New Scientist’s third way: neither science nor faith

I’m on a bus to Boston (the first internet-equipped bus I’ve ever ridden), so excuse the following post, written in haste.

There’s a form of accommodationism that, while attacking the deficiencies of both science and faith, tries to combine them in a wooly-minded nexus. That is what Templeton, for instance, is trying to do.  This week, on New Scientist’s “opinion” site, you find David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, taking atheists to task for their lack of humility and the faithful for their lack of evidence.  He claims  to have found a superor third way that is neither fish nor fowl:  possibilianism.

So while there are plenty of good books by scientist-atheists, they sometimes under-emphasise the main lesson from science: that our knowledge is vastly outstripped by our ignorance. For me, a life in science prompts awe and exploration over dogmatism.

Let’s see—who are those book-writing scientist-atheists? Dawkins, surely, and Victor Stenger.  Perhaps Sam Harris as well.  It wasn’t my impression that these guys failed to concede our vast ignorance about the universe.

Given these considerations, I do not call myself an atheist. I don’t feel that I have enough data to firmly rule out other interesting possibilities. On the other hand, I do not subscribe to any religion. Traditional religious stories can be beautiful and often crystallise hard-won wisdom – but it is hardly a challenge to poke holes in them.

Those “interesting possibilities” would seem to be supernatural ones, since that’s what atheism has provisionally ruled out.   Yet Eagleman’s “possibilites” seem to fall within the purview of science:

So it seems we know too little to commit to strict atheism, and too much to commit to any religion. Given this, I am often surprised by the number of people who seem to possess total certainty about their position. I know a lot of atheists who seethe at the idea of religion, and religious followers who seethe at the idea of atheism – but neither group is bothering with more interesting ideas. They make their impassioned arguments as though the God versus no-God dichotomy were enough for a modern discussion.

What if we were planted here by aliens? What if there are civilisations in spatial dimensions seven through nine? What if we are nodes in a vast, cosmic, computational device? . . .

Consider the enormous “possibility space” of stories that can be dreamed up. Take the entirety of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition as a single point in this possibility space. The eastern religions are another point. Strict atheism is another point. Now think of the immense landscape of the points in between. Many of these points will contain stories that are crazy, silly, or merely wildly improbable. But in the absence of data, they can’t be ruled out of that space.

This is why I call myself a “possibilian”. Possibilianism emphasises the active exploration of new, unconsidered notions. A possibilian is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind and is not driven by the idea of fighting for a single, particular story. The key emphasis of possibilianism is to shine a flashlight around the possibility space. It is a plea not simply for open-mindedness, but for an active exploration of new ideas.

But doesn’t this sound just like science? Indeed, Eagletnan’s program seems to be one of scientific exploration:

Within the realm of what is addressable, we profitably apply logic to further knowledge. Possibilianism is “anything goes at first” – but we then use science to rule out parts of the possibility space, and often to rule in new parts.

And indeed, if we think we were put here by space aliens (presumably as a naked replicating molecule, since we already know we weren’t planted here as primates), we need to look for evidence for that.  If evidence is impossible to get, then we might as well dismiss the project, since no answers will be forthcoming.  But Eagleman plays down the fact that his “possibility” space includes a lot of supernatural assertions that are either falsified by science or incapable of scientific refutation because they’ve rendered themselves immune to disproof.  And those possibilities are outside his program.

Eagleman’s problem is that he doesn’t clearly distinguish his Third Way from science itself, so I’m not sure why he wrote this piece. Indeed, I’m not sure what he means.  In the end, his post seems to be a misguided way to empower supernaturalism and spiritualism—and appeal to their adherents—without saying so directly.

87 Comments

  1. MosesZD
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    It sounds like Schroedinger’s cat theology… The cat is dead or not dead… There’s a god or not a god… There are aliens or no aliens…

    It’s really, as you say, to be “sure what he means.”

  2. Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    So it seems we know too little to commit to strict atheism…

    You can pretty much stop reading at that point. He just demonstrated he doesn’t know what atheism is.

  3. Jonn Mero
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    I know a lot of atheists who seethe at the idea of religion, and religious followers who seethe at the idea of atheism – but neither group is bothering with more interesting ideas.
    - – -
    This is why I call myself a “possibilian”.

    More interesting ideas than one finds in science, – like what exactly??
    And where I come from he’d be called a dick-wad.

  4. Hempenstein
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    From his bio, seems he’s also a fiction writer. That’s what these guys do – create possible scenarios, so I guess it all fits.

    Meanwhile, over at reality, it’s astonishing how difficult it seems to be to grasp ‘None of the Above’.

    • Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:46 am | Permalink

      Not only a fiction writer, but his most recent book was 40 short stories about “possible” afterlife scenarios.

      A cynic might argue that the guy is clearly an atheist (after all, he has said multiple times that “we know too much” to think that any given theistic religion could possibly be true) but that his publisher thought that “a book about afterlife possibilities by an atheist” was less saleable than “a book about afterlife possibilities by a Possibilian.”

