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Science and the Objectivity Myth Part 1

Atheist Presentation December 2011


Without doubt, the sciences are held as the epitome of rational knowledge-seeking in today’s industrialised and information world. Many sociologists argue that science has effectively replaced the pre-Reformation universal church as the central object of the public’s trust, respect, and awe, with some diminishing in recent times only. So, like the devoted of some 500 years ago, today’s public with little or no knowledge of the inner workings of science laboratories and organisations, effectively relies on blind faith in the ‘goodness’ of scientific progress. Fortunately, we feel vindicated with the regular flow of new technologies from smart mobile phones to 3D televisions. Sociologist Steve Fuller goes further to suggest “that our continuing faith in science in the face of its actual history is best understood as the secular residue of a religiously inspired belief in Divine Providence.”[1]

However despite its pre-eminence, science has and always has had its critics who seek to undermine claims of privileged access to universal knowledge about reality. Although traceable back to even ancient times, such as disputes between Plato, arguing for universal knowledge, and the Sophists, arguing for the particularities and contingencies of experience, my interest are in more recent times from the latter half of the twentieth century. Let us have a look at some interesting events.

Short History of Science and Its Critics

Thomas Kuhn

In 1962 Thomas Kuhn, scientist turned historian and philosopher of science, published his now-seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where he compared scientific practices over time with the general perceptions of scientific history. Controversially, he rejected popular historical narratives of science as a progression of rationally-based knowledge, conducted by science heroes. Kuhn described scientific history as, in fact, long periods of normal or routine science, punctuated by major revolutions or shifts in our understandings. The existing mindset or paradigm, to use Kuhn’s term, would then be fully replaced, with the older one being seen as a quaint fiction. By paradigm, Kuhn included such things as generalisations e.g. laws of motion; metaphysical assumptions e.g. light as waves; values e.g. seeking simplicity; and exemplars e.g. paradigmatic textbook or laboratory examples and practices.

His work showed that popular writings of science history are so often just fictional reconstructions to explain today’s views and that past participants are re-interpreted with today’s motivations. We rarely speak of Newton’s alchemical research in the same breath as his work on physical motion, even though he spent more time on the former than the later and, we have every reason to believe Newton was similarly motivated for both types of research areas. Discarding previous paradigms as non-science and re-interpreting past people and events are often referred to the so-called ‘Whig’[2] history of science.

Kuhn saw normal science as periods of steady progress or ‘puzzle-solving’ contained within well-defined and relatively unchallenged limits of the prevailing paradigm. Research directions, experimental designs, theory proposals, corporate and government funding, and research observations are influenced by or, perhaps controlled by, the views of the time. Education and socialisation of incoming scientists guaranteed the on-going support for the prevailing views. Normal science is probably the stage we envisage when thinking of its activities.

However, as experimental anomalies mount (no longer able to be ignored or adjusted), some scientists, perhaps the less indoctrinated younger ones, conceive of different paradigms. I should note that this may not be a rational process as the underdetermination[3] principle often comes into play.   For some time, both paradigms co-exist until the newer one becomes the new orthodoxy. Scientists continuing to support the previous paradigm then become marginalised and separated from future funding. Even though Kuhn’s specific arguments have less force today, his overall observations are still seen as highly influential.

Another serious implication of Kuhn’s description of scientific history is that paradigms are incommensurable. Like philosopher Paul Feyerabend[4] some ten years before,[5] Kuhn claimed that the problems, concepts, and methods of one paradigm would seem incomprehensible when viewed from another. Einstein’s universe would seem incomprehensible in Newtonian terms. One outcome of this, mentioned previously, is to write fictitious scientific histories and to ascribe modern motives from the perspective of the current paradigm. As sociology lecturer, Sergio Sismondo says:  “Isaac Newton’s physics looks striking modern when rewritten for today’s textbooks, but looks much less so in its originally published form, even less so when the connections between it and Newton’s religious and alchemical research are drawn.[6]

A more serious attack from incommensurability is our inability to have any neutral language that can compare the effectiveness of different paradigms. If this is true, then we have no rational means, no reasoned way, of justifying the replacement of one paradigm with another. If it can be a matter of faith only, this is a serious indictment of the claim that science is a rational process. A useful insight from Ludwig Wittgenstein, later post-modernists, and language-games, is participants within a paradigm will “…create their own vocabularies by giving special meanings to ordinary terms and phrases.”[7]

Even though the most extreme implications of incommensurability have received little general support and even from Kuhn’s own later writings, the implications continue to be debated amongst philosophers, sociologists, and scientists. It may be that incommensurability is better characterised as incomplete communication or problems with translation between paradigms. In fact, given that a paradigm will usually share the resources – measuring equipment, experimental results, and the like – with the previous one at least during transition, does suggest the some capacity to relate, even if a common observations and measurements are recast into very different interpretations.

Finally, incommensurability may operate at a deeper, non-rational psychological level, similar to the so-called tacit knowledge acquisition of exemplars mention previously as a part of a paradigm. Philosopher Alexander Bird argues this perspective in his paper ‘Incommensurability Naturalized[8]. He develops a psychological view:

The key idea in what follows is that we all use in thinking various cognitive capacities and structures that have the following features: (i) they cannot be reduced to general, formal rules of reasoning (e.g. formal logic); (ii) their existence and the mechanism of their employment are typically unconscious, so that they are deployed in a manner that is akin to intuition—what I call a semi-intuitive manner; (iii) they are often acquired as a matter of practice and repeated exposure and practice, so that they have the character of skills. The sorts of skill or capacity I am referring to here include: mental schemata, analogical thinking, pattern recognition, quasi-intuitive inference.

