Questionable Motives

November 22, 2009

Too Good to be True, Too Obscure to Explain: Cognitive Shortcomings of Belief in God

Filed under: Atheism,belief,Education,Philosophy,Religion,Science — tildeb @ 2:43 pm

Naturalism holds that science and philosophy are continuous, interpenetrating and collaborative in our investigation of reality; neither is foundational to the other. The naturalist mainly wants not to be deceived, not to make errors of logic or method or assumptions when understanding the world. Science, kept presuppositionally and methodologically honest by philosophy and real-world experience, has given us increasingly reliable explanations of how things work as judged by our growing capacity to predict and control phenomena. Such is the naturalist’s pragmatic test of knowledge: we are not deceived because we successfully predict.

If, as the naturalist contends, the most reliable grounds for believing in something’s existence is that it plays a role in our best, most predictive explanations, then there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural, since nothing supernatural plays such a role.

Whether God is brought in to explain the creation of the universe or the design of life, in neither case can the supernaturalist provide an account of God’s nature or how he operates. But good explanations don’t simply posit the existence of some entity or process to fill a purported explanatory gap, in this case a creative, designing intelligence; they must supply considerable additional information to achieve explanatory adequacy.

Those wanting clear explanations can’t abide the spurious explanatory completeness that God supplies; such completeness is patently bought by sacrificing understanding, when after all understanding is the whole point! No, naturalists are happy to admit that in some cases – many cases actually, including the origins of existence itself – we don’t understand what’s going on. Far better an honest admission of naturalistic unknowing than a premature claim to knowledge that invokes the supernatural. Belief in God, a cognitive cul-de-sac, is ruled out by the naturalist’s desire for explanatory transparency, a transparency exemplified by science.The inescapable demand of any claim to objectivity is that we do our level best to separate how we wish things would be from how they actually are. Which norms, those of theists or those of naturalists, best guard against projecting our human hopes and fears onto the world when constructing a worldview?

In principle and almost always in practice, any honest scientist will (eventually, sometimes after considerable controversy about methods and data) reach more or less the same conclusions in a well-researched domain of inquiry as another scientist, whatever their original differences. Why?  Because over the last 350 years experimental methods and criteria of explanatory adequacy have been selected precisely for their bias-reducing properties, for their capacity to filter out subjective hopes and expectations when picturing reality. The predictive, explanatory successes of science, not to mention its practical applications, compel consensus about matters of fact no matter what we wish were the case.

If you’re interested in objectivity, the choice between the relatively rigorous epistemic demands of naturalism and the more relaxed demands of theism is obvious. If you want a picture of the world more or less as it is, insulated as much as possible from the distorting effects of your own all-too-human psychology, you will stick with science. Not that science is infallible, but it fully recognizes and tries to reduce the influence of wishful thinking when representing reality.By contrast, theism and theology, despite their claims to objectivity, manifestly fail to respect the most basic cognitive requirement involved in such claims: that we should leave our hopes behind when investigating the world.

The naturalist’s off-the-cuff challenge to the traditional theist might be that God is simply too good to be true and too obscure to explain. As far as we can tell there is no role for God, humankind’s fondest hope, in such a story. But the absence of God and the supernatural simply highlights the presence of nature. For the naturalist, nature is all there is, and therefore it’s enough.

Read the entire article by Thomas W. Clark here.

November 21, 2009

Christian Science therapies: the conspiracy behind paying for prayer revealed

Backed by some of the most powerful members of the Senate, a little-noticed provision in the healthcare overhaul bill would require insurers to consider covering Christian Science prayer treatments as medical expenses.

Senator Harkin, says

“It is time to end the discrimination against alternative health care practices.”

“This is about giving people the pragmatic alternatives they want, while ending discrimination against practitioners of scientifically based alternative health care. It is about improving health care outcomes. And, yes, it is about reducing health care costs. Generally speaking, alternative therapies are less expensive and less intrusive – and we need to take advantage of that.”

Why would the government want to make sure prayer could be reimbursed as form of medical intervention? Surely our elected representative would not pander to their constituents? That would be beyond the pale.  There must be a deeper, more sinister, reason.  And I remember: dead people cost no money.

The application of Christian Scientology, er, no, it must be Christian Scientist therapies has well documented effects upon the Christian Science population. And those effects are not beneficial to anyone who is not a mortician.

For example, in 1989 JAMA published a cohort study (Yes, I know from the last post that cohort studies prove nothing nothing nothing, but I am uncertain how one would apply Christian Science in a randomized, placebo controled, double blinded manner).

They looked at outcomes in 5,500 Christian Scientists and compared them to a group of almost 30,000 controls using conventional medicine.

For each age group from 1934 to 1983, there was a greater death rate in the Christian Scientists when compared to the control population, a difference made more remarkable as Christian Scientists neither smoke nor drink.

So the real conspiracy (how’s that for an oxymoron) is that the US government wants to save health care dollars by recognizing and legitimizing complimentary and alternative medical procedures and therapies. Why? To kill you! Now there’s a death panel!

The complete article can be read here.

God needs protection from human language! Enter the UN…

Four years after cartoons of the prophet Muhammad set off violent protests across the Muslim world, Islamic nations are mounting a campaign for an international treaty to protect religious symbols and beliefs from mockery — essentially a ban on blasphemy that would put them on a collision course with free speech laws in the West.

Documents obtained by The Associated Press show that Algeria and Pakistan have taken the lead in lobbying to eventually bring the proposal to a vote in the U.N. General Assembly.

If ratified in countries that enshrine freedom of expression as a fundamental right, such a treaty would require them to limit free speech if it risks seriously offending religious believers. The process, though, will take years and no showdown is imminent.

The countries that form the 56-member Organization of the Islamic Conference are now lobbying a little-known Geneva-based U.N. committee to agree that a treaty protecting religions is necessary.

Read the rest of the article here.

Evidence for human evolution

Filed under: Biology,Evolution,Genetics,Human Development,Medicine,Science — tildeb @ 2:37 pm

It’s a snapshot of human evolution in progress. A genetic mutation protecting against kuru – a brain disease passed on by eating human brains – only emerged and spread in the last 200 years.

The mutation first arose about 200 years ago by accident in a single individual, who then passed it down to his or her descendants. “When the kuru epidemic peaked about 100 years back, there were maybe a couple of families who found that they and their children survived while all their neighbours were dying, and so on to today’s generation, who still carry the gene,” says Mead. “So it was a very sudden genetic change under intense selection pressure from the disease,” he says.

None of the 152 victims of kuru had the protective gene, suggesting that it provides almost complete resistance to the disease. But it’s not yet known whether the variant protects against other prion diseases. Mead said that experiments are already under way in mice deliberately given the new mutation, to see if they are protected against both kuru and vCJD.

Complete article here.

November 20, 2009

Another creationist politician: Sarah Palin

“I believed in the evidence for microevolution—that geologic and species change occurs incrementally over time, (…) But I didn’t believe in the theory that human beings—thinking, loving beings—originated from fish that sprouted legs and crawled out of the sea. Or that human beings began as single-celled organisms that developed into monkeys who eventually swung down from trees; I believed we came about not through a random process, but were created by God.”

I believed in the evidence for gaining knowledge – that gaining critical thinking skills and refining honest skepticism occurs over time, (…) But I didn’t believe in the theory that human beings – rational, intellectually capable beings – could crawl back into the darkness and spout such ignorance. Or that educated people could turn their backs on knowledge and become spewing ignoramuses unwilling to understand what they attempt to demonize; I believed we could learn and increase our knowledge not by religious osmosis but by directed honest inquiry, but were thwarted by dogmatic religious belief.

November 19, 2009

American Taliban: Christian evangelicals

Filed under: belief,Criticism,Culture,Intolerance,Media,Morality,Religion — tildeb @ 9:05 pm

From the Christian Science Monitor comes this article about a new ad campaign on tee shirts and teddy bears and bumper stickers:

“Pray for Obama: Psalm 109:8”

How cute is that?

Know what it means?

“Let his days be few; and let another take his office.”

The next verse says:

“Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.”

Not so cute.

Where is the ‘moral’ outrage from patriotic Americans? Where are the christian evangelical leaders denouncing this invitation for god or some mortal whack job to off the sitting president? Oh sure, you’ll hear apologists saying that this little diddy means that the praying bearers only want Obama to have one term. Yeah, right. And sales for Left Behind represent the moral decay of secularists.

Isn’t this a fine example of how christianity is all about love?

