The Questionable Authority

In what seems to be a bit of a continuation on his earlier post (which I talked about yesterday), Larry Moran has another post up on the whole “is science ever compatible with religion” thing. At the end of the post, he asks a very good question – one that gets right at something that’s very important:

So, what exactly are the limitations of science that we are supposed to adhere to? Earlier I criticized the concept of methodological naturalism because it seemed to rule out investigations of the paranormal as well as investigations of miracles. Robert Pennock, another philosopher, was asked about that during his testimony and he had a ready answer. See if you are convinced.

Q. Isn’t it true that as we sit here today scientists are investigating what some people call psychic powers?

A. I know that there are a few scientists who did that I believe. Mack is one name, someone who’s done this. So there are a few scientists who have done that, that’s right, and what they do in that case is really the same thing. It’s often misunderstood to think, to call something paranormal means that it is supernatural. Essentially what’s going on in those scientific investigations is to say no, that’s not so. We will again treat this purported phenomenon, ESP or telekinesis for example, as though this is a natural, still yet unknown, but ordinary causal process, treating it essentially in the same way we treat other things under the constraints of methodological naturalism, reconceptualizing it as a natural thing rather than a supernatural.

Cool. You can investigate the paranormal because it’s not supernatural and you can treat it as a potential natural phenomenon. Presumably you will reach the conclusion that is is not a paranormal event.

But for some reason you can’t do that for miracles and the role of God in theistic evolution. That’s forbidden science.

Excuse me if I’m confused.

Actually, there are cases – quite a few of them, in fact – where theological statements can be investigated scientifically, and where they can, and have, been shown to be false. The circumstances that surround these cases are very similar to cases where ESP, ghosts, ghoulies, and things that go bump in the night have been investigated by science.

The common thread that connects these cases, and, more importantly, excludes quite a few others, is fairly simple: there is some sort of set of measurable criteria that all parties – skeptic or otherwise – recognize as a required consequence of whatever is being investigated.

I’m aware that might not be as clear as I’d like, so let me try to illustrate it with an example that most of us are familiar with: the Biblical Flood.

If the physical evidence we see in the world around us clearly indicates – and it does – that there has not been a recent flood covering the entire world, there are really only two possible explanations: either a flood did not take place, or it did, but the same supernatural power that created the flood also caused all of the evidence for the flood to vanish.

Theists (for the most part) reject that second option because it would require the action of a malicious and dishonest deity that they do not believe in. This means that both theists and atheists accept that any global flood should have left behind physical evidence, and that scientific evidence can decide the question. That’s why those who believe that the flood really did happen exactly the way the Bible says it did go through such extensive contortions to try to show some scientific foundation for their beliefs.

Going back to the example of transubstantiation, there are cases where no such test can be found. You might believe that such a substantial transformation should require physical evidence of a change, but the longstanding church doctrine specifies that there will be no discernible difference. Believers have absolutely no reason to accept scientific tests that show that nothing physically changes in the bread as evidence that transubstantiation is false. You can test for what you think should be there, but at that point you are testing what you think they should believe. You still have not scientifically investigated what they actually believe.

There are theists who believe in a God who is interested in and intervenes in the world, but who do not expect to ever find physical evidence for intervention. They see no reason to assume that an artist capable of creating the universe would leave fingerprints all over the thing anytime he touches it. They do not think that the existence of a naturalistic explanation for something means that it cannot also be the product of divine intent. You cannot effectively investigate that belief, because there is nothing you could find that would be inconsistent with it. It’s a belief system that relies entirely on faith.

You can argue that such a belief system is totally insane, completely irrational, entirely unreasonable, and just plain silly. But that’s not a scientific investigation of the belief system itself. You can even try arguing that those beliefs are internally inconsistent with other beliefs that they profess having – but there you are not just failing to make a scientific case, you’ve shifted and are arguing the case on purely theological grounds.

So what’s left? I can only see two options. You can come up with a scientific test that is compatible with your own determination of what people should actually expect to see based on your own view of what the nuances of their beliefs should be. The results of such a test can even reasonably be used to justify your own personal rejection of that belief. Attempting to apply the results more broadly simply doesn’t work – you wind up arguing with what you think should exist, rather than what’s actually there. Or you can simply admit, however reluctantly, that there are some beliefs that science cannot investigate, because there is no set of physical findings that is incompatible with those beliefs.

I can see that being frustrating, but I’m not sure why it’s all that confusing.

Comments

  1. #1 Tex
    March 11, 2010

    It is confusing because the way you (and Daniel Dennett) have defined it is that faith is just an excuse to believe anything you want. I am confused as to who in their right mind could ever possibly want the kind of worldview that allows any sort of bat-shit crazy belief? Unless, of course, you can make an exception for your own special kind of bat shit and somehow rule out all others. At that point, it becomes just idiotic, rather than confusing or frustrating.

  2. #2 Joshua Zelinsky
    March 11, 2010

    Tex, possibly true. But whether a belief is “idiotic” or not has little to do with the issue of what questions science can investigate.

  3. #3 Andrew G.
    March 11, 2010

    Imagine…

    Suppose there existed an omnipotent and caring god who refused for its own good reasons to mess with the universe in detectable ways.

    Suppose there were a situation where, every year, a few dozen innocent babies died slow agonizing deaths due to no fault of their parents or anyone else, and where intervention to prevent this would be completely undetectable by any conceivable measurement (provided only that it was done consistently, and not only to believers). Even statistical tests done over a long period wouldn’t reveal the intervention provided the presumed god didn’t suddenly start intervening after a period of ignoring the problem, or suddenly stop.

    Does the existence of the problem disprove the postulated god? Or would the believers, in fact, come up with any excuse, no matter how improbable, to explain it away?

    (reference: A World In Shadow VI at Daylight Atheism)

  4. #4 Eamon Knight
    March 11, 2010

    I haven’t followed the latest round of the endless Accomodation Acrimony in detail (I’m on vacation, and suprisingly find myself with less net-time than usual), but I think you’ve managed to nail Larry’s perennial confusion on this subject correctly. Theology can always be insulated from empirical test by arbitrarily stipulating that whatever you’re claiming makes no physical difference (eg. the whole essence-vs-accidents bullshit about the Eucharist). Doing so is not un-scientific (in the sense of anti-), but rather a-scientific, ie. occupying a disjoint claim-space, and by my reading Larry continually confuses the two.

    From my POV as an atheist, that’s one advantage theology has over science — lacking an objective referent against which claims can be checked, it can say whatever the hell it wants, as long as it steers clear of claims that can be empirically checked. To that extent, I have to agree with the previous commenter that it amounts to believing arbitrary crap, with no rational way of differentiating among competing dogmas. However, having been through a religious period myself, and recognizing the personal comfort it can provide, I’m not inclined to make an issue of it with a believer, unless they first make an issue of it with me. The main difference between them and me is that playing make-believe eventually lost its appeal.

  5. #5 Andrew G.
    March 11, 2010

    A separate line of argument would be this (using ideas from Carrier):

    1) We cannot justifiably claim to be rationally holding a belief unless we are prepared to rationally examine our epistemology.

    2) leaving aside philosophical hair-splitting over the definition of “knowledge”, we can analyze our belief-forming methods (whether science, history, logical inference, personal experience, hearsay, whatever) according to how effectively they lead to objective truths, by seeing whether they produce convergence on a repeatable basis even for different people with different location, culture, starting biases, whatever. Note that we can argue that this procedure is itself scientific.

    3) by the standards of (2), science is the most reliable of our belief-forming methods and religion is nowhere (performs as poorly or worse than pure chance would)

    4) by 1+2+3, religious beliefs not supported by science or another reliable method cannot be rationally held.

    Of course, people are frequently not rational and this is something we have to accept (the concept of a purely rational actor may be incoherent, in that without goals, it would never in fact act); certainly if someone is comforted by their beliefs and is not imposing them on others, there is no particular reason to object.

    But there are many believers who seem to need to be able to justify their belief as “rational”, and they can only do this by adopting epistemological methods which do not stand up to any sort of rational scrutiny. (And getting them to explain those methods is usually a non-starter.)

  6. #6 Russell
    March 11, 2010

    Tex is hitting on the key point. Regardless of the testability of transubstantiation, the question is why does anyone believe it is a real phenomenon with the characteristics claimed? The answer to that question, of course, is that believers learned it from other believers, most typically their parents. The propagation of religious belief is something that can be empirically studied.

  7. #7 John Pieret
    March 12, 2010

    Nicely done. I started to answer Larry’s latest “confusion” (read: scientistic assertions) but didn’t have the time to do it justice and so quit. You certainly did a better job than I would have. I’d just point out that Pennock isn’t saying that you can’t investigete either the paranormal or the supernatural, he is saying, fully in accord with methodologicical naturalism, that you can investigete naturalistic alternatives to the paranormal or the supernatural. If you can’t come up with empiric evidence against, say, transubstantiation, claiming that “the absence of evidence is evidence is evidence of absence” is a philosopical conclusion, not a scientific one. Doesn’t mean it is a wrong conclustion, just not a scientific one.

  8. #8 Mike Dunford
    March 12, 2010

    @Tex & @Russell:

    The truth, falsehood, believability, rationalism, etc. of transubstantiation are all completely irrelevant to the question at hand, which is whether someone can both believe in transubstantiation and accept that science is a valid way to learn about the world we live in. My argument, which is not addressed by pointing out that the belief is silly, is simply that science does not – because it cannot – contradict the belief in transubstantiation, and therefore the two beliefs are, at worst, not incompatible.

    @Russell:
    The propagation of belief can be studied. But that is different from studying the belief itself.

    @Andrew G (#3):
    This is actually a perfect example of what I was talking about in the next to last paragraph of the post. You might be making a critical, rational appraisal of the beliefs, but you are arguing them in the theological arena, and on theological grounds. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it’s not a scientific argument.

    @Andrew G (#5): This one is more of a philosophical argument – again, nothing I’ve got any problem with, but not science.

    Look, I’m not trying to argue that religion is right, good, logical, rational, required, optional, evil, wrong, fattening, or bad for the teeth. I have absolutely no interest in that argument. All I am saying is that there are some religious beliefs that cannot be contradicted by scientific investigation, and that it is not reasonable to say that something science cannot contradict is incompatible with science.

  9. #9 Coriolis
    March 12, 2010

    So you’re basically saying you can’t scientifically investigate transubstantiation if it has no actual real effect in the world – it doesn’t lead to the molecules somehow changing, or in some unusual change in the people eating it, etc. Well, I don’t think anyone disagrees with that statement.

    Also someone can always believe that all scientific facts are the way they are because god wanted it that way. I.e. god wanted momentum to be conserved hence we have momentum conservation (or alternatively he made the world isotropic which along with the rest of the physical laws makes momentum conserved). Again, no argument with that, you can say that anything is because god willed it, and infact if you assume an omni-potent/scient god, then indeed everything has to be due to his will. This last one tends to be the essence of the deist position.

    The problem with what you’re saying is of course that it’s one big strawman. Unless you’re arguing with a deist (and who is), the real problem is that the Christian believes let’s say that prayer can cure cancer – and you most certainly can show that it doesn’t. Depending on how scientifically informed the religious person is the point at which he/she wishes to insert god tends to vary a bit, but they do always posit some real-world interaction with their god, which can be verified (again with the exception of deists).

    You actually hit upon the only way to really get around this problem for religious people and that is to claim that god in some way hid the evidence for his actions (although as you say, most of them don’t like this). And infact the only hard-core Christian among my physicist friends believes just that and I do give him some grudging respect for at least having thought it through and coming to the only logically possible solution to reconciling science and religion.

  10. #10 Birger Johansson
    March 12, 2010

    In regard to the flood, I seem to recall that the hebrew used in this text is a younger form than most other parts of the Old Testament, dating it to the period when (some) jews were exiled to Babylon.
    Since Babylon of course had its version of the Mesopotamian flood myth, and since religions cheerfully borrow good stories from one another (the Egyptian Osiris myth provided “orphan floating in a basket” to Judaism and Resurrection to Christianity) nobody should be surprised that this story got included in the Jewish belief system.

    Alas, I do not recall the references for the linguistic analysis.

  11. #11 Rob Monkey
    March 12, 2010

    @John Pieret: “If you can’t come up with empiric evidence against, say, transubstantiation . . .”

    I call shenanigans. Look, just cause you can’t come up with empirical evidence against the little teapot that I know orbits the sun doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Absence of evidence, blah blah blah. This statement is meaningless, there’s an infinite amount of ridiculous bullshit claims you could make that would be *technically* hard or impossible to prove false. That’s why science is harder than that, you actually have to have some evidence that what you’re claiming is true, not just point out that other people haven’t bothered to disprove some ancient goatherder nonsense about man turning into bread.

  12. #12 Andrew G.
    March 12, 2010

    My post @3 is an example of how you may be able to empirically refute a hypothesis even when the nature of the hypothesis makes it impossible to ever find any evidence for it.

    The theological aspect is that it requires the presence of a god hypothesis which is stronger than merely “god interferes undetectably with the universe for unknowable purposes”. While some theologians might claim to believe only that, almost all religious believers actually believe something stronger, even the ones who resort to “quantum theology” to explain the lack of positive evidence.

  13. #13 Andrew G.
    March 12, 2010

    @8:

    I think you’re forcing “science” into too small a box. (Perhaps too much focus on physics and not enough on neuroscience, psychology or sociology?)

    The more we apply scientific methods to studying topics related to epistemology* the less space there is for religious belief, and religious believers fight against this by trying to preemptively rule out areas of scientific investigation by claiming religion as an “other way of knowing” (thus, an epistemological method by definition) which is somehow immune from scientific scrutiny.

    *- even though some philosophers may not take much notice of this, it does happen: for example, psychological studies of the reliability of eyewitness testimony, or the neuroscience of certain subjective experiences, all inform, or should inform, our assessment of the relative reliability of our belief-forming procedures.

  14. #14 John Marley
    March 13, 2010

    the real problem is that the Christian believes let’s say that prayer can cure cancer – and you most certainly can show that it doesn’t. [emphasis mine]

    You can show that, as far as anyone can tell, prayer hasn’t ever cured cancer, but, like QA pointed out, you are only showing “what people should actually expect to see based on your own view of what the nuances of their beliefs should be”, not their actual beliefs. Xians can respond with dodges like “They didn’t believe enough” or “God does things according to his ineffable plan.”

