Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Dancing Around the Truth


Turnabout is fair play!

Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, on the declaration last fall by Pope Benedict seeking to lure conservative Anglicans and Episcopalians to the Roman Catholic Church:

The Vatican sensed an opening, especially with those Episcopalians (and former Episcopalians) who were still fuming over the consecration of V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire, the refusal of the Episcopal Church to foreswear same-sex marriages, and the ordination of gays and lesbians and even (still!) the ordination of women. ...

While I've seen no evidence of Anglicans and Episcopalians "swimming the Tiber" en masse (pardon the pun) to Rome, the Vatican's overture struck me at the time as opportunistic, even cynical. Ignoring decades of ecumenical conversations—not to mention catching the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, off guard—Benedict thought he could harvest disaffected Anglicans into the Roman Catholic Church by offering concessions on liturgy and music together with ironclad proscriptions against such "evils" as homosexuality and women priests.

Now, just five months later, the tables have turned. Every new edition of the New York Times, it seems, carries fresh disclosures about priestly pedophilia in Ireland, Germany, and (most appallingly) at a Catholic school for the deaf in Wisconsin. Sadly enough, priestly pedophilia is old news by now. What's new, in the opening of court documents that the Vatican sought desperately to suppress, is that the Catholic hierarchy stubbornly refused to deal with these cases in a way that would protect children against further abuse by predatory priests. There's plenty of blame to go around, it seems—mild slaps on the wrist and reassignment to other venues where the abuse continued. But the finger of blame and complicity points unmistakably to Benedict in his pre-papal responsibilities as Joseph Ratzinger while archbishop of Munich and, later, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

So what do we learn from these developments over the past five months? Consider the evidence. I gather that the lesson from the Vatican is that homosexuality, even on the part of those in loving, committed relationships, is sin, must be exposed to the light of day for its shamefulness and must never be countenanced. It's okay, however, to turn a blind eye to pedophile priests, to reassign them quietly to do harm elsewhere or simply to ignore the problem.

Funny thing about karma.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


A Little Good Sense

There doesn't seem to be a lot of it in the Kentucky state legislature but there may be enough to keep that less-than-august body from shooting the state's taxpayers in the foot. As Americans United for Separation of Church and State is reporting:

The legislature's latest debacle involves an aggressive effort to keep a "Hell is real" billboard standing beside a major interstate highway.

The privately funded "Hell" billboard is positioned near Interstate 65 in Larue County. State officials say the sign should come down because it violates state and federal billboard laws.

"It had nothing to do with the message," said Chuck Wolfe of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. "It was just the cabinet's position that they are illegal because of their placement and the potential for distraction. That's a highway safety issue."

The billboard drew particular notice after the Federal Highway Administration sent a letter reminding state officials of the provisions of the federal Highway Beautification Act. That statute mandates that states must keep effective control of outdoor advertisements or risk losing some federal money for many transportation-related programs.

In other words, keeping the billboard standing could end up penalizing the state $42 million in federal funds.
Costing the state treasury $42 million was not about to deter State Rep. Johnny Bell:

Feeling that the billboard needed to be saved, he introduced a bill that would exempt religious and "non-commercial" messages on private property from the state Transportation Cabinet's permitting process. (This came despite the fact that a judge has ruled the "Hell" billboard to be advertising and subject to the same laws as commercial billboards.)

Bell's bill sailed through the House by an 80-16 vote and headed for the Senate.
Fortunately for taxpayers, some senators, including Senate President David Williams, seem to believe that saving $42 million might be a tad more important than saving a billboard that happens to have a religious message for the moment and have promised that the bill "is not going anywhere."

Sometimes even a little good sense is enough.

Monday, March 29, 2010


Religious Robots?


Students at Israel’s College of Management and Academic Studies Robotic Research Institute have been working on robots which can carry out a Jewish Passover ceremony from start to finish, even mechanically breaking off bits of Matza for fellow robot guests at the table.

There is a joke in here somewhere.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


The Politics of Biology

A thought:

In England and Scotland, the Biblical text had long been used to guide what eventually became professional geological inquiry. Thomas Burnet's The Sacred Theory of the Earth (Burnet 1691) attempted to show that Noah's flood, which he took to result from a collapse of the earth's crust into "the waters below," was responsible for the present, chaotic state of the earth. While denying Burnet's postulation of an originally homogeneous and featureless earth, [John] Ray, in his Three Physico-theological Discourses, appealed to the same "waters below" to explain how marine fossils (which he acknowledged to be organic) had been transported through hidden springs to the tops of mountains (Ray 1693). Later, once the massive extent of these annihilations had been acknowledged, Ray used the Biblical approach to explain extinctions. In the light of Cuvier's work, however, the illustrious [William] Buckland was now forced to acknowledge that

the large preponderance of extinct species among the animals we find in the [Pliocene] caves and in superficial deposits of diluvium, and the non-discovery of human bones among them, afford ... strong reasons for referring these species to a period anterior to the creation of man.

- Buckland 1836, p. 81
The clear implication was that the Biblical flood, which took place after the creation of humankind -- it was supposed to be punishment for human wickedness -- was not the cause of the sudden break that marked the end of the Tertiary, and that, contrary to the cosmic importance ascribed to it by Scripture, Noah's deluge must have been, as Buckland himself conceded it was, "gradual and of short duration" (Buckland 1836, p. 81), since it did not result in any increase of extinct species after the end of the Tertiary.

Growing scientific consensus about these matters soon fused with anxiety about their implications for the rather cozy view of the world that the British had entertained throughout the eighteenth century. The British establishment, Tory and Whig, repudiated both the would-be political absolutism of the Stuarts and the religious "enthusiasm" of the Puritans. They did so by combining respect for science (on terms laid down by the Royal Society) with a religious view of the world that was to be kept self-consciously moderate by the demand that revealed religion, with its potentially fanatical, even regicidal, appeal to faith, must be built upon and constrained by natural religion. Natural religion -- the religion that all decent, reasonable human beings were presumed to be capable of arriving at and cultivating, even in the absence of revelation -- was backed in turn by the argument for the existence of a creator God from the design of the natural world. Except among a narrow band of heterodox deists, accordingly, the design argument was generally taken in Britain not as a philosopher's replacement for irrational faith, but as an inducement to accept a moderate version of revealed, providential religion - and the moderate political order that it backed.

- Marjorie Grene and David Depew, The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History

Saturday, March 27, 2010


Stupid Is As Stupid Does

It turns out that the Texas State Board of Education has not only been shooting the state's schoolchildren in the foot but the taxpayers as well.

In a couple of stories (here and here) the Texas Tribune has been documenting why the influence of the state board over curriculum, both inside and outside the state, may be waning. It has to do with technological advances that allow textbook publishers to tailor their materials to Texas' increasingly idiosyncratic (not to mention ideological) standards and a recent end run around the board by the state legislature, whereby electronic textbooks and materials, approved only by the Commissioner of the Texas Education Agency (who does not answer to the board but who is, unfortunately, appointed by the governor) can now be used. It's interesting stuff but this is what caught my eye.

