Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Cliodynamics and the science of history

Here is an interesting talk by Peter Turchin at the Beyond Belief III conference. He argues for a science of history - claims about history that can be tested and rejected by testing hypothesis. Some of it is already done - but he is referring to claims regarding large historical patterns - like for example the rise and fall of empires. It would be interesting to see if some lessons from astronomy can also be applied - after all, we also deal primarily with events that have already happened - except that astronomical objects, unlike humans, follow physical laws that are much better understood.

Here, Peter Turchin is talking about cliodynamics - I will let him explain that himself (you can also download a pdf of his recent Nature essay here):

Empires rise and fall, populations and economies boom and bust, world religions spread or wither... What are the mechanisms underlying such dynamical processes in history? Are there 'laws of history'? We do not lack hypotheses to investigate - to take just one instance, more than two hundred explanations have been proposed for why the Roman Empire fell. But we still don't know which of these hypotheses are plausible, and which should be rejected. More importantly, there is no consensus on what general mechanisms explain the collapse of historical empires. What is needed is a systematic application of the scientific method to history: verbal theories should be translated into mathematical models, precise predictions derived, and then rigorously tested on empirical material. In short, history needs to become an analytical, predictive science (see my essay Arise cliodynamics in the sidebar)

Cliodynamics (from Clio, the muse of history, and dynamics, the study of temporally varying processes) is the new transdisciplinary area of research at the intersection of historical macrosociology, economic history/cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Mathematical approaches - modeling historical processes with differential equations or agent-based simulations; sophisticated statistical approaches to data analysis - are a key ingredient in the cliodynamic research program (see "Why do we need mathematical history?" in the side bar). But ultimately the aim is to discover general principles that explain the functioning and dynamics of actual historical societies.

It is interesting to see Ibn Khaldun's work on social cohesion (Asabiyyah) and on the rise and fall of empires show up in his talk. He also brings up religion at the end as a possible social glue that allowed empires to grow for the first time between 800 and 200BC, and the period of prophets and philosophers (coined the Axial Age by Karl Jaspers). Peter is explicit in saying that he is not talking about the supernatural component of religion, but rather its emphasis of social integration. An interesting idea and merges nicely with the some of the work that David Sloan Wilson has been doing (see the video of his lecture at Hampshire College here).

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Life and death of a star in six minutes

Here is a cool short video showing the birth and death of a sun-like star (G-type). Basically, it is compressing 10 billion years into 6 minutes! It would have been really cool if they had shown time at the bottom (as some stages last much longer than others - like the current state of the Sun - but they have all been treated evenly here. Ok - I should stop nit-picking on the video). Enjoy! (tip from Open Culture):

Monday, December 29, 2008

Who can go to heaven?

Creationists have given US a really bad reputation - and deservedly so (especially now that it has been able to export it to other countries so successfully). But here is a positive and tolerant side of the US population that needs to be highlighted (click on the image on the right to see the histograms clearly):

In June, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a controversial survey in which 70 percent of Americans said that they believed religions other than theirs could lead to eternal life.

This threw evangelicals into a tizzy. After all, the Bible makes it clear that heaven is a velvet-roped V.I.P. area reserved for Christians. Jesus said so: “I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” But the survey suggested that Americans just weren’t buying that.

The evangelicals complained that people must not have understood the question. The respondents couldn’t actually believe what they were saying, could they?

So in August, Pew asked the question again. (They released the results last week.) Sixty-five percent of respondents said — again — that other religions could lead to eternal life. But this time, to clear up any confusion, Pew asked them to specify which religions. The respondents essentially said all of them.

And they didn’t stop there. Nearly half also thought that atheists could go to heaven — dragged there kicking and screaming, no doubt — and most thought that people with no religious faith also could go.

And here is one possible explanation:
One very plausible explanation is that Americans just want good things to come to good people, regardless of their faith. As Alan Segal, a professor of religion at Barnard College told me: “We are a multicultural society, and people expect this American life to continue the same way in heaven.” He explained that in our society, we meet so many good people of different faiths that it’s hard for us to imagine God letting them go to hell. In fact, in the most recent survey, Pew asked people what they thought determined whether a person would achieve eternal life. Nearly as many Christians said you could achieve eternal life by just being a good person as said that you had to believe in Jesus.
It's great to see tolerance emerging out multi-cultural encounters. Now if we can only get the Vatican and Saudi Arabia to move to New York for a few years - things may improve quite a bit (or New York City itself may turn into hell) .

Read the full article here and here is the Pew report that gives a summary of the findings.

Friday, December 26, 2008

God and philosophers III: The Fine-tuning Argument

This is a continuation of an excellent article in Boston Review by Alex Byrne. Earlier I had included his analysis of the Ontological argument and the Design argument. Here he continues with a sub-category of the Design argument - the fine-tuning arguments. This comes up a lot in Q&A after public lectures dealing with cosmology or just science & religion. Why does the universe have laws that seem to be so fine-tuned for the existence of life? Paul Davies recently addressed this in our Hampshire College lecture series on Science & Religion. Alex Byrne here presents a fine analysis of the argument, including a critique of the mutiverse explanation for the laws of our universe (see also Paul Davies' lecture).

The version of the design argument on which Paley rests his case begins with certain features of organisms. Other versions start from the observation, in Hume’s phrase, that the entire universe is “one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines.” And one of these other versions has received a great deal of attention in the recent philosophical literature: the so-called fine-tuning argument. The fine-tuning argument is also in Natural Theology, although Paley is not usually credited in contemporary discussions. There are, Paley says, an “infinite number of possible laws” that could have governed material objects (in particular, the heavenly bodies), and out of “a boundless variety of suppositions which were equally possible,” and despite “a thousand chances against conveniency,” the laws that do in fact obtain are “beneficial.” The universe, in other words, is fine-tuned for life. The remarkable fact that the universe is so hospitable needs an explanation, and isn’t the hypothesis of a designer the best one?

One might object that explanation has to stop somewhere. The eye is not a credible candidate for a stopping point, but perhaps the basic physical laws are the sorts of things that have no explanation. If so, the fine-tuning argument does not get started. But let us (perhaps generously) admit that an explanation is required: why, we may ask, is the universe apparently made for life?

The fine-tuning argument did not appear in Darwin’s Black Box, but it has a starring role in Behe’s latest book, The Edge of Evolution. One of the most extensive discussions of the argument in the philosophical literature is John Leslie’s Universes, and—as the title hints—a rival explanation of fine-tuning is that our universe is only one of many universes, just as our sun is a single twinkle in the sidereal plenitude. If universes exist in “boundless variety,” each with a distinct set of basic physical laws, then the fact that the laws of our universe are “beneficial” would seem to be nothing to get excited about.

This “multiverse hypothesis” stands to the fine-tuning argument for God’s existence as Darwinism stands to Paley’s biological design argument: it is an alternative “no-design” explanation of the data. If the fundamental organizing principle of modern biology is pitted against a rival hypothesis that receives no serious consideration in professional journals, the outcome is not in doubt. But if the alternative to design is cosmological speculation (by philosophers, no less!), the contest looks to be back on a much more equal footing.

