Monday, December 11, 2006

A Deluded Scientist

 
The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, by Francis S. Collins, Free Press, New York (2006)

Francis Collins is the co-discoverer of the cystic fibrosis gene and the head of the Human Genome Project. His scientific credentials are impeccable. Collins is also a deeply religious man and he writes this book to explain why "... there is no conflict in being a religious scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us." (p. 6)

Collins claims he was an atheist when he finished his Ph.D. After enrolling in Medical School he began to encounter patients in North Carolina who asked him about his beliefs. He realized that rationalism wasn't working for him; "... if I could no longer rely on the robustness of my atheism position, would I have to take responsibility for actions that I would prefer to leave unscrutinized? Was I responsible to someone other than myself? The question was now too pressing to avoid."

Like so many others, Collins found his answers in the writings of C.S. Lewis. The result was a conversion to belief in God. But which God? This struggle took another year. The tipping point was the sight of a frozen waterfall in the Cascade Mountains.
As I rounded the corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ. (p. 225)
The language is important. The struggle that faces all of us is a struggle between rationalism and superstition. It's tough to be an atheist and it's easy to lapse into superstition, where you give up the fight and let others do your thinking for you. That's why "surrendering" is such an appropriate description of the event. I admire Collins for being so honest.

However, in spite of the fact that he threw in the towel in the struggle to remain rational, he tries to defend his decision in a logical way. According to Collins, there are two powerful arguments in favor of God. Both of them come from a series of apologetic books by C.S.Lewis—better known as the writer of another fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia.

The Moral Law refers to the idea that every human being possesses the same concept of right and wrong. It's built into our psyche and there's no explanation for this other than it was put there by God. (I'm not making this up!) Most rational beings would ask questions like; what are those universal laws?; what's the evidence that everyone shares them?; could they be memes?; etc. But once you've abandoned rationality in favor of superstition, these questions are no longer raised. Collins finds the Moral Law extremely persuasive and he doesn't recognize that it's existence is a scientific question.

Is this Moral Law a rational argument for God? It is according to Collins.
Encountering this argument at age twenty-six, I was stunned by its logic. Here, hiding in my heart as familiar as anything in daily experience, but now emerging for the first time as a clarifying principle, this Moral Law shone its bright white light into the recesses of my childish atheism, and demanded a serious consideration of its origin. Was this God looking back at me?
The second persuasive argument is the presence in all of us of a God-shaped vacuum. What the heck is that, you might ask? C.S. Lewis supplies the answer. It's the sensation of longing for something greater than ourselves. It's the "joy" you feel when you read a good poem, listen to Beethoven, or view the beauty of nature. The emptiness we are all supposed to feel cries out for an explanation, "Why do we have a 'God-shaped' vacuum in our hearts and minds unless it is meant to be filled?" (p. 38)

Apparently, there is no conflict between being a scientist and believing in such silly nonsense. Apparently, scientists don't have to ask the hard questions like, does everyone really feel this longing? Do Buddhists in China feel it? Do atheists lead miserable lives because they can never fill the void in their hearts?

What about miracles? To his credit, Collins faces up to the problem in a section titled, "How Can a Rational Person Believe in Miracles." A miracle is an event that "appears to be inexplicable by the laws of nature and so is held to be supernatural in origin." (p. 48) In other words, miracles conflict with science. But do they conflict with rationalism? Let's see if we get an answer from someone who has surrendered to superstition.

According to Francis Collins, you can assess the probability of a miracle using Bayes Theorem. This is a way of calculating the probability of an event given some "prior" knowledge. How does that help? Here it is in his own words.

Assume that you witness a patient who recovers from a "fatal"cancer. Is it a miracle, or is it a rare spontaneous remission?
This is, or course, where reasonable people will disagree, sometimes noisily. For the committed materialist, no allowance can be permitted for the possibility of miracles in the first place (his "prior" will be zero), and therefore even an extremely unusual cure of cancer will be discounted as evidence of the miraculous, and will instead be chalked up to the fact that rare events will occasionally occur within the natural world. The believer in the existence of God, however, may after examining the evidence conclude that no such cure should have occurred by any natural process, and having once admitted that the prior probability of a miracle, while quite small, is not quite zero, will carry out his own (very informal) Bayesian calculation to conclude that a miracle is more likely than not.

All of this simply goes to say that a discussion about the miraculous quickly devolves to an argument about whether or not one is willing to consider any possibility whatsoever of the supernatural.
So, to answer the question, how does a rational person believe in miracles? By admitting that they are possible and evaluating the evidence based on this prior assumption. Cute, eh? It's called "begging the question"—at least it used to be called that before the phrase acquired a new, very literal, meaning. In the world of the theist, it is rational to assume the answer to the question you're trying to answer in the first place. What a funny world.

Chapter Three is a defense of the compatibility of the Big Bang with the Biblical story of creation and of the fine tuning argument as an argument for the existence of God. Time to move along, there's nothing new here. Other chapters are devoted to explaining evolution and human genomes. These are followed by the mandatory criticisms of Young Earth Creationism, and Intelligent Design Creationism.

