Faith vs Fact

Jerry Coyne, Professor of Biology at the University of Chicago, has written a new book, “Faith vs Fact” (Viking, 2015). He explains his reason for writing by noting that, despite copious evidence for evolution, large numbers of people, even when familiar with the evidence; refuse to accept it, essentially for religious reasons. He begins by noting that there is a widespread perception of a conflict between religion and science, citing 1) the avalanche of books claiming, in contradictory ways, that the two are compatible; 2) the high proportion of scientists who are atheists, especially among members of the National Academies; 3) laws privileging faith over science such as in the medical treatment of children; and 4) pervasive belief in creationism.

He is very careful to specify what he means by “religion” and “incompatibility”, relying on dictionary definitions of these terms, but explicitly excluding some specific religions that make few or no claims about reality. He takes religion to mean those belief systems, as practiced by the majority of their adherents, that depend on faith and that make claims about the world; and by incompatibility he means essentially discordance, an inability to work together toward a common result in a routine way.

In this work Coyne shows that he belongs in the company of such modern authors as Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, but he also cites earlier writers such as Robert Ingersoll, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Bertrand Russell. He points out that what distinguishes those modern writers from earlier writers is the observation that religion routinely makes pronouncements about reality that are testable. Not surprisingly, in every case, the tests find the predictive capability of religion lacking. The most famous examples are controlled double-blind studies showing no effect of prayer on healing the sick.

He cites Carl Sagan’s example of the dragon in the garage (published in Varieties of Scientific Experience, 2006) to show that in science when evidence that should exist on the basis of an hypothesis is not found, the hypothesis is abandoned until further data can be obtained: Suppose somebody tells you there is a dragon in his garage. You ask to see the dragon’s footprints but he explains there are none because the dragon floats; likewise you cannot feel the fire of the dragon’s breath because it is a cold fire. You conclude that there really is no dragon. Religion is like the story of the dragon in the garage.

Coyne remarks on the fact that no amount of evidence will force believers to abandon certain tenets of their faith. And if they do abandon some element of their faith they find a way to save the authority of religion on the point, such as the idea that evolution was just God’s way of creating life. This inherent difference in method has profound consequences according to Coyne. It is incontestable that science works to produce amazing results, and he cites numerous examples, such as the doubling of human life expectancy since 1800. Mainstream religion, however, has made no advances. The ancient texts on which it relies do not show any knowledge of reality apart from what was known to the ancient world, religious or not. This is not to say that the religious domain is static. The examples of Scientology and Mormonism show how weak evidence in the hands of a charlatan can produce a new religion that can attract significant numbers of believers, even today. The suggestion is that mainstream religions might have gotten started in similar fashion. The extent to which mainstream religions have changed for the better is largely attributable to their grudging and belated acceptance of progress in the secular world, due for the most part to science. Most importantly, religion has made no progress on the main problem: the existence of gods. Religion has not produced better information on this than the ancients possessed. Science on the other hand has done extremely well without invocation of gods in explaining phenomena that it wants to study, and has consistently produced novel and useful results.

Coyne writes that faith, whether based on religion or some other premise, is harmful, and we should stop admiring people noted for their faith. He distinguishes faith as the acceptance of propositions despite the lack of evidence, as opposed to confidence in science, which is based on the results of verifiable experience, observation and analysis. One of the most telling examples comes close to the end of the book, where he describes the case of a girl named Ashley King who was discovered by concerned neighbors to have a large tumor on her leg. Her parents were Christian Scientists and refused to seek or permit medical treatment for her. The girl died in agony. Her chances of surviving would have been about 50 or 60% if she had gotten prompt medical help. Her parents were later convicted of reckless endangerment but exhibited no remorse and received only the mildest of punishments. Coyne points out that in many states in the USA, laws minimize consequences for many crimes if they are committed for religious reasons.

