Atheism TED Talks

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 13, 2010 in Video

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott March 13, 2010 at 9:36 pm

This was a good one, too, about a guy who tried for a year to adhere as closely to the rules of the Bible (specifically the OT). Funny stuff.

http://www.ted.com/talks/a_j_jacobs_year_of_living_biblically.html

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lukeprog March 13, 2010 at 9:37 pm

Scott,

I thought about adding that one, but it’s not really an atheism talk.

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lukeprog March 13, 2010 at 9:55 pm

Here is a great talk on explanation, one of my favorite topics: A new way to explain explanation. He talks about myth vs. science.

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Devlin March 13, 2010 at 10:20 pm

Great collection, I love the Sweeney one. An unrelated, but very good TED talk that fans of your blog might like is Dan Ariely’s on Irrationality.

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Rhys Wilkins March 13, 2010 at 10:49 pm

Dennet’s talk is pretty interesting stuff.

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lukeprog March 13, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Yes, the Dan Ariely is one of my favorites!

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Briang March 13, 2010 at 11:19 pm

I’ve watch some of the Sweeney video before. I really have a tough time appreciating her humor (to put it mildly). I’ve watched/heard many atheist’s talk. Some have I’ve found interesting, because I learn something about science. Some make me uncomfortable because they challenge my faith. Some just teach me about atheistic thinking. But Sweeney I just don’t get.

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Hermes March 14, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Devlin, your link was invalid. Did you mean either of these?

http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_on_our_buggy_moral_code.html

http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_asks_are_we_in_control_of_our_own_decisions.html

I’m guessing you meant the second one.

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Haukur March 14, 2010 at 1:06 pm

I think the Deutsch talk is the most wrongheaded TED talk I have ever listened to.

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lukeprog March 14, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Beau Lotto contributes to Plantinga’s EAAN at TED.

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Devlin March 14, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Hermes, you’re right, my bad on the link goof up. It was the second talk. Thanks for posting valid links.

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Hansen March 14, 2010 at 3:51 pm

Sam Harris gave a speech at TED recently too. There is no video of it yet though. Look out for it!

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Kiwi Dave March 15, 2010 at 4:07 am

Haukur
Would you like to say briefly why Deutsch is mistaken and suggest some books or internet sites an interested non-scientist could access?

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Haukur March 15, 2010 at 4:34 am

Well, for starters he just doesn’t seem to have any idea about how the Ancient Greeks thought – he treats them as some sort of literalist YEC types, unable to understand the difference between mythology and science.

Of course everyone has always known that the change of the seasons is connected with the sun. And the Greeks certainly knew that the seasons were different depending on your location. The pagan Greeks even measured the axial tilt already in the 5th century BCE. A couple of centuries later they’d measured the circumference of the earth and the distance to the sun. Deutsch portrays them as somehow hamstrung by the myth of Demeter and unable to make scientific progress, that’s just completely wrong.

As for what makes a good explanation, that’s a complicated issue. Luke’s done some posts on this and he’d be better at digging up good sources than I would.

Basically, Deutsch tells some cute and misleading stories after which he offers a facile solution to a complex philosophical problem and presents it as a silver bullet. I think it’s an awful lecture – does anyone here want to defend it?

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Hermes March 15, 2010 at 11:08 am

Haukur, not defending it, but asking you for a clarification about what you see was so awful.

Could you (if possible) give a point in his speech (MM:SS) where you think he jumps the shark? (The first 10 minutes seemed OK if disjointed in parts. Do you see anything in there that is worthy of serious criticism?)

Is it that he was too wide ranging in his examples and emphasis? (He had ~16 minutes to get his point across, and may have done a poor job of picking the scope of his presentation and his examples. I wouldn’t argue against that.)

* * *

Note that I agree that his Greek myth example is hamfisted, showing he is not a mythicist and that he doesn’t have a basic understanding of the mythic component.

Yet, his goof in not understanding the nature of myth still has some merit when we compare knowledge based on the answers of other literal questions about similar issues. [see final question] After all, I see constant examples of people here and elsewhere not understanding the difference between literal and mythic and demanding that one is the other.

