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.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Massimo’s Picks

By Massimo Pigliucci

* PZ Myers seems to agree that there cannot be any scientifically meaningful “evidence” for gods because the concept is so ill-defined. I agree, but Jerry Coyne (and Richard Dawkins, and Vick Stenger) should be pissed...
* A new book explores the science and philosophy of procrastination. [Here I could have put the obvious joke about postponing reading the book...]
* Why Larry Summers epitomizes the subversion of economics.
* The Hegelian argument against free markets.
* Why is Glenn Beck obsessed with Hitler, anyway?
* Philosopher Anthony Appiah writes a critical review of Sam Harris’ new book.
* Philosophy Talk on the terror of death.
* The revolution will not come via Twitter, and for good reasons.
* Why do people have problems with affirmative action but not with “legacy” programs at elite and not-so elite universities?


  1. Milbank's criticism of Beck is much needed, but I'm not sure anything by anyone is as devastating a critique of Beck as this brilliant mash-up of Donald Duck discovering Glenn Beck in "Right Wing Radio Duck."

  2. Do we seriously need Hegel to draw those conclusions? In my eyes, the author could have deleted all but the last four paragraphs without losing any information or force of argument (and at the same time perhaps gaining a few readers who have now dropped out bored by the detour making up the rest of the article). It is common knowledge that the stock markets have the function of providing industry with capital.

    As for PZ Myers, I saw that too, but suspect that it has to be seen in the context of discussions like this and this, so I utterly fail to see how a rejection of the ill-defined gods of so-called sophisticated theology would piss off people devoting their time to refuting the well-defined ones most faithful actually believe in. What you are doing here (as before) is conflation of the goal-post moving and sophistry of the first with the very specific claims of the second.

  3. So, Massimo, once you convince the religious that the concept of god is so ill defined that there cannot be any scientifically meaningful evidence for gods, then may have a leg to stand on.

    Indeed, I rather suspect that everybody you are poking agrees that if you take an honest look at a global view of god and religion, the god concept is hopelessly ill defined and multifaceted that it is meaningless. Yet, proponents of god continue to make some remarkably consistent statements that are amenable to science (remarkably consistent given how ill defined god is -- a low bar, I'll grant you). For example, that evolution didn't happen, or that god is all knowing and all loving, or that the earth is far younger than scientists claim, etc. You know the song and dance as well as I do. As long as religion is among the most important reservoirs for active dissent against science on matters amenable to science, those who seek to use science to refute particular instantiations of god are justified. There are 1,000s or millions of different god concepts. Maybe there is a different god for every human who believes in god. And maybe even a different god for every moment of those believers' lives. And yet I still hypothesize that the vast majority of those gods (or the idioreligions they are embedded within) do in fact conflict directly with established science.

    So, no, I grant that it isn't very elegant to surrender a general concept of god and it may even be particularly unthinkable for many philosophers to treat such an ugly constellation of ideas. Yet, conditional upon surrending the general concept, the individual god concepts are frequently (and perhaps even usually) amenable to criticism from science. And some of those criticisms refute large swaths of those religious ideas.

  4. Now I know that you do not want to reopen that discussion, but perhaps you are willing and can find the time to very shortly answer a few relevant queries about your position if I promise (as I do now) not to reply to them again in this thread.

    1. If we lived in a world with blatant supernatural activity, like that of the D&D role playing games for example, what would you call the form of rational inquiry devoting itself to understanding the mechanisms and rules of magic and divine intervention through careful observation of empirical data and experiment?

    2. If somebody were to be a professional scientist in such a world, would you really demand of that person to exclude resurrection of the dead from their best working model of how the world operates even if priests can reproducibly raise those who have died of violence or accidents by sacrificing well-defined resources to specific deities? And if yes, how could they possibly justify ignoring such an empirically verifyable phenomenon?

    3. What would convince you, personally, of the existence of, let us say, the Andean earth mother goddess Pachamama, if we just happened to live in a universe where she does exist? Are these arguments evidence-based or entirely philosophical? (Can pure reasoning without empirical evidence actually prove the existence of something? And of something specific like that? This would be very interesting in the light of various theological "proofs" of god's existence.)

    4. If you answer "nothing would ever convince me of the existence of any god whatsoever", do you think that this is rational? Do you further think that it is wise to loudly proclaim so, considering that it will give the believers an excuse to dismiss you as closed to evidence and rational discussion? (A question that I would also ask PZ Myers if I'd have any hope to receive an answer as commenter #250 or so.)

    If you do answer, I would very much appreciate if none of them were an exhortation to read a philosophy of science textbook; I do not consider them infallible, and am interested to grasp your personal position anyway, or rather the reasons behind it.

  5. Why should Jerry Coyne or Richard Dawkins be pissed over PZ's post?

  6. I don't recall Myers, Coyne, or Dawkins arguing otherwise. And I'm pretty sure Stenger's position was also far more nuanced than you seem to give him credit for. This petty ideological atheist/agnostic in-fighting is just getting more and more sad and pathetic. I'm pretty sure there are enough real problems in the world for skeptics to tackle without having to conjure up new ones.

  7. JJE,

    I made this distinction before, but it keeps getting lost or ignored. NO god is well defined enough to constitute anything like a scientific hypothesis. What science can do, and does very well, is to reject/falsify specific claims by religionists (like young earthism), but that doesn't translate into a rejection of the corresponding god concepts because the latter are so damn plastic.


