Massimo Pigliucci thinks Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins have naive views about science and the supernatural:

My problem with Dawkins and Coyne is different, but stems from the same root: their position on morality is indeed distinct from Harris’ (at least Dawkins’, I don’t recall having read anything by Coyne on morality), but they insist in applying science to the supernatural, which is simply another form of the same malady that strikes Harris: scientism, the idea that science can do everything and provides us with all the answers that are worth having.

Jerry Coyne replies by explaining why Massimo is being silly:

Dawkins, too, is not immune to the blandishments of art and literature, as you can see by simply reading his books. I suspect that both Richard and I are advocates of “scientism” only to the extent that when questions are amenable to logic, reason, and empirical investigation, then we should always use those tools. If that’s “scientism,” then so be it.

Jerry then goes on to give some examples of places where hypotheses involving the supernatural can be tested.

This issue flares up periodically, but is it really all that complicated?

Let us acknowledge up front that it is difficult to give a clear definition of the supernatural. If we discovered, say, that there were entities in the universe that could act in defiance of what we consider to be universal natural laws, that would just mean those laws do not apply as widely as we thought. One could argue that if it happens, then it is natural. Still, I take it that if we found there were intelligent agents in the universe who can alter our physical constants at their whim and bring universes into being by acts of will, then we could reasonably attach the label “supernatural” to them.

So let us get down to business. If we are speaking of supernatural entities who do not interact in any way with our natural world, then science plainly has nothing to say about them. On the other hand, if you are suggesting entities that do interact with the natural world, and which have clear intentions and attitudes towards us, then science obviously has something to say about them.

An simple example is the problem of evil. If you believe that the world is superintended by an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God, then the empirical observation of rampant pain, suffering and evil is a difficulty you must address. There certainly appears to be a contradiction here. Perhaps the problem is solvable and the contradiction disappears with careful thought. Philosophers and theologians have certainly offered plenty of arguments in that direction. But there are not very many who dismiss the problem out of hand by saying that the factuality of the natural world is irrelevant to our understanding of supernatural entities.

A second example is the problem of human inevitability. If you believe that God created he world specifically with humans in mind, then you must come to terms with what evolution is telling us about natural history. Once again, you can not argue that the details of natural history are irrelevant to our understanding of God and expect to be taken seriously. A clean separation between our understanding of the natural world and many common ideas about the supernatural is not possible.

You could argue that these are not definitive tests of the relevant supernatural ideas. Many people in possession of the relevant facts persist in the traditional beliefs, after all. But that is no different from anything else in science. Young Earth Creationists reject modern scientific arguments for the antiquity of the Earth, but that does not mean that science has nothing to say about their beliefs. Many people once thought that hypothesizing neutrinos was just a desperation move for preserving conservation of energy. Nothing is ever definitive in science, and you can always devise ad hoc hypotheses to prop up any beloved idea. What is relevant to this discussion is simply that science has something to say about specific conceptions of the supernatural.

A better argument is that it is not really the supernatural that is being tested in these examples. The question of the age of the Earth is one that can be addressed by scientific means, and the answer science has found is disconcerting to some people. They might even be led to rethink their religious views in the light of these answers. The fact remains, though, that nothing about the supernatural played any role in the work the scientists did. I agree with this, but again do not see it as relevant. If you believe that the supernatural realm influences the natural realm then science can, at least in principle, discover things that will affect the probability that your beliefs are correct.

Just as science can test certain specific ideas of how the supernatural interacts with the natural, so too can it uncover things that make the existence of a supernatural realm seem likely. If we have a good grasp of the sorts of things that go on in the natural world, and then find a phenomenon that is utterly at odds with what we know, we are likely to revise upwards the probability that there is a supernatural realm monkeying with nature from outside.

There is a reason nearly everyone who considered the matter in the early nineteenth century found William Paley’s argument to be convincing. (For that matter, rather a lot of people today find it convincing). He pointed to a phenomenon, namely the functionality of certain complex systems in organisms, that seemed utterly beyond what could be explained by natural causes, and quite reasonably concluded that we should consider supernatural causes instead. As it happens, Paley was wrong about that. But now suppose that all of those lines of evidence that today support evolution by natural selection had instead shown evolution to be a nonstarter. In that case I suspect most of us would still think Paley’s argument was pretty strong.

