Stupid Is as Stupid Does: Creationism in my Backyard

Map of Louisiana highlighting Livingston Parish

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I think it’s been mentioned before on here, but I live in Louisiana.  I’ve been in New Orleans for just under a decade, though I’ve spent a good bit of my time very recently in Shreveport where most of my family lives.  For this reason it is of particular interest to me when nonsense pops up in the state, right on my own doorstep.

A few days ago it was announced that the school board of Livingston Parish was proclaiming their intent to get creationism into the science classes in public high schools.  To quote an article from the local paper, The Livingston Parish News:  “The School Board Thursday petitioned Livingston Parish Public Schools administrators to investigate options to study the teaching of creationism theory in high school science classes starting in the 2011-12 school year.”

For those of you unaware, the teaching of creationism is explicitly prohibited in public schools and for good reason.  It specifically violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  This isn’t something I’m just saying; that’s the ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States.  Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987 is the case in question, and, in relation to the "Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act," it held that “The Act is facially invalid as violative of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, because it lacks a clear secular purpose,” that “The Act does not further its stated secular purpose of ‘protecting academic freedom," and “The Act impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind.”

It’s difficult to get more clear than that.  And guess which state was responsible for above act that was struck down so decidedly by the highest court in the land…Louisiana.  Man, we just can’t learn even the simplest lessons here. I can’t help but marvel at the willingness of the people of this state, elected officials, people of power and supposed learning, to make themselves into full-on fools in the eyes of their neighbors and the country and world at large.

One has to wonder, then, what possible justification the school board could use in petitioning school administrators to figure out how to get creationism into the science class.  Let’s look at their own words.  Again from the LPN story linked above, “Board member Clint Mitchell said that teaching creationism is not really teaching religion.  ’Teachers should not have to be afraid to not teach those things that are not prudent in evolution’, Mitchell said.”

First, the Supreme Court clearly disagrees with Mitchell that “teaching creationism is not really teaching religion.”  Further, I can’t imagine how one can even attempt to make such a case when creationism, by definition, proposes that world is the world of a supernatural act of Creation by some Creator.  How can we get around that being religion?  Also, what does it even mean to say “’Teachers should not have to be afraid to not teach those things that are not prudent in evolution”?  What does prudence have to do with what is relevant to the teaching of evolution?  I can only guess that board member Mitchell has no idea what “prudence” is.  The idea that such a person is given the task of deciding what is appropriate to be taught should terrify everyone reading this, regardless of their position on the issue.

Fortunately (what an absurd situation it is when the following is considered “good fortune”), some of the other board members were much more forthright and honest.  Board member David Tate said, “We just sit up here and let them teach evolution and not take a stand about creationism. To me, how come we don’t look into this as people who are strong Christians and see what we can do to teach creationism in schools. We sit back and let the government tell us what to do. We don’t pray to the ACLU and all them people: we pray to God.”

There can be no misunderstanding as to Tate’s reasoning.  He is explicit that creationism should be taught because that’s what “strong Christians” should do because they “pray to God.”  One can only wonder what Tate’s response would be if it were some other religion’s creation story being put for as appropriate material for the science class.  I can’t help but think he would consider that an infringement upon his right to worship his own god as he sees fit.

Board president Keith Martin has perhaps the most interesting reason for bringing in creationism to the science classroom.  He said, “Kids are getting harder and harder to discipline. Without this kind of thought, it will get even harder.”  That’s right.  We need to teach creationism because kids are acting up in class.  Whether or not this is science or even true doesn’t matter.  What matters is getting kids in line.  And it’s got to be clear to everyone how teaching creationism will solve these disciplinary issues.  Right?  It’s because…well, because…just because, ok?!

Beyond the legal issue is the bigger issue of whether or not creationism is science.  It isn’t.  There’s no way around that.  There is no scientific evidence for anything like a supernatural creator, and that’s just the way things are.  Does that mean you can’t accept that as an article of faith?  Well, that’s a different issue.  What is at issue here is what is appropriate for the science classroom.  Since the class is about, you know, science, it would seem obvious that science is the appropriate subject matter.  Attempting to shoehorn religion in there is not just illegal, it’s stupid.

Come on, people.  Let’s not be so stupid about this.

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The Problem of Free Will

There is no subject more divisive in my household than the question of free will.  Holiday dinners have devolved into screaming matches over abstract reflections on moral responsibility, and so it is with some reluctance that I broach the subject in this blog.  But, I haven’t done a post in a while, and Jim suggested that I write something on this essay, so I’m going to humor him.  I would like to recommend that all of the readers of this blog take the time to review Galen Strawson’s "Basic Argument for Determinism" as well as William Eddington’s response, "The Limits of the Coded World" (linked above) before continuing this post, but since you may not have time to do that, I will briefly review the relevant arguments.

Simply put, if we have no free will, then moral responsibility as we normally think of it (blame, praise, obligation, etc.) seems impossible.  This is bad news for the study of ethics because the arguments against free will are pretty compelling.  Whether we cash the story out in terms of mental states (desires, personality, beliefs) or pure physics, it looks like there’s no way around the fact that unchosen forces determine our actions.  It certainly feels as though I have a choice about whether to spend my last 20 dollars on food for my family or whiskey and cigarettes, but the choice is going to come down to the person I am (values, experiences, beliefs, and desires, none of which I choose) and the circumstances in which I find myself (again, unchosen).  Or, to reach the same conclusion in a different way, my brain states are as causally determined as all other physical phenomena,* so there is no place in the causal chain of neural events for an undetermined "free" choice.

