Saturday, 30 June 2012

What A Tangled Web Creationists Weave

Daniel Dennett
Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!
Sir Walter Scott

I came across this passage in Daniel Dennett's must read book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea

Darwin shows us that questions like "What is the difference between a variety and a species?" are like the question "What is the difference between a peninsula and an island?". Suppose you see an island half a mile offshore at high tide. If you can walk to it at low tide without getting your feet wet, is it still an island?. If you build a bridge to it, does it cease being an island?. What if you build a solid causeway? If you cut a canal across a peninsula (like the Cape Cod Canal), do you turn it into an island? What if a hurricane does the excavation work? This sort of enquiry is familiar to philosophers. It is the Socratic activity of definition-mongering or essence-hunting, looking for the "necessary and sufficient conditions" for being-an-X. Sometimes almost everyone can see the pointlessness of the quest - islands obviously don't have real essences, but only nominal essences at best. But at other times there can still seem to be a serious scientific question that needs answering.

More than a century after Darwin, there are still serious debates amongst biologists (and even more so amongst philosophers of biology) about how to define species. Shouldn't scientists define their terms? Yes, of course, but only up to a point. It turns out that there are different species concepts with different uses in biology - what works for palaeontologists is not much use to ecologists, for instance - and no clean way of uniting them or putting them in an order of importance that would crown one of them (the most important one) as the concept of species. So I am inclined to interpret the persisting debate as more a matter of vestigial Aristotelian tidiness that a useful disciplinary trait.

Dennet, D.; Darwin's Dangerous Idea; p. 95 (paperback edition)

And of course, this is undeniably true. I have previously blogged about the problem of trying to apply a taxonomic system designed for classifying co-existing species, to extinct species in Where Creationists Get Confused. For most species, it is obvious that this generation could interbreed with the previous generation, and the one before that, but if we could jump into a time machine and go back, say, a thousand generations taking some specimens along with us, it might not be so clear cut. We might well find that successful breeding did not occur, or only occurred infrequently.

Go back ten thousand generations and we might not even be able to identify the precise ancestors of our samples. And this is of course true for every generation, not just the present one. Every generation will always be able to interbreed with the previous one and its immediate descendent one, but somewhere along this line one species has gradually changed into another and it is impossible to say precisely where this occurred. (There are rare exceptions to this however, such as when a new species arises from a single occurrence of a mutation, such as I described in The Good Shepherd's Purse Is Bad News For Creationists or from a hybrid between two different species as the example of wheat I described in Evolution Gave Us This Day Our Daily Bread).

Normally, creationist 'scientists' would have seized on something like Daniel Dennett's statement with glee, waved it triumphantly in the faces of real scientists and written books about how it 'devastates' the theory of evolution and proves a god created every species as is. What good is a theory which purports to explain how species arose when scientists don't even know what a species is, eh?

So why haven't they?

They haven't done so because they are hooked on a definition of 'species' which is intentionally simplistic and naive - remember the audience they are writing for - and which requires there to be a clear-cut and large difference between species, so they can trot out the familiar old chestnut that evolution is possible within a species at something they call the 'micro level' to get around the overwhelming evidence that evolution is not only possible but can be observed, but not at the 'macro-level', i.e. to give rise to new species.

To concede that species are just not that distinct but may blur into one another, especially over time, often remaining in a state of stable but incomplete speciation for long periods of time, as we see with ring species, would destroy that important straw man argument which they have carefully cultured in the unfortunate minds of the people they mislead for a living.

It must be one of the few examples of creation 'scientist' crediting real scientists with an unjustified success, rather than looking for and trying to prise open the gaps in science or presenting disagreement and compromise as evidence of failure and unreliability.

So, creationists, if I'm wrong about this, what definition of 'species' are you using when you talk about 'macroevolution' being impossible, and what is your scientific basis for using it?

submit to reddit

Thursday, 28 June 2012

How Fundamentalists Cope With Unwanted Facts

In this blog I'm going to discuss the psychological process called 'cognitive dissonance' and how it can explain the often frankly bizarre reactions and 'reasoning' you get when trying to debate with religious fundamentalist.

Plenty has been written about cognitive dissonance so I won't go into too much detail. Briefly, humans try to maintain a coherent and consistent view of the world, so anything which conflicts with pre-existing beliefs sets up a conflict, often almost unconsciously. In modern parlance, the term 'getting my head round it' sums it up fairly well. A simple example is Aesop's fable of the fox and the grapes. The fox wants the grapes which are out of its reach, so after making an effort to get them and failing, he rationalises this by saying the grapes probably weren't ripe anyway and would have been too sour (sour grapes). In this way he is able to pass failure off as a success and so retain his pride. He could have got the grapes if he had really wanted to.

I remember an occasion in the 1960's when you could buy a (very) used car for as little as £50, a friend bought just such as car - a Standard 8 (no wing mirrors, no indicators, rusty wings and door sills, top speed about 60 mph and 25 miles to the gallon on a good day and often started first time in dry weather in summer). Of course, he'd make the 'perfect' decision to buy it, having spent his last penny. He became quite indignant when someone said they thought the E-type Jaguar was the best car on the road. "How can it be when mine is?" he shouted.

How we all laughed. We were very young in those days.

"The best car on the road!"
How many time in a debate with fundamentalists have you been told that they have evidence which proves their god exists yet, when challenged to produce it, they announce they could produce it but it would be wasted on you; that they have no desire to convert anyone, and anyway you don't need evidence when you have 'faith'? Then they break off the conversation, often with a departing insult, or they try to change the subject.

So convinced are they that there must actually be some evidence somewhere that they cannot admit they don't have any, yet they are able to rationalize their failure to provide any by convincing themselves it's somehow your failing. For an illustration of this see the comments by Sacerdotus on my blog Do You Want To Convert An Atheist where he brags that he can easily provide the evidence required, then proceeds to make excuse for not doing so and abuses me for pointing out this failure. There is absolutely no way that Sacerdotus is ever going to admit that he has no evidence for his god and so could not meet the challenge posed in that blog. Clearly, that's someone else's failure, not his.

Just because you can't see any rhinos doesn't mean they aren't there.
And of course, the cognitive dissonance caused by this lack of evidence means they have an inability to admit they don't have any. Once that genie is out of the bottle it will be impossible to get back in again and all will be lost. So they either rationalise that by claiming 'everything' is evidence, or by refusing to look for any, and especially refusing to consider evidence which suggest there is no god, or that there is no need for one to explain anything.

