Thursday, July 29, 2010

space follies

The other night I watched a program about UFOs and conspiracies. At least, I watched the first part of it, I was too annoyed to sit in front of the telly for the whole thing, but I heard it droning on while I sat in front of Luigi [my computer], and so 'got' pretty well all of it. The documentary was called 'I know what I saw', and it was very heavy on anecdotal evidence and ideas about cover-ups, and very light on science. It was surprising to find it aired on ABC-2.

As I watched all this stuff about flying, inexplicable disc-like objects, videos and photos of strange v-patterned lights in the sky [usually grainy or shaky], and people exclaiming 'oh, that's weird, that's not a plane' and 'that's moving so fast - that's incredibly fast', etc, etc, my sceptical antennae were stretched to breaking point. Just looking at the visual evidence presented, disregarding the talk around it, the program was spectacularly unconvincing. Most of the stuff looked easily explicable. One of them could've been a paper plate, another looked like a coil of party lights. The rest just looked like aircraft, or aircraft lights - though I have to admit, I didn't see all the visuals, having turned my back on the last third or so of the show. 

The commentary was another thing. Cleverly, just when I was starting to think 'silly rednecks', on would come a UFO-convinced senior scientist, a politician, an astronaut, to scramble my preconceptions. Just when I was starting to think 'dumb Yanks' [It was a US program], the interviewee would suddenly be a Frenchman or a German, and so on. Basically it was about a lot of people talking about things they saw which didn't make sense to them, sometimes phenomena seen by a group of people [though there was no attempt to treat these group sightings scientifically - that is, to determine whether each person's description correlated with those of the others]. Often the sightings were by pilots, by military personnel and the like, with the implication that these people are more trustworthy than your average Jo. The conspiracy theory element was constantly hammered - the central point being that, since the seventies, the US air force has refused to inquire into the endlessly growing number of UFO sightings [who can blame them?], with the usual assumptions about suppressing information, 'our government is our worst enemy' etc etc.

The first and last thing thing I wanted to scream at the screen during all this was - where's the science? I personally believe in UFOs - that's to say, I believe that there are thousands, maybe scores of thousands, of flying objects - saucer-shaped, cigar-shaped, lights in the sky, etc etc, that people have not identified. Why not? I think in the vast majority of cases, it's because they haven't tried hard enough - they've preferred to settle for the 'aliens from outer space' scenario. It's a lot sexier than any other alternative. I don't think these people are charlatans - though no doubt some are. I do think they are people whose credulity has outstripped their knowledge. This might come as a surprise when there are astronauts and scientists talking of these things, but of course you can always find a scientist or an 'expert' who acts as an 'outlier', way outside the statistical average. But let's look at the scientific knowledge.

As I've said, there was virtually no science at all in this documentary. At one point [and I'm quoting from memory here] the film-maker was asked a question by a radio presenter, presumably about a particular group sighting. She had sought out a military/scientific expert on the matter, and thus armed she asked: 'Why was there no strong force field felt on the ground, and no damage, such as burnt fields, uprooted trees etc, which you would expect to find if the vessel was as large and fast-moving and as close to the ground as witnesses suggest?' The film-maker just shrugged: 'I've no idea.' This could've been an important starting point for exploration but of course it wasn't taken up. Mystery was emphasised, attempts at explanation minimised.

A more important question, of course, is where do these devices or machines come from if they involve a non-terrestrial technology, as implied and occasionally overtly claimed? Do they all come from the same 'outer space' planet, or do we have a wide variety of space invaders and extra-terrestrial locations to deal with? Is there a pattern to these sighted objects which might suggest to us that they were all built by the same extra-terrestrial civilization? And how did they get here, considering what we know of distances, light-speed limitations and so forth? 

Well, let's look at a few of these questions scientifically [always remembering that I'm no scientist]. Firstly let's think locally. What are the chances that these 'objects' or phenomena originate from another world within our solar system. We know more about our solar system than ever before, not only from space probes and space telescopes, but from the many improvements in ground-based observations and measurements in recent decades. It isn't universally agreed by astronomers that there's no life, apart from that on Earth, in our solar system, but it is universally agreed that there's no advanced life, on anything like a par with our own. There may just be microbial life, on Mars or Europa or elsewhere, but this is far from being substantiated. Is it likely that microbes are building elaborate craft and sending them to Earth? I think it's more likely that they're projecting themselves here individually, microscopically, and invading our bodies completely unseen and reprogramming our brains. This could possibly account for the rise of fundamentalist beliefs worldwide over the last decade or two.

