Monday, January 30, 2006

Race - Fact Or Fiction?

The excellent Mixing Memory recently had a post commenting, prompted by some comments from Fido the Yak, on MIT cognitive psychologist and best-selling author Steven Pinker’s remarks about group differences in his answer to the Edge Annual question. It’s a little old now, but I thought the questions they raised about Pinker’s comments, and the notion of race, provided reason enough to say a little these ideas, and to clear up some confusion.

Fido says, “I believe [Pinker’s] a sexist, a racist and willfully ignorant of certain facts of evolutionary science” (these are serious charges that warrant careful substantiation); Mixing Memory adds, “First of all, Fido gets Pinker exactly right. As I've said many times, Pinker has a nasty habit of speaking authoratatively about topics on which he is anything but an authority (like, say, gender differences in mathematical ability)… Like Pinker, I'm not an expert in genomics, or anything remotely related to genetics, but unlike Pinker, I'm not going to comment on the issues discussed in the forum as though I am an expert.” Both Mixing Memory and Fido mention a recent forum on race, where the experts set the record straight on race, supposedly. When Fido says, “when I want to learn about population genetics, I consult a population geneticist, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, for instance, who would give me plenty of reasons to doubt that what Pinker says approximates anything I should pay attention to”, he gives the impression that the weight of expert opinion refutes Pinker. But it doesn’t take much searching to challenge this idea (and NOT [D.J. important corrective word added] through selective picking of contrarian, fringe experts), and in this post I’ll let the experts speak for themselves.

In 2002, Daedalus published two essays, one by Ernst Mayr, the other by James Crow, both on race.

Mayr was until his death the doyen of American evolutionary biology, and one of the architects of the evolutionary synthesis. This doesn’t make him infallible, but he’s not a crank either. Here’s some selected quotes from his essay:
“There is a widespread feeling that the word “race” indicates something undesirable and that it should be left out of all discussions. This leads to such statements as “there are no human races”. Those who subscribe to this opinion are obviously ignorant of modern biology. Races are not something specifically human; races occur in a large percentage of species of animals … The terms “subspecies” and “geographic races” are used interchangeably in [the] taxonomic literature.”
James Crow is a distinguished and widely respected population geneticist; here’s some more extensive quotes from his essay:
“If we randomly choose a pair of bases from corresponding sites in two persons, 99.9 percent of the time they will be the same. This percentage depends only slightly on whether the two people are from the same or from different continents, from the same or from different population groups … Analysis of DNA allows us to measure with some precision the genetic distance between different populations of human beings. By this criterion, Caucasians and Asians are relatively similar, whereas Asians and Africans are somewhat more different. The differences between the groups are small–but they are real … Just as there are great differences among individuals, there are average differences, usually much smaller, between groups. Italians and Swedes differ in hair color. Sometimes the differences are more conspicuous, such as the contrasting skin color and hair shape of Africans and Europeans. But, for the most part, group differences are small and largely overshadowed by individual differences. Biologists think of races of animals as groups that started as one, but later split and became separated, usually by a geographical barrier. As the two groups evolve independently, they gradually diverge genetically. The divergences will occur more quickly if the separate environments differ, but they will occur in any case since different mutations will inevitably occur in the two populations, and some of them will persist… In much of the animal world, however, and also in the human species, complete isolation is very rare. The genetic uniformity of geographical groups is constantly being destroyed by migration between them. In particular, the major geographical groups – African, European, and Asian – are mixed, and this is especially true in the United States, which is something of a melting pot. Because of this mixing, many anthropologists argue, quite reasonably, that there is no scientific justification for applying the word “race” to populations of human beings. But the concept itself is unambiguous, and I believe that the word has a clear meaning to most people. The difficulty is not with the concept, but with the realization that major human races are not pure races. Unlike those anthropologists who deny the usefulness of the term, I believe that the word “race” can be meaningfully applied to groups that are partially mixed. Different diseases are demonstrably characteristic of different racial and ethnic groups. Sickle cell anemia, for example, is far more prevalent among people of African descent than among Europeans. Obesity is especially common in Pima Indians, the result of the sudden acquisition of a high-calorie diet to which Europeans have had enough time to adjust. Tay-Sachs disease is much more common in the Jewish population. There are other examples, and new ones are being discovered constantly. The evidence indicating that some diseases disproportionately afflict specific ethnic and racial groups does not ordinarily provoke controversy. Far more contentious is the evidence that some skills and behavioral properties are differentially distributed among different racial groups. There is strong evidence that such racial differences are partly genetic, but the evidence is more indirect and has not been convincing to everyone.”
We can at least conclude from these comments that the concept of race is not dismissed by all serious biologists; for sure, scientists such as Richard Lewontin and others reject the usefulness of the concept of race, but that view doesn’t win by default. Straight off we should be suspicious of the quick dismissal of the concept of race, and also the charge that Pinker is being ignorant, willfully or not, of evolutionary science. He might not agree with Lewontin and company, but that doesn’t automatically make him wrong.

However, without some clarification and qualification the claims of Mayr and Crow might be objected to (even with the clarifications and qualifications the claims might still be objectionable to some – reasonable people can disagree!). Here’s how Steve Olson and Michael Bamshad begin an article entitled ‘Does Race Exist?’ in Scientific American:
“Look around on the streets of any major city, and you will see a sampling of the outward variety of humanity: skin tones ranging from milk-white to dark brown; hair textures running the gamut from fine and stick-straight to thick and wiry. People often use physical characteristics such as these-along with area of geographic origin and shared culture--to group themselves and others into "races." But how valid is the concept of race from a biological standpoint? Do physical features reliably say anything informative about a person's genetic makeup beyond indicating that the individual has genes for blue eyes or curly hair?
The problem is hard in part because the implicit definition of what makes a person a member of a particular race differs from region to region across the globe. Someone classified as "black" in the U.S., for instance, might be considered "white" in Brazil and "colored" (a category distinguished from both "black" and "white") in South Africa.

Yet common definitions of race do sometimes work well to divide groups according to genetically determined propensities for certain diseases. Sickle cell disease is usually found among people of largely African or Mediterranean descent, for instance, whereas cystic fibrosis is far more common among those of European ancestry. In addition, although the results have been controversial, a handful of studies have suggested that African-Americans are more likely to respond poorly to some drugs for cardiac disease than are members of other groups.

Over the past few years, scientists have collected data about the genetic constitution of populations around the world in an effort to probe the link between ancestry and patterns of disease. These data are now providing answers to several highly emotional and contentious questions: Can genetic information be used to distinguish human groups having a common heritage and to assign individuals to particular ones? Do such groups correspond well to predefined descriptions now widely used to specify race? And, more practically, does dividing people by familiar racial definitions or by genetic similarities say anything useful about how members of those groups experience disease or respond to drug treatment?

In general, we would answer the first question yes, the second no, and offer a qualified yes to the third.”
The authors then go on to discuss some specific studies:
“One of us (Bamshad), working with University of Utah scientists Lynn B. Jorde, Stephen Wooding and W. Scott Watkins and with Mark A. Batzer of Louisiana State University, examined 100 different Alu polymorphisms in 565 people born in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Europe. First we determined the presence or absence of the 100 Alus in each of the 565 people. Next we removed all the identifying labels (such as place of origin and ethnic group) from the data and sorted the people into groups using only their genetic information.

Our analysis yielded four different groups. When we added the labels back to see whether each individual's group assignment correlated to common, predefined labels for race or ethnicity, we saw that two of the groups consisted only of individuals from sub-Saharan Africa, with one of those two made up almost entirely of Mbuti Pygmies. The other two groups consisted only of individuals from Europe and East Asia, respectively. We found that we needed 60 Alu polymorphisms to assign individuals to their continent of origin with 90 percent accuracy. To achieve nearly 100 percent accuracy, however, we needed to use about 100 Alus.

Other studies have produced comparable results. Noah A. Rosenberg and Jonathan K. Pritchard, geneticists formerly in the laboratory of Marcus W. Feldman of Stanford University, assayed approximately 375 polymorphisms called short tandem repeats in more than 1,000 people from 52 ethnic groups in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. By looking at the varying frequencies of these polymorphisms, they were able to distinguish five different groups of people whose ancestors were typically isolated by oceans, deserts or mountains: sub-Saharan Africans; Europeans and Asians west of the Himalayas; East Asians; inhabitants of New Guinea and Melanesia; and Native Americans. They were also able to identify subgroups within each region that usually corresponded with each member's self-reported ethnicity.

The results of these studies indicate that genetic analyses can distinguish groups of people according to their geographic origin. But caution is warranted. The groups easiest to resolve were those that were widely separated from one another geographically. Such samples maximize the genetic variation among groups. When Bamshad and his co-workers used their 100 Alu polymorphisms to try to classify a sample of individuals from southern India into a separate group, the Indians instead had more in common with either Europeans or Asians. In other words, because India has been subject to many genetic influences from Europe and Asia, people on the subcontinent did not group into a unique cluster. We concluded that many hundreds--or perhaps thousands--of polymorphisms might have to be examined to distinguish between groups whose ancestors have historically interbred with multiple populations.

The human race
Given that people can be sorted broadly into groups using genetic data, do common notions of race correspond to underlying genetic differences among populations? In some cases they do, but often they do not. For instance, skin color or facial features--traits influenced by natural selection--are routinely used to divide people into races. But groups with similar physical characteristics as a result of selection can be quite different genetically. Individuals from sub-Saharan Africa and Australian Aborigines might have similar skin pigmentation (because of adapting to strong sun), but genetically they are quite dissimilar.”
Studying race isn’t just of mere intellectual interest – it can also prove useful in biomedicine:
“But the importance of group membership as it relates to health care has been especially controversial in recent years. Last January the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued guidelines advocating the collection of race and ethnicity data in all clinical trials. Some investigators contend that the differences between groups are so small and the historical abuses associated with categorizing people by race so extreme that group membership should play little if any role in genetic and medical studies. They assert that the FDA should abandon its recommendation and instead ask researchers conducting clinical trials to collect genomic data on each individual. Others suggest that only by using group membership, including common definitions of race based on skin color, can we understand how genetic and environmental differences among groups contribute to disease. This debate will be settled only by further research on the validity of race as a scientific variable.

