Evidence? I don’t have to show you any stinking evidence!

One of the hallmarks of New Atheism is its repeated demand for the faithful to pony up evidence for their beliefs.  Since they don’t have any, even the “sophisticated” believers are starting to openly reject the need for such evidence, which makes them look pretty dumb. The proper stance is pithily summarized by Christopher Hitchens: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

Two articles just appeared that clearly show this “evidence-is-overrated” stand.

1.  I’ve just received an advance copy of Richard’s new book, The Magic of Reality (it’s released in the U.S. October 4) and am looking forward to reading it (it’s meaty!).  It’s being sold as a children’s book but is really, I think, for joint reading by parent and child, or if by children alone, by those who are at least 12. At any rate, this book is the launching pad for a conversation (moderated by Susanna Rustin) between Dawkins and Catholic writer Christine Odone at the “Comment is Free” section of the Guardian.

In a piece called “So you believe in hell?“, Susanna Rustin asks the questions and Dawkins and Odone thrash out the issues of whether and how children should be taught religion. (I didn’t previously know much about Odone, but articles like this and this convince me that she’s the British Ann Coulter.)  In the piece, Odone, a Catholic, asserts her belief in transubstantiation and in reward and punishment in the afterlife.  She also claims that faith isn’t dogmatic, asserting this:

You musn’t think that religion is stuck in its inquisitorial phase; religion is capable of evolution and many people of faith are filled with doubts.

But there are only two things that make religion “evolve”: scientific advances that show religious dogma to be nonsense, and advances in secular morality that force religion to play catch-up, as it has done with gay rights and gender equality.  And as for those “doubts,” well many people of faith are not filled with doubts, because if Catholics were so doubtful, for example, the Church wouldn’t enforce its odious dogmas about homosexuality, contraception, divorce, and sexual behavior on its adherents.

The exchange of note is this, when they’re discussing religious assertions as metaphors:

RD: But how do you decide which bits to doubt and which bits to accept? As scientists, we do it by evidence.

CO: You can’t boil everything down to evidence!

Well, not everything, perhaps, but certainly assertions about the afterlife and whether a cracker and wine become body and blood.  How can you teach that stuff to kids if there’s no stinking evidence?

2. Andrew Brown has a very confused piece at the Guardian called “Creationism explained” (an obvious riff on Pascal Boyer’s book, Religion Explained) about how the purpose of life or the universe can’t be explained by science.  But of course, as one of the world’s leading faitheists, Brown claims that purpose and meaning can be detected by religious rumination, and that this is absolutely compatible with science:

But the mainstream, orthodox, Christian position is not in fact Paleyite. It doesn’t claim that the purpose of life can be discovered or shown by scientific enquiry; only that this purpose, discovered or known by revelation, is perfectly compatible with the results of science.

This is also a position which can be described as “creationist”, but I would never do so, because that muddles an enormously useful and important distinction. The orthodox Christian view cannot be refuted scientifically. It is therefore irrelevant to science classes, unlike the first sort of “creationism” which is actively hostile to science teaching.

Discovered or known by revelation?  Can religious revelation really discover or know anything that is true? And are such “discoveries”, such as they are, always incompatible with science?  After all, if one decides by revelation that God’s purpose is to answer supplications and prayers, then that’s something that can be tested (and has been refuted) by science.  There are certain empirical consequences one expects in universes supposedly constructed for some purposes, and those consequences can be tested.  Nothing that is true, except for one’s subjective feelings, can be discovered or known by revelation. One always needs stinking evidence.

Brown’s last sentences, though, takes the cake for incomprehensibility:

(My own point of view is that the question of whether the universe has a purpose is not only one we can’t answer, but one we can’t even properly frame. How on earth could we emerge from a game whose rules were comprehensible to us?)

If you can’t even frame the idea of a purpose, does religion make any sense at all?  And what the deuce does he mean by the last sentence?

81 Comments

  1. Posted September 25, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    “And what the deuce does he mean by the last sentence?”

    I strongly suspect it of being a deepity.

