Bret Weinstein unfairly disses evolutionary biology (and New Atheism)

While Bret Weinstein is a stalwart champion of free speech and progressivism because of his brave behavior at Evergreen State, his views on evolution often seem to me to be pretty wonky. And not just biology: look at these tweets he exchanged with Sam Harris:

Non-Darwinian? New Atheism, which is simply the revival of Old Atheism in popular format, along with a healthy dose of science, is not “non-Darwinian” at all!

Here’s the Q&A session of a discussion between Alister McGrath, a philosopher of science and theologian, and Weinstein hosted by Justin Brierley, a podcaster and religionist. (The link to the main discussion is below.) Sadly, it was apparently sponsored by both The Templeton Religious trust and Christian Radio.

The part that concerned me most was Weinstein’s claim at the outset that evolutionary theory hasn’t moved much since 1976, when Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene was published.  (This is the first question on the video.)  Weinstein argues that there hasn’t been a theoretical breakthrough since then, and we have only empirical studies. When Bret discussed this with Richard Dawkins, Richard said that was probably because previous generations had gotten the Big Stuff pretty much right.

In response, Bret says no, Dawkins is wrong because, as he says,

“What I know from my own work is that that’s not true because there are a great many questions that we can’t yet answer—big questions, like about the nature of sexual selection, what we call “lekking”, about speciation. These big questions have simply moved into another phase where we’ve stopped asking them and embarrassing themselves because we can’t answer the question. Why, for example, are there more species more densely packed as one moves from the poles to the Equator.   That’s a question we should be able to answer. . . .Why can’t we answer it? Because we’ve lost the thread of the conversation, not because we’ve answered all the questions. In some sense progress seems to have stopped; why it’s stopped we can argue about, but that we should do something to jump-start it is almost beyond question.”

Well, no. Speciation, sexual selection, and the latitudinal diversity gradient are active areas of research, and I should know about speciation because that was my own area of work. Allen Orr and I wrote a book about it in 2004, and much of the progress that occurred in speciation, documented in the book, took place after 1976. And yes, we do understand speciation a lot better now than we did 45 years ago.

The diversity gradient remains an active area of research, and the various theories about its existence (as with theories of speciation) are well known and being tested.

Finally, there is a ton of work on sexual selection going on as you read this. Here, too, there are lots of theories about how it works (see this paper for a compendium), but they’re hard to test in the wild, and so our knowledge accumulates slowly. But none of these areas need jump-starting: the theoretical frameworks are in place, and what remains is the empirical slogging and testing that Weinstein seems to deem unproductive.

What Weinstein is saying here is equivalent to saying, in 1900, that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is insufficient because there hasn’t been a Big New Theory since 1859 proposing how life evolved, and there’s just a bunch of empirical studies needed to confirm it. But Darwin got it pretty much right at the outset. (No, not completely right, of course, but his theses of evolutionary change, gradualism rather than saltation, common ancestry, splitting of lineages, and natural selection as a cause of “designoid” features of organisms are still accepted as true.)

In short, I’d take Bret’s (and his brother Eric’s) claims that evolutionary biology is in the doldrums, and that some newer paradigm is needed, with a grain of salt.

Here you go:

Here’s a link to the 70-minute main part (part I) of the discussion, called “Religion: Useful fiction or ultimate truth?” I haven’t yet listened to it, but reader publius ovidus has, and comments: “Part 1 has [Weinstein] comparing scientists’ faith with religious faith. He says scientists operate on faith because they have to assume they are real and the materials they are working on are real.”  If that’s what Bret said, it conflates “faith” as “confidence in replicated observations” (scientific “faith”) with religious “faith”: belief in propositions and events that aren’t supported by strong evidence (see my Slate piece, “No faith in science.“)

At any rate, I’d be delighted if any readers would listen to part I and put any comments below.

h/t: Nilou, publius ovidus

83 Comments

  1. Jenny Haniver
    Posted September 19, 2019 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Just the other day, as a result of going down the rabbit hole following a tweet in Hili dialog about another subject, I came across criticism of Bret Weinstein’s views on evolutionary biology on this twitter account https://twitter.com/JamesLingford/status/1165408205607825408

    I didn’t follow this at the time because I was searching for something else so I don’t know the particular reason this came up — I think re transgender identification. Please don’t assume that I agree with Lingford or any other person posting on his account re this, because I’m not familiar with the matter.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted September 19, 2019 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      Following the thread on Sam Harris’s twitter page, I see that some are calling on him to debate Bret Weinstein.

      Yes! Soon!

      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted September 19, 2019 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

        I’d rather see PCC take him on than Harris, since PCC is not only a ‘new atheist'(whatever that actually means) but also is an expert on biology. Sam is good at the wider stuff but he’s not going to know about the degree to which various theories of sexual selection have failed or succeeded, for example, or whether there needs to be some kind of paradigm shift in the field.

        I have to say, I thought his comments about ‘new-atheism’ were not even wrong, as they say.

        • darrelle
          Posted September 19, 2019 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

          I wish people would get it right for once!

          https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/07/27/gnu-atheism/#jp-carousel-15671

        • Jenny Haniver
          Posted September 19, 2019 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

          I do think that PCC(E) would be a better choice than Sam Harris to debate Weinstein. But why not both because each would take a different tack? Keep him on the hot seat.

