Dennett on Free Will

Fun article in the NYTimes today about free will. A few years ago I became aware of the very interesting arguments made by Daniel Dennett, which are summarized quite well by the article:

Rather, Dr. Dennett argues, it is precisely our immersion in causality and the material world that frees us. Evolution, history and culture, he explains, have endowed us with feedback systems that give us the unique ability to reflect and think things over and to imagine the future. Free will and determinism can co-exist. “All the varieties of free will worth having, we have,” Dr. Dennett said. “We have the power to veto our urges and then to veto our vetoes,” he said. “We have the power of imagination, to see and imagine futures.” In this regard, causality is not our enemy but our friend, giving us the ability to look ahead and plan. “That’s what makes us moral agents,” Dr. Dennett said. “You don’t need a miracle to have responsibility.”

The New Atheism

Wired has an article in the November issue about the "new atheism". This is essentially a more aggressive form of atheism which says that not only is there no God, but belief in God is dangerous. Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett seem to be leading the charge in this fight, seeing as each has recently published a book on the subject.

One doesn't have to look far to understand the motivation behind this movement. I mean, look at all the trouble religion has caused in the middle east. But, does Dawkins really need to be so bellicose? As an example of the sorts of things he says which get me riled up:

Highly intelligent people are mostly atheists

Maybe in certain sub-samples of "highly intelligent people" this is true, but I also know a lot of wicked smart people for which it is not.

Also, how is it that Dawkins and Dennett miss the rather obvious objection to atheism that it is really just another faith? They've exchanged their faith in God for faith in a rule-ordered universe.

Pope's remarks about Islam

The Pope has been appologizing repeated in the last few days for some remarks about Islam. I too found the quote that he used to be rather inflamatory. Yesterday, however, I read the Pope's full remarks. While I still think he could have chosen a better quote, seen in context it is not nearly so bad. The interesting thing is that the speech has very little to do with Islam. Rather, the topic is the relationship between reason and faith.

This had special relevance to me now because I attended a couple lectures at a science and religion conference here at Yale last week. Physicist Laurence Krauss made a presentation which addressed this issue of reason and faith, so it was a topic still rattling around in my thoughts. This quote from the Pope caught my attention:

The scientific ethos, moreover, is the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which reflects one of the basic tenets of Christianity.

Something I also learned from the Pope's address is that the greek word in the first chapter of John's gospel is logos: In the beginning was the logos. If I remember correctly from communication class in high school, logos refers to logical reasoning in speech. This makes a huge difference in my reading of that text.

Essay: A physicist talks to theologians

There's a neat essay on a blog I just found of a theoretical physicist. The purpose of the post, I think, is to convey a bit about how a scientist thinks. It is long but largely successful.

Religious Beliefs of Scientists

The NYTimes has an excellent series of articles on the evolution and intelligent design debate, recently stirred up again by remarks by President Bush and Bill Frist. Today's Times has a fantastic article about religious belief among scientists. Two interesting statistics: 40% of American scientists believe in God, specifically a God to whom they can pray and expect to receive an answer; but only 10% of "elite scientists" (in this case, members of the National Academy of Sciences) believe in God.

I suppose that I am rather surprised by this second statistic. I have certainly encountered a great deal of skepticism about religious organizations among the physicists that I know. Consequently, I would not be surprised to find out that many physicists believe in a general Deism, or that their practice of religion would be limited to such pluralistic forms as Unitarianism. However, even in my lab there are 3 graduate students (including me) who are practicing Catholics. So, I am also well aware of scientists who seem to reconcile their faith with science. I guess there are fewer of us than I thought.

For the NYTime's complete coverage of the Evolution debate, go here.


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