Author Archives: Jim P Houston

Victor J. Stenger: Nuthin’ To Explain

Philosopher David Albert’s recent critical review of Lawrence Krauss’ ‘A Universe from Nothing has gained widespread attention and approval in diverse quarters (including Jerry Coyne’s).  Here Professor Victor J. Stenger offers his own response.


Nuthin’ to Explain

Victor J. Stenger

When you ain’t got nuthin’

You got nuthin’ to explain

Bob Dylan (paraphrase)

In a recent book called A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, cosmologist Larry Krauss describes how our universe could have arisen naturally from a pre-existing structureless void he calls “nothing.”[1] He bases his argument on quantum physics, along with now well-established results from elementary particle physics and cosmology. In an afterword, atheist Richard Dawkins exults, “Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages.”[2]

Philosopher David Albert will have none of it. In a review in the New York Times,[3] he asks, “Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from?” Krauss admits he does not know, but suggests they may arise randomly, in which case some universe like ours would have arisen without a prescribed cause. In my 2006 book The Comprehensible Cosmos, I attempt to show that the laws of physics arise naturally from the symmetries of the void.[4]

In any case, Albert asserts that it doesn’t matter what the laws of physics are. They “have no bearing whatsoever on questions of where the elementary stuff came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular elementary stuff it does, as opposed to something else, or to nothing at all.”

Krauss says that the reason there is something rather than nothing is that the quantum vacuum state is unstable. His theological and philosophical critics claim that what he discusses is not really “nothing.” Krauss dismisses this criticism and says that the “nothing” of his critics is some “vague and ill-defined” and “intellectually bankrupt” notion of “nonbeing.”[5] Albert insists, “Krauss is dead wrong and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right.”

In fact, Krauss’s book is a good introduction to the latest in cosmology suitable for a layperson. If you, as Albert, do not find Krauss’s philosophical or theological views congenial, you should read the book anyway because these views are typical among theoretical particle physicists and cosmologists. If you want to dispute them, you should at least know where they stand.

Clearly, no academic consensus exists on how to define “nothing.” It may be impossible. To define “nothing” you have to give it some defining property, but, then, if it has a property it is not nothing!

Krauss shows that our universe could have arisen naturally without violating any known laws of physics. While this has been well known for a quarter century,[6] Krauss brings the arguments up-to-date

The “nothing” that Krauss mainly talks about throughout the book is, in fact, precisely definable. It should perhaps be better termed as a “void,” which is what you get when you apply quantum theory to space-time itself. It’s about as nothing as nothing can be. This void can be described mathematically. It has an explicit wave function. This void is the quantum gravity equivalent of the quantum vacuum in quantum field theory.

Krauss also describes how cosmology now strongly suggests that a “multiverse” exists in which our universe is just one member. So, the real issue is not where our particular universe came from but where the multiverse came from. This question has an easy answer: the multiverse is eternal. So, since it always was, it didn’t have to come from anything.

Albert is not satisfied that Krauss has answered the fundamental question: Why there is something rather than nothing, that is, being rather than nonbeing? Again, there is a simple retort: Why should nothing, no matter how defined, be the default state of existence rather than something? And, to bring religion into the picture, one could ask: Why is there God rather than nothing? Once theologians assert that there is a God (as opposed to nothing), they can’t turn around and ask a cosmologist why there is a universe (as opposed to nothing). They claim God is a necessary entity. But then, why can’t a godless multiverse be a necessary entity?

Now, one might still ask why there is something rather than nothing, where nothing means nonbeing including the absence of God. Here at least we can provide a suggestion based on our knowledge of the quantum void. As Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek put it in a Scientific American article back in 1980, which Krauss quotes, “Nothing is unstable.”[7]

The issues Albert raises are legitimate, but they can be addressed within existing physics and philosophical knowledge.



[1] Lawrence Maxwell Krauss, A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing, (New York: Free Press, 2012).

[2] Richard Dawkins in Krauss, A Universe From Nothing, p. 191.

[3] David Albert, New York Times Book Reviews, March 25, 2012

[4] Victor J. Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From? (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006).

[5] Krauss, A Universe From Nothing, pp. xiii-xiv.

[6] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, (Toronto; New York: Bantam Books, 1988); Victor J. Stenger, Not By Design: The Origin of the Universe, (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988).

[7] Frank Wilczek, “The Cosmic Asymmetry Between Matter and Antimatter,” Scientific American 243, no. 6 (1980): 82-90.


Victor J. Stenger is emeritus professor of physics at the University of Hawaii and adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. He is author of the 2007 New York Times bestseller God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist. His latest book is God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion.

As well as Albert’s review, interested readers are pointed towards Sam Harris’ interview with Lawrence Krauss.  For more of Lawrence Krauss’ thoughts on philosophy and physics, you can find a more recent interview with him at ‘The Atlantic’ – you can go also go to the New Scientist for another review of his book by science writer Michael Brooks. Hopefully conversation will extend beyond the merits of Albert’s review and Krauss’ book  – your thoughts on the ‘Primordial Existential Question‘ , cosmological arguments and the relationship between philosophy and physics are all most welcome here. As, of course, are substantive criticisms of Professor Stenger’s argument from atheists and theists alike.

Tim Skellet, Prison Chaplains and talking to believers

From time to time, bloggers here have taken the opportunity to advertise their own work or direct attention to a commentator that they personally find of interest. This doesn’t seem a wild abuse of blogging privileges, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to do a plug for someone in return for a case of wine whose commentary I had enjoyed.

