The Link in Red

woman_in_red.jpg Too many links! Here are some…

@ Rationally Speaking: Eliezer Yudkowsky on Bayes and science: what? and Honest and Decent Humans Should Oppose This Pope [apropos of which, see Deaf victim of sex abuse is suing pope, and going public with his story for the first time, and Why Pope can’t stand diversity and tolerance]

My friend Ian Musgrave discovered that Mercury has a tail

@ Gene Expression: Simple rules for inclusive fitness, Story of X, The view from somewhere smart [the lost history of Christianity]

What happens if you criticise Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper anonymously because you are a public servant? They out you.

@ Not Exactly Rocket Science: Should science journalists take sides?

@ Austringer: Price of Misunderstanding? [On George Price]

@ Thoughts from Kansas: On dickishness

@ Ediacaran: Palaeoporn 18

When Baghdad was the center of the scientific world and Why should anyone care about Byzantine Science?

Secularization Theory

The most ludicrous depictions of evolution in science fiction history [Oh, and for humor: Darwinism: devilish Gnostic myth dressed up as science]

@ Renaissance Mathematicus: Nicky, Jerry and Andy a story of Renaissance publishing

The truth about vaccines and toxins: less aluminum than breast milk

Top dinosaur hunters are worst at naming

A classic paper: Evo-devo of digital reduction in amphibians

Lies, lies, lies: How a historian’s paper was misrepresented by the media

Exclusive: Former correspondent and editor explains the drop in quality of BBC’s climate coverage [Shocker: For 2011, BBC has “explicitly parked climate change in the category ‘Done That Already, Nothing New to Say’.”]

What Small Business™ actually means to the GOP. It means Very Big Business.

Yet again: Are we reaching the end of scientific discovery?

The chosen research areas of mad scientists, 1810-2010

Robert Paul Wolff speaks truth to Harvard: HARVARD AND PERETZ

Icones Plantarum Rariorum – super cool botanical illustrations from the late 18thC.

40 thoughts on “The Link in Red

  1. There’s a discussion going on right now on both Pharyngula and Sandwalk addressing the common claim that gnu atheists ignore the sophisticated, rational arguments for the existence of god, probably because of their pathetic ignorance of philosophy. The invitation is for those in the know to present the arguments so we can all learn from them. So far, no takers except for a guy whose argument is the fulfilled prophecy of scripture. The rest is just philosophy mavens alluding to arguments, mentioning arguments, and dripping scorn on the gnu atheists’ ignorance for not knowing these unspecified arguments already. But so far, no actual argument. Can you help?


    1. No, because I think the arguments for God’s existence are parlous and weak. That said, the issue is that philosophers take these arguments seriously because that’s what we do with arguments (even including Peter Singer’s). I do not htink the Affirmativists need to be philosophers about this (unless, like Dawkins, they pretend to be or are philosophers).

      The interesting philosophical arguments are, in my view, what follows if you grant that a God exists (or many gods; let’s not bias the issue). Can you still believe in reason? Can you accept science? Is there a conception that is compatible with science? Under what conditions? Are believers rational in their belief choices? and so forth. Proving God’s existence? Not so much. That was done and dusted in the 1950s in my view, Swinburne and Craig notwithstanding. Unless someone comes up with a better argument (and it is not the Kalaam argument), we have nothing to worry about, and any theologian that doesn’t accept this isn’t worth the time to argue with.

      However, and you can quote me, if you are going to get into a field, learn the field. Most popular atheist arguments are as poor or worse in response to these standard arguments. There are good responses to them, ones that demolish them so far as I can tell, but they usually aren’t the ones that a Dawkins, Hitchens or PZ comes up with. However, there are good people making them (Massimo Pigliucci usually gets it right). Our commenters here, branemrys at Siris and Chris Schoen at underverse, who are religious, often demolish them as well (their scholarship is exemplary).

      I don’t mind attacks on bad arguments, but I do mind bad attacks on bad arguments by those who expect to get a free pass from intellectual rigour because they are on the “right side”. I’m not going to name names here, because it’s not about personalities, but this is too common.


