Category Archives: intelligent design

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Karl Giberson, Christian Privilege, and Teaching Science/Religion Classes

For those who don’t know, there has been an on-going spat concerning a class taught by physics professor Eric Hedin at Ball State University. Hedin teaches a class entitled “Boundaries of Science” whose syllabus reveals that the class focuses on discussing the relationship between science and religion. As someone whose academic pursuits are related to studying the relationship between science and religion, this debacle has been on my radar screen for a while. Several groups have weighed in — perhaps most prominently Jerry Coyne (who is against the class) and the Discovery Institute (who say that they support the class in the name of “academic freedom”) — with a variety of viewpoints. Recently, physicist Karl Giberson has weighed in on the issue on his blog. In this post, I’d like to say a bit about Giberson’s response.

Giberson is a Christian commentator on the evolution/Creationism dispute who encourages his fellow Christians to accept Darwinian evolution. He works for the pro-evolution evangelical think tank the Biologos Foundation and I’ve been following his work in the blogosphere for a while.

In his article, Giberson calls Coyne’s view on the issue “hyperbolic” (I don’t think they are) and goes on to state (emphasis mine):

The Hedin uproar interests me because I teach similar courses — at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. — that explore the boundaries of science, the nature of scientific truth and the religious implications of science…

Teaching courses on controversial subjects when you have a public — or even private — position on the controversy is a balancing act. Teachers, especially professors, are authority figures with powers of persuasion that should not be used to move students to positions that do not represent the mainstream thinking on the topic

…I assign equal reading from theists and atheists and spend roughly half the time discussing the ideas of the atheists. My goal — and I think I succeed — is to help students think through important issues that may inform their own spiritual journeys, regardless of the direction they are traveling. And as we know, college students do a lot of traveling…

Hedin’s assigned readings and bibliography are somewhat unbalanced, although one of the two required texts is a solid popularization of conventional big bang cosmology, unadorned by theological speculation. However, were students to infer that the extensive bibliography list covers the bases for the discussion of the “Boundaries of Science” they would be mistaken. Of the roughly 20 books listed, half advocate basic intelligent design with the remainder divided evenly between books by Christians sympathetic to raising constructive questions about God in the context of science — like Keith Ward and myself — or non-theists with minority viewpoints that resonate in some way with traditional theism — like Roger Penrose and Paul Davies. Noticeably absent are genuinely critical books of the sort written by Vic Stenger, Steven Weinberg and even Jerry Coyne that address the same issues but offer informed atheistic responses.

But is any of this a big deal? Should Ball State University terminate a young assistant professor teaching a general education course, which most faculty avoid like the plague, outside his field because, on first offering, it was ideologically slanted? I wonder how those us living in the ivory towers of academia would fare if our most challenging interdisciplinary syllabi constructed early in our careers became topics of national conversation?

…my guess is that his interdisciplinary explorations, like those of many thinkers inclined to consider the larger context of their fields, will become more sophisticated as time passes. If not, his colleagues won’t vote him tenure. In the meantime, Ball State doesn’t need external culture warriors telling them how to run their university.

I feel largely sympathetic to much of what Giberson stated. I’m a graduate student whose research focuses on the historical and philosophical relationship between science and religion. Despite having publicly accessible views on that relationship, I look forward to teaching courses on this topic but worry that my views may get in the way of pedagogy (what happens when students google me?). Unlike Giberson, I’m an atheist, but I think can I can imagine what it would be like to teach courses of this kind when one’s views are so publicly accessible. I have yet to teach a class on this, but would very much like to do so in the future (especially since it’s my research area!). And I think that Giberson has much the right idea; spending half of his course on thinkers he is adamantly opposed to, and working hard to present their ideas as strongly as you present your own, can work to create a classwork environment where academic exploration is encouraged. While I have not taught classes on the topic, I have done guest lectures for various groups and was happy to hear from my colleagues (who sat in) that I was as neutral as I was.

Giberson is correct that Helin’s syllabus lacks the full range of possible views that one might have on the science/religion relationship. And he’s right that Hedin is abusing his power as a professor. As others have pointed out, Hedin’s teaching evaluations on RateMyProfessor.com provide further evidence that he seems to be abusing his power as professor:

“Extremely nice guy and an easy class. However, the class had an extremely Christian bias and he does not believe in evolution. Many of his views do not quite jive with those of mainstream science.”
“Constantly talks religion, as an atheist, I was slightly concerned my science teacher is a devout christian.”
“The one thing I didn’t like was his constant bringing religion into class.”