If you are religious, that last sentence will have set up cognitive dissonance in you. You'll probably be feeling angry and wondering how you're going to tell me I'm wrong whilst not confirming that you actually don't have any evidence. You'll probably want to tell me that absence of evidence is not proof of absence, and so you'll have resolved your cognitive dissonance by inventing a straw man argument to attack. In fact, I never made any claim about what absence of evidence does or does not prove. You invented that because you want to retain the belief that there must be a god or gods despite the fact that you have no evidence for any.

Wow! Look at all those elephants!
However, absence of evidence is evidence (not proof, but evidence) of absence where evidence is to be expected. For example, the absence of evidence for any wild elephants in England is normally taken by sane people as evidence of the absence of wild elephants in England. No sane individual would behave as though there are wild elephants in England despite this lack of evidence for them.

If you're religious, cognitive dissonance will now require you to make up reasons why gods should not be subjected to the same test of existence as wild elephants. (See later)

In The Cherry-Picker's Bible I showed how even a respected scientist can rationalise the cognitive dissonance between a religious belief in the Bible and a scientific belief in an old earth and genetic evolution. The fact that this process also makes a good book to sell to Christians who need help with their cognitive dissonance is merely a bonus. The technique is simple: the parts of the Bible which are clearly at odds with the science are re-classified as 'allegorical' whilst the parts like original sin, Heaven and Hell and a creator god, etc are retained as literal truths. And yet the only way to distinguish between the literal and the allegorical is whether they are overwhelmingly refuted by the science or not, or the logic is absurdly wrong. If not, they must be true.

Somehow, the scientific evidence that the Bible is factually wrong about so much is not regarded as a reason to doubt the rest. Basically, if you agree with it, it's true; if you disagree with it, it's allegorical. It's never actually 'wrong' no matter that that could be the only logical conclusion from dispassionately reading much of it, because admitting that the Bible can be wrong would force you to admit that so then could a religion based on it be wrong and no way can it be regarded as the ultimate authority because it was written by an infallible god. Clearly, 'wrong' is a conclusion which must be excluded from the equation, no matter how strongly that conclusion is supported by the evidence. The conclusion is sacred so the evidence must be ignored.

(Yep! If you're Christian, that's cognitive dissonance you're feeling again. How can the Bible be factually wrong when your 'faith' is based on it? Surely, there must be a failure on my part, or at least of science!)

Harold Camping. False Prophet.
A spectacular instance of cognitive dissonance in relation to religion occurred in 1844 - the so-called Great Disappointment. A Baptist preacher, William Miller had predicted yet another second coming of Jesus on 22 October 1844. Some of his followers even sold all their possessions. Needless to say, the second coming of Jesus never happened as usual, but curiously, Miller and his followers managed to convince themselves that this wasn't a problem. Jesus had decided to give them longer to convert more people, so their 'faith', rather than being harmed by this humiliating failure, was actually strengthened by it. Jesus was so impressed by them that he had postponed the end of the world! And so the wacky Seventh Day Adventists were born. Cognitive dissonance to the rescue.

I wonder how many of the followers of Harold Camping had their 'faith' strengthened by falling for his lucrative scam.

I wonder how many Internet creationists and evangelical fundamentalists have had their 'faith' strengthened by yet another Atheist pointing out that they have not provided a single scrap of evidence, logical argument, or sound reason to justify their belief in their god, or their version of a religion based around a belief in it, or by having their arguments against science and for biblical creationism refuted with facts? No doubt it's all our fault for refusing to see the (absent) evidence or for believing mere facts and the opinions of those who study biology, geology, cosmology, physics, etc.

(That's cognitive dissonance now making you try to think of some biologists, geologists, cosmologists, physicists, etc who agree with you. They will be few in number compared to those who don't, many of them will be charlatans with phoney degrees or degrees in non-science subjects and some will not have held the beliefs they are claimed to have held. No. Answers In Genesis will not provide you with a convincing list. Answers In Genesis, and related creationist websites exist to help you cope with cognitive dissonance, not to help you learn the truth. And that's also cognitive dissonance making you feel affronted by that statement.)

You even get fundamentalists who see no irony in using a computer over the internet to tell the world that science is false. In fact, what seems to happen is that the cognitive dissonance caused by the conflict between the science they see around them every day and their fundamentalist beliefs, is so difficult to deal with that their particular coping strategy is to try to shout it down and desperately try to convince others to agree with them, as though that would confirm it. In doing so, many of them behave in a way almost diametrically opposed to the way their 'faith' tells them to behave. Lies, deceptions, judgmentalism, intellectual dishonesty and passive aggression are common currency, indeed the norm. The 'faith' is trampled under foot in the eagerness to defend it. As Francis Collins said: any reasonable standard, Young Earth Creationism has reached a point of intellectual bankruptcy, both in its science and in its theology.

To that I would add moral bankruptcy. To knowingly lie or to use tactics over substance to defend a position or in an attempt to deceive someone into believing it, is not the act of someone with any regard to truth or moral behaviour.

Here is a nice illustration of cognitive dissonance by a creationist 'crusader' on Twitter. @Discern_ca who has now bravely protected his/her account so the tweets are no longer accessible, so I am having to rely on memory here. It started with:

@Discern_ca: Give me a single feasible way abiogenesis could have occurred.

Me: 1. Silicate crystals in fine clay. 2. Spontaneous assembly of auto-catalytic RNA in a 'soup' of organic molecules.

@Discern_ca: That doesn't explain how life started.

(Got an unexpected answer which wasn't wanted. Rationalise it by pretending a different question had been asked. The moving goal-post strategy. Anyway, the grapes were probably sour).

After many requests to both define life and to say what was infeasible in the two answers I had suggested, @Discern_ca eventually said it wasn't worth talking to me and courageously blocked me. 'Head in the sand', 'look the other way' and 'hands over the ears going la la la!' are also coping strategies. There is nothing quite like having the brilliant killer argument you've just found on a creationist apologetics website blown out of the water to set up painful dissonance.

Perhaps the most obvious way that religious people cope with cognitive dissonance is by compartmentalising their thinking, which they seem to rationalise by adopting the strategy of assuming a different set of logic or standards of evidence should apply to their god than to everything else. A type of special pleading for gods, as one would with a handicapped child. This allows them to live quite comfortably holding two diametrically opposite views simultaneously. For example:

  • God exists outside time and space and so outside nature, and so is undetectable.
  • God influences thing and directs the affairs of the universe and can be influence by humans, and so must be inside nature and exerting a detectable effect on it.

