Gene Expression

Martin Nowak, man of God

Carl Zimmer has a fascinating profile of Martin Nowak, whose work I have talked about before. Carl saves the best for last:

Dr. Nowak sometimes finds his scientific colleagues astonished when he defends religion. But he believes the astonishment comes from a misunderstanding of the roles of science and religion. “Like mathematics, many theological statements do not need scientific confirmation. Once you have the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, it’s not like we have to wait for the scientists to tell us if it’s right. This is it.”


  1. #1 Caledonian
    July 31, 2007

    Nice little worldview he has there. Only problem is that mathematics and logic are subsets of science.

    Rather a crippling flaw, that.

  2. #2 razib
    July 31, 2007

    Only problem is that mathematics and logic are subsets of science.

    depends on how you define science. i tend to see them as tools or instruments toward scientific inquiry, not sciences in & of themselves. rather, i think math & logic are extrapolations of philosophy.

  3. #3 Tyler DiPietro
    July 31, 2007

    Another rather crippling flaw in the argument is that mathematics is epistemologically far less ambiguous than theology, which relies much more on presuppositions and cultural contingencies. And although they are superficially similar in their a priori and analytic bent, the level of rigor isn’t equal by any stretch of the imagination. A “proof” in theology is something no self-respecting mathematician should venture to sneeze on. IMO it’s much closer to philosophy than math.

  4. #4 razib
    July 31, 2007

    A “proof” in theology is something no self-respecting mathematician should venture to sneeze on. IMO it’s much closer to philosophy than math.

    yes. continental philosophy at that 😉 the power of the rhetorical exposition is strongly contingent on cultural biases. e.g., for a christian hindu metaphysics is obvious gibberish, and for a hindu christian theology is obvious gibberish.

  5. #5 Enigman
    July 31, 2007

    Maybe “proof” means something different in theology though, just as it does in maths: In maths it usually means that the conclusion has been shown to follow (by accepted logic) from accepted axioms (usually those of standard set theory, in the case of the sort of maths that gets used by scientists; axioms that are epistemically mysterious).

  6. #6 Caledonian
    July 31, 2007

    rather, i think math & logic are extrapolations of philosophy.

    Interesting. I think philosophy (when it is actually practiced, instead of being a refined academic form of wankery) is logic conducted with natural languages while mathematics is logic conducted with a reduced but very specific set of symbols.

    Both can only be known through empirical observation and experimentation.

  7. #7 Oliver
    July 31, 2007

    Both can only be known through empirical observation and experimentation.

    There is nothing about logic that follows out of “empirical observation and experimentation”. As was stated above, it is simply an exercise of following an axiom to its consequences. Empirical observations will NEVER give you a truly unambigious answer, logic however will tell you “If I accept A to be true, I also have to accept B to be true and C cannot be true.”

    Empirical observation and experimentation can only give you a “Given the data at hand, it is highly unlikely that B is true and very likely that A is true.” And in fact, to arrive at that, you already have to have used logic.

  8. #8 Caledonian
    July 31, 2007

    There is nothing about logic that follows out of “empirical observation and experimentation”. As was stated above, it is simply an exercise of following an axiom to its consequences.

    Which you can only accomplish by setting up a physical system and watching how it turns out. That the system in question is inside your skull instead of outside is irrelevant.

    Deriving the consequences of a set of statements is a computational process carried out in the physical world. Understanding it requires observation and experimentation.

  9. #9 Sandgroper
    July 31, 2007

    I wonder what he would give as an example of a theological statement that is analogous to the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

    I wonder why he feels the need to defend religion.

    I wonder if it is all religion he defends or just his own.

    You can’t derive religious faith from logic. (Sandgroper’s First Theorem.)

  10. #10 Sandphoenix
    July 31, 2007

    Re: “sandgroper’s first theorem,” agreed, but you CAN derive religious REASON from logic. The faith is just the personal response to the derived reason.

    Re: Nowak’s statement, “Evolution describes the fundamental laws of nature according to which God chose to unfold life,” there is a fundamental flaw — mega-evolutionary theory requires the SUSPENSION of natural laws (i.e. Law of Biogenesis – life comes from life), to explain the origin of life, rather than nature adhering to such laws.

  11. #11 Oran Kelley
    July 31, 2007

    Nice little worldview he has there. Only problem is that mathematics and logic are subsets of science.

    Rather a crippling flaw, that.

    Well, it depends on whether you look on this as a serious argument in support of religion–which I don’t–or whether it is merely an apologia.

    What he’s saying is that there is an independent “truth system” by which theological truths may be verified. Experimentation is not needed to verify the proof to Fermat’s Last Theorem. Neither will it have much to say about theological “truths.”

    I don’t think this is advanced as a means to convert doubters–it is more or less a plea to be left alone to believe and to try to assimilate the world as it is into their belief system.

