Link blog: theodicy, perception, cycling, driving

A fighter pilot on how to avoid collisions when driving
It’s about saccades and detecting movement.
(tags: safety cycling driving fighter perception brain)
Video & Audio: Is the Universe Designed? – an Atheist’s View
Stephen Law talks at the Faraday Institute. Evil God Challenge gets most of the time, plus a bit of the new X-claim stuff.
(tags: stephen-law theodicy evil god faraday-institute lecture philosophy)

PZ Myers on the radio

Did I mention I was on Christian talk radio once? No? Well, anyway, some other chap called PZ Myers was also on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable programme, talking about science and religion, a topic much discussed in blog-land recently. His Christian opposite number was Denis Alexander, who runs something called the Faraday Institute here in Cambridge, which was started by a grant from those naughty (but terribly well funded) Templeton Foundation people. You can listen to the audio on Premier’s site, and read Myers’s commentary on his blog.

It was an interesting programme. Myers is a strident shrill fundamentalist neo-rationalist atheist on his blog, but is softly spoken in person. The talk was pretty well mannered. <lj-cut text=”Who said what”>Myers and Alexander agree that there’s no place for god-talk in the science lab, and that evolution happened without divine meddling (amusingly, the presenter was careful to add a disclaimer that not all Christians believe the latter, presumably in an attempt to anticipate the letters in green crayon from creationists and intelligent design supporters). Myers was careful to limit the terms of the debate: he specifically objected to the project of using religious means to find out stuff about how the world works, saying that religion gets it wrong and science does better. Alexander accused Myers of scientism and argued that there are fields of discourse other than science which humans find worthwhile (law, art, and so on), but Myers kept coming back to how we find out how the world works.

Alexander argued that big questions like “why is there something rather than nothing?” are things we can reason about (specifically, using inference to the best explanation), but are not within the purview of science. He finds the human feeling that life has a purpose suggestive, because there’s a dissonance between atheism and the feeling of purpose. Myers argues that a sense of purpose is inculcated by successful cultures. Justin Brierley paraphrases Plantinga, but nobody bites. Summing up, Myers says that religion is superfluous not just in science, but in the rest of life also. Alexander says that science isn’t the only dimension to life, and that his personal relationship with Jesus makes his science work part of his worship.

I think I’d’ve been a bit less eager to attribute the human need for purpose to evolution, although Myers backed off that a bit when he talked about a cultural idea of purpose. Rather, I’d question the notional that an absolute, eternal purpose is the only real sort of purpose, just as I’d question the same assertion about morality.

I’d also question Alexander’s claim that Christians are applying inference to the best explanation in a similar way to scientists. According to philosophers of science, that inference should only be applied when an explanation is clearly better than the alternatives. The idea that a specific sort of god did it doesn’t seem clearly better, as Hume could have told you (unless by “better” we mean “in agreement with my religion”, I suppose).

Myers and Alexander spent a lot of time talking past each other when they were trying to work out what Myers’s objections were. Myers was wise to talk about methodology rather than disagreement about specific facts, on the grounds that science is a set of tools rather than a static body of knowledge. But Alexander is right that there are other legitimate ways to gain knowledge.

Perhaps we should talk about things that those legitimate ways have in common. As Eliezer says, if I’m told by my friend Inspector Morse that Wulky Wilkinsen runs the local crime syndicate, I’d be a fool to annoy Wulky. My belief is not established scientifically, but I’ve got some strong evidence, because Morse is much more likely to tell me that if Wilkinsen really is a shady character than if he isn’t. As Myers argues, reliance on holy books doesn’t work, but not because it’s not science. Rather, because a report of a miracle in a holy book may occur with or without the actual miracle having happened, with at least even odds (to see this, consider how one religion views another’s book, and note that if God wanted us to have a holy book, it would bear the 5 marks of a true holy book). As we saw last time, that your theory is compatible with the observation is not good enough. Rather, say, “Is this observation more likely if my idea is true than if it is not?”