Friday, August 31, 2007


Anybody Got Some Candles?

It seems that today is the Third Annual Blog Day.

No, I haven't any idea why either. But it appears harmless enough. Apparently we are supposed to:

... post a recommendation of 5 new blogs. This way, all blog readers will find themselves leaping around and discovering new, previously unknown blogs.
Never having been one to follow directions, I have only one recommendation at this point: Brian Switek's Laelaps, that I discovered (with PZ Myers' help, of course) within the past few weeks. (And no, it has nothing ... much ... to do with the fact that Brian recommended yours truly on Blog Day; I would have recommended Brian's exceptional work even if he thought I wasn't the obvious paragon that I am.)

Brian is an undergraduate at Rutgers University, studying ecology and evolution, who has been turning out these highly researched, well presented and, best of all, entertaining posts about science and the history and philosophy of science on the order of this one at an astounding rate. The words "highly recommended" barely cover it.

I may rummage around for some "Day After Blog Day" or "Day After the Day After Blog Day" recommendations and let you know of any good ones I find.


Freight Lines

Alan L. Contreras, administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, has an interesting article at Inside Higher Ed. He begins with the assertion that:

Religion and science are in different families on different tracks: science deals with is vs. isn’t and religion, to the extent that it relates to daily life, deals with should vs. shouldn’t.
After noting that most scientists have, until recently, either ignored religion or quietly practiced their own, "Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have decided to enter the ring and fight religion face to face." But, according to Contreras:

The contrapuntal force to religion, that force which is in the same family, if a different genus, speaks the same language in different patterns regarding the same issues. It is not science, it is philosophy. That is what our teachers need to understand, and this distinction is the one in which education colleges should train them.
Contreras finds that, contrary to popular notions, not all philosophy is "dense, dismal texts written by oil lamp with made-up words in foreign languages, and far beyond mortal ken." Which is a good thing, given that it is his opinion that we need to "introduce more religious studies into our K-12 schools ... if people are ever to understand each other’s lives [and] the family of learning into which they must go also contains philosophy." That will necessitate that:

The shoulds and shouldn’ts that are most important to the future of our society need to be discussed in colleges, schools and homes, and the way to accomplish this is to bring religions and philosophies back to life as the yin and yang of right and wrong. That is the great conversation that we are not having.
I have some doubts about the absolute separateness of science and religion or that, whatever interface there is between them, is as insignificant as Contreras would have it:

It is true that a portion of religious hooting has to do with is vs. isn’t questions, in the arena of creationism and its ancillary arguments. However, this set of arguments, important as it might be for some religious people, is not important to a great many (especially outside certain Protestant variants), while the moral goals and effects of religious belief are a far more common and widespread concern among many faiths.
Still, it is hard to argue with his contention that more knowledge is a better thing than less, especially when this is becoming such a public ... and contentious ... debate.

Thursday, August 30, 2007


Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome!

The 68th Meeting of the Skeptics' Circle is making beautifully international music over at Aardvarchaeology.

The entries come from such diverse places as Switzerland and Singapore and as distant as the United Kingdom and New Zealand. There is even one poster who encompasses Ireland and Sweden all by himself. There is also a healthy spread of Americans (someone should look into a cure for that).

And the subjects range from creationists on a violent rampage, through Charles Darwin's attitude to homeopathy, and down to bad atheist jokes. All of them doubt some pretty doubtful things.

Funny how that works out.


Talking Your Way Into Heaven

Now here is an interesting study done at the University of British Columbia, which will be published in the September issue of Psychological Science journal:

... 125 participants were asked to unscramble sentences. After the task, they were given $10 and had to decide what to keep and what to give away to a stranger.
Sixty-eight per cent of those who unscrambled sentences with religious words gave about half the money away. Meanwhile, most members of the control group who worked on non-religious sentences kept nearly all the money.
According to one of the participants, Azim Shariff:

"I was quite surprised that something that subtle would have this big of an impact," said Shariff, 26. "This is a twist on an age old question -- does a belief in God influence moral behaviour?" ...

"I thought there would be some effect," said Shariff. "I didn't think it would be double."
Now, you know how everybody says PZ Myers, despite his ferocious reputation in the blogosphere, is really mild mannered and positively gracious in person? Who do you know who talks more about religion and God than him?

Just wondering ...

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


Blame Canada!

The real Wedge Document didn't issue from Seattle, it came from Ottawa and goes under the deceitful guise of the "Charter of Rights and Freedoms"!

It seems that a breakaway group of Mormons has been practicing what the Bible says the Patriarchs practiced: polygamy! And the good people of Canada, too polite to use pitchforks and torches, have been trying to hound these Biblicans out of their midst with mere laws. Tragically, because the Federal government acquiesced in the court-ordered institution of gay marriage across most of the country, the aforesaid Charter of Rights and Freedoms was instantly transformed at a nonce into the Declaration of Licentiousness and Debauchery that will now permit multiple marriage partners. I'm sure you'll be able to follow the crystal-clear logic demonstrating this effect:

Some Canadian pro-family advocates suggest that the legal case against polygamy was fatally compromised when Canada’s Parliament legalized same-sex "marriage" in 2005.

"During the debate on same-sex 'marriage,' when Liberal Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler adamantly testified that polygamy would not be an issue, everyone knew very well that it would be," Canadian lawyer Gwen Landolt, national director of REAL Women of Canada, told Lifesite News Service Aug. 2.

"If you can break down the laws guarding heterosexual marriage between a man and a woman, then anything can happen," said Landolt. "If you can have a partner of the same sex, then logically you can have two or three of the opposite sex."
It's ... it's ... the Domino Effect!

[National Review Online Editor Stanley] Kurtz said that if the debate over polygamy in Canada were limited to the actions of the Bountiful community — or pressure from Canadian Muslims, whose religion formally allows men to have multiple wives — there would be little chance of its legalization. ...

Said Kurtz, "Canada's socially liberal legal elites are just using the 'gay marriage' movement, fundamentalist Mormons, and Muslim immigrants to get what they’re truly after: the slow-motion abolition of marriage."
You can bet yer last dime that if you follow the billions to be made in the abolition of marriage, it'll lead to all those money-grubbing liberal elites!

But Landolt [alright, no snickering in the back ... act your age!] shows the real depth of the danger:

"If polygamy is upheld in Canada, how long will it take to be upheld around the world?" she said. "As the same-sex 'marriage' has turned out to be, it’s an international problem."
There you have it! Canada ... the new trend setter!


Truth in Advertising

... is what the Discovery Institute is so famous for, of course. It looks like John Campbell, a fellow at the Discovery Institute, purported expert witness at the Dover trial (until he and most of the DI witnesses came down with frigidfootitis) and co-author of a book with Stephen Meyer, director of the Discovery's Institute's Center for Science and Culture, called Darwinism, Design and Public Education, is living ... um ... up to the DI's lofty standards. Campbell is a candidate for a school board seat in semirural North Mason County along the Hood Canal in Washington state. For some strange reason, however, all those [cough] impressive credentials seem not to have made it onto his campaign website.

It doesn't seem like some accidental oversight either. This is the highly unusual way Campbell refers to his book co-authored with Meyer on the "Biography" page of his website:

One co-authored, edited book, Michigan State University Press (2003).
I've never heard of an author taking credit for an anonymous book before. He isn't even running under the name he used on that book and all the other publications he lists: John Angus Campbell. Eugenie Scott, of the National Center for Science Education wonders: "Is he trying to hide that he's running for school board, or that he is who he is?"

