Thursday, 18 April 2013

Major New International Project To Study Evolution Of Religion And Mea Culpa, Edward Slingerland

Part I: The Evolution of Religion and Morality

There is a major multi-national research project afoot.  It's being spearheaded by the Centre for Human Evolution and Culture.
"HECC is a joint University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University research hub that connects evolutionary scientists to psychologists, religious studies scholars and others in the humanities and social sciences. The Centre recently received a $3 million grant that will provide the foundation for the international Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium."
Back in January, I posted about Edward Slingerland, who is a key researcher in this project.  It was a rather unfortunate post entitled "Complete Atheist" Gets $3,000,000 Grant To Study Religion Then Calls Sam Harris a Moron.  I'll comment more about that later in the second part of this post, where I shall attempt to critique it.

But first, you can read more about the project at its website, The Evolution of Religion and Morality  Here is the basic overview from the site's webpage.

Some portions of this project that could be of interest for atheists and secularists in general are (from the Central Research Questions section):

and ...
and ...
and finally...

Furthermore, they will be using advanced imaging techniques like fMRI:
Experimental-Ethnographic Team members will coordinate on systematic, comparative studies employing interview-based, observational, and experimental techniques (including fMRI), targeting community samples and fieldsites in Vancouver, Shanghai, Denmark, New York, the UK, Fiji, mainland China, Taiwan, India, Brazil, Southern Europe, Vanuatu, Israel, New Zealand and Mauritius.
This seems like it could be a really cool project. In fact, I will keep close tabs on this and I'm looking forward to the results or any updates and will post more informed and thus more valuable opinions about them as I come across them.

Now comes the uncomfortable bit.

Part II: Mea Culpa, Edward Slingerland

As I mentioned above, back in January I responded to a Vancouver Sun article, Smart atheist heads $3-million grant into religion and morality.  In my overly hasty response, I questioned why exactly the article's author, Douglas Todd added 'smart' to the article title.
And it's here where I'm guessing Slingerland earns his wise or smart epithet.  This is is nod to what theologians have been yammering on about for centuries with no solid proof whatsoever.  It's to be expected from the the author of this post, Douglas Todd, who attended a school of Theology and won two Templeton awards. There is nothing new here to see folks - move along. 
I made a number of grave errors in this post.
Edward Slingerland

Firstly, I made some rather far-fetched assumptions about Slingerland's philosophical views. It appears I was on a kind of anti-Platonic-absolutes kick at the time and I was seeing these everywhere I looked.

Each human believes, often fervently, in things and values that can’t be rationally proved – such as freedom, dignity, human rights and that no child should be a slave.

This perfectly reasonable statement of Slingerland's along with a couple of others got me into a discussion about Platonic Ideas and logical absolutes when none of these things were actually directly mentioned at all in the article. Slingerland is not positing anything of the sort here. Alas, I set up a straw man here.

But what does Slingerland's personal philosophical opinions have to do with a massive 2 million dollar multi-national project encompassing the combined collaborative effort of dozens of highly specialized scholars across a broad range of disciplines in the humanities?  It turns out, not one jot.

I got lost along this bunny trail only to jump onto a another path with the sensational (yet true) account of how Slingerland was originally quoted calling Sam Harris a moron but how the story later changed to philosophically uninformed.
Yes, that's more like it.  I wonder why they had to change it and not bother to put a note saying they edited the article?  I wonder if that's why Todd thinks he's a smart atheist?
Regardless of what Slingerland thinks about Sam Harris, the reoccurring message here is that, if anything, this is a criticism of Douglas Todd or the Vancouver Sun's editorial staff, not Slingerland or the project itself. And given the sloppiness of the previous post which I now critique, I am in no position to throw any stones at Todd or the Sun.

In fact, re-reading the article, I can now see it is much more of a profile piece on Slingerland himself, his own story, a few of his own ideas and opinions, his apparent dislike of Sam Harris etc.  Very little of the article actually describes the project itself, which should have been my real focus.

So, what brought about this realization? Last weekend, I got the following comment on my previous post. The domain name of the commenter's e-mail suggests that it may have come directly from Slingerland himself.  But regardless of who it was, when the point is spot on it doesn't matter who it comes from.

Notsosmart Atheist 
I find that, when I'm planning to express my opinions about an intellectual position or (say) a major international research project, it's helpful to actually find out something about it first (for instance, through the person in question's published writings, or through official project websites) instead of free associating in response to a fragmentary and inevitably somewhat inaccurate popular newspaper account. It's this extra step that separates thoughtful commentary from intellectual masturbation. Just my opinion. Have a nice day!
I will admit, it stung a bit - including the Have a nice day!  What stung me the most was free associating. I read the comment and got over the urge to respond in a knee-jerk manner.  But after re-reading my post and the original article and doing some basic homework I really should have done at that time, I have come to agree with everything the commenter wrote.

After thinking it through, I would like to offer my sincerest apologies to Dr Slingerland.  Not only did I very likely misrepresent his philosophical opinions and the project he is working on.  Upon re-reading the post, I can see that by questioning Douglas Todd's smart epitaph, I could have been seen as questioning Dr Slingerland's own intelligence. 

I would like to end this post by promoting a very aptly-timed talk by blogger Hemant Mehta from the Friendly Atheist blog, Don't Post First and Ask Questions Later.  I should have asked questions first rather than coming up with answers founded on assumptions.

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