Surface Level Thinking Bores Me to Tears: NOMA, Evolution and the Philosophy of Religion

Michael Ruse, who recently came to speak at the University of Chicago, seems to have exactly the kind of deeply reasonable ideas which are entirely correct and yet useless precisely because they never engage with the more difficult aspects of the topic. Because these kinds of ideas are so obvious in theory, all of their flaws arise in application. That’s probably uncharitable. Knowing the atheist community as I do, it actually is a controversial notion that in order to be better, more convincing, not to mention more ethical arguers and persuaders for our truth claims about the universe, it helps to understand the other side. And when I say understand the other side, I mean take religion seriously, possibly as seriously as it takes itself. In human history, ideas tend not to last this long unless they are very compelling, either because they are true or because they have something else, and dubbing that something else ‘comfort’ or ‘usefulness’ and then completely ignoring it when you make arguments (either because you don’t acknowledge the need for comfortable/useful/something else ideas and thus fail to build back up pillars, or because you don’t take it into account when you’re discussing the very question of how religion has lasted so long) is really not acceptable. So I was gratified to hear Ruse say something very much along these lines, though I harbor little of the hatred of New Atheists that seems to burn bright in his chest. (Though he did say this, interestingly enough).

Nonetheless, because I am entirely convinced of this proposition and I think any intellectually honest and curious person should be, too, it strikes me as an argument without an insight, a talk without a catalystic novelty at its base, and this is disappointing. Especially since it soon became clear that Ruse falls prey to a common trap: in order to emphasize the similarities or compatibilities of two worldviews or philosophies, only criticize the most egregious wrongs of either side and claim that the middle is really anyone’s game. Please, people, do not do this. Do not claim that you are both a Baarthian and a Kierkegaardian but also a Humean, and therefore believe that resurrection-believers are nuts. Do not claim that so far, religion (qua religion) has donated nothing of use to science, but perhaps in the future, it very well might. Do not appeal to the strawman of ‘scientism’ and then grasp the remaining scraps of straw in the form of wronglyasked questions (why is there something rather than nothing?) or examples of where religion might be of some descriptive use. And, while this is a but off-topic, do not sweat arrogance and pomposity out of every pore by claiming to be a conservative Protestant atheist, and thus better than the religious by being an atheist and better than the atheists by claiming that if you were religious, you’d be better at it then them.

Ruse actually did have some really interesting things to say about metaphor and its use in science, but I’m going to leave that to another piece. I really want to focus on this question of the philosophical intersection between science and religion, how they conflict and why, and whether NOMA, which Ruse seems to generally favor, should be taken seriously.

No, I don’t, actually, because H. Allen Orr did it better. Read this: (hattip: Charles Huff). Now. Then come back.

Let me be absolutely clear: I love (almost) everything about this piece. This piece needs to be spread far and wide. I will begin to try to emulate this piece through my blogging. It is fantastic.

More specifically:
1. The exquisite self-awareness redolent in the acknowledgement of not only weak or shoddy but simply pathetically overused arguments is so refreshing I can’t even stand it. I have arrived at a point in my intellectual life where I find novelty and creativity in thinking so very much more important than being right by sheer virtue of never saying anything that borders on unreasonable, which is mostly a result of cowardice. Orr’s quip about the Natural Law of Scientists (by which he really means atheist internet arguers) Mentioning Crusades made me want to cheer.

2. The entire first paragraph is just…right. Exactly and fundamentally correct.

3. Of course I deeply appreciate Orr’s call against an oversimplification of religion, but what’s so funny is even to call it that would be an oversimplification. A charge of oversimplification only makes sense when it is brought against an argument which has made attempts to sincerely understand and categorize a topic or phenomenon, and has made some unfortunate and grievous mistakes by overlooking important analytic distinctions. But, that’s not even the issue here. Gould undertook a radically absurd redefinition of religion. To call it an oversimplification would be a compliment.

