Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion! Again!

Posted by Anti Citizen One on March 15th, 2014

Still here, I think. I wrote a summary of Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume on Iron Chariots, a counter-apologetics wiki.


Spiders Created The Universe?

Posted by Anti Citizen One on February 22nd, 2012

The BRAHMINS assert, that the world arose from an infinite spider, who spun this whole complicated mass from his bowels, and annihilates afterwards the whole or any part of it, by absorbing it again, and resolving it into his own essence. Here is a species of cosmogony, which appears to us ridiculous; because a spider is a little contemptible animal, whose operations we are never likely to take for a model of the whole universe. But still here is a new species of analogy, even in our globe. And were there a planet wholly inhabited by spiders, (which is very possible,) this inference would there appear as natural and irrefragable as that which in our planet ascribes the origin of all things to design and intelligence, as explained by CLEANTHES. Why an orderly system may not be spun from the belly as well as from the brain, it will be difficult for him to give a satisfactory reason. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, David Hume

The Voyage of The Beagle

Posted by Anti Citizen One on January 29th, 2010

I finished The Voyage of The Beagle about Darwin’s early travels. People keep asking me who wrote it – as if all historical figures can only be seen in light of later historians! Well, he wrote it himself based on his personal journal. The trip was probably an inspiration for evolution but at the time, he held more conventional beliefs. The book focuses on observations while sailing and on land expeditions in the southern hemisphere. He discusses a wide variety of social, biological and natural phenomena – this generalist approach to science is refreshing. He occasionally makes positive religious references and comparisons. He feels great patriotic pride at being English and the improvement, as he saw it, of various peoples around the world, primarily through missionary activity. He often makes clear his strong feelings against slavery. A few observations are striking as possible foreshadowing his later work, including:

  • Certain species occur together and never occur separately
  • Certain species are unique to a particular habitat and do not occur in a distant similar habitat
  • Many species are comprised of sub-species
  • Habitats, geology, ground level and climate change in time, sometimes suddenly and sometimes slowly
  • Two nearby places can be completely different habitats
  • Some habitats often have new arrivals of species, others are isolated
  • The vast majority of fossils correspond to extinct species
  • Some species are very rare and are hardly ever seen by humans. (Why would God bother creating that?)
  • Rushing to hasty conclusions is a common mistake

Anyway, a good book there. I also have “Origin” but I will take a rest from biology for a few weeks.


Further Design Argument Considerations in Excruciating Detail

Posted by Anti Citizen One on January 17th, 2010

Comment on previous post: ‘Picky point I guess, but the argument from design makes no reference to “good intentions” – that would be a moral telological argument (a combination of more than one set of assumptions).’

You are right that my point is not well developed in this area but I omitted a full explanation because it is rather verbose with perhaps little reward. The design argument that most people remember is “the universe looks designed therefore designer exists” but this is really only part of the full argument. The more complete statement of the design argument is the Watchmaker Analogy or similar, which is really in the same “family” of arguments as the teleological argument.

To move beyond a superficial application of the Watchmaker Analogy, we must ask “what attributes of object X that makes us think it is designed?”. Often, it is only an argument from ignorance that makes people conclude something was designed (which is a fallacy). But it is more legitimate to consider an argument by analogy and compare the design process (and to remember that “similar causes prove[/imply] similar effects, and similar effects similar causes”). So, a divine designer is compared to a human designer and both share attributes that make the comparison possible – usually the designer wants the designed object to achieve some teleological goal. A potential difficulty is we must be able to determine the “teleological purpose” in a particular object, as a step in the argument before we conclude there is a designer. (Because we must assume a teleological purpose exists, I now notice that we are in danger of circular argument.) My hand waving reference to “good intentions” was a nod to this ill defined set of designer attributes. By a “good” designer, I am also thinking “competent” and “motivated” designer, with less emphasis on the moral aspects. This would probably be clearer with a concrete example, but I have never heard one I liked.