The interesting part of the book comes in Chapter Ten. This is where Collins explains Theistic Evolution and why it's rational to accept evolution but still believe in a active personal God who can perform miracles, create the universe, and answer prayers. According to Collins, God choose evolution as a way of creating a species who would be intelligent, know right from wrong, and want to worship their Creator. Collins says, "This view is entirely compatible with everything that science teaches us about the natural world" (p. 201).

Not so. The science that I know says there's no obvious purpose or direction to evolution. There is nothing in science to suggest that we are special. and there's nothing to suggest that evolution was designed by a supernatural being. There's no scientific evidence to indicate that humans have a longing or desire to worship the Christian God. To argue that Theistic Evolution is "compatible" with science is a misuse of the word "compatible." You might just as well argue that astrology is compatible with science simply because we can't prove that everything about astrology is definitely false.

As it turns out, Collins doesn't like the term "Theistic Evolution." He proposes that we replace it with "BioLogos" from the Greek "bios" (life) and "logos" (word). The new word, BioLogos, "expresses the belief that God is the source of all life and that life expresses the will of God" (p. 203). I don't think it's going to catch on.

This is a disappointing book. I expected much better from Francis Collins. He has not presented any evidence for belief that we haven't heard before from C.S. Lewis. Moreover, this "evidence" (Moral Law, longing for God) has been refuted half a century ago. Neither a universal Moral Law nor a universal longing for God are compatible with what we currently know about human societies. The conflict between science and religion still exists.

In the end, the only argument that Collins has is the same old last refuge of the superstitious, "Science is not the only way of knowing. The spiritual worldview provides another way of finding truth" (p. 229). This is only satisfying to those who have already surrendered to superstition and made up their minds that the touchy-feely world of human emotions is a valid way of discovering the truth. Those people are seriously deluded.

43 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Ah yes, bayesian reasoning. This is the same type of argument that explains the mistakes when assuming fine-tuning supports creationism while it actually supports a naturalistic universe.

    "The Ikeda-Jefferys fine-tuning proposition states that, under these assumptions, the probability that our universe is naturalistic, given it contains life, is less than, or equal to, the probability that our universe is naturalistic, given that it contains life and is also life-friendly — in probabilistic notation, P(N|L) ≤ P(N|L&F)." N = Naturalistic universe, L = contains Life, F = life Friendly; equality only applies if assuming a designer; assumes N&L => F (the weak anthropic principle). ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fine-tuned_universe )

    It can also be used to argue that miracles are improbable: P(N|D) < P(N|D&T); D = Data, T = Theory. Each time we explain a data set by a naturalistic theory the probability for the universe being naturalistic increases. Of course, if you believe that a naturalistic theory has supernaturalistic agents involved, it doesn't work that way. But as above that only gets you up to equality - no new information.

    In a recent article Sahotra Sarkar discusses the possibility of stealth creationism directed through physics to indirectly attack biology:

    "Equally importantly, the Smithsonian episode shows how this new physics-based version of creationism is being propagated with unusual stealth. Biologists may now feel safe that the problem of combating creationism has moved out of their backyards to infest the haunts of the physicists. Some religious biologists have even endorsed the idea of a conscious creator of the universe, so long as it does not affect biological theory. For instance, the biochemist Ken Miller, who ably defends evolution against creationist charges in Finding Darwin's God, goes on to claim that God created the universe with its laws and evolution is simply a result of these laws.

    These moves are dangerous: once the creator enters the science classroom, even through the physicists' backdoor, the room for mischief is enormous. Biologists would do well to remember that, ultimately, what has motivated creationists to action throughout history is the natural origin of the human species. Sooner or later creationists will return to the theory they fear and detest most: evolution by natural selection." ( http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewWeb&articleId=12282 )

    It seems Sarkar could view chamberlaining as dangerous.

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  3. The space for BioLogos has already been taken by Biology. So Collins can just sod off.

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  4. This review could have been a lot better. You correctly pointed out two bad arguments that Collins used to support his case, namely the Moral Law argument and the God-shaped vacuum argument. However, you substituted snark in place of effective takedowns of these arguments, and introduced spotty reasoning of your own.

    For example, you write in your response to the Moral Law argument:

    "The Moral Law refers to the idea that every human being possesses the same concept of right and wrong. It's built into our psyche and there's no explanation for this other than it was put there by God. (I'm not making this up!) Most rational beings would ask questions like; what are those universal laws?; what's the evidence that everyone shares them?; could they be memes?; etc. But once you've abandoned rationality in favor of superstition, these questions are no longer raised."

    You're right. The Moral Law argument is wrong. However, not everyone is acquainted with its flaws. I noticed that you yourself didn't offer a counterargument, such as pointing out that if everyone were to act in the ways typically considered immoral (killing, lying, stealing, etc.), we'd likely be dead in a generation, which isn't exactly favored by natural selection. Instead, you huffed and puffed about how Collins got superstitious and didn't raise the questions that you had posed. Did it ever occur to you that he had posed those non-trivial questions, but that as a bright but fallible man, he didn't get the right answers? It's not as if you, the great rationalist, demonstrated that you knew the right answers yourself.

