Thursday, October 30, 2008

The New Charles Simonyi Professor

The new Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford is the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy. Judging by his website, he has done lots of worthy media work to promote mathematics and he is colour-blind (if you doubt that, click on the link but make sure you are wearing shades). The website isn’t terribly up-to-date but he does appear to have plenty of experience communicating with the public. He is also an A-list academic.

And that, folks, is the last you will ever hear about him, on this site or anywhere else, unless you watch educational programmes on British television. To prove my point, consider what you know about the other Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, Kathy Sykes at Bristol University. She works hard to make fun programmes about science that pull in a niche audience on the box. But the press have no interest in her and none of her books have troubled the bestseller lists. I mean no disrespect to Professors Sykes or du Sautoy when I say this. But for the wider public and those who thrive on controversy, they provide thin gruel.

The fact is, it was Dawkins who created headlines and not the post he occupied. He was, and is, a much bigger fish then the Charles Simonyi chair. When Dawkins speaks, the press take notice. So do we at Quodlibeta. The same will not be the case for Professor du Sautoy. It appears that he is an atheist but is bored by religion. As he is a mathematician, a subject that simply lacks media appeal, I suspect we will hear little from him.

Luckily, Richard Dawkins is still going strong. We must wish him a long and productive retirement.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Once upon a time...

I was excited to hear in the weekend’s telegraph that Richard Dawkins will be retiring from his post at Oxford to write a book aimed at youngsters, in which he will warn them against believing in "anti-scientific" fairytales. He was quoted as saying "The book I write next year will be a children's book on how to think about the world, science thinking contrasted with mythical thinking. As anyone who has tried to read the manuscript of Francis Galton’s ‘Kantsaywhere’ will know; the foray of scientists into fiction writing can often be disastrous. What would a children’s book by Dawkins look like?. Here is how I think he would tackle a rationalist version of Snow White and the 7 dwarfs.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Once upon a time, as a queen sat sewing at her window, she pricked her finger on her needle and a drop of blood fell on the snow that had fallen on her ebony window frame. As she looked at the blood on the snow, she said to herself, "Oh, how I wish that I had a daughter that had skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony". Soon after that, the queen gave birth to a baby girl who had skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony. They named her Princess Snow White.

As all the courtiers at the Queen’s palace knew from reading ‘Ye Olde Scientist’, although Virgin birth has been proven in some bony fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds, and has been suspected among sharks in the wild, it is impossible in human beings - and presumably fairy tale queens - without the sex cells of both the male and the female. Both a sperm and an egg are required to create a zygote and the most rational explanation is that the queen entered into sexual intercourse with a man with the genetic features she desired in her wish. This is therefore an intriguing example of sex selection in human beings, the theory proposed by Charles Darwin that states that certain evolutionary traits can be explained by intraspecific competition.

Soon after, the king took a new wife, who was beautiful but very vain. She possessed a magical mirror that answered any question, to whom she often asked: "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who in the land is fairest of all?" to which the mirror always replied "You, my queen, are fairest of all." But when Snow White reached the age of seven, she became as beautiful as the day, and when the queen asked her mirror, it responded: "Queen, you are full fair, 'tis true, but Snow White is fairer than you.

Of course the mirror did not actually reply to the Queen, since a mirror does not possess consciousness, not does it have the descended larynx needed to produce sound, and manipulate its pitch and volume to create language. The most rational interpretation of the facts was that the queen had been infected by a memetic mind virus, which convinced her that the mirror was her imaginary friend. Children often develop this tendency and this psychological paedomorphosis may have continued into the Queen’s adulthood. Of course there is no law in nature against there being a mirror that might communicate through non verbal means. Perhaps all the atoms of the mirror just happened to move to spell out the message - a low-probability event to be sure, but possible, and a far simpler explanation than magic (As I explained in 'The Blind Watchmaker', the same also applies for waving statues of the Virgin Mary).

The queen became jealous, and Snow White was forced to run away to the forest. In the forest, Snow White discovered a tiny cottage belonging to seven dwarfs, where she rested. There, the dwarfs took pity on her, saying "If you will keep house for us, and cook, make beds, wash, sew, and knit, and keep everything clean and orderly, then you can stay with us, and you shall have everything that you want."

Snow White was not convinced by the specious argument which circulated amongst some of the forest's more deluded inhabitants that the dwarfs had appeared by magic. From reading the manuscripts of Daniel C Dennett she knew this was a ‘skyhook’. Instead she knew that the dwarfs had evolved through a process of natural selection acting on heritable genetic variation. Either the men in the cottage were suffering from the condition Dwarfism, which can be caused by more than 200 different medical conditions, the most common of which is achondroplasia ; or intriguingly, they could have been a microcephalic modern human or a subspecies of hominid similar to the recently discovered Homo floresiensis in the Indonesian Archipelago. What they most certainly were not, was the products of ‘intelligent design, which Snow White knew was….. Kids?, are you still listening?, Kids?!?

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I Was Wrong

Richard Dawkins successor has been announced. Not who I predicted.

And no, I've never heard of him either.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Tale of a Comet

It is well-known that people who lived before the Enlightenment were hopelessly superstitious. They believed, for example, that "odd" occurrences in the sky were omens signifying that odd occurrences would soon happen down here on Earth. The most blatant example of this took place when Halley's Comet appeared in 1456. While it was still visible, the siege of Belgrade by the Turks began; thus it was feared that this portent in the heavens had some relevance to the battle. Halley's Comet so upset Pope Callistus III that he resorted to drastic measures: he excommunicated it.

For years, this story was repeated as an example of how absurd and superstitious religion is, especially when contrasted with science. Carl Sagan referred to it in his book on comets. But of course, you know where I'm going with this: it didn't really happen. The story appears to have been popularized by Pierre-Simon Laplace at the end of the 18th century; Laplace, in turn, apparently got it from Vitæ Pontificum, a 15th century work, by Bartolomeo Platina. The Catholic Encyclopedia article on Platina dutifully translates the relevant text as follows:

A maned and fiery comet appearing for several days, while scientists were predicting a great plague, dearness of food, or some great disaster, Callistus decreed that supplicatory prayers be held for some days to avert the anger of God, so that, if any calamity threatened mankind, it might be entirely diverted against the Turks, the foes of the Christian name. He likewise ordered that the bells be rung at midday as a signal to all the faithful to move God with assiduous petitions and to assist with their prayers those engaged in constant warfare with the Turks.
Now there are a couple of things to note right away. First, there is no mention here of the Pope excommunicating the comet. Second, while the Pope had indeed issued a papal bull calling upon people to pray, and while Halley's Comet did appear in the sky at about the same time, there was simply no perceived link between the two. The bull doesn't even mention the comet. Platina just tied two events together that had no connection.