    Personally, I am perfectly willing to do that.

  12. #12 Colugo
    July 31, 2007

    Even naturalistic metaphysics rests on unprovable axioms. A hardline instrumentalist might say that metaphysics is irrelevant anyway. That’s fine, but it doesn’t make a dent in either deistic or theistic metaphysics, and certainly not in generic teleology.

    Anyway, who here thinks that Nowak might be another WD Hamilton or Trivers in terms of importance in advancing evolutionary theory? He’s moving some topics from the descriptive and speculative realm to quantitative models.

    I’ve read some of Nowak’s articles; it’s time I read Evolutionary Dynamics.

  13. #13 razib
    July 31, 2007

    colugo, they got the lower hanging fruit 😉 but nowak has computers so perhaps that spans the chasm? and just to make sure, ev. dynamics is quasi-popular coffee table bookish. it isn’t like ‘narrow roads of gene land.’

  14. #14 Caledonian
    July 31, 2007

    Experimentation is not needed to verify the proof to Fermat’s Last Theorem.

    Yes it is – the observation of the evaluation of the argument is an experiment.

  15. #15 Daniel Dare
    July 31, 2007

    Even if you confirm a logical proposition in a given axiomatic system, using a computation inside your head; it doesn’t mean it applies as an actual description of objective reality (i.e the wider world) though, unless experimental observation confirms it to within experimental accuracy.

    The number of self-consistent mathematical-logical systems is far higher than the number of viable theories about objective natural reality.

    So, by analogy, even if you proved a “theology” was internally self-consistent, it doesn’t follow it is a viable theory about “supernatural reality” whatever that may or may not be. There’s no confirmation test, other than dying of course and that doesn’t help those who are still alive.

    The generally-approved technique for practically-minded people to solve this dilemma, is a sharp slash with Ockham’s Trusty Razor®.

    Of course there’s nothing stopping consenting adults in private from indulging themselves in any weird practices they like…… including fantasy role-playing games like “Religion”.

  16. #16 Caledonian
    August 1, 2007

    Even if you confirm a logical proposition in a given axiomatic system, using a computation inside your head; it doesn’t mean it applies as an actual description of objective reality (i.e the wider world) though,

    Not quite. Mathematical models don’t necessarily imply anything about the phenomena they’re supposed to be about. The interaction of concepts, which is what’s actually being directly studied, is part of objective reality. That’s what the experiment is really about: “What is the result of an evaluation of these statements?”

    People have gotten away with treating ‘abstractions’ as though they were magic Platonic concepts totally independent of the uncertainties of observation and the rest of reality for far too long. Mathematicians (if they’re any good) are scientists, studying the nature of concepts. They don’t have access to universal and eternal truths, just local observations of experimental scenarios.

    What if (hypothetically speaking) there were a flaw in human neurology that caused our evaluation of certain logical statements to be consistently wrong? What if the flaw made it impossible for us to conceptualize the error?

  17. #17 Daniel Dare
    August 1, 2007

    People have gotten away with treating ‘abstractions’ as though they were magic Platonic concepts totally independent of the uncertainties of observation and the rest of reality for far too long.

    That’s fascinating. I love that computational interpretation. Platonism has always been metaphysically worrying to me.

  18. #18 marsveblint
    August 1, 2007

    I think I remember the Derb once describing a conversation he had with some mathematicians regarding Godel’s Incompleteness. He found it unnerving that they did not consider it a crisis. Then, I believe, he cured himself of nerves by realizing it actually, really, is not a crisis. Someone should ask him how he’s doing though, just to be sure.

    I’m not a paid expert but I think all of the science community would benefit from scanning the Hilary Putnam wikipedia entry. In particular, his “indispensability argument.” There actually has been quite a bit of progress made in epistemology during the 20th century, but I don’t think it’s had the appropriate press. I will bet that if you take a sample of most ongoing university curricula on the subject of epistemology naturalized, you’ll find that most paid philosophy professors teaching epistemology tend to blow off the importance of this work. I’m not saying this would be surprising, as most American philosophy departments are still run by those specialists who owe their careers to catching serendipitous updrafts of 20t-century literary fashion, as opposed to those with any science background, or any background that might actually ‘transgress the boundaries’ between academic communities, as it were. But I do think this is a condition that persists, namely heightened cultural expectations of the ultimate applicability of logical axioms, and I think it is a major cause of mutual disappointment and even resentment between the mathematical and scientific communities. Science is accountable to certain external tests of reliability, while logic often seems little more than an aesthetic or quasi-religious farce. Putnam explained how this is just not true, and derivatively so, scientists would be well served to swap indignation for something else.

