Monday, November 29, 2010


Distinctive Science

Via John Wilkins, the journal Biology and Philosophy has, at least for the time being, an article (pdf) summarizing David L. Hull's work in the philosophy of biology that is not behind a paywall. From there comes the following which, I think, cogently replies to those who "construe science broadly—as 'empirical investigation combined with reason'."

Scientists are curious about the world, as many people are, but what is distinctive about them is the reward system they are embedded within and usually come to embrace. Scientists want credit. They want their work to be recognized, and especially to be used by others. This involves citation. Many features of science, as Hull saw it, stem from the interaction between this reward system and its social context. Each scientist inherits the ideas and methods of their field from earlier workers. To achieve anything significant, a scientist must enter into a system of cooperation and trust. Doing good work of one's own requires using the work of others, and using their work in a way that provides real support for one's own requires giving citations. Scientists trade credit for support, in the hope that others will do the same for them. Real criticism of an idea can be expected, but it will tend to come from those invested in rival ideas or uncertain whether the idea can be safely used. ...

In his treatment of the relations between the social and the epistemological, Hull took a number of things for granted. He assumed that observational evidence can show that a hypothesis is wrong, and can also provide positive support for a hypothesis. The fine-structure of the workings of evidence were not a major preoccupation for him. Instead he assumed some fairly common-sense views on these topics, trusting that sense could be made of them. But as Hull saw, these fundamentals are not enough to give us much of a story about how science works, even when epistemology is our focus. For that, we also need an account of the blend of competition and cooperation, and the roles of credit and use. These, together with basic features of evidence and testing, generate the features distinctive of science, especially an unusually good relationship between the motivations of the individual scientist and the epstemic goals of science as a whole.

- Peter Godfrey-Smith, "David Hull," Biology and Philosophy, November 26, 2010
Incidentally, you can find a wealth of material by and about Hull by searching the Springer site, including Wilkins' own article (pdf) about Hull's work, "The adaptive landscape of science."

Saturday, November 27, 2010


Creation Consequences


Mike Haynes is a teacher of journalism at Amarillo College. He has an article in the Amarillo Globe-News demonstrating clearly why Intelligent Design Creationism isn't science. Unfortunately, that wasn't his intent.

In "Some scientists don't want to hear about Creationism," Haynes claims "that ID and creationism are not the same thing," based on the old and false contention that "[c]reationism means you believe literally the creation account in the Bible."

Citing Intelligent Design Uncensored: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to the Controversy by Jonathan Witt and William Dembski, Haynes says:

Witt and Dembski present pages and pages of scientific observations pointing toward ID, but one of the strongest arguments for me is the point that without ID, life would be meaningless.

"If humans are the mindless accident of blind nature, entering and exiting the cosmic stage without audience, in a universe without plan or purpose ... love is but a function of the glands, honor and loyalty nothing more than instincts programmed into us by a blind process of random genetic variation and natural selection."
If science has taught us anything, it is that the way the world works has a nasty habit of not conforming to our desires, no matter how fervently held. Physicists really wanted the universe to be a simple clockwork but quantum mechanics disabused them. Arguments from consequences are neither logical nor scientific.

Haynes is right that the strongest arguments for ID are emotional appeals to what people want the universe to be like. Its just that such arguments mean ID isn't science.

Friday, November 26, 2010


Debate and Deswitch

Formal debates -- the pitting of two sides of an issue against each other with more-or-less formal rules, lasting an hour or two -- are essentially useless as far as the audience is concerned -- though the participants can learn much about how to structure and present an argument, which is why schools often have debating societies. But any issue worth debating cannot be fairly aired in the span of an hour or two by participants who may not have equal debating skills. The Lincoln-Douglas debates, spanning twenty-one hours over seven dates, might be an exception, but notably debated slavery from only the perspective of white Americans.

It's worse if the audience comes to the debate with a set opinion on the question -- and who is likely to be interested in attending a formal debate unless he or she already knows something of the issue? But when the organizers of the event prime the audience with arguments in favor of one side and against the other, it can hardly be called a "debate" at all. As noted at Open Parachute and Friendly Atheist, the recent "debate" between William Dembski and Christopher Hitchens falls very much in the latter category.

