Max Tegmark on evolution and “angry atheists,” and a new rebuttal by Victor Stenger

In a post last week called “A specious argument for the comity of evolution and faith,” I discussed a misleading HuffPo piece by Max Tegmark, an MIT physicist who claimed that although many American reject evolution, the official positions of their churches often don’t. On that basis he made this claim:

I feel that people bent on science-religion conflict are picking the wrong battle. The real battle is against the daunting challenges facing the future of humanity, and regardless of our religious views, we’re all better off fighting this battle united.

On the same day that Tegmark’s piece was published (Darwin Day!), the stalwart Victor Stenger responded at HuffPo, noting that most evolution-friendly churches, especially Catholicism, accept theistic evolution, which is usually not scientific evolution. (The conflation of theistic evolution with naturalistic evolution as the latter is accepted by scientists, and taught in science classes, annoys me no end. Scientists don’t posit that evolution is guided by God, and there’s no evidence for that guidance.)

Tegmark never learned the first lesson of posting on a blog (yes, his site is a blog): never respond to your critics, for it just makes things worse.  And so he’s just put up at HuffPo a whiny response to all those strident, misguided atheists who criticized his argument:  “Religion, science, and the attack of the angry atheists“.  It’s a self-pitying diatribe against the opprobrium that he got from atheists and fellow scientists—opprobrium he claims was expected from religious people, but not from us.  Here’s part of Tegmark’s response to the “angry atheists,” whom he sees as harmful in three ways (indented parts are Tegmarks’s). I was struck at how poorly written Tegmark’s piece was: it was obviously a thrown-together and reflexive response, one that does him no credit.  Here are our sins:

1) They ["angry atheists'] help religious fundamentalists. 

Tegmark thinks that because more Americans reject evolution than do their churches, pro-evolution scientists should play up the harmony between official church positions and evolution, and not harp on the widespread rejection of evolution by the faithful (indeed, that’s the goal of the ineffectual Clergy Letter Project). That’s worked really well, hasn’t it? Catholicism is a prime example of how easy it is for members of a church to completely ignore its dogma.

I quote the next part in its entirety, as its incoherence is almost funny. (By the way, every time you hear the words “humility” and “modesty” coming from an accommodationist, prepare to grate your teeth.)

2) They could use more modesty:
If I’ve learned anything as a physicist, it’s how little we know with certainty. In terms of the ultimate nature of reality, we scientists are ontologically ignorant. For example, many respected physicists believe in the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, according to which a fundamentally random process called “wavefunction collapse” occurs whenever you observe something. This interpretation has been criticized both for being anthropocentric (quantum godfather Niels Bohr famously argued that there’s no reality without observation) and for being vague (there’s no equation specifying when the purported collapse is supposed to happen, and there’s arguably no experimental evidence for it).

Let’s compare the ontological views of Niels Bohr to those of a moderate and tolerant religious person. At least one of them is incorrect, since Bohr was an atheist. Perhaps neither is correct. But who’s to say that the former is clearly superior to the latter, which should be ridiculed and taunted? Personally, I’d bet good money against the Copenhagen Interpretation, but it would be absurd if I couldn’t be friends with those believing its ontology and unite with them in the quest to make our planet a better place.

What the bloody hell does that mean?  Because Bohr (who did not win the Nobel Prize for the Copenhagen Interpretation, but for studying the structure of atoms and its relationship to quantum phenomena) had a view of what quantum mechanics meant, that makes his view equivalent to the superstition of “a moderate and tolerant religious person”?  I don’t see the Copenhagen Interpretation as in any way equivalent to religious superstition; for one thing, it is subject to some experimental verification (e.g., Bell’s inequality), it is not accepted on faith (that’s why it’s controversial) and, most important, it doesn’t make its adherents do things like instill guilt in children or denigrate gays. One is not enabling bad stuff by befriending someone who accepts the Copenhagen Interpretation.

3) They should practice what they preach:
Most atheists advocate for replacing fundamentalism, superstition and intolerance by careful and thoughtful scientific discourse. Yet after we posted our survey report, ad hominem attacks abounded, and most of the caustic comments I got (including one from a fellow physics professor) revealed that their authors hadn’t even bothered reading the report they were criticizing.

Just as it would be unfair to blame all religious people for what some fundamentalists do, I’m obviously not implying that all anti-religious people are mean-spirited or intolerant. However, I can’t help being struck by how some people on both the religious and anti-religious extremes of the spectrum share disturbing similarities in debating style.

Yes, here again we see the false equation between atheists and fundamentalists. Someone should invent a name for this fallacy (can readers suggest one?).

