The opportunity has come to do another series of posts that looks at the claims of some of the brightest minds in the area of science, humanities, and atheism and to offer commentary.
Last year the Salk Institute put on a conference called "Beyond Belief 2006" concerning the conflict between science and religion. That conference, too, had some of the best thinkers in their respective fields: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Paul Churchland, Patricia Churchland, Michael Shermer, Neil deGrasse Tyson, just to name a few. It gave me an excellent opportunity to “catch up” on what the academic leaders were telling each other on the subjects that interested me.
I wrote a series of essays on that conference – 35 essays in all – covering each of the speakers and the discussions that went on between speakers.
I have links to all of them in Beyond Belief: Summary.
This year, the Salk Institute ran another conference. They called this one, "Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0". This time, they called together a group of thinkers on the Enlightenment. This year, I have another opportunity to see what the academic leaders are telling each other on these matters, and another opportunity to respond through a series of posts.
The reason that I am doing this?
The primary reason is that, since I left graduate school and had to hold down a real job, I fear losing touch with new developments in the relevant academic fields. I fear that my writing will become “so 20th century.” I am tremendously grateful for the Salk Institute for bringing these people together and giving me an opportunity to catch up on these fields.
A second reason is because I put a lot of effort into studying moral philosophy. I want to know if the ideas that I formed still make sense in the context of new advances in the field. I would like to know if I have any power to solve some of the problems, address some of the concerns, and correct some of the mistakes that these people make.
Of course, I think that I can do all of these things. However, many people who have such beliefs are mistaken. The best that I can hope to accomplish is to present my arguments and let others judge if they actually accomplish what I think they can accomplish.
That is what I will do in the set of blogs to come.
Like last year, I will confine my essays to weekend postings – leaving weekdays for current events, addressing comments from the studio audience, and the like. Like last year, I should be able to work my way through the whole conference in about 5 months or so. When I am done, the reader will have a good idea of what the academic leaders are saying about science, morality, and atheism, the implications that their claims have for desire utilitarianism, and the implications that desire utilitarianism has for their claims.
This year, the Salk Institute decided to present the conference topic in the form of a software analogy. About 300 years ago, academic leaders proposed a set of rules for organizing societies that one can call “Enlightenment 1.0”.
Wikipedia defines the Age of Enlightenment as follows:
The Age of Enlightenment . . . was an eighteenth century movement in European and American philosophy — some classifications also include 17th century philosophy (usually called the Age of Reason).
The term can more narrowly refer to the intellectual movement of The Enlightenment, which advocated reason as the primary basis of authority. Developed in France, Britain and Germany, it influenced the whole of Europe including Russia and Scandinavia. The era is marked politically by governmental consolidation, nation creation, greater rights for the common people, and a decline in the influence of authoritarian institutions such as the nobility and Church.
This frame of reference invites a number of questions.
(1) What was Enlightenment 1.0 anyway? It was built as an open-source program with a lot of contributors. Almost immediately, it branched out into a number of different versions. Some started to claim that their opponents had made changes that were so central to the program that they could no longer sensibly say that their alternative was a member of the “Enlightenment” family. So, what are we evaluating, really, when we look at Enlightenment 1.0.
(2) Did Enlightenment 1.0 actually have any bugs? Or were the system crashes that we witnessed actually a product of user error? The case can be made that some users simply did not read the instruction manual very well and improperly installed the software on their political systems – that this was responsible for the system crashes that resulted. If we were simply to install the package correctly, then it would work.
However, even if we take this route we have to ask ourselves questions like, “Can we alter Enlightenment 1.0 to make it easier to install? Can we somehow block the types of errors that lead to these system crashes? After all, the best software in the world is hardly useful if nobody can get it installed.
(3) Are there any ways to solve the problems with Enlightenment 1.0? Some people who seek to offer a competing project – particularly various versions of Fundamentalism software – argue that these system failures are inherent to Enlightenment 1.0 – that the operating system is inherently unstable. Its builders will never be able to fix it, so it is best to simply throw it out and to go with something that has thousands of years of proven usefulness behind it – various forms of religious fundamentalism.
Of course, Enlightenment proponents choke on their drinks when they hear Fundamentalist proponents argue that their system actually works in anything more than a rudimentary way. “Sure. Right. Go back to counting on your fingers, if that’s what you want. You’ll be starving to death within a year.”
These are the questions that I will be exploring every weekend for the next few months. I hope that you, the reader, will find this series useful and informative, as I certainly will.
One major difference between last year’s presentation and this year’s presentation is that, this year, I will update this introductory post with each new essay. So, if you would like to bookmark this posting or add it to your shortcut bar, you will be able to come back here for a direct link to each post in this series as I produce them.
I also would like to recommend a recent post of mine that will serve as a foundation for some of my further postings: Morality from the Ground Up. There, I described a set of increasingly complex societies and the (objectively true statements about) relationships between objects of evaluation and reasons for action. In the essays that follow I will add some other descriptions of relationships between objects of evaluation and desires using the same model.
