Sunday, 20 May 2012

From Cottingley to Mumbai

The blogsphere seems to be alive with the story of Sanal Edamaruku, the 'Indian Skeptic' who debunked a 'miracle' at a Catholic church in Mumbai (Bombay) and was arrested for blasphemy. 

It is of course a shocking reflection on both the Catholic church and Indian society that this could happen - especially, as Edamaruku's defence committee has pointed out, in a country whose Constitution, written just 65 years ago, states that:

It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and spirit of inquiry and reform. 

It is certainly to be hoped that any sensible court will exonerate him 

There is another point I would like to make, however.  Edamaruku has come up with an explanation of how this could be occurring without a miracle; that does not mean that he has found the only such explanation.  I am reminded of CSICOP confidently declaring that computer analysis of the Cottingley Fairy photos had revealed the strings holding them up, thus showing them to be fakes - before the perpetrator admitted that they were fakes, but pinned into position, not hung. 

We should be wary of declaring a case 'solved' when a potential solution has been found.  And if Edamaruku has found the wrong explanation of this 'miracle', his legal troubles may get far worse.

War Crimes

This is Week Six of Giford's Bible Study Programme.

When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee. And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it: And when the LORD thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee. Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations. But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee.
Deuteronomy 20:10-17

Length: 3/5

Controversy: 0/5

Another of my personal favourites, about which there is little more to say. Genocide, slavery and rape are mandated by God, at least under some circumstances and in some times and places.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Charles Foster in Fortean Times

Reading Barrett in New Scientist reminds me of a two-part article in Fortean Times recently (the April and May 2012 editions) by Charles Foster.  Having conceded in the first half that science can adequately explain all the various mental states usually cited as evidence of the divine, he goes on to argue in the second part that they nevertheless do provide evidence that we are - in the words of his title - 'Wired for God'.  Religion, he contends, has a 'tremendous thermodynamic price' [sic] and altruism is 'Darwinian heresy' (so he clearly hasn't read Dawkins' Selfish Gene, despite referring to him in the very next paragraph as 'the High Priest of the reductionists').  He rejects the idea of memetics on the grounds that 'A horizontal influence [memetics] would be so much stronger than the vertical one [genetics] that the subtle selection of genetic characteristics upon which natural selection depends would be rendered more or less irrelevent.'  (A viewpoint he attributes to Stephen Jay Gould - I am not aware of Gould's views on the subject of memes, but I would find this argument very surprising coming from him.  Isn't that reduction in biological change pretty much what has happened?  Isn't that why we hear all these arguments over whether humans are still evolving?) 

He covers a lot of the same ground as Barrett - children of all ages believe God to be omniscient, whereas they quickly lose their belief in the omniscience of their parents - but goes rather further, seeking to use this as direct proof that 'God is not an anthropomorphic projection.'  He objects to the idea of a Hyperactive Agency Detection Device on the grounds that it doesn't explain all the beliefs about God - cue Norenzayan's distinction between instinctive and analytical beliefs, since contra Foster it would seem that HADD does explain the non-theological beliefs.  He places a lot of emphasis on the (probably correct) belief that early rock art is tied to shamanic visions, though quite how that supports his case is less clear.  Finally, he falls back on the philosophical problem of consciousness, asserting that 'The only point of an 'I' is relationship.  There's no point in an 'I' unless there are other 'I's around to whom I can give of mine.'  He combines this with the further insistence that imagining something immaterial - particularly a consciousness - 'seems [...] impossible if we are merely bundles of neurones.' 

His conclusion, therefore, is that the existence of God is supported by spiritual experience and religion (including altruism), for which he claims there is no adequate materialistic explanation; and by the 'utterly unlikely' idea that 'matter should be able to generate the idea of non-matter'.  Since I feel that there is perfectly adequate explanation for the former, and find the latter not in the least surprising, I am far from persuaded by his thesis. 

New Scientist's 'God Issue'

The 17th March issue of New Scientist was their 'God Issue' special, featuring five articles on religion and science.  The editorial introduction to the issue makes for some pretty depressing reading for the atheist:

'Children are born primed to see religion all around them [...] belief in a god or gods does appear to encourage people to be nice to one another [...] An interesting corollary of this is a deeply held mistrust of atheists [...] "militant atheism" has failed to make headway.' 

It goes on to further state that attacking theology will not affect people's natural belief in God.  While it does also note that 'Religious claims still wither under rational scrutiny', this is not comforting reading in a scientific journal.  So perhaps it is worth a look at each of the articles in turn. 

Perhaps the most surprising article is 'Born believers' by Justin L. Barrett (admittedly an employee of a theological seminary, but let's not hold that against him). 