Social History of the Pap Smear

In 1998 Monica Casper and Adele Clarke published a paper of the social history of the Pap Smear. Finally, another interesting example of the interdependency of social and empirical aspects of science is the history of the Pap smear, as described by a research paper by Monica Casper and Adele Clarke[9]. Over the twentieth century the Pap smear moved from general rejection by scientists as expensive and unreliable to almost a mandatory part of women’s health and that had more to do with social changes than with science. The changes came from an increase of women’s health priorities; use of cheaper female technicians to reduce processing costs; automation of record-keeping enabling large scale testing and analysis; and greater localisation and targeting of benchmarks rather using against strictly universal measures. Until very recently the science has not changed since its early rejections as unreliable.[10]


Biomedical Research Today – An Insider View

In June 2011, John Ioannidis, professor of medicine at Stanford University, wrote an opinion piece in Scientific American[11]provocatively titled An Epidemic of False Claims, on the endemic problems with today’s biomedical research. Ioannidis identified serious flaws in research practices, which he traces to meeting the public’s ever-increasing expectations; fragmentation of exponentially increasing research programs; and researcher conflicts of interest with meeting the demands of lucrative corporate funding and achieving personal successes through highly-visible publishing. This is all under the control of “the oligopoly of high-impact journals [that] also  …[have]…  a distorting effect on funding, academic careers and market shares”.

John Ioannidis’s observations belie simple claims of scientific objectivity. Contrary to the objectivist view of science, he identifies the following problems: (1) claims based on single studies, with replication being done only “sparingly and haphazardly”; (2) withholding research data for competitive financial reasons and so preventing replication studies; (3) selectively reporting research results for maximum impact; and (4) deliberately designing and reporting studies to produce most favourable outcomes for research and, by implication, for the financial backers.

Late 20th century – Three Separate Attacks

(1)    from conservative Christians who sought to challenge evolution as the explanation for the diversity of life on our planet. Intelligent Design, a repackaged version of Creationism, was promoted as an alternate scientific explanation that should be taught in the public school biology classes. The Kitzmiller vs Dover trial was a famous rejection of that attempt by Judge Jones.

(2)    From the socialist left who claimed that science and scientists have become pawns of large industrial and military organisations, the so-called industrial-military complexes. Comment of book of science changes?

(3)    From a broad, disparate group of academics and intellectuals – sociologists, literary theorists, and some philosophers – who challenged even the possibility of universal knowledge.  They suggested that the sciences or historical research or capitalism (through globalisation) or religions for that matter are telling their stories or narratives, which Lyotard famously called ‘Grand Narratives’.  And, most importantly, there are alternative narratives, equally valid. Though having differing agendas, these critics saw these stories as essentially political or ideological. Science was portrayed as a Western ideological tool to colonise other cultures. This is the famous or perhaps infamous Post Modernism. It reached its academic Zenith in the late 20th century. Although waned now, our society has absorbed many of its ideas with the Internet science deniers and sceptics.

[1] Steve Fuller, Science, Acumen Publishing Limited, Durham, 2010, p. 1.

[2]The British historian Herbert Butterfield coined the term “Whig history” in his small but influential book The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). It takes its name from the British Whigs, advocates of the power of Parliament, who opposed the Tories, advocates of the power of the King. The term has been applied widely in historical disciplines outside of British history (the history of science, for example) to criticize any teleological or goal-directed, hero-based, and trans-historical narrative.’ Quoted from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whig_history

[3] Scientists often seek to explain empirical data with competing hypotheses. Quite commonly, many are equally capable of doing so and therefore are said to be underdetermined by the evidence. And, as a result, scientists have no logical way of conclusively selecting one over another.  Scientists must resort to other criteria.

[4] Feyerabend was a critic of the single scientific method claim. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Feyerabend

[5]Although Feyerabend first used the term ‘incommensurable’ to describe successive fundamental scientific theories in 1962, he had developed his notion of the incommensurability of scientific theories more than ten years prior to the appearance of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).” Eric Oberheim and Paul Hoyningen-Huene , “The Incommensurability of Scientific Theories“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/incommensurability/

[6] Sergio Sismondo, An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies 2nd Edn., Blackwell Publishing Ltd, West Sussex,  2101, p.17

[8] “Incommensurability Naturalized” in Rethinking Scientific Change and Theory Comparison (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science 255, eds LÃna Soler, Howard Sankey, and Paul Hoyningen-Huene) Dordrecht: Spinger (2007) 21–39. http://web.mac.com/alexander.bird/research/papers/Incommensurability-naturalized.pdf

[9] Monica J. Casper and Adele E. Clarke, Making the pap smear into the ‘right tool’ for the job: Cervical cancer screening in the USA, circa 1940-95, Social Studies of Science 28: 255-90, 1998

[10] Recent technical improvements to improve the pap smear do not affect the overall argument that the acceptance of the pap smear are from social changes rather than technical ones. Dorothy L. Rosenthal discusses recent technical improvements in: Dorothy L. Rosenthal, Automation and the Endangered Future of the Pap Test,

JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst (1998) 90(10): 738-749 doi:10.1093/jnci/90.10.738 http://jnci.oxfordjournals.org/content/90/10/738.full

[11] John P. A. Ioannidis, An Epidemic of False Claims, Scientific American, June 2011, p. 8

Pursuing the Humanist Vision (Presentation)

This is the transcript of a presentation I gave to the Annual Humanist Convention in Australia.


