Friday, December 21, 2007

The God-Shaped Hole

Previously, on No Moods, Ads, or Cutesy Fucking Icons...

Many religious people are idiots. My Dad's religious, but he's no idiot. There are some other smart religious people out there too. Maybe they're right and I'm wrong. But they can't be, because I'm a scientist and they're not! But real scientists have to allow for the possibility that they can be wrong about anything; otherwise they're just another breed of fundamentalist. Oh, look, here's a scientist called Francis Collins. He is much smarter, more prominent, and way better-paid than I ever was. He says I'm wrong. He says he has evidence for the existence of the Christian God. He uses many scientific-sounding words to convince me he might be on to something.

Teach me, Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project, arch-nemesis of the evil Craig Venter! Show me the way!

Here it is. Dr. Francis Collins' Big Reveal. Actually, his Big Reveal was a personal epiphany he had while looking at a bunch of icicles; this is his Evidence That Demands A Verdict, and it is, wait for it:

The warm fuzzy feeling you get when you "Do The Right Thing".

Yup. That's it. A dopamine rush, elevated to the status of "The Moral Law". Universally extant in every Human culture, he says, and unique to Human culture as well. "Evolution will never explain The Moral Law and the Universal Search for God", he assures us, will never explain that uniquely, universally human urge to help those in need, even if they don't share our genes, even at our own expense. We are beyond evolution — for if the evolutionists were right, we'd never do anything except selfishly try to spread our own genes. Collins actually uses the word "scandal" to describe the way in which we "evolutionists" regard altruism.

He invokes C.S. Lewis's faux-adaptationist argument to induce God's existence from these warm fuzzies:

"Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Pedophiles feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as alter boys*. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."

After which Collins cuts in and asks "Why do we have a 'God-shaped vacuum' in our hearts unless it is meant to be filled?"

Where to start. (Beyond noting that while some sort of vacuum does seem to persist in one Francis Collins, it is unlikely to reside in his thorax...)

Let's start with a general observation. Collins' understanding of natural selection appears to be a woefully-ignorant caricature in which every organism always behaves optimally to promote its own fitness, and every instance in which this doesn't happen constitutes a failure of evolutionary theory calling out for Divine intervention. What he doesn't seem to understand (or perhaps, what he's hoping you won't) is that the whole basis of natural selection is variation. Organisms differ; some do better than others; the losers leave fewer offspring. Nature, in other words, is chock-full of creatures who do not selfishly spread their genes, who benefit others at their own expense. Conspecifics might call such organisms "unsuccessful competitors". Parasites would call them "hosts". Predators would call them "food". The Archdiocese calls them "parishioners".

Perhaps you're thinking that's a cheap shot; prey may not successfuly spread their genes, but that's not for want of trying. I would counter that the same could be said of all those good folks who turn the other cheek expecting a grand payoff in the Kingdom of Heaven. Either way, this Collins guy needs to be taught the basics — not just of biology, but of elementary logic. To claim that non-selfish acts contradict evolutionary theory is like claiming that blow jobs contradict the orgasm's role in reproduction.

But fine: he's talking about the knowing and voluntary sacrifice of one's own interests to benefit another. That's what he defines as uniquely human. Except it isn't. Empathy for nonrelatives, efforts expended to help others (even members of different species), have been documented in nonhuman primates and cetaceans. The concepts of fair play and justice don't seem to be uniquely human either. Contrary to Collins' claims, sociobiologists don't have any real trouble reconciling such actions with evolutionary processes; in fact, the neurochemistry underlying empathy is a pretty basic social-cohesion mechanism. And while Collins has a field day hauling out Oskar Schindler and Mother Theresa as examples of selfless service to a greater good, he's only cherry-picking one or two convenient outliers from a cloud of data. Readers of this obscure little newscrawl may remember that there is a data cloud, statistically quantifiable, and it shows that people tend to engage in risky heroics or acts of altruistic generosity primarily when it improves their chances of getting laid. (And don't bother pointing out that Mommy Theresa's chances of that were pretty much nil — we both know the basement circuitry works the same way regardless of motivational overlays. Besides, she was expecting a whole other kind of payoff, just as Schindler more likely than not feared some kind of payback.) You may also remember that this "Moral Law", such as it is, is inconsistent and often downright wrong, that the truly altruistic — those who'd unhesitatingly sacrifice two of their own children to save four of someone else's, for example — suffer from a specific and precise form of brain damage. The truly moral are those with lesions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex; not, so far as I've heard, a "universal" aspect of the Human condition.

And that's not even getting into the self-sacrificing behaviour of those who have merely been tricked into furthering someone else's agenda. How many Christians would have marched in the Crusades, how many jihadists would have strapped bombs across their bellies, how many missionaries would have risked disease and death in darkest Africa if they'd actually believed that eternal damnation was waiting at the end of it? (Now that would be altruism.) Is Collins really so blind to the workings of his own religion that he can't tell the difference between true selflessness and the manipulation of selfish motives by parasites wielding imaginary payoffs?

