Thursday, August 19, 2010

animal "morality" in question

Marc Hauser is a professor at Harvard who has pubilshed work on the evolution of morality in animals. The suggestion is that since animals possess some kind of moral judgment and behavior, it is not too hard to imagine the further devlopment of human morality in natural terms. I have read some of his books and have been trying to define the relevant differences between human morality and the behavioral studies he reports. But now that effort may be unnecessary - it seems that his "findings" were not suported by his evidence. See And this should be a reminder [to me as well as others] not to accept reported "findings" too quicly....And see this also:

Sunday, August 15, 2010

the new atheism

August 11, 2010, 3:05 pm
On Dawkins’s Atheism: A Response

The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.

atheism, Philosophy, religion, Richard Dawkins

My August 1 essay, “Philosophy and Faith,” was primarily addressed to religious believers. It argued that faith should go hand-in-hand with rational reflection, even though such reflection might well require serious questioning of their faith. I very much appreciated the many and diverse comments and the honesty and passion with which so many expressed their views. Interestingly, many of the most passionate responses came from non-believers who objected to my claim that popular atheistic arguments (like popular theistic arguments) do not establish their conclusions. There was particular dismay over my passing comment that the atheistic arguments of Richard Dawkins are “demonstrably faulty.” This follow-up provides support for my negative assessment. I will focus on Dawkins’ arguments in his 2006 book, “The God Delusion.”

‘The God Delusion’ does not meet the standards of rationality that a topic as important as religion requires.
Dawkins’s writing gives the impression of clarity, but his readable style can cover over major conceptual confusions. For example, the core of his case against God’s existence, as he summarizes it on pages 188-189, seems to go like this:

1. There is need for an explanation of the apparent design of the universe.

2. The universe is highly complex.

3. An intelligent designer of the universe would be even more highly complex.

4. A complex designer would itself require an explanation.

5. Therefore, an intelligent designer will not provide an explanation of the universe’s complexity.

6. On the other hand, the (individually) simple processes of natural selection can explain the apparent design of the universe.

7. Therefore, an intelligent designer (God) almost certainly does not exist.

(Here I’ve formulated Dawkins’ argument a bit more schematically than he does and omitted his comments on parallels in physics to the explanations natural selection provides for apparent design in biology.)

As formulated, this argument is an obvious non-sequitur. The premises (1-6), if true, show only that God cannot be posited as the explanation for the apparent design of the universe, which can rather be explained by natural selection. They do nothing to show that “God almost certainly does not exist” (189).

But the ideas behind premises 3 and 4 suggest a more cogent line of argument, which Dawkins seems to have in mind in other passages:

1. If God exists, he must be both the intelligent designer of the universe and a being that explains the universe but is not itself in need of explanation.

2. An intelligent designer of the universe would be a highly complex being.

3. A highly complex being would itself require explanation.

4. Therefore, God cannot be both the intelligent designer of the universe and the ultimate explanation of the universe.

5. Therefore, God does not exist.

Here the premises do support the conclusion, but premise 2, at least, is problematic. In what sense does Dawkins think God is complex and why does this complexity require an explanation? He does not discuss this in any detail, but his basic idea seems to be that the enormous knowledge and power God would have to possess would require a very complex being and such complexity of itself requires explanation. He says for example: “A God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe cannot be simple” (p. 178). And, a bit more fully, “a God who is capable of sending intelligible signals to millions of people simultaneously, and of receiving messages from all of them simultaneously, cannot be . . . simple. Such bandwidth! . . . If [God] has the powers attributed to him he must have something far more elaborately and randomly constructed than the largest brain or the largest computer we know” (p. 184).

Dawkins ignores the possibility that God is a very different sort of being than brains and computers.
Here Dawkins ignores the possibility that God is a very different sort of being than brains and computers. His argument for God’s complexity either assumes that God is material or, at least, that God is complex in the same general way that material things are (having many parts related in complicated ways to one another). The traditional religious view, however, is that God is neither material nor composed of immaterial parts (whatever that might mean). Rather, he is said to be simple, a unity of attributes that we may have to think of as separate but that in God are united in a single reality of pure perfection.

