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Does religion blur understanding of evolution? Ken Perrott Feb 14

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Victor Stenger has a short, but important, blog post in the Huffington Post. Appropriately (because it’s about evolutionary science) dated February 12 – Darwin Day, 204th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth.

Stenger’s article, No Belief Gap, considers Gallup Poll data on the numbers of American who accept evolutionary science and who believe in a god. But in contrast to some commentators, he differentiates between those who see evolution as guided by their god or as a so-called “naturalistic” process – defined in the polls as: “Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life [and] God had no part in the process.”

This is, of course, what we mean by evolutionary science. Guidance by gods, goblins, elves or whatever is not part of that science. (Nor is it currently part of any other science). The distinction is important and it is no accident that some religious apologists like Alvin Plantinga  misrepresent the issue and are trying to create the impression that “divine” guidance is an essential part of evolutionary science (see Naturalism and science are incompatible).

Stenger finds of those accepting a proper definition of evolutionary science:

“This is exactly the same percentage of Americans who declare themselves unaffiliated with any religion.

“It may be that the only Americans who accept naturalist evolution are those who do not participate in any organized religion.”

His last comment:

“Virtually all Christians who accept that species evolve, contrary to the Bible that they believe is the word of God, think evolution is God-guided. This is not Darwinian evolution. God-guided evolution is intelligent design creationism. How many American Christians believe in evolution, as it is understood by science? The data indicate none.”

Could we draw the same conclusion about New Zealand Christians? I would be interested to see similar poll data for our country.

See also: A specious argument for the comity of evolution and faith

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Science and the folly of faith Ken Perrott Apr 04

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Book Review: God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion by Victor Stenger.

Price: US13.46; NZ$22.60
Paperback: 408 pages
Publisher: Prometheus Books; Original edition (April 24, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1616145994
ISBN-13: 978-1616145996

Victor Stenger wrote recently: “A majority of scientists at all levels do not believe in any god. Yet most are unwilling to challenge the religious beliefs of others.” That’s also my impression. The situation reminds me of our Prime Minister John Key’s reactions to many apparently important questions – “I’m relaxed about that”; “I’m comfortable with the situation” – even when we all know he should be taking problems more seriously.

Apathy of scientists

There really does seem to be a bit of confabulation going on here. Stenger describes what he calls The party line among scientists- believers and non-believers alike -:”

“science and religion are what Stephen Jay Gould called “non-overlapping magisteria”. In 1998 the US National Academy of Sciences issued a statement asserting “Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.”Yet according to a survey the same year, 93 per cent of the members of the academy do not believe in a personal god.”

As if this apathy were not bad enough it is accompanied by religious interest in co-opting science.  Dan Barker, in his Forward to this book, describes the situation as “theistic mosquitoes buzzing around pretending to understand the science (and only managing to misrepresent it).” A personal experience recently bought this home to me. I did an internet search attempting to locate a specific quote of Galileo’s referring to the importance of deriving scientific ideas from the real world. Almost all the links returned were from theological writings, websites or blogs. I also notice that many theologians and philosophers of religion actively write and comment of scientific philosophy and history.

Of course it’s good the theologically inclined take an interest in important fields outside their own. Even comment on them. But the inevitable ideological bias in such writings produces  many anti-science ideas and ideologically motivated interpretations of history and philosophy. The apathy of scientists towards these issues means such ideas are not often challenged and sometimes squirm their way into academic writings on science method, philosophy and history.

Stenger’s “God and the Folly of Faith” directly challenges many of those ideas. As Barker says Stenger “swats away the theistic mosquitoes”.  His “unflinching and uncompromising attitude” and his scientific and philosophical background makes him ideal for the job. And, as the many readers of a long series of books* on science and pseudo science know, Victor Stenger’s writing style means the issues are communicated clearly and understandably.

Conflict – myths and reality

I have often commented that the “warfare model” of science and religion is a myth. That science and religion are not always and everywhere inevitably in conflict. This is the model that some of the theologically inclined attribute to anyone who sees any conflict between science and region.

