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A new year – time to start blogging again?

January 7, 2012

Sorry for the delays from my side. Although I am glad to be having this “conversation”, the practicalities of it hard hard to sustain with any kind of freshness. In effect what happens is that it becomes like writing an essay late on a Thursday evening. This doesn’t mean it is “stream of consciousness stuff” of course, as we both want to keep things balanced. That’s because, as I know you know, you matter, and my relationship with you matters. And of course these matters matter too!

 

Interestingly I find myself writing this contribution on the Christian feast of Epiphany, which is as you know about such matters as light, revelation, truth, and the value of searching for all of these. Although the Christian celebration starts with the wise men (magi) for me it encompasses all search for truth – which is what I think we both believe this “conversation” is about.

 

In that context I have to say that you last post contained two things that I had hoped the discussion between us would have moved past. Of course you may think that about what I write too, I do realise!

 

So what are these two? The first is the one about all the suffering “caused” by religion. Surely we don’t need to fall for that? The pains and injustices of this world are many and varied, and have at their root a whole range of issues, not just religion. What about the impact of politics, personality, power, greed, and philosophy? And please don’t forget that just as good things are done in the name of politics and because of some people’s personalities, there has been historically – and still is – a vast amount that is good and health-giving done through religion, such as education, lighthouses and hospices.

 

You then went on to use another old-fashioned concept – that one might conceivably need a “scaffolding” until you mature and then you discard it. That certainly read as being dismissive, judgemental and superior, not things I would normally expect from you!

 

So what exactly is your own philosophy? Is it really summed up as “take life as it comes – its all random and chance”? This is a serious question, because I know that you care deeply about people , that you have very high standards of personal integrity, and that you are very compassionate. Are those just chance? Or is there choice involved?

 

You see I do have a sense that the vast sum of suffering and inequality and injustice comes, albeit through the structures of politics and religion, from human nature and human choices. As has become a bit of a “slogan” with preachers “The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart”. People are intrinsically self-centred, which lies behind all violence. And of course it has often been suggested that humanity therefore needs either laws, or agreed moral codes, or an ethical framework, to try to contain this innate destructive drive.

 

Before I close this contribution, here are two other things to think about.

 

First, I have just read (as you know!), “Snuff” by Terry Pratchettt. I would be interested to hear you views on what he writes in this novel – alongside his usual comic take on the capricious nature of all known gods – about music. Here are bits from this novel:

 

It was the pure quill of music, a sound that came close to making you want to fall on your knees and promise to be a better person.

The music rushed in and, for a moment upon the world, lifted all hearts and forgave all sins

The music poured over us, sometimes soothing, sometimes blessing, sometimes accusing. Every one of us confronting ghosts, demons and old memories

We had been taken somewhere and brought back and we were different people, longing for another journey into paradise, no matter what hell we had to atone for on the way

As I say, your thoughts about all that most welcome!

My second thought is this. When we started planning a joint book, my planned direction was somewhat different to the way in which our conversation has gone so far? Would you be interested in me making my next post – and I’ll try to do it next week! the things I had drafted?

Atheists, Manchester United, and dividing lines

October 21, 2011

What is an atheist?

There are of course many definitions.  The ones I commonly use are a) someone who doesn’t believe in a God or gods, and b) someone who believes there is no God or gods.

I am an atheist under a), which is known as weak atheism or agnostic atheism.  To some extent I am also an atheist under b), strong atheism, in that I think it is hugely unlikely that any God or gods exist.  I hold the opinion that there is no God/gods/whatever, but I don’t claim to prove it.

Definition a) is obviously much broader than b), and includes everyone who would call themselves an agnostic, as well as various other categories such as those too young to have an opinion.

I call myself an atheist because I don’t believe in gods, and because I think the whole idea of gods is silly and somewhat embarassing.

Manchester United

I don’t support Man U, or any other football team.  My whole relationship with football can be summed up as trying to avoid anywhere where a game is on, or where it is being shown in a pub.  I don’t care which team wins.

However, as you imply, I don’t describe myself as a non-ManU-supporter.

Neither do you.  But the parallel to atheism breaks down almost immediately.  Football is notoriously violent – but the deaths attributable to religion are many times higher.