The push for digital content came in part because of legislators' belief that publishers should deliver such materials for much cheaper – a contention that remains in dispute. Textbook makers have asserted that the vast majority of their cost goes into development, not printing.

[Texas State Representative Scott] Hochberg believes he discovered the smoking gun that disproves that claim.

He was the one grilling Pearson publishing executive [Steve] Dowling during a hearing of the education subcommittee on appropriations earlier this year. Deep in the testimony, he pressed, in the manner of a prosecutor, on the question of why publishers charged Texas schools the same price for a digital version of their textbooks when it obviously saved bundles on printing, storage and delivery costs.

A clearly uncomfortable Dowling acknowledged the cost savings — and then confirmed that the company gives price breaks on electronic versions in the majority of states where districts, not the state, controlled the purchases, "open territory" in industry parlance.

Long pause.

Wait a minute …

One stunned member asked: "Is the e-book package cheaper" in other states?

"Yes … I believe it is," replied Dowling — who had minutes before contended that almost all the publisher's costs were wrapped up in content creation, not printing and delivery.

"Then why isn't it here?" an incredulous Hochberg asked.

"Well, because they're created for Texas to meet your specific requirements," Dowling said.
As always, there is a price to be paid for being stupid.

Friday, March 26, 2010


But Which Are Which?

Barbara Bradley Hagerty of National Public Radio is reporting on the flap in Evangelical circles over Brian McLaren's new book, A New Kind of Christianity:

Recently, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., convened a school-wide event to talk about a new book by a popular evangelical Christian. It wasn't pretty.

"It is a new kind of Christianity that is no Christianity at all," says Southern Baptist theologian Jim Hamilton.

Evangelical author Bruce Ware adds, "I've thought of Brian McLaren for years as a wolf in sheep's clothing, but I think in this book, he took the sheep's clothing off."
McLaren's "sin"?

"The view of the cross that I was given growing up, in a sense, has a God who needs blood in order to be appeased," McLaren says. "If this God doesn't see blood, God can't forgive."

McLaren believes that version of God is a misreading of the Bible.

"God revealed in Christ crucified shows us a vision of God that identifies with the victim rather than the perpetrator, identifies with the one suffering rather than the one inflicting suffering," he says.

McLaren says modern evangelicalism underplays that Jesus — who spent most of his time with the poor, the sick and the sinners — saved his wrath primarily for hard-core religious leaders.
So, what do hard-core religious leaders, such as Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, think of that?:

"Did Jesus go to the cross as a mere victim? If so, then we have no Gospel, we have no hope of everlasting life," Mohler says. "Did Jesus go merely as a political prisoner, executed because he had offended the regime? Well, if so, that's a very interesting chapter of human history, but I'm not going to stake my life on it, much less my hope for eternity."
But the interesting part of the report is this:

McLaren is onto something here, says David Campbell, a professor at Notre Dame and co-author of American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives. His surveys show that nearly two-thirds of evangelicals under age 35 believe non-Christians can go to heaven, but only 39 percent of those over age 65 believe that. That's because young evangelicals have grown up in a religiously plural society.

"And, it's really hard to condemn someone to eternal damnation on the basis of their religion when you know them well and have come to love them," he says.

Campbell adds that young believers are more flexible about Christian doctrine in general.

"We also know that — particularly within the evangelical community — the younger you are, the less likely you are to take the Bible literally, to believe that the Bible is the inerrant 'word of God,' as compared to a book of moral precepts," he says.

Surveys by Campbell and others show young evangelicals differ from their elders in a lot of ways. They pray less often, read the Bible and go to church less often. And they're more open to culture and social issues, such as evolution and gay rights.
The Pharisees ... opps ... Baptists don't like that much:

Mohler says he's saddened by all this. But he's not surprised that young people buy McLaren's version of Christianity.

"I'm sure he's tapping into an exhaustion, a fatigue, a sense of wanting to be culturally relevant, a sense of not wanting to stand out from one's peers and neighbors," Mohler says. "I certainly understand that. I just believe that the cost of following that route is literally the abandonment of historic, biblical Christianity."
That "historic, biblical Christianity" Mohler is talking about largely dates from the late 19th Century revulsion against Modernism and will be scarcely missed.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Larry Quote Mines Gould

Larry Moran has reacted to the news of Francisco Ayala winning the Templeton Prize with a long post at his blog, Sandwalk.

Larry trots out the "Doctrine of Joint Belief," which I have addressed before. The strange thing is that Larry, after claiming that science is a "system of thought" (i.e. a philosophy), then complains that atheism (of his sort, of course) is equated with "scientism." If you think that science is a "system of thought," rather than a methodology, what you are advocating is scientism. There is no way around that. And any scientist who insisted that science isn't a system of thought that is incompatible with theology (a form of philosophy), Larry would accuse of "accommodationism."

As I explained before, the real objective of pointing out that there are good and even great scientists who are also theists is that science is a methodology that can be well used by people of very different philosophies.

But, then, Larry quotes Stephen Jay Gould to support what he calls "the Fallacy of the Undetectable Supernatural." Larry asserts:

The authors of [the NAS'] Science, Evolution and Creationism repeat the silly argument that "supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science." Why not? The only kind of supernatural beings that could never be investigated by science are those that exist entirely as figments of the imagination and have absolutely no effect on the real world as we know it. As soon as your God intervenes in the real world his actions become amenable to scientific investigation.
In support of this claim, Larry quotes Gould to the effect:

The first commandment for all versions of NOMA might be summarized by stating: "Thou shalt not mix the magisteria by claiming that God directly ordains important events in the history of nature by special interference knowable only through revelation and not accessible to science." In common parlance, we refer to such special interference as "miracle"—operationally defined as a unique and temporary suspension of natural law to reorder the facts of nature by divine fiat.

- Stephen Jay Gould, Rock of Ages (1999) pp. 84-85
Larry interprets this as meaning: "The National Academies are violating NOMA unless they specifically refer to belief in Gods that do not perform miracles of any kind."

The problem is that Larry is ignoring the fact that Gould said, just a few pages before that (p. 80), of Pius XII's Humani Generis in 1950:

... Pius accepts the NOMA principle in permitting Catholics to entertain the hypothesis of evolution for the human body so long as they accept the divine infusion of the soul. [Emphasis added].
Obviously, Gould was not saying that the Magisterium of Religion cannot make any claims to miracles; he was saying that religion cannot enter the Magisterium of Science and claim that that miracles are scientific explanations, as young-Earth creationists do, or that science supports the idea of a human soul or the resurrection of Jesus or other miracles. All the Magisterium of Religion needs do is yield to those things that the Magisterium of Science can really investigate. I'd be really interested in how Larry would empirically investigate whether Jesus was God and whether he was resurrected from death ... without falling back on scientism, that is.