4. The bit about Gould’s nonsensical use of pseudo-Aristotelianism: LOVE. LOVE times a million. I mean, really. No only is that a bastardization of Aristotle, a philosopher who should really be taken more seriously insofar as he is revered but in my opinion not well-understood, but I also read David Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity this summer, and he along with many others in the rationalist community are pretty sick of the idea of truth as an average. When two predictions come about as a result of two entirely different explanations of how the world or something else works, picking and choosing bits is really not the way to go. In fact, you’re just going to get shoddier data. How this relates to politics is a fascinating set of confusions I currently have bouncing around.

5. Orr’s incisive analysis of Gould’s conception of religion coming squarely out of a scientific tradition is not only right on, but is something I’m especially sympathetic to since I’m reading Abraham Joshua Heschel’s God in Search of Man, which is decidedly not materialistic in its philosophical approach. Really beautiful book, by the way.

6. I didn’t know that, as Orr says, “J.B. S. Haldane was an unabashed mystic” but it makes so much sense! Dawkins quotes his, “Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” all the time as an example of positive scientific awe and wonder, but it’s always struck me as pretty mystical and anti-scientific. It depends on how you interpret it, of course. The context is that the prior sentence is “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine.” which may imply that the second sentence is simply a furthering of the thought that the future will be exciting and progress between now and then will be so wonderfully expansive that we simply cannot even conceive now of the questions that will be asked in the future, let alone the answers. But if the first sentence is a personal opinion which is drawn from the larger philosophy explicated in the second sentence which appears to posit fundamentally ineffable concepts, we have a problem.

7. The offhand description of different spheres as a probably “bastardized legacy of Kuhn’s” is right on and also hilarious.

Small points of disagreement:

1. “The point is that it is dishonest to pretend that the Crusades count against theism but that Stalin doesn’t count against atheism.” Possibly true, but possibly not. There’s a different between incidental truths and relevant truths, and which is which depends largely on the neurobiology of religion and what your philosophy of religion is. So…not quite as clear cut as he’s making it out to be. Maybe I should write to him!

2. I get seriously annoyed when people bring up ‘scientism’ as a thing, as I said above. It’s not a thing. Yes, there are logical/mathematical truths. Some people have made what I find to be compelling arguments that those are in fact themselves empirical. You can make all kinds of logical systems if you want; logical is not a single thing. All the other examples are or could be scientific (if they were done more rigorously). Certainly not everything is scientific, but everything is subject to reason. If you don’t believe that, that’s fine, but seriously, people, it’s not a weakness of the rational worldview. Ruse got this totally wrong.

That’s all for now; if you think I got something wrong, or right for that matter, please tell me!


The Philosophy and Politics of Education, Part 1

Author’s note: This was going to be one post about how the ideas contained in my last post might be applied and seen being applied in events taking place across the country, but then it ended up being almost 3000 words, so I’m splitting it up. Also, I’m trying a smaller font. If I have any readers, I would appreciate them letting me know which they prefer.

Actual post:

At the University of Chicago, where I go to school, there is a tradition of the Aims of Education speech. Every year, the first years, during their Orientation Week, are asked to go to Rockefeller Chapel with their houses to hear that year’s speaker discuss the aims of education. This is an honor for the speaker, not only because it’s a long tradition, but because this school so strongly prizes the investigation and application of exactly that question, of what it is that a school is for. Their attempts to reach the proper aims are clear, from the Core to the Fundamentals major. But the search goes on. The tradition stems from Alfred North Whitehead’s address to the Mathematical Association of England in 1916, which was as far from a detailed tractate on the teaching of mathematics as can be imagined. Instead, it was a paean to vision, a plea to progressivism, a fervent request that education and learning never be allowed to stagnate, so that we would create a generation of thinkers instead of simply knowers. As he says, 

“A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth. What we should aim at producing is men who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction. Their expert knowledge will give them the ground to start from, and their culture will lead them as deep as philosophy and as high as art.”

And he’s simply not the only one. I know I’ve discussed this before as I see it, and also as countless others have, but I’m struck by how present these lovely images of the role of education are, even if they do not manifest themselves so proudly in our educational system. And it’s intriguing to me to see how these ideas do and do not play out.