He argues that almost from birth, children start to make sense of the world around them by recognising 'the difference between ordinary physical objects and "agents" - things that can act upon their surroundings.'  He cites the work of Philippe Rochat at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia - babies too young to speak will watch a red disc chase a blue one around a computer screen for a while, then lose interest.  If the roles of the discs are suddenly reversed, the babies' interest is rekindled, suggesting that they see one disc as a 'chaser' and the other as a 'chasee'. He adds to this evidence that we all (but especially young children) tend to see intent and purpose where there is none (the 'Hyperactive Agency Detection Device', though Barrett does not use quite that phrase).  So 4 and 5 year olds agree with the statement that tigers are 'made for eating and walking and being seen at the zoo', and he further argues that this belief needs to be actively suppressed by education, rather than being something that children naturally grow out of.  He backs this up with a study by George Newman of Yale University; babies (like adults) are unsurprised to see video of a ball knocking over some bricks, but look for longer (i.e. seem surprised) when the film is played in reverse and the ball appears to stack the bricks.  When a face is painted on the ball (turning it into an 'agent'), they are not surprised by either event. 

Barrett then draws a distinction between 'agents' and 'gods' - 'gods' possess superpowers such as 'superknowledge, superperception and immortality', and argues that children again tend to hold these views as innate rather than gaining them in later life.  It is only by around 3 or 4 years old that children are able to develop a 'theory of mind' and understand the limitations (such as death, or incomplete knowledge) that others have. 

He concludes with a note that this explains 'natural religion' rather than more complex belief systems such as Christianity. 

He also includes an intersting side-bar entitled 'The Santa delusion', where he seeks to address the opinion that belief in god(s) is childish and something that should be outgrown.  He uses three basic arguments here.  The first is that people 'sometimes' come to believe in God as adults, but that the same is not true of Santa or fairies.  I am personally unconvinced by this; this seems to me to have more to do with cultural norms than something innate.  (Besides, I think that the move from unbelief to belief in god(s) is relatively uncommon - and the move from unbelief to belief in fairies, though rarer, does still happen; Conan Doyle being a prime example.) 

His second line of reasoning is rather more complex: 'Santa and the Tooth Fairy also fail to fully fit the conceptual space that children (and adults) have because of their natural cognition.  They do not readily account for perceived order and purpose in the nartural world.'  Again, I am unconvinced by this; this seems to me a good way to account for the popularity of belief in god(s), but not really an important distinguisher between 'acceptable' (to Barrett) and 'unacceptable' beliefs for adults. 

His final line of argument is perhaps the most persuasive.  'adults do not typically eat sacrifices placed out for gods and pretend that the gods ate them the way they eat Santa's cookies.  If indoctrination and theatrical acts of deception were the bulk of what gods had going for them conceptually, adults would outgrow them too.'  (My emphasis.)  My only argument with that would be the inclusion of the words 'indoctrination and'; it seems to me that indoctrination into a factually incorrect (but genuinely believed) idea could indeed be self-perpetuating. 

The next article is 'The idea that launched a thousand civilisations' by Ara Norenzayan.  This notes that Gobekli Tepe - the oldest known religious structure in the world, in modern Turkey - predates modern agriculture, and uses this to link a pair of puzzles from human prehistory.  Essentially, Norenzayam proposes that 'Some early cultural variants of religion presumably promoted prosocial behaviours such as cooperation, trust and self-sacrifice while encouraging displays of religious devotion, such as fasts, food taboos, extravagant rituals and other "hard to fake" behaviours  which reliably transmitted believers' sincere faith and signalled their intention to cooperate.' 

Religion is thus the origin of both larger societies and moral behaviour.  Norenzayan does at least end on a more positive note - it appears possible for sufficiently developed societies to dispense with the religious beliefs that got them where they are and replace them with more secular approaches: 'These [Scandinavian] societies with atheist majorities - some of the most cooperative, peaceful and prosperous in the world - have climbed religion's ladder and then kicked it away.

Robert N. McCauley writes on 'Natural religion, unnatural science'.  This picks up where Barrett left off, with the idea that religion comes naturally to the human mind.  It then points out that much of the justification for religious belief - 'theology' - uses the slower, analytical paths of thought.  Although he offers little in the way to support this, he suggests that attacking 'theology' is a waste of time; it will simply shift and adjust in order to continue to protect the core, non-rational beliefs. 

Finally, Victor J. Stenger and Alain de Botton are allowed to trot out their favourite tropes: respectively, that the existence of God is testable (intelligent design, intercessory medical prayer and so on) and disproven (which is a slight oversimplification, but broadly accurate); and that a secular system of ethics should incorporate a lot of the 'good' (helpful or beneficial) parts of religious moral teaching - rituals that build and bind communities.  I find a lot to agree with, particularly in de Botton's article. 

And as an addendum, in the 7th April issue, a letter from A.C. Grayling argues (very briefly) against the idea of 'God-shaped holes' that seems to be implicit in Barrett's reasoning. 
There is a good reason that I do not bill this as a 'current affairs' blog.  You are unlikely to read breaking stories here.  Nevertheless, I do get there eventually. 

