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Richard Dawkins and related Links and Resources

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Richard Dawkins Mainpages

Some Richard Dawkins Articles

  • "Snake Oil and Holy Water" by Richard Dawkins, Forbes ASAP, 10.04.99

  • "The Improbability of God" by Richard Dawkins, Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 3
    • "By definition, explanations that build on simple premises are more plausible and more satisfying than explanations that have to postulate complex and statistically improbable beginnings. And you can't get much more complex than an Almighty God!"
    • "There is a temptation to argue that, although God may not be needed to explain the evolution of complex order once the universe, with its fundamental laws of physics, had begun, we do need a God to explain the origin of all things. This idea doesn't leave God with very much to do: just set off the big bang, then sit back and wait for everything to happen. The physical chemist Peter Atkins, in his beautifully written book The Creation, postulates a lazy God who strove to do as little as possible in order to initiate everything. Atkins explains how each step in the history of the universe followed, by simple physical law, from its predecessor. He thus pares down the amount of work that the lazy creator would need to do and eventually concludes that he would in fact have needed to do nothing at all! "
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  • Chemistry and Industry comment: "Religion - the antithesis to science" by Peter Atkins
    • "My conclusion is stark and uncompromising. Religion is the antithesis of science; science is competent to illuminate all the deep questions of existence, and does so in a manner that makes full use of, and respects the human intellect. I see neither need nor sign of any future reconciliation. "
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  • Religion's misguided missiles - Richard Dawkins
    • "It's a tall story, but worth a try. You'd have to get them young, though. Feed them a complete and self-consistent background mythology to make the big lie sound plausible when it comes. Give them a holy book and make them learn it by heart. Do you know, I really think it might work. As luck would have it, we have just the thing to hand: a ready-made system of mind-control, which has been honed over centuries, handed down through generations. Millions of people have been brought up in it. It is called religion and, for reasons which one day we may understand, most people fall for it (nowhere more so than America itself, though the irony passes unnoticed)."
    • "Our leaders have described the recent atrocity with the customary cliche: mindless cowardice. "Mindless" may be a suitable word for the vandalizing of a telephone box. It is not helpful for understanding what hit New York on September 11. Those people were not mindless and they were certainly not cowards. On the contrary, they had sufficiently effective minds braced with an insane courage, and it would pay us mightily to understand where that courage came from.
      It came from religion. Religion is also, of course, the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East, which motivated the use of this deadly weapon in the first place. But that is another story and not my concern here. My concern here is with the weapon itself. To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used. "
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  • "The "know-nothings", the "know-alls", and the "no-contests"" by Richard Dawkins
    • "Richard Dawkins, well-known for his books on evolution, took part in a debate with the Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood, on the existence of God at the Edinburgh science festival last Easter. [Easter '92 ed.] The science correspondent of The Observer reported that the "withering" Richard Dawkins clearly believed the "God should be spoken of in the same way as Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy". He [the correspondent] overheard a gloomy cleric comment on the debate: "That was easy to sum up. Lions 10, Christians nil". "
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  • "Talking about Evolution with Richard Dawkins" with Richard Dawkins
    • "MR. DAWKINS: That's right. Now, in the modern world, which is now so different from the world in which our ancestors lived, what we actually strive for, the goals we set up, are very different. The goal-seeking mechanisms in our brains were originally put there totry to achieve goals such as finding a herd of bison to hunt. And wewould have set out to find a herd of bison, and we'd have used all sorts of flexible goal-seeking mechanisms and we'd have persisted and we'd have gone on and on and on for days and days and days trying toachieve that goal.
      Natural selection favored persistence in seeking goals. Nowadays we no longer hunt bisons. Nowadays we hunt money or a nice new house or we try to finish a novel or whatever it is that we do."
    • "MR. DAWKINS: Darwin, if I may say so, had better things to dothan talk about why we are here in that sense. It's not a sensible sense in which to ask the question. There is no reason why, just because it's possible to ask the question, it's necessarily a sensible question to ask."
    • MR. DAWKINS: Yes, it's not a very satisfying explanation. It's a very unparsimonious, very uneconomical explanation. Thebeauty of the Darwinian explanation itself is that it's exceedinglypowerful. It's a very simple principle, and using this one simpleprinciple, you can bootstrap your way up from essentially nothing tothe world of complexity and diversity we have today. Now, that's apowerful explanation.
      MR. WATTENBERG: It's not any simpler. In fact, it's morecomplex than the -- than Genesis. I mean, 'And God created theheavens and the earth.' That --
      MR. DAWKINS: You have to be joking.
      MR. WATTENBERG: Well, I mean, 'God created the heavens and theearth' -- I can say that pretty quickly. I mean --
      MR. DAWKINS: You can say it, but think what lies behind it. What lies behind it is a complicated, intelligent being -- God, whomust have come from somewhere. You have simply smuggled in at thebeginning of your book the very thing that we're trying to explain. What we're trying to explain is where organized complexity andintelligence came from. We have now got an explanation. You startfrom nothing and you work up gradually in easily explainable steps.
