Listing entries tagged with evolution

Dawkins on the "Design" Argument

posted on 11.06.2006 at 9:53 AM

Here is Richard Dawkins on one of the better of the arguments for the existence of God. He's a bit unfair to it: The religious position today, rather than entirely ignoring evolution, is usually that there wasn't time for something as complex as an eye to evolve. Still, I think Dawkins is useful on the subject:

The only one of the traditional arguments for God that is widely used today is the teleological argument, sometimes called the Argument from Design although -- since the name begs the question of its validity -- it should better be called the Argument for Design. It is the familiar 'watchmaker' argument, which is surely one of the most superficially plausible bad arguments ever discovered -- and it is rediscovered by just about everybody until they are taught the logical fallacy and Darwin's brilliant alternative.
In the familiar world of human artifacts, complicated things that look designed are designed. To naíve observers, it seems to follow that similarly complicated things in the natural world that look designed -- things like eyes and hearts -- are designed too. It isn't just an argument by analogy. There is a semblance of statistical reasoning here too -- fallacious, but carrying an illusion of plausibility. If you randomly scramble the fragments of an eye or a leg or a heart a million times, you'd be lucky to hit even one combination that could see, walk or pump. This demonstrates that such devices could not have been put together by chance. And of course, no sensible scientist ever said they could. Lamentably, the scientific education of most British and American students omits all mention of Darwinism, and therefore the only alternative to chance that most people can imagine is design.
Even before Darwin's time, the illogicality was glaring: how could it ever have been a good idea to postulate, in explanation for the existence of improbable things, a designer who would have to be even more improbable? The entire argument is a logical non-starter, as David Hume realized before Darwin was born. What Hume didn't know was the supremely elegant alternative to both chance and design that Darwin was to give us. Natural selection is so stunningly powerful and elegant, it not only explains the whole of life, it raises our consciousness and boosts our confidence in science's future ability to explain everything else.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:53 AM | Comments (3)

Religion and Science -- 6

posted on 10.31.2006 at 1:57 AM

Should proponents of evolution allow some space for religion in their schema or reject it entirely? Richard Dawkins, writing on Edge, labels the two sides in this dispute the "Chamberlains" and the "Churchillians," which gives away which side he's on:


The Chamberlain tactic of snuggling up to 'sensible' religion, in order to present a united front against ('intelligent design') creationists, is fine if your central concern is the battle for evolution. That is a valid central concern, and I salute those who press it.... But if you are concerned with the stupendous scientific question of whether the universe was created by a supernatural intelligence or not, the lines are drawn completely differently. On this larger issue, fundamentalists are united with 'moderate' religion on one side, and I find myself on the other.

The intellectual case for accomodation with religious moderates has been made by Stephen Jay Gould -- arguing that religion and science occupy two different "magisteria" -- teaching domains (Shermer's "separate-worlds model"). Dawkins, taking the hard line (Shermer's "conflicting-worlds model"), will have none of this notion that religion might deserve a "magisteria" of its own:

Either Jesus had a father or he didn't. The question is a scientific one, and scientific evidence, if any were available, would be used to settle it. The same is true of any miracle -- and the deliberate and intentional creation of the universe would have to have been the mother and father of all miracles. Either it happened or it didn't. It is a fact, one way or the other.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:57 AM | Comments (2)

Holt vs. Dawkins -- 2: Complexity

posted on 10.24.2006 at 10:54 PM

In his review of Richard Dawkins' attack on religion, Jim Holt raises an interesting question about complexity and simplicity. Holt says Dawkins relies on the premise that:

a creator is bound to be more complex, and hence improbable, than his creation (you never, for instance, see a horseshoe making a blacksmith).

By this logic, God would be more complex than the universe He created. But the whole point of evolution Dawkins says, according to Holt, is that "the simple can give rise to the complex" -- not visa versa. Hence, the complex, God, couldn't have come before the (relatively) simple, the universe.

