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.

24 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this very interesting post. Two points: (i) Religious codes of conduct are not necessarily explicit in nor restricted to the old and/or new testaments, as many (most) are articulated in the traditions that interpret those texts. Therefore, nitpicking the scriptures to prove one’s point (whichever that might be) is specious. (ii) A position that I am fond of is the evolution of behavioural traits which might be the building blocks of our own ‘morality’, traits that I believe can be found in other vertebrate or indeed invertebrate social groups (chimps, wolves, some hymenoptera, etc.) as occurrences of homology or convergence so to speak. Moreover, throughout human history (and prehistory), the religious phenomenon has been extremely successful, which may indicate an evolutionary underpinning to it (not only increased fitness via increased fecundity, since I vaguely remember studies showing reduced stress amongst religious people, less heart problems and so on), as it is, according to Dawkins, heritable. Admittedly, this and hand-waiving, but had there been any social burden (read fitness cost of religion), how would it have become so prevailing throughout our evolution? Obviously, this is not an argument either for or against religiosity in ‘westernised’ cultures today, but it is a damning argument for Dawkins’ particular brand of activism. Is he not sawing off the branch onto which he hangs (multiple pun intended)?
Simon.

1:29 pm GMT  
Blogger Dan Jones said...

Thanks for the comment Simon. I agree that in some sense it is a silly game to comb through religious texts to fin bits that we think are obviously objectionable, and then holding them up to ridicule – there is more to religious tradition than the mere printed word of the holy texts. But I think it does serve one useful purpose: it we agree that we find some parts of religious doctrine offensive or immoral, then we’re conceding that our notion what constitutes right and wrong is not based on mere authority of scripture or dogma. We’re essentially admitting that we have some other standard that determines right and wrong. And so even if there is a rich interpretive tradition surrounding religious belief, why do we need it at all in informing our judgements of right and wrong? We’ve already conceded that we have a religiously independent way to judge right and wrong, so why do need something extra?

This question can be taken two ways: from a philosophical perspective, why do we need to posit God or gods in carving out a moral course (my answer would be that we don’t); and from a historical/anthropological perspective, why have beliefs in God or gods been so prevalent through much of human history? No Dawkins in this programme was more interested in the first question, which is more a matter of logic and argument. The second question is extremely interesting. As you say Simon, religious communities have been documented to be happier, have lower stress and reduced heart disease and so on. It’s possible that the benefits that religious beliefs provide to religious communities have served these groups well over evolutionary time, and led to increased survival of the groups and their ideas compared with other groups. The presence of such a religious cultural milieu may have turn exerted a selection pressure on human minds to acquire the beliefs of their community, so this might be an example of cultural group selection as well as an illustration of how culture and biology (the mind) can interact over evolutionary time to affect each other’s trajectory.

Of course, the mere fact that religious beliefs have been useful to groups in the past, and may in part explain human sociality, does not mean they are true – and we might argue that in today’s world that religious beliefs have outlived their usefulness. Furthermore, although religion may have played a role in social evolution it is not the bedrock of moral behaviour – a sense of fairness, of empathy, of obligations to and expectations of others are older than religion, which I think is likely to have played on these faculties. So I think Dawkins can acknowledge an evolutionary root of religion (though some combination of genetic and cultural evolution), reject religious belief as pernicious nonsense, and still have his other moral resources left in tact (provided by other evolutionary routes).

2:24 pm GMT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your answer Dan. Indeed, we agree that religion is not the exclusive conveyer of morality. So you seem to ask, with Dawkins, why one might need religion at all. After all, you propose that “we might argue that in today’s world that religious beliefs have outlived their usefulness”. I suppose that this shows that by and large, the scientific method has given you enough satisfaction to dodge questions outside its realm. You might not be willing to venture on less safe paths of the ‘human experience’. You might be busy enough exploring the natural world to ask, as Dawkins, “What more do you want?”. I admire the stunning humility of the question. However, I want more (and I happen to be a scientist). Personal experience notwithstanding, I want to explore the dirty old question: “why?”. Questions like that one have been shrugged off as irrelevant by scientists (for good reasons), by philosophers (for less obvious reasons) and surprisingly by many religious people (for bad reasons) alike, just as the word ‘being’ has. Neither the scientific method, nor philosophy, have managed to satisfy me on such topics. However, their infertility on those grounds is far from being a proof that reason can have nothing to do with religion. Suggesting that we can live and make decisions only by the scientific method is preposterous. Saying ‘we don’t/shouldn’t ask because we can’t/shouldn’t try to answer’ is lazy acceptance of ignorance from people trumpeting their love for knowing the ‘truth’.
Still, is religion the best way forward? You seem to think otherwise. I give a rather severe twist to what people call religion, faith and God, but that obviously still falls outside the scientific method. How are you dealing with those questions, Dan?
Simon.

4:39 pm GMT  
Blogger Potentilla said...

I don't think you need to invoke group selection to provide an evolutionary source of religion. I reckon that the first "religious" impulses evolved as a protection against despair. If you are suffering under what is in fact a completely random run of bad luck (your child got predated, a landslip washed away your home, your fire went out, whatever) you might well succumb to depression. But if you believe that if you can just find that right button to press with the gods you can get them to smile on you, you are more in control; so maybe not depressed, which should be good for your general (inclusive) fitness.

Then it all got mixed up with other facets of the human psyche, such as display, ceremony, ingroup/outgroup, obedience to authority etc.

I just posted over on Rearranging the Deckchairs that, the more I think about it, the more I think that the relationship between religion and religious fanaticism is one of strong correlation rather than causation. Many religions have (a) a strong in-group/out-group teaching (positively reinforcing human tendencies in that direction) and (b) strong authority figures. It's (a) and (b) that lead to "evil", not religion per se. I doubt that Quakerism has ever caused people to do evil, nor indeed the Church of England (which is of course different from saying that persons professing either religion don't do evil).

The problem of what "ought" means if there are no moral facts, out there, strikes me as one of the most important global issues. (And, absent religion, I don't see how there can be). Perhaps humanity is nearly global enough that there could actually be a Rousseau-esque social contract, and that such a contract is actually the only way we will save ourselves from the consequences of our ingroup/outgroup genetically founded intuitions.

Like the new format by the way - the wider you can make the LH column the better.

