Pharyngula

You must be kidding, Mr Unwin

Here’s another review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). It’s unbelievable, as if the critic hadn’t actually read the book. Here’s the hed/dek:

Dawkins needs to show some doubt
Scientists work in a field full of uncertainties. So how can some be so sure God doesn’t exist? asks Stephen Unwin

Uh, what? Two things immediately come to mind: certainty isn’t a claim Dawkins makes anywhere, and…Stephen Unwin???!? Unwin is a remarkably silly man, as anyone who has read his book, The Probability of God will know. Unwin goes on with some very strange inferences.

It is clear that on the question of God’s existence Dawkins comes down firmly on the side of certainty. His dismissal of Pascal’s wager (which is that, given the uncertainty, one has everything to gain and nothing to lose by belief in God) is a stark indication of his commitment to certainty.

Pascal’s Wager, one of the worst arguments ever for the existence of gods, is not rejected because atheists are “certain” that god doesn’t exist, but because it says nothing about a truth claim (I have “everything to gain and nothing to lose” by believing a million dollars will fall into my lap today, but that does not mean there is cause to believe it will happen), and because it presumes a different kind of certainty—that you will be rewarded for believing without evidence in unsubstantiated claims. What if God exists, but he looks exactly like James Randi, and casts all the woo-woos into hell for their refusal to use their brains? There are a multitude of possible variations in the godly reaction, and claiming that we should gamble without information on your interpretation rather than mine is baseless.

But otherwise, it’s as if Unwin hadn’t even bothered to read as deeply as the chapter titles in the table of contents. Case in point: chapter four is titled “Why there almost certainly is no God” [my emphasis]. Dawkins discusses at length why there is no certainty, and points out that there is no reason or evidence given for supporting any one particular, peculiar religious belief.

And what of Unwin? For those fortunate enough to have so far gone through this life without being subjected to the awesome foolishness of Unwin’s Bayesian analysis, here is Dawkins’ criticism of his book:

Unwin is a risk management consultant who carries a torch for
Bayesian inference, as against rival statistical methods. He
illustrates Bayes’ Theorem by taking on, not a murder [Dawkins has just used the board game “Clue” as an example of logically working through to a conclusion from evidence], but the
biggest test case of all, the existence of God. The plan is to start
with complete uncertainty, which he chooses to quantify by assign-
ing the existence and non-existence of God a 50 per cent starting
likelihood each. Then he lists six facts that might bear on the
matter, puts a numerical weighting on each, feeds the six numbers
into the engine of Bayes’ Theorem and sees what number pops out.
The trouble is that (to repeat) the six weightings are not measured
quantities but simply Stephen Unwin’s own personal judgements,
turned into numbers for the sake of the exercise. The six facts are:

  1. We have a sense of goodness.
  2. People do evil things (Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein).
  3. Nature does evil things (earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes).
  4. There might be minor miracles (I lost my keys and found them
    again).
  5. There might be major miracles (Jesus might have risen from
    the dead).
  6. People have religious experiences.

For what it is worth (nothing, in my opinion), at the end of a
ding-dong Bayesian race in which God surges ahead in the betting,
then drops way back, then claws his way up to the 50 per cent mark
from which he started, he finally ends up enjoying, in Unwin’s
estimation, a 67 per cent likelihood of existing. Unwin then decides
that his Bayesian verdict of 67 per cent isn’t high enough, so he
takes the bizarre step of boosting it to 95 per cent by an emergency
injection of ‘faith’. It sounds like a joke, but that really is how he
proceeds. I wish I could say how he justifies it, but there really is
nothing to say. I have met this kind of absurdity elsewhere, when I
have challenged religious but otherwise intelligent scientists to
justify their belief, given their admission that there is no evidence:
‘I admit that there’s no evidence. There’s a reason why it’s called
faith’ (this last sentence uttered with almost truculent conviction,
and no hint of apology or defensiveness).

I can see why Unwin might be motivated to respond to Dawkins’ book, but alas, I don’t see any reason why anyone should regard Unwin as anything but yet another goofy crank.

Comments

  1. #1 JakeB
    September 30, 2006

    At Borders a few months ago (allow me to mention tangentially that _Darwin’s Black Box_ and Endless Forms Most Beautiful happen to be shelved next to one another at this Borders. I keep hoping Behe’s book will dissolve into a puddle of pustulence like a vampire exposed to the sun, but it hasn’t yet), I picked up a book by some rabbi explaining why God existed. His argument ran along a similar line: Evil (like lethal tornados) exists. Evil can’t be defined without good. The definition of good comes from God. Therefore, God exists. Now, this is so retarded that I mostly regretted the waste of paper, but I did have one enjoyable moment, when the author concluded by saying, not only do atheists ignore the evidence, but they live in existential hell! I recall bursting out laughing at that. If hell includes things like scientific research, barbequed spareribs, and oral sex, and I think we can safely claim heaven doesn’t, I know where I belong.

  2. #2 RavenT
    September 30, 2006

    *sniff* That’s just beautiful, Jake.

  3. #3 Tyler DiPietro
    September 30, 2006

    What if God exists, but he looks exactly like James Randi, and casts all the woo-woos into hell for their refusal to use their brains?

