Archive for December, 2012

What is anti-religious ‘fundamentalism’ ?

Monday, December 31st, 2012

The Guardian has  jumped on one particular response from Peter Higgs during an interview with a Spanish newspaper in which Higgs criticises Richard Dawkins over anti-religious ‘fundamentalism’

“And exactly what kind of ‘fundamentalism’ is that?” asks Jerry Coyne.

Well actually there are at least three kinds that it could be.

It might be the claim that religion and science are fundamentally incompatible, and/or that all religion is fundamentally in error, and/or that religion is fundamentally evil.

Higgs, like any sane person, can see that some religious positions are incompatible with science; but he can also see that many intellectually respectable people (eg Dyson) claim to have a religious position that is compatible with science, and he is not so dim as to be unable to imagine what such a position might be.

Ironically, the claim that religion and science are fundamentally incompatible often arises from an apparent inability to comprehend any but the most fundamentalist forms of religion, so one might say that a fundamentalist about incompatibility is also a fundamentalist about religion. Those of us who are neither sometimes find this amusing, but more often it is just annoying.

The claim that all religions are fundamentally in error implies either having a definition of religion which involves having to have false beliefs or to have understood all of them well enough to have found false beliefs in all of them.  This kind of fundamentalism again depends on having what I would regard as an unreasonably restrictive  idea of what constitutes religion.

The last kind of anti-religious fundamentalism strikes me as much more plausible than the other two. It is hard to find a real generally acceptable definition of religion, but I think a case could be made that any such definition includes some aspect of delegation of moral authority and it is conceivable that the net effect of such delegation always turns out to be harmful. I could perhaps be an anti-religious fundamentalist myself in this sense, but most of the time without either much conviction or passion. (Dawkins’ objection to the label ‘fundamentalist’ applied to himself correctly distinguishes fundamentalism from passion, but still confuses it with unshakeable belief when in fact it is neither. Fundamentalism actually refers to *what* one thinks, not to how strongly one believes it or how passionately one feels about  it.)

The Folly of “Scientism”

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

In a recent article in The New Atlantis,  Austin L Hughes addresses a number of instances of scientific hubris, tags them with the popular label “scientism”, and asks:

Is scientism defensible? Is it really true that natural science provides a satisfying and reasonably complete account of everything we see, experience, and seek to understand — of every phenomenon in the universe? And is it true that science is more capable, even singularly capable, of answering the questions that once were addressed by philosophy? This subject is too large to tackle all at once. But by looking briefly at the modern understandings of science and philosophy on which scientism rests, and examining a few case studies of the attempt to supplant philosophy entirely with science, we might get a sense of how the reach of scientism exceeds its grasp.

I actually share Hughes’ view that the claims by some people (including Hawking and Mlodinow) that current cosmological theories theories answer the “why” question are preposterous – but on different grounds, as I see no evidence that the question has any meaning in the first place.

On ethical questions, Hughes correctly distinguishes scientific study of how ethics arose from the inappropriate application of not-properly-established scientific speculation to social engineering and from the silly efforts of Sam Harris to identify the goal of predicting moral decisions with the act of making them. But these are completely different sins, and so the adoption of a common label is inappropriate.

In fact I have always been offended by the term “scientism” ever since it was introduced in the 1960’s, because it seemed designed to sound like the typical position of a scientist (and so, despite pious disclaimers, to taint the latter in the public mind).

If some scientists are sometimes unjustifiably arrogant about the scope of what they have achieved or the potential power of their methods, then that is worth pointing out, but to define science as the search for all discoverable testable truths is not the same as falsely claiming to have found them. 

Invented Language Finds Russian Fans

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

This story by Joshua Foer about John Quijada, his invented language, Ithkuil, and it’s adoption by a cult-like group in Russia is fascinating on many levels.  Quijada seems much more realistic and modest regarding the significance of his work than others who work at the fringes of “academic respectability” and is charmingly torn between pride and puzzlement at its achieving a devoted following half a world away.