4:56 pm GMT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enjoying the blog Dan

It sounds like Dawkins does touch on one of the PR challenges for the rationalist world-view, morality without a religious backbone. It is always the charge of the religious – that atheists are amoral and ‘anything goes’ without religion. I think Potentilla is falling into that same line of thinking. If we were to have a ‘Generally Accepted Moral Code’ or were to assess what many regard as the common elements in religious moral codes it appears we would find that they are based on evolutionary-justified behaviours. ‘Do unto others’ does sum up a lot of religious thought and is pure reciprocity. A lot of societal law reflects what we think makes things ‘fair’ (like not stealing, not assaulting others) but also what social economics tells us makes for stability in society – which is also reciprocity. So basically I agree with you Dan, morality is out there and isn’t predicated on religion. But religion appears to be based at least as a codification of moral sense and then obfuscates it with a whole lot of extraneous beliefs. Actually what would be really interesting, would be if you could find a sustainable religion that recommended anti-reciprocal behaviour (‘hate they neighbour and covet his ass too’) within its ‘in-group at least (some of course do recommend doing bad things to non-members).

The ‘in-group’ aspect of religion and culture is about determining to whom we acknowledge fairness and reciprocal behaviour too. I think Pinker tackles this in-crowd aspect of culture well in ‘The Blank Slate’. The more insular that view – the less others are recognised as equivalent (including morally). Reduction in warfare between societies has occurred when both parties have recognised that the others are ‘just like us’. Rationalism has challenged many religious and cultural beliefs to improve the inclusiveness of society (e.g. status of other groups, race, women, homosexuals etc.). I think there is a case to be very proactive about the moral sense we have and the morality that arises despite religion prohibition.

Philip

2:00 am GMT  
Blogger Potentilla said...

I didn't explain myself very well......I do absolutely agree that our "moral" intuitions are effectively emotional and arise from evolved behaviours and strategies. To that extent they are "out there". But that doesn't quite give them normative status; what philosophers call "moral facts" which say (for instance) "it is absolutely wrong always and for all people to kill babies". Say I have a moral intuition that it's OK to cheat whenever I can get away with it. Lots of other people have a different moral intuition. So what? You can only bind all of the people all of the time by codifying the moral intuitions (yes, based on what we all, on average, feel is right, because of evolution) into law of some kind. And, this is the key point, law that binds all of humanity, not just one sovereign state. The UN Declaration of Human Rights is a small step in the right direction.

11:32 am GMT  
Anonymous Frank O'Dwyer said...

The problem of what "ought" means if there are no moral facts, out there, strikes me as one of the most important global issues. (And, absent religion, I don't see how there can be).

That doesn't really follow. Whether there are moral facts and whether there is a god are two orthogonal questions. Besides, religion's only contribution to that particular debate has been to insist that there are moral facts, and never to reliably state what they are.

12:30 pm GMT  
Blogger Potentilla said...

All I meant was, I don't see how there can be moral facts, except perhaps if there is a god. I don't wholly accept the arguments that a god could not be a source of absolute morality, because I think that the "it's all too complicated for our poor little brains" argument cannot be refuted logically. But anyhow, I don't think that's more than a tepidly interesting by-way because I don't think there is a god.

Do you think (a) that there can be and (b) that there are, moral facts?

4:59 pm GMT  
Anonymous Frank O'Dwyer said...

It really depends on what you mean by fact - ordinary scientific facts such as speed, mass, time, etc, we believe to be relative and dependent on perspective, so why not moral facts? We also know that our theories shape our perceptions (e.g. experimenter bias) - so I think people set the bar unreasonably high when it comes to morality.

My personal view is that morality is no more or less objective than anything else - I don't think the absolute vs. relative position is decidable, and from a practical point of view it makes little difference. Maybe there are moral facts, but people don't seem to be able to agree on what they are - then again you could say the same of any fact.

Certainly I think that there could be moral facts with or without a god, just as there could be facts of any kind with or without a god. Equally existence of a god does not necessarily imply existence of moral facts - there could be a god and morality could still be relative, just as there could be a god and time is relative.

7:15 pm GMT  
Blogger Dan Jones said...

Some very interesting question being asked here, which is great. I’ll try to respond to the above comments as best I can, but I’ll admit to a lot of uncertainty in these areas at the moment (it’s an ongoing project of mine to try to resolve them to my satisfaction!).

Reply to Simon:
“So you seem to ask, with Dawkins, why one might need religion at all. After all, you propose that “we might argue that in today’s world that religious beliefs have outlived their usefulness”. I suppose that this shows that by and large, the scientific method has given you enough satisfaction to dodge questions outside its realm. You might not be willing to venture on less safe paths of the ‘human experience’. You might be busy enough exploring the natural world to ask, as Dawkins, “What more do you want?”.”

I don’t find that religion furnishes me with a decent guide for living, and I don’t believe that it’s claims about God and the universe are true, so I live without it. Does that mean science is enough for me? In one sense, no – my life is full of lots of other things, such as my girlfriend, friends and family, movies, music and so on. Would I want to explain these scientifically? Yes, I would. I think parental love for children has a scientific – evolutionary, neurological and cultural – explanation, but that doesn’t mean that that the scientific explanation of parental love is enough for a fulfilled life; you actually want to experience the love firsthand! The fact that love might have a scientific explanation doesn’t diminish the reality of love, or make it an illusion. And so on top of a scientific explanation of the world I also set great store by the experiential aspects of living. But this doesn’t motivate to look for any sort of non-scientific explanation of the world. I admit that there might be aspects of existence that are not amenable to a scientific or rational analysis, but then I think I just have to accept that I’ll die ignorant of these aspects: as Wittgenstein said, “What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence”.

I agree that it is lazy to not address questions that seem to fall outside of a scientific framework – consciousness and free, and indeed morality – might well be seen by some (not me) as just such questions, and I wouldn’t say that anyone was therefore justified in ignoring them. But I’m not so sure about questions such as “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, or “Why are we here?”. Although these look like perfectly valid questions, presented as grammatically correct questions, I’m not sure they are of the same ilk, “Why does wood burn?”. I’m not sure what an answer would look like, or how to asses it – of course, this might just be a limitation on my behalf, but until I’ve encountered a decent answer to these questions, I remain silent on them. It certainly doesn’t tempt me towards religion.