  5. daveau
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    I don’t get it either. Sounds like another faithiest argument.

    I’m going to call myself a ‘probabilian’.

    • Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      I think it’s not quite “faitheism”… He doesn’t seem to believe in belief… he seems to just not like to call himself an atheist.

      • articulett
        Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

        well they I heard they have a reputation for being “know nothings”….

    • nick bobick
      Posted September 30, 2010 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

      I’ll opt for being a “not-bloody-likelian”.

  6. Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    I blogged about Eagleman and his “Possibilianism” about a year ago. And funny enough, I came to the same conclusion:

    [The practice of science] seems perfectly in line with Eagleman’s idea of “Possibilianism.” (Perhaps science ought to rebrand itself thusly, since science is indeed concerned with all plausible possibilities, and “Possibilianism” sounds more exciting!)

    It’s also worth nothing that this line about “we know…too much to commit to any religion” seems to be a favorite of his — and if you actually think about it, he just fucking said he was an atheist! He basically just said that our present knowledge contradicts all existing theistic religions. That is atheism!

    • Kevin
      Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      I’ll bet at cocktail parties he says he’s “spiritual but not religious”.

      Meh.

      • Chris Slaby
        Posted September 30, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink

        Not committing to a specific religion isn’t atheism, at least not usually. The main statement of atheism is that there is no supernatural deity or deities. You can believe in no religion, but still believe in a deity. Someone like that would not be an atheist, they would be a deist. It seems like Eagleman’s view on a deity is that he doesn’t know whether such a thing exists and he acknowledges that there’s no way to test the existence of such a thing. Why not make the very logical jump, as any rationalist should, and conclude that based on the circumstances, there is no God? (At least he’s clearly not a theist, as he so nicely pointed out–theism is indeed too easy to poke holes in to even bother with.)

        • Steve Norley
          Posted September 30, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink

          “The main statement of atheism is that there is no supernatural deity or deities.”

          No. The main statement of atheism is that there is no evidence for a supernatural deity or deities. Atheism is a lack of belief in god(s), not a belief that there is no god(s). This important distinction is one that accomodationists like Eagleman always seem unable to understand.

          • Kevin
            Posted September 30, 2010 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

            Steve: At the risk of creating a strawman out of myself, I don’t believe there is a god.

            I believe there is no god.

            I am a positive atheist.

            I know, a rare bird.

            I base that belief on the fact that there is no evidence supporting the existence of such a thing. I also base that belief on the fact that we have been looking for that evidence for at least as long as humans have had language and we have failed.

            Time’s up, in my opinion.

            No, you can’t disprove god, any more than you can disprove unicorns or fairies. But we don’t seem to have any trouble saying “there are no unicorns, and fairies don’t exist either” based on exactly the same quality of evidence.

            I don’t see why god is an exception.

            Now, that doesn’t mean I’m close-minded about the thing. Any more than I’m close-minded about fairies or unicorns. Merely that the amount of evidence that will need to be presented to change my mind had better be fairly hefty and compelling. If someone captured a fairy and definitively proved it existed to the scientific community, I’d come right on board.

            Same with god(s). However, I think there is the exact equivalent likelihood of either happening.

            I think it’s time we said “enough’s enough. Stop annoying us with fairy stories. Just because you can imagine something, that doesn’t require that we assign some mathematical probability to its existence.”

            Even in the quantum woo world of Deepak and buddies, there are impossible things. God’s one of them.

            Just my opinion, of course. I understand your level of nuance and appreciate it.

            • Steve Norley
              Posted September 30, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

              I am myself about as atheist as it comes, considering the likelihood of the existence of god(s)about on a par with that of…….actually I can’t think of anything less likely: even fairies are more likely as far as I am concerned. I think the bone of contention here is the word ‘believe’. This implies absolute 100% certainty in whatever is under discussion and it is this that the fundies and accomodationists jump on to unjustly paint us as close-minded hypocrites. Despite his reputation (amongst those who no nothing about him) as a foaming-at-the-mouth fundamentalist god denier, even Dawkins professes to only a 6 point something conviction on his sliding scale of 7 about the lack of gods.

              I always try to avoid the use of the word ‘believe’ for this reason. For example, I accept that Africa exists because all the evidence indicates that it is so. But there is the slightest possibility, having never been there myself, that everyone on Earth has conspired to trick me into this ‘belief’. I would personally feel uncomfortable saying ‘I believe that god does not exist’ but have no problem with ‘I do not believe god exists’. I guess it’s just a question of semantics.

            • Steve Norley
              Posted September 30, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

              I can’t believe I wrote ‘no nothing’ Arrrrgh!! Note to self: do not post on the intertubes after drinking a large G&T and a bottle of wine!