I think that Strawson’s arguments for determinism are very compelling, which is unfortunate because the implications are devastating.  If my choices are actually illusory, then so too is my sense of moral responsibility.  I am not morally responsible for choosing whiskey over food for my family if I am not responsible for being the person I am, and there is a very good case to be made that I’m not. And of course, this same logic applies to all levels of "choices," some of which are great deal more heinous than alcoholic excess. Because the implications of determinism are so devastating, I am very sympathetic to philosophers who attempt to navigate some alternative route to moral responsibility which bypasses the problem of free will.  So, I really wish that I could agree with William Egginton.  Unfortunately, I just don’t think his argument works.

Egginton seems to think that the problem of free will and the corresponding question of moral responsibility are really issues in epistemology, not metaphysics.  In other words, he seems to believe that the fact that we don’t know our futures is somehow relevant to whether or not we have free will.  I would like to pick out one short sentence from his essay that summarizes this position, but unfortunately, for all of his references to Kant and interesting asides about neuroscience, I can’t find a single place where Egginton makes a complete argument. So, I am extrapolating a bit, but I think his point (largely borrowed from Kant) must be that because we can never have knowledge of the world from an omniscient perspective but instead must experience it temporally, the future, as it is to us, really is undetermined.  This leads him to conclude:

As much as we owe the nature of our current existence to the evolutionary forces Darwin first discovered, or to the cultures we grow up in, or to the chemical states affecting our brain processes at any given moment, none of this impacts on our freedom. I am free because neither science nor religion can ever tell me, with certainty, what my future will be and what I should do about it.

Now, as nice as Egginton’s conclusion sounds, it is clearly not logically sound.  The question of whether I believe I have a choice is certainly relevant and useful in terms of psychological motivation, but belief in moral responsibility no more corresponds to actual moral responsibility than belief in magic corresponds to actual magic.  Moreover, if Egginton’s argument is motivated by a desire preserve our intutions about free will, moral responsibility, and all of the ethical theories that depend upon them, then this "solution" to the problem of free will fails on that front as well.  We may not want to say that the child rapist is not responsible for his actions because he had no choice in his desires or impulses, but we certainly don’t want to say that the child rapist is only responsible for his actions because he feels responsible.

Free will is a metaphysical issue, not an epistemic one.  Epistemology plays an important role in ethics because belief justification is an important part of moral deliberation, but the mere fact that we believe in free will does not prove that we have it, and the mere fact that we believe ourselves to be morally responsible for our actions is not proof that we are.  If we are going to make sense of moral responsibility in any useful way,  we need some account of choice that can distinguish between non-cognitive action (impulse), delusional action, and deliberative, intentional action, and  Egginton’s story can’t do that.  I kind of wish it did.

*Also, just in case you skipped the recommended reading, and happened to see the colossally awful film What the Bleep Do We Know?,  no. Quantum Theory does not get you out of the problem of free will.

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Seriously, Man

god rockA couple of posts ago I mentioned the accommodationism debate, and I wrote then that I had said pretty much everything I had to say about it for while, so I skipped talking about my ideas on the subject. Well, now I’m going to say something about it again. This is not a response to one of the usual suspects, e.g. Chris Mooney, the many contributors to HuffPo, or anyone over at BioLogos. This is aimed at some clearly on “my side” in general, a couple of people for whom I have a great deal of respect. I’m talking here about Massimo Pigliucci and Eugenie Scott.

Pigliucci, along with Julia Galef, does a very good podcast called Rationally Speaking.  The episode from a couple of weeks ago, number 11, had Eugenie Scott from the NCSE discussing the usual NCSE stuff, mostly how creationists are still a problem when it comes to teaching good science in public schools.  Everything was fine right up to the end where the discussion briefly shifted to whether or not science could say anything about the supernatural.  The question is relevant as, if it is “no,” then there is good reason to accommodate believers in the supernatural as their beliefs are perfectly in line with scientific inquiry (or not, but this seems to be the suggestion).  This is the position that both Pigliucci and Scott take, and it strikes me as both weird and, well, a little intellectually dishonest.  If it’s not dishonest, then it’s naïve.  Very naïve. (EDIT:  I should have been more clear about this,  so I’ll do so now.  I do not personally think dishonesty is the issue here.  Rather, I think the issue stems from a naivety that results from not taking the beliefs of the groups in question seriously, hence the title of the post.  That said, it is the case that intellectual dishonesty is a charge regularly leveled at accommodationists, and the charge is at least plausible.  That’s why I mentioned it, but, rereading what I wrote, it looks like I’m offering that as what I think to be most likely, and this is not the case.  My bad.)

Before I go further, let me put out the usual disclaimer here.  I support the mission of the NCSE, I have huge respect for Scott, and I greatly admire Pigliucci.  I own books by both, and I would recommend them without hesitation to others.  Really, I can’t say enough good things about both individuals.

That said, this position they take here is just wrong, and it’s wrong for a very simple reason.  Toward the end of the podcast, Pigliucci says, “The supernatural essentially means that anything goes. You have no reliability, no repeatability, because it can do whatever the hell it wants for whatever reason.”  Scott immediately agrees saying that the supernatural is “not constrained.”  The point that both are trying to express is that, in order to perform a scientific experiment, one must be able to hold variables fixed.  The concern here is that because the supernatural is not natural, because it does not follow natural law, it can do anything.  As such, there is no way to effectively study it in any empirical way as it doesn’t allow for holding specific variables fixed as a way of determining what’s happening elsewhere.  And, indeed, there might be some way of conceptualizing the “supernatural” such that this is an apt description.  The problem here is that it just isn’t a good description for the beliefs of any of the opponents of things like evolutionary biology that this accommodating position is supposed to address.

