About Rationally Speaking

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

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Podcast Teaser: Eugenie Scott

Our next podcast will feature a special guest, my friend Genie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, the premiere organization fighting for sound scientific educational standards in this country, and a permanent thorn in the ass of creationists and IDers nationwide.

Genie is a physical anthropologist by training, and enjoyed an academic career at the University of Kentucky, University of Colorado and California State, before devoting her efforts full time to a constant front-line fight against irrationalism. For this she has been rewarded not just with six honorary degrees (at last count), but also with the first Stephen Jay Gould prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution (an award that I am proud to say I helped establish when I was Secretary of the Society), and most recently with the prestigious National Academy of Science Public Welfare Medal. She has also authored the excellent Evolution vs Creationism and co-edited (with Glenn Branch) Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools.

But let me tell you about my first encounter with Genie. This was more than a decade ago, I was still at the University of Tennessee, and we were among the first to organize grassroots Darwin Days to fight back against creationist nonsense. I invited Genie, together with my friend Will Provine from Cornell, to be speakers at one of our events. At that time, the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) had just passed a controversial resolution to change their definition of evolution, dropping wording that explicitly referred to it as a “natural unsupervised” phenomenon. The resolution was in response to pressure from ID quarters (in particular the Discovery Institute), and I thought it was insanity. Then I discovered that Genie and the NCSE actually supported the move!

Since it’s not in my nature to shy away from confronting, as politely as I can, people with whom I disagree, I greeted Genie’s arrival in Knoxville with a petition to convince the NABT to reverse its decision. Needless to say, Genie wasn’t pleased, though we managed to maintain a cordial relation throughout her visit.

She tried to explain to me that the NABT may have been moved by pragmatic considerations to diffuse the controversy, but that the original definition was a bad idea to begin with. After all, we don’t define Newtonian mechanics as a theory based on naturalistic principles that describes how planets move in an unsupervised manner, do we?

Moreover, Genie told me, there actually was an intellectually sound, philosophical reason for the move: the well known distinction in epistemology between methodological and philosophical naturalism. Naturalism, of course, is the idea that natural laws and phenomena are all there is in the universe. To be philosophically naturalistic means to be an atheist: based on philosophical reasoning, one thinks that nature is it. However, science does not need to make that strong epistemological commitment (which, while philosophically sound, cannot actually be defended on empirical grounds), because it functions perfectly well within the realm of methodological naturalism: whether there is something beyond nature is irrelevant to science, because science is concerned with — and epistemically confined to — the natural world.

Of course at the time my philosophy was pretty naive, as it is in general for most scientists, so I simply didn’t buy it and thought she was being rather sophistic about the whole thing. The issue, however, kept nagging at me, and I went on to read more deeply into the philosophy of science. In particular, a thoughtful article by Barbara Forrest convinced me that Genie was right: as Barbara (whom I’ve since had the privilege to meet and chat with) puts it, “the relationship between methodological and philosophical naturalism, while not one of logical entailment, is the only reasonable metaphysical conclusion.” In other words, the reasonable position is, in fact, that of the philosophical naturalist (atheist), just like myself. But that position is not logically entailed by methodological naturalism, i.e. it is not strictly speaking a logically required metaphysical assumption in science.

At that point I sent an email to Genie telling her of my change of mind, to which she responded very graciously. We’ve been friends ever since.


  1. As you can imagine, I disagree strongly with the conclusion here, and for several partly unrelated reasons:

    (1) While historically, evolution may have just meant change over time and nothing more specific, the way it is understood now is essentially change over time through natural selection. By definition, if it is not natural selection that is operating but some kind of guiding intelligence instead, most of us would not speak of evolution any more, but of breeding or domestication. (Which, that just by the way, is also the right choice of words to illustrate the concept of god and our presumed relationship to him somebody who believes that to be happening is actually promoting.) But that is quibbling over word definitions, more importantly...

    (2) Again this old natural world / scope of science issue that I would really like to be discussed in more detail. What does beyond nature even mean? If you can infer a phenomenon's existence in any which way, however indirectly, it is in the realm of science and science has to have its say on it. This goes for "invisible" things like black holes, dark matter or long-disappeared civilizations just as much as for a signature of creation in the universe or evidence for an immortal soul. If there is no way to infer it what-so-ever, zip, nada, then science cannot characterize it, but...

    (3) ...no, that does not mean that science cannot or should not comment on it. Lack of evidence that should be there is evidence for non-existence; and it is an indispensable part of what makes science science as opposed to pseudo-science to reject superfluous and unsupported ad-hoc explanations. Again, until I see a reasonable explanation of what precisely is the conceptual difference between a pharmacologist saying that while there was no evidence that the drug they just tested worked, they would still believe it does, and that same pharmacologist saying that while there was no evidence that god had created the world, they would still believe he did, that goes beyond your usual "well, there is one, isn't that obvious" I do not take it so much as sophistry but rather as a completely arbitrary privilege granted to religions that very sensibly is not granted any equivalent question elsewhere. One is considered irresponsible, the other excusable, but they are the same kind of mental dysfunction.

    (4) may have been moved by pragmatic considerations to diffuse the controversy. That is just like the whole problem of accommodationism in a nutshell. If you are right, you are right, and you don't meet a lunatic halfway, and not even 10% of the way. Or maybe you should in politics (although: "you don't want me to put terror suspects into an iron maiden, but I think it is necessary - how about we just lop off fingers for a compromise?"), but if there is any place where you very definitely should not, it is science education, because that should be about scientific explanations and not about accommodating the pathologically deluded!

  2. Great, so its technically correct to say "naturally unsupervised" and science works just fine from methodological naturalism.

    Let's simply ask all instructors at all levels to close every lecture, assignment, examination and other science-related activity with "However, your specific God may have been involved in all aspects of this and if what we just did seems to contradict any of your personal beliefs you may be confident that it still all makes sense somehow." That's technically correct too.

  3. Mintman: "'may have been moved by pragmatic considerations to diffuse the controversy.' That is just like the whole problem of accommodationism in a nutshell."

    Only if you think of "accommodationism" as bending over backwards and failing to assert oneself, which is odd, considering that accommodationists like Eugenie Scott are rather unyielding when it comes to compromising the science. What happened is that a move that was possibly motivated by wanting to mollify creationists serendipitously happened to be a correct one. If the language had been changed to something about teaching the "controversy" or discussing the supposed weaknesses in evolution, I doubt that Scott--or any other accommodationist, for that matter, would have been so accepting.

