Skeptic » eSkeptic » January 12, 2004

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Edge Question of the Year

If you are not already familiar with the Edge community of scientists, scholars, writers, and thinkers of all stripes, definitely check out the link above. This is John Brockman’s stable of scientist authors whom he represents (including yours truly), as well as others who participate in his annual “big question.” This year’s question is totally self-indulgent for us, but what the heck, it was great fun. John’s instructions to us this year were:

There is some bit of wisdom, some rule of nature, some law-like pattern, either grand or small, that you’ve noticed in the universe that might as well be named after you. Gordon Moore has one; Johannes Kepler and Michael Faraday, too. So does Murphy. Since you are so bright, you probably have at least two you can articulate. Send me two laws based on your empirical work and observations you would not mind having tagged with your name.

You can read all of them at the link above, plus some of the editorial coverage they have already garnered. Since I don’t believe in naming laws after oneself, and as the good book says, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” mine is (as presented in Scientific American, January 2002):

Michael Shermer
Shermer’s Last Law:
Any sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God.

Here are a few of my favorites from Edge:

What’s Your Law?

bits of wisdom from scientists,
scholars, writers, and thinkers of all stripes

Susan Blackmore
Blackmore’s First Law:
People’s desire to believe in the paranormal is stronger than all the evidence that it does not exist.
Richard Dawkins
Dawkins’s Law of Adversarial Debate:
When two incompatible beliefs are advocated with equal intensity, the truth does not lie half way between them.
John Maddox
Maddox’s First Law:
Those who scorn the “publish or perish” principle are the most eager to see their own manuscripts published quickly and given wide publicity—and the least willing to see their length reduced.
Maddox’s Second Law:
Reviewers who are best placed to understand an author’s work are the least likely to draw attention to its achievements, but are prolific sources of minor criticism, especially the identification of typos.
Gregory Benford
Benford’s Modified Clarke Law:
Any technology that does not appear magical is insufficiently advanced.
John Barrow
Barrow’s First Law:
Any Universe simple enough to be understood is too simple to produce a mind able to understand it.
John Rennie
Rennie’s Law of Credibility:
Scientists don’t always know best about matters of science—but they’re more likely to be right than the critics who make that argument.
2nd Corollary to the Law of Credibility:
Any iconoclast with a scientifically unorthodox view who reminds you that Galileo was persecuted too … ain’t Galileo.
Geoffrey Miller
Miller’s Law of Strange Behavior:
To understand any apparently baffling behavior by another human, ask: what status game is this individual playing, to show off which heritable traits, in which mating market?
Martin Rees
Rees’s Law:
As cosmological theories advance, they will draw more concepts from biology.
Paul Steinhardt
Steinhardt’s Law:
Good science creates two challenging puzzles for each puzzle it resolves.
Robert Sapolsky
Sapolsky’s Three Laws for Doing Science:
Sapolsky’s First Law:
Think logically, but orthogonally.
Sapolsky’s Second Law:
It’s okay to think about nonsense, as long as you don’t believe in it.
Sapolsky’s Third Law:
Often, the biggest impediment to scientific progress is not what we don’t know, but what we know.
Nancy Etcoff
Etcoff’s Law:
Be wary of scientific dualisms. For example:
Brain vs Mind
Mind vs Body
Emotion vs Reason
Nature vs Nurture
Us vs Them.
Lee Smolin
Smolin’s First Law:
Genuine advances are rarely made by accident; in fact, the outcome of a scientific investigation is usually less dramatic than originally hoped for. Therefore, if you want to do something really significant in science, you must aim high and you must take genuine risks.
Daniel Gilbert
Gilbert’ Law:
Happy people are those who do not pass up an opportunity to laugh at themselves or to make love with someone else. Unhappy people are those who get this backwards.

New York Post Shermer Interview on
Good and Evil

The following article appeared in the New York Post on Sunday January 12th, 2004. (copyright © 2004).

