Questionable Motives

January 11, 2012

Why is being called an ignorant creationist redundant?

I like the Catholic Encyclopedia definition of ignorance in the sense I am using here, namely, a lack of knowledge about a thing in a being capable of knowing rather than the standard notion of it meaning merely a lack of knowledge, education, or awareness… for which one may not be responsible. Creationists here in the West have no such similar excuse; instead, they are perfectly capable of knowing why genetics and the geologic time scale and evolution are not just true in some theoretical sense but true in the fact that they inform our technologies and practices that work consistently and reliably well for everyone everywhere all the time. We are populated by large numbers of people who doubt specific scientific inquires in order to maintain a belief in some kind of religiously motivated ‘creative’ agency… something I call divine POOF!ism. This is intellectually bankrupt and teaching it is as if it were compatible and supportive of science is simply not true. It is religious selfishness in action.

What excuse beyond selfishness do we find for so many Protestant pastors from this Southern Baptist Convention survey? Consider the following:

America’s Protestant pastors overwhelmingly reject the theory of evolution and are evenly split on whether the earth is 6,000 years old, according to a survey released Monday by the Southern Baptist Convention.

When asked if “God used evolution to create people,” 73% of pastors disagreed – 64% said they strongly disagreed – compared to 12% who said they agree.

Asked whether the earth is approximately 6,000 years old, 46% agreed, compared to 43% who disagreed.

A movement called Young Earth creationism promotes the 6,000-year-old figure, arguing that it is rooted in the Bible. Scientists say the earth is about 4.5 billion years old.

The Southern Baptist Convention survey, which queried 1,000 American Protestant pastors, also found that 74% believe the biblical Adam and Eve were literal people.

“Recently discussions have pointed to doubts about a literal Adam and Eve, the age of the earth and other origin issues,” said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, a division of the Southern Baptist Convention, in a report on LifeWay’s site. “But Protestant pastors are overwhelmingly Creationists and believe in a literal Adam and Eve.”

Not only do so many of these people not keep their bizarre beliefs private but actually promote them through congregational teachings. And what many are teaching, even though they are beings quite capable of knowing differently, is if not factually wrong then grossly misleading because it is incompatible with what we do know based on what works consistently and reliably for everyone everywhere all the time. In addition, these teaching are pernicious in that they cause intended harm through the promotion of willful ignorance contrary to the teaching of knowledge.

How can I say such things?

Well, consider the incompatibility of belief in an historical and literal Adam and Eve. This doesn’t mean people are rejecting ‘science’ in the larger sense of term but it does mean that people are rejecting our current understanding of genetics. Such a belief ignores the evidence we have about how genetics work in highly predictable ways… ways we rely on to understand heritable diseases and crop sciences, as but two examples. In fact, this belief is in direct and uncompromising conflict with our understanding of genetics that works for everyone everywhere all the time. There is very strong genetic evidence unaccounted for by such a belief that the smallest human population from whom we come was no smaller than about ~10,000.  To believe in a literal and historical Adam and Eve means that believers really do reject this part of science we call genetics.

Consider the incompatibility of belief that the world is fewer than ~10,000 years old. This doesn’t mean people are rejecting ‘science’ in the larger sense of the term but it does mean that people are rejecting our current understanding of geology. Such a belief ignores the evidence we have about the age and formation of rock strata and the forces that have affected them over time that works in highly predictable ways… ways we rely on to understand resource exploration and extraction and erosion and tectonics, as but four examples. In fact this belief in young earth creationism is in conflict with our understanding of geology (and radioactive decay) that works for everyone everywhere all the time. There is very strong geological evidence unaccounted for by such a belief that we live on planet that has undergone significant change over a great deal of time. To believe in a created earth means that believers really do reject this part of science we call geology (and, by extension, the age of other planets).

Consider the incompatibility of belief that our biological heritage is from divine creation by an interventionist agency. This doesn’t mean people are rejecting ‘science’ in the larger sense of the term but it does mean that people are rejecting our current understand of evolution. Such a belief ignores the evidence we have about biological development and change over time by what is known as natural selection (it would not be ‘natural’ if traits were selected by some interventionist agency) that works in highly predictable ways… ways we rely on to understand biology and medicine, to name but two. There is very strong evolutionary evidence unaccounted for by such a creationist belief that life on earth is related yet differentiated by natural selection over a great deal of time. To believe in creationism means that believers really do reject this part of science we call biology.