Realistically, though, we're going to have to look outside our solar system for the homeland, or homelands, of these smart space critters. And we know that the nearest star to ours, Proxima Centauri, is 4.3 light years away - that's 270,000 times further from us than our sun. That's the closest region of origin. Space critters from that region would take over four years to get here travelling at the speed of light. Of course such speeds are impossible for any objects of mass, even sub-atomic particles, let alone the lumbering, light-flashing vehicles reported by ufo sighters. Pioneer 11, our old space probe, managed, with the help of  Jupiter's gravitational field, to attain a speed of  175,000 km/hour. Briefly, of course. That's pretty impressive - 55 times the muzzle velocity of a high speed rifle bullet - but according to my calculations, the speed of light is more than 3,600 times faster. So, travelling from the Proxima Centauri region, a space craft travelling at a constant speed of Pioneer 11 at its fastest, would take at least 15,000 years to get here. Unlikely? Nah. A piece of piss. 

These problems, which should be front and centre of any serious investigation into ufos, are never even mentioned in the documentary. At one point, one of the UFO believers makes a fleeting reference to anti-gravity devices, but that's about it. Anti-gravity was first popularized by H G Wells over a hundred years ago in his book, The First Men in the Moon. It's fiction, and so far nothing has come of the concept of 'gravity shielding' on a practical level. Even if it were possible, I'm not sure if it would solve the distance problem. Also, I'm no physicist, but I think that if it were possible, it would refute Einstein's General Relativity theory.

UFO sighters generally have no interest in these issues, they just 'know what they saw', and many of them believe in a conspiracy of silence. There are some people I know who just love conspiracy theories. I find then boring as all get-out, and there's not much to say about this one except, of course the US Air Force isn't going to investigate every UFO sighting. There are tens of thousands of them for god's sake. So they should only investigate the credible ones [5% of them according to the UFO fans]? Fine, so who determines the 5%, and are the UFO fans going to help fund these investigations? It's funny, it seems to me that most US conspiracy theory buffs are anti-government, often libertarian types. Small government, taxation is theft, all that malarkey, yet when government doesn't jump to do their bidding, spending squillions in the process, they have 'all their fears confirmed'!

I'm not against investigating these matters, but it's against a certain background knowledge. First, SETI and other organisations have been out to find extra-terrestrial life for years now, and they haven't succeeded yet. NASA has a Terrestrial Planet Finder on the drawing-board, but hasn't been provided with the funds to realize the project - conspiracy theorists please note. Still, telescopes are getting better and better at finding Earth-like planets, and the possibility of finding life elsewhere in the universe is exciting some of our best minds. UFO fans should be looking at all this if they really want answers to their questions. Second, are the alternative explanations of these phenomena really being exhausted before the leap to space critters? None of these sightings seem way way out of this world. The stuff being reported, photographed and videoed looks and sounds human, all too human. What's more, there is a pattern to these findings. Reports of flying saucers in the fifties looked like flying saucers, made of beaten panels of metal rivetted together, or something similar. They conformed to the technology of the fifties - no LED displays or anything like that. UFO sightings of the eighties looked like the technology of the eighties, and so forth. So let's use our brains before going on any expensive wild alien chases.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

