Sunday, April 29, 2012


Socrates, Aristotle, Locke, Hume and Higgs

I've come to suspect that you humans are misled by an unconscious desire to tie uniquely human traits with those qualities you most value and desire to cultivate in yourselves. That's a false connection. Your best human traits may very well be ones you share with other species. Many of you, for example, value the ability to give and receive love as one of the loftiest capacities of the human soul. This is not only within my ability but the essence of my job description.  
My love was hard-earned and required months of patience because my roots are feral and human beings once terrified me. Now, however, I have opened my heart to a once alien species and I bring joy and delight to all who touch me.  
Don't get me wrong. I see big differences between the human and cat psyches. But I don't see one as superior to the other. Some of you humans use up much of your short time on this Earth agonizing about the meaning of life, for example. I just live.

Saturday, April 28, 2012


Coyne Gives Philosophy Some Luvs

I have been critical of Jerry Coyne's "philosophy" but I have to give him credit for his recognition of its value.

Lawrence Krauss recently made comments that can only, as Chris Schoen points out, be characterized as anti-intellectualism. Krauss has backed away from what he said but Coyne recognizes that it is a "notapology."

Kudos to Coyne for at least recognizing that philosophy can be of use even if it isn't always ... just like not all of what is called "science" is ... well done or of use.

But you didn't think it would last, did you?

Coyne elsewhere enthusiastically adopts the "hair-splitting grammatical distinctions some atheists think so seriously important in defining themselves" that even PZ Mxyzptlk can't stomach ... though he can't quite understand why.

Coyne endorses the following:
Once it is understood that atheism is merely the absence of belief in any gods, it becomes evident that agnosticism is not, as many assume, a "third way" between atheism and theism. The presence of a belief in a god and the absence of a belief in a god exhaust all of the possibilities. Agnosticism is not about belief in god but about knowledge—it was coined originally to describe the position of a person who could not claim to know for sure if any gods exist or not.

Thus, it is clear that agnosticism is compatible with both theism and atheism. A person can believe in a god (theism) without claiming to know for sure if that god exists; the result is agnostic theism. On the other hand, a person can disbelieve in gods (atheism) without claiming to know for sure that no gods can or do exist; the result is agnostic atheism.
Coyne dosesn't like the term "scientism." But if I assert that "Once it is understood that scientism is merely the absence of belief that anything but science is of any value in delivering 'knowledge,'" have I proven that Coyne is a proponent of "scientism"?

It's easy to "define" others. It's less easy to justify it. Those who don't even try aren't worth listening to.


So Long, and Thanks for All the Facts!

An obituary:
Though weakened, Facts managed to persevere through the last two decades, despite historic setbacks that included President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, the justification for President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq and the debate over President Barack Obama's American citizenship. 
Facts was wounded repeatedly throughout the recent GOP primary campaign, near fatally when Michele Bachmann claimed a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease causes mental retardation. In December, Facts was briefly hospitalized after MSNBC's erroneous report that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's campaign was using an expression once used by the Ku Klux Klan.
But friends and relatives of Facts said Rep. West's claim that dozens of Democratic politicians are communists was simply too much for the aging concept to overcome.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


Duct Tape for the Soul

Ed Brayton has one of those awful spam emails from fundigelicals where an Xnian student demolishes a smarty-pants professor and it ... ahem ... miraculously turns out that the Xnian student happens to be EINSTEIN (capitals in the original).

This is, of course, the ground originally plowed by that deep thinker, Jack Chick, in his (in)famous "Big Daddy."

There is a pretty good (some commenters at Ed's place had some quibbles) reconstruction of the whole thing as it might have gone if a philosophy professor confronted this "argument" and was more interested in using the Xnian student as a teaching moment than simply banging his/her head on the desk.

But this is the reason I'm bringing it up. A commenter called "savoy47" said this:
These emails are geared towards people that are predisposed to non-evidentiary thinking. These christens are not in a debate with us or even talking to us. Their one and only mission is to repair the cracks in the bubble they live in. It's duct tape for faith. It is only a temporary fix, but the cracks are spreading faster than they can properly repair them. When you are reduced to using duct tape to hold back a deluge, you know the end times are near.
"Duct tape for faith" ... I am so stealing that!


A Tale of Three Critics

I briefly touched on Alex Rosenberg’s book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions before. I haven't read it (so little time, so many books!) but now there are three reviews:

The Bad: "The Answers, Washington Diarist" by Leon Wieseltier, in the New Republic:

Not long ago the prestige of science was nastily contested by American politics, as conservatism’s war on evolution, environmental science, and other forms of empirical research threatened to confound the American sense of reality. ... [I]t was necessary to offer a ferocious defense of the premises, and the blessings, of scientific inquiry. Unfortunately, the defense of science became corrupted in certain quarters into a defense of scientism, which is the expansion of scientific methods and concepts into realms of human life in which they do not belong. Or rather, it is the view that there is no realm of human life in which they do not belong. ...