  4. Point is, I don't think it happened to be the correct one.

  5. @Mintman
    "(1) While historically, evolution may have just meant change over time and nothing more specific, the way it is understood now is essentially change over time through natural selection."

    This is misinformed and incorrect. It has long been recognized that natural selection is not the only factor driving evolution. Your definition leaves out such factors as genetic drift, mutation itself, historical contingency, chance, et cetera. Natural selection is likely the most important driver of evolution, and is the only one that produces adaptation, but it is most certainly not the only one. The others cannot simply be brushed off, either, as it is becoming increasing clear that they have and continue to play really big roles in evolution and evolutionary history. This was Gould's big hobby horse, so his writings might be a good place to go for a review.

    I disagree also with your broader point about the supernatural, but, having read this blog and your comments for a while, I don't see any point in bothering to explain. I agree with Massimo on the subject, and, if he chooses to yet again try to explain his point to you, then good luck to him. (I don't, incidentally, mean this as an insult, but merely expression of frustration. You are dealing with a tricky issue that you are simply looking at the wrong way. I think everyone in science who thinks on the subject has a period when they simply can't understand the distinctions that make the supernatural outside of science. At some point you will have a "Oh, now I get it!" moment, and then it will make sense. Much like the point of metabolic cycles, it takes a long time for it to click. While this is understandable, however, the attitude you have taken of attacking every time the distinction comes up, is frustrating to see over and over again when Massimo has been quite patient in trying to explain it to you. You could be less confrontrational on the issue, after all).

  6. Mel:

    I am a biologist and know that evolution is in fact shaped by many different processes. However, when you think of evolution today, as defended by people like Eugenie Scott against creationists, what is it really defined by? Genetic drift? No, the real affront of evolutionary biology for creationists in general is precisely that it is not guided by god to result in humans, but instead a purposeless selection process driven by natural selection. That is the whole point! Even young Earth creationists often accept the existence and role of mutations and drift. To remove "natural unsupervised" removes the whole heart of the matter, the truly brilliant part and mayor novelty of Darwin's whole idea.

    I understand your frustration; it is paralleled by mine at never being presented with any argument that goes beyond bold assertion. God just is so special, science no go there, end of discussion, no questions please. I don't want to go in circles, I merely do not see where the "explain yet again" comes in, as there was never any explanation to start with. Maybe I am really too dense, too unsophisticated or too green behind the ears to grasp it; but maybe some people have sophisticated themselves so much that they cannot think in a straight line anymore.

    The closest I ever got to getting an explanation was this remark by Massimo:

    That said, I'm really puzzled by your persistence about the supernatural. What do you mean how is it different from the natural? The latter works by natural laws that can be discovered by science and are not capricious; the former can flaunt natural laws and behave completely arbitrarily.

    Quite apart from the fact that the "can be discovered by science" part is begging the question - if capriciousness and arbitrariness is the definition, then I remain confused: Would Eugenie Scott and her organization have to remain agnostic on the existence of Nessie as long as its proponents are careful to claim that it is capricious enough to always be where we are currently not looking? Would a scientist be allowed to examine god as part of nature if he reliably and not at all capriciously zapped everybody who said "goddammit" instantly with a lightning bold of divine wrath? Do you not at all see the problem here? Doesn't Massimo? Or what am I missing?

  7. Mintman, what's wrong with this statement on evolution:

    "The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: an unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments."

    That's the statement that resulted after removing the words "unsupervised, impersonal" from the NABT's older statement on evolution. What here aids creationists?

  8. the attitude you have taken of attacking ... You could be less confrontrational on the issue, after all

    I am sorry if that is how I come across. It stems partly from my argumentative temper and perhaps partly from not being a native speaker. I will try to choose my words more carefully in the future.

    J.J. Ramsey:

    I honestly did not know that; that statement is indeed a very good one. I was referring only to what I got from the blog post without looking up the resulting compromise. Still, I remain very interested in the issue of what science can or should say on the supernatural, and that issue seemed to be at the core of what Massimo posted, methodological naturalism and all.

  9. Mintman,

    Not a problem. I didn't think you were trying to be problematic. Frustration tends to be on both sides in a lot of honest disagreements.

    It still have problems with defining evolution purely in terms of natural selection no matter the context. It just isn't correct! (and my work deals with some of those other factors in evolution, so I am touchy about it!)

    I think you have a mistaken notion of what creationists object to (most typical, ordinary creationists - folks like Ray Comfort, Michael Behe, and so on I think may be another story all together) with evolution. When you get right down to it, for the most part, it isn't evolution per se, but the mistaken notion that acceptance of evolution and of science in general entails atheism, and then a loss of the possibility of purpose in life, morality, purpose, salvation, and so on - that is, all that they hold to be important in life. Those are powerful things, and the prospect of their loss can compel a lot of rejection and refusal to understand. I think it is understandable that they should be reticent.

    Darwin's contribution with natural selection was to posit a mechanism by which naturalistic forces could produce adaptation and design without outside intelligence, but did not eliminate the possibility of design coming from an outside intelligence. There is always the possibility of supernatural intervention in a phenomenon, but, as science must proceed by methodological naturalism, it must always assume no supernatural intervention. My understanding is that the reason for this is that resorting to a supernatural mechanism that cannot be tested (because the supernatural, being supernatural, is not bound by the regularities of nature that permit testing) effectively ends the search for possible natural mechanisms. As such, if one cannot think of natural mechanisms, one must assume that future research would uncover possible natural mechanisms, and leave the question open. Consequently, as an algorithmic process, science must always assume that the supernatural does not exist, but that is an assumption. The supernatural may or may not exist. It doesn't matter to science. As a consequence, science produces a body of knowledge and description of the world in which there is no supernatural precisely because the supernatural is assumed to not exist in the process that generates that body of knowledge and description. Another consequence is that, unless it were really blatant, I don't think that science could even recognize when encountering a supernatural force impinging on a phenomenon. When encountering the phenomenon, a scientist would be compelled to pose naturalistic hypotheses explaining the phenomenon and then test those when possible. What if, then, said scientist were to hit on model that explains all aspects of the phenomenon perfectly using only naturalistic forces? Then the scientist would have to conclude that he/she has hit on the explanation, probably. But what the phenomenon is still supernatural in origin? How would the scientist tell without stepping outside of science? This goes to your posed idea of looking at the correlation between rituals pleading God for rain and rain coming. Even if a p-value of <0.0001 were reached, under the rules of science, you wouldn't be able to say that you have demonstrated anything related to God, but would have to start posing possible naturalistic explanatory models.