    That would simultaneously be the ultimate vindication and the ultimate humiliation, which is ironically only something that a thing like a god could come up with.

    God = Steve Wozniak

  4. #4 tim gueguen
    September 30, 2006

    Pascal’s Wager seems almost like an insult to God. Who is going to impress God more, someone who honestly felt the evidence for his existence was lacking, and hence was a non-believer, or someone who says “Well, I wasn’t really sure if you existed or not, but I decided to behave like you did so you wouldn’t get mad at me?”

  5. #5 Qalmlea
    September 30, 2006

    “Evil can’t be defined without good. The definition of good comes from God. Therefore, God exists.”

    Funny, I’ve used a nearly identical argument to “prove” that if a creator God exists, that God cannot be both purely good AND all-powerful. Of course, I took a slightly opposite tack. God is (claimed to be) good. Good cannot be defined without evil… ;^)

  6. #6 "Q" the Enchanter
    September 30, 2006

    Given that God exists, Unwin is improbably lame. Therefore God doesn’t exist.

  7. #7 George
    September 30, 2006

    People are idiots, therefore God exists.

  8. #8 David Godfrey
    September 30, 2006

    If you doubt that God exists then why are there PYGMIES + DWARFS?

  9. #9 jeffw
    September 30, 2006

    If hell includes things like scientific research, barbequed spareribs, and oral sex, and I think we can safely claim heaven doesn’t, I know where I belong.

    Oral sex may exist in “heaven”. I cite as evidence the relationship between salvador cordova and william dembski.

  10. #10 Tommaso Zillio
    September 30, 2006

    Bayesian analysis is a serious tool, that I happen to use fairly often in my research (ecology). To see it used in such a sloppy and apologetic way is an insult. And, for instance, the implementation of points 4 and 5 require an assessment of the probability of existence of miracles… how can you estimate these? Someone can point me to the original argument, with all the numbers and stuff? I would be delighted to tear it to pieces 🙂 It is already difficult to make people understand the value of Bayesian inference, we don’t need this kind of kooks to intorbidate the water…
    PZ, now I really understand your rage where they misrepresent evolution! (well, I was understanding this even before, but now they are touching me in a soft spot…)

  11. #11 Gerard Harbison
    September 30, 2006

    Tommaso:

    I’m a physical chemist, so my personal pet peeve is when they misuse the second law of thermodynamics. But that’s the great thing about creationists; no matter what flavor of scientist you are, there’s always something integral to your field they’ve trashed.

  12. #12 wintermute
    September 30, 2006

    Tommaso Zillio:

    I’ve seen reports of this particular analysis (which, in this case is derived from the greek word “anal” meaning “butt”, and “ysis”, or “to pull things out of”), and even knowing as little as I do about statistics, I can safely say that there’s not enough there to rip up. He blatantly admits that he has no methodology for picking the numbers he did, other than to ensure he gets the answer he wants. And even then, he has to throw it all out and say “well, I think the answer’s 95%, so who cares what the calculations show”.

    I mean, really. What are you going to do to that?

  13. #13 Brian Coughlan
    September 30, 2006

    What I really love about having read Dawkins book, is that everytime I see the word “faith” it jars. It has been completely redefined for me, from something mystical and laudable to something pitiable and even a little depressing.

    What is valuable about “believing” something, indeed anything, without rational reasons, or worse still in spite of rational reasons not to beleive?

    Nothing is valuable about it. It’s a con trick, a multi generational pyramid scheme, jumped up mumbo jumbo. Thank you Mr. Dawkins for assisting in my belated flight from this tyranny.

  14. #14 Damon B.
    September 30, 2006

    What if God exists, but he looks exactly like James Randi, and casts all the woo-woos into hell for their refusal to use their brains?

    What an amazingly beautiful situation you’ve described…

  15. #15 Markus
    September 30, 2006

    All your improbabilities are belong to us.

  16. #16 Jeremy Henty
    September 30, 2006

    Unwin insinuates that because Dawkins is certain, therefore he is probably wrong, and suggests that he is more credible than Dawkins because he is “fanatically uncertain”. Hmm, I think Unwin’s incorrigible cluenessless proves something too. Just not what he *thinks* it does.

  17. #17 Tommaso Zillio
    September 30, 2006

    Gerard: I was a physicist before switching to ecology, and I too cringe at their misuse/misunderstanding/total cluelessness regarding the 2nd law. But at least, in the scientific community nobody really doubts of the thermodynamics, while I had endless fight with people on the Bayesian methods (fair and reasonable debates with colleagues, which is our daily bread and even fun!). To have such a negative example of Bayes can be a real nuisance for me…
    At the end you’re right, for creationists “everything goes”, I’ve seen what they have done to quantum mechanics, then 2nd law, then evolution… all topics that I loved. This is becoming kinda personal!

    Wintermute: I wonder if Urwin assign numbers this way when he is doing his job (risk management consultant), just to obtain the figures he wants… and if people really are paying him for this!!

  18. #18 Greg
    September 30, 2006

    Unwin does not use Bayesian analysis.