      1. What’s wrong with Peter Singer? I briefly tried a philosophy course and part of the morals introduction was Singer’s book on morality. I presume he’s not totally useless. He didn’t seem to be, in any case.

        John, somewhat tangential, but I’ve been thinking recently about how neuroscience is explaining the unity of self or consciousness as an illusion, that when we’ve got brain damage, our self can change (damage to ventro-medial cortex) or what we are conscious of changes (think neglect after a stroke in right side of brain) . It seems that in a lot of arguments about God, supernatural, etc, it’s taken for granted that there is a soul/self/mind of dualistic type. If there’s no immaterial mind in the sense required by religion, then who cares if there’s a God? If the brain or its functioning can account for what we experience, what need of a soul/immaterial mind? I wonder how believers accommodate the explanation that a change in the brain changes the person(ality) with the idea that there is a separate self/soul/mind that is responsible to God at the end of it all? Thoughts?


        1. I was being cute. I find Singer’s ethics to be an elaboration of one possible moral philosophy out of a larger number that he never really (or hadn’t when I last read ethics in any detail) showed were unacceptable in favour of his own kind of utilitarian ethics. It is as if some musician had decided that pentatonic minor jazz was the one true form of music, but never really explained why.

          As to the question of dualism; it is often assumed by philosophers that the “default” view is dualism of some kind, and the problem is how to reconcile that duality in a monistic manner, if at all. I decided long ago, well before I got into philosophy, that given that the notion of a self-subsistent soul was a late invention (at least, the eight century prophets show no evidence of that doctrine in the Bible, so it is hardly a universal default), and yet people were religious even when the notion of an afterlife was at best tenuous (Hades, Elysium, etc.), that dualism is not a precondition for religious belief.

          I could see how one might be a Christian or Jew or Muslim and believe that “soul” (psyche, ruach, animus, al-rooh) is just a physical configuration. In fact I think that the dualism is a late conflation of Hellenism (particularly stoic and platonic philosophy) and the Hebrew tradition they modified. Paul is perhaps the obvious source for this, as for so many other “Christian” teachings.


      2. “It is as if some musician had decided that pentatonic minor jazz was the one true form of music, but never really explained why. ”
        Well, we all know that blues is the one true form of music, and pentatonic minor jazz is just defective minor blues. 🙂

        I guess it’s just my ignorance of these things. I’d just not see the point, in this day (not 1000BC), of worshiping or placating a deity if there were no soul. I can understand it 3000 years ago, when all thinks were explained as the actions of capricious supernatural entities or gods. But these days?


        1. Religion is not necessarily about worship or placating deities. Often it is about doing rituals that mark out a community (consider Reform Judaism).

          As to why jazz is not the One True Form of Music: If you gotta ask, you’ll never know.


      3. I see your point. But the types of religions that seem to want to impinge on others behaviour, say non-liberal Catholicism or certain varieties of Islam, seem to do so because there is a deity who is to be pleased, required to be pleased, because that deity decides what’ll happen to your immaterial soul. And some priestly caste or another decides what the deity find pleasing. Take away the soul and it would seem to be a pointless exercise. We’re living proof that not pleasing some deity isn’t deleterious to our lives.

        You should have retorted ‘It don’t mean a thing, if it aint got that swing’


  2. So, while there are no good arguments, there are bad attacks on the bad arguments. Nice enough. Can you give a real example of such a bad attack, without naming names if you choose, plus the argument it attempts to engage, and a good attack on that argument? If you can’t name names, at least present a complete example.

    ( I will note that you already have named names, i.e. Dawkins, Hitchens, and Maeyrzz, so it seems odd to step away from that. I would think that a name would help you get into specifics.)


  3. While I don’t know of any compelling arguments for the existence of god, I also don’t know any compelling arguments for materialism. Challenges of this sort are just invitations to a pissing contest.


  4. And I don’t intend, at least right now, to engage in a pissing contest. Apart from anything else I’m exhausted while preparing subjects and research and grant applications. Moreover, I am not saying (and took care to not say) that the named individuals expect a free pass, but I find that no matter how careful one is about these matters, someone will take the worst possible interpretation, and then, when you deny that the interpretation is the one intended, you will be accused of being a coward, or a liar.

