Sunday, December 03, 2006

More from an Appeaser

John Brockman is literary agent for many authors, including Richard Dawkins. His website, "Edge," carries interesting debates. The latest is started by Scott Atran's diatribe against the views of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Atran, Dawkins, and Harris were together at the recent "Beyond Belief" conference at the Salk Institute. Atran writes,
I find it fascinating that among the brilliant scientists and philosophers at the conference, there was no convincing evidence presented that they know how to deal with the basic irrationality of human life and society other than to insist against all reason and evidence that things ought to be rational and evidence based. It makes me embarrassed to be a scientist and atheist. There is no historical evidence whatsoever that scientists have a keener or deeper appreciation than religious people of how to deal with personal or moral problems. Some scientists have some good and helpful insights into human beings' existential problems some of the time, but some good scientists have done more to harm others than most people are remotely capable of.
This is a silly argument. Atheists do not claim they can solve all the problems of an irrational society. What they (we) claim is that one important step is to reduce irrationality and promote rationality. One big step in that direction is to eliminate religion.

I am one of those people who would rather live in a society that was rational and evidence based. Surprisingly, Scott Atran is happy to remain in an irrational society that doesn't care about evidence. He's right to be embarrassed.

Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris respond to Atran. Read the Harris response. He elaborates on the following point ...
Atran's comments, both at the Salk conference and in his subsequent essay, miss the point. The point is not that all religious people are bad; it is not that all bad things are done in the name of religion; and it is not that scientists are never bad, or wrong, or self-deceived. The point is this: intellectual honesty is better (more enlightened, more useful, less dangerous, more in touch with reality, etc. ) than dogmatism. The degree to which science is committed to the former, and religion to the latter remains one of the most salient and appalling disparities to be found in human discourse.
There's another interesting point made by Harris. He explains that there are only three good reasons for appeasing the superstitious.
(1) Certain religious beliefs are true (or likely to be true); here's why…
(2) Religious beliefs, while not likely to be true, are so useful that they are necessary; here's the evidence…
(3) Many religious people are so irrational that it is simply too dangerous to criticize their beliefs. Please keep your mouth shut.
I agree. I'd like to hear from the Neville Chamberlain Appeasers. Which one of these three arguments do you support?

45 comments :

  1. What? You don't want to know when I stopped beating my wife?

    Really, Larry ... if I want to be presented with false trichotomies, I can whistle up a creationist.

    How about in support of liberal democracy? Or are you against that?

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  2. That would be a version of #2. Religious beliefs, while false, are necessary to preserve liberal democracy. I'm looking forward to seeing the evidence.

    Presumably, this also applies to Intelligent Design Creationism. Is that why you don't oppose the IDiots?

    Is trying to shout down vocal atheists another way of supporting liberal democracy? :-)

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  3. No, Larry. I'm not saying religion is useful or necessary, I'm saying that liberal democracy grants people the right to believe what they want to believe and that a civil society is necessary to maintaining that democracy.

    The reason I'll respect the religious is that, as long as they do no harm to others, it is what reason and the Enlightenment tells me is the right thing to do. It's what I'll do for you as well ... despite your irrational beliefs.

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  4. "Surprisingly, Scott Atran is happy to remain in an irrational society that doesn't care about evidence. He's right to be embarrassed."

    I smell straw. It looks to me like Atran has concluded that (1) religion isn't going away, and that we'd best learn to live with it, and (2) that the perception that religion is general dangerous is based on a very biased sampling and doesn't fit the bulk of the data.

    "There's another interesting point made by Harris. He explains that there are only three good reasons for appeasing the superstitious."

    I'd add a fourth: "(4) Religious beliefs are often Mostly Harmless(TM), and it's usually not worth the effort to try to uproot them."

    BTW, I suggest that you stop Godwining the debate with the "Neville Chamberlain Appeasers" garbage. The ones being "appeased" here are not creationists or Islamic terrorists or others who, if you squint right, just might be akin to a monster like Hitler. We're talking about religious moderates, like Ken Miller, or, well, the bulk of religious people. Do you really think these people are like Nazis?

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  5. (4) Religious beliefs are often Mostly Harmless(TM), and it's usually not worth the effort to try to uproot them.

    By saying they're "mostly" harmless, you're conceding there's that threshold you eventually reach where they're no longer harmless, to whatever degree, large or small.

    Guys, the point here is not that there aren't plenty of religious people in the world who are basically the Little Old Lady from Pasadena. It's a simple matter of how we approach facts: all things being equal, what's better — to believe things that are true, or to believe things that are not true? To believe only things that can be supported by evidence, and to reserve judgment where evidence is lacking or inconclusive — or to go ahead and consider it acceptable to fill gaps in knowledge with beliefs, even knowing those beliefs are unsupported or insupportable, and call that "religion" and declare it immune to criticism?

    The "Neville Chamberlain" phrase isn't meant to equate Pasadena grannies with Nazis. Dawkins only coined it to refer to folks who think that there are ways religion and science can be reconciled, and who are all to willing to cave in and accept this cockamamie idea that there are areas of knowledge about life, the universe and everything where science just hasn't got jurisdiction, and "faith" gets to move in and pick up the slack.