November 18, 2009

Another Bill Maher Smackdown

Maher has fallen prey to the alternative medicine’s package of propaganda, misinformation, and subtle distortions. Because he is a popular media personality, his views are influential. Fellow skeptic Michael Shermer wrote an open letter published in the New York Times urging Maher to reconsider his anti-vaccination views.

Maher has responded here called A conversation worth having. In it, Maher attempts to justify his position in much the same way that creationists tackle the science of evolution: by evasion, logical fallacies, placing blame, and basically refusing to do the work necessary to understand the science but more than willing to improperly criticize that which he does not understand. So what can we make of Maher’s response?

To our rescue comes another smackdown by Neurologica’s Steve Novella. Why should he bother? As Steve explains, Maher is contributing to the public misunderstanding of science in perhaps the most important area – medicine. That is very serious, and he needs to start taking it seriously. That’s very good advice for all of us: we need to take scientific misunderstanding seriously.

November 17, 2009

Faith in faith? Why?

The former bureau chief of BBC India, Sir Mark Tully, appealed to the scientists to strike a balance between science and religion to bring about harmony in the society. The noted journalist and author also added that science limits perception. “Like you can have different perceptions on music and poetry, science should be open for different views,” he said. Here.

Balance? Different views? Harmony? What on earth is Tully talking about? Here is an apparently intelligent man talking gibberish.

Let us replace the generic term ‘science’ with an actual science… let’s say chemistry, and see if what he is saying makes any sense. When a chemical reaction is shown to be the same regardless of the geography in which it takes place, the culture in which the reaction occurs, or the religious assumptions of the individual carrying out the chemistry, how does chemistry as a science – and those who rely on its known formulas that always work – cause social imbalances, promote different and competing world views, limit perceptions? Tully assumes that it does, even that it must. That is why he urges scientists like these chemists to alter their trust in this science to be more ‘open’ to the kinds of faith-based views… different but equally meaningful even if the faith challenge modern chemistry directly. What does Tully mean? Does the chemist who allows for the deceptions of alchemy to be tolerated without criticism  make the world a better place?  Apparently so, according to Tully. But note he fails to provide us with any kind of link that shows science to be culpable of his accusations; instead, he begins his advice based on the assumption that superstitious belief provides us with similar perceptions of musical and poetic interpretations: different but meaningful and enriching to the human condition. Oh really? It is exactly this assumption that is open to question and the one to which Tully and other religious apologists fail to answer. In its place we are given empty accusations that somehow science is to blame for faith’s empty truth claims.

But not to be outdone by a respected colonial, the Mother Country goes one better. The British government has appointed a Faith Council to advise the government! Don’t apply if your religion falls outside of the more popular ones: your truth claims are not worthy of consideration. Why only some religions and not others to offer official advice? Asked to explain the reasons for the creation of this faith-based advisory council, the Minister of Communities, Mr Denham, argued that Christians and Muslims can contribute significant insights on key issues, such as the economy, parenting and tackling climate change.

In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, he admitted that the Government had failed to listen to these voices in the past, but is now determined to include them in the decision-making process.

“Anyone wanting to build a more progressive society would ignore the powerful role of faith at their peril,” he said.

“We should continually seek ways of encouraging and enhancing the contribution faith communities make on the central issues of our time.

“Faith is a strong and powerful source of honesty, solidarity, generosity – the very values which are essential to politics, to our economy and our society.”

The minister said that the Government needed to be educated by faith groups on “how to inform the rest of society about these issues”. Here.

Lots of assertions here. I wonder if they are true? I know… it’s very intolerant of me to even ask.

I may be out of line, but I’m not sure on what knowledge basis how a group of old men, some celibate, are really a good source for parenting advice.  I’m uncertain how honest are those who permit and enable child abusers to avoid prosecution, nor how generous are those who support laws to keep women from equal legal status. Granted, I’m just another strident, militant, and arrogant atheist for even asking, of course, and immoral to boot because the assertion must be respected that one cannot be moral without faith in some superstitious belief. In fact, all of us should be encouraging more faith, according to this sniveling and pandering politician because… well, just because. Don’t ask, of course. How rude. Don’t question, of course, because like in all faiths we already have all the answers you need to know. Now shut up and respect us faithists. We know best because god has informed our beliefs with the truth. If you have the moral weakness to dare ask for evidence to inform these assertions, just accept them as if they were true, and whatever you do don’t turn to any kind of knowledge based method of inquiry like science to find your answers. That chemistry is just too intolerant to trust.

