SciBlogs

Archive November 2009

The rules of science Ken Perrott Nov 16

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pz_myersPZ Myers has a great post Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Intelligent Design. It briefly discusses, and disposes of, some of the most common intelligent design (ID) arguments. And does it so clearly.

He is a great writer – and I just don’t know how gets time to write so well and do all the other things he does. His upcoming book should be great – but I have yet to hear of any publication date.

I have extracted question 3 because I think this is of general interest. And one I think is important to counter. The question  and accompanying argument is taken from a Christian Apologetics article by William Dembski and Sean McDowell.

Dembski’s and McDowell’s Rules of Science question:

“Who determines the rules of science? Are these rules written in stone? Is it mandatory that scientific explanations only appeal to matter and energy operating by unbroken natural laws (a principle known as methodological naturalism)?

The rules of science are not written in stone. They have been negotiated over many centuries as science (formerly called “natural philosophy”) has tried to understand the natural world. These rules have changed in the past and they will change in the future. Right now much of the scientific community is bewitched by a view of science called methodological naturalism, which says that science may only offer naturalistic explanations. Science seeks to understand nature. If intelligent causes operate in nature, then methodological naturalism must not be used to rule them out.

PZ Myers’ response:

“Who? Man, these guys have got intent and agency etched deep into their brain, don’t they?

The rules of science are entirely pragmatic – we do what works, defined as a process that produces explanations that allow us to push deeper and deeper into a problem. That’s all we care about. Show us a tool that actually generates new insights into biology, rather than recycling tired theological notions, and some scientist somewhere will use it. We’re still waiting for one.

I am amused by the use of the word ‘bewitched’ to categorize people who don’t invoke magical ad hoc explanations built around undetectable supernatural entities, however.”

So true!

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Twittering in space Ken Perrott Nov 13

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sts129-s-002All going well the STS-129 Shuttle launch will occur on Monday 2.28 pm EST, USA (8.28 am Tuesday, NZ time).

Here’s a photograph of the crew for this mission.

What interests me, though, is that the number of astronauts using social media like Twitter is currently increasing markedly. It’s now quite common to get tweets from orbit. Two of the STS-129 crew and two currently on the International Space Station are using twitter

The STS-129 crew (in the photo) are  astronauts Charlie Hobaugh (left), commander; and Barry Wilmore, pilot. From the left (back row) are astronauts Leland Melvin (Astro_Flow), Mike Foreman, Robert Satcher (ZeroG_MD and Astro_Bones)and Randy Bresnik, all mission specialists. [The astro_ links are their twitter accounts].

Currently on the International Space Station are astronauts Nicole Stott (Astro_Nicole) and Jeff Williams (Astro_Jeff) who have been twittering regularly.

It’s fascinating to get these little messages from orbit. Like Nicole Stott’s “Saw my first shooting star from space tonight! Over Mongolia” or Jeff Williams’ “Progress 35 has docked to ISS. Fresh fruit and vegetables included. A few hours to go to get thru checks and hatch open.”If you are looking for people to follow on Twitter you could do a lot worse than following these astronauts. You will get tweets from out of thios world.

Here’s a video of the STS-129 mission profile

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvkGSpB5i08

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Morality — from the heavens or nature? Ken Perrott Nov 13

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Yet another great video from the recent AAI Convention. It’s a presentation by  Andy Thomson on the scientific approach to morality.

I included a past lecture of Andy’s on terrorism in my post Now I’m to blame for Stalin!

In this talk he uses Francis Collins‘ claim that morality is proof of God as a jumping-off point to discuss what we know about how morality works and where it came from.

YouTube – ‘Morality’ by Andy Thomson, AAI 2009.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnXmDaI8IEo

There are other interesting lectures by Andy Thomson available on video. I can recommendWhy we believe in religionand How Religion Hijacks Cognitive Mechanisms.”

