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I am a former middle and high school science teacher pursuing a doctorate in Science Ed. at George Mason University, with a concentration in cognitive science and the evolution of cognition and learning. Postings on this blog represent my own views, not those of my employer or school. All writing displayed on this page is original work unless otherwise noted, and thus copyrighted.

24 August 2009

I've been too harsh...

Robert Wright destroys my worldview in an essay in Sunday's NYT. What else could possibly come of such a well written opinion piece that so greatly differs from the views of a "new atheist". Wright states in his gospel:
I bring good news! These two warring groups have more in common than they realize. And, no, it isn’t just that they’re both wrong. It’s that they’re wrong for the same reason. Oddly, an underestimation of natural selection’s creative power clouds the vision not just of the intensely religious but also of the militantly atheistic.

Eureka! I have underestimated the creative power of natural selection! Why, if Wright hadn't pointed it out, I might never have considered that God could have begun the universe, and then stepped back to let it all run through the process that we can detect. When I was a strident, militant, neo-Atheist, I would have simply examined the evidence for natural selection, abiogenesis, and the Big Bang , and posited that they can work without a designer of any sort. In my hasty militaristic scientism, I'd have put down the teleological appearances of evolution as nothing but that: appearances. Yet Wright, by citing that wonderful scientist William Paley, points out that the apparent design is there because life, the universe and everything must have been designed! That's right, Paley was a wonderful scientist, as Wright notes:
There are two morals to the story. One is that it is indeed legitimate, and not at all unscientific, to do what Paley did: inspect a physical system for evidence that it was given some purpose by some higher-order creative process. If scientifically minded theologians want to apply that inspection to the entire system of evolution, they’re free to do so.

What a poor scientist I am, blinded so by my strident, militant, evangelical fundamentalist Atheism as I've caught it from the likes of Dawkins and Dennett! Proof of a designer was there all the time, all I had to do was examine the evidence with the intent of finding evidence of a designer. This, of course, is science at its purest: rifling through all the available evidence to find that which supports your hypothesis and discarding that which does not. Why, any common citizen could tell me as much.

Wright does an even more thorough job with his other salvo: that of destroying my (our, to include other fundagelical militant atheists) strident pretensions that I'm subscribing to pure logic in failing to attribute a designer:
They could acknowledge, first of all, that any god whose creative role ends with the beginning of natural selection is, strictly speaking, logically compatible with Darwinism. (Darwin himself, though not a believer, said as much.) And they might even grant that natural selection’s intrinsic creative power — something they’ve been known to stress in other contexts — adds at least an iota of plausibility to this remotely creative god.
. In my slanted materialistic worldview, coloured as it is by staunch atheism and an unjust tendency to root my tenets in evidence, I've overlooked an important fact; The evidence from evolution and the natural world doesn't entirely rule out the possibility of a deistic, non-interventionist deity. How stridently narrow-minded of me (and all other neo-militant, scientific thinking atheists) to act as if there isn't a behind-the-scenes designer, who obviously could have set all this in motion and is now completely apathetic and non-interventionist towards his/her/its creation.
Wright's dismantling of the evangelical militant mantras of the New Atheists continues:
And, god-talk aside, these atheist biologists could try to appreciate something they still seem not to get: talk of “higher purpose” is not just compatible with science, but engrained [sic] in it.

Why yes, Robert, we've been far too close-minded to see the concept of "higher purpose" embedded in in biology. It's clear, when looking at parasites, predation, and how a population can be culled through simple starvation, that there is a grand design: a power greater than simple selection of the best adapted is in play. How else could such a wonderful array of life come to be on our planet? How could life come to be at all, without a designer? After all, our best and most recent lab experiments are only able to create self-replicating molecules that consist of a simple nucleic acids surrounded by proteins, nothing at all like early life might have been. We can only hope that the others who are so trapped by their narrow beliefs in neo-fundamentalist atheistic science can be freed from their intellectual chains by Wright's sparkling logic and fair open-mindedness towards the possibilities inherent in the evidence.

Here I was about to remark that there must be some sort of law about committing grammatical errors when snarking about the errors of others, and I find that my usage matches OED. (Really, go look).

Nice reponse to the article... the (deliberate?) misunderstanding of the more common "there's no evidence so who really gives a fuck" atheist position is irritating, Wright should know better... And you're right... ruling out the possibility of deities would destroy our favourite hobby of arguing with creationists and such.

03 August 2009

Interesting study...

Richard Dawkins tweeted about this, and I found it interesting, so it's discussion time... A key to analysing this may simply be
funded by the John Templeton Foundation,

but I'll attempt to be fair and reserve judgement.

The study concludes that a) majors in social sciences and humanities become less religious, b) majors in the natural and physical sciences maintain their level of religiosity, and c) education majors tend to harbour the religious and strengthen their convictions. I haven't the data to argue with it, so let's simply examine that of the study.

Source: University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, 2009

Firstly, they've separated the measures for importance and attendance, and consider them of equal value in measuring religiosity. I'm not certain I buy into that... If one considers religion to be of less importance, it follows that one is less religious. Attending services of some form or another occurs for a number of reasons, many of them social (data to back this up might help, I know).

The education numbers frighten me a bit. Clearly, there is an upswing in religiosity, by both measures, after completion of college for those in education majors. The article also states
"Education majors are clearly safe havens for the religious," said U-M economist Miles Kimball, who co-authored the study. "Highly religious people seem to prefer education majors, tend to stay in that major, and tend to become more religious by the time they graduate."

I'd love to see the data that spawned that particular conclusion, as it isn't provided and doesn't seem evident from the methods used in the study. I don't deny the possibility that it's true, but something concrete would be helpful. Religion does tend to have a regrettable tendency to make people want to pass it on, however.

The final conclusion is the one I truly take issue with:
"Our results suggest that it is Postmodernism, not Science, that is the bĂȘte noir of religiosity. One reason may be that the key ideas of Postmodernism are newer than the key scientific ideas that challenge religion. For example, religions have had 150 years to develop resistance or tolerance for the late 19th century idea of Evolution, but much less time to develop resistance or tolerance for the key ideas of Postmodernism, which gained great strength over the course of the 20th century."

There's nothing at all to suggest that this is true, other than the numbers they demonstrate. Is it possible that courses in sociology, philosophy, and comparative religion simply tend to teach rational thinking and, more importantly, demonstrate the cross-cultural tendencies of the religious to attempt to explain/deal with certain life events? Perhaps the ideas of Postmodernism are more difficult for the religious to confront than those of science; After all, Postmodernist thinking doesn't use empiricism as a standard for doctrine either.

Original paper here.