Ruse, Again

Michael Ruse has a very bad op-ed in The Guardian. Jerry Coyne and P. Z. Myers have already laid into him (here and here respectively), but why should they have all the fun? Ruse writes:

If you mean someone who agrees that logically there could be a god, but who doesn’t think that the logical possibility is terribly likely, or at least not something that should keep us awake at night, then I guess a lot of us are atheists. But there is certainly a split, a schism, in our ranks. I am not whining (in fact I am rather proud) when I point out that a rather loud group of my fellow atheists, generally today known as the “new atheists”, loathe and detest my thinking.

Amateur hour.

A while back I was a counselor at a summer camp, keeping an eye on a group of rowdy nine year olds. One of the kids was taunted relentlessly by the others for his incessant whining. He did not help his cause by answering such taunts with, “I don’t whine!” said in a pathetically whiny tone of voice.

If you have to tell people you are not whining, you’re whining.

Bragging about making the right enemies is a silly rhetorical device your average college editorialist stops using by his sophomore year. It’s especially pathetic when you rush into print repeatedly to boast of your pleasure at being criticized by the right people. Seriously, follow that link and tell me how his previous op-ed differs relevantly from the present one.

And while I may dislike and disagree with Ruse’s thinking, it is his actions over the last several years that I loathe and detest. I hate the way he has been doing everything in his power to prop up the ID folks. I hate that he persuaded a presitgious university press to publish a book co-edited by William Dembski, which featured four essays defending “Darwinism” that seemed tailor made to make evolution look bad. I hate that he contributes essays to anthologies designed to celebrate ID promoters and that he tells debate audiences that Dembski has made valuable contributions to science. Go here for relevant links and further details.

I will spare you what my fellow philosopher Dan Dennett has to say about me.

Dennett has good reason to say obnoxious things about Ruse, given Ruse’s incomprehensibly
unscrupulous
behavior towards him. If you don’t care to follow the link, a while back Ruse and Dennett engaged in an e-mail correspondence. Ruse then handed over the correspondence to William Dembski for posting at the latter’s blog. It is generally considered a breach of etiquette, to put it kindly, to trun over private e-mails without first getting the permission of the sender. It is all the more inexplicable given that Dennett comes off as the calm, even-tempered one in the exchange, while Ruse looks like the crazed one.

First, non-believer though I may be, I do not think (as do the new atheists) that all religion is necessarily evil and corrupting. This claim is on a par with golden plates in upstate New York.

What an odd way of expressing himself! In an essay devoted to excoriating the new atheists for not appreicating the glory and profundity of Christian theology, he takes a completely gratuitous pot shot at Mormonism. Apparently it is okay to be rude and uncivil towards religion of which Ruse disapproves.

The Quakers and the Evangelicals were inspired and driven by their religion to oppose slavery, and a good thing too. Of course there has been evil in the name of religion – the pope telling Africans not to use condoms in the face of Aids – but as often as not religion is not the only or even the primary force for evil. The troubles in Northern Ireland were surely about socio-economic issues also, and the young men who flew into the World Trade Centre towers were infected by the alienation and despair of the young in Muslim countries in the face of poverty and inequalities.

&ldquol;The Evangelicals” most certainly did not oppose slavery. They were split on the issue, and there was no shortage of folks thumping their Bibles in defense of the institution.

But just marvel at this paragraph for a moment! How desperate do you have to be to defend religion on the grounds that the 9/11 hijackers weren’t just religious, or that the conflict in Northern Ireland wasn’t just about religion? The fact remains that religion played a huge role in both situations. That there are sources of evil other than religion has never been in doubt. It is also completely irrelevant.

Second, unlike the new atheists, I take scholarship seriously. I have written that The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist and I meant it. Trying to understand how God could need no cause, Christians claim that God exists necessarily. I have taken the effort to try to understand what that means. Dawkins and company are ignorant of such claims and positively contemptuous of those who even try to understand them, let alone believe them. Thus, like a first-year undergraduate, he can happily go around asking loudly, “What caused God?” as though he had made some momentous philosophical discovery.

“God exists necessarily!” is not exactly a momentous philosophical discovery either. It is actually just a bad argument served up by theologians to evade the self-evident objection that using God as an explanatory principle creates more problems than it solves. The difference is that theologians are actually claiming to make profuond philosophical observations (they have impressed Ruse apparently, with their depth if not their correctness), while Dawkins was writing a book for an audience not steeped in theological discussions.

Dawkins, I promise you, is familiar with the idea that God exists necessarily. He is just not impressed by it, and rightly so.

Third, how dare we be so condescending? I don’t have faith. I really don’t. Rowan Williams does as do many of my fellow philosophers like Alvin Plantinga (a Protestant) and Ernan McMullin (a Catholic). I think they are wrong; they think I am wrong. But they are not stupid or bad or whatever. If I needed advice about everyday matters, I would turn without hesitation to these men.

Some of my best friends are Christians! See my previous comment re amateur hour.

My dentist is an evangelical Christian. I let her stick sharp instruments in my mouth. Does Ruse think I am betraying my New Atheist cred with this admission?

I wonder if Ruse understands what “condescending” means. Telling someone you think their beliefs are foolish and potentially dangerous is not condescending. Rude, perhaps, but not condescending. Writing an op-ed in which you boast of your willingness to obtain advice from religious folks (if only on everyday matters)? That’s condescending.

