Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Why Are Adults Resistant to Science?

source:,3695,n,n highlights comments

Why Are Americans Resistant to Science?

by Dov Michaeli , MD, Ph.D

This question often puzzled me. I can understand the need for a God, as an embodiment of people’s moral ideals. So the fact that our society, which views itself as based on moral principles, is fertile ground for the belief in an über-moral deity. 
The Brits, on the other hand, have a long history of scandalous, sometimes murderous, behaviors of their political leaders and royals. They are well-versed in their Shakespeare and, like him are cynical about assertions of moral superiority of authority figures. Is there any wonder why only a small minority of the British go to church? This could also be the reason why the most ferocious critics of religion are British. 
See, for instance Richard Dawkins “the God Delusion”, in which he argues that God is, well, a delusion, religion is a virus, and the U.S. has slipped back to the dark ages. If this sounds extreme, try “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” by Christopher Hitchens.

Why should a belief in a deity clash with acceptance of science? In fact, Dr. Francis Collins, a physician and scientist par excellence, is the director of the Human Genome Project. He is also deeply religious.

But consider this little nugget: In a 2005 Pew Trust poll, 42% of respondents said that they believed that humans and other animals have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, a view that denies the very existence of evolution. And in a 2008 Republican presidential debate, none of the five, or was it six, candidates raised their hands when asked whether they believed in evolution.

This is not the only domain where people reject science: Many believe in the efficacy of unproven medical interventions; the mystical nature of out-of-body experiences; the existence of supernatural entities such as ghosts and fairies; and the legitimacy of astrology, ESP, and divination.

It all begins in childhood.

In a review titled "Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science", two Yale professors of psychology, Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnik Weisberg, posit that the winter of our ignorance began in childhood. They review evidence from developmental psychology suggesting that some resistance to scientific ideas is a human universal. This resistance stems from two general facts about children, one having to do with what they know and the other having to do with how they learn.
Dr Emma Cohen (Oxford Uni) recommended Paul Bloom research and his book Product Image Descartes' Baby: How Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human at the March Center for Inquiry meeting at Conway Hall.

"The main source of resistance concerns what children know before their exposure to science. Recent psychological research makes it clear that babies are not "blank slates"; even 1-year-olds possess a rich understanding of both the physical world (a "naïve physics") and the social world (a "naïve psychology"). Babies know that objects are solid, persist over time (even when out of sight), fall to the ground if unsupported, and do not move unless acted upon. They also understand that people move autonomously in response to social and physical events, act and react in accord with their goals, and respond with appropriate emotions to different situations.

However, these intuitions also sometimes clash with scientific discoveries about the nature of the world, making certain scientific facts difficult to learn. The problem with teaching science to children is thus "not what the student lacks, but what the student has, namely alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding the phenomena covered by the theories we are trying to teach". An example offered by the authors is the concept that the world is round; if it were a sphere, the people and things on the other side should fall off, right? Personally, I had difficulty understanding this concept until fourth or fifth grade.

This example concerns people's common-sense understanding of the physical world, but their intuitive psychology also contributes to their resistance to science. One important bias is that children naturally see the world in terms of design and purpose. For instance, 4-year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions ("to go in the zoo") and clouds ("for raining"), a propensity called "promiscuous teleology". Additionally, when asked about the origin of animals and people, children spontaneously tend to provide and prefer creationist explanations. Just as children's intuitions about the physical world make it difficult for them to accept that Earth is a sphere, their psychological intuitions about agency and design make it difficult for them to accept the processes of evolution.

Another consequence of people's common-sense psychology is dualism, the belief that the mind is fundamentally different from the brain. This belief comes naturally to children. 

Preschool children will claim that the brain is responsible for some aspects of mental life, typically those involving mental work, such as solving math problems. But preschoolers will also claim that the brain is not involved in a host of other activities, such as loving one's brother, or brushing one's teeth. This dualism is not restricted to young children.