To relate this back to my post on the problem of evil, we again see the difficult in assessing the teleology of things (which itself is a defense against the problem of evil argument). If we start trying to define criteria that may be used to assess teleological purposes, we are forced to start making assumptions on the designer (e.g. a motive) which may be without basis, particular in context of the design argument. (Random thought: what if the designer wished to create a universe that appeared to have no designer? Can we a priori know a designers attributes?)

Since I am rambling on about the design argument, Hume also raises a further objection in making an analogy between human process and divine process, due to us having no a posteriori knowledge of the latter (at least within this argument).

“That all inferences, CLEANTHES, concerning fact, are founded on experience; and that all experimental reasonings are founded on the supposition that similar causes prove similar effects, and similar effects similar causes; I shall not at present much dispute with you. But observe, I entreat you, with what extreme caution all just reasoners proceed in the transferring of experiments to similar cases. Unless the cases be exactly similar, they repose no perfect confidence in applying their past observation to any particular phenomenon. Every alteration of circumstances occasions a doubt concerning the event; and it requires new experiments to prove certainly, that the new circumstances are of no moment or importance.”

“To ascertain this reasoning, it were requisite that we had experience of the origin of worlds; and it is not sufficient, surely, that we have seen ships and cities arise from human art and contrivance.” Dialogues concerning Natural Religion

The point being that we can only draw analogies between things that we have previously experienced and analogies are merely inductive in nature.

And I will one day have to destroy the concept of “irreducibly complexity”, I have a good rebuttal in my head. Hint: are natural process always additive?

Anti Citizen One

PS The BBC just did a piece on the problem of evil.

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. 🙂

Creationism Thought Experiments

Posted by Anti Citizen One on September 16th, 2008

There has been several creationism news articles recently. Instead of the usual analysis, I present four thought experiments that relate indirectly to the issues.

Thought experiment:

You have won a lottery (by random draw of a winner). There are three explanations for your winning:
1) It was part of God’s plan for you to win.
2) You were the only one to enter the lottery so winning was inevitable.
3) Many tickets were distributed and you won by chance.

If you don’t know how many tickets were distributed, is it possible to decide which possibility is correct?

Thought experiment:

You see a rock archway in a sea cliff. If any part of the arch was removed, the structure would collapse. The rock archway could have been formed by:
1) Being created in its current form.
2) Created by erosion to form its current shape.

If you are uncertain about the truth of 2, can you infer 1?

Thought experiment:

You see an illusion in which the magician appears to vanish and reappear. You might conclude one of the following:
1) The magician can really vanish and reappear at will.
2) The magician has performed an illusion and you do not know the method.

If you are uncertain about the truth of 2, can you infer 1?

Thought experiment:

If belief X causes life to be full of unhappiness, reckless behavior, materialistic concerns or immorality, is it
1) false
2) true
3) unknown as to is truth or falsity.

If we are unclear as to the religious instinct, it is stated thus:

There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try to discover the secrets of nature which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing, and which man should not wish to learn. St Augustine

Further reading: Who are the British creationists?

Anti Citizen One

In other news, India’s use of brain scans in courts dismays critics

PS. I have been thinking about these ideas for a while but it seems they are half remembered examples from Dawkins.

PPS “Nitimur in vetitum, semper cupimusque negata” (Ovid), we strive after the forbidden.

Update: ‘Creationism’ biologist quits job

Chimp Culture

Posted by on May 25th, 2008

I thought I would post on something slightly off the beaten track for a change and write about something I have read recently that intrigued me.

In the April 2008 edition of National Geographic magazine there was a remarkable and touching article on Anthropological studies on Chimp culture in their own environment. In particular it was focusing on how Chimps are using spears to hunt, but also how the environment in which certain colonies such as the Fongoli live in (non-rain forested) has forced them to adapt and adopt new behaviours. Naturally enough this research intrigues those who are studying the evolution of man, and the subtitle to the article “Almost Human” reflects this.

In the article there was a chart listing variations in Chimp culture across different regions of Africa, an observation that initially astounded scientists but which is now common currency, after all human culture has a great many variations (chopsticks or forks?). One practise intrigued me immensely, and this is that the Fongoli, Bossou, Gombe and Tai chimp communities have been observed performing both individual and social rain dances.

