Notes and Comment Blog

Our short and pithy observations on the passing scene as it relates to the mission of Butterflies and Wheels. Woolly-headed or razor-sharp comments in the media, anti-rationalist rhetoric in books or magazines or overheard on the bus, it’s all grist to our mill. And sometimes we will hold forth on the basis of no inspiration at all beyond what happens to occur to us.


Your mission, should you choose to accept it

Apr 22nd, 2010 12:25 pm | By

“New” atheism is often accused of proselytizing, but I don’t think that’s right.

It’s not really proselytizing. We don’t have the explicit goal of turning everyone atheist. We don’t even really have the implicit goal of doing that. We know it’s vanishingly unlikely, and not necessarily desirable (most of us know that – maybe all of us do – it probably depends on exactly what is meant). Our goals are short of that – speaking broadly.

The most basic is probably to humble the claims somewhat – to chip away at the public assumption that there is nothing dubious about theism – that it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about God as one would talk about Gordon Brown or Sarah Palin. It is to remind everyone that belief is not necessarily the default option – that there are reasons not to believe – that the reasons not to believe are better than the reasons to believe – that it is better to restrict belief to claims that can be tested and investigated and that any claims that are officially beyond the competence of science are thereby rendered at least less reliable.

So, related to that and stemming from it, another goal is to push back against all this incessant public goddy talk and “faith”-mongering. It is, frankly, to discredit public goddy talk – to make it more obvious that it is not likely to be true – in an effort to reduce it. It is an effort to get all this god stuff out of our faces.

Now that perhaps does look like proselytizing in the sense meant. But I don’t care. We’ve had years of this nonsense, and we’re tired of it. We’re not raiding churches – but we’re arguing with the Washington Post and the BBC and the Guardian and National Prayer Day. Should we stop doing that because it may be true that on average religion makes people happy? No.

Another, overlapping goal is to make more space for atheists – to de-delegitimize atheism – to de-other it – to point out there are lots of us and we have the better case so stop trying to bully us. It is also to point out and rebuke the lies people tell about us – unblushing brazen hardened lies.

The very presence and energy of the lies is a sign that this goal, at the very least, is hard to gainsay. Atheism is neither criminal nor immoral, yet it is steadily and noisily demonized. That points to something poisonous about theism. We do get to resist – we do get to call out the lies – we do get to defend ourselves.



Herr Bischof, the tan suits you and I love the brooch

Apr 22nd, 2010 11:08 am | By

A really nice touch – it’s not just that Bishop Walter Mixa has now admitted that he used to beat the children in a Bavarian orphanage –

Accusations have also surfaced of financial irregularities at the orphanage’s foundation.

A lawyer hired by the foundation has raised questions about thousands of dollars spent on wine, art, jewelry and even a tanning bed while Bishop Mixa was chairman of the foundation’s board, from 1975 to 1996, while he was a priest in the town of Schrobenhausen.

Isn’t that just typical. The Irish Catholic church sent a lot of the money the government gave it for the care of children in its prisons to Rome while the children slept in the cold and wore rags and ate crap and got next to no schooling. It’s interesting to see that the Bavarian Catholic church apparently used its money-intended-for-child-prisoners on luxury items for itself – at least one supposes it wasn’t hanging the art in the children’s dormitories and giving them pretty bracelets for their birthdays and serving them wine at dinner and letting them use the tanning bed when they were looking a little pallid.



Are you in, or are you out?

Apr 21st, 2010 5:02 pm | By

You know how people like Massimo Pigliucci and others like to say that science has nothing to say about the supernatural? And therefore scientists who dispute religion are trespassing on other people’s territory and crossing their own borders without a passport and generally misbehaving? I’ve been thinking about that.

I googled the two words just now, and found a nice helpful item by Victor Stenger. He quotes the National Academy of Sciences:

Science is a way of knowing about the natural
world. It is limited to explaining the natural
world through natural causes. Science can say
nothing about the supernatural. Whether God
exists or not is a question about which science
is neutral.

That’s good, because it says exactly what I had in mind, what I’ve been thinking about –

what I think is a crock of shit.

