Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Latest response to author@ptgbooks

author@ptgbooks has been contributing to this blog on creationism.

I have divided my posts into two: those dealing with the issue of whether it's reasonable to suppose the authors' Judeo-Christian God exists, and those dealing with whether creationism should be explicitly acknowledged in school science classes as something science has not disproved (which is what author wants).

On the first issue: two posts ago I pointed out that evidence from design etc. is very weak evidence for the very specific god believed in by Christians (who is all-powerful and good), and that there is, in addition, very powerful evidence against the existence of that God supplied by the problem of evil/suffering. So, in terms of reasonableness, author's belief system looks very unreasonable indeed.

In response, author comments that:
(i) he doesn't want to focus on this issue
(ii) that he has faith - i.e. "chooses to believe what God says" about his own goodness
(iii) that the evidence for his good God is "of such a subjective nature that I wouldn't suggest it to someone who is biased against it".
(iv) he adds "And even to the extent that there may be objective evidence of God's goodness, I don't think you would accept it, and I wouldn't want to debate it here."

So author suggests he might have "objective" evidence, but refuses to present it because I am biased and would not accept it. Also much of his evidence is "subjective", and a matter of "interpreting".

Seems to me the author's "subjective" evidence is not evidence, for it appears to boil down to just always insisting that, no matter how horrific the suffering unleashed upon humanity, etc. might be, he chooses to see it - "interpret" it - as somehow all for the best. But this is not "evidence for" a good God. Actually, that's simply choosing to ignore (or explain away) the evidence against what you believe.

As for the "objective" evidence which is hinted at but never presented - why not present it?

It seems to me author is now becoming highly evasive. These are exactly the kind of moves we expect from believers in auras, astral planes, chi-energies, etc.

They say such things as:

"You can't see the aura? - well, that's your problem: you are not subjectively attuned like me. Plus I have lots of objective evidence for auras, but I won't present it to you 'cos you're biased and won't accept it!"

I bet author sees straight through such moves when employed by practitioners of these flaky arts. So why does he feel he can get away with the exact same moves here?

Summary: seems to me that, on my point that belief in the author's specific God is not supported by his evidence, and in fact the empirical evidence pretty much conclusively refutes that belief, the author is now quickly running out the door...

So perhaps I should now turn to his case for saying school science classes should explicitly acknowledge that creationism has not been disproved by science...

Monday, April 28, 2008

Creationism, and intellectual black holes

Incidentally, has anyone got any information regarding Young Earth Creationists who have ceased being Young Earth Creationists (or even become atheists)?

And have any once confirmed atheists ever ended up YECs?

While lots of religious have become atheists, and vice verse, I am guessing there are very few examples of either of these categories.

I suspect (though it's speculation, I admit), that Young Earth Creationism is an intellectual black hole - that the psychological and other forces that make religion so seductive become so concentrated in the U.S. version of YEC that they reach a critical mass: so that, once you're in, there's no way out again (certainly, not by means of reason).

But I would like to be proved wrong....

Gods, designers, and author@ptgbooks

Here’s my latest response to author@ptgbooks. I am focusing here just on the reasonableness of belief in the Judeo-Christian creator-god.

Author said:

You and other participants have often used examples of ridiculous beliefs like dogs being spies from Venus. I suppose you think belief in a creator God is just as ridiculous. I guess it would do no good to try to point out evidence for God, because you would just discount it.

On the contrary, I have pointed out that the evidence you have provided thus far is very poor, and that there is, in a addition, very good evidence against belief in such a maximally powerful and good God.

Can I suggest you read my “The God of Eth” article, to give you a quick overview of why I think the problem of evil/suffering is fatal to belief in such a God, and why I think your appeal to “mystery” etc. just won’t do. I’d be interested in your response.

I see you put forward as evidence for your God that:

(i) the world shows signs of design
(ii) naturalism can’t account for consciousness; God can
(iii) Biblical prophecies support belief in God

Now I have already explained that, by themselves, these design-arguments, even if good arguments for a designer (which they’re not, but let it pass), no more support belief in a maximally good and powerful god than they support belief in a maximally evil and powerful god (i.e. hardly at all).

Ditto consciousness. Even if consciousness requires a supernatural explanation (which is highly debatable), it’s a huge, unwarranted leap from this to “So the explanation must be a maximally good and powerful God.”

Be good to hear what you think is the most impressive Biblical prophecy. Can you spell it out for us, and why you think it’s good evidence for your god?

Otherwise, it looks very much as if, on the evidence, you are taking a right pasting, doesn’t it?

Summary: Your evidence for your very specific God is weedy [(i) and (ii) no more support belief in your God than they do belief in, say, a maximally powerful, but amoral, God]. Moreover, your attempt to deal with the evidence against the existence of this specific being seems to amount to not much more than this: perhaps in some mysterious way this really is the sort of world we should expect a maximally good and powerful God to create.

Compare this case: Every morning, we find sticks on the beach set in geometric patterns. You say this is clearly evidence that there’s a wonderful designer at work on the beach early each morning. But suppose that woven into these patterns are little animals that have clearly been slowly tortured and killed in the process of being thus-arranged. Is it remotely reasonable still to conclude that the designer is wonderful? Surely not. Yes, there may be a designer. But it’s clear he ain’t that wonderful. Anyone who continues to believe that the designer is wonderful isn’t being terribly rational.

Of course, you might come up with all sorts of ingenious explanations for why what we see is consistent with the designer being wonderful after all (I'm sure we can all think of some). But the fact remains the evidence would point firmly away from that hypothesis.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Creationism - further comments

Here’s a quick-ish response to some of author@ptgbook’s (a creationist, if a slightly unorthodox one) comments on my preceding post.


