Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Science and the Supernatural

There is a long-standing tradition which requires that science deals only with natural explanations for natural phenomena, and thus can have nothing to say about the supernatural (defined as anything that exists outside of nature). While largely true, this way of thinking is all but useless in the real world. Sadly, we live in a society in which people are willing to believe the craziest bullshit imaginable--and much of this consists of supernaturalism.

We need a lot of people to fight against this decline of the intellectual climate. There are several groups of people qualified to do so: skilled investigative journalists, conjurors, and scientists (among others, but these are the primary movers and shakers in the skeptical community).

Investigative journalists are useful for two reasons. First, they have those investigative skills that allow them to get inside the scam organizations and find the truth at the bottom of these ridiculous notions. At least equally important is that they have the communicative skills to report their findings, in an understandable manner, to the public at large.

Conjurors are useful because many of the supernaturalists are, in fact, using age-old conjuror's techniques to achieve their so-called miracles. The psychics, for instance, use a method of cold reading in a majority of cases. And even when they aren't using well-known conjuror's tricks, they're often exploiting the same psychological principles that the legitimate entertainer makes use of to achieve certain effects. There is no group of people more qualified to detect trickery than professional tricksters.

But scientists are perhaps most important of all, because contrary to the common "science has nothing to say about the supernatural" humbug, these actually are scientific questions. The claim that science can't study the supernatural is true, but only in an esoteric sense. In any useful sense, science has a lot to say about these issues.

When people are talking about the supernatural, they're talking about events that operate outside of nature. However, in almost all cases, these supposedly supernatural events actually do (allegedly) have natural, physical manifestations. Anything that is detectable by human perception has some form of physical manifestation.

If the claim is that a house is haunted, there's going to be some physical manifestation. Either an apparition will show itself, or the ghost will create "cold spots" or knock on walls, or slam doors, or any other cliche from old horror films. These are all physical manifestations.

If the claim is that dowsing can detect water, that's not a supernatural claim. If true, it's a physical manifestation.

If the claim is that psychics can communicate with the dead, then something is interacting with the natural world.

If the claim is that there is a god, that's going to have physical manifestations. Some Deist gods may prove to be an exception, as they are not said to interact with the physical world. But the various gods that people actually worship certainly would have physical manifestations. Answering prayers, performing miracles, forgiving sins, creating universes: these are all physical manifestations.

My point is that, even if an event or being is said to be supernatural (whatever that is!), it has physical attributes. If it has no physical attributes at all, then no one is even going to be talking about it. It doesn't do anything for their life, it's impossible to detect, and makes no difference in human affairs. I don't believe that these things exist, but it's impossible for science to disprove them. We can call these "purely" supernatural phenomena, and the old adage that science has nothing to do with the supernatural actually does apply here.

But all the "supernatural" things people talk about in religions or New Age fairs, actually are well within the proper domain of science. Even if the being is supernatural (and thus, undetectable by science), it somehow interacts with the natural world. So its effects can be detected and can be studied by science.

For instance, if your claim is that there is a supernatural god who, say, answers prayers, how is that detectable by scientific means? The god may be supernatural, but the efficacy of prayer is within the natural realm and is certainly a matter for science to decide. In this case, all you have to do is run a statistical analysis to determine whether prayer significantly improves, say, the healing speed of hospital patients. When this experiment was performed by the Templeton Foundation, they had some interesting findings.

The patients were divided into three groups. One group was prayed for and not told about it. One group was not prayed for and not told about it. One group was prayed for and told so. The first two groups both demonstrated average recovery. The third group actually experienced a "nocebo" effect and had a prolonged recovery time.

This is a perfect example of science studying the supernatural. Of course Christian theologians were quick to criticize the study's research protocols (which, despite my dislike for the Templeton Foundation, were actually quite good), but they were just upset because someone had actually bothered to prove them wrong.

Related to the idea that science can't study the supernatural (whatever that is!) is the concept of NOMA, or nonoverlapping magisteria. As much as I respect and admire Stephen Jay Gould as a thinker and a scientists, I cannot forgive him for supporting and popularizing NOMA as a valid way of thinking--it is not! Gould wrote, "[T]he magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty)."