          • Jenny Haniver
            Posted September 19, 2019 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

            I find that Sam Harris debated Weinstein in Dec. 2017, and metaphorical truth was one of the topics covered https://samharris.org/podcasts/109-biology-culture/.

            Weinstein’s ‘definition’ of metaphorical truth on this broadcast was transcribed and posted on reddit. It’s posted below in my response to your comment about not understanding metaphorical truth.

        • Shane
          Posted September 20, 2019 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

          Sorry, but who is “PCC?” Trying to follow all these informative comments, but that tripped me up b/c I’m unfamiliar with that initialism.

          • Posted September 21, 2019 at 3:16 am | Permalink

            Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus), aka Professor Jerry A. Coyne (Emeritus).

            -Ryan

  2. Anthony
    Posted September 19, 2019 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    “Why, for example, are there more species more densely packed as one moves from the poles to the Equator.”

    Are you kidding? Virtually all life gets its energy from sunlight. There’s more energy from sunlight arriving at the equator vs. the poles. Also year-round liquid water.

    How is that even a mystery?

    • dabertini
      Posted September 19, 2019 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      Thank-you for this. I was feeling stupid after I read this. Energy gradient increases as you move towards the equator. Rule of 10. More energy, more organisms.

      • EdwardM
        Posted September 19, 2019 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

        No. More energy does mean the mid latitudes could, in theory, produce more biomass, but that doesn’t explain why the diversity is greater.

        • Posted September 19, 2019 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

          Faster parasite-host evolution. Hotter temps = higher chance of acquiring a disease, faster bacterial and viral replication rates. It pays to shuffle genomes more and there’s more intense selection, so species split more.

          In the higher latitudes you have more conspecific tree stands because pathogen transmission rates are lower in the cold. Dense conspecific stands at the equator would perish due to disease and attract specialist herbivors. Diversity prevents populations from being wiped out.

          These are at least some very plausible explanations with supporting evidence.

          • EdwardM
            Posted September 19, 2019 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

            Good points. Likely the causes for these latitude diversities are complex, involving more than one process. It clearly is a tough nut to crack because people have been working on it for a long time.

          • Mike
            Posted September 19, 2019 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

            I just heard a brilliant postdoc at the University of British Columbia (Antonin Machac) talk about his analysis of tropical-temperate diversity gradients in birds and mammals. In some groups of both taxa there is strong evidence for higher net diversification rates in specific lineages that have colonized the temperate zones (in spite of the larger number of species in the tropics). The “more species in the tropics” pattern does not have a simple mechanistic explanation, and probably is caused by several different mechanisms in different taxa. It’s just a very tough nut to crack, and people have not stopped trying to crack it.

            • Posted September 23, 2019 at 11:50 am | Permalink

              It would be very difficult to show, I imagine, that it is anything other than a (ahem) “frozen accident”. (I think that’s a Gouldian term.)

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted September 19, 2019 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      Surely Weinstein’s question must be more complicated and subtle than that?

      • Noz
        Posted September 23, 2019 at 8:20 am | Permalink

        Who knows? That’s the problem. The only thing clear about his position is that he’s not happy about something. He won’t write it all up. He just tweets rather cryptically. Nobody knows what his position even is.

        Such a waste of time even arguing about it at this point. He’s coming over as a crank,.

    • Posted September 19, 2019 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      Yes, but that doesn’t necessarily explain why there aren’t the same number of species in the tropics but they would just have more individuals. It is the NUMBER OF SPECIES (i.e., number of speciation events that have been successful) that needs explaining. Ecologists are nowhere near as sure as you seem to be about the answer.

      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted September 19, 2019 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

        I did find it unlikely that professional biologists would spend years agonising over a question that could be answered in thirty seconds by a random person on the internet.

        In general with stuff like this, I try to bear in mind Ben Goldacre’s endlessly useful line: ‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.’.

      • Posted September 19, 2019 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

        I’m not a biologist, so I’m probably talking bollocks, but more individuals surely means more variation and therefore more opportunities for speciation events.

        Also, if you pick areas delineated by lines of latitude individuals can be much further apart at the equator than near the poles, hence can be more easily isolated from each other.

        Does the problem still exist when you correct for the above two?

      • Taz
        Posted September 19, 2019 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

        I’m also not a biologist so this is probably a stupid question, but doesn’t more solar radiation mean more mutation?