Obviously, there are great difficulties in understanding how God could be simple in this way. But philosophers from Thomas Aquinas through contemporary thinkers have offered detailed discussions of the question that provide intelligent suggestions about how to think coherently about a simple substance that has the power and knowledge attributed to God. Apart from a few superficial swipes at Richard Swinburne’s treatment in “Is There a God?”, Dawkins ignores these discussions. (see Swinburne’s response to Dawkins, paragraph 3.) Making Dawkins’ case in any convincing way would require detailed engagement not only with Swinburne but also with other treatments by recent philosophers such as Christopher Hughes’ “A Complex Theory of a Simple God.” (For a survey of recent work on the topic, see William Vallicella’s article, “Divine Simplicity,” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Further, Dawkins’ argument ignores the possibility that God is a necessary being (that is, a being that, by its very nature, must exist, no matter what). On this traditional view, God’s existence would be, so to speak, self-explanatory and so need no explanation, contrary to Dawkins’ premise 3. His ignoring this point also undermines his effort at a quick refutation of the cosmological argument for God as the cause of the existence of all contingent beings (that is, all beings that, given different conditions, would not have existed). Dawkins might, like some philosophers, argue that the idea of a necessary being is incoherent, but to make this case, he would have to engage with the formidable complexities of recent philosophical treatments of the question (see, for example, Timothy O’Connor’s “Theism and Ultimate Explanation” and Bruce Reichenbach’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Religious believers often accuse argumentative atheists such as Dawkins of being excessively rationalistic, demanding standards of logical and evidential rigor that aren’t appropriate in matters of faith. My criticism is just the opposite. Dawkins does not meet the standards of rationality that a topic as important as religion requires.

The basic problem is that meeting such standards requires coming to terms with the best available analyses and arguments. This need not mean being capable of contributing to the cutting-edge discussions of contemporary philosophers, but it does require following these discussions and applying them to one’s own intellectual problems. Dawkins simply does not do this. He rightly criticizes religious critics of evolution for not being adequately informed about the science they are calling into question. But the same criticism applies to his own treatment of philosophical issues.

There are sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being, and there are competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God’s existence.
Friends of Dawkins might object: “Why pay attention to what philosophers have to say when, notoriously, they continue to disagree regarding the ‘big questions’, particularly, the existence of God?” Because, successful or not, philosophers offer the best rational thinking about such questions. Believers who think religion begins where reason falters may be able to make a case for the irrelevance of high-level philosophical treatments of religion — although, as I argued in “Philosophy and Faith,” this move itself raises unavoidable philosophical questions that challenge religious faith. But those, like Dawkins, committed to believing only what they can rationally justify, have no alternative to engaging with the most rigorous rational discussions available. Dawkins’ distinctly amateur philosophizing simply isn’t enough.

Of course, philosophical discussions have not resolved the question of God’s existence. Even the best theistic and atheistic arguments remain controversial. Given this, atheists may appeal (as many of the comments on my blog did) to what we might call the “no-arguments argument.” To say that the universe was created by a good and powerful being who cares about us is an extraordinary claim, so improbable to begin with that we surely should deny it unless there are decisive arguments for it (arguments showing that it is highly probable). Even if Dawkins’ arguments against theism are faulty, can’t he cite the inconclusiveness of even the most well-worked-out theistic arguments as grounds for denying God’s existence?

He can if he has good reason to think that, apart from specific theistic arguments, God’s existence is highly unlikely. Besides what we can prove from arguments, how probable is it that God exists? Here Dawkins refers to Bertrand Russell’s example of the orbiting teapot. We would require very strong evidence before agreeing that there was a teapot in orbit around the sun, and lacking such evidence would deny and not remain merely agnostic about such a claim. This is because there is nothing in our experience suggesting that the claim might be true; it has no significant intrinsic probability.

But suppose that several astronauts reported seeing something that looked very much like a teapot and, later, a number of reputable space scientists interpreted certain satellite data as showing the presence of a teapot-shaped object, even though other space scientists questioned this interpretation. Then it would be gratuitous to reject the hypothesis out of hand, even without decisive proof that it was true. We should just remain agnostic about it.

The claim that God exists is much closer to this second case. There are sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being, and there are competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God’s existence. Therefore, an agnostic stance seems preferable atheism.

To this, Dawkins might respond that there are other reasons that make the idea of God’s existence so improbable that nothing short of decisive arguments can override a denial of that existence. It’s as if, they might say, we had strong scientific evidence that nothing shaped like a teapot could remain in an orbit around the sun. We could then rightly deny the existence of an orbiting teapot, despite eye-witness reports and scientific arguments supporting its existence.

What could be a reason for thinking that God’s existence is, of itself, highly improbable? There is, of course, Dawkins’ claim that God is highly complex, but, as we’ve seen, this is an assumption he has not justified. Another reason, which seems implicit in many of Dawkins’ comments, is that materialism (the view that everything is material) is highly probable. If so, the existence of an immaterial being such as God would be highly improbable.