encountering William Lane Craig

smooth operator

I spent some time yesterday looking at video talks and debates featuring one William Lane Craig, theologian and philosopher who has, apparently, a reputation as a debater, and of course quite a big Christian following in the US. Of course he's no match for a scrupulously analytical thinker like the Jesus Seminar's Robert Price, but such people are rare. Craig is completely incapable of scepticism, so he's both a philosopher and an evangelist, so suavely sure of himself that he manages to make plausible the most manifest absurdities. The cosmological argument - Kalam or not - is a particularly weird one, which seeks to base the existence of Yahweh or Adonai or however you name that particular god out of thousands, on the old first cause conundrum. Something can't come out of nothing, and the something that the universe came out of must have been greater, more complex than the universe, so presumably it must've had intention [?], etc etc, all of which has nothing whatever to do with a personal god who had a son via a virgin and who answers prayers, but yes, Craig, like Roy Williams of Yahweh, Actually, swallows the whole kit and caboodle. Daniel Dennett has a thoughtful reflection on Craig here, in which he acknowledges Craig's enthusiasm and erudition, and points out the difficulty of combating that erudite confidence 'on the hop' so to speak, in a debate. This of course is the problem with debates. No issue of any moment in philosophy has ever been decided by a debate. That's just not how ideas win out over other ideas. Debates are won, presumably, by those who are most confident about their position - and most articulate, well-organised, etc. Almost by definition, the sceptic isn't going to be that person. Scepticism is generally about uncertainty. Scepticism wonders and dithers. Debates are fun, like boxing matches, and Wittgenstein thought that philosophers should always be ready to get in the ring, and debates certainly hone some useful skills, but I don't think any debate will cross the bridge between the natural and the supernatural. There will never be any evidence for supernatural causation, thus it can never be more than an article of faith. In this debate with Robert Price for example, Craig smoothly enumerates 'facts' about Jesus' death and supposed resurrection, and comes to the only reasonable conclusion, according to him, that the god called God rose him from the dead. As Dennett says, Craig makes a habit of presenting a handful of apparently reasonable and anodyne premises which lead up to the most absurd conclusion. He speaks confidently, enthusiastically and without a trace of scepticism, steamrolling his way through a presentation that mixes putative historical evidence with more or less disguised supernatural claims as if this is all perfectly normal. Yet we know that people don't 'rise from the dead'. We know the physiological impossibility of this, and we know of no empirically proven examples of this ever having happened. We also know that claims about supernatural intervention were routinely made, even at the highest levels, in ancient, so-called pagan times. They're routinely made today, too, though rarely at the highest levels these days, leaving aside the divinely guided George W. So, in spite of Craig's claims that no other burial story like that of Jesus exists, it is still of a pattern with ancient legends, death and resurrection being, after all, as ancient as our understanding of the seasons. Having said that, bodily, human resurrection was quite a new idea. The pagan cults, after all, were practised by pragmatic country folk, by and large, who saw clearly enough what happened to the body after death, and they weren't bothered by texts such as the book of Revelation - their beliefs were orally transmitted, and grounded, at least to some degree, in common sense.

Really, though, I don't know why I'm getting into this. Examining gospel texts, canonical or otherwise, isn't going to convince any reasonable sceptic that somebody rose from the dead, or was the son of a deity. Craig would at best convince some wavering believer with no scientific understanding. This miraculous stuff was dealt with centuries ago by Hume, and the argument has only tightened since then. Craig makes much of the consensus of New Testament scholars, probably a bogus consensus, but that isn't important since the vast majority of New Testament scholars are Christians. I'd be much more interested in what human physiologists might have to say about coming to life again once you're dead - but of course Craig would respond that this wasn't a physiological phenomenon but a divine one. The only response to that is to shrug. A divine phenomenon is something always beyond evidence, so all discussion must grind to a halt. I would just ask people, with Hume, which was more likely - a miracle, or that people let their imaginations, filled with supernatural possibilities, get the better of them?

We have no difficulty in deciding between these two options with 'paganism', the religion that Christianity had to compete with once it spilled out of Palestine. Robin Lane Fox, in Pagans and Christians, examines a whole host of examples of the gods - most notably Apollo, but also Asclepius [the son of Apollo], Hermes, Athena, Dionysus, Isis, Serapis and others, being thanked or acknowledged for their intervention in human affairs. Fox, of course, isn't interested in the truth of these claims, and he assumes his readers aren't either. He's interested in patterns and influences, the way inscriptions and treatment of the gods varies from region to region and through time. Imagine our surprise if, suddenly, in describing an inscription to Asclepius [a god of healing, and so naturally a god often consulted in the Graeco-Roman era], Fox argued that the inscription's claim that the god had cured someone of a mortal illness was corroborated by more than one contemporary writer, each of whom had 'somewhat' similar accounts of the god appearing at the woman's bedside just before she made a swift and apparently miraculous recovery. Imagine then that Fox claimed this to be pretty substantive evidence that Asclepius really had cured the woman. How would we respond?

