The Questionable Authority

While reading Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography, I came across something I hadn’t heard of before – the “city hermits” that lived in medieval London. The concept struck me as odd – hermits (at least the non-crab variety) were something that I had always thought of as a purely wilderness phenomenon. A life of solitude? In a city? Really?

As I read on, I became less confused:

The figure of the hermit has another significance also; the stories of the city throughout the centuries have been filled with lonely and isolated people who feel their solitude more intensely within the busy life of the streets. They are what George Gissing called the anchorites of daily life, who return unhappy to their solitary rooms.

(p. 41)

That, I can relate to.

I’ve spent time out in wilderness areas by myself, but all of the times when I’ve felt the most alone, the most isolated from the rest of humanity, have come when I’ve been in the city. The bigger and busier the city, the more likely it is that I’ll find myself feeling like the only man alive. Wandering through masses of anonymous people makes me see the appeal of solipsism like nothing else can.

At the same time, I’ve also found myself feeling more connected to humanity in the city than anywhere else – even when I’m surrounded by people I don’t know at all. Some of those times have produced memories I treasure. Some of those times have happened in the same cities, on the same days, as moments when I’ve felt at my most solipsisist.

As I was thinking of all this, I chanced upon the latest iteration of the unholy wars. This one – like many of the others – is pitting nonbelievers who think that science is necessarily incompatible with all religion against anyone who thinks otherwise. At the moment, the most detailed presentation of the anti-accomodationist position can be found in a post over at Larry Moran’s blog.

For reasons which I hope will become clear as I respond to some of Larry’s points, I think there’s a decent connection between my occasional feelings of urban solipsism and my semi-accomodationist views on the relationship between science and religion.

Larry writes:

Good, let’s discuss. We begin by defining terms. I claim that science is a way of knowing based on rational thought, skepticism, and evidence.

I’m at least tentatively willing to accept some of that definition. I know it’s a widely used phrase, but I’m not overly fond of “ways of knowing”, particularly in this context. I’m not entirely sure that knowledge – particularly in the sure and certain sense that it’s used when we’re talking about our understanding of the physical world – is the most appropriate term to use for what quite a few religious traditions attempt to accomplish. Unfortunately, I’m also not sure I’ve got a better term to use. “Way of learning” doesn’t quite do it, and “way of questioning” doesn’t either, though I think it comes closer.

I think what I’m trying to clumsily get at is this: for many religious traditions, describing and understanding the universe itself is far less important than trying to explain how we fit into the universe, and how we should relate to each other.

My acceptance of the rest of the definition simply depends on how one is defining “rational thought” and “skepticism”.

I claim that when that way of knowing is applied to religious claims, those claims can be shown to be false or, at the very least, unsupported. Thus, if you are committed to science as a valid way of knowing, it follows that, when you stick to that commitment, the vast majority of religious beliefs are not compatible with science.

I have no problem with the idea that religious claims that can be shown to be empirically false are not compatible with the idea that science is a valid way of knowing. I am not at all comfortable with the idea that religious claims that are not supported by empirical evidence are incompatible with a commitment to science as a valid way of knowing. They certainly may not be compatible with the idea of science as the valid way of knowing, but in this particular case the article used makes quite a bit of difference.

…my anti-accomodationist argument is that once you accept that science is a valid way of knowing, then it follows that most religious claims are not compatible with that approach to knowledge. I have yet to see a valid accommodationist argument that addresses this important point. True, Ken Miller, Francis Collins, and Simon Conway-Morris have made the attempt but in the end their arguments boil down to a rejection of science as the only way of obtaining valid knowledge. In other words, they limit science to just those areas where it can’t conflict with religion and then lay claim to other ways of knowing that rule in the religion magisterium. Presumably, John thinks that is a scientific way of reasoning.

[here's a link to the John Wilkins' post that Larry is referring to]

Looking at this paragraph, Larry seems to be claiming that unless you accept science as “the only way of obtaining valid knowledge”, you do not accept that science is a valid way of knowing. He is conflating science and scientism, but without providing justification for the merger of the two. I’m also not sure that the phrase “limit science to just those areas where it can’t conflict with religion” is the best description of what’s going on. I think that it’s more reasonable to say that they’re arguing for a restriction of religion to the areas where it cannot conflict with science.

