About Rationally Speaking


Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

About Sam Harris’ claim that science can answer moral questions

The buzz in secular circles lately has been about a TED talk by Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith, and Letter to a Christian Nation. The title of Harris’ talk is “Science can answer moral questions,” and you just know that as a former scientist and currently a philosopher, I simply have to comment on it. As it turns out, there is much that Harris and I agree on, but I think his main target is actually moral relativism, and that he would get more mileage out of allying himself with philosophy (not to the exclusion of science), rather than taking what appears to be the same misguided scientistic attitude that Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne have come to embody so well. But let us start with a summary of Harris’ arguments, with extensive quotations from the lecture, proceeding then to my commentary.
Harris begins with a rather startling claim: “The separation between science and human values is an illusion,” adding “facts and values seem to belong to different spheres [but] This is quite clearly untrue. Values are a certain kind of facts. They are facts about the well beings of conscious creatures.” This is a frontal assault on what in philosophy is known as the naturalistic fallacy, the idea — introduced by David Hume — that one cannot directly derive values (what ought to be) from facts (what is). As Hume famously put it in A Treatise of Human Nature:
“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ‘tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”
Harris justifies his position by asking his audience to consider under what circumstances we feel that we have moral obligations: “Why is it that we don’t have ethical obligations toward rocks? ... Because we don’t think that rocks can suffer. ... [talking then about insects having a very limited inner life] This is a factual claim, this is something we could be right or wrong about.” He continues: “If culture changes us, it changes us by changing our brains. And therefore whatever cultural variation there is in the way human beings flourish can at least in principle be understood in the context of a maturing science of the mind,” implying that neurobiology — the field in which he is getting a doctoral degree — will soon be the key to moral discourse.
Harris then introduces the idea of a “moral landscape” describing the sort of ethical decisions that further or hinder human wellbeing, and just couldn’t help himself sneaking in some mystical fluff (he has a weak spot for Buddhism and transcendental meditation), suggesting that perhaps one way to access the structure of the moral landscape is by way of mystical experiences. Whatever.
The talk at this point takes a sharp turn, where Harris aims his fire at moral relativism, though he never actually mentions the term: “Just admitting that there are right and wrong answers to the question of how humans flourish will change the way we talk about morality.” Taking the example of several States in the US that allow corporal punishment of children, he asks: “Is it a good idea, generally speaking, to subject children to pain, and violence, and public humiliation as a way of encouraging healthy emotional development and good behavior?”
He then makes an analogy between human flourishing and physical health to show that though both are complex and varied, we can still make sense of the idea of “health” and act on it. Harris also makes the point that even if it turns out that there are “many peaks on the moral landscape,” i.e. many ways to flourish, this doesn't undermine the idea of an objective assessment of moral claims.
Another example Harris introduces is that of Muslim women who have to cover their body completely so as not to offend their alleged god, regarding which Harris rhetorically comments that “it is the position, generally speaking, of our intellectual community, that we might not like this ... [but] who are we to say that the proud denizens of an ancient culture are wrong to force their wives and daughters to live in cloth bags?” As he correctly points out, we do in fact know a lot about human wellbeing and how it is affected by repressive cultural practices, so that we can indeed be judgmental about such practices.
The final argument of the talk is supposed to reinforce the analogy between moral and scientific expertise, both of which are non-arbitrary: “Most Western intellectuals ... say, well, there is nothing for the Dalai Lama to be really right about or for [serial rapist and killer] Ted Bundy to be really wrong about. ... [One] likes chocolate, [the other] likes vanilla. ... Notice that we don't do this in science,” at which point Harris proceeds to compare differences of opinions about an expert in string theory and himself, claiming that the expert gets the right of way qua expert. “This is just the point, ok, whenever we are talking about facts, certain opinions must be excluded. ... How have we convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere there is no such thing as moral expertise?”
Let me start my commentary by pointing out that I do agree with Harris’ criticism of moral relativism, for much the same reasons that he advances. However, Harris must be living in a semi-parallel universe if he is convinced that “most Western intellectuals” have no problem with burkas, female genital mutilation, beheadings of “blasphemers” and the like. Perhaps a small number of hyper-politically correct and culturally neutral postmodern cuckoos do subscribe to that notion, but it is hardly “the position, generally speaking, of our intellectual community.”
The analogy between physical health and wellbeing, or flourishing (a term borrowed from the philosophical tradition of virtue ethics, which traces back to Aristotle) is convincing, but not new: it is exactly the way neo-Aristotelian philosophers defend the idea that although the notion of flourishing is complex and multifarious, it is not in fact either arbitrary or useless. The same goes for Harris’ argument that even if there are multiple peaks on the “moral landscape” that does not preclude developing an objective notion of morality. Again, this is an argument well known in moral philosophy.
Where I begin to diverge from Harris is when he talks about moral propositions as a particular kind of empirical facts. First off, as I pointed out before on this blog, to say that something is objectively true is not the same as to say that it is a fact, an equivalence strangely implied by Harris’ talk. There clearly are notions that are objectively true — such as mathematical theorems — but that in no meaningful sense are “facts.” Also, for a notion to be objectively true does not mean that said notion is also universal: morality applies only to human beings and other relevantly self-aware social beings, not to rocks, plants, ants, or other solar systems (unless they are inhabited by self-aware social beings), although on this latter point Harris seems to agree with me.
Let us also set aside another often controversial point in these debates: that of the role of emotions in ethical judgment. As Hume famously pointed out in his Treatise of Human Nature, “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger,” meaning that no matter what logic tells us, we are motivated to act only if we are endowed with certain emotional reactions against, say, injustice. These emotions are a complex result of our evolutionary history and our cultural evolution, but they do not enter into the picture sketched by Harris, so we will just mention the issue and move on.
The crux of the disagreement, then, is embodied in the title of Harris' talk: in what sense can science answer (as opposed to inform) ethical questions? Let me take one of Harris’ examples, the (highly questionable) legality of corporal punishment of children in several US States. Harris rhetorically asks whether we really think that hitting children will improve their school performance or good behavior. But that isn’t the point at all. What if it did? What if a scientific study showed that indeed, hitting children does have a measurable effect on improving those desirable traits? Harris would then have to concede that corporal punishment is moral, but somehow I doubt he would. And I certainly wouldn’t, because my moral intuition (yes, that’s what I’m going to call it, deal with it) tells me that purposefully inflicting pain on children is wrong, regardless of whatever the empirical evidence says.
We can now turn to the wearing of burkas, another issue where Harris and I agree on the substance (it is wrong to force women to “live in cloth bags”), but for different reasons. My position is that I think it immoral for a society to impose that degree of restriction on individual choices (a restriction that, as Harris points out, is backed up by the threat of force and even of capital punishment). That is because as a philosopher inclined towards virtue ethics I think individual and societal flourishing ought to be interconnected in a positive way, not in the negative one implemented in so many Muslim societies.
But Harris has to justify why he poses individual women’s wellbeing ahead of societal wellbeing, or even of the wellbeing of the families (and especially the males) of those women. Again, what if an empirical study were to show that — on balance — societies with restrictive rules about women’s attire and behavior flourish better, qua societies, than their more liberal counterparts in the West? Would that make forcing women to wear burkas morally right? I don’t think so.
These examples could be joined by many others making the same point: if we let empirical facts decide what is right and what is wrong, then new scientific findings may very well “demonstrate” that things like slavery, corporal punishment, repression of gays, limited freedom of women, and so on, are “better” and therefore more moral than liberal-progressive types such as Harris and myself would be ready to concede. The difference is that I wouldn’t have a problem rejecting such findings — just as I don’t have a problem condemning social Darwinism and eugenics — but Harris would find himself in a bind. Indeed, he seems to be making a categorical mistake: what he calls values are instead empirical facts about how to achieve human wellbeing. But why value individual human wellbeing, or the wellbeing of self-aware organisms, to begin with? Facts are irrelevant to that question.
Of course, I am in complete agreement that our sense of morality is an instinct that derives from our biological history, and that our moral reasoning is carried out by certain areas of the brain. But neither of these conclusions make evolutionary biology or neurobiology arbiters of moral decision making. Of course we do moral reasoning with the brain, just like we solve mathematical problems with the brain. Is Harris going to suggest that neurobiology will supersede mathematics? Of course our basic sense of morality has its roots in having evolved as social primates, but so do xenophobia, homophobia, and a bunch of other human characteristics that are not moral and that we don’t want to encourage.
So, how do we ground moral reasoning? This is the province of a whole area of inquiry known as metaethics, and I suggest that Harris would benefit from reading about it. Ultimately, ethics is a way of thinking about the human (and other relevantly similar organisms) condition. Just as we don’t need a good answer to the question of where mathematics comes from to engage in mathematical reasoning, so it is not very productive to keep asking philosophers for “the ultimate foundations” of what they do (if this sounds like an easy way out to you, remember that neither math nor science itself have self-justifiable foundations). A much more productive line of inquiry, it seems to me, is to combine the best of what both philosophy and science can offer in our struggle to make our world as just and moral as possible.

165 comments:

  1. Excellent post. (I can't wait for Harris to tweet now about how he will deal with your 'stupidity'.)

    ;)

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  2. Massimo: "...[B]ecause my moral intuition (yes, that’s what I’m going to call it, deal with it) tells me that purposefully inflicting pain on children is wrong, regardless of whatever the empirical evidence says."

    I have a simple counterexample: vaccinations or minor surgery for a child's welfare. Both cause pain, and in some cases purposefully (either due to risks of anesthetic or prohibitive costs), yet your moral intuition results in a flawed judgment.

    Harris is correct: using the rational processes of scientific inquiry, one can make decisions that are more moral; what's more, the same tools can be used to examine how broad moral metrics lead to societies with properties considered desirable. Such a moral system will never be considered "perfect", but it could be a useful approximation to a perfect system. In math terms, consider it the process to find the least fixed-point of morality.

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  3. "But why value individual human wellbeing, or the wellbeing of self-aware organisms, to begin with? Facts are irrelevant to that question."

    One can break this into two questions:

    (1) Why *do* we value individual human well-being?

    This is a descriptive question, and empirical science can answer it.

    (2) Why *should* we value individual human well-being?

    This is a normative question, in the province of philosophy--but even here the answer to (1) can be relevant, as the empirical consequences of holding such a value can be relevant to the normative question.

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  4. I understand very well his "engineer" perspective. I would represent his argument as this valid argument: using science and rhetoric, you can reduce at least one side of nearly any argument to a moral position that nearly all people will agree with.

    I think it's often morally questionable to do so, to avoid deeper consideration of the moral issues by The People, but I think that this argument is both logically valid and equivalent to Harris' intended argument. Although it's fraught with peril to say "intended."

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  5. I also respect Harris, but as a scientist I disagree with the general proposition that we are finding moral answers to be difficult. Science often addresses what is neither obvious, nor easy. In fact we tend to sail against the tide of human experience in order to find natural truth, often failing, and restarting the journey. Moral justice cannot wait for this process. Supernatural elements should not be consulted, rather rational intelligent examination. At the same time our scientific exploration should not involve politics, religion or even philosophy. We can do both, but only when a distinction of what we are doing is known.

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  6. I agree with you on this one. But I have a question. You made the rellevant question:
    "But why value individual human wellbeing, or the wellbeing of self-aware organisms, to begin with? Facts are irrelevant to that question."

    Of course one can not scientifically prove that one should value human or any other being at all. Or that there is any difference in value between them.
    But if you set up an axiom that we should do things that increase or sustain human well-being (and other beings). Can't you then use science to see what behaviours are morally good or not?
    For example: "if we are to sustain human well-being it is wrong to destroy ecosystems, because scientifically we know that humans depend upon them"

    Do you know any philosophers that work with how science can inform ethics?

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  7. I'm trying to come up with a plausible scenario where something most of us would agree is detrimental, such as forcing all women to dress a certain way, would lead to net "flourishment" of a society. Is there a credible example where facts might lead Sam Harris to a desirable outcome for society or individuals, but would do so through some immoral means? Even if burkas were shown to have some kind of benefit, like increased marital fidelity for argument's sake, could that ever really surpass the subjugation of half a population? I guess I'm just looking for a solid, believable example where Harris' methodology could mislead us to discredit his argument.

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  8. I've been dying to hear your commentary on Harris's talk. You're one of the major reasons I've become so interested in the interaction between philosophy and science, Massimo!

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  9. As I commented elsewhere regarding the ongoing discussion of Harris' TED talk in the blogosphere (including some additional attempts at clarification offered by Harris himself):

    Sam Harris has simply not done the hard work needed to understand the historical and ongoing arguments in ethical theory and metaethics - the context in which the argument he wishes to make *must* be situated. Perhaps these arguments have not settled very much, but they have at least established some shared terminology and made important distinctions: Without knowing the terminology and understanding the important distinctions (and the reasons for them), Harris cannot help but be confused - and to introduce still more confusion when he attempts to engage with his critics.

    Philosophy may be where all the unanswered questions live, and may not get a lot of respect thereby, but at least we try to avoid these kinds of messes. Or, as Sydney Morgenbesser famously described our collective work: "You make a few distinctions. You clarify a few concepts. It’s a living."

    -----
    On a separate note: Why the completely gratuitous cheap shot about the "misguided scientistic attitude that Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne have come to embody so well," Massimo? To my knowledge, neither Dawkins nor Coyne has ever even remotely suggested any argument that crosses or simply ignores the fact-value gap. In fact, Dawkins is on record as having repeatedly said that evolution is the LAST place to look for substantial ethical claims (which is not to deny that what we typically think of as moral behavior is something that evolved in us and other organisms).

    If you keep using this "scientism" and its cognates as casual terms of abuse, people might start to confuse you with the other people who are so fond of using such terms to slander their opponents: postmodernist pseudointellectual hacks (Terry Eagleton, Stanley Fish, etc.) and other religious apologists (too many to list). Lie down with dogs, wake up with fleas.

    G Felis

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  10. Did you actually accuse Harris of possibly not being taken seriously?

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  11. Harris has posted a short response to my essay:

    http://www.samharris.org/faq/full_text/but-what-if-beating-children-is-actually-good/

    Predictably, he misses the point and, as thinkmonkey put it, does not seriously engage the literature.

    thinkmonkey, my problem with Dawkins and Coyne is different, but stems from the same root: their position on morality is indeed distinct from Harris' (at least Dawkins', I don't recall having read anything by Coyne on morality), but they insist in applying science to the supernatural, which is simply another form of the same malady that strikes Harris: scientism, the idea that science can do everything and provides us with all the answers that are worth having.

    Ian, clearly my example has nothing to do with your counterexample: I never said that inflicting pain is always immoral. The reason Harris is wrong is because you first have to decide what is moral (e.g., what kind of situation or goal justifies inflicting pain), then ask science to provide you with the best course of action.

    Jojje, right, one way to look at what I'm saying is that philosophy deals with how we settle the axioms. I never said that science is irrelevant to moral questions, only that it cannot decide them by itself.

    Brent, just ask any libertarian for those examples. They would say that redistribution of wealth (taxation) is immoral, I'd say it's moral, and I've got arguments to back up that claim (mostly along the lines of John Rawls "invisible veil").

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  12. Massimo replied to Harris' response by saying "it would be helpful to have a dialogue here, but you really need to do the hard work of engaging the philosophical literature, or you won't be taken seriously".

    In doing so, he points out one of the most annoying traits of Harris: he acts like he is some genius who has come up with ideas that have slipped the minds of all previous philosophers. I've been reading Sam's arguments against moral skepticism, and he doesn't even mention academic moral skeptics such as John Mackie or Richard Joyce. If you're going to argue against a philosophical position, you should deal with the major proponents of that position, period.

    Harris' ideas are so revolutionary that they have apparently outmoded all previous scholarly literature.

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  13. Massimo,

    Didn't you just support the premise of what Sam is saying by your statement "They would say that redistribution of wealth (taxation) is immoral, I'd say it's moral, and I've got arguments to back up that claim "

    You could quantify the data to show that wealth distribution is "moral" and "just" and scale that against the reasons for not doing it. Answering it it "philosophically" is ignoring the "hard evidence"(emperical) that may support the argument one way or another.

    In other words, we can all stand around with our whackers in in our hand saying "i know best" with no reason other than "personal opinions i call morals" when truth be told if we look at the evidence it would be persuasive one way or another as "Factual evidence" thus "scientific".

    i'm no philosopher, just a computer nerd that loves what Sam brings to the table.

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  14. Moogr,

    no, that's precisely why Harris is wrong. Discussions about empirical evidence (i.e., about the economic consequences of taxation or lack thereof) only come *after* we've had a discussion about why it is fair to redistribute wealth (to a point).

    And no, philosophy is not an arbitrary shouting match, and I wish people who hold to this bizarre opinion would at least do the work of reading some philosophy first. (You can start with the links from my post.)

    Let me put it another way: to say that only facts count means that we shut out any critical analysis of or reflection on such facts. A computer could do that (which perhaps is why Harris appeals so much to you), but human life is a bit more complicated and nuanced than that.

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  15. I'm betting that in the libertarian example, Sam Harris would agree with you that taxation is moral. Economics, for example, can demonstrate the effects of wealth disparity and so on. What I'm wondering is where you two might disagree, where something that you personally believe is moral might run into conflict with what Sam Harris proposes. So far you two are agreeing on burkas, child abuse, etc., but what might be a plausible case where you diverge? Just curious where you see his methodology actually failing.

    I see two possible ways to refute Sam Harris: 1) You show that morality does not concern the well-being of the conscious, or 2) You provide a situation where science cannot help determine the well-being of the conscious.

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  16. Brent,

    I don't know where Harris and I might disagree in practice. He seems to be a social libertarian-progressive like me. But he cannot make the argument for that position itself on empirical grounds, because libertarians of the non-social progressive stripe would claim that it does not matter that taxing people, for instance, increases wellbeing of the majority - their point would be that it still amounts to theft, which they think is immoral.

    Also, morality concerns the well being of individual conscious agents *if* you are a virtue ethicist (like myself), and *if* you agree that individual wellbeing is a partial function of societal wellbeing.

    But this is not necessarily the case if you are a deontologist (a la Kant) or a utilitarian. In the latter case, for instance, philosophers have pointed out that it is easy to come up with scenarios where maximizing happiness and minimizing pain at a societal level leads to actions that most people - my guess is including Harris - would consider morally horrifying.

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  17. Massimo: "Discussions about empirical evidence (i.e., about the economic consequences of taxation or lack thereof) only come *after* we've had a discussion about why it is fair to redistribute wealth (to a point)."

    You made a similar comment to me above, and I don't agree with your statement. It seems like you object to the initial choice of a moral premise that we would then use to evaluate the evidence in favor/against the premise (which would be outside the scope of scientific evidence). E.g., assume that pain caused to children is wrong.

    However, this assumes the moral premise is forever fixed. Why can't the moral premise be modified and evaluated using scientific inquiry? Why can't the higher-order moral premise be modified and evaluated (higher-order moral premise: it is a good idea to evaluate moral premises)?

    I guess I don't see how the initial choice of a moral premise necessarily entails that a scientific evaluation of morality is unfounded.

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  18. Right on point. I only caught the first few minutes of Harri's talk, so I can't comment on it, but my gut reaction was pretty much the same: knowing that a being (an insect, a dolphin, a monkey etc etc) can feel pain more than another is fine and dandy, but how does that fact even address the question: should we refrain from inflicting pain in such beings? We already have to have the moral intuition that inflicting pain is a bad thing in order for this fact to affect how we behave.

    Yes facts can inform our decision making process, they can help us apply the moral principles, but those principles are there independently of the facts. The facts can have an effect on our actions but they have nothing to say about the principles themselves.

    I had issued this challenge on twitter, modeled after Hitchen's challenge to believers: Show me one moral principle that we would not be able to derive but for science? So far I have not seen any reply to my challenge.

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  19. Augusto, I'm impressed by the depth of your argument...

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  20. Great post. I find it hard to believe that Harris has a B.A. in Philosophy. I assume measuring human flourishing is going to need some kind of standard. How would you even evaluate this? His theory is going to need some form of meta-ethics, which is not science.

    I just wanted to tell you that some of the links in this post are messed up. They seem to go to an Apple webpage.

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  21. thanks, I think I fixed all wrong links.

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  22. As I understood Harris' talk, I would agree with Massimo that the better way Sam should be framing his argument is science can inform not necessarily answer. Although, it he's not necessarily wrong with his original premise.

    Take prayer, as an example. Has science not answered the question as to whether prayer works? I would say it has (it doesn't). There are things that can be tested and we can indeed draw fairly obvious conclusions from these things without the need to play the role of philosopher (are the tests somehow negligible because we are getting an ought from an is? Or have not 'engaged the literature' of certain subjects?)

    That said, I find Massimo's commitment to remind us of how awful the likes of Coyne and Dawkins are when it comes to philosophy a bit amusing; we know they're not philosophers like you are.

    Its no wonder why even among academics, you can still wind up talking past eachother on the real substance of the issue at hand (after only one post and a reply).

    Consider the following:

    Massimo: "...he would get more mileage out of allying himself with philosophy..."

    Sam: "...has joined the ranks of people who seem hell-bent to misunderstand..."

    Massimo: "...Predictably, he misses the point..."

    We really got somewhere there. Maybe I'll eat crow, but I hope this doesn't stop here.

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  23. @skepfeeds challenges, "Show me one moral principle that we would not be able to derive but for science?"

    I like Massimo's term "scientism" - the idea that science provides us with all the understanding worth having. If science had discovered the mysteries of the universe, spekfeed's challenge would be a tautology.

    I assume that everything in the universe has an objective basis; that nothing happens "randomly." That is, even the most deeply emergent properties follow strict immutable laws of some kind. But we have a very limited understanding of those universal laws. Science has yet to find many of the most common "essences" of our universe (gravity, dark matter, etc.).

    So how can we expect today's hard sciences to answer the deepest questions of human nature and ultimate morality? I'm not saying it can't, eventually, but for now I think it is just one tool in the toolbox. We need all the tools - soft science, philosophy, and yes the collective experience of all thoughtful participants in this conversation.

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  24. It seems to me that the difference between your moral philosophy and that of Harris is that you are far more explicit that you are bootstrapping your morality with the initial "ought" that we should value human flourishing or wellbeing, while Harris seems to be trying to treat this initial "ought" as a fact rather than an axiomatic starting point, as he seems to try to do in "facts" #3 and #4 of another FAQ of his.

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  25. Just as a sidenote, free-market advocates do not argue that taxation can possibly benefit the majority in the long-term.

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  26. Great post, Massimo! It's too bad you always have to end up defending the mere enterprise of philosophy.

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  27. Do you have a link to a good argument as to why you think scientism is incorrect? I'm not saying that it is correct. I've heard scientism used as a pejorative for years, and I realize that I don't know what the arguments are for and against it.

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  28. For what it's worth:

    "[C]hildren smacked up to the age of six were likely as teenagers to perform better at school and were more likely to carry out volunteer work and to want to go to university than their peers who had never been physically disciplined."

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  29. Ian,

    I have a simple counterexample: vaccinations or minor surgery for a child's welfare. Both cause pain, and in some cases purposefully (either due to risks of anesthetic or prohibitive costs), yet your moral intuition results in a flawed judgment.

    You realize, though, that in arguing against moral intuition, you've switched the example to one more appealing of moral intuition.

    That's the thing: if moral premises don't ultimately ground in moral sentiment, there's no justification for "moral."

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  30. OT: Is there any way to eliminate the delay between posting and visibility of posting?

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  31. John L. I am a little confused. Are you supporting or trying to respond to my challenge?

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  32. Hmm, I'm not quite sure what to make of this debate. First of all, Harris isn't addressing a bunch of philosophers, but the common folk. There are no rules in the rule-book of philosophy that says that if you make a philosophical argument you must wade through all that has been said about this before. Philosophy isn't an academic wrestle match, it's a battle of ideas, argument and logic.

    I notice that a lot of Harris' opponents are throwing the word "facts" around, but do notice that Harris doesn't use the word as a placeholder for the scientific process which, in itself, have evaluation, thinking, creativity, data and logic embedded into it. Science *isn't* just the facts it finds; it's a process. "to say that only facts count means that we shut out any critical analysis of or reflection on such facts." But who's making those statements? No one, as far as I can tell, says that only facts matter.

    The more we find out about the brain and the way thinking works, through biology and neuroscience, the more our evaluations, thinking, logic and data comes under the same scrutiny as the scientific process; where do they in the end differ? In our ignorant past the differences were huge and important. Now they are becoming smaller and smaller, to the point of rendering even ethics and philosophy into a scientific journey. Even if you don't see it that way. :)

    Isn't that what we're talking about, really, about that border between the thinking man and what science tells us about how the man thinks?

