Honest to God

The then Bishop of Woolwich, John A.T. Robinson, in his 1963 book, ‘Honest to God,’ rejected the notion of a God out there, a superhuman creator, interfering from time to time in human affairs as incompatible with modern scientific thought.  Ironically this superhuman creator, that Robinson so roundly rejected, is one that Richard Dawkins accepts as a logical possibility. Arguing only that such a creator would not in fact be a god, because gods are supernatural beings, and this kind of creator would only be one other part of the natural order.  And therefore neither a god or God.

Which just goes to show that Richard Dawkins theological insight is better than you might otherwise give him credit for. John Robinson was also arguing that such a creator would not be God.

The personal God, that Robinson was arguing for was not this superhuman abomination.

Belief in God is the trust, the well-nigh incredible trust, that to give ourselves to the uttermost in love is not to be confounded but to be ‘accepted,’ that Love is the ground of our being, to which ultimately we ‘come home’.

John A.T. Robinson  Honest to God Chapter 3 1963

Robinson was arguing that his emotionally held belief that Love was the central value of life was grounded in his faith in God. And that his belief in God was grounded in his faith that Love was the central value of life.

This view of Love as the central value, was held by the philosophers, William James, who identified as a Christian, and Bertrand Russell, who identified as an agnostic. Just as is the case with Bishop Robinson, neither of these men came to this belief by rational means. It was in both cases an emotionally, not rationally held belief.

William James made the argument that while there was no way of obtaining rational certainty for those things that the heart wished for were true, acting as though that which you wish for is true, is what brings about the emotional certainty that it is so.

At the end of his article ‘Will to Believe’ he used the following quote to illustrate his point.

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we may be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong, and of good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.

Fitz James-Stephens quoted in William James Will to Believe 1896

Or that to live fully human and courageous lives we need to, as the preacher of Ecclesiastes had it:

Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days. Ecc. 11:1

The Bishop of Durham from 2003-2010, Tom Wright was highly critical of the arguments put forward by Bishop Robinson in, ‘Honest to God’ accusing him of being far from  honest.

In particular, Robinson himself seems to me to protest rather too much when he declares again and again that for the most part he remains a traditional Christian—yet says in the preface, revealingly, that he finds less and less of himself to what he calls the right side of the line that runs through the middle of himself. He was of course a complex character, as his biography reveals, and in later life he edited and republished, movingly, his father’s devotional book The Personal Life of the Clergy under the title The Personal Life of the Christian, reaffirming warmly the central disciplines and habits of Christian devotion. But how he kept the two sides of himself integrated, if he did, has never been clear to me. Maybe it was honesty which compelled this unclarity, but the sense of ‘owning up’, of ‘coming clean’, which the title implies is not, I think, borne out by the apparent confusion of the author.

N.T. Wright  Doubt about Doubt: Honest to God 40 years on 2005

The apparent confusion belongs to Tom Wright not John Robinson. Robinson was engaged in providing a meaningful account of Christianity to those for whom the biblical stories held no resonance.  People who would no more have regarded the biblical accounts as evidence of God in action in the world, than they would regard the Star Wars films as evidence for the existence of midi-chlorians.

Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force. They continually speak to us, telling us the will of the Force. When you learn to quiet your mind, you’ll hear them speaking to you.

Qui-Gon Jinn, to Anakin Skywalker  Taken from Wookieepedia

The attacks and sniping that Tom Wright complains of are found not in ‘Honest to God’ where Robinson almost bends over backwards to acknowledge the truths of those such as C.S. Lewis, and Dorothy Sayers who were producing more traditional accounts of the Christian message, but in Wright’s  ‘Doubts about Doubt.’

And it is this misidentification of where the alleged evil lies, that leads me to the conclusion, not that Tom Wright is dishonest but that he is deluded.

One of the things that Tom Wright accused John Robinson of was of ignoring the problem of evil.

I find it quite shocking that Robinson has no account to give of evil, either its existence, its analysis, or the solution offered to it in either traditional or revisionist Christianity. He recognizes that the normal liberal analysis is shallow and inadequate, but has nothing to offer in its place. How a theology rooted and born in the twentieth century could do justice to that twentieth century without a serious account of evil simply defeats me.

