Thursday, August 27, 2009

With apologies to Tom Gilson: I don't like philosophy much

ID's effort to be a bona fide science seem like something from the distant past.

Instead the marquee ID proponents are finding solace, well, anywhere at all. Any port in the storm. On Uncommon Descent, the anti-materialism, anti-methodological naturalism, ID-is-a-true-science standard bearer, Dembski, adrift and floundering in the swells, seeks purchase on the floating debris of obscure philosophical musings. He quotes philosopher William Lycan:
I mean to have shown here that although Cartesian dualism faces some serious objections, that does not distinguish it from other philosophical theories, and the objections are not an order of magnitude worse than those confronting materialism in particular. There remain the implausibilities required by the Cartesian view; but bare claim of implausibility is not argument. Nor have we seen any good argument for materialism. The dialectical upshot is that, on points, and going just by actual arguments as opposed to appeals to decency and what good guys believe, materialism is not significantly better supported than dualism…. Yet, I am inclined to believe, the charge of implausibility is not irrational or arational either, and I would not want this paper to turn anyone dualist. Have a nice day. (Dembski's emphasis.)

Bleh. (Have a nice day!) As a scientist, such gibberish makes my mind reel. I have no clue what that "objections are not an order of magnitude worse than those confronting materialism in particular" really means. It seems to say: yes dualism has philosophical objections, but the good news is they aren't ten times worse than the objections to materialism.


Dembski views this as an oracle, seeing, in his own words, nothing less than "A new day is dawning". Someone, somewhere, with academic credentials, is saying something mildly negative about materialism—and that's enough for Dembski to herald YAPS. Why, it's as if a wedge has been inserted into a previously unnoticed crack in edifice of materialistic philosophy. Now it's only a matter of time. Break out the single malt.

Double bleh. Newton dawned a new day. Martin Luther dawned a new day. But while this kind of chitchat (from Lycan) may be of interest to philosophers, it ranks on the "dawning" scale somewhere around a late-night rerun of Petticoat Junction.

But maybe that's just the old Presuppositional Apologist within. I don’t even like the proofs of God from Aquinas and Anselm. I prefer: Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so. I don't really give a rodent’s derriere if a philosopher "shows" that my position is not an order of magnitude worse than a contrary view. Or three orders of magnitude better.

Yet Another Paradigm Shift

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ask Jerry

Over on Jerry Coyne's blog, Coyne posted another "accomodationists suck" essay. This time Coyne presents Robert Wright before the Tribunal. I'm not much interested in Robert Wright, or Robert Wright's books, or Coyne's opinion about Robert Wright, or Coyne's opinion about Robert Wright's recent New York Times op-ed: A Grand Bargain Over Evolution.

Coyne is, after all a one trick pony. Religion: bad. Accomodationism aka "fathiesm": bad, perhaps even worse in the you-really-oughta-know-better sense. New Atheism: the cat's meow.

What was interesting was a comment Coyne made in his post. Speaking about Wright's The Evolution of God, Coyne wrote:
My critique of Wright's book concentrated on his theology, on the structure of his argument (which I consider unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific), and above all on the supposed "empirical evidence" for divine guidance of human biological and moral evolution. (Boldface emphasis added.)
Now we all know that Coyne and his homies regularly make a certain claim about religion and science. So I asked, in the comments, in a variety of ways, the following question:


Is your argument regarding the incompatibility of science and religion

A) falsifiable, or
B) unscientific

If it is falsifiable, what is the experiment?

To which I got this response from Jerry Coyne:
Nope, what I said was “unfalsifiable” was Wright's theory in his book, which is that God has promoted the increase in human morality, acting through theology, over time. And what I meant by this was that there is no evidence Wright construes all evidence as support for his theory. It is of course falsifiable by the facts, and I consider it falsified.
Can you parse this? And can you parse it in a way that shows how it answers the question?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

John Piper has a rare Strikeout

I love John Piper. Yes God ordains whatever comes to pass, but in human terms, Piper gets the lion's share of the credit for the resurgence of Calvinism among the Baptist youth. (I say that like it's a good thing, because it is a good thing.) His theology is sound, his sermons are tremendous, his books are, well, good—though a bit repetitive for my taste.

But just to show everyone has an off day, I refer you to this report on the Associated Baptist Press (ABP) which discusses the mini-tornado that hit downtown Minneapolis (Piper's locale) and damaged the Minneapolis Convention Center while the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA) was having its convention.

According to the ABP, Piper said that the storm was a "a gentle but firm warning" to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Piper is on solid ground when he implies that the storm was ordained by God. But his jaiket's oan a shoogly nail (what—you dinna speak Scottish slang?) when he states, as fact, that the storm is God's warning to the ECLA.

Piper might speculate as to why God ordained this storm. Or why he ordained a bus crash involving a church youth group. Or a fire at a church. But it is best to couch those arguments in general terms and admit that God's thoughts on any given incident are unknowable, and that we shouldn't presume to speak to His motives.

I am hoping the ABP got this all wrong—because it is so unlike Piper to commit even a mild version of a Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell blunder.

Piper, according to the ABP report, elaborated on God's message to the pesky Lutherans:
"Turn from the approval of sin. Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction. Reaffirm the great Lutheran heritage of allegiance to the truth and authority of Scripture. Turn back from distorting the grace of God into sensuality. Rejoice in the pardon of the cross of Christ and its power to transform left- and right-wing sinners."
But of course—that just as well could be described God's message to the Baptists, the Presbyterians, and the Methodists, just to name a few.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

How Dare You, Simon Conway Morris!

Thanks to the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) listServ, I was directed to Simon Conway Morris's1 short article, from last February, Darwin was right. Up to a point. Sorry for being late to the show.

I enjoyed and largely agreed with the Conway Morris article. I like his style.

First of all, he praises Darwin's theory:
But perhaps now is the time to rejoice not in what Darwin got right, and in demonstrating the reality of evolution in the context of entirely unexceptional natural processes there is no dispute
And even though you know there is a pregnant but about to give birth, this praise of Darwin's legacy is genuine and sincere, not faint and damning. Evolution really does provide a powerful framework for understanding the diversity of life. We may differ on whether the engine under the hood is powered by purely natural fuel (fossil fuel?) or by (or at least initiated by) God. But there can be no question that the scientific data tell, overwhelmingly, a story of common descent. There is no viable scientific theory challenging evolution in the whole, although there are plenty of internecine skirmishes.

When the but is realized, it is in the sense that however good evolution is, it doesn't explain everything. There is, in Conway Morris's words, unfinished business.