The strong intuitive pull of dualism makes it difficult for adults as well to accept what Francis Crick (Nobel laureate for discovering, together with Jim Watson, the double helix structure of DNA) called "the astonishing hypothesis”: Dualism is mistaken—mental life emerges from physical processes. People resist the “astonishing hypothesis” in ways that can have considerable social implications. For one thing, debates about the moral status of embryos, fetuses, stem cells, and nonhuman animals are sometimes framed in terms of whether or not these entities possess souls.

What about culture?

There are substantial differences, for example, in how quickly children from different countries come to learn that Earth is a sphere. There is also variation across countries in the extent of adult resistance to science, including the finding that Americans are more resistant to evolutionary theory than are citizens of most other countries.

When faced with information, one can occasionally evaluate its truth directly. If I claimed that rain comes from clouds, this is something that “everybody knows”, the evidence is all around us. But in some domains, including much of science, direct evaluation is difficult or impossible. Few of us are qualified to assess claims of the role of mercury in autism.

So rather than evaluating the claim itself, we instead evaluate the claim's source. If the source is deemed trustworthy, people will believe the claim, often without really understanding it. 

Consider, for example, that many Americans who claim to believe in natural selection are unable to accurately describe how natural selection works.This suggests that their belief is not necessarily rooted in an appreciation of the evidence and arguments. Rather, this scientifically credulous subpopulation accepts this information because they trust the people who say it is true.
This is not restricted to science, or to people who are not qualified to make judgments on their own. In California we have a referendum system, whereby we vote on specific issues proposed by individuals or groups. Countless times I cast my vote on certain issues after checking who endorsed the initiative and who opposed it.

The developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and it will be especially strong if there is a nonscientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are thought of as reliable and trustworthy.

This is the current situation in the United States , with regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and evolutionary biology. These concepts clash with intuitive beliefs about the immaterial nature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and other animals, and (in the United States ) these beliefs are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities. Hence, these fields are among the domains where Americans' resistance to science is the strongest.

What’s to be done?

The answer of course is what we knew intuitively all along: education, starting at a young age. This requires serious investment in science education. It requires a national commitment and political will.

Do we have what it takes? 

more Links:

Rise of Scepticism in UK by Chris French

source: (8mins) highlights comments

Chris French is Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He talks about the rise of scepticism in the UK.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Daniel Dennett - why religion and the promotion of it is harmful

source: Daniel Dennett - BHA link.

update 26 April 2009: View & hear Dan Dennetts one hour lecture on BHA YouTube channel.

Eminent philosopher Dan Dennett addressed a packed-out Conway Hall on 19th March 2009 talked about ‘A Darwinian Perspective on Religion’, in which he drew on and developed the “memetic” approach.

He explained how the evolutionary process of adaptation was the only way to explain not solely life, variety, species and so on but language, communication and, crucially, religions.

Religions have developed in many ways and different parts of religion have evolved for different reasons. In an analogy with Dumbo’s “magic feather”, religion was described as a “crutch”, it is an illusion that we need it in order to have morality, or to make sense of the world and so on. Mr Dennett encouraged us to get rid of that crutch, just as Dumbo got rid of his feather and found he could still fly without it.

Daniel Dennett powerfully – but typically humorously – concluded his lecture with explaining why religion and the promotion of it is harmful and damaging to the rational, scientific world in which we live.

Other Reviews:
Tim Jones Zoonomian Review - Darwin, Dennett and Dumbo’s Magic Feather

Selected slides (in reverse order). View full lecture.

TED lectures by Dan Dennett here (25 mins) and here (17 mins).

The coming evangelical collapse by Christian Science Monitor

source: Daniel Dennett lecture at BHA March 2009 - CSM highlights comments.

Daniel Dennett quoted this article in his talk to BHA members

Daniel Dennett - why religion and the promotion of it is harmful

An anti-Christian chapter in Western history is about to begin. But out of the ruins, a new vitality and integrity will rise.