As the dominant opponents of the teaching of evolution in the classroom here in the US are evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, those are the people at whom such concerns are most properly directed.  The question, then, is whether or not it is appropriate to describe this Christian notion of the supernatural as a case where “anything goes,” and the answer there is a very, very clear and resounding “No!”  Christians may believe that God is all-powerful, and, as such, it is technically possible for Him to do anything, but this is not the way they believe He handles His affairs (Affairs?).  On the contrary, God has made several covenants with humanity, and, as He is perfectly Good, He will never betray those covenants.  In fact, for Christians, God is the only thing that can be counted on to always act the same way.  Things here on Earth might change, but God does not.  He is the only one “who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17 NIV).  He is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8 NIV).  Etc, etc; I could list lots of verses saying something similar.  The point is that it is simply not the case that the Christian god, God, is conceived of as an entity who is constantly changing with “no reliability.”  On the contrary, ask these Christians, and I am certain they will tell that God is the only thing that is completely reliable.

This, then, is exactly why it is possible for science to examine the claims about the world made by these Christians.  What’s weird about this is that this should never have been in question, and Eugenie Scott knows this all too well.  The creationists think science is on their side!  The don’t go around saying that science can’t say anything about the many, many empirical claims their religion makes.  On the contrary, they are explicit that science is a fantastic means of discovering exactly what God has done, and that fact is exactly my point here.

Whoever the believers that are addressed by Pigliucci’s and Scott’s claims about the supernatural are, they are not the evangelical Christians who have fought tooth and nail to keep evolution out of the schools.  As such, this approach of attempting to accommodate and placate them by invoking a NOMA-like division is doomed to failure.  It is doomed because it does not take the believers seriously! At some point the bulk of the science community is going to have to get this.  Sure, lots of Christians accept that evolutionary biology is an accurate science, but they are not the problem.  They are already on the side of science, so the attempt to accommodate as a means of placation so as to get them on board with a genuine science curriculum cannot be directed at them.  Clearly, it is directed at those who oppose the teaching of evolution, and those people do not believe in a god who changes with the wind.  Their god, God, is exactly the opposite of that characterization.  He is Constant.

We need to take people seriously in their claims if we hope to get anywhere.  I feel like I’ve run this point into the ground on this blog, but it’s a huge point.  Funny enough, the skeptic community understands this about most the other paranormal claims.  Science-based paranormal investigators try to investigate in good faith.  The various skeptic publications are full of such investigations, and they almost always try to approach the issue without a preconceived conclusion.  They don’t approach a haunting or UFO sighting presuming they outcome.  They take the case seriously. But when it comes to religion, so many are willing to not look closely at the actual beliefs of the people in question.  That’s especially true for these accommodationists.  They want to point to people who already agree with them on the science stuff, like the BioLogos crew, and rely on their theology as a basis for what is believed generally.  But it could not be more obvious that this is an absolutely terrible approach.  Again, those people are not the ones fighting the NCSE.  If you want to figure out how to address those people, you need to look at their beliefs, and you need to take those beliefs seriously.

Until we get serious about taking people seriously, all we’re doing is spinning our wheels.

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What’s So Bad about Science?

Karl Giberson, science-and-religion scholar

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The debate over the compatibility of science and religion is something about which I’ve written frequently on here.  In particular, I have repeatedly addressed the arguments from the accommodationists, those who think religion and science are perfectly compatible.  As such, and as they keep saying the same thing over and over, I don’t particularly feel like repeating myself today.  However, Karl Giberson of BioLogos has recently written a piece over at HuffPo addressing this issue, and in it he expresses a concern that I don’t particularly understand.

Giberson writes,

Jerry Coyne and I had an interesting exchange yesterday that will appear in a brief video on USA Today’s website at some point. The question related to the compatibility of science and religion. Can one accept the modern scientific view of the world and still hold to anything resembling a traditional belief in God?

My answer to this question is "yes, of course," for I cannot see my way to clear to embrace either of the two alternatives — a fundamentalist religion prepared to reject science, or a pure scientism that denies the reality of anything beyond what science can discover.

I want to address this issue of “scientism” and the kind of caricature that is painted by the term when it is used to describe the position of the non-accommodationists.  First, I’m not aware of anyone saying they are in favor of a position that “denies the reality of anything beyond what science can discover.”  In that sense, the position presented seems to apply to almost no one.  There might be all sorts of things that science cannot know that are, in fact, true.  This is obvious in practice as there are literally innumerable things that we don’t currently know, and it seems very, very likely that there will always be things we don’t know.  There are possibly even things we cannot know in principle via science, though it seems wise to avoid specifying what those might be as science seems to have a way of constantly closing the gaps we have imagined to be forever uncrossable.  Still, it is absolutely possible that there are things for which the method of science is simply ill-suited, hence things which are, in principle, shut off forever from scientific inquiry.  And, again, all the big names on the side of the non-accommodationists have said things of that very nature.  In this way, the worry of “scientism” is simply a strawman.

Now would be a good time to talk about how this is irrelevant to the science/religion compatibility discussion at all for numerous reasons, one big one being that the fact that science cannot reach something does not in any way mean that religion can, and, indeed, I keep meaning to write something on that subject.  But that’s not what I want to address, either.  No, what I want to hit is the concern that if it did turn out to be the case that all things can be known by science, this would, in some sense, be bad.  But for the life of me I cannot see the worry here.  What if it were true that science could know everything and there were no place for religion?  So what? 