Comments on Philip, Potentilla and Frank:
Philip says, “So basically I agree with you Dan, morality is out there and isn’t predicated on religion”. I definitely agree that morality isn’t predicated on religion, and that morality is in some sense ‘out there’, but I’m unsure as to how to characterise it as being ‘out there’. There are descriptive ethical facts – what people generally find to be moral and immoral behaviour, and I think these are out there just as much as any other facts of psychological or cognitive neuroscience are out there. I think the descriptive facts about morality account for some of the universals in prescriptive morality, so in perhaps weaker sense these are out there too (most people, most of the time, think it’s wrong to kill kids for fun, for instance). But I guess what we’re really interested in the status of particular ethical or moral directives: when we say that it’s wrong to kill kids, do we mean that it’s a contingent fact about human history and human nature that humans find that be wrong, or is it actually a fact that taps into some sort of Platonic moral realm where the truths of morality reside independent of human reflection (like some might say numbers do)? I’m tended to say that these facts are contingent, even if they are facts, so does that make a realist with respect to morality or not (as you can see, I need to dig into the literature on this, so any views from those more clued up than me are welcome!)?

I agree with Frank that question of moral realism and the existence of God are logically separate – you can be an atheist and amoral realist. My struggle is with understanding what moral realism really means, but this is a case of me doing more homework.

All of this reminds me a bit of philosophical debates about meaning (not of life, but the possibly of meaning emerging in a material universe), free will and consciousness in some respects. Take free will. The standard line is that if determinism is true (that all states of the universe are determined by prior states of the universe according to deterministic laws), then free will can’t exist (and quantum uncertainty doesn’t get you free will – it just gets you some random, un-willed behaviour); determinism is true, and therefore free will is an illusion. Dan Dennett has approached this thicket of problems by getting us to think about our intuitions about free will, and has talked of “the varieties of free will worth wanting”. Dennett’s ingenious analysis (see his books ‘Elbow Room’ and ‘Freedom Evolves’) suggest that we can get the sort of free will that we want – that does all the things that a good theory of free will , but without involving us in unacceptable metaphysical doctrines. So Dennett offers us free will, but perhaps not the sort we hand in mind when we went to collect it; this leads some people to accuse him a bait-and-switch tactic, or of changing the subject to something easier, and to feel cheated; others accept the argument and live with a somewhat deflated, but metaphysically sounder, notion of free will. Dennett does a similar thing for meaning and consciousness. For Dennett, evolution is the source of meaning in the universe, and some people respond with incredulity that the mere rearrangement of matter is sufficient for meaning, for ‘real’ meaning. But Dennett responds that the meaning he had in mind is as real as any meaning could be, and that demands for more miss the point. He has a similar case for consciousness, which I won’t even try to sketch here.

My point is this. Perhaps the same is true of morality: we want something absolute and anchored, like a notion of morality based on God would provide. But what if this demand is too much? What if the best we could hope for is a naturalistic explanation of the moral sentiments that offers us a deflated, but still solid, notion of morality? Does that mean that to be true to ourselves that we have to admit that anything goes? I don’t think so. The challenge is to articulate a compelling ethical narrative from this starting point, using the tools of modern science and philosophy as best we can. Over the coming months and years I hope be able to make some suggestions in this direction.

8:34 pm GMT  
Blogger Potentilla said...

Bingo! Your comments on morality above elegantly state my views and my doubts on the possibility of prescriptive moral facts. If any of the very large number of books on meta-ethics that I have lying around shed any further light, I will let you know.

I am grappling with the possibility that the whole concept of morality is in some sense not "out there", rather like the concept of personal identity. The latter seems intuitively obvious but is very hard to define thorougly; but it works as an everyday tool. And you can see why it evolved and exists. Maybe morality is the same.

Where did your example if killing kids for fun come from, BTW? The last person I was debating this with (philosophy PhD student, believer in moral facts) used "torturing children for fun". Is this coincidence, a standard example I just don't know about, or indicative of human morality?

9:00 pm GMT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

“I admit that there might be aspects of existence that are not amenable to a scientific or rational analysis, but then I think I just have to accept that I’ll die ignorant of these aspects: as Wittgenstein said, “What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence”.”
Dan, thanks for taking the time to answer. To summarise your position, which I suppose is applicable to all exclusive positivists, the holistic view that religion proposes is refused, but not replaced by anything else. To repeat my previous wording, those questions are simply shrugged off as unanswerable. I think that this is a reason why Dawkins’ approach is at best pointless, but more likely counterproductive: he is trying to take a (hopefully) internally coherent view of the world away from people without being able to provide anything in return but a “what more do you want?”. Of course, most people do not have the theological education they would need in order to correct and defend their position (or at least, they haven’t been shown in Dawkins’ program?). Scientific or epistemological illiteracy is certainly a major reason for their lack of self questioning, even in the face of hard evidence. So how do you expect these people to react other than with hostility first to Dawkins, and more generally to science and academia. Instead of encouraging more education, Dawkins is digging the trenches of ignorance and hatred on both sides.
Even more importantly, theological illiteracy is what makes people die-hard literalists (an endemic disease of both Protestantism and inadequate education), or die-hard positivists. When you say that you “don’t believe that [religion]’s claims about God and the universe are true”, I can’t help but wonder how much you really know about religion, and the claims they make about God and the universe. I’ll leave it at that unless you want theological discussions on this blog.

You write “But I’m not so sure about questions such as “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, or “Why are we here?”. Although these look like perfectly valid questions, presented as grammatically correct questions, I’m not sure they are of the same ilk, “Why does wood burn?”.”
Indeed, those questions are strikingly different. The first question is ambiguous: do you mean “how did the universe form?” or do you mean “why was the universe formed?”. The second question is a pretty clear “why?”, but the last question is actually a “how?”. Only the “how” is accessible to the scientific method. I do not believe that either science, philosophy nor any other ‘mundane’ science can approach anything of the “why”.

This leads me to address the main topic of the discussions here. Morality is the domain of mundane (aka human) sciences. Religions, which try to apply less mundane knowledge and beliefs to everyday lives has had and probably still has a lot to say about morality, education, behaviour, hygiene, friendship, sex and so on. The fact that every religion has its own distinct views on those matters is proof that they are mundane applications of the spiritual (I should say divine, but let’s take one step at a time). In every single one of those matters, non religious views are able (and should) challenge what religious leaders proclaim. Which is why the Vatican now encourages scientific research, even evolutionary biology. That’s because religion’s core (can I say essence?) is elsewhere, totally out of reach of any mundane science, which can only deal with secondary causes (“facts”, as it were). This finally brings me back to Dawkins: is he able to understand the difference between spiritual and mundane matters? Because that is what he (rightly) accuses his opponents of...
I think I am essentially opposing a more hierarchical view of the world than what relativism, post-modernism or indeed scientism and neo-darwinism have imprinted in our society.
Simon

2:35 pm GMT  
Blogger Dan Jones said...