If, as the new atheists think, Darwinian evolutionary biology is incompatible with Christianity, then will they give me a good argument as to why the science should be taught in schools if it implies the falsity of religion? The first amendment to the constitution of the United States of America separates church and state. Why are their beliefs exempt?

Ahem. No one is claiming that science implies the falsity of religion. So much for Ruse’s argument.

What people do claim is that evolution makes certain common conceptions of God difficult to maintain. Ruse himself closed his book Can A Darwinian Be A Christian? by noting that it is not always easy to be both a Darwinian and a Christian. Looks like he gets the basic idea.

Many people, upon learning about the holocaust, conclude that the world is not superintended by a just and loving God. From the other side, some look at the improbable victory of the colonial army over the mighty British in the American Revolution and see evidence that the United States is a nation blessed by God. Will Ruse use these facts to argue against teaching about the holocaust or the American Revolution?

Of course he won’t, because he is capable of distinguishing between facts and opinions. People draw all sorts of conclusions from all sorts of things. That has nothing to do with any constitutional questions about education. I, and many others, believe evolution makes Christianity implausible. Many others disagree. What has this to do with the constitutionality of teaching evolution?

On the other hand, evolution does flat-out contradict the religious views of Young Earth Creationists, a religious view that is well represented all over the country and is even the majority view in many school districts around the country. But Ruse does not think that constitutes a legitimate argument against teacing evolution. So flatly contradicting a major religious view is OK, but publicly suggesting that you find evolution and Christianity to be incompatible places evolution education in constitutional jeopardy. That’s a brilliant argument.

Basically, Ruse fails to take his own advice. He is so desperate to assert his own moral and intellectual superiority that he goes in for cheap shots and transparently bad gotcha arguments over giving a fair presentation of the views of those he opposes.

Comments

  1. #1 Heinrich Gont's "Mr Penrose stayed at home",
    November 2, 2009

    I think you spelled amateur wrong.

  2. #2 Jason Rosenhouse
    November 2, 2009

    Thanks for pointing out the error. It has been fixed.

  3. #3 Tyler DiPietro
    November 2, 2009

    That Ruse thinks the idea that “God exists necessarily” is some kind of profound philosophical insight pretty much wipes out any credibility he might have had with me. It’s not an insight, it’s question-begging attempt to define God into existence.

  4. #4 John Danley
    November 2, 2009

    Yes, it is necessary to assume that god exists necessarily before any unfalsifiable proposition can be sustained. What a ruse.

  5. #5 AL
    November 2, 2009

    It’s not an insight, it’s question-begging attempt to define God into existence.

    My thought exactly. It’s so straightforwardly question-begging, it’s a true marvel that Ruse, a philosopher presumably trained to detect fallacies better on average than non-philosophers, would fail to recognize this.

  6. #6 Marshall
    November 3, 2009

    Ahem. No one is claiming that science implies the falsity of religion. So much for Ruse’s argument.
    What people do claim is that evolution makes certain common conceptions of God difficult to maintain.

    Don’t you all listen to yourself much? For example, Coyne:

    I see faith and science as epistemically incompatible, though of course some religious people can accept evolution and some scientists can be religious.  This cognitive dissonance…

    ~(A^B) => (A => ~B).

    Maybe we need to look at “implies”. Strong atheists (of whom all of a sudden everyone says we don’t have any) take “implies” in the strict modus ponens sense; Weak atheists (…everybody here, I suppose…) takes it in a weak sense. If Atheism can be weak, so can implication.

    My opinion, it will facilitate the debate if people can admit they are saying what they are saying. Why not???

  7. #7 Tyler DiPietro
    November 3, 2009

    “~(A^B) => (A => ~B).”

    A valid inference. But you should clarify what exactly the propositions A and B are. I’m not sure the incompatibility of science and religion can be stated as the negation of the conjunction of two propositions.

  8. #8 H.H.
    November 3, 2009

    No one is claiming that science implies the falsity of religion.

    I’m not sure what’s meant here by “implies the falsity of.” First I’m not sure what’s meant by the word “imply” as opposed to “determine,” “discover,” or “conclude.” And I’m not sure that god or the existence of the supernatural are one of those things that can be falsified. But science certainly would rule the existence of god or the supernatural a failed hypothesis. Science says there’s no good reasons to believe in god or ghosts. Psychological studies suggest that gods are probably psychological projections. Textual scholars how primitive myths, legends, and misunderstandings formed the basis for most major religions. Etc. Etc. So, science does more than imply the falsity of religion, it pretty much demonstrates it beyond all reasonable doubt for any unbiased observer, both in the finding of its various disciplines and as an overall methodology.

  9. #9 Sigmund
    November 3, 2009

    Does Ruse have even a clue how bizarre his point about evolution not being taught in schools if it contradicts Christianity sounds? If we had to make sure we avoid teaching things that are against the teachings of particular religions where exactly would that lead us?
    It’s not just Christianity that’s the issue here, what about Jainism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and the myriads of tribal faiths. Biology would be out the door immediately but would even a single subject escape if we apply the Ruse test?
    I doubt we can teach about cooking, driving skills, nutrition, geography, physics, chemistry, hygiene, medicine, cosmology etc since the facts we know about these subjects clearly offend one or more of the orthodox teachings of at least one faith.
    I feel silly even writing this point (isn’t it blindingly obvious?) yet Ruse has made this argument public on more than one occasion so far – hasn’t the bemused laughter that he must have faced not taught him anything?