    Not unless it has transubstantiated or something since my callow adolescence. Back then, Bayesian anaylysis involved some logical and quantified reasoning about causal connections. At the end, if the reasons and the logic and the numbers were all present and accounted, a bit of moderately challenging arithmetic yielded a number.

    The arithmetic, carelessly performed, might disconcert ones faith in the analysis. However, it is merely a restatement of the analysis. The calculation, and the number which it yields, mean nothing, of themselves, without the reasoning etc neatly listed and attached.

    Unwin (as described by Dawkins, cited by Myers, and I took a careless peek too) does not do a Bayesian analysis. The causal reasoning is, to be charitable, weak. The quantities are wholy fictitious. The arithmetic is probably accurate but, as I have said, adds nothing to the strength of the ‘analysis’.

  19. #19 goddogtired
    September 30, 2006

    The message thread contains as fine a list of breast-breating, hem-tearing objections to Dawkins as could ever be evoked, and every single one of them has been logically and beautifully put down by Dawkins many, many times.
    At this point, the “belief in a Supreme Deity” as defended by these vain dunderheads ranks as the single dumbest position a human can advance as a general, rather than an entirely personal, Truth. (And this is from a guy who, in a way, believes in fairies and elves, UFOs, and telepathy, though not in Elvis-sightings or Nessie.)

  20. #20 Steve Watson
    September 30, 2006

    What is valuable about “believing” something, indeed anything, without rational reasons, or worse still in spite of rational reasons not to beleive?

    In case anyone cares, the concept is technically known as “doxastic virtue” (there: a new term you can impress people with).

    Even when I was a believer, I never quite “got it”. I mean, either there was reasonable evidence for your particular theology (in which case you believed it on those grounds), or you believed because it gave you personal comfort — which makes it a sort of personal hobby or mental self-help exercise, no more praiseworthy in itself than stamp collecting. Either way, I had trouble seeing why “believing” was in itself a moral good.

    At times, it seems to me I was bound to wind up back in unbelief sooner or later.

  21. #21 Peter McGrath
    September 30, 2006

    Why should Unwin write such stuff? It got him a column in The Guardian and a book plug. It’s easy to review, to criticize. It’s much harder to be a Dawkins, who led the atheist evolution charge with The Selfish Gene. The British former MP Tony Benn described people in politiss a either signposts or weathercocks (windvanes). Dawkins is a signpost.

  22. #22 Greg
    September 30, 2006

    Ah! Tommaso, besides showing a mind as great or as foolish as my own, you have reminded us of the explanation.

    ”for creationists “everything goes””

    Faith-based initiatives (and political pronouncements) are exactly that… faith-based… magic. It matters not whether the magic formula is provided by Nostradamus or by Thomas Bayes. It matters not whether the apprentice is counting it on his fingers or typing into a box full of daemons. It is authority before which he must bow in awestricken reverence and humble ignorance.. and which he hopes to manipulate covertly.

    The desired (or required) result is given. The magic formula is displayed (or shielded from profane eyes behind the curtain). There remains only to discover and to adjust felicitous ingredients.

    Whether the priest or politician believes in it or not, whether he wishes to fool the god or the flock or himself, he presents the formula as authority. And he aggressively distracts attention from the sacrifice, be it virgin or number… and from any observable outcome.

    Well, yes, creationists are still trying to figure out what is the formula. But they perform the liturgy as best they can. And there is little practical difference, especially if nobody notices, between chanting accurately an arcane spell and mispronouncing some of the longer words.

    Certainly there are evil-doers out there who will fling at us whatever and whomever comes to hand. However, almost all of those with whom we contend merely believe (must believe) what authority has thrown at them. They fling not the “anything” of an armory well and fearsomely stocked. They fling the “anything” of poverty, of not having (not daring to have) anything else.

  23. #23 Greg
    September 30, 2006

    PS.. I do not know Tommaso. I have no reason to believe he knows me.

    Nor is my familiar use of his name any reason to believe he agrees with or even wishes to acknowledge the existence of my rant.

  24. #24 Ugo Cei
    September 30, 2006

    Not only Unwin seems to be a goofy crank, but he (or some of his fans) also seems to indulge in astroturfing practices on Amazon. I’ve done some analysis of the reviews of his book on Amazon on my blog. The evidence so far is far from decisive, but I am sure that by using Bayesan probabilty calculus, we can compute the probability of many of the 5-star reviews there being fake as more than 67% ;).

  25. #25 Bro. Bartleby
    September 30, 2006

    I do think we need a handicapping system, then perhaps we could have some ‘fair’ debates. Then when a physical chemist with an IQ of say 130 sits across the table from a self-taught IDer with say an IQ of 95, then in the debate the chemist would be confined to use only 5-letter words while the IDer would be free to use his laptop with full googling previdges. Further, the IDer could cite anything as fact, as long as at least four theologians nodded their heads in agreement. Maybe others could come up with a more formal plan that could include plastic ID (identification) cards with a magnetic strip containing the debater’s handicap.

  26. #26 Steve LaBonne
    September 30, 2006

    On that plan anyone of normal intelligence replying to the good Brother would have to be limited to “ugga ugga”.

