Douglas inspires


Often the delete key is my friend. A thou­sand word post has dis­ap­peared. I was going to post a response to someone else’s post, and use this video of Douglas Adams as an example of pos­it­ive athe­ism. I’m tired of yet another post from someone who says “I’m an athe­ist, but you mustn’t talk about athe­ism or offend the reli­gious because athe­ists are nasty.”

Then I thought if that’s the case why bother? The people who tend to write such posts don’t have any­thing inter­est­ing or pos­it­ive to say apart from scowl­ing at other people who do. Religious people can pro­duce great works, like Handel’s Messiah which has a reli­gious mes­sage in it some­where. Then you get books like Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow, that show the sense of won­der you can have in the work­ings of the uni­verse. Yet I can­not think of any­thing remotely inspir­a­tional writ­ten in the heart­felt belief that com­prom­ise is by its nature the goal. No one looks at a beau­ti­ful land­scape, sighs, and says, “It’d be so much bet­ter if there was a small indus­trial estate in the way. Y’know to bal­ance the envir­on­mental and eco­nomic needs of society.”

So instead I’ll just put up the video that TED made pick of the week. If you’re intent on some Sunday athe­ism it’s around 1h 10m in, I think. It’s only a short bit about God. That’s fair enough because it’s a big uni­verse with lots fas­cin­at­ing stuff in it includ­ing his Last Chance to See project.

Temple Grandin, Kinds of Minds and SETI


You’ll see me put up more TED videos over the next few months. I’ve had one in the drafts folder since Christmas, but I need some pho­tos to go with it, and haven’t had the chance to get them. The prod is that I’ve applied for a TED fel­low­ship. I don’t have a real­istic chance of get­ting one, but I thought it might help with organ­ising a TEDx event in Leicester. I’ll be vis­it­ing TEDxWarwick to see how they do it next week.

Temple Grandin is an inter­est­ing per­son to post regard­less of any­thing else. I first heard of her after read­ing an inter­view in NewScientist. I put in an order for Animals in Translation when it came out, that sadly has sat on my shelf since wait­ing for qual­ity free time for me to read it. Temple Grandin has a rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent view of aut­ism to the com­mon ste­reo­type pushed by the press. I hadn’t real­ised there were many people who see Autism and Asperger’s as pos­it­ive aspects to their lives. In the video below Temple Grandin reframes the aut­istic spec­trum as a need for dif­fer­ent kinds of minds, which quite lit­er­ally requires a whole new way of think­ing about the mind.

If Grandin is right then this is a major span­ner in the works of Evolutionary Psychology. EP as it’s some­times not so affec­tion­ately known, is based on the idea that the human mind is more or less unchanged from the Pleistocene era, so our actions and cog­ni­tion should be under­stood with ref­er­ence to a Palaeolithic world. The video above tor­pedoes that assump­tion. First we have to remove the idea that evol­u­tion is a lin­ear pro­gres­sion from there to here.

Evolution and nudity

Evolution explained by Nick D. Kim at Strange Matter

Instead we have three kinds of mind accord­ing to Temple Grandin, and a social and edu­ca­tional sys­tem set up to dis­crim­in­ate in favour of verbal minds. She’s also very clear about the idea of a spec­trum, so there could be people at the extremes of all three kinds of mind, and the rest of us in the middle with plastic minds. We get shaped to develop verbal minds because of the primacy of verbal com­mu­nic­a­tion and the out­come is a pop­u­la­tion that devel­ops verbal cog­ni­tion to the det­ri­ment of other forms of think­ing, and is unaware that it is doing so. Like she says, it’s nat­ural to assume every­one thinks the way you do. The abil­ity to digest milk is a rel­at­ively recent adapt­a­tion in humans, but it spread quickly. The advant­ages verbal cog­ni­tion could mean that the mod­ern mind is dif­fer­ent to non-literate minds. It opens up whole mine­field of edu­ca­tional policy that I’m com­pletely unqual­i­fied to talk about. It also has implic­a­tions for SETI because it seems we have been rub­bish so far at recog­nising a dif­fer­ent kind of mind in our own species.

