bookmark_borderInfidel publishing in Turkey

The publisher of the Turkish translation of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion might run into trouble, due to an obnoxious Turkish law against insulting religious sentiments.

Since I have a Turkish background, and I have written books critical of supernaturalism in general and Islam in particular, I often get questions about whether my stuff will get translated and published in Turkey. I’ve generally figured no. Mainly because I’ve made some inquiries, and it seems to hard to get a publisher to take anything on. I expect this is because the books won’t sell enough—which is probably true. (It’s not like they sell hugely in English.)

I hadn’t thought that an extra consideration might be that publishers might not want to court trouble with an overzealous prosecutor. Anyway, this news item is one more thing that makes me glad I live and work in the US. It isn’t paradise, but it certainly creates far fewer hassles for critics of religion.

bookmark_borderQuantum magic

One unfortunate consequence of being a physicist is that occasionally someone inclined toward New Age spirituality will tell me “how nice, I’m very interested in quantum physics, as a matter of fact.” Even worse possibilities lie in wait if I happen to mention that I teach quantum mechanics, because invariably, the reason for this deep interest turns out to be that this person has read something newagey and laced with quantum mysticism. Quantum physics, they think, validates magic, gives the universe some mystical connectedness, or allows for psychic powers or something.

So then I have to try to hint that no such thing is true, without at the same time offending their spiritual convictions. After all, New Agers tend to go by deep intuitive convictions, and if I sound like I’m being overly left-brained or something, many will stop listening immediately. I can’t steer anyone away from mystical and paranormal beliefs, but I still have the vain hope that I can discourage them from abusing physics when making their case.

I had a particularly bad encounter of this sort last week. I tried an indirect approach, telling them a few things about physics, explaining why quantum mechanics demands a high level of math, and touching on some counterintuitive facets of the quantum world such as the fundamental randomness involved. I was trying, naively, to shake the notion that whatever psychological metaphor they found appealing in some New Age quantum mysticism, that this had anything to do with actual physics. I have a feeling I failed miserably. At some point in the conversation, I had to remark that reality perhaps didn’t give a damn about how we felt about things, and that an anthropomorphic imagination was more of a hindrance in understanding how physics works. The response I received was something like “oh, wow!” As if it was such a strange and novel notion that the universe didn’t care about our feelings. I hope the grinding of my teeth wasn’t too audible.

Honestly, I don’t know what to do with the New Age subculture. It’s sort of like theistic fundamentalism in the depth of its anti-intellectualism and sheer craziness of its beliefs from a modern scientific standpoint. But New Agers make me tear out my hair in quite different ways. The New Age is so transparently a byproduct of a culture full of spoiled brats that I have even more difficulty mustering up sympathy for its adherents.

bookmark_borderWhence Physical Laws?

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, physicist and Templeton Laureate Paul Davies revisits an age-old question:

“The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?”

Essentially Davies is asking his physicist colleagues not to explain how the laws work but to provide an answer for why they exist. Or not that they are but why they are. Those who hold that this question is outside the realm of science, he asserts, are saying that the laws of the universe “exist reasonlessly,” which is a “deeply anti-rational” view to hold. Therefore he concludes that science is founded on faith. Like religion, science is founded “on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws.”

I’m not sure how he concludes that to pass on the question is to suggest that physical laws exist without reason or that one’s position is therefore not rational. Why can’t we take physicists at their word when they say that the question is outside the domain of science? As for the assertion that scientists have groundless faith in the same way that a Christian has faith that God created the universe, well that seems like an abuse of language to me. Every time I sit down in a chair I believe groundlessly that it will hold my weight. I have faith that this time, like all other times, the chair will not collapse beneath me. But who would wish to conflate this sort of pedestrian faith in a sturdy chair with religious faith in God? It destroys the common-sense meaning of the former and trivializes the latter.

“Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” Martin Heidegger asked in his Introduction to Metaphysics. Heidegger considered this question to be “originary,” a philosophical brain teaser that pushed beyond the limits of being itself. Heidegger (and Wittgenstein after him) argued that the scope of the question was so broad that it pushed beyond the bounds of what can be thought. We cannot answer the question he concluded because we can never exceed it. Any being or cause to which we might look as a possible solution will always invite us to go one step further. For example, to decide that God is the original ground of the laws of physics — indeed of the universe itself — is to put God into the set of causes and effects.

