Episode #026: Biology, Women, and Religions (feat. Dr. Abby Hafer)

#026: Biology, Women, and Religions (feat. Dr. Abby Hafer)

My guest on this episode is Dr. Abby Hafer. She holds a doctorate in zoology from Oxford University and teaches human anatomy and physiology at Curry College. She is the author of the 2015 book The Not-So-Intelligent Designer—Why Evolution Explains the Human Body and Intelligent Design Does Not.

Together, we discuss the evolutionary origins of sex and women’s reproductive systems and how these demonstrate the reality of biological evolution and conclusively falsify the notion of an intelligent designer. We discuss religion as a human invention that was developed as a solution to what Abby calls the “Problem of Being Male.” We also discuss the phenomenon in nature of spontaneous abortions, and Abby crunches the numbers to show that, if the Abrahamic God really does exist, he would be the world’s busiest abortionist. We talk about the ways in which women’s ability to bear children has been hijacked by authoritarian, fundamentalist religion, using the Quiverfull movement as the best contemporary example, and we conclude by talking about why a morality that excludes any appeal to the supernatural is far superior to any god-based morality.

Doubter of the Week: Hypatia of Alexandria (c. 370 – 415 CE), mathematician, astronomer, pagan philosopher and teacher, and the last curator of the famous Library of Alexandria in Egypt, tragically murdered by a mob of Christian zealots.


American Humanist Association: Dr. Abby Hafer profile:…au/abby-hafer/

Abby Hafer’s book:…ent/dp/1620329417

Check out Abby Hafer’s chapter in Karen L. Garst, ed., Women v. Religion: The Case Against Faith―and for Freedom:…and/dp/1634311701

Consider supporting me Patreon if you enjoy the show:

Thanks to Jeff Prebeg, Jeanne Ikerd, Torsten Pihl, Chris Watson, and Kim Bojkovsky for being my patrons!

Follow me on Twitter at

The opening clip is an excerpt from the audiobook “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, courtesy of Hachette Audio. Text Copyright 2007 by Christopher Hitchens. Audio production copyright 2007, Hachette Audio. Used with permission.

The audio used in the Edward Gibbon quote is courtesy of, a provider of free audiobooks read by volunteers of books that exist in the public domain:…-by-edward-gibbon/.

The opening and ending music is “Jade” by Esther Nicholson and is used under license. The editing was done by Rich Lyons of the “Living After Faith” podcast.

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#019: Empathy, Feminism, and Mechanical Engineering (feat. Sarah Nicholson) | A Leap of Doubt

In this episode, we tackle the issue of sexism in STEM education, both in the past and in the present, and the important yet seemingly counter-intuitive roles emotional intelligence and empathy play in the way scientists, technologists, and engineers design and build for people. My guest for this episode is Sarah Nicholson, who has recently graduated from Ryerson University in Toronto with a Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in thermodynamics and fluid dynamics. She is also a freelance graphic designer and activist who writes and speaks about feminism, environmentalism, and emotional intelligence. Fun fact: Sarah is also the one who designed the image graphic and logo for this podcast.

In our discussion, Sarah describes the research project she has undertaken to develop an evidence-based method for how engineers might go about including scientifically valid biological differences between men and women in their designs in a way that is non-sexist. And how should engineering students and educators go about identifying those different capabilities and needs in the first place?


Sarah Nicholson’s website:

Sarah Nicholson on Twitter:

Paula J. Caplan, et al., “Gender Differences in Human Cognition” (Oxford University Press, 1997; Oxford Scholarship Online, 2012),

Angela Saini, “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (Beacon Press, 2017),


Join the official discussion group of this podcast at

Consider supporting me Patreon if you enjoy the show: Thanks to Jeff Prebeg, Jeanne Ikerd, Torsten Pihl, Chris Watson, and Kim Bojkovsky for being my patrons!

Follow me on Twitter at

The opening clip is an excerpt from the audiobook “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, courtesy of Hachette Audio. Text Copyright 2007 by Christopher Hitchens. Audio production copyright 2007, Hachette Audio. Used with permission.

The opening and ending music is “Jade” by Esther Nicholson and is used under license.  The editing was done by Rich Lyons of the “Living After Faith” podcast.


#016: Chris Shelton, Ex-Scientologist (Part II) | A Leap of Doubt

This is the second part of my interview with ex-Scientologist Chris Shelton, who for 27 years was a devout believer in and staff member of the Church of Scientology. Founded by science-fiction pulp writer L. Ron Hubbard in the mid-twentieth century, this enigmatic and powerful cult belief system has consumed and destroyed the lives of countless number of gullible people who have been drawn in by Scientology’s promises of peak mental health and mastery over life.

Chris left Scientology behind him for good in 2013 and has been an outspoken critic of Scientology and an anti-cult activist ever since. In Part II, Chris and I continue discussing the inception in L Ron Hubbard’s unpublished works, especially the manuscript known as “Excalibur,” of what would eventually grow into the Church of Scientology. We also talk about why Scientologists believe they are saving the world and the cosmological beliefs Scientology espouses at the highest levels of membership, including of course the story of Xenu the Galactic Overlord. We touch on how we should go about defining a destructive cult, whether Scientology can accurately be called a religion, and finally address the question of what it will take for Scientology to finally takes it place in the graveyard of past spiritual movements.



Chris Shelton’s website:

The Sensibly Speaking Podcast:

Chris Shelton on Twitter:

Chris Shelton’s YouTube channel:

Chris Shelton’s book:


Join the official discussion group of this podcast at

Consider supporting me Patreon if you enjoy the show: Thanks to Jeff Prebeg, Jeanne Ikerd, Torsten Pihl, and Chris Watson for being my patrons!