A set of articles in the March 20 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine debated both sides of the medical implications of race. The authors of one article--Richard S. Cooper of the Loyola Stritch School of Medicine, Jay S. Kaufman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Ryk Ward of the University of Oxford--argued that race is not an adequate criterion for physicians to use in choosing a particular drug for a given patient. They pointed out two findings of racial differences that are both now considered questionable: that a combination of certain blood vessel-dilating drugs was more effective in treating heart failure in people of African ancestry and that specific enzyme inhibitors (angiotensin converting enzyme, or ACE, inhibitors) have little efficacy in such individuals. In the second article, a group led by Neil Risch of Stanford University countered that racial or ethnic groups can differ from one another genetically and that the differences can have medical importance. They cited a study showing that the rate of complications from type 2 diabetes varies according to race, even after adjusting for such factors as disparities in education and income.

The intensity of these arguments reflects both scientific and social factors. Many biomedical studies have not rigorously defined group membership, relying instead on inferred relationships based on racial categories. The dispute over the importance of group membership also illustrates how strongly the perception of race is shaped by different social and political perspectives.

In cases where membership in a geographically or culturally defined group has been correlated with health-related genetic traits, knowing something about an individual's group membership could be important for a physician. And to the extent that human groups live in different environments or have different experiences that affect health, group membership could also reflect nongenetic factors that are medically relevant.”
In June 2005, the United States Food & Drug Administration approved NitroMed’s BiDil for the treatment for heart failure in African-Americans only. This was based on data showing greater benefit in self-identified black patients. Let’s assume that there is a genetic component this difference (it’s common for genetic profiles to affect the effects of drugs, as revealed by pharmacogenetics, although it could be an environmental factor). The enhanced effect in black compared with white patients is not the result of the fact that all black individuals have one version of a given gene and all white individuals have a different one – there aren’t these discrete genetic groups. It’s just that being black, by virtue of ancestry, means that you’re more likely to possess this given genetic variant, which is the view of race validated by Olson and Bamshad. Race here is just functioning as a proxy measure of genetic identity, but it’s just one of many possible levels of resolution for looking at humanity. Taking what we might call the Gray’s Anatomy approach, we might treat all humans as the same, so when they get condition X they receive drug Y. But the facts of human variation make a nonsense of this approach, and we have the tools to take a more fine-grained approach to matching drugs with genetic profiles. At the other extreme, the finest resolution we could achieve would be the complete genome sequence of every individual along with knowledge of it varies from every other genome. This is currently unfeasible. But there are intermediate levels of resolution, and race seems to be one. Of course, it would be best to identify the genetic underpinnings of the differential response to BiDil among blacks and whites, and to then test heart failure patients for the presence of these genes, prescribing BiDil to only those with the ‘right’ combination. If this could be achieved, the efficacy of BiDil would increase even further in this tightly defined group. But in the meantime, the facts of ancestry mean that the increased statistical likelihood that black individuals will carry genes that enhance response to BiDil can be used to bring benefit to heart failure patients or at least one race.

It’s time to summarise the case for race. Races are genetically distinct groups: there aren’t such groups to even begin to correspond to standard racial classifications. However, “be used to distinguish human groups having a common heritage and to assign individuals to particular ones”; “Given that people can be sorted broadly into groups using genetic data, do common notions of race correspond to underlying genetic differences among populations? In some cases they do, but often they do not.”. And race has apparent worth in medicine, as the DiBil case demonstrates.

Now, if you can accept the above, and then go back to what Pinker wrote, and what Armand Leroi wrote (on Edge and in the NYT), then I think it will seem a lot more reasonable, a lot less racists, and something worthy of at least thinking – not rejecting out of hand – even if you end up disagreeing on some or all points.

Thinking about race
Whatever your take on all this is, race is clearly an emotive, hot-button topic, and views on race are susceptible to ideological influence in a number of ways. Indeed, Lewontin’s ideological commitments have long been highlighted as colouring his scientific view of the world (a compliment he has returned to his critics). I’ll lay my cards on the table and say that I think that Lewontin is unduly ideological in his writings, and his views on some scientific topics are more motivated by a sincerely held concern for social justice than scientific truth (maybe some would see this as a good compromise, but here I’m assessing a scientific argument free from ideological commitments – but I suppose some will be imputed to me anyway by association with the views above). Jonathan Marks, who was on in the panel on race linked to above, has responded to evolutionary psychology with “Boy, this shit ticks me off” (a sentiment that Lewontin would echo), and this suggests an attitude that would also want to reject the idea of race (I realise this isn’t an argument, more a sociological observation). Interestingly, Mixing Memory also doesn’t like evolutionary psychology, or Steve Pinker in particular. I suspect that the same sort of general outlook motivates both the rejection of ev. psych. and the idea of race (“Yes”, will be the response: “They’re both a load of rubbish!”).

Responding to criticisms of the notion of race doesn’t require this sort of line of enquiry, but I think it’s important to identify why people might be driven by perhaps non-scientific reasons to reject certain findings or ideas (Pinker’s The Blank Slate is an extended attempt at just such an exercise, and also serves as a corrective to some of the misplaced fears surrounding the idea of human nature and the ideas of ev. psych. in particular; I have to say that I think Pinker is spot on here, but again that doesn’t really have anything to do with whether the argument about race is good or not). As I say, I’m trying to understand why people are so keen to reject certain ideas, even those they perhaps do not understand very well.

In the case of Mixing Memory one doesn’t have to look far. An earlier post on MM was entitled ‘I’m a racist: one cognitive scientist’s thoughts on racism part 1’. I’m really not trying to take a cheap shot here by merely putting the title in – the post is not a proud announcement of racist views, but a soul-searching examination of the pernicious effects of growing up in a racist climate even when you explicitly reject the racism you are surrounded by. It’s all commendable stuff. But it does provide a clue as to why MM is so sensitive about issues of race.

I didn’t grow up in an overtly racist environment, attended a mixed school, had and have black and Asian friends (I’m not saying, “See, I couldn’t be racist!”, just pointing out that mixing with people of different ethnicities to me was and is common), and now happen to have a Chinese girlfriend (well, British born, but of Chinese ethnicity). I’m concerned about racism and racial attitudes, but am relaxed about my racial attitudes, in that I really don’t think I have any racial hang-ups or latent racism (I know this could all be self-serving delusion, but I have no evidence that I’m racists and plenty of clues that I’m not!). Perhaps if I was writing from the deep South 40 years ago I would much more sensitive to talking about race, and might want to be able to comfortably ignore the findings of race being produced by science (imagine the science of today was available then). But this doesn’t make the science wrong. As understandable as it is that you don’t want racial differences to be highlighted and magnified because of the potentially harmful uses to which such ideas can be put is not an argument against the validity of the science of race. In any case, the ideas discussed above don’t justify racism at all, and in fact, as Pinker points out, it’s a pretty weak idea of racial equality that depends of the fact of genetic similarity (see Crow on related points) – we shouldn’t treat people well because they share the same genes us as, but because they’re humans and are deserving of the same treatment as ourselves regardless of how similar or different they are from us. And it’s always wrong to treat an individual as if they were an abstract average of the group you or they decide they belong to (whether that be based on race, sex, sexuality and so on).

Perhaps when we’re being listened to by racists we might want to avoid using the phrase ‘racial differences’, but among reasonable people we should be able to discuss the science of race sensibly, without racist connotations, and such discussions might have important health consequences, as the BiDil story illustrates.

Friday, January 27, 2006

A Dawkins Diary

Richard Dawkins has a brief diary entry in The New Statesman that might be of interest.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Root Of All Evil? Part 2 - The Virus Of Faith

Notice: Long post - 4,700 words

Children are the future
The second instalment of Richard Dawkins’s The Root Of All Evil?, subtitled The Virus Of Faith, concluded this bold treatment of religion, which Channel 4 should be applauded for broadcasting. It was a somewhat different programme to the first half: while still as rigorous as ever, it appealed to the heart a little more, especially when encouraging us to reflect on the moral standing of religions.

The show covered three principal topics: the transmission of religious beliefs down the generations, and the moral indoctrination of children; the moral worth of the moral codes written in holy texts, and their plausibility; and the possibility that it is not religion but evolution which is the source of morality, or at the least of the human moral sense. And so where as my previous post was mainly concerned with the argument Dawkins made, in this post I shall talk a bit about how Dawkins tries to get his point across, and some of the characters he talks to.

The title of the programme, The Virus Of Faith, comes from Dawkins’s conception of how religious beliefs are transmitted from person to person. Dawkins doesn’t go into this detail, but I want to flesh out his idea a bit. At the end of The Selfish Gene Dawkins tries to make the point that Darwinian evolution is not constrained to life on earth, that it doesn’t require DNA to operate. Any sort of replicators with certain characteristics will be able to undergo Darwinian evolution. To illustrate this point, Dawkins came up with the idea (and name) of memes – cultural units of inheritance that are to culture what genes are to biology (it should be stressed that Dawkins was not trying to devise a complete theory of human culture, but just using it as an example). Just as genes are passed person to person (parent to offspring, generation to generation), so to are memes.