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This Hell would be useful! Ken Perrott Nov 11

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Book Review: The Infernova by S. A. Alenthony

Price: US$11.21
Paperback: 220 pages
Publisher: Blackburnian Press (August 11, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0981967892
ISBN-13: 978-0981967899

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This book is a real gem. Anyone with a science or sceptical bent will love it. Bloggers and commenters on blogs and other internet fora will especially appreciate it.

The book is based on Dante’s Inferno. But it is a secular reinvention. In this new hell we get a chance to choose the villains — and their punishment.

As for Dante’s work this is a drama written in verse.

The villains are the irrational, the mystical and the dogmatically religious and their gods. Their punishments are designed to fit their crimes against humanity.

Our guide is the great secularist Mark Twain. He describes the Infernova as the:

’very Hell

that the non-thinking and easily frightened

have built in the world. For mark you well,

a fictitious Hades we needn’t invent:

it is sadly, that world where you dwell.’

This is a hell ’where each class of Unreason is displayed’ and punished in nine

’descending circles of infamy

based on the Inferno that Dante made.’

Still this hell is not real — but simulated to educate us.

Enter, abandoners of reason

Our narrator is greeted at the doors of this hell by the inscriptions:

’I am the way of human delusion

I am the way of wilful ignorance

I am the way of needless confusion

To serve as effective testament

Of the price of Irrationality

Satire and justice raised this monument

If man would think, my need would disappear

As long as there is that cause of hell on earth

Abandoners of reason, enter here.’

The outer vestibule is for the unclear. People with important ideas who failed to lucidly communicate:

’For they matter not, your discoveries,

insights, or theories, if you mistranslate.

You’d better off not to speak one word

as would be those deceived when you obfuscate.’

Here we meet Einstein — who is there;

on my own reprimand.’

’Yes, during my time on the world’s stage,

I’d sometimes assume, implicitly,

that my audience was on the same page

concerning what the word ’God’ meant to me.

Namely Spinoza’s God, Natural Law.

Ah, what trouble from that capital ‘G’!

If only I could that word withdraw,

and get across in some alternate way

my pantheistic, sublime Sense of Awe.

For after I left the world, some would say’

‘Einstein believed in Him – God must be real!’

And made me their spokesman, to my dismay.’

The first circle houses the:

’Intelligent Mystics, the ones that learned

how to reason, but never could let go

of irrational conceits.’

Some who were victims of ’an age when myth rules’. Others who:

’used their wit to help conceal

that their philosophies did not make sense,

that their arguments were less than ideal.

For if there’s one drawback to intelligence

it’s that it can enable a false claim

to be given a plausible defense.’

Here we meet some of the early philosophers and scientists.

Punishing the perpetrators of fallacy

Mark Twain guides the narrator through consecutive circles. We get to see those who argued fallacies. They employed the slippery slope, missing evidence, special pleading, and burden of proof. They indulged in rebuttal fallacies such as straw men, the poisoned well, ad hominen, and red herrings.

Those who poisoned the well in their arguments are now forced to consume water from contaminated wells.  And for :

’those that would frame

their rivals view as something else instead —

some weak position, easy to pshaw.

Their chastisement is to be fed

great handfuls of rancid and stinking straw.

And eat it they must, lest they decompose,

for the fibrous stuff on which they gnaw

also makes up their bodies.’

Then we get those claiming telekinetic powers, the astrologers and the UFOlogtists. In the eighth Circle we meet the followers, who like sheep empower tele-evangelists. Then on to the racists, creationists, robbers of the future and priest paedophiles.

The tele-evangelists are in full oratory flight. But:

“The punishment here was not to allow

the speakers to be heard as they touted

their spiritual wares incessantly

and in solitary tombs so spouted

their fiery, bombastic oratory

that the air roasted them.’

The creationists reside in a garden, a new Eden, where only animals and plants are visible. But

’every one

Of the creatures you see here was once a man

or woman. Now they are altered, undone

but there awareness kept intact. They’ve been

transformed to live in a primitive state

and to first-hand witness the origin

of new species. That is the timeless fate

for Creationists’

Sectarian violence, terrorists and prophets

On to the torturers and those who committed sectarian violence – including Pol Pot and Stalin. Then the Crusaders and terrorists.

