Monday, 29 June 2009

Darwin, Humanism and Science - A C Grayling

Darwin, Humanism and Science - A C Grayling, 3 June 2009 conference.

my Random notes: Relationship between Science and Humanism
  • What can science do for an understanding of  the central humanist concerns? (1’25”)
  • humanism tries to get a good understanding of human nature - natural sciences and social sciences (psychology and sociology) should help us (3' 30")
  • science is the best epistemology (4' 05")
  • don't base your thinking on authority, ancient texts or priests (5')
  • CP Snow - the 2 cultures - science could solve population increase, nuclear bombs problems, scientific literacy and applications of science via technology, widening gulf in 1950s between arts / humanities and science. (6'-10')
  • among the best and most important things that have said are the scientific things (12'15")
  • there should not be just two cultures (humanities and arts) - there should be just one (12'30")
  • the general population has become even for distant from the scientific outlook - the gap in 2009 between science and the arts and humanities is even wider than it was 50 years ago in CP Snows (16'45")
  • as humanists we should be alert to is that the scientific way of thinking, this mindset is of the greatest importance for society (17')
  • scientific attitude for humanists - science does not give us proof and certainty  not one thing in Nature magazine is absolutely right (John Maddox) - contrasts with neat stories of Christianity 19'
  • new evidence refines understanding, open ended, adjusted, refuted, mindset - commitment to rationality (21')
  • different methodology with religions - authority, closed (22')
  • evolution of religions - were 'science' and technology millennia ago eg winds, tides, sacrifice virgins (23')
  • its an evolutionary advantage that children should be credulous (26')
  • better empirical evidence for the tooth fairy than god! (26')
  • rational proportioning (hence rationality) of the claims you make to the supporting evidence (28')
  • so few religions are left (but noisy and dangerous) - 1000s of gods have vaporised in the light of knowledge and reasoning (28')
  • scientific styles of thought as happened in The Enlightenment - we today are the phenotype of the 18th century Enlightenment  - help us to think about the good things in society (29')
  • human nature and human understanding - evolutionary theory & psychology (30')
  • neurosciences - philosophy of mind - oxytocin - Patricia Churchland (31')
  • reductionism - emotions - need for love (33')
  • relation of science to humanism - sciences can give info on human nature - natural science is the greatest achievement of humanity - how to think better, not a reductive enterprise, will not take away aethestics (34')
  • greater chance of progress than with our religious history (36')

Monday, 22 June 2009

TAKE ACTION by 24 July 2009! Consultation on the new Primary Curriculum in England: Science and evolution!

source: British Humanist Association e-bulletin, 22 June 2009 & BHA site.

What is the issue?

In January 2008 the Government commissioned a review looking at both the organisation and content of the National Curriculum taught in primary schools in England. The review was lead by Sir Jim Rose. His final report was published on 30 April 2009.

The changes that have been proposed by the Rose Review have now been put out to public consultation. The consultation is being conducted by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). The public consultation will run until 24 July 2009, after which point the Government will consider how to proceed.

BHA position

The BHA broadly welcomes the proposed new curriculum. However, we have particular concerns regarding the new ‘scientific and technological understanding’ area of learning, which is one of six new ‘areas of learning’ that have been put forward as the new structure of the curriculum.

Our main concern is that the ‘scientific and technological understanding’ area of learning makes no requirement for pupils to learn about and investigate the concepts of natural selection and evolution. We believe that the theory of evolution – arguably the single most important idea underlying the life sciences today – must be included in the primary curriculum.

The wealth of new educational resources on evolution available for children of primary school age demonstrates their ability to grasp the simpler concepts associated with it, and a basic understanding of evolution will help lay the foundation for a surer scientific understanding later on in children’s school life.

With 2009 being the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, the omission of evolution from the curriculum of primary schools is scandalous.

What can be done?

Please write to your MP, urging them to support the inclusion of natural selection and evolution in the primary curriculum. You can use our online facility to email your MP directly at

Please also make a submission to the QCA’s public consultation, which you can do by downloading the consultation questionnaire online at

You can read the BHA's own response to the consultation at

Here the BHA not only make more detailed comments about other weakness in ‘scientific and technological understanding’, but also in some of the other areas of learning. If you agree with the BHA's comments in these other areas then please do consider responding to these sections of the consultation as well.

If you are a teacher, please explore the possibility of your school making a response to the consultation to urge for the changes we are looking for.

If you are a member of a political party, you can write to the education contact or spokesperson of your party to urge them to support the changes we are seeking. For Labour, this is Rt Hon. Ed Balls MP on, for Conservatives this is Michael Gove MP on, for Liberal Democrats this is David Laws on

Please do all the above insofar as you are in a position to do so.

Please copy any submissions you make or correspondence you enter into on this subject to Paul Pettinger at the BHA ( or by post to British Humanist Association, 1 Gower Street, London WC1E 6HD).

Monday, 15 June 2009

Science trumps Theology!

Edmund Standing at has posted a great article on the how the religious (Rowan Williams et al) claim that the 'New Atheists' are apparently misrepresenting religion.

Edmund Standing does a good job of summarising Christianity in 10 minutes - as AC Grayling said could be done (at the 6 June BHA 'Darwin, Humanism & Science conference).

The article has been blogged at Richard Dawkins (with 500+ comments), HASSNERS and Stephen Law.