  27. #27 Keith Douglas
    September 30, 2006

    Tyler DiPietro: I’ve met Woz. If he’s god, I guess people can understand my atheism. He’s quite the mild and unassuming guy. Certainly no fire-n-brimstone from him.

    Tommaso Zillio: What Unwin is doing is using “subjective priors”, which basically result in a GIGO analysis. I’m skeptical of bayesianism in general for various reasons, but this is still extreme. (BTW, one shouldn’t conflate the bayesianism with the use of Bayes’ theorem, which is a theorem in most theories of probability, regardless of interpretation – I’m not saying you’re doing that, but I seem to recall some bayesian partisans do.)

  28. #28 ponzicar
    September 30, 2006

    I think the main purpose of Unwin’s book is so that believers can throw the “scientifically calculated 67%” line around in debates and conversion attempts. People who actually know enough to refute it aren’t the target audience.

  29. #29 junk science
    September 30, 2006

    If there is a god, and he has any sense or decency at all, the only people he’ll let into heaven are the ones who were at least reluctant to believe he existed.

    He also needs to do something about his drinking problem.

  30. #30 Tyler DiPietro
    September 30, 2006

    Keith Douglas,

    I generally get that impression as well, the Woz reference has more to do with his reputation as a prankster (thus connecting to my post) than with an fire and brimstoning that might come from him (which I suspect approaches zero).

    That and I’m reading his autobiography right now, so he was on my mind. It’s quite an entertaining read, so I’d reccommend it.

  31. #31 Pete K
    September 30, 2006

    These debates can go on forever, and never get anywhere. Surely such bayesian analysis is silly – one either sees evidence of God everywhere, or nowhere. One couldn’t need to pick and choose in such a way. I haven’t read any of the book, so I don’t know if Dawkins defines God or gods at all…but, also, logically, neither theists nor atheists could even define god (since god is supposed to be supernatural, not natural, and therefore “beyond” human definitions).

    If God is defined as an old man in the sky with a white beard, then of COURSE god is a delusion. Maybe, people just have a deluded idea of God, like creationists have a deluded idea of what evolution really is? Also, does such honesty and rationality do much good, ultimately? People would rather believe than know, as Neitzsche pointed out. Surely, for every person “converted” to atheism and/or nihilism by Dawkins or someone like him, a thousand have been converted to a religion by their parents or an evangelist.

    Overall, people are getting MORE religious, not less. Watch the news. More people in the world are religious than are not, more people are ignorant of science than are knowledgable. And the more incidences of religious conflicts that occur, the more other religions use the to bolster THEIR religion. It’s like Sisyphus and his rock. But of course, every little helps…

  32. #32 Kagehi
    September 30, 2006

    There have been numerous times when one could describe the world as, “Overall, people are getting MORE religious, not less.” The problem is, every such instance has led to things like the burning the Library in Alexandria, denying all medical practices from the ancient world, destorying the Mayan scrolls, etc, etc. The more ignorance you get, the easier it is for the true lunatics to convince them that no one needs all the “useless” bits of knowledge and the bigger the collapse of scientific knowledge the world has to dig itself out of when people *finally* figure out that maybe living to 30 isn’t so great when three generations ago there was less disease, everyone could buy the latest tech gadget and people lived to 90 (or the local temporal equivalent of these things).

    And frankly, the news screws *everything*. Its a chatterbox for the loudest clowns in the circus, which is why all its chatter is completely two faced, and almost always from the extremes, instead of the middle. If you found three people, one that insisted the world would end tomarrow because of a comet coming at us, one saying, “Its not even coming at us”, but the reality was that it was going to pass by thousands of miles away, and perpendicular, the only sides that would get talked about would be the doom sayers and the, “its going the other direction.”, people, right up to the moment it becomes impossible to deny that it missed. And then, all the news would be about the “See, its moving away from us.”, and the, “The next one will get us!”, crowds. Truth is only achieved by accident of *actually* being on rare occation close to, or identical to, one of the extremes.

    Well, OK, its not “that” bad, maybe, but its getting worse.

  33. #33 Kagehi
    September 30, 2006

    Oh, and I just love this turn of phrase: “there is little practical difference, especially if nobody notices, between chanting accurately an arcane spell and mispronouncing some of the longer words.”

    Sounds like something someone at Unseen University in the Disc World series would use to describe casting a spell, or maybe one of the Witches instead. lol

  34. #34 Anton Mates
    October 1, 2006

    I just realized I live directly across the street from Unwin’s office. I wonder if I can go over and have a chat? He should know that he has everything to gain and almost nothing to lose by giving me several thousand dollars in return for an eternity of bliss.