Presumably, religious folk, and non-religious folk who are sympathetic to the religious in the sense that they are accommodationists, are interested in the way things are.  Let’s say they are interested in truth.  If that’s their concern, and if it were true that science was a way to know about everything, I cannot see how this would cause anyone to be unhappy.  That would mean we would have a way to get just what they wanted, namely the truth.  That would seem to be a good thing.

Now, I do understand that most, if not all, of those expressing such concern do so because they think that there are things science cannot know which religion can.  But there is typically something more than that to their worry.  It is that something would be lost, that it would be a bad thing, if there were nothing other than wholly natural processes of the type that science describes going on in the world.  And that’s what I don’t get; that’s what leaves me puzzled.  I just cannot see what would be lost.  In fact, it would look like something amazing would be gained.  Specifically, this means of acquiring knowledge that has been so massively successful would be the same way we could acquire all knowledge.  Yay!  Good for us!  At least, that’s the way it looks to me, and I will readily admit that I don’t understand the urge to pooh-pooh the knowledge we get from science as somehow less important than some other kind of knowledge.  If you’re interested in something like the truth, it seems cool that you get it however you can.  If you’re not interested in the truth, then I’ll admit that I’m not really clear on what your concern is.  Whatever it is, I would appreciate it if it were made clear so I would know how to address it.

I get thinking that something like scientism is wrong, but I don’t get the desire for it to be wrong.  If that’s all there is, then that’s all there is, and I don’t see what’s so bad about it.  I don’t get what is lost.  And, so far, no one has been able to explain that one to me at all.

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Ron Rosenbaum’s New Agnosticism

Ron Rosenbaum wrote an article in Slate on Monday entitled “An Agnostic Manifesto.”  It’s a ridiculous piece in which he advocates for a “new agnosticism” to deal with the rise of the dreaded New Atheism.  In his article he makes a number of bizarre assertions that are entirely disconnected from reality, shows his lack of understanding of basic philosophical issues, and, in the end, pats himself on the back for being brave enough to shrug his shoulders and take potshots at the empty strawmen he works so hard to construct.

Rosenbaum opens with this gem:

Let’s get one thing straight: Agnosticism is not some kind of weak-tea atheism. Agnosticism is not atheism or theism. It is radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty, opposition to the unwarranted certainties that atheism and theism offer.

Well, no, it’s not “radical skepticism.”  Sorry, but that term has already been taken, and it does not mean what you think it means.  Radical skepticism is just that, radical skepticism. Put simply, it’s a position that knowledge in general is impossible.  At the risk of being pedantic, it’s a position that most anyone who took an intro course in philosophy should recognize.  As Rosenbaum is going to accuse atheists of being philosophically unsophisticated, it does not bode well for him that he is unaware of such an elementary position.

The first strike at atheism comes in the next paragraph.  He writes,

Agnostics have mostly been depicted as doubters of religious belief, but recently, with the rise of the “New Atheism”—the high-profile denunciations of religion in best-sellers from scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and polemicists, such as my colleague Christopher Hitchens—I believe it’s important to define a distinct identity for agnosticism, to hold it apart from the certitudes of both theism and atheism.

Right here we can see he’s already completely derailed.  The “certitudes” of atheism?  What might those be?  How can a position that describes a lack of a belief be described as being certain of anything?  Groan.

I would not go so far as to argue that there’s a “new agnosticism” on the rise. But I think it’s time for a new agnosticism, one that takes on the New Atheists. Indeed agnostics see atheism as “a theism”—as much a faith-based creed as the most orthodox of the religious variety.

Faith-based atheism? Yes, alas. Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.

And here’s his big, radical misunderstanding.  First, it should be made explicit that atheism, new or otherwise, has nothing to do with science at all.  It is a lack of a belief in any deity.  Now, it may well be that many atheists like science, but such is neither necessary nor sufficient to be an atheist.  Indeed, such a stance has nothing at all to do with lacking a belief in a god.  If you lack a belief in a god, you are an a-theist.  It’s just that simple.  In fact, judging from Rosenbaum’s description of his own beliefs, it looks like he too has no belief in a god, and that makes him an atheist as well.  Maybe someone should clue him in on this stuff.

But then we have this question of whether or not it is, in fact, an accurate description of any of the prominent so-called New Atheists to suggest that they are certain that science “can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.”  I can’t see that it is.  Seriously, who holds that view?  We might hope that science will one day give us an answer as to how the universe came to exist, but be certain that it will?  I have never heard any thoughtful person espouse anything like such a view.  And as to the “why” question, unless by that you mean a causal description (which I would think falls under how), such as “Why is the ground wet?  Because it rained,” I’m not sure what it would even mean for science to provide such an answer.  Certainly, I have not heard or read any of the so-called Four Horsemen suggesting any such thing.  Rosenbaum quotes no one saying anything like this, and I think that is for good reason:  no one has said this.

Rosenbaum then charges that the New Atheists cannot answer old philosophical conundrums like “why is there something rather than nothing?”  He then goes further, “bravely” laying down the gauntlet, and writes,

In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I can’t wait for the evasions to pour forth. Or even the evidence that this question ever could be answered by science and logic.

No Ron, you won’t be getting a flood of responses from thoughtful atheists, but that is not because they are scared.  They just don’t hold the position with which you’re attempting to paint them, namely that they are certain that science can and will provide any such thing.  In fact, I don’t personally know any professional philosopher who even takes that question seriously.  I mean, it presumes something it should not in the first place, namely that there is a “why.”  I though you were a “radical skeptic,” Ron, someone who wasn’t sure of anything.  What makes you think that there even is a why in the first place?  Worse, what makes you think that the universe is contingent, that there is some possibility that it could have not existed at all?  Surely such a possibility needs to exist in order for the question at hand to even make sense, yet we have no way of knowing that such is the case.  Come on, Ron, where is that doubt you so proudly proclaimed having in the beginning of your essay?  You’re jumping the gun here assuming things of which you have no right.

