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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Materialist philosopher “disconcerted” by medical students’ assumption of design

A friend writes to say that in a forthcoming article in Biology & Philosophy, materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett recounts:
"I was disconcerted to overhear some medical students talking in a bar recently. One exclaimed: ‘How could anybody believe in evolution after learning about the intricacies of the DNA replication machinery?' To the extent that well-meaning evolutionists had inadvertently convinced them that Darwinians are eager to gloss over or deny these facts, this is evidence that the political tactic of denying teleology root and branch is apt to be self-defeating.
Okay, so what now? It looks like design but current philosophy can’t accept that, so Dennett's solution, outlined in his essay review of Peter Godfrey Smith's 2009 book, Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection
(Oxford U Press) “is to argue that design does not always need a designer, i.e., that selection can play the role of faux designer. Yes, that’s been the Darwinist creed for years, and it couldn’t even be demonstrated in Lenski’s bacteria and even people uninterested in a design hypothesis acknowledge that, insofar as they are prepared to discuss actual problems with current theory (as opposed to faux problems).

The friend adds,
But I think Godfrey Smith has the stronger naturalistic intuition: never let a hint of design waft through the window. Once it does, any curious person (such as the medical student in the bar) is going to follow the hints where they lead."
Where they lead? For now, but not forever, ask the Expelled.


A friend writes with this stop-the-presses news:

Philosopher Keith Parsons, from the University of Houston, has given up doing philosophy of religion.

According to Julia Galef, writing at Religious Dispatches, Parsons found the case for God to be insupportable.  As Parsons wrote on the website The Secular Outpost:
"I have to confess that I now regard “the case for theism” as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position—no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. BTW, in saying that I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud, I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds who aim to fool us with claims they know to be empty. No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest… I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it"
If a guy does not know the difference between fraud and self-deception, I am glad he is no longer in the philosophy of anything.

I wonder if he is giving up his salary as ill-gotten gains. Oh well, in such cases one makes no such serious requirement.

Another friend offers this interpretation:
I find the choice of the word "fraud" in respect to an argument most interesting. Notice Parson's doesn't say he considers that the arguments for theism have been soundly refuted. No...rather he just can't take them "seriously" anymore. So, by implication then, Parson's would consider, say, Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism a fraud...even though it has never been refuted, despite many attempts. Parson's just couldn't take that "seriously" any more.

I wonder if what he really means is he's tired of trying to defend atheism against all these arguments and coming up empty, so he's just going to cling to his atheism and leave the game.


Intellectual freedom in Canada and elsewhere ...

As Americans cope with the recent assassination attempt (?) on an Arizona Congresswoman, there are predictable demands for “control”: Jonah Goldberg notes,
Misplaced panics like this have a momentum and logic all their own. Already, Rep. Bob Brady (D-Pa.) has drafted legislation to ban the use of symbols (crosshairs on a map, for instance) or language ("lock and load!") that could foster violence. "The rhetoric is just ramped up so negatively, so high, that we have got to shut this down," he told CNN.

That opens the bidding. The question is, where will it end?

If the alleged shooter had been inspired by a movie or TV show -- as any number of murderers have been over the years -- would those blaming the tea parties join with social conservatives in blaming Hollywood? Would they celebrate new laws to "shut down" such fare?

Mark David Chapman, who murdered John Lennon, claimed to be in part inspired by "Catcher in the Rye." Should that be banned? Or if not banned, should we "dismiss" from public life anyone who doesn't denounce J.D. Salinger?
Funnily enough, I remember when J. D. Salinger was denounced by little old ladies in church hats who did not want his works available in school libraries. That seems like a golden age now, because we were free to just ignore them. No so with those who would bring about a near-utopia through legislation, who have a panicked public demanding that the government “do” something.

As I observed earlier, assassinations have declined markedly in the past three decades in the United States, due in no small part - in my view - to the rise of new media, including personal social media like the now much-blamed Facebook. People who can just say it, overwhelmingly, tend to just forget it after a while.

Yes, better security played an important role.* But, in reality, a free world politician can’t just hide from the public. Elected representatives have logged how many minimal security public appearances across the United States, with how many assassination attempts? Let’s do the math: Very few

Probability thinking has its uses, and freakout avoidance is one. That is, if avoiding a freakout, rather than cultivating it, is what we want to do.

Here’s Jonah Goldberg on the smiley-face fascism of “let’s-just-ban-whatever” that poses a significant concern today.

*As a young teenager, I saw the Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald shot by local “hanger about the police station” Jack Ruby in Dallas while he was in custody. (It was accidentally captured on TV.) The consensus then - since acted on - is that security matters. But other things matter too.

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