Not definitive, of course. You could never be certain you had such a good grasp on the workings of nature that you would know the supernatural if you saw it. History teaches that lesson rather well. But, again, that is irrelevant. Everything in science is held tentatively and is open to revision when new evidence turns up. All you can do is come to the best conclusion you can based on the evidence you have. It is a triviality to imagine fact sets that would make the existence of the supernatural seem like the most reasonable conclusion.

It is a bit more problematic to go the other way. Most knowledgeable people would agree that science has, in fact, not come up with anything that counts as good evidence for the existence of the supernatural. But can we go from absence of evidence to evidence of absence? When evidence is absent under circumstances where we can reasonably expect to find evidence if the entity in question is real, then absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence. Among philosophers of religion this is known as the problem of divine hiddenness, and it is not a problem to be taken lightly.

There is a seemingly endless stream of books explaining how to reconcile evolution with Christianity. There would be no reason to write such books if the separation between the natural and the supernatural were as clean as some would like to maintain. The rather large number of people in this country who see a threat to their religious faith from science are not being irrational. They do not need lectures from pompous academics about how they are all mixed up about what their faith requires of them. What they need are good arguments for why they are wrong about the implications of evolution, and they are certainly not getting them from he philosophers and theologians.

Comments

  1. #1 NewEnglandBob
    April 15, 2010

    Eloquently and convincingly put.

  2. #2 heddle
    April 15, 2010

    If you believe that the world is superintended by an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God,then..

    Fortunately as A Christian I don’t have that problem since the biblical God is clearly not omni-benevolent nor does he claim to be. For crying out loud, he promises to send people to hell for eternal torment–which in no manner can be described as “for their good.” The omnibenevolence, when applied to the Christian God, is a strawman. Just ask the various “ites” who were in Joshua’s path O’ death and destruction.

    This matter is simple. All miracles are subject to scientific investigation. The problem is you have to find one. If Jesus comes down and trundles across Lake Tahoe, you can investigate with the most delicate and sophisticated instrumentation. Nothing would stop you. If the Holy Spirit impregnates another young woman, you could run a full suite of medical tests. No divine force field would prevent you.

    Nothing is stopping Jerry from investigating miracles. I encourage him to apply his talents in that direction.

  3. #3 Uncle Bob
    April 15, 2010

    nice shifting of the burden of proof heddle.

    If a new claim of impregnated virgin via the holy spirit (I have no doubt this is actually claimed quite often) then I would immediately assume that she isn’t actually a virgin. IE, she’s lying.

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Anyone that takes the very tall claim at face value without question isn’t being very rational.

  4. #4 JimC
    April 15, 2010

    For crying out loud, he promises to send people to hell for eternal torment–which in no manner can be described as “for their good.

    This of course is disputed by many and it is not even referenced in the OT. Likewise it appears to be against the nature of anything one could remotely call good. But whatever.

  5. #5 Skeptico
    April 15, 2010

    Very well put, as usual. I would only add that in areas where science can not provide us with all the answers, then other “ways of knowing” such as religion can’t provide those answers either. Religion may pretend to know the answers to those questions, but they’re just made up answers, and we have no reason to suppose they are right.

  6. #6 heddle
    April 15, 2010

    Uncle Bob,

    That’s not my problem. I can’t provide a miracle for you on demand. But if you come across one, you can investigate it with all the tools of science. Miracles are not hallucinations–they would interact with detectors.

    Anyone that takes the very tall claim at face value without question isn’t being very rational.

    I’ve been telling the people who believe in multiple universes that for a long time–but they don’t listen.

    JimC,

    This of course is disputed by many and it is not even referenced in the OT.

    That’s true, but Jesus sure talked about it a lot:

    These (goats) will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

    Likewise it appears to be against the nature of anything one could remotely call good.

    Maybe. You can argue whether it is good or bad–but it sure isn’t benevolent.

  7. #7 Skeptico
    April 15, 2010

    heddle:

    That’s not my problem. I can’t provide a miracle for you on demand.

    It is your problem if you’re claiming miracles happen.

  8. #8 heddle
    April 15, 2010

    Skeptico,

    It is your problem if you’re claiming miracles happen.