So what’s the harm maintaining such a dismissive belief? After all, we are assured repeatedly by many earnest religious believers and apologetic accommodationists that ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are actually compatible… and even mutually supportive! So my question is – as always – Is this claim true?

I need to divert for a moment and look at ‘science’ in the larger sense and understand why this argument about creationists respecting science – but not these specific scientific avenues – is just not true.  Science, let us recall, is a METHOD of inquiry and not the results of an inquiry. In other words, exactly the same METHOD is used to investigate, say, genetics as it is germs, aerodynamics as it is astronomy. It makes no sense to suggest that it is somehow compatible and supportive to reject that METHOD here but not there in order to privilege some prior religious belief. It’s actually dishonest. It is neither compatible nor supportive to suggest that the belief in geocentrism does not stand in contrast and competition with heliocentrism when the two notions are incompatible – they are necessarily in conflict – any more than it does to suggest biblical inerrancy should be granted to the story of Adam and Eve but not biblical inerrancy to the sixty some odd reference to the earth as the center of the universe. To reject the specific science that informs genetics and geology and evolution to privilege religious beliefs incompatible with them is contrary to being supportive of the METHOD of science used to inform all other scientific inquiries. It is that identical METHOD that shows us that the geocentric model fails where the heliocentric model succeeds for everyone everywhere all the time. It is that METHOD that informs all these practical applications and technologies that work for everyone everywhere all the time derived from the specific scientific inquiries so vilified by supporters of creationism. By rejecting genetics and geology and evolution to favour and prejudice some holy scripture, creationists are rejecting the METHOD of science used to inform not just these specific scientific inquiries but ALL OF THEM.

This has a pernicious effect… especially in medicine.

Evolutionary theories are critical for understanding human disease. They are used to understand the origins of cancer and to better design therapies, which directly help our understanding through evolutionary history to explain modern health problems (such as type-II diabetes and obesity). It is upon these evolutionary theories that we have learned to appreciate viral evolution, which is used to design safe and effective vaccination strategies that work. For example, an evolutionary viewpoint is the only way to understand the spread of antibiotic resistance in bacteria and to develop effective methods for stopping or slowing it. Defining the evolutionary process of cancers is leading to new, more targeted approaches in cancer treatment. How we incorporate these evolutionary ideas into medical education enhances the education of health professionals, which is in stark conflict with creationist belief (that usually blames sin for our earned deaths… such a cheerful and optimistic bunch). Our biomedical science gains from understanding human evolution and allows us to design and implement solutions to our vulnerability to disease. The evolutionary approach to medicine and public health is enormous, informing areas of research and providing predictions and guidance for novel interventions.

All of this medical knowledge and its pursuit is at dire risk when we continue to pretend that teaching creationism is somehow compatible, somehow a legitimate and equivalent alternative, with the scientific quest to know.

It isn’t. At all.

Now consider the incompatibility creationism presents as an alternative to the benefits from informed medicine and how many future doctors and medical researchers are turned away from this pursuit in the name of honouring the religious beliefs of their parents and pastors about creationism. Think of how many students are affected when creationists in all their various lying for Jesus and Allah guises try to insert this theology into science classrooms or religious students who do everything they can to remove specific scientific inquiries like evolution from their educational curriculum.

All of this medical knowledge and its pursuit is at dire risk when we continue to pretend that teaching creationism is somehow compatible, somehow a legitimate and equivalent alternative, with the scientific METHOD. It’s simply not true.

