Wednesday, February 28, 2007

atheism a faith position?

Reasonableness is a matter of degree. Beliefs can be very reasonable (Japan exists), fairly reasonable (quarks exist), not unreasonable (there's intelligent life on other planets) or downright unreasonable (fairies exist).

There's a scale of reasonableness, if you like, with very reasonable beliefs near the top and deeply unreasonable ones towards the bottom. Notice a belief can be very high up the scale, yet still be open to some doubt. And even when a belief is low down, we can still acknowledge the remote possibility it might be true.

How reasonable is the belief that God exists? Atheists typically think it very unreasonable. Very low on the scale. But most religious people say it is at least not unreasonable (have you ever met a Christian who said "Hey, belief in God is no more reasonable than belief in fairies, but I believe it anyway!"?) They think their belief is at least halfway up the scale of reasonableness.

Now, that their belief is downright unreasonable might, in fact, be established empirically. If it turned out that not only is there no good evidence of an all-powerful, all-good God, there's also overwhelming evidence against (from millions of years of unimaginable and pointless animal suffering, including several mass extinctions - to thousands of children being crushed to death or buried alive in Pakistan earthquake, etc. etc. etc.) then it could be empirically confirmed that there's no God.

Would this constitute a "proof" that there's no God? Depends what you mean by "proof". Personally I think these sorts of consideration do establish beyond any reasonable doubt that there is no all-powerful all-good God. So we can, in this sense, prove there's no God.

Yet all the people quoted in my last blog say you cannot "scientifically" prove or disprove God's existence. If they mean prove beyond any doubt they are right. But then hardly anything is provable in that sense, not even the non-existence of fairies.

The fact that something cannot be conclusively proved either way doesn't mean the two theories are equally reasonable. It may still be that one theory is overwhelmingly confirmed and the other discomfirmed.

So, if theists wish to continue to maintain that their belief is at the very least "not unreasonable" (and they pretty much all do) the onus is on them to come up with some half-decent arguments for God's existence, and to deal more effectively with what appears to be overwhelming evidence against their belief. If they cannot do that, then they can't consistently maintain their belief is "not unreasonable".

Is atheism a "faith" position? If by "faith position" we mean can't be proved beyond all doubt, then yes, it is. But then so is the belief that there are no fairies and that the sun goes round the Earth. It doesn't follow from the fact that both
theism and atheism are "faith positions" in this sense that they are equally reasonable.

If by "faith position" we mean can't be proved beyond reasonable doubt, then I certainly don't accept that atheism is a "faith position". The evidence for atheism is overwhelming (though of course not everyone can see the evidence is overwhelming - this sort of evidence-blindness is an interesting feature of religious belief. That religion certainly does have the power to blind people to the obvious is demonstrated by the fact that in just 50 years, some 100 million US citizens have come to accept both that the entire universe is six thousand years old and that this is consistent with the empirical evidence).

McGrath says there's "no question" of science "proving" anything re ultimate questions.

If by "prove" McGrath means prove beyond reasonable doubt,he's just plain wrong. He doesn't believe in an all-powerful, all-evil God. Why not? Presumably, because the evidence against is overwhelming (there just to much good stuff in the world). But then McGrath must concede that there could conceivably be equally compelling evidence against his all-powerful, all-good God.

If by "prove" McGrath means prove beyond all doubt, he's right science can't "prove" anything re ultimate questions. But that's because it can't "prove" anything at all!

In any case, the fact remains the evidence may settle the matter beyond reasonable doubt. I believe it does.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Atheism a "faith position" too

Give a theist a good argument against their belief, and often they'll play the "faith" card. "Ah, well, theism is ultimately a faith position", they say. And then, very often, they add, "But of course atheism is a faith position too - you can't scientifically prove either, can you?"

Here are a few examples. First, Alister McGrath in The Dawkins Delusion:

There can be no question of scientific 'proof' of ultimate questions. Either we cannot answer them. or we must answer them on grounds other than the sciences.

(I concede McGrath doesn't use the word "faith", but I think it's clear where he's going). Here's another example (not McGrath) I found on the internet (link now dead):

(God’s) existence cannot be proved by physical means. However, neither can it be disproved. What does this mean? It means it takes complete and utter faith to believe there is a god (or gods) and complete and utter faith to believe there is not one.