A storm can provoke chimps in most groups to show off with a frenetic or rhythmic display.

And the Tai community has been observed going one better, performing a rain dance prior to a downpour. And research suggests this is not mere coincidence, these communities seem to consistantly perform these dances before major storms.

I am intrigued, as are the anthropologists studying them, at the seemingly religious nature of the behaviour.

You’re in awe when you see this… The chimpanzees go into a quasi-trance, dancing even when they’re alone, with no spectators, as if they were ritually celebrating the rainstorm. Pascal Gagneux – University of California at San Diego

Other researchers have noted a sense of appreciation or even “reverence” for nature exhibited in Chimpanzee behaviour. And this is extraordinary (in my opinion) as any anthropologist or primatologist studying the behaviour and culture of our closest specieal relatives would be cautious in the extreme not to allow anthropomorphic intepretations to spoil their observations. And this is obvious by the measured use of simile in their descriptions – “as if they were” – rather than “they were”. But this cautious approach does not make the observations any less remarkable, and as Wittgenstein said a simile (to be meaningful) must be meaningful when the simile is dropped. Thus one may suggest that what has been witnessed is ritual behaviour very similar to that performed by human cultures, though one may not state that as a definitive claim just yet.

So what does all this mean, and why do I find it interesting? Well it seems to me to suggest (and this is my intepretation of the material) that there is reasonable grounds to propose that ritual and religious behaviours are natural cultural phenomenon. And if one accepts that proposition then we can start to entertain the challenging and in some quarters unfashionable perspective that religious behaviour (and religion) may be useful.

Let me add a philosophical/theological caveat to this. I am by no means proposing that the existence of a natural religion or natural religious urge is in any way indicative of a God, gods, spirits and the whole panoply of metaphysical beliefs that are advanced by one religion or another. Indeed I would argue (whilst not wearing my religious hat) that if one could demonstrate an innate religiousity as being a cultural phenomenon shared with (and possibly inherited from) our closest specieal relatives then we can begin to analyse metaphysics as the “fairy-tales” by which our ancestors sought to suppliment and explain these traits.

I am therefore content to settle with the theory that religious culture has natural origins, and that it serves (or served or may come to serve) some sort of important social function. And along with such Postmodernist theologions as Don Cupitt I could be motivated to suggest that religion has a healthy future if it were to detach itself from certain metaphysical doctrines.

Two final notes. The uncanny ability of these Chimps to perform the raindance prior to the actual rain (though we have no reason to believe they perform the dance with such intent) reminds me of various Shamanic cultures where raindances are performed. Most likely as with the Chimps an awareness of meteorology is at play, and the dance is performed at such a time as it is most likely to be successful. But is it not possible that like the Chimps this meteorological awareness is perhaps a subconscious reaction to the elements? It is said that prior to an electrical storm the hairs on the back of the neck stand on end. If the raindance has deep unconscious roots, then even though we think we know better, should we not tolerate the claim that the raindance makes the rain come? It may be a false-causality from our perspective but it seems to work for those cultures who cherish it still. And lets be fair- if among our number somebody claimed to be able to do something marvellous and yet when pressed to perform the feat was consistently unable to do so surely eventually we would tire of his boasts, and yet medicine men and ritual specialists abound accross the worlds many cultures, indicative perhaps that they have a reasonably balanced expectation to performance ratio. In other words, they seem to be able to do what they claim to be able to do. And finally I wish to reiterate that the innate religiousity that it is claimed is being observed in nature is a very different kind of religion from institutions and heirarchies and metaphysics. I really think the operative word that connects the observations of Chimp behaviour with human religious urges is “reverence” and I would be content to leave it all at that. Richard Dawkins famed secularist and atheist by means of a reductio once pointed out how awesome the universe is – and how much he enjoys revelling in it – without inferring design, purpose, divinity etc. I don’t know whether he would appreciate the suggestion, but I can’t help but feel that he in his encounter with the natural world exhibits a certain deal of “reverence”. And that reverence above anything else is the definitive essence of what religion is (and perhaps should) be.