Here is Holt's response to this use of evolution to dismiss God as the creator:

Not all scientific explanation follows this model. In physics, for example, the law of entropy implies that, for the universe as a whole, order always gives way to disorder; thus, if you want to explain the present state of the universe in terms of the past, you are pretty much stuck with explaining the probable (messy) in terms of the improbable (neat).

Doesn't Holt have a point here -- even if something as improbable as God may seem too improbable to imagine?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:54 PM | Comments (10)

Religion and Science -- 4 (at least)

posted on 08.27.2006 at 6:11 PM

This a putative comment by a nineteenth-century British clergyman:

O ye men of science, ye men of science, leave us our ancestors in paradise, and you may have yours in Zoological gardens.

And here is our man from the Skeptics Society, Michael Shermer, basically accepting the deal:

If you believe God created the world, it's reasonable to ask, How did he do it? What were the forces and mechanisms he used? Why not look to science and see that he started with the big bang, the force of gravity, inflationary cosmology, quarks and natural selection. Those were his tools. To that extent, science is not a threat, it's your best friend. It's the best tool you have for illuminating the grandeur of creation. A Hubble Space Telescope photograph of the universe evokes far more awe for creation than light streaming through a stained glass window in a cathedral. I mean, come on, that photo is an actual representation of the reality that God created, if that's what you believe. So why not embrace science rather than fear it?
They've been sold a bill of goods by people who like the warfare model of science and religion, particularly fundamentalists and militant atheists. Both sides want to force a choice and debunk the other side. But it need not be so. It's an incorrect interpretation promoted by extremists.

I've been moaning and groaning about this way of thinking since I started this blog. Guess this is because I do think science and religion are at war. How about this thesis? The further the telescopes look, the fewer the places left for God to hide. To find Our Father currently, based on accounts on this blog, it is necessary to rewind the entire Big Bang and then somewhere, back before electrons and quarks, when all that is (in our universe, at least) was compacted to the size of an ear bud or whatever, there He was, to say, "Poof."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:11 PM | Comments (8)

Morality and Evolution

posted on 08.20.2006 at 9:16 PM

When Sam Harris stops fulminating and starts arguing, his attack on the religion-and-science-can-be-buddies book by Human Genome Project head Francis Collins gets interesting.

Collins, plumping for the idea that morality comes straight from the Big Guy in the Sky to his Chosen Species, writes:

Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species' behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness.

Harris, after noting that humans have perpetrated an immoral act or two over the millennium, responds:

Just how widespread must "glimmerings" of morality be among other animals before Collins--who, after all, knows a thing or two about genes--begins to wonder whether our moral sense has evolutionary precursors in the natural world? What if mice showed greater distress at the suffering of familiar mice than unfamiliar ones? (They do.) What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage-mates from receiving painful shocks? (They will.) What if chimps have a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards? (They have.) Wouldn't these be precisely the sorts of findings one would expect if our morality were the product of evolution?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:16 PM | Comments (2)

I May Be with Ann Coulter on This One

posted on 08.19.2006 at 12:32 PM

In his wise and clever dismemberment of Ann Coulter's Godless, biologist Jerry Coyne falls back at one point on the usual nice-nice argument that there's no conflict between evolution and religion:

The real reason Coulter goes after evolution is not because it's wrong, but because she doesn't like it -- it doesn't accord with how she thinks the world should be. That's because she feels, along with many Americans, that "Darwin's theory overturned every aspect of Biblical morality." What's so sad -- not so much for Coulter as for Americans as a whole -- is that this idea is simply wrong. Darwinism, after all, is just a body of thought about the origin and change of biological diversity, not a handbook of ethics. (I just consulted my copy of The Origin of Species, and I swear that there's nothing in there about abortion or eugenics, much less about shtupping one's secretary.)

Technically, of course, he's right: Darwin isn't challenging Biblical morality. But he is challenging many of the claims made in the Bible, as Darwin, himself, anxiously recognized -- even wondering, in his notebooks, how he might present his theory and still "avoid stating how far I believe in Materialism." And if the Bible ain't all true wouldn't the ethical system that rests (albeit precariously) upon it be expected to totter a bit?