Which leads to another, and mind-bogglingly obvious failing of Collins' argument: the ubiquity of the "Moral Law". His claim that we all share the same standards of right and wrong would, I expect, come as news to all those cultures throughout history who kept (and keep) slaves, who mutilate the genitals of their women, who regarded (and regard) foreign races, beliefs, and behaviours as things to be avoided at best and hammered into extinction at worst. The ongoing genocides of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries provide eloquent testimony to the ubiquity of Collins' Moral Law, and while he leaves himself a bit of wiggle room (we all have the Moral Law, you see, but some of us choose to ignore it), he cites nothing to justify the claim that this sense of right and wrong is universal beyond the one-two punch that a) he feels it and so do all his friends, and b) C.S. Lewis told him so. (In fact, reading The Language of God, you get the sense that Francis Collins has anointed himself C.S. Lewis's Official Corporeal Sock Puppet.)

For all his talk of agape and altruism, Collins may be the most profoundly self-centred human being I've read. The possibility that everyone doesn't feel just the way he does seems completely beyond his grasp.

The search for God? I'm a pretty introspective dude, and I can say with a high degree of confidence that I don't have anything like that gnawing away inside me. I recognise that many people do— but I also recognise that our brains are hardwired to see patterns even where none exist, to attribute agency even to purely indifferent phenomena. It's a small enough step from the "Theory of Mind" that allows us to suss out the agendas of the creatures and conspecifics we encounter day to day. So the very clouds can look angry to us, or benign; and who hasn't wanted to put a brick through that fucking laptop and its fucking Blue Screen of Death which always, malevolently, crashes your system when you're six hours from deadline and have forgotten to save?

Apply equal parts ignorance, pattern-matching, and the attribution of motives onto nature's canvas: angels and demons sprout like Spears sprogs behind every rock (much as they appeared to Collins in his frozen waterfall). But Collins doesn’t even admit that such neural circuitry exists, much less contemplate its potential relevance to human superstition. No mention at all of Persinger's work, or Ramachandran's. Not a word about the brain's God Module. And once again, no credit whatsoever to the guys with the mitres and crosses — not to mention the iron maidens in their basements — and the role they might have played in inculcating a sense of the divine into the culture (albeit granted, a form of the Divine that seems chronically in need of alms).

So Collins' central, most rigorous argument for a personal god — who created heaven and earth and made us and only us in his image — is that everybody shares the same sense of right and wrong (except they don't); that everybody seeks God (speak for yourself, buddy; I'm happy if I can just find a decent pint of Rickards); that Human beings are unique among all species in being altruistic and moral (except we're not); and that there's no other explanation but the God of Abraham for any of this (except there sure as shit is).

Let me repeat: this is his strongest argument.

It's not his only one, though. Collins commits numerous other sins, easily recognised by anyone with even a passing familiarity with the moves of flat-earthers and climate-change deniers and spin-doctors the world over. Statements initially introduced with all the right caveats ("If we accept the possibility of the supernatural, then it is possible that...") reappear later, unsubstantiated but nonetheless miraculously transmuted into statements of absolute fact (believers are "right to hold fast to the eternal truths of the Bible"). Legitimate objections to his positions (e.g., that religious beliefs are irrelevant to the study of Nature) are dismissed for no better reason than that Collins finds them unpalatable ("that doesn't resonate with most individuals' human experience", he writes). In the manner of fundies everywhere, and in the spirit of that book he holds most holy, he contradicts himself whenever it suits him. At one point he argues against the God-as-wishful-thinking model by pointing out that a product of wish-fulfillment would be cuddly and indulgent, not demanding and judgmental as the God of Abraham is wont to be. (Oddly, the prospect of an intimidating God invoked not for comfort, but as a way for folks in funny hats to exert control over credulous followers, never seems to occur to him.) But when facing off against those who'd claim that God scattered photons and fossils across heaven and earth to test our faith, he decides that a little wishful thinking is just fine: "Would God as the great deceiver be an entity anyone would want to worship?"

He rejects a naturalistic universe because after all, something had to kick-start the Big Bang (it couldn't have just booted itself, that would be silly) — then changes the rules to exempt his own model from the same criticism (oh, nothing had to create God, God just booted Himself). (As I would too, hard in my own ass, if I'd created a sentient being as wilfully stupid as Francis Collins). He hauls out the old atheism-is-faith-based-too chestnut, because after all, nobody can prove God doesn't exist, so if that's what you believe you're just taking it on blind faith, right? (Of course, nobody can prove that omnipotent purple hamsters aren't partying it up in the Pleiades either; I guess Collins must believe in those too, or he'd be just as blind as the creationists.)

