Category Archives: Religion

Sam Harris and Buridan’s Ass

I’m going to “borrow” a post on the Florida Student Philosophy Blog because it illustrates my essential point about the relationship between reason and religious faith. (I will leave my relationship to the original posting intentionally vague, although the clever will be able to suss it out.)

Joe Long, an FSU Philosophy grad student, critiques Sam Harris’ argument (found in Letter to a Christian Nation) that the symmetry between religions means there is no reason to choose one over another, leaving atheism the only living option. In essence, since Muslims have the same reasons for faith as Christians — Islam has a holy book and a prophet, Christianity has a holy book and a prophet, etc. — there is no good reason to choose one over the other. Since all of our beliefs should be based on good reasons (a hopefully uncontroversial point) we have no unique good reasons to believe any particular faith. According to Harris, this is itself a good reason to not believe.

Here’s how Long analyzes Harris’ argument:

(1) One ought to hold a belief only if one has reason to hold that belief.

(2) The set of reasons for believing Christianity is identical […] to the set of reasons for believing Islam.

(3) The belief-content entailed by Christianity is inconsistent with content entailed by Islam.

(4) If (1), (2), and (3), then any bias toward Christianity or Islam is unwarranted, in which case one has insufficient reason to believe either Christianity or Islam.

(5) Therefore, one has insufficient reason to believe Christianity or Islam, and thus insufficient reason to believe Christianity.

Long shows that premise (2) is problematic. It might seem like Islam and Christianity have the exact same kinds of reasons for belief, but it truth there might be a tie-breaker reason hiding out there which tips the balance in favor of one or the other. It’s not always the case that the good reasons we have to believe are easily found or are obviously available to us.

While this is a fine tactic to take against Harris, it’s not really open to me, what with me being an atheist and all. But I think that Harris’ mistake is in (4) rather than (2), so that’s where I think we should give Harris the smackdown.

Take a look at (2). What kind of identity is Harris positing here? It might help to look at what he actually wrote (quoted from Letter to…):

Every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim that you have for being a Christian.

Obviously these aren’t the ‘same’ reasons in the sense that one 1975 Corvette is the ‘same’ as another 1975 Corvette. No, they’re the ‘same’ reasons the way a 1975 Corvette is the ‘same’ as a 1992 Toyota Supra: they are both the ‘same’ in the sense that they are both go-fast sports cars. As this rather perceptive commenter points out:

If (2) is the correct rendering of Harris’ premise…it’s ambiguous between the set of reasons being equivalent from a neutral vantage point and the set of reasons being equivalent for each individual involved — that is, Harris is equivocating between different senses of ‘same’… Obviously they aren’t the ‘same’ as in identical, while they might be the ‘same’ as in equivalent.

So there are no reasons that a Christian and a Muslim have in common, but they both have equivalent reasons. So if a Christian (let’s call her C) has her reasons, and a Muslim (cleverly named M) has her reasons, where exactly do we get the contradiction Harris is aiming at?

C is rational in believing in Christianity because — via (1) and [her reasons for belief] — C has good reasons to so believe. But C must also believe that M is equally rational in her belief since M has exactly identical good reasons to believe in Islam. So if Christianity and Islam are equally rational there is no warranted reason to choose one over the other. Or: Harris assumes that there is a second-order irrationality in C thinking that M is both rational and wrong simultaneously.

Harris assumes that if the reasons are identical there is no non-arbitrary way for C and M to choose one religion over another; they are both in the position of Buridan’s Ass forever stuck between two equally appealing piles of hay. (So an uncharitable reading would see Harris as wanting both C and M to both starve due to indecision.)

But the reasons aren’t the same; they’re only equivalent. So we have the Christian Ass standing in a relation to a pile of hay, and we have a Muslim Cow standing in the equivalent relation to a pile of… um… whatever cows eat. There is no contradiction here, no way of saying that (2) is true since C and M have equivalent reasons for belief, yet (4) is true since they have no warrant for any bias towards their own particular feeding trough.

To conclude:

C can think that Islam is both rational (as in properly supported by reasons) yet wrong (as in the supporting reasons are false); therefore C can think that Christianity and Islam are both rational and also have a reason to choose one over the other.

So where Harris was shooting for an argument that proves any religious belief is unwarranted, the most he can prove is that one can’t hold other religions to be irrational when the situation described by (2) holds — at most, one can hold that they are wrong. Ultimately, I think that’s an OK result. ‘Wrong’ and ‘irrational’ aren’t coextensive.

The Christian Ass can fully appreciate that the Muslim Cow stands in the very same (i.e. equivalent) relation to her feeding trough as C does to her own, without thinking that M’s trough is equally appealing.

Where does the atheist stand in all this? We’re all going out for pizza. I certainly think that pizza is the most appealing option. But that doesn’t mean I should want to deprive C and M of whatever it is in their feeding troughs that makes them happy and leaves them satisfied; just because I don’t want it doesn’t mean I should take it away from them.