(Sorry, I realize Jay Saul was kindly trying to pull me out of the Coulter quicksand, but this question continues to intrigue.)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:32 PM | Comments (17)

They're Not in Kansas Anymore?

posted on 08.08.2006 at 5:35 PM

Thomas Frank, author of the insightful What's the Matter with Kansas, cautions against too exuberant a celebration of the defeat last week of anti-evolution forces on the Kansas Board of Education:

Could the faction's rank and file simply have given up, grown disgusted with the absurdity that their grand cause has become? Perhaps, but I think it is far too soon to write the obituary for the godly radicals.

Frank emphasizes the ongoing "war against elites...against the professions" -- doctors, lawyers, journalists, educators -- that has helped power this crusade. Of course, such a rebellion against expertise is an old element in the struggle of faith versus reason. In Greece in the 5th century BCE, while the Hippocratics were trying to take the "sacred" and the "divine" out of the practice of medicine, Athenians were constructing a temple for Asclepius, the god of healing, featuring a holy snake with a healing bite.

How can the experts strike back? By showing that they're just folks with their own faith, as has Senator Barack Obama? Or by continuing to stand up for what they do know? The latter strategy, I suspect, triumphed, at least for the moment, in Kansas:

The curriculum changes, coming after years of see-sawing power struggles between moderates and conservatives, drew widespread ridicule and, critics complained, threatened Kansas's high standing in national education circles.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:35 PM | Comments (3)

Religion and Science -- 3

posted on 07.20.2006 at 2:09 AM

Stephen Jay Gould, whose book Wonderful Life is among my favorites, deserves a hearing on this subject.

Gould.jpgGould, in one of his columns for Nature, speaks of something he calls NOMA or "nonoverlapping magisteria" ("magisteria," a term borrowed from Pope Pius of all people, meaning, for those of us who managed to avoid Latin, "areas of teaching authority"). Gould sees in this way of looking at things:

the principled resolution of supposed "conflict" or "warfare" between science and religion. No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority.

So Gould here seems to be aligning himself with the why-can't-we-all-be-friends view of the relationship between science (or specifically evolution) and religion. That puts him with the archbishop of Canterbury and Madeline Bunting against (not for the first time) Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett:

The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.

Gould describes himself as "not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice" and as an "agnostic." Perhaps that has something to do with the rather wan view of religion to which he is according a valid "magisterium" here: just "questions of moral meaning and value"? What about an afterlife (he does, at least, mention "heaven"), the efficacy of prayer and, lest we forget, God? It is hard to see how the claims of a real, old-fashioned religion -- a Pope Pius religion, with an Immaculate Conception and a Resurrection -- might manage to avoid overlapping with the claims of science, unless we are to agree with Francis Collins that there is a place in the universe or in existence "outside of nature." And Gould, eager as he may have been to avoid conflict, would seem to have been too good a scientist for that.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:09 AM | Comments (0)

Great Moments in Religion: 1

posted on 07.13.2006 at 11:50 PM

Universe created on October 23, 4004 BCE. This is from A Geological Miscellany by G. Y. Craig and E. J. Jones:

James Ussher (1581-1656), Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland, and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College in Dublin was highly regarded in his day as a churchman and as a scholar. Of his many works, his treatise on chronology has proved the most durable. Based on an intricate correlation of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean histories and Holy writ, it was incorporated into an authorized version of the Bible printed in 1701, and thus came to be regarded with almost as much unquestioning reverence as the Bible itself. Having established the first day of creation as Sunday 23 October 4004 BC..., Ussher calculated the dates of other biblical events, concluding, for example, that Adam and Eve were driven from Paradise on Monday 10 November 4004 BC [making their stay almost as short as some of my recent vacations], and that the ark touched down on Mt Ararat on 5 May 2348 BC `on a Wednesday'.