Though, as he has privately admitted, his work is in fact “all bluff” and he is actually “very non-useful and quite silly” I do take Tim Skellet at his word when he swears that he is “still a nice bloke” despite his atheistic secular humanism.  There is, I think, something to be said for trying, as he does, to be “simply live-and-let-live”. And there’s something to be said for the claim, expressed in the title of one his pieces for the Guardian, that “Atheists can have a genuine conversation with believers.” I think he has a point when he argues, as the subtitle of his Comment is Free piece suggests, that “talking with people is more likely to bring results than talking at them” and “there’s no point casting a whole culture as the enemy”.  Comments on that topic are, of course, most welcome here.

More recently Tim has written an interesting blog piece titled ‘God behind bars, atheism in cells: prison chaplains and some issues’. As he notes, “there are all sorts of issues surrounding the nature and work of prison chaplaincies” and he points to a number of them.  I share some of his concerns about “supposed secularization” that is actually “mere removal of social services” and welcome his attempt to open up a discussion that will hopefully receive input from religious and secular-humanist prison chaplains alike. There are worse things to advertise and I’m happy to point readers in the direction of Tim’s post.

On an unrelated topic, I do find a Clairet quite agreeable.

The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: An Interview with Alex Rosenberg

Reality, notes philosopher Alex Rosenberg, is “completely different from what most people think… stranger than even many atheists recognize.”   And having spent some 40 years trying to work out “exactly how advances in biology, neuroscience and evolutionary anthropology, fit together with what physical science has long told us” Professor Rosenberg seems well placed to judge. Thinking seriously and unsentimentally about the nature of reality and life’s ‘persistent questions’ has led the R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke University to some striking, disconcerting and far-reaching conclusions.  In The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, Rosenberg aims to stretch out just what the atheist’s attachment to science really commits him to.

The author of some 14 books and an eminent philosopher of science, Professor Rosenberg has been kind enough to answer some questions from Talking Philosophy about his controversial and challenging work.  The questions posed, and Professor’s Rosenberg’s replies to them have been posted in full ‘as is’. Readers will, I hope, find something in the following to stimulate both thought and discussion

Your book is aimed squarely at atheists, but it’s not a book about atheism as such, rather it’s a book about what atheists should believe.  What are the most important things that the atheist needs to know about reality? And can he really enjoy life without illusions?

The most important thing to know about reality is that science understands it well enough to rule out god, and almost everything else that provides wiggle room for theism and mystery mongering. That includes all kinds of purposes, including even ones that conscious introspection suggests we ourselves have. Conscious introspection was shaped by natural selection into tricking us about the nature of reality. We need always to be on our scientific guard against its meretricious temptations. Treating the illusions that rise to consciousness as symptoms, instead of guides to meaning and value, is crucial to enjoying life. It’s not easy, but taking science seriously is the first step, despite the difficulty consciousness puts in the way of understanding it.


You note early on that “the effort to argue most people out of religious belief was doomed by the very Darwinian forces that the most fervent of Christians deny.”  Does evolution select for superstition and conspiracy theories? And how can they be dispelled?

Getting us from the bottom of the food chain on the African savannah to the top required mother nature (a.k.a. natural selection) to solve several design problems. Its quick and dirty solutions included ones that exaggerated our tendency to see conspiracies—plots in which there is a motive behind every event in nature. That’s what made religious belief unavoidable. It’s why religion is almost universal. Can these false beliefs be dispelled? Probably not completely, and probably not at all for people who have trouble understanding science.

Are introspection and common sense the greatest obstacles to understanding and accepting reality?

Introspection? Yes. Common sense, no.  For reasons just mentioned, we were shaped to be suckers for a good story, a narrative with a plot driven by motives—peoples’, god’s, nature’s. By making us think that our own behaviour is directly understandable to us as the product of our (usually conscious) will, introspection effectively prevents us from discovering its true sources in non-conscious brain processes. Add to that the fact that scientific theories of human behaviour (and everything else) are much harder to understand just because they don’t involve narratives and plots, and the obstacles to understanding erected by conscious thought become obvious.

Common sense is another matter, however. Science is just the result of 400 years of common sense recursively reconstructing itself, weeding out false hypotheses and introducing better ones. The result of course is quantum mechanics, Darwinian theory, neuroscience—common sense reshaped into something that most people can’t understand because they don’t have the patience and mathematical ability to work their way through the details.

What is your conception of ‘scientism’ and why have you ‘reclaimed’ the term?

My conception of scientism is almost the same as that of those who use it as a term of abuse. They use the term to name the exaggerated and unwarranted confidence that science and its methods can answer all meaningful questions. I agree with that definition except for the ‘exaggerated’ and ‘unwarranted’ part.


You seem strongly committed to a form of physicalist reductionism – not eliminativism – perhaps you could say a little more about that and some of the misconceptions surrounding it?

To use some philosophical jargon, I am an eliminativist about the propositional attitudes. That is, I believe that the brain acquires, stores, and uses information, but that it does not do so in the form of sentences, statements or propositions. The illusion that it does so is another one of those mistakes foisted on us by conscious awareness. The eliminativist thesis I just expressed will sound abstract and inconsequential to many people, and completely incoherent to many philosophers. In The Atheist’s Guide to Reality I explain why it’s true and what its huge upshot for theism and mystery mongering is. But I don’t deal with the philosophers charge that the denial we think in statements about the world is incoherent. That’s a task for an academic paper. Suffice it to say that neuroscience forces us to be eliminativist about some things consciousness foists on us, but it does not deny the reality of sensations, emotions or for that matter cognition—properly understood. It’s scientism that mandates the reductive explanation of all three, and that neuroscience is well on its way to providing.


You are strongly committed to the view that “the methods of science are the only reliable way to secure knowledge of anything”? What would you say to those who would suggest that the methods of science can give us no knowledge about mathematics and what it is like to see red?