He quotes Hawking's Brief History of Time out of context, in a way that portrays ol' Wheels as a believer; he makes no mention of Hawking's explicit denial of religious belief in the same book. He tries to tell us that creationism and Intelligent design are different things, and goes so far as to state as a scientist that the ID movement "deserves serious consideration" — evidently unaware that the IDiots got caught passing their creationist textbook through a global search-and-replace to turn every instance of the word "creationism" into "intelligent design", as a way to get around legal proscriptions against religion in science class.

I don't care if this guy did nail the gene for cystic fibrosis. If this book exemplifies his cognitive skills, I gotta wonder who he slept with to end up running the HGP.

Once, many years ago, Francis Collins claims he was an athiest. Maybe he still is, at heart. Maybe he's just lying through his teeth with this book. Maybe he's a player with an agenda, a guy who wanted to climb up the ranks and figured that atheism would keep him off the guest lists for all the best parties. I have no evidence of this, but I hope that's the case. I hope that he's merely an opportunist. I really do.

Because judging by this self-righteous, irrational, and contemptible book, the only other explanation that comes to mind is that Dr. Francis Collins is a fucking moron.

(edited for style 22/12/07)


*Okay, maybe Lewis didn't use this particular example. But you take my point. NAMBLA's gonna have a field day with this rationale; according to Francis Collins, God wants them to be pedophiles...

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32 Comments:

Blogger AR said...

I can sense your writing style in this post, but without that, I would not be able to tell for certain that you had even written this instead of copy/pasting something by someone else about a different book and doing a find/replace for the title and author, because so much of this stuff is just the same crap arguments over and over again since the ages of yore.

December 21, 2007 at 1:38 AM  
Blogger Scott C. said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

December 21, 2007 at 2:00 AM  
Blogger Denni said...

Delicious turn of phrase, even if the same arguments are repeating.

December 21, 2007 at 8:53 AM  
Blogger Ken said...

Thanks for reading this, Peter, so I don't have to. I had heard bits and pieces about his "revelation" on a couple of podcasts, but you've made it more than obvious that his arguments are as incoherent as I suspected they were.

For stuff like this, I don't like to comment unless I've read it myself, or read comments from someone I respect. I'm happy to note that I can now go about my business without ever again even thinking about reading that book. Joy.

December 21, 2007 at 1:10 PM  
Blogger Nicholas said...

Agapē is spelled with a MACRON above the "e" not an acute! AHHHHHH!!!!!!

But seriously, good call on the book. I don't get why he has such trouble with the idea of morals. Morals and the dopaminergic responses are just two components of the complex mechanisms that allow society to be possible. Society is good for us humans, and thus we have those components dammit!

December 21, 2007 at 1:59 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

AR said...

... so much of this stuff is just the same crap arguments over and over again since the ages of yore.

Yeah, and I would have expected that from the rubes and the Dembskis, but dammit, this guy's a geneticist! Human Genome Project! I really, really thought we might be getting something new for a change...

Ken said...

I'm happy to note that I can now go about my business without ever again even thinking about reading that book.


I'm glad you can. Myself, I think this pile of dreck may well haunt my dreams well into 2009...

Nicholas said...

Agapē is spelled with a MACRON above the "e" not an acute! AHHHHHH!!!!!!

Sorry. Fixed it. But hey, you don't know how easy you got off — I knew that word phonetically ever since I was a kid, years before I ever saw it spelled. And as a budding aquariest, I always wondered why Dad kept talking about "a guppy"...

December 21, 2007 at 5:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, I think he may have been onto something, although not in the way he intended.

"Why do we have a "God-shaped vacuum" in our hearts..."

This is the interesting question. It's pretty clear to anyone who seriously thinks about it that the existence of God, or any supernatural being, is completely unsupported by facts or logic.

I don't think I'm going to have any trouble convincing the folks here of that.

But, if that's the case, then why does every society throughout human history believe in the supernatural (as far as I know)?

Seems odd, due to the fact that human beings are fairly smart animals in most other regards, and that such a huge belief in a patently false idea would seem to be a massive evolutionary disadvantage. Spending tens of thousands of years sacrificing virgins to the rain god instead of understanding the weather would be a bit of a handicap in making your way in the world.

So why are things this way? It seems like a trait that's so widely spread throughout the species - and so well conserved - would have some sort of adaptive advantage.

What is it?

December 21, 2007 at 10:03 PM  
Anonymous Jason said...

Anonymous, check out this link

http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A934283

It seems to come down to a few possibilities or a combination of them

A. Just a fluke, it may not be advantageous but it may be "neutral" or just "not-disadvantageous" enough to be weeded out

B. It evolved as a quick "method" of building social systems and groupings allowing those with the belief in "supernatural" to unite and thus increase their odds of survival

C. Faith in the supernatural as a means of pushing past struggles, people living in horrible circumstances that would otherwise give up. Belief that someone or something is out there "on your side".

December 22, 2007 at 12:08 AM  
Blogger Mac said...

Fantastic review. Thanks.

December 22, 2007 at 12:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jason, thanks for posting that link. Very interesting, and some great quotes in there, including one of my favorites from Voltaire that I'd forgotten:

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.
- Voltaire

December 22, 2007 at 10:47 AM  
Blogger razorsmile said...

