Pharyngula

Now Kleiman digs his hole a little deeper; normally, this would warrant a reply in the comments, but I’m afraid his site doesn’t allow commenting. Basically, all he has done is make an invalid analogy and make a gross error in interpreting my thinking.

Take the atomic theory of matter, for example. Most Americans no doubt “believe” that matter is made of atoms; they were told as much in school, and fortunately the Religious Right hasn’t decided to deny it as un-Biblical.

But if you ask them what an “atom” is, most of them will tell you (if they can tell you anything) that it consists of a nucleus ? a mixture of two sorts of little spheres, protons and neutrons &#8212 with still smaller spheres, electrons, whirling around that nucleus, like a miniature Solar System. That is, they’ll describe the Bohr atom, vintage about 1925.

Now that model of the atom is false. The math doesn’t work. It doesn’t agree with the experiments. No one who knows any actual physics believes in it.

On Myers’s reasoning, that would discredit the atomic theory; sure, a few egghead professors have sensible ideas about the constitution of matter, but the atomic theory as an actual belief of large numbers of people is arrant nonsense, and we should therefore describe believers in atoms as “ignorant, deluded, and foolish” (somehow “wicked” and “oppressed” don’t seem to apply), and atomic theory as a superstition imposed on the populace.

First, you might be surprised: most people wouldn’t have a clue what an electron, proton, and neutron are, or how they fit into the atom at all. But OK, let’s go with the flow — they’d be woefully out of date, at the very least.

Then, this isn’t a counterargument to my assertion that all those people are ignorant, deluded, misinformed, etc., at all. If people have a poor grasp of physics, my response would be to say they have a poor grasp of physics, and hey, maybe we ought to correct their misinterpretations. Mr Kleiman’s attitude seems to be that we ought not to challenge their misunderstandings. That doesn’t make any sense. That they are echoing a faded version of a valid theory doesn’t mean they aren’t wrong.

Where the analogy breaks down further is that in the case of religion they don’t have an echo of a valid theory at all: they have a bad version of an invalid guess. He is saying that people have a flawed knowledge of the atom, but we have empirical and theoretical support for the existence of the atom, therefore you can’t throw out the atom concept, which is perfectly correct. But what he can’t do is form a parallel construction: people have a flawed knowledge of god, but we have empirical and theoretical support for the existence of god, therefore you can’t throw out the god concept. Without that middle statement, the logic doesn’t work. I am saying precisely that belief in god is wrong because there is no empirical or theoretical support for it; there is a concatenation of myths leavened with post-hoc justifications for them, which is not the same thing.

And no, on my reasoning, you don’t discredit ideas because lots of people don’t understand them. I’m saying 1) that the bad rationalizations of the majority are no worse than the bad rationalizations of the theologians, and two falsehoods don’t make a truth, 2) that there are no bases for belief at any level, either on the popular side or that lofty hypothetical metaphorical side he touts, and 3) the problem with religion isn’t obscure abstractions invented by theologians, but that popular form of religion that actually has real world effects, shapes elections, colors prejudices, etc. If a fad of building home nuclear reactors swept the nation and people were collecting radioactive materials and storing them in their basements, then I’d also say that the popular misapprehensions about atomic physics were a pressing problem that needed immediate correction, and there’d be professional physicists damning those dangerous idiot amateurs on their blogs and in books and on TV and radio. You don’t get to argue, “Well, physicists agree that there are atoms, therefore Joe Sixpack is right that he can build his own nuclear reactors.”

Comments

  1. #1 Tom @Thoughtsic.com
    July 19, 2007

    If we shouldn’t challenge misunderstandings, then what’s the point of education? As a militant atheist, I’d go further and ask whether religion-based schools can ever truly be considered a viable educational outlet at all. “Religion” and “education” are contradictions (of course, you can educate someone about religions, but why waste our time when we have more interesting things like SCIENCE?!).

  2. #2 miller
    July 19, 2007

    Quote PZ:
    “2) that there are no bases for belief at any level, either on the popular side or that lofty hypothetical metaphorical side he touts”

    Not that I disagree, but the only way I ever see you dismiss the “lofty hypothetical metaphorical” God is by saying that’s not how most people really think of God.

  3. #3 Rieux
    July 19, 2007

    Where the analogy breaks down further….

    In my experience, the atheist side of debates against religious believers (and especially theologically liberal ones) almost always has this kind of thing at its heart: explanations why the believer’s argument-by-analogy has systemic flaws that (s)he has ignored.

    The “Where the analogy breaks down further” paragraph here is about the clearest and best example I’ve seen of an atheist obliterating such an argument. I personally plan to steal the “But what he can’t do is form a parallel construction” approach and use it verbatim, and ad nausam, in this kind of exchange.

    …there is a concatenation of myths leavened with post-hoc justifications for them….

    You might have said “rationalizations” rather than “justifications,” but I suppose that would have been “militant.” (Feh.)

  4. #4 Infophile
    July 19, 2007

    I think the concept of a “Lie-to-children” works well to explain the difference here. What it is, essentially, is a simplified version of the truth that while technically wrong, is something the audience can understand. It’s generally used as a stepping stone in teaching people what the truth actually is (and was often though to be the truth by a previous generation), or simply taught to people who don’t really need to know the more accurate version.