            • Andy
              Posted September 30, 2010 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

              I’m a “strong” atheist as well. There’s never been any credible, testable evidence that ghosts exist. So in everyday parlance, what do we do?—We tell our kids that there’s no such thing as ghosts. “Ghosts don’t exist, sweetie. Go back to bed.” We say this definitively and without hesitation. We don’t prattle on to the young ‘uns about absolute knowledge and how you can’t prove a negative and yada yada yada. In everyday language—the language most of us use, most of the time—we just say “ghosts don’t exist.” Period. Absolute knowledge is irrelevant, as it too doesn’t exist. If there’s no evidence of any gods—and goodness knows people have forever been trying to prove that gods do exist—then it is completely fair for me to use the everyday parlance and say that “no gods exist.” No invisible unicorns, either. As Vic Stenger says, a lack of evidence IS itself evidence when the evidence should be there, but isn’t.

        • Posted September 30, 2010 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

          Chris, I see your point, and either of us could be right. The problem is that the statement “We know too much to commit to any particular religion” is ambiguous in the extreme. I am parsing it was saying that we have knowledge which contradicts each and every theistic religion — which, I would argue, can only be usefully construed as atheism. (See this post for more — atheism is not the pre-emptive disbelief in anything to which one might attach the word “god” at some future date) On the other hand, you are focusing on the “can’t commit” part of the statement, which seems to imply only that he thinks a specific idiosyncratic theistic belief is unsupportable.

          It’s hard to know what Eagleman is saying, because he seems to be intentionally playing up the uncertainty in order to come across like a nice guy. I still insist that someone who says we “know too much” to believe any existing world religion can only be usefully described as an atheist. Otherwise, nobody is an atheist — somebody might decide to come out with a brand of toothpaste called “God”, and if they did, I would be forced to admit I believed the statement “‘God’ exists”…

  7. Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    He should have called it “What if”-ism.

    I think this is yet another attempt to present oneself as more reasonable than both theists and atheists (while missing that atheism is still a provisional position).

    The biggest difference I see between “possiblism” and science is the motto “anything goes at first”. The problem with this is that if anything goes, the possibility space is pretty much infinitely large. If we have to seriously contemplate all of it, completely from scratch, we’d never get to the stage where science can rule out certain parts of it.

    You therefore need a good heuristic on figuring out which way in the possibility space the most likely next discoveries are. That’s why science doesn’t say “anything goes at first”, but “let’s start with what we think we already know”. I bet that this is more likely to produce progress than “anything goes”.

    • Jimbo
      Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      I’d vote for “wtf-ism”

    • What a maroon
      Posted October 1, 2010 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      I think I’ll convert to anything-goesism. Patron saint: Cole Porter.

      Nobody will oppose!

  8. scribe999
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    I can make up words too! I think I’ll label Eagleman a “dismissabilian” — an entity that I dismiss because I just don’t care.

    • Scote
      Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      Or a Dissemblian…

  9. Hitch
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Epistemology is enough. David Hume and Thomas Huxley already had it quite right.

    The rest is just wiggling to create some space so one can say “but God is still a possibility, right?”

    The correct answer to that is: yes, along with an infinity of unfounded and extremely likely untrue hypothesis.

    That’s “possibilianism”. “Deities are still possible so don’t worry” kind of stuff.

    So in the sence that possibilitianism is exactly epistemology/scientific practic it’s not new. And in the sense that it is not, it’s also not new, but just a niche-making for deism (or more).

    • Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      The correct answer to that is: yes, along with an infinity of unfounded and extremely likely untrue hypothesis.

      I think Eagleman needs to consider the possibility that the Invisible Pink Unicorn exists. When he’s done with that (when he’s ruled it out with science?), he should next consider the Invisible Blue Unicorn. And the Invisible Green Unicorn With Red Spots. And after he’s done considering the possibilities of all possible color combinations of invisible unicorns, he can continue with the Invisible Pink Dragon, the Invisible Blue Dragon…

      I forsee a busy future for Eagleman.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:14 am | Permalink

        :-)

      • MoonShark
        Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:26 am | Permalink

        Ha! Don’t forget (as PZ suggested the other day) the flying spaghetti monster, the flying linguine monster, the flying capellini monster, the flying vermicelli monster… well basically every permutation of flying/swimming/jogging/squaredancing pasta monster/beast/brute/mutant/titan/fiend/colossus.

        • MoonShark
          Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:28 am | Permalink

          And their myriad sauces.

          • Hitch
            Posted September 30, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink

            The possibilitivism of the flying spaghetti monster is very large. Flight, spaghetti and tomato sauce have all been observed. And the proposition is too tasty not to be true. ;)

      • yesmyliege
        Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:37 am | Permalink

        Well, for any color combination of unicorn, they either exist or they don’t. Hey, it’s a fifty-fifty proposition again. Now there is some fine tuning.

        • Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink

          If there’s a 50/50 chance of any given invisible color of unicorn existing… then the probability of their being neither an Invisible Pink Unicorn nor an Invisible Blue Unicorn would be 1/2*1/2 = 1/4. And more colors, and the probability continues to decline by 1/2.