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.
- Voltaire


And near as anyone can tell, that's exactly what happened.

December 23, 2007 at 6:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whether there's a God - or not - is irrelevant. Whatever is or isn't will be - or not be - in spite of us. So all we can do is get on with existing and leave each human to believe -or not- in whatever he or she chooses to imagine.
Until we know for sure of our origins, all is pointless speculation.

December 25, 2007 at 3:44 PM  
Blogger Keith said...

Holy hell!!

Because of this man I went out and read the first quarter of Mere Christianity. It was not a total waste of time, for now I can say I've read the first quarter of C S Lewis' Mere Christianity. Nonetheless.

I'm going to go hit things now.

---

Aside: I would like to think there's an afterlife. I would like to think there's an FSM. I would like to believe in a holy book. But the afterlife is obviously a fear con, the FSM is obviously imaginary, and the "holy book" is obviously anything but.

I really was hoping for more from this dude.

December 27, 2007 at 9:38 AM  
OpenID bec-87rb said...

"Fucking moron"? Harsh.

It has been my observation that there are no new arguments on either side of the NoGod/IsToo squabble that are going to convince either side of anything.

You were thinking, what? That you would read some guy's proof about the existence of God and that it wouldn't tick you off? That you wouldn't violently disagree with whatever he had come up with? Were you imagining that somehow because he's a scientist that he had managed to do what no great mind in the last 2000 years has managed?

I am seriously curious about why you read the book, what your expectations could have been, unless you were actually looking for something to irritate you. I'm not being flip; I actually want to know why dyed-in-the-wool atheists read books such as this.

December 27, 2007 at 3:26 PM  
Blogger Keith said...

bec-87rb,

1) I read books I disagree with. Who doesn't? It's good sense. Keeps you on your toes.

2) Scientists all the time do things that no great mind has accomplished in 2000 years. It's called progress. It would be nice to see some from the field of theology. I haven't, yet.

December 27, 2007 at 3:45 PM  
OpenID bec-87rb said...

Nice to hear from you Keith.

(I was kind of wondering why the blogger did it, when he seems so crazy-pissed-off about it, but I can ask you, too, I guess.)

Watts seems surprised the argument wasn't astounding or innovative. I mean, Keith, srsly, when was the last time you heard or read anything on either side of the discussion of god/nogod that was new? It's kinda jaw-dropping to me that everybody makes the same points, rebuts with the same rebuttals, like a Noh play or something.

Keith: What am I missing? Taking what you say into account, do you read things you know you aren't going to agree with AND when you know there is almost no chance the author is going to say something you haven't heard before?

Reading a book is a time investment, and I ain't getting any younger, so I make these calculations before I commit the time. Am I alone in this?

December 27, 2007 at 5:16 PM  
Blogger razorsmile said...

bec-87rb: Watts seems surprised the argument wasn't astounding or innovative. I mean, Keith, srsly, when was the last time you heard or read anything on either side of the discussion of god/nogod that was new?

If I understand you correctly, you're saying that because nothing new has happened up to this point, it therefore follows that nothing new is ever to be expected?

December 28, 2007 at 2:33 AM  
OpenID bec-87rb said...

because nothing new has happened up to this point, it therefore follows that nothing new is ever to be expected?

Ha ha - Excellent point.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast, I guess. Actually, the outlook is grim on this one, unless the very footing of the question changes. It reminds me of the abortion debate, in fact.

I don't know the sun will rise tomorrow, but if past performance is any predictor of future behavior, I am thinking it might.

I was also kind of LOLing at myself for getting suckered into reading another round of internet digression about it. As if I didn't already know what Mr. W was going to probably say; very recursive of me to note his getting drawn down the same old moldy path without noting my own feet there.

I just think we could save some time if we compressed some of this. Maybe, hm, use symbols or numerical designations for the arguments we all know, as a sort of shorthand. G/nG#5 or some other stand-in for the full elaboration of idea, since we all know the ideas anyway. It might speed things up, allow actual progess, who knows.

December 28, 2007 at 10:16 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Anonymous said...

Whether there's a God - or not - is irrelevant. Whatever is or isn't will be - or not be - in spite of us. So all we can do is get on with existing and leave each human to believe -or not- in whatever he or she chooses to imagine.
Until we know for sure of our origins, all is pointless speculation.


I might agree with that if so many humans hadn't been left to believe that their own brand of faith granted them the right — nay, the sacred duty — to impose their beliefs on the rest of us, with legislation and/or with cudgels. The least we can do is examine these beliefs rationally, and perhaps raise a teensy peep of protest now and then when childish and feebleminded superstitions give rise to everything from suicide bombers to bans on stem cell research.


Then OpenID bec-87rb said...

"Fucking moron"? Harsh.