  10. #10 Oran Kelley
    November 3, 2009

    So would this post be a whine?

    Or will you whine that you don’t whine?

    Ahem. No one is claiming that science implies the falsity of religion. So much for Ruse’s argument.

    Read the comments here or Coyne’s blog much? You’d think that’s the ONLY thing science implies.

  11. #11 Sigmund
    November 3, 2009

    [quote]Ahem. No one is claiming that science implies the falsity of religion. So much for Ruse’s argument.[/quote]
    [quote][i]Read the comments here or Coyne’s blog much? You’d think that’s the ONLY thing science implies.[/i][/quote]
    No, you are misreading things again Oran. What people suggest is that scientific results falsify specific religious beliefs – in particular theistic beliefs.
    For instance those religious stories that involve flying horses, minotaurs or people coming back from the dead.
    Nobody is claiming that science disproves [i]every[/i] religion since it is clearly possible to have a deistic or pantheistic religion that makes no claims of supernatural intervention in the natural world.

  12. #12 Sam C
    November 3, 2009

    Yes, Ruse’s piece is a truly awful bit of rubbish. It’s hardly worth dissecting because it’s such a pile of soggy flannel.

    The fact that it comes from a philosopher’s fingers is really surprising – even the most fourth rate of philosophers ought to be able to string together a coherent argument, even if the argument is bad or aiming towards supporting bad things.

    One wonders at Ruse’s suggestion that world science should somehow lie about its findings simply so that he can persuade the intellectually degenerate Christians in the southern USA (what he describes as the American South – but I don’t think he means Chile!) to accept some simple science. Must we all kowtow to the stupids?

    My guess is that we’ll see Ruse taking up a position at the Discovery Institute soon, where he can partner Steve Fuller-Schitt. If he hasn’t already. He has shown all the required attributes.

  13. #13 Marshall
    November 3, 2009

    Ruse:

    I live in the American South, surrounded by ardent Christians. I want evolution taught in the schools and I can think of no way better designed to make that impossible than to spout on about religion, from ignorance and with contempt.

    Sigmund responds:

    Does Ruse have even a clue how bizarre his point about evolution not being taught in schools if it contradicts Christianity sounds?

    Don’t you guys read much? Ruse is saying that Evolution, which he wishes to be taught in schools, does not contradict Christianity. (He is an “accomodationist”). In the south, and also here in the rural west, many parents and school board members are Christians, of both the accomdationist and anti-accomodationist sort. If you don’t talk to the Christian accomdationists, you must fight with the opposing anti-accomdationists, and you (scientific rationalism) will lose. That isn’t rational, it’s just how it is. And it’s so unnecessary.

    In another part of the forest, Tyler DePietro:

    A valid inference. But you should clarify what exactly the propositions A and B are. I’m not sure the incompatibility of science and religion can be stated as the negation of the conjunction of two propositions

    “Must we all kowtow to the stupids?” Is it really unclear what I was saying? It is unclear to you even what you are saying yourself?

    I quoted Jerry: “I see faith and science as epistemically incompatible.” That is, from a point of view of the formal study of knowlege (epistemology), “faith” (unqualified) and “science” (unqualified) can’t exist together (incompatible).

    A = “Science”. B= “Faith”. Jerry Coyne declares himself to be a strict anti-accomodationist. Any more questions?

  14. #14 AL
    November 3, 2009

    Read the comments here or Coyne’s blog much? You’d think that’s the ONLY thing science implies.

    Some random commenters might hold that view, but that doesn’t mean that Coyne or Dawkins, or any specific new atheist might hold that view. As has been stated before, the claim science implies the falsity of religion can’t be defended because “religion” is too general. Which religion, and then which particular variant/denomination of that religion? Science can and does falsify some specific religions. I don’t see how any reasonable person can contest that claim. Of course there are religions that are immune to science, but they can still have pretty transparent philosophical issues (such as being vague or vacuous) that one doesn’t even have to be a professional philosopher to note.

  15. #15 Miles Rind
    November 3, 2009

    >>Ahem. No one is claiming that science implies the falsity of religion. So much for Ruse’s argument.

    What people do claim is that evolution makes certain common conceptions of God difficult to maintain.>>

    How is this statement to be reconciled with the existence of books like Stenger’s God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does not Exist? Perhaps I have misunderstood the scope of the “no one.”

  16. #16 Sigmund
    November 3, 2009

    Miles Rind said:
    “How is this statement to be reconciled with the existence of books like Stenger’s God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does not Exist? Perhaps I have misunderstood the scope of the “no one.”
    How did Stenger define “God”?
    Its an important point since some people define God as “the totality of nature” – in which case it would be hard to prove it doesn’t exist. As far as I know Stenger makes use of the argument that the absence of evidence is itself evidence of absence but as I haven’t read his book I cant confirm it.

  17. #17 Tyler DiPietro
    November 3, 2009

    “A = “Science”. B= “Faith”. Jerry Coyne declares himself to be a strict anti-accomodationist. Any more questions?”

    Yeah. Who the fuck taught you formal logic? They should be shot.

    “Science” and “Faith” are not propositions. They’re just words that you leave conspicuously undefined. Try again, but please don’t fail as badly this time.