  10. Now what did I mean by something really blatant? Let's assume Apollo, for his own amusement, were to appear to scientists and allow them to study him. He is a supernatural being, and so is not bound by nature, but is above and beyond it. He allows the scientists to void the air in the room when he is. He is not troubled at all. He continues to appear to breathe and can talk and make himself heard. They take skin samples, but find that he has no cells. When they comment on it, he asks if they want him to have cells. At this, the material becomes cellular, but the cells are found to lack DNA. He demonstrates that he can grow to twice his size or more at will, increasing his mass with no detectable effect on the surrounding environment. As he wills it, matter just accumulates in him. He can change his form instantly. He can teleport with a thought. And so on. You can spin this out as far as you wish. None of this makes sense you say. And this is true, if you are assuming that Apollo must obey the laws of physics and biology uncovered by science, but to assert that, you have to assume that he is part of nature. With the supernatural, there is no contradiction. The supernatural is not bound by natural law. That is just part of the definition for the supernatural. I think it is possible to detect if a supernatural entity were intervening in a phenomenon regularly enough, but, again, you can't work qua scientist and assume that is what you are detecting, but even if you could, you would have no way of going beyond that. If you figured out that God was making it rain, that is the end of the line. As he doesn't operate by natural rules, you have no basis for testing any hypotheses (at least I don't think so. I can't think of how testing supernatural causation would even work). But, again, even by deciding that you are detecting the supernatural, you are going outside of science.

    Am I being clear enough? This is tricky stuff to explain, and I'm not sure I understand it well enough myself to do so anyway. Massimo could do a much better job, I'm sure. I hope this helps a bit, though.

  11. Ah, I understand what you are getting at, but this may simply be a matter of defining science - and I am not entirely sure that Massimo uses the narrow definition of science that would preclude the examination of Apollo. Or let us say, there are two questions: does science only deal with reproducible events? I'd say no. The big bang comes to mind, and history-as-a-science can also never reproduce ancient events, nor can palaeontologists test the hypothesis of a meteorite causing the K/T event by throwing a meteorite onto a test earth. We use circumstantial evidence, traces and indications to deduced the most probable explanation.

    That leads to the second question: you say those scientists could never conclude that there is a god behind the divine lighting bolts, or that they could never conclude that Apollo is a god. But why? If all other explanations are exhausted, why not accept divine intervention as the currently best explanation until a better one is found? (Which is all we ever do!) It basically boils down to claiming that a scientist forbids themselves to draw that preliminary conclusion because a god would be outside of nature. But the problem is, the second it is throwing those lightning bolt it isn't outside of nature anymore! For me, the thought experiment of what science would look like if an interventionist god existed has exactly the opposite result of what you take from it. I cannot honestly imagine that any scientist could play flat earth atheist if faced with blatant signs of creation or similar, because that would not be accepting the best explanation currently available, which is what science is about.

    I will travel today and cannot read replies before tomorrow, sorry.

  12. Mintman,

    can't believe I'm jumping again into this discussion, but perhaps here is one of the crucial differences between us:

    > you say those scientists could never conclude that there is a god behind the divine lighting bolts, or that they could never conclude that Apollo is a god. But why? If all other explanations are exhausted, why not accept divine intervention as the currently best explanation until a better one is found? <

    For two reasons: first, supernatural explanations are not in fact explanations. To say God did it is simply an elaborate (and pretentious) admission of ignorance. Second, and more importantly, because there is no such thing as exhausting all possible alternatives. Science doesn't work that way. Have you ever seen a paper where you get to the discussion section and the authors, baffled by an unknown phenomenon, say: "Well, right now our best guess is that God was responsible, but we'll get back to you about this in a future paper." Didn't think so.

  13. Mintman,

    Of course science can study non-reproducible events, but it is limited to posing naturalistic explanations of those events that, because they are naturalistic, can be tested by hypothesis testing. I don't see how that figures into the discussion.

    Massimo makes a good point - supernatural explanations are explicitly outside of science because there are always possible alternate naturalistic explanations. To assert exhaustion of natural explanations is effectively to assert perfect knowledge of the natural universe. This feeds into why supernatural explanations are barred from science. Supernatural beings and events caused by them are, for lack of a better term, sticky, absorbing explanations. They halt inquiry because supernatural beings, if they are truly supernatural, are not bound by natural law, and can essentially do whatever they want. Consequently, there is no way to test a supernatural explanation for a phenomenon because all observations or outcomes of any test are consistent with the supernatural. Because there is no way to test them, and because all observations are consistent with them (if, again, they are truly supernatural), they stop inquiry. You see this with ID and Michael Behe's periodic statements on any finding in evolutionary biology. None of the findings pose a problem for him because he always finds a way to make the findings consistent with ID. Due to this stickiness and untestability of supernatural explanations, they are explanations of absolute last resort. You cannot being proceeding qua scientist and seriously pose a supernatural explanation for any phenomenon until you have exhausted all possible natural explanations, which would require absolutely perfect knowledge of the natural workings of the universe. Consequently, going to the lightning bolts being hurled, you are not allowed to conclude they are being hurled by a god until you exclude all non-divine explanations. Similarly with my example of Apollo being gracious enough to appear for examination (though my point with that was that the supernatural, by definition, plays by no rules save those of whim). Should such a thing happen, if the scientists are approaching Apollo qua scientists, then they would not be permitted to decide that they are even dealing with a god until they exclude all possible natural explanations. They have no other choice, if they are being scientific, then to assume they are dealing with a natural being of a sort they have never before encountered. How do they know he is a god, and not some fantastically advanced alien using unimaginable technology based on completely unknown natural phenomenon? They would have to exclude that possibility before concluding that he is a god.

    I think one thing you are getting stuck on is that there is a difference between that which is truly supernatural, and that which is actually natural, but is explained colloquially by recourse to the supernatural due to lack of knowledge. This is much like adaptation being ascribed to divine design for lack of knowledge of any natural process that could produce it prior to the formulation of the theory of natural selection. There is a difference between the supernatural and that which is merely thought to be supernatural. The latter is fair game for science, but the former is completely closed to it.

    I do think we do have differing concepts of what science is and what its boundaries and rules are. I can see your points, but I completely disagree with your conception of science. I trust you understand my view, even if you disagree with it? Do you at least see why I would consider science as I do? I don't think we can really get past that difference right now. I completely understand where you are coming from. I used to have a similar view, and, like I said, it was a matter of having an "Oh, now I get it!" moment of cognitive shift before I saw the problems with that view.