Of course saying so will land Conway Morris in a situation akin to: I can say my brother is an oaf, but you keep your damn mouth shut! When a theistic detractor asserts that "evolution is unfalsifiable; it can be made to explain anything"2 evolution proponents rightly point out that evolution is a bona fide scientific theory replete with unanswered questions, internal squabbles, predictions, and tests. But if a theistic supporter (a TE) points out that evolution is a bona fide scientific theory with unanswered questions, internal squabbles, etc., the tendency of the atheist proponents is to circle the wagons. We can say that—but not you. We have our cake, and it is quite tasty thank you very much.

Conway Morris faces that sort of response, as the comments to his article attest.

Conway Morris questions the predictability of evolution. It is a question of degree. Evolution certainly makes predictions: the fusing of the human chromosome, where to look, geologically and geographically, for transition fossils, what those fossils will look like, etc. But it does not make grand predictions about the future—rather many of its predictions are similar to anthropic predictions in physics. Here we are at time C. There we were at time A. Given that we didn't supernaturally hop from A to C, we can predict what we might find in the fossil record or the DNA paper trail at intermediate time B. Like the anthropic predictions, much is dependent on the observation that we are here. Conway Morris points out, however, something quite true: evolution is not so good at answering: what will this all be like at future time D? Evolution is good at interpolating. But extrapolating? Not so much.

Regarding this weakness in future predictability, Conway Morris reminds us that there is a tension arising from the fossil record and the extant taxon. The standard explanation is: life's too complex to allow for predicting the future. That fly in the ointment in this explanation is Conway Morris's signature drum: evolutionary convergence, i.e., when organisms evolve strikingly similar solutions long after they have diverged from their last common ancestor. Convergence seems to indicate that the solution space is not, as one might imagine, semi-infinite, but rather it is limited. That should make evolutionary predictions easier.

A fair question, at least to this non-biologist—but not one that should be asked by a theist. (Again, I refer you to the comments.) No, you must present your street creds before you ask such a question.

Conway Morris asks additional questions concerning complex cellular biochemistry, consciousness, and a human intelligence so overpowered that it leads us to the so-called "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" conundrum. He then, and I'm paraphrasing, suggests that some of these deeper questions may transcend the theory of evolution. Perhaps evolution, grand and successful as it is, is not a comprehensive framework.

Never mind that scientists already acknowledge this on the front-end of the time line. Ask about the origin of life and you will be smothered with refrains of: that's not evolution, that's abiogenesis. Conway Morris suggests that on the high end evolution may also reach its limit as a scientific theory, writing:
Of course, Darwin told us how to get there and by what mechanism, but neither why it is in the first place, nor how on earth we actually understand it.
It is an observation that is manifestly true, and yet Conway Morris is criticized for making it, more so for what he is rather than what he says. Evolution does not tell us how life started. And evolution does not tell us how it is that we understand evolution.

None of this should be controversial, and none of it should be subject to "Goddidit" criticisms. For while Conway Morris may well believe that God did it, he does not advocate giving up research into any of these questions. And he does not advocate teaching Goddidit in public school science class. But derisive cries of Goddidit are the first line of attack if a theistic evolutionist dares to say that evolution doesn't explain everything about life.

The bottom line is: any scientist attacked by atheists, Ken Ham Inc.3 and Team Dembski just has to be doing something right.

1 Simon Conway Morris holds an Ad Hominem Chair in Evolutionary Palaeobiology, at the University of Cambridge. He is a Fellow of St John's College, and also of the Royal Society. I admit that I do not know what an Ad Hominem Chair is. But I like the sound of it.

2 No, that's evolutionary psychology, not evolution. Evolutionary psychology really does explain everything, like why blonds have more fun.

3 In truth I don't know that the YEC crowd has ever attacked Conway Morris, but we can safely assume that he is not be on AiG's Christmas card list.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Regarding the New Athiests and Francis Collins

I was wrong. I am forced to admit that these guys are quite impressive and frighteningly powerful. The concentrated efforts of Jerry, Richie, Sammy and da Boiz produced quantifiable results. Most def. Through their far-reaching, international missionary outreach they were successful at increasing the number of votes against Francis Collins as head of the NIH by a factor of 5, 10, 100, ∞.

Be afraid. Be very afraid. I don't think God can withstand such an onslaught.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Jerry Coyne is a Caricature of Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne is a pinhead of biblical proportions. We're talking Old Testament, Nebuchadnezzar living-like-an-animal kind of nuttiness.

For one thing he is very much like the self-made man in love with his creator. He gets credit, so I'm told, with coining-by-proxy, or at least anointing, the word "faitheist". And he uses it regularly—apparently assuming that because it's his baby, everyone will know what it means.

Well I admit that I didn’t—I had to look it up via google.

Hint to Jerry: if you champion a new term it should be better than the one it replaces. Or it should be extremely witty. And for Pete's sake its meaning should be obvious. Insulting—mocking—belittleing—all those are acceptable and even desirable attributes—but obscure is not. IDiot was not a bad term--though it became tiresome through overuse. But IDiot, unlike faithiest, had the virtue of being crystal clear in its meaning.

Or tell me if I am being overly critical. If you do not know what the term faitheist means—but (as a hint) that it has something to do with the faith/science/new-atheism flame wars—what would you guess that its means?

The answer, if I have it right—is that it is a replacement for accommodationist—used to describe, pejoratively, those scientists (mainly) who commit the Unpardonable Sin, the Blashemy of the holy Richard H. Dawkins. That's right, they (shudder) dare to suggest that there can be a mutually beneficial peace made with the religious. This is a major no-no to the stern, Ichabod Crane-like Jerry Coyne, for whom the circle of orthodoxy has a radius of about a single pixel.

Now the term accommodationist is pretty darn clinical—so it is arguable that it is ripe for replacement. But faithiest doesn't cut it. When I first saw it, I thought it must mean the opposite; I thought it was short for fundamentalist atheist. A word should not invoke, on first sight, its opposite meaning.

Anyway, that brings us to to Jerry Coyne's muddle-headed post du-jour. Today Cardinal Jerry casts his lidless all-seeing inquisitional eye on Michael Ruse.

Ruse blasphemed in a new essay entitled Why I Think New Atheists are a Disaster. Now I don't think Ruse's essay is all that good. For one thing, as many such essays do—it omits one of the more important facts about the new atheists: they are inconsequential—a movement badly in need of an industrial strength little-blue-pill.