First, author suggests that the supernatural/God is not something that science can address.

Yet he or she suggests that, actually, there could be empirical evidence for God’s existence. Indeed, he/she cites the truth of prophecies, the fine-tuned character of the laws of nature, etc., and suggest there might also be evidence for ID.

Well, good, so we agree that there can be empirical evidence for, and thus also against, God’s existence.

Let’s look at some of author's alleged evidence supporting belief in God (which is threefold, thus far: fine-tuning, ID and truth of Biblical prophecies).

Actually, fine-tuning and ID-type evidence are evidence, at best, for some sort of intelligence working behind the universe. It’s a huge further, unwarranted leap to conclude this intelligence is all-powerful and supremely benevolent, rather than, say, morally neutral. So it’s a huge further, unwarranted leap to the conclusion that the intelligence is the author’s God.

Second, there’s fantastically good empirical evidence (whether or not you call it “scientific”) against the existence of an all-powerful and supremely benevolent being such as that believed in by author. I am referring to the sheer quantity of suffering unleashed upon humanity, and of course the other countless other sentient creatures with whom we share this planet, suffering taking place not just now, but stretching back over millions of years. Surely such a being would not inflict such literally unimaginable amounts of horror, often on the most innocent?

Quick summary. The evidence offered for the author's God is very weak. We have, in addition, fantastically good evidence that there's no such being.

Conclusion: A quick survey of the alleged "evidence" suggests that what author believes is highly irrational (not withstanding his/her evidence from “prophecies”, which to me seems comical, frankly - but perhaps s/he’d like to defend a particular example? In fact, I'd like them to - be a good discussion, I think.)


On author's comments on the whole creationism/evolution issue (he/she defends a form of creationism on which humankind and all currently existing species were created as described by Genesis about 6k years ago, but the universe itself is much older, the Earth previously being populated with dinosaurs etc.), I have not much to add to what others have already said, other than to point out (as does Steelman and others) that author does pretty much exactly what I described in my essay.

That’s to say, he/she tries to show that what they believe is consistent with the fossil record E.g. There's evidence of an ancient Earth with dinosaurs etc. developing over millions of years; the Bible doesn’t explicitly deny this (if we suppose this all took place before day 1 of Genesis); therefore the author’s Biblical theory “fits” the evidence too! Of course this move raises all sorts of other problems, but I don’t doubt that, just like the lunatic who believes dogs are spies from Venus [see my essay below], author can and will continue to come up with further explanations that make his theory "fit”.

Scientists, by contrast, have repeatedly strongly confirmed the theory that current species have gradually developed from simple life forms over millions/billions of years, by natural selection, etc.

Author objects to the latter theory being taught as “fact” in schools because, for example, it is not “proved” that God didn’t intervene on occasion.

But as others have pointed out, there’s no good evidence that he did intervene, and, moreover, the naturalistic explanation offered by science seems to do the job of explaining the emergence of new species, etc. without any supernatural help.

So, to insist that the above naturalistic theory not be taught as “fact” is akin to insisting that children should not be taught how plants function by photosynthesis as scientists have not proved that, say, invisible, intangible fairies are not somehow also sometimes involved in the process (for how could scientists "prove" that?).

But bear in mind, in any case, that even if there were evidence for an “intelligent designer”, there’s also abundant evidence that the designer in question is not author’s God.

POST SCRIPT. I am pleased that author is contributing as it's fascinating debating with someone with such a bizarre belief system.

But I wouldn't want anyone, including the author, to go away thinking that this debate - and the way it tends to go on and on - shows there must, then, be at least something to creationism after all. It doesn't (anymore than the fact that my debate with a schizophrenic who thinks dogs are Venusian spies goes on and on shows that there must be something to what they believe).

The interminable character of the debate is not evidence that it cannot be rationally settled (it can) - rather, it shows that, by adopting a certain sort of strategy, any theory, no matter how ridiculous, can be defended ad nauseum.

What most interests me is the question: how do we reach author? I know he/she will find this terribly patronizing - and I guess it is - but he/she has locked themselves inside a bizarre and seemingly impenetrable bubble of belief which leaves us scratching our heads as to how anyone could believe such patent cobblers (to me, author really does seem very much like the lunatic who thinks dogs are spies from Venus), and leaves him/her convinced that we are part of some global conspiracy against THE TRUTH (and perhaps also the agents of Satan).

My essay suggests that it's the overall patterns of thought exhibited by creationists like author that we need to expose. I guess I want to ask him/her: why do you think you're not like someone who believes that dogs are spies from the planet Venus? After all, they can make their beliefs "fit" the evidence too. And by much the same means!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Creationism" defended and "evolution" attacked

Here's a comment from on my post on Darwin, creationism and evidence. Reminds me of Spencer Tracey towards the end of Inherit The Wind (the Tracey character puts to the blustering old creationist prosecutor that perhaps the "days" of the Bible lasted millions or billions of years). I am posting it here as it deserves special treatment, I feel. I'll respond further in next post...

Your article is interesting and makes some good points, but it is missing the larger picture.

Not all Bible literalists believe in a six thousand year old earth. A literal understanding of Genesis allows a time period of unspecified length between verse 1 and verse 3. This could have been billions of years. In other words, in verse 1 God created the earth. The earth could have become filled with life. At some point, the surface of the earth became covered with water as described in verse 2. Then starting in verse 3, God restored the earth to a condition of having life on it.

Those who believe in a 6,000 year old earth do not believe this because they literally believe the Bible. They believe it because they believe the religious traditions they grew up in.

A literal reading of the Bible fully allows for an earth billions of years old even with life forms that existed for hundreds of millions of years.