  35. #35 licknick
    October 1, 2006

    Automatically obeying a religious moral code, like “Honor your parents,” builds consistancy in your own attitude and character. Religion is a firm foundation. It can be the pillar to personal confidence as well as social cohesion. If no people believed in God and rejected and forgot religious traditions and teachings, thereby freeing themselves to logically and by experience come up with their own individual moral codes, what would happen? Think long term here, after many generations, assuming that even the memory of any religion had long ago faded away. People just have historical records of religion, but since it was based on superstitions they assume there is nothing applicable in their own lives about it. We would have to depend on man-made laws to limit our actions, but how many laws would we need? Too many, I suspect. Because too many people all coming up with their own moral codes based on reason and experience would come up with too many differences in the codes, let alone their applications.
    Answering to a higher being for my actions makes me more accountable. If I only have to answer to myself, I am likely to re-arrange my logic to suit the situation. Atheism is a great idea. However, I don’t believe it works. I have seen religion work for society. I haven’t seen atheism work for society. I’m sure it works great for many individuals, though the ones I’ve known mostly use the fact that they are atheist to comfort themselves that they are smarter than a good segment of the American population. It’s an easy way to feel superior.

  36. #36 goddogtired
    October 1, 2006

    Licknick, you gotta be fuckin’ kidding… well, yourself, actually.
    “Because too many people all coming up with their own moral codes based on reason and experience would come up with too many differences in the codes, let alone their applications.” And this isn’t the case with the “religious”, right? Oh, that’s right: they rationalize but sell it under a brand-name you approve of, so you can just give them – but especially yourself – a pass. Strike one, hypocrite!
    “Answering to a higher being for my actions makes me more accountable.” To what? The pull of your imagination? Strike two, jerk!
    “I have seen religion work for society. I haven’t seen atheism work for society.” See what???? Your eyes must be as cavefish blind as your self flattering attempts at logic. Strike three, idiot!
    “It’s an easy way to feel superior.” Find a mirror and repeat that to yourself, you indefensibly vain fuckwit!

    Where IS Reid Fleming when you need him? If I can turn him up, he’ll be delivering milk at YOUR door ASAP.

  37. #37 George
    October 1, 2006

    If no people believed in God and rejected and forgot religious traditions and teachings, thereby freeing themselves to logically and by experience come up with their own individual moral codes, what would happen?

    God is the creation of human beings, so the decrees you think you are obeying from a higher power are coming from you.

    Just be moral! No need to be spouting off all the time about God!

  38. #38 licknick
    October 1, 2006

    Okay goddogtired, since you have some time (evidenced by your response) give me an example of a sucessful society that didn’t consider piety a virtue, based on belief in, and obedience to, a supernatural being, nor had recent memory of such virtues being upheld.

    Sure, I’ve seen religion work. Not in every case, obviously, and not in all times.

    What is vain about not believing society can function well without religion? Is it just a random insult? I don’t understand what is vain about my comment. Crazy maybe, on this blog, and asking for insults, certainly. But you knew all along I was just throwing out the bait to piss you off.

  39. #39 licknick
    October 1, 2006

    Heck, I never said I personally believed in God. I simply think religion is a good idea. It works. Good night, all!

  40. #40 Tommaso Zillio
    October 1, 2006

    Keith Douglas: I am very familiar with “subjective priors”, but in this case “subjective” does not means “arbitrary”. There are rules to assign these priors (there are some wonderful papers of E.T. Jaynes online, if you are interested – if you don’t know them already). This is exactly why I have to complain about Urwin: he is misrepresenting bayesianism. Every time I try to explain subjective priors, people come out with these examples, and I have to crawl my way out of this 🙁 You may obviously have your reason to be skeptical of bayesianism, and I’m not here to “convert” anyone but this is not bayesianism at all.
    On the use of Bayes theorem: I’m aware that some Bayesian conflate the use of Bayes theorem with Bayesianism. The issue in this case is a bit complex, I would like to discuss it with you (you’re a philosopher of science, if I am not wrong) if you have some time. Write me: tommaso.zillio -at- gmail.com

    Greg: nevermind the “familiar” use of my name. In fact I aggre completely with your rant! :-))

  41. #41 Numad
    October 1, 2006

    Licknick, I see no reason to believe your opinion on the necessity of religion is accurate.

    Since you’ve made no real argument, that’s all I’ll say about that.

  42. #42 Pete K
    October 1, 2006

    Surely, these debates can go on forever, and never get anywhere. If God underpins everything, such picking-and-choosing Bayseian analysis is unnecessary anyway: one either sees evidence for God everywhere, or nowhere. So Unwin is picking and choosng what is evidence for God andwhat isn’t.

    Does Dawkins define God or gods at any point? (I haven’t read any of the book yet…) Logically, one could not, since definitions are limited by human comprehension, and deities are supposed to be “beyond” human understanding. If God is defined as “old man in the sky with white beard”, then OF COURSE belief in God is delusional. If God is defined as SUPERnatural, i.e. above and beyond reality, responsible for and underpinning the laws of nature that he/she/it created, but deistically trandescent from them, then there’s no way of investigating God(s) scientifically, since by definition science’s aegis covers only the physical world (entities and phenonema which can be measured/quantified/observed/hypothesized and tested experimentally.) Could it be that only human IDEAS of god(s) that are deluded, just like creationists’ ideas about evolution are deluded? But then again, if science can’t explain something, nothing can, as Dawkins likes to point out.