We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.
Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.) In the "Protestant" 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.
This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.
Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline.
But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.
Why is this going to happen?
1. Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.
The evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can't articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.
2. We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we've spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.
3. There are three kinds of evangelical churches today: consumer-driven megachurches, dying churches, and new churches whose future is fragile.
Denominations will shrink, even vanish, while fewer and fewer evangelical churches will survive and thrive.
4. Despite some very successful developments in the past 25 years, Christian education has not produced a product that can withstand the rising tide of secularism. Evangelicalism has used its educational system primarily to staff its own needs and talk to itself.
5. The confrontation between cultural secularism and the faith at the core of evangelical efforts to "do good" is rapidly approaching. We will soon see that the good Evangelicals want to do will be viewed as bad by so many, and much of that work will not be done. Look for ministries to take on a less and less distinctively Christian face in order to survive.
6. Even in areas where Evangelicals imagine themselves strong (like the Bible Belt), we will find a great inability to pass on to our children a vital evangelical confidence in the Bible and the importance of the faith.
7. The money will dry up.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Dan Dennett brings laughter and "memes" to BHA's second Darwin 200

Dan Dennett brings laughter and "memes" to BHA's second Darwin 200 event
Eminent philosopher Dan Dennett addressed a packed-out Conway Hall on Thursday, as he spoke in the second event in the British Humanist Association's Darwin 200 series of events.
Taking an historical and multi-discipline perspective, Mr Dennett explained how the evolutionary process of adaptation was the only way to explain not solely life, variety, species and so on but language, communication and, crucially, religions. Read more on BHA website

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The New Atheist Movement is destructive

source: highlights comments

– The antitheism of the four horsemen is for me a backwards step. It reinforces what I believe is a myth, that an atheist without a bishop to bash is like a fish without water, Julian Baggini writes.

Text: Julian Baggini
Published: March 19. 2009

What do you think about the four horsemen?” It's a question I often get asked, quite understandably, since I wrote the Very Short Introduction to atheism. That book provides no answer, because it came out before Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens unleashed their apocalypse. But surely I must have an opinion on the biggest phenomenon in popular atheism since Bertrand Russell?

Well I do, but it comes with one huge caveat: I have not read any of their books. That does not, however, disqualify me from having an opinion about them. Let me defend both apparently intellectually disreputable confessions.

Not reading The God Delusion, God is Not Great, Breaking the Spell and The End of Faith is perfectly reasonable. Why on earth would I devote precious reading hours to books which largely tell me what I already believe? These books are surely mainly for agnostics and open-minded believers. In fact, I think atheists who have read these books have more of a responsibility to account for their actions than I do my inaction. 

As the posters on the sides of British buses rather simplistically put it, “There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” God's non-existence is a fact atheists live with, not something that they should obsessively read about.

But if I haven't read these books, surely I should have no opinion about them? I think you’d be less sure of this if you had read How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard (or even not read it). In any case, my opinions are not so much about these books as the general tone and direction the new atheism they represent has adopted. This is not a function of what exactly these books say, but of how they are perceived, and the kind of comments the four horsemen make in newspaper articles and interviews. All this, I think, has been unhelpful in many ways. 

In short, the new atheism gets atheism wrong, gets religion wrong, and is counterproductive.

How does it get atheism wrong? When I wrote my own book on the subject, I believed that atheism was widely misunderstood as being primarily a negative attack on religious belief, on which it is parasitic.

But this can’t be right. Imagine for one moment that atheism triumphs and belief in God is eradicated. On the view that atheism needs religion, then this victory would also be atheism’s extinction. This is absurd.

It is only because of historical accident that atheism is not widely recognised as a world-view in its own right. This world view is essentially a very general form of naturalism, in which there are not two kinds of stuff, the natural and the supernatural, but one. The forces that govern this substance are also natural ones and there is no ultimate purpose or agency behind them. Human life is biological, and thus does not survive beyond biological death.