What I say in response to such sophisticated philosophical challenges is first, like all the other metaphysical and epistemological alternatives, scientism does not yet have a satisfactory account of mathematics or our understanding of it; second, the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness—what its like to have a qualitative experience—is a sign post along the research program of neuroscience. It will eventually have to dissolve this problem, just as physics eventually had to dissolve Zeno’s paradox of motion. Meanwhile, if I have to weigh the achievements of science in the balance against the problems of the philosophy of mathematics and the first person point of view, I’ll choose science. 400 years of ever-increasing depth and breadth in explanation and prediction carries a lot more weight with me than a handful of philosophical conundrums and Platonism about mathematics.


You assert that “science’s description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that when ‘complete’ what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today.” Perhaps you could say something about those fundamentals, why you think they are unassailable and how much can be derived from them?

I argue in The Atheist’s Guide that all the science we need to answer the “persistent questions” that keep most thoughtful people up at night, are physics’ rejection of final causes, entelechies, prior designs in nature, along with the 2d law of thermodynamics. Those two are enough to give us natural selection, and together with them it is enough to solve all the other problems most people have about reality, the meaning of life, the nature of the mind, free will, ethics and the trajectory of human history.

But these established parts of science are of course not enough to answer all the scientific questions about these matters. To answer the questions of science (quite different from the limited questions of philosophy that people commonly ask themselves and their religious “advisers”) requires all the rest of science, including the parts that are still subject to development, change, revision, and even in a few cases, revolution. But nothing at the frontiers of any science is going to overturn the 2d law of thermodynamics, natural selection or the basic molecular biology of the neuron.

Is the fallibility of science a weakness in your argument or one of its strengths?

Science is common sense recursively reconstructing itself.  The reconstruction reflects the fallibility of common sense. Insistence by science on the tentativeness of its results at its ever-shifting research frontier, is what gives us confidence that after repeated test the parts most distant from that frontier are unlikely to be called into question.

The recurring dictum of your book is that ‘the physical facts fix all the facts’, what do you mean by that and how hard is it to persuade people of it?

Nothing more than this: take a time slice of any chunk of the universe—say, our planet, or solar system, or galaxy. Now produce a perfect—fermion for fermion, boson for boson—physical duplicate of that chunk at that moment. Then, everything that is true about what is going on in that first chunk, including all of the biological, psychological, sociological, political, economic, and cultural facts about it, will be true at the second, duplicate chunk.

I don’t know how hard it is to persuade people of this. It’s probably impossible to persuade many people once they realize it deprives their worlds of physically irreducible features.

Many of your readers may be amenable, in principle, to your contention that there is “no chance” of freewill. But few it seems can fully come to terms with the fact. Is freewill an illusion that is here to stay? Do you think that accepting that it is an illusion could change our behaviour and would you want it to?

Realizing there is no free will is unlikely to change our day-to-day behaviour, especially not our penchant for blaming people, and praising dogs for that matter. But it could change our politics a bit. In The Atheist’s Guide I argued that the core morality mother nature imposed on us together with the denial of free will is bound to make the consistent thinker sympathetic to a left-wing, egalitarian agenda about the treatment of criminals and of billionaires.


You assert that “scientism dictates a thoroughly Darwinian understanding of humans and of our evolution—biological and cultural” and that this means that “when it comes to ethics, morality, and value, we have to embrace an unpopular position that will strike many people as immoral as well as impious.” Just how bad is the news about morality? And why do you think “new atheists” like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett can’t accept it?  

Second question first. Nihilism—even my “nice nihilism” is a public relations nightmare. Most of my fellow travellers think that if the scientific worldview saps morality of its truth, correctness, justification, then there is no chance it will be widely adopted and every chance the scientific worldview will be marginalized, to the obvious detriment of human welfare. They might be right. It’s an empirical matter. Answer to first question immediately below.

What‘s the ‘good news’ about nihilism? Does evolution select for niceness?

The good news is that natural selection has shaped almost all of us to be nice enough to make human social life possible. It had to. Without such shaping of social life, human life on the African savannah, and since then for that matter, would have been impossible. We are too puny to survive otherwise (even given our monstrously big brains).

Do you think accepting ‘nilhism’ will change how we act?  Can ‘nilhism’ be ‘reclaimed’ or do you think we will need a new way of talking about ‘morality’?

No. The correct philosophical theory has almost no capacity to overwhelm two million years or more of natural selection. Insofar as we pursue human sciences, nihilism is inevitable, but the label has too many disturbing connotations to stick.

Understandably you take there to be no purpose to the universe. But it seems you want to make a much stronger and more radical claim – that there are no purposes in the universe. Could you say something about just how wrong we are about cognition and consciousness?

The four most difficult chapters of The Atheist’s Guide are devoted to this task, and most reviewers have avoided even discussing them. They are too hard for people who have never heard of the problem of intentionality or content or ‘aboutness.’ Once we take on board eliminativism about content, and Darwinism about every other instance of apparent purposiveness in the universe and in our brains, it’s easy to see that what consciousness tells us about ourselves, our motives, our plans, our purposes, is a tissue of illusions. This, not morality, is the part of our understanding of ourselves that requires radical reconstruction, at least for scientific purposes, if not for everyday life.

In your book you make the striking claim that “Ultimately, science and scientism are going to make us give up as illusory the very thing conscious experience screams out at us loudest and longest: the notion that when we think, our thoughts are about anything at all, inside or outside of our minds.” As you admit this seems an absurd claim. Whilst, your detailed arguments for this position form a difficult and lengthy part of your book, could you give some small sketch of your grounds for making such a claim?

