Monday 18 May 2009

Darwin, Humanism and Science

On June 6th the British Humanist Association is hosting a one-day conference at Conway Hall in London on evolution - its teaching in schools, and the conflict between evolution and creationism. Until recently I would have been surprised to see a whole day devoted to this topic, as I wasn't aware that in Britain we had much of a problem with creationism. Then I discovered a creation museum within ten miles of where I live.

When I realised I could attend this event without taking time off work I decided that in view of my recent visit to said creation museum I really ought to go. It's now sold out, but fortunately I was in time to get a ticket. I hope to be reporting on the event here.

The programme, in brief, is as follows.
Welcome from Polly Toynbee, president of the BHA

‘Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution’
Professor Richard Dawkins

Teaching of evolution in European schools
Professor Charles Susanne, Free University of Brussels, Belgium

Insidious Creationism: the intellectual abuse of children through creationist books, comics and literature
James Williams, University of Sussex, England

Lost in education: on the cognitive biases that impede our acceptance of evolutionary theory
Johan De Smedt, University of Ghent, Belgium

“Evolutionary Humanism”: How to cope with the ‘moral’ arguments against evolution
Dr Michael Schmidt-Salomon, Giordano-Bruno Foundation, Germany

Hinduism and the Myth of Evolution
Babu Gogineni, International Humanist and Ethical Union, India

‘Humanism and Science’
Professor A C Grayling, Birkbeck College, London, England
This should be a comprehensive overview. The detailed schedule on the BHA website indicates there will be opportunities for questions.

Sunday 17 May 2009

The myth of "explanatory power"

A few weeks ago I watched a BBC TV programme entitled "The Narnia Code" in which Dr. Michael Ward, a C. S. Lewis expert, expounded his theory that Lewis's Christian allegory series of children's books, The Chronicles of Narnia, contain disguised references to medieval cosmology. It was fascinating stuff, as far as it went, though blown out of all proportion to its somewhat peripheral literary significance. But Dr. Ward has a book to promote, so I don't blame him for opportunistic hyperbole.

The TV show is due to be repeated tomorrow (May 18) at 7:30 pm on BBC Four:

Unfortunately the final ten minutes of the show goes unnecessarily god-cute, bringing on such dubious luminaries as John Polkinghorne, who beamingly mumbles some trite non sequiturs – in particular the irrelevant notion that the idea of God as Creator is more "explanatory" than the naturalistic model.

What, pray, does the idea of a creator-god explain? The naturalistic thesis attempts to propose mechanisms of how things happen (or happened), to suggest explanations in terms of scientific knowledge we already have, in an effort to further that knowledge. How does saying "Goddidit" explain anything? At all? Tell me, please – I really would like to know.

Polkinghorne and other god-bods often use the phrase "explanatory power" when contending that the god hypothesis is more useful than scientific uncertainty, but it's high time such vacuous buzz-wordology was challenged and sent packing. I've no objection, in philosophical terms, to people of faith holding to their idea of a first cause for the universe – I think there's no evidence for such a view, though I appreciate some people subscribe to it. But if anyone says such a view offers any kind of "explanatory power" my response will be, "give me an explanation."

Saying that for whatever reason we can't possibly understand the supreme transcendent complexity of God's act of creation does not offer even a scrap of "explanatory power", and theists should stop claiming it does.

Saturday 16 May 2009

Burnee links for Saturday

Irish Atheists Speak Out! | AnAtheist.Net

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Who'd be female under Islamic law? - Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Commentators - The Independent

Jacob Dickerman: Swines and Birds and Homeopaths, Oh My!

JREF - Shouting Fire
Dispassionate analysis of the ethics of the anti-vaccination lobby

Derren Brown Blog » Blog Archive » Wolverhampton
A tale of ultimate redemption

The Santa Barbara Independent - Reading, Writing, and Original Sin
Another example of how religious evangelists consider that "the end justifies the means"

Accommodationism and All That : EvolutionBlog

Go-faster shark skin swim suits - Creation Science Movement
The science of imitating nature to produce more effective designs is called biomimetics (3). There are many applications, including robotic arms, variable geometry aircraft wings, and this one. It seems that as so often is the case, God got there first!
It seems that as so often is the case, creationists simply ignore the overwhelming evidence for evolution.

Rumours of God's return are greatly exaggerated | David Aaronovitch - Times Online

The Tale of the Twelve Officers -
(via Modusoperandi commenting at Daylight Atheism)

This is what might be called a parable about the "problem of evil". My own take on the POE (or theodicy, in its supposedly reconciled form) is that it isn't much of a concern. For the problem of evil actually to be a problem, you have to believe in a good god. Those of us who don't believe in the existence of gods of any kind do not find our worldviews confounded by something as illogical as theodicy. In the same way we do not concern ourselves with statistical analysis of the likely average length of the typical unicorn's horn, nor with the wing-folding techniques most probably employed by angels who dance on the head of a pin.

