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Epistemology matters {1}

Reason and Common Ground: A Response to The Creationists’ “Neutrality” Argument

By Timothy Sandefur

He summaries the article in an abstract at Social Science Research Network:

Although it is a well-established scientific fact, evolution remains a controversial subject in the United States, and especially the issue of teaching evolution or creationism in public schools. An argument that appears to be increasingly popular among creationists is based on a postmodernist notion that science is simply one among many different but equal “ways of knowing,” and that its ascendancy over other methods is due to conflicts between social power structures rather than any objective superiority. Several creationist writers have argued that science’s exclusive reliance on natural causes (so called “methodological naturalism”) is an a priori assumption, or an arbitrary preference, and therefore that both it and religion are equally valid epistemologies. In addition, they argue that the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment prohibit government from endorsing or granting “preferences” to science over supernaturalism.

This article is a response to these theories. In Part I, I argue that science is an objectively superior means of knowing, and that methodological naturalism is not an a priori assumption, but both an a posteriori preference and one that is necessary for any valid epistemology. I also reject the argument that naturalism or “humanism” are “religions” or that science requires a “leap of faith.” In Part II, I address whether the First Amendment requires the government to remain “neutral” between supernatural and naturalistic worldviews. I conclude with some general observations on the conflict between science and supernaturalism.

February 7, 2008 Posted by | Bronowski, Darwin, Enlightenment, epistemology, evolution, science | , , , | Leave a comment

Raymond Tallis on The Enlightenment

We are about defending the Enlightenment, its values, its ethos and its hopes. If I have any credentials, it is as the author of a 500 page blast called ‘Enemies of Hope’, published a few years ago, which was as, its subtitle stated, a critique of contemporary pessimism and an attack on the contemporary counter-enlightenment.

Raymond Tallis

January 24, 2008 Posted by | Enlightenment | | Leave a comment

The Science Network Forum – Enlightenment 2.0 {2}

My immediate reaction to the talks in Enlightenment 2.0 was there wasn’t quite enough discussion on Enlightenment 1.0 (the cool new way to say The Enlightenment). Presumably the assumption was (many speakers were apologetic about covering the basics in such august company) the other participants knew all about it. However, because the Forum has been publicly broadcast with an wider, general educational aim –so will be watched by many to whom much of this is relatively sketchy, and some totally new to them — it might be worth TSN’s while to fill in some of the the gaps by adding to the website.

If you like me feel a need to start with the basics of The Original Enlightenment, the {Wiki: enlightenment} is a good way to start checking its main features were. It helpfully gives a list of names associated with the enlightenment and quite a few links.

This short student guide to The Age of Enlightenment lists Voltaire’s view in a seven point list, which is also a short-cut way of getting to the nub. If you are not proud: SparkNotes on The Enlightenment (1650 – 1800) is also useful.

The point, if you have watched Enlightenment 2.0, is to figure out what E v 2.0 might be or aim to be. I am not too convinced the talks did this. Some clever chap might have put up a comparison chart.

I started by looking at what was available on-line on the academics who contributed. People like Dawkins and Dennett are pretty well know public intellectuals, but there are other who are not but who introduced interesting research or ideas.

I will, later, put up a list of those speakers who I thought were really useful, those less useful, and those plainly there to sell books. One in the useful category is Melvin Konner, who wrote The Tangled Wing, considered a pop classic on nature v nurture, or as someone in a talk termed it, “hard-wired or culture”. This is Konner’s Notes and References (Caveat: The Dangers of Behavioral Biology), a chapter critique / analysis (pdf, be warned) of The Tangled Wing. Two good reviews of The Tangled Wing : here and here.

Sam Harris stands out in the “I’m here to sell my book” category. Now famous for his book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason , that topped the New York Times bestseller list. Or, maybe it is back there now? I wonder if they read him in the UK, us being heathens ‘n all He later wrote Letter to a Christian Nation. He features in the E 2.0 debate a lot. Makes sense to me! One of the themes across several speakers was natural morality vs. religious morality. Harris argues at least once that there is no need for morality derived from religions because natural morality suffices. In the main he seemed to reiterating small sections of his book on two main areas: Islam (and religion – bad things) and meditation (he has become interested in Buddhist meditation, which is vaguely 70s). I haven’t read the book, and am not likely to just yet, but you can be pretty sure any ideas he has have been around in some form or other since the last Enlightenment, apart from the neuroscience, evidement.