Campbell insists he isn't hiding anything. He says he hasn't mentioned his work on intelligent design because "it hasn't come up as an issue" and "it's not part of my motive in running."
It isn't? On his "About John" page, under "Why Am I Running for School Board?" there is this quite familiar sounding statement:

I believe that the full and free expression of different opinions is central to clear public thinking and that opposed arguments conducted with mutual respect can reveal common ground.
Can you say "teach the controversy" and "critical analysis," boys and girls? Gooood!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Appointing a Guardian

Hey, Kids!

You no longer have to travel those long dusty roads all the way to the Kentucky-Ohio border region to lower your IQ!

Now the aptly named Sky Angel, a Christian-owned multi-channel provider of faith-based and family-friendly TV and radio, will deliver your daily dose of dumb directly into your own living room!

Sky Angel ... has begun airing a series of Answers in Genesis programs on the company's owned and operated special events channel, Angel Two.

Answers in Genesis, builder of the Creation Science Museum located near Cincinnati, Ohio, is a Christ-centered ministry dedicated to upholding the authority of the Bible from the very first verse. Upcoming programs scheduled to air on Angel Two/Sky Angel Channel 9702 include "Creation Astronomy," "Origin of the Species," "The Relevance of Genesis," "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made," and "The Intelligent Design Movement: How Intelligent Is It?"

"We are excited to work with Sky Angel to air several of our most popular videos. This is just another blessing the Lord has given us to support the Church in fulfilling its commission," said Dale Mason, vice president of marketing and media for Answers in Genesis.
So sign up right away! Your wouldn't want to miss having any of that Angel #2 raining down on your house, now would you?



D. James Kennedy, the head of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian megachurch in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is leaving his position due to ill-health, according to the Palm Beach Post:

Kennedy, 76, had a heart attack in late December and has been in poor health since then. His daughter, Jennifer Kennedy Cassidy, announced on Sunday in her father's church that he was stepping down.

There is this bit of insight into the man:

A former ballroom dance instructor, Kennedy retained a dancer's regal posture and dressed in elegant suits.
Kennedy was one of the worst of the Righteous Right, a Dominionist and antirationalist of the first rank. But I don't feel any joy at his illness ... nor any great sorrow either. To her credit, the reporter, Lona O'Connor, in a piece that could easily be just a bit of puffery for an old, sick man, includes this about Kennedy's execrable pseudohistorical television program:

His outspoken views have put him at the center of controversies too. Last year, the Anti-Defamation League and others denounced Kennedy for producing "Darwin's Deadly Legacy," a documentary that linked Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to Adolf Hitler.
Wanna bet his specialty was tap dancing?

Monday, August 27, 2007


Secular Faith


For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

.......- Hamlet, Act III, Scene I
In my prior posts (part 1 and part 2) about Philip Kitcher's book, Living with Darwin, I discussed Kitcher's claim that the real root of the resistance to evolutionary theory is the aversion of theists to the Enlightenment case against a supernaturalist, providentialist God, of which Darwin's science is only a part. Next was Kitcher's explanation for the depth and vehemence of the resistance to Darwin (representing the public face of the Enlightenment) as arising out of the centralness of the religious community to most people's ability to cope with the vicissitudes of life. On the other hand, many, if not most, of the atheists who boast of their ability to face the fact of an indifferent, uncaring universe without flinching, actually cope with such angst through a very different but no less nurturing community.

Now we come to Kitcher's solution to the problem of retaining the emotionally vital community of support that religions now provide without throwing out reason and knowledge. Kitcher starts by citing to John Dewey, who argued for a new attitude toward religion and the religious:

We need, he suggested, outlets for the emotions that underlie religion, and this requires the emancipation of the religious life from the encumbrance of the dogmas of the churches, of their commitment to the literal truth of their favored stories. The task is to cultivate those attitudes that 'lend deep and enduring support to the processes of living." (p. 161)

To that end, Kitcher describes what he calls "spiritual religion":

Each of the major Western monotheisms can generate a version of spiritual religion by giving up the literal truth of the stories contested by the enlightenment case. How can this be done? I shall illustrate the possibility by using the example of Christianity. Spiritual Christians abandon almost all the standard stories about the life of Jesus. They give up on the extraordinary birth, the miracles, the literal resurrection. What survive are the teachings, the precepts and parables, and the eventual journey to Jerusalem and the culminating moment of the Crucifixion. That moment of suffering and sacrifice is seen, not as the prelude to some triumphant return and the promise of eternal salvation-all that, to repeat, is literally false -- but as a symbolic presentation of the importance of compassion and of love without limits. We are to recognize our own predicament, the human predicament, through the lens of the man on the cross.
Spiritual Christians place the value of the stories of the scriptures not in their literal truth but in their deliverances for self-understanding, for improving ourselves and for shaping our attitudes and actions toward others. (p. 152-53)
Kitcher holds that "the challenge is to find a way to respond to the human purposes religion serves without embracing the falsehoods, the potentially damaging falsehoods, of traditional religions." Specifically, he states that "[w]e need to make secular humanism responsive to our deepest impulses and needs, or to find, if you like, a cosmopolitan version of spiritual religion that will not collapse back into parochial supernaturalism." (p. 162)

To his credit, Kitcher sees the heavy-duty potholes littering his proposed road to Shangri-La:

To those who have grown up in a more substantial faith, who have not appreciated the force of the enlightenment case and who see no need to abandon supernatural religion, the spiritual version seems too attenuated to count as genuine religion at all. So, even though many contemporary Americans agree that large portions of scriptural texts should not be read literally most of them do not completely abandon supernaturalism in favor of spiritual religion. (p. 153)

On the other hand:

[S]ecular humanists will see spiritual religion as a last desperate attempt to claim a privilege for traditions whose credentials have been decisively refuted. (p. 153)

Even more daunting is Kitcher's observation that societies that have the best protection against poverty and good health care are the most secular:

American life is often a highly competitive scramble for material goods, one in which many people do not fare well. The social evolution of cities, small towns, and suburbs has led to increasing atomization, with ever fewer opportunities for shared civic life. Unlike their counterparts in Western Europe, Americans are often unprotected against foreseeable misfortunes. (p. 163)

It is one of the ironies of American life and politics that the very people most in need of freeing from supernaturalism are the same ones who would be most horrified by the "socialism" Kitcher sees as the reassurance they need to abandon their antirationalism.
In any case, I think Kitcher is misreading the causes of America's odd-man-out status among western democracies. It is not the economic safety net in Europe, which, itself, is not all that old, that is the difference, but a plethora of contingent historic forces, beginning in America's founding as a religious sanctuary and running through its very size, allowing for an insularity almost impossible in the narrow confines of Europe. While a society where economic security was more highly valued than greed and conspicuous consumption is a consummation devoutly to be wished, its prospect as a major force towards secularism is doubtful at best.
There is more than a little wistfulness in Kitcher's conclusion:

There is truth in Marx's dictum that religion, more precisely supernaturalist and providentialist religion, is the opium of the people, but the consumption should be seen as medical rather than recreational. The most ardent apostles of science and reason recommend immediate withdrawal of the drug but they do not acknowledge the pain that would be left unpalliated, pain too intense for their stark atheism to be a viable solution. Genuine medicine is needed, and the proper treatment consists of showing how lives can matter. (p. 163)

But against these crushing forces, he can only offer a wan hope:

In addressing these issues we may discover that the deliverances of reason can be honored without ignoring the most important human needs-and, going beyond supernaturalism, that we can live with Darwin, after all.


