bookmark_borderChallenging Nature

Among books by skeptically minded scientists, here’s another one that is worth attention: Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life by Lee M. Silver, a molecular biologist.

Challenging Nature starts out with a defense of scientific materialism. It’s not hugely in depth, but it’s a nice survey. I was particularly interested in seeing how he presented a point of view much influenced by molecular biology: how routinely dealing with life as a physical, manipulable process leads to skepticism about spiritual claims. Yet just as interesting, perhaps, is how Silver’s views differ very little from mine, when my take on alleged supernatural realities is primarily driven by my background as a physicist. At some level, the natural sciences are really very similar in culture and outlook.

Arguments against spiritual beings, however, set the stage for Silver’s main concern: biotechnology and moral debates concerning biotechnology. I learned a lot by reading Challenging Nature; certainly the prospects for biotechnology these days are very fascinating, way beyond the “cures for horrible diseases” or “genetically engineered monsters” images that tend to dominate public debate. Moreover, I like the way Silver tries to bring a relentlessly secular, naturalistic perspective to bear on some moral questions that have been attracting a good deal of attention.

Still, I also find myself ambivalent about some aspects of Silver’s argument. The way he ends up portraying the present moral debate seems to be a bit of a caricature. Anybody with qualms about biotechnology in the full-speed-ahead mode, Silver seems to think, is in the grips of some explicit or unarticulated spiritual superstition. There is the traditional religious view, which suspects biotechnologists of usurping the role of God, but there is also a New-Agey, more Mother Earth-worshiping way of conceiving of life as a sacred domain that must not be violated. Both, apparently, stand in the way of progress. So you get spiritually-inspired opposition not just to cloning and stem cell research but also genetically modified foods. Crazy ideas about ensoulment of embryos and also silly beliefs about organic foods and alternative medicines.

Now, all that is correct. Silver is right to go after all the various superstitions blocking the possibilities for making good use of biotechnology. But what is disturbing to me is that in a book about morality and public policy, there is practically no mention of the political aspect of the debates. People suspect interference with human genetics not just because they believe in souls created by God, but also, in part, because they worry about who has the power to manipulate the genome and whether new technologies can lead to an even more stratified society consisting of genetic elites and more deprived segments. Many environmentalists are suspicious of genetically modified foods not just because they divinize “Nature” but also because they distrust an industrialized agricultural system that does not seem to operate under any institutional constraint beyond maximizing short-term profits.

All of these political, secular reasons to raise questions about the particular directions we might take with biotechnology are completely missing from Challenging Nature. I worry that inadvertently, Silver presents an image of elite scientists (indeed, insufferably elitist scientists) who know best and are held back by what they consider the petty superstitions of the masses. Let them loose to do their thing, regardless of the political and economical context in which their funding materializes and decisions about how to apply their knowledge gets made. And that’s a scary thought, made more so because Silver writes as if he can’t even conceive of such issues being relevant at all. This is a peculiar blindness for someone trying to influence a debate concerning social morality. I worry that for all the good points Silver makes, he will also end up shooting himself in the foot by reinforcing the stereotype of a scientist who is oblivious to much that goes on beyond his research lab.

So as an effort to clear the ground for a deep, sophisticated secular exploration of the moral issues surrounding biotechnology, Challenging Nature is a wonderful book that should be read by anyone interested in such issues. But it only clears the ground—for a sophisticated, socially aware exploration of secular moral options, readers will have to look elsewhere.

bookmark_border“The Devoted Student”

Interesting op-ed in The New York Times: “The Devoted Student” by Mark C. Taylor.