    • "MR. DAWKINS: Yeah, okay. I mean, these are fascinating hypothetical questions and I suppose there would come a trade-offpoint. I mean, there'd probably come a point when -- but I do think it's important, since this is a very academic discussion we're having, I think it would be positively irresponsible to let listeners to this program go away with the idea that this is a major effect. If it's an effect at all, it's an elusive statistical effect."
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  • "IS SCIENCE KILLING THE SOUL?" with Richard Dawkins
    • "While The Guardian-Dillons series is characterized as a "debate", Dawkins and Pinker, who are in general agreement across broad areas, presented what I would characterize as a "a high level seminar." As Dawkins pointed out: "The adversarial approach to truth isn't necessarily always the best one. On the contrary, when two people disagree strongly, a great deal of time may be wasted. It's been well said that when two opposite points of view are advocated with equal vigor, the truth does not necessarily lie mid-way between them. And in the same way, when two people agree about something, it's just possible that the reason they agree is that they're both right. There's also I suppose the hope that in a dialogue of this sort each speaker may manage to achieve a joint understanding with the other one, better than he would have done on his own.""
    • "So Soul One refers to a particular theory of life. It's the theory that there is something non-material about life, some non-physical vital principle. It's the theory according to which a body has to be animated by some anima. Vitalized by a vital force. Energized by some mysterious energy. Spiritualized by some mysterious spirit. Made conscious by some mysterious thing or substance called consciousness. You'll notice that all those definitions of Soul One are circular and non-productive. It's no accident. Julian Huxley once satirically likened vitalism to the theory that a railway engine works by "force-locomotif." I don't always agree with Julian Huxley, but here he hit the nail beautifully. In the sense of Soul One, science has either killed the soul or is in the process of doing so.
      But there is a second sense of soul, Soul Two, which takes off from another one of the Oxford dictionary's definitions:
      Intellectual or spiritual power. High development of the mental faculties. Also, in somewhat weakened sense, deep feeling, sensitivity."
    • Turning back to Soul One -- in the first chapter of Steve Pinker's book How the Mind Works he says, "I want to convince you that our minds are not animated by some godly vapor or single wonder-principle. The mind, like the Apollo spacecraft, is designed to solve many engineering problems, and thus is packed with high-tech systems, each contrived to overcome its own obstacles." In the same paragraph, he moves on to Soul Two when he says, " . . . I believe that the discovery by cognitive science and artificial intelligence of the technical challenges overcome by our mundane mental activity is one of the great revelations of science, an awakening of the imagination comparable to learning that the universe is made up of billions of galaxies or that a drop of pond water teems with microscopic life." Well, awakening of the imagination is a pretty good definition of Soul Two. And in that sense, far from killing the soul, science may prove to be its greatest awakener.
      Carl Sagan wrote, shortly before he died,
      "How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant'? Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.
      Well it's common enough for people to agree that religions have got the facts all wrong, but "Nevertheless," they go on to say, "you have to admit that religions do provide something that people need. We crave a deeper meaning to life, a deeper, more imaginative understanding of the mystery of existence." Well, in the passage I've just quoted, Sagan seems to be criticizing religions not just for getting it wrong, which many people would accept, but for their deficiencies precisely in the sphere in which they are supposed to retain some residual virtue. Religions are not imaginative, not poetic, not soulful. On the contrary, they are parochial, small-minded, niggardly with the human imagination, precisely where science is generous."
    • STEVEN PINKER: I'm going to discuss an idea that elicits wildly opposite reactions. Some people find it a shocking claim with radical implications for morals and every value that we hold dear. Other people think that it's a claim that was established a hundred years ago, that the excitement is only in how we work out the details, and that it has few if any implications for our values and ethics. That is the idea that the mind is the physiological activity of the brain, in particular the information processing activity of the brain; that the brain, like other organs, is shaped by the genes; and that in turn, the genome was shaped by natural selection and other evolutionary processes. I am among those who think that this should no longer be a shocking claim, and that the excitement is in fleshing out the details, and showing exactly how our perception, decision-making, and emotions can be tied to the activity of the brain.
      Three new sciences are now vividly rooting our mental processes in our biology. Cognitive neuroscience, the attempt to relate thought, perception and emotion to the functioning of the brain, has pretty much killed Soul One, in Richard's sense. It should now be clear to any scientifically literate person that we don't have any need for a ghost in the machine, as Gilbert Ryle memorably put it. Many kinds of evidence show that the mind is an entity in the physical world, part of a causal chain of physical events. If you send an electric current through the brain, you cause the person to have a vivid experience. If a part of the brain dies because of a blood clot or a burst artery or a bullet wound, a part of the person is gone -- the person may lose an ability to see, think, or feel in a certain way, and the entire personality may change. The same thing happens gradually when the brain accumulates a protein called beta-amyloid in the tragic disease known as Alzheimer's. The person -- the soul, if you want -- gradually disappears as the brain decays from this physical process.
