15 Oct 2009

Theists Don’t Get No Respect, I Tell Ya

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I am responding to posts by secular Austrian fellow travelers, so this doesn’t violate my policy of only bringing up religion on Sundays. And I will keep this a broad issue of theism vs. atheism; no J-word.

Example #1: Gene Callahan acts in his typical fashion of winning hearts and minds. (A choice quote: “Oh, and I’m not going to bother reading [Dennett’s] criticisms of Dupre. If I read several things by someone and they are universally rubbish, I really can’t be bothered to keep going through the rubbish heap.”) The original point of Gene’s post was to praise a book by John Dupre, in showing the weaknesses of evolutionary psychology. People asked Gene for a specific example of what the EPs do wrong, and Gene quoted Chomsky who said:

“You find that people cooperate, you say, ‘Yeah, that contributes to their genes’ perpetuating.’ You find that they fight, you say, ‘Sure, that’s obvious, because it means that their genes perpetuate and not somebody else’s. In fact, just about anything you find, you can make up some story for it.'” [Note that I reversed the single and double quotation marks at the end; the way Gene had it, Chomsky would be saying everything Gene ever typed for the rest of his life, and moreover Chomsky would have been quoting someone else quoting someone else, to boot.]

In his sparring with Gene, Roger Koppl admitted that sometimes evolutionary psychologists offer untestable assertions to “explain” things and then call it science, but he thought some results were meaningful. For example, Koppl said:

It turns out, for example, that young children everywhere prefer landscapes like you see on the African Savannah and grow less likely to do so the older they are. These and other related results suggest a kind of pre-programming for what’s a good place to be.

I would have to go look up the original study to see just what the result was, but on the surface of it this seems like yet another example where believers in the standard Darwinian account see “confirmation” where the evidence is just as consistent with the opposite interpretation.

What exactly is the story that goes along with this finding? Back when homo sapiens emerged as a separate species, some found the savannah appealing and so stayed there, whereas others who preferred a cityscape capped with skyscrapers ended up dying from high taxes and muggers? What if researchers showed children pictures of the different planets, and asked them which was the most beautiful? If most people said Earth–as I bet they would–would that be another feather in Darwin’s cap?

And then, why the added “confirmation” that the preference fades with age? If you wanted to make a fitness story, wouldn’t it be the exact opposite? A young child has no influence over where the family / tribe sets up camp. If you wanted to give a bunch of ignorant apes an advantage, and could only program a preference for the savannah at a certain age range, then I’d stick it in the 13 – 25 year olds, not the 0 – 12 year olds.

Now of course, Koppl could come up with eighteen different explanations for why the result is perfectly consistent with the Darwinian story. But that’s not the issue. The issue is, Roger seemed to think that this experimental result was further evidence in favor of his view, when I hope I’ve shown that it’s arguably the opposite.


Example #2: In praising Superfreakonomics–for a scathing review, see Joe Romm, and for a harsh review of the original, see me–Bryan Caplan quotes Levitt and Dubner who write, “There is a long list of cancers for which chemotherapy has zero discernible effect…”

Caplan then says: “They might have gone a step further and said, ‘Overall, prayer is better than chemo. At least prayer causes no pain.'”

Now I confess I haven’t delved into the literature to make sure the studies controlled for hidden variables blah blah blah, but I know there are empirical results claiming that prayer really does have a significant explanatory impact on recovery from an illness or surgery. Has Bryan read those results and found flaws in them (like this critic)–or was he just cracking a joke because he knows in his bones that prayer is absurd? (Later in the post he linked to an Onion article ridiculing the idea of killing for Allah and then getting a bunch of virgins as a reward in the afterlife, so I don’t think I’m conjuring up attacks where none exists.)

Let’s not forget that Caplan is happy to discuss with Robin Hanson whether the matter within a radius of one million light years contains enough atoms to support enough people living in a virtual reality machine conferring on them a standard of living that Caplan had suggested was possible. It’s not as if Bryan is afraid of daring hypotheses. So why is it so ridiculous to think that maybe there is an intelligent Being behind the material world in which we find ourselves?

Last point: If my sensitivities have misled me, and Roger or Bryan is a devout believer in God, then my sincere apologies.

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