When I took Philosophy of Religion, professor Ted Parent commented to the class that, if he did his job well that semester, students in the class will be guessing right up until the last day what his personal views are. Having taken other religion courses, I’ve seen other ways that professors try to avoid appearing biased; my Sociology of Religion professor stated his views the first day of class (he was an agnostic) and apologized if he ever appeared biased. He also encouraged students to relate the material to their own backgrounds and their own personal views. I sat in on a class that looked at the history of science and religion, taught by Matthew Goodrum, and he avoided telling the class his personal views the entire semester. He was so good at appearing neutral that his views were never relevant to the course material. His own views were simply not relevant to the course material. These approaches appear to me to be legitimate ways of reassuring students that the material will not be present in a biased manner; either make an effort to appear so neutral that your students have no idea what your views are or air them on the first day of class and let the students know that you want to cooperate with them to leave those views outside the door of the classroom.

Hedin’s class, in its syllabus and in his teaching evaluations, seems to be unapologetically biased towards Christian theism.

Giberson’s remark that this isn’t really a big deal seems to miss-the-mark. The problem is two-fold: 1. the kind of abuse of one’s power that can be identified in Hedin’s teaching evaluations and syllabus and 2. the kind of anti-atheist prejudice that is involved here. Despite recognizing Hedin’s abuse of power, Giberson asks that outsiders leave the matter to the university. Nonetheless, (2) especially concerns me because we already live in a country where atheists are regularly demonized; it doesn’t help to have a college professor abuse his power to erase the positions which atheists are voicing. If there were a class on “Gender Theory”, and it was taught by a white, heterosexual, cis male, and the syllabus solely contained works written by so-called “Men’s Rights Activists”, we would have reason to be concerned. We would have even more reason to be concerned if the professor’s teaching evaluations and other anecdotal evidence revealed that the teacher was making misogynistic comments in class. Such a situation would strike many of us as cause for concern. Imagine how inadequate it would appear if the response from MRA activists was to defend such a professor in the name of “academic freedom”.

It’s not that such a class should avoid discussing MRA thought; as much as I detest it and find it morally abhorrent, such views appear in the discussion on gender issues and a class focusing on such issues could conceivably do students a disservice if such a discussion were avoided. Similarly, while I find it intellectually abhorrent, Creationism is relevant to the discussion of science and religion. That does not mean that it should be the primary focus of the course.

This course is a violation of student rights and openly presents inaccurate information. If Ball State does not want to do anything about this situation, then students have every right to seek outside influence. It isn’t fair that students should be subjected to this sort of thing and it isn’t right for a professor to teach whatever he pleases under the guise of “academic freedom”.

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The Religion and Science Conflict is Complex

John Hedley Brooke’s Complexity Thesis — that the historical relationship between science and religion has been complex, with times at which science challenged religion and times at which they supported each other — is the scholarly consensus about the relationship between science and religion amongst those scholars who study such things. However, I think that the Complexity Thesis, ironically, misses an important complexity. The Complexity Thesis is often brought out against the claim that science and religion necessarily conflict; it is pointed out that the Draper-White Thesis (that science and religion have historically been at war) is an overly simplistic view of history and that both Draper and White were more involved with polemics than they were with legitimate, historical scholarship. Nonetheless, historical warfare is not the only way in which science and religion can conflict. Showing that the relationship between science and religion has been historically complex misses the other ways in which science and religion might pose challenges for each other.

There are likely to be other ways in which science and religion can conflict, but here are at least three:

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Happy Birthday Isaac Newton! (and: So what did Newton think about God?)

Godfrey Kneller’s 1689 portrait of Isaac Newton (1642-1727).

Isaac Newton was born on December 25th, 1642; thus, many Freethinkers and science fans celebrate Newton’s birth on Christmas day. Since today is Newton’s birthday and this is an atheism blog, I’d like to ask — what were Newton’s views on God? To answer that question, I’ll first present a brief description of Newton’s context. Then, I will include, in full, a letter which Newton wrote to a clergyman in 1692 describing his religious views.

Although not a typical believer, Newton did have a belief in a god of some kind. However, he certainly should not be thought as an orthodox Christian by any stretch of the imagination. Newton was a heretic. He rejected the trinity and embraced alchemy; Isaac Kramnick described Newton as anticipating Enlightenment deism (Kramnick, 1995).

One has to understand that in Newton’s time, there was no such thing as science. Science would emerge in the 19th century; in Newton’s day (mid to late 17th century), there was natural philosophy and natural theology, both of which Newton did, and both of which, to some extent, were the precursors to modern science.