Simon, thanks for the stimulating questions; I’ll intersperse answers between the text of your original comments:

“I admit that there might be aspects of existence that are not amenable to a scientific or rational analysis, but then I think I just have to accept that I’ll die ignorant of these aspects: as Wittgenstein said, “What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence”.” Dan, thanks for taking the time to answer. To summarise your position, which I suppose is applicable to all exclusive positivists, the holistic view that religion proposes is refused, but not replaced by anything else.

I don’t think I’d put it quite like that. To the extent that religions provide a creation myth or cosmogony (and I think it is widely accepted that they do, but please pull me up on this if I’m wrong), then it is replaced by something: science. Sure, it doesn’t replace God of gods with anything, but why should it supposed that something has to occupy the hole they fill (that’s precisely what many of us dispute)? To the extent that religions provide a template for living a good life, it’s rejection might seem to require an alternative template to live by, and many would say that science and humanistic philosophy fails here. But I don’t think we should have, or need, a template to live by; surely part of being a mature human is carving our your own route through life. I don’t find religions to be helpful to me, and I think they’re divisive for other people (although not always, of course). So I don’t think that the rejection of religion leaves a big hole that needs filing in the way that perhaps you do or think that I do. Can I turn the question around: why does the rejection of religion leave a hole for you? What makes you sure there’s genuine hole there?

To repeat my previous wording, those questions are simply shrugged off as unanswerable. I think that this is a reason why Dawkins’ approach is at best pointless, but more likely counterproductive: he is trying to take a (hopefully) internally coherent view of the world away from people without being able to provide anything in return but a “what more do you want?”.

I guess we disagree here: I think the world views offered by religions are palpably untrue, and internally contradictory (there being injunctions to kill and not to kill people issued by the same individuals throughout religious texts, for example!). To the extent that these religions and the worldviews they are committed to are untrue, replacing them with hard-won scientific knowledge, which although not certain is often highly reliable, seems to be a good thing – and I don’[t see this process as creating a hole, except perhaps when you finally dispense with the idea of God, but I think that concept was always filling an imaginary hole (I’m not quite comfortable with that formulation, but I haven’t got time to refine it, sorry).

Of course, most people do not have the theological education they would need in order to correct and defend their position (or at least, they haven’t been shown in Dawkins’ program?). Scientific or epistemological illiteracy is certainly a major reason for their lack of self questioning, even in the face of hard evidence. So how do you expect these people to react other than with hostility first to Dawkins, and more generally to science and academia. Instead of encouraging more education, Dawkins is digging the trenches of ignorance and hatred on both sides.

I’m not sure why ignorant people should react with hostility when confronted with either deeper theological or philosophical thought or science/academia. I don‘t react with anger when I reach the limits of my knowledge – I like doing that, and pushing them back a bit, which is why I read. I don’t see why Dawkins is digging trenches of ignorance – he manifestly wants people to no more (I would add that this should go for religion – it’d be great to understand more about the world’s religions, but for me I’d study this like I would any other social or historical phenomenon, rather than study one religion specifically as a road to truth).

Even more importantly, theological illiteracy is what makes people die-hard literalists (an endemic disease of both Protestantism and inadequate education), or die-hard positivists. When you say that you “don’t believe that [religion]’s claims about God and the universe are true”, I can’t help but wonder how much you really know about religion, and the claims they make about God and the universe. I’ll leave it at that unless you want theological discussions on this blog.

I’m happy to hear a little theology here, and I admit to knowing a lot less about theology than I do about science and philosophy. However, when I say “I don’t believe that [religion]’s claims about God and the universe are true” I’m talking about things like the word being made in 7 days 6,000 years ago, or the virgin birth, or Jesus’ resurrection, or the existence of the soul, or the free-will defence of the problem of evil, and so on (and I’ll ask you: do you believe in these things?). Please say if I’m being theologically naïve here – these do seem to me to be pretty central to, say, Christianity (especially the resurrection and the existence of the soul), and their rejection does seem to entail the rejection of Christianity, and therefore its moral basis.

You write “But I’m not so sure about questions such as “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, or “Why are we here?”. Although these look like perfectly valid questions, presented as grammatically correct questions, I’m not sure they are of the same ilk, “Why does wood burn?”.”
Indeed, those questions are strikingly different. The first question is ambiguous: do you mean “how did the universe form?” or do you mean “why was the universe formed?”. The second question is a pretty clear “why?”, but the last question is actually a “how?”. Only the “how” is accessible to the scientific method. I do not believe that either science, philosophy nor any other ‘mundane’ science can approach anything of the “why”.


Can you provide a sketch of what an answer to a ‘why’ question of the sort you have in mind would look like, and how any non-scientific discipline helps you get to an answer, and furthermore why anyone else should take this answer seriously? And if this whole line of questioning is misguided, why?

This leads me to address the main topic of the discussions here. Morality is the domain of mundane (aka human) sciences. Religions, which try to apply less mundane knowledge and beliefs to everyday lives has had and probably still has a lot to say about morality, education, behaviour, hygiene, friendship, sex and so on. The fact that every religion has its own distinct views on those matters is proof that they are mundane applications of the spiritual (I should say divine, but let’s take one step at a time). In every single one of those matters, non religious views are able (and should) challenge what religious leaders proclaim. Which is why the Vatican now encourages scientific research, even evolutionary biology. That’s because religion’s core (can I say essence?) is elsewhere, totally out of reach of any mundane science, which can only deal with secondary causes (“facts”, as it were). This finally brings me back to Dawkins: is he able to understand the difference between spiritual and mundane matters? Because that is what he (rightly) accuses his opponents of...
I think I am essentially opposing a more hierarchical view of the world than what relativism, post-modernism or indeed scientism and neo-darwinism have imprinted in our society.


I’m a bit lost by this final bit to be honest (and I’m not just trying to be dismissive in saying that). I understand what is intimated by ‘spiritual matters’, and what people are getting at when they talk about them, but really, what are they? What is a spiritual matter on which we can say anything reasonable at all? I’m not being flippant – I would genuinely like to hear an answer. Anyone else got any thoughts in this respect?

4:10 pm GMT  
Blogger Potentilla said...

Yes, but not useful ones - I don't understand what "spiritual" means at all. I could use it in a grammatical English sentence which would at first sight seem meaningful, but that's about all.

Please, Simon Anonymous (could you create a Blogger id? it only takes a second), could you define "spiritual" or "spiritual matters" for me, or exaplin the diference between spiritual and mundane matters?