    I don’t. I believed they happened. I myself, however, have not witnessed one (except for my own regeneration).

    And having believed that they happened there is still no burden of proof on me, because I am not trying to convince you that, for example, Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus. If I were trying to convince you that a miracle occurred–then the burden of proof would be on me.

    So you are wrong: it is not my problem.

    But again–feel free to investigate any miracle with everything science has to offer. Nobody is stopping Jerry Coyne or Richard Dawkins.

  9. #9 Mbee
    April 15, 2010

    “What they need are good arguments for why they are wrong about the implications of evolution”.
    This is the main issue. There are no good arguments about why they are wrong about evolution, god etc. Most appear to be so close minded that they won’t even listen to the arguments from science.
    They already think they know the answer and simply refuse to look at the evidence and come to logical conclusions. Until they are willing to open their minds and look at both sides logically, they will stay within their indoctrinated religion.

    Oh and heddle – show me a miracle to investigate.

  10. #10 heddle
    April 15, 2010

    Mbee,

    No. It’s not my job. I never claimed I could provide one. I only said you are free to investigate one should you encounter it. Like I’m free to investigate dark matter. Can you provide me with some to investigate? Can you provide me with another universe to investigate?

  11. #11 Skeptico
    April 15, 2010

    heddle:

    You are correct – if you’re not claiming miracles happen, then it’s not your problem (or mine, for that matter). Apologies if I seemed to misrepresent your position – it wasn’t my intent.

  12. #12 Uncle Bob
    April 15, 2010

    Heddle said: “And having believed that they happened there is still no burden of proof on me”

    Intellectual honesty should require anyone that believes in a claim, to think the claim is supported.

    Put the argument in any other analogy. You tell my you believe UFO’s are kidnapping humans and anally probing them on a regular basis. I suggest there is no good evidence to support it and you answer with “that’s not my problem”.

    It SHOULD be a problem for you.

  13. #13 James Sweet
    April 15, 2010

    If we discovered, say, that there were entities in the universe that could act in defiance of what we consider to be universal natural laws, that would just mean those laws do not apply as widely as we thought.

    No no no, this is all wrong. If we found that the universe did not conform to our knowledge of universal natural laws, that would by definition be supernatural.

    I don’t know what you proponents of scientism are still rejecting the idea of the supernatural. Einstein already showed the supernatural existed when he proved special relativity. Does that obey Newton’s universal natural laws? No way. So it must be supernatural, by definition.

    And don’t get me started on quantum field theory. I mean, seriously, which seems more plausible to you? That a virgin woman get impregnated by God? Or that a particle can be in two different states at the same time?

    Dumb scientismists…

    /end sarcasm

  14. #14 James Sweet
    April 15, 2010

    Slightly OT, I’ve been kicking around some ideas for a mathematical proof to demonstrate that no untestable hypothesis, regardless of its plausibility, should ever have a rational influence our choice of actions. I was originally trying to think of how to formalize a specific rebuttal to Pascal’s Wager, and it’s been growing from there.

    Problem is, I don’t have enough of an understanding of modern analysis of continuous probability distributions to figure out if I’m on to something or not. I also am beginning to suspect my approach may require the Axiom of Choice.

    Really, the problem is that I’ve started walking 40 minutes a day, which gives me way too much time to think :D

  15. #15 Flaffer
    April 15, 2010

    God sending people to eternal torment, if it is not good, would be EVIL. Therefore, according to heddle, god is not omni-benevolent, god is downright EVIL (I assume heddle would throw in all the earthly sufferings as caused by god). Now that’s a theodicy one has never run across.

  16. #16 eric
    April 15, 2010

    But can we go from absence of evidence to evidence of absence? When evidence is absent under circumstances where we can reasonably expect to find evidence if the entity in question is real, then absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence.

    The ‘absence of evidence’ argument is a fairly qualitative way to approach the problem. Why stay that shallow? Why not get quantitative? Take the scientific description of phenomenon for which you think the supernatural plays a part (e.g. e=mc^2). Broaden that description to include possible supernatural influences (e.g., e=mc^2 + x, where x represents the supernatural contribution). Then calculate the maximum size of x given current observations. Chances are, its very, very small in relation to the other factors (e.g. x >> mc^2).

