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Friday, March 21, 2008


"God is the name that mankind gives its ignorance."

Agreed. I'm currently reading Dawkins's The God Delusion, just finished the section where he elaborates on that very point.

Tried to post this link in the previous comment but it didn't work. Here it is again:


The desire for a religious answer to every unresolved question is just the opposite of "speculating about beginnings and endings"; rather, it's a manifestation of the desperate need for resolution, an impatience for mystery, an inability to accept that there are limits to what we know.

You see this in debates between creationists and scientists, when it becomes clear that the creationist actually has no idea what it means to do science. The creationist judges a given theory on the answers it provides, and on that basis, creationism does provide answers. But, to a scientist, the best theories are the ones that raise new and interesting questions.

So, to a scientist, creationism is worse that wrong; it's a dead end. It doesn't lead to any new science. The great value of the theory of evolution, on the other hand, is the thousands of fascinating questions it raises - so many questions that we're still trying to answer them. Creationists see this as a weakness: "Look! They still don't understand how it works!"

Jean: Thanks for the link. One of the other things I often say is that for religious people, God is the default answer...and the Richard Dawkins/Jerry Coyne article that I reached through your link goes into this in great detail. So I suppose I'm just plagiarizing Dawkins. Then again, I used to tell people about the Giant Grasshopper Behind Mars years before the Flying Spaghetti Monster showed up on the scene....

I found this great Clarke quote: "Science can destroy a religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets. No one ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the nonexistence of Zeus or Thor, but they have few followers now."

SteveB: There's a lot of truth to that, though I'd say the critical characteristic of science that evolutionists don't understand is that it's falsifiable. Scientific theories provide testable predictions, and can easily be refuted by evidence that contradicts those predictions. Creationism isn't science because it's just an assertion of absolute knowledge that's impossible to falsify.

Despite popular belief to the contrary, it's the atheist who is the most comfortable with the central mysteries of existence, since it's the atheist who doesn't feel the need to fill those voids with the sterile certainties of ancient mythologies.

Yes. Sometimes the best and most honest answer is "I don't know," which rigid religious convictions get in the way of.

John, it wasn't science that rendered Thor and Zeus ungods, it was a certain competing religion, using political power and the sword. Similarly, no one ever proved that drapetomania doesn't exist -- that African-American slaves ran away from their loving lawful masters because they suffered from a disease of some kind -- it was largely forgotten out of embarrassment after slavery was abolished. Science is also a name mankind [sic!] gives its ignorance, though that also brings to mind the remark that the trouble isn't that people are ignorant, it's that they know so much that ain't so.

I'm afraid I've never been a Clarke fan. Some his earlier stuff (Childhood's End, maybe? it has been a long time) was decent, but by the 70s he'd become pretty boring, in my hubristic opinion. Technology was the main -- well, the only character; his human beings were barely supporting players, dwarfed by the glory of nature and Science. (That was before he began doing the awful collaborations with the likes of Gentry Lee. Sounds like a good name for a stripper, don't you think?) I read most of his later work anyway, because my brother is a Clarke fan, and I used to buy him each new book, and read it before I gave it to him. That wasn't a painful experience, just not very interesting, and I'm also reminded of Santayana's reported (by Gore Vidal) judgment of Toynbee: Some sort of preacher, I think; however, some of the footnotes are not useless.

In the afterword to 3001, though, Clarke finally pissed me off. He expressed his good will toward his Christian and Jewish and Buddhist and Hindu friends (see what a liberal he was? why, some of his best friends were theists!), and added that it is, however, better to be sane and unhappy than to be un-sane and happy -- but better still to be sane and happy. Whenever I see an atheist calling religious belief insanity or a mental illness, I know he's a wack job. (Leaving aside the thought that a person who insists that he's sane while everybody else is crazy is not a strong candidate for sanity; and that theists like C. S. Lewis have used the same trope in their own apologetics.) Theism is false, but it's neither a delusion nor a mental illness.

Finally, the falsifiability move. This is a pretty slogan that isn't supported by actual scientific practice. For just one prominent example, Darwin's theory was originally falsified by some decisive problems, such as the fact that life seemed to start in post-Cambrian times, which wasn't long enough for his theory. Einstein's theory conflicted with some new evidence that emerged within a year of its publication. And so on. In the end science has to conform with the real world, but theories must be advanced with a fair amount of old-fashioned faith, despite the evidence against them.