  2. pdblouin
    Posted September 25, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Odone really sounds like a highly sophisticated idiot. Let’s hope she stays off the radar for a long, long time.

  3. Tim
    Posted September 25, 2011 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    I think that you’re giving Andrew Brown way too much credit. That last incomprehensible bit is supposed to be a slightly more sophisticated version of saying, “Wow man, the universe is like, soooo deep. There’s no way you can ever get your head around it all.” He has a deadline, he spews some crap out there. If you’ve spent any time at all mulling over the meaning of what he’s written, you’ve spent more time than he did.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted September 25, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      If you’ve spent any time at all mulling over the meaning of what he’s written, you’ve spent more time than he did.

      Excellent observation.

  4. Ken Pidcock
    Posted September 25, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    (I didn’t previously know much about Odone, but articles like this, this, and this convince me that she’s the British Ann Coulter.)

    I don’t think this is fair. First because, absent the third column with its persecution whining, this is pretty weak tea. Second because Coulter, in viciousness and dishonesty, is in a class by herself.

  5. Cliff Melick
    Posted September 25, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Near as I can figure, the last sentence could be rewritten in English as, “How could we, being the complex beings we are, be created from a process that we could understand.”

    • truthspeaker
      Posted September 25, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      Or paraphrased as “Asking the purpose of life isn’t even a meaningful question, but I’m not going to come right out and say that.”

  6. RFW
    Posted September 25, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Re revelation: It’s either Spinoza or Tom Paine who remarks that unless you experience something directly, it’s all second-hand information and you don’t have to accept its truth.

    Thus, when Suzie Numbnuts has a revelation from god to the effect (say) that we should all wear red undies, no one has to pay the slightest attention unless they, too, receive the same direct revelation.

    Suzie may be lying, she may have mistaken the message, she may just be delusional. But whatever the case, her statement is just secondhand gossip.

    Or to turn to a down-home formulation of the same principle, there’s Missouri, once known as the “show me” state. Why Missouri is now full of gullible people who’ll believe anything is a unanswered question.

  7. Gary Allan
    Posted September 25, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    I expect the last comment means that he doesn’t think that a universe simple enough to be comprehended by us would be complex enough to produce us. However, we have made great strides in understanding the universe and it seems within the comprehension of at least a few if not all, ultimately.

    Of course, philosophically a religion makes no sense if it cannot answer the question of purpose – at least all religions seem to make a big point of telling everyone what to do and why and when, so religion loses a great deal of its “purpose” if it cannot provide an answer or even ask the question. Of course, religion serves other purposes in society – power for the leaders and duck-thinking for the followers.

  8. Neil
    Posted September 25, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I do believe certain things without any stinking evidence. For example, I believe that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, although there is not a shred of evidence to support that belief. (By saying I believe, I mean I would be willing to bet on it if there were a way to find out after the bet.) But I agree with Hitch that someone can equally dismiss my belief without evidence.

    • RFW
      Posted September 25, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      You do a disservice to yourself and your belief in intelligent life existing elsewhere in the universe. While there is no direct evidence, it’s pretty clear that life arose on earth as the result of perfectly ordinary chemical reactions. Yes, those reactions were slow and unusual, but nothing weird about them. There’s all the reason in the world to think that on planets of the right age, size, temperature, and composition, the same processes would occur, given enough time.

      What would be beliefs without evidence are the ideas that extra-terrestrial life would look like terrestrial life, and that the intelligent ones would be at the same state of development as humans are right now. Neither is very likely; the prevalence of five fingers/toes among vertebrates is traceable back to the very earliest of the ilk. It could easily have been four, six, or seven.

      I can’t say if the other milestones in the development of “higher” life on earth would be the same: the emergence of eukaryotes (cells), of multi-cellular organisms, the development of vertebrates. Quite likely not.

      • Neil
        Posted September 25, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

        “There’s all the reason in the world to think that on planets of the right age, size, temperature, and composition, the same processes would occur, given enough time.”

        Yes, but it is not evidence.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted September 25, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

          it’s deductive reasoning based on evidence.