Laplace took Platina's account and suggested that Callistus sought to exorcize Halley's Comet -- and I can't help but wonder if he intended this as a metaphor. Regardless, subsequent writers took it literally, and replaced "exorcize" with "excommunicate" since all those religious terms mean the same thing anyway. The final paragraph of the afore-mentioned article summarizes this development well.

Of course, no doubt there were people who thought Halley's Comet had something to do with the siege of Belgrade. That's the kernel of truth in this story. For that matter, it may very well be true that people in the 15th century were in general more superstitious than people today tend to be. But we still have astrology. Most newspapers print the horoscope every day.

What interests me is how people who hold themselves up as skeptics were taken in by such a ridiculous story as this. Carl Sagan was, by any account, a brilliant man. Yet he uncritically repeats an urban legend in order to show how other people are gullible. What this shows, I think, is that there are no true skeptics. People are only skeptical of things that they want to be skeptical about.

For example, in his book My Life Without God, William Murray describes how his mother Madalyn Murray O'Hair would tell groups of atheists that religious people were so stupid that nobody realized sex led to pregnancy until the 19th century. This is difficult to write without chuckling, but her throng of skeptics bought it. O'Hair herself attended seances, and believed she could talk with dead people. Murray wrote that, as far as he knew, his mother never tried to reconcile this with her belief that there is no afterlife. The skepticism with which she and her fans approached religion was obviously not consistently applied.

The point of all this is that we should be skeptical of our skepticism. The reason why an intelligent person like Carl Sagan could be taken in by such a silly story as a Pope excommunicating a comet is because it fit with his views on the nature of science, the nature of religion, and the relationship between the two. Madalyn Murray O'Hair and her followers were completely contemptuous of religion and religious believers, so any claim that justified this attitude, no matter how insane, was plausible to them.

I have different biases: I am skeptical of the claim that science and religion are opposed to each other. This makes me prone to accept stories that seem to affirm this bias without showing them the same level of critical analysis that I would show to a story that contradicts it. I have to examine myself to determine, as far as possible, what my biases are, and how they might be influencing my beliefs.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

God is Dead.....Probably

Gott ist tot’ - 1882

In 1882 Friedrich Nietzsche published what he described as ‘the most personal of all my books’, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Gay Science). The book contains the first occurrence of what is possibly his most famous formulation:

‘God is dead: but as the human race is constituted, there will perhaps be caves for millenniums yet, in which people will show his shadow.—And we—we have still to overcome his shadow!’

Nietzsche looked at the ebbing belief of the society around him and recognised that the rejection of the cosmic order would lead to the collapse of humanity’s belief in an objective and universal moral law, and eventually to nihilism. Seeking to avoid this, Nietzsche looked for foundations that went deeper than Christian values and defined the "will to power" as "the essence of reality. The Christian values of Western culture, Nietzsche reasoned, were simply a way to make the individual conform to something that was less than desirable and corrupt the character. Christianity, said Nietzsche, is the most dangerous system of slave-morality the world has ever known.

‘It has waged a deadly war against the highest type of man. It has put a ban on all his fundamental instincts. It has distilled evil out of these instincts. It makes the strong and efficient man its typical outcast man. It has taken the part of the weak and the low; it has made an ideal out of its antagonism to the very instincts which tend to preserve life and well-being.... It has taught men to regard their highest impulses as sinful - as temptations.’

Christianity, according to Nietzsche, robbed mankind of all those qualities which fit any living organism to survive in ‘the struggle for existence’. For the culture of the West to depart from basing its values on superstition it would have to throw out the values which had enslaved it and prevented it from reaching its potential. Christianity, he said, ordered that the strong should give part of their strength to the weak, and so tended to weaken the whole race.

‘Another Christian concept, no less crazy: the concept of equality of souls before God. This concept furnishes the prototype of all theories of equal rights’

Self-sacrifice, he said, was an open defiance of nature, and so were all the other Christian virtues such as pity.

‘Christianity is called the religion of pity. Pity stands opposed to the tonic emotions which heighten our vitality: it has a depressing effect. We are deprived of strength when we feel pity. That loss of strength which suffering as such inflicts on life is still further increased and multiplied by pity. Pity makes suffering contagious’

Humanity should reject Christianity, as the "greatest of all imaginable corruptions," and admit freely and fully, that the law of natural selection was universal and the only way of making real progress. ‘God is Dead’ thus became a rallying cry to society to rid itself of its shackles.

‘There's probably no God’ - 2008

In October 2008 the news broke that the UK's first atheist advertising campaign will begin proclaiming the gospel to the streets of London in the form of an evangelising bus. The poster will bear the powerful slogan ‘There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’. ‘God is dead, but keep the Christian values anyway, and don’t worry about any philosophical inconsistency’.

I would suggest that it would be better for all concerned if the bus were to steer well clear of the borough of Tower Hamlets, unless of course they change the slogan to ‘There’s probably no God but Allah!’ as per the Shahada.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Some thoughts on Christianity and survivalism

These are truly momentous times we live in. The world is caught in the grip of the worst financial crisis in decades, governments and individuals are just beginning to come to terms with a future of diminishing natural resources (peak oil being just one example of the more general trend) and uncertainty and anxiety seem to pervade the cultural milieu. All these factors have renewed interest in the possibility of a systemic collapse of civilized order, whether through resource depletion, economic catastrophe, military escalation or all three, and the concomitant question of what life would be like on the other side of this collapse. Can we in the developed world really imagine a situation in which basic services like electricity, running water, medical assistance and food delivery to supermarkets were greatly reduced or non-existent? More importantly, what would be a proper Christian response to such a situation if it ever came about? What does Christian faith look like in a situation of perpetual crisis?