      We know that every form of mental activity -- every emotion, every thought, every percept -- gives off electrical, magnetic, or metabolic signals that can be recorded with increasing precision by Positron Emission Tomography, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Magnetoencephalography, and other techniques. We know that if you take a knife and section the corpus callosum (which joins the two cerebral hemispheres) you have the equivalent of two minds -- perhaps even two souls -- in the same skull. We know that if you look at the brain under a microscope it has a breathtaking degree of complexity -- on the order of a trillion synapses -- that's fully commensurate with the breathtaking complexity of human thought and experience. We know that when the brain dies, the person goes out of existence. I consider it to be a significant empirical discovery that one cannot communicate with the dead, and excellent evidence that Soul One, in Richard's sense, does not exist."
    • "STEVEN PINKER: The third science that's connecting mind to biology is evolutionary psychology, which takes an approach to understanding the mind that has long been fruitful in understanding the organs of the body. We can't make sense of an organ like the eye without considering it to have a function, or a purpose - not in a mystical, teleological sense, but in the sense of an illusion of engineering. That illusion, we now know, is a consequence of Darwin's process of natural selection. Everyone agrees that the eye is a remarkable bit of natural "engineering," and that may now be explained as a product of natural selection rather than as the handiwork of a cosmic eye-designer or as a massive coincidence in tissue formation. But the eye by itself is useless -- unless it's connected to a brain. The eye does not carry out its function by dumping optical information into a yawning chasm. Rather, the eye is hooked up to parts of the brain -- anatomically speaking, the eye is an extension of the brain -- and those parts contain circuits for analyzing the incoming visual material, for recovering the shapes and colors and motions in the world that gave rise to the stimulation of the eye. The perception of a world of colored 3-D objects, in turn, feeds into a system of categorization, allowing us to make sense of our experience, to impute causes to events, and to remember things in terms of their significant categories. And in turn, those categories themselves would be useless unless they were organized in service of certain goals, goals set by our emotions. Beginning with the eye, we have a chain of causation that leads to the study of faculties of mind, or modules, or subsystems, each of which can be seen as an adaptation akin to the adaptations in the organs of the body. Recent research has shown that aspects of the psyche that were previously considered mysterious, quirky, and idiosyncratic -- such as phobias, an eye for beauty, the tendency to fall in love, a passionate desire for revenge in defense of honor -- turn out to have a subtle evolutionary logic when they are analyzed in the way in which we have always analyzed the organs of the body.
      I find these developments to be exhilarating; they are a fulfillment of the ancient imperative to know thyself. They also have important practical implications. Alzheimer's Disease, to cite just one example, will be one of the leading causes of human misery in the industrial world over the next several decades, as we live longer and stop dying of other things. Successful treatment of Alzheimer's will not come from prayer or wishful thinking or reasoning about soul one; it will come from treating memory and personality as biochemical phenomena."
    • "STEVEN PINKER: One reason I find the reaction strange is that I can't imagine how anything coming out of the laboratory, computer, or theoretician's notebook could possibly subtract from what is the meaning of life, or Richard's sense of Soul two. Why keep on living if our minds are the physiological activity of the brain? Well, for starters there's natural beauty, and works of great art, and ethical ideals, and love, and bringing up children, and enjoying friends, and discovering how the world works -- I could go on. Why should the worth of any of those activities depend on the existence of a ghost in the machine?"
    • "STEVEN PINKER: The other part of the explanation comes from a conclusion that anthropologists have drawn about what you find in common in all the world's religions -- not just the major proselytizing religions, but the animistic beliefs of hunter-gatherer tribes. Ruth Benedict put it succinctly: the common denominator of religions is that a religion is a recipe for success. She didn't necessarily mean this to apply to the most sophisticated theologies, but in general, what people do in common when they think of deities is to pray to them for recovery from illness, for recovery from an illness of a child, for success in love, for success on the battlefield, for good weather, for the crops coming up, and so on. I don't want to say that sophisticated theology can be reduced to praying for good weather, but if you look at what's common across cultures that's what you find."