And here, I think, we get to the heart of the argument, because I’m not at all sure that anti-accomodationists are willing to accept that there are areas where science simply cannot go. So let’s start with an example.

Under the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, there is absolutely no discernible physical difference between a piece of bread before it becomes the body of Christ and after it has become the body of Christ. I would argue that this means that a belief in transubstantiation quite simply cannot be incompatible with science, because it is a fundamentally non-scientific claim.

Please note that I did not in fact just say that I thought that transubstantiation is compatible with science.

I think that referring to transubstantiation in terms of compatibility with science is every bit as silly as atheists find the doctrine itself. It’s a claim that has absolutely nothing to do with science one way or the other. If there is no physical difference, there can be no scientific test of the principle, and science can do nothing to prove or disprove the claim. Holding a belief in transubstantiation does not conflict with the idea that science is a valid way of knowing, and it doesn’t even conflict with the idea that science is the only valid way of learning about the physical world. The only way that it could be considered incompatible is if there is some sort of requirement that we accept that the physical world that science can examine is all that there is – and that’s more scientism than science.

I should probably note at this point that I did not pick out transubstantiation because I think that every aspect of Roman Catholic theology is compatible with science. That’s something that I have no intention of defending. I simply picked that particular example because it seems to me to be a clear case of a religious view that cannot be subjected to scientific scrutiny, and I think that the question of how to deal with those sort of views is at the heart of the whole anti-accomodationist conflict.

My argument is that views that cannot possibly be subjected to scientific scrutiny are, necessarily, not incompatible with accepting science as the valid way of knowing about anything that can be subjected to scientific scrutiny. Larry and other anti-accomodationists seem (at least as far as I can tell) to hold the opposite view – if a belief cannot be subjected to scientific scrutiny, then it cannot withstand scientific scrutiny, so holding that belief is incompatible with accepting science as a valid way of knowing. Like John, and like the other John, I think that scientism is a position that can’t be justified by science alone.

It’s also one that I cannot personally accept, at least in part because accepting it requires a definition of science that is so broad that it becomes far less useful. Others have talked about love in this context; I think that’s a good example, but far from the only one.

And that brings us back to where I started this post, a lone solipsist walking the crowded streets of Midtown Manhattan.

It is possible to approach my feelings from a scientific perspective. We can even, at least in theory, connect what I am thinking and feeling at that time to specific patterns of brain activity. We might – someday, if not today – even be able to identify specific differences in brain chemistry that would lead to different people experiencing different reactions to the same sets of circumstances.

And that’s entirely legitimate, it’s extremely valuable, and, on its own, a completely impoverished way of looking at things.

I can also approach my feelings by thinking about them, and looking for relationships between circumstances and reactions. That time I felt really, really isolated on the crowded streets happened when it was cold, rainy, and dark, and nobody was making eye contact; that time when I felt more connected with humanity happened on a warm, sunny day, when I exchanged eye contact and laughter with a total stranger in a foreign country. The first time, Leonard Cohen was playing on my walkman (it was a long time ago); the second time we were all standing listening to a street performer doing a really good version of “Three Little Birds”.

That’s also a legitimate way to look at things (I think, anyway), and one that can be valuable. And there’s enough critical thinking in there that if I wiggle things around, push it hard enough, stand back, turn my head to the side and squint at it, I can more or less convince myself that this way of looking at things fits into the “scientific” box.

But I still don’t think that captures everything, and I’m not even sure it catches the most important things.

There is no evidence that I can present to you that would support my saying that I had feelings of whatever at such and such a time. You can believe me – or not. You can connect my account of my experiences with things you’ve felt yourself. We can discuss, dissect, diagnose, and debate the concepts I’ve discussed. But we’ll be doing all of this from a foundation unsupported by empirical evidence, we’re not conducting experiments, and we are not actually currently experiencing what we’re discussing. I simply can’t see a useful definition of “science” that captures all of this.

To be explicit, I do not think that equating “scientific scrutiny” with “critical, rational examination” (as PZ does) is a good idea – much less a requirement. More than anything, that feels like an ex post facto re-definition of the term that attempts to broaden it to encompass all of human knowledge. When everything becomes science, science becomes a uselessly broad term.