    Here, the Bohr model of the atom is a Lie-to-children. It’s a simplified version of the atom that somewhat represents it and is understandable to people. On the other hand, religious claims about science are simply lies.

  5. #5 jeffk
    July 19, 2007

    Further, while religious beliefs are utter nonsense, the Bohr atom is not: it existed because it was consistent with experiments at the time, and so is correct to an approximation. It provides a valuable mathematical and conceptual bridge between classical and quantum mechanics – what an asshat.

  6. #6 nal
    July 19, 2007

    ” … all those people are ignorant, deluded, misinformed … ”

    I think childish is also appropriate.

  7. #7 Chuck
    July 19, 2007

    I think PZ’s position is that the “lofty metaphorical God” is a construct of philosopher-theologians in response to the savaging that the older, anthropomorphic God took at the hands of other philosophers. It is a retreat from a more bold position, and only “better” than the bold position in that it is not subject to outright disproof. But there still isn’t any evidence for it.

    And as well, the vast majority of Christians don’t actually practice the sophisticated rhetorical maneuverings of the theologians. It is enough that those maneuverings are there, to point to, when big bad atheists question their cherished irrational beliefs.

  8. #8 justawriter
    July 19, 2007

    I jaunted over to his site and the article is actually worse than you described PZ. Funny that he uses the same arguement cited here that know that pots and pans are made out atoms which are mostly empty space does not mean the “the kitchen is full of pots and pans” a false statement just because “the kitchen is full of atoms” is also true. If moral reasoning exists in a material universe without a supreme being, then moral reasoning is a part of the material universe. What is so hard to figure out about that?

    I also take exception to the idea that I am “separated from art and literature”. I will put my love of Bach up against anyone’s, Bub. Dueling motets at 50 paces at noon. Think about it. It is like saying because some think there is a “mystical” bond between a mother and child no adopted kid can ever truly love his or her parents. I would like to see whathisname try to make that argument fly.

    I think he needs to go out into his community and find a few atheists and actually talk to them and learn from them instead of just throwing halfwitted suppositions out into the intertubes.

  9. #9 Blake Stacey, OM
    July 19, 2007

    Speaking optimistically, a person who says that atoms are made of protons, neutrons and electrons “like a miniature Solar System” is less wrong than a person who says that atoms are featureless spheres, and the second person is less wrong than somebody who says that atoms don’t exist at all. The concept of atoms as featureless spheres is, in fact, a useful approximation in many circumstances. Just as we don’t have to consider the rotation of the Earth when studying the collision of billiard balls on a table, we can model atoms as featureless spheres if the conditions do not force us to consider their inner constituents. Sometimes, all you have to know is that atoms fly through empty space and bounce off one another. This is the domain of the kinetic theory of gases.

    Furthermore, when atoms do behave like something more complicated than featureless spheres, we can still often put their quantum complexity into a “black box” and make progress with a simpler model. “Ball-and-stick chemistry” is one such endeavor.

    Kleiman makes a historical mistake in addition to his conceptual ones. It was Rutherford’s model of the atom, proposed in 1911, which described the atom as a positively charged lump surrounded by orbiting electrons. The Bohr model was its successor, first proposed in 1913, and the Bohr model already incorporated non-classical notions of physics, namely the quantization of orbital angular momentum.

    In addition, the neutron was not discovered until 1932, by James Chadwick (who won the 1935 Nobel Prize in Physics for it). By this point, quantum mechanics was already established, thanks to Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Born, Jordan and others. So, Kleiman’s names and dates are all wrong.

  10. #10 Rieux
    July 19, 2007

    Miller wrote to PZ:

    the only way I ever see you dismiss the “lofty hypothetical metaphorical” God is by saying that’s not how most people really think of God.

    Er–did you miss this?

    Two, there’s no reason to believe in a metaphorical “infinite, omniscient, beneficent, immortal being,” either. There is no evidence, no explanation, no mysteries which we need to fill with this superman — excuse me, superentity — of the supernatural, so why should saying that this silly concept is actually just a metaphor for that other silly concept salvage either one? It’s a shell game: the abstract deity exists only as a distraction, a pawn to use to draw away attacks on the invisible man-god, and if we criticize the metaphor, the man-god can be mocked to let our theologian pretend to be sly and clever and just as skeptical as his interlocutor.

    I have to wonder, too…if this god is a metaphor, why are people always building real monuments and cathedrals to him, and donating real money and effort to his worship? Why not just stay home on Sundays, watch football, and say you’re metaphorically being religious? There’s a real disconnect here: the institution of religion is not committed to a metaphor.

    I’m pretty sure PZ has addressed liberal (i.e., broad/metaphorical) god concepts in previous posts, as well, but that one hasn’t even dropped off the front page yet.

    Myself, I’m miffed–mortally miffed–at the “stay home on Sundays, watch football” line because it sure appears to me that PZ doesn’t watch much football himself, the hypocrite. We true Minnesotans spend all fall talking (/moaning) about our Vikings, so I infer from the lack of Vikings posts on this blog that PZ is a traitor to our state. Maybe he’s a closeted Seahawks fan….