  18. #18 Tyler DiPietro
    November 3, 2009

    I take that last part back. Please fail as badly as you can so that I may rofl with great joy.

  19. #19 sikiş
    November 3, 2009

    thanksss

  20. #20 H.H.
    November 3, 2009

    If you don’t talk to the Christian accomdationists, you must fight with the opposing anti-accomdationists, and you (scientific rationalism) will lose.

    Bull. Religious people talk a loud game, but they are far too dependent on science to actually give it up anytime soon. Your defeatist attitude is not evidence.

  21. #21 Jason Rosenhouse
    November 3, 2009

    Miles –

    I think Stenger’s book had an overly flamboyant subtitle. As I recall he quickly qualifies precisely what he means by “God” and what he means in saying that science has shown something to be true.

  22. #22 wice
    November 4, 2009
    If, as the new atheists think, Darwinian evolutionary biology is incompatible with Christianity, then will they give me a good argument as to why the science should be taught in schools if it implies the falsity of religion? The first amendment to the constitution of the United States of America separates church and state. Why are their beliefs exempt?

    Ahem. No one is claiming that science implies the falsity of religion. So much for Ruse’s argument.

    i’m afraid your response doesn’t cut it. ruse’s argument is bullshit, but your refutation is wrong.

    by saying that “No one is claiming that science implies the falsity of religion” you leave yourself vulnerable to quotes from random internet atheists, who actually claim that (as seen in some comments here). but even if noone ever claimed it, it certainly _could_ be claimed. let me try: science implies the falsity of religion. there. that was easy.

    the problem with ruse’s argument is not this, but the following: i claimed that “science implies the falsity of religion”, now what? does it mean i cannot expect science taught in schools, because of the “separation of church and state”? no, it doesn’t.

    if facts or explanations widely accepted in the scientific community could be banished from schools simply because they contradict some or all religions, then basically _everything_ could be banished from schools. i could start a religion, that teaches, that 1+1=3 _literally_, so the teaching of mathematics should be forbidden. that’s clearly nonsense.

    thankfully, separation of church and state doesn’t mean it. in the context of state schools it means, that teachers cannot openly take a stance on religion, cannot propagate or attack any particular religion (or atheism). so they can teach evolution, but cannot tell the class, that it means, that christianity is false. that’s all.

  23. #23 Ric
    November 4, 2009

    This blog post has been linked to by the intellectually challenged confirmation-bias clowns over at Uncommon Descent, FYI.

  24. #24 James Sweet
    November 4, 2009

    If I may, I’d like to direct you to a completely unscientific, highly-biased look at whether we really should be thanking the nice Christians for their abolitionist stance.

    In summary, while the Quakers deserve some credit, it appears there were just as many non-religious abolitionists as there were Quaker abolitionists. Kudos to the Quakers, but I don’t feel the need to prostrate myself to all Christianity just because one sect got one issue right.

    Similarly, in my city’s Gay Pride parade, there are always a bunch of churches that march in support of gay rights. That is awesome, and despite the fact that seeing so many churchies in one place makes me vaguely uncomfortable, I applaud them for doing the right thing — but in light of this, is anyone really asserting that Christianity is leading the charge in support of gay marriage?! Please.

  25. #25 Frank
    November 4, 2009

    SamC in comment 12. That was hilarious! Totally ad hominem, but still hilarious.

  26. #26 Robert O'Brien
    November 5, 2009

    It’s not an insight, it’s question-begging attempt to define God into existence.

    To the contrary, it is a perfectly legitimate concept. I can sort of excuse Dawkins for having “just enough of learning to misquote” on that score but a mathematician like Jason should know better. (Of course, many mathematicians who are far, far greater than Jason have known better.)

  27. #27 Tulse
    November 5, 2009

    Perhaps you want to clarify your statement, Robert? Or are you saying that your god has as much physical existence and causal efficacy as mathematical constructs?

  28. #28 AL
    November 5, 2009

    Or are you saying that your god has as much physical existence and causal efficacy as mathematical constructs?

    Apparently. There is precedent for this sort of thing though. Remember Ubaldus’ “something from nothing” mathematical proof of the existence of god? Deep, profound, serious business theology right there, and it is an outrage atheists don’t take it seriously.

  29. #29 Steve
    November 5, 2009

    Religious belief and science are not inherently opposed empistemologically. They become so when a new atheist (or other equally ignorant person) asserts that knowledge can only be obtained scientifically.

    Christians are as dependent as anyone else for empirical knowledge. They have figured out, however, that one cannot be completely dependent on science for all knowledge. Most new atheists who experience hunger pangs or remember someone’s face have figured that out too, but their philosophical predispositions won’t allow them to admit it.

  30. #30 AL
    November 5, 2009

    Most new atheists who experience hunger pangs or remember someone’s face have figured that out too, but their philosophical predispositions won’t allow them to admit it.

    Most people who argue that science can’t explain everything will bring up norms or morality. But hunger pangs and facial recognition? What is it about those that make them beyond science? Because they are products of the “mind,” and science can’t explain mind-body dualism?

  31. #31 Steve
    November 5, 2009

    Most people who argue that science can’t explain everything will bring up norms or morality. But hunger pangs and facial recognition? What is it about those that make them beyond science? Because they are products of the “mind,” and science can’t explain mind-body dualism?

