Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum in Newsweek

 
Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum have published an article in Newsweek [Defenders of the Faith: Scientists who blast religion are hurting their own cause].

The subtitle reveals that Mooney and Kirshenbaum just don't get it. I am a scientist who "blasts" religion. My "cause" is to demonstrate that religion is superstitious nonsense and should be abandoned. There are many people who share my opinion and they aren't all scientists. The fact that I am a scientist isn't really relevant.

The position that Mooney and Kirshenbaum adopt would be equivalent to saying that Christopher Hitchens should back off because he's hurting the "cause" of journalism, or that Rickey Gervais is hurting the "cause" of comedy, or Bill Gates is hurting the "cause" of making tons of money. They make the assumption that atheist scientists are only interested in promoting science (to the American public) and everything else is secondary.

This point has been explained to them hundreds of times. I don't know whether they are deliberately ignoring the facts order to frame the argument in their own terms or whether they are incapable of grasping the distinction we are tying to make.

There are times when Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to be on the verge of understanding. The Newsweek article contains such an example. After the typical rant about how great Francis Collins is and how evil PZ Myers is, they go on to say ....
The public's willingness to reject science for religious reasons is certainly lamentable. But by arguing that science contradicts religion and makes it untenable, many atheists reinforce the very concerns that are keeping people from accepting science to begin with. Someone like Collins, by contrast, can convince those who think science conflicts with their beliefs that this needn't be the case.
This is the same old story we've heard before. Yes, it's true that someone like Francis Collins, who claims that science and religion are compatible, can be a great comfort to people who long to hear this. But that's not the point. The point is whether science and religion really are compatible. That's the question that certain atheists are asking and it won't be settled by pointing to Francis Collins. That's about as absurd as claiming that incompatibility is proven by pointing to Neil deGrasse Tyson or Jerry Coyne.

But wait. Here's where Mooney and Kirshenbaum offer us a glimmer of hope. They come very close to recognizing that the real question is whether science and religion are compatible and not just whether Collins thinks they are. They recognize that there's an "intellectual" question that might be important.
And Collins's approach isn't just good as a strategy to get the public to better appreciate science. The idea that science and religion can be compatible is strong on the intellectual merits as well. Granted, it depends how you define your terms: if your religion holds that Genesis must be read literally, then you are in direct conflict with scientific findings about the age of the Earth, the diversity of life on the planet, and so on. Yet if we consider religion more broadly—in its own considerable diversity—we find many sophisticated believers who've made a peace between their belief and the findings of modern science. It's not just Collins; consider the words of the Dalai Lama: "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change."
Oh dear. Close but no cigar. They're still relying on the argument from authority—in this case the Dalai Lama—and their "evidence" still depends on the fallacy of The Doctrine of Joint Belief. And there's those mysterious "sophisticated believers" that we hear so much about but never actually encounter. Where are they hidden?

Still, there's a glimmer of hope. Keep trying, Chris and Sheril. One of these days you may see a frozen waterfall and everything will become clear.

UPDATE: James Hrynyshyn draws your attention to the same passage from the Newsweek article but he puts a different spin on it [Science v. Atheism: the Dalai Lama gambit]. Imagine that Francis Collins makes the same kind of statement that that Dalai Lama made. Collins would say, "If science proves some belief of Christianity wrong, then Christianity will have to change."

How many Christians want to hear that their religion might be wrong and might have to change?


[Hat Tip: RichardDawkins.net]

31 comments :

  1. It's pretty simple really: whether or not science and religion are compatible depends on what your personal definition of your religion is (not on science, since that definition is well-known). If my personal religion is that there are invisible fairies in my broom closet who like me and communicate profound insights to me via scientifically undetectable methods, then that religion is compatible with science.

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  2. Firstly, that second quote comes horribly close to paraphrasing words from Sagan's last interview with Rose! (Anyone else think that?)

    Secondly, notice how this paragraph starts talking about religion and ends up talking about the religious followers. The two need to be distinguished.

    Somewhere in the Chris & Sheril blogs I wrote:

    Religions are incompatible with science. What enables religious people to sometimes be compatible with being a scientist (the person, not the science) is that they compartmentalise. The science and religions themselves are incompatible; it is the “working around the conflict” by the people that compensate for the incompatibility.

    I think people should take care to distinguish the religion from the people carrying them.

    (By 'religion', I am meaning a religion taken as a whole at face value, i.e. all of it's beliefs, practices, etc, taken as presented. You could, of course, remove the conflicting bits, or choose to "re-interpret" them, but if you did this to completion I would have thought most religions would end up being little more that the morals that non-religious and religious share alike. [Someone is bound to bring up deism: I'm going to "conveniently ignore that for now!])

