Pharyngula

Sam Harris has a letter in Nature today, urging scientists to unite against religion — even the moderate religion that so many are willing to support.

But here is Collins on how he, as a scientist, finally became convinced of the divinity of Jesus Christ: “On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains… the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.”

What does the “mode of thought” displayed by Collins have in common with science? The Language of God should have sparked gasping outrage from the editors at Nature. Instead, they deemed Collins’s efforts “moving” and “laudable”, commending him for building a “bridge across the social and intellectual divide that exists between most of US academia and the so-called heartlands.”

He seems to feel the same way about Collins that I do.

Comments

  1. #1 Tulse
    August 23, 2007

    Oh hell, I suppose this means we’ll get another finger-wagging, pearl-clutching post from Nisbet.

  2. #2 Texas Reader
    August 23, 2007

    I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church and went to Baylor University. At Baylor I learned (from my Old Testament professor!) that evolution is a fact, and that Genesis is not to be taken literally. In my 20’s and 30’s I was an agnostic and am now an atheist. I would like to see atheists state they they do not believe in the supernatural, PERIOD, whether it is religion, Tarot cards, numerology, astrology, etc. I’d also like them to explain why they don’t believe. BUT I would like them to make these statements without saying “religion is crap” or other antagonistic things. Religion does bring comfort to a lot of people and I think we atheists can stand up for ourselves, oppose efforts to enshrine religious views into law, and encourage rational approaches to science (embryonic stem cell research) WITHOUT saying antagonistic things. We can even discuss the dangers of religion while being polite and reasonable. That’s my personal belief.

  3. #3 Moody834
    August 23, 2007

    One day, as I was walking in the Big Blue Room, I rounded a corner and saw a cluster of vines. I realized that they looked like CAT-5 cables. I realized how much information they carried, and that the earth was a giant computer. It struck me, then, that the central symbol in Genesis was… an Apple!

    The very next morning I knelt down in the wet grass — ignoring the welts that developed because of my allergy — and gave my heart to Steve Jobs.

    However, an enlightened person showed me the error of my ways. It was not CAT-5 cables I saw after all! I now realize that it was spaghetti! So, I converted….

    You get the picture.

  4. #4 Altabin
    August 23, 2007

    Sal Cordova is already whining about this over at Uncommon Descent. He writes:

    I’m thankful for this movie [Expelled] because there are great threats to the freedom of thought these days. For example, thought police like Sam Harris are roaming around seeking whom they can devour.

    followed by the text of the letter as you quoted it. It appears that expressing a dissenting opinion constitutes a threat to the freedom of thought.

    Soon these nuts are going to start suing people for disagreeing with them. Oh, wait…

  5. #5 Midwestern Gent
    August 23, 2007

    TR –

    I tend to agree. There is a difference between being direct (“I do not believe in the existence of god and here’s why”) and being antagonistic (“religion is crap”). Theoretically I want to express myself in the former mode, but when faced with the dishonesty and irrationality of some religious adherents (especially when they make false empirical claims), it’s difficult not to fall into the latter mode. Still, you have a valid point that one can be uncompromising without being an uncompromising prick.

    But shame, shame, shame on Nature for publishing this stuff and claiming to bridge any gaps.

  6. #6 dAVE
    August 23, 2007

    I just don’t get the leap from awe at how wonderful and beautiful nature is to the divinity of Jesus Christ.

    There’s just no connection there for me.

    Sure, I could see getting becoming convinced that there is some sort of all-pervading order and beauty to the Universe, a sense of connection, and maybe wanting to name it. Even deciding that there is some intelligence behind it.

    But J.C. that’s just childhood conditioning kicking in.

  7. #7 Reginald Selkirk
    August 23, 2007

    Do science and rationality support atheism? by Edward Remler. (Hint: his answer starts with ‘N’.)

  8. #8 Rey Fox
    August 23, 2007

    “a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall”

    Perhaps if Collins had just had a map with him we would be spared all the religion praise-singing.

  9. #9 Randy
    August 23, 2007

    Hear! Hear! About time someone spoke up on the respect that religion has so little deserved! I rank it up there with that idiotic NOMA concept. Coming to such an astounding conclusion based solely on emotional arguments Collins gets no respect from me either.

  10. #10 Tom @Thoughtsic.com
    August 23, 2007

    Every time I have a nice bowl of spaghetti I knee down in appreciation for The Spaghetti Monster and His Noodley Appendage.

    But, really, this just goes along with the common misbelief that casual religion is OK and should be tolerated. You know, forgetting that it’s both moderates and extremists who unite to discriminate against homosexuals and come together to vote on ONE faux issue.

  11. #11 Tulse
    August 23, 2007

    Texas Reader:

    I would like them to make these statements without saying “religion is crap” or other antagonistic things.

    Where did Harris say that? Where did Harris say anything that was insulting?

    We can even discuss the dangers of religion while being polite and reasonable.

    The problem is that many people seem to think any discussion of that topic is impolite just by virtue of the claims. Any questioning of religion, no matter how civilly stated, will be attacked by some supporter.

  12. #12 J Daley
    August 23, 2007

    I tend to agree with Texas and Midwestern as well; however atheists are often accused of being pompous pricks simply for pointing out that, ahem, god is not real, and neither is astrology or tarot or any of it. Even when they’re being entirely civil (which, IMHO, Harris is, in this letter).

  13. #13 Inky
    August 23, 2007

    Harris’s letter was refreshing.

    But, I must ask: why did Collins wait until the next morning to kneel in the dewy grass …

    wait. How can there be a frozen waterfall AND dewy grass?

    I’ll bet he made the whole damn thing up.

    He should have knelt in the snow right by that unexpected block of ice. Actually–why even would the waterfall be unexpected? Wasn’t he on the designated hiking trail?

    As for JC, well, shoot, obviously the block of ice looked like JC, much like my BBQ potato chips often bear a striking resemblance to Cheney.

    His road to Damascus sure could have used Mapquest.

  14. #14 CalGeorge
    August 23, 2007

    Ahhh, my favorite quote!

    Brings sweet insults to my lips.

    What a maroon!

    Lets have an encore, Francis. Give it up for Jesus. Your saviour calls, the waterfalls beckon!

  15. #15 Gil
    August 23, 2007

    “Oh hell, I suppose this means we’ll get another finger-wagging, pearl-clutching post from Nisbet”.

    Texas Reader @ #2 was apparently already primed and clenched.

  16. #16 Glen Davidson
    August 23, 2007

    The article in Nature was quite incorrect, other than as a persuasive piece to convince Muslims to adopt science.

    I actually think that the interview at Salon and an article in Physics today were produced to some degree in order to counter the whitewashing in Nature of Islam’s rejection of science (of ancient science) prior to the devastations wrought by colonialism. The Islamic world almost certainly failed in competition with the West in part because of its rejection of openness and often even of ancient intellection (no doubt due in part to other events, like the Mongol invasions, however it’s not likely that such rejection was only in reaction to outside causes). Non-religious authoritarianism played its role, naturally, but Islam appears to be to blame along with the other factors.

    The Nature article was pushing for that non-existant golden age of Islam when Muslims were open to new ideas because the Mohammed enjoined Muslims to study. Yes, well, the Koran also inhibits openness and study, as well as perpetuating ancient oppressions. Like the Bible, only Muslims take the Koran’s injunctions more literally and seriously than, in the overall sense, Jews and Xians understand the Bible.

    It wasn’t all bad, because it did speak to Muslims in a way that I suspect might persuade a few toward science. It was not, however, anything like the truth about the problems faced by science in Islam, and, God forbid, perhaps in our theocratic future (not soon, I’ll wager, but I can’t be sure it’ll never happen).

    One has plenty of doubts about the propriety of such a propaganda piece in Nature, even if it might be appropriate in some places. Science ought to be rather indifferent to religion, and not proclaiming that any religion promotes or enables science, since none have been shown to do so (relative to other religions, perhaps, but not relative to non-religion at all).

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  17. #17 matthew
    August 23, 2007

    fantasticle

  18. #18 Kseniya
    August 23, 2007

    Perhaps if Collins had just had a map with him we would be spared all the religion praise-singing.

    Nah. He was so intent on finding a sign, he would have confused the map with the territory anyway.

  19. #19 stogoe
    August 23, 2007

    There is a difference between being direct (“I do not believe in the existence of god and here’s why”) and being antagonistic (“religion is crap”)

    Religion is crap. I’m sorry if it hurts your feelings, and I’m sorry that you’ve been deluded into funneling your money into the pockets of an authoritarian huckster (not to mention abdicating your capacity for reasoned thought), but it’s true. It’s a big stinky pile of crap, and it’s floating there in all our drinking water.

  20. #20 Maggie O'Hooligan
    August 23, 2007

    …and it’s floating there …

    Are you sure it’s not just a Baby Ruth?

  21. #21 Chris Clarke
    August 23, 2007

    I think you’re being too hard on Collins, PZ. I mean, I went out hiking in Arizona two years ago, found a frozen waterfall, and not only yelled “Jesus!” but dropped to my knees. (That last was to take photos, of course, but intent doesn’t matter, just empirical results.)

    Also, to Inky: you can definitely have ice and dew in the same setting. Easy. Ice can exist with daytime air temps above Zero C for a surprising amount of time,especially if the air is moist enough to condense dew which then refreezes at night.

  22. #22 Karen
    August 23, 2007

    I might have stumbled upon that waterfall of Collins’ on a trip last year – I certainly stumbled onto some views that brought honest tears to my eyes. I’ve never quite felt so awestruck or humbled as I’ve felt surrounded by the natural world. I’ve had something like a religious experience, an enlightenment, that the only thing I could say with certainty is that we don’t know the half of what there is to know about the Earth – and even less about the universe. Never once did I think, ‘Wow, this is just so beautiful I’m going to go pick a religion to practice!’

    I have never understood why we cannot appreciate our little slice of insignificance in its own right – what we have been ‘given’ is supremely awesome without having to bring God to the table.

  23. #23 Warren
    August 23, 2007

    I’m often moved to tears by experiences of breathtaking beauty. Sometimes I’m even deeply moved by the loveliness in religious-themed works. However, feeling all warm and fuzzy doesn’t indicate the existence of a god; and apparently even solidly-rational minds can slide into difficult-to-unseat superstition.

    And why “Jesus”, anyway? Why not Allah, or YHVH, or one of the many manifestations of buddhas?

    Because Collins’s background made him predisposed to fall for the christomyth.

    You’d think he’d be bright enough to figure that out.

  24. #24 factlike
    August 23, 2007

    TR, I wish I could agree with you. I think civility and polity and kindness are all exceedingly important, but I have found quite often that though I may say merely that “I don’t believe in gods”, the religious hear “religion is crap”. And they’re not entirely wrong, either; how can I say that I don’t believe that the Bible is true without implying that the Bible is false? Which futher implies that I believe that that which they base their lives upon, that which they gain comfort from, that which they cherish as the ultimate truth, is at worst a lie, and at best a waste of time? Is there a way to say “I don’t believe you’re right” without being perceived as saying “you’re wrong”?

  25. #25 tourettist
    August 23, 2007

    I don’t think Collins’ essay is appropriate for a science journal, but I completely respect his right to his own personal beliefs. I’m about as unbelieving as they come, but I don’t want science mucking about in peoples’ heads, any more than I’d want the government or a state-sponsored religion doing so. I support, as Amnesty International calls it, freedom of conscience.

    I too had a beutiful blue cables experience, at which point I realized they are but noodly appendages of the flying spagetti monster. So I went out to eat.

  26. #26 caynazzo
    August 23, 2007

    Collins is a latter day Romantic (capital R) without the writing chops of a Wordsworth or Blake or Hawthorn. In the Collins quote there is a quantitative degree of similarity to Blake poetry. Romanticism stands opposed to objectivism, empiricism, and the Enlightenment: Collins is a deeply confused man.

  27. #27 sailor
    August 23, 2007

    “There is a difference between being direct (“I do not believe in the existence of god and here’s why”) and being antagonistic (“religion is crap”)”

    This is a hard one. I mean what about believing in fairies? or UFOs? are they crap? However, saying religion is crap might be productive on a blog – where it is open on a general discussion and gives a public view of opinion. To say so to another human being individually face to face is not productive. It will make them very defensive. I am not sure what the best approach is, but I think being interested and exploring the limits of their belief can help – do you also believe in ghosts? fairies? dowsers? It might make them realise what realm hey are in.

  28. #28 Reginald Selkirk
    August 23, 2007

    Meanwhile, back at the convent: Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith

  29. #29 AlanWCan
    August 23, 2007

    I’d also like them to explain why they don’t believe. BUT I would like them to make these statements without saying “religion is crap”

    Well, I don’t believe because religion is crap–will you still want to hear me explain?

  30. #30 Reginald Selkirk
    August 23, 2007

    but I have found quite often that though I may say merely that “I don’t believe in gods”, the religious hear “religion is crap”.

    And merely saying such things these days gets one labeled as “militant” and “fundamentalist.”

  31. #31 CJ
    August 23, 2007

    Ditto. I don’t get the necessary leap from awe to Jesus. Maybe if he wasn’t so busy with his misty watercolor Jesus fantasies he might have noticed the fraud going on under his nose.

  32. #32 Moses
    August 23, 2007

    But here is Collins on how he, as a scientist, finally became convinced of the divinity of Cthulhu: “On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains… the majesty and beauty of Cthulhu’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Cthulhu.”

    Makes as much sense… And if Cthulhu isn’t your cup of tea, you can go to FSM, Krishna, Mohamed or anyone your heart desires.

  33. #33 skyotter
    August 23, 2007

    he should have cut out the middleman and started worshipping the waterfall. at least the waterfall objectively exists

    hooray for animism!

  34. #34 tourettist
    August 23, 2007

    I realize now that Collins’ words came from his book reviewed in Nature, so my point about appropriateness for a science journal is irrelevant, seeing as how he’s not the one who put them there.

    I’m still uncomfortable with the editors of Nature weighing in on religion and building bridges – or even condemning it as Harris does. I think it can only encourage religious types to meddle in science more than they already do.

  35. #35 Kseniya
    August 23, 2007

    I think Dr. Collins succumbed to Christianity because the waterfall was frozen in THREE STREAMS – revealing the Trinity. (I assume each stream was discretely frozen — everyone knows that crossing the streams “would be bad.”)

  36. #36 CalGeorge
    August 23, 2007

    Collins is in deep.

    February National Geographic:

    Horgan: Physicist Steven Weinberg, who is an atheist, asks why six million Jews, including his relatives, had to die in the Holocaust so that the Nazis could exercise their free will.

    Collins: If God had to intervene miraculously every time one of us chose to do something evil, it would be a very strange, chaotic, unpredictable world. Free will leads to people doing terrible things to each other. Innocent people die as a result. You can’t blame anyone except the evildoers for that. So that’s not God’s fault. The harder question is when suffering seems to have come about through no human ill action. A child with cancer, a natural disaster, a tornado or tsunami. Why would God not prevent those things from happening?

    http://www7.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0702/voices.html

    Gee… could it be because HE DOESN’T FUCKING EXIST!?

  37. #37 Alex
    August 23, 2007

    “I would like to see atheists state they they do not believe in the supernatural, PERIOD, whether it is religion, Tarot cards, numerology, astrology, etc. I’d also like them to explain why they don’t believe.”

    That’s too bad because some atheists do believe in those things. I don’t want the lie that atheists are necessarily naturalists or irreligious to spread. Naturalists are naturalists, irreligionists are irreligionists, and atheists are atheists. It just so happens that most who identify as atheists are also naturalists and irreligious.

  38. #38 J Myers
    August 23, 2007

    RS, I skimmed the article you linked to in #7… it is sophistry extraordinaire. I’ll save other readers the time and summarize it in 6 words: cosmological argument and argument from incredulity. It also make the pointless observation (of which many theists are so fond) that the existence of a god would not necessarily conflict with anything we can observe or learn through science. Ugh… when will people learn that you don’t get any points for such an “observation” when you posit an omnipotent being with whom, by definition, anything at all is possible. Sure, such a being could have guided evolution, or set forth all the laws of physics, or snapped all of us into existence 5 seconds ago with memories of our supposed lives already intact–without any evidential basis for such scenarios (and moreover, without any means to investigate them), such hypotheses–including the asserted existence of such a being–are utterly worthless.

    For a much more interesting read on the matter at hand, I recommend Sam Harris’s review of Collins’ book, The Language of God, on truthdig.

  39. #39 Turd Ferguson
    August 23, 2007

    Sometimes I unexpectedly happen upon a big steaming pile of shit when I’m out hiking and I realize how amazing the digestive system really is….

    PRAISE JESUS!

  40. #40 matthew
    August 23, 2007

    “…everyone knows that crossing the streams “would be bad.”)”

    Don’t cross the streams!!!!!