But be that as it may he makes a few good points, though nothing particularly novel. For example, he writes, concerning Dawkins:
Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course. Proudly he criticizes that whereof he knows nothing. As I have said elsewhere, for the first time in my life, I felt sorry for the ontological argument. If we criticized gene theory with as little knowledge as Dawkins has of religion and philosophy, he would be rightly indignant. (He was just this when, thirty years ago, Mary Midgeley went after the selfish gene concept without the slightest knowledge of genetics.) Conversely, I am indignant at the poor quality of the argumentation in Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and all of the others in that group.
This is a wordy version of what everyone acknowledges: Dawkins, when it comes to Christianity, doesn't know what the hell he is talking about. Everyone acknowledges that, even Dawkinites—especially Dawkinites. It is, in their mind, a proud feature rather than a bug. Why, they ask, should Dawkins learn sophisticated arguments about something that is trivially false? Is he also obligated to learn the theology of Thorism? The answer, which eludes them, is: yes he should if there are a couple billion Thorists in the world, and those Thorists are the target of his evangelism. But as Thorism, unlike Christianity, has not achieved critical mass, and Dawkins is not proselytizing to Thorists, there is no need. Comparison: FAIL.

Coyne loves to whine about blasphemers whining—and Ruse is one of the chief apostates. Let him be anathema. So Coyne has brought Ruse, who has already been excommunicated (perhaps when Ruse is hanged and buried Coyne will have his bones dug up and burned and the ashes spread in a dung heap)—to the tribunal. He begins, predictably, by announcing:
faitheist Michael Ruse continues to whine about us
After a cut-and-paste job on a big hunk of Ruse's post, Jerry writes:
In the immoral [sic] words of Clara Peller, “Where’s the beef?” Where is the evidence that vocal atheists are setting back the cause of evolution? This is only an opinion, and no better than the opinion that by pushing back the influence of religion, the new atheists are actually promoting the acceptance of evolution. I agree with P.Z. Myers that we should “let a thousand critics blossom,” with each of us supporting evolution in the way we know best.
Coyne's fuzzy thinking is blatant in the non sequitur to the PZ Myers comment which, at least as Coyne reproduced it, has nothing to do with point Coyne is ineptly trying to make. Namely, nobody gives a whit that Jerry and Richie and Sammy and PZ support evolution—that’s what they are supposed to be doing. Just like James Dobson is supposed to support the gospel. But, like Dobson, they confuse what is good and proper, to teach the fundamentals of what they are (or at least claim to be) passionate about, with what is certainly within their rights but nevertheless unseemly: the culture wars.

But the part of Coyne's rebuttal I found most amusing was his demand for evidence that new atheism is harming the cause of evolution—otherwise this is only an opinion.

I agree with him! I have made a very similar argument myself. It doesn’t take many mutations to morph Coyne's argument into one familiar to my readers:

“Where’s the beef?” Where is the evidence that science and faith are incompatible? This is only an opinion, and no better than the opinion that if Dawkins accepted Christianity he would actually be a better scientist.

Coyne does not seem to see that he is one of the most flagrant offenders when it comes to making this type of non-argument—i.e., that science and faith are incompatible—a claim that is pure veggie-burger. All opinion—hold the evidence.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

More on the Slavery and Christianity question

Note: this is reprinted from a comment of mine on the blog Positive Liberty.

I was addressing a question from blog commenter Michael Heath, who has commented occasionally on this blog as well, who characterized my position regarding slavery and the New Testament this way:
Mr. Heddle believes God changed his position (on slavery) for us post-New Covenant. In the background is also the view, which I am arguing against, that the New Testament condones slavery.
This was in the context of a larger debate: Michael Heath (and some others) arguing that the New Testament condones slavery--

I wanted to save my response—not because it is especially good but because I may want to come back to the argument quickly. The easiest way is to repost it here, on my own blog.

My response—with some minor tweaks:

No, I don't think God changed his position, although maybe that's just semantics as they say. Instead what we have here is case law. What is appropriate for Jews before Christ, as part of God's unfolding plan of redemption and instruction, is not necessarily appropriate for the Christian. I think you know my oft-cited example in this regard: It was good and proper and moral and ethical and even commanded for Jews to sacrifice animals for atonement. It would, however, be an abomination for Christians to do so. God didn't change his position or his mind. Instead the most dramatic event in history (the cross) occurred, and naturally the before and after worlds are quite different.
9Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, 10and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. (Titus 2:9-10)
When it comes to the passage in Titus, we have an acknowledgment that slavery exists and instruction for Christians suffering that plight—and there were many because Christianity first appealed primarily to the lower rungs of society. Given that Christians found themselves in bondage, what should Paul's instruction be:

A) Rebel against your masters, or
B) In your station bear witness in words and deed to the strength of gospel and to the fact that Christians are just pilgrims in this or any land.

Option B, which some interpret, as condoning slavery–is really, in my opinion, the only choice Paul had consistent with other New Testament teaching. Paul didn't rebel when falsely imprisoned; he obeyed his guards and witnessed to them. Why would he instruct slaves to act differently?

Even in dealing with Christian ownership of slaves, such as with Philemon, we can likewise imagine two broad approaches:

A) A command to free slaves immediately or
B) An appeal and apostolic persuasion to do the right thing

Once again it is option B, that is most consistent with the New Testament upgraded (to more difficult) model of sin--that is is measured by the desires of the heart rather than by deeds. Philemon's sin can only be avoided if Philemon wants to free Onesimus, not if he is commanded to. This lesson is being taught. As for Onesimus, I think we can safely infer that Paul considered whether Onesimus remained as a slave or was freed somewhat secondary—Onesimus might even have a stronger witness as a slave. This does not constitute a condoning of slavery—it's a prioritizing: the gospel, and God's glory, trumps all. It is not a social or a political gospel—it is a gospel designed for just one thing: to bring glory to God. Onesimus can bring glory to God as free or slave. Paul can bring glory to God as free or imprisoned. Philemon can bring glory to God by freeing Onesimus, but not by being commanded to do so.
For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. (Hebrews 7:12)
To answer whether the New Testament condones Christianity you must, I believe, turn to the deliverer of the new law that comes with the New Covenant, Jesus. When Jesus gave this new law, primarily in the Sermon on the Mount—can we find anything in there that is consistent with slavery? I think you cannot—and on the contrary what I see is that his second greatest commandment, and his primary instruction for how man should interact with his fellow man, completely rules out any possibility that the New Testament condones slavery.

Some point out the lack of an explicit condemnation, but the New Testament, again, emphasizes the heart as opposed to enumerating do's and don'ts. We are not supposed to be told: slavery is bad. It is only to our advantage if we recognize and believe that slavery is bad, on the basis of Jesus' teaching. The NT is full of this more complete revelation of the law. For example, the explicit command to tithe is gone—replaced with: give, but only if you can do so joyfully, otherwise don't even bother.

