Monday, October 30, 2006


Lubos Motl's blog(see my links) has called attention to Steven Pinker's comments on the new Harvard University general education report [Report of the Committee on General Education]. Pinker focuses on the way Science in justified as a suitable subject in a university, provided it is taught in a social issues context.

Apparently the writers of the Harvard Univ. general education report have little conception of the benefits of serious education in science for university students.

Pinker also picks on the linkages of the importance of teaching about both "faith and reason", as if these were equally important in the education of the university students.

It is worth quoting some of Pinker's comments on the first issues in the Harvard Crimson:

"...we should be mindful of the way the report frames the goals of general education, and not just its suggested menu of courses. This means affirming the goal of the university as the institution dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and reason. (There is certainly no shortage of forces in the world pushing toward ignorance and irrationality.)"

"The report introduces scientific knowledge as follows: “Science and technology directly affect our students in many ways, both positive and negative: they have led to life-saving medicines, the internet, more efficient energy storage, and digital entertainment; they also have shepherded nuclear weapons, biological warfare agents, electronic eavesdropping, and damage to the environment.”

"Well, yes, and I suppose one could say that architecture has produced both museums and gas chambers, that opera has both uplifted audiences and inspired the Nazis, and so on. It makes it sound as if the choice between science and technology on the one hand, and superstition and ignorance on the other, is a moral toss-up! Of course students should know about both the bad and good effects of technology. But this hardly seems like the best way for a great university to justify the teaching of science.

"Missing from the report is a sensitivity to the ennobling nature of knowledge: to the inherent value, with consequences too far-reaching to enumerate, of understanding how the world works. For one thing, it is a remarkable fact that we have come to understand as much as we do about the natural world: the history of the universe and our planet, the forces that make it tick, the stuff we’re made of, the origin of living things, and the machinery of life, including our own mental life.

"...Also, the picture of humanity’s place in nature that has emerged from scientific inquiry has profound consequences for people’s understanding of the human condition. The discoveries of science have cascading effects, many unforeseeable, on how we view ourselves and the world in which we live: for example, that our planet is an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos; that all the hope and ingenuity in the world can’t create energy or use it without loss; that our species has existed for a tiny fraction of the history of the earth; that humans are primates; that the mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes; that there are methods for ascertaining the truth that can force us to conclusions which violate common sense, sometimes radically so at scales very large and very small; that precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified.

"I believe that a person for whom this understanding is not second-nature cannot be said to be educated. And I think that some acknowledgment of the intrinsic value of scientific knowledge should be a goal of the general education requirement and a stated value of a university."

Saturday, October 21, 2006


Harvard linguist and psychology professor Steven Pinker contributed to a brief four man debate in Time magazine. The topic of the debate was: "Can You Believe in [Both] God and Evolution". Pinker has the full debate on his website. Since I agree with Pinker, here is his take on this question:

It's natural to think that living things must be the handiwork of a designer. But it was also natural to think that the sun went around the earth. Overcoming naive impressions to figure out how things really work is one of humanity's highest callings.

Our own bodies are riddled with quirks that no competent engineer would have planned but that disclose a history of trial-and-error tinkering: a retina installed backward, a seminal duct that hooks over the ureter like a garden hose snagged on a tree, goose bumps that uselessly try to warm us by fluffing up long-gone fur.

The moral design of nature is as bungled as its engineering design. What twisted sadist would have invented a parasite that blinds millions of people or a gene that covers babies with excruciating blisters? To adapt a Yiddish expression about God: If an intelligent designer lived on Earth, people would break his windows.

The theory of natural selection explains life as we find it, with all its quirks and tragedies. We can prove mathematically that it is capable of producing adaptive life forms and track it in computer simulations, lab experiments and real ecosystems. It doesn't pretend to solve one mystery (the origin of complex life) by slipping in another (the origin of a complex designer).

Many people who accept evolution still feel that a belief in God is necessary to give life meaning and to justify morality. But that is exactly backward. In practice, religion has given us stonings, inquisitions and 9/11. Morality comes from a commitment to treat others as we wish to be treated, which follows from the realization that none of us is the sole occupant of the universe. Like physical evolution, it does not require a white-coated technician in the sky.

