science

A while ago I found a blog posting by someone who’d experienced sleep paralysis. Perhaps you’ve had the experience (it happened to me a few times when I was a kid): you’re asleep, you partially wake up, but find yourself unable to move, and often feel there’s something evil in the room with you, possibly crushing you. The poster didn’t know what was going on. She was terrified, thinking that someone or something had attacked her while she slept. My own comment explaining sleep paralysis came in the middle of a bunch of similar comments. I hope we reassured her.

When I was younger, I think I’d worked out that the feeling of being unable to move meant I wasn’t fully awake, so I should concentrate on trying to move and discount the sensed presence and crushing feelings until my body came back under my control. This was confirmed years later when I read Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, in which Sagan describes sleep paralysis and theorises that it’s behind some modern “alien abduction” experiences, as well as older beliefs like the old hag. This sort of explanation is all to the good. The world has enough real scary things in it without making up more of them.

So, when I happened across a stupid_free posting mocking some teenage witches complaining that their spirit summoning spells don’t work, I was annoyed to see some commenters saying that these neophytes should be careful with the summoning, because you don’t know what you’ll get. The commenters were telling the teenagers to leave the summoning spells to pagans with more experience points (who get better Will saves). I thought that spoof Wikipedia edit about Wicca was a joke, but some of them really do think they’re living in an episode of Buffy. The pagans don’t appear to like people who point this out, alas.

There may be an argument that young people should not get into this occult stuff because they might give themselves a bad scare, even though magic isn’t real. But it’s not an argument you can expect supernaturalists to make, because they’re committed to the idea that this stuff might actually work. Christians have the same sort of problem. I remember my old vicar telling us that he thought we rational Cambridge Christians might have become a bit too skeptical about things like demons. From denying the reality of demons, it’s a short step to wondering about God, I suppose. (Conversely, scribb1e says there’s some teaching within Buddhism about weird stuff you might experience during meditation, which is that you shouldn’t pay too much attention to it, basically).

Sagan wrote: “We would surely be missing something important about our own nature if we refused to face up to the fact that hallucinations are part of being human. However, none of this makes hallucinations part of an external rather than an internal reality.” People who experience sleep paralysis or see their recently deceased relatives are not crazy, but it’s unlikely that are they being abducted by aliens, seeing ghosts, or fooled by demons either. Beliefs which were born in our ignorance won’t help re-assure these people. Our brains do play tricks on us, but these tricks fade when examined in the light.

The Pain is a web-comic which I keep losing and finding again, so I’m mentioning it here so I’ll know where to find it, and also because I like it.

The Top Ten on the archives page links to many of my own favourites, like Jesus vs. Jeezus and Scientists Riot!.

The later comics themselves seem less funny than the earlier ones, but the written “Artist’s Statement” beneath them is often good stuff. There are reflections on certainty and doubt in What Else They’re Calling “Mohammed”, lost love and breakups in How to Win Her Back, Christianity and Islam in Contributions of the World’s Religions, Part I, and the similarities between the political clout of liberals and evangelicals in Part V.

While I’m here, if you like Roy Zimmerman, you might enjoy the Agnostic Gospel Song.

Channel 4 screened Enemies of Reason, another Dawkins mini-series, on Monday night. Slaves to Superstition was the first of a two-parter; the second, The Irrational Health Service is on Monday night at 8pm. If you missed the first one, or are foreign, you can see it on Google Video, or get it from BitTorrent.

Having dealt with religion in Root of All Evil?, Dawkins has turned his attention to astrology, spiritualism, dowsing and suchlike; the sort of stuff which regular readers of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column know as “woo-woo”.

As Charlie Brooker’s excellent review says, this time round Dawkins seems to have toned down the outspokenness which gets him a bad reputation in some quarters. Sometimes I found myself wishing he’d been a little more direct, but his tactic of sitting quietly while someone tried to give him a psychic reading (or whatever) and politely pointing out where they were getting it wrong made his opponents look silly without making him look mean-spirited, so perhaps it was for the best. As a commenter on James Randi’s forum said, “There should be at least one program a week where Dawkins stares at people while they try to explain their woo.”