Watch that cognitive dissonance there... it may be showing.

I've used this example before but I think it's a good one so I'll use it again here. No one in their right mind would look at an empty road and conclude that it's still not safe to cross because the lack of evidence for a car is not proof of absence. They would happily bet their life on it without a moment's hesitation. Yet no religious person would conclude that the lack of evidence for a god is even evidence of absence, let alone proof. Why the difference? Compartmentalised thinking.

Cottingley Fairies
No sane adult believes in fairies, and when asked why not outside a discussion about the existence of gods, they would have no hesitation in giving the complete absence of evidence for them as the main reason for disbelief. They may even express amazement and disbelief that an adult would even think fairies were real.

Pop them that question in the middle of a discussion about their belief in a god just when they've asked you to prove there isn't one and told you that lack of evidence isn't proof of absence, and you will get evasion and wriggling, but they will never invoke the 'no evidence' argument. They may well insult you for posing the question, though, and try to divert the conversation, accusing you of believing the absurd.

Again, compartmentalised thinking. They actually feel more comfortable believing that their god requires a lower standard of evidence than do fairies than with admitting that absence of evidence for their god is at least as good as is absence of evidence for fairies. Or for the absence of cars before crossing the road.

And, if you're religious and cognitive dissonance hasn't prevented you reading this far, that feeling you're now experiencing is... cognitive dissonance. How dare I make that outrageous suggestion that you believe your god requires lower standards than fairies for you to believe in it.

Shooting the messenger is another strategy for coping with cognitive dissonance.

submit to reddit

Income from ads will be donated to charities such as moderate centre-left groups, humanist, humanitarian and wildlife protection and welfare organisations.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Was The Bible Really About An Evil God?

Readers of this blog will remember how I posed the question, How Do You Know Satan Didn't Write The Bible?, and how it's still giving Christians a seemingly impossible challenge, judging by their inability to answer it. In a couple more blogs, Why God's First Words to Adam Was A Lie and How God Learned About Justice I've shown how this early god in the creation and origin myths of the Hebrews was not presented as an omniscient, benevolent, or even moral god. In fact, these two tales suggest something rather intriguing:
  • The very curious tale of the lie to Adam about the consequences of acquiring knowledge and the irritation with the 'serpent' who tells Eve the truth, suggests a god who doesn't want mankind to have 'knowledge' and who will lie to prevent it.
  • The equally curious tale of the casual destruction of two cities with all their inhabitants by a god who doesn't seem to know what's going on, has no concept of justice and who is perfectly okay with virgin daughters being offered to a mob as a bargaining ploy, drunkenness and incest between father and daughters, suggests a malignant god indistinguishable from an evil one.
This is reinforced by the inescapable impression that it was an arbitrary and brutal god with the accounts of apparently random dress codes, food taboos, ritual slaughter of sacrificial animals, scapegoating, and genocides and where the consequences of transgressing its rules was usually a rather nasty death.

Of course, we are dealing with a developing mythology which was working for the rulers and priest class as well but the god they were using is clearly based on an amoral and far from omniscient one.

The reason this is so intriguing is because of the way Gnosticism presented this god. First a little about Gnosticism which was itself a major contributor to the medieval 'heresy', Catharism, also called Albigensianism, the persecution of which I described in Feel That Christian Love!
A common characteristic of some of these [Gnostic] groups was the teaching that the realisation of Gnosis (esoteric or intuitive knowledge) is the way to salvation of the soul from the material world. They saw the material world as created through an intermediary being (demiurge) rather than directly by God. In most of the systems, this demiurge was seen as imperfect, in others even as evil [my emphasis]. Different gnostic schools sometimes identified the demiurge as Adam Kadmon, Ahriman, El, Saklas, Samael, Satan, Choronzon, Yaldabaoth, or Yahweh.

Jesus is identified by some Gnostics as an embodiment of the supreme being who became incarnate to bring gnōsis to the earth. Others adamantly deny that the supreme being came in the flesh, claiming Jesus to be merely a human who attained divinity through gnosis and taught his disciples to do the same. Among the Mandaeans, Jesus was considered a mšiha kdaba or "false messiah" who perverted the teachings entrusted to him by John the Baptist. Still other traditions identify Mani and Seth, third son of Adam and Eve, as salvific figures.

The Christian groups first called "gnostic" a branch of Christianity, however Joseph Jacobs and Ludwig Blau (Jewish Encyclopedia, 1911) note that much of the terminology employed is Jewish and note that this "proves at least that the principal elements of gnosticism were derived from Jewish speculation, while it does not preclude the possibility of new wine having been poured into old bottles."

The movement spread in areas controlled by the Roman Empire and Arian Goths, and the Persian Empire; it continued to develop in the Mediterranean and Middle East before and during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Conversion to Islam and the Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229) greatly reduced the remaining number of Gnostics throughout the Middle Ages, though a few Mandaean communities still exist. Gnostic and pseudo-gnostic ideas became influential in some of the philosophies of various esoteric mystical movements of the late 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and North America, including some that explicitly identify themselves as revivals or even continuations of earlier gnostic groups.

So, the question is, were these stories originally written to show the 'creator' as an imperfect, malevolent lesser god whose motive is to prevent mankind acquiring knowledge?

In other words, were these stories derived from ones designed to show Yahweh as an evil god? Have they been changed and adapted to try to conceal that message? It certainly suggests a reason for the otherwise strange story of John the Baptist where, inexplicably, Jesus seems to have needed a human to 'prepare the way' and 'baptise' him. With John as a Gnostic teacher, 'baptism' could be merely a metaphor for teaching 'the knowledge'. If so, it's a shame that later writers changed Jesus into something else, especially since Jesus seems to have hinted that we should ignore Yahweh's laws when he talked about them only being administered by 'those without sin', which renders them all unenforceable, if you subscribe to the 'original sin' idea, that is (=created by Satan?).

So, Christians, three simple questions for you.
  1. How do you know Satan didn't create the world?
  2. How do you know Satan hasn't rewritten the Bible to fool you?
  3. How do you know the real god didn't give you science so you can discover Satan's lies?
Makes you think, eh?