I should add that Ussher's chronology was widely accepted in England in 1859, when Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species was published.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:50 PM | Comments (0)

The Origin of the Species

posted on 07.08.2006 at 8:23 PM

In 1859 in England, Charles Bradlaugh was on the stump, attacking religion before huge working-class crowds; John Stuart Mill published On Liberty ("If all mankind minus one were of one opinion and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind") and Charles Darwin published his book. Not a bad year.

Here are some historians (none of whom I've heard of) on the importance of The Origin of the Species, which some still insist can sit comfortably next to Christianity:

The Origin of the Species came into the theological world like a plough into an ant-hill -- Leo J. Henkin
I myself have little doubt that in England it was geology and the theory of evolution that changed us from a Christian to a pagan nation -- F. Sherwood Taylor
No rapproachement was possible between Darwinism as such and protestantism as such. The conceptions of Man were too divergent -- John Dillenberger
If we may estimate the importance of an idea by the change of thought which it effects, this idea of natural selection is unquestionably the most important that has ever been conceived by the mind of man -- George J. Romanes

(From The Victorian Crisis of Faith)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:23 PM | Comments (1)

Precursor to the Evolution Debate

posted on 06.25.2006 at 2:07 PM

Edward O. Wilson again, writing in Harvard Magazine last year:

In all of the history of science only one other disparity of comparable magnitude to evolution has occurred between a scientific event and the impact it has had on the public mind. This was the discovery by Copernicus that Earth and therefore humanity are not the center of the universe, and the universe is not a closed spherical bubble. Copernicus delayed publication of his masterwork On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres until the year of his death (1543). For his extension of the idea subsequently, Bruno was burned at the stake, and for its documentation Galileo was shown the instruments of torture at Rome and remained under house arrest for the remainder of his life.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:07 PM | Comments (6)

Americans, Evolution and Revelation

posted on 06.24.2006 at 12:53 PM

Hate to beat a dead horse, but the poll numbers here are truly disturbing.The biologist Edward O. Wilson (thanks to a long-ago comment by Peter):

Nothing ["nothing"?] in science as a whole has been more firmly established by interwoven factual documentation, or more illuminating, than the universal occurrence of biological evolution. Further, few natural processes have been more convincingly explained than evolution by the theory of natural selection or, as it is popularly called, Darwinism.
Thus it is surpassingly strange that half of Americans recently polled (2004) not only do not believe in evolution by natural selection but do not believe in evolution at all. Americans are certainly capable of belief, and with rocklike conviction if it originates in religious dogma. In evidence is the 60 percent that accept the prophecies of the Book of Revelation as truth,

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:53 PM | Comments (4)

The Attack on Reason

posted on 06.23.2006 at 6:20 PM

This (thanks to Kristian Z. ) from the Baccalaureate Address given by outgoing Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers a couple of weeks ago. Summers, I admit, is a complicated character. But still...

It is an irony of our time that at a moment when the power of reason to cure diseases, link nations, emancipate the enslaved, and improve living standards has never been greater, the idea of reason is increasingly in question....

Another way of looking at this is that reason, to its glory, has become strong enough to question reason. But still...

Think about this, at a time when biological science has done more to reduce human suffering and has more potential to reduce human suffering than ever before in all of history. There is today, in American public schools, more doubt cast on the theory of evolution than at any time in the last century.

(Perhaps name of this blog should be changed to "But still...")

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:20 PM | Comments (19)

The Evolution "Debate"

posted on 04.26.2006 at 3:59 PM

"Evolution: The Big Surprise" is a headline on the cover of the current issue of the New York Review of Books. And your first thought is that it might have something to do with the debate over "intelligent design."

It doesn't. The article describes some interesting recent research on embryo development and how it has "radically altered our views of evolution and the relation of human beings to all other animals." Still, the fact that you even suspect that the New York Review would be troubling itself with countering a theory with no serious scientific support shows how this creationist nonsense has wormed its way into contemporary discourse.

