The Archbishop of Canterbury is a pompous old gasbag who doesn’t understand evolution

Speaking of old gits with unwaxed eyebrows, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of All England, has a book review in the last Times Literary Supplement.  And although His Reverend has no apparent training in biology, he’s been chosen to pronounce on Conor Cuningham’s Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get it Wrong.   I can’t link to the review, as it’s not online, and I haven’t read the book, either.  Judging from reviews, it seems to excoriate evolutionists for thinking that Darwinism is a “theory of everything” and fundamentalists for espousing creationism.  It seems to be a book of accommodationism, showing how God might well have used evolution as his modus operandus, and arguing that there is no conflict between religion and Darwinism.  Perhaps those who have read it can give further information.

The Primate gives the book two opposable thumbs up, calling it “the most interesting and invigorating book on the science–religion frontier that I have encountered”.  The review is notable for two things.   The first is that the prose is absolutely dreadful; Williams writes like a theologian.  One example:

We have been led to assume that there is an irreducible distinction between the “hard” facts of physical interaction and the various decorative excrescences that we think of as mental realities. To understand the former, we are often told, is to understand that the foundational truth about the universe is material happening, described in a way that excludes anything we might call purpose. We must on no account tell teleological stories about the processes we observe – and, as Cunningham says, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this proscription is there in some people’s minds chiefly in order to conserve the necessary clear blue water between science and any kind of theology.

Translation:  Mind/matter monists have a position based not on science, but on hatred of religion.  (“Clear blue water”?)

But buried within the leaden prose is a deep and abiding dislike for evolutionary biology and genetics in particular.  Despite his apparent comity with Professor Dawkins, Williams just hates the selfish gene.  And, to denigrate the gene-centered view of evolution, he drags in both C. S. Lewis (for crying out loud!) and Mary Midgley:

The gene has been presented as the irreducible monadic agent for biological science, but this begs important questions. We need to remember that the gene itself is part of the evolutionary story, not its sole motor (I was reminded of a passage in C. S. Lewis’s letters where he describes with relish hearing of a passionately enlightened schoolteacher who insisted to her students that all life forms descended from apes). If the only model for evolutionary logic we possess is the mythology of the selfish gene, we leave unanswered and unanswerable the question of the gene’s own history; quite apart from the problems in speaking of “selfishness” as the sole generator of development.

Umm. . . which evolutionist doesn’t recognize that the origin of genetic information, and how it interacts with proteins, is an intriguing but unsolved puzzle? But how does that denigrate evolution, which begins only after the first replicator has evolved? And what the bloody hell does the C. S. Lewis anecdote about apes have to with the gene? Finally, doesn’t the Great Primate recognize that he’s hoist with his own petard?  Let me rewrite the above:  “If the only model for God we have is the mythology given in the Bible, we leave unanswered and unanswerable the question of God’s own history.”  If the origin of the gene is a hard problem for biology, the origin of God is an insuperable problem for theology.

Here’s moar gibberish:

Perhaps more seriously, the presumption of an omnicausal gene leads into the fallacy soaked morass of “misplaced concreteness”. A gene is not a thing, not a biological billiard ball: it is a cluster of information carrying material. Its unity or identity is given by the nature of the information it carries; it does not exist as such independently of the chain of “instruction” in which it functions.

For the life of me, I don’t know what Williams is getting at.  The gene is a sequence of nucleotides that, in general, codes for a protein.  That protein does stuff in development.  How does that not make the gene something that exists independently?

And look out—here comes Midgley! (I suspect Williams gets the emphasis on “information” from the intelligent-design people.)

In ways closely paralleled in another recent essay, Mary Midgley’s The Solitary Self (2010), Cunningham deconstructs with ease the vulgar version of natural selection that is still tiresomely prevalent in popular science, noting the inescapable role in selection of co-operative and cumulative processes (he touches on the still contested idea of group selection in this connection), and the multiple and context-dependent meanings of “selection” itself.

The meaningless world of ruthlessly self-replicating monads is a fiction which has a corrosive effect on scientific research itself. . .

Yes, isn’t the idea of natural selection so tiresome? Especially the vulgar version—you know, the one that claims that cooperation and “cumulative processes” (whatever those are) can’t evolve?  LOL!  Is Williams’s sight so occluded by those eyebrows that he can’t see that cooperation is easily achievable by “vulgar” natural selection? And oh, that corrosive fiction of gene-based selection, which has been such an impediment in understanding evolution!

Williams’s big point, though, in which he appears to concur with creationists, is that he simply can’t fathom how mind can come from matter.  And he makes this point in various obscure ways:

. . . we have to reckon with the implications of rejecting the absolute dualism of genotype and phenotype, the mechanistic naturalism, which, as Cunningham shows, is simply the old dualism of mind or soul and body under a fresh guise. If matter is “mindless”, how is it that mind is produced? The mere appearance of this alien element during the evolutionary story is as unlikely and unattractive a model as the crude interventionism of the religious creationist.