      • Bruce Lilly
        Posted September 20, 2019 at 11:30 am | Permalink

        Another non-biologist, non-geologist here. Wouldn’t the diversity of environmental conditions affect the number of viable (specialist) species? In temperate regions, local climate varies considerably with altitude; e.g. the permanent snow cap at Mt. Kilimanjaro, within sight of the equator. On the other hand, the only places suitable for long-term viability of species not adapted to cold conditions near the poles would be near non-violent geothermal areas (hot springs, but not volcanoes).
        Not only diversity of local climate, but suitability in general is affected; liquid water is essential to most forms of life on Earth, and aside from seawater, there’s not a lot of liquid water near the poles, except during summer months. The rate of chemical reactions (the well-known Arrhenius equation) supporting life may also be a factor. As one moves away from the equator towards the poles, seasonal variations on conditions (temperature, availability of sunlight and liquid water, etc.) can be expected to play a role also; whereas many generations (and opportunities for speciation) of fruit files may occur in a year, the same is not true for polar bears.
        I suspect that availability of plant life (as food for animals) in suitable diversity and quantity would also affect the number of viable plant-eating animal species, which in turn would affect the number of viable carnivorous species. Except as limited by extreme altitude, there is considerable variety and quantity of plant life in non-desert temperate zones, but not much diversity or quantity near the poles.
        Most plant life appears to thrive poorly in cold conditions, especially where there is little sunlight (e.g. near the poles for a significant part of the year). Add in other factors inhospitable to plant life near the poles (Antarctica has land mass, but is a desert), and it seems hardly surprising that diversity of complex life is limited near the poles.

    • Posted September 19, 2019 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      It is also true that there is more space (land and sea) available as you move toward the tropics. This is obvious on a globe or non-Mercator projection. Perhaps more space allows for greater biological diversity.

      • EdwardM
        Posted September 19, 2019 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        True but…some places that are larger and get more energy nevertheless don’t have greater biomass. The Sahara, for example, gets an enormous amount of energy compared to say, the Arctic. But the Arctic has greater biomass (on a per hectare basis) than the Sahara.

        It isn’t JUST energy and space that makes for a productive biome, but energy and space alone cannot account for greater species diversity.

    • Posted September 19, 2019 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      It seems a mystery as I’ve not found a single answer. More energy or more space does not always mean more species.

      Clearly life is constrained by temperature: 0 – 100 C. And it even prefers to adjust to small changes in temperature, hence the proclivity for tropics or temperate climates.

      Definitely interesting.

      • Posted September 23, 2019 at 11:55 am | Permalink

        Pedant mode: I dare say that the temperature range is larger than that: salt water with temperature below 0 C!

    • Posted September 19, 2019 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      “Why, for example, are there more species more densely packed as one moves from the poles to the Equator.”

      My theory: at the poles the climate changes hugely over the year, winter to summer. Therefore any species has to be a “generalist”, able to cope with a big range of conditions. Obviously if the ecosystem is filled with generalist species, then there are fewer niches available within “ecosystem space”.

      At the equator, however, the climate is much more constant over the year. Therefore species can specialise. And, if species all occupy narrow, specialist niches, you can fit many more of them into an ecosystem.

      • EdwardM
        Posted September 19, 2019 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

        One hypothesis I’ve heard aligns with this idea. Some have suggested that density-dependent mortality can contribute to diversity. The idea is that in areas that can support large populations, the size of some of those populations will be limited by density. Relatively rare species are thus given a chance to find a niche.

        I am not familiar with the data in support (or not) of this, only that I’ve heard it.

        • EdwardM
          Posted September 19, 2019 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

          I didn’t finish one of the sentences above. Typing fast between meetings…

          Here it is for clarity;

          “The idea is that in areas that can support large populations, the size of some of those populations will be limited by density rather that resource availability.

      • aljones909
        Posted September 19, 2019 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

        I wonder if extinction/speciation rate is a factor. More extinction events as you move away from the more stable climate areas (bad winters etc). Them, as you say, generalists fill the gap.

        • Posted September 19, 2019 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

          I like that ‘generalists fill the gap’.

          Raccoons and coyotes come to mind.

          • EdwardM
            Posted September 19, 2019 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

            I suspect their success may have more to do with their adaptability to humans.

      • Posted September 19, 2019 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

        That is an interesting idea, but are polar species more generalist? Are polar bears more generalist than black bears? Are penguins more generalist than seagulls?

        • EdwardM
          Posted September 19, 2019 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

          They are not. Polar bears have a very limited diet. Brown bears have available a wide variety of plants and insects* that they live on as well as a variety of animals to hunt, including fish. Polar bears, with the exception of human garbage dumps, don’t eat plants or insects and have few prey species.

          *there is a somewhat famous film clip of Grizzlies climbing high in the mountains for no other reason than to feast on moths hiding under rocks

        • aljones909
          Posted September 20, 2019 at 6:41 am | Permalink

          Once you get to very high latitudes there’s probably no other option than being a specialist. Food sources are extremely limited. Polar bears will wait at breathing holes to ambush aquatic mammals. Very few other options.

    • W.Benson
      Posted September 19, 2019 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

      There a number of possible answers to the question of increased tropical diversity. Productivity and speciation/extinction seem to have little to do with it. There is a key reference PUBLISHED 53 YEARS AGO(!) that goes a long way to defining the problem and its possible answers. Go to Google Scholar to find and download a pdf copy:
      Eric R. Pianka, 1966, “Latitudinal Gradients in Species Diversity: A Review of Concepts,” The American Naturalist 100, no. 910 (Jan. – Feb.):33-46.(https://doi.org/10.1086/282398)

      • John Conoboy
        Posted September 19, 2019 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

        Anyway to access the actual paper? I just get a brief abstract. Would love to read the whole thing–see my comment below.

        • W.Benson
          Posted September 19, 2019 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

          The Google Scholar entry for Pianka’s review [I used the key phrase “latitudinal gradients in species diversity” to find it] gives a link to download a free pdf of the full paper.