          I believe that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, although there is not a shred of evidence to support that belief.

          actually there is a lot of evidence for that belief, it’s just that it is all related to what you see here, and a reasonable assumption that the conditions here are not a one-off.

          you’re painting a belief as necessarily NOT based on evidence, but that simply isn’t correct.

          • neil
            Posted September 25, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

            “a reasonable assumption that the conditions here are not a one-off.”

            I, too, am willing to make this assumption, but it is not based on evidence. With a sample of one, you have no evidence whether life is a one-off or the rule. If independent life (unrelated to that on earth) is found on Mars or Titan, or by SETI, then there will be evidence. That is why it would be great to find.

            • Ichthyic
              Posted September 25, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

              I, too, am willing to make this assumption, but it is not based on evidence.

              uh, then you’re missing all the evidence we DO have already.

              at least you have to admit that we know that there are other suns, that they are sometimes just like ours, and that we know that planets revolve around them, right?

              We also know what makes life possible HERE, and there is no reason to make the assumption that things are different “there”.

              The unreasonable assumption NOT based on evidence, would be that this is a one off.

              we do indeed have much evidence to indicate that planets are not unique, suns are not unique, etc etc etc.

              the direction you are approaching this from would be just as unreasonable as saying because you’ve never heard of people living in another country, it’s just fanciful thinking not based on any evidence at all to conclude there would be.

              nonsense.

              • neil
                Posted September 25, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

                I suggest you read “The Eerie Silence” or one of many other books that cover this topic well before you dismiss someone else’s comments as nonsense. Also you might consider a course in epistemology. You need it.

              • Ichthyic
                Posted September 25, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

                then you need a course in etymology, evidently.

                there is a difference between evidence and conclusive evidence.

                it IS nonsense to claim we have no evidence to support the belief that there might be life on other planets.

                there is no conclusive evidence, but that doesn’t mean there is no evidence at all.

                this is what makes such a belief entirely different from “religious faith”.

                IOW, you’re conflating what the word belief itself means; in fact, your belief in the idea of life on other planets is much more well grounded than that of any abrahamic tradition follower in the idea that their particular version of a god exists.

              • Neil
                Posted September 25, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

                “…your belief in the idea of life on other planets is much more well grounded than that of any abrahamic tradition follower in the idea that their particular version of a god exists.”

                Of course it is, because it does not contradict known science, and can be confirmed, but not refuted, in principle, unlike Abrahamic fairy tales. But that is not evidence.

      • derekw
        Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:26 am | Permalink

        There’s all the reason in the world to think that on planets of the right age, size, temperature, and composition, the same processes would occur, given enough time.
        With all the unknowns surrounding abiogenesis (primordial conditions/building blocks, metabolic vs replication scenarios, lack of strong successful experimental and repeatable pathways) one cannot say that even an extremely similar planet/solar system would/could generate and support even simple life. Naturalism, panspermia and even those crazy creationist are still playing the field. http://arxiv.org/abs/1107.3835v1 is an interesting recent statistical study that emphasizes a low probability of assuming life present in universe based on our observation of life here on earth (the historical assumption that f sub l = 1 100% of these planets will develop life of the Drake equation..could be very low (or zero!) As mentioned discovering life on other worlds would be the first evidence in the positive direction that life does exist elsewhere.

    • Pete Carlton
      Posted September 25, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

      By saying I believe, I mean I would be willing to bet on it if there were a way to find out after the bet.

      But would you bet the entirety of your worldly possessions and your right arm and leg on it? I’d guess not, and that’s because at this time you don’t have enough evidence for that strong of a bet. As long as the degree of your belief is proportional the strength of your evidence, you have no difference in opinion from what Hitch, Jerry, etc. are saying.

      • Neil
        Posted September 25, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

        Do I think ET life is a certainty given that there is no evidence? Not likely. But you don’t get the point–there is NO evidence. My subjective belief is not based on evidence of ET life, but on how I think the universe is. How I think the universe is is based on evidence of other things, but not on evidence of ET.

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 2:46 am | Permalink

      You could argue that it’s ‘likely’, based on certain pieces of evidence such as the large number of suitable planets. If that’s what you mean by ‘I believe …’, then that is based on evidence.