"Harsh" is Coulter telling us to "perfect" the Jews for Jesus. Harsh is presidential candidates denying the reality of evolution, and spouting such utter bullshit as ""Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom." Harsh is the bombing of abortion clinics for baby Jesus.

Passing deserved judgment on a fatuous and irrational tract whose unsupported conclusions will only provide additional fodder for such ignorant and destructive behaviour? You can call it harsh if you like. I call it a spade.

You were thinking, what? That you would read some guy's proof about the existence of God and that it wouldn't tick you off? That you wouldn't violently disagree with whatever he had come up with?

That's exactly what I was thinking. Because, as I mentioned in my post (you did read my post, didn't you?), one always has to keep in mind the possibility that one could be wrong. And this Collins guy, at least on paper, was in a position to change my thinking.

Were you imagining that somehow because he's a scientist that he had managed to do what no great mind in the last 2000 years has managed?


That's disingenuous. We know orders of magnitude more about the universe than we did even a generation ago; no matter how great the mind, it needs data to crunch, and for the vast majority of those 2000 years the data simply weren't available. We may not be as smart as Newton, but we know a hell of a lot more than he did. So, yes: I would fully expect that recent expertise would make progress on issues that remained unresolved over previous centuries. By your reasoning, no new insights should be generated on any subject that "great minds" have puzzled over for more than thirty minutes.

Watts seems surprised the argument wasn't astounding or innovative. I mean, Keith, srsly, when was the last time you heard or read anything on either side of the discussion of god/nogod that was new? It's kinda jaw-dropping to me that everybody makes the same points, rebuts with the same rebuttals, like a Noh play or something.

Keith: What am I missing? Taking what you say into account, do you read things you know you aren't going to agree with AND when you know there is almost no chance the author is going to say something you haven't heard before?

How do you know this without having read the material? In most cases, you can consider the source: idiots like Romney and Rice and Dembski are well-known as ignorant and discredited bozos whose claims simply can't be taken at face value. I'm told that Coulter has written a critique on evolution; but since the woman has no expertise in that subject, I know up front I'm not missing out on anything by giving it a miss. This Collins guy, on the other hand, has black-belt qualifications in certain areas of biology — and while MDs are notorious for having a generally poor grasp of evolutionary theory (evo/devo is not generally part of the medical curriculum), one would hope that a top-flight research geneticist would be an exception. And, in fact, the dude does acknowledge the irrefutable reality of descent with modification. He just goes completely off the rails when it comes to knowing the present state of evolutionary biology (or alternatively he lies about it — certainly, his misrepresentation of Stephen Hawking can't have been accidental.) He also seems to have a problem with elementary logic.

I was expecting a lot more.

I don't know the sun will rise tomorrow, but if past performance is any predictor of future behavior, I am thinking it might.

I have been walking towards the edge of a cliff for two hours now, and if past performance is any predictor of future behaviour, I'm in no danger of falling.

December 28, 2007 at 12:04 PM  
OpenID bec-87rb said...

Dude, how's stuff?

Okay, yeah, I think it was a little harsh to call him a fucking moron. If he's a decent scientist, he could be a asshole, perhaps, or a jerk, but probably not a moron. He looked at a question, analyzed it in a way you find faulty, and came to conclusions with which you disagree. I can't imagine that makes him a moron.

I'm not sure why you are comparing him to that conservative Ms Coulter. She's not a scientist, and not after truth, she's a pundit. Her bread and butter is spinning opinions for money; this is antithetical to the role of science, which it clarification and elucidation, going so far as to start with the null hypothesis. Pundits definitely don't start there.

You have the right to your opinion, this being America for a few more minutes at least, and you have to right to call FC any name you like. I would never try to deny you that. I just thought "fucking moron" was a little harsh.

So, yes: I would fully expect that recent expertise would make progress on issues that remained unresolved over previous centuries.


I can't see that there is going to be some resolution of the problem "how do we determine the existence of an entity whose definition includes the property that it can do anything" any time soon.

Are you really of the opinion that this question is on the brink of solution? I'm not being sarcastic, I'm interested. If so, why now? What makes you think we are near breakthrough hour?

By your reasoning, no new insights should be generated on any subject that "great minds" have puzzled over for more than thirty minutes.

Whoa, whoa there! Oh no, of course not. That's hyperbole, I assume. I mean that problems that people puzzle over for thousands of years are probably big damn problems, and need lots of thought, so the statistical probability that you or I are/am alive when the brilliant breakthrough appears are low. Consider how long that Fermat thing took! I think we are hundreds of years away, if not thousands, from any definite answer on G/nG.

Like the march to the cliff - for a large percentage of the walk things are proceding as you expect. Eventually, *whoosh*, but the whoosh takes a second, the walk took 120+ minutes, so, proportionally ...


I was expecting a lot more.

Well, yeah, isn't that the way when you dive into someone's discussion of the G/nG thing? You think, yeah, baby, yeah, it's gonna hit, this time I feel luckEH! I'm just kind of tired of the same old discussion. I mean, forget whether what FC said was in line with science, was it original? That people have a moral sense => God goes back to THomas Aquinas, doesn't it? Someone help me out here.

