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David Lucifer
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Beyond belief: In place of God
« on: 2006-12-07 13:08:51 »
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source: New Scientist
date: 20 November 2006
authors: Michael Brooks and Helen Phillips

It had all the fervour of a revivalist meeting. True, there were no
hallelujahs, gospel songs or swooning, but there was plenty of
preaching, mostly to the converted, and much spontaneous applause
for exhortations to follow the path of righteousness. And right
there at the forefront of everyone's thoughts was God.

Yet this was no religious gathering - quite the opposite. Some of
the leading practitioners of modern science, many of them vocal
atheists, were gathered last week in La Jolla, California, for a
symposium entitled "Beyond belief: Science, religion, reason and
survival" hosted by the Science Network, a science-promoting
coalition of scientists and media professionals convening at the
Salk Institute for Biological Studies. They were there to address
three questions. Should science do away with religion? What would
science put in religion's place? And can we be good without God?

First up to address the initial question was cosmologist Steven
Weinberg of the University of Texas, Austin. His answer was an
unequivocal yes. "The world needs to wake up from the long
nightmare of religion," Weinberg told the congregation. "Anything
we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done,
and may in fact be our greatest contribution to civilisation."

Those uncompromising words won Weinberg a rapturous response. Yet
not long afterwards he was being excoriated for not being tough
enough on religion, and admitting he would miss it once it was
gone. Religion was, Weinberg had said, like "a crazy old aunt" who
tells lies and stirs up mischief. "She was beautiful once," he
suggested. "She's been with us a long time. When she's gone we may
miss her." Science, he admitted, could not offer the "big truths"
that religion claims to provide; all it can manage is a set of
little truths about the universe.

Richard Dawkins of the University of Oxford would have none of it.
Weinberg, he said, was being inexplicably conciliatory, "scraping
the barrel" to have something nice to say about religion. "I am
utterly fed up with the respect we have been brainwashed into
bestowing upon religion," Dawkins told the assembly.

He was soon joined by Carolyn Porco of the Space Science Institute
in Boulder, Colorado, who had been charged with providing an answer
for the second question: if not God, then what? Science, she said,
could do at least as well as religion. "If anyone has a replacement
for God, then scientists do." Porco said. "At the heart of
scientific inquiry is a spiritual quest, to come to know the
natural world by understanding it... Being a scientist and staring
immensity and eternity in the face every day is about as meaningful
and awe-inspiring as it gets."

Astronomers in particular, she suggested, regularly confront the
big questions of wonder. "The answers to these questions have
produced the greatest story ever told and there isn't a religion
that can offer anything better." Religious people, she claimed, use
God to feel connected to something grander than they are, and find
meaning and purpose through that connection. So why not show them
their place in the universe and give them a sense of connectedness
to the cosmos? The answers to why we are here, if they exist at
all, will be found in astronomy and evolution, she said.

A secular icon

Science provides an aesthetic view of the cosmos that could replace
that provided by religion - a view that could even be celebrated by
its own iconography, Porco added. Images of the natural world and
cosmos, such as the Cassini photograph of Earth taken from beyond
Saturn, Apollo 8's historic Earthrise or the Hubble Deep Field
image, could offer a similar solace to religious artwork or icons.

The big challenge, according to Porco, will be dealing with
awareness of our own mortality. The God-concept brings a sense of
immortality, something science can't offer. Instead, she suggested
highlighting the fact that our atoms came from stardust and would
return to the cosmos - as mass or energy - after we die. "We should
teach people to find comfort in that thought. We can find comfort
in knowing that everyone who has ever lived on the Earth will some
day adorn the heavens."

Like many of the others at the meeting, Porco was preaching to the
choir, and there was no more animated or passionate preacher than
Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New
York. Tyson spoke with an evangelist's zeal, and he had the
heretics in his sights. Referring to a recent poll of US National
Academy of Sciences members which showed 85 per cent do not believe
in a personal God, he suggested that the remaining 15 per cent were
a problem that needs to be addressed. "How come the number isn't
zero?" he asked. "That should be the subject of everybody's
investigation. That's something that we can't just sweep under the
rug."

This single statistic, he said, gave the lie to claims that
patiently creating a scientifically literate public would get rid
of religion. "How can [the public] do better than the scientists
themselves? That's unrealistic."

DeGrasse Tyson clearly found it hard to swallow the idea that a
scientist could be satisfied by revelation rather than
investigation. "I don't want the religious person in the lab
telling me that God is responsible for what it is they cannot
discover," he said. "It's like saying no one else will ever
discover how something works."

