Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Should churches criticize best-selling atheists?

Recently, some Britons have been criticizing the Anglican and the Catholic Churches for not saying more about Richard Dawkins's anti-God campaigns. For example, "Femail" of The Daily Mail wrote, last July,
I am astounded that in the face of so much aggressive atheist attack no one in the ranks of believers or in the Church has stood up to reply.

Why has no one joined in the battle against these warriors for atheism? Where are the Defenders of the Faith that they ridicule?

Are our bishops and cardinals, our preachers, imams or rabbis too supine, too complacent or too scared to argue back? Have they no arguments?

In the past there have been eloquent fighters for Christian belief: churchmen such as Cardinal Newman and Archbishop Temple, writers like G. K. Chesterton or C. S. Lewis, of Narnia fame. Where are their successors?

I know of only one: Oxford professor of theology Alister McGrath - who is also a bio-physicist - who has made a substantial refutation.

I am not sure this is quite fair. Most of the time, Dawkins sounds hysterical and mostly wrong. He doesn't seem to know much about religion and it's been a long time since he has done normal science, so far as I can see. So neither the church nor the science lab really wants to get into it with him. Is that so hard to understand?

That said, Oxford mathematician John Lennox did take him on. Lennox's book, God's Undertaker, is highly recommended here.

I entirely agree with Femail about Alister McGrath, and would also strongly recommend his his Dawkins Delusion (an answer to Dawkins' God Delusion) to anyone who wants to know why Dawkins' "selfish gene" and "meme" theories of how human psychology works are simply bunk.

Mario Beauregard and I discuss biophysicist McGrath's excellent expose of that stuff in The Spiritual Brain. For the anti-God campaign in general, go here and here.

Alzheimer NOT an immediate mental death sentence

According to Ben Hoyle, Arts reporter for Times on Line, bestselling fantasy author Terry Pratchett, 59, is suffering a rare form of Alzheimer disease, a condition he describes as an embuggerance.

He is continuing to work, and says of his illness (at Discworld/,
I would just like to draw attention to everyone reading the above that this should be interpreted as 'I am not dead'. I will, of course, be dead at some future point, as will everybody else. For me, this maybe further off than you think -

It may indeed. A friend who is an Alzheimer education nurse insists that staying mentally active helps delay the progress of the disease. She even recommends learning another language. It sounds to me like Pratchett (who has sold 55 million books) has enough to do without that, because he continues to write, but here is some information and are some suggestions on staying mentally active, so as to slow the probgress of the disease.

The main thing, I suppose, is not to assume, without evidence, that one "can't" do things. Perhaps it's the old story: Use it or lose it.


Is your brain full of anachronistic junk?

According to David Linden, author of The Accidental Mind,
David Linden's book "The Accidental Mind" explores the thesis that the human brain is a hotchpotch of suboptimal components gathered together by the vagaries of

Even the Nature reviewer, Georg Striedter, baulks at the idea,
"More difficult to show is that the use of pre-existing parts imposes functional constraints or 'bad design'." Also: "Linden is right to stress that brains evolved, but hasty to conclude that they are flawed in their design. What we do know, and what The Accidental Mind helps us to realize, is that the human brain is not designed as many have imagined.

How does reviewer Striedter know that the brain is not designed? Actually, he doesn't; he assumes that as a starting point. The fact that even HE appears to doubt the "accidental mind" thesis should undermine his certainty, but of course it doesn't.

Anyway, British physicist David Tyler disagrees:
Books like this, and reviews like this, demonstrate yet again how unlevel the playing field is in contemporary science journals. Contributions that deny design, meaning and intelligent agency are given space, whereas proponents of design, meaning and intelligent agency are excluded (and told they have abandoned the scientific method). This is a good example of the tendency for "our minds to distort reality and to act foolishly"!

I haven't yet got a chance to read the book, but I expect that I will not find Linden's thesis persuasive, for two key reasons: Our universe itself shows enormous evidence of fine tuning, a fact admitted by so many great scientists that the speculation that there are arbitrarily large numbers of other, flopped universes is considered the only serious alternative. So there is no strong reason, apart from ideology, to doubt that life forms might also show evidence of design.

Second, if there were really a great deal of anachronistic junk in our brains (as opposed to systems that have changed their functions, for example, or systems that use workarounds), neurological disorders would be far more common than they actually are.

While we are here: There are several platforms in our brains, the newer built on the older, but it's best to be cautious of theses that attempt to derive major truths from this fact.

For example, years ago, I was willing to accept the idea that alligators could not feel emotion in the mammalian sense. Canada, after all, is not generously endowed with reptiles, so I don't deal with them on an everyday basis, as I deal with mammals and birds. But then I ran into a man who knew more about alligators than I would have thought possible. His job was tagging them for conservation research projects, and here's how he did it:
Using a headlight on my head, I can see the eye shine of an alligator several hundred meters on a dark night. I then call the alligator for a closer look by mimicking the alarm call of a baby alligator and make splashing sounds with my hand in the water. The sound is irresistible and the alligator swims toward the boat. If I am working in a new area I can usually call about 80% of the alligators close enough for their heads to hit the boat.
No one says alligators are especially clever, but it may be that they use the reptilian brain for things for which the mammal uses the mammalian brain, and that the differences are not as great as are sometimes thought. Anyway, I have become cautious abut reptile brain", "dinosaur brain", and "kludge brain" theses.

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Service note

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), anoverview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy.