bookmark_borderOpera on science and religion

The Metropolitan Opera has reportedly commissioned a new opera from Osvaldo Golijov, a composer whose work I usually like. Apparently it’s going to be about the “relationship between science and religion.”

That could be interesting. On the other hand, I suspect it’s most likely to to resolve into some pap about ultimate harmony. It won’t be the first time I’ll have to listen to music I like while ignoring the words. (It helps if the words are in Latin or some other language I don’t speak.)

bookmark_borderWhat are they thinking?

I was looking over reports of a “Quran and Scientific Truths” conference held in Istanbul, Turkey. (I can find only this in English; there’s a lot more in Turkish.)

There’s nothing all that new in it—mostly the usual science-in-the-Quran nonsense. But, as always, the conference included a host of Turkish academics in engineering and science fields giving talks about the scientific miracles in the Quran.

What I don’t get is this. All these chemists and engineers and so forth lining up to affirm science being revealed in the Holy Book, they’re not idiots. Even if they teach in provincial universities in a second rate country, they have enough brains to have accomplished something in science or applied science. Doesn’t it occur to them that their miracle stories would be utter embarrassments in any audience that were predominantly non-Muslims? They know damn well that if they’re talking about real chemistry, say, if what they claim has any substance, it will succeed in an audience composed of chemists from all over the world. But surely they must be aware that their miracle claims will not work the same way.

So, are they in fact not aware of this? Do they bury it deep and ignore it when in a serving-the-faith mode of operating? How do these people, with some real scientific or engineering backgrounds, manage to be so artless and naive in claiming that their science-in-the-Quran bullshit is for real? There’s some fascinating psychology here, and I really don’t understand it.

bookmark_borderRational policy?

The political versions of religious nonbelief usually include affirmations of rationality in public policy. The recent Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life has “We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma.”

All this assumes that there is a single agreed upon form of rationality. Maybe it also assumes that people who share in this form of rationality will, if well enough informed, converge upon a single policy. And it certainly seems to assume that we would be collectively better off if everyone were to behave rationally.

All of these assumptions seem dubious to me.

Rationality is notoriously difficult to pin down. Is it the rational utility-maximization of agents in economic theories? A deeper rationality that is capable of determining aims as well as letting us choose means? There are many proposed forms of rationality, and their demands can conflict with one another. If we work with less ambitious (and thus more reasonable) concepts of rationality, which allow a plurality of sometimes incommensurable sets of aims or ways of life, then we also cannot demand that all rational people must converge on some kind of agreement. In such situations, why should policy not be informed by any common forms of faith that may happen to exist, including religious traditions?

Moreover, rationality may not, collectively speaking, be all that good an idea. Rationality in individual choices can cause a society to collectively jump off a cliff. Some of this “irrational rationality” was easily observable in the recent global financial crisis. The incentives in many financial markets were such that financial actors had to follow the herd, even when it was clear that in a slightly longer term, disaster was extremely likely. So long term public policy, it would seem, should include mechanisms that work against individual rationality. Religion, with its often communitarian focus, and anti-rational thrust, might be just the sort of public policy instrument we need.

In any case, nonbelievers need some sort of argument that our form of rationality is a good idea, instead of treating it as some kind of self-evident fact.

bookmark_borderGray’s Anatomy

I’ve just finished a collection of John Gray’s essays, Gray’s Anatomy. Gray is perhaps my favorite conservative thinker—conservative in the European tradition, which has some intellectual depth, rather than the mindless combination of Jesus and market-worship that is American movement conservatism. I’m not conservative myself, since my temperament inclines me not toward “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” but rather toward “change it around a bit, let’s see what happens.” Still, I think a serious secular liberalism or humanism has to come to grips with a perspective like that of John Gray’s. He is, I think, quite right in seeing much of Western secular humanism as a bastard child of monotheism, from its myth of progress to its inability to come to grips with the tragedy and the sheer animal nature of human life.

The book is particularly interesting to me because it includes earlier as well as recent Gray material. From what I can tell, before about 1995, Gray was a perhaps daring, but still largely conventional English Tory. His more straightforward conservative writing from this period seems a bit dogmatic, boring, perhaps even easy to dismiss. He gets more interesting after he makes a more decisive break with neoconservative and neoliberal notions, even though his break is clearly rooted in his earlier more old-fashioned form of conservativism.

His earlier material exhibits a certain condescending praise for religion, or at least religiosity, as a repository of tradition. Even early into the 1990s, he could write mushy things such as

And here we have the root of the conservative objection to the notion of progress: that it serves as a surrogate for spiritual meaning for those whose lives would otherwise be manifestly devoid of sense. The idea of progress is detrimental to the life of the spirit, because it encourages us to view our lives, not under the aspect of eternity, but as moment in a universal process of betterment.