Follow me on Twitter at

The opening clip is an excerpt from the audiobook “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, courtesy of Hachette Audio. Text Copyright 2007 by Christopher Hitchens. Audio production copyright 2007, Hachette Audio. Used with permission.

The opening and ending music is “Jade” by Esther Nicholson and is used under license.


#014: Cultural Narratives, Political Tribes, & Humanity’s Death Star (feat. Dr. Valerie Tarico) | A Leap of Doubt

My guest for this episode is Dr. Valerie Tarico, a psychologist, writer, and social commentator who tackles religious fundamentalism, gender roles, reproductive empowerment, and the intersection of these three. She joins me on this episode to discuss the power of political mythmaking and cultural storytelling and try to understand the confusing and often frustrating dynamics that we’re currently witnessing in much progressive discourse (or in some cases, debacles).

Dr. Tarico has identified three main narratives that dominate the cultural and political marketplace of ideas. We talk about what these stories are, and the ways in which humans relate and receive these narratives to and from our fellow tribe members in order to effect desired social change. We also discuss what progressives might do differently moving forward to take control of our cultural evolution and effect desired social change in positive directions that challenge old ways of thought and action that threaten our continued existence. Can the Enlightenment liberal vision be reconciled with the post-structuralist and postmodern liberal visions, and if so, how? How do we go about mending the rifts in the secular humanist community and move forward to make real change? And what the hell do Black Panther and Wonder Woman have to do with “sophisticated” theologians?

My appearance on Minnesota Atheists Talk Radio Show:

This week’s shout-outs:
Jerb the Humanist (
The Podunk Polymath Podcast (



Dr. Valerie Tarico’s website:

On Twitter:

Valerie Tarico’s YouTube channel:

Valerie Tarico, “Political Narrative I: This Simple Idea is the Reactor at the Heart of Humanity’s Death Star,” March 14, 2018,

Valerie Tarico, “Political Narrative II: Why Some Progressives Are Tearing Each Other Apart,” March 30, 2018,

Amy Chua, “Revenge of the Tribes: How the American Empire Could Fall,” Big Think, February 28, 2018,


Join the official discussion group of this podcast at

Consider supporting me Patreon if you enjoy the show: Thanks to Jeff Prebeg, Jeanne Ikerd, Torsten Pihl, and Chris Watson for being my patrons!

Follow me on Twitter at

The opening clip is an excerpt from the audiobook “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, courtesy of Hachette Audio. Text Copyright 2007 by Christopher Hitchens. Audio production copyright 2007, Hachette Audio. Used with permission.

The opening and ending music is “Jade” by Esther Nicholson and is used under license.

Alcoholics Anonymous: the Science, Law, and Secular Alternatives by Patrick Hinsel

Alcoholics Anonymous: the Science, Law, and Secular Alternatives

“12-Step recovery programs do more harm than good.”

This statement, though it can be passionately argued for or against, with emotional resolve and with anger, cannot even come close to being discredited by evidence. That is because good evidence regarding the efficacy of programs like Alcoholics Anonymous eludes us. Most estimates place it at approximately a 10% success rate, or equivalent to cold turkey.  In his recent book, The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry, Lance Dodes, MD, a retired psychiatry professor from Harvard Medical School, measured AA’s retention rates along with studies on sobriety and rates of active involvement (attending meetings regularly and working the program) among AA members. Based on this research, he put AA’s actual success rate closer to 5-8 percent. By definition, AA is anonymous, so honest and reliable statistics are difficult to come by. But insurance companies pay for the 12-Steps. The medical community endorses AA, NA, and the 12-Steps.  Governments sanction AA and NA. Therefore AA is ubiquitous, to the exclusion of more reasonable alternatives.

Untold numbers of people find AA off-putting because of the religious aspect. Yet, AA enjoys a monopoly in the recovery community. Secular alternatives are not available all day, everyday, at multiple locations in every city and town in America like 12-Step meetings are. Secular meetings, even in large cities, may only meet once a week, if at all. So the overtly religious 12-Steps, unacceptable to so many, preclude countless individuals from getting the help they seek and need. They suffer for it, and their families suffer too. When we hear about a celebrity relapsing or a rock star overdosing, why should the assumption be that they failed to work their 12-Step program? It is more likely the 12-Step program failed them.

To be clear, AA is religious.

The courts say so, at least.[1] And then there is the fact that most meetings are held at Christian churches. Meetings begin and end with a Christian prayer, usually the Serenity Prayer or the Lord’s Prayer. And seven of the 12-Steps deal with God, Higher Power, Prayer, and Spiritual Awakening. Only five do not:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take a personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

These Steps are read at the beginning of every meeting, along with statements like, “There is One who has All power, that One is God. May you find Him now!” and, “Probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism…God could and would if He were sought.”[2]

The courts have returned their verdict as well. Between 1996 and 2007, five high-level US courts (three federal circuit courts and two state supreme courts) each ruled on this issue. AA is religious and therefore the State cannot force people to go. Because the cases involved the Establishment Clause, they reached the highest level of judiciary scrutiny, only one level below the US Supreme Court.

While AA and its members may deny that it is grounded in religion, these high court rulings clearly explain that when newcomers are told that they should accept the existence of God as a requirement for continued sobriety, and tell them to seek their God through prayer, confess all wrongdoings to Him, and ask Him for removal of shortcomings, and then expect the newcomer to recite the Lord’s Prayer at the end of meetings, the fellowship is indeed practicing “religion.”