I started on that task in my answer to the last question. The best I can do in a few lines to answer the question further is to note that if intentionality, content, ‘aboutness,’ is impossible, given the way the brain works, it’s also impossible in consciousness—since that’s just more brain process. So, we need an explanation of the illusion that our conscious thoughts have sentential meaning and propositional content. Neuroscience explains why there is no original intentionality, along with no derived intentionality, in the brain. I show that adding consciousness doesn’t help in any way to create original intentionality. The argument is pretty simple once you grant that non-conscious brain states lack original intentionality because they can’t carry around information in the form of sentences.


Ultimately what would the success of your arguments mean for the importance of history, the social sciences, literature and the humanities?   And what would it mean for philosophy? 

My arguments turn the humanities and the interpretative social sciences, especially history, into entertainments. They can’t be knowledge, but they don’t have to be in order to have the greatest importance—emotional, artistic, but not epistemic—in our lives. As for philosophy, done right it’s just very abstract and very general science.

Those interested in finding out more about Professor Rosenberg’s position are pointed towards this piece as written for the New York Times in response to an article by Oxford’s Timothy Williamson who in turn replies critically to Rosenberg here. A further final exchange between the two can be found here. Professor Rosenberg also published a detailed précis of his book that can be found here at the ‘On The Human’ project – it is followed by critical responses from a number of noted philosophers (including Brian Leiter) to whom Rosenberg in turn replies. More recently, Rosenberg published a further piece at the same site titled ‘Final Thoughts of a Disenchanted Naturalist‘.

Update: Massimo Pigliucci, philosopher at the City University of New York, has reviewed ‘The Atheist’s Guide’  for TPM , Philip Kitcher, John Dewey professor of philosophy at Columbia University, has reviewed it for the New York Times and Michael Ruse, Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor at Florida State University, has written a critical commentary on the book published over at Rationally Speaking.


Religion for Atheists: An Interview With Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton, co-founder of London’s School of Life and author of The Consolations of Philosophy, has been kind enough to provide an interview for Talking Philosophy about his new book Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. Readers are invited to share their thoughts on Atheism 2.0. and what we might usefully take from religion.

You were brought up as an atheist – could you describe your earlier views on religion and how you came to have a more positive view of religion and religious practices?

In my book, I argue that believing in God is, for me as for many others, simply not possible. At the same time, I want to suggest that if you remove this belief, there are particular dangers that open up – we don’t need to fall into these dangers, but they are there and we should be aware of them. For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the center stage of everything. Secondly, there is the danger of technological perfectionism; of believing that science and technology can overcome all human problems, that it is just a matter of time before scientists have cured us of the human condition. Thirdly, without God, it is easier to loose perspective: to see our own times as everything, to forget the brevity of the present moment and to cease to appreciate (in a good way) the miniscule nature of our own achievements. And lastly, without God, there can be a danger (note the tentative can) that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour is more easily overlooked – in other words, that evil becomes less incongruous.

Now, it is important to stress that it is quite possible to believe in nothing and remember all these vital lessons (just as one can be a deep believer and a monster). I simply want to draw attention to some of the gaps, some of what may be missing, when we dismiss God too brusquely.

In your book you write: ‘God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inacurracies in the tale of the seven loaves and fishes. ‘ What are those urgent issues?

I am not very interested in the doctrines of religions. What interests me is their organisational forms, and in particular, their capacity to make ideas powerful.

The secular world tends to trust that if we have good ideas, we will be reminded of them when it matters. Religions don’t agree. They are all about structure; they want to build calendars for us that will make sure that we regularly encounter reminders of significant concepts. That is what rituals are: they are attempts to make vivid to us things we already know, but are likely to have forgotten. Religions are also keen to see us as more than just rational minds, we are emotional and physical creatures, and therefore, we need to be seduced via our bodies and our senses too: this was always the great genius of Catholicism. If you want to change someone’s ideas, don’t only concentrate on their ideas, concentrate on their whole selves.

The starting point of religion is that we are children, and we need guidance. The secular world often gets offended by this. It assumes that all adults are mature – and therefore, it hates didacticism, it hates the idea of guidance and moral instruction. But of course we are children, big children who need guidance and reminders of how to live. And yet modern education denies this. It treats us all as far too rational, reasonable, in control though to my mind, we are far more desperate than the modern education system recognises.

In a recent review of your book Terry Eagleton wrote that:  “What the book does, in short, is hijack other people’s beliefs, empty them of content and redeploy them in the name of moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure. It is an astonishingly impudent enterprise. It is also strikingly unoriginal. Liberal-capitalist societies, being by their nature divided, contentious places, are forever in search of a judicious dose of communitarianism to pin themselves together, and a secularised religion has long been one bogus solution on offer.”

What do you make of this criticism?

My book occupies a curious middle-ground which is easy to shoot at from two sides. The very religious like Eagleton may take offence at the brusque, selective and unsystematic consideration of their creeds. Religions are not buffets, they will protest, from which choice elements can be selected at whim. But I disagree. Why should it not be possible to appreciate the depiction of modesty in Giotto’s frescoes and yet bypass the doctrine of the annunciation, or admire the Buddhist emphasis on compassion and yet shun its theories of the after-life? For someone devoid of religious belief, it is no more of a crime to dip into a number of faiths than it is for a lover of literature to single out a handful of favourite writers from across the canon.

Atheists of the militant kind could also feel outraged, in their case by a book that treats religion as though it deserved to be a continuing touchstone for our yearnings. They will point to the furious institutional intolerance of many religions, and to the equally rich, though less illogical and illiberal, stores of consolation and insight available through art and science. They may additionally ask why anyone who professes himself unwilling to accept so many facets of religion – who feels unable to speak up in the name of virgin births, say, or to nod at the claims reverently made in the Jataka tales about the Buddha’s identity as a reincarnated rabbit – should still wish to associate himself with a subject as compromised as faith.