In circle nine we confront the prophets. There they are in their vast numbers, all set in stone and larger than life.

The charismatic figures that would head

cults or sects, in a figurative way,

were larger than life. ..

….Yet here they stand

mute and motionless, unable to find

any means to express themselves or command

attention — aggravate them much, it must.’

We see Mohammed:

’forced to obey laws

set for many women of his faith – bound

head to foot in a burqa, and the shame

in his eyes was visible and profound.’

The gods themselves

Finally at the very centre we come to the gods — again in huge numbers. Twain points out their natural origins:

’Discovery

of patterns and trends naturalistic

was the first step in mankind’s history

towards understanding. One cannot blame

stone-age tribes for thinking some agency

drove forth storms or bequeathed the fish and game

they pursued. The problem lies with those who

would cling to such notions once it became

clear these fanciful myths were wrong.’

Our narrator’s response to this parade of weird and wonderful gods?

’’We all worship the same god’ — I laughed at

this now, for the objects of devotion

varied so dramatically with locale,

culture, and time — and caused such commotion

and strife when they clashed. Could anyone fail

to see the simplest exegesis here?

That all these gods were each a fairy tale?’

So a great book. I certainly like to see justice. To see scoundrels punished at last. Whether they indulged in fallacious argument, deception of the innocent, crimes against humanity or provided excuses for such activity.

Could it be improved? Well, some illustrations would be nice. I can just see old-style line drawings depicting the squirming of the creationists, the frustration of the silenced prophets and tele-evangelists. Maybe even the vast hordes of prophets and their gods.

Alenthony has done a thorough job. There can be few vendors of unreason who miss out on their just rewards. It’s all very satisfying.

If you think the same way I do you’ll enjoy the book.

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Einstein on Galileo’s contribution Ken Perrott Nov 09

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Some religious apologists just can’t leave Galileo alone. They are unhappy about the fact that most people accept that the Church behaved badly in sentencing Galileo for heresy. (He got house arrest for the rest of his life and bans on his books, one of which was suppressed for 200 years). So in a manner which reminds me of modern day Stalinists trying to make excuses for the Stalin Terror, or to claim it wasn’t as bad as people believe, the apologists have been busy rewriting the history of the Galileo affair.

For example, they promote a document describing Galileo’s “imprisonment for his heretical ideas of a heliocentric solar sytem” as a myth! (see On the crushing of historical fables about religion, science and culture and Mythbusting: Historical fables about Christianity and Science).

In my previous post Blaming the victim I included this quote from the the Inquisition’s sentencing of Galileo which clearlyshows it is the apologists who promote myths:

’You have rendered yourself vehemently suspect of heresy, namely of having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the Sacred and Divine Scriptures, that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and that the Earth moves and is not the center of the world; and that one may hold and defend as probable an opinion after it has been declared and defined contrary to Holy Scripture.’

Gobsmacked!

einstein_clerk_webSo, I have heard a few of these apologetics arguments against Galileo – but recently came across a new (to me) one that left me gobsmacked. This claims that according the Einstein’s Special Relativity Theory Galileo was wrong!

An example is this in a footnote from a 1991 article by the apologist philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga (see “Evolution, Neutrality, and Antecedent Probability: a Reply to Van Till and McMullen”):

Consider even such an assured result as that the earth revolves around the sun and rotates on its axis. According to the usual interpretations of current relativity theory, there is no privileged frame of reference, no frame at absolute rest. But if that is true, then it isn’t even clear what it means to say that in fact, contrary to Copernicus, the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa. That’s true in some frames of reference, but not in others; and in principle (apart from matters of convenience, and the like) there is no more to be said for the former than for the latter.”

A local blog, Say Hello to my Little Friend, makes the same argument in the post Einstein v the Church v Galileo? which declares “Galileo was wrong.”