He observes that fundamentalists have become more agressive in his (and other) classrooms. Fair enough, though those of us who are science (rather than humanities) faculty probably could have told him that having to deal with fundamentalists in the form of creationists is not really a new challenge. What is curious, though, is his swiping at “secular dogmatists,” presumably in some hamhanded attempt to be evenhanded.

bookmark_borderThe Politics of Science and Religion

Partly because Richard Dawkins has recently come out with a book strongly attacking religion, it seems there’s a political debate going on among nonbelievers interested in science-and-religion issues. Dawkins expresses disdain for the “Neville Chamberlain school” of defenders of evolution who take a liberal compatibilist view and deny any conflict between science and religion. By and large, however, nonbelieving scientists tend to shy away from being too public with views that suggest science (particularly evolutionary science) and strong Abrahamic theisms don’t sit well together.

I tend to agree with the majority here. Yes, Darwinian evolution is a major component of a comprehensively naturalistic view of the world; and yes, liberal religious affirmations of evolution either try to smuggle in some mistaken view about guided or progressive evolution or end up as an ignorable metaphysical gloss on the science. Nevertheless, the creation/evolution debate is very political in nature, and it seems bloody stupid to alienate liberal religious people in the struggle against fundamentalists. So I figure that even when organizations like the NCSE present liberal theological conventional wisdom as if it were the obvious truth about the nature of science, there’s no point in being overly critical. People involved in the daily running of such organizations, I think, must have a much better feel for the political landscape than I do, and I’ll defer to their collective judgment on what slogans are appropriate. If more nonbelieving scientists were to follow the flag Dawkins raises, that might court political disaster.

Nevertheless, I’m open to suggestions that I’m the one who is being stupid here. There is a hint of dishonesty in my position—in my books I argue that science and religion do not fit well (which is safe, since only a few thousand will read them), but I also support efforts to convince the public that theories like evolution do not present any problem to religion, at least non-fundamentalist religion. And this is based entirely on my judgment that the liberal compatibilists have a good eye for what’s politically sound—not on any real feeling for the public response. I also have some experience that might suggest otherwise: I see plenty of religious students who are not impressed with the way their science educators tend to play down any friction with religious beliefs, adopting standard rhetoric about separate spheres. Some, perhaps, are sensitive to the hint of dishonesty here. And this certainly does not make them more positive toward scientists—we end up looking more and more like an ideologically driven group who are evasive about issues that matter to them.

So I’ll be interested to see if more confrontational, Dawkins-style approaches make headway. For example, I recently ran across a very interesting book by Ardea Skybreak, The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism. It’s a very accessible, non-textbook-like defense of evolution and attack on creationism. Unlike most such literature, however, this book does not shy away from attacking fundamentalist religion and politics. Now, because Skybreak’s nontheism comes across pretty strongly, and it’s not too difficult to figure out that her politics are pretty Marxist, I wasn’t sure about the book as I read through it. I’m more used to giving my students books that sweep any tension with religion under the carpet. Still, at least nothing in this book would make them think the author was holding back on issues important to them. Maybe this sort of approach will work better than the political cynicism I am drawn toward. I don’t know; it might be worth a try anyway.

bookmark_borderFrom Doug Krueger: Reply to Steve Hays

Doug Krueger submitted the following reply to Steve Hays. The selection from Parsons says:

“In conclusion, we have seen that there are a great number of practical difficulties in confirming the occurrence of an apparent miracle. Even if these difficulties are overcome, however, we have seen that there are no grounds for considering any event to be scientifically inexplicable…In sum, we have no good grounds for thinking that any event is a miracle.”

Stating that there are “a great number of practical difficulties” and “no good grounds” for a conclusion, such as that a miracle has taken place, does not rule out that at some time in the future one might acquire good grounds for belief in a miracle event.

The charge that Hume rules out miracles a priori is a common one among fundamentalists, but many Hume scholars read Hume as doing no such thing. Instead, many Hume scholars see him as arguing against testimony about miracles.

In “Science and Miracles” (1998), Ted Drange considers whether the proposition “No scientist could ever believe in miracles under any circumstances” is defensible, and he concludes that it is not. In fact he acknowledges that one could be a methodological naturalist and not also a metaphysical naturalist. That is, one could adopt a naturalistic worldview as part of one’s method of doing science, but this would not entail that one must adhere to naturalism as a metaphysical view.