    And even then, the name wasn't meant to Nazify the opposition but to illustrate the consequences of thinking that someone is working in your best interests when they really aren't. You're free, of course, to disagree.

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  6. " ....well, the bulk of religious people. Do you really think these people are like Nazis? "

    No.
    But I think they might be like the leader of the German Catholic Centre party, who, in 1933 got his party to vote for Hitler's ennabling law.

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  7. Heh. Allowing that "Neville Chamberlain Appeasers" are a technical term, the question then becomes who Godwhined first? (Sorry guys, it's monday. Anything that gets the juices going must be allowed.)

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  8. Excuse me, but the "religious leaders" and "Evangelists" in Kenya (as elsewhere) are simply lying. They may believe their own lies, but they are lying anyway. They are trying to suppress scierntific evidence, which they don't like.

    Now SOME people ( "The Appeasers" ) are saying ...
    "Let's handle these people's stated beliefs and protests about fossils/exibits with =great care, because they are religious leaders, and the delicate followers feeling might be huirt."

    Well, bollocks - they are still lying in public.

    And the appeasers are straight wrong.
    Allowing a lie to pass, in a scientific subject is just not on.


    "All that is necessary for evil to triumph, is for good men to do nothing."

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  9. I also like (4) Religious beliefs are often Mostly Harmless(TM), and it's usually not worth the effort to try to uproot them.

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  10. Let's try this again, with the rest of the text this time:

    I also like (4) Religious beliefs are often Mostly Harmless(TM), and it's usually not worth the effort to try to uproot them.

    Which is *not* the same as saying that religious beliefs should be given excessive respect and tolerance beyond the beautiful spouse/clever children level.

    I just finished The God Delusion, which I enjoyed, and have started reading Sam Harris's The End of Faith, with which I am so far unimpressed. Harris says,
    "Religious moderation, insofar as it represents an attempt to hold on to what is still serviceable in orthodox religion, closes the door to more sophisticated approaches to spirituality, ethics, and the building of strong communities"

    Perhaps Harris hasn't met the same kind of "religious moderates" that I have, here in the Godless North, or maybe he has allowed the fundies to define for him the terms "still servicaeble", and "orthodox religion", but I know personally a number of people who are unbelievers in gods, or doubters in gods, or evem deists, who are very active in the ethics and community part of their liberal religion. In fact, around these parts, there is a significant overlap between membership in the Unitarian and Humanist groups, in both membership and professional staff.

    I think that humans need community. I think that one of the good reasons that religion is successful is that it provides community. If nontheists can work with religious liberals and moderates to provide a God-neutral approach to community, ethics etc, I think that would be a Good Thing.

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  11. There is a fourth alternative: "People who are religious hold these beliefs personally and are likely to take affront if they feel they are being attacked. Therefore a lighter touch is necessary if true change is to be made."

    This is not simply a variation on number 3. This is a simple fact of political dealing. If you insult someone, they are less likely to want to listen to you.

    So instead of yelling at them and saying they are wrong, stupid, deluded, insane, or whatever, it would be far better to engage them in a more polite discussion.

    You may note that this is not appeasement, I am no appeaser, nor am I wont to tolerate religious dogmatism. I am simply acknowledging the fact that as humans, we react badly when personally attacked.

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  12. Harris and Atran seem to agree on all the background facts: religious claims are false, people are capable of starkly irrational behavior, etc. They also both agree that religion is neither necessary nor sufficient to cause bad behavior. They only disagree about the degree to which religious beliefs are directly responsible for certain violent acts, and about some normative points of discourse (when and under what circumstances one should raise objections to another's religious beliefs).

    Unfortunately, what I see happening is the premature and unwarranted acceptance of an adversarial frame by them and many other people interested in these issues. (After all, things are more exciting - and you get more publicity - when there are two outspoken opponents.) It seems to me that Harris and Atran could actually have a very useful collaboration.

    I naturally agree with "conversational intolerance"; it's difficult for me to let a religious utterance go by unchecked. But humans, like any other animal, are natural objects and not perfect Kantian intellects. So insights from Atran, Pascal Boyer, and others who have actually studied religion and religious people cannot be ignored.

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  13. I agree with Phil. Critiquing religion, atheists need to apply the "iron fist in a velvet glove" approach. Be straightforward and direct, but stop short of the direct insults that will cause them to simply stop listening to you (assuming they're the kind of religionist capable of listening in the first place, which I fear we're seeing fewer of in fundie America).

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  14. There's a big difference between appeasement and advocating a certain kind of behavior. You can criticize me (or Dawkins or anyone else) for being brusque and blunt but that's not the problem.

    The problem with appeasers is that they refuse to apply the same standards they use with creationists to theistic evolutionists. In other words, they do not criticize the superstitious beliefs of theistic evolutionists but they don't mince word with creationists.

    It's a question of hypocrisy, not kindness and gentleness.