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AQ: Atheist Quotient

All the cool kids (Hat Tip) are doing it, so here I go:

  You scored as Militant Atheist, Willing to take theists to task, the Militant Atheist is someone who knows deep within themselves that there is no god and they want to tell you all about how they know. Even though they’re as annoying in their own way as militant theists, this is often a phase of development and doesn’t tend to last very long. If it does, they’re in danger of becoming an Angry Atheist and making everyone uncomfortable.

Militant Atheist
Scientific Atheist
Angry Atheist
Spiritual Atheist
Apathetic Atheist

What kind of atheist are you?
created with

Of course, there’s an obvious flaw. While PZ Meyers is a perfect Scientific Atheist, I actually beat him on the Militant Atheist score. Maybe I’m not as much of an appeaser as I thought?

Wanna know the truth about yourself? Go here.


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PZ Meyers and Guillermo Gonzalez

It’s not that I’m in love with Gonzalez, tenure or Intelligent Design; it’s just that this is the only topic that drives up hits to my pretend blog. So here we go:

Even though PZ Meyers and I agree on all the substantial facts about the world, we disagree about the interpretation of those facts. I think religion in general and intelligent design specifically are wrong but not irrational. But I’m a Neville Chamberlain atheist.

But Meyers’ new comments on the Gonzalez case show why I think humility is important; it keeps basic mistakes at bay. There’s some double-quoting going on (from a Nature article on the case), and for that I apologize.

First Meyers quotes from the original article:

Gonzalez, who has been at Iowa State in Ames since 2001, was denied tenure on 9 March. He is now appealing the decision on the grounds that his religious belief, not the quality of his science, was the basis for turning down his application. “I’m concerned my views on intelligent design were a factor,” he says.

Meyers’ response:

His “views on intelligent design” were his “religious belief”? OK, that’s good enough for me. No tenure.

Of course, from the quote it’s unclear whether the words “religious belief” are Gonzalez’ own our are interpolations by the writer. Can Meyers even pretend to be unbiased if he bases his “no tenure” pronouncement on a grammatical ambiguity?

Of course, Meyers doesn’t even pretend to be unbiased. And, as I’ve mentioned before, that makes it difficult to make the case that science — as a value-free inquiry into the structure of nature — should have pride-of-place in public life and public policy. If science is intrinsically anti-religion, many people will happily jettison science and keep their faith. The world will be worse for it. But science isn’t intrinsically anti-religion, only certain scientists are.

Second mistake belongs to someone quoted in the Nature article:

But Park says that a researcher’s views on intelligent design cannot be divorced from the tenure decision. Anyone who believes that an intelligent force set the Earth’s location doesn’t understand probability’s role in the Universe, Park argues. Such a person is hardly qualified to teach others about the scientific method. “We’re entrusting the minds of our students to this person,” he says.

That Meyers quotes this can be taken as an endorsement, so my criticism applies to him by association. To say that intelligent design proponents ‘misunderstand’ the role of probability in the Universe is to confuse the two kinds of probability: objective, frequency-distribution probability versus epistemic, degree-of-belief probability. We don’t know with certainty that the Universe is random rather than designed. Rather, given our epistemic situation, we assign a very high probability to the randomness of the Universe. But the kind and structure of the Universe predicted by design proponents exactly matches the kind of Universe we do in fact see around us. So it’s not that Gonzalez “doesn’t understand probability’s role in the Universe”; it’s that Gonzalez disagrees with the prevailing orthodoxy about the probability that the Universe is random. To say otherwise is itself a mistake; it is to assign a probability of 0 to a possibility which can only be absolutely excluded on non-scientific grounds.

But, in Meyers defense, he does end by quoting this paragraph from the nature article:

Eli Rosenberg, who chairs Iowa State’s physics department, concedes that Gonzalez’s belief in intelligent design did come up during the tenure process. “I’d be a fool if I said it was not [discussed],” he says. But, he adds, “intelligent design was not a major or even a big factor in this decision.” Four of twelve tenure candidates have been turned down in the past decade, he says. “We are a fairly hard-nosed department.”

If this is so, then everything is hunky-dory; it means there is nothing to see here and and everyone — from Meyers to the Discovery Institute — should be quiet and move along. To say that it is good that Gonzalez was denied tenure — simply because he believes something outside the political mainstream — is itself a wholly political claim that goes against the norms of scientific practice. And it makes Gonzalez an ally and martyr for our real enemies: the non-scientific, wholly political and dishonest ID proponents like the Discovery Institute.

I want to briefly expand that last point and then I’ll stop ranting: we pro-science Darwinians should be trying to drive a wedge between smart people like Gonzalez and the intellectually vacant Discovery Institute contingent. Sometimes the religion versus science debate is framed in terms of reason versus superstition. I think it should be seen in terms of those who think knowledge should reflect truth and those who think it should be a hand-maiden to politics. If Gonzalez is as smart a scientist as his co-workers say he is, is seems to me he should be embraced by our side rather than forced into the arms of the enemy. Even though they disagree about what the truth will likely turn ought to be, Gonzalez, Meyers and Dawkins all probably have more in common with each other about the methods used to find it than Gonzalez has in common with the post-modern, anti-science vultures in the Discovery Institute.