  41. #41 Sinbad
    August 23, 2007

    Harris: “What does the ‘mode of thought’ displayed by Collins have in common with science? The Language of God should have sparked gasping outrage from the editors at Nature.”

    Outrage? Nonsense.

    Let’s suppose Collins had written the following:

    On a beautiful fall day, as the sun streaked into her bedroom window and cascaded around her face, I really saw, for the first time, all that my little daughter could be. I know that my mind and heart were changed. She was female, but with every potentiality I had and deserving of each and every opportunity I had. Sexual discrimination is evil and wrong, and I will fight it and for my little girl as long as I have breath.

    Such an epiphany could lead to changed views, but it is necessarily unevidenced. We all have unevidenced baseline assumptions. Would Harris and the commenters above be similarly gasping with outrage at such an “unscientific” event? Somehow I think not.

    Imagine that.

  42. #42 matthew
    August 23, 2007

    Sinbad,

    There is a world of difference between realizing the potential in your child and deciding that a common waterfall is evidence for an invisible bearded man in the sky that loves you.

  43. #43 Numad
    August 23, 2007

    Reginald Selkirk,

    Old arguments wrapped in wordplay. The number of different questions he claims to answer in so short a space is also astounding.

  44. #44 frog
    August 23, 2007

    Sinbad,

    Yes, it would be foolish to base your political ideas directly on subjective experience. To recognize that you love your daughter, or love the world – that’s a perfectly valid way to reach that. But to go beyond that and change your view about external reality based on the fact that you had an aesthetic experience – well, that’s just plain stupid. Such an experience might lead you to investigate sexual discrimination, and whether it’s right or wrong; but to decide the facts of the matter on a temporary seizure is infantile.

    Anyone who hasn’t had an aesthetic experience of that kind is missing out on something valuable. But so are celibates and people who never ate basil sherbet. To be unable to distinguish between the appropriate motivators for how you live (how you experience the world) and motivators for the facts of the matter is the sign of a sort cognitive deficiency. The outside world is not identical to the inside world.

  45. #45 Reginald Selkirk
    August 23, 2007

    Reginald Selkirk,
    (RE Remler on science and atheism)
    Old arguments wrapped in wordplay. The number of different questions he claims to answer in so short a space is also astounding.

    Yup. Finally some of the commenters are taking him to task.

  46. #46 cm
    August 23, 2007

    You know, I can almost see experiencing the beauty of nature and suddenly believing there is “something more” the universe, maybe a Creator or some kind of magical something to it.

    But what I can’t understand is why you would instantly pick one of the proposed hundreds of such magical entities as the one you felt must surely be behind it all, one that even has what appears to Americans to be a first and last name: Jesus Christ (really it should be something more like Yeshua of Nazareth, the Christ). Isn’t that just odd? I would have more sympathy for Collins’s having extra-natural beliefs if they were referenced vaguely, as in “I don’t know, I just feel there is something knowing and magical behind the natural world”. But clicking right onto one of the stories out there strikes me as just arbitrary.

  47. #47 frog
    August 23, 2007

    tourettiste:

    I don’t think Collins’ essay is appropriate for a science journal, but I completely respect his right to his own personal beliefs. I’m about as unbelieving as they come, but I don’t want science mucking about in peoples’ heads, any more than I’d want the government or a state-sponsored religion doing so. I support, as Amnesty International calls it, freedom of conscience.

    Has anyone called for Collins to be forever banned from the hallowed pages of Nature? Or a cut-off of grant money?

    This kind of pseudo-tolerance really gets on my nerve. Of course, no one should go with a gun to Collins’ home and force him to recant. But that doesn’t mean that people and organizations don’t have a right to their own public opinion on Collins’ opinion.

    Where else does science belong than in people’s heads? Or are you calling for all people and organizations to withhold any public opinions about other people’s opinions? Now that’s authoritarian! Shut down the churches and even Amnesty International – they’re always ranting that human rights are universal, but that’s just intolerant of my fascist friends’ opinions.

  48. #48 matthew
    August 23, 2007

    cm: “But clicking right onto one of the stories out there strikes me as just arbitrary.”

    It was probably more for convenience than anything…

  49. #49 Sinbad
    August 23, 2007

    #41: “There is a world of difference between realizing the potential in your child and deciding that a common waterfall is evidence for an invisible bearded man in the sky that loves you.”

    Had you read the book you would note that a great deal of thought and consideration led to his moment of epiphany. But regardless of how much Collins considered it, you ignore the point that we all have unevidenced baseline assumptions. You might come to different such assumptions than Collins would or anyone else would, but there is no basis for Harris to express his condescending “outrage,” gasping or otherwise.

    #43: “It would be foolish to base your political ideas directly on subjective experience.”

    As the book makes clear, the subjective experience described came after a good deal of soul-searching.

    “Such an experience might lead you to investigate sexual discrimination, and whether it’s right or wrong….”

    Such an investigation might lead to reasons to support my unevidenced assumption, but no evidence that it’s correct. Are you outraged at my support for sexual equality, especially if you think my “motivators” are “inappropriate”?

  50. #50 phat
    August 23, 2007

    Sinbad,

    I don’t believe anyone would be outraged at how to came to believe in gender equality. But they can question your motivations if you reveal them. However, gender equality has other strong arguments to support. Belief is Jesus Christ as being the son of god and your personal savior has no good argument based on evidence.

    You’re analogy doesn’t really work.

    phat

  51. #51 phat
    August 23, 2007

    Wow, that’s a lot of typos.

    That would be, “you came to believe”, “to support it”, and “Belief in Jesus”.

    Whew.

  52. #52 Martin
    August 23, 2007

    But regardless of how much Collins considered it, you ignore the point that we all have unevidenced baseline assumptions.

    …Like?

  53. #53 TheBlackCat
    August 23, 2007

    As the book makes clear, the subjective experience described came after a good deal of soul-searching.

    And how is this soul-searching any less subjective of an experience?

  54. #54 AL
    August 23, 2007

    Sinbad,

    I don’t think that’s analogous. Sexual discrimination is a normative issue — one of values that necessarily involves aesthetics and emotion. The question of God’s existence is entirely descriptive: either he exists or he does not. There are no normative values here, and to use aesthetics or emotion to answer the question is committing a kind of reverse is-ought fallacy.

  55. #55 Caledonian
    August 23, 2007

    I don’t think Collins’ essay is appropriate for a science journal, but I completely respect his right to his own personal beliefs.

    Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs.

    No one is entitled to their own reality.

    If you claim that your beliefs have truth values, and they concern reality, you’re no longer necessarily entitled to them.

  56. #56 Crikey
    August 23, 2007

    Damn, I found ice cubes in my freezer — and immediately I knew I loved jebus.

  57. #57 phat
    August 23, 2007

    Crikey, what no soul-searching? That seems to be very important.

    phat

  58. #58 Salt
    August 23, 2007

    the forces of unreason – Sam Haris

    Trumped, naturally, by the wisdom of man.

  59. #59 Ian H Spedding FCD
    August 23, 2007

    Caledonian wrote:

    If you claim that your beliefs have truth values, and they concern reality, you’re no longer necessarily entitled to them.

    Says who?

  60. #60 frog
    August 23, 2007

    Sinbad:

    #43: “It would be foolish to base your political ideas directly on subjective experience.”

    As the book makes clear, the subjective experience described came after a good deal of soul-searching.

    “Such an experience might lead you to investigate sexual discrimination, and whether it’s right or wrong….”

    Such an investigation might lead to reasons to support my unevidenced assumption, but no evidence that it’s correct. Are you outraged at my support for sexual equality, especially if you think my “motivators” are “inappropriate”?

    So Collins got it backward, eh? First you have the seizure, then you come to a decision after investigating the idea.

    This is like saying, “Well, I researched whether to be a Maoist, and I couldn’t really come to any convincing reasons or evidence for that position, but then I got really drunk one night and I accepted the the Little Red Book. At that point, I was sure – it was a really good drunk!”

    Now, I can’t really make heads or tails of “Such an investigation might lead to reasons to support my unevidenced assumption, but no evidence that it’s correct.” You appear to be distinguishing between “evidence to support” and “evidence to prove.” You know, we never have evidence to “prove”, just a preponderance of evidence. If you want little Jesus to come down from heaven and tell you the Absolute Truth, you’re never going to get it (short of a schizophrenic episode). You always work from the best evidence we have, not absolute proof.

    It’s good you believe in gender equality. Even if you are too stupid to recognize the vast amount of evidence that would support gender equality in a contemporary society, it’s good you got lucky. But I’d rather not trust in luck – tomorrow you might see a dandelion in a field and decide that gender equality is good, but the Jews are the spawn of Satan.

  61. #61 Antiquated Tory
    August 23, 2007

    I don’t really know why Nature’s editors were so impressed with Collins, but I don’t know why Harris expected them to be ‘outraged,’ either. Human psychology is an amazingly variable thing. The aspects that we call ‘religious experience’ are as variable as any of them. As for a scientist like Collins having an experience like he described…well, I think it’s a bit odd and PZ thinks it’s worse, but really, why not? Lots of people do not have perfectly consistent world views and lots of people compartmentalize successfully. I myself, and I expect PZ and most of you, insist on maintaining a consistent world view but I suspect we are in the minority. I also am strongly rationalistic, which I also suspect is a minority view.
    I studied Cultural Anthropology for many years. If you expect all ‘mystical’ or ‘magical’ thinking among humankind to be replaced by consistent empiricism, don’t hold your breath. Anyway, if you try to be perfectly consistent about your empiricism, you still end up having to admit that you accept the existence of an external world corresponding to your senses on faith. (Hume ran into this problem. His advice is to exercise some common sense and *not* to follow his own system to this conclusion.)
    As for Collins himself, meh. Don’t really care. So he found Jesus but is still a scientist. Good for him. Pat him on the head and give him a cookie.

  62. #62 David Marjanovi?
    August 23, 2007

    Meanwhile, back at the convent: Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith

    That is one interesting article. Mother Teresa interpreting absence of evidence as evidence of presence, and ending up wanting to be a bodhisattva. Impressive.

  63. #63 David Marjanovi?
    August 23, 2007

    Meanwhile, back at the convent: Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith

    That is one interesting article. Mother Teresa interpreting absence of evidence as evidence of presence, and ending up wanting to be a bodhisattva. Impressive.

  64. #64 frog
    August 23, 2007

    Tory:

    Anyway, if you try to be perfectly consistent about your empiricism, you still end up having to admit that you accept the existence of an external world corresponding to your senses on faith. (Hume ran into this problem. His advice is to exercise some common sense and *not* to follow his own system to this conclusion.)

    Nope, you seem to be making the same mistake that Sinbad is, and that most philosophers have. You want a logical system that goes from one initial premise and explains everything. The world doesn’t work that way – human beings don’t work that way.

    There’s somethings that you know without evidence but not on “faith”, at least if you want to have that word have any real meaning. You accept them because you have no choice in the matter – if you don’t believe in the external world, well you wouldn’t be having this conversation or any conversation. You would have long ago walked off a balcony or onto an expressway. External reality is not faith – it is a necessary axiom. “Faith”, in the way the word actually has meaning, is believing without sufficient evidence in something that it is not necessary to believe – just read some Paul, he’s very explicit about it. I know that there’s an external reality – I don’t have faith in it all!

    If you call “external reality” a “faith”, then my dog has “faith” in external reality, and my fish has “faith” in water. A bit absurd, eh?

  65. #65 Caledonian
    August 23, 2007

    Says who?

    It’s not a matter of personfications. Who is irrelevant. ‘Says what?’ is the correct question.

  66. #66 cm
    August 23, 2007

    know that there’s an external reality – I don’t have faith in it all!

    I don’t think you do know it. I’m with Hume.

    But I’d be interested to see how you would convince others that you can know that there’s an external reality corresponding to to your senses. Go ahead, try.

  67. #67 Brigit
    August 23, 2007

    OT: Neil deGrasse Tyson is going to give a lecture in Cornell University on Monday, October 1, 2007 at 7pm in the G10 Biotech Building. It’s free and open to the public!!
    The lecture’s topic is “Footprints in the Sands of Science”.

  68. #68 fontor
    August 23, 2007

    Sinbad @ 48: Had you read the book you would note that a great deal of thought and consideration led to his moment of epiphany. But regardless of how much Collins considered it, you ignore the point that we all have unevidenced baseline assumptions.

    Yes, we do. I myself probably have loads that I’m not even aware of.

    And do you know what I do when I discover one of my assumptions? I examine the evidence for it. And if it can’t be supported, I dump it. I did it with my cherished faith, I’ve done it since, and I’ll do it again. To do anything less would be an abdication of my responsibility as a scientist* and an intelligent agent.

    *self-flattery there

  69. #69 Marcus Ranum
    August 23, 2007

    BUT I would like them to make these statements without saying “religion is crap” or other antagonistic things.

    Religion is crap. Get over it.

  70. #70 Ian H Spedding FCD
    August 23, 2007

    Sam Harris has a letter in Nature today, urging scientists to unite against religion…

    That is as pointless as the “war on terror” or “the war on drugs”. Rightly or wrongly, religion meets basic human needs in a way that science cannot. Call it all the names you want but, unless you have something more attractive and fulfilling to replace it, you are just wasting your breath.

    By all means, unite against ignorance and superstition, condemn all absolutist modes of thought – whether religious or political – for all the human deaths and suffering they have inflicted, extol the virtues of skepticism and encourage critical thinking.

    By all means, expose the hypocrisy, charlatanry and bigotry of those who betray the very beliefs they proclaim by using them to accumulate personal wealth and political power.

    By all means, highlight the inconsistencies and outright contradictions embedded in all faiths.

    Just don’t expect it to eradicate religion.

    You don’t get people to learn new things, change their minds or modify their beliefs by calling them “idiots” or “delusional”. My mother, who was a teacher for many years, knows that well. I’m sure that those here who teach for a living – the likes of PZ and Scott Hatfield – would agree.

  71. #71 kristen in montreal
    August 23, 2007

    A year ago I read ‘The Language of God,’ much to the chagrin of my later self. I felt very mislead by the cover page, ‘A scientist presents evidence for belief.’ Collins may be a very good scientist, but he shows no evidence of it in this book. (And he relied so heavily on the writings of CS Lewis, I at one point put down the book and exclaimed, I might just as well be reading CS Lewis!)

    Very disappointing read. In fact, I had to immediately follow his book up with some Dan Dennett to get the taste out of my brain.

    But I worry about the intolerance of religion that is so well-articulated here. May I stick my neck out, and remind us all that we do not yet completely understand this social phenomenon of ‘religion’ that has been with us for so long? That is, we just don’t know what makes otherwise perfectly intelligent and reasonable people believe strange things, like religion, like the abominable snowman, like fairies. (For that matter, what the hell is wrong with republicans?!)

    I think the scientific community needs to do what it does best, and gather data. Let’s figure out what we are dealing with, here. Because I do not believe that all these religious people are simply “IDiots,” as a few have oh-so-wittily claimed on this wonderful blog.

    But I’m also a fool, if I think that my hypothesis is correct, without a shred of DATA to show for it. Where are all our social scientists on this one? Where are the psychologists? The geneticists? If we think that religion is a like a disease, then let’s find the pathology. Because the cure isn’t just yelling at it to ‘get better.’

    I hypothesize that if scientists study religion, and similar beliefs in other supernatural nonsense, they will find that many human beings are not rational, and do not think about these things rationally. I think it would be very difficult — and oppressive! — for the rest of us to force these people to understand their universe in a rational way.

    I think that if we really understood why people act in such infuriating ways (coughBenSteincough), then maybe we might be better able to tolerate sharing a society with them.

    Now, I firmly believe that we have to stand our ground when it comes to policy issues like ID in the classrooms, reproductive rights and stem cell research. But beyond that, I think some understanding (through science!) and some tolerance of what people believe in the privacy of their own hearts and minds would be a good thing.

  72. #72 Barn Owl
    August 23, 2007

    Attributing Francis Collins’ religious conversion solely to the “waterfall and dewy grass” moment makes him sound like a delusional ignoramus.

    Whereas reading the book and realizing that there were other influences, including his experiences with dying patients as a young physician…not so much, maybe.

    I’m undoubtedly in the minority here, to suggest that Collins’ contributions to medical genetics override any sticker-burrs you might have up your butt about the nature and origin of his religious beliefs. He’s provided a supportive lab environment for numerous postdocs, students, and physician-scientists, and I’ve never heard any one of them-Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, FSMist, atheist, or godless liberal-ever complain about a biased atmosphere or inappropriate comments. In my experience, he gives interesting and informative medical genetics talks, and he’s approachable, engaged, and pleasant at meetings (which is more than I can say about a lot of scientists of his stature and influence). After the 1996 incident, with the grad student in his lab falsifying data, I heard Collins give a talk at a major meeting, in which explained the mechanics of the deception in detail, took responsibility for not overseeing the student’s project adequately, and at least seemed to express genuine regret and humility.