Dawkins, then, makes a significant concession when he turns in The God Delusion to the fine-tuning argument. He replies in exactly the same way he does to Paley, by arguing that the multiverse hypothesis should be preferred over the “God hypothesis,” because the former is considerably more “simple.” Well, maybe—but unlike the Darwinian reply to Paley’s argument, this point is eminently debatable. And in any case, the idea that the multiverse hypothesis could provide any kind of explanation of why our universe is fine-tuned is controversial.

Hume suggests a more convincing rebuttal. His two objections apply equally well to the fine-tuning argument for the existence of God. First, the fine-tuning argument is silent on the number and attributes of any designers. Further, it is quite unclear what the designer or designers could be like, which contrasts the fine-tuning argument unfavorably with the biological design argument. At least we may intelligibly hypothesize about the designers of the eye—perhaps a race of extraterrestrials visited the earth about half a billion years ago to manufacture the early prototypes. But if any sense can be made of agents creating the totality of space-time, it cannot be by comparison with familiar artisans like watchmakers, quilters, and pastry chefs, who do their work at particular times and places according to ordinary causal laws.

Hume’s second objection is that there is no reason to favor the (unspecific, and perhaps not even intelligible) design hypothesis over the (also unspecific) hypothesis that fine-tuning can be explained in some other way. How could we be in a position to rule out all the no-design alternatives? Hume sketchees a number of possibilities (including an ancient version of the multiverse hypothesis), of which perhaps the most interesting compares the structure of the universe to structures found in mathematics. The explanation of arithmetical structure, as any “skilful algebraist” will tell you, is not to be found either in “chance or design,” or the hypothesis of a multiplicity of other structures, but instead in the “nature of . . . numbers.” Likewise, perhaps “the whole economy of the universe is conducted by a like necessity, though no human algebra can furnish a key, which solves the difficulty.”

And I think Alex Byrne ends his article quite appropriately:

If a persuasive argument for the existence of God is wanted, then philosophy has come up empty. The traditional arguments have much to teach us, but concentrating on them can disguise a simple but important point. As Anselm and Paley both recognized, the devout are not exactly holding their collective breath. For the most part, they do not believe that God exists on the basis of any argument. How they know that God exists, if they do, is itself unknown—the devout do not know that God exists in the way it is known that dinosaurs existed, or that there exist infinitely many prime numbers. The funny thing about arguments for the existence of God is that, if they succeed, they were never needed in the first place.

Read the full article here.

God and philosophers II: The Design Argument

Here is the second part of the Boston Review article that focuses on the philosophical arguments for the existence of God (see the post about Ontological Argument here). Alex Byrne provides another excellent summary of the Design argument and objections associated with it. In particular, he does a great job of exposing problems with Intelligent Design and also the fine-tuning arguments (though there are subtle differences between the two and he points those out). Here is the full analysis of the Design argument:

Although the design argument can be traced to the ancient Greeks, it received one of its most careful and elaborate formulations from William Paley, an eighteenth-century English clergyman and philosopher, in his Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. That book was published in 1802, a few years before Paley’s death and more than half a century before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

Paley begins by contrasting the discovery of two objects while “crossing a heath”: a stone and a watch. The presence of the stone requires no explanation in terms of a designer—indeed, Paley supposes that the hypothesis that “it had lain there forever” might well be correct. The presence of the watch is another matter entirely, for on examination “we perceive—what we could not discover in the stone—that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day.” And the inference from these observed facts, Paley thinks, “is inevitable; that the watch must have had a maker.” Importantly, that is not because we know that watches are, in fact, usually the product of design: the conclusion, Paley says, would not be weakened if “we had never known an artist capable of making one.”

All that seems reasonable enough. The design argument that Paley then proceeds to give replaces the watch with terrestrial flora and fauna and their intricate parts. Paley—evidently a keen amateur naturalist—gives many examples, from the diverse mechanisms of seed dispersion to the tongue of the woodpecker, but his example of the eye is the one typically quoted. How could such a “complicated mechanism” have arisen, Paley asks, if not by the action of a designer? “In the human body, for instance, chance, i.e., the operation of causes without design, may produce a wen, a wart, a mole, a pimple, but never an eye.” In the case of the watch, the reasonable conclusion is that a designer produced it. And similarly, Paley thinks, in the case of the eye and other biological structures. Admittedly, we have no idea how the designer managed to construct the eye, and we have “never known an artist capable of making one.” As Paley says, however, these points of disanalogy do not seem to ruin the argument.

Unlike the ontological argument, the design argument is not supposed to prove God’s existence. Rather, it is an “inference to the best explanation,” like the inference that there are mice in the kitchen because this hypothesis best explains the missing cheese. The hypothesis of a designer is one of many possible “scientific explanations” of Paley’s watch on the heath, and similarly of the eye. The frequent complaint that intelligent design is “not science” (as opposed to “bad science”) only succeeds in muddying the waters.

An inference to the best explanation can be overturned by more evidence. Perhaps, on further investigation, it turns out that another hypothesis—say, that the au pair has been snacking in the early hours—is the best explanation of the missing cheese. And that is the standard reply to Paley: we now know that the best explanation of the apparent design of the eye is not “the hand of an artificer,” but Darwinian evolution. To borrow from the title of an earlier book by Dawkins, a blind watchmaker—the impersonal forces of natural selection—made the eye.

This reply crucially hinges on the assumption that modern biology can explain all instances of apparent design, and it is here that sophisticated proponents of intelligent design, most notoriously the biochemist Michael Behe, have seen an opportunity to dust off and burnish Paley’s argument.

In his first book, Darwin’s Black Box, Behe argues that while evolution by natural selection “might explain many things,” it cannot explain what he calls “irreducible complexity.” The notion is straight out of Paley, who writes of the watch that “if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or placed after any other manner or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it.” A watch is “irreducibly complex” in the sense that many of its main parts are essential to its proper functioning—remove the balance wheel, or the escapement, and all you have left is a paperweight. Irreducible complexity is everywhere in nature: Behe’s poster children are the blood-clotting system and the bacterial flagellum, but he also quotes Paley’s observation that “The heart, constituted as it is, can no more work without valves than a pump can.” According to Behe, a process of small step-by-step alterations of the sort found in natural selection is wildly unlikely to produce irreducibly complex systems.

Obviously it is a matter of great importance whether Behe’s criticism of the cornerstone of modern biology is correct. (For a clear explanation of why it isn’t, see H. Allen Orr’s review of Behe’s book in Boston Review, December 1996/January 1997.) But here the debate took a crucial turn too hastily: focusing attention on whether evolution by natural selection can explain the origin of the bacteriological flagellum is to obscure the fact that the design argument fails even if Behe is right.

David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (published posthumously in 1779) presented the key objections, more than twenty years before Natural Theology. Two of Hume’s objections are especially acute. First, if the argument works at all, its conclusion is much weaker than might have been hoped. The argument does not indicate anything about what the designer is like: whether it is benevolent or a suitable object of worship. Even the intelligence of the designer is up for grabs—terrestrial biology might be the product of long trial and error, with the designer’s many previous attempts “botched and bungled.” Or perhaps the designer is “a stupid mechanic,” who imitated other much cleverer designers who practiced their art in far-off galaxies. Further, the designer could have died long ago—the eye and such might have been “the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity.” And finally, since the design of something complicated is usually a collective endeavor—“A great number of men join in . . . framing a commonwealth,” for example—we can hardly presume that there was exactly one designer. At best, the design argument shows that some designer or designers, whose motives, talents, and present whereabouts are all unknown, existed at some time. The proponent of the argument is at liberty afterwards “to fix every point of his theology, by the utmost license of fancy and hypothesis.” Perhaps life on Earth was designed over millions of years by successive committees of incompetent and thoroughly despicable space aliens, who are now fortunately all dead.

