bookmark_borderBerlinski strikes again

David Berlinski, the “agnostic mathematician” associated with the Intelligent Design movement, has just published a short piece online called “The Scientific Embrace of Atheism.”

It’s largely a set of distortions. For example,

The great physical scientists — Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Clerk Maxwell, Albert Einstein — were either men of religious commitment or religious sensibility.

Well, yes and no, and of dubious relevance. All in the list except Einstein are from the 19th century or earlier, when the state of scientific knowledge was very different compared to today. And Einstein’s “religious sensibility” was very ambiguous, certainly not close to theism. It’s wearying to constantly encounter Einstein being enlisted as a figure sympathetic to conventional supernaturalistic religion.

Berlinski adds his thoroughly inexpert judgment on physical cosmology:

There is quantum cosmology, I suppose, a discipline in which the mysteries of quantum mechanics are devoted to the question of how the universe arose or whether it arose at all. This is the subject made popular in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. It is an undertaking radiant in its incoherence. Given the account of creation offered in Genesis and the account offered in A Brief History of Time, I know of no sane man who would hesitate between the two.

Arrant nonsense.

And then there is the obligatory snideness against Darwinian evolution, an endorsement of the film Expelled, and hey, even a comparison of contemporary scientists to Soviet Comissars.

This is beyond any sort of respectable critical position that would be part of a legitimate intellectual debate. OK, we might say that this is a short piece summarizing the thesis of Berlinski’s recent book, The Devil’s Delusion. Maybe he does better in the book.

I recently spent forty minutes reading through the first chapter or so and skimming the rest. I was actually tempted to buy it and not look for it used, as I happen to be one of the physicists Berlinski refers to as a recent defender of nonbelief. On the one hand, I don’t like my ego bruised by negative criticism, but on the other hand, I think I have enough of an intellectual ethic to see if I can respond to critics and perhaps revise my views.

But as it turns out, Berlinski says nothing about my views, except for an offhand remark about physicists being willing to believe in anything. Nothing. A few more physicists get sneered at more extensively, such as Victor Stenger, but there too, Berlinski by and large refuses to seriously engage with the arguments made by science-based critics of supernatural claims. So my impression now is that the book has little substance, and that I’ll go back to my policy of looking for it used.

bookmark_borderC.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion

I just read the revised and updated edition of John Beversluis’s C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion. Very interesting.

I confess I hadn’t paid much attention to C.S. Lewis’s apologetics before. Oh, it’s impossible not to know about his books, since they’re so popular among conservative Christians. I’ve every gone through a couple. But his arguments generally struck me as, well, so weak as not to be worth spending time on.

Beversluis’s book surprised me. Not because of his criticism of C.S. Lewis’s apologetics; as I said, I took it for granted that these were very poor arguments. I figured it would be good for a philosopher to take the time to go over them properly, but I saw it as the equivalent of a physicist spending time explaining what goes wrong with “free energy” schemes. Someone’s got to do it, but it really doesn’t interest me. But Beversluis convinced me that there’s actually something to be learned by a detailed examination of Lewis’s thought.

Anyway, it’s well worth reading, especially if you’re in an environment where C.S. Lewis’s kind of arguments are popular.

bookmark_borderMecca Standard Time

According to the BBC, at recent conference in Qatar, “Muslim scientists and clerics have called for the adoption of Mecca time to replace GMT, arguing that the Saudi city is the true centre of the Earth.” Indeed, “A prominent cleric, Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawy, said modern science had at last provided evidence that Mecca was the true centre of the Earth; proof, he said, of the greatness of the Muslim ‘qibla’ – the Arabic word for the direction Muslims turn to when they pray.”

Most of this is yet another echo of science-in-the-Quran nonsense. But it has other attractions, mainly, I would guess, an appeal to cultural authenticity. It’s hard not to notice, particularly if you’re a devout Muslim, how much of the modern world is shaped by the conventions of infidels. Weights, measures, timekeeping—the recent standards for almost everything is Western European in origin. Much of this is bound to come across as alien cultural impositions. In occasions like the Qatar conference, devout Muslims rail against cultural imperialism, talking about the colonization of Muslim minds.

But then, most Muslims are not Arabs. When I run into Muslims in places like Turkey who want to do things in a more Islamically Correct fashion because “this is more genuinely ours,” I have to wonder why so often “ours” really means “derived from the practices of seventh century Arabs.” There’s no cultural imperialism that succeeds so deeply as getting someone to adopt your religion.

bookmark_borderWhat about improbable events?

In some corner of the multiverse, there exists a universe-bubble with physics close enough to our own to be recognizable, but different enough to make colonizing the stars feasible. In some point in this universes history, there was a Galactic Empire that ruled over many zillions of humans with an iron fist, imposing its religion upon all its subjects.