We would feel that the usually dependable Fox had suddenly, unaccountably, taken leave of his senses. After all, Asclepius never existed - we all know that. So thoroughly has paganism been uprooted and replaced by Christianity. The number of corroborating accounts wouldn't much influence us, because those writers were all believers. We know better. No contest. Neither is there any contest in the case of William Lane Craig. What's the difference exactly between a dead supernatural being like Asclepius and a 'living' one like Jesus? I suppose the difference is that one is kept alive by belief. But belief isn't evidence - far from it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

hailing Myers, bemoaning the HRCAC

 always a hard act to follow

I'm a great fan of PZ Myers. Maybe sometimes he comes on too strong, but that's only in seeming - a reread usually convinces me of the logic and the need for toughness. And he's such a good writer - always entertaining, brief and clear. And informative with a word or two, not just on matters scientific. This recent post is an excellent example - I learned about Adonai [again - I'd forgotten the term] and shofars while having my thoughts provoked on how to deal with the more bizarre aspects of religious belief - in this little piece he manages to show how those bizarreries might be seriously combated while mocking such a serious combat and musing on the power of laughter. Mockery is often the most appropriate weapon but it pays to have a  whole, diverse arsenal. Anyway, the prolific PZ is always worth reading, and is also a corrective when I get too pseudo-philosophically prolix.
Keep it pungent, without sacrificing too much depth.

David Walker, erring bishop

Tonight's 7.30 Report featured abuse allegations, and damn convincing ones, against catholic priests in Australia - good for me to focus on the backyard instead of Ireland, Germany, South America... face it, their protection racket spreads o'er the planet. The 7.30 Report has been doing good work in this field in recent times, and tonight's report is a follow-up on two Irish-born priests recruited to Australia, Finian Egan and Paddy Maye. Egan in particular has a lot of evidence against him, and tonight's report has two more women, twins, adding to the other allegations. In fact, the church has found against both Maye and Egan but has failed to prevent them from administering services as priests. In this case, the neglectful authority seems to have been bishop David Walker, of Broken Bay in northern Sydney. The old old story, and Egan used the old methods, described by Colm O'Gorman in his book Beyond Belief, written from the perspective of an abuse victim in Ireland. He inveigled himself into the family, winning their trust and respect, thus throwing the poor child into a confusion of guilt and self-blame. My advice to anyone who has suffered abuse at the hands of such people is to go to the police straight away. Never, never, never leave it to the church to sort out. In fact many catholic clergy are coming to the same conclusion - they understand the church's divided loyalties and ineffectiveness in this sphere. I wish sometimes people knew about or read this blog, so I could make this advice effective - but the message is already getting through by many other means.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

scientism, etc

maybe I should read this book

I've been reading with some bemusement about the problems Chris Mooney has been having with sock-puppetry. I'm no expert, but it does seem as if they've been largely of his own making. And all I wanted to do was focus on the compatibility issue [which is related to, but different from, the accommodationist issue]. Mooney's credibility seems to be sinking fast, so I'd better get on with looking at his and others' claims that there's a useful distinction to be made between methodological naturalism [roughly, the view that science should follow methodologies which rule out the supernatural, for purely pragmatic reasons - it works, spectacularly] and philosophical naturalism [the view that the natural world is all there is]. The reason for this 'useful distinction', of course, is to allow science and religion to cohabit, or to occupy mutually exclusive spheres, the natural and the supernatural. In other words, science has nothing whatever to say about philosophical naturalism, because it shines no light on the supernatural to discover whether it exists or not.

I've already raised a number of objections to this, as have Dawkins, Coyne, Rosenhouse and probably innumerable others. The essential objection is that the supernatural never seems to keep to its own sphere in the minds of those who believe in it. In fact it is central to deistic thinking that something/someone supernatural caused the natural world. You can't get more connected than that.