Since when has a tenet of atheism been that one can’t be passionate in one’s views? Given that our job is to fight entrenched superstition, passion is one of our most powerful weapons. I, for one, claim that I not only read Tegmark’s piece carefully, but responded without making ad hominem remarks. Does that make my “debating style” identical to that of, say, William Lane Craig?

Perhaps some atheists or scientists did make such remarks, but isn’t it curious that Tegmark doesn’t give any examples? In the end, his “response” is just silly, and the fallacy of his original argument—saying that America is more evolution-friendly than we think because many churches support evolution (theistic or not)—still stands.

*****

As a palliative, read Victor Stenger’s newest piece, which went up yesterday at HuffPo: “Science and religion cannot be reconciled”, based on his 2012 book God and the Folly of Faith. Perhaps it (and my blurb for his book and piece) are preaching to the choir here, but it’s heartening to know that there’s a stentorian voice out there tellling HuffPo readers the unwelcome truth. Stenger doesn’t mention Tegmark’s articles, so it’s not a “rebuttal” in that sense, but a rebuttal of Tegmark’s message of science/faith harmony.  The truths Stenger imparts include these:

Science and religion are fundamentally incompatible because of their unequivocally opposed epistemologies — the separate assumptions they make concerning what we can know about the world. Every human alive is aware of a world that seems to exist outside the body, the world of sensory experience we call the natural. Science is the systematic study of the observations made of the natural world with our senses and scientific instruments.

By contrast, all major religions teach that humans possess an additional “inner” sense that allows us to access a realm lying beyond the visible world — a divine, transcendent reality we call the supernatural. If it does not involve the transcendent, it is not religion.

No doubt science has its limits. However, that fact that science is limited doesn’t mean that religion or any alternative system of thought can or does provide insight into what lies beyond those limits.

and this:

Most of the scientific community in general goes along with the notion that science has nothing to say about the supernatural because the methods of science as they are currently practiced exclude supernatural causes. However, if we truly possess an inner sense telling us about an unobservable reality that matters to us and influences our lives, then we should be able to observe the effects of that reality by scientific means.

If someone’s inner sense were to warn of an impending earthquake unpredicted by science, which then occurred on schedule, we would have evidence for this extrasensory source of knowledge. Claims of “divine prophecies” have been made throughout history, but not one has been conclusively confirmed.

So far we see no evidence that the feelings people experience when they perceive themselves to be in touch with the supernatural correspond to anything outside their heads, and have no reason to rely on those feelings when they occur. However, if such evidence or reason should show up, then scientists will have to consider it whether they like it or not.

Take that, NCSE, the National Academies, and the AAAS! I am so tired of the completely bogus claim that “science cannot test the supernatural”! Of course it can.

And this:

From its very beginning, religion has been a tool used by those in power to retain that power and keep the masses in line. This continues today as religious groups are manipulated to work against believers’ own best interests in health and economic well-being in order to cast doubt on well-established scientific findings. This would not be possible except for the diametrically opposed world-views of science and religion. Science is not going to change its commitment to the truth. We can only hope religion will change its commitment to nonsense.

My name is Jerry Coyne and I approve of that message.

82 Comments

  1. Griff
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    What’s the difference between “theistic evolution” and ID? Aren’t they the same thing?

    • gbjames
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink

      Yes they are.

      • Griff
        Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:30 am | Permalink

        So does Ken Miller buy into TE? Given that he’s done a valiant job of combating ID? How is this reconciled?

        • SLC
          Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:40 am | Permalink

          Ken Miller denies that he is a theistic evolutionist. He describes himself as one who accepts methodological naturalism and philosophical theism and that the two of them are not irreconcilable. This was a comment on Larry Moran’s blog several years ago. It would appear that he is in the Stephen Jay Gould camp of non-overlapping magisteria.

        • gbjames
          Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:45 am | Permalink

          I don’t see how this is reconciled although I suspect it is by trying to draw a distinction between “God breathed spirit into life” or “God tossed in souls” and the more bat-guano crazy Michael Behe style ID.

          Ultimately the idea that “God did something” is ID. IMO they just quibble about what god did.

    • Chris
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:31 am | Permalink

      Time and semantics.

      • Griff
        Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:36 am | Permalink

        So is it something like:

        ID – “There are aspects of evolution that cannot be explained by natural selection and are therefore the hallmarks of divine intervention”

        TE – “All aspects of evolution can be explained by natural selection but there was undetectable divine intervention”

        ?

        • Chris
          Posted February 20, 2013 at 8:01 am | Permalink

          Pretty much – the key word is “intention” which is the identical if you go down the TE or ID route.