Creationism – and its gaggle of handmaidens of other necessary beliefs contrary to specific scientific inquiries – is in direct conflict with the METHOD of science that produces what works for everyone everywhere all the time. This is why such belief that sidelines legitimate and honest inquiry into reality is not a ‘different way of knowing’ or some separate but equivalent Magesterium. Creationism is a turning away from honest scientific methodology (methodological naturalism) and insisting on a return to ignorance. Ignorance is the real alternative people are choosing when they reject and ignore knowledge we have that works for everyone everywhere all the time, knowledge upon which companies invest trillions of dollars, knowledge that has the effrontery to work consistently and reliably well in reality over time. By staying faithful to beliefs that are wholly inadequate to reveal what works in reality by comparison, people are choosing ignorance over knowledge to maintain their religious belief. The sacrifice costs. Yet still many are teaching  creationism to their kids and want it taught to the general public. They want respect for this ignorance established in law and want to base public policies on extensions of it in areas like research and human reproduction and foreign aid. It’s ignorance in action, what we atheists like to call ‘turtles all the way down’. It’s a ruse, a lie, an intentional deception, a willful disregard for what is true in reality to pretend creationism is an equivalent and respectable alternative to specific scientific inquiries rather than the ignorance in action it honestly is.

It’s high time more of us reminded creationists determined to insert their beliefs into the public domain of this brute fact, that being an ignorant creationist is in fact and deed redundant.

(h/t Pandasthumb)

July 6, 2011

Does creation ‘science’ disprove biblical creationism?

The short answer is Yes.

The long answer can be found in two papers, here and here.

Creation ‘science’ (an oxymoron if there ever was one) posits that animals fall into types, or baramins, which were created independently, but have diversified since. I’m sure you are aware of the creationist campaign to allow for microevolution but not macroevolution. Obtuse reasoning, but there you have it. Baramin is a word used to describe a kind of critter, say a cat to which all members of the cat ‘family’ (like lions and tigers) belong. The argument is that Noah’s ark brought on board not all animals we see today but only the essential kinds necessary to repopulate the world after the love of god was expressed by a murderously cleansing flood. Morphological gaps in the fossil record are used as ‘evidence’ for distinct baramins that could only have come about by a designing creator.

I know, but bear with me.

Dr Senter’s first paper – described in this BBC Nature Wonder Monkey article by editor Matt Walker – points the obvious, that if the fossil record for dinosaurs:

do show transitional forms, and are in fact genetically related to each other, then creationists are in a bit of a bind. Either they must accept that to be true, and therefore contradict their own position that these groups appeared without evolution. Or they must throw out the assertion, but also reject their own methodology, which they have used to validate their creationist claims. Dr Senter’s 2010 study, did of course, show that coelurosaurian dinosaurs are related, in particular that tyrannosaurs (to which T. rex belongs) form a continuous group with other dinosaurs belonging to a group called the Compsognathidae.

In the second and latest study, Senter looks at another creationist science method called taxon correlation, which is also a baraminological technique, and shows enough morphological continuity between dinosaurs to prove, by creationist standards, that dinosaurs are genetically related.

So what?

Well, it shows that dinosaurs can be grouped into eight kinds, or baramins, which would seem to make creationists happy. Eight kinds of dinosaurs are easier to load on to an ark than, say dozens of the huge monstrosities or thousands of smaller ones. So far, so good in the creationist camp. Ain’t life grand?

But hold on a second! This raises a rather sticky problem, namely, that:

in just a few thousand years, each “kind” of dinosaur begat the huge variation in fossils we see today.

In other words, incredibly rapid microevolution leading to macroevolution.

Bugger.

Heads, evolution wins. Tails, creation science loses.

Are we really surprised? Of course not… not if one honestly and with an open mind takes the time to understand why so many branches of science concludes that evolution is true. The evidence painstakingly gathered from every strand of inquiry except theology (again showing why theology is not an inquiry at all but a position of trust in certain assumptions) is mutually supportive and overwhelming. It takes a very firm belief to counter what is true in reality with what is simply believed to be true about it, and this is what theology does: it tries to convince people that reality and causal evidence should be no constraint to a good belief.

(h/t to MUR)

April 29, 2011

Why is the NCSE wrong to accommodate creationism?

Russell Blackford quite reasonably points out that When it comes to science education, public school systems in the United States and other liberal democracies generally have the secular goal of teaching students well-established findings, those that are generally accepted by working scientists.

But this isn’t reasonable enough for the NCSE (National Center for Science Education) when it comes to evolutionary biology. Unlike its treatment of all other scientific topics, when it comes to evolution in public education, they feel we must deal more delicately with the religiously inclined. They feel we should be more respectful dealing with christians even though many hold different views about how creation has actually taken place. They feel it wise to avoid dealing with the fact that most of them are wrong, can be proven wrong, and should, at least implicitly, be demonstrated to be wrong. Holding to some form of creationism – it is merely a matter of degree and not kind between Young Earth Creationsim and theistic evolution – avoids the fact that nothing in biology makes sense in light of creationism.