That’s why Schopenhauer compared God to a “hired cab” that we dismiss once we reach our desired destination. And of course we atheists are fond of throwing a monkey wrench into the works by asking “what caused God?” I guess we’re not ready to get out of the taxi just yet. Or more accurately we strongly suspect that it is beyond human ability to regress back infinitely looking for an answer to the mother of all questions. It is a funny question and there’s something disturbing there when you’ve had a few glasses of wine and think long and hard about it. But at the end of the day it is certainly not the domain of science to dabble in metaphysics. Davies should realize this fundamental truth rather than tilt at windmills.

bookmark_borderGOD AND THE “LAWS OF LOGIC”

Taner’s post on the argument that the “laws of logic” require a transcendent ground (i.e., God) understandably dismissed that argument. It is silly. However, it is the kind of silliness that has just enough of a plausible ring to it to give it rhetorical impetus. So, to prevent it from doing mischief, it is good to point out its fallacies. Here is the quote Taner gave from creationist Jason Lisle:

Laws of logic are God’s standard for thinking. Since God is an unchanging, sovereign, immaterial Being, the laws of logic are abstract, universal, invariant entities. In other words, they are not made of matter—they apply everywhere and at all times. Laws of logic are contingent upon God’s unchanging nature. And they are necessary for logical reasoning. Thus, rational reasoning would be impossible without the biblical God. The materialistic atheist can’t have laws of logic. He believes that everything that exists is material—part of the physical world. But laws of logic are not physical. You can’t stub your toe on a law of logic.

There are so many things wrong with this one short passage that it is hard to know where to begin. Let’s skip the host of philosophical questions we could put to Dr. Lisle about what he considers THE laws of logic to be, and glide over the numerous arcane debates over deviant logics, etc. Let’s consider modus ponens. Can a materialistic atheist consistently invoke modus ponens? Now, as Dr. Lisle implies, modus ponens is not a physical thing. But it is not a non-physical thing either. It is not an entity of any sort. It is a rule that can be expressed in the form of a hypothetical imperative: “If you have ‘if p, then q,’ and you have ‘p,’ then conclude q.” There is nothing at all mysterious, transcendent, or otherworldly about such a rule. It is just an instruction, an effective procedure for getting a valid inference from the given premises. A materialistic atheist in no way violates his ontological commitments by following modus ponens or affirming it as a valid rule of inference. Such an atheist would be guilty of inconsistency only if he followed Dr. Lisle in illicitly reifying the rules of inference, turning them into transcendent entities. But he doesn’t.
Well, what about the law of noncontradiction? That is a law of logic if anything is. Is it somehow inconsistent or otherwise inappropriate for a materialistic atheist to invoke the law of noncontradiction? The law of noncontradiction states that for any proposition p, ~(p & ~p), that is, it is not the case that both p and not-p. Do we need a transcendent ground or supernatural basis to justify or validate this rule? No, all we need is to recognize the futility of rejecting it. If someone wishes to reject that law, then he is giving us permission to insert “it is not the case that” in front of any sentence he utters. Philosopher Robert Fogelin tells an amusing story about an occasion when he found himself debating the law of noncontradiction with a number of postmodernists and post-structuralists. These “advanced thinkers” reviled the law of noncontradiction as an excrescence of “logophallocentric” Western rationalism. Fogelin asked if any of them were applying for funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Several indicated that they were. Fogelin then asked them whether it would make any difference to them if the answer to their request was no rather than yes. Unsurprisingly, this query provoked an eruption of rage. Fogelin had neatly shown that anyone who rejects the law of noncontradiction cannot assert anything at all, not even whether they would rather have a grant than not. Such a “negative” demonstration of the law of noncontradiction is all that we need. God is superfluous. The law of noncontradiction is not an abstract, ideal entity. It is simply a rule we have to follow if we are to communicate anything at all.
Lisle says some other very strange things, like “Laws of logic are contingent upon God’s unchanging nature.” This implies that if, per impossible, God’s nature were to change, the laws of logic would change too. But how could the laws of logic be contingent upon anything, even God’s nature? Is Lisle saying that there are possible worlds, maybe ones created by changeable, illogical gods, where modus ponens would not be valid? How could this be? Even odder is his claim that rational reasoning would be impossible without the biblical God. Couldn’t Allah be the eternal ground of logic? Why not Platonic ideas? Why not the Flying Spaghetti Monster?
Again, I sympathize with Taner’s back-of-the-hand treatment of this argument. It is hard to take seriously such a fatuous farrago of non-sequiturs. Maybe Taner’s instincts are better here, because a number of writers have found out, by bitter experience, that rational responses to “arguments” like Lisle’s often evoke extended and truculent replies by “presuppers.” Responding back will get you into an endless loop of argument, since presuppers, like creationists, are masters of argumentum ad exhaustum, argument by saying the same thing over and over again until your opponent quits from exhaustion. Still, though, I think that as long as silly arguments get an audience, someone needs to point out the silliness.

bookmark_borderEstablishing liberal religion?

Some intelligent design proponents have begun to object to the way the relationship between biological evolution and religion is presented, when public funds and institutions afre involved. Their argument is that when defenders of evolution argue that evolution presents no challenge to religion, they favor liberal over conservative religon. This is not religiously neutral.