The event was held at Prestonwood Christian Academy, primarily before the middle school and high school students. Hitchens amusingly says, after surveying the audience, that he feels "like a Daniel being introduced to a den of, I'm sure very charming, lion cubs." To its credit, the audience got the joke even before he finished and laughed.

What wasn't amusing in the least was the "Discussion Guide" the school published as "a tool used either to prepare students for this debate or answer questions following the debate." A better description would be "a tool to load the dice so there is no debate."

I said it wasn't amusing but that's not strictly true. It's intent wasn't, but the execution was, in several instances, quite amusing ... such as this:

A nation once strong in its faith in God, once labeled a "Christian nation" and dubbed as the "city on a hill," America has lost its spiritual moorings and is adrift in the relativistic sea of tolerance, equality, and affluence.

Of course, the United States is a "nation" only by virtue of its Constitution, which nowhere mentions that it is a "Christian nation." Quite the opposite, the Constitution's Bill of Rights made sure that the national government would establish no official religion ... a Bill of Rights that was extended to state and local governments after a great Civil War fought for the principle that all people are entitled to those rights. And it wasn't the nation that was called "a city on a hill," but the Massachusetts Bay Colony which, in case the authors missed it, no longer exists.

But if tolerance and equality are something to be "adrift" in, rather than the faith of God, then that God must be intolerant and biased. And if affluence is a bad thing, why are so many Christians today in favor of free enterprise and against communism on the grounds that some people should be allowed to be more affluent than others?

Another funny bit:

C.S. Lewis, tongue-in-cheek, wrote this, "If Darwin's theory of Evolution was correct, cats would be able to operate a can-opener by now." Funny, yes; but also profound.

It's funny on its own terms only if you don't understand the science of evolution and its profundity resides only mistaking your own ignorance for wisdom.

It's funny to the rest of us because we see that, instead of arguing against the modern science of evolution, these people are stuck arguing against something like Lamarck's version, where species are on a kind of escalator, becoming more complex (and "higher" on the "Chain of Being") over time. Maybe in such a scheme cats could be expected to become human-like but not in modern science. In short, it is one small step above asking "if humans came from apes, why are there still apes?"

Then this "Guide" trots out the hoariest and perhaps most dishonest of all quote mines:

To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.
~ Charles Darwin

If you need to know why the use of the quote mine demonstrates a willful ignorance of science and a complete disregard of scholarship, if not an outright lie, on the part of the authors of the "Guide," go here.

But to see just how low these supposedly "godly" people will go, consider this "discussion" of Hitchens' cancer:

Hitchens is going through chemotherapy fighting the cancer that is ravaging his body. From the evolutionary standpoint this effort appears to be counter-productive to the death sentence that nature has given Hitchens, and one would question why someone who believes so strongly in evolution would attempt to counter its effects on mankind.

"Mankind" is not the focus of natural selection, the individual organism is.* Any organism will fight for its own survival, using whatever abilities evolution has given it, even if it is not the "fittest" member of its species.

Since humans have evolved as a social species, we have an even more complex "fitness." In a troop of early hominids, an old male who knew how to make good stone tools but who could no longer scramble up a tree to avoid a predator likely died. However, if some individuals in that troop were smart enough to recognize the value of the old tool maker to their own survival and were brave enough to drive off the predator, even at the risk of their own lives, their fitness could be improved by their continued ability to use superior tools.

But the inanity of the "argument" isn't what rankles. Why even go there at all? If you had the slightest confidence in the strength of your case, why not pass in silence over Hitchens' misfortune? I'm sure Hitchens, confronted with such an "argument" (I haven't watched the debate itself), would respond with complete grace and all the acerbity it deserves.

But it says much about the authors of this "Guide" that they thought the best way to teach "morality" to children was to stoop to such tactics.


* With many caveats that a blog post is no better able to address than a formal debate.


Update: William Eric Meikle and Eugenie C. Scott have an article (pdf) in Evolution: Education and Outreach entitled "Why Are There Still Monkeys?"