    • John Conoboy
      Posted September 19, 2019 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

      Funny you should ask. Many years ago, my one and only scientific “paper” which was an abstract of a talk that I gave with my major professor at the Geological Society of America meeting in Hayward, California was on this very subject. I am not going to go beyond that, as I do not want to embarrass myself.

      Had another professor in undergraduate school that was plotting species diversity in the fossil record, which at the time seemed to indicate that continental drift was not happening–i.e. few species in the northern latitudes and many species near the equator. But, time does not march on, and science corrects itself as it goes.

    • Anthony
      Posted September 19, 2019 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

      My remark came off way too smart assed in retrospect. I apologize. It actually looks like a fascinating puzzle. Several interesting hypotheses in other comments here.

      A lot of shutting down for the winter going on now even just where I am at 49 north near the ocean where it rarely freezes. That adds up to a lot of lost time in comparison to year round growing and feeding seasons. Oh and what about ice ages and the time it would take for the biodiversity to creep back up north after the land has been scoured of topsoil and virtually sterilized under miles of ice. has the few tens of thousands of years been enough?

      It seems easy to come up with hypotheses but I guess knowing which one is right is harder than I thought.

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted September 19, 2019 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

        I had pretty much exactly the same thought as you. I thought jeepers isn’t it almost self-evident that it is the added energy and more stable and higher temperatures.

        Even with the apparent cautions I am still thinking along those lines.

        My point though is I reckon many of us may have been too ‘smart assed’ as well. You just got there first.

  3. rickflick
    Posted September 19, 2019 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand why 1976, when Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene was publish was picked as an important milestone. As fine an achievement as it was, from what I understand, Dawkins didn’t actually make any special evolutionary discovery. A gene-centric viewpoint probably didn’t originate from him, although he popularized it. And, a shift in emphasis like that isn’t fundamental to evolution, like natural selection of the field of genetics. Am I missing something?

    “The diversity gradient remains an active area of research”.
    I always assumed this could be explained by the availability of more solar energy at the equator which provided for more biomass. Why is the gradient that much of a puzzle?

    • Daniel Engblom
      Posted September 19, 2019 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      Like you said, Dawkins himself in The Selfish Gene and elsewhere has repeatedly said that it wasn’t some new theory supplanting neo-darwinism, quite the opposite, it was a new angle to look at how neo-darwinism operated, and the actual contribution Dawkins has been proud of making was building upon that with the Extended Phenotype.
      Bret Weinstein if I recall correctly has advocated group selection, and said other things most biologists would disagree with, and his conversation with Dawkins on stage was painful to listen to.

      Reminds me of when Dawkins quoted someone pointing out in a similar vein how Richard Feynman said “if you think you understand quantum theory, you don’t understand quantum theory”, a prominent figure in evolutionary biology said something similar about a lot of people attacking Natural Selection without actually understanding it.

      • EdwardM
        Posted September 19, 2019 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

        I didn’t know Weinstein advocated for group selection. hmmmmmmm.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted September 19, 2019 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      Latitudinal diversity difference: THERE’S MORE TO IT though I don’t fully understand the link! I have seen the argument there’s more biomass near the equatorials because energy & before today that seemed like a good argument to me, now I don’t know… 🙂

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted September 19, 2019 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      I think Dawkins was one of the significant developers of the gene-centric view.

      I remember SJ Gould arguing against Dawkins and gene-centric in an essay (Gould was organism-centric).

      • EdwardM
        Posted September 19, 2019 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

        He was and is still shaking his head at people who thought he meant that genes have actual agency and act selfishly. You’d be surprised that some people actually argued that’s what he meant.

        On second thought, given what is discussed at WEIT on a daily basis, maybe you wouldn’t be surprised.

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted September 19, 2019 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

      I thought that too. The great thing for me about the selfish gene was that after reading it I understood how evolution worked at a deep level. It was really an ‘ah!’ moment for me.

  4. Raymond Cox
    Posted September 19, 2019 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Religion is neither a “useful fiction” nor “ultimate truth”. It is always deluded and often pernicious.

  5. Timothy Reichert
    Posted September 19, 2019 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Wienstein continuously talks up his concern that the “New Atheists” dismiss the “metaphorical truths” of religion, however he never provides any quotes or evidence that support this claim.

    I’m not aware of any new atheists who would deny that there are metaphorical truths contained within religions and religious texts, however those metaphorical truths are not produced by the religion but rather coopted by religions from common human wisdom.

    We are fully capable of ditching the religions altogether whilst keeping any metaphorical truths that were once claimed by the religions as their special proprietary insight.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted September 19, 2019 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      I don’t even know what a ‘metaphorical truth’ is.

      Does he mean _abstract_ truth, like the truths of logic and mathematics? Because those are not religious truths.

      And then there are empirical truths, which aren’t ‘metaphorical’ either. So I’ve no idea what he’s talking about. (Close proximity to Alister McGrath probably isn’t good for one’s clarity of thought to be fair.)

      What truths of any kind has religion discovered in the last five thousand years? None. It can’t, because it doesn’t have a method for doing so.