Science isn't a name that mankind gives its ignorance; it's an exploration of those things about which we're ignorant, undertaken in order to try to understand them.

Regarding "falsification": there's a huge difference between a theory being mistaken or flawed in some way and it being completely unfalsifiable (as in the case of creationism, though I wouldn't use "theory" in that regard). Science is a process, and theories are iteratively refined, improved, and discarded in that process.

Regarding "old-fashioned faith": applying this to science is a valid metaphor, but if you take it any farther than that it's a falsehood, and not just that but a pernicious falsehood that's used by religious types to attack science. The "faith" in this case is just the result of being persuaded by the explanatory power and apparent validity of a given theory. The quest to prove or disprove that theory may then be undertaken with "missionary zeal", another easily-abused metaphor. And the person who's persuaded by it may "preach" it avidly.

But the key difference is that if the scientist finds information that completely contradicts what they previously "believed" (another dangerous metaphor), they will abandon it, sometimes even if it means the destruction of their life's work. But no amount of evidence in any direction will sway the theist, because their belief was never based on evidence in the first place.

BTW, regarding Clarke: I'd say that's a valid criticism of his fiction, and like you I didn't like his later stuff as much. Also, I read him mainly when I was younger and I don't know how it would hold up for me today (in a way I want to leave it alone, since I appreciate the memory more than I would the re-experiencing of it).

I didn't begin reading Clarke until I was in my late 20s, so he never had any personal resonance for me. For me the formative writer was Heinlein, and I can still largely read him with pleasure despite his laughable politics. I recently reread some Andre Norton, whose books I read a lot in 5th through 7th grades (it was interesting which parts of "The Stars Are Ours" had stuck in my memory), and Ray Bradbury, whom I'd also read at about the same age but decided wasn't much good by 14 or so. "The October Country" still has a creepiness about it, a terror of the body and of women, that gives it some power. But "The Martian Chronicles" was just plain silly, and "Fahrenheit 451" (which I read for the first time last summer) was no better. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle" I still love, but judging by his other books I've read, it was a fluke. I read a fair number of Groff Conklin's anthologies from the 40s and 50s with pleasure. Asimov I never liked much even as a kid, Herbert's "Dune" I read when it was first published and it left me cold. A lot of the most popular (among sf fans) writers strike me as just plain bad writers -- Herbert, Zelazny, Asimov. I really got more into science fiction and fantasy more in my late 20s and 30s, when the queers (Delany, Russ, Lynn), the wimmin (Russ, LeGuin, Piercy, Lynn) and the colored (Delany, Butler) began moving into the neighborhood.

The thing about "falsification" is that as scientific mythology has it, if a theory encounters disconfirming evidence, you throw it out. That's not actual scientific practice, as the examples I gave (plus many others) show: instead, when you encounter disconforming evidence for a theory you like, you hang onto it and try to adjust it. Not greatly different from religion. I'm not saying that's bad, just that actual scientific practice and scientific self-advertisement are different. (The term "self-correcting" as applied to science also makes me giggle, because every human institution is self-correcting, but then it took affirmative-action suits to get more women into science, and they still face boy resistance there.)

But consider scientific racism, which, though it has been falsified pretty decisively, keep getting revived under different names, like "sociobiology" and "evolutionary psychology", and is still very much with us. I finally started looking at Steven Pinker recently, and the man may be a competent linguist, but he's also a scientific racist and a liar. (See his misrepresentation of, for instance, Richard Lewontin.) So's Richard Dawkins. And these guys aren't isolated cranks, any more than James D. Watson is.

I'm not "anti-science" (a term much like "anti-American" in its use and function), but I am aware of the limitations of science and I think it needs to be regarded with the same skepticism as I regard religion.

Not greatly different from religion.

How so? Religion starts from the assumption that an ancient text or tradition is true, and seeks to reconcile observed reality with the text. Science starts from an observation of reality and a hypothesized explanation of it, and seeks to reconcile new observations with old observations and old explanations. Religion starts by assuming the existence of God/gods (usually, anyway). Science only starts with the assumption that our observations of patterns and events are reliable to some extent, which is an assumption that all humans must make in order to live their daily lives, whether they're "pro-science" or not.