Unfortunately, when scientists explore causation with regard to such biggies as the origin of the universe, they follow the tenets of methodological naturalism, which tends to render more and more remote the possibilities for supernatural causation - especially as the scientific theories involved are extremely rigorous and highly verified. We now know that our universe is about 13.7 billion years old, that it began with a 'big bang', and that our earth, far from being central and prominent, is minuscule, peripheral and contingent. It becomes harder to believe in a personal god, with a special interest in the human species in particular, created in that god's likeness.

You could also say that methodological naturalism has nothing to say about astrology or faith healing, except that this approach yields much better explanations [for people who get better after visiting a faith healer], or helps show that no explanation is necessary [astrological predictions are no more likely to be true than any random predictions], and thus undermine any reasons for believing in them. For this reason, many scientists, insofar as they go in for philosophy, tend to make no distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. Everything in their world, their working world, can be explained naturalistically, so why not just accept that this methodology can explain everything, or has the potential to do so.

Mooney and others want to uphold this distinction as vital, and seek to disparage philosophical naturalism as 'scientism', which they associate with hubris. Instead of 'science has been found, after centuries of testing and exploration, to provide the best methodologies for understanding our world and ourselves [and indeed, science could be defined as the sum of those best methodologies]', scientism lectures us with 'science has all the answers, or will have shortly, so get with the program or fuck off'. You could say it's just a matter of tone. Philosophical naturalism doesn't claim to provide all the answers, it only argues persuasively that its approach has been phenomenally successful and provides the standard. Belief in the supernatural, whether religious or not, hasn't gotten us anywhere, either in the sphere of knowledge or of morality. Our growing scientific knowledge of the human species has informed our morality, as we come to understand the basis of our feelings of sympathy and antipathy, upon which morality is based. Belief in supernatural entities and obedience to their supposed commandments has not helped us towards greater understanding, and introspection has clear limits. As scepticism has been an important factor in developing scientific methodologies, it's unlikely that the genuine philosophical naturalism will ever claim that science has or will have all the answers. Science has always generated more questions than answers, and it's likely that it will continue to do so. It is this scepticism, I think, that distinguishes philosophical naturalism from scientism.

So what other objections do Mooney et al come up with? So far, I've not been able to come up with anything philosophical from Mooney, it's all about pragmatic accommodationism. Casey Luskin suggests that he's concerned primarily about constitutional issues [see the first amendment to the US constitution], but I think it's more about recognising, in the US sphere, that there's a real fight to be had in keeping claptrap out of American schools, and being nice to scientifically-minded believers will be the best strategy in fighting that fight, considering the high percentage of supernatural belief in that country. This may be right, in the short term, but I'm more concerned about deeper issues of compatibility. I'm also concerned that the being-nice-to-the-right-sort-of-believers strategy might entail being nasty to the wrong sort of atheists.

I'll keep looking through Mooney's back catalogue of posts for something more substantial from him.  

Saturday, July 3, 2010

supernatural beliefs and their consequences

In reference to my last post, when I tried out on Sarah the assertion that the proposition 'Humans [and only humans] have souls' is a proposition about biology, I was met with complete disagreement. Presumably she would describe it as a proposition about the supernatural. That's to say, it's a claim that, though we're biologically one of the set of animals, in some sense supernaturally we're outside that set.

I have real difficulties with this, and the reasons are obvious - or they are to me. There are things that flow from the claim that humans have souls, and these are not insignificant things, with not insignificant moral implications, not to mention implications with respect to our relationship to other animals. As Jason Rosenhouse puts it:
If you hold views about a supernatural realm that have absolutely no empirical consequences whatsoever then you have nothing to fear from science. There are even certain religious systems that posit such a realm. But that is not the sort of faith held by most Christians.
I'm not even sure that any religious system posits a supernatural realm with no consequences [we say 'empirical consequences' but we know of no other] in the natural realm. Those who believe in ancestor spirits rarely if ever believe that they have no effect on this world - that is the point of the belief. The spirits account for events otherwise inexplicable in this world. 