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Paley Plagiarised

William Paley plagiarized his watchmaker argument.

In 1802, William Paley published his famous Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, which was based largely on Enlightenment era theology. In the book, Paley argues for the existence of God by arguing by analogy between watches and organisms. Living things, Paley argued, are just as complex and ordered as pocket watches are. Thus, we should infer the existence of a cosmic Watchmaker (i.e. God). Of course, this is the argument which contemporary Intelligent Design advocates use.

But regardless of the contemporary political issues surrounding the argument, there are multiple intriguing questions which can be raised about the argument. One such question is how we come to recognize which objects are designed. After all, archaeologists are able to distinguish designed from non-designed objects all the time; surely, even if Paley’s argument fails on multiple levels (which it does), there should be a way to characterize what archaeologists are doing. That’s a question that I raise in a paper I’ve been working on. But another sort of question one can ask is about the historical origins of the argument.

In his book Darwin and the Divine, historical theologian Alister McGrath pretty conclusively shows* that Paley plagiarized large portions of the watchmaker argument. Consider this passage from Bernard Nieuwentyt (1750):

So many different wheels, nicely adapted by their teeth to each other… Those wheels are made of brass, in order to keep them from rust; the spring is steel, no other metal being so proper for that purpose… Over the hand there is placed a clear glass, in the place of which if there were any other than a transparent substance, he must be at the pains of opening it every time to look upon the hand.

And now consider this passage from Paley:

A series of wheels, the teeth of which catch in and apply to each other… The wheels are made of brass, in order to keep them from rust; the spring of steel, no other metal being so elastic … Over the face of the watch there is placed a glass, a material employed in no other part of the work, but in the room of which if there had been any other than a transparent substance, the hour could not have been seen without opening the case.

Comparing them line by line, they’re virtually identical. And according to McGrath, Paley didn’t think to even cite Nieuwentyt in the first edition of his book.

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According to McGrath, he’s not the first person to comment on this. But this was the first time I’d ever come across allegations that Paley plagiarized.

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Review of Plantinga & Dennett’s “Science & Religion: Are They Compatible?”

When I found out that Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett co-authored a book, I was shocked. I could not think of two more diametrically opposed philosophers. It turned out that the book, entitled “Science and Religion”, resulted from a debate between the two famed philosophers at the American Philosophical Division Meeting in Chicago for 2009. The book consists of alternating short readings from each philosopher. The book contains a transcript of the original debate along with two more essays from each philosopher. Having now read the book, I think that Plantinga largely missed the point of Dennett’s arguments and that Dennett was probably more terse than he should have been.

The debate organisers had asked the two philosophers to discuss whether science and religion were compatible. However, the debate topic promptly changed when both philosophers agreed that there was no logical inconsistency between theism and science.

I’ll start by describing the arguments given by the respective parties and then offer commentary on some aspects of Plantinga’s argument I found problematic. Then I will briefly describe the response that I think Plantinga should have given to Dennett, followed by the response that I think Dennett would have given.

Plantinga argues:

1. Theism — in particular, Christian theism (Plantinga calls this “classical theism”) — is compatible with modern evolutionary theory. According to Plantinga, evolutionary theory is consistent with the idea that God guided the evolutionary process. One might object that evolution is random (and is therefore unguided). However, no part of evolutionary theory states that evolutionary events do not have causes; in fact, there are (often) causes cited for mutations. One such cause could be divine intervention.

2. The reliability of our beliefs is inconsistent with the conjunct of evolution and naturalism (where naturalism is *defined* as strong atheism — i.e. as the belief that are is no God or god-like beings). Plantinga argues that evolution cares only about adaptivity, not about truth tracking.

Dennett:

3. In response to (1): True, at least some forms of theism are consistent with evolution. But many things are logically consistent with evolution and that they are consistent is not evidence that theism is the case. Consider Supermanism — the thesis that Superman (son of Jor-El and an alien from the planet Krypton) caused the Cambrian explosion.

In response to (2): Dennett provides two replies:

4. Human brains evolved to track truth; that they do so is a sign that they are functioning properly. Just as the proper functioning of our hearts is to pump blood, the proper functioning of our neurophysiology is to produce correct beliefs about the world. Importantly, Dennett argues that the various parts of our bodies have functions to which they were tuned by evolution. Our hearts pump blood efficiently because that is the function they evolved to have. Brains track truth because that is what brains were evolved to do. So, evolution *is* truth tracking after all.

