Thursday, June 28, 2012

Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?

The notion that supernatural phenomena are fundamentally beyond the scope of scientific examination is promoted by prominent scientific institutions, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The court ruling in the United States against the teaching of "Intelligent Design" (ID) as an alternative to evolution in biology classes (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District; Jones, 2005) was partially justified on the grounds that claims involving supernatural phenomena are outside the proper domain of scientific investigation.

A few other examples of this commonly asserted denial that science has anything to say about supernatural claims follow.

The booklet "Science, Evolution, and Creationism" from the National Academies Press says this:

Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.

A statement by the National Science Teachers Association:

Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance. . . as noted in the National Science Education Standards, “Explanations on how the natural world changed based on myths, personal beliefs, religious values, mystical inspiration, superstition, or authority may be personally useful and socially relevant, but they are not scientific.”

A statement by the National Association of Biology Teachers:

Explanations employing nonnaturalistic or supernatural events, whether or not explicit reference is made to a supernatural being, are outside the realm of science and not part of a valid science curriculum. Evolutionary theory, indeed all of science, is necessarily silent on religion and neither refutes nor supports the existence of a deity or deities.

They are all mistaken. Science does not presuppose Naturalism and supernatural claims are amenable in principle to scientific evaluation. Here is an article on this topic by Yonatan I. Fishman, published in 2007 in the Science & Education, titled Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews? His article explains that "whether the entities or phenomena posited by claim X are defined as ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’ is irrelevant to the scientific status of the claim. If the fundamental aim of science is the pursuit of truth - to uncover, to the extent that humans are capable, the nature of reality - then science should go wherever the evidence leads. If the evidence were to strongly suggest the existence of supernatural phenomena, then so be it."

Yonatan Fishman concludes thusly: "Importantly, critical thinking and a scientific approach to claims are not just for scientists and debunkers of the supernatural. A well-informed population proficient in critical thinking will be better equipped to make intelligent decisions concerning crucial political issues of our day, such as global warming and governmental foreign policy. Indeed, an intellectually honest engagement with reality is a prerequisite for promoting the long-term interest of individuals and society at large." I recommend this article.

Why do so many groups and individuals, including institutions that advocate on behalf of educators and scientists, mistakenly deny that our modern knowledge can be biased (and in fact is biased) vis-a-vis various theisms? We can assume they are issuing these denials out of fear of offending religious people. These false assertions are counter-productive because they attack and undermine the very goal of critical thinking that these same institutions claim to be defending. This counter-productive appeasement of religious beliefs at the expense of truth by institutions representing educators and scientists needs to stop. When speaking the truth is inconvenient because the audience is intolerant or otherwise prejudiced against the truth, there is always the option of keeping silent. How about more silence here?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Petition Catholics to drop blasphemy complaints

Sanal Edamaruku is the founder-president of Rationalist International. He is also the president of the Indian Rationalist Association. He is the editor of the internet publication Rationalist International, and author of 25 books and numerous articles. He is a regular TV commentator on various Indian TV channels on superstitions and blind belief and is a major voice in defense of reason and scientific temper in India. He has spent 30 years debunking miracles and exposing fraudulent faith healers. Earlier this year he was charged with blasphemy for debunking a claimed miracle at a local Catholic Church.

A statue of Jesus on a crucifix was dripping water from the toes. Hundreds of people came every day, some from far away, to pray and collect some of the “holy water” in bottles and vessels. A TV channel invited Mr. Edamaruku to investigate the “miracle” that caused local excitement. He went with the TV team to inspect the crucifix in front of the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni. Within half an hour, he identified the source of the water (a leaking water pipe) and the mechanism for the water traveling to the statue feet (capillary action).

In March, a group called the Catholic Secular Forum filed a complaint against Mr. Edamaruku with the police in Mumbai, and two other groups, the Association of Concerned Catholics and Maharashtra Christian Youth Forum also filed complaints at other police stations. The Catholic Bishop of Mumbai called on Mr. Edamaruku to apologize for “hurting” the Catholic community by questioning the motives and sincerity of church authorities who allegedly encouraged people to believe there was a miracle occurring.

Because Mr. Edamaruku can be arrested at anytime (he was instructed by police to turn himself in for arrest), and because he was recently denied "anticipatory bail" (he could spend years in jail waiting for his trial), he was compelled to flee India.

If you have not done so yet, please consider signing the petition appealing to the Catholic authorities in Mumbai, particularly the Archbishop and Auxiliary Bishop of Mumbai, and the Vatican and the global Catholic community to clarify their Church's position on the attempts to silence Mr Edamaruku's criticisms through legal channels, and to use their influence with local Catholics to encourage them to publicly withdraw their complaints.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Ideological dependency and misunderstanding

It was common for theists to be convinced that there are no atheists in foxholes even during the height of the Cold War when the enemies of freedom and democracy actively and aggressively fought with guns from hideouts in forested mountains on behalf of an anti-capitalist and godless, militant, totalitarian ideology. The contradiction should be obvious, how can atheists with guns be battling and overthrowing governments around the world when there are no atheists in foxholes? Yet even today many people seem to think, despite the lost Vietnam war, despite Communist victories in Cuba, China, Nicaragua, etc., that there are no atheists in foxholes. This suggests that there is a psychological mechanism at play here that overrides the evidence to the contrary. It turns out that the same psychological mechanism that helps convince people that there are no atheists in foxholes also helps to convince some of those same people that only their particular religion is true.