To this the answer is that religions merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition; for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation ceremonies, publishing, art and architecture – a range of interests which puts to shame the scope of the achievements of even the greatest and most influential secular movements and individuals in history. For those interested in the spread and impact of ideas, it is hard not to be mesmerised by examples of the most successful educational and intellectual movements the planet has ever witnessed.

What is your view of the so-called New Atheist critique advanced by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others?

Attempting to prove the non-existence of god can be entertaining. Tough-minded critics of religion have found much pleasure in laying bare the idiocy of believers in remorseless detail, finishing only when they felt they had shown up their enemies as thorough-going simpletons or maniacs.

Though this exercise has its satisfactions, the real issue is not whether god exists or not, but where one takes the argument to once one decides that he evidently doesn’t. The premise of my book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.

One can be left cold by the doctrines of the Christian Trinity and the Buddhist Fivefold Path and yet at the same time be interested in the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring. In a world beset by fundamentalists of believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.

It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting. We can then recognise that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: firstly, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply-rooted selfish and violent impulses. And secondly, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.

Update: You can read Alain de Botton’s “Secular Society’s Sacraments” and a response to critics in TPM’s online essays. Responses to those pieces are most welcome here.

Jerry Coyne: Errors & Omissions

I directed a fair bit of opprobrium at Jerry Coyne recently over his ‘challenge’ to Keith Ward and his failure to inform Ward of the same. I still think Coyne merited some criticism over this. Coyne concedes that perhaps he should have informed Keith Ward about his ‘challenge’. and I’m still inclined to say that he should have. The plausibility of Coyne’s claim that by issuing the ‘challenge’ (as if) to Keith Ward he was really asking his readers to think of responses is something readers can judge for themselves. But I can certainly agree with his defenders that ‘the challenge’ is best understood as something rhetorical.

Coyne can be criticised, as he has been by Russell Blackford, for his problematic idea of what a fact is. And Massimo Pigliucci, who has previously criticized Coyne’s philosophical conception of science for extending “in some of its attributes, to plumbing”, twittered that for Coyne to equate  ‘science’ with empiricism is ‘not kosher’.  Pigliucci also says  that “Ward established that there are plenty of facts that are not amenable to scientific analysis” and really this “is a truism”. I would agree. And I continue to agree with Keith Ward that, on account of a careless reading of his column, Coyne offered up a straw man argument as far as the ‘challenge’ was concerned. As philosopher Jean Kazez  argues the ‘challenge’ is a red herring –  the relevant quotation ”was lifted out of context and Jerry interpreted it as saying something Ward clearly never said”.

All that granted, the charges of intellectual dishonesty, and shabby behaviour that I levelled against Professor Coyne were, I think, both counter-productive and a good few steps beyond what is appropriate. If I want to insist on civility and charitable interpretation on the part of my more strident fellow atheists, I’m rather obliged to offer the same to them.  So, I have rather been drawn to the conclusion that I should offer some apology to Jerry Coyne for the accusations I made against him. I have now done so. I’ve also happily conceded that I am, as Coyne suggests, a ‘pompous jerk’.

And those, I think, seem quite appropriate as my final words on the matter.

Professor Coyne has since accepted my apologies and posted a reply here.

* I have subsequently re-edited my original post.

Keith Ward & The Jerry Coyne Challenge

Readers of Talking Philosophy will be aware that recent mention has been made of philosopher Keith Ward, a Professorial Research Fellow at Heythrop College, who Russell Blackford thinks ‘goes badly wrong’ when he ‘talks about the limits of science’ in a recent article.

Although Russell is clearly in a different camp to Ward, he does share the latter’s rejection of “the principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) …. according to which, religion and science, properly construed, have separate [but non-exhaustive] epistemic territories or areas of authority”. As Ward says: “Many religious statements are naturally construed as statements of fact – Jesus healed the sick, and rose from death, and these are factual claims. So Stephen Gould‘s suggestion that religion only deals with value and meaning is incorrect, though it is correct that scientists do not usually deal with such questions.” Ward further argues that “a huge number of factual claims are not scientifically testable. Many historical and autobiographical claims, for instance, are not repeatable, not publicly observable now or in future, and are not subsumable under any general law. We know that rational answers to many historical questions depend on general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgement. There are no history laboratories. Much history, like much religion, is evidence-based, but the evidence is not scientifically tractable.“

It is not, perhaps, entirely surprising that an article titled Religion answers the factual questions science neglects did not receive a warm welcome over at New Atheist biologist, Jerry Coyne’s place. Running with the headline “Guardian writer foolishly claims that religion answers factual questions”, Coyne objects strongly to what he views as Ward’s overly narrow conception of science. There is always argument about what ‘science’ ‘means’ in cases like the ones Ward mentions, says Coyne: “When trying to deal with factual claims about the universe, I would use the definition of ‘science’ as ‘a combination of empirical investigation and reason.'” Coyne concedes that “not all facts are ‘scientific facts’ in the sense that a) they’re investigated by scientists, b) they’re studied in the laboratory c) there has to be ‘repeatability’ in the scientific sense.” But, he asserts “all ‘facts’ must be empirical facts, susceptible to empirical investigation, confirmation by several lines of evidence, and the possibility that the claim can be falsified…. To say that human history is ‘not scientifically tractable’ is just about as dumb as saying that evolutionary history is not scientifically tractable…. This kind of denigration of ‘science’—with science defined so narrowly that it comprises only ‘the things that laboratory scientists do’—takes place for only one reason: to justify religion… Ward’s line of analysis is so palpably weak that I’m surprised anybody would accept it…I do not intend to take issue with any of Coyne’s substantial criticisms here. Readers, hopefully will give due consideration to all the current and forthcoming arguments and make up their own minds. What did pique my interest, and prompt this modest piece of reportage, was the manner in which Coyne closed his posting:

I challenge Ward to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input.