I'm glad I'm not superstitious so I don't have these sorts of problems to keep me awake at night wondering if I've been deceived by the 'Great Deceiver'.

submit to reddit

Income from ads will be donated to charities such as moderate centre-left groups, humanist, humanitarian and wildlife protection and welfare organisations.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

How God Learned About Justice

Here's another curious tale from the Bible. It's about two cities called Sodom and Gomorrah (which sound more like an Irish curse). It seems to be where God was taught the rudiments of justice by Man.

We are told that God was annoyed that the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the LORD exceedingly - Genesis 13:13. (Unlucky 13 or what?!) So God decided he was going to destroy these cities and everyone in them. Anyway, after a somewhat protracted tale about battles and things and people being chased unto Dan, a place which won't exist for several hundred more years (time travel?) - the Bible eventually gets to the point where God is about to carry out this destruction.

However, a man called Abraham has a word with him:

And the LORD said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous; I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know.
Genesis 18:20-21

Nothing surprising there then. Of course, an omniscient, omnipresent god would need to go into a city to find out what was going on.

But what's this?

And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the Lord. And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?

And the Lord said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.

Genesis 18:22-26

Phew! Good thing Abraham was in with God and was able to give him a bit of wise counsel there, then.

But why 50? Why just pick an arbitrary number out of the air? Good old Abraham spots this and gradually leads God towards a slightly more humanitarian solution by, each time God thinks he's got it about right, setting doubt in his mind and making him see the arbitrary nature of his 'justice'.

Watch this; it's hilarious. Remember, this god is supposed to be the fount of all wisdom, the source of all morals, omniscient and inerrant. It's a bit like watching a wise old sergeant leading the still-wet-behind-the-ears young captain fresh out of cadet school:

And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes: Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous: wilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five? And he said, If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it.

And he spake unto him yet again, and said, Peradventure there shall be forty found there. And he said, I will not do it for forty's sake.

And he said unto him, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak: Peradventure there shall thirty be found there. And he said, I will not do it, if I find thirty there.

And he said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord: Peradventure there shall be twenty found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for twenty's sake.

And he said, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for ten's sake.

And the Lord went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place.

Genesis 18:27-33

So, after five changes of mind and after being given a lesson in justice, this omniscient, inerrant source of morals has agreed to spare the cities if they can find just ten righteous people in them.

It still hasn't learned to forgive it's enemies or show mercy. That'll have to wait for another day.

Nor does it keep it's promises, apparently, as it destroys the cities anyway.

Lot's Daughters; Jan Muller c.1600
But let's press on with this tale because there is another curious incident. It happens when God has sent a couple of angels to carry out his orders and these angels have taken refuge in Lot's house (as they do) which is now surrounded by an angry mob, demanding to be let in to bugger the angels. Lot thinks he has to save them. Even though they are shortly going to destroy two cities and all the people in them, a band of randy gay men is too much for them to deal with, apparently.

But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter: And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them.

And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him, And said, I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly. Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.

Genesis 19:4-8

So, righteous Lot has actually offered his two virgin daughters to to be 'used' by a sex-crazed mob!

And this is someone of whom God approves!

Still, at least when Lot has an incestuous relationship with his, up to then, still virgin daughters a bit later on(Genesis 19:30-36), his unfortunate wife having been turned into salt, there no risk of him catching something nasty what with penicillin not having been discovered yet.

Good to see though, that the source of all morals was such a stickler for righteousness, and felt able to teach those wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah how to behave. Obviously, there was still a long way to go before this god was up to speed with normal humanitarian morality. Perhaps that was why it needed to put in so many appearances in those days.

submit to reddit

Friday, 22 June 2012

Why God's First Words to Adam Were Lies

Now here's a funny thing.

Browsing my King James Bible, I came across this curious tale. Maybe you've heard of it. It's the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. It makes you wonder just what sort of god the author was writing about. It soon becomes all too obvious why he was writing it in the first place though - and I do mean he.

Firstly, this god is supposed to have created the Garden of Eden, complete with fruit trees for food, and put Adam into it.

And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Genesis 2:8-9

Thursday, 21 June 2012

No Answers In Genesis - Project Steve

Ken Ham
Attempting to compensate for the fact that few serious scientists agree with a literal interpretation of Genesis, including creation of the universe and all species, extinct or living in a single act of creation 6000 years ago, creationist organisation such as Ken Ham's and the Institute for Creation Research have put together a list of nearly 200 scientists whom they claim support a literal interpretation Genesis.

The list includes Dr Paul D. Ackerman, the psychologist responsible for the appallingly bad creationist 'science' book,"It's A Young World After All" which I have comprehensively demolished in a series of blogs listed in "It's An Old World After All"

A quick Google search on a random selection of these scientists shows that Ackerman is not the only one who has no higher academic qualifications in the subject on which he writes, and who has never published a paper on any of those subjects in a peer-reviewed journal nor presented a paper on any of them to an audience of specialists in these subjects.

Patriot Bible 'University' - Kent Hovind's Alma Mater.
Some of them appear to have obtained 'degrees' from various creationist and Bible 'colleges' similar to the shed from which Kent Hovind obtained his 'doctorate'. Google any name on the list and you will discover that many of them are famous merely for appearing on the list and appear to have done very little else of note.

This list, which was drawn up by the Discovery Institute, is of course, intended to convey the idea that the Theory of Evolution is a science in crises and is being rejected by mainstream scientists rather than being accepted by all serious biologists as the best available explanation for the observable fact of evolution. It is clearly aimed at people who are impressed by letters after a name and who imagine one degree is much like another and a science degree indicates expertise in all sciences, or that a psychology degree or doctorate in Bible Studies bought from a diploma mill, for example, qualifies someone to write knowledgeably on biology, physics or cosmology.

By way of contrast, Project Steve, run by the US National Center for Science Education aims to compile a list of scientists called Steve (or it's various forms like Stephen, Stephanie, etc) who subscribe to the statement:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to "intelligent design," to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation's public schools.

Stephen Jay Gould. An evolutionist called Steve
The name 'Steve' was chosen as a tribute to the late palaeontologist, evolutionist and author, Stephen J. Gould. As such is restricts the number of scientists eligible to sign up to about 1% of all scientists.

To date, the number of scientists called 'Steve' who have signed up to this statements is about 1230, two of whom are the only Nobel Prize winning Steves. Scaled up this represents about 99.85% of all scientists who have expressed an opinion. Noticeably, the proportion of biologists on this list exceeds 51% of the total compared to the few biologists on the Creationist list.