The idea that aut­istic people might be more sen­su­ally aware than the aver­age per­son doesn’t fit the ste­reo­type, unless you think of cute sav­ants. Nonetheless it makes a ser­i­ous altern­at­ive cog­nit­ive model. A lot of what I’ve read in SETI is pretty inflex­ible. It’s still the default pos­i­tion that math­em­at­ics could be a uni­ver­sal lan­guage. It relies heav­ily on Platonic ideals in math­em­at­ics, and the ques­tion of whether or not you need a Plato for a Platonic philo­sophy. There is the ques­tion about the unreas­on­able effect­ive­ness of math­em­at­ics. Sundar Sarukkai has debunked this (PDF) (in my opin­ion) by show­ing math­em­at­ics is a lan­guage. Everything in the uni­verse can be described in English, but no one would say English is unreas­on­ably effect­ive. It’s pos­sible that math­em­at­ics appears to work because of an inher­ent struc­ture in our cog­ni­tion and not a struc­ture in the uni­verse, a span­drel of a verbal mind. If that’s the case then math­em­at­ics is a sign of a kind of mind and we will need to rad­ic­ally rethink what we look for in intel­li­gence to recog­nise intel­li­gent extra-terrestrial life.

That’s why I think Temple Grandin has an import­ant mes­sage for SETI, but equally she also has an import­ant mes­sage for Earth. It’s a topic which should be of interest to any­one who’s plan­ning to do some think­ing in the future.

Sander van der Leeuw: The Archaeology of Innovation


A couple of years ago I came across the Long Now Foundation on the web. I was plan­ning to blog on it, par­tic­u­larly some of the bets, but haven’t so far. If there’s one sub­ject which shouldn’t be affected by a delay of a few years it’s the Long Now Foundation. I remembered, because I found this on Fora​.tv. Fora​.tv is a bit like TED, but longer.

Prof Sander van der Leeuw at the Long Now Foundation

Chapter 6 has a eas­ily over­looked prob­lem. Why did things stay so sim­ilar dur­ing the Pleistocene? Change in the cli­mate, and pre­sum­ably the local envir­on­ments, didn’t spur any sig­ni­fic­ant change in tools. van der Leeuw pulls that prob­lem apart by look­ing at the devel­op­ment of short term work­ing memory and shows there’s actu­ally a lot of really com­plex cog­nit­ive pro­cesses to look at if you want to under­stand the man­u­fac­ture of Palaeolithic hand-axes.

Chapter 12 and 13 are also thought-provoking. I like the explan­a­tion that to be social you need someone to be social with. van der Leeuw’s ana­lysis shows that you can’t have a lone city. A city requires a com­munity of cit­ies. I’m more wary of col­lapse mod­els of soci­et­ies. It’s def­in­itely not a brain-dead model that van der Leeuw uses, but it is very com­pressed. If you chart the decline from the Roman Empire from its peak around AD 200-ish to AD 500-ish that’s three cen­tur­ies. On a human scale that’s the time from now back to your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, assum­ing a grand­father is around 50 years into your past. With the dis­tance of time I can see there is a decline but it’s less a col­lapse and more a gentle saunter down to the tri­umph of the bar­bar­i­ans. We could have soci­etal col­lapses because we have the his­tor­ical aware­ness and a social nar­rat­ive that ancient peoples lacked.

Ironically as I was typ­ing up that cri­ti­cism, van der Leeuw was mak­ing a sim­ilar point in his con­clu­sion. The concept of deep time provides us with a way of think­ing and ana­lys­ing the past in a way that the Romans couldn’t. It’s a good talk and brings together a col­lec­tion of dif­fer­ent prob­lems and research top­ics into the same story. It’s a long video but worth the time.

You can watch the whole video at Fora​.tv, or down­load the talk as an MP3 from the Long Now Foundation.

Is lust for power a basic human attribute?


Lust for Power rather than Lust.
Photo (cc) Rachel a.k.

Ron Ferguson has been writ­ing at the Herald, For good or ill, reli­gion is a basic human need. I dis­agree with most of it. Some lines like:

The attempts to provide evol­u­tion­ary reas­ons for the wide­spread per­sist­ence of reli­gion are uncon­vin­cing. Dogmatic reduc­tion­ism — “there is noth­ing bey­ond the nat­ural, phys­ical world”, in Dawkins’s words — doesn’t sat­isfy the deep­est long­ings of the human heart.

sug­gest to me someone who hasn’t read much or per­haps any evol­u­tion­ary explan­a­tions of reli­gion, but has read what other people — who may or may not have read such art­icles — say about these explan­a­tions. I can dis­pute Ferguson’s claims on sci­entific or philo­soph­ical grounds, but theo­lo­gical grounds too.

If we accept that reli­gious insight is needed to under­stand reli­gion, then the fact that at most one reli­gion is true becomes a prob­lem. How do we explain all these false reli­gions? Are they the product of a trick­ster god? If they are products of a trick­ster god then there’s no way to know that your deeply cher­ished beliefs are not a cos­mic jape. If they’re not the product of a super­nat­ural force then they are nat­ural and poten­tially explic­able. This means that people like David Sloan Wilson, Walter Burkert, Pascal Boyer, people actu­ally work­ing on explan­a­tions of reli­gion have some­thing say on the subject.

