Rant on The Language of God by Francis Collins

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 31st, 2009

I started reading Francis Collins’s book but its not going very well. I was interested of a tale of an atheistic scientist that found God. The first argument and apparent centre piece is based on an unusual mix of the meta-ethics, argument from analogy, argument from design, and a bit of the ontological argument. He attributes it to CS Lewis with numerous quotes from his books. (And I thought I was bad with my narrow selection of quotations!) I have outlined the argument in as clear form as I can by separating the two main threads, then I have proceeded to “kick the tires”. It has been a while since I have attempted this type of activity. I am motivated and intrigued by the authors repeated claims of rationality and his previous work as a scientist.

The existence of the concepts of good and evil are accepted by most people.
Humans act in an altruistic manner.
Human altruistic behaviour and the concept of good has not been explained.

‘The argument that most caught my attention, and most rocked my ideas about science and spirit down to their foundations, was right there in the title of Book One: “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.” […] Disagreements are part of daily life. […] each party attempts to appeal to an unstated higher standard. This standard is the Moral Law. […] Virtually never does the respondent say, “To hell with your concept of right behaviour.” What we have here is very peculiar: the concept of right and wrong appears to be universal among all members of the human species[…]’

The concept of “good” is analogous to a house that has been designed an architect. The concept of “good” must also have a creator, which is God.
The altruistic actions are analogous to a house that has been designed an architect. The concept of “good” must also have a creator, which is God.

If the Law of Human Nature cannot be explained away as cultural artifact or evolutionary by-product, then how can we account for its presence? There is truly something going on here. Francis Collins

If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicious? C S Lewis

Axioms: The argument relies on the axiom that the concept of good is universal. Unfortunately for this argument, counter examples exist – just look at existential philosophy. If we still use a weakened form of the argument, “most people believe in good”, we end up with an imperfectly universal “Moral Law” and therefore an imperfect designer. If we argue, “those existentialists are just deluding themselves”, the reverse argument is also allowable “the majority of people are deluded about Moral Law”. I don’t think this could be clearer:

My demand of the philosopher is well known: that he take his stand beyond good and evil and treat the illusion of moral judgement as beneath him. This demand follows from an insight that I was the first to articulate: that there are no moral facts. Twilight of the Idols, FN

So much for the universal concept of Moral Law. If only Nietzsche’s demand was more well known…

The other axiom is that people act in an altruistic way. Collins defines altruism as “the truly selfless giving of oneself to others with absolutely no secondary motives”. He cites Oskar Schindler and Mother Teresa as examples. Well I can think of one motivation: religion (they were both Catholic). Also, these individuals decided “they know best” in how to help people in distress. This generalising of a personal morality on to other cases generally seems very selfish to me!

Update: I should distinguish that the belief in a God (irrespective of the validity of belief) is a sufficient explanation in these cases. The existence of God is what Collins uses as the explanation of altruism.

But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Luke 6:35 (my emphasis)

He wishes to succour, and does not reflect that there is a personal necessity for misfortune; that terror, want, impoverishment, midnight watches, adventures, hazards and mistakes are as necessary to me and to you as their opposites, yea, that, to speak mystically, the path to one’s own heaven always leads through the voluptuousness of one’s own hell. No, he knows nothing thereof. Gay Science Aph 338, FN

Argument from analogy: this is an unsure method of argument more suited to rhetorics. If the cases that are compared are not equal, the analogy does not necessarily hold. We must be particularly careful if we are comparing something like a house to something like “the concept of good”. On what grounds are we to compare “the concept of good” to any physical object, without invoking the characteristic of “design” which would be merely begging the question in that assumes a designer? This great quote from Hume rebuts comparison between the universe and a house but it might be equally applied to comparing a morality and a house.

