Friday, December 16, 2005

I told you that story so I could tell you this one...

Hey, did anyone hear about that wave of terrorist attacks disrupting the elections in Iraq? Me neither. It is a good day for us unreconstructed Neoconservative nation-building fanatics...

Anyway, I only put up that post about Prof Holliday’s article so I could put this one up:

#1:
Greetings Alex,

As you might possibly have expected, I wanted to make a few comments on Robin Holliday's article:

There is absolutely no place for a "vital force" or any non-material entity either in the egg, the sperm, the fertilised egg, the embryo, the child or the adult. Thus, there is no non-material soul, nor an afterlife.

Prof. Holliday is contrasting his professional understanding of biological processes with a very crude understanding of what a non-material soul might be. The Prophets did not have the same range of metaphors available that we do, and living today they probably would use different words. 'Consciousness' is not material in the sense that you can distill it out of something, yet it exists- it is apparently an emergent property, something arising from the interaction between material objects. Breath and Fire and the other historical analogies for consciousness validly refer to processes, not to static objects. An omniscient God existing outside of space-time would necessarily know all the details of the dynamic process of consciousness and be able to recreate it (upload it, in the language of Damien Broderick) to whatever 'hardware' it wanted to outside of space-time.
Thus the conclusion, there is no non-material soul, nor an afterlife, does not logically follow from Prof. Hollidays premises.

The next fundamental difference between science and religion is the issue of free will. In fact, most individuals believe in free will because it is a matter of common experience that they feel free to make their own decisions. For the religious, free will is God's gift to man. However, once it is accepted that we are complex organisms composed only of molecules, the completely new light is thrown on the supposed existence of free will. In making a simple choice, for example, between moving one's right or left arm, we feel completely free, but the fact remains that a signal is transmitted to the muscles that comes from the brain. The brain is not capable of spontaneously creating energy, because if it did it would contravene the law of conservation of energy, so the signal must come from somewhere else. Because we are conscious of feeling free, the signal must come from another part of the brain which is part of our unconscious brain function. Thus, there are forces at work of which we are not aware. These forces are determinants of our behaviour, and free will is no more than an illusion. Of course, some decision making is complex and may depend on knowledge, experience and external factors of which we are well aware, but this does not affect the basic conclusion that we do not have free will.

This argument betrays an ignorance of history. It is wrong to say that 'religion' supports free will and 'science' supports determinism: there are many atheistic scientists who believe in free will, often basing their arguments on woolly interpretations of quantum mechanics, and the argument between free will and determinism has been a constant feature *within* the main currents of religious thought for thousands of years. e.g.,: In their emphasis on the supremacy of God over all things, they [The Ahl al-Hadith] insisted that it was He alone who created human acts, even a persons evil acts. ... The Mutazilis, in their attempt to rationalise their faith, asserted the freedom of the human will which would be rewarded necessarily by Gods justice. The Hadith folk felt that this was to insult Gods power ... by ascribing to human beings alone their evil deeds, as if human creatures could create, like God, deeds or anything else.
(A 9th century controversy in the Islamic world, recounted by Marshall G. S. Hodgson in The Venture of Islam. In a more recent example, the Reformation in the Christian world was basically just a big argument about free will and determinism.)

The argument can be turned on its head, and I have argued elsewhere that a creator could easily include wheels or propellers in animal design. Yet no wheels or propellers exist in the animal kingdom. The Darwinian explanation for this is perfect: it is impossible to evolve a wheel by stages, because only a whole wheel has function.

I am sure that if a wheel was discovered in a living organism tomorrow Prof. Holliday would not accept it as a disproof of evolution- it certainly wouldnt be! So he shouldnt argue that the absence of wheels is proof. Wheels and propellors are forbidden by the physical difficulty of providing rotating structures with nutrients in organisms with the kind of biology that has evolved on Earth, not because they are non-functional in intermediate stages: otherwise, something like a wheel could equally well evolve with a non-locomotory function, being swapped over to a locomotory function later (viz., some of the models for the evolution of wings).

Experimental science has established itself as rational and reproducible, and there is no place for the contravention of natural laws, such as miracles, superstition and the occult. Finally, it is often pointed out that religious scientists exist. It seems that these are individuals who can in some way compartmentalise contradictory viewpoints, but this is an ability that I for one find extremely hard to understand.