      If you said, ‘I’m certain …’, then that’s a bit much.

  9. Posted September 25, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    I don’t recall ever seeing the article referred to in the second of the links Jerry gives: the description by Cristina Odone of our conversation at Anthony Cheetham’s dinner table (sorry I don’t know how to do hyperlinks on this site). I cannot confirm her story that I asked her to imagine killing the last elephant on earth to save a baby, the idea being to pit an individual human life against extinction of a whole Order of mammals, and a very remarkable Order at that (Proboscidea). I have no memory of it, and I don’t think I could possibly have posed the gedanken dilemma in quite the way she says, because if it was the last elephant the Order would inevitably be soon extinct anyway. I don’t think I could have been that silly.

    I do remember that our conversation at the table became quite heated. But Cristina Odone is no Ann Coulter. I haven’t met Ann Coulter, but all the signs are that she is a deeply, deeply unpleasant woman. Cristina is not that. She’s actually very good company, in spite of her obsession with Catholicism. On her recent visit she fell eloquently in love with Lalla’s little dog Tycho, and that alone endeared her to me.

    Richard

    • SLC
      Posted September 25, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      <I haven’t met Ann Coulter, but all the signs are that she is a deeply, deeply unpleasant woman.

      The question as to whether tranny Annie is a woman is an issue that is very much in doubt.

      • Posted September 25, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

        ^^Yeah, her and Lady Gaga, both.^^

        /@

      • Posted September 25, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

        Now, now. I don’t think ad homs are necessary.

        There’s plenty that she’s actually written, said or done to attack.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted September 25, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        And human biology has exactly what to do with the usefulness of claims?

        If we are going all non sequitur on this, the question of whether a specific blogger is man, woman or machine is an issue where doubt is paramount.

      • Chris Granger
        Posted September 25, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

        After Elevatorgate and its associated feminists-versus-Dawkins drama, you’re really going to reply to a comment of his with a gender-based slur against a woman? Wow.

        I find Ann Coutler to be incredibly arrogant and obnoxious, but attacking her in this way is in poor taste (and has been done a million times already anyhow, making it rather pointless).

    • Posted September 25, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Tycho? Is that because of the My Dog Has No Nose gag? 🙂

    • Chris Granger
      Posted September 25, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      While I’m definitely not an accomodationist, I do think it’s important for Gnu Atheists to remember that our ideological opponents are often good, kind, enjoyable people and not always the enemy. I appreciate that you take the time to point this out.

      • Posted September 25, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

        They provide considerable cover for the lunatics.
        They generally aid & abet the enemies of reason, including the infant genital mutilators, amongst other parasitic criminals.
        Merely because they are often enjoyable in social occasions does not make their enabling behaviour any less profound. I expect that most of them continue to mentally abuse their offspring at least by lying to them about reality, or far worse.
        Without them, at the extrema, the fanatics would be locked up in a secure mental facility, and there would be not automatic tax deductions for religions.

        Even if their support is only tacit, this enabling approach makes their lukewarm theism dangerous, and I shall consider them to always be an enemy of reason.
        Your “While I’m definitely not an accomodationist” rings hollow to me.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted September 25, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

          Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, many destructive, hateful people are very pleasant in person.

        • Posted September 25, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

          If you had to actively and thoroughly hate anyone who, even in a very small way, wasn’t completely rational, you’d have to hate almost everyone.

          I think we can take a hard line with our principles, and still enjoy the company of basically decent people.

          • Chris Granger
            Posted September 25, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

            Agreed. It must be terribly frightening to live in a world where 99.9999% of the people on it are the enemy and admitting that *gasp* they do actually have some positive qualities and aren’t entirely horrible human beings makes one an accomodationist. How sad.

        • Chris Granger
          Posted September 25, 2011 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

          That’s fine, you can say it rings hollow to you if you like, and judge me an accomodationist based on a handful of words. My friends would find that pretty funny, I’m sure, since I’m by far the most vocal ‘militant atheist’ among my social group.