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  33. Massimo, I take it that you're not of the school of philosophy that rejects metaphysics and finds most philosophical disputes to be fruitless endeavors arising from the misuse and confusion of ordinary language? Or am I misconstruing your position entirely here?

    It seems that if you reject Platonic realism and ultimately metaphysics as a whole, you're left with the realization that talking about morality is itself meaningless. I think that a non-cognitivist theory of meta-ethics would be highly prudent here, something along the lines of the emotivist theory of values espoused by AJ Ayers...

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  34. Massimo said: but they [Dawkins & Coyne, and presumably others who deserve the "scientism" label] insist in applying science to the supernatural, which is simply another form of the same malady that strikes Harris: scientism, the idea that science can do everything and provides us with all the answers that are worth having.

    Faith beliefs frequently - a cynical person might even say ALWAYS AND INEVITABLY, and I will admit that my experience has led me to such cynicism - fail to limit themselves to claims about the supernatural, and encroach on claims about the world we humans all share. Or, in simpler terms, the faithful simply do make claims about the world - which are subject to some kind of epistemological evaluation and analysis as any other claims about the world. Insofar as they make claims about the world we all share - and they always do, no matter how much they (or some of their defenders) deny that they do - then their claims are and ought to be subject to the exact same standards as all other claims about the world. Those standards - the substance of epistemology - do not simply begin and end with science: But if those standards clash with or contradict science, they certainly are not the right standards - and as a scientist as a philosopher of science, I doubt you disagree with me on that. *If you draw some deep and profound distinction between epistemology in a general sense and science as a particular application of sound epistemology, I'd love you to specify it.)

    So where exactly is the horrible flaw with this "scientism" which you decry with much rhetoric but little argument? Frankly, you have not yet defined and delimited the term "scientism" enough to convince me that it isn't just defamatory rhetoric of the same low character and caliber when *you* use it as when it's used by the sundry low-life types I cited above.

    G Felis

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  35. Massimo, I agree with much of what you have written, but the fun of philosophy is pointing out disagreements, so this is what I will focus on, and I hope you will address my concerns.

    Sam rightly points out that empirical facts are completely relevant and necessary to determine what allows human beings to flourish - this is not a matter of societal opinion, rather independent of that (b/c empirical facts are independent of societal opinion.) I agree with you that he fails to bridge the gap between facts and values. I read his post the other day in which he gives (10?) steps to derive "ought" from "is", and I was disappointed to see how badly he failed to do so. He basically said we ought to avoid misery b/c "what else could we mean by "ought"? He completely begs the question.

    I don't think he wants to suggest at all that empirical studies tell us how individual humans or societies flourish. I think he meant that empirical OBSERVATION is the way to do this. Otherwise he WOULD fall into the dangers of moral relativism, and he adamantly does not support MR. Society's judgment does not all equate to empirical fact about what does allow humans to flourish. When he made that rhetorical statement asking us to think whether hitting children in school is conducive to their well-being, I do think he was appealing to moral intuition (nothing wrong with that word - it is how we derive moral objective truths in part (along with observation). He was asking us to recognize that what we know about human flourishing through observation (and moral reasoning, which you are right he doesnt really give credit to, at least not explicitly) does not jive with hitting children in school.

    Now I am speaking for myself: what we know about morality is a combination of moral intuition, moral reasoning and scientific observation on brain states (or states of consciousness, if you prefer; amounts to the same thing).

    I'm concerned about why you draw a distinction b/t moral facts and moral objective truths. If something is objectively true, isn't it a fact? You bring up math. Isn't 1 + 1 = 2 a fact? It is not an EMPIRICAL fact, but it is still a fact - no, just a different type of fact? I think this is the distinction you wanted to make, and that wasn't really clear to me until I just now thought further about what you meant. Not a big point - I think we've just got a disagreement about the definition of a word that can easily be cleared up as opposed to some philosophical difference of opinion. I have a feeling I'm just missing something here in my understanding of the word "fact".

    I agree it would be better if he plugged moral philosophy and not just science as a discipline to give us insight into moral objective truths. My moral inclinations are closer to virtue theory than any other standard normative ethical theory. I have concluded that virtue theory is a superior normative ethical theory not because I appealed to science but because I utilized my moral intuitions and went through the rational process - this is in support of your point.

    Again, I took his point that science can give us the insight we need on what allows human beings to flourish by observing the effects of certain behaviors and actions on our brain states, i.e., scientific observation. I don't recall him advocating for empirical studies to give us this guidance in the way you describe. I think your concern, to paraphrase: "what if a scientific study showed that hitting children does have positive effects on them?" is problematic. A valid scientific study would NOT demonstrate that in the first place. It would have had to be a flawed study, in which case Sam would be happy to throw it out.

    I agree with you that he is remiss to bridge facts and values in the way he wants/thinks he can. As you said, what he calls values are instead empirical facts about how to achieve human wellbeing.

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  36. PLEASE USE THIS AS MY FINAL PARAGRAPH: I agree with you that he is unsucessful in bridging fact and values in the way he wants/thinks he can. He shows empirical facts tell us how to achieve human wellbeing in an objective sense, but this alone is a great point that so many people don't seem to get."Why should I value morality?" is like asking "Why should I be reasonable?" - These are axioms and we can't provide any meaningful answers, and I'm comfortable with that.

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  37. Massimo, I'm mainly on your side with this - I've been blogging and commenting on the issue on and off for the past week. But the comments about Richard Dawkins (whom I know slightly and like) and Jerry Coyne (whom I consider a friend) are gratuitous in this context. They will simply turn off a lot of people who would otherwise be inclined to look closely at the arguments and might end up agreeing with your criticisms, or something like them.

    Anyway, you'll see me thrashing out a lot of the problems on my blog and on Richard's site.

    You're correct, I suppose, that not all true propositions are facts. Facts are, I suppose, something like contingently true propositions. But Sam can't make up his mind whether to use the word "fact" in this way or to mean something like "state of affairs in the physical world".

    In any event, values are neither contingently true propositions about mental states nor states of affairs in the physical world (specifically in someone's neurological system). And the problems just go on from there.

    I more-or-less agree with Sam's political agenda, I have actually met too many of the hyper- politically-correct cuckoos, and I agree with him that science has the potential to inform moral understanding. But he doesn't need to do all of this not-very-good metaethics to make his point. He may need to paraphrase and cite one of the standard attacks by analytic philosophers on vulgar moral relativism, such as the famous one by Bernard Williams. Maybe he needs to show that moralities are not just arbitrary but respond to human needs (whatever, exactly, a "need" is; I'm not sure that we have a good value-free concept of a need).

    If his book is like this and it ends up being reviewed by real metaethicists (Richard Joyce, Michael Smith, etc., and that's just thinking about the antipodeans), it won't be pretty. Which will be unfortunate, because it sounds as if the book may otherwise have merit.

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  38. Massimo, I agree that science cannot decide moral issues on its own, it can only inform them. But interestingly, this rather reminds me of your and Julia's discussion here about morals. Weren't you the one who tried to bridge the is-ought gap by simply defining moral to be what fosters human welfare (and not, as commonly understood, what we ought to do)? And is that not just what Harris does at the beginning, if I got your summary right?

    In principle, I do not see so much difference between your positions, and in practice, you would only need to be able to quantify welfare to use science as Harris envisions.

    As for your neverending issue with Dawkins and Coyne not running around shouting "philosophy is the greatest! we owe all to it" all the time, I would like to refer to my posts here, which you may have missed due to your regrettable loss of a family member at that time:

    http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/02/podcast-teaser-great-atheist-debate.html

    And of these especially

    http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/02/podcast-teaser-great-atheist-debate.html?showComment=1266351170333#c3017337075717701403
    http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/02/podcast-teaser-great-atheist-debate.html?showComment=1266351316049#c7806825790881966161
    http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/02/podcast-teaser-great-atheist-debate.html?showComment=1267018303137#c8873484365864110786
    and very, very especially
    http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/02/podcast-teaser-great-atheist-debate.html?showComment=1267028125263#c5954915056467018828

    Your insistence on bringing philosophy instead of science against supernatural claims while never insisting on the same for pharmacology or history or whatever is at its core privileging of the religion question, nothing more. And Dawkins and Coyne simply don't privilege it, that's it.

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  39. libhom,

    here are a couple of sources on scientism:

    http://www.amazon.com/Scientism-ebook/dp/B000OI0SR8/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=digital-text&qid=1270639691&sr=8-3

    http://www.amazon.com/Denying-Evolution-Creationism-Scientism-Science/dp/0878936599

    I.Strange,

    I have to moderate the comments because of death threats regularly posted on the site. I'm not always at my computer, hence the delay.

    Alexander,

    if one takes that view, which Harris, Dawkins, Coyne and others do, one ends up equating science with reason. Science is a very specific and restricted domain of reasonable discourse.

    Yan,

    I don't see at all why a rejection of Platonic idealism entails the impossibility of ethics. Incidentally, I do not think that all talk of metaphysics is meaningless.

    Sarah,

    see Russell's comment about the distinction between facts and propositions, that's what I was trying to say. Your distinction works just as well, but one needs to compound words: empirical facts and non-empirical facts.

    Russell,

    we'll have to agree to disagree on Dawkins and Coyne, though I'm surprised you don't see Harris as another aspect of the same central problem (scientism). Still, I'm glad you agree with my main point here. Yes, if a serious metaethicist gets hold of the book she will make meatballs of it...

    Mintman,

    my position in the debate with Julia is that morality originates naturalistically, as a result of evolution, but I also added that we need philosophical reflection to build on it.

    As for the Dawkins/Coyne stuff, I'm really baffled by so many smart people having such a difficult time wrapping their heads around it. I don't want them to shout that philosophy is the greatest, I just want them to stop shouting that science is the ultimate arbiter of everything. That would be very decent of them, and then we could all get along nicely.

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  40. Yan,

    I almost thought of bringing up emotivism because I believe that is where scientism ultimately leads to.

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  41. Massimo: I don't want them to shout that philosophy is the greatest, I just want them to stop shouting that science is the ultimate arbiter of everything.

    That is not what I understand them to claim, and I fear that your interpretation of them doing this stems ultimately from the fact that they do not preface every sentence they say as scientists with "now please note that I know about the epistemological limits of my profession, and really we would need a philosopher here to answer this". I would be very surprised indeed to read that Dawkins believes we would have to or should use science to decide what art and music to appreciate, whether 1+1 equals 2, or whether to help a dying person, and from what I got from his God Delusion, he makes it quite clear that he does not - just remember the part where he calls our evolution-based capabilities for love and charity something like precious misfirings.

    Neither do I think that science is the arbiter of everything. It just happens to be the ultimate arbiter of questions like "does X exist?" or "did process Y happen?", and importantly, that includes "does God exist?" and "was the universe created?". There is no better way to answer these specific questions than science*, and if you disagree, I have to repeat the questions I linked to: when do you start haranguing the archeological community for their anti-philosophical arrogance and epistemic overreach when they state that ancient space-faring aliens did not, in fact, build the pyramids? They also don't state the epistemic limits of their science explicitly at the beginning of each paper, book, exhibition or press conference, because it goes without saying, just like in the case of Dawkins and Coyne.

    On the other hand, what Harris seems to have done here is, in my eyes and if I understand it correctly, the kind of scientism you wrongly accuse Dawkins and Coyne of. If he merely meant that science should inform moral decisions, well okay, but that is rather trivial, isn't it?

    *) I would, by the way, one of these days really like to understand why you, and in fact so many other of our fellow atheists such as evidenced by many of the essays in 50 Voices of Disbelief, consider the problem of evil so important. To me, it seems both trivially solvable and only a problem for a simultaneously omnipotent and omnibenevolent god anyway, so it has precisely zero bearing on the real question of the existence of gods in general. To me, lack of evidence for gods is the real deal-breaker for theism, which just happens to be a scientific issue.

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  42. Mintman: ...and importantly, that includes "does God exist?" and "was the universe created?"

    I think that is where the claims that Dawkins is a scientismist(?) come from.

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  43. @skepfeeds "JL, are you supporting or trying to respond to my challenge?"

    Partially supporting, but pointing out that hard science has limitations. Without learning how to integrate a spectrum of human experience, including hard- and soft-sciences, philosophy, and the (so-called) metaphysical experience of the vast majority of humanity, we are working partially blind. Hard science would be better served by learning how to interact constructively with its majority siblings. Something I posted on another thread bears repeating, and speaks to this fundamentalism that Massimo calls scientism:

    Physicist and atheist Marcelo Gleiser (Dartmouth) weighed in recently on the war between science and spirituality. He warns fellow scientists that they are becoming “as radical as the religious extremists, as inflexible and intolerant as the movements we seek to exterminate by our oh-so-crystal-clear-and-irresistibly-compelling rationalizations.” He concludes, “It is futile and naive to simply dismiss the need people have for spirituality... either science will teach us humility and respect for life or we will exterminate this most precious cosmic jewel. I am optimistic that scientists will teach people these lessons, instead of simply trying to rob them of their faith and offering nothing in return.”

    Camile Puglia writing in Salon said this, “… I was recently flicking my car radio dial and heard an affected British voice tinkling out on NPR. I assumed it was some fussy, gossipy opera expert fresh from London. To my astonishment, it was Richard Dawkins, the thrice-married emperor of contemporary atheists. I had never heard him speak, so it was a revelation. On science, Dawkins was spot on—lively and nimble. But on religion, his voice went “Psycho” weird (yes, Alfred Hitchcock)—as if he was channeling some old woman with whom he was in love-hate combat. I have no idea what ancient private dramas bubble beneath the surface there. As an atheist who respects and studies religion, I believe it is fair to ask what drives obsessive denigrators of religion. Neither extreme rationalism nor elite cynicism are adequate substitutes for faith, which fulfills a basic human need—which is why religion will continue to thrive in our war-torn world.”

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  44. Massimo, if you reject Platonic realism and subsequently metaphysics as a whole, what are you left with when discussing notions such as "good" or "bad" or "ought". These are all abstract concepts, and certainly a nominalist would argue that "good" and "bad" are nothing more than mere words we use to describe certain actions or perhaps to describe our emotional aversion to certain actions.

    You stated that you didn't believe that all talk of metaphysics was necessarily meaningless. What part of metaphysics would you find to be meaningful? I find metaphysics to be the ultimate betrayal of scientific empiricism. After all, if one finds the notion of a God transcending physical space-time to be utterly absurd, upon what basis would positing a transcendent realm of Being not be equally as absurd?

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  45. Mintman,

    > I fear that your interpretation of them doing this stems ultimately from the fact that they do not preface every sentence they say as scientists with "now please note that I know about the epistemological limits of my profession, and really we would need a philosopher here to answer this". <

    No, it stems from their obvious and overt disdain for philosophy.

    And no, science does not include meaningful answers to "does god exist?" as I've argued ad nauseam on this blog.

    > what Harris seems to have done here is, in my eyes and if I understand it correctly, the kind of scientism you wrongly accuse Dawkins and Coyne of. If he merely meant that science should inform moral decisions, well okay, but that is rather trivial, isn't it? <

    Yes, it is. Just like it's trivial of Dawkins to say that science refutes claims that the earth is 6000 years old...

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  46. Massimo: And no, science does not include meaningful answers to "does god exist?" as I've argued ad nauseam on this blog.

    And at first I was inclined to take this argumentation serious, but then I noticed that the same can be said for a great many questions, such as "did aliens visit Earth ca. 4500 years ago and build the pyramids in a way that is indistinguishable from ancient Egyptians building them?" or "does homeopathy work but only when no proponent of science-based medicine is looking?". The way you see science, it also has no meaningful answers to these, and by extension to no scientific question at all ever, because these unscientific ad-hoc cop-outs are available for all of them.

    The god question is nothing special! Either science is good for testing the existence of things and processes in our universe or it isn't. In the first case, well, god is just another thing in the universe; in the second, please go ahead and explain to pharmacologists, historians, physicists, biologists, ethnographers, chemists and astronomers how they cannot answer any of their questions meaningfully without becoming philosophers. That would at least be consistent.

    But well, I have formulated that argument in much more detail in a previous thread. I am just waiting in vain for a convincing rebuttal that would explain how "does a creator god exist" is so different from "do pyramid-building aliens who have carefully removed the traces of their intervention exist" or "does undetectable luminiferous aether exist".

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  47. Yan,

    you keep equating a particular metaphysics (Platonism) with metaphysics in general. Take a look here for what I mean:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/metaphysics/

    Mintman,

    no, UFOs, homeopathy, astrology and the like work within naturalism, which means that their claims can be tested and rejected by science. The problem is with supernaturalism, not with bizarre claims per se.

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  48. Massimo,

    I want to agree with you.

    But, and I am explicitly asking out of ignorance, can metaethics, or even some combination of rational ways to look at the world really get us past the is/ought?

    Your legitimate criticism about Harris' accidental privileging of all ends seems to undermine the qualification you make to his assertion, which you then propose is the 'more correct' answer.

    Perhaps I'm just baffled and looking for concreteness where there is none. Which ironically falls into Aristotle's opinion that these matters can only be dealt with "roughly."

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  49. Mintman,

    I may be misstating Massimo's position, but my take on the argument is that while the practice of accepting a null hypothesis by default due to the lack of evidence in support of a proposed hypothesis, and applying maximum parsimony in this process, are fundamental tools and principles of science, they are ultimately philosphical premisies that have been coopted in the restricted domain of rational inquiry we call "science" (as per Massimo). Since the application of these defaults to the God question would be the limit of the contribution of "science" to this question (since it is a supernatural claim), it it encopassed entirely by philosophy.

    I'm a practicing academic scientist, but I understand and don't necessarily disagree with Massimo's position with respect to "scientism."

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  50. Massimo, you say that naturalistic claims can be "tested and rejected" by science, but I think Mintman's point was that it's easy to come up with naturalistic claims that CAN'T be tested by science -- like the aliens that came but left no trace of their presence, or the psychic powers that stop working in the presence of a skeptic.

    So I'm curious whether you see any difference between naturalistic claims that can't be tested, and supernatural claims. Do you think science can speak on the former but not the latter?

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  51. That is a nice affirmation, but not really an argument or an explanation. Okay, so this is a definitional issue, but for me, the category supernatural is empty, as everything that has an impact on nature (like, say, an immaterial soul carrying our character and memories or a god having created the world) through that impact automatically becomes part of the natural, material world - at a minimum no more supernatural than the hypothesized dark matter. If something does not have a demonstrable impact on the natural world, then it can be assumed not to exist, be it god or water memory.

    Is it so difficult to see the equivalency? We always have to remember that things could have gone differently - there is no reason why science could not have found that our character remains intact no matter what trauma you deal to the material brain of a person, or that the earth sits perfectly in the center of a universe that started in a state of maximum order that would have had to be added from outside. That would have been scientific support for religious ideas, no matter if you call it supernatural or not. The only reason that possibilities like a hidden god are supposed to be taken seriously at all is that many more of our fellow humans are emotionally invested in the god concept than in Atlantis, for example - privilege. And unless you can point me to a somewhat more elaborate explanation of the difference you see, it seems to be unscientific ad-hoc here, unscientific ad-hoc there, meaning that your lambasting of Dawkins but not of historians rejecting von Daeniken's fanciful hallucinations is part of that privilege.

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  52. > it is not very productive to keep asking philosophers for “the ultimate foundations” of what they do

    Although I agree with this argument to a point, it seems very anti-philosophical; isn't philosophy mostly about foundations? And more importantly, the attempts to find the foundations of science and especially mathematics have produced important results about their limitations, saying that such work is not productive is patently false.

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  53. Julia,

    correct, science can *potentially* answer empirical/naturalistic questions, but in fact there are even questions within that realm that we will never be able to answer - either because we don't have access to sufficient information or because we're not smart enough. But science cannot deal with the supernatural because *any* empirical evidence is compatible with something that lacks intrinsic logic (again, "god" is not a hypothesis).

    aaaaa,

    yes, philosophy is about foundations, but usually not its own. That field is called, not surprisingly, metaphilosophy:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphilosophy

    Mintman,

    for me too the category of supernatural is empty, but not because science says so. There is nothing supernatural about dark matter, see my response to Julia above.

    Harry,

    metaethics isn't a way to get past the is/ought, it is an inquiry into the foundations of ethics, which has to deal with the complex relationship between is and ought.

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  54. Massimo, thanks for the clarification. However, I still don't see how discussions of ethics fall outside the domain of Platonism.

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  55. It seems to me that whether or not one embraces Platonic realism ultimately determines whether or not one embraces either a cognitivist or non-cognitivist theory of meta-ethics.

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  56. Massimo says: "But science cannot deal with the supernatural because *any* empirical evidence is compatible with something that lacks intrinsic logic."

    Okay Massimo, I think I'm coming closer to understanding your argument. You are saying that "supernatural" hypotheses are outside the bounds of science BY DEFINITION -- so that not only can they never be falsified by evidence, they can also never be confirmed by evidence. Yes? So I assume you'd say that anything we can observe is not evidence of the supernatural, because if we can observe it, then (by your definition) it's not supernatural. That's why you dismiss Coyne's assertion that the appearance of a 900-foot Jesus would be evidence for Christianity, right?

    By that strict definition of "supernatural," of course you're right (by definition). But I don't think that's how most people, including Dawkins and Coyne, use the word. I think most people understand the word "supernatural" to mean something like "potentially observable, but impossible to ever explain with science." If a 900-foot Jesus appeared, I think most people would take that as strong evidence for Christianity, which is why Coyne used it as an example.

    Your definition of "supernatural" seems to be so strict that it leaves you with (as Mintman noted) an empty set.

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  57. Massimo: No problem there! The problem is with your singling out of certain outspoken atheist scientists (who may or may not have belittled philosophy, I do not know) and demanding that they preface their rejection of an untestable god with a disclaimer that they are doing philosophy, while you never seem to express any dissatisfaction with other scientists rejecting equally untestable ideas without explicitly adding the same disclaimer.

    For consistency, you could criticize them all for the same fault, but I would of course prefer the opposite approach: I don't think either a Dawkins rejecting the Christian god or a historian rejecting the idea that two centuries in the middle ages were invented and all our historical documents from that time were fabricated needs to add that disclaimer, because it goes without saying, because as much philosophy as you need to reject an untestable ad-hoc suggestion is inbuilt in the scientific method, is part of what science is if it is supposed to work at all.

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  58. Oh, and the real problem is of course not criticism as such, that was poorly phrased, sorry; disagreements are the means of intellectual progress, after all.

    The real problem I have is that your constant snipes at Coyne, Dawkins et al. appear so completely superfluous because you seem to agree on all the essentials anyway. It seems like, if you permit my frankness, an unnecessary, distracting and unending tempest in a teacup fueled not by any relevant issue or underlying differences, but mostly by your hurt pride about insufficiently vocal appreciation of your chosen profession. (Note again that I, although a biologist, personally do not think that science is the end to all things, and find the idea of exact science superseding the humanities laughable. I just think that the very specific question of the existence of a god is not fundamentally different from the question of the existence of Nessie, and thus squarely in the realm of natural science.)

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  59. @Mintman said, "If something does not have a demonstrable impact on the natural world, then it can be assumed not to exist."

    Interesting statement. An overwhelming majority of civilization constructs their reality via some kind of (so-called) metaphysical experience and / or belief. These "realities" have "demonstrable impact." Can personal experience be rejected simply because hard science has no metric by which to measure it?

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  60. Julia,

    my definition of supernatural is no different from others, it is Dawkins/Coyne's definition of science that is different. I strongly suspect that if D/C ever saw a 900-foot Jesus walking down the street they would do what I would: look for the trick. As A.C. Clarke famously put it: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

    Yan,

    I really don't get why moral realism implies Platonism. Do you not think numbers are "real" though not necessarily Platonic?

    Mintman,

    the reason I single out D/C (and Stenger, for that matter) is because *they* singled themselves out by making bold statements about what science can do (and philosophy cannot).

    > It seems like, if you permit my frankness, an unnecessary, distracting and unending tempest in a teacup fueled not by any relevant issue or underlying differences, but mostly by your hurt pride about insufficiently vocal appreciation of your chosen profession <

    That's an interesting theory, but: a) may I remind you that I have been a scientist for 27 years? b) these people are hurting the image of science, rejecting a long and respectable intellectual tradition (philosophy), while all the while alienating important allies in what really matters right now, which is the separation of church and state. If that's a tempest in a teapot...