Science is for examining the reproducible elements of the universe. It has been so good at explaining the observable features of the universe by considering only those elements that it is easy to assume that only those elements exist. That may well be true. But the existence of irreproducible, miraculous elements is not *disproved* by science. This phenomenon is not a miracle is an assumption you have to make *before* you can study a phenomenon by scientific methods. Saying that everything can be explained by science is not a scientific statement: it is a statement of faith. I think that everything within what we call the universe will end up being explicable by science, but I am fully aware that is just a leap of faith on my part.

Finally, I find *Prof. Hollidays* ability to compartmentalise contradictory viewpoints impressive. Surely he must act, in his day-to-day life, as though he has free will and is making real choices to pursue one line of research or buy one brand of soap powder over another? I couldnt do this. If I am to act as though I have free will, I need to hold to some philosophy that allows me to have free will!

Cheers,

[Dr Clam]

#2:
Thanks, [Dr Clam], and yap I was expecting comments from you.

First I'm sorry for being tardy in my reply, I've had to be away from
communications for a few days and just got back and logged in.

I shall pass your comments on to Robin together with your email address so
that he can replay to you directly.
And thanks for taking the time to state your viewpoint.

cheers,
alex

#3: To [Dr Clam]:

Alex Reisner has sent me your letter about my article. I think there
are some severe problems in communication language and logic.

I have read the following several times, without any comprehension:

Prof. Holliday is contrasting his professional understanding of biological
processes with a very crude understanding of what a 'non-material soul'
might be.


This seems to be the same as my saying "There are no fairies at the bottom of
my garden," and getting your response "You have a a very crude understanding of
fairies"

The Roman Catholic catechism includes the following:

Question: What is the soul?
Answer: The soul is a living being without a body, having reason
and free will.

That is very clear isn't it? It is a statement or dogma.

You should understand that I am merely presenting the views of
scientific rationalists, including Francis Crick (commonly regarded
as the greatest scientist of the 2nd half of the 20th century), Richard Dawkins,
and many, many others.

I find it extraordinary that a scientist could write the following:

I am sure that if a wheel was discovered in a living organism tomorrow
Prof. Holliday would not accept it as a disproof of evolution-


Thousands and thousands of animal species have been studied by
biologists over several centuries. As a scientist, what would
you make of someone saying "You might find a stone tomorrow that
does not fall to the ground"?
I do not think you are well versed in scientific methodology

There is a lot I could add about free will, but will not. You seem to adopt the
position of some philosophers who say that if you feel free, you are
free, therefore the issue is not of importance.
I did not mention determinism, which certainly is not a consequence
of a disbelief in free will. Stochastic events and chaos theory explain
that. The attempt by a few to use the uncertaincy principle of quantum
mechanics as a basis for free will does not stand up to any serious
scrutiny. We certainly know enough about neurones to be sure of
that.

Regards, Robin Holliday

#4:
Greetings Prof Holliday,

Thanks for writing back to me!

I have read the following several times, without any comprehension: "Prof. Holliday is contrasting his professional understanding of biological
processes with a very crude understanding of what a 'non-material soul'
might be."


It is the lines after that one that probably should be read several times, where I try to explain what I understand by 'non-material soul'.
If you say, 'I dissected Alex and did not find a sense of humour', then I would be right in saying, 'You have a very crude understanding of humour'.

This seems to be the same as my saying "There are no fairies at the bottom of
my garden," and getting your response "You have a a very crude understanding of
fairies"


My point is just this, which I will reiterate. In your statement "There is absolutely no place for a "vital force" or any non-material entity either in the egg, the sperm, the fertilised egg, the embryo, the child or the adult. Thus, there is no non-material soul, nor an afterlife," the conclusion does not follow from your premises. I am not seeking to defend the doctrine of the soul outlined in the Roman Catholic Catechism.

You should understand that I am merely presenting the views of
scientific rationalists, including Francis Crick (commonly regarded
as the greatest scientist of the 2nd half of the 20th century), Richard Dawkins,
and many, many others.


You have correctly identified undue respect for authority as my one great weakness, but appealing to authority rather than answering my objections is cheating! :)



I find it extraordinary that a scientist could write the following: "I am sure that if a wheel was discovered in a living organism tomorrow
Prof. Holliday would not accept it as a disproof of evolution"
Thousands and thousands of animal species have been studied by
biologists over several centuries. As a scientist, what would
you make of someone saying
I do not think you are well versed in scientific methodology


Firstly, I didn't say something like, "You might find a stone tomorrow that does not fall to the ground", I said something like: "I am sure that if a stone was found tomorrow that did not fall to the ground you would not accept it as disproof of gravity." Neither would I. It would be some anti-rationalist's trick with magnets, I am sure.