I don’t see any incompatibility with arguing that there is insufficient evidence for a proposition (such as “A miracle has occurred in relation to event E”) and at the same time hold both:

(i) one might not be able to see in relation to an event E at what point one would decide that a miracle has occurred, and
(ii) a proposition P (such as “God exists and opposes events such as E occurring”), if true, would entail that one would expect miracles to occur at least sometimes.

Regarding (i), I don’t believe that leprechauns exist, but I can’t say that I know precisely what one would have to do in order to show that a given being is, in fact, a leprechaun. Would being of exceedingly short stature, having green clothes, and speaking in an Irish accent be sufficient? Surely not. But while I may be open to the discovery of leprechauns, I don’t know exactly at what point in such an investigation I would finally concede that a given being is a leprechaun. Similarly, we have nothing even approaching sufficient evidence that a miracle has taken place in any given instance, and we can know this lack of evidence pervades miracles claims, and yet at the same time I don’t know at what point I would say that a given event is indeed a miracle, and saying the latter does not entail that I am ruling out a priori the possibility of miracles.

bookmark_borderFrom Keith Parsons: Response to Steve Hays

Steve Hays asks whether atheists contradict themselves, saying, first, that no evidence would convince them of a miracle, and, second, that God is to blame for doubters’ lack of belief because he could have performed spectacular public miracles that would have convinced anybody and everybody. If I declare that nothing will convince me that a miracle has occurred, then surely it is inconsistent and unfair then to chide God for failing to deliver one. So, which is it? Will atheists concede that, in principle, there can be sufficient evidence to bear the rational conviction that miracles have occurred, or will they surrender one of their ostensibly most potent arguments–the argument from nonbelief–because, absent that concession, they cannot consistently and fairly charge God with failure to perform dramatic miraculous demonstrations of his existence?
Several things may be said in reply:
First, it is always enjoyable, when confronted by an accusation, to have a tu quoque ready to hand. William Lane Craig and other apologists quite blatantly employ a “heads I win, tails you lose” strategy in arguing with atheists. Craig challenges atheists to show that the balance of evidence favors atheism, but states quite frankly that, whatever the objective evidence, the Christian’s conviction is secure since it is guaranteed by the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. If it is unfair for the atheist to say to God “Show me that you exist, but(nyah! nyah!) nothing you do will convince me,” then it is equally unfair for Craig et al. to demand that atheists present evidence against theism, but then declare, in effect, “Evidence be damned; our assurance comes from on high.”
Second, the miracle that God could perform would not have to be something wildly histrionic, like flying mountains or elephants giving birth to Republican congressmen. God’s miracle could simply be to remove the delusions of unbelievers. God could say the word and the scales would fall from our eyes. We would suddenly see that our objections to theism are just empty quibbles. The theistic arguments, instead of looking like thin, watery, and nutritionless metaphysical gruel, would suddenly be seen in their true light–as solid as geometry,as irrefragable as arithmetic. The arguments of Christian apologists, instead of looking like self-serving spin, obfuscation, and special pleading would be seen as abundant common sense and sound scholarship.The problem of evil, instead of an enormous impediment to belief, would simply become transparently feeble. “Why, of course,” we would say “the death by starvation of 20,000 children in the world each day is no reason at all to doubt that we are under the tender providential care of an all-powerful and perfectly good being!” The Atheist blogs and discussion groups would be jammed with messages like “How could we have been so blind?” and “Surely, Satan must have deluded us!” No one could say that God would be acting unreasonably in performing such a miracle. On the contrary, he would be removing a major source of delusion and irrationality from the world.