The other debaters were Francis Collins (a prominent biologist and human genome expert who has no problem with a belief in a God who carefully supervised every mutation and variation responsible for the tortuous and sometimes tragic paths of natural selection), Michael Behe (Lehigh Univ. biochemist and frequent spokesperson for "Intelligent" Design, and Albert Mohler (President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a young-Earth creationist, who apparently has no problem with a God malicious and tricky enough to create a young earth replete with apparent geological, fossil, and cosmological photon evidence to lead a common sense scientific investigation to the conclusion that our universe is about 14 billion years old: if humans persist in believing their meters, eyes, and mathematical models which seem to make all the sense in the world, then this God says: Catch 22: you spend eternity in the fires of a literal Hell).

Friday, October 20, 2006


"Precritical" reading of the Bible refers to what most Christians do: read the Bible with forgiving eyes as if the insights of Biblical criticism are irrelevant.

Robert Funk, leader of the Jesus Seminar, describes the tortuous efforts of a televangelist to reconcile the two wildly different accounts of the demise of the disciple Judas which one can find in any Bible (you pick the version!).

"After the rise of biblical criticism, pietists tended to harmonize the differences and discrepancies by inventing explanations to account for them. Recently, a televangelist explained to his listeners that the bible does not contradict itself. As an example, he chose the death of Judas Iscariot. According to Matthew (27:3), Judas rejected the thirty pieces of silver and hanged himself. In Acts (1:18–19), Judas bought a field with his silver coins and later swelled up and burst open so that his bowels gushed out.

"The televangelist took the view that hanging and evisceration are two accounts of the same event: Judas hanged himself, then swelled up as he dangled in the air; since Jews were forbidden to touch a dead body, someone had to cut the rope, at which point he dropped to the ground and burst open, his bowels pouring out on the ground.

"The evangelist did not explain the contradiction involved in Judas both returning the coins and buying a field with them. In television land, the defense of the bible as an infallible source of history goes on unabated, as though historical criticism were the invention of the devil."

The work of the Jesus Seminar has been refocused on distinguishing the historical Jesus and his persona and concerns from those who later were sucessful in erecting a large and elaborate super-structure which became the Christian church. As Funk notes, "Jesus was not a Christian."

"The renewed quest is an attempt to reinstate the original aim of the quest, which was to distinguish the aims of Jesus from the aims of the followers. Put more broadly, the renewed quest is designed to distinguish the words and deeds of Jesus from others attributed to him as his reputation grew in the faith community. After all, the two lie side by side in the gospels.

"The renewal of the original aim comes to expression in two major ways. First, the renewed quest is focussed on the vision of Jesus as formulated in his words and deeds rather than on the expressions of faith in him formulated by the early community. To borrow Bultmann's phrase, the renewed quest is focussed on Jesus' proclamation rather than on him as proclaimer. It is a radical shift in point of view or perspective. Jesus points to the kingdom; his disciples point to him.

"The second aspect of the aim follows from the first. A basic rule of evidence is to look for words and deeds in the gospels that represent his outlook rather than that of the evangelists. Jesus was not a Christian. However, the gospels are Christian through and through. The residual fragments left behind in their memories of him are the only clues we have to his own point of view."

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Lubos Motl's recent posting about Steven Weinberg's recent BBC interview [transcript] on the relation between religion and science mentioned the chapter about God in Weinberg's book: Dreams of a Final Theory.

The following is from chapter 11, titled "What About God?". In the middle of that chapter, Weinberg refers to the problem of religious "liberals", as follows:

"Religious liberals are in one sense even farther in spirit from scientists than are fundamentalists and other religious conservatives.

"At least the conservatives, like the scientists, tell you that they believe in what they believe because it is true, rather than because it makes them good or happy.

"Many religious liberals today seem to think that different people can believe in different mutually exclusive things without any of them being wrong, as long as their beliefs 'work for them'.