Thursday, November 25, 2010


Reason Is as Reason Does

A newly minted cardinal of the Catholic Church had decided to take on atheists in a book entitled Atheism? No Thanks! To Believe is Rational:

Cardinal Walter Brandmuller is underlining the irrationality of atheism, noting that only in God can the human person find fulfillment.
Hmmm ... the rationale for that statement is missing ... though maybe it is in the book and whoever wrote this squib at didn't think it was important enough to mention.

In answer to Richard Dawkins' question, "Why still believe?", the Cardinal says:

The question is not a novelty. Friedrich Nietzsche makes his madman announce that God is dead and Yury Gagarin, the first Russian in space, on his trip of April 12, 1962, said that nowhere had he seen something that resembled God. Dawkins does not recognize God even as a hypothesis. For him God is a hallucination that exists only in the mind of a retarded person.
Now, it's been a while since I read The God Delusion but I didn't remember Dawkins being so ... well ... irrational (and counterproductive to his own aims) as to call all religious believers "retarded." Since I have a pdf copy of the book, I did a word search and, indeed, Dawkins never calls religious believers by that odious appellation. *

Now, the Cardinal is right about this part:

In reality, the target of the atheists is not so much God but the Church, the Pope and the Vatican ...
Yes, it is rational to conclude that people who don't believe in god(s) may be aiming their criticisms at the human institutions that perpetrate belief in those god(s), rather than at a being they don't believe exists. Unfortunately, that's the last sign of rationality displayed in this article:

The cardinal addressed the topic of miracles, recalling what happened in Calanda, a small town not far from Saragossa, Spain, where there was a youth named Miguel Pellicer whose leg was amputated. Two years later and despite the difficulty in walking, the youth undertook the journey to the Marian shrine of Santa Maria del Pilar in Saragossa.

Once he arrived at the shrine, he prayed intensely to Mary to help him. That night an incredible event took place. When he woke up in the morning his leg had grown back, perfectly healthy.

To explain the miracles, Cardinal Brandmuller quoted William Shakespeare who said to followers of the Enlightenment: "There are more things between heaven and earth than your scholastic erudition can imagine."
Never mind that Hamlet was talking about a ghost, whose supposed "revelations" resulted in at least six persons' death, including Hamlet's.

It's hard to imagine how an alleged miracle, from the mid-1600s, is part of a "rational" belief in God today. The first and most obvious question is why, out of all the millions of amputees, today and in the past, this one person merited miraculous intervention. Anna Göldi, was also alleged to be involved in miracles ... causing an eight year old girl to spit up pins. That resulted in Anna being probably the last person in Europe executed for witchcraft. Today, we suspect that ulterior motives may have been involved in Anna's case ... just as the people of Calanda might have had ulterior motives to have their town known as a site of miracles.

There is not much that science can say about Miguel or Anna, except that such things are beyond what the world we call "natural" allows. People can certainly take it a step further and say that, in any sort of rational society, people should not be put to death based on such fantastic "events." Then again, people should not be penalized in any way for believing in such things either.

But to cite such things as rational arguments in favor of God makes no sense. Maybe the Cardinal senses that and it is exactly that which makes him think that Dawkins called him "retarded."


* The word appears twice in the book, in connection with the "Great Beethoven Fallacy" (p. 298-301), where anti-abortionists use a particularly bad argument, to the effect that the family history of Beethoven, including his supposedly blind, deaf and retarded siblings, would have caused modern pro-choice advocates to recommend that the fetus which became Beethoven be aborted. The factual premises are false or fanciful and the logic would require every man and woman (from the very onset of puberty ... virgins not allowed!) to try to utilize every sperm and egg lest they fail to "potentalize" every great person who might have been. One can only wonder what people who make such arguments would reply to the statement: "If only abortion had been readily available and affordable during Klara Polzl's lifetime, maybe she would have never given birth to a son named Adolf and the Holocaust would never have occurred." We can only be sure that the reply would be no more rational than the original argument.


Happy Thanksgiving!