Finally, I would like to encourage you to make a contribution to the Salk Institute in support of the Beyond Belief series. (Disclaimer: I have no association with the Salk Institute other than exploiting their Beyond Belief series for the purpose of creating a series of blog post).
Table of Contents
Essay 1: E2.0: Darrin McMahon: Enlightenment as the Seed to Social Chaos. McMahon provides an introduction to Enlightenment 1.0 and its most significant bug - a tendency to lead to social chaos and, eventually, tyranny.
Essay 2: E2.0: Margaret Jacob: Enlightenment 1.0 as a Populist Movement . Jacob describes the beginnings of Enlightenment 2.0 as a populist movement, suggesting the importance of taking the arguments to the people.
Essay 3: E2.0: Edward Slingerland: The Religion that Denies it is a Religion. Slingerland argues that Enlightenment 2.0 must necessarily be another religion, though one of the better religions.
Essay 4: E2.0: Discussion 1: Necessary False Beliefs. This essay is a discussion of some of the responses from the audience to Slingerland's suggestion that morality consists in desires to do harm to others and to make up reasons to justify those harms.
Essay 5: E2.0: Donald Rutherford: Other Worldly Happiness. Rutherford sees two types of people; those who seek happiness in this world, and those who seek happiness in the next. I, on the other hand, think that Rutherford is mistaken to put so much emphasis on happiness.
Essay 6: E2.0: Discussion 2: Happiness and the Absence of Suffering. Several members of the audience agree with this idea that happiness and absence of suffering is the root of morality. Some disagree. This essay discusses their remarks.
Essay 7: E2.0: Daniel Dennett: "But What If It's True?" . Dennett defends the harshness of New Atheist criticism of religion by asking, "What if it's true?" that these particular religious beliefs are causing people to waste their lives and are dangerous to children?
Essay 8: E2.0: Daniel Dennett: Teach the Children. Dennett proposes a method of dealing with religious superstition - by teaching children about all (major) religions so they can see that none have a special right to superior knowledge over any other.
Essay 9: E2.0: David Sloan Wilson: New Atheism a Stealth Religion . Wilson defines a 'stealth religion' as any belief system that departs from reality, points out some claims that the New Atheists make as just plain false in order to classify it as a Stealth Religion.
Essay 10: E2.0: Jonathan Haidt: Moral Intuitionism . Haidt proposes that moral theory is shifting away from the idea that morality depends on reason, and towards the idea that we have fundamental (biologically rooted) intuitions of right and wrong.
Essay 11: E2.0: Jonathan Haidt: Five Foundations of Morality . Building off of the intuitionist idea discussed in the previous essay, Haidt argues that there are five fundamental pillars of morality, each corresponding to an evolved disposition: the harm principle, fairness/justice, community, authority, and purity.
Essay 12: E2.0: Michael Shermer: Tribalism and the Free Market . Shermer argues that religion is not the real problem, but tribalism. The best cure (or at least a very good cure) for the evils of tribalism is to set up free markets - trade between different tribes - that builds trust, alliances, and good will.
Essay 13: E2.0: Discussion: Reasons, Lies, and Types of Communities". I took three items from a panel discussion that took place after Shermer's talk. (1) The way in which emotions control our beliefs and beliefs control our emotions. (2) The correct sense in which it is true that many religious people lie through their teeth about atheists and secularism. (3) The types of communities we should be tolerant of and those types of communities that are beyond tolerance.
Essay 14: E2.0: Gregory Clark: The Evolution of Capitalism. Clark offers a theory that the mindset that is compatible with capitalism evolved when poor people in England died off to be replaced by the middle-class people in England who had a more capitalist mindset.
Essay 15: E2.0: Deirdre McCloskey: The Morality of Capitalism. McClosky is a Christian who holds that Christian values can be found in capitalism - that capitalism both promotes and springs from Christian values.
Essay 16: E2.0: Stuart Kaufman: Function, Agency, and Reductionism.. Stuart Kaufman gives a presentation in which he argues that there is more to the universe than that which can be reduced to principles of physics. In doing so he includes concepts of function and agency - both of which I discuss in reductionist terms.
Essay 17: Sean Carroll: The Origin of the Universe. Sean Carroll notes that the question of how the universe began is an area where religious people seem to claim to have an upper hand over atheist scientists. Carroll argues that the arguments for a beginning to the universe are weak - that the laws that allow us to explain the universe back to 1 second after the big bang do not apply to what comes before. So, we cannot really say that the universe began in a big bang, at least not scientifically.
Essay 18: David Albert: The Power of Physics. David Albert also argues in favor of reductionism, that physics can explain everything in the universe. However, his 'argument' is little more than an assertion that modern theories seem to do way with the problem of the limits of science that was accepted in the early 1900s.