    And I’ll have you know that Jim Caviezel (the guy who played the central BDSM victim in the Mel Gibson slasher flick The Passion of the Christ) is a fervent Vikings fan, so if PZ wants to be effective in fighting the forces of superstition in our state, he clearly needs to get on the Purple Pride bandwagon.

  11. #11 mojojojo
    July 19, 2007

    So let’s say I believe my computer has a bunch of 1s and 0s in it, and the reason my internet connection goes down sometimes is because there is a 0 stuck in the 1 tube…

    Does this belief give me the right to try to outlaw computer science and insist that it be kept out of the schools?

  12. #12 Bob
    July 19, 2007

    But your mileage may vary; a metaphor that doesn’t work for me may be life-giving to you.

    I’m really at a loss here. What, exactly, does any of this have to do with the original problem? Did PZ really claim that religious metaphors don’t influence people?

    And not believing a given religious tale, even metaphorically, doesn’t deprive it of all value.

    *sigh*

  13. #13 cm
    July 19, 2007

    Kleiman said:

    It’s the eagerness of people like Myers to scoff at, and therefore refuse to learn anything from, traditions that go back thousands of years that bothers me. Among other things, it cuts them off from much of the world’s great literature, art, and music.

    Kleiman, are you kidding? Chrisotpher Hitchens (vitriolic atheist, couldn’t be more scoffing) has been addressing this point clearly, saying how he couldn’t live without the religious poetry of John Donne or George Herbert, or who he thinks all educated English speakers ought to have read the King James Bible, etc. Isaac Asimov (President of the American Humanists, atheist advocate, called Judaism a “dead hand”) wrote a giant guide to the bible for it’s literary and historic merits. As for PZ Myers, Kleiman ought to read his post about Gilgamesh. If he wants, just search that page for “Gilgamesh” and read from about there.

  14. #14 H. Humbert
    July 19, 2007

    Chuck said:

    I think PZ’s position is that the “lofty metaphorical God” is a construct of philosopher-theologians in response to the savaging that the older, anthropomorphic God took at the hands of other philosophers. It is a retreat from a more bold position, and only “better” than the bold position in that it is not subject to outright disproof. But there still isn’t any evidence for it.

    Exactly. Kleiman is somehow trying to say that watering down a concept until it is a nebulous, vague, substanceless mess is a more refined argument than one which states its premises clearly. He’s wrong, of course, it just makes it harder to argue against, which is his only goal–avoiding disproof at any cost. (And indeed, turning your god into a metaphor is a high cost, once which I doubt many beside him will pay.) So long as his god is defined only by what it isn’t, he can accuse others of not arguing against his god. It’s nothing but empty rhetoric and a sham.

    Kleiman appreciates the power of metaphor? Ok, well here’s one that holds particular resonance for me: Kleiman isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.

  15. #15 Glen Davidson
    July 19, 2007

    I was prepared to think well of Kleiman’s argument when I went over there, but it’s really about as bad as any “argument” can be.

    It’s like, well, some people accept a mistaken view of science and could dig further into science to correct their mistaken view of reality, which means that since some people have a mistaken view of what myths, fables, and religion actually tell us, so they could dig into those to correct their mistaken views of reality.

    That is, all mistaken views of reality are the same, whether a mistaken belief about atoms or a mistaken view about Baal or some other middle eastern deity.

    No Kleiman, some views are wrong through and through, at least as descriptions of reality (one may have mistaken views about Baal or Yahweh, as discussed in some text or other, of course, but that’s the study of culture, not of how reality is constructed). And if you have any kind of evidence in favor of ancient religious beliefs, go ahead and cough them up.

    Just don’t turn to the last resort of losers everywhere, from IDists to rear-guard defenders of prejudice, the lame analogy. Analogies are great when they’re actually leading one to greater knowledge (like the Bohr model does), not when they’re equating mistakes in science with “mistakes” in total fabrications like religion.

    Glen D
    http://www.geocities.com/interelectromagnetic

  16. #16 Willey
    July 19, 2007

    From TFA:

    Newton’s astrological interests are cited as evidence that, despite his greatness, he was subject to believing whacky ideas. But let’s look at that one more closely, shall we? The prime belief of astrology was summed up in the maxim “As above, so below”: what happens in the heavens is reflected on Earth.

    The project of judicial astrology was a wild-goose chase, even before it was vulgarized by the newspapers. But the maxim, as transmuted by Newton’s genius, turned out to be gloriously correct: the laws of motion here below are the same as the laws of motion in the heavens, and the force that makes the apple fall is the same as the force that holds the Moon in its orbit.

    This is rediculous. That’s all.

