Football, Santa Claus, Free Will and God

Football, Santa Claus, Free Will and God all at a certain level exist . They exist as concepts which affect human behaviour.

At its very basic level, the football concept means that with enough space  any object that rolls, can be turned into an occasion for fun, competition and social bonding. The environment, the human, and the concept interact to produce that which is conceived, a game of football. Something that, along with the singing of Christmas carols, is associated with the informal truce that broke out in Christmas 1914 between British and German soldiers fighting on the Western Front.

The Santa Claus concept, means that children are motivated to behave well in early December and that the adults get to enjoy maintaining a fantasy for children.  The environment, the human and the concept interact to ensure that children get excitement and presents. Some of that which is conceived relates to events in the external world.  But the central part of this concept, the man in the red suit flying through the sky, delivering presents to children all over the world, exists only in fantasy.

Free will is different from football and Santa Claus in that there is arguably a credible case that it exists externally to the concept. A case that physicist Sean Carroll failed to make in the following quote from a speech he made on naturalism in 2012.

The universe is made up of elementary particles that don’t have intelligence, don’t pass judgment, don’t have a sense of Right and Wrong. And the fear is, the existential anxiety is that if that purpose and meaningfulness is not given to me by the universe, then it cannot exist. The good news is that that fear is a mistake. That there is another option: that we create purpose and meaning in the world.

“If you love somebody, it is not because that love is put into you by something outside, it is because you created that from inside yourself. If you act goodness (sic) to somebody, it’s not because you are given instructions to do so, it’s that it’s a choice that you made.

Sean Carroll The case for Naturalism 2012. Transcript from Atheism Analyzed 2015

The bad news is that if materialism is true, and like Sean Carroll I ‘instinctively’ believe that it is, then it is these same elementary particles, that don’t have intelligence, don’t pass judgement, don’t have a sense of Right and Wrong; that we and the rest of the universe are made from.

If we are capable of loving, creating purpose and meaning, and doing good, it is because of how we are made.  Our ability to love, or hate, must come from inside us, but that is not the same as saying that an individual who feels either of these emotions created them.

The individual who exists at any one time is a consequence of nature, nurture, and the environment, including the social and cultural one in which they find themselves.  We do not make ourselves. Everything we do is a consequence of who we are, and the circumstance we find ourselves in with possibly a bit of randomness thrown in.

Bertrand Russell concluded the famous essay in which he introduced the celestial teapot to the world with the following quote.

Man in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny.  The responsibility is his, and so is the opportunity.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

This is of course a nonsense statement,  our behaviour is subject at every level to the same laws of nature as the rest of the universe.  What we are is determined at a fundamental level, by the behaviour of elementary particles.

Fundamental particles, structured by natural processes, to produce conscious beings. (I am aware of no group who is arguing that modern day humans, come into existence, by anything other than natural processes, regardless of how they believe our ancestors arose.)

We, if materialism is true, exist as a consequence of natural forces, our conscious   and our subconscious are dependent on them.  The person that exists at any given time is the consequence of these natural forces; and that consequence  decides how to interact with his/her environment.

I think it is possible to argue that if you are aware of what you are doing, if you behave as you want to, or take what appears to you at the time to be the best option given your circumstances: that you the consequence of the natural forces that are the immediate cause of your existence, are acting of your own freewill.

This is a very long way from Bertrand Russell’s miraculous Man, not subject to natural forces, or Sean Carroll’s supernatural you, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, creating ex nihilo love, and goodness.  It is sufficient freewill to enable us to take ordinary everyday responsibility for our actions, but not enough to ensure that anyone has the right to claim, or accuse anyone else of ultimate responsibility, or ultimate blame, for the good or evil that they do.  No-one makes themselves.

A problem arises when we have mutually incompatible desires.  What happens then can feel like anything but freewill. It can feel more like being dragged between two masters.  A feeling that St Paul poetically captured nearly two thousand years ago.

O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death!  Roman 7:24

Paul famously despised the human rationality that the Greeks venerated. And in doing so eschewed one of the great ‘benefits’ of the human brain. Its ability to confirm for us, the desired truth, that we are doing one thing  when we are actually doing another, and that the evil must therefore lie in the other.

Sean Carroll provides a demonstration of this skill in action in his, ‘The Case for Naturalism,’ the talk he gave in 2012, the one where he propounded the existence of supernatural You, the Being able to create love and goodness, ex nihilo  You can find a transcript here.

Before his claims of the wonder of You, he first attacks Rene Descartes theory of mind and body dualism as unintelligible.  How can an immaterial mind, act causally on the body?  Then he goes on to mention other scientists, whose materialism he approves of.  Eventually he provides as though it is a culmination of the findings of materialism his own theory, not merely of mind/body but of mind/universe.  Magical Us, able without any help from the universe,  to create purpose, meaning, love and goodness.

By concentrating on rational failures, in what was a real attempt by Descartes to understand consciousness, he has managed to hide from himself, the truth that his own beliefs about consciousness have no rational basis. And project all the despised irrationality on to someone who is a member of what his social group has identified as the not we, the superstitious, religious other.

This speech was his introduction to the, Moving Naturalism Forward Workshop that he had organised. In it he identified his reason for holding the workshop.

And yet! Here we are! We’re having a debate. Why are we having a debate? Because, clearly, religion speaks to people for reasons other than explaining what happens in the world.

Most people who turn to religious belief do not do so because they think it provides the best biology or cosmology. They turn to religious belief because it provides them with purpose and meaning in their lives. With a sense of Right and Wrong. With a community. With hope.

“So if we want to say that science has refuted religion, we need to say that science has something to say about those issues.

Sean Carroll The case for Naturalism 2012. Transcript from Atheism Analyzed 2015

He identifies religion as a belief held for social reasons, and his purpose in this gathering was to attempt to replace religious socially held beliefs with science. Or although he clearly didn’t see it that way, to turn science into another religion.

Human Beings bond on shared beliefs. Beliefs which are held with a high level of emotional certainty. Scientific ideas need to be falsifiable, this makes them inherently unstable, incapable of giving certainty. Problems arise when people confuse the two.

Emotional certainty is possible, rational certainty about things other than logical necessity, is not. When people belong to social groups that demand that their core beliefs are held with rational certainty, then there is a problem.

A problem which the human brain, the organ which as Voltaire had it, has the wonderful ability to enable a man to believe exactly whatever he wants to believe, seems to have special adaptations for dealing with – an innate deceiver.

For compelling social reasons Sean Carroll needs to believe, that his emotional certainty, is rational, and  to convince others of the same.  This unleashes a mechanism for deception of the self.

Bobby Henderson noted a similar response among Scientific Creationists, and produced a brilliant anthropomorphism, for this particular socially induced form of confirmation bias – The Flying Spaghetti Monster.  And Sean Carroll has been well and truly noodled.

Which brings us back again to the question of freewill. Sean Carroll wants to produce a rational argument, to  support his emotional belief. He is enabled by unconsciously operating mechanisms, to deceive himself that he has actually done so.  He is not aware that he is deceiving himself.  For freewill to be operating it is not enough that Sean Carroll is emotionally satisfied with what he is saying.  He has to understand what he is doing.

So no he is not operating of his own free will. The Flying Spaghetti Monster made him do it.

Of course the Flying Spaghetti Monster does not just inflict itself on atheists. It affects the religious also, where it masquerades as faith.  Dr Wendy Dackson who blogs at Past Christian, describes her own relationship with the imposter, a ‘being’ whose reality is a lot nastier than Bobby Henderson’s pastopomorphic projection.

Because I did not “lose” my “faith” (as you define it, not as I do).  I know precisely where it is.

It’s in the corner, lying quietly, where I shot it with a tranquilizer dart to prevent it from doing any harm while I examine it and decide what should be done with it.

Wendy Dackson  What happened to my ‘Faith’ 2015

The socially induced certainty that misidentifies as faith, has the potential to be every bit as destructive, as Dr Dackson alleges. Those who are taken in by this dead ringer, lose touch with reality. Their certainty leaves them unable to connect with or understand the view of others. Being deceived into believing in the integrity of their socially held views, they can see  folly, or evil only in the other.

Those without fear have no need for courage, and those who are certain have no need for faith. Real faith can only be held in uncertainty.

Rowan Williams the former Archbishop of Canterbury, demonstrated many times that the understanding that faith must be held in uncertainty, frees you to understand the truth found in the views of others, even others opposed to the beliefs that you hold. And in recognising similarities between his own beliefs and the belief of the other, he was able to form bonds of understanding.

He demonstrated this in an article he wrote for the Guardian in 2004, on a dramatization of Philip Pullman’s, His Dark Materials.  Rather than being threatened by the death of The Authority, the God Figure, in this play, he was able to acknowledge that there was truth in Pullman’s critique of religion.

If the Authority is not God, why has the historic Church so often behaved as if it did indeed exist to protect a mortal and finite God? What would a church life look like that actually expressed the reality of a divine freedom enabling human freedom?

Rowan Williams A Near Miraculous Triumph 2004

He also noted something else, that was portrayed in the play. The role that power and the desire for power, has in the trampling of the rights of the individual.

Repressors and would-be liberators are equally merciless to the individual; that is why Lyra’s life is at risk from both sides.

Rowan Williams. A Near Miraculous Triumph   2004

Yet the disastrous affair of the failed Anglican Covenant shows that Rowan Williams was also Spaghetti Monstered.  He didn’t believe in a God who needed to be protected. For him Pullman’s Authority equivalent was The Anglican Church. The Anglican Covenant was an attempt to protect the unity of the Anglican Church, with enforced agreed sanctions, even though he wasn’t calling them sanctions, on those branches of the Church, that failed to conform. An attempt to protect a mortal and finite institution.

Apparently failing to understand that this agreement, which thankfully wasn’t accepted, would have handed power over to the faithless believers, they who hold their ‘truths’ in certainty.

It was particularly shameful, because he himself believed that homosexual relationships were compatible with Christian belief, and that those who were opposed to gay marriage were wrong. Yet to prevent a church schism he was willing to tell the LGBT  minority  in the Church that they must respect the views of those within the ‘family’ who held that they were disgusting.

Williams’ fall from grace was linked exactly where Pullman placed the problem – in power structures. And to hold a particular power structure together he was willing to allow the church to continue to discriminate against one group of people. In fact to insist that it happened, even in branches of the Church, where the majority wished to be fully accepting of that difference.

This call to dogma would have if it was accepted, given the strong feelings that it invoked, probably have done the very thing that it was meant to prevent. It could have created schisms, and turned what remained of the Anglican Church into just another sect. Another sect whose beliefs separated them from the society around them, but where Church Leaders would be big fish in  the small pool, thus created. A place where people could have their craving for emotional certainty fulfilled, and where they could be held together by the condemnation of the evil other.  In other words it would be a church held together, not by the love of God, and neighbour, but one held together by the power of faction.

Rowan Williams was, in the hellish position of being in a situation of authority in a church that was tearing itself apart. This reduced rump church  would have been a more comfortable church to have been leading.

Give people certainty, and an enemy to oppose, and you create a faction.  While at a conscious level this is not the kind of church Williams wished to lead, it is one that he would have been able to lead.

And in this, ‘O wretched man that I am,’ scenario the very intelligent Rowan Williams, supported the ‘Anglican Covenant,’ a document that would probably have provoked schism – as a solution to schism.  What his emotional health needed was in opposition to what his rational mind desired. And he plumped for a solution that met his emotional needs.