It’s a very basic error and I think it high­lights a prob­lem with the study of the evol­u­tion of reli­gion. A lot of people pro­fess­ing to be talk­ing about the ori­gins of reli­gion really aren’t inter­ested in the debate. Instead it’s about con­tem­por­ary polit­ics. Ron Ferguson, former min­is­ter at Saint Magnus Cathedral, Orkney, is say­ing ‘don’t listen to Dawkins’ because of what Dawkins means for the author­ity of the church now. Lest you think this is spe­cific­ally a prob­lem with the­ists I should add I’m not con­vinced that Dawkins is that bothered about the ori­gins of reli­gion either. If he were then he would have con­duc­ted his ‘Chinese junk’ thought exper­i­ment which he intro­duced in 1998 in his fore­word to ‘The Meme Machine’ and then returned to in ‘The God Delusion’. Again I’d argue that Dawkins is far more con­cerned at the polit­ical influ­ence reli­gion has today.

So how do you explain reli­gion? I was going to say that you have to adopt a judge­ment­ally neut­ral view. When zoolo­gists exam­ine lions they don’t load moral judge­ments of their inhu­mane method of slaughter into their work. Similarly the social bene­fits or det­ri­ments of reli­gion shouldn’t be an issue when examin­ing the facts of ori­gin and growth of reli­gion. However this is where the sep­ar­ate mages­teria model pro­posed by Steven Jay Gould breaks down. It is a view of many reli­gions that the reason why their reli­gion exis­ted and grew is that a super­nat­ural being made it so. So, for example, David Sloan Wilson who is extremely care­ful to try and avoid offend­ing believ­ers non­ethe­less still does so when he pro­poses an explan­a­tion for Calvinism which doesn’t include a God, as explained by ardent Protestant kfeich at LibraryThing:

Why would we want to spend time dis­cuss­ing a book by an athe­ist whose basic pre­sup­pos­i­tion about real­ity (There is a God) is faulty? Most, if not all, sub­sequent pro­pos­i­tions and con­clu­sions would there­fore be estranged from the truth.

Most Christians I’ve met wouldn’t be so dog­matic in their refusal to accept there can be non-religious explan­a­tions for things. I’ve yet to see ser­i­ous agit­a­tion that many pop­u­lar cook­books refuse to say that the dish will be deli­cious only if it is part of God’s plan.

I’d be sur­prised if Ron Ferguson were that dog­matic because of how he sees his place in rela­tion to the longer his­tory of Orkney. In his art­icle he con­nec­ted the Middle Eastern mys­tery cult he fol­lows with the pre­his­toric rituals of peoples thou­sands of years before then. This only works if you sense of con­tinu­ity of people and place. For Ferguson the Orkneys weren’t ori­ent­al­ised, it was Christianity which became Orcadian. This makes cur­rent Christianity the latest phase in a long tra­di­tion of intro­spect­ive meth­ods to under­stand the uni­verse. It also clearly requires a spe­cific view of real­ity, and it’s not one I can share. I’m really not sure to what extent if any mod­ern reli­gion is analgous to ancient reli­gion. Modern Christianity is strik­ingly dif­fer­ent to ancient Christianity. In Catholicism the mar­tyrs who gave their lives to keep their faith in the Roman Empire, were wast­ing their time accord­ing to the cur­rent Pope who refused to do the same in Nazi Germany. Protestants seem to veer­ing towards ven­er­a­tion of the Bible as an author­ity, an author­ity which the earli­est Christians lacked. The Greeks them­selves didn’t have a word for reli­gion, so in some ways the study of it in its earlier stages is an ana­chron­ism. Continuity of belief is an art­icle of faith for most reli­gions. We believe now what they believed then because the truths of reli­gion are time­less. But that’s a huge assump­tion which doesn’t hold for reli­gion in his­tor­ical peri­ods. I can’t see how that assump­tion could be jus­ti­fied when look­ing at earlier beliefs.

So if mod­ern reli­gion does not map eas­ily onto past beliefs, how do I cur­rently see reli­gion evolving? I think it grows from the per­sonal exper­i­ence of intent.

Personally I’m an epi­phen­om­en­al­ist, but while I don’t believe I have free will I cer­tainly feel as though I have free will. Indeed I feel that it was the lack of any plaus­ible mech­an­ism for free will, and the demostra­tion of com­plex and chaotic beha­viour that per­suaded me free will is, in mater­ial sense, mean­ing­less. Did I have any choice but to believe it if I had no free will? At this point your head may be spin­ning with try­ing to work out the sen­sa­tion of being an insensate auto­maton, but you’re not. This is import­ant. The sen­sa­tion of think­ing, regard­less of whether or not it’s free will, is the strongest sen­sa­tion you have. Everything you know about the uni­verse is based in the sen­sa­tion that there is a you to sense it. This is first order intentionality.