    Those are just a couple of quick examples of knowledge gained through experience and memory respectively, not through any formal process that is remotely scientific. Science can attempt to explain how those mechanisms work but cannot discount them as valid means of obtaining knowledge.

    The notion that science has the capacity to “explain everything” is a purely philosophical presumption that could probably never be confirmed empirically even if it were true. That leaves open the possibility that there are valid means of obtaining knowledge that are not open to scientific verification.

  32. #32 Tulse
    November 5, 2009

    Science can attempt to explain how those mechanisms work but cannot discount them as valid means of obtaining knowledge.

    Are you saying you are never wrong about your memory for faces? If you are, how is that “knowledge”?

  33. #33 Steve
    November 5, 2009

    Are you saying that science is never wrong? How is that “knowledge”?

  34. #34 AL
    November 5, 2009

    I still don’t see how this is non-scientific. Hunger pangs in and of themselves, aren’t knowledge. You can, however, make knowledge inferences about them. If you sit around and feel your hunger pangs grow worse, you can form a provisional conclusion that not doing anything in response to a hunger pang makes it worse. If you eat something, you can form a provisional conclusion that eating alleviates it. You can strengthen either conclusion by repeating these activities on a different occasion. This is an informal time series of sorts. No, it’s not rigorous, peer-reviewed carefully crafted and controlled labcoat-donning formal and explicit experimentation, but science doesn’t have to be that way. At its most general form, it’s a way of thinking and drawing conclusions about the empirical world, and you can certainly draw inferences scientifically about a hunger pang.

  35. #35 Steve
    November 5, 2009

    Maybe you form provisional conclusions. I just go get a peanut butter sandwich because I know I’m hungry. :-)

    Here’s another example of experiential knowledge that is absolutely unknowable via scientific means: I had a beer Monday night, finishing off a six-pack. The garbage was collected Tuesday, so all of the packaging is gone. The beer has been metabolized and the waste disposed of. I know what brand it was. There is no scientific means for anyone else to know what brand it was. I know it by experience; others may know it by revelation (me telling them). Barring a spy, there’s no other way of obtaining that knowledge.

    Trivial? Of course. But, again, it opens the door to knowledge – knowable, objective facts about the physical world – that cannot be learned through any scientific means, formal or informal, peer-reviewed or not.

    Please understand, I am not being critical of science. I’m being critical of those who try to pass suppositions off as facts. One of those suppositions is that science can (eventually) explain every aspect of the physical world. I have become convinced that materialism is an inadequate model for explaining such things as human behavior. You (certainly others) may be confident that it is. Neither of us can use science to prove the other wrong. The discussion is not scientific, it’s philosophical.

    New atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, our host here) are acting out faith every bit as much as the most rabid creationist. There’s no scientific basis for either position.

  36. #36 AL
    November 6, 2009

    I’m still not seeing how any of this is beyond science.

    Maybe you form provisional conclusions. I just go get a peanut butter sandwich because I know I’m hungry. :-)

    A provisional conclusion doesn’t have to be verbally explicit, as in I say to myself explicitly in my head or even out loud “I’m going to form a provisional conclusion that eating food will alleviate my hunger.” It can be implicit in the act of going to get a sandwich. This demonstrates you know that eating food will alleviate your hunger, but how do you know this? Based on repeated past experience of eating food and finding that hunger is alleviated.

    If you’re going to insist that knowledge of how hunger is alleviated is somehow beyond science, then scientists won’t be able to test appetite suppressant diet pills on the market (among many other things they won’t be able to do), and I think most people would agree this is something that is well within science’s purview.

  37. #37 Anton Mates
    November 6, 2009

    I know what brand it was. There is no scientific means for anyone else to know what brand it was. I know it by experience; others may know it by revelation (me telling them).

    You telling them isn’t “revelation,” any more than any published paper in observational science is. Other people can evaluate your trustworthiness based on testing and past experience. They can take measures to make you more truthful, like pumping you full of drugs, threatening you, or trying to gain your trust. They can even–since we’re talking about the absolute theoretical limits of science here–scan your brain and try to reconstruct your memories.

    That’s science. If nothing like that could be done to test your observation-reporting abilities, how would even you know your memories of the brand were accurate?

  38. #38 Sigmund
    November 6, 2009

    Steve, that scenario is not too dissimilar to situations the police deal with every day. It might not be easy but there are numerous methods that could be used to determine which brand of beer you used. You might think all the evidence is gone but, unlike the supernatural world, in the real world evidence is not that easy to make disappear. For instance the packaging, with your fingerprints might be retrieved from the municiple dump, video evidence of you purchasing the beer in a shop might be discovered, a hair analysis, similar to that performed on suspected drug users, might provide evidence of metabolites specific for one brand of beer.
    There are countless other potential ways to indicate which beer you consumed – none of them easy, no doubt, but to say its impossible merely shows the paucity of your reasoning skills.

  39. #39 Steve
    November 6, 2009

    AL@36: If what you described is science, then every higher-order creature on earth does science.

    Anton@37: Of course it’s revelation – I’m revealing something I know. If the process you described is science, then despots throughout history have applied scientific methodology every time they beat a confession out of a criminal, but didn’t do science when they beat a false confession out of an innocent man.