A world without faith might scare some people, but Jerry Coyne is not among them. He points out the example of Northern Europe, where most people are non-believers, and the societies are functioning quite well, by many measures better than the United States.

Coyne’s tone is anecdotal, sometimes quite personal. He describes the “aha” moment when he realized that presentation of evidence on evolution was woefully inadequate to the task of convincing the average American. After he had given a lecture at a businessmen’s luncheon in a wealthy Chicago suburb, one of the audience shook his hand and said he found the evidence convincing but because of his religion he still did not believe in evolution. It was then that Coyne realized that religious faith was a formidable obstacle to acceptance of evolution. Another example: he admits not having had a very extensive training in religion, but still describes the moment when he realized that he did not believe what little he had received while he was listening to the Beatles’ recording “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

The one quibble I have relates to his repeated resort to a rhetorical device in lieu of a citation. For example he described religionists’ claims that certain scientific tests that prove the inefficacy of prayer are themselves invalid, (“God cannot be tested”). He says then that if the results had been to show an effect it would have been fine with them. He sometimes gives an example after such remarks, but often does not. It is not that he is necessarily mistaken in assuming the likelihood of such a reaction, but in a work of persuasion, assumptions are not good evidence.

This book is a rational and scholarly work, rich with insight into one of the thorniest problems in our public life. I recommend  this book to anyone who is willing to look at the issue with an open mind. Believers might find it rough going, because religion as a “way of knowing” comes off poorly here.

Beach Bush, Sullivan’s Island

I took this picture with an Iphone in January 2015 on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, not far from the distinctive round beach house on the ocean side.

Beach Bush, Sullivan's Island

I was amazed at the detail that came out when I had a 20 x 30 inch print made – so much so that I had it framed. It is now hanging in our living room with a frame by Morningside Gallery.

A Family Gathering

Hello everyone,

 

Here are some shots I took the day of Betty’s funeral.

IMG_1758 IMG_1756 IMG_1755 IMG_1754 IMG_1753 IMG_1752 IMG_1750

Sorry I could not get everybody! Not enough time, as we had to go back so soon after the services.

About France

I have read about a couple of authors who have characterized the French as being disappointed and discouraged. The theory is that the idea of France as a leader of civilized life has suffered a check. The idea is that the French are envious of the role that English plays in today’s world.

I hope that this is not true. For I have to say that what I find in France quite contradicts this. I have always found, in every part of that country that I have visited over the last twenty years, a proud people, very welcoming of me and my wife, whatever our competence in their language might be. (Believe me, for myself in the beginning it was quite negligible. In Montpellier in 1995 I was proud of being asked, by two young girls, what time of the day it was – even though the only thing I could do to answer was show them the face of my watch)!

We have visited Paris most often. This is a beautiful city, human in scale in a way that New York is not, which I admire. (There are too many skyscrapers already, so bless the Parisians for saying no more Montparnasse Towers)! In Paris, for us, there have been really very few problems. Most of the people we have to do business with speak better English than we do French. But when they get the idea that we want to speak their language, they are perfectly willing to do that too. That to me is gracious, even magnanimous. And we find that routine. There have been almost no occasions when a French person deliberately made us feel like foreigners.

We spent time in the Dordogne, near Sarlat, a part of the country that I compare to the Adirondack Park in my state of New York – but with much better wine. Another time we stayed in Menton, on the south coast, where we were traveling as members of a chorus, close to Italy but not really tempted to go there, for the city itself was sufficiently interesting. We drove through the mountains, along the Gorge de Verdon, to the beautiful village of Moustiers-St Marie, where countless visitors since the Middle Ages have made their pilgrimage. This village depends now on tourism, but it has a rich cultural and craft history. The people there were very welcoming. I could go on for all the parts of France we have visited, from Normandy to Strasbourg, from Sancerre to Tours. Everywhere we met only kindness and interest in our well-being.