    In this sense, Nowak may very well be like a WD Hamilton in that academic communities still rehashing last century’s epistomological ‘problems’ may very well completely miss his point for years, until time and progress fills in the rest of the page that he is currently on. Further – and maybe this is the point Colugo is already alluding to – Hamilton’s Rule has not yet been proven scientifically, yet it remains acceptable to assume its general validity until or unless it is falsified. (If prophecy ages like wine, Nowak seems well vested with a theory that religion is okay.)

    Right now I’ll bet geneticists are in a position to sense better than any other type of scientist – with the possible exceptions of, say, physicists – just how deeply that indispensability relationship is configured. The natural reaction is to think Nowak is silly, because we are also operating on our to-date conceptions of religion, and we are not unfounded. However comments like Nowak’s above are less rare these days, and the ideas have been gaining the attention – even if only fashionable to start – of a number of emerging christian communities in the West that are themselves feeling an impetus to reconsider the dichotomous relationship between their religious identities and scientific revelation.

    Some individual like Brian McLaren may not have even heard of Martin Nowak, and certainly most people haven’t, even as most people have some susceptibility to religious thought. Nonetheless there are ideological similarities, possibly even more intriguing due to their unwittingness, that appear to run straight through a number of key points in the history of the European Enlightenment. There is more to this than coincidence. If I were to editorialize, these people are not so misguided; I find them to be naturally like adolescents learning how to drive, very vulnerable to embarrassment, as science often does have this effect on a popular scale. I remember that Carl Sagan actually did do something good for science, even while exposing himself to a lifetime of jeers and death threats, in addition to eye-rolling from his own colleagues, by having the gall to approach superstitious people with the assumption that, deep down, and on the large, we are not beyond a common understanding of the universe.

    Of course we cannot help but imagine the misguided or hyperactive applications of what Nowak is suggesting. But we already have some political conditioning against that, which might be described as the silver lining of Bush-era neoconservatism. There is plenty to reflect upon for a western populace still mired in international conflict, conspicuous wealth disparities, and other kinds of untenable dissonance brought about by the worst of applied Platonism. I speak of the noble lies and ‘a priori’ projections that Plato once casually endorsed two millennia ago, and which so many of our contemporary intellectuals still insist are panaceaic when mixed with neoclassical economic models. That both credible science figures and members of the historically-superstitious masses may actually be poised for an information-age political resonance (renaissance?) on the issue of increasing contiguity between the “conceptually true” and the “empirically true,” could mean bigger opportunities for science than our initial gut reactions would indicate.

    In hindsight, some of these opportunities can take decades or even centuries to re-emerge. I believe the bulk of most pre-naturalist epistemological arguments of the early 20th century can be viewed as derivative searches for an alternative to Kant’s grand failure, namely that his project to define the cosmos into ‘categories of thought’ had the unfortunate effect of defining a necessary discontinuity between rational and empirical truth. Even to those who found Kant’s entire project incredibly stupid were coerced toward the conclusion that if some ‘pure’ logos still exists, it is indeed human-independent, making our knowledge of it agnostic or deistic at best. Colugo laments to this effect above, and it has been well over 200 years since Kant stopped publishing. What most of us, including myself, still hope for during our lifetimes is a socially acceptable viewpoint that confirms Kant’s inimitable stupidity (and, for a bonus, an outright ouster from the canons of western philosophy,) but still allows for the idea that “purer” forms of knowledge are fit for mortal description, and thus offer real access to understanding. If that doesn’t sound like the essence of religious thought, then I might suggest there is an equivocation of the word ‘religion’ with something else, such as “tradition” or “complacency,” that should be cleared up as a priority matter of business.

    Razib said the rest with “Nowak has computers so perhaps that spans the chasm.” Even if computers don’t span the chasm completely, they are bound to put the Enlightenment project back on proper task in our institutions very soon. If the general public should someday see a high water mark, then so be it; at least we have the hope that the knowledge gained can be preserved, somehow. If the winter is long term, then the best available container will be religion.

    “Theology” is a bit loaded. This site has gone off on numerous distinct types or aspects of theology in the past, some which deserve more or less ridicule in comparison modern scientific rhetoric or method. Scholasticism was the popular mode of rhetoric in the Copernican era, and some kind of neoconservative fundamentalist Christian evangelical binary seems to be the most popular mode of late. The whole of ‘theology’ within that span may very well only be a cloud of ecclesiastical gibberish, yet somehow it ran parallel through the very birth and triumph of western science. It may be that it was a coincidence, or that science did emerge in spite of ‘theology.’ But nonetheless at this point, it might be a wise strategy for the science community to consider a positive reclamation of the term, as opposed to conceding it as the sole province of incorrigible shitheads.

    Although Caledonian would get a D in most any undergraduate philosophy course just for uttering these claims that formalism is actually accountable to scientific experimentation, I agree with those statements. But I’ll also take Oran’s point that this does not make Nowak an apologetic.

    So like I’m saying, Hilary Putnam, okay.

