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.

Monday, April 29, 2013

What’s the point of demarcation projects?

by Massimo Pigliucci

Readers of this blog know very well by now that, despite (or is it because of?) being both a scientist and a philosopher, I have often defended the idea that science and philosophy are distinct disciplines, and I am critical in particular of those who I think display a scientistic (i.e., intellectually imperialistic) attitude in wanting to expand the scope of science to pretty much everything that is worth knowing, usually at the expense of humanistic disciplines, philosophy in particular.

But, one could reasonably ask, why bother? Why try to explain to the likes of Sam Harris and Michael Shermer that ethical quandaries cannot be resolved by science, be that neurobiology or evolutionary biology? Why argue with Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins that when they think they have rejected “the god hypothesis” or the idea of free will on scientific grounds they have, in fact, smuggled in quite a bit of philosophy to make their case? Who cares which discipline is doing what, isn’t the outcome of our inquiry what matters?

And yet, I wager that all four of the above mentioned people (and others regularly criticized here for similar positions, including Lawrence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson) would not at all object to a different demarcation problem, the one separating science from pseudoscience. Indeed, the new collection on the latter topic that Maarten Boudry and I have put together for Chicago Press (out in July) includes a chapter by Shermer himself, who clearly saw value in that particular demarcation problem.

And yet, the demarcation between science and philosophy (S-Ph) has a lot of characteristics in common with the one between science and pseudoscience (S-Ps) (and no, that’s not because philosophy is a pseudodiscipline!). The similarities are to be found along three dimensions, as we shall see in a moment, and together these help explain why both projects are worthwhile. [1]

Before examining the reasons why S-Ps and the S-Ph demarcations are analogous, however, I need to reiterate once more what seems to be a frustratingly common misconception about such projects: when it comes to concepts as complex as science, philosophy and pseudoscience, we will not find simple and sharp dividing lines. There is no small set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions that identify any of these fields: overlap and gradation is the name of the game. But just because night slowly yields to day it obviously doesn’t mean that there are no differences between night and day. Nor does it mean that, most of the time, we don’t know perfectly well that it’s night (or day). Rather, a better image is that of a complex intellectual landscape where there are peaks corresponding to the concepts of interest, with the peaks gradually extending from their center and overlapping with nearby peaks. And to make things more complicated, you also need to imagine this intellectual landscape as fluid in time: what was once considered science may have turned into pseudoscience, philosophy into science, and so forth.

Let’s then start with the S-Ps demarcation peoblem, to which most of my readers will likely not object. Why does it matter? There are, I submit, three classes of reasons: intellectual, practical-financial, and practical-consequentialist.

On strictly intellectual grounds, we like to have a reasonable theory that explains why a certain way to carry out inquiries that we call “scientific” seems to be working so well (with the usual exceptions) while another class of activities, those we label “pseudoscientific,” doesn’t. The answer can’t just be that if it works it’s science and if it doesn’t it’s pseudoscience. Aether and the planet Vulcan turned out not to exist, but we don’t think they were pseudoscientific notions when they we initially proposed. Similarly, astrological charts and alchemical methods were never scientific, regardless of the fact that they didn’t pan out. Indeed, even when pseudoscientific notions may turn out to work (as it seems to be the case, in a limited fashion, for acupuncture), they are still pseudoscientific. The difference between the two classes of activities lies in the methodologies employed by their practitioners, both at the theoretical and at the empirical levels. So there is a genuine intellectual problem at play here, one that requires the methods of philosophy, history and sociology to be tackled.

Te second reason why the S-Ps problem is interesting is because there are resources at stake, particularly money and time. The label of “science” indicates a worthwhile activity, while the label pseudoscience indicates something that is not worth pursuing. That is why scientists get academic jobs and research grants, while pseudoscientists (usually) don’t. That is also why it is problematic that the National Institute of Health keeps spending money on “alternative” medicine, or that the British “royal family” (sorry, I just can’t bring myself to use those terms with a straight face) supports homeopathic remedies. In fact, when scientists and skeptics object to such funding, or when they decry the occasional university that confers degrees in parapsychology, they do so precisely by invoking a meaningful demarcation between science and pseudoscience.

Finally, when people cannot distinguish between science and pseudoscience there are consequences: parents do not vaccinate their children, governments in Africa don’t distribute anti-retro viral drugs to people affected by HIV-AIDS, and no meaningful political action is taken to stem the rise of climate change.

Again, none of the above requires a sharp demarcation between the two classes of activities concerned, nor is such demarcation necessarily stable over time. But intellectually, financially, and in terms of practical consequences, the demarcation makes a difference.

A very similar discourse applies to the S-Ph pair. From an intellectual point of view, philosophy is a different kind of activity from science, just like mathematics is in turn different (and yet shares similarities) with both. Literary criticism, say, is even further removed from the philosophy-science-math cluster. Recognizing such differences gives us an appreciation of the diversity of scholarly activities human beings are capable of  and interested in pursuing, and leads to a healthy respect for the skilled practitioners within each field. [I suspect, incidentally, that most of those who think scientistically about philosophy have not actually read a single technical paper in philosophy, so that they literally don’t know what they are talking about. If they had, they would immediately appreciate that technical science is actually done in a very different way from technical philosophy, a fact readily explained by the idea that there is indeed a meaningful demarcation between the two.]

What about consequences in terms of allocation of resources? Here it is particularly puzzling to see some scientists’ acrimony against philosophy, considering that the natural sciences already command a majority of faculty positions on most campuses, and can certainly count on grants that are order of magnitudes larger than those for which humanists compete. This, by the way, is as it should be. Having done research in both science and philosophy I know first hand the disparity of resources necessary for scholarly engagement within each field. But belittling philosophy and the other humanities does carry the danger of convincing university administrators — already bent on running the academy as if it were a for-profit business — that they should cut anything that doesn’t bring in money (though, somehow, it never occurs to them to apply the same logic to athletic programs). Rest assured that programs in philosophy, languages, history and the like would then be the first ones on the chopping block (as indeed has happened over and over in the past several years).

Lastly, the practical consequences? Ah!, I can hear you say, “practical” consequences of eliminating, or even simply belittling, philosophy? Yes, there are consequences, and they are not good for the health of a democratic society. For all the (justified) complaining that our students and citizens are woefully illiterate in science, they are lacking just as much in their ability to write, comprehend complex texts, exercise critical thinking, be aware of their own cultural history and of the meaning and functioning of the laws of their own society. These are, of course, the elements of a liberal arts education, and they are vital for a meaningful democracy (which is why they are constantly under attack from reactionary forces). Education, in a society where we care about the flourishing of our citizens isn’t just a matter of acquiring skills to enter the workforce (as necessary as those are), it is also a matter of helping young minds to mature and develop in a way that will allow them to make wise choices in their own lives, as well as to contribute to society with more than just their labor. All of this is helped by a healthy recognition of, and respect for, the methods, goals and practices of different intellectual disciplines — from the sciences to the humanities.

These, then, are the reasons why demarcation projects are important. By all means, let’s disagree about the criteria that separate science from philosophy, and both of them from pseudoscience (and pseudophilosophy — there is such a beast). But let’s do that in a productive and mutually respectful fashion, not with silly declarations such as “if it has to do with empirical evidence it’s science,” which makes no more sense than to claim that everything that has to do with thinking counts as philosophy. And of course, let’s not neglect the many bridges or borderline areas between science, pseudoscience, philosophy and all the rest. Those areas may very well turn out to be interesting and fruitful in their own right.


[1] This post is not about how to separate science from philosophy, or science from pseudoscience per se. On the first topic I have written several times on RS and in other places, and the second has been covered broadly in my Nonsense on Stilts, and will be revisited more in depth in the forthcoming edited volume, Philosophy of Pseudoscience. Here, I am concerned with the distinct question of why such demarcation problems are worthwhile to begin with.


  1. On thing that is a bit confusing to me is that "scientists" is followed by a reference to "natural sciences", e.g. "puzzling to see some scientists’ acrimony against philosophy, considering that the natural sciences already command a majority of faculty positions on most campuses."

    Is there a demarcation between "natural sciences" and other "sciences". I have in mind things like "cognitive science". There are departments of cognitive science now giving bachelors, masters, and Ph.D.s in cognitive science. (As far as I know someone who calls themself a "cognitive scientist" considers themself to be a scientist.)

    Are there cognitive scientists who are part of the "S" in the S-Ph debate, or is it just "natural scientists"?

  2. The science guys you mention who dabble in philosophy seem more of a threat to civil society than pseudoscience. People who are half-way decently educated take them seriously. They bastardize science they say things like Jerry Coyne did in USA today when he said the molecules in our brain have to obey the laws of physics, as if the so called laws of physics are normative rather than descriptive and our current understanding of molecules is somehow complete. And when Shermer says, “the individual is the fundamental moral agent because the individual is the primary target of natural selection” he’s trying to base our morality on “natural selection”. He’s taking a scientific theory that is well supported by evidence and making it our standard for what is good. He’s setting it in stone like the Ten Commandants. What happens when new evidence comes in and people want to tweak Darwin’s theory? You got to allow for that or you’ll be turning a good theory into dogma. And when natural selection becomes our standard for good people will find ways to help it along and we could see a rebirth of social Darwinism.

    When I first read Harris on ethics I realized that this is not science for the metaphor of the scientist as “observer” was being changed to one of “determiner” (“How science can determine human values” is right there in the title). No longer were the guiding principles for living and acting well the providence of wisdom and philosophy. They could be had by a kid in a lab coat with a PhD in neuroscience. He could be determining moral truth by day and then go home after work and lose his temper and lord himself over his young wife. It’s not science, of course, but a hair brained idea for a crazy technology for controlling people. When I read all of the glowing reviews for the Moral Landscape on Amazon (mostly I imagine from members of the scientistic community) it occurred to me that someone like Harris could hook up with megalomaniac like say Newt Gingrich (who recently converted to Catholicism, but who I imagine wouldn’t mind converting to the New Atheism if he thought it could get him elected) and together they could sell this new science of ethics by campaigning for a peaceful world order that is supported by it. This is much worse than pseudoscience. It is an outlet for people who hate Muslims, Catholics and any other religious folks. It’d be a new fascism founded on Harris’s New Atheism. I have no doubt that members of the scientistic community would say, “Who cares … isn’t the outcome … what matters”?

    1. Excellent observation on Harris. The phrase "new fascism" is a very interesting take.

  3. "But belittling philosophy and the other humanities does carry the danger of convincing university administrators — already bent on running the academy as if it were a for-profit business — that they should cut anything that doesn’t bring in money (though, somehow, it never occurs to them to apply the same logic to athletic programs)"

    A minor niggling point: athletics often do bring in money.

  4. No problem at all with the need for demarcation projects, nor with the observation that not everything that is worth knowing is scientific knowledge.

    But as discussed before, the claim that science cannot reject a god hypothesis is based on special pleading. If somebody advances the aquatic ape hypothesis, or the idea of alien visitors having built the pyramids, or of abslarf neddeling the hurmbug, you would, I assume, have no problem whatsoever with a scientist categorically rejecting them all, in the first two cases based on absence of supporting evidence, in the last case based on its obvious incoherence.

    However, in the case of a god hypothesis, or the idea of a god having built the universe, or of the trinity, you would not allow a scientist to reject them all based on lack of supporting evidence, lack of supporting evidence, and obvious incoherence, respectively.

    Why not? The answer appears to boil down to "because I say so": the religious believer is arbitrarily granted the permission to move goalposts and to promote beliefs for which there is no evidence where a pseudoscientist is not. That is just about the clearest example of special pleading one could wish for.

    Really all the scientist needs to reject gods is the principle of parsimony. You would presumably now say that that is a philosophical, not a scientific principle. True, but it is ALSO an utterly indispensable part of the scientific method. To claim it exclusively for philosophy is like saying that a sculptor cannot chisel out a statue for lack of a hammer, because hammers are only allowed for carpenters. If they do make a statue, they are doing carpentry! If the scientist rejects god, they are doing philosophy!

    Without parsimony in our scientific toolbox we could not reject the aquatic ape hypothesis. With it, we can, nay must, reject gods. You cannot have your cake and eat it too.

    1. Alex,

      Would you agree that:

      1) Science is not all encompassing? That there are truths that lie outside of Science's ability to perceive or prove?

      2) That there are undecidable propositions? (Here I mean propositions that are forever unanswerable, not merely problems that have not currently been solved).

      3) That absence of evidence is not evidence of absence (i.e., I have never seen a black swan, therefore all swans must be white)?

    2. Tom, well put. If a person can't at least give a qualified yes to each of those statements, then scientism is going to remain a "siren call" for them.