Here’s why: there’s no such thing as “the supernatural.” Nobody cares about some general thing called “the supernatural.” People care about particular things that could be put under the heading “supernatural” but are not “the supernatural” themselves. And many or most of the things that people care about and that can be put under the heading “supernatural” are not really supernatural in a sense that would make science unable to say anything about them. And that includes “God” – except when the deist god is meant, which in fact it almost never is.

“The supernatural” is just the name of a category, but what’s really in dispute is not a category, but a person, an agent. The supernatural is one thing, and “God” is another, and it’s a distraction to pretend that by walling off “the supernatural” from science it is possible to get science to agree that God is beyond dispute. The god that is meant when people say “God” – the god that will be in charge on National Prayer Day, when Obama tells us all to get busy praying – is not supernatural at all but heavily involved in human life. A god that really really is super-natural – altogether outside nature – is not the one that people care about and summon to tell us all what to do. The god of believers is a part of this world, however magic and elusive and tricky it is supposed to be.

So saying “science can say nothing about the supernatural” is true enough as far as it goes (because it’s true by definition), but it’s irrelevant to god-talk.



So that they could learn respect

Apr 21st, 2010 10:31 am | By

Two Belfast girls, age 12 and 14, were going to be sent to Pakistan by their parents, for “education.” A judge issued a forced marriage protection order to prevent this little jaunt.

He said: “I find as a fact that there is a present real and substantial risk that G and D will be forced by their parents to marry against their wishes.”…He found the real reason G and D were to be sent to Pakistan in 2007 was “so that they could learn ‘respect’ as an overarching filial duty which I hold in the context of this family means obedience overriding their full and free choice.”

Ah yes, ‘respect’ as an overarching filial duty, meaning people never have lives of their own, because they are always the property of their parents. Life under that arrangement is always vicarious, either upwards or downwards, and never simply a matter primarily for the person whose life it is. Excessive submission on the one hand and excessive authority on the other and never a decent proportionality.



Addressing questions is one thing, answering them is another

Apr 20th, 2010 5:25 pm | By

One of the places we’ve seen this claim that science has nothing to say about God or other religious beliefs lately is in the article about Francisco Ayala in the Times after he won the Templeton Prize.

Professor Ayala…won the prize for his contribution to the question “Does scientific knowledge contradict religious belief?”…[Ayala] says science and religion cannot be in contradiction because they address different questions. It is only when either subject oversteps its boundary, as he believes is the case with Professor Dawkins, that a contradiction arises, he said.

That’s a recipe for epistemic chaos. We can’t have hermetically sealed ways of “addressing” questions – not if we want to get things right. Ways of addressing questions have to be consistent with each other, at least. The claim that science and religion address different questions only works if you admit that religion – when it comes to addressing questions – is simply a branch of fiction. This means you’re admitting that religion doesn’t really address questions at all, if “address questions” is taken to mean raising questions in the hope of answering them.

You can’t do both. You can’t say that they’re radically different, and still maintain that religion does anything other than raise questions only for the sake of giving answers that don’t have to meet any criteria.



The beliefs that underlie the demands

Apr 20th, 2010 4:51 pm | By

A line from Sam Harris’s The End of Faith (p 128):

…we are confronted by people who hold beliefs for which there is no rational justification and which therefore cannot even be discussed, and yet these are the very beliefs that underlie many of the demands they are likely to make upon us.

This is why NOMA, in addition to being wrong as a description, is no use. It’s also why the much-repeated claim that science has nothing to say about God or other religious beliefs is flawed. If religious beliefs are immune to any kind of rational, this-world inquiry or dispute, then we are abandoned to a world in which unreasonable, protected beliefs get to tell us what to do.



The male voice is what expertise comes to sound like

Apr 19th, 2010 3:27 pm | By

NPR’s On the Media did a piece about the disproportionate number of men in the media, including NPR and On the Media. An NYU professor did a blog rant on the subject awhile ago, and On the Media brought him (yes, him, and they did the irony-check) to talk about the issue. He said women aren’t quick enough to say “Me me me me look at me I’m good me me me.”