I definitely agree that many of pop culture's spokesmen of "science," including Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, are off-base about a lot of things. But it's worth noting that "evolutionary psychology" isn't really taken seriously by scientists who aren't evolutionary psychologists--ask a random evolutionary biologist what s/he thinks of evo-psych, and you'll get an angry earful.

Duncan: Thanks for the thoughtful response. Most of what I could say in reply would just be repeating myself, but I will repeat the key point that I think your analysis is missing: that science is a process, not a static system, and that theories are iteratively refined, improved, or discarded in that process. Also, "falsification" isn't an all or nothing proposition, and it's unlikely that a theory that has undergone intense scrutiny and seen extensive refinement, as evolution has, would ever be "falsified" in its entirety. Your example of the post-Cambrian fossil record is in fact exactly what Creationists jump on as a refutation of evolution, but pointing out a single unexplained (or insufficiently-explained) phenomenon doesn't in and of itself invalidate an entire theory; it may just point toward the need for refinement. If you want a genuine example of theories being discarded, look at Lamarckism instead.

Religion, by its very nature, doesn't operate this way. The Catholic Church isn't going to "adjust" or "self-correct" their version of God based on conflicting "evidence", whatever that might be; for them he is and will always be the omniscient creator of everything in the universe, and the ultimate answer to every question.

Finally, I differ from most leftists in that I accept evolutionary psychology as not only a valid field but one whose validity shouldn't even be controversial. It's obvious to me that our psychology would be affected by our biology—just as it is for every other organism on the face of the planet. Why would we be any different? I don't view that as a threat to my ideology, and I refuse to reject any scientific results or areas of inquiry that may seem to challenge my ideological beliefs. In my opinion, the practice of so many on the left of attacking science that (in their view) challenges progressive notions of race, gender, behavior, society, etc, is not only misguided but immoral, and essentially lowers us to the level of the religious right.

I'm not saying that that necessarily describes you, but I do think you've gone way overboard in your characterizations of Pinker and Dawkins, and you should reconsider throwing around the kind of incendiary (and even libelous) words you're using so lightly. If "anti-science" is analogous to "anti-American", "scientific racism" is analogous to "anti-Semitism" in its function and usage. I've read Pinker and Dawkins extensively and I've seen not a shred of evidence that either are racists.

It's obvious to me that our psychology would be affected by our biology—just as it is for every other organism on the face of the planet.

But that's not what "evolutionary psychologists" say. Their claims are far stronger and far more specific, and are often backed up with just-so stories rather than evidence. Evolutionary psychologists automatically look to evolution to explain stuff (including gender/race differences) without paying serious attention to the effects of culture, and the evidence they provide for traits being evolved is...shaky, at best. And they generally don't respond to criticisms of their argument, choosing instead to attack straw-men who supposedly believe we're all born blank slates (Pinker is notorious for this).

Serafina: I'd agree that there's a reductionist trend in evolutionary psychology (just as in many areas, scientific and otherwise), but it doesn't invalidate the underlying approach. And I'd say the bulk of the people who are so upset about it are mainly angered by the societal implications, not the quality of the science; how else to explain the vehemence of the reactions?

I agree with you that Pinker loves to thrash a good straw man, but the blank slate isn't one of them. Most of my progressive friends have said that that's exactly how they see human beings. In fact, in my experience, the suggestion that we're anything but blank slates—that bad stuff like selfishness, deception, violence, etc, could be a part of our genetic wiring—is met with outraged denunciations. It's a symptom of the frequent ideological rigidity of the left, which to me is one of its worst failings.

Serafina: Religion doesn't "start" with a sacred text. Some religions have no sacred texts. Sacred texts are produced by religions, not the other way around.

John: Religion isn't a "static system" either. False dichotomy.