Something else you know is that other minds exist. You see it from the actions of people. You can also see it in the actions of anim­als. I don’t mean that if you get too close and most anim­als can be scared off. That could be a purely mech­an­ical rela­tion­ship. Instead I mean there are times you can recog­nise pur­pose in some­thing else’s actions. Sometimes you see the goal achieved and you can work out what the pur­pose was. Sometimes you don’t but that doesn’t mean that you always con­clude thate there was no pur­pose. This is second order inten­tion­al­ity. The thing about second order inten­tion­al­ity is that you’re often not fussy about what you give it to. Humans and anim­als seem reas­on­able but it’s also com­mon for people to yell at inan­im­ate objects. Alan Turing pro­posed that when people can­not dif­fer­en­ti­ate between a human and a com­puter inter­act­ing with them, then a machine can be con­sidered arti­fi­cially intel­li­gent. Given the abuse I’ve heard poured at Mr Clippy I’d argue the oppos­ite. The vis­ceral reac­tion, the anger and the venom aimed at a com­puter means it passes a test for Artificial Stupidity or pos­sibly Artificial Malevolence, which requires at least some form of per­ceived mind regard­less of whether or not the com­puter really has a mind. This abil­ity to assign intent where there may or may not be any can be applied to other objects. Putting inten­tion­al­ity into nature can have all sorts of side-effects. I’ll pull together three.


I wish I knew who first described reli­gion as Man’s attempt to com­mu­nic­ate with the weather. The ran­dom pat­terns could make it a can­did­ate for assigned inten­tion­al­ity. It would cer­tainly provide a puzzle which needs explain­ing. It’s likely that explain­ing ran­dom pat­terns is some­thing we’re really good at. The evid­ence comes from pigeons.

Feeding pigeons. Photo (cc) dham­mza.

Superstition in the Pigeon is a genu­ine schol­arly art­icle by B.F. Skinner. In it he recounts exper­i­ments which he believed showed pigeons were cap­able of super­ti­tious beha­viour. Basically if you put a pigeon in a cage with a but­ton which, when pressed, will oper­ate a grain dis­penser — the pigeon will learn to use it. Where it gets inter­est­ing is when you change the but­ton so that when it’s pressed it’s purely ran­dom as to whether grain is dis­pensed or not.

When you do this then the pigeon still presses the but­ton, with inter­mit­tent suc­cess. What it doesn’t know is that the suc­cess is purely ran­dom. It acts as though it thought it got action right on the occa­sions when food came out. Perhaps it cocked its head to left before press­ing the but­ton. Now the pigeon repeats that action with vari­ations, until the next ran­dom pay­out rein­forces that beha­viour and leads to fur­ther elab­or­ate actions by the pigeon. I think it’s a bit of a leap to con­clude that the pigeon is super­sti­tious, but it’s clearly respond­ing to some con­di­tion­ing. The same can be observed in humans too.

I sup­pose I could have given fruit machines as an example of con­di­tion­ing people to ran­dom rewards instead, but there’s some­thing pleas­ing about cit­ing a man who taught pigeons to dance, play table ten­nis and guide mis­siles. The pigeon guided mis­sile had only one flaw.

Our prob­lem was no one would take us seriously.

The response to ran­dom events could there­fore appear to be ran­dom and arbit­rary in humans. I’d sug­gest that arbit­rary is fair, it will not be related to suc­cess of a tech­nique, but it will not be ran­dom. It will be a learned beha­viour and so vary between eth­nic groups. If you like we’re all talk­ing to the weather, but non­ethe­less we talk to it in the local lan­guage. I like the Spanish term used by a lot of archae­oastro­nomers, cos­mo­visión, to describe the way peoples see the world. Stripped to its basic mean­ing it’s how people per­ceive the uni­verse, regard­less of whether this world-view is sci­entific or not. Different peoples have dif­fer­ent cos­mo­visións and so their world-view is an eth­nic marker.

The marker is not purely dec­or­at­ive. Once you make some arbit­rary assump­tions about how the uni­verse works, some com­bin­a­tions of actions are more coher­ent than oth­ers. Some actions by people from another eth­nic group may even be act­ively dis­rupt­ive. Cosmovisión will be used in many import­ant activ­it­ies. It is vital to sow the seeds cor­rectly, to har­vest and win­now in the same way. The pro­tec­tion of the food sur­plus must be done in the right man­ner. Failure in any of these could have fatal con­sequences. The view from within the group is that this vis­ion of reailty, and so is the same for all mem­bers of that group. Therefore we should see cos­mo­visións emerge as detect­able group char­ac­ter­ist­ics. This is old hat to archae­olo­gists and his­tor­i­ans who already know that if we were Vikings we’d build our houses this way, or com­mem­or­ate our dead that way.