That said, it is true that a professor should be better informed, or have his work checked when it ventures outside of his specialty. OTOH, he could have decided to ignore that error for reasons of time or to emphasize the literal element, gauging that his literal emphasis was more appropriate for the audience and the ancient Greeks (in general) even if it is incorrect to ignore the mythic aspects.

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Haukur March 15, 2010 at 11:57 am

Well, we seem to agree that the lecture gets worse as it goes on. I’d say the first five minutes are sort of “okay, maybe, where are you going with this?”, material but as soon as he starts talking about the scientific revolution I stop buying what he’s saying. The ancient world had science – good science. And good philosophy too. The difference is that they never got an industrial revolution – that’s probably the most interesting thing to explain. I need to run now, maybe I’ll write more later.

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Jeff H March 15, 2010 at 2:27 pm

Question for you, Haukur:

Do you think that the educated Greeks would have treated the pagan myths somewhat like we do today (as non-literal stories providing meaning), but that the uneducated Greeks would have treated them literally? I’m not an expert in Greek culture by any means, so I’m asking for some clarification. You seem to treat the ancient Greeks as one homogeneous group, but I doubt that they all thought the same way about these myths.

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Haukur March 15, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Jeff H: Do you think that the educated Greeks would have treated the pagan myths somewhat like we do today (as non-literal stories providing meaning), but that the uneducated Greeks would have treated them literally?

I’m only an amateur when it comes to ancient Greek and Rome and I don’t want to pretend I know something I don’t. The problem, of course, is that only the educated people write books so those are typically the only views that are preserved.

For one thing I don’t quite understand how you would take something like the myth of Demeter and the seasons “literally”. What does that commit you to believe? Deutsch implies that it commits you to believe that the seasons are the same in Greece as in Australia. But if you went back in time and found a pagan Greek peasant and explained to him that there was a country far south where they had winter during the Greek summer and vice versa I have a hard time imagining that this would be religiously troubling to him (the way the age of the earth is troubling to some literalist Christians).

For another thing, “we today” aren’t a homogeneous group either. I would guess that myths involving Demeter do not have the same meaning to you that they have to this woman. There are no doubt more than two ways to understand a myth like this.

For those just tuning in, we had a long-ass discussion about the Greek philosophers and the myths some time ago. Jeff is picking up the thread from there.

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Hermes March 15, 2010 at 7:20 pm

Haukur: For one thing I don’t quite understand how you would take something like the myth of Demeter and the seasons “literally”.

Agreed. Or, that is, I would like to agree.

Yet, time after time after time I’m told in all seriousness that there was this person named Noah that rode on a boat with a pair (or 7 pair of clean) of each of the animals in the world. These people are either entirely serious, staggeringly cynical, or alternatively they are doing the most massive and dryly satirical group art project I’ve ever encountered and have even fooled other people into being part of the cast. I’m told that all of the land on the Earth was covered by water by this group and that the Grand Canyon was carved out in about 5 minutes.

Then again, there are people who insist the Earth is flat as well, and they supposedly don’t get along with the first group. It would be good if it were an act.

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Haukur March 16, 2010 at 3:07 am

Hermes: Yet, time after time after time I’m told in all seriousness that there was this person named Noah that rode on a boat with a pair (or 7 pair of clean) of each of the animals in the world.

Indeed, Christians have historically tended to cling very tenaciously to the historicity of their sacred stories. And you will find Christian intellectuals, not just peasants, willing to defend all sorts of literalist interpretations. This isn’t the case with every religion. I’ve been reading The Essence of Shinto by Motohisa Yamakage – very much a true believer. He says things like this:

Shinto is therefore defined as “a religion revering great nature.” Our ancestors had a profound perception of the law of nature and the mysteries held within the natural world. They experienced a sense of awe and gratitude toward those mysteries and expressed this sensibility through myth and ritual. This is the essence of Shinto…

He’s happy to use the word ‘myth’ to refer to Shinto myths. That’s very different from the Christian approach. If we had an unbroken line of the Hellenic religion down to the present day I think their priests would say similar things as the Shinto priests. And indeed, if you show the above passage to Hellenic revivalists and substitute the word ‘Hellenism’ for ‘Shinto’ I think many of them would endorse it.