Read Blindsight online; it was interesting.

December 28, 2007 at 3:50 PM  
Blogger Keith said...

bec-87rb said...

Okay, yeah, I think it was a little harsh to call him a fucking moron. If he's a decent scientist, he could be a asshole, perhaps, or a jerk, but probably not a moron. He looked at a question, analyzed it in a way you find faulty, and came to conclusions with which you disagree. I can't imagine that makes him a moron.

I'm not sure he did analyze it. At all.

Collins says the existence of a Moral Law can't be evolved naturally. Like Lewis, who said the Moral Law can't be an instinct, who Collins quoted liberally and cited as what converted him.

"Mere Christianity" founds itself on the idea that the moral law is not natural in origin but divine. To show this it uses the weakest argument I've seen all week. That the moral law pushes us toward some instincts and away from others, and that the fact that the moral law acts on instincts proves it is not an instinct itself.

I cannot respect anyone who finds that reasoning convincing. I certainly can't respect someone who repeats it.

I can't see that there is going to be some resolution of the problem "how do we determine the existence of an entity whose definition includes the property that it can do anything" any time soon.

I have no problem with that particular god. I'm a naturalist skeptic. It's the supernatural sadistic miracle-working gods who crave human worship who piss me off.

The god you describe seems quite harmless.

Watts seems surprised the argument wasn't astounding or innovative. I mean, Keith, srsly, when was the last time you heard or read anything on either side of the discussion of god/nogod that was new? It's kinda jaw-dropping to me that everybody makes the same points, rebuts with the same rebuttals, like a Noh play or something.

I'm not asking for anything new to the world, just new to me. I'm not very well-read yet. I've only been thinking about the subject for about 6 years. I've made my way through maybe 1/4 of the relevant books. I haven't read anything by Lee Strobel yet, for example.

Keith: What am I missing? Taking what you say into account, do you read things you know you aren't going to agree with AND when you know there is almost no chance the author is going to say something you haven't heard before?

Actually I thought this author was going to say things I hadn't heard before. Now I feel silly for getting my hopes up. If this is the best the god crowd can do they've already lost. Their evangelists will keep converting their own followers away, as they have been doing for centuries.

Fundamentalist Evangelical Apologetics is a beautiful tragedy. It makes you think rationally and in so doing defeats itself.

---

PS: I keep flunking the turing test! Is there a prize for proving you're a poorly-written AI?

December 29, 2007 at 6:05 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

OpenID bec-87rb said...

Okay, yeah, I think it was a little harsh to call him a fucking moron. If he's a decent scientist, he could be a asshole, perhaps, or a jerk, but probably not a moron.


Couple of points here: you gotta take my "moron" comment in light of the set-up. I started a two-part posting by remarking that a lot of religious fundies are fucking morons, then by establishing a second group of religious types who were not morons. I began by putting Collins firmly in the second group, by virtue of his presumed respect for the scientific method, and hoping to learn from him. When he proved to have nothing worthwhile to say, I didn’t actually call him a moron; I stated quite explicitly that I would rather regard him as a duplicitous opportunist and a liar, because the only alternative, given the two categories I had previously established, was fucking moronhood.

Obviously Collins is not a moron in the clinical sense of the word. But how do we describe the kind of person he is? Is he a liar and a hypocrite, using his authority to mislead the credulous? Is he honestly misguided, does all that sophisticated analytical circuitry he uses in the course of his day-to-day research just shut down when it approaches religious issues? In the latter case, maybe he is, literally, mentally impaired in a way. I don't know.

I just know that he presented no evidence for faith. His arguments were familiar, slipshod, fallacious, and either ignorant or deliberately misleading. Intelligent people could well buy into such arguments, if they were ignorant of basic evolutionary biology — as I said before, you need data as well as smarts. I don't look down on anyone for believing absurdities about subjects in which they have no expertise, especially if such absurdities are presented by established authority figures. Lacking data, I put a lot of faith in authorities; what's the alternative?

But this guy should know better. He is an authority, and by presenting fantasy as fact he becomes dangerous and contemptible. To show my contempt, I use words of contempt. If I were a racist I might call him a nigger. If I were a homophobe I might call him a faggot. But I am a different kind of elitist, and so I call him a fucking moron; and while you may disagree with the precise diagnosis, there is no mistaking my contempt for what Collins has done. The phrase has served its purpose.

I'm not sure why you are comparing him to that conservative Ms Coulter. She's not a scientist, and not after truth, she's a pundit. Her bread and butter is spinning opinions for money; this is antithetical to the role of science, which it clarification and elucidation, going so far as to start with the null hypothesis. Pundits definitely don't start there.


Neither did Collins. That's my whole point; what Collins wrote is also pretty damned antithetical to science.

I can't see that there is going to be some resolution of the problem "how do we determine the existence of an entity whose definition includes the property that it can do anything" any time soon.