There was a time in Sancerre when we were attending a language course at the Ecole de langues. My wife had a problem with her eyesight. The course director sent us to her own general practitioner who quickly referred us to a specialist in a nearby town. We went there by cab, and the driver waited in town for us to finish our business, and brought us back. We got excellent medical care, even though we were foreigners. I can hardly imagine the same good fortune happening to any tourist in my country.

Once we were in Rheims, and undecided about lunch, we bought some wine and charcuterie, and went to a local park to have a picnic. Our surroundings were clean and pleasant, and we had a wonderful time. Again, in my country, this little adventure would not have been possible. There would have been a lot of trash, and unpleasant people in the area.

We rent cars in France and travel on the AutoRoutes. The roadside Aires are magnificent by comparison with those in the USA; the road surfaces are smooth, the traffic is well-regulated, the trucks have to travel slower than anybody else. All of these things are worse in the USA than in France.

When we visit museums in France we find almost every time a class of students, led by their teachers, being instructed in the arts and history of their country. Generally this does not happen in America. If the French complain about their education system, imagine what they would say if they lived in New York.

My father’s tomb is at the military cemetery in Colleville, on the Normandy coast. We have often seen classes of students, led by their teachers, visiting the cemetery, and learning about the recent history of this part of their country. After seeing this I do not listen to people who make disparaging remarks about France.

We can only spend a few weeks at a time in France. To keep up our skills in the language, we take part in a literature group and a conversation group, each of which meets once a month. I have become a reader of French literature, particularly late 19th and early 20th century works. I see in this the origin of many of our cultural memes. The ideas that founded our country come in large part from the work of 18th century French writers. We cannot forget the support of the French in our own founding as a nation. Likewise, the works of many modern French writers and authors fascinate millions of Americans. What happens in French politics shows up on our TV. So, even though we speak English here, we owe a lot to French ideas, and we care about what happens there.

So, to my friends in France, not numerous but well -loved I say, forget about disappointment. You have a great country, and we still have a lot to learn from the way you do things.

The Republican Nomination Contest

Well, now we have both Rand Paul and Ted Cruz in the lists for President. Of the two, Paul is the more interesting because he is not a militarist, and he favors easing the punishment for drug law violations. This difference will cost him some votes vs. people like Cruz, and might gain him some votes against the Democratic nominee, almost certainly Hillary Clinton.

Paul’s libertarian views are extreme, and show a fundamental misreading of human nature. We are not autonomous individuals, but, inescapably, members of social groups of increasing size, benefitting and being benefited by those groups. The only apes that are autonomous, arguably, are the orangutans of Borneo, the males spending their lives alone except for an occasional mating with a female. The female’s only society is her own offspring. The orang is rather distant from us on the family tree of life. Closer are the gorillas and chimpanzees, all of which live in moderate sized social groups, comparable to those of human hunter-gatherers. We find these apes much more interesting, much more like ourselves. The reason is simple. Like them, we are social animals, and we rely on each other.

Libertarianism and conservatism would deprive us of Social Security, Medicare, and mandatory health insurance, would cut regulations on polluting industries and predatory corporations, let support for the indigent dry up further, privatize public education, sell off public lands, and refuse to deal with climate change and overpopulation. The Republican primaries will wind up selecting somebody to try to put a pretty face on all this. We should avoid being fooled.

A Failed Audition

I have been singing as an extra with Albany Pro Musica since 1990. This despite not being able to read music, at least not at the beginning. This failing of mine, that dates back to grade school when my parents and teachers allowed me to opt out of music class in exchange for doing more arithmetic, has been a limitation in my choral career. It slows me down in learning new pieces.

At times I thought maybe I would study music and learn how to sight read, but I never got around to doing that. I tried a couple of times to become a regular member of the chorus, auditioning with the founding director, David Janower. But being able to sight read is a requirement for full membership, and as I got older I think the quality of my singing declined a bit. I finally gave up the idea, but I remained a member of the “B” team and got to sing one or two concerts every couple of years. There are some good musicians who were not accepted into this group, which is officially called Albany Pro Musica Masterworks. So I was happy to be in Masterworks.