Is Religion Adaptive? It's Complicated by Jesse Bering

January 19, 2009 in Mind & Brain | 96 comments | Post a comment highlights comments

A group of Darwinian theorists discuss religion in Edinburgh, Scotland

By Jesse Bering

Last weekend I traveled to Edinburgh to attend a small workshop on religion. The group consisted of a multidisciplinary group of scholars—psychologists, biologists, political scientists, philosophers, and anthropologists—each of whom were studying the natural (that is, Darwinian) foundations of religious belief and behavior. The meeting took place at a marvelously opulent hotel near Waverly Station on Princes Street, with distant glimpses of the castle and the Old Town district. Each morning, about ten of us, still bloated with wine and food from the evening before, sat around an enormous lion-pawed walnut table in a Victorian suite while the bitterly cold Scottish winds rattled the windowpanes and rushed down the flue of the chimney, where a coal fire quietly warmed us. Here, we hatched out a variety of ideas related to the evolutionary puzzle of religion.

Now, since all of this probably reads to you like a bunch of spoiled academics being paid to engage in idle theorizing on some wealthy grant agency’s dime, I hasten to add that this was an atypical experience, as far as conferences go. Usually on these types of trips I stay at the equivalent of a Best Western that’s adjacent to a freeway or convenience store, not at a 5-star hotel. And I’m usually chewing on a Tabasco flavored Slim-Jim rather than indulging in filet mignon and crème brûlée.

Given the world’s political climate, it is hardly necessary to point out why having a better scientific understanding of religious behavior is worthwhile. In fact, while we were meeting in this overly decadent tearoom, a large group protesting Israel’s recent Gaza strikes against Hamas was marching outside the hotel, demonstrating against yet another conflict at least partially fueled by head-scratching religious ideologies.

Fortunately, the past decade has seen tremendous and quite rapid developments in the naturalistic study of religion. Topics such as God, souls and sin are no longer being treated as “outside science” but rather as biologically based emanations of the evolved human mind, subject to psychological scrutiny like any other aspect of human nature. 
And I can only hope that soon these scientific discoveries will translate to real world intervention strategies in the reconciliation of spiritually based social conflicts.

Here is the fly-on-the-wall’s view of just a few of the topics discussed last weekend:

As the resident psychologist, I reiterated my empirically based argument that belief in the afterlife is more or less an inevitable by product of human consciousness. Since we cannot conceptualize the absence of consciousness, even non-believers are susceptible to visions of the hereafter.

Political scientist and evolutionary biologist Dominic Johnson from the University of Edinburgh presented his argument that the idea of omniscient supernatural agents served an adaptive social policing function in the ancestral past. Johnson reasons that this would have encouraged individuals in groups to conform to group sanctions out of the fear of divine punishment, thus lessening the chances of social fission. This phenomenon would have been biologically adaptive since larger groups meant better chances of survival and reproductive success for individual members. 

It’s a bit like Santa Claus knowing whether we’re bad or good (but Santa doesn’t cause you to suffer renal failure, kill your crops, or sentence you to everlasting torment).

Anthropologist Richard Sosis summarized his “costly signaling” hypothesis of religious behavior. The gist of Sosis’s clever theory is that people engage in all sorts of costly religious behaviors—wasting time on rituals, wearing uncomfortable clothes, spending their hard-earned money—because, in doing so, they are advertising their commitment to the religious in-group. In other words, if you’re willing to do things such as cut off your child’s foreskin, pay a regular alms tax of 2.5 percent of your net worth or sit twiddling your thumbs for two hours every Sunday morning on a hard church pew, then your fellow believers will assume that you’re really one of them and can therefore be trusted. 

Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers from Rutgers University, meanwhile, discussed the possible role of psychological self-deception in the realm of religion and reviewed the impossible to ignore evidence that religiosity positively effects human health. And Westmont College biologist Jeff Schloss, who has worked extensively on the theological implications of Darwinism, gently compelled us to consider what these scientific developments in the study of religion will ultimately mean philosophically.