Separation of Church and State

Bill W. and Dr. Bob are the Patriarchs of AA, dating back to the program’s Judeo-Christian roots in the 1930s. With other AA members, they were able to influence medical decision makers well into the 1950s and 60s and made presentations to Congress and Medical Societies that had clout at the time. Physiologist E. M. Jellinek collaborated with early AA member Marty Mann, and published the results of a survey mailed to 1,600 AA members. Only 158 were returned. Jellinek and Mann culled 45 that had been improperly completed and another 15 filled out by women, whose responses were so unlike the men’s that they risked confounding the results. From this small sample (98 men) Jellinek drew sweeping conclusions, and his “medical literature” became AA gospel, leading to the medical community’s eventual acceptance of the 12-Steps as the Gold Standard method of treating addiction.[3] With Medicine’s blessing, government and insurance companies began paying for 12-Step based treatment, opening the door for religion and removing the wall between church and state.

“You’re in terrible shape, you need to get yourself to an AA meeting”.

AA manipulates people when they are at their most vulnerable, desperately seeking guidance. Even agnostics and atheists go to AA looking for help in early recovery, because they cannot find any alternatives to the 12-Steps in their area. Some manage to get sober in spite of God, not because of Him. Criminals, including pedophiles and sex offenders, anonymously mix into the groups. Fragile newcomers are easy prey. The manipulation even extends to a “13th Step”, in which male AA members with some clean-time in the program will befriend a female newcomer, ostensibly to offer guidance and support. But in reality the goal is to sexually exploit, or “13th Step”, the female newcomer.[4]

Secular Alternatives to AA and 12-Step Programs

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If this is true, why would repeated returns to the 12-Steps be the solution to repeated relapses? It stands to reason that people have better treatment outcomes when they’re offered choices and not coerced to accept one thing or another. In a 2012 report on addiction treatment in the U.S. by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia, researchers concluded: “Evidence clearly demonstrates that a one-size-fits-all approach to addiction treatment typically is a recipe for failure.” In her book Inside Rehab, Anne M. Fletcher illustrates a science based perspective on recovery and takes a thorough look at the state of affairs of addiction treatment in the US. To be fair, she acknowledges 12-Steps can be helpful for those who willingly pursue it. But other options do exist. Unfortunately, most in the recovery community are unaware or unfamiliar with secular options due to the glaring eclipse that is the 12-Steps.

Refuge Recovery is a mindfulness based recovery program designed by Noah Levine in California. This program is becoming more popular across the US. It emphasizes meditation and Buddhist philosophy, practicing compassion and empathy in the day to day lives of members. In-person group meetings create a social community and support network. Like the other secular groups listed here, Refuge Recovery welcomes people looking to address all spectrums of addiction, including alcohol, food, sex, opioids, meth, and process addictions. There is no mention of any God or Gods as a part of Refuge Recovery. It also has a robust online community.

LifeRing Secular Recovery is an abstinence-based, worldwide network of individuals seeking to live in recovery from addiction to alcohol or to other non-medically indicated drugs.

SMART recovery is science based, and it is probably the largest 12-Step alternative today, world wide. It teaches self-help and common sense with a goal of empowerment.  Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) techniques are used to achieve positive, lasting changes in the lives of its members.

SMART Recovery evolves as scientific knowledge of addiction evolves. It welcomes change when there is an improvement. By contrast, The Big Book of AA was written in the1930s and the AA community adamantly resists changing or adapting it. The Big Book’s chapter “To Wives” reflects an overtly sexist worldview that is increasingly considered unacceptable in modern times. Chapter 4, the “Chapter to the Agnostic” is not an argument of persuasion, it is an arrogant line in the sand, “There either is a God, or there isn’t”  (the implied answer is that there is, just one).  SMART Recovery has wider popularity in Europe than in America right now. Also, an interesting difference in Europe is AA meetings traditionally do not say the Lord’s prayer, and the religious aspects are toned down in AA meetings compared to the USA.

SMART meetings are for all addictions and are facilitated by a moderator experienced with cognitive behavioral techniques and who has significant clean time. In-person meetings can be hard to find in most American cities. For the techniques involved, on-line and chat based meetings are not usually ideal.

Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) is a nonprofit network of autonomous, non-professional local groups, dedicated solely to helping individuals achieve and maintain sobriety from alcohol and drug addiction, food addiction and more.

Women for Sobriety A non-profit organization of women, for women, dedicated to helping women discover a happy New Life in recovery from Substance Use Disorders. It encourages emotional and spiritual growth and is endorsed by the American Humanist Association as a secular or religious-neutral option for recovery. WFS has certified moderators and chat leaders leading mutual support groups online and in person, as well as phone volunteers available for one-on-one support. Any woman seeking an abstinent New Life is welcome to join WFS.

Agnostic AA is a website for agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers who are involved with AA but desire a non-religious, safe place to engage in fellowship. It is a great location to find recovery literature, materials, and books that are secular in nature.

Pharmacotherapy is an underutilized, evidence-based option to treat addiction. Experienced  physicians, trained in addiction medicine, help alcohol dependent patients with prescriptions like Topamax (topiramate) and Antabuse (disulfiram). Naltrexone (vivitrol) has shown efficacy in the treatment of opioid maintenance of sobriety, as well as alcohol long term sobriety. A wide spectrum of treatment options exist, depending on the individual and the substance(s) to which they are addicted. The difficulty is finding physicians who are able to handle this, and getting the treatment covered. The American Medical Association recently estimated that out of nearly 1 million doctors in the United States, only 582 identified themselves as addiction specialists.