    Here’s one bad argument that I have encountered. Some portion of a religious tradition are absurd or extremist. This position is then (rightly) demolished. The implication is then made that this somehow undercuts all religion (although, if you read carefully, that is not what is said, so there is plausible deniability). This is a mix of the strawman fallacy, the fallacy of composition, and the black and white fallacy, not to mention the fallacy of false implication. I think that is a bad argument, and the fact that I happen to agree with the position actually argued for doesn’t mean I will accept these fallacies.

    But I do not intend to get into textual analysis right now. If you don’t find that argument being made anywhere, fine. I do not care enough to argue.


  5. I just got a sick feeling when I read Larry Morans piece a moment ago. I dont think the Huffpo article was particularly great either but for diffrent reasons.

    This debate will just not move on. Its a dead parrot firmly nailed to its perch. It seems pointless making any further comments with regard to it.

    You just have to hope that credible research coming from biology with regard to culture and belief is not dragged into the toilet along with this mess.

    I certianly don’t read as much material from biology or the sciences as I should due to the incredibly political tone of sections of the community and the effect it has on some of the research on culture.


  6. John, let me just point out that you have already accused Dawkins of impersonating a philosopher and Dawkins, Hitchens, and Mheorss of perpetrating bad arguments. This seems an odd way of not beginning a pissing contest. Better to make no accusations than to make them and then refuse to back them up.

    As for sbej, I’m unable to discern what you’re complaining about, or why.


    1. John H., I wonder if you can identify this recent, but slightly disguised quotation?

      …their arguments are much weakened by their lack of knowledge of modern _X_. It seems easy for them to knock down the strawman version of _Y_ that they don’t believe in.

      What do you think? Was that some accomodationist taking gnu atheists to task with X being “theological thinking” and Y being “religion”? Or was it perhaps Larry Moran taking creationists to task with X being “evolutionary theory”, and Y being “evolution”?

      It was Moran, and to his credit, he named names. As a card-carrying accomodationist, I suppose I should name a gnu atheist who has made a bad (i. e. ignorant attack on religion). So I will. Check out the last paragraph of Jerry Coyne’s Sept 25 blog posting entitled “CfI declares war on atheists”. If you don’t see what is ignorant about that attack, find my comment (#30). And then compare what Coyne did with what Moran (quite properly) attacks Stephen Meyer for doing.

      It is a minor point, but you were demanding an example of some sin attributable to the saintly gnus.


      1. Actually, I wasn’t asking for an example of some sin, but of a bad argument that attempts to refute an argument for the existence of god.


      2. Some examples I see frequently are listed here. 🙂

        More seriously, one that I find rather absurd is given by Victor Stenger in his God: The Failed Hypothesis. Basically, if there were a God, that entity should be observable by science. God is not observable by science. Therefore God does not exist. [See chapter one in total]

        Now this assumes as a condition of the argument that the actions of a God are empirically distinct from ordinary causal processes. That is, if we saw a stone roll away from physical reasons (say, an earthquake) and for divine reasons (say, to show the empty tomb) that we could tell them apart. This may indeed be what some theists say, but for a very long time it is not what all theists say (consider Baden Powell and Richard Whately’s campaign against this view in the early 19thC).

        So if Stenger uses modus tollens to show that God doesn’t exist (even if he adds some likelihood qualifications) he is simply making a bad argument. And yet, Dawkins, Moran, Myers and others have all praised this book and its central argument. It is a simple strawman. Stenger does not show that science shows that a certain kind of God does not exist – to wit, the God of popular theism in the south of the USA – he says that God (unqualified) does not exist. Moreover, he uses argument from consequence (pp245-250) and so on. And of course he, like Dawkins, slides from “that kind of God, as worshipped by the masses, doesn’t exist” to the implication, which he constantly makes though he qualifies it, to “God does not exist” simpliciter. The tactic they both use is “the God actually worshipped by the folk is what matters, not abstract Gods”, and yet theology deals exactly with those abstract gods. You might as well assert that because ordinary folk drive badly, cars cannot be driven well, and close down Formula One racing.

        There’s one example. I won’t spend any more time on this as I don’t have it right now.