NGM article (again) here.

Short NYTimes article here.

Short interview with a Chimp Observer for the Jane Goodall Institute here.

Flood of News

Posted by Anti Citizen One on March 5th, 2008

Pro-intelligent design activists are attempting to seek protection of their views in the classroom.

The institute also has been pushing an Academic Freedom Petition, which pushes for an academic freedom act, which says that evolution should be taught with its “strengths and weaknesses” discussed and that teachers should have the “right and freedom to present scientific information pertaining to the full range of scientific views regarding biological and chemical evolution.” Orlando Sentinel

What they seem to miss is the intelligent design is certainly a view but not a scientific view.

Not that all religious movements are clock stoppers. It appears that the Vatican’s new best buddy is Galileo: they plan to erect a statue in his honour. They could have been more contemporary and erected a statue of Darwin but I guess they still get (occasionally unwarranted) criticism for the Galileo affair.

I was reading in the IT news site The Register, “Malaysian woman jailed for worshipping teapot” – you might wonder what the IT angle is on this story? To quote them: “Who cares? You get one chance in your career to write the Malaysian teapot-worship headline, and by the Lord Harry and Saint George this hack wasn’t going to let it pass.”

On my recent theme of happiness being a cause or an effect (or perhaps neither), a study conducted by Edinburgh University concluded that happiness is largely determined by genetics. Remember that if you are into hedonism. 🙂

Lastly, not a news item but a quote (and perhaps a motto for naturalists)

“Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” Groucho Marx

Anti Citizen One

Sport, whats it all about?

Posted by on July 9th, 2007

Was prompted to ask this question yesterday whilst watching the Wimbledon Men’s Singles Tennis final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

I’m not usually a fan of tennis, but this was a captivating match of highs and lows, or emotional and physical fluctuations. It was also considered one of the great tennis finals of all time, and the eventual winner Roger Federer equalled Bjorn Borgs record of 5 Wimbledon titles in a row. It was hard not to disagree with the analysis that I was watching history in the making (which is a tautology) and that I was watching a sporting legend in the making.

But I wondered why is sport of such social and cultural importance to us?

I know the obvious answers that sport has its origins in the martial activity of man. That athletes, wrestlers, javelin throwers, archers, horse-racing, shot-putters were all engaged in a false-war activity. It’s sometimes easy to forget that medieval jousting contests (despite the danger to limb and life, including to the spectator) was a sporting event.

Then there is the tribal element to sport, that peoples unite in a common support for the nation, their district, their community. The modern support that many young men and women give to Football clubs is a manifestation of this. Replace sense of community with a sense of pride in the badge, the jersey. Supporters feel they own the club they support, that they employ the players to represent their hopes and ambitions.

But then nowadays any martial element to sport as a preperation for war is just a social memory. Soldiers are not expected to complete their training these days on ‘the playing fields of Eton’ or elsewhere for that matter. Though admittedly it is still a means of learning about and engaging with competative behaviour, as important on the battlefield and sports field as it is in the world of business.

And culturally sport is perhaps less cohesive than it once was. There is television for example, where a particular sports team may have its supporters situated on the opposite side of the globe, paying supporters even who may have no idea where Manchester (for example) really is. And of course people have a very different idea of social identity as cultures intermingle.

Of course there is the simple answer, it is all just a game, a recreation, a bit of fun, maybe even an act of escapism. But I can’t help but think that it is slightly more purposeful, that there is something more cohesive about sport than its purely being fun. I dont pretend to know what the answer is, but having watched the great Tennis final yesterday I pondered whether it was a sense of shared hope, of myth-making, of taking joy from arbitrary beliefs (i.e. the idea that sport matters) that draw so many people to it.

Ars takes a field trip: the Creation Museum

Posted by Anti Citizen One on June 8th, 2007

Last weekend was the first weekend the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY, (near Cincinnati) has been open to the public, and I, your intrepid reporter, braved the crowds to see what the fuss was about. Ars Technica