University of Missouri psychologist Kenneth Vail III and colleagues recruited 26 Christians, 28 atheists, 40 Muslims and 28 agnostics to study how religious individuals tend to believe so strongly in their own religion’s gods yet deny the gods of competing religions. Each participant was tasked with writing either a brief essay about how they felt about their own death or a "religiously neutral" topic, such as loneliness or how to cope when plans go awry. After a brief verbal task to distract the participants from the true purpose of the study, they filled out questionnaires about their religious beliefs, including their faith in the Christian God or Jesus, Buddha and Allah.

When Christians thought of death, they became firmer in their religious beliefs and less accepting of Allah and Buddha. Likewise for Muslims, who became more committed to Allah and less accepting of Buddha or the Christian God. Agnostics became more likely to believe in any deity, whether the Christian version, Allah or Buddha.

This explains why theists, including theistic leaning agnostics, so readily accept the counter-evidenced claim that there are no atheists in foxholes. They are projecting their own religiously motivated psychology onto atheists. However, that projection is a mistake because atheists lack this ideological dependency common to theists. Atheists showed none of the responses to thoughts of death that the theists and agnostics did. In the words of the researchers, "atheists do not rely on religion when confronted with the awareness of death."

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Adults under 30 have more doubt

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released the results of the latest Pew Values Study survey. Compared to 1987, fewer citizens of the United States of America think books that contain "dangerous ideas" should be banned from public school libraries. Fewer people think that school boards should be able to fire teachers who are homosexual. Fewer people claim to have "old fashioned values" about family and marriage. The poll results in the "religion, social values" section have otherwise not changed much, with one exception.

In 2007 81% of people who were 18-29 years old said they never doubt the existence of God. The numbers that year were 87% for people 65 and older, 83% for people 50-64, 84% for people 30-49. Those numbers subsequently diverged as more people under 30 admitted to sometimes having doubts. The percentage went down to 76% in 2009 and 67% in 2012, increasing the sometimes doubting count from 19% to 33% over 5 years. Meanwhile, over 80% of people 30 or older continue to say they never have doubt.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Fictional absolute nothing and theology

David Albert, in addition to being a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, has a doctorate in physics from Rockefeller University. So it was appropriate for him to be selected by the NY Times to review Lawrence Krauss' book "A Universe From Nothing". In his critical review, David Albert correctly points out that the definition of nothing favored by theologists and some philosophers as a perfect nothingness does not exactly match the concept of nothing described by Lawrence Krauss. For David Albert, Lawrence Krauss' up-front refusal to adopt the theological/philosophical definition of the concept of nothing as absolute and total is a fatal flaw in Lawrence Krauss' argument. David Albert, depite his multiple doctorates, is wrong about this, and it is important to understand why.

It is often true that something is either absolutely and totally present or absent. Furthermore, we can generalize from the fact that there can be more, or less, of something, to the concepts of total nothing and allthing. There is no word in English that is the opposite of nothing, so I am making up this word "allthing". We go from less and less of something until we have a complete absence of something, and we go from more and more of something until we have a total presence of something. Similarly, we can imagine a complete cold and a complete hot, a complete dark and a complete light, etc. There are many phenomena that can be measured on a line of less and more, and we can generalize from the concept of less and more to the concepts of complete presence and absence of that phenomena. That is clearly what David Albert and theologians are doing when they imagine their concept of total nothing.

But David Albert and theologians are not stopping with imagining total nothing, they are also insisting that this imagined concept is a fact and that total nothing is the initial condition. After all, if those theological/philosophical concepts of total nothing and allthing are fictions then clearly Lawrence Krauss is doing nothing wrong by excluding those fictions from his efforts to describe how our universe works. So why does David Albert insist that the theological/philosophical concept of total nothing is factual? Does David Albert also insist that total darkness and total light are factual conditions? Total cold and total heat? We can imagine many things this way that are fictions. Where is the empirical evidence for this total nothing that justifies this assumption that it is a fact?

The bottom line is this: When it comes to determining what is true and false about how the world works, empirical evidence trumps everything else. Human intuition and imagination are not up to the task. So when philosophers and theologians place their intuition first, as they are doing when they insist a-priori that there is a starting point of total nothing, they are making a fundamental mistake. They are, in effect, putting the cart of human ideology/psychology ahead of the horse of evidence. In contrast, Lawrence Krauss takes the better approach here. Lawrence Krauss is simply pursuing the evidence and allowing the evidence to dictate the conclusions on a best fit basis.

David Albert also points out, again correctly, that our understanding of how the universe works is substantially incomplete, as Lawrence Krauss acknowledges in his book. Thus, we don't know why the forces of gravity and dark energy are as weak as they are. Similarly, Lawrence Krauss cannot demonstrate that his underlying assumption that quantum mechanics characterizes at least some of the multiverse beyond our universe is correct. But it is still reasonable, on a best fit with available evidence basis, to assume that the quantum mechanical and general relativity properties of our universe are also properties found elsewhere in the multiverse. If David Albert and theologians are going to dismiss that assumption in favor of the less plausible assumption that our universe is unlike the rest of the multiverse for being quantum mechanical, then they need better reasons for their preferred assumption than that we lack proof either way.