Social Power

Largely unre­lated to cos­mo­visión is the devel­op­ment of power. My view of cos­mo­visión could be described as memetic, extel­li­gent or based in TXM. My view of power in con­trast owes more to struc­tur­a­tion the­ory, which I’m told is incom­pat­ible with memet­ics. The light­weight sum­mary of struc­tur­a­tion the­ory is as follows:

Social action is per­formed by agents work work within struc­tures. The struc­tures con­fine and con­strict what actions are open to the agents. At the same time agents by their actions make and main­tain these struc­tures. The rela­tion­ship between agents and struc­tures can get very com­plex, and it’s widely viewed that agents will seek to max­im­ise their pos­i­tion within struc­tures which cre­ates the longev­ity of some struc­tures. For example its the view of quite a few politi­cians that demo­cracy in the UK is broken. The power is held by people voted in by an over­whelm­ing minor­ity and so the bal­ance of power does not reflect the views of the coun­try. The Liberal Democrats and many Labour politi­cians in the 1980s were keen on a form of Proportional Representation to elect gov­ern­ments. The Liberal Democrats, who remain out of power, still are but there’s not really the same desire of PR from Labour. No-one who thinks they can win the whole game under the cur­rent struc­ture is likely to will­ingly change the struc­ture to share power. Power struc­tures should be self-reinforcing which, if you’ve read 1984, is really scary. If any power struc­ture which increases the power of individual(s) with in it will auto­mat­ic­ally self-reinforce, then it would also sug­gest that there should be a uni­ver­sal tend­ency to more from egal­it­arian soci­et­ies to socially strat­i­fied soci­et­ies. Again his­tory shows then when an eco­nomic sur­plus is pos­sible strat­i­fic­a­tion follows.


Morality is not neces­sar­ily related to either of the facets above, which might seem pre­pos­ter­ous to any­one with a mod­ern view of reli­gion. Indeed one of the reas­ons fun­da­ment­al­ists give for the import­ance of reli­gion is that it is a moral found­a­tion. Plato dis­agreed.

The doings of Cronus, and the suf­fer­ings which in turn his son inflic­ted upon him, even if they were true, ought cer­tainly not to be lightly told to young and thought­less per­sons; if pos­sible, they had bet­ter be bur­ied in silence. But if there is an abso­lute neces­sity for their men­tion, a chosen few might hear them in a mys­tery, and they should sac­ri­fice not a com­mon [Eleusinian] pig, but some huge and unpro­cur­able vic­tim; and then the num­ber of the hear­ers will be very few indeed.

…the nar­rat­ive of Hephaestus bind­ing Here his mother, or how on another occa­sion Zeus sent him fly­ing for tak­ing her part when she was being beaten, and all the battles of the gods in Homer –these tales must not be admit­ted into our State, whether they are sup­posed to have an alleg­or­ical mean­ing or not. For a young per­son can­not judge what is alleg­or­ical and what is lit­eral; any­thing that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unal­ter­able; and there­fore it is most import­ant that the tales which the young first hear should be mod­els of vir­tu­ous thoughts.

If you’re famil­iar with the Greek myths then it’s per­haps no won­der that Plato didn’t see the Gods as great moral guides. The same objec­tion can be made of other Gods. Richard Dawkins has been accused of being offens­ive when talk­ing about the actions of the Abrahamic god. Apparently the notion of drown­ing all the new­born chil­dren on the planet for the greater good is, in con­trast, per­fectly accept­able. The issue is not whether or not your god is a guide to mor­al­ity, but rather that clearly soci­et­ies lived with con­cepts of mor­al­ity which were not derived from reli­gious examples.

Mutual rein­force­ment

It's not natural

Combine some of these fea­tures together and inter­est­ing things start to hap­pen. For instance you could derive mor­al­ity from cos­mo­visión. It might seem obvi­ous to some people if this is the way the world is then that is the way we should be. I don’t think it is obvi­ous. Many anim­als bring home injured prey for their young to play with, but I wouldn’t advoc­ate bring­ing home a rab­bit to vivi­sect for fun and edu­ca­tion. Nonetheless this is/ought fea­ture is com­mon. Homosexuality is said to be wrong because it isn’t nat­ural. Anyone who points out that if you go out and look there are plenty of homo­sexual rela­tion­ships in the animal king­dom and that actu­ally it’s not nat­ural to dress up in man­made fibres and have your own cable tel­ev­an­gel­ism chan­nel is thought to be miss­ing the point.