    I'd really appreciate it if you toned it down a bit, and you may want to expand your horizons enough to read articles about philosophy without the knee-jerk reaction that you obviously have. No, we don't need Hegel to tell us about markets, but that wasn't the point of the article, it was a bit more subtle than that.

    As for your questions about our interminable discussion, okay, I'll bite, again:

    1) A world where the so-called supernatural was precisely defined and had to abide by rules that cannot be violated would of course be amenable to scientific investigation. But why on earth would you call that supernatural anyhow? It has *nothing* to do with the concept of the supernatural as it is used by most people and as is pertinent to this discussion.

    2) See (1)

    3) It depends, I would have to know more about Pachamama. Notice however that I said repeatedly that one can rationally reach a certain conclusion even though that conclusion cannot be backed up scientifically. That is because, unlike some people, I don't equate science and rationality (the latter is broader). This ought to be trivially true: I am rationally convinced that I am thinking about a certain thing right now, but no science can actually prove or disprove whether I'm having that particular thought. Or think of mathematics: I can rationally understand the Pythagorean theorem and agree with its conclusions, even though empirical evidence there is completely irrelevant.

    4) I wouldn't answer that way.

  8. @ Massimo

    For the vast majority of believers, God really really does begin as a simple empirical proposition, full stop. In that sense, God is no different than Santa Claus who physically sets foot in an observable room, and whose absence would constitute a strong empirical blow to his existence (because part of Santa's definition was his presence for every boy and girl every year without fail, even if he were delivering coal).

    And for many believers, God never leaves that empirical realm. To me, god was as real as a rain storm, my parents, the president on TV, or as anything else measurable. To show that prayer doesn't work or to show that Jesus didn't exist as he was said to have existed or that evolution led to man over billions of agonizingly wasteful and cruel years of natural selection would have been sufficient (and indeed were sufficient) to reject my idea of god. And I know I wasn't particularly unusual in my belief.

    In fact, I rather think that MOST gods are well defined enough to constitute something like a scientific hypothesis. However, those gods are unstable in a world replete with scientific data and scientific thinking. When confronted with refutations of such gods, the believers instantiate more and more concepts of god until their concept achieves one of two stable states. Assuming evidence will modify a believer's thinking at all, the stable state is either the god you prefer to confront (the poorly defined ones) or an absence in a belief in god. As I say above, there are many many gods that ARE empirically amenable before the believer is forced into the "ill-defined god" corner.

  9. JJE,

    I have already covered all this ground several times on this blog, you may want to look at these entries:


    You may think that most conceptions of god are similar enough to scientific hypotheses, but they are not. Scientific hypotheses have a particular structure, both historically and logically speaking, that is not even approximated by concepts of god. In particular, "god did it" completely lacks causal mechanisms, which means it's not an explanation, which means it has nothing to do with science (whose purpose, if anything, is to provide mechanistic explanations of how the world works).

  10. Meyers suggests we atheists cannot be persuaded by evidence because the definition of a God beyond logic is meaningless. But I argue that such a definition of God is also meaningless to atheists.

    Let me elaborate on a thought experiment touched upon in the comments:

    Suppose our universe is the result of a software simulation in a 3rd grade computer class of some alien being in another universe. Suppose this child was of the jealous type and required worship and often punished his software simulated beings. Suppose further he felt bad about some of this and coded himself into the software at one point and sacrificed himself (I didn't say he was sane) in order to allow more of his software beings to enter his software paradise. As this child grew older, he interacted less with his creation, causing the software beings to wonder about his existence. One day, he decides to terminate the program, except for the paradise and hell modules.

    Now all of us atheists would be philosophically correct to point out that this alien child in an alternate universe was not "God" or even supernatural given he lived in a Universe with consistent physical laws.

    But I hardly see that as very comforting, nor do I think any believers currently basking in software simulated heaven will care if we atheists were "right".

    If inconvertible evidence arose as to this aliens existence, I would accept such evidence as evidence of God as far as most humans believe it. I might still join a movement to protest his/her authority, but that would probably get me smoted faster. I also might chicken out, suck up and live forever in software paradise.

  11. Massimo said:
    "A world where the so-called supernatural was precisely defined and had to abide by rules that cannot be violated would of course be amenable to scientific investigation. But why on earth would you call that supernatural anyhow? It has *nothing* to do with the concept of the supernatural as it is used by most people and as is pertinent to this discussion."

    I think this highlights some cultural differences. Any work of fiction that involves fantasy that isn't science fiction or "mystical nonsense" requires rule biding "supernaturalism" and any computer game based on a fantasy setting has "supernatural" elements reduced to mathematics in the programming.

    If I may pose my own question. If you "apparently" died and found yourself in heaven or hell. After 5000 years, would you accept that it was what it appeared or would you believe you were dreaming or in a false, naturally induced reality.

  12. Thanks for this information! As I had hoped, this provides a much better understanding on why we disagree.

    There is no knee-jerk reaction against all things philosophical, or I would not be here; I am genuinely unimpressed with that very specific article. And I am sorry not to have noticed that my tone was too unfriendly and opinionated, if it was.

  13. Alex,

    glad I was ale to explain myself a little better. And of course there is no requirement to appreciate the same articles that I like! As for tone, I may have been oversensitive, not a good today for personal reasons.


    I already stated several times that I can see myself accepting the supernatural if good reasons were provided, but supernatural to me (and, I maintain, to most people) means an arbitrary will with the ability of changing the rules at any moment, for no discernible reason. Hence the impossibility of doing science with it. (Really, this is just Hume's idea that science is based on certain assumptions, perhaps the most fundamental being that the rules don't change arbitrarily and unexpectedly.)