5. While it is true that our beliefs are, at least in part, the product of our neurophysiological states, they are also the product of our collective cultural evolution, discourse, and deliberation. So, while there might be poor beliefs that are produced by evolution, cultural evolution tends to expunge the bad and leave us with the good (this is why scientific — or, more generally, intellectual — progress is possible at all).

Plantinga:

6. In response to (3) (in particular, to Supermanism): Plantinga characterises the Superman thought experiment as trying to show that theism is absurd (or just as absurd as supermanism). Plantinga argues that Dennett, and the other New Atheists, may think that theism is absurd (or as absurd as Supermanism), but they have not provided an argument to show this point (or so Plantinga asserts). Plantinga argues that since there are a tremendous number of religious people in the world, and they do not appear to be irrational, it’s not clear that theistic belief is irrational. Thus, it would be incumbent on the New Atheists to argue for the irrationality of theism, something which Plantinga charges they have not done.

7. In response to (4): Plantinga does not think that organisms need to have accurate belief states in order to survive. Rather, organisms only require unconscious indicators that result in “correct” actions when provided with a given stimulus.

8. Plantinga does not provide a response to (5).

Analysis

I think that there are a number of problems with Plantinga’s strategy. One particularly vexing problem concerns (6). Plantinga mischaracterises Dennett’s argument. Arguing that theism is absurd (or as absurd as Supermanism) would be a rather poor rhettorical strategy; after all, Tertullian* notwithstanding, presumably no one holds beliefs which they think are absurd (again, in the Supermanism sense). However, that’s not what Dennett appears to be arguing.

The argument which Dennett presents concerns the burden of proof.

When Plantinga argues that theism is compatible with modern evolutionary theory, Dennett is right to respond with agreement. There are many things which are logically consistent with our best scientific theories, but the more interesting question is which of those things is the case. Supermanism is one idea which is logically consistent with our best scientific theories, but we do not think Supermanism is something that anyone should believe. Thus, Dennett presses Plantinga to do more than just argue for the logical consistency of theism with evolution. Dennett asks, can Plantinga provide us with a positive argument for theism? Dennett’s argument was categorically not to assert that theism is an absurd claim (though, no doubt, Dennett does think that).

In this book, Plantinga does not provide us with a positive argument for theism; instead, all he can offer is an argument against what he calls naturalism (really, a strong form of atheism). However, to be consistent with the rest of his work, there is a response that Plantinga should have given to Dennett instead of the one that he gave.

Plantinga should have responded that he does not need to give a positive argument for classical theism. Plantinga thinks that there is an additional sense — the sensis devinitatis — which provides human beings with non-propositional information concerning the existence of God. On Plantinga’s account of religious justification, theists are justified in their beliefs because belief in God is properly basic in virtue of having been caused by the sensus divinitatis. On Plantinga’s account, theists are people who have the proper sort of sensory experience to justify god-beliefs. Just as we do not ask people to justify that they are having the experience of the color purple when they see a purple object, Plantinga thinks people do not have to justify their having theistic beliefs.

In turn, Dennett could have responded with at least two arguments:

–that the best explanation of religious belief is not that it is caused by the sensus divinitatis. Rather, the best explanation would be in terms of standard evolutionary psychology, cultural evolution, sociology, anthrology, etc (that is, the sort of thing Dennett details in “Breaking the Spell”). Naturalistic (though not in Plantinga’s sense!) explanations of religious belief and  experiences are capable of explaining much more than classical theism (for example, they can give good explanations of the global diversity of religion. They can also explain why we see the sort of religions that we do and not others, etc).

–even if the best explanation of religious belief was the sensus divinitatis, if non-theists are truthful about their belief states, then they apparently lack the sensus divinitatis (or atheists have an inactive sensus divinitatis, etc). If theists would like to convince non-theists then it is incumbent on them to provide other lines of argument/evidence than to appeal to non-propositional sensory experiences which are closed off to the rest of us (or so they would claim). Theists certainly do not have to convince non-theists, but one would think that the point of debate is to convince those who disagree with oneself. Thus, while some theists might claim that they do not want to convince others, they should refrain from asserting arguments for their position. Furthermore, given Plantinga’s account of religious beliefs, theists might think that convincing an atheist that God exists would be rather like trying to convince a blind person that you are experiencing purple. Since such an endeavour would be utterly futile, debate would be pointless. However, Plantinga both participated in a debate with Dennett and writes books arguing for theism. Thus, Plantinga presumably thinks that there is a point to the debate.

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*Tertullian famously stated: “Credo quia absurdum” — “I believe because it is absurd.”