      3. John,

        Thanks for providing an example. I would have to dig deeper to find if it’s a legitimate example. And I’ll refrain from asking any more questions since you seem anxious to dispense with the subject. Still, I’m not sure. We can agree that there is no way to decide whether a completely undetectable god exists, just as there is no way to decide that there is no bowl of petunias in Jupiter’s leading Trojan. I do wonder, though, if a completely undetectable god really is the sort that these sophisticated theologians are advocating. If they are, I fail to see the point in doing so. While we can’t say he doesn’t exist, we also can have no rational reason for believing he does. If it’s all about the promises of afterlife and such, I could as easily postulate that the hypothetical bowl of petunias makes identical promises, but I don’t see that as a reason to take the petunia hypothesis seriously.


        1. First off, you concede my point in continuing to argue philosophically. Second, this is not about whether or not a God belief is warranted by empirical data; I take it that all involved in this particular debate agree on that, including those “abstract theologians” Stenger and Dawkins think are unimportant. The question is whether, given that God is empirically undersupported, one is entitled to assert that God does not exist.

          Consider what this would imply. It would mean that we had no reason to think there were things that we do not yet know about, because we have not yet had empirical support for them. In short, it would mean that science would stop dead. You can’t use past experience as a guide: maybe we really have found everything to be found. So science is in exactly the same epistemic position if you take this line as religion: it is highly vulnerable to the next unexpected discovery (and it is this line, called the “pessimistic metainduction” that some use to argue that all science we now have is literally false).

          I know what you want to argue: that science (and experience) fails to deliver reason to think there is a God. That may be true (I think so). But does that mean we are warranted in claiming that there is no God? Can we reason from [NOT(we have evidence of God)] to [We have evidence of NOT God]? That move is, I think, a logical mistake.


      4. I’m not sure what I have admitted to, but if you say you just won, then I’m OK with that. I reject all your subsequent reasoning, and will specify why if you want to continue this non-pissing non-match.


      5. John Harshman – I’d welcome further explanation of your rejection of John Wilkins’ view of what is at issue; i.e, “whether, given that God is empirically undersupported, one is entitled to assert that God does not exist,” or maybe what you reject is what he says an affirmative answer implies for science.
        For myself, I accept his framing of the question at issue. This is a question that is worth exploring. It isn’t a request for an argument for the existence of god, and certainly not a request for evidence of a god. These are invitations to a mug’s game, a pissing contest.
        But I’m not persuaded that an affirmative judgment to the question in question implies that we couldn’t have empirical support for a belief that as yet undiscovered empirical phenomena are “out there.”
        So I’ll also ask John Wilkins to elaborate a bit.


      6. John, is it OK to say Not(evidence of God) allows a tentative conclusion that there’s no reason to believe God exists?


        1. I would say that an absence of evidence here counts in the abstract as reason to think there is absence. But only if the scope of alternative views is so constrained that evidence, if there were any, would be the only reason for thinking that God exists. Suppose there are other reasons (Pascal’s “reasons of the heart”, or revelation or authority). The lack of evidence of an empirical kind would be insufficient to reject the existence of God.

          Now if you come at this without a prior commitment to cardiac reasons, revelation or the authority of tradition, then the lack of empirical evidence is sufficient to eliminate the probability of a deity, and so undermines that belief. But if you do think these are weighty reasons, the lack of evidence is not determinative.

          This is a matter of Bayesian priors (although I must immediately say, not of the kind used to evaluate competing scientific hypotheses, because the priors are not shared between the disputants); how you read the lack of evidence of an empirical kind depends on what you count as evidence at all.

          I do come at this from a similar position to John, except that I do not think that we are ever in a position to employ only scientific reasoning and evidence in these questions, however close we may get to it. So I think that, personally, the lack of evidence indicates that no God whose existence implies there should be evidence is tenable. That’s why I am an atheist about Thor, YHWH and Xenu. But unlike John, I do not think that is the only serious or salient kind of deity, and so Gods whose existence does not imply empirical evidence remain tenable. Epicurus’, Spinoza’s, Tillich’s and Einstein’s deities, and the deities of a good many Christian, Jewish and Muslim theologians, remain tenable.