The first part of the programme mostly consists of that sort of thing, of one charlatan (or sincerely deluded practitioner) after another facing Dawkins’s quiet questioning. I thought of it as shooting fish in a barrel, but maybe there really are people out there who don’t know that there’s bugger all evidence for woo-woo. scribb1e pointed out that most of those people probably weren’t watching, but he did have a prime-time slot. We can but hope, I suppose.

Dawkins talks to Derren Brown about mediums and cold reading. You can see Brown’s classic illustration on how psychics work on YouTube, although as ever with Brown, be aware that sometimes his “explanations” of how he did a trick are themselves misdirection. Nevertheless, Brown claims no special powers and yet is able to do this sort of thing. Brown rightly points out that there’s something particularly sleazy about the medium industry, as it feeds of the grief of the bereaved.

Dawkins is genuinely concerned that woo-woo is supplanting science, and intersperses his examination of the woo with paeans to science and to the wonders of the natural world. He talks about the decline in people studying science at A-level and university, and of the closure of science departments at some universities (does anyone know how common this is? It’s a worrying trend, if it’s true). Perhaps responding to critics who call him a fundamentalist, he says “I’m often asked how I know that there isn’t a spirit world or psychic clairvoyance. Well, I don’t. It seems improbable, but unlike the fixed worldviews of mystical faith, science is always open to new possibilities.” He follows this up with the story of the discovery of echo-location in bats, a relatively recent example of evidence causing scientific theories to change.

To illustrate the sort of evidence he’s after, Dawkins shows a double-blind trial of dowsers, who are asked to identify which of some sealed boxes contain bottles of water and which contain bottles of sand. After they all fail to do better than random guesses would, their denial in the face of evidence leads into the final part of the programme, where Dawkins questions why these people continue to believe in their abilities.

He settles on the same sort of explanations which some evolutionists have advanced for religions, namely that we are good at spotting patterns and sometimes do so when the patterns aren’t real. Skinner’s superstitious pigeons are an example of the sort of thing he means. We have cognitive and perceptual glitches (see the “Slight of Mind” section in the endnotes to Peter Watts’s Blindsight, for example). These make us vulnerable to conspiracy theories of the sort which, Dawkins point out, find their natural home on the Internet, in the many pages which insist that Armstrong never went to the Moon, or that “Jews did WTC”. In the face of this, how can we know anything at all? Dawkins seems to get close to tripping over something like C.S. Lewis’s arguments on the rationality of naturalism (as a character in Blindsight says, our brains may delude us if that has more survival value than showing us the truth).

In the end though, Dawkins is a pragmatist. He points of the successes of the scientific method as evidence that it works, and to the MMR scandal as an example of what happens when the careful gathering of evidence is ignored in favour of personal feelings. Our glitches may cause us to make mistakes, but we have to do the best we can. Dawkins speaks of the gradual build up of evidence for echo-location in bats, contrasting it with the fleeting evidence for the paranormal. The careful steps of science may be frustratingly slow, but make us less likely to fall into the cracks in our minds.

I’ve just finished off a series of replies to Matt in our discussion on religion, naturalism, physics, morality and consciousness which I mentioned in my previous post. You can view them on his blog, or you can find them below. I’ve also added to the discussion on Aquinas and divine simplicity which is happening here.

Especially in the latter discussion, I’m aware that my lack of philosophical sophistication may let me down at some points, so I’d be interested to hear what other people think of my arguments.