  14. >In particular, "god did it" completely lacks causal mechanisms, which means it's not an explanation, which means it has nothing to do with science (whose purpose, if anything, is to provide mechanistic explanations of how the world works).

    This depends highly on what "god" means. If god is taken as an unassailable concept with infinite degrees of freedom (which means it can't be omnibenevolent) then sure. But most people do in fact constrain god, and some of those constraints have real world implications. So, once god is constrained in the heads of real believers "god did it" is no less viable a hypothesis than "Massimo did it". I trust I could hypothesize that you wrote this post and that would be nominally "scientific"?

    I've read each of those posts when they were originally written and I find you lucid and correct given the terms you want to assign to concepts (though I disagree with your evaluation of what people of faith actually believe). And it also strikes me that you are using language in a way that I find acceptable in a conventional sense, but contravenes my actual intended thrust of this particular conversation (and I suspect I'm not alone, so at least I hope this conversation is delineating an important difference in the way different sides are conceiving the disagreement).

    The thrust of this conversation, as I see it, is:

    "Can science influence the concepts of god that people hold and if so, how?"

    My short answer is: "Science does influence peoples' concepts of god and tends to erode them."

    I doubt you'll disagree, though correct me if I'm wrong. And I wouldn't even complain if you added: "But philosophy is even more corrosive than science when a religious person actually engages with it."

    I contend that, absent our current level of scientific understanding, we would be having a very different conversation about the nature of god. I think science very much addresses concrete ideas that real people actually hold and results in a change in the way god is conceived over time (both during a lifetime as a person's intellect develops as well as through history spanning many lifetimes).

    I have a dynamical view of the way god is conceived. And I view the starting points of god to often be very simplistic and amenable to challenge from science. I also recognize that those concepts aren't very stable and will tend to change, and in fact some of those end point concepts may very well find themselves in a place that comports well with your idea. But my point is that those religious concepts of god very often get there because of the challenge that science offers to the earlier god concepts.

    I might even go further and say that "The reason that science influences people's beliefs is because they have very simple concepts of god that are amenable to scientific inquiry. In short, there is a tendency to conceive of god in ways similar to the way we conceive of any concept we're told of, whether it be lightning, heat, momentum, etc."

    Now, I suspect you'll disagree here. But I really do think that people start from simplified premises that make very concrete predictions about god.

    Perhaps where we might agree is here: I think that people have a DESIRE to believe in something that they label 'god'. This isn't a god concept per se, but rather is an impulse to have a god concept. It is this idea that I fully agree with you isn't at all amenable to science. And I think it is responsible for the shifting goalposts of the actual concepts of god that people hold.

  15. I am a bit sorry for having started that again, but not exceedingly so because your answers were very illuminating, and I would not have obtained that information otherwise. But still: oops. Sorry.

  16. Alex, eh, as long as it was useful, no harm done! I convinced you now, right? ;-)

  17. Heh. As I had hoped, this provides a much better understanding on why we disagree. But I promised not to continue this, and that includes not elaborating on to what degree precisely I still disagree.

    But the thing is, understanding that two people can justifiably hold different positions even though they hopefully are equally reasonable is of course, at a minimum, an extremely important first step, even if that does not mean that we instantly end up on the same peak.

  18. @ Massimo

    I'll make it shorter. I had a concept of god that was challenged by science. Moreover, I viewed science as potentially important input for me holding my god concept (for example, early in my life, god concept was constrained by YEC. No YEC, no god concept). My concept of god was not infinitely flexible. Are you saying that my concept (which required a personal god that did stuff as described more or less literally in the Bible and still interacts with the world today) was immune to science? Or are you saying that I necessarily must separate everything that is scientifically tractable from my god concept? (Sounds a bit question begging to me.)

    I also added what I thought would be a clarifying dimension that you didn't even deign to address (i.e. that serially changing constrained god concepts mimics the flexibility that your "not a hypothesis" assertion makes).

    I know that you assert that gods are too flexible and meaningless to be subject to science frequently and move on as if your assertion has proved your point. Yet I cannot find a place where you defended that premise beyond the bare assertion. Moreover, it conflicts with personal reports of god concepts (at the very least, mine) as well as with what we know about how people conceive of god. Why do you dislike getting into the weeds? Am I annoying you or am I too unwashed for you to make your concepts clear to me? Or is it too busy?

  19. http://www-personal.usyd.edu.au/~rjoyce/acrobat/joyce_accidental.error.theorist.pdf

    I'm sure you're at least marginally familiar with Joyce, since you're writing a book on morality, but I was just curious, given your professed admiration of virtue ethics, what your response to Joyce's critique of it might be. If that's RAFO for your book (or if you're too busy to read this article in particular, or respond to Joyce in general), I understand. Just curious. :D

  20. Camus,

    thanks for the link, I'll check it out.


    well, as much as I take this blog and the discussion threads seriously, I simply do not have the time to address everybody every time, so I pick and choose. Besides, this is a topic where I have already explained my position several time, so to assert as you do that you cannot find a place where I "defended that premise beyond the bare assertion" is simply bizarre.

    Anyway, your example actually fits my theory. *Your* personal conception of god may not be flexible, and *you* may have been led to abandon it because in your mind it conflicted with science. But the problem is that there are many other conceptions of god even among fundamentalist Christians, some of which are far more flexible than yours. This is NOT the case in science: most physicists will give you precisely the same rendition of the theory of relativity, and if data really contradicted it the physics community at large would be troubled and look for another theory.