Memes can take many forms: snatches of songs (the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth, for example), fashions (wearing caps backwards), ideas (those of science, or religion, or myth) and so on. Some are better at getting passed on than other, perhaps by vurtue of being more memorable or emotionally salient. Of course, although genes are only transmitted vertically down generations, from parent to offspring, memes can be passed horizontally as well, from peer to peer, or teacher to pupil. Just as bits of DNA or RNA (wrapped up in a protein coat) that jump from person to person in the way memes do are known as viruses, so Dawkins suggests that virulent memes should be thought of as ‘mind viruses’. Memetics has developed into a serious approach to understanding cultural evolution, but also has many critics. But whatever the status of memetics as a science, it is clear that ideas from a number of sources are passed on to children in a way that looks epidemiologically looks like viral transmission.

And children are born to be susceptible to these viruses. The existence of culture enables us to offload the transmission of valuable information to children from the genome (it can be stored in books, or sayings or songs and so on); and if your environment is laden with valuable information it pays to be a quick learner. Children that experimented with swimming in rivers they’ve been told contain alligators, or who eat berries they have been told are poisonous (and which are), wouldn’t survive. So children have evolved to be open to instruction by authority, because most of the time it pays off. However, it can also be exploited by parasitic beliefs. Hence the title of the programme, and the backdrop to his discussion of religious education.

Dawkins opened the programme with a number of broadsides against religion, stating, accurately in my view, that “Militant faith is on the march all across the world, with terrifying consequences” and “Irrational faith is feeding murderous intolerance around the world”. Dawkins continues: “I believe it can lead to a warped and inflexible morality, and I’m very concerned about the religious indoctrination of children. I want to ask whether ancient mythology should be taught as truth in schools”. The mere fact that this question needs to be asked today – and will strike some as odd – is a symptom of the strength within which religion has much of society’s views in its clutches.

On a number of previous occasions Dawkins has pointed out the fundamental strangeness of having religiously sectarian schools, and makes the point again here. “Isn’t it weird to label a child with its parents’ religion?”, asks Dawkins. What is special about religion such that we think it makes sense to say a child is Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Sikh when they’re too young to even understand the cosmogony that these religions entail? What would we think of parents who described their children as Labour or Tory, Republican or Democrat, Marxist or Anarchist? We’d think they were barmy and merely stating their intention to do their best to foist these views on their developing child. And we might not approve of the idea of sending them to Republican/Democrat or Marxist/Anarchist schools so that they can be isolated from dissenting opinions and reared in a climate in which their parents’ particular ideology is constantly reinforced.

To explore the effects of such isolation, Dawkins visits a Hassidic Jewish community in north London, UK, which is mostly made up of ultra-orthodox Jews that traditionally marry within their sect, and tend to frown upon outside influences (a pretty good strategy for protecting mythical beliefs from critical scrutiny). Here Dawkins talks to Rabbi Gluck, who despite his strong accent (I don’t know what the name for it would be, but it’s distinctly different to your average Londoner) was born and bred in London – testimony to the isolating effects of his religious beliefs. Dawkins asks the rabbi why children should be indoctrinated with specific belief systems, to which the rabbi suggests that the views of religious communities are not imposed on the young – they could be rejected if it was wished. Dawkins doesn’t pick Gluck up on this, but I think it’s a disingenuous response. For sure, people can reject the beliefs of their family, friends, and community, but this usually incurs an enormous personal cost in terms of potentially severed links with friends and family, and even ostracism. Although the beliefs of the community are not forced on children at gunpoint, there’s not much leeway for doubting them and remaining fully integrated with the rest of your community. In this respect I feel sorry for people stuck in religious communities who have doubts – no wonder it seems best to just carry on as if you believe the same things as everyone else, just to make life tolerable.

Dawkins then asks Gluck how many people in his community grow up believing in evolution, to which the rabbi admits that the majority don’t (but, he claims, not through dogma but through studying it and rejecting it on that basis – but I doubt his claim that every Jew has studied and thought about this issue in the depth he implies). Perhaps to demonstrate his ignorance of the status of evolutionary theory (in scientific terms), and what it means to describe something as a theory, Gluck made the usual complaint that “it’s called the theory of natural selection”, so it’s just a theory, perhaps comparable to any other creation story. Dawkins tries to respond by saying that it’s only a theory in a technical sense of being a tentative explanation for the facts of the world (all any scientific explanation can ever logically be, however good it seems). But in another sense evolution is a fact – the fossil record of evolution is a fact in any meaningful sense of the word, and the theory of natural selection is the best explanation we have of this fact. So Dawkins responded with, “Well, I’ll call it the fact of evolution”, to which the rabbi say that of course he would, he’s an evolutionary fundamentalist. This is absurd. Are you some sort of fundamentalist if you believe that the sun is a nuclear reactor? That genetic changes cause cells to become cancerous? That the laws of physics explain why planes fly? I don’t want to be rude, but I can’t help it: this is the sort of intense, unshakeable stupidity that Dawkins has been confronted with throughout these programmes, and it’s infuriating to watch.

But is teaching religion in school really a live danger in the UK, one of the more secular countries around? Yes, according to Dawkins: “Faith schools are increasing in number and influence in our education system, with active encouragement from Tony Blair’s government. There are already 7,000 faith schools in Britain, and over half the new city academies are expect to be sponsored by religious organisations” [for readers not up to speed with British politics and politicians, Blair has openly declared the importance of his faith in his life, and has publicly defended a ‘city academy’ (sponsored by an evangelical millionaire car salesman) that teaches creationist dogma in science classes on the grounds that overall it gets good grades, even if it’s pupils come out believing nonsense. Our Education Secretary Ruth Kelly is a devout Catholic with links to Opus Dei, a bizarre religious sect much publicised through Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – how long Kelly will remain in her post is, at the moment, debatable, after she or her department provided letters to a number of schools saying that specific people, on lists for sex offenders (some of whom were on there for accessing child pornography), were OK to work in those schools].

So Dawkins goes on a visit to Phoenix Academy, which utilises the American A.C.E. system (Accelerated Christian Learning), and where he talks to head teacher Adrian Hawkes, a cheery, smiley, somewhat patronising man with a Christian message to teach. The classes at Phoenix are drenched in religions ideas, and religious imagery is the basis for at least some of the class work (that is, the pupils seemed to be learning the religious dogma by rote, but I could be wrong). After looking through the science curriculum, Dawkins points out to Hawkes that God or Jesus makes an appearance on nearly every page, to which Hawkes replies that they don’t have any separate religious instruction in the school – which of course they don’t need to given this approach, as Dawkins highlights. Hawkes merrily laughs this off, but I think it’s pernicious – it seems that the plan to is to infuse the religious message into everything, so it becomes hard to separate out the fact from the fiction, the myth from the reality, making it difficult to begin to question the religious claims without everything else falling down.

Dawkins also notes that Noah’s Ark makes an appearance in the science curriculum, prompting him to ask, “What’s that got to do with a science lesson?”. Sounding much like a caricature of a post-modern relativist, Hawkes replies, “Well I suppose that depends on your opinion – it could have a lot. If you believe the story it could have a lot to do with science.” This is just bizarre. Does this mean that whatever you chose to believe can automatically relate to science? If science classes are supposed to teach what science has learnt about the world, then Noah’s Ark shouldn’t get a look in. The mere fact that you believe it doesn’t mean it’s relevant to science. What about if you believed in Thor, would that be relevant to science? Of course not, it’d be in a mythology class, where Noah’s Ark belongs. How do you begin to engage with people who think like this? And it gets worse. Hawkes claims that much of what he was taught in science classes as a child we’d toady laugh off as myth, so Dawkins ask for an example. Hawkes comes up with the theory that the moon was formed from matter expelled from the earth. But this isn’t an idea to laugh off, nor is it widely considered to be a myth – it’s perhaps the leading scientific explanation for the origin of the moon. Dawkins does say, “What you should have been taught, I suppose, is that there is a strong current theory that that’s what happened”, but I don’t think the point gets through, and I think Dawkins should have been more forceful in making Hawkes realise that he’s just being ignorant and talking nonsense. It’s actually rather complimentary, however, of Dawkins to assume that his viewers will be able to connect the dots themselves and get the point (and this applies multiple times across both parts of the series).

Sensing where this is going, Hawkes asks Dawkins whether what he really wants to know is whether he believes in the literal truth of Genesis, that God created the world in 7 days. Here’s the following dialogue:

Hawkes: “My answer to that question is: I don’t know [said with what I interpret as a casual, flippant indifference]. Having said that, do I think that if God wanted to do it in 7 days he could? Yeah, I think he could…”

Dawkins: “He could do anything…”

Hawkes: “Yeah, so it’s sort of an academic question, which actually I don’t care about the answer to very much really. Does that makes sense?” [Accompanied by a condescending grin and eye gesture, as if it might be a bit too conceptual for poor old Dawkins.]

Dakiwns: “Kind of, yes it does make sense – it doesn’t make sense to me because I do care about the answer.”

Hawkes: “Why?”

Dawkins: “Because I care about what’s true…”

Hawkes: “I care about what’s true. But I find Christianity encompasses everything about life; Christianity is life. So it’s about everything – it touches education, politics, care, social services, everything.”

So Hawkes doesn’t care whether the earth was formed in 7 days 6,000 years ago, or formed about 4.5 billion years ago in a universe some 15 billion years old? What’s he doing in charge of the scientific instruction of children then? Does it make any difference to Hawkes whether we teach that Shakespeare lived in ancient Greece, or that genes are made of cheese? Yet in spite of his declared indifference to factual veracity, he claims to care about the truth! What sort of epistemological fantasyland is Hawkes living in? How can he be deemed competent to teach children the hard-won knowledge of the physical and social sciences? As for the rest of Hawkes’s response, it doesn’t really mean anything to me, apart from to signify how wrapped up in his religious worldview he is.