    Also, despite Dawkins’ eternal and indefatigable eloquence, forcefulness, clarity and frankness, do such honest and rational books ever do much “good”, ultimately? OK, atheists and agnostics will have more ammunition and sticks with which to beat fundies and charlatans into line (and intellectual sloppiness to laugh at). But will complacent believers think twice about their arbitrary dogma? Or even be interested in/fully understand the arguments? Surely, for every person in the world deconverted, a thousand are converted by their parents, with quick and easy answers – people would rather believe than know, as Neitzsche said. Watch the news. People are getting MORE religious, not less. MOST people are religious, MOST people know next to nothing about science. To them, believing in God is axiomatic – remember Pastor Haggard in “The root of all evil”(in the first episode, which was also called “The God Delusion”!)? “As we discover more facts, we’ll discover how God created the universe”…..HOW, not IF, God created the universe. According to people like him, the naive, traditional, creator God is already taken for granted – axiomatic , proven. Everything is of less importance.

    But of course, every little helps. Nice to see a science writer using the word “god” in his book title, in a derogatory sense – unlike some physicsts referring to a “neodeistic psuedoreligion” as Dawkins called it.

  43. #43 Brian Coughlan
    October 1, 2006

    Licknick … your comment was the intellectual equivalent of a loud fart in a silent room. Embarrasing, unpleasant but also kind of amusing.

    Everything you trotted out has been extensivley demolished by Dawkins book “The God Delusion”, which is why you got the ferocious response you justly deserved.

    My recommendation would be to do yourself a favour and read it. If nothing else, it should hone your arguments for the next encounter:-) How …. Darwinian.

  44. #44 Pete K
    October 1, 2006

    Just noticed my post WAS sent after all,,,despite the error message,,,sorry everyone,,

  45. #45 Richard Wein
    October 1, 2006

    I’ve never understood religionists’ penchant for using the word “faith” when they really mean “religion”, e.g. as in “faith-based initiative” or “faith schools”. If I was a religionist (hard as that is to imagine), I don’t think I would want to constantly advertise the fact that my belief system was based on nothing but faith.

  46. #46 PZ Myers
    October 1, 2006

    People, let me remind you: I’ve asked that you follow a “three strikes” rule. Give new people a chance in at least 3 comments before you open fire with the abuse. At least try to deal with the arguments alone before you decide to womp on the person.

    OK?

  47. #47 Caledonian
    October 1, 2006

    If I was a religionist (hard as that is to imagine), I don’t think I would want to constantly advertise the fact that my belief system was based on nothing but faith.

    Ah, but part of many religions’ messages is that believing something through faith alone is actually morally superior to believing something because of evidence and/or reasoning. If you mentally translate ‘faith’ to ‘virtue’, I think you’ll perceive how religionists can see that description as a positive.

  48. #48 Steve
    October 1, 2006

    I think the main purpose of Unwin’s book is so that believers can throw the “scientifically calculated 67%” line around in debates and conversion attempts. People who actually know enough to refute it aren’t the target audience.

    I think that’s true of the ID movement in general — its “target audience” is not scientists, and IDiots don’t care if they ever convince or convert even a single scientist. They are after public opinion and those with political power. If they continue screaming “teach the controvery” and “evolution is on its way out” and “there is hardly any evidence for evolution” loud enough and long enough, the general public (which is only peripherally exposed to the debate) is going to begin to accept that, doggone it, there certainly does seem to be a controversy, it’s obviously not a settled point, and teaching “both sides” certainly seems fair. Add in some populist politicians whose only real goal is getting and staying elected, and the truth doesn’t matter; only what wins the popularity contest.

    The ID movement has learned and internalized an important lesson from Goebbels: people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.

  49. #49 Chris
    October 1, 2006

    Ok, I’ll try a more reasoned response to Licknick:

    Why don’t you ask Torquemada about the consistency of his religious moral code? Or bin Laden? al Qaeda’s belief system is certainly built on a firm foundation of faith (well, it’s firm as long as nobody looks too closely, but they have indoctrination for that), but that does not necessarily make it beneficial to society.

    “Honor your parents”? What if your parents are abusive? What if they’re deluded? What if they’re just plain wrong? A simplistic command like “honor your parents” does nothing to help you decide how far is too far and when they no longer deserve such respect, or even when you should disagree with them while still respecting them. (This is most likely by design, since the command was made for the benefit of parents and old people in general.)

    Because too many people all coming up with their own moral codes based on reason and experience would come up with too many differences in the codes, let alone their applications.

    Well, thank God religion never has THAT problem! Religious people always agree exactly on what code to use and how to apply it.

    Seriously, do you know any history at all? Or even current events?

    Historically, religion has been a destructive force far more often than it has ever been a creative force, and a divisive force far more often than it has been a unifying force. Whenever religion has unified a people, it has unified them *against* their neighbors or a minority in their midst, usually with bloody results.

    You haven’t seen a rational society work because you haven’t seen a rational society. Neither have I. Neither has anyone. Note the difference between rational and atheist: it is possible to have an irrational belief system that happens to be atheist, e.g. some forms of communism, and this is not necessarily an improvement over irrational belief systems that are theist.

    As for feeling superior, I suggest you remove the beam from your own eye, since you pretty much called us all amoral anarchists that would destroy society if we were free to do so, earlier in the same post.