    I hope your trip goes or went well, depending on when you get around to reading this.

  14. "Of course at the time my philosophy was pretty naive, as it is in general for most scientists, so I simply didn’t buy it and thought she was being rather sophistic about the whole thing."

    Those were the days! And your previous understanding is exactly how 99% of people feel about it. And I say "feel" very intentionally. That's what counts in the evolution education enterprise. Logical arguments, especially involving the philosophy of science, aren't going to do the trick of convincing anyone.

    The acceptance of evolution is intimately tied up in people's religious belief. Religious belief and accepting evolution are inversely proportional in a wide range of countries. The NCSE can accommodate religious believers until the 22nd century and acceptance of evolution will still correlate with religious belief.

    Even when hard-core religious people say they stopped believing creationism through the arguments, they mean they changed their view of God first, which allowed them to accept evolution.

  15. Like Mintman, I am a little troubled by the excising of the supernatural from scientific investigation, but my question is a little different.

    It is more of a historical problem of what has been bracketed off as supernatural. What people have claimed in the past and today to belong to the supernatural has consistently had science come and say "No, we have a better method and explanation of this phenomenon." My problem, that arose when reading the Forrest article, is that it seems to me that almost no religious people accept this distinction between the supernatural and the natural in the manner that Forrest and philosophers wish to draw the distinction. That's not to say the logic behind it is wrong, just that in our interaction with religious people it is an argument and position that is not useful. In the course of our history when claims were made that a phenomena was supernatural, made on blind assertions out of ignorance, it was consistently shown that a natural view and scientific delineation of it was the more reasonable approach. Naturalists, myself included, claim that this is reason for accepting philosophical/metaphysical naturalism and denying any supernatural explanations.

    Maybe I cannot see outside of religious belief that constantly claim that there is proof of God in nature and that God sets the laws of the universe, in other words, religions that have blended their limited understanding of a natural and scientifically investigable world with supernatual claims. I would argue religious "creators" did this because of a limited knowledge, therefore intertwining supernatural and natural explanations. I do not see religious belief that stands strictly by the distinction between supernatural and natural (maybe some version of Deism), never interjecting God's hands into the properties of the natural world.

  16. Mel,

    I posted before seeing your latest comments, I also feel like I did not address what I was trying to address.

    I feel like a supernatural event or being would be beyond explanation (such as God did it) and beyond expression (gee, that happened . . . end of story?). In other words, its beyond our imagination. I cannot imagine what a supernatural event is, or how it would happen, or how God would bring it about. I am not disagreeing with the distinction of a logical supernatural beyond the natural, and one that can be logically or empirically denied by us, I only cannot make sense of what it would mean for something to even belong to this realm. I cannot imagine or perceive how an event could belong to this realm. I would stand in awe of the possibility, but I'm not sure it is a possibility with any teeth.

    And with that, to claim that there is a limit to science, that there may be things that only have supernatural , although logically sensible, it is unfathomable.

  17. I just dropped by here to say congratulations on Massimo's appearance on Brian Lehrer this morning, and didn't expect to get caught up reading these comments.

    So two things come to mind:

    First, congratulations on your appearance on Brian Lehrer this morning, Massimo. I wish the interview could have stretched on for an hour; Brian tends to be a pretty good cross-examiner.

    Second, as for evolution being a 'natural unsupervised' phenomenon, the discussion made me wonder if we would define a sneeze as a natural unsupervised phenomenon, or a muscle cramp, or glacial drift. From a definitional standpoint, 'natural unsupervised' seems similar to Dr. Johnson's definition of oats as a grain that sustains the horses in England and the people in Scotland; it's a descriptive vs. prescriptive confusion.

    Having 'natural unsupervised' in the definition gets into prescription. Unfortunately, taking it out allows IDers to read a holy spook into the definition (prescriptively, no less). But that may be a different question than one of a functional definition of evolution.

  18. Have you ever seen a paper where you get to the discussion section and the authors, baffled by an unknown phenomenon, say: "Well, right now our best guess is that God was responsible, but we'll get back to you about this in a future paper."

    Obviously not, but that may be because there is no actual evidence anywhere of a phenomenon that cannot be explained more parsimoniously without reference to gods. On the other hand, if a medical researcher found that praying for help to the Christian god (but not to any other one) would reproducibly but miraculously make lost limbs regrow the next night, then yes, I would totally expect that phrase to be in the paper, and I would expect follow-up papers to test what degrees of injury god is willing to rectify, what precise words would have to be used in the prayer, whether unnecessary self-mutilation was excluded from miracle cures, etc., and maybe very careful experiments designed to exclude intervention by space-faring aliens messing with us. I would also expect everybody who does not at least tentatively accept the possibility of divine intervention after very careful and critical examination of such a phenomenon to be considered an irrational fundamentalist, and rightly so. This is really important: science does not reject the existence of demons, souls, etc. because it would not accept their existence even if it could be demonstrated, but rather because it cannot be demonstrated.

    Of course science can study non-reproducible events, but it is limited to posing naturalistic explanations of those events that, because they are naturalistic, can be tested by hypothesis testing.

    If I describe a plant species as new to science, I do not test a hypothesis. At most, I am formulating one. Am I not doing science then? Perhaps you would think so, fine, but Massimo seems to use a wide definition of science that does not restrict itself of double-blind pharmacological studies with a control group. More importantly, there are plenty of hypotheses we could test, see above for the details of what we could test about miracle healing. Saying that we cannot test any hypotheses about the physical details of the process if it is divine intervention, therefore it would not be up to science to examine it, is a bit like saying we cannot test any hypotheses about the respiratory metabolism of a rock, therefore geology is not science. And saying that nobody would continue to search for alternative, better explanations if divine intervention were to be accepted as the currently best explanation available is like saying that nobody would bother to develop the theory of special relativity because we have accepted Newtonian gravity for the time being.

  19. They halt inquiry because supernatural beings, if they are truly supernatural, are not bound by natural law, and can essentially do whatever they want.