    3. 1) sure, but can religion perceive or prove truths? If so, how does it do it?
      2) sure, but Is the existence of gods forever unanswerable? If so, why?
      3) sure, but do you believe anything other than gods exist without the need for evidence?

    4. Tom D.,

      1) Yes, of course. Mathematics, for starters. But the important point to keep in mind is that empirical science is the one method we have to examine the concrete universe around us. You do not ask a philosopher or mathematician if you want to know whether Sirius has planets, so why would you ask them whether this universe has gods or souls?

      2) Mu. I suspect that you are demanding a definite yes or no to consider a question decided. If an answer like "this is very implausible and there is no good evidence for it, so tentatively no" is permitted, then the propositions that we are talking about here are answerable.

      3) Yes, absence of evidence where there should be evidence is tentative evidence of absence. Surely it is not unscientific to say that there are no lilac-skinned humans?

      Please imagine, if that helps to make clear what the actual claims of scientists are, that I have placed five exclamation marks in brackets behind each use of the word "tentative", and that I have bolded it and underlined it.

    5. Is it the argument that scientists can't be as logical as philosophers, even though it takes philosophical logic to hypothesize? Baloney then.

      Is it the argument that since Harris for example has limits to his logic, that scientists in general do? Baloney again, since there are philosophers that, for example, don't believe in a universe with purposes.

      Paul Davies, as just one example, is arguably a much better scientist than Harris and both a better philosopher and scientist than Massimo.
      Not that there's anything wrong with that, but just sayin'.

    6. Baron, Massimo has regularly distinguished between science and scientism, per your first rhetorical question.

      Per your second, may I infer that you believe the universe DOES have purposes? (Your Davies comment would tie in).

      And, speaking of that - hah!

      This explains a lot. <filed away in my mind.

    7. Sorry it took me a while to reply.


      [1] I don’t claim that religion CAN necessarily determine truths that lie outside of science. I simply disagree with those who claim to KNOW that there is no god, when what we can know through science is very limited.

      [2] I would guess that the existence of god IS an unanswerable question. An analogy I’d like to use would be the “big bang” singularity. Scientists say that, when discussing what went on during the BB, we have to allow that the laws of physics break down or didn’t exist. When speaking of what went on BEFORE the BB . . . well, some say the question doesn’t even make sense because, as St. Augustine said centuries before, the universe came into being with time instead of in time (although some interesting arguments can be made for absolute time). If god lies outside of spacetime and is not subject to the laws of physics, we can hardly expect to prove or disprove his existence with our limited means.

      “Linguist Noam Chomsky once noted that a rat can learn to turn left at every second fork in a maze, but not at every fork corresponding to a prime number. The human mind, limited by the same kinds of biological constraints as the rat, may reach the edge of its ability to comprehend. We are flesh and blood, not Gods. Are there facets of the universe we can never know? Are there questions we can't ask? Our brains, which evolved to help us find food on the African plains, are not constructed to penetrate all the enigmas in the infinite mathematical cloak of our universe.”

      Another example would be the two-dimensional stick-man trapped inside of a square. A 3-dimensional being can lift the stick-man up and over the edge of the square so that he escapes his inescapable prison. It is incomprehensible to the two-dimensional man, but quite common for us. I am suggesting that if god exists, he may be as incomprehensible to our limited minds as 3-dimensional activities are incomprehensible to someone who knows only two-dimensional laws.

      [3] Again, I don’t claim to KNOW that particular things exist without evidence, I merely point out that it is reasonably to think there are truths that are not amenable to scientific inquiry.


      [1] I don’t think we disagree that much. I rely upon empiricism – but, I simply acknowledge that my system is not all-encompassing and there may be truths out there that I cannot grasp with my system. I don’t claim to know there IS a god, I merely point out that we cannot know for certain, as our methods for determining truths are very limited. For Christ’s sake, if four or more events not lying in the same plane occur, we cannot even agree if they happened simultaneously – there is no ideal reference point. Science can’t even tell me definitively if my pizza finished cooking, and they are trying to tell me whether or not there is a god?

      [2] You wrote, “this is very implausible and there is not good evidence for it, so tentatively no”. Again, I think we pretty much agree – I am merely pointing out that we cannot be certain – there may be truths (even implausible truths) for which evidence has not yet come to light. We have a long history of that.

      [3] On this point, I think it comes to a question of whether we should EXPECT to see evidence. As Paul M. Paolini pointed out, we would EXPECT to see evidence of a Big Foot creature, but not necessarily see any evidence of a supernatural being who lies outside the laws of physics. In my black swan example, the black swan eluded investigators for many years, as did certain prehistoric fish thought to be extinct. So, lack of evidence is not a reliable guide for concluding non-existence. Although I acknowledge your point that we become increasingly confident in our belief as years go by and the expected evidence fails to materialize.

    8. So all of the people who believe there is a god or multiple gods are just as clueless as someone who claims there isn't, but the people who claim to know something about a god are even more so? Is this the take home message?

    9. "1) Science is not all encompassing? That there are truths that lie outside of Science's ability to perceive or prove?"

      What do you mean by "truths", and by "prove"? Science doesn't prove truths. Science builds and tests theories. I think the question needs to be unasked or replaced with a better one, one which can be answered meaningfully.

      "2) That there are undecidable propositions? (Here I mean propositions that are forever unanswerable, not merely problems that have not currently been solved)."

      Sure. Godel's First Incompleteness Theorem establishes that. (To be sure, it establishes that there are undecidable propositions associated with every consistent system of axioms powerful enough to express elementary arithmetic. A given proposition that is undecidable might be made decidable by extending the axioms -- one can even include the undecidable axiom itself, as is typically done with the Axiom of Choice. But it remains that we will never have a formal system of axioms that is at least as powerful as the Peano axioms, in which all propositions are decidable.)

      "3) That absence of evidence is not evidence of absence (i.e., I have never seen a black swan, therefore all swans must be white)?"

      First of all, the parenthetical part of that is not an example of the first part. You are thinking of a different statement, that "absence of evidence is proof of absence", which is false, and your example is a non sequitur.

      But "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" is a non sequitur, owing to a corollary to Bayes' Theorem.

      Suppose the likelihood of E depends on the truth of S. Then (using O to represent odds and P to represent probability) Bayes Theorem states that

      O(S|E) = O(S)*P(E|S)/P(E|~S).

      E is evidence of S if and only if the observation of E increases our odds that S is true; i.e., "E is evidence of S" is equivalent to the statement that P(E|S) > P(E|~S) (e.g., I am more likely to see a black swan if black swans exist, than I am to see one if they don't exist).


      1 - P(E|S) = P(~E|S)
      1 - P(E|~S) = P(~E|~S)

      so if E is evidence of S, we have P(~E|S) < P(~E|~S) (I am less likely to have never seen a black swan if they exist, than I am to have never seen one if they don't exist).

      But Bayes' Theorem also says that

      O(S|~E) = O(S)*P(~E|S)/P(~E|~S)

      from simply substituting the absence of evidence, ~E, for evidence E. Since P(~E|S) < P(~E|~S), it follows that O(S|~E) < O(S). So the absence of evidence, ~E, is evidence of absence.

    10. Richard,

      I am talking about John Locke’s “argumentum ad ignorantiam” here.

      Argumentum ad ignorantiam is saying that if A -> B, it does not follow that ~A -> ~B,

      That is sound logic: i.e. if we see black swans, then they exist; it does not follow that if we do not see them then they do not exist – maybe we haven’t looked hard enough.

      What I am saying is:
      If you look for "X" and don't find it, it does that prove that there is no "X".

      Bayes Theorem is saying that:
      The more you look in places where X "ought to be" in ways and at times that X "should be likely to be there," the more confidence you can have that there is no "X".

      And I don’t disagree with that, and said as much to Alex in my May 1 post (item [#3]).

      But we have to consider that the problem might lie with ourselves. If I flip a coin 5 times and it comes up “heads” each time – can I conclude that I have no “tails” (a two-headed coin)? If I flip it a million times and it comes up heads each time, I can be more confident – yet, the problem may be in the way I am flipping the coin.

      Can we agree on the following: Absence of evidence is not *proof* of absence -- but it can be *evidence* of absence?

    11. "That is sound logic: i.e. if we see black swans, then they exist; it does not follow that if we do not see them then they do not exist – maybe we haven’t looked hard enough."

      Unless we are circumstantially prevented from seeing black swans if they exist, we can't simply plead that "We haven't looked hard enough." If we haven't looked hard enough, there is nevertheless a probability P1(E|S) that we will observe a black swan just by accident. It is probably significantly lower than the probability P0(E|S) that an all-out effort to find a black swan will yield the evidence if one exists, but it is still greater than P(E|~S), which is ideally zero, but might have to include the probability of hallucinating a black swan (i.e., noise). If P(E|~S) is equal to P(E|S) then we just have a case of the signal being overwhelmed by the noise, once again a condition in which E can't be considered evidence, nor can lack of E be considered absence of evidence. If it is greater, then that would mean that E is actually evidence *against* a black swan existing (and lack of E is evidence for a black swan).

      "Can we agree on the following: Absence of evidence is not *proof* of absence -- but it can be *evidence* of absence?"

      Why not? Isn't that what I said previously? Although the "can be" is unnecessarily weakening the proposition.

    12. @Gadfly, to me:
      "Per your second, may I infer that you believe the universe DOES have purposes? (Your Davies comment would tie in)."

      May I infer that you're another that thinks that no universal systems either have or serve a purpose?

    13. You may infer that indeed, Baron. From my second blog, I offer my thoughts on Camus that reflect this: http://wordsofsocraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2012/11/existentialist-or-absurdist.html

      Oh, and per a comment on Steve Neumann's previous post ... "universal systems"? Outside the laws of physics, which may themselves prove not to be immutable, I don't believe, in general, in universal systems

    14. If the laws of physics are regulatory, what do you suppose they regulate except systems?

  5. While I completely agree with you that science and philosophy are separate endeavors, I think the relationship between the two are asymmetric. Most philosophy does not have a lot to do with science. but I can't think of any scientific activity that in one way or another is not influenced by science. From the way scientists systematically collect data to any choice of statistical test and any interpretation of the results, everything relies heavily on philosophical principles. Many scientists that I talked to fail to acknowledge it, perhaps because they take for granted the methods that they are using. It's easy enough to run a significance test but choosing this over, say, Bayesian inference largely depends on your philosophy on how to do scientific research.

  6. Patrick,

    "Ten Commandments", and "hare-brained". No offense meant.

    Pseudoscience gets people killed when it displaces medicine. On the other hand, I would still have to see politicians found a "new fascism" on the use of reason before I believe your assessment.

    1. Science is no guarantor of morality. Medicine stole ... no other words for it ... the "immortal cells" of Henrietta Lacks. It's done similar with researching American Indian genomes for diabetes, then without consent, further researching that genome for other ends.

      Add in the growing amount of fraud, and in cases like PhARMA, Big Tobacco, and climate change deniers, of plenty a PhD willing to be a hired gun, and the fact that science is no guarantor of morality is clear, Alex.

      And, arguably, the original use of #scientism was "scientific socialism," which, when crudely exploited, killed tens of millions in the USSR and China.

      Now, that's an outlier indeed. But, what's to stop the word "scientific" from being attached to other movements, and getting scientists to play along?

    2. Science is no guarantor of morality.

      I do not remember claiming that it is. A hammer can be used to build a house or to bash in someone's head. Does that mean that everybody who claims that a hammer is a better tool to drive a nail into a wall than philosophy is now suspect of protofascist "hammerism"?

    3. Actually, it's science as misapplied scientism that's potentially protofascist "hammerism," per the discussion above.

  7. In looking at the diagram (S-Ph) again, I think of it this way:

    ( biological code { *? ) moral code }

    As biological beings, there is a lot biology, neuroscience, evolutionary theory, etc. tells us about our biological code. But humans are creators of moral codes, and this comes from everything from analytic philosophy to the arts. There is something in the overlap of the two codes, some we know (*), and some we don't (?).

    Chimps may have something like a "hard-wired" moral code, but they are not creators of new codes as humans are (as far as I know, but maybe some primatologists think they are.) Species of the genus Homo, except for ours, are extinct, so we don't know a lot about them.

    Related, I found this interesting: Formal Philosophy? A Plea for Pluralism. Here Susan Haack (professor of philosophy and law at the University of Miami) gives her perspective on the "proper role of philosophy in relation to other disciplines" and says "It also falls to philosophy -- and this is my third theme -- to inquire into the relations among other disciplines, or other fields of human endeavor."