CLAY SHIRKY: I said it then, I believe it now. I think the concern for how other people think about you is one of the sources of essentially work paralysis among women.
One of the big skills that you need, and my institution does not do a good job of inculcating this in women – there are not enough institutions that do – one of the big skills is to be able to do what you want to do without caring what other people think.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You have to acknowledge the fact that when women put themselves out there, they’re called “biatches.” The word “shrill” is applied to them. They are not called “leaders.” They are not called “strong.”
CLAY SHIRKY: That is right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They’re called “strident – hags.”
CLAY SHIRKY: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it’s a pain in the – butt.

Yes it is. And I’ll tell you why. There is more than one way for people to think about you, and some kinds of indifference are easier than others. Gladstone and Shirky sum up that difference very briskly in that brief passage. Allow me to explain. It is one thing to be considered – however disapprovingly – tough and aggressive and strong and ballsy. It is another to be considered a shrill strident hag bitch.

That’s all there is to it, really. That’s why Gladstone says it’s a pain in the ass. Yes it damn well is. Being considered strong and tough is not all that unpleasant even if the people who consider you that detest you. Being considered a shrill strident hag bitch is a whole different thing. And what Gladstone says is no lie: it takes very little for people to call a woman a bitch – or, as we have seen, shrill and strident.

So women can’t win no matter what they do. Either they hang back and don’t get the top jobs because they didn’t grab for them, or they grab for the top jobs and spend the rest of their lives as shrill strident hag bitches.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You write, “Women aren’t just bad at behaving like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks, they are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, when it would be in their best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can’t say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.”

Okay – I do better with that one. I’m very very very good at behaving like an anti-social obsessive. I’m a *genius at that. Top of the class. And I’m not too bad at the pompous blowhard thing, and I do a fair bit of the self-promoting narcissism routine too.

CLAY SHIRKY: I’ll tell you though, the reaction that has surprised me most is that any number of people, many of them women, have come forward and said, essentially, women have a different way of getting along in the world, we’re more social, we’re more nurturing, and so forth.
And I have two problems with that attitude. The first is, essentially, that if you flowered up the language a little bit, you could dump that into a Victorian almanac.
And the second is that all of that kind of nurturing, social junk imagines that the best role we can imagine for women in the workplace is as kind of middle-management mommies, right?

God yes. I squawked when I heard that part. I squawked and I threw some things. It drives me crazy when women buy into that crap.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: In your view, what is the impact of having so many more male voices as experts and sources than women?
CLAY SHIRKY: I think one of the big impacts is that the male voice is what expertise comes to sound like. And so, even from someone who doesn’t go in with a formally sexist bias about whether men are more expert than women in general, you may just unconsciously flip through to those parts of the rolodex.
Someone somewhere has to say, we have to change the fact of the representation before we change people’s mental model of what expertise sounds like because if we just wait, we will always lag the cultural change rather than leading it.

The male voice is what expertise comes to sound like – that is exactly it.



No you may not

Apr 19th, 2010 12:29 pm | By

So here it is again – Christian groups getting up in public and demanding the right to treat certain people badly.

In a case that pits nondiscrimination policies against freedom of religion, the Supreme Court is grappling with whether universities and colleges can deny official recognition to Christian student groups that refuse to let non-Christians and gays join…The Christian group said its constitutional freedoms of speech, religion and association were violated when it was denied recognition as a student group by the San Francisco-based school.

The group has made this argument at several universities around the nation with mixed results…

Hastings said it turned the Christian Legal Society down because all recognized campus groups, which are eligible for financing and other benefits, may not exclude people due to religious belief, sexual orientation and other reasons.
The Christian group requires that voting members sign a statement of faith. The group also regards ”unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle” as being inconsistent with the statement of faith.

Right – so there you have it. The group regards a particular set of people as doing something “immoral” for no stated reason except that that is part of their “statement of faith,” and on those stupid unreasonable narcissistic grounds the group wants to exclude that set of people in a context where groups are simply not allowed to exclude people for stupid unreasonable arbitrary reasons.

This is bad. This is institutionalized badness. It is bad to exclude people for stupid arbitrary tiny-minded reasons, and religious groups shouldn’t be energetically trying to gain themselves a putative “right” to do that. This is bad, bad stuff. People don’t get to invent random definitions of “immoral” and then use them to exclude people in public settings. Religious groups are energetically trying to do exactly that, and they must be resisted and rebuked.