Thank you for allowing me to present at the 46th Annual Humanist Convention. It’s certainly a great pleasure to be here.

I call myself a naturalist, who, like secular humanists, most other naturalists, and many atheists, share a common belief in the dignity of people to live self-determined and fulfilled lives, unencumbered by repressive superstitious traditions. All ideologies – both religious and political – should be open to criticism and, potentially, open to rejection. And, ultimately, I see a free secular society, especially with a strong publicly-funded non-religious education system, as being fundamental to achieving the humanist vision.

Humanist Scorecard

Let’s have a look at the humanist scorecard around the world. Some events can give us hope.  Three recent examples come to mind. Firstly, ordinary citizens throughout the Middle East and North Africa are risking their lives to challenge the authority of their brutal, repressive, and often theocratic, regimes. These are essentially secular – not religious – movements of all age groups, especially younger ones, who seem to be, ironically, inspired or energised by being part of the ‘Facebook’ generation, the social networking of the Internet. I say ‘ironical’ as the Internet exemplifies today’s post-modernist ethos often portrayed at odds with the universal values of humanism; a theme I’d like to return to shortly.

Secondly, Nigeria has a notorious history of sectarian and tribal violence between the Islamic north and the Christian south. Both religious groups have sought to dominate, convert, and kill one another. However Nigerians have just conducted peaceful and fair elections under international monitoring where, again, ordinary Nigerians queued for hours to express self-determination at the ballot-boxes. Many even stayed at those polling centres to ensure their votes were counted legitimately. Unfortunately there is a sad postscript to this story. That peace ended with riots in northern Nigeria after the election of southern Christian, Goodluck Jonathan. 200 people were killed as a result. Umar Marigar of the Red Cross told the BBC that “The violent protests turn from political into ethno-religious crisis. As such, people might like to engage in retaliatory attacks. This is what we are always afraid of.[1]

And, thirdly, praise them or condemn them. Wikileaks and Julian Assange, and other whistle-blowers valuably expose the often self-righteous secrecy of governments and organisations, as they try to implement anti-humanist values and actions in the name of the ‘greater-good’. I’m sure you are familiar with many examples – US and its allies secretly rendering detained suspects between countries to avoid legal restrictions on interrogations; the Roman Catholic Church covering up extensive child abuse by its office bearers; and, of course, extensive lying over the search for Iraq’s famous, and necessarily illusive, weapons of mass destruction. Truth, as always, is the first casualty with people being its actual victims. Whistle-blowers are one way, though perhaps not the best, of monitoring these organisations.

So, despite some positive stories, there is much work to be done by humanists. Conservative US state legislators are enacting laws to effectively restrict abortions, undermining the ‘Row v Wade’ (1973) Supreme Court decision.

Some states are making it exponentially more difficult, both financially and psychologically, for a woman to have an abortion. In South Dakota, a woman now has to wait at least 72 hours after seeking an abortion to have the actual procedure and is legally required to obtain counselling from a “crisis pregnancy center” — which are unregulated by the state and have the explicit goal of talking women out of abortions — before having the procedure.[2]


Just recently the Republicans attempted to cut US Federal funding for family planning programs as part of their rejection of budget funding. Ultimately President Obama held his ground on such a move. So conservative forces will use every opportunity to undermine or remove society’s humanist policies that conflict with their own particular sets of values. Humanists need to be vigilant in protecting and extending humanist values embedded in our secular society.

In Pakistan, five out of six men charged over the group rape of Mukhtaran Mai in 2002 were released by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. The sixth man was convicted and sentenced to death, later commuted to jail time. The rape was ordered by village elders after Mai’s brother was accused of having illicit relations with a woman from a rival clan.  Mai claimed that 14 men were actually involved. As the Guardian reports (21 Apr 2011):

The supreme court was heavily criticised by human rights groups for the verdict, which they said put the safety of all Pakistani women at risk. Rape, “honour killings” and other crimes against women in Pakistan are routinely poorly investigated by police and go unpunished by the courts.[3]

Finally, I’m sure you are all familiar with various attempts to introduce Sharia law for Muslims living within secular societies. The fear is that our emphasis on cultural pluralism offers an opening for Sharia law, even in limited ways, and thereby compromise hard-won human freedoms. According to Civitas (Institute for the Study of Civil Society in the UK), there are 85 Sharia courts operating in Britain, of which 12 operate within the British legal system. In the report “Sharia Law or ‘One Law For All?”[4], Civitas expressed three concerns: (1) voluntary arbitration seems impossible with the community intimidation of women; (2) Sharia law does not treat women equally; and (3) religious guidance depends on fear of God and desire to be in good standing within the community. However, we also need to be careful how we apply secular laws to insular communities so to protect the very people that concern us and not cause greater hardships. This is always a dilemma.

