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I’ve spent an awful lot of time scattering thoughts into the Blagnet. It’s a valuable way of procrastinating on other things and making myself feel like an intellectual. Unfortunately, it also means that on the off-chance I do say anything worth remembering, it’s probably buried in the comment thread to some blag post and can’t be retrieved without a string of Google search terms eight words long.

So, I’ve decided to start recycling the more entertainingly pseudo-intellectual rambles of mine, editing for clarity where I can. First up is a selection from this Pharyngula thread; the rant proper can be found below the fold.

The tone was set by the inimitable PZ Myers, who began thusly:

I am committed to more brevity, so I must resist the temptation to draw out my greatsword, chop this into bloody chunks, and stomp the gobbets into gooey red smears while howling, “There are nooooo gods!!!”, but I will take exception to one small piece of Francis Collins’ interview in Christianity Today.

First up in the comments was a chap named Brian, who said,

Collins also has an interview in the new issue of National Geographic, in which he side-steps a lot of tough questions like “Why did God do nothing about the Holocaust?”. Collins also uses the old canard of Mother Teresa exhibiting selflessness so great that evolution can’t explain such altruism, and overall the interview made me want to read his book even less (I figured I should for the sake of hearing him out, but now I don’t know if I care to).

This, to judge from the evidence left behind, set me off.

I am not closely familiar with the life and accomplishments of Mother Teresa (she’s basically a rhetorical device and a punchline to me), so I’ll not say anything about that specific tangent. However, I think it bears repeating that we have not one, but a plenitude of explanations for how altruism can arise via natural mechanisms: kin selection, group selection, reciprocality. . . . Our problem, pragmatically speaking, is not to devise more explanations or stretch our credulity in fishing for improbable ones, but rather to decide which of the many worthwhile candidates we already have on hand does the best job. It’s a big world, with plenty of room for all these effects to play. Philosophically, there is no way to choose among them; empirically, the question is to find out which had an effect in which places. Our vanity pushes us to seek the explanation which applies best to our own twig of the evolutionary bush, and we will undeniably give that explanation a favored place among ideas once we find it.

Science presents us with a meal so rich we can hardly choose among the courses, and Collins wishes us to starve.

But wait, there’s more!

Collins provides an “argument” for God which is little more than Paley’s Watchmaker in disguise. He asserts, contrary to evidence, that natural mechanisms cannot explain the rise of beings who exhibit morality. Let’s ignore the question of evidence for a moment, pretending for the nonce that nobody has proposed kin selection, group selection or any of that. We can even step back before Darwin and ask how Epicurus, Lucretius or David Hume would have replied to this reasoning.

Suppose, while walking along a beach, we discover a pocket watch in the sand. (Lucretius would have to phrase the question in terms of the Antikythera machine, but that’s a small matter.) Not knowing of any way that the washing of the waves or the scuttling of tide-pool crabs could create a working timepiece, we presume that the watch must have been designed. But by whom?

With the paltry information we have on hand, we cannot say whether the watch we found was made by a master craftsman, by an apprentice (perhaps on his twentieth attempt!), by a committee of guild members, by Hephaistos or by aliens from Tau Ceti IV. The design argument crumbles in our hands, leaving only an old timepiece with sand in the gears.

The same holds true for the pablum Collins has offered. We may be moral beings because Jehovah willed it so, or because the Invisible Pink Unicorn touched us with Her magical horn, or because the royal house of Tau Ceti IV likes to eat Earthlingburgers and wants us lily-livered in the face of their invasion! If all our proposed causes have equivalent complexity — which they do when we mandate that a cause has comparable complexity to its effect — then we can’t even use Ockham’s Razor to shave off the “extra” explanations.

Religions are, indeed, explanations of the world. They tell you what is and why it is that way. They ask that these explanations be accepted without evidence. (Don’t even look through that telescope, Galileo. There can’t be satellites orbiting Jupiter, because God made the same number of heavenly bodies as He did openings in the human head.) When one looks at the evidence, the claims which religion has made often turn out wrong, and can only be made to agree with fact by stretching the limits of allegorical interpretation.

It is possible to accept on faith a claim which has not yet been investigated by observation, reason and cross-criticism. A religion whose theogony speaks of gods who lived for less than Planck time after the Big Bang and then all died is probably immune from scientific inquiry for years if not decades to come. Likewise, a religion based on Neil Gaiman‘s Stardust, in which Faerie is the land where all things go once they are disproved, could well be logically insulated from empirical scrutiny. A Sikh, a Jain or a Taoist may well enjoy much the same status as a follower of my hypothetical Faerie-worship.