Schloss’s point is the one that gets most people thinking. “That’s all fine and dandy about the scientific research, but what does it all tell us about the existence of God?” What if, as I suggested in my answer to this year’s “Annual Question” at Edge, the data suggest that God is actually just a psychological blemish etched onto the core cognitive substrate of your brain? Would you still believe if you knew God were a byproduct of your evolved mental architecture?

This research committee in Edinburgh is one of three I’m currently serving on to investigate the evolutionary bases of religion. Another is the “Explaining Religion” project (EXREL) with its hub at Oxford University led by anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse. And there’s even a new sub-discipline in evolutionary biology called “Evolutionary Religious Studies” being spearheaded by David Sloan Wilson at SUNY-Binghamton. All of these projects promise to infuse new life into the tired old religion versus science debate by injecting actual data into the discussions.

At the very least, I hope that this type of research helps people get past the simplistic pigeonholing that all too often occurs when discussing science and religion—that religious people are “airheads and stubborn to science” and scientists are “cold materialists without a spiritual side.” I, for one, am a bit of both of these things.

In this new column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature.

Jesse Bering is director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen's University Belfast in Ireland, where he studies how the evolved human mind plays a part in various aspects of social behavior. His new book, Under God's Skin, is forthcoming from W. W. Norton in spring 2010.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Promoting Atheism on Facebook - on 20 March 2009

source: highlights comments

vjack says 'I am posting the following announcement at the request of a reader, Neil. He is organizing a Facebook event this Friday (March 20, 2009), "I am an Atheist." It seems like it might be an effective way to do some consciousness raising for those who are open abut their atheism on Facebook. I'll just let him tell you about it:'

The 'I am an Atheist' campaign HQ is on Facebook.:It is the brainchild of Reject Religion group (also on Facebook) and at (wiki). I guess most HASSNERS might approve of these initiatives.
I am an Atheist campaign on 20 March 2009
We rally for freedom of thought, the right to believe and not to.

We rally to erase the social stigma around nonbelief.

We rally in solidarity with those who live where freedom and equality for nonbelievers is only a dream.

We rally to tell the world: we are nonreligious, we are equal, respect us.

This is not a hate rally: we are against false beliefs, not those who believe in them. Intolerance will not be tolerated.

*****WHAT TO DO*****
On March 20th, we will show our pride and solidarity on Facebook by changing our profile picture and status (and religious views if you haven't already):

* Set your profile picture to the symbolic Scarlet Letter:

* Set your status to a message of nonbelief, such as "I am an Atheist"

Nonbelievers are a diverse group of people who identify with many different views. Use whatever term(s) you are more comfortable with:
Atheist, Antireligious*, Nonreligious, Freethinker, Eupraxsopher, Humanist, Secularist, Naturalist, Rationalist, Antitheist, Agnostic, Pantheist

*****DO MORE*****
Join the group for discussion and more:

Declare yourself and start discussion and debate through Facebook video or YouTube


*ANTIRELIGIOUS only means an active opposition to religion, not intolerance to those who are religious (You believe that atheism is preferable to following religion, but are accepting of those who are not atheists).

Reject Religion

This is more than just being an atheist. This is not just, "i don't believe," or, "i'm irreligious, and i don't care"— this is, "as a person of reason, i reject religion, and so should you."

This is not a hate group. We are against false beliefs, not those who believe in them. Intolerance will not be tolerated.

Why should you reject religion?

Start here:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
~Epicurus, 341 BCE - circa 270 BCE

"I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."
— Stephen F. Roberts

If one or more of the following apply to you, please join: Atheist, Anti-religious*, Nonreligious, Freethinker, Eupraxsopher**, Humanist, Secularist, Naturalist, Rationalist, Antitheist, Agnostic, Pantheist

*ANTIRELIGIOUS means only an opposition to religion, not intolerance to those who are religious. (You believe that atheism is preferable to following religion, but are accepting of those who are not atheists)
** Eupraxsophy: (wiki) term coined by Paul Kurtz

We should have faith not in god, but in humanity. Without that, all hope is lost.