I want to frame this discussion with a theological critique of the so-called 'survivalist' movement. It goes without saying that survivalism is not a monolithic or even broadly consistent body of beliefs and practices, but it is possible to isolate certain common features. Examples: 1) the emphasis on developing self-reliance by stock-piling food and learning how to grow it for oneself, teaching oneself basic skills like first-aid, carpentry, etc. 2) the emphasis on the need to withdraw from mainstream society, to 'live off the grid' as it were and 3) the emphasis on the right to self-defense, the importance of learning how to use guns and the psychological readiness to protect oneself, one's family and one's stockpile of resources from those who failed to prepare and consequently become desperate enough to turn to violence and plundering to feed and clothe themselves. 

Of these three the first is undoubtedly the least controversial. In our overspecialized, overtechnologized world too many people have grown up without skills which were once considered essential to survival. We get our food dressed, packaged and ready to microwave from the supermarket or deli. We go to clinics for the diagnosis of the most common ailments and rely on over-the-counter drugs to soothe headaches, stomach-aches, colds and fevers and control our moods, completely ignorant of how and why they work. We call on plumbers and electricians whenever something in the house breaks down. (What's perhaps more important and troubling, we have divorced these services from any human connection. The cashier at the deli is a cypher to us. He/she just packages our food, mumbles how much it costs and swipes our card or hands us back our change. The electrician or plumber comes into our home, does a very specific job and then leaves, again without our learning anything about him/her. We have become so individualistic that extensive social interaction can become annoying or even aggravating, whereas it is still the norm in many parts of the world. But this is a topic for another post.) It certainly would not hurt anyone to learn some basic skills which relieves their dependence on an artificial and fundamentally vulnerable economic system. It should be praiseworthy from a Christian point of view to work with one's own hands and serve the community with one's skills and talents.

We start running into trouble with the other two tenets of survivalism. Though there certainly have been Christian monastic groups which felt it was their calling to withdraw from the world and its messiness, the mainstream theological consensus has always been that Christians were to be salt and light in a world drowning in darkness (Matthew 5:13-16). Jesus warned his followers against hiding their lights (i.e. the good news of the inbreaking Kingdom of God) under a bushel, and in his final prayer did not ask God to take his disciples out of the world, but that He would protect them from the evil one (John 17: 15). Adherence to these principles was what motivated the Christians to remain in the cities to care for the sick when plague erupted in Roman times, whereas the other citizens would flee for their own safety (see Rodney Stark,The Rise of Christianity, pp.73-94 for documentation). The result was that many Christians did in fact succumb to plague, but overall because they cared for the sick Christians had lower mortality rates, leading outside observers to conclude that the Christian religion had the support of Providence. 

Christians are called to be God's emissaries in the thick of things. If civil order collapses and there is violence, hunger and sickness in the cities, Christians should be on the front lines, tending to the sick and wounded, organizing relief efforts and continuing to spread the Good News (indeed in times like this people are usually very open to hearing about God and salvation). Even if it means risking getting caught in the crossfire or succumbing to disease or accident, Christians have their mandate.

Related to this is of course the issue of gun ownership and self-defense. There is here wide disagreement in Christian ethical circles. Many ethicists embrace a radical pacifism which excludes meeting force with force, even in the face of great harm to oneself or loved ones (prominent supporters of this approach include John Howard YoderStanley Hauerwas andGregory Boyd). They can claim support for this position from the master Himself: "You have heard that it was said: an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." (Matthew 5:38-39) But there are also many Christians who, based on the constitutional right to bear arms, insist on the legitimacy of owning guns and using force to prevent harm to oneself or loved ones. 

Personally I feel that, if one is to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously, one must embrace a certain kind of pacifism, but that is too big a topic for this post. What I want to focus on instead in my critique is the presupposition of individualism which underlies the survivalist movement. This is not just limited to the emphasis on self-reliance mentioned above, but extends to a deeply troubling perspective on human nature which contains a kernel of truth but also stands in serious contradiction to basic Christian beliefs. The kernel of truth is well summed up by Satan in the Book of Job. When God insists that, whatever Satan assaults Job with, the latter will continue to trust in God, Satan confidently replies with, "Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life." (Job 2:4) This includes any sense of decency and of common cause with one's fellow beings. There are certainly heroic examples of people who sacrificed their own safety and life to help others in a crisis, but there are also appalling examples of people resorting to violence and depredation to avoid starvation or death in a catastrophe (the Bible itself contains particularly grim images of parents cooking and eating their own children during long, brutal sieges, and even selfishly withholding that food from their starving neighbors!). The Joker confidently informs Batman in The Dark Knight that "When the chips are down, these civilized people, they'll eat each other. They're only as good as society allows them to be."

That human beings can become very nasty in the fight for survival does not need argument. But survivalists often combine this recognition with a particularly chilling utilitarian calculus of the value of human life which exalts the survivalist (and perhaps his loved ones, if they are wise enough to pay attention to him and prepare in advance) over the benighted, foolish masses of people who do not pay attention to the signs of the times and will thus be purged in the coming catastrophes (if this sounds religious, that's because it is: survivalism can easily be conceived as a religious movement; see here). Great emphasis is laid on learning to outwit and subdue the poor simpletons who try to raid your stockpile of food. The survivalist becomes a Nietszchean uber-mensch, standing above conventional morality, or rather beneath it: the circle of benevolence which expands in a time of peace and prosperity to include those farther away from one's immediate family contracts back in on itself: it's every man for himself for the survivalist, and he takes that notion very seriously. 

Christians simply cannot subscribe to such a view. The Christian life is a communal one, and Christian ethics is fundamentally universal in scope, as indicated by the quotations from the Sermon on the Mount. If God makes the sun shine on both the evil and the good, and lets his rain fall on both the just and the unjust, we as Christians are called to such all-encompassing benevolence as well. Who is my neighbor? Not just the one who shows me favors. As Jesus rightly challenges us, "What reward do you have [for only being good to those who are good to you]?" Instead, our neighbor is anyone who needs our assistance and to whom we show mercy. Who are our loved ones (father, mother, brothers and sisters)? Those who hear the word of God and keep it. The Christian response to a crisis situation must be one, not of running off to the hills in our gun-protected bunkers, but of helping people come together as a community to face the problems which arise. In the end, that's the only practical response as well. Holing up in the mountains is only viable until you run out of food and supplies or are over-run by hungry crowds who didn't see it coming. Even if you have a homestead with land for growing crops, animals for meat, cheese and wool, a source of clean water and other amenities, that only makes you a more conspicuous target and in any case it is nearly impossible to imagine complete self-sufficiency in the context of a single family on a single homestead. Only a community of people working together has the potential to maintain a decent standard of living and defend itself against external dangers. Christians should be aware of this and be on the front lines of any such endeavor, even if it means giving up our lives to bring people together or defend the helpless.