I would question whether such a problem is even worth considering. Imagine, for a moment, a world in which empiricism ruled. We woke up in the morning, explored nature, drew what inferences we could, and argued about our findings around the dinner table. In all of our explorations, we discovered not a shred of evidence that invisible purple hamsters lived up our butts and told us what to do.

Now. What would be an appropriate response to someone who suggested we should consider such a possibility? "What is your evidence?" we might ask, and we would be told "Oh, these invisible purple ass-dwelling hamsters cannot be detected by scientific means. They are beyond time and space, so you will never be able to definitively disprove them using your puny empiricism."

And this is quite true, so far as it goes. But I would still argue that anyone who believes that such a model is worth serious contemplation is (sorry, dude, here it comes again) a fucking moron. Fortunately, Human civilization is far too smart to merely contemplate such unprovable models for millennia at a stretch. Instead, we actually base entire civilizations upon them, and engage in an endless succession of bloody religious wars over whether the invisible hamsters are truly purple, or whether they live in the rectum or the lower jejunum.

Collins, you know — the dude has a lot of company.


Are you really of the opinion that this question is on the brink of solution? I'm not being sarcastic, I'm interested. If so, why now? What makes you think we are near breakthrough hour?

No, I don't. I didn't. But Collins, by virtue of his authority and his expertise, made me wonder if I had missed something. I thought we might be on the verge of a breakthrough even though I'd seen no evidence of it, because I like to pride myself on an open mind, and at first glance this guy seemed like the furthest thing from a crackpot. I thought we might, because all it takes to convince me that I'm wrong is replicable evidence; and the book was subtitled "A scientist presents evidence for faith".

I got suckered. That's what happens when you want to believe.

Whoa, whoa there! Oh no, of course not. That's hyperbole, I assume. I mean that problems that people puzzle over for thousands of years are probably big damn problems, and need lots of thought, so the statistical probability that you or I are/am alive when the brilliant breakthrough appears are low. Consider how long that Fermat thing took! I think we are hundreds of years away, if not thousands, from any definite answer on G/nG.


Well, a little hyperbole; but a whole lot of Moore's Law. We're making far more breakthroughs/unit time during this generation than we ever have in the history of our species, and that rate is (so far, least) accelerating exponentially. Even if you don't hop on the singularity bandwagon, there's no denying that if you want to max out your odds of being alive for any given breakthrough, you could do a lot worse than landing on the 21rst century.

December 31, 2007 at 12:34 AM  
OpenID bec-87rb said...

Keith-bot,

That the moral law pushes us toward some instincts and away from others, and that the fact that the moral law acts on instincts proves it is not an instinct itself.

Not the most air-tight proposition, I must agree.

I cannot respect anyone who finds that reasoning convincing.

You know what it sounds like to me? That Collins and Lewis are using Philosophy-Speak, a la Plato/Socrates. Empirical method is a smaller, sharper-edged tool than Socratic dialog. Not to piss off the philosophy majors.

Plato's writing drives me nuts, because there is a tendancy to use a word for a large complex astraction, like "justice," then treat it as if it were a concrete physical entity with physical existence, instead being a set of related ideas. Oh, say, "instinct" would be just a set, or "moral law." Moral law can't push anything; moral law is not a physical entity. It seems to lead, when people use Philosophy Speak, to the terrible logical error of confusing the word with the thing itself.

Collins probably means moral law as the Christian strictures on individual lying, cheating, stealing, etc., and not other sets of moral law such as "what is best in life is to drive your enemy before you, burn their villages, and hear the lamentation of their women" or whatever.

I haven't read the Collins book, which, dammitol, it looks like I have to now, but could he be having the Socrates problem, where he assumes the word can be used as if it were an actual absolute true object, not just sloppy human attempts to talk about reality?

Actually I thought this author was going to say things I hadn't heard before. Now I feel silly for getting my hopes up.

I feel that way about *both* sides, and yet I keep reading this stuff. It's like hitting myself on the head with a board, over and over. Please, someone convince me the absence of proof is proof of absence or whatever.

I said: "how do we determine the existence of an entity whose definition includes the property that it can do anything"

You replied: I have no problem with that particular god. I'm a naturalist skeptic. It's the supernatural sadistic miracle-working gods who crave human worship who piss me off.


Well, sure, why imagine a punitive God unless you feel you deserve punishment. Or that someone you know deserves it.

The god you describe seems quite harmless.

He's quite benign. He is only harmful to the proposition that anything in physical reality can be modeled in English, manipulated in English, and a definite conclusion about the existence/non-existence of that thing can be reached. From what I have seen, English is not up to the task, and logic is not up to the task, because they both require definitions, and the part of the definition where God gets to do anything He wills makes the definition unusable. He's a logic buster, which could be harmful, I guess, if I couldn't live with the notion that logical analysis can't determine reality in all cases. Or if I had that Socratic confusion about the words being the physical object.