So much for scientific instruction. But we haven’t yet got to morality. Dawkins mentions that he noticed in the discussion of AIDS in the science curriculum that there was reference to AIDS as ‘the wages of sin’, and asks, “Is that not mixing health education with moralistic preaching?”; again, here’s the dialogue that follows:

Hawkes: “I suppose the flip-side of that is that if there’s no God or law-giver, why does it matter what I do? Why is rape wrong? Why is paedophilia wrong? Why are any of these things wrong if there’s no law-giver?”

Dawkins: “You’ve just said a very revealing thing. Are you telling me that the only reason you don’t steal and rape and murder is that you’re frightened of God?”

Hawkes: “I think that all [emphasis in spoken sentence] people, if they think they can get away with something, and if there’s no consequences, we actually tend to do it. I think that is the reality – look at the world in which we live, that is the reality.”

Dawkins: “OK, I think we’d better leave it at that.”

Firstly, Hawkes avoids the question, but gets to another very interesting one. It’s a common complaint that atheism is bereft of a moral compass, but this idea can be disabused with a pretty cursory reading of the ethics and moral philosophy literature. Not only does morality not need God, it seems difficult to show how God could even be the basis for morality. Hawkes’s response to the questioning of his moral teachings, if we take him at his word, is to me another sign of the lack of critical self-scrutiny he has subjected his beliefs to – an example of the uncritical, reflection-stunting nature of religious thought diagnosed by Dawkins in the first programme. At the same time, there is a challenge in coming up with a compelling ethical narrative that doesn’t feature God, but science – psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, economics – is making progress on the problems of morality, aided by the conceptual tools of philosophers.

So why should people be allowed to teach a biblically inspired account of the world, or those of any other religious text, in partly state-sponsored schools? Even if we conceded the right to teach whatever ideas you like in a private school, what sort of people or society wants the world to be one in which divisive ideologies can be inculcated in children as true when they have no basis in evidence? What would constitute an argument for such a state affairs? Mere historical inertia is not a reason, or even an excuse.

The Moral Standing Of Religion
As Dawkins mentions in the introduction, he’s very concerned about the moral message that religions impart to children – both its specific content and its inflexible nature. To illustrate the message that some people who derive their morality from religion – in this case Christianity of a distinctly right-wing bent – Dawkins goes to America and visits Pastor Keenan Roberts, who runs The Hell-House Outreach Programme, which uses imagery of hell for “moral policing”, in Dawkins words: “In the United States Christian obsession with sin has spawned ‘Hell Houses’, morality plays come Halloween freak shows in which the evangelical hobbyhorses of abortion and homosexuality are literally demonised.” We’re treated to a rehearsal of the play, directed at 12-year olds (which Roberts thinks is the most appropriate age to see the show). One scene features a woman undergoing a painful abortion, screaming out in agony “You’re hurting me! I changed my mind!”, while callous doctors shout back “It’s only a medical procedure”. Another scene centres on the marriage of two lesbians, a ceremony conducted in a venomous, mocking tone by one of the male Christian actors. It was hard to make out the full lines he was delivering as Dawkins was narrating over the top in parts, but in one section the man says to the lesbians as part of their marriage vows “…burning in a repulsive lust for one another, deceived by all that they were born gay, or joining their lives in this nauseating matrimony.” You get the general idea being conveyed.

Dawkins tries to talk the pastor about the legitimacy of this message, that homosexuality is a sin and needs to be purged from our youth, but the pastor has the faithful fall-back position, “It’s a faith issue, and I believe this is the word of God” type stuff. I was tempted to transcribe some of their conversation, but it’s just a clash of faith-based assertion against an attempt to construct a reasoned argument. To have to listen to that is nauseating if anything.

Dawkins later talks to Reverend Michael Bray, who speaks out in defence of his friend Paul Hill, who was sentenced to death after murdering an abortion doctor and his bodyguard. Although Bray was actually quite articulate and in some ways more serious and intellectual in defence of his beliefs, he was still blinded by his faith, which leads him directly to the justification of murder. And Bray doesn’t stop there; here’s Bray, who Dawkins describes as “fighting to reverse centuries of human progress”, talking to Dawkins about adultery:

Bray: “I think that execution for adultery is not rejected…”

Dawkins: “Not rejected by whom, by you?”

Bray: “No, by the New Testament…”

Dawkins: But what about you, do you favour execution for adultery?”

Bray: “I think it’s fair to say that it’s still a proper punishment that the state ought to prosecute.”

Who wants to put their hands up and agree, and say that this biblically inspired morality is one you’d like to sign up to? Religion doesn’t seem to doing much good in a moral sense, especially among those that take it really seriously. But what about the message in the printed book? Doesn’t that say what’s right, and provide a map for a moral life?

No, says Dawkins – and with the ample evidence from the bible, particularly the Old Testament, the case seems pretty clear: instructions to kill anyone who tries to draw you away to worship other gods, to divert you from Yahweh, your God; complicity in the rape of daughters; and so on. Dawkins concludes that “The God of the Old Testament has got to be the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it, petty, vindictive, unjust, unforgiving, racist, an ethnic cleanser urging his people to acts of genocide.”

But what about Abraham, or Moses? Weren’t they good; didn’t then display a morality to follow? Well, Abraham would kill his son because God asked him to, and Moses loses points for the slaughter of the Midianites. But doesn’t the New Testament make things alright and undo the damage of the Old Testament? Dawkins concedes that Jesus, “or whoever wrote his lines”, was better than most, but claims that it all goes downhill after Jesus. I’ll quote at some length Dawkins’s summation:

“The heart of New Testament theology, invented after Jesus’ death, is St. Paul’s nasty, sadomasochistic doctrine of atonement for original sin. The idea is that God had himself incarnated as a man, Jesus, in order that he should be hideously tortured and executed to redeem all our sins – not just the original sin of Adam and Eve, future sins as well, whether we decide to commit them or not.

If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them? Who’s God trying to impress? Presumably himself, since he is judge and jury, as well as execution victim. To cap it all, according to scientific views of pre-history, Adam, the supposed perpetrator of the original sin, never existed in the first place, an awkward fact which undermines the premise of Paul’s whole tortuously nasty theory.

Oh but of course the story of Adam and Eve was only ever symbolic, wasn’t it? Symbolic?! So Jesus had himself tortured and executed for a symbolic sin by a non-existent individual? Nobody not brought up in the faith could reach any other conclusion than ‘barking mad’.”

Of course, not all Christians interpret the bible in such a literal, fundamentalist way. So Dawkins comes back to the UK to talk to a liberal intellectual Christian, Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford. (A previous Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, sometimes known as Soapy Sam because of his slippery debating style, came to blows with Darwin’s Bulldog, T. H Huxley, over evolution 146 years ago. In June 1860, less than a year after the publication of The Origin of Species, the two debated in a packed Oxford lecture theatre. Wilberforce, attempting to mock Huxley, enquired whether he would prefer to think of himself descended from an ape on his grandfather’s or grandmother’s side. Legend has it that Huxley turned to a neighbour and said, “The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands”, and replied to the room that he was not ashamed of a simian ancestry but “would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth.” Upon hearing the news that Wilberforce had died after sustaining a head injury falling from a horse, Huxley acerbically responded that at last the bishop’s brain had come into contact with reality.)

Harries is amiable and reflective, but he occupies an odd position: he accepts some parts of the bible as true, and rejects others. Some would say he betrays reason and faith equally. He also believes that we need to revise religious beliefs in light of new scientific knowledge. On the issue of homosexuality, Harries suggest that the views expressed in the bible need not be taken at face value because they were written at time when knowledge of homosexuality was limited. Now that we know that there is a genetic component to homosexuality, that some people are in a sense born gay, we need to revise out thoughts on it. Firstly, why it should be that homosexuality is wrong if it’s a matter of choice rather than biology? Second, why, if the bible is the word of God, is its interpretation affected by the accumulation of facts – surely God had all the facts to hand in issuing his decrees? He could have anticipated the facts that would be discovered and devise codes of conduct consonant with those facts. Thirdly, in the moral realm, if we can decide what to accept from the bible and what to reject on the basis of non-biblical grounds, then what do we need the bible for? We must already have the tools for identifying what is right and wrong if we can be selective about what we take from the bible – so we don’t need it! So while Dawkins agrees with much the bishop says, he’s left asking why he sticks with the Christianity at all. Harries replies that it’s possible to an intellectually fulfilled rationalist as well as a person of faith, but as Dawkins says, this seems like fence sitting. Faith is the antithesis to reason, so how do you make them bedfellows? Perhaps by taking neither fully seriously.

Our Moral Sense
So Dawkins thinks that religion is a poor source of morality, and I have to agree. So are we all left amoral nihilists? Well, not necessarily. It’s quite possible, indeed extremely likely, that evolution, both genetic and cultural (though Dawkins stresses the genetic), has furnished humans with a moral sense, a set of moral resources. The final part of the show, which looked at the evolutionary roots of morality, could be expanded into a series of it’s own, though I won’t say too much about it here as it would only be superficial anyway.