Monday 4 May 2009

Non-overlapping scepticism

Within what might loosely be called the sceptical community there is a faction holding that scepticism should be confined to matters of "woo-woo" – in general such things as alternative medicine, astrology, lay-lines, dowsing, claims of psychic ability, spiritual mediumship, alien abduction and so forth, and should not be concerned with religion. Daniel Loxton, editor of Junior Skeptic, in his 2007 essay "Where Do We Go From Here?" – an impassioned rallying cry to sceptical endeavour – suggested that the atheism/theism debate was diverting scepticism from its true concerns, and urged a return to those concerns. (Incidentally you can hear him deliver the essay in episode 63 of the Skepticality podcast. Note also that there is now a follow-up publication, "What Do I Do Next?")

To me, this partitioning of religious scrutiny has a flavour of Stephen Jay Gould's non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), an idea suggesting that science and religion are separate disciplines addressing different things: science being concerned with the material, physical realities of the universe, and religion with the spiritual, moral aspects of human life. I find this to be a false distinction, and it can be seen as such by looking at religious claims (and their tacit assumptions). For example the Catholic Church recently complained that Reiki, a form of "energy healing", isn't backed up by scientific evidence. It's hard to believe that those Catholics behind this statement don't see the huge irony of what they are saying.

From the scientific point of view NOMA would be just fine – science isn't concerned with the spiritual or moral aspects of life. At least, not until religion attempts its own overlapping on to the scientific side – which it does all the time (see the Catholics' objections to embryonic stem-cell research, or the Pope's claim that condom use increases the incidence of HIV in Africa, for example). NOMA is all very well, but "you leave us alone, we'll leave you alone" only works if both sides play by the rules. They don't, and the biggest offender is the religious side.

Science, I admit, does encroach on to the "spiritual" side occasionally, but usually only as a result of specific challenges. Scientists have little incentive to keep to their own side when religion is so blatant about not doing so itself.

Another problem with confining scepticism, as a movement, to "woo-woo" is the tricky matter of delineation. Does excluding religion also exclude spiritual mediumship? I think it does. But the existence of communicating spirits, or of ghosts in general (or faeries, or aliens for that matter) are clearly matters warranting scientific investigation. As is, therefore, the existence of a god.

Jerry Coyne fueled the debate recently with a blog-post entitled "Truckling to the Faithful: A Spoonful of Jesus Helps Darwin Go Down" in which he took issue with the US National Academy of Science and the National Center for Science Education's "accommodationist" stance regarding the compatibility of science and religion.

Coyne's post may be incendiary, but when we're dealing with what's true and what's false, clouding the issues with equivocation will be ultimately counterproductive.

Sunday 3 May 2009

Burnee links for Sunday

Truckling to the Faithful: A Spoonful of Jesus Helps Darwin Go Down « Jerry Coyne

The Skeptics’ Book of Pooh-Pooh » Anti-vaxers “hysterical” over accurate and positive report on vaccination

Terry Eagleton: The liberal supremacists | Comment is free | The Guardian

Catholic adoption agency throws in the towel over discrimination appeal | National Secular Society

The Skeptics’ Book of Pooh-Pooh » A brief report from today’s debate.

Pharyngula: High school teacher guilty of telling the truth…oh, and Chad Farnan is an idiot

Should Blasphemous Atheists Be Fined? | AnAtheist.Net

Andrew Brown: Richard Dawkins and the culture of contempt | Comment is free |

Ed Balls puts the squeeze on faith schools | Francis Davis | Comment is free |

Kenneth R Miller: Seals, evolution, and the real 'missing link' | Comment is free |

Lies, damned lies - and blatant statistical lies | David Aaronovitch - Times Online
This article is several weeks old but contains useful illustrations of unreliable statistics.

Credo: Motivated belief and the stringent search for truth - John Polkinghorne - Times Online
I don't know if Polkinghorne chose to put "stringent search for truth" in the title of his piece for The Times a few weeks ago or whether it was done by a sub-editor. Because stringent it isn't. He considers evidence for the resurrection of Christ:
The New Testament offers two lines of evidence. One line is the appearance stories, strangely varied, yet with a surprisingly persistent theme, that initially it was hard to recognise the risen Christ. I believe that this is a genuine historical reminiscence, indicating that these are not just a bunch of made-up tales constructed by a variety of early Christians.
Hardly stringent. Perhaps the reason that the risen Christ was hard to identify was that it wasn't him.
Then there are the empty-tomb stories. If these were just concocted, why make women the discoverers when they were regarded as unreliable witnesses in the ancient world?
This, as any confidence trickster will tell you, is known as a double bluff. If you want to concoct an incredible story, this kind of obfuscation is precisely what you need to second-guess the naysayers.

Sorry, not impressed.

Christians: this is how your taxes are being spent in the middle of a recession :: Damian Thompson

Diet and health. What can you believe: or does bacon kill you?

For God's sake, why have blasphemous libel? - The Irish Times - Thu, Apr 30, 2009

For the love of God - Features - TES