  8. Philip,

    > Is there a demarcation between "natural sciences" and other "sciences". <

    As a matter of fact yes, though it’s a pretty thin one. Typically physics and the other natural sciences are considered “hard,” while the social sciences tend to be characterized as “soft.” I expand on this quite a bit in Nonsense on Stilts. The difference has to do with the complexity of the subject matter, the presence (or not) of an overarching theory in the field, the repeatability of the results, and the variance in those results. Cognitive science is a good example of borderline between hard and soft science, as it incorporates elements of psychology (soft) and neurobiology (hard-er).


    > A minor niggling point: athletics often do bring in money. <

    A common misconception, but in fact quite false. Even the biggest and most famous athletic programs usually lose money (because they are very expensive), though there are some exceptions. A good book to read about this, though a little dated now, is Murray Sperber’s Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education.


    as you know, I think the difference between the cases you present is that pseudoscience does not appeal to the supernatural, and I think if the supernatural as a different category altogether. Although some of my philosophy colleagues disagree (my co-editor for the forthcoming Chicago book, for instance, Maarten Boudry), I think that one of the things that is distinctive about pseudoscience is that its practitioners actually ape the sciences. They *want* to be taken seriously by scientists (think of parapsychologists, for instance), so they actually try to come up with testable hypotheses, evidence, etc. Not so for the religious, who operates on a whole different, non-cognitive, level. But I’m sure we’ll continue to disagree on this particular issue...

    1. >Not so for the religious, who operates on a whole different, non-cognitive, level. But I’m sure we’ll continue to disagree on this particular issue...

      I can see why you could say "some" religious operate on a non-cognitive level. I just don't see how you can carry a fully general claim that the religious always move goalposts and never care about empirical confirmation.

      Therefore I don't see the validity of a fully general claim about religion being immune in principle to empirical test. It seems like the best you can do is say "they tend to move goalposts!" but then, that is true of many scientists as well!

      In the interests of nuance, I also recognize that most modern supposedly "scientific" critique of religion is 100% amateur philosophy.

    2. That's because amateur philosophy is all it takes. There's a video of Ricky Gervais recounting how he became an atheist. He believed in god until he was 7. One day his brother told him that god doesn't exist and an hour later he was an atheist.

    3. Given some editorials I've seen written by some social scientists, they really hate the "soft" label. (This could be exacerbated by the current Republicans' attack on the "soft" sciences.)

      I see math & compsci are sometimes called "formal" sciences. That explains why I wear a tuxedo T-shirt.

  9. I might sound a bit like a sycophant for writing this, but I agree with your points on science and philosophy Professor Pigliucci. People like Harris don't exactly help combat the persistent anti-intellectualism that has been prevalent in American culture for quite some time, even though the people who founded the USA were intellectuals themselves.

    Also, good to hear you are anti-monarchy. ;)

  10. Hey Alex,
    You ought to put down the computer and get away from your scientistic blogs and read some literature, like Sinclair Lewis’s “It can’t Happen Here”, “1984” and of course “Brave New World”. Harris’s book isn’t science but it is a hairbrainded (this form actually works too) idea for controlling people. I have no doubt that people like you would support a program for developing it. Like you Harris hates religion and would like to see it destroyed. He is on record for expressing hate that people have found disconcerting and saying he accepts torture and a fascist form or thuggery as acceptable means for achieving his moral ends.

    Scientism has got you all mixed up. The great scientist and teacher Richard Feynman as much as he was a critic of the philosophy of science was also quite astute about it. He knew scientific reasoning like he knew the back of his hand (You might also try reading his book “The Character of Physical Law”). If you google “Richard Feynman on flying saucers” you’ll find a film clip on Youtube where he says, “It is scientific only to say what is more likely or less likely and not to be proving all the time possible and impossible”. As much as you would like to ridicule religious belief and tell people it is scientifically false, I am sorry but you can’t, unless you want to be intellectually dishonest and a bully about it. Scientific knowledge is by its nature incomplete. Here is what another competent scientist, H Allen Orr, said on this topic in his review of “The God Delusion” in the “New York Review of Books”:

    “Since when is a scientific hypothesis confirmed by philosophical gymnastics, not data? Second, the fact that we as scientists find a hypothesis question-begging—as when Dawkins asks “who designed the designer?”—cannot, in itself, settle its truth value. It could, after all, be a brute fact of the universe that it derives from some transcendent mind, however question-begging this may seem.”

    1. >He is on record for expressing hate that people have found disconcerting and saying he accepts torture and a fascist form or thuggery as acceptable means for achieving his moral ends.

      Patrick, though I am no fan of Harris, it's preferable to accuse him of things he's actually guilty of. His position on torture is pretty standard (among philosophers anyway, even if it has attracted some cheap conspicuous outrage from bloggers). As for fascism & hate... citation needed. I suspect quote mining here, but we shall see.

      Your criticism of Alex SL is a prime example of why I really dislike the term "scientism," even though I also think it describes a real phenomenon. Harris, Krauss, Hawking, Dawkins... all have their scientistic moments and it's worth calling them out on them.

      On the other hand here we have Alex wanting to place the demarcation lines between philosophy & science in a slightly different place than you (based on principled reasons he is spelling out for you), and he is therefore "scientistic."

    2. Ian,

      Harris IS guilty of these things.

      For citation, see Glenn Greenwald's list here:

      As to fascism, Harris literally aligns himself with European neo-Nazis, saying they have the right ideas regarding Muslims.

      Harris's Islamophobia can only be describe as irrational hate, on par with any racist creed.

      Greenwald's list is by no means comprehensive.

    3. Ian,

      In reference to Harris and torture:

      The fact that torture is commonly accepted and advocated in polite society renders it, to my mind, no less repugnant.

      That aside, please note that Harris’s approach to torture is not a philosopher’s abstract exploration into the theoretical and ethical dimensions of that subject. Rather, Harris believes not in *theoretical* torture, but *applied* torture – namely, that torture should be immediately applied to Muslims and only to Muslims.

      Harris would never allow that it would be justifiable for the Taliban to torture a captured American soldier because, in the view of the captors, some utilitarian calculus has been satisfied (i.e. torturing this American may yield information that will save thirty Afghan lives). Yet, any honest philosopher would be obliged to acknowledge that any ethical justification of torture by a utilitarian argument would apply equally to Americans in the hands of the Taliban.

      Harris differs from the Scientist/Philosopher in that he expresses a fanatical advocacy that his ideas regarding torture be put into common practice, and that the targets of his program of torture should be confined to a select, particular group of victims – which makes it hate speech, not philosophy.

    4. Yep, sorry Ian. But Harris is an "outlier." His stance on torture is pretty clear. He also believes in stuff that at least approaches pseudoscience, on airport profiling of Muslims. And he continues to believe it, Ian, even though he's been substantively refuted. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me, on the Mooslim issue, if Harris actually goes MORE pseudosciency in years ahead.

      Oh, and Massimo's already got a copy of this link, but here's a great story about Harris which, for people like me who look at him more skeptically, explains a fair bit of his psyche: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/05/the-atheist-who-strangled-me/309292/

    5. Tom, I am in a tricky position here because I do think Harris goes too far in criticizing Muslims, but I also think Greenwald & others are going too far in criticizing THAT.

      The quote on fascists is a case in point. In that quote, Harris is lamenting the fact that (as he sees it), liberals are failing to critique Islam, UNFORTUNATELY leaving that task to fascists. See also.

      As I said above, Harris' position on torture is bog-standard among ethical philosophers who have thought about it; disagree if you wish, but it is not the pronouncement of a torture-hungry madman.

      His position that Islam presents more problems than other religions, is kind of obviously true to anybody capable of a reductio on the relative danger of Muslim vs Quaker extremists (as Harris never tires of pointing out).

      As to his other positions, I disagree with many or most of them (especially the NYC Islamic community centre fiasco), but do not see "irrational hate" as plausibly their motivator.

      In general we could use a lot more principle of charity here and a lot less moral grandstanding.

    6. Just saw your second reply, Tom.

      >Yet, any honest philosopher would be obliged to acknowledge that any ethical justification of torture by a utilitarian argument would apply equally to Americans in the hands of the Taliban.

      I don't want to get too object-level here, but no. Utilitarianism is not culturally relative; bad means to a bad end are bad.

      >Harris believes not in *theoretical* torture, but *applied* torture – namely, that torture should be immediately applied to Muslims and only to Muslims.

      If you can provide a Harris text confirming this, I may have to agree about the irrational hate. I have not seen such a claim from him.

    7. Ian, you wrote, "Harris is lamenting the fact that (as he sees it), liberals are failing to critique Islam, UNFORTUNATELY leaving that task to fascists. [see also]"

      Right. The only thing that Harris sees as unfortunate is that MORE people don't think like the fascists. That is, the fascists have the right ideas and the liberals have the wrong ideas. That is Harris aligning himself with the POLITICAL philosophy of the fascists -- it is NOT a logical error of the "association fallacy" type.

      I am not criticizing Harris for liking the same foods as the fascists or for wearing the same hats as the fascists. Rather, I am criticizing Harris for admiring the political PHILOSOPHY of the fascists, and his lamenting only the fact that more people don't think like the fascists.

      "bad means to a bad end are bad" -- but can't you see that each side claims the moral high ground as their own? EVERYONE will claim to have a good end in mind when they torture.

      As to Harris believing that torture should be applied to Muslims -- he has said that several times himself (I listed the citations in the Greenwald link). You will look in vain for Harris opining that it would be o.k. for al qaeda to do likewise -- hence, his is not an objective exploration into the philosophical justifications for torture (that apply equally to all parties), but rather is a hate filled attack on a particular group that Harris doesn't like -- dressed up as Science. Harris's advocacy of APPLIED torture to a SELECT group is NOT a "bog-standard".

      To attempt to equate the rants of Harris with well thought out philosophical arguments regarding torture (such as are found in Stanford's Phil. Encyclopedia) is absurd. Reputable philosophers don't pretend to have all of the answers or advocate any particular political policies, as Harris does.

    8. Also, you wrote, "His position that Islam presents more problems than other religions, is kind of obviously true to anybody capable of a reductio on the relative danger of Muslim vs Quaker extremists (as Harris never tires of pointing out)."

      I am sorry Ian, but that notion is plain ignorant.

      Technically speaking, Islam absolutely forbids suicide under any circumstances (no exceptions). It likewise forbids its members to attack anyone -- unless they themselves are attacked. It also forbids attacking women and children (with the exception of self-defense). So, anyone causing violence-related "problems" is, technically speaking, not acting in accord with the teachings of the Koran.

      93% of Muslims describe themselves as moderate. Of the 7% self described extremists, the vast majority describe their dislike of the U.S. on political -- not religious grounds.

      Also Harris continues to ignore Robert Pape's excellent study that demonstrates suicide bombing is more strongly correlated with military occupation than with religion. I defy you to find a better conducted, more scientific study on the subject than Pape's.

      The comparison of Islam to the Quakers is absurd. The government is not currently in conflict with the Quakers. As a matter of history, this government DID previously have lots of problems with Quakers and routinely threw them in jail. (Not many problems with Muslims at the time).

      Allegedly, the very name "Quaker" comes from a man on trial who said to the judge "you should quake at the name of the Lord". The judge replied "you, sir, are the quaker".

      But, comparisons between the two religions are invalid. There are no similar points of contention between the US and the Quakers as there are with Middle Eastern countries. You may as well note that al qaeda has no "problems" with Mexicans. That's because they are not currently in a power struggle with Mexico.

      In any event, it is poor science verging on racism to blame the actions of individuals on an entire group. Would you call all blacks criminal because some blacks were arrested for crimes? Why then blame Islam (which explicitly forbids violence) for the (mainly) politically motivated actions of a small percentage of the Muslims?

    9. Tom, this will be my last reply as this discussion is pretty off-topic. Also, I am not especially interested in this topic.

      >I am not criticizing Harris for liking the same foods as the fascists or for wearing the same hats as the fascists. Rather, I am criticizing Harris for admiring the political PHILOSOPHY of the fascists, and his lamenting only the fact that more people don't think like the fascists.

      OK, here's an analogy. One of the things Stalinists believe is that capitalism tends to foster anti-social greed and avarice. Do you agree with that, even a little? Guess you must admire Stalinist political philosophy.

      The Moral: It is possible to think a horrible ideology gets *some* things right (or at least, righter than its alternatives) without signing on to the ideology tout court.

      >can't you see that each side claims the moral high ground as their own? EVERYONE will claim to have a good end in mind when they torture.