Sunday, August 26, 2007


Of Clangor and Legumes


Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

..... ..... - 1 Corinthians 13:1

As I discussed before, Philip Kitcher's book, Living with Darwin not only demonstrates that, philosophically, Intelligent Design is not science, but goes on to explore what religion is or can be, post-Enlightenment. Referring to Esau's bargain with Jacob to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentils, Kitcher says of today's purveyors of reason:

The conclusion they draw deprives religious people of what they have taken to be their birthright. In its place, they offer a vision of a world without providence or purpose, and, however much they may celebrate the grand human adventure of understanding nature, that can only appear, by comparison, to be a mess of pottage. Often, the voices of reason I hear in contemporary discussions of religion are hectoring, almost exultant that comfort is being stripped away and faith undermined; frequently they are without charity. And they are always without hope. (p. 154-55)
Kitcher lays out the common case for the utility of religion -- the comfort it brings in bereavement ("Darwin doesn't provide much consolation at a funeral") -- as well as the standard response of rationalists that it is both false comfort and unnecessary:

Hume faced his painful death stoically persisting in his skepticism to the end. T. H. Huxley Darwin's tireless champion, wracked with grief at the death of his four-year-old son refused Charles Kingsley's proffered hope of a reunion in the hereafter. (p. 155)
Here is where Kitcher's case begins to get interesting ... and dangerous:

It is crushingly obvious, however, that those most excited by the secular vision -- those who celebrate the honesty of spurning false comfort -- are people who can feel themselves part of the process of discovery and disclosure that has shown the reality behind old illusions. Celebrations of the human accomplishment in fathoming nature's secrets are less likely to thrill those who have only a partial understanding of what has been accomplished, and who recognize that they will not contribute, even in the humblest way, to the continued progress of knowledge. Hume's and Huxley's heirs, like Richard Dawkins for example, preach eloquently to the choir, but thoughtful religious people will find their bracing message harsh and insensitive. How can these celebrants of secularism understand what many other people stand to lose if their arguments are correct? How can they expect those people to be grateful for the mess of pottage they offer? (p. 155-56)
This explains the popularity of ID even among those, such as Biblical literalists, who are not satisfied with its stealthy tinkerer "Designer."

They know that the case launched against their cherished beliefs is clever, but they are also tempted by the thought that the cleverness is flawed. If others, recognizably more sympathetic to their faith, can point however vaguely to potential faults, they will be grateful -- and they will be disinclined to inspect too closely the gifts they are offered. (p. 156)
Kitcher is teetering perilously on the edge of the sort of elitist, antidemocratic condescension of the likes of Irving Kristol, who has said:

There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy.
Kitcher pulls back by arguing that the angst at the heart of the reluctance of the religious to surrender to the rigors of rationalism is no respecter of intellectuals; it is just that they have different coping mechanisms:

Christian resistance to Darwin rests on the genuine insight that life without God, in the sense of a Darwinian account of the natural world, really does mean life without God in a far more literal and unnerving sense. Even those who understand, and contribute to, the enlightenment case can find the resultant picture of the world, and our place in it, unbearable. William James' arresting image of the high cliffs that surround a frozen lake, on which the ice is slowly melting, testifies to his own yearnings for some way of enlarging, or enriching, the scientific worldview he felt compelled to accept. (p. 156-57)
Kitcher also tells the story of Elaine Pagels, a practitioner of academic "higher criticism" of the Bible, who did not attend church regularly and was taken by the Gospel of Thomas and its more spiritual approach of seeking and individual discovery. Then, on a morning run the day following being told that her infant son had a disease that would lead to a very early death, she stopped in the vestibule of a New York church.

Standing in the back of that church, I recognized, uncomfortably, that I needed to be there. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child; and here was a heterogeneous community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine. Yet the celebration in progress spoke of hope; perhaps that is what made the presence of death bearable. Before that time, I could only ward off what I had heard and felt the day before. (p. 157-58)
Life is not always in extremis, however:

There is a tendency for those who can accept life without God to pride themselves on their intellectual integrity. They, unlike the ostriches of the "booboisie," can face the facts with out flinching. It is easy to think that the dominance of secular perspectives within universities, and in other places where highly educated people are found, is readily explained in terms of clear-headedness and tough-mindedness. These are people who can appreciate the force of the arguments, and who will not allow reason to be clouded by weak emotions. I doubt however, that that is a complete account. Academics and scientists, as well as other professionals, can more easily sustain a sense of their lives as amounting to something, even in the absence of faithful service to God. Their lives are centered on work that is frequently significant and challenging, exciting and rewarding. Typically they belong to communities in which serious issues can be openly discussed, in which there are readily available opportunities for the sharing of troubles and concerns. Even so, when unanticipated personal trouble strikes, the mechanisms for providing comfort may be quite inadequate.

Pagels' moving testimony ... opens a window into the lives of the people who most vehemently resist Darwin. They are typically not as lucky as the fortunate secularists who can affirm the enlightenment case, embrace life without God, and get on with their interesting work, their comfortable leisure pursuits, and their rewarding discussions with friends and colleagues. For many Americans, their churches, overwhelmingly supernaturalist, providentialist churches, not only provide a sense of hope, illusory to be sure, but also offer other mechanisms of comfort. They are places in which hearts can be opened, serious issues can be discussed, common ground with others can be explored, places in which there is real community, places in which people come to matter to one another -- and thus come to matter to themselves. Without such places, what is left? (p. 158-60)
That is the question that any antireligion advocate will have to answer. I, for one, am convinced that stern lectures by famous atheists doing their best to look and sound like Miss Gulch stuffing Toto in a basket won't turn the trick.

To resist Darwin, or the enlightenment case that looms behind him, is hardly unreasonable if what you would be left with is a drab, painful, and impoverished life. For people who are buffeted by the vicissitudes of the economy, ... victimized by injustice, ... scorned and vilified by the successful members of their societies, ... whose work is tedious and unrewarding, ... for whom material rewards are scanty ... who can unburden themselves most readily in religious settings and who find in their church a supportive community, above all for people who hope that their lives mean something, that their lives matter, the secular onslaught threatens to demolish almost everything. That is why the voices of reason are as sounding brass or as tinkling cymbals. (p. 160)
What Kitcher thinks may serve to mute the brass will follow in the next post.


Saturday, August 25, 2007


In the Province of Philosophy


For Wales? Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world -- But for Wales, Richard, for Wales!

.....- A Man For All Seasons

Philip Kitcher's book, Living with Darwin is a quite serviceable philosophical treatment of the failings of Intelligent Design as science (another is Doubting Darwin?: Creationist Designs on Evolution by Sahotra Sarkar). What most interests me in Kitcher's book, however, is his attempt to go beyond ID to the question of what effect Darwin and evolutionary theory has -- and should have -- on religious belief.

For one thing, Kitcher makes the case that "Darwinism" is not the real enemy of the belief in supernaturalistic and providentialist religion but, rather, that honor goes to Voltaire and Hume and the rest of the Enlightenment thinkers:

So the conflict between Darwin and providential religion leads inexorably into a broader battle. It pitches us into what is often (but wrongly) viewed as a war between reason and religion generally, one that erupted in the eighteenth century and that has intensified ever since. Darwinism is entangled with what I'll call the "enlightenment case against supernaturalism." Evolutionary ideas form a separable part of the case, as well as amplifying other themes within it. It is wrong to give Darwin complete credit as the "anatomist of unbelief." But it would also be wrong to pretend that his ideas are not important to the "delineation of doubt." (p. 131)

Kitcher believes Darwin is a prominent figure in the conflict but more as a bogeyman for evangelical Christians:
... [T]he enlightenment case is not widely appreciated, and most of the brilliant thinkers who have developed it are unread, if not unknown. More exactly, they tend to be unread and unknown in the United States. ...

Darwin, however, is visible. He is in the schools, potentially corrupting the youth and leading them to spurn the precious gift of faith. He serves as the obvious symbol of a larger attack on supernaturalist religion, about which thoughtful Christians know, even if they are not aware of all its details. Their concern is justified, although they may think, wrongly, that the onslaught on their faith is contained and condensed in Darwinism. For the enlightenment case will not surface in the education of their children, at least not until they attend universities, and probably not in any systematic way, even then. (p. 150-51)

So, where does this leave Kitcher?

Darwin's most militant defenders would insist that [the Enlightenment case and Darwin] take us all the way to secularism, even that they constitute a knockdown case for atheism. I dissent from that conclusion ... [E]ven though the enlightenment case demonstrates that, taken as literal truth, the stories and historical claims of all the religions about which we know are overwhelmingly likely to be mistaken, it does not follow that the world contains nothing beyond the entities envisaged by our current scientific picture of it. The history of inquiry shows that our horizons have often expanded to encompass things previously undreamed of in anyone's natural philosophy. Whether inquiry will ever disclose anything that can satisfy the religious impulse, that can merit the title of "transcendent," is itself doubtful ... It would be arrogant, however, to declare categorically that there is nothing that might answer to our vague conception of the transcendent -- there is too much that we know that we do not yet know. (p. 151-52)

I'm not as willing as Kitcher to accept that the highly persuasive Enlightenment arguments against providentialism constitute a knockout case against it. But most interesting of all is his discussion about what he calls "spiritual religion," and what, besides Wales, science and secularism could offer the religious. However, that will have to be the subject of another post.


Friday, August 24, 2007


Yeah, Right!

Interviews conducted with 11 of the 15 members of the Texas State Board of Education are being reported to show that there is little support for intelligent design being taught in biology and other science classes.

"Creationism and intelligent design don't belong in our science classes," said Board of Education Chairman Don McLeroy, who described himself as a creationist. "Anything taught in science has to have consensus in the science community – and intelligent design does not." ...

"When it comes to evolution, I am totally content with the current standard," he said, adding that his dissatisfaction with current biology textbooks is that they don't cover the weaknesses of the theory of evolution.
Uh, oh! This is the same guy who, after his failed attempt to reject mainstream biology textbooks, said this:

I want to tell you all the arguments made by all the intelligent design group, all the creationist intelligent design people, I can guarantee the other side heard exactly nothing. They did not hear one single fact, they were not swayed by one argument. It was just amazing. I mean all the, my fellow board members who were really not even the scientists in the group, they were not impressed by any of this. They said, "Oh well, it's just two opinions. And there were only the four really conservative, orthodox Christians on the board were the only ones who were willing to stand up to the textbooks and say that they don't present the weaknesses of evolution. Amazing.
At least Dr. McLeroy was once clear about what ID really is. It is creationism being humped by conservative "orthodox" True Christians™ and the only thing approaching "substance" it has is the old tired arguments about the "weaknesses" of evolution (none of which actually reflect the real controversies and questions in evolutionary theory).

So now we can expect another round of the "teach the controversy" ploy where "nudge, nudge, wink, wink, know what I mean?" will be proposed as valid pedagogical policy.

Can you say "two-faced" boys and girls? Good!

Thursday, August 23, 2007


Curriculum Design

Leslie Goldman at The Huffington Post has an article on a ... unique ... degree course. It seems that the great state of Texas, home to such scholars as George W. Bush and Dr. Don McLeroy, has a certain institution of higher learning that is offering a Bachelor of Arts in humanities degree ... with a concentration in homemaking! Here is the course description:

Preparing women to model the characteristics of a Godly woman as outlined in Scripture. This is done through instruction in homemaking skills, developing insights into home and family while continuing to equip women to understand and engage the culture of today. It is unique in that we recognize the need to challenge women both intellectually and practically. It is our mission to equip a woman to impact women and families for Christ.

Oh, did I mention that the institution is a seminary? As Ms. Goldman says:

[O]n this I must plead a bit of ignorance. I was not brought up in this religion and I cannot pretend to understand the link between, as the website preaches, "preparing women to model the characteristics of a Godly woman as outlined in Scripture...through instruction in homemaking skills, developing insights into home and family while continuing to equip women to understand and engage the culture of today." To me, insight and the ability to engage the current culture develop from things like travel, social action, conversations with individuals from diverse backgrounds ... not Advanced PB&J Construction.

But that's not all! There is so much more available for women at this institution, including the course entitled "The Wife of the Equipping Minister" among the goals of which is:

To challenge a wife to fulfill divinely-assigned responsibilities to her husband of helping him in the task God has assigned to him and submitting to his leadership in the home and church.

Why do I find this particularly amusing? Well, it is just that this institution is The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Ft. Worth, Texas, the current academic home of the Albert Einstein of Information Theory himself ... William Dembski!
No doubt he's perfect for teaching the intelligent design of brown-bag lunches and the irreducible complexity of used diapers!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Stories of the Not So

I've been reading Philip Kitcher's Living with Darwin and he has a nice discussion of Darwin's preemptive (and prescient) strike on Intelligent Design advocates. One ploy -- hardly original with IDers -- is to try to identify evolutionary transitions that could not be managed by natural selection. Kitcher calls this the "concrete case" argument, which

... selects a collection of evolutionary changes, discusses them in detail, then endeavors to show that there's no conceivable process of natural selection that could have started from the original group of organisms and culminated in the finally modified group.
But Darwin anticipated the argument:

Darwin's own consideration of the concrete case argument focused on some complex organs and structures that he rightly believed to be hard to understand in terms of natural selection. Two examples are prominent in the Origin, the eye and the electric organs found in some fish. ...

Darwin himself offered a tentative proposal about the evolution of the eye. He supposed that sensitivity to light might come in degrees, and that it might be possible to find, among existing organisms, some with a crude ability to respond to light, others with a more refined capacity and so on in something like a series. Perhaps, he speculated, research oh these creatures might expose reasons why the different levels of sensitivity provided an advantage over rival organisms who had less, thus providing a way of answering (or sidestepping) the creationist quip, "What use is half an eye?" ...

One feature of the story deserves emphasis. Darwin didn't start with a comparison between the fully formed eye -- in a human being or an octopus, say -- and then think of the component parts as being introduced, one at a time. He resisted the challenge to explain first the advantage of an eighth of an eye, then the advantage of a quarter of an eye, and so on, and focused instead on a function, light sensitivity, that might have been refined from an initial state of absence. To put it more bluntly, he didn't allow his envisaged challengers to define the sequence of "intermediates" for him.
This is, in fact, a cornerstone of the arguments of Michael Behe. He defines the intermediaries as being one protein added at a time to an organism that was lacking in any portion of the material that goes into the final product.