Humanist Future

Now let’s look ahead, and I’d like to mention two challenges to humanism. Firstly, we are experiencing an increase of religious faith world-wide and, more concerning, from fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and charismatic movements, which demand follower conformity and submission often conflicting with humanist values. According to sociologist, Peter Berger, ‘As one looks over the contemporary world, it’s not secularization that one sees, but an enormous explosion of passionate religious movements.’[5]

We can expect to see religious faiths playing a greater, not lesser, role in international affairs. In 1990 Islamic countries declared the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam as an alternative to the UN’s declaration of human rights. They sought to enshrine internationally Sharia law as the basis for Islamic human rights. Also, even though there is an increase in electoral democracies world-wide – a good thing – we see faith-dominated nations implementing public laws and administrative systems contrary to Western humanist values. The criminality of homosexuality and apostasy in Malaysia and selective application of women’s rights in Pakistan are some examples.

Another concern is the rise of those ‘passionate’ religious groups within Western societies, especially in the US and Europe. Through increased migration and higher birth rates sectarian groups seek legal exemptions or special treatment (such as Sharia courts, mentioned previously) while larger conservative groups seek public policy changes (such as restricting abortions and divorces and diluting science education that conflicts with religious faith). These trends are worrying as they potentially threaten the Enlightenment ideal of providing reason-based equality and fairness for all citizens.

The second challenge to humanism is the replacement of the rational certitudes of secularism with the pluralism and uncertainties of a post-secular world, a world where personal truths and realities dominate. Post-modernism may had its academic zenith in the late 20th century, when it was cool to quote incomprehensible Foucault, Derrida, or Lyotard, but its effects are strongly felt today with the blurring of right and wrong; truth and fiction; and past, present, and future times, especially in the virtual worlds of television, the Internet, and of course the arts. [As an aside, one of my pet peeves with the History Channel on FoxTel cable television is its indiscriminate mixing of historical analyses, retelling of myths (especially biblical ones), and wild speculations with little discussion of the historical support for these stories.] So for post-secularists, ‘observation’ has become ‘construction’ and ‘knowledge’ has become ‘interpretation’.

The rationale of humanism, like that of the sciences and most religions, is founded on the belief in a single truth with a capital ‘T’ and in a single reality with a capital ‘R’. And, as inheritors of the Enlightenment, humanists and scientists both hold reason as central to the quest for human understanding. Unfortunately, such claims are no longer as credible today and are often met with ‘that may be true for you, but…’. So humanists need to find new ways of presenting their messages in attractive rather than just logical ways in this post-secular reality.

So, finally, let me offer some gratuitous advice before discussion time. A.C. Grayling famously said that the only form of intolerance acceptable in a tolerant society is towards ‘intolerance’ itself. We recognise this contradiction as a necessary truth. Similarly surprising, I would argue that rational humanists need to evangelise – to proclaim the ‘good news’ of humanism – so to impassion today’s post-secularists against destructive religious and political polemics on one hand and misguided tolerance on the other. As David Hume said some 300 years ago, ‘Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them’[6], so humanists go out there and be very passionate.

Thank you.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobile/world-africa-13140762

[2] Huffington Post 14 Apr 2011 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/14/states-introducing-unprec_n_849251.html

[3] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/21/pakistan-gang-rape-mukhtaran-mai

[4] http://www.civitas.org.uk/pdf/ShariaLawOrOneLawForAll.pdf

[5] P. Berger & A. Zijderveld, In Praise of Doubt (New York: HarperCollins, 2009) p. 4.

[6] D. Hume, Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40)  II.iii.3/415

Blog: Natural Philosophy of Life

Overview as quoted from the site (http://www.geopolitics.us/)

Natural Philosophy

The natural philosophy of life offers a simple, elegant, and powerful alternative to religious dogma. This philosophy has a firm foundation in nature, science, and reason. It is centered on the core values of honesty, generosity, equality, and freedom.

Comment: Eradicating the free-will myth – the ‘always’ illusive dream

Like most naturalists, I consider the concept of human free-will, ability to rationally choose one action over another independent of or inspite of prior causes, as one of the last great myths to which most people subscribe.

I grew up in a very secular family with a ‘what is the evidence’ mentality. So seeing ourselves as an intrinsic part of the physical world has always been an obvious approach to life. Moreover, overlaying a supramundane existence on that physical world that happens to address coincidentally human needs seemed all to fanciful to be plausible. Over the years of studying and lecturing in philosophy, religion, and science (with some history thrown in), I have softened my criticisms of those who actually believe in the supramundane. My position isn’t quite as ‘obvious’, as I have always assumed.

Free-will is another intrenched example for all of us. We all know the dilemma. Our best conception of the world seems to be that of direct observation guided by subsequent reasoning, the methods of the (natural) sciences. The sciences offer our best hope of disassociating our wishes and desires from the understandings of the world about us, the ‘It’ in Martin Buber’s terms. Similarly ’cause and effect’ is a model that well explains our experiences in that world. Only experimental results in Quantum Physics have presented dilemmas for the cause and effect model.

However our scientific approach with its causes and effects seems most unsatisfactory and unintuitive when it comes to our ‘I’ world – the potentially imaginary world of free-will, self, consciousness, love, and so on. Take free-will. Despite my lifetime of naturalism (even before knowing the term), I still get mad at rude drivers, discourteous waiters, violent people, and mass murders who presumably had not chosen to do the things they did. And to further complicate things I imagine I didn’t choose to get mad either. Their rudeness and violence and my reactions were the inevitable results of prior causes and none of us are immediately responsible for these acts (though perhaps partially for our specific makeups that contributed to these acts). My last bracketed comment asks whether our prior thoughts can be part of the causal mix for future actions. This thought is consistent with ‘us as conscious riders of our subconscious elephants’ analogy used by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia. Either way most people out there will give me short-shift, if I put this ‘not responsible’ argument, especially for the committers of heinous crimes. Perhaps my audience was caused to do so.

So I see a disconnect between abstract and interesting discussions of free-will by philosophers and the assumed free-will practice on the ground. Fianally I’m probably fortunate, at least compared to fellow travellers in the US, that our justice system in Australia seems less driven by retributive punishment, which would be so offensive to the non-free-willers. We are not into consecutive 99 year jail terms for serious offenders, for example, or for jail time for relatively minor offences. This may not always be so if the conservatives have their way here.

Alex McCullie

Comment: Atheism & Secular Religions

In practice atheism is the rejection of the belief in society’s dominant form of god or gods. This could be strong (rejection) or weak (disbelief). Even early Christians were accused of atheism for rejecting the gods of Rome and Socrates for rejecting the gods of Athens. For most Western atheists today it is rejecting some form of Christian theism.

Many atheists go further. They extend the rejection to all supernatural or immaterial claims of ghosts, saints, afterlives, out-of-body-experiences, and miracles. This rejection approaches the world-view of naturalism, where all human experiences are seen as coming from strictly physical causes, causes as identified by the empirically-based sciences. So atheism itself is a relatively narrow ontological claim, a claim of no god or gods. It is not  that of a comprehensive world-view like naturalism or most religious traditions. Whether or not atheists support naturalism, I would like to think that they embrace the ideals of scientific enquiry. Moderate scepticism, open questioning, fair-minded analysis, and willingness to forgo previous beliefs in light of new experiences are worthwhile aims for any intellectual enquiry.

Most atheists would see religious beliefs and practices as supporting and promoting deluded supernatural claims. Membership in religious communities may offer social benefits, but they are founded on deluded claims, wishful beliefs ahead of rational thought. However the secular versions of religions, such as secular Buddhism and secular Judaism, create dilemmas for atheist and believers alike. How can someone be an atheist religionist?

The on-line atheist forum, Atheist Nexus, has been buzzing with discussion on the status of secular Buddhists. As Buddhists, they have typically have no Jewish-, Christian-, or Islamic-style personal God. The secular versions reject reincarnation and limit Karma to the everyday Western understanding of this life only. A supporter of secular Buddhism claimed that the Atheist Foundation of Australia had unreasonably extended its definition of atheism (beyond those commonly accepted) to exclude the secular versions of religions. He argued that atheism should be restricted to the original etymology of atheism, without (‘a’) god (‘theism’). This is interesting but is not necessarily a valid argument for today’s usage, the so-called etymological fallacy. A secular Buddhist or a secular Jew therefore would have just as much right to ascribe to atheism as any non-religious person. So does an active membership in any religious community automatically preclude someone from being an atheist?

Most religious practices involve worship. Buddhists, secular or otherwise, come close to worshipping Buddha. Atheists usually would not revere Darwin, Bacon, or Dawkins in the same way, admire yes but worship no. Worship, a common feature of most religions, (1. To honor and love as a deity; 2. To regard with ardent or adoring esteem or devotion, according to http://www.thefreedictionary.com/worship) seems something as an antithesis to atheism, and something that probably does preclude active secular religious people from, at least, a commonly-held broad sense of atheism.

Alex McCullie

Comment: Rabbi Jonathan Sachs Does Bad Science


In The Times, Chief Rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sachs, accuses Stephen Hawkins of doing bad theology while doing good science, when Hawkins purportedly said, “God did not create the universe.” This remark continues the scientist tradition of Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), who said to Napoleon that he had no need for God as an explanatory hypothesis.

Sachs rightfully says that science and religion can potentially offer different, non-competing understandings of the human situation, although in practice this separation seems limited to a few liberal Western theologians. Science describes and explains our world in physical terms, whereas religion uses faith and tradition to claim greater purposes. Or, as Sachs puts it, religion seeks to answer the ‘why’ question, where ‘why’ means an underlying purpose and design. Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 BCE) , like Plato before him, greatly influenced later Western theologies, particularly Christianity. Aristotle spoke of four different causes: (1) material cause (physical object itself); (2) formal cause (emerging shape of the object); (3) efficient cause (physical cause of today’s sciences); (4) final cause (inherent purpose or design of today’s religion). With any event, science seeks the efficient causes – what prior events caused the event. The efficient causes of science are limited to our self-contained physical reality. On the other hand religions work with final causes – what were the underlying purposes or design that explain the event? For Jews and Christians, the answer to final causes usually means understanding the will of God, sought outside the mundane world of science.