Western religions do not enjoy the same privilege. They make claims of fact, assertions which are tangled up with their statements of morality into Gordian knots of arcana. What’s more, these claims about the physical world are often based on moral concerns (or motivated by them, even if the connection isn’t written out honestly). It’s an argument from adverse consequences, but that doesn’t stop anybody. The familiar Western religions do not stay nicely on their side of the NOMA quarantine, and the entire creationism debate is empirical testimony to this fact.

In Russell Blackford’s words,

Unfortunately for Gould’s enterprise, religions are not secular ethical philosophies dressed up with symbols. They are encyclopedic explanatory systems that make sense of the world of human experience in terms of a supernatural realm and its workings. They end up making statements about humanity’s place in the space-time Universe that are open to conflict with scientific statements about physical nature. With the example of Genesis and its genealogies, reinterpretations are possible, and not just of the first three chapters, but it seems wrong-headed to rule out the religious legitimacy of accepting the book’s literal words.

Furthermore, there is no point

putting an argument that something quite different from the normal concept of religion can justifiably be called “religion”, and then arguing that this is compatible with science. What a let down! Secondly, the argument for using the word “religion” in this way is appallingly weak. We might as well use the word “autocracy” to describe the study of government on the ground that, historically, most governments have been autocratic. The fact is that modern ethical philosophy is often non-religious or anti-religious, and it is insulting to thinkers such as Parfit or Peter Singer to adopt terminology that suggests they are really playing the religion game.

Poor reasoning of the type Collins has given us propagates through the noise, I believe, because it is self-congratulatory. We are special, it says, and moreover, special because we are good. The lure is irresistible, and dangerous.

3 Comments

    • another moose
    • Posted Saturday, 31 March 2007 at 22:51 pm
    • Permalink

    One more explanation for altruism: evolution doesn’t always produce optimal behavior.

    We’re running code that was mostly written a long time ago, and it doesn’t always work right. For me, the most striking example is the negative correlation between income and fertility rates within and among countries. Our once-useful tendencies to seek comfort and avoid labor now lead well-off people to (pardon my French) get plasma TVs instead of beget kids.

    Presumably some altruistic behavior has previously helped genes survive and reproduce — so we cooperate with our families and tribes, we can imagine how someone else sees a situation, etc. It’s reasonable to say that evolution provided the building blocks for human altruism, and that hard-coded cooperative tendencies sometimes help our genes or help us get what we want.

    But maybe those same tendencies now lead to behavior that doesn’t help one’s genes even in the long term. When people aren’t under stress to feed and shelter themselves, they can become concerned with the darnedest, most irrelevant things. Like, I don’t know, MySpace. Chess. Stock options. The good of humankind. And they do silly things like enter convents. (Never mind Mother Teresa’s actual works, the celibacy is the evolutionarily wild part.)

    Nondeterminism can be kind of depressing to some hardcore fans of evolutionary psychology. (Some flavors of economics, too.) If not everything people do is an evolutionarily stable strategy, or even close, it throws a monkeywrench in our ability to make predictions. Even within the realm of ESSes, there may be more room for variation than some think — it seems like even patently ridiculous cultural norms have ways of sticking around, not even because the norms are inherently great at propagating itself, but simply because they’re the norms.

    I’m sure the whole area’s been considered much more deeply and discussed much more clearly than I could ever do. (Hey, commenter-beggars can’t be commenter-choosers.) If there are great resources on this that I just have to read, my interest is as boundless as my naivete. :)

    • Moose
    • Posted Sunday, 1 April 2007 at 01:54 am
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    Metacomment: my trip off on a tangent wasn’t meant to undermine the actual points you were making. As you said, there are plenty of ways to show evolution to be consistent with human behavior, too many for this margin^H^Hblog post, including comments section, to contain.

    Similarly, the audience at home hasn’t lost track of the larger points. Even ruling out evolution would leave an infinite number of explanations of morality; unlike the invisible pink uniform belief system, the olde-tyme Western religion seeks to explain the tangible, observable world (and affects it!) and must be considered with that in mind; and there are psychological reasons Collins’s stuff sells. (Of course he’d mention Mother Teresa. GOOO TEAM RELIGION!)

    • Blake
    • Posted Sunday, 1 April 2007 at 22:28 pm
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    Another moose said, “One more explanation for altruism: evolution doesn’t always produce optimal behavior.”

    The term I saw Scott Aaronson use was savannah-optimized. (Looks like he gets OED credit for that one, much like I seem to own the phrase “cyberpunk tentacle porn“, at least in English — who can tell about the Japanese?)