Larry is free to disagree with NOMA (plenty of atheists do), but he is not free to selectively quote Gould to misrepresent what he was saying.


Gauntlet Down

Uh, oh. Edward Feser has some mean things to say in a piece entitled "The New Philistinism" at the blog of the American Enterprise Institute:

I once heard a fundamentalist preacher "refute" Darwin by asking rhetorically: "What came first, the chicken or the egg?" He didn't elaborate. But he did chuckle disdainfully, and since his audience of fellow believers did the same, no elaboration was necessary. They all "knew" that he had just posed a challenge no Darwinian could possibly answer, and that was enough. None of them had ever actually read anything any Darwinian had written—and I highly doubt the preacher had either—but never mind. What would be the point? They "already knew" such writers could not possibly have anything of interest to say, in light of this "fatal" objection to evolution. ...

[P]hilosopher John Searle once criticized eliminative materialism—a bizarre theory propounded by some contemporary philosophers according to which the human mind does not really exist (don't ask)—for the dishonest way in which its adherents often respond to their many critics:

Another rhetorical device for disguising the implausible is to give the commonsense view a name and then deny it by name and not by content. Thus, it is very hard even in the present era to come right out and say, "No human being has ever been conscious." Rather, the sophisticated philosopher gives the view that people are sometimes conscious a name, for example, "the Cartesian intuition," then he or she sets about challenging, questioning, denying something described as "the Cartesian intuition"… And just to give this maneuver a name, I will call it the "give-it-a-name" maneuver. (4–5)

Well, the New Atheists have incorporated this "'give-it-a-name' maneuver" into their own rhetorical bag of tricks, and the name they've chosen is "The Courtier's Reply." The label comes from Dawkins' fellow biologist and atheist P.Z. Myers, and it refers to an imagined defense a court sycophant might give of the naked emperor of Hans Christian Anderson's famous story: "Haven't you read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots?" etc. The idea is that complaining about a New Atheist's lack of theological knowledge is no better than the courtier's complaint that the naked emperor's critics haven't read the works of Count Roderigo. In other words, it is just the same old question-begging "Leprechology" and "Pastafarianism" pseudo-defense, now tarted up with a clever marketing tag.

How does it work? Well, suppose you confront a New Atheist with the overwhelming evidence that his "objections" to Aquinas (or whomever) are about as impressive as the fundamentalist's "chicken/egg" objection to evolution. What's he going to do? Tell the truth? "Fine, so I don't know the first thing about Aquinas. But I'm not going to let that stop me from criticizing him! Nyah nyah!" Even for a New Atheist, that has its weaknesses from a PR point of view. But now, courtesy of Myers, he's got a better response: "Oh dear, oh dear … not the Courtier's Reply!" followed by some derisive chuckling. One's intelligent listeners will be baffled, wondering how shouting "Courtier's Reply!" is supposed to excuse not knowing what one is talking about. And one's more gullible followers—people like the faithful who have been buying up The God Delusion by the bushel basket—will be thrilled to have some new piece of smart-assery to fling at their religious friends in lieu of a serious argument. In the confusion, the New Atheist can slip out the back door before anyone realizes he hasn't really answered the question. Call it "the Myers Shuffle," and feel free to fling that label back at the next fool atheist who thinks yelling "Courtier's Reply!" should be enough to stop you in your tracks.

Feser goes too far but I've never understood how people who value rational thinking and discussion could mistake ridicule for an argument.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Of Birds and Feathers

A (scary) thought:

What evangelical Christians have in common with Muslim creationists is their fight against materialism and the secular state. More and more examples of this type of multi-faith alliance are emerging, says Olivier Roy:

"I've been observing a phenomenon in Turkey with particular interest for many years: the fact that the movement I refer to as Islamic neo-fundamentalism is orienting itself more and more towards the categories of Protestant evangelicalism."

Olivier Roy believes this also applies to norms – the defence of the family, the attitude towards homosexual marriage and abortion: "This form of neo-fundamentalism is a relatively apolitical movement from the middle class, often going hand in hand with good social integration – and very strict in terms of norms and morals. A movement that is co-opting the subjects of the religious right in America."

Although Adnan Oktar's theses have no scientific basis, they do have a disastrous effect on Turkish society. The editor-in-chief of the Istanbul-based scientific magazine Bilim ve Gelecek cites a study his team carried out at various universities a few years ago:

"Turkey's poor education system means that even many biology students don't believe in evolutionary theory. A sample at five key universities in Istanbul, Ankara and Kocelida showed that 80 percent of respondents – including advanced students – consider Adam and Eve the ancestors of humanity. Of course that's not what they're taught officially in the curriculum, but because the system consists solely of learning by rote the students have no chance to learn the inner logic of scientific thought. They learn evolutionary theory, but they still believe in Adam and Eve."

-Harald Brandt, "Fossilised Thinking Proves God's Existence,"

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Of Philosophers and Science

Professor Francis Beckwith, who I've described as "by far the most erudite and philosophical of the IDers or their fellow travelers" (by which I was -- mildly -- mocking Beckwith's suggestion that the scientific opposition to IDC may be a new McCarthyism), has renounced Intelligent Design Creationism ... sort of.

It is also important to note that Professor Beckwith has engaged me (an obscure blogger, who has not always been kind in my opinions of him) with intellectual respect. I, at least, owe him the same in return.

In a couple of posts at The BioLogos Foundation, "Intelligent Design and Me, Part I: In the Beginning" and "Intelligent Design and Me, Part II: Confessions of a Doting Thomist," he has, as the BioLogos introduction says:

... explain[ed] that he embraces certain arguments made by ID leaders against philosophical naturalism, but rejects the core ID arguments of irreducible complexity and complex specified information as formulated by ID leaders Michael Behe and William Dembski.
I still disagree with his proposition:

Could a public school require or permit the teaching of ID without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment? My answer, with a few caveats, was "yes," and I still think that conclusion is sound.
Unless those "caveats" include a clear statement by the school that these are "philosophical" arguments, rather than "scientific" arguments, there is still a tension between the Constitution and attacks on evolutionary theory. As I have long argued, it is perfectly constitutional to teach about the philosophy of science, including its limitations, but it is impermissible to confuse the philosophy with science itself. It is fine to criticize the underpinnings of science; it's quite another proposition to suggest that such undermining is, itself, science.

Professor Beckwith has kindly promised me a copy of his forthcoming article from the University of St. Thomas Journal of Law and Public Policy that he promises will expiate his views in detail. I will suspend judgment until I receive it.

No matter what, his clarifications are welcomed.

Monday, March 22, 2010



Ken Miller interviewed in the Attleboro, Massachusetts Sun Chronicle:

You've debated evolution in numerous national forums. How has the debate evolved in recent years?