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted September 19, 2019 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        Your mention of not knowing what metaphorical truth is made me realize that it was high time I tried to understand the term.

        I’ve read several ‘definitions.’ This is Bret Weinstein’s https://www.reddit.com/r/BretWeinstein/comments/7lrg32/literally_false_metaphorically_true/

        Gobbledygook.

        • Timothy Reichert
          Posted September 19, 2019 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for the link. Agreed. It’s Gobbledegook.

        • Saul Sorrell-Till
          Posted September 19, 2019 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for the link. Reading it, it seems his definition of ‘metaphorical truth’ is simply:

          – a false belief that’s useful.

          Yes, those kinds of beliefs exist, like the potentially adaptive yet false beliefs he invents in the link. But they’re still not true, and calling them ‘metaphorical truths’ is just a kind of semantic feng-shui. He’s moved some words around but nothing’s actually changed.

          • Michael Waterhouse
            Posted September 19, 2019 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

            Like the countless quips and catchphrases from endless self-help books?

        • Mike Anderson
          Posted September 19, 2019 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

          “Metaphorical truths” are reminiscent of Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts.”

      • Timothy Reichert
        Posted September 19, 2019 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

        Yes I’m being as charitable as I can assuming that he means there are useful things about human society and human nature to be learned via religious myths just like there are in any other stories or literature. Agreed none of these insights were discovered or produced by the religions themselves but rather coopted by these religions to be used for their own purpose.

        • rickflick
          Posted September 19, 2019 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

          Certainly Joseph Campbell would agree.

  6. KD
    Posted September 19, 2019 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Religion has little to do with faith, and everything to do with obedience and authority.

    Sure, there is obedience and authority in science and institutional science, but this is secondary, not primary.

    To be fair, Protestantism has always been dishonest about the nature of religion in their wars with the Catholics, pretending Protestantism just emerged ex nihilo from a translation of some ancient Greek documents, but the truth is in the pudding of Protestant sectarianism, which comes down to disputes about who is the authority and how one should obey them.

    In the academy there are competing schools, and sometimes they effectively ex communicate each other (sometimes breaking off to become a separate discipline for example), but its nothing like religion sociologically, if anything it resembles the grand hustle of a parliamentary system.

    . . . and honestly, this gets to the tedium of arguments about the existence of God, etc. You don’t need an argument establishing the existence of God, you just need to obey what the Pope says to be a good Catholic. Pray, obey, pay.

    This also why agnosticism fails. If I say there may be a system of law that comports with justice in the world somewhere, but I don’t know which one or how to distinguish between them, it doesn’t really tell me whether I should obey the local magistrate–but maybe I can respect those who do.

  7. Kyler
    Posted September 19, 2019 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    I’ve long held the idea that the “New Theists” makes more sense than the “New Atheists.” It denotes those enlightened folks who believe in God as a useful fiction, as a deification, as a made-up invention, etc and are perfectly clear and explicit about this and do not try to fool anyone.

    • rickflick
      Posted September 19, 2019 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

      They are, of course, fooling themselves if what they believe is fiction.

      • KD
        Posted September 20, 2019 at 6:58 am | Permalink

        The point of myth is to spur group action.

        Myths can be secular or religious, for example, Communism and Christianity both offer a myth of the coming Kingdom in the future, the biggest difference being that the Communist Party takes on the former role of Christ.

        Communism isn’t big these days, but the level of utopianism and mythology on the Progressive Left is almost identical to the delusions of Communism.

        Atheism as an organized movement seems mostly about substituting one mythology for another one, either some kind of Whig myth of progress through markets and commodification of every aspect of human life, or some kind of communism/socialist utopia 2.0.

        Moreover, if myth generates group action, then non-myth generates group passivity. . . meaning that history is drive by the competition between competing mythologies.

        You can’t remove myth any more than you can excise the will to power. Embracing a myth leads to group action, and group action leads to social consequences, and so you can look at the link between myth and consequence, and some myths (say those of the U.S. Founders) led to prosperity and freedom, and other myths, like communism, lead to tyranny, mass murder and food lines. So there are good myths and bad myths, and a myth can be evaluated as “true” or “false” in this sense.

        Because myths are essentially social forms (but at a higher level abstraction from say laws), from a Platonic standpoint, the image would either correspond to the higher form or not. A more Aristotelian approach would look at myth from the standpoint of “good” or “bad”, as would the utilitarian.

        • rickflick
          Posted September 20, 2019 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

          “Atheism as an organized movement seems mostly about substituting one mythology for another one”

          You hear this all the time. But, atheism is not an organized movement. Some have tried to construct a framework for uniting the population of atheists around a set of principles, but as soon as you get past basic rationality and skepticism, the effort fails. Atheism is simply not accepting that there is good evidence for any god’s existence. So, the rest of what you’ve described above may fit some subset of atheists, but overall it rings very hollow to me.

          • KD
            Posted September 20, 2019 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

            A good myth is critical to organizing human groups, so a group that is skeptical of mythology is going to be hard to organize, no?

            However, because it is hard to wield power without the backing of organized groups, it would be pretty difficult to take myth out of the system altogether, eh?

            I don’t think faith or non-faith has much to do with belief. To say you have faith more or less means you are along for the ride, non-faith means you have to walk there on your own.