Such an extreme claim is obviously mythical – after all there are many scientists who are also religious. However, scientific and religious epistemology, “ways of knowing” are completely different. This leads to inevitable conflicts when the areas of interest of science and religion overlap. And they do – consider the debates over evolution, consciousness, life after death, and morality.

The warfare model is often blamed on two books written in the 19th century: John William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science and Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.  Stenger puts Whites book into context:

“His book was largely in reaction to attacks from the religious community for his refusal to impose religious tests on students and faculty” at Cornell University. “nevertheless, White’s efforts at Cornell helped lead to the conversion of the great private universities in America and Europe from the church-centered institutions they were originally to the secular ones they are today.”

 ”Modern historical scholars, some with ideological motives of their own” have been sharply critical of Draper’s and White’s books – but in the process have ignored, even covered up, the real ongoing conflict between science and religion.

Stenger is quite clear – this epistemological conflict does sometime lead to real conflict and difficulties in acceptance of science. For example:

“many religious people will say they believe in evolution, but evolution guided by God. Darwinian evolution by natural selection, as the overwhelming majority of biologists now view it, is unguided.”

To introduce divine guidance into evolutionary science is to throw away a central part of that science.

Faithful reason

This epistemological difference also shines through in the different approaches to reasoning. Stenger is adamant that:

“the conflict between science and religion should not be regarded as a conflict between reason and unreason” – as some people present it. “The distinction between theology and science is in the objects on which to apply reason. Nothing can be learned from reason alone. A logical argument contains no information not already embedded in its premises.Reason and logic must be supplement by additional hypotheses about the nature of reality and the sources of our knowledge about that reality. In the case of science. that source is solely observation. In the case of theology, that source is primarily faith, with some observation thrown in as long as it does not conflict with faith. Theology is faith-plus-reason, with some observation allowed. Science is observation-plus-reason, with no faith allowed.”

Faith-plus-reason quickly deteriorates to rationalisation supporting preconceived beliefs. There is no mechanism to keep one honest.

Chauvinistic history

Some of the theistically inclined have a habit of claiming their religion (or their god) is responsible for so may things. From the “big bang” to human ethics. From human reason to social laws. And – something that gets up my nose – for modern science. Inevitably this creates conflict.

An example are the snearing predictions of the content of “God and the Folly of Faith” made by critics at  The Quodlibeta Forum. These included the forum’s administrator James Hannam – Catholic apologist and author of God’s Philosophers and The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution).  Their predictions were wrong – because they relied on their own mythology about science, the history of science and atheism. Their active promotion of the myth of the conflict myth. By this I mean the habit of some students of history to vilify anyone who disagrees with their ideology-based histories as promoters of the “conflict thesis” – the idea that science and religion are always and inevitably in conflict.

Of course the real world is not like that. Religion and science may be epistemologically exclusive but they are not always and inevitably in conflict. Nor is an author who writes about the history of science and religion guilty of promoting the “conflict thesis” because they are a scientist (rather than historian) or not a card-carrying religious apologist.

Stenger is actually relatively balanced in his treatment of the relationship between science and religion throughout history.Where Stenger and Hannan deal with similar issues their factual history is basically the same. Mind you,  interpretations of facts can differ – and ideology plays a role here. Hannam, for example, interprets the 1277 condemnations (a list of “errors,”  issued by Bishop Tempier of Paris, which would lead to excommunication for anyone teaching or listening to them) as a good thing: 

“placing limits around as subject is not the same as being against it.” The condemnations “protected natural philosophers from those who wanted to see their activities further curtailed . . philosophy was safe to develop in peace and without fear.” (from “God’s Philosophers”).

