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.

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.”

Doing the Brahms Requiem

On May 3 2014 Sharon and I formed part of the chorus of Albany Pro Musica to perform Ein Deutsches Requiem, by Brahms, under the direction of the opera director Sara Jobin, with John Cheek and Maureen O’Flynn and the Pro Musica Orchestra, the flexible ensemble organized by Anne-Marie Barker-Schwarz. Ms. Jobin is not the regular conductor of Albany Pro Musica, but stepped in for this concert after the founding director, David Griggs-Janower, died in August. Rehearsals started in September, and were interspersed with rehearsals for other concerts, including the Dvorak Stabat Mater only a month ago.

During her rehearsals, Sara concentrated on diction and text, but also worked hard on pitch and rhythm with the expanded chorus. Many of the singers had performed this piece a number of years ago, but many were new and had little experience singing in German. We worked on prononciation up to just before walking on stage at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Sara insisted that everybody also learn the meaning of the words, believing that this was an important key to conveying the emotional import of the text. Psychologically this makes sense, because a lot of vocal and facial expressions can be influenced unconsciously by the meaning of the text; it might be possible to conjure these up like an actor, but it is probably easier to depend on a more instinctive mechanism. Every conductor has an approach, but all the good ones I have worked with have insisted on singing with feeling. That is a large part of what choral music is all about.

A slender woman, Sara nevertheless is a commanding presence on the podium, moving at times more like a dancer. Most conductors harangue the singers to watch them, but she did not have to do this. I found it fun to watch her, and in the end I felt better prepared than usual.

The text of this well-known piece is not a standard Catholic requiem, but a selection of religious passages that are somber and philosophical, summarized best by the texts of the opening and last movements, remarking the happiness of those who have suffered but pass on in the faith. The final movement, “Seilig sind die Töten” is a serene evocation of this hopeful feeling. The melodies are beautiful and the dynamic shifts in the piece are impressive.

One never knows about the size of the audience in advance, but the house was reasonably full – about 700. After a couple dozen hours’ worth of rehearsal, and perhaps an equal number of hours of practice at home, the singers, the orchestra and conductor, and the officers and staff members of the collaborating organizations came together to produce about an an hour and five minutes of complex and beautiful music, a great classic. It was a satisfying experience.

I joke around with fellow choristers after concerts: “Another piece of ephemera down the tubes!” Maybe I should not. To me the enjoyment of being part of the performance lasts much longer than that of the audience member, but the regret of having to stop working on a piece calls for a sort of distancing. I remind myself that there will be other pieces to sing, and start looking forward to the next thing. I will file this one in my memory as one of the most rewarding ever.

An independent review of the concert appeared today in the Albany Times Union.

Proust in Search of Redemption

I have been re-reading “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” recently, and during this time I found on the internet a couple of interesting pieces by Armelle Barguillet-Hauteloire, a French poet and essayist. After leaving some comments on her blog I was very pleased that she took the trouble to write back to me. She wrote a book “Proust- ou la recherché de la redemption” which I ordered through Amazon and devoured in a single afternoon, as I found it impossible to put it down. The book has two parts – one devoted to Proust himself, and the second focused on the core of Proust’s message in the Recherche, which she thinks is fundamentally religious, something that had not occurred to me before. As she notes, certainly Proust writes very often about churches, but his hero and his characters do not talk much about religion. Instead Proust pursues the goal of immortality by resurrecting the past, both by overt recollection of the past, and by celebrating the famous involuntary memories (déjà vu), touched off by sounds or tastes, sometimes by sights, which evoke with amazing completeness specific moments of the past. She notes that many turn away from Proust, unwilling to spend time on what they feel is an excessively detailed recitation of the inner life of the hero, a sensitive and sickly person, a close observer of others, who feels a vocation for writing but does little to pursue it, because he cannot think of a subject. In the last chapter of the Recherche, Proust apparently speaks through his hero, and describes how he came to realize what he had to write about – namely his own internal life, with all the complex relationships that connected it to the worlds of art, literature, and even science, as well as the people he knew. This will bring back the past in a real way for him, allowing him to dwell in multiple times, and allow him to speak to future generations, the closest we can get to eternity in the real world. It is this sentiment, so powerful that it led Proust to live his final years as an ascetic, that Armelle Barguillet-Hauteloire finds religious.