I was pleased to see a guy I used to know at the London School of Economics, Oliver Curry, appear on the programme to talk to Dawkins about the moral systems of chimpanzees, or least the social behaviours that look like building blocks of human morality. Chimpanzees have complex social systems based around kin groups and cooperative and strategic alliances with non-kin. Reciprocity, teamwork and other kinds of prosocial behaviour are present in chimp societies, and can validly be seen as a foundation for building a human morality on – and remember, nearly all the moral virtues are prosocial virtues. Although Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene, he doesn’t believe that evolution necessarily creates selfish creatures, and this is not an inconsistency in his position. He believes that natural selection has imbued humans with a moral sense that leads to anomalously high levels of altruism towards non-kin and strangers. We don’t need to posit a God to have put a moral sense into us – evolution could have well done it (this is a big topic, again for another post). My only complaint is that Dawkins, even if he doesn’t rule them out, doesn’t seem to give enough weight to gene-culture co-evolutionary mechanisms, or cultural group selection ideas, in accounting for altruism, and does not really consider the subtle psychology of human cooperation and altruism that is needed to explain the experimental findings on human behaviour.

Dawkins ended the show with a paean to an atheistic, humanistic worldview. We’re lucky to be alive, so we should live each day to the full, appreciating the time we have before our mortal flames peter out. There might not be a God to provide meaning to our lives, but we can do that ourselves – it just takes a bit of effort. And rejecting God doesn’t mean deadening our senses to the wonder of creation (used in a metaphorical sense, of course): the natural world, as revealed by the natural sciences, is teeming with wonder, with the beautiful, the awe-inspiring and the humbling – “How much more do you want?”, asks Dawkins. The universe, and all it contains, should keep me going until my time is up.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Neuroeconomics: The pleasure of other people’s pain

A paper recently published online in Nature describes how our empathy for other people, and our responses to seeing them in pain, can be modulated by prior interactions in which we deem them to have treated us unfairly (Singer, T. et al. 2006). Even better, they’ve identified brain areas underlying this modulation, illuminating how empathy functions and how it is controlled. Perhaps more controversially, they revealed an intriguing sex difference in how empathy is modulated in light of experience.

This work ties in with recent work on the neural basis of ‘altruistic punishment’, a notion used to explain how human cooperation is maintained in the face of selfish temptations, and evolutionary theorising about the nature of human sociality. And it is also, as far as I read it, informative about how moral intuitions and more explicit knowledge – reasoning even – interact in guiding our emotional, or affective, responses, and the moral judgements we come to about people.

The human capacity for empathy is at the core of our social nature. It enables us to transcend our own egoistic stance and stand in the shoes of others, and see the world from their perspective – a first step towards a genuinely moral stance. In fact, when we imagine ourselves to be in pain, for instance, areas of the brain that are active when people really are in pain become activated, suggesting that the pain we feel when considering the distress of others in not just a metaphorical pain. But does a certain signal of distress or pain always generate the same empathic response, or is it muted or amplified depending on what you know and think about the person on the receiving end of pain? That’s what the current research looked at, but before we get to that I just want to sketch the context in which this work was done.

The pleasure and pain of games
Economists have devised a number of ‘games’ (not particularly fun ones) to explore the human tendency to cooperate, and the associated notions of fairness, revenge and punishment. One of the most famous of these games is the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

In this game, two players imagine themselves to be criminals caught for some crime, but with only enough evidence to convict both of a lesser charge than the real crime entails. If both plead ‘not guilty’, both will get 2 years. If one implicates the other, however, the ‘cheat’ (who ‘defected’ on his partner in crime) will get off scot-free, whereas the schmuck who kept quiet (and ‘cooperated’ with his partner) will get 30 years (if you both cheat on each other you both get 10 years). What should you do? Well, if your partner keeps quiet, and so do you, you both get 2 years; if instead you talk you get off scot-free. What if you partner talks? Then you’ll get 10 years if you also talk and 30 years if you don’t. If your partner cooperates with you and says nothing, you’re better off talking (get clean away with it) than not (2 years); and if you’re ratted out, you’re still better off talking (10 years) than not (30 years). Whatever your partner does, you do better by defecting, and implicating your partner. So the rational thing to de is defect, or talk.

But this leads to a sub-optimal outcome for both parties: 10 years each, instead of the possible 2 if both had kept quiet. The temptation to get an even better deal for yourself leads you to a course of action that leads to a far worse outcome, one even worse than if you’d cooperated! This is why it is a dilemma. To the extent that people deviate from this behaviour they might be said to be irrational (but, I would say, only if you consider rationality in a fairly narrow way) – and humans do deviate from it. They are much more likely to cooperate than the logic above would dictate (because the logic of cooperation is more complicated than the straightforward self-interest assumed above).

There are possible ways out of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, though I won’t go into them here. The important point is that studies with humans in which cooperation and defection lead to monetary rewards rather than prison sentences (but with the same logical structure) have revealed that we’re much more cooperative than the cold logic above would suggest (the most recent research on the routes to cooperation, and the sorts of behaviours and faculties this entails, is a topic for a future post). The flip side to our propensity to cooperate is a tendency to get angry when we’re treated unfairly (hardly front-page news, but it’s an important aspect to incorporate into economic and evolutionary models). Humans are at times driven by revenge, spite, and a desire to punish people or see people punished. And economists have devised a game to explore these motives as well.

The Ultimatum Game is has largely replaced the Prisoner’s Dilemma as the poster child of human irrationality. In the Ultimatum Game, two players are each assigned a role that will determine how they will split some money (say £100) provided by a researcher. One player is designated the proposer, and is given the money and told to decide how to split the money (say, keep £70 and give the other player £30) – but with a proviso: the other player can accept this offer, in which case the money is split as proposed and the game is over, or they can reject the offer, in which case no one gets anything.

Economics traditionally analysed the problem like this. Some money is better than no money, all things being equal, and so people should accept whatever they’re offered, if their goal is to maximise their monetary gain. Now, economics would also traditionally assume that both players, in is this context called agents, would be perfectly rational and therefore realise this simple fact – something is better than nothing. The proposer would therefore know that whatever offer is made will be accepted, so will offer the smallest amount possible (say £1) – which will be accepted (in a perfectly rational world, or rational as construed by classical economics).

Except this isn’t how people play. People generally offer around half the money, though there is quite a bit of cross-cultural variation. And people don’t play it with cold logic; they feel hurt and offended when they are offered a small amount of money, and spite drives them to reject the offer so the tightwad doesn’t benefit either. Researchers working in the relatively young field of neuroeconomics, which under one reading is the study of the neural basis of economic decision-making (another interpretation is the application of economic models to decision-making processes in the brain), have explored the neural basis of decision-making in the Ultimatum Game (Sanfey, A. G. et al. 2003). When players are offered unfair offers (around 20% of the pot), areas of the brain linked to emotion and anxiety (anterior insula) and cognition (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) become active, suggesting perhaps a tug-of-war between an immediate emotional response (a negative one) and rational thinking about the situation (possible benefit). Most tellingly, the rejection of low offers is associated with increased activity in the anterior insula, suggesting that in these cases emotion wins out (of course, the interaction between reason and emotion will be more suitable and intricate than the mere balancing act I’m implying here).

Altruistic punishment has also been studied in the brain (de Quervain, D. J.-F. et al. 2004). In some games players are given the choice to punish defectors and cheats, or people who otherwise don’t play fair, at some expense to themselves. It has also been shown that being on the receiving end of punishments decreases the likelihood of future defections. Games can be set up so that someone who incurs a cost to punish a cheat is unable to benefit from any increased cooperation and fairness induced in the punishee, so you might expect punishment to disappear (what’s the point if you don’t benefit?) - and yet they’ll still do the punishing. Because the benefits of this punishing accrue to someone else (in the form of increased cooperation in interactions with other people), it is called altruistic punishment. The idea is that you’re not driven by a rational calculation of mere self-interest – you feel emotionally bothered at the transgression of a moral norm, and you are motivated to seek to punish the offender (again, the topic of the evolution of altruistic punishment, and the closely related idea of ‘strong reciprocity’, are beyond the scope of this post). One study on altruistic punishment suggested that people are motivated to punish people that violate the norms of fairness they’re accustomed to in economic games, and derive satisfaction from meting out such punishment, much like achieving any other goal (de Quervain, D. J.-F. et al. 2004).

The empathic brain
We’ve gone from empathy to punishment, and it’s time to come full circle, back to empathy. The present study looks at how empathy is affected by previous experience in the Prisoner’s Dilemma. First, an experimental subject played the Prisoner’s Dilemma with a confederate of the experimenter, who played either fairly or unfairly. Then, each subject was brain scanned while seeing footage of the person they played with receiving an electric shock, similar in intensity to a bee sting, in order to measure their empathic response (activity in certain brain areas). This brain imaging data was then correlated with whether they were treated fairly or unfairly by the person they played with to see if there were any associations.

When players had experienced a fair game, viewing the electric shock treatment cause empathy-related activation of pain-related brain areas (the fronto-insular and anterior cingulated cortices). This was true of both sexes (remember, there’s a fascinating sex difference to reveal yet). Things were different when males and females watched cheats getting their comeuppance. Females showed a slight reduction in empathy-related activity when watching an unfair player, but men showed a markedly reduced level of empathic activity in the same situation. What’s more, this reduction in empathy in men was associated with increased activity in reward-related areas, and this activity correlated with an expressed desire for revenge. Because they felt a greater desire for revenge, they felt less for the person when they got what they opresumably saw as their just deserts. At least for men, learning from experience modulates how much empathy we muster for people in distress depending on whether they’ve treated us well or badly in the past. This might seem obvious (although the neural underpinnings are far from obvious, and need empirical fleshing out), but what isn’t obvious is why there should be sex differences. I have some highly speculative ideas, but I’ll save those for a later post.

These conclusions, at least as far as men are concerned, fit in with other work on the ‘moral sentiments’ and economic models in which social preferences are shaped by learning from experience. And they also tie in with recent work on the neurology of more explicitly moral judgement formation.