And here is a recent example - a comment on A.C. Grayling's piece on Comment is Free.

It will never be possible to prove or disprove the existence of God using science or mathematical logic (read John D. Barrow's "Impossibility" for a fascinating description of the limits of science). So, you place too much "faith" in the abilities of science and mathematical inference.

Perhaps you are badly informed of the limitations of the scientific experimental method. I suggest you get better informed of the subject in which you place so much faith.

Is atheism a "faith position"? Anything can be, of course. But I challenge anyone to show that my atheism - or Dawkins' atheism - is a "faith position". It's not. I'll be explaining why in next blog.

But if you want a sneak preview go here.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

"Relativism or Authoritarianism - you choose!" - case study

For those who've been following the last couple of blogs, here's a case study of the relativism-or-Authoritarianism myth in action. It's from, a U.S. website dedicated to combating moral relativism and promoting Christian values. The author helpfully begins by outlining what moral relativism is, before accusing the President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America (clearly an evil organization) of being a relativist.

Moral relativism has steadily been accepted as the primary moral philosophy of modern society, a culture that was previously governed by a "Judeo-Christian" view of morality…. [M]ost people hold to the concept that right or wrong are not absolutes, but can be determined by each individual. Morals and ethics can be altered from one situation, person, or circumstance to the next. Essentially, moral relativism says that anything goes… Words like "ought" and "should" are rendered meaningless. In this way, moral relativism makes the claim that it is morally neutral.

In describing her view on morality, the President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America once stated, "…teaching morality doesn't mean imposing my moral values on others. It means sharing wisdom, giving reasons for believing as I do - and then trusting others to think and judge for themselves." She claims to be morally neutral, yet her message is clearly intended to influence the thinking of others… an intention that is not, in fact, neutral.

The author thinks the President of PPFA is inconsistent. The President is a relativist who thinks all opinions are equally good, yet she goes round promoting her own opinion as the right one. What blatant hypocrisy.

But take a closer look at what the President of the PPFA actually says. Does she say she favours moral relativism? No. She merely says that she doesn’t want to “impose” her views on others. But she does want to give her views, and explain why she holds them. She is happy to defend them. But she also wants students to “think and judge for themselves”. That’s a very Liberal view. The President of the PPFA does not commit herself to relativism. There’s nothing inconsistent about a Liberal wanting to influence young people by means of rational persuasion and open debate.

All this is entirely lost on the author of the above attack, however, who, having spotted the President of the PPFA is a Liberal, immediately weighs in with a witch-finder’s shriek of “Relativist!”

Nb this example is from my book The War For Children's Minds.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

“Relativism or Authoritarianism – you choose!”

Allow me to introduce two terms of art: Liberal and Authoritarian.

Authoritarians believe young people should be raised to defer more or less uncritically to some external Authority (e.g. a religious Authority) on moral and religious matters.

Liberals by contrast recommend individuals should be raised and educated to think critically and make their own judgement rather than more-or-less unquestioningly take on board the pronouncements of some external (e.g. religious) Authority.

That does not require Liberals embrace relativism and “anything goes” non-judgementalism. Yet Authoritarians endlessly smear Liberals as relativists. It’s about time this myth was nailed.

To see why it’s a myth, compare empirical science. It too is very Liberal. It too emphasizes the importance of independent critical thought. But to acknowledge the importance of getting scientists to think autonomously rather than uncritically defer to others is not to take the relativist view that all scientific theories – including even the theories that the sun goes round the Earth and that Mars is inhabited by giant wasps – are all equally “true”. It’s not to say that science is just a matter of making up ones own scientific reality (as if, were we suddenly to change our minds about the Earth moving, it would immediately grind to a halt). Nor is it to embrace the non-judgementalist view that one scientist ought never to judge the theory of another. Obviously not, in fact.

Notice that if this sort of scientific relativism were true, there would be no point to independent scientific investigation. Experiment and observation would be a waste of time. If every scientific opinion was as good as every other, than the judgement that a scientist arrived at after careful thought and study would be no better than the one they started with.

Clearly, to suggest that scientists ought to think independently rather than just uncritically defer to, say, the Authority of Aristotle or the Bible (as they tended to before the Enlightenment), is not to embrace relativism and non-judgementalism about scientific truth.