There is much, much more that should be said on this issue, but let me close with an interesting observation on the Sermon on the Mount. Few people realize that the context for this challenging, perfectionist code of ethics was apocalyptic (see here, pp. 5-7): whatever Jesus believed about the imminence of the final judgment and confrontation between the forces of light and darkness, his ethics presupposes a crisis situation for his followers: the formation of a radical new community through the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God and the possibility (even inevitability) of confrontations between the kingdoms of this world, and of those kingdoms with the Kingdom of God. Jesus' disciples are to expect persecution, hardship and martyrdom for their trust in him. But in spite of that, they are called to be perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect. A collapse of civil order is the occasion for an even greater display of Christ-like sacrificial love, precisely when it seems hardest to envision (and make no mistake: it is hard to contemplate; I myself am not yet fully convinced that I could display such love in a situation where my life or that of my loved ones was threatened). The outcome, though, as history makes abundantly clear, is that God's name is glorified and His Kingdom advances. The Church has always flourished in times of crisis, and if a time of crisis is indeed upon us (I don't think it's inevitable, but it's certainly plausible) that memory should sustain and encourage us to take up the work of God's Kingdom in an uncertain, troubled, fallen world.

P.S. Here are some helpful reflections for Christians facing a time of trouble due to resource scarcity (the article is framed as a Christian response to peak oil, but it can apply to any widespread crisis situation)

Cross-posted with CADRE Comments

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Andrew Brown's new blog

Just a quick note to say that Andrew Brown has an excellent new blog over at the Guardian. Brown is a atheist with plenty of time and sympathy for religion. As a result the Dawkinistas hate him with the sort of hatred that makes Cardinal Bellarmine's attitude towards heresy look like mild disapproval. Almost as good as his blog is the frothing at the mouth from the true believers in the comments. Here's a taster from A.C. Grayling telling Brown how it is:
You are a perfect example of a person whose zeal to defend fairy stories makes you dishonest and mean-minded. Once upon a time your sort did to those who think for themselves what the mullahs would like to do to the brave men and women at that conference: confined now to snideries, your essential poverty of outlook is on magnificent display here.

Great stuff!

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The heavens declare

One of the defining characteristics of our species is that we are all doomed to be philosophers with varying degrees of incompetence. Over the course of our lives each of us develops a fixed set of beliefs which define our worldview and each of us are guilty of viewing the world through this rigid perspective. Nietzsche summaries this tendency best in his critique of the Stoics:

‘You strange actors and self-deceivers! Your pride wants to impose your morality, your ideal on nature -- even on nature -- and incorporate them in her; you demand that she should be nature "according to the Stoa". But this is an ancient, eternal story….as soon as any philosophy begins to believe in itself. It always creates the world in its own image; it cannot do otherwise’

The current back and forth between science and religion mainly involves the competing and conflicting claims of Metaphysical Naturalism and Christian Theism. In ‘River out of Eden’ Richard Dawkins makes the following conclusion:

‘The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.’

By way of reply, the quote Kevin Miller uses in this presentation is:

‘The [Darwinian] universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect is there is, at bottom, the design of a provident and purposeful God intent upon a fruitful and dynamic world and committed to a promise of freedom that makes genuine love possible.’

Certainly both perspectives cannot be true, but which one is guilty of making an unwarranted metaphysical projection onto the natural facts?. Speaking as objectively as I can, which isn’t much admittedly, the most important fact about the cosmos is its lack of indifference to life. If it did exhibit the necessary requirements for ‘blind pitiless indifference’ we would not be here; instead it is almost embarrassingly bio-phillic. As John Barrow, Martin Rees, Steven Weinberg and others have argued, only a very small region of the physical parameter space allows life to exist, and yet here we are in a universe with exactly those fortunate properties. To say that this is a brute fact requiring no explanation seems to be a gross abjuration of human intelligence. ‘We're here because we're here because we're here’ as that old song from WWI goes. Nor as Paul Davies remarks in the Goldilocks Enigma, can we truly make sense of the Cosmos if we regard it as without ultimate meaning:

‘Doing Science means figuring out what is going on in the world – what the world is up to, what it is about. If it isn’t about anything there would be no reason to embark on the scientific quest in the first place because we would have no rational basis for believing we could thereby uncover additional coherent and meaningful facts about the world…Ultimately there may be no reason at all for why things are the way they are. But that would make the universe a fiendishly clever piece of trickery. Can a truly absurd universe so convincingly mimic a meaningful one?’

Of note is the so called argument from bad design as applied to the Cosmos, which is expressed in the Wikipedia entry for ‘Metaphysical naturalism’ as follows:

‘The universe is almost entirely lethal to life. By far most of what exists is a deadly radiation-filled vacuum, and by far most matter in the cosmos composes lethal environments like stars and black holes. What we observe to be the case is less probable given supernaturalism than given naturalism, and therefore metaphysical naturalism is more probably true.’