    Thanks gnxp for allowing me to post a million-word monster. I am embarrassed and I promise it will never happen again.

  19. #19 Daniel Dare
    August 1, 2007


    Just a clarification there. It has never been a problem to me that Platonic-level reality might actually exist in some sense. I’m thinking of something like Max Tegmark’s Level 4 Cosmology. The problem has always been: How did we ever learn about it?

  20. #20 Daniel Dare
    August 1, 2007


    …and I think it is a major cause of mutual disappointment and even resentment between the mathematical and scientific communities.

    I don’t know what you were talking about here. I’ve spend some time hanging around physics as a sort of besotted admirer, and I always felt there was a total seamless crossover between mathematical physics and mathematics. With many of the same practitioners publishing in both areas.

    I mean like William Rowan Hamilton, John von Neumann, and David Hilbert just to name 3.

    The only ill-feeling I am aware of is that physicists like to take shortcuts, and they sometimes feel a little guilty when they are found out. That doesn’t stop them doing it though. Sometimes they have to, because they are so far ahead of the mathematics.

    Although Caledonian would get a D in most any undergraduate philosophy course just for uttering these claims that formalism is actually accountable to scientific experimentation, I agree with those statements.

    I feel: What other alternative is there? Other than a kind of Darwinian argument; that the reason our logic works is because millions of years of natural selection has so imbued our minds with the “logic of reality” that, merely by thinking introspectively, cosmic laws come tumbling out of our imaginations. The problem here being that we evolved on the plains of Africa; while the laws apply even in galaxies 10 billion light-years away – their light having left them long before the Earth was formed. Some of the laws, say like General Relativity, involve parameters that are utterly undetectable on Earth without the most sensitive instrumentation. But they dominate in places like the center of galaxies where giant Black Holes are said to dwell. The number of early humans that adapted to life in such places is believed to have been small. (“The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” as Eugene Wigner put it).

    If we say instead: OK we can pretend to be Universal Turing Machines and run any kind of logic you like as an experiment. Then we are guided by empiricism every step of the way, and there is no puzzle if we turn up the correct answer.

  21. #21 j mct
    August 1, 2007

    I believe it was JBS Haldane who is the author of the quote “The universe may not only be queerer than we imagine, but queerer that we can imagine”. He’s one of you biologists, so he’s gotta be smart! Haldane here isn’t really making a comment about the universe, what he is making is a comment about is the power of the human mind, is it powerful enough to understand, or contain, the universe, or not.

    In order to do metaphysics to the hilt and reason one’s way to what the predicates of God are, one needs a lot of confidence in the power of the human mind. Disregarding stuff about language and the like, in order to consider the end point of one’s reason to be sound, one must assume that not only is the universe not queerer than we can imagine, no possible world or God himself is queerer than we can imagine. Again, in saying this, we are not saying something about the world, other possible worlds, or God, we are saying something about the power of the human mind, in the thing that it does, understand, it approaches infinity so to speak. If the human mind is not infinitely efficient at what it does, what would something ‘queerer than we can imagine’ look like. Square circles are certainly ‘queerer that we can imagine’, unicorns are not. The logically impossible must be able to exist, and something we thought logically impossible must be the case if the universe is queerer than we can imagine.

    One can see why the West comes up with science. In order to think science worth the trouble, there really is a pony in there, and I mean not as of 2007, but as of 1407, one must need quite a bit of confidence in the power of the human mind. The medievals were quite aware of the assumptions underlying metaphysics with this regard, one’s that agrees with them were called ‘realists’ ones that did not were called ‘nominalists’. Richard Rorty and Nietzsche are good modern examples of nominalists. Thomistic metaphysics and it’s underlying assumptions were taught in schools for about 300 years before science gets off the ground, and I don’t think that’s an accident.

    If one thinks that the product human thought per the question as to ‘why is there anything at all’, actually has anything to do with the right answer, if there is an answer, the upshot is that one must already believe in God beforehand, since there is no way any ‘unguided’ or an ‘untweaked’ evolutionary process spits such a creature out, and if evolution is not unguided there is really only one answer to what is the guide, or careful arranger of the initial conditions. So metaphysican has to assume God in order to prove He exists, so he cannot prove it. It also seems to me, that if the physicists ever come up with the ‘final theory’ they talk about, ‘unguided evolution’ has to go too, given that if one knew the theory was ‘final’, it would have to be arrived at deductively, implying that the human mind could get onto the same ‘Platonic inside track’ the universe is on. Complex number theory looks pretty fantastic too, though I’m sure that some evo psych dude can come up with something, thereby causing a derisive Fred Reed article and causing Razib much pain in that he’d have to agree with Reed. Don’t do that to Razib!