    This gives you the scientific answer to the question of absence: who cares about the metaphysical presence or absence of the supernatural? As far as we can tell from observation, the supernatural does little; its pragmatically irrelevant.

  17. #17 Dan L.
    April 15, 2010

    So heddle, admitting he’s never witnessed a miracle, insists that miracles are not hallucinations and that all miracles in principle submit themselves to scientific investigation.

    heddle, how exactly do you know all this if you’ve never witnessed one? And how can you insist on particular properties for miracles without claiming they exist? Maybe you’re working from some particular definition you’d like to share?

    Or are you just being pointlessly contrarian? That seems pretty likely, actually.

  18. #18 H.H.
    April 15, 2010

    Heddle wrote:

    Anyone that takes the very tall claim at face value without question isn’t being very rational.

    I’ve been telling the people who believe in multiple universes that for a long time–but they don’t listen.

    Maybe they don’t listen to you because you’re obviously employing a double-standard when it comes to your own beliefs? I mean, if it’s fine for Heddle to accept fantastical claims without a shred of evidence and demand that others prove him wrong, it should be fine for everyone. Who needs evidence anyway? Apparently personal revelation is equivalent to empirical knowledge. Just make up whatever magical explanation you want and, so long as no one can conceivably test it in your lifetime, claim it’s perfectly consistent with science. The burden of proof rests on those who would reject the omnipotence of the FSM, after all.

  19. #19 JimC
    April 15, 2010

    (except for my own regeneration).

    Fella, all you did was change your mind about something. You are not regenerated. Your the exact same guy who simply changed his mind. Nothing odd or different about that, people do it all the time.

  20. #20 Coriolis
    April 15, 2010

    “This issue flares up periodically, but is it really all that complicated?”

    No, it isn’t. You’d think people who keep bringing this up would stop and wonder what exactly they mean by the supernatural and why it could not be investigated by science. But that’s apparently too hard. This line of argument is one of the easiest ways to tell that you’re going to be having a dull conversation.

    As for the problem of evil, I’ll have to give heddle some credit for simply letting go of the “omni-benevolent” claim. Although I think most christians (or perhaps just the more liberal ones) solve this problem by dropping the claim that god is omni-potent instead. Usually by saying something along the lines of “well there is some reason why God has to do this nasty thing”… which of course implies that there are some constraints upon what god can do.

    Unfortunately there are still plenty of those who try to keep their god omni benevolent/potent and make up hilarious arguments for why that works.

  21. #21 heddle
    April 15, 2010

    Flaffer,

    God sending people to eternal torment, if it is not good, would be EVIL.

    I didn’t say it wasn’t good. I said you could argue that point. But in any case it is not benevolent.

    H. H.,

    if it’s fine for Heddle to accept fantastical claims without a shred of evidence and demand that others prove him wrong,

    I did that? When? Please provide a link. When did I ever demand that you prove, for example, that God does not exist? Never! If I did that, that would be subject to Russell’s Teapot. You must be thinking of another heddle.

  22. #22 heddle
    April 15, 2010

    JimC,

    You are not regenerated.

    No, the goal is to investigate miracles. You are revealing too much–that that’s just a smokescreen. The real strategy, as you just demonstrated, is to declare they don’t exist.

    It is the ipso facto proof that miracles can’t happen:

    Miracles are supernatural. The supernatural cannot be explained by science. Therefore miracles don’t happen, ipso facto.

  23. #23 JimC
    April 15, 2010

    You are revealing too much–that that’s just a smokescreen. The real strategy, as you just demonstrated, is to declare they don’t exist.

    Nope, never said that at all. Miracles may exist. You just simply changed your mind. Absolutely nothing remotely miracle or supernatural like in this regard.

    By any measure what happened to you is totally in the natural world and your own cranium.

  24. #24 Dan L.
    April 15, 2010

    Anyone that takes the very tall claim at face value without question isn’t being very rational.

    I’ve been telling the people who believe in multiple universes that for a long time–but they don’t listen.

    Do you believe in the principle of complementarity from the Copenhagen interpretation of QM? Since the many-worlds interpretation of QM is rigorous and essentially equivalent to the Copenhagen interpretation in terms of predictive power, it seems to me I have as much warrant to believe in multiple universes as I do in “matter/waves.” And from what I understand, there is some reason to believe in those.