We are beguiled by the simple story line Behe rehearses. He invites us to consider the situation by supposing that the flagellum requires the introduction of some number -- 20, say -- of proteins that the ancestral bacterium doesn't originally have. So Darwinians have to produce a sequence of 21 organisms, the first having none of the proteins, and each subsequent organism having one more than its predecessor. ...

The story is fantasy, and Darwinians should disavow any commitment to it. First, there is no good reason for supposing that the ancestral bacterium lacked all, or even any, of the proteins needed to build the flagellum. It's a common theme of evolutionary biology that constituents of a cell, a tissue, or an organism are put to new uses because of a modification of the genome. Perhaps the immediate precursor of the bacterium with the flagellum is an organism in which all the protein constituents are already present, but are employed in different ways. Then, at the very last step there's a change in the genome that removes whatever chemical barrier previously prevented the building of the flagellum. ... So it goes, back down a sequence of ancestors, all quite capable of functioning in their environments but all at a selective disadvantage to the bacteria that succeeded them.

Isn't this all fantasy too? Of course -- but it is no more the product of speculative imagination than Behe's seemingly plausible assumption that the components of the flagellum would have had to be added one by one, and would have sat around idly (at best) until the culminating moment when all were present. Moreover, we were supposed to be offered a proof of impossibility and that won't be complete until Behe and his allies have shown that all the conceivable scenarios through which bacteria might acquire flagella are flawed. Really demonstrating impossibility -- or even improbability -- here and in kindred instances, is extremely difficult, precisely because it would require a much more systematic survey of the molecular differences among bacteria.
All Behe and the other IDers are doing is offering a "just not so" story, where, using a very limited and unrealistic version of evolutionary theory, a tale is told in such a way as to make the impossibility of some trait arising by natural selection seem more or less plausible. By any fair measure in logic or debate, all the response that is needed to refute such an argument is to give a plausible way for the trait to evolve. It is at that point that the IDers, who have never produced a scrap of positive evidence in favor of their argument -- merely conceptual claims -- then turn around and demand an impossible level of evidence to show every intermediate step or else, they assert, impossibility must be assumed.

It's cheap rhetoric made no better by being dressed up in a two dollar tuxedo.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Arrivederci Nick

Readers of The Panda's Thumb already know this but the NCSE has posted it's official farewell to Nick Matzke, its Public Information Project Director, long time blogger at the Thumb and lawyer wrangler of some considerable note. Particularly insightful was Matthew Chapman appreciation in his book about Dover: 40 Days and 40 Nights:
Bespectacled, in his thirties, he was tall and large and peered down at you with a look of beleaguered doubt, as if to say, 'You're asking me this question about science, but you know and I know that you're not going to understand my answer, so, although I find this stuff fascinating, wouldn't you really rather go for a beer?
Nick is off to pursue his Ph.D. at University of California, Berkeley and will, no doubt, have no more time for anti-evolutionist baiting than John Wilkins did during his studies. Best of luck, Nick and remember, if you measure your time to your doctorate in units less than decades, you'll beat Wilkins!


Crackpot Suit, Part Deux

The second action that Stuart Pivar has alleged against PZ Myers is what is generally known as "interference with contract." There are four elements to this tort under New York law (which should control even though the case has been brought in Federal court):

  • (1) existence of a valid contract;
  • (2) defendant's knowledge of that contract;
  • (3) defendant's intentional procuring of an actual breach of that contract; and
  • (4) damages.
It does not appear that Pivar has properly plead an interference with contract tort under New York law. He doesn't allege a specific contract nor a breach of that contract. He merely alleges that PZ interfered with "Plaintiffs business relations and have damaged Plaintiffs business investments." New York law requires an actual breach of an existing contract in order for there to be a tort. Furthermore, the defendant must know of the specific contract, though malice on the part of the defendant is not required (i.e. the act procuring the breach could be merely negligent). Thus, vague allegations about "interests" and "investments" being damaged does not actually allege an interference with contract.

The third relief Pivar asks for is essentially that the allegedly libelous material be removed from the blog. While I'm not aware of any case law on point, it is clearly reasonable to require that if the statement is found to be libelous.

In my opinion, this suit is eloquent evidence of a man with more money than brains.

Monday, August 20, 2007


Crackpot Suit

As you have probably heard by now, PZ Myers and Seed magazine have been sued by Stuart Pivar in Federal District Court, Southern District of New York. The Complaint can be found in a pdf file here thanks to Jim Lippard. The essential facts alleged are:
First of all, Pivar is alleging libel per se, which is a defamation that is considered so outrageous and harmful to the injured party that specific damages need not be proven. If Pivar can establish such a libel, the fact that he suffered no monetary damages would not prevent an award. The jury can award damages in any amount that it sees as properly compensating the plaintiff. One basis of finding a libel per se is if the statement "tends to discredit the plaintiff in the conduct of [his] occupation, profession, trade or office."

The first question is whether calling someone a "crackpot" is libelous. It has been held under New York law that, at least where there is no connotation of incompetence in a person's profession, calling someone a "clown" amounts to nothing more than "name-calling or a general insult, a type of epithet not to be taken literally and not deemed injurious to reputation." As the court in that case said: "A certain amount of vulgar name-calling is tolerated, on the theory that it will necessarily be understood to amount to nothing more." I strongly suspect the same interpretation would follow for a term like "crackpot," at least in most situations.

Indeed, in the case cited by Pivar in his complaint, McFadden v. United States Fidelity and Guaranty Co., a Mississippi Court of Appeals decision (not the most persuasive authority in New York or the Second Circuit), where an insurance company employee told an insured that her doctor was a "quack" and a "crackpot," the court held:

While the term "crackpot" does not necessarily speak to a person's abilities in the medical profession, we have little doubt that a jury could reasonably conclude that, in light of the fact that the sole purpose of Lawson's conversations with Gilliland was to discuss her injuries and subsequent treatment, this generically derogatory term was directed at McFadden's professional abilities and was intended by Lawson to be understood in that way.

In other words, the audience, the profession and the context were all in play, not just the word "crackpot." That raises the question of whether Pivar can fairly call developmental biology his "profession," rather than an avocation or, more likely, a subject totally unknown to him. If it is not his profession, then he must prove specific damages, which might be quite hard for him to do. There is also a question whether, in the rough and tumble of the scientific blogosphere, the use of "crackpot" is understood as going to the professional abilities of the person.

Another hurdle is whether Pivar is a "public figure." If he is, then he must prove "actual malice," again, a very hard standard to meet. Strangely, his boasting about having discussed his ideas with Stephen Jay Gould, who was supposedly, but for his untimely death, about to publish a "refutation of the fundamentalist Darwinian theory of evolution" that Pivar's work also attacks, may go some way to making Pivar just such a "public figure," even without his supposed connections to Andy Warhol and Prince Charles. If he claims to be a major player in a controversy as great as "fundamentalist Darwinian theory," (including whether any such animal exists) he cannot help but be a public figure.

And let's not forget that truth is a perfect defense to libel.