      7. I do not think that is the only serious or salient kind of deity
        Well, if it’s salient, it must jump out at you. I can’t see how Spinoza’s Deus sive Natura could be said to jump out at you, it seems to be a synonym for the universe. As for refined theologians, their God does not jumping to speak of…..

        I agree with your argument, though being a ridiculously cock-sure, strident, half-witted, gnu atheist, you’d expect nothing less than a few quibbles, one being that how does one epistemically distinguish between revelation or religious experience and psychosis? Are we locking up and drugging modern day Muhhamed’s and Paul’s instead of venerating them?

        For these types of thingy’s to be justified or class as knowledge, there must be some sense to do the perceiving, a sense denied to you and I by an nasty deity I suppose. Or is it just a case of knowledge doesn’t have to be true belief? I’d say that those priors (revelation, personal experience) of a believer are not justified, in view of our modern understanding of the brain and psychology, whereas they might argue they are justified. Perhaps it’s not knowledge, but justified belief?


        1. It’s salient to theologians and those who discuss these matters. And if Epicurus’ deity isn’t salient, which has Epicurus been so demonised by the traditional theists? Clearly they think it salient. Salience is a property of context and expectation, not some objective fact about things.

          As to the psychopathology of religion; I guess you have the same problem as you do when distinguishing between sociopathy and philosophical egoism. One form is pathological and the other isn’t, according to whatever criteria we find useful.

          Without begging the question, you can’t eliminate the theists’ claims of a “moral sense”, and “inner voice”, a “vocatio”, and so on. In Romans, Paul says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities?his eternal power and divine nature?have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” [Rom 1:20]

          Now I don’t think that these qualities are clearly seen; certainly not by me. But they do, and unless I can show that this is somehow an incoherent position, which I really can’t (at best I can say that it is unnecessary and possibly implausible), I am not in a position to rule it out as a reasonable class of phenomena to address. Of course, having addressed it I dismiss it as not having the epistemic weight I require of my beliefs. They, however, do not, and that is the point.

          As to what counts as knowledge, well I am an unreconstructed pragmatist, so I don’t think that we can easily demarcate there. I know knowledge when I see it of course, but I can’t give you easy differentia. Even reliability and pragmatic success don’t eliminate religious belief.


      8. Well, I ignored Epicuris’ deity on the grounds that ignorant types do, ignore things. Also, I only riffed on the word salient because I like it’s etymology, to spring, not because I had anything profound to say. I was imagining deities springing from the firmament and enjoying the thought.

        I find nothing to quibble with in your response. You know your stuff, as far as this wanna-be gadfly can tell. It’s a pickle, there’s just no point where I can say, you’re wrong, nyah! nyah! (not to you, but to certain theists who claim knowledge and want to impinge on others based on that claimed knowledge.), only that I think you’re wrong. There’s seems an asymmetry here, as those types seem to have no doubt as to their ability to claim I’m wrong and with certitude.

        I find myself less, and less sure of my gnu atheism, thus like all believers faltering in faith, I must scream loudly about the fundamentals of gnu atheism and start an inquisition. Now what were those fundamentals? Better still, what are the fundamentals of gnu agnosticism? Oh stuff it, it’s Friday and I need a beer.

        Thanks for you wisdom, sagely simian.


      9. Sorry, in Melbourne. Not sure the missus would let me skip minding the baby to meet a strange philosopher in any case. 🙂


      10. Well, for a person who lacks both time and inclination you have certainly made a great number of long replies. I think you have introduced several new matters into the discussion. Being ignorant of philosophy and theology, I don’t understand what, e.g., Epicurus’ god is like. But I gather he was undetectable, and therefore perhaps not salient, if I understand what you mean by that new term. I suspect religious types hate that god exactly because it isn’t salient; they hate the atheists’ non-god even more, after all. So that’s no argument for salience.

        We are apparently in no disagreement on what sorts of gods can be ruled out: those that would have detectable effects, since we have not detected those effects. You seem to waffle a bit on whether revelation, religious experience, and such can be considered effects. And it does seem that the more we have empirical evidence that such effects can be produced by non-divine causes, the less reason we have to credit them. Mutually contradictory revelations also tend to discredit that sort of evidence.