Finally, speaking for myself and addressing Mr. Hays’ quote from my master’s thesis written twenty five years and three graduate degrees ago: I would still say, as I did then, that we know pretty well when some event lacks a scientific explanation, but we have no clear idea at all about what sorts of occurrences would be permanently inexplicable.The history of science is full of instances of events that, at the time, were seen as explicable only as divine punishment or providence, but which later got perfectly mundane explanations. The great mortality, the black death, of the 14th Century was seen, by educated and ignorant alike, as a manifestation of divine anger, the Scourge of God. Now, of course, we have a perfectly good scientific explanation of the plague interms of rats, fleas, and Yersinia pestis. Comets, of course, were once portents of doom, God’s fearsome messengers foretelling of war, famine, pestilence, and death. Now we know that comets are dirty snowballs. It seems, then, quite reasonable that if something were to occur today that appeared too marvelous for science to accommodate, the wise course would be to wait for science to catch up.
But I don’t take quite so hard a line as I did as a fiery young atheist convert in his twenties. If the marvelous pictures of the Eagle Nebula taken by the Hubble Space Telescope had been underscored by light-years high luminous cursive writing in the wisps of nebulosity that read “I did this–Jehovah” –and if we could be quite sure that the scientists were not playing a gag–that would probably do it for me. Or maybe if all the galaxies in the Virgo cluster suddenly were rearranged so that, when viewed from earth, they read “Prepare to meet Thy God!”or “Turn or Burn!” that would do it. Or, maybe, if all the lurid, revolting fantasies of the “Left Behind” books started happening–a”rapture” occurred, or banks started requiring that you have “666” on your forehead to approach the teller–that would convince me.
The upshot is that I still cannot spell out any criteria for what it would take to convince me that something is scientifically inexplicable, but I do say now that certain conceivable events would be so dramatic and so contrary to my expectations and so consistent with some version of theism, that I would throw in the towel. But, of course, Christian apologists have nothing to offer even vaguely approaching such public and stupendous events. The Resurrection? That allegedly occurred 2000years ago in very obscure circumstances. The narratives reporting this event were written by persons unknown many years after the supposed fact. These narratives are not eyewitness accounts, but hand-me-down stories, elaborated and redacted propaganda, riddled within consistencies, and with no external support or corroboration. I could go on; in fact I do in Why I am not a Christian, available on the Secular Web, so I’ll just leave it there. I think the way to see Hume’s argument is that it spells out just how heavy the burden of proof is on theists who want to invoke alleged miracles for apologetic purposes, not that it provides an in-principle, once-and-for-all, knock-down way of ruling out miracles. My reading of Hume’s argument is that he says that it is, in principle, possible to confirm, on the basis of human testimony, that an event has occurred contrary to the predictions of a recognized natural law, but (a) the testimony would have to be of impeccable quality, and (b) you should be so lucky as to ever get testimony of that quality. When we consider the paltry offerings of the actual apologetic literature, we see how right Hume was.

bookmark_borderAnother Gay Evangelical Minister

Just over a month ago New Life mega-evangelical Ted Haggard was outed by his gay lover. Now another evangelical preacher has resigned after being confronted by church elders. Paul Barnes of Grace Chapel in tony Englewood, Colorado recorded a taped confession that was played last Sunday for the 2,100 member congregation. According to the Reuters story and the Denver Post, Barnes was outed when an anonymous tipster told church leaders that he heard someone threaten “to go public with the names of Barnes and other evangelical leaders who engaged in homosexual behavior.” So if this tipster’s source is credible I guess that closet door will be swinging wide open in the weeks or months to come.

While it’s tempting to do so nonbelievers should refrain from gloating over this sad event. Where Haggard was cocksure and politically active against gays and lesbians — for instance publicly supporting Colorado’s Amendment 43 to prevent gay marriage — Barnes is described as being very private and introverted. An associate pastor said that he had never heard him preach about politics from the pulpit. I truly hope he is able to put his life back together and work things out with his family and community.

One of the church elders in the Post story was asked if this opened up the evangelical community to charges of hypocrisy. He had an interesting reply, saying hypocrisy is valid only “if you look at perfection being the mark, because the next person who stands at our pulpit is going to be guilty of not being perfect as well. Does that mean we have to change what we say about the word of God? We can’t do that.”