    Or take this response to the God-shaped vacuum argument:

    "The second persuasive argument is the presence in all of us of a God-shaped vacuum. What the heck is that, you might ask? C.S. Lewis supplies the answer. It's the sensation of longing for something greater than ourselves. It's the "joy" you feel when you read a good poem, listen to Beethoven, or view the beauty of nature. The emptiness we are all supposed to feel cries out for an explanation, "Why do we have a 'God-shaped' vacuum in our hearts and minds unless it is meant to be filled?" (p. 38)

    "Apparently, there is no conflict between being a scientist and believing in such silly nonsense. Apparently, scientists don't have to ask the hard questions like, does everyone really feel this longing? Do Buddhists in China feel it? Do atheists lead miserable lives because they can never fill the void in their hearts?"

    First off, those offering the God-shaped hole argument would argue that Buddhists use their religion to fill the hole. Furthermore, the saner atheists tend to have lower profiles, while the more smug or bellicose ones tend to get the press. This, unfortunately, lends credibility to the idea that atheists lead miserable lives. Again, you assume the questions haven't been asked, instead of having been answered in an understandably wrong fashion.

    What I find also telling is that you again didn't smoke out the fallacy in the God-shaped vacuum argument--namely wishful thinking--but instead piled on a loud but weak rebuttal.

    Here's a very good question: "how does a rational person believe in miracles?" Here's a very good answer to the question: "Because he isn't aware of all the factors that would cause errant miracle reports." Unfortunately, you don't offer this answer, but instead you completely garble what Collins had to say. His point was straightforward; the probability of miracles may be small in general, but particular circumstances may make them the most probable explanation for a particular case. The only rational counterattack to that is to point out that the particular circumstances that would make a miracle the most probable explanation are exceeding rare indeed, and that those circumstances have yet to happen in real life. The only good thing I can say about your response is that you didn't outright beg the question yourself.

    I don't get it. You claim to be a rationalist. Why don't you do a better job of disassembling Collins' work, instead of pouring on the empty insults?

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  5. Torbjörn Larsson,

    Man, you have a whole lot more faith than I do. You might want to ask yourself why the Ikeda-Jefferys paper, with its strikingly counter-intuitive result that should have all non-IDers proclaiming the virtues of fine-tuning, hasn't been published in a peer-reviewed journal? Instead it languished for years on a University of Texas website. Where, by the way, Weinberg is—the same Weinberg who used an Anthropic argument for the cosmological constant. Why doesn't he ever invoke Ikeda-Jefferys? He doesn't seem to have the same confidence in it that you posess.

    Could it be that he recognizies that with suitably obscure assumptions about a benevolent God and Bayes' theorem you can "prove" just about anything?

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  6. Furthermore, the saner atheists tend to have lower profiles, while the more smug or bellicose ones tend to get the press.

    ... yes, dear (pats his hand). And you don't sound the least bit smug saying so.

    And your answer 'because he isn't aware...' and so on isn't good, I'm afraid.

    No. It's just an easy, non-judgemental, and non-threatening facet of the larger question. And thus emphasizing it serves certain tastes, and certain political conveniences. Where 'because he'd rather like to, and assuming he's rational in this context is rather putting the cart before the horse' doesn't, particularly.

    I note you presume readily to be the arbiter of what are the interesting questions, here. That in itself is interesting, in its own little way.

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  7. J:

    "you yourself didn't offer a counterargument"
    That the questions are open is sufficient counterargument to Collins taking support. Since you raise the question, isn't showing that Collins arguments are so bad a good argument in itself?

    david:
    "its strikingly counter-intuitive result"
    That is the point with the paper. It shows that the usual reasoning is invalid because of selection bias and overlooked information. In essence, the usual argument is reversed by their analysis:

    "The "fine-tuning" argument then reasons that if P(F|N)<<1, then it follows that P(N|F)<<1. In ordinary English, this says that if the probability that a randomly-selected universe would be life-friendly (given naturalism) is very small, then the probability that naturalism is true, given the observed fact that the universe is "life-friendly," is also very small. This, however, is an elementary if common blunder in probability theory. One cannot simply exchange the two arguments in a probability like P(F|N) and get a valid result. A simple example will suffice to show this." ( http://quasar.as.utexas.edu/anthropic.html )

    So when they do it correctly, it turns out that either one doesn't assume design, and fine-tuning increases the probability that the universe is naturalistic, or one assumes an ad-hoc design, and there is no new information (equality in probabilities).

    "hasn't been published in a peer-reviewed journal"
    It is an answer to Ross's bayesian reasoning which were made on a web site (see link above), and last updated april 2006. The reason they didn't publish may be that "We have learned that the philosopher of science, Elliott Sober, has made some similar points in a recent article written for the Blackwell Guide to Philosophy of Religion." It is 31 pp - call it Sober's argument and knock yourself out. ( http://philosophy.wisc.edu/sober/design%20argument%2011%202004.pdf )

    "Why doesn't he ever invoke Ikeda-Jefferys?"
    Why should he? The argument doesn't give you probabilities to do hypotheses testing, much less helps Weinberg calculate the CC. I'm amazed that you as a nuclear physicist does not take notice of the difference. Especially since I note you in your blog make honest efforts on criticizing other IDers on their handling of science.

