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'.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Pareto and Policing: The need for UNcommonsense

Last week's New Scientist reminds me that crime is not random. Criminals, victims and the times and places of crimes are all much more likely to follow a Pareto distribution ('20% of the villains commit 80% of the crimes') than a random distribution.

This is hardly a new idea. Police officers and criminologists know about habitual offenders and the likelihood of violence outside pubs on Saturday nights. So far so obvious. Yet police forces have been reluctant to apply these insights systematically. And the public still like to see patrols on their streets - even if their streets see little crime. (Which is, in any case, not actually reduced by random patrols.)

Just as some kinds of people are more likely to become criminals than others (men rather than women, young men rather than older ones just for a start) so some people and properties are more likely to become victims. It makes good sense to at least ensure that those concerned know of the enhanced risk and understand what they could do about it. For civil liberty reasons there should be no criticism of those who do not adjust their behaviour but many people will be only to happy to fit better locks and keep out of dangerous areas.

In fact the evidence about crime if often counter-intuitive. Most people believe that crime is rising and that primitive societies are more peaceful than ours. Neither is true. In the UK, for instance, violence, criminal damage and burglary have all fallen since 2006. Theft, exceptionally, fell until 2009 but then rose.

As humanists we should ask for evidence whenever people say silly things about crime.

Hmm - sounds like a lifetime job!

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Comment on draft of book on "Humanism: reason, science and skepticism"


This is the draft of the first chapter of a book sent to Stephen Law to make comments on. Add YOUR comments here on Stephen Laws' blogspot. Please remember to say you heard about this request for comments via Humanists4Science.

What are science and reason?

Humanists expound the virtues of science and reason. But what are science and reason? And we should we think it wise to rely on them?

By science, I shall mean that approach to finding out about reality based on the scientific method. This is a method that was fully developed only a few hundred years ago. Science, as I’ll use the term here, is a comparatively recent invention, its development owing a great deal to 16th and 17th Century thinkers such as the philosopher Francis Bacon(1561-1626).

So what is the scientific method? Here’s a rough sketch. Scientists collect data through observation and experiment. They formulate hypotheses and broader theories about the nature of reality to account for what they observe. Crucially, they then test their theories. Scientists derive from their theories predictions that can be independently checked by observation.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

New Scientist returns to nature/nurture debate

Did you know that "lower heart rates are a better indicator of criminal behaviour than smoking is of lung cancer"? Nor me, yet this is a key point in understanding the biological, often genetic, origins of crime.

Most humanists, I guess, think of crime as a response to bad circumstances. We don't like to call people evil because that sounds religious and because it sounds incurable. Yet there's lots of evidence to implicate the effects of the physical environment (eg lead poisoning) and, more controversially, genes as causes of crime.

Humanists should be guided by the evidence so its worth looking at NS's review of The Anatomy of Violence by Adrian Raine.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Are Humanists4Science Positivist-ish or Scientistic-ish or Naturalisic-ish? - Part 1 of 4 - Positivism

I was prompted by Brian Cox twitter profile @ProfBrianCox to investigate Positivism - wikipedia.
I've been mulling over Scientism - wikipedia for some time, especially since I organised for Prof. Alex Rosenberg - wikipedia to talk to Atheism UK about his book 'The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions'. Alex's talk on Youtube was recorded for Atheism UK by Mark Embleton at Conway Hall in London on 25th February 2012.

Alex Rosenberg (personal website) is very pro Scientism & describes himself as a Naturalist - NY Times blog (Naturalism - wikipedia).

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Policing: Less is More

All the parties want to "protect front-line policing", see for example this. It seems that everyone wants more policing. But why?

Crime in the UK has been falling for over ten years.  It’s long been known that this is not primarily due to either policing levels or policing tactics. Many explanations have been suggested but there’s now a growing acceptance (articles in Mother Jones and the Guardian) that the real cause of the decline may be the removal of lead from petrol.

Lead is a poison known to damage children’s brains. It’s not much of a stretch to believe that is causes dyslexia and problems with impulse control – the very problems that underlie much crime.

Of course we’ll need a police force for as long as there is crime; and that’s probably as long as there are human beings. Human society demands a balance between individual initiative, even greed, and social responsibility. We don’t always get this right either as individuals or as societies and when individuals get it wrong we need laws, courts, police and, sometimes, prisons.