    • Steve Reilly
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:34 am | Permalink

      I think the difference is this. Behe says that evolution can’t have happened exactly as your biology textbook says, and that at some point an intelligence must have intervened in the process.

      The Vatican, on the other hand, allows that your textbook might be right (yes, the Vatican is agnostic on that) but that at some point unknowable to science humans became “ensouled” thanks to God.

      • Griff
        Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:41 am | Permalink

        But if the only difference is “ensoulment”, then the fact that humans exist at all is still entirely down to random mutation and natural selection?

        It’s the “random mutation” bit I don’t understand with the likes of Miller – if he acknowledges that the mutation is random, then 3.5 bya of evolution rewound would not give rise to humans again, so we could not be part of a divine plan.

        But if he doesn’t accept “random mutation”, then he doesn’t accept Darwinian Evolution, which surely can’t be right.

        I’m confused.

        • Steve Reilly
          Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:49 am | Permalink

          With Miller, from what I remember, he thinks God might slip in (undetectably) through quantum physics. So some mutations might not be random since God can give a subatomic particle a push without really interfering on a macro scale. Since this would be undetectable it’s not quite the same as ID, but yeah, kinda close.

          • whyevolutionistrue
            Posted February 20, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

            Yes, you’re right. In his first book Miller floats the possibility that God intervenes in the world, undetectably, through the indeterminacies of quantum mechanics. That’s basically theistic evolution if he takes it to involve evolution as well, which he seems to do by calling a chapter on evolution “The world that knew we [humans] were coming.”

    • Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      ID is simply creationism without mentioning the creator (i.e. “A magical superbeing waved a wand and ‘poof’ all the creatures appeared over the course of a week. But we coulnd’t possibly guess who the miaical superbeing was”). Whereas ‘theistic evolution’ agrees that creatures evolved gradually over billions of years, but the process was guided by god (i.e. “Right that’s it. It took me 160 million years but I’ve finally got the dinoasaurs exactly how I want them. Now I think I’ll chuck a large rock at the planet and start again. I’m thinking something that looks a bit more like me…”)

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

      Curiosly, Christian apologist William Lane Craig seems unable to differentiate between theistic evolution and ID. Here’s an interview in which he refers to leading ID proponent Michael Behe as a theistic evolutionist.

      • Griff
        Posted February 20, 2013 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        IMHO, WLC couldn’t differentiate between his arse and his elbow!

    • Posted February 20, 2013 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      Back near the height of the ID controversy in 2002, the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a poll with a more nuanced question than the standard Gallup. While the poll responses were not explicitly branded when asking, two of the suggested responses seem to be well-characterized by those labels; with percentages….

      Theistic Evolution – “God created the universe and all living things as claimed in the Bible. Creation took millions of years and evolution is the method God used to achieve this result.” (26%)

      Intelligent Design – “Living things are too complex to have developed by chance. A purposeful force or being that may or may not be God is responsible for designing life as we know it. Evolution may be part of a such a design.” (15%)

      Subjectively, I’d say the largest difference seems ID’s emphasis on “complexity” being impossible/impractical for evolution.

      In so far as Ohio is a very median state, the percentages seem likely to be close to the national. (The total of those two is roughly equal the 2002 Gallup percentage giving the “guided” response.)

      For completeness, the other alternatives….

      Atheist Evolution – “All living things on Earth came from a common ancestor and over millions of years evolved into different species due to natural processes such as natural selection and random chance.” (13%)

      Old Earth Creationism – “God created the universe in the manner the Bible describes, but over a long period of time, and the world is millions of years old. God made all living things, including humans, but has allowed some small-scale evolution to take place.” (13%)

      Young Earth Creationism – “God created the universe exactly as the Bible describes, in a period of six days, and the world is less than 10,000 years old. God made all living things, including humans, in the form they appear now, and there has been no evolution.” (29%)

    • Jim Sweeney
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      A religious believer is pretty much compelled to give God credit for everything that happens. Even a competent evolutionist like Ken Miller is bound to see God’s hand in the process. Asking whether God was involved is in effect asking whether you believe in God.

      The only way to promote a completely scientific understanding of evolution is to get people to give up their faith.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      They aren’t exactly the same. ID doesn’t recognize the mechanisms of evolution as being responsible for observed biological diversity. ID assumes an intelligence consciously designed everything. They don’t say how things were made, but they argue they could not have evolved because of what they call “irreducible complexity”.

      Theistic evolution really involves gradual modification and natural selection, so they accept that things evolved, but they think genetic variation is “guided” by god. So it’s a kind of hybrid of ID and evolution. I suppose one could see guided evolution as a successor to ID that proposes an evolution-like mechanism whereby the designer realizes the designs.