That doesn’t mean that I reject PZ’s belief that “no decent human being should live an unexamined life”. Far from it. That’s something that I’ve believed, and tried to live my life by, for a long time. Since high school, in fact, when I was first taught that basic principle. By the Jesuits. In theology class.

Postscript: I don’t like having to say this, but given how frequently the debate over rationality becomes irrationally acrimonious I think I should: if I have misrepresented Larry’s position, or anyone else’s, or assembled something that someone thinks was a straw man, it was not intentional. I’ve tried my best to capture positions as I think they’ve been presented.

Comments

  1. #1 Eric
    March 10, 2010

    there is absolutely no discernible physical difference between a piece of bread before it becomes the body of Christ and after it has become the body of Christ.

    This is what I have an issue with. You can claim that science can’t address this… but that’s because it’s not reality. Some believe it becomes the body of Christ, others don’t. If there’s no physical difference between the two, and no difference in consequences, and in fact reality doesn’t change at all depending on which one is true, well, then you don’t really believe that it becomes anything different than it was before – the real test of what you believe is what experiences you anticipate. The reason science can’t address this is because it’s not real.

    I don’t like all the talk of science and religion not being compatible, mainly because of the scope of science. You’re right, science can’t address certain things – it’s a limited tool with limited scope. But it falls under the practice of rationality as a whole, and rationality is most certainly not compatible with religion. Faith is thermodynamically prohibited from being an effective means of gaining information about the world, and rationality has systematically disproven every realm religion dwelt in, till religion is reduced to claiming to be non-disprovable.

  2. #2 Raging Bee
    March 10, 2010

    What bothers me most about the “anti-accomodationist” position, is that so many who hold it really don’t seem to understand what various religious believers really believe; or don’t understand the nature of religious belief; or seem to think that all things labelled “religious belief” are as infantile, ignorant and irrational as Fundie Christianity.

    Take transsubstantiation, for instance: ignorant and simpleminded believers take it as a LITERAL transformation because they’re ignorant and simple and think at a very shallow level; wiser believers know there’s no literal transformation of the substance — the only thing that changes is the MEANING of the substance in the hearts of those taking part in the ritual. The atheists — many of whom are still reacting to the shallow and simpleminded religion they got fed as kids — automatically reject the literal view (rightly, of course), and then carry on under the unspoken assumption that the literal view is the only view of that claim. They claim that “science proves” the wafer never transforms into anything, therefore transsubstantiation is bogus. What many of them fail to understand (partly as a result of prior indoctrination by stupid believers) is that that whole doctrine-plus-ritual serves as a symbolic representation of how we’re all supposed to be spiritually nourished by letting God’s spirit enter ours, like we’re physically nourished by eating good food. The basic purpose of most religious rituals (like Communion) is to use physical props to illustrate spiritual concepts. The problem is that simpleminded believers understand the literal claims, but not the higher/deeper truth behind them; the literal claims then become part of the mass religion; and when the atheists react to religious ignorance and irrationality, they make the same mistake the simpletons make.

  3. #3 JimV
    March 10, 2010

    I’m sorry, transubstantiation seems to me either wrong, if meant literally, or just silly, otherwise. In either case, I think the scientific view would be not to fool oneself into believing in things without good evidence. I can accommodate people with weird, unscientific beliefs (I probably have some myself), but I can’t agree with them.

  4. #4 feralboy12
    March 10, 2010

    Your claim to have had certain feelings at a certain time is not extraordinary at all, and thus does not require extraordinary evidence. So your eyewitness testimony is sufficient in the absence of evidence to the contrary.
    As for transubstantiation, the only difference in the cracker after it “becomes the body of Christ” is the meaning assigned to it by believers. This is not a property of the cracker.
    Reality is what refuses to go away when you stop believing in it. If belief is required to make something real, it’s not objective reality. And subjective reality is always prone to the errors of the imperfect brain.

  5. #5 abb3w
    March 10, 2010

    Mike Dunford: Looking at this paragraph, Larry seems to be claiming that unless you accept science as “the only way of obtaining valid knowledge”, you do not accept that science is a valid way of knowing.

    I suspect the difference is in what is meant by “valid way of knowing”. Are you referring to the obtaining of descriptions for experience, or of the testing of them?

    Mike Dunford: I’m not at all sure that anti-accomodationists are willing to accept that there are areas where science simply cannot go.