          Perhaps you’ve interacted with a lot of people who are obvious Liars for Jesus™, but that hasn’t been my experience at all. I think most theists are intellectually lazy and don’t challenge and test their own beliefs or realize that they’re dangerous, not deliberately deceptive and hateful.

          I agree that the result is a widened Overton window for the fanatics, no question, and the battle for reason and against irrational beliefs needs to be fought at every level. But for me, that doesn’t make all theists the enemy. Theism is the enemy.

      • PB
        Posted September 26, 2011 at 7:44 am | Permalink

        Good observations, I also find out that a lot of religionists are normal people, only they are not as obsessed with truth both in science and religion as some of us.

        Not-obsessed-with-truth may or may not be an admirable trait, but in most cases that alone does not make a person automatically evil, nasty or anything negative (some friends criticize me of too-obsessed-with-truth in a negative sense ..)

  10. E.A. Blair
    Posted September 25, 2011 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Ask Cameron Willingham and Troy Davis how much evidence is valued. Oh, wait – you can’t ask them any more.

  11. Centricci
    Posted September 25, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    “CO: You can’t boil everything down to evidence!”

    I think Dara O’Briain says it best

  12. gregfromcos
    Posted September 25, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    What does CO mean by:

    “CO: I agree some of the most interesting moral philosophers have not been believers. All I ask of them is to tolerate people of faith. Intolerance squashes curiosity.”

    How does Intolerance of people of faith squash curiosity? From my perspective, squashing faith leads to more curiosity. If you tolerate “faith”, you simply must ignore some evidence, which kill a part of curiosity.

  13. Posted September 25, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Some evidence would be nice, but I think it’s equally important that they haven’t got a single stinking working argument for why there needs to be a deity, or (in other words) how existence of a deity answers any unanswered question in a useful fashion.

    It sometimes seems to me that asking for evidence without pointing out the lack of any well-justified expectation implicitly grants too much credit to faulty arguments in favor of deity. After that is pointed out, then it’s time to demand the evidence.

    I don’t mean to overlook the many many times the stupidity of the pro-deity arguments are pointed on this site. But, evidence is how you win the race, and the theists haven’t even got off the starting blocks.

    • 601
      Posted September 25, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      Yes, how can one justify the leap to even consider supernaturality?

      Fantasies of unobservable meta rules to cope with the patternicity gap lack courage.

  14. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 25, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Nice synthesis. This is surely one of the last imagined stepping stones they gyrate on, together with “stridency” and free will/soulism.

    But of course, as one of the world’s leading faitheists, Brown claims that purpose and meaning can be detected by religious rumination,

    Let’s cut to the chase.

    Assume we are faitheists. How would we propose to test “purpose” for a fact, or in other words detection?

    We can’t.

    If we remove the religious privilege of special pleading, what we see behind the curtain is the faitheist and religionist primary All-pervading Conspiracy Theory (ACT) that moves their world.

    But these ideas, whether by relying on design [ba dum CHING!] or chance [ba dum CHING!], are always the least likely explanation for *anything*.

    How on earth could we emerge from a game whose rules were comprehensible to us?

    In other words, scratch the teflon surface of a faitheist and you will find a mundane creationist discharging the pus that all information and complexity is put there at the start.

  15. Ichthyic
    Posted September 25, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    But there are only two things that make religion “evolve”: scientific advances that show religious dogma to be nonsense, and advances in secular morality that force religion to play catch-up

    actually there’s one more:

    other religions also cause religions to evolve.

    just ask the ancient Greeks.

    so, yeah, either due to politics, powerplays, or just a better story, religions can easily be changed too.

    the point is not that they are unchangeable, but that the change has NOTHING to do with evidence or reason, unlike science.

    • Chris Granger
      Posted September 25, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      I imagine it’s possible that even a worse story (or terrible behavior by a religion’s adherents) might cause a religion to evolve, so as to further distance itself from the other.

      “Well yes, we’re religious, but we’re not like them!