If the Pooh Bahs over at the NCSE wish to respect the notion in policy that parts of the bible remain divinely written or inspired, then is a matter of honesty to admit that the organization, as Coyne argues, is taking itself out of the ambit of empiricism and reason. You’re making a purely subjective decision based on revelation.

This is why the issue is important for the integrity of science education as a whole and the National Center for Science Education in particular to realize that’s why science organizations that endorse some brands of theology, while decrying others, are making a serious mistake. As Jerry Coyne points out in his open letter to the NCSE (motivated by repeated negative articles posted at The Chronicle of Higher Education , let the science of evolution speak for itself.

When this policy is altered to accommodate the kind of theology that presumably (there is little evidence of efficacy) allows for some kind of wider public acceptance for some kind of evolution, then the NCSE is choosing to support a theology that is favourable and good to its aim. Note this is not done for geology and plate tectonics, vulcanism and geography in spite of providing strong evidence against the christian doctrine of a great Flood. No special allowance is made for those who believe the tenets of astrology in the curriculum for astronomy. Alchemists don’t get special consideration and accommodation in chemistry. The subject of physics is not enhanced by pretending that it doesn’t interfere with belief in immaterial things. Yet when it comes to creationism and evolutionary biology, suddenly the wise people at the NCSE think special consideration for christian religious beliefs is necessary and thus warranted. That’s bizarre and, I think, highly counter productive for an organization concerned about educating our youth about science. As Coyne quite rightly points out, who are they (the NCSE) to decide what is “good” theology? What they mean by “good”, of course, is not “theology that gives us a more accurate sense of the divine,” (as stated in their policy) but “theology that best comports with our desire to sell evolution to the public.”

And I think Coyne’s conclusion – supported directly as it is by such people as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers and many other highly reputable scientists in evolutionary biology – is worth serious consideration because it raises an issue that I think many at the NCSE fail to understand:


First, your repeated and strong accusations that, by criticizing religion, atheists are alienating our pro-evolution allies (liberal Christians), has precisely the same alienating effect on your allies: scientists who are atheists. Second, your assertion that only you have the requisite communication skills to promote evolution is belied by the observation that you have, by your own ham-handed communications, alienated many people who are on the side of good science and evolution. You have lost your natural allies. And this is not just speculation, for those allies were us, and we’re telling you so.

April 16, 2011

Why is mainstream moderate religious belief poisonous (updated)?

From a previous thread come these comments:

From misunderstoodranter:

“I am not an atheist because ‘other’ people are atheists – I am an atheist because I decided I was.”

From Zero1Ghost comes this reply:

“this implies that believers are theists because they are engaged in group think. i think this notion is partially true. they are afraid not to believe in God yet they live their lives like there isn’t one and the “church” has no impact on their lives aside from where they get married, baptize their children, and where their funeral is held.”

This is a very typical characterization of the mainstream religious believer from those theists who do not see what pernicious and ongoing effect the tireless promotion of religious ideology has on their society… motivated solely by religious ideology. These same theists tend to individualize religious belief as if it were a simple choice made only on the personal level so take any criticism about religion per se as inconsequential and often misguided. From this attribution, these theists then generally fail to account for how their own preferences for empowering their personal religious beliefs in any public way support the insertion of religious ideology into the lives and business of everyone else. This is a purposeful disconnect done with the intention of deflecting criticism from the issue of religious motivation to an issue of individual actions that may or may not be considered misguided. In this way, these theists never have to deal with the growing problem religious ideology brings to the whole population as they stand idly by while this happens… but are sure to call atheists and others who complain too loudly names. Forget that these same theists offer their tacit support of the inserted religious ideology into the public domain while deflecting criticism to be too ‘militant’ and ‘strident’ and ‘fundamentalist’ to be accurate. No siree: complainers of religious insertion into the public domain are just as extreme as those other religious folk. And you don’t want to be one of those people! You’re too reasonable to be such an extremist. And yet the religiously motivated intrusion continues unabated seeking preferential treatment by means of law.