    This is a complicated issue. There are different levels of understanding we can arrive at for different phenomena, and there are at least two different problems that we have to keep apart here. One is reproducibility and testability. Sure, it is much more difficult to examine a problem where we cannot reproduce or make an experiment, so a singular divine intervention would be hard to understand in the strict sense; but it would still be able to demonstrate its existence and its impact. The second is capriciousness. Obviously I agree completely that we cannot understand something that does not exhibit any regularity at all, in other words, that is not understandable. But then it is not understandable by non-scientific means either, including theology (i.e., what Lyndon said). Believers usually do not claim that the universe is ruled by a chaos god. What they want is a god that gives reward B if you live your life in way A; a god that gives reward D if you pray in way C; etc. My point here, however, is that we can easily imagine a great number of regular and understandable ways in which the divine could have manifested itself, but didn't.

    Consequently, going to the lightning bolts being hurled, you are not allowed to conclude they are being hurled by a god until you exclude all non-divine explanations.

    Ah, but where is the difference to other scientific problems? Why is a scientist allowed to conclude something is the best model currently available (always: until somebody comes up with a better one!) for a phenomenon in other cases, where they also do not have perfect knowledge of the entire universe? Take evolution; what Darwin did not know about cell biology, molecular chemistry and inheritance when he formulated his theory fills whole libraries today. Certainly somebody could have told him in his time that he had no right to present such a pitifully incomplete idea...

    And that is also the thing about Behe. I don't care what the judge at the Dover trial thought. Behe is not wrong because science intentionally blinds itself against certain conclusions even if they are the only ones that make any sense given the data, or because he would need perfect knowledge to put forward his particular explanation, but because the evidence is against him, simple as that. Before all that evidence was found, let us say in 1400 A.D., intelligent design was a viable theory. Then people set out to study nature, often expecting to validate their Christian worldview along the way, and evidence accumulated that made a different explanation more convincing.

  20. I used to have a similar view, and, like I said, it was a matter of having an "Oh, now I get it!" moment of cognitive shift before I saw the problems with that view.

    Interestingly, there seem to be at least a few eminent scientists around who must be as mistaken in their concept of science as myself, and to old age at that. Intuitively, I have already felt for a long time in principle the same way I argue now, although I was aware that I had not thought it through entirely and thus would have hesitated to defend the position. But reading Victor Stenger was like getting this concept spelled out in striking clarity: it really could have turned out differently. We could have found evidence for souls, creation, miracle healings and suchlike, and this is how it would have looked like. It is not that we could not possibly have, but simply that we didn't.

    I am still not even convinced that where we disagree is the definition of science. Rather I am still unclear about what both of you really mean when you say supernatural. Arbitrariness can just as much be claimed for definitely non-supernatural phenomena (Nessie), and we scientists are allowed to dismiss it as ad-hoc, as pseudoscience, so we can just as well dismiss that kind of "supernatural", not least because something truly arbitrary could not be understood in principle, by no human effort. And the divine lightning bolt or special creation are very much part of nature and could be studied. So what is left that was not "wrongly considered to be supernatural", but actually is supernatural? To the best of my current understanding, Last Thursdayism, and that's it, already in its entirety. I don't expect to convince you, but would at least like to understand clearly what you consider supernatural and how exactly it differs from other specious explanations that Eugenie Scott would presumably not dream of accommodating professionally, such as aliens that built the pyramids but hid traces of their intervention. (This may be rude again, but my feeling is that the difference lies merely in the number of adherents that would be antagonized by speaking out the truth about the defensibility of the claims.)

  21. Forrest claims:

    "Supernatural claims are, admittedly, semantically meaningful as explanatory principles, i.e., we understand what is meant by a proposition such as, "God designed and created the universe.""

    I disagree with her on this point, I do not believe there are "semantically meaningful" supernatural claims, maybe this is where Mintman is having trouble as well. I would say that statements about the supernatural are either not "semantically meaningful," or meaningful but only because we have translated them to natural propositions. On one hand, I can understand her example, "God designed and created the universe," but I only interpret this meaning through the way humans "design" and "create" things, which is a wholly natural process, I assume. I cannot fathom or find semantic meaningfulness in a proposal of supernatural designing and creation unless it is done like humans do it, which would mean it has a natural process and explanation. I assume other "supernatural" claims that have commonly been made (such as Apollo appearing or Zeus's lightning), although seemingly meaningful, actually suffer from similar difficulty of being both meaningful to humans while at the same time adequately expressing what is happening supernaturally. Therefore, it is impossible to be both a supernatural proposition and semantically meaningful.

  22. I also wanted to congratulate Massimo on an excellent interview on Think on KERA in Dallas. It was a pleasant surprise to catch you yesterday on there, and you handled the questions and answers admirably.

  23. Thanks Lyndon, the link to the mp3 is this:


  24. Mintman,

    I give up. This is just going to go around in circles and go nowhere. I knew I shouldn't have tried, as I knew my efforts would not have been as good as Massimo's in any case, and he, despite multiple tries, failed to get you to understand. You will have to wait until you allow yourself to get over your cognitive blocks to understand what we have been trying to help you figure out (note that I said understand, and not agree with - I understand your position, but don't agree with it. You don't seem to grasp what Massimo and I have been trying to explain. This is no slight on you, though, as it is tricky). I will say, though, that you seem to not be talking about science proper. Instead, because you seem so enamored about admitting supernatural causation as within bounds, when you speak of science, it seems that what you are actually talking about an earlier version of science: natural philosophy. Science is marked by definition by methodological naturalism. If you discard methodological naturalism, you are not doing science. I'll leave you with that. I hope you don't think this rude of me, but I just don't have time to go on with this, especially when I don't see any reason to expect my poor abilities to help you understand. I hope you understand this.


  25. Lyndon,

    I don't really see your point about the meaningfulness of supernatural explanatory statements. It would seem from your argument that only explanations that are fully fathomable and understandable to humans are semantically meaningful. Would this then mean that relativistic and quantum descriptions of reality are not semantically meaningful given how beyond human experience they are? It seems that many naturalistic explanations would be rendered not semantically meaningful by your standard. Am I misunderstanding your point?

  26. Mel,
    I accept that being able to "grasp" an idea or conception is necessary for making a statement semantically meaningful. You may provide a statement on quantum mechanics that I cannot begin to grasp, and I would argue that that statement is semantically meaningless to me, but may be meaningful to someone who is more initiated in QM- they (physicists, e.g.) may find such a statement meaningful, whether they believe it to be true or false. If no one can "grasp" a concept, understand it in a meaningful way, and that concept is a main crux of a statement, whether supernatural or natural, I would say such a statement is semantically meaningless. (Is that correct usage of "semantically meaningful"?)