    Moreover, as I explained in my thread with Alex, the major thing that makes gods not scientific hypotheses is that there is no mechanism: "god did it" is an empty phrase that explains precisely nothing. And science is about explanations.

  21. Massimo, you said that the lack of mechanism is what makes the god concept unscientific. But you certainly can make scientific hypotheses and test them without a theory of the mechanism. For example, when psychologists first started to investigate ESP, they simply wanted to test if the mind could do things without direct body contact. They didn't have a mechanism about how this was possible, but that doesn't make the effort non-scientific. Yes, parapsychologists turned out to be wrong about ESP but it was a scientific project and was accepted as such by scientists. I am sure you know very well that scientists test wild ideas (ie. idea not derived from a theory but simply a hunch) all the time.

  22. optical,

    yes, but first of all my position is that lack of a mechanism is *one* of the problems, the other one being that concepts of the supernatural are hopelessly vague, infinitely flexible and seemingly plucked out of thin air - not exactly good characteristics for scientific investigations.

    As for mechanisms, the problem with "god did it" is that there is not even the faintest hope of ever discovering the mechanism, because we don't know what could it possibly mean to talk about supernatural causality. The ESP researchers did preliminary work analogous to geologists debunking the notion of a young earth - which I repeatedly said can and has been done. But that's the end of the line unless someone can articulate a mechanism for supernatural action. As I said, the god hypothesis is no such thing at all.

  23. Re: the mechanism aspect. Good, Massimo is backing off that weird definition. Large swaths of systematics, taxonomy, biogeography, atronomy, population genetics, etc. are largely non-mechanistic. And we don't have a mechanistic understanding (or mechanistic theory) of gravity. And yet Newtonian physics is surely science.

    Ahhh. The question-begging "supernatural" escape hatch. Massimo wants to assert that god can't be tested by science. And as it so happens, he also defines god as something that at least isn't part of the physical world (and possibly even doesn't interact with the physical world either). Again, this is a question begging definition of god if the question at hand is whether or not god is scientifically testable. If Massimo defines god as beyond scientific inquiry ("supernatural") then god is outside scientific inquiry. End of story.

    Which gets down to the nuts and bolts. Massimo is fighting hard for his particular conventional language, which is his right. He prefers to use a concept of god that is by definition beyond the purview of science, so BY DEFINITION there can be no discussion. I have no problem with that logically (though it strikes me as perverse). But it would behoove him to investigate whether his convention is in operation in the statements of others before calling them out using his own conventions.

    It seems to me that all of this can boil down to a simple disagreement on nomenclature and results in people talking past each other.

  24. JJE,

    I'm not backing off anything. I have always maintained a multi-prong attack against the idea that science can disprove the supernatural. btw, it is news to me that systematics, biogeography, population genetics and the rest don't have mechanisms at the base of their theories, are you kidding? As for Newtonian mechanics, it has always been a deficiency that Newton had no mechanism in mind. But he did have natural laws on his side, and I stress the word *natural*.

    As for the definition of supernatural, I am simply going by what most people and certainly most theologians think, not by Jerry Coyne's idiosyncratic definition: the super-natural is something that can violate - at will, without discernible pattern, and in any area - the natural.

    You know, this debate is really silly. I would love to see Jerry's (or Dawkins', or whoever's) reaction if they were sent a grant proposal or a paper to review and the paper included the following in the Discussion section: "And of course the authors must admit that there is also the possibility of a supernatural intervention to explain the Results. This possibility, being within the purview of science, will be investigated in follow up research." Yeah right. They are just posturing to further their fixation that the only way to defeat religionism is to show that science categorically excludes gods. Not only they are dead wrong on the science, they apparently have no understanding of human psychology either.

  25. @J.J.E

    Yes by Massimo's definitions the Harry Potter universe is a natural one since the magic functions predictably and consistently.

    Frankly, I think he is engaging in "word worship", not willing to give up the ability to say "The supernatural is outside of science" no matter how wide of narrow he has to define it. Frankly I think phrases like "inconsistent phenomena" and "mystical" are far more appropriate.

    There are plenty of theologies that define god as impassible and incapable of inconsistencies. The platonic god for instance. I wonder if plato would consider his god falsified when the heavens were revealed to not be in perfect form.

  26. downquark,

    okay, let me try another tack here. In science one doesn't pluck "theories" out of nowhere. They are constructed by reference to observation, experiment, and previous theories in the same or related fields.

    Can we at least agree that *all* the concepts of god are invented out of nowhere, with no constraints? If so, in what sense are different concepts of god anything like different scientific theories?

    Again, guys, I keep being accused of having an agenda here, but I am an atheist and naturalist, and a former scientist who respects science and has actually practiced it. What's your beef? Why do you wish so desperately to make science all-encompassing? What do you gain out of it?

  27. They are just posturing to further their fixation that the only way to defeat religionism is to show that science categorically excludes gods.

    Only way?? Sorry, but where exactly did they say that?

    Did you read the chapter in Stenger's "Failed Hypothesis" where he discusses philosophical proofs against god?

    Do you really fault scientists for concentrating on dealing with go scientifically?

    I mean, that is their area of expertise, and you could with more justification fault them if they wrote books concentrating on philosophical dissection of gods, no?

    Are you really sure that there is no deep misunderstanding of their intentions at the root of your objections? Are you so sure they all consider philosophy superfluous and silly just because they stick to their area of expertise?