In this way science is transformed into a superstition. For there can be no scientific answer to the question of what is the position of science in life. It is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. The idea that physical facts fix all the facts is not an idea proven, or even posited, by physics. Rosenberg does not translate non-scientific facts into scientific facts; he denies that non-scientific facts exist at all.
Wieseltier dubs it "the worst book of the year."

The Sort of Good: Michael Ruse, at Massimo Pigliucci's Rationally Speaking blog, rises (half heartedly) to Rosenberg’s defense in "Curate’s Eggo: Alex Rosenberg and the meaning of life":
The old science saw the world in an organic mode — things were living in a sense — and that is why, for instance, it was appropriate to ask about final causes and meanings. The new science sees the world in a machine mode — the mechanistic philosophy — and that, among other things, is why it is inappropriate to ask about final causes and meanings and so forth.

Notice however what using metaphors entails. As Thomas Kuhn taught us — and remember how he identified his paradigms with metaphors in some wise — metaphors are powerful tools for focusing on nature and giving us ways of understanding it. But they come at a cost, namely that they are limited and do not (and do not pretend to) answer all questions. To use a metaphor to talk about metaphors, metaphors are like the blinkers you put on race horses to make them focus on the track and not be distracted by the spectators. ...

But as historians of the Scientific Revolution have stressed, very quickly the metaphor of a machine was truncated to simply the sense of something working according to law, nothing further. The world goes through the motions, as it were. Of course the early workers in the new mode did think there were meanings — meanings given by God. But very quickly they dropped these from their science as of no value qua science. In the words of one of the great historians of the Revolution (Eduard Jan Dijksterhuis), God became "a retired engineer."

So here I do part company with Rosenberg. I think his insensitivity to history blinds him to the fact that science does not ask certain questions and so it is no surprise that it does not give answers — at least, not answers of a form that the theist finds adequate. As I have said, I am not at all sure that the theist’s own answers are correct, but they are not shown incorrect or inappropriate by modern science. Science is limited in scope and since, even if in the future you get rid of the metaphors of today’s science, you will have to find other metaphors to replace them, I would argue that science by its very nature is destined forever to be limited. History shows that! ...
The Ugly: Philip Kitcher in "Seeing Is Unbelieving" in the New York Times:

This conviction that science can resolve all questions is known as "scientism" — a label typically used pejoratively (as by Wieseltier), but one Rosenberg seizes as a badge of honor.

The evangelical scientism of "The Atheist’s Guide" rests on three principal ideas. The facts of microphysics determine everything under the sun (beyond it, too); Darwinian natural selection explains human behavior; and brilliant work in the still-young brain sciences shows us as we really are. Physics, in other words, is "the whole truth about reality"; we should achieve "a thoroughly Darwinian understanding of humans"; and neuroscience makes the abandonment of illusions "inescapable." Morality, purpose and the quaint conceit of an enduring self all have to go.

The conclusions are premature. Although microphysics can help illuminate the chemical bond and the periodic table, very little physics and chemistry can actually be done with its fundamental concepts and methods, and using it to explain life, human behavior or human society is a greater challenge still. Many informed scholars doubt the possibility, even in principle, of understanding, say, economic transactions as complex interactions of subatomic particles. Rosenberg’s cheerful Darwinizing is no more convincing than his imperialist physics, and his tales about the evolutionary origins of everything from our penchant for narratives to our supposed dispositions to be nice to one another are throwbacks to the sociobiology of an earlier era, unfettered by methodological cautions that students of human evolution have learned: much of Rosenberg’s book is evolutionary psychology on stilts. Similarly, the neuroscientific discussions serenely extrapolate from what has been carefully demonstrated for the sea slug to conclusions about Homo sapiens. ...

Scientism rejects dialogue: the sciences provide the answers; the lesser provinces of the intellectual and cultural world should take instruction. To be sure, well-supported messages from the sciences are sometimes foolishly ignored — think of the warnings from climate scientists about our planet’s future. Yet scientism can easily prove counterproductive. However worthy the impulse to trumpet urgent news, smugness, arrogance and delight in shattering entrenched beliefs are as apt to alienate as to convert. The challenge is not to decide who has the Most Important Insights, but to comprehend the knowledge we have, finite, fallible and fragmentary as it is. We should make the most of it.