    Sigmond@38: Without commenting on your reasoning skills, I would say that the application of methods discovered through science, trial and error, or luck isn’t necessarily science, it’s just augmented observation. A couple of eyewitnesses who happened to see and remember would do just as well. In a criminal situation, police, prosecutors, and jurors will use a mix of experience, intuition, and perhaps some science to determine the credibility of the witnesses. I suppose you could say a line-up is experimental, but nobody could say what exactly is being tested – eyesight, recall, credibility? – so that doesn’t seem very scientific.

    Perhaps we’re using the words “science” and “scientific” in different ways, so let me ask a simple question. Obviously, I’m a dualist, not a materialist. Suppose rigorous scientific methods show that all knowledge, memory, emotion, spirituality, and aesthetics exist as physical manifestations. (I doubt that can happen, but I’m open to the possibility.) The epistemological issue is still not settled. The issue is acquisition of knowledge, not its storage.

    So (finally) the question: If I’m driving along a deserted road and a cat dashes across the road in front of me, I assert that I know it happened. Maybe I can’t prove it or verify it or convince someone else that it happened, but I know it happened. Absent any evidence to the contrary (a history of dementia or delusions, stress, trauma, recent use of hallucinogenic drugs or alcohol), do you think I can reasonably assert that I know it happened?

  40. #40 Sigmund
    November 6, 2009

    Steve, there’s a difference between saying a cat ran in front of your car and it being a fact that a cat ran in front of your car. I would suggest that it is not unreasonable to assume that, while a cat running across the road might be a plausible explanation for what you saw, there are other possibilities – it was a small dog, a big rat, some other wild animal that looked like a cat in the brief moment you spotted it. Perhaps it was just a paper bag blown by the wind or you had a momentary waking dream.
    The basic point is that you cannot ‘know’ it was a cat, although you might assume that you ‘think’ it probably was a cat. You might even assert that you do in fact ‘know’ it was a cat – although what you really mean is that its highly probable to be the case rather than a certainty.
    If you tell others that a cat ran in front of you on that deserted road then they will probably find it plausible because, barring you being mistaken or lying, it is nothing out of the ordinary to see a cat on a deserted road.
    If, however, you said that, instead of a cat, you spotted a UFO that abducted you for a wild night of non consensual probing, those same people who were quite content with the cat story would probably raise the bar on the evidence required before they believe you.
    Knowing in science is simply a shorthand for thinking something is statistically probable – and to reach this level of probability we require alternative explanations to be ruled out – which is where the empirical testing inherent in the scientific method comes in (defined as “the method we use to determine whether an idea about the natural world is incorrect”)
    We never ‘prove’ things in science, we merely rule out the alternatives and as such we can never be 100% certain of anything. The ability to have a means of telling whether an idea is wrong is the critical difference between science and religion as alternative ‘ways of knowing’.

  41. #41 AL
    November 6, 2009

    AL@36: If what you described is science, then every higher-order creature on earth does science.

    Well, since they can’t talk, we don’t have a reliable way of finding out what they know, but there is no reason to doubt that this is how they know. I seriously doubt animals learn by revelation or divine intuition. They learn by trial and error, as evidenced by say watching a lab rat run a maze. The fact that we can formalize and verbalize our trial and error empirical methods while they can’t doesn’t mean their knowledge comes from some sort of transcendent other-worldly epistemology.

  42. #42 Steve
    November 6, 2009

    Sigmund@40: I take your answer to be “no, you can’t reasonably assert that you know it happened.” But your objection to my “knowing” a cat ran across the road essentially states that we can’t “know” anything. I might agree that we cannot be 100% certain of anything, but that begs the question.

    I certainly agree that “knowing in science is simply a shorthand for thinking something is statistically probable” and “the scientific method is … ‘the method we use to determine whether an idea about the natural world is incorrect’”.

    Given these definitions, the nature of the animal (or even if was an animal) is not accessible to scientific investigation. Based on the first definition, there is no practical way to compute the probability that I correctly identified the animal and so no way to conclude whether or not my conclusion is probable.

    Based on the second, there is no practical application of the scientific method I can imagine that could falsify my assertion, i.e., determine that this particular idea about the natural world is incorrect.

    I’m assuming that we agree that there is some sort of objective reality that science explores. If the cat encounter I described was objectively real, then I have observed a phenomenon in the natural world that scientific investigation cannot address. (If there is no objective reality, then science is just an illusion anyway.)

  43. #43 Sigmund
    November 6, 2009

    Steve, why do you conclude that simply because we cannot know things to a probability of 100% that this means anything within the natural world (such as the nature of your cat) is not accessible to scientific investigation?
    Your eyewitness testimony is one piece of empirical evidence which we may or may not give weight to, depending on quantifiable factors (past reliability, eyesight acuity, knowledge of wildlife, driving skills, plausibility of story etc). We could, for example, try techniques of fMRI to try to detect whether you are knowingly telling the truth.
    Your personal witness is the only thing you’ve allowed into the question so far and I’ve just given a list of empirical factors for this one point. If you want to extend it beyond a single witness testimony then I would suggest empirical measurements could be applied to the locality of the event (look for cat footprints, hair etc).
    If you are saying the only thing we have to go on is a single statement of “I saw a cat run across the road” then I would suggest you are limiting the scope of science unjustly. Even so perhaps it is the case that science, given ONLY this information and allowed no further investigation would indeed be unable to come to a conclusion. That may well be the case. But even if it is the case can you give an example of any alternative methodology will get you the correct result?