There are other interpretations, but I believe that Rowan Williams is not only intelligent but also honest, and that therefore he must have been deceived.

Materialist that I am I don’t think that you need to invoke a supernatural presence to explain how this happened.

Where there is a conflict between the best interests of a person, and their own beliefs about what they should do, it would be no surprise to  an evolutionist to find that there is a mechanism in existence to persuade people that they are doing one thing, when they are actually doing the very opposite.  That a particularly vicious strain of confirmation bias would be invoked, one that because it is using a persons own intelligence to deceive them, would actually be more successful in the very intelligent.  An innate deceiver.

The saying, ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ is well known. In the mythology of ancient times, this was blamed on the Prince of this World, the devil.  We have discarded the mythology that enabled this belief. Fundamentalists still pay lip service to the reality of a devil, but being blinded by the very same fellow, they are unable to see his tentacles operating through their own certainty.

The old mythology of the devil, created another, on whom to blame the world’s evil.  A better response than blaming people.

 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

Ephesians 6:12

The old mythology didn’t tell you how to recognise someone that was in the grip of the deceiver.  The knowledge that the deceiver operates through confirmation bias, gives you a place to start when you are looking to detect it in operation.

You are looking for very simple mechanisms, underlying what may be very fluffed out and convoluted arguments.

Rowan Williams for instance  used the argument from inappropriate guilt.

But who needs the Covenant, it might be said? There’s one very short answer to that. Some bits of our Communion represent needy and isolated parts of the Christian world.  They need relationships. They need the assurance that we won’t drive them into difficult positions. They need to know that we take them seriously enough to engage in conversation with them. And that’s part of what keeps them going and what makes them strong.  It’s very interesting that some of the parts of the Communion that have already said yes to the Covenant are exactly that kind of church.

Rowan Williams Archbishop: Why the Covenant Matters 2012

We must do things the way the poor and needy want them done. Because if we don’t give the poor and needy the power of veto over us, and it is  power that is being demanded not conversation; they will think we don’t take them seriously.

Note that we would not be giving this power to the actual poor and needy, we would be giving it to those who are in leadership positions within those communities. And in the case of LGBT rights strengthening the hand of those who wish to oppress the genuinely poor and needy.

Rowan Williams provides a rationalisation, based on the argument from inappropriate guilt. Sean Carroll, in the following quote, uses a different mechanism to support his socially held belief, truth by circular argument. He defines natural as identical with real, and God as supernatural and therefore not real.  So therefore God does not exist.

 By “naturalism” we mean the simple idea that the natural world, obeying natural laws, is all there is. No supernatural realm, spirits, or ineffable dualistic essences affecting what happens in the universe. Clearly the idea is closely related to atheism (I can’t imagine anyone is both a naturalist and a theist), but the focus is on understanding how the world actually does work rather than just rejecting one set of ideas.

Sean Carroll  Moving Naturalism Forward Discover Magazine  2012

It is not lack of imagination, but rationalising from his basic premises that there is only one reality, and that God does not belong in that reality,that leads him to believe that naturalism is incompatible with theism.

Of course any theist who understood the word natural to be identical with the word real, would argue that God was natural.  This peculiar definition has nothing to say about empirical reality.

Richard Dawkins presented in ‘The God Delusion,’ an unintentionally entertaining riff, on this simple argument.  For Dawkins, because only the natural exists, any real creator, wouldn’t be supernatural, but only superhuman, and therefore couldn’t, by his definition, be God. This argument of course has nothing to say about reality, only what names you should give to different parts of it. My entertainment was compounded by the fact that he then went on to argue that he was agnostic about  this God, which by definition couldn’t exist.

The Innate Deceiver that says, ‘Yes,’ to its devotees, doesn’t appear to be a very complex adaptation.  Where you see certainty expressed, when you got through the fluff, there you  are likely to find it sitting naked and waving its noodly appendage, an argument that has only to fool the logic blinded. It gets away with it because those who agree with the deceived are unable to see any flaw in an argument that is so, to them anyway, self-evidently true. While those who see the flaw become outraged and think that the person making the argument is a truth denier.  Where the opposition are also fully certain members of the noodled brigade, then this effect is magnified.

So far I have considered the real existence of football and Santa Claus.  These have real effects on the world, only because they are held as concepts.  Free will exists independently of the concept, and in a much more limited way than the concept suggests. Our behaviour is determined by the behaviour of the elementary particles that make us.  But as at any given time we are just a particular pattern of the elementary particles that form us, if we understand the truth about what we are doing, and could if we wanted to do differently, then we are acting of our own free will.  Deceiver instincts which cut short this process, must have had, at least in the past, an average positive effect on reproductive fitness.  However the people who are affected by them, have had there free will compromised. They do not know what they are doing.

As to the existence of God, well that does really depend on how you define the term. And I am going to plump for Ultimate Reality, that which brings us into being.  And as we clearly exist that Ultimate Reality must exist.

This is a concept of God, that Richard Dawkins would of course object wasn’t God at all, just a bad metaphor; like Stephen Hawkings, ‘Mind of God.’ And while I would agree with him about Hawking’s phrase, Professor Hawking, is an atheist and is not talking about anything that could reasonably be conceived of as a mind, I don’t think that my definition qualifies as a bad metaphor.

For Sean Carroll the Ultimate Reality, appears to be ‘Elementary Particles,’ and he has a problem, because it is extremely hard to believe that they give us purposefulness and meaning.  To resolve this problem he resorts to the nonsense that is ‘magical you,’ able to create love, goodness, etc., ex nihilo.

It is extremely hard to believe that our experience of consciousness is a product of simple interacting natural forces; that we came into existence through non-purposeful processes. That we are not in fact the consequence of purposeful action, by an Ultimate Reality with a non-metaphorical mind.  So difficult that Sean Carroll’s need to believe this has triggered an innate deceiver mechanism. Richard Dawkins has solved the problem, by creating the extremely bad metaphor of the purposeful selfish gene.  However just because it is hard to believe, and that proponents of the idea have fallen prey of the noodly appendage, doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. It doesn’t mean that it is true either.

Richard Dawkins made an argument in the God Delusion that is, although he didn’t realise it, an ontological argument for the existence of God.  He had meant it as an demonstration, that his atheism was rational.

He said that he was logically agnostic, because it couldn’t be proved that God does not exist, but that the existence of God was so improbable, that his existence was no more probable than the celestial teapot, or fairies at the bottom of his garden.  So his agnosticism was compatible with his de facto atheism.

Of course if he is right that there is any probability of God at all, and reality is infinite, then he has just proved that God exists.  But atheists needn’t worry because in writing, ‘The God Delusion,’ he, or probably more accurately his subconscious, took care to define God in such a way that his existence would be a logical impossibility.

The logical position on the existence of an actual, ‘Mind of God,’ is agnosticism.  We really don’t know. And while Richard Dawkins in ‘The God Delusion’ looked forward to a time when we would know for certain, the only way that will be fulfilled is if there is a Mindful God.

What there is evidence for is that any God that actually exists is not all good, and omnipotent.  A point made rather well by Bertrand Russell in the following quote.

I will say further that, if there be a purpose and if this purpose is that of an Omnipotent Creator, then that Creator, so far from being loving and kind, as we are told, must be of a degree of wickedness scarcely conceivable. A man who commits a murder is considered to be a bad man. An Omnipotent Deity, if there be one, murders everybody. A man who willingly afflicted another with cancer would be considered a fiend. But the Creator, if He exists, afflicts many thousands every year with this dreadful disease.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

The First World War army chaplain, and Anglican priest, G.A. Studdert Kennedy, argued that belief in the omnipotence of God embittered people. Reading Wendy Dackson’s post on Language, where she protests strongly against the delusional use of words like love and goodness, to describe that which Bertrand Russell described as fiendish, you can see how the notion of omnipotent (magical) God, could leave those who are unwilling to go down the path of the noodled deceiver deeply angry with God.  And also angry with those reality deniers within the Church.

We seem to instinctively believe that where there is function there is also purpose. Some of the atheists who argue most strongly against the existence of a God, are driven to locate this feeling that there is purpose where it logically cannot exist.

It is logically possible that the universe and even the multiverse are a work of purposeful creation, the act of a mindful Creator.  It is even possible that that Creator is omnipotent in the sense that he holds all the power that it is possible to have. But traditional Western theology used omnipotence to mean something different from this.  They to honour God made Him the monstrous fiend outlined by Russell, magic god, constrained only by logic. The God that is not there.




Shakespeare’s Lad

Eros bow Musei Capitolini MC410.jpg

Eros bow Musei Capitolini   wiki

William Shakespeare’s appeal in his own time was not just to an educated elite, but across the board.  He had the common touch, picking up on basic human realities, even when he referenced high culture.  The human reality he alludes too in Sonnet 153 is very basic.

But at my mistress’ eye Love’s brand new-fired,
The boy for trial needs would touch my breast;

William Shakespeare Sonnet 153

The cubit long Cupid, the boy from Sonnet !53, who,when awakened, could touch Shakespeare’s breast, is a masterpiece, of a very common type of male banter; the impulse to exaggerate the size, and staying power of the aroused penis.

Shakespeare follows up his claim that the boy had touched his breast, with a claim about his boy’s staying power. A  bath could not cure his discomfort. He then makes the claim that only his mistress can cure his problem.

I, sick withal, the help of bath desired,
And thither hied, a sad distempered guest,
But found no cure, the bath for my help lies
Where Cupid got new fire; my mistress’ eyes.

William Shakespeare Sonnet 153

I think it unlikely that the first audiences for this poem, unaware, as they were, of listening to the words of the immortal bard, would have interpreted his cure literally, unless of course his mistress was there.  Then the joke might be that a dirty look from her could cure his ardour, and that he despite his allegedly very large penis was well and truly henpecked.

It is sometimes claimed that the size of the human penis, is involved in the formation of male dominance hierarchies, i.e. pecking order, and that this effect continues to the modern day.  The features that are boasted about in Shakespeare’s poem, the length and staying power of the erection, are features that would indicate a high level of health in the person displaying them.

Attacking an opponent able to hold such an erection would be contraindicated, and this fact should be useful in reducing aggressive behaviour.  Even better is the fact that the perspective from which the male of the species observes his own penis, means that it appears shorter in comparison to one seen from a different angle. (For men a glance in the mirror, should show that their reflection is relatively better endowed than they are – an optical illusion.)

But Shakespeare isn’t doing show and tell, and his audience would have been well aware that his claims were false.

The type of banter that Shakespeare is using enables the forming of social bonds, and the reduction of within group aggression. His unbelievable claims of cock supremacy, and his joke admission of being under female control, means that without admitting or accepting a low position in the pecking order, he has presented himself as no threat.

The laughter inducing capability of the virtual penis is more effective than the actual, in conflict reduction.

A large penis may be indicative of good health, and may initially discourage challenges to its possessor’s position in the social hierarchy.  But human beings are capable of using more than one gauge of fitness. And while Shakespeare may or may not have had a large penis,he certainly had a large wit.

The  penis isn’t the problem. In it’s symbolic role in male group dynamics, it may be a fairly effective agent for aggression reduction.