From mor­al­ity you can derive power. Again this does not neces­sar­ily fol­low. There are plenty of tales of people eschew­ing the trap­pings of wealth. On the other hand in the hand the idea you are doing right makes you an attract­ive per­son to fol­low, which why affairs for politi­cians are such a prob­lem, but you knew that. Nonetheless to be a power­ful per­son it is expec­ted that you are also a moral per­son. This might seem non­sensical when you look at the sort of people who get power. Nonetheless they gen­er­ally have jus­ti­fied their blood­lust on the grounds that it’s the right or neces­sary thing rather than say­ing “What’s the point of being in charge of an army if I don’t use it?”

Bizarrely you can in turn use power to show your prowess in cos­mo­visión. It gen­er­ally isn’t neces­sary to demon­strate any coher­ence with real­ity for your ideas. Your own power can jus­tify your pos­i­tion of real­ity. For instance your favour­ite reli­gious leader must be right about the uni­verse, else he wouldn’t have gained so much power would he? This isn’t a purely reli­gious per­spect­ive. The suc­cess of fin­an­cial traders in the city is very sim­ilar to what would be expec­ted by chance. Nevertheless the suc­cess­ful traders are given the big­ger bonuses because their suc­cess is used as evid­ence that they know what they’re doing rather than simply being lucky enough to occupy the upper quart­ile of a stat­ist­ical scat­ter. Failure later on isn’t due to chance either, but to Freddie los­ing his grip/hunger/focus etc.

These rela­tion­ships can all be reversed too so suc­cess in cos­mo­visión, pre­dict­ing the world’s beha­viour more accur­ately, can be used to gain power. Have enough power can you can define what is moral. As for mor­al­ity, if what you know of how the world should be is con­tra­dicted by real­ity, then you can show when real­ity is wrong. You now have a found­a­tions for a mutu­ally rein­for­cing meta-structure, bind them together in a social nar­rat­ive which explains the intent observed in nat­ural forces and you have a reli­gion. Except there is a problem.

Reality strikes back

I said above that mor­al­ity can tell you when the world has gone wrong. In a ran­dom sys­tem this will work because sooner or later things will work. The rains fail because of immoral beha­viour. This can be fixed by a return to mor­al­ity and if this doesn’t work then clearly someone isn’t behav­ing in a moral way. For thou­sands upon thou­sands of years this line of logic has been unchal­lenge­able. Science has provided a means to chal­lenge it.

The reason why Science is a potent danger to Religion is that it elim­in­ates the need for gods in its explan­a­tions. The cos­mo­visión strand can now be pro­fane. This will not elim­in­ate the need for a cos­mo­visión, nor for mor­al­ity or power struc­tures, but it will demol­ish the mater­ial which has bound these three strands into one. The social meta-narrative can­not stand. If you don’t need a god to describe what is, then no god-based mor­al­ity can be derived from a cos­mo­visión. Similarly if your cos­mo­visión and now mor­al­ity lack a god, then gods are unne­ces­sary for power. The basic needs which reli­gion con­trolled remain, Ferguson is right about that, but the ties that bind are show to be window-dressing. Religion must adapt or die.

Religion evolves

The view of people like Stewart and Cohen, or Dawkins is that Science, under­stood prop­erly, kills Religion. It is pos­sible that this will hap­pen but the rise of people like Deepak Chopra sug­gests to me that there’s a part of the brain evolved to be gull­ible. History also shows that Religion is not one static thing. It adapts. The Christianity of the USA is not the Christianity of Mexico, nor Greece. The Christianity of the early twenty-second cen­tury will not be the same as the Christianity of the twenty-first, though I’ve no doubt it will claim to be. Any other social change would be sub­ject to debate by all soci­ety, and the beha­viour of a group of people whose actions will impact us all should be placed under the same scru­tiny. Ferguson is not only ignor­ant when he says ‘Scientific mater­i­al­ism has little to say at the open grave, other than “get over it, pal”.’ but also ignores the follow-up ques­tion ‘…and what can we reli­ably know from reli­gion that isn’t just someone’s opin­ion?’ This is why reli­gious mat­ters must be scru­tin­ised just as any other social move­ments would be. Yet scru­tiny does not always have to be hostile.

I was look­ing for a photo to illus­trate the concept of reli­gion evolving. What I found was a wide range of pho­tos includ­ing one of a woman in hot­pants, who I pre­sume from her pose, had answered the photographer’s pray­ers. But the one which caught my eye was the one above of someone volun­teer­ing to help out after a tor­nado. I’ll admit it doesn’t seem to be about reli­gion evolving, but the descrip­tion is com­pel­ling. Here’s a part:

If I want God, I will pick up this rake and scrape this ground. What reli­gion is that? If I want to feel God, I will get a tear­ful hug from a lady I’ve never met just because I found her spoons. Tell me, what one true reli­gion is that? It is no reli­gion. Religion is com­pletely and utterly irre­levent from my work, yet at the very same time I’m doing God’s will, get it? I’m doing all Gods’ wills.