Scientifically, it hasn't changed one bit.

Year after year, the anti-evolutionists make exactly the same arguments against evolution.

They have no new science, so they continue to argue that the fossil record lacks transitional forms between species, that the evolutionary mechanism cannot generate new biological information and that the process of evolution cannot be directly observed in the field or in the laboratory. All of those arguments are false, of course, and that's what I've tried to show on the occasions when I have debated an opponent of evolution.

Tactically, the anti-evolutionists have evolved quite a bit.

They started out calling themselves "creationists," and then changed their self-description to "scientific creationists."

When court cases made it clear that creationism was inherently religious, they cooked up the label of "intelligent design" to conceal their religious roots and make the idea sound more scientific.

Then, when "intelligent design" was exposed in the landmark Kitzmiller v. Dover trial in 2005, they stopped using that term, and now argue for "critical thinking" about evolution.

When one looks at the examples of "critical" analysis they wish to insert into schools, however, they turn out to be the same old anti-evolution arguments that have been around for decades. The more things change, the more they remain the same.


Image from Crow Studios.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


Well, It Keeps Them From Doing Anything Important

Now there's this:

Last month, Virginia lawmaker Mark Cole, a Fredericksburg Republican, sponsored a bill in the House of Delegates to prohibit the involuntary implantation of microchips into human beings. "My understanding—I'm not a theologian—but there's a prophecy in the Bible that says you'll have to receive a mark, or you can neither buy nor sell things in end times," said Cole. "Some people think these computer chips might be that mark."

In spite of some ridicule, Cole's bill passed the Virginia House of Delegates by an overwhelming 88-9 majority—because, as his fellow Republican David B. Albo opined, "The fact that some people who support it are a little wacky doesn't make it a bad idea."

... Yet the technology to embed radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips into animals and people has existed since the early nineties, and so far no one has attempted a forced implantation of the populace.

There are, of course, purely secular reasons against forced implantation of RFID chips and in favor of policies that particularly protect the truly vulnerable. But the true impetus behind these laws (give Cole points for honesty here) appears to lie squarely in Christian dispensationalism and speculation about "the mark of the beast" described in the Book of Revelation.

... The first person to suggest that the mark of the beast could be a microchip may have been Peter Lalonde in his One World Under Anti-Christ (1991). However, the association of microchip technology with the mark of the beast was thoroughly hammered into the American consciousness by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins' bestselling Left Behind Series. The eighth installment of the series, The Mark (2000), describes how the Antichrist's new world order will require everyone to be implanted with a microchip or be guillotined by a "loyalty enforcement facilitator."

Legislators acting based on fiction? Naw! That couldn't be!

Advocating laws because they will hinder the actions of the Antichrist, as preposterous as it seems, is made possible by a highly-politicized American subculture that has been profoundly influenced by the dispensationalist imagination. It is not an accident that the sponsors of anti-microchip legislation have admitted their concern about the mark of the beast. By making clear that their concerns are not purely secular, these legislators are able to build support from an energized evangelical base. Opponents can mock these politicians as paranoiacs, but among voters who have read The Mark, concern about the Antichrist is a political asset, not a liability.

Lord help us!

Saturday, March 20, 2010


Poor (Future) Kids

One Evan Pennington, writing in The Underground: The Unofficial Student Publication of Missouri State University and who describes himself as "a future teacher," decides that teaching biology, which necessarily includes teaching evolution, to public school kids is "useless when compared to the rest of the curriculum." Mr. Pennington believes that K-12 education should stick to 'the basics.' Citing to the case of James Corbett, he says:

This guy Corbett, for example, was a European History teacher. European History, people. Is there not enough history to pass the day with? Must we resort instead to creationism vs. evolution? Please.

In summation, Corbett was being an ideological quack who used his classroom not as a "bully pulpit," but rather as a soapbox on which to vent his frustrations about creationism. He apparently found this more suiting than teaching history and facilitating the learning of his students.

And this kid who recorded Corbett's lectures so that mom and dad could swat the mean-old-teacher on the wrist with a nasty lawsuit? A quack if I ever saw one. He probably spent more time cooking up that little scheme with the tape recorder than he did on his homework.

Both sides plan to appeal. Both sides believe they're right. Neither side really cares about what happens to our students. Let's all just stick with what works, shall we? Readin', writin', and 'rithmatic rarely cheese anyone off, after all.
As we know from recent history in Texas, history cheeses people off too, so lets drop that as well, along with any and all science that points to an old Earth or climate warming. The list is going to get rather long. Mr. Pennington doesn't say what type of teacher he plans to be but let's hope that he is studying only to teach the ABCs, penmanship, addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Otherwise, if anyone was silly enough to follow his advice, he'll be unemployed.

Friday, March 19, 2010


Reflux Redux

Richard Marshall is at it again, giving his "arguments for Intelligent Design in the Fort Scott (Kansas) Tribune. It's hard to believe, but these are even more inane than the last ones:

The most amazing phenomenon in the world is the human body. Have you ever wondered why the most vulnerable organ in the body has the most protections? The most vulnerable organ, the brain is enclosed within a bone enclosure. The next most vulnerable organs -- the heart and lungs are enclosed in the rib cage. I would say that the evidence is clear that the human body was intelligently designed this way.

Uh, most (if not all) vertebrates have a skull and rib cage. In fact, the morphological similarities between vertebrates was pretty much what stated people, long before Darwin, thinking that there might have been some sort of evolution. There is nothing unique about humans in this regard.

The nervous system is not just the most awesome system in the body but the most awesome phenomenon in the whole world. The nervous systems is so extensive that if everything was removed from the body except the nervous system, that the form of the body would still be there. It is through our nervous system that we have contact with and relate to our environment.

Well, yeah. It's pretty much obvious that, in order to get the advantage of having a nervous system, it has to reach all the parts of your body, in that it both controls all the various parts (if it didn't, your arms, legs, naughty bits, etc. would just flop around) and transmits "information" (i.e. "signals") about the environment back to the central processor so you know better than to flop your arms, legs, naughty bits, etc. onto hot stoves and the like. It's kind of like being amazed that the electrical system in you car reaches the engine, headlights, tail lights, radio, etc.

Yes, the human brain and eye and circulatory system are complex but not orders of magnitude more complex than other animals. Chimps, bonobos, dolphins and whales have brains closely matching ours in complexity. Cephalopod eyes are "better" than ours in some ways. And giraffe circulatory systems are more complex than ours.

This time Marshall has nothing really to do but repeat the "Gee whiz! That's complicated, it must of been designed!" argument from personal incredulity ... though he does throw in both the watch and his previous Cadillac analogy.