    I undertand the desire to be nice to everyone and not hurt their feelings. But you need to ask yourself whether this strategy has been successful. Maybe it's time to be honest and say what you really think. You may have noticed that the IDiots don't seem to be inhibited and they seem to have been pretty successful at portraying all of us as evildoers.

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  15. Larry wrote: "I am one of those people who would rather live in a society that was rational and evidence based."

    Great, sure sounds nice. So how do approach all those issues for which the evidence is not clear, things like how to deliver health care to everyone (or even if that is a propper function of society), how to provide propper food, shelter and education for everyone, what to do about global warming etc.? My point is not that religion is the answer but rather that most of the serious problems facing humans are extremely difficult. Praying to God is not helpful but neither are rationality and evidence when jury is still out the issue at hand.

    How does one personally or society in general make choices when the health and welfare of human beings is at stake and no definitive evidence-based course is available?

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  16. "The problem with appeasers is that they refuse to apply the same standards they use with creationists to theistic evolutionists. In other words, they do not criticize the superstitious beliefs of theistic evolutionists but they don't mince word with creationists."

    Or maybe, *gasp*, the so-called "appeasers" can tell the difference between (a) those who are not only completely in the wrong but try to shove that wrongness down everyone's throat by dishonest means, and (b) those who have gotten it mostly right and do their best to follow the evidence but have some irrational beliefs that remain mostly compartmentalized.

    "You can criticize me (or Dawkins or anyone else) for being brusque and blunt but that's not the problem."

    You're right. Being brusque isn't the problem. The problem is that you are simplistically lumping creationists, moderates, and theistic evolutionists together, despite their huge differences, and then call others "appeasers" when they take a more, nuanced, reality-based view of religious people instead of adopting your ham-fisted approach.

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  17. "Nuance"? Sweet jebus, where is the nuance in religion and superstition and piety that we're supposed to defend?

    I keep hearing these claims that religion is really far more nuanced and sophisticated and clever than we give it credit for, but seriously, every time I turn around and look at the actual practice of the silly business, I'm gobsmacked.

    Really. The coffee shop in my time is run by a coalition of churches, and there are often prayer meetings and bible study groups meeting there (all while I'm sitting there, sipping my free trade dark roast and composing jeremiads against gods on my laptop), and so I'm often listening in on the actual practice of modern Christian religion in America. It's fucking insane. I've heard everything from the power of prayer to the truth about Noah's Ark to long, long rhapsodies about exactly what Jesus is like up in heaven, all straight from the mouths of the real deal, the great Christian majority.

    What tolerance means is that I don't interrupt them, I don't dump their coffee on their heads, I appreciate their right to believe whatever nonsense they want. I do not have the right to interfere with their delusions. That doesn't mean I should respect their idiocy, however, or that I should curb my contempt if asked about it or if I choose to express myself on my own blog. And that is what the fearful cohort of timid atheists/agnostics want.

    Sorry, guys, I piss on your nuance. It ain't real.

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  18. PZ Myers: "Nuance"? Sweet jebus, where is the nuance in religion and superstition and piety that we're supposed to defend?

    I keep hearing these claims that religion is really far more nuanced and sophisticated and clever than we give it credit for

    Oh, please. That wasn't even close to my point. Let me reiterate what I said earlier, since you didn't read it the first time:

    "Or maybe, *gasp*, the so-called "appeasers" can tell the difference between (a) those who are not only completely in the wrong but try to shove that wrongness down everyone's throat by dishonest means, and (b) those who have gotten it mostly right and do their best to follow the evidence but have some irrational beliefs that remain mostly compartmentalized."

    Does this look like I'm defending religious nuance?

    "Nuance" here is knowing the difference between (a) an ideologue who will damn any fact that conflicts with he/she "knows" to be the Truth(TM) and (b) someone whose core irrational beliefs are unfalsifiable and whose not-so-core irrational beliefs will shift to fit the facts as he/she knows them. The former is a Kent Hovind; the latter a Ken Miller. The former is a threat; the latter is at worst an annoyance. Treating the latter as merely a "lite" version of the former is a category error.

    You have contempt for theists. So be it. I have far more contempt for those who claim to stand up for rationalism while displaying a thoroughly irrational sloppiness.

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  19. Religous adherents run a gamut from crude fundamentalists to excruciatingly nuanced, as PZ knows quite well since he's talked about it in the past. I'm no kind of believer myself, but I find it awfully annoying when the militant godless lump all religious belief into one ball, take the worst examples they can find, and use them to bash the rest. Dawkins and Harris explicitly defend this tactic, but it just seems stupid to me, both at the tactical level and at the intellectual level. Scott Atran studies religion professionally, so his opinions might count for somewhat more than your coffeehouse observations.

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  20. mtraven: "Religous adherents run a gamut from crude fundamentalists to excruciatingly nuanced, as PZ knows quite well since he's talked about it in the past."

    More to the point, the behavior of the crude fundies is different in kind from the behavior of the fundies, not just in degree.

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  21. Yes, I see all religious beliefs as pretty much the same worthless nonsense. Nobody has shown otherwise, despite the claims that there are more "nuanced" religious views.