Essay 19: Peter Atkins: On Pride and Chemistry. Peter Atkins dismisses the idea that scientists cannot reduce such concepts as the wetness of water or romantic love to a set of scientific equations. To the degree that the scientist can describe how water molecules behave on another surface, this is sufficient for describing its wetness. And scientists should not be concerned about the accusation of suffering from 'pride' when they say that they can do these things. 'Pride' in the morally contempatible sense has to do with asserting that one has abilities that one does not have. This does not apply to the chemist's ability to explain things that people want to believe are unexplainable.
Essay 20: Sir Harold Kroto: Issues on Science vs. Religion. Harold Kroto gave a presentation that was highly critical of religion and of the Templeton Foundation which provides people with what Kroto said was a misleading account of the relationship between science and religion. He argues for demanding a more accurate account and the condemnation of groups like the Templeton Foundation for their misleading claims.
Essay 21: Scott Atran: The Causes of Terrorism. Atran challenges the idea that religion is the cause of terrorism. He traces the cause back to sociological factors. In doing so, he condemns those who would condemn religion for not being scientific - for offering 'theories of terrorism' that simply do not fit the available data.
Essay 22: Lee Silver: Religion Without God. Lee Silver challenges a different type of religion - not a religion that believes in a personal God with beliefs nd desires, but in the worship of 'nature' in which 'natural' and 'intrinsically good' are taken to be necessarily lined
Essay 23: Greg Epstein: The Heart of Humanism. Epstein argues for the importance of ritual and art in humanism - that without these humanism is missing a 'soul' that will naturally make it appear unappealing to others. Religion, with these elements, fulfills a need that humanism cannot fulfill unless it, too, adopts these elements.
Essay 24: Ronald D'Sousa: A Passion for Science. Using a parable in which a person finds a stone roughly shaped like a human face, and compares the marvel that nature might create such an image without direction compared to the mundane claim that some designer fassioned it, D'Sousa argues for generatin a passion and wonder in science.
Essay 25: Patricia Churchland: The Relation of Science and Morality.. Patricia Churchland spoke about relationships between values and brain structure, giving a number of examples in which differences in brain structure were associated with differences in values.
Essay 26: Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Atheism from the Inside Out. Rebecca Newberger Gibson gave a reading out of a novel of hers which contains an atheist character (and significant knowledge of the current atheist literature) to describe his relationship to and wonder at the universe and, in particualar, at his own existence.
Essay 27: John Allen Paulos: Probability and Error. John Allen Paulos looks at the probability arguments for the existence of God and answers how many of them misunderstand the nature of probability.
Essay 28: V.S. Ramachandran: Bridging Humanities and Science. V.S. Ramachandran wants to draw one relationship between the humanities and science by associating the scientific study of the phenomenon of synesthesia (seeing numbers as colors) with the literary quality of metaphor.
Essay 29: Adam Kolber: Brain Studies and the Law. Adam Kolber looks at the effect that brain science will have on the law. Specifically, he looks at the legal implications of scientific breakthroughs that will allow us to use brain scans to now what a person believes and on our ability to alter our memories (for therapeutic reasons).
Essay 30: Jonathan Gottschall: Literary Science. Jonathan Gottschall notes that there have never been any persistent advances in literary knowledge - no building up of knowledge over time like what we found in science. To combat this, he wants to make literary studies more science like and explains some ways in which literary theories can be tested experimentally.
Essay 31 David Brin: The Great Silence and the Enlightenment. David Brin is concerned with the fact that we have not heard from any other intelligent race. He argues that the natural state of humanity is feudalism, and that we have recently been able to fight this by establishing four institutions of truth - democracy, science, law, and markets. Brin argues that preserving these institutions against the natural disposition to descend again into a form of feudalism will be the differnce between our thriving as a species or, perhaps, disappearing into 'the great silence'.
Essay 32: Robert Winter: The Nature of (Musical) Genius". Using Beethoven as an example, Robert Winter looks at some of the claims made about musical genius - about its association with insanity and the idea that genius involves pulling ideas out of thin air (or having them given to a person by a God). He disputes these claims, at least in Beethoven's case, then directs scientists where they might want to look to give us some insights into (musical) genius.
Essay 33: Sam Harris: The End of Religion. Sam Harris returns to the conference to explain some of his views on religion in a different way. In listening to him, I suggest the possibility that Sam might have been using two different senses of 'religion' throughout his writings, a broad sense (that makes his views appear intolerant), and a narrower sense in which he simply refuses to tolerate those beliefs that lead to great harm.
Essay 34: Daniel Smail: The Historian's "Creationist" Contamination. Daniel Smail seeks to argue that biology is not the only field contaminated with Creationism. The desire to reserve a place for God and the biblical story of creation also places some artificial limits on history and invites a challenge to historians to teach an alternative (biblically correct) version of history that the evidence simply does not support.
Essay 35: Jeff Hawkins: Entrepreneurial Atheism. Jeff Hawkins argues that atheists need more than the right ideas. They need an entrepreneurial way of looking at things and advancing their cause. They need not only people with ideas but ideas on how to get things done.
Essay 36: PZ Myers: Should I call myself an atheist?. P.Z. Myers describes his life as the village atheist in a conservative community and as one of the more outspoken bloggers defending atheism and science.