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Kiwi Dave March 16, 2010 at 4:15 am

Haukur, thanks for your response. Listening to his talk through a weak sound system, I mostly ignored his Greek myth stuff and focused on his idea that a good explanation was one which could not be easily altered by a quick ad hoc alteration, but was deeply embedded in a large body of evidence and theory. Yes, Luke has produced some good material on what is an explanation, which I’d forgotten about.

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Bebok March 16, 2010 at 5:56 am

I think I’m somewhere between Deutsch and Haukur.
There were Greek thinkers who saw a conflict between mythical explanation and natural explanation and thought that the latter was always better, but were quite unable to explain why it was better and how to distinguish a good natural explanation from a bad one.
For example, Hippocrates thought that the brain is the seat of reason, but about a century later Aristotle said it was the heart. They both sought natural reasons and both found some. The problem was they lacked good methodology. I know a number of examples when some correct theory was replaced by a wrong one in ancient Greece, but I can’t recall too many examples of such replacements after the scientific revolution.

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Haukur March 16, 2010 at 8:08 am

Bebok: For example, Hippocrates thought that the brain is the seat of reason, but about a century later Aristotle said it was the heart.

Then Galen came along and disagreed with Aristotle on some points. It’s true that medical science did not advance as far in antiquity as some other disciplines, partially because of the prohibition against human dissection.

Bebok: The problem was they lacked good methodology.

Well, I don’t know. I’d be curious to know what the relevant experts (say, Richard Carrier) think about this. It still seems to me that Deutsch doesn’t sound knowledgeable about this at all.

From the department of weird and amusing things, the Jómsvíkinga saga describes an experiment to find out if the seat of thought is in the head.

“I’m very content to die. But deal me out a speedy blow. I have here a dagger. We Jomsvikings have often discussed whether a man knew anything after he had lost his head if it was cut off speedily. Let us make the following arrangement that I shall hold the dagger up if I know anything, otherwise it will fall down.” Þorkell struck him and his head flew off, but the dagger fell down.

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Hemes March 16, 2010 at 9:26 am

The ancients did not have methods to determine if some answers were true or not, and the ones that were able relied on a pre-existing and wide ranging societies that took tens of millennia to develop. For example, definitive evidence that the Earth is round and not flat.

Deutsch is correct (first 10 minutes) that small bits of knowledge or even just techniques/technology were slowly gathered over a 100K year (conservative; may be +200K) span of modern human existence as a species.

[ This of course unfairly discounts any knowledge that the current human species gained from predecessor species or parallel hominid and non-hominid species; The shoulders of giants that we stand on may not have been 'ours'. ]

Much of this is because of small differences that have resulted in exponential changes. The Prometheus myth is one example that highlights the importance of that multi-faceted and valuable tool called fire. Being able to recreate fire on demand required technical skills and knowledge that are not intuitively obvious.

After all, if you were dropped in the wilderness with only your clothes and told to make a fire to signal the helicopter to pick you up, could you? (Have you ever done it yourself?)

More importantly: Could you with your advanced education and ability to use complex tools figure that basic skill out if your memory of how to do it was wiped out first?

Add to this shorter life spans (mostly from high rates of homicide prevalent in villages and no methods to combat disease), the loss of experience and knowledge from frequent and early deaths, the lack of existing recorded references, and neither domesticated plants or animals and it’s not much of a surprise why it took so long.

With such levels of ignorance and short lives, the shortest practical answer — the Earth is flat, the sun rides along the sky and is snuffed out in the sea, … — were entirely valid and reasonable. They also couldn’t be countered by actual evidence either because that ability to counter those errors was not available to anyone regardless of how thoughtful they were.

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Bebok March 16, 2010 at 8:54 pm

Haukur: It still seems to me that Deutsch doesn’t sound knowledgeable about this at all.