Unlikely?  It happened, dude! Williams here, liberal and enlightened as he is supposed to be, is coming close here to Catholic Church’s stand that mind (or “soul”) must have been somehow injected into the human lineage by a loving God. And if it wasn’t directly injected into some hapless australopithecine (“Oh wow, I can think!”), then it was built into the evolutionary process by God in the first place.

In the end, Williams descends into postmodern gibberish:

We need to recognize that, if intelligible structure, developing and ordered complexity, is the story we have to tell, if the point of genes is to carry information, then the reality of the universe as we know it is suffused with the possibility of mind. Matter itself is pregnant with meanings, we might say – in the sense that the complexification of matter over the ages ends up in the phenomenon of consciousness. And a scheme that regards consciousness as a purely contingent thing – as it were, an accidental by-product of material processes with which it is essentially unconnected – has a lot of explaining to do; as Cunningham says, it begins to sound like the nineteenth-century zealots who believed that fossils were placed in the soil by the Devil to test our faith.

Doesn’t that mushy thought remind you of Karen Armstrong?

It’s strange: more and more scientists are seeing consciousness as a hard problem, but one that is in principle explainable.  After all, when you give someone an anesthetic, consciousness goes away.  When you take away the gas, it comes back. That means it’s a material-based phenomenon.  Yes, we do have a lot of explaining to do, but it’s not the kind of theological waffling that once invoked fossil-planting devils.  It’s scientific research, not apologetics.  Doesn’t Williams see the difference?

And, in a paragraph in which words and meaning have almost parted company, Williams sees the hand of God guiding evolution:

The possibility of a first-person perspective, if it truly emerges from the unfolding logic of material combination and recombination, simply tells us that the notion of a necessarily “mindless” matter is not sustainable. If the nature of a gene is to carry a message, it is the nature of the recipient vehicle in a new generation to be able to “understand” it. To adapt the famous remark about one mythological cosmology, it’s mind all the way down. Intelligence as we define it entails self-consciousness, the first-person perspective; but something seriously analogous to intelligence has to be presupposed in matter for the entire system of transmitted patterns and “instructions” to be possible.

Despite his association with Richard Dawkins, the Archbishop still doesn’t understand natural selection.  Let him officiate at weddings and give sermons, but Ceiling Cat keep him away from the TLS—and half-witted pronouncements about evolution.

And let’s add the Anglican Church to the list of those “sophisticated and liberal denominations” that claim to accept evolution but really don’t.

97 Comments

  1. daveau
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    (“Clear blue water”?)

    Invisible Pink Unicorn. Duh.

    • Helena Constantine
      Posted April 29, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      Its a common metaphor for clearly demarcated space (here, intellectual space), so let’s not be ridiculous about it.

      • AT
        Posted April 29, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

        we have the clear right to be rediculous of anything coming from religious folks

        if one accepts materiality of the world then there is no god – it is that simple

        trying to say that the world is material and god exists is playing with words – we all know the words have no intrinsic meanings – they just soundwaves or images on the paper or screen

        religion is evolutionary past – that’s for sure and as long as scientists allow religion to undermine proper institutionalization of science we will keep getting less than optimal computation of human condition (which by the way is not even on scientists agenda but which happaning as the resulting vector of idiomatics in the world of ignorantly autonomous nations and is streight on the trajectory of peak everything and civilizational collapse on a global scale)

  2. Tacroy
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    I have to wonder – why is that atheists have to understand modern and subtle theology (which, like God, exists despite all the evidence to the contrary) before discussing theism, but theists can just talk out their asses about the “omnicausal gene”?

    • Tacroy
      Posted April 29, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      If you think “why is” should have been written as “why is it”, you clearly don’t understand my modern and subtle usage of English.

      • Sigmund
        Posted April 29, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink

        I presumed you were using ‘sophisticated grammar’.

      • Jeanine
        Posted April 29, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

        LOL! Good one. I’m stealing that next time I fubar.

  3. Posted April 29, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    “If matter is “mindless”, how is it that mind is produced?”

    Yeah! Atoms don’t have legs so if we’re made of atoms then how come we have legs? Explain that one evolutionists!

    • Tulse
      Posted April 29, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      It’s like Democritus’ atomic theory — iron is strong because its atoms have hooks, salt atoms are pointy, water atoms are smooth, etc.

    • Posted April 29, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      If electrons are negative electrical charges, then how is bacon produced? And if matter is mostly empty space, then how are dense people like Rowan Williams produced?

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 29, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

        That is an easy one.