Paley had read Hume, and he tries to reply to this objection. Paley concedes that if the design argument simply concerns individual biological structures like the eye, then the proper conclusion is indeed weak: “there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers.” However, he thinks a more careful study of the biological world as a whole reveals that there is exactly one designer (or at any rate one chief architect), who possesses the usual divine attributes. But Paley’s arguments on this score are feeble. He notes the general similarities in the body-plans of animals, and concludes that this “bespeaks the same creation and the same Creator,” forgetting Hume’s point that multiple designers can act in concert, or that one designer can pick up where another left off. And in support of the goodness of the deity, Paley declares, “It is a happy world after all.” Rural England is, anyway: “A bee amongst the flowers in spring is one of the cheerfullest objects that can be looked upon.” A more plausible theological conjecture is the remark attributed to the biologist J. B. S. Haldane, that the creator had “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

Hume’s first objection is that the design argument can only establish the existence of at least one designer. His second objection is that the argument does not establish even this much. Paley claims that the evidence points to the conclusion that, by means entirely unknown, the biological world is the product of design. But why favor this over the hypothesis that, also by means entirely unknown, flora and fauna were produced by, as Paley puts it, “the operation of causes without design”?

As Paley himself emphasizes, his initial watch analogy is far from perfect: watches, unlike organisms, do not reproduce. The eye has not been found lying on its own on the heath, but in the bodies of countless creatures and their ancestors. And offspring differ in various ways from their parents. So one possibility is that the operation of causes without design, operating over “a hundred millions of years,” somehow allows, after numerous generations, a “round ball” to “acquire wings,” eyes, and so forth. Paley’s strategy for dismissing no-design alternatives wholesale is to object to the specific evolutionary theories of his day (for instance that of Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s grandfather). But this is rather like saying that because this apple and that pear are rotten, vegetables are better than fruit. What Paley needs is an argument for choosing the general hypothesis of an unknown designer or designers operating by unknown means over the general hypothesis of an unknown blind process operating by unknown means, and he signally fails to supply one.

An example that briefly appears in Darwin’s Black Box nicely illustrates the point. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, a magnetic anomaly in one of the moon’s craters leads to the discovery of a perfectly regular slab buried under lunar soil. The characters have no idea how the slab was constructed, or what it is for, and have never known an artist capable of making one; nevertheless they reasonably conclude that it was designed. But that is precisely because the characters are not in Paley’s position. They know enough about lunar geology, astronomy, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life to discredit the rival hypothesis that the monolith is a natural object (a big crystal, say) that formed on the moon or collided with it. Paley, on the other hand, had no reason, other than the failure of his imagination, to dismiss the hypothesis of “causes without design.”

Darwin’s Black Box exactly recapitulates Paley’s mistake. “Might there,” Behe asks after he has disposed of Darwin’s theory, “be an as-yet-undiscovered natural process that would explain biochemical complexity?” Assuming for the sake of the argument that Darwinism is false, Behe is surely right that “if there is such a process, no one has a clue how it would work.” But of course that is quite different from saying that there is no such process. Moreover, intelligent design is in the very same boat: if there is such a process, no one has a clue how it would work either. Why is one mysterious unknown process to be favored over another? After all, as Behe clearly brings out, biochemistry is fantastically baroque, with many unanswered questions and unsolved problems.

Read the full article here. I will include the fine-tuning arguments in the next post.

God and philosophers I: The Ontological Argument

When Laura Sizer and I teach History and Philosophy of Science & Religion, we use Thomas Aquinas' five ways of proving God's existence as the starting point of our conversation. It allows us to talk about cosmology and the First Cause arguments, evolution and the Design arguments, and it also allows us to discuss the problem of miracles. However, we usually skip the Ontological argument - even though it is really fun to think about. So here is an excellent article in Boston review that provides a nice primer for the Ontological argument and also the argument from design. If you have any remote interest in the philosophical underpinnings of these arguments, this will be an excellent place to start:

The traditional arguments for God’s existence are very much worth our attention, though, for at least three reasons: they are of great intrinsic interest; popular discussions of them often fail to pin down their defects; and one argument, the “design argument,” has had a new lease on life as the intellectual underpinning of the intelligent design movement.

Before turning to some of the arguments, who or what is God supposed to be? Zeus, Thor, Ganesh? Alternatively, the depersonalized Deus sive natura (God or nature) that got Spinoza excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Jewish congregation? The philosophical literature focuses on the God of the Abrahamic tradition: a person who is all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful. Is there any reason to think that God, so conceived, exists?

Arguments for the existence of God are usually divided into those whose premises may be known from the armchair, and those whose premises are the result of experiment and observation. The best-known armchair argument is called (following Kant’s unhelpful terminology) the “ontological argument,” while the design argument (also called the “teleological argument”) is the main representative of empirical arguments. Let us start from the armchair.

Here is the full analysis of the Ontological Argument:

The ontological argument was first developed by the eleventh-century monk St. Anselm, who spent his formative years at Bec Abbey in Normandy and later became Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm was a central figure in early scholasticism, which brought the logical and metaphysical apparatus of Aristotelianism to bear on the interpretation of Christian texts.

In chapter two of his Proslogion (“Address”), Anselm considers the Fool of Psalm 14, who “hath said in his heart: There is no God.” Anselm argues that the Fool’s position is self-undermining: the very act of denying that God exists shows that God does exist. It is as if the Fool were to say, very foolishly, “I am not speaking.”

God, Anselm says, is a perfect being, “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.” We may assume that any ignorance or malice or feebleness detracts from greatness, so Anselm’s God is all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful. Just for simplicity, let us also assume that there could be at most one perfect being, so Anselm’s God is unique. Anselm then draws a distinction between “existing in the mind” (or “in thought,” or “in the understanding”) and “existing in reality.” When a painter intends to paint a picture of, say, a dragon, the picture, and the dragon, exist in his mind but not in reality. When he has finished putting paint on canvas, the picture, but not the dragon, also exists in reality. Dragons—as opposed to pictures of dragons, or the word “dragon”—exist only in the mind. Conversely, there are many things that exist only in reality: a certain rock at the bottom of the Pacific, say, which no one has ever seen.

Having explained this distinction, Anselm observes that the Fool must admit that God exists in his mind, just as the Fool must admit that a dragon exists in the painter’s mind. Dragons, of course, exist only in the mind. The Fool will say the same of God. Anselm thinks the Fool can be hoisted by his own petard.

Here we come to the crucial step in Anselm’s argument. An entity that exists only in the mind, he thinks, is not as great—not so perfect—as one that exists in reality. I imagine a dry martini: unfortunately it exists only in my mind. You imagine a martini, shake the gin and vermouth, and add the olive: happily for you, the martini exists both in your mind and in reality. According to Anselm, the martini that exists only in the mind is less perfect than the martini that also exists in reality—and after a long day at the office, this can sound quite convincing. Similarly, a being that only exists in the Fool’s mind is not as perfect as one that also exists in reality. So if God exists only in the Fool’s mind, the Fool is not thinking of a perfect being, because a perfect being also exists in reality. Equivalently: if the Fool is thinking of a perfect being, then God exists in reality. The very existence of atheists, Anselm concludes, shows that “something than which greater cannot be conceived undoubtedly exists both in the mind and in reality.”