  17. #17 Monado
    July 19, 2007

    The real analogy is with people listening to Honest John the Used-car Dealer. “Of course you can believe me,” he says, “I’m honest. You can trust me. I wouldn’t lie to you.” We might point out to gullible car-buyers that you can’t take Honest John’s statements that he’s trustworthy as proof that he’s trustworthy. “You’re not being logical,” we’d say. “You can’t take his word for it because you don’t know if he’s truthful. And looking at this junkyard collection of his, I suspect he isn’t. He’s fooling you if you don’t step back and ask someone else about his cars.” We could call that person foolish, misguided, or ignorant – without contempt – with friendly exasperation. However, some people could take a well-meant warning as an insult to their intelligence.

  18. #18 Glen Davidson
    July 19, 2007

    I’m no expert on Newton or astrology, but this is what I got by googling “Newton” and “astrology”:

    http://www.phys.uu.nl/~vgent/astrology/newton.htm

    It could be complete nonsense, for all I know, but they quote experts who say they’ve looked and there’s nothing in Newton’s writings about astrology. All we have is an anecdote that Newton claims to have studied it. If he did (and being an alchemist, it’s likely that he’d have encountered it to some degree), he would appear to have not thought much of it.

    If anyone has anything that shows Kleiman to be correct about what he says of Newton and astrology, I’d certainly welcome it.

    Glen D
    http://www.geocities.com/interelectromagnetic

  19. #19 Richrd Harris, FCD
    July 19, 2007

    I think that we can now claim that there are no Abrahamic gods, & that this is as much a fact as anything else we claim to know.

    So, here is my proof that there’s no good reason to believe that an Abrahamic god exists.

    In today’s world, reasonable people, who have a basic knowledge of the fundamentals of science, are likely to discount supernatural explanations of the universe, & this is the case for many of us. Sure, we don’t know everything, but supernatural explanations look illogical to us.

    Those of us who deny the existence of an Abrahamic god, according to the lore of the Abrahamic religions, will be cruelly punished in a supposed life after death. (See Revelation 21:8 “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death”.) However, believers in said god will retain consciousness after death, & get special treatment that will cause them to be euphorically happy, provided they don’t meet the previously quoted specifications. Quite how they’ll maintain their euphoria when they see their previously atheistic loved ones being tortured for eternity, I can’t imagine.

    Anyway, this threatened treatment of the scientifically educated, rationalistic, atheists, is clearly unethical, because being an unbeliever is reasonable, and is quite unlike being a murderer or whoremonger, for instance. A just, omniscient, and omnipotent god could not reasonably act in the manner threatened.

    According to the lore of the Abrahamic religions, their god has caused miracles to occur, witnessed by selected individuals, to bring knowledge of the god to the chosen people. So, it ought to pull the same tricks again, (or modern updates), to give us unbelievers a reason for belief, and a fair chance at this afterlife. But the bugger hasn’t done this. Therefore there’s no reason to believe that it exists.

    It might be objected that this is no proof, because Revelation 21:8 might be incorrect. If that’s the case, then the whole bible is suspect, and therefore there’s no reason to believe any of it, so the proof still holds. Another objection might be that this supposed god only reveals itself to selected individuals, at the right time, with a private miracle. In this case, the reference in Revelation 21:8 to unbelievers is redundant, because being an atheist is no longer sufficient to send you to the “lake which burneth with fire and brimstone”, ergo, the whole bible is suspect, and therefore there’s no reason to believe any of it, so the proof still holds.

  20. #20 Alan
    July 19, 2007

    Tom:

    “If we shouldn’t challenge misunderstandings, then what’s the point of education? As a militant atheist, I’d go further and ask whether religion-based schools can ever truly be considered a viable educational outlet at all. “Religion” and “education” are contradictions (of course, you can educate someone about religions, but why waste our time when we have more interesting things like SCIENCE?!).”

    What an absurd statement.

    I went to a Catholic high school (that I suppose would qualify as a “religious-based school,” although no fundamentalist will claim that) that differed in public education in only one way: the addition of a “theology” class. It being a religious school didn’t stop our biology teachers from teaching evolution (we never once uttered a word about creationism or ID) or even our theology teachers from questioning certain aspects of the Bible. Granted, Catholics tend to be a bit more liberal with their reverence of the Bible as literal fact, but my point is to not paint with such a wide brush. Of course some religious education is good and fosters independent thought and some religious education is atrocious.

    An irony, though, that I’ve noticed anecdotally, is that graduates and current students from Catholic high schools tend to be a significantly less religious (depending, of course, on how you define “religious”) than students from public high schools.

    Note: if you were being facetious or sarcastic, ignore this comment.

  21. #21 mikmik
    July 19, 2007

    You deconstruct Kleiman’s analogy to show where it fails very elegantly in order to expose his flaws in reasoning. It seems using incomplete or invalid analogy is an epidemic and is really at the root of a lot of misinformation and intangible justification for religion, war, even damn municipal politics! It is rampant.
    I also cringe at all the straw man and red herring crap that not only needlessly complicates debate and are just plain diversionary, much of it is outright falsehood.
    When Kleiman says:

    That is, they’ll describe the Bohr atom, vintage about 1925.
    Now that model of the atom is false. The math doesn’t work. It doesn’t agree with the experiments. No one who knows any actual physics believes in it.