        To paraphrase Holmes, when you have eliminated the information, whatever remains must be mindless matter.

    • Astrid_H
      Posted April 30, 2011 at 4:17 am | Permalink

      I’m stealing that analogy. It’s wonderful.

  4. Posted April 29, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    The Archbishop’s theology isn’t sophisticated; it’s Baroque. All those ornate flourishes give the illusion of sophistication, sure. But, when it comes right down to it, it’s nothing but spun sugar, with the exact same nutritive worth and structural integrity.

    Or…even though the Mythbusters demonstrated that you can, indeed, polish a turd, all you’ve done is made the turd shiny. It’s still a turd. You’d have been much better off plowing the turd into the soil where it can decompose into fertilizer and actually be useful.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Posted April 29, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      Ah… the poetics of the musical mind: in only two short paragraphs we travel from baroque flourishes to the shininess of a turd to accurately criticize the flaws in the Archbishop’s (mis)understanding of evolution.

      Ben, you’re a treasure.

  5. Rieux
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    If the origin of the gene is a hard problem for biology, the origin of God is an insuperable problem for theology.

    I dunno. Given that theology is fundamentally just a game of making up any nonsense you’d like, I can’t see how any supposed problem could actually be insuperable—or even be a real problem, actually. Zeus was the son of the Titans Chronos and Rhea; where’s the problem? (“Gods all the way down.” Or something.)

    Doesn’t that mushy thought remind you of Karen Armstrong?

    Nah. It’s warmed-over Deepak Chopra.

    • Andy Dufresne
      Posted April 29, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      Maybe it’s six of one, half-dozen of the other.

      I can’t decide who is worse, Armstrong or Chopra. I’m inclined to say Chopra. Chopra intentionally spreads misinformation about science in a way that Armstrong, from what I have seen, doesn’t even come close to. Hell, they’re both vacuous; let’s flip a coin.

  6. MattnDC
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Gosh, I’d rather swim through the volcano bubbles of Mount Wannahockalooie than try to parse the wrongness of the quoted text.

    Jerry, you have vast patience and ability to not just throw up your hands in disgust.

    I fail to understand how the ABC can use ‘dualism’ as both a pro and con at the same time, except based on total rejection of the fact of emergent complexity.

    • daveau
      Posted April 29, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      “Jerry, you have vast patience and ability to not just throw up your hands in disgust.”

      QFT

  7. saintstephen
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    It’s always a happy Friday when Professor Jerry Coyne calls someone a “pompous old gasbag.”

    LMFAO

  8. Tim Martin
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    “Mindless matter,” indeed.

    • Tacroy
      Posted April 29, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      I like how he thinks that computers, which he undoubtedly used to type that text, cannot work.

      It goes like this:

      Premise: matter is mindless
      Premise: you cannot get minds from matter without divine intervention
      Fact: computers are made purely of matter which has not undergone divine intervention
      Therefore: computers are mindless

      Hypothesis: Everything that can be calculated, can eventually be calculated by a sufficiently complicated computer (see the Church-Turing hypothesis, though admittedly it is just a hypothesis that has yet to be disproven)
      Therefore: computers can be equivalent to human minds.

      However! Computers cannot be equivalent to human minds!

      Therefore: computers don’t actually work, and are merely an illusion created by Satan.

      • Posted April 29, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

        The Church-Turing thesis is on ground as solid as that of conservation of matter and energy.

        The only sorts of things anybody’s ever been able to propose that a Turing machine can’t calculate involve infinite amounts of computational resources — either memory or running time.

        In order to compute the incomputable, one must resort to the same sort of dualism where souls are supposed to reside. Yet, any such proposal creates intractable problems. These souls must, of necessity, interact with the material world in some manner. But that means that they could therefore function as Maxwell’s Demon…thus creating a perpetual motion machine with an infinite supply of energy.

        All the other proposals I’ve come across for ways of doing super-Turing computation run into similar problems. They posit magical quantum woo for performing an infinite number of calculations in a finite amount of time, or using time travel, or ignore Planck and suppose that there exist infinitely divisible somethings-or-other, or the like.

        Indeed, Maxwell’s Demon combined with Shannon’s work pretty emphatically demonstrate that there’s some sort of a yet-to-be-discovered fundamental relationship between time, matter, energy, and information and computation. It probably won’t be long before somebody figures out the the weight of a bit, I’ll bet.

        Besides, we know that, in every instance where we can modify the input or functioning of the brain, there is a directly corresponding change in cognition.

        Really, we’re at about the same point in cognitive theory as we are in evolution: sure, there’re gaps here and there in the fossil and DNA records, and protein folding is still mighty puzzling, and there’s damned little forensic evidence to help us reconstruct even the LUCA (let alone the first bioreplicators), but we know exactly what the shape of those gaps are and the nature of the pieces that will eventually fill them.