Therapy.  Counsellors experienced in the treatment of addiction offer hope to those with the means to access this type of care. Unfortunately, in many instances, insurance does not cover mental health treatment like this, or patients find the cost beyond their means. The Secular Therapy Project arose to help secular individuals having a hard time matching with a counsellor in a faith based world. Many offer sessions via confidential Skype-type arrangements with special software. See as an example.

All of these secular groups will help you if you are interested in starting a new group in your area. The costs of attending these groups are the same as the cost of AA:  free or donation only.

The Dalai Lama says, to paraphrase, “Listen to what I say, and keep what you want. If something I say is helpful, great. If something I say doesn’t fit with your experience, disregard it.” The secular recovery programs listed above are all in keeping with this line of reasoning. They don’t require faith. AA has a motto, “Take what you want, and leave the rest.” Many people in AA do modify their program to their personalities and it works for them. But AA and the Big Book’s statements about God are unequivocal. Some nonbelievers may be able to overlook this for a while and get sober. Countless others are not comfortable with this. They cannot square the fabrication of a “God” in which they don’t believe with a “program of rigorous honesty,” so they either never attend AA, or they cut their losses. They end up aborting the misadventure of AA, and go on suffering while they search for that elusive secular alternative.


Just in the past couple of years, the American Board of Family Medicine began making changes to its board exam questions, phrasing them to better reflect secular options in recovery. Instead of the answer being simply “AA,” a broader option was given, to the effect of “a recovery meeting,” or “an AA or secular recovery meeting.”  The label “Person in long term recovery from alcohol” is emerging to replace “Alcoholic.”  It’s slow progress, beginning in academic medicine. Physicians practicing in the real world lag behind. Insurance and politicians will eventually begin to follow. It is a step in the right direction.

But still, religion permeates. Can you imagine a world in which a doctor says,“You have a primary brain disorder. It’s called Parkinson’s. You need to get on your knees and pray to God. That’ll be $200.” We wouldn’t accept this for Parkinson’s. Why on Earth do we accept this for the most common primary brain disorder, addiction?[5]

No doubt there is benefit to be found in group solidarity, working through a common struggle. It is hard to dispute the upside of support from like-minded individuals who have been through similar circumstances and can offer general advice and guidance. It is comforting to have a place to go where others believe the same as you do and want the best for you. It is helpful to have an old, well established book to refer to in times of doubt. It is reassuring to hear familiar sayings and chants at every gathering. What does this sound like? It sounds like a church. It reflects a religion because that’s what it is. And like religion, it is comforting and reassuring for its adherents. But that does not mean its faith claims are true, and it doesn’t make the claims of AA/12-Steps superior “efficacy” true either. In the words of the late Stephen Hawking, “It is not necessary to invoke God.” He was speaking on other things, but the words ring true in addiction treatment as well. Bringing God into it just complicates things and slows progress. Bill W. was right about one thing, though, when he said, “We are engaged upon a life-and-death errand.” The recovery community deserves better than faith healing.



[1] See Griffin v. Coughlin (1996); Kerr v. Farrey (1996); Arnold & Evans v. Tennessee Board of Paroles (1997); Warner v. Orange County Dept. of Probation (1999); and Inouye v. Kemna (2007).






#008: Science-Based Politics (And a Better Way to Elect Presidents) | A Leap of Doubt

What could possibly explain the astonishing phenomenon of a candidate as inexperienced and manifestly unqualified as Donald Trump sweeping first the Republican nomination and then the general election? Joining me on this episode to muse on this question is John C. Wathey, an author and computational biologist whose research interests include protein folding, evolutionary algorithms, and the biological forces behind religion. He joins me on this episode to discuss the death of the Republican Party, what went wrong and what’s not working in our current political systems (including his own perspective as an expert on algorithms about what possibilities exist for electoral college reform), the problems inherent in the primaries system, and ways to create a better system that upholds democracy and utilizes science as a way of solving problems.

Relevant Links:

Interview with John Wathey on my other podcast Trolling with Logic

John Wathey’s website:

John C. Wathey, “What Should Replace the Republican Party”

John C. Wathey, “There’s a Better Way to Elect Presidents,”

John C. Wathey, “It’s Time to Ditch the Primaries,”

Clare Malone, “The End of a Republican Party,”

Danny Kleinman, “Imagine There’s … a Democratic Voting System,”


Join the official discussion group of this podcast at

Consider supporting me Patreon if you enjoy the show: Thanks to Jeff Prebeg, Jeanne Ikerd, and Torsten Pihl for being my patrons!

Follow me on Twitter at

The opening clip is an excerpt from the audiobook “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, courtesy of Hachette Audio. Text Copyright 2007 by Christopher Hitchens. Audio production copyright 2007, Hachette Audio. Used with permission.

The opening and ending music is “Jade” by Esther Nicholson and is used under license.


#006: Homeopathic Jesus Particles, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Science | A Leap of Doubt

In this episode, I am joined by Natalie Newell and Chad Hayes, MD, hosts of the new Parenthetical Science Podcast, to discuss the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle fear-based marketing techniques used by the alternative medicine and organic-only lobby movement in the various food and healthcare products they want to sell to gullible and vulnerable people.

Our discussion covered Zooey Deschanel’s recent series of woo-based food videos, Gwyneth Paltrow’s kinky pseudoscience that advises putting things in every orifice to cure whatever ails you, the “clean food” craze capitalized on by brands such as Panera Bread, why Triscuit snack crackers do not in fact grow naturally in Midwest wheat fields (despite what its advertising slogans might tell you), the B-horror-movie-grade anti-GMO propaganda of Stonyfield’s organic yogurt advertising and how it backfired beautifully on them, the craziness that is homeopathy, whether Tide Pods are GMO- and gluten-free, and more. The central theme of the discussion that ties it all together is the question: What can consumers do to equip themselves to recognize pseudoscience in advertising?