That's just a treetops overview of the possibilities and doesn't even address the issue of tortious interference with contract (I'll try to get to that tomorrow). Over all, I think that to call Pivar's case weak is to give it too much credit. However, winning the case might never have been the intent. Pivar is reportedly rich and, especially if his case, weak as it is, can survive an early summary judgment motion, he can quickly force the defendants to run up quite spectacular legal bills. Seed will have to decide what it wants to do, recognizing that abandoning PZ to this particular wolf might be the death knell of their magazine. But stupider corporate decisions have been made in the past.

Maybe we'd better start collecting for PZ's defense fund right away.


Reservation Cancellation

PZ Myers has a post about Adnan Oktar, the Turkish creationist who goes by the nom de stupid of "Harun Yahya," applying to a Turkish court to have all Wordpress blogs blocked because some of them said mean (i.e. "true") things about him and his dishonest campaign against science. The court proved that Oktar wasn't the most venal person in Turkey by granting his application.

As PZ said:

It sure would be a shame if someone echoed all those urls, and these anti-creationist blogs got more publicity and attention because of a stunt by Adnan Oktar, now wouldn't it?
What's more:
Here's a way to get around the block — you can still read and post to Wordpress blogs in Turkey if you use OpenDNS. Spread the word.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


Gnostic Doubts

Michael Shermer has a column in Scientific American today, entitled "Rational Atheism: An open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens," that advises neo-atheists against certain types of aggressiveness. It is, I think, at least worth consideration.

One thing I was particularly interested in was a quote of Darwin from an 1880 letter to Edward Aveling, the lover of Karl Marx's daughter. In the letter, Darwin declined having Aveling's book, The Students' Darwin, dedicated to him. This letter led to the myth that Marx wanted to dedicate one of the volumes of Das Kapital to Darwin. This is a somewhat more complete quote from the letter:

[T]hough I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds, which follow from the advance of science. It has, therefore, always been my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family , if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion.
Francis Darwin further expounded on his father's views and the attempt by Aveling to claim Darwin shared his own views:

Dr. Aveling has published an account of a conversation with my father. I think that the readers of this pamphlet ('The Religious Views of Charles Darwin,' Free Thought Publishing Company, 1883) may be misled into seeing more resemblance than really existed between the positions of my father and Dr. Aveling: and I say this in spite of my conviction that Dr. Aveling gives quite fairly his impressions of my father's views. Dr. Aveling tried to show that the terms "Agnostic" and "Atheist" were practically equivalent -- that an atheist is one who, without denying the existence of God, is without God, inasmuch as he is unconvinced of the existence of a Deity. My father's replies implied his preference for the unaggressive attitude of an Agnostic. Dr. Aveling seems (p. 5) to regard the absence of aggressiveness in my father's views as distinguishing them in an unessential manner from his own. But, in my judgment, it is precisely differences of this kind which distinguish him so completely from the class of thinkers to which Dr. Aveling belongs. - Darwin, Francis ed. 1887. The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. London: John Murray. Volume 1, p. 317.
To me, Darwin's approach is more likely to succeed in the end. But how familiar is the attempt to appropriate others to the cause? The more things change ...

Saturday, August 18, 2007


Fairy Tales

Once upon a time ... March 7, 2006 to be exact ... Alvin Plantinga, philosopher/theologian at Notre Dame University, in his article* "Whether ID is science isn't semantics" was telling us how Intelligent Design was scientifically "verifiable," "falsifiable" and "testable" and that science does not exclude supernatural explanations. Methodological naturalism, he said, "hamstrings science by precluding science from reaching what would be an enormously important truth about the world."

The term "science," according to Plantinga (back then at least) simply "denotes any activity that is:

(a) a systematic and disciplined enterprise aimed at finding out truth about our world, and
(b) has significant empirical involvement."
Plantinga, a scant year and a half ago, asserted that "[a]ny activity (presumably including ID) that meets these vague conditions counts as science."

How times change.

In a recent lecture by Plantinga entitled "Science and Religion: Why Does the Debate Continue?" given at Rainier Beach Presbyterian Church in southeast Seattle (where his daughter, Jane Pauw, is the pastor), he reportedly:

... argued that there is no intrinsic conflict between religion and science. Conflicts arise when spokespersons for one or the other make claims on behalf of science or religion that are exaggerated. For example, said the professor, it is perfectly appropriate that scientific work proceed without religious assumptions or references. Plantinga called that "secularism with respect to science."
I'd call that a pretty good definition of "methodological naturalism" myself.

Tempus fugit.

* Sorry about the Google cache link but Science & Theology News, where this article appeared, is no more. Sic transit gloria mundi. (Now see here.)

Friday, August 17, 2007


Stray Thoughts

For no particular reason at all, except that it's worth considering, comes the following from the end of David Hume's The Natural History of Religion:

What a noble privelege is it of human reason to attain the knowledge of the supreme Being; and, from the visible works of nature, be enabled to infer so sublime a principle as its supreme Creator? But turn the reverse of the medal. Survey most nations and most ages. Examine the religious principles, which have, in fact, prevailed in the world. You will scarcely be persuaded, that they are anything but sick men’s dreams: Or perhaps will regard them more as the playsome whimsies of monkeys in human shape, than the serious, positive, dogmatical asseverations of a being, who dignifies himself with the name of rational. . . .

The whole is a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery. Doubt, uncertainty, suspense of judgement appear the only result of our most accurate scrutiny, concerning this subject. But such is the frailty of human reason, and such the irresistible contagion of opinion, that even this deliberate doubt could scarcely be upheld; did we not enlarge our view, and opposing one species of superstition to another, set them a quarrelling; while we ourselves, during their fury and contention, happily make our escape into the calm, though obscure, regions of philosophy.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


Alien Desires

The planet Vulcan has been discovered! In fact, it was discovered and rediscovered well over 100 years ago and it carries an important message about the nature of science.

The French astronomer Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier predicted, in 1859, the existence of a planet (or numerous small planets) inside Mercury's orbit. The proposed planet was quickly dubbed "Vulcan." Just in case anyone might think Verrier was just passing moonshine, he had experienced some success in that field before, having correctly predicted, in 1846, the existence of Neptune, based on the orbital anomalies of the then known planets.

The reason he predicted the existence of Vulcan was an anomaly in the orbit of Mercury known as the precession of the perihelion. In short, Mercury's orbit shifts slightly after each turn about the sun. This might not seem to be such a great problem ... except that Newtonian mechanics couldn't account for such behavior.

The issue is why, given such a clear problem with Newton's mechanics, did scientists go looking for planets in a place that they were unlikely to be able to hide all that well, instead of looking for errors in Newton's theories? Even more so, why did comments such as the following, based on the work of a German astronomer, show up in an engineering magazine of 1876:

Our text-books on astronomy will have to be revised again, as there is no longer any doubt about the existence of a planet between Mercury and the sun.
The fact is that science is both conservative and conservational. It is slow (for relative meanings of the word) to adopt a theory and, once one works well at explaining phenomena, it is slow to discard it. In a process known as the Duhem–Quine thesis, scientists will, when faced with anomalous results that challenge an otherwise successful theory, begin to test the bundle of background theories and assumptions that all theories rest on. In the case of Newton's mechanics, the anomalous behavior was ascribed to a highly elusive planet for some 50 years, until Einstein came along to explain that the problem lay with Newton.