Related More From The Stone
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But what is the evidence for materialism? Presumably, that scientific investigation reveals the existence of nothing except material things. But religious believers will plausibly reply that science is suited to discover only what is material (indeed, the best definition of “material” may be just “the sort of thing that science can discover”). They will also cite our experiences of our own conscious life (thoughts, feelings, desires, etc.) as excellent evidence for the existence of immaterial realities that cannot be fully understood by science.

At this point, the dispute between theists and atheists morphs into one of the most lively (and difficult) of current philosophical debates—that between those who think consciousness is somehow reducible to material brain-states and those who think it is not. This debate is far from settled and at least shows that materialism is not something atheists can simply assert as an established fact. It follows that they have no good basis for treating the existence of God as so improbable that it should be denied unless there is decisive proof for it. This in turn shows that atheists are at best entitled to be agnostics, seriously doubting but not denying the existence of God.

I find Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” stimulating, informative, and often right on target. But it does not make a strong case for atheism. His case is weak because it does not take adequate account of the philosophical discussions that have raised the level of reflection about God’s existence far above that at which he operates. It may be possible to make a decisive case against theism through a penetrating philosophical treatment of necessity, complexity, explanation, and other relevant concepts. Because his arguments fail to do this, Dawkins falls far short of establishing his claim.

Gary Gutting teaches philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and co-edits Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, an on-line book review journal. His most recent book is “What Philosophers Know: Case Studies in Recent Analytic Philosophy.”

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Biblical Criticism refuted

When I first considered traditional Judaism, one obstacle was Biblical Criticism. I investigated it then, in the 1960s, and found it unconvincing [largely due to the work of Cassutto]. In the last few years students have again put the question, especially in virtue of the writings of Richard Elliot Friedman. In response I posted a very short cursory set of notes on a few of Friedman's fantasies But now a friend alerted me to two books that have just appeared - both with the same title [!!] - Who Really Wrote the Bible? one by Eyal Rav-Noy and Gil Weinreich and one by Clayton Howard Ford.

Let me start by saying that each book contains a considerable number of errors. A number of their readings of verses can be disputed in neutral scholarly terms, and are in violation of the Jewish tradition. Some of the uses of chiasms in both, and sevens in the first book, could be challenged as subjective. But each book contains hundreds of critical points. Each book alone would be sufficient to destroy the credibility of Biblical Criticism for an honest thinker. The two together are simply devastating. [By the way, there is very little overlap between the books, remarkably.] Their common methodology is to use the tools of BC against itself, and to demonstrate the inconsistencies and unbelievably unreliable readings BC espouses. I heartily recommend both, even though Ford is a believing Christian. [That means if you do not read a book in which the author mentions Christianity positively, this book is not for you.]

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Waning of Materialism by Robert C. Koons, et al.

When I was in graduate school, materialism was about the only position respected. Mention the soul and you would be laughed out of the room. Well, philosophical fashions have changed [for the better!]. See The Waning of Materialism by Robert C. Koons, et al. - 23 major philosophers - from Oxford, Yale, UCLA and other universities - use all the tools of the latest philosophy to show the insufficiency of a materialist view of the world. And some of the best anti-materialist are not in the volume, e.g. David Chalmers and Michael Rea. the papers are technical - they are for trained philosophers. But the very existence of the volume should give pause to those who simply assume that materialism is obviously correct.

the latest science "news"

From the New York Times:


Rumors in Astrophysics Spread at Light Speed

[SPACE QUEST Technicians readied one of the telescope mirrors used in NASA's Kepler planet-finding mission.]

Ball Aerospace
SPACE QUEST Technicians readied one of the telescope mirrors used in NASA's Kepler planet-finding mission.

Published: August 03, 2010

Dimitar Sasselov, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, lit up the Internet last month with a statement that would stir the soul of anyone who ever dreamed of finding life or another home in the stars.

Brandishing data from NASA's Kepler planet-finding satellite, during a talk at TED Global 2010 in Oxford on July 16, Dr. Sasselov said the mission had discovered 140 Earthlike planets in a small patch of sky in the constellation Cygnus that Kepler has been surveying for the last year and a half.

"The next step after Kepler will be to study the atmospheres of the planets and see if we can find any signs of life," he said.