In contrast Stenger mentions that interpretation (a speculation of Pierre Duheim) but points out that in contrast  the historian David Lindberg described the condemnations as “a ringing declaration of the subordination of philosophy to theology.” (28 – p 75)

In fact , I think Stenger is so balanced that he has conceded too much in at least one case -  his treatment of the history of the Galileo affair. He says that “Galileo brought much of his trouble on himself:”

“Galileo used a foolish character, foolishly named Simplicio, to express some arguments that had been advanced by Pope Urban VIII, a long-time friend and supporter of Galileo. The pope must have said, ’We are not pleased.’”

“Although the Inquisition had worked out what we today call a ’plea agreement’ that would have left Galileo with little more than a slap on the wrist, the Pope intervened in his case, and in 1633 Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, found guilty, and sentenced to house arrest.

It’s true that much of Galileo’s behaviour must have been provocative, but any balanced consideration should also include the pressure on Pope Urban to make an example of Galileo – hence his intervention. These included personal opposition within the Vatican as well as the reformation and the religious wars.

As for the Simplico issue – this does not appear to have been an issue until after the trial. Historian Maurice Finnachiro (who specialises in the Galileo affair and the subsequent history of its reporting) writes in Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992:

” this accusation is not mentioned in any documents prior to December 1635; . . . Thus, it seems more accurate to regard the Simplicio-as-Urban allegation as a new slander against Galileo”

An eternal battle?

Reading the history of science one becomes aware of an ongoing battle between ideas driven by evidence and reason, and those driven by faith, even when reason is used. And if we look around today at the debates over consciousness, evolution, climate change, etc., we see that the battle continues. It didn’t stop with Galileo and the blossoming of the modern scientific revolution. The science-religion conflict is not just a matter of history.

On his final page Stenger concludes:

“Religious faith would not be such a negative force in society if it were just about religion. However, the magical thinking that becomes deeply ingrained whenever faith rules over facts warps all areas of life. It produces a frame of mind in which concepts are formulated with deep passion but without the slightest attention paid to the evidence that bears on the concept. Nowhere is this more evident than in America today, where the large majority of the public hold onto a whole set of beliefs despite a total lack of evidence to support these beliefs and, indeed, strong evidence that denies them.”

But what about the future? As he points out:

“Science is not going to change its commitment to the truth. We can only hope religion will change its commitment to nonsense.”

And Stenger makes an appeal to “scientists and all thinking people:”

“The eradication of foolish faith from the face of this planet.”

He doesn’t think this will be achieved “in the lifetime of the youngest amongst us.” But it is required for the survival of humanity.

Somewhat pessimistic!

Personally I think that a certain amount of wishful thinking, faith and irrationalism is probably inherent to being human. It is certainly expected from human diversity. Perhaps this issue is not the final eradication of “foolish faith” but its minimisation and/or neutralisation with its accommodation by the rest of humanity.

Conclusions

If these subjects interest you this book is a “must read.”

This is just the last of a series of Stenger’s books on science and its relationship with religion and pseudoscience.* For those interested in a scientific viewpoint on these subjects these books are a valuable resource. They deal with issues such as quantum theoiry and it misuse and cosmological issues like fine-tuning arguments, the “big bang” and the origin of the universe, the eternal universe and the multiverse. To some extent he briefly repeats some of the content of his previous books here – useful for those not wishing to read further. And  arguably this current book is his best yet. But, for more detail I also recommend his other books.


* Victor Stenger’s books on science, religion and pseudo-science

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Fine-tuning fallacies Ken Perrott Nov 10

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In Fiddling with ’fine-tuning’ I discussed the way theologians and philosophers of religion have used claims of fine-tuning of the cosmological constant erroneously. That they have taken the fact that the value of the measured cosmological constant is 120 orders of magnitude different to the value of vacuum energy used to explain it. This has been described as the “worst calculation in physics history.” But never mind, these apologists have just utilised the huge mistake to claim that the cosmological constant is fine-tuned to 1 part in 10120! So there god must be responsible.

This is what happens when you use scientific knowledge opportunistically. Like a drunk uses a lamppost – more for support than illumination. Because the problem with the theological approach is that there is no interest in understanding the world around us – just in using science to support any argument they can drag up to “prove” the existence of their particular god.