You are correct in saying that more is required for evidence to confirm a theory than that the theory be consistant with the evidence. So far, you have avoided the word "proof". Has science proved evolution has occurred? And if not, is it right to teach children in tax supported public schools in a country that prohibits government from hindering the free exercise of religion, that evolution is a fact if you are unable or unwilling to say you have proved that it happened?

You gave a definition of creationism that includes belief in a 6,000 year old earth, even tho not all creationists believe in a 6,000 year old earth. But that definition is convenient for you because the idea of a 6,000 year old earth is the easiest for you to try to refute. It is also the majority opinion among creationists who claim to believe the Bible literally, so that is no doubt another reason you define creationism that way.

I will also give a definition of evolution that I think expresses the majority thinking of evolutionists and the teaching of science in the public schools. Evolution is the teaching that life in all its variety arose on the earth only through natural causes. In other words, evolution as taught in the public schools does not allow for supernatural intervention by God in a process of new species descending from other species. If someone suggested that God intelligently and supernaturally made genetic changes over millions of years to produce new species descended from older ones, that is not "evolution". To prove evolution is how life came to be, you have to prove that there was no supernatural intervention or creation in the origins of species.

How can science do that if the scientific method does not allow for consideration of supernatural causes? You have to consider and examine the possibility of supernatural causes in order to rule them out. But science cannot even discuss the supernatural.

Many of those who believe in a literal reading of the Bible also see confirmation of the inspiration of the Bible in the predictive value of its prophecies, and these predictions and their fulfillment serve as evidence for the Bible just as scientific predictions about fossils suggest to scientists that more complex life forms appeared gradually on the earth.

Many thanks for this contribution. Here's a question to the author to kick things off:

My question: I take it the author has no objection to teachers in public tax-funded schools teaching children that species have evolved over millions of years and that natural selection has played a important role in that process, for of course that would not rule out supernatural intervention of the sort proposed by the author, and also by I.D. theorists such as Michael Behe?

I'll make a point. The author says: "How can science do that if the scientific method does not allow for consideration of supernatural causes?"

Well, as I understand it, the scientific method, as such, does allow for consideration of supernatural causes. There could be a scientific investigation into the existence of ghosts or reincarnation, for example.

Schopenhauer on religious education

Philalethes. [...] But religions admittedly appeal, not to conviction as the result of argument, but to belief as demanded by revelation. And as the capacity for believing is strongest in childhood, special care is taken to make sure of this tender age. This has much more to do with the doctrines of belief taking root than threats and reports of miracles. If, in early childhood, certain fundamental views and doctrines are paraded with unusual solemnity, and an air of the greatest earnestness never before visible in anything else; if, at the same time, the possibility of a doubt about them be completely passed over, or touched upon only to indicate that doubt is the first step to eternal perdition, the resulting impression will be so deep that, as a rule, that is, in almost every case, doubt about them will be almost as impossible as doubt about one’s own existence. Hardly one in ten thousand will have the strength of mind to ask himself seriously and earnestly—is that true?

As the examiners say, "Discuss". Is this true today? Is it true in, say, Ibrahim Lawson's school? To what extent does it account for the religious experience that one "just knows" God exists, etc.?

Source here.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Here's something I have been working on. Comments please. It needs a final para. Warning - about 3.5k words!



Both the general theory of evolution and Darwin’s particular theory of evolution by natural selection are regularly challenged by people who describe themselves as “creationists”. There are several varieties of creationism. The focus here is on what is often called “young earth creationism”: the view that the entire universe is approximately six thousand (certainly less than ten) thousand years old, and that all living species were created within the first few days of creation. Henceforth, when I speak of “creationism”, it is young earth creationism I have in mind.

Why would anyone believe creationism? Typically, because they are Bible literalists. Creationists believe that Genesis provides an historically accurate account of origin of the universe and life. Their chronology is based primarily on the number and ages of the generations listed in the Old Testament.

Belief in creationism isn’t confined to a few religious cranks. Recent polls fairly consistently indicate that, currently, about one third to one half of all U.S. citizens are creationists. Nor is creationism solely the preserve of the unintelligent or ill-educated. It seems that significant numbers of college graduates are drawn to Bible literalism. A Tennessee academic who surveyed his own students a few years ago found that about a third were creationists. He complained that scientists like himself are having to fight

the battles of the Enlightenment all over again. Medieval ideas that were killed stone dead by the rise of science three to four hundred years ago are not merely twitching; they are alive and well in our schools, colleges and universities.

These medieval ideas are also taking root outside the U.S. Because of the evangelism of American Bible-literalists, creationism is on the rise around the world. Russia and Eastern Europe, in particular, are heavily targeted by Christian fundamentalists for whom states newly liberated from communism promise a new frontier in their project to spread creationist ideas around the world. In 2004, the Serbian education minister Ljiljana Colic succeeded (if only temporarily) in removing the teaching of evolution from all state schools, replacing it with the teaching of young-Earth creationism instead. Creationism is widespread in many African states, and also among those many Muslims for whom the literal truth of the Old Testament is also an article of faith.

For most creationists, the literal truth of the Old Testament is a “faith position”. They insist they would maintain their belief even if the scientific evidence seemed conclusively to falsify it.

Nevertheless, many creationists believe that their theory is scientifically respectable. It is, they suppose, supported by the available empirical evidence. Indeed, creationism has its own research centres – including the Institute for Creation Research – as well as its own conferences, publications and PhD-qualified researchers.

It is the claim that creationism is a scientifically robust theory at least as empirically well-supported as its rivals that I shall focus on here. How, exactly, do creationists convince themselves of the scientific validity of their theory?