      It doesn't matter whether they *claim* to have the moral high ground, it matters whether they actually have the moral high ground. Again, you seem to be stuck in some sort of weird relativism here.

      Your idea that Al Qaeda is motivated primarily by politics as opposed to religion... I'm tempted to just say "read the wikipedia article on Al Qaeda."

      Note in particular the massive, massive number of sectarian attacks against Shias (those damnable, oppressive, occupier Shias!) Also see under Ideology:

      >The radical Islamist movement in general and al-Qaeda in particular developed during the Islamic revival and Islamist movement of the last three decades of the 20th century, along with less extreme movements.

      >Some have argued that "without the writings" of Islamic author and thinker Sayyid Qutb, "al-Qaeda would not have existed."[73] Qutb preached that because of the lack of sharia law, the Muslim world was no longer Muslim, having reverted to pre-Islamic ignorance known as jahiliyyah.

      >To restore Islam, he said a vanguard movement of righteous Muslims was needed to establish "true Islamic states", implement sharia, and rid the Muslim world of any non-Muslim influences, such as concepts like socialism and nationalism. Enemies of Islam in Qutb's view included "treacherous Orientalists"[74] and "world Jewry", who plotted "conspiracies" and "wicked[ly]" opposed Islam.

      I don't know why we don't just listen to what these people actually SAY about their motivations, it seems to work for other ideologies.

      >But, comparisons between the two religions are invalid. There are no similar points of contention between the US and the Quakers as there are with Middle Eastern countries.

      It was a reductio, after all. But consider other religions that have undergone similar persecutions. The Falun Gong might be an example. Where are the Falun Gong suicide bombers?

      Your notion that Islam explicitly forbids violence... I don't even know what to say there. It would require one HELL of an exegesis to argue that (if it isn't just based on one or two cherry-picked verses).

      This conversation frustrates me because I am not especially anti-Islamic myself, and in ordinary circs would probably be arguing the contrarian case against Harris. But he is right, at the very least, that his critics are living in a dream world of political wish-fulfillment.

    10. Is utilitarianism "not culturally relative"? I'd agree that it's not *necessarily* culturally relative, but that it isn't, period? I'd disagree.

      I could easily create utilitarian arguments that insist that maximizing good for the greatest number of people is dependent on:
      1. Capitalism
      2. Secularist-pluralist democracy
      3. Strict implementation of sharia.

      And, of course, I'd be way back in line behind those who have already done so.

    11. >It is possible to think a horrible ideology gets *some* things right (or at least, righter than its alternatives) without signing on to the ideology tout court.<

      Well, you asked for a citation supporting the fascism of Harris and I gave you one.

      Whether Harris agrees “tout court” with European fascists on all things – down to the size of the swastikas on the armbands – is a question in which I am not interested. Harris thinks that the fascists have the right ideas on Muslims and I will let that speak for itself.

      >you seem to be stuck in some sort of weird relativism here<

      I am not arguing for cultural relativism, I am asking that standards applied to others be applied to ourselves as well, and that privileges – such as the “right” to torture if one sees fit – be enjoyed by other parties, or by no one.

      >I'm tempted to just say "read the wikipedia article on Al Qaeda."<

      Nothing in that (very long!) article changed my mind. What do you offer?

      “Some argue that al qaeda would not have existed without the writings of Sayyid Qutb”. And Sayyid Qutb talks about (his version of) Islam.

      But would-be bombers captured don’t talk about Sayyid Qutb's philosophy. They talk about the invasion of Iraq, Muslim children killed by drones, imprisoning Muslim children and old men at Guantanamo, occupation, etc.

      >I don't know why we don't just listen to what these people actually SAY about their motivations, it seems to work for other ideologies.<

      I am offering a comprehensive scientific study of WHY suicide bombing occurs: Robert Pape’s study. Moreover, more recent interviews by terrorism experts with apprehended attempted bombers have revealed the same conclusion: politics, not religion as the motivation.

      In contrast, you offer cherry picked statements by some Muslim leaders. Should we judge Christianity by statements made by David Koresh? Judge Judaism by statements made by Meir Kahane? Again, it is absurd to target an entire group for the actions or words of a very tiny minority.

      >It was a reductio, after all. But consider other religions that have undergone similar persecutions. The Falun Gong might be an example. Where are the Falun Gong suicide bombers?<

      Again, it is not about religion, it is about (foreign) military occupation. The Falun Gong was an affair internal to China. Also, no one makes the claim that oppression and military occupation must always lead to violent reaction. Pape’s study says that suicide bombing is mainly correlated with foreign military occupation. He does NOT say that every military occupation or every oppression results in suicide bombing, nor do I.

      >Your notion that Islam explicitly forbids violence... I don't even know what to say there.<

      You may not know what to say, but it happens to be a fact. Many passages in the Koran forbid violence and promote peace and this viewpoint is affirmed by many respected Muslim scholars. You and Harris are merely ignorant of this. Here is just one of many examples:


  11. Outside the box of scientific uncertainty is Nature's simple absolute, the truth that unites us All. Someday soon Truth 101 will be taught and the grey areas of scientific uncertainty dividing all the disciplines of thought, including the faiths of the gods will dissolve into the freedom of light, the self-evident proof, the promised land.

    I can't take you there because we already are there, the truth is here, truth is; what are you waiting for?

    Truth 101


  12. Though there is much in the post with which I agree, I think the political asides are unnecessary and unhelpful here.

    I happen also to have a few reservations about the British royal family and particularly about some of views of the heir to the throne, but who cares about the designation 'royal'?

    Likewise, talk about reactionaries plotting to undermine the teaching of the humanities in order to pursue their nefarious purposes seems to be politicizing – and polarizing – the discussion unnecessarily.

    It also weakens your case as readers with a conservative or classically liberal bent might be inclined to wonder whether the reason you are so concerned about the status of philosophy may not be related in some way to a desire to use the discipline as a political platform or as a vehicle for partisan political purposes. As a longtime reader of this blog, I don't believe this is the case, but casual readers could well draw such a conclusion.

  13. Pseudoscience isn't a discipline. The pseudoscientists themselves certainly wouldn't define themselves as such. Pseudoscience is just a label which characterizes what people do when they believe or claim to be doing science, but really they're not.

    Most pseudoscience consists of lies and unfalsifiable hypotheses promoted as if they're valid models of how the world works. There's no boundary, since pseudoscience is not a field.

    Philosophy, on the other hand, is a field. It's the exploration of ideas. So the boundary is clear: science deals with the physical world, philosophy deals with our thoughts about it.

    When scientists talk about things you imagine are philosophical, they're really talking about things or situations in the physical world which only vaguely resemble their counterparts in philosophy. So philosophers shouldn't feel threatened. It's not as if scientists are rushing to publish in philosophy journals. They're busy sticking to their field.

  14. Ian,

    > On the other hand here we have Alex wanting to place the demarcation lines between philosophy & science in a slightly different place than you (based on principled reasons he is spelling out for you), and he is therefore "scientistic." <

    I agree that Alex cannot be reasonably accused of scientism. But surely you are not arguing that a concept isn’t useful just because it is abused? “Fascism” is a perfectly good example...

    > I can see why you could say "some" religious operate on a non-cognitive level. <

    Yes, but those who do don’t (usually) pretend to be doing science, they do theology, which in my book is (pseudo)philosophy. Those who do pretend to do science — “scientific creationists” for instance — do so clearly for ideological reasons. But I’m sure there is a blurry demarcation line there too.


    > Pseudoscience isn't a discipline. <

    Nor did I say that. It is a type of approach, which however does include various “disciplines,” such as parapsychology, astrology, etc.

    > It's not as if scientists are rushing to publish in philosophy journals. They're busy sticking to their field. <

    Most of them, yes. Except for high profile people like Hawking, Krauss, etc. who keep loudly proclaiming that philosophy is dead and/or that whatever philosophy does is actually the province of science. As I argue in the post, they are doing real damage.

    1. The same Anonymous as before here.

      I'd be really interested to know what exactly they mean when they say philosophy is "dead". From what I know of them, it would surprise me if they didn't want people to "comprehend complex texts, exercise critical thinking, be aware of their own cultural history and of the meaning and functioning of the laws of their own society".

      They aren't out to get everything that may possibly be labeled "philosophy". After all, Dan Dennett is also a philosopher and they don't have anything against what he's doing.

  15. Patrick,
    Just because some things are outside science, doesn't automatically mean gods are in this category. On what basis are gods not addressable by science?

  16. Patrick,
    Just because some things are outside science, doesn't automatically mean gods are in this category. On what basis are gods not addressable by science?

  17. Regarding whether Alex's view regarding science falsifying god is scientistic, I this it is, at least mildly. What gives science its special epistemic character is that it takes *empirical* evidence as the main criterion of what it accepts and rejects. I take Alex's claim to be that since there is no *empirical* evidence that god exists, it can be considered a scientific fact that no god exists. This view is based on the metaphysical assumption that everything (i.e., ontic type) that exists is such that there is empirical evidence of its existence. This is not a scientifically demonstrated or demonstrable claim and this is why Alex's claim is false. If the mentioned metaphysical claim were true, science would be adequate for doing ontology: what exists would be purely a matter of scientific evidence. Now the reason I think Alex's view is at least a bit scientistic is that it involves an exaggerated view of the importance of science in the human quest to understanding reality, i.e., one in which it usurps ontology. I take scientism to be an uncritically positive or expansive view of science, and I think Alex's view counts as such, if just a mild case.

  18. Massimo, it is just too complicated to really reply but I tried then realized I was just getting too self centered doing so. So I will suffice it to say I am at home here with all you say but don't agree exactly. I am really conscious of the soft and undulating boundaries between your topics - S-Ph and S-Ps. I got my degree back in 81 by returning to school and demonstrating competence in exactly those gray areas at the boundaries. If you like, you can put all three together sort of at once and discover a small area that overlaps all three, which is what I did. Took me nearly 300 pages. You can maximize the boundaries in those cases by applying the correct and consistent metaphysics. I don't mean to reify pseudoscience or pseudophilosophy (I agree there is such an ugly beast) but one could make a scholastic life in the intersection just as Eliade and Campbell did in mythology and Jung did in psychology.

    1. For people who tout Jung, I strongly recommend the book "The Aryan Christ."

  19. Paul M Paolini,

    If you are intellectually consistent about this, a scientist should be guilty of scientism when tentatively concluding that the Atlantis hypothesis or the Bigfoot hypothesis should be rejected because there is no empirical evidence for the existence of that kingdom and animal, respectively. After all, Bigfoot could also exist without there being empirical evidence for its existence.

    But strangely, that accusation is never made when talking about Atlantis or Bigfoot, it is only made when talking about religious claims. Please look up the terms "special pleading" and "intellectual inconsistency".


    Yes, I know you think that slapping the word supernatural onto an otherwise completely unchanged claim makes it different. But I have yet to see an explanation for why one should think so. "This water heals because water has a memory" and "this water heals because it was blessed by a priest" are the exact same claim about healing properties. It is as if you are offering to frauds and charlatans a box full of talismans - really only stickers saying "supernatural" - that you promise will ward off scientists.

    There are three properties that make an "item" non-addressable by science. First, it could be a purely abstract concept, a number or suchlike, with no empirical content. The goal post moving by some so-called sophisticated theologians notwithstanding, that is clearly not what gods are. Nobody fears that an abstract concept will punish them, hopes that an abstract concept reunites them with their loved ones after death, believes that it grants a miracle healing when prayed to or that it created the universe, and so on. All these are claims about empirical reality.

    Second, it could behave in a completely random and arbitrary manner. See the previous point: the religious do not believe that god is random, they believe that creation has a purpose, that god rewards certain things and punishes others, etc. (And that is before we realize that scientists deal with randomness all the time.)

    Third and finally, it could be entirely unobservable - but then the principle of parsimony, consideration of null hypotheses etc force the scientist to tentatively reject its existence.

    Conversely, if something is supposed (1) to have an effect on the empirical and (2) to exhibit some regular behavior, it falls squarely into the domain of science. In other words, every god that goes the slightest bit beyond apophatic agnosticism falls into the domain of science. Studying things that act on the universe is precisely the job of a scientist.

    Again, I am not saying that philosophy does not have a domain, or that it cannot also address the supernatural. In fact, philosophy encompasses all knowledge whatsoever, not least because it includes epistemology. When you ask whether there are married bachelors, there is no need to collect empirical data to answer that question, and the same is true, for the same reasons, when asking whether there is an omnipotent and omniscient deity - internal contradictions, does not even get off the ground. But the married bachelor question could also be answered by the scientist - tentatively - on the grounds that no married bachelor has ever been observed.