I don't reject evolutionary psychology because of its societal implications, which are basically nil, but because the science is wrong. In principle, I agree with you that it's a valid field of study, and I agree that human beings are not blank slates. True, a lot of leftists would disagree (just as a lot of leftists say silly and ill-informed things about religion), but not the scientists whom Pinker attacks and consistently misrepresents. Though people like Pinker and Dawkins strenuously distance themselves from the old eugenic forms of scientific racism, their social analyses are, when not simply based on it, at best a reinvention of it. Hence the left-baiting and feminist-baiting in so much evolutionary psychologists' writing. I've seen Steve Gould dismissed as a "Marxist," for example, though not by Pinker. Noam Chomsky is certainly a leftist, and he believes much human behavior is shaped by biology, but he's ripped apart scientific racism with as much glee as I could wish. I take it you've read "Psychology and Ideology"?

"Scientific racism," by the way, does not refer to crude gut racism of the Ku Klux Klan variety. It means the belief that human cultural differences (including those of class) are biologically based and immutable. So you've got Pinker, for example, accepting Thornhill and Palmer's claim that rape is part of men's biological heritage (and then quoting Camille Paglia in support of his position), and Dawkins in The Selfish Gene warning against members of the lower orders who exploit the welfare state to spawn like rabbits. (Page 126; I think it's a coded attack on Catholicism. The context is even more outrageously out to lunch. I discuss it in more detail here.)

Why, by the way, is it only "bad stuff like selfishness,", etc. that you think "could be a part of our genetic wiring"? Why not also the "good stuff" like sociability? In reality, the "good stuff" and "the bad stuff" are often the same thing.

Religion isn't a "static system" either. False dichotomy.

The point was that the core tenets of a religion like Christianity are not "iteratively refined, improved, or discarded." Science doesn't work from immutable, revealed truths, and that's why science is nothing like religion, except on a narrow metaphorical level.

You say you don't reject EP because of the societal implications, but from what you write I can't imagine that you'd accept any result that shows that (say) rape is "part of men's biological heritage"—no matter how solid or well-supported it might be. Am I wrong about that? So despite what you're saying, it does look to me like it's the societal implications that guarantee (beforehand) that you're going to reject the result in instances like this.

I never said that "only" bad stuff could be part of our genetic wiring, actually. I mentioned the bad stuff because it's the bad stuff that blank slateists object to, not the good stuff. They don't truly believe in a blank slate—just a slate that's blank of anything negative that would (in their minds) imply that those behaviors are somehow more acceptable by virtue of being part of our genetic heritage.

And I'd say the bulk of the people who are so upset about it are mainly angered by the societal implications, not the quality of the science; how else to explain the vehemence of the reactions?

Because a lie with social implications is obviously worse than a lie without. Saying that there's solid evidence of an innate racial gap in intelligence (which there isn't) is, and always will be, more damaging and harmful than having a theory on the origins of a particular species of amoeba that's wrong. Science often has social implications and there's no getting around that.

It's not that they're angered by the societal implications rather than the quality of the science. We're angered by the prevalence of bad science on these topics of huge social relevance, because that does say something about our society.

Most of my progressive friends have said that that's exactly how they see human beings.

Well, most of the people I know, progressive or not, don't. And academia as a whole certainly doesn't. Maybe some sequestered wings of critical theory do, but beyond that? I don't see it. And plenty of the people Pinker attacks as espousing the "blank slate" theory clearly do not.

you'd accept any result that shows that (say) rape is "part of men's biological heritage"—no matter how solid or well-supported it might be. Am I wrong about that?

But what does that mean--"rape is part of men's biological heritage"? How do you separate the "cultural" from the "biological," and what exactly does it mean for something to be "biological" (which evo-psych types seem to use as synonymous with "innate" and unchangeable)? I'm not asking you to define these things, John, merely pointing out that few people seem to define their terms in these debates. In any case, Thornhill and Palmer are not taken seriously by anyone who's actually studied rape in a serious way. So you're asking about how Duncan and other evo-psych-skeptics would react to hypothetical evidence, evidence that does not exist, that would hypothetically prop up a socially relevant and potentially damaging belief. Can you see how that kind of question is itself a reflection of an underlying assumption that these beliefs are fundamentally true? Because nobody is commonly asked about how they'd react to hypothetical evidence unless there's some sort of presumption that the hypothetical evidence will be found.