Still, the ontological argument may be an exception to the rule. A more urgent cause for concern was given by Gaunilo, an elderly monk at an abbey a few days ride from Bec. In his In Behalf of the Fool, Gaunilo considers an island than which no greater island can be conceived, “abundantly filled with inestimable riches.” (Dennett alludes obliquely to Gaunilo when he asks his reader to consider “the most perfect ice-cream sundae.”) Presumably an island that exists only in the mind is not as great as a similar island that also exists in reality. But then Anselm’s reasoning proceeds just as well, and we can conclude that a perfect island exists, which is absurd. We know a great deal about islands, and although some of them are undoubtedly very agreeable, improvement is always possible.

Gaunilo’s objection is that the argument proves too much; something must be wrong, but Gaunilo doesn’t tell us what. So what is wrong with it?

The first thing to note is that Anselm’s talk of “existing in reality” and “existing in the mind” is misleading. Possums exist in Australia and New Zealand, but not in Antarctica. If “existing in reality” were like “existing in Australia,” then there might be some other realm distinct from reality where things exist. But that’s wrong: if something exists anywhere at all, it exists “in reality,” because to exist in reality is simply to exist, period. Similarly, if “existing in the mind” were like “existing in New Zealand,” then if dragons exist in the mind then they must exist. But there are no such creatures—dragons do not exist. The observation that dragons exist in the mind but not in reality is, then, better stated as follows: people think of dragons, but dragons do not exist.

Let us return now to the assumption that Anselm tries to reduce to absurdity: that a perfect being exists only in the Fool’s mind. Unpacked, the assumption is this: (a) the Fool is thinking of a perfect being, and (b) no perfect being exists—that is, in a complete inventory of reality, we will not find a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.

So the crucial step in Anselm’s argument is this: if (b) is true, and no perfect being exists, then (a) must be false—the Fool is not thinking of a perfect being, because a perfect being has, among its other perfect-making properties or features, existence. Put the other way round: if (a) is true—if the Fool is genuinely thinking of a perfect being—then (b) must be false, and so God, the perfect being, exists.

Both Dawkins and Hitchens suggest that Kant uncovered Anselm’s mistake—and Kant certainly had an influential objection. In his Critique of Pure Reason he claims that “‘Being’ is evidently not a real predicate,” by which he means that existence is not a property or a feature of a thing. To say that dragons are green, or scaly, or ferocious, is to attribute certain properties or features to dragons. To say that dragons exist is not to attribute yet another property to them, it is simply to say that there are dragons. And if existence is not a property or feature of things, Anselm’s argument fails: a perfect being has all the perfections, including the properties of being all-good and all-knowing, but not including the property of existing, simply because there is no such property.

Kant is on to something here. If existence is a property of things, it is a rather peculiar one: you can find a blue marble, and also a non-blue marble (a red one, say), but you cannot find a nonexistent marble—a marble that lacks the property of existing. Of course, that does not mean Kant is right: a peculiar property is still a property. And in fact, according to many philosophers, Kant is wrong: existence is indeed a property, albeit a very undiscriminating one, because everything has it.

A better objection to Anselm’s argument is that he has conflated two readings of “The Fool is thinking of a perfect being.” Compare “J. R. R. Tolkien is thinking of a scaly existing dragon,” which can be read in two ways. On one reading, this sentence can be more perspicuously rendered as, “There is a scaly existing dragon, and Tolkien is thinking about it.” On that reading, the sentence is true only if at least one scaly dragon exists. But on the second, more natural reading, “Tolkien is thinking of a scaly existing dragon” can be true even if dragons do not exist. Let us ask the man himself: “Hey, Tolkien, what are you thinking about?” He replies: “I am thinking about a dragon.” “Oh, I see, you are thinking about an imaginary dragon.” “No, I am thinking about a real flesh-and-blood dragon.” Tolkien was not a postmodernist whose novels are populated with paradoxical, metaphysically insubstantial, nonexistent dragons—he wrote and thought about existing dragons. But for all that, dragons do not exist.

Now there is a similar ambiguity for “The Fool is thinking of a perfect being.” On one reading, it means, “There is a perfect being, and the Fool is thinking about it.” On the other reading, it simply characterizes the Fool’s thought: the Fool is thinking of a perfect being in the innocuous sense in which Tolkien is thinking of a scaly existing dragon.

Anselm is thus caught in dilemma. What is the intended reading of (a), “The Fool is thinking of a perfect being”? If it is “There is a perfect being, and the Fool is thinking about it,” then God’s existence immediately follows. However, Anselm has given us no reason at all to suppose that, on this reading, (a) is true, because he has not already shown us that there is a perfect being. On the alternative reading, where (a) is read as simply characterizing the Fool’s thought, we may grant that (a) is true, but it is perfectly consistent with a Godless universe.

There are other versions of the ontological argument, and the exact interpretation of the argument in chapter two of the Proslogion is a matter of dispute. Descartes offered an Anselm-inspired argument in his Meditations (it was this version that Kant criticized), and other variants can be found in Anselm’s own writings. These arguments have been subject to elaboration and repair at the hands of contemporary philosophers, Plantinga included. Graham Oppy’s Ontological Arguments and Belief in God is an exhaustive survey. However, although this work has produced much enlightenment about topics of interest to metaphysicians, it is pretty clear that a philosopher in search of God has to rise from the armchair.

Read the full article here. The followup post will be on the Design Argument.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas lecture by Carl Sagan

This is part of the Royal Institution Christmas lectures delivered by Carl Sagan in 1977. It is incredible to see those fuzzy pictures of Jupiter's moons - we have now been completely spoiled by Voyager and more recently by images from the Galileo spacecraft. In any case, here is the first part of the first lecture (tip Cosmic log). It is great to see a number of young kids in the audience - don't know how many ended up being astronomers. Enjoy!

