In “Science is not your enemy” (permanent link), Steven Pinker starts an argument with humanist Leon Wieseltier. The humanities are a sinking ship, says Pinker, and need to re-conceive their relationship with the natural sciences. Let the two faculties fertilize each other! – No, thank you, says Wieseltier, we get along just fine. Read More


So, there you are, a scientist, impressed by the anti-religious fervor of the likes of Dawkins, believing that science can do away with God. You’re an atheist, in the sense that you believe there is no God, and that science licenses this conclusion.

But then, you’re also irrational. If you think God is outside the realm of the testable, science does not give you reason to believe anything about a potential God: neither that he exists nor that he doesn’t. If you believe God is in the realm of the empirical, science shows you a lack of evidence (which, as the famous saying goes, is not evidence of absence) and again leaves you without any reason to believe anything about God one way or the other.

In the current situation, therefore, you cannot both be rational and an atheist. The perfect scientist is agnostic.

An outcry from the scientifically righteous swept the media when Luc Besson’s latest action flick “Lucy” turned out to hinge on the old “myth” that humans use only 10% of their brain capacity. Another dumb Hollywood product that gives a damn about getting the facts right, and another disservice to public education in science. That’s what many critics must have thought, and some stepped in to set things right online. But, as we’ll see, it’s not so clear who is doing more of a disservice to the public, Hollywood or its detractors. Read More

Science writer Michael Brooks lists “five discoveries taking science by surprise“.1 Number 5 is that “human beings are not special”. Think culture sets you apart from the beasts? Chimps, crows, and dolphins have it, too. Personality and morality? Elephants, rats and spiders are there with you. The ability to feel? Nah, even cockroaches do it.

But maybe things cultural and mental are too soft to build such momentous distinctions on? Well, maybe, but there’s no consolation in that. Brooks knows  that “even the hard facts are letting us down”: we’re sharing over 99% of our genes with other species. The genetic difference is almost non-existing. Read More

Today we understand evolution mainly as a fact about nature, but its historical root is that of an explanation of a much older fact: that the living world consists of different types of organisms. Where did theses species, as they were called, come from? In pre-Darwinian times, God was seen as having created them to be eternal, immutable entities arranged in a linear hierarchy. The Swiss naturalist Charles Bonnet wrote in 1779

Nul changement ; nulle altération ; identité parfaite. Victorieuses des élémens , des temps & du sépulchre, les especes se conservent…

No change; no alteration; perfect identity. Victorious over the elements, time and death, the species are conserved… (p. 231f., my translation)

With Darwin, species became fluid. They changed continually and transformed into each other in a process called evolution. Both evolution and the mechanism by which it was proposed to occur, natural selection, were debatable concepts. Both were, in fact, debated, the latter much longer than the former. But the existence of species as distinct phenotypic categories would not seem to be up for debate, for it was the very thing these two ideas were meant to explain. To change it would be to change the subject. And yet, later history revised the definition of evolution in such a way as to remove the target of explanation after the explanations themselves were already in place. Read More

Richard Dawkins is arguably the spiritual father of the new atheist and skeptics movements, whose followers claim to know what the world is like. Or, more to the point, who claim to know what the world is not like. No ghosts, no telepathy, no ectoplasm. Science does not support the belief in such phenomena, and, some say, it supports disbelief in them.

I assume Dawkins would agree with this, but then he surprises me with what strikes me as an utterly pointless definition of the supernatural that supports his case by definition. Read More