But the two counter-factuals are completely different:

1) The gravitational interaction between pieces of matter is well described by laws that appear to apply always and everywhere in space-time, from extensive observations.

2) We have studied thousands and thousands of animal species, but all of them share a common ancestor and are restricted to a very small part of the universe. The properties of living organisms on Earth are *contingent on historical events* and quite different forms of life could have evolved elsewhere. It is physical limitations, based on the historical development of life on Earth, that prohibit wheels: it is possible to envision different biologies that do not have these physical limitations. It is not the absence of intermediate forms that prohibit wheels, because the intermediate forms could have had some other function and only swapped over to be wheels later.

There is a lot I could add about free will, but will not. You seem to adopt the
position of some philosophers who say that if you feel free, you are
free, therefore the issue is not of importance.
I did not mention determinism, which certainly is not a consequence
of a disbelief in free will. Stochastic events and chaos theory explain
that. The attempt by a few to use the uncertainty principle of quantum
mechanics as a basis for free will does not stand up to any serious
scrutiny. We certainly know enough about neurones to be sure of
that.


I certainly don't want to get into an argument about free will either- I had enough of that as an undergraduate to last me a lifetime! I regret putting in that line at the end about your ability to compartmentalise your ideas, it was a foolish non sequitur. Please accept my apologies.

My point was just that the equation religion=free will is fallacious, as historically most of the opponents of free will have been truly, madly, deeply, religious.

Best regards,

[Dr Clam]

#5: To [Dr Clam],

I do not think our correspondence is leading anywhere. I have
read your two Emails several times but I am unable to extract anything
about your real opinions on the topic of science and religion that I wrote
about.

One thing you seem to invoke is a non-material "consciousness." Now I
am aware that many have referred to and discussed the "problem"
of consciousness. To me the problem is that we simply do not yet understand
brain function, and I would add that many animals appear to have an
awareness of the world around them and therefore consciousness. I cannot
envisage any conceivable reason why consciousness is not part of sensory
perception and brain function. Brains consist largely of neurones, and
neurones are made up of molecules. What else can there be?

I will just add two further comments. You write:

Thus the conclusion, 'there is no non-material soul, nor an afterlife',
does not logically follow from Prof. Holliday's premises.


There are NO premises, but a mass of information from modern
biology.

On free will, you write:

This argument betrays an ignorance of history.

I take exception to this. I have been a student of the philosophy
and history of science and I think what I wrote about free will
has absolutely nothing to do with history. It is about conservation
of energy and neurone function.
I can also add that I am completely unconcerned about the choice
of soap powders. It could be arbitrary, or it could be that my wife or
someone else recommended one. The absence of free will is very
important when it come to judging anti-social behaviour. Most people
believe in retribution, ie punishment, for criminal acts. I do not, because
such acts are not the result of "free will." Deterrence, however, is very
important, in a variety of contexts. This is a hugely important social issue,
and I think most people are very confused about it
If you want to continue this, I suggest you summarise in succinct form
your own views about science, religion, vitalism, consciousness, or
whatever. Then at least I will know where you stand. At present your
real opinions are something of a mystery to me.
I will send you next week a few reprints on matters directly or indirectly
related to all these topics.

Regards, Robin Holliday

#6: Dear Prof Holliday,

You are probably right that this is useless, but I will have one more go and try to answer your questions. I hope I am right in believing that you published your piece on The Funneled Web because you want people to argue with you, and will not be offended by me. I certainly do not wish to cause any offence and am only interested in making my ideas clear. Evidently I have a long way to go!

You wrote an article claiming that there is a fundamental incompatibility between Science and Religion. I do not believe this is true. My first published letter to the editor was to the Catholic Leader when I was 19, telling people that they should not fear evolution, because it was fundamentally compatible with religion. I have continued to argue this with many people in many places over the last few decades, all of them people who fear and distrust science because of the sort of rationalist triumphalism embodied by people like Prof Dawkins.