This reminded me of the poem by Horace (3.30)

Exegi monumentum aere perennius

reglalique situ pyramidum altius…

Non omnis moriar multaque pars mei

vitabit Libitinam…

« I have erected a monument more lasting than bronze and loftier than the royal structure of the pyramids…I shall not wholly die and a greater part of me will evade Libitina (Goddess of Death)… ».

I can add to this example the Shakers, the religious sect that thrived in the northeastern United States from the late 18th to the early 19th century, who thought that their celibate way of life, organized around common labor and housing, was a paradise on earth.

Armelle Barguillet-Hauteloire writes at the end of her book on Proust: “Listen to him.” I have to agree with this; this is an immense and influential work,very worthwhile to read, and more than once. For the artist, and as Proust conceded, for the savant, work is a kind of salvation from obscurity. We want our lives to have meaning in the real world, and those who can create something for future generations to use or treasure are more likely to succeed in this than most.

Steve Pinker on The Decline of Violence

Steve Pinker’s book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature – Why Violence Has Declined” is a striking refutation of the commonly held belief that violence has increased. Not so, he says, and he marshals a huge amount of data to bolster the case, which in fact is not original with him, but documented in many scholarly books and articles over a long period. What this means is that, despite the large numbers of violent deaths we have seen in the mid-20th century, the probability of a violent death, for modern people, is much less than that for people in, say, medieval Europe. What reasons account for this? In a closing chapter he cites several broad themes:

1) The rise of the Leviathan, the nation-state, which took over the right to use violence against citizens, reduced the rate of violence.

2) Commerce developed between nations, which reduced the incentives for war and increased the reasons for peace.

3) Feminization, the progressive transition of women from a position of chattel toward equality of status with men, increased the sway of peaceable virtues and practices.

4) We feel a sense of identity with an ever-expanding circle of people. Moving beyond family to clan, from clan to community, from there to country and nation, and thence to humanity as a whole, people have developed an increasing habit of recognizing the humanity of others. A good deal of this is attributable to the invention of printing and the increased availability of books, importantly novels.This has been a long time in coming.

5) Beginning in the Renaissance and continuing through today, the reduction in superstition and the enhancement of rational arguments led to a greater appreciation of the benefits of peaceful resolution of conflicts.

While Pinker declines to make predictions, one can take some comfort from the analysis. Contrary to our intuition, violence has gone down. It seems possible that we might be able to keep it down.

AC Grayling’s “The God Argument”

The philosopher A.C. Grayling is a Master and Supernumerary Fellow at the University of Oxford. He presents in “The God Argument,” in a few short chapters, many of the arguments that philosophers have used to prove the existence of gods, following each with a critical analysis, and often a critical analysis of counter-arguments, dealing with each in turn. He then turns to one reproach of religious critiques of atheism, the idea that religion is necessary for morality, by proposing humanism as an alternative.

Broadly speaking, Grayling writes, arguments for a belief in gods generally are not the reason people believe in gods. Instead, belief in gods comes first, and it is only to support this belief that appeals to reason are made. Thus, all the arguments for gods are post-hoc rationalizations.

In the first half of the book, after several chapters of introduction, Grayling groups related theistic arguments in separate chapters, dealing in turn with arguments by design, arguments by definition, arguments about causes, wagers, and morals, and finishing up with creationism and intelligent design, which are popular variants of the arguments by design.

The argument from design’s most famous proponent was William Paley (Natural Theology, 1802) who argued by analogy from the following hypothetical example: suppose you find a watch while out for a walk. On picking it up, examining it thoroughly and learning its mechanism, you would certainly conclude that somebody had designed it. Likewise, if you contemplate the things you find in the natural world, such as animals and plants, and coming to learn something about the adaptation of structure to function, you similarly conclude that they must have been designed. Hence there must have been a designer. There are two big flaws with this. One is that it begs the question of where the designer came from, and the other is that in principle there could be another reason for the apparent design we find in nature. Despite these problems, sensible men of Paley’s time accepted his view because nobody had a different proposal for how this apparent design in organisms could arise. Today the situation is quite otherwise, as Darwin and Wallace first showed in the middle of the 19th century and as countless scientists have elaborated in detail ever since. Design in nature is the result of natural selection. So the argument from design fails today because it is only an analogy and there is a rational alternative to the designer model with plenty of evidence supporting it.