Dawkins (“that’s rubbish”; anti-God book out), Dennett (author of Consciousness Explained; anti-God book now out) and Harris (anti-God books now out) were the three most strident anti-religionists. Many others debated reasonably the ins and out, advantages and disadvantages of religion (and or science) while professing atheism. A small number simply put out their research interests without contextualisation. In the end it was up to the viewer to see how the ideas fitted into any notion of what E 2.0 might be. For example, there was a significant amount of neuroscience and a bit of psychology which was implied we know more about ourselves, but at no point did anyone say because we understand ourselves more clearly this and this is therefore true for E 2.0 over E 1.0

Professor Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard psychologist, presented research results in cognitive illusion that reminded me of Daniel M Wegner’s Ironic Process Theory. Not listed on Wegner’s papers on ironic effects (pdfs!) is The Seeds of Our Undoing (1999).

January 24, 2008 Posted by | Enlightenment, Enlightenment 2.0, epistemology, evolutionary biology, Ironic effects, religion, science | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beyond Belief & Enlightenment 2.0 Academic Forums

(1) Conference, Salk Institute, 31 October – 2 November 2007, titled

Enlightenment 2.0

The whole conference was videoed under the auspices of The Science Network

A range of academic speakers contributed.

This page takes you out to some of the speakers websites.

Deirdre McCloskey, professor of economics amongst other disciplines, quotes on her front page from Amélie Oksenberg Rorty:

Our ability to engage in continuous conversation, testing one another, discovering our hidden presuppositions, changing our minds because we have listened to the voices of our fellows. Lunatics also change their minds, but their minds change with the tides of the moon and not because they have listened, really listened, to their friends’ questions and objections.

No Double Standards blog has contributed thoughts to this and also lists briefly what each speaker was dealt with.

Sandwalk blog illustrates in the comments stream how confused things can get.

(2) TSN hosted another conference BEYOND BELIEF:Science, Religion, Reason and Survival also at the Salk Institute, La Jolla November 5-7, 2006, which was attended by many of the same academics.

The 2006 debate was divided into three section around three basic questions:

Should science do away with religion?
What would science put in religions place?
Can we be good without God?

It’s debatable whether this was really tackled. Most of the talks seemed to be set around each persons specialism, and were really about they had recently been up to. Though it was not to difficult to see where the subject matter fitted into the three questions. But it is really up to you to take it further.

So far there doesn’t seem to be much of an e-text/ transcript to go with the forum videos: watching the talks which go on for hours is not the quickest way to take on board the ideas. Two of the contributors were especially unhappy with the overall tone of the forum. Joan Roughgarden ( was reported later as calling it “an exaggerated and highly-rose colour view of the capabilities of science “) {2}. She is a biology and geophysics professor and Christian. Scott Atran (wasn’t happy either terming it “a neo-Christian cult”, by which he meant a scientist cult). He is amongst other things an anthropologist at CNRS (National Centre for Science Research), Paris. This dissatisfaction followed through into the second conference in 2007.

Melvin Konner, famous for his book The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraint on the Human Spirit (1982), (A must read by the way) took a rigorously analytical, yet conciliatory approach. The atheistic hawks such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris both with anti-God books out left no prisoners, attacking religion rather than defending science.

There is a subsequent Edge debate around Scott Atram’s contribution in 2006.

There are interesting personal stories which were revealed during the conference or will become apparent if the speakers backgrounds are examined with online material. I will write a dedicated post to a couple of these which are fascinating.

The posts here will concentrate on these two conferences for a while, with anything I find interesting or think important, though it is so vast if all the side issues are considered. Why isn’t there some sort of tight summary/synthesis by now.

The man in charge of both conferences is Roger Bingham, Centre for Brain and Cognition, University of California, San Diego (UCSD) is a Brit with a sharp wit. His asides between the talks are entertaining in themselves. Quite a few good jokes and quotes. He explained at one point that he had been influenced early in life by Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man” {2}TV programme, reading out the words from the famous scene where Bronowski stands in the pool at Auschwitz to scoop up a handful of wet ash:

It is said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogmas. It was done by ignorance. When people believe they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.
This is the Youtube of that section.

JB’s family perished in the holocaust. 18 January 2008 was the 100 anniversary of his birth.

January 17, 2008 Posted by | Bronowski, Enlightenment, Philosophy, religion, science | , , | Leave a comment