    • "DAWKINS: Yes. G. K. Chesterton said when people stop believing, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything. I presume that's what the questioner has in mind. I am interested in cults. The so-called organized religions are of course just old cults. They started off as cults and they've acquired a respectability that's simply due to the long time that they've been with us. I'm interested in them. I don't know why the questioner thinks it's not an ESS. It's not to me obvious that a world in which nobody believed in Soul One is necessarily ripe for invasion by cults, except insofar as I think one of the main reasons why people do believe the things that they believe is somewhat analogous to viral infection. And the reason for this has a good Darwinian basis. When we are children it is very important that we should learn as quickly as possible certain extremely important things. The language of our society, the social rules of our society, various rules for how to stay alive in a hostile world. So it's very easy for a Darwinian to believe that children will be preprogrammed with a rule that says, Believe what your parents tell you, or believe what your society's elders tell you. And of course a rule like that is not going to be discriminating. It's going to work both for the sensible things -- rules for how not to die of snake bite or falling off of cliffs or how to learn the language of the society. But the self-same rule is also going to be a natural sponge, or a natural soaker-up of New Age nonsense, and nonsense of any other kind. So, a biologically sensible rule -- Believe what you're told when you're young, and when you grow up pass on the same stuff to your own children -- that is a recipe for the long-term survival for the beliefs themselves. Or the rule might be, Believe so-and-so, and spend as much time as possible persuading other people to believe it as well; that's a recipe for epidemics of infectious beliefs. So I think that in that sense I agree with the questioner."
    • "PINKER: I think that evolution and genetics and neuroscience are essential parts of an explanation of human behavior, but that doesn't mean that people are sealed in a barrel, oblivious to the standards of behavior set by other people, and unable to make decisions based on them. Quite the contrary -- one of the things our brains are designed to do is learn the contingencies of the social world we find ourselves in. Obviously there is variation among cultures, which is made possible by the fact that people innovate and people learn other people's innovations. Also, the optimal way to behave in a given situation depends on how other people behave and react to one's own behavior, and those contingencies vary from place to place and have to be learned. There are large differences, orders of magnitude, in rates of violent encounters across different countries, although the psychology of the violent encounters is strikingly similar. The rates differ because of differences in the cultures and social values, those values aren't like a gas that seeps out of the earth and that people merely breathe in. They emerge from a bunch of minds interacting in a group, exchanging ideas, assessing one another, making decisions. So culture itself, even though it's part of any explanation of behavior, itself has to be tied to the psychological and ultimately neurological mechanisms that allow cultures to arise to begin with."
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  • "The Dissent of Darwin" - Jaron Lanier and Richard Dawkins
    • JL: But if we hope to separate ourselves from the awful history of evolution that created us, we have a very difficult time defining exactly how we're different.
      RD: You can simply say that in humans there was a gradual emergence of certain qualities that no other species has.
      JL: Can you name those qualities?
      RD: One of them is language. Another is the ability to plan ahead using conscious, imagined foresight. Short-term benefit has always been the only thing that counts in evolution; long-term benefit has never counted. It has never been possible for something to evolve in spite of being bad for the immediate short-term good of the individual. For the first time ever, it's possible for at least some people to say, `Forget about the fact that you can make a short-term profit by chopping down this forest; what about the long-term benefit?' Now I think that's genuinely new and unique.
      JL: Is survivability the only principle that generated our attributes? What about the benefit for a phenomenon as odd as testicles? It's as if a heavily armored tank were being ridden by a driver in a balloon on the roof.
      RD: Why do we have them dangling outside ourselves, rather than safely cushioned inside?
      JL: I'm familiar with the conventional explanation, which is that it has to do with the management of heat. [Sperm cannot survive long at body temperature.]
      RD: And you understand the implausibility of that explanation?
      JL: The evolutionary process has produced such spectacular mechanisms for managing problems that would seem to be much more difficult than coping with heat. And we have astonishing regulatory mechanisms for heat in our body already. I mean, we protect ourselves from invading microorganisms and from extremes of heat and cold.
      If it just turned out that it was impossible to pass along genes at a particular body temperature, we could have evolved a different body temperature that was appropriate to that process. So overall, testicles do seem very strange to me.
      RD: That's what I would have said. But are you familiar with Zahavi's handicap principle? It sounds really way out, but I think the problem of the `vulnerable balls' is well suited to this particular explanation.
      Zahavi is an Israeli biologist whose idea was ridiculed when he first put it forward in 1975, but he has recently been vindicated by some clever mathematical modeling by Alan Grafen at Oxford University. Zahavi and Grafen state that in any encounter in animals where advertisement is important--and that's very, very often--an advertisement is only believed if it's validated by being costly. Translated into English, what the male is saying is, `Look how powerful a male I am, because I can afford to wear my balls outside my body, in the most vulnerable position. You'd better not mess with me because I am proving my strength and my ability as a fighter.'
    • JL: It's not just a conflict between creationists and Darwinists. There's a large group of people who simply are uncomfortable with accepting evolution because it leads to what they perceive as a moral vacuum, in which their best impulses have no basis in nature.
      RD: All I can say is, That's just tough. We have to face up to the truth.
      JL: That answer is not good enough anymore. People are reacting against science. People feel science is telling them they're less special, less responsible than they once believed.
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Other stuff of Interest