Mind you, some non-theists also find the fine tuning concept beguiling. And they can also uncritically accept some of the fine-tuning claims that circulate. The idea that many of the physical and cosmological constants in our universe are extremely delicately balanced to values necessary for life to exist. The so-called anthropic principle.

So, Victor Stenger’s new book The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe Is Not Designed for Us will be very useful for anyone attempting to check out these arguments by actually considering the science. He describes the physical and cosmological background to the constants, or parameters as he prefers to call them, usually used in fine-tuning arguments. And then he considers, one by one, just how valid – or invalid – the fine-tuning arguments are.

Here I will just deal with two “fine-tuned” constants – the “Hoyle resonance” for carbon nuclei and the “nuclear efficiency.” I think they illustrate two common mistakes made in estimating the degree of fine-tuning.

Hoyle resonance

This refers to the 1953 prediction of astronomer Fred Hoyle that the reactions necessary for the nucleosynthesis of carbon in stars would “not occur with sufficient probability unless that probability was boosted by the presence of an excited nuclear state of C12 at a very specific energy. Hoyle proposed that this previously unknown state must exist at about 7.7 MeV. The existence of such a state was quickly confirmed experimentally.”

Although Hoyle did not connect this resonance with the existence of life (and therefore an example of the anthropic principle) it has often been quoted by theists as a miraculous example of fine-tuning. And they like to quote Hoyle himself:

“A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”

But Stenger points out that many physicists question how fine-tuned this excited resonance state of carbon really is. He demonstrates this in the following figure from his book.

Here (a) shows two energy levels: (1) the amount by which the total rest energy of Be8 + He4 exceeds that of the C12 nucleus, which is 7.3367 MeV; (2) the excited state of C12 predicted by Hoyle and observed at 7.656 MeV. On this scale, the ground state of C12 is zero.

And (b) shows the range of values this excited state could assume and still produce that same amount of carbon in the universe. That is 7.596 – 7.716 Mev. So this excited state is not as fine-tuned as often claimed. The “miracle” is disappearing.

But the fine-tuning really evaporates when we acknowledge that while the existence of life like ours requires the presence of carbon, it does not necessarily require the exact amount of carbon that exists in our universe.  As (c) shows, an excited state anywhere from 7.933 Mev down to near the minimum energy would produce adequate carbon!

In this case the fine-tuning argument has been fallacious because recent work of the required values has been ignored. And it has been unnecessarily assumed that life requires exactly the same amount of carbon as present in the current universe.

Nuclear efficiency

Martin Rees describes “nuclear efficiency” in his book Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape The Universe. It refers to the fact that in the synthesis of helium from protons and neutron in stars the mass of the original particles and final nuclear differs – 0.007 of the mass is converted into energy. He defines this as the “nuclear efficiency,” Є, and the value of this depends on the forces holding nuclei together determines how long stars can exist. Rees concludes that “any universe with complex chemistry requires Є to be in
the range 0.006-0.008.”

“If the nuclear ‘glue’ were weaker, so that Є were 0.006 rather than 0.007, a proton could not be bonded to a neutron and deuterium would not be stable. Then the path to helium formation would be closed off. We would have a simple universe composed of hydrogen, whose atom consists of one
proton orbited by a single electron, and no  chemistry. Stars could still form in such a universe (if everything else were kept unchanged) but they would have no nuclear fuel. They would deflate and cool, ending up as dead remnants. There would be no explosions to spray the debris back into space so
that new stars could form from it, and no elements would exist that could ever form rocky planets.”

“But we couldn’t have existed if Є had been more than 0.008, because no hydrogen would have survived from the Big Bang. In our actual universe, two protons repel each other so strongly that the nuclear ‘strong interaction’ force can’t bind them together without the aid of one or two neutrons (which add to the nuclear ‘glue’, but, being uncharged, exert no extra electrical repulsion). If Є were to have been 0.008, then two protons would have been able to bind directly together. This would
have happened readily in the early universe, so that no hydrogen would remain to provide the fuel in ordinary stars, and water could never have existed.”