  28. Alex,

    you may have been written this in a hurry, because I'm not sure I understand some of what you say. However, yes, I have actually talked directly to Coyne, Dawkins and Stenger, and yes, that is the impression I was left with. A disdain for philosophy (usually coupled with ignorance of the subject matter), and a scientistic attitude that equates science with rationality and wields the resulting all-encompassing epistemic weapon to finally kill religion.

    Then again, they may have all be lying to me...

  29. "Again, guys, I keep being accused of having an agenda here, but I am an atheist and naturalist, and a former scientist who respects science and has actually practiced it. What's your beef? Why do you wish so desperately to make science all-encompassing? What do you gain out of it?"

    I'm not saying science CAN address the supernatural, I'm saying there is no reason to categorically exclude it. For instance I do not believe science can yield an objective morality, morality being a human invention. That is not to say that I cannot conceive of a universe where this was not the case. Such as a world where the virtuous were immune from poison (which I do believe is a biblical claim).

  30. > Why do you wish so desperately to make science all-encompassing?

    I certainly don't. I will repeat what I said above, just for the record:

    > I wouldn't even complain if you added: "But philosophy is even more corrosive than science when a religious person actually engages with it."

    > Can we at least agree that *all* the concepts of god are invented out of nowhere, with no constraints?

    I think this is a controversial assumption. Just because the participants in the discussion agree that god isn't a very useful idea, doesn't mean they agree the concept was made up out of whole cloth. Gods are frequently invented by people observing the world and trying to impose order upon it.

    And I also think many concepts of god are inherently constrained. Certainly the Christian god is frequently constrained into being simultaneously omniscient and omnibenevolent by its believers. And this is far from the the only constraint. Some versions of the Christian god can't tolerate the presence of sinners, for example. The link I included above talks about evidence that believers treat prayer the same way they treat conversation with people, implying that they actually believe god is like humans in an important way.

    In Greek Mythology, the gods could be misled and killed. They were vulnerable to humans.

    Seriously, gods frequently aren't really conceived as unconstrained until they meet opposition either by competing gods or by science. I think children have a very constrained view of god. I think many adults do too. And certainly, throughout human history, god concepts weren't necessarily unconstrained.

  31. Massimo:

    Why do you call supernatural the state of things when rules can change for no apparent reasons or there are no rules at all?

    The fact that our scientific method cannot be used in such a world does not make it supernatural. It just make it a world where our scientific method does not work.

    The fact that most people accept that definition does not matter. Why do you care what other people think, Mr. Pigliucci :)

  32. A random thought about virtue ethics, perhaps worthy of a post (unless it's going in your book). It struck me last night that virtue ethics is (or might be, anyway) just one big naturalistic fallacy. Has this charge been made before, and if so, what has been the response to it? I can think of at least one plausible one (though I wouldn't find it convincing), so this is something of a history of philosophy question as well as a personal view question I guess.

  33. Okay, so you have an advantage, because I have never spoken to any of them and can only go by what they write in their books and blog posts. It could be argued, however, that the latter are when they are at their most thoughtful. Certainly I have sometimes said things that, upon a moment's reflection, I would not repeat and never put into writing, e.g., to the tune of "all (insert religious or political affiliation here) are stupid".

    And sorry, but these [1, 2, 3] do not sound disdainful about philosophy, quite the opposite. At a minimum, Coynes position is much more nuanced than you give him credit for [4]. Or to cite from Stenger's aforementioned book:

    Before proceeding with the scientific evidence bearing on the God hypothesis, let us make a quick review of those disproofs of God's existence that are based on philosophy. ... reference to two books on the topic ... types of disproofs ... These disproofs merit greater credence than the claimed philosophical proofs of the existence of God, for the same reason scientists and philosophers give more credence to falsifications of scientific models than to verifications. The logical disproofs seem inescapable, unless you change the rules of the game or, more commonly, change the definitions of the words being used in the argument. ... They will not be discussed here since they are independent of the scientific arguments that form my main thesis... they are listed for completeness and for contrast with the scientific arguments. Follow several logical disproofs. Does not sound disdainful to me.

    By the way, what should interest you with regard to your claim that god claims are too ill-defined to be subject to scientific inquiry: Ways out of purely logical arguments can always be found, simply by relaxing one or more of the premises or, as noted, one of the definitions. For example, assume God is not omnibenevolent... and many philosophical arguments relying on contradictions in the definition of god disappear. Sound familiar?

    Really, I think it all boils down to differences in definition. I did not want to go down that road again, but that seems to be the point: when the so-called scientistic naifs are saying "science can reject god", what they mean is (in your terms): "all forms of rational inquiry that use evidence from the physical world taken together plus the principle of parsimony can reject god", or perhaps "all forms of rational inquiry that use evidence from the physical world taken together can reject any god that is distinguishable from being non-existent". Simply because that is what they mean when they say science, and that is also my definition of science.

  34. (As for your definition of the supernatural, I am very certain that if you asked a bunch of random people whether magic following strict rules would be supernatural, you would get a resounding yes from at least 90% of them. The word is definitely not a synonym for "things that behave arbitrarily". Magic is expected to follow rules, pretty much by definition. Gods and spirits are expected to be personalities, so they are expected to behave about as capriciously as humans, and while that is doubtless way more unpredictable than gravity, human behaviour and motivations are studied scientifically all the time.