    And who do you turn to when you want to know whether positrons exist - a scientist or a philosopher? So why would it be any different if you want to know if angels exist? Who do you turn to when you want to know whether a rock has a natural shape or was designed as a stone age spearhead - a scientist (s.l.) or a philosopher? So why would it be any different if you want to know whether the universe was created or not?

  20. Alex,

    On the contrary, I think I can treat Bigfoot and god as different sorts of cases with intellectual consistency. Bigfoot is a type of thing such that if it existed, there would be empirical evidence of it, whether we find it or not. That there have been many decades wherein no solid evidence of the creatures existence has been established is actually evidence that the creature doesn't exist; probably suggests that if the creatures existed, we would have solid evidence by now. The dearth of such evidence warrants the tentative denial you mention. God on the other hand is a very different case. We cannot suppose that god is such that, if he or she existed, there would be empirical evidence of him or her. For this reason, denial as in the case of Bigfoot is not warranted.

    1. I do not understand what is so difficult about it.

      1) God is such that, if he or she existed, there would be empirical evidence of him or her. -> Lack of empirical evidence observed. -> Conclude tentatively that god does not exist.

      2) God is such that, if he or she existed, there would be no empirical evidence of him or her. -> Apply principle of parsimony. -> Conclude tentatively that god does not exist.

      After all, if a chemist claims to have discovered a new element, but sadly it is part of the very nature of this element that there is no empirical evidence for it, that will not help them get their claim accepted either.

      And for the umpteenth time, my former colleague who believed that Allah made him get into a car crash because he had been mean to his mother does not believe in a god for which there could be no empirical evidence.

    2. Ahh, Mr. Paolini seems to be proffering the old "god of the gaps," updated version. I'll pass, and, unlike Alex, won't even waste further breath, or keystrokes.

    3. Gadfly,

      Hardly. Talk about wasting breath and keystrokes.

    4. Paul, I'll waste fewer back, other than to say:

      Looking at your blog, you may be a nontheist, but I'm not wading through 20 of your 5,000 word posts to find out, and what you wrote above certainly left open the idea that you were touting a god of the gaps.

      Don't blame me if you can't write succinctly, clearly and concisely. Or that you refuse to define, guided by those three adverbs, what the "undead god" is. I got better things to do with my time.

    5. Gadfly,

      I think you have me confused with Benjamin Cain. I don't write the "Rants Within the Undead God" blog, he does. (He's a philosophy Phd, I'm pretty sure, and personally I think a lot of his writing is excellent; very original topics, and usually quite rigorous.) On MY blog (pmpaolini.blogspot.com) you'll find only short stories. Fiction is what I consider to be my main writing. Cheers.

    6. My apology, Paul, yes; somehow, I thought that was under "your blogs," not ones you follow. That said, I stand by my observation about your original comment here; at the least, it's reasonably open to interpretation as proffering the "god of the gaps," updated.

      I'll also, while correctly re-attributing the observation to Cain's writing, stand by what I said about it, including that, if he can't, or rather, "won't" summarize a thesis of what drives his writing in a few grafs, I'll pass.

  21. Alex,

    The principle of parsimony as you have applied it above is effective the claim that the god hypothesis isn't useful for explaining the natural world. Thus your argument for the tentative non-existence of god is a follows: There's no empirical evidence, god has no value in explaining the natural world, thus tentatively god does not exist. This argument isn't valid. In fact many theists might cheerily agree with both of your premises without the slightest diminishment of faith. What gives you the sense that your argument has force is your (metaphysical) assumption of materialism. In this way, your argument in fact begs the question. Your argument will have force of course with respect to others who share your metaphysical views, in this case however it's because the argument is tautological.

    1. The funny thing is, I am convinced that the claim that there is something supernatural that science cannot examine begs the question. I have yet to see even so much as a meaningful definition of the concept.

      Perhaps try to step back a bit and completely drop the a priori commitment to classification of things into supernatural and natural. Just think: how can we know that some thing actually exists or that some process actually takes place, not as mere concepts but instantiated in the concrete, specific reality around us?

      Next, develop - from scratch - a methodology that you think can demonstrate objectively and reproducibly to you and skeptical others you want to convince whether such a thing exists or such a process takes place. I guarantee you that the methodology you will develop will be indistinguishable from what is today called science.

      If you can actually come up with another method, I am all ears (or eyes, this being a visual medium).

  22. Random comments.

    An example of a regime based on “reason” that produced a terrifying dictatorship is the original French revolution.

    Science has been used to justify dubious projects like eugenics. The guy that invented lobotomy got a Nobel prize.

    If you say science cannot be blamed for anything, because is just a tool like an hammer, then you are saying that science cannot prove any truths at all. A tool is useful or not useful not true or false. In order for science to provide any truths, it has to be more than a tool.

    Pseudoscience abounds amongst the “reason” people. One of my favorite examples is memetics, invented by the great Richard Dawkins. At one time there was a Journal of Memetics. Now the entire episode is seen as an embarrassment.

    Limiting the scope of science has been an ingredient of its success. Extravagant claims of universal applicability have been the main characteristic of failed philosophical systems. Hopefully, “science” will not turn into one.

    1. If you say science cannot be blamed for anything, because is just a tool like an hammer, then you are saying that science cannot prove any truths at all.

      You may be confused about what a truth is - it does not necessarily have to be normative. Is 1+1=2 not true because it fails to tell you that you should be charitable?

      Science is a tool for finding out what is most likely to be correct and what is most likely to be false about the universe around us. It is not a tool for telling you what you should do with that knowledge. So what?

    2. Actually, isn't scientism a misplaced tool usage? It does seem to be the sense of "you should use science as the primary tool for situation X" even if science isn't the best tool. In other worse, it is a version of the "if everything looks like a nail" issue.

  23. What is
    Einstein was right, he just couldn't find the solution.
    Science is restricted by its own measures of uncertainty, whereas (is) Nature is truly infinite, measureless, and absolute.
    It is time to re-evaluate science and take the dice out of the game. It is time for a new science that truly (philosophy) unites us All.
    Pseudoscience is the science of today.


  24. I think the areas "in between" demarcations are indeed the most interesting and fruitful of all. The best example, alluded to in the post and in one of the comments, has to do with "medicine". Massimo you mention acupuncture as pseudoscience, and Alex XL replies to Patrick with the statement that "Pseudoscience gets people killed when it displaces medicine."

    There is a huge amount of overlap between the science and pseudoscience in the practice of medicine. Many so called scientific studies published in academic peer reviewed journals and the foundation of much medical dogma are closer to pseudoscience than science. John Ioannidis has published extensively on why many of these scientific experiments are overturned later, often after damage has been done. Additionally, to demarcate something like acupunture as pseudoscience may be accurate in the sense of how the knowledge behind it was obtained and is used, but as a practical matter, such demarcation disappears when comparing it with the so called scientific treatments with no truly scientific foundation for their use (for example the transfusion of red blood cells other than for severe trauma, or the administration of loop diuretics for heart failure). The use of such traditional treatments have evolved without any rigorous scientific testing, and have been shown to be more harmful than beneficial in many of the ways that they are currently used.

    Additionally, there are rigorous scientific tests showing, for example, that among patients undergoing exactly the same operation by the same surgeon, those who receive a positive, empathetic preoperative introduction to the surgery fare better than those who receive an accurate but purely fact based introduction. This is real science that raises questions as to the value of science alone in treating people, even with raw technology.

    I wonder whether the science, pseudoscience, philosophy, religion and all the other human cognitive endeavors need a more thorough analysis as to what they can do when practiced together, rather than demarcations that encourage silos to be built and defended. Certainly respecting the silos would be a good start, but tearing them down might be a better idea.

    1. Tear down the walls of uncertainty that divide us and you'll find the truth that unites us. =

  25. Massimo, I applaud all efforts to clarify the differences between scientific and philosophical hypothesis and the appropriateness of each in problem solving. I particularly applaud such efforts in the area of morality because I expect such clarification efforts could be socially useful.

    I have a suggestion. The discussion might be usefully moved forward if interested philosophers (perhaps including yourself?) defined how, and in what circumstances, science might be useful in resolving ethical questions.

    For example, a scientific (descriptive) hypothesis about the universal function of cultural moral codes could be appropriately judged largely by its explanatory power, falsifiability, and predictive power. Assume one hypothesis meets standard criteria for provisional truth better than any other, perhaps some form of “Past and present moral codes advocate strategies for overcoming the universal dilemma of how to obtain the benefits of cooperation in groups without being exploited.” An easy, and from my experience standard, response from those knowledgeable about moral philosophy is that, even if true, this hypothesis is irrelevant to defining moral codes. How about figuring out how such a hypothesis about the function of moral codes could be useful? I would be glad to help.

    Reciprocally, it would seem easy for scientists, even those troublesome ones you list, to clarify how their scientific hypothesis about moral codes are limited to justifying instrumental, not imperative, oughts. I expect most would have no problem in dismissing imperative oughts from science as a nonsense idea.

  26. @Alex

    Yes, I have been somehow imprecise. I will clarify. First of all 1+1=2 is absolutely certain, but it is not a statement of the (natural) sciences, but of mathematics, so it is a bad example. The natural sciences are based on induction and cannot provide absolute certainty. The statements of the sciences are only probably true, in the sense of subjective (or Bayesian) probability.

    Saying that “science is a tool for finding out what is likely to be true” is problematic. What do you mean by “likely?” If you mean probable, in the sense of objective probability, I don't think that science can do even that. The objective probability of something is still impossible to derive from induction. All you can derive is the subjective probability of something. So I agree that “science is a tool to assign subjective probabilities to statements.” Anything beyond subjectively probable statements is outside the realm of the natural sciences.

    But now we come to the real problem: subjective probabilities cannot be determined without assigning initial probabilities (priors) to various allowed alternatives and then using Bayesian methods to update the probabilities as new experimental data is available. There are two problems here. First, the initial probabilities are somehow arbitrary. Second and most importantly, the allowed alternatives must be limited for the Bayesian method to work. If you allow an infinite number of alternatives, the initial guess for the probability for each alternative must be zero and the Bayesian method does not work. The probabilities remain zero after every update.

    This gives rise to what I think is the most serious challenge to scientific realism: the “Problem of Unconceived Alternatives.” I will describe the problem with a probabilistic version of Russel's chickens.

    A farmer either feeds his chickens every morning or not with probability 0.5. After a while the chickens guess that there are two alternatives: the farmer feeds us or he does not. Using Bayesian methods, after a month or so, they determine that the probabilities of being fed is 0.51 and the probability of not being fed is 0.49. Then on the 61th day the farmer chops their heads off. The unconceived alternative strikes again!

    The “Problem of Unconceived Alternatives” shows that experimental science cannot even determine likely true statements. It can only determine the subjective likelihood of an arbitrarily restricted set of alternatives. The “No Miracles” argument still gives us some hope that scientific statements somehow describe reality in an approximate way. However, being itself (meta)inductive, the “No Miracles” argument does not justify the use of scientific methods beyond the practical areas in which they are routinely successful.

    1. Ye gods, now we come to the "science is all arbitrary opinion because problem of induction!!!!" argument.

      Somehow, the PoI does not give me sleepless nights because of the following considerations:

      - It is about as self-defeating as pure positivism although for slightly different reasons. You could not even formulate the problem as you did above without first having relied on induction to work in order to learn the language you are using.

      - Expanding on that, you trust inductive reasoning every day to navigate your life. If you took the PoI serious, you would be paralyzed with terror and indecision every single second - after all, there is no reason to assume that your clothes don't spontaneously turn into plutonium. One could consider using the PoI as a cudgel to score a point in a discussion while happily ignoring it under all other circumstances to be intellectually dishonest.

      - Induction must necessarily work in a universe that shows some kind of regular, understandable structure. And it is not clear to me that a universe that does not show such a structure is even conceivable. In fact, while I am certainly not an astrophysicist, I understand at least some of them to make the case that symmetries and regularities arise necessarily and spontaneously out of chaos. Even completely random behavior will lead to patterns.

      - Although this latter argument may have a few unavoidable assumptions buried in it, I think we can also clearly agree that a universe that is so chaotic as to preclude the use of inductive reasoning would not be one in which organisms that could worry about the justification of using inductive reasoning could exist.

      Yes, the perspective of those chickens is necessarily limited, but you can step back and use induction to learn something about the relationship of the chickens and the farmer if you observe several cycles of feeding and butchering. And is that the argument now? Chickens cannot foresee the axe, therefore a scientist cannot tentatively deny the existence of unicorns?