Bad to the Bone

by Logan Hill

Kobe Bryant cheated on his wife, Vanessa
—who followed her more civilized impulses
and publicly forgave him.

January 11th, 2004—Britney’s quickie Vegas marriage was all anybody was talking about last week. People just couldn’t help themselves. As it turns out, that excuse may be exactly right.

In his new book, The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share and Follow the Golden Rule (Times Books, $26), Scientific American columnist and Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer argues that our moral impulses are more a matter of biological hard-wiring than conscious choice. What’s more, he says that human beings have stopped evolving morally — and our baser impulses to lie, cheat, gossip and steal are behaviors we’ll just have to learn to live with.

The author, a self-proclaimed “non-theistic agnostic,” uses everything from anthropology to neuroscience and philosophy — but emphatically not religion — to chronicle the evolution of human morality. “Our basic moral principles evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago, before religion came along and encoded them,” says Shermer. “People wonder, ‘Why should I be moral?’ ” he says. “In a sense, [they] might as well ask, ‘Why should I be in love? Or be hungry?’

“It’s just basic to human nature.” Like the desire for sex or food, “guilt and shame and pride and the sense of justice and injustice” evolved to help the human race survive. But even when we’re generous, he says, we’re really only interested in what’s in it for ourselves.

Moral acts of altruism, sympathy or cooperation have historically enabled groups — and the species itself — to prosper. “If everybody in a group did the wrong thing most of the time, these groups would not survive,” Shermer explains. “For a social primate species to survive in a fairly harsh world, there must be a level of cooperation.” But Shermer holds little hope that human beings will continue to refine their sense of right and wrong—in fact, he thinks that this is as good as society gets.

As evidence, he says that several of the same moral qualities found in early human history are still with us today—and they influence everything from how we gossip to why we go to war. So we asked Shermer to explain some specific behavior. For example: Why do we generously tip a waiter we’ll never see again?

“Fairness is a deep evolutionary feeling that evolved because it’s good for the group,” Shermer says. Shermer says we have an innate sense of what’s fair and what’s not, and cites studies done involving both primates and small children. “Young children know whether they’re getting a fair [share] or not down to the microscopic difference in the size of slices of birthday cake,” Shermer says. “They’ll shout, ‘I was cheated!’ The sense of what’s fair and what isn’t is deeply ingrained.”

If we’re so inclined to be fair, why would, say, a wealthy man like Sam Waksal break the law just to avoid losing money in the stock market? Shermer says we have an inherent ability to excuse our own immoral desires—to, perhaps, convince ourselves that we “deserve” to break the rules. “We can rationalize all kinds of selfish behaviors,” he says, even though we are programmed by culture, history and evolution to resist pursuing our own happiness at the expense of another’s.

On a grander scale, Shermer says he is not a believer in moral absolutes like good and evil; he believes anything and anyone can be explained, including a terrorist like Osama bin Laden—who Shermer maintains is not pure evil, but a man who, like the rest of us, had potential for both good and evil. The author maintains that environmental conditions informed his decision to choose to commit acts of atrocity.

People like bin Laden, says Shermer, somehow “override our evolutionary propensity toward moral behavior and the repulsion most of us would, or at least should, feel.” But such extreme acts, he says, are aberrations. Easier to explain, he says, are far more commonplace behaviors like gossip—even about people we don’t know, like Ms. Spears and her lamentable ex-husband.

We’re compelled, he says, to talk about “who’s sleeping with who, who’s a bully, who’s a cooperator, who’s not,” says Shermer. “It’s really important to gossip so you know who’s going to [take care of you],” he says. “[Nowadays] we spread a lot of information that’s not true, but originally gossip had a good, positive and useful impulse. That’s the normal human thing to do—to talk about other people.”

And when it comes to adultery, the evolutionary benefits are obvious, says Shermer. “For the male, depositing one’s genes in more places increases the probability of … genetic immortality. For the female, it’s a chance to trade up for better genes and higher social status.