      But ultimately neither is compatible with evolution, and both attribute unexplainable magic to god.

    • John Taylor
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      I think the size of the poofs is different. ID has much bigger poofs.

    • Posted February 20, 2013 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

      The TE people make their claims either vague or untestable. The error of the ID people is to make unambiguous and testable claims.

    • Fatboy
      Posted February 21, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      A lot of people have already said similar things, but here’s my 2¢.

      ID is simply creationism that refuses to identify the creator. Here’s an excerpt from the ID textbook, Of Pandas and People.

      Intelligent design means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency, with their distinctive features already intact. Fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, wings, etc.

      TE is basically religious people trying to reconcile their faith and science.

      Take away God from ID, and life doesn’t evolve. Take away God from TE, and life still evolves, just not necessarily in the path it has taken.

      It’s really no surprise that theists would be theistic evolutionists. Theists see God’s hand in everything, from weather to earthquakes to lotteries to coin tosses. Why would evolution be exempt?

  2. Chuck O'Connor
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    I have no problem being labeled an angry atheist. That label is indicative of the religious person’s susceptibility to shame. It has nothing to do with the morality of my anger.

  3. barael
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Damn you, Max Tegmark, for sullying the terrific image I had of you.

    • Palindromemordnilap
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      Really? Perfect image?

      Had you heard about his platonism on steroids?

      • peter
        Posted February 20, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

        His “…platonism on steroids…” is supposed to be empirically falsifiable. Given the flippancy of your remark, I assume either you have done the observational and statistical work to achieve that falsification, or at least that such work is well known. But not to me, so I’d appreciate hearing about it.

        • Palindromemordnilap
          Posted February 20, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

          Really? I mean, honestly, it really is?

          I heard from physicists I know that it isn’t. If it is, I’m honestly surprised.

          (To be fair, they were string theorists, so…)

        • peter
          Posted February 20, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

          From Tegmark’s paper “Is ‘the theory of everything’ merely the ultimate ensemble theory?”

          in: Annals of Physics (271), 1998, 1-51: page 24, START OF SECTION E:

          (This paper is accessible on his website.)

          “Using Popper’s falsifiability requirement, one might argue that ‘this TOE does not qualify as a scientific theory, since it cannot be experimentally ruled out’. In fact, a moment of consideration reveals that this argument is false. The TOE we have proposed makes a large number of statistical predictions, and therefore can eventually be ruled out at high confidence levels if it is incorrect, using prediction 1 from the introduction as embodied in equation (6). Prediction 2 from the introduction offers additional ways of ruling it out that other theories lack. Such rejections based on a single observation are analogous to those involving statistical predictions of quantum mechanics:…”

          • Palindromemordnilap
            Posted February 20, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

            To be fair, many people do consider it to be unfalsifiable, even with this. I will withdraw my snideness, though I remain skeptical.

            • peter
              Posted February 20, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

              But not the people who refereed this paper for a journal with a more solid reputation than x% of the people who make remarks here have ever published in, where x can be chosen by the reader.

              Tegmark is wrong on Puffho, but, not unusually, many remarkers here go way beyond what he said or implied.

              At least you asked for details, which is better than happened twice previously that this came up. Perhaps your string theorists would like to provide just a bit of detail of how he errs. Put in “falsif” in google on that article, and they will find other details to exercise their intellects upon. Maybe they will switch to cosmology.

  4. pktom64
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Yes, here again we see the false equation between atheists and fundamentalists. Someone should invent a name for this fallacy (can readers suggest one?).

    I can’t think of something catchy but there’s a rhetorical tool called “antiphrasis” which could apply except it is usually associated with irony. Like in “Those atheists really are fundamentalists “.

    So this could be described as Clueless Antiphrasis but then again, people could very well do it on purpose and therefore not be clueless at all.

    In the end this is quite a perfect example of Orwell’s Newspeak isn’t it?

    So how about the “Ministry of Love Fallacy”? Or the “Miniluv Fallacy” to be complete?

    • Chuck O'Connor
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:42 am | Permalink

      How about “Pretentious Antiphrasis”? That’s what it is.

      • neil
        Posted February 20, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

        I think it already has a name–association fallacy.

  5. Steve Reilly
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    And isn’t the fallacy just false equivalence? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_equivalence

    • Posted February 20, 2013 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

      Absolutely, Steve. The reasoning runs something like this:

      – Fundamentalists can be outspoken in expressing their views, may become angry or frustrated in debate, and won’t accept the other side’s views.