    I would say there are three areas; and would expect easy agreement to two.
    1) Propositional logic
    2) Pure Mathematics
    3) OUGHT questions.

    The first two, most scientists would agree that science presumes valid as philosophical prior. Science addresses questions of which mathematics best describes reality; as such, material evidence and the analysis of science merely changes the answer of which mathematical truth corresponds to reality, not the truth of the mathematics. Propositional logic is similarly a prior.

    The last might get some controversy. Science can give advice in this arena. If one has determined one OUGHT to kill a mouse, science can advise whether hitting it with a feather or with a sledgehammer OUGHT be the choice. If you OUGHT to try and save a patient, science can say whether you OUGHT to apply or avoid particular medicines. Science can even analyze human decisions, and try and identify commonalities to things humans say OUGHT to be done; however, it cannot say whether you OUGHT to use such an identified commonality. However, while science can assist with OUGHT questions afterward, it cannot (despite a few minority claims otherwise) take the first step across the IS-OUGHT divide. Philosophically, having taken that first step is what distinguishes “Science” from “Engineering”.

    If you want more than that, you may have problems.

    Mike Dunford: I would argue that this means that a belief in transubstantiation quite simply cannot be incompatible with science, because it is a fundamentally non-scientific claim.

    In that it is a claim giving description as to what something IS, it is a question within the scope of science.

    Mike Dunford: It’s a claim that has absolutely nothing to do with science one way or the other. If there is no physical difference, there can be no scientific test of the principle, and science can do nothing to prove or disprove the claim.

    On the contrary. Science tests for probability of correctness not only by falsification, but by simplicity. (Popper noted both; and also conjectured as to why simplicity was used. Since a mathematical form of both tests can be derived from a common assumption that science appears implicitly reliant on, his conjecture does not describe a philosophically necessary condition, even if perhaps anthropologically correct.) As such, the claim of a property making the consecrated Eucharist also the body of Christ increases the description length; this allows the claim to be discarded on competitive testing, as having a lower probability.

    Of course, this depends on the sense of “science” you use. As anthropological practice, science shies away from addressing such questions. As a philosophical discipline that assumes reality produces evidence with pattern recognizable by some ordinal Turing degree hypercomputation, it can test competing descriptions for probability of correctness.

    One can reject that assumption… but then, one faces the Problem of Induction without any way to tell a hawk from a handsaw, regardless of wind direction.

    Mike Dunford: There is no evidence that I can present to you that would support my saying that I had feelings of whatever at such and such a time.

    First, your saying so is evidence. It’s not very strong evidence, but it is evidence.

    Second, it would be possible to find other people, expose them to similar conditions, and see if how many had similar feelings. If many of them did, it would significantly increase the probability associated with your claim; if only one, it would still slightly increase it.

    More baroquely, we could strap various miniaturized EEG gear to the subjects, and record properties associated with such similar experiences, and with the later recollection of these experiences. Then, strap you into the same gear, and compare.

    None of this gives perfect support; however, science isn’t in the business of p=1 probability proofs, but works in the fuzzy zone of 0

    You might look again at XKCD #285 on "purity"....

    Raging Bee: Take transsubstantiation, for instance: ignorant and simpleminded believers take it as a LITERAL transformation because they’re ignorant and simple and think at a very shallow level; wiser believers know there’s no literal transformation of the substance — the only thing that changes is the MEANING of the substance in the hearts of those taking part in the ritual.

    This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Catholic doctrine. While transubstantiation does not involve a PHYSICAL transformation, it (allegedly) does involve a fundamental and LITERAL change of what the substance IS. If you can find a Catholic priest who will tell you otherwise, I suspect your local Archbishop would be interested. (Non-Catholics generally do not adhere to this doctrine.)

    You might want to wade through the Catholic Encyclopedia Entry on the topic.

  6. #6 MattXIV
    March 10, 2010

    This is what I have an issue with. You can claim that science can’t address this… but that’s because it’s not reality. Some believe it becomes the body of Christ, others don’t. If there’s no physical difference between the two, and no difference in consequences, and in fact reality doesn’t change at all depending on which one is true, well, then you don’t really believe that it becomes anything different than it was before – the real test of what you believe is what experiences you anticipate. The reason science can’t address this is because it’s not real.