    And no, I’ve never spent any time in Collins’ lab, nor have I published any papers with him as co-author; my impressions primarily arise from collaborations and interactions with his former students or postdocs. I’m a godless liberal humanist who has to listen to conservative Christian and creationist references almost every day at work (water off a Duck’s back, by now). I know I’d much rather be an atheist grad student in the lab of a tolerant Christian like Collins, than a religious grad student in the lab of an atheist advisor who publicly and repeatedly derides religious individuals as deluded morons.

  73. #73 Marcus Ranum
    August 23, 2007

    Rightly or wrongly, religion meets basic human needs in a way that science cannot.

    Like, what? Comfort? Disconnection from reality? A sense of purpose? Tequila meets those needs cheaper and more effectively than religion, also in ways that science cannot.

    So your point is “people are stupid and delusional, but it’s cute to let them traipse around that way” if I understand it correctly?

  74. #74 McA
    August 23, 2007

    Wow, that’s a lot of typos.

    That would be, “you came to believe”, “to support it”, and “Belief in Jesus”.

    Whew.

    And that’s without even considering “You’re analogy.”

  75. #75 Caledonian
    August 23, 2007

    That is, we just don’t know what makes otherwise perfectly intelligent and reasonable people believe strange things, like religion, like the abominable snowman, like fairies.

    I have never met an intelligent and reasonable person who believed in any of those things; such may have been possible once, but not in the modern world.

  76. #76 Scott Hatfield, OM
    August 23, 2007

    Does Harris’s recommendation have a scientific purpose, or is it simply another manifesto for non-belief? (with a grin) Not that there’s anything wrong with that….

    The existence of a believing scientist such as Frances Collins, or an account of his sentimental conviction of faith in a popularization, how does this actually affect the practice of science?

  77. #77 frog
    August 23, 2007

    cm:

    I know that there’s an external reality – I don’t have faith in it all!

    I don’t think you do know it. I’m with Hume.

    But I’d be interested to see how you would convince others that you can know that there’s an external reality corresponding to to your senses. Go ahead, try.

    The whole point just swooshed over you, didn’t it? I would never try to convince someone that there is an external reality – they either believe it already or they’re dead. If they say they don’t believe it, they’re liars.

    The point is that “trying to prove external reality” is a non-sense statement. It looks like a grammatical sentence in English, but it means absolutely nothing at all. If I were to convince you, we would have to have a discussion. If we were to have a discussion, that must presume that you already know that we have an external reality. Therefore, what the hell are we discussing? Whether you’re jerking me around?

    Hume is so badly out of date – he was working philosophy in a Christian milieu that presupposed so many bits of nonsense that even a genius could barely scratch out some sensible ideas.

    Hume didn’t know that his arguments regarding “a priori” knowlege made no sense, because he was presupposing some sort of universal viewpoint – even if you abandon an explicit belief in God, you’re still stuck with a universe and logic that assumes that Godliness even makes sense; that a philosophical system must prove out of logic existence, rather than the other way around. Once you abandon that assumption, an assumption that must be abandoned in order to make sense of math and physics, you’re left with no such problem of the connection of the outside world with the inside world. Without that connection, we have nothing – not this discussion, no philosophy (what? you’re just talking to yourself — I believe you!), no reason whatsoever of any kind.

    You can’t have organisms without it, words, sentences… It only makes sense as a question if you’re a college sophomore first being presented with the “brain in a box” problem. Very few get that the proper response is to punch the professor.

    If you want to claim that you’re insane, feel free to do so. I won’t believe you though – you wouldn’t make the claim if you didn’t agree that there’s an external reality.

  78. #78 frog
    August 23, 2007

    Kristen:

    social phenomenon of ‘religion’ that has been with us for so long? That is, we just don’t know what makes otherwise perfectly intelligent and reasonable people believe strange things, like religion, like the abominable snowman, like fairies.

    Maybe because they’ve fallen into language traps? They forget that even though the idea of a unicorn exists, that doesn’t mean that unicorns do?

    It’s a pretty easy trap to fall into. You simply think that because a statement sounds meaningful, it actual is a meaningful statement. Statements like “Why are we here?” It sounds reasonable, if you don’t think about it too hard, but the word “why” is normally used to link causal events, as in “Why did John kiss Mary?”, or “Why am I taller than Kim?” It follows the same template of asking a cause and an effect. Except “Why are we here?” is atemporal, unless you’re asking why did we drive to Denny’s instead of a decent place to eat, so there can be no causal answer.

    Once you made that mistake, you’re lost. You answer the question, except it was never a properly formed question, so it can’t have a properly formed answer. I might as well say 42.

  79. #79 Leni
    August 23, 2007

    I’m with factlike in #24.

    …but I have found quite often that though I may say merely that “I don’t believe in gods”, the religious hear “religion is crap”. And they’re not entirely wrong, either; how can I say that I don’t believe that the Bible is true without implying that the Bible is false?

    When I read TR’s post I immediately thought “I don’t believe in gods because religion is crap”. It’s not the best way of saying it, but it isn’t the worst either.

    And it had the benefit of making me laugh.

    In all seriousness, I think it’s fair to say that no matter how politely we say this we are going to offend some people. If our lack of belief hinges in any way on the incoherency of arguments for god/s, then any response pointing that out is likely to be regarded as hostile.

  80. #80 kristen in montreal
    August 23, 2007

    to frog, and anyone else:

    Can anybody direct me to a scientific study that address the question of why people bleive? Can we stop throwing these (strange) hypotheses in the air and talk about some real data?

    I’m in chemistry so I know nothing of relevant fields like anthropology and sociology and psychology. I know some biology, and am curious if there is any genetic component to belief (have twin studies been employed to look at religion?). Is there someone here who could enlighten me? Enlighten us all?

  81. #81 Caledonian
    August 23, 2007

    The existence of a believing scientist such as Frances Collins, or an account of his sentimental conviction of faith in a popularization, how does this actually affect the practice of science?

    But he’s not a believing scientist. That’s the entire point.

    How does it affect the practice of science? It makes it that much harder to find people who understand what science is, and reduces the ability of the populace in general to understand scientific thinking.

  82. #82 kristen in montreal
    August 23, 2007

    Pardon my typo. I notice people here are very sensitive to spelling and grammar. So am I :)

  83. #83 windy
    August 23, 2007

    But I’d be interested to see how you would convince others that you can know that there’s an external reality corresponding to to your senses. Go ahead, try.

    If we start by assuming that “others” exist, obviously an external reality must exist, too.

    If we are some sort of physical beings, and not simulated ones, it would seem that there has to be some correlation between what our senses tell us, and what reality is like. Otherwise we could not feed ourselves, survive or mate.

    If we assume that we don’t necessarily need to do any of that (we just imagine that we do) that seems to bring us to the “simulation” option. But if we are all being fed the same simulation, wouldn’t there have to be some part of external reality that correlates with our senses?

  84. #84 frog
    August 23, 2007

    Kristen,

    If you’re interested in data, you’d have to go to anthropology and linguistics. We are no where near the point of mapping up from the organic level to language production just yet, and probably for quite a while into the future. We have mappings of areas that you can damage and produce some very gross disruptions in language and cognition, but you’re asking to disentangle some of the subtlest fallacies of cognition from still crude data.

    It’s much more productive to go the other way around. Study the structure of language and religion. From a large-scale level, that is pretty well mapped out, even if the internal structures are unclear. Read Webber and Rappaport. Grab some Chomsky and his critics. But I wouldn’t ask neuroscientists – they are more likely to be misleading than helpful at this point in history. Austin also did some good work on the categories of words; he’s a bit weak scientifically since as a philosopher he neglected to actually consider non-European languages, but it was a start.

    But that kind of work doesn’t come out in journals – it gets published in books.

  85. #85 SEF
    August 23, 2007

    As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.”

    How very chimpanzee of him. Though the chimps might have more sense than to pick any particular imaginary friend out of all possible such inventions on no evidence.

  86. #86 kristen in montreal
    August 23, 2007

    frog:

    You are trying to answer my question from a historical point of view – I think the ‘structure and language of religion’ is important to understand, but I am more curious about what attracts people to putting their faith in things that they know cannot be proven.

    I am not being very clear, I know. I’m sorry. But put up with me for a few more seconds.

    It seems to me that there are ‘types’ of people. There are people like us, like most scientists, who have no desire to believe in things that cannot be proven. Then there are people who find tremendous meaning in doing just that – trusting in the unseen. More than that, the see faith as a virtue.

    I guess what I’m getting at is the psychology of it. What is the reward? What do religious people get out of it? Is it the same rush as scientists get when they discover something new, or bask in the mystery of the undiscovered?

    These are the kinds of questions that can be at least partially answered through (well-constructed) social studies.

  87. #87 phat
    August 23, 2007

    McA:

    Heh. My typing and grammar seem to be suffering very badly lately.

  88. #88 Sastra
    August 23, 2007

    Sam Harris’ letter in Nature is not just a random attack on religion: he is specifically concerned that a major science journal has apparently recently been at pains — several times — to encourage the popular view that scientific thinking is consistent with religious belief.

    In one of his lectures, Harris made the point that there is a difference between saying that a belief is consistent with scientific findings, and saying that a belief is indicated by scientific findings. Is religion “consistent with” our science? Sure, if you simply redefine the religion around whatever you discover, and back the magical forces up to the next level. Make sure whatever you believe in isn’t supposed to have any direct impact on anything but your feelings: shove it into a compartment away from your science. Now it’s consistent in the sense that you can have both. A dead bat on the table is consistent with a lobster salad on the same table.

    But are religious claims indicated by what we find? Is science confirming religious truths? No. It is not.

    I think Harris is concerned that, by publishing “lookee here, Muslim and Christians scientists!” pieces, a serious science journal appears to be endorsing the idea that science supports religion. It is suggesting by implication that science and religion are actually coming together towards one conclusion about the nature of reality.

    There’s nothing rude about pointing out that this is not the case. In fact, I think it’s a good idea.

  89. #89 Ian H Spedding FCD
    August 23, 2007

    Caledonian wrote:

    Says who?

    It’s not a matter of personfications. Who is irrelevant. ‘Says what?’ is the correct question.

    Entitlements are defined as privileges granted so it’s entirely relevant to ask who is doing the granting.

  90. #90 frog
    August 23, 2007

    Kristen,

    I think you’re asking the wrong question. The better question is “Why do logical fallacy have a tendency to propagate?” It’s a social question – what social function does fallacious reasoning play.

    That’s why I suggest the sociologists and anthropologists. It’s not what the individual gets out of it – if the faulty idea gets propagated, it doesn’t matter what it does to the carrier. The other part is “Why is it so easy to fall into this kind of fallacious reasoning?” What is it about the structure of language that leads to this – if the spontaneous error rate is high enough, it’s inevitable that these ideas will propagate.

    What religious people get is all kinds of things that have been worked out: dopamine highs, social acceptance, cash-money from the sheep, a stable social structure that gives them security, transient schizophrenia, cash-money stolen from them, sexual abuse by priests, getting cannibalized by your neighbors…

    But since “religious” feeling is universal – every society until recently has been dominated by them, I doubt it’s a personal thing. It’s like asking “What does an individual get out of having a double sickle cell hit?” It’s not about the individual, it’s about the community of genes.

  91. #91 tourettist
    August 23, 2007

    frog –

    I think you overreacted a little.

    I still don’t think Collins’ conversion experience is fitting material for a science journal.

    If he wants to publish it somewhere else, as he actually did, wonderful. That was kind of my point, but I guess you either missed it or cared more about finding a fight. Good luck with that.

    Now goodnight. All my authoritarian efforts to shut down peoples’ right to opinions of peoples’ opinions of their opinions of peoples’ opinions of peoples’ opinions have tired me.

    I must be fresh tomorrow so that I may again take over the world.

  92. #92 Sastra
    August 23, 2007

    kristen:
    For a start, you might try Michael Shermer’s books Why People Believe Weird Things and Why People Believe in God. I’ve read them both, and they’re good. Shermer heads Skeptic Society, and the magazine Skeptic. It sounds like this might be the sort of thing you’re looking for, and — if it’s not specific enough — he does refer to other works.

  93. #93 kristen in montreal
    August 23, 2007

    frog:

    Thank you for the recommended reading. I will spend some time looking at the material you have suggested (but the new semester begins very soon – where will I find any time?).

    Anyway, you have given me a new perspective. I have never looked at the problem from this angle before.

  94. #94 frog
    August 23, 2007

    tourettist:

    I think my joke was obscure or unfunny. My point was that Collins is more than free to publish his work where ever he wishes to and has support from the publisher. But likewise Harris is perfectly free to call Collins disturbed. And it is perfectly reasonable for the editors of Nature to point out that Collins’ statement is nonsense (just as they did, to some extent, by publishing Harris and then hiding behind him).

    To call the latter intolerance is just inconsistent. To say that it’s oppressive or brainwashing to point out other’s brainwashing isn’t tolerance, it’s capitulation.

    And we’ve gotten into the mess we have today because “tolerant” people have believed that they should be inhibited in speaking straight; that they have to be inhibited, while their opposition can talk nonsense, even lie, cheat and steal (not implying that the latter are Collins particular sin). That that’s “being tolerant”. Being tolerant is simply not bringing out the artillery, it’s being honest, and it’s not egging someone’s house when they disagree with you.

    How is it tolerant for Collins to claim he has a special revelation on the nature of reality? Even if he is personally tolerant, any claim of special revelation is intolerant.

  95. #95 kristen.lange@gmail.com
    August 23, 2007

    Sastra,

    That’s a coincidence – Shermer’s book is on my bookshelf, but I haven’t gotten to it yet :) I saw him the other night on the Colbert Report. Very funny.

  96. #96 Bob
    August 23, 2007

    If you claim that your beliefs have truth values, and they concern reality, you’re no longer necessarily entitled to them.

    Says who? […] Entitlements are defined as privileges granted so it’s entirely relevant to ask who is doing the granting.

    Please, Ian, spare us the freshman skeptical bullshit and get to the point. Is your position that, if one cannot provide absolute certainty for “what counts as true,” we’re left with anyone and everyone claiming truth in an equal way? So, the tarot card reader and astrophysicist (and street-corner psychic and four-year old) are all now on equal footing, simply because of an assumption?

    If I have your position wrong, then fine — but please just state what it is. Simply asking over and over for justifications (“Yeah, but who grants it? And why is that person relevant?”) doesn’t do any of us any good.

  97. #97 Ian H Spedding FCD
    August 23, 2007

    Marcus Ranum wrote:

    Rightly or wrongly, religion meets basic human needs in a way that science cannot.

    Like, what? Comfort? Disconnection from reality? A sense of purpose? Tequila meets those needs cheaper and more effectively than religion, also in ways that science cannot.

    Solace in times of personal tragedy or loss, strength to live through such times and come to terms with what has happened, support from a like-minded community, a guarantee against personal extinction for both oneself and all those we love, all of which are powerful attractions. They might well all be delusions but neither science nor atheism can offer anything equivalent.

    So your point is “people are stupid and delusional, but it’s cute to let them traipse around that way” if I understand it correctly?

    I’ve known believers who were intelligent, kind, decent and who – apart, possibly, from their beliefs – were far from delusional. Is stereotyping them all as the worst kind of fundie either accurate or helpful?

  98. #98 Samnell
    August 23, 2007

    ” That is as pointless as the “war on terror” or “the war on drugs”. Rightly or wrongly, religion meets basic human needs in a way that science cannot.”

    I really want someone to enumerate these things.

  99. #99 frog
    August 23, 2007

    Ian:

    Solace in times of personal tragedy or loss, strength to live through such times and come to terms with what has happened, support from a like-minded community, a guarantee against personal extinction for both oneself and all those we love, all of which are powerful attractions.

    All those can also be given by regular and vigorous imbibing of Tequila, whether quality or rotgut. Ask at any AA meeting.

    I think searching through personal desires for the basis of religion is misguided. Those aren’t the reasons why people believe – they’re the rationalizations they give for believing. People believe because they are part of a community that believes. The community believes… why? What does the community get out of it?

    Predictable personal behavior of its constituents? Ritualized relations with other communities, thereby avoiding the worst of naked violence? Pliable individuals who will evangelize the community to others? A stable long term structure?

    That’s what alternatives to religion has to come to grip with and provide some outlet for.

    I recall years ago an anthropologist published about her experience in a fundie community. She had to learn the language of course to communicate with the “subjects”. She pretty quickly found herself accepting their beliefs as she continued to use their language in daily affairs. She reported it was quite disturbing to come back out of the cult and resume her previous mind.

  100. #100 cm
    August 23, 2007

    frog,

    The whole point just swooshed over you, didn’t it? I would never try to convince someone that there is an external reality – they either believe it already or they’re dead. If they say they don’t believe it, they’re liars.

