Thursday, February 21, 2013

Why non-overlapping magisteria doesn't work.

Non-overlapping magisteria is an idea presented by Steven Jay Gould which basically argues that religion and science can coexist because they focus on different claims.  In non-overlapping magisteria or NOMA for short it is said that science rules over the examination of the physical or empirical realm, and religion rules over issues relating to "ultimate meaning" and morality.  

I take a number of issues with this position not the least of which is that I don't think religion should or does hold total control of some of these ideas. Morality for instance, may not be completely understood using pure empiricism but philosophers, even some of them religious themselves, have been discussing moral claims without explicitly claiming a religious basis for them for thousands of years.

However, the philosophical problems I have with the NOMA isn't actually what I want to talk about here. I want to talk about why the argument and other similar arguments don't work on a practical level. The point of the argument is to attempt a diplomatic resolution with theists who have a problem with certain scientific discoveries.  The idea is that rather than trying to convince them to abandon their religion (which isn't likely to happen) we can convince them that their religion and the science are compatible with each other.  In a sense it's a noble goal but I would argue it is also almost certainly doomed to fail.

First we need to understand that an argument like NOMA is typically only used when addressing the fundamentalist type of religious believers.  Of course it can be hard to define what a fundamentalist believes exactly at times because people don't always fit neatly into a box.  There is a continuum between liberal and fundamentalist believers and even strong theological differences between some fundamentalist groups but there is one generalization we can make about fundamentalists. They believe that their holy book (the bible for Christians) is inerrant and contains true history, science, and theology. There is some debate on how to interpret context among Christian fundamentalists but they all generally agree that the bible is inerrant. This is important because more liberal believers are usually willing to interpret much of their holy books metaphorically so they usually have no problem with science to begin with, but fundamentalists have a problem with most metaphorical interpretations.

To understand why this creates such a problem for NOMA type arguments let's look at the concrete example of creationism. I choose this for several reasons, one it is one of the most common areas where religion and science conflict in the U.S. and two as a former fundamentalist I was once a young earth creationist years ago so I am familiar with both sides of the discussion.

To understand why evolution presents such a problem for fundamentalists we will actually start with Jesus and work backwards to the Genesis creation story. Most of my readers probably know that Christianity teaches that Jesus is our savior but if you haven't been steeped in Christian theology you may not know exactly how that salvation is provided, or for what reason. Jesus is suppose to save us from sin, but in Christianity the idea of sin is far more complex than just bad actions that you as an individual take. The concept is called original sin and the notion is that people don't just commit sins their very nature is corrupted by sin. Jesus' death is offered as a way to actually alter basic human nature and remove said sin nature.

Understanding that we can now look at Genesis. See the question becomes what gave us this nature, if it was built into us by god then his creation would not be perfect and also God would be blaming us for his failure. This will not do in fundamentalist theology so they have an explanation for this. Adam and Eve were created perfect but through an act of free will introduced this sin nature into human nature by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Genesis story.

Now, it is unavoidable that in order to believe in evolution one must take the Genesis story as a metaphor or allegory. It cannot be a literal historical event because it would directly contradict the evolutionary picture of early history. Fundamentalists will argue that if the story was not a historical event then there was no event to introduce original sin into human nature and if there was no original sin then Jesus' death makes no sense.

My goal right now is not to analyze the rationality or evidence for such claims, but to elucidate as to why NOMA type arguments don't work on the one group of people that they exist to convince. The argument NOMA tries to make is that people can both believe in their religion and the science at the same time, but to a fundamentalist belief in evolution requires a denial of things they feel are intrinsic to their religious beliefs. It doesn't help that most fundamentalists view themselves as embroiled in a fight between the godly believers and the worldly unbelievers and they take a gateway drug approach to any ideas that they view as worldly. If a person drops even one of their core beliefs they take a step towards worldliness and who knows where that will stop. I am not guessing that this is what many fundamentalists think either, when I was a believer I read many books by theologians and preachers who made these exact arguments about NOMA.