Here are links to the other parts of the first lecture: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, and part 6 (why not put all of them in one link??)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Internet and the spread of Islamic Creationism

Here is an interesting paper by Martin Riexinger: Propagating Islamic Creationism on the internet. He provides a nice context for the rise of creationism in Turkey - and the dominant role of culture and politics in the opposition to evolution. Here is the abstract:
Although negative reactions accompanied the reception of Darwinism in the Islamic World from the beginning, a full fledged Islamic creationist movement did not appear before the 1970s. Originally it was restricted to Turkey, where Islamic groups attempted to undermine the materialist foundation of Marxism and Kemalism. From the late 1990s onwards the subject became popular among Muslims in the diaspora. This was due to the efforts of Adnan Oktar alias Harun Yahya, a hitherto marginal figure in Turkey, to propagate his ideas via the Internet. The Internet allows him to adapt his propaganda constantly to new issues and creationist and anti-creationist publications and to recruit volunteers willing to translate his books. Thanks to the combination of a neglected subject with the innovative use of new media Oktar gained the opinion leadership in this field. Even movements, the founders of which had attacked Darwinism, now refer to Oktar as main authority on this issue. However, he failed to gain an equal degree of attention for topics like conspiracy theories and eschatology. In these fields he had to compete with a bulk of existing material in conventional media. The success of his former disciple Mustafa Akyol shows that using the Internet as main means of propaganda may restrict the political impact. He became the chief Muslim ally of Christian creationists in the USA by managing to get published by respectable “old media”. For him the Internet only fulfils an auxiliary function.
Regarding Harun Yahya's impact, Martin points out an interesting distinction between Turkish and non-Turkish audience:

In Turkey itself Harun Yahya's ideas are primarily promoted by other media than the Internet. Öztürkler, a Turkish educationist who has analysed the impact of Islamic creationist ideas on the educational system, shows that lise (high-school) students who object to Darwinism have derived their ideas from his books and video-CDs.[29]

With regard to his international audience the picture changes considerably. Links to his websites are to be found on a broad array of web-pages. Organisations dedicated to the "Islamisation of Knowledge" refer to his websites to bolster their claims.[30] By avoiding controversial subjects he becomes acceptable for different movements which are extremely hostile to each other. Among Muslims with a South Asian background his English website is linked by both Sufi oriented Barelwīs[31] as well as their archenemies, the puritan Deobandīs.[32] In the West his popularity is not restricted to migrant communities, he also reaches out to converts.[33] His articles are reprinted in "traditional" Islamic media like the "Islamic Voice" from Bangalore.[34]
In general it is remarkable that at least at present websites of Turkish Muslims living abroad seldom refer to Harun Yahya sites.[40] As in Turkey itself his success is due to the dissemination of books and audio-visual materials, in particular through mosque associations of the Islamist Millî Görüş movement and friendly reports in its daily ‘Milli Gazete'.[41]
I am curious here as to the difference of Yahya's image within Turkey and abroad. For example, Yahya may be seen in Turkey more in line with anti-Kemalists and Nursi-like movement and his position within the society is defined according to that (though he may disagree with that characterization). Whereas, for non-Turkish Muslims, the Turkish context is missing and it is the presentation (the glossy books, sophisticated website and documentaries, etc) that defines his image - and he is seen as a scholar and a scientist facing down the West and western dominance. Thus, Islamic creationism may have a different face inside Turkey (and the Turkish diaspora) than outside.

Martin concludes about the use of the internet:
As Anderson and Eickelman have remarked‘[the Internet] has the potential to promote greater openness in the Islamic decision-making process as well as to reinforce entrenched views.'[55] The success of Harun Yahya's activities may serve as a proof for the second aspect. As his critics referred to in this text have demonstrated Harun Yahya's argumentation is based on a dogmatic preconception and the proofs he presents are mostly forgeries and misquotes.[56] Apparently the fact that these refutations are easily available on the net does not hamper Harun Yahya's success. Easy access to information alone does not increase the desire to question one own's concepts. The slow and weak response to Harun Yahya's campaigns further highlights the negative aspect of the ambiguity exposed by Anderson and Eickelman: in certain contexts the possibility to publish a lot in a short time works to the disadvantage of scientific thought and a rational discourse.
Yes, this is correct. But scientists need to not just counter Harun Yahya (this will give him even more publicity), but to present a more positive alternative narrative that does not threaten core religious values and that weaves together the importance of science with the scientific evidence for evolution. More importantly, that connects science and evolution to everyday life (before you call me completely naive, I'm not saying that this is easy - but that it is possible: see Sagan's Cosmos). Yahya's science is terrible - but his message connects for many at an emotional level. Scientists need to bring an emotional connection to evolution.

Read the full article here.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

History, archaeology and Biblical stories

Ok - to balance my post on history of doubt, here is a link to a recent NOVA episode Bible's Buried Secrets. Now, I'm a sucker for history in general, but I think NOVA did a fantastic job dealing with a delicate subject and also of highlighting research methodologies in history and archaeology. Yes, it got a bit syrupy towards the end (it was expected), but there are places where their presentation is riveting. If you don't have the time to watch the whole two hours, check out the beginning, the sections on The Exodus (I think this is very well done), the Canaanite Cities, and The Search for YHWH. Below is a clip that includes the discussion of YHWH.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Hecht on doubt

Here is a Point of Inquiry interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht. As usual she is fantastic here. She was also a speaker for our Hampshire College Science & Religion lecture series and you can see the lecture video here. Her bit about the story of Job is fantastic.

One minor quibble from the PoI interview. She claims that poetry is the best way to get to the Truth (or truth?) - certainly better than science (even though she is definitely not anti-science). Well ... it would depend on what you are looking for. If you are looking for physical explanations for how things have formed (such as stars and galaxies), I would definitely trust science to provide me a more accurate picture. This is not to diss poetry. I think its great. In fact, this reminds me of a key scene in the movie Contact. When Ellie (the Jodie Foster character) gets to the center of the galaxy and looks outside her machine window - she says "So beautiful. They should have sent a poet". So I agree, poetry can provide valuable insight into human nature and in expressing emotions, but to understand the center of the galaxy - I would still use a telescope (yes yes - too much optical extinction in that direction - so will have to use radio or infrared telescopes :) ).

While we are on the subject, here is a BBC documentary, A brief history of disbelief, from couple of years ago. (hat tip Open Culture)

See parts 2 and 3 here and here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Harun Yahya and the arts

Nathan Schneider has written a fascinating account of his encounter with Harun Yahya. He provides an interesting perspective on Yahya's interest in arts and its connection to the production of his glossy books:
When we arrived, lights and cameras were already set up to record the interview for the Harun Yahya websites. I was asked to take off my shoes at the doorstep. Oktar, who arrived a few minutes after us, was the only one in the room wearing shoes. They were black leather, worn with black slacks and a blazer over a black Versace t-shirt. His presence was impressive, and he didn't linger for small talk, either before or after the interview.

Harun Yahya's books are just as polished as he is. They often come printed in full color on glossy paper, full of photographs and graphics. In one of his several books condemning violence, Only Love Can Defeat Terrorism, an ornamental gold border frames every page. The text is punctuated by Photoshop collages, including one of children frolicking in a grassy garden amidst Roman temples and another of dolphins jumping from a pool in the floor of a baroque palace.

Oktar oversees the design of all Harun Yahya products, assisted by 20 to 30 aides. According to Calikoglu, it is Oktar himself who insists on the extravagant and expensive look. "In the initial stages we were unable to understand the necessity of it," Calikoglu told me, but they were convinced when the approach caught on. Global Publishing, which produces and distributes Harun Yahya media, claims to churn out 18 million books per year, produces documentary films based on them, and maintains dozens of websites. According to Hakan Korkmaz, director of sales in Turkey for Global Publishing, over a million Harun Yahya books have been sold in the country in the last four years. And Korkmaz's office, located in a building on the northwest end of Istanbul, houses a call center with a staff of 30.

and more on the Atlas of Creation:

Judging the Atlas on its scientific content alone misses the point. Its power, for those who aren't scientifically literate, lies in its vision of redemption. Oktar speaks from a country torn by political upheaval and from a Muslim world struggling to regain its religion and culture after colonial domination. He also speaks to a wider world bombarded by technological innovations and endless cycles of violence. His books, which combine beatific imagery with an attack on the supposed source of all our troubles, offer a glimpse of the world redeemed. Refuting evolution is a means to that end.