Challenge Answers

For what it's worth, in the Science/Faith Challenge:

The first five papers are from atheists. The last five are from Christians.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sunday School, Fall '09

The first session of the fall semester will be a six-to-eight week look at a classic: R. C. Sproul's Chosen by God. This short, highly readable introduction to Calvinism (via the imperfect yet helpful TULIP acrostic) is an absolute must-read for the student interested in learning about the very basics of doctrines of grace.

There is some fear that I'll be bringing coals to New Castle--but I think the series will be informative and fun.

I think I have already mentioned that when I first became a Christian I was a strong Arminian and a strong per-trib pre-mill dispensationalist. Two books radically changed my theology, because I found each presented interpretations much more aligned with scripture: Sproul's Chosen By God and Philip Mauro's The Gospel of the Kingdom (1928). 

What is an interesting aside to these two books is that they belie the notion that civility has gone the way of the dodo. Sproul's book, the more modern by far, is gracious in its attack on Armininianism. Mauro's book in its attack on dispensationalism--not so much.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Schrodinger’s Coyne

Almost everyone knows about Schrodinger's Cat. It's the famous example of measurement bizarreness associated with quantum mechanics. A cat is hidden inside a box. Also inside the box is some poison. A bit later we ask: is the cat dead or alive? Quantum mechanics says that we cannot say for sure without making a measurement—that is opening the box. Prior to opening the box, the best quantum mechanics can say is that the cat's state is a mixture of dead cat and live cat.1

The New Atheists, at least as much are they are followers of Biologist Jerry Coyne, who is fast becoming America's Richard Dawkins, provide another stunning example of the weirdness of measurement theory.

In the Schrodinger's Coyne experiment, we start with a common state: America's alarming scientific illiteracy. Let's call this complete state S. Schrodinger's Coyne demonstrates the following counter intuitive result:

If Ci caused S, then the effect is Ei. (Eq. 1)

Where Ci is one attributed cause, and Ei is the associated effect. Schrodinger's Coyne is the bizarre result that the effect of the same state S depends on what caused state S in the first place!

Recall that S refers to "America's alarming scientific illiteracy."

Let's now point out the strange "Schrodinger's Coyne" effect.2

Let C1 be religion. The associated E1 is well documented on sites such as the respective blogs of Coyne, Myers and Dawkins. It is: American Talibanism, Economic Collapse, Theocracy, Dark Ages, and possibly the loss of the color fuchsia.

To put it in a single equation, Equation 1, with subscript 1, becomes:

If Religion caused America's alarming scientific illiteracy, the effect will be American Talibanism, Economic Collapse, Theocracy, Dark Ages, etc.

This version of Eq. 1 will be familiar to most readers and is the raison d'être for sites such as Pharyngula, where reasoned commenters warn about "death cultists," theocracies and the American Taliban's plan to annihilate most of the population.

This takes us to Professor Coyne. He recently wrote the introduction of a promised multi-part review of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum's new book Unscientific America. I have not yet read the book, which laments native scientific know-nothingness. But clearly the book has struck a doctrinal nerve among the Personality-Cult O' Dawkins. So much so that if you didn’t know you might think that that Mooney and Kirshenbaum are anti-science Christian fanatics from the Discovery Institute. They are not; they have great street creds in the fight against the misguided, anti-science side of Christianity.

But that's not good enough. Just like there are people for whom even Ann Coulter is not conservative enough, there are those inhabitants of the lunatic-fringe like Jerry Coyne for whom the Chris Mooney's of the world fall outside the pale of orthodoxy—and the lidless-eyed New Atheist blogs are the Inquisition that charges, tries, convicts and judges all New Atheist apostasy.

Coyne is upset that Mooney and Kirshenbaum blame, in part, scientists for American scientific illiteracy. Coyne writes:
But, say [Mooney and Kirshenbaum] , we now have another enemy: the scientists themselves. By our failure to reach out to the public and engage them, and by our hamhanded and ineffectual efforts when we do, we have missed the opportunity to make this a truly “scientific America.” In fact, scientists themselves have supposedly spurned the public, writing off efforts to improve scientific literacy because we see the public as dumb or intractable.
They see the public as dumb? Now where’d they get that idea? It's not like you ever read about how stupid the American public is at web sites such as Pharyngula. Much. Well OK, regularly. But I'm sure they don't really mean it. Much. Well OK, its one of their doctrinal positions.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum don't realize that the priesthood is never at fault.

Still, the charge that scientists might be partly to blame appears to have triggered something inside of Coyne—perhaps a pang of conscience. He resolves it in an interesting way, writing:
To be fair, I myself have raised the alarum about America falling behind. Nevertheless, upon reflection I’m not so sure that this perceived slippage should cause us to get our knickers in a twist. America remains a scientific Mecca, despite other countries catching up, and increasing numbers of foreigners come here for scientific training. In the end, I think that the spread of quality science throughout the world, which will inevitably bring other countries closer to us, can only be good for us all.
So Equation 1, with subscript 2, becomes:

If scientists caused America's alarming scientific illiteracy, the effect will be eh, not so much. In fact, since the rest of the world will catch up with us, it might even be good.

Compare our previous result:

If Religion caused America's alarming scientific illiteracy, the effect will be American Talibanism, Economic Collapse, Theocracy, Dark Ages, etc.

There you have it folks: Schrodinger's Coyne. Weirder than ten Schrodinger Cats, plus two.

1 Actually, that doesn't sound too weird. The weirdness would be that if you open the box and find a live cat, quantum mechanics does not say: see, the cat was always alive! but remains steadfast that before the measurement (opening the box) the cat was part dead. Opening the box caused the cat's sate to collapse from a mixture of "pure dead" and "pure alive" (weighted by the probability that the cat ate the poison) to the pure state of dead or the pure state of alive. Wicked cool, that quantum mechanics.

2 Which I must point out is seen nowhere else—this seems to be a special scientific anomaly that applies only to Jerry Coyne.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Science/Faith Challenge

Reader JJS P.Eng requested the science/faith challenge. Below is a short version.

What you will find are ten abstracts (or in some cases, introductions) of ten peer-reviewed papers. Five are from unbelievers, five are from believers.

The hypothesis: If science and religion are incompatible, one should be able to determine the polluting effects of religion and pick out the tainted papers. So find the five written by believers. If you can't, then the science/faith incompatibility charge has no teeth, no effect, it is in fact unfalsifiable and indemonstrable, and is therefore meaningless.

Here are some caveats and tidbits:
  • In almost all cases they are single-author papers. In a couple they have two authors. In those cases, the "target" author is the first author.

  • Some of the formatting was lost--especially some Greek characters, but that shouldn't matter.

  • One of them is from a scientist named Darwin!

  • That same scientist, who sadly passed away, I loved dearly--and was related to me by marriage.