    Re-read this paragraph:

    There are theists who believe in a God who is interested in and intervenes in the world, but who do not expect to ever find physical evidence for intervention. They see no reason to assume that an artist capable of creating the universe would leave fingerprints all over the thing anytime he touches it. They do not think that the existence of a naturalistic explanation for something means that it cannot also be the product of divine intent. You cannot effectively investigate that belief, because there is nothing you could find that would be inconsistent with it. It’s a belief system that relies entirely on faith.

  15. #15 Coriolis
    March 15, 2010

    You can demonstrate that praying vs. not praying averaged over many attempts leads to statistically identical results, i.e. that there is no correlation whatsoever between praying and curing cancer (or anything else for that matter). If you’re doing science, that’s about as close to proof as you can ever get.

    It’s true that you haven’t philosophically “proved” that prayer doesn’t work by collecting that data. But you’ve proven it to the limit that anything is ever proven in science. And if you’re a scientist that ought to be enough.

  16. #16 eric
    March 16, 2010

    All I am saying is that there are some religious beliefs that cannot be contradicted by scientific investigation, and that it is not reasonable to say that something science cannot contradict is incompatible with science.

    I have to agree with Mike here. Religious claim X1 may be incompatible with some observation, religious claim X2 may support some other observation, and religious claim X3 may say something normative or poetic or metaphysical for which no empirical observation matters.

    So what are you going to say about Religion X? To muddle the situation even more, the self-identified followers of religion X may not agree on which of X1, X2, and X3 are part of religion X. Heck, they may not agree on who counts as a ‘follower of religion X.’

    All of this had lead me to the opinion that, if we want to make any progress at all, it is a much better strategy to keep the science/religion discussion at the level of individual claims. It is possible to discuss whether scientific understanding is compatible with a claim like ‘the earth is 6,000 years old,’ but discussions of whether Christianity (per se) is incompatible with science are likely to quickly decline into inherently sectarian arguments over what beliefs count as Christianity and who gets to decide what counts.

  17. #17 Paul W., OM
    March 16, 2010

    Mike,

    Actually, there are cases – quite a few of them, in fact – where theological statements can be investigated scientifically, and where they can, and have, been shown to be false. The circumstances that surround these cases are very similar to cases where ESP, ghosts, ghoulies, and things that go bump in the night have been investigated by science.

    The common thread that connects these cases, and, more importantly, excludes quite a few others, is fairly simple: there is some sort of set of measurable criteria that all parties – skeptic or otherwise – recognize as a required consequence of whatever is being investigated.

    Sorry, this doesn’t wash.

    Consider the Galileo example I brought up in the earlier thread, here:

    http://scienceblogs.com/authority/2010/03/cities_solipsism_scientism_and.php#comment-2341162

    The Catholic authorities (well, some, anyway) wanted Galileo to say that his model didn’t actually describe reality, which would contradiction scripture, but was predictive.

    They proposed that the Sun went around the Earth in just such a way as to be observationally indistinguishable from Galileo’s heliocentric model.

    They were scientifically wrong, weren’t they?

    Science is simply not neutral toward unfalsifiable hypotheses, especially those that

    1) appear contrived precisely to avoid falsification, and/or

    2) are arrived at by dubious methods, using intuitions that have systematically failed in the past

    To the extent that it has any interesting, distinctively religious content at all unfalsifiable religion meets both these criteria.

    It’s a scientific fact that unfalsifiable hypotheses are usually wrong—they have to be, because there’s an infinity of unfalsifiable hypotheses that mostly contradict each other.

    It’s a scientific fact that hypotheses contrived to evade falsifiability are especially likely to be wrong, or worse than wrong.

    It’s a scientific fact that religious hypotheses in particular are usually wrong. They have to be, because of the contradictions between religions. (E.g., on the number and traits of god(s), the basic nature of morality, the origin of the universe, the specific moral claims, etc.)

    Religion in general is demonstrably wrong in most cases, even if we can’t say for sure which ones it might luck out and be right in.

    Without some extraordinary evidence for particular religious claims, we should scientifically discount religious hypotheses in the very same way we discount other unfalsifiable hypotheses contrived to evade falsification, e.g., Bigfoot, UFO reports, homeopathic nonsense, and various paranoid conspiracy theories. There’s no special rule about religion.

    Scientifically, we should be at best agnostic toward religion, and extremely skeptical. That’s not optional, or a particularly “philosophical” or “metaphysical” claim; it follows from the science.

    It is not okay to say that if science can’t strictly disprove something, it’s okay to believe it’s true, as accommodationists often do.

    Science is simply not about strict disproof, never has been, and never could be. By that standard, we still haven’t proved that the Earth isn’t stationary.

    And yet it moves, as Galileo said.

    It could still be true that the Sun goes around the Earth in just such a way as to be completely observationally indistinguishable from the best scientific theory of planetary motion. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t scientifically wrong to take such an idea very seriously, much less actually believe it.

    Likewise other religious claims.

    Accommodationists want to make unfalsifiability and supernaturalism into virtues that protect religious beliefs from scientific scrutiny.

    That’s utter bullshit.

    Science can study religion’s claims, and religion’s methods, and find them sorely wanting as means of getting at anything resembling truth.

    NOMA is wrong, and unfalsifiability of hypotheses doesn’t mean science can’t say it’s probably wrong—it generally means science should say exactly that: distinctively religious beliefs are probably wrong.

    Calling something “supernatural” isn’t a science-stopper, either.

    The scope of science isn’t limited to the “natural” world in any sense that’s relevant to the “natural”/”supernatural” distinction.

    Science can study anything with observable effects, and purported supernatural entities systematically do have (supposed) observable effects—that’s how we’re supposed to know about them. (E.g., transcendent spiritual experiences, revelation, etc.)

    That makes them fair game for science whether they reduce to materialism as we know it or not.

    Consider Lamarckism and vitalism. Both of those theories had a supernatural character, assuming teleological properties of living things that nobody knew how to cash out in “reductionistic” materialistic terms. (And in fact, many thought it was impossible—that’s why Darwin is so important.)

    That did not keep scientists from taking them seriously, scientifically, and it shouldn’t have. Darwin was right to be skeptical of irreducibly teleological weirdness, and to make an educated guess that a purely materialistic, nonteleological account could be successful, but to keep an open mind about the possibility of very special principles at work, which could not be reduced to monistic, materialistic Science As We Know It.

    The success of materialistic monism in science is not and never was a matter of an a priori constraint on what science can study, or what hypotheses it can entertain. A priori methodological naturalism is simply false—that is not how science worked then, or works now, or ever should work, or ever could work. Science blinkered in that way would not be science—it would be science bowdlerized to accommodate religion, and that’s not just unscientific but antiscientific.

    Accommodationists still don’t understand the significance of the most important examples in the history and philosophy of science, and constantly misrepresent the nature of science. It’s very tiresome.

  18. #18 J. J. Ramsey
    March 16, 2010

    @Paul W.:

    First, do you actually have a reference for your claims? Yes, the broad strokes are what happened to Galileo are common knowledge, but can you actually verify the far less common claim that Catholic authorities “proposed that the Sun went around the Earth in just such a way as to be observationally indistinguishable from Galileo’s heliocentric model”?

    Also, the statement “It’s a scientific fact that unfalsifiable hypotheses are usually wrong,” makes no sense. Science deals with what is testable, yet by definition, an unfalsifiable hypothesis is impossible to test.

    The success of materialistic monism in science is not and never was a matter of an a priori constraint on what science can study

    So what? That wasn’t what was under discussion.

  19. #19 eNeMeE
    March 17, 2010

    Also, the statement “It’s a scientific fact that unfalsifiable hypotheses are usually wrong,” makes no sense.
    Look at previous instances of unfalsifiable hypotheses, and check the the track record.

  20. #20 J. J. Ramsey
    March 17, 2010

    eNeMeE: “Look at previous instances of unfalsifiable hypotheses, and check the the track record.”

    Look up the definition of “unfalsifiable.” It’s completely contradictory to say that something is both unfalsifiable and false, yet this is what Paul W. said.

  21. #21 eNeMeE
    March 17, 2010

    Several hypotheses have previously been unfalsifiable – once they ceased to be so, as far as I know, all cases turned out to be false.

    If every case of a previously unfalsifiable hypothesis has thus far been wrong, it is certainly not an unwarranted claim. Were I to start a study of such things, that would certainly be my base position. Nor am I convinced that a truly unfalsifiable hypothesis actually exists – there are plenty of things that I would have no idea how to verify, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility that it can be.

    Moreover, you missed a really important part of the post in question – specifically “because there’s an infinity of unfalsifiable hypotheses that mostly contradict each other”.

    For any unfalsifiable claim someone makes, I’m sure I can make at least three mutually contradictory ones – really, the only mistake he made was saying it was a ‘scientific fact’ instead of saying they’re usually wrong by their very nature – no science required.

  22. #22 J. J. Ramsey
    March 17, 2010

    eNeMeE: “Several hypotheses have previously been unfalsifiable – once they ceased to be so, as far as I know, all cases turned out to be false.”

    I think you and I have a different idea of what “unfalsifiable” means. I tend to use it for ideas that cannot be refuted even in principle by empirical evidence, like Last-Thursdayism. Such ideas can’t cease to be unfalsifiable; they are what they are. You seem to be using it for ideas that merely cannot currently be falsified in practice, but may be falsifiable given newer technological advances (e.g. better telescopes, recording equipment, or whatnot).

    eNeMeE: “Nor am I convinced that a truly unfalsifiable hypothesis actually exists”

    Ok, go disprove Last-Thursdayism. What empirical evidence can you possibly muster against it?

    eNeMeE: “Moreover, you missed a really important part of the post in question – specifically ‘because there’s an infinity of unfalsifiable hypotheses that mostly contradict each other’.”

    I didn’t miss it. It was simply irrelevant. All that can be said in such a situation is that at most one of the contradictory hypotheses is true, and since no empirical evidence can rule out any of them, science is impotent to deal with such hypotheses.

  23. #23 eNeMeE
    March 17, 2010

    It was simply irrelevant.

    No, it really isn’t. If there are four claims, all of which are mutually contradictory, are most of them false?

    To use last thursdayism – contrast with the same proposition, but with different days of the week. Even if one of them is true (and all are unfalsifiable), most of them are false. Similarly for every other unfalsifiable claim – almost all of them will be false.

    I think you and I have a different idea of what “unfalsifiable” means. I tend to use it for ideas that cannot be refuted even in principle by empirical evidence, like Last-Thursdayism.Rambling-ish stuff to follow, order not really good, sleep needed. Blargh!

    I have no idea how Last-Thursdayism could be refuted – nor do I presume to know that it is in fact unrefutable. It seems like it is unrefutable in principle, but I’ve never been one to assume that my lack of knowledge means squat.

    It may turn out that it is in fact possible to show that the universe couldn’t have been made last thursday, or that the entity posited to have done the LT event couldn’t exist.

    Also, a lot of claims that people say are unfalsifiable are effectively so – or so absurd as to be rejected and deemed false on the basis of a complete lack of evidence that still claiming them to be unfalsifiable is so contrary that it just boggles my mind – i.e. angels* keep the planets in order.

    We may also be differing on the definition of ‘hypothesis’, as I like the definition of hypothesis that requires that it explain something, where ‘explain’ has some sort of predictive (or post-dictive) power.

    *This would probably have been funnier if I left the original spelling (angles), but I have stuff I need to do – sleep or no sleep.

  24. #24 Paul W.
    March 17, 2010

    J.J. Ramsey:

    First, do you actually have a reference for your claims? Yes, the broad strokes are what happened to Galileo are common knowledge, but can you actually verify the far less common claim that Catholic authorities “proposed that the Sun went around the Earth in just such a way as to be observationally indistinguishable from Galileo’s heliocentric model”?

    I don’t have a reference handy. My impression is that something at least roughly like that is the received view—Galileo was discouraged from stating that his model was true. (IIRC, and even in his Dialogue, he avoided going quite that far, though it was painfully obvious which side he was on—especially since he called the guy on the other side “Simplicus,” which Pope Urban took as a personal insult.)

    One thing I think is simply apocryphal is Galileo saying “and yet it moves.” I think that “quote” is a bit of legend, and I should have made that clear.

    Either way, I don’t think it matters much to my actual point whether a particular Catholic authority (Bellarmine?) pressured Galileo in exactly that way.

    The point is that Galileo would have been wrong to make the move of salvaging geocentricism and using his theory as a merely predictive model in order to keep it consistent with religious dogma.

    Does anybody disagree with that?

    IMHO, that’s what a lot of compatibilist and accommodationist rhetoric does—it accepts gross violations of parsimony as not unscientific.

    Re falsifiability:

    There are at least a couple of relevant senses of unfalsifiability.

    One is practical unfalsifiability—whether some particular belief is under imminent threat of actual falsification.

    The other is in-principle unfalsifiability—whether you can imagine any test that could falsify a hypothesis.

    The second sense is often most important in philosophy of science, in deciding whether something counts as a “scientific” hypothesis—something can be a scientific hypothesis even if it’s currently untestable.

    For theology and apologetics, however, the first sense is often the important one, because theologians and apologists often defend claims that are falsifiable in principle but unfalsifiable in practice—they play god-of-the-gaps and claim it’s reasonable to believe this or that (as a religous belief) so long as it’s not clearly in contradiction to some established scientific fact.

    Accommodationists often do that, too, defending bizarrely unparsimonious beliefs as not unscientific, when in fact they are.

    The fact that science can’t prove that there isn’t intelligent creator of the universe doesn’t mean it’s not unscientific and even antiscientific to take that and run with it, assuming that their is one, and defending e.g., Catholic orthodoxy as consistent with science.

    One of the basic principles of science is parsimony—we look askance at overcomplicated, contrived theories, even when we can’t test them, and even if no test is possible in principle.

    So, for example, consider “interpretations” of quantum mechanics, such as the Copenhagen and “many worlds” interpretations. Even if nobody can figure out how to test them, that does not that all interpretations of quantum mechanics are equally scientifically respectable, or that anybody’s not wrong to adhere to an interpretation with more certainty than a reasonable argument can support.