            • rickflick
              Posted September 21, 2019 at 9:32 am | Permalink

              I’m all for myth, as long as it’s properly labeled and shelved in the fiction section. The myth that the Ruskies were a threat drove us to the moon. What myth will drive us to Mars? Perhaps the fact that there isn’t a good one is causing some reluctance.

  8. Vaal
    Posted September 19, 2019 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    Glad to see you take this one on, Jerry!

    I follow the Unbelievable podcast and had already listened to part one.

    First of all, I find Alister McGrath to be unlistenable. He simply will not speak clearly and commit to ANY specific position. I remember someone even trying to pin him down to simply say whether he thought Jesus rose from the dead, and his reply was along the lines “Well I think SOMETHING extraordinary happened” but what it was..off he went in to the ether, weaving his vague, empty generalities. Even Christopher Hitchens in their debate begged the audience to try to pin down what the man actually believes.

    I’ve never seen anyone spout so many words while saying so little of specific content, which made me wonder how in the world he’s so often given a platform. Then I think he’s something like the Chauncey Gardiner of religious apologists: he speaks in ways vague enough for the religious (or religion-friendly) listener to fill in the details herself: “Yes, that’s so right and profound!”

    Debating him is like the proverbial trying to nail jello to a wall.

    Anyway, that off my chest…

    I have liked Bret Weinstein on other topics, but was disappointed with him here. I don’t buy either his take on the New Atheists, nor his deference to religious “truth.” The part where he talked of scientists needing “faith” had me put my head in my hands. That handed McGrath and Justin (the Christian moderator) red meat that they of course leapt upon.

    Weinstein gave the example of the scientist requiring “faith” that he was not crazy, and that he is experiencing a reality, not a delusion, in order to do science.

    But THAT is a universal problem which concerns the justification of epistemic axioms! So it’s true that my seeming to see and touch a tree is consistent with the proposition it is suitably strong delusion, as is my experience of other people and the rest of the world. In other words “all the evidence supports both the case for perceiving a real objective world and also a proposition like solipsism.”

    But then what we do is we keep reasoning about this situation, and find that the justifications for treating the world as if it’s objectively real are better than the case for presuming lunacy. Parsimony becomes useful, and “things are AS THEY SEEM TO BE TO ME unless and until I have reason to believe otherwise” has far better epistemic motivation over the presumption “I’m crazy, it’s all an illusion” which is gratuitous, unmotivated, and unhelpful in navigating experience.

    Though we can not “prove” the axiom wrong with evidence, an axiom recognized as necessary to ground epistemology is entirely different from the “faith” used by religious people.

    The axiom will be consistent with the very evaluation of evidence. You will never be believing something empirical (rationally) “in spite of” your axiom.

    Whereas religious faith arises in just those gaps where you DON’T have enough evidence, but even more often, in the face of CONTRARY evidence. So for instance when some new terrible disaster happens, say the Asian Tsunami, you get religious leaders (Popes, pastors) coming out of the woodwork to assure people and tell them to “keep faith.” Why?
    It’s because these events sure don’t look consistent with the proposition an All Good, Al Powerful God who cares about human welfare is overseeing these things. So what you get is “I know this looks bad, and it’s baffling how a Good God could let these things happen, but we need to hold on to our FAITH that God is there, is Good, and has some Good Reason for allowing this!”

    So even when Christians try to say that faith is “evidence-based trust,” it’s still the case that faith is invoked at those times when the evidence drops out on the way to a certain conclusion, or when the evidence seems to be going against what they believe.

    Whereas the axiom any scientist can reasonably presume or defend that I mentioned earlier, will be consistent with empirical evidence (remember, it allows for re-evaluating any experience should reasons or new experience suggest it), and in fact the axiom undergirds that very consistency!

    The person who says “I have FAITH that Donald Trump is smarter than any living human being”
    will run in to obvious inconsistencies in justifying that belief. Just as someone having faith an ancient Jewish carpenter was God will have problems being consistent (e.g. they will be making clear exceptions and special pleading in order to believe their religious claims). In other words, the religious person’s faith moves will be empirically and epistemologically inconsistent.

    A scientist starting with the axiom “things are as they seem to be to me unless I have reason to believe otherwise,” and who goes on to construct a workable scientific theory, is being empirically and epistemologically CONSISTENT

    These are two entirely different ball games, and it’s frustrating to see a smart guy like
    Weinstein create confusion by equivocating on this issue. So now the religious folks go “See! See! You science-minded people are just using faith too!”

    • TJR
      Posted September 20, 2019 at 5:30 am | Permalink

      Indeed. Our language unfortunately has many words or phrases with multiple meanings, and it drives me up the wall when people conflate these meanings.

      Faith, Islamophobia, Free Will etc.

    • KD
      Posted September 20, 2019 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      If you look at the form of expression of any religious exclamation, say Christ’s resurrection, Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 states that a “spiritual body” is the form of the resurrection, which is a “body” but totally unlike a “body”. That is to say, it has the logical form of a contradiction.

      Which means either 1.) it is nonsense, or ii.) it is an attempt to say something that can’t be said. . . in either case, it is the opposite of scientific expressions, which attempt to provide logically coherent descriptions of describable phenomenon.