“This new (well, new at the time, anyway) view of physics reduces Galileo’s claim about which view is literally correct, his or the church’s, to rubble. If Einstein is correct, then Galileo was wrong to say that it is objectively true that the earth moves around the sun, and that it is objectively false that the sun moves around the earth. Which — if either — of those to claims is correct depends wholly on the observational perspective. An observer on the earth will correctly report that the sun travels around the earth (or stated differently, relative to the earth, the sun travels around it), and a sun dweller (!!!) will correctly report that the earth travels around the sun. Neither is incorrect, but if one accuses the other of being objectively mistaken while he himself is objectively correct, he is simply wrong (as was Galileo). This is not a defence of the Church’s claim, as obviously the principle applies to both views equally.”

All this changes, of course, if there is a priveleged point from which the sun-earth relationshiop is supposed to be viewed from. Should there exist such a designated ’viewing platform,’ the question could be settled once and for all. If, for example, it turned out that the earth is the priveleged spot from which the relationship is meant to be observed, then the church was right all along, and a hack job has been done on the Galileo trial.”

The post concludes:

“So go ahead — keep using the Galileo case to show what silly scientific conclusions theologians come to — that is, if you’re happy to push your view of physics back half a century.”

Of course, this writer’s date for the publication of Special Relativity isn’t the only thing he got wrong.

Both these writers have taken an aspect of Special Relativity that says for bodies undergoing uniform motion it is impossible for an observer the ascribe motion. Like the passenger in a train (which has constant velocity) who can observe relative motion between her train and other trains without being able to tell for certain which is moving.

There is more to Special Relativity than this, of course. But, ironically, this aspect of relativity, which was formalised by Einstein, goes back to Galileo himself. Of course, just because there is not a “priveliged spot” and we can adopt any reference frame we wish (eg. the earth or the sun) does not negate the possibility of detecting relative motion. And detecting acceleration of orbiting bodies.

In his book The Fabric of the Cosmos Brian Greene describes how incorporation of time, as spacetime, into Special Relativity “provided an absolute criterion – one that all observers, regardless of their constant relative velocities, would agree on – for deciding whether or not something is accelerating.”

Orbiting bodies like planets and moons are accelerating.

Einstein’s comments on Galileo

Anyway, enough of this negativity. I have reproduced below the Foreword, written by Einstein, to a 2001 edition of Galileo’s famous book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. This is the book suppressed by the Church for 200 years. You can see that far from declaring Galileo wrong about heliocentricity, Einstein speaks very highly of Galileo’s contributions to science.

This is an authorised translation, from German, by Sonja Bargmann.

“Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems is a mine of information for anyone interested in the cultural history of the Western world and its influence upon economic and political development.

… To begin with, the Dialogue gives an extremely lively and persuasive exposition of the then prevailing views on the structure of the cosmos in the large. The naïve picture of the earth as a flat disc, combined with obscure ideas about star-filled space and the motions of the celestial bodies, prevalent in the early Middle Ages, represented a deterioration of the much earlier conceptions of the Greeks, and in particular of Aristotle’s ideas and Ptolemy’s consistent spatial concept of the celestial bodies and their motions.

… In advocating and fighting for the Copernican theory Galileo was not only motivated by a striving to simplify the representation of the celestial motions. His aim was to substitute for a petrified and barren system of ideas the unbiased and strenuous quest for a deeper and more consistent comprehension of the physical and astronomical facts.

The form of dialogue used in his work may be partly due to Plato’s shining example; it enabled Galileo to apply his extraordinary literary talent to the sharp and vivid confrontation of opinion. To be sure, he wanted to avoid an open commitment in these controversial questions that would have delivered him to destruction by the Inquisition. Galileo had, in fact, been expressly forbidden to advocate the Copernican theory. Apart from its revolutionary factual content the Dialogue represents a down-right roguish attempt to comply with this order in appearance and yet in fact to disregard it. Unfortunately, it turned out that the Holy Inquisition was unable to appreciate adequately such subtle humor.