      – Atheists often share these properties

      – Ergo, they are pretty much the same, and we can implicitly map the other properties of fundamentalists on to those troublesome new atheists, such as denying evidence, poor faculties of reasoning, militancy etc.

      It’s generally used by accommodationists who wish to appear as a “fair and balanced” middle ground, using the same flawed reasoning as media outlets who believe the real truth in any debate is located at a point equidistant between both parties. (See XKCD cartoon 774 …)

  6. ForCarl
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    There are many theists who accept the science of evolution, are politically/culturally liberal in their approaches, rail at the religious right and are strongly for separation of church and state. However, many of them (Frederick Clarkson being one) have a real blind spot about who is actually providing cover for fundamentalists. They point the finger at atheists, especially Sam Harris, Dawkins etc. I got in real hot water with Clarkson over his statements to this effect. I argued that it is actually liberal Christians like him who, by clinging to the texts with reverence, provide the real cover for fundamentalism. I got banned from his blog for that. Kind of a fundamentalist’s tactic on Fred’s part in my view.

    Tegmark’s argument #1 is a view held by many liberal religionists. If Tegmark claims to be an atheist and a scientist, I am doubting both. And here is my clue…

    “But who’s to say that the former is clearly superior to the latter, which should be ridiculed and taunted?”

    I’ll be thinking about a name for that atheist/fundamentalist fallacy!

  7. Veroxitatis
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    Theistic evolution of whatever type is a hypothesis which we should never let pass. A believer in such simply does not accept the theory of evolution which has two interlinking strands: random mutation and adaptibility. If you don’t accept randomness you don’t accept evolution. It’s that simple.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted February 23, 2013 at 6:31 am | Permalink

      Randomness plus selection is almost certainly sufficient to explain adaptation and diversity.

      But is it necessary for mutation to be always and everywhere totally random? Is this an article of faith now?

      But at least it’s not unfalsifiable. We could create non-random mutations in a cell line or an organism, and see if evolution collapses. Oh, wait.

      • gbjames
        Posted February 23, 2013 at 6:46 am | Permalink

        Necessary? Seems an odd word choice.

        You can increase the rate of mutation by, say, painting the walls of your home with radioactive material. But the particular sites on your DNA that “break” will be randomly determined.

        There is no need to have little angels guiding the radioactive damage. Faith has nothing to do with it.

        If your assertion is that human can now manipulate genetic material, well yes. How does that imply “evolution collapses”?

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted February 24, 2013 at 1:55 am | Permalink

          It doesn’t, obviously, so veroxitatis’ fundelutionist dogma is void.

          Theistic evolutionion is unfalsified as long as the supernatural tweaks are rare enough, minor enough or buried in the gaps and noise of the fossil and molecular record.

          Of course it is an unnecessary assumption and should be rejected on parsimony alone, so it doesn’t require an extra axiom to exclude it. Selection doesn’t care whether mutations are random.

          • gbjames
            Posted February 24, 2013 at 6:42 am | Permalink

            I think you are not parsing fundelutionist’s dogma comment correctly. In the real universe, random mutations are central to evolution. The theist who seeks to hide his god in undetectable quantum tweaks, who insists in the presence of heavenly “guidance” somewhere in the mix is not recognizing evolution for what it is, despite 99.999…% agreement.

  8. Palindromemordnilap
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    It’s called Blake’s Law.

    http://issuepedia.org/Blake's_Law

    • TJR
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      Please tell me that Blake has several laws, and that this is the 7th…….

      • Palindromemordnilap
        Posted February 20, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

        Don’t get the reference. Sorry.

        • Posted February 20, 2013 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

          Blake’s 7 was a Brit SciFi TV series 1978-81. Created by Terry Nation ~ creator of the Daleks for Doctor Who

          • Palindromemordnilap
            Posted February 20, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

            Thanks.

    • darrelle
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      I was just about to relate that. I remember this event from years ago when I frequented Pharyngula. I miss Blake Stacey’s comments. You still out there somewhere Blake?

  9. francis
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    The real issue with fundamentalists is if there is no god then there is no eternal life. Why not embrace the life you have.

  10. Roo
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    To me, I think arguments of this nature essentially come down to: “PR – yer doin’ it wrong.” This troubles me, it seems to create a lot of division among scientists and atheists who would otherwise be allies. But the atheist movement isn’t a political candidate who can be dressed a certain way, told to give certain speeches, and so on. It’s made up of a multitude of voices.

    It’s hard, though, because I think religion in the US has an absolute public relations machine, and they do get the flock involved. The ones that succeed learn how to sell themselves. It’s a big thing for a grass roots movement to be up against. What the solution is, I don’t know, but again, how to proceed seems to cause a lot of in-fighting between people who would otherwise be allies.