This is the same argument that gets evangelicals in trouble time and time again. The Church used to believe that the Bible taught that the Earth was at the center of the universe. They fought bitterly against Copernicus’ heliocentric theory even long after it fell into general acceptance by those without a religious agenda. On most matters Christians can never agree on what the so-called word of God says. They often read into the biblical texts whatever they want it to say or think it might say. Then they form a hundred denominations for a hundred interpretations. Several million southern evangelicals found support in Scripture for the institution of slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now strangely no evangelical understands the word of God to support slavery.

Now it’s homosexuality’s turn. Like the heliocentric theory and slavery before it, most folks don’t see being gay as a sinful indulgence, Satanic possession, or a lifestyle choice but simply a condition into which one is born. Barnes himself said he struggled with being gay since he was 5 years old. It just won’t do for evangelicals to ignore this reality, throw up their arms and say, “What can we do? God says it’s wrong so it’s wrong; nothing we can do about it.”

Of course God says no such thing. It’s The authors of the Torah who insist that God told Moses about certain priestly rules and what people ought and ought not to do. And we have absolutely no idea who wrote Leviticus — scholarly consensus at this point suggests the documentary hypothesis of Torah authorship in which four or five different authors over several centuries wrote the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. I can tell you this: the words didn’t come from a burning bush. They came from men. At most we know that some priests several centuries before Christ thought that being gay was an abomination. Wow. Tell me something I didn’t know. As for the Apostle Paul, all we learn in his letters to the Romans and the Corinthians is that Paul thinks being gay is being disobedient to God and such people won’t go to heaven. Again tell me something I didn’t know. This is coming from the guy who goes on to celebrate the virtues of celibacy. It’s no surprise he’s against sex.

It’s time for evangelicals to face reality and consider the possibility that human sexuality is a lot more complicated than the written opinions of certain priests in the ancient world.

bookmark_borderReligion and Demographic Trends

I’ve lately been coming across many demographic arguments suggesting that religion is gaining ground and nonbelief is declining. It seems to be a conservative talking point lately, and I’ve even come across some “heh heh we’re winning because we’re outbreeding the infidels” crowing among intelligent design proponents, such as this post by Denyse O’Leary.

There are some serious arguments to this effect as well. Eric Kaufmann, for example, argues that European secularization is bound to be reversed, because religious populations have more children and a higher rate of growth even after allowing for children who end up going secular later in life. But then, apparently the situation isn’t quite that clear. Gregory Paul responds in Free Inquiry (and if you don’t have a subscription to Free Inquiry you should). According to Paul, in the advanced Western countries, the trend is still that religion is losing ground.

I’m not a social scientist, so I have a hard time figuring out who’s more credible here. It is, however, an interesting debate.

Of course, I’m tempted toward cynicism as well. Since there’s good reason to believe that the planet is not capable of supporting the number of humans (especially rich humans) we have now, it’s particularly disturbing to see people cheering on high population growth rates. Then again, secularists (in the person of mainstream economists) are perfectly capable of being extremely stupid about population growth as well.

bookmark_borderReligion and the Human Prospect

I recently read Alexander Saxton’s Religion and the Human Prospect. Very interesting. I think anyone interested in ambitious, grand-scale thinking about religion will enjoy it.

As a science-type who likes to wade into humanities territory when I think I can get away with it, I especially liked this book. Saxton is an historian who takes natural science seriously and tries to construct his theory of religion in a way that is aware of current thinking on the psychological and evolutionary basis of religiosity. But his focus is, naturally, on history and the social role of religion, and that is where I think I might have learned most from his reflections.