      • Ichthyic
        Posted September 25, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        yes, you’ve hit on yet another aspect of human social behavior that has feedback on religion.

        sectism.

        in fact, this would be the primary driving force behind the 40 thousand (give or take a few thousand) current Christian sects (ALONE!) that there are.

        now I feel like I’m in the middle of a Python sketch:

        “Our chief weapons are…”

  16. Posted September 25, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    It doesn’t claim that the purpose of life can be discovered or shown by scientific enquiry; only that this purpose, discovered or known by revelation, is perfectly compatible with the results of science.

    Ah, now here is a prime Templeton field of research that would be most beneficial in giving us an understanding of the nature of god. Can we please have some people who have revelations on a regular basis hooked up to brain scanners and find out exactly how god tickles their neurons into deriving what the revelations are? Please? Some real hard evidence that neuron-tickling is going on and how it works would be a really great way to find out how god works (less mysteriously, perhaps?)

  17. Ichthyic
    Posted September 25, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    only that this purpose, discovered or known by [INTERPRETED] revelation, is perfectly compatible with the results of science

    yeah, there’s a bit he missed there.

    there has NEVER been any supposedly revealed knowledge that hasn’t gone through a historical filter to try and make it “fit”.

    this is why the very concept of revealed knowledge is a crock.

  18. Wowbagger
    Posted September 25, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Did Ordone actually respond to Dawkins’ question about how a religious person is able to discriminate between the bits to accept and the bits to ignore, other than the (frankly stupid) ‘you can’t boil everything down to evidence’ non-answer?

    I’m guessing not; like every person who cites ‘other ways of knowing’ as a valid source of information, they can’t answer the very simple question about establishing the truth of a claim (i.e. ‘how would you know if you were wrong?’) – and they can therefore be dismissed without wasting any more time listening to their drivel.

  19. Diane G.
    Posted September 25, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    (subscribing)

  20. Steven Carr
    Posted September 25, 2011 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    BROWN
    It doesn’t claim that the purpose of life can be discovered or shown by scientific enquiry; only that this purpose, discovered or known by revelation, is perfectly compatible with the results of science.

    CARR
    Things are getting better.

    Once upon a time, people like Brown would have claimed that the purpose of life could also be discovered through dreams (The Bible is big on messages in dreams)

    But even sophisticated defenders of religion can’t sell that to themselves any more, so have retreated from that claim.

    But why is revelation a valid method of getting knowledge, if you decide that dreams are not?

  21. Kieran
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    I’m utterly shocked that the obvious response to someone going, “You can’t boil everything down to evidence!” Was not to introduce them to Daragh O brien’s sack?

    • sasqwatch
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 6:21 am | Permalink

      But it was. (and was done up above).

      • Kieran
        Posted September 26, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        D’oh!

  22. Dominic
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    “Nothing that is true, except for one’s subjective feelings, can be discovered or known by revelation.”
    YES! Otherwise everyone could claim a different truth from their own feelings – that way madness lies.

  23. Posted September 26, 2011 at 5:18 am | Permalink

    Since I seem to be here this morning, I’ll point out an error in Coyne’s reading comprehension:

    “But of course, as one of the world’s leading faitheists, Brown claims that purpose and meaning can be detected by religious rumination, and that this is absolutely compatible with science:”

    What I actually said is that orthodox Christians believe that purpose and meaning etc.

    This was not a statement about my own beliefs, and in case that wasn’t clear from the original paragraph, I stuck a bit on the end pointing out that I don’t think that the universe is the kind of thing that could have a purpose or meaning comprehensible to us. Which Jerry goes on to quote, saying that he doesn’t understand it.

    • Dominic
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 6:06 am | Permalink

      When you say “I don’t think that the universe is the kind of thing that could have a purpose or meaning comprehensible to us” – that implies that you think there IS purpose or meaning in the universe. That is surely trying to impose human thought & emotion – mindfulness perhaps – onto mindless matter. The universe as I see it is totally indifferent. Giving oneself purpose or meaning in life is quite another matter – a purely human one.

  24. Posted September 26, 2011 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    I mostly agree with Brown’s penultimate sentence, but not in the way he’d probably like me too. I disagree with many gnus in their assertion that “the universe has no ultimate purpose”. I reject that statement, because I don’t even know what that proposition would mean.