Thus do ‘the Heavens proclaim the incompetence of God; the skies proclaim the dithering of his hands’. This seems to be a curious mixture of bargain-basement philosophy and squalid metaphysical reasoning. It is not evident that naturalism enjoys any advantage given the evidence for the astonishingly narrow fine tuning of the physical constants. Black holes we are beginning to understand are the sculptors of the universe and massive black holes are central players in the story of how entire galaxies assemble. Stars may be lethal to life under the wrong conditions but others like ours are the sustainers of life for a planet at exactly the right distance. Stars are also responsible for the generation of the elements through nucleosythesis and several generations of them are needed to be able to make the full set available in our universe. The vast amount of material in the universe leads some to see us as insignificant, but according to Martin Rees ‘Just Six Numbers’, the universe cosmos is so vast because of ‘N’, the strength of the electrical forces that hold atoms together, divided by the force of gravity between them. If it had a few less zeros, only a short-lived and miniature universe could exist. No creatures would be larger than insects, and there would be no time for evolution to lead to intelligent life. As Roger Penrose has noted, you don’t need that much order to produce life. Conceivably the most common type of life producing universe which could emerge given an unlimited possibility space is one in which chaos is predominant and in which life would flukely emerge in a ordered corner. We don’t see that, instead we see order as far as our eyes can see. That this whole setup has developed is vastly improbable given metaphysical naturalism.

In order to account for the universe we see, Carl Sagan’s dictum ‘The Cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be’ needs to become ‘The Cosmos is all there is, expect for that infinite multiverse over there with the highly convenient universe generating mechanism, with varying physical constants and meta laws guiding its functioning, within a highly restricted mathematical subset’, a vindication of Hindu cosmology if ever there was one.

Another naturalist approach is to say ‘good but not great fine tuning’, which forms the ‘some design!’ troupe of Christopher Hitchens. The two points he always brings up is the so called big rip - not set to happen for at least 50 billion years, if at all - and the fact the Andromeda Galaxy is set to collide with us, which won't happen for 2 billion years and is unlikely to have any adverse effect on us anyway because galaxies are so diffuse. Presumably an even more bio friendly cosmos could have been constructed but it is unclear why this is a good thing given the tendency of intelligent life to be continually on the brink of destroying itself. The diffuse scattering predicted by pessimistic versions of the Drake equation is probably the most preferable outcome, but even the presence of no alien civilisations is not necessarily something to be lamented. As Sir Martin Rees has written in the Times:

'It would, in some ways, be disappointing if searches for alien intelligence were doomed to fail. On the other hand, it would boost our cosmic self-esteem: if our tiny Earth were a unique abode of intelligence, humanity would have greater cosmic significance than it would merit if the galaxy teemed with complex life..... There is abundant time for posthuman intelligence (organic or silicon-based) to spread through the entire galaxy. Even if life were now unique to Earth, we should not conclude that it was a trivial “afterthought” in the Universe. The cosmos is still nearer its beginning than its end. '

Nor should the barren nature of much of our galaxy make us despondent. A planet such as Mars represents a blank canvas for humanity to mould and develop. Rare earth hypothesis predicts that the emergence of life is precluded in most planetary systems but the sentient life which has developed on this planet should be able to overcome such local difficulties if our previous record of success is anything to go by.

Some raise the point that our sun is set to become a red giant and that this will likely result in the extinction of the species. If like me, you were brought up on comic strips from the 1950s like Dan Dare pilot of the future, where men in spaceships with improbably geometric chins did battle with the Mekon of Mekonta and travelled to faraway galaxies in search of adventure, you will feel more than a little peeved at the idea humanity is going to sit around on the earth for the next 2 billion years awaiting its fate. Clearly this is another case of projection. The human beings in the bleak fantasies of the metaphysical naturalists merely sit there in a sort of heroic despair as their star erupts in a red giant and dies around them. In the fullness of time their universe rips itself to shreds and deservedly destroys what is left of their remains. It would be hard to think of a more dismal view of the human condition. Not so much 'Dan Dare Pilot of the Future' as 'Dan Despair the Epicurean wastrel'.

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Required Reading

The American elections are coming up, so in the spirit of the season, here's two political essays from a Christian perspective. They're both written by J. Budziszewski, a political philosopher at the University of Texas at Austin. Don't just read the one you're prone to agree with already, you have to read them both:

1. The Problem With Liberalism
2. The Problem With Conservativism

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mosaics in Tunisia

I have recently returned from a holiday in Tunisia. This was mainly a way for my wife to access some autumn sun and for me to explore a new cuisine. However, Tunisia is also the home to some first class Roman ruins, including an enormous coliseum at El Jem.

The national museum, founded by the French colonial administration in the nineteenth century, is called the Bardo and is housed in a fine Islamic palace graced by alabaster ceilings and colourful tiles. The exhibits include a little bit of Carthaginian stuff, some forgettable marble Roman statutes, a very fine bronze Eros from a ship wreak and lots of mosaics.

It’s the mosaics that make this one of the great museums of the world. The collection is staggering in size and quality. The Roman province of Africa was rich and reasonably peaceful so undefended villas, full of fine floors, have been unearthed all over the country. Many of the best mosaics are now housed in the Bardo. I don’t know if African craftsman particularly excelled in making mosaics - the museum implied that they were not well paid or especially appreciated - but the results of their labours took my breathe away.

If, like me, you are partial to mosaics and want to see the very best, you will need to make a beeline for Tunis. I’ve found some photographs of a few of the best, but they convey little of the grandeur or, indeed, sheer size of the originals.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Intelligent Origin

Like everyone else, I haven’t got the foggiest clue how life began. Volcanic vents, comets’ tails and Darwin’s own warm pools have all failed to produce the goods. The main problem is that the simplest forms of life today are still, on an objective level, fantastically complex. The earliest stages of life on earth are no longer with us and have left no trace. In recent years we have also learnt that life appeared relatively quickly after our planet cooled. Bacteria were swarming in the primordial oceans just a few hundred million years after the crust had formed.

Despite all this perplexity, I think that the origin of life is not a good occasion to invoke direct divine intervention. I have come to this conclusion for a historical and a theological reason. Let me deal with them each in turn.

Intelligent Design seeks to overturn a well-established scientific theory on the basis that it cannot explain what it purports to explain. “Intelligent Origin” theories (to coin a term) are quite different in that there is no scientific theory that even purports to explain how life first arose. Thus, Intelligent Origin is in competition with speculations and pipe dreams. There is no purely scientific reason for supposing that life has a naturalistic origin. This means that Intelligent Origin is seeking to insert God or some sort of miraculous happening where science can provide no explanation itself. This makes Intelligent Origin a classic ‘God of the Gaps’ argument and history has shown us that these make for poor apologetics.