Exactly the same is true of morality. Indeed, it’s precisely because Liberals think there really is a non-relative truth to discover about what’s right and what’s wrong that they place so much emphasis on questioning and critical thinking. If we simply invent or make up morality, why bother being so scrupulously careful about getting it right? If every moral opinion is a good as every other, then the judgement I arrive at after much careful thought will be no better than the one I started with. If relativism were true, there would be no point bothering with the sort of critical thinking Liberals recommend.

So Liberals are not committed to moral relativism. They are, in effect, opposed to it.

Authoritarians tend to insist your choice is Authoritarianism or relativism. That’s how they scare the public into siding with them. “You don’t want moral relativism and anarchy, do you? Then you’d better side with us Authoritarians!”

This is a myth that’s currently distorting the whole morality debate. I would say the myth has infected the thinking of 9 out of 10 religious conservatives. Weirdly, so seductive and pernicious is this myth, even some Liberals now accept there's some truth to it.

There's no truth to it. You can reject both relativism and Authoritarianism. And you should.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Phillip E Johnson and the Royal Institute of Philosophy

Does the Royal Institute of Philosophy now endorse, or even consider intellectually respectable, intelligent design (ID)? Some are saying so (see here).

Next time a neo-darwinist claims that ID people do not publish papers I am going to bring out the relevant edition of Think magazine and show them. I can just imagine their jaws drop in outrage when they see that the world's best philosophers have turned their back on the defunct theory of evolution and embraced ID.

I edit the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal THINK: Philosophy For Everyone. I devoted Issue 11 to intelligent design and fine-tuning, and thought it would be interesting to get Phillip E Johnson - who is v much the public face of ID - to write a piece.

Personally, I consider ID intellectually bankrupt (fine-tuning is slightly more respectable, I think). Many Christians agree with me about that of course.

The idea was to let the ideas slug it out in THINK. Then people will hopefully have a better grasp of the arguments - and their flaws.

The risk of doing this (which I knew I was taking, of course) is that some of the more committed ID people may claim that ID stuff is "being taken seriously", published in "intellectually rigorous publications", and even "endorsed by the Royal Institute of Philosophy".

So, just to make it clear, The R.I.P. does not endorse ID. Nor should people conclude that because Johnson's piece was published by THINK, the R.I.P considers Johnson's arguments intellectually robust. The R.I.P., as an organization, has never expressed any view at all about any of these things.

Unfortunately, posts on suggest otherwise.(NB. some posts on creationist sites are spoofs - could this be one?)

Monday, February 19, 2007

most irritating myth about relativism?

I believe individuals should be raised and educated to think critically and make their own judgement (especially on moral and religious matters) rather than more-or-less unquestioningly take on board the pronouncements of some external Authority. This isn't a left or a right-wing view. Nor is it anti-religious (many Liberals are religious). It's anti-Authoritarian (and it's as much against Stalinist indoctrination as that of the Church).

Of course, Authoritarian religious people reject this sort of Liberalism. Many loathe it. They associate it with both the 60's and with the Enlightenment (e.g. Kant)

Those who share my Liberal view - let's call us Liberals with a capital "L" - are routinely condemned by religious Authoritarians as relativists. So annoyed have I got by this endlessly-repeated accusation that I devoted a chapter of the War For Children's Minds to it.

Here's just one example. Jonathan Sacks, the U.K.’s Chief Rabbi lays the blame for our moral malaise firmly at the feet of the Enlightenment, and particularly at the feet of Kant, about whom Sacks writes,

[A]ccording to Kant…[t]o do something because others do, or because of habit or custom or even Divine Command, is to accept an external authority over the one sovereign territory that is truly our own: our own choices. The moral being for Kant is by definition an autonomous being, a person who accepts no other authority than the self.

Sacks rejects this Kantian emphasis on the moral autonomy of the individual. In particular, says Sacks, a Kantian approach to moral education requires “non-judgementalism and relativism on the part of the teacher.”

No it doesn’t. To insist that individuals be educated to think, question and make their own judgement is not to insist that all judgements are equally “true”.

After all, scientists are also encouraged to think question and make their own judgements - it doesn't follow that all scientific theories are equally true, does it?

Unfortunately, so often is this myth repeated, it's entered the zeitgeist. Lots of people now assume that if we want to avoid moral relativism and moral anarchy, we need to move back in the direction of traditional religious, Authority-based schooling. As if the only alternatives are relativism or Authoritarianism.