In the United States, for example, I wonder if most religious believers appreciate just how common, conniving, and downright underhanded are those who attempt to cross the state/church wall of separation to insert theology where it doesn’t belong: specifically in science class. I have trouble finding anyone who supports this insertion directly, who supports those who work against the First Amendment; instead I am overwhelmed by those who pretend such insertions are only attempted by religious extremists and fundamentalists and so we can safely trust governments to withstand their misguided assaults. They are wrong.

So let’s consider the facts: in 2011 we have seven states considering nine bills to do just this.

The National Center for Science Education offers us what they call the Antievolution Legislative Scorecard here. It lists each bill and quotes the bill’s aims. This is creationism in action. This is religious ideology actively being recruited to achieve a specific outcome. Its motivation is to undermine the teaching of evolution as if there were some other legitimate science theories kicking about in biology when there are none. This is pure religious belief common to most religious believers who assume the role of creator somewhere in humanity’s history masquerading as some kind of alternative science. And every year creationism rears its ugly little head and people work tirelessly to alter science textbooks, alter school curriculum, alter education legislation with one aim in mind: replace real science with religious belief in the public domain… or at least make room for religious beliefs about creationism in the curriculum. So can we blame only religious extremists? Well, it is not being carried out by religious extremists. It is not being carried out by fundamentalists. It is being done by politicians who stand to gain public favour by undermining the teaching of science in the name of religious belief.

There’s the rub.

It is the wider public made up of religious moderates and liberals, apologists and accommodationists, who are to blame for this travesty… including the NCSE itself that states “[t]he Bible is a record of one particular people’s developing moral relationship with God, and enshrines timeless ideals about the integrity of creation [...]! Without the support of so many religious accommodationist of all stripes- tacit or actual – no politician would dare undermine the First and expect to curry public favour. For that to happen, the mainstream must accept the promotion of religious ideology in the public domain as legitimate.  And that’s why every religious believer must be challenged who dares to suggest that their religious beliefs beyond the merely personal are either innocuous or good. They’re not. They are just as likely to be poisonous.

March 13, 2011

Why is suffering a fatal flaw for belief in a benevolent creator?

Most of us know of Epicurus’ succinct summation evil causes belief in a benevolent god:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

The slippery term in this paradox for believers is ‘evil’. I think we can reveal the same fatal paradox without the metaphysical baggage that accompanies such a term by replacing it with the word ‘suffering’. I am certainly not the first to do so and I think it tears away the comforting veil of ignorance that infuses belief in a benevolent god when we look at how the world actually and factually operates.

Life and death on this planet has come about as we know it by the process of evolution, a system Lord Tennyson accurately describes as “red in tooth and claw.” Suffering by sentient beings is simply part and parcel of this mindless, unguided, undirected, indifferent biological mechanism. This is a problem for those who would prefer to believe in a benevolent creator. As blogger and ex Anglican priest, Eric MacDonald so eloquently describes the problem evolution creates for the believer this way:

If this is a consciously designed process (evolution by design as held by many notable people such as Francis Collins and those allied to the same notion endorsed by the rc church and many other denominations), as Christians must maintain — for, from the Christian point of view, god’s first priority is the creation of human beings and their redemption — then all the suffering is an intentional part of god’s purposes. And this is simply intolerable. It cannot stand a moment’s moral reflection, and certainly the doctrine of double effect won’t change the mind of a reasonable person on this matter, for you cannot not intend suffering if you create by means of natural selection.

From an academically and scientifically honest standpoint, evolution is fact that is fatal to the argument that a creator god is benevolent.

So what’s a believer in a benevolent creator to do? In England, an imam with the audacity to suggest evolution is compatible with islam if the Koran is interpreted just so, one must apologize and retract such a statement if one wishes to avoid being killed as an apostate. In the US, one must contend with repeated attempts by the religiously misguided to keep creationism from being inserted into the science classroom, spending untold millions  of taxpayer dollars to continue this separation intact. The latest attack against science is in Tennessee. The one is Kentucky has just died… for this session. The one is Texas is still going strong as it works its way towards approved legislation. Florida tries every year and this one is no different. Louisiana has already passed it’s anti-evolution bill as if this will magically improve the state’s dismal showing in student science knowledge. And so on, and so on, and so on, even after creationism has been soundly defeated in every federal court case brought against its insertion into the public school science curriculum. (The latest was in Dover in 2005.) Religious beliefs about a creator – no matter under what recent title it tries on for public acceptance – have no scientific credibility nor validity. This is not a preference or belief by people who would prefer this not to be so: it’s a fact… and a fact that far too many religious people seem unable and unwilling to grasp. When such facts are contrary to what is believed to be true by those who respect faith-based beliefs, then obviously the facts must be wrong! There’s nothing like a legislative act to set the facts on the path to redemption.