      Oh, sorry, I forgot that this argument is only to be taken seriously when applied to god. Let's try again: And is that the argument now? Chickens cannot foresee the axe, therefore a scientist cannot tentatively deny the existence of gods?

    2. A scientist can quite confidently deny the existence of gods. She, however, cannot do this as a scientist, using experiments. She can do it using sound philosophical methods.

    3. Incidentally, most of your arguments for induction are sound (or can be made sound with more work.) But they are philosophical in nature.

    4. Filippo Neri,

      Please refer back to the last two paragraphs of this comment. I was rather hoping I had addressed that argument already.

    5. Fillipo: Re A scientist can quite confidently deny the existence of gods. She, however, cannot do this as a scientist, using experiments. She can do it using sound philosophical methods. Rest assured, more than one god is laughing her ass off at this. The refutation is hardly scientific and hardly philosophical. As humans, we made stuff, stuff that can be said to be alive. Likewise, we were probably designed. I do not get what is nonsensical about this. For every instance of lack of evidence that informing the atheist's world view, where is the corresponding evidence that we have provided to sophisticated computer systems that we are alive and kicking? Christ on a corrupted corroded crutch with termite damage to boot!

    6. Ahh, DaveS. What took you and your psi/new agey beliefs so long to get here?

    7. been pretty busy lately Gadfly. Like it or not, since the early 1900s we have entered some kind of new age, and need to make sense of it

    8. Filippo,

      Surely 1+1 and 2 are not the same and the only absolute or certainty in an equation is =. And as for mathematics defining Nature, if you are looking for truth, equal is the single absolute.
      When All is equal All is truly One.
      God, the Universe, Nature, Everything.


  27. Hey Ian,
    I’m sorry that crack I made about scientism offended you. I like writing and I get carried away sometimes. However, I can’t think of another word to use here. Scientific knowledge has limits (as Massimo’s demarcation post tries to demonstrate). Scientism is when someone’s idea of scientific knowledge has overflowed what ought to be some of the more distinguishable limits. This isn’t merely a disagreement about where to set the demarcation lines between science and philosophy. Alex fundamentally misunderstands the nature of scientific knowledge. And his argument is NOT principled; it’s grounded prejudice.

    Scientific knowledge is always incomplete. As hard as we try to compile a comprehensive sample of data to support theory, making sure to include all the critical states we can think of, the support is still based on a relatively small set of data and an inherently limited understanding of everything that’s going on. That’s why people with a mature understanding of science like Feynman and Orr don’t make this kind of error. Feynman wasn’t in the business of proving what’s possible and impossible. Based on our limited understanding all our theories can tell us is what is more or less likely. H Allen Orr said it like it is, as much as Alex feels it’s “special pleading” it could be “a brute fact of the universe that it derives from some transcendent mind”.

    The difference between the idea of God and the claims Alex is comparing them with, like “alien visitors having built the pyramids” is the great emotional and cultural significance attached to the former. Billions of people belong to a religion and believe in God. Alex wants to use his meager knowledge of science to intellectually bully them. No doubt he can show that the more naïve beliefs contradict some of our best scientific theory. But Alex doesn’t understand the religion of Martin Luther King or the Dali Lama. Any neutral third party who has read Alex’s posts here and the Dali Lama’s book, “The Universe in a Single Atom” would likely conclude the Dalai Lama knows more about science than Alex does. And King was brilliant. His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” ranks with the best literature of the 20th century including Einstein’s “Theory of General Relativity”. There are a lot of different religious beliefs out there. Alex has no definitive “god hypothesis” to work with. Undaunted by his lack of understanding and the lack of clarity of his subject he’s just trying to disrespect (for who can say what reason) the billions of people in this world who happen to belong to a religion.

    1. If science is limited and the Universe or Nature is infinite, how can you scientifically define everything or anything?


  28. @Alex,

    I did not say that science is arbitrary. “Subjective” in “subjective probability” is a technical term referring to the use of Bayesian methods. A lot of science today uses Bayesian methods, sometimes without giving explicitly the priors used. This affects mostly the study of low-probability or rare processes, like proton decay or the origin of the universe. I would love to be able to observe multiple cycles of universe-origin, but that's not likely to be possible.

    No, the reason why a scientist cannot falsify the existence of god is sociological, mostly. No actual scientist is running the test! Do you know of any scientist who actually is planning to test for god? Me neither.

    Science is based an actual, not imagined experiments. Since no real experiment is actually being run or planned, science is not testing for god. Since is not conceivable that any sane scientist will ever do the experiment in the future, science cannot test for god. The reason is, obviously, that no sane scientist (including theistic scientists) believes that the experiment will give a positive result. The grounds for this belief are philosophical in nature.

    Also, the experiment would be useless. If the experiment actually finds evidence for god, nobody reasonable (me included) will believe in it. If the experiment finds no evidence, it will still not convince the fanatic god-believers and will have been a waste of time for the scientist(s) doing it. The god-experiment is not worth doing and so it will not be done.

    1. I do not agree that the only thing that science is allowed to do is to infer one factoid from one isolated experiment at a time. How, after all, would you run and set up up the lab experiment to find evidence for evolution?

      No, the acceptance of evolution is based on an inference to the best explanation from innumerable small pieces of observation and innumerable experiments. That it is not one simple experimental result does not make evolution non-scientific.

      Similarly, the rejection of god would be based on an inference to the best explanation from innumerable small pieces of observation and innumerable experiments. That praying does not heal amputees, that the universe started with an energy sum of zero and in a perfect state of entropy (-> no creation), that we do not have special place in the universe, that no angels and gods have ever reliably been observed or communicated with, that brain damage can destroy our memories and personality (-> no souls), etc. Those aren't philosophical considerations, those are observed empirical facts.

    2. To paraphrase Shakespeare, There are more things in heaven and earth, Alex, than can be dreamt of in your scientism. You’re like the Grinch who tried to steal Christmas. The people still came out on Christmas morning and sang songs. What you know about the universe is small and irrelevant. People want to be a part of a community. They want to join their voices together in song. They want to share in a common life and find and develop ways to express their unity. And what greater symbol of their unity is there than God? As the author of the first letter of John proclaimed in a moment of inspiration, “God is Love”. You know so little about personality, love and beauty and the things these people are groping after. The people whose throats you would shove your trivial evidence down work to end poverty, organize protests against war and work to get governments to support programs for children rather than buying weapons of mass destruction.

      Like all people (including science guys like you) religious people can be ignorant. To quote the Catholic philosopher Mortimer Adler, in a modern society “everyone has a duty to think”. So of course religions need to be reformed. But you’re just taking potshots at so many cultures and people you don’t even know; and who you have no interest in knowing. It seems kind of heartless. Like any fundamentalist you don’t like anyone who doesn’t agree with you.

    3. Patrick,

      You are reading things into what I have written that are simply not there. I argue only that it is not scientism to say the existence of gods can be examined with science, that in actual fact documenting the existence or nonexistence of entities and processes in the world around us is precisely the domain of science, and that arbitrarily excluding one specific type of entity from that domain amounts to special pleading.

      Yes, I personally value the unpleasant truth more than the pleasant lie.

      Yes, I am convinced that our best hope of doing what is right and what will benefit us all together most is to hold beliefs that are true and reject those that are convenient but false.

      Yes, I am convinced that unless we all agree to decide controversies based on evidence and reason we will necessarily remain epistemic islands, shouting "no it isn't!" and "is too!" at each other like so many kindergarten inmates because there is simply no common ground to even start to resolve an issue.

      How you get from there to my supposed disinterest in ending poverty, or my disinterest in knowing people from other cultures is not quite obvious.

      To paraphrase Shakespeare, There are more things in heaven and earth, Alex, than can be dreamt of in your scientism.

      Do you have reproducible evidence for that? Otherwise you are just making a naked assertion. Hello, neighboring epistemic island.

    4. Very well argued, and I agree on the facts. I still have a few questions about your position.

      You seem to belittle somehow the evidence for evolution, in order to strengthen your case. For instance, the observation that the genetic code is (almost) universal – clearly a scientific observation – is enough by itself to convincingly prove common descent. Then we have trees based on rRNA sequencing, etc. Each of these is the result of a scientific research program. And they are not “small” pieces of evidence. They are quite big, in fact.

      On the other side, the inefficacy of prayer, the non observation of angels and demons, and even the effects of brain damage, while true facts and convincing evidence, are not obviously scientific facts. I think one problem is that you seem to think that all empirically established facts are science, while I think that science is only the result of specific research done by scientists.

      Since I have a PhD in physics, I cannot resist the urge of discussing the most intriguing and controversial piece of evidence, the no-creation argument. It is true, and has been known for a long time, that quantum mechanics + gravity could imply that the universe “tunneled” out of nothing. It is also true that, if this is the case, the universe would have exactly the characteristics that recent observations have shown it to have. Differently from Krauss, I actually believe that the universe could have tunneled out of nothing, not out of a quantum-field-theory vacuum (which is really something.) This means that one could make an even stronger case for the spontaneous origin of the universe than Krauss does.

      My problem is, where do the laws of quantum mechanics and gravity come from or, at least, what is the nature of their reality? Note that I don't think that the laws imply the existence of a lawgiver or any such ridiculous idea. (In fact the term “law” is just an historical accident.) However, in order to be responsible for the origin of the universe, the “laws” must have some sort of reality. This brings us to some sort of naturalized metaphysics, like structural realism. This still smells like philosophy to me.

      Clearly all of our differences are a matter of semantics: we seem to define science differently. So I must congratulate you on this very good and well-argued post.

    5. Hey Alex,
      I didn't say you have no interest in ending poverty. I said you're taking potshots at people who you don't know. And it's fair to say from what you have written here you're not interested in knowing what people are after when they gather together in their places of worship. You assume it's all about pleasant lies. Do you really think you somehow know better than all the religious people in the world how hard life is? You ought to read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. He knew what it was like to be hated and treated like dirt. He knew what it was like to fear for his life and the lives of his family and friends. He knew more about hate, fear and love than anyone I’ve ever heard of. He helped whites and blacks and people of all colors who were separated by fear and hate and unjust laws and income disparity to empathize with each other a little. What I was trying to say is religion is more than the relatively insignificant dogma that you’re so hung up on.

      Do you have any idea why H Allen Orr would say it could be “a brute fact of the universe that it derives from some transcendent mind”? It means all of your bold pronouncements are over the top. Your evidence doesn’t amount to much. You don’t have a definitive god hypothesis to work with. And you have no idea how a god that you know nothing about might go about creating a universe. You haven’t proved anything scientifically because you have no theory, no supporting evidence and you haven’t published your findings in a peer reviewed journal.

      I agree that religion needs to let go of the vast majority of its dogma. But you seem to be shouting like a kindergartner yourself. You want people to agree with you. You want controversies decided that you are interested in deciding in your own way.

    6. Filippo Neri,

      Thank you for your kindness. Yes, I think that all empirically established facts are science. Of course you can define science narrow enough to be right by default, I just believe that it would be an artificial and unhelpful definition of science at odds with what I, for example, actually do as a scientist (part of my work testing hypothesis, but another part is collecting botanical specimens and making observations the morphology, habitat preferences and area of distribution of a given species). Science is more than just a method, it is also the body of knowledge and theories which to produce is the sole purpose of that method. Conversely, I could also define philosophy to include nothing but formal logic, but that would be similarly artificial.

      Unfortunately, I am not really qualified to discuss quantum mechanics in any depth. I wish I were better informed about is.


      If I say now that the balance of evidence indicates that fairies do not exist, I am "taking a potshot" at perfectly nice people who believe in fairies. Somehow I can live with that. It is possible to consider somebody seriously mistaken without hating them.

      There is a god hypothesis, and god is testable, to the exact degree that believers (who, after all, are the ones who do the hypothesizing) believe specific things. If they don't believe specific things then they are not believers but basically atheists. If they do believe specific things about their god then we can get to work. It is the same with other topics: If you said you believed in the existence of "Torn" without offering any other specifics, scientists would just have to shrug and dismiss your belief as entirely without content. If you went on to specify that Torn is a particle with this and that characteristic, and that if it existed we should be able to observe this signature if we hit this other particle with a beam of light under those conditions, then your colleagues can get to work testing whether you are right.

      Finally, you are mistaken. I would like people to agree with me OR to show me where I go wrong, so that I can correct my beliefs. But I do want to decide controversies through the use of reason and evidence because that is the only way that controversies can ever be decided. (In the sense of finding out what side is right, I mean; if you don't particularly care about that minor detail, you can also just suppress the opposing side.)