The fossil record

Let’s begin with an illustration: creationist attempts to deal with the fossil record. Examination of the rock beneath our feet reveals strata that have been laid down, apparently over many millions of years. Fossils can be found embedded in these strata. And we find different life-forms fossilized in different levels. At the lowest levels, only very simple creatures are found. Higher up we discover more complex forms, including the dinosaurs. Higher still we find mammals. Only the most recently deposited layers reveal traces of man.

This layering of the fossil record tallies well with the theory of evolution, but seems to contradict the Biblical account on which all life-forms were produced more or less simultaneously about six thousand years ago. If the Biblical account were correct, we should presumably expect to find examples of the entire range of life-forms fairly randomly distributed throughout the strata (assuming, that is, that the few thousand years that have elapsed since creation would suffice to allow such rock strata even to form).

According to creationism, for example, man and all the other mammals walked the Earth at the same time as the dinosaurs. So shouldn’t we expect to find fossils of both man and all the other mammalian species muddled up in the same layers as dinosaur fossils? Yet we find distinct layering, with, for example, the larger mammals only ever appearing in the higher strata. Such evidence seems to count fairly decisively against creationism.

While the fossil record might seem to provide powerful evidence against creationism, creationists argue that the situation is not so simple. Indeed, they have shown some ingenuity in their attempts to explain how their theory also fits the available data.

Creationists maintain that the layering in the fossil record can be explained by reference to the Biblical Flood (the one on which Noah famously floated his ark). The rains that caused the Flood were responsible for producing huge mud deposits that then metamorphosed into the rock strata we find beneath our feet. Creationists insist that the ordering of the life-forms within these layers can also be accounted for on their theory. For example, some have suggested the reason we find dinosaurs below larger mammals is that dinosaurs are slow, cumbersome, comparatively unintelligent creatures that are likely to have been buried before the faster and more intelligent larger mammals that would have run to higher ground. Nor, as the Christian website attempts here to explain, should we expect to find fossils of humans in the lower sedimentary layers. The layering we find in the fossil record

can be more reasonably explained by Flood geologists as due to the order of burial of the different ecological zones of organisms by the Flood waters. For example, shallow marine organisms/ecological zones would be first destroyed by the fountains of the great deep breaking open, with the erosional runoff from the land due to torrential rainfall concurrently burying them. On this basis we would probably not expect to find human remains in the early Flood strata, which would contain only shallow marine organisms. The fossil record as we understand it at the moment certainly fits with this.

We have here an example of a standard creationist manoeuvre: by adapting and developing their own core creationist theory in various ways, evidence that might seem straightforwardly to falsify their theory is shown, with varying degrees of ingenuity, to “fit” with creationism after all.

Similar moves are made to deal with other evidence. Take the light arriving here from distant stars. That light would in many cases have had to travel for much longer than six thousand years to arrive here. It seems, then, that the universe must be much older than six thousand years. One creationist response to this evidence is to develop a theory on which the speed of light is actually slowing down. Technical papers filled with equations have been published in support of such rival creationist theories.

Or take the slow movement of tectonic plates to produce mountain ranges and the slow process of erosion to shape them – surely a range such as the Himalayas – is powerful evidence that these processes have been in operation for millions of years, not just a few thousand?

In response, creationists have suggested that tectonic plates can and have moved much more rapidly than they do at present, and that erosion can also take place very quickly under conditions such as those that occurred during the flood (a claim which, they suppose, also accounts for structures such as the Grand Canyon).

Now, if your conception of good scientific practice is simply to develop theories in such a way that they become consistent with the available empirical evidence, then it might strike you that what creationists are practising here is, indeed, good science. They even have a “research program” of sorts: to refine and shape their core theory in such a way that it comes to fit the evidence.

What creationist scientists practice certainly looks to many like solid, respectable science. Indeed, many millions of American citizens, many of whom are intelligent, college-educated people, believe that creationism is good science. Have all these people been duped? Or is so-called “creation science” good science after all.

Whether or not creation science even qualifies as science (and I have my doubts) it certainly isn’t good science. In order to see why, we need to develop a slightly more sophisticated understanding of what good evidence is.

I am going to focus in turn on the two ways evidence can be applied – as evidence against, or for a theory.

Are dogs Venusian spies?: dealing with evidence against your theory

Suppose that, for some strange reason, I come to believe that dogs are spies from the planet Venus. Amazed I could believe anything so foolish, you proceed to wheel out counter-evidence. “But dogs can’t even speak!” you point out. My reply: “They can speak, but simply choose to hide this ability from us.” “But they have no method of communicating with Venus”, you add. I reply: “Ah, they communicate by means of secret radio transmitters.” “But we have searched everywhere, and can find no evidence of such transmitters.” I reply: “The transmitters are embedded in the brains.” “But we have X-rayed their heads, and can find no transmitters!” I reply: “The transmitters are made of an organic material indistinguishable from brain stuff.” “But we can detect no signals coming from dogs’ heads.” “The signals are sent via a medium that we are, as yet, unable to detect.” “But Venus is a lifeless, uninhabitable planet.” “The Venusians live in deep underground bunkers where they are protected from the harsh atmosphere.” And so on. You can see that, with a little ingenuity, I might continue to play this game forever. Yes, there is a mountain of evidence that dogs are not Venusian spies. And yet, for any piece of evidence you might care to wheel out, it is always possible for me to concoct some explanation for that evidence – an explanation on which my theory that dogs are Venusian spies is consistent with that evidence.

Yet, clearly, despite the fact that I can continue to make my theory fit the evidence in this way, my theory is patently ridiculous. Certainly, what I am practising is not good science.

The moral is that, whatever good scientific practice is, it requires rather more than that we simply busy ourselves constructing theories that are consistent with the available evidence.

Any theory, no matter how ludicrous, can be made consistent with the available evidence, given enough ingenuity.