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  61. Great post Massimo!

    As someone who views the universe very much through an empirical lens (I personally don't know anyone who is a more hard-core empiricist), I'd have to say you've made an unassailable argument.

    What it comes down to for me can be summarized in a quote from Harris you used, "What if a scientific study showed that indeed, hitting children does have a measurable effect on improving those desirable traits? " There is a hidden assumption there. It is in the words, "desirable traits." Well, why are those traits desirable? I don't think science will ever be able to answer that question. But I don't think philosophy or theology ever will either. To be able to answer it would require perfect knowledge of the present and the future. Too many variables, can't be done.

    So what do we get? The theologian stating that she got it from on high without any evidence that "on high" even exists. The philosopher arguing that there are a set of consistent first principles to be had although she hasn't quite yet worked out the contradictions. And, through Sam Harris (who I agree with about many things) that what served us in the savannah tens of thousands of years ago must be what will serve us best now.

    They are all faulted. But I think the philosophers have the edge. We are children of the savannah, but we don't live there anymore. What is a moral ethic that can let us live with the inconsistencies? I think a philosphy of living with inconsistency would carry the day.

    I think to come up with that it would require scientists and philosophers sitting down together and each informing the other (note: no preferred position) on the topic.

    In the mean time, I'm perfectly good with being a utilitarian as long as I don't have to weigh the life of my own child against five children who are strangers.

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  62. One quibble - you shouldn't use "secular" to mean "skeptical." Secular is a useful word to have for the a-religious outlook the law is supposed to have, for example. Neither anti nor pro.

    In principle one could be a fundamentalist and still believe in a secular legal system.

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  63. Massimo: Ok, at the end here I think we're coming to some crux. Any pointers to these people rejecting philosophy as such? I simply don't get the same feeling as you do, but maybe you're right and I'd love to get some pointers.

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  64. Right, and one of these days I will probably come across any sentence at all where they wrote something on the lines of philosophy being superfluous or natural science being able to answer all the fundamental questions of epistemology, sinology and art history. Maaaaaybe. But it would not make any difference for the question whether

    god exists, but he conveniently created the world to look exactly as if he did not exist (and you scientists are Satan's minions anyway)

    is sufficiently different from

    vaccinations do cause autism, but your forty studies showing no significant correlation are all not good enough (and you are in the pocket of big pharma anyway)

    to justify singling out god(s) as the single unfounded and untestable ad-hoc proposal which you are not allowed to reject as a scientist but have to recruit a philosopher for. And conversely, the giant Jesus was perhaps a bit silly, perhaps on purpose(?), but what would you personally conclude if people who blaspheme Yahweh would always instantly be zapped by lightning bolts? Look for the trick? And what if you did not find one after years of searching? Oh no, this cannot be scientific evidence for a god, because science by definition does not deal with the supernatural, even if this zapping is a repeatable, testable process? Of course you would accept divine wrath as the currently best explanation available for that pattern! This is an important point: science does not reject gods because it would intentionally close its eyes to them if it encountered them, but simply because it has never encountered them in centuries of searching, just like it has not encountered water memory or phlogiston! Again: there is no difference.

    As an aside, which I hope will not again distract from the main issue which is the paragraph immediately before this: I do not want to start a Coyne & Dawkins fan club here, they are fallible human beings likely with good and bad sides like all of us, but it seems a bit rich to say that, of all people!, two of the greatest communicators and popularizers of evolutionary biology in our time are hurting science. Maybe (if I ever find them writing something like that) they may impotently try to hurt philosophy, but science? Few people seem to be able to explain key concepts and processes in evolution in such clear and accessible words as Dawkins, for example.

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  65. Massimo, I'm really not sure how one can embrace moral realism and reject Platonic realism. But I don't want to beat on a dead horse here. It seems like you want to have your cake and eat it too.

    As for numbers, personally I find mathematical fictionalism to be a rather reasonable position.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fictionalism-mathematics/

    I don't think that numbers are ontologically real at all, in any meaningful sense of the term. And I think that a position that asserts that they are somehow "real", but not in a Platonic sense is really just a fictionalist position in disguise.

    To deny both fictionalism and Platonism and argue that somehow numbers are "real" still, seems to me to be a philosophical waffle at best.

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  66. Alexander and Mintman,

    I don't have a copy of the God Delusion with me at the moment, but both Dawkins and Coyne have repeatedly made disparaging remarks about philosophy during talks I've seen. Coyne even did it while giving a research seminar at Stony Brook a few years ago (I was in the audience), and Dawkins made a joke during a talk about having to hold back from criticizing philosophy because Dennett was in the audience...

    Mintman,

    we may have to agree to disagree here: I simply think that to grant the appellative of "explanation" to supernatural fluff is giving away too much. And I do think the supernatural is in a completely different category from simple pseudoscience.

    As for D&C's fun club, I repeat: they are hurting science. Not through their science books per se (I reviewed Coyne's Why Evolution is True very favorably in Science, and I have read with pleasure most of Dawkins' non-GD books), but through their childish insistence that science can single-handedly refute religion.

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  67. Well, wasn't there at those conferences, so I go by what I have read. I wonder how to measure the hurt they are doing to science. My own work so far is untroubled by their outreach talks, and I seriously doubt that most of their target audience will be philosophy-savvy enough to walk away thinking "what an idiot, he hasn't even read the basic works on the induction problem; it is likely all scientists are like that; I will never believe anything any of them says again". If they do make snide remarks at philosophy I would consider it as silly but irrelevant as the mirror arrogance from the humanities, where people sometimes sneer at natural scientists because we do not constantly discuss our epistemology and social biases when trying to find out how to distinguish these plant species or save that one from extinction.

    As for their childish insistence, as you call it, I have repeatedly pointed out that they do not seem to ever claim that they can reject Last Thursdayism, and that they in fact make a point out of stating that they don't care about it because it is not a sensible suggestion and not the god most people actually believe in. Read Stenger, read Dawkins, ask Myers. It is often spelled out explicitly. In that sense, their childish insistence is that science can single-handedly refute all religion that matters. Your eternal trump card here is conflation of Last Thursdayism with mainstream Christianity, of the hidden god with a god that influences events in the world and can be reached by prayer.

    Finally, I still see no reason why the supernatural should be in a different category from pseudoscience, or why

    there is probably some invisible god that admittedly we cannot see or measure at this time, but something must be there because something zaps blasphemers with lightning

    would be a fundamentally less scientific idea than

    there probably is invisible matter in the universe that admittedly we cannot see or measure at this time, but it must be there for our equations to make sense.

    You assert it is, but don't explain the how. The second invites us to ask more questions about the nature of this dark matter and to test whether it really exists, but the first does exactly the same for that god. Conversely, as Julia recently and very eloquently pointed out, a scientifically minded person can fall into exactly the same trap of thinking that "gravity makes things fall down" is already an explanation as a religious person with their idea that "goddidit" is one. There is no difference! Except of course that in real life there is no actual evidence that points at the existence of gods; but we can easily imagine how it would have to look like. A god reproducibly rewarding sacrifices of goats with significantly higher crop yield would be just as much a natural phenomenon to be studied as plant physiology rewarding fertilization with higher crop yield.

    Of course, the question whether we ought to worship such a god, that IMO is beyond the reach of science as such [ha! a short excursion into on-topic-land], but it can for example inform by estimating the value of a goat versus the increase in crop yield.

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  68. This discussion borders on the absurd because as usual truth, if we are ever to discern it, is likely to be a synthesis of what we individually and yes, collectively perceive it to be. The fact that Massimo simply declares that he relies on his "moral intuition" is the central weakness of his argument. What is the basis of this "intuition" Massimo, from where does it derive?

    Now arguing that moral principles are immutable and independent of experience as some believe is an exceedingly weak argument as well because clearly we wouldn't be having this discussion in the first place since if self evident then universal agreement would be, well, universal.

    I am not a philosopher and I'm sure that it shows but at the end of the day if an issue (i.e. the nature and/or quest of the principles of morality) has to rely on torturous arguments that do not lead to conclusive results then we are just playing sophisticated intellectual games that advance nothing.

    By the way Massimo I for one believe in corporal punishment of young children as long as it's predicated in a sincere desire to protect the child from their bad behavior. It is moral to me because it's my assessment (not intuition) and that of the collective experience of the species that pain is one of our most effective teachers.

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  69. But from what I have read about a British public school education in the century before last, beating boys was considered a completely normal part of the process. A moral requirement! I think the feeling was that a boy who had never stood for a beating was not to be trusted; this was the feeling elite men who had themselves been beaten as boys. It is at least possible that beatings were an essential piece of the education of a Victorian gentleman, and the Victorian society indeed flourished.

    These days we have cultural preference for instilling discipline in other ways. Better ways? Hard to say. An actual threat to one's personal well-being has a mind-altering effect not matched by other means. Perhaps the only problem with beating children is that it so lends itself to abuse... it would not work (the same way) in modern American society.

    The point for this discussion would be an example of morality being relative to culture, I suppose.

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  70. @Yan
    I don't think that numbers are ontologically real at all, in any meaningful sense of the term. And I think that a position that asserts that they are somehow "real", but not in a Platonic sense is really just a fictionalist position in disguise.

    They are certainly independent of individual minds. Not only is 3 the same for me as it is for you; but so is the proposition that the interior angles of a plane triangle sum to 180 deg. This, despite the fact that neither plane triangles nor the number 3 has any material existence.

    @Yan
    I'm really not sure how one can embrace moral realism and reject Platonic realism.

    There is Aristotelian realism. And when we consider that the Stagerite begins the Nichomachean Ethics with the empirical statement that "Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim." Harris seems to be creeping slowly up on Aristotle. He better be careful if he catches him.

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  71. @thinkmonkey
    Insofar as [the faithful] make claims about the world ... then their claims are and ought to be subject to the exact same standards as all other claims about the world.

    That's what Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas and the others all said. Most of their claims about the world -- that all humans were descended from a common ancestor (i.e., all one species), that the world had had a beginning in time and would have an end, that human beings were inherently selfish ["original sin" or "selfish gene" metaphors], that [pertinent to this discussion] moral character must be practiced and habituated as a "second nature" -- have stood up fairly well. At times they used the imagery of then-current science, but as Aquinas pointed out, though the theory of epicycles seemed well-supported by the data, it was always possible that a better model would be devised in the future that would also explain the appearances.


    @Mintman
    explain to pharmacologists, historians, physicists, biologists, ethnographers, chemists and astronomers how they cannot answer any of their questions meaningfully without becoming philosophers.

    Which they can. Just as a dog trainer can train dogs without becoming an evolutionary biologist, or a mechanic can repair an engine without becoming a theromodynamicist. What they cannot do is explore the foundations of their own sciences. You cannot prove the existence of an objective universe with empirical evidence. To regard the evidence as empirical, you must already assume the objective universe exists. The same is true of mathematics: you cannot prove the Euclidean postulates using Euclidean geometry; and mathematics itself is not subject to empiricism.


    @Mintman
    an immaterial soul carrying our character and memories ... becomes part of the natural, material world

    The reasoning is somewhat circular. But consider this: sodium and chlorine are composed of the same matter: neutrons, protons, electrons. So what accounts for their very different properties cannot be matter per se. They are not the sum of their parts, but rather of the number and arrangement of those parts. This is what is called the "form" of the respective atoms, and it is this "formal cause" that explains their emergent properties as a gas or a metal. Protons (et al.) are neither gaseous nor metallic. A valence electron behaves very differently from a free electron.

    So what has form to do with it? The form of the atom does not itself have physical, material existence. It is merely the arrangement of the physical, material parts. OTOH, those parts cannot exist without possessing some form. Every thing is some thing.

    For living beings, the "soul" is the substantial form of the body. This is much clearer in Latin. The word anima means "life." So to ask if X has a soul is to ask if X is alive. If triangles were alive, someone once wrote, "geometric figure" would be its body and "three-sided" would be its soul. Modern philosophy fell into the trap of regarding the soul as a substance separate from the body, and thus created the mind-body problem. But it makes no more sense to ask how an immaterial soul affects a material body than to ask how three sidedness affects a triangle.


    @Mintman
    god ... conveniently created the world to look exactly as if he did not exist

    As I understand it, the contention is not that the world would look differently if God did not exist, but that there would be no world [universe] at all. When people like Richard Dawkins or Michael Behe look for "empirical evidence" of God in the facts the world, they are confusing existence with efficient causation. One may as well search for Shakespeare in the text of Hamlet, or hunt for Frank Whittle by measuring the components of a jet engine.

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  72. @Massimo Hang on, hang on, I feel this is a slight cop out, because when we get down to the nitty gritty of your criticism, you cannot point to what it is and where they are.

    I've read the God Delusion as well, and can't remember any such thing. In fact, what *I* seem to remember from it is how Dawkins doesn't really discern between science and philosophy, because science is a philosophy with a process and a bunch of people thrown on top.

    Also, could it not be that when the people you're criticizing mentions philosophy, do they mean all of philosophy, the action of doing philosophy, some academic problems with philosophy? I'm sure that these people have caveats with any general snipe at philosophy, including the one about Dennet being in the audience; it was a quip over the fact that Dennet thinks the ontological question for God is valid, while Dawkins thinks it's not.

    And in any way, your assertion that these people are *hurting* science is just outrageous to me. People in general don't *care* about philosophy, and even less know the epistemological implications of the philosophy of science Dawkins and co are struggling with and how that relates to other means of philosophy. Their comments and their affliction on science means *nothing* to anyone but you, I suspect. But I don't feel you've fleshed out this part of your criticism well enough for me to keep harping on it. Even when I do. Because, well, *I* think it is important.

    The funny part is that I was reading Philosophy Now and after reading your article in the latest issue realized it was you. And given that, I find it even harder to understand this particular criticism, that they *hurt* science in any way or form. I simply don't understand it, and on what evidence do you base this?

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  73. I'm not speaking for a perfessional philosopher, of course, but I see two easy-to-see ways they can harm science:

    1. Anyone who insists that science can determine an absolute moral and ethical code is making a gross error, and based on historical precedent, a dangerous error. This will damage science by allowing scientists to claim moral authority. This authority will not be accepted in general, though, since there is no ultimate basis for it.

    2. The fairly uneducated but wealthy public is part of the decision-making for society in a way that's new in the world. They are uneasy with science. We need to think of advertising and education and convincing, not of asserting that we're right so shut up and do what we say.

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  74. The OFloinn:

    It is unclear to me how most of what you wrote is relevant to anything I wrote.

    One may as well search for Shakespeare in the text of Hamlet, or hunt for Frank Whittle by measuring the components of a jet engine.

    And here I do not see the problem. If I see Hamlet, I realize that it must have had an author, and I can infer a lot of stuff about that author from the text, starting with the language he or she spoke and at what time period they lived, perhaps even what degree of education they had or what they wanted to say with what they wrote and what political biases they had. I mean, Paley was mostly right with his analogy - you can infer a lot of things from that watch - except unfortunately he was unaware of the alternative explanation of things looking designed that Darwin later formulated. The question is, is the universe a watch or a stone? Stenger makes IMO a very good scientific case that it looks a lot like the latter. The only hope an apologist has left is to postulate a god that has created the world to look uncreated, and this position is not fundamentally different from postulating that many centuries of our written and artifact-documented history have been completely invented (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Chronology_%28Fomenko%29) and deserves the same amount of respect (hint: the word starts with "r" and ends with "idicule"). Both are neither plausible nor refutable, as long as the proponent of that idea insists that every detail was carefully arranged by the god or conspirators to look as if the idea was wrong. If one can be rejected by a historian, why not the other by a physicist?

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  75. Surely the question is not whether Dawkins et al are employing the wrong kind of arguments (scientific or philosophical) against supernatural claims. I doubt whether their arguments against supernatural claims are fundamentally different from Massimo's. The question is merely over whether these arguments should be labelled "scientific" or "philosophical".

    The reason why this mere matter of labelling takes on such significance is because the label "scientific" tends to convey far more positive connotations that the label "philosophical". (And that tells us something about the general attitude towards philosophy.) That's why people are so keen to use it, or protect it from incorrect use. Perhaps there is also a fear that, if arguments against religious claims are labelled "scientific" there will be pressure to have them taught in science classes. But I think such fears are largely unfounded. We don't expect science classes to debunk every false claim. Mostly such claims are just ignored.

    Massimo's position is based on a simplistic demarcation criterion, which allows all arguments to be definitively categorised as either scientific or philosophical. But this insistence is just as naive as the insistence that all questions of real-world fact are purely scientific matters. My understanding (which I admit may be wrong) is that most philosophers of science have rejected such simplistic demarcation criteria. And for good reasons. Attempts to draw a valid demarcation line have all failed. There are arguments which have a more scientific character (more heavily based on empirical data) and there are others that have a more philosophical character (more heavily based on conceptual questions). But these are matters of degree, not absolutes.

    Though there's no definitive line between science and philosophy, there is a rough line based on usage and convention. Questions about the existence of God have usually been discussed under the heading of "philosophy" because they have been heavily conceptual in nature. I think it makes sense for that to continue. Perhaps the situation would change if lots of empirical evidence for God were found. (I don't accept Dawkins' argument that, because we would consider it a scientific question if there were compelling evidence for God, therefore it should be considered a scientific question now.)

    Mainly, though I think it's a bad idea to get hung up on this question, one way or the other. I tend to take a bit of "plague on both your houses" view here. Dawkins should stop calling it a scientific question, at least in such a simplistic way. On the other hand, Massimo and supporters of a priori methodological naturalism should stop making unjustifiable demarcation claims.

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  76. I think Massimo missed the boat on this one. His criticism of Harris' reasoning is that what if science were to "“demonstrate” that things like slavery, corporal punishment, repression of gays, limited freedom of women, and so on, are “better”." He says he'd take his moral intuition over that conclusions. But the point is that science doesn't draw that conclusion so so saying, "but what if they did" is a straw man.
    More importantly, abortion, discussed in Massimo's earlier blog post is a perfect example of where science DOES contradict the moral intuition of many people and Massimo feels science should take precedent. Many people say, "It's a person, so killing it is morally wrong." But science, so Massimo argues, essentially says a first term fetus is not a person.

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  77. Many people say, "It's a person, so killing it is morally wrong." But science, so Massimo argues, essentially says a first term fetus is not a person.

    Science has an operationally verifiable definition of a "person"? Talk about investigating the non-empirical! The argument is usually misunderstood. It runs [briefly]: "It's a human life, killing an innocent human life is morally wrong." Interestingly, not even the Roman and Orthodox churches base their claims on "personhood" but on "humanity."

    So, does Science say that the fetus is not a human being? The fetus is materially detectable, so it has being. Its DNA can be tested, so we can determine whether it is human. And we can compare that DNA to the mother's to determine whether it is a distinct being or only "part" of the mother. I'm fairly certain these all work out.

    Now, the whole idea of "person" in Western civ. derives from the debates of the first several church councils, when they were hammering out what they meant by the person of Jesus and the Christ, whether Father, Son, and Spirit were distinct persons, and so on. This leaked out of the councils and into civil law.

    The simplest definition of "person" is "an individual human being." So the last question for science to ask about the fetus is whether the fetus, already established as having "being" and possessing the genetic form of "human" is in fact an "individual," subsistent in itself, not a part of any other, etc.

    I'm not sure which of these Science has disproved: that the fetus has material being, that it has human form, that it is distinct from the mother, that it contains within its own DNA all the information needed to realize its own being.

    Now, suppose, secundum imaginationem, that it is not an individual human being, but rather a dog or a bald eagle. Does science say that it is okay to kill it? That is is not okay?

    Heck, even if it is a human being, does Science say it's okay to kill it, or forbidden to kill it, or anything else?

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  78. @Mintman
    It is unclear to me how most of what you wrote is relevant to anything I wrote.

    1. You wondered whether techies had to be philosophers to accomplish anything in their sciences. I told you they did not.

    2. You thought that an immaterial soul "affected" material things, and would thus become part of the natural, material world. I explained that this was based on a modern misconception of soul as a substance.

    One may as well search for Shakespeare in the text of Hamlet, or hunt for Frank Whittle by measuring the components of a jet engine.

    Mintman
    If I see Hamlet, I realize that it must have had an author,


    This would be much harder to do if you were Fortinbras; i.e., if you were a character within the play.

    I can infer a lot of stuff about that author from the text...

    Language, history, etc. are not from the text, but knowledge from outside the text. To apply your method to Nature, you would need knowledge outside Nature.

    Paley was mostly right with his analogy ...he was unaware of [Darwin's] alternative explanation

    Paley was utterly wrong. An artifact differs from a natural body in that the parts of the artifact would not by their own natures combine into the artifact, whereas natural things do combine by their own natures.

    Paley followed the mistaken notion of a mechanical universe of dead matter. Darwin returned us to a more medieval view, in that he posited natural bodies possessing powers by their natures. "Darwin's Laws" are not mathematical, like in the hard sciences, but they provide mild support for the existence of God, via Aquinas' Fifth Way. ("natural bodies act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result.")

    Darwin argued that natural selection operated always or for the most part to achieve fitness for a particular niche. This is no more disturbing to theology than Maxwell's Laws.

    postulate a god that has created the world to look uncreated

    Creation is "bringing into and sustaining in being." The universe does look like it exists. An uncreated universe would "look like" nothing at all, since it would not exist.

    Do not confuse creation with the transformation of matter from one form to another. Because natures work "always or for the most part" toward particular ends, there must be "lawful" natural behavior. But this derives from the Christian understanding of God, and is not itself empirically provable. The scientist assumes Nature's lawfulness.

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  79. @Mintman
    as long as the proponent of that idea insists that every detail was carefully arranged by the god

    Good thing they didn't:

    It is the part of courage to have recourse to dialectic in all things, for recourse to dialectic is recourse to reason, and he who does not avail himself of reason abandons his chief honor, since by virtue of reason he was made in the image of God.
    -- Abbot Berengar of Tours, 11th cent.

    [God] is the author of all things, evil excepted. But the natures with which He endowed His creatures accomplish a whole scheme of operations, and these too turn to His glory since it is He who created these very natures.”
    -- William of Conches, 12th cent. [Dragmatikon]

    In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles and thereby show forth His power; we have rather to inquire what Nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass.
    -- St. Albertus Magnus 13th cent. [De vegetabilibus et plantis]

    Nature is nothing but the plan of some art, namely a divine one, put into things themselves, by which those things move towards a concrete end: as if the man who builds up a ship could give to the pieces of wood that they could move by themselves to produce the form of the ship.
    -- St. Thomas Aquinas, 13th cent. [Commentary on The Physics II.8, lecture 14, no. 268]

    I propose here… to show the causes of some effects which seem to be miracles and to show that the effects occur naturally… There is no reason to take recourse to [astrology], the last refuge of the weak, or to demons, or to our glorious God, as if he would produce these effects directly
    -- Bishop Nicole d’Oresme, 14th cent. [De causa mirabilium]

    It is therefore, causally that Scripture has said that earth brought forth the crops and trees, in the sense that it received the power of bringing them forth. In the earth from the beginning, in what I might call the roots of time, God created what was to be in times to come.
    -- Augustine of Hippo, 5th cent. [On the literal meanings of Genesis, Book V Ch. 4:11]

    (The "rolling out" of these inner potentials into new forms is in Latin "e volare" -> "evolution" But it awaited Gregor Mendel to put scientific legs on Augustine's intuition.)

    This distinction is that of "secondary causation": the belief that God had created natures with the ability to act directly upon one another. These are sometimes called "instrumental causes." The difficulty some have is in thinking that because the instrumental causes have been thoroughly understood, there is no need for a primary cause. This is like saying that our knowledge of acoustics, the physics of vibrating reeds, etc. means that there is no need for the Mozart theory [or even the Sharon Kam theory!] to explain the Clarinet Concerto in A.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xr3aB4v8hXI

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  80. One point that seldom gets mentioned (I owe it to Loren Lomasky) is that morality has a supply side as well as a demand side. How these are to balanced is a value judgment, which means that we need to import something other than the facts about the world known to science.

    Take homosexuality. Even if, per impossibile, it turned out that banning homosexuality, or simply frowning on it, added a small amount to overall social utility when all sums were done, it wouldn't immediately follow that we should ban homosexuality or treat homosexuals as doing something "immoral". There's still a question as to whether it is reasonable to expect people who have a homosexual orientation to give up their sex lives in the absence of direct harm and for what might be a slight gain in overall utility. A utilitarian would answer, "Yes," but I wouldn't even on that scenario. I see morality as more like a social contract, and I don't think we can expect homosexuals to enter the contract on those terms.