  • Edward O. Wilson is On Top of the World The father of sociobiology and grandfather of evolutionary psychology sounds off on life, death, faith, free will, the 'self' - and his beloved ants.
    • PT: Youíve said that ants have given you everything, and itís to them you always return. What have they taught you?
      EO: One thing is that natural selection is brutal. It is brutal to see strong, beautiful ant queens and males go forth and realize that theyíre all going to be devastated, that one out of 10,000 queens will make it into the ground to start a new colony. Every little advantage that an organism has can make an enormous difference. The other thing is that natural selection grinds exceedingly small. Natural selection doesnít allow for foul-ups in an ant colony any more than in a hunter-gatherer society. Real biologists who actually do the research will tell you that they almost never find a phenomenon, no matter how odd or irrelevant it looks when they first see it, that doesnít prove to serve a function. The outcome itself may be due to small accidents of evolution. And ants are very good for telling us about chemical communication. For instance, one ant may use a heptanone and another may use a methylheptanone as an alarm substance. Whatís fascinating is that different species will not intermingle, even though they are so closely related that all that separates them is one isomer of one organic substance. Their gene pools are isolated.
      PT: Are there ever accidental spinoffs of evolution? Could there be some traits that really donít seem to serve an obvious function, but persist anyway?
      EO: There are no accidental spinoffs, and there is very little probability that inferior traits will survive. If you told an arm-chair theorist about the tiny differences in chemical communication in ants their inclination would be to say, 'Well, itís an accident, a spin-off. Evolution is full of accidents.' Not when you get down to the nitty-gritty and you find these tiny differences have a major function in separating species. This is the way biology has unfolded through natural history.
      PT: But what if one particular variation had such a huge benefit that it generated a huge number of spinoffs and those survived? Like the human brain. The benefit you get from a brain like ours is so large that maybe it can pay for all the spinoffs because of the gain. For instance, is the capacity to make music a spinoff?
      EO: Some scientists suggest that music is an accidental spinoff of rhythmicity and speech. But I feel music has a very important role in ritual activity and that being able to join in musical activity, along with dancing, could have been necessary at a very early stage of human culture. It probably served then, as it does today, to bind the society together, and especially during rites of passage and reaffirmation of tribal communion.
    • PT: In Consilience you said that our essential spiritual dilemma is that we evolved to accept one truthóGodóand discovered anotheróevolution.
      EO: And the struggle for menís souls in the 21st century will be to choose between the two. The transcendentalist view was so powerfully advantageous in early paleolithic and agricultural societies. And if thereís anything disagreeable about secular humanism, itís that its bloodless. Secular humanists can sit around and talk about their love of humanity, but it doesnít stack up against a two-millenium-old funeral high mass. I used a phrase called the evolutionary epic back in 1978 to try and convey the grandeur of biology, and itís beginning to catch on. A colleague of mine speaks of 'the sacred depths of nature' to try and evoke that same reverence.
    • PT: Youíve said that the brain is really a kind of ever shifting network, a republic of responses to information. And yet we walk around with a sense of a core self. Isnít that peculiar?
      EO: Iím aware of you, youíre aware of me. Thereís a sense of self. But there is no transcendental center of the brain somewhere that is in control of the machinery, pulling the levers and possessed of the capacity to float free of our mortal coil when that moment comes.
      PT: But how does the brain even create that sense of self?
      EO: Youíll hear the voice of the neurobiologist emerging from me on this. Itís natural we feel thereís a self because of the body that weíre in. The brain is mapping the world. Often that map is distorted, but itís a map with constant immediate sensory input. The brain is organized heavily around sensations coming from the body, and that is so intense, so much at the center of conscious experience, including all the input coming from our body, and so itís seen as the principal protagonist. Thatís what the self is.
      PT: One of the most precious beliefs of the 'self' is that it has free will.