  50. #50 yiela
    October 1, 2006

    I hear Licknick’s argument all the time. It’s supposed to sound like common sense. you just don’t see it working in the real world. I know lots of religious people. In practice they just aren’t any more moral than non-believers. I know, “being religious doesn’t make a person perfect, just saved”. Fine, but then it doesn’t help control behavior much does it?
    The whole thing that athiests would come up with different versions of morality, just shows a total lack of understanding about what morality and ethics are. I think it comes from the assumption that god defines what is good and that without god everything is equal. It’s an inability to grasp the idea of what it means not to believe in god. Ethics are based on logic and reason and are not random, even without god.
    One thing that I have learned from parenting is that a child must do what is right because it is right not because he fears punishment for doing wrong or because he wants some reward. Fear and reward do not make for an independent, ethical person, just a manipulative little brat. I think it works the same way for adults.

  51. #51 Torbjörn Larsson
    October 1, 2006

    “What if God exists, but he looks exactly like James Randi, and casts all the woo-woos into hell for their refusal to use their brains?”

    Wow, I just had the nice feeling of a bit of cognitive dissonance being ripped out of me! For some reason (but it could simply be my hangover) I don’t remember that I ever analysed Pascal’s wager that way. If so, I’m pretty sure it was religious residuals from my early struggle to resolve one of the four big mysteries for a young person. (The most important one being girls of course, with morals and politics second.) Now the wager seems even more stupid.

    “it’s as if Unwin hadn’t even bothered to read as deeply as the chapter titles in the table of contents. Case in point: chapter four is titled “Why there almost certainly is no God””

    He refused to read the interview too. It states clearly: “Believers wrongly accuse Dawkins of being himself a fundamentalist, a fundamentalist atheist. He argues the difference: that given proof he was wrong he would at once change his opinions, whereas the true fundamentalist clings to his faith whatever the challenge.

    Similarily, Dawkins is often accused of misusing his science to found his atheism. But it seems Dawkins is agnostic regarding science: “We cannot prove that there is no God, but we can safely conclude the He is very, very improbable indeed.” ( http://www.simonyi.ox.ac.uk/dawkins/WorldOfDawki… ) It seems his atheism has other sources.

    Another refusal of Unwin is to look for Dawkins’ reasoning behind the basis for morals: “As for Dawkins’ assertion that moral behaviour for believers is simply “sucking up to God”, or that morality doesn’t need faith, I feel that such observations miss the more fundamental question of why we have moral or aesthetic values at all – such as the ones by which Dawkins, myself and others venerate rational analysis. This is among the questions that, to my knowledge, no science is on the verge of answering compellingly.”

    But the important question is indeed if one can be moral without religion, and the answer is unequivocally “yes”. Unwin’s deflection of this is akin creationists abiogenesis argument. And like abiogenesis, there are plenty of ideas how morals originate without necessarily involving religion.

    “Unwin is a risk management consultant who carries a torch for Bayesian inference”.

    Methods based on Bayes theorem have some uses. When one can ascertain that they describe probabilities, they can be used to compare and simplify models or in filters. When one can’t, they describe estimates which can be used in constrained models similar to the SETI Drake equation, but also easily twisted into unconstrained GIGO crap or woo-woo. Unwin does both. Another analysis of his argument can be found at http://scienceblogs.com/goodmath/2006/07/yet_another_crappy_bayesian_ar.php .

  52. #52 Patrick Quigley
    October 2, 2006

    Unwin anticipated PZ’s arguments in “The Probability of God.”

    “Now I suppose that a troublemaker might counter that we should really lay out a spectrum of optional beliefs about the nature of God, one for each alternative religious view, and then attach an equal probability to each while reserving an equal, residual probability that God does not exist.” (page 59)

    PZ is indeed a “troublemaker” from Unwin’s perspective since this approach renders his Bayesian approach entirely useless for the exact same reason that it renders Pascal’s Wager meaningless. Fortunately Unwin has a solution. In the same paragraph, he declares that he can ignore the other conceptions of God precisely because including them would cause his methodology to fail.

    I am not kidding. Read it yourself.

    (I suspect that Unwin is a big C.S. Lewis fan, since this is one of Lewis’ standard rhetorical tricks; when faced with an insurmountable counter-argument, insult your opponent and then quickly dismiss his argument as if it were unworthy of serious discussion before your readers notice that you have lost.)

    By the way, if you you apply Unwin’s method to the question of whether the Olympian gods exist, you get a better result than he calculated for the existence of the Abrahamic God. Using the reasoning outlined above, we need only consider two possibilities, Zeus and company exist or the universe is atheistic. Other supernatural concepts, such as monotheistic deities, can be ignored since they would prevent us from using Bayes’ rule.

    Except for the argument from the existence of natural evil, the ‘D Factors’ used in Unwin’s calculations can still stand since his arguments apply equally well to Yahweh or the Olympians. But since a pantheon of morally ambiguous, competing gods is fully compatible with the existence of natural evil, the ‘D Factor’ should be 1, which favors neither possibility. This results in a higher final probability than that of Unwin’s omnimax God who was generously given a ‘D Factor’ of 0.1 despite the clear contradiction presented by the existence of natural evil.

    Final score
    Biblical God – 67% probability of existing.
    Olympian gods – 95% probability of existing!