"In ten years time, Jesus Christ will possibly come to this earth," Oktar proclaimed to me. By then, he continued, "all of these bloody ideologies and nonsensical ways of thinking about creation will be eradicated."

I think Nathan is right on the money when he says that we miss a key point if we consider Atlas of Creation as a scientific book. However, many in the Muslim world do consider him a scientist. For example, on my recent visit to Pakistan I encountered people who defended his "scientific" work against evolution and considered him a revolutionary scientist. However, Harun Yahya's views about the coming of Christ (his shift from Mahdi), when they are more widely known, are bound to rattle those who do not consider him a religious leader of a movement - but rather simply a scientist opposed to evolution. I actually think that Yahya's phase in the context of Islamic creationism will soon pass - and he may be left with followers of his particular version of Islam. We may face a bigger threat to evolution (and science) from a creationist representing a more mainstream Islam with a less eccentric personality, but who will use the publicity model of Harun Yahya. Lets keep our eyes open.

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Video: Paul Davies - Origin of the Laws of Physics

Paul Davies was our Science & Religion speaker this past November. He is a very interesting and thoughtful person and he always has interesting things to say. Here is the video of his talk, Origin of the Laws of Physics (abstract is below the video):

Dr. Paul Davis at Hampshire College from Hampshire TV on Vimeo.

Orthodox science treats the laws of physics as timeless, immutable and universal mathematical relationships that were imprinted on the universe from birth. The origin and form of the laws is considered to be beyond the scope of science.

Recently, however, some physicists and cosmologists have puzzled that the laws of physics seem to be weirdly well-suited for life, in the sense that even small changes would not permit the existence of living organisms and hence observers. One attempt to explain this “fine tuning” of the laws is to invoke a multiverse of universes, each with its own laws. In my lecture I shall critically examine the multiverse theory, and other responses to the enigma of our “Goldilocks universe.”

Monday, December 15, 2008

Science paper on Islamic Creationism

Here is the link to my Policy Forum article in this week's Science (Dec 12, 2008): Bracing for Islamic Creationism (if you don't have full access, you can download the paper here (pdf).

A few related links: Robin Lloyd at Live Science puts the Policy Forum paper and Islamic Creationism in a larger context in Evolution Arguments Headed for Islamic World. Here is an audio interview with PRI's The World (from the BBC and WGBH) and with New Scientist.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Back to the US Sunday night

I wanted to link the Science paper on Islamic Creationism here by now - but I haven't had a chance. I'm currently traveling back to the US and I will have the link definitely by Monday morning - and also sorry for delayed e-mail responses.

Hopping on the plane soon.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Interview with New Scientist on Islamic Creationism

I have an article on Islamic Creationism coming out in Science today (Friday). I will make it available here once I have access to it. In the mean time here is my New Scientist interview on How to stop creationism from gaining a hold in Islam: (p.s. one minor correction: I teach on science & religion and not on religious studies)

Hameed spoke with New Scientist about the rise of creationism in the Muslim world, what scientists can do to promote evolution there, and why he thinks Richard Dawkins and other atheists will push Muslims away from evolution.

How is evolution perceived in Muslim countries?

If you ask the question of whether you accept evolution or not, we find that a large portion of people, vast majorities, reject evolution. Compared to the US, where 40% are comfortable with evolution, in the Muslim countries that would go down to 10, 15, or 20%. In Turkey, one of the more secular Muslim countries, the level is between 22 and 25%.

Why the low acceptance rates?

Evolution has not been in the public discourse, so it depends on what people believe evolution is. Right now, there is a misperception that evolution equals atheism.

Are there any religious teachings in the Koran or elsewhere that conflict with evolution, as some creationists claim is the case with the Bible?

The Koran itself does not provide a single clear-cut verse that contradicts evolution.

One of the big evolution problems from the US creationist perspective is the age of the Earth. Logically speaking, if you believe in a 6000 or 10,000 year-old Earth, then you have to reject evolution

In the Muslim countries, young Earth creationism is nonexistent. The Koran is very vague about creation stories, specifically regarding the creation of the universe. If you accept an old Earth, then it makes it relatively easier to accept evolution.

Then what is the basis for Islamic opposition to evolution?

In some instances, evolution becomes a symbol for Western dominance and a sign of modernity. Evolution can act as a lighting rod, as a symbol of the West and everything that is bad about the West - usually translated as material culture or materialism.

Are there any organised efforts to discredit evolution in Muslim countries, like we see in the US and Europe?

The most prominent is Adnan Oktar, who goes by the pen name Harun Yahya.

He has the most well-funded organisation and its main purpose is to discredit evolution. He believes that the theory of evolution is the cornerstone of Western ideology and that if he undermines evolution, it's going to undermine Western society.

His books are widely available in the Muslim world and they are translated in several Muslim languages. His TV shows are shown once a day in Pakistan.

Does that make you worry about evolution's chances in the Muslim world?

I think that science can provide an alternative viewpoint. In the Muslim world there is tremendous respect for science itself. The general thinking is that Islam and science are compatible, or that Islam is a scientific religion.

If evolution can be shown as a sound science, then the general belief that Islam and science are compatible may lead people to accept evolution within Islamic framework, especially if it is presented with good evidence.

I think it's not a doomed situation. This is the time when people are starting to inquire more about evolution, so I think the next five to 10 years are crucial in solidifying people's opinions.

Read the full interview here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ghamidi on Islam and evolution

Prof Ghamidi's name has come up in several conversations about evolution here in Pakistan. He is considered to be one of the more liberal and enlightened Islamic scholar. However, I was introduced to his work via his comments on evolution (tip from Zakir Thaver) - in which he rejected biological evolution. Many have been surprised here by his rejection. So here is a clip about his views on Quran and evolution (sorry its only in Urdu - but I will summarize his basic points below. Ghamidi is the one without a beard):

So first of all, he believes that God used evolution as the foundation principle in the creation of the entire universe. He even talks about changes (he uses the same Urdu word for evolution for this: Irtiqa) in individuals - from a fetus to a grown up. He says that we don't see grown ups coming down from the sky or growing up on trees (his example). But then he rejects Darwin's theory based on common descent. Ghamidi believes that Quran talks about the creation of individual species - but he says that this interpretation is not completely certain - but it appears to point in this direction.

Couple of comments regarding this: It seems that Ghamidi is not fundamentally opposed to biological evolution. After all, he is ok with the concept of evolution for the universe and for individuals - it is only the issue of common descent that is bothering him. But even then, he is not closing the door completely.

There is glimmer of hope as his objections to biological evolution are centered on his understanding of the fossil record. Here he brings up the standard creationist arguments - that there are species that have not changed for millions of years, and that there have been fabrications, and there too many gaps in the fossil record (he laid out some of these arguments in another TV segment). Well...these are simple misunderstandings that can be clarified even with an undergraduate biology textbook (and Ghamidi appears to be the kind of person who wants to know). For example, not all species have to change over time. For example, turtles are very successful in their niche (no evolutionary pressure to change) and they have been around in the same form for millions of years. So have jelly fish and many other creatures. Here are 5 major misconceptions about evolution, including that of missing fossils.