    • Posted September 23, 2019 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      Another way to think through things: Science can to a large degree explain its own limitations (including those of the humans involved) in a well defined, non-(what Bunge calls “male fide”) ad hoc way. Moreover, its basic principles change over time in ways that (usually) are in parallel with scientific findings proper. In other areas (religion most notably) neither applies.

  9. Posted September 19, 2019 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    I wonder only a little about the motivations of Templeton & Christian Radio in having Dr. Weinstein play the part of evolutionist in a public discussion. I don’t need to wonder for long, though, as it seems to me that by doing so they can make both evolution and atheism look deeply flawed.

  10. aljones909
    Posted September 19, 2019 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    When atheists are “religion friendly” I think they should be asked if they are quite relaxed about Islam becoming the world’s major religion (demographics suggest that will be the case). Will the metaphorical truths of Islam be in accordance with human (and animal) well-being.

  11. Mike
    Posted September 19, 2019 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    Sorry I didn’t have time to listen to the podcast because I spent my day teaching and preparing for classes next week. Weinstein had a teaching-intensive academic job until recently, and I teach more and do less research as I get older. So I speak from experience when I speculate that Weinstein feels that little progress on fundamental problems has been made ***since he stopped doing research and embarked on a mostly-teaching-based career***. I think it is easy in middle age to lose touch with the leading edge of research in one’s field. I’m hanging in there but maybe Weinstein hasn’t been able to do so. Seems like a good default explanation for his somewhat unexpected views unless there is good evidence for some kind of deep analysis on his part.

  12. yazikus
    Posted September 19, 2019 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    I’ve listened to enough hours of Weinstein to have some serious grains of salt handy when he pronounces some of his less than scientific ideas. For all his Champion of Free Speech ® credentials, I’ve struggled to find many (okay, any) scientific publications he’s been behind.

    • Posted September 19, 2019 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

      He has a couple, see his Wikipedia page. But, let’s face it, had it not been for the Evergreen State affair, no one would have ever heard of him. He owes his fame to SJW craziness.

      Don’t get me wrong, I admire that he stood up for free speech and against the woke tyranny.

  13. Roo
    Posted September 19, 2019 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    I think parts 1 and 2 are very similar. Basically Weinstein’s commentary in both involve giving details on the same broader theme, that being:

    1. He thinks religion represents collective wisdom because it is basically a form of cultural evolution that has been acted upon by evolutionary-style forces to produce traditions and cultural mores that are practically useful in the contexts in which they evolved, if not literally true. (A reasonable hypothesis, to my mind.)

    2. He thinks the New Atheists are incorrect to dismiss religion as nothing more than superstitious nonsense without seeing its cultural value, and in general thinks their tone does more harm than good in that it is off-putting to many people. (This I may have agreed with a few years ago, these days I think people have largely moved on from that particular conversation, new atheists included.)

    3. While he sees religion as having cultural value (in the form, again, of pragmatic collective wisdom) within the contexts in which it specifically evolved, he thinks we are living in a very different world today and so this value no longer applies in many cases and must be updated if humankind is to survive. (I think this addendum actually puts him right back in the same worldview as people like Sam Harris, so I’m not entirely sure why takes such umbrage at their having arrived there via different paths. I believe Harris sees religion as failed sciences and Weinstein sees them as outdated cultural wisdom, but they end up in pretty much the same place. I wonder if he is still rattled from the whole Evergreen incident – he briefly describes being stalked by students who would search cars looking for him while campus security had directions not to interfere and let the students engage in mob justice, which would be a dystopian situation to be in.)

    The only point I recall that strays somewhat from this general theme is around the 27:00 mark in part 1, where he talks about the whole “faith in science” idea. He argues that science does involve some faith because one must have faith that they exist (as in, we are not living in the matrix or a brain in a vat.) I’m not sure what I think of that argument. I do think it makes more sense than the more common “when you get on an airplane you have faith that it will fly”, where ‘faith’ means ‘degrees of certainty’. And it is true that at the most existential level we do have faith that we exist. That said, as this applies equally to any endeavor under the sun, scientific or otherwise, I’m not sure if it’s a case for ‘faith in science’. Then he goes into a description of atoms where he almost compares crude (as in, initial, with more work to be done) scientific theories to faith-based propositions but kind of stops himself (if I remember correctly he starts by using the word ‘interstitial stuff’ instead of ‘faith’ when describing basic models of atoms, then later uses the word ‘faith’ but also something like ‘model’, so it’s a bit confusing. I think he was considering the idea but not sure if he wanted to fully sign on to it.) Then the moderator asks him the obvious question, if he sees religion as a parallel way of arriving at wisdom by starting with faith and moving towards moral truths over time. To my mind he kinda hedges on that and says something like “a lot of moral truths we eventually rediscover are found earlier in religion”, but stops short of saying religion is a systematic way of moving towards moral truths in the way that science is a way of moving towards empirical truths. (Maybe because, as described above, he seems to see religion as having evolved pragmatically up to a point and then that evolution stopping as the nature of the world changed much faster than what religious philosophies could keep up with.)