    Perhaps you can help me, but I can't grasp a naturalistic explanation or proposal that would be "semantically meaningful" to me, but beyond my understanding, unfathomable, as was seen by QM above. If I, or anyone, understands the idea and relations of a claim then that claim is meaningful, if we do not then that statement is meaningless, at least to that individual. When it comes to supernatural claims, I contend that no one grasps the ideas and relations within such statements, and such statements are therefore either meaningless or being understood as naturalistic claims instead of supernatural claims.

    From this, it seems like we could logically claim that there are limits to science, such as unable to extend into the supernatural, but all specific claims as to supernatural limits that have previously been made have been either false (actually natural claims) or were meaningless statements. Saying science cannot refute or confirm the supernatural is true by logic, but to specifically lay out a claim, such as science cannot refute or confirm "God", is either not true (this particular conception of God was actually testable or of a natural disposition) or was a meaningless, empty attribution of what "God" is (since we are unable to grasp the concept "God").

  27. Mel:

    Sorry again, but I do not ever see my arguments being addressed, and especially I see no definition of supernatural that would not be trivially testable and recordable by science, so we seem to have a very different perception of what is going on here. I also find myself nodding in agreement with Lyndon as for the historical trend of science dismantling all previous pretensions of "you no go there, this is reserved for the priest". The trick here seems to be either

    (1) a tautological definition of science as a method that is not able to address supernatural claims - which would make you and Massimo trivially right once I understand what supernatural actually is, or rather why all claims of capricious behavior outside of religion (e.g., Nessie) are pseudoscience but not supernatural, or perhaps rather why a creator god should be supernatural instead of pseudoscience. The best I seem to understand is that you do not want to preclude scientists from examining things claimed to be supernatural, but merely from formulating an explanation that might include the supernatural. If that is it, I see what you are getting at, and agree that things like we don't know how the universe came to be, therefore Jesus is my Lord is obviously non-scientific. Of course. But then again, please try to visualize clearly a scientist finding that prayer to a certain deity lets limbs regrow. Would that scientist, in this world, with the real-life scientists that populate it, seriously say I'm just gonna ignore this obvious, striking possibility that would instantly land me a Science paper and make me world-famous. Instead, I will spend the rest of my natural life fruitlessly trying to exclude all natural explanations, no matter how ridiculously far-fetched, because it just has to be something else?

    (2) or, and that is closely related to point 1, a demand on the certainty of scientific explanations that is clearly unrealistic and not part of the scientific modus operandi. You (and many in the ID debate) would claim that once divine intervention be accepted as the currently best explanation we have available for something, it is somehow magically immune to somebody coming along and presenting a better one, which only makes sense if you ignore that this happening is the story of scientific progress of the last few hundred years, and that all scientific explanations ever and for anything are vulnerable precisely to somebody coming along and doing exactly that. I presume that religion's god has regrown the limbs, at least that is currently the best conclusion I can take, now please, scientific community, try your best to disprove me is not qualitatively different from maybe kin selection plays an important role in social insects, at least that is currently the best conclusion I can take, now please, scientific community, try your best to disprove me. This is always how we do it; neither the first nor the second explanation would be set in stone.

    (3) or a definition of effects that are clearly in nature, such as regrown limbs or lightning bolts, as "not nature".

    Is that about right, or is there strawman in it? Well, if not, none of the three convinces me, nor will they when I am wiser, as the glaring problems don't suddenly disappear, so we will have to agree to disagree, yes.

  28. Mintman,

    You also write:
    "But then again, please try to visualize clearly a scientist finding that prayer to a certain deity lets limbs regrow. Would that scientist, in this world, with the real-life scientists that populate it, seriously say I'm just gonna ignore this obvious, striking possibility that would instantly land me a Science paper and make me world-famous. Instead, I will spend the rest of my natural life fruitlessly trying to exclude all natural explanations, no matter how ridiculously far-fetched, because it just has to be something else?"

    By definition, all supernatural explanations are more far-fetched than any natural explanations if one is to behave as a scientist. The person must either pose naturalistic hypotheses of the relationship between prayer and limb regrowth or note than he/she cannot formulate a scientific explanation at that time, leaving it open for future examination. If he/she publishes and attributes the observations to a supernatural entity, even tentatively, then he/she has stepped outside the bounds of science by refusing to obey the rules that make science science, and is no longer behaving as a scientist (and most likely, the scientific community, even religious scientists if they are honest, will recognize this, and that no-longer-scientist will thenceforth likely be dismissed, lose credibility, not be published, and have a devil of a time getting grant money from credible funding organizations). I am sorry if you have difficulty with this, but science is limited and its strength comes from this limitation. A scientist can study the efficacy of prayer or any other claimed supernatural phenomena, but is always going to be limited to formulating tentative naturalistic explanations of those phenomena. If you are going to operate as a scientist, the supernatural is effectively NEVER the best explanation, and recourse to supernatural explanation is effectively a way of saying "I don't understand what is going on".

    That's the best I can do, Mintman. I hope you don't think I am just trying to avoid your issues. I'm not, but, if the above doesn't do it, then I think I am at the limit of my poor capacities to explain. I would perhaps recommend you strike up a communication with the philosopher Rob Pennock at Michigan State University, as this is one of his areas of work. He might be better equipped to help you.

  29. Mintman,

    This is my last try.

    Before I start, I just want to point out that methodological naturalism was not formulated to privilege religious claims and protect them from the operation of science. After all, its formulation was initially made by clerical scholastic philosophers who recognized that recourse to supernatural explanation were too easy and could be applied to everything. (If TheOFloinn is still around, he would be better to explain this history than I, as he has studied the scholastics far more than I have) I point this out because you seem, and I stress seem, to be wanting to push beyond the bounds of science in order to attack religion.

    You write:
    "The best I seem to understand is that you do not want to preclude scientists from examining things claimed to be supernatural, but merely from formulating an explanation that might include the supernatural."