        You raise a question of basic epistemology. Certainly that can be central to the issue. There is no possibility for dialogue between people who disagree on basic epistemology, so I see no point in bothering with it. We both agree, apparently, that empiricism beats revelation, so we can have a discussion, and I’m certainly interested only in theology that accepts that epistemological principle, there being no way to discuss any other sort.

        So, having agreed on epistemology and on what can be dismissed based on evidence, we are left with the question of what sorts of god would be both unfalsified and interesting (or important, if you like; or salient, even). Can you perhaps describe the sort of god that some brilliant and sophisticated theologian is arguing for? And, since this all began with arguments for the existence of god, which remains the chief point of contention, we can’t help but return to the question of what arguments there are for the existence of this particular sophisticated, salient, funfilled god. That is, once again, what god are these gnu atheists failing to take into account that they should? (Remember that I’m ignorant, and will not be satisfied by a one-word reference; I need an actual description.) I’m presuming that you aren’t merely arguing that we should consider all conceivable gods, or we’ll be here forever. There is no reason to take the Flying Spaghetti Monster seriously (Are we agreed?), but why are any of these other gods of the theologians more worthy of our attention? Or to put it another way, if we can reasonably disbelieve in the FSM, why shouldn’t we reasonably disbelieve in the others?


  7. Well Ive got nothing more to say about N.A’s now or in the future. So no more in-discernable comments from me on the subject.

    When things get to the standards you expect from something like the daily mail you begin to discern it is not worth bothering with.


  8. Me, I’m a gnu solipsist, at least for the next couple minutes. So I’m issuing a challenge to one and all. Present an argument for the existence of the external world. And don’t hide behind subtleties. (And even though you’re a figment of my fevered imagination, I’ll recommend that you stand with the wind to your back so you don’t get any on your shoes.)


    1. Check with Dr. Johnson. “I refute it thus”. You receive stimuli (such as this message) that are most simply interpreted as indicating that the message exists, your computer exists, I exist, and the rest of the world exists. There are other hypotheses consistent with the data (the Matrix, your fevered imagination, etc.) and you are free to entertain them if you want, but they don’t lead anywhere. Anyway, while my imagination might be up to the job, I don’t think yours is. Best to postulate that there is a world.


    1. You are not quite as clever as you imagine you are. In fact, nobody is. But, on the bright side, you are living your solipsism quite nicely, in that you are successful in conveying the impression that you don’t think other people exist.

      And you may consider learning how to reply. (I mean that both in the sense of conveying information and in the sense of clicking on the right button on your screen.)


    2. All your thoughts about the external world presuppose an external world. I think that’s how Searle’s transcendental argument for an external world goes.


      1. All your thoughts about the external world presuppose an external world.

        Oh dear. Does that imply that all my thoughts about the afterlife presuppose an afterlife?

        Actually, I wanted to respond to your talk above regarding whether we need to have a supernatural soul to even care whether God exists. I’m not sure that is the case. Imagine that “soul” simply denotes the information and algorithmic content of the brain. A good monist can believe in this kind of soul. And a monist who also believes in a supernatural deity can certainly imagine that the deity can copy the soul and then embed it in a different medium (or same medium in a different universe) so as to provide an afterlife. Monism regarding this world is not sufficient inoculation against belief in something “beyond this world”.

        And no, John H., if you are still out there. I don’t think there is any evidence providing reason to believe in this scenario.


      2. Oh dear. Does that imply that all my thoughts about the afterlife presuppose an afterlife?

        Several times you’ve pulled me up on my flippant comments. I cannot decide whether you are autistic or something worse. Seriously, I make off hand comments, usually to John, and you arc up. Perhaps I’m the autistic one, who can’t see humour in your comments. Though I do believe it’s you who mistakes self-deprecating piss take comments for something else. In any case, it’s tools like you who make the internet a bore. You just have to throw your hands up and remember, that tools like you matter not one bit.


  9. “I cannot decide whether you are autistic or something worse. ”

    Probably more than a few of us “suffer” with mild forms of Asperger’s syndrome. Take my own efforts to be “simple” which, due to my clumsy execution, are mistaken for efforts to be “clever.”


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