PS: I keep flunking the turing test! Is there a prize for proving you're a poorly-written AI?

ROTF! As one poorly-written AI to another, the booby prize is that we get caught in a loop, two reciprocal bots, replying to each other's programmed responses. ha ha ha. Poor us. Somebody call the programmer!

Actually, this has been kinda fun.

December 31, 2007 at 11:54 AM  
Blogger jdavidson said...

I don't know the sun will rise tomorrow, but if past performance is any predictor of future behavior, I am thinking it might.

I have been walking towards the edge of a cliff for two hours now, and if past performance is any predictor of future behaviour, I'm in no danger of falling.


Quoted for my enjoyment.

Having a longtime gf that comes from a family tied into almost cult-like religion I'll say with authority that some people suck and some people don't. So here are the two groups Peter describes, the suck, and the not so suck. The sucky people advised my gf to distance from me because I wasn't Christian. Her parents, since removed from The Suck knew better than to judge me on such things. Groups of people cause individuals to do silly things, to live in fear of judgement from each other, and (think witch trials) to quickly pass the buck by condemning someone else.

If someone can prove the existence of God, someone with authority and credibility in a field you trust and employ, you would be retarded to not read it. The existence of God does not and will never excuse The Suck, those are people, and they deserve the aforementioned 'meatgrinder'.

Jason

December 31, 2007 at 11:59 AM  
OpenID bec-87rb said...

...the book was subtitled "A scientist presents evidence for faith".

I got suckered. That's what happens when you want to believe.


That's a bummer. If you had a hope he had a scientific proof that God exists, p <.o5 or .01whatever our threshold is, that is a true bummer.

So, you're of that Carl Sagan school, looking for that message in pi to a million places, a message in nature from It, the Big Kosmic It? That'd be something, I admit. I would dig that, and I would also probably enjoy if someone convinced me that God cannot exist.

Fortunately, Human civilization is far too smart to merely contemplate such unprovable models for millennia at a stretch. Instead, we actually base entire civilizations upon them, and engage in an endless succession of bloody religious wars over whether the invisible hamsters are truly purple, or whether they live in the rectum or the lower jejunum.


Well, I think it's a noble hope that mankind would avoid murdering itself, etc., over obscure points of belief, but I also think irrationality is foundation part of the human experience, and that most people I've met are an overlay of a few mm of rationality on a a solid core of superstition, pig-headedness, intolerance, and inability to imagine the other guy's POV. I don't believe we can eliminate that by getting rid of religion; religion springs from basic humanity, it doesn't cause it. It'd be like weeding out art or music.

if you want to max out your odds of being alive for any given breakthrough, you could do a lot worse than landing on the 21rst century.

True.

I still don't buy that FC is mentally defective, but I've enjoyed the exchange here.

December 31, 2007 at 5:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter,

I have been to your web site a few times but this is the first time I have been to your blog. And the first one I read is the one about Francis Collins. I think that you should stop beating around the bush and say what you really think.

Keep it up.

K Middlebrook

January 9, 2008 at 12:28 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Hey, Ken, welcome back. You still at the same e-mail you had in 2002?

January 13, 2008 at 2:01 PM  
Anonymous Middlebrook said...

If you mean the Rogers address, I am still there. But good luck getting me through that because the only thing that works less than Rogers internet service is their help line.

January 14, 2008 at 11:40 AM  
Blogger AltWorlder said...

I don't quite get all of the shock over Frank Collins' irrational beliefs in the face of his scientific prowess. Cognitive dissonance much? How many great thinkers had kooky notions? I suppose no one reads Isaac Newton's biography anymore. Man was an alchemist, dilettante, and rabid fundie. Yet look at what he did when he was dabbling in the maths and sciences. Doesn't Martin Rees have hysterical doomsday criticisms about particle accelerators? Isn't Freeman Dyson pretty religious, possibly pro-ID, and critical of global warming to a fault? Bill Joy's a neo-Luddite. And then you drift further to the fringe and you get your Teslas. (Not to mention Penrose?)

So is Collins a moron? Possibly. But isn't it more likely that he just had a severe case of cognitive dissonance? It is an inescapable part of human psychology, I believe.

January 14, 2008 at 3:18 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Middlebrook said...

But good luck getting me through that because the only thing that works less than Rogers internet service is their help line.

Dump 'em. Go with a company called Teksavvy, or techsaavy, or something (can't be bothered to look up the spelling). They're where I'm gonna go when I actually have the time to settle on an alternate phone carrier and change all my accounts.

January 16, 2008 at 10:31 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

AltWorlder said...

I don't quite get all of the shock over Frank Collins' irrational beliefs ... isn't it more likely that he just had a severe case of cognitive dissonance? It is an inescapable part of human psychology, I believe.

Point taken. But hope springs eternal, you know. I'm like everyone else on the planet except the clinically-depressed: hardwired for unrealistic optimism.

January 16, 2008 at 10:39 PM  
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