... except, of course, for these guys.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


Knowing Ways

Jerry Coyne has a post I can entirely agree with ... almost!

First of all, Jerry points to a gloriously vicious (and thoroughly funny -- the worst sort of viciousness of all!) disemboweling perpetrated by Gregory A. Petsko, at Genome Biology, upon one George M. Philip, President of the State University of New York at Albany, who recently eliminated the university's departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts. You can find more about this shameful episode at Leiter Reports.

I cannot recommend highly enough Professor Petsko's explanation of what a university should be, as opposed to what our public, and even our private, institutions threaten to become in our MBA-driven, corporate-sponsored, ignorance-dependent oligopoly that is sometimes called the United States.

Jerry quotes two notable parts of Professor Petsko's essay:

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that you have trouble understanding the importance of maintaining programs in unglamorous or even seemingly 'dead' subjects. From your biography, you don't actually have a PhD or other high degree, and have never really taught or done research at a university. Perhaps my own background will interest you. I started out as a classics major. I'm now Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry. Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn't just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that . . .

. . . No, I think you were simply trying to balance your budget at the expense of what you believe to be weak, outdated and powerless departments. I think you will find, in time, that you made a Faustian bargain. Faust is the title character in a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was written around 1800 but still attracts the largest audiences of any play in Germany whenever it's performed. Faust is the story of a scholar who makes a deal with the devil. The devil promises him anything he wants as long as he lives. In return, the devil will get – well, I'm sure you can guess how these sorts of deals usually go. If only you had a Theater department, which now, of course, you don't, you could ask them to perform the play so you could see what happens. It's awfully relevant to your situation. You see, Goethe believed that it profits a man nothing to give up his soul for the whole world. That's the whole world, President Philip, not just a balanced budget. Although, I guess, to be fair, you haven't given up your soul. Just the soul of your institution.

Professor Petsko makes a number of other points:

~ University students are still, in many respects, children, who should not be allowed to choose their own academic programs but should, instead, be required to complete a core curriculum, including the humanities -- unless, of course, you want to change the title of your institution to "trade school" or "vocational college." The very fact that "comparatively fewer students enrolled in these degree programs" is due to the faculty's abrogation of their duty to broaden the knowledge and love of learning of their students.

~ "Knowledge" cannot be easily classified and "what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future. ... [T]he real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible."

~ "One of the things I've written about is the way genomics is changing the world we live in. Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn't a question for science alone; it's a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including - especially including - the humanities and arts. Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed."

Jerry goes on to add his own paean to the humanities:

The best teachers are not the ones who instill knowledge in your brain, but those who instill a love of learning, making you autodidactic in their subject for the rest of your life. I don't think I've attained that ability as a professor, but I sure benefited from it in college. And I don't give two hoots for a scientist who knows nothing of music, art, or literature (or food!). They're missing a great swath of the world's wonder.

But then he goes and spoils it all:

Those other disciplines aren't really "ways of knowing," but they're ways of experiencing*, and to die without that panoply of experience, had it been available to you, is to have lived in vain.**

If, as professor Petsko says, the humanities can teach you to think, including how to think like a scientist ... if learning in the humanities is the difference between being "educated" and being a trade school graduate ... if the humanities give you the intellectual flexibility to face challenges no one has foreseen ... if the humanities give you the wherewithal to better face ethical challenges that science alone cannot answer ... if the humanities teach you that learning has its own worth beyond what any accountant can assign it ... if the humanities teach you that much of the world's wonder is in how you experience it ... if, to live without the humanities, is to have lived in vain ... then, just how are they not "ways of knowing"?

I'm fully aware that Coyne and the other Gnu Atheists want to deny religious experience the same status that they (the rational ones among them, at least) grant to things like music, art, literature, love and those other things we truly "know," at least when we honestly claim the title "human," that nonetheless reside outside of science's grasp.

But they should do the heavy lifting of actually showing the difference between religious experience and the other forms of experiential "knowledge" we have, rather than falling back on trite ... and self-contradictory ... rhetoric about "ways of knowing."