Breaking The Taboo (on talk of legalizing drugs)

Sunday, December 9th, 2012

Watch this and sign the petition.

It has been obvious for decades (and given the history of alcohol prohibition it was obvious before the whole thing started) that the insane war on drugs was causing more harm than the use of those drugs ever could.

But while Nixon and Reagan were clearly the primary villains it’s also clear that there is something sick in the culture of the USA that wants to keep this thing going and is so strong as to have rolled back the legalization progress of the 70s.

I don’t know if it’s some kind of informal conspiracy between those who benefit from it, like the cartels, the goverment or even the rehab centers like Alcohol treatment Ohio (which by the way is a good one because of the amenities they have and their prices); the drug cartels whose income depends on artificial restriction of supply and the law enforcers whose jobs and sense of self worth are based on maintaining that restriction, or just some kind of punitive element of the national character (the malicious smile on the face of Bush I declaring his will to build enough prisons to house everyone turned my stomach), but there’s definitely some powerful forces behind it.

So I’m not getting my hopes up too much on the basis of just two states thinking decriminalization now when there were more before.

But it’s definitely worth a try, so sign the petition and let’s hope that this time the tide will really turn.

Harris & Craig on Foundations of Moral Values’

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

For once I find myself agreeing with Briggs!

His post on the debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig (neither of whom I really cared to hear more from) prompted me to actually watch it – and I did find it more interesting than I had expected.

The debate question was: Are the foundations of moral values natural or supernatural?
Craig went first and identified two main questions paraphrased by Briggs as follows:

1. Accepting classical God of theism exists, is morality objective (i.e. absolute)?
2. Accepting classical God of theism does not exist, is morality objective (i.e. absolute)?

Craig then asserted that the answer to #1 is yes and to #2 is no and that this means that if moral values exist they must come from his “God”.

Harris, of course focused on #2 with his claim that maximizing “total well-being of conscious entities” provides a non-supernatural definition of what is good. But, aside from being so ill-defined as to be almost useless, this begs the question by declaring what is good rather than saying what makes it good (which in my opinion is just the fact that most humans feel right about it). Science may “determine” values in same sense of finding what they are that is meant when we talk of determining the orbit of Mercury, but it doesn’t serve to determine them in the sense of making them what they are any more than our study of gravity causes the orbit to precess in the way it apparently does.

Craig (and Briggs) excoriate Harris for not addressing #1, but that is silly. Of course the answer to #1 is ‘Yes’, but that is not interesting because the definition of the classical God of theism includes being the unique source of absolute objective morality which makes the ‘yes’ answer no more than a tautology. So I can’t blame Harris for not “answering” that question.

It is only #2 that is at all interesting because it raises a substantive question – namely “is there any *other* possible source of absolute objective morality than the classical God of theism?” Here, I see no logical reason why not. Perhaps some other god *does* exist with different values for example, and I am not convinced that there is no possible atheistic alternative. But I think Harris does a poor job of undermining Hume and I do agree with Craig that in the absence of *any* god there is as yet no convincingly argued case for absolute objective morality.

It is ironic, though, to see Craig accuse Harris of distorting the question into a tautology by defining values in terms of well-being of conscious entities when he himself makes so much of the tautological half of his own argument and also is guilty of distorting the question by inserting the words “absolute” and “objective” into the wording of the resolution. I stand with Briggs’ commenter Luis Diaz that it is possible to make forceful and effective moral judgements without any need to label them as absolute and objective and I generally see such claims as demonstrating the insecurity of one who “doth protest too much”.

And at the risk of distorting the question myself, let me add that the resolution can easily be resolved in favour of the “natural” if one takes (as I do) the definition of nature as including everything that exists.

Harley Lappin is an Evil Man

Saturday, December 1st, 2012

Dying Federal Prisoners Rarely Granted ‘Compassionate Release,’ Study Finds | ThinkProgress.

The overall statistics may or may not be justified and in any case may not be attributable to one person, but to overrule both the regional director and the plea of the sentencing judge in that Mahoney case was beyond the pale.