    • marycanada FCD
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      It seems to be part of the process. Atheism is not going to knock out theism that easily. This is going to take a lot of time and energy.

  11. Posted February 20, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    A couple of comments:

    1. I agree that science can’t really test the supernatural. What science can do is to say: “there is no evidence that X happened”; it could be that deity X supernaturally removed such evidence or that pixies/fairies/devils tampered with your instruments. :-)

    2. I’ve always viewed the Copenhagen Interpretation as a mathematical formalism that “gives the right answer” and “makes correct predictions”; my understanding of the controversy is that it really doesn’t “explain” and therefore, in some sense, isn’t a “complete” theory.

    • peter
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      ‘…the Copenhagen Interpretation as a mathematical formalism that “gives the right answer” and “makes correct predictions”…’

      I believe that the Everett Many Worlds interpretation results in exactly the same formalism and predictions. The latter interpretation seems to be finding much more acceptance by physicists these days. No others seem to be “in the running”, but I might be wrong of course. Perhaps our resident Swedish physicist, who is not Tegmark, can tell us more about that.

      • Posted February 20, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

        This British ex-phyisicist accepts it. I never really *understood* QT while I was a physicist. It was only later that David Deutsch’s explanation of MWI made sense of it all.

        /@

  12. RWilsker
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    By the way, Tegmark misunderstands the role of observation in quantum physics.

    There is nothing that says that an observation requires an intelligent observer. A photon leaving a mark on a piece of emulsion because it’s interacted with the chemicals in the emulsion has been observed (and its wave function has been *very* collapsed!).

    • Kevin
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      This is the problem I have with a lot of physics terminology.

      The religibots and the woo-woo charlatans regularly and with glee conflate two completely different meanings of physics terms to suit their purposes.

      The “everyday” meaning of the word “observer” implies “intelligent agent” — most likely a human.

      The “physics” meaning of the same word implies nothing of the sort.

      And there lies the rub.

    • Posted February 20, 2013 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      The problem is that the subjectivists like Bohr (and this is contentious, but it seems more or less correct to me) *deliberately* misrepresented their own theories. The subjectivist interpretations are *provably* wrong, and have been known to be such since at least 1967.

      It is also known that although Bohr was not religious he was taught philosophy by a fan of Kierkegaard; one can see some dim connections.

    • darrelle
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      Yes, that is very frequently misunderstood. This misunderstood maxim of quantum physics is a favorite of those science and technology enthusiasts who believe that there is no reality that is not dependent on their existence i.e., what is often referred to as objective reality. Not to mention the fodder it supplies for all manner of other more wooey wooists. Trying to explain that “observation” in this context does not require or imply agency just makes you look like a biased revisionist in the eyes of most such people.

      Whoever coined the term “observation” for use in this context sure did screw up. For lack of a better word or phrase I usually use “interacts with something else.”

  13. Posted February 20, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    here again we see the false equation between atheists and fundamentalists. Someone should invent a name for this fallacy (can readers suggest one?).

    Umm, Tegamark Fallacy?

    • marycanada FCD
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 9:11 am | Permalink

      +1

    • Ryan S
      Posted February 21, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      Yes!

    • Kevin Henderson
      Posted February 21, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      I think that is a great term to use.

      Tegmark Fallacy: The false equality of atheism and fundamentalism.

      There is a difference between someone who has no obligation to defend metaphysical claims and someone who bases part or all of existence on metaphysical claims.

  14. Posted February 20, 2013 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Yes, here again we see the false equation between atheists and fundamentalists. Someone should invent a name for this fallacy (can readers suggest one?).

    Saying that they express the traits at the same rate would be an example of the fallacy of false equivalence — and it would seem there was an intent to imply that the rates were the same. What was explicitly said, however, was there are “similarities”; and that has some sociological basis. In particular, I’m thinking of the work of Robert Altemeyer and Bruce Hunsberger (though also drawing on the work from Duckitt and Sibley, plus Jacks and Cameron).

    Religious fundamentalists tend to be high-RWA; the tendency decreases going to less religiously observant, with Atheists tending exceedingly low-RWA. Correspondingly, atheists tend relatively lacking in the assortment of “sins” that are associated to RWA. However, the SDO scale is only weakly correlated to RWA; there does not appear to be a clear correlation between SDO and religiosity, implying that atheists overall are just as likely to tend high-SDO as the religious.

