Thursday, 10 January 2008

BB2: Is Evolution the best way to understand religion - and which version do we use?: Panel Day One - Part 2 of 2

[This is the part 2 of the Panel discussion on the first day of the The Science Network's Beyond Belie Enlightenment 2.0 conference. An introduction and list of all reviews can be found at BB2: Enlightenment 2.0 Introduction]

The Panel comprised John Haidt, Michael Shermer, Daniel Dennett and David Sloan Wilson. Part two starts from 20 minutes into the video below.

Incompatible Darwinian Solutions?
The conference moderator Roger Bingham pursues Marget Jacobs theme of incompatible solutions but focuses on the clash between the two Darwinian views of memetic parasites versus group selection as explanations for religion today. Haidt responds these are details, everyone accepts the Darwinian approach. Changing one or assumptions on top of this can generate radically different prescriptions and that is the challenge to resolve.

I think Bingham is right to raise this as a concern and it is becoming apparent that there is no unified agreement on this issue, Haidt's optimism not withstanding. Everyone seems to be selecting data to support their preferred theoretical framework. For sure, this is science in progress and so science as usual but it does seem to be taking a long time not have a real resolution of which Darwinian approach is better. Then again is the solution directly due to a Darwinian analysis or can it be consistent with evolution but primarily based on a different disciplines such as cognitive psychology, economics and anthropology? Why does it have to reside specifically in a dispute between different Darwinian models?

Did god exist in the past - maybe he will in the future!

David Brin is bugged that there is leap over category errors specifically that god exists in the past! He provides a few examples that may meander around this point but are interesting nonetheless. People who suspect that they are at the effect of propaganda always spot it in the oppositions point of view, never their own. In most films the most common message is "suspicion of authority" but it depends on the maker' politics as to what those authorities are such as scientists, religious leaders or businessmen. He gripes that much of these internal arguments here are really non-enlightenment too, I am quickly coming to the same conclusion. His main point is that there are many wrong versions of god that are incompatible with the modern world but there are gods that are (compatible). A very interesting conclusion is that traditional worldviews have a backward oriented approach to time, with the Golden Age in the past, whereas enlightenment worldviews are forward oriented with a Golden Age to come - a time when we can achieve godhood.

Of course the standard - that is the most popular versions - of god are indeed incompatible with what we know of the world. Redefining god to avoid this is possibly beneficial but the real issue is not the belief in a particular god but the influence and effect on our social, economic and political institutions of the religious institutions not their specific version of god. In the UK the established religion is the Church of England and it is often joked that no, or at least very few, Anglican priests actually believe in god. This does not alter the dogmatic support by many for this institution nor the problems caused by educational, economic,tax and social biases that it has and seeks to retain to the detriment of everyone else.

Is Atom- versus Lattice-World a false dichotomy?
PZ Meyers questions Haidt's Atom world versus Lattice world. It appears that a distinction between the two is the lack of connections in the first approach. Haidt attempts to correct this by saying there missing linkages in Atom-World but emphasizes that these connections are less binding and voluntary. As a result of this, liberal groups more easily fractionate and religious groups are more strongly bound and so persist (and grow).

This does seem plausible. However the continued use of US-speak liberal and conservative tags versus their usage worldwide leads to potential problems equivocation wherever these terms are used, in particular in Haidt's arguments. Here in the UK the higher bond strength argument could just as easily be used on left-wing liberals, what we call socialists their ilk nd quite specifcally not conservative (with either a lower or upper case C). Certainly identifying the different groups based on objective features would be useful. Then the question becomes is the strength of interconnectedness an identifying feature for classification purposes or a symptomatic prediction given prior classification based on other features or maybe it is both, as in a self-reinforcing system?

Is Natural Selection the best language to understand this problem?
David Albert wonders if natural selection, Darwinism and evolutionary biology is the best language to discuss the problem of religion here. Of course everything will be compatible with natural selection as it would be with Newtonian mechanics, but clearly the latter would not be the appropriate to study religion, where is the support that natural selection is the correct framework to use here? Wilson answers he has created a website to invite all key perspectives on religion to collaborate including a evolutionary framework as a categorization framework with an accounting system to incorporate pre-evolutionary models such as social theory, economics, Durkheim and so on - a unifying framework.

I consider a response to this along with the following questions below.

New Atheism and Good Science
Sam Harris claims he never argued that religion is uniformly bad. On the New Atheists being bad science, well we can discuss this and seek better science. It is the ability to discuss and improve on this that is important and not to be used to provide fuel to religions to reject the ideas behind New Atheism. We need to "criticize dogmatism wherever we find it" and scientists are both good at this and are not immune to errors, still they are best able to progress on these errors. Wilson responds, avoiding calling any one's work bad science but asserting, correctly, that there is such a thing as bad science, that is when comparing the New Atheists with academics studying religion in various disciplines is that "its not just a different crowd but a different enterprise". He asserts that the New Atheists' polemics are scientific statements and he thinks it needs to be enforced...

This is becoming a key theme in this conference - the questionable (?) science of the New Atheists versus the science behind Wilson's approach. Lets see if there is any resolution in later talks in this conference. At this point it does not look likely and is this perhaps a candidate for next years Beyond Belief 3 conference to tackle?