Another sign is the fact that this article must begin by anticipating our suspicions and making clear that it is not about the "recent controversy about the theory of evolution."

Let's say religious groups were able to convince the odd school board that the "theory" that the universe was created in the year 4004 BC should be taught along with history and astronomy. Would articles on these subject then have to begin by explaining that they are not about the recent controversy about the age of the universe?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:59 PM | Comments (1)

Religion and Politics -- 2: John McCain

posted on 04.10.2006 at 10:59 PM

This from a New York Times article on the Democrats' favorite Republican, likely presidential candidate John McCain:

He said schools should be allowed to offer "intelligent design" courses as an alternative to evolution.

And perhaps levitation courses as an alternative to gravity?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:59 PM | Comments (2)

The Blindingly Obvious

posted on 04.06.2006 at 10:56 PM

Interesting how much effort, nowadays, is going into proving what we ought already to know: Life evolved in part from climbing from the sea to the land. Prayer by strangers can't improve health. Next? A double-blind study of whether psychics can solve crime? Maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea. Maybe this -- the eradication of superstition -- is a slower process than we thought. Maybe you have to keep at it. Maybe disbelievers, not believers, should be calling for more of these studies.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:56 PM | Comments (2)

Evidence of Evolution?

posted on 04.06.2006 at 9:55 AM

Just discovered fossils of a giant fish with proto-limbs -- a "missing link" between fish and land animals -- certainly deepen understanding of evolution. But have intelligent design/creationist arguments received so much attention in the United States recently that these fossils need to be seen as further evidence of the truth of the theory of evolution (as if this theory is wanting in proof). Apparently yes. This is paragraph five of the lead story in the New York Times today:

Other scientists said that in addition to confirming elements of a major transition in evolution, the fossils were a powerful rebuttal to religious creationists, who have long argued that the absence of such transitional creatures are a serious weakness in Darwin's theory.

Indeed, while this is certainly an interesting and important story, it would probably not be the lead story if this religious foolishness had not received so much attention.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:55 AM | Comments (1)

Does Darwin Lead to Atheism? -- II

posted on 03.29.2006 at 9:52 PM

Madeleine Bunting is concerned with avoiding "false dichotomies between faith and science." What religious models might satisfy Bunting and "mesh with" (the phrase is from Dan Jones) evolution? Jones mentions the obvious one: God sets natural selection in motion and watches it work -- presumably devoting Himself, thereafter, just to prayer-answering and salvation-dispensing. Various wispy Gods -- God as Nature, God as metaphor, God as consciousness, etc. -- would also fit.

Wouldn't you have to ignore, or view as fiction, large portions of various holy books for more traditional versions of God to "mesh"? In the effort to avoid "dichotomies," don't you lose either a lot of God or a lot of evolution?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:52 PM | Comments (0)

Does Darwinism Lead to Atheism?

posted on 03.28.2006 at 5:56 PM

A split seems to be developing among pro-evolution (anti-intelligent design) forces, with the work of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett the major bones of contention. The selection below is from a new piece by Madeleine Bunting, an old friend in this blog, in the Guardian:


'Michael Ruse, a prominent Darwinian philosopher (and an agnostic) based in the US, with a string of books on the subject, is exasperated: "Dawkins and Dennett are really dangerous, both at a moral and a legal level." The nub of Ruse's argument is that Darwinism does not lead ineluctably to atheism, and to claim that it does (as Dawkins does) provides the intelligent-design lobby with a legal loophole: "If Darwinism equals atheism then it can't be taught in US schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state. It gives the creationists a legal case. Dawkins and Dennett are handing these people a major tool."'

In his blog, The Proper Study Of Mankind, from which I learned of this latest Bunting blast, Dan Jones does a fine job of unpacking the Bunting-Rose position. He has a go at the "legal loophole," atheism-as-religion argument. But also takes on the Darwinism=atheism question: Jones concedes that "the specific claims of" science and evolution may not be "utterly incompatible with a religious conception of the universe (you can always tweak your scientific and religious models to mesh with one another)." But he contends that "scientific investigation just doesn't tend towards theism and belief in God."