* Does Jerry even know what the word "empiricism" means?

** [Cough] "What I mean by 'philosophical consistency' is that one's philosophies are consistent. In the case of a scientist, one's scientific philosophy is that you don't accept the existence of things for which there is no evidence."


Friday, November 19, 2010


Turning Stupid into an Art

Via Ed Brayton, people in Phoenix are concerned that there is a mosque going up in their neighborhood. How do they know that? Because the building has a dome!

As we all know, any place with a dome is one of them thar mosquity places:

Every last one of them:


Thursday, November 18, 2010


Down Memory Lane

Some Brits like animals ... sorta ...

In Britain, it is a crime to kill a conscious cow or sheep or chicken for meat by slashing its throat without numbing it first. The reasons are obvious. If you don't numb an animal, it screams as you hack through its skin, muscle, trachea, oesophagus, carotid arteries, jugular veins and major nerve trunks, and then it remains conscious as it slowly drowns in its own blood – a process that can take up to six minutes. So we insist that an animal is stunned before its throat is slashed, to ensure it is deeply unconscious. There isn't much humanity in our factory farming system, but this is – at least – a tiny sliver of it, at the end.

But the same Brits don't like religion:

You are allowed to skip all this and slash the throats of un-numbed, screaming animals if you say God told you to. If you are Muslim, you call it "halal", and if you are Jewish you call it "kosher". Back in the Bronze Age, or the deserts of sixth-century Arabia, it was sensible to act this way. You needed to know your meat was fresh and the animal was not sick, so you made sure it was alive and alert when you killed it. As Woody Allen once said, it wasn't so much a commandment as "advice on how to eat out safely in Jerusalem". But we have much better ways of making sure meat is fresh and healthy now. Yet for many religious people it has hardened into a dogma, to be followed simply because it was laid down in their "holy" texts long ago by "God".

I'm a bit conflicted. We're animals ... and, last time I looked, nobody else in that category was spending much time worrying about the feelings of its food. On the other hand, we do think about such things, which is maybe an argument for human exceptionalism ... which is, of course, the basis of all anti-evolutionism.

But this caught my attention because of an experience of my own.

My family had friends/semi-relatives that lived in parts of New York State north of the actual City, who had some slight pretensions of being "farmers." During a day or two with them, we visited some of their neighbors who were closer to the real thing. I was with the various kids of the two families -- of whom I have no memory -- when I saw some adults hoisting a calf up by its back legs with a pulley attached to a limb of a large tree. I had no idea what was going on until I saw a knife flash and a gush of blood that went a good 10 feet through the air.

But I still can hear the death cry of that calf 50 plus years later.

I got injured recently because of my own inattention/stupidity. My doctors prescribed me painkillers to relieve the pain that, at least in some sense, I deserved.

The least we can do is use the same intelligence we use to relieve our own pain to do as much for others not so culpable as I was.

Any religionists that can't accept that should have that calf's scream echo in their ears forever and forever.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Ghostly Methodology

Having hit a slightly slow spot in life that, I'm sure, won't last long, I'm taking the time for another drive-by of the paper by Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke and Johan Braeckman ("BBB"), "How not to attack Intelligent Design Creationism: Philosophical misconceptions about Methodological Naturalism."

Consider their definition of "supernatural":

[W]e propose to define 'supernatural' as referring to any phenomenon which has its basis in entities and processes that transcend the spatiotemporal realm of impersonal matter and energy described by modern science ...

The (to me, at least) obvious problem with that definition is that "modern science" is a moving target.

What if someone had shown up 150 years ago and demonstrated the ability to correctly identify various ailments, including broken bones, enlarged hearts, etc. without physically touching the patient? Today, we know the technique as X-rays but 150 years ago the very existence of such a force transcended the spatiotemporal realm of impersonal matter and energy described by the then "modern science."