Friday, February 16, 2007

"Liberals are relativists!"

The second most poisonous myth about relativism (I'm coming to the most poisonous shortly) is that liberalism = relativism.

Among the various charges laid against “liberals”, relativism is one of the most popular. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.

In his inspiringly-titled Let Freedom Ring, Sean Hannity, political pundit at Fox News, suggests that one reason U.S. “liberals” are hostile to the teaching of the Declaration of Independence in public schools is that

…. liberals absolutely abhor and militantly reject the Founders’ belief in absolute truth. America’s Founders believed deeply in certain fundamental truths about life, liberty, and the nature of man. In fact, they believed – they weren’t just inserting lofty-sounding but meaningless platitudes in the document – that such truths were “self-evident.” By sharp contrast, the Left embraces moral relativism with an arrogant tenacity.

There you are: “liberals” – whom, incidentally, Hannity seems to equate with “the Left” – embrace moral relativism.

David Limbaugh author of Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity, also thinks “liberals” are, or are mostly, relativists. Limbaugh responded in an interview to a comment about “liberalism” by saying that while “liberals”.

…subscribe to moral relativism and no absolute truth, they betray their standards when it comes to judging Christians. They apply an absolute standard when it comes to Christians and they condemn us for our beliefs, so they're completely hypocritical on that…. The Judeo-Christian ethic is one that is undergirded by absolute truth. Liberals, by and large, don't subscribe to any such value system.

Limbaugh here accuses “liberals” of both relativism and hypocrisy: they proclaim relativism and non-judgementalism, yet here they are making moral judgements about Christian attitudes towards, say, homosexuality or the place of prayer in schools. Outrageous.

But are “liberals”, by and large, relativists?

Many people who describe themselves as “liberal” reject relativism. Here in the U.K., many people call themselves “liberal”. Among those I know, I’m not aware of any who would consider themselves relativists. But maybe things are different in the U.S. Maybe, over the pond, “liberals” do tend to sign up to the kind of hypocritical, non-judgementalist relativism of which they are repeatedly accused. But maybe not. Few of those who claim “Liberals are relativists” appear to have done much research into the moral beliefs of those they describe as “liberal”. Usually their evidence amounts to little more than a few anecdotes. Undoubtedly, some “liberals” do embrace moral relativism. Perhaps many do. But the suggestion that all, or most, of them are relativists seems poorly founded. Are most “liberals” relativists? I have no idea. But then neither, I suspect, do those making the accusation.

And yet the factoid that “liberals are relativists” has become heavily woven into the psyche of conservative America. Type “liberal” and “relativist” into Google and see what you get. I did, and quickly come up with a great deal of this sort of thing:

The modern liberal is a self-proclaimed relativist, who does not believe in unbiased truth. Naturally, such a person does not believe in fairness or honesty either, both being relative. I do not say this is true of 100% of liberals, but it is true of most of them. (source here)

On what evidence is this accusation made? None at all. In the U.S, the accusation “Relativist!” appears to have supplanted even “Communist!” in terms of its popularity, vitriol and baselessness.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

relativism - end of the world as we know it?

Relativism is certainly supposed to be eating away at Western Civilization like a cancer. Here are a few examples of this worry. The American academic Allan Bloom writes:

[t]here is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.

William Bennett concurs. He says,

the answers I started to get from students in the '60s were, "I think each person should do his own thing. I mean if they want to do something, who am I to say something's right, who am I to say something's wrong?"

Richard Hoggart commented on a similar rise in relativism and non-judgementalism among the working-class inhabitants of his own British hometown:

[i]n Hunslet, a working-class district of Leeds, within which I was brought up, old people will still enunciate, as guides to living, the moral rules they learned at Sunday School and Chapel. Then they almost always add, these days: "But it's only my opinion, of course." A late-twentieth-century insurance clause, a recognition that times have changed towards the always shiftingly relativist. In that same council estate, any idea of parental guidance has in many homes been lost. Most of the children there live in a violent, jungle world.

Gertrude Himmelfarb supplies another illustration:

Robert Simon, a professor of philosophy, reports that while none of his students denies the reality of the Holocaust, an increasing number do worse: they acknowledge the fact, even deplore it, but cannot bring themselves to condemn it morally. “Of course I dislike the Nazis,” one student comments, “but who is to say they are morally wrong.” They make similar observations about apartheid, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. To pass judgement, they fear, is to be moral “absolutist”, and having been taught that there are no absolutes, they now see any judgement as arbitrary, intolerant, and authoritarian.”