Intelligent design proponents at the Discovery Institute are now objecting to how PBS is handling things:

The PBS teaching guide is a companion piece to the NOVA docudrama about the 2005 Dover intelligent design trial and claims to provide for teachers “easily digestible information to guide and support you in facing challenges to evolution.” The guide instructs teachers to introduce religion into science classes with discussion questions like

“Can you accept evolution and still believe in religion? A: Yes. The common view that evolution is inherently antireligious is simply false.”

“This statement oversimplifies the issue and encourages teachers to prefer certain religious viewpoints in the classroom, betraying Supreme Court law concerning religious neutrality,” says attorney Casey Luskin, program officer for public policy and legal affairs at Discovery Institute.

“The Supreme Court ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas that the government must maintain ‘neutrality between religion and religion’,” says Randal Wenger, a Pennsylvania attorney who filed amicus briefs in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case. “Because the Briefing Packet only promotes religious viewpoints that are friendly towards evolution, this is not neutral, and PBS is encouraging teachers to violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.”

Probably overblown, as usual. Yet I have to wonder if the ID proponents don’t also have a point. After all, public pro-evolutionary statements do tend to at least implicitly favor liberal religion. Saying that many people manage to reconcile evolution and their religious beliefs in some fashion should be no problem—that’s presumably a fact we can all agree upon. But when we say that evolution does not challenge religion, we go further: we really mean that evolution is no problem for the “good” religions. And I can see that in some contexts that lack of religious neutrality might be problematic.

It gets even more complicated if, like me, you’re not necessarily impressed with the most popular ways that people reconcile evolution and religion. Almost invariably, evolution-friendly religious views incorporate some notion of progressivity and explicit divine guidance that makes evolution a purposive process. That still invites conflict with current scientific views. There are some exceptions, where divine involvement becomes an imperceptible metaphysical gloss with no biological implications, but outside of academic theology, such views are religiously irrelevant. Furthermore, it’s politically insane to demand that religious people accept a very attenuated view of divine action that is totally decoupled from biology.

Popular acceptance of evolution in the US depends on moderate and liberal religions that superficially accept evolution. We must take sides favoring liberal religion, but if we do so too blatantly, perhaps we do run into problems with neutrality with respect to religion.

bookmark_borderL’AFFAIRE FLEW

Was Tony Flew’s “conversion” book ghost written by a religious apologist? It wouldn’t surprise me at all. Pious frauds and forgeries have a long history, dating back at least to the Donation of Constantine. But, really, what does it matter if Flew did convert to some form of deistic belief? Many atheists, including yours truly, were once devout Christians. Of course, being less famous than Flew, we have less propaganda value, but the fact remains that conversions go both ways. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there are more net conversions from atheism to theism or deism than going the other way. What would that prove? Nothing at all. The spectacle of Habermas, Varghese, and their ilk parading Flew as their prize captive is both meretricious and pathetic. Maybe the fact that they are so desperate to score a PR coup over atheism shows what a bad light has recently been cast on their brand of religion (see my earlier post reviewing Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming). Besides, Flew most definitely did not become a Bible-believin’, hosanna-singin’, born-again fundamentalist. Flew, in their book, is still a hell-bound sinner. If one of their own, J.P. Moreland, say, were to convert to a deistic position such as Flew’s, then Habermas, Varghese, et al. would join their voices in a chorus of condemnation to hiss him as an apostate.

bookmark_borderPollitt on “Islamofascism”

As far as I’m concerned, Katha Pollitt is the best columnist in the United States. This would be true even if she weren’t an outspoken critic of religion.

In the most recent Nation, Pollitt writes on “David Horowitz, Feminist?”. It’s on how US right-wingers exploit the position of Muslim women, in the context of the generally fake notion of “Islamofascism.”

I especially like her comments on Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

…Take, for example, the only Muslim woman who is, so far as I know, associated with Islamofascism Awareness Week–Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the world-famous Somali-born Dutch Muslim feminist, former parliamentarian, author of The Caged Virgin and Infidel and now American Enterprise Institute fellow. Hirsi Ali gets bad press on the left–The Nation has published two long, negative pieces about her: an indignant review of The Caged Virgin by the very good fiction writer Laila Lalami, who accused her of promoting patronizing views of Muslim women as passive and helpless, and a snide piece by Deborah Scroggins portraying her as a grandstanding diva who only made life more difficult for Muslim women in the Netherlands. This is a woman who has been the target of multiple death threats from Muslim fanatics like the one who murdered her colleague, filmmaker Theo van Gogh; who is frankly secular, in fact an atheist; who was herself genitally mutilated at the age of 5, and as a legislator did, in fact, seek to cut through the “benign neglect” of Dutch Muslim women’s rights that prevailed in multicultural Holland. I’m as dismayed as anyone by Hirsi Ali’s rightward trajectory, but I admire her all the same. Maybe we leftists and feminists need to think a bit more self-critically about how the AEI–to say nothing of the clownish Horowitz–managed to win over this bold and complex crusader for women’s rights.