    Miracles are supernatural. The supernatural cannot be explained by science. Therefore miracles don’t happen, ipso facto.

    Well, again, define “miracle” and “supernatural” and we can actually make some progress instead of just sniping.

    What would it mean that something “cannot be explained by science”? What does it even mean for something to be “explained by science”?

    We can define “supernatural” as “undetectable (in principle) causal determinant for an observed phenomenon,” and then define “happen” as “occurs in such a fashion as the occurrence can in principle be observed or inferred from observable data” and your snarky little proof is actually entirely sound. Are these unreasonable definitions for those words?

  25. #25 Mbee
    April 15, 2010

    Heddle said: “I’m free to investigate dark matter. Can you provide me with some”
    The difference between science and miracles is that ‘dark matter’ for example is an idea that has been derived from evidence as an explanation. Miracles are something that some see as unexplainable and dream up an external force to explain it – not based on evidence!

    You should look into the evidence for the claim that dark matter exists rather than simply state that “show me some to investigate”.

    As far as miracles are concerned none have been proven to have happened – old stories have not been substantiated so, like russell’s teapot, when there is evidence it can be examined. So until there is some evidence there is no reason to think they exist.

  26. #26 heddle
    April 15, 2010

    Dan L,

    it seems to me I have as much warrant to believe in multiple universes as I do in “matter/waves.” And from what I understand, there is some reason to believe in those.

    Then you would be wrong. I can believe in matter/waves because I can do experiments where electrons behave like waves and I can do experiments where electrons behave like particles. When you do an experiment that detects another universe then you can come back to me. “It is a prediction of a theory that is successful in other domains” is not a valid scientific argument. It is only a guide. Everything must be detected, ultimately, or you are no longer doing science.

    What would it mean that something “cannot be explained by science”? What does it even mean for something to be “explained by science”?

    Just what is says. (Do you think the connection between HIV and AIDS is not explained by science?) If Jesus came down and walked on water, and the water was instrumented with the finest detectors, then scientists could study all the data. The possibilities are:

    1) It is a trick
    2) It is a miracle

    For case 1, maybe science could explain the trick, maybe not, but there is nothing supernatural.

    If case 2 is correct, science will never explain it.

    Even though in either case it can be investigated by science. Even though all the tools of science are brought to bear. Even though, since science pays no attention to the values of its practitioners, the leading investigators might be atheists or they might be believers–since the alleged science-religion incompatibility, which unlike miracles cannot (even in principle) be detected, has no teeth.

  27. #27 JimC
    April 15, 2010

    If case 2 is correct, science will never explain it.

    Not sure I buy this ascertion. Something is happening to the atoms no? He is still defying gravity in the natural world? Miracle or no these things couldn’t happen in a void which brings us back to a manipulation of the natural world and hence certainly amenable to the science process.

  28. #28 shonny
    April 15, 2010

    Still, I take it that if we found there were intelligent agents in the universe who can alter our physical constants at their whim and bring universes into being by acts of will, then we could reasonably attach the label “supernatural” to them.

    But once we’ve found them, and explanations for how they go about it, then they become something in the realm of the natural, – the for us knowable.
    That is, unless it is beyond our ability of observation and comprehension, because then we have to evolve further into something more sophisticated, or at least different, to share the experience.

  29. #29 Jud
    April 15, 2010

    heddle writes:

    Like I’m free to investigate dark matter. Can you provide me with some to investigate?

    Though I can’t put a dollop of dark matter in your hand, there is plenty of good scientific evidence for it available for you to observe, e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bullet_Cluster .

    There are also plenty of purported miracles for the scientifically minded to investigate, e.g., instances of religious pareidolia, occurrences submitted as miracles to support the sanctification of contemporary individuals, etc. I will note that instances of the more impressive sort of miracles, e.g., raising of Lazarus from the dead, walking on water, feeding the multitudes with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, a burning bush that is not consumed out of which the Lord’s voice comes, etc., seem lacking recently, while paradoxically there is far more opportunity to record such occurrences today than 2000 years ago.