This tending away from theism (and you-know-Whom) by science, while it is wrestling with creationism, throws Bunting into something of a panic:

'Across the US, a crude and erroneous conflict is being created between science as atheism and religion. It's important that Britain avoids the trap that America is falling into, not just because it endangers good science, but also because there is a fascinating debate worth having about what scientific method can reveal about faith, and what theologians have to say about science.'

Bunting is right about the scientific method shedding light on faith. That, as she acknowledges, is the point of Dennett's book. But seeing science as irreligious won't interfere with this effort. Exactly what light theologians can shed on science she neglects specify.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:56 PM | Comments (5)

The Bible as a Theory?

posted on 03.21.2006 at 11:22 AM

This recent comment by the archbishop of Canterbury points to some of the jagged edges in the intelligent-design debate. His name is Rowan Williams:


"I think creationism is ... a kind of category mistake, as if the Bible were a theory like other theories ... if creationism is presented as a stark alternative theory alongside other theories I think there's just been a jarring of categories ... My worry is creationism can end up reducing the doctrine of creation rather than enhancing it."

Isn't the liberal, pluralistic perspective on intelligent design similar to that of the archbishop: Religion is fine; it just doesn't belong in science classes? (And, by this argument, John Barrow ought to decide if he's a physicist or a theologian, because they are two entirely different professions.)

Wouldn't a proselytizing nonbeliever argue, however, that, when it comes to the creation of the universe, the Bible does put forward a "theory"? Wouldn't this nonbeliever resist the idea that religion should be placed in a special reason-proof, science-proof "category" and, in fact, want intelligent design discussed in school so that it -- along with the notion that the universe was created in six days -- can be analyzed and, presumably, refuted, as the notion that the sun revolves around the earth has been refuted?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:22 AM | Comments (2)

The Origin of Bacteria

posted on 03.18.2006 at 10:25 AM

For some recent online debunking of the argument for intelligent design see Concerned Scientist (via Pharyngula). The point, of course, is that rather than arriving -- poof -- suddenly and inexplicably, life on earth came about through a series of comprehensible steps.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:25 AM | Comments (0)

New Genes -- I

posted on 03.07.2006 at 1:46 PM

The new study by Jonathan Pritchard at the University of Chicago shakes the ground underneath the field dubbed by Jared Diamond "human history." (The field some small corners of which I fancy myself currently plowing and having plowed.)

We've long thought the genetic structures that help determine how we eat, mate, relate and, perhaps, believe have remained pretty much unchanged since the arrival of our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, 50- or 100-thousand years ago. This study indicates that this was not the case -- that our gene pool may have significantly altered after the world-changing invention of agriculture 10-thousand years ago.

This might mean that when we look into the evolution of religion, as Daniel Dennett has recently done, we might pay more attention to life in a village among cows, chickens and wheat fields, and less to life in a hunting and foraging tribe.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:46 PM | Comments (0)

God and Science

posted on 02.28.2006 at 12:04 PM

GOD2.JPGFrom a New York Times article on the defeat (Hallelujah!) of a bill in Utah that would have "required teachers to issue a disclaimer to their students saying that not all scientists agree about evolution and the origin of species." darwin_beard.bmp

"The bill died on a 46-to-28 vote in the Republican-controlled House after being amended by the majority whip, Stephen H. Urquhart, a Mormon who said he thought God did not have an argument with science."

Glad to see, of course, that Mr. Urquhart believes God to be open minded. But I continue to wonder how the diety might square science with miracles, the afterlife and His own omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent existence.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:04 PM | Comments (1)

Science and Religion

posted on 02.21.2006 at 4:49 PM

Maybe this is what is most interesting about Wieseltier/Dennett debate below:

All right-thinking blue-state people, religious or not, had lined up on the side of science and evolution, against intolerant school boards and the foolishness of intelligent design. Now here's Wieseltier -- a liberal intellectual of impeccable credentials, in the New York Times, no less -- faced with the task of resisting a science-based atheist argument. And what does he do? He resorts to charges of "scientism" and quotes, respectfully, Hume saying: "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author."