  • I would say at least two (one in each group) and possibly four (two in each group) are by world-class (as in NAS quality) scientists. (Not to diminish the others, all of whom are competent researchers.)

  • You could, obviously, easily cheat by Google.

  • One of them should be a dead giveaway--a freebie--to members of the faith/science blogghetto.

1) The Quantum Hall Fluid and Non–Commutative Chern Simons Theory

The first part of this paper is a review of the author’s work with S. Bahcall which gave an elementary derivation of the Chern Simons description of the Quantum Hall effect for filling fraction 1/n. The notation has been modernized to conform with standard gauge theory conventions. In the second part arguments are given to support the claim that abelian non–commutative Chern Simons theory at level n is exactly equivalent to the Laughlin theory at filling fraction 1/n. The theory may also be formulated as a matrix theory similar to that describing D0–branes in string theory. Finally it can also be thought of as the quantum theory of mappings between two non–commutative spaces, the first being the target space and the second being the base space.

2) A New Class of Solutions to the Strong CP Problem with a Small Two-Loop θ

While the Standard Model (SM) has been enjoying fantastic success, it does have many loose ends which are potentially our guidepost to the new physics of the future. Two of the most significant loose ends are strong CP problem and the fermion mass hierarchy. Within the SM, the Yukawa couplings give rise to the fermion masses of all three generations and their mixings including the CP violation. Indeed it was first observed by Kobayashi and Maskawa[1] (KM) that only two generations cannot support any CP violating phase.The fact that all three generations have to be involved to create a CP violating phenomena, makes KM model an extremely subtle and beautiful model for CP violation. It also makes CP violation tightly connected with flavor physics.

3. Development and axonal outgrowth of identified motoneurons in the zebrafish

We have observed the development of live, fluorescently labeled motoneurons in the spinal cord of embryonic and larval zebrafish. There are 2 classes of motoneurons: primary and secondary. On each side of each spinal segment there are 3 individually identifiable primary motoneurons, named CaP, MiP, and RoP. The motoneurons of the embryo and larva are similar in morphology and projection pattern to those of the adult. During initial development, axons of primary motoneurons make cell-specific, divergent pathway choices and grow without error to targets appropriate for their adult functions. We observed no period of cell death, and except for one consistently observed case, there was no remodeling of peripheral arbors. We have observed a consistent temporal sequence of axonal outgrowth within each spinal segment.

4. Isoperimetric Numbers of Cayley Graphs Arising from Generalized Dihedral Groups

Let n, x be positive integers satisfying 1 <>. Let Hn,x be a group admitting a presentation of the form ha, b | an = b2 = (ba)x = 1i. When x = 2 the group Hn,x is the familiar dihedral group, D2n. Groups of the form Hn,x will be referred to as generalized dihedral groups. It is possible to associate a cubic Cayley graph to each such group, and we consider the problem of finding the isoperimetric number, i(G), of these graphs. In section two we prove some propositions about isoperimetric numbers of regular graphs. In section three the special cases when x = 2, 3 are analyzed. The former case is solved completely. An upper bound, based on an analysis of the cycle structure of the graph, is given in the latter case. Generalizations of these results are provided in section four. The indices of these graphs are calculated in section five, and a lower bound on i(G) is obtained as a result. We conclude with several conjectures suggested by the results from earlier sections.

5. The Return of a Static Universe and the End of Cosmology

We demonstrate that as we extrapolate the current _CDM universe forward in time, all evidence of the Hubble expansion will disappear, so that observers in our “island universe” will be fundamentally incapable of determining the true nature of the universe, including the existence of the highly dominant vacuum energy, the existence of the CMB, and the primordial origin of light elements. With these pillars of the modern Big Bang gone, this epoch will mark the end of cosmology and the return of a static universe. In this sense, the coordinate system appropriate for future observers will perhaps fittingly resemble the static coordinate system in which the de Sitter universe was first presented.

6. Supramolecular structure of the thylakoid membrane of Prochlorothrix hollandica: a chlorophyll b-containing prokaryote.

Prochlorothrix hollandica is a newly described photosynthetic prokaryote, which contains chlorophylls a and b. In this paper we report the results of freeze fracture and freeze etch studies of the organization of the photosynthetic thylakoid membranes of Prochlorothrix. These membranes exhibit four distinct fracture faces in freeze fractured preparations, two of which are derived from membrane splitting in stacked regions of the thylakoid membrane, and two of which are derived from nonstacked regions. The existence of these four faces confirms that the thylakoid membranes of Prochlorothrix, like those of green plants, display true membrane stacking and have different internal composition in stacked and non-stacked regions, a phenomenon that has been given the name lateral heterogeneity. The general details of these fracture faces are similar to those of green plants, although the intramembrane particles of Prochlorothrix are generally smaller than those of green plants by as much as 30%. Freeze etched membrane surfaces have also been studied, and the results of these studies confirm freeze fracture observations. The outer surface of the thylakoid membrane displays both small (less than 8.0 nm) and large (greater than 10.0 nm) particles. The inner surface of the thylakoid membrane is covered with tetrameric particles, which are concentrated into stacked membrane regions, a situation that is similar to the inner surfaces of the thylakoid membranes of green plants. These tetramers have never before been reported in a prokaryote. The photosynthetic membranes of Prochlorothrix therefore represent a prokaryotic system that is remarkably similar, in structural terms, to the photosynthetic membranes found in chloroplasts of green plants.

7. Predicting the Ionization Threshold for Carriers in Excited Semiconductors

A simple set of formulas is presented which allows prediction of the fraction of ionized carriers in an electron-hole-exciton gas in a photoexcited semiconductor. These results are related to recent experiments with excitons in single and double quantum wells. Many researchers in semiconductor physics talk of \the" Mott transition density in a system of excitons and electron-hole plasma, but do not have a clear handle on exactly how to predict that density as a function of temperature and material parameters in a given system. While numerical studies have been performed for the fraction of free carriers as a function of carrier density and temperature [1, 2], these do not give a readily-accessible intuition for the transition. In this paper I present a simple approach which does not involve heavy numerical methods, but is still fairly realistic. The theory is based on two well-known approximations, which are the massaction equation for equilibrium in when di_erent species can form bound states, and the static (Debye) screening approximation. In addition, simple approximations are used for numerical calculations of the excitonic Rydberg as a function of screening length.

8. Relativity and the Minimum Slope of the Isgur-Wise Function

Sum rules based upon heavy quark effective theory indicate that the Isgur-Wise function ζ( w ) has a minimum slope ρ2min as w → 1, where ρ2min = 0 for light degrees of freedom with zero spin and ρ2min = 1/4 for light spin 1/2 .Quark-model studies reveal sources for a minimum slope from a variety of relativistic effects. In this paper the origins of the minimum slope in the sum rule and quark-model approaches are compared by considering hadrons with arbitrary light spin. In both approaches the minimum slope increases with the light spin jl, but there appears to be no detailed correspondence between the quark-model and sum-rule approaches.