However I would argue that religious people regularly proffer faith-based causes for physical events, contradicting well-founded scientific explanations.  God caused this or that. Or that disaster came from God’s wrath and so on. Even in Western countries, the reasonableness of Sachs’ separation seems hypothetical only, with conservative religious leaders happy to interpret God’s physical intervention in the world. Unfortunately for most religions in Western societies, science has effectively replaced them as the trusted source of knowledge. Or, as sociologist, Steven Fuller, often comments, the public now blindly trusts science as was done with religions in the past, and, ironically, with less knowledge or involvement wit the public. This change of public loyalties is reflected in the continuing decline of church attendances, where any professed spiritualities are clearly divorced from religious observances and church attendances.

Now, let us go back to Jonathan Sachs’ argument with Hawkins. Sachs now enters the scientific discussion by suggesting that his theological commitment to God is a better scientific solution (though hardly presented as a falsifiable hypothesis) than multi-verses. He evokes Occam’s razor, the principle of parsimony commonly associated with medieval English philosopher and Franciscan monk William of Ockham (1285-1349), to suggest that God is the simpler of the two equally competing explanations. By simpler we usually mean needing less assumptions. This principle is much admired in intellectual thought and, ironically, is often used by atheists to exclude God when discussing the evolution of life. Evolution without God is simpler than with God for the same explanatory power. So, Sachs is claiming that his commitment to an ineffable, all powerful creator-sustainer God is simpler than proposing the possible existence of multiple universes to explain how our universe happens to have six, apparently improbable, constants that are needed for development of life  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dimensionless_physical_constant). In reality, this is the latest battle ground for the design (teleological) argument for God, now marginalised to the speculative realms of cosmology. Every day design arguments, like Paley’s watch, have been lost to science and therefore discarded.

Whether or not God is simpler than multi-verses is irrelevant to what Sachs is doing. On one hand he decries Hawkins for doing bad theology and then Sachs argues for his commitment to God by doing bad science. Using ‘God’ is like offering magic as an explanation for any scientific problem. It stops the conversation as God is outside the tool set of science, unmeasurable. Furthermore it is hard to believe that Sachs or any other theologian would simply walk away from his or her belief in God, if there was no scientific support. And he or she should, if God is put forward as a scientific alternative to multiple universes.

Jonathan Sachs should keep to his own advice and keep God in the realm of religious belief and faith and not try to re-engineer his characterisation of God as in any way scientific, measurable by the tool set of science. Do good theology and not bad science.

Alex McCullie

Comment: New Atheists and Myths as Liberal Theologian Tricks

New Atheism = Fundamentalism

In that same that religious fundamentalists refuse to see anything good or truthful in any religion but their own, there is a form of atheist fundamentalism that refuses to see anything good or truthful in any religion.’1

Both liberal and conservative theologians love to characterise the most outspoken critics of religion – speakers and writers like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens – as militant or fundamentalist, in a similar vein to their religious equivalents. This is a cute but ultimately a disingenuous ploy.

Religious fundamentalists, conservatives, and traditionalists commonly believe in the exclusive truths of their religious beliefs and see others as deluded, immoral, blasphemous, or evil. I would argue that, from a world perspective, many if not a vast majority of active religious people think like that. Just to be clear, I am ignoring the religiously indifferent, those who nominate themselves as part of a religious faith or denomination, but who rarely engage with its beliefs and practices. I am considering those who ‘live’ their religions and would expect their numbers to run into the many millions. Contrast this with the so-called ‘New Atheists’. They seem to be the same six or so writers who are targeted by the religious defenders as atheist fundamentalists. So we are talking a vastly different populations of those who claim exclusive truth in their religions and those who deny any truth (if that is truly their claims) in those same religions.

Let’s look at book sales. Dawkins or any of the other ‘New Atheists’ would be over the moon with book sales in excess of 100,000 copies. Christian evangelical writers regularly sell millions of copies to fellow Christians promoting end of the world prophesies and the like. Again, the reach of the religious critics seems minuscule compared to the polemic writings of the religious folk.

So what’s the issue? Religious people seem overly sensitive to any form of overt criticism. In some way they want nullify strong criticism by discrediting the authors like Dawkins and others, as if the general public cannot decide for themselves the value of the writings. Instead of using ‘New Atheism’ as a pejorative term, they should deal with the issues. Analyse church behaviours, acknowledge the failings like systemic Roman Catholic child abuse, and argue the overall benefits.

Myth = Non-factual Truth Trumping Evidence

Myths may or may not contain literal and factual truth, but this is not the point of them. Attempts to understand them in this way ignore the intention behind them and create controversies about issues that may well be less important than the points that the myth is intended to make.’2

The author continues by arguing, as an example, that statement ‘Jesus walked on the water’ is less a claim of facts than a declaration of the divine power of Jesus. Hill also argues that we should be aware of the actual claims being made before criticising them. Fair enough. Unfortunately for Symon Hill and other liberal religious writers like Karen Armstrong, the vast majority of practising Christians around the world do believe that these biblical stories really happened (in our physical sense). There was a physical resurrection of Jesus after his execution, the core belief of Christianity. It is not seen as purely a metaphor for rebirth and new life. This claim and other ‘miracle’ stories are contrary to our best understandings of the physical world and need to be refuted whenever such physical claims are made (and they are made regularly). Stripped of their popularity and awe, their physical claims are simply preposterous.