    Here's the problem, and here's where you get it wrong: I don't see all people as the same. People are infected with these bad ideas to differing degrees.

    I will criticize religious crap sharply and consistently. That doesn't mean I think Pat Robertson and Ken Miller are indistinguishable.

    Where we differ, though, is that I don't think Miller's commendable service in doing and teaching science means I'll give his batshit insane religious ideas a pass.

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  22. Larry said:

    The problem with appeasers is that they refuse to apply the same standards they use with creationists to theistic evolutionists. In other words, they do not criticize the superstitious beliefs of theistic evolutionists but they don't mince word with creationists.

    That's nonsense. First of all, as far as I know, most scientists or science supporters don't go around willy-nilly criticizing the beliefs of anyone who happens to be religious. When was the last time even you went to somebody's church and stood up during the sermon to tell the pastor that he was scientifically wrong? The criticism that I (and I think most people on the science side) are making comes when creationists pretend that their beliefs are science and particularly when they try to use tax money to tell that lie to kids. I couldn't care less if someone want to believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old or wants to teach his or her kids that. In a liberal democracy, that's none of my damn business (though it is, in my opinion, the government's business to see that those kids know what science does say).

    Since I never considered criticism of their beliefs per se to be part of this debate, it is perfectly consistent not to criticize people who clearly state when they are talking theologically as opposed to scientifically; who don't try to use tax money to further their beliefs; and who, in any case, hold beliefs that are subject to neither empirical confirmation nor refutation.

    You and PZ are free to make your philosophical arguments against the theology of Miller, et al. but that ain't what I'm after. But, then, I'm equally free to criticize you and PZ. It's the whole goose/gander business. If as PZ says, he is not out to stop people's right to believe when he ridicules and attacks them, then the "appeasers" criticism, even when calling people nasty names like "evangelical atheists," can't be said to trammel their rights either.

    I, for one, never joined any movement against any and all religious belief. Judging by all the people you complain about, apparently most of us didn't.

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  23. John Pieter says,

    The criticism that I (and I think most people on the science side) are making comes when creationists pretend that their beliefs are science ....

    Why don't you defend science when people like Ken Miller, Francis Collins, and Simon Conway Morris pretend that their beliefs are science?

    Is it because you're an appeaser? :-)

    I suspect the answer is "yes," but in this case your desire to appease is so strong that you pretend that theistic evolutionists are very special people. They have somehow solved the conflict problem and come up with a way of believing in miracles without conflicting with science.

    We call that a delusion. The theistic evolutionists deluded themselves first, then they succeeded in deluding you. :-)

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  24. Why don't you defend science when people like Ken Miller, Francis Collins, and Simon Conway Morris pretend that their beliefs are science?

    We've been through this dozens of times. Where does Miller et al. say their beliefs are science? Constantly repeating this non sequitur as if it is an answer to this issue falls into the category of doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result.

    Is it because you're an appeaser? :-)

    In this particular case, it means I'm apparently the only rational person in this two-person discussion.

    I suspect the answer is "yes," but in this case your desire to appease is so strong that you pretend that theistic evolutionists are very special people. They have somehow solved the conflict problem and come up with a way of believing in miracles without conflicting with science.

    Again you repeat this without any justification ... oh, wait ... you said it was "obvious to everyone" a while ago. Exactly the same justification IDers give for their complexity "argument." And worth every bit of it.

    We call that a delusion. The theistic evolutionists deluded themselves first, then they succeeded in deluding you. :-)

    There's a possible delusion involved but, fortunately, you can still try to think about this logically, Larry.

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  25. The full title to Miller's book is "Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution."

    Collins' book is "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief ".

    Conway Morris, at least, is more subtle and doesn't festoon his book covers with religious promises.

    I think it's patently clear that Miller and Collins are using their status as scientists to add authority to their religious beliefs.

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  26. Me: "More to the point, the behavior of the crude fundies is different in kind from the behavior of the fundies, not just in degree."

    Aargh! I meant to write, "More to the point, the behavior of the crude fundies is different in kind from the behavior of the moderates, not just in degree." Sigh. I ought to know better than to write while in a rush.

    Anyway ...

    pz myers: "That doesn't mean I think Pat Robertson and Ken Miller are indistinguishable."

    Yet you side with someone who is deliberately blurring the distinction between the Pat Robertsons and the Ken Millers of this world.

    pz myers: "Where we differ, though, is that I don't think Miller's commendable service in doing and teaching science means I'll give his batshit insane religious ideas a pass."

    I don't see any reason to give Miller's religious ideas a pass. They are fair game for criticism. There is a vast difference between criticism, even sharp criticism, and venomous ridicule. The latter, IMHO, should be reserved for those who go out of their way to act like jackasses or worse.

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  27. The full title to Miller's book is "Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution."

    Argumentum ad book title?

    I think it's patently clear that Miller and Collins are using their status as scientists to add authority to their religious beliefs.

    I haven't read Collin's book, but Miller makes it clear that he is not making a scientific case for his beliefs. He wields his "authority" as a scientist only to the extent that it demonstrates that he knows what the science really says and, thus, gives him a basis for his opinion that it does not conflict with his clearly labeled beliefs. If Collins is doing differently, I'll be happy to criticise him for that ... but not for his beliefs themselves.