Academic Slavery

Well, here's an example of "critical thinking" in action:

An (alleged) science teacher at Wakefield Middle School in North Raleigh, North Carolina, gave his students the option of doing an extra-credit project on evolution or creationism:
At Wakefield, eighth-grade science teacher Adam Dembrow gave students an extra-credit opportunity last month to do a poster and paper either on "your interpretation of a religions (sic) Creation" or on "any evidence on the theory of evolution, which can be used to support the theory of evolution."
That's bad enough constitutionally but it might be justified academically as addressing a real social issue in the local community. But here's the evidence that the whole "academic freedom," "critical thinking," "teach the controversy" scam initiated by the Discoveryless Institute is nothing but an attempt to get creationism into public schools:
Dembrow suggested three websites that students could go to: Answers in Genesis, the Creation Research Society and the Institute for Creation Research.
Because, after all, those are the best places to get information about the "weaknesses" of the science of evolution! Heaven [cough] forfend that he might have recommended the TalkOrigins Archive or U.C. Berkeley's Understanding Evolution.

I know what they'll say ... 'the kids already have those damned textbooks teaching atheistic evolution ...'. .
But you see, the textbooks, being about science, and not about dishonest attacks on science, mostly don't bother to address the truly stupid arguments of creationists. Thus, if a "teacher," as a person of authority, sends a kid into the muck of places like Answers in Genesis, the Creation Research Society and the Institute for Creation Research without a counterbalance, there is no doubt that that the teacher is advocating the opposite of "critical thinking."

Saturday, April 14, 2012


What's (Not!) Going to Be Next?

William K. Black, at at Business Insider, asks a good question.

He is rifting on a Wall Street Journal article about the truly idiotic Tennessee "academic freedom" law. He finds the article deplorable though, I have to say, I didn't find it so bad. The WSJ reveals the law's connection to the Discovery Institute, and its promotion of Intelligent Design, and to the Family Action Council of Tennessee, associated with Focus on the Family. It describes ID as "the proposition that scientific evidence exists to show that life in its multitudinous forms was caused by the direction of a higher intelligence" and notes the scientific and educational opposition to the law, while reminding the reader of the Scopes trial and Tennessee's questionable history on matters of scientific knowledge.

The WSJ quotes the supporters of the bill:

Under current Tennessee state curriculum standards, students have to know evolutionary theory and supporting evidence and no other explanation is considered, said Mr. Fowler of the Family Council. He said his group, with "roots in a Judeo-Christian worldview," wants teachers to be allowed to counter the view that "evolution explains everything."

"Natural selection and descent does not explain the degree of complexity that exists out there," he said.
Now, given that the article described ID as a "proposition," made clear the religious roots of the law and detailed the opposition to the law, it is far better than most stories about "academic freedom" laws coming from conservative-leaning media. Heck, it's better than most stories from any American media.

Still, Mr. Black has a good point:

Thinking about WSJ reporters' business expertise caused me to ask a question about Tennessee's law (similar to laws adopted in six other infra-red states) and the WSJ's reporters approach to a faith-based series of "propositions" advanced by another discipline that calls itself a "science." If Tennessee wants to protect its students from "controversial" theories why doesn't it ban the study of neoclassical economics? Economics is the only field pretending to science whose predictive ability has fallen dramatically over the last 75 years. It is a field that clings to dogma that has been repeatedly falsified by reality. Neoclassical economics is not "controversial" – it is has been repeatedly falsified. Sciences are supposed to abandon theories that are falsified. Neoclassical economics is not "controversial." Its most important theories are false and the financial policies it recommends cause widespread elite financial fraud and unprecedented harm. The consequences of its errors have been catastrophic for much of the world.
So when will the Tennessee legislature and its craven governor pass a law protecting economics teachers who want to teach the controversy about the free market system as it is practiced in the US, eh?



Via Dispatches from the Culture Wars

[Click to enlarge]

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Of Politicians and Backbones

... they don't have any.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) has allowed the blatantly stupid anti-evolution bill become law by not signing it.

See if this makes any sense:

Haslam claimed to have looked into the potential effects of the legislation and had determined that opponents' worries about the broader impacts on the state's public school curriculum were unwarranted. But on Tuesday, Haslam expressed "concern" about potential "confusion" stemming from the measure in a statement regarding his inaction:
I have reviewed the final language of HB 368/SB 893 and assessed the legislation's impact. I have also evaluated the concerns that have been raised by the bill. I do not believe that this legislation changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools or the curriculum that is used by our teachers. However, I also don't believe that it accomplishes anything that isn't already acceptable in our schools.