…the subject in which you are engaged exceeds all human reason and enquiry. Can you pretend to shew any such similarity between the fabric of a house, and the generation of a universe? Have you ever seen nature in any such situation as resembles the first arrangement of the elements? Have worlds ever been formed under your eye; and have you had leisure to observe the whole progress of the phenomenon, from the first appearance of order to its final consummation? If you have, then cite your experience, and deliver your theory. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume

Argument from ignorance: In some ways, this argument should have been stated first since it is a simple logically flaw and not easily rebutted. If we don’t know where the concept “good” comes from, we can’t form any conclusion based on what we don’t know. If we allowed this, he might become religious based on an argument from ignorance but when an explanation emerges, is he compelled to renounce God? That would be absurd. This has been discussed many times before as “God of the gaps”.

Since this is an argument from ignorance, I could explain the concept of “good” being caused by extra-terrestrial alien interference. Although I don’t believe that theory, the flimsy supporting evidence is better than Collins’s no evidence whatever (in the context of this argument from ignorance).

Infinite regress: If there is evidence of an “architect”, what created the architect? The architect’s designer presumably. And who created that? And so on. I really can’t be bothered to flesh this out since this objection has been known for hundreds of years.

Some points that I found while flipping though the book:

“This principle [Occham’s razor] suggests that the simplest explanation for any given probelms is usually best. Occam’s Razor appears to have been relegated to the Dumpster by the bizarre models of quantum physics.”

This is a straw man of Occam’s razor. Does it only say the “simplest” argument is best? No. It doesn’t. And for a practicing scientist to claim this makes me worry. (If this really is Occam’s razor, the best theory would be “the universe is random, any pattern is a coincidence” and we can stop research since we have the “best” theory.)

“If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove His existence. If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove His existence. Atheism itself must therefore be considered a form of blind faith.”

Nice ad hominem tu quoque. But it is easy to restate this argument to say “religion can neither prove nor disprove his existence” and therefore it is “blind faith”. This refutes his own argument from evidence in one fell swoop. On the other hand, if God is “inside the universe”, science or atheists can comment on God’s existence. Oddly Collins seems to alternate between God being “outside the universe” and yet occasionally intervening in human affairs. Is he a deist or theist? From this quote, I don’t think he knows himself.

An alternative analysis I suggest is that “good” is a product of language to express social norms. Social and community norms exist in humans and other animals. Of the animals, we have the most complicated language – if we use a broad definition of “language”. The short cut to refer to community norms in language is what created the concept “good”. Not a big deal – and certainly no proof of God. My suggestion to Francis Collins: get a copy of Hume’s “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” and read it (again, if applicable). I would have liked to have read his ideas on coexistence of science and religion but his first few chapters were so incoherence so I stopped and I don’t think I missed much by not reading on. But apparently he rejects creationism and ID. Perhaps scientists should say away from philosophy? (note to self…)

Anti Citizen One

PS I have less of a beef with religious people who don’t claim rational justification for God. This post obviously does not apply to you. 🙂

Review: Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 30th, 2009

Bad Science is a joyful debunking of medical myths and unsound methods. It covers “alternative medicine”, abuses in mainstream research and the media’s reporting of science. It is interesting to have an outsider comment on the medical research but still from a knowledgeable point of view. His style is irreverent and amusing which is a welcome change from researchers who may take their own community too seriously. The book reminds me of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds in its treatment of quacks within alternative medicine. He also restates what is meant by causality and the human tendencies in biased reason – in a very Hume-like, Nietzschian way. His argument is eye opening to many problems with the medical systems. He avoids blaming individuals when he can see systematic failures – most quacks are almost carried by a local mass delusion.

The section on the media’s handling of MMR is particularly damning. The current position is the media has turned on the original source, Andrew Wakefield, saying he was responsible for leading the media into mass panic for years. Ben points out that Wakefield’s evidence, even before it was debunked, was flimsy and the media is to blame for perpetuating a myth. In this case a myth that caused people to die from complications from mumps and rubella and was far from harmless. The debunking of Wakefield did not change the evidence which was weighted towards MMR’s safety the entire time! Ben blames the editorial system of newspapers, which has generalist journalists handle the big science stories rather than science journalists. He also points a finger at readers who buy newspapers that cover health scares for creating a demand for such stories. I am included to agree with his analysis. Although grossly self indulgent, I will quote from V for Vendetta:

How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be?