Arguments by definition are essentially exercises in the concealment of conclusions in the premises of logical argument. Grayling exposes many of these, from St Anselm down, deftly. The most difficult one, for me at least, was the argument recently made by Alvin Plantinga, which merely attempts to show that a belief in god is not irrational. It goes something like this: “There is a possible world in which something exists that is the greatest thing there can ever be (a thing that has maximal greatness). Therefore there is such a thing. And then Plantinga says this thing is god…” Grayling says that another approach to this style of reasoning is to say that “there is a possible world in which there is a necessarily existing x; and therefore x exists. And as with the ‘greatest thing’ in Plantinga’s version, this necessarily existing thing is identified as a god.” Grayling says that neither of these arguments works. “Here is the explanation: anything which is possible exists, by definition, in at least one possible world. If it is possible that there is a necessary x, then there is at least one world in which x exists necessarily. But if x is a necessary being – if it must exist and cannot do other than exist- it must exist in every possible world, including the actual world. Therefore if it is possible that there is a necessary x, there is actually a necessary x.” Grayling points out that “with equal plausibility it can be claimed that ‘there is a possible world in which nothing exists necessarily’ which means ‘there is a possible world in which everything is contingent’ – and if this is possible…then it follows that nothing is necessary, because only if it is not possible for there to be a world in which nothing is necessary can there be any necessarily existing thing – for remember: such a thing would have to exist in every possible world.” (The italics are in the original text.) This is the hardest part of the book! I cannot make it easier, but it does not matter: Grayling later points out that Plantinga has abandoned this argument in favor of just claiming that a belief in god is a basic belief (for example “the past exists” is a basic belief), and that if you do not believe in god, there is something wrong with your sense of the divine. To Grayling, with this assertion Plantinga has moved into a position of complete intellectual irresponsibility.

Grayling then goes on to dispose of Pascal’s wager, the idea that even if there is a low probability that god exists, the consequences of being mistaken about it are so serious that it makes more sense to believe. Apart from being a bit too calculating for some, this has too many hidden assumptions to be taken seriously. As for creationism and intelligent design, Grayling disposes of these with arguments that are familiar to most who have read any biological science. Proponents of these theories introduce unnecessary postulates to explain natural phenomena.

Grayling along the way points out that a huge proportion of people on the earth do not believe in any religion – including almost all the Chinese. This proves that religion is not hard-wired in human beings.

The second half of the book is devoted to humanism, a candidate to replace religion as an organizing principle for society. He points out the need to distinguish among three ongoing discussions: the theism-atheism debate; the secularism-theocracy debate; and the discussion about ethics and morality. The first part of the book deals with theism; the second deals with the other two. It is worth noting that secularism is not necessarily humanist, but could be religious. After all, the goal of secularism is to prevent one religion from taking over the state – something that the non-favored religions would have a strong interest in preventing. Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion, in Grayling’s view.

The main thrust of the second part of the book is humanism, considered as an alternative to a religion-based system of morality. A very attractive aspect of Grayling’s humanism is that it has just two explicit tenets coupled with a willingness to let rational discussion evolve over time. The first is that we do not need religion to have morality, and the second is that each of us is responsible for thinking about morality on our own. Unlike the anti-religious movements of the past, Grayling’s version of humanism does not propose the burning of effigies, churches, synagogues, or mosques, and instead proposes a method of discussion about ethics and morality whose products could grow in merit with the passage of time. He recognizes that some people prefer to have others think for them, to just go along with some formal system. But he resists the idea that humanism needs to specify a detailed moral code.

He does say that the ethical debate depends on people having free will. This is important because there is scientific evidence suggesting that this is not actually the case. I suspect that there is another book in the making here, but he postpones the argument for another time and place.

Personally, I think humanism has a very large foundation in secular law and literature, and it is even possible that science can contribute something to it, in the sense that it may uncover some genetically hard-wired aspects to our ethics and morality. What humanism lacks, to me, is the woo factor, or what Grayling would call the “ineffability move.” The attraction of mystery has been skillfully manipulated by priests, theologians, writers and artists over the ages. Still, Grayling points out that certain kinds of secular events and ceremonies are as impressive as religious ones. Overall, Grayling writes very well and in detail about humanism and what it might do for us, making this part of the book as intriguing as, and a lot less difficult than, the first part.

The God Argument
By A.C. Grayling, Burberry Press, 2013

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