    The “double high” (high-SDO, high-RWA) appear the worst of the lot. (For precision on “worst”, see Altemeyer’s “The Authoritarians”.) The religiosity/RWA correlation leaves them tending highly religious; so, presumably these are the culprits for the worst of religion’s sins. However, there exist high-SDO (though low-RWA) folk among the Atheists as well.

    One of the research tidbits is that RWA and SDO both correlate to prejudice, but to different kinds. Loosely, RWA associates to prejudice against “dangerous” groups, while SDO associates to prejudice against “derrogated” (and both against “dissident”). The behavior Tegmark complains about would appear to be categorized as “source derrogation” — which would in turn appear to be unsurprising for those with high-SDO leans.

    Furthermore, the correlation of high-SDO to male gender and the observed demographic male-lean of most Atheist groups suggests this may be more pronounced there. As women are one of the traditionally “derrogated” groups in the West, it seems exceedingly likely that the higher-SDO contingent and their attitudes are one of the underlying causes of “Elevatorgate” and the backlash. Given that incident has catalyzed perhaps the single largest internal conflicts to the contemporary atheist community (the question of accomodationism seems a distant second), abrupt dismissal of the charge seems nearly as blind as false equivalence.

    Nohow, Tegmark would seem better off if he backed his vague charge with a long list of specific examples. Those, however, are more frequent in the commentariat than from the likes of Professor Coyne.

  15. James Morris
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    I propose a name for the false equation between atheists and fundamentalists: the atheimentalism fallacy.

  16. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    As I understand it (and I understand physics much better than biology) the problem with theistic evolution is that it presupposes an anthropocentric view of evolution, a “Main Road” of evolution converging on humanity.

    It’s one version of the anthropic principle
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropic_principle i.e. that the universe was arranged for the convenience of humans, arguing that evolutionary processes almost !*necessarily*! resulted in humans, and the evolutionary record gives no evidence of this.

    If science does have its limits, I don’t think that means religious folk can just retreat into traditional metaphysical ideas, partly because I think anthropocentric thinking is part of what created the ecological crisis we are in on Earth in the first place.

    Another note: “Ad hominem” doesn’t just mean making a personal attack, but trying to invalidate an opponent’s position !*by way of*! personal attack, saying you believe a certain falsehood !*because of*! a character problem.

  17. Kevin
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Here’s the thing…

    1. Tegmark claims there is no conflict between science and religion.
    2. Coyne claims there is.
    3. Ergo, Coyne wins. It’s inherent in the argument.

    You can’t claim no conflict exists when someone is standing in front of you disputing the claim.

    It’s the silliest of all arguments. Tegmark is essentially trying to declare that Coyne doesn’t exist. And is upset over the fact that Coyne continues to demonstrate the opposite.

    You’d think that the theists would put their brains to better use.

    • peter
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      “1. Tegmark claims there is no conflict between science and religion.”

      Elsewhere I disagreed strongly with Tegmark on what he did say on Puffho, but can you back up what you claim here that he said? I doubt you can. Please do not confuse ‘less conflict than many atheists claim’ with “no conflict”.

  18. TJR
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Tegmark seems to mean that religion and science are “compatible” in a very limited and specific sense, which he is perfectly entitled to use of course, but then fails to notice that other people are often just pointing out that this sense of “compatible” is potentially very misleading, and that under more useful definitions of “compatible” they are in fact wildly incompatible.

  19. Wayne Tyson
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    To paraphrase the late Margaret Mead: “There’s convolution enough to go around.” (My apologies to Mead)

  20. Wayne Tyson
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    There’s a big difference between “winning” and argument and reconciling its points. All else is mere spat.

  21. Sam Salerno
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Victor Stenger has been, and continues to be, one of my favorite representatives of the new Atheist movement. I would recommed all of his books. Although God and the Folly of Faith has a lot of technical jargon in it. Still an awesome read.

  22. Derek
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    “The fallacy of equivalent extremism”?

    • Brygida Berse
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      “The fallacy of equivalent extremism”

      I like that, although I’d call it “the fallacy of equivalent extremes“. It is of course related to the truth-always-lies-in-the-middle fallacy.

  23. Posted February 20, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    “the FunDuhMental Fallacy”

  24. FiveGreenLeafs
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I get the feeling that Tegmarks argumentation in these issues strongly aligns with dominant perspectives and cultural eccentricities of the current Swedish society.

    * We abhor intellectual conflicts.

    * We believe in institutions and organisations

    * We strive towards homogeneity, conformism and unanimous decisions

    * Criticism against arguments and ideas are viewed as personal attacks on individuals.

    at the same time that there also exist a strong relativistic undercurrent at play.