    Maybe what swooshed past you was the part of my sentence that included the words “an external reality corresponding to to your senses.” Maybe my typographic stutter (“to to”) caused you block out the words around it? Because this qualification makes all the difference. It is the difference between saying “there is a world of some sort, at least that I know” and “there is a world and I can describe it veridically based on my sensory inputs.” It is the second claim that I believed you were making, and it is that one with which I take issue. In fact, I agree that it is very difficult or impossible to imagine that there is in fact nothing at all anywhere, including me–Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” sounds about right to me.

    But of course, even if I believed in solipsism and therefore didn’t believe you really existed (though I had perceptions of your blog comments), I can imagine a person probing his degree of conviction in his solipsism by asking the simulacra within it to try to convince him they did in fact exist outside his mind. Something like that happens in the film version of “A Beautiful Mind”, in which Nash’s delusions try to convince him of their reality. I see it as a logically permitted move to allow (what may be) one’s simulacra to take the stand and give testimony to their real existence, since I don’t believe one’s belief that it is all a simulation any more airtight than any other belief

    The point is that “trying to prove external reality” is a non-sense statement. It looks like a grammatical sentence in English, but it means absolutely nothing at all.

    Again, the issue should be trying to prove that external reality corresponds tightly to our perceptions of it.

    Hume is so badly out of date – he was working philosophy in a Christian milieu that presupposed so many bits of nonsense that even a genius could barely scratch out some sensible ideas.

    That sounds glib and doesn’t in any way shake my confidence in Hume.

    sort of universal viewpoint – even if you abandon an explicit belief in God, you’re still stuck with a universe and logic that assumes that Godliness even makes sense; that a philosophical system must prove out of logic existence, rather than the other way around. Once you abandon that assumption, an assumption that must be abandoned in order to make sense of math and physics, you’re left with no such problem of the connection of the outside world with the inside world.

    Some semantic garbling in that transmission, Houston. Please re-send.

    You can’t have organisms without it, words, sentences…

    Again, what does this mean?

    It only makes sense as a question if you’re a college sophomore first being presented with the “brain in a box” problem. Very few get that the proper response is to punch the professor.

    I’m sure you were fun to have in philosophy class and taught your professors a thing or two. Two bad we couldn’t exhume Hume and you could straighten him out too.

  101. #101 Sastra
    August 23, 2007

    Rightly or wrongly, religion meets basic human needs in a way that science cannot.”

    For some people, yes. Maybe even for most people. But to then decide — for the kindest of reasons — that one should not speak what one thinks is true, even tactfully or objectively or in the pages of magazines and books — is condescending. “Yes, we can handle the truth — but they can not.”

    Perhaps we atheists tend to give religion less credit, because we tend to give people more.

  102. #102 phat
    August 23, 2007

    This whole, “religion meets basic human needs” statements seems problematic to me. I may meet some things that resemble needs, I suppose. But really are these “basic human needs?” What does that mean? What are these needs? How are these needs met through religion? And are there other healthful ways to meet these needs?

    I’d like to know a whole lot more about this.

    It could be argued that religion interferes with meeting certain “basic human needs” and the evidence could very well be abundant.

    phat

  103. #103 frog
    August 23, 2007

    cm:

    In the shortest possible way: Imagine that the external world is not closely correlated with our sense of it. And by that we can’t mean that just a matter of degree – that’s a scientific issue of illusions and hallucinations that isn’t the basis of disagreement. We must mean that fundamentally, our reality doesn’t match our sense perceptions.

    What could that possibly mean? Whose reality is it? Who actually sees that reality in such a way that it can be a topic of conversation?

    Does it mean anything for their to be a “reality” that no one is actually capable of sensing to any degree? That “objective” reality without a subject to experience it is just God hiding under verbiage.

    If he ain’t there, there’s no such reality to talk about. If no one actually measures that photon, it doesn’t have a state “as if” someone had looked at it. And there is no ultimate mathematics to describe that reality.

    And what does it mean to you to actually try to argue to me that you don’t “know” that there’s a reality closely corresponding to your senses? Do you expect the world to end in five minutes? Don’t you really know that you existed more than five minutes ago? It just doesn’t make sense, as a real existing subject to even propose that the objects of your mind, of your senses are primarily unrelated to an external reality. It just doesn’t make any damn sense – what could you be saying? Can you really claim in a sensible, believable manner to be a real solipsist or any of the variety of idealists who posit an unknowable external reality?

    Yeah, I’d kick the crap out of Hume for being born too early. And Plato too. Even his sister if I could find her. But primarily my violent urges are directed toward those who would ignore 20th century philosophy and science in favor of long dead individuals living under completely different preconceptions. It’s like saying “well, the Kiluki believe that death can only be caused by witchcraft”. Well, of course, the fact is true. But how can 17th century concepts of mind hold water after three centuries?

    Please, a little Wittgenstein. Some Quine. Even Tarski. But leave the long-dead to bury the dead.

  104. #104 frog
    August 23, 2007

    Even shorter: nothing makes any sense if reality is not approximated by our senses. None of your arguments, none of my arguments, not even having arguments. Who is this Hume fellow? Is he a pteradactyl? Reality – do you mean the multiverse? Or a paperclip?

    Tomorrow I will eat red angel a, minimal tomato light-year.

  105. #105 miller
    August 23, 2007

    I’ve got to strongly disagree with the wording. Harris asks, “What does the ‘mode of thought’ displayed by Collins have in common with science?” Why does everything that scientists do need to have something to do with science? If so, why am I even aspiring to be a scientist?

  106. #106 frog
    August 23, 2007

    Shortest: believing in reality, as an approximation of our senses, is polite.

  107. #107 Kagehi
    August 23, 2007

    Saw a guy last night spend 5-10 minutes talking to some women in a bar, while her friends watched, and in that time managed to get her to the point where she literally thought that her car, which was still red, to everyone else, had suddenly become black, but that the yellow hummer across the street was actually *red*, like the original color of her car. Sane people call this a magic trick. Religious people do this stuff ***to themselves***, and call it a revelation. And some people would like it if me, PZ and all the other “antagonistic” people stop labeling the people that do this as fools, clueless, ignorant or nuts? Why? Treating them otherwise isn’t going to change there minds, any more than you could have convinced the women on the show, no matter how many times you asked her, that he car was **still** red. Its the ones that are not that lost, which still question, and which react to being called a fool or nuts by going out and looking for evidence of their views, only to find that they have been fools or deluded all along that matter. The rest, are not going to change, short of deprogramming, which we can’t legally do to someone anyway.

    Though, I had the thought that it would be damn funny to craft the science half of a creationism vs. science “debate” to employ all the same mental tricks, subliminals and showmanship that was used by the guy on TV to warp the perceptions of the people on his show, just to see how much panic the fundies would exhibit if 90% of their audience, 99% of which where “planted” to be on the side of religion, all professed disbelief in creationism by the end of the speeches. lol The only thing being, a) it wouldn’t be ethical to do it, b) they probably already think its what we are secretly doing in colleges anyway, and c) if we where, they would lose every debate, no matter who they picked to fill the audience. Honesty and ethics are such a @$#@$#@$ hassle to have some times… They get to play with stacked and even fake decks, while we have to just point out the card poking out of their shirt sleeve or the odd bit of shaving that seems to have happened on the edges of their dice (or the more blatant oddity of dice with the same number on every side…).

  108. #108 JamesR
    August 23, 2007

    commending him for building a “bridge across the social and intellectual divide that exists between most of US academia and the so-called heartlands.”

    What bridge? The imaginary bridge that we have been claiming does NOT exist? Or maybe it’s the bridge that all you need do is click your heels and wish for a bright shiny Unicorn to come and carry you across. Ah my trusty stead awaits my every wish and fantasy.

    How nice to live in a world where we are given such respect for some of the most inane nonsense. And therein lies the problem. Science and Religion do not have common ground and do not need to get along. Why is there such an attitude at all? I think that is what Sam Harris is getting at and pointing out.

  109. #109 Tully Bascomb
    August 24, 2007

    Scott Hatfield said:

    Does Harris’s recommendation have a scientific purpose, or is it simply another manifesto for non-belief?

    Harris is pointing out that Collins has come to a strong conclusion (or developed a major theory about the nature of the universe) without evidence, and this is very unscientific behavior. Harris’ purpose is to remind the scientific community of the principles on which it is based, and to question why they give a free pass to Collins. This challenges the integrity of Nature: would they evaluate other claims based on such weak evidence the same way?

    The existence of a believing scientist such as Frances Collins, or an account of his sentimental conviction of faith in a popularization, how does this actually affect the practice of science?

    A good scientist thrives on paradox, knowing it will illuminate the way. Collins shrugs his shoulders at paradox (I am referring to his discussion on the problem of evil). Are we to assume that this attitude will in no way affect his approach to science? He comes to irrational solutions to very rational problems. Is this the ideal for the scientifically trained mind?

    Harris is correct: the scientific community should be clear-voiced and united on any suggestions about belief in the supernatural. It is, without some evidence, merely one of the many delusions of the mind. (I almost said human mind, but then I remembered my dog is a Scientologist).

  110. #110 Scott Hatfield, OM
    August 24, 2007

    Tully Bascomb:

    Look, I don’t want to be disrespectful, but “the scientific community should be clear-voiced and united on any suggestions about belief in the supernatural” sounds like standard manifesto boiler plate. I do not see this as a scientific concern. The fact is, Dr. Collins, irrational warts and all, has a respectable track record as both a scientist and a cheerleader for doing science, and he’s well-known for his role in shepherding the Human Genome Project. Nature is not endorsing his private views, nor are they proclaiming some sort of science/religion ‘get-along gang’ as Gospel; they are merely reporting that some scientists, like Collins, find the two compatible as a personal matter.

    Sam Harris, of course, feels differently, but no matter how many times he points out the incompatibility between reason and faith, between science and religion, he’s going to have to live with the fact that others claim to have struck a balance between the two, and one that they find perfectly satisfactory. Reporting that fact in the context of a review of a best-selling book by an unusual figure like Collins doesn’t necessarily constitute advocacy. Harris’s ‘outrage’, though, definitely qualifies of something like a positioning statement in the marketplace of ideas.

  111. #111 odd
    August 24, 2007

    frog:

    You recommend both Quine and Chomsky? But your comments are practically oozing positivism…? Forgive me if I got the wrong impression, it’s just all this ‘meaningless statement’ talk. It gets my Carnap-sense a-tingling. Any-whoo, a few points:

    “Does it mean anything for their to be a “reality” that no one is actually capable of sensing to any degree?”

    Sure! I take it (to paraphrase Phillip K. Dick) reality is that which doesn’t go away when we close our eyes (or when there aren’t any observers, or when all available observers are just really really wrong). Statements can be true or false independent of their being known or knowable — that’s why we talk about “discovering” rather than “creating” new facts. By the way, there are in-principle unknowable truths; this can even be demonstrated! (see Tim Williamson’s comments on verificationism in “Knowledge and Its Limits” for a pretty good discussion). The problem with skeptical scenarios isn’t that they’re meaningless or incoherent — the problem is that they’re quite conceivable, seemingly intractable, and yet totally false. As much as I’d like it, we can’t banish them by empiricist fiat or personal incredulity.

    “If he ain’t there, there’s no such reality to talk about. If no one actually measures that photon, it doesn’t have a state “as if” someone had looked at it.”

    Quantum mechanics has beautiful mathematical models. But I’d be careful what lessons you take from the current interpretations of them. Even practicing physicists can disagree over what we should believe about the actual existence of subatomic particles (vs. them being just a useful fiction). It’s a big step from there to conclusions about the macroscopic world. (For more on what we should take from QM, I recommend David Albert’s “Quantum Mechanics and Experience” and for more on both sides of the general debate, try works by Bas van Fraassen and Richard Boyd. You might actually enjoy van Fraassen!)

    By the way, I think we’re largely right about the world, and I think we have good reasons for knowing we’re not stuck in some wild delusion. And this doesn’t require us to relegate large swaths of legitimate questions to a purgatory of meaninglessness. See e.g. Peter Strawson, Jim Pryor, and (of course) G.E. Moore.

    Anyway, sorry if you know this literature. I agree that people should pay more attention to 20th century philosophy, but your reference lists ignored the second half! (OK, OK, one of your comments smells a bit like Hilary Putnam’s externalist argument against skepticism. That argument fails by the way — see Anthony Brueckner’s 1986 response.)

    (One more thing — you recommend Wittgenstein and mock Hume, but Wittgenstein’s answer to skepticism was in effect Hume’s: that our basic beliefs (by virtue of how we are) have the special character of being both ungrounded and yet not open to serious doubt. To seek reasons for them is to misunderstand them.)

  112. #112 SEF
    August 24, 2007

    managed to get her to the point where she literally thought that her car, which was still red, to everyone else, had suddenly become black, but that the yellow hummer across the street was actually *red*, like the original color of her car.

    There are four lights! (< a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0708687/>Picard in STNG)

  113. #113 SEF
    August 24, 2007

    Oops, the second link (to IMDb) failed:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0708687/

  114. #114 MartinC
    August 24, 2007

    There was a rather amusing interview with Collins on Science Friday last year when he spoke of his belief in the miracles of the Gospel. He was asked the obvious question – if you believe miracle can happen then can you not use miracles as an explanation in any scientific article – can God make twenty bacterial colonies grow on an agar plate where five might be expected. His answer to paraphrase it was that God, of course, wouldn’t intervene in such a trivial way with mere bacteria, just for important things such as humans and Jesus.
    I really didn’t get the logic of this and neither did the interviewer but it seemed to make perfect sense to Collins.

  115. #115 bernarda
    August 24, 2007

    One of the reasons for scientific journals is to reveal when scientists make mistakes or on occasion falsify their results. They should also say when scientists just say stupid things as in Collins’s case.

    Collins now only has to join the Salvation Army which has a clear statement of beliefs about the trinity and the bible.

    http://www1.salvationarmy.org/heritage.nsf/titles/1878_Foundation_Deed_Of_The_Salvation_Army

    3-# We believe that there are three persons in the Godhead the Father the Son and the Holy Ghost undivided in essence and co-equal in power and glory.
    4-# We believe that in the person of Jesus Christ the Divine and human natures are united so that He is truly and properly God and truly and properly man.
    5-# We believe that our first parents were created in a state of innocency but by their disobedience they lost their purity and happiness and that in consequence of their fall all men have become sinners totally depraved and as such are justly exposed to the wrath of God.”

    Let’s hear Collins’s explanation of that. The rest of the statement of belief is equally hilarious.

    Also a warning for anyone who at some time thinks of contributing to the SA.

    http://www.salvationarmy-usaeast.org/SApublish/priority/pr_article.cfm?article_id=260

    “The children spent the weekend in such teaching sessions as “Who God Is,” “Who Satan Is,” and “How Do We Hear from God?” They meditated and prayed. They walked through prayer stations showing them how to set up their bedrooms as places of prayer. They went on an early morning prayer walk.

    One activity that might seem like a challenge even to adults was spending a lunch in silence, meditating on Scripture and on questions like, “How does God show His love to me?” “How can I show love to God?” Yet the kids did it! They also enjoyed fun activities and games that taught them, for example, to pray loudly against the Enemy by saying, “Go away, go away, In Jesus’ name I pray, go away!””

  116. #116 Anton Mates
    August 24, 2007

    I do not see this as a scientific concern. The fact is, Dr. Collins, irrational warts and all, has a respectable track record as both a scientist and a cheerleader for doing science, and he’s well-known for his role in shepherding the Human Genome Project. Nature is not endorsing his private views, nor are they proclaiming some sort of science/religion ‘get-along gang’ as Gospel; they are merely reporting that some scientists, like Collins, find the two compatible as a personal matter.

    But such reporting is incomplete and misleading, because the fact is that Francis Collins does see this as a scientific concern rather than a personal matter. We’re talking about the author of a well-known book subtitled ” A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief”, who has publicly argued that evolutionary theory can’t explain morality and that physics can’t explain the fine-tuned constants of nature. And that these gaps in our scientific understanding of the world are positive evidence for the existence of God.

    This is way beyond Collins just expressing a personal hunch that there’s a creator. He’s attempting to hijack science to back up his own theology, just like the IDers, just like the creationists, and that’s a big ol’ black spot on his science-cheerleading record. And Nature should have addressed it.

  117. #117 Stranger to Himself
    August 24, 2007

    bernarda,

    In your first paragraph, you have a valid point, but what’s with all this salvation army bashing? It’s got nothing to do with the topic. You should start your own blog, in which you post your anti-religion rants.

    You set up some artifical premise and then you ask Collins to defend it. Next you’re going to ask him to defend the Mormons…

    “I came here for a good argument”.
    “No you didn’t, you just came here for an argument”.