    If a physicist claims to have an alternative “way of knowing” that tells her how to pick among Copenhagen, many worlds, consistent histories, etc., other physicists will rightly label that physicist an unscientific crank in that regard.

    Or consider string theories and quantum loop gravity. A big problem in physics right now is that it’s not clear how to test various string theories to see if one of them’s right. Various theories posit different numbers of dimensions, etc., and many seem to be equivalent in terms of their ability to account for anything observable. That’s a huge problem. It’s not clear that any string theory is right, becuase there are other theories, such as quantum loop gravity, that also seem to be able to account for the same phenomena.

    Does that mean that physicists can freely pick among string theories, or between string theory and quantum loop gravity, and be scientifically respectable.

    No. It does not.

    Everybody in physics knows that unfalsifiability of these theories is a problem, and that anybody picking a winner at this point is an unscientific crank.

    If such cranks go too far, preferring less parsimonious theories for bizarre reasons, they’re not just unscientific but antiscientific. It’s a violation of the principles of science to pick between unfalsifiable theories in unjustifiable ways—e.g., picking a string theory with 1962 dimensions because you personally happen to like the number 1962 because it’s the year you were born.

    The principle of parsimony applies across the board, even to unfalsifiable hypotheses. Scientists are rightly very skeptical of unduly complicated hypotheses, even if there is no empirical test that can distinguish between them.

    That’s what accommodationists like Genie Scott and Chris Mooney want to distract you from. Unfalsifiability—even unfalsifiability in principle—is simply not a wild card that allows you to believe any damn fool thing that you want and claim it’s “consistent with science.”

    The scientific approach requires some degree of agnosticism toward unfalsifiable theories, and skepticism toward contrived and unparsimonious theories, whether they’re falsifiable or not.

    Also, the statement “It’s a scientific fact that unfalsifiable hypotheses are usually wrong,” makes no sense. Science deals with what is testable, yet by definition, an unfalsifiable hypothesis is impossible to test.

    Let me clarify.

    It is a fact that most unfalsifiable theories are wrong; there’s an infinity of possible theories, and most of them are internally contradictory, or contradict each other, so most of them have to be wrong.

    Right?

    That fact is available to science, whether you want to call it a “scientific fact” or not. It’s a key fact known to scientists, whether it needs “empirical” demonstration or not, and it is an essential fact for the conduct of science.

    You can regard this as a merely philosophical point, and somehow not a scientific point, but I think that’s a fundamental mistake.

    Scientists use this kind of utterly basic “philosophical” reasoning all the time—it is part and parcel of the scientific approach, and we could not do science without it.

    Scientists do not and cannot generally test all possible hypotheses, even the minority of hypotheses that they actually think of. Most hypotheses are discarded early on, for such “merely philosophical” reasons—because they simply don’t make sense or because they’re patently unparsimonious.

    That is an essential part of the scientific process. Science couldn’t get off square one without that kind of “philosophical” reasoning, to dramatically prune the space of hypotheses to even consider testing empirically.

    Compatibilist and accommodationist rhetoric often makes it sound like there’s a split between philosophy and science, such that they can label basic “philosophical” reasoning as somehow not scientific reasoning, and basic “philosophical” conclusions as not scientific conclusions.

    (E.g., when Dawkins argues that scientific evidence counts against religious views, that’s supposedly his personal “non-scientific” “philosophical” views, above his pay grade as a mere scientist. Bullshit. He might make a bad argument, and be wrong, but that’s a different issue; saying that he’s not allowed to make a “philosophical” argument as a scientist is just a rhetorically convenient category mistake. Basic rationality is part of the toolkit of science, and such gerrymandering of disciplinary boundaries is ridiculous.)

    There is no such split between basic rationality and science, and there cannot be.

    It is a valid scientific move to argue that distinctively religious beliefs are commonly false.

    That is an empirical fact. It is quite evident that religions differ not just on minor issues, but major ones such as the number and type of gods, the nature of such gods, the origin of the cosmos and whether a God or gods created it ex nihilo, the existence or nature of the soul, the nature of morality, the details of morality, the ultimate nature of matter vs. minds, etc., etc.

    There is no religious consensus on much of anything, therefore most distinctively religious views must logically be wrong.

    I don’t want to get into a detailed argument with statistics, so let me defend a weaker claim for the moment: it is an empirical fact that many religious views are wrong.

    I claim that that is a scientific fact. It follows from basic rational reasoning from evidence, and science is certainly allowed to do that sort of thing. That is what science typically does. Not everything can be directly tested, and we rely heavily on simple rational inference like that, all the time, every day. This isn’t just a “philosophical” or “metaphysical” argument, or a mere “personal opinion.” It’s the scientific truth, and if you’re going to disagree with it, you need to disagree with the empirical premises (isn’t religious disagreement widespread?) or with the reasoning from those premises (did I make a leap of logic somewhere?). You can’t just gerrymander it away by saying that it isn’t a scientific argument.

    Given that many religious views are wrong—it’s evident that religious people often come to the wrong conclusions about this or that—there is good scientific reason to be skeptical of religious claims.

    Accommodationists like to make it sound like there are nonoverlapping magisteria, or only minimally overlapping magisteria, or something like that, such that “religious” views are exempt from scientific scrutiny, as long as they’re consistent with particular concrete scientific facts. (E.g., evolution by natural selection.)

    I claim pretty much the opposite. We have good scientific reason for being especially suspicious of religious claims. We know that many religious claims—including central tenets of major religions—are often false, even if we don’t know exactly which ones in many cases. (E.g., maybe there’s no god, or one, or three, or three-in-one, or many, or whatever… but no matter how you slice it, it is quite evident that many people are wrong. Likewise for every other major religious issue, e.g., whether the highest virtue is compassion or obedience to God, the existence or nature of any afterlife, etc…. you name it, lots of people are wrong about it.)

    We can therefore conclude that religious patterns of belief fixation are unreliable, and in fact wildly fallible. People are prone to believing bizarre stuff for bad reasons, even if some people are right about each of those things, and even if somebody somewhere is entirely right about all their religious beliefs.

    Evidently, religion is largely hooey, scientifically speaking.

    The fact that that’s a basic point of philosophy—and simple common sense—simply doesn’t mean that it isn’t a scientific fact as well.

    It’s scientifically evident that most religious people are more or less deluded—not personally deluded, in the sense of being personally psychotic, but they are evidently in the grip of popular delusions, of the sort that basically normal people are prone to.

    Given that, how should we view unfalsifiable religious beliefs, scientifically?

    I think that we should view them in much the same way that we do paranoid conspiracy theories, bizarre UFO theories, cryptozoology, homeopathy, dogmatic Freudianism, etc.

    Clearly, most of the people involved are substantially wrong, and are relying on thought processes that tend toward reinforcing views toward which they should rationally be highly skeptical.

    It doesn’t dramatically change the situation if the particular views are unfalsifiable—if the views are unparsimonious, and especially if they’re contrived to evade falsifiability, we should guess that they are probably wrong, or not even wrong.

    They can’t all be right, that’s for sure. And the more detailed, convoluted and disputed the issues are, the more of them have to be wrong.

    It’s one thing to be some kind of especially noncommittal deist—to guess that some intelligence created the universe and left it running.

    It’s quite another to be religious the way most people are, believing in traditional substance dualism and an afterlife, and often many points of orthodoxy.

    The fact is that most religious people are wrong about at least some major tenets of their religious belief systems, and the more orthodox they are, the higher the percentage of them must be wrong. Zen Buddhists, mainstream Christians, Muslims, and Hindus can’t all be right about the number and type of gods. And just among Christians, Catholics and Protestants can’t both be right about their different orthodoxies. And among Protestants, Calvinists and non-Calvinists can’t all be right about free will, grace, etc.

    Evidently, religion is a fractal wrongness generator. The closer you look, the more wrong stuff you find.

    Scientifically speaking, most religious people are more or less deluded, even if some, somewhere are not.

    It is far from evident that religion is a way of knowing. IF we’re going to speak in such broad generalities, it’s more scientifically accurate to say that religion is a way of being deluded. But perhaps we shouldn’t. Maybe we should only say that religion may or may not be a way of knowing some things, but it is clearly typically a way of being more or less deluded about some things, including some fairly important ones. That much we know for sure.

    Notice that this kind of analysis lets us say things about religion generally that we cannot say about particular religions or specific religious beliefs—in particular, that unfalsifiable beliefs are often false. As long as we don’t have to “pick a winner,” or say that they’re all wrong, we confidently say that unfalsifiable religious beliefs are often wrong.

    That’s just a basic fact that everyone should accept—and on some level, most people do. Most people realize that religions tend to contradict each other about fairly important things, and they can’t all be right, and in fact most have to be largely wrong, at any level much more detailed than vague generalities about there being something supernatural going on, and some “higher power.”

    Everybody knows that, right? It’s just common sense.

    Well, science knows that too, because it’s basic rationality, and it has a lot of awkward implications that compatibilists and accommodationists want to distract people from.

    One of those implications is that science is not agnostic toward religious beliefs, but skeptical of them—we know that most religion is substantially wrong, because it’s detailed enough and contradictory enough that it has to be. There simply isn’t enough intersubjective agreement among religious people for religion to get a pass from science.

    Whether or not we can pick winners among the particular competing beliefs, we can conclude that

    (1) religion is a very unreliable “way of knowing,” if it’s a way of knowing at all;
    (2) it is often the opposite—a way of being mistaken
    (3) most religious people are not nearly as agnostic as they should be about their beliefs—even if somebody really has a better pipeline to the truth than somebody else, evidently most religious people are irrational to think it’s them and their religion that’s getting it right.
    (4) unfalsifiable religious claims are typically wrong, except possibly a very few high-level generalities, and the principle of parsimony evidently does apply to unfalsifiable religious beliefs—more detailed religious belief systems are evidently mostly wrong, because intersubjective agreement is so low.
    (5) scientifically, we should therefore disbelieve most religious beliefs, by default, while allowing that some might turn out to be right.
    (6) The more specific and detailed the beliefs are, the more skeptical we should be toward them, for scientific reasons.
    (7) Unless we have a good way of picking a winner among religions, we should discount religious hypotheses (e.g., a creator God) heavily, and discount particular detailed points of orthodoxy almost entirely (e.g., predestination, transsubstantiation)
    (8) Scientific evidence against common religious views should therefore be construed as decisive, by default. For example, the traditional idea of the dualist soul has been pretty well debunked by modern science—the mind is the functioning of a machine made out of meat, which will cease to exist whan the meat machine dies and disintegrates. You can spin an unfalsifiable story, if you try hard enough, that allows for disembodied existence and and afterlife, but you shouldn’t take that terribly seriously—it is quite obvious that most unfalsifiable religious stories contrived to salvage points of dogma are false.

    The fact that a hypothesis is unfalsifiable is simply not a reason to avoid the usual scientific practice of making and educated scientific guess that it’s wrong. Calling something a “religious” belief does not exempt it from the principle of parsimony, and in fact strongly suggests that parsimony is applicable. We know empirically that the principle of parsimony applies to typical religious beliefs, due to the striking failure of intersubjective agreement among the religious. To exempt any particular religion or religious belief from this scientific principle would require a special argument for that particular religioin or religious belief.

  25. #25 J. J. Ramsey
    March 17, 2010

    Paul W.: “I don’t have a reference handy.”

    Then get one. I’m not about to take your word when it is all too common for well-meaning atheists to spout pseudohistory.

    Paul W.: “Galileo would have been wrong to make the move of salvaging geocentricism and using his theory as a merely predictive model in order to keep it consistent with religious dogma.”

    The “salvaging” of geocentrism would have ended up amounting to saying that if somehow one were able to see the solar system from the outside and find the Earth moving around the sun, then one’s eyes would be lying. That gets into Omphalos territory, into which neither Galileo nor the Pope would wish to go.

    Paul W.: “IMHO, that’s what a lot of compatibilist and accommodationist rhetoric does—it accepts gross violations of parsimony as not unscientific.”

    IMHO, you are wrong. The violations of parsimony are still treated as unscientific. It’s just that if those violations don’t have potential empirical consequences, then they don’t get in the way of scientific investigation. As for who is distorting what science is, I’d go with someone who define science so broadly that it has little to do with science as it is done on the ground and encompasses biased and subjective things like dating.

  26. #26 Paul W., OM
    March 20, 2010

    J.J. Ramsey:

    Way to miss the point. (Or “miss” it, i.e., evade it.)

    Paul W.: “I don’t have a reference handy.”

    Then get one.

    When I get around to it. If I feel like it. Until then, just regard it as a thought experiment.

    I’m not about to take your word when it is all too common for well-meaning atheists to spout pseudohistory.

    Fine, don’t take my word for it; the detail you’re questioning is just not important, and you’re using it as an excuse to derail the discussion.

    (Why am I not surprised?)

    Galileo would have been wrong to make the move of salvaging geocentricism and using his theory as a merely predictive model in order to keep it consistent with religious dogma.

    The “salvaging” of geocentrism would have ended up amounting to saying that if somehow one were able to see the solar system from the outside and find the Earth moving around the sun, then one’s eyes would be lying. That gets into Omphalos territory, into which neither Galileo nor the Pope would wish to go.

    IMHO, what the Catholic church does (and they’re not alone) is venturing uncomfortably close to Omphalos territory—simple denial of the scientifically obvious.

    For example, the dogma about the soul and the afterlife seems pretty well refuted by modern cognitive science. It’s obvious at this point that the mind is mainly if not exclusively the functioning of a machine made out of meat. There’s no orthodox (substance dualist) soul.

    We can’t absolutely prove that there’s no “immaterial” soul at all, but it’s clear that all or very nearly all of what the soul was hypothesized to do is actually done by the brain—thinking, remembering, perceiving, valuing, choosing, etc.—and that the functioning of your brain is what makes you a person and what makes you the particular person you are. What people always thought was an immaterial soul simply isn’t.

    Obviously, without a huge leap into scientific implausibility and contrivance to evade falsification, the orthodox conception of immaterial souls and the afterlife is dead in the water.

    It has already been falsified. It is scientifically false, just like vitalism.

    You can always try to salvage a falsified hypothesis if you’re desperate enough, by telling a sufficiently contrived and farfetched story to explain how what’s obviously false is still somehow nonetheless true.