Josh Greene has done some excellent work in this area, and the basic gist of his research is that emotion and reason interact in much the same way as empathy and the desire for punishment do in the experiment above (see my article in New Scientist for more). Philosophers have devised a range of moral dilemmas designed to illuminate the nature, or limits, of moral reasoning, as well as our moral intuitions. Oddly, people often say they would behave differently in moral dilemmas that have the same logical form but are framed in different ways.

A classic example is the runaway train dilemma. In this scenario, a train is hurtling down a track, ahead of which are 5 people tied to the track. You’re on the side of the tracks, and there’s a switch you can flick to divert the train down a track on which there is just one person. What do you do? Most people say they would flick the switch, on the utilitarian principle that it is worse for five people to die than one. But consider a variant of this dilemma. The train is heading down the track, and again there are five people stuck on the lines. This time you’re on a footbridge in between the train and the imminent fatalities. Your only option this time is to throw the huge guy standing next to you over the bridge and in front of the train. What do you do now? Nothing – it’s just wrong? Push him – it’s the same problem in the abstract? Even if you say you’d push the guy, on the same utilitarian grounds as before, you might hesitate a bit before deciding that (people who decide to push usually take longer to come to their decision). In fact, some people just wouldn’t push the man – perhaps because ‘authoring’ events is worse than merely ‘editing’ events.

Brain imaging studies reveal that the footbridge scenario activates brain areas associated with emotion that are not triggered to the same degree by the switch-flicking case, and that emotion and reason in a sense compete in coming to a decision about what it is right to do (Greene, J. D. et al. 2001). Much like the increased activity in reward-related brain areas in the empathy game, leaning towards deciding to push the man from the footbridge is associated with increased activity in cognition-related areas, such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. It’s as if it takes great cognitive effort to be able to overcome the emotional revulsion of pushing someone to their death, even if this is to save five others. It takes longer to come to a decision that involves overcoming the emotional response generated by considering up-close-and-personal violence, pain or distress.

So both emotion and reason are deeply implicated in guiding our moral decision-making, and it’s clearly not just one or the other in the driving seat. And of course, the two interact, as this new research shows. Being treated unfairly – perhaps even just knowing some acts unfairly – can reduce our empathy for that person, which plausibly would affect our moral attitude towards seeing that person suffer certain forms of punishment or degradation.

And this possibility seems to have a wider implication – the emotional forces that tango with reason aren’t just affected at the time of making a moral judgement; they’re activation depends on prior experience, learning and knowledge. In this way, we can see how it is possible, by degrees, to begin to regard perhaps certain groups, or types of individual, as not of the same moral status as ourselves: if we either know, or least believe (and this could be for specious reasons) that they are in some way deserving of punishment, then less empathy, and therefore sympathy, will be evoked by seeing these people suffer degradation, humiliation, or, perhaps at the extreme, death. We won’t be as morally engaged with their plight as we otherwise would be, and this can set the stage for the acceptance of more beliefs that further justify their lowly moral status. This is a scary prospect, and unfortunately has historical precedent. Various groups — Jews, Christians and Muslims, people of varying ethic origins, and a variety of social, cultural and political groups — have been stigmatised, harmed and mistreated, and been subject to systematic abuse. This has often been possible through a reduction in empathy, or a complete absence of empathy, for the victims of the perpetrated prejudice, abuse or genocide — a dreadful under-use of the human moral resources. Such short-circuiting of these resources, empathy in particular, has surely played a part in such atrocities as Rwanda and between the Serbs and Croats. Understanding how our moral psychology works is surely an important goal, but it also has dangers. If we know how moral psychology works, and how moral concern can be manipulated and re-focused, then we have a potentially powerful tool for helping to manipulate views about all sorts of groups in society, perhaps terrorists being the most resonant example today. Of course terrorism can only be condemned, but it’s perhaps all too easy to slide from moral judgements about terrorist to the groups we perceive them to belong to, and before we know it we may be sanctioning all sorts of unwanted actions against these groups. If we are aware of our potential biases and prejudices, then perhaps we have a chance to combat them.

de Quervain, D. J.-F., Fischbacher, U., Treyer, V., Schellhammer, M., Schnyder, U., Buck, A. & Fehr, E. The neural basis of altruistic punishment. Science 305, 1254–1258 (2004).

Greene, J. D., Sommerville, R. B., Nystrom, L. E., Darley, J. M., & Cohen, J. D. An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral Judgment. Science 293, 2105–2108 (2001).

Sanfey, A. G., Rilling, J. K., Aronson, J. A., Nystrom, L. E. & Cohen, J.D. The neural basis of economic decision-making in the Ultimatum Game. Science 300, 1755–1758 (2003).

Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J. P., Stephan, K. E., Dolan, R. J. & Frith, C. D. Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature doi:10.1038/nature04271 (2006).

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Hollywood to homosexualise America!

The Christian Right is in a tizzy again, this time about the moral and political state of Hollywood, reports the Times (London):

“Once again, the media elites are proving that their pet projects are more important than profit,” Janice Crouse, of Concerned Women for America, said. “None of the three movies — Capote, Transamerica or Brokeback Mountain — is a box office hit. Brokeback Mountain has barely topped $25 million (£14.2 million) in ticket sales. If America isn’t watching these films, why are they winning the awards?”

What? It’s often a good thing when other principles are put before profit – it’s a shame that the bottom line is such a determinant of what gets done in a range of creative endeavours. And is she seriously suggesting that a film’s revenue determines it’s artistic merit? It seems that what she really means is “These films contain themes and imagery that I don’t like – hell, America doesn’t like – as reflected by their revenues. So who are a bunch of media elites to say that these are good films or contain appropriate messages?”.

Right-wing radio talk show hosts also took pot shots at the Globes yesterday. Stephen Bennett, of Straight Talk Radio, said: “When Hollywood is pumping out anti-family movies with sexually explicit, twisted and perverse themes that glorify homosexuality, transsexuality and every other kind of sexual immorality — then awarding itself for doing so — Middle America better take note. Last night Hollywood exposed its own corrupt agenda. [It] is no doubt out on a mission to homosexualise America.”

Homosexuals?! Transsexuals?! We’re all going to hell in a handbasket, aren’t we?! (I presume ‘Straight’ Talk’ is meant to mean that there’ll be no homosexual banter on their air time.) What lunacy.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism and Dogmatism: An Anatomy Of Some Terms

In a comment on a previous post, a reader wrote:

I've never liked the word "agnostic" anyways. To me it has always been just a weasely way to get out of being asked if you believe in God.

Broken down to its latin roots, "agnostic" means one who does not know. In my experience, no one ever asks you if you know if there's a god. They ask if you believe there's a god. Answering "agnostic" doesn't answer the question in the least. You either believe (theist) or don't believe (atheist). None of us know one way or the other, so we are all agnostics. The term therefore conveys zero information and isn't even worth uttering.

I see the appeal of this approach, but I think it’s based on a mistake that I’ll spell out below. In any case, I though it provided an excuse for looking at what we mean by the terms theist, atheist, and agnostic, which seems appropriate given the previous discussions about Dawkins’s recent programme.

Theism is straightforward: a theist believes in the existence of a God or gods. Atheism looks similarly straightforward: an atheist believes that God(s) does not exist – but this can be taken a number of ways, as we’ll look at. Similarly, an agnostic is someone who does not claim to know, or is undecided about, whether God(s) exists.

The suggestion that theists and atheists are similar in holding beliefs about the existence of God(s), as well as in not being justified to claim knowledge about these matter, seems to me to be based on a mistaken view of the relationship between belief and knowledge.

Although it’s not spelled out, it seems that the suggestion “You either believe (theist) or don't believe (atheist). None of us know one way or the other, so we are all agnostics” is based on the idea that a belief is merely something that you think likely to be right or wrong, whereas knowledge is something more certain, more indubitable. But I don’t think these interpretations accord with normal usage of the words, and lack a philosophical justification.

Some things we might claim to know for certain. According to the logical positivists (a primarily European school of philosophy centred in Vienna – it was sometimes known as the Vienna Circle – popular in the first half of the 20th century, but less influential after some heavy attacks), statements such as ‘2 + 2 = 4’ we can know for certain so long as we understand what the terms mean. If you know what ‘2’ and ‘4’ mean, and what the ‘+’ denotes, you can see the logical truth of the claim. You don’t have to go out and do an experiment to confirm it. Similarly, you don’t need to go into the wild to confirm that a vixen is a female fox; it’s true by definition. In these cases, your knowledge is certain.

But once we move outside of these logical realms, and into the real world, we lose this certainty. Anything we believe about the real world could, in principle, need to be revised in light of new discoveries. It is always possible that another explanation, laying unthought-of, better accounts for the world, or that new facts will emerge that are inconsistent with our best current explanations. Even the things most of us would bet our houses on, such as the sun rising tomorrow, are not grounded in logical certainty (the famous problem of induction). It is logically possible that the laws of physics might change overnight, throwing the solar system into chaos. So we’re not certain, but I think most of us would say we know that the sun is going to rise tomorrow.

If this lack of certainty precluded us from claiming to have knowledge of the world around us, then we’d have robbed the word ‘knowledge’ of all real meaning – for we could only claim to know logical truths, tautologies completely obvious to an omniscient mind. So what is knowledge? Well, belief that you hold to very probably true (I realise the subjective move here) in light of good reasons (again, a subjective element). We might want to add that the belief needs also to be true, but this has always struck me as an odd requirement.