  44. #44 Kevin (NYC)
    November 6, 2009

    “Knowing in science is simply a shorthand for thinking something is statistically probable”

    “Given these definitions, the nature of the animal (or even if was an animal) is not accessible to scientific investigation. ”

    “Based on the first definition, there is no practical way to compute the probability . . no way to conclude whether or not my conclusion is probable.”

    I would say.. No. There are many ways to access what the animals was, and there are easy practical ways to rank and esimate the plausibility/probability of you conclusion.

    Here in the northeast, Hawk Mountain holds bird counts for the fall migration. and the watchers look at litte birds specks in the sky (ok some are easier to see than others) and they mark.. broadwing.. redtail, broadwing, broadwing.. vulture… you get the idea.

    If someone came up with a list that had 145 out of 160 birds spotted were peregrin falcons, well let’s just say that would be any easy one to discount, and unless that novice counter is given some more training, all their reports would likely be suspect.

    what if you said it was an elephant? that ran by so quickly you could barely see it but you are SURE it was an elephant. you think people wouldn’t think it a bit strange? and assign a very low probabilty to your claim? esp since you are in Nebraska?

  45. #45 Kevin (NYC)
    November 6, 2009

    Steve, starting off by calling people names is a bad start to a discussion.

    “The beer has been metabolized and the waste disposed of. I know what brand it was. There is no scientific means for anyone else to know what brand it was. I know it by experience”

    Science can easily determine what beer you drank, within any margin of error desired, by spending more time and money than its worth.

    you say. I drank a beer on Tuesday. what kind was it?

    First why do I care? and maybe you are lying anyway and didn’t drink any beer. That would leave a wide margin of error.

    a detailed study of your alcholic tendancies, cash flow, mobility, and demographic (I have you pegged as a Colt 45 guy) combined with systematic study of all beer traffic in the area (as wide as needed) and also home-brewers, and then by investigating the activites of all people in the area, and documenting and collating and “cleaning” up the data, science could come up with a chart showing the probabiliites

    Colt 45 85%
    Bud 10%
    coors, henekin, blue moon etc <1%

  46. #46 Anton Mates
    November 6, 2009

    Steve,

    Anton@37: Of course it’s revelation – I’m revealing something I know.

    If that’s what you meant by “revelation,” why did you distinguish it from “experience?” I have experience with other people revealing things to me; I have experience with the circumstances under which they turn out to be lying or telling the truth, mistaken or correct.

    As I said, this sort of “revelation” is a fundamental component of observational science–and experimental science too, for that matter. 99.99% percent of the data a scientist ever sees in their field were collected through the observations and experiments of other scientists, who then reported on their results. Other people are the most important type of scientific instrument we have; they may not be as precise or reliable as a mass spectrometer, but they’re very numerous, they gather a ton of data, and they do a lot of high-level processing on that data for us. We just have to learn how to calibrate and error-check them properly, and that itself is a scientific question.

    If the process you described is science, then despots throughout history have applied scientific methodology every time they beat a confession out of a criminal, but didn’t do science when they beat a false confession out of an innocent man.

    No, it doesn’t matter whether the person was guilty or innocent; science is defined by its methodology, not its results. If the despots were using interrogation methods which have been empirically shown to produce reliable data from their victims, they were employing scientific methodology; if not, they weren’t.

  47. #47 Steve
    November 6, 2009

    Kevin@45: I should not have implied that all new atheists are ignorant. I was thinking of a couple of particularly noisy ones who make their living talking/writing on subjects – philosophy and theology – about which they seem to know very little. I apologize if I unfairly lumped you, AL, Sigmund, or Anton in with them.

    All: Thanks for the discussion. Maybe we just have no experiences in common since we seem to be talking past each other. I know lots of things I didn’t learn through science as defined by Sigmund@40. I read. I see things. I experience things. These all convey knowledge to me.

    I know beyond doubt that the Yankees won the World Series. I know beyond doubt that I’m sad about it because I know beyond doubt that I really don’t like the Yankees. No hypotheses, no experiments, no gathering or interpreting of experimental data, no statistical probabilities, no peer reviews, just knowledge acquired in other ways.

  48. #48 Anton Mates
    November 6, 2009

    I know lots of things I didn’t learn through science as defined by Sigmund@40. I read. I see things. I experience things. These all convey knowledge to me.

    You ought to distinguish between “I know things I didn’t learn through science,” and “I know things that can’t be learned through science.” It’s the latter which was your original claim, I think.

    You may believe that the Yankees won the World Series, and that you’re sad about this, without any sort of scientific-ish testing. But do you think scientists couldn’t also arrive at both of these conclusions through the scientific method? Sadness has physical correlates; if I observe you weeping and beating your breast in front of the television, I have empirical cause to think you’re sad about the game.

    Similarly, what if you’re wrong about who won? Maybe the game you saw was a hoax or a hallucination. Wouldn’t science be a good tool to figure this out? If high levels of some psychedelic drug were detected in your bloodstream when you thought you were watching the game, for instance, both you and I would have good reason to think your “knowledge” was nothing of the sort.

    I do agree that some claims are completely inaccessible to science. And I recognize that most people nevertheless believe they possess knowledge about some of those claims. But I don’t myself accept that knowledge as valid, and I don’t think most “New Atheists” do.