  118. #118 BobApril
    August 24, 2007

    MartinC makes a good point, one I’ve been trying and failing to articulate for weeks in various venues. Let me take another swing at it.

    Everyone is, at times, irrational. Even the most hardened materialistic atheist, dedicated to rational thought, is affected by hunger, thirst, lust, exhaustion, and so on. Furthermore, he may mislead himself by misunderstanding, forgetfulness, or simply not having learned a contradictory fact. Any of these problems, in a scientist, could lead to erroneous results. This scientist I describe, however, will not see any of these problems as virtues, and will endeavor to minimize their effect on his thought processes, experiments, and results.

    Collins, however, has loudly and publicly proclaimed that he has accepted certain postulates “on faith,” without evidence to back them up. He has further proclaimed this as a virtue – if not directly, then at least by implication. He has announced to the world that faith trumps reason in AT LEAST some cases. Even if that wasn’t his intention, that’s the result.

    He may have produced good, useful, valid science in the past. He may do so in the future. But, given his announcement that reason is secondary in his belief system, how can his results be trusted? How can we know that his results proceed from his data, instead of from his faith? He’ll no doubt continue to guard against bias from negative influences – but he sees his faith as a positive influence. Well he guard against that bias equally well? Or at all? Certainly we can try to replicate his results, as we would with any other scientific results – but his decision to embrace faith makes his results more suspect, thus requiring additional support to overcome the additional burden.

    Since he has accepted one postulate by faith, and has then announced that as a positive experience, what’s to keep him from accepting other postulates in the same way? His future results need to be scrutinized not only for bias toward his faith in Jesus Christ, but for possible faith in other things – and that could be almost anything. It might be more cost- and time-effective for him to simply quit.

    That’s the problem I see with faith in science. It is a bias that is held as a virtue, rather than a fault.

  119. #119 Duane Tiemann
    August 24, 2007

    Religion is crap.

    In real life you can say that calmly, provoking an expectation of follow-on supporting comments.

    Or you can say it hysterically, grossly overreaching, provoking an expectation of storming off, etc.

    In text, it seems the same sort of thing can happen, but the nuances are a bit harder to describe.

    I see no reason to pull our punches. I don’t know that “religion is crap”, itself, would cause folks to disengage. But if the context is thoughtless, with the speaker ‘him’self seeming unresponsive, then …

  120. #120 Sam
    August 24, 2007

    What could that possibly mean? Whose reality is it? Who actually sees that reality in such a way that it can be a topic of conversation? … Does it mean anything for their to be a “reality” that no one is actually capable of sensing to any degree?

    To the materialist, this begs the question. This ‘sensing’ of reality is merely another part of reality, stimulated by other parts of reality via photonic, molecular and electric interactions leaving organic impressions of potential use to replication of DNA. It’s not a separate thing at all (‘thou art that’, as the buddhists say). There’s no ownership – merely overlap.

    Solves a lot of awkward questions, really.

  121. #121 Caledonian
    August 24, 2007

    Entitlements are defined as privileges granted so it’s entirely relevant to ask who is doing the granting.

    What is doing the granting’ is the appropriate question. Or at least, more-appropriate.

    By the fundamental nature of reality. Any more stupid questions?

  122. #122 negentropyeater
    August 24, 2007

    For me, the key question is not whether one should or should not have some form of faith, but what one does with it.
    For instance, one can look at the yet unsolved question of abiogenesis and say, god did it but I’m going to find out how, or there is no god and I’m going to find out how life came out of inert matter and energy. In both cases, I don’t really see a problem.

    I do see a problem when one says, god did it and we, as men, cannot find out how he did it. That is being an enemy of reason.

    I’ve read Collins’ book and he does not appear to me to belong to the latter category. He wrote his book for people who have christian faith, and there is no attempt from him to try to convert people to christian faith.

    I think Harris should focus his efforts, like Dawkins does, on who the real enemies of reason are, and I sincerely don’t think that Collins belongs to that category.

  123. #123 MartinC
    August 24, 2007

    I agree with negentropyeater there. Collins is a very minor irritation in the overall scheme of things. He may believe in some strange stuff, just like Kenneth Miller does, but when it comes down to it they are on the side of science – they don’t twist the known data to fit their religion like creationists do, they simply use a god of the gaps argument to fit Jesus into their lives.

  124. #124 Caledonian
    August 24, 2007

    But that’s the point – you can’t rely on a ‘god of the gaps’ argument AND be on the side of science.

  125. #125 negentropyeater
    August 24, 2007

    Caledonian, I’m not sure it is a “god of the gaps” argument. If you check what these scientists who have faith have in common, it is more a belief that there is a “purpose” in the creation, that somehow nature seems to obbey mathematical laws that have enabled what has happened so far. You can look at this with an atheist eye and find a different conclusion. But what is important is to get to the conlusion after your own personal quest and not the other way around.
    Collins is probably at the end of his scientific carreer, and I think he is perfectly entitled to come up with his own conclusions about this.

  126. #126 MartinC
    August 24, 2007

    “you can’t rely on a ‘god of the gaps’ argument AND be on the side of science.”
    Yes you can, but it takes a lot of cognative dissonance to do so. You simply separate a part of science where you take ONLY materialistic explanations and another where miracle are allowable – and don’t let them mix. Collins and Miller seem to be able to do this regarding evolution and genetics as having materialistic explanations and the Jesus question where they think (or rather ‘believe’) in rather a different fashion.
    Now you can argue that this is not an ideal situation for a scientist to be in – and I would agree with you, but I would question the political expediency of targeting Collins and Miller who pose little danger to science education and indeed have done a lot of good in promoting it.

  127. #127 Caledonian
    August 24, 2007

    Yes you can, but it takes a lot of cognative dissonance to do so.

    ‘Cognitive dissonance’ is what we call the sensation of trying to maintain two mutually-exclusive beliefs simultaneously.

    The key phrase there is mutually-exclusive.

    You cannot utilize a god-of-the-gaps argument and be on the side of science. The two are incompartible.

  128. #128 Sinbad
    August 24, 2007

    #67: “And do you know what I do when I discover one of my assumptions? I examine the evidence for it. And if it can’t be supported, I dump it. I did it with my cherished faith, I’ve done it since, and I’ll do it again. To do anything less would be an abdication of my responsibility as a scientist* and an intelligent agent.

    “*self-flattery there”

    Since I assume you believe something like it, what’s your evidence that discrimination based on sex is wrong is true?

    Or, consider this exercise….

    A ruffian comes up to your mother, grabs her purse, pulls the cash out of her wallet and runs away. Your mom goes to the police, explains what happened and asks that the police investigate. If the cop says they won’t investigate because they have no objective evidence that she was robbed, only your mother’s subjective testimony, are you more likely to compliment the officer on his rationality or be pissed off?

    #63: “‘Faith’, in the way the word actually has meaning, is believing without sufficient evidence in something that it is not necessary to believe….”

    Nonsense. As the dictionaries say, faith is trust or confidence in someone or something. OED (1a): “Confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc., of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine).” For the Christian, it is placed in God as revealed in Jesus Christ. There is no issue as to whether or not there is evidence as evidence is irrelevant to the question.

    #60: “Even if you are too stupid to recognize the vast amount of evidence that would support gender equality in a contemporary society, it’s good you got lucky.”

    Kindly enlighten stupid ol’ me as to some of this “vast amount of evidence” establishing that sexual discrimination is wrong.

    #52: “…Like?”

    Like sexual discrimination is wrong.

  129. #129 Sinbad
    August 24, 2007

    #126: “‘Cognitive dissonance’ is what we call the sensation of trying to maintain two mutually-exclusive beliefs simultaneously.”

    As, for example, when a physicalist/materialist acts as if s/he has volition (cause and effect being relentless and all).

  130. #130 Caledonian
    August 24, 2007

    As, for example, when a physicalist/materialist acts as if s/he has volition (cause and effect being relentless and all).

    Perhaps they just understand the concepts better than you do.

  131. #131 Kseniya
    August 24, 2007

    I’m with Caledonian on this. If Dr. Collins truly believes that evolutionary theory can’t explain morality, and that physics can’t explain – what was it again? The Privileged Universe, basically? – then yes, he’s plugging God into the gaps and implying that science CANNOT explain these things. Given that evolutionary theory does offer an explanation for morality, and that Collins is surely aware of that, he must be experiencing cognitive dissonance over the issue of morality. To compensate, he has altered his beliefs on the side of mystery and the supernatural – not science.

    Of course, Dr. Collins has come down on the side of science countless times, but it appears he is, in some cases, pushing science aside to make room for his theology. That doesn’t make him Kent Hovind, but… There is a conflict.

  132. #132 Sinbad
    August 24, 2007

    #129: “Perhaps they just understand the concepts better than you do.”

    That’s entirely possible, but your condescending and snarky suggestion that it’s so isn’t exactly (a-hem) evidence that it’s so. I thought evidence was important to you? But I guess we’re just supposed to bow to your superior wisdom. Achtung!

  133. #133 ShavenYak
    August 24, 2007

    Harris asks, “What does the ‘mode of thought’ displayed by Collins have in common with science?” Why does everything that scientists do need to have something to do with science? If so, why am I even aspiring to be a scientist?

    Not everything scientists do needs to have something to do with science. No one claimed that it did. However, when you are writing a book subtitled “A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief”, the arguments you present within it should be at least a little bit scientific, don’t you think?

  134. #134 Stranger to Himself
    August 24, 2007

    But, given his announcement that reason is secondary in his belief system, how can his results be trusted? How can we know that his results proceed from his data, instead of from his faith?

    – BobApril

    If the results are peer-reviewed, reproducible and support his hypothesis, why the hell not?

    Should we discount everything Faraday did, just because he was a devout christian?

    (By the way, there’s a new hypothesis just come out that emotions can be blocked by use of a Faraday cage) ;)

    I think some atheists forget their reason when they think about how stupid religious people are for believing.

  135. #135 Sastra
    August 24, 2007

    One of the major reasons atheists suffer from such a stigma among the general public is that they’re seen as extremist and irrational. And when this attitude comes from religious conservatives it bothers us less than when it comes from the moderate and liberal, who are closer to us.

    “Well, yes, the fundamentalists are too extreme — but atheists are just as bad, because they’re at the other extreme. From too much God to no God at all! Clearly, reason should guide people to the middle position.There must be some sort of Higher Power, a Consciousness and Plan above us, a moral universe infused with meaning. Everything just makes more sense that way. I really just don’t ‘get’ those poor, angry, irrational atheists.”

    But that’s the wrong way to approach the question, to figure out what’s halfway between “extremes” — as if we’re balancing out personal pursuits and habits, not too much work and not too much play, not too much reason and not too much emotion. Whether God exists or not is a fact claim, not some sort of moral choice. And the only way to point out the problem with the method itself is to “go after” the moderates.

    When you wish to defend a position, you find the best critique of it on the other side, and address that. Atheists arguing against fundamentalism gets no credibility for atheism itself. The vast majority of the more ‘intellectual’ believers — the moderates and liberals — see many of the same problems with fundamentalism that we do, and then think that is the real issue. We don’t like the results of extreme faiths. Neither do they. But really — how silly to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Moderate faith is no problem. Atheists pick an easy target like fundamentalists because they only understand extremes, and can’t find the rational middle ground.

    But it’s not the conclusions; it’s the method. Method, method, method. Moderates like Collins make a better case. But it still doesn’t work.

  136. #136 CalGeorge
    August 24, 2007

    Collin’s failure is not being able to think about himself and his beliefs in an intelligent manner.

    There is a willfulness to his ignorance that is disturbing.

    It’s never to late, Francis, to admit a mistake.

  137. #137 Caledonian
    August 24, 2007

    That’s entirely possible, but your condescending and snarky suggestion that it’s so isn’t exactly (a-hem) evidence that it’s so.

    Hey, I’m not the one confusing abstract beliefs about the concept of volition and actual behavior.

    (By the way, I’ll give you a little hint: everyone, including people who have never even considered the issues, acts as though they had volition. This is because the actions don’t proceed from our abstract positions, but preceed them. Think about that for a while – if you can.)

  138. #138 Caledonian
    August 24, 2007

    But that’s the wrong way to approach the question, to figure out what’s halfway between “extremes” — as if we’re balancing out personal pursuits and habits, not too much work and not too much play, not too much reason and not too much emotion.

    The idea that we should apply moderation to everything is an extreme position.

  139. #139 negentropyeater
    August 24, 2007

    When you say that Collins believes in a “God of the Gaps” argument, I say, first, read the book.

    A “God of the gaps” argument is one by which one uses God to explain what one cannot explain yet. That is not in my view what Collins demonstrates.

    Collins never claimed that evolutionary biology does not or will not, one day, explain morality. He merely suggests that whatever the result is, it is the result of a series of evolutionary events, and the question for him is, are these events purely of random nature, or do they illustrate a purpose.

  140. #140 Caledonian
    August 24, 2007

    the question for him is, are these events purely of random nature, or do they illustrate a purpose.

    Warning! Warning, ScienceBloggers! False duality! Exclusion of possible alternatives!

  141. #141 MartinC
    August 24, 2007

    negentropyeater,
    The ‘God of the Gaps’ aspect of Collins beliefs involve him being a follower of a divine being called Jesus Christ. He doesnt deny this aspect but to believe Jesus is God means accepting something that has no basis in evidence, but also no definitive way of disproving.

  142. #142 Caledonian
    August 24, 2007

    but also no definitive way of disproving

    That’s what makes the belief nonsense. A coherent belief would have implications that can potentially permit the belief to be disproven. Because the belief cannot be disproven, it follows that it means nothing.

    Yet Collins pretents that it does. Fascinating…

  143. #143 Ben
    August 24, 2007

    “a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall”

    Perhaps if Collins had just had a map with him we would be spared all the religion praise-singing.

    +1.

  144. #144 negentropyeater
    August 24, 2007

    MartinC, I agree with you, there is a clear “strech” of the mind from thinking that there might be a pattern in creation to believing in the holy trinity. But remember that Collins’ objective in his book, is , by nature, biased. He wrote his book in order to try to reconcile some christian believers and science. Many other scientists tried the same at earlier instances, and felt the need to do so.
    I am an agnostic and do not agree with what Collins wrote, but I do recognise that it is a positive thing, knowing that, unfortunately, whether we like it or not, something like 99% of the world’s population seems to believe in some form of spiritual, supernatural entity and is completely science illeterate. If we want to try and change this, the Collins method seems to me to be more prone to success than the Harris method.

  145. #145 BobApril
    August 24, 2007

    Me, in #117:

    But, given his announcement that reason is secondary in his belief system, how can his results be trusted? How can we know that his results proceed from his data, instead of from his faith?

    Stranger to Himself, in #133:

    If the results are peer-reviewed, reproducible and support his hypothesis, why the hell not?

    Didn’t I address that? Oh yes – me again, still in #117:

    Certainly we can try to replicate his results, as we would with any other scientific results – but his decision to embrace faith makes his results more suspect, thus requiring additional support to overcome the additional burden…It might be more cost- and time-effective for him to simply quit.

    We don’t know in what ways and on what topics his faith will override his reason, and it isn’t fruitful to guess. All we know is that he has proclaimed – not merely admitted, but proclaimed as a virtue – that his faith is superior to reason in some cases. This makes his reason suspect in all cases.

  146. #146 Sinbad
    August 24, 2007

    #136: “(By the way, I’ll give you a little hint: everyone, including people who have never even considered the issues, acts as though they had volition. This is because the actions don’t proceed from our abstract positions, but preceed them. Think about that for a while – if you can.)”

    That’s a handy just-so story, but I’ll give you a little hint — it’s not e-v-i-d-e-n-c-e.

    By the way, I’m aware of the research which suggests that an action begins before the apparent decision. But if we think of freewill as a check on and to our “natural” responses the research isn’t a problem for volition at all — there’s time for that. Also, note here:

    http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/freewill1.html

    #141: “That’s what makes the belief nonsense. A coherent belief would have implications that can potentially permit the belief to be disproven.”

    How can my belief that sexual discrimination is wrong be disproven (or is it incoherent)?

  147. #147 Tully Bascomb
    August 24, 2007

    Scott Hatfield wrote::

    Look, I don’t want to be disrespectful, but “the scientific community should be clear-voiced and united on any suggestions about belief in the supernatural” sounds like standard manifesto boiler plate. I do not see this as a scientific concern.

    I think the scientific method is sort of a manifesto boilerplate, and the application of the scientific method is what I mean by “clear voiced and united” about all things supernatural.

    …Dr. Collins, irrational warts and all, has a respectable track record as both a scientist and a cheerleader for doing science, and he’s well-known for his role in shepherding the Human Genome Project.