Imagine I have a belief, say that life evolved on earth. Why do I believe this? Because it is the best explanation of the evidence presented by the world, and the theory that the belief is based on is the best explanation for the problems any such theory would have to solve. Do I say I know that life on earth evolved? Yes, in as much as I can know anything. Then what if I want to determine whether I additionally ‘know’ this fact, as well as merely believing it? I’d have to determine whether my belief was true independent of my reasons for believing that it is true. What process would or could I undertake to determine this? I could search for further supporting reasons, but I’d be back where I started. The problem is that I can’t get outside of myself and the world and then look in to see whether on top of the reasons I have for holding a belief to be true (and therefore constitute knowledge) the belief is, in fact, true – if I could, what need would I have of the other reasons? And what would unbridled access to the truth be? All I’ve got to assert that I think something is true, and therefore claim to know it, are reasons. What more could I have? There isn’t any reason-, argument- or evidence-independent way of identifying truth. The best we can do is corroborate our beliefs with others, and look at how they hang together with the rest of our beliefs, and at some point make a call about what you think you know.

So, some of my beliefs are less well supported, and I don’t claim to have knowledge on these matters, and others are supported to a degree that in the only real sense it could mean I know these things. Where to draw the line between believing and knowing is tricky and takes us into epistemological waters that I am ill-equipped to chart, but the distinction along a continuum seems to be valid, and to enable us to talk about knowing anything at all apart from logical truths.

So what does all this have to do with theism, atheism, and agnosticism? Well the first point is that it is not invalid to say that you believe in God(s) and also that you know (in the non-certain sense) that it/they exist, or to say that you believe, and also know (in the non-certain sense), that they do not exist. Similarly, although it might seem weak willed, it is also valid to adopt a third position, of not claiming to believe or know either way – agnosticism.

It is true that neither theists nor atheists should claim to know whether God (assume the plural as well from here!) exists in the strong sense of absolute certainty. Such certainty is surely going to far (although listening to the faithful and the devout makes it clear that many religious folk have a certainty that they’re not really entitled to). But this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t claim knowledge in the weaker sense of ‘best explanation and highly likely to be true’. So if agnosticism is taken to mean not knowing, in any sense, then there is no need for theists or atheists to call themselves agnostic. And agnosticism stands as a useful and conceptually distinct term to designate a position between theism and atheism.

So the theist claims to know that God exists – but on what basis? Well, some religious people do employ arguments, such as the argument from design. Others hold that they know through the mysterious power of faith (I don’t understand at least). The atheist is more likely to respond with arguments, reasons and evidence, and to claim that to extent that there are religious explanations for the world, they are far outgunned by scientific explanations. Further, the atheist is likely to claim that the evidence not only speaks for the scientific explanation, but also speaks against the theistic explanation. To the extent that theists’ beliefs are predicated on pure faith, then it is hard to engage in any meaningful debate about whether it is likely that God exists, because by introducing faith they cut themselves free from the chains of reason and argument in float off into their own orbit where they can only hear each other.

There is another, and quite different, way in which you might be an agnostic or an atheist that is not based on weighing up arguments and evidence. You might find the question of God’s existence to be meaningless in metaphysical sense. If it was deemed in advance, as faith does, that nothing you found out about the world should be taken to refute your belief in God, then you can ask what the claim that God exists really entails, what factual significance it is supposed to convey. In another context, Dan Dennett has used the example of gremlins in a carburettor to illustrate the complaint. Imagine someone proposed that carburettors got their power from seven invisible, massless, undetectable gremlins. How should you treat this claim? Well, you wouldn’t treat it like a normal empirical claim about the world, because you can’t undertake any physical tests for their presence. In an important sense, the claim has no real factual content – and because it is supposed to relate to the factual world it is literally meaningless, even though it is grammatically comprehensible. Compare it with the claim that there are ten gremlins in carburettors. How would you adjudicate between these claims? What difference would it would it make to hold one or the other? A belief that makes no difference to anything has no factual content, and can’t be considered to make a meaningful assertion. It’s not even proposing something that is in principle up for debate, so you just reject the whole gremlin question. Ditto for some conceptions of God.

Because in one sense the rejection of the God as an inherently confused concept entails not taking the notion of God seriously enough to consider evidence in favour or against its existence, is seems like a form of agnosticism, and maybe some people would like to see it this way. But it differs from the agnosticism characterised earlier, in that it is not about sitting on the fence, but in denying that there is fence there at all. So the question is considered meaningless and therefore pointless. But isn’t this also a form of atheism? Possibly, and probably yes. If you accept this line of reasoning, then you certainly do not believe that there is a God – so this non-theism, or a-theism. But it is clearly not the same as saying that while you accept the logical possibility of God, you think that the arguments and empirical evidence support the claim that there is, in fact, no God.

So, to wrap up. You can be a theist in at least two ways: by believing and knowing with complete certainty that God exists, presumably on the basis of faith, because empirical evidence would never justify such an extension (this dogmatic theism should be universally regarded as an unjustified position); or by believing that in all probability God exists, but that you could be wrong, however unlikely you think that to be the case. And you can be an agnostic in at least two ways: by accepting the possibility of there being a God, but remaining unswayed either way by the arguments and evidence (a somewhat spineless and unthinking position, because serious reflection seems to take people either down a naturalistic, scientific route or something more faith-based or mysterious); or by rejecting the question as meaningless and effectively pleading the fifth on it – you’re not going to engage with a pointless concept. Finally, you can be an atheist in perhaps four senses. First, you reject the concept of the God(s) of traditional religions as meaningless and are therefore a priori incapable of believing in God, and are therefore a non-theist or a-theist. Second, you accept the logical possibility that God exists, but claim to know with absolute certainty that God does not in fact exist; this is as unjustified as the dogmatically certain theist’s position, and dogmatisms, to paraphrase Ferris Bueller, are not good in my opinion. Third, you accept the logical possibility of God but claim that the best arguments and evidence strongly suggest that God does not exist – while admitting to a lack of certainty about this (even if it’s the thing you think is most likely to be true of all your beliefs); such an admission doesn’t mean you can’t talk about knowing that God doesn’t exist, but it needs to be clear what you intend by ‘know’. Fourth, you might reject the existence of God simply because you don’t think there are any good reasons for asserting that God exists – it’s not that you’ve balanced the reasons for and against and come out in favour against, but that there is nothing arguing in favour of God, and therefore there’s nothing to way up. Nearly anyone who thinks this probably also thinks that what evidence there is speaks against the existence of God, but I think that it’s possible to distinguish these motivations for describing yourself as an atheist.

How do I come out according to this classification? I am not a dogmatic atheist, the second version above, for sure. Most of the time I’m definitely an atheist in the third sense – I think the best evidence and theories argue against God – as well as in the second sense – there are no good reasons for asserting the existence of God, or at least what reasons there were have been superseded by scientific explanations. But I’m not always an atheist in just the third and fourth senses, in that sometimes I’m confronted with a conception of God that is more like a gremlin. In this case I'm an atheist in something more like the first sense. I don’t know how to even begin to engage in a meaningful dialogue about whether this proposed entity exists, which entails a denial of the theism that this entity’s existence is the basis of. So in this sense I’m a non-theist, or a-theist when confronted with a certain conception of God.

The overall message I guess is that when applying labels to ourselves, as it seems we have to, it might be worth checking that that we're using the terms in the same way as people listening to us, as a lot of the criticisms of atheism in particular are based on a conflation of different notions of atheism. For instance, the usual claim of critics of atheism that science doesn’t disprove good is only relevant to the dogmatic atheist, and I think we can agree that dogmatisms are bad. It has no force against atheism that makes the weaker claim that the best arguments and evidence point to God not existing, because this doesn’t claim to have established beyond all doubt that God does not exist. It admits that science hasn’t disproved God’s existence – but it doesn’t have to! We all claim to know things for which we haven’t disproved any number of alternative accounts (perhaps because the account cannot be disproved in principle), but that’s not what knowing things is about. We should all learn to live with uncertainty, and acknowledge it in cases even when the uncertainty is very small, as it is for many, if not, most, atheists.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Some links to articles I've written

I've added some links to the sidebar in case anyone wanted to read some things I've published on topics which I'll be covering on this blog. The New Scientist article requires a subscription.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Reply to Bunting's review of 'The Root Of All Evil?'

The Saturday before Dawkins’s programme aired, Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian dedicated a column to debunking Dawkins’s claims about, and critique of, religion. She’d seen the programmes and I hadn’t, so I waited until the first one aired and I had written a review before writing a response to Bunting’s article. I’ve quoted extensively to make sure the original points were preserved (and in fact most of the quotations following directly on from one another). So, taking it from the top:

“On Monday, it's Richard Dawkins's turn (yet again) to take up the cudgels against religious faith in a two-part Channel 4 programme, The Root of All Evil? His voice is one of the loudest in an increasingly shrill chorus of atheist humanists; something has got them badly rattled.”

I’d say so. The man in charge of the world’s only super-power is a devout Christian whose religious beliefs inform his moral agenda at home, from stem cells research and contraceptive drugs to capital punishment, as well as his international policy. The very phrase ‘axis of evil’ carries religious undertones, and it seems clear that a religiously inspired vision drives Bush in his war on terror and in Iraq. Other people, equally if not more devout, believe in an opposite states of affairs, and some of them are willing to blow themselves up to achieve that state of affairs. Of course, the state of affairs is often political a political goal, but the religious justification for acts of terrorism, to the extent there is one, underpin the extreme political activism. I think suicide bombers are sincere in thinking that their acts are morally justified – but this morality is buttressed by faith in their religious commitments. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church condemns the use of condoms in countries stricken by HIV – and on the basis of what? Manifest falsehoods.

“They even turned their bitter invective on Narnia.”

Well if you don’t think Christian theology in particular, or religious belief in general, should be inculcated in young children, like you might not want fascist, racist or sexist messages beamed into your kid’s head, then you are likely to find films with strong Christian undertones aimed at children unsettling, much like you would find implicit racist ideologies portrayed in a kid’s film offensive. I’m not equating religion with racism or fascism – I’m just saying that if you don’t think that it’s an appropriate thing to bring children up believing, and with good reason, then you will object to such films. It shouldn’t be such a surprise, though of course the surprise is feigned and the intent is to ridicule and trivialise.