Last week, Dr. Sasselov was busy eating his words. In a series of messages posted on the Kepler Web site Dr. Sasselov acknowledged that should have said "Earth-sized," meaning a rocky body less than three times the diameter of our own planet, rather than "Earthlike," with its connotations of oxygenated vistas of blue and green. He was speaking in geophysics jargon, he explained.

And he should have called them "candidates" instead of planets.

"The Kepler mission is designed to discover Earth-sized planets but it has not yet discovered any; at this time we have found only planet candidates," he wrote.

In other words: keep on moving, nothing to see here.

I've heard that a lot lately. Call it the two-sigma blues. Two-sigma is mathematical jargon for a measurement or discovery of some kind that sticks up high enough above the random noise to be interesting but not high enough to really mean anything conclusive. For the record, the criterion for a genuine discovery is known as five-sigma, suggesting there is less than one chance in roughly 3 million that it is wrong. Two sigma, leaving a 2.5 percent chance of being wrong, is just high enough to jangle the nerves, however, and all of ours have been jangled enough.

Only three weeks ago, rumors went flashing around all the way to Gawker that researchers at Fermilab in Illinois had discovered the Higgs boson, a celebrated particle that is alleged to imbue other particles with mass. The rumored effect was far less than the five-sigma gold standard that would change the world. And when the Fermilab physicists reported on their work in Paris last week, there was still no trace of the long-sought Higgs.

Scientists at particle accelerators don't have all the fun. Last winter, physicists worked themselves up into a state of "serious hysteria," in the words of one physicist, over rumors that an experiment at the bottom of an old iron mine in Minnesota had detected the purported sea of subatomic particles known as dark matter, which is thought to make up 25 percent of creation.

Physicists all over the world tuned into balky Webcasts in December to hear scientists from the team, called the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search, give a pair of simultaneous talks at Stanford and Fermilab, and this newspaper held its front page, only to hear that the experiment had detected only two particles, only one more than they would have expected to find by chance.

We all went to bed that night in the same world in which we had woken up.

One culprit here is the Web, which was invented to foster better communication among physicists in the first place, but has proved equally adept at spreading disinformation. But another, it seems to me, is the desire for some fundamental discovery about the nature of the universe - the yearning to wake up in a new world - and a growing feeling among astronomers and physicists that we are in fact creeping up on enormous changes with the advent of things like the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva and the Kepler spacecraft.

I can't say what the discovery of dark matter or the final hunting down of the Higgs boson would do for the average person, except to paraphrase Michael Faraday, the 19th-century English chemist who discovered the basic laws of electromagnetism. When asked the same question about electricity, he said that someday it would be taxable. Nothing seemed further from everyday reality once upon a time than Einstein's general theory of relativity, the warped space-time theory of gravity, but now it is at the heart of the GPS system, without which we are increasingly incapable of navigating the sea or even the sidewalks.

The biggest benefit from answering these questions - what is the universe made of, or where does mass come from - might be better questions. Cosmologists have spent the last century asking how and when the universe began and will end or how many kinds of particles and forces are needed to make it tick, but maybe we should wonder why it is we feel the need to think in terms of beginnings and endings or particles at all.

As for planets, I no longer expect to see boots on Mars before I die, but I do expect to know where there is a habitable, really Earthlike planet or planets, thanks to Kepler and the missions that are to succeed it. If such planets exist within a few light-years of here, I can imagine pressure building to send a probe, a robot presumably, to investigate. It would be a trip that would take ages and would be for the ages.

There is a deadline of sorts for Kepler in the form of a conference in December. By then, said William J. Borucki, Kepler's leader, the team hopes to have moved a bunch of those candidate planets to the confirmed list. They will not be habitable, he warned, noting that that would require water, which would require an orbit a moderate distance from their star that takes a year or so to go around. With only 43 days' worth of data to analyze yet, only planets with tighter, faster and hotter orbits will have shown up.

"They'll be smaller, but they will be hot," Mr. Borucki said.

But Kepler has three more years to find a habitable planet. The real point of Dr. Sasselov's talk was that we are approaching a Copernican moment, in which astronomy and biology could combine to tell us something new about our place in the universe.

I know that science does not exist just to fulfill my science-fiction fantasies, but still I wish that things would speed up, and the ratio of discovery to hopeful noise would go up.

Hardly a week goes by, for example, that I don't hear some kind of rumor that, if true, would rock the Universe As We Know It. Recently I heard a rumor that another dark matter experiment, which I won't name, had seen an interesting signal. I contacted the physicist involved. He said the results were preliminary and he had nothing to say.

Smart guy. Very.