For others, the idea that it is somehow unacceptable for scientists
to maintain a religious belief was going too far. "They're doing
science, they're not a problem," said Lawrence Krauss, a physicist
based at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
Scientists are not a special class of humanity, he pointed out, so
it is hardly surprising that a small number of academy members are
also believers. "It would be amazing if that figure were zero," he
said. "Scientists are people, and we all make up inventions so we
can rationalise about who we are."

Krauss says he found the meeting at La Jolla a peculiar experience.
He is a veteran of campaigns against religious incursion into
science, and testified against the scientific credentials of
"intelligent design" in the Dover school board trial in
Pennsylvania last year. "I'm not usually the person who defends
faith," he told New Scientist.

Krauss wasn't the only participant who seemed to think some of the
more militant speakers were a tad over the top. Joan Roughgarden, a
professor of geophysics and biology at Stanford University,
California, described some of the statements being made as an
"exaggerated and highly rose-coloured picture of the capabilities
of science" while presenting a caricature of people of faith.
Attempts by militant atheists to represent science as a substitute
for religion would be a huge mistake, she said, and might even set
back science's cause. "They are entitled as atheists to generate
more activism within the atheist community," she told New
Scientist. "But scientists are portraying themselves as the
enlightened white knights while people of faith are portrayed as
idiots who can't tell the difference between a [communion] wafer
and a piece of meat." People of faith are being antagonised, and
this is "a lose-lose proposition", she said.

She also suggested that science, like religion, had dogma and
prophets of its own, citing as an example the "locker-room bravado"
of many biologists in promoting the received wisdom regarding
sexual selection. What's more, she said, science's ethics were open
to being manipulated - notably by biotechnology companies - leading
her to seriously doubt that a workable morality could be developed
by the rationalist scientific community.

Biology rules

This was not a view shared by Patricia Churchland of the University
of California, San Diego, who was charged with answering the
question "can we be good without God?". Values, Churchland said,
are set by what we care about, and as social animals we care about
mates, kin and insider-outsider relationships. Every human social
value and moral, she said, can be traced back to group dynamics and
biochemistry; there is no need for a scriptural mandate. Thus the
answer to the third question of the meeting became an overwhelming
yes.

With three positive verdicts in the bag, the mood was clear:
science can take on religion and win. "We've got to come out,"
urged chemist Harry Kroto of Florida State University, Tallahassee.
Dawkins also used the same phrase, and compared the secular
scientists' position to that of gay men in the late 1960s. If
everyone was willing to stand up and be counted, they could change
things, he said. "Yes I'm preaching to the choir," Dawkins
admitted. "But it's a big choir and it's an enthusiastic choir."

Kroto certainly declared himself ready to fight the good fight.
"We're in a McCarthy era against people who don't accept
Christianity," he said. "We've got to do something about it." His
answer is to launch a coordinated global effort at education, media
outreach and campaigning on behalf of science. Such an effort
worked against apartheid, he said, and the internet now provided a
platform that could take science education programmes into every
home without being subject to the ideological and commercial whims
of network broadcasters. He has schools run by religious groups
firmly in his sights too. "We must try to work against faith
schooling," he said.

For all the evangelical fervour, some attendees suggested that a
little more humility might be in order. "This is Alice in
Wonderland, it's just a neo-Christian cult," Scott Atran of the
CNRS in Paris told New Scientist. "The arguments being put forward
here are extraordinarily blind and simplistic. The Soviets taught
kids in schools about science - religiously - and it didn't work
out too well. I just don't think scientists, when they step out of
science, have any better insight than the ordinary schmuck on the
street. It makes me embarrassed to be an atheist."

Krauss was similarly critical. "The presumption here was that any
effort to respect the existence of faith is a bad thing," he told
New Scientist. "Philosophically I'm in complete agreement, but it's
not a scientific statement, and I've seen how offensive it is when
scientists say 'I can tell you what you have to think'. They make
people more afraid of science. It's inappropriate, and it's
certainly not effective."

Dawkins, though, is ready to mobilise. The meeting, he says,
achieved "probably a little" - but every little helps. "There's a
certain sort of negativity you get from people who say 'I don't
like religion but you can't do anything about it'. That's a real
counsel of defeatism. We should roll our sleeves up and get on with
it."

Should science do away with religion?

"It is just as futile to get someone to give up using their ears,
or love other children as much as their own... Religion fills very
basic human needs."

Mel Konner, ecologist, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

"Religion is leading us to the edge of something terrible... Half
of the American population is eagerly anticipating the end of the
world. This kind of thinking provides people with no basis to make
the hard decisions we have to make."

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith

"Religion allows billions of people to live a life that makes sense
- they can put up with the difficulties of life, hunger and
disease. I don't want to take that away from them."