That is why I think the following criticism of IMN by BBB misses the mark:

Consider the claims of IDC. ... [I]f God has left observable traces in our material universe, as IDC proponents claim He did, these are in principle open to scientific investigation, and thus God would be reduced to the realm of the 'natural', by a matter of philosophical definition. Pennock thinks it is ironic that, in the course of introducing God in science, IDC theorists actually naturalise God without realizing it. That may well be true according to Pennock's definition of 'supernatural', but by the same token IDC theory does not violate the strictures of IMN any longer, and Pennock's argument on the basis of IMN misses the mark.

Imagine that IDC theorists, contrary to the actual state of affairs, had provided us with clear and unmistakeable evidence for intelligent design behind functional biological complexity (in the next section we will consider what could constitute such evidence)*. Following Pennock's logic, even if the designer were to reside beyond the known material universe, forcing a complete revision of our metaphysics, our reply to the IDC proponents would be something like this: 'You see, now we have a scientific proof for Intelligent Design. By definition, that means that we have to do with a natural phenomenon. Thus, I was right after all, supernatural causes and forces have no place in science.'

[W]hen Pennock and Forrest adopt this analytical definition of the 'supernatural', they can no longer challenge IDC by using IMN as a philosophical shield, because it misses the mark by their own definition. Instead, they will have to convince IDC theorists that the so-called Intelligent Designer would be 'natural' like anything else. This is a different route to the same conclusion we are defending in this article: that claims of IDC have to be confronted head on, and rejected on scientific grounds, instead of being excluded by fiat on shaky philosophical grounds

If every time we discovered something beyond the known material universe we had to revise our metaphysics, metaphysicians would be a busy lot indeed. The very aim of science is to discover things that are beyond the known material universe. IMN is a reasonable philosophical brake on making a premature conclusion. Science, after all, has all the time in the world, even if impatient individuals want answers now.

Scientific evidence of intelligent biological design would be as exciting to scientists as the evidence for radiation was. But one thing is sure, the scientific community would be looking for a natural designer, not falling on their collective knees. Even if they failed to find the natural designer after 300 years, the way we've failed to find a satisfactory answer for gravity's action at a distance, they'd keep on looking for a natural explanation.

And Intelligent Design Creationists are quite aware of, and obviously accept, this stricture on science. It is why they (disingenuously, as in everything they do) pointedly and repeatedly stated right from the beginning of their movement, even before IMN was widely discussed, that the "Designer" could be space aliens or time travelers or other natural beings.

IDers knew that if they insisted the cause of design must be supernatural they didn't have a ghost of a chance of convincing anyone but themselves that ID was science.

For once they were right.


* The intercessory prayer "evidence" that I previously discussed.


Friday, November 12, 2010


One Step Closer to Sanity

The Textbook/Media/Library Advisory Council of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has voted to recommend actual life science textbooks for high school students, instead of thinly veiled religious hymnals.

The Louisiana Family Forum, an affiliate of James Dobson's Focus on the Family, has apparently been organizing opposition to the quaint notion that we should teach children science so they can make a living in the future other than flipping hamburgers for Chinese tourists.

The council, made up of educators and lawmakers (say what?), voted 8-4 to ignore the complaints about textbooks that had the temerity to say that evolution is science and ignore Intelligent Design Creationism. It cannot come as a surprise that one of the votes against the recommendation was Ben Nevers, the primary sponsor of the "Louisiana Science [Mis]Education Act."

Of course, the recommendations still has to go to the Board, the record of which is not confidence-inspiring.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Pretty Worn Moccasins

I discussed William Dembski's recent "heresy trial" and his recantation of his mild suggestion that "Noah's flood, though presented as a global event, is probably best understood as historically rooted in a local event. "

But, as Michael Zimmerman points out:

While the results of the midterm elections provided some evidence on the state of the economy, there's a far clearer indicator of just how bad things are. William Dembski, one of the main proponents of intelligent design, has recanted his scientific views in an attempt to keep his job. As philosopher Michael Ruse has said, explaining but not condoning Dembski's actions, "here he is with a wife and kids to support and the threat of the sack."

That is all the more true given the fact that Dembski has an autistic child, the heartbreak of which has caused him to do some pretty strange things before.