The only question is whether his lack of imagination is what makes him believe in creationism or whether it what makes him think these are cogent arguments.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


American Exceptionalism

A thought:

There is less backlash against climate science in Europe and Japan, and the U.S. is 33rd out of 34 developed countries in the percentage of adults who agree that species, including humans, evolved. That suggests there is something peculiarly American about the rejection of science. Charles Harper, a devout Christian who for years ran the program bridging science and faith at the Templeton Foundation and who has had more than his share of arguments with people who view science as the Devil's spawn, has some hypotheses about why that is. "In America, people do not bow to authority the way they do in England," he says. "When the lumpenproletariat are told they have to think in a certain way, there is a backlash," as with climate science now and, never-endingly, with evolution. (Harper, who studied planetary atmospheres before leaving science, calls climate scientists "a smug community of true believers.")

Another factor is that the ideas of the Reformation—no intermediaries between people and God; anyone can read the Bible and know the truth as well as a theologian—inform the American character more strongly than they do that of many other nations. "It's the idea that everyone has equal access to the divine," says Harper. That has been extended to the belief that anyone with an Internet connection can know as much about climate or evolution as an expert. Finally, Americans carry in their bones the country's history of being populated by emigrants fed up with hierarchy. It is the American way to distrust those who set themselves up—even justifiably—as authorities. Presto: climate backlash.

One new factor is also at work: the growing belief in the wisdom of crowds (Wikis, polling the audience on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire). If tweeting for advice on the best route somewhere yields the right answer, Americans seem to have decided, it doesn't take any special expertise to pick apart evolutionary biology or climate science. My final hypothesis: the Great Recession was caused by the smartest guys in the room saying, trust us, we understand how credit default swaps work, and they're great. No wonder so many Americans have decided that experts are idiots.

-Sharon Begley, "Their Own Worst Enemies: Why scientists are losing the PR wars," Newsweek, March 18, 2010



Okay. On the other side.

Even if I don't share the sentiment, I can "respect" ... defined, in this case, as accepting that he is neither "superstitious," nor "irrational," nor a purveyor of "evil" (anymore than the rest of us), and I care not a wit how he comes to be socialized in a reasonable way (as he obviously is) ... when James McGrath, in response to Bertrand Russell, says:

So why am I a Christian? A short answer would be that it was within a Christian context that I had a life-changing religious experience. But given that I do not espouse Biblical literalism and inerrancy, some might ask whether I am still a Christian, and my answer would be that taking the whole Bible seriously is certainly no less Christian than quoting it selectively while pretending to believe it all and take it all literally.

I find very helpful an answer to this question that Marcus Borg has also articulated. I am a Christian in much the same way that I am an American. It is not because I condone the actions of everyone who has officially represented America, or that I espouse the viewpoints of its current leaders. It is because I was born into it, and value the positive elements of this heritage enough that I think it is worth fighting over the definition of what it means to be American, rather than giving up on it and moving somewhere else. In the same way, the tradition that gave birth to my faith and nurtured it is one that has great riches (as well as much else beside), and I want to struggle for an understanding of Christianity that emphasizes those things. And just as my having learned much from other cultures is not incompatible with my being an American, my having learned much from other religious traditions doesn't mean I am not a Christian. Christians have always done so. Luke attributes to Paul (in Acts 17:28) a positive quotation from a poem about Zeus (from the Phainomena by Aratos [sometimes spelled Aratus].

Why am I a Christian? Because I prefer to keep the tradition I have, rather than discarding it with the bathwater and then trying to make something new from scratch. When we pretend that we can simply leave the past behind and start anew we deceive ourselves: just look at the way China worshipped its 'Communist emperor' Mao with all the devotion and spectacle they offered to earlier ones. Even an atheist is in dialogue with the past, willingly or unwillingly.
We should take our friends as we find them because ... Lord knows ... they're having to do the same for us.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010



To continue with a theme:

Melanie Phillips at The Australian on the gathering of atheists down under:

Some of the worst horrors in human history - the French revolutionary terror, Nazism, communism - have been atheist creeds. And although terrible things indeed have been done in the name of religion, the fact remains that Christianity and the Hebrew Bible form the foundation stone of Western civilisation and its great cause of human equality and freedom.

Ummm, the French Revolution was heavily influenced by Thomas Jefferson -- maybe not a "Christian" (as defined by the Righteous Right today) but definitely a theist -- who said in 1789: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it's natural manure." Not to mention that Jefferson was fighting against the "divine right of kings," heavily supported, and even sanctified, for centuries by Christianity, in direct opposition to "human equality and freedom." And let's not forget those "Gott mit uns" belt buckles the Nazis wore. But beyond the fact that two, at least, of her "examples" are questionable, what was she complaining about just a scant few paragraphs before?:

[Dawkins] referred to the Pope as a Nazi, which managed to combine defamation of the pontiff with implicit Holocaust denial.

It's impermissible to refer to an actual (though, perhaps, involuntary) connection between the Pope and the Nazis* but it's perfectly okay to equate "the worst horrors in human history" -- including Nazism -- with atheists?

Then there's Anthony Frosh at Galus Australis: Jewish Life in the Antipodes:

'Evangelical atheists' claim that most wars have been fought in the name of religion. When people point out Nazis, Soviets, etc, then people like Richard Dawkins say that those atheists didn't commit their atrocities in the name of atheism.

There are two main problems with Dawkins' argument. Firstly, Dawkins is plain wrong when he asserts that no atrocities were ever committed in the name of atheism.

Obvious examples are the regimes of Mao and Stalin, who destroyed cultures they perceived to have had a religious basis. Thus their atrocities and human rights violations were clearly committed in the name of atheism.

Secondly, by putting up the defence that those atheistic regimes didn't commit their atrocities in the name of atheism, this assumes that religious entities that have waged war and committed atrocities have done so in the name of theism. This has rarely been the case. Most wars described as religious wars are actually about tribalism and ideology, and not at their core about theology.

Uh, wait a minute! It's okay to excuse religions because people really fight over tribalism (not least of all expressed in religion) and ideology (which we are constantly told, by people like the Texas State Board of Education, is definitely tied up in religion) but it's not okay to excuse atheism on the same grounds? And for every Mao that Frosh can name, a Torquemada can be pointed out.

Frankly, I think both sides are wrong about religion and/or the lack of it. Neither is the source of great evil nor a protection against it. The fault dear Brutus is not in your stars but in ourselves.


* P.S. Dawkins has said he wasn't speaking of the current Pope but of a past one.


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Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Strike Up the Band


There's nothing like cluelessness on parade!

And, as I've noted before, Terry Hurlbut, the "Creationism Examiner," can strut his ignorance down the middle of Broadway with the best of 'em.

His latest involves the big atheist shindig in Oz and the smaller Fundamentalist confab of creationist stupidity. Featured at the latter were Carl Wieland, Don Batten and Jonathan Sarfati of Creation Ministries International, which is the organization that broke away from Ken Ham's Answers in Genesis but did not breakaway from Ham's lack of respect for the truth.