Good grief.

The world, however – and  no matter where we look at it – continues to offer up the brutal fact that creationism is not only a fairytale but that its supposed benevolence is identical in all meaningful ways to that of a delusion. For example, the latest and devastating earthquakes in New Zealand and China and  Japan is accompanied by undeniable indiscriminate death and much human suffering.  Tsunamis add their additional effects. Plate tectonics and the accompanying geological and hydrological effects are just as mindless, unguided, undirected, and indifferent a physical mechanism as biological evolution is and the resulting human suffering just as obvious. The physical evidence for mindless cause and effect of these mechanisms is overwhelming. Where is the evidence for benevolence versus the suffering these mechanisms cause?

No where.

Let us now turn to the pious who feel some level of compassion and empathy for the suffering of their fellow creatures in the wake of these disasters. A.C. Grayling offers us this glimpse into the reasoning that is avoided by those who decide to offer up their prayers to some benevolent creator for these distant folk suffering from calamity. Following the same reasoning of Epicurus’s paradox, he wonders about why anyone would show fealty to such an obvious metaphysical monster some think of as a benevolent creator:

For if he is not competent to stop an earthquake or save its victims, he is definitely not competent to create a world. And if he is powerful enough to do both, but created a dangerous world that inflicts violent and agonizing sufferings arbitrarily on sentient creatures, then he is vile. Either way, what are people thinking who believe in such a being, and who go to church to praise and worship it? How, in the face of events which human kindness and concern registers as tragic and in need of help – help which human beings proceed to give to their fellows: no angels appear from the sky to do it – can they believe such an incoherent fiction as the idea of a deity? This is a perennial puzzle.

Indeed it is.

This desire by the pious to believe in a literal Santa Claus-ian benevolent creator is not just foolishly childish and comforting as only a delusion can be; it is a faith-based belief that incessantly gives god-sanctioned motivation to those who directly attack both evidence-based fact as apostasy and intellectually honest reason as some kind of evil plot to undermine god. That some continue to insist that we can accommodate religion and science – allow respect for what some believe is true as well for what IS true – is foolhardy as well as intentionally dishonest. It is foolhardy because it interferes with folk who think there is a legitimate choice to be made between accepting what is factually true and faith-based beliefs as some kind of equivalent source for knowledge in spite of no evidence for this to be the case (and much evidence in stark contrast to this case), and dishonest because for these same folk it reduces  what is true to be conditional on some collection of faith-based beliefs they have chosen to accept as true first. Yet faith-based beliefs add nothing honest to our understanding of the world nor any true appreciation for the dependent role we suffer for our lives on it and much disinformation and misrepresentation of how the world actually is and how it actually works and how we actually cause effects in it.

August 11, 2010

Why do we think some kinds of babies are cute while others we think are not?

Filed under: Biology,Evolution,Jerry Coyne — tildeb @ 11:10 am

“Biology precedes our desires.”

I’ve been thinking about how informative that route is to explore for explanations yet seemingly is overlooked with ease by those who find it more convincing to believe that a mystical transfer occurs between some supernatural agent and humans.

There is a wonderful post for any who might be interested in this topic by (award winning author) Jerry Coyne about this subject with some terrific pictures like this one over at Why Evolution Is True.

May 18, 2010

Dismantling creationism: how can this happen?