    This is a pretty flimsy argument – the same can be said of any perscriptive statement. Neither of them have any physical effect obviously – the doctrine that it is wrong to kill another person except in self defense does not create any physical change. If you mean in the sense of changing how people behave with regard to it, transubstantiation and perscriptive statements both do. It would require rejecting the idea of subjective beliefs, such as aesthetic or moral propositions. Subjective beliefs aren’t categorically false or unknowable – they can’t be falsified but certainly exist to the holder. They simply a different aspect of experience than the sense-intermediated access to the external world. It’s that external world that science assumes is shared and rule-bound and as far as those assumptions hold it can make statements about truth and falsehood with regard to it.

    I’m pretty sympathetic to functional anti-accomodationism. Religious beliefs are held as being descriptors of that external world – while transubstantiation is not a physical description, it is meant to be a statement of an objective phenomenon, something that persists independent of the internal mental state of the observer, so one needs to ask how but through experience of sensations would any knowledge of the external world come?

    On the other hand, I can also construct a set of beliefs that would fit any non-question begging definition of religion (ie a definition that defines religion as empirically false) that is empirically true as well, so I reject theoretical anti-accomodationism.

    The problem with a lot of anti-accomodationism is that it’s being offered up with bad epistemology behind it – confusion between rational and empirical, circular arguments about whether science is the only valid way of knowing, using terms like “natural” and “skepticism” without adherening to a consistent definition. Normally the epistemological weaknesses of empiricism can be swept under the rug via pragmatism, but theoretical arguments for anti-accomodationism bring that whole mess out into the light. It reveals a philsophical split between skeptics (in the classical philsophical sense) content with pragmatism and logical postivists that ends up breaking down along similar lines as the accomodationism debate that the participants for the most part are only vaguely aware of.

  7. #7 bad Jim
    March 11, 2010

    My stereo receiver has one pair of inputs for a phonograph and three pairs of inputs for tape recorders, CD players or what have you. My record player and my CD player are thus both compatible with my receiver, but you’d best keep in mind which is which when you hook them up, because they aren’t interchangeable. Most of the people I know got rid of their phonographs years ago.

    No one disputes that a scientist can be religious, or that she might also enjoy food and music and literature. It’s also widely understood that some religious beliefs, like creationism, are incompatible with some scientific knowledge. The issue seems to be what constitutes compatibility.

    NOMA, Gould’s suggestion that science and religion are non-overlapping magisteria, is generally accepted by accommodationists*, yet the stipulation that the magisteria be disjoint pretty strongly implies that they, like a phonograph and a CD player, are not interchangeable. They may both be compatible with their human hosts and yet be incompatible with each other. I’ve got friends and family like that.

    * Even anti-accommodationists can agree that religion answers questions that science can’t, like “What is God’s Will for my Life?” or “Why is sex sinful?”

  8. #8 abb3w
    March 11, 2010

    MattXIV: Religious beliefs are held as being descriptors of that external world – while transubstantiation is not a physical description, it is meant to be a statement of an objective phenomenon, something that persists independent of the internal mental state of the observer, so one needs to ask how but through experience of sensations would any knowledge of the external world come?

    From a philosophical standpoint, religious revelation may be roughly characterized as an experience of an emotional sensation. In that sense, it’s not a problem. However, the pattern descriptions resulting historically have tended to have low probability correlations to reality.

    MattXIV: On the other hand, I can also construct a set of beliefs that would fit any non-question begging definition of religion (ie a definition that defines religion as empirically false) that is empirically true as well, so I reject theoretical anti-accomodationism.

    A prior distinction might be useful. The term “science” refers to at least three different entities: an abstract philosophical discipline, a tangible anthropological practice that approximately implements that discipline, and the body of knowledge resulting from that implementation.

    The “beliefs” you refer presumably would be things like “the earth goes around the sun”; yes, it is possible for a religion to have beliefs compatible with the beliefs of sciecne-as-body-of-knowledge — by getting lucky, if nothing else.

    It’s also trivial to observe that there are compatibilities to the anthropological sense: there are humans who are both religious and scientists.