Yet the approach of “creationist scientists” is, to a very large extent, similar. Orthodox scientists who attempt quickly to dismiss creationism by wheeling out evidence that seems straightforwardly to falsify it often find themselves tied up in knots by opponents, who, armed with an array of moves developed by the Institute for Creation Research, etc., are able to show how creationism really does fit the evidence after all.

There’s a further moral we can draw. We can now see that, in order for evidence strongly to confirm a theory, more is required than that the theory be consistent with the evidence. Creationist understanding of good science seems often to involve a muddling of this distinction between evidence being consistent with a theory and evidence supporting a theory.

A caveat

I have drawn a parallel between the strategy I adopted to defend my belief that dogs are Venusian spies, and the strategy adopted by creationists to deal with seeming counter-evidence to their theory. But we do need to add a caveat here. The caveat is that, actually, even reputable scientists do make these kind of moves on occasion.

Here’s an example. When the heliocentric model of the universe was proposed, objectors pointed out what seemed to be powerful evidence against the theory. If the Earth were travelling round the sun, then the fixed stars should appear to wobble back and forth across our cosmic field of view over the course of a year (in much the same way that, if I walk around a lamp post while looking due north, the houses across the street should move back and forth across my field of view). The absence of any such observable parallax was an embarrassment for the new theory, and it prompted the response that the stars must, therefore be at a much greater distance than had previously been thought, making the parallax effect so small as to be undetectable. This explanation, it later turned out, was correct, though there was no way that those who originally made it could establish this at the time.

We have here an example of reputable scientists explaining away seemingly contrary evidence in much the same way creationists explain away the evidence against their theory. This is by no means a rare occurrence in scientific circles. And why not? Surely it’s not always unreasonable to defend a theory by constructing such alternative explanations for apparent counter-evidence? But then why shouldn’t creationists adopt the same strategy?

Because, while this strategy can be reasonable, clearly there are limits. Certainly, the strategy may well be reasonable if, say, the theory is otherwise well confirmed, the contrary evidence is limited, and if the alternative explanations have further independently-testable consequences. But clearly, my defence of the theory that dogs are Venusian spies fails on at least two of these three counts. Not only is my theory is not strongly confirmed (see below), it faces so much contrary evidence that my strategy of seeking to explaining away that evidence becomes ridiculous. I end up having to devote almost all my intellectual energy to constructing ever-more elaborate explanations of why the evidence is, after all, consistent with my belief that dogs are Venusian spies.

Creationism shares both these failings. Not only is their core theory not strongly confirmed (as I will further explain shortly), much of the intellectual effort of “creation scientists” is inevitably focussed on their programme of coming up with explanations to show how seemingly contrary evidence is consistent with their theory after all.

What creationists practice might look a bit like science to the untrained eye. After all, it's true that they are using imagination and ingenuity to develop a theory that continues to fit the available evidence. But, because the spend so much of their energy attempting to explain away counter-evidence, their method is essentially unscientific.

Reasoning of the insane

We have seen that, in defending the theory that dogs are Venusian spies, my method may resemble the scientific method in certain respects, but differs essentially from it. Indeed, were I to continue to defend my dogs-are-Venusian-spies theory in this manner, not only would I start to infuriate my audience, I would quite properly be suspected of suffering from some sort of mental illness.

Indeed, in its most extreme form, this pattern of thinking – the strategy of explaining away counter-evidence ad nauseum - surely is characteristic of certain forms of insanity. Anyone who has spent some time in the company of someone who, perhaps because of a serious psychiatric condition, is severely deluded will recognize the frustration of trying to convince them of the error of their ways, when they can apply their often considerable ingenuity to developing ever-more elaborate explanations to deal with your evidence that, whatever they might think, dogs really aren’t Venusian spies.

Of course, creationists aren’t (usually) mentally ill, but it’s striking how their thinking often exhibits this same peculiar pattern of thought – a pattern that allows them effectively to seal themselves off inside a their own bizarre bubble of belief.

When does evidence strongly support a theory?

Let’s now look at how evidence can be used to support a theory. Evidence can support a theory to varying degrees, of course. An observation of a single white swan is some evidence that all swans are white. But not very much. Observe more white swans and no black ones, and the degree of evidential support increases somewhat.

Under what circumstances is a theory strongly confirmed by a piece of evidence? That’s to say, under what conditions does a piece of evidence, while perhaps not by itself sufficient to make it rational to believe the theory, nevertheless very significantly support it? It seems three things are required.

o First, the theory must allow us to deduce observational consequences: consequences that can be clearly and precisely stated.
o Second, there should be a sense in which the prediction is surprising and unexpected.
o Third, the prediction should turn out to be true.

The first two conditions explain why, for example, the kind of predictions made by end-of-pier astrologers and psychics rarely constitute strong evidence in support of the claim that the have genuine occult powers.

Note, first, that such predictions as that I will soon meet a dark and handsome stranger, or will come into a sum of money, or know someone with health problems, are obviously pretty vague – does “soon” mean this week, this month or this year? How much money is a “sum”, what counts as “dark”? Does the common cold count as “health problems”? This vagueness makes it far easier for the astrologer or psychic to insist that their predictions have come true.

But in fact, even without the very considerable wiggle room provided by such vagueness, these predictions may well come true anyway. Most people know someone with health problem, will soon meet a dark stranger, and will come into some money in the not too distant future. These predictions are unsurprising in this sense: that they are likely to be true anyway, irrespective of whether the hypothesis that the psychic or astrologer has genuine powers is true. In which case, the discovery that they are true provides very little evidence in support of that hypothesis.