8:29 pm GMT  
Anonymous Frank O'Dwyer said...

Only the “how” is accessible to the scientific method. I do not believe that either science, philosophy nor any other ‘mundane’ science can approach anything of the “why”.

Maybe it seems churlish to say so, but is there any reason at all to expect that religion can approach these questions any better? Or that the questions are even meaningful? What is the difference between religion and simply making up answers?

It also strikes me that the list above is pretty exhaustive, since it includes philosophy.

The implication is that religion somehow surpasses the other entries on the list, but I see no evidence for that all. In fact religion's record on getting even the simple questions right is atrocious.

8:57 pm GMT  
Blogger Simon said...

Thanks Dan, Potentilla and Frank, for this interesting discussion. I'm afraid we are veering quite off topic, but I'll still answer your questions as far as I can. Before I go further, I'd like to adress a common concern you all have about what can be a spiritual question that can't be solved by what I called a mundane science. I'll give an example off the top of my head in my answer to Dan below, and here it is for you to ponder right now: Why does the universe evolve? Indeed, our observations suggest that the big bang is a very likely possiblity for the origins of our universe, and the universe has been expandinding ever since. In that universe, clusters of matter have formed on various scales, from atoms and molecules to stars and galaxies. On at least one such clusters, organic life has appeared and evolved. Although we cannot be sure of the future evolution of the universe (infinite expantion, stability, big crunch?), it is probably going to be unlike anything it is seen as now. Here is your challenge: give me a scientific, or philosophical answer to why the universe in evolving, that doesn't shrug the question off as unanswerable. Remember, I'm not interested in process (the how), just the 'why'. More on this later. Now onto your specific comments.

Potentilla,
An encyclopaedia, or this link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirituality, will have some answers, which would be much better explained there than if I tried myself. I suggest you nail those concepts first and only then discuss their content. You have chosen the typical approach of philosophy by concentrating on definitions of words and concepts, in an attemp to refute them. I'm no philosopher, so I'll just move on.


Frank,
Well, I guess that there is only one way: you'll have to try it out for yourself, since you won't take anyone else's word for it. You might also want to follow my recommendations to Potentilla.

You write: "In fact religion's record on getting even the simple questions right is atrocious."
Could you illustrate that with some examples of religion (I suppose you might rather be referring to religious people) getting it worse than, say, non-religious people? Remember to include in your thoughts people you'd think of as fathers of our scientific knowledge today, such as Newton, Mendel, Einstein, Georges Lemaître, etc.


Dan,
I'll follow your example in interspersing my comments between yours. This might get lengthy, but I want to avoid pulling your comments out of their context.

"To the extent that religions provide a creation myth or cosmogony (and I think it is widely accepted that they do, but please pull me up on this if I’m wrong), then it is replaced by something: science."
==> Indeed, religion provides a cosmogony. And science provides a cosmology. The terms are very far from being redundant, and the former, being subjective, should integrate -not contradict- the latter. One cannot replace the other.

"Sure, it doesn’t replace God of gods with anything, but why should it supposed that something has to occupy the hole they fill (that’s precisely what many of us dispute)? To the extent that religions provide a template for living a good life, it’s rejection might seem to require an alternative template to live by, and many would say that science and humanistic philosophy fails here. But I don’t think we should have, or need, a template to live by; surely part of being a mature human is carving our your own route through life."
==> Dan, you know as well as I do what happens when humans are reared of human society at birth, and more disturbingly, what socialised humans do to each other when assured of impunity. Fear of authority (be it divine or human) is the template you mention. Call it discipline, education or up-bringing if you wish.

"I don’t find religions to be helpful to me, and I think they’re divisive for other people (although not always, of course). So I don’t think that the rejection of religion leaves a big hole that needs filing in the way that perhaps you do or think that I do. Can I turn the question around: why does the rejection of religion leave a hole for you? What makes you sure there’s genuine hole there?"
==> I can't speak for others here, but I do believe that many do depend on irrational beliefs to make some kind of sense of their lives. Beliefs that they are ready to die for. But my own view is at odds with yours: religion (or the spirituality therein) is an added value to life. My own form of spirituality entails constant confrontation with the scientific method and depiction of the world. When contradictions appear, I work my way through the crisis as well as I can, or try to nail the reason why there is a crisis in the first place. We're like alpinists, only vaguely seeing the road ahead, but knowing that the only way not to fall is to secure each step perfectly.

"I think the world views offered by religions are palpably untrue, and internally contradictory (there being injunctions to kill and not to kill people issued by the same individuals throughout religious texts, for example!). "
==> You're nitpicking ;-) But I see your point, and you err in thinking that all characters and all situations portrayed in the bible are saintly at all times (let's exclude Jesus for now as his case is quite different). There is an element of education by counter-example, and the portrayal of evil has its reason. As for "palpably untrue", it's a bit of a sweeping statement...

"I’m not sure why ignorant people should react with hostility when confronted with either deeper theological or philosophical thought or science/academia."
==> You didn't get my point; it is their whole world view, and a large part of their identity that is being rejected as crackpot. Although it might very well be crackpot, suggesting so would unsurprisingly evoke their anger....

" I don‘t react with anger when I reach the limits of my knowledge – I like doing that, and pushing them back a bit, which is why I read."
==> I couldn't agree more. The difficult part is perceiving the limits of ones' knowledge and then acting to resolve them...

"I’m happy to hear a little theology here, and I admit to knowing a lot less about theology than I do about science and philosophy. However, when I say “I don’t believe that [religion]’s claims about God and the universe are true” I’m talking about things like the word being made in 7 days 6,000 years ago, or the virgin birth, or Jesus’ resurrection, or the existence of the soul, or the free-will defence of the problem of evil, and so on (and I’ll ask you: do you believe in these things?). Please say if I’m being theologically naïve here – these do seem to me to be pretty central to, say, Christianity (especially the resurrection and the existence of the soul), and their rejection does seem to entail the rejection of Christianity, and therefore its moral basis."
==> You obviously realise that I cannot discuss here any one of those topics in any of the depth that they require. Imagine if your grocer asked you to explain why we get allergies, how cells know what to do in our body, how evolution works and why some galaxies look like spirals and others don't (and that's only 4 questions - you asked 6). Damned if I do, damned if I don't: if I try to answer anyway, I'll have to dumb it down so much that it'll all look plain stupid. If I don't, you'll accuse me of side-stepping. By the way, its 6 days, not 7. So, what do you propose? To answer your personal question about 'believing in these things', why do I sense condescendence? Anyway, I'd say that I have come to understand those things as best as I could, and hope to correct and expand on that understanding. A place to start is to understand where, when and why such articles of faith were spelled out. The context and background theology is helpful.