    7. Hey Alex,
      The great religions of the world are not comparable to the people who believe in fairies. You underestimate, misunderstand and disrespect the commitment people make to their church. And like I said in another post, you fundamentally misunderstand scientific knowledge. You have nothing. You do not have a definitive god hypothesis. Read Martin Buber’s “I and Thou” and come back and tell me how you’ve fit his God into your hypothesis.

      Orr is one of the most celebrated evolutionary biologists in the world today. He was awarded the prestigious Darwin-Wallace Medal. On top of that he is not a mere technician like most scientists; he’s well read outside of his narrow field of expertise. I asked you what he meant by that thing he said about it possibly being a brute fact that the universe is derived from a transcendent mind. Since you didn’t answer I’ll tell you what Orr is saying. Science is about a process for developing theories that are well supported by data and publishing the results of your findings for peer review. In his devastating review of the God Delusion he ripped apart Dawkins for doing what you’re trying to do, prove that god doesn’t exist by some ridiculous thought experiment. When you’ve hammered out your definitive god hypothesis (up until now all you’ve given us is babble), collected your data, submitted your results for peer review and had your picture published on the cover of Time Magazine, then I might agree that you could be on to something.

    8. Alex,

      I don't want to intrude in your discussion with Patrick, but I don't understand why you say that "god is testable". How could that be possible?

    9. Vasco Gama,

      As I wrote in my previous comment, it would appear to be the responsibility of the believer to come up with testable characteristics not that of the skeptic. As I see it, there are at best three possibilities:

      1. The believer completely avoids characterizing god. That means that their belief does not actually have any content and the term "god" is as devoid of meaning as the term "xlkelrshr". I would suspect that this is at least sometimes dishonest - they actually hold positive beliefs (otherwise they would simply be atheists) but prefer not to present them so that those beliefs cannot be compared against reality.

      2. The believer characterizes god in a way that makes a universe with god indistinguishable from a universe without god - appeals to mystery, Last Thursdayism, etc. Not testable either, but clearly here the principle of parsimony applies just as much as if I were to suggest to the world the existence of a new plant species that is invisible and untouchable.

      3. The believer characterizes god in a way that makes a universe with god distinguishable from a universe without god. That makes god testable like any other model or hypothesis because we can now compare the actually observed universe against those two models and see which of them it fits better. Clear examples would be: God has created the universe specifically for us humans and given us a special place in it. God has created the universe. God rewards the pious and punishes the wicked. God has endowed us with an immortal, immaterial soul. Etc. I am reasonably certain that the vast majority of "rank and file" believers on this planet has beliefs that are testable against reality in this manner.


      We are going in circles. I have addressed everything you just wrote in my previous comments, and I have filled this thread with more than my fair share of them already. It is also getting tedious to see you constantly use what we could call the "argument from being a meanie for daring to disagree with nice people" instead of addressing what I write. Now you have added the classic argument from authority. It is really doubtful that we will get anywhere like that.

    10. Alex,

      To test god is completely unreasonable.

      But, with some imagination, you can consider that it was possible. Then what kind of god would that be that could be tested. If it was really testable would there be any freedom left for us humans? This possibility can make sense to you, but for me it is beyond reason.

    11. Hey Alex,
      You are impenetrable. I have not pulled the meanie argument. When I said you are taking potshots at people. The point is YOU DON”T KNOW the billions of people you are taking aim at, not that they are nice and you are mean. YOU DON’T KNOW what they believe. So I’m skeptical that you actually have a testable God Hypothesis.

      You have addressed NOTHING that I have said. That is why I thought I would explain to you who H Allen Orr is. So you can understand that he is a real scientist and it’s natural (essential even) to ask you to give us your hypothesis, allow us to read it over and then show us what you have to support it. That’s all.

    12. Vasco Gama,

      Maybe we disagree what the word "test" means. When I test something as a scientist, that does not necessarily mean that I have reaction going on in a beaker, and if the liquid goes purple the test failed or something like that.

      It is more general: we have an idea; we consider what we should observe if the idea were true and what we should observe if it were false; we make observations; if the observations look like our expectation of what they should look like if the idea were false, then it has failed the test. All that could happen in an Excel sheet after data mining the literature, with no actual experiment involved, it does not matter.

      Again, somebody can well believe in a non-testable god but then that idea of god can be tentatively rejected using the principle of parsimony precisely because of its non-testability.

    13. Vasco, you put it well. Are we testing the Ground of Being of Paul Tillich? The classical Christian Trinity as influenced by Greek thought, the classical Allah? Or Ormazd? Maybe a non-monotheistic, and, per Asimov, "less than all" god, like Vishnu, Ganesh, etc.? Or something less yet, like something just above Arthur C. Clarke's "indistinguishable from magic"?

      Wittgenstein doesn't always jazz my boat, and certainly logical positivism doesn't. But, in different ways, they're both right that, the idea of god is really indiscussable. Not ineffable, just indiscussible because indefinable.

      Ergo, there's really no way to test for such an abstract concept.

      Philosophically, per classical logic, of course, proofs for the nonexistence of anything are the equivalent of dividing by zero. And abductive reasoning won't get a nonexistence proof, either.

    14. Alex,

      I don't see how the principle of parsimony could lead to the rejection of a non-testable god.

      It appears to me that the principle of parsimony is quite useless in this matter (it just confirms previous thoughts and is quite poor as an argument).

    15. Patrick

      If God and religion is All about unity,
      Then how and why does it divide itself?
      God is that and we are this, good and bad, heaven and hell, mortals and infidels?
      Measured divisions, religion is as guilty as science in its uncertain divisiveness and much more scientific than most think.
      What is the line between science and religion, I think it is God, only another name for everything, or truth, what science and religion are still searching for.


    16. Gadfly, Vasco Gama,

      It is utterly fascinating how this discussion, whether here or elsewhere, constantly proceeds in circles and by talking past each other.

      I argue that it is inconsistent and special pleading to allow science to tentatively reject all incoherent, indefinable, implausible and unevidenced claims except one. You basically argue that science is not deductive logic. Well, yes. So what?

      There is not actually a contradiction between our claims, indeed they do not actually appear to have anything to do with each other.

    17. This comment has been removed by the author.

    18. Alex,

      You are right this discussion leads to nowhere (as I stated in my first comment I just wanted to show you that a testable god is irrational).

    19. Vasco Gama,

      Now I am completely confused. Surely testable propositions form the basis of any rational inquiry while it is non-testable ideas that are irrational?

  29. Tom D.,
    Thank you for helping Ian understand what I as referring to regarding Sam Harris’s hate and that Harris’s comments regarding torture and Fascist thuggery ought to give civil minded people reason for concern. I’m surprised that someone can know of Harris well enough to know they are not a fan and not have noticed these things. It could be there is so much anti-religious sentiment expressed on these blogs that Harris’s hate doesn’t stand out as much as it does when it appears in the popular press.

  30. Alex,

    > Yes, I think that all empirically established facts are science. Of course you can define science narrow enough to be right by default ... Conversely, I could also define philosophy to include nothing but formal logic, but that would be similarly artificial. <

    This is precisely the sort of scientistic (sorry!) move I object to. If you define science has encompassing all empirical facts than *everything* other than logic and math becomes science. My choice of shaving or not shaving this morning (an empirical fact) becomes science. Your choice of commenting on this blog (another empirical fact) also counts as science. As a result, the word loses meaning.

    You are correct that one does not want to artificially restrict the scope of science, but you are artificially inflating it to the utmost degree, thereby winning by default, as you put it.

    Same for philosophy: you are correct, restricting it to formal logic would go too far in one direction. But how would you feel if I stated that philosophy encompasses all thought? Then science would become philosophy, and of course whenever you are thinking of what to have for dinner you are doing philosophy too, etc. See how quickly the whole exercise becomes ridiculous?

  31. Massimo,

    But how would you feel if I stated that philosophy encompasses all thought?

    I do not actually have any particular problem with that, as long as we qualify it as thought for the purpose of generating knowledge (which would exclude the food choice).

    That does not mean there is no difference between professional, highly sophisticated and formal science / philosophy / math on the one hand and somebody trying to figure out how to repair their toaster / discussing with their friend whether belief in the afterlife makes sense / adding up the household expenses of the week on the other. But those are differences in degree, not differences in principle.

    Nor do I feel offended by having tools that are part of the scientific method (such as parsimony) classified as philosophy - as long as it is recognized that they nonetheless still an integral part of the scientific method.

    I can accept that I am doing statistics when I use a Monte Carlo approach to test whether there is a significant difference between the number of times spiny and non-spiny plants were collected by botanists and the number one would expect if collecting activity was unbiased. I cannot accept a statistician coming along and claiming that because that method is statistic it is not scientific and therefore science cannot address questions of collecting biases in botany. I hope the parallel to the god question is obvious.

    1. I am sorry to see you so exasperated but I simply fail to see what is so self-evidently wrong, perhaps even terribly dangerous and offensive, about classifying all generation of empirical knowledge into science. It is surely how all my colleagues would see it - the ones who never did anything in their life but describe new plant species and write floristic treatments would be fairly offended if you told them they were not scientists.

      While I am willing to be convinced that there is a crucial flaw in my stance you will also note that you did not actually present any argument against it beyond an attempted reductio ad absurdum with two examples that have nothing whatsoever to do with the generation of knowledge.

    2. Alex,

      I don't find your position dangerous or offensive, but I do find it self-evidently wrong. My reductio is perfectly consistent with your definitions, which - logically - means there is a problem with your definition, no?

      "Knowledge" is a vague category. When I am studying the NYC subway map, am I generating knowledge? Surely for myself, though not for humanity. But do even a lot of standard science or philosophy generate knowledge, as opposed to curious tidbits of information? (That is, by the way, what I think a lot of technical papers in both science and philosophy do.)

      Perhaps the problem is that you seem to be trapped by a search for necessary and sufficient conditions to separate science from philosophy. But that search is doomed to failure, as many of my co-authors argue in the forthcoming book. You can't do that even for the science / pseudoscience demarcation. You seem to think, however, that unless a clear criterion of demarcation can be found, then there is no meaningful demarcation to be had (e.g., btw science and non-science). Not so. A bunch of interesting concepts are fuzzy at the boundaries, and they are not characterized by essences. Despite that, we do make useful and principled distinctions, no?

    3. When I am studying the NYC subway map, am I generating knowledge?

      I may have been expressing myself in an inept way. Of course there are several other prerequisites before it really becomes part of the body of knowledge of humanity, not least formal publication to make it available to the community of peers. But I assumed our disagreement was about two things, (1) whether there are empirical facts that are too trivial to be part of science and (2) whether science is only a very narrow method or also a body of empirical knowledge produced by a great variety of legitimate methods.

      I do not believe that it is easy to declare some piece of knowledge to be too trivial to be scientific. When I observe that a given plant is pollinated by flies and beetles that would not appear to be of any significance whatsoever. But if I write it down in a publication somewhere, a colleague may read it and put that observation into a big table and make it part of an analysis about shifts in pollination syndromes on an phylogeny.

      Most importantly, when I use examples of the trivial kind, I am not expecting to see them suddenly appear in any journal I read, I merely want to point out that they are not different in principle and that those didbits of information are produced by the same modes of inquiry that a scientist employs to find out something of greater general interest (and not, because this is empirical knowledge, modes of inquiry that would usually be called philosophy).

      Perhaps the problem is that you seem to be trapped by a search for necessary and sufficient conditions to separate science from philosophy.

      Here also I am afraid I have not at all been able to make my position clear. Of course the boundary is very fuzzy! What I mean is this:

      Observation 1: Philosophy in a way encompasses all knowledge.

      Observation 2: But although philosophy also has things to say on empirical knowledge, its practical generation is specifically the domain of science (you would not ask a philosopher whether the Higgs Boson exists or not, etc.).

      Conclusion 1: Every god that should have observable empirical consequences can be addressed by science. Corollary: That does not mean that it cannot also be addressed by philosophy.

      Observation 3: Parsimony is a philosophical tool but also a scientific one. Without it, science could not conclude anything whatsoever because it could never reject needlessly complicated ideas for simpler ones.

      Conclusion 2: Saying that scientists can use parsimony in all cases except in the case of gods is special pleading.

      Conclusion 3: Every god that does not have observable empirical consequences can be rejected by science using the principle of parsimony.

      There is no claim in there that needs a sharp boundary. In contrast, it is clear that a philosopher and a scientist need many of the same tools to be able to do their work, and that some questions can be addressed by both.

    4. Massimo (and sidebar to Alex):

      I know that you've more than once tackled ethics, and, as part of that, the science-philosophy demarcation issue and what science can, and cannot, tell us about ethics.