Contact Details


Monday, March 16, 2009

Physicist wins £1m Templeton gong

source: highlights comments

Bernard d'Espagnat
d'Espagnat is troubled by the scant attention paid to philosophy of physics
Bernard d'Espagnat, a French physicist and philosopher, has won the annual Templeton Prize with a purse of £1m.
The prize honours "an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension" and has been awarded to scientists and theologians.

Professor d'Espagnat, 87, worked with great luminaries of quantum physics but went on to address the philosophical questions that the field poses.

The award will be officially presented by the Duke of Edinburgh on 5 May.

The prize is consistently the largest annual award given to an individual.
A professor emeritus from University of Paris Sud, d'Espagnat told BBC News that he would use one-third of the prize money to fund the kind of research he has pursued, and will donate a further third to charity.
The Templeton Foundation award is largely designed to honour work that finds a common ground between science and religion, with the award going more often to scientists than theologians or philosophers.

Professor d'Espagnat's scientific pedigree put him at the centre of the growth of quantum mechanics, working with Nobel laureates in the field including Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr.

But he was troubled by how little the field was addressing the philosophical questions raised by the theory - which for the first time suggested that experiments were not measuring an absolute reality and that the experimenter could influence the result. 

While Professor d'Espagnat's work is not explicitly religious, he aims to delineate what science cannot definitively rule out.

Mystery is not something negative that has to be eliminated
Bernard d'Espagnat
His concept of an ultimate reality - as he terms it, "the ground of things" - is only glimpsed, not explicitly described, by science.

Science, he said, "is aimed not at describing 'reality as it really is' but at predicting what will be observed in such-and-such circumstances".

"What science really teaches us is that it's not with ordinary concepts that we shall ever reach 'the ground of things'," he added.

The spiritual, he argues, cannot be ruled out by scientific endeavour. However, for him, the existence of something inexplicable does not create an uncomfortable sense of mystery.

"Mystery is not something negative that has to be eliminated," he said. "On the contrary, it is one of the constitutive elements of being."
From New Scientist:

Concept of 'hypercosmic God' wins Templeton Prize

Today the John Templeton Foundation announced the winner of the annual Templeton Prize of a colossal £1 million ($1.4 million), the largest annual prize in the world.

This year it goes to French physicist and philosopher of science Bernard d'Espagnat for his "studies into the concept of reality". D'Espagnat, 87, is a professor emeritus of theoretical physics at the University of Paris-Sud, and is known for his work on quantum mechanics. The award will be presented to him by the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace on 5 May.

D'Espagnat boasts an impressive scientific pedigree, having worked with Nobel laureates Louis de Broglie, Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr. De Broglie was his thesis advisor; he served as a research assistant to Fermi; and he worked at CERN when it was still in Copenhagen under the direction of Bohr. He also served as a visiting professor at the University of Texas, Austin, at the invitation of the legendary physicist John Wheeler.
But what has he done that's worth £1 million?

The thrust of d'Espagnat's work was on experimental tests of Bell's theorem. The theorem states that either quantum mechanics is a complete description of the world or that if there is some reality beneath quantum mechanics, it must be nonlocal – that is, things can influence one another instantaneously regardless of how much space stretches between them, violating Einstein's insistence that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

But what d'Espagnat was really interested in was what all of this meant for discerning the true nature of ultimate reality. Unlike most of his contemporaries, d'Espagnat was one of the brave ones unafraid to tackle the thorny and profound philosophical questions posed by quantum physics.

Third view

Unlike classical physics, d'Espagnat explained, quantum mechanics cannot describe the world as it really is, it can merely make predictions for the outcomes of our observations. If we want to believe, as Einstein did, that there is a reality independent of our observations, then this reality can either be knowable, unknowable or veiled. D'Espagnat subscribes to the third view. Through science, he says, we can glimpse some basic structures of the reality beneath the veil, but much of it remains an infinite, eternal mystery.