          Using classical physics, there would be an infinite number of visible light wavelengths to choose from, meaning the probability of there being no invisible unicorns would be lim(n->inf) 1/2^n… i.e. ZERO, i.e. there has to be invisible unicorns.

          Quantum mechanics may give us an out, but still, the probability of there being no unicorns is vanishingly small.

          Therefore, the rational thing to do is to assume the existence of an Invisible Some-colored Unicorn. It turns out that Aunicornism is the faith-based position after all! Who knew?!

          • Larry Tanner
            Posted September 30, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink

            You, sir, are AWESOME!

          • Tulse
            Posted September 30, 2010 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

            I think I read this argument in Swinburne…

  10. Tulse
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    What if we were planted here by aliens? What if there are civilisations in spatial dimensions seven through nine? What if we are nodes in a vast, cosmic, computational device? . . .

    Dude, stop bogarting! And pass the Cheetos.

    As is common, Eagleman is suggesting that atheists have a level of certainty they never profess to have, and requires less confidence in the status of gods than he does in other phenomena that is similarly unsupported. Put another way, does he really think the notion we were planted here by aliens is at all plausible? It might be possible, but only because anything not logically impossible is, but surely he would think of himself as an a-alienist.

    • Posted September 30, 2010 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

      Or, as was said back in my day (the ’90s): it’s a bong, not a bloody microphone.

  11. Kevin
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    He sounds like Johnny Cochran…

    It’s possible that someone other than OJ Simpson killed his ex-wife and Ron Goldman, planted OJ’s blood at the scene, planted the bloody gloves at his own estate, secretly cut OJ’s finger without his knowledge…

    Sure.

    It wuz aliens!!! I SEEN ‘em!

  12. Sigmund
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Talkiing about the New Atheist books:
    “Some readers walk away from these books with the impression that scientists think they have the big picture solved – if not in detail, at least in outline.”
    Yes, but usually these are the sort of readers who haven’t read more than the title and can’t be bothered to read the content since they have far better things to do – such as writing articles about how arrogant they are

  13. Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    What if we were planted here by aliens? What if there are civilisations in spatial dimensions seven through nine? What if we are nodes in a vast, cosmic, computational device?

    What if Eagleman could come up with a what-if scenario worthy of consideration?

    No, seriously.

    The first one Jerry already dismissed. Plus, I think we know enough about biogenesis by now to rule out any extraterrestrial influences beyond the chirality of proteins; pretty much everything past that point appears to have evolved here. And, as Professor Dawkins likes to point out, it still doesn’t address the question of where the aliens themselves came from.

    I’m no quantum mechanic, but I’m damned sure that the phrase, “civilizations in spatial dimensions seven through nine” isn’t even worng.

    The simulation possibility is one that, like Turing’s Halting Problem, can never be disproven. However, even Eagleman’s phrasing renders that one moot: there can be no correlation between size inside and outside a simulation. Consider any computer simulation you’ve ever seen: it may span billions of lightyears or it may encompass no more than a single molecule, but the computer running it is still about the size of a breadbox. And there’s absolutely nothing that says that the universe in which the simulation is running has to have physics or even geometry that even vaguely resembles that which is being simulated.

    This isn’t nitpicking. Religions propose equally meaningless scenarios. What if girls could get pregnant without sex*; what if zombies could walk on water; what if Superman and Darth Vader had a ménage à trois with Elvis’s three-headed Martian love child?

    Just because you can string words together in a way that doesn’t violate the rules of grammar doesn’t mean that the words actually carry any meaning.

    Cheers,

    b&

    * Please, spare me the pedantry of IVF, cloning, etc. b&

    • Kevin
      Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:08 am | Permalink

      Hey, it wasn’t a zombie that walked on water…it was a half-god with superpowers.

      Like Hercules, but without as many muscles.

      He wasn’t a zombie yet when he performed his magic tricks.

      • Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink

        Yeah, but what if Jesus was a zombie all along and he was just pretending to be dead there on the cross?

        After all, if witches float, then it should be obvious that zombies can walk on water!

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Kevin
          Posted September 30, 2010 at 11:16 am | Permalink

          That was one of the early heresies the cat-lick church stamped out.

          Lucky it’s International Blasphemy Day. You could be burned at the stake for expressing that opinion on any other day.

          • Posted September 30, 2010 at 11:34 am | Permalink

            According to my calendar, every day is Blasphemy Day!

            But, since you’ve pointed out that somebody went to the bother of naming today as the extra-specail blasphemy day, I suppose I should dig out one of my originals to honor the occasion.

            Let’s se…hmmm…yes, I think this one will do:

            Our Adversary, who art in Heaven,
            Accursed by thy Name.
            Thy kingdom burn.
            Thy will be damned,
            In Heaven and nowhere near Earth.
            Give us this day not a bloody thing
            For we will never forgive your trespasses
            As you do nothing but trespass against us.
            We will never again follow your lead,
            For your path leads always to evil.
            For thine is the corruption,
            and the putrescence,
            and the shame,
            forever nonexistent.
            FOAD!