    When believers claim that the supernatural is too capricious to be studied, they are merely making dishonest excuses, as they do not really claim that when they are among each other - otherwise there would be no point in praying or expecting your god to reward a virtuous life! And thus we should not give them any privilege to make these excuses that we would not also give to somebody claiming to run a cold fusion reactor that only works when nobody is watching. Does that not sound logical?)

  35. Camus,

    I'm not sure why virtue ethics would be committing the naturalistic fallacy. If it is because Aristotle says that human happiness consists in fulfilling the natural inclinations of being humans, I don't think any philosopher would consider that a fallacy.


    we are obviously going in circles here. Of course the thing comes down to definitions, but definitions are important, and they aren't necessarily arbitrary either. If one looks at science historically, for instance, one can easily show that it has constantly tried to distance itself from the supernatural. And as I said earlier, I really don't think Coyne and co. would consider a paper that includes supernatural "explanations" if submitted to a journal. As one of my posts showed, Coyne himself held a position similar to mine until a few years ago, when he discovered activist atheism. Any serious thinker about science would readily agree that science's epistemic limitations are reached well before we even get to the supernatural, so it is hard to see how one can sensibly talk about doing science with the supernatural. And I really think - as I suggested above - that there is a psychological mechanism at work here, a strong desire to make science more all-encompassing than it actually is. Why? Well, as Bacon puts it, knowledge is power, and if you can convince people that you have all the knowledge that is worth having...

  36. > And I really think - as I suggested above - that there is a psychological mechanism at work here, a strong desire to make science more all-encompassing than it actually is. Why? Well, as Bacon puts it, knowledge is power, and if you can convince people that you have all the knowledge that is worth having...

    Given that you acknowledge that it comes down to definitions, I think your perspective is rather controversial. You must argue for your definitions. Using the definition of god I proposed (which you don't address) erodes your entire foundation for suggesting that scientists are overreaching. Under my definition of god (and probably the definition for most non-theologians and non-philosophers), Coyne et al. aren't at all reaching. I don't know how many times I've heard Christians or Muslims claim that falsifying various apparently non-god claims in their scriptures would undermine the whole scripture and therefore undermine their god. Apparently for them (as for me when I was religious) god was highly constrained by the scriptures, and calling into account the "works of god" or the accuracy of scripture was causally linked in their minds to questioning god. Apparently they (we) didn't partition god into the concepts that grant you the freedom to call god supernatural.

    If you can't acknowledge that your definitions are controversial best, then you also won't countenance the possibility that you are working from different definitions than those of your interlocutors. Which makes it rather insulting and bordering on ad hominem to do such a thing as to call those disagree with you as succumbing to a psychological blindspot.

    That phrase is easily inverted.

    > Any serious thinker about science would readily agree that science's epistemic limitations are reached well before we even get to the supernatural, so they would naturally not define god using supernatural language. So it is hard to see how one can sensibly talk about such a god using supernatural language. And I really think - as I suggested above - that there is a psychological mechanism at work here, a strong desire to restrict science's purview more than it actually is so that philosophy is the only alternative, hence the refusal to accept non-supernatural concepts of god. Why? Well, as Bacon puts it, knowledge is power, and if you can convince people that you have all the knowledge that is worth having...

  37. Why do you need to presume that I have ulterior motives for making my argument? I could just as well say that you are only making your case because you want to corral science and make philosophy more important (the zeal of the converted, etc.), but that leads nowhere.

    No, I am honestly convinced that your definition of science is unrealistically narrow, as it excludes many practicing scientists (perhaps the majority) and much of what most people would call science. And I am honestly convinced that your definition of supernatural is completely at odds with what the vast, overwhelming majority of people would call supernatural, and most importantly with what the faithful really expect from their supernatural beliefs.

  38. Alex, touche` about motivations, let's not speculate about them (though of course I was referring to Coyne, not you, and I've met him, not you).

    But, Alex and JJE, of course the debate hinges on definitions, but definitions aren't necessarily arbitrary, they are constrained by the history of science, as well as by what theologians and regular believers think.

    I maintain, contra you, that your view of science is inconsistent both with how science has been practiced historically, and with how Coyne et al. themselves actually practice it.

    Moreover, I maintain, again contra you, that the majority of believers, and most theologians, would recognize my definition of the supernatural, not yours.

    You accuse me of defining the supernatural so that I can exclude science from it by definition. I maintain that you are defining the supernatural in a way the forces science in from the back door.

    The funny thing is that I am an atheist who believes supernatural concepts are inconsistent with reality as shown by science *and* logically vacuous as shown by philosophy. Which means that we probably agree on a lot more than we disagree on.

  39. Yes we do, and I am surprised at the difficulties to reach agreement on the rest - and the venom that sometimes comes up. We both have posted at times that we consider the category of supernatural to be empty, for example.

    I have just tried several times to type something that would make a point in the eternal discussion, but this format is probably too limited to make more progress anyway. What seems more important to me now is that I simply do not believe your characterization of the New Atheists as aiming to marginalize the humanities to be correct. If it all boils down to different definitions, could that discussion not be had with less mutual accusations of arrogance and naivete, and less mutual suspicions of trying to delegitimize the other's profession?

  40. Alex,

    here is what I'm fighting for and against: for a broader, more encompassing rational attack on superstition and irrationality. For me that attack is made possible by putting together the best that science and philosophy have to offer.

    What I am against is the scientistic attitude that science is either all-encompassing or encompasses everything that is worth arguing about.

    As I said earlier, I am not questioning your motives, but of the New Atheists, here is the breakdown:

    * Hitchens. Never met him. No reason to seem him as scientistically inclined.