    Now, you may quibble about energy levels vs orbitals vs “like a miniature solar system” as an over simplified view, it sure isn’t far from how CERN (through the exploratorium website) sees it.

    Every atom contains a central core called the nucleus, made of particles called protons and neutrons. The nucleus is surrounded by mostly empty space, except for very tiny particles called electrons that orbit the nucleus.

    (Just an aside: I sometimes wonder, though, if we target religion et al for our criticisms but forget it is a symptom of a more general problem – lack of critical thinking skills)

  22. #22 J Daley
    July 19, 2007

    Not to mention the fact that no Chemistry teacher worth her salt teaches the Bohr model, except to say, this is how it was once pictured, and then explains the electron cloud.

    Of course, this doesn’t reflect on the population’s understanding at large, but anybody who’s taken high school Chemistry should understand this.

  23. #23 NC Paul
    July 19, 2007

    Way to entirely miss the point, Mr Kleiman.

    The main reason atheists don’t believe there’s a god isn’t because the majority of god-believers have unsophisticated ideas about god, it’s because there’s no supporting evidence for god’s existence.

    But it’s good to see the “robotic atheists can’t love nature, art, music” canard again. I’m sure it must make sophisticated believers feel ever so refined and superior.

  24. #24 Blake Stacey, OM
    July 19, 2007

    The essay to which Glen D. links is quite interesting. Apparently, nothing written by Newton about astrology has ever been found, and out of the more than 1700 books in Newton’s library, only four were about astrology, one of which was critical of it. Also, the oft-quoted anecdote about Edmund Halley disparaging astrology and Newton replying, “I have studied the matter, you have not!” turns out to be a distortion. According to the English physicist David Brewster (1781–1868),

    … when Dr. Halley ventured to say anything disrespectful to religion, he [Newton] invariably checked him, with the remark, “I have studied these things — you have not”.

    Was Isaac Newton an early advocate of the Courtier’s Reply?

  25. #25 JimV
    July 19, 2007

    … we should therefore describe believers in atoms as “ignorant, deluded, and foolish” (somehow “wicked” and “oppressed” don’t seem to apply)…

    I thought the original quote from which this is quotemined used “or” not “and”?

  26. #26 paleotn
    July 19, 2007

    #13…You’re right on the money.

    This is absolute, unmitigated horse shite….

    “It’s the eagerness of people like Myers to scoff at, and therefore refuse to learn anything from, traditions that go back thousands of years that bothers me. Among other things, it cuts them off from much of the world’s great literature, art, and music.”

    It’s funny that Mr. Kleiman likes to describe himself as such a liberal believer who is far above the literal idiocy of fundamentalist Christians. Yet, when his arguments are being demolished, he falls back into the simple minded, black and white, all or nothing arguments we’ve come to expect from garden variety fundies.

    Of course, there are good things in ancient traditions. I find many passages in Christian scripture to be very poignant and useful in modern life. But much of it is eiher made up crap with no practical use or downright abhorrent. I wonder what he thinks of “traditions that go back thousands of years” such as enslaving other human beings and treating them as livestock or that women have no rights or privileges outside of what we men may grant them. We can end their lives on a whim simply because we’re men, they’re not and we men run things.

    I wonder if he’s just grasping because his arguments are being crushed, or is he deep down just another fundy in fancy, metaphorical cloths? Does the true nature of his belief system only come out when he’s pressured?

  27. #27 Glen Davidson
    July 19, 2007

    In truth, I’m not sure what the whole argument is about. Does Myers object to statements such as this one: “Byrd motet or a Tallis mass is the “soundtrack of Heaven””? I don’t recall it, though I certainly don’t read everything PZ writes. Does he object to the use of metaphors like “my soul”, when not obviously referring to some ancient and false conception of “mind”?

    I don’t think Kleiman even gets the atomic theory analogy very well:

    Now that model of the atom is false. The math doesn’t work. It doesn’t agree with the experiments. No one who knows any actual physics believes in it.

    And do physicists actually agree with other “models of the atom”? Or do they treat them as metaphors, as they commonly do the Bohr model? Do any of the illustrations of atoms, protons, or quarks, give us a “non-false” picture of atomic and subatomic particles? Or do we just use metaphors all the way down? Of course there are models that convey a more meaningful and mathematically correct idea of what we know about atoms than does the Bohr model, but is the latter “false” as he tells us that it is?

    One really needn’t turn to physics to find false views of science, however. Evolution itself will do, since probably most people who accept evolution don’t really understand it properly. Progressive views abound, and the sense that evolution is “going somewhere” seems to be the norm. We really don’t hesitate to disagree with such errant beliefs when they’re brought up, though of course we don’t really have a problem with their underlying belief that evolution occurred–because it did.

    I think what Kleiman, and most of this exchange even, is missing is how religion is a wrong metaphor for “reality”. The Bohr model, and progressive views of evolution, are movements away from anthropocentric and anthropomorphic conceptions of our cosmos, and thus they move people from generally false preconceptions about our world toward a more correct one dealing with forces (themselves metaphors, btw), energy, and what we might call “efficient causes”.

