Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Jim Al-Khalili - new President of British Humanist Association

3m40s – 4m42s: ‘First and foremost, as you may have gathered, I am a scientist. So I view the world as a scientist views the world. I'm curious about the universe and our place in it, sometimes to the point of obsession. That’s what defines me as a scientist. I have a rational unshakeable conviction that our universe is understandable, that mysteries are only mysteries because we have yet to figure out, the almost always logical answers. For me there is simply no room, no need, for a supernatural divine being to fill in the gaps in our understanding.  We’ll get there, we’ll fill in those gaps with objective scientific truths: [with] answers that aren't subjective, because of cultural or historical whims or personal biases, but because of empirically testable and reproducible truths. We may not get the full picture, we may never get the full picture, but science allows us to get ever closer.’ Jim Al-Khalili, AGM 2013

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Kicking away the Godly ladder

If there's one topic that gets humanists excited it's religion. Odd, really, as we're supposed to have left it behind. But religion is more than a collection of superstitions, rules and peculiar habits. Religions have been integral parts of most past and current societies. Religion matters both for its influence on individuals and the way it shapes societies.

So here is a book that deals with the social dimension:
     Big Gods: How religion transformed co-operation and conflict.
     Ara Norenzayan
     Princeton University Press, 2013.

Norenzayan's thesis is that the great monotheisms became dominant because they enabled societies to become bigger and thus able to dominate their competitors. The imperial and expansionist histories of Christianity and Islam, though not of Judaism, certainly support this view though earlier large empires didn't seem to need it.

But, for me, Norenzayan's most interesting points relate to the step after monotheism. He says that strong state institutions, such as police, can substitute for the all-seeing Jehovah God. A few societies, mostly in Scandinavia, have outgrown God and their people behave well without his presence. They have, he says, "climbed the ladder of religion and then kicked it away".

In the UK religious belief is in free-fall but we have not achieved the Scandinavian Utopia. Perhaps the truth is a bit more complex than Norenzayan thinks.

Scientific cycles?

I've argued before that scientific method is applicable to much more than the subjects of the traditional hard and soft sciences. At least some aspects of history, human geography, social policy and morality are susceptible to empirical research. If you doubt this I suggest you look at the way that Steven Pinker uses data to test Kant's theories in Better Angels of our Nature.

One of the approaches used by would-be theorists is to look for cycles in history. Hegel, Marx and Toynbee all did so with decidedly mixed results. Now Peter Turchin, professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut, has joined their ranks. Turchin claims that societies show 2-300 year cycles and that just three factors - economic output per head, the balance of labour supply and demand and attitudes to wealth redistribution - are enough to explain social evolution. Indeed, he says that his equations exactly match real wage rates since 1930.

I don't know if Turchin is right but his predictions are quantitative and can be tested. That's science.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Scientific Method vs. Theology - Dr. Peter Atkins

Distinguished British Humanist Association supporter & physical chemist emeritus Prof. Peter Atkins discusses his review of Michael Behes' book 'Darwins Black Box' with Roger Bingham.

Roger Bingham quotes Atkins review 'With hard work and even the possibility of progress dismissed, Dr Behe waves his magic wand, discards the scientific method, and launches into his philosopher's stone of universal explanation: it was all designed. Presenting this silly, lazy, ignorant, and intellectually abominable view -- essentially discarding reason and invoking that first resort of the intellectually challenged (that is, God) -- he present what he thinks is the most wondrous of theories, that the only way of achieving complexity is by design. There we see Dr. Behe dangling from his petard, proclaiming his "science" of intelligent design, while not troubling to seek the regulation of that awesome monitor of scientific enterprise, peer review.'
Peter Atkins says 'Intelligent design is a scientific abomination [...] it is a representation of intellectual laziness driven by the desire to turn as many other countries as possible into Theocracies [...] intelligent design is so alien to the scientific spirit [...] science is hard work, unlike the intelligent designers, scientists aren't sliding down hills on tabogans, they are climbing mountain peaks.'

Peter Atkins answers the Templeton Organisation question 'Does the Universe have a purpose?'
"No. In the absence of evidence, the only reason to suppose that it does is sentimental wishful thinking and sentimental wishful thinking, which underlies all religion, is an unreliable tool for the discovery of truth of any kind. 
The extension of analogies is another tool that accompanies wishful thinking in the toolboxes of the credulous. That an intricate mechanism, such as an engine or even a spoon, is commonly associated with a purpose cannot be taken to be evidence that the universe as a whole is associated with a purpose, any more than the existence of a cheetah implies that it has been designed with a purpose in mind. Cheetahs have evolved by the bloody, directionless, unguided processes of evolution: they have not been provided for the purpose of killing antelopes. 
Similarly, the universe has evolved over its 14 billion years of current existence by the directionless, unguided processes that are manifestations of the working out of physical laws: it has not been made for the purpose of providing platforms to enable cheetahs to stalk their prey or humans to generate great art or to entertain delusions. That we do not yet understand anything about the inception of the universe should not mean that we need to ascribe to its inception a supernatural cause, a creator, and therefore to associate with that creator's inscrutable mind a purpose, whether it be divine, malign, or even whimsically capricious. 
Theologians typically focus on questions that they have invented for their own puzzlement. Some theologians are perplexed by the nature of life after death, a notion they have invented without a scrap of evidence. 
Some are mystified by the existence of evil in a world created by an infinitely loving God, another notion that theologians have invented but which dissolves into nothing once it is realized that there is no God. The question of cosmic purpose is likewise an invented notion, wholly without evidential foundation, and equally dismissible as patently absurd. 
We should not regard as great the questions that have been invented solely for the sake of eliciting puzzlement. 
I regard the existence of this extraordinary universe as having a wonderful, awesome grandeur. It hangs there in all its glory, wholly and completely useless. To project onto it our human-inspired notion of purpose would, to my mind, sully and diminish it."

Does the Universe have a purpose? No! says Peter Atkins ... a lot of theology is grappling with phantoms. Theologians have invented this almost self consistent subject which has no contact with physical reality and invent questions that they taunt humanity with. eg 'why has the universe got a purpose?' or 'Why does theodicy explain the problem of evil?'  ... I could propose that there is a belt of planets between Mars and Earth which has no effect on the orbits of the known planets - great for after dinner gossip but not for serious consideration'.