    For example, you could try to salvage vitalism by saying that there’s some spark or essence of life, which just happens not to do most (any?) of the things the vital essence was hypothesized to explain. It could still be there, somehow, and still be important, somehow, in ways we don’t understand. Maybe biology isn’t just machinery after all.

    But by the same token, we could still believe that lightning is about Thor going postal and hurling thunderbolts. Sure, we know that lightning generally follows the path of least electrical resistance, and so on—we understand it scientifically in terms of mechanistic, nonteleological processes.

    But we still haven’t disproved the idea that lightning behaves that way because that’s the way Thor wants it for his own inscrutable reasons. Maybe for some reason we’ll never understand, Thor doesn’t like conductive things that stand between regions of very different charge, so that’s the why behind the scientific how of lightning. Or maybe he just doesn’t like golfers, and sets things up to zap them disproportionately often, and the other lightning strikes are just collateral damage of a sort. Who knows? Who could know? It’s unfalsifiable and therefore beyond the reach of science, right?

    We also haven’t disproved the idea that Thor sometimes zaps people, or refrains from doing so, for other reasons than conductivity and golf. Maybe Thor works miracles and zaps the occasional object he simply doesn’t like. Or maybe he refrains from zapping the occasional person he does like, despite their conductivity and raising a metal club on the backswing in the rain. Maybe he made an exceptioin for Tiger Woods, once. Who knows? Who could know? That’d be a miracle, and therefore beyond the reach of science, right?

    Wrong, wrong, wrong. Science isn’t about strictly disproving anything, and can’t be, because hypotheses can’t generally be falsified in isolation. You can almost always tweak auxiliary hypotheses (background assumptions and subsidiary hypotheses) to protect a favored hypothesis from refutation.

    And that’s generally not allowed. There comes a point where the efforts to evade falsfication are just too contrived and desperate, and we consider the hypothesis falsified—and if the hypothesis is central to an important paradigm, we talk about that failed paradigm.

    That’s how science works, and it even works that way with regard to at least some religion, such as Norse mythology.

    The Thor theory of lightning has been scientifically disproved, right?. Not absolutely definitively, of course, because science doesn’t generally do that, but close enough for science. It’s been shown to be pretty obviously a mistaken idea, such that even if it might still be somehow true, or partly approximately true, you’d be scientifically wrong to take it seriously without some new and compelling (and astonishing) evidence.

    The fact that the Thor theory was a religious theory doesn’t give it much weight; science still disproved it in the usual way—and in fact disproved the God’s wrath theory of lightning in the bargain. (The One True God doesn’t hurl thunderbolts any more than Thor does.)

    The same goes for vitalism. Most religion is vitalistic, but it’s still scientifically wrong. You can make it as unfalsifiable as you want, with whatever painfully contrived story you want, but it’s nonetheless scientifically wrong. No matter what unfalsifiable religious stories you tell, there simply is no life force, and we know that scientifically.

    Desperately contrived stories are simply inconsistent with science, whether they’re falsifiable or not, and whether they’re religious or not.

    Science has progressed to the point that it’s not just peripheral “mythic” religious ideas being scientifically debunked—it isn’t just the Garden of Eden and the Flood.

    Science is showing that central religious tenets are mistaken—about life, souls, an afterlife, the supernatural, divine revelations, mystical experiences, morality, etc.—and that religion generally is inconsistent with science, to the extent that it makes any contentful and distinctively religious claims. (An unusually vague and austere Deism is arguably an exception, but that’s about it.)

    IMHO, that’s what a lot of compatibilist and accommodationist rhetoric does—it accepts gross violations of parsimony as not unscientific.

    IMHO, you are wrong. The violations of parsimony are still treated as unscientific. It’s just that if those violations don’t have potential empirical consequences, then they don’t get in the way of scientific investigation.

    I disagree. I think a lot of compatibilist and accommodationist rhetoric excuses many “unscientific” ideas as though they were simply not scientific and therefore irrelevant to science, when in fact they’re unscientific in a stronger sense: they are anti-scientific, because the scientific evidence contradicts them, and people insist on believing them anyway.

    For example, if you think you have an immortal soul and are going to go to Heaven for believing in Jesus, you are scientifically wrong to believe that. You might, by some farfetched turn of events, turn out to be bizarrely lucky enough to be right, but you’re nonetheless scientifically wrong to think that it’s true, or that you can know such a thing.

    The relevant science makes it pretty clear that the orthodox soul/afterlife story is just scientifically wrong; there is no essence of you that will survive death, any more than there is an essence of life that can survive the disintegration of the physical machinery and processes that constitute life. When you’re dead, you’re dead.

    Likewise, it’s become pretty clear that morality is a natural phenomenon, and that most orthodox and distinctively religious concepts of morality are largely false. Morality is not dictated by a god, or an intentional gift from a personal god. It’s just not that kind of thing. Details of religious moral systems are also largely wrong, because they’re based on false presuppositions. (E.g., about the actual nature and consequences of homosexuality, or “sin” more generally.)

    Compatibilists and accommodationists often make it sound like science and religion are compatible with respect to morality, because science just isn’t about that, and religion is.

    Unfortunately, that’s just not true. Science may not be able to tell you what you should value, but it can certainly show that religious concepts of morality are often factually in error. Religious concepts of morality are generally not independent of religious truth claims, and science can indeed illuminate both the origin and basic nature of morality—and moral errors based on scientifically false presuppositions embedded in religious moralizing.

    As for who is distorting what science is, I’d go with someone who define science so broadly that it has little to do with science as it is done on the ground and encompasses biased and subjective things like dating.

    Gee, another attempt to derail a serious conversation with an irrelevant slam against PZ, misrepresenting what he was saying.

    (Why am I not surprised?)

    Damn, you’re predictable, J.J.

  27. #27 J. J. Ramsey
    March 20, 2010

    Paul W.:

    IMHO, what the Catholic church does (and they’re not alone) is venturing uncomfortably close to Omphalos territory—simple denial of the scientifically obvious.
    For example, the dogma about the soul and the afterlife seems pretty well refuted by modern cognitive science.

    What does the soul and the afterlife have to do with the Omphalos hypothesis, which is what Last Thursday-ism parodies?

    I think a lot of compatibilist and accommodationist rhetoric excuses many “unscientific” ideas as though they were simply not scientific and therefore irrelevant to science, when in fact they’re unscientific in a stronger sense: they are anti-scientific, because the scientific evidence contradicts them, and people insist on believing them anyway.

    For example, if you think you have an immortal soul and are going to go to Heaven for believing in Jesus, you are scientifically wrong to believe that.

    Name something that Christian belief in an immortal soul would predict, and point out the empirical evidence that would contradict it. Then we can talk about the scientific wrongness of it.

  28. #28 J. J. Ramsey
    March 20, 2010

    Paul W.: “Gee, another attempt to derail a serious conversation with an irrelevant slam against PZ, misrepresenting what he was saying.”

    There’s enough context in my link in post #25 to judge whether it is a misrepresentation to say that PZ Myers was trying to construe romantic dating to be a sort of scientific investigation. Offhand, I’d say the evidence speaks for itself.

    Anyway, you keep writing these long, long rants that seem to be more assertion than argument. Look, it’s not that hard. If a belief is unfalsifiable, than there isn’t any empirical evidence that can count against it, and empirical investigation, let alone the rigorous kind of investigation that pretty much defines science, has nothing to investigate. You seem to keep trying to drown out that straightforward point in heaps of verbiage.

    There’s another issue with your Galileo thought experiment. There is a difference between someone merely having an unfalsifiable belief (which may be annoying or boring in and of itself) and someone trying to enforce a belief–unfalsifiable or otherwise–at the point of a sword. The latter issue is what Galileo is about, and it should not be confused with whether one can hold such unfalsifiable beliefs and still do and/or accept science. Again, you drown that issue in verbiage.

  29. #29 eNeMeE
    March 22, 2010

    There’s enough context in my link in post #25 to judge whether it is a misrepresentation to say that PZ Myers was trying to construe romantic dating to be a sort of scientific investigation. Offhand, I’d say the evidence speaks for itself.

    Well, no, there isn’t. He was saying that the reason people stay in long term relationships is largely because the evidence matches their hypothesis.

    As an experiment, think of a relationship where the available evidence contradicts the hypothesis that the pair is a loving couple – how would you descibe the relationship, and would you expect it to last.

    Can you now agree that most unfalsifiable hypotheses are wrong, or do we have to continue that?

    As for a soul entering Omphalos territory – you have an something that is supposed to last forever and carry information (which, so far as science is currently concerned requires a physical substrate) and yet has no detectable effect on anything, ever. So people were created with souls but in a way as to be indistinguishable from people with no souls – exactly like a newly created earth made to look as if it was created billions of years ago.

    whether one can hold such unfalsifiable beliefs and still do and/or accept science
    Has anyone said that isn’t possible? If they have, I’d really like a reference. I’m aware of lots of claims that people have said it, but I’ve never found the claims to be true.

    …or they may be true to the extent that “Liberals believe in fairies!” – some liberals somewhere do, but that’s down to those people being crackpots.

  30. #30 J. J. Ramsey
    March 22, 2010

    eNeMeE: “He was saying that the reason people stay in long term relationships is largely because the evidence matches their hypothesis.”

    What Myers said was pretty clear. He called dating a kind of “empirical investigation,” and it was clear from the context that he was trying to treat it as if it were somehow a kind of science. And all this was in response to an accommodationist argument that pointed out that Larry Moran’s claim that “being a good scientist meant subjecting all your beliefs to scientific scrutiny” implied holding scientists to an impossibly high standard. Myers tried to work around the argument by diluting the meaning of “scientific scrutiny” to the point that homeopaths could claim that they had subjected their beliefs to “scientific scrutiny.”

    eNeMeE: “Has anyone said that isn’t possible?”

    Well, Paul W. keeping insisting that holding unfalsifiable beliefs is not merely a bad idea, but is somehow “scientifically wrong” as well.

  31. #31 eNeMeE
    March 22, 2010

    Well, Paul W. keeping insisting that holding unfalsifiable beliefs is not merely a bad idea, but is somehow “scientifically wrong” as well.

    It’s certainly a bad idea, and since the belief you’re holding is almost guaranteed to be wrong it certainly isn’t a scientific method of arriving at information – it is counter to scientific methodology and practice.

    Doesn’t mean you can’t accept that science works and do science while doing it.

    Myers tried to work around the argument by diluting the meaning of “scientific scrutiny” to the point that homeopaths could claim that they had subjected their beliefs to “scientific scrutiny.”
    Homeopaths reject evidence that contradicts their beliefs. When people do that in their relationships, what happens to the relationship?

  32. #32 J. J. Ramsey
    March 23, 2010

    eNeMeE: “Homeopaths reject evidence that contradicts their beliefs.”

    You miss the point, which is that under Myers’ loose definition of science, they don’t have to reject evidence, but rather can point to someone feeling better after taking a homeopathic remedy as evidence.

    eNeMeE: “When people do that in their relationships, what happens to the relationship?”

    Again, missing the point, which is that the way people judge other people in relationships tends to be biased. Of course, people can and do manage to get along in relationships even with the biases–and often because of them. I would not, however, want a scientist to be as biased when judging the effectiveness of a drug as he/she is in judging his spouse.

  33. #33 eNeMeE
    March 23, 2010

    You miss the point
    I really don’t think I do.

    Where was it said that rejecting evidence was allowable for science? Do you have a link handy?

    I’m aware of the claim that dating and love are based on empricism, as otherwise they tend to fail, but never the claim that rejecting evidence is allowable for science. Not even that rejecting evidence was allowable in the case of honest empirical investigation.

    As I recall, it came out of one of those ‘other ways of knowing’ things, and Mierrrrz’s position was that the only way people actually know things that are true is through empiricism, and someone said something to the effect of “You don’t know that you love your wife by means of empiricism”. To which the reply was that “Yes, it is empirically based – here are examples of the empirical investigations that have been conducted”.

    Much burning of straw ensued.

  34. #34 J. J. Ramsey
    March 23, 2010

    eNeMeE: “Where was it said that rejecting evidence was allowable for science?”

    *Facepalm*

    Ok, I see what you did there:

    Me: PZ Myers loosened the meaning of science so much that a homeopath can claim to have subjected their beliefs to “scientific scrutiny” (even though their actual level of scrutiny is obviously poor).

    You: But homeopaths reject evidence.

    Me: Non sequitur. My point was that PZ set the bar so low that a homeopath can say “Look someone feels better after taking my remedies” and call that “empirical investigation.”

    You: But homeopaths reject evidence.

    Sigh …

    Look, here’s what going on:

    * Pieret pointed out that science is “empirical investigation,” and made clear that something rigorous like quantitative testing was what he had in mind.

    * PZ Myers went so far as to call dating “empirical investigation.”

    * However, dating is biased, subjective, and generally unrigorous, so by treating something like dating as a kind of empirical investigation, he opened a huge loophole to allow any unrigorous look at purported evidence to pass itself off as “empirical investigation.”

    * Homeopaths could easily take advantage of the loophole to claim their therapies were supported by “empirical investigation.”

    Got all that?

  35. #35 Paul W.
    March 23, 2010

    J.J. Ramsey:

    What does the soul and the afterlife have to do with the Omphalos hypothesis, which is what Last Thursday-ism parodies?

    At this point, pretty much everything that dualistic souls and supernatural gods were hypothesized to explain has been explained scientifically without reference to souls or gods. (Except for the basic question of why there is anything rather than nothing at all, which God doesn’t really help with anyhow.)

    In light of science, the entire universe seems to be monistic and material, no exceptions, and including the things that motivated dualism in the first place—human and animal minds, which seemed so qualitatively different from mere material objects.

    Like vitalism, dualism appears to be wrong. (Traditional ubstance dualism, at least.) It was a reasonable idea to prescientific people, and appears to be an appealing idea because we’re evolved to think differently about different categories of things—nonliving matter, plants, animals, and people—but it’s just wrong. People are a kind of animal, animals are a kind of living thing, and living things are just special arrangements of otherwise nonliving matter.

    Science has solved all of the major, deep mysteries that religions have traditionally given answers to. (Except the aforementioned existence per se, which religion never did or could give a real answer to.)