Infuriated by this, the Creationist mathematician, William Dembski, Fellow of the Discovery Institute, attempting to widen the net, set up a rival list of scientists who 'reject a naturalistic conception of evolution' rather than just supporting a literal interpretation of Genesis. In two years he signed up just 0.023% of the world's scientists, eight of whom were called Steve. Remember: as a professional propagandist for the Discovery Institute, Dembski is forbidden from claiming 'God did it!' because that would give the game away that the Discovery Institute is not a science body but a front organisation for fundamentalist Christianity which needs to keep its religious and subversive political agenda well hidden.

Inspired by Project Steve, and motivated by media coverage of the Discovery Institute's "Dissent From Darwinism" list, during the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case, R. Joe Brandon initiated a four-day, word-of-mouth petition of scientists in support of evolution in October 2005. During the four-day drive A Scientific Support For Darwinism And For Public Schools Not To Teach Intelligent Design As Science gathered 7733 signatures of verifiable scientists. During the four days of the petition, A Scientific Support for Darwinism received signatures at a rate 697,000 percent higher than the Discovery Institute's petition, A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism, according to archaeologist R. Joe Brandon.

submit to reddit

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Francis Collins - A Case-Study In Self-Delusion.

This is the final blog dealing with Francis Collins' book "The Language Of God". In this I look at the section in Chapter Ten headed What Is Theistic Evolution. Here is what Collins has to say:

Mountains of material, in fact entire library shelves, are devoted to the topics of Darwinian evolution, creationism, and Intelligent Design. Yet few scientists or believers are familiar with the term "theistic evolution", sometimes abbreviated "TE". By the now standard criterion of Google search engine entries, there is only one mention of theistic evolution for every ten about creationism and every 140 about Intelligent Design.

Yet theistic evolution is the dominant position of serious biologists who are also serious believers. That includes Asa Gray, Darwin’s chief advocate in the United States, and Theodosius Dobzhansky, the twentieth-century architect of evolutionary thinking. It is the view espoused by many Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Christians, including Pope John Paul II. While it is risky to make presumptions about historical figures, I believe that this is also the view that Maimonides (the highly regarded twelfth-century Jewish philosopher) and Saint Augustine would espouse today if they were presented with the scientific evidence for evolution.

What stands out here is that Collins is implicitly acknowledging the fallacy in his own argument. If it can be used to justify any faith in any god or pantheon of gods, it is not definitive evidence for any of them. It shows only that where a supposed gap exists in our knowledge or understanding, one can arbitrarily select a god, or indeed any other notion, and ascribe cause to it. It is nothing more than shaping your preferred god to fit the gap. Clearly, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Christians and all the other religions like Shintoism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Pastafarianists and former religions like Norse Pantheists, Quetzalcoatlists, etc, can't all be right. But they can all be wrong!

There are many subtle variants of theistic evolution, but a typical version rests upon the following premises:
  1. The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago.
  2. Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.
  3. While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time.
  4. Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required.
  5. Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes.
  6. But humans are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history.

In other words, there are gaps in our knowledge and understanding, though some of these are maybe not as wide as Francis Collins seems to think. For example, memetics and memetic evolution is quite capable of explaining both the appearance of Collins' "Moral Law" and of religious superstitions. Unlike Collins' "God did it!" notion, memetic evolution also explains the differences as well as the similarities between cultures and cultural norms and ethics.

And of course Humans are unique. That's why they are a separate species. Every species is unique, by definition!

If one accepts these six premises, then an entirely plausible, intellectually satisfying, and logically consistent synthesis emerges: God, who is not limited in space or time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew that these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law.

Of course this is pure conjecture. Collins had fitted his god in these gaps, some of which he is insisting are there merely as somewhere to fit his god. The only reason he seems to find it 'intellectually satisfying, and logically consistent' is because it gives him the answer he wanted, or rather, it arrives at the answer the argument was designed to arrive at from the outset because the argument is essentially circular.

Nowhere in his book has Francis Collins ever provided any evidential reason why we should accept his god in the first place, let alone agree that it perfectly fits the gaps created for it. The fact that we could fit any god in these gaps, or a celestial peanut butter sandwich if we were so minded, should tell us that there is a flaw in the logic.

What Collins has singularly failed to do is to establish his premise - that there is a god, and it is the Christian god. Hence, his conclusion is not only not intellectually satisfying, it is profoundly dis-satisfying and does not answer the question it purports to answer.

Nor is it satisfying to have to invoke special pleading to justify this god and to exclude it from normal logic as he does with 'God, who is not limited in space or time...'. No serious scientist would try to invoke special pleading for his pet theory to exclude it from the normal tests science rightly demands. It is revealing that Collins, like so many theists, believes his god requires a lower standard of proof than he would use for everyday things, in order to compete. With any other belief, this would smack of a lack of confidence.

This view is entirely compatible with everything that science teaches us about the natural world.

Except, of course, that no science theory would contain supernatural magic as part of the explanation, especially when far more parsimonious explanations are available.

It is also entirely compatible with the great monotheistic religions of the world.

Of course it is. That's what is was designed to be.

The theistic evolution perspective cannot, of course, prove that God is real, as no logical argument can fully achieve that. Belief in God will always require a leap of faith. But this synthesis has provided for legions of scientist-believers a satisfying, consistent, enriching perspective that allows both the scientific and spiritual worldviews to coexist happily within us. This perspective makes it possible for the scientist-believer to be intellectually fulfilled and spiritually alive, both worshiping God and using the tools of science to uncover some of the awesome mysteries of His creation.


This is not a scientific argument for a god; it is an exercise in rationalizing a superstition in the complete absence of any supporting evidence for it. It is a case-study in compartmentalised thinking and self-delusion.

submit to reddit

Income from ads will be donated to charities such as moderate centre-left groups, humanist, humanitarian and wildlife protection and welfare organisations.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

The Cherry-Picker's Bible

To be fair to Francis Collins, of whom I have been critical, though I think not unjustly here and here, it would be wrong of me not to acknowledge the following:

Thus, by any reasonable standard, Young Earth Creationism has reached a point of intellectual bankruptcy, both in its science and in its theology. Its persistence is thus one of the great puzzles and great tragedies of our time. By attacking the fundamentals of virtually every branch of science, it widens the chasm between the scientific and spiritual worldviews, just at a time where a pathway toward harmony is desperately needed. By sending a message to young people that science is dangerous, and that pursuing science may well mean rejecting religious faith, Young Earth Creationism may be depriving science of some of its most promising future talents.