Natalie Newell is the director and producer of the Science Momsdocumentary, holds a Master of Education degree, and for a decade worked in the field of Montessori education. She now spends her time raising two children, traveling around screening her documentary, and pursuing interests in the areas of science communication and secular activism.

Chad Hayes has a Doctor of Medicine degree from the Medical University of South Carolina and currently practices as a general pediatrician in Charleston. According to his website, he takes “a science-based, skeptical approach to medicine” and is “passionate about science communication and helping parents make well-informed decisions about their children’s health.” He authors a blog called Demystifying Pediatrics.

Relevant Links:

Natalie Newell on Twitter:

Chad Hayes on Twitter:

Parenthetical Science Podcast on Twitter:

Parenthetical Science website:

Science Moms documentary: and

Chad Hayes’ “Demystifying Pediatrics” blog:

Join the official discussion group of this podcast at

Consider supporting me Patreon if you enjoy the show: Thanks to Jeff Prebeg and Jeanne Ikerd for being my first two patrons!

Follow me on Twitter at

The opening clip is an excerpt from the audiobook “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, courtesy of Hachette Audio. Text Copyright 2007 by Christopher Hitchens. Audio production copyright 2007, Hachette Audio. Used with permission.

The opening and ending music is “Jade” by Esther Nicholson and is used under license. Audio edited by Callie Wright of The Gaytheist Manifesto podcast and Answer Media LLC.

Reason Revolution Episode 34 Website Thumbnail

Episode 34 | The Domino and the Dialectic

In this third podcast in our series on free will, Justin sits down with Reason Revolution co-creator Tylor Lovins (@tylorlovins) and author J. R. Becker (@AnnabelleNAiden) to discuss the scientific, philosophical, and linguistic concepts underpinning the age-old philosophical problem.

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The Architecture of Language_ On the Free Will Debate

The Architecture of Language: On the Free Will Debate

Recently, Reason Revolution host Justin Clark sat down with author J. R. Becker to discuss the disagreements between Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris concerning free will. As a complement to their conversation, I want to discuss free will from the standpoint of the meaning of concepts, to ascertain what the difference between Dennett and Harris amounts to and to shed some light on why this debate is happening in the first place.

Clark begins the conversation by outlining three ways of thinking about free will:

  1. Determinism, which understands free will to be an illusion because every action and event has prior causes, and these causes had prior causes, all the way back to the big bang;
  2. Libertarian Free Will, a position, Clark states, promulgated by Christian theology and existential philosophy, understanding free will to be total, that we are condemned to be free;
  3. Compatibilism, a sort-of middle ground, recognizes the truth of determinism that all actions and events have prior causes but does not understand this to be a defeater for free will.

This basic framework is accurate enough. It is interesting to me that Clark outright rejects libertarian free will, as the reasons one would accept it are very similar to those one would use to be a compatibilist. Although I am not sure how accurate it is to say existentialists are talking about free will when they talk about choice (rather than the political term “freedom”), the reason one would come from a libertarian free will position is that it begins with our everyday use of the word “choice” to radically ground the meaning of life in how we choose to be response-able for it, how we choose and live our values. This isn’t unlike the compatibilist position. To be a compatibilist is to essentially use everyday language to think about the meaning of concepts, rather than the scientific conception of reality. The difference between these two positions is essentially that the compatibilist is more accommodating (or perhaps more knowledgeable of different frames of reference) and therefore leaves the language of science to speak in its contexts and the language of existentialism to speak within its contexts. Let’s think more about this movement between everyday use and scientific use. Is it always more reasonable to begin from the scientific conception of reality?

Beginning at the End

I want to tell you a story about a famous philosopher from the 20th century, the two schools of thought he created, and how, although the latter school supersedes the former, the former is still alive and well. This story is not your usual story, because the point of the story is not so much what it refers to outside of itself but rather is the story itself; the very language it uses is as much the “author” of the text as I am.

We are linguistic beings, which means we both communicate through language and, at the same time, create the language by which we communicate. This isn’t so much a strange fact today. For instance, iPhones did not fall from the heavens. We understand that any new iPhone will be manufactured by humans and that it will, most likely, alter the ways we communicate and relate to each other in some way. What is less readily conceivable is applying this recognition to our most basic and natural communication tool: language. The language we use about things, situations, emotions, and the like give meaning to and partially determine our behavior toward them. A very clear example of this is how the word “thinking” has been displaced by the word “processing,” and how the rise of science has changed the metaphors we use to reflect and think about ourselves. Today, our brains are computers, and the hardware of neurobiology creates the software of consciousness. Is anything today so illuminating as this metaphor, and so radically different from the historical view of the spiritual soul, disconnected from all things physical, trapped within the prison of fallen, finite things? Not only has the metaphor informed the kinds of questions we now ask about what it is to be human, but it has altered our situation as humans, from the technology we create to capture, manipulate, and transcend our human capabilities to how we relate to each other. Accordingly, forms of language are, in some ways, forms of reality. If you question nothing else in this article, please question this statement: live with it, by it, for it, against it, without it, because of it. Just don’t forget it. Language causes and solves our problems. It is to language we must turn to understand the origins of our problems and the way to their solutions.