    Why, then, should anybody still believe in souls and God, any more than they should believe in Thor’s thunderbolts, once lightning is explained scientifically, non-magically, and non-teleologically?

    If there are immortal souls and a creator God, it’s a very peculiar and farfetched combination of undetectable souls and a God, who created a universe that looks just like a universe without souls or god.

    Our souls operate in just such a way that they’re indistinguishable from the functioning of our material brains. (Maybe superfluously running in parallel, as Descartes though.) And God operates in such mysterious ways that we can’t tell he exists at all.

    How very, very strange. What an odd, extraordinary coincidence!

    It’s the opposite of parsimonious.

    To me, it’s about as farfetched as the Omphalos hypothesis.

    I have about as much difficulty accepting that the universe appears so soulless, godless, and mercilessly material and yet we have immortal souls and God and pie in the sky when we die and so on, as that the universe appears to have a very long past and yet was just created last Thursday.

    They’re both require the awesomely unparsimonious acceptance of either a staggeringly farfetched coincidence, or a unfalsifiable, painfully contrived conspiracy theory that makes the coincidence look somewhat less farfetched.

    Either way, we’re supposed to believe somebody for some mysterious reason engineered the universe to look very much one way, when in fact it is very much a different way.

    And to me, both seem about equally ridiculous. The universe doesn’t just look old—its evident history looks quite convincingly unplanned and monistically material, i.e., godless and soulless.

    To avoid the obvious conclusion—that it is godless and soulless—you have to indulge in paranoid conspiracy theories and special pleading.

    Compatibilists and accommodationists trying to defend unfalsifiable theology are in pretty much the position of the conman saying “Who are you going to believe—me, or your lying eyes?”

    IMO, that’s unscientific in a bad way, i.e., antiscientific. Scientific principles don’t only apply to very specific concrete observables in isolation. The principle of parsimony applies to unfalsifiables as well, and in particular to unfalsifiable religious claims.

    As I explained before—and you don’t seem to want to acknowledge—it is empirically evident that unfalsifiable religous claims are often false. We know that, because of the lack of intersubjective agreement between religions and sects not just on minor details but on major religious tenets.

    Please acknowledge that point. You seem to think it’s an answer to say that unfalsifiables can’t be falsified, ergo, science has nothing to say about unfalsifiable religion. You ignore the point that we can prove that many unfalsifiables are false, even if we can’t prove which particular ones. We can prove that religion is generally a quite unreliable “way of knowing.”

    That’s the elephant in the room. We know religion is often wrong, which gives us reason not to cut it any special slack when it appears scientifically to be wrong, e.g., about the existence of immortal (substance dualist) souls.

    That gives us good scientific reason to be skeptical of religion across the board, and in particular to be very, very skeptical of unfalsifiable, contrived conspiracy theories of how and why religion is unfalsifiable and yet still somehow, amazingly, true. Scientifically, we shouldn’t give it much credence, any more than the ravings of conspiracy theorists of other sorts.

    Suppose you’re confronted by a dozen people who claim to be, say, Jesus Christ. (And each denies that the other is.) Suppose each tells you an unfalsifiable story about how they alone can be Jesus Christ, incarnate despite appearing to be random people who only think they are.

    What should you conclude? Should you conclude that their claims of divinity are beyond the reach of science, and science has nothing to say about the matter?

    No. You should conclude that at most one of them is right, and most of them are crazy.

    If you have no further information, you should actually guess, scientifically, that all of them are crazy, and none of them is Jesus.

    Why? Because you have evidence right in front of you that most people who claim to be Jesus are crazy.

    Unless you have evidence that one of your dozen claimants actually is Jesus, parsimony demands that you guess that they’re all just nuts.

    Why? Because you have evidence right in front of you that nuttiness is quite common in your sample. If you’ve found 11 people who mistakenly think they’re Jesus, it’s a very good guess that the 12th one is mistaken as well. It’s a much simpler and more scientifically plausible theory than that you happen to have 11 lunatics and one god incarnate on your hands.

    Note that that conclusion is scientifically warranted—and denying it is antiscientific—even if you not only believe in Jesus, but believe that he has in fact returned to Earth and is wandering somewhere around telling people who he is. In that case, it’s still more likely that your 12th candidate for godhood is just another lunatic than that he’s the One True God who just happened to show up in your sample. You know that most Jesus claimants are lunatics, even if one is not, so in lieu of any extraordinary evidence, it’s the right scientific guess that any particular claimant is not in fact Jesus himself.

    You can probably see where I’m going with this. Evidently, most religions are largely a kind of popular delusion. Given the lack of intersubjective agreement on so many points large and small, they simply have to be. There might be a lot of truth to one of them, and some truth to all of them, but still you should be very skeptical of religious claims because they are quite frequently false—even the unfalsifiable ones.

    I think it’s pretty obvious that we should take the same basic approach to religions making extraordinary, unverifiable, and contradictory claims as we do to individuals. We should infer that most or all of the claims are false, and we should guess, in any particular case, that any particular extraordinary unverifiable claim is false, even if it’s unfalsifiable.

    Anything else is unscientific.

    If you disagree, please explain clearly why. Why should we treat groups of people with extraordinary and contradictory claims differently than we do individuals—why should we not infer that they are deluded? (Note that I don’t mean individually crazy, just deluded in the sense of ordinary popular delusions, where people confirm each others biases and lead each other down the garden path. It happens. A lot. Why should we not guess that’s what’s happening with religion and the proliferation of contradictory extraordinary claims?)

    Name something that Christian belief in an immortal soul would predict, and point out the empirical evidence that would contradict it. Then we can talk about the scientific wrongness of it.

    OK. If you don’t lean over backwards to make substance dualism unfalsifiable, then you should predict that the brain would not behave like a computer which does a person’s sensing, perceiving, thinking, remembering, valuing, planning, choosing, and emoting.

    That stuff was supposed to be done by the soul, and orthodox Christian theology straightforwardly depends on it happening in the soul, such that a person can survive the death of the brain and go to heaven or hell as a person, with the beliefs, desires, etc.

    It is scientifically evident that those things happen in the brain, and there’s no good scientific explanation of how your identity could survive the death of your brain. When the brain dies and rots, there go all of the memories, values, personality traits, etc. that make you you.

    The orthodox dualistic soul has been straightforwardly scientifically refuted—we have many observations that are consistent with all sorts of mental phenomena happening in the mortal brain, and by the material functioning of the mortal brain, rather than in some distinct immaterial soul that could survive death.

    That’s the kind of falsification we do in science all the time; the immaterial soul hypothesis has obvious consequences, and the material brain hypothesis has obvious consequences, and the facts fit the latter, not the former.

    Apologists usually avoid this subject, but a few try to address it and salvage the concept of an immortal soul in the face of apparent neuroscientific disproof.

    How? By telling bizarrely contrived stories, e.g., that there’s an immortal soul that redundantly mirrors the brain, and goes to heaven when the brain dies.

    That’s the kind of explanation science says we should be extremely skeptical of—why would we have both? If the brain is capable of being us, as it apparently is in every observable way, and the immortal soul is also capable of being us, in an unfalsifiable way, WTF is up with the redundancy?

    And why, if the soul is really the person, do various mental abilities and personality traits change in certain ways with different kinds of brain damage? Does the soul get out of sync with the brain, such that the material you and the spiritual you are very different? Or is the spiritual mind slaved to the material brain, and thus subject to all of its frailties? Does brain damage change your immaterial soul?

    Why would a god have set things up in such a bizarre way? The brain is pretty obviously a klugey and flawed result of evolution. Why would a God have created souls with the same properties, and synced them up? (Or if he didn’t, how is the soul you, without your evolved human personality, memories, etc.?) Why, when the brain is damaged, doesn’t the soul kick in and take over for the damaged parts of the brain, masking the damage?

    So far as I know, nobody has a remotely coherent or plausible story about how the mind can be so clearly the functioning of the evolved brain, and still have an immaterial soul that is the immortal self.

    The most scientifically plausible story is clearly the simple and obvious one—the brain is what does the things that prescientific people thought was done by an immaterial soul, and when it dies, you die.

    Anything else requires some farfetched and fancy footwork, to explain how you can somehow be uploaded and continue to function in the afterlife, and how that’s actually you, rather than an immortal copy of you. The consequences of such a scheme would be pretty bizarre, e.g., since it turns out that minds basically are computational processes, you’d need an immaterial computer of a certain sort to upload your computational process into, and it’d have to be compatible, at least at a high level, with your evolved physical meat computer in your head. Wow.

  36. #36 J. J. Ramsey
    March 23, 2010

    Paul W.: “The orthodox dualistic soul has been straightforwardly scientifically refuted”

    And which orthodox view do you have in mind? Bear in mind that even pre-scientific people were aware of the effects of physical things on personality, such as alcoholic beverages. The book of Proverbs, for example, has several passages on why people who need their wits should avoid strong drink. Indeed, I’m not too sure that there are any ideas of the soul as straightforward as the idea of a ghost in the shell animating a body, so your statement “the brain is what does the things that prescientific people thought was done by an immaterial soul” is questionable at best. Because of that, you have not yet come up with a proper answer to the question, “Name something that Christian belief in an immortal soul would predict.” I give you credit for at least trying, though.

    Paul W.: “Compatibilists and accommodationists trying to defend unfalsifiable theology are in pretty much the position of the conman saying ‘Who are you going to believe—me, or your lying eyes?'”

    Actually, as I had already pointed out, it’s more that since unfalsifiable theology is compatible with any facts on the ground, the people who hold to such theology aren’t motivated to lie about those facts on the ground and thus get in the way of people doing science and learning scientific facts. Creationist beliefs aren’t compatible with those facts, which is why creationists are so desperate to distort and lie. Accordingly, the accommodationists focus their efforts on those who actually get in the way of the science.

  37. #37 eNeMeE
    March 24, 2010

    * Pieret pointed out that science is “empirical investigation,” and made clear that something rigorous like quantitative testing was what he had in mind.

    * PZ Myers went so far as to call dating “empirical investigation.”

    * However, dating is biased, subjective, and generally unrigorous, so by treating something like dating as a kind of empirical investigation, he opened a huge loophole to allow any unrigorous look at purported evidence to pass itself off as “empirical investigation.”

    * Homeopaths could easily take advantage of the loophole to claim their therapies were supported by “empirical investigation.”

    Got all that?
    Not the conversation I recall. Or the one I just re-read.

    Again, in order for homeopaths to be allowed to consider their ‘testing’ there would have to be some sort of allowance for the rejection of evidence – which never occured. It’s wonderful that you think that loophole has been opened, but nothing you’ve presented makes that case.

    So could you point out some evidence that homeopaths would be able to say they’ve subjected their beliefs to empiric investigation?

    Aside from your claim that they would, as I’m now putting that into the camp with your opinions on the truth of unfalsifiable claims.

    Re:accomodationists. Let’s take a particular case: Dr. Collins. Do you think his beliefs are unfalsifiable?

  38. #38 J. J. Ramsey
    March 24, 2010

    eNeMeE: “Again, in order for homeopaths to be allowed to consider their ‘testing’ there would have to be some sort of allowance for the rejection of evidence.”

    If you want to force the issue, “rejection of evidence” largely falls under the “biased and subjective” rubric, especially if you take “Morton’s demon” into account.

    eNeMeE: “So could you point out some evidence that homeopaths would be able to say they’ve subjected their beliefs to empiric investigation?”

    In a BBC article debunking homeopathy, a spokeswoman for the Society of Homoeopaths nonetheless claimed, “Many previous studies have demonstrated that homeopathy has an effect over and above placebo,” and the article even mentioned that some early, less rigorous studies appeared to show homeopathy has a positive effect. So yes, if Myers’ loose standards for empirical investigation are allowed to stand, there is material to which homeopaths can point at and say, “Look, empirical investigation supports us.”

    eNeMeE: “Dr. Collins. Do you think his beliefs are unfalsifiable?”

    Depends on the beliefs in question. Practically speaking, there really isn’t a way to falsify a claim that God broke the usual laws of physics and brought Jesus of Nazareth back from the dead. On the other hand, his beliefs on whether morality could have evolved are a good example of why one should be wary of a scientist making pronouncements outside of his/her field of expertise, and IIRC, one could cite Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide for examples on why Collins is mistaken.

  39. #39 eNeMeE
    March 24, 2010

    If you want to force the issue, “rejection of evidence” largely falls under the “biased and subjective” rubric
    I don’t want to force the issue – I want you to acknowledge that what you’re doing is putting words in PZ’s mouth.

    As for homeopathy, they can point to evidence that has been debunked. That would be like saying someone can point to their husband having given them flowers last year as evidence that their spouse loves them while being beaten by said spouse. Or, in the initial stages, that their sigificant other loves them because they were given a shiny gum wrapper that was found on the floor.

    If someone is doing that then they aren’t conducting an empirical investigation any more than someone who is throwing snowballs around is playing football.

    As far as Collins, and so far as my experience goes, no one actually has any unfalsifiable beliefs – just ones they think are unfalsifiable.

    So what should people do in reply to those who hold some unfalsifiable beliefs along with unscientific and falsifiable ones, but aren’t as vocal about them as they are about the ones they think are unfalsifiable?

    (Collins is perhaps a bad example for this on account of he is comparatively vocal about stuff, but it’s hard to talk about things people haven’t said)

  40. #40 J. J. Ramsey
    March 24, 2010

    eNeMeE: “I don’t want to force the issue – I want you to acknowledge that what you’re doing is putting words in PZ’s mouth.”

    He’s the one who called dating “empirical investigation.” I’m just showing the problems implied by loosening the standards for such investigation to the point that dating counts as a form of it.

    eNeMeE: “As for homeopathy, they can point to evidence that has been debunked.”

    Indeed. That would be a botch of an empirical investigation–and that’s my point. Once biased, subjective, and unrigorous looks at the evidence get called “empirical investigation,” just about anything goes. That’s the whole problem.

    eNeMeE: “So what should people do in reply to those who hold some unfalsifiable beliefs along with unscientific and falsifiable ones, but aren’t as vocal about them as they are about the ones they think are unfalsifiable?”