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  3. Does it ever occur to Mooney and the likes that by claiming that science and religion are compatible they are actually taking an actively anti-science position?

    Because science and religion are only compatible if you view science as a job and not a way of thinking, i.e. you think like a scientists in the lab and you are free to indulge in whatever epistemological perversions you like outside of it. And if you view science like that, you have firmly stepped across the border with both feet into the anti-science camp.

    I think that even they would admit that it is not possible to believe in God if you approach the question scientifically so as frightening as it is, it must be that they think that science is a job before everything else...

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  4. I know a lot of self-professed religious people, and as far as I can tell, not a single one of them is the kind of deist or pantheist that Gould or evidently Chris & Sheril requires. All of this just reminds me of how when The God Delusion was published, a bunch of accomodationists criticized on the basis that the type of religion that Dawkins defined in the opening of the book didn't 'really' exist. Aren't their Pew research polls that have looked into what percentage of people treat the Bible as a complete metaphor versus the number of people who think it is an actual historical narrative? It would be instructive to break that down by major Biblical event (e.g., creation, the flood, the New Testament, etc.).

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  5. ungh, I mean 'aren't there Pew research polls'...

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  6. Look, its quite simple.
    Creationism is wrong because if it were true it would have required miraculous interventions with the laws of nature that defy all known experimental results and theories.
    In addition we have lots of evidence that provides an entirely rational explanation for both the physical state of the world and the historical and sociological underpinnings of the religious stories themselves.
    If we admit miraculous interventions in nature then we cannot trust any experimental result and cannot use our empirical experience to build working models of the world with the power to be predictive.
    On the other hand, as a theistic evolutionist I believe that Jesus was born of a virgin who was impregnated by a ghost. Their son was executed for blasphemy in about the year 34 AD and three days later overcome the second law of thermodynamics to come back to life and talk to his friends before flying up to a magical place called heaven where he now awaits the arrival of all those who believe in him and who follow his rules. The rest will end up in a revolting place called Hell where 'Satan', an employee of Jesus' father, will torture them for eternity.

    Where's the contradiction?
    ;)

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  7. Science concerns itself with the pysical and the observable. The conflict arises when religion also tries to dictate the physical, producing laughable results by scientific standards. (Creationism) It's definitely possible to be both religious and a scientist, one just has to realize that religious texts (the Bible etc...) were written by PEOPLE not Deities, with their own cultural bias and assumptions. You can't take mythology literally- there is discernible meaning behind the myths but the meanings have more to do with ideas and concepts than actual physical reality. Hard core religious persons use religion to dictate EVERY SINGLE aspect of their lives and try to impress their personal views on the collective, an unhealthy and unproductive habit.

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  8. Iktomi says,

    Science concerns itself with the physical and the observable.

    What else is there? Do you believe in things that are non-physical and unobservable? If so, why?

    (The other possibilities are non-physical and observable, or physical and unobservable.)

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  9. What else is there? Do you believe in things that are non-physical and unobservable? If so, why?

    Do you believe that emotions are real? Have you ever actually observed them in someone else? (and I don't mean just their correlated physical effects or expressions, inside or outside their bodies). I have good reason to believe that "anger" will exist in you when you read this, but can any scientist actually observe that in you? (not just it's effects or consequences).

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  10. Do you believe that emotions are real? Have you ever actually observed them in someone else? (and I don't mean just their correlated physical effects or expressions, inside or outside their bodies). I have good reason to believe that "anger" will exist in you when you read this, but can any scientist actually observe that in you? (not just it's effects or consequences).

    All of those are associated with specific biochemical activities in the brain and they are readily observable and explained by science.

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  11. All of those are associated with specific biochemical activities in the brain and they are readily observable and explained by science.

    You're missing the point. I said the emotion itself, not any physical activity associated with it. Of course, what I really mean is "subjective experience". Can objective science ever observe the subjective?

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  12. How do you define "subjective experience"?????

    Ultimately everything that happens in our brain is reducible to bio and electrochemical processes and we have absolutely zero reason to think there is something else other than the highly trustworthy Argument from Ignorance.

    We are a long way from simulating the whole human brain just because it is such a complex things and we still know so little about it but there is not reason to think we will not be able to do it

    Would the religious stop talking about the "soul" then? Of course not, they will just move the goal posts further away from the reach of science.

    And so on and so on...

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  13. Iktoi says,

    It's definitely possible to be both religious and a scientist, one just has to realize that religious texts (the Bible etc...) were written by PEOPLE not Deities, with their own cultural bias and assumptions. You can't take mythology literally- there is discernible meaning behind the myths but the meanings have more to do with ideas and concepts than actual physical reality.