'Theology turns the scientific method which we have followed since the Enlightenment upon its head. Where scientific research may start with a reasonable proposition based on prior evidence (a hypothesis) and then examine further data to see if this proposition is factually accurate, or may simply lead to the discovery of data which no-one had previously predicted, theology starts with the acceptance of ideas that have no factual basis or for which the evidence is appallingly weak and proudly proclaims acceptance of these ideas on the basis of 'faith' as a virtue, and then goes on to attempt to make these a priori beliefs appear intelligible and rational. In other words, the 'results' of theology have been arrived at before study to confirm them has taken place. The theologian does not approach the basic tenets of Christian faith as possible truths to be tested for logical consistency; he or she instead begins with the conclusion that a series of internally incoherent, pre-scientific, and fantastic 'beliefs' derived from 'faith' are true, and then attempts to dress these beliefs up in the clothes of intellectual credibility. Theology is not in this sense a proper academic pursuit, but is instead the attempt to mask superstition in a fog of pseudo-intellectual verbiage.'

Philosophy versus science?

Science and philosophy have sometimes seemed opposed. In fact science and philosophy are complementary. Often it is philosophy’s role to set questions and explain methods; science’s to apply the methods and answer the questions.

Science is sometimes seen as no more than a collection of facts and theories. But we owe to philosophers, notably Karl Popper, the realisation that science is above all else a method. It is the best method yet found by which we protect ourselves from error in our understanding of the world.
In truth natural selection did not so much make us great thinkers as great survivors. Our mental capacities, no less than our physical ones, are optimised for survival in the conditions that formed us. They therefore include a number of cognitive biases that helped our ancestors to avoid being eaten but which make it difficult for us to think clearly.

The scientific method, including the use of mathematics and logic, insists that we suspect our intuitions and that we test them by observation and experiment. This insistence is, of course, applicable to every factual claim, including those of theologians, alternative therapists, politicians and marketers.

But science is, of course, also a set of facts and theories. Both are often extraordinary. Science provides us with facts about the early moments of the universe and about the many strange and beautiful things in its current vast extent. It provides us too with facts about very small things – from sub-atomic particles to bacteria and cells. It reveals the amazing variety and complexity of living things.

But above all science provide us with explanations. With, that is, general theories that explain a vast range of phenomena from the motions of planets to the reactions of molecules. And these are preferable to the speculations of theologians and philosophers, or the prejudices of laymen, because they have survived rigorous testing. They are not mere opinion. These theories are, at best, wide-ranging, elegant and profound. They produce surprises as well as explaining the commonplace. It’s for this reason that I agree with Prof. A C Grayling’s remark last Saturday that science is “humanity’s greatest achievement”.

It’s often said that science cannot tell us what to do. Apologists for religion often suggest that this is a weakness. This is not the place to examine their own claims to moral and practical insight.

We are all faced with periodic needs to make morally difficult decisions. Humanists, like others, generally rely on their feelings and the advice of those they respect. But some of us would like to have a solid basis for these decisions and we look to the work of moral philosophers to at least clarify the issues. Philosophers can, indeed, bring clarity to complex issues; it’s what they do. In practice decisions often depend on basic moral principles, which humanists often share with others, and on our understanding of the facts. Specifically of the likely consequences of our actions.

But here we are back to science! For establishing facts and the likely consequences of actions are, at least when we try to take a general view, just what science does. Thus we see why Prof. Jonathan Glover, the notable moral philosopher, said in last year’s BHA Bentham lecture, that science could offer more than philosophy in resolving difficult moral problems.

Science rarely tackles morally significant issues because scientists often do not see how they could contribute (and perhaps because they fear the criticisms that would follow if they did). Yet humanists in particular need science’s contribution.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Darwin and the Naked Apes

Here's a light-hearted celebration of this year's birthday boy. Who said the Germans were solemn?

Monday, 8 June 2009

Humanists4Science at Cheltenham Science Festival 6-7 June

Humanists4Science attended the British Humanist Association stand at Cheltenham Science on 7 June and discussed H4S with dozens of visitors to the Festival.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Humanists4Science at BHA Conference: Darwin, Humanism & Science

Four committee members & at least one member of Humanists4Science attended the British Humanist Association "Darwin, Humanism & Science" Conference on 6 June 2009. We distributed 450 leaflets about H4S. At the pre-prandial drink before the dinner I sat next to Richard Dawkins and showed him the H4S A5 flyer. He said 'thanks'.

Richard Dawkins was presented with a BHA award for ‘work in promoting reason and science worldwide’ at the dinner. He gave a hilarious rendition of a conversation between Jeeves and Bertie Worster about the atheist bus campaign; an abbreviated version of this contribution to Ariane Sherine book 'The Atheists Guide to Christmas'.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Annual Darwin Day Lecture Feb 12, 2009,3929,n,n

British Humanist Association - Professor Sir David King

Richard Dawkins introduces the British Humanist Association's annual Darwin Day Lecture February 12, 2009.

Former chief scientific advisor to the government, Professor Sir David King, asks "Can British science rise to the challenges of the twenty-first century?"

Richard Dawkins introduces Sir David saying "It was his misfortune, I suppose, to be a leader of world scientific policy, including with respect to climate change and global warming, during a time when the world's most powerful nation was presided over by the most scientifically unenlightened President in living memory. Or from before that.

During the lecture Sir David, who advised the government for seven years during Tony Blair's premiership, says the invasion of Iraq will be remembered as "the first resource war of the twenty-first century". Sir David focuses on a "carousel of challenges", including food production, climate change, biodiversity, health and education, energy security and supply, water resource and conflict and terrorism.

At the end, Dawkins calls the lecture "an exhibition of the scientific mind at full stretch, scientific intelligence ranging over millions of years, ranging over all the important problems that face humanity."