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Carey, in his House of Lords address, also warned of the danger

of moral relativism and privatised morality. There is a widespread tendency to view what is good and right as a matter of private taste and individual opinion only. Under this tendency, God is banished to the realm of the private hobby and religion becomes a particular activity for those who happen to have a taste for it.

It’s this rampant relativism that, more than anything, now gets the blame for the "moral malaise". If morality is nothing more than a matter of personal choice or preference, then teenage thugs can steal, vandalize and assault with impunity, confident that no one has the right to gainsay them. Richard Lamm, former governor of Colorado, sums up the devastation he believes relativism has wrought:

In attempting to be tolerant, we have wiped out all the rules. . . . It is hard these days to find a standard to which we can hold people. Everything is relative. Our moral compass gyrates wildly. There is no true north. But history shows us this is not a sustainable trait.

So popular is this diagnosis that whenever an example of immorality crops up, the knee-jerk reaction of many is immediately to blame moral relativism. Take the recent outrage at Abu Ghraib, where Iraqis were tortured by U.S. personnel. What caused this moral breakdown? TRichard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, suspects moral relativism:

This is not a breakdown in the system. This reflects a breakdown in society. These people's moral compass didn't work for some reason. My guess is because they've been infected with [moral] relativism.

Even the new Pontiff has made it clear that fighting the battle against the “dictatorship of relativism” is one of his highest priorities:

We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires.

Governments have introduced educational and social policies to target relativism. When Nick Tate, head of the UK’s QCAA introduced compulsory classes in citizenship for all pupils attending state-funded schools, he was explicit that one of his chief concerns was to “slay the dragon of relativism”.

But is relativism really such a problem? And if it is, what's its root cause?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Moral relativism

I posted four criticisms of "politically correct" moral relativism. Some of you think this sort of relativism is entirely a straw man. Not entirely. I agree it's influence is vastly exaggerated (as I'll be explaining shortly).I have come across only a couple of academics that signed up to it (one was an anthropologist).

It tends to be undergrads that spout it. Schools are often blamed. Marianne Talbot of Oxford University says her students

have been taught to think their opinion is no better than anyone else’s, that there is no truth, only truth-for-me. I come across this relativist view constantly – in exams, in discussion and in tutorials – and I find it frightening: to question it amounts, in the eyes of the young, to the belief that it is permissible to impose your views on others.

I must say it's only 5-10% of my students that express the view. I think some have been taught it as a way of being "tolerant" (possibly because it gets teachers out of awkward situations when teaching several religions. "But sir, which religion is true - is Jesus God, or not?" "They are all true, lad - it's true for Christians, false for Muslims"), while others simply recognize in it a useful rhetorical move. You patiently expose the flaws in their argument, but then they hit you with "Well, it's true for me" or "Well, that's my truth, anyway" etc.

The only person I have ever come across who (so I'm told) really goes for blanket hard-core if-you-believe-it-then-it's-true relativism, is the actress Shirley MacLaine.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Relativism - response to comments

Many thanks for all the comments. The transcript I posted was from a discussion that was really focussed on the "politically correct" brand of moral relativism that is still regularly wheeled in certain circles, rather than more subtle, sophisticated versions developed by some reputable philosophers.

I still come across the "politically correct" brand pretty regularly. I would say maybe 5-10% of first year philosophy undergrads sign up to it.It is usually justified and motivated by arguments of the sort I cite here. It's kind of irritating, and I just wanted to show that these "politically correct" arguments are poor.

Of course, to expose the failings of these arguments is not to offer an argument against relativism. Nor is it to show that relativism is false.

That said, this "politically correct" brand of relativism does entail that if Nazis think that murdering Jews is good, then, hey, they're right. Does anyone really believe that? I don't think so. So put it this way: this sort of relativism has at the very least some prima facie deeply counter-intuitive consequences.

Don't assume I am an objectivist, by the way. Some days I think I might be an eliminitivist (!)