    * Dennett. Wrote one of the letters that got me my new job. Definitely not scientistically inclined.

    * Dawkins, Coyne, Stenger. Met all three, have corresponded with Coyne and Stenger. All three have clearly demonstrated to me the most pernicious scientistic attitude in private, which I can then easily gleam through their writings, despite the occasional protestation to the contrary.

    Now, a lot of atheists are justifiably happy to have such heavy guns speak publicly on their behalf. Yours truly included. But the latter three, I suspect, are doing a lot of damage to the movement - and to the cause of rationality more generally - while still managing to rally the troops, so to speak.

    That's why I feel so passionate about this stuff. Even though, as you say, we both agree that the supernatural is an empty set... Still, I apologize for the occasional venom, it arises from frustration and from the fact that I do take a lot of shit on this blog. My choice, but you know, if it comes on a day when other things aren't going quite right, I overreact.


  41. @ Massimo

    I don't necessarily think this is an easy issue to address. What is the purview of science? And how do scientists really represent their knowledge in new emerging fields? Those are an active and interesting areas of inquiry. Certainly scientists overreach all the time. Just as certainly, they are often misrepresented or are talking past their opponents. And in fact, it is probably a polymorphic trait within an individual scientist. Clearly Jerry acknowledge(s|d) that certain concepts of god are beyond science by definition. And he also clearly believes that certain concepts of god are well within the purview of science (as do I). The stronger claim he makes is that the former is obviously outweighed by the latter. This is also my intuition, but I wouldn't be shocked if a directed psychological survey showed the reverse. I would be surprised if "crass theism" and "ineffable deism" didn't both coexist at appreciable frequencies in the U.S. population.

    One complicating factor about this debate is the context. Scientists and/or atheists are often confronted (by laymen, not scientists or philosophers) by their supposed epistemic overreaching and scientism in general, not just for their beliefs regarding religion. We are so often dismissed out of hand because we are accused of reducing love down to equations or something silly like that. (And there is the other issue that without god we can't know morality, but that's another topic.) And given how important rational thinking is and how important it is to at least attempt to grounds one's beliefs is, it is important that rational philosophical and scientific methods of inquiry aren't unfairly undermined. The religious have a field day as it is demonizing rationalists. It seems as if:

    1) Dawkins, Coyne, Stenger, et al. aren't promoting scientism so much as challenging the free pass that religion has gotten from science in the past (I'm certain that this perspective can be supported directly by non-trivial works for Coyne and Dawkins, though I don't remember so well for Stenger);
    2) Two of those three also explicitly hold out as technically agnostic concerning deism (implying that they at the very least don't think science is so powerful that it can rebut deism);
    3) Those three are encouraging a lot of people to apply a rational lens to the world. (Hmmm... I wonder if philosophers might be recruited from the ranks of the scientifically inclined? Nah! Too unlikely. :-P );
    4) I suspect that were you to provisionally adopt a definition of god that Dawkins or Coyne adopts (again, I haven't read Stenger in like 3 years), then your view of the purview of science would likely expand. I'm not saying you should adopt them (after all that's what this debate is about, right?) or that your view of science's role would expand to be as big as theirs, but I suspect it would expand.

    Maybe a better context for this would be a debate at a more basal level, i.e., arguing why your concept of god is better. And you would even find common ground with PZ, which would make for strange bedfellows and all (well, within the relatively small community of skeptics, that is).

  42. @Massimo, Alex & JJE:

    A call for unity: when we all agree that

    (1) "supernatural" is either an empty set or an ill-defined one, and that
    (2) we could be persuaded to believe if only there were some reasons to,

    I have to wonder what it is we're arguing about.

    All it comes down to, ultimately, is that Massimo would like to normatively define "science" so as to limit its domain, buffering it from crackpots like creationists and allowing non-empirical considerations like parsimony to fall instead under the rubric of "philosophy." That's it.

    We still have all the same tools of rationality, we still imagine ourselves responding in precisely the same way to various hypotheticals about the rapture. All that's left to argue about is whether it increases or decreases the prestige of "science" to encompass some non-empirical considerations.

    Let us just use the word "rationality" to define ALL systematically good epistemology, and be done with it.

  43. ianpollock,

    But do you then know what a scientist who does not follow this extremely narrow definition of science is, or what they do? How to call it, I mean?

    Say, an entomologist who is simply making a survey of all the beetle species occurring in national park X, is he not doing science at that moment because there is no hypothesis? What is it then - philosophy, or math, or fine art?

    Or a medical researcher who notices that Unobtainium reliably heals purple spot fever, and she wants to publish that but has not yet the foggiest idea about a possible mechanism of action - is she doing religion until she comes up with one?

    I consider this a valid and serious question. Maybe you have an idea? Thus my problem with Massimo's narrow definition of science will remain, even now that I realize that his reasons for taking his position are perhaps better than the special pleading I took them for before (i.e., you are allowed to make unscientific claims about things that science is normally trusted to examine whenever but only if you scribble "supernatural" over your ideas).

  44. Alex,

    in Nonsense on Stilts I argue that science is a family resemblance concept, meaning that it is a set of different activities where experiment vs. observation, and the role of theory play different roles. This means that there are bound to be borderline cases.

    However, historically and as it is funded by NSF science is at core a search for explanations of natural phenomena based on empirically testable hypotheses. (Indeed, as you know, NSF *requires* the specification of hypotheses in order to provide a grant.)