    Anyway, even if your claims are true, it is the grossest of double standards to make this complaint, since Dawkins clearly uses his status as a scientist to add authority to his atheism.

    Goose/gander again.

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  28. "Anyway, even if your claims are true, it is the grossest of double standards to make this complaint, since Dawkins clearly uses his status as a scientist to add authority to his atheism."

    We have indeed been over this a few times. When Miller says "If evolution really did take place, then God must have rigged everything. Otherwise, how could He have been sure that evolution would have produced us?" he says his beliefs are science by speculating in overriding any contingency evolutionary theory may have. ( http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Yin.cfm )

    Miller makes invalid assertions about science. Dawkins does not.

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  29. We have indeed been over this a few times.

    Larry and I have done it a few times in talk.origins as well.

    When Miller says "If evolution really did take place, then God must have rigged everything. Otherwise, how could He have been sure that evolution would have produced us?" he says his beliefs are science by speculating in overriding any contingency evolutionary theory may have. ( http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Yin.cfm )

    He very carefully separates his theology from his science, as that article you cite makes clear. The fact that the author may not think much of his theolgy doesn't change that. Miller has the right to try to incorporate the facts of the world (which includes evolutionary theory and the scientific evidence for it) into his theology, as much as he can include the shape of the Earth or the fact that it orbits the sun. The fact that he thinks science is compatable with or even supportive of his theology is no more a problem than the fact that Dawkins thinks science is compatable with or supportive of his atheism, as long as they are both clear of which hat that are wearing at the time. Miller is at least as clear as Dawkins in that regard.

    Since when is the "contingency evolutionary theory may have" an actual finding of science? We can, for example, say that there is no systematic fiddling with mutations to consistently produce favorable mutations, but where does Miller argue there is? Miller's theological beliefs are empirically untestable, and he acknowledges that. Which is more than can be said for Dawkins, as I showed in relation to his invalid claim that the issue of Christ's divinity is a scientific question.

    Miller makes invalid assertions about science. Dawkins does not.

    Don't try to tell Larry that.

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  30. Having read neither Miller nor Collins, I really have no opinion about them, and whether they improperly mix religion with science. Abstractly, however, the theme of this discussion seems to be: What do you do with people who are sort-of-but-not-quite on your side?

    With that in mind, I have to turn the question around and ask: What level of "conversational tolerance" should we show towards Sam Harris' views on psychic phenomena and reincarnation? Or his assertion that the physicalist view of conciousness is "little more than an article of faith"? You see, for months now I'd been hearing (in places like t.o and Pharyngula) Harris' name mentioned along with Dawkins and Dennett as a current poster boy for no-backing-down atheism, including the idea that we should become less "respectful" towards even moderate religion than has been customary. But nary a mention that, among the standard atheist excoriation of religious lunacy, Harris' book would contain gems like that.

    Was everyone who'd read the book just keeping quiet about it (because after all Sam is on our side)? Or were they just not reading very carefully?

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  31. "Was everyone who'd read the book just keeping quiet about it"

    Oh, definitely not. From butterfliesandwheels.com:

    Trading Faith for Spirituality: The Mystifications of Sam Harris

    As for conversational intolerance, I'd say this:

    * Everything is fair game for criticism, period.

    * People who try to get their beliefs to match up with the facts but fail should be treated less harshly than those who grossly distort the facts to fit their beliefs.

    One thing that strikes me about theistic evolutionists is that they are trying to respect the facts. They don't always succeed, especially when they are dealing with subjects outside their expertise, as Ken Miller does with quantum mechanics. However, the reason they're on the side of evolution in the first place is that they recognize what the facts are and try to work with that.

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  32. John:

    "He very carefully separates his theology from his science, as that article you cite makes clear."

    He seem to try to at places, but here and elsewhere (as I already mentioned) he fails.

    "Miller has the right to try to incorporate the facts of the world"

    Yes, as much as an atheist may do.

    But as I have claimed he should not make invalid assertions about science. Obviously our opinion differs. Miller is asserting that science has showed a bigbang "origin" or evolutionary "special creation" as here. This is simply not so - at the very least the jury is still out on this. But apparently we won't agree here.

    "Since when is the "contingency evolutionary theory may have" an actual finding of science?"
    I was under the impression that if evolution was replayed, the existence of the human-equivalent intelligence that Miller wants elsewhere is uncertain. At the very least the existence of humans would be implausible, wouldn't it?

    But Miller isn't gambling, he is *sure*: "God must have rigged everything. Otherwise, how could He have been sure that evolution would have produced us?"

    "his invalid claim"
    All I can see is that he claims that observations and eventual debunking of miracles is part of science. And isn't it, as part of the work to distinguish junk claims and junk science from empirical knowledge? Skeptics and other empiricists have debunked many miracles. ( http://www.randi.org/ )

    Are you making a special plea for religious miracles?