9. Channel kets, entangled states, and the location of quantum information

The well-known duality relating entangled states and noisy quantum channels is expressed in terms of a channel ket, a pure state on a suitable tripartite system, which functions as a pre-probability allowing the calculation of statistical correlations between, for example, the entrance and exit of a channel, once a framework has been chosen so as to allow a consistent set of probabilities. In each framework the standard notions of ordinary (classical) information theory apply, and it makes sense to ask whether information of a particular sort about one system is or is not present in another system. Quantum effects arise when a single pre-probability is used to compute statistical correlations in different incompatible frameworks, and various constraints on the presence and absence of different kinds of information are expressed in a set of all-or-nothing theorems which generalize or give a precise meaning to the concept of “no-cloning.” These theorems are used to discuss: the location of information in quantum channels modeled using a mixed-state environment; the CQ (classical-quantum) channels introduced by Holevo; and the location of information in the physical carriers of a quantum code. It is proposed that both channel and entanglement problems be classified in terms of pure states (functioning as pre-probabilities) on systems of p ≥ 2 parts, with mixed bipartite entanglement and simple noisy channels belonging to the category p = 3, a five-qubit code to the category p = 6, etc.; then by the dimensions of the Hilbert spaces of the component parts, along with other criteria yet to be determined.

10. LASPE: a subroutine for generating straggling distributions for positrons and electrons

Computer codes used for analysis of data from high energy electron scattering experiments generally use the Rutherford cross-section based distribution derived by Landau to calculate the energy lost by electrons due to straggling. We have developed a FORTRAN program which evaluates straggling distributions incorporating Møller and Bhabha cross-sections. In e- scattering analysis, this program can be used to evaluate the precision of existing Rutherford-based distributions. In addition, the calculation of the e+ straggling distribution is relevant to the analysis of experiments such as those investigating dispersive effects in nuclear electromagnetic processes by comparing results obtained from e- and e+ scattering from identical nuclei. In addition to a full straggling distribution, the output includes the parameters which characterize the distribution as well as a table of integrals of the distribution.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Sad Case of Sam Harris

Sam Harris has written yet another iteration of his same-ole, same-ole argument that Francis Collins is unfit to serve as director of the National Institutes of Health. Why? Because Collins is a strong, vocal, evangelical Christian. A don’t-ask-don’t-tell Christian would be OK, so it's *cough* not about Collins being a Christian. It is about him being an uppity, arrogant, loud-mouthed, in-your-face Christian who is not a credit to his religion and doesn’t know how to keep in his place. Why someone who is open about his beliefs is not acceptable while someone who keeps them in secret is acceptable is only understood when you realize that Harris hates Christianity. When it cannot be ignored, he goes on the offensive.

It is said that northern racists don't care how far blacks make it, as long as they don’t live near them. Harris (and Coyne and Myers) are more like the southern racist who doesn’t mind living next to a black man, as long as he remembers his proper station in life.

Although making the same case he always does, this particular essay by Harris is uncharacteristically poorly written. Consider this non sequitur near the beginning:
Even religious extremists value some of the products of science—antibiotics, computers, bombs, etc.—and these seeds of inquisitiveness, we are told, can be patiently nurtured in a way that offers no insult to religious faith.
Yeah—so what? This is akin to the there are no atheists in a foxhole aphorism. It has absolutely nothing to do with Collins’s qualifications to lead the NIH.

Harris expresses, with grave concern:
Just imagine how scientific it would seem if Collins, as a devout Hindu, informed his audience that Lord Brahma had created the universe and now sleeps; Lord Vishnu sustains it and tinkers with our DNA (in way that respects the law of karma and rebirth); and Lord Shiva will eventually destroy it in a great conflagration.
First of all this is a fallacious (and common, in this debate), good-for-the-goose, good-for-the-gander argument. It is of the form: Those damn hypocritical Christians would be apoplectic if a devout Moslem was nominated for the NIH position. Yes, some of them would—but their postulated error cannot be recycled (pre-cycled?) as a reason to argue against Collins. Sammy—you have heard the one about two wrongs not making a right? Right?

It truth, if Collins were a Hindu (to take Harris’s example) it would make not a bit of difference. As for any government job, the relevant criteria can be summarized as 1) Are you the most qualified applicant? 2) Are you permitted to work, legally, in the United States? 3) Do you currently engage or have you engaged in any disqualifying illegal activities? and 4) Are you engaged in any secret financial or personal hobbies that might render you a national security risk?

Science more or less dispenses with all criteria except number one. Science is a meritocracy, one of the few true meritocracies. What has always been relevant in science is: what is the quality of your work? and, to a lesser extent, what is the volume of your work?

On the sole count of what is actually relevant for holding a scientific position Harris, in a rare display of integrity, or more likely a calculated display of faux integrity, writes, (in what should be the entirety of his essay):
One must admit that his [Collins’s] credentials are impeccable: he is a physical chemist, a medical geneticist, and the former head of the Human Genome Project
You can just about detect the regret and reluctance with which Harris must concede this inconvenient fact—which he never mentions again and treats as totally incidental. He only turns his head aside and burps it out, one can speculate, for CYA purposes. I wasn’t unfair to Collins. I mentioned he was qualified. Aren’t I the even-handed one?

The rest of the Harris’s essay is devoted to Collins’s Christianity. To the Harris’s of the world, it doesn’t matter that Sonia Sotomayor is an impeccably qualified jurist, it only matters that she is proud and vocal about being a Latina.

Show, don’t tell

What about evidence? Anyone have any actual evidence that Collins’s religiosity renders him unfit to lead the NIH? Harris? Coyne? Myers? Anyone?

I have repeatedly asked, on some enormously popular websites such as Myers’s own Pharyngula, for someone, anyone, to demonstrate the science/faith incompatibility charge. The people making this claim are supposed to be scientists or at least scientifically literate. They should understand that that a hypothesis than cannot lend itself to testing is inherently unscientific. As many of you know, I proposed a test: I would provide ten peer-reviewed scientific papers, five from believers and five from unbelievers. If the charge that religion and science are incompatible is more than just words, we can posit that it should be possible to detect which papers are polluted by the author’s religion. No one has ever accepted the challenge.

The extent of the “proof” of their claim that science and religion are incompatible is summarized by this recent comment on Pharyngula:
since we've already seen examples of Collins claiming that certain phenomena, e.g. human morality, are evidence of divine intervention, it's pretty clear that his religion is interfering in his science already (Emphasis added.)
Behold the standard of proof to the New Atheists that religion and science are incompatible. It is not that that the charge can be substantiated with data, but that it is “pretty clear” to them.