    Depends. Certain I don’t think those beliefs are beyond criticism, though, neither the falsifiable nor the unfalsifiable ones. I would say though that trying to say that an unfalsifiable belief is somehow scientifically wrong is not a good way to argue against believing it simply on the grounds that such an attempted argument would be incoherent, for reasons to which I at least alluded above.

  41. #41 eNeMeE
    March 25, 2010

    He’s the one who called dating “empirical investigation.” I’m just showing the problems implied by loosening the standards for such investigation to the point that dating counts as a form of it.
    Nope, didn’t happen. He said his dating experience leading to marriage, and perhaps implied that successful dating experiences, involved a long-term empirical investigation. Nowhere, and at no time, was there ever an implication that ignoring evidence was allowed – except by other people putting words in his mouth.

    So homeopathy still doesn’t get a pass – other than your assertion that it does, do you have any evidence that it follows from PZ’s use of empirical investigation? I assume that when someone writes ‘empirical investigation’ the ‘honest’ part is implied.

    What you’re probably missing is that it wasn’t a conversation about generalities but about the specifics of a relationship. Are there people who go through their entire dating life without engaging in empirical investigation? Sure, but they don’t tend to succeed (and I wager most of us would call them failures at dating). Similarly, there are people who go through their entire life trying to do science but failing because they reject evidence – we call them creationists, homeopaths, etc.

    Certain I don’t think those beliefs are beyond criticism, though, neither the falsifiable nor the unfalsifiable ones. I would say though that trying to say that an unfalsifiable belief is somehow scientifically wrong is not a good way to argue against believing it simply on the grounds that such an attempted argument would be incoherent, for reasons to which I at least alluded above.
    How would they be criticized, then? The beliefs are unscientific for a *reasonable definition of scientific thinking that requires evidence for a hypothesis as well as acknowledgement of the prior probabilites. Any unfaslsifiable hypothesis is either almost certainly false (or so vague as to be meaningless and that isn’t scientific either) on account of the sheer number of conflicting hypotheses – or is actually falsifiable, and the person holding it just doesn’t know it. And, of course, there’s either no evidence at all, or the belief is falsifiable…

    The general statement, as far as I can tell, goes like this:

    I have no evidence for X and there are a multitude of other completely contradictory possibilities of equal probability, and I believe X to be a true statement

    To my mind that statement is unscientific for any value of X. It’s much the same reason “If you pray hard enough, you’ll be rewarded” is unscientific – certainly can’t be falsified, but…

    *reasonable people may differ on this definition of reasonable, too. Phbbt!

  42. #42 J. J. Ramsey
    March 25, 2010

    eNeMeE: “Nope, didn’t happen. He said his dating experience leading to marriage, and perhaps implied that successful dating experiences, involved a long-term empirical investigation. Nowhere, and at no time, was there ever an implication that ignoring evidence was allowed”

    eNeMeE, the problem was never that Myers ever explicitly said that ignoring evidence was allowed, but rather that he considered something biased, subjective, and unrigorous to be an empirical investigation. It’s the bias that leads to a whole host of problems, ignoring evidence being only one of many.

    eNeMeE: “What you’re probably missing is that it wasn’t a conversation about generalities but about the specifics of a relationship.”

    Well, pardon me for being skeptical that Myers or his wife were all that objective about each other while dating, what with things like hormones getting in the way. Not to mention that an actual objective investigation would be a heap less fun than them enjoying each other’s company.

    eNeMeE: “Are there people who go through their entire dating life without engaging in empirical investigation? Sure”

    If we’re talking about the kind of empirical investigation that scientists are supposed to be doing, you know, the stuff with rigor, filters for bias, etc., then it’s highly unlikely that we’re talking about anyone’s dating history.

    eNeMeE: “How would they be criticized, then?”

    Depends on their content. If we’re talking beliefs about miracles, start with Hume and work from there.

  43. #43 eNeMeE
    March 26, 2010

    eNeMeE, the problem was never that Myers ever explicitly said that ignoring evidence was allowed, but rather that he considered something biased, subjective, and unrigorous to be an empirical investigation.

    So, we’re getting somewhere – ignoring evidence is not allowed. It was never said, and never even implied. In fact, strongly implied that it isn’t allowed, on account of it’s crucial to an empirical investigation.

    Let’s move on to subjective – isn’t relevant, or subjective in the usual sense. There’s only one subject involved, so any determinations made by that subject are as objective as they need to be. If you want to analyze more than one person, you’ll need the metrics for love/affection/etc for each of those people, but when there’s only one involved, you only need one metric.

    Depends on their content. If we’re talking beliefs about miracles, start with Hume and work from there.
    And how is that any more coherent (or not saying it’s scientifically bad)? It’s an argument on scientific grounds – weigh the evidence and, since the weight of evidence (scientific, I assume, as what other evidence are you going to allow in to refute miracles) is vastly on the side of naturalism, reject the claim of miracle. If you don’t accept the scientific part of the argument, there’s no reason whatsoever to pay attention to what follows.

    Also doesn’t address the “That rock falling on my car hood saved me from falling over the cliff” miracle – and assuming an unnecessary entity is certainly a bad scientific aim.

    About non-miraculous, non-falsifiable, beliefs – ones that you think should not be criticized on scientific grounds – do you have any examples of ones people actually believe? I really can’t think of any off the top of my head (I don’t count deism – there’s no way to falsify it now, but I’m not sure it couldn’t be falsified in future as our understanding of the universe and it’s origins improves).

  44. #44 J. J. Ramsey
    March 26, 2010

    eNeMeE: “So, we’re getting somewhere – ignoring evidence is not allowed.”

    Um, no. Like I said, ignoring evidence falls under the problem of bias. More to the point, dating just isn’t rigorous, nor is it necessarily supposed to be, while science is supposed to be as rigorous as possible. I’d say that the fundamental difference between scientific investigation and more informal ways of that we gather knowledge is that so much effort goes into filtering out bias. That’s why it is so silly to try to sweep dating under the rubric of science.

    eNeMeE: “And how is that any more coherent (or not saying it’s scientifically bad)?”

    I was saying that it is incoherent to try to say that unfalsifiable beliefs are scientifically wrong. Science deals in the empirical, and so has nothing to say about propositions that can’t be refuted by empirical evidence.

    If we are talking about most miracle claims, then things get in a fuzzy gray area, because most of such claims are not in a position of being directly disproved. Rather, one attacks them indirectly by pointing out that the evidence for the claims is shaky and can be explained as a by-product of human credulity. Essentially, one argues that the one arguing in favor of a miracle has not yet made a good enough case. To the extent that this is even a scientific argument at all, it relies on the softer sciences of psychology and sociology. There is no point in arguing against the resurrection simply on the grounds that the dead don’t rise, because the one arguing in favor of the resurrection would simply agree that, yes, the dead don’t normally rise, and that the resurrection wouldn’t be very interesting if they did. And if someone says, “Well, I choose to make a leap of faith on this miracle claim since it won’t make a difference if I’m wrong,” and they are right about it not making a difference, there isn’t much one can say about the matter.

  45. #45 enemee
    March 27, 2010

    busy and sick, will respond later

  46. #46 J. J. Ramsey
    March 27, 2010

    enemee: “busy and sick, will respond later”

    Take your time, please. Take forever if you like, since this thread is getting long in the tooth. Anyway, here’s a refresher on the conversation between Pieret and Myers.

    Pieret:

    What tests did you do on yourself to see if you love your wife and children? Hormone testing, eegs, what? Thinking about things is not “science” per se. Science is empiric investigation. Nor is the question whether “love” can be scientifically investigated, the question is whether individual scientists do it before they decide who they love. The issue was Larry’s assertion that scientists have to approach everything as a scientific question. I doubt that is true but if you want to publish your peer-reviewed study of whether or not you love the trophy wife, I’d be interested in reading it. [emphasis mine]

    First, note that Pieret said that “Science is empiric investigation,” and that the context makes clear the sorts of things he has in mind when he writes of empiric investigation: quantitative tests, peer review, etc. It’s no wonder that he this is what he has in mind. There’s a reason that scientific polls are distinguished from Internet polls, namely that the former account for sampling bias, margins of error, and so on. There is also a huge distinction between the scientific testing done to vet conventional medical therapies, where bias is accounted for, e.g., through double-blinding, and what passes for testing of alternative therapies, like anecdotes and subjective reports of feeling better. Science is about rigorous investigation and removal of bias. It isn’t just evidence-based thinking, since even thinking that takes evidence into account can be biased by how the evidence is weighed.

    Now let’s turn to Myers’ response. Without contradicting Pieret’s claim that science is empiric investigation, he writes:

    John, yes, we carried out a long period of empirical investigation. It’s called “dating”.

    I repeat, Myers never contradicted Pieret’s claim that science is empiric investigation, so when he calls dating “empirical investigation,” he really is saying that dating is science. What Myers says after this doesn’t really exculpate him:

    Both my wife and I studied the problem carefully, and if I’d been a jerk or she’d tormented me cruelly, we’d probably have reached the rational decision that we shouldn’t marry.

    Okay, so there’s no blatant antipathy between him and his wife. So? That’s more cursory observation than science. Also, any damn fool can claim to have studied a problem carefully, and that doesn’t make one’s studies scientific. There’s nothing here about any protocols for filtering out bias. If he is talking about dating in any conventional sense, then his own feelings are bound to induce bias, and he’s probably using the normal heuristics people use to figure out how his wife feels about him, rather than something more bulletproof. If he is calling his dating “science,” then he is either saying that he was using very unusual methods of dating in order to filter out the usual bias, or he is using very lax standards for empirical investigations. I gather that it is more likely that he is using lax standards. If the standard for proving something scientific is that lax, though, then it’s easy to “prove” that various kinds of quackery, UFO sightings, and so on, are “scientific.”

    Got all that? (I’m afraid that was as long as one of Paul W.’s posts.)

    And now for something completely different …

    As for saying whether a claim is scientifically wrong, I’d say that at the very least, one has to show empirical evidence that contradicts the claim, since science is ultimately an empirical enterprise. Obviously, by definition, one can’t do that for unfalsifiable beliefs, and by this point, one is left with non-empirical arguments for disbelieving the unfalsifiable–and such non-empirical arguments are more philosophy’s department. What about beliefs that are only unfalsifiable in a practical sense, that is, claims for which evidence could in principle have been introduced to contradict them, but the evidence is unfeasible to obtain (and perhaps would even require a time machine to obtain)? I’d say that in practice, one pretty much has to treat them as one would unfalsifiable beliefs, but one can also challenge them indirectly by attacking the credibility of the evidence offered in support for the belief, e.g. the Bible. I would not be inclined to call such an indirect line of argument scientific, however.

  47. #47 eNeMeE
    March 29, 2010

    since this thread is getting long in the tooth.

    Yeah, I think it’s making sabretooth tigers feel inadequate.

    Um, no. Like I said, ignoring evidence falls under the problem of bias.

    So despite PZ never having said it, or implied it and in fact implying it is not allowed, you’re going to continue to claim that rejecting evidence is allowable under what PZ said?

    And if someone says, “Well, I choose to make a leap of faith on this miracle claim since it won’t make a difference if I’m wrong,” and they are right about it not making a difference, there isn’t much one can say about the matter.

    It does make a difference, though. In the case of the ressurection, there’s a breaking of the assumed to be uniform laws of physics and, given more than one (or even one and sufficiently advanced technology) that will change things.

    First, note that Pieret said that “Science is empiric investigation,” and that the context makes clear the sorts of things he has in mind when he writes of empiric investigation: quantitative tests, peer review, etc.

    Science only needs the necessary metrics, measures and safeguards for each individual case. If I want to conduct an empirical investigation of whether or not I like oranges, I don’t need to publish a study, develop a quantitiative metric or perform statistical analysis on my orange eating habits – all I need to do is think over the oranges I’ve eaten, and see if there are more cases of like than dislike.

    There’s nothing here about any protocols for filtering out bias.

    Again, doing science only requires the minimal amount of rquired work – anything more than that is a bonus. Besides that, for a question of “Do I like something?” bias is simply part of the observation – if you’re biased in favour of it, that’s simply more evidence that you like it.

    As for saying whether a claim is scientifically wrong, I’d say that at the very least, one has to show empirical evidence that contradicts the claim, since science is ultimately an empirical enterprise.

    That’s backwards, to me – to say a claim is scientifically wrong is perfectly honest when there is no evidence for the claim. When there’s no evidence for it, and a lot of evidence and knowledge of prior probabilities indicates it’s vanishingly unlikely, then saying it’s scientifically wrong to make the claim seems quite appropriate.

    To have said that aether theory was scientifically wrong before Michelson-Morley would have been, to my mind, perfectly correct, for example.

  48. #48 J. J. Ramsey
    March 29, 2010

    eNeMeE: “So despite PZ never having said it, or implied it and in fact implying it is not allowed”

    Who said implying isn’t allowed? I didn’t, and I did say that he implied it.

    eNeMeE: “It does make a difference, though. In the case of the ressurection, there’s a breaking of the assumed to be uniform laws of physics and, given more than one (or even one and sufficiently advanced technology) that will change things.”

    Change things how? You’re handwaving here.

    eNeMeE: “If I want to conduct an empirical investigation of whether or not I like oranges, I don’t need to publish a study, develop a quantitiative metric or perform statistical analysis on my orange eating habits – all I need to do is think over the oranges I’ve eaten, and see if there are more cases of like than dislike.”

    Actually, that wouldn’t be a scientific way to do it. If you think you like oranges, then if you look back over your memories, you’ll likely count the hits (i.e. when you liked an orange) and forget the misses.

    eNeMeE: “Besides that, for a question of ‘Do I like something?’ bias is simply part of the observation”

    Um, PZ was talking about dating, which is more involved than just figuring out whether he liked someone.

    eNeMeE: “That’s backwards, to me – to say a claim is scientifically wrong is perfectly honest when there is no evidence for the claim.”

    I think we are using very different meanings of “scientifically wrong.” I’m inclined to use the term to mean something proven wrong by scientific efforts. Actually, I’m more inclined to refer to poorly evidenced claims as “not credible” rather than “wrong.”

  49. #49 eNeMeE
    March 30, 2010

    Who said implying isn’t allowed? I didn’t, and I did say that he implied it.

    Then provide some evidence that he did – you’ve yet to do so. He said nothing of the sort directly, and nothing I read said that rejecting evidence was allowed – unless you read “empirical observation” to be “dishonest empirical observation”.