    "Don't try to tell Larry that."
    :-) :-) :-)

    The difference would be hard to demarcate, yes. Um, perhaps assertions about more stable science vs assertions about work in progress?

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  33. J:
    I would heed that comment, if it looked like Miller tried as hard as in his own science. He could easily have vetted his book before publishing, or publish a comment correcting where he didn't succeed in respecting the facts.

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  34. J.J.Ramsey: thank you for the B&W link; I don't regularly read that blog. While I find some of his comments unfair, on the whole he's captured my misgivings about Harris' "mysticism", and his tendency to think he knows all he needs to know about a religion by taking the fundamentalist component thereof at their own word.

    Since posting my earlier comment, I've read through more of the "Beyond Belief" site, including Atran's reply to Harris. I can't judge whether the work is sound, but from reading the exchange I have to say that Atran comes across like a scientist trying to study the phenomenom (in this case, the interaction between the external religious tradition and the internal psychology of the adherent) as it is, while Harris sounds like he just read some newspaper story and then went and shot his mouth off about it. He's a polemicist.

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  35. "Since when is the "contingency evolutionary theory may have" an actual finding of science?"
    I was under the impression that if evolution was replayed, the existence of the human-equivalent intelligence that Miller wants elsewhere is uncertain. At the very least the existence of humans would be implausible, wouldn't it?


    Even Dawkins questioned if that is true in The Ancestor's Tale, not that he thought it would be due to a non-naturalistic cause, of course.

    My point is that there is a level of interference in any large-scale phenomenon below which it is impossible to distinguish random from non-random events statistically. If you finagle a few one-in-a-million events over the course of a couple of billion years for an unclear aim (was God aiming specifically for H. sapiens or just something intelligent or something else altogether that we are just a precursor of?), it is undetectable by empiric means. There is no way to distinguish that from random noise. The theology is that, with a combination of this kind of action too suble for empiric detection and the original shaping of the natural laws with divine intent, an infinite, omniscient and omnipotent God can produce the results he/she/it wants without the possibility of our detecting it.

    But Miller isn't gambling, he is *sure*: "God must have rigged everything. Otherwise, how could He have been sure that evolution would have produced us?"

    And if an infinite, omniscient and omnipotent God set out to rig the game, why do you suppose humans could be able to detect it?

    "his invalid claim"
    All I can see is that he claims that observations and eventual debunking of miracles is part of science. And isn't it, as part of the work to distinguish junk claims and junk science from empirical knowledge? Skeptics and other empiricists have debunked many miracles. ( http://www.randi.org/ )


    There is one significant difference between the people Randi deals with and Miller. Randi's subjects all say that they can produce the "miracle" on demand. In effect, such claims become naturalistic rather than supernatural, since they are supposedly reproducible. Note that Randi does not try to debunk past events when so-and-so supposedly successfully found water by dowsing. He sets up experimental conditions to see if the person can reproduce the effect. Miller's not claiming that he can get God to perform like a trained seal.

    The closest you might come in Miller's type of theology to this is the effect of prayer. But since the claim of these sort of theologians is not that prayer can produce predicable results ("God answers all prayers ... sometimes the answer is 'No'") and the claimed results mostly involve a change in the person who is praying (instilling hope or courage or wisdom), the claimed effect of prayer is not empirically refutable either.

    Are you making a special plea for religious miracles?

    No. I'm making a plea for the proper understanding of what science is and what its limits are. Claiming that science can do more than it can is exactly what the creationists do. We should not emulate them.

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  36. John:
    "Even Dawkins questioned if that is true in The Ancestor's Tale"

    Oh. That would make astrobiologists and SETI people happy then. BTW, is this an accepted result of evolution? Because Miller is *sure*.

    "My point is that there is a level of interference in any large-scale phenomenon below which it is impossible to distinguish random from non-random events statistically."

    Yes, in several senses like signal-to-noise and coarsegraining. But I believe you and Miller are discussing replacing a random event description in a model with a non-random theological description where you are *sure*. That isn't the same model anymore.

    The detection part is a god-in-the-gaps description.

    "There is one significant difference between the people Randi deals with and Miller."

    Difficulties of debunking doesn't subtract from what Dawkins really said.

    "the claimed effect of prayer is not empirically refutable either."

    Except that it has been, because people pray for health. (One example is referenced here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3193902.stm ) AFAIK prayer is quite thoroughly debunked.

    "Claiming that science can do more than it can is exactly what the creationists do."

    Seeing that you try to withhold religious ideas from debunking, I'm not convinced that you are not trying to make a special plea. After all, we should not claim that religion can do more than it can.

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  37. Because Miller is *sure*.

    You keep saying that but I don't know what you mean. Has he said he is sure that the science supports his theology? If so where? Or are you talking about his being sure based on his faith that God exists and is active in the world? If so, where does he not make the distinction between his faith and science?

    But I believe you and Miller are discussing replacing a random event description in a model with a non-random theological description where you are *sure*. That isn't the same model anymore.

    Yes. One is theology (as you said) the other is science. The point is that the science cannot contradict the theology because the science is limited (as well it should be -- that limitation is what makes science so powerful a tool).