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What God Would Fancy

A number of Christians (or otherwise religious people) are astounded at how well designed our universe appears to be for human life; that God must rather like us for making a universe like ours. Well, I don’t think this is right at all; as far as I can tell, if God exists, He rather fancies diffuse clouds of hydrogen gas.

Edit: Apparently, I’m not alone in this thought. Philosopher Brad Weslake of the University of Rochester sent me this quote from J.B.S. Heldane: “The Creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other, for the simple reason that there are nearly 300,000 species of beetle known, and perhaps more, as compared with somewhat less than 9,000 species of birds and a little over 10,000 species of mammals. Beetles are actually more numerous than the species of any other insect order. That kind of thing is characteristic of nature…”

And a sophomore from Virginia Tech tells me: “The universe is life-destroying machine. Humans aren’t even a blip on its radar and we won’t exist for 99% of its history. We’re at the mercy of every solar flare and asteroid that narrowly misses destroying us all. If God exists, he’s got a sick sense of humor.”

I replied to her that perhaps the Almighty is simply woefully unconcerned with (or perhaps even ignorant of) the plight of humans.

I should comment that I have seen Neil deGrasse Tyson say strikingly similar things to some of the sentiments that I have placed here. An example is given in his talk here (with a shorter clip here.) Another line of similar thought has been expressed both by Richard Dawkins and by Stephen J Gould, both in connection with the fact that biological systems do not appear to be particularly well designed for the purposes that one would most immediately think they would be designed for. Dawkins made this comment about the laryngeal nerve (link here) and Gould made such comments about the panda’s thumb (link here).

Philosopher Elliott Sober responded to both Gould and Dawkins in what I view to be a quite persuasive way by noting that we do not know what the motivations of a deity would be. In fact, any attempts to speculate about a deity’s motives could not possibly be empirically backed in a manner that isn’t simply question begging. Therefore, we cannot surmise what a deity would be either more or less likely to make.

Nonetheless, Sober’s comment was partially what led me to my thought above. We might not know what a deity’s motivations would be or what arcane motives might move such a being to create the quite bizarre structures we find in nature; nonetheless, we can be sure that provided such a being exists, the things we see in nature would be precisely what that being ordered. In that sense, there is no way in which we should be seen as of central interest in any imaginable cosmic narrative.

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"But I have faith!"

I recently came across this article by Charlie Glickman. Glickman’s post is about confronting religious people vis a vis their religious views and how one should properly approach such an affair. He writes that we should engage with respect to the believer, not necessarily with respecting the beliefs of the believer. I agree with much of what Glickman wrote and this is a topic that I’ve frequently commented on.

However, in the comments section, a user named Dawn Fortune writes:

I like the idea of challenging ideas and of challenging beliefs, and of questioning both without ridicule or shame, but I think what is missing is an understanding that matters of faith are that: matters of faith, and not all can be measured, quantified and duplicated using scientific method. Also what must be kept in mind is that faith is enormously important for a lot of people, and some traditions have doctrine that calls questioning of those beliefs an exercise in sin to begin with.

This reminds me of a common exaltation I’ve heard from religious believers: “But I have faith!” There are so many things wrong with this….

First of all, it’s a false dichotomy. The choices are not faith or science. There could be an additional epistemic category involving neither (mathematics comes to mind as a potential area that does not involve faith nor does it involve the usual empirical methods found in the sciences.) Glickman did not claim that science was the necessary alternative to faith, nor that science should be used instead of faith. That’s an accusation of scientism — the idea that all legitimate knowledge is scientific or that the only legitimate epistemic mode is scientific methodology (whatever that might mean.) However, I see no reason to accuse Glickman of that in this article. Nonetheless, it is an accusation often levelled at New Atheists.

Theologian Alister McGrath provides a quite succinct misinterpretation of Dawkins’ view (from here):

Science has all the answers — and God isn’t even on the short-list.

Unfortunately, this is a gross misapprehension both of Dawkins’ book The God Delusion and of new atheist thought more generally. Consider this quote from Christopher Hitchens:

Religion ends and philosophy begins, just as alchemy ends and chemistry begins and astrology ends, and astronomy begins.

Note that for Hitchens, it’s not science that replaces religion but philosophy. Similarly, Dawkins makes it very clear in his book that he does not think science is the unique source of human knowledge. As Stephen Law has pointed out, Dawkins writes:

Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science.

Dawkins also states (again as quoted by Stephen Law):

…we can all agree that science’s entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic to say the least.