"[...] Only the “how” is accessible to the scientific method. I do not believe that either science, philosophy nor any other ‘mundane’ science can approach anything of the “why”.
Can you provide a sketch of what an answer to a ‘why’ question of the sort you have in mind would look like, and how any non-scientific discipline helps you get to an answer, and furthermore why anyone else should take this answer seriously? And if this whole line of questioning is misguided, why?"
==> Your line of questioning is not misguided. Q: Why does the universe evolve? A: 4+9=1. Although you probably can't understand the answer, you'll agree that since the question is neither scientific nor philosphical, the answer cannot be scientific or philosophical. Still, doesn't it tickle your curiosity? Even if the answer I gave is wrong, proposing a hypothesis is better than shrugging the whole thing off. When you had read the answer, after the inital surprise, you searched your memory to see if you knew of any key to unlock that code. You might even have thought you could figure it out by yourself. Indeed, there are rules that would help you decipher the answer, nested in a certain brand of numerical symbolism. But it's not scientific, and not philosophical. And even if I translated the answer it wouldn't make much sense to you unless you understood religion. I will conceed however, that very few would take this answer seriously as it is, because it is unintelligible to most. Tough.


"I’m a bit lost by this final bit to be honest (and I’m not just trying to be dismissive in saying that). I understand what is intimated by ‘spiritual matters’, and what people are getting at when they talk about them, but really, what are they? What is a spiritual matter on which we can say anything reasonable at all? I’m not being flippant – I would genuinely like to hear an answer. Anyone else got any thoughts in this respect?"
==> And how lost must you be now! But Dan, I'm not just playing around with you. One distinction between 'spiritual questions' and 'mundane' ones as I put it, is that in the former you are the main subject and means of your study. No double blind experiments here I'm afraid - remember, I told you it is not science.

9:31 am GMT  
Anonymous Frank O'Dwyer said...

Simon,

Could you illustrate that with some examples of religion (I suppose you might rather be referring to religious people) getting it worse than, say, non-religious people? Remember to include in your thoughts people you'd think of as fathers of our scientific knowledge today, such as Newton, Mendel, Einstein, Georges Lemaître, etc.

No, I wasn't referring to religious people but religion itself as a method of inquiry. I'm just noting that religion's methods, whatever they are (for this is unclear), have failed to produce useful answers to what you call 'mundane' questions. Indeed they are more typically flat wrong and at best indistinguishable from guessing.

Now, you may say that religion doesn't pretend to provide such answers, but for centuries it has pretended exactly that. It has only retreated from that position when proven wrong, and even that much is not universally true.

Similarly for any questions that may not be 'mundane' - I see no reason to suppose that religion would be any better than guessing the answers to those, nor even if any meaningful questions belong in this category.

For example it is far from clear what the question 'why does the universe evolve' might mean - whose purpose might you be referring to?

As a side point I find the term 'mundane' a real turn off. The implication is that religion answers more important and interesting questions than other methods of inquiry, and specifically science. There is no evidence for that claim from where I sit, and moreover it presupposes that there is such a thing as objective value. Therefore it assumes its conclusion.

12:39 pm GMT  
Blogger Simon said...

Frank,

I’m afraid I don’t know what you are referring to by ‘religion as a method’. Would you be so kind as to illustrate your point with an example?

I do not believe religion per se provides a method in the way you mean it (as in scientific method): I believe religion gives recommendations (=commandments) on how to lead one’s life according to its laws and principles.
Also, I don’t see how any so called method could say something about anything without being applied by someone. Could you clarify why you were deliberately not referring to religious people but to religion itself?

Now, you may say that religion doesn't pretend to provide such answers, but for centuries it has pretended exactly that. It has only retreated from that position when proven wrong, and even that much is not universally true.
In what way does science differ? Do scientists retreat before they are proven wrong? All major scientific discoveries have had to fight their way to the spotlights, and that’s what makes science so good at what it does.

Sorry if the meaning of ‘mundane’ is off-putting, but it reflects perfectly what I’m saying:
mundane
1 lacking interest or excitement; dull.
2 of this earthly world rather than a heavenly or spiritual one.

This discussion implies the second acceptation of the word, since we’re talking about religion and not judging science (as I said, I’m a scientist, if I considered that my own work lacked interest I wouldn’t have chosen it in the first place). We could use ‘worldly’ if you prefer.

The implication is that religion answers more important and interesting questions than other methods of inquiry, and specifically science. There is no evidence for that claim from where I sit, and moreover it presupposes that there is such a thing as objective value. Therefore it assumes its conclusion.
Frank, you’re the one who said it.

For example it is far from clear what the question 'why does the universe evolve' might mean - whose purpose might you be referring to?
Simply for the sake of religion, as I’ve implied all along. I note that you haven’t given a scientific or philosophical solution to that question - unless concentrating on definitions is your answer.

4:28 pm GMT  
Anonymous Frank O'Dwyer said...

Simon,

’m afraid I don’t know what you are referring to by ‘religion as a method’. Would you be so kind as to illustrate your point with an example?

Well, one of its methods might be to study scripture in an attempt to figure out what is meant.

Another might be prayer.

In what way does science differ? Do scientists retreat before they are proven wrong?

Yes, I believe they do. Scientists never claim that they have anything more than the most current tentative theory based on the evidence so far. Or should not, at least - there are historical examples to the contrary of course.

By contrast religion often appears to claim infallibility, sometimes literally. And may not retreat even after being proven wrong. Belief is often in spite of evidence, e.g. miracles. This doesn't seem to be due to the actions of some few exceptions who aren't "true believers", but an inherent part of the whole concept.

I'm no expert on comparitive religion but I'd be surprised to hear of one that ever came out with a statement such as "we used to think Mary's body was assumed into heaven, but we now know...", or "homosexuality used to be sinful, however a recent piece of scripture points out the flaw in the previous thinking..", or a news story to the effect that some theologian somewhere forgot to carry the 1.

Simply for the sake of religion, as I’ve implied all along. I note that you haven’t given a scientific or philosophical solution to that question - unless concentrating on definitions is your answer.

I'm not sure what you mean by 'simply for the sake of religion'?

As for a scientific answer to the 'why does the universe evolve?' I don't think science purports to answer this, unless the 'why?' question is really a 'how?' or a 'what happens?' type question.