As we enter this story, let us not forget that the concepts we use and our forms of language belong to contexts, and these contexts are composed of specific problems, objects, and logics. Within these contexts, we either use language to extend our concepts to include more experiences, situations, and phenomena (as when religious people call a tragedy part of “the will of God”), or we use concepts to disrupt the very logic of the language we use and the contexts in which our language makes sense (as in when we use irony or hyperbole, or when Sam Harris says, “Free will is an illusion”). The great advantage we have over animals, as a result of our ability to use language, is that we can project possible futures, using concepts as extensions of realities. We can confer motives to things and predict their actions. We can ascribe cause and effect to the world and therefore project possible situations in which we must act. Grounding all this, however, is the fact that our primary tools for acting are not simply instinctual, but they are social. This is of course not to say that language acquisition is not instinctual,[i] but that rather our instincts have given us tools that far exceed the limitations of mere instinct, just as our thumbs give us abilities that far exceed its mere movement.

Finally, I want to offer one more tool as you proceed to this story. Kenneth Burke points out in Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose that the ways in which we are trained to think and act in specific situations may make us blind to what is relevant and important in situations where our training does not apply. He calls this unfortunate fact “trained incapacity,” which, specifically, he defines as “that state of affairs whereby one’s very abilities can function as blindness.”[ii] Many secular humanists, unfortunately, fall into trained incapacity when they critique religion, especially when critiquing the notion of salvation as “escape.” Burke describes the problem with this criticism of religion well: “Whereas it [the motive to “escape” reality] applies to all men, there was an attempt to restrict its application to some men….While apparently defining a trait of the person referred to, the term hardly did more than convey the attitude of the person making the reference.” Burke wants to frame the problem of incapacity as a problem of “faulty means-selection,” which is a “comparison between outstanding and outstanding,” a comparison of relevant details between different situations (what stands-out in one situation and what stands-out in another). When we reason about the world, we reason by the means of language. As a result, the means of selecting what is relevant in certain situations, and how these relevant things connect with other relevant things in other situations, is a question of our means of selection, or, in other words, what concepts we use to talk about the things we are trying to talk about.

My claim, at the outset, is that Harris has a trained incapacity, and that this is a consequence of his scientific training. As a result, what Harris thinks is relevant in conversations about free will is the cause and effect continuum and therefore calls all talk about free will senseless (this is what it means to say “free will is an illusion”). Dennett, by contrast, examines how “free will” makes certain concepts like “responsibility,” “control,” “choice,” and “agency” relevant. Now, it is important to affirm that Harris’s scientific perspective is a legitimate enterprise and acknowledge that when we think scientifically, we must extend the logic of science as a means of selection for understanding the world. However, we must not fall into the trap that science is the only way to make sense of every situation and concept. Does knowing what chemicals are released in the brain in situations of “love” fully answer the beloved’s question, “Why do you love me?” Telling my wife we are in love solely because of our biology would be offensive to the language of love. Likewise, we must consider the extent to which Harris’s analysis is offensive to the social and linguistic understanding of free will.

Science and the Meaning of Concepts

In the mid 1910s to late 1930s, a group of philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists formed an influential club now known as the Vienna Circle. Among its most famous members like Rudolf Carnap, Kurt Gödel, W. V. O. Quine, Alfred Ayer, Frank Ramsey, and Karl Popper was Ludwig Wittgenstein, an esoteric and eccentric philosopher obsessed with language. The purpose of the group was to make philosophy into a science, to bring a precision to the language of philosophy that would turn it into a science. Using logic, mathematics, and empiricism, the Circle mounted a devastating critique against philosophical metaphysics. Perhaps the greatest and most obscure representative document of this critique is Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. Here, he laid the groundwork for the principle of verification: the meaning of a concept is its referent in reality. The principle of verification is that a concept is true, or has cognitive meaning, to the extent that it represents an object or state of affairs in reality; in other words, a concept is meaningful if it can be verified. This principle was a watershed for the logical positivist movement, or “positivism.”

Many things followed from this principle. For instance, it can be definitively claimed that religious language is contentless, senseless. The term “God” represents nothing in reality, and certainly is not derived from a state of affairs, and therefore it is meaningless. The principle seems to give truth claims of science a more robust framework. Concepts like “free will,” “soul,” and “ego,” can be thrown out without a thought, shown to be nonsense and without content. If a concept cannot be verified, it cannot have meaning.

Yet the principle is not without issues. One obvious problem is that it does not verify itself. It is a mere tautology.[iii] How do we know that a concept has meaning only to the extent that it represents something in reality? Well, because that’s how the Vienna Circle defined “truth” and “meaning.” The Vienna Circle’s concept of truth does not adequately account for the many different uses the concept has. Another problem is that it does not distinguish between statements that are descriptive (reports) and statements that are normative (imperative statements). Are all imperative statements nonsense? To say that something is “hot” or “cold” is to describe your world. We can verify whether something is hot or cold by our senses or by agreeing on what hot or cold means on a thermometer. But to say that something is “good” or “bad” is normative: one could say it’s good to be a Democrat and bad to be a Republican, or vice versa. What sense does this have from the positivist perspective? Where can I point to and identify the “good” of Democrats or “bad” of Republicans, unless I already assume the nature of this goodness? This is the is-ought problem, rearticulated. We will return to this later.

After Wittenstein wrote the Tractatus, he believed he solved all the problems of philosophy. These problems were either confusions of language, claiming content for its concepts where none could be found in reality, or philosophical problems were caused by railing against the limits of language. The limits of language are, indeed, the limits of philosophy. Famously, the final proposition in this influential work states, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Silence is the best we can do with questions about the ultimate things, those things which ground our languages, which form the connections between the is and oughts.