  30. #30 CoryM
    April 15, 2010

    If miracles are something that cannot be explained by science, assuming this to mean that they are not a natural feature of existence and can be repeated, what imperative is there to believe them? Even considering personal, firsthand experience of a miracle is not a sufficiently convincing reason to believe anything beyond having possibly hallucinated, or simply having observed something incompletely. And when you consider the plausibility of an event such as unlikely as a person walking on water, reported through heavily revised and edited third person accounts, what reasonable person would believe such a thing?

  31. #31 Bob Carlson
    April 15, 2010

    That’s true, but Jesus sure talked about it a lot:

    These (goats) will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

    heddle,

    Prior to asserting that Jesus ever talked about anything, there is a need for determining whether he ever existed. Can you provide evidence that he did?

  32. #32 heddle
    April 15, 2010

    Bob Carlson,

    Can you provide evidence that he did?

    No.

  33. #33 Roy Sablosky
    April 15, 2010

    There is a seemingly endless stream of books pretending to try to reconcile evolution with Christianity. Since the two paradigms are fundamentally irreconcilable, it makes sense to ask why such books are being written. One strategy used in these books is to claim that the separation between the natural and the supernatural is not as clean as some would like to maintain. However, this is disingenuous. The real purpose of writing such a book is to prevent the erosion of religion by common sense, and a corresponding loss of income for the author. People who say that science threatens everyone’s religious faith are not being irrational, they are lying. They adore well-meaning academics who sympathize with their pretended uncertainty about what faith requires. What they need is to be reminded that we are on to their schemes.

  34. #34 Dan L.
    April 15, 2010

    Then you would be wrong. I can believe in matter/waves because I can do experiments where electrons behave like waves and I can do experiments where electrons behave like particles. When you do an experiment that detects another universe then you can come back to me. “It is a prediction of a theory that is successful in other domains” is not a valid scientific argument. It is only a guide. Everything must be detected, ultimately, or you are no longer doing science.

    First of all, you’re probably not detecting the electrons directly. You’re inferring their existence from macroscopic experimental results. That is, you INFER, not observe, the existence of matter/waves from the results of experiments. If another metaphysical model besides the matter/wave one makes mathematically identical predictions, how are we to determine which model determines the outcome of the experiments (which one is “correct”)? In either case, we’re inferring a metaphysical model from experimental results. Saying, “they’re OBVIOUSLY matter waves” doesn’t cut it as an argument.

    To drive this last bit home, I’d like to point out that “matter/waves” don’t make intuitive sense, but each of the two complementary ideas DO make intuitive sense. But there’s no reason to assume that the actual, true, real metaphysic is intuitive — in fact, we already know it probably isn’t. So again, arguing that there are obviously matter waves because the experiments REALLY make it look that way isn’t actually a very good argument. Which is why you’re wrong; the existence of many entities is inferred from observation rather than observed directly, and the classes of entities from which you can choose are delineated by metaphysical assumptions about the world and how it works as much as by empirical necessity. (Fancy that, an atheist admitting that we must make assumptions sometimes to do science.)

    Do you think the connection between HIV and AIDS is not explained by science?

    Again, I’m not sure what that would mean. Try this: science can explain the results of chemical reactions using QED. In the 19th century, science could explain a subset of those same phenomena using the phlogiston theory. Were those reactions studied by 19th century chemists “explained by science” even though the explanations are fundamentally different from the current explanations? If so, if using the phlogiston theory to explain the results of chemical reactions makes those reactions “explainable by science,” then what ISN’T explainable by science?

    2) It is a miracle

    For case 1, maybe science could explain the trick, maybe not, but there is nothing supernatural.

    If case 2 is correct, science will never explain it.

    Even though in either case it can be investigated by science. Even though all the tools of science are brought to bear.

    For the third time, you seem to be working from some private definition of miracle — since you’ve already admitted that the population of miracles actually observed by heddle is 0, and yet you’re making definite assertions about the nature of miracles. Would you please share with the rest of the class? Until you do, you’re begging the question as far as I’m concerned.

  35. #35 eric
    April 15, 2010

    Heddle: Miracles are supernatural. The supernatural cannot be explained by science.

    I think you are putting the cart before the horse here. I think a more accurate description of the situation would be: we observe no phenomena which require a miraculuous explanation. Upon investigation, miracles don’t seem to exist. Therefore, there is no need to modify the current scientific method to try and include them.