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted September 20, 2019 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      “And it is true that at the most existential level we do have faith that we exist. That said, as this applies equally to any endeavor under the sun, scientific or otherwise, I’m not sure if it’s a case for ‘faith in science’.”

      This is a really good point, THE crucial point w/r/t this ‘everyone has faith’ argument. Since this very general form of ‘faith’ is not specific to science/the scientific method it’s not a criticism that carries any real weight.

      It’s essentially irrelevant, since any kind of human interaction at all necessarily begins with an assumption that the world is not arbitrary and operates according to rules. It’s the weakest, most desperate gambit available to the religious apologist, and they usually use it when all other avenues of attack have failed.

      • Roo
        Posted September 20, 2019 at 9:21 am | Permalink

        Yeah, I’m not sure how Weinstein felt about that argument either as, again, he got pretty hedge-y on the subject. I notice that there seems to be a growing (‘growing’ in relative terms, as I think it’s a small group overall) group of somewhat conservative intellectuals who are generally more protective of religion and critical of evolution. I wonder if there’s some degree of tribalism involved in that, as people who on most fronts appear to be clear and excellent thinkers will sometimes throw out a statement that makes you go “Huh?”. Weinstein with “science requires faith” and Gelernter with Intelligent Design, for example. I get the idea that this is more related to conservatism than religion.

        • Saul Sorrell-Till
          Posted September 20, 2019 at 11:10 am | Permalink

          Yes, I think you’re right about that. You find a lot of that at Quillette. Right-wingers who seem to defend religion not so much because they actually believe any of it(although they do seem to like the anthropocentrism of it all) but more because they see it as a force that can help push their social conservatism. And also just because it’s a tribal belief on the right, as you say.

      • Posted September 23, 2019 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

        Ironically, however, the basic lawfulness assumption is *denied* by most religions: viz., miracles.

  14. Posted September 20, 2019 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    When I understand Weinstein correctly, he says that we operate on ‘useful fictions’ and ‘metaphorical truths’. Atoms and God are such useful fictions and metaphorical truths, because people successfully built on them. They are successful because they are true and tried. He gives an example for ‘metaphorical truth’ and says its the belief in a sea god who consumes people; An idea which led some tribespeople to flee for higher ground to escape a tsunami. Now, there is something in science receding from useful fictions, which are simply models. I posted many times about this and metaphors, so there’s more to it, but it doesn’t help Weinstein’s case.

    He must be concerned with an immediate problem for Christianity today, which wants to keep their God as vague, removed and distant as possible, while banking on the desire of followers to “know Him” nonetheless. The Christian God is precisely not a fiction like the sea god. The Christian God sits at the edge of the universe, and at once, in the hearts of His believers, just so that he escapes detection in the vast space in between. And this gives away also the predictable structure of every apologism, this one there to William Lane Craig. The Christian God cannot be tangible in any way, because that would bring Him immediately into the focus of investigation. This is why Weinstein’s and Perterson’s ideas cannot work. They describe a version of Christianity that doesn’t exist.

    There’s also a second problem: a successful metaphor depends on a transfer from understanding from a source domain to a target domain. It allows a lot of vagueness, but the vagueness is a tool to contrast it other features which are precisely not vague at all. The metaphor adds knowledge, increases understanding, it expands. A metaphor illuminates in a way that it rings true.

    But the Christian God is an odorless, translucent, invisible, distant substance that explains nothing at all. It can be added or removed at will, and changes nothing at all. It can add fake knowledge by allowing to use the God construction to import any random other idea and make it true, by transferring God’s power to a worldly authority. This is also precisely what we see in every religious denomination. Once they declare there’s a God, it’s quickly not about this superfluous ingredient, but about the power they derive from His supposed existence.

  15. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted September 20, 2019 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    the outset that evolutionary theory hasn’t moved much since 1976,

    I was thinking about a parallel earlier – after the first caffeine hit of the day!
    Do scientists – astronomers and others – understand in detail how the wide variety of planetary systems formed? No.
    How “hot Jupiter” systems from is reasonably well understood, but why our system – with a Jupiter, but it’s not hot – is different is a lot harder. But one important part of the process involves the mutual interaction of non-rigid bodies (the basics of which were worked out by George Darwin, son of Charles, in respect of the Earth-Moon system). How gas clouds collapse to form stars but how their smoke-sized dust particles gather into chondrules and planetesimals … contains mysteries. But we can see the collapsing clouds forming stars and we can see space debris falling from the sky every so often, so we’re pretty sure it happens. The area is one of active research.
    But basically, Newton got it right, and all the rest is just lacy frills around the edges of the fundamental theory, and only one important thing has happened in the field since Newton, which was Einsein. It’s not even as if there aren’t challengers. Milgrom’s “MOND” idea isn’t dead yet, but he’s only prompted just over 200 papers on Arxiv, which is not a lot of interest. So, the field of gravity hasn’t advanced since publication of the Principia in 1687. No?

  16. Steve Gerrard
    Posted September 20, 2019 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Who thinks it is surprising that there are more species in a tropical rain forest than there are in a coniferous forest?

    I’m sure there are interesting questions to pursue about the variation in diversity, but there is a basic level at which it seems pretty reasonable. It would be much more curious if it was the other way around.


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