    Not many physicists feels a need to argue for a naturalistic universe more than the successes of such methods and mass of theories does. What I have seen is multiverse papers use probabilities and anthropic reasoning on measurable quantities in an effort to advance science.

    You on the other side discuss the design argument a lot, I see on your blog. Your "Response to Jeremy Pierce" resorts to the same mistake as I-J show Ross did above. (Mark Chu-Carroll calls it a perspective error, related to the big number mistake, since it relies on "taking the outcome of a random process which has already happened, and treating it as if you were predicting it in advance". The probability to get a particular hand of cards from two decks is 10^166. Yet the probability to get a hand is 1. http://scienceblogs.com/goodmath/2006/08/messing_with_big_numbers_using.php ) So I can see your stake in this.

    "the same confidence in it that you posess"
    I'm afraid I don't put much weight on bayesian reasoning, since it is usually formulated as a standalone hypotheses, yet doesn't give data enough to make a hypotheses test. Sometimes it is about vague or imagined settings which the likewise vague or imagined data sets occur in.

    But in this case I think it gives some more information in the absence of a definitive test (and in the setting of multiverse theories and evolution). And I think the I-J argument stands even when looking at a single universe, even though they didn't intend it for that. They do assume the weak anthropic principle, but note that my model didn't have to.

    "Could it be that he recognizies that with suitably obscure assumptions about a benevolent God and Bayes' theorem you can "prove" just about anything?"

    In principle. But that isn't what the two presented arguments do, they don't use the designer to conclude a naturalistic universe. And if you put it in, it turns out you don't get any new information.

    Also, Sober's discussion is much more sophisticated, covering all sorts of design arguments but ends up rejecting them all due to mistakes similar to Ross's.

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  8. david:
    I'm sorry, after a while I got the Weinberg reference, it surfaced as a dim memory, He is arguing against the design argument too according to his biography on wikipedia. So that part of your question is indeed reasonable.

    What I can see he made an article before I-J and Sober published their work, mentioning the self-bias mistake in the design argument, that I haven't touched here but I-J refers to. ( http://www.physlink.com/Education/essay_weinberg.cfm ) He hasn't published much outside dedicated arxiv papers after that what I can see.

    BTW, if we have started picking at the theological side of this by referring to the personal view of Weinberg, note that I-J shows that "attempts to prove ~N by showing ~F would work".

    I.e. again paradoxically, a theist should really argue that his gods made this universe a bad place to live in. But in the face of our existence the values of physical parameters are good, and no main stream theology would want to assume such gods anyway. Perhaps satanists are on to something though. :-)

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  9. It's called "begging the question"—at least it used to be called that before the phrase acquired a new, very literal, meaning. In the world of the theist, it is rational to assume the answer to the question you're trying to answer in the first place. What a funny world.

    The struggle that faces all of us is a struggle between rationalism and superstition.

    It is, indeed, a funny, not to mention un-self-aware, world.

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  10. What I don't understand why Collins is treated with relative consideration when agnostics get such a savaging.

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  11. Oh lord, I HATE that "there are different ways of knowing" crap.

    No, there's pretty much only one way of knowing things.

    Basically, you and other people look at a thing, and if it has the same trait over many observations, then you can assume the trait is stable.

    It's just that spirituality uses different ways of LOOKING at things. For example, the fact that a waterfall is triune might not be acceptable as a scientific observation, but it is as a spiritual observation.

    And of course, the reason it's not acceptable as a scientific piece of evidence is because it's not the same over many observers and observations; people are just as likely to see it as a non-christian or non-spiritual phenomenon.

    So unless you have a reason to dismiss these identical instances of observation that get different results, then you have to conclude that the waterfall method gives us no useful data about god's nature.

    And, uh, collating numerous observations to find out what they share in common is science.

    I guess what I'm saying is that spirituality isn't different from science so much as it is bad science.

    I hope that made sense.

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  12. Me: "Furthermore, the saner atheists tend to have lower profiles, while the more smug or bellicose ones tend to get the press."

    AJ Milne: "... yes, dear (pats his hand). And you don't sound the least bit smug saying so."

    Let's see now. How many people have heard of Massimo Pigliucci? How many people have heard of Taner Edis? Probably not that many. Now how many have heard of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins?

    "And your answer 'because he isn't aware...' and so on isn't good, I'm afraid."

    If the right answers to the questions about the moral law issues or miracles were as readily available as the wrong ones, you'd have a point. Unfortunately, that isn't the case.

    Torbjörn Larsson:

    "That the questions are open is sufficient counterargument to Collins taking support."

