [also] false but generally people don’t want to [whereas] a lot of people believe Creationism so we on the other side need to get a feeling not just for the ideas but for the psychology too.

Really?  Didn’t Ruse himself, along with Kenneth Miller and other theistic or theist-friendly scientists, work together to show that creationism is false in the Dover trial and earlier creationist cases? Isn’t that the way we win in court?  Well, maybe, but Ruse’s beef is that we need to be armchair psychologists as well as scientists, something that the deeply empathetic Ruse has apparently mastered.   Brown concurs:

This is, I think one of the key differences between the new, or militant, atheists and Darwinians like Ruse, just as atheist as they but a lot less anti-religious. The new atheists recoil instinctively from the idea that they should get a feeling for the ideas and psychology of creationists. To them the essential point about believers is that they are stupid and crazy and wrong. So why waste your one life trying to inhabit a mind smaller and more twisted than your own?

(Just for fun, click on Brown’s links above.  They don’t lead you to statements by the “new atheists”!)

Well, I won’t waste time rebutting Brown’s (and Ruse’s) view, for P. Z. Myers has done a splendid job of it over on Pharyngula.  This is one of P.Z.’s all-time classic posts.  Check out the eloquent peroration after he has worked himself up to the heights of indignation:

I sympathize [with creationists] because they are all missing the awesomeness of reality for the awfulness of some narrow Bronze Age theocratic bullshit.

But there are also some for whom I have no sympathy at all.

I have zero sympathy for intelligent people who stand before a grandiose monument to lies, an institution that is anti-scientific, anti-rational, and ultimately anti-human, in a place where children are being actively miseducated, an edifice dedicated to an abiding intellectual evil, and choose to complain about how those ghastly atheists are ruining everything.

Those people can just fuck off.

Well, a mite strong there at the end, but I share P.Z.’s frustration and anger.   Do look at the readers’ responses (my favorites from last night are #25 and #47)  and especially the readers’ responses to the Brown/Ruse post.  Suffice it to say that Brown’s piece did not go down well.

Let me point out Brown’s twisted logic at the end of his piece:

But this constant identification of religion with irrationality, stupidity, cruelty, and ignorance [by the new atheists] is doubly self-defeating. It doesn’t of course work to persuade anyone out of religious belief. But it also promotes some quite grotesque self-deception. For if all the bad traits in human nature are religious, and I am not religious, then I am surely free from all the believers’ faults. Sometimes I think this explains the attractions of that style of atheism.

Oh dear.  Who ever said that all the bad traits in human nature are religious?  Or that atheists are free from faults?  This is just smoke and mirrors, and what it mirrors is Brown and Ruse’s refusal to face the complete lack of evidence for both God and  the epistemic assertions of the faithful. And I’m dead sick of the Brown/Ruse failure to engage the substantive arguments of atheists.  Instead, they repeatedly criticize our tone.  This is a tactic born of desperation. It’s what students of animal behavior call displacement activity: for example, when a pissed off sea gull attacks a leaf.

People like Ruse are afflicted with what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls “belief in belief” — the idea that even if the tenets of religion are wrong, it should still be promoted because it’s good for people and for society.  I find this notion incredibly condescending.  We know from the situation in Europe, where there are a ton of atheists, that people do not need religion to live happy, fulfilled, and moral lives.


UPDATE: Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse describes Ruse’s own sordid history of cozying up to creationists. I had forgotten that Ruse gave a series of public talks with ID bigwig William Dembski, and didn’t know that Ruse described Dembski’s book The Design Inference as “a valuable contribution to science.”  To science??

Science and “the transcendent world”

June 17, 2009 • 7:24 am

Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford takes on the idea that only faith can tell us what’s true about the transcendent world.

. . There is no good reason for scientists or advocates of science to suggest that a so-called “transcendent world” exists, that there are spooky beings such as gods, spirits, and the rest, or that religion in general, or any particular religion, can give us reliable information about anything of the kind. Stories of such things may well be charming, they may have cultural and aesthetic value, they may be worth preserving and studying. I don’t say that such stories are entirely without value. On the contrary, I love myth, legend, and folklore as much as anyone. Ask my friends about it if you don’t believe me. But that’s not the same as suggesting that any of these stories are actually true.