      EO: A lot of philosophers and thinkers have believed that the human mind was not based in material reality. They had a vague notion of angelic, transcendent activity that they never could define because, of course, they couldnít translate it into any materialist terms and make sense. Thatís really the basis of the notion of free will, that there is a whole different faculty, probably true for human beings only, a truly human quality that helps lift us up above the animals, somewhere between here and the angels.
      PT: But when you talk about free will, you describe it only in the sense that the brain is so complex, so constantly bombarded with input, that itís able to cascade in any direction at any time. Thatís freedom, but not self-determined free will.
      EO: There are really two meanings of free will. One we all agree on is that you have your own mind, you make your own decisions, your soul is your own. No matter what is done to you, thatís the one thing that cannot be surrended. Of course, now we know that with the right pharmaceutical or biochemical manipulation, you can get people to shift moods, attitudes and maybe even beliefs. So that view isnít holding up quite so well anymore. But letís say thatís what we mean by free will.
      The other kind of free will stops people cold in their attempt at self-understanding. We donít know our own minds. We donít know all the processes inside and we canít predict what kind of responses and decisions weíll make. And even if we believed we could, there is so much chaos in the mind brought about by tiny perturbations or external events. Not even with a gigantic computer could we predict what any of us sitting at this table will do precisely one hour from now.
      PT: So weíre free like the weather.
      EO: Or like the wind. We will get up when we are ready to get up. That will be our free will. And we will go out that door and events will happen and we will think about them and make decisions that we canít predict right now. This thing weíre walking around in is not in complete control. It could do marvelous things. It could encounter disasters.
    • PT: You call yourself a deist. What do you mean by that?
      EO: A deist is a person whoís willing to buy the idea that some creative force determined the parameters of the universe when it began.
      PT: And a theist is someone who believes that God not only set the universe in motion, but is still actively involved.
      EO: But Iíve been doing a kind of Pascalian waffling as a deist. I think being an atheist is to claim knowledge you cannot have. And to say youíre agnostic is to arrogantly dismiss the whole thing by saying that itís unknowable. But a provisional deist is someone like myself who leaves it open. You see, evolutionary biology leaves very little room for a theistic God. Iíd like it to be otherwise. Nothing would delight me more than to have real proof of a transcendental plane.
    • EXCERPT FROM CONSILIENCE (check with publisher)
      For many the urge to believe in transcendental existence and immortality is overpowering. Transcendentalism, especially when reinforced by religious faith, is psychically full and rich; it feels somehow right. In comparison empiricism seems sterile and inadequate. That is why, even as empiricism is winning the mind, transcendentalism continues to win the heart. Science has always defeated religious dogma point by point when the two have conflicted. But to no avail. In the United States there are fifteen million Southern Baptists, the largest denomination favoring literal interpretation of the Christian Bible, but only five thousand members of the American Humanist Association, the leading organization devoted to secular and deistic humanism . . . .
      Science has taken us very far from the personal God who once presided over Western civilization. It has done little to satisfy our instinctual hunger. . . The essence of humanityís spiritual dilemma is that we evolved genetically to accept one truth and discovered another. Is there a way to erase the dilemma, to resolve the contradictions between the transcendentalist and empiricist world views? No, unfortunately, there is not. . . . For centuries the writ of empiricism has been spreading into the ancient domain of transcendentalist belief, slowly at the start but quickening in the scientific age. The spirits our ancestors knew intimately first fled the rocks and trees, then the distant mountains. Now they are in the stars, where their final extinction is possible. But we cannot live without them. People need a sacred narrative . . . . The true evolutionary epic, retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic. Material reality discovered by science already possesses more content and grandeur than all the religious cosmologies combined.