It is worth making the point that the more mythic or nuanced understandings may be prevalent in our secular societies. Credibility almost demands that. However we are in a minority from a world-wide perspective where the biblical stories are taken more literally. A good acronym to remember is that we are WIERDs, from Western, Industrialised, Educated, Rich, and Democratic societies. Our societies are secular and in the world-wide minority.

Finally, I do believe there are benefits to be had in religious belief, a support and sustenance of a closely-knit community that we commonly lack in everyday secular life and the opportunities to find (or make) meaning of aspirations beyond our immediate needs. Unfortunately so many religions world-wide package these potential benefits in environments that are self-righteous, moralistic, exclusive, controlling, delusional, and demeaning.


Alex McCullie

1S. Hill (2010), The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion, New Internationalist Publications, London, p. 51.

2Hill p.48,49

Comment: Naturalism and God

Most naturalists see reality as an orderly and knowable place. Orderly in that things occur and reoccur in predictable ways. It is hard to imagine how life could evolve if things had been otherwise. Reality is also knowable, well at least in theory if not in practice. A naturalist rejects the idea of anything inherently ‘mysterious’ about our world, contrary to most religious traditions.

Our way of ‘knowing’ the world (with all due concerns about the word ‘knowing’) is through human perception supported by human reason, empiricism in philosophical terms. We have no other sources. Our perceptions can be from immediate senses or from recalled memories. However the bulk of human knowledge, our social knowledge, comes from the testimony of others from their perceptions and reasoning. Hence, not surprisingly, naturalists reject revelation as a genuine information source and are suspicious of any a priori claims to knowledge – knowledge without prior experience. Artificial, self-contained rule-based systems, such as mathematics and games, are well-known exceptions.

The unreliability of human perceptions is well-known. Seeking to confirm prior opinions, people’s wishful thinking and delusions block attempts to be truly objective. In recent years our empirically-based intellectual endeavours – natural sciences, social sciences, and historical research – have clearly been our best efforts at harnessing human perceptions while controlling human fallibilities. They have produced more reliable information about the world, than numerous religious proclamations over the years. One amusing example is the early Christian predictions, some 2000 years ago, of the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom through Jesus of Nazareth. Christian zealots, Gospel writers and Paul of Taurus, were quite clear about this, even though apologists since then have attempted to reinterpret these failures away.

And what about the belief in a god ? Almost automatically, a naturalist would reject the belief as accepting something so completely incomprehensible. The naturalist’s reality is one of mass and energy existing within time and space and that we are an intrinsic part of that world. Even though known reality expands and contracts with changes in our empirically-based knowledge, all ‘things’ are of the same ontological stuff. ‘God’ stands for something else entirely – different stuff, imperceptible and unfathomable by human reason (not surprisingly according to naturalists). Even the idea of such as thing, outside of that found in imaginative fiction, is amusing or perhaps even offensive to the sensibilities of a naturalist. When asked why, a believer simply declares it to be so, accepting faith over any contrary human perception and reason. Not coincidentally, the believer’s verbalisations are shaped by his or her own religious traditions. God is then explained by rewordings like ‘master’, ‘lord’, ‘shepherd’, ‘cosmic consciousness’, ‘essence’, and so on. This is the fine art of substituting one set of magical words for another.

Our lives are full of uncertainties with incomplete and changing understandings of the world. How we explain and accept these uncertainties separates naturalists from the religionists, like the evangelical Christians. For naturalists, this is a normal consequence for being part of a complicated physical world. Though acknowledging our inherent limitations, naturalists, like scientists, continue still to strive for full knowledge and understanding of the world, to overcome our limitations. By contrast religionists explain this uncertainty by imagining an unknowable consciousness called God, one who created the world and now maintains it. And, of course, this is done in ways we do not understand.

Unfortunately for religionists, the empirically-based sciences have effectively replaced religions as the major knowledge-makers in our secular society. Very little of today’s world understanding comes from religious traditions. 2000 to 3000 year-old explanations no longer hold credence and respect they once had.

So what are typical naturalists’ reactions to beliefs in God?

  • Irrelevant: the naturalist sees no need for any God to explain his or her world or to find personal meaning;
  • Incomprehensible: the idea of any existence outside of the physical world does not even make sense to a naturalist. It is more incredible that most Christians claim their God has consciousness and is even worthy of worship;
  • Offensive: hopefully explanations are no longer of angels and demons. To naturalists, theologies are still rooted in those ancients beliefs with human styled non-physical beings. Religions are re-calling past superstitions, rather than seeing humans as an integral part of the physical world like all other living things. We need to acknowledge that we physical only, without an exclusive non-physical soul.

Alex McCullie

Guest Article: Does Scientism Equal Faith: Combating Misconceptions

scientismHow often do religious folk criticise atheists and naturalists of scientism, their ‘bogey word’ for applying scientific scepticism to religious claims? Alexis Bonari has kindly written her take on the issue. Thank you, Alexis. You can catch more of her writing at scholarships.

Does Scientism Equal Faith: Combating Misconceptions

Can a belief in natural science ever be classified as religious faith?  Most atheists have heard this question raised at least once by those of a religious persuasion.  Atheists often pride themselves on their ability to see through superstition and culturally mediated belief systems. Some critics, however, claim that they are guilty of scientism.  In other words, does an atheist fall off the rationality bandwagon when he or she believes that science is the most authoritative worldview, and/or that science will potentially provide all the answers if only given enough time?