    Per stuff above:

    Razib: Keep thinking of stuff like ‘laws of physics’ as instruments or gadgets, because that’s exactly what they are! F=(g*m1*m2)/(r^2) is not something one can call true or false, it’s either useful of useless for getting a job done, in this case spitting out the right answer to some question. Just like a socket wrench. “Laws of physics” also are only about ‘the world’ indirectly, what they are about directly about are groups of numbers called measurement sets.

    Math is not ‘naturalistic’, not at all.

    Very interesting thread, but I’ve gotta go.

  22. #22 j mct
    August 1, 2007

    One last, when Wigner discusses the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’, whether he realized it or not, he’s really commenting about the unreasonable power of the human mind. Math is something human minds do.

  23. #23 Oran Kelley
    August 1, 2007

    Experimentation is not needed to verify the proof to Fermat’s Last Theorem.

    Yes it is – the observation of the evaluation of the argument is an experiment.

    Sorry, but I have no idea whatsoever what this means. Please describe the experiment. As far as I know this was a proof, not an experiment.

  24. #24 marsveblint
    August 2, 2007

    “Interesting thread” indeed. At 6:14 this evening I made the decision to get rid of all my other friends.

    Dan Dare: Re: interdisciplinary resentment: I have a bad habit of resorting to vague and overbroad statements when footnoting would be more appropriate. “Science community” is a perilously vague term, I admit, but the alternative would be a lot of footnoting. Also, I admit I am a couple years removed from the place where I formed most of my opinions on the state of interdisciplinary relations, although I am on the job regularly when it comes to scanning department activities, mission statements, curricula, of my alma mater. So I appreciate counterarguments to any statements I make that mischaracterize the broader case. I understand things are turning over faster now than ever, and I am personally very self conscious my hipness, or non-hipness. If indeed the information age has cut away those tensions, then it is good news. However, Dare, I might confirm that the statement you posted immediately before mine above is generally all to which I refer, and I believe it does linger inside major institutions, even if periodic cursory reviews of philosophy department curricula are all I have to go on these days:

    “People have gotten away with treating ‘abstractions’ as though they were magic Platonic concepts totally independent of the uncertainties of observation and the rest of reality for far too long.”

    Here is a link that is delightful:

    This man’s anger is exquisite. I believe this is the one with the bonus veblen reference, poor Thomas who would never wish to hurt a fly is implicated as a patsy for the grand conspiracy.

    I am with you that phycisists are due besotted admiration. Math works for them because they throw out what isn’t instrumental. But try forcing theory on them, e.g. show up to one of their parties with a drunken smirk and start announcing that “Grothendieck owns your future,” or something like that, and watch what happens.

    The best physicist I ever saw was in an undergrad epistemology course. She was a masters fellow auditing it for kicks, and appeared quite enthused, along with the rest of us besotted admirers, about her ability to add value to discussion. For the first two or three sessions she was marvelous in practice, answering the professor’s Socratics with eloquence and charm, punctuating her statements with lovely smiles, until we were suspecting she was a legitimate shill. As the syllabus intensified, however, she became noticeably and increasingly disconnected, the smiles were noticeably replaced with not-so-subtle expressions of incredulity, until one day she didn’t show up, and we never saw her again. I will never forgive that instructor, nor the institution that mandated his oppressive curriculum, for taking her away from me.

    I am not sure whether Razib’s allusion to ‘contingency on cultural bias’ way above was an intended reference to epistemic functionalism, but it is probably safe to say that physics and math are seamless within a “quasi-empirical” view of science and math. Somewhere along that philosophical lineage, in my opinion, is where we would find our alternative to this artificial watershed between ’empiricism’ and ‘rationalism’ and their respective derivatives that has been going on for at least three centuries, if not another 20. A quick survey of most major U.S. Universities shows that my (and Caledonian’s) concerns are about as valuable as an occasional footnote on Quine, or a stray biennial seminar on Putnam buried deep in the graduate bulletin.

    The disgruntled physicist I noted above happened to be of some central asian heritage. Aside from astounding me with her beauty and soothing inflections like some kind of purified iteration of Arundhati Roy, the rest of the predominantly Caucasian class informally agreed that, at least for the two short weeks she was with us, this twentysomething physicist generally trumped our pentagenarian Caucasian male instructor’s pedagogy in both style and effect. This topped off a number of experiences I had accumulated along a fairly diverse curriculum that suggested the mainline Western Philosophical tradition as it is represented in U.S. academic system, had at some point in the near past begun to eat itself. The vast majority of what has come to be known as ‘postmodernism’ even as of 2007 is still little more than annoying gibberish, and at best deserves a major distillation before anything useful comes of it, however if any of the latent ‘non-modernist’ products should succeed what gibberish already forms the popular conception of ‘postmodern philosophy,’ the concept of “functional isomorphism” ought to qualify as a prime candidate.