“By all means, let's have a serious debate about religious belief, one of the most complex and fascinating phenomena on the planet, but the suspicion is that it's not what this chorus wants. Behind unsubstantiated assertions, sweeping generalisations and random anecdotal evidence, there's the unmistakable whiff of panic; they fear religion is on the march again.”

So what are these unsubstantiated assertions, these sweeping generalisations and random anecdotal evidence? The atheist’s critique of religion, particularly Dawkins’s, is of course general in nature, but it is based on an argument, and contrasts the religious mode of gaining understanding of the world (and I use the term loosely) with a scientific approach. Calling this critique a series of names doesn’t refute it, or make it go away.

“There's an aggrieved frustration that they've been short-changed by history; we were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now. Secularisation was supposed to be an inextricable part of progress. Even more grating, what secularisation there has been is accompanied by the growth of weird irrationalities from crystals to ley lines. As GK Chesterton pointed out, the problem when people don't believe in God is not that they believe nothing, it is that they believe anything.”

Fair enough, some of us lament the fact that the ideals and philosophy of the Enlightenment have not illuminated everyone and everywhere – and I wouldn’t want to achieve this through coercion. But so what? So does every person who desires some state of affairs but is frustrated in their goals. The same could be said of the religious community, lamenting the loss of faith and religion in people’s lives, and fearing a consequent slide into a moral abyss as the moral investment made by Christ’s sacrifice runs dry. And GK Chesterton’s quip, cited by Bunting in the title to her column, gets it precisely backwards: it is faith that enables you to believe in anything, even things contradicted by the evidence of your sense or powers of reason; an atheist of a scientific bent will not believe just anything, but those things which the best evidence and theories point to existing. Of course, we’re fallible in this pursuit – there’s only so much we can hold in our heads, how much time we can spend assessing evidence and theories – but it’s anything but believing in anything.

“There's an underlying anxiety that atheist humanism has failed. Over the 20th century, atheist political regimes racked up an appalling (and unmatched) record for violence. Atheist humanism hasn't generated a compelling popular narrative and ethic of what it is to be human and our place in the cosmos; where religion has retreated, the gap has been filled with consumerism, football, Strictly Come Dancing and a mindless absorption in passing desires. Not knowing how to answer the big questions of life, we shelve them - we certainly don't develop the awe towards and reverence for the natural world that Dawkins would want. So the atheist humanists have been betrayed by the irrational, credulous nature of human beings; a misanthropy is increasingly evident in Dawkins's anti-religious polemic and among his many admirers.”

Mao’s China, Stalin’s Russia, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia – these aren’t good adverts for atheistic regimes. But the link between not believing in a God and committing mass murder and genocide seems less clear than the line from religious faith to extreme Islamism and suicide bombings. For sure, people that don’t believe in God are capable of atrocities, just as religious people are. But there’s nothing intrinsically divisive about not believing in a God – after all, there are many things we all don’t believe in, but they’re not divisive factors in our lives, so why should not believing in a God be, unless you happen to meet those who fanatically do? The idea might be that without a God to ground your moral principles in morality is seen to be an illusion, and then you’re then free to carry out whatever moral barbarities you chose – and further that humans tend to choose mass killing. I don’t buy the argument that morals need to be grounded in religion – indeed, my position starts from a argued rejection of religion – nor that without God humans are complete savages. Indeed, the emerging story about the origins of morality, coming from evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, gene-culture studies, anthropology, behavioural and neuro-economics is what I’d direct Bunting to as a potential basis for a “compelling popular narrative and ethic of what it is to be human and our place in the cosmos”.

And what about the charge that consumerism fills the gap of religion? Has Bunting heard of a place called the USA? The richest country in the world, and one of the most religious, it is very much a consumerism-driven society. Even Christians have pointed out the incompatibilities of scripture and the pursuit of wealth among their religious brethren, against which the Bible has more severe strictures than against than homosexuality, which gets the rich Christian Right so fired up. Bunting’s idea seems to be that losing your religion creates a void that is filled by pointless trivia and materialism, as if religious belief pushes those things out, but the evidence is clear that devout religion is compatible with consumerism on a massive scale, drug and alcohol abuse, child abuse and all sorts of other criminality. The decline of the power and authority of religious traditions may create periods of moral uncertainty and confusion while we try to find our footing, but isn’t that part of growing up, both individually and as humanity? It is such a base to stand on that secular, humanistic atheists are trying to build.

“This is the only context that can explain Dawkins's programme, a piece of intellectually lazy polemic which is not worthy of a great scientist. He uses his authority as a scientist to claim certainty where he himself knows, all too well, that there is none; for example, our sense of morality cannot simply be explained as a product of our genetic struggle for evolutionary advantage.”

It’s not mere polemic; there’s an argument (you can read my version of it here). Maybe our sense of morality isn’t simply explained (and what a daftly loaded phrase – who on earth thought this problem would be simply explained? And how sophisticated is, “Because God says so?” as a basis for moral truths?) as a product of our genetic struggle for evolutionary advantage, but science has more to go on than that, as alluded to above.

“More irritatingly, he doesn't apply to religion - the object of his repeated attacks - a fraction of the intellectual rigour or curiosity that he has applied to evolution (to deserved applause).”

Well, Bunting hasn’t addressed Dawkins’s central argument about the nature of faith and scientific investigation, which I think is pretty strong and is so far unscathed by her attack, and Dawkins does a good job of pulling the rug out from under religion. If this can be achieved with little in the way of intellectual rigour or effort as compared with what is required in evolutionary biology and the other sciences, then I think that perhaps says something about the intellectual demands of the respective domains of faith and science. This is incredibly arrogant, but I’m just showing how easy it is to play Bunting’s game of merely insulting the opponent's intellect.

“Where is the grasp of the sociological or anthropological explanations of the centrality of religion? Sadly, there is no evolution of thought in Dawkins's position; he has been saying much the same thing about religion for a long time.”

The sociological and anthropological questions of religion are fascinating – why is it so prevalent, how did it emerge in an evolutionary context, what role does it play in explaining the structure of human social systems and human altruism and group living, how does it evolve with culture and affect further cultural and psychological evolution? But these are not directly related to the epistemological questions about the status of religious claims, and the nature of faith. This is a bit of misdirection that is tempting to fall for.

“There are three areas in his programmes where the lack of rigour is most striking. First, Dawkins is featured in Jerusalem; the point is that religion causes violence and most of the world's conflicts can be traced back to faith. If only they didn't have segregated schooling in Israel and Palestine then peace could emerge. Likewise in Northern Ireland.”

It’s simple nothing like this simple minded. Dawkins is focusing on the religion – you kind of can’t miss it – but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think there is a political element to the clashes. In any case, the religious and the political are not so readily separable.

Bunting objects to:

“Dawkins's reference to a ‘process of non-thinking called faith’. For thousands of years, religious belief has been accompanied by thought and intellectual discovery, whether Islamic astronomy or the Renaissance. But his contempt is so profound that he can't be bothered to even find out (in an interview he dismissed Christian theology in exactly these terms). If this isn't the "hidebound certainty" of which he accuses believers, I'm not sure what is.”

I tried to explain what Dawkins means by calling faith a form of non-thinking in a previous post, but briefly Dawkins is highlighting the fact that religion encourages the disregard of reasons and evidence as grounds for accepting claims as true. This deprives you of tools for assessing the merit of the claim, and to rely instead on authority (not of evidence, which is a good thing, but on some unverifiable ancient scribblings) or tradition. This is surely the antithesis of critical thought, and this is why it is with faith, not the rejection of God, that you can believe in anything – so long as the right authority says it is so. However, once you’re on the faith train, you run into all sorts of difficulties with reconciling your religious faith-based convictions with the way the world is, and so much chin scratching and head rubbing ensues, and through a convoluted path od reasoning clarity is restored - what we normally call theology. The theological sub-field of theodicy – explaining evils, including natural disasters, in a God-created world – is a classic example: a philosophical response to explaining a problem created by believing in something on the basis of faith. If you don’t have the faith, then the problem disappears, although evil still requires a different sort of explanation and understanding (again, naturalistic, humanistic philosophy and science are not bad places to start). And it seems strange how you’d get a ticket on the faith train from this position: you see the evidence of evil, which even to the devout is prima facie evidence that there isn’t a God (then they try to cleverly show why this apparent contradiction is in fact not so), but you don’t have the compensating conviction that there is a moral God that makes sense of it all somehow so on balance you conclude that the facts of the world are suggestive that there isn't a God, and there aren't good reasosn for supposing there to be one - so you do not assent to the belief that God exists. And how are you supposed to get this conviction? Through faith - by merely willing it to be, by telling yourself, "Yes, God exists!”. How people convince themselves like this I don’t know. But of course they don’t. They usually imbibe these ideas as part of their cultural inheritance, and once established they’re hard to shift, not least because of familial and social uproar it would cause. It’s easier to go just along, and in fact there’s no prompting (especially from within the religion) to question your beliefs, and plenty of reinforcement not to, so it’s little surprise the traditions role on. And they may even have some benefits (alongside the drawback), such as playing a role in community cohesion. But the religious worldview has to be taken as a package, if it's grounded in faith and religious tradition, and considered on balance. We can take the ethic from the religion, and ground it in a naturalistic account of the world, and jettison the false beliefs, and bad approach to belief, intrinsic to religion.

This is just a sketch reply off the top of my head, so any further thoughts or criticisms are welcome (depending on the interest I may not be able to respond to all – he’s says presumptively!).