            Cheers,

            b&

  14. Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    I really, really hate New Scientist. What a rag.

  15. Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    The number of things that might be true (NOTTMBT) is Vastly greater than the number of things we currently know are true. And the number of things that actually are true is probably Vastly greater than the number of things we know are true. But then, the NOTTMBT is also Vastly greater than the number of things that actually are true, so Possibilianism doesn’t seem like an efficient heuristic to separate the actually true from the actually false.

    It’s good for making its advocate look all open-minded and superior, though.

    • Andy
      Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      And that’s precisely the game of people like Eagleman—to appear superior by feigning open-mindedness. People like him confuse actual skepticism with straining to take an on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand attitude. It’s kind of like when mainstream journalists confuse actual journalism with “presenting both sides” of an issue. There are such things as facts, evidence, and objective reality. Pretending to be skeptical of “both sides” of a controversy is not real skepticism; it’s posturing.

      • MoonShark
        Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:35 am | Permalink

        It’s almost like he’s trying to be a Discordian… and doing a terrible job at it :p

        By the way, you’re all Discordian Popes now. I just appointed you (or un-excommunicated in some cases).

    • Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      This has been another edition of What XKCD Said

    • Jimbo
      Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      Beautiful comment. Love it!

  16. Dave B.
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Eagleman’s strict atheist is made of straw.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      Eagleman is made of staw.

      • Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink

        I thought he was made of eagles…?

      • Tezcatlipoca
        Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        He’d better be off to see the wizard then. (starts up Dark Side of the Moon.)

  17. Jimbo
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Just atrocious. This is a glaring example of “the truth lies somewhere in between”. No it doesn’t. God exists or he doesn’t–a half God is not a solution to either side.

    He writes: “What if we were planted here by aliens? What if there are civilisations in spatial dimensions seven through nine? What if we are nodes in a vast, cosmic, computational device?”

    Jerry called it–then where is the evidence for aliens? Did they also plant neanderthals? Nodes in a computer? Seriously? So I’m just an avatar or are we all software running on God’s brain/thinking thing/plasma goo?

    “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” QED

  18. Divalent
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Possibilianism is “anything goes at first” – but we then use science to rule out parts of the possibility space, and often to rule in new parts.

    Isn’t this what we have now? Theology today is the art of crafting the definition of a particular religion (or the universal premises of all religions) in such a way as to avoid the ax of science.

    They would have an easier time of it if scientists would just agree not to swing that ax at certain core concepts, since a respectably religion can’t really be built on just what resides safely within the science-free space. But the problem is that some of those scientists (the mean ones) won’t agree to this.

  19. Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    “Possibilian” – that gave me a good laugh.

    I think it’s a euphemism for “gutless agnostic”.

    • Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      Actually, it’s a euphemism for “gutless atheist”. If you read Eagleman’s comments carefully, he is clearly NOT an agnostic. He’s just afraid to call himself an atheist.

  20. Eric MacDonald
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    What on earth is New Scientist doing printing such trash?! I’m sorry, but that’s what it is. Where he is not just, as you perceptively point out, outlining the scientific paradigm, Eagleman is saying silly things about reasons for belief.

    Let me put it plainly. I seethe against religious belief. I do so, not on the basis of the failure of the cosmological or the ontological arguments to prove that a god or gods exist, but on the basis of the rank immorality of religion.

    Let me count the ways:

    (i) (This is one that Eagleman would no doubt approve:) Religion recommends a degree of belief which is inconsistent with the evidence.

    (ii) Despite the lack of evidence, religions make claims for the truth of their own beliefs and deny the claims of other religions.

    (iii) In denying the claims of other religions and upholding their own, religions deny the integrity, morality, and spiritual health of the followers of other religions.

    (iv) Despite the lack of evidence, religious believers indoctrinate children, often in ways that are cruel and otherwise morally unacceptable.

    (v) Almost all religions (I am not familiar with one that is not) are misogynist; they demean women and slight their abilities, and exclude women from positions of authority and trust.

    (vi) Religious misogyny has led, further, to homophobia. Few religions recognise or condemn female homosexuality. Homophobia is the direct outcome of misogyny, since, if women are devalued, so are men who, as St Paul says, ‘play the part of the woman’ in the sex act.

    (vii) Misogyny leads also to an attitude that is anti-sex, and hence, anti-life. Almost all religions seek to exercise control over women’s sexuality, and therefore over their reproductivity, denying women sexual and reproductive choice.

    (viii) All religion looks with disapproval (in varying amounts) at non-reproductive sexual activity. The sex act itself is almost universally reprehended by religious authorities, and yet, as a natural drive, it is the one that most often leads the self-righteously religious astray.

    (ix) Suffering is almost universally valued by religion, and cruel punishments have been generally practiced by religious societies. In Christianity the crucifixion tended to normalise cruel forms of punishment, such as refined types of torture, burning at the stake, drawing and quartering. Desecration of the bodies of criminals, suicides, heretics and infidels has been almost universal amongst religions.

