All entries by this author

Never Mind Offensive, Is It True?

Dec 31st, 2002 5:42 pm | By

There is an interesting comment on the letters page of the New York Times Science section.

The conversation with David Sloan Wilson quotes him as saying, “I tell people I’m an atheist, but a nice atheist” (“The Origins of Religion, From a Distinctly Darwinian View”). The idea that atheists, secular humanists, agnostics and other free thinkers are not “nice” or, as is often more bluntly put, “cannot be moral without a belief in God” is highly offensive to the millions of Americans who are nonbelievers.

I entirely agree with the basic thought, but I would have phrased it a little differently. (Plus, in Wilson’s defense, I think he is reacting to the prejudices of other people, not expressing his own.) … Read the rest



Research on Free Will *

Dec 31st, 2002 | Filed by

Is it an empirical question rather than a philosophical one?… Read the rest



Paradigm Shift in Progress? *

Dec 31st, 2002 | Filed by

Physicists disagree about revisions to special relativity.… Read the rest



Claim Anything *

Dec 30th, 2002 | Filed by

Rael ‘once claimed that he travelled by flying saucer in 1975 to share lunch with Jesus, Buddha and Confucius’ and now claims to have cloned a human.… Read the rest



Undue Burden Indeed

Dec 30th, 2002 1:00 am | By

Here is a review of what sounds like a very strange book by a ‘New Democrat’ (i.e. a Democrat so conservative he might as well be a Republican) and adviser to Clinton named William Galston. He wraps himself in the cloak of Isaiah Berlin, the reviewer Stephen Macedo wittily remarks, in an effort to make a case for ‘value pluralism’; but it sounds more like Balkanization and desecularization. Particularly bizarre and indeed alarming is the fact that he condemns the U.S. Supreme Court for striking down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was written so broadly as to give religious groups the ability to challenge any law that imposed an ‘undue burden’.

The review is particulary sharp with the all-too … Read the rest



A Skeptical Look at ‘Diversity Liberalism’ *

Dec 29th, 2002 | Filed by

A New Democrat thinks the US doesn’t pander to religion enough.… Read the rest



The Great Age of the Big Notion *

Dec 29th, 2002 | Filed by

The Lonely Crowd was one of a crowd of Big Idea books that were long on speculation but short on evidence.… Read the rest



Separation of Politics and Science *

Dec 28th, 2002 | Filed by

Daniel Smith reviews Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate in The Boston Globe.… Read the rest



Meet Me at the Volcano *

Dec 28th, 2002 | Filed by

A sportswriter and race car driver discovers aliens speak French, starts new religion.… Read the rest



Raelian Bishop Announces Cloned Human *

Dec 27th, 2002 | Filed by

Clonaid, connected to Raelian sect who say aliens created all life on Earth through genetic engineering, claims it has followed suit.… Read the rest



Do We Define Ourselves By Way of our Tastes? *

Dec 26th, 2002 | Filed by

Red wine or white? Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter? (Hang on, where is ‘neither’?)… Read the rest



Open the Door

Dec 24th, 2002 11:25 pm | By

This is an essay that talks (among other things) about the convergence of two subjects (if not more) that keep coming up here: the fashion for biographies of intellectuals–poets, philosophers, historians, scientists–that dwell lovingly on prurient personal details and skip lightly over the ideas and thought and books that are why the people are interesting to begin with; and the dominance of identity politics over every other kind.

The fixation on biography, particularly when it is mixed with interpretive suspicion, suggests a retreat from philosophy’s aspiration to truth; we wallow in the particular and revel in salacious detail, whether it be Wittgenstein’s homosexuality, A. J. Ayer’s promiscuity, Foucault’s “sadomasochistic” experimentations in the gay subculture, Dewey’s sexual shyness, or Hannah Arendt’s

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Gossip Displaces Ideas *

Dec 24th, 2002 | Filed by

Shallow misunderstandings of Arendt, Heidegger, Foucault and others by writers more interested in laundry-inspection than analysis of thought.… Read the rest



Is Religion Adaptive? *

Dec 24th, 2002 | Filed by

Perhaps, or perhaps it’s a spandrel or a virus, instead, says biologist David Sloan Wilson.… Read the rest



Catholics Here, Protestants There, Please *

Dec 24th, 2002 | Filed by

Plan being considered to split Scottish school into two, one Protestant one Catholic, has local people worried.… Read the rest



Quantum Foolery

Dec 23rd, 2002 7:53 pm | By

Here is a very silly essay from Slate. Note the rhetoric, for one thing, the talk of atheists ‘trumpeting’ their beliefs, and the truculent demand for an explanation, as if atheism required more explanation than theism does. Note the failure to define what is meant by ‘God’. Note the default assumption that belief is normal and that it’s unbelief that requires justification. Note the circularity of the argument that non-believers have some ‘splaining to do because Garry Wills doesn’t agree with them. And note the resort to the often-cited ‘cosmic deists’ such as Paul Davies. Holt doesn’t trouble to point out that Davies is very much in a minority among physicists in drawing deist conclusions from his work. And … Read the rest



Competing Goods *

Dec 23rd, 2002 | Filed by

Should conservation trump treaty rights, or the other way around?… Read the rest



Confused about a Virgin?

Dec 22nd, 2002 8:46 pm | By

Confused and unfounded guesswork. Crude and offensive speculation.

So says the RC Bishop of Portsmouth, the Right Reverend Crispian Hollis, about a BBC documentary focussing on the life of The Virgin Mary.

But, alas, the really not right at all, Mr Hollis, is not talking about the nonsense of the virgin birth, the resurrection, Angels, wise men and talking snakes, but rather the questioning of these things.

Confusion indeed.… Read the rest



Fundamentalists and Flexibles

Dec 22nd, 2002 7:06 pm | By

Rhetoric everywhere. You can’t let your guard down for an instant, no rest for the wicked, hypervigilance is the price of accuracy, and so on. Just tweak one or two little words and you can guide your readers so very subtly in what they’re meant to think, without having to come right out and tell them. This is a story from the Observer about genetics.

The nature versus nurture debate revived from the Sixties, when it had revolved around IQ and had bitter, racial overtones. This time around, it was less to do with race but no less bitter, with genetic fundamentalists such as Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins arguing that ‘the answer lies in our genes’. Opponents, such as

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Hallelujah We’re Postmodernists

Dec 22nd, 2002 5:55 pm | By

Here is an interesting little item I turned up in my never-ending quest for material for Butterflies and Wheels. The author is a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, which is a somewhat staggering fact in light of this article. He is also the author of a highly unfavorable 1997 review of The Flight From Science and Reason in the American magazine Science, which provoked such outrage that the book editor of Science resigned. So we know what to expect, and we get it. Rhetoric, rhetoric, and more rhetoric, and a procession of outrageous assertions. I am tempted to quote and quote, but you can read the piece for yourselves. Perhaps just one or two…

…the more sophisticated paladins of

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