Contrast the above “evidence” for genuine occult powers with, say, some of the evidence in support of the theory of evolution (whether or not it be Darwin’s version). From the hypothesis that all species have evolved over millions of years by increments from some common ancestor, we can derive, for example, this observational consequence: that the fossil record will be contiguous and progressive. The theory predicts that the fossils will line up in a very specific manner: a manner consistent with the claim that later species evolved from the earlier. It predicts we won’t find any out of order fossils (e.g. we won’t dig up cow fossils in the pre-Cambrian layers). It also predicts that we will discover fossils of extinct species that are morphologically transitional between existing species. The theory predicts a great may other things too, of course, but if we focus on the prediction about no out of order fossils, notice that it does met our three requirements for strong confirmation. The prediction of a contiguous and progressive fossil record is pretty clear and precise. It is also surprising in the sense we require for strong confirmation – if the theory were not true, then there would be no particular reason to expect the fossils to line up in such a precise manner. And yet, even after we have dug up millions of fossils, including many thousands of mammal and dinosaur fossils, there has not been even a single well-documented instance of an out of place fossil. If the theory were not true, the fact that there has not been even one such fossil would be a quite extraordinary coincidence. So the fact that the fossils do line up in this very particular way very strongly confirms the theory.

In response, a creationist might insist that the fact that the fossils do line up in this manner is not particularly unexpected on their alternative theory. Certainly, we have seen that they tell a story about the biblical flood that makes the actual arrangement of fossils consistent with their theory. But is, not just a rough banding of dinosaurs and humans into different layers, but this very particular kind of ordering throughout the layers predicted by the theory of evolution, something which, even according to creationism, is not unlikely? Surely not. Even if creationism can be made consistent with the fossil record, it certainly doesn’t give a particularly high probability to this very specific arrangement of fossils. So, as a prediction, it is, in the relevant sense, surprising. But then, as the prediction is also true, the theory of evolution is strongly confirmed.

What about creationism? Is that also strongly confirmed by, say, the fossil record? No. For creationism doesn’t make any clear, precise and surprising predictions regarding what we should expect to dig up. Creationism doesn’t really make any particular clear, precise and surprising predictions about what we should expect to dig up. Whatever we dig up, they can say – “Hey: that’s just what we expected!”

In short, to be strongly confirmed, a theory has, as it were, to really stick its neck out with regard to predictions – to take very significant risks so far as being proved wrong is concerned. The theory of evolution takes such risks with the fossil record, which is why it can be strongly confirmed by it. Creationism does not.

That the theory of evolution sticks its neck out so far as the fossil record is concerned, whereas creationism does not, is indeed, acknowledged in this quote from the creationist website

If human and dinosaur bones are ever found in the same layers, it would be a fascinating find to both creationists and evolutionists. Those who hold a biblical view of history wouldn’t be surprised … Evolutionists, on the other hand, who believe the geologic layers represent millions of years of time, would have a real challenge. In the old-earth view, man isn’t supposed to be the same age as dinosaurs…. As biblical creationists, we don’t require that human and dinosaur fossils be found in the same layers. Whether they are found or not, does not affect the biblical view of history.

What these creationists fail to realize, however, is that it is precisely their lack of commitment one way or the other so far as how human and dinosaur fossils should be arranged that gives the theory of evolution a very significant advantage over their own. For, unlike their own theory, the theory of evolution can then be strongly confirmed by what is dug up.


I have been looking at the general strategy of creationists regarding evidence. We have seen that, to some extent, their strategy does resemble the scientific method. Indeed, it resembles it enough to fool many people into thinking that creationism is “good science”. However, we have also seen that, (i) unlike genuinely good scientific theories such as the theory of evolution (and also Darwin’s version of it), creation science expends far too much of its intellectual energy trying to explain away enormous amounts of counter-evidence, and (ii) it also (as I have at least illustrated, if not yet established) takes few risks with the empirical evidence, with the consequence that, unlike the theory of evolution (and Darwin’s version of it), it cannot be strongly confirmed by that evidence.

Evidence against evolution/ for creationism

I have not yet included everything that gets done under the banner of creation science. For example, creation scientists also spend much energy cataloguing what they consider to be evidence against Darwin’s theory, the theory of evolution more generally, and of course the theory that the universe is far older than just a few thousand years. Because every scientific theory, no matter how successful, has its problems to deal with, it’s not difficult for creation scientists to find and then widely publicize such via the internet, church meetings and events, and so on, in such a way as to give audiences the impression that, while creationism may have its problems, so do its rivals. So don’t both deserve to be taken seriously?

What such creationists presentations obscure, of course, is the sheer scale of the problems facing creationism compared to those facing the theory of evolution, etc. But in any case, many of the “problems” that the theory of evolution supposedly faces aren’t really problems at all.

Here’s just one example of such a pseudo-problem. Attend a public lecture by a creationist are you may be shown dramatic slides of fossils which, its claimed, disprove the theory of evolution. Take, for example, images of trees fossilized upright through rock strata (there are some famous examples at Yellowstone park, U.S.A.). Such polystrate fossils (see illustration above), say some creationists, are powerful evidence that these trees were buried quickly, as their creationist Flood theory predicts, not slowly over millions of years, as the theory of evolution demands (if the process were that slow, the creationists point out, then the tree would have long rotted away before any higher sedimentary layers were added). While such dramatic images and arguments may persuade some audiences, the truth is that polystrate fossils are no problem at all for the theory of evolution. The theory acknowledges that sedimentary layers are sometimes rapidly laid down (besides rivers, for example, or during a rapid series of volcanic eruptions). So, on the theory of evolution, polystrate fossils are to be expected. Evangelical creationists who present such images in such a misleading way are either woefully ignorant about fossils, or else are else are guilty of deliberately misleading their audiences. Such pseudo-problems abound in creationist media.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Problem of Evil - character-building solution

Here's a popular explanation for the suffering and moral depravity that God allows into his creation:

We know that a bad experience can sometimes make us stronger. We can learn, be enriched, through suffering. For example, people who have suffered a terrible disease sometimes say they gained greatly from it. Similarly, by causing us pain and suffering, God allows us to grow and develop both morally and spiritually. It is only through our experiencing this suffering that we can ultimately become the noble souls God wants us to be. The suffering is for our benefit!