But it is not science that suffers most here. Young Earth Creationism does even more damage to faith, by demanding that belief in God requires assent to fundamentally flawed claims about the natural world. Young people brought up in homes and churches that insist on Creationism sooner or later encounter the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of an ancient universe and the relatedness of all living things through the process of evolution and natural selection. What a terrible and unnecessary choice they then face! To adhere to the faith of their childhood, they are required to reject a broad and rigorous body of scientific data, effectively committing intellectual suicide. Presented with no other alternative than Creationism, is it any wonder that many of these young people turn away from faith, concluding that they simply cannot believe in a God who would ask them to reject what science has so compellingly taught us about the natural world?

Francis Collins. The Language of God

I wish I'd said that.

But what is not clear, and Francis Collins' book does nothing to clarify it, is how exactly are these unfortunate victims of childhood indoctrination to know which parts of the Bible they should accept as literally true and which are merely allegorical and not to be taken literally? For example, if one rejects the account in Genesis of a six-day creation, and the account of the lives of the descendants of Adam and Eve to Noah and beyond, upon which the claimed young age of earth is based, why does one not also reject the account of original sin, the fall of Man and of the need for forgiveness and redemption upon which the entire Christian faith depends and upon which the entire rationale for Jesus's sacrifice is supposedly based? What in these stories distinguishes one from the other with sufficient reason to reject one and accept the other?

The only basis, and the one upon which Francis Collins appears to have relied, is his knowledge of reality acquired entirely by scientific methodology, which tells him the six-day creation and young earth theory must be wrong because the evidence is so heavily stacked against it. Given the choice here between faith and evidence, Collins goes with the evidence because he knows evidence trumps faith.

Where is the evidence upon which we can decide that the story of the Fall of Man and so the claimed need for Jesus to save us, is not also myth? Certainly, there is nothing in the Bible itself. This decision can only be made by reference to some external basis for judgements.

The question is, if you read any other book of myths which contained obvious errors, falsehoods, and demonstrably wrong accounts of history and science, why would you believe any of it in the absence of any supporting evidence? If you do, why not believe other creation myths or the holy books of other faiths?

More importantly, why not reject the Bible with the same confidence and using the same judgements you use to reject all the other mythologies?

At the beginning of the 19th century, very few people in the Christian world doubted the literal truth of Creation and a young earth. There was no doubt at all in most people's minds that the Bible was the literal, inerrant truth and a statement of historical fact. Even those few enlightened people like Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson could see no alternative but to believe in a creator. Since then, religion had been in retreat as one gap after another has been closed and God has been evicted from them.

Collins' rationalization of rejecting almost all of the biblical claims where science has closed these gaps, yet clinging to those few where the gaps have not yet been fully closed is nothing more than an attempt to cling to an outmoded, redundant and primitive attempt to explain the world by people who believed that magic was the best available explanation. Simple people whose understanding of the universe was so poor they believe earth was flat, that the sun orbited round it and that earth could be flooded to a depth sufficient to cover the highest mountains, and then the water would just disappear, presumably by running over the edge, and that a lifeless earth could be repopulated by a few survivors on a boat. A magical world where prophets and seers could foretell the future and where miracles, angels, and spirits were only to be expected.

And, if Francis Collins is to be believed, even though they got it hopelessly wrong in so many places, as shown by scientific evidence, they can be relied upon to have got it all correct in the places where Francis Collins agrees with them, and for which no scientific evidence is thus required. In this case, faith trumps evidence, obviously.

submit to reddit

Believing Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

In a recent blog, Francis Collins - The Language Of God Delusion I showed how Francis Collins needed to use double standards to maintain the compartmentalised thinking it takes to be both a devout Christian and a scientist, and how he uses the very same straw man fallacy he accuses others of using, albeit possibly subconsciously.

Another example of this can be found in his book "The Language Of God"

The major and inescapable flaw of Dawkins's claim that science demands atheism is that it goes beyond the evidence. If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove His existence. Atheism itself must therefore be considered a form of blind faith, in that it adopts a belief system that cannot be defended on the basis of pure reason.

What Collins ignores in this arguments is that, if God is outside of nature and so beyond the reach of science, this can only be because it cannot interact with nature in any way. If it can interact, then this interaction would be detectable by science and God would be part of nature, and so open to examination by scientific methods.

"There's no use in trying", said Alice: "One can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Lewis Carroll, Through a Looking Glass
Collins appears to hold to two mutually contradictory beliefs simultaneously:
  1. God can interact with and influence nature and we can interact with and influence God.
  2. God cannot interact with nature and we cannot interact with God.
This ability to hold opposite views simultaneously, and often with equal conviction, is a characteristic of delusional doublethink and compartmentalised thinking. It is a psychological strategy to enables religious people to cope with cognitive dissonance and behave like perfectly normal, rational adults, and yet still believe in the magic invisible friends their parents told them about when they were gullible and susceptible to indoctrination.

submit to reddit

If Doctors Behaved Like Priests.

We depend on our doctor.

We rely on their expertise because medicine is a huge, complex and ever-changing subject that most of us simply don't have the time to learn in enough detail, or to keep up to date with. We depend on their professional integrity, on their diagnostic skills, on their knowledge of the latest medicines and treatment regimes for illness and from where this can be obtained.

We expect their judgements to be rational, informed, evidence-based, impartial and, if required, demonstrably justified. In short, we expect them to be scientific.

But what if they behaved like priests?

What if they told you you must be suffering from an illness because it said so in a 3500 year-old book, and that you needed to say special words and incantations to be saved from it?

What if they told you that, even though there was no evidence for cancer, they were going to prescribe a course of chemo- and radio-therapy anyway because absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so it is best to assume cancer, just in case?

What if you went to them with a headache and they told you it must be imaginary because they had faith that there was nothing wrong with you and that your problem was that your faith wasn't strong enough and your headache was just a test?

What if you went to them for contraceptive advice and they told you you were evil and should say magic spells to prevent something nasty happening to you later? And no, you just have to have more babies or stop having sex.

What if your were diabetic and they said they would cast some magic words over your because that would be better than medication?

What if they told you that incantations, special hand movements and sprinklings of magic water would cure your child of a virus infection?

What if they told you bunions were caused by an evil spirit which you had allowed to enter your body, so it was your own fault?

What if they told you that modern medicines were not mentioned in their favourite old book of Bronze Age origin myths so they were no good and should not be taken?