When David passed away a couple of years ago, the principal chorus sang with a number of interim directors before hiring José Daniel Caraballo, who moved to this area from Vero Beach. The first production involving Masterworks was scheduled for this spring, and it was necessary for everybody to have an audition with the new director.

I was not looking forward to this audition. I was rusty, and I had heard from some choristers that it consisted of a series of exercises of increasing difficulty that stopped only when one made a mistake. The audition itself seemed to me to go OK, but it really did not. I got an email explaining that I had trouble matching pitches, remembering patterns, and intonation, i.e., holding a pitch instead of drifting flat. I had to agree: with a diagnosis like that I would have a hard time participating.

But I was not entirely satisfied that this was a definitive judgment. In addition to certain physical frailties, I have substantial hearing loss, and I use hearing aids. These are sophisticated programmable devices, and I had four programs designed for different situations. Could it be that these were at fault, reporting incorrect pitches? I downloaded an application to my Iphone, called PitchPerfect ($2.00 from the Apple Store). This “listens” to pitches that are played or sung, reports the letter of the note, the frequency, and plots a whole note on the treble or bass clef. It can even generate leger lines, if necessary. I played a C on the piano, and this program dutifully reported the fact. Then I tried to match the pitch as best I could. B. It turns out all pitches on all my programs were reduced a semi-tone. This is because most of my hearing loss is in the upper frequency ranges, so the programs compress the sounds to push them into my better listening range. Most of the time it does not matter, but I noticed that a lot of musical pieces that I know well did not sound so great with these hearing aids.

I went to my audiologist and got a new program added, just for music, that does not change the pitches that are played into my ears. I got a second audition.

The result was much better. I could match pitches and remember short passages played on the piano. I still have a problem with intonation, but that is much more manageable than not being able to reproduce pitches that other people hear. I will have another audition and we will see then if I can fix the intonation problem. In the meantime, though, I feel pretty happy with the new program on my hearing aids. Music sounds better, and it is easier to produce.

I am adding an update. I had a second audition and was permitted to sing. But I really could not fix the problem and had to drop out.

A Bad Week for Religion

CNN (Feb 17) published a story, “Religion’s Week from Hell”, about the spate of atrocities, more or less religiously motivated, that took place in the previous week:

“Across several continents, including North America, Europe, Asia and Africa, scores of religious believers suffered and died in brutal attacks over the past seven days. Christians, Muslims and Jews alike all fell prey to assaults.”

One of these stood out because there seemed to be an atheist at the bottom of it: three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, shot dead by Craig Stephens Hicks. He frightened a lot of his neighbors even before this attack, and it is not entirely clear just what his motives were. The recent killings of Jews, other Muslims, and Christians were all carried out by Muslims – some affiliated with Al Qaeda and others with ISIL. At what point will large numbers of people decide, like Hicks, to take revenge on Muslims for these repeated attacks from groups like ISIL? It is indeed something to worry about.

There are about 1.6  billion Muslims on the planet. Almost all are law – abiding, peaceful people. It is they, and not their violent would-be leaders of whatever stripe, who define their beliefs, read their holy books and literature, and follow more or less faithfully the advice and counsel of their spiritual leaders. But any group of people, particularly those motivated by ideology, could become aroused to action. This is the fearful result of provocations repeated too often.

ISIL claim to be the correct interpreters of Islam. According to an article by Graeme Wood in the March Atlantic, these people believe they have established a caliphate – a territorial state in the ancient Islamic tradition, obeying strictly the injunctions in the Koran as to treatment of enemies, apostates, and the like. In effect they are ultra-fundamentalists intent on imposing a rule of law established for Muslims over 1000 years ago. The prescriptions of this law are bloody minded in the extreme. Wood concludes in his article that the west has no choice but to confront this regime, but should not fulfill Koranic prophecy by sending in occidental forces on the ground. Many of the victims of these groups have been Muslims. Condemning Islam would only make it more difficult to suppress these extremist groups, and it would be unjust as well. Most Muslims are not deserving of that.