<lj-cut> On the status of the laws of physics, and Lewis’s argument: I don’t know whether the laws of physics exist in the sort of platonic sense that I’ve been assuming when talking about necessary existence in your previous posting, but my point there is that if we’re allowing stuff to exist immaterialy and necessarily, so as to cause the universe, it needn’t be anything like a God of the sort that most theists believe in. My friend Gareth recently produced a great summary of reasons to think that there is a deep link between mathematics and reality (along with some reasons why that might be wrong).

Lewis’s argument seems to have some holes (although the bit at the bottom of that page about how Lewis was destroyed by Anscombe appears to be an overstatement, according to Wikipedia). To those objections, I’d add that Lewis assumes that if you do think there’s a relationship between the human mind and some sort of platonic mathematical world (in which logical reasoning is grounded), you can’t be a naturalist. Perhaps this is a terminological problem, but I bet people like Roger Penrose don’t think of themselves as supernaturalists. Naturalists who disagree with that sort of platonism might want to throw Penrose out of the naturalist club, I suppose, but all that means is that there’s at least a third position which Lewis has not considered (I’m not arguing in favour of Penrose’s position, merely point out it exists and is not completely crazy).

I’ll try to answer Aaron on your other post.

On the relation of philosophical arguments to the universe: the possibility that new physics will sink HMS Kalam illustrates the problem I’m talking about. It seems very odd to reason about what the universe must or must not do while skating over things like what the universe is made of, what shape it is, or why time appears to have a particular direction[1]. I don’t give a lot of weight to such arguments (I’m slightly guilty about having entered into an argument on such non-physical terms in previous comments). Maybe it’s just subject chauvinism on my part. [Though I should say I’m not actually a physicist, I just play one on the Internet. I have enough background from my degree to go and read popularised accounts of the sort of stuff that Carroll talks about, or I can ask one of the physicists round here. I certainly wouldn’t be up to contributing to the sort of discussion Carroll gets in his comments, because I can’t do the maths].

In my digging around on the subject, I came across a similar debate to our own. It seems that one can quibble over whether the universe as a whole is contingent or necessary. Again, these are non-physical categories, so I’m not sure how you’d tell who was right.

[1] Carroll seems to have some fairly funky ideas about the direction of the arrow of time in our far past. I’ve no idea what sort of first cause arguments could survive those turning out to be true.

On Swinburne: I don’t really recognise his picture of science. If we discover that some disparate areas of science are linked behind the scenes, that doesn’t invalidate the notions we had before, it just gives them some backing in terms of something more fundamental. Classical thermodynamics and optics still have their place as part of science in cases where you don’t need to care what atoms and photons are doing. By understanding it in terms of some more fundamental objects you’re going to get a handle on where the limits of applicability of your older ideas are, but that has not rendered the older ideas useless within those limits.

I’m also not sure what his point is when he separates physics from sensory impressions. Whatever mysterious stuff is going on in our minds, the sensory inputs to those minds register temperature and pressure and so on (and never mind that those concepts aren’t fundamental, because they’re perfectly appropriate for the level of explanation we need for human sensory organs).

Among physicists, there’s a feeling that mathematical laws are the most fundamental objects, and that it should be possible to derive all the rest of science from these. However, E. Brian Davies points out in his book that things like continental drift or evolution are less speculative than mathematical physics (in the sense that it’s likely there’ll be new equations before too long, but it’s unlikely anyone will disprove continental drift), and that the hope that humans will be able to form and comprehend a seamless bridge from fundamental physics to chemistry to biology might yet be forlorn, as our mental powers are limited (in which case it’s not clear how we’d know whether it was even possible in principle to build this bridge). Even if Davies turns out to be right, I don’t think this means that biology and chemistry are not sciences. Similarly, a science of consciousness need not be unified with physics to be a science. If the limits of our knowledge mean such a science is more like weather forecasting than rocket science (where they’re still happily using Newton’s laws, pace Swinburne), has that doomed naturalism?

I’d still be interested in your thoughts on how an immaterial consciousness interacts with the world, and why brains seem so linked to consciousness, by the way.