Keep commenting

Apr 18th, 2010 5:40 pm | By

I think I may have accidentally deleted some authentic comments…accidentally by accident don’t you know. Don’t be discouraged if I dropped anything of yours, don’t go away, comment again. In particular I think there was one with “Indian philosophers” in the email address – which I unchecked so that it wouldn’t be deleted, but it was anyway. I wish it hadn’t been. Anyway, I’ll stop bumbling before too long. Though not today…I’m hungry…



Hello world

Apr 18th, 2010 9:11 am | By

Okay, so here we are! New and shiny and exciting. Tell Josh what you think.



The right to be a shit is under threat!

Apr 17th, 2010 12:12 pm | By

A ‘relationship counsellor’ was fired after (and for? the Telegraph is cagy) refusing to give sex advice to homosexual couples. Therefore, the former archbish of Canterbury George Carey says, laws banning discrimination have ‘taken precedence over religious freedoms.’ Well, yes, if you like to put it that way. By the same token, if you choose to believe that the bible both mandates and allows slavery, and that that translates to people of your particular race being allowed to enslave people not of your race, and you act, or attempt to act, accordingly, then yes, your ‘religious freedom’ will be curtailed to that extent. Laws against discrimination in the form of enslavement by race or other category do indeed take precedence over the freedom to enslave by race or other category. You know what? That is too god damn bad.

The complaint is fundamentally stupid, because no freedom is without limits. Freedoms and rights come with various implicit stipulations in the background – within reason; other things being equal; of course not to the point of harming other people; and so on. The former archbish might as well complain that laws banning murder have taken precedence over religious freedoms to execute blasphemers and infidels. He wouldn’t say that, because it is no longer the done thing in his part of the world to execute infidels, or even to enliven the Telegraph with wishful thinking about executing infidels. But it is still the done thing in his particular fetid corner of his part of the world to hinder and reject and refuse service to gays, and he is too blinkered and ungenerous to realize that that too is a parochial bit of small-minded nastiness that is just as temporary as the old practice of executing infidels. He is too lost and empty to realize that in a few decades at most his desire to defend the persecution of gay people will look just as tyrannical and demented as a desire to defend infidel-murder would look now.

Lord Carey, in his written statement, said that recent decisions by the courts were “but a short step from the dismissal of a sincere Christian from employment to a religious bar to any employment for Christians”…They claim that the ruling [in the Lilian Ladele case] meant that the right to express the Christian faith must take second place to the rights of homosexuals.

That’s right, and a good thing too. The ‘right’ to ‘express the Christian faith’ by refusing service to gay people must indeed take second place to the rights of homosexuals not to be treated as automatic inferiors and pariahs. I hope the asymmetry is obvious enough? On the one hand a putative ‘right’ to treat other people badly, on the other hand a right not to be treated badly. Are we clear about this? My right to treat you badly always takes second place to your right not to be treated badly. In other words, the ‘right’ to treat people badly is not a right at all. To claim that it is, is an abuse of the language of rights (in that it resembles the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, which makes all rights subordinate to ‘what sharia allows’).

The fact that boffins from a supposedly ‘moderate’ church like the Anglican one are running around squalling about the end of their ‘right’ to persecute people is enough to show that Dawkins really isn’t all that wrong about ‘moderate’ religion.



Johann Hari on Ratzinger

Apr 17th, 2010 12:00 am | By

Whatever you do don’t miss Johann Hari on the BBC saying what’s what about the pope. He does a tremendous job. He reads what the pope told the bishops in 2001; he asks what would happen if this kind of thing happened at the BBC – imagine the top boffin telling all the staff to keep everything entirely secret and moving the child rapist to a different creche in a different part of London; he says repentance is not enough, this is a criminal matter.

It’s not enough to say sorry, if you’re sorry, hand yourself over to the police and allow them to investigate it.

When Marc Roche of Le Monde is waffling on about waiting for a better pope he cuts in and says we wouldn’t talk this way about any other organization – we wouldn’t say oh dear what can we do, we’ll just have to wait for a better boss of the outfit. He’s a man of steel. Don’t miss it.