The theological reason that I would avoid Intelligent Origin is that it seems to assume that God had to have recourse to a miracle to allow life to appear. Given that we believe that He created the universe with the intention that intelligent beings should emerge, it would appear to be a serious design fault if life could not arise spontaneously. Of course, God could do things in any way He pleased but he is not capricious. His method appears to be to rely very heavily on secondary causes that follow the laws of physics. I would be surprised if He saw fit to reject this method for the origin of life. My suspicion is that the laws of nature, as discovered by science, will turn out to be such that the emergence of life will not be unlikely at all. Life, I believe, must have been a near certainty or else, again, we would have to assume that God did not know what he was doing. Note that this is not the same as assuming that the universe is a ‘fire and forget’ weapon as once postulated by deists. I assume that God must continue to maintain the existence and laws of nature.

Overall then, I don’t feel comfortable with even the most careful attempts to show that life could not have emerged as a result of a naturalistic process.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

The Chisel of Death

For many of today’s intelligentsia, the reading of ‘The Selfish Gene’ was a sort of a baptismal moment, awakening them to the tragic pointlessness of the cosmos and demonstrating the falsehood of religion. In the Guardian science blogs, Susan Blackmore writes:

‘Darwin's great idea is so simple….here it is in a nutshell – plants and animals produce far more (slightly varying) offspring than can possibly survive. Starvation, disease, predation, and unattractiveness mean that only a few go on to breed again. At each step the survivors pass on whatever adaptations helped them and so gradually they become better designed. You could call it "design by death". Like a human creating a sculpture by chipping away wood, nature's weeding-out is the force that creates new design. Once you get it that's that! How can you go on believing that God created humans in his own image when you can see, because you really understand the principle, that nature's cruel and wasteful selective process can create all that design without him?’

Presented with this dismal revelation, Dr Blackmore seems to have dyed her hair in a kaleidoscopic array of colors, presumably in a bid to restore some spark of hilarity to an otherwise bleak universe. It now seems to be the orthodoxy that whilst the discipline of physics reveals a fine tuned and beautiful mathematical structure which is resplendent with order, the world revealed by biology is essentially bad. The history of life on earth is a random walk of struggle and chance which has been driven by selfish genes. Such a view is only accommodating to the bleak ‘weltanschauung’ of scientific naturalism and materialism. In our infancy we treated nature with a mixture of fear, awe and respect but following our enlightenment this superstition can be banished; we have unmasked mother nature and can see her for what she is, a haggard old witch. The philosopher David Hull remarked in an essay published in nature:

‘The evolutionary process is rife with happenstance, contingency, incredible waste, death, pain and horror. Millions of sperm and ova are produced that never unite to form a zygote….On current estimates 95 per cent of the DNA that an organism contains has no function. The queens of a particular species of parasitic ant have only one remarkable adaptation, a serrated appendage which they use to saw off the head of the host queen … The God of the Galapagos is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical. He is certainly not the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray'

Leaving aside the issue of how sane it is to empathise with one’s bodily fluids, or to castigate insects for lopping their queen’s head off (a practice not entirely uncommon among human beings) I can’t say I have been convinced to sign up to this manifesto of misery. Possibly I might feel differently were I to be savagely gnawed to death by a passing Hyena but these continue to be rare in the suburbs of North London. Natural evil exists certainly, but is life’s slow bloody march from amoeba to hominid inherently evil?. As with so many other things, it depends on how you look at it.

Design by death

In Susan Blackmore’s view competition is presented as the engine of evolution and death as the fuel for the fire. However, the process of natural selection does not require death. Natural selection could conceivably go on in a landscape where creatures are immortal. All natural selection requires is differential reproduction of genotypes; in other words that some genotypes leave more offspring than others. Evolution is not primarily about survival but about what breeds. Obviously there’s no breeding without survival, but survival alone is just a precondition for breeding. It’s the successful breeding itself that matters and the differential multiplication of living beings. As Al Moritz has said on our forum:

‘Natural selection is not a simple “live or die” phenomenon, but one of living somewhat longer or somewhat shorter, and thereby – or for other reasons of “fitness” – exhibiting differences in reproductive capability.'

In the light of this I could just as easily construct a narrative of nature called 'survival of the randiest', after all at this very moment, thousands of organisms are copulating, birds are singing their mating songs and new life is being consummated in the hedgerows. Indeed I would include an account of this article about the evolution of South African Squirrels which shows the power of natural breeding, in a rather crude way. Although such a narrative would be accurate and entertaining, I'm afraid it wouldn't be much use in promoting an atheistic world-view.

Yet death does surely come to every organism, the inevitable consequence of a finite world. More than 99% of all species have gone extinct; something to be mourned in the case of the Dodo and the Wooly Mammoth, although perhaps something to be celebrated in the case of the Velociraptor and the T-rex which would have regarded Homo Sapiens as an appetising entrée. But in an evolutionary view of life death is not the last word, instead it is the key to replacement with new life. If nothing had ever died, nothing much could ever have lived. Death is part of the life cycle, not life part of the death cycle. In a pre-Darwin static view of creation, the problem of death was maximized. In the light of evolution we see that without death and replacement, the species cannot track the changing environment, only by renewing itself can it evolve into something else. As Darwin himself pointed out, the death of animals often does not entail suffering and natural selection employs pleasure more than pain as an adaptation.

Survival of the fittest

Ever since Darwin, Western European and American scientists have perceived nature as fiercely competitive--"red in tooth and claw," in the lurid words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Scenes of animal life on the Serengeti make for great television but in pure percentage terms the vast majority of life on this planet consists of plant life and bacteria, this has led certain biologists to deem it ‘green in shoot and bough’ as a more accurate tag-line. Natural selection, one has to point out, is not automatically equal to competition. Competition is a situation in which the presence of two individuals either of the same species of different species negatively influence the fitness or reproductive success of the other. But you could have natural selection simply by the discovery of a new niche where competition does not come into it at all. You might get a co-operative synergy between species in which the exploitation of a new niche positively influences other individual. This would entail evolution through the relaxation, not the employment of natural selection.