  49. #49 Sigmund
    November 7, 2009

    “I know lots of things I didn’t learn through science as defined by Sigmund@40. I read. I see things. I experience things. These all convey knowledge to me.”
    Steve, you need to realize that science or the scientific method is not the source of most of the information present in our societies. What you describe as ‘knowledge’ is probably more accurately written as ‘information’.
    Information can come from many sources that are not science.
    It can come from imagination, from dreams, from fictional stories, from religion – even from watching Oprah interviewing Jenny McCarthy on the subject of vaccination.
    Where science fits into the scheme of things is as a sort of ‘truth sieve’.
    We pour information from all these sources into our sieve and apply the scientific method. The information that doesn’t fit with empirical data and testing will fall through the holes and we will be left with a few grains that have withstood testing. These grains (which, naturally enough, won’t include Jenny McCarthy’s pontificating on Oprah) we call knowledge.
    For many things in our life we are content to take the information as is and not apply testing (think how difficult family life would be if we needed to test each statement from a partner or child to make sure it was true!)
    For many things in our social life we simply don’t have the time to test the information or we rely on others (experts or other figures of authority) to have done the testing for us. Your feelings about the Yankees winning the World series could have been written by me as well as you, although seeing as I have no interest in baseball only one of us would be telling the truth (I take it that you are telling your true feelings). As Anton Mates suggested above, it would be possible using the scientific method on the two of us to ‘know’ which one is telling the truth (FMRI, lie detector tests etc).

  50. #50 Russell Blackford
    November 7, 2009

    Dare I suggest that people might enjoy reading the articles at Comment is Free that followed the one by Ruse? Do bear in mind that they are not, strictly, “answers” to Ruse. Ophelia Benson, Udo Schuklenk, and I had not seen Ruse’s piece. I don’t think any of us even knew that Ruse was one of the people commissioned to contribute. Still, the piece by Ophelia and the piece by me and Udo do address some of his points, at least obliquely.

  51. #51 Jonathan West
    November 7, 2009

    I noticed the “God exists necessarily” bit as well, and have blogged about it, as well as the various other strawmen which Ruse has put up.

    As it happens, I’ve been doing a chapter by chapter review of Richard Swinburne’s “The Existence of God” (dreadful stuff), so it was but a few minutes’ work to look up what a distinguished Oxford professor of the philosophy of religion has to say about it. The necessity of God’s existence is a major plank of his argument. He spends a few paragraphs defining what he means by God holding certain properties “necessarily”, which boiled down means that if God didn’t have these properties, he wouldn’t be God. Then he goes on to describe what he means by the necessity of God’s existence. It is worth quoting directly.

    To say that ‘God exists’ necessarily is, I believe, to say that the existence of God is a brute fact that is inexplicable – not in the sense that we do not know the explanation, but in the sense that it does not have one.

    So there you have it. And this is the deep philosophical idea which Ruse claims Dawkins is ignorant of! To me, claiming that God has no explanation and then expecting people to give up on looking for one is a perfect example of the call to ignorance commonly put out by even moderate varieties of religion, and against which all scientists and philosophers should be opposed. That Ruse uses it as a stick to try and beat Dawkins with is shameful.

  52. #52 Steve
    November 7, 2009

    I appreciate the time and thought that went into your responses. Forgive me for going Biblical on you but “as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another”. Opposing ideas are wonderful tools for examining, refining, and even re-shaping ones own. I’m sure no minds were changed, but the object of discourse isn’t always victory.

    I have labs to grade (computer, not science), assignments to post, and leaves to rake, so thanks again.

  53. #53 Jason Rosenhouse
    November 7, 2009

    Russell -

    I’d love to read those replies. Could you provide the relevant links. Thanks!

  54. #54 Jason Rosenhouse
    November 7, 2009

    Oh, never mind. I just noticed that Greg Mayer has posted the links at Jerry Coyne’s blog.

  55. #55 MTran
    November 14, 2009

    Steve,

    If you tell someone something or share information with someone, that activity may be characterized as mere conversation, anecdote, or testimony. It is not, however, “revelation.”

    Revealed knowledge does not flow from one person to another. Instead, it is information or a message that is conferred upon a person through a supernatural process or entity which simultaneously confers upon the recipient a sense of certainty that is unrelated to and unaffected by any real world evidence.

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  59. #59 Charles L. Clarke
    November 29, 2009

    Why do you people after 150 years, and no proof of any method or mechanism by which evolution happens, call it science. Everyone knows evolution happened. Everyone knows that if the conditions that existed on earth at the time of Dinosaurs, we would probably still have like living things existing on earth.

    Academians can’t even come up with logical ways to identify what belongs to which or what species. I say you are not Academians but Dinosaurs Clucks.

    The theology of Darwin lives, along with Christians,Jews, Muslims and all other unproven dogma.

    I do not deny the benifits coming from the study of genetics and other sciences associated with evolution.

    All that proves is there is Intelligent Design Involved. When Darwins Theory of Evolution has shown the method, and mechanics of how it happened. Then I will truly believe, and I have no doubt that Intelligent Design will rear it’s ugly or beautiful head.

  60. #60 David H Mercier
    December 11, 2009

    This is where the evolutionist lose me.

    http://davidhmercier.wordpress.com/the-existence-of-god/

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