    I would say that this is correct, though I, of course, cannot speak for Massimo (nor would I as I am not a philosopher, and his thinking on this is no doubt far more sophisticated and informed than mine). Science is that method of attaining knowledge about the natural world via a process marked and limited by methodological naturalism and thereby generates a body of knowledge consistent with that limitation. It makes no metaphysical assumptions about the supernatural. However, it makes the pragmatic assumption that all phenomena observed in the universe are natural and behave according to and are consistent with the same rules that bind all of nature. When encountering a phenomenon, this assumption requires formulation of naturalistic explanatory hypotheses that may be tested by reference to the consistent behavior of natural entities. The supernatural is that which is over and beyond nature, and not bound to be consistent with the operations of the natural universe. Because the supernatural is not bound to be consistent with nature, it isn't testable because it would operate according to rules that are not accessible. Because the supernatural is not bound to be consistent with nature and the operations of nature, any and all findings regarding nature are in principle consistent with the supernatural (for instance, all findings of science are consistent with a creator god, because a supernatural creator could make the universe look any way it chose - please not that, though this is so, it is emphatically NOT a scientific view). As science is concerned with the testable, and the supernatural is not testable as a consequence of its not having to be consistent with nature, it can only pose explanatory hypotheses for phenomena that can be tested by reference to the operations of nature. Thus, to behave qua scientist, one must always, when encountering any phenomenon, observation, or finding, pose only tentative natural explanatory hypotheses for them, test them, and accept or reject them accordingly with the understanding that better, those always natural explanations may arise at a later time as more is learned of nature. That is as clear and precise as I can make it. I am sorry if that does not answer your desire for a better explanation of the supernatural. It is something of a tricky concept, which is why it is so difficult. Going to the capriciousness issue, you keep bringing up Nessie. No one, to my knowledge, claims that Nessie is supernatural. Sure, Nessie can act capriciously to a degree, but not with respect to natural laws. Nessie has to behave according to the laws of physics, for instance, and could be tested for on this basis. A supernatural entity is capricious in that it would not have to behave consistently with any natural laws, and could not thus be tested for because any test result would be consistent with its existence.

  30. Mel,

    I understand you more clearly now, so thank you, and find that we agree on more than may be apparent at first sight. Disagreement must remain, however:

    If "supernatural" phenomena exhibit lawful, regular, reproducible behavior, I would still claim that they could be examined by science, and that is because then they would simply be nature. If our universe were such that spirits existed that would always, without fail, reward certain sacrifices with rain, safe harvest, protection from illness or whatnot, they would simply be part of the nature of that universe, and that also goes for the god regrowing limbs. You have made it abundantly clear now that, as you put it, things that do not show consistent or understandable behavior fill the category supernatural, but that means that you cannot simply define those that do into it also. After all, our understanding of why phenomena in physics or chemistry behave in a certain way likewise runs into a wall at a certain point where we just have to accept that there is no deeper answer to be found beyond describing observations with rules.

    As for that which does not show consistent, understandable behavior: Ignoring for a moment that even singular events are studied by science all the time, and that humans can appear to behave pretty randomly but are nonetheless studied by science, we still run into the problem raised so eloquently by Lyndon, i.e. that completely incomprehensible things are just that - we cannot say anything about them, so yes, science of course cannot (so far we are in complete agreement), but then a believer also can't. The moment they claim anything more coherent about the "supernatural" than that it is ineffable, and they do all the time because a truly ineffable god, spirit counselor or afterlife is not very comforting, they have lost their game of hide and seek. Thus, in practice, all claims that actually matter to anybody sooner or later fall under the magisterium of science.

    And that seems, to me, to be the central problem of positions like the one apparently promoted by NOMA et al. If you tell the believers that they have nothing to fear from science because it cannot comment on their supernatural beliefs (be it evolution as in the case of Eugenie Scott, astrophysics or neuroscience), what you essentially though implicitly do is prescribe them what they are still allowed to believe, and what you actually prescribe to them is Last Thursdayism or wild ad-hoccery, although if you are honest it could only be the first, as the second is also in conflict with science. And once they realize that, neither Joe Christian nor Jane Muslim will be accommodated by that anyway, won't they?

  31. Oh, and again:

    Please do not think that I would consider it scientific to say that this prayer regrows that limb, therefore Jesus. The scientist would be best served to stick to the facts and just describe what is happening. But if we lived in a universe where these regular phenomena could be observed all the time, and we never found any purely physico-chemical explanation whatsoever even after decades of trying, it would simply be irrational to close our eyes to the possibility that there might be some superhuman intelligence answering the petitions. It would then fall to scientists to try to understand that intelligence ever better, be it a creator god or hyper-advanced aliens. That would still be the opposite of religion, faith and revelation, by definition.

  32. Probably nobody is going to bother reading this anymore, but just case, the following publication recently advertised on the Sandwalk blog seems relevant:


    Haven't read it yet, but will.

  33. Mintman,

    yes, I know Maarten's work, in fact he was a visiting student with me last year, and we have a paper in press on metaphors in biology. I still disagree with his argument, though...

  34. Well, I have now read it and find myself in virtually complete agreement.

    The strongest argument I found raised here, and the one that caused me most doubts at first (which is what I come here for), was when Mel wrote by definition, all supernatural explanations are more far-fetched than any natural explanations if one is to behave as a scientist.

    [Well, that would depend on the definitions of science and supernatural anyway, etc. etc. etc., but more importantly,] As this paper eloquently argues, the supernatural explanations are only far-fetched in our actual reality because we never found any reason to consider them anything else; but there is no reason to consider them more far-fetched than purely physical processes a priori, before starting the scientific enterprise in the first place. If we had found that illnesses were best treated by exorcism by a shaman, we would just have a different state of medical science, but it would still be science. Whatever works!

  35. So, I have a question about evolution, though it's not directly related to this post. BUT, I'm not sure how else to submit the question, and this post does have "evolution" in the title...so, there you go.


    What (if anything) is wrong with this guy's analysis of determinism and evolution? It sounds to me like he has a good point.

    Would deterministic physical laws render evolution effectively meaningless?

    Any response would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

  36. Rex asked:

    What (if anything) is wrong with this guy's analysis of determinism and evolution? It sounds to me like he has a good point. Would deterministic physical laws render evolution effectively meaningless?

    I don’t know how much water the analysis, the hypothesis, will hold but it certainly pertains to some interesting phenomena and conjectures. Though I’m not sure that “deterministic physical laws” would make evolution “effectively meaningless”. It would seem only that if “God”, in Her boundless wisdom, ever decided to rewind the universe it would only evolve the same way – not very entertaining even for entities with supposedly infinite patience.

    But the author of the blog concedes that some physical laws or events are not deterministic – there are uncaused events which presumably then have subsequent effects and which might lead one to surmise that She really does play dice with parts, though not all, of the universe. And as he does concede the point and as such seems to be the case it seems unproductive to be spending much time in thought experiments based on logical impossibilities: if we had a square circle could we triangularize it?