Indeed scientists like Martin Nowak have suggested that co-operation should be considered one of the motors of evolution along with mutation and natural selection. Both Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan have followed the theories of Ivan E Wallin, in arguing that the vehicle of evolution is the fusion of different organisms into a symbiotic system which subsequently created new bodies, organs and species. Moreover, nearly all organisms live in some kind of symbiosis and show relics of earlier symbiosis. Organisms work together to provide shelter, protection, pest control and transportation. Mitochondria in the human cell, for instance, formally constituted independent bacteria and the basic substance of cells consists of bacterial nucleo-cytoplasma. Others such as Augros and Stanciu have argued that natural selection and competition are not omnipotent on earth. All species have their niche and nature makes use of many types of ingenuity to avoid competition. Within species there appears to be hardly any struggle or killing on a large scale. Even predator prey relationships do not fit into the picture of bloody rivalry we imagine. The predator does not hate or get angry with its prey, it kills to eat, just as we eat chickens for dinner. Few species kill wantonly. Even pain is minimised as the prey often enters shock before death. Without considerable collaboration, life on Earth as we know it would not have existed, let alone flourished. As Lewis Thomas a biologist states:

‘a century ago there was a consensus about this: nature was ‘red in tooth and claw’, evolution was a record of open warfare among competing species, the fittest were the strongest aggressors, and so forth. Now it begins to look different.....the urge to form partnerships, to link up in collaborative arrangements is perhaps the oldest, strongest and most fundamental force in nature. There are no solitary, free living creatures, every form of life is dependent on other forms.’

Evolution is therefore a much wider process which has produced sociality, generating love and altruism just as much as competition. If it had not done so, there would be no such thing as a human ethical process.

A world without tears?

Yet for all these qualifications, suffering and waste does occur in the evolutionary process and it would be undeniably panglossian to try and disguise it. There really is an aspect of nature that is red in tooth and claw as illustrated by the picture of a heron eating a bunny rabbit at the head of this post. Both cooperation with altruistic costs and competition, the latter with suffering as a side effect, are inherent and unavoidable consequences of the biological world. Here it is best to step back and look at the painting, rather than the individual brushstrokes.

Evolution shows us that there must be a mixture of order and disorder if there is to be autonomy, freedom, adventure, success, achievement, emergence and surprise. In a world without chance there can be no creatures taking risks and the skills of life would be very different. All advances in evolution come in contexts of problem solving with a central preoccupation for sentient life being the prospect of getting hurt. There does not appear to be a coherent alternate model by which a painless world could give rise anything like the dramas of nature that have happened on this planet. An environment entirely irenic would stagnate us, an environment entirely hostile would slay us. Creativity requires the context of conflict and resolution. All of our features arise as solutions to problems. There can be no heroic quality without dialectical stress, without friction there can be no muscles, teeth, eyes, ears, noses fins, legs, wings, scales, hair, hands or brains. Half the beauty in life comes out of endurance and struggle.

Organisms are what they are because of what they do, and because of what they eat. A lion is majestic because it feeds on other creatures, human intelligence emerges from our struggle to survive, to hunt other creatures and to co-operate with others. The natural environment we decry as evil is critical to human meaning and fulfilment at both the individual and societal level. Not only do we rely on plants and animals for survival, we also possess a innate attraction to other forms of life, but by anthropomorphising nature and attempting to shield it, we inevitably rob it of its purpose and dignity.

Certainly we could imagine a world in which we were all herbivores but in this instance we would be likely to be docile and would spend most of the day eating to get energy. If we were based on photosynthesis we would not need to move and therefore possess a brain. What would nature look like without if it were in a controlled state with minimised suffering, it would most probably be like a giant zoo; an emasculated, Walt Disney freak show. Edward Skidelsky captures something of this when he writes:

‘Lions and tigers are permitted to indulge their traditional way of life in subsidised, patrolled enclosures, so as to provide entertainment for tourists and wildlife photographers. These enclosures are, in effect, vast zoos. There is something sad about all this….we cannot restore to animals the fierce independence that we have taken from them, and so we console ourselves with the fantasy that we can "defend their rights" or "liberate" them. Having deprived animals of their truly animal nature, we now wish to endow them with a spurious human nature. The name for this is sentimentality; indeed, sentimentality is the general name for emotions that have their origin in guilt. Sentimentality inevitably hurts its object.’

The blundering of nature

Certainly a Devils Chaplain might write quite a book on the ‘clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature’, but more ink tends to be split on the wonders of genetic creativity. Life’s genetic vitality is actually a sophisticated problem solving process in which the production of errors produces knowledge. This process of random exploration and problem solving has a familiar logic to it. When one looks beyond the short term editing for survival we see that the evolutionary process scans and provides new arrivals, climbing ever upwards towards complexity sentience and mind. How blind is such a process in light of recent surveys of convergence and the findings of contemporary geneticists?. Modern biology is discovering a wide variety of sophisticated enzymes which can edit, cut, splice and reiterate gene sequences. Far from blind groping, we now see that cells are well equipped with special enzymes to tamper with DNA structure and that the scope for the self engineering of multigene families appears to be limited only by the ingenuity of control systems for regulating these pathways.

Design by life

Prior to evolution death was something that simply happened to organisms. In the light of evolutionary theory we now see that out of the life and death of living organisms come sensory awareness, behavioural flexibility and consciousness. If nature has a message it is out of death does come good, that contingency can deliver the astonishingly unlikely but ultimately reliable redemption of tragedy. A trivial example is my lunch which contains a slice of dead poultry, layered on top of the dead products of photosynthesis which were fed from a soil created by thousands of years of dead organisms. The human body it feeds is made up of the products of dead stars. Does this make me and my lunch evil?, should I have spent my break lamenting the futile blundering wastage which went into it?. Darwin said it best when he remarked:

‘Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely. the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’

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Friday, October 10, 2008

The Gifford Lectures

Many prestigious thinkers have given the Gifford Lectures over the years, and as they are intended to be about natural theology broadly conceived, they often have to do with science and religion, philosophy, theology, etc. At their website they list all of the lecture series that have been given, going back to the late 19th century, and many of the older ones are available to read online. Since the lectures have usually been picked up for publication, they are (I assume) in their original form before having been rewritten, which can be either good or bad depending on your perspective. Many of the more recent lectures cannot be read online for (again, I assume) copyright issues, but you can still read an impressive number of important works there, such as The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James; The World and the Individual (vol. 1 and vol. 2) by Josiah Royce; Space, Time and Deity (vol. 1 and vol. 2) by Samuel Alexander; The Nature of the Physical World by Arthur Eddington; and The Mystery of Being (vol. 1 and vol. 2) by Gabriel Marcel. More recent lecture series include The Evolution of the Soul by Richard Swinburne; In Search of Deity by John Macquarrie; and Warrant: The Current Debate by Alvin Plantinga. Again, these are just those that are available to read online at their website. Their list of important authors whose lectures are not online is obviously more extensive.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Islam, Christianity, and Euthyphro