    However, science as philosophical discipline is less easily compatible. Most religions take various things being true as primary premises, held without inference from prior tenets — “on Faith”. As philosophical discipline, Science apparently takes only the self-consistency of mathematics (and thus, the same priors as pure mathematics) and the assumption of pattern (reality produces evidence with pattern recognizable by some ordinal Turing degree hypercomputation) as ultimate priors. Everything else seems to be derivable as inference of at least provisional character from these; and any proposed alternative to any provisional inference from these, tested by more basic inference (or by the primary assumptions).

    Religion tends to get antsy when you tell adherents that you can test their tenets of faith by using more basic assumptions that their tenets reduce to instances of. This is especially the case when you tell them the test says they’re probably wrong.

    Worth noting as an exception is Buddhism. If I recall, the Dali Lama flat said in one interview that if science manages to prove anything that contradicts primary Buddhist tenets of Faith, Buddhism is going to have to change beliefs and deal with it.

    However, most rabid anti-accomodationists aren’t railing against Buddhism; and it’s worth noting that Buddhism isn’t an inherently theistic religion. (Some strains are theist, some aren’t.)

    MattXIV: Normally the epistemological weaknesses of empiricism can be swept under the rug

    Which particular weaknesses do you have in mind? The problem of induction is resolvable, provided you are willing to explicitly take as a prior the hypercomputation assumption I noted.

  9. #9 abb3w
    March 11, 2010

    bad Jim: Even anti-accommodationists can agree that religion answers questions that science can’t, like “What is God’s Will for my Life?” or “Why is sex sinful?”

    The former is a begging question; it presumes that God exists, to have a will. Even so, it’s arguable that the scientific method can address this question contingently by taking that (and a few related issues, such as “what kind of God”) as a provisional premise. The answers may be nonsense from a broader standpoint, but that shouldn’t be surprising when you realize you’re assuming something external testing indicates is probably false (such as Biblical Inerrancy).

    The latter, Science can address, to the extent that sin can be defined anthropologically (and thus, that the question isn’t also begging). As a quick conjecture: because the ethical flavor of PURITY includes all exponential growth/decay assets/hazards. STDs and ecology carrying capacity take care of the rest via biological and societal evolution.

  10. #10 Paul W.
    March 11, 2010

    Mike:

    I have no problem with the idea that religious claims that can be shown to be empirically false are not compatible with the idea that science is a valid way of knowing. I am not at all comfortable with the idea that religious claims that are not supported by empirical evidence are incompatible with a commitment to science as a valid way of knowing.

    Here are two reasons why I disagree with you, and think that science is fundamentally at odds with religion.

    1. Science is generally not neutral toward unfalsifiable hypotheses.

    Consider the case of Galileo’s heliocentricism. When Galileo was coming out with that, some Catholic authorities strongly suggested to him that he could keep his scientific model and make it compatible with scriptural geocentricism, by adding a couple of trivial tweaks.

    All you need is a relativizing axiom or two, and you can say that the Sun and planets go around the Earth in just such a way that it’s observationally indistinguishable from the Earth and planets going around the Sun.

    That really is a minor change, in a sense—it’s a “smaller” than some of the changes that were accepted later, including Kepler’s elliptical orbits, Newton’s only-approximately-elliptical orbits due to universal gravitation and inertia, and especially planets describing geodesics through relativistic spacetime a la Einstein.

    So what’s a little unfalsifiability between friends, right?

    Wrong.

    Galileo is the classic historical example of what you’re talking about—unfalsifiable religious hypotheses—and Galileo is a scientific hero precisely because he did not buy your argument.

    Galileo was right to say that the Earth goes around the Sun, and that scriptural geocentricism is just wrong, even if there’s no particular test that can discriminate between his model and the tweaked, absolutely unfalsifiable version of the Sun going around the Earth.

    Science simply is not neutral toward unfalsifiable hypotheses, especially when they are clearly contrived precisely to avoid the possibility of falsification.

    Scientists dismiss unfalsifiable hypotheses every day, and they don’t do it in a purely agnostic way, saying “we can never know.” They generally guess that unfalsifiable hypotheses are either incomplete—they haven’t been fleshed out enough to be evaluable—or they are probably wrong.

    Most religious hypotheses fall into the probably wrong group. They are not immature hypotheses that need fleshing out. They’ve been carefully fleshed out in just such a way that they can’t be tested.

    Scientists know that such hypotheses are generally wrong. There’s a literal infinity of such hypotheses, almost all of which conflict with most of the others. They have to mostly be wrong.