The thing is in a sense one could say they are right, and they would use me as an example. To take the creation story as metaphorical one must deny the typical interpretation of biblical inerrancy and interestingly enough that was one of the first beliefs that I jettisoned on the way to becoming an atheist. It was over historical inaccuracies not evolution but as soon as I let go of the idea that the bible was perfect I began to accept other ideas because the evidence supported them and the more I read about these other ideas the less the bible made sense. My story is not unique either, few people just drop firmly held beliefs all at once but one piece at a time. This is why even though a non-overlapping magisteria approach may be more diplomatic than marching up to a fundamentalist and telling them science proves their religion wrong I'm not convinced it will be any more effective.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Marco Rubio responds to the president or does he?

I've listened to Rubio's response several times now and I noticed something worth commenting on.

Early in Rubio's speech he brings up his concern that liberals always make an unfair assessment of the motives for the current Republican party. Claiming that their focus on smaller government and Laissez-faire economics is due to being only concerned with corporations and rich people.

I might surprise some of my readers by saying that I actually agree with Rubio on this point. Though  I have reason to disagree with many of the economic conclusions his party has taken I do agree that it is wrong to attack their motives in this way.  As a skeptic I am inclined to think that, while there are sometimes good reasons to infer an individuals motives, such inferences are not based upon the most certain of evidence since we cannot read people's minds. How much less reliable must it be then to infer the motives of an entire group of people? Secondly, even if we infer correctly it does nothing to prove your opponents arguments wrong, which means at the worst it's just an ad hominem used to distract ones listeners from a poorly defended argument.

This brings me to the part of my post where Rubio and I part ways, and where I wonder at his lack of introspection. Though he is unhappy when people make sweeping generalizations about the motives of Republicans most of his speech involves sweeping generalizations about the motives of other groups.  Rather than asserting the evidence for his own economics he asserts that anyone who disagrees must hate capitalism.  Rather than believing the evidence for anthropogenic climate change he asserts that anyone who believes it wants to destroy the energy industry.  He promotes school vouchers as a matter of personal choice which I suppose suggests that those that oppose vouchers are somehow against choice.

Of course he his statements are not quite as overt as say Paul Ryan's Randian diatribes about takers and makers, but the message is essentially the same. The problem is that very little of this really engages with the actual arguments people from the other side are making. Most liberals don't hate capitalism, but they do want some limits on corporations to protect individuals and the environment from being abused for the sake of profit.  Climate scientists are not a bunch of luddites who want to destroy the energy industry and force us to live in pre-industrial conditions, they propose developing new and better energy technologies that will offer cleaner and more plentiful energy to meet our increasing demands. Those who oppose school vouchers do so because we believe it is not a good solution to our education problems and it is often used to get children sent to schools where they are taught pseudo-science and revisionist history as it is currently being used in Louisiana.

Rubio presents the battle lines drawn between the liberals and conservatives to be about big vs. small government, and then suggests smaller government is apparently the solution to every problem.  Even though his own party is actually quite inconsistent in its obedience to this principle. I would suggest that instead of worrying about the governments size we try to promote intelligent government. I know that may sound like an oxymoron to some but we've tried everything else, maybe we could give it a try?

Friday, February 15, 2013

SkeptiCamp Talk: Religion and Science

Sorry,  I meant to put a link up to this right after the talk but I kinda forgot about it. You can follow this link to my video directly.

Religion and Science: An examination of the protestant reformations effect on science development

  You can also watch here to get the whole video, my part starts at about 25 minutes in.

Skepticamp Phoenix, Session 3.

Anyway, enjoy and feel free to tell me what you think. Tough it is my first time speaking in front of a group in quite a while so be gentle.

Friday, February 8, 2013

She's a witch, burn her.

 This is a humorously intoned line from Monty Python's search for the Holy Grail.  One of my all time favorite movies.