On this point, Gould is dead wrong. He correctly identifies what science has to do with, but incorrectly gives ultimate meaning (which cannot actually exist) and worse, morality, to religion. After all that religion has done to society, I can think of fewer actions more misguided than allowing religion any more room to comment on morality. Religious morality promotes bigotry, stupidity, and murder.

But Gould's greatest mistake is in assuming that all religion does is "ultimate meaning and moral value." If that were the extent of religion, I would have no problem with it, and would agree with Gould's assessment. The problem is that ultimate meaning seems, to me, a red herring. Science can reveal the universe as it really is. Ultimate meaning, it seems to me, is simply what we as individuals and societies make of that universe. There is no "ultimate" meaning. There is only personal meaning. Science, it is true, does not have much to do with personal philosophy. It also doesn't have much to do with moral philosophy (though there are some minor points of overlap, despite Gould's assertion to the contrary). If religion weren't about supernaturalism or a magic man in the sky, Gould would be correct to give morality to it. However, religionists are not the most moral, nor the most intelligent people in the world. Any morality that modern religion (or any religion as it has ever existed in the history of the human race) gives us is guaranteed to be horribly skewed by supernaturalism. Gould argues for NOMA while considering the almost atheistic "religion" of many sophisticated theologians, forgetting that more than half of the American population still believes the Universe is less than 10,000 years old.

This debate over NOMA has created strange bedfellows. Many Christians, unsatisfied with the blind faith given them by their preachers and holy books, think that science should set out to prove their religion correct. These people are certainly opposed to NOMA. On the other hand, many other Christians realize that NOMA is their best protection from scientific scrutiny. They may not be satisfied with blind faith, but at least they're safe from falsification.

A lot of atheists and scientists (almost all scientists are atheists--food for thought) are on my side. They see NOMA for what it is--a last ditch effort to save religion from proper scientific scrutiny and debate. As such, we argue against it with all our might, because we know that the best way to kill religion is to expose it to the light of science, under which it cannot help but to shrivel.

On the other hand, such thoughts are not politically correct. There are those who think we need to take this battle one step at a time. For instance, American biologists are currently in a state of war against creationism. For these biologists, perhaps it is a safer tactic to make every attempt to keep science and religion separate. They are rightly concerned that many religious individuals will, if science and religion are forced into conflict, choose to ditch science and keep religion. It's a valid concern, and one I cannot answer to a particularly satisfying degree. Politically speaking, perhaps it is better to keep religion and science separate, if for no other reason than to keep funding and trick the religious IDiots into avoiding their conflicts with science.

And of course there are plenty of evolutionists who are also religionists, including some respected and noteworthy biologists. I don't understand how they can reconcile scientific truth with their Bronze Age mythologies, but they seem not to have a problem doing so.

But that still doesn't make NOMA true! We can discuss politics and tactics until the cows come home, if we want. But I actually care what is true, so I cannot support a proposition that goes against what I know to be true. Religion makes scientific claims, and should be subjected to scientific scrutiny. The same goes for all other forms of supernaturalism as well.

The controversy over evolution and creationism is but a single skirmish in a larger battle, I think. Perhaps in this skirmish, NOMA is a tactically sound position to defend. But in the larger battle, it will only cost us more in the future. It may be that we're best to leave NOMA where it belongs, accept the difficulty that causes in our present skirmish, and move on. If we do this, once our current fight against creationism has been won, we will have an easier time defeating religion, supernaturalism, and irrationality in general.

Unfortunately, many scientists disagree with me--at least publicly. In 1999, the National Academy of Sciences supported NOMA: "[S]cience and religion occupy two separate realms of human experience. Demanding that they be combined detracts from the glory of each." I'm not entirely convinced that they don't take this stance simply to protect their funding and political standing in a country dominated by mindless creationists. But the fact that they popularize this stance will not be useful to us in the future.

Science can indeed study the supernatural (as long as it has natural manifestations--as all supernatural phenomena in which people believe do). It's just that supernaturalists don't like what science discovers about them, and scientists don't like it when supernaturalists threaten their funding.

Keep it natural!


Monday, July 28, 2008

An Open Letter to Patrick Greene

Background info: I'm a frequent viewer/listener of The Atheist Experience, a public access call-in television program in Austin, Texas, sponsored by the Atheist Community of Austin. For those curious, I watch the pre-recorded programs on Google Video, links to which you can find from the show's website. On this week's program was one Patrick Greene, an atheist (worth points in his favor, but not enough to save his reputation from the spanking Matt Dillahunty handed him on the show) offended by a bumper sticker.