Worse, as Zimmerman continues:

Although the news of Dembski's retractions appeared a few weeks back, I waited to write about it to see how the creationist community would respond. Surely, those who vigorously promoted Ben Stein's movie Expelled (a film that famously pretended that a scientific orthodoxy relentlessly fired world class scientists who held dissenting views) would come to his defense. Not surprisingly, not a peep of protest has been heard.
It's all rather sad.

Saturday, November 06, 2010


Atheism Unbound

PZ Mxyzptlk continues to resist the notion that the existence of gods (or the supernatural) can be demonstrated by science.

I read Greta Christina's list of events that would convince her [reccomended by Jerry Coyne], and I have to say that none of them would sway me. They'd convince me that there are unexplainable phenomena and beings greater than myself, but I already believe that with no problem and without budging from atheism. I've already dealt with the 900 foot tall Jesus fallacy (it's not a prior conclusion of religious thought), and while finding amazingly detailed scientific information in a holy book would be impressive, evidence of beings in the past who were smarter than me isn't evidence of a god. Also, they haven't because they didn't, so postulating circumstances that have been shown not to have occurred is only persuasive in the most abstract and imaginary way possible.

The emphasis and [cough] methodology may be slightly different from my own but the point is the same: atheism is an honorable and self-sufficient philosophical position that does not need to be weakly, if at all, propped up by science. It can be, as all good modern philosophy, informed by science, but it is not in thrall to it ... or vice versa.

Those who insist that they are do no favor to atheism or to science.



Methodically Philosophizing

I really do intend to say more about the paper, "How Not to Attack Intelligent Design Creationism: Philosophical Misconceptions About Methodological Naturalism," by Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke and Johan Braeckman.

An unfortunate lack of infinite time and energy has prevented me from clearing this whole subject up for everyone.

In the meantime, however, Sean Carroll, at Cosmic Variance, has weighed in on the subject, in reply to Chris Schoen's "Is "Dark Matter" Supernatural?," with what Chris rightly calls “a thoughtful (and goddamned civil) response.”* Jerry Coyne largely agrees with Carroll, so I thought I'd spend some time on Carroll's conception of the problem.

I don't think Carroll's attempt to classify the potential effects of the supernatural into three categories (the “silent,” the “hidden” and the “lawless”) is particularly helpful for reasons that will have to await a further deposit of time and energy into my account.

Instead, I'd like to focus on what actually would happen if, as Carroll contends, “the best explanation scientists could come up with for some set of observations necessarily involved a lawless supernatural component.”

Chris has already answered this and I agree with him that “studying lawless phenomena (whether chaotic or capricious) with science is logically insensible.” But I'd like to take it from a slightly different angle.

In passing, I'd note that it is hard to imagine just how we'd ever get to the situation that Carroll proposes. The point I believe Chris was making about dark matter is that we have no particular reason to believe it exists, except that it is a natural explanation for the phenomena that we observe that would explain the phenomena and that suggests ways that science could further study the cause or causes of the phenomena.** In short, it is an example of the operation of what the supporters of IMN would call the a priori assumption in science that natural phenomena have natural causes. Carroll acknowledges this but calls it a “preference.” That just raises the question of what we should call something that is universal among scientists and the violation of which is consistently deemed not to be scientific, outside philosophical discussions such as these.

After all, an objection to Newton's theory of gravity that was raised immediately was that it proposed an “occult” force that acts at a distance with no known mechanism. For some 300 years we have been looking for a mechanism that enables gravity to do that, without success, but that has not stopped us from continuing to try. At what point does the scientific community throw up its collective hands and say that any phenomena is “supernatural”?

More importantly, what would happen if they did? Would the normal routine of science -- further observations and experiments, the publishing of results and peer review and criticism – continue? Would scientists propose Goditons and quantum spirituality and try to test them? If so, then they would fall afoul of PZ Myers' criticism that they would then be proposing “natural, repeatable, measurable, and even observable…properties” that can no longer be thought of as “supernatural.”

And if the scientific community didn't do those things – if it agreed that the cause of the phenomena is supernatural and nothing further can be said by science about it – how could we characterize the situation other than as science having “stopped,” at least as far as the causes of that phenomena are concerned?