And what is more ... that's the way it should be. In modern science, the flow of information often far exceeds the available time in which to incorporate it properly into theory. If each and every new bit of data was taken to upset the entire applecart, science would be constantly thrown from pillar to post. That is among the errors of those who point to the latest finds in humanoid fossils as being grounds for being "skeptical of a theory that seems to be in constant flux." In point of fact, it's not a sign of distress that discoveries are being constantly made and our understanding bettered, it's a sign of the robust health of evolutionary theory.


Vital Statistics

The 67th Skeptic's Circle, Giant Robot Edition, is up and lumbering about at The Bronze Blog.

While awaiting the final development of the neuron bomb, which will destroy bad argumentation but leave brains standing, Bronze Dog is giving out the specs for "giant, impractical, energy inefficient, undeniably cool fighting machines armed with pure logic," that virtually guarantee that no living things will be harmed in the filming of this episode.

Anybody got Robbie's number?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Planting the Seed of Faith

You occasionally hear atheists and other skeptics ask, if God exists and wants us to know of Him, why doesn't He write out messages in the stars or have little name plates on our cells or some such.

Well ...

Felicia Teske of Boothwyn [Pennsylvania] says she was preparing fried eggplant for dinner Sunday evening and noticed that the seeds in one slice seemed to spell out the word "GOD".

Felicia says she bought the eggplant at a roadside produce stand a while back, and also says the discovery has really given her food for thought. Felicia told Action News that she recently had family members pass away and it is comforting that "GOD" appeared.
May I be the first to say "Our Father ... "

Just to come back to Earth a bit:

The Teskes are now considering selling the eggplant on ebay.
American religion at its best!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Questionable Answers, self-described as "the world's largest Christian portal with twelve million monthly page loads," has conducted an internet poll asking, "Is the Earth billions of years old?"

Out of 797 polled, 43% believed the Earth is less than billions of years old. The vast majority of this group felt the Earth is between 6,000 and 12,000 years old.

On the other hand, 30% of the Christians who responded to the survey agreed that the Earth was billions of years old, basing their belief variously on science and/or the "gap theory" or the "day-age theory" of Biblical interpretation. A whopping 27% said they weren't sure.

ChristiaNet was so unnerved by these results that it created an "Evolution Quiz" to educate wayward Christians. Not only science but the gap theory and the day-age theory all get short shrift. But some of the questions and answers are rather strange.

You can find the usual arguments, such as:

1. The Bible tells us that those who believe there is no Creator are fools.

The correct answer is True.

Psalm 14:1 - The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.


6. Dinosaurs are not mentioned in the Bible.

The correct answer is False.

Job 40:15-18 - Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox. Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly. He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together. His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron.

But there is stranger stuff:

8. Gravity was created by God; He hung the earth upon nothing.

The correct answer is True.

Job 26:7 - He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing.

I'll be damned ... um, okay, I guess that's a given ... but I had no idea that gravity was part of evolutionary theory.

20. Plants wither and fade, but do not die.

The correct answer is True.

Jeremiah 12:4 - And the herbs of every field wither.

I guess that is supposed to follow from this one:

19. Life is in blood bearing creatures, not plants.

The correct answer is True.

Leviticus 17:11 - For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls.

But what do either have to do with evolution? It seems to be a quibble over the definition of "life," but what does it mean to evolutionary theory? Can unwithered but still "dead" plants evolve where "living" things can't? Is there something about "blood" that keeps evolution from happening? But, most of all, what are we to make of this?

23. Life developed from non-life.
The correct answer is False.
Genesis 1:12 - And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
But plants aren't alive, right? Or if they are, is the Earth supposed to be alive too? Or are they talking about God being biologically alive? But then He'd have to have blood.

It's clear as mud made from the dust that is so much better to be descended from than an ape.

Monday, August 13, 2007


Past as Prologue

There were many objections raised to Darwin's theory but one subgroup was the attack that Darwin's method was not "true science." These claims were not limited to religiously biased proponents of special creation but were also made by competent scientists who were, by all apparent measures, honestly attempting to fairly judge a novel theory. As David Hull (yes, him again) explains in his book, Darwin and His Critics: The Reception of Darwin's Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community:

The solution to these puzzles can be found in the philosophies of science promulgated by such philosophers as [John] Herschel, [William] Whewell, and [John Stuart] Mill and their most important predecessors, Aristotle, Bacon, and Newton. Darwin was caught in the middle of a great debate over some of the most fundamental issues in the philosophy of science -- the difference between deduction and induction and the role of each in science, the difference between concept formation and the discovery of scientific laws, the relation between the logic of discovery and the logic of justification, the nature of mathematical axioms and their relation to experience, the distinction between occult qualities and theoretical entities, and the role of God's direct intervention in nature. Before philosophers of science had thoroughly sorted out these issues, they were presented with an original and highly problematic scientific theory to evaluate. That they rejected evolutionary theory, a theory which has outlasted many of the theories judged to be exemplars of scientific method, says something about the views of science held by these philosophers and scientists. [p. 14]

Darwin had his own doubts about his method but time has more than vindicated him. One of those potentially "occult qualities" mentioned above was essentialism:

A belief in a finite number of discrete kinds of entities underlay both Mill's and Whewell's notions of verification. It also was one of the major factors in the prevalence of occult qualities in science. Science deals with classes of entities. On the essentialist view, these classes must be distinguishable by characters which universally covary. Time and again no such set of universally covarying 'observable characters could be found. Hence, these classes had to be distinguishable by unobservable characters. Sometimes this maneuver met with considerable success (e.g., in distinguishing elements by their atomic weight and number). Sometimes it did not (e.g., distinguishing life from non-life by the presence of a vital force).

In reading the scientific and philosophic works of the period, the modern reader often finds himself wondering how essentialism could have had the slightest appeal or could have seemed in the least plausible. The answer can be found in its apparent applicability to physical geometry. Here, there was no doubt as to which characters were essential and which were accidental. Maybe all reptiles did not have three-chambered hearts, but all triangles had three sides. Geometric figures were the chief examples of natural kinds in essentialist philosophies from Plato and Aristotle to Whewell and Mill. Species of plants and animals were the second most popular examples. When the diversity of the organic world was only very poorly known, organic species seemed to be as distinct as those of geometry. [p. 70]

Essentialsm may not have been right but it was not stupid, given the knowledge of the day. The temptation to think we are smarter now than people in the past is a great error.


Sunday, August 12, 2007


In the Brood

Brian Switek at Laelaps has a long but very good post about the evolution of our concepts of human origins.

For reasons only his intimate friends will understand, John Wilkins focuses on the mention of petrified testicles. Personally, I was titillated by the image of God's fructifying brooding upon the waters of the deep, as reported by the author of The Old Testament vindicated from Modern Infidel Objections.

A sampling of the rest of the blog led me add Laelaps to my blog roll. I look forward to more articles of this quality (no pressure, Brian!).

Excuse me while I go polish up on my fructifying.


Defense Planning

Here is some more from David L. Hull's book, Darwin and His Critics: The Reception of Darwin's Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community. In discussing the essentialism that had always been pervasive in Western thought, Hull relates a case of near instant revisionism.

Darwin, in addition to dismissing theological explanations of the origin of species as not properly scientific, also dismissed explanations in terms of "plans," whether divine or otherwise. Such explanations had been common in biology well before Darwin, particularly among the ideal morphologists, such as Goethe, Cuvier, Owen, and Agassiz. To Darwin, they were mere empty verbiage.