    Change things how? You’re handwaving here.

    Energy conservation, entropy, causality, reversibility, biogenesis perhaps. Would have thought that was obvious.

    Actually, that wouldn’t be a scientific way to do it.

    Yeah, it would. Again, if I have a bias in terms of “Do I like this?” filtering out that bias would be inappropriate. It would unduly weight the oranges I didn’t like vs the ones I did.

    Um, PZ was talking about dating, which is more involved than just figuring out whether he liked someone.

    Actually, he was talking about how he decided he loved his wife (which is still more involved) – it doesn’t change the fact that filtering out the bias in that case involves unduly weighting negative occurences.

    Science only needs to be as rigourous as the case in question requires. It also only needs the minimal toolset applied to any question to come up with answers – if more precision is needed (i.e. the model you construct afterwards fails tests), do it again with more rigour or better tools.

    I think we are using very different meanings of “scientifically wrong.”

    Quite likely. However, we’ve not been talking about claims that are just poorly evidenced – we’ve been talking about claims that are unparismonious, unevidenced, and have a prior probability near or at 0. Or, in the case of past miracles, have evidence against them.

  50. #50 J. J. Ramsey
    March 30, 2010

    eNeMeE: “Then provide some evidence that he did”

    The evidence is that he chose as his example of “empirical investigation,” namely dating, something that was very unrigorous and unlikely to be described as a scientific investigation under normal circumstances. If you haven’t figured that out, then you haven’t been paying attention.

    eNeMeE: “Actually, he was talking about how he decided he loved his wife”

    Again, he was talking about dating, where he and his then wife-to-be were evaluating each other. He actually dodged Pieret’s question of how he had known that he had loved his wife, perhaps because that would be an even worse example of empirical investigation than dating.

    Me: “Actually, that wouldn’t be a scientific way to do it. If you think you like oranges, then if you look back over your memories, you’ll likely count the hits (i.e. when you liked an orange) and forget the misses.”

    eNeMeE: “Yeah, it would [be a scientific way of determining if you liked oranges].”

    So you consider a method that would bias in favor of overlooking misses to be scientific? Or do you really trust your memory so much that you think that what you can recall would be uninfluenced by confirmation bias?

    eNeMeE: “Energy conservation, entropy, causality, reversibility, biogenesis perhaps.”

    Again, more handwaving. What are the testable empirical consequences of the resurrection that could actually be discovered in the present day? Simply repeating a bunch of sciencey terms isn’t an answer.

  51. #51 eNeMeE
    March 30, 2010

    The evidence is that he chose as his example of “empirical investigation,” namely dating, something that was very unrigorous and unlikely to be described as a scientific investigation under normal circumstances. If you haven’t figured that out, then you haven’t been paying attention.

    That’s a whole lot of nothing regarding ignoring evidence – nothing in there says that ignoring evidence is allowed. Simply repeating that evidence can be ignored isn’t evidence that evidence can be ignored. There isn’t anything, at all, about ignoring evidence being allowed, acceptable, or anything of that sort. Given that a scientist said it, calling something empirical investigation is actually a strong implication that ignoring evidence isn’t allowed. Or haven’t you been paying attention?

    He actually dodged Pieret’s question of how he had known that he had loved his wife

    No, he answered it – the whole process of dating, along with the data gathered therein, was the answer. Pieret never managed to respond to the fact that he has a naive view of how science is done – and he’s certainly not the one I’d trust to define science.

    So you consider a method that would bias in favor of overlooking misses to be scientific? Or do you really trust your memory so much that you think that what you can recall would be uninfluenced by confirmation bias?

    So far as the question of “Do I like oranges?” goes? Yes. I’m not sure why this is hard to understand, but confirmation bias is part of answering that question. My memory will weight things appropriately to my liking them. If I don’t like oranges, I’ll remember the ones I dislike more than the ones I like. This method is perfectly valid for answering that specific question – if the question was “Have I liked eating oranges more often than I’ve disliked them?”, then that method would fail.

    Again, more handwaving. What are the testable empirical consequences of the resurrection that could actually be discovered in the present day? Simply repeating a bunch of sciencey terms isn’t an answer.

    If you believe in the ressurection, you are (if you’re being consistent) unable to use any formula that involves energy conservation, entropy increasing, or the assumption of (ir)reversibility of several chemical and biological reactions. Causality would depend on how you thought it was achieved but since Jesus was supposed to have been born as fufillment of prophecy, belief in the ressurection precludes assuming that causes precede effects. Anytime you see something growing in your petri dish that isn’t supposed to be there, you can’t assume contamination.

    In other words, if you want to be consistent, you can’t do science.

  52. #52 J. J. Ramsey
    March 30, 2010

    eNeMeE: “That’s a whole lot of nothing regarding ignoring evidence – nothing in there says that ignoring evidence is allowed.”

    Translation: LA-LA-LA! I CAN’T HEAAARRR YOOOOU!

    If you don’t understand why dating isn’t rigorous enough to be considered scientific investigation, or why what makes it unrigorous leads to a host of problems—which, yes, can even include ignoring evidence—I can’t help you.

    eNeMeE: “No, he answered it – the whole process of dating, along with the data gathered therein, was the answer”

    No, that answered why he married his wife, not whether he was still in love with her.

    eNeMeE: “Pieret never managed to respond to the fact that he has a naive view of how science is done”

    Myers claimed that Pieret had a naive view, and considering that he had started off by attacking a straw man of Pieret’s views in the first place, his opinion of Pieret’s views isn’t the most trustworthy.

    eNeMeE: “My memory will weight things appropriately to my liking them.”

    And you accused Pieret of being naive? Go read a book like Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) and then see if you can make a statement like that with a straight face.

    eNeMeE: “If you believe in the ressurection, you are (if you’re being consistent) unable to use any formula that involves energy conservation …”

    Wow! Believing that a rare exception to the laws of physics has been made precludes one from assuming that the laws work the vast majority of the time? That is some A-grade burning stupid.

  53. #53 eNeMeE
    March 30, 2010

    Translation: LA-LA-LA! I CAN’T HEAAARRR YOOOOU!

    No, I hear you just fine – you’ve just never provided anything other than your own interpretation of things to back yourself up. Which would be fine if I was interested in “Does J.J. think Myers said evidence could be rejected?”, but doesn’t do anything to answer the question of whether or not he actually did.

    Oh, and please refrain from using your personal translator in future – it doesn’t work very well.

    If you don’t understand why dating isn’t rigorous enough to be considered scientific investigation, or why what makes it unrigorous leads to a host of problems—which, yes, can even include ignoring evidence—I can’t help you.

    So, you’ve got nothing? Really anything at all that indicates that, during the process of deciding that he loves his wife, rejecting evidence was considered allowed?

    No, that answered why he married his wife, not whether he was still in love with her.

    So, you’re saying they got married based on something other than being in love? Interesting – I’m beginning to think you have a problem reading for comprehension.

    And you accused Pieret of being naive? Go read a book like Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) and then see if you can make a statement like that with a straight face.

    How do you not get this? My memories are part of what makes up whether or not I like oranges. In fact (barring brain damage that would make my memories diametrically opposed to reality), it completely determines the answer to the question “Do I like oranges?”. The checking of my memories is the appropriate level of rigour for answering that question.

    Wow! Believing that a rare exception to the laws of physics has been made precludes one from assuming that the laws work the vast majority of the time? That is some A-grade burning stupid.

    Could you do me a favour and look up the meaning of consistent and then explain on what grounds such a person rejects every other claim of miraculous intervention?

  54. #54 J. J. Ramsey
    March 30, 2010

    eNeMeE: “No, I hear you just fine – you’ve just never provided anything other than your own interpretation of things to back yourself up.”

    Well, if you honestly think that dating is a good example of scientific empirical investigation that doesn’t involve problems of bias, that’s your problem. Some of us think that science is more rigorous than that.

    eNeMeE: “So, you’re saying they got married based on something other than being in love? Interesting – I’m beginning to think you have a problem reading for comprehension.”

    Me: “No, that answered why he married his wife, not whether he was still in love with her. [Emphasis added]”

    Note the word “still” here. You really shouldn’t be throwing stones about reading comprehension.

    eNeMeE [on relying on memory to determine whether one likes oranges]: “How do you not get this? ”

    Not get what? That your memories are fallible and that you aren’t perfect at examining your own likes and dislikes? I’m beginning to understand why you don’t see what’s so wrong with using dating as an example of empirical investigation. You really don’t have a good grasp on human fallibility.

    Me: “Believing that a rare exception to the laws of physics has been made precludes one from assuming that the laws work the vast majority of the time?”

    eNeMeE: “Could you do me a favour and look up the meaning of consistent and then explain on what grounds such a person rejects every other claim of miraculous intervention?”

    You’re moving the goalposts. You claimed that if one believed in a particular miracle, then it would be inconsistent for such a person to expect the laws of physics to generally hold. Miracles, though, are supposed to be exceptions to the normal states of affairs, i.e. the laws of physics, so one has to presuppose at least a folk version of the laws of physics (e.g. basic observations like noting that people don’t normally levitate) in order to even have a concept of a miracle. A person can even believe in multiple miracles and expect the laws of physics to hold, and thus consistently use formulae involving energy conversion, entropy, etc.

  55. #55 eNeMeE
    March 30, 2010

    Note the word “still” here. You really shouldn’t be throwing stones about reading comprehension.

    Go back and re-read it – there was never any mention of ‘still’, only of how the determination was made. Hard not to get snippy at someone who gets insulting and still hasn’t supported the assertion that rejecting evidence was allowable under PZ’s dating scheme. Remember, this is a specific case – you’ll have to do something other than say “Bias means rejecting evidence is allowable”.

    Again: Science only needs the necessary metrics, measures and safeguards for each individual case.

    Not get what? That your memories are fallible and that you aren’t perfect at examining your own likes and dislikes?

    No, that for the specific question of “Do I like oranges?” all the riguor that is required is for me to check my memory. Perhaps this will be an easier example – I’m going to conduct a scientific study of whether or not I own a toaster. Is anything other than me glancing over at it required?

    You’re moving the goalposts. You claimed that if one believed in a particular miracle, then it would be inconsistent for such a person to expect the laws of physics to generally hold.

    Nope. It’s a two-step result of the being consistent. If you’re consistent, then you need to have some sort of reason to reject miracles other than the one you believe in. Without that, all miraculous claims are equally valid. Then you can’t routinely reject any claim of a miracle, including any claim someone makes on presentation of your results.

    People levitate all the time – I’m quite free to say all such cases are not miracles, but how does someone who accepts that levitation is a normal (though rare, perhaps) part of the operation of the universe do likewise?

  56. #56 J. J. Ramsey
    March 30, 2010

    eNeMeE: “Go back and re-read it – there was never any mention of ‘still'”

    Oh, please. Pieret writes, “if you want to publish your peer-reviewed study of whether or not you love the trophy wife, I’d be interested in reading it.” Note the present tense; he’s talking about whether Myers does love his wife, or as I put it, whether he still loves his wife. Now, note Myers’ response: “Both my wife and I studied the problem carefully, and if I’d been a jerk or she’d tormented me cruelly, we’d probably have reached the rational decision that we shouldn’t marry.” Myers, unlike Pieret, is speaking in the past tense, in particular, of a decision he made in the past.

    eNeMeE: “No, that for the specific question of ‘Do I like oranges?’ all the riguor that is required is for me to check my memory.”

    For offhand, quick-and-dirty thinking, that’s all the rigor required. To do science, you have to be careful more about taking your own fallibility into account, and given what we know about memory, just checking it won’t cut it. That’s what separates science from everyday folk reasoning.

    eNeMeE: “If you’re consistent, then you need to have some sort of reason to reject miracles other than the one you believe in. Without that, all miraculous claims are equally valid. Then you can’t routinely reject any claim of a miracle, including any claim someone makes on presentation of your results.”

    That only makes sense if people can attribute anything to a miracle, such as noisy data. Thing is, reports of miracles tend to be about showing off someone’s supposed power, such as that of a deity or prophet. Noisy data doesn’t look like a show of power, something to amaze. It just looks like noise. Miracles, pretty much by definition, are not supposed to be mundane things.

    eNeMeE: “People levitate all the time”

    I suspect equivocation. That is, I suspect that you know I’m talking about someone floating above the ground without wires or assistance from things like magnets or compressed air, etc., yet you want to lump in things like people riding on maglev trains as an example of levitation.

  57. #57 eNeMeE
    March 30, 2010

    What tests did you do on yourself to see if you love your wife and children?

    That’s past tense – publishing a study doesn’t require that something be in the present tense, only that it have occured and been studied at some point. Also, having come to a conclusion, and not having recieved counter-evidence, means the experiment doesn’t have to be repeated.

    For offhand, quick-and-dirty thinking, that’s all the rigor required. To do science, you have to be careful more about taking your own fallibility into account, and given what we know about memory, just checking it won’t cut it. That’s what separates science from everyday folk reasoning.

    No, it really doesn’t. For that simple a question, all the rigour required is checking my memory.

    Here’s a different case – I’ve been given an orange I have to eat by someone I hate, and eating the orange will be taken as proof by everyone that this person is better than me and all sorts of horrible things will result. As I’m eating the orange, three questions are asked of me (assuming I actually like oranges):
    -“Do you like oranges?”
    -“Are you enjoying the taste of that orange?”
    -“Are you enjoying eating that orange?”

    Now, in the first case, I need to be more careful about answering than the previous case – my bias, due to the nature of what I’m doing right now, is liable to unduly influence my answer so the best I can likely do is answer “I’m not sure” or “Not at the moment”.

    In the second case, I again have to check my bias – I’m not enjoying the orange eating experience, but this particular orange might be incredibly tasty. However I can’t discount my bias completely as it may well overwhelm my physical sense of taste and, should that happen, I would not be enjoying the taste of the orange.

    In the last case, I don’t have to make any allowances for bias – the bias is part of the answer.

    That only makes sense if people can attribute anything to a miracle, such as noisy data.

    …and they do. People thank God for everything. Things to amaze is an incredibly subjective claim, after all – someone could claim that a waterfall freezing in a certain way was a miracle, for example.