    Notwithstanding that continuous streak of Platonic (realist) metaphysics that clearly funds the history of western science, I still don’t think the characterization of entire curricula on these metaphysics is necessary for Philosophy departments that wish to continue housing under the same roof the disciplines of Phil of Math, Phil of Science, and Theology. Going back to the issue of interdisciplinary resentment above, I think the age of informatics may be as good a cue as any, that very soon might be a good time to start with the overhaul. As a common everyday asshole off the street I expect at least a good fraction of Nowak’s “Evolutionary Dynamics” to be over my head, but just checking the guy’s work history suggests to me that he occupies a position to speak on religion that even the goddamn Pope might envy.

    I am somewhat distracted by all the cursing on this blog. Gotta split.

    Bye Bye Now

  25. #25 Daniel Dare
    August 2, 2007

    Oran, he is arguing that the process of finding a proof is an experimental one. He is also assuming that the brain is a computation machine, or at least, is able to operate as one.

    He is arguing that proofs are programs for successful computational experiments run as operations on our brain hardware. Every time someone checks the proof they are actually re-running the computation in their own brain. Hence they are repeating the experiment and confirming the result.

  26. #26 Daniel Dare
    August 2, 2007

    Sorry to answer for Caledonian, but I’m not sure if he’s still following this thread, and it’s such a brilliant concept it’s a shame if you missed it.

  27. #27 Daniel Dare
    August 2, 2007

    At 6:14 this evening I made the decision to get rid of all my other friends.

    That is extremely reckless of you marsveblint. Some of us are only temporary drifters, blown here by the wind. Seriously though, Razibs two blogs are great havens of enlightenment as are most of the ScienceBlogs.

    even if periodic cursory reviews of philosophy department curricula are all I have to go on these days

    Then you are better connected than me, for I only surf the Web from home these days. You should talk to Jaakkeli who passes through from time to time and who is seriously suspected of being a real physicist. Perhaps he can give you the latest gossip.

    show up to one of their parties with a drunken smirk and start announcing that “Grothendieck owns your future,” or something like that, and watch what happens.

    Ah but that is only tribalism of no deeper significance. Science is such a competitive blood-sport, that their reaction would be exactly the same if the name dropped on them was that of another physicist at some other institution. In fact it might even be worse. Being beaten by a mathematician would be much easier to rationalize. The skillset and temperament is different. Being beaten by a direct peer would bring much deeper shame.

    The last word on postmodernism for me was Alan Sokal’s wonderful prank. You’ve no doubt heard of it. It confirmed all my worst suspicions.

  28. #28 Daniel Dare
    August 2, 2007

    Philosophy departments that wish to continue housing under the same roof the disciplines of Phil of Math, Phil of Science, and Theology

    Philosophy? Who knew?
    In my library at home I always classify theology in the “Fantasy & Other Speculative Fiction” section. Along with new age, the occult, mythology and other similar branches of the creative arts.

  29. #29 Sandgroper
    August 2, 2007

    DD – I was recently cast into gloom/disbelief by the news that a university in Oz (normally a serious one) is going to start up a combined school of sport and spirituality (‘spirituality’ in this case meaning the particular branch of Christianity favoured by the prime mover of this stroke of educational genius), based on the immutable logic that Jesus was a ‘carpenter’ (no he wasn’t) and therefore must have been physically fit, so the two naturally are inextricably intertwined.


    Please, somebody stop them. Let them teach theology in the theological colleges if that is what they wish, by people who are at least serious and dedicated theologians, attended by people who wish to believe in it – their free choice, not my bizness. But not this.

  30. #30 Sandgroper
    August 2, 2007

    “Having originated in France, this pervertedness quickly spread…..” (On Teaching Mathematics by V.I. Arnold)

    If you connect that to the Neanderthal thread, he could have been describing the history of the modern world.

  31. #31 Daniel Dare
    August 2, 2007

    Really, secular educational institutions have no business teaching any religious material. The thing is, that universities are now businesses, and they will teach whatever the market wants. I wonder how that course is funded.

  32. #32 Sandgroper
    August 2, 2007

    DD – no idea, but at a guess the Anglicans will be contributing, given that’s the denomination of the prime mover.

    Having said that, the same university already has a school of Moslem studies. I don’t really have so much of a problem with that, because it’s not really a vehicle for pushing religion so much as an academic examination of Islam and the issues it throws up in the modern world.

    I wouldn’t have any objection to the teaching of religion in a holistic, objective and balanced manner as a proper academic field which makes clear what it is about, but this subterfuge to push one branch of an organized religion under the guise of education should be illegal. The Anglicans can preach all they want in the churches they’ve already got. Except they’re suffering from chronic shortage of numbers – I know, I used to go to one when I was a kid.