What if they told you that they got all their information from an old book which had not been updated for nearly 2000 years; that they never read any modern books on medicine because they were all lies and they knew this because they disagreed with their favourite old book?

And what if you were clearly disturbed and felt compelled to go to them every week and give them a lot of money, and they told you this was a good thing and that you should give them as much as you could afford, at least 10% of your income?

Would you think you have a really good doctor, or would you look for a proper one and report this one for malpractice?

Strange then that exactly this behaviour is tolerated in priests, pastors, vicars, imams, rabbis and other people who make a living as religious clerics.

submit to reddit

Friday, 15 June 2012

A Mind Of Sufficient Grasp

Charles Robert Darwin, FRS (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882)
Reading Daniel Dennett's must read book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea I came across this little snippet of information.

Back in 1859, Darwin set out the formal logic of his theory in the first edition of "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life", popularly know by its later title "The Origin Of Species". It was:

If, during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organization, and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometric powers of increase of each species, at some age, season, or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being's own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterized will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterized. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.

Charles Darwin, Origin, p. 127

So, which Creationist is going to come forward and explain the fault in that logic. What statement of fact is wrong? What deduction does not flow inevitably from that fact? Because, if you can't you have absolutely no basis whatsoever for denying the fact of evolution by natural selection and the conclusion that it explains the present and past diversity of life on earth.

No, I don't mean which Creationist is going to come forward and try to obscure the argument with quibbles over the meaning of words, or to assert that it can't be right because an old book says so, or that their 'faith' trumps logic and we should just believe what they say. I mean which Creationist is actually going to go through the logic, step by step, and explain why it is faulty.

Because, if you can't you have no basis on which to doubt the truth of Darwin's theory as set out here. You have no real reason to dispute the conclusion that this short piece of undeniable logic was arguably the most profound in all of science.

And, perhaps most importantly, you have no option but to agree with Darwin's statement that, "I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being's own welfare". What Darwin is saying here is that, if this logic holds, it would be extraordinary if evolution did not occur.

In fact, it is true to say that evolution not occurring would be as extraordinary as a stone remaining hovering in the air when released and not falling towards the centre of gravity.

The extraordinary thing, and something that might need a supernatural being in the explanation if it were true, would be if there were no bio-diversity. It would be as difficult for science to explain as a stone hovering three feet above the ground. It's not ever going to be true though because, as Darwin's logic shows, evolution is as inevitable as is a stone's movement in response to gravity.

In Thomas Huxley's words on reading Origin, "How stupid not to have thought of it oneself!".

Patrick Matthew (20 October 1790 – 8 June 1874)
Maybe the stark-staring obviousness of Evolution by Natural Selection can be gauged from the words of Patrick Matthew. Matthew had actually described evolution by natural selection in 1831, but as an appendix to his book, "Naval Timber and Arboriculture". Learning of Darwin's rising fame as the 'discoverer' of it, he published a letter in Gardeners' Chronicle (ever the master of choosing obscure publications) claiming his priority, which Darwin graciously conceded but excused his ignorance on the obscurity of Matthew's choice of venue. Matthew's response was revealing:

To me the concept of this law of Nature came intuitively as a self-evident fact, almost without an effort of concentrated thought. Mr Darwin here seems to have more merit in the discovery than I have had - to me it did not appear a discovery. He seems to have worked it out by inductive reason, slowly and with due caution to have made his way synthetically from fact to fact onwards; while with me it was by a general glance at the scheme of Nature that I estimated this select production of species as an a priori recognizable fact - an axiom, requiring only to be pointed out to be admitted by unprejudiced minds of sufficient grasp."

So, if you can't fault Darwin's logic and yet still won't accept Darwinian Evolution, maybe Patrick Matthew offers an explanation: you lack an "unprejudiced mind of sufficient grasp".

So, over to you Creationists. It's time to put your money where your mouth is. Do any of you have sufficient confidence in your belief to take up this challenge and show you have an unprejudiced mind of sufficient grasp?

I think people will understand if you haven't.

submit to reddit

Income from ads will be donated to charities such as moderate centre-left groups, humanist, humanitarian and wildlife protection and welfare organisations.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Francis Collins - The Language Of God Delusion

Francis Sellers Collins (born April 14, 1950)
I've been asked (or was it challenged?) to look at the book "The Language Of God" by Francis Collins, in which he attempts to argue that it is possible to reconcile Christian belief with science.

Francis Sellers Collins (born April 14, 1950), is an American physician-geneticist, noted for his discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project (HGP). He currently serves as Director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Prior to being appointed Director, he founded and was president of the BioLogos Foundation. Collins has written a book about his Christian faith, and Pope Benedict XVI appointed Francis Collins to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

The first impression is that this is merely another God of the Gaps book and, as such, shows the abandonment of science one would expect of someone who needs the compartmentalised thinking required to hold to a belief in magic, and to live a normal professional life simultaneously. It thus represents a substantive example of the delusional nature of religious faith and particularly the Abrahamic versions of it. But more of that possibly later, in a longer blog reviewing Collins' book in greater depth.

This blog deals with one example of how Collins uses tactics he falsely accuses his opponents of using: in this case, the straw man fallacy of setting up a parody of your opponent's argument and attacking that instead. I normally take this as indicative that the perpetrator knows, possibly subconsciously, that he is attacking an unassailable position or defending the indefensible, and is trying to fool either him/herself or the audience, or both. Of course, it is always possible that the perpetrator of these sorts of fallacy have themselves been fooled and that they are merely parroting things they've uncritically accepted without much thought. However, I think it would be doing Francis Collins' a disservice to assume he had been fooled in this way.

This example occurs in a section in Chapter 7 entitled Atheism:

Some have divided atheism into "strong" and "weak" forms. Weak atheism is the absence of belief in the existence of a God or gods, whereas strong atheism is the firm conviction that no such deities exist. In everyday conversation, strong atheism is generally the assumed position of someone who takes this point of view, and so I will consider that perspective here.

I can't speak for all Atheists of course, but I, and almost all Atheists I encounter in Twitter or in the comments to these and similar blogs and elsewhere on line, seem forever to be saying that Atheism is merely acceptance of the fact that there is not a single piece of definitive evidence for the existence of any god, and that therefore there is no evidential reason to believe in any. But Dr Collins has seen fit to take what can at best only ever be a provisional conclusion based on that fact, as with all scientific conclusions, and to present it as a dogma, the easier to attack it.