He praises religion as a way of coping with the tragic aspects of life, which has a good point, but also too easily slides into a quietist apologia for a status quo.

Later on, however, he comes out full-bore against any sense of a “meaning of life,” either as offered by conventional religion or by humanist surrogates.

Searching for a meaning in life may be useful therapy, but it has nothing to do with the life of the spirit. Spiritual life is not a search for meaning but a release from it. . . . Contemplation is not the willed stillness of the mystics but a willing surrender to never-returning moments.

In some ways, Gray’s “spirituality” hints at being even more distant to conventional religion than much popular atheism. The point is not to offer a substitute hope when the gods melt away, it’s to live without that sort of transcendent hope.

bookmark_borderMethodological naturalism

Let me put in a plug for Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke, and Johan Braeckman’s paper in Foundations of Science, “How not to attack Intelligent Design Creationism: Philosophical misconceptions about Methodological Naturalism.” Here’s the abstract:

In recent controversies about Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC), the principle of methodological naturalism (MN) has played an important role. In this paper, an often neglected distinction is made between two different conceptions of MN, each with its respective rationale and with a different view on the proper role of MN in science. According to one popular conception, MN is a self-imposed or intrinsic limitation of science, which means that science is simply not equipped to deal with claims of the supernatural (Intrinsic MN or IMN). Alternatively, we will defend MN as a provisory and empirically grounded attitude of scientists, which is justified in virtue of the consistent success of naturalistic explanations and the lack of success of supernatural explanations in the history of science. (Provisory MN or PMN). Science does have a bearing on supernatural hypotheses, and its verdict is uniformly negative. We will discuss five arguments that have been proposed in support of IMN: the argument from the definition of science, the argument from lawful regularity, the science stopper argument, the argument from procedural necessity, and the testability argument. We conclude that IMN, because of its philosophical flaws, proves to be an ill-advised strategy to counter the claims of IDC. Evolutionary scientists are on firmer ground if they discard supernatural explanations on purely evidential grounds, instead of ruling them out by philosophical fiat.

A number of us involved in criticizing intelligent design, including myself, have been disagreeing with the common objection to ID that alleges that a supernatural claim is out of bounds for science. Boudry et al. deepen and develop this disagreement further, and do a great job showing exactly what is going wrong here.

Full paper: on Springer (needs subscription), or final draft (free).

bookmark_borderThe Sentence “God exists” Part 2

This is the Logical Positivist skeptical argument, as understood by Richard Swinburne:

(1) If the sentence “God exists” expresses a coherent statement, then the sentence “God exists” expresses either an analytic proposition or else it expresses a synthetic proposition.
(2) The sentence “God exists” does not express an analytic proposition.
(3) The sentence “God exists” does not express a synthetic proposition.
(4) It is not the case that “God exists” expresses a coherent statement.

The key question about this argument is this: Is premise (3) true or well supported?

First, we need to understand what is meant by a “synthetic proposition”. For Swinburne, a “proposition” is a coherent statement, and a “synthetic proposition” is a coherent statement whose negation is also a coherent statement. Some examples will help to clarify this concept.

(5) All triangles have three sides.

(6) Water boils at 212 degrees fahrenheit.
(7) The moon is made of cheese.

All three sentences above express coherent statements. A coherent statement is

…one which it makes sense to suppose is true; one such that we can conceive of or suppose it and any other statement entailed by it being true; one such that we can understand what it would be like for it and any statement entailed by it to be true. (COT, p.12-13)

It makes sense to suppose the (5) is true. It makes sense to suppose that (6) is true. It makes sense to suppose that (7) is true. Of each statement we can conceive of that statement as being true and any other statement entailed by it being true.

However, (5) is not a synthetic proposition, because although we can conceive of (5) being true, we cannot conceive of the negation of (5) being true:

(8) It is not the case that all triangles have three sides.

Since (8) is the negation of (5), and since it makes no sense to suppose (8) to be true, that is to say, we cannot conceive of (8) being true, (5) is not a synthetic proposition, but rather is an analytic proposition. We can conceive of it being the case that (5) is true, but we cannot conceive of it being the case that (5) is false. There is a logical contradiction involved in supposing (5) to be false or in supposing the negation of (5) to be true.

Both (6) and (7) are synthetic propositions because (a) they are coherent statements and (b) the negations of these propositions are also coherent statements:

(9) It is not the case that water boils at 212 degrees fahrenheit.
(10) It is not the case that the moon is made of cheese.

(6) is true and its negation (9) is false, but both sentences express coherent statements. (7) is false and (10) is true, but both sentences express coherent statements. There is no logical contradiction involved in any of these statements nor in their negations.

The Logical Positivist claim in premise (3) of the skeptical argument above is based on a criterion for determining whether a sentence expresses a factual claim (i.e. a synthetic proposition). Swinburne uses couterexamples to refute three Logical Positivist candidates for such a criterion: the Strong Verificationist Principle (SVP), the Strong Falsificationist Principle (SFP), and the Strong Verification-or-Falsification Principe (SVFP).