For example, Bertrand Russell, in his own piece on education, said, 

“The conception which I should substitute as the purpose of education is civilization, a term which, as I mean it, has a definition which is partly individual, partly social. It consists, in the individual, of both intellectual and moral qualities: intellectually, a certain minimum of general knowledge, technical skill in one’s own profession, and a habit of forming opinions on evidence; morally, of impartiality, kindliness, and a modicum of self-control. I should add a quality which is neither moral nor intellectual, but perhaps physiological: zest and joy of life. In communities, civilization demands respect for law, justice as between man and man, purposes not involving permanent injury to any section of the human race, and intelligent adaptation of means to ends. If these are to be the purpose of education, it is a question for the science of psychology to consider what can be done towards realizing them, and, in particular, what degree of freedom is likely to prove most effective.”

Don’t you love that last sentence? That in the midst of an imaginative discourse (which is still more rational than most of the uplifting manifestos about the cultivation of excellence in a citizen), he appeals to consequentialism, pointing out that we have a fairly solid idea of what we’d like to see, even if we can’t formalize that quite yet. After that, the role of philosophy is over, and we look for effectiveness in achieving that goal. That’s really all I meant by my support for testing, and for pilot programs, so that we can see what works. It’s also deeply important that once we have a sense of some truth or another, we acknowledge it and work with it.

So I applaud the efforts of many around the country who are following exactly this thinking. For example, in New York, there’s this: “100 New York Schools Try Common Core Approach“. It’s a trial program, put in place to try to change education to be more engaging, more general and more the type of education that could produce well-rounded thinkers. If it doesn’t work, they’ll try something else. Essentially, exactly what we should be doing. I especially like this teacher who “On a recent Wednesday closed a unit on the meaning of the American dream not by assigning a first-person essay, as she once did, but by asking each student to interview an immigrant and write a profile of the person.” 

It not only gives the students a better understanding of the issues involved, but it teaches them personal skills, including how to conduct an interview. It allows them to put a human face to the abstract English and history they’re learning, and is all-in-all a fantastic idea. I hope the students got a lot out of it. I also feel that the program demonstrates a smart approach because it relies on an understanding of pedagogy and the importance of teaching in reformulating education. This trial is not only about the students, but about teachers, and giving them freedom to try new tactics that just might work, as well as encouraging them to raise the standards of the classroom. But the best part is the criticism, which in this article came from Timothy Shanahan, a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who that “the standards make no adjustments for students who are learning English or for children who might enter kindergarten without having been exposed to books”. It excites me because it’s a criticism from within the system, seeking to improve what is a good idea by pointing out the unfortunate fact that exterior circumstance often impact the success of education in powerful ways. It leaves the discussion open to keep looking for what might work better.

And that, in fact, is addressed here: The Limits of School Reform. Social factors, which I discussed last time, play a major role in education. That shouldn’t be something so-called reformers are scared of admitting. Firstly, it’s not as if the schools themselves don’t need changing; clearly that work is still immensely valuable. Secondly, as previously discussed, schools themselves can affect the social environment around them, and in fact, where possible, would seem to have an obligation to do just that. And thirdly, if you’re a reformer, you should be welcoming data which will help you do your job better. This is hard, and it doesn’t have simple answers. Clearly, children who work to support their families, or are often sick, will have difficulty being present in class. If things are difficult at home, they may fail to complete their assignments, or they may exhibit signs of attention disorders or learning disabilities. They’ll also tend to score poorly on IQ tests. But again, that’s an unfortunate truth we should be facing head on. Consequentialism – we all have the same goals in the end, for the most part, don’t we? So, as is said in the article, “To admit the importance of a student’s background, they fear, is to give ammo to the enemy — which to them are their social-scientist critics and the teachers’ unions. But that shouldn’t be the case. Making schools better is always a goal worth striving for, whether it means improving pedagogy itself or being able to fire bad teachers more easily. “
Always a goal worth striving for, indeed.

Types of Freedom

Here’s a link about financial reform before the recent bill was passed, along with my commentary.