For those who are unfamiliar the scene is involves people using horrible logic to justify burning a woman for witchcraft. It's meant to poke fun at the ignorance of days gone by, or at least that is what I would like to believe.  Unfortunately there are still places in the world where people are killed for witchcraft.
In Papua New Guinea a 20 year old woman was stripped naked, beating covered in gas and set on fire because they believed she had killed a local six year old with a curse.  Police and firemen who attempted to help her were thwarted by the mob who set her on fire in the first place.  From what  I can tell this sort of practice is actually quite common in Papua New Guinea. 

It is hard to imagine that religion did not play a part in this considering passages like Exodus 20:18: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Especially since the majority of Papua New Guinea is protestant Christian (65.48%), with most of the rest a mix of Catholics (17.67%), and Muslims (15.89%). Though to be fair there are also ministers there speaking out against this kind of behavior.

It is sad to see that in some places in the world people still blame disease on supernatural causes and then kill people out of their imaginary fears.  You know, I've been occasionally told I'm too judgmental by people.  "You like the freedom to choose your own way, but refuse to allow others that same freedom," I've been told.  My response is always the same. Some choices are better than others, some ways of examining the world will necessarily produce better answers. Our knowledge of the universe is still quite limited, but we do know why people get sick and I can't help but feel that if these people had been given science text books on germ theory instead of bibles this woman would still be alive. If that makes me judgmental, so be it.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

"Academic freedom" bill proposed by Arizona state senate.

These so called academic freedom bills have been making their way around various states the last ten years or so. In fact, one just died in committee in Colorado. Now we have one on the docket in Arizona.

To read the wording of the bill the purpose doesn't seem so bad.
1.  Create an environment in schools that encourages pupils to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.
Doesn't seem so bad right? We all believe in critical thinking, and who doesn't want to encourage students to explore science and learn about scientific evidence?  The problem is that these bills are just the latest scheme by creationists to promote non-scientific opinions in the classroom regarding scientific conclusions that some politicians have decided they don't like.

Even their own bill states states the following as one of the intents of the bill:
2.  The teaching of some scientific subjects, including biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning, can cause controversy.
The first three are obvious, evolution, abiogenesis, and global climate change are the three main things that get heavily politicized, the first two due to religion and the last one due to the all of the lobbying done by oil and coal companies to prevent any changes to energy policy.  I'm not sure why cloning is on there since no one is trying to clone a human right now, but it seems to be brought up in these bill a lot.

In case you doubt that academic freedom bills are promoting the teaching of creationism and climate change denial lets look at a few facts.  The discovery institute is one of the major promoters, these are the same people who promoted "intelligent design" right up until they lost Kitzmiller v. Dover in 2005, when the judge flat out ruled that ID was just attempt to repackage creation science.  "Creation science" was itself ruled as not science by several courts decisions in the 1980's such as McLean v. Arkansas.  The people who came up with the idea for "academic freedom" are creationists who, just as with ID, changed the name to see if it would allow them to sneak in their pseudo-science.

Luckily, even though these bills have been popping up all over the country, most of them have died in committee before they got to a vote.  Information provided by the NCSE. Hopefully the same thing will happen here.

Here is a list of the legislature members who introduced this bill.  If you live in one of their districts email them and let them know you are not satisfied with leaders who promote bills which are designed to permit the teaching of pseudo-science to our students.  If your legislator is not listed below I have also included a link to the entire AZ legislator list.  Email them and ask that they do not support this bill. 

Judy Burges, Dist-22 R 
Chester Crandell, Dist-6 R 
Rick Murphy, Dist-21 R 
Steve Pierce, Dist-1 R or Justin Pierce, Dist-25 R 
(not sure which one because the bill only lists last names)
Don Shooter Dist-13 R 
Steve Yarbrough, Dist-17 R 

Update: I emailed the rep in my district.  (Katie Hobbs, Dist-24, D) and she let me know she is opposed to this bill.

2-27-2013 Update: This bill has died at least for this session as of Feb 22 when the deadline for Senate bills to be heard in their Senate committees passed. It is still possible that the bill may resurface again in latter in another state senate session so I'll keep my eye out.