What Shakespeare was doing is related to, but opposite in nature to what is, within British and Irish culture anyway, described as willy waving.

Willy waving is a metaphor describing the behaviour of those who try to gain and keep status within their own social group, not by direct intra-group competition, but by proving their superiority against  those not in their group. Those doing so can pick any symbol that applies to their group, but not to the other, and use this as evidence of the inferiority of the other.  Status is then gained within the group by those making the most zealous attempts to remind the other of their inferior status, in a metaphorical or sometimes actual display of the symbol of authority.

Who knows, the symbol might even be an actual penis.

This waving of the group penis, can lead to inter-community  violence.  

This cartoon from Steve Bell of the Guardian links penis waving with the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, and is making the point that the killers were impotent to stop the voices of the murdered men.

At a literal level it is horrifically false.  The Kouachi brothers shot straight, and the cartoonists are dead. What they have already said is all they will ever say, and they are interpreted through the manner of their death, as though the most important part of their life was that which in the eyes of the gunmen made them legitimate targets.

The murders were  interpreted not as an attack on human life, but ona defining symbol of our Western culture, free speech.

The human reality of the  marginalized socially disadvantaged Kouachi brothers, was ignored, as too unimportant a target for the outpouring of grief and anger that followed these killings.  On the 11th January 2015, four days after the attack, and two days after the murderers had been killed by French police, millions of people including world leaders marched through Paris against terrorism and in support of free speech.

For many these killings were seen as an attack on free speech and the freedom of the West. A threat sufficient to demand penis rattling displays of defiance, in many cases long after the young men who had carried out the murders were in any position to be offended by their actions.

Marc Randazza who blogs at The Legal Satyricon, in the title of his post  from the day of the murder makes his penis waving explicit; issuing the cry of the impotent would be rapist, and the man in the dirty mac, against the killers, who clearly would have had nothing more urgent to do than read his blog. Then posting, among others, some sexually degrading images, images. reminiscent of some of the  photographs that came out of American held Abu Ghraib prison, cartoons of a man of Middle-Eastern appearance wearing a turban,  taken from back copies of Charlie Hebdo.

He makes the assumption that the goal of the Kouachi brothers was to force we freedom loving Westerners to give up our right to insult the culture and religion of the other, with the cartoonists  being collateral damage in the struggle of international Islam to deny him this most important facet of  free speech.

I am inclined to the assumption that the killers succeeded in what they intended to do.  Their objective was to kill, not deny the cartoonists free speech. That these disadvantaged young men, at the bottom of the pecking order, not just within French society but within their own community, had decided to go out in a blaze of glory.  And in this they succeeded, dying like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in suicide by gendarme.

These young men were far down the pecking order of their community.  Those Muslims calling for death to those who disrespect the Prophet, are  further up in the social hierarchy. And it is likely that such a call, and the subsequent media attention, increases their profile within their own community.

To think that their main aim in this is to stop infidels drawing pictures of the Prophet is to fail to understand factionalism.

Community leaders acquire power through the amount of influence they have within their own faction.   As we in Northern Ireland have good reason to know verbal attacks on people, not of their community, by wannabe somebodies, are more likely to be driven by a desire to foster the hive mentality within their own community, than by the behaviour of the other.

We wave our flag, they respond to the threat by waving theirs.  Demonstrations ensue followed by rioting, as those  low down in the pecking order of their own communities assert themselves against the other.

The people within the factions experience a greater sense of solidarity as they work together to oppose the other, and community leaders acquire a great deal more power than they would have, if their followers, instead of focusing  on the evil of the opposing faction, were scrutinizing the leaders.The main threat to the position of  the leader comes from those, who are even more vitriolic in their condemnation of the other..  So the hate rhetoric spirals on both sides.  And where there is hate rhetoric, violence follows.

Atheist blogger J.T. Eberhard had not a approved of  the American Freedom Defense Initiative’s recent draw Muhammad competition, understanding it  to be pointless offending for the sake of offending, rather than a defence of free speech..

He however approved of the actual winner of the competition,: a cartoon of an Uncle Abanazar/genie of the lamp type figure meant presumably to represent Muhammad, with a speech bubble saying, “You can’t draw me,” being drawn by a hand, with a speech bubble saying,”That’s why I draw you.”

He thinks it sends the message to those issuing fatwas, that if they want free speech advocates to stop drawing Muhammad, then they should stop threatening violence.

These people  are acquiring power by complaining about the perfidy of the infidel.  Why would they want you to stop?  The presence of an external focus for dissatisfaction binds their followers together, and distracts them from questioning their leaders’ dictates. And the power-seeking complainants are not the ones  doing the dying.

The irony of the situation is that those proponents of free speech,such as Marc Randazza, who insist on producing or reproducing images of Muhammad to demonstrate that they cannot be intimidated, are by their own account, letting their actions be controlled by  Muslim extremists. They are only producing or reproducing pictures because they have been told not to.

The American Freedom Defense Initiative’s winning cartoon, tells a different and I think more accurate story.  This cartoon is subtly off message. It is the hand drawing the Uncle Abanazar/genie figure that is in control of the situation.  It has drawn the man and put the words into his mouth, ‘You can’t draw me.’

The anti-Islamists are bonding on the perfidy of the other. The actual reality of Islam is irrelevant. They are being driven by the Islam of their imagination, and like Scientific Creationists explaining the Grand Canyon, all facts will fit the conspiracy theory on which they have bonded.

The type of confirmation bias that  they are exhibiting is also a feature of religion, and it is a temptation to refer to them as religious nutters.  But the behaviour, they are exhibiting,factionalism, also exists in the secular world, and in the interests of clarity, it would be more accurate to refer to them as factionalist nutters.

The real penis may have had a function in limiting within group conflict, in our evolutionary past and even now.  The masturbatory fantasy of the factionalist, may also serve to limit within group conflict, by focusing on the evil of the other, and may have done little harm, when the world was big enough, and we were nomadic enough  to avoid the other. It may even have been a causal factor in our survival, when all the other species of upright ape became extinct; the adaptation that ensured that our species was well spread out and that all our eggs were not in one basket.

In our increasingly crowded world it is a dangerous luxury, and one that as Jonathan Swift pointed out in, An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity  1708,  will not be obliterated by abolishing religion.   

Factionalism has the power to make Charlies of us all.  It is the driving force that calls us to take sides, and hand out white feathers to those who do not join in, in displaying our naked contempt of the other.

It is the driving force that can make the destruction of human life appear a virtuous act, providing that it is the life of the other that is taken.

It is why Wendy Dackson who blogs at Past Christian was, although I agreed with her at the time, wrong when she proclaimed, “Je ne suis pas Charlie.”

In a world where factionalism, with its ultimate disrespect for the human, is rooted deep in our nature, anyone of us could suffer the fate of the murdered men and woman, of Charlie Hebdo.

It is factionalism: not religion nor any other belief system, that is the enemy. This part of our nature, as the history of Christianity should tell us, has the power to corrupt any belief system, no matter how peaceable its origins are.

We are all potentially Charlie, just as we are all potentially the Kouachi brothers.  The victims of a human nature, that  has the power to consign us all to hell.

The Way of the Pasta Fairy

The Flying Spaghetti Monster meme originated in a satirical open letter, written by Bobby Henderson to the Kansas School Board in 2005, protesting  against a proposal to teach Intelligent Design as an alternative scientific theory to evolution by natural selection.

Based as it is on the justifications that Scientific Creationists present as evidence that their beliefs are scientifically endorsed, it is an intuitively brilliant personification of a human instinct  – confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the instinct that, to paraphrase Voltaire, gives us  humans the wonderful power of being able to find reasons for believing exactly what we want to believe. The instinct that enables creationists to find their own arguments for the literal truth of both Genesis 1 and 2   entirely convincing.

It is a mistake to think that this instinct is limited only to the religious.  Confirmation bias enables us to form strong social bonds including pair bonds. It enables us to see the members of our community through rose tinted spectacles, and hence to value, the people in the group  and our membership of it. It enables us to commit to the shared values and beliefs of our community. It  is involved in creation of the kinds of committed social bonds that are conducive to an average increase in the reproductive fitness of those who successfully form them.

However these gifts come at a price, the price of factionalism. The price of judging those within our group as better than they really are, is that the other  can appear odious by comparison.

Religious beliefs can be used as faction markers. But as Jonathan Swift pointed out, In his satirical essay of 1708, An Argument Against Abolishing Christianityfactions can be formed on much simple identifiers than religion. Anything that allows one group of people to identify themselves as an us, different from another group of people can act as a faction marker

And we in Ireland have reason, now as when Swift was writing, to know only too well that factionalism can have very nasty consequences.

The tendency to judge the actions of our own faction as good, decent, etc.,and those of the other, as morally dubious, can lead to the conclusion that the evil lies exclusively, or almost so, on the other side. It is conducive to violent interaction, because it is obvious to both sides that it is the immorality  of the other that is driving the situation.

Belfast peace wall

Belfast’s Peace Walls – Protecting Those Evil Awful People Over There, from Ordinary Decent People since 1969.

The creationism versus evolution dichotomy that inspired Bobby Henderson’s letter has not, yet at any rate, led to violent conflict between the factions.

Bobby Henderson’s satire on the confirmation bias driven rationality of  scientific creationists is to my mind spot on.  But in the same letter he provides evidence that he too may be a victim of the noodly appendage.

What these people don’t understand is that He built the world to make us think the earth is older than it really is. For example, a scientist may perform a carbon-dating process on an artifact. He finds that approximately 75% of the Carbon-14 has decayed by electron emission to Nitrogen-14, and infers that this artifact is approximately 10,000 years old, as the half-life of Carbon-14 appears to be 5,730 years. But what our scientist does not realize is that every time he makes a measurement, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is there changing the results with His Noodly Appendage.

Open Letter to Kansas School Board   Bobby Henderson 2005

The most that the carbon dating has proved is that the  material, from which the artefact was made, probably came from an organism that died approximately 10.000 years ago.

This totally unnecessary bigging up of the power of science, is consistent with its author being himself blinded by confirmation bias.  He has unintentionally in his very funny letter, provided evidence that his opponents may see as further evidence of the irrational nature of the theory of evolution.  They would only be entitled to see it as the irrational nature of this one claim, but they too fluff up their evidence.

As the Bible almost says, “First take the noodly appendage from your own eye, before attempting to correct the vision of the other.”

Coming from the source that it does, it should perhaps be no surprise that the American prophet of anti-religion Sam Harris ignored this advice, when in a recent exchange of e-mails he attempted to enlighten the philosopher Noam Chomsky on the true nature of morality.

Sam Harris enters the fray with all the enthusiasm of a Dr Seuss character, convinced that he will be able to demonstrate to Noam Chomsky  the merits of green eggs and ham; or rather of the merits of his belief that even where America does wrong, that it has the moral high ground, because its intentions are good. And Sam Harris does admit that America is not only capable of doing wrong, but has in fact done so, as shown in this quote from his book, “The End of Faith,” which is part of the material he e-mailed.

There is no doubt that the United States has much to atone for, both domestically and abroad. In this respect, we can more or less swallow Chomsky’s thesis whole. To produce this horrible confection at home, start with our genocidal treatment of the Native Americans, add a couple hundred years of slavery, along with our denial of entry to Jewish refugees fleeing the death camps of the Third Reich, stir in our collusion with a long list of modern despots and our subsequent disregard for their appalling human rights records, add our bombing of Cambodia and the Pentagon Papers to taste, and then top with our recent refusals to sign the Kyoto protocol for greenhouse emissions, to support any ban on land mines, and to submit ourselves to the rulings of the International Criminal Court. The result should smell of death, hypocrisy, and fresh brimstone.