The first thing to notice is that the author is straightforward about literally wanting the banks to have less money. To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about that. I mean, how do you democratically and morally take money away from banks in a way that evidence shows does the most good? It’s a hard question. I mean, certainly the idea that too much money = too much control over democracy certainly seems to make sense, both a priori and in looking at the state of this country. A recent conversation with a libertarian friend had him declaring that if government interfered less, businesses would have far less incentive to interfere at all. There are several problems with that, starting with the fact that special interest groups exist in order to ask for benefits even without precedent, and that businesses would always have incentives to buy out senators.

But, if we take that as a philosophical idea, here are my thoughts.

There are many types of freedoms. For example: economic, political and individual freedom. I thought, as a civil libertarian and socialist, I’d come to the conclusion that economic freedom is just different, it can be excluded in a way that the others can’t. Perhaps because money breeds money, because the gap between the rich and the poor is growing, not shrinking, because without money people live on the streets and starve and die or because money has an undue influence on democracy.

But thinking about it now, that’s not how it is. It’s exactly the same as the others. In some cases you need negative freedoms, that is, the freedom to not be taxed to death, to not have to purchase something in particular from some place in particular, just as you need to be able to not be stopped from going where you like and saying what you like. But you also need positive freedoms, like the right to go vote, the positive participation in democracy. In economic terms, that might mean freedom from want, freedom from the fear and undue stress that comes from abject and even not so abject poverty.

Some things I’ve been reading recently have made me rethink my stance on what can be learned from the ever-feared socialist and otherwise repressive governments of the 20th century and their (I argue tenuous) connections to FDR and New Deal-style democracy. What role does economic freedom play? Is it that individual freedoms are great but must be put in the context of society? Is economic freedom fundamentally different? Si Kahn, famous community organizer during the civil rights movement, whose book, Organizing: A Guide for Grassroots Leaders, I think, really said it when he noted that we may very well have learned the wrong lessons from the vast amount of totalitarian oppression and restriction of freedom in the 20th century. We learned that government was scary and bad. What we should have learned was that lots of things are scary and bad (Chomsky and Brandeis would say that big things are scary and bad) and that maybe we should look at what those are exactly and what institutions and resources we have in place at our disposal.

So we know that poverty and death and segregation and concentration camps and lack of security are bad. So we have corporations, who sometimes aid and fund all those things (if you think that I’m exaggerating, look at for-profit prisons), that we can ostensibly control using our money and our free choices. And we have governments, which often do all of those things, that we can supposedly control through the democratic process. We also know that when properly used, both can be forces for good. And what’s really cool about being progressive, and thus following a consequentialist ethic in how we get to a freer, more egalitarian society, is you can say, well great, let’s play these massive, ineradicable forces off against each other. So let’s put in some laws that protect people (like FDIC and the Fed’s emergency funds) but be sure that there are strict regulations (like Glass-Steagal/Volcker or all the regulation that Dick Cheney took away from oil drilling).

Then the corporations have less power and money to screw with democracy and hurt us. Because democracy is good, it’s a positive right we have. And we, the people, are good, and ought not to be hurt. And then when government fails us, as it often does, and we note that democracy is standing in the way of democracy, then we do something else, maybe in the private sector, maybe through community organizing maybe through moving our money from big banks to community ones. Remember that the progressive way is to use things as a means to an end. Everyone, especially libertarians and tea partiers, learned the wrong lessons. Government really can work for us, and the political process is really important. But also, we can force big forces to work for us.

States are not moral agents, people are, and can impose moral standards on powerful institutions.”
– Noam Chomsky

Or something like that.