    2. That problem clearly afflicts religious belief systems.

    Religions systematically disagree with each other on pretty much everything—e.g., whether there are any gods, how many gods there are, whether a god is a person (or what ways it’s person-like or not), whether morality is dictated by a god, what morality such a god dictated, whether a god created the universe, whether a creator god did so ex nihilo, whether there’s an afterlife, whether there’s reincarnation, etc. Name a religious belief, and you can probably find a religion that denies it—and usually, most religions.

    That is prima facie empirical, scientific evidence that religous beliefs are typically false. Even if some religious beliefs are true, most aren’t. Even if some religion is mostly true, most of the others’ claims are mostly false.

    The proper scientific attitude is thus not to be neutral toward religious claims, but to be very skeptical of them, even if they’re unfalsifiable, and to be especially skeptical of claims that are contrived to avoid falsifiability, because even if you can’t prove that claim is wrong, such claims are demonstrably especially likely to be false.

  11. #11 Paul W.
    March 11, 2010

    abb3w:

    Take transsubstantiation, for instance: ignorant and simpleminded believers take it as a LITERAL transformation because they’re ignorant and simple and think at a very shallow level; wiser believers know there’s no literal transformation of the substance — the only thing that changes is the MEANING of the substance in the hearts of those taking part in the ritual.

    This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Catholic doctrine. While transubstantiation does not involve a PHYSICAL transformation, it (allegedly) does involve a fundamental and LITERAL change of what the substance IS. If you can find a Catholic priest who will tell you otherwise, I suspect your local Archbishop would be interested. (Non-Catholics generally do not adhere to this doctrine.)

    Right—although some other kinds of Christianity do claim that there’s something more than symbolism going on—e.g., consubstantiation if not transsubstantiation. Millions of non-Catholics believe that there’s a miracle involved, too.

    (It’s the worst magic trick ever.)

    It’s kinda funny how much the knee-jerk accommodationists have jump on the New Atheists for this, accusing them of not understanding the subtleties and non-ridiculousness of what they’re criticizing.

    (Because after all, Catholics aren’t those crazy biblical literalists, are they? No. They’re a different kind of crazy, if they actually believe it, though many don’t.)

    In point of fact, the New Atheists have generally gotten it right—they pick on the Catholic in particular because they’re a large group that really does claims that a miracle happens when the priest says the magic words—and the it’s the accommodationists who simply don’t understand what they’re defending.

  12. #12 Paul W.
    March 11, 2010

    MattXIV:

    On the other hand, I can also construct a set of beliefs that would fit any non-question begging definition of religion (ie a definition that defines religion as empirically false) that is empirically true as well, so I reject theoretical anti-accomodationism.

    I think you must be operating under a different conception of religion than me. (Have you read Religion Explained by the cognitive anthropoligist Pascal Boyer? I think it’s pretty good, and if he’s right about how religion works, you can’t do what you claim. If you stick to empirically true stuff, it isn’t clearly religion—maybe a philosophy of life or something, but not clearly religion.
    It would certainly be different than any religion I know of.)

    BTW, a note on Buddhism in that light—most popular forms of Buddhism (e.g., lamaism a.k.a. Tibetan Buddhism) are clearly religious, and do have weird metaphysical commitments that are implausible in light of science.

    (Do not believe the Dalai Lama when he says he’ll change his beliefs in light of science. He only means that in a very weak sense, and he does promote antiscientific views about things like, e.g., transcendental spiritual states and reincarnation. As with transsubstantiation, we may not be able to absolutely strictly disprove such things, but that doesn’t mean science is supposed to be neutral toward them—science doesn’t generally strictly disprove things anyway.)

  13. #13 Dacks
    March 11, 2010

    If you like transubstantiation, you’ll love this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTTwSJK_XMI&feature=player_embedded

  14. #14 Raging Bee
    March 11, 2010

    This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Catholic doctrine…

    I’m not talking about official church doctrine; I’m talking about how a significant number of believers (IMHO) actually think about and understand the Communion ritual, on a practical level, in the present day. Seriously, the Church can say what they want, but if pressed to the wall, a huge number of parishoners will admit, in their hearts and in their actual decisions, that the “magic” or “transformation” is significant to them on a purely emotional or spiritual level. It’s a ritual that’s important in their lives, and you can either participate in a good spirit, or go somewhere else on Sundays.