Wittgenstein’s retirement from philosophy was brief. He soon realized the positivist conception of language did not adequately account for the complex ways in which language is used and still has meaning. Consider metaphor, poetry, body language, allegory, and the like. These uses of language clearly say something, and for language to say something is for it to “make sense,” to “have meaning.” Whether or not words refer to things or states of affairs is not the whole question of meaning or truth, Wittgenstein realized. Language acquisition and use plays, perhaps, an even larger role than reference. Consider when a mother points to a ball and says, “ball” to her toddler. How is the toddler to know that when the mother points to the ball the toddler isn’t supposed to follow a line from the elbow, or that the mother isn’t talking about the ball but about the color of the ball, or the shape, or even the space the ball fills by its existence? The toddler comes to know what “ball” means by interacting with the ball, by learning how “ball” is used in the contexts in which it is appropriate to talk about “ball.” This is the central insight of Wittgenstein’s later work, his rebuke to positivism: The meaning of a concept is its use in a context: meaning is a function of context.

Do We Agree on the Facts, or Are We Just Playing a Semantic Game?

Let’s return to the topic of free will but with a different light: the determinist position appears to be derivative from positivism, whereas Dennett’s Wittgensteinian and pragmatist influences shows in his position, for it matters to Dennett that our reflection on concepts begins on the basis of accurate use of these concepts. We can call anything truth: but does the arbitrary changing of definitions mean anything? This question brings to mind the work of James K. A. Smith, presently a popular theologian in ultra-conservative Calvinist circles, who relies on stale arguments and linguistic slights-of-hand. For example, he defines “liturgy” as anything that shapes our desires. So it appears “deep” when he makes the claim that basically everything is liturgy: from the ways in which we shop at malls to our daily after-work routines. One implication in calling desire-shaping phenomena “liturgy” is to suggest that we’re all “religious” at the core. And, indeed, this is assumed in the very conception of the matter. This is an extremely boring and underhanded way of saying something without saying something: Smith is an expert at employing the “deepity.”[iv] But it’s a telling example of how the words we use can affect our perceptions of our objects of study. Why not just substitute “liturgy” with “stimuli?” Well, for one reason, Smith would be out of a job. Additionally, there would no implication, in any given instance when we use “liturgy,” that forming habits fulfills a religious need. Smith’s trailblazing conclusion, that desire-shaping practices are ultimately about “worship,” would not be assumed at the outset. Smith’s method of argumentation is one way to have your conclusions made for you: the very words we use shape our intuitions as linguistic beings.

What does it mean to ask if we agree on “the facts?” Consider that you’re having a discussion with James K. A. Smith on desire-shaping practices. What sense does it make to describe the things that draw our attention and shape our desires as “stimuli,” and not “liturgy?” Are we disagreeing about facts, here? Is it all “just semantics?”

The fact is that our words shape and, in some ways, determine, what we see in the world, giving rise to disparate forms of thinking about what is “the world.” If we use “liturgy” to talk about desire-shaping practices, the inferences we are compelled to make by the use of the concept itself infer that when we conduct acts which shape our desires (that is, when we do anything), we are indeed performing acts of “worship,” and the places in which we perform these acts of “worship” are our “holy” sites. This is what I mean when I say that the conclusions are already contained within the very assumptions from which we begin any analysis. For Smith, just as for Harris, the facts are given as a starting point. Consider what would follow if we began our analysis of desire-shaping practices from the mechanistic conception of the universe. Unlike Smith, Harris would say that we do not shape our desires (“liturgies”) by “performing acts of worship” in “holy sites,” but by being influenced by the “conditioners” in our “environments.” Nothing like “worship” or “holy sites” is insinuated by the use of the words “conditioners” and “environments.”

As such, using a word like “facts” is more so determined by our our points of reference, our forms of analyses, and not so much what we find in the world. Our very use of the concept of “fact” delivers objects in the world which are essentially different from the objects in the world we find when we think of things as projections from our emotions, as symbols of what the future will bring, or as “miracles.” Both Smith and Harris can agree on the “facts,” to the extent that they can analyze the same situations, but what these facts are named, whether “liturgy” or “stimuli,” is just as important in shaping what the facts mean as the objects and situations under investigation.

So What is at Stake?

The free will debate is simply a good representation of what occurs in every discussion where science attempts to analyze concepts derived from everyday use but without paying attention to the inferences we make by these concepts: concepts like “mind,” “thinking,” and “belief,” and “morality.” This debate is also a good example of the difference between positivist and ordinary language philosophers. But let us take a look at another aspect of this debate, moving beyond the analysis of the concepts put in play, and consider the consequences that follow from these concepts.

The debate between Harris and Dennett boils down, in some ways, to the question B. F. Skinner raised half a century ago. When we are trying to understand the reasons for actions, do we look at the intentions of the person from our everyday use of concepts and within a normative framework of moral responsibility, or do we look at the conditioners of action, the mechanics of the universe that make some actions more likely than others and put in place mechanisms that will influence better outcomes? This is the crux of the free will debate between Dennett and Harris. And to the extent that we side with Dennett, we are looking for ways to innovate our normative schemes, to extend some concepts and retract others when it comes to our language about free will, responsibility, and justice. And when we agree with Harris, we are looking at the physical mechanisms of the world in order to manipulate and shape them to improve society.