I could go on taking this article apart piece by piece, but I’ll quit after making one final point.  Rosenbaum says he wrote to one John Wilkins, someone else who proudly extols the virtues of foisting positions onto people that they don’t really hold.  In quoting Wilkins’ letter, Rosenbaum makes the following comment:

Wilkins’ suggestion is that there are really two claims agnosticism is concerned with is important: Whether God exists or not is one. Whether we can know the answer is another. Agnosticism is not for the simple-minded and is not as congenial as atheism and theism are.

Rosenbaum seems to be of the wildly ignorant position that only self-described agnostics are aware of the difference between ontological and epistemic questions.  The hubris here could take down an elephant.  Seriously, Ron?  You don’t think Dan Dennett or Alvin Plantinga are aware of the kind of distinctions that you should recognize upon completion of a Phil 101 course?  Really?  Really? The irony here of Rosenbaum’s charge of atheists and theists as simple-minded is as weighty as his hubris.

Groan.

Rosenbaum finishes by saying, “The courage to admit we don’t know and may never know what we don’t know is more difficult than saying, sure, we know.”  Nice pat on the back there, Ron.  It’s good to know that intellectual deceit and the building of endless strawmen are what pass for courage in your world.  That’s quite a marketing scheme for your New Agnosticism, but I don’t think I’ll be buying into it.

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Prince Charles Blames the World’s Ills on…Galileo?

Charles, Prince of Wales outside the White Hou...
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In an article published in the Times Online yesterday, Prince Charles, the person next in line for the throne in England, said that science is to blame for the various issues, from environmental to economic, facing the world today.  In specific, it is the mechanistic view of the world at the core of scientific explanation that the Prince believes has led to the West being “de-souled,” and that is the root of all our problems.  He said,

This imbalance, where mechanistic thinking is so predominant, goes back at least to Galileo’s assertion that there is nothing in nature but quantity and motion.  This is the view that continues to frame the general perception of the way the world works, and how we fit within the scheme of things.  As a result, Nature has been completely objectified — “She” has become an “it” — and we are persuaded to concentrate on the material aspect of reality that fits within Galileo’s scheme.

Yes, the very same science that is responsible for the incredible increase in quality of living, human lifespan, knowledge of how the world works, and countless other things is what is at the heart of every problem we have.  Or not.

This kind of absurdity always annoys the piss out of me.  I don’t know that it’s possible to overstate the benefits that science has afforded our species.  Certainly, if you take things like eating, drinking, giving birth to fertile offspring, protection from the elements, community and interaction with loved ones, or any of the other aspects of human life that we generally think to be desirable and valuable, science is the single greatest boon we could ever imagine.  All of that stuff has increased thanks to science.  Yet, here we have someone who is learned and supposedly knowledgeable making the ridiculous assertion that it is, in fact, this very same science that is the cause of human misery.

And what’s the cure?  Apparently something mystical and mysterious.  It’s hard to say.  From the article:

Speaking at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies to mark its 25th anniversary, the Prince — who is patron of the centre — said that the West had been been “de-souled” by consumerism.

He said that the present approach to the environment was contrary to the teachings of all of the world’s sacred traditions. The desire for financial profit ignored the spiritual teachings.

“Over the years, I have pointed out again and again that our environmental problems cannot be solved simply by applying yet more and more of our brilliant green technology — important though it is.

“It is no good just fixing the pump and not the well,” he said. Talk of an “environmental crisis” or of a “financial crisis” was actually describing “the outward consequences of a deep, inner crisis of the soul”.

Honestly. I’m not sure what the Prince is actually proposing here.  Putting aside the question of whether our “present approach to the environment” really is “contrary to the teaching of all the world’s sacred traditions,” though I am wildly skeptical about such a claim, what is it that spiritual teachings are supposed to do for us?  How are spiritual teachings going to give homes to the homeless, feed the hungry, provide for the poor, or heal the sick?  What exactly are these teachings supposed to do at all?  Further, once we have figured out what these great cures are supposed to be, how are these spiritual teachings going to achieve those goals?  I can only assume that the Prince is aware that spiritual teachings were the dominant means of solving problems for most of human history.  It is only recently, by the Prince’s own counting since Galileo, that science has been the means by which we come to solutions for the bulk of our problems.  And yet, it does not appear as though the times when spiritual teachings dominated that environmental and economic problems all magically went away (see what I did there?).  Given that, what reason is there to think that abandoning the amazingly successful solution machine of science in favor of the old failed method of spiritual teachings is going to help us out with anything at all?  I see none.

While I’m taking apart the nonsense the Prince said, Nature is not a “She.”  Nature does not have a sex.  It does not even have a gender.  Nature cannot be harmed, it cannot be destroyed, and it cannot be betrayed.  Nature does not care. When we all die, Nature will continue to be the same, and it will not even notice our passing.  Seriously, what kind of hubris must one have to think that Nature is human-like?  Hey, guy, you’re just not that cool.  Get over yourself.

It is hard to believe that someone of the level of sophistication of a future King could be so woefully ignorant and clueless.  But here we are.  At least we can be thankful that he is mostly just a figurehead with little genuine power or influence.