Perhaps I should explain. It all started off innocently enough. While driving, he saw an anti-atheist bumper sticker, and later discovered it was sold by Ray Comfort's ministry (to whom I will not link you, because they deserve no free publicity). He wrote a letter of complaint to the ministry:

Your Item #500 Atheist Day bumper sticker is a very un-Christian insult to all atheists. Just because your Bible states something, does not mandate that you use this information to insult atheists like me.

I am not a fool, and I want you to change the wording of your sticker. The average driver can easily read the words:


But the words of Psalm 14:1, which are below these words, cannot be easily seen by any motorist.

My life as an American Atheist has been unalterably changed by your bumper sticker. I would never be elected to any political position in our country, because your bumper sticker has poisoned most believers minds.

I demand that you use your own savior's command to Love your neighbor as yourself, and change your bumper sticker to read something like this:


I understand that the U.S. Constitution guarantees you freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. However, that does not give you unlimited license to publicly insult those who do not share your beliefs.

If, by August 23, 2008 your bumper sticker has not been changed on your web site, I will file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, Western District of Texas, in San Antonio, and have a restraining order issued to order you to change your sticker.
Yeah, I'm sure they're running for the hills, right? I mean, even Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, as stupid as they are, are intelligent enough to realize they've got the Constitution on their side in this case. They read that letter on the show (and I dug it up on the Internet later, to get the wording right). As it turns out, he almost had some success. They took that particular bumper sticker off of the online website, apparently, but they're now giving it away for free!

On the show, he requested that both believers and non-believers should send him an e-mail (his address was provided on the air, but I will not provide it here) with their thoughts on the matter. I've decided to post mine publicly.


Since you requested feedback during your segment on The Atheist Experience, I feel no hesitation about joining in the inevitable choir of viewer/listener backlash.

Your actions, as I understand them from listening to the show, are completely unjustified. They betray not only an ignorance of the Constitution but a blatant disregard for the Constitution, the rights of the individuals you find offensive, and the rights of all individuals to speak freely. I feel confident in assuming that if a Christian threatened to sue you for displaying an atheist friendly bumper sticker on the back of your car, you would be as outraged at their actions as I am at your actions. Yet, do you not see the hypocrisy here? One can only be assured that he has freedom of expression if he is willing to allow the same freedom to everyone, including those he finds offensive.

You are right that the freedom of speech has certain limitations, but you are incorrect in your assessment thereof. Your cliched example of shouting "fire" in a theatre does not illustrate the point I assume you wish to make, because this illustration is an example, essentially, of inciting a riot and endangering the lives of the occupants of said theatre. This limitation does not apply to shouting fire if there actually is a fire, nor does it apply to the performers on stage shouting the same as part of their performance. It has nothing, in fact, to do with the actual action of shouting that there is a fire. The limitation is not on the word, but on the intended or actual consequences of the shouted word or phrase. The limitation is on endangering the public, and nothing more.

A bumper sticker, obviously intended simply to be humorous, endangers no one, and in fact, causes no harm whatsoever. I will repeat Mr. Dillahunty's challenge from the show: demonstrate how you were harmed by an individual expressing himself through a bumper sticker that agrees with his own opinions. The bumper sticker did not assault you, rape you, murder you. It did not take or damage your possessions, and it did not have an impact on your income. The only effects the bumper sticker apparently had upon you were not the fault of the bumper sticker, but the fault of your own inability to take a joke and move on. Any damages, real or imagined, were self-inflicted, and certainly not grounds for a lawsuit.

There was a brief mention of a lawsuit related, I believe, to a city displaying a nativity scene during the holiday season. We have similar displays where I live, and I have mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, a city displaying religious symbols as part of a holiday display is a violation of the Constitution--UNLESS they display icons, in equal numbers and of equal prominence, related to ALL religions (a ridiculous notion, which can be dismissed on grounds of practicality), and a lawsuit on these grounds is Constitutionally justified. On the other hand, it's not a battle I'm inclined to fight, because I think there are more important things to do that won't make atheists look petty (for instance, fighting the tax exempt status of religious institutions). I think the best solution to this problem is to keep the holiday displays, but remove religious symbolism, but again, it's not a high priority for me.