    The same could apply to many other freedoms that are deeply important to people. If some freedoms can be retained only with some falling short of the maximum available overall utility, then I say (call this a sense of fairness or justice if you want; I just see an important liberty at stake) we should settle for less than the maximum available overall utility. But that's a value judgment I'm making, and somebody else might make a different one. Neither of us is making a mistake of fact. (The metaethical implications of this are not lost on me, but that's another story.)

    Contrast with homosexuality the situation with pedophiles where what is involved looks much more like a direct harm. Here, our demand on them seems much more reasonable, though it does entail that they are inevitably going to be aliens within our society.

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  81. ...but they insist in applying science to the supernatural, which is simply another form of the same malady that strikes Harris: scientism, the idea that science can do everything and provides us with all the answers that are worth having.
    When are you applying for a Templeton Award, Massimo?

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  82. A good article - however,

    What makes a "flourishing of the individual and the social" now the basis of moral virtue? This seems to have been arbitrarily pulled out of the hat. So even if you were successful in critiquing Harris, it was a case of calling the pot black!

    Now, empirical standards of suffering and wellbeing, such as pain, hunger, warmth, etc. ought to be used as standards, even though arbitrary, but at least they are empirical and relatively measureable. But anything even slightly beyond observable standards should be viewed with deep skepticism - in particular emotional standards.

    I don't believe the problem of metaethics can ever be resolved, as values are rationally arbitrary.

    The danger is when values become a political method and enmeshed with it. That is why, the simpler and purer the values and the more empirical the values, the better.

    Otherwise its like trying to solve a system of equations with more variables than there are equations. There are unlimited solutions, none having higher virtue.

    BTW, have you joined edge.org yet, or are you too wedded to the 1st culture-2nd culture dichotomy? heh

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  83. Mintman: The real problem I have is that your constant snipes at Coyne, Dawkins et al. appear so completely superfluous because you seem to agree on all the essentials anyway. It seems like, if you permit my frankness, an unnecessary, distracting and unending tempest in a teacup fueled not by any relevant issue or underlying differences, but mostly by your hurt pride about insufficiently vocal appreciation of your chosen profession.

    Although there is clearly a personal element, the reason for this antipathy runs actually very deep and spans paradigms.

    Massimo was a 2nd culture (science) guy who got dazed by the flashing lights and jumped to the 1st culture (humanities and the parts of philosophy dealing mostly with the humanities as opposed to strictly dealing with rationalism) thinking wow he now has license to whip that poor science guy who may occasionally rear his head from his lab bench and question one of the sacred cows of the 1st culture.

    Little did he know that the 3rd culture of activist scientists specializing in the boundary of science and society (neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, complex systems scientists, evolutionists, etc.) with the help of philosophers of the mind, have successfully whittled away at the 1st culture, and the 1st culture is losing its relevance and stature. Witness how literature has been reduced to "language aesthetics".

    So now Massimo is fighting a rearguard action, lest he need to do yet another paradigm switch. But more so because he feels that this movement does not fit his sense of lefty progressivity and correctness. Its a politico-philosophico attack, where he thinks that the 3rd culture is a reactionary tool for enslavement, or something. On the contrary, this is the natural progression of the enlightenment, and the left of yesteryears are now unwittingly the tradition bound anti-science conservatives of today. Witness the political left's new found love of religion.

    As Russel Blackford says, the label scientism has a certain sense dealing with the philosophy of science, and its application to people like Harris where the dispute is on metaethics, is fatuous.

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  84. TheOFloinn:

    You wondered whether techies had to be philosophers to accomplish anything in their sciences. I told you they did not.

    You seem to have missed the point as well as 90% of the discussion. Of course they don't, that was a rhethorical question! The issue here is that in my eyes, a physicist like Stenger can reject the Christian god because its existence is unsupported by his scientific data, while Massimo conflates the Christian god with the hidden god of Last Thursdayism to argue that you can only reject it with a non-evidence-based approach (which is true - for the hidden god, but only for that one).

    You thought that an immaterial soul "affected" material things, and would thus become part of the natural, material world. I explained that this was based on a modern misconception of soul as a substance.

    You can always define things away, as in "god is the universe itself", or "god is the laws of physics", but you will find that there are a few billion religious people out there in the world today who believe in this so-called misconception. If you told them that the soul was not the carrier of their personality and memories that survives a bullet to the head to live on in the afterlife they would be sorely disappointed of that concept.

    This would be much harder to do if you were Fortinbras; i.e., if you were a character within the play.

    Aha, so you are arguing that I cannot see the createdness of my universe because I am in it? Sorry to say so, but this in mindbogglingly inane. Thought experiment: imagine we were living in a world that showed absolutely no trace of existing before 4004 BCE, with all matter and life forms apparently poofed into existence in that year as they are now, and since then the universe has increased in relative as well as absolute entropy, and all stars are just light bulbs on a black canvas. Would you honestly argue that we could look at that universe and fail to realize that it was created? You know, there is a reason for the existence of the term http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FlatEarthAtheist ... and if we can imagine how evidence for createdness would have to look like, then lack of that evidence is a good argument for lack of createdness.

    Paley was utterly wrong. An artifact differs from a natural body in that the parts of the artifact would not by their own natures combine into the artifact, whereas natural things do combine by their own natures.

    I cannot currently remember the last time I saw a tree spontaneously assemble from water, soil and air. No, an organism has a creator alright, or let us say two: its mother and the process of evolution, depending on whether you are talking about the individual or the species. And when I look at, say, a Fuchsia, I can tell a lot about what the creator "built" it to do, for example attracting hummingbirds for pollination as evidenced by the long, red, hanging flowers. Paley was right as far as deducting something about the watchmaker from the watch goes, he just did not know that this watchmaker called evolution existed.

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  85. (continued)

    Darwin returned us to a more medieval view, in that he posited natural bodies possessing powers by their natures. "Darwin's Laws" are not mathematical, like in the hard sciences, but they provide mild support for the existence of God, via Aquinas' Fifth Way.

    I am a biologist, I know about those processes quite well, apparently better than you do, and study them for a living, thank you very much. And one of the things I know about them is that they do not provide any support whatsoever for gods just because Aquinas may or may not have realized that organisms try to achieve certain objectives. And a stone is also a natural body, by the way; can't remember the last time one of them tried to obtain the best result, though.

    Darwin argued that natural selection operated always or for the most part to achieve fitness for a particular niche. This is no more disturbing to theology than Maxwell's Laws.

    Taken on its own, no, because you can move on to see god in the next gap in our knowledge after you can't see him in creating organisms from scratch any more. Problem is, science - biology, neuroscience, astrophysics, history, etc. - has closed more gaps than you and most believers are aware of or want to know, to the point where he can literally only hide out of sight: the only god that does not actively conflict with our current body of scientific knowledge is one that has created a universe which looks as if this god does not exist. To reject this hidden, useless god that hardly anybody sees reason to believe in anyway, we need philosophy, yes, but all others are out based on science alone.

    Creation is "bringing into and sustaining in being." The universe does look like it exists. An uncreated universe would "look like" nothing at all, since it would not exist.

    Read Victor Stenger, or maybe Steven Hawking, that will hopefully disabuse you of this idea.

    Because natures work "always or for the most part" toward particular ends, there must be "lawful" natural behavior. But this derives from the Christian understanding of God, and is not itself empirically provable. The scientist assumes Nature's lawfulness.

    So, you need to believe that Jesus took humanity's sin on himself to realize that nature shows regular, reproducible patterns? Surely you are aware of how silly that idea is, aren't you? People predicted solar eclipses centuries before that deranged doomsday cult leader was conceived, and they did quite fine without Christian "understanding".

    Good thing they didn't

    "They" are purely hypothetical proponents of a hidden god. No idea where get all these other apologists from most of whom actually believed in a more proactive, evidentially demonstrable god - I did not mention them. It could be added that all your carefully pasted quotes are nothing but wild assertions based on zero evidence. The evidence - generally not available to those guys in their time - points at a universe without souls, gods and purpose. Apart from that, even if it showed unmistakable signs of being created, how do you get from there to Jesus? It could just as well have been created by Viracocha or the spirits of dream time.

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  86. Khalid:

    Actually, I disagree quite strongly with the 3rd culture view. It is nice to see that exact science can be applied to areas where that would not have been possible even 20 years ago, but the idea that it will destroy the relevance of the humanities is utterly laughable.

    I am a natural scientist myself, and have my own share of prejudices against certain areas of the humanities, but I would not in my most fevered hallucinations dream of suggesting that you can simply solve questions like "is a flat tax more just than a progressive one", "what is a fair minimum wage", "what are Shakespeare's political biases as shown in Richard II", "should we take red or white wine with that" or the invariant subspace problem simply by throwing enough electron microscopes, EEGs, gas chromatographs and computers at it.

    Now whether it makes sense to draw a strong demarcation line between the humanities and the natural sciences, that is another question, but no matter how much we can learn about our brain from a neurological are evolutionary psychology viewpoint there will still be enough to do for the humanities, just like scoring every color particle in a painting will not tell you everything about the emergent qualities of that painting as a whole.

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  87. I agree with Mintman. I want to know what the difference is between a natural claim and a supernatural claim.

    We know that there are natural claims which can be falsified. We know there are natural claims which cannot be falsified.

    We know there are supernatural claims which cannot be falsified.

    Are there supernatural claims which can be falsified?

    If not, what is the difference between a natural claim that cannot be falsified and any supernatural claim?

    Also, I think you have to make your case against Dawkins more clearly before you start hurling the invective, "hurting science," around. Or at least, that would be the ethical thing to do. Were I in his shoes, I would not be able to tell what exactly I was doing that made Massimo Pigliucci think that I was hurting science.

    Either your expression of the criticism was too muddled to understand, or no case was made that the criticism was valid. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume the former.

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  88. Mintman
    a physicist like Stenger can reject the Christian god because its existence is unsupported by his scientific data


    He is also free to reject beauty, justice, personhood, and even the existence of the physical universe; none of which can be supported with scientific data. Professionals in one sport are often inept in another.

    Mintman
    You can always define things away, as in "god is the universe itself", or "god is the laws of physics", but you will find that there are a few billion religious people out there in the world today who believe in this so-called misconception.


    No surprise. Most people don't understand "horse" with the insight as a jockey, a veterinarian, a breeder, et al. On any topic, most people lack the time, inclination, or skill to come to a deep understanding. They usually get by, and the Republic does not fall.

    The definition of "soul" you object to preceded all the modern misconceptions. See Aristotle, De anima.

    The statement "god is the universe itself" is logically incoherent, but there are probably people who subscribe to it because they have never thought about it rationally.
    + + +
    This would be much harder to do if you were Fortinbras; i.e., if you were a character within the play.

    Mintman
    Aha, so you are arguing that I cannot see the createdness of my universe because I am in it?


    I said it was more difficult, not impossible. You claimed to be able to learn the nature of Shakespeare from the text of Hamlet, but then referenced history, language, politics, etc., all of which were external to the text. If the text is Nature, your approach would require knowledge from outside Nature. To avoid that, you must demonstrate Shakespeare using only the text of the play. Or demonstrate Frank Whittle by measuring the components of a jet engine.

    imagine we were living in a world that showed absolutely no trace of existing before 4004 BCE, with all matter and life forms apparently poofed into existence in that year as they are now... Would you honestly argue that we could look at that universe and fail to realize that it was created?

    Why on earth would I want to imagine something so silly? Why do you equate "looks created" with "looks weird"? Since the space-time continuum actually did poof [or Bang] into existence, it would be a small step to come up with a natural theory how all the furnishings of the universe poofed along with it. Wave your hand and say "quantum state" or "vacuum energy."
    + + +
    An artifact differs from a natural body in that the parts of the artifact would not by their own natures combine into the artifact, whereas natural things do combine by their own natures.

    Mintman
    I cannot currently remember the last time I saw a tree spontaneously assemble from water, soil and air.


    Why would you expect it to? An oak is not an assemblage of water, soil, and air. How silly. An oak "spontaneously" self-assembles from the genetic information contained in the acorn. It uses air, soil, and water to do so.

    As William of Conches said:
    [They say] "We do not know how this is, but we know that God can do it." You poor fools! God can make a cow out of a tree, but has He ever done so? Therefore show some reason why a thing is so, or cease to hold that it is so.

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  89. Mintman
    because you can move on to see god in the next gap in our knowledge


    Suppose neo-Darwinism were disproven tomorrow. Would you suppose you needed God? Or would you suppose [like a medieval] that some other natural mechanism must account for evolution? The latter, surely! But if neo-Darwinism would not leave a God-shaped gap, then it is not presently filling a God-shaped gap, and never has been.

    Mintman
    science - biology, neuroscience, astrophysics, history, etc. - has closed more gaps than you and most believers are aware of or want to know, to the point where he can literally only hide out of sight: ... one that has created a universe which looks as if this god does not exist.


    a) History is not science.
    b) The traditional God was not a post-Humean God of the Gaps; i.e., not a hypothesis proposed to explain some material fact. When Bishop Theodoric of Fribourg explained the rainbow, he did not suppose that he had "filled a gap" and kicked his God out of a job. Nor did Fr. Lemaitre when he formulated the Big Bang theory.
    c) An uncreated universe would not exist. You seem to expect fingerprints; or an inexplicable bacterial flagellum. Sorry. This may offend your fundamentalist sensibilities, but there it is.

    Because natures work "always or for the most part" toward particular ends, there must be "lawful" natural behavior. But this derives from the Christian understanding of God, and is not itself empirically provable.

    Mintman
    So, you need to believe that Jesus took humanity's sin on himself to realize that nature shows regular, reproducible patterns?


    You've confused the supposed act of creation by a rational God with the supposed act of salvation. What you claim I "need to believe" has neither been said by me, nor concluded by traditional theology, nor deducible from it. I hope you do your biology with greater diligence and more respect for reason and empirical fact than you have shown here.

    People predicted solar eclipses centuries before that deranged doomsday cult leader was conceived, and they did quite fine without Christian "understanding".

    Actually, they did not. The Iron Age was an age of cruelty almost unimaginable to people today. Perhaps you meant something else by "doing fine." Plumbers see only the plumbing.

    Predicting eclipses was arithmetic, not science. (The real Copernican revolution was to shift astronomy from the math department to the physics department.)

    The Babylonians and Greeks believed that the planets were literally gods. That's why they were able to move within the heavens. The planets and stars were "alive, divine, and influential in human affairs." The sea was Poseidon, and Poseidon was the sea. Even trees had their dryads and springs their nymphs. There are many names for this, but 'science' is not one of them.

    Try developing science when you believe the very objects of study are self-willed, and the decisions of Aphrodite might be overruled tomorrow by Apollo.
    + + +
    The evidence ... points at a universe without souls, gods and purpose.

    That's a bit like the guy whose only tool is a telescope saying that all the evidence available to him points to a universe without microbes.

    Apparently, a biologist is someone who can believe a) nature is without purpose, yet b) the evidence "point to" something. But "pointing toward" is the very definition of telos.

    The last time science tried to point to non-scientific conclusions we got eugenics.

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  90. Daniel
    I want to know what the difference is between a natural claim and a supernatural claim.

    We know that there are natural claims which can be falsified. We know there are natural claims which cannot be falsified.


    Karl Popper once said that the theory of evolution was an example of a claim that could not be falsified. But this may not be what you mean. (And the "falsification" thesis itself has problems. Copernicanism was falsified by the empirical evidence.)

    The main difference is this:
    1. Physics deals with the abstracted properties of material bodies. Biology is a subset of physics. A natural claim is typically an hypothesis put forward to explain a body of observed facts. We then proceed through a logical fallacy -- asserting the consequent -- to claim that the hypothesis is demonstrated by the facts. (This is not as bad as it sounds, provided one pursues the complete compositio et reductio proposed by Bishop Grosseteste, the "father of the scientific method.")

    Non-material claims fall into two categories:
    2. Mathematics deals with the abstracted properties of ideal bodies. These are demonstrated logically by deduction from premises taken as obviously true. A mathematical proof is not a scientific demonstration. It is not necessary to measure anything or run any experiments. The knowledge obtained is certain in a degree that scientific knowledge is not. I am the proud father of two original theorems in mathematics, but none of the objects involved -- function spaces, topologies, etc. -- have any material existence.

    3. Metaphysics deals with being as such: the existence of things like truth, beauty, justice, and so on. These are properties that have no material existence, either; although they may be materially instantiated. A metaphysical demonstration has far more in common with a mathematical proof than with a scientific demonstration. You start with some empirical fact about the world - like in science - but we reason deductively toward a conclusion, rather than inductively toward an hypothesis.

    For example, when Aquinas starts with the existence of change in the world, he is not putting forth an hypothesis to explain change, he is deducing the necessary existence of God from the fact of change, the nature of potency and act, the nature of causation, etc.

    Hope this helps.
    + + +
    However, the starting points in metaphysics are not as unquestionable as those in mathematics. Aquinas started with change; but Parmenides claimed that change was an illusion projected on the world by the human mind.

    You cannot decide for or against Parmenides on empirical evidence. Dennett seems to flirt with Parmenides, positing that the patterns we see in the world are only mental projections our brains have "evolved" to imagine. (Kiss science bye-bye.) Plato and Aristotle took aim at Parmenides. Both are accounted "realists" (vs. "nominallists" and "conceptualists"). Aristotle was in addition an empiricist. (All philosophical reasoning must start with sense experience.) Aquinas was in addition an existentialist. (Existence exists.)

    They triumphed so thoroughly that most people have forgotten that Aristotle was essentially responding to Parmenides. (Most of what we know about Parmenides is what we read in Aristotle!) This is a little like hearing half of a dialogue. Some of the answers seem puzzling because we have forgotten the question.

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  91. TheOFloinn,

    Your responses are astonishing in their scholarship. It is very rare to see someone engaging in a discussion like this who has actually studied theology. I want to thank you for your contributions here, if for no other reason than the fact that it has reminded me of how much I enjoyed the portions of the History of the Middle Ages classes I took in college that dealt with medieval philosophy and theology. I am a trained biologist and a Unitarian Universalist atheist, but the sheer power, subtlety, and sublimity of the arguments and ideas of Aquinas and his fellow scholastics still astonish and delight me. After more than a decade of plowing through scientific papers, I still have yet to encounter any containing ideas that require quite so much work to understand, or give quite so much pleasure upon doing so as do those of long dead monks. And though very much a scientist, I find that wonderful.

    Thank you again, and I shall have to start reading your science fiction.

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  92. Ah, arguing with apologists, I missed that.

    He is also free to reject beauty, justice, personhood, and even the existence of the physical universe; none of which can be supported with scientific data.

    Yes for beauty and justice - those are purely invented concepts that would not exist without us humans. I do not understand what precisely you mean, in this case, with personhood. It may again be a term invented by us for the sake of communication, or it could just as well be the scientific fact that your thought processes are separate from mine. But hey, the physical universe? That is what science is about. We kick the universe, our foot goes ouch; case closed.

    No surprise. Most people don't understand "horse" with the insight as a jockey, a veterinarian, a breeder, et al. On any topic, most people lack the time, inclination, or skill to come to a deep understanding.

    I refer you to the third comment (Patrick) on this thread, it explains better than I could now what the problem is with your pretensions of being the arbiter of word definitions: http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/notesarchive.php?id=3177

    In much of your reply, your trick boils down to saying that because the universe exists, it must by definition have been created. Well, no. That was the real failure of Paley: lack of imagination and scientific curiosity. No, because a bird exists, it does not necessarily need to have a personal creator; no, because the universe exists, it does not need to have a personal creator either. There are much better explanatory alternatives - natural processes -, and that is not even mentioning the complete lack of evidence for such a person. Again, kindly read up on astrophysics. There is no need for creation.

    As for the silliness of a 6000 year old earth in comparison to our real world, it is no more silly than a watch with the engraving "made in Switzerland" is compared to a beryl. I realize what you are trying to do, and it is cute in a way, but no more convincing than your references to some clueless theologians from centuries ago who merely repeated the same unfounded assertion until they had convinced themselves it was self-evidently true. You want to believe that no matter what the world looks like, it could always be interpreted as non-created, so that you can then believe that scientists just have their methodological bias not to see that. But that is not how science works. A flat world resting on the back of four cosmic elephants would be excellent scientific evidence suggesting the possibility of creation, as it is virtually impossible to think of a gradual process that would be a more convincing explanation for something of such high implausibility. No evidence for the existence of time before 4004 BCE, with all animal and plant species fully formed on day one would also be excellent evidence, for the same reasons. But even much less striking evidence would give us pause: if I had recently read that physicists are sure the universe started out in a state of maximum order and has been decaying ever since, I might wonder where that order came from. It would have to have been added to the universe from outside. If I had read at the same time that the energy sum of the universe as measured by physicists is a very high positive number, I would have to wonder where all that energy came from. It would have to have been added to the universe from outside. But interestingly, what I really read was that the universe, to the current best understanding of the scientists studying its origin, started out in a state of maximum entropy (pure chaos) and has an energy sum of precisely zero, the positive energy of movement perfectly canceled out by the negative potential energy of gravity. This means that nothing had to be added to the universe from outside. And this means there is no need for creation, and that due to the chaos at the beginning there is definitely no trace of it.

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  93. (continued)

    Curiously, at the same time, you want to believe that the universe must be created by definition, because it exists, but that is either trickery with word meanings or ignorance of the current state of astrophysics on your part, see above. Again, there is one unlikely possibility, and that is creation by an (evil) god who very carefully wants to trick us into believing that he does not exist, as the universe looks entirely uncreated. But also again, from a scientific perspective this is just as reasonable as assuming that the world was created last Thursday to appear as if it had always existed, or that the city of Seattle does not exist and everybody who pretends otherwise is part of a vast conspiracy, visitors to the area who could have found out always being brainwashed or replaced with near-identical clones who are in on it. These propositions are all equally plausible, only you appear to have an emotional interest in the first one (minus the evil, I assume, but how else would you call a hypothetical god that wants to cheat an honest explorer into not believing in him, thus presumably cheating this person into hell?).

    If the current synthesis of evolutionary biology were disproved (hypothetically, as it is about as likely as gravity being disproved), I would search for a natural alternative, yes. But see above and in my previous posts: firstly, there are hypothetical situations where we simply could not envision any plausible gradual process that could have produced this outcome. Getting from there to "Jesus saves" is, of course, a stretch, as everybody but a Christian apologist will realize. But such a hypothetical situation would have a careful scientist admit that creation might be the currently best explanation until we come up with a better one. It might have been a god, or it might have been a vastly superior alien intelligence from outside the universe (and on a practical level, what difference would that make?), but creation as such would be a valid scientific idea under those circumstances. Secondly, you are interestingly asking whether I would search for a "natural mechanism". Well, if god did demonstrably exist, then he would be a part of nature, and as such his creation would be a natural mechanism. Again, there is no bias in science. If angels and souls actually did exist, they would at this moment be studied by scientists. Only they don't, so they aren't.

    What you claim I "need to believe" has neither been said by me, nor concluded by traditional theology, nor deducible from it.

    I cite you again: there must be "lawful" natural behavior. But this derives from the Christian understanding of God. This is at a minimum inviting a misunderstanding, but I thought I would recognize the presuppositional argument. Similarly, I have not claimed that the ancients did science in the strict sense as we understand it today, but they well understood that nature showed predictable, lawful behavior, an understanding which your sentence seems to make dependent on Christianity.

    That's a bit like the guy whose only tool is a telescope saying that all the evidence available to him points to a universe without microbes.

    Not at all. In informing my atheist worldview, I have taken care to rely not only on the telescope, but also on other peoples microscopes, i.e. the entire state of scientific evidence currently available to humanity. See above for the evidence from astrophysics, which is not my department. Similar arguments could be made from neurology for the idea that we humans have no soul and free will, again not my department.

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  94. beauty, justice, personhood, and even the existence of the physical universe [cannot] be supported with scientific data.

    beauty and justice...are purely invented concepts that would not exist without us humans.

    But humans are part of the universe, and human thought is allegedly material -- brain waves, or whatever. If concepts are simply brain patterns, then these concepts have objective existence.

    personhood. ... could just as well be the scientific fact that your thought processes are separate from mine.

    No, I meant that "person" is not a scientific object. How much does it weigh? Where is it located? What are its dimensions? Is it one or many? These are the things that Galileo (in The Assayer) said were objective properties. All else is "subjective." It's one of the foundations of the scientific revolution.

    the physical universe? That is what science is about. We kick the universe, our foot goes ouch; case closed.