This is indeed an interesting challenge. It seems a difficult one to meet and I doubt anybody could meet it to Dr Coyne’s satisfaction. It is, after all, very much a question of definition. [Indeed as Bob Lane suggests: Coyne’s challenge might appear circular: ‘a fact is a condition that obtains and is verifiable empirically – now give an example of a fact that is not’.] In any case, I can offer up no answer of my own. I did attempt to solicit responses. One opined: “That human agents have intrinsic moral worth and should be treated alike in the same situations regardless of sex, religious convictions, and social status.” And from Jeremy Stangroom there was perhaps the more promising suggestion, “that there is something that it is like to be a bat/person”. He also suggested that Dr Coyne really ought to think about Mary’s (Black and White) Room, and that does sound a promising line of inquiry. In any case, if anybody reading feels they can meet The Jerry Coyne Challenge I’d be delighted to hear from you.

As an intellectual exercise it is interesting, but The Jerry Coyne Challenge is interesting for another reason. And that is because it has not really been set as a challenge at all. Reading Dr Coyne’s post, you won’t find anything along the lines of “‘I await Ward’s response with interest” or “Ward has yet to take up my invitation to reply”. I did post a comment asking “Did you email and ask him? It’s just I don’t imagine he reads your blog.” But I never did get a response. I feel that if you actually want to issue a challenge to someone you do rather need to let the other party know. That rather is the point. So I dropped Keith Ward a note and, though he’d never heard of Dr Coyne or his blog, he was perfectly happy to offer a response to ‘the challenge’.  And I’m perfectly happy to print it here. I don’t offer up Professor Ward’s reply up with the claim that it is a resounding refutation of all Dr Coyne’s criticisms. I make no claims for it at all, except that it is philosophically literate and intellectually honest. So here it is, Professor Ward’s unsought reply:

I have been told that Jerry Coyne has challenged me to cite a “reasonably well established fact about the world” that has no “verifiable empirical input”. That is not a claim I have ever made, or ever would make.

What I do claim is not so controversial, namely, that many factual claims about the world are reasonably believed or even known to be true, even when there is no way in which any established science (a discipline a Fellow of the Royal Society would recognise as a natural science) could establish that they are true or false.

Here is an example: my father worked as a double-agent for MI6 and the KGB during the “Cold War”. He told me this on his death-bed, in view of the fact that I had once seen him kill a man. The Section of which he was a member was disbanded and all record of it expunged, and all those who knew that he was a member of it had long since died. This is certainly a factual claim. If true, he certainly knew that it was true. I reasonably believe that it is true. But there is absolutely no way of empirically verifying or falsifying it. QED.

The possible response that someone could have verified it if they had been there and seen it is one that A. J. Ayer rightly rejected as allowing a similar sort of claim about (e.g.) the resurrection of Jesus. When, in my Guardian piece, I described the resurrection as a ‘hard fact’, I naturally did not mean that it would convince everyone. I meant that it entails some empirical factual claims (so it is not just subjective or fictional). But those claims are not verifiable by any known scientific or historical means. That is why we make judgements about such claims in the light of our more general philosophical and moral views and other personal experiences- (i.e.) whether we believe there is a God, whether this would be a good thing for God to do, and whether we think we have experienced God.

Jerry Coyne and I seem to have different views about this, but neither of us have access to direct empirical evidence. We both think some empirical claims are relevant to our assessment of such claims. But as Ayer said, the concept of “relevance” is so vague that it does not settle any real argument.

“There it is.” concludes Ward: “It is interesting (and slightly depressing) that readers can exaggerate claims beyond any reasonable limits, so that they become ‘straw men’, easily demolished. Closer attention to exactly what is said, and to the long philosophical series of debates about verification – on which subject Ayer wholly recanted his famous espousal of the verification principle – might prevent such an ‘easy’ way with philosophical questions which are both profound and difficult.”

Post re-edited 06/01/12

Ethicists, Courtesy & Morals

For all their pondering on matters moral, ethicists are no better mannered than other philosophers, and they behave no better morally than other philosophers or other academics either. Or such, at least, are the conclusions suggested by the research of philosophers Eric Schwitzgebel (at the University of California, at Riverside) and Joshua Rust (of Stetson University, Florida).

On Ethicists’ courtesy at philosophy conferences as recently published in Philosophical Psychology‘, Schwitzgebel & Rust report on a study that suggests that audiences in ethics sessions do not behave any better than those attending seminars on other areas of philosophy. Not when it comes to talking audibly whilst a speaker is addressing the room and not when it comes to ‘allowing the door to slam shut while entering or exiting mid-session’. And though, appropriately enough “audiences in environmental ethics sessions … appear to leave behind less trash” generally speaking, the ethicists are just as likely to leave a mess as the epistemologists and metaphysicians.

The two previously co-authored ‘The Moral Behaviour of Ethicists: Peer Opinion’ (Mind, 2009), a paper that was widely reported and blogged upon. In the same the pair reported that a survey conducted at a philosophical conference suggested that most philosophers believed ethicists behaved no better than other philosophers or non-academics of a similar social background. Non-ethicists were also just about as likely to say that ethicists behaved worse than other philosophers, as they were to say that the experts on moral philosophy behaved any better.

A separate paper by Schwitzgebe published in Philosophical Psychology reported that within academic libraries, “compared to other philosophy books similar in age and popularity … relatively obscure, contemporary ethics books of the sort likely to be borrowed mainly by professors and advanced students of philosophy were actually about 50% more likely to be missing than non-ethics books” and “that classic (pre-1900) ethics books were about twice as likely to be missing.” This paper was titled Do ethicists steal more books?” and the answer it seems is “Yes”.