N.T. Wright  Doubt about Doubt: Honest to God 40 years on 2005

‘Honest to God’ is a small book, and it didn’t set out to solve the problem of evil.  But Tom Wright in projecting his own behaviour unto John Robinson, illustrates one of the causes of evil in the world.  The ability of the human brain to convince itself, that whatever it wants to believe is true.  An especially devastating ability when what that brain, is highly intelligent, and what it wishes to convince itself of, is that it is certainly right, and that the evil lies in the other.

Human Beings bond on shared ideas. Those who can produce the illusion that beliefs held for social reasons are certainly true, have opportunity to gain status in their social groupings.  If they can at the same time convince their followers that their social groupings and truths are under attack, by the other:

Those Evil  Awful People Over There,

then they are a position to acquire even more power within their group.  And certainly in times past and maybe even today this will have improved their average reproductive fitness.  In other words I am suggesting that the type of self deluding argument exhibited by Tom Wright, the gift that can make Satan himself appear as an angel of light, is an innate deceiver, a human instinct, the product of natural selection.  And you’ll find him waving his noodly appendage wherever humans seek power rather than love, certainty over truth.

 The noodliness of Wright’s thinking is even more clearly obvious, except to those who are similarly noodled, in his arguments against gay marriage, than in his critique of Honest to God.

Tom Wright’s sphere of influence is largely among those who would regard themselves as Bible believing evangelicals, and his views on justification, have led many within these circles to regard him as theologically unsound.

To maintain his sphere of influence, he needs to impress those within it of his ‘orthodoxy.’ They and he are emotionally certain that homosexual relationships cannot be recognised as marriage. And the innate deceiver, the instinct that likes to say,”Yes:” obliges in enabling him to convince himself that he can in fact  rationally justify his emotional response.

He is quoted over at First Things, as objecting to Gay Marriage, because it involves a change of the meaning of the word marriage. Now Tom Wright and I have both lived long enough to know that language evolves over time.  The word gay for instance has changed meaning within our lifetime.

I grew up in the Anglican Church of Ireland, and we regularly prayed that justice should be administered indifferently.  Rather than Christians demanding that word usage remains constant, I think a more sensible case could be made that we recognise the actual usage that words have in the present time, and use them accordingly.

Sarah Moon in More Like N.T. Wrong, does an excellent take down of his arguments based on the creation story of Genesis 1.

I won’t deal with them here.  But I find myself vastly entertained by the ludicrousness of this argument.

The last scene in the Bible is the new heaven and the new earth, and the symbol for that is the marriage of Christ and his church. It’s not just one or two verses here and there which say this or that. It’s an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.

N.T. Wright’s Argument Against Same Sex Marriage  First Things 2014

On that gay and glorious day when Christ comes to reclaim his Bride, N.T.Wright  if he believes himself to be a Christian, must surely expect to be there, at least metaphorically, as the Bride to Christ’s Groom.  Not a convincing argument against gay marriage.

The entertaining yet truly scary thing about those operating under the operation of the noodly deceiver, the confirmation bias driven monster that has been given not so much anthropomorphic as pastopomorphic form by Bobby Henderson as the Flying Spaghetti Monster, is that you can see that the truth finding mechanisms within their brain are still in operation.

The bits of the brain that are there to test the theory, in the only way possible, by finding arguments against it are there doing their job. Yet the strength of the noodly appendage is such that its deluded servants are able to present evidence against their case as though it is evidence for, with total conviction.

In this same article Tom Wright can also be seen criticising others including Tony Blair the British Prime Minister at the time of the invasion of Iraq, for the holeyness of their arguments, while seeing only holiness, in his own holey arguments.

Tom Wright demanded from John Robinson a theological account of evil. A spaghettiology is all I can offer.  We have inherited from our evolutionary past an instinct that serves to hide our true motives from us, as we seek status and power within our society.  This instinct enables us to believe whatever it is that will gain us that power and status. It enables us to deceive ourselves into believing in our own goodness, and the rightness of our cause.  It enables us to see that the fault lies only in the other.  And thus is monstrous evil born.

If we would resist the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the first place we must look is within ourselves. Only then have we any chance of being, ‘Honest to God.’





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.




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.

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 Life.co.uk
  2. The Worst Argument Against Intelligent Design Randal Rauser @The Tentative Apologist