    To me, answering the question, “Does the universe have an ultimate purpose?” with a simple “No” is rather like asserting that the reason Chomsky’s famous sentence is silly is because everyone knows the only shades of colorless ideas that sleep furiously are red or yellow ones.

    Purpose is generated by sapient beings. The universe could theoretically have an external purpose, if a sapient being created it (as the godbotherers insist, of course). But that would still not be an ultimate purpose, since said sapient being could not have an external purpose.

    I’m sure a proper theologian would mutter something in reply to this that involved the words “contingent,” “necessary,” and/or “Ground of All Being,” but that’s just special pleading, of course.

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 6:58 am | Permalink

      I see the point you’re making. By deigning to answer ill-posed or stupid questions at all we confer legitimacy. But I think “no” works in this instance.

      “Does the universe have an ultimate purpose?” may be a stupid question, but it’s not necessarily ill-posed. I think the ill-posed version would be: “what is the universe’s ultimate purpose?”

      But the former can be answered with “no” because it’s true. The universe has no inherent purpose. Of course, you’ll probably want to go on to explain where and how purpose arises, as you did.

      I guess my main point was that I don’t see “Does the universe have an ultimate purpose?” as analogous to Chomsky’s sentence. I think a better analogue on the Chomsky end would be: “Do ideas sleep?” It’s the qualifiers in Chomsky’s original that make it incoherent, and there are no qualifiers in the question about the universe and purpose.

      • Posted September 26, 2011 at 7:01 am | Permalink

        D’oh! If you ignore “ultimate.”

    • Dominic
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      What would be the ‘purpose’ of a god? Is this not like an ultimate cause argument? What caused this = what gave this purpose?

  25. FormerComposer
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    “How on earth could we emerge from a game whose rules were comprehensible to us?”

    This is the special clause that guarantees that “God of the Gaps” will always exist no matter how much becomes comprehensible to us. Rather than playing the boring game of “What about??? … Or ??? …. But then what about? …”, the game is defined as one of with a non-zero sum and that sum is God.

  26. Egbert
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    When I used to debate with creationists (I am not masochistic enough to put myself through that now) most of the time they would state that there was no evidence for evolution, or they would ask me to provide evidence.

    They believed that somehow their position was the default position, and it was up to science to overturn it.

    Of course, each time I presented evidence, they already had a pre-planned reply to completely ignore it. Sometimes this was highly amusing but it is also considerably frustrating.

    However, the same demand for evidence can also appear among atheists, who think their opinion on some matter is also the default position. Once again, any evidence given is quickly dismissed.

    The point I’m making is that humans tend to be rather dogmatic and conservative. It really requires effort to be sceptical and consequently to be open minded. We (atheists) seem to have lost touch with scepticism and risk becoming as dogmatic as theists.

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      I’ve been seeing these comments of yours cautioning us against irrational groupthink all over the atheist blogosphere.

      I think you’re largely tilting at windmills. Just because there are several people who’ve happened to converge on certain conclusions does not mean they’ve fallen prey to irrational groupthink. You have to examine how and why they reached those conclusions. Far and away, your average atheist’s epistemology will be better than your average theist’s. That’s why they’re atheists!

      Are all atheists completely rational about everything? Of course not. We’re all human. We all have our foibles. I think this is pretty much what your observation boils down to. But that doesn’t necessitate the conclusion that irrational groupthink is standing in the way of atheists perceiving reality, just as it does for theists. You’ve got to concede that at least atheists are trying to “purify” their epistemology.

      Also, you can’t think groupthink is a serious problem if you spend much time reading comments at the big atheist sites. There’s a lot of disagreeing and arguing going on!

      • Egbert
        Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

        Purify is an interesting word, it also reminds me of puritan.

        I don’t think atheists are purifying epistemology, rather they’re purifying themselves between true atheists and false atheists, between who are the orthodox atheists and who are the heretics.

        Time will tell.