Ghamidi is a prominent name in Pakistan regarding religion. He does not seem to be strongly against evolution - and most of his critique is based on old creationist arguments. I hope he gets to read more about evolution - from scientists. He can be an important voice for evolution.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Starbucks, churches, and jihadis

Ha! This is funny...(hat tip Religion News Service)

Its a nice parody - this competitive selling is quite familiar in the US - with the mega-churches and all that, but I was thinking about the tactics used for recruitment by the various Jihadi groups here in Pakistan and the differences and similarities between the two modes of recruitment. I had posted earlier on an excellent Atlantic Monthly article on secularism and wealth, and it talked about the growth of American religions:
Religious monopolies or near-monopolies, such as state-sponsored churches, generally throttle religious practice over time, especially as a country becomes wealthier; the European experience amply demonstrates this. Lacking any incentive to innovate, churches atrophy, and their congregations dwindle. But places with a free religious marketplace witness something very different: entrepreneurs of the spirit compete to save souls, honing their messages and modulating many of their beliefs so as to appeal to the consumer. With more options to choose from, more consumers find something they like, and the ranks of the religious grow.
Can we think about the growth of Jihadi groups in the same way (in terms of recruitment strategies)? Jihadis are operating in a free Jihadi marketplace here and there is no Jihadi monopoly. They have been inventive and their diversity (not in terms of religion - but rather in their goals and modes of operation) provide choices for people with various level of discontentment. But of course guns may alter the free marketplace model...

Hmm....may be a starbucks parody of Jihadis won't be as funny...

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Talking about "origins" in Pakistan

I had a fantastic time giving two public lectures in Pakistan on this trip (I'm in Rawalpindi/Islamabad for another week before getting back to the US). I wasn't sure what kind of reaction I will get while talking about cosmology (and also briefly about evolution) - but the reaction has mostly been quite positive and with lot of interaction with the audience at the end. The reaction from the audience was quite different at two places. The first lecture was organized by the Physics Club at Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU) in Islamabad (thanks Zahid) and the questions were heavily focused on cosmology, nature of time, multiverses, etc. The issue of the origin of life was brought up, but the discussion stayed within the confines of our scientific understanding of the topic. The level of questions was very good and surprising to me, evolution was not really brought up in Q&A - perhaps a reflection of audience predisposition towards physics.

The talk at Karachi was a totally different experience. First of all, the Karachi talk was part of Science ka Adda (Karachi's version of Cafe Scientifique) and was held at a coffee shop (The Second Floor) that also acts as a base for non-profit work (PeaceNiche), holds regular screening of documentaries (it showed God on the Brain recently), provides space for art exhibitions, and even hosts small concerts (check out glimpses of T2F). So indeed, I was very excited to give a public lecture there (Thanks Sabeen for organizing it).

The focus of questions here was more on science and religion conflict (or at least on the possibility of conflict). The point of my talk was that Big Bang, evolution, origin of life questions etc. are descriptions of physical phenomena irrespective of one's belief. The question of the ultimate origins (First Cause) is dependent on faith - whether one believes that physical laws have been put in place by God or by no one (also a faith statement). However, we should always seek natural causes when seeking an explanation for all physical events (methodological naturalism). Many of the questions were accurately focused on the boundary between known and unknown and how to approach science when we get to that point - and what to do when religion comes in conflict with known explanations for science. A few people raised strong objections to evolution (with the usual - that "it is only a theory"), but the over all discourse remained very civil and productive (as can be seen from the post Q&A discussions on the right - picture from T2F).

But the main point is that we can talk and discuss in public these sensitive topics in Pakistan (ok - at least at universities and coffee shops). Not everyone will agree with the conclusions - but a dialogue about these topics is crucial.

Genes tracing Jewish and Muslim conversion in Spain

It is really cool that some historical questions can be answered by gene tests. I had earlier posted a bit about the Crusaders, and now here is a story about evidence of mass conversion of Sephardic Jews and Muslims to Catholicism in 15th and 16th centuries after the fall of Muslim Spain.

Twenty percent of the population of the Iberian Peninsula has Sephardic Jewish ancestry and 11 percent have DNA reflecting Moorish ancestors, the geneticists have found. Historians have debated how many Jews converted and how many chose exile. “One wing grossly underestimates the number of conversions,” said Jane S. Gerber, an expert on Sephardic history at the City University of New York.

The finding bears on two different views of Spanish history, said Jonathan S. Ray, a professor of Jewish studies at Georgetown University. One, proposed by the 20th-century historian Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, holds that Spanish civilization is Catholic and other influences are foreign; the other sees Spain as having been enriched by drawing from all three of its historical cultures, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim.

The study, based on an analysis of Y chromosomes, was conducted by biologists led by Mark A. Jobling of the University of Leicester in England and Francesc Calafell of the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. They developed a Y chromosome signature for Sephardic men by studying Sephardic Jewish communities in places where Jews migrated after being expelled from Spain in 1492 to 1496. They also characterized the Y chromosomes of the Arab and Berber army that invaded Spain in A.D. 711 from data on people living in Morocco and Western Sahara.
Read the full story here.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Born creationists

Yes, I'm still alive. I'm currently in Pakistan and will write an update about the trip soon. In the mean time here is a bit of news about children being hardwired for creationism. I have also included an excellent critique by AC Grayling. The study is fine - but it is clearly tainted because of its support from the Templeton Foundation (you'll see below in the Grayling response).

Here is the story about Justin Barrett's work:

Dr Justin Barrett, a senior researcher at the University of Oxford's Centre for Anthropology and Mind, claims that young people have a predisposition to believe in a supreme being because they assume that everything in the world was created with a purpose.

He says that young children have faith even when they have not been taught about it by family or at school, and argues that even those raised alone on a desert island would come to believe in God.

"The preponderance of scientific evidence for the past 10 years or so has shown that a lot more seems to be built into the natural development of children's minds than we once thought, including a predisposition to see the natural world as designed and purposeful and that some kind of intelligent being is behind that purpose,"

Dr Barrett said there is evidence that even by the age of four, children understand that although some objects are made by humans, the natural world is different.

He added that this means children are more likely to believe in creationism rather than evolution, despite what they may be told by parents or teachers.

And here is a response from AC Grayling:

This claim was the subject of Barrett's lecture at Cambridge, in which he exhibited his reasons for thinking that children are innately disposed to believe in intelligent design/creationism and a supreme being. His real reasons for thinking this, of course, are that he is a man of faith funded by a faith-based organisation; but the reasons he professed were that children have an innate tendency when small to interpret what happens in the world to be the outcome of purposive agency.

Now on this point he and I, an atheist funded by no organisation keen on promoting atheism, agree. Children's earliest experiences are of purposive agency in the adults and other people around them – these being the entities of most interest to them in their first months – and for good evolutionary reasons they are extremely credulous, not only believing that things must be acting as their parents do in being self-moving and intentional, but also believing in tooth fairies, Father Christmas, and a host of other things beside, almost all of which they give up believing before puberty, unless the beliefs are socially reinforced – as with religious and, to a lesser extent, certain other superstitious beliefs. Intellectual maturation is the process in important part of weaning oneself from the assumption that trees and shadows behave as they do for the same reason that one's parents, other humans, and dogs and cats do; it is every bit as natural a fact about children that they cease to apply intentionalistic explanations to everything as that they give them to everything, on the model of their parents' behaviour, in the earliest phases of development.