I don’t say he does.
However neither would I say that the ancient world had good science. Some of their theories were astonishingly accurate and some astonishingly inane. I’m currently writing a thesis on Aristotle’s “Problemata”, where questions like “Why lecherous people lose their eyelashes?” or “Why none of the animals smell nice with the exception of the panther?” are pondered. The answers are even more brilliant.
I wonder what Jomsvikings would say to Aristotle, whose argument was that chickens can run for quite a long time with their heads cut off. It seems to me that the problem was that the Greeks (and probably Jomsvikings) didn’t ask themselves questions like “What makes an experiment a good one?” or “What is the relation between an experiment and a theory?” or “Why do we need experiments at all?” too often.
I think classical scholar Peter Green puts it well:
“A perverse rational hypothesis is no improvement on a religious one: what is the point of breaking away from the superstition if you promptly become a slave to some arbitrary philosophical system? Besides, the religious hypothesis often possesses psychological value (…)”

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Haukur March 17, 2010 at 4:50 pm

Bebok: However neither would I say that the ancient world had good science. Some of their theories were astonishingly accurate and some astonishingly inane. I’m currently writing a thesis on Aristotle’s “Problemata”, where questions like “Why lecherous people lose their eyelashes?” or “Why none of the animals smell nice with the exception of the panther?” are pondered. The answers are even more brilliant.

Science in antiquity did advance quite a bit beyond Aristotle. Other than that, I don’t know what to say – I guess it depends how good science needs to get before we call it good science. If Europe didn’t have good science in the 2nd century then did it have good science in the 14th century? The 15th? 16th? 17th? 18th? I’m happy to say that Europe had good science in antiquity and again had good science once the Renaissance had brought back what it could of the ancient science and scientists had started to seriously add to that. By contrast, Europe did not have good science in the Dark Ages – that’s when almost everything is “astonishingly inane” and very little is “astonishingly accurate”.

But anyway, if you set the bar for good science higher than I do then you can, of course, reasonably say that the ancients did not have good science and that we’ve only had good science since, say, the 17th century.

Surely, understanding of what makes an explanation a useful one comes in degrees, did exist to some extent in antiquity, did backslide in the Dark Ages and did again start to advance from the Renaissance on. Does anyone disagree with that? But was this the advance that drove every other advance? I’m skeptical of that. I try to teach my students good methodology all the time but it seems to me that the smart students already have a (mostly intuitive) understanding of good methodology and the not-so-smart students have trouble learning it like they have trouble learning everything else. In other words, it seems to me that abilities like using good methodology and understanding what makes a good explanation are closely tied to having a high general intelligence.

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Haukur March 17, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Haukur: It’s true that medical science did not advance as far in antiquity as some other disciplines, partially because of the prohibition against human dissection.

Apparently, I got this wrong. See the comments to this Richard Carrier post.

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Hermes March 17, 2010 at 7:15 pm

Haukur, thanks for the link. Very informative.

* * *

As payback, in addition to the old favorites (Plutarch’s Parallel Lives is excellent) I recommend The History of Rome podcast if you aren’t already aware of it.

The History of Rome is quite detailed and occasionally touches on medicine and the sciences, while mainly covering what people from all levels of Roman society (and Roman entangled societies) thought and did in different periods of Roman history.

(That said, ancient is not (of course) just ancient Greece and/or ancient Rome. Ancient history also blurs into pre-history and pre-history should not be ignored either.)

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Bebok March 20, 2010 at 4:59 pm

Science in antiquity did advance quite a bit beyond Aristotle.

But not in the case of nice-smelling-panther theory. Roughly 500 later Claudius Aelianus writes that a panther entices fawns, goats and other prey with its marvellous aroma.
And there are dozens of such examples.
I haven’t got any elaborated definition of “good science”, though. I just wanted to say that in certain periods of ancient history there was significant scientific progress in some fields of study, but no progress (or even regress) in others. This changed quite a bit after the scientific revolution, to my knowledge mainly because scientists started to pay much more attention to the methods of enquiry.

I try to teach my students good methodology all the time but it seems to me that the smart students already have a (mostly intuitive) understanding of good methodology and the not-so-smart students have trouble learning it like they have trouble learning everything else.

My experiences are very different. For example: I’m quite intelligent, but I was duped by a number of idiotic theories in my life, just because instead of studying proper methods of enquiry I relied on my intuition.

Anyway, thanks for the interesting link. I’ve only read about dissections in Alexandria, I didn’t know about Galen.

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