As long as one believed in God, and these plans could be interpreted literally as thoughts in the mind of the creator, then such explanations had some explanatory force, but if reference to God is left out of the explanatory picture, then all that is left are the plans. Rather than being explanations, the existence of such "plans" calls for explanation.
But times change:

[I]n Darwin's day ... [m]any philosophers and some scientists still looked upon miracles and ideas in the mind of the creator as acceptable elements in a scientific explanation, though most scientists were loath to discuss the issue. These "explanations" were not so much refuted by Darwin as discounted. Similarly, the theological and metaphysical objections to evolutionary theory gradually subsided, not because their authors had been converted, but because no one whose opinion mattered was listening any more. The change can be seen in the difference between the aggressive confidence of Agassiz's first review of the Origin of Species in 1860 and the petulant timidity of his final comments in 1874 ... [when] he hardly dared mention his pet theory of creation by repeated acts of divine cognition. Owen went so far as to assert that the leading naturalists of the day, referred to by Darwin as special creationists, had never maintained the view that species were specially created by divine action. Rather, he along with the other so-called special creationists had always maintained that some unknown law governed the introduction and extinction of species. Lyell, to the contrary, had the candor to admit that he "formerly advocated the doctrine that species were primordial creations, and not derivation." He differed from the catastrophists only in his belief that species were created and extinguished serially, rather than in wholesale lots.
Scientists are people first and foremost.


Saturday, August 11, 2007


Of Hares and Tortoises

So I'm reading Norman Kemp Smith's introduction to Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and, after the contretemps over Gordon Lynch's article and PZ Myers' allegation that Lynch is claiming that "atheism is a religion driven by hate," there is a certain amusement in reading about Hume's definition of atheism.

First of all, Hume's religion was not of the ordinary sort:

Hume opens his Natural History of Religion with the assertion that the whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent Author, and that no rational inquirer can suspend his belief a moment in "the primary principles of genuine religion." T.H. Huxley's comment is not unjust: "But, if we turn from the Natural History of Religion, to the Treatise, the Enquiry, and the Dialogues, the story of what happened to the ass laden with salt, who took to the water, irresistibly suggests itself. Hume's theism, such as it is, dissolves away in the dialectic river, until nothing is left but the verbal sack in which it was contained."

But his definition of "atheism" supposedly came from a good ... or at least famous ... source: Plato via Cicero, according to whom:

[T]here are three kinds of atheists: those who deny a Deity, those who deny his Providence, and those who assert that he is influenced by prayers, devotions, and sacrifices.

If the third type seems a little strange, here is how the argument goes:

Hume's reason for classing as atheists the third type -- those who believe that God is influenced by prayers and sacrifices, and that there are therefore special religious duties -- is that they conceive God in unworthy anthropomorphic fashion as intervening, like man and the other animals, only by special acts in special circumstances -- through auguries, dreams, and oracles, as the Greeks and Romans believed, through certain special happenings and revelations as the Jews and Christians teach.

Even at this day, and in Europe, ask any of the vulgar, why he believes in an omnipotent creator of the world; he will never mention the beauty of final causes, of which he is wholly ignorant: He will not hold out his hand, and bid you contemplate the suppleness and variety of joints in his fingers, their bending all one way, the counterpoise which they receive from the thumb, the softness and fleshy parts of the inside of his hand, with all the other circumstances, which render that member fit for the use, to which it was destined. To these he has been long accustomed; and he beholds than with listlessness and unconcern. He will tell you of the sudden and unexpected death of such a one: The fall and bruise of such another: The excessive drought of this season: The cold and rains of another. These he ascribes to the immediate operation of providence: And such events, as, with good reasoners, are the chief difficulties in admitting a supreme intelligence, are with him the sole arguments for it.
And just as disorders, prodigies, miracles -- the departures from the order of nature -- are, Hume, contends, what chiefly impress the religious, so also

madness, fury, rage, and an inflamed imagination, though they sink men nearest to the level of beasts, are, for a like reason, often supposed to be the only dispositions, in which we can have any immediate communication with the Deity.
So, it isn't that neo-atheists are becoming like a religion, it's that fundamentalist religions, in Hume's view, beat them to becoming atheists by over 200 ... or is that over 2,000 ... years!


Amen Corner

Gordon Lynch, a professor of sociology of religion at Birkbeck College, University of London, has an article entitled "Richard Dawkins, TV evangelist" in the Guardian. An initial point is how Dawkins, with his television work, books, website, appeals for funding and sale of prayer shawls ... opps, scarlet letter "A" emblazoned T-shirts ... and all the rest, is reminiscent of the methods of evangelical ministers. Set a thief, I suppose ...

I don't know if this from Lynch is quite fair:

The sheer ferocity of many of the atheist critiques of religion also suggests that we are not in the territory of reasoned debate, but witnessing the birth pangs of a new, anti-religious cultural identity.
But it is certainly true that what some would see as excesses in Dawkins' diatribe have been defended by his supporters as understandable in a book intended to "raise the consciousness" of and engender mutual support among atheists in a society which unjustly finds it a less than respectable position.

The conclusion of the article at least deserves consideration, though it too seems overstated:

To those of us who identify with liberal and progressive cultural movements, whether religious or humanist, there are potentially worrying trends here. The intensity with which new atheist identities are being forged through a hatred of imagined religious others is matched by the hatred felt by some conservative religious groups towards those they perceive as godless.

In the same way that global conflict emerged when American neoconservatives and radical Islamists found in each other the perfect enemy, so future conflict between militant atheists and religious conservatives may have the rest of us ducking in the crossfire. In this sense, while Dawkins's intentions are doubtless well meant, the rise of the atheist movement he symbolises could do more than the alternative spiritualities he disparages to threaten the fragile cohesion of our societies.
It is one thing to take on the tactics of evangelicals to combat the ill effects of organized religion but it will do no one any good if atheism becomes organized with all those same ill effects.
[Sigh] PZ is over at Pharyngula making it hard to maintain that Lynch's conclusion is overstated. PZ quotes Charlie Brooker's review of Dawkins' latest program that includes the screed:

Superstitious idiots. They're everywhere - reading horoscopes, buying homeopathic remedies, consulting psychics, babbling about "chakras" and "healing energies", praying to imaginary gods, and rejecting science in favour of soft-headed bunkum. But instead of slapping these people round the face till they behave like adults, we encourage them. We've got to respect their beliefs, apparently.

Well I don't. "Spirituality" is what cretins have in place of imagination. If you've ever described yourself as "quite spiritual", do civilisation a favour and punch yourself in the throat until you're incapable of speaking aloud ever again. Why should your outmoded codswallop be treated with anything other than the contemptuous mockery it deserves?

Everyone who prays is an idiot and a cretin deserving of contemptuous mockery, without any differentiation whatsoever. For most people that means members of your family, your co-workers, your neighbors, your doctor, your lawyer, your mechanic, your indian chief. All deserve nothing but contempt. It is constructing an in group/out group dichotomy every bit as pernicious and lacking in reality as any religious sect's. And, if actually acted on, it is exactly the same sort of zealotry that "justifies" the hatred and discrimination that the worst types of religion do.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

. . . . .


How to Support Science Education