Alas, a site I for­got to book­mark was a Christian web­log I stumbled upon a couple of years ago. The entry was about the reward that God gave Christians for doing good — and about how it was irrel­ev­ant. They argued the point about Christianity was that it taught you should do good. Not that you should do good because it it got you into heaven. That’s not a basic­ally good idea which is neg­ated by being framed in a reli­gious way. It’s simply a good idea. Equally bad ideas should not be pro­tec­ted because they’re reli­gious. Bigotry is bigotry even if it’s a bloke in a dress raging against transsexuals.

I doubt I’ll believe in a God, there simply isn’t the evid­ence, but that doesn’t pre­vent you from believ­ing that as a human you can be part of some­thing big­ger. When Ron Ferguson looks back at what con­nects him with pre­his­toric peoples I think that he could take that belief as some­thing basic to all humans. Yet that some­thing is some­thing all humans can share and can be examined sci­en­tific­ally as it has meas­ure­able con­sequences. I could also be per­suaded that a belief that ser­viced our needs rather than our lusts might be a good thing. Yet without that ele­ment of lust, the sat­ing of the desire for power, could you call that belief a Religion?

What do the Creationists want with you?


’Christians’ show­ing the love. Photo (cc) Jordan Thevenow-Harrison

Ed Darrell has set a tough prob­lem. How do you solve the Texan edu­ca­tion crisis? If you haven’t been fol­low­ing this, the Texas Education Authority has forced an employee to resign because she sent round details of a talk debunk­ing Intelligent Design. The TEA has stated it’s neut­ral on whether or not chil­dren should have good edu­ca­tion. It’s the latest round of what, in the­ory, is the argu­ment between Science and Intelligent Design. It isn’t really. Everyone knows that Intelligent Design is second-rate Creationism. However I don’t think the argu­ment is between Science and Creationism either. If it was then the debate would be as dead as phlogiston.

Even the pre­tence of a debate plays into the Creationists’ hands. This allows them to frame the argu­ment as Science against Christianity. Yet if you look at the argu­ments it’s clear that this isn’t about Science. It’s about power. It won’t be power over sci­ent­ists — they’re con­strained by real­ity. It’s power over Christians that’s the issue. Answers in Genesis is quite open about this. Creation mat­ters because it’s about evangelism.

That has to be a prob­lem, because it’s not evan­gel­ism to gen­eric Christianity. There are no gen­eric Christians. There are Orthodox Christians, Catholics and vari­ous minor sects. In the case of AiG it’s evan­gel­ism for a very spe­cific fun­da­ment­al­ist form of Christianity. They state:

The 66 books of the Bible are the writ­ten Word of God. The Bible is divinely inspired and inerr­ant through­out. Its asser­tions are fac­tu­ally true in all the ori­ginal auto­graphs. It is the supreme author­ity in everything it teaches.

Yes, accord­ing AiG, the Sun doesn’t cause day­light and could come out at night if God thought it would be use­ful. There’s a lot said about the inerr­ancy of the Bible. Sadly there’s noth­ing about the fal­lib­il­ity of those who read it. Now you may be infal­lible and know the mind of God. Congratulations if this is the case, but it makes you part of a minor­ity. A few minutes con­ver­sa­tion will reveal that most other people don’t have the clar­ity of under­stand­ing that you do.

Indeed, a lot of Christians accept they don’t have all the answers. Most of the com­mit­ted Christians I’ve met are as hon­est, decent and char­it­able as any­one else. Their reac­tion to the uni­verse is one of awe and humil­ity rather than cer­tainty. I think they make a mis­take nam­ing that awe ‘God’, but they seem to con­sider the mind of God unknow­able. When Creationists take the label ‘Christians’ for them­selves they pre­sume to speak on behalf of these people. That reveals amaz­ing arrog­ance, but they have it in good sup­ply.

So how do you debate these people? I strongly sus­pect you can’t debate them with sci­entific or his­tor­ical facts. You can’t debate them using basic logic. They’ve been immunised.

The way I would choose to debate this is to tackle what the cre­ation­ists plan to do if they win. See the place Sherri Shepherd makes for people who think dates in BC refer to the time before Christ? That is the same space she has for people who don’t share her spe­cific off­shoot of Christianity. Will tran­sub­stan­ti­ation be taught as fact in Chemistry? It has exactly the same amount of evid­ence as Creationism, so if not why not? It’s not a frivol­ous ques­tion. What Catholics call Christ’s blood, the sec­u­lar law of Ireland calls alco­hol, and it could lead to drink-driving. It’s not just a gen­eric God that’s being put into classes, exactly whose God is it? What role will this God have in the local gov­ern­ment and in the law?