The bill received strong bipartisan support, passing the House and Senate by a three-to-one margin, but good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion. My concern is that this bill has not met this objective. For that reason, I will not sign the bill but will allow it to become law without my signature.
Let's see if we can parse that:

"I'm going to put a brave face on the law because there are veto-proof majorities supporting it and I can only hope that all those technological businesses who might want to bring scientific industries to Tennessee won't notice that that the state and its potential employees are no more scientifically literate than Bronze Age shepherds ... as long as I pretend that nothing has changed. But I won't sign it because I don't want, as chief executive of the state, to try to explain to those technological businesses how I am not as scientifically illiterate as a Bronze Age shepherd. So even if there is no reason or sense to this law, I'm not going to stand up and oppose it because my scientifically illiterate constituents might take it out on me."

I'd like to thank Gov. Haslam. Those of us who live in other states which have serious economic problems cannot help but welcome the fact that Tennessee residents are sending us jobs. Their sacrifice is greatly appreciated.

Saturday, April 07, 2012


Welcome to the Quote Mines!

Massimo Pigliucci has discovered the joys of quote mining.

Along the way, he correctly debunks the idiot criticism of Robert Wright, a science writer, rather than a scientist, of Stephen J. Gould and the somewhat cranky comment by John Maynard Smith, who may have not liked Gould's challenge to Smith's position as the 'most revered evolutionary scientist of his day,' that Gould's ideas were "so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with."

Our old friend, Sal Cordova, the person most likely to want to have his lips surgically attached to William Dembski's posterior, kicked it all off by quote mining Pigliucci, who made the point (previously made -- and quote mined --by Adam S. Wilkins) that -- gosh darn it -- you don't need to explicitly address evolutionary theory when doing experiments in, say, molecular biology. Pigliucci's response is particularly nice:

[I]f it is the case that the theory of evolution (it's the Modern Synthesis, by the way, not neo-Darwinism, get your history of biology straight) has little heuristic value this is in the same sense in which quantum mechanics ain't particularly useful for building bridges. In neither case does it follow that the theory is somehow wrong or deficient. But, again, logic (even at the 101 level) isn't these people's forte.
But, as always, that's the price of being rational and open in the vicinity of creationists.

Thursday, April 05, 2012


A Quantum of Politics

Via Planet of the Apes, a thought by David Javerbaum:

Complementarity. In much the same way that light is both a particle and a wave, Mitt Romney is both a moderate and a conservative, depending on the situation (Fig. 1). It is not that he is one or the other; it is not that he is one and then the other. He is both at the same time.

Probability. Mitt Romney's political viewpoints can be expressed only in terms of likelihood, not certainty. While some views are obviously far less likely than others, no view can be thought of as absolutely impossible. Thus, for instance, there is at any given moment a nonzero chance that Mitt Romney supports child slavery.

Uncertainty. Frustrating as it may be, the rules of quantum campaigning dictate that no human being can ever simultaneously know both what Mitt Romney's current position is and where that position will be at some future date. This is known as the "principle uncertainty principle."

Entanglement. It doesn't matter whether it's a proton, neutron or Mormon: the act of observing cannot be separated from the outcome of the observation. By asking Mitt Romney how he feels about an issue, you unavoidably affect how he feels about it. More precisely, Mitt Romney will feel every possible way about an issue until the moment he is asked about it, at which point the many feelings decohere into the single answer most likely to please the asker.

Monday, April 02, 2012


Juxtaposition Commission


Here is the Discoveryless Institute going on about an ID/Theistic Evolution conference (the latter represented, perhaps not fairly, by people from Biologos) at Wheaton College (a Christian institution):

The most striking contrast? With the exception of Collins and Rana, who had been asked to address theological concerns in the context of human origins, the ID speakers used nearly all of their time to talk about scientific issues. The BioLogos speakers, on the other hand, tended to focus much more on theology.
Dang! The DI is proud of its refusal to discuss religion!

Ummm ... but ... here is Jay Richards, a Senior Fellow of the DI, discussing Alvin Plantinga's new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies.

Richards uses the word "God" (capitalized) 29 times. He uses "theism" (often "Christian theism") 14 times. And just to show that he isn't using them to dispassionately discuss social issues impacting science, he says things like this:

Christian theism is committed to the idea that God intends certain things to come out a certain way in history. He intended human beings, for instance. He knew you before he knit you together in your mother's womb. So theism will be incompatible with any view, including any evolutionary theory, that denies that life and its history were purposively guided to accomplish God's ends.

... Contrary to some contemporary theistic evolutionists, he [Plantinga] understands that an event can't be both guided and unguided, both purposeful and purposeless. Far too many discussions of "God and evolution" appeal to God's mystery or his transcendence or his majesty or the fact that he's "not a Cosmic Tinkerer," to disguise a contradiction.

... Certainly, given theism, it's logically possible that an event such as a genetic mutation could be guided directly by God and independently of any physical mechanism.
There are actually some interesting issues raised in Richards' article that, if I get the chance, I might come back to.

In the meantime ... pot ... kettle ... black.

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