    I really don’t mind saying that Aristotle’s and religionists’ views were not wrong in the past, no matter how much they’re modeled by misleading attributions of human traits onto the cosmos. This is because these people were working with what they knew, and often were quite open and honest about it. However, with Galileo, Newton, Bacon, etc., we gained a much better way of viewing the world (despite how many of their details that we consider to have been superseded by later science), and we began to use much better and less anthropocentric metaphors, like “little balls” for atoms or protons, and “waves” for light (though by today’s definitions, waves are indeed a form that light takes).

    The trouble with religious metaphors, beyond the trite use of “soul”, “heavenly music”, or the like, is that it puts us right back into the anthropomorphic-anthropocentric pre-scientific view. Atoms aren’t “like us”, the cosmos didn’t originate “as if it was God’s doing”, and we didn’t evolve “because that’s what God wanted”.

    We do continue to use misleading metaphors (indeed, is “we evolved” a truly accurate description), often saying that “it evolved in order to” or some such thing, because language has limitations.

    If we want to discuss metaphor, however, we ought to be discussing how we might change our use of language, perhaps even language itself, to reduce its projection of human attributes into non-human processes. Kleiman faults our preference for retaining the gains that we have made in language, apparently, even suggesting that we might learn much by delving into the misleading anthropocentric beliefs of the past (and I don’t think that anyone actually is opposed to the cultural study of the Bible and other religious artifacts, so Kleiman’s excuse seems lame, leading me to think he might have more than that in mind).

    Many metaphors that he’d fault are just mistaken or incomplete non-anthropocentric models of “reality”. Religious metaphors tend toward the opposite, however, so that although there is no cause for totally eliminating religious metaphors, we ought to be steering away from their anthropocentric tendencies. Especially, we oughtn’t suppose that religious beliefs are merely metaphors when they aren’t obviously so, nor to suggest that religious metaphors are even a tolerably good manner of understanding the world even where they are “just metaphors”. The anthropocentrism inherent in religion is just too overwhelming to give us the metaphors we need to explain science.

    Of course anyone who wants to cling to religious metaphors or belief, without telling us that these are actually good ways of viewing the cosmos, is welcome to do so. It’s the confusion of inappropriate anthropocentric metaphors coming from religion, with much better metaphors coming from Bohr and others, that is the enemy here.

    Glen D
    http://www.geocities.com/interelectromagnetic

  28. #28 Brownian
    July 19, 2007

    I would like to hear Mr. Kleiman’s thoughts on the rich, ancient traditions of Hinduism and the Indus River civilisations. I wonder how his soul stirs when he views the relief sculptures of Kukulcan at Teotihuacán. I’d love to hear his musings on the wisdom of Confucius, or his experiences with Tuareg divination.

    Obviously, since he’s got so much respect for these ancient traditions, I’m sure he’s got a lot to say about what we can learn from these people.

    From now on, the next time someone accuses atheists of disdaining religious traditions, I’m going to demand to see their (presumably dog-eared) copy of Frazer’s Golden Bough.

  29. #29 "Q" the Enchanter
    July 19, 2007

    Yes, exactly. As I put it (quoting Kleiman), Kleiman’s analogy “doesn’t agree with the experiments.”

  30. #30 Jon H
    July 19, 2007

    “First, you might be surprised: most people wouldn’t have a clue what an electron, proton, and neutron are, or how they fit into the atom at all.”

    It’s like street gangs. I learned that on the TV.

  31. #31 Brownian
    July 19, 2007

    That was some lesson, eh Jon H? As I recall, Professor Flytrap managed to slip that one in under the two-minute wire.

  32. #32 David
    July 19, 2007

    Spelling ?
    bases vs. basis
    or is that grammar ?

  33. #33 Graculus
    July 19, 2007

    The argument from theology. Oy.

    OK, there are 2 potential “states” for “God” (insert divity/supernatural entity of your choice). Either you have a Deistic entity who does not and has not ever interacted wih the universe. If this divinity hasn’t interacted with the universe then you have not experience or evidence of it having any qualities whatsoever to wax philiophical about. Theology is about pertinent as leprechaunolgy.

    If you propose a divinity that has enough interaction with the universe to have something to speculate about then you have to demonstrate your premise, that this divinity exists and there is something to talk about, BEFORE you can wax theological about it.

    So theology is completely irrelevant no matter how you slice it. Provide evidence of this divinity or STFU.

  34. #34 Pablo
    July 19, 2007

    Heh, I used that clip from WKRP in my gen chem class last year.

    “Do you think tomorrow you can teach me about magnetism?” – Johnny Fever

  35. #35 Glen Davidson
    July 19, 2007

    As well as I can discover, the whole Newton-astrology connection that Kleiman claims comes from this:

    As well as I can discover, the whole Newton-astrology connection that Kleiman claims comes from this (I bolded “#2” below, the “above-below” statement):

    Translation of Issac Newton c. 1680.