 

Permission to Operate

Just before we took off for France last June, we played host to an organization that was promoting solar power for private homes in our area. I have two friends who were members of the group.  One, a retired engineering professor, had long experience with solar power; the other, a biology professor, had already installed a system in his home and was an active member of this group. I had talked with both about it, because I had received an offer from a private company that would install a system but retain ownership of the equipment, selling me power at a fixed rate likely below what the power company would offer. What about this? I asked my engineer. His answer – they are making more money out of this than you. He went over the economics with me, and I became convinced that it made sense to actually buy a system. So, at the suggestion of my biologist, on that June day my wife and I posed on the back lawn for a story for the local paper, which would promote the cause of solar power in our community.

Our vacation lasted three weeks, and so we did not actually get the ball rolling with the contractors until July. Over the course of the next several months, the project proceeded at a glacial pace, it seemed to me. There were weeks when I would hear of no progress; occasionally somebody would show up for a crucial piece of design work, and then nothing would happen. In November, finally, a crew came to install a new net meter that could handle a new parallel source of power to the house. A week or two later some people came to install posts in the ground to hold the ground unit. It was not until early January that the crew arrived to lay the cables, install the 16 ground panels and 5 roof panels. Even then it was not ready to go. We had to wait for the power company to send an inspector and then issue the Permission to Operate. That just arrived a couple of days ago, and today we finally turned on the system. We were in the middle of about 60 households who had signed up for the contract that had been negotiated by the group.

Harry Cleaning Snow of the Solar Panels

Problem: the panels were covered in snow. Fortunately, my contractor informed me, I could buy a snow-raker from an auto parts store or car dealer and without damaging the ground panels scrape the snow off. This entailed a fair amount of work, because I had to dig a path through deep snow to even get to the unit. I also had to buy a long extender from the paint department at Home Depot so that the scraper could reach the top panels. After a fair amount of effort I had removed the snow by midafternoon. By the end of the day the system had collected 3 KWH of solar electricity. I feel as I did when I got paid my first dollar.

The Symmetry of Slaughter

President Obama is catching flak from Republicans for remarks he made about the murderous acts committed in the name of Christ during the crusades and later in Jim-Crow country, rightly comparing those to the barbarisms of ISIS. An article in the New York Times, February 6 2014 reported for example : “‘The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” said Jim Gilmore, the former Republican governor of Virginia. “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”’ In my opinion, however, Obama was right. Everyone was horrified, for example, by the burning to death of a Jordanian prisoner by ISIS a few days ago. But how is that different, really, from the stake burnings at the hands of the Inquisition, a Catholic institution that continued doing this until the early 1830s? It is not just Islam and Christianity that carry this burden of history, as witness the terrible religious violence that has occurred regularly in India. Religious wars are comparable in moral terms if not in sheer scale to the violence of Nazis who killed millions of Jews, handicapped, or Gypsies during World War II, based on a long festering prejudice pumped up to a racist ideology. People are capable of mortal violence when they believe on religious or ideological grounds the evil character of some other group. Gilmore’s criticism, apart from its obvious pandering, shows simultaneous ignorance of history and human nature. Add to this the frequent ignorance and denial of science among Republicans, one is struck that the Republican Party remains vulnerable to the criticism, in the words of one of its own, Bobby Jindal, as “the stupid party.”

Good News About Hillary

The results of a new poll show Hillary beating all the GOP candidates who are being touted for President in 2016.

The Republicans in Congress are most likely going to make a mess sometime in the next two years; it is likely they will lose the Senate again, and their majority in the House will probably shrink.

We are going to have divided government, but I think we can count on Hillary to do a good job.

 

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