We can, I suppose, believe in something supernatural with no effect on this world, but it requires some effort. For example, one might believe in reincarnation, but a reincarnation process which is arbitrary, bearing no relation to rewards and punishments. In other words, in our next life we might be a rodent, a bacterium, or a rich, beautiful, popular human being, regardless of how we behave in this life. This of course, would render us the playthings of whatever forces decide upon these things, and there would be no moral dimension to such a belief. Or would there? If we firmly believed in this form of reincarnation, might we not want to opt out as soon as life in this particular incarnation turned ugly? If the going gets rough, why not top yourself? Your next life couldn't be much worse, and might be a whole lot better. And if you're safe in the knowledge that you'll continue to live, you'll be like a gambler, throwing in your lot time after time for the next world, until you come up with a win. Though of course, you'll only be able to gamble when you return as a being with a higher consciousness - bacteria and mosquitoes don't have the wherewithal to gamble. Such a belief, firmly held, might make suicide terrorism more attractive, not to mention murder. You can escape the consequences of your actions into a new world of possibilities.

This is just one example of how difficult if not impossible it is to imagine a supernatural belief having no effect on our behaviour in this world - the world science deals with. Sarah suggested that believing that you have an extra, invisible finger would be an example of a belief that is clearly not biological. In other words, the believer might accept that the finger has no 'biological' existence but claim that it nevertheless exists. Again [and the comparison with gods here is obvious] if the invisible finger merely exists, and makes nothing happen in the natural world, this wouldn't be a problem, though one might wonder about the point of such a belief. If the believer claims that the finger is actually used to pick things up and so forth, it would be reasonable to ask for evidence of this. If the finger's purpose is to, say, point to wrong-doers, then, if it is invisible, nobody sees it and it wouldn't make any difference. If only the owner of the finger sees it, or claims to see it, that's a serious claim that needs to be investigated - it hardly matters whether you call it a biological claim or a moral claim - it's a claim that the person [or his invisible finger] knows something about this world. It needs to backed up.

So, returning to claims about the exclusively human soul, about humans being in the image of god, and of having somehow inherited 'original sin' or being somehow 'fallen' - it really doesn't matter so much whether you call them biological claims [though that's how I would prefer to classify them]. What needs to be emphasised is that such claims have this-worldly implications. They seek to tell us something [in fact, a lot] about what we really are. In doing so, they compete with modern biology and modern psychology, the primary aims of which, when they are dealing with homo sapiens, is to give us an account of what we really are. The accounts are very different, and quite incompatible. 

Thursday, July 1, 2010

assorted reflections - biology, religion, etc

more of putting a face to the name - Jerry Coyne

I wrote my last post before reading Coyne's response [and those of his commentators] to Mooney, which covers the same ground, and then some. Maybe it would be better to read the whole to-and-fro before writing myself - but then I'd probably have nothing to say, it would all have been said. Anyway, I write to get clear about my own views. It has to be all for myself, since nobody reads this blog.

I agree with what Coyne says about the 'posters' [the commentators]. So often, after reading a piece I disagree with, I get all worked up to respond and refute, only to find that some commentator [or a dozen] has done so with more eloquence, brevity and wit than I could possibly muster in my apoplectic state. And of course, many of them are scientists, or specialists in one field or another, with bits of useful and enlightening knowledge always worth lapping up.

Having said that, on balance I more often find comments so irritating I want to reach for my water-pistol. Take this comment from one 'smijer' on Mooney's next post:
I’m all for “lessen[ing] the moral authority and hegemony of religion in our society “ [a quote from Coyne], but that has bumpkus to do with biology – and biologists who pretend it does are doing a disservice to their craft.
I'm not a biologist, so maybe I can say what I like, though this comment has probably already been shot down by other commentators, supposing they thought it worth the effort [the comment dates from over a year ago, but it's a perennial theme].

The moral authority claimed by religion has a lot to do with biological, or quasi-biological claims, and I've already dealt with some of these in the past. In the Easter attacks on atheists, George Pell, our most prominent conservative Christian, said that we had souls, unlike animals. The claim that we are not animals is a biological claim [what else could it be?], and the claim that we have souls is both a biological claim [about our human, biological nature] and a moral claim [our souls go to heaven or hell depending on how good or bad we are, or depending on whether or not we serve Yahweh - which seems to be the basis of Judeo-Christian morality]. To make a more general point, biology [and psychology, and even physics and cosmology] is all about finding out what we are, where we came from, and how we best survive and thrive. Religion also makes claims to answer these questions. This is why religion and science are in competition, and always will be. To me, this is obvious. And religions gain their moral authority and hegemony by trying to monopolize understandings of what we are, what we should be, how we should behave and so forth. We should confess to priests, we should listen to their sermons, we should respect the clergy as go-betweens and facilitators, pointing out to us the righteous path, etc etc. Biology and its many sub-branches, ethology, neurology tell us a different story, and a competing one, of what we are, why we behave the way we do, and how we should behave to maximise our interest and society's interest - and it also helps us to understand how our interest and the interests of society seem to differ and clash. Biology helps us a lot in our understanding of morality. The magisterial claim of 'smijer', delivered so bumptiously IMO, just rings hollow to me.