Dawkins does appear to think that science has something to say about God, but what McGrath would actually need to show — and has not shown in any of his writings — is not that there are questions unanswerable by science (a thesis that most would not deny) but that the existence of god is either:

1. Not one of the questions answerable by science;
2. Dawkins’ argument is insufficient to show that God does not exist (i.e. that it is answerable by science, but Dawkins has failed to provide a sufficient scientific response.)

At any rate, the accusation of scientism, as levelled against new atheists, is simply false. Two of the four horsemen, often considered leaders in the movement, are not even themselves scientists. Daniel Dennett would undoubtedly tell us that philosophy has important information to tell us. Christopher Hitchens would chastise those of us who thought nothing of value was to be found in literature or politics, both of which he wrote substantially about before his death. I have not seen a concerted effort by new atheists to undermine anthropology, history, mathematics,  or several other disciplines whose status as sciences is questionable in other sorts of ways (not to say that these fields are illegitimate; to the contrary, I think that all of these are legitimate fields of enquiry. What I am pointing to is that there are academic disciplines which are not clearly scientific – in the traditional sense – that are valued by many in the new atheist movement. Thus, accusations of scientism are simply strawmen.)

The second point to be made is that faith — defined as non-justified belief or as suspended doubt — is the real problem. I don’t particularly have a problem with religion qua religion so I find no particularly pressing reason to argue against it; my issue is primarily with the concept of faith.

Some — theists and atheists alike — would try to argue that without faith, a religion isn’t really a religion at all. It is worth noting that while all orthodox Abrahamic religions certainly involve the concept of faith, not all religions always have. Hunter gatherer groups, for example, will often lack the concept. At the very least, and non-controversially amongst anthropologists, not all cultural groups have a word for or an articulation of anything like the Western notion of faith. In fact, anthropologist Pascal Boyer remarks in Religion Expained that it would be extremely difficult to communicate the concept to a large number of cultures.

But why is faith dangerous?

Suppose that you go to Las Vegas and walk into a casino. You proceed to sprinkle salt over your shoes. How the salt lands determines how you bet at the Roulette table. For three games, this method works perfectly. You’ve won every time. Now, the fourth game comes up and you do this again. Since you’ve already won so much, you lay everything on the line. But this time, the Roulette wheel does not give you a win. In fact, you’ve now had a significant loss.

But not to worry! You have faith in your salt sprinkling method. You sprinkle the salt again, expecting that the magical salt knows what is best, and while you might have lost once, it was really for the better. After all, salt works in mysterious ways!

But, again, you lose. And again you repeat to yourself the mantra that the salt works in mysterious ways and that this loss was really for the better.

A friend of yours comes over to you. “Dude!” he exclaims, “Stop that! You’re just going to keep on losing!”

“No,” you say, “I have faith. You cannot question this. In fact, you’re really offending me right now by trying to tell me to stop or by bringing up doubts.”

“You have a wife and kid. I don’t want to see you destroy their lives because of your ‘magical’ salt…”

“But look at how much good the salt has done for me before! Even if the salt doesn’t really predict the Roulette wheel, it makes me happy and makes me do good things like win lots of money for my family!”

And on it goes. I’m sure you probably see what I’m trying to say, but allow me to indulge in unpacking this further.

Faith is non-justified belief. There is no reason to believe anything, anywhere, at any time on the basis of faith (that is, without justification.) And if you’ve suddenly found a reason to believe something via faith, you haven’t really found faith at all (since there were justifications of some kind involved. Even badly justified belief is still not faith, because even bad justifications are still justifications.)

People who use faith in place of a justification are liable to believe absolutely anything and are likely to have destructive behaviors over the long term. For the fideist, there cannot be anything that distinguishes that which is absurd from that which is sound. As early Church father Tertullian would have put it, the religious will often believe because something is absurd (“credo quia absurdum”). Faith has been defined as a suspension of doubt, even when we have good reason to be doubtful. Thus, faith is precisely the thing that I find most dangerous about modern religions.

But this neglects a further issue. I don’t think any religious person I have ever spoken to really had faith. All they really had, as far as I can tell, were really poor justifications that they defended as “faith” when you called them into question on it.

Often, religious people tell me that they believe because they had an experience of one kind or another, or continue to have some kind of experience while in prayer. If they’re a Christian, then surely they’d say that Thomas did not have faith when he asked to see Jesus’ wounds; he was the original “Doubting Thomas”. Yet to have an experience where one feels God (whatever that might mean) is to commit the same mistake as Thomas did. It’s to be justified — however poorly — on the basis of one’s experience.