… It is difficult to us today to appreciate the imaginative power made manifest in the precise formulation of the concept of acceleration and in the recognition of its physical significance.

Once the conception of the center of the universe had, with good reason, been rejected, the idea of the immovable earth, and, generally, of an exceptional role of the earth, was deprived of its justification…

… Galileo takes great pains to demonstrate that the hypothesis of the rotation and revolution of the earth is not refuted by the fact that we do not observe any mechanical effects of these motions. Strictly speaking, such a demonstration was impossible because a complete theory of mechanics was lacking. I think it is just in the struggle with this problem that Galileo’s originality is demonstrated with particular force. Galileo is, of course, also concerned to show that the fixed stars are too remote for parallaxes produced by the yearly motion of the earth to be detectable with the measuring instruments of his time. This investigation also is ingenious, notwithstanding its primitiveness.

It was Galileo’s longing for a mechanical proof of the motion of the earth which misled him into formulating a wrong theory of the tides. The fascinating arguments in the last conversation would hardly have been accepted as proofs by Galileo, had his temperament not got the better of him. It is hard for me to resist the temptation to deal with this subject more fully.

The leitmotif which I recognize in Galileo’s work is the passionate fight against any kind of dogma based on authority. Only experience and careful reflection are accepted by him as criteria of truth. Nowadays it is hard for us to grasp how sinister and revolutionary such an attitude appeared at Galileo’s time, when merely to doubt the truth of opinions which had no basis but authority was considered a capital crime and punished accordingly. Actually we are by no means so far removed from such a situation even today as many of us would like to flatter ourselves; but in theory, at least, the principle of unbiased thought has won out, and most people are willing to pay lip service to this principle.

It has often been maintained that Galileo became the father of modern science by replacing the speculative, deductive method with the empirical, experimental method. I believe, however, that this interpretation would not stand close scrutiny. There is no empirical method without speculative concepts and systems; and there is no speculative thinking whose concepts do not reveal, on closer investigation, the empirical material from which they stem. To put into sharp contrast the empirical and the deductive attitude is misleading, and was entirely foreign to Galileo. Actually it was not until the nineteenth century that logical (mathematical) systems whose structures were completely independent of any empirical content had been cleanly extracted. Moreover, the experimental methods at Galileo’s disposal were so imperfect that only the boldest speculation could possibly bridge the gaps between the empirical data. (For example, there existed no means to measure times shorter than a second). The antithesis Empiricism vs. Rationalism does not appear as a controversial point in Galileo’s work. Galileo opposes the deductive methods of Aristotle and his adherents only when he considers their premises arbitrary or untenable, and he does not rebuke his opponents for the mere fact of using deductive methods. In the first dialogue, he emphasizes in several passages that according to Aristotle, too, even the most plausible deduction must be put aside if it is incompatible with empirical findings. And on the other hand, Galileo himself makes considerable use of logical deduction. His endeavors are not so much directed at “factual knowledge” as at “comprehension.” But to comprehend is essentially to draw conclusions from an already accepted logical system.”

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Why Evolution Is True Ken Perrott Nov 06

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Here’s another great video from the recent AAI Convention. It’s a presentation by Jerry Coyne based on his recently published book “Why Evolution Is True.”

I haven’t read it yet but it has had great reviews. Jerry describes it as complimentary to Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth.

The video is great. Jerry Coyne does present a lot of very convincing information. I don’t see how anyone exposed to this could possible believe that evolution is not true.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1m4mATYoig

Thanks to Richard.dawkins.net: ‘Why Evolution Is True” by Jerry Coyne, AAI 2009

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Richard Dawkins in Wellington next March Ken Perrott Nov 04

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dawkins lectureAuckland got Richard Dawkins by video this year when he announced the winner of the inaugural Royal Society NZ science Book of the Year award.