    Difficulties of debunking doesn't subtract from what Dawkins really said.

    It is not a difficulty in debunking, it is the very nature of science as can easily be seen in Dawkins' example. The scientific community will never come to a consensus that any naturalistic evidence demonstrates the existence of God. And if there is no possibility of a finding in favor of the existence of God, then claiming that whatever debunking can be done actually goes to the issue of God's existence is just playing a rigged game: "Heads I win, tails you lose."

    Quite literally no evidence would truly go to the existence of God because the scientific community is fully aware of the limitations of science and would reject it, even if most members of the community can't articulate why.

    It is all well and good to debunk some huckster that claims repeatable mental powers, but that does not logically bear on the question of the existence and nature of a God. But, hey ... I'll give you the same challenge I've given Larry and PZ so far: write up a research proposal to scientifically investigate Miller's theology. I'll wait.

    Except that it has been, because people pray for health.

    Really? What does "health" mean to an infinite and eternal being who wants to give humans eternal life after death? God could have answered every one of those prayers ... just in his/her/it's own fashion. Now here is something that theists and atheists are both guilty of: Why the heck would you expect an infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, eternal being to think like humans do?

    After all, we should not claim that religion can do more than it can.

    [Sigh] That is exactly the point. Theology can do anything it wants to. There are no limits on what it can posit or what it can claim as evidence in its support. It is a classic example of the correct application of Popper's falsifiability criterion. Science, on the other hand, works precisely because it has limits. Why would you want to make science as impotent as theology?

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  38. John:

    "You keep saying that but I don't know what you mean."

    As I said above Miller is *sure* his god produces us. "God must have rigged everything. Otherwise, how could He have been sure that evolution would have produced us?"

    So with this claim in mind I wanted to make clear if Dawkins hypotheses on direction was verified or if it is still an open question.

    "The point is that the science cannot contradict the theology because the science is limited"

    My point is that Miller has changed the scientific model. It doesn't matter if it gives the same prediction if it is no longer science. This is the difference between theistic evolution and evolution AFAIK.

    "claiming that whatever debunking can be done actually goes to the issue of God's existence is just playing a rigged game"

    So? If naturalistic evidence never can demonstrate the existence of homeopathy since it is too weak an agency, hidden in "interference in any large-scale phenomenon below which it is impossible to distinguish random from non-random events statistically", does it make it unfair to conclude that it doesn't work and that the whole concept is a scam?

    "Now here is something that theists and atheists are both guilty of: Why the heck would you expect an infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, eternal being to think like humans do?"

    That doesn't invalidate the debunking of prayer.

    "There are no limits on what it can posit or what it can claim as evidence in its support."

    That is exactly the problem. When it tries to makes claim on science, it must back of or be debunked. Theology has limits; but there are nothing in science that tells us what results science can or can't make.

    So I can in turn give you a challenge: write up a research proposal to scientifically investigate what all the methods of science really are and from that what results it will ever make. I'll also wait.

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  39. My point is that Miller has changed the scientific model. It doesn't matter if it gives the same prediction if it is no longer science. This is the difference between theistic evolution and evolution AFAIK.

    Yes. It is the difference Miller makes clearly -- the difference between science and theology. It is the difference I have been touting all along.

    If naturalistic evidence never can demonstrate the existence of homeopathy since it is too weak an agency, hidden in "interference in any large-scale phenomenon below which it is impossible to distinguish random from non-random events statistically", does it make it unfair to conclude that it doesn't work and that the whole concept is a scam?

    This is, I think, confused. It is not the agency that is important in homeopathy (we don't know just what gravity is, but still can find evidence for its existence and effect). Homeopathy (if I understand it correctly) claims repeatable empiric effects for its treatment that, if they existed, empiric investigation should discover. Thus, failing to find that empiric evidence says something about its truthfulness. It is precisely those repeatable empiric effects that are missing from the kind of theology we're discussing here.

    That doesn't invalidate the debunking of prayer.

    "Debunking" a strawman is what you are after?

    That is exactly the problem. When it tries to makes claim on science, it must back of or be debunked. Theology has limits; but there are nothing in science that tells us what results science can or can't make.

    No, I'm going to need clarification on this. What do you mean be "it must back of or be debunked"? And just what limits does theology have and where can I find them?

    So I can in turn give you a challenge: write up a research proposal to scientifically investigate what all the methods of science really are and from that what results it will ever make. I'll also wait.

    No need to wait. Pick up Science as a Process by David L. Hull, University of Chicago Press, 1988. But why wouldn't you expect science itself to be scientifically investigatable, given that it is a human activity? So can theology for that matter (but that still wouldn't logically go to the truth of the existence of God).

    The limits on what science can discover are the logical result of what the aims of the scientific community are and the tools available to it. I can't say that there won't be some major change in the method and tools of science in the future but the human activity called "science" right now ... the one you and Dawkins claim can investigate the divine -- is clearly not up to the task you want to set for it.

    Though, as I said, you can prove me wrong. (Don't think that I can be distracted that easily.) If the existence and nature of God is a scientific proposition subject to scientific investigation, demonstrate it by providing a research proposal.