    But Moran didn't even demonstrate that the questions were open. One of them, "what are those universal laws" isn't all that open, since we can examine various moral systems and find that they do have a lot in common. Another question, "could they be memes?" is a useless objection. Someone using the Moral Law argument would just say that the memes in question were "put there by God," and all that has changed is the labels slapped on the issues under debate.

    "Since you raise the question, isn't showing that Collins arguments are so bad a good argument in itself?"

    But Moran did a terrible job of showing how bad the arguments were.

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  13. Ian H Spedding asks ...

    What I don't understand why Collins is treated with relative consideration when agnostics get such a savaging.

    I admire honest people, even if they are wrong.

    I don't admire hypocrites who act like atheists but pretend to be undecided about the existence of God.

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  14. Let's see now. How many people have heard of Massimo Pigliucci? How many people have heard of Taner Edis? Probably not that many. Now how many have heard of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins?

    My goodness, but aren't we gifted at talking outside the glass.

    If the right answers to the questions about the moral law issues or miracles were as readily available as the wrong ones, you'd have a point. Unfortunately, that isn't the case.

    If you were even addressing an interesting aspect of the question, as opposed to the one that you deem expedient, you...

    Erm... no. I suppose I can't assume it's particularly likely you'd have a point even then. It might just make it barely possible, at best.

    Oh, and now that I think about it, it's not just that you're asking an uninteresting question, here. It's also that your answer is, in all probability, so incomplete as to be, effectively entirely uninformative.

    Tell you what, tho' Why don't you explain to our author what are the 'factors that would cause errant miracle reports', and let's see if he happily says, 'oh, right... I see... how silly of me to believe in miracles.'

    The point: You've only answered a tiny part of how. Next question: how does he achieve and maintain that ignorance?

    But I wager you're not really that interested in that question. You're more interested in anything you can trot out to paint Moran's argument as simplistic. The fact that the one you offer in response is itself trivial and facile, therefore, is unlikely to be of much interest to you, isn't it?

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  15. I recently finished reading Francis Collins' book and was also disappointed. Being a true skeptic, I was willing to hear what he had to say, willing to consider the 'evidence' he was going to present. Unfortunately, it is more apologetics than evidence.

    One point that particularly struck a chord with me, however, is where Collins describes his pre-theistic outlook as "childish atheism", claiming that what he was really about was "willful blindness" to the truth of a higher spiritual authority; yet he also claims he had never seriously considered the evidence for or against belief, and embarked on a "quick and confusing survey through the major religions of the world". He says he was determined to look at the facts no matter what the outcome, but he admits he merely perused the 'Cliff Notes' versions of the world's religions because he found the original texts too difficult to understand! And instead he was taken in by the specious logical arguments of C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, and thus eventually became a believer.

    What particularly disgusted me was on page 46 where he reflects on the rape of his daughter: "In my case I can see, albeit dimly, that my daughter's rape was a challenge for for me to try to learn the real meaning of forgiveness in a terribly wrenching circumstance."

    What an appalling display of narcissism! What a supreme evasion of the Problem of Evil.

    Juno

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  16. There's something slightly insidious about the term "BioLogos" : it literally means biologist in Greek.

    Coincidence, or deep pun?

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  17. I admire honest people, even if they are wrong.

    I don't admire hypocrites who act like atheists but pretend to be undecided about the existence of God.


    I am not aware of any evidence for the existence of a deity like the Christian God nor any persuasive argument for assuming such.

    Neither are you.

    Where required, I act on the assumption that there is no God.

    So do you.

    I cannot prove beyond all doubt that such a God does not exist.

    Neither can you.

    You say atheist. I say agnostic.

    You project certainty. I emphasise doubt.

    Which of us is the more hypocritical?

    Besides, I suspect that behind the moustachioed machismo there still lurk niggling questions, a murine gnawing at the inner core of certainty, and that one day you will fall on your knees before the works of T H Huxley and surrender yourself wholeheartedly to agnosticism.

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  18. And, backing up a step, wasn't it the case that J. R. R. Tolkien converted C. S. Lewis to Christianity? So shouldn't Francis Collins credit Gandalf and Frodo, and drop the pretense of rationality?

    Did dragons evolve?

    -- Professor Jonathan Vos Post

    http://magicdragon.com

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  20. This is an example of a scientist with as you said "impeccable credentials" who is somehow able to compartmentalise two totally different world views and consider them compatible. It boggles my mind how he accomplishes this. It makes me loose respect for him.

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  21. A.J. Milne: "My goodness, but aren't we gifted at talking outside the glass."

    I suppose I did miss the point. You never actually contradicted me when I wrote, "the saner atheists tend to have lower profiles, while the more smug or bellicose ones tend to get the press." You just called me smug for saying it. I guess providing evidence for my original point was missing the point, since it failed to address your ad hominem. :p

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  22. Some mistakes I made in earlier comments:

    My concurrent immersion in the fine-tuning argument here and on another thread blinded me for the fact that David Heddle attacked a perfectly reasonable and wellknown argument from bayesian reasoning that simply answered *Collins* introduction of bayesian reasoning, With an attempt to reason by authority, BTW. The usual.

    Or it was the lack of coffee. Anyhoo, I could have answered him much shorter...