The scary question for a percentage of those right-thinking people: Has the scientific argument against religion grown so strong that it is necessary to challenge science to refute it?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:49 PM | Comments (4)

An Indifferent Cosmos

posted on 01.23.2006 at 6:38 PM

More from Madeleine Bunting's assault on Richard Dawkins:

"Science has to concede that despite its huge advances it still cannot answer questions about the nature of the universe - such as whether we are freak chances of evolution in an indifferent cosmos."

Is this really such a tough question?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:38 PM | Comments (6)

Judge Jones -- In the 15th Century

posted on 01.18.2006 at 5:04 PM

In trying to understand the history of atheism, it is probably necessary to understand why, at times, failure to believe in the gods really did seem wacky: in Europe before Newton and Darwin, for example.

The problem: "world orderliness," Schopenhauer called it - as evidenced by the remarkable regularities of the heavenly bodies as well as the remarkable complexity and efficiency of living bodies. Explain that with your "materialism"! Tell us that is just the product of "blind chance"!

Fact is it was damn difficult -- before gravity, before evolution -- to explain the presence of order and complexity in the universe without recourse to a "divine creator."

Let's say some Judge Jones six centuries ago had been asked to rule on an effort by a school board to begin classes with a statement that there was another "theory" of creation: that all the marvels that make up the heavens and the earth just arrived by accident. Might he not have dismissed that notion as characterized by "breathtaking inanity"?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:04 PM | Comments (3)

Judge Jones' decision: some thoughts

posted on 12.21.2005 at 11:30 PM

** On December 20, Judge John E. Jones, a Republican, ruled that the requirement instituted by the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, that teachers read a statement presenting "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution was unconstitutional and characterized by "breathtaking inanity." Secularist might indeed find evidence here that the great, centuries-long process of accepting science, not faith, as the arbiter of truth about the natural world has not halted. After all, it wasn't so long ago that such decisions were going the other way: In the famous "Monkey Trial" in 1925, John Scopes was convicted of violating a Tennessee law against teaching evolution in public schools. (The case was later thrown out on a technicality.) That law was not repealed until 1967.

** However, might there also have been evidence that fundamentalism, superstition, mumbo jumbo (choose your term of abuse) or (more kindly) faith are once again on the rise in the fact that a school board in the United States in the twenty-first century could even consider instituting such a requirement?

** In his decision, Judge Jones declared that "the theory of evolution…in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator." Those of us who are interested in the history of tussles between the secular and the spiritual might want to chew over this remark a little. It certainly has a nice, genteel, pluralistic sound, but is it true?

When the theory of evolution was first promulgated, a century and a half ago, many of its supporters, as well as its opponents, did see it as a significant challenge to the foundations of religion: The problem was not so much that natural selection and a "divine creator" couldn't cohabit. It's a big universe. And we're dealing, apparently, with an endlessly mutable Deity. The problem was that Darwin's explanation of how natural selection, a mere biological process, could account for the complexity of the natural world seemed to leave little or no need for said "divine creator." Natural selection, like Newton's theory of planetary motions, seemed to make God redundant.

Newton remained a believer. Darwin didn't. And he lost his faith in those years when he was, cautiously, working out his theory. "Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate," he reports in a short memoir, "but was at last complete."

One of the quotes shuffled at this top of this blog is from the poet Shelley and a college buddy: "If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, knowledge of nature is made for their destruction." For Shelley, unlike Judge Jones, science and religion do indeed conflict. In 1811, Shelley was kicked out of Oxford University - then an even more conservative institution than the Dover school board - for saying so.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:30 PM | Comments (10)