But Barrett and friends infer from the first half of these unexceptionable facts that children are hardwired to believe in a supreme being. Not only does this ignore the evidence from developmental psychology about the second stage of cognitive maturation, but is in itself a very big – and obviously hopeful – jump indeed. Moreover it ignores the fact that large tracts of humankind (the Chinese for a numerous example) have no beliefs in a supreme being, innate or learned, and that most primitive religion is animistic, a simple extension of the agency-imputing explanation which gives each tree its dryad and each stream its nymph, no supreme beings required.

And here is the bit about the Templeton foundation:

"Religious belief" and early childhood interpretations of how the world work are so far removed from one another that only a preconceived desire to interpret the latter in terms of "intelligent design" and "a supreme being" – the very terms are a giveaway – is obviously tendentious, and this is what is going on here. It would merely be poor stuff if that was all there is to it; but there is more. The Templeton Foundation is rich; it offers a very large money prize to any scientist or philosopher who will say things friendly to religion, and it supports "research" as described above into anything that will add credibility and respectability to religion. Its website portrays its aims as serious and objective, but in truth it is just another example of how well-funded and well-organised some religious lobbies are – a common phenomenon in the United States in particular, and now infecting the body politic here.

But the Templeton Foundation would do better to be frank about its propagandistic intentions, for while it tries to dress itself in the lineaments of objectivity it will always face the accusation of tainting the pool, as with the work of this Oxford University institute.

Indeed I question the advisability of Oxford taking funds from the Templeton Foundation for this kind of work. I wonder whether it has undertaken due diligence on this one. I hope it would not take money supporting research for astrology, Tarot divination, proof that the Olympian deities still exist, and the like. The general claims of religion differ not one jot in intellectual respects – or respectability – from these. Perhaps it should think again.

Read the full AC Grayling article here - and the Justin Barrett story here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Off-Topic: Ahmed Rashid on Fresh Air

Here is an excellent Fresh Air interview with Ahmed Rashid on the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is very good and he certainly knows a lot about Taliban (he was writing about them way before 2001). Here he lays out the complexities quite nicely. At the mid-way point, he makes an interesting point about US missile strikes in the Pakistani tribal areas: he says that because these strikes have been successful in taking out some key targets, many of the Taliban leaders are now moving into the settled areas of Pakistan, including major cities.

Oh boy. So will there be a US missile strike, say on Peshawar or Quetta? This is something that the US must be evaluating. This is not so far-fetched either - but it will likely stir up nationalism that may end up serving the Taliban.

However, its good to see that Ahmed Rashid is optimistic about the direction of Obama policies. Lets hope he is right about the direction of the new policies. Here is Rashid's new book, Descent into Chaos.

Monday, November 24, 2008

In Pakistan next week

I'm planning on going to Pakistan next week for a short visit. I'm going there after about a year and a half - and it seems that things have...hmm...worsened a bit over there. But it will be good to have some feel for how people are viewing the current situation in the tribal areas. I am spending most of my time in Rawalpindi/Islamabad, but I will be in Karachi on Dec 4-5th. If you are in Pakistan and interested in a talk on science and religion, I will be giving a talk at the physics department of Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU) in Islamabad on Dec 2nd. The title is Science, Religion and the Search for our Origins. I will also be giving this talk in Karachi on December 4th at The Second Floor at 7pm.

On the current situation in Pakistan, yesterday's NYT had an excellent op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristoff about education efforts in Pakistan's tribal areas. Here is his video report (it gives a nice idea of the schools) and here is the part of the column that focuses on education:

Fourth, let’s focus on education. One reason the country is such a mess today is that half of all Pakistanis are illiterate.

In the southern Punjab a couple of days ago, I dropped in on a rural elementary school where only one teacher had bothered to show up that day. He was teaching the entire student body under a tree, in part because the school doesn’t have desks for the first three grades.

One happy note: I visited a school run by a California-based aid group, Developments in Literacy, which represents a successful American effort to fight extremism. DIL is financed largely by Pakistani-Americans trying to “give back,” and it runs 150 schools in rural Pakistan, teaching girls in particular.

Tauseef Hyat, the Islamabad-based executive director of DIL, notes that originally the plan was to operate just primary schools, but then a group of 11-year-old girls threatened to go on hunger strike unless DIL helped them continue their education in high school. Ms. Hyat caved, and some of those girls are now studying to become doctors.

Mr. Obama should make his first presidential trip to Pakistan — and stop at a DIL school to remind Pakistan’s army and elites that their greatest enemy isn’t India but illiteracy.
What an excellent effort by DIL. Read the full article here and here is the website of DIL.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Remains identified - Copernicus

Finally, found Copernicus!
Researchers said Thursday they have identified the remains of Nicolaus Copernicus by comparing DNA from a skeleton and hair retrieved from one of the 16th-century astronomer's books. The findings could put an end to centuries of speculation about the exact resting spot of Copernicus, a priest and astronomer whose theories identified the Sun, not the Earth, as the center of the universe.

Polish archaeologist Jerzy Gassowski told a news conference that forensic facial reconstruction of the skull, missing the lower jaw, his team found in 2005 buried in a Roman Catholic Cathedral in Frombork, Poland, bears striking resemblance to existing portraits of Copernicus.

The reconstruction shows a broken nose and other features that resemble a self-portrait of Copernicus, and the skull bears a cut mark above the left eye that corresponds with a scar shown in the painting.

Moreover, the skull belonged to a man aged around 70 — Copernicus's age when he died in 1543.

"In our opinion, our work led us to the discovery of Copernicus's remains but a grain of doubt remained," Gassowski said.

So, in the next stage, Swedish genetics expert Marie Allen analyzed DNA from a vertebrae, a tooth and femur bone and matched and compared it to that taken from two hairs retrieved from a book that the 16th-century Polish astronomer owned, which is kept at a library of Sweden's Uppsala University where Allen works.
But Julianne at Cosmic Variance asks a more relevant follow-up question:

While exercises like this are of historical interest, to me they’ve always raised the question as to when a set of remains becomes fair game for mucking about. If you were to dig up poor great aunt Edna, extract her skull, and sent it off to a lab in Sweden, you might be looked upon as being disrespectful or worse. But, digging about to find the remains of Copernicus is apparently completely OK, and was actually ordered by the local Catholic bishop. So when does this happen? Is there something like the copyright system where the right to be outraged by disturbance of a grave expires after a certain number of years? Is it more like radioactivity of the soul, where the connection to something sacred fades with an e-folding time?

It’s certainly a culturally loaded question as well. Locally, a set of 9000 year old remains found in the Pacific Northwest were the subject of dispute. Local tribes claimed Kennewick Man as one of their ancestors, and requested that the remains be given back to the Umatilla tribe for reburial. Scientists, on the other hand, wanted to continue to study the remains, and argued that testing showed that the skeleton was unlikely to have actually been a member of one of the tribes. There are on-going law suits to repatriate native american skeletons to their tribes. So obviously different cultures have different standards for when it’s acceptable to study their dead, and Copernicus lost out.

Hey - don't assume what Copernicus wanted. May be he enjoyed being dug out - it may have gotten a bit boring being under the Earth since the 16th century.

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