    • At

  • "A Designer Universe? - STEVEN WEINBERG"
    • "I have been asked to comment on whether the universe shows signs of having been designed.1 I don't see how it's possible to talk about this without having at least some vague idea of what a designer would be like. Any possible universe could be explained as the work of some sort of designer. Even a universe that is completely chaotic, without any laws or regularities at all, could be supposed to have been designed by an idiot."
    • "I have to admit that, even when physicists will have gone as far as they can go, when we have a final theory, we will not have a completely satisfying picture of the world, because we will still be left with the question "why?" Why this theory, rather than some other theory? For example, why is the world described by quantum mechanics? Quantum mechanics is the one part of our present physics that is likely to survive intact in any future theory, but there is nothing logically inevitable about quantum mechanics; I can imagine a universe governed by Newtonian mechanics instead. So there seems to be an irreducible mystery that science will not eliminate.
      But religious theories of design have the same problem. Either you mean something definite by a God, a designer, or you don't. If you don't, then what are we talking about? If you do mean something definite by "God" or "design," if for instance you believe in a God who is jealous, or loving, or intelligent, or whimsical, then you still must confront the question "why?" A religion may assert that the universe is governed by that sort of God, rather than some other sort of God, and it may offer evidence for this belief, but it cannot explain why this should be so.
      In this respect, it seems to me that physics is in a better position to give us a partly satisfying explanation of the world than religion can ever be, because although physicists won't be able to explain why the laws of nature are what they are and not something completely different, at least we may be able to explain why they are not slightly different. For instance, no one has been able to think of a logically consistent alternative to quantum mechanics that is only slightly different. Once you start trying to make small changes in quantum mechanics, you get into theories with negative probabilities or other logical absurdities. When you combine quantum mechanics with relativity you increase its logical fragility. You find that unless you arrange the theory in just the right way you get nonsense, like effects preceding causes, or infinite probabilities. Religious theories, on the other hand, seem to be infinitely flexible, with nothing to prevent the invention of deities of any conceivable sort."

    • "It is certainly true that the campaign against slavery and the slave trade was greatly strengthened by devout Christians, including the Evangelical layman William Wilberforce in England and the Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing in America. But Christianity, like other great world religions, lived comfortably with slavery for many centuries, and slavery was endorsed in the New Testament. So what was different for anti-slavery Christians like Wilberforce and Channing? There had been no discovery of new sacred scriptures, and neither Wilberforce nor Channing claimed to have received any supernatural revelations. Rather, the eighteenth century had seen a widespread increase in rationality and humanitarianism that led others - for instance, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan - also to oppose slavery, on grounds having nothing to do with religion. Lord Mansfield, the author of the decision in Somersett's Case, which ended slavery in England (though not its colonies), was no more than conventionally religious, and his decision did not men-tion religious arguments. Although Wilberforce was the instigator of the campaign against the slave trade in the 1790s, this movement had essential support from many in Parliament like Fox and Pitt, who were not known for their piety. As far as I can tell, the moral tone of religion benefited more from the spirit of the times than the spirit of the times benefited from religion. "
      Where religion did make a difference, it was more in support of slavery than in opposition to it. Arguments from scripture were used in Parliament to defend the slave trade. Frederick Douglass told in his Narrative how his condition as a slave became worse when his master underwent a religious conversion that allowed him to justify slavery as the punishment of the children of Ham. Mark Twain described his mother as a genuinely good person, whose soft heart pitied even Satan, but who had no doubt about the legitimacy of slavery, because in years of living in antebellum Missouri she had never heard any sermon opposing slavery, but only countless sermons preaching that slavery was God's will. With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil - that takes religion."

    • At
    • At
    • At

  • Birkbeck College London Philosophy Society
    • At
    • Excellent talk on the 23rd October 2001 - 8.30pm: Professor Peter Lipton, Head of Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University: on the subject of "Science, Religion & Truth"
      • Score:  religious believers 1
                athiest scoffers    0

    • Reading list from
      • Alvin Plantinga's When Faith and Reason Clash, along with Ernan McMullin's response and Plantinga's reply to that, all in Hull and Ruse (eds), The Philosophy of Biology, OUP 1998.
      • You could also look at Stephen Jay Gould's recent book Rock of Ages, Ballantine 1999. But I won't be discussing any of this stuff directly.
      • The most relevant reading is probably Richard Braithwaite's An Empiricist's View of the Nature of Religious Belief, but that may be hard to locate. It was originally published as a pamphlet as the Eddington Lecture of 1955 and has been reprinted as a Bobbs-Merrill Reprint, but I don't know that it has made it into any anthologies.
      • Relevant in another way is Bas van Fraassen's The Scientific Image, OUP 1980, chapter 2, since I will appropriate some ideas from his constructive empiricism.