Other lay Christians believe themselves to be justified on the basis of Intelligent Design, naive forms of the cosmological argument (“if God doesn’t exist, then where did all of this come from?”), or naive forms of Pascal’s Wager (“aren’t you afraid of going to Hell?”). Sometimes I have heard emotional responses as well (“I just couldn’t believe otherwise” or “I wouldn’t want to live in a world where this wasn’t true”.) I have yet to come across someone who simply had no answer when asked why they thought God exists, but I have come across many who had really poor answers.

Some will concede some ground here and state that they do not have blind faith. There is the Catholic notion of reason in aide of faith. For example, the Dei Filius (part of the constitution of Vatican 1) states:

And, not only can faith and reason never be at variance with one another, but they also bring mutual help to each other, since right reasoning demonstrates the basis of faith and, illumined by its light, perfects the knowledge of divine things, while faith frees and protects reason from errors and provides it with manifold knowledge.

I don’t recognise the concept of faith here, or what the word is supposed to mean. As far as I have been able to tell, all faith is blind. If true, this would render the preceding quote either non-sensical, incoherent, or both. The definition I’ve given before — that faith is non-rationally justified belief or suspended doubt — does not seem to apply to the use of the phrase in the quote from Dei Filius. I’m certainly open to there being another definition, but I’ve yet to see a theologian give some other definition. And if the religionist is willing to make the concession that reason can make headway on this issue, why not go all the way? Why bother to keep the concept of faith around at all, if not in some futile attempt to justify the unjustifiable?

At any rate, there is a sense in which I agree with the sort of thing articulated by Martin Luther:

Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but – more frequently than not – struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.

I should immediately comment that I think it is particularly insipid that Luther said this. I think it to be particularly insidious that he thought it to be true that reason opposed faith but retained faith anyway. Of course, Luther was a devout Christian in the process of reformulating the Christian church and much of this sentiment was involved in an anti-Catholic diatribe.

A worthwhile caveat here is that Luther’s characterisation of reason as contemptful of God is something I would not agree with. At least not of necessity; I certainly don’t hate God. I very well might despise various sorts of depictions of that being, in the same way that one might despise a villainous character. Nonetheless, I do not find myself raging in defiance of a being whose purported existence I meet with credulity.

Luther certainly did not think highly of reason, and detested much of Catholic theology for being, shall we say, too reasonable (or too rational.) It is perhaps ironic that many educated Protestants would later abandon Luther’s fideism in favor of Natural Theology (starting in the 17th century, but continuing to the Intelligent Design movement of today. One should note that Natural Theology was a largely Protestant, largely Anglophone development.) I suspect that this is because it is impossible to even maintain acknowledgeably ungrounded beliefs for too long.

To quote from the late Christopher Hitchens:

Actually, the ‘leap of faith’—to give it the memorable name that Soren Kierkegaard bestowed upon it—is an imposture. As he himself pointed out, it is not a ‘leap’ that can be made once and for all. It is a leap that has to go on and on being performed, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary. This effort is actually too much for the human mind, and leads to delusions and manias. Religion understands perfectly well that the ‘leap’ is subject to sharply diminishing returns, which is why it often doesn’t in fact rely on ‘faith’ at all but instead corrupts faith and insults reason by offering evidence and pointing to confected ‘proofs.’ This evidence and these proofs include arguments from design, revelations, punishments, and miracles. Now that religion’s monopoly has been broken, it is within the compass of any human being to see these evidences and proofs as the feeble-minded inventions that they are.

complex systems Complexity intelligent design phase transitions science and religion statistical physics thermodynamics

Complexity: The Human Eye and the Ice Cube

The human eye is a rather marvellous object. Somehow, billions of atoms know how to come together, to attach to each other, folding up into proteins, those proteins somehow know how to form cellular structures, and those cellular structures somehow know how to form this complicated optical apparatus that we call an eye. Now, I am certainly not a creationist, though I understand a little bit about where they are coming from. How is it that something which is so mind numbingly complicated can arise from entirely natural processes? How do the atoms know how to form into proteins and other complicated organic molecules which, in turn, know how to form all of the myriad parts of things like eyes or noses or even hair? It seems almost as if there must have been some kind of supernatural power — a God if you will — that intelligently designed it.


Truthfully, it seems absolutely miraculous. But really it’s not; the complexity of nature is not an illusion, but that this complexity is miraculous is illusory. Somehow, nature is able to produce complex structures by the repeated use of very simple rules. In this post, I’d like to explore a much simpler complex system, but I hope that this analogy will help to shed some light on how nature is capable of producing very complicated things by the repeated use of very simple processes.