But these estimates assume that other physical constant remain constant. Stenger argues that this is unrealistic because if the value of one parameter could be randomly selected during formation of a universe, so could the values of others.

In particular he considers the effect of just varying one other constant – the electromagnetic strength α. The figure below demonstrates the situation.

If α remains fixed at its current value of 1/137 then Ð„ must take a value between 0.006 and 0.008. Higher and all hydrogen would be converted to helium. Lower and no nuclei would form. But as shown in the figure - if  α varies between 1/191 and 1/107 then Ð„ can vary between 0.004 and >0.01.

So, in this case the fine-tuning fallacy has relied on the unwarranted assumption that the value of only one parameter is varied at a time in the calculations,. In reality this is unlikely.

This particular fallacy will be common to most of the physical and cosmological constants that are usually quoted as examples of fine-tuning by religious apologists.

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Hawking’s grand design — lessons for apologists? Ken Perrott Oct 05

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I managed to get my own copy of  The Grand Design (co-authored by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow) the other day. Talk about luck. I was on one of my rare visits to the big smoke and inquired at Borders. It had just come in that day and wasn’t yet on the shelves!

 

Victor Stenger

 

Obviously I won’t comment in depth until I have read the book. I get the impression that I may find the discussions of philosophy more interesting then the physics, though. And I guess it is the philosophical aspects of the book which have provoked the most criticism, or at least the theological criticism. (Mathematicians and physicists like Peter Woit, of course are making their criticisms – but hardly making the newspapers with them – see for example Hawking gives up).

However, I am aware the Victor Stenger is reviewing the book and look forward to his views. He has some standing in cosmology and philosophy, and his writing in these areas are excellent.

So far he has made only limited comments based on other reviews (see Hawking and the Multiverse). I feel he makes an important, point in his conclusion. It does seem obvious to me, but then again the extreme theological reaction to news of the book suggests it may not be to some others. Victor says:

So, at least according to the reviews, Hawking and Mlodinow haven’t said much that physicists and cosmologists haven’t already heard before. However, thanks to Hawking’s notoriety, at least more people will now have heard that science has plausible answers to how the universe came about naturally without the need for a creator. Hopefully this will include those theologians and apologists who continue to wrongfully insist that modern science has demonstrated a need for God.

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Fallacy of Fine Tuning Ken Perrott Aug 19

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I just picked up in my browsing that Victor Stenger is working on a new book The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: How the Universe is Not Designed for Us. Its planned for publication early next year.

This should be a great read. Victor is an excellent and prolific science writer.  He is an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado and Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii (retired in 2000). Much of his writing is aimed a countering theological distortion and misuse of science.  This is badly needed for the “fine-tuning” question. In Godless cosmology I refer to an article of his on this in Russell Blackford‘s 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (see Testimony of non-believers for a review of this book).

Books Stenger has published in recent years (click for a list) include two I have reviewed here. They are:

Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness (for my review see Quantum Gods), and
The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (for my review see Defending science and reason).

So, I am looking forward to the new book. But, meanwhile, I was interested to see that Stenger has posted on-line draft chapters from his book. He is requesting comments from interested people with scientific and editing expertise.

First time I have seen this approach. Anyone interested can go to Fallacy of Fine Tuning and register their interest. registration is required for access to the documents.

I am not registering myself but the list of chapters below give an idea of the books likely content.

0.   Preface
1. Science and God
2.  The Anthropic Principles
3.  The Four Dimensions
4.  Point-of-View Invariance
5. Cosmos
6. The Eternal Universe
7.  The Large Number Puzzle
8.  Chemistry
9.  The Hoyle Resonance
10.  Physics Parameters
11.  Cosmic Parameters
12.  The Cosmological Constant
13. MonkeyGod
14. Convergence
15. Quantum and Consciousness

See also: Slide show of Victor Stenger’s talk “The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning.”

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