A trawl through some recent back-issues of New Scientist (21st April) has turned up a couple of articles of some relevance to the (various) debate(s) over religion. 

Ken Stedman, of Portland State University in Oregon, has discovered some virus DNA that contains a sequence that seems to have been derived from an RNA virus.  This is very surprising - the divergence between these two types of virus is one of the oldest known, going right back prior to the advent of multicellular life.  The most likely explanation for this would seem to be that a DNA-based virus, and RNA-based virus and a (probably RNA-based) virus containing reverse transcriptase all infected a host cell at the same time.  The reverse transciptase was therefore able to take some genetic code from the RNA virus and insert it into the DNA of the DNA virus. 

Why is this significant?  One of the problems with understanding the early evolution of life as we know it is that it is difficult to see how DNA could have arisen.  Taken by itself, DNA is inactive and therefore pretty useless.  So it seems that it could not have arisen before the proteins needed to 'activate' it.  Yet those proteins are incapable of replication without DNA, so they could not have arisen before the DNA. 

The 'RNA world' hypothesis seeks to resolve this apparent catch-22.  In modern cells, RNA does little - it is primarily a 'messenger', taking information from DNA to the 'protein factories' of the cell.  But this conceals a surprisingly versatile chemistry; it is capable both of storing information (like DNA) and catalysing reactions (like a protein).  So, the theory goes, perhaps life began with RNA before evolving to the DNA/protein combo we see today. 

But this introduces some more problems.  One of these is that we have not yet found an RNA sequence capable of self-replication; this issue will not be addressed here.  Another issue is that moving data storage from RNA to DNA would require some sort of 'translation mechanism' - a little like switching from a video player to a DVD player.  For the casual viewer, this simply means restarting your film collection, but for a living organism the problem is more serious since the information lost would concern replication and thus be essential to life itself. 

So what Stedman has found is of tangential importance to this debate.  Although the exact mechanism cannot be the one used in the RNA world scenario - it requires existing DNA-based and cellular life - it does indicate that there are solutions to this problem.  A tantalising glimpse of a possible solution, but not enough yet to say this problem is solved. 


Another New Scientist article, this one from 5th May, headlined 'Analytical thinking erodes belief in God'.  Humans apparently have 'two cognitive systems for processing information: one fast and intuitive, another slower and analytical.'  Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Colombia believes he has found a link between scepticism and analytical thinking.  Students were asked to rate their belief in God (and other supernatural ideas); then later invited back to repeat the test, having been 'primed' to use their analytical brains.  Naturally, a control group had no such priming on the second occasion. 

What Norenzayan found was that students who had recently been thinking analytically - solving puzzles and the like - were significantly less likely to believe in God.  He is quoted in the article as saying that 'Habitual analytical thinking could be one reason scientists tend to be disbelievers'.  If so, this may perhaps give some hope for a resolution to one of the more depressing results from New Scientist's 'God Issue' (see next post), that belief in God is innate and unlikely to go away even if false.  Perhaps as education improves, using our analytical systems will become more 'first nature' to more and more of us. 

Jesus - The Man

This is Week Five of Giford's Bible Study Programme. (I seem to have missed a week; what, can I say?  Life is tough and fate capricious.) 

they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners.

- Matthew 11:19
- Luke 7:34

Length: 1/5

Controversy: 1/5

CS Lewis famously declared that it was impossible to believe that Jesus was merely a good man. Since he claimed to be God, said Lewis, he was either lying, mad or divine. Of course, Lewis doesn't consider the first two to be sensible options (and nor has he considered the possiblity that Jesus was misquoted - more on that in future weeks but for now just note the two Gospel sources of our quote for this week).

But there is a simpler argument to show that Jesus had his faults as a human being (along with his virtues, as we all do). Jesus contrasts himself with John the Baptist, saying that people don't believe in his Messiahship just because he overeats and drinks too much. ('Publican' in this context does not mean 'innkeeper' - it means 'taxman', a particularly reviled profession at the time for many reasons but not further evidence of drinking on Jesus' part.) Unlike the abstemious John, Jesus appears to be a drunkard and a glutton - enough to shock those who knew him. He is also shown as having a temper (for instance in the famous 'moneychangers' vandalism of John 2:14-16. This might be regarded as 'righteous anger', but there are other examples we shall come to in future weeks).

The context in Matthew is interesting also. Jesus is having a bit of a rant about how people don't believe he's the Messiah. In fact, they seem to believe he is a very naughty boy (Matt 11:22-23: 'It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you ... thou ... shalt be brought down to hell.')

Far from wowing those present with his miraculous ability, Jesus seems to have been most influential among those who knew him least. His family thought him mad - Mark 3:21 'they said, He is beside himself.' and Mark 6:1-6 - and Jesus seems quite happy that the wise reject his teachings (Matt 11:25).