Secular humanism

You know what’s a good feeling? The feeling of coming to a conclusion of a difficult or sticky or contradictory philosophical or political conundrum. You know what another good feeling is? Realizing that, in some ways, you had it right all along. I’ve been talking to a friend recently about Randian philosophy. For backstory, note that I began Atlas Shrugged, and found it so impenetrably dense that I could not continue. So I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject. Nonetheless, from reading I’d done about her, I had come to the conclusion that she was completely off her rocker. I don’t even feel that objectivism is all that problematic; the focus on the individual I found fairly easy to grasp given my knowledge of libertarianism (also mostly achieved through a mix of research and conversations with a friend, proving for me the importance of conversations many feel are pointless). It was the inescapable incompleteness of the philosophy that struck me. To hold the individual up as the highest value is one thing. To deny the vastly complex interactions between the individual and the environment and society is myopic to an incomprehensible degree. It’s not just overly convenient for her philosophy to be based on what she finds important and to ignore what she finds unimportant or evil. It’s also just wrong. People are shaped and informed by their environments. To what extent depends on many factors, which are themselves interesting and studyable. It’s pretty much lunacy to categorically state that sociobiology, biology, psychology, sociology and anthropology are unimportant disciplines, that the existence of rationality and consciousness (which, by the way, we don’t as yet understand) in and of themselves obviate the need or the usefulness for systematic studies of human behavior.

However, I have recently come to feel that there are some aspects of the philosophy which I have already accepted. The supreme importance of rationality. The beauty in human achievement and expression. The sanctity of the individual. Feeling that I am the most important person in my life. So then I began to feel a little uneasy. Despite being a rational liberal, I’ve always felt that at some level, there’s a spectrum that ranges from the cold clarity of reason to the warm compassion of humanism. I know that pretty much everyone is able to combine these somehow, but it’s really always bothered me, especially because this somewhat abstract political issue comes up eerily frequently in my personal life. What do I want? Why do I want it? How am I going to get it? How will that affect people around me? How much should that affect my decision? How can my community help me, and I them?

I was all set to come up with a vibrant hybrid/amalgamation and see where it led me, and then, something happened. One of the aspects I was going to bring to bear on this analysis was secular humanism, a philosophy to which I am fairly keenly devoted. I’ve read the affirmations, explanations and declarations many times, and yet, I seem to have forgotten this key point: that the fundamental value in this worldview is its hybrid nature. I really can’t express it better than the Center for Inquiry/Wikipedia do, so here are some key features.

1.That while you could in principle separate out the rationalist/individualist aspects from the empathetic/humanistic ones, not only would that be difficult, but it would be missing the point. In terms of ethics, for example, the search for universalizable, justifiable principles of moral conduct is a task for rationalists who seek to apply reason to the ultimate goals of encouraging human well-being, in the individual and global sense, and in that way to create a better world.

2.As Tom Flynn says, “secular humanism’s unique selling proposition is rooted in the balance it strikes between cognitive and emotional/affective commitments.” And “Secular humanism is invigorated by the best that atheism and religious humanism have to offer—thoroughly naturalistic, yet infused by an inspiring value system. It offers a nonreligious template that may one day guide much of humanity in pursuing truly humane lives. This is the fulfillment of secularism as George Jacob Holyoake imagined it: the successful quest for the good life, intellectually, ethically, emotionally rich, and without any reliance on religious faith.”

It may sound like a cop-out, but as a matter of fact, I was entirely willing to undergo the mental exercise of figuring out how to reconcile what seemed to be contradictory elements of my worldview, but serendipitously, this set of ideas I already felt I subscribed to did a fantastic job. So why do I have all those posts about worldview when I have multitudinous Wikipedia articles and other websites I could link to? Well, for one, that is intellectually lazy. And secondly, everything in secular humanism follows from my core ideas. Which doesn’t mean it’s not important; the ramifications of one’s worldview can be more difficult to figure out than the essential tenets themselves.

So that’s who I am and what I believe.

Secularism and Naturalism: Where the Wild Worldviews Are

In a recent Free Inquiry (a magazine published by the Council for Secular Humanism) issue, the idea that four separate bases for worldviews (atheism, naturalism, secularism and humanism) are interconnected and ought to work together for the advancement of humanity came up. The interplay among them is certainly complex, and while I agree in principle that they should be combined in order to create a very powerful tool, in practice, these often come into conflict, and in different circumstances, I tend to prioritize some over others.

In my last post, I discussed atheism as a topic for discourse and its uses. I came to the conclusion that it’s potentially fruitful ground for personal conversations that focus on frank discussions about belief and understanding where a person is “coming from.” It can also be useful on the national or global stage in order to spark the growth of any and all movements associated with atheism and to foster this growing community.