"This one believes in reincarnation, that one in heaven and hell; a third believes in the extinction of the soul at death, but no one can be said to be wrong as long as everyone gets a satisfying spiritual rush from what they believe.

"To borrow a phrase from Susan Sontag, we are surrounded by 'piety without content'.

"It all reminds me of a story that is told about an experience of Bertrand Russell, when in 1918 he was committed to prison for his opposition to the war. Following prison routine, a jailer asked Russell his religion, and Russell said that he was an agnostic. The jailer looked puzzled for a moment, and then brightened, with the observation that 'I guess it's all right. We worship the same God, don't we?'

Returning to the role of the religious conservatives, Weinberg later continues:

"Many of the great world religions teach that God demands a particular faith and form of worship. It should not be surprising that some the the people who take these teachings seriously should sincerely regard these divine commands as incomparably more important than any merely secular virtues like tolerance or compassion or reason."

In the middle of Weinberg's BBC interview we have the remarks by Weinberg:

"...I once wrote something [apparently referring to the above quote from his Dreams of a Final Theory] rather disparaging about ultra-liberal Christianity and that I found myself more ... in some ways more akin to a fundamentalist because at least they haven't forgotten what it [is] to believe something. And I got a copy of a fundamentalist newspaper from, I think from New Mexico that praised me! Because what they really ... I think what their real concern was, was not odd atheist physicists, that wasn't what they were worried about, what they were worried about was the liberal Christians. ... I think they [the fundamentalists] just found a surprising ally in the battle that they really cared about - their battle with the liberal wing of Christianity. But please don't let me give the wrong impression, I think enormous harm is done by religion - not just in the name of religion, but actually by religion - and I think ..."

[interviewer]: "How is that? Tell me the harm that is done by religion as opposed to the harm that is done in the name of it."

[Weinberg ]: "Oh, I think people who crash air-planes into office buildings in order to destroy them must really believe in paradise and that this is something that their god wants them to do and that they'll be rewarded in paradise. And if they don't believe that then it's a very foolish career move."

[interviewer]: "Yes"

[Weinberg]: "But, ... you know, the idea that God has ... whether it's Allah or Jehovah or whatever, has dictated certain ways of behaving, certain ways of worshiping, and that it's incumbent on you to force others to behave that way and worship in that way ... God, think of all the harm that's been done throughout all the ages by people who believe that and believe it very sincerely. One could just go on and on about the number of very sincerely religious people who were led by their religion to do the most awful things."

[interviewer]: " Well in fact that was very much an aspect of Judaism before the Diaspora"

[Weinberg]: "Oh, absolutely, yes. I do agree, but just coming back to what we were talking about before, it is the religions that have a theory of the world, it seems to me, at least in recent centuries, that do the harm. So the ... the very sincere true believers are the ones you have to watch out for, even though they may have something more to show for themselves intellectually than the more liberal religious, but they are the dangerous ones."

[interviewer] [To the viewer]: "Given the fact that the current president of the United States could be described as a "sincere true believer", I wanted to know if Steven himself was alarmed by the apparent growth of fundamental Christianity in his own country."

[Weinber]: "I don't see the United States in the grip of a... a really disturbing religious awakening. I think that what's much more frightening in the world is Islam, where people, it seems to me, take their religion seriously to the point of madness. I think, you know, there have been times in the history of the world when Islam was a far more tolerant religion than Christianity, but that is not the case now. "

[interviewer]: "But there is undoubtedly for... a certainly for a European, the impression that there's a very strong association between Christianity and patriotism in a way that simply doesn't exist in Europe, certainly not in my own country, the United Kingdom."