One striking thing compared to most debunking books is the rather pessimistic conclusion. Most people who reveal the awful truth – for example Michael Moore or Nietzsche tend to expect things will get better once the truth is known. For example:

…so that one is as constantly reminded of the proximity of winter as of the victory over it: the victory which is coming, which must come, which has perhaps already come…. FN

On the other hand, Goldacre states:

To anyone who feels their ideas have been challenged by this book, or who has been made angry by it – to the people who feature in it, I suppose – I would say this: You win. You really do.

He might be right if medicine is for the majority, the majority can’t be made to think in ways that medical experts think. Anyway, a good read. The book also reminded me of Asch’s experiment in social conformity, which is truly mind blowing. (I’m looking accusingly at you, scientific research and religion…)

Anti Citizen One


Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 29th, 2009

I’ve got 50% of people with me, and 50% of people will never be with me. Tracey Emin

UK Parliment Expense Claims

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 20th, 2009

It might surprise some, but I am not very interested in the MP expenses scandal. It is of course true that some MPs claimed much more than absolutely necessary, but why would we expect them do to differently? The pursuit of wealth is accepted by the majority. Selfless actions are perhaps highly spoken off, but less actually done. But how can we call for MP’s to act selflessly? That would be a selfish thing to do – and therefore hypocritical!

In fact this whole issue is a distraction and an extension of finding someone to blame for economic woes, especially since attacking bankers has become boring. I am far more concerned with the authoritarian legislation that has been passed by the present government, illegal wars, trade and cooperation with countries that use torture, etc. A recent, more important issue: the recent Simon Signh libel case

Update: Of course, I recklessly assumed that hypocritical criticism is a problem. We could call for politicians to be selfless to serve our own interests – and this is happening. The question is then: do we admit to ourselves that we are hypocrites? This is unlikely. The result is we lie to ourselves, saying “we are unselfish” and “politicians should be too!” – this also keeps the illusion of universal morality in tact. What is needed to replace this is a deeper debate on what type of person do we want as politicians and what exactly is the point in the state?…

Anti Citizen One

How to Deal with an Existential Crisis

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 19th, 2009

I noticed this semi-serious “how to” guide on existential crisis survival. A few points make me scratch my head (such as “Turn on a light, preferably 75 watts or brighter.”) but I am pretty sure it would not hurt to try – lol

It also says “Don’t do too much thinking after midnight. That never goes well.” Ironically this is a moment of realisation in Thus Spake Zarathustra:

There is an old heavy, heavy, booming-clock: it boometh by night
up to thy cave:-
-When thou hearest this clock strike the hours at midnight, then
thinkest thou between one and twelve thereon-


The Idiot

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 17th, 2009

I have finished reading The Idiot by Dostoyevsky. It has very interesting characterisation but rather rambling in style. It is packed full of social commentary, moral questions and psychological analysis – often expressed in the story in “ravings” of one character or another. Among the themes are love for one woman, Nastasya Filipovna, by three very different men: Myshkin, who is a paragon of virtue and humility; Rogozhin, who is passionate but roguish and mercenary; and Ganya, being ambitious but always mediocre. The outcome is a tragedy – each character is torn apart by an aspect within themselves which is at odds with their circumstances. Myshkin, the protagonist, is almost Christ-like in his readiness to forgive and to love. His love for Nastasya Filipovna degenerates from selfless love to total pity with a self destructive intensity. (No wonder Nietzsche took such a liking to Dostoyevsky.)

Various proto-existential questions are raised – what are the values of a society? are people responsible for their actions or does their circumstances and environment undermine “free will”? The case of a man driven to cannibalism by near starvation is discussed.