    It looks like the emperor Constantine bet on the wrong horse.

  53. #53 Greg
    October 2, 2006

    It should be noted that ‘Pascal’s Wager’ does *not* claim to prove the existence of God. Its very existence, a wager, asserts inability to prove. Indeed, Pascal himself says as much, in his introduction to the argument.

    I had written more about the Wager. However, I discover that my usual credible witnesses make statements which cannot all be simultaneously true, and I have no time to learn Classical French.

    I will venture to assert that it is just as irrational to assert non-existence as existence of a Being outside History. And to observe that the loudest atheists, at least when they are a-praying on the streetcorner, proclaim a touching Faith in behaving well.

    In my earlier comment, I ridicule certain kinds of believers.. those who through ignorance or deceit do not understand what they attempt to manipulate. ‘yiela’ writes, “Fear and reward do not make for an independent, ethical person, just a manipulative little brat.” We can choose to fix our attention on “brat” and make sly gestures in the direction of Unwin. However, our attention would be better placed on “fear”.

    People who have been allowed to figure things out for themselves generally do what they have figured out; and if sometime it doesn’t work.. well, “to figure things out” really means “to try a bunch of things that don’t work until you find some that do”.. so, they just try a bunch more things.. without much emotional turmoil.

    Many of us, though, have been beaten.. in these days, in these places, more usually with brows than with rods, but nonetheless beaten.. for giving wrong responses to challenges proposed with more volume than clarity. Whether that means daddy screaming or playmates whispering taunts or teacher looking dirty, the instruments differ but the pain and bewilderment are pretty much the same.

    Even so, some are taught, or haply learn, to trust themselves. Others, sadly, are overwhelmed. They learn not how things work but how to appease or to oppose power, how to manipulate liturgy and maths. They learn magic. Or sometimes anti-magic.

    I think I can get another skip out of this pebble. We can choose to whisper taunts at Unwin and roll our eyeballs when he passes by. However, as ‘Steve’ points out, whether ignorant or deceitful, Unwin is not preaching to us. Nor even to them. He is merely added his few drops to the torrent of cliches which drown their, and our, thoughts. It seems to me that adding more isolated droplets or remarking on the (im)purity of others is insufficient. We really need some rain-coats.

  54. #54 AC
    October 2, 2006

    We would have to depend on man-made laws to limit our actions, but how many laws would we need? Too many, I suspect.

    I suspect it would be about the same number as any modern society. Anyone who wants to take his cult to an island and live solely by the bible is more than welcome to do so.

  55. #55 Houdini's Ghost
    October 2, 2006

    I just read The God Delusion this weekend, and I thought it was great overall. But my favorite part is in the bibilography, where Ann Coulter’s latest screed is misnamed. Dawkins has it as Godless: The Church of Liberation. Isn’t it though?

  56. #56 Torbjörn Larsson
    October 2, 2006

    “Methods based on Bayes theorem have some uses. When one can ascertain that they describe probabilities, they can be used to compare and simplify models or in filters. When one can’t, they describe estimates which can be used in constrained models”

    I just noted that wikipedia suggest a finer partition, since some terms I used sloppily are already defined.

    When one can ascertain that they describe probabilities, they can be used to compare and simplify models. When one can ascertain that they describe unknown probabilities, they can be used as estimates in filters. And when one can’t, they describe inductive inferences, estimates of belief, which can be used in constrained models.

    “We can choose to whisper taunts at Unwin and roll our eyeballs when he passes by.”

    Actually we choose to roll our eyeballs when people discuss the basis for their faith and mentions such arguments.

  57. #57 Greg
    October 2, 2006

    “Actually we choose to roll our eyeballs when people discuss the basis for their faith and mentions such arguments.”

    Does it do anything useful?

    Or does it just make you think your religious experience is superior to his?

  58. #58 Greg
    October 2, 2006

    MarkP describes, over there, a different perspective on the same process which I have above.

  59. #59 Greg
    October 3, 2006

    My apologies. Now I am reduced to tweaking the magic formula.

    MarkP describes http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/10/what_our_kids_need_to_know.php#comment-231528 a different perspective on the same process which I have above.

  60. #60 Numad
    October 3, 2006

    “I will venture to assert that it is just as irrational to assert non-existence as existence of a Being outside History. And to observe that the loudest atheists, at least when they are a-praying on the streetcorner, proclaim a touching Faith in behaving well.”

    Very novel notions there!

    …by the way, I was being sarcastic.

  61. #61 MartinM
    October 3, 2006

    When one can ascertain that [methods based on Bayes theorem] describe probabilities…

    What else would they describe?

  62. #62 Denny Meehan
    October 3, 2006

    I love God debates. There’s nothing more fun than ignorant anti-science fundamentalists debating 4-th tier got-nowhere academics, each with their little fists clenched utterly convinced that they’re right. Fight on you midgets! At least you have each other.

  63. #63 Torbjörn Larsson
    October 4, 2006

    Greg:
    “Or does it just make you think your religious experience is superior to his?”

    No, it makes me think my experience of reality is superior to his.

    Why did you think I was commenting on his religious beliefs?

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