    But
    a) The "ouch" of the foot is pain and pain does not exist in the object. Galileo and the other revolutionaries shunted that off into the subjective category. So how can your subjective experience -- your "thought processes" are separate, remember? -- prove anything to be objective for the rest of us?
    b) The proof is circular, since you must assume that the foot (which is presumably part of the universe) is already objectively real. But, hey, logic? That's what philosophy is all about.
    + + +
    your trick boils down to saying that because the universe exists, it must by definition have been created.

    No. If the universe was created, it must exist. If the universe did not exist, that would be proof it was not created. Modus tollens, a la Popper.

    There is no requirement that a created universe be bizarre or incoherent. In fact, a good craftsman would not leave such flaws. Everything would work smoothly. That the music of a violin is explained by the physics of vibrating strings does not eliminate the possibility of Stradivarius making it. That a universe works fine without any backfires or glitches does not logically demonstrate that it lacks a source of being.

    Again, kindly read up on astrophysics. There is no need for creation.

    a) I thought you claimed to be a biologist. How many courses did you take in astrophysics? I confess that I only took two. OTOH, I know several astrophysicists.
    b) How does astrophysics speak to creation? Different subjects. Are you still operating from a child's understanding of a big man with a beard shaping things by hand? LOL!

    some clueless theologians from centuries ago who merely repeated the same unfounded assertion until they had convinced themselves

    It might be wise to collect empirical evidence of that; i.e., data. Dollars to donuts, you have no clue what they actually wrote, and are repeating on faith what others have said.

    A flat world resting on the back of four cosmic elephants would be excellent scientific evidence suggesting the possibility of creation

    Why? Are the elephants and tortoise [which you forgot] not natural beings? You underestimate people's abilities. Such a world would look odd to us; but to people born into it, it would be [by definition] purely natural, and scientists would put great effort into studies to determine the sex of the great tortoise, or measure the parity between pairs of elephants. As to where the elephants came from... They just ARE! No creator necessary....

    No evidence for the existence of time before 4004 BCE, with all animal and plant species fully formed on day one would also be excellent evidence, for the same reasons.

    Why? Simply devise a model with a singularity at that point. Whatever came "before" is unobservable because of the singularity.

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  95. the universe looks entirely uncreated

    "Create" means to "bring into being from nothing" and to "sustain in being from moment to moment." This is creatio ex nihilo and creatio continuo, resp. When Father Lemaitre developed the Big Bang theory, he had to caution the Pope that the origin in time of the space-time continuum was not a moment of creation. Creation and transformation are two entirely different things. The Big Bang was not creatio ex nihilo.

    These propositions are all equally plausible

    Only if you fail to apply logic and reason. For example, logically, an "evil" god could not be a creator. This is because such a source of being would necessarily be the source of all attributes and powers, and therefore must possess those attributes and powers in at least an analogous and eminent sense. But an evil is defectus boni which is a lack or deprivation of a good. Such a being could thus not be the source of that good, since it would lack it in itself. From other considerations -- that the source of being is pure act -- there can be only one such being. The rest follows.

    If the current synthesis of evolutionary biology were disproved (hypothetically, as it is about as likely as gravity being disproved)

    Gravity has been re-imagined on several occasions, most recently in the early 20th cent., when physics abandoned the naive mechanical model that still holds biologists in thrall. (It's not enough to explain motion: we need electromagnetism, too.)

    there are hypothetical situations where we simply could not envision any plausible gradual process that could have produced this outcome.

    This is the "Argument from Incredulity". Creationists say the same thing. They can't imagine how the struggle for existence can account for this or that organ/ism, "therefore" Goddidit! It's purely bogus. Tomorrow, someone like Gould or Shapiro or the epigenetics folks could come up with something that does explain it.

    Doesn't have to be gradual. That's just a leap of faith. Plenty of stuff in the physics is sudden, and biology can't be immune to the senior science.
    + + +
    Getting from there to "Jesus saves" is, of course, a stretch

    There you are, confusing creation with salvation again.

    creation might be the currently best explanation until we come up with a better one.

    Creation is not a scientific hypothesis, but a metaphysical deduction, an utterly different critter. Creation is not intended to explain how matter behaves. It is simply that there is matter[-energy] to behave.

    if god did demonstrably exist, then he would be a part of nature

    Logically impossible.

    If angels and souls actually did exist, they would at this moment be studied by scientists. Only they don't, so they aren't.

    You mean like Galileo studied radio waves? Remember, anima [soul] means "life," and we actually do have a science of living things. It's called, um... The Greek name psyche has also given its name to a science.

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  96. @Mel
    Thank you. Buy early and often.

    I only took the usual required courses in theology and philosophy, and that was years ago. I tried to duck them since, as a mathematician with interests in physics, I considered philosophy matter unworthy. [The Philosophy of Man prof didn't help things, either.] It was only years later, while researching the Middle Ages for a novel, that I came across them again. That led me to Grant, Lindberg, Huff, and other historians of science, and the medieval roots thereof.

    That, and the arguments from atheist philosophers like Stove, Midgley, Searle, et al., convinced me how amateurish most scientists were one they were off their reservation.

    But I had already seen that in my statistical practice. If a degree in chemistry or physics [other than mathematical physics] does not confer expertise in statistics, how much less so expertise in philosophy?

    There are exceptions: Heisenberg was good; so was Duhem. Jaki was very good -- but he was not only a PhD physicist, but also a Benedictine monk. (The ascerbic Jaki was one of the first to see the implications of Goedel's Theorem for the Theory of Everything, at a time when most physicists seemed unaware of the theorem at all! He told Gell-Mann. Ten years later, Hawking picked up on it.) The funny thing is that physics has been edging back toward the Aristotelian worldview, only under different names.

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  97. I think that Plato was correct when he stated that all our choices are guided by what we consider to be good, and that we do not knowingly choose evil.

    It is also true that we introject a variety of values from our families and societies, most of which are universal in and of themselves. Where individuals differ is in the ordering of those values and when one value trumps another. That is where major disagreements can occur.

    I think that what Harris is trying to say is that, given the fact that we are endowed with a variety of values, and that those values can be ordered and extended in a variety of ways, then science can be helpful in deciding WHICH ordering of values and WHEN one value trumps another by looking at different scenarios and seeing how they differ in terms of the outcome of human flourishing (which would have to be defined, to some extent).

    That's the whole point of his peaks and valleys metaphor. That prioritizing some values over others in some situations can lead to greater flourishing, while in other situations could lead to less flourishing. And that is something that only an empirical study can determine, not armchair philosophizing or religious sermonizing.

    Does that help resolve this disagreement somewhat?

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  98. TheOFlorinn:

    Honestly, you seem to use mostly semantic trickery, intentional misunderstanding and partly contradictory arguments. Especially because of the latter, I am increasingly unclear what your position actually is on anything, so it might be helpful if you spelled it out.

    At first, you seem to argue at the same time that things like beauty should be subject to science because they happen physically in our brains and that something like a person should not because it was too hard to define. Sounds inconsistent, but anyway: all words scientists use are merely human creations, models helpful for communication. I hope you do not believe that when we are researching this stone here or that star over there we have grasped its nature so much better that if we call that guy over there a person. It is all abstraction. And as such, there is no reason why "person" should not be studied by science if "gravity", "species" or "culture" are studied scientifically.

    So how can your subjective experience -- your "thought processes" are separate, remember? -- prove anything to be objective for the rest of us?

    That is why experiments must be replicable. In principle, everybody is invited to go ahead and try if they can replicate the result or not. Problem solved.

    The proof is circular, since you must assume that the foot (which is presumably part of the universe) is already objectively real. But, hey, logic? That's what philosophy is all about.

    I do not doubt that if you want to philosophically justify doing science at all, you may need either a small leap of faith or a philosophical argument as a midwife. But hey, we decided to do science long ago, and the small leap of faith was rewarded by it working consistently, and never failing us. And seriously, what would you do if you doubt the existence of the world and the info from your senses? Sit around and drool? Or maybe you would like to jump off a 20 storey building if you consider it even remotely likely that the concrete waiting for you down there may not be objective reality? It may pain you if I simply step over your imagined problem because that is oh so unphilosophical, but I have science to do, and everybody steps over it anyway the second they start exploring the world as babies.

    That a universe works fine without any backfires or glitches does not logically demonstrate that it lacks a source of being.

    You are right in that the universe looking as if no creator god exists does not demonstrate beyond any doubt that there was none. Just like the pine in front of my window looking as if it has grown from a seed does not demonstrate beyond any doubt that it was not assembled by invisible fairies. The point is, if a botanist is allowed to reject the invisible fairies in his work, why is he not allowed to reject the god? You do not need to be a philosopher to understand the concept of "beyond reasonable doubt". Truth is, the reason why is that people have a traditional soft spot in their brains for gods, so they tolerate inanity as arguments that they would not tolerate under any other circumstances.

    How does astrophysics speak to creation? Different subjects. Are you still operating from a child's understanding of a big man with a beard shaping things by hand? LOL!

    Well, then go ahead with explaining how your concept of a creator looks like. It will be either semantic games or something not any less ridiculuous than the bearded man.

    Dollars to donuts, you have no clue what they actually wrote, and are repeating on faith what others have said.

    Well, for starters there are the quotes you gave, although admittedly I trust you to have copied and pasted them correctly without checking them individually. And yes, celibates living in a medieval monastery without any knowledge of the existence of microbes, distant galaxies or even Australia would not be the first I would turn to if I wanted to understand the universe, you got me there.

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  99. Why? Are the elephants and tortoise [which you forgot] not natural beings? You underestimate people's abilities. Such a world would look odd to us; but to people born into it, it would be [by definition] purely natural, and scientists would put great effort into studies to determine the sex of the great tortoise, or measure the parity between pairs of elephants. As to where the elephants came from... They just ARE! No creator necessary.... Why? Simply devise a model with a singularity at that point. Whatever came "before" is unobservable because of the singularity.

    Are you honestly too obtuse to understand what an explanation, probability and gradual processes are? Or are you just joking around here? Of course scientists on those worlds would consider this natural, and they would study it, but could they produce a reasonable explanation of how this staggeringly improbable situation came to be without creation? We do explain the staggeringly improbable existence of e.g. elephants today by breaking down the improbability into a gradual process of individually highly probable mutation, mating and selection events. If such an explanation is unavailable to you because time did not exist before this animal turned up, already fully formed, "they just are" is not an alternative explanation, it is a non-explanation.

    Only if you fail to apply logic and reason. For example, logically, an "evil" god could not be a creator. This is because such a source of being would necessarily be the source of all attributes and powers, and therefore must possess those attributes and powers in at least an analogous and eminent sense. But an evil is defectus boni which is a lack or deprivation of a good. Such a being could thus not be the source of that good, since it would lack it in itself. From other considerations -- that the source of being is pure act -- there can be only one such being. The rest follows.

    This incoherent on several different levels. Many an engineer has created a green car that has cogwheels in it and goes at 200 km/h although not containing the attributes green and built with cogwheels or the power to go at 200 km/h within herself, so your conjecture is trivially unreasonable. On the other hand, if assumed to be true and taken to its logical conclusion, this would mean that a creator could have no attributes, as they are all defectus of their polar opposite. (Oh but of course, you probably just go ahead and define good as a positive thing that has "evil" as its zero value; that is really reasonable: start out with the conclusion that god exists, and then redefine words and invent concepts in a way that this conclusion can be reached.)

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  100. Btw, I do not care what Galileo said. I do not care what a monk 1400 years ago said. The question is whether any of that makes sense, as these guys had much less reliable knowledge available than we do today, and they made a lot of mistakes anyway. You can go ahead and suggest a good explanatory book for me to understand a philosophical concept that may be helpful (when I will find the time to read it is another question), but your continuous throwing out of big names leaves the impression that you are stuck in pre-enlightenment times, when demonstrating that the most respected authority agreed with you was supposed to win you the discussion, no matter what the evidence said.

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  101. This is the "Argument from Incredulity". Creationists say the same thing. They can't imagine how the struggle for existence can account for this or that organ/ism, "therefore" Goddidit! It's purely bogus. Tomorrow, someone like Gould or Shapiro or the epigenetics folks could come up with something that does explain it.

    If, just hypothetically speaking, you were reading my replies carefully, you would have noticed the following: such a hypothetical situation would have a careful scientist admit that creation might be the currently best explanation until we come up with a better one. But yes, creationists say the same thing. And they would be completely right if we would not have Darwin's great idea. In my eyes, the problem with creationism is not that it is not a proposition that a scientist could entertain as a possible explanation perhaps eventually to be supported or rejected by additional evidence, but that it is a proposition that has failed a long time ago when devastating evidence for an alternative was presented. Before there was any indication that species evolved and show graded differences, and that earth was as old as it is, what reproach would you give to the many respected scientists holding that idea? Again, it is weird how you seem to want to reach the conclusion of creation by playing with word definitions, but would consider the same conclusion sullied if it were reached by excluding all alternatives through empirical examination of the evidence.

    Creation is not intended to explain how matter behaves. It is simply that there is matter[-energy] to behave.

    Right. But who says that science only deals with how matter behaves? Why it is there is a valid question, just like where it is. You seem to have a curiously narrow definition of science, recently even excluding history from it, if I remember correctly. So an archeologist examining evidence from a dig is what, a fiction writer or a mathematician?

    Doesn't have to be gradual. That's just a leap of faith. Plenty of stuff in the physics is sudden, and biology can't be immune to the senior science.

    What. The. Hell? Because radioactive atoms decay spontaneously we have to assign the same plausibility to an elephant poofing into existence fully formed without entertaining the idea of divine intervention? Kindly think that over again. And I mean think, not read up what Aquinas has hallucinated on that matter.

    There you are, confusing creation with salvation again.

    There you are, unable to understand the argument. The point is that all that you could deduct from a signature of creation in the universe is that there must have been some creator, but it would not tell you if that creator was an extradimensional race of hyper-advanced aliens, a monotheistic deity demanding that sabbath-breakers be stoned, or the feathered serpent.

    If god did demonstrably exist, then he would be a part of nature - Logically impossible.

    Then it does not exist by definition, as nature is all that can be shown to exist. Well, that was easy.

    You mean like Galileo studied radio waves? Remember, anima [soul] means "life," and we actually do have a science of living things. It's called, um... The Greek name psyche has also given its name to a science.

    Again the only viable conclusion is that you are playing obtuse and deliberately misunderstand me. A soul as defined by at least 99% of all human beings, be they religious or atheist, is an immaterial component to us that carries our memories and character traits and survives after bodily death. If that existed, it would be studied by scientists, and it is well possible that the practice of psychology would look different, but it does not. That you have your weird personal definition of soul as identical with a physiological process is irrelevant to the rest of humanity.

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  102. Mintman - I can see that your feet are firmly planted in the 2nd culture. But I believe they are misplaced.

    First, you have to realize that there is a fact-value dichotomy. (See ThinkMonkey above). What this means is that there is absolutely no empirical basis for values. None. It does not matter what the rational arguments are - if there is no empirical foundation, then the rational arguments are just an exercise in building one skyhook pulling another skyhook that will all crash to the ground ultimately. As Hume said - "commit rational arguments not founded on the empirical to the flames".

    Once you realize that values are arbitrary and they are as good as pulling them out of a hat, many of your dilemmas get answered.

    For example you say "is a flat tax more just than a progressive one". For economics to answer this question (BTW economics is NOT part of the humanities) - you need to have an ethical concept of "just". To have that, you need metaethics based on certain values. But how do you choose these values? You cannot - they are arbitrary. Justice is ultimately reliant on certain metaethical or meta-metaethical values that have been pulled out of the hat.

    This is why humanities is so dangerous. Because it flies against the rational fact that values have no empirical foundation, but then humanities gives us a false sense of understanding and consciousness. So every compassionate activist thug is now talking about "social justice" and picking up an AK47 or a bullhorn to go and enforce it (enforce what?).

    Once you realize that no loads of literature, arts, aesthetics, metaphysics, religion, (the Humanities) can get you closer to selecting your foundational values, then you better give it up and spend your energies on what you have and which works - science.

    Does this means we have to give up on ethics and justice? Well, that is a social choice, isn't it? But if we don't then it should be science that leads the way, and not the humanities. We should limit our values to the very basic empirical ones and avoid the rationalized ones. For example, pain, hunger, warmth are eminently measurable (empirical) - and should be used. But emotional and cultural and socio-political baggage should not be used to construct our value system. Why is this system better - because it is more empirical, and only if you consider that to be virtuous.

    Ultimately the question of values has no solution. Layers and layers and doses and doses of humanities are just feel-good pragmatism. That is all. Better to get rid of such obfuscation.

    Second, you claim humanities can deal with emergent qualities. But would you trust the humanities in that? I would not. Neither have you shown that science cannot deal with emergent qualities. I think this was an attempt at mystification on your part, conflating emergence to value construction, and is not a good argument.

    Face it Mintman - the humanities (does not include economics, the science part of political science, and the rational part of philosophy) has very little to inform us - on the other hand has a lot of power to play with our emotions and psyche and mobilize the irrational. A lot of disasters, in particular religious ones, can be traced to the 1st culture.

    The 1st culture now sensing the onslaught of the 3rd culture is all in reaction mode. This explains Massimo.

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  103. Khalid:

    Is that not a bit strange: to say that there is no empirical foundation for values (agreed, to a degree), but then to say a few paragraphs down that science should develop them? The first idea, if true, makes the second impossible.

    I have no problem with humanities dealing with issues that are so far derived from the world accessible by a lab experiment that we cannot put our finger on the foundation any more, simply because there are areas of natural science that have a similar relationship to each other: You could be just as distrustful of population ecology because the population ecologist does not base their simulations and calculations on an observing the position of every single subatomic particle in the thousands of organisms they study. Once you are on a completely different, higher, emergent level of complexity, you need completely new approaches to describe this level. Similarly, you cannot understand a society only by understanding the neurology of each member in isolation.

    And I think that most people in the humanities are aware of the complex methodological issues their field has. I have encountered some with very fuzzy thinking, and some bad ideologues, but then, the natural sciences also contain more than enough incompetents, and that does not disqualify the entire approach either.

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  104. Mintman - you are faulting a technicality, or maybe it should be called a paradox. But you are mistaking the tail for the dog. I did qualify what I said with the statement "ultimately values are arbitrary, and only if you consider empirical values to be virtuous (you don't have to)".

    You say you agree "to a degree" that there is no empirical foundation to values. You have left a crack in the door that a whole army can enter. Exactly what values have an empirical foundation? Any examples?

    Again, you are confusing emergence to the fact-value dichotomy. These are separate categories. It does not follow that emergence can inform us on values. Nor does it follow that emergence puts the thing beyond the reach of science.

    I guess your model of the 3rd culture is rather old-fashioned, consisting of a monkey with electrodes in its head [smilie].

    A large part of the 3rd culture are the systems sciences, where complex organizational, social, political, and economic systems are modeled and simulated and emergent qualities are investigated and modeled. Just because water is made of two gases hydrogen and oxygen does not mean you can't have a science of hydrodynamics - is it not? Just because a liquid consists of trillions of particles does not mean you can't have fluid dynamics.

    Complex Systems Sciences deals exactly with the emergent qualities of large interacting organizations - they need not have to be human orgnizations or society as we know it - it can be a society of ants or robots. This is a scientific approach - and is certainly not "humanities". I think you are confusing any field that deals with anything human or organizational as being "the Humanities". It depends on the methodology, where it falls, and not on the topic.

    There is a whole army of scientists and laboratories that deal with large organizational structures. Many of the emergent qualities you see in human societies which mesmerizes the 1st and 2nd culture folks, are actually simulated and explained in these labs as being systems traits and nothing to do with humans. Population ecologists are certainly part of this group of systems scientists and if they adhere to the scientific methodology, which they generally do, then that is science. I don't see why you consider them in the same class as literature, arts, cultural studies, and religion.

    Your argument that both the Humanities and the Natural Sciences deal with complexities, that they appear similar, contain emergence, and both are littered with fuzzy thinking, therefore they are equal - is a non-sequitor. That is core 2nd culture argument: for each to his domain - science and religion are separate and equal, and should not tread on one another, etc. etc. This has been widely debunked.

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  105. Well, if that is your view of 3rd culture, then I do not see what issue you have with the humanities, except if you restrict your definition of them to those schools of thought that do not include evidence-based approaches but still pretend to be able to say something about the material world, which is not very many (mostly theology). This is a perennial problem with these discussions - some define science so narrow that everything less stringent than a double-blind pharmacological study with a control group is out, now you seem to define it so wide that there is very little that is not in.

    Just because you are now proud of a systems approach with a lot of computing power, does that really make it necessary to belittle the work of traditional ethnographers, historians, psychologists, linguists and economists who have always used rational inquiry and evidence? Does interpreting archeological artifacts, modeling economic strategies, analyzing the historical development of languages or statistically evaluating sociological questionnaires make them less good than you? Because researchers in the humanities have done that for decades at a minimum. Or are they all not in the humanities? Then what is?

    Quite apart from the fact that there are simply some areas that the empirical sciences cannot reach, no matter how good the methods would become, like epistemology, logic, math, art, music.

    Exactly what values have an empirical foundation? Any examples?

    With "to a degree" I mean that I am currently unconvinced that the is-ought-gap can be bridged, but that once we have used our moral instincts and negotiation to decide on morals, we can inform actual decision with empirical data. But again, if the is-ought-gap really cannot be bridged, then it cannot be bridged, and that's it. I still fail to see how exact science would be of any more help than a moral philosophy or sociology that is aware of the problem Hume raised. Quite the opposite, actually.

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  106. Mintman
    Btw, I do not care what Galileo said. I do not care what a monk 1400 years ago said.

    The you don't care what George Santayana said about those who do not know history. Of course, "modern" comes from the Latin word for "today," so the moderns were always very concerned about being "up-to-date," and this included forgetting a lot of stuff. Including the pioneers of their very own scientific revolution!

    these guys had much less reliable knowledge available than we do today

    That doesn't mean they were stupid or unable to think clearly. Not everything consists of knowledge about the natural world.

    You can go ahead and suggest a good explanatory book for me to understand a philosophical concept that may be helpful

    Yes, as Francis Bacon wrote in The Masculine Birth of Time, all previous thinkers were like "little boys" who could talk but not impregnate women. He compared the true role of science as bringing Nature [portrayed as a woman] bound in chains before his readers to do their bidding. That is, science must be 'helpful.' Modernist science was thus goal-oriented -- 'racial hygeine,' treating syphilis, or 'saving the planet'. Hence, utilitarianism.

    your continuous throwing out of big names leaves the impression that you are stuck in pre-enlightenment times, when demonstrating that the most respected authority agreed with you was supposed to win you the discussion

    That was never actually the case. You are evidently stuck in post-modern times when actually consulting the evidence is not necessary when one has a pre-formed conclusion.

    Berenger of Tours is hardly a big name. I doubt you ever even heard of most of the citations, scientists not being well-educated outside their craft boundaries. [There are notable exceptions.] The purpose of the cites was to illustrate with objective evidence what "those people" actually wrote -- as opposed to imaginings of what you think they would have written.

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  107. Mintman
    you seem to want to reach the conclusion of creation by playing with word definitions

    Not playing with, but giving the definitions. It's not like creatio hadn't been discussed for centuries.

    conclusion...reached by excluding all alternatives through empirical examination of the evidence.

    A mathematical theorem in logic (freely translated) is that "through any finite collection of facts you can draw an infinite number of theories." I mean, look at Copernicanism, which was decisively falsified -- only to be proven empirically in the early 1800s.

    Why ...is a valid question

    Yes, but not a scientific question. Modern science rejects final causes. The precise measurement of material bodies simply cannot answer "why" questions, only "how" questions. It can explain how the presence of matter (=energy) as a state of the field of Ricci tensors causes space and time to exist and produces gravity as a curvature in the tensor field. But not why?

    You seem to have a curiously narrow definition of science, recently even excluding history

    "Even" history? Perhaps you think that history is only the measurement of the size of Napoleon's sword, or the weight of the Parthenon.
    + + +
    Plenty of stuff in the physics is sudden, and biology can't be immune to the senior science.

    Because radioactive atoms decay spontaneously we have to assign the same plausibility to an elephant poofing into existence fully formed?

    Why do you harp on this mythical "poofing"? Sudden state changes occur when the system enter a bifurcation set in the parameter space and exits from the other side. Lightning snaps. Empires collapse. Frightened dogs suddenly bite. Equilibrium gets punctuated. A cannibalistic lizard transplanted to another island suddenly becomes a vegetarian and develops a new internal organ. Sudden change is all around us.