        Brains are biochemical computational devices, full stop.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Dan L.
          Posted April 29, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

          It probably won’t be long before somebody figures out the the weight of a bit, I’ll bet.

          It’s the minimum energy per time required to establish a signal above the thermal noise of the channel in question.

          http://www.amazon.com/Feynman-Lectures-Computation-Richard-P/dp/0738202967

          • Posted April 29, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

            Methinks I’ve got some reading. Curse you!

            I started with a bunch of mental protests about the relative, as opposed to absolute, nature of that definition…but then I realized that, for example, the fact that you could encode information with minuscule amounts of energy in certain conditions is irrelevant in harsher conditions that would obliterate the signal.

            …and it’s now making me realize that stored information might be a meaningless abstract concept, with only communication having meaning. If you write a book but nobody ever reads it, does the book have any meaning? Isn’t there a great deal more information transfer going on when millions of people read a book as opposed to a single person? And it takes energy to read the information stored in the book….

            I’m sure Feynman covers all that and more, almost certainly in ways that haven’t even begun to occur to me yet.

            Again, curse you!

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Tulse
              Posted April 29, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

              stored information might be a meaningless abstract concept, with only communication having meaning

              Yes — all information requires interpretation. There is no such thing as information in the abstract.

              • Posted April 29, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

                I’m surprised the existence of one-time pads didn’t clue me into that fact before now….

                b&

              • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
                Posted April 29, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

                We have to distinguish between information and coding.

                Information is relative a system, for example Shannon information and Kolmogorov complexity are both measures of information (in bits) but have different purposes.

                Coding is relative an algorithm, for example Morse or ASCII code, or languages or social mores or what have you.

              • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
                Posted April 29, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

                Btw – you got it in one!

        • Dan L.
          Posted April 29, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

          Great post btw.

        • BradW
          Posted May 2, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

          Does all chemistry generate electricity? If not, wouldn’t it be a more accurate statement to say that the brain is a biochemicalelectrical computational device?

  9. Posted April 29, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    How can a “literary” supplement publish such linguistic and scientific illiteracy?

    • Dominic
      Posted April 29, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      Exactly. The leading press here loves to cow-tow to the pronouncements of the various obviously wise, grey-haired & unashamedly ‘nice’ religious leaders. They have gravitas, they stand above us on a plane where they can more easily communicate with the good lord, & pass down their pronouncements on everything from Atheism to Zionism, encompassing morality, ethics & everything else on the way. Frankly, it is time the editors realized that these religious leaders are akin to climate change deniers – they represent nothing but hot air.

    • Posted April 29, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      I guess it works like some (most?) posts here work for me: I don’t understand, therefore, they must be above my intelligence.
      For example, without Dr Coyne’s comments, I would not have understood what the archbishop was saying.

      • Dominic
        Posted April 30, 2011 at 4:35 am | Permalink

        Rubbish. You do yourself a disservice! It is just that his grace writes prose that looks like the result of an explosion in a thesaurus factory.

      • Alexander Hellemans
        Posted May 1, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

        My reply to your post with the Boileau quote ended up in a different place–computers don’t seem to be infallible. Sorry

  10. Ougaseon
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    “For the life of me I don’t know what Williams is getting at.”

    I believe he is trying to say that genes would carry no information if we didn’t know how they were encoded. Like how a series of bits could be an ASCII character or an integer (or anything else) depending on how the computer interprets them. Of course this has nothing to do with whether those bits actually carry information (they do). It’d be like saying the letters in this post aren’t “real” if they can’t be identified in some universal and unique way, independent of the encoding. Postmodern blather like the rest of his thesis, basically.

    • SAWells
      Posted April 30, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      You’re giving him too much credit. He seems to be actually ignorant that a gene is a length of polydeoxyribophosphate decorated with nucleotides. He doesn’t know that a gene is a physical thing.

  11. Tulse
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    If matter is inherently conscious, or has features of consciousness, why is a god needed? The philosopher Dave Chalmers has proposed a similar notion of consciousness as a fundamental property of matter as a solution to the “hard problem”, but god is nowhere to be seen in his scheme. Indeed, I thought the whole problem was that consciousness was not a feature of matter, and therefore was a miracle that required divine intervention. If mind is just an inherent property of matter, why is a god needed to explain that property more than, say, the property of having mass?

  12. Posted April 29, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Gasbag indeed. Where do these people get off in assuming that their opinions of evolutionary biology carry any weight whatsoever? Would they feel so comfortable commenting on particle physics and the particle/wave view of matter? I think not, because they would realize that they have absolutely no qualifications that make their opinions worthy of serious contemplation. Why do they feel, then, that they are well enough credentialed in evolutionary biology to make meaningful criticisms of the science?