    1) Tis true without lying, certain & most true.
    2) That wch is below is like that wch is above & that wch is above is like yt wch is below to do ye miracles of one only thing.
    3) And as all things have been & arose from one by ye mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
    4) The Sun is its father, the moon its mother,
    5) the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth its nourse.
    6) The father of all perfection in ye whole world is here.
    7) Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
    7a) Seperate thou ye earth from ye fire, ye subtile from the gross sweetly wth great indoustry.
    8) It ascends from ye earth to ye heaven & again it desends to ye earth and receives ye force of things superior & inferior.
    9) By this means you shall have ye glory of ye whole world & thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
    10) Its force is above all force. ffor it vanquishes every subtile thing & penetrates every solid thing.
    11a) So was ye world created.
    12) From this are & do come admirable adaptaions whereof ye means (Or process) is here in this.
    13) Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of ye philosophy of ye whole world.
    14) That wch I have said of ye operation of ye Sun is accomplished & ended.
    [Dobbs 1988: 183-4.]

    http://www.levity.com/alchemy/emerald.html

    It is not astrology per se. It’s from the “Hermetic” Emerald Tablet, almost certainly of interest to Newton because of its alchemical connections. Not that it has nothing to do with astrology (as I noted, a studious alchemist is bound to run into astrological material), but yet again we have no evidence for Newton’s purported “astrological interests”.

    I think that Kleiman might have confused Newton’s alchemical interests with Kepler’s astrological work, by which the latter man survived for at least a while.

    To be sure, one could still conjecture that Newton got the idea that things were much the same above as below from alchemy. I think it would be a stretch to suggest that it is the sole, or even the main, source for such a concept. The Aristotelian-Ptolemaic view of the heavens being the pure abode of the gods which had different motions and different “laws” was falling before the increasing use of the telescope. While the telescope couldn’t show that the same force that makes the apple fall to the ground held the moon in orbit, it did show mountains on the moon, sunspots on sol, and that the orbits of comets and planets followed Kepler’s laws (with minor deviations), not the supposedly divine circular paths.

    Things just didn’t look like they were following a “divine order” which was quite unlike the disorder and complexity seen on earth, despite the considerable differences in the details. Why should the moon have mountains and plains, like earth does (with differences, but…), yet operate according to different laws?

    What is more, even Kleiman indicates that Newton’s “same above as below” is not the “astrological”, or the alchemical, interpretation of that and similar phrases. It would seem as though Newton made ironic use of the term to agree with more modern conceptions that the heavens weren’t of a “different substance” or “different processes” than the earth is. This may have fed into his unification of earth and the heavens, but I fail to see how it would have led to it in any manner than any other sort of suggestion or ironic juxtaposition might.

    Anyway, there are better reasons to study alchemy than ironic suggestion, such as to study the origins of chemistry, psychology, and cultural development. Has PZ or any others here been opposed to studying alchemy or astrology for those and similar reasons?

    Glen D
    http://geocities.com/interelectromagnetic

  36. #36 David Wilford
    July 19, 2007

    I don’t literally believe in a real Harry Potter, but Rowling tells a pretty good tale with a few lessons to be learned if one is so inclined.

    It all comes down to story in the end, really.

  37. #37 ctw
    July 19, 2007

    Myers (accurate version): ” this … map … shows the concentration of ignorant, deluded, wicked, foolish, or oppressed victims of obsolete mythologies …”

    nal (comment above): “I think childish is also appropriate.”

    Kleiman: “Religious thought, writing, and speech, at its adult level, is always metaphorical.”

    Ie, Kleiman in essence agrees with Myers as interpreted by nal. (:>) But he defensively lapses into an argument used repeatedly against so-called “new atheists”, something like:

    Serious thinkers don’t really believe the nonsense versions of religious dogma, so it’s unfair to criticize the serious for the faults of the non-serious.

    But the original post was a demographics map which didn’t distinguish between serious and non-serious thinkers. Surely we can agree that serious thinkers on any topic are a small minority. Therefore, applied collectively, Prof Myers’ descriptions, though perhaps “flippant” and undiplomatic, could be correct in context, ie, on average. Unfortunately, polls repeatedly demonstrate that in the US unbelievably large fractions of the populace do believe the nonsense versions, ie, Prof Myers is in fact correct “on average”.

    An interesting question is whether those who make the “no serious thinker” argument actually believe that serious thinking on religion is the norm, consider that non-serious thinkers should be exempted from criticism, or something else. Ie, why not just say something like “well of course you’re right re most people, but their opinions on anything aren’t really very interesting” instead of demonizing the critic?

    -Charles

  38. #38 Jsn
    July 19, 2007

    /Evolution itself will do, since probably most people who accept evolution don’t really understand it properly. Progressive views abound, and the sense that evolution is “going somewhere” seems to be the norm./

    Damn! ANOTHER trip to nowhere, and I was so bummed when the Christians told me that when I died I’d be all dressed up with nowhere to go. What’s the POINT of evolution if it doesn’t lead to SUPERMEN (and Superwomen), especially with hundrerds of millions of years of practice with the dinosaurs? Oh wait, that would imply Intelligent Design….
    If there WERE a Designer behind it all, he should be fired because his flaw rate is atrocious.

  39. #39 EnoNomi
    July 19, 2007

    Everything I know about the atom I learned from WKRP.

    I guess white belts and polyester are out of date too?