But this has nothing to do with your threatened lawsuit. An individual's right to free expression is much, much, much more far reaching than the government's. Because the government is public and tax funded, it must remain religiously neutral. Individuals are not public and not tax funded and are not so limited. These ideas are quite clearly expressed in the First Amendment, which I strongly suggest you read again until you understand it.

Legally, your threatened lawsuit is unjustified and, I believe, unjustifiable. Morally, it is also unjustifiable, as it is an act of shameless censorship (or attempted censorship), which I can never support. Free societies can only prosper in conditions under which there is a free and open exchange of ideas--and this includes the bad ones! The moral action to take against offensive ideas is to rationally counter them. Use your own free speech, don't censor theirs.

And it is also tactically misguided. It diverts attention from real issues, such as faith based initiatives or tax exemption of churches. It paints a picture in the public mind of atheists as humorless, litigious bullies with nothing better to do with our time than to put unjustified pressure on private citizens for exercising their free expression. It proves the bumper sticker's point, by demonstrating the atheist (in this case, yourself) to be a damned fool. And it emboldens the enemy. Already, they've started giving the stickers away for free (clearly just to prove that they will not be bullied). And if you do attempt to file a lawsuit (which will either be dismissed or lost, I assure you), I'm confident that Christians will reciprocate. Unfortunately, their target will not be limited to only yourself, but rather, they will attack the atheist community as a whole, thus making us all suffer for your lack judgment.

Whenever an atheist rightly sues over the inclusion of god in the Pledge or on the money, the media portray him or her as a villain. I agree with those atheists (but not you) in principle, but question the tactical decision (again, it seems there are more important battles to be fighting). If you do file a lawsuit, the media will portray you as a villain. Though the media's portrayal of someone as evil does not necessarily make it so, they would be correct in this case. Unfortunately, the media, always eager to please the Christian majority, will wrongfully include the rest of us in the same category.

Am I glad that the bumper sticker has been taken down? Of course not. While I find the message objectionable, as do you, I will defend to the death their right to display that message. Furthermore, all that has now happened is further proliferation of the same bumper sticker, at no cost, to even more gullible Christians. All you have accomplished, is to worsen your own perceived problem--and, perhaps, to create real problems for all of us.

You, sir, have only proven these Christians correct. Your actions have indeed been foolish. I strongly urge you to reconsider them.

As requested, I've copied this e-mail to the hosts & crew of The Atheist Experience.


Robert Lewis

Since I sent this e-mail, I've discovered that my fears have indeed been confirmed. Ray Comfort, one of the most cynical, uneducated, and notorious creationists currently polluting the intellectual culture, is making fun of Patrick, and using his failures against all of us.

Of course, Comfort's not very good at making fun of people. Indeed, his response to Patrick's letter is little more than repetition of all of his discredited creationist arguments. Still, it's a testament to just how powerful a single atheist's lack of judgment can be. One man with a bug up his butt about a bumper sticker attracted the personal attention and insults of one of the most famous and most idiotic men in the world.

Congratulations, Patrick. You've made me take Ray Comfort's side on an issue. Happy now, god damn it?


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Is 'Design' Used Intelligently?

In the latest issue of the scientific journal Nature, Richard Sever turns his focus on the word "design" (Nature 454, 27 (3 July 2008)). He argues that many biologists use a lazy linguistic shorthand when they mention the word in describing something that occurs in nature. For instance: "The bird's wing is designed for flight."

Of course we all know that it wasn't actually designed. Design is a word used for purposeful planning. In order for there to be design, as Ray Comfort and his lot are always pointing out to unsuspecting passers-by, there must be a designer.

We have a very good understanding of biological diversity, and even know, in some detail, the mechanisms by which evolution continues to operate. So by simple necessity, there is no such designer. Evolution requires us to realize that biological diversity is not the result of any form of "intelligent design."

This is the gist of Sever's argument, and he will find no substantial disagreement here. Especially when talking with the public, we must be extremely careful about the words we choose to use. But I think more important than the fact that "design" is used only as a sort of intellectual shorthand, is the question of why we must be so damned careful about it in the first place.