Schwitzgebel & Rust now have a new (and “monstrously long”) paper in preparation titled the The Self-Reported Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors.”. In the same they report on their survey of ethics professors, non-ethicist philosophers, and professors in other departments on eight ‘moral’ issues. These being “academic society membership, voting, staying in touch with one’s mother, vegetarianism, organ and blood donation, responsiveness to student emails, charitable giving, and honesty in responding to survey questionnaires” (some aspects of which the two were able to compare with behavioural results). Ethicists, it seems, express “somewhat more stringent normative attitudes on some issues, such as vegetarianism and charitable donation”. However, “on no issue did ethicists show significantly better behavior than the two comparison groups” The pair’s findings “on attitude-behavior consistency were mixed: Ethicists showed the strongest relationship between behavior and expressed moral attitude regarding voting but the weakest regarding charitable donation”.

Schwitzgebel says on his blog that this

“research raises questions about the extent to which studying ethics improves moral behavior. To the extent that practical effect is among one’s aims in studying (or as an administrator, in requiring) philosophy, I think there is reason for concern. I’m inclined to think that either philosophy should be justified differently, or we should work harder to try to figure out whether there is a *way* of studying philosophy that is more effective in changing moral behavior than the ordinary (21st century, Anglophone) way of studying philosophy is.”

It might, at least, give some pause for thought, possibly even comment…

Quackery & Straws

As Edgar Allen Poe, wrote in The Literati of 1850:

“There are very few points of classical scholarship which are not the common property of “the learned” … and in composing any book of reference recourse is unscrupulously and even necessarily had in all cases to similar books which have preceded… it is the practice of quacks to paraphrase page after page … preserving the spirit of the whole, its information…, while everything is so completely re-written as to leave no room for a direct charge of plagiarism…. he who, in availing himself of the labors of his predecessors (and it is clear that all scholars must …) who shall copy verbatim the passages to be desired… even if he fail to make direct acknowledgment of indebtedness — is unquestionably less of the plagiarist than the disingenuous and contemptible quack who wriggles himself, as above…”

As Poe noted “the design in any such compilation is … to make a useful school-book or book of reference” and, of the author, “the public, of course, [are] never caring a straw whether he be original.” The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy [IEP] is an incredibly useful ‘book of reference’ for the modern age and most of its articles are original contributions by specialized philosophers. It is however acknowledged on the site’s ‘About’ page, “that there are temporary or ‘proto articles’” that “have largely been adapted from older sources.” I was unaware the site had recycled public domain material in this way when I chanced upon an entry on ‘The Academy’ by an ‘anonymous author.’ Something just struck me as odd, there was a reference to “the distinction laid down by Diogenes, and alluded to above” but no such allusion and then there were certain rather dated turns of phrase. And I got to wondering whether the material had been elsewhere before it went online as a ‘temporary’ IEP article in 2001.

The IEP entry is composed of two parts: the main section and a short piece titled ‘views of the New Academy’. Upon a little investigation it appeared that this second section is pretty much identical with an article on the ‘New Academy’ found in Harper’s dictionary of classical literature and antiquities’ of 1896 as edited by one Harry Thurston Peck,. And I found a suitably placed reference to Diogenes Laertius and his threefold division of the Academy, and a very close match to the rest of IEP entry in Charles Anthon’s 1842 ‘Classical Dictionary.’ and his 1833 edition of John Lemprière’s ‘Bibliothecca Classica’ (from whose revision his own Dictionary evolved). Now, I know the IEP is a not-for-profit organisation run by volunteers whose very admirable goal is the sharing of knowledge. And I know that, legally, you can do what you please with public domain works. But, I must admit the question did occur: why would you copy, pretty much verbatim, from other people’s work and not say where you copied it from? If the IEP entry is accurate then the student will, quite reasonably, not care a straw that it is stitched together from two articles published in the 19th century. And it would have been quite absurd for some ‘quack’ to have completely re-written the material just so its origins couldn’t be traced. But it seems quite simple to state in online article X that the same incorporates text from public domain sources Y and Z. And what occurred to me was just that is was, well, ‘bad form’ to help your self to the work of others and give them no credit for their labours even if they are dead.

But then, as some research revealed, ‘recycling’ material, as the quotation from Poe suggests, is nothing new. Peck’s Dictionary lifts its article on ‘Academia’ straight from Anthon too (it is also missing an allusion to Diogenes, but as the IEP includes a line straight from Anthon not found in Harpers one presumes the IEP researcher was working from both). O.M. Fernald, reviewing Peck’s Dictionary for The American Journal of Philology back in 1897, said “it is not possible within these limits to review half a dozen important works of reference [and] that is what an adequate review of this volume would mean” and he has some harsh criticisms to make about Peck’s willingness to help himself to the work of living authors simply because copyright laws fail to prohibit it. Still, Peck at least acknowledges that “when material was, in its original form, precisely suited to his purpose, he incorporated it without a change … [that] the greater part of his work was compilation rather than original exposition, [and]… if the completed work be found of service to the student of the classics, this result must be very largely due to the original sources whence so great a portion of the Dictionary is derived.” This is rather more than can be said for Charles Anthon. As is noted by The North American Review in 1842: “One would infer, from the way in which [Anthon] speaks of his labours in the preface, that the articles had all been written by himself. This is very far from the case. Many, if not all the most important, are taken, – not merely compiled, but taken, in their very words, from other writers. Here and there a sentence is omitted, the arrangement slightly altered, or a phrase changed, for the purpose of interweaving a paragraph drawn from some other source. The references to the original authorities are also copied, apparently without verification … the book is any thing but a homogenous whole., it is diversified by styles as numerous as the authors in Dr Anthon’s Library…” And indeed it was this very controversy about plagiarism that prompted Poe to write in Anthon’s defence as above.