Sam Harris   e-mail exchange with Noam Chomsky  2015

Despite all these acknowledgements of American wrong doing Harris  believes that Chomsky is in error in comparing, what Harris considers the real good intentions behind apparent atrocities carried out by the American state, with the delusional beliefs of  for instance Hitler and Japan in World War II, that the atrocities they committed were driven by good intentions.

He sets out to demonstrate the genuine exceptionalism of America, by discussing the American  bombing of the  Al-Shifa Pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in August 1998, an act which may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, by cutting off their access to medication.

He accepts that the death toll of this act was as Chomsky claimed comparable to that of the “horrendous crime” of 9-11.

He understands Chomsky to be claiming that because the death rates are similar, the two acts are morally equivalent.  He therefore decides to defend his thesis, of moral superiority by proving that the bombing of Al-Shifa was more moral than 9-11.

In an attempt to achieve his aim he initiates the following protocol.

  1. Find a salient difference, between the apparently similar acts carried out by our side, and the other side.
  2. We know that our side are the good guys, and therefore this salient difference, whatever it is, will  demonstrate to all right thinking people, the clear moral superiority of our side.
  3. Suggest/claim that anyone who doesn’t recognize the aforementioned salient difference as clear evidence of our moral superiority, is ethically unsound.

This is the way of confirmation bias, and it is the technique that Sam Harris uses to no effect, on Noam Chomsky at any rate, in this e-mail exchange.

He finds his salient difference, and argues  that deliberately aiming to kill people is intrinsically more evil, than knowingly killing them as collateral damage. And if you didn’t know that you were going to kill them, because you didn’t even consider the possibility, before cutting off vast numbers of people from their only access to medication, that makes you less evil still.

Noam Chomsky argues that this denigrates the value of African lives. It does more than that. It also denigrates the value of the lives lost in 9-11.  The most important factor isn’t that thousands of people have had their lives stolen, but the goal of the perpetrators.

Ethically speaking, intention is (nearly) the whole story. The difference between intending to harm someone and accidentally harming them is enormous—if for no other reason than that the presence of harmful intent tells us a lot about what a person or group is likely to do in the future.

Sam Harris  e-mail exchange with Noam Chomsky  2015

In this e-mail exchange, Sam Harris demonstrates one other technique, frequently used in those following the way of the Pasta Fairy.  He starts off making a very large claim, and then defends a lesser claim. He set out to demonstrate the goodness of American intentions.  Note the thesis that he is actually defending here:

Perhaps we can rank order the callousness and cruelty here:

1. al-Qaeda wanted and intended to kill thousands of innocent people—and did so.

2. Clinton (as you imagine him to be) did not want or intend to kill thousands of innocent people. He simply wanted to destroy a valuable pharmaceutical plant. But he knew that he would be killing thousands of people, and he simply didn’t care.

3. Clinton (as I imagine him to be) did not want or intend to kill anyone at all, necessarily. He simply wanted to destroy what he believed to be a chemical weapons factory. But he did wind up killing innocent people, and we don’t really know how he felt about it.

Is it safe to assume that you view these three cases, as I do, as demonstrating descending degrees of evil?

Sam Harris  e-mail exchange with Noam Chomsky  2015

Being less evil than al-Qaeda is nothing to boast about, something that Harris seems cheerfully oblivious of. Something in fact that he is so unaware of that he regrets that Chomsky’s hostile attitude to him,  means that he has been unable to explore with him the evidence that America is in fact morally superior to Nazi Germany and World War II, Japan.

Sam Harris is, I think,  genuinely hurt by what he understands as Noam Chomsky’s unreasonable hostility towards him. He is discussing an intellectual problem, that has for him no more emotional resonance than the problem in the children’s nursery rhyme:

If all the world were apple pie,
And all the sea were Ink;
If all the trees were bread and cheese,
How should we doe for drink.

Mother Goose Rhymes

He has rationalized the problem as one about intentions, one that has nothing to do with the horrific reality of thousands of human beings deprived of their lives.

He doesn’t see himself as Chomsky does, as an apologist for mass homicide.

He is also extremely irritated by Chomsky’s  use of the words, “as you know.”

I am also sorry that you evade the fact that your charge of “moral equivalence” was flatly false, as you know. 

Noam Chomsky  e-mail exchange with Sam Harris  2015

Noam Chomsky seems to be of the opinion that having access to sufficient evidence, means that a normally intelligent person should be able to recognize the truth.  He therefore judges Harris as being deliberately perverse.

On the evidence of this e-mail, I would suggest that it is probable that Sam Harris doesn’t know that he is misrepresenting Chomsky, or that he has failed to provide an argument showing how the bombing of Al Shifa was an act of good intention.  Arguing that America’s action is less evil, than the action of a terrorist group is not exactly high praise.

But that he has been blinded by a human instinct – confirmation bias.  The gift that makes us, like Douglas Adams’ electric monk, able to believe things that are contrary to all available evidence. Or as a comment on a post from noted atheist blogger P.Z. Myers has it:

Sam Harris’ moral compass reminds me less of a real compass and more of the one from Pirates of the Caribbean, pointing not to true north but rather to whatever his heart desires, in this case whatever conclusion paints him and the US as morally superior.

The Mad Tapper commenting on A Classic Mismatch @ Pharyngula 2015

P.Z. Myers noted in 2009 the operation of confirmation bias in the writings of the religious apologist Karen Armstrong.   He finished an accurate take down of what Karen Armstrong said with the following  intentionally funny quote.

Bleh. What a mess of goo and vapor. I don’t doubt that Armstrong is an intelligent woman, but she’s giving us another reason why religion is bad for people and for nations: it turns good brains to mush. And that’s a condition that can only make toothless zombies happy.

P.Z.Myers The Zombies will Sup on Karen Armstrong with a Straw 2009

I think that the Sam Harris e-mail exchange with Noam Chomsky provides strong evidence that it is not just  religious people that can have their brain turned to mush, by the operation of the noodly appendage.

The inability to see the reality of your own side, compounded by the ability to see only evil in the other is an extremely dangerous instinct, in a world where weapons of mass destruction are extremely real.  And where it is entirely possible that those in charge of those weapons, are operating instinctively under the control of the mythically inebriated Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Related Posts:

Hanlon’s Razor and the Flying Spaghetti monster

The Father of Lies

p.s. I discovered the zombies Karen Armstrong quote when following through allegations made by my fellow islander, Michael Nugent, in the post where Atheist Ireland publicly dissociated itself from the harmful and hateful rhetoric of P.Z. Myers.

P.Z. Myers in his post “The  Brine Shrimp Gambit,” does indeed claim to despise a lot of people, but it is their arguments, that he is targeting. I understand that it is very easy to become angry with people,  when they appear to be justifying, the unjustifiable. So I empathize with both participants in this contretemps, but suspect that Michael Nugent is playing host to the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  While P.Z. Myers is being driven by by his anger.

This is his introduction to The Brine Shrimp Gambit.

How adorable! A dodgy fellow has invented what he thinks is a new get-out-of-jail-free card, called the brine shrimp gambit.

P.Z. Myers The  Brine Shrimp Gambit 2012

The brine shrimp gambit is a way of displacing the criticism to something other than its original target, so you can accuse your opponent of being unreasonable.  He is quite right not to give the dodgy fellow the credit of being the first to invent it.  It is used so ubiquitously, by the sophisticated and unsophisticated, that it is rational to treat it as product of a human instinct, that which I like to think of as the Pasta Fairy.

Neolithic Engraving from Carrowkeel, Co Sligo

An engraving from the neolithic passage tomb at Carrowkeel, Co. Sligo

There is no reason to think, that this was not a basic human instinct, even when the passage tombs of Ireland, which are older than the pyramids of Egypt were being built. There is however no reason to believe that the many noodly engravings found therein are  a direct reference to it, or that the first people to settle in Ireland were in fact Ancient Noodlians.

So therefore as the  Book of the Ancient Noodlian, definitely doesn’t say:

If you would resist the Pasta Fairy you must first recognize it.

Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” was composed in the 1950s by Noam Chomsky, as an example of a sentence which was grammatically correct, and yet unlikely ever to have been spoken.

This is not as is sometimes claimed a sentence that has no meaning. It has no inherent meaning, but It is capable according to context of being understood in many different ways.  A fact more than adequately demonstrated by a competition hosted by Stanford University in 1985, where entrants were asked to create contexts in less than one hundred words which made the sentence meaningful.

Some of the entries can be read here.

The different interpretations are possible because words such as colorless and green have more than one meaning, and because metaphor is a recognized way of communicating ideas.

Because green is sometimes used as a synonym for Irish, this inherently meaningless sentence can be linked to the myth that St Patrick drove all the snakes in Ireland into the sea, where the  mythical beasts became the currents around our shores. Colourless green memes sleeping, sometimes furiously.

The story of St Patrick and the snakes is a metaphorical account of the ancient Celtic religious beliefs of Ireland being driven out by Christian beliefs. It is obviously not literally true, and it isn’t metaphorically true either.  The ancient memes weren’t driven out, some of them were incorporated into the new belief system, others remained as myths and legends, part of a system that enabled people to derive meaning from the world around.

The world is like Chomsky’s sentence, all syntax and no obvious semantics, structure without meaning.  It is the stories we know, the memes we bear, that determine how we understand reality. And what new stories we tell about it.

A True Metaphor

Richard Dawkins has argued that memes (ideas) should be regarded as lifeforms whose natural habitat is the human mind.

This strikes me as a rather good way of describing what is happening. Just as the world provides a range of different habitats, so does the mind. The lifeforms that evolved in Australia are different to those that evolved in Africa, or South America.  The Life forms of the Jurassic are different from those that evolved later.  But where there were niches to fill, organisms evolved to fill them.

So it is with culturally transmitted memes, there are niches to fill in the habitat of the mind. Within different cultures these niches are filled in different ways.

But by far the most important variable determining your religion is the accident of birth. The convictions that you so passionately believe, would  have been a completely different, and largely contradictory, set of convictions, if only you had happened to be born in a different place.

Richard Dawkins  Viruses of the Mind 1993

Richard Dawkins is of course right that the religion you hold is pretty much an accident of birth, or at least the society you find yourself in. The same is true for any other culturally transmitted view.

Belief is not a choice. It creeps in unannounced, as does unbelief.

Richard Dawkins was not the first to note that ideas spread by epidemiology. A very similar point was made by Mark Twain in an essay, which he wrote in 1901, although it wasn’t published until 1923, after Twain was dead.

 Morals, religions, politics, get their following from surrounding influences and atmospheres, almost entirely; not from study, not from thinking. A man must and will have his own approval first of all, in each and every moment and circumstance of his life — even if he must repent of a self-approved act the moment after its commission, in order to get his self-approval again: but, speaking in general terms, a man’s self-approval in the large concerns of life has its source in the approval of the peoples about him, and not in a searching personal examination of the matter. Mohammedans are Mohammedans because they are born and reared among that sect, not because they have thought it out and can furnish sound reasons for being Mohammedans; we know why Catholics are Catholics; why Presbyterians are Presbyterians; why Baptists are Baptists; why Mormons are Mormons; why thieves are thieves; why monarchists are monarchists; why Republicans are Republicans and Democrats, Democrats. We know it is a matter of association and sympathy, not reasoning and examination; that hardly a man in the world has an opinion upon morals, politics, or religion which he got otherwise than through his associations and sympathies.