Asking for bread and getting a stone

Apr 16th, 2010 5:30 pm | By

PZ says many good things on the subject, for instance on what the textbook that inspired De Dora’s educational advice actually said.

…that was a small part of a two page section of the text that summarizes the legal history of efforts to keep creationism out of the public schools. It is not a book that condemns Christianity, carries on a crusade to abolish religion, or calls believers delusional; it is moderate, entirely polite in tone (praise Jesus! It meets the most important criterion of the faitheists!), and plainly describes an entirely relevant legal and social issue for biologists in non-judgmental terms. It does use the accurate, factual term “myth” for what creationists are peddling, and that’s as harsh as it gets. It is exactly what the less rude proponents of evolution teaching should want.

In other words, if textbooks and teachers can’t even do that, they really are well and truly stifled and censored, and education is reserved for people who can afford private school.

[W]hat kind of support does a reasonable and polite statement in a textbook get from the intellectual cowards — a phrase I use in complete awareness of the meaning of each word, thank you very much — who want to run away from any conflict? De Dora whines, ‘well, he has a point’. Pigliucci makes a worthless complaint about knowing our epistemological boundaries, implying that the statement of fact in Tobin and Dusheck is a violation of the separation of church and state…If a science teacher can’t even flatly state that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, not 6000, because philosophers will complain about epistomological boundaries, we’re doomed. If the effect of biology on society can’t even be mentioned in a textbook, then the relevance of the science is being sacrificed on the altar of religious submission. Getting enmired in these pointless philosophical “subtleties” when the facts are staring you in the face is a recipe for the further gutting of science education in this country.

Exactly. And gutting science education is not a good thing to do.



Thinking like a scientist

Apr 15th, 2010 6:03 pm | By

Jerry Coyne made a crucial point about this De Dorian Sci Ed 101 stuff.

…teaching evolution and dispelling creation provides students with a valuable lesson: it teaches them to think scientifically—surely one of the main points of a science class. They learn to weigh evidence and to show how that evidence can be used to discriminate between alternative explanations. It’s of little consequence to me that one alternative explanation comes from a literal interpretation of scripture. Indeed, it’s useful, for this is a real life example—one that’s going on now—of how alternative empirical claims are fighting for primacy in the intellectual marketplace. What better way to engage students in the scientific method?

Exactly. It’s a terribly narrowed and pinched version of teaching that De Dora is defending here. (He seems to be trying to claim this isn’t what he wants, it’s just what the law compels, but I don’t really believe him. I think he has a visceral dislike of all but the most apologetic atheism and I think that dislike infects everything he says on this subject. I could be wrong though – he writes so clumsily that it’s really impossible to be sure exactly what he is saying.)

Bizarrely though, De Dora said much the same thing himself at one point, but apparently without realizing he’d done it. He’s confused.

…the answer seems to be that we should ensure our high school science teachers are instructing students on how to think like a scientist, and imparting to students the body of knowledge scientists have accrued (and that all of our teachers generally are doing similar in their respective fields). From there, the children take that knowledge as they will.

God he’s a bad writer. But never mind that – the point is that he slipped up and said that teachers should be teaching students how to think like a scientist. So they should, but that means teachers need to teach students how anyone knows all this stuff, how the “body of knowledge” was collected and argued over and questioned and criticized – which includes for instance what it replaced, what previous claims to knowledge shaped it or got in its way or motivated it – and so on. It’s not enough to just open children’s heads and dump in a quart or two of Facts. If the Constitution requires science teachers to restrict themselves to such an impoverished version of teaching, then that’s a terrible worrying tragic situation. If it doesn’t, De Dora is talking nonsense.

Massimo is very annoyed that so many people are unimpressed by De Dora. Massimo does tend to exaggerate…

And speaking of content, what was so witless, wanky, wishy-washy, and witless about De Dora’s post? Oh, he dared question (very politely, and based on argument) one of the dogmas of the new atheism: that religious people (that’s about 90% of humanity, folks) ought (and I use the term in the moral sense) to be frontally assaulted and ridiculed at all costs, because after all, this is a war, and the goal is to vanquish the enemy, reason and principles be damned.

That’s rationally speaking?



The Club of Friendly Inhibitionists?