According to the theology of the One True Faith, the gods were just. The gods cared deeply that judicial procedures and punishments be carried out painstakingly. The Empire committed enormous resources to its judicial system, run, naturally, by the priesthood. The worst crimes—treason, heresy, blasphemy (much the same sort of thing, according to the priests)—deserved a particularly nasty capital punishment. The condemned person was to be put in front of a special pulsed laser cannon produced at enormous expense, whose components were made of sacred diamonds, and which produced a pulse sequence coding for all the details of the most sacred hymns in the Holy Book of Retribution. And the condemned was to be shot in the middle of the forehead, dying with Truth branded on her brain.

The gods of the One True Faith were also merciful. While demanding the highest standards of their trials and sacred execution devices, they also knew that humans were not perfect. So the Law allowed that if the beam from a laser cannon was to miss the condemned, this would mean that the gods had caught and corrected a mistake. The priesthood was commanded to make their instruments as reliable as possible, but also enjoined to allow for divine intervention.

The diamantine laser had to be prepared with the best available technology, according to precise ritual specifications. The best scientists in the Empire came together to calculate the probability of the laser not hitting the center of the condemned heretic’s forehead. They found that there was only a one in a zillion chance of the beam not hitting the precise correct spot, but still causing death. This would be a sign that the heretic was guilty, but of some sin other than that determined by the Imperial Courts. And there was also a one in a zillion chance that the beam would miss the condemned, leaving her alive. Then she was to be set free.

These probabilities of an off-center beam could not be determined by experiment, by shooting the laser a few hundred zillion times and observing the outcomes, as this would be way too expensive, even for the Empire. In fact, there were even priests who thought it might be sacrilege to shoot a pulse coding for the Book of Retribution at a non-live target. But many of the components could be empirically tested, and the Imperial College of Science had excellent methods to calculate failure probabilities for a complex assembly of components. Indeed, the very success of the Star Drives that led to the conquests forming the Empire depended on the very same methods, and the Star Drives were extremely reliable.

The theologians of the Empire argued for letting the condemned in a failed execution go by the same impeccable reasoning to Intelligent Design that they used to establish the existence and guidance of the gods. After all, an event that was very improbable according to physics would have taken place. And this was not just any improbability: it fell in a very meaningful, pre-specified set of possibilities. Someone, very improbably, ended up alive. Clearly this could not happen just by accident. It had to be a complex specified event that was therefore intelligently designed.

Another ritual requirement for these most sacred of executions was that the person triggering the laser had to be an innocent, knowing nothing about the preceding trial, or indeed about the justice system in general. So one day, to dispatch a famous heretic, the Imperial Authorities selected a physicist from a provincial planet, knowing that physicists are famously oblivious to judicial matters.

The oblivious physicist was summoned to the capital planet for the occasion, and given charge of the execution device, which he immediately recognized as an unnecessarily elaborate pulsed laser. He triggered it, and soon experienced great outcries of surprise and prayer. The beam had grazed the accused arch-heretic, badly mutilating her in the cheek but still allowing her to live. She was therefore let go, and allowed to live out her life in a monastic planet under a vow of silence.

Soon after the missed shot, however, the physicist started asking what really happened. He went through painstaking checks of the diamantine laser, recording everything, sending information out to experts and also doing his own calculations. He eventually confirmed that absolutely nothing looked tampered with, and that the one in a zillion probability calculations were perfectly correct. All the evidence showed that the laser was operating normally.

Now, the physicist wondered again, what happened? There could have been a mistake, or perhaps even some worldly conspiracy that tampered with the laser in order to save the heretic and then covered its tracks. But that seemed much more implausible than a one-in-a-zillion chance allowed by the physics. So, if dumb luck or some sort of intelligent cause that transcends physics were the only two real options in play, which one was the better bet?

And here, to make it more interesting, are some other questions.

First, assume that the physicist was so oblivious about events that he had no idea how many times the laser had been used in previous executions. For all he knows, it could have been the first and only time. How should he reason in such circumstances?

Second, say this was the one-hundredth execution, and the physicist knows this. The other ninety nine resulted in the heretic being fried straight in the forehead. Does knowing this change anything?

Third, assume that half the galaxy had recently been convulsed by religious wars, and that Imperial Troops resorted to mass killing, ritually exterminating zillions of captured heretics using identical diamantine lasers. The expected rate of a handful of survived executions occurred during these exterminations. The physicist knows this. How would his reasoning change?

bookmark_borderGlobal Rebellion

Secular nationalism might not take a stand on supernatural beliefs, but it restricts the public role of religion. Citizens are expected to have an allegiance to a modern state and its political process, while their specifically religious commitments get relegated to private life. Legitimate coercion, including violence, and the task of imposing public order are monopolized by a secular state. Religions that emphasize cosmic order reflected on Earth, and that legitimize coercion in the context of a divine social order, get marginalized.