      Hell, even with the fire debates in another field generates, as reflected by a famous Latin phrase, why not proffer a post about what traditionally was a major field within philosophy: aesthetics.

      "De gustibus non disputandum" and there's damn little additional light for science to shine on that!

  32. Massimo: Isis 102: 300-337 is a Focus of five free articles on the history of alchemy showing that there was not demarcation possible before certain facts about atoms and elements have been known. Read at least the one of Principe. In your face!-)

  33. Hey Alex,
    I’d like to help clear up some of our confusion. And, who knows, maybe we can shed some light on the demarcation between science and philosophy.

    I just perused your posts again. Let’s pretend we are starting over and this is where we are: You say you have a TESTABLE GOD HYPOTHESIS that can show that God is as non-existent as a unicorn and a fairy. You add that it’s testable to the exact degree that believers believe specific things. So far all we have is this claim you’ve made that you have a hypothesis and it’s testable.

    All we’ve done so far is TALK about possibly doing an experiment. We haven’t done an actual experiment. Therefore you have not scientifically shown anything. All you’ve done is talk about it. All you have done is state that such an experiment is theoretically possible. So far we haven’t done any science and we haven’t “scientifically” shown anything. We’ve just talked.

    This brings us to the most essential demarcation between science and philosophy. Scientific theories depend on (require) evidence to support them. Everyone knows the difference between science and philosophy is many scientists wear lab coats and perform experiments and most philosophers don’t. If all Galileo did was TALK about climbing up to the top of the leaning tower to drop those rocks, then he wouldn’t have scientifically shown anything. And Newton’s theory about the planets rotating around the Sun being like an apple falling from a tree would have been impossible without Kepler’s insight and Tycho Brahe’s data. If you don’t have a hypothesis that is supported by data, then you haven’t done any science.

    Let’s put all this talk about “special pleading” behind us, once and for all; let’s do some science and show the world there ain’t no such thing as God. Give us your testable god hypothesis so we can examine it and see if it is as comprehensive as you say. I will look it over and see if we have Martin Buber’s God covered in your hypothesis. Then why not check and see if we have covered the kind of God Orr was talking about (you know the transcendent mind that can derive universes)? Just post what you have so far. If necessary we may be able to modify it so it covers an idea of god that you haven’t thought of. It’s pretty standard to do that kind of thing when you’re doing science.
    So let’s get started!

    1. This is the last time:

      No, I don't have a god hypothesis because I am an atheist. It is the believers who have one. How do I know without asking all several billion of them? I extrapolate from those that I have spoken to, those who write down what they believe, and those who act on their beliefs as visible in the news media.

      I have not suggested to do "a" experiment to decide whether a benevolent creator god exists just like I would not suggest to do "a" experiment to decide whether the centre of the earth is hollow. Both suggestions simply collapse under the weight of their utter implausibility in the face of what science has found out about the nature of the universe.

      Now here is the question: Is it unscientific or scientism to conclude that the centre of the earth is not hollow because we cannot make "a" experiment, perhaps by sending somebody there to look? Or because a scientist, in the absence of a direct observation, supposedly has to use the tools of philosophy to arrive at a conclusion? Of course not. Nobody would consider that scientism.

      But when a scientist like Dawkins points out that belief in a creator god is just as implausible when seen in the light of what we know about the universe, they are suddenly guilty of scientism. Science is allowed to tentatively reject all wildly implausible, unfounded and specious ideas except one, for no intellectually more defensible reason than it being very dear to many people. That is special pleading.

      If my argumentation contains a flaw, please point it out. I am always glad to learn something. But if you merely continue to attack a straw man version of me do not expect any further replies.

    2. Alex, You wrote

      >But when a scientist like Dawkins points out that belief in a creator god is just as implausible when seen in the light of what we know about the universe, they are suddenly guilty of scientism. Science is allowed to tentatively reject all wildly implausible, unfounded and specious ideas...<

      I can’t help but point out that Peter Higgs, the theoretical physicist famous for the Higgs boson criticizes the “fundamentalist” approach taken by Dawkins, and finds the approach taken by Dawkins to be “embarrassing”.

      In an interview with El Mundo, Higgs argued that although he was not a believer, he thought science and religion were not incompatible. "The growth of our understanding of the world through science weakens some of the motivation which makes people believers. But that's not the same thing as saying they're incompatible. It's just that I think some of the traditional reasons for belief, going back thousands of years, are rather undermined.”

      "But that doesn't end the whole thing. Anybody who is a convinced but not a dogmatic believer can continue to hold his belief. It means I think you have to be rather more careful about the whole debate between science and religion than some people have been in the past."

      So, in short, such an esteemed figure as Peter Higgs does NOT think that the god hypothesis is “wildly implausible, unfounded and specious”.

    3. Higgs stated that quite nicely.

      Alex, I do admire the effort you put into defending your position.

    4. Tom D.,

      As in the case of Patrick, quoting the position of an individual who may or may not be wrong on the issue is not really an argument; providing an argument would be an argument. At least in those quotes, Higgs merely makes assertions.

      Please note that my position as relevant to this post is merely that it is inconsistent, and special pleading, to allow scientists to reject any idea except gods based on absence of evidence. It is not that religion and science are incompatible.

      Still, you are right, I believe that too. Higgs notwithstanding, I fail to see how the demand for evidence is methodologically is anything but the diametrical opposite of faith, and how the belief in the universe having been created and being run by a benevolent god is compatible with even just the information one can gain from reading today's newspaper, much less the body of knowledge represented by contemporary astrophysics and biology.

      Maybe we don't just disagree on the meaning of "science" and "religion" but also on the meaning of "incompatible".

    5. Alex,

      Respectfully, I was making a point in reply to your seeming assumption that science is a monolithic whole with only one viewpoint on the god hypothesis: rejecting it.

      As such, my quoting Peter Higgs is not an argument from authority or merely quoting a random individual -- it is a datum from an esteemed scientist that is in contradiction to an unwarranted assumption of unanimity. The icing on the cake was Higgs’ denouncement of Dawkins’ attitude as being "fundamentalist".

      In addition, let me say that Higgs is not an isolated case; there are many other highly respected scientists who refuse to reject the god hypothesis. The National Academy of Science finds that science and god are not incompatible (as an official position). Moreover, about 7% of the NAS members actually believe in a personal god.

      If I have misunderstood, and your only argument is that rejection of the god hypothesis should not be absolutely forbidden, then I would agree with you.

      But you seem to me to go farther – assuming that all scientists reject the god hypothesis, and that any other viewpoint is unscientific.

    6. No, it is certainly clear that not all scientists march in lockstep - I have colleagues who trust homeopathy and colleagues who believe in various gods. However, that scientists happen to hold those beliefs still does not mean that they are not unscientific.

      The problem with arguing from the accommodationist position of the NAS is that it is an organization trying to promote science in a world in which saying that belief in homeopathy is unfounded is just about permissible but saying that belief in god is unfounded will invite extremely hostile reactions from taxpayers and politicians. Even if the vast majority of its members agreed with me they would be suicidal to say so openly.

    7. Tom, had you picked someone who knew what they were talking about like a philosopher of science or religion, it might have meant something. Higgs is no better than Dawkins whose opinion you despise. If you actually read the NAS, AAAS or NCSE material you would find it is all written by Christian scientists and theologians - neither group's opinions and they are just opinions make a rat's ass bit of difference. The NAS prates on about religion as a "way of knowing" different but equal to science - too bad they cannot come up with a single thing religion knows or how it produces knowledge. One shouldn't accept philosophical advice or theological advice for that matter from a science organization - totally unqualified.

    8. Unfortunately, you can only falsify a god hypothesis one person at a time, as there might be infinite variations of fantasies. There wouldn't be one test for all, as we can never say we know 'everything about everything' (especially the proposed supernatural world)- so we are scientifically confined to falsification of each specific claim to the extent it impacts the measurable world - an endless task.

      Nevertheless, we have rational enquiry more generally, including philosophy, to debate the parameters of these issues rather then falsifying their specifics, which cannot be falsified anyway if they exist only supernaturally. Then we can make our own rational judgments about whether to bother cross-examining every believer to find and resolve any falsifiability or logical contradiction to their 'hypothesis'. I wouldn't bother cross-examining more than one or two, and then I'd embark on a life of total ignorance about the supernatural.

  34. When this thread was young, Philip Thrift gave a link to an article by Susan Haack, someone whose work I have come across from time to time and have always been impressed by.

    Having read the article, I just want to make a couple of comments.

    Haack distances herself from the view that philosophy is a clearly-defined discipline which has a "proper" role. Her own interests have been various (philosophy of language, philosophy of logic, philosophy of science, history of ideas, philosophy of law, literature, etc.).

    Personally, I see analytic philosophy as something of an accidental discipline – or subtly shifting series of disciplines – that different generations of scholars happen to have been socialized into. Haack's basic ideas were profoundly influenced by what was being talked about at Oxford and Cambridge forty or fifty years ago, but she moved on of course (inspired largely by the writings of the American Pragmatist Charles Peirce).

    Despite trying to defend a pluralist view of philosophy, Haack betrays a clear sense of disillusionment with the way academic philosophy is being done. She would like to see more in-depth and historical reading and less superficial argument.

    She writes that philosophy is not "much like normal science; nor does it seem to be presently on any clear forward path ... [T]hese days it often seems that philosophy is going backwards, sideways, or nowhere – any which way but forwards!"

  35. Overlapping this post with earlier ones, I reckon science is factual confirmation of whatever the rational mind can conceive. And the rational mind conceives all of philosophy, which, like science, covers just about every aspect of existence. The main thing is for science not to get too carried away with theory unless it wants to return to a broader (classical) definition of a "body of reliable knowledge"- which I would prefer.

    Then we can bring in the possibility of broad stroke metaphysics for some of what is conceived by physicists today. And rigorous methodology that examines measurers and their theories as much as doing measurments, to understand the reliability of "knowledge" in a much broader context than the confirmation of this or that measurment of a scientific fact.

    As for pseudo-science - its a matter of taste I suppose. One man's meat is another man's puke, and we all have to make judgments about what is logically conceivable within a body of reliable scientific facts. We can make more and better measurements of facts, and conceive more and better theories, which is the main point - progress. I wouldn't get too high & mighty or snobby about it (not suggesting the post tends that way as far as I can tell)

  36. I think I should defend Harris regarding the Muslim issue. I think his views are reasonable and consistent. Islam, of all religions, is the most aggressive and oppressive. Consequently, anybody who rejects and fights religion because of its social and political dangers, must fight Islam much more than any other religion. I think all religions are false and (somehow) evil, but Islam is demonstrably the worst.

    Also Christianity has allowed (and sometimes helped) progressive movements like the Renaissance and Humanism. There has not been anything like the Renaissance in the Muslim world, and consequently, no Humanism, Enlightenment, etc. Islam is pretty much stuck permanently in the Dark Ages. So, I like to be called an Infidel, rather than an Atheist, to demonstrate my particular denial of and opposition to Islam. Of course, I am an Infidel with respect to Christianity too, but I am a lot less worried about it, in practice.

  37. Are homeopathy and parapsychology pseudo-sciences? A scientific theory is any formulation about observed or observable phenomena that includes empirically falsifiable claims, meaning that a pseudo-scientific theory is one that cannot be falsified empirically.

    Unlike homeopaths, string theorists are scientists of the highest order, investigating some of the deepest mysteries of nature. It may, however, turn out that it is impossible to observe structures as tiny as the posited strings or the extra dimensions of space, in which case string theory would have to be called pseudo-scientific even if the physicists involved are anything but pseudo-scientists.

    In contrast, homeopathy is based on a bona fide scientific theory since it claims, falsifiably, that certain substances produce certain effects. If the claims are falsified, then the theory is not pseudo-scientific, only false.

    Science is, or should be, the most democratic of endeavors. It is scientists themselves who must ensure the democracy by rejecting only those theories that are unfalsifiable. To test the effectiveness of homeopathic medicines or the claims of para-psychologists, homeopaths and para-psychologists need only to carry out replicable experiments, and that is all fellow scientists and, may I add, philosophers should demand.

  38. You need to revert to philosophy more generally to inquire into string theory and the like. At the end of the day, its about rational satisfaction with, or conditions applied to, theories that inevitably encompass 'some' measurements. There might be all sorts of rational objections to absent observations of crucial points for falsification, but if it generally fits within a framework of known facts it can be rationally, conditionally, assessed even without crucial points for falsifiability. I'm not much into demarcation, except to say science tends to measurement (falsification of empirical facts) and philosophy tends to rational satisfaction (important when facts are very incomplete).

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