Morality: I’m not an expert here, but there are clearly some shared morals among most humans (Marc Hauser’s research is relevant, I think). Most of us cannot fail to recognise (if not practice) morality because it’s been wired into us, either by our shared biology or shared culture or probably some combination of the two. But I said that I didn’t think this indicated anything about the non-human world. If we met intelligent aliens, it’s possible they would not share our morals, yet from their point of view, they’d be following a standard shared by their species. (I’m not sure atheism is incompatible with moral realism, though, it’s just I’m not very convinced of moral realism myself).

I was interested in the Argument from reformers: if the moral consensus has changed over time (even among people who claimed to be getting their morality from some external source, like the Bible or the church, and so, ultimately, from God), how do you know what the objective morality actually is? This seems to me to be the same sort of problem which dogs ideas of Biblical inerrancy.

Most people don’t seem to ask “why should we be moral?” because they find they have moral ideas and at least some notion that they should follow them, even if they don’t actually do so all the time. My essay is intended as my own fallback position if I can’t think of any other reason not to become a cold-blooded sociopath (as it happens, my main reason, like most people’s, is that I don’t want to). As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m certainly not arguing that anything goes or that some cultures are not better than others. I think accepting that morality is not a universal absolute puts the responsibility more on us to build the sort of world we want to live in.

Why do you think we should be moral, by the way?

Conclusion: I’m not sure I’m the model of a modern atheist, since my own naturalism is methodological rather than metaphysical, if I’m understanding certain Wikipedia pages correctly. It’s pragmatism based on believing things for which I think there’s good evidence.

Is religion irrational? It’s semantics, I suppose: it’s possible to be rational and wrong, and religious people may have what they consider to be evidence. As Christians like to point out, evidence from personal relationships is not scientific, yet we do not reject it in everyday life (my problem with Christianity is that it has a special meaning of the word relationship of which I’d not previously been aware, and that this meaning leads to problems with reasonable non-belief). I didn’t start the “religion is irrational” business on Yellow’s blog, I’d rather argue the more persuasive point that religion is incorrect.

I’ve read all of the gospels lots of times, as you might have realised, although I could stand to refresh my memory, I suppose 🙂

So, I have found some more Christians to argue with on the Internet. Mattghg and I are talking about naturalism and what it can and cannot do. Mattghg is a Christian who argues that naturalism cannot explain some things. I’m a tentative naturalist who isn’t sure that he’s right. Another commenter mentioned Alvin Plantinga’s response to Dawkins, so we’re also talking about whether God would be complex.

I’m pleased that I’ve managed to refer to Penny Arcade in support of my position, a tactic I’d like to christen argumentum ad Fruit Fucker (link from a series of strips which contains zombies, since they’re apparently in fashion today).

Matt’s written a lengthy response to my original comment, which I hope to have time to address over the next couple of days.

robhu recently set the atheist hit squad on a luckless university chaplain who had the gall to criticise the Great Dawkins. Yellow, the chaplain, argues that the current atheist backlash is President Bush’s fault, but that Bush’s sort of religion is unrepresentative of Christianity as a whole.

robhu‘s argument that religion is irrational has provoked a series of interesting posts from Yellow. The first one starts off talking about Sam Harris before the topic begins to turn to rationality.

The second gets into some philosophy, with Yellow pointing out that Hume’s arguments on causality and induction lead to the conclusion that science itself is not strictly rational. To my shame, I wasn’t that familiar with Hume before this, mainly being aware of his stuff on miracles (and that he could out-consume Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, of course), so it’s been interesting to do some reading up on the web pages of various philosophy departments (Stanford’s is particularly good). I’ve left a comment on Yellow’s blog, remarking that there’s something slightly odd about invoking the arch-empiricist Hume in an attempt to argue for Christianity. ETA: added link to my comment.

Finally, there’s a third post on cosmological arguments for the existence of God. The absence of physical content in these arguments gets on my goat, so I responded there, too.