Mark Twain Corn-Pone Opinions  1901

Mark Twain argued that the epidemiology was being driven by an instinct for social conformity.

Richard Dawkins and his friend the philosopher Daniel Dennett, both argue that memes have been liberated from their biological substrate, and it is the meme and not human instinct, that is in control of the relationship. As is illustrated by the following sentence, part of a passage from Daniel Dennett, that provides the introduction to Viruses of the Mind.

The haven all memes depend on reaching is the human mind, but a human mind is itself an artifact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes.  

Daniel Dennett  Consciousness Explained in Richard Dawkins  Viruses of the Mind 1993

Mark Twain’s theory is simpler. We already know that instincts control the behaviour of other animals and there is no reason to believe that memes have the creative powers being attributed to them.

It is Mark Twain’s theory and not Richard Dawkins’ that satisfies the demands of scientific method.

The Serpents of the Mind

Scientific ideas, like all memes are subject to a kind of natural selection, and this might look superficially virus-like. But the selective forces that scrutinize scientific ideas are not arbitrary and capricious. They are exacting well-honed rules, and they do not favor pointless self-serving behavior. …….

Richard Dawkins  Viruses of the Mind 1993

(Note that in the above passage the entities being exonerated, because of the intercession of Scientific Method, from exhibiting, ‘self-serving behavior,’ are the memes not people. Note also  that the adjectives, pointless and self-serving, which he uses to describe the behaviours, are mutually exclusive.)

Scientific method allows us to make increasingly accurate models of reality , which can then be used to make predictions, and suggest further avenues for research. It can never give certainty but is an excellent way of finding out about the probable structure of the world. This is not how Richard Dawkins is using it.  For him it has become a saving myth, a St Patrick driving snakes from Sacred Ground.

And just as the old Celtic myths were not driven from Ireland, but became incorporated with the new beliefs, so the old myths, including that which theologian Peter Rollins identifies with a belief in the Big Other, are incorporated within new atheism.

The Big Other:

Without getting too caught up in the specifics of what the term means in psychoanalysis, its theological significance relates to the, often unconscious, belief in some Thing that will bring wholeness and overcome anxiety.

Peter Rollins You Don’t Need to be an Atheist to be a Christian February 2015

Richard Dawkins references scientific method as the saving Big Other.  And just as the theologians of Christendom, seem to have felt free to disregard the teaching and example of Christ, when developing their theologies, so in developing his ideas on the Selfish Gene and Meme, Dr Dawkins by his own admission ignored the ‘exacting well-honed rules’ that are used to scrutinize scientific ideas.

I want to argue in favour of a particular way of looking at animals and plants, and a particular way of wondering why they do the things that they do. What I am advocating is not a new theory, not a hypothesis which can be verified or falsified, not a model which can be judged by its predictions. … Rather, I am trying to show the reader a way of seeing biological facts.

Richard Dawkins The Extended Phenotype Chapter 1 1982 

In this way Richard Dawkins has been able to accommodate within atheism people, probably himself included, who intuitively feel that the complexity of nature is such that it must be an act of intentionality.  Rather than quote them something like the following passage, and tell them to get over themselves, their intuitions have no rational justification:

The design stance and the intentional stance are useful brain mechanisms, important for speeding up the second-guessing of entities that really matter for survival, such as predators or potential mates.  But, like other brain mechanisms, these stances can misfire. Children and primitive peoples, impute intentions to the weather, to waves and currents, to falling rocks.  

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion 2006

He merely uses it to argue that the god botherers have been deceived.  And offers them the allegedly scientifically endorsed view that there really is a purpose. Everything is being driven by purposefully acting memes and genes seeking their own survival.

The old niches have been filled.  The purposeful creators, the genes and memes.  The saving myth- scientific method, saving us from our creators, and the chosen people – the intelligent.  The duty of the saved – to mock and ridicule as irrational those who fill the niches differently.

Passion’s Slave

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

David Hume  A Treatise of Human Nature 1739-40

The Scottish philosopher David Hume regarded the desire for truth as a human passion.  This is something that I wouldn’t disagree with, but there are other drives also.  There is for instance the desire to prove that you are right, and the perhaps the even more powerful one, to prove that other people are wrong.

Scientific method evolved as a way of protecting the search for truth, from the noodly many tentacled deceiver, that psychologists identify with the unpoetic label, Confirmation Bias: the instinct that makes the brain, as Voltaire remarked, a wonderful organ for enabling a man to continue believing whatever it is he wants to believe.

Science is an effective way of finding out how the world works.  It can help us produce increasingly accurate models of reality, but it cannot imbue it with either purpose or meaning.  It provides the syntax not the semantics.

Meaning and purpose are the gifts of passion not rationality.

The Meme Bonded Ape

We are social animals who bond on shared ideas.  Crazes and fashions have no depth and last only a short time, they cannot be the basis for a stable society.

One way of acquiring strong within group bonds, is to label those who hold different memes, as evil and dangerous  – those evil awful people over there. i.e. factionalism

It is possible that  factionalism was once a useful adaptation, that caused our species to spread across the world, so that when bad times came, all our eggs, so to speak were not in one basket.  And it may in part explain why our species survived, when all the other species of hominid (upright apes) became extinct.

Those of us living in Northern Ireland have good reason to understand just how dangerous such factionalism can be, in our crowded modern world.

Some atheists such as Richard Dawkins; and Lawrence Krauss, who can be seen here debating with Peter Rollins, believe that the problem lies with religion (the meme).

Lawrence Krauss argues that we don’t need religion, but should bond on the truth of science. Arguing that the wonder and awe that he feels for nature is better than anything that religion can give because it is based on truth.

And this could well be so, but this isn’t what he suggests people actually bond on.  He suggests  rock concerts or music, not science.

The activity that he acknowledges engaging in, is the ridicule of religious believers, to demonstrate how ridiculous this minority are, to the “vast middle the rational people.” Basically he is encouraging people to bond on how rational they are compared to those  ridiculous god botherers.

The laugh of this being that the most ridiculous belief of all is that we are rational animals.  There is, as real world economist Dan Ariely demonstrates scientific evidence that man is not a rational animal. The best science can tell us about the possibility that the Universe has a Conscious Creator, is that there is no reason to believe it.  Probability arguments don’t hold in infinities.

The human passion for truth is not as all compelling as the search for community.  Science is a way of finding out the truth about the world.  It can give us the world’s syntax but not its semantics. It is a very useful tool, but it is too shallow to provide the glue required to hold communities together.

Like Noam Chomsky’s sentence, reality has many possible interpretations.  We can bond in many different ways.  What Northern Ireland  theologian Peter Rollins argued in his  debate with Lawrence Krauss is that the truly dangerous beliefs are those that scapegoat others as those evil awful people, the people who have the problem, while we have the solution.

For him the function of religion, as far as I understand it, is to come to grips with the human realities, the reality that we are all broken and that none of us have the answer. And he argues that this is the ultimate reality that can be found in Christianity.

Evolution is Immaterial

probability of god


When Richard Dawkins claimed that you can never absolutely prove the non-existence of anything, he was of course wrong.  It is for instance perfectly rational to be certain that square circles, and spherical cuboids definitely do not exist.

So it is with the God of, “The God Delusion.” He cannot, by definition, exist.

I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: their exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it including us.

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007

For Richard Dawkins a necessary part of the definition of all gods is that they are supernatural, and by supernatural he means magic – the possessor of powers which by definition do not exist.

Skyhooks  – including all gods – are magic spells.

 Richard  Dawkins The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007 

With this definition of God there is no reason to beat about the bush:

An Ontological Argument for the Non-existence of God.

  • Supernatural beings are fictional beings, with fictional powers.
  • God is a Supernatural being.
  • Therefore god is a fictional being with fictional powers.

See also the God Delusion Paraphrased for Reluctant  Readers.

This syllogism demonstrates that it is possible to define God in such a way that he exists only in the mind.  It does not  prove anything at all about whether or not the universe is a work of intentional creation.

Richard Dawkins claimed that his position on the existence of God was the rational one – Temporary Agnosticism in Practice, or T.A.P.; which he compared with what he alleged was the irrational position of, Harvard professor, Stephen Gould, whom he accused of arguing for  Permanent Agnosticism in Principle, or P.A.P.

The view that I shall defend is very different: agnosticism about the existence of God belongs firmly in the T.A.P category.  Either he exists or he doesn’t.  It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability.

 Richard Dawkins The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007 p.70

It seems fairly obvious from this quote that Richard Dawkins had failed to note that God as defined by him has a zero probability of existence.  And he didn’t feel the need to revise what he had previously written after making the following claim.

That you cannot prove God’s non-existence is accepted and trivial, if only in the sense that we can never prove the non-existence of anything.  What matters is not whether God is disprovable (he isn’t) but whether his existence is probable.

 Richard Dawkins The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007 p.77

This claims contained within this paragraph can be formed into  a syllogism:

  • The existence of God is a, not very probable, possibility.
  • We can never absolutely prove the non-existence of anything.
  • Therefore we are never going to absolutely prove the non-existence of God.

So I am afraid dear atheist, that if these premises were true, and that if Richard Dawkins was also correct in his assertion that  one day you might be able to give up rational agnosticism; it would be because you would have acquired absolute proof for the existence of God.

But cheer up, because, as any philosopher is likely to tell you, absolute proof for the existence of anything is also very difficult, and with the right definition of the word existence, maybe even impossible to achieve.

Julian Bagini explains in Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, the meaning of an atheist’s commitment to naturalism:  ‘What most atheists do believe is that although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical out of this stuff come minds, beauty, emotions, moral values – in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life.’

Human thoughts and emotions emerge from exceedingly complex interconnections of physical entities within the brain.

 Richard Dawkins The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007 p.34

A materialistic definition of  the word existence means that it applies only to physical stuff, i.e. matter and energy.  Naturalism is the belief that everything other than matter and energy is an emergent property of the physical. Using this definition, many things whose reality we experience as primary, are immaterial emergents: e.g. pain, pleasure, love, consciousnes. And as the title informs you, evolution is also an immaterial reality; an emergent consequence of the interaction of matter and energy.

Boxing Ultimate Reality

Anselm‘s Ontological argument, made nearly one thousand years ago, produced a definition of God that made it impossible to conceive that God did not exist.  By describing God as that than which no greater can be imagined to exist, and arguing that existence was a necessary part of absolute greatness, Anselm made it impossible to meaningfully conceive that God, as defined by him, did not exist.  Because at the very moment you conceived the great being you were thinking of not to exist, you would no longer be thinking of God. See also Anselm’s Teapot.

Richard Dawkins, was  unimpressed with Anselm’s ontological argument, but enjoyed Australian philosopher Douglas Gasking’s ironic parody of it.