What I’d like to talk about are phase transitions. The first question that one might ask is “what is a phase transition?” Probably the three most ubiquitous examples of phase transitions are boiling, melting, and freezing. There are other examples, and my PhD work is on an abstract mathematical system which has phase transitions in it, but I would like to stick with what people are most familiar with.

Therefore, let’s talk about freezing. It seems like a relatively boring subject; if you stick water into the freezer, it turns into ice. I would not be surprised if you responded by asking me “what’s the big deal?”

But let’s think about this for a moment.

If you lower the temperature of liquid water, there is a sudden point at which the water collectively changes form. Somehow, every atom in the water knows to form ice. You might naively think that the water begins to be more and more ice-like as you lower the temperature, and eventually it just becomes ice. But you’d be wrong.

At that temperature, it just becomes ice. Lower than that temperature, it simply is ice — and higher than that temperature it’s water. Actually, this story is a little bit too simplistic and I’ll explain why momentarily. But before we get to that, just think about this.

Somehow, at that temperature, the water collectively changes form. Ice has a very different atomic arrangement from liquid water. In liquid water, the atoms are free to move around. Unlike a gas, they do interact with each other, but only locally. And because they interact only locally, there is no large scale order in the system.

Think of a crowd of people moving on a city street. Each individual person might interact with a person next to them. But the entire crowd does not produce a collectively ordered arrangement. Ice, on the other hand, is something like people sitting in a crowded stadium. Each person is located in a seat, and the arrangement of the seats collectively orders the people.

Of course, in liquid water, there are no seats. Instead, the atoms interact with each other, and they do so in such a way that the energy of the system is minimized. Why does it minimize the energy? It does so because any arrangement of the system in which the energy is higher would be unstable. It would spontaneously relax into a configuration in which the energy were minimized.

One way to think about this is the following. Remember that when you were a kid, you probably tried to dig a hole in the sand at the beach. You might also remember that no matter how big of a hole you dug, nature always won. The hole would collapse and fill with water. Erosion would destroy the side walls. You can ask why nature prefers not to have these holes, and, in the case of the beach, the answer is that nature prefers the smooth flat surface of the beach to any holes that any pesky kids might try digging. Things in nature have a tendency to fall apart, until they can fall apart no farther. These are the configurations that minimize the energy, and in the case of ice, the configuration which minimizes the energy is an ordered atomic arrangement, like people at a movie theater, order prevailing. For anyone who is interested, the particular kind of energy that is being minimized here is what we call the free energy, and the tendency for nature to sort of fall apart until she can do so no longer is what we call the second law of thermodynamics. It is closely related to what we call the entropy, which is the measure of nature’s disorder.

This actually brings us to our next point. Remember that I said it was actually too simple to just say that the transition occurred at a definite temperature. Actually, when you go past the freezing point, you still have liquid water. However, that liquid water is unstable. Any slight disturbance, any slight jostling, will be enough to kick the system into ice. You might have seen youtube videos where people put a bottle of water into the freezer with the cap on, then removed it from the freezer, they shook the bottle, and the water froze spontaneously. What happened was that the liquid water was highly unstable. The slight disturbance of removing the water from the freezer was just enough to freeze it. This is called super-cooling, and the same thing is possible at the boiling point — in which case we have super-heating. If you put distilled water into the microwave, and then remove it and disturb the water, the disturbance is just enough to force the water to boil. Unfortunately, it will do so explosively and often this results in horrible burns.

I’d like to explore one last thing. Remember that when the water freezes the atoms form that highly ordered arrangement, just like people filling in a theater. However, unlike the theater, the atoms do not sit in rectangular rows. Rather, because of the forces between the atoms, they form a hexagonal pattern. And that hexagonal pattern results in the beautiful arrangement that you see in individual ice crystals, such as snowflakes. What you might not know is that water always freezes into those crystals. With an ice cube, however, the crystals have all been fused together so that with the naked eye you can no longer tell them apart. However, if you had an eye that could see deep down within the structure of an ice cube, you’d find that it was a highly complex network of hexagonal structures. In fact, most solids are constructed from crystal structures of some kind. Any piece of steel that you’ve ever picked up is similarly assembled.

At any rate, the main point that I would like to leave you with is that nature is capable of producing highly complex structures by simply iterating simple rules. I haven’t, of course, answered the question that we started out with; that is, I have not explained to you how biological complexity is produced. Nonetheless, I hope that you can appreciate that biological complexity is simply a different manifestation of the same idea. And I hope that you will never look at an ice cube in the same way ever again.