Still, Shermer holds out a bit of hope that human beings could actually develop even better behavior. “Those guys made a good start of it,” he says, referring to the authors of the Bible, Koran and Talmud. “But we live in a completely different world. “It’s time,” he says, “that we came up with something better.”

The following is Craig Waterman’s review of Stephen D. Unwin’s The Probability of God: A Simple Calculation That Proves The Ultimate Truth.

Craig Waterman (, 42, is a machinist in the aerospace industry. He lives in Troy, Ohio with a cat named Prickle. His passions are science, cats, computers and books. Craig considers himself a skeptic, a humanist and an agnostic. He donates 50,000 computing hours a year to the search for new cancer drugs. Craig has been debating religion and promoting skepticism electronically since his first 300 baud modem almost 20 years ago.

The Probability of God

a book review by Craig Waterman

The Probability of God is a wonderful yet deeply flawed book. Physicist and Risk-Analyst Stephen D. Unwin. Ph.D. uses a statistical method called Bayesian analysis to conclude that there is a 67% “probability” that God exists. The book is thought provoking and written in a witty and engaging style. I found it impossible not to like this book.

The “evidences” pro and con as identified by the author are:

  1. The recognition of goodness
  2. The existence of moral evil
  3. The existence of natural evil
  4. Intra-natural miracles
  5. Extra-natural miracles
  6. Religious experiences.

These are all hotly disputed topics in theistic debates, so it should be clear that there is nothing particularly significant about the author’s 67% figure. The number is subjective and reflects the author’s particular sensibilities rather than some measure of reality based on empirical facts. The reader will arrive at the 67% figure only if he happens agree with all of the Unwin’s assumptions, arguments and evaluations of the “evidence” as identified by him. The author calculates his personal confidence level and nothing more.

He explicitly tells us this on page 63. “In the Bayesian world, this is precisely what a probability represents: a degree of belief or level of confidence that some proposition is true.” And again on page 131,

Well, let’s not forget that this number has a subjective element since it reflects my assessment of the evidence. It isn’t as if we have calculated the value of pi for the first time. Nevertheless, it’s my best attempt, it was based on systematic analysis, and you know how I got there.

Therefore the subtitle of the book, which reads “A simple calculation that proves the ultimate truth,” is pure fluff intended to sell books. The title means a lot less than it appears. A more serious problem with the work is that the author wishes to proceed from a position of ignorance as to the existence of a god (p. 4), yet he arbitrarily limits consideration to the traditional conception of his Judeo-Christian god alone. On what bases are all other god concepts excluded? Special pleading leads to a fatal skewing of the numbers towards the author’s pet concept. This fallacy of special pleading forms the core of the Unwin’s book and is the same fallacy which kills Pascal’s Wager, for the following reason:

It does not follow that if the atheists are wrong then the Christians are correct, and it does not follow that if the Christians are wrong then the atheists are correct. It may well be that the atheists are wrong AND the Christians are wrong, so the issue cannot validly be cast as an either/or proposition. To do so is to employ a false dichotomy.

Through special pleading, Unwin begins by invoking an a-priori 50% probability towards his god’s existence by arguing that 50% is an expression of maximum ignorance (p. 58). I found this position astounding. What of other speculations? Are we merely brains in vats hooked to computers? Do magic elves steal socks from the dryer? Do Space-Penguins live in the center of the moon? Claiming ignorance, the author to be consistent would have us assign an a-priori 50% probability that each of these claims is true.

If we begin with the acknowledgment that we are ignorant as to which, if any, of the potential god concepts might actually be true, then there is no bases to favor one concept to the exclusion of all others. Thus ALL potential god concepts must be taken into account, of which the Judeo-Christian concept is but one among an almost inexhaustible number. So the proper a-priori probability given a position of total ignorance is a figure so small as to border on zero, and certainly provides no rational grounds for belief. The 50% figure is purely gratuitous, subverts the burden of proof, and simply dismisses every other potential-god concept.