1. The creation of the world is the most marvellous achievement imaginable.

2. The merit of an achievement is the product of (a) its intrinsic quality, and (b) the ability of its creator.

3. The greater the disability (or handicap) of the creator, the more impressive the achievement.

4. The most formidable handicap for a creator would be non-existence.

5. Therefore if we suppose that the universe is the product of an existent creator we can conceive a greater being namely, one who created everything while not existing.

6. An existing God therefore would not be a being greater than which a greater cannot be conceived because an even more formidable and incredible creator would be a God which did not exist.

7. Therefore, God does not exist. 

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007 p.107-108

Christian apologist William Lane Craig, like Richard Dawkins believes this argument to be incoherent.

Ironically, this parody, far from undermining the ontological argument, actually reinforces it! For a being who creates everything while not existing is a logical incoherence and is therefore impossible: there is no possible world which includes a non-existent being which creates the world.

William Lane Craig  Dawkins’ Critique of the Ontological argument  2009

The irony does not necessarily lie where William Lane Craig thinks it does. He believes that God is Immaterial.  Richard Dawkins naturalistic definition of reality, means that the immaterial is always emergent from the material, and therefore cannot be the first cause. So when Richard Dawkins hears believers claiming God, as the Immaterial First Cause, what he hears is, within his worldview the rambling of fools. Anselm who, like William Lane Craig, started with a different first premise, would have thought exactly the same of Richard Dawkins’ naturalism.

There is an awful lot of reality about, and to interact with our environment and society effectively, it is necessary to form models of it. Different models of reality can be  effective, in allowing those who hold them to function successfully. Acknowledging that your model may not be all encompassing, and that those holding alternative models are not necessarily truth deniers is rational. It may however result in accusations such as, bending over backwards to almost supine lengths; an allegation Richard Dawkins made against Stephen Gould, in The God Delusion.

Deductive reasoning can give the appearance of certainty, but it is only as good as the premises that you start with.  And where the question is about reality rather than definition, then the premises can never be  absolutely certain.  As Douglas Adams had his eponymous  detective, Dirk Gently, point out: all that is required for the impossible to be true, is for there to be something that we don’t know about.

 Alvin Plantinga, the author of a modern version of the ontological argument, the one that William Lane Craig accepts as definitive;  acknowledges that it doesn’t provide proof of the existence of God,  because it cannot be proved that its central premise, that the existence of a maximally great being is possible, is true.

But here we must be careful; we must ask whether this argument is a successful piece of natural theology, whether it proves the existence of God. And the answer must be, I think, that it does not. An argument for God’s existence may be sound,after all, without in any useful sense proving God’s existence. Since I believe in God, I think the following argument is sound:

  • Either God exists or 7 + 5 = 14
  • It is false that 7 + 5 = 14
  • Therefore God exists.

But obviously this isn’t a proof; no one who didn’t already accept the conclusion, would accept the first premise. The ontological argument we’ve been examining isn’t just like this one, of course, but it must be conceded that not everyone who understands and reflects on its central premise — that the existence of a maximally great being is possible — will accept it. Still, it is evident, I think, that there is nothing contrary to reason or irrational in accepting this premise. What I claim for this argument, therefore, is that it establishes, not the truth of theism, but its rational acceptability. And hence it accomplishes at least one of the aims of the tradition of natural theology.

Alvin Plantinga   The Ontological Argument  2001

Alvin Plantinga is a theist, that is someone who believes that Ultimate Reality is a maximally great being – God. He admits that the existence of a maximally great being may be impossible, that is have a probability of zero.  But argues that if you accept the premise that the existence of a maximally great being is possible, then you must rationally also believe that the existence of that being is certain.

Richard Dawkins worldview is naturalism, that is that everything that is real, is natural; and that therefore if there is any creative consciousness lurking behind the observable universe, it like the only consciousness he has any direct evidence for, his own, will be natural.  Within this worldview, supernatural means unreal, having no possible existence outside the imagination.  So when Richard Dawkins defines God as a supernatural being, he has defined God in such a way that he cannot possibly exist.

Richard Dawkins should rationally therefore have classified himself as a 7 on his own scale of degrees of belief in the existence of God; someone who is absolutely certain that God does not exist.  To do this would have put the spotlight on his own belief about the nature of reality, and mean that The God Delusion would have been a book investigating the rationality of his own atheism.  Not nearly as much fun as ridiculing the beliefs of others.

Richard Dawkins, classifies himself as somewhat less than certain of the non-existence of God,  arguing that anything you can imagine to exist, must have a possibility of actually existing. Therefore God’s existence is possible, but very improbable. He in fact argues that God is so improbable that we can be confident of his non-existence.

What both Alvin Plantinga and Richard Dawkins convoluted arguments seem to be aiming for, is the boxing up of reality, so that it cannot disturb their emotional certainty. The gift of confirmation  bias, the instinct that likes to say yes, means that they are likely to be largely unaware of the dishonesty of their position; and will therefore be able to present themselves to the world, without any hint of irony, or need of acting skill, as men of integrity.

And while Richard Dawkins definition of God as supernatural should have meant that he didn’t need to go to all the trouble he did; the god that he is arguing against isn’t magic god, but the maximally great being whom Alvin Plantinga claims as God.

Most of us who believe in God think of Him as a being than whom it’s not possible that there be a greater. But we don’t think of Him as a being who, had things been different, would have been powerless or uninformed or of dubious moral character. God doesn’t just happen to be a greatest possible being; He couldn’t have been otherwise.

Alvin Plantinga   The Ontological Argument  2001

Radical Christian theologian Peter Rollins, argues that this God haunts modern secular society, that the problem with atheists is that they aren’t atheistic enough, and that,the scandalous message of the Gospel is that freedom from the sovereign God, in all its manifestations, is possible”.


Rupturing the Box

box cross


  • You are sitting in a bar in Belfast.
  • In walks a seven foot purple gorilla with a submachine gun.
  • What do you call him?
  •  Sir!

As this joke illustrates there can be very good reason for treating the powerful with respect. In scary circumstances our rationality is likely to fail us, and at that point a forelock tugging instinct, is one that could increase our chance of survival.

If you are forced to remain in the pub with the gorilla, then the lizard brain effect of fear, will increase your chances of not surviving the encounter. One mechanism for reducing the fear, is to believe that the gorilla has qualities other than power and that these qualities are such that he doesn’t want to harm you, if he doesn’t have to.

The god of the ontological argument, the greatest thing that can be conceived not to exist by the godless fool of Anselm’s argument, is the purple gorilla, made maximally great: i.e. omnipotent, omniscient and completely good. Someone that  as Alvin Plantinga  tells us, we don’t think of, ‘as a being who, had things been different, would have been powerless or uninformed or of dubious moral character’.

This is where the scandal of Christianity lies, the difference between the gospel message and the religion of Christendom.

At the very heart of the Christian message is the cross, and the young man on it, an image of maximal greatness, that is the very antithesis of everything that the ontological argument, and our natural instincts imagine greatness to be.  1 Corinthians 1: 22-25

 In the life of one an outcast and a vagabond on earth,
In the common things He valued, and proclaimed of priceless worth,
And above all in the horror of the cruel death He died,
Thou hast bid us seek Thy glory, in a criminal crucified.
And we find it – for Thy glory is the glory of Love’s loss,
And Thou hast no other splendour but the splendour of the Cross.
For in Christ I see the martyrs and the beauty of their pain,
And in Him I hear the promise that my dead shall rise again.
High and lifted up, I see Him on the eternal Calvary,
And two piercèd hands are stretching east and west o’er land and sea.
On my knees I fall and worship that great Cross that shines above,
For the very God of Heaven is not Power, but Power of Love.

G.A. Studdert  Kennedy  High and Lifted Up   taken from  Rhymes Published 1929

Hanlon’s Razor and the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Christopher-Schaeffer takes oath of office

Christopher Schaeffer Takes Oath of Office

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is an allegedly satirical religion which encourages its members to show their commitment to the values of logic and rationality by wearing  colanders on their heads. This action is in general accord with the opinion that Jonathan Swift had of human rationality.

Christopher Schaeffer was elected on to the town council of Pomfret, New York and last January  took his oath of office wearing the aforementioned colander.  There are those that would regard this as a deliberate mockery of the religious and cultural practices of other people.  I would like to refer those people to Hanlon’s Razor.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Hanlon’s Razor is a variation on Occam’s Razor, the law of parsimony, that says don’t give a complex explanation for something where a less complex explanation fits the known facts. Intentionality is a more complex explanation than non-intentionality, and to interpret an act as malicious is to interpret the harm or offence given as intentional.

Note that Hanlon’s Razor can never lead to certainty, it merely leads to the same place as a kinder law: give others the benefit of the doubt.

Christopher Schaeffer, at least as he explained his beliefs to Hemant Mehta who blogs as The Friendly Atheist,  understood himself to be acting in defense of religious freedom, and wished the same freedom to be extended to those who held different religious beliefs from his own. And in this I am  prepared to believe him.  A satiric belief system is entirely consistent with free speech and if not respect for the views of others, at least respect for their right to hold those views.

Mockery and satire are to a casual glance very similar, but they have very different outcomes. Mockery requires no understanding of the views of the other, and functions to dehumanize and deny voice to those perceived as being different.

The Church of  the Flying Spaghetti Monster

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is based on a letter that Bobby Henderson wrote to the Kansas School Board in 2005 protesting against a proposal to teach Intelligent Design as an alternative scientific theory to evolution by natural selection.

He concluded his letter with the following three wishes:

I think we can all look forward to the time when these three theories are given equal time in our science classrooms across the country, and eventually the world; One third time for Intelligent Design, one third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism (Pastafarianism), and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence.

Open Letter to Kansas School Board   Bobby Henderson 2005

I think equal time is too big an allowance for the first and second of these wishes, but apart from that little quibble, I think this is a brilliant idea.

Evidence for the Flying Spaghetti Monster ?


Pastafarian Holey Scripture represents the Flying Spaghetti Monster as a trickster, operating to deceive the credulous.

What these people don’t understand is that He built the world to make us think the earth is older than it really is. For example, a scientist may perform a carbon-dating process on an artifact. He finds that approximately 75% of the Carbon-14 has decayed by electron emission to Nitrogen-14, and infers that this artifact is approximately 10,000 years old, as the half-life of Carbon-14 appears to be 5,730 years. But what our scientist does not realize is that every time he makes a measurement, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is there changing the results with His Noodly Appendage. We have numerous texts that describe in detail how this can be possible and the reasons why He does this. He is of course invisible and can pass through normal matter with ease.

Open Letter to Kansas School Board   Bobby Henderson 2005

And it does require an explanation when a scientist is naive enough to infer, that because carbon dating shows that it is probable that the organic material from which an artefact is made, came from an organism or organisms that died 10,000 years ago; that the artefact is itself 10,000 years old.

In this case  I think it is unreasonable to blame the Noodly  Appendaged  One.  This claim can be dealt with effectively by reference to Hanlon’s Razor.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

There is no need to postulate a malicious intentional act by the Spaghetti Monster, this mistake can be understood as a failure on the part of the hypothetical scientist to understand the nature of the process in which he is engaging.

Situations where people systematically interpret or ignore evidence in a way that supports their prior beliefs can be harder to attribute to stupidity; given that the arguments that people make in support of their bias can frequently, although not always, show evidence of a high level of sophistication and intelligence.

Calling this widespread effect Confirmation Bias merely confirms that it happens, it doesn’t explain the mechanism behind it. Neither of course does invoking the Flying Spaghetti Monster as the cause.