[Weinberg]: "Yes, well, it's... I know that impression exists and I think that Americans think more highly of religion that Europeans do. I sometimes think that Americans believe in religion much more than Europeans do. They don't believe in God much more than Europeans do, but they believe that religion is good for you, and without being particularly religious in any meaningful way. You know, I know many people who say they're religious and go to church every Sunday and belong to church organisations, and then when you talk to them and you ask them, "Do you really think that after death this is going to happen?" they say, "I've no idea, I don't know, it's all a mystery, but I think it's good to be religious. This is the faith I grew up with.". As a physicist, you have to decide what you think is true and you get in the habit of that kind of intellectual activity because if you work on the wrong theory and it isn't true you have wasted your professional time, and you keep having to make judgements of truth or falsity, and truth becomes very important to you. For most people truth is not as important as good behaviour, or loyalty to your ethnic group, or loyalty to your family traditions, and truth is something that you don't worry about very much."

[interviewer]: "Although, of course, in the Middle Ages and indeed when people were opposing atheism in the 17th century, it was insisted that the truthfulness of religion was what guaranteed good behaviour. "

[Weinberg] : "Yes, and many people believe that, but an awful lot of people also believe it doesn't matter whether it's true, you just have to be religious because that will guarantee good behaviour. You know the wonderful line of Gibbon's about the pagan religions, he said "The multitude of gods... ", Gibbon said, "The common people found them all equally true, and the philosophers found them all equally false, and the magistrates found them all equally useful.". And I think many people in America and undoubtedly in Europe are in the position of the magistrates Gibbon was talking about - they find them useful. Although I really don't think that... I don't see religion as actually inspiring moral behaviour. In fact you very often hear people say, "Well, these people who blow themselves up for some religious reason in the Middle East or Hindu mobs who destroy a mosque or Muslim mobs who kill Hindus, that they're not really religious, that real religion doesn't involve that kind of behaviour.". I think what they're saying is that they have a moral sense which allows them to distinguish what is religious from what is not religious."

"I think, for example, George Bush said that these terrorists have hijacked a great religion because their actions, their terrorist actions don't fit his idea of religion. You see what's really happening there is that instead of using religion to decide what is moral, they're using their moral sense, which fortunately is a perfectly, good, reasonable, enlightened moral sense, to decide what is religious... and... if that's the case, then what's the point of the religion?"

[interviewer]: [speaking to his audience] "Finally, I wanted to know whether there were any particular reasons, apart from being constantly asked by people like myself, why Steven felt it necessary to address himself to the topic of religion more than many of his colleagues did."

[Weinberg]: "Oh, I try not to do it too much. I don't want to become the village atheist... and I do get involved in a lot of other issues like missile defence and neo... well, post-constructionism, neo-modernism, but I do spend probably a little bit more time than I should on religion and I have a certain amount of hostility to... to it. I think the most rational reason for it is because of the harm that I see it does, we were talking about that earlier. Many people do simply awful things out of sincere religious belief, not using religion as a cover the way that Saddam Hussein may have done, but really because they believe that this is what God wants them to do, going all the way back to Abraham being willing to sacrifice Issac because God told him to do that. Putting God ahead of humanity is a terrible thing."

"Another reason is because I'm offended by the kind of smarmy religiosity that's all around us, perhaps more in America than in Europe, and not really that harmful because it's not really that intense or even that serious, but just... you know after a while you get tired of hearing clergymen giving the invocation at various public celebrations and you feel, haven't we outgrown all this? Do we have to listen to this? "

"But then, maybe at the very bottom of it... I really don't like God. You know, it's silly to say I don't like God because I don't believe in God, but in the same sense that I don't like Iago, or the Reverend Slope or any of the other villains of literature, the god of traditional Judaism and Christianity and Islam seems to me a terrible character. He's a god who will... who obsessed [about] the degree to which people worship him and [is] anxious to punish with the most awful torments those who don't worship him in the right way. Now I realise that many people don't believe in that any more who call themselves Muslims or Jews or Christians, but that is the traditional God and he's a terrible character. I don't like him. "

I have a friend - or had a friend, now dead - Abdul Salam, a very devout Muslim, who was trying to bring science into the universities in the Gulf states and he told me that he had a terrible time because, although they were very receptive to technology, they felt that science would be a corrosive to religious belief, and they were worried about it... and damn it, I think they were right. It is corrosive of religious belief, and it's a good thing too.