    (x) Religious morality tends towards dogmatism and absolutism, regardless of the harm or suffering such absolutism causes. Interpreted as absolute, God’s commands (moral rules) forbid abortion, whatever the consequences for the woman or girl concerned, prohibits assistance in dying, no matter how insanely cruel the suffering that results from this refusal.

    There, ten’s a good round number. While I support the sensitive study of the best thought that there can be regarding religion, its origin and structure, its beliefs and the reasons that can be provided for them, religion itself, it seems to me, is condemned mainly by its immorality, its widespread cruelty, and the violence which almost everywhere attends it. The idea that it is possible that some religious beliefs might be true, while no doubt in itself incontrovertible, does not answer the moral question, and on moral grounds alone, I believe, religion not only should be dismissed, but should be treated with appropriate contempt.

    The pretence that this is just an intellectual matter, whether evidence can be provided or not, whether people have veridical religious experiences or not simply distracts from the most egregious failures of religion, which are moral, not intellectual. Despite its vaunted concern for the sick and the dying, religion lacks in humanity. (It would not be unfair to suspect that religious interest in the sick and dying is not so much a matter of compassion as a direct outcome of religion’s obsessive concern with death and what they believe (and threaten) will follow.)

    • Kevin
      Posted September 30, 2010 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      Well, I think Wicca is pretty gyno-centric…

      But otherwise, spot on.

      • Eric MacDonald
        Posted September 30, 2010 at 11:05 am | Permalink

        Yes, I thought about Wicca, but then, it didn’t seem such an important exception. Why bother, I wonder, creating a religion, or pretending to revive one? Religions are mainly patterns of power, not sources of comfort or assurance. Why else do religions keep touting their numbers?

        • Posted September 30, 2010 at 11:12 am | Permalink

          And even then Wicca appears to perpetrate stereotypes for women. Women are the nurturing people, who are more untuitive and spiritual, don’t you know.

          • Kevin
            Posted September 30, 2010 at 11:21 am | Permalink

            Well, at least it’s a positive stereotype, as opposed to servile wombs in every other religion.

            I kinda like wiccans. They’re moon-beam crazy, of course, but they recognize that they’re moon-bean crazy. That kind of self-awareness of one’s own foibles is hard to come by.

            I went to a Wiccan wedding once. Kinda cool. It was a very nice ceremony. Everyone had a good time.

            • Posted September 30, 2010 at 11:39 am | Permalink

              Positive stereotype? Perhaps. Unless it means the woman has to stay at home to nurture for the kids, of course.

              But yes, at least Wiccans know they are kinda weird. Christians are way too used to be considered “normal”.

            • Eric MacDonald
              Posted September 30, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

              Christians are way too used to be considered “normal”.

              Good point. Boyer says something about this in his book Religion Explained. At a dinner he was talking about the beliefs of the Fang people of Africa among whom he worked, and a catholic theologian turned to him and said, “This is what makes anthropology so fasciintating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe in such nonsense.” (297, italics original)

              Boyer points out that the Fang people were quite amazed when told that “three persons really were one person while being three persons, or that all misfortune in this vale of tears stemmed from two ancestors eating exotic fruit in a garden.”

    • rowan
      Posted September 30, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      I have as much frustration with religion taken as a whole as anyone in this forum (I don’t have time to contribute much, but because I’m on a deadline I’m now finding loads of time to devote to your post). But your ten points are about as illogical, irrational, and ill-informed as anything religion has come up with..specifically:

      (i) Religion recommends belief contrary to evidence: Superficially, the broad umbrella of religion is, to paraphrase Russell, believing what you know ain’t so, but what about Zen? Its whole MO is to guide a person to have a direct, unmediated perception of reality; to see a flower as it really is (not as a creation of god, not as beautiful, but simply as it is, without any interpretation whatsoever). Does religion promote psychosis? Of course! How else would we get Jesus floating up into a geostationary orbit? But your statement is just a whitewash, which is what you seem to not like about the religious in points ii, iii, ix, & x.

      ii. We’re right, you’re wrong: Sure, generally, religions do this. It’s abhorrent and disgusting. But scientific and philosophical communities have done the same; departments within universities do the same; political groups not based on any religion do the same; the comments by people in this forum do the same. Thus, it isn’t the private domain of religion, it’s everywhere and everyone who’s been on the receiving end of it knows it stinks, so you’re just saying something that’s true for all of us, and religion is an example.

      iii. Followers of X undermine the integrity, morality, and spiritual health of the followers of Y. Well, it’s certainly a Bad Thing that the Xers are so demeaning of the Yers, but wait! What is this wonderful Y belief system in which its followers have integrity, morality, and spiritual health? What is “Y” in your argument? I assume it exists since it’s in direct contradiction to your other points, otherwise why reference it? Please, do tell!