Let us turn our trust to faith, that fount of knowledge and wisdom how to live a life of purpose and meaning, and pay no attention to the necessity of groups like HAWK, Humanists Against Witch Killing. Witchcraft and the killing of children is an unfortunate by-product of allowing faith claims to go unchallenged but we can’t stand in the way of building a more progressive society, now can we? Faith is essential.

And make no mistake. A better democracy is built on tolerating and respecting faith. British jihadists may say that we don’t do psychology or sociology. We do Allah, and Allah alone, but what they really mean is that the land of Kumbaya can be ours if only those damned strident, arrogant, and militant atheists would stop yammering on about respecting knowledge-based science; instead, let us find a better balance. Let’s keep our faith that, in spite of mountains of evidence to the contrary, faith is good or at least a necessary counter weight to the cold-hearted atheistic materialistic secularized perceptually limiting bitch that science is made out to be… you know, the one that is NOT like the music and poetry of faith. And for god’s sake, don’t ask why.

November 16, 2009

Respecting beliefs: why should we?

moron‘Belief’ is one of those words that comes packed with various meanings. It is usually used in the sense of a conviction, a level of confidence and trust, an opinion, impression, even a feeling. Of course, it is also used to describe some level of acceptance in the truth claims of a creed. But in all cases, belief in something relies on justification… a rational justification. People have a reason or reasons to believe in what they believe. If those reasons are ill-founded or poorly constructed, then surely the quality of the belief must be effected. If someone believes that the Earth is flat, for example, simply because someone told the person it was flat, is that reason enough to ‘respect’ the belief even though it is inaccurate? If someone believes that certain people deserve special privileges or special sanctions without good reasons to inform the belief, is that belief alone worthy of respect?

From The Telegraph, regarding a police worker fired for his belief in the power of mediums that should be placed on a par with more mainstream religious and philosophical convictions:

Mr Power’s case follows a landmark ruling last month that environmental views should be considered equivalent to religious and philosophical beliefs, following a legal challenge by a green executive at a property firm.

At a tribunal in London, Mr Power will claim that Greater Manchester Police broke the law by sacking him for believing that mediums should be consulted in criminal investigations.

In an initial judgement seen by The Independent, Judge Peter Russell said that the case had merit because his Spiritualist views “have sufficient cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance” to be covered by the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.

The judge wrote: “I am satisfied that the claimant’s beliefs that there is life after death and that the dead can be contacted through mediums are worthy of respect in a democratic society.”

Sufficient? Isn’t that an interesting word? What does sufficient mean in this sense? Is there evidence to inform the belief with justifiable reasons or is this simply a case of mouthing the comforting words that any thing is worthy of respect as long as enough people lend weight to it? And even so, where is the data? How many people does it take to turn a belief into something worthy of respect?

When truth becomes a popularity contest where the most popular belief wins, then what value is there in what is informs the belief? Why bother forcing the pharmaceutical companies by legislation that they must prove efficacy and safety before their products are allowed to be sold? Why not level the playing field and allow pharmaceutical companies to compete with CAM products simply by popularity, and allow belief in what works to be equally worthy of respect? As long as toy manufacturers produce a popular toy, why should they have to comply with safety regulations? After all, according to recent legal rulings, what informs beliefs doesn’t matter. What matters is respecting beliefs… as long as the beliefs are sufficient in popularity.

Respect? Inform a belief with reasons, reasons of what’s probably true, probably accurate, probably correct, and I think a belief becomes worthy of intellectual respect. In other words, let’s respect justified beliefs and stop respecting unjustified beliefs. We harm ourselves when we respect beliefs because they are beliefs.

The Higher Morality

Science vs religionCreationbydesign commented that there is a higher morality than any that can be created by moral philosophers, namely the moral standard found in religion. As CBD writes regarding the majority who (immorally) voted for the Nazis, the morals of the religious minority (who presumably did not) were correct because it (their lack of voting in support of the Nazi party) was based on this higher morality — a fixed standard. As for different theologies — first of all, it’s interesting to see the common morality within even different theologies. So, that’s a starting point.

Indeed. And what might that ‘higher’ moral standard look like in action? You know, the one that HAS meaning and purpose and a respect for fellow human beings…

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