Francisco Ayala, biologist and philosopher, University of
California, Irvine

"No doubt there are many people who do need religion, and far be it
from me to pull the rug from under their feet."

Richard Dawkins, biologist, University of Oxford

"Science can't provide a sense of magic about the world, or a
community of fellow-believers. There's a religious mentality that
yearns for that."

Steven Weinberg, physicist, University of Texas, Austin

"Science's success does not mean it encompasses the entirety of
human intellectual experience."

Lawrence Krauss, physicist and astronomer, Case Western Reserve
University, Ohio

If not God then what?

"It is the job of science to present a fully positive account of
how we can be happy in this world and reconciled to our
circumstances."

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith

"Let me offer the universe to people. We are in the universe and
the universe is in us. I don't know any deeper spiritual feeling
that those thoughts."

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, Hayden Planetarium, New York

"Let's teach our children about the story of the universe and its
incredible richness and beauty. It is so much more glorious and
awesome and even comforting than anything offered by any scripture
or God-concept that I know of."

Carolyn Porco, planetary scientist, Space Science Institute,
Boulder, Colorado

"I'm not one of those who would rhapsodically say all we need to do
is understand the world, look at pictures of the Eagle nebula and
it'll fill us with such joy we won't miss religion. We will miss
religion."

Steven Weinberg, cosmologist, University of Texas, Austin

Can we be good without God?

"The axiom that values come from reason or religion is wrong...
There are better ways of ensuring moral motivation than scaring the
crap out of people."

Patricia Churchland, philosopher, University of California, San
Diego

"What about the hundreds of millions of dollars raised just for
Katrina by religions? Religions did way more than the government
did, and there were no scientific groups rushing to help the
victims of Katrina - that's not what science does."

Michael Shermer, editor-in-chief, Skeptic magazine

"It doesn't take away from love that we understand the biochemical
basis of love."

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith
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Re:Beyond belief: In place of God
« Reply #1 on: 2006-12-07 15:03:49 »
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While it is true that People of faith are being antagonized, is that not far better than being burned at the stake, antagonized, taxed to support religious lunacies, shot up or bombed in religion's name or as a result of religious differences, or even to having religious drivel thrust at one in the halls of one's own home - as religious freaks have been doing to scientists and other people with half-way-functional-brains for centuries.

Far from a "a lose-lose proposition" the blessings science offers are largely unmixed. The only things that need to die are religious platitudes and lies along with their consequences. Even the most brainless, gormless, Bush, Blair or bin Laden supporting, islamobaptifundipaganpentacostalisttm shifty-eyed fanatic can be handed a nice Hubble image, shown the gas clouds we are children of, and told to go away to cogitate on the wonder that today we largely comprehend the laws that instigate the marvelous forms we find in our Universe, as well as the proximal cause of their births, and the factors that will probably kill them after greatly extended lifespans, all courtesy of the science that has done more good for people in a few generations than all religion has done for any men in all time.

Scientists attempting to sweeten the stake miss the important fact that the blood-and-life-sucking vampire that is religion needs not only to be staked, but also public dissection, in the anticipation that the masses of believers or at least their children may eventually come to see that it was only flatulence that gave religion's robes an appearance of significance or at least substances. Underneath was naked malevolence and hot air. This doesn't mean that we can expect the believers to appreciate the process when they first see it. But the religious are far tougher than any whining atheism-denying collaborator will give the believers credit for. After all, how many books have the believers and their forbearers burned? How many people have they tortured and executed, massacred and martyred in the names of their gods. Walk through any town in America, and you will still see the most brutal torture and execution machine of its day, the crucifix, nailed up on buildings for admiration or as a warning - or both - by some of the larger religiously oriented groups. Given what they dish out to the sensitive scholar, scientist or humanist, the bloodless dissection and analysis of the believers' vacuous beliefs and imaginary gods shouldn't hurt a bit.

Kind Regards

Hermit

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With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. - Steven Weinberg, 1999
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Re:Beyond belief: In place of God
« Reply #2 on: 2006-12-07 19:57:41 »
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I agree, any argument I've seen for sparing religion is misguided. So what if a few people derive some benefit from religion? You don't acquit a mass murderer because occasionally he is a good tipper. Religion (in general, not our version of course) is institutionalized ignorance and it is absolutely the job of science to battle ignorance. It is also a red herring to point out the shortcomings of some scientists, that isn't science. Neither is telling people what to believe. Reason, as embodied by science, tells us how to discover truth. It frustrates me greatly to read fellow humanists caution against taking on religion.
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Re:Beyond belief: In place of God
« Reply #3 on: 2006-12-28 08:15:20 »
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I disagree that reason, as embodied by science or otherwise, tells us how to discover truth.  It tells us how to discover falsity, or at most what we ought, according to current data, accept as true.  Its advantage, as far as I can see, is not in its "accuracy" but in its adaptibility.  For what it's worth, I think "truth" is a horrible word, and needs a new alternative akin to "weyken".
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Re:Beyond belief: In place of God
« Reply #4 on: 2006-12-28 13:56:15 »
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Quote from: Perplextus on 2006-12-28 08:15:20   