A philosophical answer might be, "no reason", or "because this model of reality seems useful to humans".

7:03 pm GMT  
Blogger Dan Jones said...

Simon, thanks for taking the time out to write your replies, and Frank for keeping the debate going. I’m not sure if we’re making much progress here, but I’m in for another round. Simon, you ask the question, “Why does the universe evolve?”, but you don’t want a mechanistic account – a specification of conditions and causal laws that lead to cosmic evolution. So what do you want? It’s no good saying “Not a scientific explanation, a spiritual one”. What if I said I thought a scientific explanation was not enough, and demanded an extra, Hegelian explanation? You might ask, “What is this, and why do you think you’re entitled to one, or that one exists?” – which is what I think we’re asking you. Give us something to work with, some idea of what you're talking about. An answer that we will have a reason to listen to, so not that it's comforting, or part of a venerable tradition, or is aethestically pleasing.

On to the specific points. I didn’t mean to oppose cosmogonies and cosmologies – I take the scientific discipline of cosmology to be a form of cosmogony (but one to take seriously, as opposed to, say, a Biblical account). You say religion adds value to your life; that’s fine. The Simpsons add value to my life (of a different order, I grant), but this doesn’t make it true – it’s a nice diversion, and a source of amusement. So what you need to do is to articulate some reasons why we should listen to your claims about your religion – our starting point is one of people trying to grope towards the truth about the way the universe is. Tell us why religion gets a seat at the table.

I understand that you didn’t want to get into a serious theological discussion on this comments board, and I was happy to defer temporarily to your greater knowledge in this area, but you did duck my questions about whether you believed in souls, the afterlife, the resurrection, the virgin birth and so on. You don’t need to go into the depth you suggested would be required to explain how evolution works – just yes or no will suffice, so we know where you’re coming from. And understanding where, why and when such articles of faith were spelled out is strictly irrelevant to whether they are true – the context of discovery is very different from the context of justification.

You say “Q: Why does the universe evolve? A: 4+9=1. Although you probably can't understand the answer, you'll agree that since the question is neither scientific nor philosphical, the answer cannot be scientific or philosophical.” I would say that the answer is nonsensical. It reminds me of Deep Thought in The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy, which after pondering the question, “What is the meaning of life?”, comes up with 42, illustrating that if you ask meaningless questions you’ll get a meaningless answer. I know you’re not saying that the answer to your question is ‘4+9=1’, but what are you illustrating? That if you give me a nonsense answer I’ll be stumped? Ditto for the actual answers you’d put in its place. In a sense yes I am stumped – but it’s about why you should think these are answers at all.

Franks response alludes obliquely to the context of discovery and the context of justification in talking about the influence of religion on scientific discovery. Yes, many scientists have been religious (Einstein isn’t a good example, as his ‘religion’ was more an awe of the universe and its workings, a feeling shared by many non-religious scientists). Yes, they may have even been inspired by a specific religious text (naturalists in the 19th century we ravished into admiration by God’s handiwork as revealed by the glories of natural history, but their biblical stories of how this came about are just wrong). But religious authority, based on faith, is not a good route to knowledge; science is.

As for the guidance that religions provide in leading your life, yes, it seems they do. And for the worse in many instances (of course not in all, or perhaps even most – I don’t know how it pans out on balance). But it certainly can have pernicious effects on society, especially when governments are influenced by religious convictions (think abortion, stem cell research, the death penalty and so on). If you mean a more personal moral code, then I think it’s both bad and redundant: you can get a better humanistic morality, and that draws on natural moral tendencies augmented with some rational reflection.

9:14 pm GMT  
Blogger Simon said...

Frank and Dan,
Thanks for your replies. Indeed, time to move on. In asking you to give me an answer for 'why the universe evolves', I'm certainly not excluding a mechanistic account per se; I'm just forcing you to admit that without a religious take on the question you can only propose an account of 'how' the universe evolves, or of 'how we perceive' that the universe is evolving. I take your exasperation (Dan, you write "So what du you want?") as an agreement. I think we have given good evidence throughout our discussion that some questions cannot be answered by philosophy, and cannot even be asked by science, and that therefore theology and religion cannot be replaced by them; this is already good progress, because you, Frank and Potentilla started off by questioning the existence of a spiritual world view by questioning the very definition of 'spiritual'. My point, as you can verify in my other posts on this thread, is that science, philosophy, social sciences, etc. (which I bundled in the term used in eastern rite and orthodox traditions 'mundane', to oppose it to 'spiritual') can only address a part of our questioning of our place in the world. Indeed, science and religion are neither redundant nor incompatible with each other, which is shown by the fact that many scientists are religious, and the fact that (most) theologians accept the scientific explanations of the world, albeit as a manifestation of God's creation. The view that there is a necessary war between science and religion and that one can exclude the other is therefore erroneous. I think that people who are the most vocal about that so called war are those who profit the most from letting others believe that there is such a war, a view that they are responsible for entertaining: it fills Dawkins' bank account and already bloated ego at least, and to what greater end? Would the large public know of Dawkins otherwise? How many can describe and criticise his selfish gene hypothesis?

One reason that science and religion cannot be redundant is that there is an irreducible element of faith in religion that keeps science at bay. For an atheist, only once that bold (dangerous, irrational) leap of faith is taken, can one start building, correcting and assessing the validity of any faith-based model of the world. This is why I have not answered any of your questions pertaining to elements of faith, since your are asking them with a wrongheaded scientific approach for which personal experience -by definition non repeatable, non transferable- is not convincing. Just as for bogus religious claims about the world, if science makes claims about matters of faith, it should not be taken seriously. At the very most can science study chemical, physical and social consequences of religious practices, just as it can only study the chemical, physical and social consequences of love. But you acknowledged yourself that describing the effects of love on people is nothing like experiencing it.

Your reference to 'truth' is misguided, because science is not about that. Because the world is such a variable place, the best we can do as scientists is to give probabilities and boundaries within which any observation, theory or 'law' is most likely to be accurate (definitions of time, space, gravity, matter and energy, metabolism, selection, etc. are only valid under strict conditions). That is not the kind of 'truths' that people aspire to, as evidenced by popular distrust of science. I have alluded to that problem earlier about the fact that Dawkins does not offer an acceptable alternative to people's irrational beliefs.