    "mentioning the self-bias mistake in the design argument" - mentioning the self-bias mistake in the fine-tuning argument (a design argument)

    J:
    "But Moran didn't even demonstrate that the questions were open."

    They are known to be open.

    "But Moran did a terrible job of showing how bad the arguments were."

    Since you discuss beside the point I raised I take it you agree.

    Ian:
    "the more hypocritical"

    But you forget that the certainty can simply come from observing that gods are improbable phenomena.

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  23. If Collins' actual scientific work is as impeccable as you yourself admitted it is, then how can you say he has "surendered to superstition?" If you can't demonstrate, based on Collins' own words and/or actions, that he's become less rational, less honest, less responsible, less intelligent or less sane after becoming a Christian, then you really have no case against him.

    I don't admire hypocrites who act like atheists but pretend to be undecided about the existence of God.

    Are you referring to anyone in particular? If so, on what evidence are you basing your charge of hypocricy? Or are you just saying that an atheist who listens to others' beliefs without automatic and immediate judgement is, by definition, a hypocrite?

    -- Raging Bee

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  24. Ian H Spedding asks,

    Which of us is the more hypocritical?

    You are, provided you walk like an atheist, talk like an atheist, and behave as if there were no God.

    In that case, you are not an agnostic theist. You are an agnostic atheist, just like me, and Dawkins, and millions of others.

    The only difference is you refuse to face reality and admit you are an atheist—an atheist who knows that you can't disprove the existence of God but who chooses not to believe.

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  25. Larry: I see nothing at all dishonest or hypocritical in Spedding's last comment, certainly nothing that justifies calling him a hypocrite -- which seems to be the simplistic extremist's stock response to beliefs more complex or open-minded than his own.

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  26. Ian's position is neither complex nor genuinely open-minded.

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  27. You're right -- it isn't; that's kinda my point. So what's Larry's problem with it?

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  28. Me:"But Moran didn't even demonstrate that the questions were open."

    Torbjörn Larsson: "They are known to be open."

    Really? The question of "what are those universal [moral] laws" isn't that open. I'm reminded of an article from my Anthropology 101 class. Interestingly enough, what it had to say was quite, well, Darwinian: "there are some moral rules that all societies will have in common, because those rules are necessary for society to exist.... Cultures may differ in what they regard as legitimate exceptions to the rules, but this disagreement exists against a background of agreement on the larger issues." A society, for example, that has no rules on lying and murder is going to tear itself apart. The finer details of what is a sane basis for morality are certainly open, but the Moral Law argument hangs on far less subtle issues.

    "Since you discuss beside the point I raised I take it you agree."

    Agree that Collins' arguments were bad? Certainly. However, I had already seen the arguments and knew they were bad as soon as Moran mentioned them. The problem is that someone who isn't already convinced the arguments were bad won't be persuaded by Moran that they are in fact bad, because Moran never points out the actual flaws in them. Talking smack about the emperor is no substitute for saying clearly that he's naked, and Moran did the former and not the latter.

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  29. Steve LaBonne said

    Ian's position is neither complex nor genuinely open-minded.

    CSI to you.

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  30. Torbjörn Larsson said:

    But you forget that the certainty can simply come from observing that gods are improbable phenomena.

    Improbability is not the same as certainty. The difference may be only a fine one but I believe that in that narrow gap lies the difference between tolerance and oppression, between the Inquisition and the Enlightenment.

    The problem for agnosticism that it runs counter to human instinct. We all crave the security of certainty in some areas of our lives and that is what I believe Collins really surrendered to when he knelt in the grass.

    Atheists who stress their near - if not complete - certainty about the non-existence of God are givng way to the same craving.

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  31. Larry Moran wrote:

    Ian H Spedding asks,

    Which of us is the more hypocritical?

    You are, provided you walk like an atheist, talk like an atheist, and behave as if there were no God.


    I also stress that a god like that of Christianity, if it exists at all, is not only undetected but undetectable.

    To even imply certainty concerning an entity about which you admit you can't have knowledge, even in principle, is arguably hypocritical.

    In that case, you are not an agnostic theist. You are an agnostic atheist, just like me, and Dawkins, and millions of others.

    The only difference is you refuse to face reality and admit you are an atheist—an atheist who knows that you can't disprove the existence of God but who chooses not to believe.


    On the contrary, I have acknowledged that, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I act on the assumption that God does not exist but have no problem squaring that with the limitations of our knowledge of the Universe.

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  32. Ramsey:

    I suppose I did miss the point. You never actually contradicted me when I wrote, "the saner atheists tend to have lower profiles, while the more smug or bellicose ones tend to get the press." You just called me smug for saying it. I guess providing evidence for my original point was missing the point, since it failed to address your ad hominem.

    Well, the important thing, I guess, is you're getting it now.

    But still. In so few words, you make so many errors.