Some of the worst football fights (Rangers vs Celtic) are in fact attributable to religion as well.

Imagine a world in which:

  • countries invaded each other over football
  • Roman Abranovich and Malcolm Glazer had guaranteed seats in the House of Lords
  • people cut bits off their children in the names of various clubs
  • people flew planes into buildings to get their team promoted
  • taxpayer’s funds were used to set up separate schools for the children of supporters of separate teams, in which the curriculum included denying some parts of science, and insisting that girls could only prepare the half-time sandwiches and never play sport themselves

I think in such a world you’d care about football a lot more than you do now.

The implied question in your parallel is about why I bother to call myself an atheist – why not just ignore religion like I ignore football?

I bother to call myself an atheist to make it clear that none of these things are done in my name.  I call myself an atheist because these things are wrong and we should stand against them.

Not having a religion

One of the things religious people commonly seem to have difficulty understanding about atheism is that we genuinely don’t worship anything.

For most atheists, nature isn’t a higher power, it’s just there.  We’re part of the natural world, not higher or lower than it.  I think the natural world is very cool and interesting, and parts of it are beautiful.  Other parts of it are ugly and involve pain and terror.  It’s a subject for study and interest, not an object of worship and veneration.

Of course lots of people are interested in ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions, but personally I’m quite happy to accept that I have an imperfect brain, and we have imperfect knowledge of the world, and there are some things I’ll probably never know.

That sort of certainty was left behind with my religious beliefs.  I found the lack of structure scary at the time I lost my faith, but of course it was a false structure.

We all have to go around dealing with the unknowable every day.  There is no certainty, whether for a believer or for an atheist.  The difference is that the believer holds to an imagined certainty rather than face life without it.

Scaffolding

I view my former Christian beliefs as analogous to scaffolding for a building.  There were times in my life when I needed support, and times when my former faith provided it.  The scaffolding of faith shaped the direction of my growth to some extent.

However, once a building can stand on its own, the scaffolding isn’t useful any more.  In fact, it gets in the way.  It restricts and blocks and cramps the space.

Nowadays I stand on my own and don’t need the support of faith.

Cats and string

You posit two rival explanations for the existence of religious belief – 1) that there is actually something ‘out there’, and our species’ religious leanings reflect this reality, and 2) that it is an effect or outcropping of evolution.

I don’t see why 1) would be convincing.

By analogy, cats are fascinated by string, and chase it whenever given the chance.  There are two rival explanations for this – 1) that string is actually edible, we just don’t know it yet, and 2) that they chase it because they have evolved to chase things which wriggle.

In both cases, I choose option 2.  The behaviours of a species don’t imply that those behaviours are the key to knowledge of a greater reality, whether edible string or the existence of God.

Evolution of religion

Your question about whether or not there has been time for an inclination towards religion to evolve in human history assumes that all such evolution must have occurred after we ‘became human’.

In fact, traits could have evolved a long time before that, and this particular phenotypic behaviour only become evident more recently.

And finally, religious belief persists for exactly this reason, because it’s the way our brains work.  We naturally infer emotions and wishes in objects which clearly don’t have them (the car keys are hiding, my computer doesn’t like me), and we naturally defer to authority.

Women

And finally, a question for you:  How would you feel about religion, if you were a woman?

Just how diverse is atheism?

October 10, 2011

Thanks for all the stuff about sex! Always fun to read the latest theories. Like you (as you know) I am not a biologist, but have tried to read a range of stuff about the natural world. And because you gave it to me I have even read a book on “consilience”, so am familiar at least with the theory of contingency. But your links (and Ben’s) will give me plenty more to read – thanks.

Your comments in caveat 1 about atheism are where I would like to start this next part of our exchanges. In it you emphasise the divergence of atheists’ knowledge of, or even interest in, evolutionary theory, which raises for me a puzzled question. If an atheist holds that there is no divine being, no supernatural order, then surely the natural order becomes the “highest” that can be known, studied, understood? If that is true, it is not surprising to find amongst atheists what appears to be, in effect, worship of the natural order, and either deification of or an attempt to humanise (is there a word “anthropomorphise”?) “mother” nature. And it is surprising to find, as you suggest, that there are atheists who have no interest in the “how?” and “why?” questions of human existence.