    I mean think, not read up what Aquinas has hallucinated on that matter.

    You have no clue what Aquinas did. Your statement is based on no empirical investigation of the facts of Aquinas's life or methodology. You are simply repeating things on faith.

    all that you could deduct from a signature of creation in the universe is that there must have been some creator, but it would not tell you if that creator was an extradimensional race of hyper-advanced aliens...

    a) There is no "signature." Those who studied the matter deduced the existence of a creator from empirical experience. They did not hypothesize one in order to "explain" some body of material facts.
    b) You can deduce a great deal from the existence proofs. Once you get to pure act, most of the rest of it follows. Extradimensional aliens (if any) are still part of the universe, thus part of what is created.
    + + +
    A soul as defined by at least 99% of all human beings... is an immaterial component to us that carries our memories and character traits and survives after bodily death.

    I can't wait to learn whether you think that the definition of "quantum state" by 99.9% of all human beings should take precedence over the definition used by quantum physicists. Then, let's go for how 99.9% of all humans define "species."

    That you have your weird personal definition of soul as identical with a physiological process

    a) It's not a personal definition.
    b) It may or may not be identical with a process. Show me this "process." What does it weigh? What are its dimensions? Or is the "process" no more material than the "soul."
    c) Whether a portion of the soul survives death is a question of the nature of the soul, not its existence.

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  108. Mintman
    how could [scientists on discworld] produce a reasonable explanation of how this staggeringly improbable situation came to be without creation?

    The argument from incredulity, again. "I can't imagine how this could happen, therefore, it could not happen."
    #
    logically, an "evil" god could not be a creator. This is because such a source of being would necessarily be the source of all attributes and powers, and therefore must possess those attributes and powers in at least an analogous and eminent sense. But an evil is defectus boni which is a lack or deprivation of a good.

    Many an engineer has created a green car that has cogwheels in it and goes at 200 km/h although not containing the attributes green and built with cogwheels or the power to go at 200 km/h within herself, so your conjecture is trivially unreasonable.

    Undoubtedly, you stopped reading prior to the words "at least an analogous and eminent sense." The engineer, of course, contains those attributes in her thoughts and conceptions of the car.

    a creator could have no attributes, as they are all defectus of their polar opposite. (Oh but of course, you probably just go ahead and define good as a positive thing that has "evil" as its zero value; that is really reasonable: start out with the conclusion that god exists, and then redefine words and invent concepts in a way that this conclusion can be reached.

    Except that the definitions of the good in the Nichomachean ethics are not dependent on a Christian God still hundreds of years in the future. Why do you make non-empirical statements?
    "The good is what all beings seek." Thus, life is a good because living creatures seek to go on living. [This is one of the drivers of evolution.] Life is thus a good. The deprivation [evil] of life is death. That life is not as deprivation of death is easily seen. Once can conceive of life without death; but one cannot conceive of death without life. Without life in the first place, there can be no death. Rocks cannot die.

    Would not the scientific approach be to educate oneself about that which you are arguing? Might you not cite actual evidences in the writings of theologians or of Greek philosophers?

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  109. you seem to argue...that things like beauty should be subject to science because they happen physically in our brains ....

    No. I said that from a materialist POV, it's contradictory to dismiss beauty as merely subjective and then turn around and argue that our thoughts are physical objects.

    I do not doubt that if you want to philosophically justify doing science at all, you may need either a small leap of faith or a philosophical argument as a midwife.

    The point was that not everything is provable by scientific methods. That the objective universe exists is simply one example.

    But hey, we decided to do science long ago

    Yes, in medieval Europe.

    seriously, what would you do if you doubt the existence of the world and the info from your senses? Sit around and drool?

    Maybe, like the Pythagoreans, turn to mathematics. Or like Parmenides rely on reason rather than sensation.

    The point is not that the belief in the world is false, or not useful, or does not have practical results, but that it cannot be empirically proven. That's all.

    You are right in that the universe looking as if no creator god exists does not demonstrate beyond any doubt that there was none.

    You keep confusing "looking uncreated" with "having obvious fingerprints all over it" or "looking improbable" or "looking artificial." That's why you insist on a fundamentalist vision. But it's bad theology even before it's bad science.
    Here are two essays by philosophers on line that tangentially address these points:
    http://branemrys.blogspot.com/2010/03/thomism-and-id.html

    Just like the pine in front of my window looking as if it has grown from a seed does not demonstrate beyond any doubt that it was not assembled by invisible fairies.

    I think, like so many fundamentalists, you have a very primitive and childlike view of creation. An invisible sky faerie or something. You would not tolerate a childlike understanding of biology (except from a child); so why tolerate it here?

    if a botanist is allowed to reject the invisible fairies in his work, why is he not allowed to reject the god?

    He does not so much reject either in botany. He simply does not need them to do botany. To accept/reject them requires that he do something other than botany. An auto mechanic does not need the theory of evolution to pursue his tasks, so why should the botanist need to cite God? The medievals did not suppose so.
    http://thomism.wordpress.com/2010/04/13/note-on-the-two-books/

    go ahead with explaining how your concept of a creator looks like. It will be either semantic games or something not any less ridiculuous than the bearded man.

    "Looks like"? The triumph of imagination over intellection!

    Alas, it would take more than 4,000 characters to lay it out. And you would think it all semantic games because of your faith.
    #
    celibates living in a medieval monastery without any knowledge of the existence of microbes, distant galaxies or even Australia would not be the first I would turn to if I wanted to understand the universe

    Galileo did not know of microbes; Einstein did not know of distant galaxies when he developed "relativity" theory. As for the antipodes, Augustine said he could not believe there was land there unless someone would go an look. But if there were people living there, his faith told him that they would be of the same human race as everyone else. Hey, but why listen to that "only one race" stuff if he didn't know about galaxies?

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  110. After reading through this endless thread, I've come to the conclusion that Mintman is right, and those who disagree have resorted mainly to quotes (some pretty obscure) instead of addressing his arguments. I would like to add just a couple of comments:

    1. If ought cannot be derived from is, what can it be derived from? From is not? What basis for morality could exist apart from reality?

    2. Why are people so keen to believe that values are arbitrary, given the plain falsity of that statement? If values were indeed arbitrary, we'd see a far wider range of human behaviour than is actually the case; in much the same way as free will cannot possibly exist, because if it did we would see people doing all sorts of crazy things all the time.

    3. I don't know what to make of statements such as TheOFloinn's "Not everything consists of knowledge about the natural world." It is either trivial or false: if your universe of discourse includes knowledge and non-knowledge, then it is trivial; if your universe of discourse is restricted to knowledge, then it is false: what knowledge is there but knowledge of the natural world? Has anybody had access to some non-natural entity? If so, I'd love to know the details (and to provide the address of a trusted psychiatrist).

    4. Why is it that mental constructs are so easily confused with metaphysical entities? Whenever values are discussed, someone will invariably come up with the line "Yes, but how can science explain beauty, or love, or justice?" I think such attitudes deserve a name, and I propose to call them "word crushes": it is as if some people become enamoured with words, to the extent that they fail to recognize the real-world pehenomena underlying them.

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  111. TheOFlorin:

    No, they were not stupid, but there has been a lot of progress since then, both philosophically and scientifically. And simply looking at what your copypasted citations actually say, it turns out that they are not arguments but rather assertions already pre-supposing that god exists. Also, you have not understood that I never, never, never meant any specific apologist, so all those citations are irrelevant anyway. Again, what I meant is: all gods except a hidden god are rejected by what we know about the world today; a hypothetical apologist for a hidden god would have to insist that the world was built in a way to hide its creation - trivial, really. And unless all that encyclopedias say about your admired monks is lies, they did not believe in hidden gods, but in that we can deduce the existence of the Abrahamic god, so quite the opposite, and in even less defensible stuff like the divinity of Jesus or the existence of sin, so they are irrelevant to the point.

    Of course science is goal-oriented. We do it because we want to understand and know things. That is a goal. If we did not have a goal, all we'd do is sit around and decompose. When we have a different goal, it is not science that we are doing.

    But anyway, I see that you still don't specify what you actually conclude, so that you can happily continue playing the good old whack-a-mole-game of saying "nuh-huh, the bearded man is not what I believe, LOL". And you are right to do so, because the second you assign any characteristics to the creator, you have shown that you can and do deduce something about the creator from the nature of our universe, which is precisely my position (I deduce that there most likely is none). The only empirically unassailable god would be one that is indistinguishable from being non-existent.

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  112. Piero:

    I don't know if I am right; I just have not yet been convinced that there is a way to bridge the is-out-gap rationally. Maybe one day I will be convinced? Until then, there seems to be no problem living happily despite the knowledge that my morals are not based on a rational argument that can be traced back to first principles.

    But then you are completely right with your second point: they aren't arbitrary either, they are shaped by our evolutionary and social history. They have reinforced moral concepts that work well and never left a chance for those that work very poorly (a good example is how well a society would fare in war against other societies if it considered cowardice a virtue). And I'm fine with leaving it at that, but does that mean that bravery is therefore a value that can be defended intellectually? Only if you already have shown that the survival of your society is a value that can be defended. And ultimately, that is just our decision. If we all collectively decide not to value our survival, who is left to say that we behave immorally?

    I fear that most of the discussion here was off-topic, however...

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  113. Mintman and others,

    You seem to be attributing motives, beliefs, and understandings to TheOFloinn that are not in evidence. His central points are that 1. not everything is subject to scientific inquiry (something I agree with, and I'm a biologist) 2. many of the arguments made against religious understandings of the world have been dealt with before by highly rational religious philosophers who had very well thought-out positions and arguments that are really quite interesting, and 3. the broad, sweeping arguments you make about the absolutely supremacy of science and against religion are based in ignorance and bigoted reference to strawman positions (albeit strawman positions that are actually held by large segments of the religious communities. I don't know what TheOFloinn believes, and I don't think that it is even relevant to his points (and it certainly isn't relevant to appreciating his contribution here). He has been summarizing quite well very sophisticated medieval and ancient philosophical arguments, and has been facing hostile replies that miss his points entirely. Do you know that you can understand and appreciate arguments and views you don't agree with? Do you understand that others who are very much rational can reach entirely different conclusions than you because they proceed from different, though reasonable assumptions? It really disturbs me to see such proud, indignant ignorance in scientists, as it doesn't speak well of our community, and is really far too close to how I see creationists approach science without even the slightest effort to understand it. Besides, it is just interesting to learn know about the ideas that TheOFloinn has summarized because they greatly influenced the development of western culture and thought. After all, as he has noted many times, science grew out of these arguments and the arguments that flowed through them. They are worth knowing simply for that, if not the sheer intellectual pleasure of learning about them and trying to understand them.

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  114. TheoFlonin: I said that from a materialist POV, it's contradictory to dismiss beauty as merely subjective and then turn around and argue that our thoughts are physical objects.

    But you have no evidence that beauty exists outside of our minds. Thoughts are like software - physical and chemical impulses and patterns.

    The point was that not everything is provable by scientific methods. That the objective universe exists is simply one example.

    There are a class of problems that are "undecidable". Science/math has shown that you can never solve these problems. So what is your point? That therefore there must be supernaturals? And how does that follow?

    The point is not that the belief in the world is false, or not useful, or does not have practical results, but that it cannot be empirically proven.

    Neither can science or math prove that given a software program, that a computer executing the program will halt or continue forever. This problem can never be proven, just like an objective universe.

    So what is your point TheoFlonin? That there is a god?!?!? Heh - why?

    For living beings, the "soul" is the substantial form of the body. This is much clearer in Latin.

    Software is also the "form" for a bucket of electrons and holes. So, does it mean its alive? Not in the biological sense. Does it mean that there is a soul in the machine? According to you yes. So how different is human soul from machine soul?

    I don't know what the logic term for this fallacy is, but to say that an arrangement of physical material creates a living soul, which appears what you are saying is a fallacy. Like architectured buildings have more living soul than mud huts.

    Then you go to the root of latin words to prove your point!

    Theoflonin - you are playing language games (mainly on yourself, may I add. Us 3rd culture folks are the vets of this sort of games.)

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  115. Mel:

    0. Well, would be nice if he ever really spelled out his positions instead of just saying what they aren't.

    1. Me too. Math and logic come to mind.

    2. They can still be wrong, and just citing somebody going "God created what was to be in times to come" proves nothing except that that guy personally believed in god.

    3. I have not seen sophisticated arguments, only an attempt at redefining "existing" into "created" (by god, implicitly). I can and do respect people looking at the evidence with an open mind and coming to the opposite conclusion as I do: that it would make more sense to assume a creator behind the universe. I think they are as wrong as if they had decided that demons cause sickness after looking at the medical evidence, but at least they have looked and are open to argument. In this case, however, no, I cannot understand and appreciate the argument, partly because his beliefs are never spelled out, partly because as far as I do understand the arguments they consist of nothing but twisting word meanings so as to be right by default and citing some dead monks who simply declared that god has created us. And that does not really fulfill the definition of the word argument.

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  116. Mel -

    many of the arguments made against religious understandings of the world have been dealt with before by highly rational religious philosophers who had very well thought-out positions and arguments that are really quite interesting,

    More interesting than navel gazing?

    the broad, sweeping arguments you make about the absolutely supremacy of science and against religion are based in ignorance

    Sure - ignorance of god(s), angels and satans. Rational people don't need to invoke a supernatural to prove their point. They are comfortable with what they got - rationalism and empiricism.

    If you find irrationalism interesting, then for each to his own.

    Theoflonin has been summarizing quite well very sophisticated medieval and ancient philosophical arguments,

    Actually he has been arguing and rambling most of the time, and playing language games. I have yet to see him make a coherent and meaningful statement of fact or reason that I can dig into and analyze. Have you heard of the term 'sophistry'?

    Do you understand that others who are very much rational can reach entirely different conclusions than you because they proceed from different, though reasonable assumptions?

    Not if they are empirical and they both subscribe to a positive methodology. Its very easy to rationalize almost anything and arrive at opposing positions. Being rational is necessary but not sufficient. You also have to be empirical.

    It really disturbs me to see such proud, indignant ignorance in scientists, as it doesn't speak well of our community, and is really far too close to how I see creationists approach science without even the slightest effort to understand it.

    What is there to understand of the supernatural? That it must exist because its unobservable? And you call yourself a biologist (scientist)? And you are worried about our "community"?

    Besides, it is just interesting to learn know about the ideas that TheOFloinn has summarized because they greatly influenced the development of western culture and thought.

    yawn

    After all, as he has noted many times, science grew out of these arguments and the arguments that flowed through them.

    I am not a historian. I am a scientist. Spare me the bore. Science did NOT grow out of language arguments or theology. This postmodern statement is so hilarious and ignorant.

    They are worth knowing simply for that, if not the sheer intellectual pleasure of learning about them and trying to understand them.

    There is more intellectual pleasure in one entangled wavefunction, one small recursive function, or one mass of a trillion neurons. What medieval arguments for the existence of god is -- well, I don't find language games to be much interesting.

    If your interest is in rational thought and philosophy, like it is with most scientists - then Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein is what you should be checking out as they are supremely interesting. Otherwise for mythology and theology - then be my guest and join Navel-gazers International or the local Language-tricks Society.

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  117. Khalid,

    It is amazing how you bent over backward to avoid understanding anything of what I wrote. If you want to just attack what you think others must mean rather than what they say, fine. Have fun. Looking at your responses, I find I don't have the slightest idea how you are actually responding to what I wrote or meant.

    And by the way, you can maintain that science did not grow out of theology and medieval philosophy all you want, but you are flatly contradicted by the historical record. At some point, should you tire of ignorance, you might just go and do some reading to find that out. It is a simple fact. Does that mean that science is religious in nature? No. Does it admit weakness or cast aspersion upon science? No. Does it undercut science at all? No. It is simply how the intellectual currents flowed. I don't understand why you seem so threatened by it because there is no reason to be. You are simply allowing your ideology to get in the way of your understanding.

    And yes, I very much enjoy Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, Ayers, and Russell. Indeed, I think Hume might be my favorite philosopher. Philosophy in general is interesting. I also enjoy Plato, but that doesn't mean that I have to commit myself to an essentialist position that would conflict with my evolutionary approach to understanding biology. Being a scientist really shouldn't require one to be a Philistine.

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  118. Piero
    I don't know what to make of statements such as TheOFloinn's "Not everything consists of knowledge about the natural world." ...What knowledge is there but knowledge of the natural world?

    My apologies. I should have been more clear. By "natural" world, I intended the modern category - that which is studied by natural science. This is distinct from things like history, mathematics, engineering, art, music, law, sport, and so on. (Even though science may illuminate certain aspects: e.g. acoustics vs. Moonlight Sonata.

    You evidently mean "natural" in the Aristotelian-Thomistic sense.
    + + +
    Piero
    Whenever values are discussed, someone will invariably come up with the line "Yes, but how can science explain beauty, or love, or justice?"

    It's usually to illustrate the difference between studying the abstracted properties of material bodies [natural science] and other sorts of knowledge, like mathematics or [in the cases cited] metaphysics.

    Hope this helps.

    "Suppose that science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me. Should I then stop believing that she does?"
    - Justin Barrett, evolutionary psychologist, Oxford University

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  119. Mintman
    No, they were not stupid, but there has been a lot of progress since then, both philosophically and scientifically. And simply looking at what your copypasted citations actually say, it turns out that they are not arguments but rather assertions already pre-supposing that god exists.

    You have misunderstood their purpose, then. They were not intended as arguments, but as illustrations; viz., that the medievals - who were far more religious than our modern and post-modern types - believed that the causes of natural phenomena should be sought in the natures of things, and not appealed to the supernatural for their instrumental causes. So when you say that this is what you believe, you are simply parroting what "God-fearing," "celibate monks" were claiming a millennium ago.

    So has there been a lot of progress from that philosophical position?

    [Footnote: They were not all celibate and they were not all monks. But you would have to know some of the empirical facts about history to realize that you should not rely on stereotypes and fables.]

    A hypothetical apologist for a hidden god would have to insist that the world was built in a way to hide its creation

    Except that those who are apologists for the traditional understanding of God do not claim that he is hidden and do not claim that his creation is hidden. You keep implying that a "created" universe would look inexplicable, odd, or improbable. But that is poor workmanship and the God of the traditional churches is supposed to have been pretty competent. He is said to have looked on his work and saw that it was good. Surely, that means that everything works right.

    From their point of view, the lawfulness of the universe supports the existence of their God; from that that same lawfulness you conclude no creator. None of it is a scientific argument. Science cannot establish that the universe is lawful. (That k laws have been imagined onto the universe does not imply the existence of a k+1th. Dennett says we evolved to see patterns even when not present, so the scientific laws we think we see may only be products of our mind, a la Hume.)

    unless all that encyclopedias say about your admired monks is lies, they did not believe in hidden gods, but in that we can deduce the existence of the Abrahamic god

    Well, yes. All that "hidden god" hooey is your own invention.
    #
    Of course science is goal-oriented. We do it because we want to understand and know things.

    That is the old medieval understanding, but "there has been a lot of progress since then." The Scientific Revolution specifically ordered science toward the accomplishment of useful things for man to use to dominate and exploit nature. We don't want to merely understand genetics, we want to breed the superman through eugenics! That is, the goals are socially useful inventions.
    #
    you can happily continue playing the good old whack-a-mole-game of saying "nuh-huh, the bearded man is not what I believe

    What I said was that you were not arguing against the God taught by the traditional churches. I happily concede you are disproving the god believed in by atheists and other fundamentalists.

    you have shown that you can and do deduce something about the creator from the nature of our universe, which is precisely my position

    That was Aristotle's and Aquinas' position, as well. But they actually did the hard work of deduction. The details are long passages in Aristotle and hundreds of pages in Aquinas. If you wish, I could try to summarize them. But a) it would need more than 4000 characters. (People in those days thought longer thoughts than the tweeter culture of today.) And b) terms and definitions would be strange to you.

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  120. Mel
    You seem to be attributing motives, beliefs, and understandings to TheOFloinn that are not in evidence.


    That is typical of the non-empirical.

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  121. Khalid
    But you have no evidence that beauty exists outside of our minds. Thoughts are like software - physical and chemical impulses and patterns.


    Computers are the hot new fad, so we tend to see computer metaphors everywhere, just as our ancestors saw machines.

    a) If beauty exists only in our minds, how can it exist in more than one mind? (Even if tastes differ.)
    b) Software, patterns and the like are the very essence of final causation. Happy to see folks coming back to Aristotle. (Or at least to ibn Rushd or ibn Sinna.)

    There are a class of problems that are "undecidable". Science/math has shown that you can never solve these problems.

    The existence of the universe is not the same thing as the continuum hypothesis or Tychonoff's theorem. There are solid proofs that these are undecidable. (It took our numerical analysis class several days to work through Gödel's Theorem -- It was quite beautiful, and all mathematicians recognize its beauty.) The existence of the physical universe is simply unprovable by empirical means. It is not a scientific question. It would be like trying to prove Julia Child's cookbook using Euclidean geometry.

    is your point...that therefore there must be supernaturals?

    No. My point was that science is not the only way to know things.

    Neither can science or math prove that ... a computer executing the program will halt or continue forever. This problem can never be proven, just like an objective universe.

    It is not "just like." It is a different sort of impossibility.

    Software is also the "form" for a bucket of electrons and holes. So, does it mean its alive? ... Does it mean that there is a soul in the machine? According to you yes. So how different is human soul from machine soul?

    Your reasoning is backward. All souls are forms, but not all forms are souls. A soul is an animate form. That leaves machines out. It also leaves stones out. However, it may help to grasp the anima: IF triangles were alive, "figure" would be its body and "three-sided" would be its soul.

    to say that an arrangement of physical material creates a living soul, which appears what you are saying is a fallacy.

    Does a triangle "create" three-sidedness? Your phrasing implies that you conceive the soul as a separate substance from the body. But it is the subsistent form of the body. The matter+form is what constitutes a whole substance, not the matter by itself or the form by itself. In the natural world, there can be no matter without form; neither can there be form without matter.
    + ++
    Like architectured buildings have more living soul than mud huts.

    a) Neither one is alive, so one cannot be "more" alive than the other.
    b) A mud hut has a form.

    Then you go to the root of latin words to prove your point!

    Not to "prove" a point, but to explain what the original writers meant by the word we have translated as "soul." Remember, they wrote in Latin, and before that Greek. It is often helpful in understanding to go to the original language. E.g.

    Respondeo dicendum quod ad inquirendum de natura animae, oportet praesupponere quod anima dicitur esse primum principium vitae in his quae apud nos vivunt animata enim viventia dicimus, res vero inanimatas vita carentes.
    ST I Q75 art 1

    which may be translated:
    I respond that to seek the nature of the soul, we must premise that the soul is defined as the first principle of life of those things which live: for we call living things "animate," [i.e. having a soul], and those things which have no life, "inanimate."

    So it is quite clear in the Latin what the theologians meant by the soul. The English requires an "i.e." to clarify.

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  122. TheOFlorin:

    Well, it seems we are both misinterpreting and misunderstanding and talking past each other a lot of the time. On the other hand, some of the things you just wrote are even wronger than some of what I thought I had understood before.

    You keep implying that a "created" universe would look inexplicable, odd, or improbable.

    You have nailed it with the last attribute. If we can infer createdness of an object at all (and you do not seem to deny that we can, if I have finally understood you correctly), then we can only infer it from the fact that it is improbable that it could have come to be without a creator, through impersonal processes. It is the same thing with the clock. Honestly, you and me both know that there is a clockmaker if we find a clock. But do we know that because we have seen her work? Do we know it because we lock ourselves in the scriptorium with a bible and some Aristoteles and start philosophering about it? No, we know it because we can present no gradual, unguided process that would result in a clock forming on the heath. Similarly, there was a time when it was a sensible suggestion that god created the universe, but today we have explanations for its existence that work without gods. But we only have them because our universe looks like the stone, not like the watch.

    But that is poor workmanship and the God of the traditional churches is supposed to have been pretty competent.

    How do the traditional churches know that he is?

    from that that same lawfulness you conclude no creator.

    That is wrong; I conclude no creator from there being no evidence for a creator, and that is part of the essence of scientific thinking.

    Science cannot establish that the universe is lawful.

    Science would not work if it weren't. Science gives reproducible results, so the universe must be lawful. It is, by the way, hard to see how a non-lawful universe would be like. I am not an expert, but my current understanding is that, creator or not, a universe without natural laws could not exist. We do not understand everything today, but many "laws" apparently arise out of necessity, e.g. through spontaneous symmetry breaking.