The Creationists know exactly what role their God will have in Texas. They know how they plan to deal with any­one who doesn’t share their view of God. The real debate is about who will be allowed to ques­tion Authority in Texas. There’s noth­ing spe­cial about sci­ent­ists, it just hap­pens that they’re at the top of the list as their jobs are based on ques­tion­ing Authority. The best response for sci­ent­ists to cre­ation­ists is to make clear that sci­entific debate is impossible because cre­ation­ists have noth­ing to debate with.

Despite the claims of cre­ation­ists and the wishes of some athe­ists, Darwin didn’t prove that God didn’t exist, but what he did do was show that God was not neces­sary to explain the vari­ety of life. That opens up a lot of ques­tions. Darwin showed that everything could be ques­tioned, includ­ing the reas­ons for the exist­ence of everything liv­ing. He showed that the world was not static and there was no neces­sity to believe in a world where the places of rich and poor were divinely ordained. Despite the recent attempts of an actor front­ing a titanic ‘exposé’ of evol­u­tion to smear him, he opposed slavery. His work has polit­ical implic­a­tions. It requires a ques­tion­ing atti­tude, and that’s not accept­able to people who don’t want to be ques­tioned. That’s why they offer noth­ing to ques­tion and that’s why they want to encour­age chil­dren to know when to stop ask­ing awk­ward questions.

If you know what the Creationists want with you, you’ll know why Darwin matters.

The mother of all Dodos


WS: I think one of the things that inspired me to write Great Apes was the immin­ent extinc­tion of the chim­pan­zee in the wild, which I think will be one of the most philo­soph­ic­ally queasy moments. But I don’t think people have reckoned on it at all.

SW: Any extinc­tion, but par­tic­u­larly chimpanzees.

WS: Particularly the chimp, surely.

SW: It’s the final­ity of it and the notion that, “These are our cous­ins, and we’re the ones who caused their demise.”

I think I should pay more atten­tion to the SEED salon. There’s a few con­ver­sa­tions in there I’ve missed, and from the high­lights, it looks like the full ver­sion of the Will Self / Spencer Wells con­ver­sa­tion could be fun if it’s put online. They were talk­ing about what it means to be human.

Will Self was being Will Self, which he does very well. He was talk­ing of the interest in see­ing a Chimpanzee-Human hybrid. Spencer Wells in con­trast would like to talk to a chim­pan­zee, but not cre­ate a hybrid. It’s inter­est­ing because Self sees human­ity as a con­struc­ted idea. It’s inter­est­ing, because it raises the ques­tion “Is what makes you human a hard­ware or soft­ware issue?” Self also raises the ques­tion of self-cloning. If he could, would it be accept­able to have a brain­less clone to act as a source of body parts. Is a brain­less clone human?

The extinc­tion of the chim­pan­zees is a prob­lem which isn’t in the high­lights video, but it’s a power­ful point. Humans have exterm­in­ated other human cul­tures. The people who built Easter Island are effect­ively extinct, killed by the effects of west­ern con­tact. Homo Sapiens have prob­ably killed their closest rel­at­ives Homo Neanderthalensis. Was that gen­o­cide or spe­cicide? We’re also close to push­ing the other great apes off the planet. Yet it may in the future be pos­sible to mate with Chimpanzees. Success would require genetic engin­eer­ing to cope with the dif­fer­ent num­ber of chro­mo­somes, and invent­ing a banana-shaped Valentine’s card, but it may be pos­sible. We’re so close that a few bio­lo­gists have sug­ges­ted we are a form of Chimpanzee ourselves.

When we elim­in­ate them will we dis­cover that we are still as thought­lessly human as we were at the end of the Middle Palaeolithic when the last Neanderthal died? And that’s where we came in.

There’s a con­ver­sa­tion tran­script and video high­lights.

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Lewis Wolpert


Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Lewis Wolpert
This review has could have been writ­ten months ago, were it not for the fact that I’ve been read­ing it with other books like Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral and cur­rently Boyer’s Religion Explained. I had though it had sur­pris­ingly little atten­tion because as Smiffy said, it is poten­tially a lot more dev­ast­at­ing to the status of reli­gion than the works of Dawkins. Nonetheless there are a few people who haven’t got round to read­ing it who have con­cluded it’s bunk. The reason I don’t think these people have read what they con­demn is that they seem to think it’s about reli­gion. This is the sub­ject of just one chapter of the thir­teen in the book. The book is, as the sub­title states, about belief, and it’s far more inter­est­ing because of it.
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