I don't find this remotely plausible. Here's an analogy.

The secretive headmaster

Suppose you come across a school. You observe that it has a strange regime. The teachers horribly flog some children within an inch of their lives for no reason whatever. Others receive fantastic rewards, again for no reason all. The headmaster knows everything that’s going on in the school. He knows that many children leave physically and psychologically crippled. And he is in complete control.

What sort of headmaster runs this school, do you think…?

Is he a highly benevolent person with the best interests of his pupils at heart?

Surely not. Pretty obviously, this sort of regime is more likely to break the pupils’ characters them build them! We would no doubt consider someone who maintained the headmaster was not only all-powerful but exceptionally benevolent to have a screw loose.

But then, given the random way in which pain and suffering and rewards are distributed, why suppose that the world is run by an all-knowing, supremely benevolent headmaster? Isn't it very obvious indeed that it's not?

The evidential problem of evil

I also want to remind commentators on preceding posts that the problem of evil I use to argue against theism is the evidential problem, not the logical problem.

The logical problem is that of explaining why an all-good and powerful god would permit any evil. Surely any evil, and the existence of such a God, are logically incompatible?

This problem can easily be dealt with by noting that some evil might be the price paid for a greater good. When theists try to deal with the "problem of evil" they often try to deal with this one, i.e. the comparatively easy one. Then they think they've "solved" the "problem of evil".

They haven't.

The evidential problem, by contrast, points to the sheer quantity of suffering and moral depravity in the world.

Why, for example, would he unleash literally unimaginable quantities of suffering on sentient beings over many hundreds of millions of years? (he was "building character!"). Indeed, he has repeatedly wiped much of the life from the face of the earth in mass extinction events, the second to last of which wiped out 95% of all species.

Maybe all-good and powerful god would allow some suffering for a greater good, but this much? No. It's surely ridiculous to suppose that every last ounce of this enormous amount of suffering can be accounted for by supposing it's for the sake of a greater good.

If you disagree - do explain!

I'll now be incommunicado for a week but will respond when I return.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Secularism - a simple test

Here's an essay that repeats some points I made earlier...

By a secular society I mean one in which the state takes a neutral view on religion. A secular society aligns itself with no particular religious, or anti-religious, point of view. A secular society also protects freedoms: the freedom to believe, or not believe, worship, or not worship.
Theists often assume that a secular society must be an atheist society. But, as I’ve characterized secularism here, secularism and atheism are very different concepts.. An Islamic or Christian theocracy is obviously not secular, because one particular religion dominates the state. But then an atheist state, such as Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China, is not secular either. A secular state does not privilege atheist beliefs. It is neutral on the issue of religion. It is founded on principles framed independently of any particular religious, or indeed, atheist, commitment: principles to which we ought to be able to sign up whether we are religious or not. Indeed, many religious people are secularists. They value the kind of religious freedoms that such a society guarantees.

Although most of us take these freedoms for granted, they were in many cases hard won, and, across much of the West, have existed for only a few hundred years.

Threats to secularism

One way in which the secular character of a society can begin to be eroded is if the religious start insisting their views are deserving of special, institutionalized forms of privilege or "respect”. Here are six examples of such demands:

• We should not permit plays that mock, or might in some way deeply offend, those with certain religious beliefs.
• Airlines and schools should have no power to ban flight attendants or school pupils from wearing religious symbols, if the individual’s religion, or conscience, requires it.
• Taxpayer’s money should be used to fund religious schools that are then permitted to discriminate against both teachers and pupils on the basis of religious belief.
• The anti-discrimination laws that apply to everyone else should not apply to Catholic adoption agencies asked to help gay couples adopt.
• One religion should automatically be allocated 26 seats in the House of Lords - all men - which can be used to help block legislation that has popular, democratic support (such as the Bill on assisted dying).
• Our State should have an explicitly religious affiliation.

A challenge

All of the above claims for special privileges are regularly made in the U.K. In several cases, the privilege already exists. Many believe these claims are legitimate. Some of you may have some sympathy with at least some of them. I shall raise a challenge for those who make these claims. The challenge involves a simple test.

THE TEST: If you agree with some of these claims that religion deserves special institutionalized privilege or respect, cross out the word “religious” and write in “political” instead. Then see if you still agree.

Let’s apply the test to four of these six claims…

• We should not permit plays that mock, or might in some way deeply offend, those with certain political beliefs.
• Airlines and schools should have no power to ban flight attendants or school pupils from wearing political symbols or clothing, if the individual’s political party, or conscience, requires it.
• The anti-discrimination laws that apply to everyone else should not apply to, say, BNP-run adoption agencies asked to help mixed-race couples adopt. We should respect the political conscience of party members.
• Taxpayer’s money should be used to fund political schools that are then permitted to discriminate against both teachers and pupils on the basis of their political beliefs.

Let’s focus on that last example for a moment. Suppose political schools start opening up and down the country – a communist school in Middlesborough followed by a neo-con school in Basildon. Suppose these schools:

• select staff and pupils on basis of political beliefs.
• start each day with singing of political anthems.
• insist on daily readings from revered political texts.
• have images of political leaders beaming down from classroom walls.

What would be the public’s reaction? Outrage. These schools would rightly be accused of educationally stunting children by forcing their minds into politically approved moulds. These are the kind of schools you find under totalitarian regimes, such as Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China. Such schools are surely unacceptable.