Over at Neurologica there is a wonderful post about a conversation between Novella and a creationist named Duane. It covers many of the standard creationist canards hostile to the science of evolution and clearly reveals how someone like Duane can pretend to respect logic and evidence and appear to be inquiring yet remain firm and steadfast in religiously inspired ignorance when those methods and the provided evidence counter some quacked-up theological beliefs. But half the fun of reading a calm and patient smack-down of hostile creationism is reading some of the comments. My favourite comment is from Weii, the tenth comment down (May 14th, 10:21 pm), who perceptively notes:

He is a typical believer who relies on his faith to answer his questions. Evidence doesn’t convince him as he will only seek evidence that confirms his belief and ignore it if it doesn’t, as we all will. A creationist that is also a scientist is an oxymoron, unless they are in a totally unrelated field. Creationists believe things and only see confirmation. Scientists make certain assumptions about the world and then test them. Someone who believes that toast always lands on the buttered side down, when faced with it landing buttered side up, will think that he buttered the wrong side.

And that is exactly what I have found as I venture through the blogosphere: those who insist that truth must be compatible with their theology have already made the decision to rank what is true to be less valuable than maintaining a religious belief, and will then bend, distort, excuse, and ignore the fruits of honest inquiry that run counter to these comforting beliefs in order to protect and promote religiously inspired ignorance. But with enough cognitive dissonance created by good reasoning about the overwhelming evidence counter to claims about special human creationism, then perhaps some will dismantle their walled religious beliefs one brick at a time and wake up one day to the beautiful dawn of an open mind and wonder “How did this happen?”

May 9, 2010

Do we derive our morality from religion?

Filed under: Biology,Harris,Morality,Religion,Science — tildeb @ 7:03 pm

No. We do not. Without question all the evidence points to the inevitable conclusion that morality (necessarily) precedes religion. If morality precedes religion, then from where does it come? The answer may surprise those who automatically disagree with Sam Harris’ latest offerings that we can use science to determine the ought from the is: morality originates from our biology.

I have come across many such child development studies over the years: indications that morality – a knowledge to differentiate between right and wrong – is present in very young children long before any exposure to religious beliefs that supposedly teach us this difference. This old canard – that we derive morality from sources like the bible – is the basis upon which many people allow an area of biological expertise to rest with theology as if theodicy is the natural home for studying this (innate) trait. But we know that religious inquiry is an oxymoron and reveals nothing not previously assumed to be true. The study of morality as an expression of biology can only be enhanced by further scrutiny of scientific inquiry.

This long (7 pages) article (for a newspaper) supports this notion yet again with children one years old and explains how they tested and what results they gathered.

March 17, 2010

What is the key to accepting unjustified beliefs as true?

Several posts ago we looked at the issue of homeschooling biology textbooks out of Bob Jones University that endorsed creationism as a legitimate alternative to evolution. Jerry Coyne, evolutionary biologist and author of the excellent book Why Evolution Is True was asked to respond to a homeschooling parent who was concerned about this issue. He was then quoted in the New York times saying that these science textbooks lied to children by misrepresenting the science of biology and how irresponsible it was for parents to support this kind of lie for the maintenance of religious sensibilities over and above what is true.

I think to better understand how people can wholeheartedly believe unjustified notions (like creationism, for example) as if they were just as likely to be true as some notion informed by evidence and supported by a very high probability of the notion being true  (like evolution, for example) lies not in the facts as we find them but in the way we approach those facts.

Michael McHugh is head of a young-earth creationist organization, CLASS, that sells home-school materials on biology to parents. He states (on audio clip 100316 here) that the biology textbooks in question can select whatever ‘facts’ best supports the creationist worldview, that there are “no neutral facts.”  That is, every fact militates either for or against a certain worldview.  His suggestion for how to educate your kids involves choosing which worldview the parent believes suits them best, and then selecting the “facts” that fit this worldview.

That assertion is jaw-dropping stupid. It is so stupid, it burns. It is unconscionable in an educator, but it does explain an extraordinary phenomena we come across time and again of how people can remain fixated on some belief being true regardless of overwhelming contrary evidence. How can this be possible?

The mindset described by Michael McHugh explains exactly how so many otherwise rational people can become so selective in the ‘facts’ they already believe are representative of and meaningful to their worldview, while able to so callously disregard other ‘facts’ that are in direct conflict with the worldview. What this essentially means is that anyone who says “…there are ‘no neutral facts’…that is, every fact militates either for or against a certain worldview…” holds a worldview which cannot be changed by facts and will ignore or refute any evidence counter to their absolute premise. (Tip to #7 Oldfuzz commenting on WEIT about this subject.)