    And it doesn’t have to be noise – it can be results. If you manage to produce a new species (or life-form, or particle, or whatever the heck), someone else can claim it was a miracle. If you accept that miracles are possible, how do you discount that claim?

    I suspect equivocation. That is, I suspect that you know I’m talking about someone floating above the ground without wires

    I know what you’re talking about (and I’m talking about magicians, not maglevs) but I have no way of being sure what a person who believes that supernatural levitation is an acceptable occurence believes, or how they would (absent being on the scene) determine the difference between the miracle they claim to believe and the levitation someone else claims to have witnessed. In what way can they, in a manner consistent with their belief in some other miracle that has just as little evidence for it, claim that it was not a miracle?

  58. #58 J. J. Ramsey
    March 30, 2010

    eNeMeE: “That’s past tense”

    Oh, please. The phrase “if you love your wife and children” is not in the past tense.

    eNeMeE: “People thank God for everything.”

    But not everything that people thank God for is claimed to be a miracle. There’s a term called “providence” that’s commonly used to describe God watching over his supposed creation without doing the sort of blatant intervention that would be called a miracle. Also, you are equivocating. We were having a discussion under the assumption that miracles were violations of the laws of physics, and even some of your bad arguments, such as “If you believe in the ressurection, you are (if you’re being consistent) unable to use any formula that involves energy conservation” presume that “miracle” was being used to refer to purported occasions where the laws of physics were being suspended.

    You can’t even bother to recognize a present tense when you see it, and you equivocate when discussing “miracles.” Is there any further reason to bother with further argument from you?

  59. #59 eNeMeE
    March 30, 2010

    What tests did you do

    …is the past tense – the grammatical structure of the sentence is ambigous at best. Either past or present is a potentially valid reading – certainly not a dodge of the question. And since there was no clarification by the author, or claim that PZ took the wrong tense, you’ve got no grounds to be accusing me of taking it in the wrong tense.

    We were having a discussion under the assumption that miracles were violations of the laws of physics

    No, we were having a discussion about claimed violations of the laws of physics. On what basis does a (consistent) person accept one claim of violation of the laws of physics and reject another? Someone claims to have seen someone levitate out in the desert – on what basis does a believer in levitation reject that claim?

    Note that it has just as much support as a credulous witness to a magician’s act. I reject both on the basis of a lack of evidence, and multiple other more parsimonious explanations – how does a consistent believer reject it?

    Explain, please.

    And I’m still waiting for any evidence, besides your own biases and preconceptions, that PZ said anything about it being okay to ignore evidence. Again, you’ve provided nothing beyond “My definiton of bias means evidence can be ignored, and PZ is biased. Therefore PZ said rejecting evidence is okay, and his definition of empirical investigation would allow homeopathy to get a pass.”.

    Or are you claiming something else?

  60. #60 eNeMeE
    March 30, 2010

    Oh, and as for further clarification of the past/present issue (as I expect you’ll take exception to my disagreeing with your reading) – I don’t need to constantly repeat the experiment to determine that g~=9.8m/s/s. I’ve done it once and, absent any evidence to the contrary I can assume it doesn’t change.

    So the question “What tests did you do to determine what g is?” would be answered by me with a description of an experiment I did years ago.

  61. #61 eNeMeE
    March 30, 2010

    …and further to the miracles thing – I don’t believe in them, so one interventionist act by a supernatural force is much the same as another to me.

  62. #62 eNeMeE
    March 30, 2010

    So (having had my browser crash a few times), if you want a consistent definition of miracle to be used – post one.

  63. #63 eNeMeE
    March 30, 2010

    Actually, since I’m getting tired of having accusations of stupidity and evasion thrown at me and having to answer pedantic points about tense and definitions of ‘miracle’, I’m going to clarify a few things.

    Someone who believes is miracles has no consistent basis on which to reject any other claim of miraculous intervention – this is a claim, not an argument. That people who believe are then unable to be consistent and use methods/forumlae that rely on the consistency of physics (and remain consistent) is then an inference from that claim.

    No reason, besides “It would be impossible to operate without doing this” has been given for why the inference is false (which does not, in any way, alter or affect whether or not the person is being consistent), and nothing at all for why the claim is false.

    As for why I hold the claim to be true – they’ve rejected the consistency of the laws of nature on the basis of “I feel like it”. If they’re consistent about that, then any claim that the laws of nature, which has the same support, must be given equal consideration. As they have no grounds on which to accept the first claim, but have nonetheless, they have must then accept (in order to be consistent) any and all other claims about miraculous intervention (up to and including Omphalos territory) that is based on the same line of support. Or they can be inconsistent.

    Got all that, as you’re so fond of saying?

    Anyway, I’m not going to bother to respond to you until you address the end of post 59 (as I have no interest in explaining myself any further than I already have, given you’ve demonstrated no ability to ask for clarification when you’re not sure of someone’s position, instead prefering to be insulting) – either clarify your claim, or provide some evidence in favour of your position.

  64. #64 J. J. Ramsey
    March 30, 2010

    eNeMeE: “Someone who believes is miracles has no consistent basis on which to reject any other claim of miraculous intervention – this is a claim, not an argument. That people who believe are then unable to be consistent and use methods/forumlae that rely on the consistency of physics (and remain consistent) is then an inference from that claim.”

    By “inference,” you appear to mean “non sequitur.”

    eNeMeE: “No reason, besides ‘It would be impossible to operate without doing this” has been given'”

    Um, no. You missed that people who believe in miracles can “use methods/forumlae that rely on the consistency of physics (and remain consistent)” because belief in miracles itself relies on the consistency of physics, just as the concept of abnormality requires one to know what normalcy is supposed to be in the first place. Obviously, believers in miracles don’t require this consistency to be absolute, but then, neither do the methods and formulae.

    eNeMeE: “Anyway, I’m not going to bother to respond to you until you address the end of post 59″

    I already addressed it, and you kept being willfully ignorant. Those interested in a summary of the matter can see my above posts (as opposed to your mangled takes on them) or look here: http://dododreams.blogspot.com/2010/03/pz-myers-ufoologist.html

  65. #65 eNeMeE
    March 31, 2010

    I already addressed it, and you kept being willfully ignorant. Those interested in a summary of the matter can see my above posts (as opposed to your mangled takes on them) or look here: http://dododreams.blogspot.com/2010/03/pz-myers-ufoologist.html

    Wow, you don’t know anything about how to clarify, either. A simple re-wording of what I wrote to correct it would be easy, but no. You repeat yourself and expect me to learn something from that? You’ve never offered any clarification on this matter at all – only repetitions that “ignoring evidence falls under the problem of bias”.

    The evidence is that he chose as his example of “empirical investigation,” namely dating, something that was very unrigorous

    …not evidence that ignoring evidence is allowed. That something isn’t as rigourous as you would like is not an indication that ignoring evidence is allowed.

    I did say that he implied it

    On what basis did he imply it? What series of words makes you think that he thinks evidence can be ignored in conducting an empirical investigation? Aside from your biases and preconceptions, obviously, as the implication is not clear to me.

    eNeMeE, the problem was never that Myers ever explicitly said that ignoring evidence was allowed, but rather that he considered something biased, subjective, and unrigorous to be an empirical investigation. It’s the bias that leads to a whole host of problems, ignoring evidence being only one of many.

    So, he never said it and we’re back to your saying he implied it.

    Homeopaths could easily take advantage of the loophole to claim their therapies were supported by “empirical investigation.”

    Not unless they’re allowed to reject evidence, a point which you have yet to actually address besides saying it “falls under the “biased and subjective” rubric”. Again, this does not follow.

    …and that’s the whole thread of comments you’ve made to me on the subject. Not a one of them is a clarification, or an explanation of how rejecting evidence falls under the problem of bias. Perhaps you can manage to change a few words of

    [J.J. Ramsey’s] definiton of bias means evidence can be ignored, and PZ is biased. Therefore PZ said rejecting evidence is okay, and his definition of empirical investigation would allow homeopathy to get a pass.

    and make it clear? Or is that too difficult for you to manage?

    …oh, one I missed before

    I repeat, Myers never contradicted Pieret’s claim that science is empiric investigation, so when he calls dating “empirical investigation,” he really is saying that dating is science. What Myers says after this doesn’t really exculpate him:

    Yeah, sure, and you’ve never addressed the fact that science only requires the necessary rigour and metrics for each individual case, or that in the case of a subjective claim about internal experience bias is part and parcel of any investigation. And PZ certainly did reject Pieret’s definition of science, so you’ve got nothing to help you there.

    Now people don’t have to bother reading the thread to summarize things – they can just check here, unless you’d care to actually clarify your position (which I may have misinterpreted).

  66. #66 J. J. Ramsey
    March 31, 2010

    eNeMeE: “Not unless they’re allowed to reject evidence, a point which you have yet to actually address besides saying it ‘falls under the “biased and subjective” rubric’.”

    And here you’ve given away the store, because overlooking evidence does fall under the rubric of bias. Have you not heard, for example, of what is called, oh, “confirmation bias,” which is explicitly about ignoring disconfirming evidence?

    eNeMeE: “On what basis did he imply it?”

    He implied it because he chose as an example of “empirical investigation” an activity that is fraught with bias. Again, we’ve been over this.

    eNeMeE: “you’ve never addressed the fact that science only requires the necessary rigour and metrics for each individual case”

    There’s nothing to address. The claim in and of itself, while trivially true, has been used by you as an excuse to use methods that are insufficiently rigorous for science, like simply checking one’s memory.

    eNeMeE: “or that in the case of a subjective claim about internal experience bias is part and parcel of any investigation.”

    Which doesn’t mean that bias isn’t something to be filtered out as much as possible. Bias is a bad thing in science, period, no matter what claim you are studying.

    eNeMeE: “And PZ certainly did reject Pieret’s definition of science”

    But not the part about science being empirical investigation.

  67. #67 eNeMeE
    March 31, 2010

    And here you’ve given away the store, because overlooking evidence does fall under the rubric of bias. Have you not heard, for example, of what is called, oh, “confirmation bias,” which is explicitly about ignoring disconfirming evidence?

    And how does this say that PZ said it was fine and dandy to ignore evidence that is relevant to the question and easily obtainable? Again, we’re talking about a specific case here, for a specific question.

    He implied it because he chose as an example of “empirical investigation” an activity that is fraught with bias. Again, we’ve been over this.

    And I don’t agree with your interpretation – I would have thought that was clear.

    The claim in and of itself, while trivially true, has been used by you as an excuse to use methods that are insufficiently rigorous for science, like simply checking one’s memory.

    According to your definition of science – certainly not mine, and apparently not PZ’s.

    Demonstrate to me how bias affects my study of my liking oranges – I even gave three different cases, two of which did require me to filter for my bias (or be unable to answer the question)? How, in the third case, does filtering for bias make a difference to the answer to that question?

    Just because confirmation bias exists as a thing that occurs does not mean that it follows that confirmation bias occurs in all cases. It’s even possible that weighting a piece of evidence at 0 is the appropriate thing for developping your model in question (or answer to the question, if you prefer) (though this becomes less and less likely as you move on the scale from the subjective experiences of one person to the objective claims of several).

    Again, clarify (or state clearly – if I don’t understand it, I’ll ask you to re-word it) your position, or I’m going to assume that I have interpreted it correctly.

    As an example, my position is that “PZ never said anything that would allow homeopathy to be considered to have undergone empirical investigation, without making unwarranted assumptions”.

  68. #68 eNeMeE
    March 31, 2010

    An additional thought – if it had been “How do you know your wife loves you?”, you’d have a much better case for confirmation bias being a relevant factor in his answering the question. I don’t think I’d defend the claim that answering that question was a strictly honest empirical investigation, and I also think PZ would make that claim – that’s all speculation, however, aka an unwarranted assumption – but that still doesn’t give homeopathy a pass.

  69. #69 J. J. Ramsey
    March 31, 2010

    eNeMeE: “Demonstrate to me how bias affects my study of my liking oranges”

    I already pointed out why looking back over your own memory is insufficient. And really, if you are skeptical that bias affects your study of anything, then you don’t understand the concept of bias.

    eNeMeE: “Again, clarify (or state clearly – if I don’t understand it, I’ll ask you to re-word it) your position”

    Sigh, here we go again:

    Pieret: Claims science is empirical investigation.
    PZ: Claims dating is empirical investigation, and does not deny Pieret’s claim that science is empirical investigation.

    Conclusion: Myers is saying that dating is science!

    Fact: Dating, like most social activities, is not rigorous, that is, it lacks measures for filtering out bias. (Such measures would be cumbersome when dating, anyways.)

    Conclusion: Myers is saying that something unrigorous, something without protocols for filtering out bias, is science.

    Now, one can “prove” in a study that homeopathy (or other quackery) works, provided that the bias in such a study is insufficiently filtered. Normally, such studies aren’t considered scientific, but if something lacking in rigor can count as science, well, then so can such a study.

  70. #70 eNeMeE
    April 1, 2010

    I already pointed out why looking back over your own memory is insufficient. And really, if you are skeptical that bias affects your study of anything, then you don’t understand the concept of bias.

    Not get what? That your memories are fallible and that you aren’t perfect at examining your own likes and dislikes? I’m beginning to understand why you don’t see what’s so wrong with using dating as an example of empirical investigation. You really don’t have a good grasp on human fallibility.

    This doesn’t demonstrate how it would change the results of answering the question. Some mechanism whereby my consulting my memory would give me a different answer to the question “Do I like oranges?” than any other method, assuming I don’t have brain damage that causes me to be unable to tell yes from no.

    Conclusion: Myers is saying that something unrigorous, something without protocols for filtering out bias, is science.

    Even granting everything you’ve said, this does not imply that the rigour and protocols required for examining an objective claim about external reality are in any way the same as those that are required for examing a question that is entirely subjective and applies to only one person.

  71. #71 Jack Steam
    April 22, 2010

    well, very interesting in the common
    Suppose there existed an omnipotent and caring god who refused for its own good reasons to mess with the universe in detectable ways.

  72. #72 eNeMeE
    May 14, 2010

    Suppose there existed an omnipotent and caring god who refused for its own good reasons to mess with the universe in detectable ways.

    …then those are odds definitions of ‘omnipotent’ and ‘caring’. And likely ‘good’.

    Definitions that have little-to-nothing to do with the ones people use…

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