Next Swinburne considers the Weak Verification-or-Falsification Principle (WVFP):

q is a factual statement if and only if:
(a) q is a statement, and
(b) either q is an observation statement or there are observation statements which, if true, would confirm or disconfirm q.

This is the principle advocated by Ayer, according to Swinburne. No counterexample is put forward to refute WVFP. Instead, Swinburne argues
for the weaker objection that there is no good reason to accept this principle. Since premise (3) of the Logical Positivist skeptical argument is based on WVFP, we have no good reason, according to Swinburne, to accept premise (3).

Swinburne examines two arguments for WVFP, and argues that both arguments are unsuccessful.

bookmark_borderThe Sentence “God Exists” Part 1

In The Coherence of Theism (original:1977, revised ed.:1993), Richard Swinburne argues that the sentence “God exists” is a meaningful indicative sentence that expresses a coherent proposition. He does this by raising objections to arguments that have been given against this view, and by also making a detailed positive case.

For the negative or defensive case, Swinburne starts out by raising objections to some general arguments against this view, and later in the book he raises objections to more specific arguments that focus on the alleged incoherence of specific characteristics or combinations of specific characteristics that are used to define the word “God”.

The main general argument against his position that is examined by Swinburne is a logical positivist argument about the sentence “God exists”, derived primarily from A.J. Ayer’s book Language, Truth, and Logic (1936).

This is how Swinburne interprets the skeptical argument presented by Ayer:

(1) If the sentence “God exists” expresses a coherent statement, then the sentence “God exists” expresses either an analytic proposition or else it expresses a synthetic proposition.
(2) The sentence “God exists” does not express an analytic proposition.

(3) The sentence “God exists” does not express a synthetic proposition.
(4) It is not the case that “God exists” expresses a coherent statement.

The logic of this argument is fine, and Swinburne accepts premises (1) and (2), so his focus is on the question of whether premise (3) is true or well-supported.

This skeptical argument is basically a modern version of Hume’s fork. Hume divided claims into two categories: (a) relations of ideas and (b) matters of fact. Hume argued that all claims fall into one or the other category, so since metaphysical sentences do not express either “the relations of ideas” or “matters of fact”, such sentences do not express claims or propositions.

The concept of an analytic proposition can be viewed as a clarification of Hume’s notion of statements that express “the relations of ideas”. The concept of a synthetic proposition can be viewed as a refinement of Hume’s notion of statements that express “matters of fact”. Given the assumption that all coherent propositions can be categorized as either being an analytic or a synthetic proposition, a dilemma simliar to Hume’s fork can be constructed for the sentence “God exists”.

bookmark_borderWhy Defend Atheism?

The main reason I think that atheism is worth defending stems from my conviction that truth and rational belief are very important goods that are worth defending. In fact, they are both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable goods; ones that people in general have a fundamental drive to assert and defend. Whether this drive amounts to a personal preference or an epistemic duty, either provides a good reason to defend truth and rational belief.
– Ryan Stringer (from The Value of Atheism on The Secular Web)

This seems a bit weak to me.

First, the “conviction that truth and rational belief are very important goods” should rest on something more than just the fact that “people in general have a fundamental drive to assert and defend” these things. A natural tendency to “assert and defend” something does not mean that the something in question is truly worthy of being asserted and defended.

Thus, even if there were a natural tendency to “assert and defend” belief in God, that would not imply that doing so is a worthwhile activity. A “fundamental drive” or natural inclination might be one that is irrelevant to human well being or even harmful to human well being. Not all drives or inclinations should be blindly followed. My natural inclination to consume a half-gallon of ice cream every day is one that I must resist, or at least exercise some degree of rational constraint over, if I want to be a happy and healthy person.

Second, although I agree that truth and rational belief are “very important goods”, it does not follow that any and every belief that I hold to be true is worthy of spending my time defending and arguing over. Some matters are just too trivial and insignificant to fuss over.

So, the crucial issue, it seems to me, is whether the question “Does God exist?” is an important and significant question. If this is an important and significant question, then it would be worth investing some time and energy in coming to a correct conclusion on this issue, and to help others to do the same. If it is not, then perhaps there are other issues that are more deserving of our attention.

bookmark_borderMartin Gardner 1914–2010

Martin Gardner died at age 95 on Saturday, May 22nd.

“This past weekend the world darkened with the loss of one of its brightest lights: Martin Gardner, polymath extraordinaire, founding father of the modern skeptical movement, and a friend. R.I.P. Martin.” – Michael Shermer

Interview of Martin Gardner by Michael Shermer:

NY Times Obituary:;=Martin%20Gardner&st;=cse