And from my perspective this has two important aspects, one a puzzle and one a serious question. The puzzle first. You postulate a diverse range of atheists, and as they form part of your identity then you should know how they function better than me. So I am left with the conclusion that you are defining atheist very negatively. I belong to a large sub-set of humanity, to which probably about 90% of the world population belongs, some by choice and some through lack of knowledge – I am a passionate and keen “non-Manchester United supporter”. I admit that there are lots of people who are – and have the perfect right to be – “Manchester United supporters”. And there may be lots of people who, possibly through lack of interest, or because Western “civilisation” has so far not penetrated their part of the globe, are also not Manchester United supporters. But I suspect that there are a lot of people out there who deliberately choose to support any club that is playing against Manchester United, or any club that has the chance to come above them in the League. And it is this latter group that are my closest allies, my “family”. Is this perhaps how atheism works?

Now the more serious questions. One of Ben’s comments on our conversation was about the evolutionary advantage of religious belief, which is very interesting stuff. I think there are some things worth exploring here, and I hereby invite you to do so! First, I think there is often a lack of clarity between terms which can be confused, and appear at times to overlap. Where is the dividing line between – if there is one – a philosophy and a religious belief? And between a philosophical adherence or a religious belief and a “life-style choice”?

You know that I have been niggling at the concept of “core beliefs” in atheism, and suggesting that “evolutionary change that has endured must be advantageous” is one such belief.

So – religious belief is widespread amongst humans throughout recorded time, across cultures. Are we left with only two rival explanations? First, that there is a supernatural dimension to life, and the continuing universal search for faith is an inevitable response. Or second, that this faith-impulse is embedded so deeply simply because there was, historically, and evolutionary advantage?

If the second is your view, how can you explain two things? One, the very short span of human history has surely not allowed the time for the necessary random mutations and trial-and-error basis for selection. Two, how does this view account for the persistence of religious belief within the technological and scientific community. “Scientism” has not ousted “religious faith” in the Western world.

To be continued!

The descent of woman

October 3, 2011

Quick caveat no. 1:  Atheism and evolution are not the same thing.  You can be a Christian and accept evolutionary theory (as both the Catholic & Anglican churches do); you can be an atheist and either not know or not care about evolution, or actively disagree with it (see i.e. Raelians, or Buddhists, both of which don’t involve God-belief).

So this is an interesting sideline to our discussion, but we’re no longer talking about atheism as such.