Next March Wellington will get him in person. Dawkins will be speaking during the Writers and Readers Week at the NZ International Arts Festival.

Details (evening of Wednesday March 10 at the Wellington Town Hall) are at the Arts Festival website. Tickets can also be booked from there.

Something to look forward to?

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The clash of science and politics Ken Perrott Nov 04

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I am awaiting the Employment Court’s decision of Jim Salinger’s case (see Clamping down on science communication). However, related to this is the scandal blowing up in the UK over the sacking of the Professor David Nutt as the governments chief science advisor on drugs. Prof. Nutt was chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Two other members of the Council have resigned in protest (see  Government drug adviser David Nutt sacked, David Nutt’s sacking provokes mass revolt against Alan Johnson and Drug expert quits panel over sacking of David Nutt).

A couple of local science bloggers have posts giving the background to Prof. Nutt’s sacking and the issues involved. Have a look at Peter Griffin’s When science and politics collide — the fallout from the Nutt affair at Griffin’s Gadgets and Grant Jacobs’ When is a scientific paper political campaigning? at Code for Life.

Related to the issue of the conflict between science and politics is this panel discussion Do We Still Believe in Science? It took place a few days ago at the Quantum to Cosmos Festival held at the Perimeter Insitute in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. There are also some other great videos from this festival listed on the programme.

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See also: Cabinet in drug war over sacking

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RIP — Theo van Gogh Ken Perrott Nov 02

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theo-webToday is the 5th anniversary of the death of Theo van Gogh. He was a Dutch film director who worked with Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the film Submission.

The short film investigates violence against women in some Muslim societies. The script was written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali who was involved in social work amongst abused Muslim women in Europe.

After the film’s screening van Gogh and Hirsi Ali received death threats. On November 2, 2004, Van Gogh was murdered by Mohammed Bouyeri. Bouyeri shot him eight times, cut his throat, nearly decapitating him, and stabbed him in the chest. A five-page note threatening Western governments, Jews and Ayaan Hirsi Ali was attached to Van Gogh’s chest with a knife.

Since that time Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been under constant guard, and moved to the USA for some time. Bouyeri is currently serving a life sentence.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote the book Infidel – I can highly recommend it. Brought up a Muslim she is now an atheist. Currently she is writing a fictional book where Mohamed is confronted by some well known Western enlightenment intellectuals. Should be good.

See also: Submission video

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Promoting confusion Ken Perrott Nov 02

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A great feature of the scientific endeavour is that our ideas, hypotheses and theories are usually tested against reality. In fact we get very worried when we can’t do this. Consequently there has been some philosophical discussion and concern around speculative ideas or hypotheses like string theory (really hypotheses not theories) and the multiple universe ideas.

But, in some areas of philosophy and theology reality can safely be ignored. And here all sorts of weird and wonderful preconceived ideas can get justified  using a logic which basically boils down to mental gymnastics. I have always found debate with post modernists and theologians is a bit like jelly wrestling. Without reality to fall back on anything goes.

The philosopher of science Daniel Dennett gave an interesting talk, “The evolution of Confusion,” on theological justification at the Atheist Alliance International convention last month. Its based on his new project interviewing clergyman who secretly don’t believe anymore. Atheist clergymen are probably far more common than we might think. And all clergymen have problems in their profession which require theological arguments to resolve, or at least to patch up for the moment. This leads to a weird style of logic and argument – hence my feeling of jelly wrestling.

This is a fascinating talk. I understand the research will be published soon. Hopefully it will also be available in a popular format like a book.

Dan Dennett is the author of many excellent books, including “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” and “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea“. He is also featured in the video “The Four Horsemen” along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

‘The Evolution of Confusion’ by Dan Dennett, AAI 2009.
From RichardDawkins.net: ‘Dan Dennett talks about purposely-confusing theology and how it’s used. He also describes his new project interviewing clergyman who secretly don’t believe anymore, and introduces a new term: “Deepity.”‘

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_9w8JougLQ

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