The objective of science is to create the simplest possible model of reality consistent with the observable evidence.  This is not because the simplest model is necessarily the most accurate.  It is because it gives a firm base for making predictions, and including greater complexity within the model when evidence arises that this is necessary.

A non-intentional explanation for a phenomenon is a less complex explanation than is an intentional one, therefore these are the kind of explanations that scientists guided by the heuristic mechanism that is Occam’s razor will look for first.  If these mechanisms are potentially sufficient to provide a satisfactory explanation then other more complex explanations will not be sought.

I know that this can cause distress to some Pastafarians who believe that the historical and experimental evidence contained in their ancient scriptures contains sufficient evidence to prove the real existence of His Noodliness.  The problem here is that because Pastifarians have up until recently  been so secretive about their beliefs the provenance of these scriptures is hard to establish, and scientists taking Occam’s Razor as their guide have therefore felt that the simplest explanation is that they are a modern hoax.

The same cannot be said for the Scripture  of the Scientific Creationists.  There is no doubt that their Scriptures are old, and were written by many authors over a significant period of time.  Scientific Creationists are insistent that they  are inerrant and literally true, and that the first  two chapters of their Scriptures contain a scientifically accurate account of how the earth and its inhabitants came into being.

Reading the first two chapters of their Holy Book, the Bible will alert you to the problem.  Genesis 1 and Genesis 2  tell  two different  creation stories, which should be enough you would think to clue in most readers to the fact that they cannot both be literally true.  Stunningly enough it doesn’t. Vast numbers of people are able to affirm their commitment to the literal truth of these two very different accounts.

The ability of Scientific Creationists to read their Scriptures regularly, and not notice that what their dogma tells them the Bible says is inconsistent with what is written on the pages, has been proclaimed by noodologians as evidence for the very real existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and his noodly appendage.

Noodologians argue that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a pastopomorphic projection of a materially caused spiritual reality – that which scientists call Confirmation Bias  They argue that the scientific term Confirmation Bias, acts to disguise the true all invasive noodliness, that parasitizes our consciousness and acts to twist not our observational skills, but our rationality. The parasite that makes us rationalizing not rational animals.


Pastafarians believe that their religion is very old. We in Ireland have evidence that supports this.  Our passage tombs are older than the pyramids of Egypt, and on the walls of these you will  find many noodly graven images; but perhaps none  more clearly relevant than this one from Carrowkeel, County Sligo.

It was probably not the existence of these ancient relics that enlightened, the New Noodlian Seer, Bobby Henderson, to the pastopomorphic form that best projected the metaphysical reality of His Noodliness; but rather the rationalizing skills of Scientific Creationists such as Answers in Genesis president Ken Ham.

There are many people who have had the privilege of listening to Ken Ham, and if you are one of them and didn’t find yourself thinking that he was speaking the plain and simple truth, you may have found yourself believing that he was so clearly noodled that he would be impossible to satirize. If so try this post from Peter Enns.

I was first introduced to Scientific Creationism as a teenager. I did what I had been taught to do, I checked what I was being told against what the Bible said.  They didn’t match. I spent years being fascinated and terrified by the fact that so many others could read the same texts, and still conclude that they were consistent with the teachings of Scientific Creationism.

When I first heard Ken Ham I thought he was deliberately twisting the truth, and that he therefore no more believed what he said than I believe in the existence of the Ancient Noodlians.  So I understand why Richard Dawkins has labelled him a conman. This is in fact a possible explanation for what  Mr Ham is doing.  It isn’t the only one:

  • There is for instance the possibility that he is being intentionally deceived by a consciousness other than his own; not the Flying Spaghetti Monster, whose mythical state of inebriation precludes him from the accusation that he is the metaphorical projection of a conscious intentional metaphysical reality.
  • Or that he is being deceived by an unconscious and probably instinctive bias, that enables him to ignore or manipulate all evidence to confirm the beliefs that he already holds, while perceiving himself as a morally righteous seeker after truth. That is, he is the victim of  the misleadingly innocuous sounding Confirmation Bias.

Intentional actions are more complex than non-intentional actions, so if you analyse the situation scientifically, i.e. using Occam’s Razor, then you are left with the working hypothesis that Ken Ham is not a conman, but a victim of Confirmation Bias. Of course as a working hypothesis, this is open to falsification, but the burden of proof lies with those who would accuse Ham of intentional dishonesty.

The Prophet

At one stage it was held that the complex functionality found in living organisms, could only be explained by intentional design.   Then Charles Darwin realized that, a mechanism that people already knew about, natural selection could provide a non-intentional explanation for the evolution of biological complexity.  Because science progresses by forming the simplest model possible consistent with the available evidence, evolution by natural selection became the accepted  scientific theory. The working hypothesis is that any biological adaptation can be explained by  the operation of non-intentional forces.

Richard Dawkins while strongly advocating the validity of Occam’s Razor when it comes to rejecting the possibility of the involvement of an extra-universal intentionality in the creation of life, does not apply the instrument when it comes to Selfish Gene Theory.

Selfish Genes are presented as intentionally motivated entities.

Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes.  I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour.  However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals.

Richard Dawkins  The Selfish Gene 1976

Now I hear you cry, it’s a metaphor, the gangstapomorphic projection of an underlying material reality.  And I agree with you, but the alleged material reality that Richard Dawkins is referring to is one where small pieces of DNA can be understood to be operating with intentionality.

Clear evidence for this can be found in a Royal Institute Christmas lecture, The Ultra-Violet Garden, that he gave in 1991.

He starts by describing how he asked a 6 year old girl what flowers are for.  There are only two sensible  non-religious ways to answer that question that I know of: either they aren’t for anything – they just are; or to do as the child did and  list the uses that flowers have for conscious entities whom it is reasonable to interpret as having purposes.  In this case  to make the world pretty and to help the bees make honey for us.

Dawkins told her that she was wrong.

Both the possible answers are emotionally unsatisfying.  Flowers have a clear functionality that is there independently of human purposes. And it is very hard to look at this level of functionality and understand that all you have evidence for is  just that, functionality, all that is can be explained without  purpose.  This is the genius of Darwin’s Original Theory, and why it is so hard to understand, it explains how there can be complex functionality where there is no purpose.

This central plank of Darwin’s Theory, the existence of functionality in a system without intentionality  has escaped Richard Dawkins.

About 27 minutes into the lecture he explains the purpose of flowers and people.

“We are machines made by DNA, whose purpose is to make more copies of the same DNA.”

Richard Dawkins The Ultra-Violet Garden, 1991

Right at the centre of this very intelligent man’s worldview is this stunning piece of magical thinking.  The assigning of intention and purpose where  there is no need for anything other than functionality.

The hypothesis that genes are intentional entities, is very far from being a parsimonious explanation for apparent design in nature, and just like his invisible magical unicorns it isn’t falsifiable.

Truly as the Book of the Ancient Noodlian saith not:

A Prophet will arise in Albion. He will lead the children of  men in the way of the Pasta Fairies; the tiny yet powerful Djinn, who brought us into being  to serve their own  nefarious ends.

Then will men overturn the sieve of rationality; that which letteth through only the simple and the falsifiable. And wear it as a symbol  of true religion upon their heads. The  image of the Trickster, the Noodly Appendaged One, will  once again be manifested upon the earth.

The Children of Ham and the enlightened of the Prophet will each see His Image in the eye of the other.  And they will remain wise in their own conceits.

Related articles:

  1. Denis Noble’s answer to The Selfish Gene @ The Music of
  2. The Worst Argument Against Intelligent Design Randal Rauser @The Tentative Apologist

The Father of Lies

Swan Lake

 Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do.

We are biological machines built according to instructions carried from generation to generation on molecules of DNA.

Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976) compared these instructions (genes) to Chicago gangsters, and argued that the predominate quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. These are strangely pejorative terms for ‘beings’ that have been working collaboratively to construct successful survival machines for millions of years. The  stunning level of complexity that our genes are able to achieve by working together, deserves a more accurate, and morally neutral anthropomorphism. My preferred simile is  that of ballet dancers working collaboratively, under the choreography of natural selection.

Our existence is ephemeral, like a piece of performance art; or as the old hymn has it, like a dream, fading at the break of day. The dancers (genes) that bring us into being, exist in many others also, and while they are not immortal, have the capacity to be very old indeed. They are successful because they have managed to produce, and/or survive in  successions of disposable bodies, that have transported them through time.

We should expect natural selection to produce, not selfish organisms, but altruists, serving on average the needs of their genes.  This will not necessarily translate into altruism towards other organisms, but it can.

One of the problems with Darwin’s original theory of evolution by natural selection, was that it threw individual organisms into a war of all against all.  The existence of naturally occurring altruism caused problems for this theory; problems that vanish if you consider the gene rather than the organism as the unit of selection.

Richard Dawkins, by his own account, developed his deeply held views about religion, as a consequence of his understanding of evolutionary theory. He shows in his more recent work, e.g. “The God Delusion,” an understanding that natural selection can produce  individuals that behave altruistically,  and even argues that it can give us a basis for morality.

This is not something that he believed when he wrote “The Selfish Gene.”  Then he was very much a nature red in tooth and claw man.  This book contains some very entertaining examples of confirmation bias, as he shares his conviction about the nastiness of it all; and by conflating two very different modes of being, that of the gene and the organism demonstrates to his own satisfaction, that what appears to be altruism, e.g. parental care, or  the willingness to lay down ones life for the good of others, is in fact really selfishness.

But don’t be misled into thinking that the young Richard Dawkins was a misanthrope.  He was very far from it, believing, like 18th century enlightenment man, that human rationality rises us above all the rest of nature; and frees us to pursue disinterested altruism. You will also see from the following quote, that he has failed to realize  that it is our genes that have long-term natural “interests”, not us.

The point I am making now is that even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight – our capacity to simulate the future in imagination – could save us from the worst  selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests.

Richard Dawkins  The Selfish Gene 1976

He also failed to note that the replicators he maligned as Chicago gangsters, have without an ounce of foresight between them, managed for some millions of years, to cooperate towards a common goal, the creation of disposable, and biodegradable survival machines. The following quote is taken from  close to the beginning of the book, shortly after his comparison of genes to Chicago gangsters..

Be warned that if you wish , as I do , to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.  Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.  Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something which no other species has ever aspired to. Richard Dawkins  The Selfish Gene 1976

Our bodies provide evidence, that biological nature has enabled genes to cooperate, towards a common good, and they have done it without any need for either altruism or generosity. Richard Dawkins’, nature red in tooth and claw school of evolutionism, is not based on empirical evidence, and appears as an attempt to import the sheer nastiness of Darwin’s original theory, which saw individual organisms as engaged in the war of all against all, in a bitter battle for survival, into new synthesis biology.

The sheer nastiness of the mechanism understood  to be driving evolution in Darwin’s original theory caused a problem for theism, as it was a mechanism that was hard to reconcile, with the notion of a good God. It is of course not good science, to allow your religious beliefs to interfere with how you interpret scientific evidence,  and I believe Richard Dawkins  to be too honourable a man to be doing this deliberately.  He is the victim of  something  that appears to be instinctive, and therefore coded for in his DNA – confirmation bias.

