Posts Tagged ‘Science vs Religion’

New Atheists Hurting Science Literacy?

December 22, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s a common critique made of “the New Atheists” that they harm their own cause of science literacy by so harshly attacking the religion that supports inaccurate beliefs about the world. These critics (e.g. here and here) argue that we shouldn’t attack religion but rather should frame science in a way that seems more compatible with faith. Despite that this is what the scientific community has been trying to do for decades with no apparent success, any deviation from the status quo is presumed to be automatically counterproductive.

The New Atheist movement, if one insists on calling it that, started around 2004 with Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and propelled to increasing popularity with Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in 2006. So let’s check to see if the popularity of their approach had any obvious negative effects on the acceptance of evolution like critics like Robert Wright and Chris Mooney assume.

1982-2010 Trend: Views of Human Origins (Humans Evolved, With God Guiding; Humans Evolved Without God's Involvment; God Created Humans in Present Form)(from here)

Now it is possible that the upward trend in acceptance would be higher or the drop in hard creationism would be steeper had Dawkins and Coyne never written their books, but it is clear that there isn’t any positive evidence that the New Atheism is harming the cause of science. The reality of course is that this movement’s effect on science literacy is likely extremely minor. For critics to insist that atheists shut up because they are harming science is ridiculous.

The Corrosion of Normal Moral Thinking

October 6, 2010 2 comments

I just picked up Sam Harris’s new book and am excited to sink my teeth in, but the USA Today has an article in its “Faith & Reason” section that seems to give a remarkable example of what happens when reason doesn’t guide moral thinking. Only someone whose mind is polluted by theological rot could question if a child born using In vitro fertilisation is still a child!

Do you think a baby conceived in test tube is still a child in the eyes — or mind or hands, depending on your theology/philosophy — of God?

Now, the article certainly doesn’t dismiss this as a ridiculous question but happily quotes church officials and ethicists who disparage IVF. Check out this “staggering” result of advances in reproductive technology. Arthur Caplan writes,

The implications are just staggering. Even some of the arguments about gay marriage spin out from the fact that IVF lets gay people have children.

I know, what a horrible thought… gay people having children! Oh wait… they might not even be children…

As if we needed another let this be a reminder that religious thinking isn’t a synonym for moral thinking, it is a faulty substitute for it.

This is as good a place as any to share a few thoughts I had about another burgeoning reproductive technology. It will soon become easy to choose your baby’s gender. Many ethicists obviously have serious qualms about this. I’m not sure if this is a common philosophical technique or not, but I begin looking at the question as if humans already and naturally had the ability to predetermine their child’s gender. If so, would the government have the right to prevent parents from exercising that capacity? Maybe yes, if the world begin suffering immensely from some major gender imbalance, but it seems under most unextreme circumstances it would be absurd to consider taking that inherent ability away from people. 

If I’m correct about that it suggests that the state shouldn’t prevent people from gaining that ability through medical advancement. After all, just like a child born from IVF is still equally a child, the ability being natural or “artificial” shouldn’t weigh on our judgement of it.

Elephants In Yellowstone

August 17, 2010 4 comments

Generally I stay away from the Huffington Post’s treatment of all faith or science related topics, but physicist Victor Stenger has a column and I suppose I can make an exception. In it he blows up the cliche that Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence. He’s right; sometimes if there is no evidence for something – that is evidence that something isn’t there.

I can think of many cases where absence of evidence provides robust evidence of absence. The key question is whether evidence should exist but does not. Elephants have never been seen roaming Yellowstone National Park. If they were, they would not have escaped notice. No matter how secretive, the presence of such huge animals would have been marked by ample physical signs — droppings, crushed vegetation, bones of dead elephants. So we can safely conclude from the absence of evidence that elephants are absent from the park.


That is the situation with the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God. Until recent times, absence of evidence for his existence has not been sufficient to rule him out. However, we now have enough knowledge that we can identify many places where there should be evidence, but there is not. The absence of that evidence allows us to rule out the existence of this God beyond a reasonable doubt.

Now, I am not talking about all conceivable gods. Certainly the deist god who does not interfere in the world is difficult to rule out. However, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, whom I identify with an uppercase G, is believed to play such an active role in the universe that his actions should have been detected, thus confirming his existence. Let me present four examples. 

Stenger’s piece demonstrates that science can indeed weigh in on the supernatural. One often hears appeals to non overlapping magisteria or that science cannot measure the immaterial, only the material world. Besides the fact that we only have reason to believe we live in an all material universe (very broadly defined), Stenger’s argument shows to me that even if science couldn’t study immaterial objects (whatever those would be) it can study immaterial objects effects on our material universe. Since theists believe that immaterial/supernatural beings affect the material world there should be evidence for that. Unfortunately for their case, there is not. Emptiness has never glared so much. 


Craig Venter Cuts Deep… All The Way To The Genes

In an incredibly fun interview with Der Spiegel, Craig Venter talks about the genome, synthetic life, public vs. private science funding, and… Francis Collins.

SPIEGEL: Many fear what might happen if humans craft new life forms. They repeatedly say that you are playing God …

Venter: Yes, and I find them frightening. I can read your genome, you know? Nobody’s been able to do that in history before. But that is not about God-like powers, it’s about scientific power. The real problem is that the understanding of science in our society is so shallow. In the future, if we want to have enough water, enough food and enough energy without totally destroying our planet, then we will have to be dependent on good science.

SPIEGEL: Some scientist don’t rule out a belief in God. Francis Collins, for example …

Venter: … That’s his issue to reconcile, not mine. For me, it’s either faith or science – you can’t have both.