      iv. Despite lack of evidence, indoctrinating children is cruel: This is a bit of a tautology combined with “Won’t someone pleeease think of the children” thrown in. I think it’s safe to say, lack of evidence and indoctrination go hand-in-hand, and religions for all their fumbling and mumbling, are really the best at this, since they’re the ones who have apparently figured out what’s after death and can scare the unwashed masses with Do As We Say or Go To Bad Place. Although regarding children, I think, Do As We Say or You Won’t Get Presents at Christmas is more effective. So, in principal, religious indoctrination is horrible and should be condemned. But when I was growing up, both my parents smoked and I was told to not smoke (and some of my friends were hit, force-fed cigarettes, and terrorized regarding not smoking) but the evidence was more anecdotal than long-term scientifically based facts the way we have them today. So, I was certainly indoctrinated into a belief that had no real evidence (at the time). But when I went outside with my friends to smoke, one of them was going to parochial school and told us one fine day that you only get 3 seeds to have kids with and if you masturbate you won’t get to be a father when you grow up. At the time I heard this, I calculated that I would not be a father for the next 20 lifetimes, so there was ample evidence his indoctrination was harmful, and in that regard, I think there’s justification for your point, just not as specific to religion as you might prefer.

      v., vi, vii & viii: These 4 points all cover the same territory. Religions are misogynist, homophobic & against sexual pleasure: Yes, they are. They’re filled with hate so why focus just on these areas? Your argument would be stronger if you simply said religion devalues the inherent worthiness of the human being, because in general that’s the larger issue and the more base problem. And while we’re at it, let’s also get rid of nationalism and its parent, the Nation-State. That also creates an identity and supportive environment where people devalue the work, art, and culture of other people who don’t produce, express, and live like us. That issue seems more endemic to the human condition to me.

      Also, since I know many pagans and have had an insider’s view of paganism at times, your attitude with Wicca (one of many subsets of western paganism) as “creating a religion, or pretending to revive one” is a perfect example of the very qualities you’ve gone to such length to denounce. The pagan religion, while minor in terms of numbers, would actually be a great example of religion Y above, except you dismissed it out-of-hand in your reply. I know hundreds of pagans (the UU church has a pagan group, and there are many other pagan “churches” throughout the Western hemisphere) who, without qualification or apology, value women, support gays, love sexuality, promote women to positions of authority, and support the active questioning and rebellion of their own children if they wanted to express themselves differently.

      ix. Suffering is valued: You give the one example of Christianity and the whole Jesus story, but like with all your other points, you paint with such a large brush stroke, the specifics get swept away. Most of human history has had massive amounts of suffering. Does religion promote it or is it a response to it? There’s no paradigm to promote suffering in most religions, contrary to your singular example. Adherents of Taoism, Shinto, Mahayana Buddhism, Zen, & various pagan approaches, would have to regain their composure from laughing before they could even begin to address how off-base you are.

      x: Religious dogma & absolutism: Well, that’s religion! It’s like a poorly written sitcom that repeats the same tired approach over and over again.

      Your seethiness is certainly justified but your points are more like irrational rants than anything approaching reasoned argument and reflective discourse. Of course, perhaps that’s what you intended, in which case, huzzah! But you constantly commit the fallacy of reification to make religion into an all-consuming force unto itself.

      • Eric MacDonald
        Posted September 30, 2010 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

        You’re quite wrong, you know. I just chose a number of things at random where I feel that religions tend to fail. Some of them are closely connnected, some not. The church is in a moral mess, whichever way it turns. I could probably write a book about it, but I thought it worthwhile just to mention a few things. Not broad brush at all. Quite specific faults, which I take to be moral failings. You don’t like em, you don’t got to. And your point was, exactly?

        • rowan
          Posted October 1, 2010 at 1:05 am | Permalink

          Yeah, I really can’t do any more spoon feeding than I’ve already done.

          But I look forward to your forthcoming book! I’m sure it’ll be a page turner.

  21. Posted September 30, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    So much straw and so little time before the horse shit must be removed.

  22. Chris Slaby
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    And let’s not forget that Richard Dawkins was indeed very clear of this in The God Delusion. On his hypothetical scale of belief of God, he did not place himself at the absolute other end of Carl Jung’s “I don’t believe in God, I know He exists.” And he was clear that we can’t be absolutely sure…but we can be aware of the many, many pieces of evidence that suggest there is no God.

  23. Posted September 30, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I know a lot of atheists who seethe at the idea of religion, and religious followers who seethe at the idea of atheism – but neither group is bothering with more interesting ideas. They make their impassioned arguments as though the God versus no-God dichotomy were enough for a modern discussion.

    What if we were planted here by aliens? What if there are civilisations in spatial dimensions seven through nine? What if we are nodes in a vast, cosmic, computational device?

    atheist – noun – a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.

    Nothing in that definition specifies the denial of all of those what-ifs. In fact, there probably are atheists that believe in all sorts of things like what he just proposed… But not people who require evidence before believing in things. “Possibilianism” isn’t the rejection of atheism – it’s the rejection of the scientific method.