    More interesting are the implied connections between free will, consciousness and quantum mechanics, not that I’m terribly knowledgeable about any of those topics. For example, as someone said about the first, “I believe in free will, but I don’t have any choice in the matter.” But one very thought provoking comment tying the three together is from one of the major contributors to the development of QM [Eugene Wigner] who argued (in his Symmetries and Reflections – Scientific Essays) that:

    "It was not possible to formulate the laws (of quantum theory) in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness." [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugene_Wigner]

    While the basis of QM – the Schrödinger wave equation – is very deterministic, it still apparently requires the action of consciousness to cause its “collapse” into actuality. Which to my mind, and to those of many, implies or strongly suggests that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, or is based on such, and that is not otherwise explainable in terms of any materialist or physicalist schema or philosophy. (Though this may still not be saying a lot as, for example, the standard model of physics already has some 20 odd parameters that are not explainable – why they have the values they do – in terms of anything else including themselves.) This is, of course, mind-body dualism which tends not to be a popular philosophy. But I like it and it seems to have much to commend itself or at least make it a plausible conjecture or working hypothesis.

  37. Mintman:

    Again this old natural world / scope of science issue that I would really like to be discussed in more detail. What does beyond nature even mean? [Post #1]

    A very good question I think and, while like you I agree with much of Ms. Forrest’s exposition on naturalism, I still think that she is, to some extent, barking-up the proverbial wrong tree or, at least, has missed a few in her collection. From one perspective it seems warranted that she characterizes supernaturalism as “little more than a logical possibility” and as a “belief in a transcendent, non-natural dimension of reality inhabited by a transcendent, non-natural deity”. But it seems at least a bridge too far for her to suggest the possibility that some putative facets, phenomena or denizens of that dimension possess some actuality or existence:

    The fact that there is no successful procedure for knowing the supernatural does not logically preclude its being known at all …

    I would think that if something – anything – actually exists then it is, ipso facto, natural, whether or not science – any science – is able to formulate a set of laws to explain the fact. And from which point of view I’d agree with you that “far-fetched-ness” does not necessarily mean that the supposition, hypothesis or theory is invalid or false. But Mel’s point, in response, seems to be that some are quite a bit more far-fetched than others and that, by Occam’s Razor, we are obliged (or advised) to at least start with those that seem more probable. While one might argue, ancient mythology did argue, that one of the Gods was responsible for hauling the sun across the sky, any attempt, for example, to start communicating with it is unlikely to be very productive. As David Chalmers put it in his book, The Conscious Mind (pg 345):

    It is reminiscent of an “interpretation” of evolutionary theory according to which God created the fossil record intact a few thousand years ago and ensured that the predictions of evolutionary theory would be duplicated. The simplicity of an explanatory framework has been sacrificed for a complex hypothesis that happens to reproduce the results of the original theory.

    Consequently, it seems that Ms. Forrest is making what might be considered a category error [if I understand the term correctly] in that “supernatural” is, in effect, an empty set and that “natural” consequently only includes some things that can be explained by science and some things that can’t – ever.

    However, on the other hand, from another perspective though somewhat related to the last point, one might still reasonably ask whether that definition of “natural” is exhaustive. In particular, “natural” is still only a descriptive term, a word, defining a class of phenomena and that “supernatural” may be a non-empty set: there may in fact be phenomena that are simply beyond any description or perception, or entail logical contradictions, but that are, nonetheless, real and that influence or have an impact on what we do perceive – dark matter, in the first case, and particle-wave duality, in the second case, for examples.

    But not exactly an easily tractable problem or issue, though quite an interesting one, not the least for being partly motivated by, in the words of Ms. Forrest, “the implications [for religious fundamentalism] of Darwin’s theory of evolution”. Further evidence of what Richard Dawkins called “the surreal cultural wars rending America” in his The Blind Watchmaker.

  38. Steersman:

    Peter didn't mention it in his post, but actually determinism is still very much in the running. The Broglie-Bohm, Many Worlds, and Many Minds interpretations are all fully deterministic. Also, Gerard 't Hooft (Nobel Prize, 1999) is working on a deterministic interpretation of QM.

    Even if the laws of physics are probabilistic, the laws still set the framework of reality. It's just that within that framework there is a random aspect to the actual flow of events. In this sense, the universe is similar to poker - the rules of poker are stable and unchanging, while the randomness of the shuffle adds an element of unpredictability as to which cards you are actually dealt.

    The problem isn't so much determinism vs. indeterminism as it is bottom-up vs. top down causality I think.

    Causality ultimately reduces to fundamental forces (electromagnetism, gravity, strong, weak) acting on fundamental entities (quarks, electrons, etc.). Which seems to leave evolution with nothing to do. It is purely a metaphorical description of what we observe, not an explanation of it. The state of the world is today was fixed by the initial conditions plus the causal laws of physics (which may have a probabilistic aspect). Any explanation for the way things are lies there, not with evolution.

    Though, as you say, consciousness is the central issue.

    If the laws of physics govern the universe then, since we are part of the universe, they also govern what we experience and think - and therefore what we can know about the universe.

    In either case (deterministic or probabilistic) the laws of physics act to "generate" our experiences of, and thoughts about, reality.

    Given that this is the case, is it reasonable to assume that our generated experiences tell us something true about the generating process? Why should they? What justifies the belief that they do? What would require that the generated experiences only be experiences *of* the process that generates them? Isn't it just as plausible that our generated experiences reveal nothing about the generating process?

    For example, our experiences in a dream reveal nothing about the "real" waking world. Given the example of dreams, why do we assume that our waking experiences reveal anything true about the objective physical world? Why would we reject the claim that our waking experiences are a kind of dream?

    The orderliness and consistency of our waking experiences seems to require an explanation. And since we can't explain these experiences only in terms of themselves, we introduce the additional concept of an orderly and consistent external world. In this view, our experiences are orderly and consistent because they are caused by an orderly and consistent external world. Problem solved.

    BUT wait...if the "External World Hypothesis" explains the orderliness and consistency of our experiences, then what explains the orderliness and consistency of the external world?

    It seems that we didn't really answer the original question, we just rephrased it. The exact same question about order and consistency still remains, but now we ask it of the external world instead of our experiences. Though for some reason adding this extra "physical" layer between us and the question strikes some of us as progress.

    But if the answer is "nothing explains its order and consistency, that's just the way the external world is," then why not just make the same fiat declaration about our conscious experiences and judge the problem as solved there - without introducing all of the extra machinery of the physical world? Why not just say: Our conscious experiences exist fundamentally and uncaused. There is no reason that they're orderly and consistent, they just are.

    All very peculiar...


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