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Junk Science, Hypocrites, and Rentboys

I want to say something about the story of George Rekers, the Southern Baptist Minister and co-founder of the Family Research Council who was recently caught in the company of a male escort.  Stories about religious leaders who preach a standard of sexual purity which they themselves fail to practice abound.   But even in the world of Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard, the hypocrisy of George Rekers is a special case.   His hypocrisy is not merely farcical and outrageous, it is also a lesson about the dangers of junk science.  This is because for the past 25 years Rekers has been a figurehead of the conversion therapy movement which holds not only that homosexuality is caused by environmental influences (rather than genetic) but also that it can be cured.

I am not going to rant about how infuriating it is that the same guy who was called as an expert witness to defend bans on gay adoption in Arkansas and Florida was recently perusing Rentboy.com in search of a 20 year-old with an eight-inch penis.  It may very well be the case that George Rekers thinks homosexual sex is wrong and that a homosexual lifestyle is harmful, and at the same time he can’t resist the urge to dial up a rent-boy on occasion.  It may also be the case that Rekers genuinely believes that homosexuality is caused by environmental factors such as family dynamics and early sexual experiences, which would mean some parents are responsible for raising their children to be homosexuals.  Of course, I think both of these positions are absurd*, but I can grant that Rekers might believe all of this stuff and still, at the same time, like to get his rocks off with young men.  If it it were only that Rekers were a weak Jimmy-Swaggart-type, preaching the virtues of one lifestyle while secretly indulging his dark side, I could be satisfied with a sigh of disgust and the vindication of knowing that his hypocrisy is now a public spectacle.

The problem is that Rekers is also a liar, and not just a liar about his own personal life.  Rekers is a liar because he is an officer and figurehead of NARTH, the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality a group which purports to offer “effective psychological care” for “individuals with unwanted homosexual attraction.”  To be fair, the group does not promise full homosexual-to-heterosexual conversion to every person seeking treatment, but it does promise that there are “positive alternatives to homosexuality,” either in the form of abstinence or in conversion, and it publishes numerous quasi-scientific articles arguing that homosexuality is a choice influenced by experience, while minimizing or entirely ignoring the overwhelming body of contrary data published and peer-reviewed by the American Psychological Association and other mainstream medical science authorities.

It may be the case that George Rekers thinks homosexuality is wrong, it may be the case that George Rekers thinks homosexuality is caused by bad parenting, and it may be the case that George Rekers thinks that homosexuality can be “cured” either through conversion therapy or the abstinence support offered by NARTH and its partner agencies.  But I just don’t see how it can be all three.  That is, I don’t see how it can be the case that George Rekers believes it’s bad to be gay, and believes he knows how to “fix” being gay (he has, in fact, profited by telling other people how to “fix” being gay), and yet he still chooses to hire male escorts for sexual romps.  I am certain that a psychologist could map a convoluted web of competing and contradictory desires and beliefs to describe how Rekers probably justified all of this to himself, but the explanation from the outside couldn’t be more simple or more clear:  Conversion therapy to “fix” homosexuality just doesn’t work.  Rekers’ organization can’t “fix” gay in other people.  They couldn’t even “fix” it in him.

Groups like NARTH and the Family Research Council and a whole host of other religiously-bent, political lobbying machines insult our intelligence by offering up dogma and ideology and calling it “science.”  When confronted with research that does not fit their political conclusions, they ignore it or condemn it as a part of a liberal, secular conspiracy.   It is a sad fact of contemporary American life that these groups maintain disproportionate political power by mimicking the language of non-partisan scientific authorities, and pretending to have legitimate scholarly intentions.  In the wake of this scandal, these groups have already begun to distance themselves from Rekers, and we should not let them.  However they may want to portray Rekers’ indiscretion as an isolated incident, it is a case-study in why the conversion therapy/ex-gay movement has failed.  We shouldn’t let them forget it.

*To be clear, I do not think it is absurd to acknowledge that sexual orientation may be the result of both environmental and genetic factors.  In fact, I think the bulk of the data strongly suggests this.  But the mere fact that environmental factors play a role in sexual orientation does not imply that parenting is the most significant (or even a significant) factor in sexual orientation, nor that later-life therapy can significantly alter a person’s orientation.  And, I feel compelled to add, even if it were the case that homosexuality was a choice, this in no way implies that a homosexual lifestyle is immoral nor that homosexual sex is wrong.

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Why Is This So Hard to Understand?

There is a gubernatorial race going on in Alabama right now.  I don’t live in Alabama, and likely you don’t either, so the race itself is of little consequence to me or most of you.  That said, there is something of which I think we should take note in terms of how the race is being run.  There are those who don’t like Bradley Byrne, who is running as a Republican in the election.  They do not think Byrne is conservative enough, and they offer up evidence of this in the video to the right.  The website of the group behind the video can be found at http://www.therealbradleybyrne.com

First, let me say that I don’t care at all who becomes governor in Alabama, nor do I care about Byrne.  I only care about this issue as it highlights in a powerful way something that many want to deny.  This issue is not merely the fact that there is a vocal group out there who wants to destroy science education.  It is the further fact that this group recognizes that they are simply not the small minority that we are constantly told they are.  Were that the case, an ad such as this would have no power.  It only works if it finds traction with some large group of voters out there who share this anti-science sentiment.

The ad says that “Byrne supported the teaching of evolution, said evolution best explains the origin of life.”  At the end of that quote, the narrator’s voice goes up in pitch as if this were a question, suggesting that he thinks this is so incredible as to be absurd.  That’s right, this group is presenting an ad to sway voters away from Byrne by saying that he is a proponent of the apparently nutty idea that evolution explains the origin of species better than other explanations, and this is tied to his supposed claim that “parts of the Bible are…true and parts that are not.”  That is, Byrne’s endorsement of the teaching of evolution in the science classroom is seen by these people as a rejection of Christianity.