    This is the key in the accomodation debate and why the new atheists want straight answers from Miller, Collins et. al. about what they believe w.r.t. religious claims about physical reality (virgin birth, a "soul" that is more than a concept or idea, etc.) Not to mention whether they believe that more than just PEOPLE had a hand in the holy texts.

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  14. It's definitely possible to be both religious and a scientist, one just has to realize that religious texts (the Bible etc...) were written by PEOPLE not Deities, with their own cultural bias and assumptions. You can't take mythology literally- there is discernible meaning behind the myths but the meanings have more to do with ideas and concepts than actual physical reality.

    So if the texts were written by people, why do we agree that they made up the Flood, the Garden of Eden, Adam & Eve, the virgin birth, etc., but we do not accept that they made up God too?

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  15. How do you define "subjective experience"?????

    I define subjective experience as that which can only be observed by a subject.

    Sure, science can analyze every detail of brain activity associated with the feeling of your anger, or your perception of color, or anything else subjective. But no one outside your consciousness can actually observe that experience, no matter how much they know about any physical process associated with it.

    The argument can be made that if everything that "exists" were objective or "physical", then your subjective experience should be observable like any other physical phenomena. But it isn't, is it? In order to observe how you experience the world, I would have to be you, and that involves some serious identity and perspective problems.

    Ultimately everything that happens in our brain is reducible to bio and electrochemical processes

    If science cannot observe or explain subjective experience, then something quite important is being lost in the reduction. The only way around it is to flat-out deny that your subjective experience exists.

    Would the religious stop talking about the "soul" then?

    As far as I'm concerned, it has nothing to do with religion. It is simply an unexplained philosophical problem. Whether or not it is a "scientific" problem, I will leave to others.

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  16. It is simply an unexplained philosophical problem.

    Not really. One has to always examine the origin of ideas and this one has clear religious roots, so deep that it becomes entirely pointless once you reject the basic premise that there is something non-material about our minds.

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  17. Not really. One has to always examine the origin of ideas and this one has clear religious roots

    Nonsense. First of all, the specific "origin" of an idea or question does not determine it's ultimate worthiness. Second, the origin is philosophical, not religious. No claims to a "soul" are made. See Nagel, Chalmers, among many others.

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  18. Just curious - why did you quote only half of the sentence?

    And once again, there is absolutely no reason to think that there is such a thing as "subjective experience". There are networks of neurons and chemical and electochemical signals between them. Given sufficient information (currently unrealistic in practice but possible in theory) and accounting for some stochasticity, one can replicate everyone's "subjective experience" in silico.

    Otherwise we have to also talk about the subjective experience of bacteria and viruses...

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  19. yes, i believe there are non-physical and non-observable phenomenon that clearly falls under the realm of religion and philosophy, etc... one classic example being the soul, which one will never be able to prove or disprove, but other, more practical, examples being morality and judgement- whether actions are right or wrong or justifiable. many people need that in their lives, whether it rationally makes sense to adopt a religion based on that or not, because without a religious moral base some people would be detrimental to society. (i personally do not need such a device, and no, i do not tend to be religious.) however i do see some value in religion as it satisfies what appears to be a core need of humanity- the idea of hope and permanence... that their lives, though seeming insignificant, have some meaning. whether this meaning is real or perceived is not the point- the point is the effect that this belief has on people. some people are "moved" to act (say, donating money to set up a hospital in a third world country where it is desperately needed) only because of moral ideals that they learned from their religion. not all people have this religious need, but some do, and certainly scientists are not "immune" to it just because of their profession. religion is a tool- it can be used to benefit society or collapse it, and has been used to either end many times.

    and yes, science may be able to explain such things as emotions, but science cannot use people's emotions to urge them to action, as religion can. religion is a motivating force, not intended to produce rational explanations, but the use of metaphors and stories to reassure humanity that their lives are worthwhile.

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  20. "So if the texts were written by people, why do we agree that they made up the Flood, the Garden of Eden, Adam & Eve, the virgin birth, etc., but we do not accept that they made up God too?"

    we do. :P again, religious texts do not have to be literally true to be relevent. science has to be literally true to be relevent. the difference is religion is not intended to literally explain current physical reality, its purpose is moral, motivational, and theraputic. :P i do not believe that the christian god exists, or the virgin birth, etc... but some people do. the concept of "god" cannot be proven or disproven by science... "god's" existence is a matter of belief and speculation. the issue isn't whether or not his existence is likely, but whether his existence is incompatible with current scientific knowledge. it is, of course, not completely incompatible. the literal interpretation of, say, the flood, is.

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  21. Iktomi,
    I think you are rationalizing post hoc the purpose of religion. What you describe is certainly not what the vast majority of religious people would know as 'religion'. Most people interpretation of religion is of a set of instructions on how to run your life given to mankind by a supernatural creator/creators who most certainly interacts with the natural world (which he would have to in order to make his instructions known).
    You say you believe in the 'soul'.
    What exactly is this and what is the evidence that it exists - at least what evidence is there that makes a soul more believable as an entity than say, a leprechaun?