You can read the usual gibberish at Hurlbut's place but what caught my eye was Hurlbut's citation to an article by an Oznian journalist, Andrew Bolt, who was somewhat appalled by the atheist's lack of respect for their opponents. After recording some atheist's insults and concluding that "if the Christian God really is dead, then there's not much to stop people here from being barbarians," Bolt goes on to say:

Yes, I know godlessness need not mean good-lessness. I'm agnostic myself, yet think myself morally serious.

But I'm certain both the Pope and [Family First Senator Steve] Fielding would feel their Christian faith prevented them from vilifying Dawkins as his fellow atheists freely vilified them.

So why do leading atheists, so sure of their superior morality, feel licensed to be meaner than leading Christians?

Is this what morally superior people do when God has gone? In that case, bring God back.
Hurlbut agrees with Bolt but then immediately says:

Bolt need not have gone to the Atheist Convention to learn that his fear of human barbarism in the absence of God was well-founded. As the film actor Maximilian Schell, in his role as the murderous Stanislaus Pilgrin in J. Lee Thompson's 1965 film Return from the Ashes, famously said:

If there is no God, no heaven, no devil, no hell, and no immortality, then anything is permissible.
Quite apart from the silliness of quoting a fictional character for a "well-founded" belief, comparing atheists to murders is at least as egregious as comparing the intelligence of creationist politicians to that of earthworms.

People (including myself) insult, denigrate and satirize people we strongly disagree with. Voltaire, one of the people in history farthest from being a barbarian, was famous for it. Neither faith nor morality is any deterrent. Bolt does not know what the Pope and Fielding are saying to their confidants and family. All he knows is what they say in public, which, it can be reasonably inferred, is influenced by their positions as politicians/bureaucrats in large organizations.

I'm fully aware of what I'm doing when I take off after creationists. Too bad Hurlbut doesn't seem to be.


It's In the Stars

A (funny) thought:
In Louisiana, a 2008 law says the state board of education may help teachers promote "critical thinking" on ["the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories," including "evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning"]. The Texas state school board requires teachers to present all sides on evolution and global warming.

All well and good, but not good enough. I am in favor of critical thinking, but let's go further. Our young people are entitled to think about the advantages and disadvantages of other controversial matters.

Astrology, for example. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 25 percent of Americans believe in astrology.

Being an Aries, I am open-minded on the subject. I do not know whether the stars can predict the future, reveal my personality, or advise me on my love life and whether I ought to buy or sell securities. And I do not know if the zodiac can explain why I burst into maniacal laughter when I read that one out of four Americans believes in astrology.

In any case, though, the fact that one out of four Americans believes in anything surely means it's important enough that our young people should be taught about its advantages and disadvantages. Right?

- Leonard Boasberg, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 16, 2010

Monday, March 15, 2010


Moral Theories

A thought:
Our species is here because a number of singly improbable events converged to bring our species onto the stage, and there are only the particular purposes that we establish for ourselves. The universe is not in the hands of a powerful and intelligent agent whose benevolence will ensure that everything will turn out for the best.

Many philosophers find these views inspiring, rather than bleak, liberating, rather than dispiriting. The appreciation of our kinship with nonhuman animals and the sense of the unity and coherence of the natural world that Darwinism implies arouse sentiments as respectful as those experienced by religious believers while leaving no doubt that the remediation of social injustice and the restoration and repair of the environment are up to us. Steven Pinker has argued recently that attention to the new human sciences and especially to "evolutionary psychology," the study of the evolutionary history of attitudes, emotions, and mental capabilities, promises "a naturalness in human relationships, encouraging us to treat people in terms of how they do feel rather than how some theory says they ought to feel".

It would be a mistake in any case to think that Darwinism leads to nihilism—the view that all is permitted but nothing is actually worth doing—or to suppose that the acceptance of Darwinian evolution precipitated a sudden crisis in moral theory. For Darwin's Origin of Species of 1859 was not the first book to hint at a natural as opposed to a supernatural origin for human beings. Throughout the late eighteenth century, the evident similarity between apes and humans had attracted attention. German, French, and Scottish philosophy, medicine, and natural history contained a distinctly materialistic and evolutionary strand, and Darwin's own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had posited a single common ancestor for all living creatures. Charles Darwin's originality lay in his giving precision to the theory of evolution and extinction by reference to the principle of miniscule variation from generation to generation, with variations that gave the slightest edge in reproduction retained. The quality and quantity of evidence and the younger Darwin's ability to address objections to the theory of evolution by variation and selection were staggering. Meanwhile, for millennia, moral philosophers had offered accounts of virtue and moral motivation that did not mention a God who lays down ethical commandments or appeal to divine reward and punishment as inducements and sanctions.

- Catherine Wilson, "Darwinian Morality," Evolution: Education and Outreach

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Black Hole

Ooh! Kent Hovind advising Rush Limbaugh! A convergence of ignorance that could collapse into a stupidity singularity that could suck in the entire universe!

Hovind does his usual idiocy about evolution but this is what caught my eye:

First, as a fifteen-year veteran high school biology teacher, with an extra dose of Midwest common sense ...

Let's just pause here for a second. Strangely, Hovind has never, to my knowledge, revealed where he taught high school biology. But, more importantly, that "extra dose of Midwest common sense" led him to try to convince a jury that the money he received from video and amusement park admissions belong to God and was exempt from taxes. Then he went and blabbed his lack of repentance over government phones clearly labeled as monitored and his tirades against the IRS were used against him at his sentencing hearing.

Then there's this:

Second, I loved your comment, "I'm not against science. I'm against lies."

Sure he is! His love of the truth was what got him a decade in prison.


Via Michael Barton at The Dispersal of Darwin

Saturday, March 13, 2010



There's this:

President Obama warned Saturday that a faltering U.S. education system is putting the country at a competitive disadvantage in the global economy, saying, "Few issues speak more directly to our long-term success as a nation."

In his weekly radio and Internet address, Obama noted a recent headline that he said had been overlooked by much of the nation but "ought to be a source of concern for every American." It read: "Many Nations Passing U.S. in Education."

Specifically, he said, "we've now fallen behind most wealthy countries in our high school graduation rates. And while we once led the world in the proportion of college graduates we produced, today we no longer do."
And then again:

Here's the amendment [Cynthia] Dunbar [of the Texas State Board of Education] changed: "explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present." Here's Dunbar's replacement standard, which passed: "explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Sir William Blackstone." Not only does Dunbar's amendment completely change the thrust of the standard. It also appalling drops one of the most influential political philosophers in American history — Thomas Jefferson.
Why does the loony-toon Religious Right hate America?

Friday, March 12, 2010


Everything Old ...

Let's see ...

Do modern day "intelligent design" advocates actually practice the "natural theology" most famously embodied in William Paley's book by that name?