Ruth Gledhill, religion correspondent for the Times, has discovered that Richard Dawkins is actually a liberal Anglican (see her blog post for more).

Meanwhile, Andrew Rilstone has been writing his Sceptic’s Guide to Richard Dawkins, a lengthy series of articles which, among other things, re-iterates other reviewers’ arguments that Dawkins is not addressing the sort of God that Christians actually believe in (by the way, The Valve and respectable astrophysicist Sean Caroll both have good responses to Eagleton’s review).

I think that this argument is one of Rilstone’s weaker ones (he’s on much stronger ground pointing out Dawkins’s gaffes when talking about the details of religion). Dawkins responds to critics who say he only speaks about unsophisticated verisons of Christianity by saying that understated religion is numerically negligible. I agree, but my perception may be influenced by the circles I moved in when I was a Christian. As an evangelical, I believed in a personal, supernatural (in the sense of “beyond or outside nature”) God who created the universe (using evolution as a tool, admittedly, as I’d not entirely taken leave of my senses). That’s just the sort of God that Dawkins has in his sights. While there are lots of Christians who aren’t evangelicals, my perception was and is that most of them believe similar sorts of things. Yet Rilstone says he and many Christians believe something else, something more subtle.

Adherents.com isn’t very helpful in determining who’s right, since it’s hard to link denominational affiliation to a place on the spectrum between “God is the existential ground of our being” (or Gledhill’s bizarre “God is String Theory”) and “God is a white-bearded daddy in the sky”. I’d be interested to know of any other surveys which could help out here.

You could argue that it doesn’t matter how many people believe in the “existential ground of our being” version of God, because if that’s the strongest version, that’s the one an atheist has to beat. However, Dawkins is not writing philosophy, but polemic. If you want to change the world, you’d better aim at where most believers are starting from. If you don’t make them atheists but do move them towards more understated religion, that’s at least some sort of progress (although if you’re a true New Atheist, you want them to abandon religion entirely, of course).

I must confess that I have very little idea about what this moderate religion actually asserts, or how one would practice it while knowing that you’re basically making it up as you go along. Rilstone argues that God is more like an author than a fellow character in our universe, but this does not seem to excuse God from titles like “creator” or “person”, which puts you right back in the path of Dawkins’s argument that such a creator is itself complex enough to require further explanation.

Gledhill has a different sort of moderation. When she gets excited about Dawkins’s concession that there might be a gigantic intelligence in the 11th dimension (my layman’s understanding of string theory is that it’d actually have to be a very small intelligence, but never mind), she’s so keen to hear Dawkins talk in those terms that she misses his statement that such an intelligence would need some explanation like evolution, and that such an intelligence is a very long way from the Christian conception of God, whether it’s my old one or Rilstone’s author. Whatever they are, they walk near Sigma 957, and they must walk there alone.

I think Rilstone gets closer to the heart of moderate Christianity when he says that Dawkins thinks religion is all about belief, when it’s really about practice, or cultus as Rilstone puts it (gjm11‘s response to that is worth reading). Rilstone writes of Dawkins’s eulogy addressed directly to Douglas Adams in The God Delusion as the sort of religious practice that Dawkins fails to understand in the rest of the book.

When Dawkins writes to his dead friend, or Feynman to his dead wife (“Please excuse my not mailing this – but I don’t know your new address”), you’d need a heart of stone to be unmoved, or to berate these scientists for their departure from rationality.

But suppose that they continued to build a practice around writing to their lost friends, an edifice of thought to explain how their friends could read the letters, and a society they could go along to every week to meet with other people who also write letters to the dead. We might regard that as a little odd, and question them about the evidence for the dead reading their letters. Suppose some of them responded that, on reflection, they weren’t really sure their letters were really read by their intended recipients, but they were carrying on with the society anyway. That’s where the religious moderates lose me, because I do not understand on what basis they continue. God is dead. Best to move on, I think.