Of course, evolution does not actually explain the origins of life at all, regardless of what Byrne might have said, but I’ll be charitable here and suggest that he meant something like the origin of species instead.  Also, a point that might be noteworthy here is that, according the the website behind this very video, Byrne did not actually suggest that parts of the Bible were not true.  Rather, the word left out of the ellipses that matters is ‘literally’, and there is quite a big difference between saying that some parts of the Bible are literally true while others are not and saying that some parts of the Bible are true and some are not.  No believer, no matter how devout, can deny the former without looking like a complete fool.  After all, Jesus Christ was called the Lamb of God in the Bible, yet I seriously doubt anyone would claim that Christ was a literal lamb.  That’s just silly.  John 1:29, then, is clearly not meant to be taken literally, yet that has little to do with whether or not it is true nonetheless.  This shows that even fundamentalists think that some parts of the Bible are not literally true, so that in and of itself is no big issue.

That out of the way, the point here is that the anti-Byrne camp here is attempting to use Byrne’s apparent endorsement of the teaching of a radically successful scientific theory for the purpose of condemning him and showing him to be ungodly in the eyes of conservative Alabamians.  This would only work, though, if there already exists in the minds of these people a clear link between endorsing the teaching of evolution and abandoning Christianity.  And, of course, such a link does exist in their minds.  It is simply the case that a number of Christians believe that accepting evolutionary biology as a legitimate explanation of anything involves an explicit rejection of Christianity.  They believe it’s an either/or kind of situation, where, in this case, being pro-science is to be anti-God.

That’s the point that so many on the science side of the debate seem to miss, and it’s baffling to me that they miss it.  The tension between religion and science is not the result of a bunch of strident new atheists running around yelling that they hate the baby Jesus.  Rather, it is a result of these religious groups who are simply continuing the long tradition of rejecting science when it contradicts their favored interpretation of their holy text.  These people get to define what their religious beliefs are, not anyone else, and they say accepting science is rejecting their God.  And they are right.  They are right because their beliefs are theirs, so they get to say what they are.  The tension here is real, and it is real because of the religious folk, not a bunch of loud-mouthed atheists.

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The Principled Vs. the Practical

There is an issue that seems to get missed, or get in the way of, genuine dialogue both in the blogosphere and in real life.  This issue involves the distinction between principled points and practical points.  While practical concerns are certainly legitimate issues to be discussed, we must keep in mind that they are not the same thing as and do not affect the correctness and legitimacy of any particular position.

As a way of highlighting this concern, let’s look at the issue of accommodationism that has been repeatedly discussed here on this blog.  Accommodationism here refers to the attempt to reconcile scientific explanations with religious explanations, and it is a topic I have discussed at length.  One of the common arguments put forward by the accommodationists is that telling religious folk that there is a distinct tension between science and religion will only ostracize potential allies from those who are interested in pushing for greater scientific education and greater overall scientific literacy in our society in general.  That is, if it is the acknowledged position that science and religion are often in conflict, then, when push comes to shove, most people will choose their religion, and that leaves science out in the cold.

One clear case of such possible tension has to do with the teaching of evolutionary biology in public schools.  There is a very vocal group of religious fundamentalists, primarily Christians here in the U.S., who maintain that evolution is diametrically opposed to Scripture.  In such a case, as they take Scripture to be the Truth (note the capital ‘T’), evolution must clearly be false, and, as such, should not be taught.  Various means have been attempted by these groups to remove or diminish the teaching of evolution in the biology classroom, and all of these attempts put such people at odds with defenders of science who do not want religious concerns to corrupt the teaching of the best science available to us.

However, while this group of fundamentalists may be quite loud, they’re also a minority in most, though not all, areas of the country, and this prevents them from completely taking over school boards and other avenues of control in public education.  In order to be successful in such an attempt to wrest the power to decide what gets taught in the science classroom from genuine educators, they need the support of the majority of voters.  This majority also happens to be religious, though not of the fundamentalist persuasion.  That said, they do like to think of themselves as “people of faith.”  One way fundamentalists can build bridges to this majority is to show that the science is at odds with the religious teachings of even this religiously liberal majority.  A very easy way to achieve this would be to point out scientists and proponents of strong science education saying that there is, in fact, a definite tension between science and religion.  In this way it appears that the pro-science camp is saying religion is false, thus pushing the liberal majority into the waiting arms of the fundamentalist minority.  Science education comes out the loser, and it appears that a strong aspect of that loss is the result of the actions taken by those science advocates who suggested that religion and science are somehow at odds.

At least, that’s the story told by the accommodationists.  I think there is evidence that this just isn’t the problem we are often told it is, but that will have to wait for another post.  The important point to note here is that nothing in that story has anything to do with whether or not science and religion really are at opposed to each other in some way.  That is, the concern expressed by the accommodationist view in this story is entirely of a practical nature, and it has nothing to do with the principled concern of such a tension.  It is quite possible that it is true that such a tension exists while at the same time being true that the highlighting of such a tension would result in the advocates of science losing this battle.  So, from a practical standpoint it might well be a good idea to downplay or ignore a point that is, in principle, true.  But, again, that has absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether or not such is, in principle, true.