    • Kevin
      Posted September 30, 2010 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      …yes, and we’re supposed to give up our atheism because it isn’t interesting enough?

      Pardon me?

      Are we supposed to give up the Kreb’s cycle because it isn’t interesting? (No, it’s not, don’t claim otherwise).

      Argument from ennui. Worse than any of the other arguments I’ve seen.

      • Andy
        Posted September 30, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink

        That’s a good point. I mean, atheism, in the strict sense, is boring—and we like it that way. A lack of belief in any construct, will pretty much always be boring. Someone who believes that she has been abducted by aliens will be reliably more entertaining than someone who does not. But that has no bearing on who is correct and who isn’t.

  24. Posted September 30, 2010 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Whatever guys, here’s proof of the invisible pink unicorn:

    http://twitpic.com/2tdv07

    • Posted September 30, 2010 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      Have you even considered the possibility that it’s the invisible yellow-polka-dotted unicorn?

      • Posted September 30, 2010 at 11:35 am | Permalink

        Of course, but that’s quite clearly not an image from Saharan Africa. Jeez!

        : P

        • Posted September 30, 2010 at 11:37 am | Permalink

          Don’t you think it’s possible that there are green pastures in the Sahara? Anything goes!

  25. Anonym
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Rejoice! the age of the ‘nonsensian’ blooms.

  26. Posted September 30, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    As I pointed out on my own estimable blog http://answersingenes.blogspot.com (plug plug), this IS atheism. It’s not a third way at all – just what most of us do and acknowledge all the time. Jeez!

    • Posted September 30, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, but this way Eagleman doesn’t have to call himself an atheist. He can call himself a possibilianismist.

      Don’t you agree that that’s just sooooooo much better?

      In completely unrelated news, Philip Morris is now known as “the Altria Group,” and Sarah Palin has announced that she’d like to change her name to “goeighsoheixa” after the latest poll results were released.

      Cheers,

      b&

  27. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    our knowledge is vastly outstripped by our ignorance.

    Seriously, The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Really Are Completely Understood, comments Sean Carroll:

    “What would be a refutation of my claim that we understand the laws underlying everyday phenomena? Easy: point to just one example of an everyday phenomenon that provides evidence of “new physics” beyond the laws we know. Something directly visible that requires a violation of general relativity or the Standard Model. That’s all it would take, but there aren’t any such phenomena.

    A century ago, that would have been incredibly easy to do; the world of Newtonian mechanics plus Maxwell’s equations wasn’t able to account for why the Sun shines, or why tables are solid. Now we do understand how to account for those things in terms of known laws of physics. I am not, as a hopelessly optimistic scientist from the year 1900 might have been tempted to do, predicting that soon we will understand everything. That’s an invitation to ridicule. Indeed, we know lots of cases where the known laws of physics are manifestly insufficient: dark matter, dark energy, electroweak symmetry breaking, the Big Bang, quantum gravity, the matter/antimatter asymmetry, and so on. We might answer all these questions soon, or it might take a really long time. But these are all rather dramatically outside our everyday experience. When it comes to everyday phenomena that are incompletely understood, from consciousness to photosynthesis, there is every reason to believe that an ultimate explanation will be obtained within the framework of the underlying laws we know, not from stepping outside that framework. An impressive accomplishment. [My bold.]”

    Our ignorance is vastly outstripped by our knowledge. I am not, as a hopelessly pessimistic scientist from the year 2000 might have been tempted to do, predicting that still we understand little. That’s an invitation to ridicule.

    • Posted September 30, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      Sean just says it all *so* well. But FFS, even given that we do have little gaps in our knowledge of some crazy physics stuff, where the heck do you go to stick a space pixie like Yahweh? If he’s *not* a god of the gaps, what is he *for*?

      I know some people say that everyone has a god-shaped hole inside them, but my take is that if you start out with a god-shaped hole, you end up with a hole-shaped god.

  28. Anonym
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    This all sounds suspiciously like ‘anieniinioniuniyniism’ — but I could be wrong.

  29. MadScientist
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    *yawn* It’s the old “you don’t know everything, and religion knows nothing, therefore you should respect religion.”

    I’m always happy to talk about possibilities – but the more we learn, the more we are certain that the numerous gods are simply foolishness rather than possibilities.

  30. neil
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Is it possibilian or pusillanimous, I wonder.

  31. Wim
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    Possibilianism doesn’t really take into account the probabilities of the different possibilities. I mean, you can be so open-minded to possibilities that your brain falls out.

    I also have a problem with his alternatives to the God hypothesis. Believers will say that all those other possible scenarios (aliens, other dimensions, etc.) just push back the question one step, because you’re left to explain the aliens, other dimensions, etc. Cue, god.

  32. Sinsecticide
    Posted October 1, 2010 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    “What if?” Who the fuck cares? “What is?” is a much more interesting question


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