    I wonder what the product will be – Bachelor of Sports and Anglicanism. Should be big demand in the job market for that one – erm, let’s see, PhysEd teachers in Anglican private schools…..*stumped*

  33. #33 Daniel Dare
    August 2, 2007

    I think you are missing the agenda Sandgroper.
    Sport and Anglicanism combines the two most sacred cows of establishment Australia.

    This is obviously a plot to pave the way for Australian Rules Football to become the new State religion of the Commonwealth as soon as a new constitutional referendum displaces the foreign theocratic monarchy and brings in our own blessed Republic.

  34. #34 Oran Kelley
    August 2, 2007

    Well, then, is Nowak’s evaluation of the existence of God an experiment, too. And we can regard the existence of God now as having been shown empirically?

  35. #35 Daniel Dare
    August 2, 2007

    Oran, I’d say Nowak’s belief in the existence of God has been demonstrated empirically.

    The thought experiment can only prove the self consistency of the proof. It doesn’t prove that the proposition being asserted is a valid theory about reality. That would require empirical validation from the outside world itself.

    Just a quick cursory check of Nowak’s argument from news reports shows serious flaws in it for me. Like he asserts:

    “Religion, like language, is a human universal,” said Nowak, and should not threaten scientists.

    This is false. It is common but far from universal. And it definitely threatens scientists who believe in naturalistic rationalism.

    “the winning strategies have nice attributes,” said Nowak. That’s where being “hopeful, generous, and forgiving” comes in, he said, along with the evolution of religious feeling.

    This is highly selective. He should ask the sheep, cattle, pigs, and cabbages who get eaten by humans how nice human survival strategies are. Religious feelings include the feelings of men who rip out other men’s hearts at the top of pyramids to keep the Sun god rising. It includes the feelings of Jihadi suicide-bombers.

    By itself, intellectual (scientific) life is “inherently unstable,” and is unable to answer the kind of questions religion can — like the meaning of life, said Nowak. “There are no equivalent questions in science.”

    This is false. The “meaning of life” is perfectly clear in science. It is the means by which replicators like DNA make copies of themselves. They construct organisms as “survival machines”. They do this because natural selection has selected the most powerful and effective replication strategies over billions of years and enabled the continued propagation of those replicators whose genomes codes for them.

    Of course he really means life has no “higher” purpose in science. But the need for a “higher” purpose is just an unjustified assertion.

    His argument is just the usual religious agit-prop. It proves nothing except his own belief.

  36. #36 marsveblint
    August 2, 2007


  37. #37 Sandgroper
    August 2, 2007

    Thanks DD.

    ‘”Evolution and Christianity” was the ninth in a series of lectures sponsored by the Evolution and Theology of Cooperation Project at Harvard University.’

    That nicely answers a couple of my questions – he needs to defend his religion because he is pushing it, and it is not all religion he is defending, or even the innate religiosity of humans, just his own version of the right one. Well, I guess it is kind of difficult to defend sacrificing children to the Sun God, although no doubt there were arguments that it was necessary to ensure the collective good. I can’t help feeling a bit cynical about Mayan priests studying astronomy and then using knowledge of the occurrence of solar eclipses to demonstrate the truth of what they were telling their followers.

    If he was making a plea to be left alone to believe what he wants to believe, I doubt it would be necessary. I’m not surprised that he sometimes finds his scientific colleagues are astonished. He’s using his position to evangelize.

  38. #38 marsveblint
    August 3, 2007

    I have no interest in refuting the fact that religion is dangerous to science, dangerous to naturalized rationalism, belonging to literary myth & fantasy role playing, etc. Totally in agreement there regarding most if not all religion as we know it. But the incorrigible shitheads that constitute the bulk of expressed religion as we know it today, are incorrigible shitheads that constitute religion as we know it today. I would put emphasis on “as we know it” with italics, but I don’t know how to do that stuff yet. As we know it today, okay. Some other meaning, even using the same word, may one day supervene at some critical juncture, and for science that should mean an opportunity, starting yesterday, at least inasmuch as my own opinions tend to rule ass.

    Seriously though Dare, great reference for the (x)Evolution->(x)God? thread. Sokal is the definition of a hero, the implications of that prank are so underestimated. A true Harry Tuttle, that guy. He actually left the science community a vacuum space where so much Philosophy used to fester, a nice crater residual of the glorious blast he delivered unto the heart of the fashionable postmodernism. If you don’t already have the hard copy, I highly recommend “Fashionable Nonsense,” Sokal and Bricmont’s firsthand account in paperback form, as some of the funnest expository you may ever hope to have in your canon. They deconstructed the shit out of deconstructionism, and tell us the tale. And the footnotes are good enough to read. Good times.

    Sokal’s bomb was divalent: First, it creates that nice vacuum. Second, and probably what relates to the “Man of God?” question, is that the Sokal hoax stands as an ongoing model for a resistance technique against irrational cultural fads, and with an interdisciplinary application, as it were. A kernel for a new model of discourse, if you will.