    But Collins wrote a badly reasoned and bigoted book, hes questioned the morality of atheists, and promoted the “finely tuned universe” concept using bad science. The book was only published because it came from a scientist with belief in the supernatural, which means he is making money by exploiting the ignorance of others. I believe that scientific knowledge is power, and a scientist needs to be very careful in how he exploits that power. When a scientist uses his reputation to exploit, or give false credence to his ideas, the profession should stand up and protest. Fred Hoyle’s statements on Boeing 747’s, cosmological design and the Archaeopteryx story still contaminate the popular science: I wish that there had been much more criticism of Hoyle, and less deference to his stature by the scientific community at the time.

    Sam Harris, of course, feels differently, but no matter how many times he points out the incompatibility between reason and faith, between science and religion, he’s going to have to live with the fact that others claim to have struck a balance between the two, and one that they find perfectly satisfactory.

    I find this attitude disturbing. I understand (as I am sure Harris does) that many people, including scientists, have belief in things they cannot prove. But how could a scientist find a fundamental paradox “perfectly satisfactory”? It should worry you and keep you awake at night.

  148. #148 Glen Davidson
    August 24, 2007

    There appears to be the mistaken belief among many commenters on this thread that Nature published Collins’ essay on how he became a Xian. Well they didn’t, certainly not in the article that Harris referenced.

    That article, an editorial to be more precise, was “Building Bridges”, 442:110 13 July 2006. Harris is the one who dredged up an excerpt from Collins’ essay, in order to support his claims, like the one below:

    Nature praises Collins, a devout Christian, for engaging “with people of faith to explore how science — both in its mode of thought and its results — is consistent with their religious beliefs”.

    Harris is correct about that, they did praise Collins for that. OTOH, they did support their praise with this statement, which perhaps is worthy of some consideration:

    …He hopes to provide a bridge across the social and intellectual divide that exists between most of US academia and the so-called heartlands, where religion is writ so large. Given the scale of that gulf, that is a laudable ambition.

    Harris does not address the question of how to deal with that gulf. He may be right, but he could have been more convincing had he at least acknowledged Nature’s reasoning, and perhaps if he’d not deliberately (seemingly, at least) confused Collins’ little religious fantasies with the mode of scientific thought that Collins indeed espouses and examples in other portions of his writings.

    That’s all as it may be though. My main point is that, whether or not there would be an appropriate context in which to print Collins’ pathetic (IMO) little story about the triune waterfall, they simply did not do so in the article to which Harris is responding (they may have done so in a book review, where the short version and some commentary would be appropriate, IMO). Whatever Nature’s sins or virtues, printing Collins’ essay is not one that Harris is addressing at all.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  149. #149 Tim B.
    August 24, 2007

    Regarding general questions about religious awe and the dubiousness of reality, I’ve been puzzling over something that concerns the Big Bang. If one accepts the algorithmic unfolding of Being from a primordial quantum fluctuation, isn’t a process implied? Like how the process of biological metabolism requires not only an entity but also an environment of stimulation and resource so that the physical rules (natural selection) might prompt further biological events? Sort of the inside and outside of things.

    How, then, is one to conceive, even murkily, of the Big Bang as being the birth of reality, if reality requires stuff, environment, and the rules (physics) that work on them? Was pre-Being somehow pregnant with non-identical triplets: thatness (stuff), where-/when-ness (environment), and equation-ness (innate mathematical structure and operation)?

  150. #150 bernarda
    August 24, 2007

    stranger to himself, the point was that Collins said he found Jesus. So does he believe in the effing trinity or not? If he is an effing xian, let him explain how the trinity works in terms of science.

  151. #151 cm
    August 24, 2007

    frog:

    In the shortest possible way: Imagine that the external world is not closely correlated with our sense of it. And by that we can’t mean that just a matter of degree – that’s a scientific issue of illusions and hallucinations that isn’t the basis of disagreement. We must mean that fundamentally, our reality doesn’t match our sense perceptions.

    What could that possibly mean? Whose reality is it? Who actually sees that reality in such a way that it can be a topic of conversation?

    What do you mean, “Whose reality?” Reality needs to be assigned to somebody in order to exist? So you’re an idealist, then? Ok, fine. But my point is that the idealist position might be right, I just don’t know. My hunch is that it is wrong, that the universe probably is as I conceive it, but I cannot know that with philosophical certainty. I don’t think I can know anything with philosophical certainty, except perhaps that there is something.

    Does it mean anything for their to be a “reality” that no one is actually capable of sensing to any degree? That “objective” reality without a subject to experience it is just God hiding under verbiage.

    I think that is unfair to materialists, whose view is that the universe exists whether or not we or anyone is taking note of it.

    I get the sense that you are conflating the experience of reality with the reality itself. If you are an idealist, then that would make sense.

    For the record, I do comport my life as though I do know things about reality. This strict level of admitting inability to ultimately know reality is only for the purpose of philosophical discussions. Bertrand Russell held a similar view.

  152. #152 Caledonian
    August 24, 2007

    I understand (as I am sure Harris does) that many people, including scientists, have belief in things they cannot prove.

    No scientist believes something that cannot be properly demonstrated.

  153. #153 Sinbad
    August 24, 2007

    “No scientist believes something that cannot be properly demonstrated.”

    Ergo, no scientist believes (for example) that:

    * Sexual descrimination is wrong;
    * That Bach is better than Mozart (or vice versa, or better even than Milli Vanilli);
    * That [insert favored ideology here] is to be preferred to the alternatives.

    Brilliant!

  154. #154 odd
    August 24, 2007

    cm:

    “I don’t think I can know anything with philosophical certainty, except perhaps that there is something.”

    I think you do know things, simply because knowledge doesn’t require absence of doubt. All it requires is a true belief you have good reasons to hold.

    There might be standards other than knowledge — like certainty — that you can’t meet without excluding every possible alternative. But is certainty something we should want? I know that sounds like a silly question. But consider: if your standard for belief is “undoubtability,” then (as you have already pointed out) you can’t be certain the external world exists, nor can you be certain that you existed in the past or will in the future. Nor can you even be certain of your current existence (as Hume pointed out, Descartes wasn’t entitled to believe “I think, therefore I am” — the best his evidence gave him was “Thought is happening, therefore thought is happening”). Modern work in epistemology even suggests that the standard of undoubtable certainty is, in fact, self-defeating. So, not only is such a standard unreasonably high and effectively useless but, despite appearances, it might not even be a real possible standard!

    Knowledge is a useful standard that we as fallible beings can meet with a true belief and good reasons. We can all know that the world exists — even if we never take the time to consider omnipotent evil demons or brains in vats.

  155. #155 Alan
    August 24, 2007

    As an avid hiker and outdoorsman, I often have experiences similar to what Collins experienced. You sure can have overwhelming thoughts and feelings, but this should be accredited to the beauty of this planet and the wonders of our universe, and not some fairy tale character.

  156. #156 Anton Mates
    August 24, 2007

    negentropyeater wrote:

    Collins never claimed that evolutionary biology does not or will not, one day, explain morality.

    Yes, he did, several times.

    “As I read his arguments about the Moral Law — the knowledge of right and wrong, which makes no sense from the perspective of basic evolution and biology but makes great sense as a signpost to God — I began to realize the truth of what he was saying.”

    “I have trouble with the argument that altruism can be completely explained on evolutionary grounds. Evolutionists now universally agree — I think Dawkins and Wilson and Dennett would all agree — that evolution does not operate on the species. It operates on the individual. If that’s the case, then it does seem that in any given circumstance, the individual’s evolutionary drive should be to preserve their ability to reproduce at all costs. They’re simply — as Dawkins has described them — a way of propagating DNA. That’s what we are. But that’s not what I see in my own heart. And it’s not what I see in those around me.”

    “You are to reach out to those who are less fortunate. You are to aid the widow, you are to help the orphan. All of these altruistic things seem to be a universal feature of human beings. And yet, they’re a scandal to evolutionary biology because they motivate people to do things that are exactly the opposite of what evolution would require. ”

    “It’s been a little of a just-so story so far. Many would argue that altruism has been supported by evolution because it helps the group survive. But some people sacrificially give of themselves to those who are outside their group and with whom they have absolutely nothing in common. Such as Mother Teresa, Oskar Schindler, many others. That is the nobility of humankind in its purist form. That doesn’t seem like it can be explained by a Darwinian model, but I’m not hanging my faith on this.”

    “And the argument that Lewis made there — the one that I think was most surprising, most earth-shattering, and most life-changing — is the argument about the existence of the moral law. How is it that we, and all other members of our species, unique in the animal kingdom, know what’s right and what’s wrong? In every culture one looks at, that knowledge is there.

    Where did that come from? I reject the idea that that is an evolutionary consequence, because that moral law sometimes tells us that the right thing to do is very self-destructive. If I’m walking down the riverbank, and a man is drowning, even if I don’t know how to swim very well, I feel this urge that the right thing to do is to try to save that person. Evolution would tell me exactly the opposite: preserve your DNA. Who cares about the guy who’s drowning? He’s one of the weaker ones, let him go. It’s your DNA that needs to survive. And yet that’s not what’s written within me. ”


    I don’t have his book in front of me, so if you can find a passage where he defends a different position, let me know. But Collins has been very very vocal about what he perceives as evolutionary theory’s inability to explain morality.

  157. #157 Anton Mates
    August 24, 2007

    Glen Davidson wrote:

    There appears to be the mistaken belief among many commenters on this thread that Nature published Collins’ essay on how he became a Xian. Well they didn’t, certainly not in the article that Harris referenced.

    That article, an editorial to be more precise, was “Building Bridges”, 442:110 13 July 2006. Harris is the one who dredged up an excerpt from Collins’ essay, in order to support his claims, like the one below:

    But half the editorial in question consists of a discussion of Collins’ The Language of God, the same book from which Harris quotes an excerpt. (Collins tells the same story in other essays and interviews, but AFAIK this is the book version.)

    Harris does not address the question of how to deal with that gulf. He may be right, but he could have been more convincing had he at least acknowledged Nature’s reasoning, and perhaps if he’d not deliberately (seemingly, at least) confused Collins’ little religious fantasies with the mode of scientific thought that Collins indeed espouses and examples in other portions of his writings.

    Since Collins himself claims that his book is a scientist’s look at the evidence, it’s perfectly reasonable to examine it for clues to his “mode of scientific thought.” But I agree that Harris’ choice of passages was poor–he should have focused on the arguments that Collins overtly claims give scientific support to theism, rather than on the events Collins describes as driving his personal conversion.

    Still, I think Harris’ main point is a good one. Collins isn’t bridging any gulf–he’s simply throwing away some parts of science, throwing away some parts of traditional Christianity, and declaring the remainder consistent. There’s no reason for scientists (or most religious believers, for that matter) to applaud him in this endeavor.

  158. #158 Kseniya
    August 24, 2007

    Francis Collins allegedly wrote: “But some people sacrificially give of themselves to those who are outside their group and with whom they have absolutely nothing in common. Such as Mother Teresa, Oskar Schindler, many others.”

    I think Dr. Collins is wrong, because he fails to see what it is that puts people like Schindler in the minority: The ability to internally redefine the size and composition of the group to which they see themselves belonging.

    He’s also profoundly wrong to say that Schindler had “absolutely nothing in common” with those he aided. Nothing? What were they? Clouds of ammonia? He had many, many things in common with those people, not the least of which was a shared desire or need to preserve their own humanity in the face of great and terrible evil.

    Collins, like so many theists, gives mankind far too little credit for its own courage and nobility, and instead credits great acts such as Schindler’s to the imagined impetus of an hypothetical being.

    The more I think about it, the more it disturbs me.

  159. #159 Anton Mates
    August 24, 2007

    Kseniya wrote:

    Francis Collins allegedly wrote: “But some people sacrificially give of themselves to those who are outside their group and with whom they have absolutely nothing in common. Such as Mother Teresa, Oskar Schindler, many others.”

    It’s National Geographic doing the alleging, mind you.

  160. #160 Evergreen
    August 24, 2007

    I don’t understand how “feelings/beliefs” have anything to do with science. Science is not ideologically based…. Why would Nature even run such hogwash?

    I do understand that (feelings/deological ideation/beliefs etc) have a connection with non rational parts of the brain. (see SF AMERICAN JULY 2006)

  161. #161 Amy Acquafondata
    August 24, 2007

    All I wanted to say was that you shouldn’t pick so much on Collins for his opinion, just as no one should belittle anyone on this site for their opinions. Like the guy said in the movie Contact, “We are all just looking for the truth.” We each have to find our own answers to the questions that life poses. That’s why we have a brain. I believe in Evolution, and in God. No one really knows for sure if there is a God or not, that’s why they call it faith. I feel that both sides should be able to calmly discuss their beliefs rationally, and peacefully. I am so very tired of all the nastiness and sarcasm from both sides. A little tolerance goes a long way. Please try and remember that.

  162. #162 CalGeorge
    August 24, 2007

    No one really knows for sure if there is a God or not, that’s why they call it faith.

    Inside my brain, there is no doubt that God does not exist. So, yes, some people really do know for sure that there is not a God.

  163. #163 Caledonian
    August 24, 2007

    Ergo, no scientist believes (for example) that:

    * Sexual descrimination is wrong;
    * That Bach is better than Mozart (or vice versa, or better even than Milli Vanilli);
    * That [insert favored ideology here] is to be preferred to the alternatives.

    Brilliant!

    If they believe those things are objectively true, then they’d damn well better be able to demonstrate it in a way that other can test. If not, they’re not scientists.

    Having standards for making truth claims is a concept I’m sure you have trouble with, but do try – it’s very important to the subject.

  164. #164 Scott Hatfield, OM
    August 24, 2007

    Tully Bascomb:

    #108 “A good scientist thrives on paradox, knowing it will illuminate the way. Collins shrugs his shoulders at paradox (I am referring to his discussion on the problem of evil).”

    #146 “But how could a scientist find a fundamental paradox “perfectly satisfactory”. It should worry you and keep you awake at night.”

    Maybe I’m misreading things, but I feel a certain amount of paradox (or at least ambiguity) in your two statements. I don’t see the dovetailed joint, the perfect fit that would justify Harris’s rhetoric. Speaking of paradoxes, why would you expect that anyone can weave, much less wear the seamless garment of reason that Sam Harris pretends to possess?

  165. #165 Caledonian
    August 24, 2007

    Maybe I’m misreading things, but I feel a certain amount of paradox (or at least ambiguity) in your two statements. I don’t see the dovetailed joint, the perfect fit that would justify Harris’s rhetoric. Speaking of paradoxes, why would you expect that anyone can weave, much less wear the seamless garment of reason that Sam Harris pretends to possess?

    You’ve missed the point. Science doesn’t require that we be perfectly rational. It does require that we try to be rational – and that we reject irrationality.

    Collins is actively embracing irrationality. He’s actively rejecting the scientific method by claiming that faith justifies his conclusions.

    How can you not understand why that’s a problem?

  166. #166 Kseniya
    August 24, 2007

    It’s National Geographic doing the alleging, mind you. Posted by: Anton Mates | August 24, 2007 07:06 PM

    Hi Anton – Oh, I believe that’s more or less what he said, but I qualified it only because you said you didn’t have the book in front of you, so I thought perhaps you had quoted or paraphrased those passages from memory – which, if true, would imply that the passage I quoted might not have literally been what Collins wrote. A minor thing.

  167. #167 cm
    August 24, 2007

    odd:

    I think you do know things, simply because knowledge doesn’t require absence of doubt. All it requires is a true belief you have good reasons to hold.

    Whether there is presence or absence of doubt is not relevant to what I am proposing. One can be perfectly assured–doubt free–in his beliefs and still have false beliefs.

    You say that all that knowledge requires is a true belief which you have good reasons to hold. OK, fine, but how can one know that one’s belief is true or that one’s reasons are good? I don’t see how you can. My point is there is no way to “check your answers in the back of the book”, no authority to appeal to who will let you know if you’ve got it right. It’s like seeing a magic show and afterward announcing that you know how the magician did his trick, but the magician isn’t saying anything–there’s no way to confirm that your idea about how his trick is done is correct. In the same way, we may indeed have veridical beliefs about the ultimate nature of the world, but we can never confirm if we are right. We can never step outside of existence and check.

    Under this view, I see all knowledge as impossible to verify. Paradoxically, I’m not even sure if I can say “all knowledge is impossible to verify” is itself a verifiable belief, which leaves me in quite a pickle indeed. So don’t worry, I am not trying to claim certainty of my uncertainty.

    I haven’t read the epistemology papers you mentioned, but perhaps they can convince me otherwise. So far I haven’t been convinced but would be willing to learn more.

  168. #168 Caledonian
    August 24, 2007

    But we can watch the magician conduct his trick again and again, and try to disrupt the trick by interacting with him in specific, controlled ways.

    If we do that, and our idea about how the trick was done holds up, that justifies it far beyond simply declaring that we know and remaining there.