  40. #40 Fatboy
    July 19, 2007

    Okay, I read both of Kleiman’s blog entries, and I’m confused. Is he an atheist or agnostic, and he’s just upset with PZ for being rude? After reading those entries, it seems like he’s saying that the Bible and all other religious texts are completely metaphorical, that there’s no supernatural entity that interacts with this universe. Did I take this quote the wrong way?

    But if, like anyone who has thought deeply about these matters, you think of God as an especially potent metaphor (or, to put in more flowery terms, “a mystery to be understood only in part, and then by faith”) — if you think that, then the whole debate is pointless.

    or this one?

    I can’t make much sense of a “personal God,” any more than I can of a “personal sine wave” or a “personal photoelectric effect” or a “personal Law of Noncontradiction” or a “personal Categorical Imperative.”

    I mean, I might have mistaken him for a deist, except that he calls it all a metaphor. So I’m confused as to why he defends theists.

    Also from his first entry, what’s so bigoted about calling people ignorant? Everybody I know of is ignorant in certain fields. It’s not an insult, just the way things are.

  41. #41 John
    July 19, 2007

    Kleinman touts out a needless and fallacious syllogism to support his “new age” interpretation of theism. Jesus Christ!

  42. #42 Fernando Magyar
    July 19, 2007

    Re: 20,

    Twas at a private Catholic school that I attended a long time ago that I was exposed (pun intended) to such wonderful literature as this, note the comment re public school.

    There were two girls from Birmingham with a terrible story concerning them.

    They had lifted the frock,and tickled the cock,of the Bishop who was just confirming them.

    Now this Bishop was nobody’s fool he had been to a great public school.

    He let down his britches and fucked them two bitches with a six inch long episcopal tool.

    Metaphorically speaking, of course.

    Just for the record I credit my catholic upbringing with my current membership in the reality based community and my revulsion at the mysogynistic world world view espoused by the faithful. But then again I also went to public school later.

  43. #43 ike
    July 19, 2007

    The Jesuits taught some very anti clerical if not atheists including Voltaire and Montesquieu. They teach you to question everything which leads you to question them. Those catholics are terrible especially with their hospitals schools and orphanages.

  44. #44 Samnell
    July 20, 2007

    “Those catholics are terrible especially with their hospitals schools and orphanages.”

    And the program of telling lies in AIDS-ridden Africa to keep people from using condoms. And the assertion of ownership over every woman’s private parts. And the relentless crusade against equal rights for homosexuals.

    As one of the oldest and most organized versions of Christianity, it stands to reason that Catholicism has produced the most impressive list of atrocities.

  45. #45 Jake
    July 20, 2007

    Kleiman’s whole “Newton and astrology” argument was really weird. Apart from the inconvenient truth that Newton had very little if anything to do with astrology, astrology wasn’t even mentioned by Myers. No, he mentioned alchemy. But who knows? In futherance of muddle-headed tolerance for wacky beliefs, Kleiman will no doubt soon delight us all with a defense of the metaphorical brilliance, beauty and esoteric truth of alchemy.

  46. #46 Norman Doering
    July 20, 2007

    The Jesus and Mo cartoonist was listening to the debate. Catch it before the update.

  47. #47 Norman Doering
    July 20, 2007

    Mark Kleiman is still trying to pick a fight with PZ:
    Here in “Religion, civility, and public discourse.”

    He’s getting better but he still does make a few ignorant assumptions about PZ’s biblical knowledge.

  48. #48 Ichthyic
    July 20, 2007

    He’s getting better but he still does make a few ignorant assumptions about PZ’s biblical knowledge.

    funny, Mark posts his rants on a site with the strong header:

    The Reality-Based Community:
    Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.

    well, i guess Mark can use his own facts so long as it props up his argument?

    maybe the clarification was too long to make into a header for the site?

  49. #49 Jon Jermey
    July 21, 2007

    To blithely say that Newton or Socrates (or any other acknowledged genius from the past) ‘believed in God’ ignores the fact that they grew up in a society where atheism was virtually non-existent, where there was no social or intellectual support for it, and where there could be real physical danger involved in expressing heterodox views. If I could be burnt at the stake (or given hemlock) for expressing atheism, I’d probably be looking very hard for ways to avoid it. Nonetheless, though the evidence about Socrates is all second-hand, it’s pretty clear that he didn’t believe in a personal God of the Zeus kind.

    Note too that all the smart people that have ‘thought very hard’ about religion in the past have come up with radically different beliefs. There’s got to be something wrong there somewhere.

  50. #50 Keith Douglas
    July 24, 2007

    Willey: Indeed. So many people look for broad analogies and “anticipations” everywhere these days. But Newton didn’t merely say that the basic physical laws were the same throughout the universe, he found objective patterns of a very precise character that summarize a large class of facts and events. This is so fundamentally different than any qualitiative understanding (however clever, like Descartes’ semi-attempt) that to label anything an anticipation is nuts.

    Glen Davidson: Could be that someone has confused Newton with Kepler, who was an astrologer. (And, of course, a brilliant astronomer, physicist and science fiction writer.)

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