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  40. John:

    "It is the difference Miller makes clearly"

    Evidently we will never agree. Because my claim is that this is what he doesn't make clear. He claim on evolution that "If evolution really did take place, then God must have rigged everything. Otherwise, how could He have been sure that evolution would have produced us?" This is a claim on science. That it is made in the name of theology doesn't matter - it could as well be made in the name of astrology.

    Since you don't mention whether the hypotheses on direction is verified or not, I take it it is not.

    "This is, I think, confused."

    Again we will never agree. I introduced this to answer a special plea about unfairness of debunking repeatable prayer studies. But again you make the special plea that you started with.

    Circular reasoning ought to be declared a fallacy - wait, so it is!

    "Pick up Science as a Process by David L. Hull, University of Chicago Press, 1988."

    It could be interesting. But there is clearly yet no answer to the challenge I made, because such a verified description of all possible methods and all possible data and theories would be well known. Singularity theorems understood, M/string theory theory and predictions stated, initial state of the universe, if the fundamental laws of physics may be treated by a TOE, and so on.

    So again, we will not agree. I claim there is no known and verified description which confine science results. This is not a belief or a philosophical statement, it is an observation of what we do now. But what we definitely know is that science will confine religion.

    We have reached the point of no return where we have to agree to disagree.

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  41. I introduced this to answer a special plea about unfairness of debunking repeatable prayer studies. But again you make the special plea that you started with.

    Circular reasoning ought to be declared a fallacy - wait, so it is!

    No, that is unfair. I am not making a special plea, because that implies that the two positions share a methodology that one has to opt out of to maintain its contention. The point I'm making is that the two systems don't share a methodology.

    In a recent review of Dawkins' book by Daniel Dennett, he similarly claims that theists are playing intellectual tennis with out a net, changing their beliefs "to avoid being pinned down to the underlying absurdities of their traditions". The problem, however, is that theists aren't playing Dennett's game with Dennett's rules and are rightfully bemused when you, Dawkins and Dennett keep trying to erect a net on their squash court.

    As for the rest, I have no idea why you think there is a mystery about the present state of the methods, data and theories of science or why the possibility of future, literally unimaginable, methods somehow make theistic claim scientific issues today. But I agree that I have no additional arguments to make against such thinking.

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  42. John:
    "The point I'm making is that the two systems don't share a methodology."

    But the argument you use is that they are different because they can't share a methodology. Which is also absurd considering prayer studies.

    "or why the possibility of future, literally unimaginable, methods somehow make theistic claim scientific issues today"

    The point was that limiting science is difficult. What started this part of the argument was your insistence that Miller's claim on science should be withheld debunking since religion should be considered special. If you concede this much you the plea for specialness should be reconsidered.

    Demonstrating that and answering to what we can debunk today again the prayer studies are examples.

    I have argued that Miller is in the wrong here. This argument could be expanded to discuss why that is also a practical and political concern. Timely, Sahotra Sarkar has aired his concern that fine-tuning arguments in physics will be the next creationist craze in a recent article. He explicitly refers to Miller:

    "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 )

    This goes back to Moran's post about chamberlaining and show why it can be dangerous.

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  43. "The point I'm making is that the two systems don't share a methodology."

    But the argument you use is that they are different because they can't share a methodology. Which is also absurd considering prayer studies.

    Those studies have only addressed what you expect prayer to deliver, not what theists like Miller and the Catholic Church would expect. Insisting that those studies bear on Miller's theology is nothing but a strawman and/or a demand that they accept the method of science that expects empiric results as part of their theology. It is not special pleading to note that difference because the theists never stated that they accept your method in theological matters.

    "or why the possibility of future, literally unimaginable, methods somehow make theistic claim scientific issues today"

    The point was that limiting science is difficult. What started this part of the argument was your insistence that Miller's claim on science should be withheld debunking since religion should be considered special. If you concede this much you the plea for specialness should be reconsidered.

    I never said religion was special. I said it has its own rules. Like English Lit. does. Dawkins' example shows the proper limitation of science to naturalistic evidence which, by definition, excludes supernatural evidence. Explaining this over and over again and being misrepresented every time is getting more than tiresome. I'm sorry you can't follow the argument but I won't keep going around in circles with you.

    I have argued that Miller is in the wrong here. This argument could be expanded to discuss why that is also a practical and political concern. Timely, Sahotra Sarkar has aired his concern that fine-tuning arguments in physics will be the next creationist craze in a recent article. He explicitly refers to Miller:

    BFD.

    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.

    So basically you and he are saying Miller can't believe in God and be a scientist. Sorry, it don't work that way. For someone so enamored of science, you are ignoring the empiric evidence that Miller is a fine scientist and done far more for good science education than you, PZ, Larry and Sarkar all put together.

    These moves are dangerous: once the creator enters the science classroom, even through the physicists' backdoor, the room for mischief is enormous.

    Since Miller labels his beliefs in these areas as theology why should this be a problem -- besides convincing the general populace that scientists and their supporters are subject to irrational hysteria, that is?

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