  15. #15 Paul
    March 11, 2010

    The idea that the Eucharist is an emotional or community ritual is scientific. You could test that with EKG’s or surveys, by isolating communities with and without this particular ritual. If you explain it scientifically, though, you need to pick a new religious doctrine to hold your ground on: Jesus turning water into wine? Rising from the dead? Genesis? You can explain them all in terms of emotion and community (hell as a story to help people accept that the bad guys often get away with their crimes), but then you’ve given up religion for science. I don’t think any anti-accomodationist denies there are social and emotional reasons for religion (in fact, that’s what they think it’s there for)

    Agnosticism, or non-revealed spiritualism are defensible. If you believe that there is some force tying us all together, there is: the fabric of spacetime, and our knowledge there has definite limits. If you believe we’re part of some larger pattern, that’s plausible too: we’ve got no idea how big the universe is, there appear to be spatial dimensions we haven’t begun to explore, if order developed on our scale why couldn’t it develop on some larger one as well? Science has limits, and there’s nothing wrong with speculating what lies beyond those. Thus religion as reverence and wonder for the possible joins neatly into science.

    What’s not defensible, what I think anti-accomodationists principally object to, is certainty about these scientific unknowables. Something greater than us out there? Sure. The host becoming Jesus’ body when the priest says the right words? No. The Earth created in 7 days, man fashioned by God’s hands in his own image? No. We can extrapolate into the unknown, leaving the strict realm of science, but making very specific claims that don’t have any evidence in reality and feeling sure about them is incompatible in broad terms with science.

  16. #16 abb3w
    March 11, 2010

    Raging Bee: if pressed to the wall, a huge number of parishoners will admit, in their hearts and in their actual decisions, that the “magic” or “transformation” is significant to them on a purely emotional or spiritual level

    Based on data here (p. 54), there is strong correlation between attitude to the eucharistic presence and how often they attend. (Where they live also influences, but in a less pronounced way.) The overall and monthly attendees are both around 3:2 for the Real Presence; the C&E brigades are 2:3 the other way, but the weekly attendees are 10:1 for Real Presence. Checking the GSS (WORDSUM vs ATTEND selecting RELIG(2)), the more intelligent are significantly more likely to attend more frequently.

    While it can be expected that those who are more intelligent are more likely to fall away as a result of rejecting doctrine as silly, of those who reconcile their cognitive dissonance to remain in the church, those who are smarter are more likely to be adamant in their adherence than the less intelligent. (In the GSS, compare SCITEST4 vs. WORDSUM controlling BIBLE; different question, similar confounding effect.) As with a square peg in a round hole, there’s a little more work in getting it there, but once you have it’s a lot harder to get loose. The Roman Catholic Church has been answering questions for it’s doubting Thomases for many, many years. They’ve learned that the best way for the local parish to deal with a smart troublemaker is to call in someone smarter; Iggy’s boys are very good at answering questions.

    Unless you’ve data to show how you know what is “in their hearts and in their actual decisions”, I’m afraid you’re just falling to projection and wishful thinking when you claim the more intelligent are the ones who don’t take doctrine literally.

  17. #17 abb3w
    March 11, 2010

    Sigh, “its doubting Thomases”….

  18. #18 Raging Bee
    March 11, 2010

    abb3w: thanks for the cite, but it doesn’t really refute my argument (which I derive from listening to my Catholic father and various other people of comparable education talking about their beliefs). “Really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist” is not the same thing as “the bread and wine become something else.” Basically, the former phrase is much vaguer, and different people can interpret it different ways. If you believe that Christ is present as a result of the Communion ritual, in ANY way, then you can honestly say you believe he’s “really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist,” without having to define what that “presence” entails. (The word “in” is rather fuzzy when Christians use it; note how they talk about being “in” God or Christ, or “in” spirit.) Yes, I’m splitting hairs here, but language really does get slippery when we’re dealing with subjective concepts of already-vague supernatural beliefs held by people with widely-varying ranges of intelligence and articulation.

  19. #19 abb3w
    March 12, 2010

    Raging Bee: which I derive from listening to my Catholic father and various other people of comparable education talking about their beliefs

    Ah. “Anecdata”.