On to secularism! It’s not the same as atheism, not by a long shot, but they’re often confused. Secularism refers to “the concept that government or other entities should exist separately from religion and/or religious beliefs.” It can also be described, in a more rigid sense, as the separation of religion from the nonreligious, the private declaration of faith from the public daily interactions. That train of thought generally leads to the concept of being free from religion in public life, France-style, but because I tend to prioritize freedom of speech above this sort of thing, the more important definition regards public decision making. This version of secularism simply indicates that while religion can inhabit the public sphere, it has no jurisdiction there.

Secularism is extremely important when dealing with the interaction of the private and the public. From a practical standpoint, in this day and age, one simply cannot depend on all the members of a community being religious in order to form a consensus or come to any agreement on important issues. Contrary to the belief of one George Herbert Walker Bush, atheists are citizens too. The connections that are necessary for public and political life simply can no longer be relegated to the religious realm. From a more philosophical view, even if everyone in a given polis were religious, religion would still be a terrible justification or source of any arguments or points put forward. At its best, religion is a manifestation of a much more fundamental human propensity to attempt to make sense of the world around us and to form tightly-knit communities. Bonding over these and other shared aspects of our humanity is a more useful and noble endeavor than trying to use one twig on the tree of human flourishing in order to bring people together. For these reasons, as well as the fact that faith happens to be a supremely untenable epistemology, any purely religious reasoning for something that affects the community as a whole can and must be thrown out forthwith. This is not to say that religious people have nothing to add to public discussion. On the contrary, there are many religious secularists. There are also many famous philosophers (Kant, Locke and Descartes come to mind) who were religious, derived much of their ethics from religion and who were nonetheless able to come up with well reasoned secular arguments for their position. Arguments must be subject to public scrutiny, and as such it would be in their favor, were they to survive the onslaught of critical thinking, to be based on empirical evidence and reasoned logic, and here lies the basis of the importance of public reason.

Then there’s naturalism, which can be both an epistemology and an ontology. As an epistemology, it tells us that the most practical method for understanding the natural world is observing it in systematic, rigorous ways. Useful knowledge can be arrived at by a thoughtful application of methods such as creation of hypotheses and constructions of experiments designed to test them. It lets our knowledge of reality be defined and informed by, well, reality. And lest it be assumed that naturalism is inherently flawed by its reliance on potentially flawed methods of collecting empirical data, note that well-designed, replicable experiments to test well-constructed, falsifiable hypotheses are intrinsic to the system. (This might be a good place to posit my completely ridiculous mathematical conceptual framework, which involves thinking of scientific evidence as the rational numbers and the real world as the real numbers, which are compact. If you’re a fan of the dreamer problem or similar philosophical conundrums, think of reality as isomorphic to what we see.) And, as can be seen in the history of knowledge, science and technology, naturalism has worked spectacularly well.

Well enough, in fact, that one could extrapolate from the epistemology to the ontology. If that method of collecting and advancing knowledge about the world, why might we not begin to discount and discredit any unfalsifiable or un-truth-apt statements or hypotheses when it comes to making truth claims? In that case, we would start to think of the world as limited in some ways, limited to that which can be observed and studied, in which case one might come to the conclusion that nature is all there is, and all there is is nature. If you’re not comfortable with that, I would suggest accepting that there might be forms of knowledge and reality not accounted for in this framework, but given that there is no way of rigorously investigating the matter, and the nonmaterial generally has little or no effect on the material, such forms may as well not exist. Which of course brings up the question of what it means to exist, but I think I’m using a pretty intuitive, common-sense definition I might formulate more rigorously another time.

So I think it follows pretty clearly here that naturalism is best prioritized at times when the accumulation of knowledge is paramount. If one wanted to take a holistic view, one might notice that naturalism can give us the sorts of information that are best suited to public discourse within the realm of secularism. If these two systems are practiced in a certain way, they’re likely to result in atheism, and raising the visibility of that particular minority might well bring voice to these other issues. How all of this affects humans and how humans interact with each other will wait until Humanism: The Gripping Finale You’ve All Been Waiting For!