Going back to the is-ought problem as introduced earlier, we can say that both the descriptive and normative frameworks are different for Dennett and Harris. For Dennett, the descriptive side of his analysis involves looking at the everyday situations in which it makes sense to use “free will” and then to outline the inferences we make in those situations, the consequences of using this concept. For Harris, the descriptive side involves data about the mechanisms of reality. What we count as descriptions, or the “is” of reality, informs, then, the “oughts” that follow. For Dennett, to rid us of the concept of “free will” is to rid us of the kinds of practical, social relations in which we participate when, in the everyday world, we use this concept. That’s why Dennett wants to talk about the moral aspect of free will. For Harris, to lose the concept of free will is to lose nothing, because both morality and free will are about the mechanisms of reality, and just as our moral intuitions are facts that pertain to the operations of these basic mechanisms of reality, so too is the illusion of free will. We have Dennett representing Wittgenstein’s later position and Harris representing his earlier philosophy.

The difference between Dennett and Harris is not only in the frameworks from which they analyze the problem of free will, but in the consequences that follow from their methods of analysis. To accept both projects as legitimate, which I think we should, would mean that we should work both to be linguistic innovators and also social revolutionaries. We should be attentive to the ways in which language shapes thought but also be open to using the tools of science to move beyond mere argumentation and hermeneutical innovation to improve society. The public clash between two legitimate ideas generally revolves around the fallacy that these ideas must be integrated in some theoretically general way for them both to be legitimate, or else one must give way to another. What is more likely true is that Harris and Dennett have different levels of analysis, and that it is a fallacy to think different levels of analysis must be reconciled in general ways. Rather, they must be married in the life and action of individuals, and to the extent that one level is more useful for some people in some situations than it is for others in other situations, then one level of analysis will be more significant and appropriate. We must move beyond the rationalist fallacy. Employed in a different example, this fallacy would have us believe that to use 1+1=2 we must understand the nature of addition and how 1+1=2 can both be grounded in quantum physics and explain why my wife is angry at me for not walking my dog this morning. The rationalist fallacy bewitches us by making us think we have to have a theory of everything to have a perfect language. Yet, we know, different levels of analysis are true in different ways, for different projects, and for different people.

Ending at the Beginning

The difference between Harris and Dennett amounts to this: while Harris is unwittingly reducing other vocabularies to his scientific vocabulary and thereby displaying a trained incapacity, Dennett wants to keep both vocabularies for creating different contexts, exploring different kinds of experiences, and communicating different ways of existing. The contexts in which free will makes sense are not forms of existence that are delusionary, as Harris would have us think. As Kenneth Burke puts it, “To explain one’s conduct by the vocabulary of motives current among one’s group is about as self-deceptive as giving the area of a field in the accepted terms of measurement.”[v] Put another way, “Motives are shorthands for situations.”[vi] When we consider a breach of contract, what is relevant, in these situations, is not as Harris would have it: a consideration of the cause and effect universe and every single way in which our actions and decisions have prior causes. Rather, what is important for Dennett’s form of free will is that the person has “chosen” to breach the contract, based on the concepts we use in contractual situations. When we say a person made a “choice,” we are saying the possible future outlined in the contract in which “breach” makes sense has been actualized: we are not stating a description of neurobiology or physics. We are using concepts, just as scientists use concepts to both create and describe the world, to make sense and act in the world where “contractual relation” is our current situation. Against Harris’s referentialism, Dennett’s free will reaffirms Wittgenstein and Burke: the meaning of our words has to do with relevance, what it makes relevant, and not reference.

We’ve talked so much about language at this point. Let us just throw out, as the straw that breaks the camel’s back, a simple point of logic which Harris and Becker himself do not seemingly acknowledge. In the podcast, when Becker brought up the Libet Experiments to ground his claim that our choices are predetermined, he did not, also, acknowledge, as Kenneth Burke does, that “The discovery of a law under simple conditions is not per se evidence that the law operates similarly under hilighy complex conditions.” This is a fact we should have learned from the history of science, when the simple Newtonian vision of the universe was displaced[vii] by the Einsteinian vision.

Our ending is where we began, with the recognition that we are linguistic beings, and that the way in which we use words matters. Also, in the spirit of late Wittgenstein, we end with the American who arrived, at approximately the same time, with later Wittgenstein to his later conclusions, to the rebuttal of his own early philosophy.

“We discern situational pattern by means of the particular vocabulary of the cultural group into which we are born. Our minds, as linguistic products, are composed of concepts (verbally molded) which select certain relationships as meaningful. Other groups may select other relations as meaningful. These relationships are not realities, they are interpretations of reality—hence different frameworks of interpretation will lead to different conclusions about what reality is.”[viii]



Photo Credit: Jef Safi

[i] Indeed, this is absolutely the case, as Steven Pinker argues in The Language Instinct.

[ii] Kenneth Bruke, Permanence and Change, 7.

[iii] I refer to this as “tautology” rather than “axiom” to point out a basic point of later Wittgenstein’s insight. Our definitional statements that are supposedly “self evident” actually are the boundaries of our conceptual schemes our language games. They show the logic of our basic conceptual framework: this is what “definition” means in a function sense.

[iv] “Deepity” is from an amusing chapter in Dennett’s book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.

[v] Burke, 21.

[vi] Ibid., 29.

[vii] I say displaced and not “replaced” because Newtonian physics still works when we are measuring short distances, but we need Einstein’s theory of relativity to measure distances between planets. I heard Lawrence Krauss make this point.

[viii] Burke, 35.


Episode 23 | The Interview: Natalie Newell

This episode, Justin chatted with Natalie Newell, co-host of the Science Enthusiast podcast and the director of the new documentary, Science Moms.

They talked about her upbringing and foray into the world of skepticism, the work she does on the Science Enthusiast, and the impetus and reception of Science Moms.

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