    Dennett says we evolved to see patterns even when not present, so the scientific laws we think we see may only be products of our mind, a la Hume.

    I invite Dennett to jump off a cliff to see if gravity is a product of our mind then.

    Well, yes. All that "hidden god" hooey is your own invention.

    How long until you understand? To cite myself from above: "To reject this hidden, useless god that HARDLY ANYBODY SEES REASON TO BELIEVE IN anyway, we need philosophy, yes, but all others are out based on science alone."

    We don't want to merely understand genetics, we want to breed the superman through eugenics! That is, the goals are socially useful inventions.

    Don't know what science you studied, but systematic botany, taxonomy and plant ecology do not want to breed a superman.

    What I said was that you were not arguing against the God taught by the traditional churches.

    Oh yes I am. The god that most believers and even most priests believe in is a very interactive god, and as such easily refutable by science. Reacts to prayers, provides miracles, makes you immortal, teaches us morals, etc. I know enough believers, and I read enough news to learn what the bishops say.

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  123. TheOFlorin, re you reply:
    Piero
    Whenever values are discussed, someone will invariably come up with the line "Yes, but how can science explain beauty, or love, or justice?"

    It's usually to illustrate the difference between studying the abstracted properties of material bodies [natural science] and other sorts of knowledge, like mathematics or [in the cases cited] metaphysics.

    Hope this helps.

    "Suppose that science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me. Should I then stop believing that she does?"
    - Justin Barrett, evolutionary psychologist, Oxford University


    My point was directed precisely against the habit of conferring metaphysical status on mere words. Take beauty, for instance. It is just a word, and one with no clear meaning to boot: we just use it to refer to a range of reactions to the physical appearance or the emotional attachment to people and things. When you say a baby is "beautiful" and Picasso's "Guernica" is "beautiful", surely you are not referring to the same phenomenon.

    And the quotation you provided does not help, because it addresses a non-issue: I never claimed that scientific understanding does away with emotion (which, upon reflection, might turn out to be a bad thing).

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  124. Piero
    My point was directed precisely against the habit of conferring metaphysical status on mere words.

    One of the complaints that Einstein and the Third Positivists had was the habit of conferring reality upon metaphysical concepts like space and time, which Einstein held did not exist. He stated in his paper on the nodes of Mercury that general relativity had abolished the last shred of objective reality from the concepts of space and time.

    However, metaphysical concepts like space, time, beauty, three, less than, and so forth, are not "mere words." That is nominalism. Darwin himself fell victim to this when he wrote in the Origin that "I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given, for the sake of convenience, to a set of individuals closely resembling each other..."

    The incoherence in nominalism is that a word cannot be used for a set of individuals closely resembling each other unless there is something in virtue of which they resemble. Thus, the beauty of a mathematical proof, the beauty of a painting, the beauty of a person are referenced in virtue of something that is in the proof, painting, or person.

    You are far too ready to consign to the spirit world things that are actually in the physical world.

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  125. Mintman
    we can only infer [createdness of an object] from the fact that it is improbable


    You haven’t given reasons why a created universe must look improbable. Theologians deduced a creator from the existence of something rather than nothing, not from an alleged improbability of some aspect of the Something. That the Something includes natural laws just means the creator was rational and his creation was "good."

    [We] know there is a clockmaker if we find a clock. But do we know that because we ...lock ourselves in the scriptorium with ...some Aristoteles?

    Yes to the Aristotle, no to the locked room. A clock is an artifact, and art imitates nature. But the parts of a clock have no inherent power to form a clock. Moderns take the weird view that nature imitates art. So scientists mistake metaphors - nature as "machine" or "computer" - for facts about the world.

    today we have explanations for the universe’s existence that work without gods.

    Not for existence. Science cannot explain how something came of nothing because "nothing" has no empirical existence.

    our universe looks like the stone, not like the watch.

    But if a stone doesn't look like a watch, why should a dog look like a stone? Why should Newton rule biology when he no longer even rules physics?

    I conclude no creator from there being no evidence for a creator, and that is part of the essence of scientific thinking.

    You can’t prove anything from the Null Set. The Age of Reason had no evidence for radio waves. Does that mean they did not exist then?

    The evidences (per theologians) are:
    - There is something rather than nothing
    - There is change in the world
    - There are efficient causes in the world
    - The world is rationally ordered
    - There are final causes in the world
    - etc.

    The essence of scientific thinking is induction, a logical fallacy called "asserting the consequence."
    1. If (theory), then (evidence).
    2. Here’s (evidence);
    3. Therefore (theory).
    E.g.,
    1. If (God), then (universe exists, is lawful, is accessible to human reason)
    2. The universe (exists, is lawful, and accessible to human reason)
    3. Therefore, (God).
    Very scientific, ’cept you can't show #2 empirically.
    Metaphysics is deductive. A metaphysical proof is more like a mathematical proof than a scientific demonstration. Cf. Gödel's proof of God.

    Science would not work if [the universe] weren't [lawful]. Science gives reproducible results, so the universe must be lawful.

    Hume said correlation is not causality. That B always follows A, doesn’t imply that A causes B. Hume had to do that because efficient causes are incoherent if there are no final causes, and he wanted to deny finality.

    Dennett says we evolved to see patterns even when not present

    I invite Dennett to jump off a cliff to see if gravity is a product of our mind then.

    Dennett, following Hume, used the "evolution-made-us-see-patterns" argument because he wanted to show that belief in God was just a pattern that evolution formed us to "see." He apparently didn't realize it applied to patterns like evolution, making his argument self-contradictory. Such is the silliness that materialist philosophy leads to.

    "We don't want to merely understand genetics, we want to breed the superman through eugenics!"

    Don't know what science you studied

    History, not science. Fisher, Pearson, and other early 20th cent. Darwinists pushed the "Darwin is true, therefore, eugenics" argument. Religious types who opposed eugenics were called "anti-science." But scientists were only outside their playground. Aristotelian science did not insist on accomplishing anything beside understanding nature. Baconian science wants the understanding to lead to the domination and control of nature.

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  126. TheOFloinn said: "However, metaphysical concepts like space, time, beauty, three, less than, and so forth, are not "mere words." That is nominalism. Darwin himself fell victim to this when he wrote in the Origin that "I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given, for the sake of convenience, to a set of individuals closely resembling each other..."

    I'm curious as to the context of the Darwin quote in The Origin. Generally when he was pointing out that "species" is an arbitrary designation relative varieties such that there is no real difference between species and varieties. This was a part of his general intent of breaking the essentialist view of species so as to show that they were actually fluid populations of varying individuals. Granted, I think you might have pulled this simply for an illustration.

    I do kinda see your point, though, about there having to be something that individuals within a species resemble. There is something about it that doesn't seem quite right to me, though. I want to say that I tend to view species in some phenotypic sense as being a set of closely related individuals within which there is a restricted degree of variation. However, I don't quite know if that is relevant to my ill feeling. I think I need to think about it a bit more.

    Going back to something you posted earlier, about there being multiple ways of knowing about the universe, the way I tend to think of the matter is this: There is an objective universe. Science is the best way of coming to know about that objective universe to the degree that we are able to (we didn't evolve to figure out how the objective universe works, after all, which is why so much of what science has figured out is so counter-intuitive). I wouldn't say that religious ways of approaching the universe are about knowing about the universe, but rather about understanding the universe in a way that is meaningful to a sentient being. This is part of the reason why I don't see a conflict between religion and science: they are doing different things. Granted, I realize that I come to this understanding with my own baggage of assumptions, and that those assumptions may well be incorrect. Anyway, I am curious if you might explicate what you meant by different ways of "knowing", and if my thinking (to the degree I have expressed well enough to be understood - chancy, given that it has been a long day, and I am tired) is similar.

    As to the existence of the universe as an argument for the existence of God, I tend to view the existence of the universe as being more than a bit ambiguous. I don't see how we can differentiate attribution of the existence of the universe to the action of the divine from alternative explanations such it simply is. Given this, I think there is flexibility in how one chooses to interpret the existence of the universe. It depends on what assumptions one may or may not make, and there is no way to determine who is correct. Again, I can appreciate the scholastic interpretation just as well as any "scientific" interpretation (though here we are beyond the realm of what science can approach, I think) that I might find preferable.

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  127. Mel,
    I'm curious as to the context of the Darwin quote in The Origin. Generally when he was pointing out that "species" is an arbitrary designation relative varieties such that there is no real difference between species and varieties. This was a part of his general intent of breaking the essentialist view of species so as to show that they were actually fluid populations of varying individuals.

    Good points. May I recommend John Wilkins' new book, Species: A History of the Concept? The Essentialism that Mayr and Dawkins et al have argued was the standard before Darwin is actually a myth, as Wilkins shows. Not to fault Darwin to any great degree, but I think you'd find his book fascinating and instructive.

    Knowing The O'Floinn, he has probably already read it.

    :)

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  128. @Mel

    There are three degrees of abstraction:

    1. Physics. Knowledge of the abstracted properties of sensible bodies. The mind considers the diversity of individuals - this dog, that dog - and abstracts from matter their essential characteristics - "dog." Matter is the principle of diversity and the physicist wants to consider not the concrete particular but the abstract universal. That is, the physics abstracts only from the contingent and individual peculiarities to seek the universal. (This is why nominalism is so subversive. If the universals are only names, then natural science is not studying anything real!)

    The objects of the Physics cannot exist without matter, nor can they be conceived without matter.

    2. Mathematics. Knowledge of the abstracted properties of ideal bodies. E.g., spheres rather than balls. The mind considers objects abstracted from, and purified of, matter insofar as matter is the general basis for sensible properties of bodies. The mathematician considers properties that remains when everything sensible is dropped.

    The objects of mathematics cannot exist without sensible matter, but they can be conceived without it. (There is nothing "sensible" or "experimental" about the definition of the ellipse or of the square root.)

    Science proceeds by induction from particulars, mathematics proceeds by deduction from universals.

    3. Metaphysics. Finally, the mind can consider objects abstracted from, and purified of, all matter. It considers in things only their very being. These objects of thought which not only can be conceived without matter, but which can even exist without it, even if they are instantiated in matter, like substance, quality, act and potency, beauty, goodness, etc. Metaphysics is knowledge of that which is beyond sensible nature, or of being as being.

    Within the Physics, Mathematics, and the Metaphysics there are three levels of certainty:
    1. Scientia or episteme, which is knowledge demonstrated with certainty, as in QE"D".
    2. Opinia or pistis, which is knowledge determined by careful weighing of evidences and arguments. (It is not mere whim.)
    3. Fides or doxa, which is knowledge from well-founded belief, usually based on personal experience that cannot be demonstrated to others. (Prove that your mother loved you.)

    Hope this helps.

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  129. TheOFloinn:
    he incoherence in nominalism is that a word cannot be used for a set of individuals closely resembling each other unless there is something in virtue of which they resemble. Thus, the beauty of a mathematical proof, the beauty of a painting, the beauty of a person are referenced in virtue of something that is in the proof, painting, or person.

    I strongly disagree. Using the same word for the "beauty" of a mathematical proof and the "beauty" of a person is just a sign of our sloppiness, not proof of a subjacent common feature. And sloppiness is firmly rooted in the physical world.

    Of course, you are free to hold an extreme metaphysical view and claim that nothing really exists. How that helps in finding a common ground for morality I am at a loss to fathom.

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  130. Mel -

    I find I don't have the slightest idea how you are actually responding to what I wrote or meant.

    For someone who attacks others liberally as "ignorant and bigotted", I find that you are rather clueless.

    Science did not "grow out" of theological medieval debates. Science was the result of the enlightenment and it stands on its own points of reference.

    To imply that the primary reason for science was a backlash against religion shows that you do not understand the philosophy of science.

    Your postmodern ideology to attribute science to a social construct fails. And your attempt to attack others because they question superstition, supernaturalism and theology as "ignorant and bigotted" shows to what extent you are descended into anti-enlightenment.

    Habermas rightly said that postmodern ideology is reactionary.

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  131. TheoFlonin:

    Computers are the hot new fad, so we tend to see computer metaphors everywhere, just as our ancestors saw machines.

    Irrelevant adhominem.

    a) If beauty exists only in our minds, how can it exist in more than one mind? (Even if tastes differ.)

    Pain exists in our mind. And it exists in more than one mind. Beauty (aesthetics) is a form of pleasure and the inverse of pain.

    Pain is a reaction in our mind that imprints on our consciousness. So is beauty. An electrochemical reaction.

    b) Software, patterns and the like are the very essence of final causation. Happy to see folks coming back to Aristotle. (Or at least to ibn Rushd or ibn Sinna.)

    Maybe before you start dropping names, you should describe what you mean by "final causation". As everyone else has told you in this forum - its incorrect to debate with mere words. You need meaning, and meaningful and coherent statements.

    The existence of the physical universe is simply unprovable by empirical means.

    Don't change the subject. The subject is - there are undecidable problems and there may or may not be unempirical objects such as the universe. How does that lead to silly gods, angels and satans?

    Your attempt to avoid debate and not to present your position, as Mintman has often said, has been duly noted.

    My point was that science is not the only way to know things.

    Non sequitor. Does not follow from an unobservable universe or undecidable problem.

    Does a triangle "create" three-sidedness? Your phrasing implies that you conceive the soul as a separate substance from the body.

    huh? - never said that. Objects and their arrangements have qualities. A triangle has a 3-sided quality. Nothing to do with a soul (yawn). Its a characteristic.

    But it is the subsistent form of the body.

    If you insist on calling 3 intersecting lines a "body", then yes, it's get a distinct characteristic that contains the quantity 3.

    The matter+form is what constitutes a whole substance, not the matter by itself or the form by itself.

    "whole substance" ?? You are starting to string words to make things up again. Don't you ever trip on yourself when you construct such language?

    In the natural world, there can be no matter without form; neither can there be form without matter.

    Depends what you mean by matter and form. Ordinary matter has a shape, and form is like information. Presumably you need matter to record information. As far as matter takes up space, it will have a shape in the dimensions. Why are you so surprised by that?

    What does that have to do with "soul", gods, or such supernatural language constructs?

    You are one confused dude.

    Live well

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  132. Khalid,

    While your replies, yet again, show that you seem to be responding to some fantasy of your own, rather than to my own words, and I thus am pretty sure that this attempt to reply is going to fail due to your wish not to communicate, here I go.

    "For someone who attacks others liberally as "ignorant and bigotted", I find that you are rather clueless."

    Your writing shows considerable ignorance of the history of western thought, and your concept of the history underlying the development of modern science betrays an ideological view of science that bears little resemblance to reality. You are projecting onto the world what you want the world to be,rather than dealing with the world that is. That attitude is the very antithesis of science.

    "To imply that the primary reason for science was a backlash against religion shows that you do not understand the philosophy of science."

    I am very curious as to where you think I said that. I don't think that, I did not write that, and I did not imply that. Indeed, I fail to understand how an honest person with decent reading comprehension could, without an overt and distorting ideological view, draw that from what I wrote. Again, you seem to be projecting your concept of the world onto the world, rather than trying to understand the world. If you were confused about what I meant, you could have asked follow-up questions and cleared up the problem. But no, you instead had to decide that I meant what you seem to be certain anyone who does not agree with you must mean, and that wasn't the case. Again, your behavior betrays a very un-scientific approach to the world.

    "Your postmodern ideology to attribute science to a social construct fails. "

    I am not a postmodernist, nor do I attribute science to a social construct. Where did I say I was or that I did. Again, you only get to that idea because you make assumptions about me and proceed on the basis of facts not in evidence.

    Khalid, I honestly don't understand what your problem is. Why are you making baseless assumptions about people? Why are attributing to them views that do not belong to them? Are you just trying to pick fights, or do you really believe what you are writing? If the latter, please give your name - I would really like to make sure I avoid citing your paper because there is no way I would trust your work. I'm sorry, but I just wouldn't.

    Finally, I don't understand your view of science. You seem to think it popped fully formed into existence during the Enlightenment. However, this isn't the case. Science, like any intellectual tradition or approach, has a history. It evolved from prior intellectual traditions. Part of that evolutionary history included the ideas and thinking of medieval scholastic philosophers, just as part of it included Aristotle, Plato, and the pre-Socratics. That is just history. Again, you might want to do some reading. Challenge your assumptions about how science developed. Don't just assume that what you think you know is correct. Check. Just as you really should test a hypothesis when you are working, the same is true here. Also, really, if you are confused about something someone wrote, ask questions to make sure that you clear up the misunderstanding, and then you can proceed with the conversation. Your current approach is just not helpful to either your or others.

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  133. "Good points. May I recommend John Wilkins' new book, Species: A History of the Concept? The Essentialism that Mayr and Dawkins et al have argued was the standard before Darwin is actually a myth, as Wilkins shows. Not to fault Darwin to any great degree, but I think you'd find his book fascinating and instructive."

    Pretty good guess there, John. A lot of my understanding of the issue was coming from Mayr. I haven't read Wilkins' book, but I will definitely hunt down a copy. Some of my work deals with the concept of species, and I have a series of experiments on the docket for next year (I have to defend before I can get to them) that deals directly with the issue of speciation. It would probably be a good idea to get a better handle on the history of the subject, so I really appreciate the recommendation. If I might ask, though, could you clear up a point? Was the issue that I am incorrect about Darwin arguing against essentialism, or simply that, while, yes, he was, essentialism was no the primary prism through which his audience understood species?
    Thanks!

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  134. TheOFloinn,

    Thanks for the lesson. I think it helps, but I will have to walk around and think about it a bit to make sure (I had to get up way to early this morning).

    As we go through this discussion, I am struck by just how little of my training has involved formal instruction in these issues. Graduate scientific education really needs to involve a good bit more on basic philosophy of science. I know I know more than most grad students in the department, but that is simply due to me having by chance taken some history courses in college, and then done a small amount of reading on my own. I can only imagine how much it would help grad students in thinking through the issues with which they work. And it would be a good way to go into formal ideas of hypothesis testing and such that are critically important to success in science, but are also not really taught that much - at least in biological sciences.

    Thanks again for being patient enough to spell things out for me!

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  135. Piero
    Using the same word for the "beauty" of a mathematical proof and the "beauty" of a person is just a sign of our sloppiness, not proof of a subjacent common feature.


    Either that, or it means that there really is something in the physical world in virtue of which we call things beautiful; i.e., beauty is real. Some of us try not to be sloppy in our language. It is, of course, possible to use words in an analogical sense, as when we use the physical act of "abstraction" for a mental action, or we say we have "grasped" something when we mean that we have "understood" it.

    Piero
    Of course, you are free to hold an extreme metaphysical view and claim that nothing really exists. How that helps in finding a common ground for morality I am at a loss to fathom.


    It was you who claimed that "beauty" did not exist, and was just a "sloppy" word. "Philosophical Realism," whether of the Platonic or the Aristotelian variety -- the metaphysical middle ground for more than a millennium before modernists took a score of mutually contradictory extremist stances -- holds that these things really do exist in the material world, even if they are not material, and our language reflects this realism. Thus, the realist stance is just the opposite of what you claim it is.

    It is modernist Conceptualism and Nominalism that holds [for different reasons, obviously] that "species" and "beauty" et al. are not real.

    Hence, the question of morality. If these things are real and objective, then Harris is right, even if he is wrong about what they are. When he said, "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them," he was deriving an ought from a should; but he was deriving the wrong ought.

    But if they are just "sloppy words" or "mental concepts," then he is wrong. Fortunately, both Conceptualism and Nominalism are balloons which pop at the slightest prick of the Aristotelian needle. This puts Harris square on the path to Aristo-Thomism, though he may not like what lies at the end of it.

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  136. Khalid
    Science did not "grow out" of theological medieval debates. Science was the result of the enlightenment and it stands on its own points of reference.


    And what were those "points of reference"?

    What do you know about "mediaval debates"?

    Have you not heard of folks like Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, Theodoric of Fribourg, ibn Sinna, ibn Rushd, et al.?

    Suggested reading:
    Grant, Edward. The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages. (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
    -------. God and Reason in the Middle Ages. (Cambridge University Press, 2001)
    Huff, Toby E. The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West. (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
    Lindberg, David C., ed. Science in the Middle Ages. (University of Chicago Press, 1978).
    --------. The Beginnings of Western Science. (University of Chicago Press, 1992).

    For a discussion of the six pillars of the Scientific Revolution, see Peter Dear's Mersenne and the Learning of the Schools, but I have only read discussions of his analysis, not the book itself.

    For a clear statement of the point of reference of masculine domination of feminine nature, to be exploited for beneficial inventions, see Francis Bacon's The Masculine Invention of Time, which is available on the web.

    You cannot have a scientific revolution unless there is already a science to revolve.

    Hope these help.

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  137. Computers are the hot new fad, so we tend to see computer metaphors everywhere, just as our ancestors saw machines.

    Khalid: Irrelevant adhominem.

    TOF: It is not an ad hominem at all, let alone an irrelevant one. See definition of ad hominem. See also Mary Midgley's The Myths We Live By for how metaphors inform our understandings.
    + + +
    Khalid: before you start dropping names, you should describe what you mean by "final causation". its incorrect to debate with mere words.

    TOF: Maybe before I start "dropping names" I should check if you are prepared to catch them. The names are to refer you to primary sources - or in this case as a wry comment that the flight from Aristotle has come full circle. The Moderns made a big deal about rejecting finality. Some folks here have been making a big deal about supporting Modernism. Yet they don't seem to know what the Moderns were up to!
    + + +
    Khalid: Your attempt to avoid debate and not to present your position... has been duly noted.

    TOF: Sounds ominous. Make up your mind. Have I been avoiding debate or have I been debating with "mere words"? Think of me as a coach, identifying the weaknesses in your arguments so that you may do better when taking on those who actually know what they are talking about. My personal commitments are irrelevant, save to those looking to attack them with ad hominem. (Ad hominem is to make an issue of the arguer rather than of the argument. E.g., accusing the Other of avoiding debate, calling the points stupid without actually addressing them, hinting darkly of their motives, etc.)
    + + +
    science is not the only way to know things.

    Khalid: Non sequitor. Does not follow from an unobservable universe or undecidable problem.

    TOF: Of course it does. Science only deals with the empirical, therefore there must be ways other than science to know about the non-empirical. Mathematics is an obvious example. ("Unempirical" is not "undecidable." The irrationality of SQRT(2) is unempirical but decidable. Tychonoff's Theorem is unempirical and undecidable.)
    + + +
    Does a triangle "create" three-sidedness? Your phrasing implies that you conceive the soul as a separate substance from the body.

    Khalid: huh? - never said that. Objects and their arrangements have qualities. A triangle has a 3-sided quality. Nothing to do with a soul (yawn). Its a characteristic.

    TOF: You seemed to claim that a body somehow created a soul as a substance separate from the body. I used an analogy. You did not grasp it. Ah, the wonderful and remorselessly literal post-modern world in which we live.
    + + +
    The matter+form is what constitutes a whole substance, not the matter by itself or the form by itself.

    Khalid: You are starting to string words to make things up again. Don't you ever trip on yourself when you construct such language?

    TOF: Nope, but you apparently did. Earlier you complained that I did not define a term. Now you complain that I did define a term. Trust me, I am not making up terms in use for more than a thousand years. That modernists use terms sloppily does not obligate the rest of us to do so.
    + + +
    In the natural world, there can be no matter without form; neither can there be form without matter.

    Khalid: Depends what you mean by matter and form. Ordinary matter has a shape, and form is like information. ... Why are you so surprised by that?

    TOF: I'm not surprised, but you want things defined for you. "Form" is not "like" "information." Shape is one kind of form; but it is not the only kind.

    Khalid: What does that have to do with "soul"?

    TOF: For living things, the soul is defined as the subsistent form of the body. That is what "form" has to do with the "soul."

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  138. @Mel
    Pierre Duhem was a physicist and wrote a nice essay titled "On physical theory" that may be useful. In pecan shell, thus:
    1. Facts. Empirical, hard, measured.
    2. Natural Laws. Based on observed regularities in the facts. Expressed mathematically, by preference.
    3. Physical Theory. A narrative or story that makes sense of a body of facts and from which the laws can be deduced and the facts predicted.
    + + +
    Ideally: 1->2->3->2->1 If new facts don't accord with the prediction, we jigger #3. If we can't jigger it, we throw it out and try a different story. Human nature being what it is, scientists tend to cling to their beloved 3's too long. Kuhn's "normal science." Then the "paradigm shift" and everyone shifts to the new theory. Planck famously said that quantum theory did not triumph because of the facts or because of the logic, but because all the old physicists died.