Yet, if we cross out “political” and write “religious”, suddenly, people become much more comfortable with the idea of such schools. Indeed, many think them desirable.

Now the challenge I am putting to anti-secularists is this:

If you reject the political versions of these claims, why suppose the religious versions should be considered differently?

This challenge can be sharpened by noting that, very often, religious beliefs are political beliefs. Consider, for example religious beliefs on women’s role in society, the moral status of the actively homosexual, abortion; stem cell research, jihad, the State of Israel, or our moral and financial responsibilities to those less fortunate than ourselves. These beliefs are all intensely political. Indeed, religious organizations are increasingly political animals. They form powerful political lobbies. But why should the addition of a religious dimension to someone’s political beliefs mean that those particular beliefs are then deserving of a special, institutionalized form of privilege or “respect”? In short: what’s so special about religion?

Responses to the challenge

How might those making these six demands respond to this challenge? They need to come up with some difference between religious and other political beliefs that justifies this difference in treatment. Otherwise, their attitude looks like little more than prejudice.
Let’s now look at four replies.

REPLY 1. Unlike purely political beliefs, religious beliefs involve the supernatural. That is e.g. why they shouldn’t be mocked, and why e.g. crucifixes should never be banned.

But why is this relevant? After all, beliefs in ghosts and fairies also involve the supernatural. Yet we don’t suppose that e.g. those beliefs should not be mocked.

REPLY TWO: Religious beliefs are more passionately held.

But political beliefs may be just as passionately held. Indeed, people are also prepared to die for them. In fact I am prepared to die for certain political beliefs. Yet I don’t demand legislation preventing others from mocking my beliefs.

REPLY THREE: Religion often forms part of a person's identity in a way that their politics doesn't. That’s why we should institutionally privilege religious beliefs.

Well, yes, let’s agree that there are those:

• brought up to attend regular devotional events.
• who make pilgrimages abroad.
• whose devotional community transcends national boundaries.
• whose clothing and/or jewellery reflects this commitment.
• who commit time each day to related reading.
• whose homes are hung with e.g. related icons and portraits.
• who have been known, in a few cases, even permanently to mark their bodies with signs their devotion.

But are these features of a community of devotees sufficient to qualify them for the kind of privileges we have been discussing? I think not. After all, Manchester United Supporters would then also qualify, as many of them also check all seven boxes (they regularly attend matches, make pilgrimages abroad for Champions League games, and on occasion even get themselves tattooed with symbols of their devotion).

REPLY FOUR: Unless our State has an explicitly Christian foundation, key liberal values - such as freedom and equality - are likely to come under threat.

This argument is becoming increasingly popular. Here, for example, is British Philosopher Prof Roger Trigg…

“As a matter of historical fact, the standards of Western Society have arisen from a Christian background… the urge to respect different beliefs, and value individual freedom, needs to be nurtured publicly, and if religious views initially produced it, there is a question how long it can survive without their explicit support.”

Trigg believes the Christian foundations of our modern liberal society need to be made explicit, less its liberal values be undermined.

But note, first of all, that there are other, non-religious justifications available for these values (philosophers have developed all sorts of justifications, in fact).

Second, surely, insisting on a specifically Christian justification of our core values in a country where a significant number are no longer even religious, let alone Christian, is more, not less, likely to result in those values being ignored or rejected. Surely, if we want everyone to sign up to certain core values, wouldn’t it better if a religiously-neutral justification were offered instead?


To sum up, I have presented a challenge to those who think religious beliefs should be treated differently to (other) political beliefs - i.e. should receive institutionalized privileges. The challenge is to identify some feature of religious beliefs that justifies this difference in treatment. I myself don’t yet see how this challenge can be met.

Still, even if there is no principled reason for giving religious beliefs special treatment, perhaps there are pragmatic reasons for doing so in certain cases. For example, if a religious group is so incensed by a play that serious violence is likely if production is not halted, perhaps a case can be made for pulling the play. But the important thing, then, is to make it clear why the concession is being made. Don't let the religious think they have won some battle of principle: that their religion does indeed deserve special "respect". Caving in to such pressure should be an act of last resort. Once the fervently religious discover they can get what they want by raising the temperature high enough, they'll do it again.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The other "problem of evil"

Sometimes, when presented with the problem of evil (for example, in the form of my "God of Eth" article [original here]), believers respond by saying "Well, ok, that's a problem for theists. But of course it's just as much a problem for atheists. Atheists need to deal with the problem of evil too."

This had me scratching my head for a while. If you don't believe in an all-powerful, all-good God, well, evil is not a "problem" for your position, is it? Atheists don't face the "problem of evil".

But then I realized that, actually, two quite different problems are being run together here.

There is of course a "problem of evil" that atheists face: the problem of how to deal, psychologically, with evil - with the sheer quantity of suffering, and also moral depravity, that so many of us have to endure.

The believer can find solace in their faith, of course. But to what can the atheist turn?

So yes, atheists face this "problem of evil". But it's a different problem. The right response to this move, I think, is to say that the theist has simply changed the subject.

They are trying to suggest, of course, that as the "problem of evil" is just as much a problem for atheists, it doesn't support atheism over theism.

But, as an argument against he truth of theism, the "problem of evil" is not a problem for atheism at all. Vast quantities of evil are evidence against the all-powerful-and-all-good-god hypothesis. They are not evidence against the no-god hypothesis.

True, atheists also face the question - how, if at all, are we to deal psychologically with evil? And it's true that they don't have a pat answer available to them in the way the theist does.

But even if the correct answer is: actually, many of us cannot deal psychologically with such evil without the support of religious faith, that would not give even one ounce of support to the claim that what the faithful believe is actually true.