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Update on the Gonzalez Tenure Case

So it turns out that Iowa State University likely acted appropriately in denying Guillermo Gonzalez tenure; the original article (subscription required) is here and a good summary can be found here. In short: Gonalez didn’t produce new stuff after moving to ISU, but tried to get tenure on his research done as a post-doc.

I’m still not convinced it’s a total win for for Darwinist side. The way I see it there are at least three related Darwin/Intelligent Design arguments going on simultaneously:

  1. The true account of the origin of biological diversity.
  2. The (privileged ) role of science in public policy debates.
  3. The role of science (including/especially biology) in our society.

Only the first is won or lost exclusively through scientific research, scientific practice and the norms of the scientific community. It is also the one we need to worry about the least, since Darwinian natural selection is true and Intelligent Design is false.

Guillermo Gonzalez didn’t do the work and didn’t get tenure, based on his quantity of research and the number of grants (zero) he received. So far, so good. But when this is seen in the scientific blogosphere as a win of Darwinism over Intelligent Design— not just the appropriate functioning of the tenure process, not just preservation of the norms of the scientific community, but a win in the Culture War between the forces of Darwinian Good and the Neo-Creationist Evil, it ends up loosing us ground in debates 2 and 3. I still think that if real, live scientists give off a whiff of scheudenfreude when an IDer doesn’t get tenure, it sends the wrong message to society at large; it tells them that science doesn’t deserve the privileged role in public life we think it ought have.

If the pro-science among us gloat over Gonzalez loosing his bid for tenure, simply because he belongs to the ID contingent, it’s actually worse if he was rejected for good reasons. That makes the anti-ID, anti-religious bias all the more obvious.

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Intelligent Design and Tenure on the Net

On the one hand, the usual suspects cry foul when Guillermo Gonzalez is denied tenure, at least in part because he is an advocate of Intelligent Design.

On the other, those who want to defend the integrity of the Scientific Establishment are just fine with it — denying tenure because a teacher believes odd and peculiar things, or because they “embarrassed his department and his University” or because they hang with the wrong crowd.

Let’s get some things straight, right off the bat: I think that Intelligent Design is flawed, incorrect, and poor science; I suspect that the Discovery Institute & friends are probably engaged in all of the sneaky, underhanded things of which they are accused; and I strongly suspect that the traditional Darwinian picture explains everything its strongest proponents — Richard Dawkins, Michael Ruse — claim for it.

Here are other things I believe: denying tenure in order to promote intellectual homogeneity is dangerous to academia in general; Intelligent Design, while poor science, can’t simply be brushed off by calling it the ‘new creationism’; and that rather than being paragons of superhuman virtue, scientists are sometimes as petty as all other human beings.

But what I really think is lost in the overall debate — not just about tenure, about Intelligent Design, about Guillermo Gonzalez — is the relationship of science and scientists to society at large. Science isn’t just the value-neutral investigation of the natural world, an investigation worth pursuing purely for its own sake. Science plays an ineliminable role in our vision of ourselves as a modern, liberal, clear-thinking society. I want to stress that last part: clear thinking. Scientists — much like basketball players, movie stars, hotel heiresses — need to view themselves as role models for society; it is from scientists that we learn to think and reason clearly about issues.

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Tenure and Intelligent Design

Tenure is a special thing for everyone involved in academics. It’s a reminder of the power and importance of the role of professors and teachers in society, and of the traditions that uphold that role.

So it’s reasonable to try to protect the institution of tenure from outside attacks by dangerous fools.

But what’s not reasonable is to try to protect tenure by keeping people out arbitrarily, by denying tenure for political reasons. As a strategy it’s great and perfectly understandable — but it also undercuts the very reasons tenure is important.

Tenure is designed to protect people from recriminations for saying unpopular things. As a society, we benefit from a wide and diverse range of opinions, but that doesn’t mean that we, as individuals, want to hear these diverse opinions. So it’s natural to use intimidation to try to shut down dissenting voices, starting with the loudest. Academics, for a variety of structural reasons, often have political agendas, loud voices, and usually work on the public dime — and so make excellent targets for intimidation. The purpose of tenure is to protect those academics who have shown themselves to be responsible from this outside intimidation.

Trying to deny conservatives and Intelligent Design advocates tenure is just a form of preemptive intimidation aimed at junior researchers and teachers. But tenure doesn’t just exist to protect a single, unitary political class — college professors — from external threats like the boneheaded Horowitz. It also exists to protect diversity within the set of professors. The discipline of economics benefits from having a wide range of positions, because internal debate — much like competition in markets — is the best way to find good answers to economic questions. The same is true in biology, in sociology, in philosophy. The same ought to be true English, in Women’s Studies, in Science and Technology Studies.

So to deny a good researcher tenure because they have outré, or even wrong, beliefs — when that researcher has proven to be capable and responsible in their main area of expertise — is to damage the very methods we use to gain knowledge and learn true (or mostly true, or truth-like) things.

I also think the fastest way to refute Intelligent Design — is to take it seriously. The IDers can ignore scientific refutations of ID because they are mostly located outside of real scientific practice — and they are forced there by shenanigans like this.

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