Mooney and Forrest: strategy or truth?

In Chris Mooney's second [short] post on the science-religion compatibility issue, he again focuses on strategy, and, in the very title of his essay, accuses Coyne [and by implication Dawkins, Dennett, Rosenhouse and others] of incivility, because he takes the view that even believers like Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, who are pro-evolution liberals, have problematic interpretations of evolution - necessarily problematic, in order to let Christian belief in. This despite the fact, as I would call it, that Coyne is not at all uncivil in his treatment of Miller and Giberson, he simply points out the flaws in their reasoning.

Mooney approves of the position of the philosopher Barbara Forrest, who directly challenged Coyne on the matter of strategy at a conference in Michigan. She criticized Coyne's approach from three perpectives. First, etiquette [be nice]; second, diversity [so many beliefs out there, wouldn't it be better to focus on the fundamentalists, or literalists, or primitivists?]; third, humility [we can't prove a negative, so why be arrogant?]. Essentially, Mooney's post simply draws our attention to Forrest's position, which he elaborates a little further. I hope he got it right because it needs to be criticized.

Apparently, in asking us to be nice, Forrest argues that religion is a very private matter. Presumably, in emphasising this, she's referring to people's sensitivities about their beliefs, and of course this is true enough in many cases, but it's also important to point out that religion, in its essence, is no more private than language is. We don't invent religion any more than we invent our own languages - we learn the language around us, and use it to relate to others. That's also what we do with religion, which has its rules and conventions and shared histories and public displays. It doesn't really make sense as a purely personal way of making sense of the world, because religious people learn about their gods from others, and they learn about the characteristics and the histories of those gods - they aren't simply free to invent the gods to suit their purposes. Their gods are public figures, and as such are open to public scrutiny, as are all their supernatural beliefs. And Forrest's claim, as reported by Mooney, that 'they're not trying to force [their religion] on anybody else' is quite doubtful. Few religious people think their religion is true only for themselves. In fact it would be quite weird if that were the case. Most would certainly find it incumbent on themselves to bring their children up in the same religion. After all, religion tells them something about the world, not just about themselves. In fact, I would argue that, far from religion being intensely personal, few people if any would hold religious views if others didn't have them too - I mean basically the same views.

On diversity, Forrest claims that of the range of believers, there are those 'who have not sacrificed scientific accuracy' in their views about evolution, and they should be seen as allies. I've already dealt with this issue, as have Coyne, Dawkins and others. This blanket claim ignores completely the arguments of Coyne and others, who have been at pains to point out that believers do sacrifice scientific accuracy to accommodate their religious convictions. And they go into detail on the whys and wherefores.

Finally, humility. Scientists don't know everything, and logic can't disprove negatives, so gods might exist, indeed it might just be true that the god of the Bible existed, and had a son somehow by a virgin who died for our sins and was resurrected and taken up to 'heaven'. Come on. It isn't arrogant to reject these beliefs or to mock them. They're absurd. And there are many good reasons why they're absurd. Why should we hold back in getting stuck into this kind of silliness? After all, we're interested, primarily, in discovering more and more of the truth about ourselves. I understand that many Americans are more immediately concerned about the spread of creationism and anti-sciencism in the US school system, and no doubt that's important - but the battle against religion itself, and not just its loopy fringes, will have to come. The truth will out. Why postpone the inevitable?

Mooney and Forrest appear to be odd types. They might well be incompatibilists at heart, but for strategic purposes they are accommodationists. Maybe it's a useful strategy from where they sit, but I don't see much use for it at all. Perhaps it's just that we're further along the road here in Oz.