  169. #169 windy
    August 24, 2007

    …if you believe miracle can happen then can you not use miracles as an explanation in any scientific article – can God make twenty bacterial colonies grow on an agar plate where five might be expected. His answer to paraphrase it was that God, of course, wouldn’t intervene in such a trivial way with mere bacteria, just for important things such as humans and Jesus.

    And fish, loaves of bread, fig trees, and swine… Maybe God only works with eukaryotes?

  170. #170 Kagehi
    August 24, 2007

    Collins and the like may be our Aquinuses or Francis Bacons. People willing, to a point, to admit that *reality* trumps prior delusion, but not so completely that one must reject all of ones delusions. Sadly, we may not be in a position yet to get rid of such midrange ideas, any more than any more rational person would have survived the total irrationality that Aquinus made a dent it (while also promoting nearly as much of the same insanity himself), or more scientific than Bacon, in a time where merely *suggesting* that one could dissect the truths from the world, instead of just waiting around for stone tablets to show up on the sides of mountains, might have gotten you in real serious trouble.

    As much as I hate to admit it, the problem may not be Collins way of thinking per say, so much as the inability or basic refusal of those like him to stand up, in mass, and declare, “Even though we don’t agree with those goody atheists, you other people are all fracking insane by comparison!” Its not what we would like to see, but its a damn sight better, and closer to what we want, than what we are currently getting…

  171. #171 Arnosium Upinarum
    August 25, 2007

    MR. Ian H Spedding FCD, Esquire, says,

    “Rightly or wrongly, religion meets basic human needs in a way that science cannot.”

    Truly? And just what are those “needs” that you have so perspicuously identified?

    Me? I’m thinking that humans have a basic need to be able to trust each other, and the only way to accomplish that in a societal setting is to foster a sense of genuine honesty and a healthy respect for a natural world that is actually responsible for what goes on in it…instead of continuously trying to defend a completely bankrupt system of belief that has no purchase on reality.

    “Call it all the names you want but, unless you have something more attractive and fulfilling to replace it, you are just wasting your breath..”

    Hey, haven’t you been READING or LISTENING??? The replacement is as obvious as your ignorance: actual NATURAL REALITY – NATURE – as science (and ONLY science) can explicate it.

    That really IS “more attractive and fullfilling”. No, really. Not kidding.

    Against that overwhelming source of unblemished information (NATURE) it is therefore quite easy to characterize false beliefs supported by nothing OTHER than false reasoning and superstition with “bad names”…its BAD enough to deserve the characterization!!!

    “By all means, unite against ignorance and superstition, condemn all absolutist modes of thought – whether religious or political – for all the human deaths and suffering they have inflicted, extol the virtues of skepticism and encourage critical thinking.”

    Well, now, we can finally agree on something G-O-O-D. However, how can religious superstition – a purely irrational preoccupation – possibly play a role in the attainment of “the virtues of skepticism and encourage critical thinking” that you seem to be supporting here?

    Perhaps ethics, morals and clear-headed thinking in EVERY PERSON comes from something a heck of alot deeper than a CULTURAL crutch such as RELIGION.

    “By all means, expose the hypocrisy, charlatanry and bigotry of those who betray the very beliefs they proclaim by using them to accumulate personal wealth and political power.”

    Oh yes, by all means….

    “By all means, highlight the inconsistencies and outright contradictions embedded in all faiths.”

    Oh yes, by any and all means….

    “Just don’t expect it to eradicate religion.”

    Who the hell is expecting anything? That’s not the way authentic scierntists think at all. What, you think anybody who has a head wants some sort of evangelism to replace another evangelism? As if by intellectual domination a dispute can be adjudicated by force or other incindiary methods HISTORICALLY best exemplified by the religious bent of mind? Irrationality is a feature of the human mind even WITHOUT religion. Human stubborness – same deal. But one has to have the courage, fortitude and honor to be able to strike back at the dark forces of irrationality and superstition. Don’t worry – the folks who aren’t completely bananas come around eventually to the right side.

    “You don’t get people to learn new things, change their minds or modify their beliefs by calling them “idiots” or “delusional”.

    Of course not. Now you can tell those delusional idiots the very same thing. In the meantime, we’ll call a spade a spade, without equivocation. And we will NOT feel ashamed for answering the bullshit.

    My mother, who was a teacher for many years, knows that well. I’m sure that those here who teach for a living – the likes of PZ and Scott Hatfield – would agree.

    You presume too much on the agreement. In terms of what backlash is launched against those who decide they are in posession of, not just an authoritative source, but THE AUTHORITY by strange ejaculatory pronouncements that gives them the illusion that they are speaking for a One and Only God-Supreme…you know what? These gutless bastard liars deserve everything a lover of truth and natural ACTUAL reality can throw at them.

    They are the ones who have arranged the mess. We shall be the ones to clean it up.

  172. #172 Anton Mates
    August 25, 2007

    Oh, I believe that’s more or less what he said, but I qualified it only because you said you didn’t have the book in front of you, so I thought perhaps you had quoted or paraphrased those passages from memory – which, if true, would imply that the passage I quoted might not have literally been what Collins wrote.

    A prudent decision. :-) But those passages are actually all from online copies of Collins’ essays and interviews, readily Googlable.

  173. #173 Anton Mates
    August 25, 2007

    Amy Acquafondata wrote:

    All I wanted to say was that you shouldn’t pick so much on Collins for his opinion, just as no one should belittle anyone on this site for their opinions.

    We aren’t picking on Collins for his opinion. We’re picking on him for claiming that his opinion is backed by science, a rather different issue.

    I feel that both sides should be able to calmly discuss their beliefs rationally, and peacefully.

    Peace and calm have very little to do with rational discussion; one should not judge an argument by whether the person making it is wrathful or serene.

  174. #174 odd
    August 25, 2007

    cm:

    I believe there’s a desk in front of me. I have good reason for believing in the desk — I can see it, feel it, taste it (though I probably shouldn’t). Provided the desk really is in front of me, I know the desk is there. I don’t need separate evidence for the desk and for the truth of the statement “there’s a desk in front of me.” If I have enough evidence to know the desk is there, ipso facto I have enough evidence to know it’s true that the desk is there. Remember, knowledge isn’t certainty.

    How do I know when my reasons are good, or when I have enough evidence? That depends on the situation. I think we’re pretty good at evaluating these sorts of claims. For example, if you’re watching the magician and believe you know the trick’s method because you’re just guessing or speculating, we both know that’s not a good enough reason. If you believe you know the secret because you’re a magician yourself, and you observed the stagework with an experienced eye, know how similar tricks are performed, and are quite sure, given the details you noticed, that there’s only one way it could be done — you probably have good enough reason. If you’re right (which seems likely) then you know the secret.

    Even if you turned out wrong, you can still have been justified in thinking you knew the secret. All the available evidence pointed to one solution and you reasonably believed it to be sufficient — no one can blame you, epistemically, for getting it wrong. All this tells us is some justified beliefs can be false. Goes with the territory of being a finite and fallible creature.

    With that said, I understand why you’re frustrated. No matter how justified your belief, no matter how careful and thorough you are, you could still be wrong. The question is, what do you want to take from this observation?

    I think it’s going too far to say this implies we know nothing or very little — at least, this doesn’t play well with what we typically mean by knowledge. I also don’t think it has any practical consequences — we can get as much justification as we want for any given situation or task. And I definitely don’t think we should despair about it. After all, once you’ve collected all the evidence you could reasonably ask for, what’s left to worry about? That tiny fear — so small that it doesn’t even impact your daily life — that you could still get it wrong, that you could still have everything wrong? I wouldn’t worry too much.

    Here’s the upshot of all this — you in fact know many things, but you also know that you can be wrong. And that boils down to a sort of epistemic humility that is — I think — a pretty good virtue to have in a world with a little too much unjustified certainty.

  175. #175 Sinbad
    August 25, 2007

    #162: “If they believe those things are objectively true, then they’d damn well better be able to demonstrate it in a way that other can test. If not, they’re not scientists.” (Emphasis supplied).

    Now you’ve moved the goalposts. Your original claim (#151) was that “[n]o scientist believes something that cannot be properly demonstrated.” Moreover (and for example), statements about one-off events (e.g., that George Washington was the first president of the USA) may be objectively true but are inherently untestable. But no scientist believes that Washington was the first president, right?!?

    “Having standards for making truth claims is a concept I’m sure you have trouble with, but do try – it’s very important to the subject.”

    I have standards, but they aren’t your grossly mistaken ones. Oh, and by the way, you might save the sarcasm for when you actually have an argument.

  176. #176 Stanton
    August 25, 2007

    Sinbad, do realize that there have been numerous first and second hand accounts of George Washington being sworn in as the first president of the United States.

  177. #177 Sinbad
    August 25, 2007

    “Sinbad, do realize that there have been numerous first and second hand accounts of George Washington being sworn in as the first president of the United States.”

    Precisely. It’s demonstrably and objectively true even though Caledonian’s latest foolish claim is that only testable things can be objectively true and that scientists (to be true scientists donchano) can’t believe such nonsense.

  178. #178 Susan
    August 25, 2007

    There are bridges and there are gangplanks, and it is the business of journals such as Nature to know the difference.

    HA! I love Sam Harris. Thanks for pointing us to that.

  179. #179 Anton Mates
    August 25, 2007

    Precisely. It’s demonstrably and objectively true even though Caledonian’s latest foolish claim is that only testable things can be objectively true and that scientists (to be true scientists donchano) can’t believe such nonsense.

    Uncovering and examining the historical evidence of Washington’s presidency is precisely how you test the claim that he was the first president of the US.

  180. #180 Sinbad
    August 25, 2007

    “Uncovering and examining the historical evidence of Washington’s presidency is precisely how you test the claim that he was the first president of the US.”

    That’s not “testing” as it pertains to science, which requires replication. For example:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/31/science/31cong.html
    ?ex=1296363600&en=73143d5abbac317b&ei=5090&partner=
    rssuserland&emc=rss

  181. #181 Anton Mates
    August 25, 2007

    “Uncovering and examining the historical evidence of Washington’s presidency is precisely how you test the claim that he was the first president of the US.”

    That’s not “testing” as it pertains to science, which requires replication.

    Yes, it is. The test can be easily replicated–have anyone else look at the same sources you did, or look at other historical evidence from the same period. If they find all sources to agree that Abraham Lincoln was the first president, then your findings have not been replicated. Perhaps your eyesight was very bad, or perhaps you were lying.

    If this were not the case, then it would be impossible to scientifically investigate the past–in the article you cited, Donald Kennedy says that replication “is the ultimate test of truth in science.” But of course archaeology, palaeontology and cosmology are all sciences, in which replication is just as important as it is anywhere else.

  182. #182 Sinbad
    August 25, 2007

    “Yes, it is. The test can be easily replicated–have anyone else look at the same sources you did, or look at other historical evidence from the same period.”

    I think you’re confusing induction and deduction. Were you view correct, an experiment would only need to be performed once so long as the notes and papers could be reviewed by others and the numbers add up — Voila, instant replication. Science requires new observations for replication, not repeated analysis of the old ones.

    “If this were not the case, then it would be impossible to scientifically investigate the past–in the article you cited, Donald Kennedy says that replication ‘is the ultimate test of truth in science.’ But of course archaeology, palaeontology and cosmology are all sciences, in which replication is just as important as it is anywhere else.”

    Research conclusions in the so-called “hard” sciences are taken much more seriously than those of the so-called “soft” sciences precisely because replication isn’t possible in the latter instances. There is no control group in archaeology.

  183. #183 Zarquon
    August 25, 2007

    Research conclusions in the so-called “hard” sciences are taken much more seriously than those of the so-called “soft” sciences precisely because replication isn’t possible in the latter instances. There is no control group in archaeology.

    That’s wrong. The purpose of science is to produce reliable knowledge. Replication is just one of the methods used. Reliable, controlled observations such as photographs and properly calibrated instruments are another. No scientists disputes that the observations of Shoemaker-Levy colliding with Jupiter are science, for example.

  184. #184 Anton Mates
    August 25, 2007

    I think you’re confusing induction and deduction.

    I’m not sure what you mean.

    Were you view correct, an experiment would only need to be performed once so long as the notes and papers could be reviewed by others and the numbers add up — Voila, instant replication.

    Yes, that would certainly be scientific evidence in favor of the experimenter’s claim–if the numbers did not add up, any scientist would be more dubious. It’s always a good idea to have someone check your calculation and raw data.

    You would also, of course, want to further replicate the experiment’s results by conducting modified experiments which test other aspects of your claim. There’s always a more decisive way to replicate.

    Science requires new observations for replication, not repeated analysis of the old ones.

    Repeated analysis of old observations is often extremely helpful to science; otherwise we would be eternally flummoxed by older, erroneous data.

    Also, you confuse “new observations” with “observations of new events.” If you discover a new journal entry by an eyewitness to Washington’s inauguration, you have made a new observation, even though it concerns the same event.

    Research conclusions in the so-called “hard” sciences are taken much more seriously than those of the so-called “soft” sciences precisely because replication isn’t possible in the latter instances. There is no control group in archaeology.

    A control group isn’t even necessary in all areas of experimental science. It’s used specifically in experiments about the effect of a given factor (present vs. absent) on a given system.

    How would one define the control group in, for instance, the Michelson-Morley experiment?

  185. #185 Anton Mates
    August 25, 2007

    Incidentally, the popular “hard” vs. “soft” distinction has little to do with experiment vs. observation. Astronomy and its associated fields are largely observational, but generally considered hard science, because their analyses are quantitative and many of their conclusions have fairly tight error bars.

  186. #186 Caledonian
    August 25, 2007

    In archaeology, as in astronomy, experiments are conducted by looking for new observations that constitute a ‘test’ of the hypothesis… and occasionally analyzing existing data in new ways.

    Having such a large pool of data is what makes it possible for those fields to be sciences. The inability to conduct true experiments is limiting – I don’t think there’s an astronomer out there that wouldn’t be absolutely thrilled to gain the power to control and reset the development of a star – but not so limiting that the fields aren’t science.

    As for this “you don’t understand the difference between induction and deduction” garbage, you’re really not getting it. What is generally called ‘induction’ is just a form of deduction that concerns itself deriving logical conclusions about probabilities. Logic is the same everywhere.

  187. #187 windy
    August 25, 2007

    Moreover (and for example), statements about one-off events (e.g., that George Washington was the first president of the USA) may be objectively true but are inherently untestable. But no scientist believes that Washington was the first president, right?!?

    Do you realize that the origin of a species is a one-off event, and you are one step away from the creationist argument that evolutionary biology is not testable?

    And in case you want to counter this by saying that different species constitute the “repeats”: species are like presidents. There have been many of them, but each is historically unique. You can test hypotheses about one species, and you can test hypotheses about one president, as people have already pointed out above.

    “G.W. was the first president of the US” is falsifiable, too: perhaps you unearth the tomb of the *real* first president, and discover evidence that the Founding Fathers were part of a conspiracy to erase him from historical records. (Somewhat unlikely, but happened all the time in ancient Egypt…)

  188. #188 Keith Douglas
    August 25, 2007

    Tim B.: The idea that the big bang originated the universe is wrong. Better to put it at as it is the origin of our local hubble volume, nothing more. Look for Adolf Grünbaum’s paper “The Poverty of Theistic Cosmology”, for example, on this theme.

  189. #189 Kagehi
    August 25, 2007

    species are like presidents. There have been many of them, but each is historically unique.

    May as well suggest that a Delorian isn’t *related* to a Model-T, because one can only examine each *car* as its own species, or anything else. The oldest wheel ever made? Naw, can’t be based on the same idea, because its unique, all other wheels from that time, being different, and up to today, since they are all different, must have been made whole cloth out of thin air, not adapted from the original idea… Mind you, its hard to make such an argument without talking about “made” things, which for creationists just muddies the waters (somehow the concept of symbolic logic or analogy is a huge chasm they never seem to be able to leap…) For that matter, why stop with species, why not declare every *member* of a species as *unique*. I mean, its damned obvious that I am related to nearly every other male in my family, since all our pictures from specific ages look alike, but how can those *unique* traits possibly be connected to asians, black people, or even the Johnsons down the street, who despite also having the same eye shape and skin color look “nothing” like me? Obviously all the genetics are pure coincidence, just like how the DNA recently recovered from some Neanderthal bones recently, and which have implied they could have been genetically close enough to have been breed out, not killed off, is *pure coincidence*.