Quick caveat no. 2:  I am no sort of expert on evolution, having GCSE biology and one year of undergrad Medicine to my name.  Anything I know about this is through books and general knowledge, not through expertise.

~~~~

Having said that, back to the meat of the discussion!

Sexual selection

As Ben mentioned in the comments to the previous two posts, sexual selection also happens.

It’s part of my first category example – things which benefit the animal by making it easier for that animal to attract a mate and to reproduce.  It’s a factor in any species which has mate selection (rather than having indiscriminate fertilisation, for example).  Here’s a nice starter summary:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_selection

One of the interesting things about sexual selection is that it seems to operate on a more-is-better mechanism.  It leads to things like peacock tails, which are objectively ridiculous and a big disadvantage to the individual bird – because peahens prefer mates with good tails, and have no upper limit for defining a good tail.  Once the peahens have such a preference, selection pressures lead further and further in the same direction, limited only by the health of the animal.

Evolution is mindless

You ask why the giraffe’s ‘long-neck’ niche hasn’t come up more often, and Ben has answered that in part (this link is really interesting: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/09/giraffes-necks-for-food-or-necks-for-sex/ )

However, the point I’d like to focus on here is that evolution is very much dependent on contingency.  Mutations are random within certain parameters, and mutations only prosper if they arise during a situation which they are well fitted for (no good to evolve a white coat for camoflage if you live in an area with no snow & nothing else white!)

So whether a particular branch in the evolutionary tree happens, or doesn’t happen, is totally dependent on the very particular circumstances prevailing at the time.  A particular mutation might be beneficial to the animal – but might not prosper anyway because the particular area that population was in got flooded out.  A mutation which makes an animal easier to spot in its habitat might persevere anyway if the predators are all dead.

It does happen, in fact, that particular traits may be advantageous and disadvantageous in different circumstances.  There are lovely experimental examples of that in this book: The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner (click for Amazon link).  This recounts a set of population studies of finches in the Galapagos Islands, and how their numbers and characteristics changed as a response to different climactic conditions.  Basically, one year would be dry, and would favour finches with a particular beak type which could access a particular nut.  Those finches would survive and breed, and that beak type would then become much more common.  However, a year later, the weather conditions would be totally different, and favour a different beak type.  So evolutionary pressures buffet the finch population in all directions.  By watching over a long time period you can see trends – but next year still might be totally different.

The descent of humans

You asked about humans having large numbers of children, and whether it is or is not beneficial from an evolutionary point of view.

Grandchildren are the markers of reproductive success, as I’m sure you’ll agree.  Achieving grandchildren proves not just that you have reproduced yourself, but that your children are healthy and fertile and have interbred successfully with other humans.

However, there is more than one way to get to that point.  One way is to have lots of kids, half of whom will die, and another is to have two kids and pour everything you have into protecting and helping them.  Either one of these works, but only if the circumstances are right.  In a hardscrabble hand-to-mouth landscape, strategy one works, and in an intensively farmed and prosperous landscape, strategy two works.

But we’re also stuck in a Tragedy of the Commons setup here.  If I don’t have kids, my genes don’t get passed down and I’m an evolutionary dead end.  So the person who refrains from having kids doesn’t benefit in evolutionary terms from their contribution to reducing overpopulation.  The person who ignores the problem and goes on to breed does get to pass their genes down.

Trees of life and directions of evolution

The short answer to this question is that evolution has no mind, and also has no direction.  More complex species do well in some circumstances, and amoeba and cockroaches in others.  The process of evolution allows complexity to arise, but does not require it.

This was a misapprehension in certain early interpretations of the theory, and led to horrors like eugenics (or like garden-variety racism and the White Man’s Burden).

As to whether more complexity is better, or whether we are ‘higher’ life forms than animals, that just begs the question of how we measure value.  Is a human more or less valuable than a rat?  We might think so, but no doubt any rat which could express a view would think differently.

In evolutionary terms, the ‘best’ species is simply the one which survives and reproduces most successfully.

I like humans myself, but then I am one and am no doubt biased.

I’m not sure I understood your question about the whales, so I’ll leave that one.

Dead ends and transitional species

I don’t know how many of the current species will turn out to be dead ends.  That can only be known afterwards – if a species becomes extinct it was a dead end, and if it doesn’t it wasn’t, yet.

Likewise, every species and every adaptation we see now is a potential transitional step on the way to something else.  But we don’t know and can’t know which ones, until it happens.

You can go to the Natural History Museum and look at skeletons which were transitional steps on the way to humans, or horses.  But you can also go and look at dinosaurs which dead-ended spectacularly, or at dodos.