One might as well present the absence of evidence that there is a car coming down the road before one crosses it as a dogma. As a scientist, Dr Collins would be aware that the basis for belief is evidence and that the only intellectually honest position to hold in the absence of evidence, is that there is no reason for belief. He should also be aware that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

And so we see Collins set up his straw man - that atheism is the firm conviction that there is no god.

He then launches into an attack on Richard Dawkins with:

Dawkins's argument comes in three main flavours. First he argues that evolution fully accounts for biological diversity and the origins of humankind, so there is no more need for God. While this argument rightly relieves God of the responsibility for multiple acts of special creation for each species on the planet, it certainly does not disprove the idea that God worked out His plan for creative evolution.

Er... no. It certainly doesn't do that. Nor does it disprove the notion that trillions of invisible pixies pushed genes around to produce elephants because Queen Pixie has a thing about big noses.

Clinton Richard Dawkins, FRS, FRSL (born 26 March 1941)
It does, however, do what Dawkins' claims it does and removes the need to include a god in the explanation of biological diversity and the evolution of humans. And the argument from design was, until Darwin's Origin, the strongest single argument for a designer god and is still the argument most frequently used by Creationists.

This is of course an example of the shifting goalpost technique. Claim your opponent hasn't succeeded in his argument because he hasn't answered a different question. Collins is also sneaking in a false dichotomy fallacy and a challenge to prove a negative - things he, one assumes, would never dream of doing in professional scientist mode. At least, not if he values his reputation for intellectual integrity and honest debate. No serious scientist would claim to be able to disprove anything, let alone a vague, ill-defined fanciful notion with no supporting evidence and which looks intentionally unfalsifiable. Failure to do so does not establish the claim as even credible.

Dawkins's first argument is thus irrelevant to the God that Saint Augustine worshipped, or that I worship. But Dawkins is a master of setting up a straw man, then dismantling it with great relish.

So, just who exactly is setting up a straw man and dismantling it here? Just where has Dawkins ever claimed to have dismantled Saint Augustine's or Collins' god with evolution? Dawkins has himself gone on record in "The God Delusion" as saying he is agnostic because it is impossible to ever be absolutely certain of anything.

But remember, Francis Collins is attacking the straw man he set up earlier - the parody that Atheism is the firm conviction that no such deities exist.

The second objection from the Dawkins school of evolutionary atheism is another straw man: that religion is antirational. Dawkins's definition of faith is "blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence" [Ref: R.Dawkins, The Selfish Gene 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) 189.] That certainly does not describe the faith of most serious believers throughout history, nor of most of those of my personal acquaintance. While rational arguments can never conclusively prove the existence of God, serious thinkers from Augustine to Aquinas to C.S.Lewis have demonstrated that belief in God is intensely plausible. It is no less plausible today. The caricature of faith that Dawkins presents is easy for him to attack, but it is not the real thing.

1 Complete trust or confidence in someone or something
2 Strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof

Oxford English Dictionary (On-line edition)

Clearly, Dawkins is using the second definition here in The Selfish Gene. Whatever definition Collins is using does not seem to have made it into this definitive reference work on the meaning of English words.

Shifting goalposts again? Can't defend 'faith' by showing it to be rational or evidence-based, so re-define it, and appeal to the authority of those who were never able to produce any evidence to justify it either, but could put up a 'plausible' rationalisation of belief without evidence in, as always, the locally popular god. Those who were never too fussy about using a false dichotomy fallacy and presenting it as an intellectually honest argument.

Dawkins's third objection is that great harm has been done in the name of religion. There is no denying this truth, though undeniably great acts of compassion have also been fuelled by faith. But evil acts committed in the name of religion in no way impugn the truth of the faith; they instead impugn the nature of human beings, those rusty containers into which the pure water of that truth has been placed.

Interestingly, while Dawkins argues that it is the gene and its relentless drive for survival that explains the existence of all living things he argues that we humans are far enough advanced to be able to rebel against our genetic imperatives, "We can even discuss way of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism - something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world.[Ref: Ibid. 200-201]

Now here is a paradox: apparently Dawkins is a subscriber to the Moral Law. Where might this rush of good feeling have come from? Surely this should arouse Dawkins's suspicion about the "blind pitiless indifference" that he argues is conferred on all nature, including himself and all the rest of humankind, by godless evolution. What value should then attach to altruism?

An object lesson in how to dance around a difficult point - the undoubted evil caused by religion - then cover it up by pretending your opponent has inadvertently argued for something else. Of course, Dawkins has nowhere argued that humans are blindly and pitilessly indifferent. In fact, a great deal the The Selfish Gene is devoted to explaining how genes, which have no emotions or intelligence, so can never be accused of having motives and making moral judgements, non-the-less have no options but to look as though they act selfishly. This is emphatically not the same as arguing that they are genes for selfishness and Dawkins is at pains to point out that it is by acting in alliance, by being co-operative, that genes ultimately succeed, and how they built successful gene-replication machines in the first place.

But there is a even more gaping flaw in Collins' argument here. He is presenting his Moral Law as something inexplicable, which indeed it may have been to his inspiration, C.S.Lewis, though that ignorance did not excuse Lewis' leap to the conclusion that it must have been the god his parents told him about (see C.S.Lewis, You Cannot Be Serious! 3). However, Collins cannot be allowed the plea of ignorance which we can grant to Lewis, for one simple reason: the quote he attacks is from the very chapter in The Selfish Gene in which Dawkins introduced the world to the idea of memes and memetic evolution.

The concept of memes and memetic evolution has revolutionised so much of our thinking and our understanding of human history and cultural development, and is more than capable of explaining moral development in human societies as a Darwinian evolutionary process. The notion of Moral Law is a major plank in Collins' platform. It would be astonishing if he was unaware of a major scientific development like memetics which destroys it as an argument from design, just as Darwinian evolution destroyed the argument from design as an explanation for bio-diversity and human evolution.

Science has closed yet another gap in which theists such as Collins sit their god, which has been carefully crafted to fit it as perfectly as a puddle fits it's hole. It is unfortunate for Collins that this gap is the one he seems to like the most. His failure to recognise its closure is a striking illustration of compartmentalised, delusional thinking, as was his dependence on the God of the Gaps fallacy in the first place.

submit to reddit

Income from ads will be donated to charities such as moderate centre-left groups, humanist, humanitarian and wildlife protection and welfare organisations.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Web Analytics