My understanding of the scientific method is grounded in its practice and in the writings of the 19th century American Pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce: once we know the consequences of a thing, we know all there is that can be known about it. I have a quote on my website by Max Planck that embodies the same principle: Experiments are the only means of knowledge at our disposal. Everything else is poetry, imagination. Those are statements I believe. I think they demand a greater degree of humility and agnosticism from practitioners of the historical sciences than we have seen from Prof Dawkins. Experiments cannot tell us whether miracles are possible, whether there is or is not a God or an afterlife, or what if anything exists outside space-time. We are free to chose our own poetry for whatever is not amenable to experiment, and we do not have any scientific grounds for preferring Housman over Manley Hopkins.
I should add that I am not currently a practising Catholic, and I do not believe in any kind of vital spirit. I believe what I attempted to explain in my first message, that the soul as some kind of spirit existing independently from the body is an unnecessary hypothesis. I am a theist in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition and strive to make my beliefs consistent with our observations of the universe.
I completely agree with you about animals. I do not believe there is anything uniquely important about human beings and have been a vegetarian since 1990 because of my respect for animal consciousness.
I wrote to you because I disagree strongly with the claim of your article. I do not believe there is a fundamental incompatibility between science and religion.

Secondly, if I did believe in a fundamental incompatibility between science and religion, I would keep it to myself. Claiming such a thing cannot do science any good.
There are vastly more people in the world with a religious world view than a scientific world view. In various parts of the world they are voters, legislators, or unelected rulers with power to determine science policy. They will not just go away. A great many of them do not need encouragement to think that science is godless and evil. What good can it do science to confirm them in their prejudices? About 30% of our first year students come from schools affiliated with religious institutions. Do I want to send their parents and teachers the message that science is fundamentally incompatible with their values? How would that help the long-term viability of science in Australia?

Thirdly, if I did believe both in a fundamental incompatibility between science and religion and that it was a good thing to point this out, the three main points I made in my first letter would hold true, and if I was an atheist I would probably still want to make them. There are flaws in your arguments that make them ineffective in demonstrating what you wish to demonstrate.

(1) The findings of modern biology have no bearing on whether there is something that, in its consequences, is indistinguishable from the soul of tradition. A premise is defined as a proposition which an argument is based on or from which a conclusion is drawn. You cannot have any logical argument without premises, and I am as convinced as you are that the facts of biology you cite are sound. But your conclusion does not follow from them. I tried to explain this but have failed completely to make myself understood. It would probably take a whole essay on its own, which I do not want to write, and I am sure you do not want to read!

(2) Your wheel argument is flawed. The lack of wheels is a contingent fact of terrestrial evolution, not a necesary characteristic of life everywhere, and a wheeled organism would not constitute disproof of evolution.

(3) It is wrong to state that belief in free will is a characteristic feature of religion. That is the only point I wanted to make. I have absolutely no interest in arguing about free will as such because I am convinced it is a futile exercise. I am sure you have an excellent understanding of the history and philosophy of science. But you would not say that belief in free will was a characteristic feature of religion if you had made any serious study of the history of religion. I am sure this is a topic that you have little sympathy or patience for, so this is understandable, but the history of religion is inextricably bound up with human history as a whole. The claim that belief in free will is a characteristic of religion in general is an untenable one.

I hope I have cleared up the mystery a little. I do not think my opinions are really of any relevance. I know I have no chance of convincing you that your thesis is wrong, or likely to cause harm to science, but hoped there was some worth in pointing out the flaws in some of your arguments. I would count it a victory if you became a more accomplished polemicist for your cause, because this can only be achieved by understanding your opposition, and the more there is understanding, the more there is hope.

All the best,

[Dr Clam]

I shall consider Prof Holliday's reprints at a later date...

3 comments:

Marco said...

Re: Iraq - Yes, it is a good day, and I have been inspired to write a prediction of future Pax Islam.

winstoninabox said...

Dear Dr. (Evil) Clam,

I applaud your politeness. It is refreshing to see two people with vastly different viewpoints debate an issue over the Internet whilst keeping civil.

You sir, are a gentlemen.

Anonymous said...

"It is physical limitations, based on the historical development of life on Earth, that prohibit wheels: it is possible to envision different biologies that do not have these physical limitations."

Sorry to disappoint you, but the whell has actually been invented in the organismic realm, i.e., among very low organisms (unfortunately I have forgotten the reference and the group where it occurs).