Yes, they do. Shall we count the ways in this piece by Richard Marshall in the Fort Scott (Kansas) Tribune?

Argument from a perfect fit? Check.

The related "Gee wizz! That's complicated, must of been designed!" "argument." Check.

Watchmaker (in this case Cadillac maker) analogy? Check.

Some of the stuff is pretty funny: "The processes of transpiration and capillary action work together to move the nutrients in solution up through the plant to the leaves as high as 300 feet for the giant redwoods." Uh, yeah, and if transpiration and capillary action didn't work together to move the nutrients in solution up through the plant to the leaves as high as 300 feet there wouldn't be giant redwoods. There'd still be cyanobacteria though.

And: "All food originates from [photosynthesis]." Well, if we define "food" as nutrients utilized by organisms then what about bacteria that live at ocean vents and deep underground who never see the light of day and catalyze minerals?

Mr. Marshall is fairly honest about it though: "The Bible tells us that the world about us should tell us there is a god and that He is responsible for it's creation." Too bad the Undiscovery Institute isn't so forthcoming.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


God's Underside

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, widely viewed as the most liberal in the country, has denied Michael Newdow's latest challenge to "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance (as well as "in God we trust" on US currency). Be warned, the decision is 193 pages long. Using some of my expertise in reading legal decisions, the heart of the decision about the Pledge resides in the following (I will be omitting references throughout). For quick review, remind yourself about the "Lemon test."

The policy in question reads:

Each school shall conduct patriotic exercises daily. At elementary schools, such exercises shall be conducted at the beginning of each school day. The Pledge of Allegiance to the flag will fulfill this requirement. Individuals may choose not to participate in the flag salute for personal reasons.
The court notes:

All parties agree that the "ostensible and predominant" purpose of both California Education Code ... and the School District's Policy is patriotic. ... [B]oth express a secular purpose: to encourage the performance of patriotic exercises in public school. Not only does the plain wording provide for the students to begin the day with a "patriotic exercise", but it does not mandate the text of the Pledge or any other patriotic exercise. ...

Lemon's second prong is also met. The effect of California Education Code ... and the School District's Policy is stated quite clearly in each: each school shall conduct "appropriate patriotic exercises" daily. There is no mention of anything religious in either. Further, although the recitation of the Pledge "shall satisfy" this requirement, it is not mandated under California law. ...

Plaintiffs also concede that Lemon's third prong, "excessive [governmental] entanglement" with religion, is not violated by California Education Code ... or the School District's Policy ...

[W]e turn to the hotly contested issue in this case, whether Congress' purpose in enacting the Pledge of Allegiance was predominantly patriotic or religious. ...

When it comes to testing whether words and actions are violative of the Establishment Clause, context is determinative. The dissent analyzes only the words "under God", instead of analyzing the context in which those words appear. The Supreme Court has specifically rejected such a limited analysis ...

The Supreme Court has held prayers, invocations and other overtly religious activities in public school violate the Establishment Clause. ...

All of the religious exercises invalidated in those cases shared a fundamental characteristic absent from the recitation of the Pledge: the exercise, observance, classroom lecture, or activity was predominantly religious in nature—a prayer, invocation, petition, or a lecture about "creation science. ...

The purpose of public prayer is always active—to invite divine intercession, to express personal gratitude, to ask forgiveness, etc. On the other hand, the recitation of "one Nation under God" is a description of the Republic rather than an expression of the speaker's particular theological beliefs, a recognition of the historical principles of governance, affected by religious belief, embedded in the Pledge. "[Our] institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. ...

The dissent states that the mere recitation of "under God" in the Pledge is an affirmation that God exists: it " 'requires affirmation of a belief and an attitude of mind' to which [the infant plaintiff] does not subscribe: a belief that God exists and is watching over our nation." ...

If in fact the students were required to say the Pledge, the dissent would have a valid point. But the California legislature has already taken this consideration into account by allowing anyone not to say the Pledge, or hear the Pledge said, for any personal reason. What is at issue is not saying the Pledge or affirming a belief in God. What is at issue is whether [the infant plaintiff] can prevent other students, who have no such objection, from saying the Pledge.
Obviously, I have not fully (or anything close to it) analyzed a 193 page decision and dissent in the time since I found it tonight. I can see obvious objections -- why should we expect children to be able to assert their right to constitutional protection from religious coercion when we don't expect them to be able to vote, drink, enter into contracts and so many other voluntary exercises of their rights? -- is a big one.

I'm not sure that expressions of "public piety" rise to the level of constitutional violations of the freedom of/from religion clause of the Bill of Rights, but from what I read so far, I'm not convinced of the opposite either.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Dismissing Vaccination Denialism

As I predicted, the defamation suit by the doyen of the anti-vaccination movement, Barbara Loe Fisher (aka Barbara Loe Arthur), against Dr. Paul Offit, reporter Amy Wallace, and Wired Magazine, over the article "An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All," has been dismissed, via what is known as a motion to dismiss in lieu of answer, on the grounds that it did not state a cause of action.

The court ruled, as I expected:

In this case, the article's quotation of Defendant Offit's comment that Plaintiff "lies" cannot reasonably be understood to suggest, as the Complaint alleges, that Plaintiff is "a person lacking honesty and integrity . . . [who should be] shunned or excluded by those who seek information and opinion upon which to rely." Rather, the context of the remark – in a lengthy article describing an emotional and highly charged debate about an important public issue over which Defendant Offit and Plaintiff have diametrically opposed views – plainly signals to readers that plainly signals to readers that they should expect emphatic language on both sides and should accordingly understand that the magazine is merely reporting Defendant Offit's personal opinion of Ms. Arthur's views.
The court also noted that the law gives special scrutiny to libel cases involving important public debates because of their potential to chill speech and derail serious discussions on civic issues. Of course, that was what Fisher wanted, since she doesn't have the facts to actually engage in a real debate on public health policy.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010


PZ Myers, UFOlogist

Chris Schoen, at u n d e r v e r s e, has a nice take on the latest accommodationism-incompatiblism flap:

Once we have dismissed religion as a source of legitimate beliefs based on its inability to scientifically verify those beliefs, we have to likewise bear the egress of other non-verifiable means of human expression and understanding: Art, politics, fashion, jurisprudence, history, and many others.

Nobody wants this, and so these endeavors must be smuggled back as actually scientific. Taking up this burden is PZ Myers. To John Pieret's question (originally posed to Moran) whether he has "decided he loves his wife because he has performed scientific tests on himself?" Myers answers:

John, yes, we carried out a long period of empirical investigation. It's called "dating". Both my wife and I studied the problem carefully, and if I'd been a jerk or she'd tormented me cruelly, we'd probably have reached the rational decision that we shouldn't marry.

I really don't understand how people can fail to recognize that we do carry out critical examinations of others and ourself. Love doesn't just pop into existence in the absence of knowledge or experience.