Looking back at d'Espagnat's work, I couldn't help but wonder what the Templeton Foundation – an organisation dedicated to reconciling science and religion – saw in it that they thought was worth a £1 million.

Then, scanning the press release, I found it:
"There must exist, beyond mere appearances … a 'veiled reality' that science does not describe but only glimpses uncertainly. In turn, contrary to those who claim that matter is the only reality, the possibility that other means, including spirituality, may also provide a window on ultimate reality cannot be ruled out, even by cogent scientific arguments."

But even if there is a partially unknowable reality beneath reality, I'm not sure how that implies that spirituality is a viable means to access it. I have a suspicion that this still comes down to good old-fashioned faith.

Unconventional 'God'

So what is it, really, that is veiled? At times d'Espagnat calls it a Being or Independent Reality or even "a great, hypercosmic God". It is a holistic, non-material realm that lies outside of space and time, but upon which we impose the categories of space and time and localisation via the mysterious Kantian categories of our minds.

"Independent Reality plays, in a way, the role of God – or 'Substance' – of Spinoza," d'Espagnat writes. Einstein believed in Spinoza's God, which he equated with nature itself, but he always held this "God" to be entirely knowable.

D'Espagnat's veiled God, on the other hand, is partially – but still fundamentally – unknowable. And for precisely this reason, it would be nonsensical to paint it with the figure of a personal God or attribute to it specific concerns or commandments.

The "veiled reality", then, can in no way help Christians or Muslims or Jews or anyone else rationalise their specific beliefs. The Templeton Foundation – despite being headed up by John Templeton Jr, an evangelical Christian – claims to afford no bias to any particular religion, and by awarding their prize to d'Espagnat, I think they've proven that to be true.

I happen to believe that drawing any spiritual conclusions from quantum mechanics is an unfounded leap in logic – but if someone out there in the world is willing to pay someone £1 million for pondering the nature of reality, that's a world I'm happy to live in.

BHA celebrates 150 years of J S Mill's On Liberty

source: highlights comments

John Stuart Mill is a prominent figure in the humanist tradition and his essay, On Liberty, is pivotal in thinking about the political values that underpin the humanist vision of an open society. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of this great work, the BHA has sent all MPs and peers an account of the work, written by political philosopher and Humanist Philosophers group member Alan Haworth. You can read more about this on our website and download the briefing sent to parliamentarians here (please do forward it to anyone that may be interested).

In the briefing, Dr Haworth says, 'On Liberty remains the classic philosophical statement of a liberal position which continues to play a considerable role within political thought in the world at large, not just within academia.' Dr Haworth sets out the principle on which Mill built his essay, that 'the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection', and that, 'the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others'.

J S Mill On…, a collection of essays edited by Peter Cave, published to mark the 200th anniversary of Mill's birth in 2006, is available at the special price of £4.50 plus p&p to celebrate the 150th anniversary of On Liberty - you can buy it today in the BHA online shop.

BHA Vice President joins Commons debate on Christianity

source: highlights comments

Mar 122009 BHA Vice President joins Commons debate on Christianity

BHA Vice President Dr Evan Harris MP joined a debate in Parliament yesterday on ‘Christianity in Public Life’, where he called for a ‘line to be drawn’ when people’s religious beliefs interfere with the rights of others.

Dr Harris was the only MP in the debate to speak from a non-religious point of view and he touched on a range on subjects, from shared values to discrimination by Christian public servants.

Dr Harris began with setting out the non-religious position, that there should be no discrimination to prevent people of religion from playing a role in public life. He said, ‘Should Christian values play a role in public life? Yes, they should, of course, in the battle of ideas, just as any others should, whether humanist, socialist or conservative, because we base our policies and moral standpoints on values.
Whether there should be a monopoly for one set of values I very much doubt. Some countries have such a monopoly, whether through political dictatorship or theocracy, and we know that in theocracies some groups, such as women and gay people, do very badly. That is predictable and identifiable.’