Painted in a corner, refusing to acknowledge the obvious, that Collins’s beliefs are at most orthogonal but not incompatible with science, New Atheists respond with a template1:
Blah blah blah, compartmentalization, blah blah blah cognitive dissonance, blah blah blah, Collins/Miller are so pwned, blah blah blah.
That is, they rely on something that explains everything and nothing, the psychobabble term compartmentalization (it’s like breathing—who doesn’t?) and a misuse of the term cognitive dissonance2.

Collins’s Conversion Account is Foobar

Harris’s attack on Collins—like all other attacks on Collins, amount to nothing more than telling us, in so many ways, that Collins is a Christian. That pattern is: Collins is a Christian! No, I mean he is really a Christian. Did I tell you just how much of a Christian Collins is? He friggin’ writes about his Christianity! He is not embarrassed about it like he should be, why he is proud of it! Unthinkable! Absurd!

At least here Harris is, as he often is, more interesting than Coyne or Dawkins or Myers. Because Harris also questions what Collins wasn’t, writing:
How something breaks often says a lot about what it was. Collins’s claim to have been an atheist seems especially suspect
You might ask why Harris bothered mentioning this. I can tell you from experience: he can’t help himself. Atheists, at least those of the “New and Deteriorated” flavor3, seek a sort of racial purity. Like Scientologists, they deem it acceptable that you should join them but should you ever leave them it was only because you were not a True Atheist™. A corollary of this dogma is that Stalin was not an atheist, but the Archbishop of a religion: Stalinism. Mao was not an atheist, but the Pope of The First Church of Maoism.

Collins's personal epiphany—the famous waterfall story, really irks Harris. Again we see that the problem is that Collins just can’t shut-up in regards to his shortcomings. Harris writes, concerning Collins’s conversion account:
It is simply astounding that this passage [Collins’s conversion account] was written by a scientist with the intent of demonstrating the compatibility of faith and reason. While Collins argues for the rational basis of his faith, passages like this make it clear that he “decided” (his word) to believe in God for emotional reasons. And if we thought Collins’ reasoning could grow no more labile, he has since divulged that the waterfall was frozen into three streams, which put him in mind of the Holy Trinity.
Oh noes! Beauty in nature made Collins get emotional and think of God, and something he saw brought to mind the doctrine of the Trinity! Burn his scientific papers that passed peer review—burn them! He’s a witch!

This from a man (Harris) who has much in common with Shirley MacLaine (perhaps they were even married in a previous life); a man who is into Eastern Mysticism. A man who looks favorably on xenoglossy. A man who in his best seller The End of Faith wrote4:
Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has reason for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical.
For him to argue that Collins’s beliefs demonstrate irrationality –why the cajones, they must be the size of Brazil.

Along the same lines Harris opines, concerning Collin’s Polkinghorne's (correction made after publication) religious writings:
... however, is that it is impossible to differentiate his writing on religion—which now fills an entire shelf of books—from an extraordinarily patient Sokal-style hoax
Actually the differentiation is trivial. Sokal submitted his delightful hoax to a post-modern journal as if it were a legitimate paper. Collins Polkinghorne does not submit his religious writings as scientific research papers to Nature. Come on Sammy—the difference, far from impossible to discern, is manifestly obvious. On the other hand, it might really be impossible to distinguish Harris’s writings on Eastern Mysticism from other eastern mystics, such as the late David Carridine.

Oh, that’s just Sammy being Sammy

Another concern about Collins is that he would be in charge of the money and might direct research funds away from uncomfortable topics. Here, in a bizarre other-worldly manner, Harris projects his own inadequacies on Collins.

He does this by comparing the case of Collins to that of Nobel Laureate James Watson, he of DNA fame, who recently lost a position because of indelicate comments on possible intellectual differences among the races. Harris writes, concerning Watson’s views:
Watson’s opinions on race are disturbing, but his underlying point was not, in principle, unscientific. There may very well be detectable differences in intelligence between races. Given the genetic consequences of a population living in isolation for tens of thousands of years it would, in fact, be very surprising if there were no differences between racial or ethnic groups waiting to be discovered. I say this not to defend Watson’s fascination with race, or to suggest that such race-focused research might be worth doing. I am merely observing that there is, at least, a possible scientific basis for his views. While Watson’s statement was obnoxious, one cannot say that his views are utterly irrational or that, by merely giving voice to them, he has repudiated the scientific worldview and declared himself immune to its further discoveries.
It takes a while to parse Harris’s mishmash. I’ll point out only the most glaring inconsistency:

Harris (not me, not Collins—Harris) argues that there may be detectable differences in intelligence among the races, and in fact that it would be "surprising" if there were no differences awaiting discovery. He then strongly suggests that he would not support such research.

Well, why not? Science is not emotional. Science is not politically correct. Restricting research into uncomfortable areas is part of the hypothetical case against Collins—e.g., that he would not support research into the evolutionary origin of human morality. If Harris thinks it would be "surprising" that there are no intellectual differences among the races, why, as a scientist, would he place such research off limits? The reason: Harris's emotions get the better of him. With Collins the charge of research bias due to emotionality is trumped up—with Harris it is demonstrable.

I have argued elsewhere that the charge that Collins would restrict funds to research areas that might challenge his faith is ludicrous. For at least four reasons the fear is unwarranted. In no particular order:
  1. To avoid the appearance of a bias--i.e., Collins might actually overcompensate. That would not be without precedent. Some scientists other than me might recognize the effect in a slightly different form: A nuclear physicist placed in charge of physics at the NSF is not necessarily a good thing for nuclear physics—there is a natural tendency to work to dispel fears of bias in the community.
  2. Because, perhaps, he fully expects a negative result. If Collins has faith that science cannot demonstrate the development human morality in purely evolutionary terms, then he has as much vested in the research as those who are confident that science can. He’ll be validated by a negative result more than by not doing the research at all. After all, as Harris likes to point out, Collins is a true believer, a zealot. As such he would not fear research into uncomfortable areas, he would welcome it, confident that it would affirm his faith. Only the weak-minded would fear that science would undermine faith—and I think we all agree than Collins is not wishy-washy.
  3. Even a positive result would not be damaging to his theology--just as evolution is incorporated via the get-out-of-jail-free card known as "theistic evolution" such as result would be understood as “the way God did it”. Collins has not asserted that any evolutionary role in morality would be contrary to his faith—but only that a solely evolutionary explanation would—which, given his belief in theistic evolution, is in fact impossible.
  4. (Most importantly and most relevantly) because he is, and has always demonstrated, the ability to perform his responsibilities professionally.
Every person in history who was placed in charge of a scientific budget had/has bias. If, hypothetically speaking, the head of the DoE strongly disliked String Theory--does that mean he'll cancel all String Theory grants? Of course not.