And as I predicted, you do have a naive view of what "scientific" means. It does not mean hormones and [EEGs.] You don't have to put on a lab coat to do it. It's simple, rational, evidence-based thinking. (my emphasis)

And later, in follow up comments,

Are you suggesting that I was just imagining things when we had long conversations? That first kiss was just a fantasy?

Seriously, man. Human beings actually interact physically and intellectually with other human beings -- we have evidence. People are always measuring each other up on the dating scene. Watch an eHarmony ad sometime. (my emphasis)

No doubt the probability of denial was bound to increase in proportion to how personal the counterfactual is (your wife.) But it is remarkable how much a scrupulous scientist has left out of his definition. White lab coats aside, without hypothesis testing and publication and replication of results, Myer's courtship is about as scientific in its method as UFOlogy. Probably less, given the number of publications devoted to the latter. Which is not to say, of course, that PZ's love is not real, or that his knowledge of it is flawed.


Oh, and now John Wilkins has weighed in too:

PZ Myers, who I also claim as a friend and will be flying to meet when he finishes the Atheism Lovefest in Melbourne (no, I'm not miffed I wasn't invited to speak, why do you ask?), makes the same mistake – he tries, as Chris Schoen discusses, to show that his love for his wife is a scientific inference. I think there's a clear is-ought fallacy here; trial and error may explain why Paul and his Trophy Wife[tm] found each other compatible, but the justifiable belief that he loves her is not the result of anything like a scientific inference. It's what linguistic philosophers call a "performative": he loves her in virtue of expressing the love. How he got there is beside the point.


Monday, March 08, 2010



Uh, oh. PZ noticed my argument with Larry.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he assumed I was making an argument that "science can't explain love," which is far from the truth. The point was and is that individual scientists don't, in fact, scientifically investigate whether or not they love their family. PZ tries to assert that "dating" counts as "empiric investigation." One has to wonder how PZ would do the peer review article on cuddling. PZ then retreats to clear scientism by claiming that that all that is needed to count as "science" is "simple, rational, evidence-based thinking." In other words, no empiric investigation is necessary to count as "science." Armchair "scientists" welcomed.

He still misses the point. It is not that we can rationalize our emotions, the question is the source of our emotions. If they are not scientific in origin, then the question is whether anyone meets Larry's contention that, in order to be a "scientist," you must be "committed to science as a valid way of knowing." If we "know" we love, even before we rationalize it, then the "scientist" is every bit as irrational in that regard as the theist.

Since I caught the post early on, I left a few comments with the predictable results that I was automatically assumed to be a theist and was quickly insulted. I've long ago given up spitting into the hurricane that is PZ's blog but go over and view the coming storm to see how logical the inhabitants really are.

Sunday, March 07, 2010


Philosophers Doing (Bad) Science

A thought:

What does one say about these critics? One could certainly pick apart individual things, for instance Fodor's claims about selective breeding versus natural selection. The very last thing that Darwin and his followers are trying to do is put mind into nature. In both artifice and nature, some organisms are going to reproduce and others are not, and the reasons for that are (on average) going to be connected to the different features of the winners and losers. To say that a speckled moth is less likely to be eaten by a robin than a dark moth, because the robin can less easily see the speckled moth against the lichen-covered tree, is to say nothing about God or any other conscious being.

One could also pick up on the fact that neither Plantinga nor Nagel seems to have the slightest awareness of the scientific criticisms that have been launched against intelligent design. Every example that supporters of intelligent design produce to suggest that natural causes are not adequate—the bacterial flagellum, the blood-clotting cascade—has been shown to be the exquisite end result of evolution. And one could certainly groan at the tired suggestion that Darwinians are unaware of or threatened by developments in evolutionary development. No evolutionary biologist, least of all Sean Carroll, suggests that one day the eye just appeared. However the new sources of variation play out, selection is going to be there right along with them.

But rather than work over the details, I want to draw attention to the way this crop of critics ignores evolutionary biology—aside from the kind of cherry-picking in which Fodor engages. Nagel may sneer about the failure to find "accessible literature" that answers his worries. In what part of the library was he doing his literature search? Where, for example, is any discussion of the Grants' work on the Galápagos finches? What about a detailed look at the new scholarship that is challenging earlier thinking about the evolution of bipedalism? What about the discoveries of molecular biology and of the similarities (homologies) between humans and fruit flies? And why no mention of Marc Hauser and his work uncovering the secrets of moral thinking? There is a deafening silence on those and other issues. Fodor, Nagel, and Plantinga don't need to turn themselves into biochemists, but some awareness of the issues and advances would not be entirely misplaced.

This total lack of interest in the science is surely suggestive. The critics are being driven by other, for them deeper, concerns. And as an evolutionist, I turn to the past for clues. What fueled the initial opposition to Darwin was a concern with our species, with Homo sapiens. For 150 years, since the Origin, critics have feared that we humans might become part of the evolutionary picture—not just our bodies, but our minds, our very souls. What makes us distinctively and uniquely human? This worry is still alive and well in today's philosophical community. Plantinga is open in his fear that Darwinism makes impossible the guaranteed existence of our species. More, for years he has argued that Darwinism is bound up with the metaphysical belief that everything is natural (as opposed to supernatural), and that this leads to a collapse of rational belief and knowledge. The chance elements in Darwinism are simply not compatible with Plantinga's Christian faith.

As nonbelievers, Nagel and Fodor are a bit different, but not that different. For years Nagel has argued against a reductive view of the human mind, believing it to be more than just molecules in motion—the obvious end result of Darwinism. At some level, Nagel believes, the mind is above the material. It is perhaps a stretch, but probably not too much of a stretch, to say that the kind of sympathetic attitude that Nagel takes toward intelligent design points not so much to a concealed theism (akin to Plantinga's open theism) as to a kind of vitalism, in which there are nonnatural, nonphysical forces that direct things in the material world.

And then there is Fodor. The final section of his new book is very revealing. As a dreadful warning to those who do not accept his main conclusions, Fodor prints passage after passage of claims by Darwinians that one can understand human nature and thinking as the product of natural selection: This is where we will all end up if we don't stop the rot right now. My suspicion is that Fodor doesn't really give a damn about fruit flies or finches or anything else out there. But when it comes to Homo sapiens, he wants no part of a naturalistic explanation that reduces design to the workings of blind law. There may not be a God, but we sure are made in his image.

- Michael Ruse, "Philosophers Rip Darwin," The Chronicle of Higher Education


Philosophy and Science


John Wilkins, the antipodean philosopher, has a good post on the accommodationism-incompatiblism "debate." He riffs off a post by Josh Rosenau.

John is, I think, correct but that isn't going to end anything.

Larry Moran makes the case (whether he knows it or not) for science as scientism. Chris Schoen also noticed the latest outbreak and, for purposes of circularity, mentions one of my previous posts on the subject.

Nothing new here ... feel free to move on.


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