    Its a bloody slippery slope when you start arguing that fossils, especially when it starts to become possible to recover DNA from some of them, are simply all so unique that similarities between them are all coincidental, never mind the similarities in DNA between all *living* species. Its almost as fracking stupid as arguing that a bird and a human can’t have been “related” in some distant past, based on something as stupid as tetrachromatic (4 color) vision vs. trichromatic (three color), when there are *real* cases of tetrachromats in humans, as well as dichromats (two color), which cattle and other species have. Why should it even be **possible** for those traits to crop up in humans, if we are so unique from everything else? Could it be that we *inhereted* the cellular mechanisms from earlier species that might have even been (and almost certainly where) only monochromats? Nah! That would just be silly…

    The problem, as some people have pointed out on other threads, is that once you start arguing that you *can’t* derive anything useful from examining such things, **everything** becomes impossible to derive. And somehow I really don’t think they creationists want to open the can of worms that results when you start arguing that you can’t do science on anything at all, including archeology. It opens the door, logically, to arguing that all evidence that their Bible even existed prior to yesterday is “fake”, because they can’t prove it was written thousands of years ago, and more than they want us to be able to prove that humans **didn’t** ride Dino around Eden. Some people should never be handed knives, especially when they are too stupid to know which end is the handle. ;)

  190. #190 windy
    August 25, 2007

    Jeez, relax, Kagehi! It should be obvious that I was making a point about non-repeatable events in response to Sinbad, *not* arguing that species are “unique” as being uniquely created or something. You could at least read a couple of comments previous to mine before you start ranting…

    Besides if I was going to argue that species are unrelated by descent, why on earth would I compare them to US presidents? ;)

  191. #191 Trinifar
    August 25, 2007

    If you read the Harris letter that PZ links to, it is not, as PZ says, “urging scientists to unite against religion. What Harris says is “much depends on the scientific community presenting a united front against the forces of unreason.”

    Unreason and religion are not equivalent — that is, unless you have a decidedly unscientific view of religion and a lust for overgeneralization.

    http://trinifar.wordpress.com/2007/04/22/hugs-for-atheists/

  192. #192 Trinifar
    August 25, 2007

    BTW, would you also paint Michael Shermer as just another appeaser? Yes, that Micheal Shermer: “Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine and the Executive Director of the Skeptics Society.” The one who recent wrote An open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens.

  193. #193 Caledonian
    August 25, 2007

    Unreason and religion are not equivalent

    Of course they’re not equivalent. Religion is just a subset of unreason.

  194. #194 Trinifar
    August 25, 2007

    Thanks, Caledonian. I had a side bet placed stating you would be the first to respond to my remarks and that your response would be a low-content, emotional outburst, devoid of any rational argument or contribution to the discussion.

  195. #195 Caledonian
    August 25, 2007

    I’m sorry to hear you lost your bet.

  196. #196 Stanton
    August 25, 2007

    That’s not “testing” as it pertains to science, which requires replication.

    Sinbad, do realize that not all things studied in science need to be replicated.
    Otherwise, according to your logic, Vulcanology and Seismology, the sciences of volcanoes and earthquakes respectively, are not sciences because it is currently not possible to replicate either volcanic activity or earthquakes.
    Do realize that what matters in science is that there is information gathered from either field observations, or experiments (whether done in the lab or in the field), or from reliable evidence gathered to be examined and processed. If a scientifically important event can be replicated in the laboratory, double brownie points. If it can not, it is hoped that that event occurs frequently enough, and is carefully observed (and recorded) so that the data gleaned can help the understanding of that event.

    I mean, honestly, if you believe that science is only about the replication of events in laboratories, then what on earth do you think astronomers do when they peer into their ridiculously huge telescopes? Oogle at the strippers in strip clubs without having to tip them?
    What do you think archaeologists do when they dig up artifacts to examine them? Point and giggle at each other as they shout “vomitorium”?
    What do you think paleontologists do when they search for fossils for the last 200, 300 years since the Enlightenment said it was hip and trendy to examine fossils? Kick themselves for not finding Herbert Hoover’s legendary porno-stash?

  197. #197 Caledonian
    August 25, 2007

    Technically, it’s not strictly possible to replicate any observation – no one can ever reproduce the conditions under which phenomena occur.

    What we actually do is find – or create – a situation where the factors we believe are relevant are the same, and see if the outcome is still the same.

  198. #198 Anton Mates
    August 25, 2007

    Technically, it’s not strictly possible to replicate any observation – no one can ever reproduce the conditions under which phenomena occur.

    The same is true of experiments, of course.

  199. #199 Caledonian
    August 25, 2007

    Well, yes. Experiments are just a way to make sure that we can have relevant observations.

  200. #200 Tim B.
    August 26, 2007

    Keith Douglas,

    I found a pdf of the Grünbaum paper but haven’t read it yet. In advance of doing so, I must say I’m struck by the boldness of a claim that the Big Bang is an ontologically flaccid event. Seems pretty radical, given so much other stuff I’ve read from leading cosmologists wrestling with the emergence of time, space, and matter. I am aware of some multi-dimension string theories about interleaved worlds, but string theory, at this point, appears to be untentably knotty.

    If the Big Bang is merely the “origin of our local hubble volume,” I would still wonder about the ontological force granting reality to all such hubble volumes. And this force (“pressure” against the null) appears, to my feeble mind, to be grounded in information as well as operation. Something that surely would have troubled the pre-Socratics who converged toward monadic thinking.

  201. #201 Ian H Spedding FCD
    August 26, 2007

    Bob wrote:

    Please, Ian, spare us the freshman skeptical bullshit and get to the point. Is your position that, if one cannot provide absolute certainty for “what counts as true,” we’re left with anyone and everyone claiming truth in an equal way? So, the tarot card reader and astrophysicist (and street-corner psychic and four-year old) are all now on equal footing, simply because of an assumption?

    Just as a reminder, Caledonian wrote:

    If you claim that your beliefs have truth values, and they concern reality, you’re no longer necessarily entitled to them.

    Who is to say that someone is not entitled to hold false beliefs? This a simple freedom of religion issue. We are free to believe whatever we want. The problems only arise when people violate the rights of others in furtherance of beliefs, false or otherwise.

    Short of that, the best answer is education. But we only have to remember our own schooldays to know that demeaning students is not the best way to get them to learn. If you think someone’s religious beliefs are unfounded, you will not change them by calling them ‘delusional’, ‘stupid’, ‘idiotic’ or ‘ignorant’, no matter how much better that might make you feel.

    This is not about relativism. Agnostics understand as well as atheists the improbability of Christian concept of God. The difference is one of emphasis. Improbability is not the same as certainty and it is unshakeable certainty in the truth of religious doctrines or political ideologies that causes the problems, not doubt.

  202. #202 tourettist
    August 26, 2007

    frog,

    after re-reading your original reply I get what you meant. It wasn’t so much obscurity or unfunniness as my puzzlement at anyone seeing a call for restraints on Collins’ publishing venue in what I wrote. Sorry if I was unclear, a distinct possibility for me. Yes, I criticized Nature’s editorial decisions, but who hasn’t? Anyway I was mistaken about what Nature did and didn’t publish so my whole point was beside the point. Sigh.

    One more item, in my original words (or later) I don’t see where I’ve called anyone “intolerant”. This would be your addition. Not to be tetchy about it, but I’d ask you to consider building your points on words of your own, not those placed in the mouth of another. If you’ll do that I’ll try to avoid making pointless points.

  203. #203 Caledonian
    August 26, 2007

    Who is to say that someone is not entitled to hold false beliefs?

    You’ve got it wrong – people are entitled to hold wrong beliefs, they’re not entitled to claiming that those beliefs are true.

  204. #204 Kagehi
    August 26, 2007

    It was more for dips like Sinbad, not a case of taking you literally Windy. I mean, if you dangle a plastic steak in front of a lion that doesn’t even have a basic sense of smell, you have to expect to get bitten anyway, even if your intent was to mock the lion. I just wanted to make it **real** clear it was plastic. ;) Sorry for having it come off sounding like a rant directed at solely at your comment.

    Oh, and to comment on Ian H Spedding FCD’s latest.. But here is the problem. Agnostics are probably not talking about anything even **vaguely** resembling religion as emphasized by most people. It would be like telling a child, “Metal can be hot, so don’t ever touch metal.”, verses, “Stoves can be hot, so don’t touch them or they might burn you.” Even an atheist isn’t going to argue that its provably impossible for some *thing* to exist that could in some fashion be called a god, what they will say is, “All the gods that people have described are mistakes, and you will get hurt, scared or dead from belief in them.” For someone to be agnostic and not take this stance implies a willingness to ignore basic evidence that does imply, quite strongly, that there are no “valid” definitions for god at this point, even if one presumed such a being existed. Its why some of us find the whole idea of agnosticism as a description of a **state** of belief/thought on the subject to be a complete joke, even if we do allow that as a **process** its conclusions about the basic probability are possibly valid.

    In other words, it hardly matters if you place the odds at 1 :1,000,000,000,000,000, or 1:infinity – 1. It doesn’t change the “conclusion” you reach from there, unless you also make the silly mistake of believing in the credibility of someone’s goofy description of what god is, does, will do or has done (none of which can be known in any testable fashion), and by extension, buy into the religion that goes with it.

    The only difference between an atheist and a hard agnostic imho is one of pure symantics and general stubborness of the part of both to admit they just use different numbers. Soft agnostics.. already have one foot in the church door, and the other on a banana peel, to twist a metaphor.

  205. #205 omar
    August 26, 2007

    In the last few months, I have seen several disturbing examples of serious scientific journals publishing fantasies about the Islamic “golden age” as if they were scientific fact. Some examples and my comments follow:

    A. In an otherwise reasonable article about doctors and terrorism (NEJM,
    August 16th, http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/short/357/7/635?query=TOC) the author chose to insert a quote from the “Times” that panders to this trend. The quote states: “it (the terrorist attacks involving Muslim medics) also insults the pride that Muslims take in the achievements of their golden age, especially in the fields of medicine, surgery and pharmacology. Medicine owes more to Islam than to any other religion or philosophy. It was the great Muslim physicians of Spain and the Middle East who laid the foundations for today’s science; it was the writings and medical observations of scholars such as Ibn Rushd (Averroes, as he was known in Europe) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) that led directly to the medical advances of the past nine centuries.”

    1. The idea that the work of so and so led directly to every advance in modern medicine in the next 9 centuries is true only in the sense that almost everything that happened in the interconnected world of Europe and the Middle East in the 12th century “led directly” to all that happened in subsequent centuries. Muslim physicians made some significant advances in medicine and, perhaps even more important, preserved and passed on the knowledge of the Greco-Roman world. But the idea of a “golden age” that is responsible for all progress in the modern world is simply the mirror image of the idea that Muslims are irredeemable barbarians who contributed nothing worthwhile to the world. Medieval Islamicate civilization, while undoubtedly civilized and progressive by the standards of the age, was not especially enlightened by modern standards. Slavery and torture were widespread, religious minorities faced discriminatory rules, the caliphate suffered repeated dynastic squabbles and civil wars, legal protections were minimal, women were kept out of public life and free enquiry was frequently suppressed at the whim of one or the other absolutist ruler. We should avoid the temptation to treat today’s Muslims as children who may get upset if you don’t throw them a few lines about the “golden age”. The intentions behind such “positive lying” are undoubtedly benign, but in a scientific journal we should stick to verifiable claims and (relatively) objective data.

    B. A few months ago, the scientific journal “Nature” published an amazing piece of Islamist apologetics (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v448/n7150/full/448131a.html) by modern Islamist Ziauddin Sardar. Their intent was probably benign: maybe “Nature” hoped to foster some kind of modern, scientific culture in the Muslim world by promoting what they regard as benign and relatively civilized Islamism. But the article makes sweeping statements about history and historical categories (“classical Islam inspired science, progress in science made Muslims powerful, colonialism destroyed Islamic science, etc. etc”) and offers them up as established facts.

    1. As pointed out above, the purported golden age was hardly as “golden” as Sardar imagines.

    2. A case can easily be made that this knowledge and creativity had not really died down in the settled areas of the Middle East prior to Arab conquest and political unification under the Arabs provided an opportunity for bright individuals to make contributions to human knowledge, as it has in other times. Religion could (and sometimes did) hinder the process, but rarely directly aided it (unless you wish to credit religion for providing the social glue that held society together, but then again, that same role has been played by other religions and continues to be played by other ideological constructs).

    3. The idea that Islamic nations were powerful because of some significant technological advantage and devotion to science is open to question. One can easily argue that when it came to making war, the Islamic caliphate never reached the technical level of the Romans, but then again, neither did their opponents. Even the Romans repeatedly suffered defeats at the hands of technologically inferior opponents because the difference in war-making technology between barbarian and advanced civilization was not decisive in those times (and may not be decisive in some ways even today).

    3. The idea that “colonialism” somehow destroyed classical Islamic science is laughable. By the time the colonial powers arrived, there was no scientific tradition in any part of the Middle East. This is the most easily refuted of Sardar’s arguments and the fact that the editors of “Nature” are unaware of such elementary facts (or wish to ignore them) is deplorable.

    C. In November 2006, “Nature” published a special on “Islam and Science” that was breathtaking in its superficiality (http://www.nature.com/news/specials/islamandscience/index.html). For example:

    1. The issue was introduced with repeated references to “Muslim science”. Why is “Muslim science” a reasonable unit of analysis, but not “Hindu science”, “Buddhist science” or even “Christian science”? We are talking about 50 countries with little in common beyond the allegiance of varying proportions of their population to one somewhat heterogeneous religious tradition. It may be (as the most extreme detractors and most extreme adherents of Islam are equally eager to claim) that there is something special about the adherents of Islam and in their case (and their case alone), it makes sense to define them by religion rather than by geography, culture, ethnicity or any other criterion. But this is a fraught and complex debate and the editors of “Nature”, far from making a sensible contribution to it, do not even seem to be aware of its existence!
    2. The editors state that: “There has never been a greater need for the measured, evidence-based approach to problems that comes from scientific training. Its contribution may be small amid the current turbulence, but it is all the more worth pursuing.” But having said that, none of the contributors (with the exception of Nader Fergany) exhibit any signs of having taken their own advice. Party slogans and pop-culture bromides take the place of any attempt at analysis. One contributor states “In the late nineteenth century, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species had a favorable reception in Muslim countries.” how did he reach that conclusion? The great mass of Muslims was not even aware of the most elementary achievements of Modern science. The traditionally trained theologians had very little to say about Darwin and when they did find something to say, it was almost wholly negative. The acceptance of evolution by a few Western trained intellectuals hardly constitutes “favorable reception”. Equally careless statements are made about the history of “Islamic science”, the nature of politics in Muslim countries and the nature of Islam itself. The level of historiography and analysis on display would be an embarrassment in a good quality high school. In “Nature” it is downright shameful. One expects a higher standard of discourse from the premier scientific journal in the world.
    3. The contributors repeatedly refer to a purported golden age of rationality and science in the Middle East about a thousand years ago. For example, asking Muslims to “reclaim… a great Islamic past in which new knowledge was valued and scholars were free to pursue all lines of enquiry”. The reality is much more complicated than that. Islam as a religious tradition is not unusually open to outside influences. Like all other religious traditions, it absorbed much from the older traditions that existed in its area of influence, but it was rarely willing to openly admit such cultural borrowing and the doctors of Islam (like their counterparts in other traditions) tended to do their borrowing surreptitiously. The civilization that resulted was not especially enlightened by modern standards though for a time, the culture was vibrant and creative and amidst the usual medieval cruelty and caprice, individuals (not all of them Muslim) made multiple original contributions to human knowledge. That is all very well, and is a valid area of inquiry and comment, but a serious journal like “Nature” should either steer clear of this topic or make a sensible and scholarly contribution to it. Repeating fashionable nostrums because they suit the propaganda needs of the day is justifiable in mass communication but is a disservice to science.
    4. They state that in Iran and Pakistan, the rise of political Islam has been accompanied by increases in university education and scientific activity. What (if any) is the causal connection between these events? What would have happened to universities without the rise of political Islam? Again, is “Islam” even the correct unit of analysis in this case? Can the particular histories of Pakistan, Chad and Saudi Arabia be described by one common descriptor, “Islam”? One article displays a figure showing the greatest increase in scientific output has occurred in Iran and Turkey. Since one is avowedly “Islamic” and the other avowedly “secular”, an intelligent observer may be excused for wondering if something other than “Islam” explains or links these results. But the editors of “Nature” seem to have made a policy decision to divide the world into the “house of Islam” and the “house of unbelief” and having boxed themselves in, they end up making nonsensical comparisons between apples and oranges. One can have intelligent arguments about whether it is a good idea for a science journal to collect data on “Muslim countries versus non-Muslim countries” (without defining either), but the contributors to this issue do not make any of these arguments. Instead, they prefer to skirt all tough questions and gloss over all difficulties.
    5. Most of the articles provide very little hard information. We learn little about the actual state of science in these countries and even less about the possible explanations for their lack of scientific development. Surely the editors of “Nature” could have made an effort to come up with some hard data or rethink their conceptual assumptions if no data could be found in the categories they had chosen?

    Omar Ali MD

    Assistant Professor of Pediatric Endocrinology

    Medical College of W isconsin

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