Euthyphro is one of Plato's dialogues which presents us with a meta-ethical dilemma that has been addressed throughout philosophical and theological history (meta-ethics being the study of the ground or foundation of ethics). In this debate, Socrates asks Euthyphro why God assigned the particular moral laws he did, such as to not commit murder or adultery. The problem this creates is that if God assigned these laws because they are good in and of themselves, then there is a "higher" reality than God, and God commands them because he must align himself with this reality just as much as we do. God, in other words, is not absolute; neither the ground of morality nor of reality. But if we say that these laws are not good in and of themselves, then these laws are simply arbitrary, and God could have made them differently. The "good" would have been to commit murder and adultery if God said so. In this case, God is not intrinsically good because the appellation of "good" is entirely arbitrary (this is the position that Euthyphro takes in the debate).

Traditionally, Christianity has split the horns of this dilemma. Moral laws are intrinsically good, not arbitrary. But their goodness is not derived from something outside of God; rather, they are derived from God's own intrinsically good nature. The ground of morality, in other words, is identical to the ground of reality. The error of the Euthyphro dilemma is that it tries to put the two concepts -- the goodness of certain acts and God's command of them -- into a cause-and-effect relationship with each other. If the goodness of these acts is what causes God to command them, then they are higher than he. But if his command of them is what makes them good, they are arbitrary. Neither, however, is the case: these two concepts are both effects from a common cause, namely, God's own nature.

Now, as far as I can tell, this option would be available to any general theistic position. But in my (admittedly limited) knowledge of Islam, Muslim theologians have not availed themselves of this resolution. A core doctrine of Islam is that God is completely transcendent; that is, he transcends even our moral and rational categories. God may give moral commandments, but ultimately, they are not expressions of his nature -- if they were, then he would not transcend them. Since they have their origin in his command of them, but not in his nature, they could have been different, and are therefore arbitrary, as Euthyphro thought.

Thus, in the Qur'an, God is represented as capricious. For example in the battle of Badr, God had told Muhammad (indirectly -- since God is completely transcendent there is no direct communication between him and humanity in Islam) that he would outnumber his enemies. When Muhammad's army got there, they found to the contrary that the enemy outnumbered them; but there was no way to avoid the battle at that point, and the Muslims ended up winning anyway. Later, when Muhammad asked why God told him that they would outnumber the enemy at Badr when they didn't, the response in the Sura of the Spoils of War is essentially, "If God had told you the truth, you wouldn't have gone". Thus, God lied to Muhammad in order to accomplish his goals (which makes me wonder what else he lied to Muhammad about).

Or take the Qur'an's explanation of Jesus' crucifixion, which Muslims deny: God made it seem that Jesus was crucified, but he really wasn't. Islamic tradition explains this by claiming that God put the image of Jesus on someone else (sometimes thought to be Judas Iscariot), and this person was crucified instead of Jesus. In any case, God made things appear differently than they really are in order to accomplish his objectives. He tricked people so he could get what he wanted.

In contrast to this, the God of the Bible cannot lie; not that he merely does not or will not, but he cannot. Unlike Islam, in Christianity morality and rationality are two things that put us in touch with God, because of their origin in his nature. God does not transcend morality and rationality, he is their very ground. That's part of what it means to say that we are created in his image -- there is a connection between humanity and God, even after the fall. We are created in his image because we have the capacity for morality and rationality. There's more to it than that of course, but that's at least some of it.

So it seems that Islam has pitched its tent with Euthyphro, by accepting that the moral laws are good because God commands them, and that they are thus arbitrary. Now -- to get even more speculative -- when I think about this, I wonder whether it has any connection to the bloody nature of Islamic history, and with Islamic terrorism today. Of course, other religions have had their share of violence as well, but Islam seems to stand out in this regard, despite what the popular media says. Committing an evil act in the name of Christianity can only be done by essentially contradicting the central commandment of Christianity to love God and to love other people. But if morality is not directly linked to the ground of reality, it can be reasonably ignored as long as one is doing so in the name of the ground of reality. If murder is not intrinsically bad, then if you can serve God by committing murder, there's really no reason why you shouldn't.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Friday, October 03, 2008

Replacing Religion

Interesting interview with a guy who tries to imagine what science would look like as a religion. Interesting but not necessarily convincing. Since "Scientology" is already taken, should we call this "Scientolatry"?

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Quote of the Day

"Suppose we concede the most extravagant claims that might be made for natural law, so that we allow that the processes of the mind are governed by it; the effect of this concession is merely to emphasise the fact that the mind has an outlook which transcends the natural law by which it functions. If, for example, we admit that every thought in the mind is represented in the brain by a characteristic configuration of atoms, then if natural law determines the way in which the configurations of atoms succeed one another it will simultaneously determine the way in which thoughts succeed one another in the mind. Now the thought of "7 times 9" in a boy's mind is not seldom succeeded by the thought of "65." What has gone wrong? In the intervening moments of cogitation everything has proceeded by natural laws which are unbreakable. Nevertheless we insist that something has gone wrong. However closely we may associate thought with the physical machinery of the brain, the connection is dropped as irrelevant as soon as we consider the fundamental property of thought -- that it may be correct or incorrect. The machinery cannot be anything but correct. We say that the brain which produces "7 times 9 are 63" is better than the brain which produces "7 times 9 are 65"; but it is not as a servant of natural law that it is better. Our approval of the first brain has no connection with natural law; it is determined by the type of thought which it produces, and that involves recognising a domain of the other type of law -- laws which ought to be kept, but may be broken. Dismiss the idea that natural law may swallow up religion; it cannot even tackle the multiplication table single-handed."

Arthur S. Eddington
Science and the Unseen World (1929)

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