To many of us, this is right and proper. We don’t have to be nonbelievers; more individualist religious believers can also take a secular political framework for granted. But life can get complicated, especially when our very notion of what binds us as citizens is closely connected to religion.

For example, to many Americans, the United States is a Christian country. This does not mean that government institutions should be linked to particular churches, or that non-Christian minorities should be second class citizens. It does mean, however, that many Americans expect that public life should have a generically Christian moral coloring. Being a good American means accepting the framework of a Protestant civilization—Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims can be welcome, provided they organize themselves similarly to a Protestant denomination and do not challenge the generic civil religion of the country. Secularists, when they push principles like church-state separation too far, threaten the public moral order.

Such informal cultural ties between citizenship and religious identity are common in other countries as well. Being Polish means, to a large degree, being a Catholic by culture and perhaps practice. Being Turkish means being a Muslim—most Turks will not call a member of a religious minority Turkish, even if Turkish is their mother tongue and they have always been a Turkish citizen.

And in many countries, secular nationalism that tries to privatize religion, and religious nationalism that demands explicit acknowledgment of a religious moral order, comes into conflict. In Sri Lanka, Sinhalese Buddhists demand that all citizens, of every religion, be aware of a unifying overall Buddhist culture that defines Sri Lanka. Tamils resist, often violently. In India, movements and political parties upholding hindutva clash with secularists, and with Muslims. In Egypt, the government is never Muslim enough for the Islamists, even though Egyptian culture and politics have been re-Islamized with a vengeance in the last decades. The status of Copts is always a problem. And so on, practically all over the world.

Mark Juergensmeyer’s Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, from Christian Militias to al Qaeda, is a very interesting guide to what he describes as a global rebellion against secular nationalism. A more explicitly religious nationalism is attractive in non-Western countries who want to throw off the cultural aspects of colonialism and establish a more authentic modernity. But it also finds significant constituencies in secular Western countries.

There is a lot in the book that will interest secularists in particular. For example, Juergensmeyer makes the observation that secularism is the prime enemy for religious nationalists, even more so than religious minorities with whom they may also clash. Finding some accommodation with another religious community is not impossible. But,

Could the accommodation approach work with secular minorities? Even in traditional religious cultures there are people who were raised in religious households but who, through travel, education, or association with modern urban culture, have lost interest in religion. Should there not be a safe cultural haven for such people in a religious society, just as the cultures of Copts and other minorities are maintained as islands in seas of religiosity? From most religious nationalists to whom I posed the question, the answer was a resounding no. They could accept the idea that other religious traditions provide valid alternatives to their own religious law but not secular culture: it has, in their eyes, no links with a higher truth. From their point of view, it is simply antireligion. Some religious nationalists found it difficult to accept secularism even in Europe and the United States, where, they felt, Christianity failed to keep its backsliders in line. Still, it seems to me that the logic of the two-level-shari’a admists at least the possibility of islands of different cultures within a religious state. [Page 237.]

I can add my own observations in support of this. Among Turkish Islamists, the idea of treating secularists as a separate “religious” community with its own laws and communal rights has been discussed. It doesn’t seem to me to have got far. Secularism is too alien, too much the enemy.

If the political trend today is toward religious rather than secular nationalism, secularists and nonbelievers have to give serious thought to how we might survive in such public environments. This does not mean that the trend is toward some premodern fantasy of being governed by pure religious laws. Religious political movements are often pragmatic and not as violent as their stereotype. Their main demand is that religion take a leading role in public legitimization, and that religion inform the overall moral climate of a society. They are not trying to abolish modern political forms. But nonetheless, the success of religious politics is inevitably a loss for those of us who identify with more secular political aspirations.

bookmark_borderExpelled Exposed

The National Center for Science Education, the premier creationist-watching organization, has put up a new web site, Expelled Exposed. It criticizes Expelled, the creationist movie about to appear in theaters very soon.

It’s worth a look, as Expelled seems to be getting good press in some conservative Christian circles. It’s bound to help the “Christians are persecuted by secular academia” meme propagate further.

bookmark_borderDavis controversy

There’s a minor uproar going on among secularists about Illinois state representative Monique Davis scolding an atheist activist, saying

What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous . . . it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists!

Certainly an obnoxious outburst. But I also have a sneaky suspicion Davis stands out for being honest as well as perhaps bigoted.

I would guess that Davis really, seriously believes in the whole package: God and the Devil, heaven and hell. Nonbelief is a terrible sin that consigns you to hell. Faith is the basis of morality. Etc., etc. And so, yes, atheism might seem like an extremely dangerous view, if you really took all that completely seriously. If children get to know about such a philosophy, they may be tempted and a few may even fall. That means an eternity in hell—what could possibly be more disastrous than that?