  27. Posted September 26, 2011 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    I’ve been dealing with this issue with a theologian-in-training friend of mine here:

    http://spencertroxell.blogspot.com/2011/09/on-properly-expansive-gods.html

    and here:

    http://spencertroxell.blogspot.com/2011/09/talking-to-friends-about-god.html

    his position is essentially that there is evidence for god (the god brain) and then when you point that out to him he says that evidence doesn’t matter as much as experience. He’s integrated a lot of Nietzsche’s opinions about belief systems into his thought though, which is an interesting approach for a christian.

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 7:30 am | Permalink

      “and then when you point that out to him he says that evidence doesn’t matter”

      I meant to say ‘and then when you point out to him that the ‘god brain’ isn’t evidence for the existence of god, he says that evidence doesn’t matter.

  28. Earth
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that the true nature of existence is a deep mystery,which may not be completely resolved,ever.that,of course is not to be taken as an excuse for the nonsensical dogma of religion.I personally do not think the “big bang” is understood at all.In fact,the whole idea the the universe has an origin event is a foot in the door for creationism.What exactly do you mean by origin?I am going to stick my neck out and say the universe has always existed,and always will.Cosmology has a long way to go,but I will concede(i must)they are making great strides.It is amazing though how recent this knowledge(evolutionary theory,cosmology,etc.)is given the age of the earth.We have a great deal to learn,and musnt let the fact that we dont have all the answers(which IDiots use all the time against us)intimidate us from asking useful QUESTIONS.or be afraid to say-i dont know,and you(creationists)dont at all.

  29. Posted September 29, 2011 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    Quite a lot of abuse and inflammatory rhetoric again from the supposedly rational and objective fans of science on this site, although I see a few exceptions as well. If the religious are responsible for all the abuses perpetrated in the name of religion then are scientists responsible for those done in the mane of and by scientists? Come on…

    • Posted September 29, 2011 at 6:13 am | Permalink

      You are a Catholic & so am I by birth. I hate your vile, corrupt & evil religion ~ check out today’s guest post by Grania Spingies for some reasons

      Please point out the “abuse and inflammatory rhetoric” which you object to in this thread & explain your objection

      I’ve looked at your blog: Faith In The Spaces In Between ~ Neither Dawkins Nor Fundamentalism & I note this quote:

      There is a middle way between the Dawkins/Hitchens view that all religion is irrational and the manifestations of religion that are indeed too tradition-bound and fundamentalist. This blog provides contemporary non-fundamentalist evidence for faith and counters the arguments of Dawkins and the new atheists

      & I see very little of the evidence that you claim is there & none of the arguments that you promise. There is actually little substance on your site ~ merely a wish that the world was different

      Therefore… Regarding the moral responsibilities of scientists ~ please supply an example or two so that I cane come back with something to bite into

      • E.A. Blair
        Posted September 29, 2011 at 6:32 am | Permalink

        It seems to me that while religionists are sometimes (some might say often) complicit in atrocities committed for religious reasons, abuses of science seldom count the scientists as perpetrators. There is a quote about science that I read somewhere, but I do not recall the source, nor have I been able to find it – online or otherwise: “Great men have great ideas; lesse men make them blow up; the least men get the triggers.”

        Such abuses usually come from the bending of science towards political ends, whereas religion is frequently abused to achieve its own ends. Mixing politics with either is almost guaranteed to produce abuse.

        • Posted September 29, 2011 at 6:50 am | Permalink

          Fred Reed In his Thinking About Intelligence
          More Trouble Than It’s Worth
          piece, wrote this:

          Where intelligence unfortunately does work reasonably well is in the sciences. Really smart men have ideas; lesser men, usually engineers, make them explode; the least men get the triggers. This suggests that we ought to put a bounty on engineers

          • E.A. Blair
            Posted September 29, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink

            Thank you for that. I don’t like using quotes unless I can attribute them properly. Credit where credit is due, even though Fred Reed is an unlikely writer for me to follow. However, I have even found one worthwhile quote from Louis Farrakhan: “When a man kneels to pray it puts him in the perfect postition for someone to come up behind him and kick him in the ass.”


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