Ironically Richard Dawkins’ unconscious  bias, his conflation of the gene with the organism, actually hides from view something truly nasty at the core of the modern synthesis.  In Darwin’s original theory all adaptations including instincts were understood to work for the good of the organism.  This is not true for the modern synthesis, where it is the gene, not the organism that is the beneficiary of natural selection.

And the interests  of  the gene and the organism are not identical.  Genes do not have all their eggs (or sperms), in one basket and are therefore able, metaphorically, to play the odds. For instance a gene that caused human beings to play Russian roulette, would result on average in total loss of reproductive fitness for 5 out of 6 of the players. If the pay off for winning increased the  average reproductive fitness of the winner by even marginally over 6 times, then the roulette  gene would increase in the gene pool.

The interests of the  hypothetical, unconscious  roulette gene are obviously not identical with the interests of the majority of the conscious beings whose behaviour would, if it existed, be influenced by this functionally selfish gene. It is a potentially a very dangerous error to assume that following our instincts will  on average lead to good consequences for individual humans, even if the conditions under which we now live, were identical with the conditions under which the instincts evolved.

Risk taking behaviour is fairly obviously not in the average best interests of the organisms engaged in the pursuit. Confirmation bias is not so clear cut a case.  It is possible that it in most cases, at least in the distant past, it increased the survival and reproductive chances of the programmed organism We are social creatures who bond on shared ideas. Stable social groups, allow for the successful raising of offspring which go on and do likewise.  Genes for overruling our rationality, when to continue with a particular line of thought is likely to call into question a core belief/dogma of our society, are likely to increase the average reproductive fitness of those holding them.

Not all of these beliefs are to do with religion. Robert Trivers, the biologist who wrote the original preface to Richard Dawkin’s – The Selfish Gene, holds  Darwin’s original  theory of natural selection, as his dogma.This can be demonstrated in this attack on Stephen Gould, where he accuses him of attempted heresy, over his development of the theory of punctuated equilibrium.

But Steve wanted to turn this into something grander, a justification for replacing natural selection (favoring individual reproductive success) with something called species selection.

Robert Trivers The Mismeasure of Stephen Jay Gould Psychology Today October 2012

Robert Trivers identifies the organism as the individual at the centre of Darwinian selection, and therefore regards confirmation bias as an example of an organism deceiving itself, for its own advantage; rather than an organism being deceived in a way that historically increased the frequency of the programming gene in the gene pool.   Just how bizarre this is can be seen in the central attack he makes in the same  article on the morality of Stephen Gould.

Stephen Gould accused 19th century scientist Samuel George Morton of unconscious bias in measuring the size of human skulls. Morton was trying to ascertain whether or not humans were all members of one species, an activity which Gould believed to be inherently racist. It turned out that it was Gould’s statistics that were biased, not Morton’s measurements. Here is Robert Trivers’ take on how the statistics were arrived at.

Where are the unconscious processes at work here? Is Steve flying upside-down on auto-pilot, unconsciously looking for the actions (substitute Nordic for Tropical, delete all samples smaller than four) that will invite the results he wants (while hiding his bias)? Is the conscious organism really completely in the dark while all of this is going on? Hard to imagine—but at the end the organism appears to be in full self-deception mode—a blow-hard fraudulently imputing fraud, with righteous indignation, coupled with magnanimous forgiveness for the frailties of self-deception in others.

Robert Trivers The Mismeasure of Stephen Jay Gould Psychology Today October 2012

That Stephen Gould made this error is almost unbelievable, but the evidence is that he did.  This mistake would have done  Professor Gould’s reputation no good, had it been caught on in his lifetime, and it has done it harm posthumously.  It has also been used as evidence that racism is scientifically valid, something that would have appalled him, given that he was an ardent campaigner against racism. The disadvantage of doing what he did far outweighs any benefit.  The most likely explanation is that he was unaware of his own bias.

Robert Trivers accepts that the mistake could be consequence of unconscious processes. But by using the term self-deception to describe two very different set of events:one where the organism has no conscious awareness of what is going on, and another where the organism is aware of what is happening and is deliberately manipulating data; he is able to rain down judgement on the heretic.

I suspect there was rather more than loyalty to his dogma going on in the mind of Robert Trivers when he wrote this piece, but I am willing to accept that his unconscious mind was hiding the truth from his conscious mind.

Robert Trivers and Stephen Gould both show evidence of having had their rationality overruled by instinctive confirmation bias.

What happens in confirmation bias reminds me very much of what happens in stage hypnosis, when the hypnotist convinces his subject that there is no other person on the stage. Even when the other person moves objects round the victim is unable to see them, and is convinced that the objects are moving independently.

When intelligent peoples’ attempts to find the truth are subverted by confirmation bias, it is frequently possible to see the metaphorical invisible man – the meme that does not co-ordinate with the socially held belief..This little warning from Richard Dawkins is a case in point:

Be warned that if you wish , as I do , to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.

Given that he was writing about genes as the creators of survival machines, it should have been obvious that natural selection is quite capable of building a society where individuals cooperate towards a common good.  His categorization of genes as selfish, and his use of the  adverbs generously and unselfishly as necessary characteristics of the actions of  cooperating individuals, have been sufficient to hide this reality from him.

Note that I am not suggesting that the process being followed by the young Richard  Dawkins was in any way rational, or deliberately planned, rather that it was the product of a gene working in ways that caused its numbers to increase in the gene pool in times past.  Nor would a discovery that natural selection was capable of producing cooperation have undermined his atheism.  The part of the unconscious programmed for confirmation bias had  however no way of accessing that data.

Richard Dawkins is not the only anti-theist in whose writings the invisible man .can be found. The following quote from Bertrand Russell argues that it is dogma that is the cause of religious persecution, and that communism is a religion because it to has dogma.

Cruel persecutions have been commoner in Christendom than anywhere else. What appears to justify persecution is dogmatic belief. Kindliness and tolerance only prevail in proportion as dogmatic belief decays. In our day, a new dogmatic religion, namely, communism, has arisen. To this, as to other systems of dogma, the agnostic is opposed.

Bertrand Russell What is an Agnostic 1953

The first line of this quote is the invisible man.  Cruel persecutions were common in Christendom, but that is not what the quote says. This passage arguing that dogma is a feature of religious belief, includes a piece of anti-religious dogma, which Russell treats as though it were a fact. Would you like to bet that cruel persecutions were more common in Christendom than they were in Nazi Germany, or Japanese Prisoner-of-war camps, or that Bertrand Russell had the figures to back up this claim?

This  following passage and conclusion taken from his “Is there a God,” essay show that his social commitment was as he claimed to agnosticism, at least at one level.  But he identified with two social groups, philosophers where agnosticism was the respectable view, but also with atheists.

I will say further that, if there be a purpose and if this purpose is that of an Omnipotent Creator, then that Creator, so far from being loving and kind, as we are told, must be of a degree of wickedness scarcely conceivable. A man who commits a murder is considered to be a bad man. An Omnipotent Deity, if there be one, murders everybody. A man who willingly afflicted another with cancer would be considered a fiend. But the Creator, if He exists, afflicts many thousands every year with this dreadful disease. A man who, having the knowledge and power required to make his children good, chose instead to make them bad, would be viewed with execration. But God, if He exists, makes this choice in the case of very many of His children. …………..My conclusion is that there is no reason to believe any of the dogmas of traditional theology and, further, that there is no reason to wish that they were true.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

  • If you define good in the normal way, and not as some theists, including I think St  Anselm, the originator of the ontological argument, do – as might is right,
  • And if you define omnipotence as Bertrand Russell did, as being able to achieve anything without need of process or plan,
  • Then an omnipotent god could achieve all he wanted without allowing suffering.  And as suffering exists therefore any God who exists is not both good in the normal sense of the word, and omnipotent in the way that Bertrand Russell defines the word.
  • And Bertrand Russell has proved that there is good reason not to believe in one of the dogmas of traditional theology, and not the much weaker conclusion he gave at the end of the essay – the dogma of the agnostic, there is no reason to believe.

Bertrand Russell having proved that it was impossible for a god to be, as he defined the words, omnipotent and good, then dismissed the idea of a God who is not omnipotent, with two dogmatic assertions. First he claimed that the idea that God was not omnipotent was modern to Christianity.Then that there was no positive reason in its favour.

That all Christian’s have always believed up until recently that God could achieve his aims without process is a very big claim; and being logically possible is a positive, though not sufficient  reason in favour of a belief.

The strong case against an omnipotent god, and his dogmatic claims on views that he classifies as non-traditional, do not coordinate with Bertrand Russell’s view of himself as a rational agnostic  But the way his argument  is developed demonstrates  that Russell was socially committed to agnosticism. He valued his perceived rationality, more than his atheism.

It seems that Russell agrees on at least one point with William James, that it was certainty that led to the cruel persecutions of the inquisition. His segue into the Celestial Teapot argument comes between his successful argument against the existence of  an omnipotent and good god, and a dismissal of any other view of a god as non-traditional, and a conclusion, to the essay that does not follow from the arguments made.

The Celestial teapot functions here for Russell, as the words generously and unselfishly did for Richard Dawkins.  It serves as a distraction. By using this illustration of the tiny orbiting teapot as an analogy for religious dogma, Russell is able to convince himself that, he really is a rational agnostic; and that the evil certainty that leads to persecution lies elsewhere, in the religious dogmatist. And so he concludes with the defining dogma of the agnostic – there is no reason to believe . This despite the fact that there is every reason to believe that the god, that he defines as the God of traditional theology does not exist externally to the human mind.

The god that Bertrand Russell proved to be non-existent, is based on the the god of Anselm’s ontological argument. The god that Anselm defined as, that than which nothing greater can be conceived to exist, and from this definition proved to his own satisfaction, and that of a surprising number of other philosophers, including for a brief time the young Bertrand Russell, to be a necessary being. Reading  through the Proslogion, where Anselm puts forth his argument, you will find reference to the Godless fool, and Anselm’s acknowledgement that his  own understanding  of that than which no greater can be conceived, is equivalent  to the understanding of the fool.

Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.

The Proslogion  Anselm 1077-1078

Rather than recognizing the folly of limiting  the greatness of a Creator to that which a fool might imagine to be great, Anselm’s attention turns to the stupidity of the Godless fool of Psalm 14, and concentrates on the area where  he and the alleged fool differ, whether or not the god of their imagining actually exists.  Deciding that it was the fool’s dullness, that prevented him from realizing that his imaginings must coincide with reality..

And so Anselm was able to transform the imaginings of a fool, into not just an angel of light, but the god of heaven.

Confirmation bias is the instinct that likes to say yes.  It may in a less crowded world have been useful in holding social groups together, but in our world it is extremely dangerous.  It leaves us unable to understand the viewpoint of others,  whether, because we or they are blinded by confirmation bias, or more likely both. Intelligence is no help, because a person who is blinded by confirmation bias, has their intelligence subverted to hiding the truth from them.

Confirmation bias, appears to be the work of a functionally selfish Dawkinsian gene, that is common in the human gene pool.  The behaviour that it programs for is capable of inducing intolerance, anger; and cruel persecutions.  It is the enemy, not flesh and blood.

Before we can resist the devil and all his works we must first recognize him.

Related Articles

  1. John S. Michael Stephen Jay Gould and Samuel George Morton: A Personal Commentary
  2. Lewis et al The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias  PLoS Biol. Jun 2011