The more common practice of not questioning anyone’s religious stance in public certainly is better in order to keep the peace. But that’s going to be a lot easier for people who primarily believe in a vague supernatural something rather than a fire-breathing religion. Even easier for people who believe in believing in God, rather than those who go around thumping bibles.

More fundamentalist believers might see all this indignation over Davis’s remarks as another attempt by “the culture” to marginalize them. They wouldn’t be entirely mistaken.

bookmark_borderWhat do you mean by “meaning”?

Last year, a student told me that he could never accept evolution because that would destroy his faith, and without his faith, life would have no meaning.

I think I remarked that that was interesting, and left it at that. I teach science, but I figure sorting out meaning-of-life issues is beyond my capabilities and not my job anyway. I guess I could have suggested that there are more liberal religious people who accept some version of evolution and seem to do fine in the religious meaning to life area as well. But this student clearly had a more specific religious commitment in mind; some vague promise of higher meaning was not going to be enough.

He may have had a point as well. Since I didn’t want to pry, I don’t know any specifics, but it’s not hard to imagine that his understanding of life was tightly wrapped around a more fundamentalist faith. His social environment, moral allegiances, and concept of what his life is all about may militate against taking evolution on board as if it were just another fact. There would be too much at stake. And I’d hesitate to say that getting the science right is so important that it justifies disrupting so much else that he considers valuable.

I don’t know if standard secular musings on the meaning of life help all that much in such situations. And this goes with strongly religious commitments in general, not just fundamentalism. Many religious believers are very invested in the notion of a higher purpose to life beyond worldly satisfactions. That’s a pretty important feature of religiosity, we might even say. And so, if we produce a standard secular response, saying that maybe there is no transcendent purpose of life, but we certainly have purposes within nature that can inspire us, that may come across as just not good enough. Ordinary goals fall flat.

I’m not even sure this is something to argue about, even. I’m fine with worldly purposes, and honestly, I am so hopelessly secular that I have trouble figuring out what this whole higher meaning thing is all about. But not just my perceptions of the world but my interests, my temperament, my way of life—all of this is very different compared to strongly religious people. We want different things out of life, and I suspect it’s demanding too much from any argument to expect an argument to change that.

bookmark_borderMissouri and “academic freedom”

I teach at a rather nice Missouri university, and Missouri, like many (most?) states in the US, gets quite a bit of conservative Christian pressure on state-supported science education.

The feeling of being persecuted has deep roots in creationist movements. It’s partially true, for that matter. Within the scientific community, the small minority of creationist scientists are usually treated like deviants, and often met with offhand contempt. The notion that people are hounded out their careers strikes me as being more fantasy than reality, but it is true that scientific circles are rarely comfortable environments for creationists. And where our science classrooms are concerned, we are no more going to treat creationism as a serious option than a flat Earth.

The anti-evolutionary right wing therefore regularly tries to solve their problem by legislating “academic freedom” in such a way as to protect creationism. And just now, the Missouri legislature is gearing up for another fight on these matters. Introduced April 1, House Bill 2554 is all about “teacher academic freedom to teach scientific evidence regarding evolution.” In other words, creationism. It uses what has become standard creationist language such as “teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of theories of biological and chemical evolution.” Since it would not affect universities, it would not directly interfere with my classroom, but it’s nasty stuff nonetheless.

Ah, but then, since December 3, we have a House Bill 1315 to be considered. This is about “intellectual diversity” in higher education. It does not mention evolution, but the political constituencies pushing it intend “intellectual diversity” to mean that we should not have our science classes to be so one-sided as to discuss only evolution in biology and only present physical cosmology in physics.

I do have to admire the intellectual judo act going on, though. These right wing bills are full of impeccably liberal language about diversity, anti-discrimination, and fairness. Why not? If preventing anybody taking offense becomes so politically central, it’s not that surprising that protecting conservative religious sensibilities also becomes a concern.

Added: 1 minute video of Mike Huckabee on creationism and academic freedom.

bookmark_borderBerlinski’s new book

David Berlinski, the intelligent design proponent, is out with a new book, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions.


Another hatchet job on Richard Dawkins & Co., by the looks of it. And the blurb for it online is not promising. Here are a couple of its bullet points:

  • Has quantum cosmology explained the emergence of the universe or why it is here? Not even close.
  • Have the sciences explained why our universe seems to be fine-tuned to allow for the existence of life? Not even close.
  • Are physicists and biologists willing to believe in anything so long as it is not religious thought? Close enough.

From this, and his past ID writings, my guess is that Berlinski does his usual act: sneer at some current scientific ideas from evolutionary biology and physical cosmology, and misrepresent the actual reasons scientists are attracted to these ideas.

Sigh. I figure I’ll read it at some point, like most ID stuff. I’ll keep my eyes open in used book stores.