    GASBAGS!

    • Jeanine
      Posted April 29, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      “Would they feel so comfortable commenting on particle physics and the particle/wave view of matter?”

      Don’t Chopra and other masters of woo do that constantly? As long as they can use quantum, energy, quantum, universe, quantum, particle – they are then accepted as equals to real physicists.

      Anyhow, I couldn’t even follow what the ACB was saying.

  13. Posted April 29, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Here again, we see why fundamentalists are, in some ways, more honest than religious “liberals.” The fundamentalist just says, “I don’t care what your evidence says. Goddidit.”

    But the religious liberal churns out this nonsense, and argues that science actually shows that God does (or at least may) exist, if only those pesky scientists knew how to interpret their own work. The evidence gets ripped, folded, spindled and mutilated in service of their theology.

  14. Dominic
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    On our old friend Benedict in Rome – the blood soaked Mugabe is avoiding an EU travel ban as he is going to the Vatican for the beatification of John Paul II…
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-13240878

  15. Helena Constantine
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    “And if it wasn’t directly injected into some hapless australopithecine (“Oh wow, I can think!”),”

    but we’ve seen that–at the beginning of 2001.

  16. gillt
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    For the life of me, I don’t know what Williams is getting at. The gene is a sequence of nucleotides that, in general, codes for a protein. That protein does stuff in development. How does that not make the gene something that exists independently?

    By saying it’s an information packet or whatever Williams may be referring to the gene in the abstract sense as a human construct, and therefore up for interpretation, like the term species.

    For all his intellectual-sounding rhetoric, Williams has an imprecise understanding of his subject, which forces him to speak in abstractions, because he’s unschooled in biology and this is probably how he came across the word being used in a pop-science account.

    Someone should ask the Great Pontificator how alternative splicing affects the”unity or identity” of a gene.

  17. Posted April 29, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    it seems to excoriate evolutionists for thinking that Darwinism is a “theory of everything”

    Well of course it is a “theory of everything.” Just ask your local creationist. He will tell you that.

    I think they hear about stellar evolution and evolution of the cosmos, and are unable to tell that it is an unrelated use of “evolution.”

    I have come to expect mush to come from theologians. It seems to be part of the job description.

    • articulett
      Posted April 29, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

      “goddidit” seems to be the religionist’s theory of everything– or at least everything they don’t understand.

  18. Posted April 29, 2011 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Trust me when I say that, even for a theologian, Williams’ prose is particularly opaque, rebarbative and confused. I have tried to read a number of his theological essays. It is almost impossible to make sense of them, not because he is a theologian, but because he cannot think. His reputation as an academic is exaggerated, and as a leader of the Anglican Communion he has been a disaster. And as for a preacher — well, he can’t even do that well.

    • Dominic
      Posted April 29, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      When you add the sibilance of his voiccccce – which is highly amusing for those who have never heard him – he becomes soporific as a speaker.

      • Jeanine
        Posted April 29, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

        Ooooh…does he sound like the priest in The Princess Bride??? That would be f’n hilarious. In fact, I’m going to re-read that article with that voice in my head.

        • Dominic
          Posted April 29, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink


          Sssssee what I mean?

          • lamacher
            Posted April 29, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

            Bosh!!

          • Ichthyic
            Posted April 29, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

            It actually makes me wonder if Peter Cook actually used Rowan AS the model for the priest parody in PB!

            There’s every chance they actually knew each other when the screenplay was written.

            • Eric Lawton
              Posted May 1, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

              This is one of the funniest things I have seen. I laughed my head off. I don’t know how Williams maintains that deadpan through that surreal logic.

        • Posted April 29, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

          I would have preferred Peter Cook on deck today for the royal wedding.

    • Darrell E
      Posted April 29, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      “Rebarbative”. I like it. The perfect word to describe Williams’ prose.

    • Sajanas
      Posted April 29, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      I picture him sitting over a big OED trying to find obscure words for commonly used ones.

  19. Dominic
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    This might interest – Rowan writes to a 6 year old
    http://tinyurl.com/44jfdb8

    • Posted April 29, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      Fascinating, especially this:

      From time to time I sent [people] some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like.

      First of all, one wonders how an all-powerful all-knowing deity can be so interested in humanity as to incarnate himself as one of us and do all sorts of cheap magic tricks to convince people of his bona-fides…while, at the same time, being so spectacularly incompetent as to do so in an obscure town on the outskirts of the empire while escaping all notice of the locals for decades afterwards.

      Then, one is prone to wonder: does Williams’s creator god have a special interest in affairs on the planet Earth? What about all the elebenty brazilian other planets, stars, galaxies, clusters, and superclusters in the universe?

      And, really, it keeps spiraling down from there.

      If that’s an accurate summary of Williams’s theology, then his pantheon is every bit as silly as Santa Claus and the Elves.