If the world had been somewhat different, humans might never have evolved, and dodos might have survived.  But this world is the one which actually happened.

Brief note on atheism

Yes, there are different groups of atheists.  Technically I’m an agnostic (weak) atheist, and more of a Gnu Atheist than otherwise.  However, we aren’t like religious groups in terms of banding together.  And discussions between groups of atheists are more of an ongoing argument than anything else.

But in terms of organising my social life I’m more likely to hang out with people who enjoy dancing or artwork or weightlifting or working for social justice, rather than to hang out with people based on their religion or otherwise.

More about evolutionary theory and its “apostles”

September 30, 2011

I do realise, working as I do for organised and powerful and wealthy C of E I am in no position to sneer about any apparent hierarchy is “atheism”. It may be, of course, that I am too stuck with the “old atheism”, but it does seem to have become a world of big names – and big money! Hence my use of “apostles” rather than “bishops”. Surely there are those who have established “churches” with agreed “creeds”, and as you suggest there are schisms within atheism producing new leaders and new orthodoxy!

Helpful to have a summary of the four evolutionary classes, and I would like to focus there for a bit. And please understand that what follows are genuine questions – these are things that my reading, which is admittedly not as wide as yours, has not helped me with.

One simple question is this:- if having a longer neck than the rest of the herbivores was of such an advantage to the giraffe that it was “selected”, why have no other species adopted the same “strategy”?

Secondly:- what about traits that may once have been advantageous, but are now possibly disadvantageous? The ability of the human race to produce large numbers of children was, in most theories I have read, an “advantage” that made the race/tribe/species more able to survive. It would seem that in some “civilised” nations this ability is seen as a disadvantage that must be curbed by law; it also seems possible that the scale of human reproduction is major contributor to disease, poverty, pressure on world resources, and therefore to war.

My third question is about that wonderful “tree of life” poster in the dining room, and to what extent “selection” has direction. The classic tree leads from simple to complex, whilst recognising that many of the simple life forms still exist, and indeed thrive. Huxley’s comment on beetles is brilliant, and the fact that (if I have got this right) the weight of krill in the oceans exceeds the weight of the human population of the planet, raises the question – what “driver” is there to move away from such a successful life form? Is our concept of “higher” life forms simply anthropocentric pride?

Oh, and another question arising from that observation. There seems to be an interesting trend observable in western society – to claim a close affinity – almost a kindred spirit – with some of the larger species – especially whales, dolphins and elephants. Again, is this simply an unthinking desire to make a rational pattern of otherwise random existence?

And my final question for this post. If all observable species are the result of random mutations contributing to selection of the “fittest”, what proportion of the current live species will turn out, in the long term, to be dead-end mutations that have no future? I’m not playing here, I mean it – it cannot be that somehow in 2011 all observable species have reached a stage of perfection through selection that all we have left as the fit ones. Where are all the half-way “trials” of new adaptations?

Thanks for the dig about hair! I don’t mind losing it – I do mind still having to pay the same amount for a hair-cut!

We are animals

September 23, 2011

First, apologies for the long hiatus due to work-related issues!

On evolution

You ask if the phrase ‘this was evolutionarily advantageous to us’ is a creedal statement, and something atheists believe.

Quick answer: no, atheists are all different, some of them don’t know or don’t care about evolution, some of them believe in ghosts, etc.  Athiests are at least as weird and variable as any other segment of the population.

Longer and more complex answer: for me, and for many scientifically minded people, the statement above is shorthand for a lot of consequences of the idea that we got here by evolution.

If one accepts that we got here by evolution, then every trait we have must fall into one of a few categories:

1.  Evolutionarily advantageous to us or to our ancestors.  This includes the obvious stuff like the ability to feel pain, which enabled our ancestors to avoid terminal damage for long enough to reproduce (by definition, or they wouldn’t be our ancestors!)

2.  ‘Unintended’ consequences of things which were evolutionarily advantageous to our ancestors, but which have no effect in themselves.  An example of this would be the tummy button, which is a consequence of infants being nourished in the womb via the placenta (advantageous), but leaves us with a central dent which has no harm or utility to our survival as adults.

3.  Stuff which was advantageous and selected for in the past, but is useless now.  Arguably the vestigial tail humans have may be one of these, although it is also used for muscle attachment.  But although we don’t have tails, we still have the place where they used to be, and where they are on other animals.

4.  Random variation which did not effect evolutionary fitness.  Men have hairy faces, but women don’t, even though there’s no obvious reason why this should be the case.  Both sexes still have eyebrows, and we have hair on the tops of our heads (most of us!) but not much on the rest of the body.

If one accepts that evolution is the best explanation for how we come to be here, then every characteristic we have must fall into one of those categories, including our mental characteristics.