    Grosseteste called the 1-2-3-2-1 "composition and reduction." Galileo called it "demonstrative regress." A vital step in 3 is to consider all other possible 3's and show that they cannot account for the 1's.

    Exceptions: Maxwell based his theory on intuition. He thought that the physics of conducting bodies should mirror Ampere's work on dielectric bodies. Ampere had proceeded painstakingly 1-2-3. Maxwell jumped right to 3. His followers made up the "electron" to get around permanent magnets, which falsified E/M. We now accept the reality of electrons, but we don't know what that reality is. (Feynmann said electons and photons were "screwy.")

    Popper had a decent critique: asserting the consequent is a logical fallacy. But science is not logic. Induction can lead to good conclusions as long as we follow Grosseteste. Many today, publish or perish, do 1-2-3 and then stop. Gotta get a paper out. Duhem showed the problem with Popper's "falsification" long before Popper formulated it.

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  139. Hi Mel,
    If I might ask, though, could you clear up a point? Was the issue that I am incorrect about Darwin arguing against essentialism, or simply that, while, yes, he was, essentialism was no the primary prism through which his audience understood species?

    More the latter. I wouldn't say you were incorrect about Darwin--especially as I haven't reached that point in John's book yet.

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  140. TheOFloinn:
    t was you who claimed that "beauty" did not exist, and was just a "sloppy" word.

    No, I didn't. It was you who brought up Einstein's claim that time and space had no objective reality. I merely pointed out that "beauty" cannot be said to exist unless we clarify what we are talking about. Thus, most people would describe a sunset as "beautiful"; not as many would so describe a modern art installation, unless they have been trained to describe such things as "beautiful"; even less would describe a mathematical proof as beautiful, unless they happened to know quite a bit of mathematics. So in effect "beautiful" is a blanket word for some quite different mental phenomena.

    "Philosophical Realism," whether of the Platonic or the Aristotelian variety -- the metaphysical middle ground for more than a millennium before modernists took a score of mutually contradictory extremist stances -- holds that these things really do exist in the material world, even if they are not material, and our language reflects this realism. Thus, the realist stance is just the opposite of what you claim it is.

    That depends on what you are referring to with "these things".

    Hence, the question of morality. If these things are real and objective, then Harris is right, even if he is wrong about what they are.

    Again, clarify what you mean by "these things". You seem to be assuming that "beauty" and "values" belong to the same category, but you have not shown why this is so.

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  141. http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2204900788&v=info#!/note.php?note_id=385497749585

    A response to your arguments that, in my opinion, should not go unread.

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  142. TOF,

    Thanks for the recommendation. I will definitely look up that paper. I think I largely agree with the 1,2,3 scheme, though with the sort of uneasiness we biologists get when dealing with how physicist think science works (biology is simply so complex, and so full of so many contingencies that it is really hard, I think, to be quite as hard and fast at laying things out - unless you're a molecular biologist, in which case you have oversimplified biology to such a degree and bought so into rigid Popperianism that you think you can be just as hard and fast. Sorry for that. I just find molecular biologists more than a little dogmatic and annoying). I don't really think of it quite like that. My reading, again, hasn't been terribly extensive - mainly just a little Popper, a bit more Kuhn, some Root-Bernstein, supplemented by multiple readings of Platt's wonderful hard inference paper, and just walking around thinking about it all a lot - so I really appreciated guidance on what else is out there to go through. I tend to think of it all as: The universe --> observations on the universe --> formation of a tentative model (preferably multiple models) of the universe that would fit those observations as filtered by my cognition, and generated creatively from many starting points --> design of situations (experiment or further observation) under which the alternate models produce distinct predictions that would allow them to be tested against the underlying reality either by the justifying or refuting arguments --> test --> interpret results, stats, etc --> accept or reject the models --> assume I now know more than I did before, while (to the extent that I am able) being ready and willing to find out I don't(as you said, we're human, and tend to cling to our pet hypotheses when we start to find them to be incorrect), or even that the entire, over-arching paradigm under which the model was formulated was completely incorrect --> redo from start.
    And I think the influence of my reading is obvious there.

    Oh, and, as a native Georgian, I appreciate you putting things in pecan shells.

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  143. @Piero
    "These things" are all those non-empirical things. The universals, propositions, mathematical entities, etc. That includes "beauty" and "morality" and all the rest.

    The fact that people might need training to understand "beauty" is no more mysterious than that people might need training to understand "quantum state" or "type I error."

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  144. @Mel
    I read a history of science book once -- too expensive for me to buy -- that made the same point you did. The Scientific Revolution occurred in the physics of local motion, and the metaphysic of it applied quite nicely to the rest of physics. A century later, it engulfed chemistry with not much trouble.

    In biology, it is not clear that it is completely applicable. One of the cornerstones of the Scientific Revolution is the privileging of mathematics as the discourse of science. We have Newton's equations, Hooke's Law, Boyle's Law, and so on. But there are no Darwin Equations. Where biology comes closest to hard science is precisely where it becomes biochemistry and biophysics. The biology of the higher animals is even more problematical because such creatures act with intention, whereas planets and stones do not.

    Once you hit economics and the social "sciences," it is not clear at all that the principles of the scientific revolution apply; and psychology is right out. As Searle and others have pointed out, life as experienced just is subjective, which spoils the whole "primary-secondary quality" thingie that Descartes and the rest cooked up.

    To an Aristotelian, there is no problem. They have always contended that different sciences may employ different methods. Aquinas gives the example of the sphericity of the earth. Astronomers prove it one way (with math); but physicists prove it another way (with empirical experience). That was why he said that questions of natural philosophy should not be settled by the methods of theology. In the Middle Ages, you could not cite scripture to prove a proposition in the physics.

    Popper's falsification criterion is interesting, because one of the theories he said was unfalsifiable was Darwin's theory. One of Galileo's early conclusions was that there were mountains on the moon. Harvey concluded that the blood flows out from the heart via the arteries and returns via the veins. Newton concluded that bodies fall to earth at the rate of 32 ft/sec^2. It is impossible to conceive of these being falsified. Ditto for s=0.5at^2.

    IOW, falsification only applies to the "metaphysical" level of physical theories, not to the facts or natural laws. IOW, we can change our paradigm of what "gravity" is, but we cannot change the facts and laws by which empirical bodies move. Once it was a "force field" now it is a state of the Ricci tensors. Tomorrow it will be something else.

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  145. Mel - betrays an ideological view of science that bears little resemblance to reality. You are projecting onto the world what you want the world to be,rather than dealing with the world that is. That attitude is the very antithesis of science

    This is exactly how I feel about you. You are unconscious about your relativistic ideological biases.

    Taking a leaf from the postmodern gamebook, attacking the 2nd & 3rd culture as "ignorant and bigotted", because we are uninterested in superstition, is exactly the tactic of a postmodern.

    Remember, we are scientists and not lowly sociologists or lowly anthropocentric knowledge workers. Frankly we have better things to do, such as observing the bigger picture, as opposed to navel gazing about outmoded medieval metaphysical arguments and indulging in language games.

    As a sociologist if you are interested in that - for each to his own. Just stop calling others "ignorant and bigotted" for not sharing your predilections.

    Khalid, I honestly don't understand what your problem is. Why are you making baseless assumptions about people?

    For someone who claims to be so cognizant about the philosophy of science, its development, and the debates that goes on, you are rather clueless about your own condition, as being part of an unconscious larger intellectual trend.

    Never said that science was not influenced by medieval thought or that it does not have a history. Unlike you, I can discern the first order moments from third order noise and chaff. Something that takes a clear scientific mind to do. But science did not "grow out" of such debates (implying existential dependence). You implied that such debates are essential to the existence of science - unable to arrive at the "fixed points" of science. This is typical of the postmodern that frames science as a power struggle. Maybe you should learn a bit on postmodernism and lefty postcolonialism for your own personal good.

    Challenge your assumptions about how science developed.

    Again, I am not denying a history to science. But if you are challenging science's points of reference, recaliberating third order moments as essential to science, then yawn and life is too short for such BS.

    ... but that doesn't mean that I have to commit myself to an essentialist position that would conflict with my evolutionary approach to understanding biology. Being a scientist really shouldn't require one to be a Philistine.

    And where have scientists been Philistines or essentialists (whatever you mean by this silly political and postmodern word)? Just because they don't make a god out of man or his culture - does not make one a Philistine. If you want to see bigotry, this statement of yours is a good example.

    Your current approach is just not helpful to either your or others.

    heh must agree - its just venting steam (at lowly 1st culture anthropocentrics) - that's all

    I am happy to see that your tone has improved so much from your original "you must be ignorant and bigotted because I disagree with you" post. Live well.

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  146. Piero: I merely pointed out that "beauty" cannot be said to exist unless we clarify what we are talking about. Thus, most people would describe a sunset as "beautiful"; not as many would so describe a modern art installation, unless they have been trained to describe such things as "beautiful"; even less would describe a mathematical proof as beautiful, unless they happened to know quite a bit of mathematics. So in effect "beautiful" is a blanket word for some quite different mental phenomena.

    Well said, and exactly.

    Its amazing how these first culturalists keep on tripping upon their own language traps that they spawn for us scientists.

    Some of them actually go as far as to believe that the text is the reality.

    Again, clarify what you mean by "these things". You seem to be assuming that "beauty" and "values" belong to the same category, but you have not shown why this is so.

    heh - well said

    Of course, you are free to hold an extreme metaphysical view and claim that nothing really exists. How that helps in finding a common ground for morality I am at a loss to fathom.

    I bet the game plan is to twist the metaphysical language artistry to arrive at the supernatural, and voila, you got your morality handed over to you in a bowl.

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  147. Khalid said:
    Its amazing how these first culturalists keep on tripping upon their own language traps that they spawn for us scientists.

    Apparently, someone has imagined boxes labeled "first/second/third culturalist" and it ia now the postmodern game to put people into those boxes. Meanwhile "Us Scientists" wearing the priestly robes of the White Lab Coat will cheerfully pronounce on matters outside science -- and then blame the other for using the terms of those other fields of study!

    Not only that, but you can imagine the really truly double-plus secret plan of those with different conclusions from you. Truly awe-inspiring.

    But I explained to Piero where he had misunderstood, so his comment was not really "well said" at all. Like the fellow who cannot see how goats and hippos are the same kind of thing, Piero could not see how "beauty" and "values" might belong to the same species.

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  148. Massimo's question: How do we ground moral reasoning?

    Massimo's answer: My moral intuition

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  149. Do you believe there is a correlation between "ethics" and "happiness?" If so, can we measure this?

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  150. In quality control, a failure mode is when a system does not perform one of its functions or the performance is degraded. Let this serve as an analogy for the following.

    Each being has one or more final causes toward which it moves. These are analogous to function in an artifact, although they are not functions per se. For example, the action of the heart tends toward the pumping of blood, which also tends to wear the artery walls. But the heart is "for" pumping blood in a way that it is not "for" wearing out arteries.

    To perfect something is to move toward greater fulfillment of these finalities. The physical powers are perfected through various cares and exercises. The proper object of the eye is light; but too much light destroys the eye. Thus the "is" of the finality of the eye implies an "ought": don't stare directly at the sun or you'll go blind. (If sight is a good, blindness is its associated evil.) Similarly, an "is" like your bad cholestrol "is" high leads to an "ought" that there are certain foods that you ought to avoid.

    The same is true of the rational faculties. Since human nature "is" a rational nature, then we "ought" to perfect our rationality through exercise of reason. Properly speaking, this means we "ought" to do scientia. [This is knowledge, not simply the natural sciences.]

    Anything that impedes our reasoning then "ought" to be avoided. For example, in "The Vulcanization of the Human Brain: A Neural Perspective on Interactions Between Cognition and Emotion" Cohen finds that moral judgment must be practiced if it to become habituated. Neural patterns originating in the hindbrain tend to interfere with the rational patters of the cortex. Therefore, to perfect our reason, we ought to avoid too much hindbrain stuff. That is, we ought not surrender to vegetative and animal impulses, but mediate them through the rational faculties. Thus, things like gluttony are morally wrong not only because they impair physical health, but because they also impair mental health. http://www.pni.princeton.edu/ncc/PDFs/Neural%20Economics/Cohen%20%28JEP%2005%29.pdf

    This is simply a modern version of what Aristotle and those dudes were saying centuries ago: mens sana in corpore sano.

    The basic strengths that need to be habituated as a "second nature" in order to advance the rational faculties are: prudence [or wisdom], courage, moderation, and justice. That we "ought" to practice these strengths follows from that we "are" rational beings.

    So Harris is on the right track, even if he is as confused over the "oughts" as over the "is."

    Best I can do off the top of my head.

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  151. Here's another commentary on the matter:

    http://branemrys.blogspot.com/2010/04/fact-and-value-and-sam-harris.html

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  152. TheOFloinn: "Each being has one or more final causes toward which it moves...To perfect something is to move toward greater fulfillment of these finalities. The physical powers are perfected through various cares and exercises. The proper object of the eye is light; but too much light destroys the eye. Thus the "is" of the finality of the eye implies an "ought": don't stare directly at the sun or you'll go blind."

    Do you literally believe in final causation (i.e. teleological explanations)?

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  153. Paisley: Do you literally believe in final causation.

    Sure, it's obvious in nature. Without it, efficient causes would be incoherent. How can it be that A leads to B "always or for the most part" if there is nothing in A that "points toward" B? Without finality, there would be no scientific laws.

    Physicists may use new terminology, like "attractor basins" and "minimizing the potential function," but it all comes down to the same thing. Tiger cubs mature into tigers, not tiger lillies. Natural selection leads to greater fitness for a niche and not to lesser fitness or to nothing in particular. Sodium and chlorine combine to form salt and not socks. An iceberg sitting in the ocean will cool its surroundings; it will not cause the water to boil or to become a vodka martini.

    That is why finality was called "the cause of causation." There is something in the acorn that points to an oak; We can say it's in the genome as "information" but as soon as you say "information" or "algorithm" or "process," you are talking about finalities.

    That why when Hume denied finality he found it also necessary to deny causation, reducing it to mere correlation. We say A causes B, but all we really know is that B nearly always follows A. This was deeply subversive of science; so scientists gave lip service to Hume. They formally denied it while at the same time relying on it. That is, they worked with the expectation that that there were in fact laws of nature and not just correlations of nature.

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  154. TheOFloinn: "That is why finality was called "the cause of causation."...That why when Hume denied finality he found it also necessary to deny causation, reducing it to mere correlation. We say A causes B, but all we really know is that B nearly always follows A. This was deeply subversive of science; so scientists gave lip service to Hume."

    Interesting. But isn't final causation or teleology anathema to the scientific worldview - especially, the theory of evolution?

    Also, do you see "efficient causation" and "final causation" as two different types of causation working in tandem. Or, are they two different perspectives of the same cause?

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  155. Paisley sed:
    isn't final causation or teleology anathema to the scientific worldview - especially, the theory of evolution?

    True, there is a bit of cognitive dissonance among scientists. Without finality in nature there would be no coherent efficient causes, and hence, no natural laws. So most scientists deny the finality, but assume that natural laws are there to be found. Since scientists usually don't peek behind the woodwork, they usually don't realize that their base assumptions are a kludge.

    The confusion is especially acute in evolution, where we find a general cause confused with a specific effect. That is, "evolution" in general does not aim at the platypus. Causes and effects must be commensurate: a general cause aims at a general effect. Evolution in general aims at greater fitness in a niche. Historically, it has aimed at greater complexity, too. Evolution in particular may aim at the platypus, given this starting configuration and these environmental conditions.
    + + +
    Paisley: do you see "efficient causation" and "final causation" as two different types of causation working in tandem. Or, are they two different perspectives of the same cause?

    The term "causation" as used today conjures up a certain kind of efficient causation. But in the older meaning of cause, there are four:
    a) Material: what is X made of?
    b) Formal: what makes this an X?
    c) Agent: how was X made?
    d) Final: what is X made for?

    Matter and form explain "being"; agency and finality explain "becoming." Agency does not mean conscious agency, although it may. Finality does not mean conscious intention, although it may. Evolution is actually much more explicable in terms of the four causes.

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  156. TheOFloinn: "True, there is a bit of cognitive dissonance among scientists. Without finality in nature there would be no coherent efficient causes, and hence, no natural laws. So most scientists deny the finality, but assume that natural laws are there to be found."

    Agreed. There appears to be some cognitive dissonance. For the sake of argument, if we assume the worldview of scientific materialism, then we have to conclude that there is no purposive action in the world because all volitional and intentional acts must necessarily reduce to efficient causes (or blind physical causes).

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  157. Paisley:
    For the sake of argument, if we assume the worldview of scientific materialism, then we have to conclude that there is no purposive action in the world because all volitional and intentional acts must necessarily reduce to efficient causes (or blind physical causes).

    If you assume a worldview, you are likely always to get your assumptions back, masquerading as conclusions. A man whose only tool is a telescope will never discover microbes; and if he declares that the telescope is the only legitimate mode of knowing, will declare microbes to be unempirical, unprovable, and likely subjective.

    The problem with rejecting telos, as Hume discovered, is that it undermines efficient causes themselves, and is thus deeply subversive of science. His answer was to deny causation and replace it with mere correlation. All we really know empirically, sez he, is that B follows A always or for the most part. But we are not entitled to say that A causes B. (Have you ever seen a "cause"? How much does it weigh? A "cause" is not itself material and empirical.)

    But if B only follows A coincidentally, if there is nothing in A that points toward B, then there is no natural law that connects A and B. Only "so far, so good."

    To say there is no purposive action in the world is a little off. Aquinas put it thus: "There is no 'intention' in nature." But there is "pointing towardness". The tiger cub "points toward" an adult tiger. A falling stone "points toward" minimization of gravitational potential. And so on.

    The materialists rejected telos because if there is no intention in nature, then the intention must come from elsewhere. So to avoid this they rejected "pointing towardness" and wound up scuttling efficient causes in the bargain. (Just as by rejecting formal causes, they scuttled emergent properties; so that when the concept eventually resurfaces, they could do no more than wave their hands and chant "emergent properties" with no clue as to how they "emerged.")

    For a fun discussion of "blind forces", see:
    http://thomism.wordpress.com/2009/02/27/3580/

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  158. Paisley - if we assume the worldview of scientific materialism, then we have to conclude that there is no purposive action in the world because all volitional and intentional acts must necessarily reduce to efficient causes (or blind physical causes).

    Agreed and it makes sense. So why do you say this is "cognitive dissonance"?

    In fact, assuming a Purpose IS "cognitive dissonance" - as there is no evidence for a "Purpose".

    Not sure why you can't see the elephant in the room.

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  159. I am working on figuring all this out as an amateur. I believe this is important enough to put quite a bit of time into.

    So I have one question: Sam Harris thinks “the wellbeing of conscience beings” is the obvious starting point of a system of ethics. Really, he is defining the study of morality as “the wellbeing of conscience beings”. If I understand his point right, he is saying that when you clear away the minutiae all systems (worth considering) of morels and/or ethics are based on this despite the differences in these systems. How accurate is that idea (not as a reflection of what Sam thinks, but does this idea based on reality)? If not, can you help me understand why?

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  160. "conscience" beings? Did he actually write that?

    Assuming he meant "the well-being of conscious beings," he has several questions that need answering:
    1) how does he determine that a being is "conscious"? (And has be become a Jain?)
    2) what does he mean by "well-being"? I.e., what is "well" for the being? "Well" with respect to what standard? For it is that standard which is the real basis for his attempt at morality.
    3) Suppose lions are conscious. Suppose gazelles are conscious. What is the morality of a lion who pounces upon and kills a gazelle?

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  161. "We have no need of fMRI scans to tell us why: the fact that certain regions of the brain are involved in pain and suffering, and that we might be able to measure exactly the degree of those emotions doesn’t add anything at all to the conclusion that genital mutilation is wrong because it violates an individual’s right to physical integrity and to avoid pain unless absolutely necessary"

    Obviously not. But that was not Harris's point anyway.

    "If we agree, for the sake of argument, that abortion is morally permissible before the fetus can feel any pain, then it is a matter for science to give us the best empirical estimate of when approximately that happens during human development."

    Missing the point again. The problem is precisely what sort of considerations should inform our acceptance or rejection of abortion.

    "The most convincing reason why gods cannot possibly have anything to do with morality was presented 24 centuries ago by Plato"

    No. The most convincing reason is that we have no evidence at all for the existence of the supernatural. Unless evidence for the existence of gods is provided, all discussions concerning them are vacuous.

    "Now he has a limited number of options available: become a vegetarian, grudgingly agree that bestiality is morally defensible, or look for another argument that distinguishes bestiality from meat eating."

    Obviously, bestiality is morally defensible. If a shepherd has intercourser with a goat (and the goat does not run away), then two sentient beings are having a pleasurable (or at least, indifferent) experience. What harm has been done? None. No well-being has been compromised. The shock strategy in this comparison only works with people who have flawed ideas about morality, such as "if it disgusts me, it's immoral". Eating meat, on the other hand, definitely implies tampering with the well-being of a sentient being, and as such it is not morally defensible, unless it can be proved that the meat-eater's well-being absolutely requires the consumption of meat. Since this is known not to be the case, eating meat is wrong.

    "Besides the obvious point that if what we want to do is stimulate our brains so that we feel perennially happy, all we need are appropriate drugs to be injected into our veins while we sit in a pod in perfectly imbecilic contentment, these are all excellent observations that show that science cannot answer moral questions."

    Nowhere does Harris claim that "well-being" and "happiness" are the same. In fact, he distinguishes (quoting Kahneman) between the "experiencing" and the "remembering" selves, and this has parallel consequences for the concept of happiness. Whether being connected to a Matrix-like contraption that would make you feel eternal bliss is to be considered well-being or not is a moot point, one that Harris does not address in the book.

    "This ignorance is not bliss, and it is the high price the reader pays for the crucial evasive maneuvers that Harris sneaks into the footnotes I mentioned at the beginning."

    Do you "sneak" things into your footnotes when you write an article? Footnotes are meant to be read. Authors don't "sneak" thinks into footnotes, which are just a convenient way of clarifying things without interrupting the flow of argument.

    I expected much, much more from you, Massimo.

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  162. Piero, well, sorry to have disappointed you, but:

    > Obviously not. But that was not Harris's point anyway. <

    Actually, it is, in part. Have you read the book?

    > Missing the point again. The problem is precisely what sort of considerations should inform our acceptance or rejection of abortion. <

    That was my point, so perhaps you missed it?

    > The most convincing reason is that we have no evidence at all for the existence of the supernatural. Unless evidence for the existence of gods is provided, all discussions concerning them are vacuous. <

    To an atheist. But Plato's point is more general, because it applies regardless of whether one is an atheist or not.

    > Obviously, bestiality is morally defensible <

    That may be obvious to you, it isn't to me. If a goat counts as the type of being that can give consent, so does a child, no? And yet, the latter seems to be considered almost universally immoral.

    > Nowhere does Harris claim that "well-being" and "happiness" are the same. <

    Actually, it's a major premise of the book, as even Russell Blackford agreed (and it is one of the basis for *his* criticism of Harris).

    > uthors don't "sneak" thinks into footnotes, which are just a convenient way of clarifying things without interrupting the flow of argument. <

    No, but when the footnote represents what should have been a major part of your argument, I count it as sneaking.

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  163. If a shepherd has intercourser with a goat ... then two sentient beings are having a pleasurable ... experience. What harm has been done? None. No well-being has been compromised.

    Whatever "well-being" is.

    However, we know from neurobiology that indulgence in pleasure "vulcanizes" the brain into neural patterns from the hind brain that interfere with the formation of neural patterns originating in the cerebral cortex. This reduces the human capacity for rational thought. Since human nature is to be a rational animal, this means harming something fundamental to our being by creating defects/lackings in our nature.

    Which might not count as "well-being."

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  164. Hate to disillusion anyone but under certain conditions slavery IS better than freedom and therefore the morally correct choice for individuals able to pull it off! Since you won't believe this, Google for yourself how this occurred in ancient Rome. People begged to be made slaves and when the emperor figured it out, he put a stop to it, declaring all such people to be FREE. Their rebellion was unsuccessful but is not as well known as the first 'conventional' slave revolt. Check it out. It's fascinating. But first, try to guess what the condition was that made it so.

    if we let empirical facts decide what is right and what is wrong, then new scientific findings may very well “demonstrate” that things like slavery, are “better” and therefore more moral than liberal-progressive types such as Harris and myself would be ready to concede.

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