    As you say, if someone were to be able to walk on water under controlled conditions, we’d investigate that. The point being, science does not ab initio rule out miracles, the lack of consideration given to them is like anything else in science; tentative and based on experience.

    To put the horse back before the cart: scientists will almost certainly try and figure out how to explain the supernatural when someone discovers some phenomena that really, truly, on investigation, looks supernatural. But there’s no reason to do it now, any more than there’s a scientific reason to spend effort on a unicorn detector.

  36. #36 Ben
    April 15, 2010

    By definition, a miracle is anything that makes GODBOTs/Heddles feel warm and fuzzy inside.

  37. #37 heddle
    April 15, 2010

    Dan L,

    First of all, you’re probably not detecting the electrons directly. You’re inferring their existence from macroscopic experimental results. That is, you INFER, not observe, the existence of matter/waves from the results of experiments. If another metaphysical model besides the matter/wave one makes mathematically identical predictions, how are we to determine which model determines the outcome of the experiments (which one is “correct”)? In either case, we’re inferring a metaphysical model from experimental results. Saying, “they’re OBVIOUSLY matter waves” doesn’t cut it as an argument.

    Blah blah blah. If I see a diffraction pattern, I see waves. I have no interest “you don’t really see them” arguments. Physicists don’t go about speaking this metaphysical crap–if we say an experiment (diffraction) shows wave behavior –well we know what we mean.

    Every single physics textbook in the universe uses language like “This theory explains that phenomenon,” language you seem to object to for some uninteresting metaphysical reason.

    For the third time, you seem to be working from some private definition of miracle

    I can see why you think that since I used, repeatedly,the highly obscure example of Jesus walking on water. A working definition would be: “God interacting with the physical realm (therefore detectable) through a short-term suspension of the natural laws.” That covers walking on water, no?

    Ben,

    By definition, a miracle is anything that makes GODBOTs/Heddles feel warm and fuzzy inside.

    Let’s test your theory:

    1) I would feel warm and fuzzy if you made a substantive comment
    2) It would be a miracle if you made a substantive comment

    so far so good!

    eric,

    Upon investigation, miracles don’t seem to exist.

    Or they are so rare you never encounter one. If you count them up in the bible there are only ~100 described, and it appears that they were not willy-nilly but part of a plan–a plan that ended with the cross. They are just too rare and very likely have ceased. But if you find one, you can subject it to a full battery of scientific tests. But you can’t test what you don’t have.

  38. #38 Owlmirror
    April 15, 2010

    Fortunately as A Christian I don’t have that problem since the biblical God is clearly not omni-benevolent nor does he claim to be. For crying out loud, he promises to send people to hell for eternal torment–which in no manner can be described as “for their good.” The omnibenevolence, when applied to the Christian God, is a strawman. Just ask the various “ites” who were in Joshua’s path O’ death and destruction.

    Excellent. We’ve got some termininological consistency going here.

    ===========

    Miracles are not hallucinations–they would interact with detectors.

    They might not be hallucinations, but they might be misunderstood natural phenomena. Or in some cases, deliberate tricks by other humans, also misunderstood. There’s a rather broad class of things that are or were called miracles.

    ===========

    Likewise it appears to be against the nature of anything one could remotely call good.

    Maybe. You can argue whether it is good or bad–but it sure isn’t benevolent

    I think it would have to be bad. It isn’t for anything they’ve done to God (who is, after all, self-sufficient), and it isn’t (necessarily) for anything they’ve done to other people. It isn’t to teach them to change their ways, like the punishment for a naughty child.

    It’s cruelty for no reason whatsoever besides cruelty. Isn’t that bad?

    Or is there some other definitions of “good” and “bad” that are involved here?

    ==============

    It is your problem if you’re claiming miracles happen.

    I don’t. I believed they happened. I myself, however, have not witnessed one (except for my own regeneration).

    But how do you know it was a miracle? Or are you saying that you believe that it wasn’t the result of something rare but natural happening inside your temporal lobe (or other part of your brain); a mild seizure or stroke?

    If knowledge is “true justified belief”, are you saying that your belief is something that you simply acknowledge that you think is true, but which you also acknowledge is not justified (in the epistemic sense), and might not be true?