    This means that your entomologist is doing science only in a very loose sense of the world. Unless his survey aims at eventually producing some theoretical advance, it is more like stamp collecting.

    Your example of the medical researcher is more intriguing, and a better borderline case. But as you know, many people justifiably think that medical research is somewhere between science and trial and error.

    Of course, even so both the entomologist and the medical researcher are working against a large background of theories provided by the biological sciences, which means that what they are doing is still in no way comparable to doing "science" of the supernatural.

  45. Stamp collecting, really? And here I was hoping that we could do this with less arrogance. It is collection of empirical data in an attempt to understand our world better! (Full disclosure: I am going on such an excursion in a few weeks.)

    When you say that science is "not just a collection of facts", does that not clearly imply that it is also a collection of facts? All those fancy hypothesis tests are impossible without the data carefully and diligently collected by other, yes, scientists. Every astronomical observation, every herbarium specimen collected, every pottery shard unearthed, every sequence submitted to Genbank is part of the scientific process, because it is all empirical data.

    That the American NSF, like the German DFG, does not usually fund purely exploratory projects even where they are badly needed (ever heard the term taxonomic impediment, for example?) is only evidence of their short-sightedness, but surely not evidence for a certain definition of the word science.

    But even that I would not consider enough. To the collection of facts and the process of hypothesis testing, I would also add the body of knowledge or worldview (i.e, the sum of currently accepted models and theories) derived from this process. All that together is science.

    You are right, even more interesting is the second example. And here I have another issue: what exactly is science if not trial and error? Or in other words, sure, in the case of this medical researcher, you can ask: it works, fine, but how and why does this work? But where precisely is the difference to any other scientific discovery? I would argue that in every single case you can start a nagging chain of whys and hows until the scientist has to say "I don't know - yet". What would Newton have answered if confronted with "yes, but why do objects attract each other?" We always reach a point where it is simply what we observe, that is how the world just happens to be, ask me again in 500 years. Why should the woman with the Unobtainium or a guy who documents reproducible faith healing be less scientific for it than a physicist?

  46. Alex,

    hmm, apparently I've inadvertently hit a nerve here... ;-)

    Nevertheless, I stand by what I wrote. When it comes down to simple observation we have a term for it: natural history. And natural history is one of those activities that is not quite science, though it's related to and informative for. NSF and the German agency require hypotheses for a good reason, that's the way science works.

    Here is Darwin himself on this topic (he was involved in the great induction debate on the nature of science, caught in the fire between J.S. Mill and William Whewell):

    "How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation [in science] must be for or against some view [i.e., hypothesis] if it is to be of any service!"

    How odd indeed. Now tell me that Darwin had a strange fringe notion of science...

    As for medical research, again it's a borderline case. But consider this: a shaman figures out by trial and error that certain herbs are curative of certain diseases. He attributes that to the works of the gods. Does that constitute science? I sure hope not. It becomes science when we discard the damn gods and look both for more systematic patterns and for an understanding of why the herbs have the effect that they have.

  47. Massimo, the shaman in your last example has done good experimental science and then attributed his findings to a (not even) bad theory.

    Joseph Priestley did a similar thing when he isolated oxygen (good!) and then attributed its properties to "phlogiston" (baaaad!). Yet I still think he was doing science, don't you?

    Sometimes it seems to me you're defending science as a genre (gods belong in the "spirituality" section of Chapters!) rather than science as a way of finding out stuff. If there were gods, I wouldn't want our best epistemic strategy to be *blind* to their (very important) existence a priori, like the atheists of Discworld, where "the gods had a habit of going round to atheists' houses and smashing their windows."

  48. Yes, maybe you have. We kill biological diversity off faster than we can even document it because what you call natural history is so unmodern and not sparkly enough, so it does not get sufficient funding.

    But I may have been too unclear. Obviously science will make no progress for our understanding of phenomena in nature without hypothesis tests or model selection, you are right (only, but that is still not trivial, for our understanding of what objects are out there, be they beetles or demons). So, I am not saying that a car without an engine is still functional - but I take issue with you pointing at the engine and claiming that this is the car, with all the tires, steering wheel, gears, etc. not part of the definition, because, after all, the engine is where the movement is produced, no? Likewise, hypothesis testing without all the other ingredients of my wider definition of science is of no use whatsoever, because even after eliminating a lot of wrong hypotheses you would still have a literally infinite number left that is experimentally indistinguishable.

    I have mentioned that before, but without those non-empirically derived criteria like parsimony, predictive power, likelihood, etc., science would not even be able to decide between two entirely non-supernatural ideas such as two possible phylogenetic histories for the same group of organisms. Without them, it could not function, and I'd say it would not be recognizable as science.

    But here is the kicker: with those criteria seen as part of what science is, all that falls under your definition of supernatural is automatically out, because it is not part of the most parsimonious explanation, making a contentious sentence such as "religious faith is incompatible with science" trivially true. Of course, that does not automatically mean that science has found the truth - it could be that we live in a crazy universe where inference to the most parsimonious explanation fails in one very important case. None of us believes that, though.

    Also, what ianpollock said: If that shaman, who probably has drawn his gods-conclusion based on a very limited understanding of the world, considers his inference only a tentative explanation to be revised if additional evidence comes forth, and perhaps even makes additional tests himself, then yes, I am again at a loss to understand how that differs from science. It is all nice and well to look back now with a long tradition of showing that gods are superfluous to explain natural phenomena and be all smug about how silly such an assumption is, but this mountain of data is not what you start out with when you invent science.


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