    • Summary of Peter Lipton's talk from
      • The Tension Problem
      • Managing Contradictions
      • Adjusting Content Vs Adjusting Attitude
      • The Two Tables
      • Tensions between Science and Religion
      • Diminishing Solutions
      • Anti-Realism to the Rescue?
      • Descartesí Solution
      • Kuhnís Solution: Kant on Wheels, Incommensurability
      • Van Fraassenís Solution: Literal Interpretation, Acceptance, Immersion
      • Applying Constructive Empiricism to Religion: The Immersion Solution
      • Stories with morals?
      • Semantic conflict with epistemic consistency
      • Inconsistency without Irrationality
      • Literalism without Fundamentalism

    • Keywords to look up later:
      • Arthur Eddington "2 tables lecture"
      • Science giving fact, religion giving values
      • Literal Interpretation vs Acceptance vs Immersion
      • Science is about discovering a mind independent reality
      • If only interested in facts, put your investment into science

   Everywhere one seeks to produce meaning, to make the world signify,
   to render it visible.  We are not, however, in danger of lacking meaning;
   quite the contrary, we are gorged with meaning and it is killing us.
   	-Jean Baudrillard

Updated Goss from the UK

Date: Sat, 24 Mar 2001 21:41:24 +0000
To: Lachlan Cranswick []
Subject: Re: North and Free - Dawkins

>>"It is, I think, the roughest land I ever saw... 
>>I climbed to the top of Chipman's Hill (Saint John) and watched the sails
>>in the distance, and such a feeling of loneliness came over me that though
>>I had not shed a tear through all the war, I sat down on the damp moss with
>>my baby on my lap and cried bitterly.
>>Shortages, harsh living conditions, and worry plagued the Loyalists in the
>>hastily erected refugee camps. Many had to live in tents during their first
>>...We pitched our tents in the shelter of the woods and tried to cover them
>>with spruce boughs. We used stones for fireplaces. Our tents had no floors
>>but the ground ... How we lived through that winter, I barely know..."

Hi Lachlan,
           extracts compiled hurriedly off the web, but I've just now
recovered the source from

which is part of

The author(ess) of the extract was the grandmother of Sir Leonard Tilley,
one of the fathers of Canadian Confederation.

The style I used was that of Ezra Pound, which I shamelessly plagiarized
(if you can plagiarize a style). He uses small historical fragments in his
cantos, unacknowledged, which when piled up create an interesting effect of
contemporaneity. (But leaving scholars who are interested in his sources a
fifty year task of tracking them all down!)


Richard Dawkins seems to have launched an all-out assault here on the
C-of-E, largely prompted by the present Labour Govt's decision to
financially support a large number of Church-of-England schools. (In its
abandonment of a century-old socialist policy of enforcing standardised

Recent news story (1). Apparently "Comprehensive Schools" (a swinging
sixties leftie invention to replace very successful grammar schools, which
were, it was widely thought on the left, teaching people NOT to vote
Labour) are now so bad that atheists are pretending to be Christians to get
their kids into C-of-E schools!

Recent news story (2). Labour education spokesman describes Comprehensive
schools (ie UK equivalent to Aussie state schools) as "bog-standard".

Dawkins has been excellent throughout. By contrast, the current Labour
Government is finally starting to look a little shaky. Their reliance on
"spin" (=lies) and the gullibility of the great British public has hardly
dented their popularity up to now, but the latest claim that the British
Countryside is "open for business" is positively Orwellian, since every
gate in the kingdom has a big red sign on it saying NO ACCESS - FOOT AND
MOUTH PRECAUTION. Even the BBC has noticed the hint of incongruity...

Declining educational standards here are a continuing subject of debate. I
suppose the Labour Govt feels it has to do something... but the truth is
all sides have lost the plot...

Yours Aye,

PS Ever read Dr Johnson's "Taxation no Tyranny"?


Updated Goss from the UK: Another Source

Date: Sun, 25 Mar 2001 17:04:34 EST
Subject: Re: How's it going?
Content-Disposition: Inline

Re: Foot and Mouth disease. The whole thing has just 
compounded the malaise and general depression of the 
country. Do you know that the farmers that haven't 
commited suicide are trying to buy farms in Canada? So
the farmers are depressed, along with the steel workers.
Everyone thinks that the schools, NHS, railways are shit.
The Labour government have a 21 billion pound surplus and
commited to spending 7 billion this year but have only
actually spent 3 billion and only have one month before
the end of the financial year to spend the other 4 
billion. So, tell me, how can a country with the best 
economy in years and with tonnes of money be so F'd up?

[Galbraith: The Great Crash: 1929] | [Galbraith: Culture of Contentment] | [Galbraith: Money]
[Popper: Open Society and its Enemies vol 1] | [Popper: Open Society and its Enemies vol 2]
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