Exactly.  I have been reading posts on other websites attacking New Atheists (they’re “new” because their books make money!) for not dealing with the subtle theological issues involved in the science/faith debates. This is the famous “courtier’s reply” described by P.Z. Myers.  But all of these critiques neglect one important point: is there any evidence for the reality of the divine?   It’s the hallmark of a desperate argument to worry about philosophical nuances when the big elephant in the room– the evidence for God — goes unmentioned.  Philosopher Anthony Grayling said it well when, in a letter to the London Review of Books, he defended Richard Dawkins against critic Terry Eagleton:

Terry Eagleton charges Richard Dawkins with failing to read theology in formulating his objection to religious belief, and thereby misses the point that when one rejects the premises of a set of views, it is a waste of one’s time to address what is built on those premises (LRB, 19 October). For example, if one concludes on the basis of rational investigation that one’s character and fate are not determined by the arrangement of the planets, stars and galaxies that can be seen from Earth, then one does not waste time comparing classic tropical astrology with sidereal astrology, or either with the Sarjatak system, or any of the three with any other construction placed on the ancient ignorances of our forefathers about the real nature of the heavenly bodies. Religion is exactly the same thing: it is the pre-scientific, rudimentary metaphysics of our forefathers, which (mainly through the natural gullibility of proselytised children, and tragically for the world) survives into the age in which I can send this letter by electronic means.

Eagleton’s touching foray into theology shows, if proof were needed, that he is no philosopher: God does not have to exist, he informs us, to be the ‘condition of possibility’ for anything else to exist. There follow several paragraphs in the same fanciful and increasingly emetic vein, which indirectly explain why he once thought Derrida should have been awarded an honorary degree at Cambridge.

Anthony Grayling

A defense of accommodationism and a misunderstanding

June 14, 2009 • 11:57 am

Over at the Guardian website, James Hannam has appeared from the woodwork to argue that by critiquing the philosophical accommodation of faith with science, I am explicitly rejecting an alliance with the enlightened faithful to go after creationism:

It’s popularly imagined that the history of science and religion is one of violent conflict, but the facts don’t bear this out.

As the battle between creationism and evolution heats up, some atheists, like Jerry Coyne, have been insisting that it is really a battle between religion and science. Coyne resists any accommodation between religious and non-religious scientists to defend Darwinism. He doesn’t want to see them joining forces against the creationist common enemy in case that legitimises religion. In order for his position to make sense, he needs to show that there is some sort of existential conflict between religion and science. So it is unfortunate for him that the historical record clearly shows that accommodation and even cooperation have been the default positions in the relationship. . .

. . .The conflict between science and creationism is real enough, but it is the exception, not the rule. For most of history, science and religion have rubbed along just fine. So, if Jerry Coyne really wants to promote evolution, he should be joining hands with the religious scientists who want to help.

Mr. Hannam is either joking or simply hasn’t immersed himself in the debates or  the c.v.s of their participants.  For crying out loud, I  have always been allied with religious people in attacking creationism.  For example, I wrote a book on the evidence for evolution.  What I won’t do is suppress my view that people who claim that religion and science are compatible are victims of bad philosophy.  You can obviously defend Darwinism without cozying up to the faithful.  As far as I can see, none of the  new militant fundamentalist atheists have ever threatened to stop attacking creationism if organizations such as the NCSE and AAAS continue their accommodationism.   As P. Z. Myers has pointed out, it is not we atheist/scientists but the religious scientists who threaten to withdraw from the creation/evolution battles unless the other side shuts up about religion.  Do we threaten to withdraw our support if Kenneth Miller, the NCSE, and others continue to espouse accommodationism?  I don’t think so.

On to the bigger fish, who badly need frying.

Update: It looks as if I didn’t have to correct Hannam here.  The comments on his own post, and a note by Olivia Benson, are warming his tuchas.