Apr 14th, 2010 6:12 pm | By

Michael De Dora is concerned again.

…our government — and thus our public schooling system — is supposed to remain neutral on matters of religion. Federal and state governments cannot aid one religion, aid all religions, prefer one religion over another, or prefer non-religion to religion. This means that while I agree with Myers that the Biblical creation story is a “myth,” the public school classroom doesn’t seem to be the place where our message should be pushed.

Federal and state governments cannot prefer non-religion to religion, therefore, according to De Dora, as long as a mistaken claim is religious, it is against the law for public schools to say the claim is mistaken. That’s interesting. I went to a state university and I recall plenty of teachers who said particular religious claims were mistaken. I never knew that they were breaking the law by doing that. As a matter of fact I don’t believe that they were breaking the law by doing that; I think on the contrary that De Dora is talking creepy nonsense. Maybe he’s been reading Michael Ruse and Andrew Brown – they both love to announce that the Constitution forbids evil secularists to open their mouths within 500 yards of a public educational institution.

I suspect that this is not actually a bit of helpful legal advice but rather another occasion for De Dora to distance himself from the Bad kind of atheists and snuggle up to the Good kind: the ones who say snotty untrue things about Dawkins and/or Coyne and/or Hitchens a minimum of every three days. It’s all rather depressing coming from CFI. As PZ said, “Does CFI stand for the Church of Fatuous Incompetence now?”



A mockery of the universality of rights

Apr 14th, 2010 5:36 pm | By

Gita Sahgal states the problem.

The senior leadership of Amnesty International chose to answer the questions I posed about Amnesty International’s relationship with Moazzam Begg by affirming their links with him. Now they have also confirmed that the views of Begg, his associates and his organisation Cageprisoners, do not trouble them. They have stated that the idea of jihad in self defence is not antithetical to human rights; and have explained that they meant only the specific form of violent jihad that Moazzam Begg and others in Cageprisoners assert is the individual obligation of every Muslim…Unfortunately, their stance has laid waste every achievement on women’s equality and made a mockery of the universality of rights. In fact, the leadership has effectively rejected a belief in universality as an essential basis for partnership.

A dreadful thing to have to say about Amnesty International. It’s blood-chilling that even one of the pre-eminent human rights organizations doesn’t get it. If the Amnesty version of human rights prevailed, I would have no rights left. I resent that. I can’t begin to tell you how strongly I resent that.



It can’t be both

Apr 12th, 2010 1:12 pm | By

I want to try to figure this out. I could just conclude that I simply don’t know enough about it to figure it out, and I ought to either learn more or leave it to people who do know enough. That’s certainly a possibility, of course. I’ve been thinking when reading Sam Harris’s posts in reply to his critics that he just doesn’t seem to know enough about it, and it’s certainly possible that I don’t know enough about what I’m prattling about, either. But the difference is, it seems to me, that Sam’s critics have made a lot of good arguments, while the arguments I’ve seen so far from the ‘overt atheists are wrong and bad’ faction are not very good. But then I would think that. But actually I wouldn’t, because I’m not invested in thinking Sam’s view is (partly) wrong. It just strikes me that way, that’s all. It strikes me that way because I’ve read a little about meta-ethics, among other reasons – but it’s not because I’m loyal to one view or another. But I am invested in the idea that overt atheism is not a bad thing – so maybe I can’t recognize the goodness of good arguments against it.

So I want to try to figure it out. Massimo first of all said that Sam would

get more mileage out of allying himself with philosophy (not to the exclusion of science), rather than taking what appears to be the same misguided scientistic attitude that Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne have come to embody so well.

Our friend G challenged him on that, and he replied

my problem with Dawkins and Coyne is different, but stems from the same root: their position on morality is indeed distinct from Harris’ (at least Dawkins’, I don’t recall having read anything by Coyne on morality), but they insist in applying science to the supernatural, which is simply another form of the same malady that strikes Harris: scientism, the idea that science can do everything and provides us with all the answers that are worth having.

This is the part that I don’t understand. There was some discussion of it on that thread, in which it was suggested that Massimo has a rather special definition of ‘supernatural,’ but Massimo said no, it’s Dawkins and Coyne who have a different definition of science. I still don’t understand.