You ask for something to work on. Great. It is highly ironic that you would have mentioned Hegel (and to respond to your question, I'd go and study what a Hegelian explanation might be instead of arrogantly rejecting it). Although I proposed it as an answer to slightly different question, consider my answer 4+9=1. Take 4 as a representation of man (subject), 9 as a representation of the universe (object) and 1 as a representation of what he called the Weltgeist (absolute), and read Hegel's "Phenomenology of the Mind" - you’re supposed to be the knowledgeable philosopher here. The final result I gave (1) is less interesting than the process which leads to it - it's a process one can think of as a form of evolution, just as Hegel's progression from thesis and antithesis to synthesis. Note that Hegel too was more interested in the dialectic process through his triads of triads, resulting in the ‘higher’ triad Idea, Nature, Spirit - the self-knowing, self-actualising totality of all that is - had the Weltgeist had an existence outside of our thought processes, Hegel would have been a mystic. But to understand Hegel better, you might want to study a really great mystic, Jacob Boehme. Hegel took some of Boehme's ideas and turned them on their head, so to speak: therefore, one might consider Hegel's approach as the antithesis to Boehme's theistic view, maybe? However, although Boehme wrote after several illuminations (I'll let you define that), he was influenced by certain aspects of Jewish mysticism present in is entourage, which helped him express put personal experience to words. Compare those works with how Plato and Plotinus tackle unity etc. Along the way, take note of the differences in perception between the degree of separation between 'spirit and matter' in the mind of Greek and of Semitic people: I think you might get some understanding of the differences of the internal reasoning between the scientific method and faith-based allegories and cosmogonies. After that, I'm ready to bet that you'll no longer confuse cosmology and cosmogony. I even hope that you might reject Dawkins' claim, that reason has no part in religion, as a misunderstanding of religion, or a deceitful generalisation: reason was not invented in 18th century Europe with the scientific method.
As you see, there is plenty to satisfy your need for something to work on.
Here's more: you asked me for a plain answer to whether I believed in what you call the afterlife, souls, reincarnation, the virgin birth and so on. I may, but I need you to tell me what you mean by those terms and then I'll tell you if, yes or no, that is what I believe in, and I’ll do so in no more than one word as you requested. Same goes for God: what does that word mean to you? I'll tell you if that is what I believe in, again with one word. As you wrote, "just yes or no will suffice".

You also state that religion provides guidance in peoples lives often to the worst: do Jesus’ recommendations about loving one another, offering the other cheek, etc. fall in that category? You also say religion “can have pernicious effects on society, especially when governments are influenced by religious convictions”. I totally agree, of course. But that attack is hypocritical: check the record of anti-clerical politics. The problem is rather one of blind certitude of being right, and intolerance of other’s views, be it in religion, politics, economics or morality. And you call for humanistic codes of conduct based on natural moral tendencies. What might those be? If they are shaped by ‘society’ then they are influenced by religion. If they are true even in absence of social nurturing, do you have some examples? You haven’t addressed my point about what happens when humans are reared from human society at birth, and what socialised humans do to each other when assured of impunity (think torture).

To conclude, science and religion cannot tell each other what is true and what isn't in their respective domains, as they do not cover the same ground. Neither can they be used as scapegoats for human cruelty and stupidity. Learning about both, or better still, experiencing both, is richer than knowing only one of the two, and prevents people from getting hurt. Ignorance is a great source of suffering indeed.

7:53 pm GMT  
Blogger Steve said...

Hi, Dan.

I’ve been reading your Blog with a great deal of interest, especially your conversations with Simon. From what I’ve read of what you have to say I have no doubt you entered into a debate with Simon with honesty and an open mind. Like you, I would like to see the debate between those who hold religious beliefs and those who don’t, bear real fruit in an open dialogue, unlike you, I have no optimism that such a debate can either happen in an unbiased arena, or get anywhere supposing it did. It only sadness me that Richard Dawkins has entered the fray again after vowing to stay clear of it. His TV rant will have been ignored by most and only have helped deepen the entrenched views of the majority who are theists, and alienate even further the minority of us who are atheists.

You see we can’t win. You may enter the debate in a genuine and open way, but theists can’t and will not do so. There’s just too much at stake for them. The will always be dismissive, disingenuous, duplicitous and evasive. The will either be outright aggressive, or adopt a passive aggressive approach. This situation is mostly our own fault as we naively enter the arena with little idea of what we’re up against.

It need not be so. We need to understand and recognise the high ground they hold and how they so successfully defend it. You are fighting a battle and have not considered the broader war. By this I mean most atheists want to restrict their argument to a narrow sense of empirical argument in which they feel secure and have every chance of winning; this cuts no ice in Simon’s world, or the broader world of the majority of people who are theists.

The high ground they hold is largely represented by Simon’s “why” argument. It isn’t an argument we can so easily dismiss with the “ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer” rebuttal we would like to think. There’s more behind the “why” question than that, and much of Simon’s comments hint at the enormous hinterland the argument holds and into which theists can retreat almost indefinitely.

Here’s the wall we need to breach: The most important and powerful thing a human can do, which marks us as something other than any other creature on the planet, is the ability to frame a “why” question and give to give it a sensible answer. Nothing else comes near to the importance such an answer provides. It really doesn’t matter to most people how a thing is the way it is. What matters most is intent and purpose. Take this scenario: Q. “Why did you shoot my sister”? A. “Because she was unfaithful to me”, as opposed to, Q. “How did you shoot my sister”? A. “I aimed the gun and pulled the trigger”. We only need to propose intent and purpose, even where there in no human agency involved, to gain the same power the earlier argument has. I imagine the human capacity to ask “why” and find an answer is one of the major cornerstones of our evolution. The ability to function as humans totally depends on our understanding intent and purpose. Imagine how impossible life would be without that facility.

We need to address this issue in a determined and detailed way. Do the science that will throw light on how our need for “purpose” operates phycalogically. Science isn’t here to replace the alpha male in the sky, but replace him we must; and not by stamp collecting.

Great blog, Dan.

Steve Foot

There was an old woman who swallowed a fly,
I don't know why she swallowed a fly,
Perhaps she'll die...

9:39 pm GMT  
Blogger Dan Jones said...

Whether we're agreeing or disagreeing there's certainly a lot of food for thought here, and thanks to everyone for participating, and especially for Simon's patientince in dealing with three people at once. I'm not sure where to go from here, so if you don't mind I'll take these thoughts off with me and chew on them. It's been stiulating, and I'm happy to read more dialogue on this topic.

10:07 pm GMT  
Anonymous Oz said...

Thanks for this review, I would really like to see this TV show now!

My friends' Dad is called Thor; he is a very difficult man not to believe in.

10:05 am GMT  

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