Dr Harris then went on to discuss how there is continuing privilege for religion, ‘The privileging of religion, which I oppose, would be to allow religious organisations that deliver public services to discriminate against their employees when they were delivering such a public service… I am talking about the people who provide the soup kitchens, shelters, and so forth. They should not be discriminated against on religious grounds, and we should not give money to organisations that discriminate against gay people or people of religion when delivering public service. They should not discriminate against service users on religious grounds. They should not have the right to do that, and should not be allowed to proselytise on the state, as it were, using public funding, or while delivering a public service.’

After being challenged to discuss the appropriateness of religious service providers offering pray to their service users, Dr Harris spoke on the recent case of Nurse Petrie, arguing that it was inappropriate for someone in her position to offer to pray for her patient. He said, ‘She was a district nurse in a position of responsibility, going into a patient’s home. Doctors and nurses in that situation are performing a function as a doctor or nurse and their primary responsibility is to their patient, who is in a vulnerable position. As I understand it, there had been a series of complaints against Nurse Petrie, not just one. It is very unusual for an elderly person receiving district nursing care to think to complain unless something pretty obvious has happened. What took place had happened more than once. It was inappropriate, and I believe that the Nursing and Midwifery Council and the General Medical Council would also argue that
it is inappropriate for a person delivering care to say, “Would you like to pray with me?”… A medical professional employed by the NHS or any other body needs to have a clear boundary, otherwise there is a feeling of pressure being put on someone.’

Further clarifying the point, Dr Harris stated,
‘There is a balance of rights and freedoms and we have to be aware that people feel strongly about their religion. But a line should be drawn. People should be allowed to practise and manifest their belief as long as it does not interfere with the rights and freedoms of others and where it does the state has a role to protect the freedoms of others from discrimination—even well-meaning discrimination in the name of religion.’

Responding to the debate, Iain Wright MP, Minister for Communities and Local Government said,
‘I am not suggesting for one minute that humane values and good works are the preserve of religious people. Humanist non-believers such as Bertrand Russell have a proud record of service, too’.


Read the full text of the debate here.

The BHA briefed MPs ahead of the debate; read the briefing here.

happiness is like a crab: it approaches us sideways, not head on


'Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so', concluded John Stuart Mill, the nineteenth century British philosopher, after a period of profound unhappiness. He realised that to pursue happiness directly is a mistake. Happiness is a by-product of life. As he also put it, happiness is like a crab: it approaches us sideways, not head on.

Monday, March 09, 2009

National Science and Engineering Week - British Science Association

There have been several recent name changes of groups I'm interested in over the last few months.
  • British Association for the Advancement of Science ('the BA') becomes British Science Association
The British Science Association (established 1831) have a new logo (or should that be called a rorschach ink blot test?!)

6-15 March 2009 is the British Science Association National Science and Engineering Week with apparently thousands of events running in schools, museums, shopping centres and pubs throughout the UK.

I searched for 'Dorset' and discovered an amazing society on my doorstep - BOURNEMOUTH NATURAL SCIENCE SOCIETY with a talk 'How on Earth did Life Start' on 10 March.

What amazing events can you find in your area during
National Science and Engineering Week?

For a range of events in Bournemouth, Southampton & London throughout the year visit HASSNERS Meetup site.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The United Nations aims to curtail speech that offends religion

February 25, 2009 on CNN's Lou Dobbs with Christopher Hitchens

The United Nations Anti-Blasphemy Resolution aims to curtail speech that offends religion, specifically Islam. Critics, religious groups and free speech advocates say the resolution is spreading Sharia law to the Western world.

Vote in the HASSNERS Poll (right): Do you believe the United Nations restriction of freedom of speech in the UK should be tolerated?