And the answer is simple: creationists, and lots of them. They are always eager to quote biologists out of context to make it seem like real scientists support their intellectually suicidal position, even though the truth is quite the opposite. The creationists are quite fond of quote-mining, as it is one of the few things they are actually able to do with some efficiency (they've failed completely in all other intellectual pursuits).

For instance, in 1980, Stephen Jay Gould wrote: "The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and notes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of fossils."

This is quoted out of context in countless creationist books, websites, videos, etc. But they either completely fail to grasp what he's talking about, or they're deliberately lying about it to prop up their own position. Gould did not argue that there are no "transitional forms." He argued that transitions between SPECIES are rare (not that none exist). Transitions between larger groups, however, are quite common. The fossil record is rich with them. You are encouraged to read Donald Prothero's book, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters (Columbia, 2007) for more examples than you know what to do with.

If creationists are going so far as to quote Gould out of context, even though he's one of the most famous paleontologists of recent years (largely due to his--somewhat controversial--contributions to evolutionary biology), surely they will have no hesitation to quote anyone else out of context if any of us dare to use "design" as a bit of lazy shorthand.

So strategically, I'm in complete agreement with Sever. His assessment of the situation is quite accurate as far as I can tell. So you're warned: if a biologist does happen to mention "design," he doesn't mean "intelligent design." And if a creationist quotes a real scientist, I'll bet you my lunch money that it's out of context (or an outright fabrication).

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Denver Catholics Add Insult to Injury

The Archdiocese of Denver just agreed to pay $5.5 million in a settlement related to yet another case of systematic child abuse by Catholic clergymen. The priests involved are all dead, so the actual abusers cannot be brought to justice, but the victims aren't settling for excuses like that. After all, we all know by now that the Church was systematically involved in a massive cover-up, for which they must be held accountable.

I am glad they've settled this case. It's another five and a half million dollars a hideous institution no longer has available with which to further degrade society. I'm only sad that it isn't more, as five million dollars is just a drop in the bucket to the evil monstrosity that is the Catholic Church.

And yet, even while settling the case, the Archdiocese couldn't help but to add insult to injury, by lying to the victims and public once again.

One of the attorneys representing the victims, Jeff Anderson (you may remember him from the film Deliver Us From Evil, or from the list of filmmakers, victims, and attorneys who were honored with my Champion of Justice award), obtained as a part of the settlement, a series of documents, which he has released to the public--sadly, with names left out--revealing that Church officials did indeed know what was happening and instead of reporting the abuse to the police, covered it up and allowed it to continue.

We're all aware of these stories. There are so many of them, it's hard to be surprised. Everyone knows that the Catholic Church, operating under orders from the Vatican, covered up every single instance of child abuse that they could.

Quoted by the Denver Rocky Mountain News: "There's a lot of damning information in those documents," said Tom Koldeway, 47, who was molested by White for more than eight years. "They knew he was a pedophile before I was born."

So the Church has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into something closer to full disclosure. Archbishop Charles Chaput said that today's policy is to report pedophiles to the police. That's probably the case, but certainly not because the Church is any more enlightened. They're just terrified of further damaging their precious reputation if word of another cover-up happens to get out. But he added insult to injury by claiming that he didn't know why anyone would keep sexual abuse secret.

Here Chaput counts on his audience not knowing their history. Certainly, that's true of most Catholics, for no one who knew the Church's history would still be a Catholic, but it's not true of the rest of us. There were secret orders from high levels of the Church, issued directly from the Vatican, ordering this systematic cover-up and demanding that all reports of abuse had to be dealt with directly by Rome. Chaput knows this, of course, but chooses to ignore it in his statement.

Do I think that Chaput himself was involved in the cover-up? It's difficult to say, since Anderson's documents mentioned no names except for the now-deceased pedophile. Personally, I doubt if he was personally involved. He was not ordained as a bishop until later. But he is still a member of the organization that oversaw this abuse. Sure, he's apologized for it, but because his apologies are mixed with his lies about knowing why these tragedies weren't reported, I question his sincerity.

And the child abuse scandal is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to negative aspects of Catholicism. Yet they still receive tax benefits. Let's not rest until they lose those tax benefits. It's time they learn to take responsibility for their offenses. Personally, I think they need to pay more than the millions they've been paying. Let's make them feel the consequences of their evil.