As you might be aware, I enjoy listening to, and occasionally taking part in debate and discussion on religion. This post is mostly links to and commentary about a few such debates I’ve come across recently.

robhu has been posting about William Lane Craig. I don’t like watching Craig, partly because he usually cows his atheist opponents, but also because of how he does it. After you’ve watched or heard him in action more than once, you realise that Craig has a script which he rattles off, and some debating tricks which he uses to great effect (for instance, because debates are time-limited, you can always use your opponent’s lack of time to claim that your opponent cannot refute your argument because they have not had time to do so). Craig often seems to omit the basic courtesy of listening to your opponent. I don’t find his arguments that persuasive either (see gjm11‘s recent blog posting on the evidence for the Resurrection, for example).

Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath’s discussion at the Oxford Literary Festival was a gentler affair than one of Craig’s debates. McGrath seems a little unwilling to spell out what he does believe, which I found odd for a Christian, and which allowed Dawkins to land some easy blows merely by asking him to spell it out:

Dawkins: Well I mean, do you believe in the virgin birth?

McGrath: Well I do, but the issue I think really is not simply how one makes sense of these things but actually what they point to.

Dawkins: No, no. Look, you are a scientist, you are a biologist and you believe in the virgin birth, on scriptural grounds. You actually elevate scripture above science in this case.

McGrath: Well in this case, here is something which seems to me to be an integral part of the Christian tradition, which may well be in conflict with part of our present day scientific understanding, that’s certainly an area of tension.


Ouch!

Dawkins also turns up alongside a host of other public intellectuals (A.C. Grayling, Christopher Hitchens, Julia Neuberger, Roger Scruton and Nigel Spivey) in a debate on the motion “We’d be better off without religion”. The two sides sometimes seemed to be speaking past each other, in that the proponents were mostly thinking of the religious as people who believe something, and the opponents talked in terms of community and feelings of transcendence. Some commenters on the Dawkins forum took this is a sign of victory, in that so much ground has been yielded to atheism that the proponents of religion are not even prepared to argue that it is true.

Not being a huge follower of politics, I wasn’t aware that these Drinked Soaked Trots took their name from George Galloway’s insult to Christopher Hitchens. I’m not sure about the war, but I’m more in agreement with Hitchens’s views on the moral necessity of atheism.

On the off-chance you’re here for some content rather than the humourous cat photos, you might be interested in some discussions I’ve been having with Stephen from Outside the Box. Stephen first turned up on a posting of mine about anger among de-converts from religion.

Stephen has made some interesting posts lately. I’ve commented on a couple, one on evidence for God’s existence, and the other on atheism and the god shaped hole in scientific knowledge. Stephen said some nice things about my comment on the latter posting.

According to Wikipedia’s article on the God of the Gaps, Christian theologians have specifically warned Christians off making arguments for God from scientific ignorance (it’s an obvious tactical error, because the areas of ignorance tend to get smaller). Nevertheless, you do see Christians doing it, and atheists have tended to consider all arguments of this form a fallacy. As I said in my comment to Stephen, I don’t think it’s a strict fallacy (God might have done whatever this thing is that we don’t have a good explanation for yet). But to go from there to claiming that a lack of a scientific explanation is evidence for a specific sort of God, as some Christian apologists do, is begging the question (which is a fallacy) because it assumes that “God” as a label for “whatever is in the gaps” is identical to the God that the apologist is advocating. That’s what makes the Flying Spaghetti Monster a useful tool for annoying Intelligent Design advocates.

Stephen sounds like he’d like to follow Descartes in seeing what he can find out about God from first principles. I don’t think you’ll get very near a Christian God by doing that (and I expect Christians would agree, because they’d talk about the need for revelation, whether from the church or the Bible). Nevertheless, I’ll be interested to see where that line of thought takes him.