I disagree that reason, as embodied by science or otherwise, tells us how to discover truth.  It tells us how to discover falsity, or at most what we ought, according to current data, accept as true.  Its advantage, as far as I can see, is not in its "accuracy" but in its adaptibility.  For what it's worth, I think "truth" is a horrible word, and needs a new alternative akin to "weyken".

While I agree, I also think truth and falsity are two sides of the same coin so by discovering one you necessarily discover the other (provisionally, of course).
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Re:Beyond belief: In place of God
« Reply #5 on: 2006-12-28 16:07:14 »
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A possible sublimation of truth

Mappig: Adjective, noun. From ME mappe-(mounde) < ML mappa mundi map of the world. Mappig means that one weykens that something described as mappig is probably not false. The root signifies that assertions about the probable non falsity of a thing, the existence of which is demanded by significant, validatable evidence, are in turn derived from reasonable suppositions about the goodness of the mapping of the suppositions about the thing to validatable, communicable, observable, underlying reality.

Only significant, predictive, non-tautalogical statements can be in the state signified by mappig. This is because a tautological statement is necessarily true or false; because only significant statements are predictive; and, because outside of trivial, logically complete systems, only predictive statements can be falsified. So mappig implies that a significant predictive statement as to something having sustainable characteristics is being-towards-becoming likely, either statistically, or through alignment with and non-contradiction of appropriate well-supported hypothesis of causation. A thing can only be regarded as mappig IFF there is evidence necessitating that thing, AND IFF we can enumerate facts, which if sustained, could falsify the statement.

Expressing Mappig mathematically,

If -1 = Proven Absolutely False (which can be proved by sufficiently demonstrating a contradiction)
and
0 = Insufficient information to weyken the mappigness or falsity of the statement
and
Not False = 1 = Proven Absolutely True (which can only happen in trivial systems with absolute logical characteristics.)

then:

0 < Mappig < 1 with Mappig tending towards 1

Note that mappig never implies certainty, but establishes only a provisional mappig value somewhat less than, but tending towards  unity.

Also Mappig.able, Mappig.ability, Mappigity: Something which can be shown to be mappig or most probably mappig.

Also Mappig.er, Mappig.est, Mappig.ed, Mappig.ing, Mappig.ness.

Comments welcomed.

Kind Regards

Hermit
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With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. - Steven Weinberg, 1999
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Re:Beyond belief: In place of God
« Reply #6 on: 2006-12-28 16:10:57 »
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Re:Beyond belief: In place of God
« Reply #7 on: 2006-12-30 11:32:15 »
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Mappig: I love it!  Fantastic.  Adding that to my list of terms for which I will seek memetic replication within my sphere of influence.

Lucifer: you are welcome to maintain whatever definition of "truth" you find most useful; if you find "that which has failed to be falsified after strict systematic attempts to do so" to be the most useful definition of truth, very well.  However, I for one find that definition to be slightly inconsistent with the common connotations of the word--"truth" is, at least in my limited experience, generally taken to have a more positive definition.  I frequently find it more useful to refer to what is accepted as true rather than what is actually true; stating that one "accepts" something as true is quite different, and often more honest, than simply saying that something "is actually" true.  This is why I prefer to charcterize science and reason as telling us which propositions we ought to accept (or deny), rather than telling us which propositions are true.  On further consideration, I've decided that I prefer this even to the Popperian characterization I endorsed in my previous post; science is better characterized as a code of conduct than an ontology.
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Re:Beyond belief: In place of God
« Reply #8 on: 2006-12-30 16:08:51 »
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Quote from: Perplextus on 2006-12-30 11:32:15   

Lucifer: you are welcome to maintain whatever definition of "truth" you find most useful; if you find "that which has failed to be falsified after strict systematic attempts to do so" to be the most useful definition of truth, very well. 

Though I agree you appear to be reading a lot more into what I said. I merely suggested that truth and falsity are reciprocal concepts. You can't discover one without necessarily discovering the other. I'm not sure how to be more explicit. Maybe mathematically: T=1-F. If you know the value of T you can easily derive the value of F, and vice versa. I think this is entirely consistent with how the terms are used pretty much everywhere.
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