      I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lors of love from me too.

      But that’s just it. His gods write letters exactly as often as Santa delivers presents.

      And the reset of the evidential record is equally sparse for both, and the justifications and epistemic methodologies are also indistinguishable.

      Sure, they both make for warm-n-fuzzy bedtime stories (so long as you leave out the zombie squicking, of course) with nice “Be a good little girl!” morals (again, ignoring the commandments for making blood sacrifices of unbelievers and for self-mutiliation in response to thoughtcrimes and what-not). But, Shirley, hasn’t he outgrown literal belief in such faery tales? And haven’t we as a society also outgrown this sort of willful idiocy?

      Cheers,

      b&

  20. NewEnglandBob
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    True title of his review:

    “Gasbag Archbishop Stinks up Times with Indecipherable Theological Farts”

    • Ichthyic
      Posted April 29, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

      Gasbag Archbishop is bordering on redundant though.

      😉

  21. Kevin Alexander
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    “various decorative excrescences”

    I am so stealing that.

    You say sophisticated theological apologetics, I say various decorative excrescences. Potayto, potato.

    • Dominic
      Posted April 29, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      His prose is full of them.

  22. MadScientist
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    “The mere appearance of this alien element …”

    If the archbishop is referring to the mind, it is certainly alien to him. I wonder what the archbishop has to proclaim about the minds of other animals. What about this soul stuff – what is it and do non-human animals still have none of it?

  23. Michieux
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Hmm… Do I detect a spasm of eyebrow envy here?

    • Dominic
      Posted April 29, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      Waxing lyrical…

  24. Gayle Stone
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Of course he doesn’t understand Natural Selection because he doesn’t understand or hasn’t even STUDIED Darwin. After todays pompous ceremony he will start STUDYING the procedure on how to bestow devine right when he MAKES the next king. To paraphasee Denis Diderot, “England will never be free until the last king is strangled by the entrails of the last Archbishop.”

    • Mike B
      Posted April 29, 2011 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      Or as they adapted it to say in my home country, Scotland ‘will never be free until the last minister is strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post’.

      (Scottish reference, sorry.)

  25. Posted April 29, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    What “association with Richard Dawkins”? Are you perhaps confusing Rowan Williams with Richard Harries (another Anglican bishop, or rather ex-bishop, who I think is actually a friend of Dawkins)?

    • Erp
      Posted April 29, 2011 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

      Harries is a retired bishop but not an ex-bishop (once a bishop always a bishop). I was wondering also whether there had been some mixup in bishops (another one would be Richard Holloway a retired Scottish Episcopalian bishop who has been edging closer and closer to an atheistic view). The archbishop has met Dawkins, but, I don’t think he is an associate.

      He also does not speak for all Anglicans. His counterpart in the US, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, has a PhD in oceanography from Oregon State [thesis on cephalopods] so her views are likely to be better informed when it comes to the biology. However their differences have been more over the role of women and of gays/lesbians in the church and how fast to move.

  26. colluvial
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    “The Archbishop of Canterbury is a pompous old gasbag who doesn’t understand evolution”

    This is the unfortunate fate of someone expected to know all the answers but who doesn’t have the time, interest, or talents to learn the science.

  27. Posted April 29, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that the archbishop has been reading too much Teilhard de Chardin. Unintelligible ideas die hard.

  28. sailor1031
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    “Williams here, liberal and enlightened as he is supposed to be, is coming close here to Catholic Church’s stand that mind (or “soul”) must have been somehow injected into the human lineage by a loving God.”

    But, But…..Summer the little stripey cat has a mind (I know because sometimes I can read it); mammals have minds. Anybody who spends time with them knows this. So how does the ABC preserve the idea intact that this is all about the human mind as a unique “creation” of some deity outside the realm of evolution?

    • Dominic
      Posted April 29, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      I would say ‘mind’ is an illusion.

      • Tulse
        Posted April 29, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

        “Mind is an illusion” to whom? No offense, Dominic, but the common claim that “mind is an illusion” is just silly. “Illusions” are a feature of minds — there can be no illusions without minds. Illusions require the notion of subjectivity.

        Saying minds are an illusion is self-refuting, like saying that you don’t believe in the existence of beliefs.

        • Dominic
          Posted April 30, 2011 at 4:42 am | Permalink

          I do not take offence! 🙂
          I like to be like Loki at the feast.
          However… you have a point. I suppose we need to define what we mean by mind as well. This is not the time or place, & you would probably out-argue me anyway.

      • Posted April 29, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

        I would say that time is an illusion.

        Lunchtime doubly so….

        (I would also say that if “mind” is an illusion, then so is all of logic, maths, algorithms, and the like. Even if you can make a compelling argument why it should be considered so, it’s not a very useful definition.)