In reality, I suspect we (scientists, that is) all are admixtures of the truth, justice, and American-way just-the-facts-ma'am scientist and the "selfish bastard" eigenstates. Most scientists, I believe, a) want, ultimately only the truth to be propagated (scientific fraud is rare), b) support all legitimate avenues of research, including the competition and c) hope like hell, privately if not publicly, that their vested models/theories receive experimental support while the competition fails. (And the more vested you are the longer it will take for you to admit defeat, the Hoyle-Effect, indicating that irrationality is always present and yet doesn’t game the system.) Everyone wants to be a winner. Collins is no different, I suspect. Thankfully professionalism, personal integrity, the scientific method itself, and peer-review all work to keep our biases in check.

As for grants, we rely on men and women of integrity to follow established peer-review processes when evaluating proposals. Collins has given no indication (to make an understatement) in his past performance that he would not behave professionally. And of course, contrary to misinformation (again, evident in the commenters on Pharyngula and elsewhere) that his evangelical Christianity demands that he proselytize at every opportunity and thereby degrade his workplace, anyone who has any understanding of evangelical Christianity would know that that's bollocks. Christians are not commanded to evangelize 24/7 (at least not with words) but at appropriate opportunities. In fact, Christians are charged, in the most unambiguous of terms, to give honest work for their wages. (You could say that by doing so they proselytize without using words—and I wouldn’t argue the point.)

Sigh. The Bottom Line

People like Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, and P.Z. Myers are bigots. Polished and educated for sure, but bigots nonetheless. In other times and in other places we have heard their vile arguments in different forms. Yes he is a qualified scientist but he is a evangelical Christian… was Yes he is a qualified scientist but he is a Jew… Or I have no objections to interracial marriage, but think of how hard it will be for the children… etc.

1 If you think I am wrong, find posts on say Pharyngula dedicated to the science/faith incompatibility and search the comments for “compartmentalization” and "cognitive dissonance".

2 Cognitive dissonance must more-or-less be self diagnosed. It is the tension caused by holding contradictory beliefs. If, like Collins, you find no contradiction between science and faith, then there is no cognitive dissonance. It does not mean, it should be obvious lest it be a nearly ubiquitous malady, when someone else holds beliefs that you believe are in conflict.

3 As opposed to the "Old and Improved" atheists. It is an intellectual comparison. Harris, Dawkins, Coyne and Myers, when it comes to intellectually supporting their atheism, are New Coke. The formidable Old Atheists, for example Bertrand Russell, are the Classic formula.

4 Which of course does not render him unfit for a scientific position. No, his downfall would (or should) rest solely on his his lack of scientific accomplishment.

UPDATE 1: One of the best Christian bloggers, Tom Gilson, also commented on Harris's article, in a response that is much more reasoned than my own.

UPDATE 2: A correction (as noted in the post) for which I must thank Raevmo, who probably trundled in via Telic Thoughts.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Coyne blows it, Part 1/N

The almost always silly Jerry Coyne, on Andrew Brown's criticism of Sam (the Mystic) Harris's New York Times op-ed criticizing Obama's selection of Francis Collins to head the National Institutes of Health, writes
Thus, when Brown says that Collins need never abandon his faith because “all the best arguments against God are theological,” he’s just wrong.
Sorry Jerry, and I say this knowing nothing about Mr. Brown, but he (Mr. Brown) is just right, at least in this instance. The only arguments against God, that is against the God, also known as the Christian God, are indeed theological—as a moment's reflection should render obvious. There is no scientific argument against God—for the very reason that Coyne later laments:
Finally, the theistic God [sic] obstinately refuses to show himself to people, although he supposedly interacts with the world.
A scientific argument against God is like a scientific argument against the multiverse. In other words, there is none. You can't make a scientific argument for or against that which cannot be detected by scientific instruments.

The scientific age, fortunately or not, happens to fall within the New Testament era, i.e., after God's redemptive plan was finished (as in accomplished.) Supernatural revelation via the overtly-miraculous has ceased. Had we modern equipment prior to "It is finished" we could have photographed, or not, Jesus walking on water or the Red Sea parting. With the redemptive plan finished, done, game-over-man, the supernatural is entirely invisible—regeneration, the in-dwelling of the Spirit, and the like. It's a feature, not a bug. And more to the point, the prediction is that the next time we see God in the physical realm is at the end of history.

If our theology stated that God should be routinely appearing and performing Old Testament miracles then, given they don't happen, Coyne would have a point. But his ignorance prevents him from realizing that his argument is incredibly stupid.

More vintage Coyne,
there has never been a better refutation of the idea of a loving and omnipotent god than the existence of horrible, god-preventable things happening to innocent people.
It is hard to imagine how one person could be so clueless about theology, and yet have the unjustified power of conviction in his ignorance to delude himself into thinking he makes a cogent statement. (It is really no different than Kent Hovind commenting on biology. And yes, I know about the Courtier’s Reply.) What Coyne is actually saying—and it is so dumb as to make me weep, is this: God is not behaving as I (Coyne) would if I were God, therefore there is no God.

But that is not an argument against a God behaving exactly as one would expect from what is revealed in the bible. It is only an argument against a Coyne-god.

Hint to Coyne: if you knew theology, then you'd realize that you ask the wrong question. It is not: Why do horrible things happen to innocent people? But rather: How come horrible things don't happen to all of us, all the time?

If God behaves exactly as one would expect, based on theology—then the only arguments against God are indeed theological. That is, one must show that the theology is flawed. If the theology predicts no physical appearance of God in the New Testament era, then that very same lack of evidence is hardly a flaw. Yes, that's "very convenient." But thems the breaks.

Coyne, when he discusses religion, is a numskull. Like all the New Atheists, for whom a better term might be "Pinheaded Atheists," he is more or less proud of his ignorance. Like Harris and Dawkins, he makes me long for the Old Atheists, who were a helluva lot smarter.

Coyne adds:
None of us “militant atheists” want to deny Collins his job because of his faith.
Liar. You certainly do. You just won’t man up. You arguments against Collins are weak and you doth protest too much that it is “not because he is a Christian. Honest. Swear to Dawkins!”

Let us collect some isomorphic arguments.
  • It is not that Collins is a Christian, but that he is an "evangelical" Christian…

  • Some of my best friends are black… but he is so arrogant

  • I don't mind gays. Really. But does he have to be so flamboyant?
Coyne is a garden-variety bigot, plain and simple.