The facts don’t matter to someone who subscribes to this approach that no facts are neutral, that all facts militate for or against a worldview. But this approach means that all evidence does not count but only selected evidence, and this is exactly what we find with people who hold unjustified beliefs. They are only unjustified when all the evidence is considered, but appear highly justified when only carefully selected evidence is considered. In other words, to such people truth dos not matter. Inquiry is not needed. Intellectual integrity is disregarded. Knowledge is subordinate to and dependent on belief in that worldview.

And that’s exactly how ignorance becomes champion and can be promoted by so many well-intentioned homeschooling parents.

March 11, 2010

Why is understanding plausibility so important to how we inform our beliefs?

Plausibility is essentially an application of existing basic and clinical science to a new hypothesis, to give us an idea of how likely it is to be true. There are three broad categories of plausibility we need to appreciate:

If evidence for a direct connection between a cause and its effect can be established, then we have a highly plausible explanation upon which we can depend for consistent results.

If we have evidence for an consistent effect from some cause but do not understand the generating mechanism, then we have neutral plausibility for an explanatory hypothesis.

If we have evidence for an inconsistent effect from some perceived cause and suggest an explanatory hypothesis that violates the basic laws of science, then our explanatory hypothesis is implausible.

As Steve Novella writes over at Science-Based Medicine regarding homeopathic treatments that claim to provide efficacy to improve ‘life energy’,

Invoking an unknown fundamental energy of the universe is not a trivial assumption. Centuries of study have failed to discover such an energy, and our models of biology and physiology have made such notions unnecessary, resulting in the discarding of “life energy” as a scientific idea over a century ago.

Essentially any claim that is the functional equivalent to saying “it’s magic” and would, by necessity, require the rewriting not only of our medical texts, but physics, chemistry, and biology, can reasonably be considered, not just unknown, but implausible.

How we inform our beliefs using the plausibility standard is important and depends entirely on the quality of the explanations we rely on to do so,  whether they are about specific ideas in medicine or religion or politics or about more general policies and procedures. If our explanations are plausible, then our beliefs are plausible. If our explanations are implausible, then our beliefs are implausible. If we are considering to act on our beliefs, then we need to first undertake due diligence and establish how plausible they really are.

If the beliefs are implausible, then we know they are poorly informed and, as such, are unjustified. Acting on unjustified beliefs in our personal and private domain is our prerogative. We have the freedom to do so because the founding documents and charters and bills of our liberal secular democracies provide us with the necessary legal framework and state-sanctioned power to protect these equal freedoms. But providing what’s necessary isn’t nearly enough. We must also do our part as individuals to maintain our own equal freedoms.

In stark contrast to the freedom we have to exercise our beliefs in the private domain, acting on our implausible beliefs in the public domain is wrong and richly deserving of sustained legitimate criticism. Whenever we come across those who wish promote unjustified beliefs as if they were informed and plausible when they are neither in the public domain using public offices, we must hold them to account for their abuse of their office’s public power that allows them to cross that important boundary between the what is allowable in the private but forbidden in the public.

Our task is to maintain sustained criticism towards those who abuse public office in this way – whether they abuse the office’s power to support implausible medical therapies, implausible religious truth claims, implausible political solutions, and so on. We must insist that only informed beliefs that are plausible be made into public policies and procedures. Our collective failure to participate in our civic duty in this matter is a failure to be responsible to no only ourselves but to our fellow citizens, which has a cumulative effect of reducing our equal common rights and freedoms. We harm the very fabric of our equal rights and freedoms under a liberal secular democracy when we allow the abuse of public office to promote implausible beliefs. We allow it to continue when we choose to remain silent about this abuse. Even more damning to our equal individual freedoms  is our active support of candidates and office holders who are willing to promote our favoured implausible beliefs… again, whether those implausible beliefs are about complimentary and alternative medicines, favoured religious beliefs, political strategies, and so on. This kind of willing support to the implausible is both unpatriotic and seditious no matter how great may be the popularity of these candidates and their platforms.

The standard of plausibility is a very important concept to inform public policies – useful to each of us to determine our level of support for these public policies and procedures – although we have the freedom (and luxury) to pay it scant attention in our private lives… for now. What is essential, however, is to understand why plausibility matters so much.

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