        Cheers,

        b&

  29. ernie keller
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    The archbishop is probably not a stupid man, but he has been brought up in a tradition that tells him to treat certain subjects with a kind of therapeutic fog. Such a person is capable of making sense only insofar as the subject does not threaten to cast doubt on a cherished notion.

    I think it was Peter Abelard who said that there are things you have to try hard not to understand (I got this from one of Charles Freeman’s fine books). For that purpose you need a type of rhetoric that obscures meaning from others as well as oneself.

  30. 386sx
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    I was actually enjoying watching the wedding believe it or not. When the first preacher got up there doing the preacher thing, it wasn’t too bad. Still enjoyable. Then the second preacher got up there. (Why they had to have two preachers, I dunno.) As soon as he opened his mouth the whole room filled up with pompous. This guy was made out of pure pompous. He was so pompous he was freaking surreal pompous. (Later it turns out that it was our hero, mister Archbishop of Canterbury.)

  31. Dr. I. Needtob Athe
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    “…and arguing that there is no conflict between science and Darwinism.”

    Is that a typo?

  32. Brian
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Great Primate

    I see nothing especially great about him. Seems like a middle-aged average homo sapiens. I suspect he has no great abilities for his species, let alone any species of primate. 🙂

    Last night I watched this waker with an n in the middle waffle on about God this, Jebus that during the wedding thingy. There lots of we know this is what god wanted, and god made marriage, and we know jesus is married to his church as Bill is married to Kate. How does he know any of this? He doesn’t.

  33. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    It’s a great piece really, I especially liked the hoisting of the Great Primate. But there are some things that may be indications of haste, and can be quote-mined for effect:

    arguing that there is no conflict between science and Darwinism.

    Well, let’s hope so.

    But how does that denigrate evolution, which begins only after the first replicator has evolved?

    Quite correct actually, but I would think a theologian would argue that this is a tautology based on a tautology. 😀

    Maybe a rephrasing such as “how does that denigrate evolution, which begins only after the first replicator has appeared”?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 29, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      Oops, I now see D.i.n.a has noted some of that.

  34. Posted April 29, 2011 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    The local gasbag-in-chief, Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, recently commented confidently about AGW. He said he read a book about it.

    And by the way, it’s modus operandi

  35. Posted April 29, 2011 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    I have suspected for some time that much of the animus against The God Delusion is in fact payback for The Selfish Gene. Whenever the Gnu bashers goes on to talk about evolutionary or genetic reductionism, this is the target. And Dawkins crime? He was right! He won the argument. This, for his opponents, was the unforgivable crime.

    Think of how many people this offended. For those dedicated to radical free will (existentialists, Christians, Marxists, etc) the idea that anything at all might be determined by genetics was absolute heresy. And yet, the preponderance of evidence says that genetics does play a part. They can’t argue against this amongst those who have studied the field, they can only snipe from the sidelines, and hope no one notices that they have no idea what they are talking about.

    Williams has played his hand here, and The Selfish Gene is his target. But he also reveals a common error amongst those who rely on intuitive or ‘folk” understandings of science. We have some intuitive understanding of matter (rocks), very little intuitive understanding of energy (fire, lightning, motion), but virtually no intuitive understanding of information theory. This is germane to that whole mind-body problem. The closest one can come to this is in programming a computer, in which you impart not only information, but intentionality, to a machine. It is significant that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Pinker have all spent time programming, while being acquainted with the mind body problem. At some point, you find yourself asking exactly what it is that you are doing, because you experience an open channel between mind and machine. You are putting part of you into the machine, and that changes everything.

    • Dominic
      Posted April 30, 2011 at 4:54 am | Permalink

      You have a good point there. Yet people forget that RD’s selfish gene was building on the other Williams, George C., in Adaptation & Natural Selection. The ‘Selfish Gene’ coinage, for good or ill, & the fact that RD wrote for the layman, was what made an impact.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 1, 2011 at 4:54 am | Permalink

      you experience an open channel between mind and machine. You are putting part of you into the machine,

      Folk science aside, isn’t that exactly what Dembski and other “frontloader” designists goes on about?

      I don’t see the fascination with information aside from that it is “oh, shiny!” like quantum theory. Information theory – informs very little [sic] – on physics.

      I will give algorithmic theory that it lies out the fundamental description of the brain-mind map (Church-Turing thesis). I will also give it that it constrains models of learning (information channels).

      But otherwise I think biology reigns supreme as always. Mind is a result of brain functions, and with functions we are studying traits.

      For example, information theory can’t tell us why mundane neural networks can’t model the cortex. It is first when they adopt an adaptive time gating mechanism that symbolic processing spontaneously appears.