The point I do agree with (if barefoot bum is making it?) is that the influence of "politically correct" relativism is vastly hyped by liberal-bashers, especially in the U.S. I'll post something on that shortly.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Moral Relativism

Despite its popularity, moral relativism, especially when it's
politically motivated, is a confused and often pretty poisonous point of
view. Here's the transcript from an Australian radio interview I did on the subject.

Relativism was in the news recently along with female circumcision,
which involves cutting off parts of a woman's genitalia, including her
clitoris. Some Sudanese people routinely practice female circumcision on
young girls. It's part of their tradition. But many Westerners are
horrified. Female circumcision, they say, is cruel life-blighting
surgery. It's morally wrong.

Now it's here that the relativist steps in. 'Ah, wrong.' They say.
'Wrong for you, perhaps. But you're assuming that your truth is the only
truth. In fact what's true for you is false for those Sudanese people.
There's no objective fact of the matter as to which moral point of view
is correct. All moral perspectives are equally valid.' 'And so', says
the relativist, sternly pointing their finger at you, 'it's wrong of you
to judge'.

As I say, this sort of relativism is pretty popular in certain circles.
Indeed, to reject it is to risk being branded politically incorrect, or
worse. But the fact is that this brand of moral relativism is fashionable,
politically correct baloney. Here are four reasons why.

First, for us Westerners to think that what's right or wrong is
ultimately not just a matter of opinion, but a matter of objective fact,
is not to assume that we must have unique and privileged access to those
facts. Sure, in the past, we've often just arrogantly
assumed that we know best, and that we have the right to force our
particular moral point of view down everyone else's throat. The church
has had a particularly poor track record in this respect. Of course
we were wrong to assume that. We now realize that we
should be more open-minded and tolerant. We know we get it wrong.
We know that there can often be a great deal to learn from other
cultures. But of course we can embrace all this good, liberal stuff
without signing up to moral relativism. To say that there's an objective
fact of the matter about whether or not female circumcision is wrong is
not to assume that our Western opinion is inevitably the right one.
Those who reject relativism need not be jack-booted bullies intent on
ramming their beliefs down everyone else's throat.

Second, the relativist who points a finger at the Westerner who judges
female circumcision to be wrong and says 'It's wrong of you to judge'
ends up condemning themselves. For of course they are doing exactly what
they are saying you shouldn't be doing. They are judging you, and saying
that you are doing something morally wrong! So all that politically
correct finger wagging is downright hypocritical.

Third, relativists tend to apply their relativism pretty inconsistently.
Take some remote forest tribe, for example, that does something that we
Westerners think barbaric and wrong. "You shouldn't judge" says the
relativist. 'In their culture, this sort of behaviour is perfectly
proper. And their opinion is just as 'true' as yours.' But of course, if
some big multinational comes in and hacks down the forest and kicks out
its inhabitants, the relativist will be down on them like a ton of
bricks. 'That's wrong' they'll say. But of course they can't say that,
can they? If they are going to be true to their relativism, then they
have to say that if the corporate culture deems it acceptable to destroy
the rainforest and barbeque its inhabitants, then for them it is
acceptable, and who are we to judge?

Finally, notice that it's only if we reject moral relativism that we are
free to promote tolerance and open-mindedness as universal virtues. Take
some religious culture that thinks it okay to be deeply intolerant. The
relativist is going to have to say that, hey, if these religious zealots
think it right to chop up those with whom they disagree, then for them
it is right, and who are we to judge. The relativist can't consistently
condemn the intolerance of others. It's only those who reject relativism
that are free to do that.

So the truth is that relativism really doesn't have much going for it.
We can be good, right-on liberals without embracing relativism. And, at its
worst, relativism is politically correct baloney of a rather nasty sort.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Faith Schools

For those who favour a return to traditional, authority-based religious schooling of the sort that predominated in the West up until the 1960s, here is a challenge.

It is taken from my book The War For Children's Minds.

Suppose political schools started springing up – a neoconservative school in Billericay followed by a communist school in Middlesbrough. Suppose these schools select pupils on the basis of parents’ political beliefs. Suppose they start each morning with the collective singing of political anthems. Suppose portraits of their political leaders beam down from every classroom wall. Suppose they insist that pupils accept, more or less uncritically, the beliefs embodied in their revered political texts.