I don’t think the root is the same. I think Harris on morality is not the same kind of thing as Dawkins and Coyne on theism. That’s because I think morality is not the same kind of thing as theism. There’s some overlap, sometimes a lot of overlap, but not so much that they’re the same kind of thing. Theism is about an entity external to human beings, one that could in principle exist even if human beings didn’t exist and never had existed. Massimo’s version of ‘supernatural’ seems to be ‘entirely outside of nature such that science cannot inquire into it in any way.’ What I don’t understand is why Massimo thinks that describes theism. A supernatural god of that kind would be, as far as humans are concerned, the same thing as nothing. If it’s entirely outside, then it has nothing to do with us, and we have nothing to say about it (and atheists have no quarrel with it). That’s not the god that people who believe in god have in mind. People who believe in god do say things about their god. That god is supposed to be part of the world in some way, if only as its parent or creator or designer. I don’t see how it can be possible for a god to be any of that and still be totally out of reach of science and thus of any kind of inquiry. I can’t make sense of that.

What am I missing?



Points for accuracy

Apr 11th, 2010 5:44 pm | By

What is it with Massimo Pigliucci and the dreaded Dawkins-Coyne Phalanx or whatever it is? Why does he keep…pinging at them? And saying things that are exaggerated at best?

…my problem with Dawkins and Coyne is different, but stems from the same root: their position on morality is indeed distinct from Harris’ (at least Dawkins’, I don’t recall having read anything by Coyne on morality), but they insist in applying science to the supernatural, which is simply another form of the same malady that strikes Harris: scientism, the idea that science can do everything and provides us with all the answers that are worth having.

Dawkins and Coyne don’t think or say or write that science can do everything and provides us with all the answers that are worth having. They say lots of things that are not compatible with that idea.

As for the Dawkins/Coyne stuff, I’m really baffled by so many smart people having such a difficult time wrapping their heads around it. I don’t want them to shout that philosophy is the greatest, I just want them to stop shouting that science is the ultimate arbiter of everything. That would be very decent of them, and then we could all get along nicely.

They don’t shout that. They don’t shout that at all, or anything resembling it. What is it with Massimo?

His new colleague is joining in the fun. Ew.



Journalistic ethics

Apr 11th, 2010 4:27 pm | By

The Times is shameless. (Wait – why do I even bother to say that? It’s a Murdoch paper. Murdoch is the genius behind Fox “News” – for which the word “shameless” would be gross flattery.) Its headline is untrue, yet it won’t even post a letter from the subject saying so.

The Times ran the headline: Richard Dawkins: I will arrest Pope Benedict XVI. It went on to say he was planning a legal ambush, he’d asked lawyers to do things, and so on. He says that’s not how it went. He posted a comment on the Times (and his own site) saying how it went.

Needless to say, I did NOT say “I will arrest Pope Benedict XVI” or anything so personally grandiloquent. So all the vicious attacks on me for seeking publicity etc are misplaced…

Marc Horne, the Sunday Times reporter, telephoned me out of the blue and asked whether I was aware of the initiative by Geoffrey Robertson and Mark Stephens to mount a legal challenge to the Pope’s visit. Yes, I said. He asked me if I was in favour of their initiative. Yes, I said, I am strongly in favour of it. Beyond that, I declined to comment to Marc Horne, other than to refer him to my ‘Ratzinger is the Perfect Pope’ article. How the headline writer could go from there to “Richard Dawkins: I will arrest Pope Benedict XVI” is obscure to me.

It is a remarkably large and brazen jump, you must admit. Are you aware of, do you support, becomes total initiative for and responsibility for. Are you aware of the Obama administration’s attempts to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians? Yes. Do you support those efforts? Yes. Headline: I will make peace between Israel and Palestine says random person.

Richard reported an hour or so ago that five hours after he posted the comment, it still hadn’t appeared. Bill O’Reilly must be beaming with pride. Glen Beck must be sobbing with joy.



Just so you know

Apr 10th, 2010 4:58 pm | By

Don’t worry if one day soon you click on B&W and get a page saying ‘migration in progress’ – it won’t be a bit of hackery, and it won’t take long. B&W is moving – to a better world. Be grateful to Josh Larios.