Saxton starts by observing that as a species, we are asking for trouble — whether by destroying our environment or by starting a nuclear war, we seem more than capable of wiping ourselves out. Worse, it does not seem implausible that if we continue in our current ways, that’s exactly what we risk doing. Our scientific and technological communities are aware of such problems, but they lack political power. Nation states and the corporations run much of the show, but they are too invested in just those practices that got us into trouble. They are not likely to initiate change. Religion, however, is another cultural institution that commands plenty of power. In these times of religious revival, when religion continues to have such a grip on the moral imagination of most people, it is worth asking whether religion can be a “saving resource” to get us out of our predicament.

To answer such a question, Saxton needs a grand theory of religion. And he takes an intriguing stab at it. I found some of his emphases very interesting. For example, he thinks the problem of evil and the effort to construct theodicies is very important, not just for Abrahamic montheisms but for all world religions. Normally, I prefer not to make much of the problem of evil as an objection to God. After all, I am most interested in the question of whether there is any personal, supernatural agency running the show. Whether this God or committee of gods or whatever is supposed to be well-disposed toward humans strikes me as secondary. But since Saxton is especially interested in religion as a moral resource, the problem of evil and how religions handle it becomes more important. So while I continue to think that the problem of evil should not get top billing in arguments agains the gods (I think a scientific case for naturalism should take precedence over more traditional philosophical arguments), Saxton convinced me that the problem of evil cannot be neglected when talking about religion from a social and historical point of view.

While arguing about religion, evil, and and morality, Saxton also touches on a lot of other issues that will interest secularists. One that I found important is Saxton’s discussion of the Marxist and leftist critiques of religion, and why these failed. (No cheap Marx-bashing here; Saxton himself hails from the left and has plenty of respect for Marxist thought.) It is an especially interesting question, because as Saxton points out, working class people have consistently been and still are significantly more religious than the rest of the population.

In the end, Saxton is pessimistic. He does not think religion is a useful resource that can get us out of trouble this time around. He suspects, in fact, that religion is much more a problem than part of the solution as we stand. Here too, I find his argument thought-provoking, even if I’m not sold on all the details. I tend to wary of moral arguments against religion — it’s too easy to indulge in superficial faith-bashing. Saxton manages to be more nuanced and ambivalent.

So I definitely recommend Religion and the Human Prospect. It’s one of the best moral arguments concerning religion I have come across in a while; not because I ended up totally convinced, but because it got me thinking. It’s one of those books you wish a couple of people around you were also reading, so you could start a discussion about it.

bookmark_borderFrom Keith Augustine: There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so

I recently watched an excellent interview-style debate between professional philosophers over the objectivity (or lack thereof) of moral propositions such as “Murder is wrong.” The program, “No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed,” discussed the issue in an episode titled “Beyond Morality,” named after a book by one of the guests, Richard Garner out of Ohio State University.

I was vaguely aware of Garner’s book at the time, and so knew who Garner was by reputation. (I’ve subsequently learned that his book has a much more historical flavor than I anticipated, and so is not simply a recasting of the sort of arguments one might find in J. L. Mackie’s Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.) I also knew one of the other guests, Russ Schaffer-Landau, from his discussion of these sorts of metaethical issues in the most recent edition of Joel Feinberg’s introductory philosophy anthology Reason and Responsibility.

The host, Ken Knisely, leaned toward the sort of subjectivist position Garner advocated, while Russ Schaffer-Landau and the other guest, Bryan Van Norden, defended the objectivity of ethics. The show is available from streaming over the Internet here:

As the ensuing discussion shows, the rumors of error theory’s death have been greatly exaggerated. It is interesting how the two “moral objectivists” inadvertently liken belief that any given action is morally right or wrong, in a sense, to Alvin Plantinga’s position that belief in God is properly basic (by comparing belief in moral propositions to an axiomatic belief in an external world outside of one’s own mind, for instance). At the end of the day, as the NDOPA discussion illustrates, those who accept the objectivity of ethics are asking moral skeptics like myself to simply “have faith” that certain things are right or wrong independently of anyone’s opinion. That’s an available response, of course, but not a particularly satisfying one.