Anthon’s entry on ‘Academia’ at least is not, it seems, taken whole and direct from anything else. Still it appears The history of philosophy: from the earliest times to the beginning of the present century; drawn up from Brucker’s Historia critica philosophiaeby William Enfield (1791) was one of the books on Anthon’s bookshelves. There remain a few turns of phrase – about “those followers of Plato, who taught the doctrine of their master without mixture or corruption” and those “which in some measure receded from the Platonic system without entirely deserting it” – that have dropped through time from a book published in 1791, via a number of learned hands, into a ‘temporary’ article published online in 2001.

Personally, I rather hope they don’t get round to replacing it.

Utilitarians are not nice people

Such, at least, is the conclusion drawn by writers at the ‘Economist’ who have just reported on the publication, in ‘Cognition’, of a paper that claims (in its title) that ‘Antisocial Personality Traits Predict Utilitarian Responses to Moral Dilemmas’.

Reading the article in the Economist made me recall a report that apparently appeared in the Los Angeles Times a few years ago. In the same it was that reported that when “asked to resolve hypothetical dilemmas — such as tossing a person from a bridge into the path of a trolley to save five others — people with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex tended to sacrifice one life to save many”. Indeed, according to the report, “people with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex” are “about three times as likely to sacrifice one person for the greater good compared with people without brain damage or those with damage in a different part of their brains” (or, rather, this is how they respond to rather unlikely thought experiments). This was based on findings published in Nature by Koeings et al in a paper titled “Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements” (available as as pdf here)..

The new paper referred to in The Economist (‘The Mismeasure of Morals’) is by Daniel M. Bartels of Columbia University and David A. Pizarro at Cornell University. The two note in their abstract that “Researchers have recently argued that utilitarianism is the appropriate framework by which to evaluate moral judgment, and that individuals who endorse non-utilitarian solutions to moral dilemmas (involving active vs. passive harm) are committing an error.” But they then report on “a study in which participants responded to a battery of personality assessments and a set of [trolley] dilemmas that pit utilitarian and non-utilitarian options against each other. Participants who indicated greater endorsement of utilitarian solutions had higher scores on measures of Psychopathy, machiavellianism, and life meaninglessness.” The authors claim “these results question the widely-used methods by which lay moral judgments are evaluated, as these approaches lead to the counterintuitive conclusion that those individuals who are least prone to moral errors also possess a set of psychological characteristics that many would consider prototypically immoral.”

Bartels and Pizzaro (and indeed the Economist) are keen to stress that the “results do not speak to whether utilitarianism …  is the correct normative ethical theory, as the characteristics of a theory’s proponents cannot determine its normative status”. It is also pointed out by Bartels & Pizzaro that “a variety of researchers have shown that individuals with higher working memory capacity and those who are more deliberative thinkers are, indeed, more likely to approve of utilitarian solutions”.

Still, does it make anybody wonder? Is it wrong if it does?


Back to the Courtyard of Habit?


Earlier this week the Guardian newspaper published a letter, signed by some 50 noted figures, including TPM’s editor-in-chief Julian Baggini as well as Professors AC Grayling and Simon Blackburn. expressing the view that: “introducing philosophy lessons in the classroom from a very early age would have immense benefits in terms of boosting British schoolchildren’s reasoning and conceptual skills, better equipping them for the complexities of life in the 21st century, where ubiquitous technology and rapid social change are the order of the day”.  The signatories called for a number of measures intended to “make sure children from all backgrounds get the advantages philosophy at a young age can bring in terms of intellectual and social development..” A number of letters have followed in support, including one from TPM editor James Garvey, who has been involved in the Royal Institute of Philosophy‘s work in schools for the last fifteen years. Back in 2008 Continuum published Philosophy in Schools, edited by Michael Hand of the Institute of Education and Carrie Winstanley of Roehampton University in which it was argued that ‘children of all ages should study philosophy in school because it is the basis of critical thinking’. Hand argued that “Exposure to philosophy should be part of the basic educational entitlement of all children.” This is a view that seems to have found increasing favour. But the idea of introducing school pupils to philosophy, even to older students, has not always been welcomed by philosophers.

Roger Scruton, being interviewed back in 1988 by the journal Cogito (which promoted teaching philosophy to older pupils as now occurs in some schools) said he was “against teaching philosophy in schools”: “It is fine to teach people to question, but first you must give them some certainties. Without certainties the whole point of intellectual endeavour would never be grasped. Unfortunately, and in our time increasingly, school subjects are not being taught as hard fact, but as areas of discussion and opinionated vagueness: that is to say, introducing into the classroom issues which can only be understood properly at the level of postgraduate research.” Scruton was aware of arguments by teachers that ‘the uncritical frame of mind encouraged by rote learning is a bad thing’ and the claim that it is ‘better to encourage critical thinking in children to make them more inquisitive and searching.’ But, said Scruton: “I think they are wrong. They are wrong for the reasons that Aristotle gives, that we enter the Palace of Reason through the Courtyard of Habit, and habit means learning things by rote, doing things without knowing the reason why, so that you will have the moral equipment to learn that reason later…. I think there is an enormous responsibility laid on everyone who [thinks critically] not to be a corrupter of youth. To introduce critical thinking to people who first of all may not be capable of it, and second, who do not know how to use it responsibly, could be a bad thing…”


Homework for this week:

1 Would introducing philosophy lessons in the classroom from a very early age better equip children for the complexities of life in the 21st century?

2 Should children go back to learning by rote and  be kept away from critical thinking – would it be better if they were sent back to ‘the Courtyard of Habit’?

Optional Extra Merit Question:

3 The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once said: “to unfit our students for the contemporary world ought … to be one of our educational aims.” Discuss.