    Nobody is saying irrational cultural fads are eliminable in human societies, but then again neither is disease, but we still endeavor to find better pills and procedures to cure our inevitable afflictions. “Transgressing the Boundaries” was the pill for a spreading sickness in western academia, a pill in the form of ironic brilliance. It is just those institutional boundaries that protect postmods from the standards of science or even general progress of any kind, even as it was clearly their mission to assert some authority over its scope and direction. Sokal’s style, essentially highly efficient mockery, is the alternative to the old method of lobbing denunciations from behind frontlines (e.g. “isms” or “views”.) Like with any feelgood ethic such as liberal multiculturalism or religious tolerance, Chivalry may be the best theory, but really only as long as it remains reciprocal in practice. But recognizing that it actually does matter what group breaks that reciprocal trust first, is a cultural strategy that has grown in American pop culture only very recently, exemplified three or four times a week on national television by guys like Colbert, in literature by Onionesque parodies, in comedy by all kinds of bizarre virtuosos like Neil Hamburger, and of course an army of internet minutemen. Anyone getting my gist here understands this is more than just some newly honed Marxism. (See above regarding my aversion to footnoting, I am aware of the historical figures that arose periodically with similar ‘transgressive’ mojo, but I am talking of populace-wide distribution here). Anyway, if violence is clearly worthless and epistemic rigor doesn’t make a dent, try simply holding up a mirror.

    This is really all Sokal did, although its important to admit his mirror was pretty immaculate. I am aware of the lamentations already afoot regarding how sarcasm is already ruining discourse, ruining art. Maybe. That could also be the natural wails of all the melting Isms, a mere side effect of growth. Sokal shows that it does take more than just nerve, it takes precision, but when done well, and rationally, it is effective.

    Someone with time on her hands really ought to finish the job with the inexplicable lingering of “Feminist Philosophy of Science” and related nonsense still evidently gathering state moneys at various American institutions. Too bad I’m leveraged, with daytime concerns, and have already been told I wear the dick on my sleeve when it comes to feminist philosophy of science instructors. Other than this, literary-theory brand of postmodernism that was abusing science throughout the latter half of the 20th century, really isn’t a problem anymore in the mainline American philosophy academy. Good Job!

    So anyway with regard to religion as we know it today, I say God Bless you fellas for cracking the jokes. However religion as it might one day supervene is more what I hope Nowak is talking about, since the sucking sounds of a deflated Western Philosophical legacy are still quite noticeable, standing here in the foyer of the 21st century.

    Yes I read the interview and agree there is little coming out of his statements that sounds distinguishable from your typical ID sympathizer. I am also aware, as I ought to admit alongside the Putnam and Grothendieck name dropping, that highly cultivated genius figures are often susceptible to grotesque and often-incurable political ignoramity. On a side note, another name to drop here might be Richard Stallman, who was actually probably our first exemplar of wide-effect postmodern “Tuttlism” (for lack of a better term,) upon his introduction of the GPL in ’89. He is immortal in his contribution but prompt him to describe the features of a Great Society and we may be annoyed by the output. This is not how I feel about Sokal, who I have heard knows how to drink, invest, sling real estate, raise children and satisfy his wife with great character and efficiency. But I will submit to the threaders’ consensus here that skepticism is still well warranted with regard to Nowak’s ‘spiritual’ comments.

    Come onnnnn, though… Writing about that “unreasonable effectiveness of math,” Dick Hamming of the Putnam nebula states in 1980 that “The evolution of man provided the model,” and now we have a guy named Novak in 2007 spouting off “Evolution is the unifying theory of all biology.” The cool kids have been saying for decades that the Grand Unification goals of science are functionally isomorphic with monotheistic religious thought. Is this not another potential milestone, the opportunity to Tuttle the hell right out of religion as we know it?

    I can’t believe I haven’t even watched this yet, in anticipation of the arrival of my hard copy:

    Probably because I’ve been too busy posting on this thread. Binge personality. Dammit, look at this thread…this office. My sponsor is not going to be happy about all the garbage and dishes. It’s going to take all morning. Sandgroper appears neglected on the Pinker re Genealogy Craze thread.

    I hold everyone here responsible. Somebody ban marsveblint, post haste. The foul diction ought to be enough by itself.

  39. #39 Sandgroper
    August 3, 2007

    I don’t want you banned, mate, you’re good value. Anyway, Razza’s the boss around here, no one else gets to ban anyone, and he has a commendably light touch from what I’ve seen, despite his occasional highly enjoyable verbals.

    Don’t worry about Sandgroper, he’s a very un-neglected individual.

    Erm…..agreed. I’m prepared to accept Mr Nowak does good work on cancer thingies, for all I know, but I vote for him shutting up and getting on with what he’s good at.

    I might reasonably apply that to myself, come to think of it.

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