On page 144 the author points out that there is some small quantum probability of a giant kangaroo rat spontaneously materializing in your microwave. This raises another important point. While we can at least know that the set of “possible things” includes kangaroo rat materializations, we have no way of knowing if “gods” fall within the set of “possible things.” Is it even possible for a god-like “being” to exist which is all-powerful, all-knowing, dwells in a nonmaterial “spiritual” realm, and which is transcendent to the laws and essence of the natural universe we know to exist? Perhaps not. Such things cannot be established through assertion.

This suggests that the a-priori probability to be assigned to things perhaps impossible given maximum ignorance, must be less than that assigned to things possible though unlikely. I submit this as a second reason why the a-priori probability of a god given utter ignorance must be very small, converging on zero. Ignorance is not evidence for a god.

Unwin’s true motivation in setting a 50% a-priority probability is clear. Without it, there would be no book. Indeed, the author recognizes the plurality problem on page 59, only to dismiss it for no particular reason. He merely observes that any single religious view would be swamped by the possibilities; and that, to him is sufficient reason to ignore the problem. But I ask, if honest deliberation shows it is irrational to assume a god, why skew the numbers? Is a pretty lie preferable to an ugly truth? I leave that for you to consider.

The author reasserts his determination to stand by the 50% figure because “… the specifics of the person-God’s nature is secondary in my mind to the question of his very existence” (p. 59).

In a chapter titled “Not Just Any God” the author explicitly excluded the god concepts of Deists, Pantheists, Spinosa, an others great and small. Having dismissed the competition, the author proposes that we regard the truth of his selection as a 50/50 proposition? He special pleads!

The author is not really interested in specifics? Then why the bait and switch, casting the “God” definition so broadly as to encompass a sort of commonality from Zoroastrians to Muslims, only to constrain actual consideration to Christian specifics at every convenience? There is something seriously fishy with the author’s reasoning here, which severely undermines the veracity of his position. The author would eat his cake and have it too.

If Unwin wishes to calculate the probable existence of some generic, undefined, “unknown and unknowable” monotheistic deity verses polytheistic deities, then he should do so. But then he cannot argue for a personal god, or an cognizant god, or for any particular meaning to the term “god” at all. To do so differentiates his ‘god’ and unleashes a deluge of alternative possibilities.

In Chapter Eight, Unwin presents an improved version of Pascal’s Wager. Pascal (1623-1662) put it this way;

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

Pascal intended his wager to circumvent frustrated reason. As such the wager is not an intellectual argument for belief so much as it is an attempt to extort belief through fear and greed by way of moral cowardice. Yet even if the wager were granted at face value, it would only establish the desirability of belief, not provide grounds for belief itself. Pascal recognized this limitation and argued that one should use ritual and church attendance as a way to “deaden your acuteness,” and eventually attain belief.

The author explicitly rejects the notion that belief is required for salvation (p. 148) and presents a form of Pascal’s wager that does not argue for belief, but for acting in a way that would be pleasing to God, even if God does not exist. (p. 139) This tact avoids many dishonest pitfalls of the original wager, but the core fallacies of false dichotomy and special pleading remain.

When one considers ALL of the god conceptions that “might” be true then Pascal’s wager is an utter wash. The reason is that for any god concept that might be presented as “possible,” another can be conceived of that nullifies the first. A god who rewards reason over blind faith nullifies a god who rewards blind faith over reason, etc. The result is that Pascal’s wager is a bankrupt one, offering nothing towards belief or action. Remove the special pleading and you have agnosticism in its purist form.

My favorite moment in the book came when I realized that the author had inadvertently disqualified his own god from consideration. Unwin discusses man’s “moral sense,” his ability to recognize good and evil, which Unwin considers more likely to have come from a God than from naturalistic or evolutionary sources.