The real question, then, is how we should characterize the decision to call a halt to scientific investigation of a phenomena. Those supporting PMN would say it is a “scientific result.” Those who support IMN would say that, no, it is a metaphysical conclusion that, at least in this particular instance, science does not and cannot work, not an actual result of a scientific investigation, which, after all, has been called to a halt.

Another way to put it is that, a priori, we know that the only way to conclude that the cause a phenomenon is supernatural is by calling a halt to the scientific study of that cause.

That sounds like IMN to me.


* Incidentally, Massimo Pigliucci and Jerry Coyne have made up and promised to stop sniping at each other and I too will try to restrain my snide side ... at least when it comes to this subject.

** See my discussion of the two objectives of science in my previous post on this subject.


Update: For another, slightly different, take on this issue, see Steve Novella's description of why "anomaly hunting" is not science in his article, "Ghost Hunting Science vs Pseudoscience."


Friday, November 05, 2010


On a Mission from God


Lauri Lebo at Religion Dispatches has this:

So what’s the happy news? At least Sharron Angle, with her ties to the Christian Reconstructionist movement and who believed her candidacy was divinely inspired, was unable to beat out Harry Reid.

I think Angle was right.

It was just that God wanted Reid reelected and, heaven knows, against any other candidate, he didn't stand a chance in hell.

Thursday, November 04, 2010


Measured Response


Look inside, look inside your tiny mind
Then look a bit harder
'Cause we're so uninspired, so sick and tired
Of all the hatred you harbor

So you say it's not okay to be gay
Well, I think you're just evil
You're just some racist who can't tie my laces
Your point of view is medieval

Fuck you, fuck you very, very much
'Cause we hate what you do
And we hate your whole crew
So please don't stay in touch

Fuck you, fuck you very, very much
'Cause your words don't translate
And it's getting quite late
So please don't stay in touch

Do you get, do you get a little kick
Out of being small minded?
You want to be like your father
It's approval you're after
Well, that's not how you find it

Do you, do you really enjoy
Living a life that's so hateful?
'Cause there's a hole where your soul should be
You're losing control a bit
And it's really distasteful

Fuck you, fuck you very, very much
'Cause we hate what you do
And we hate your whole crew
So please don't stay in touch

Fuck you, fuck you very, very much
'Cause your words don't translate
And it's getting quite late
So please don't stay in touch

Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you
Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you
Fuck you

You say you think we need to go to war
Well, you're already in one
'Cause it's people like you that need to get slew
No one wants your opinion

Fuck you, fuck you very, very much
'Cause we hate what you do
And we hate your whole crew
So please don't stay in touch

Fuck you, fuck you very, very much
'Cause your words don't translate
And it's getting quite late
So please don't stay in touch

Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you
Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you

- Lily Rose Allen and Gregory Kurstin

Sly Design

Eric Mariani is a man after my own heart:

It's silly that Modesto City Schools won't allow a teacher to teach intelligent design in class. The ID theory is clearly a scientific hypothesis devoid of religious dogma; it has "theory" in its title, as does the "theory of evolution." And considering religious faith is absolute, it's probably sacrilegious only "theorizing" a God-like creator within the scientific framework. Here are some other theories we should be teaching our children:

Intelligent impregnation — We all know that women can be impregnated intelligently without sexual intercourse or in vitro fertilization, so our anatomy and physiology curriculum must be altered in fairness to this theory.

Intelligent zoology — Though it's never been observed in modern cetology, it's well-known that man can survive within the stomach of a whale for up to three days without being digested and excreted.

Intelligent physics — The human body is slightly denser than liquid water, but did you know that in some special circumstances humans could walk on water without aid of any buoyant instrument?

Let's make sure intelligent design gets into our classrooms, folks. It's certainly on par with Darwinian evolution, which is limited by the evidence and research that fully support it.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010


But They're Still Just Big Bulky Critters

Non Sequitur, April 7, 1992

Tuesday, November 02, 2010


My Favorite Sign of Sanity

Via Ed Brayton.

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