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  22. I couldnt agree more with you. Thanks for posting this. That there should be a forced seperation between belief and science is very reactionary. If we dont live in a world where we are at least searching for answers, that is scientifically, we have lost a unique human pursuit that makes existence worthwhile. Thanks.

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  23. martin c,
    where did i say that i personally believed in the soul? and how is that relevent, since the soul is both an ambiguous concept and non-provable (or disprovable) by science?
    and no, i believe that the function of religion is exactly as i stated it. people become religious for various different reasons, (such as sense of community, sense of certainty, hope, permanence, etc...) but the structure as a whole seems to function as a sort of moral societal manipulation structure, for the purpose of enforcing socially acceptable behaviors through emotional persuasion, such as caring for others and giving people a reason not to kill or steal from each other, etc...

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  24. This is the first sentence of one of your posts:

    yes, i believe there are non-physical and non-observable phenomenon that clearly falls under the realm of religion and philosophy, etc... one classic example being the soul,

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  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  26. Iktomi, I certainly read the sentence Georgi Marinov quoted from you to mean you believed in the soul.
    As for the question of whether religions perform useful functions then that is entirely a separate matter from the one question we are addressing, namely are they true.
    Its pretty easy to imagine some imaginary religion that has zero basis in truth but does some good in the community (worshiping the great leprechaun who wants you to follow the golden rule and give 5% of your earnings to charity).
    I'm sure there are some people that benefit from current religions (and I don't just mean the priests) just as I'm sure that there were some people that benefited from Soviet communism.
    Likewise I wouldnt be surprised there were some Vikings or ancient greeks who behaved nicely to others, prompted by their particular religions rules.
    It still doesn't mean there was any truth behind the religions.
    And by the way following the golden rule is something us non believers generally tend to agree with also.

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  27. Nice post, Larry.

    For me, religion is nothing more than organized superstition. Religion can't explain anything about the real world. It can only pretend to explain; and historically, religion's attempts to explain have proven to be ludicrous.

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  28. actually, i thought the question we were dealing with here is whether or not science and religion are compatible. whether religion is true or not simply comes down to subjective opinion, and i find it useless to debate that.

    and yes, i guess it does sound like i believe in the soul from what i wrote. pardon me. the truth is i think that the existence of the soul is possible but uncertain. i don't really expect to know for sure until i die. and even then i may not know.

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  29. It is mostly definitely not a matter of subjective opinion; all religions make some very specific claims and they are usually either very objectively demonstrably false or unfalisfiable

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  30. Iktomi, when I, and I guess many other non-accomodationists make the point that religion and science are incompatible what we really mean is that 'some' religions are incompatible with science. These some religions happen to be the ones that are followed by the bulk of the worlds population. It is possible that a deistic belief could be compatible with science but in the context of believing scientists like Collins and Miller this is not what we find.
    As for the term 'science' what I mean is the scientific method, which I'd define simply as "the way we determine whether an idea about the natural world is wrong".
    This is certainly not compatible with theistic religious beliefs.

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  31. Scientists, atheists and other "skeptics" of religion tend to come across just like the most extreme of religious fundamentalists. It sounds as if you are up there on your ivory tower bellowing out that you are absolutely right, your method is absolutely right and those who don't listen to you "don't get it." What makes you absolutely sure you are right? Isn't science about inquiry not imposing of ideas, theories, etc? Or is it dogma? Many of these atheists don't understand religion. You merely brush it off as "superstition." What makes it superstition? What is supertitious about asking philosophical questions about our existence? That's the main point of religion. Have atheists read any philosophy of religion? Doesn't seem like it. Dennett is clear about the issue - religion doesn't merit study. Unless it's to trash it of course. Christianity, ironically, played a central role in the rise of modern science. The atheists may hate it, but it is an historical fact; you may not be able to prove it through "natural laws" but you can by researching history. So much for religion being blind faith or superstition. What seems blind is the way atheists these days intolerantly and dogmatic try and impose their way as the only way to reach truth. But how can you prove that what you find or the way you go about it is true? You only deal in the material. Who is to say that is all there is? You? How? Why should we take your word for it? Because you just know? Atheists demand proof of God but then turn around and ask for us to give them an exception and accept their premise of materialism without question, and if we don't they berate us. Atheists claim they are skeptics, but what they are really skeptical about, or should I say intolerant of, is anything that falls outside their materialistic worldview. Yes, worldview that is all it is. One among many. David Bohm remarked "what appears to be a stable, tangible, visible, audible world is an illusion. It is dynamic and kaleidoscopic, not really there."

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