SPIEGEL: So you don’t consider Collins to be a true scientist?

Venter: Let’s just say he’s a government administrator.

Now Venter has beef with Collins because of their human genome rivalry, but really Venter is kind of a bad-ass anyway. This is also an amazing line:

Venter: There is currently no reason for us to synthesize human cells. I am, for example, a fan of the work that was done a short time ago that led to the decoding of the Neanderthal genome. But we don’t need any more Neanderthals on the planet, right? We already have enough of them. 

I’ll just say I’m happy this guy doesn’t talk like a… government administrator. Awesome.

(image: from Wikipedia)
(h/t: Pharyngula)

Evidence for Evolution, ctd: Facebook Edition

May 12, 2010 3 comments

I had a little Facebook debate with a friend’s friend on whether evidence exists for “any species evolving into another species. ” Here’s the debate as it currently stands. I’ll be sure to add any updates. I wrote my remarks at 1 in the morning so I’m taking the liberty of cleaning up a few grammatical errors (nothing of substance) and linking a few more of my points for easier reference for any curious readers. I cut out some random Boo Yahs! and such things by some commentators before and in between the substance of our debate. 

RMBScientists are sure of evolution in the sense that Darwin’s Finches had changing beaks, but there is very little and very weak “evidence” of any species evolving into another species. I’m just saying…

Me: I hate to break it to you (by which I mean, I “love”) but even with evolution at that level there is a huge amount of evidence. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you haven’t looked that deeply into the mainstream scientific literature. There is an amazing amount of fossil, genetic, geological, and other evidence (no quotes) for evolution. Any critiques that say otherwise are deliberately misreading the facts or ignorant of them. I’m not slamming religion in this instance, but consider why opposition to evolution is WHOLLY theological, not scientific, and that should tell you everything you need to know.

RMB: this is a hard forum in which to really have this discussion but let me just say that I have read works by famous evolutionists like Gould, Asimov and Dawkins and I always feel that there is a stunning disregard of facts and glossing over things that have little or no evidence to support them. The fossil record supports me in my view. Rather than showing long periods of minor changes that clearly lead to a new species, there are long periods of minor change followed by a blink of a few million years in which thousands of new species suddenly appear. And I prefer to leave religion out of it. Thhe fact is that transitional species don’t exist in any real way. Even Crick (Nobel Prize winner for co-discovering DNA) believed that DNA changes that would cause one species to become another are so implausible that is is more likely that extraterrestrials left what some see as the building blocks for evolution on our planet in a last ditch effort to keep life in the universe when they faced extinction. And thats a crazy thing for a very intelligent person to say, so it’s saying quite a bit about how he felt about evolution. 
As for me, well I think that some primordial soup turning into human life is about as likely as a tornado whipping through a junkyard and coming up with a boeing 747.

Me: Well I’m glad you’ve clearly studied the creationist (read: “non-scientific religious”) literature on the issue (e.g. the boeing 747 fallacy). In case you’re curious, evolution has very little to do with random chance, but rather non-random natural selection. 

Let’s clean up some other misrepresentations you let clutter your argument. First off “a
 blink of a few million years” (which sounds ludicrous already but I know what you’re getting at) is more like 20 million years! You must be referring to the Cambrian Explosion. Although that is a short period of time in the geologic history of the earth, it is still a very long time for evolution to work. The emergence of evolved fossils during this period is mostly explained by soft bodied creatures developing harder mineralized bones and shells which more easily fossilize. If we followed your faulty logic we’d have to conclude flatworms just appeared! After all, they (and their cousins) are incredibly common (about as many types as there are mammals) but not a single fossil of one has ever been found.

It’s also telling that you’re pulling out-of-context statements from evolutionists to somehow disprove evolution, as though they support your view. If they were making arguments which disproved evolution, they wouldn’t be evolutionists would they? I couldn’t find exactly what quote you were referring to in reference to Crick [update: I found it: he’s referring to the origin of life, not evolutionary change], but understand he certainly accepts evolution by natural selection and is a harsh critic of creationism. Here’s a quote from him: “They [creationists] also usually deny that animals and plants have evolved and changed radically over such long periods, although this is equally well established. This gives one little confidence that what they have to say about the process of natural selection is likely to be unbiased, since their views are predetermined by a slavish adherence to religious dogmas.”

Let me just close by saying, even if no fossils were ever found, evolution today should not be in doubt, but the fact remains that the libraries we have filled with fossils should convince anyone willing to look with an open mind. I don’t mean to be rude, but to argue that “transitional species don’t exist in any real way” is a willful disregard of the evidence. Here’s just wikipedia’s incomplete list.

My favorite recent example is Tiktaalik.

What is amazing about that find, other than its clarity, is that the scientist who found it predicted a creature like that must exist in that specific area where it was found. Then found it. Read his book: Your Inner Fish.

Amazingly, if you look at all the fossils discovered from earliest to most recent, you see a clear path from more primitive to what we find in modern animals today. Not a single out of place fossil! No rabbits in the precambrian, as the quip goes. What else could explain that except for evolution? All disparate fields of modern science converge and confirm the truth of evolution. Pretending that the science is on your side is disingenuous – admit that your opposition is motivated by religion not science; your string of creationist talking points already gave you away.

(image from Discovery News)

Atheism vs Theism Debates

February 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Here is a huge source for anyone interested in debates on religion (and similar issues).

Radio Interview with Sam Harris

February 15, 2010 Leave a comment

From Southern California Public Radio. Link.

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