I'd like to turn the question around and ask evo-psych types what evidence would convince them that rape is not fundamentally a biological phenomenon, or that women are innately smarter than men at math, or that black people are the smartest people in the world. Because their views are not non-political. On the contrary, they have a long and ugly political history, and I don't see why it should be taken for granted that they are pointing out realities while their critics are reacting ideologically. Which is precisely what questions about hypothetical evidence, directed solely at evo-psych critics (as they usually are), imply. I don't see a shred of evidence that evolutionary psychology proponents are generally defending a "just-the-facts-ma'am" approach rather than pushing their own social agendas. I think the eagerness to accuse evo-psych critics of ideology rather than the evo-psychs themselves often stems from a belief that the conservative social order is the "natural" one and the inevitable one, and so of course the evo-psychs are just pointing out hard facts while their critics are all about the ideology. Even many progressives hold this belief, I've found.

Meta comment: This is a really wonderful and interesting exchange, and it's certainly led me to do a lot of thinking. You both make excellent points (on the plethora of topics we've touched on), and make them well.

Serafina, there was too much of substance in what you wrote for me to address it all, but here are a few thoughts....

Because a lie with social implications is obviously worse than a lie without.

But in framing the issue that way you're already prejudging the messenger—it's a "lie", not just a mistake or an incorrect result. Similarly, throughout, you seem to be implicitly attributing motives to EP researchers like racism, sexism, misogyny, etc. That's what I'm saying: the reaction to the research is to question the motives, biases, character, etc of the researcher, not (just) to address the results themselves.

A "just-the-facts-sir" approach is exactly how all scientific discussions are supposed to be conducted. But the responses to EP that we're talking about never work that way; it's not a cool analysis and rebuttal of the research, perhaps followed by a look at the ethical issues involved. It's a torrent of accusations and denunciations. And that's why they're attributed to ideology: because the character and ferocity of the attacks makes it clear that that's where they're coming from. Critics of EP may be angered by any number of things, and often with plenty of justification—but when they lead with that anger, they're just revealing their own biases. And this type of reaction is particular to people who excoriate those whose results end up on the "wrong" side of social issues of race, gender, equality, etc; you rarely if ever see it go the other way around.

I'd like to turn the question around and ask evo-psych types what evidence would convince them ... that black people are the smartest people in the world.

Taking just this example: the research I've seen puts the average Asian IQ far above that of white Europeans. Unless the argument would be that white researchers are racist against blacks but not against (say) Chinese, attributing the results to the racist intentions of the researchers (as critics so often do) just doesn't make sense.

Last point. There's a good reason that EP might be seen as natural: because we don't hesitate to explain behavior and psychology in terms of evolutionary adaptations for every other animal on the face of the planet. So why not human beings as well? What makes us so special? It would be deeply shocking to find that humans aren't chock full of behaviors and psychological mechanisms that are tied to evolutionary adaptations. As I said, I do resist the reductionist tendency of EP because I think it misses (or underplays) the fact that we've evolved a brain that allows us to counter those mechanisms, but I don't feel a need to deny their existence or impact.

Looks like Duncan decided to take his further comments on the religion side of this thread here. Give us hell, Duncan. :-)

(BTW, it looks to me like you may have seriously misinterpreted Serafina's "religion starts" comment, in a way that transforms it from a salient point into a flawed digression....)

What a dick to smear Clarke in his own obituary that way. Typical. Slap a Ups sticker addressed to Hell on my casket and set it on fire, and burn down the church the funeral's being held in as well.

Here about a month later, if anyone's still paying attention...and glad to see Duncan's post, even though he wildly misreads what I said: for one thing, religion NOW is undeniably about ancient texts; just look how the Mormons, relative newcomers, are taken so much less seriously than ancient Christian myths, and the "start" I was talking about was conceptual rather than historical.

But in framing the issue that way you're already prejudging the messenger—it's a "lie", not just a mistake or an incorrect result.