    This means that it is a completely natural reflex to take the official opinion or statements of an organisation as a valid representation for the opinions of its members.

    Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens et al, are viewed as both directing personal attacks against individuals, transgressing upon the relativistic principle and an obvious disturbance to the “peace”.

    I wonder if not Tegmark wrote the original article, for an American audience, but using his Swedish political filter, and got quite a nasty suprise in regard to the reactions. Which could perhaps also begin to explain the flustered and at times almost incoherent later response.

    • peter
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

      I believe he has worked in the US most of his adult life, so rather doubt this speculation. One could just as well gossip about his connection with one of the authors of the study on which this is based. But I for one would prefer the people here to engage with the issues, rather than with half-baked speculations about the subconscious motivations.

      • FiveGreenLeafs
        Posted February 21, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

        @Peter

        “I believe he has worked in the US most of his adult life”

        If I remember correctly, he grew up in Sweden and even began his PhD at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, but later moved to California and Berkeley.

        I believe that the cultural enviroment you grew up in, can have significant influence upon your intellectual development, including the formation of deep cultural norms, values and, perspectives. I would refer you to Judith Rich Harris book, “The Nurture Assumption”.

        “One could just as well gossip about his connection…”

        Well, I think the possible reasons and backgrounds to opinions and beliefs are very interesting, and also very important if you want to understand another persons arguments, motivations and perspectives. I also believe this is especially important when you move between cultures with hugh differences, like for example the Swedish and American culture.

        The meaning of words, concepts and categories also do differ between cultures, which mean that the same words or phrases, can create very different symbolic representations in an american and a swede.

        “But I for one would prefer the people here to engage with the issues…”

        Who are you to define what is or is not relevant? Just because you do not find some aspects of a question interesting, does not necessarily mean others would. This is Jerrys blog, so I would rather defer such opinions to him…

        My intuitive personal reflection about these articles is just how well their form and perspective fit with what would be a very politically correct ED or OPED in any of the big Swedish daily newspapers, which otherwise is not that common.

        This does not in any way mean that it is so, but perhaps something that could be worth having in mind.

        • peter
          Posted February 21, 2013 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for the reply; to each his (or her) own.

  25. Gluon Spring
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    “The real battle is against the daunting challenges facing the future of humanity, and regardless of our religious views, we’re all better off fighting this battle united.”

    If the religious were to give science the first right of refusal on all topics, that’d be fine. Religion intrudes in every possible way, however. It encourages people to adopt all sorts of irrational views about these challenges. Most of my Christian friends don’t worry much about global warming, or civilization destroying asteroids, resource depletion, and so on. Of course they don’t because they believe someone besides us is ultimately in charge. They believe God has a plan, at least on this very big scale, so they are off the hook for worrying about it. They believe that they will get a do-over in the form of the next life. They believe that God will respond to our pleas for help when we get in a bind. They often believe God is going to destroy the world himself in short order, so what does it matter?

    The result is that their attention is all focused on things that they think may or may not please God, instead of what actually affects things in the real world. Gay marriage, in their unreal world view, might displease God and do us as much harm as global warming, might even affect global warming in some cases. In a very deep and very real sense, Tegmark is saying that we should be united with the Voodoo practitioners in confronting humanities challenges, that we should unite with those who want to put a jinx on the challenges. How is that supposed to work, exactly?

  26. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    “Anthropocentric”?! Really? Atheists. We who aren’t accommodating enough to the “created in his image” trope… Us.
    Oh no, he di’n’t!

    (Full disclosure: my high school physics text was written by Tegmark, and it was awesome. What happened?)

  27. Posted February 20, 2013 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think Bell’s inequality violation is in any way a validation of the Copenhagen interpretation. It is a validation of quantum entanglement against certain kinds of local hidden variable theories. All the current interpretations of Quantum Mechanics (including the Copenhagen and the so-called “Many Worlds” interpretation) give exactly the same quantitative prediction for the outcome of the Bell’s experiment: a prediction which agrees with experiment. Part of the problem with these interpretations is that it is not clear that there is any possible experimental test, in the conventional sense, that can differentiate between the various interpretations.

    • Posted February 21, 2013 at 1:47 am | Permalink

      Actually, it seems that you can, as MWI makes unique predictions, just not yet. See the Everett FAQ. (Please google it; WordPress baulks at the URL for some reason.)

      /@

  28. Michael
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    “Yes, here again we see the false equation between atheists and fundamentalists. Someone should invent a name for this fallacy (can readers suggest one?).”

    The ad hominem and tu quoque fallacies seem to cover it already. While atheists may be overly intolerant or passionate to some people’s taste that does not make us wrong.


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