      It is of course possible that information theory one day can elucidate the specific embodied brain function. I am just wary of calling it “germane” when it isn’t ubiquitous and/or calling the shots.

  36. Posted April 30, 2011 at 1:46 am | Permalink

    “Ce qui se conçoit bien s’énonce clairement, et les mots pour le dire arrivent aisément.” Boileau
    1674

    So, if you don’t understand what theologians are saying, don’t worry.

    The problem with theology is that in fact the unique question the whole edifice is built on: “Does God exist?” is a *scientific* question. And there is no answer. If you compare this to the question “Do extraterrestial beings exist?” here we have a scientific answer: with our knowledge of the existence of exoplanets, and the probability that such planets with earth-like properties could exist, plus what whe know about evolution, biochemistry, etc, we can give a “scientific” reply: there is a probability that extraterrestial life could exist. There is no way we can give a similar reply to the God question without being intellectually dishonest.

  37. John Boettcher
    Posted April 30, 2011 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand this sentence :

    “It’s strange: more and more scientists are seeing consciousness as a hard problem, but one that is in principle explainable.”

    What problem? I’ve read a helluva lot about “consciousness” yet never seen it as problematic, far less “hard”.

    Chalmers says something is “hard”, and it’s a “problem”. How?

    I seriously don’t get it.

    • SAWells
      Posted April 30, 2011 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

      Repeat to yourself “How can a system made of non-conscious stuff display consciousness?” over and over again until you convince yourself that it’s a hard problem.

  38. latsot
    Posted May 1, 2011 at 3:44 am | Permalink

    Williams *talks* like that too. I thoroughly dislike him and his oppo John Sentamu (the archbishop of York). It’s impossible to get a word of sense out of either of them.

    You might remember Williams from such blithering acts as advocating the adoption of Sharia law in the UK and Sentamu from his tough protest against the plight of people in the Middle East conflict, where he slept in a tent for a week in the garden of his palace (yes, he has a palace. This is where he lives: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/44/BishopthorpePlalce%28TomPennington%29Jul1995.jpg/234px-BishopthorpePlalce%28TomPennington%29Jul1995.jpg). It’s a mystery why that tough, no-compromise action didn’t force worldwide peace by Wednesday afternoon.

    • latsot
      Posted May 1, 2011 at 3:48 am | Permalink

      By the way, don’t worry that Williams might be left out in the palace stakes. This is his gaff: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lambeth_Palace, but he also has another palace in Canterbury. We wouldn’t want him having to commute, after all.

  39. Veroxitatis
    Posted September 27, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    I have grave difficulty understanding Dr. William’s position. He accepts the theory of evolution but retains a role for “God”. Does he mean that God started the process and left it to its own devices or does he believe that God “guided” the process? Did he “engineer” the so called random mutations so that ultimately the process would give rise to Homo Sapiens?
    Dr.Williams is sufficiently intelligent to realise that he cannot oppose the theory, however, in the absence of concrete science concerning abiogenesis, he can continue to resort to a God of the Gaps. I do wonder what his position will be when Man creates life from inanimate material? That, of course, is still time off, and the good Archbishop will have long fed worms.

    • Alexander Hellemans
      Posted September 27, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      At least, these people calling themselves “primates” acknowledge that they descend from the apes.

  40. will79
    Posted December 25, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    I’m not a creationist or even religious, but articles like these are extremely offensive to me.

    We are barely literate monkeys who are just beginning to explore self awareness, on a relative scale that is. Yet we think we understand everything, well we don’t.

    Every period in history, our scientists and churches both have had the arrogance to think they knew all there was to know. And new information is constantly surfacing that proves us wrong. The only thing we can ever know, is that our current grasp on life, the universe and everything, is a temporary placeholder of a notion at best, and we should be willing to accept alternative points of view, be you a creationist, an evolutionist, a flat earther, or a new ager.

    And yes, Rowan Williams is a pompous old fart.

    • Alexander Hellemans
      Posted December 25, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

      “Every period in history, our scientists and churches both have had the arrogance to think they knew all there was to know.”

      I agree that theologians can be accused of this, but I don’t see any period in science where scientists said that they knew all there was to know. You can compare the evidence that evolution is a real process to the evidence that the Romans existed–a lot of separate bits of evidence. But scientists admit that they haven’t a clue what dark energy is, and what dark matter consists of. And a large number of scientists question the idea of string theory, or supersymmetry. So where is the arrogance?

      • Veroxitatis
        Posted December 25, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

        At the end of the 19th. century some scientists thought that all that was left was dotting a few i’s and crossing a few t’s., so much so that it would be foolish for a young man to embark on a career in science. Planck, Einstein and Bohr put an end to that and I can’t think of a scientist since who has adopted such a view, although Witten, a few years ago, did opine that a TOE was maybe only 20 or so years away.


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