I'm not pre-judging the messenger. I'm judging him, and I don't mean to imply that many EP proponents are racist, misogynist, etc. I mean to actually say it, because I've read quite a lot of it, and there's only so many times you can make an "honest mistake" before it stops being so honest. When people repeatedly ignore facts that disprove their theses, I think they lose the benefit of the doubt. I have seen many specific examples--too many to cite here--of EP proponents doing exactly that. There is a LONG track record of EP proponents doing things like ignoring initiation of sex by female primates, or defining "rape" to mean things that a human would never call rape and then using that definition to argue that rape (in the normal sense) is natural, or excluding male-on-male rape and child-rape from their definition of rape, or ignoring dominance ploys by female primates...the list can go on and on and ON.

Aside from which, an incorrect statement (whatever the motive behind it) with social implications is obviously more harmful than an incorrect statement without, which was my main point.

I'm also quite well aware that a just-the-facts approach is necessary. My point is that the EP folks hardly ever use it. And it's demonstrably untrue that responses to EP "never work that way": there have been innumerable books and papers and peer-reviewed studies challenging the fundamental assumptions as well as the findings of EP, all for factual and conceptual reasons, and liberal critics of EP frequently cite them.

As for the whole Asian IQ thing, it's undeniable that white racism against Asians has taken a VERY different form from white racism against black people. So, yes, I think it very likely that researchers and others involved would make assumptions about black people that they don't about Asians. I also know that the Asians in those studies have grown up in very different environments with very different pressures than the black people.

Finally, I think your last comment re-asserts a straw-man that lots of evopsychs love to whack at, namely that all of their critics think that we should never explain behavior and psychology in terms of evolutionary adaptations. That's not what I think, nor is it what most EP critics that I have read think. Again, what we reject is the tendency among self-declared evopsychs to look at that as an automatic first explanation and to dismiss culture without sufficient rigorous thought. We also don't think that many of the specific things that evo psychs claim are adaptations actually are. In fact, many EP critics have themselves written on biological influences on human behavior.

I also think this discussion was very thought-provoking, though I doubt it could go any further without specific examples to discuss. So I'll stop rambling now.

Serafina: Glad you're still out there—I feared I might have fatally irked you.

You make great points, as always...and I think you're right, the discussion is probably near its useful end in this form and forum. Just a few things, mainly to clarify some misunderstandings:

I'm judging him...

Pronoun noted, but the field of EP was co-pioneered by Leda Cosmides, who ain't a him.

And it's demonstrably untrue that responses to EP "never work that way":

Actually, my phrasing was "but the responses to EP that we're talking about never work that way." I meant that the responses that are chalked up to ideology—which were the ones we were talking about—are the angry screeds and denunciations, not the reasoned arguments. I wouldn't doubt that some of the reasoned arguments get similar responses as well, but I think a lot of that is overflow from the frequent fevered attacks.

Finally, I think your last comment re-asserts a straw-man that lots of evopsychs love to whack at, namely that all of their critics think that we should never explain behavior and psychology in terms of evolutionary adaptations.

Not my intention, actually; I was just responding to your point about why EP should be considered "natural". But regarding "automatic first explanation"...well, yes, just as evolutionary mechanisms are our automatic first explanation for the behavior of every other animal. That doesn't mean they're the correct explanation in every case, of course, but I do in fact think that evolutionary mechanisms should be close to a default hypothesis for major behaviors (emphasis on "hypothesis").

In looking back, I thought it was interesting that you identified evolutionary mechanisms with the "conservative social order." Because unfortunately, that's just how it is. Nature is brutally unkind to lefty notions of equality, rights, egalitarianism, and so on. Survival and social justice are rarely compatible. I think the left makes a serious mistake in trying to fight that at the level of science, though, rather than in terms of universally-agreed upon norms of ethical behavior. And I think the right makes a serious mistake in trying to justify their selfish, self-centered ideology by appeals to "nature" (the naturalistic fallacy in a nutshell).

As I said, I think the key point that many conservative EP types miss or underplay is that we've evolved a brain that allows us to counter those mechanisms, which we do every day in myriad ways. That's the very basis of modern civilization, and that's where social forces are extremely important. But on the flip side, many liberals want to deny that those mechanisms do in fact still exist—and often not even that far below the surface—since otherwise the fact of their being "natural" will somehow make them acceptable (the moralistic fallacy in a nutshell).

I think both of those fallacies can and should be rejected, and I don't see any contradiction between doing so and having strong progressive principles. That's what I aim for.

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