Experiential Knowledge

To answer this question one must look at the evidence for both arguments.  Critics of scientism claim that such complete reliance on science for answers ignores knowledge that can be obtained only by experiencing a phenomenon, i.e. experiential knowledge.  Religious people often take offense when atheists attempt to determine a scientifically derived explanation for their religious experiences.  While they might concede that there are, for instance, neurochemical events that go hand-in-hand with experiencing the presence of god, they believe that focusing on potential scientific explanations would be to miss the point entirely.

When Is Science Irrational?

At their least rational, atheists and scientists claim that nothing can exist outside of our current scientific models. This is an irrational statement, as it assumes that these models are infallible.  The fields of theoretical physics and applied mathematics have provided us with compelling evidence suggesting that it is literally impossible to create a completely accurate model of the universe. These types of theories undermine the idea that one can have absolute certainty through science.

Scientism ≠ Religion

But where does that leave the debate? Does the lack of certainty through science mean that atheists should abandon their stance in favor of religious faith?  The answer is a resounding, “No”.  In order to combat these arguments, atheists must become truly comfortable with some level of uncertainty.  Even though science may not be the infallible truth-definer that enlightenment philosophers believed it to be, that doesn’t mean that it should be put into the same category as a religion.  Religion relies completely upon faith.  Those who trust science over religion are at least choosing the scientific method, an attempt to prove any theory before accepting it as fact. 

As with many answers, there are no absolutes.  Certainly, there are some atheists who cross the line from rational deliberation into territory that requires faith.  Perhaps human nature, our desire to believe in some sort of absolute spiritual or otherwise, drives this trend.  If atheists remain intellectually honest, and attempt to curtail these drives within themselves, accusations of scientism will fall by the wayside. 

Bio: Alexis Bonari is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She often can be found blogging about general education issues as well as information on college scholarships. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.

Comment: Naturalism, Evangelical Christianity, & Free-Will

Naturalism views us as physical beings in a knowable physical world. As human perception supported by reasoning is seen as the best way to understand the world, Naturalists look towards the empirically-based sciences – natural sciences and much of the social sciences – as primary sources of reliable data. Unlike reductive materialists, Naturalists are willing to discuss our ‘I’ aspects of our world – consciousness, free-will, and sense of self – without necessarily reducing them to physical brain processes. Many even see emergent properties and superveniences as ways of explaining our special ‘I’ properties independently of the underlying physical processes. However Naturalists still reject magical and mysterious explanations, no matter how couched in pseudo-scientific terms.
Evangelical Christianity sees a different reality to the physical realm of naturalism. We are in a perceivable physical world controlled by another more mysterious, all-pervasive reality – eternal, undetectable physically, conscious, all-powerful and, not surprisingly, intimately interested in humans as groups and individuals. Not surprisingly, evangelicals call this consciousness ‘God’. Again not surprisingly humans are special in being both physical and non-physical beings unlike all other living things. We have a ‘soul’.  Evangelical Christians seek to understand and comply with God’s demands through selected use of ancient Middle Eastern texts – their Christian biblical canon – as their foundation for living and moral judgements as well as the basis for their evangelising, their spreading the word.
Free-will, our making of unforced choices, is accepted as fundamental to our moral sense, societal control, and use of punishment. For most of us the belief in human free-will is unquestioned. Our law even reflects this attitude. However we live in a physical world best described in causal terms with events explainable by examining the effect of prior events. So is our free-will the one and only uncaused exception throughout the 4 billion year history of Earth? Philosophers have worried about this apparent contradiction for ever since they have been philosophising.
Not surprisingly philosophers respond with (1) full-blown free-will acceptance, (2) free-will scepticism, and (3) compatibilism with the latter being a scaling down of free-will enough to meet our societal needs.  As there seems to be a fundamental incompatibility between an unfettered free-will and our understanding of a physical world and a naturalist is committed to all experiences coming from the physical world, he or she seems likely to advocate free-will scepticism (‘it’s an illusion’) or to a scale-downed free-will of compatibilism (‘just enough for some moral responsibility’). Uncaused free-will seems an unlikely choice with an assumed human physicality.
The Evangelical Christian has a more packaged solution to this dilemma. God gives us uncaused free-will with the total ‘soul’ package. This is a necessary in a world-view that advocates salvation from freely choosing God (through their doctrines of course). So it is not surprising that the evangelical would hold the view that transgressors can be and should be rightfully be punished. It is so simple. Fortunately most people in Australia, the 92% who do not attend a Christian church regularly, probably see morality as primarily a human affair although they may seek inspiration from beliefs about God and Jesus.
One could expect different attitudes to social justice and crime and punishment between Evangelical Christians and Naturalists. The evangelical would have a more defined sense of right and wrong and the necessary consequences of people choosing to do wrong (or evil to use their term). Punishments can be justifiably swift and harsh. Naturalists have little choice to question simple ‘he did wrong’ style of punishment. How much was he truly free to make a choice must loom large in the naturalist world-view? There are many reasons for punishment and incarceration and these must be worried about to avoid knee-jerk reactions of choosing wrong and punishment.
Upon reflection unfettered free-will in our causal world is problematic and Naturalists have no recourse to a simple religious response to the contradiction. But perhaps that is the cost for our species becoming mature enough to deal with ourselves in the world.
Alex McCullie