    First, of course, it's not technically an ad hominem to call you smug (which, of course, you are, as are so many who find various contrived excuses to quibble about popular critiques of superstition currently receiving press). An ad hominem is an argument of the form 'X is smug, sanctimonius, and generally odious; thus his argument may be dismissed'. An argument of the form 'X is smug, sanctimonious, and generally odious, and his argument is poor for the following reasons' isn't, therefore an ad hominem...

    It's just a diss. And a richly deserved one.

    But your error in so protesting is, I suppose, entirely understandable. It's a nice, easy one to blurt out, isn't it? Got nothing much to say about the objections raised otherwise, so pick a fallacy, erroneously if necessary, use it to complain about the richly deserved insult in not particularly honest fashion (and never mind that you yourself had just effectively whined, as is so tediously common in these discussions, of those 'smug' atheists who get press), and let's move on... and hope no one much notices you've said nothing otherwise in defense of your now rather amusingly tendentious position.

    And Ramsey, choosing a few writers whose books sell a few less copies and declaring them the saner, less bellicose writers (with the slur still standing that those whose books sell more are, we may presume less sane and more bellicose) isn't particularly evidence for anything more than your own delighted leap onto the same ole' bandwagon as so many other equally tendentious pamphleteers are now happily glomming onto.

    See, I think you've got it backwards. Dawkins and Harris don't get more press because they're 'less sane' than Edis (who, incidentally, I've read, and mucha admire, too), by any means. You (and a lot of others) merely happily declare Dawkins and Harris 'less sane' and repeat insinuations about oversimplification and unwarranted stridency because it's the popular thing to do the moment they sell enough copies, and their critiques start touching nerves among the endlessly easily offended.

    Which, again, is politically expedient, isn't it? Dawkins and Harris have written these terribly direct, widely quoted and generally quite salient critiques of religion, and their are howls across the political spectrum of Christendom about it... including, uncomfortably, in particular, from generally culturally respected mainstream clerics who've made the usual (fraudulent and predictable claim) that he's attacking a mere parody of their allegedly much more 'sophisticated' superstition... So you've just got to find something critical to say about them, haven't you?

    Rather, of course, than merely saying forthrightly, as I think we both know you also could, that said clerics are as entirely full of it as they've always been, and while their prose may sound a bit jarring in the current climate of contrived respect for entirely disprespectable old absurdities, and while there are certainly other critiques that could be written, that Harris' and Dawkins' critiques are, after all, both valuable and essentially sound.

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  33. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  34. J:
    "The finer details of what is a sane basis for morality are certainly open, but the Moral Law argument hangs on far less subtle issues."

    Most complex social behaviour has an inherited and a learned component. That we know mechanisms (altruism and empathy in animals) is enough. It is open.

    What I find really revealing with the moral argument is that moral behaviour is expected of social agents. The Golden Rule is default for many games. Tit-for-tat with slight forgiveness is the best acting strategy for single players in a social arena where you risk 'replay'. It is an unavoidable phenomena in social agents, and no amount of special pleading for religious views will ever change that.

    "The problem"

    Not a real problem on a blog. Ask or propose falsely, and you will likely get answered. Not that it is necessary, but I ses Moran himself has been active in this thread. Moran simply adapted his post to his likely readers knowledge. You can't whine an argument like this.

    Ian:
    "Atheists who stress their near - if not complete - certainty about the non-existence of God are givng way to the same craving."

    Most are trusting their own eyes, as they have learned to have trust in observations and science.

    But I see in a later comment that you don't want to acknowledge the difference but insists on that atheists are claiming certainty. This is wrong.

    There is also another distinction which incidentally shows why this is wrong. Most atheists are willing to change their ideas in the face of an evidence for gods. But there is no amount of evidence that can change a religious believers ideas.

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  35. "Anonymous said...
    You're right -- it isn't; that's kinda my point. So what's Larry's problem with it?"

    The problem, as Larry has explained quote clearly, is that the "agnostic" position makes an ostentatious but hollow pretence of complexity and open-mindedness.

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  36. I'll paste an old post (sorry), but only because I think it's valid for the agnostic vs atheist wars:

    If agnosticism means "doubt", then we're all agnostic. By its nature, faith requires doubt - so all but the most fanatical believer doubts and is therefore agnostic. And, as is well agreed I think, atheists wouldn't be atheists if there was good evidence - certainty can never be achieved if your position requires that there is no good proof. Proof may, one day, be given.

    So agnosticism, at least from this point of view, is a meaningless term.

    But it becomes damaging: where it is placed beside atheism it makes a statement about atheism that is false. "I'm not an atheist, I'm agnostic - because I doubt, and because I'm not anti-religion" - hence implying that atheists do not doubt and are anti-religious. By perpetuating this myth of difference between atheism and agnosticism, agnostics are - in effect - attacking atheism, making it seem dogmatic where it is not.

    The unbelieving atheist point of view - the popular one at least - seems to be "Neither of us believe in god, but *I* am not a zealot about it." How is that fair? How does the implication that atheists are zealots helpful to anyone?