He sets the “Recognition of Goodness” probability given the existence of a god at 100%, and only 10% probability in a godless world. To quote the author,

Well, if the person-God of the monotheistic faiths exists and he created us in his own image, than an inevitable consequence is that we would recognize the distinction between good and evil. After all, the good is a defining attribute of his character. So we must conclude that P(E|G) = 100% (p. 107).

(P(E|G) means the “Probability of the observed Evidence given the existence of God”.)

Yet according to Biblical mythology, God created Adam and Eve WITHOUT the knowledge of good and evil. So if the biblical God is to remain viable, the probability that a god would create man with the ability to recognize good and evil must be some number less than 100%. Indeed if it is the Christian god we are talking about, and he is defined as maximally wise and maximally benevolent, than the probability that he would create man with this ability must be zero, for (according to the Bible) he did not do so. Plug a zero into the author’s equation and the entire thing implodes. The equation returns a probability of exactly zero for the existence of God.

Either the author has eliminated his own god by definition, or he has demonstrated an inability to recognize valid criteria that applies to gods. Either case should give pause to anyone hoping to calculate the existence of a god, for how can one demonstrate the actual relevance and legitimacy of any proposed “evidence” for a gods existence?

A disconnect exists between theorizing on what a god “should” be or do, and what a god actually “is” or does. The first requires speculation, the second requires demonstration to show that the first is true. Such is the problem of trying to define a god rather than studying actual gods in their natural habitat. Appealing to the “consensus of the major religions” is no help. As the author indicates on page 62, reality is not subject to a vote.

The next portion of the book is devoted to an examination of faith. The author rejects many of the traditional understandings of what faith is. For example, he shows how blind faith is not merely a rejection of reason, but a sort reverse wiring of reason such that blind faith must grow in direct proportion to the accumulation of evidence against a proposition. Blind faith is the mathematical antitheses of reason. It is a shutting of the eyes and a refusal to think. Unwin also rejects faith as a “minor excursion” beyond evidence, or as in a sort of “trust” based on the perceived authority of a (religious or secular) teacher, author or church.

It is interesting to note that Unwin considers 100% certainty for the existence of a god to be irrational, for it implicitly requires the employment of blind faith. Rather, he argues for a “reasoned certainty” in the vicinity of 98% (p. 172) and admits a personal certainty of 95% (p. 189).

The type of “faith” espoused by the author is an act of will to increase belief and is based on a sort of “aesthetic” appreciation of the beauty of a truth that compels belief. For him, scriptures that defy reason can still represent a metaphorical “truth,” and the aesthetic appreciation of that truth is the source of faith that increases belief and acceptance through volition. This is not to say that the truth of a scripture is derived from the poetic power of the words themselves.

Rather, I am proposing that spiritual truth, in analogy to poetic, musical, and artistic truths, is something other than the brute truth of logic (p. 184).

Unwin asks if an atheist can attach faith to a religious proposition in the negative. Is there some sort of experience or aesthetic-null based appreciation to support faith in the non-existence of a god? He concludes that faith in the non-existence of God has no meaning (p. 188). “One person’s faith is another’s preposterous, arbitrary, and perhaps even satanic belief” (p. 185). But this recognition does not prevent him from holding an overall personal belief of 95% in the existence of his God. Subtraction of the 67% evidentiary component allows him to identify his faith component as 28% of his total belief.

To his credit, Unwin does a fine job exposing the core flaws inherent in many of the currently popular arguments for the existence of a God. This he does to clear the deck for his own particular argument. It is my hope that believers will be more open to considering such flaws when pointed out by one of their own, than from skeptics. And one has to admire his attempt to lay out his case on a clear mathematical playing field for our considered evaluation. You can and probably will disagree with him, but at least there is a framework of commonality on which to advance the discussion.

Finally, it is refreshing when a theistic author finds an innovative approach in seeking to demonstrate the truth of his beliefs (rather than simply rehashing failures from the past). This Stephen Unwin has done with wit and style. Even though I do not agree with key points of his arguments, I call his book a recommended read.

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