Our ability to experience aesthetic pleasure must be either directly advantageous (1), a consequence of something directly advantageous (2), a holdover from previous advantage (3), or random and of no effect (4).

That was what I was trying to say with the shorthand phrase you quote.  It’s not a belief, but it is a consequence of one of my opinions.

On atheists

It really, honestly, is true to say that atheism has no bishops.  I have been both a religious believer and an atheist, and I know that the experience is totally different.

Atheism does have some well-known people who are inspiring writers and speakers, and they have done a lot to move us from the point where non-believers had to keep quiet or suffer ostracism (as is still the case in parts of the US) to the point where we are now, where belief is no longer always automatically privileged as a worldview.  (It still sometimes is, though – the Church of England is not exactly lacking in institutional power.)

Religion used to receive automatic deference.  It still does, but not as much as in the past.  I can see how this would make a believer uncomfortable, but I don’t think that makes it wrong.  Religious beliefs, and religious people, should have a level playing field with the rest of us – not be exempt from criticism.

But really, truly, we don’t have bishops.  Dawkins, Hitchens, etc., are visible, but they are also very strongly criticised from within the atheist communities.  See e.g. here: http://skepchick.org/2011/07/the-privilege-delusion/ or google ‘Elevatorgate’ if you have a lot of free time.

My own view of Dawkins is that he is a gifted speaker etc., and also an annoying and overprivileged old white guy who is part of the old guard.  There are lots of younger atheists with new things to say.

Poetry, evolution, and apostles

July 27, 2011

I don’t mind you being poetic – I have after all read “The Pearl”! – and in fact I would like to pursue that subject for while. It was the dismissive sneer of the quote that concerned me, not your freedom to quote it.

You will probably recall that amazing film “Dead Poets Society”, in which one teacher tries to analyse what makes “good” poetry, and attempts to come up with measures of meaning and depth so that the students can find some objective way of comparing poems. I know that you have a great appreciation of poetry – many forms of it – as well as other of the main cultural forms such as music and fine art. The benefits of these art forms to individuals, and to society as a whole, have been well researched and documented, from literature giving group identity to music creating relaxing rhythms in the subject’s metabolism. And yet I know of no way in which a “scientism” approach (my word for what I perceive your philosophy to be) can measure or quantify why one art form produces “benefits” to one individual and not to another, or indeed may actually cause harm to another. Does this lack of rational coherence in any way diminish the value of the art? As far as I can tell, some of my “highest” moments of being touched and moved by art have had little or no rational content, but surely that does not reduce the events’ value to me? For example, listening to Mozart’s 12 variations in C on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” I was in raptures of joy partly because of the exquisite playing, partly because of the clever technical skill of the composer, but largely because of the wonder of the key tune being what I have always known as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”. A profound moment with for me physical, mental, emotional and spiritual enrichment, with complex interactions that I contend transcend “scientism”.

I was interested in your ideas about the evolutionary explanation of the human love for “cause and effect” linkages, and I would suggest that you are on very shaky ground there. In fact in my reading around evolutionary theory (some of the books you have recommended I read I have actually consumed) it appears to me that there is much wishful thinking of this kind going on. The creedal statement “this change has happened over time therefore it must have a benefit for the species” becomes the “cause and effect” pair used to project a causal reading onto all natural history. You used the phrase “This was evolutionarily advantageous to us” with absolutely no supporting evidence – it is in fact a creedal statement! Have we found, at last, something that evolutionist “believe”?

You assert that “atheism has no bishops”. I will avoid, for the moment at least, the sidetrack offered by the thought that several bishops are, from perspective, clearly atheists! There may simply not be as yet enough time for the hierarchical structures, such as the ones that I live with, to emerge, but there certainly appear to be people who are seen as either “apostles” or “prophets” of atheism. At the Hay Festival they attract large crowds, and their every cheap attack on organised religion (most especially the Church of England) is greeted with rapturous applause. Their writings attract huge publicity, and they have a lucrative conference and speaking circuit. They may not currently form one cohesive “religion”, but perhaps at this stage they are best seen as prophets of a new cult.

But you also assert that there is no atheism agenda to compel acceptable behaviour from others, no group of people imposing their judgement as being better than others. I disagree! My experience is exactly that. For example, unless I have misunderstood you, you have said to me on more than one occasion that if I wish to understand the emergence of human life on earth really the only people I should pay any attention to are evolutionary biologists. Of course their judgements are well worth noting, but why should they been seen as having “more important” things to say about human life than opinions from anthropologists or astrophysicists – or even theologians? Is there in fact in the atheistic world view an esoteric scale of values, which ranks physical sciences as the “highest” of human pursuits, and relegates other disciplines to a lower” plane?

Your comments welcome!

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