The kind of analysis given above, obviously, does not merely apply to the debate about accommodationism.  I only used that example as it so often seems that those with whom I disagree on the issue express concerns that completely miss the points that I and others make.  But there are issues that arise daily that result in exactly the same kind of error.  Anytime anyone points to the practical consequences of something, they are discussing something other than the principle issue, and such concerns have no bearing on the truth of that issue.  It is irrelevant to the accommodationist issue whether or not admitting such a tension would result in a net loss for science education.  It is irrelevant to the question of the existence of God whether or not life would be meaningless without God, whether or not morality would be possible without God, etc.  It is irrelevant to the issue of free will vs. determinism whether or not not having free will makes people sad.  It is irrelevant to the efficacy of homeopathy whether or not believing it to be efficacious makes someone happy.  And on and on. 

Principled concerns are not the same as practical concerns, and offering up the latter in a discussion about the former is as good as conceding the argument to your opponent.

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Miracles

If I engage a believer in a conversation about faith, I will most likely get a story about miracles.   Belief in miracles is the cornerstone of faith for most people, and this has always struck me as somewhat peculiar.  If we take faith, by definition, to be belief that extends beyond the scope of justification, it is odd that virtually every person of faith holds miracles up to be a good reason, i.e., justification, for believing in God.  It is especially odd in light of the fact that belief in miracles would only count as good evidence for belief in God if that belief is itself justified by evidence.  In other words, the occurrence of miracles only counts as good evidence of the existence of God if there is good evidence that miracles have occurred.  I don’t think that there is any good evidence for the occurrence of miracles, but I don’t see the point in showing the error of specific claims of miracles with a magnifying glass and a flashlight.  Belief in miracles is never justified because of what a miracle is. The following is a brief explanation of this problem.

Sometimes the word "miracle" is used loosely, e.g. "Every baby is a miracle," or "Getting an ‘A’ on my test was a miracle."  But when people appeal to miracles in a theological debate, they mean breaks in the laws of nature.   If science can predict and/or explain an event, we don’t take it to be miraculous.  Instead, believers hold up events that appear to be scientifically inexplicable as evidence for Divine (supernatural) intervention.   The reasoning goes like this:  This event can’t be explained by appeal to a natural cause, so, the better explanation is that it must have been caused by something supernatural (God). In order for this argument to be sound, the believer must demonstrate that the following presumptions are justified:

A) Every natural (physical world) event must be caused by some previous event.

B) Super-natural (non-physical) entities can cause physical events.

C) The best explanation for mysterious events (ones without an obvious natural cause) is that they have a supernatural cause.

If any of these assumptions fails, then the conclusion that a miracle is the best explanation for a mysterious event is not justified.  And, if belief in miracles is unjustified, then belief in God based upon the "evidence" of a miracle is also unjustified.   So, let’s look at at whether these assumptions can be defended.

Assumption A is close to being an axiom of science.  Though most scientists would agree that some quantum events don’t appear to be caused by anything, the assumption that physical events are caused by prior physical events is fairly uncontroversial on the level of everyday observable phenomenon.   If your car starts making a thumping noise and the mechanic says there is no cause, you find another mechanic, you don’t question causal necessity.  So, for the time being, let’s bracket Assumption A and take it for granted.

Assumption B sounds reasonable if you’ve never considered the meaning of the word "cause," but it falls apart under conceptual scrutiny.  The concept of a non-physical cause is problematic because our normal use of the term pertains exclusively to events in the physical world.  For example, the heat of the liquid caused the cold glass to shatter, or the finger on the trigger, caused the gun to fire.  These are physical causes.  It is difficult to imagine what a non-physical cause for a physical event could be.  Some might argue that beliefs are the non-physical cause of actions, but if beliefs were non-physical causes, then manipulation of the brain wouldn’t necessarily affect either beliefs or actions, as we know it does.  The fact that brain states, not the stated beliefs of the agent, are the best predictor of action demonstrates that there is a physical cause underlying the phenomena.   It also illuminates another problem with appealing to non-physical "causes," namely that they are explanatorily useless.

This brings us to Assumption C, which is really the foundation of the miracles argument.  People believe in miracles when they conclude that an act of God/magic is the best explanation for a mysterious event.  This begs the question, "How does positing the existence of supernatural causes explain anything?"  When we assume that physical events are caused by previous physical events that follow patterns of law-like regularity we are able to make lots of predictions that enable us to navigate the world.  So, Assumption A is practically useful.  The truth (or approximate truth) of A is also the best explanation for why we are able to make consistently successful predictions when we assume it.  In contrast, Assumption C is neither practically useful nor likely to be true.  We can’t predict anything new by positing that there are supernatural interventions into nature, and the best explanation for why supernatural explanations are consistently replaced by natural explanations (e.g., hearing voices is schizophrenia, not demonic possession) is that supernatural causes aren’t real.

We don’t have a good reason to believe in miracles because we don’t have a good reason to believe in supernatural causes.  In fact, the whole notion of a non-physical cause is conceptually confused.  Saying ‘God caused the event’ is just as explanatorily informative as saying ‘nothing caused the event’, and we have no more reason to believe in the former than in the latter.  It is, of course, possible that there are are supernatural interventions into nature, just as it is possible that some events are entirely uncaused by anything, but neither of these assumptions jibes with the majority of our experiences, and neither of these assumptions tells us anything useful about the world.

Positing the occurrence of miracles is never the best explanation for mysterious events.  We have lots of reason to believe that strange events can and will be be explained by natural science because so many previously mysterious events have been explained by science.  But even if we can’t explain the physical (natural) cause of an event, we have no good reason to believe it was supernaturally caused.  The possibility of a miracle doesn’t answer any questions, it just begs them.

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