If such schools did spring up, there would be outrage. These establishments would be accused of educationally stunting children, forcing their minds into politically pre-approved moulds. They’re the kind of Orwellian schools you find under totalitarian regimes in places like Stalinist Russia. My question is, if such political schools are utterly unacceptable, if they are guilty of educationally stunting children, why on earth are so many of us still prepared to tolerate their religious equivalents?

Why, if we cross out "political" and write "religious", do these schools suddenly seem entirely acceptable to so many of us?

(note that this is not an objection to faith schools per se, but to a certain traditional sort of faith school)

For a longer article containing this challenge, go here.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The God of Eth

Those who believe that the universe shows signs of intelligent design often draw the conclusion the designer must be the Judeo-Christian God - a being that is all-powerful and all-good. But of course, the conclusion that the designer is all-powerful and all-good is no more warranted on this evidence than is the conclusion that the designer is all-powerful and all-evil (which would clearly be a ridiculous thing to conclude, wouldn't it?).

Worse still, there is surely overwhelming evidence against the good-god hypothesis (probably about as much as there is against the evil-god hypothesis, I'd suggest).

Check out the following article published in Skeptical Inquirer that I wrote on this issue. The God of Eth.

I will be developing the "God of Eth" argument further over the course of this year, in reply to comments on it from other philosophers, including Richard Swinburne and Tim Mawson.

Intelligent design

In his blog on intelligent design (Wednesday 2nd Nov 2005), Peter Williams takes me to task for producing an unbalanced issue of THINK on Intelligent Design, pointing out that ID proponent Michael Behe has "responded" to Orr's demolition job (here) on Behe's argument for intelligent design (which I published). Behe has indeed responded (here), but not effectively.

I have read Behe's response and still think Orr nails Behe. Orr points out that many organisms are irreducibly complex in the sense that if you remove parts like brains, lungs etc. they cease to function. Yet such systems can evolve by natural selection, because parts that were inessential can become so, e.g. air sacs can develop into useful but not essential primitive lungs, and later these may become essential when the gills or whatever disappear. Clearly, this could happen on the natural selection theory. So natural selection has no particular problem regarding such irreducibly complex systems.

Here is the key response to this point from Behe.

Professor Orr has a mistaken notion of irreducible complexity. I thought I made that clear in my reply, but from his response I suppose I did not, so let me try again. I define irreducible complexity in Darwin’s Black Box as "a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning." Orr, however, uses the term loosely to mean something like "if you remove a part, the organism will die." In his review he talks about lungs, saying "we grew thoroughly terrestrial and lungs, consequently, are no longer luxuries-they are essential." The problem is, if you quickly dissect lungs from an animal, many parts of it will continue to work. The liver will work for a while, muscles will twitch, cells will metabolize until they run out of oxygen. Thus lungs are not absolutely required for the function of those other parts, not in the way that a spring is absolutely required for a standard mousetrap or nexin linkers are required for ciliary function. That’s the problem with using poorly chosen examples, especially at the whole-organ level. I am careful in my book (pp. 46-47) to say that you must look at molecular systems to see if Darwinism can explain their development. When you look at irreducibly complex molecular examples, it is clear that Darwinism has not and, I believe, cannot explain them. Orr’s main line of argument, therefore, simply misses the point.

This is surely confused. First, here again is Behe’s definition of an IC (irreducibly complex) system:

"a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning."

But a living organism of the sort Orr describes does still qualify as IC, as it does effectively cease to function when dismantled. So doesn't Orr’s example stands as an example of an IC system?

Behe’s point is that some parts of the organism will function for a while on their own when the system is dismantled. But this is irrelevant. The system pretty quickly ceases to function. So, by Behe’s own definition of IC, a living organism with lungs is irreducibly complex, isn't it?

But of course, even if Orr’s specific example didn’t qualify as irreducibly complex (because Behe requires for irreducible complexity that the system immediately cease functioning - that very second - on removal of a part - it must not slowly wind-down over even a minute or two, as a human body does), Orr’s point would in any case remain valid. The point remains that natural selection allows that parts that are at one time inessential can become essential (even so essential that their removal results in immediate loss of function). So there’s no particular difficulty about an IC system evolving by natural selection.

KEY POINT: Why does Behe suppose IC systems cannot evolve by natural selection? Because they would have to evolve "in one go". They cannot evolve by increments, by natural selection.

Orr explains how an IC system can evolve gradually, by natural selection.

So game over, not withstanding the irrelevencies raised by Behe.