    To use an example I posted once before: "I'm not a miserly, money-grubbing, evil Jew. I shall be henceforth known as a Goodjew." Do you see how this statement - this whole position - not only creates a false distinction between the speaker and his (former) group, but perpetuates a myth about that group? The growth of a Goodjew movement must surely be a concern to the Jews left behind - even though the two groups are the same, one group is (falsely) claiming a difference that makes the other look bad. Their very existence is an accusation. Should all the Jews rename themselves Goodjews? Or are they right to be a little pissed off at these Goodjews who, instead of fighting against prejudice, have capitulated and - in the process - made life harder for the old-style Jews?

    That's why I *stopped* calling myself agnostic. Atheism is *not* a faith, and implying that it is is irresponsible.

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  37. AJ Milne "responded" thusly to Ramsey:

    You (and a lot of others) merely happily declare Dawkins and Harris 'less sane' and repeat insinuations about oversimplification and unwarranted stridency because it's the popular thing to do the moment they sell enough copies, and their critiques start touching nerves among the endlessly easily offended.

    I notice you didn't actually refute any of our criticisms of Dawkins and Harris -- you merely retreated to the easy reflexive response of brushing the critics themselves off as "endlessly easily offended."

    Thanks for the object-lesson in ad-hominem diversions. Now can you show us a CONVINCING ad-hominem diversion?

    In other news, torbjorn larsson said:

    Most atheists are willing to change their ideas in the face of an evidence for gods. But there is no amount of evidence that can change a religious believers ideas.

    Religious believers change their ideas all the time (though they don't always admit this), and there's plenty of evidence to prove this. The fact that you ignored this evidence makes your claim about being open to evidence rather...suspect.

    --Raging Bee

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  38. Raging Bee:

    I notice you didn't actually refute any of our criticisms of Dawkins and Harris -- you merely retreated to the easy reflexive response of brushing the critics themselves off as "endlessly easily offended."

    And that would be because (as usual) I have exactly nothing of substance in this thread, at least, to refute, as regards those authors. Apart from the entirely rhetorical and empty complaint that they are, apparently 'smug' and 'less sane' than certain others.

    Feel free to drop some URLs here, tho', if you feel you've actually got something more substantial than that, somewhere else. I'd be delighted to give you my opinion of it.

    But thanks, anyway, for the object lesson in classic empty bluster.

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  39. Bee:

    "Religious believers change their ideas all the time (though they don't always admit this), and there's plenty of evidence to prove this. The fact that you ignored this evidence makes your claim about being open to evidence rather...suspect."

    You fabricate an empty claim. I was referring to that a religious believer doesn't need to change his fundamental religious belief, since as you yourself say he can always adjust his beliefs to fit his gods in the gaps of our facts.

    That you don't recognize gods-in-the-gaps reasoning as a method to avoid being open to evidence is rather...typical.

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  40. If that's what you meant, then that's what you should have said. Don't go around saying one thing, then insisting you meant something else entirely, and then accusing me of "fabricating" something.

    --Raging Bee

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  41. Bee:

    "Don't go around saying one thing, then insisting you meant something else entirely, and then accusing me of "fabricating" something."

    Heh! You have no ground to stand on to claim any of this. It was you who 'went' into my exchange with another commenter, insisted on an erroneous interpretation instead of asking for a clarification, and accusing me of being closed to evidence based on that fabrication.

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  42. Torbjörn Larsson said...
    Ian:
    "Atheists who stress their near - if not complete - certainty about the non-existence of God are givng way to the same craving."

    Most are trusting their own eyes, as they have learned to have trust in observations and science.


    As have agnostics, of course, and that includes the observation that, as I understand it, at the sub-atomic level there is an irreducible level of uncertainty in those observations.

    But I see in a later comment that you don't want to acknowledge the difference but insists on that atheists are claiming certainty. This is wrong.

    I know most atheists will acknowledge if pressed on the matter that there is a margin of doubt concerning the existence of God, but they usually qualify it by arguing that it is so small as to be negligible. That may not be an outright claim of certainty but it is as close as they can get without actually saying it. It may not qualify as hypocrisy but it is certainly disingenuous.

    There is also another distinction which incidentally shows why this is wrong. Most atheists are willing to change their ideas in the face of an evidence for gods. But there is no amount of evidence that can change a religious believers ideas.

    I think there is evidence that religious beliefs, doctrine and dogma do change over time but it is true that it is not a principle of such belief systems whereas it is with atheism or agnosticism.

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  43. Ian:
    "As have agnostics"

    "A gnosis", without knowledge, is the view that some theological claims are unknown or unknowable. That means an agnostic should conclude 50 % probability on not gods, while an atheist would conclude a quantitatively higher probability, for example based on induction from observations.

    "It may not qualify as hypocrisy but it is certainly disingenuous."

    That is not so. Some atheists would not place more certainty in such a claim on nature than we could place on theories, since that would be irrational.

    "I think there is evidence that religious beliefs, doctrine and dogma do change over time but it is true that it is not a principle of such belief systems whereas it is with atheism or agnosticism."

    Yes. And as I said to Bee, I was referring to that a religious believer doesn't need to change his fundamental religious belief while atheists, and presumably also agnostics, would be open to verifiable observations.

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