This criminal ended at last by denouncing himself to the clergy, and giving himself up to justice. We cannot but ask, remembering the penal system of that day, and the tortures that awaited him […] There must have been something stronger than the stake or the fire, or even than the habits of twenty years! There must have been an idea more powerful than all the calamities and sorrows of this world, famine or torture, leprosy or plague–an idea which entered into the heart, directed and enlarged the springs of life, and made even that hell supportable to humanity! Show me a force, a power like that, in this our century of vices and railways!

This raises the possibility of a value system which overrules self preservation in this case. The speaker (Lebedeff) claims that the modern would has become devoid of strong convictions and therefore devalued. Another case is discussed concerning a murderer of 6 people and his unusual moral defence:

Well, not long since everyone was talking and reading about that terrible murder of six people on the part of a–young fellow, and of the extraordinary speech of the counsel for the defence, who observed that in the poverty-stricken condition of the criminal it must have come NATURALLY into his head to kill these six people.

If we admit we would have done the same in the murder’s position, we may be less inclined to condemn him. “Guilt” would no longer be free choice of evil over good, since there is no “free” choice. On the other hand, how can meaningfully discuss “If I were in another’s position” or “If another was in mine”? This might be comparing oranges and apples since there is no possibility of individuals swapping their circumstances. But that too would undermine a universal moral law.

In another place, a terminally ill man discusses what use to make of his last two weeks of life:

Who, in the name of what Law, would think of disputing my full personal right over the fortnight of life left to me?

Since he feels cannot do anything “significant” in the remaining time, the man feels he has no further obligation in his actions or even to carry on living. If this point is admitted, he argument might be extended to an entire life… hello existential crisis. No wonder Dostoyevsky is listed as a founding thinker of existentialism 🙂

Anti Citizen One

Nocebo Effect

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 15th, 2009

Interesting piece in the New Scientist about Voodoo. For people who find it hard taking such a belief seriously, an interest comparison to modern medicine is made:

Despite the growing evidence that the nocebo effect is all too real, it is hard in this rational age to accept that people’s beliefs can kill them. After all, most of us would laugh if a strangely attired man leapt about waving a bone and told us we were going to die. But imagine how you would feel if you were told the same thing by a smartly dressed doctor with a wallful of medical degrees and a computerful of your scans and test results. The social and cultural background is crucial, says Enck. New Scientist


Thought Police in Britain

Posted by on May 8th, 2009

My attention has just been drawn to this controversial article written in The Australian by Hal Colbatch entitled “Thought police muscle up in Britain“.

I call it controversial mainly because the incidences it describes are obviously being discussed across the world. It is also controversial because the cases mentioned are extremes and often the over zealous applications of well-meaning laws (i.e. equality and diversity laws). But I believe the points he makes are accurate.

In describing Britain as a soft Totalitarian state he concludes his article with the following:

“Any one of these incidents might be dismissed as an aberration, but taken together – and I have only mentioned a tiny sample; more are reported almost every day – they add up to a pretty clear picture.”

Do we citizens have cause for concern?


Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 2nd, 2009

Ok, I admit I have not posted for a while. But observing the news, Heraclitus was right! Every moment brings new things! My book reading project is nearing its conclusion (reading the Gay Science/Joyful Wisdom).

Anti citizen one

PS The Brits pulled out of Iraq – finally. What was the point in the war exactly? And without that, how can we judge success?

PPS Considering further comparisons of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, this is the closest(?) that FN comes to SK’s knight of faith:

When a man feels that he has a divine mission, say to lift up, to save or to liberate mankind–when a man feels the divine spark in his heart and believes that he is the mouthpiece of supernatural imperatives–when such a mission inflames him, it is only natural that he should stand beyond all merely reasonable standards of judgment. He feels that he is himself sanctified by this mission, that he is himself a type of a higher order! . . . What has a priest to do with philosophy! He stands far above it! (The Anti-Christ, FN)