    As a scientist, would you agree that the parsimonious inference is that it was indeed a hallucination (in the broadest sense of the term; something sensed as being there or happening which is actually a product of some sort of misfiring inside the brain)?

    I’m just trying to understand what you’re trying to say.

  39. #39 heddle
    April 15, 2010

    eric,

    BTW, some Grand Unified Theories suggest, roughly speaking, there could be exactly one (one!) magnetic monopole per universe. I’m curious if you think that means “upon investigation, magnetic monopoles don’t seem to exist” or if you would choose language like: “it would be very difficult to detect a magnetic monopole if these theories are true.”

  40. #40 heddle
    April 15, 2010

    owlmirror,

    but they might be misunderstood natural phenomena. Or in some cases, deliberate tricks by other humans, also misunderstood. There’s a rather broad class of things that are or were called miracles.

    That’s true–test them! If you can explain them, they are definitely not miracles. If you can’t, they are potential miracles.

    It’s cruelty for no reason whatsoever besides cruelty. Isn’t that bad?

    I would agree that cruelty for no reason whatsoever besides cruelty is bad.

    But how do you know it was a miracle.

    I don’t. I believe it was a miracle. One day I didn’t believe in God, the next day I did. I could have been some sort of episode. I have no way of knowing. I have know way of knowing that my Christianity isn’t some sore of delusion. But in principle you could test–look for brain damage, etc.

  41. #41 Dan L.
    April 15, 2010

    Blah blah blah. If I see a diffraction pattern, I see waves. I have no interest “you don’t really see them” arguments. Physicists don’t go about speaking this metaphysical crap–if we say an experiment (diffraction) shows wave behavior –well we know what we mean.

    All right, but are we discussing what is really happening, or the language physicists use to describe what is really happening? I have little interest in the logical implications of the language physicists use, because the last few hundred years of science indicate that the language scientists use is not normative — it does not determine the actual behavior of natural phenomena.

    If you see a diffraction pattern, you see a diffraction pattern and you can infer that it’s caused by waves. But that’s not logically necessary. There are other possible causes for diffraction patterns, or even things that look so much like diffraction patterns that we can’t currently tell the difference between this thing and a diffraction pattern (though we could in principle).

    And at least some physicists DO care about this metaphysical crap. Most of my comments on this are inspired by points made by Werner Heisenberg about the implications of QM and relativity beyond the narrow little world of physics experiments. As far as I’m concerned, your lack of interest in the metaphysical implications of the history and philosophy of science say more about your narrow-mindedness than it does about how “interesting” my arguments actually are.

    But that’s a value judgment, so I guess we’re at an impasse there.

    Every single physics textbook in the universe uses language like “This theory explains that phenomenon,” language you seem to object to for some uninteresting metaphysical reason.

    Uninteresting to you does not mean it is entirely without interest, or even relevance. Maybe you’re the one barking up the wrong tree. For example, when you cite “every single physics textbook in the universe” as your authority, you’re ignoring the fact that physics textbooks are written with pedagogy, not philosophy of science in mind. You’re also ignoring the fact that often, the language physicists use is only loosely coupled to the phenomena being described — the descriptions are metaphorical in some sense, as the theory may not even make logical sense (it would have to if it could be expressed rigorously in the English language, right?). So yes, we can say “this theory explains that phenomenon,” but how much does that actually tell us?

    Going back to your HIV/AIDS example, if in the course of my investigations, I decided that HIV was a prion whose production is CAUSED by AIDS, and constituting the earliest symptom of AIDS, would that constitute science explaining the link between HIV and AIDS? It’s wrong, but let’s suppose there’s not much data directly contradicting the explanation. Still wrong, but we don’t know it. Has science explained the link between HIV and AIDS?

    If it has, then “explainable by science” is a very, very, weak condition. I’m not saying it’s meaningless. I’m not saying it’s useless. I’m just saying it’s hard for me to imagine any phenomenon for which I couldn’t cook up some falsifiable theory which is consistent with the data — i.e. some phenomenon which would not be, in principle, explainable by science. Can you give me some reason to think that the set, “phenomena that are not explainable by science” is not empty? (And if you don’t think it’s interesting that an explanation can be simultaneously scientific and dead wrong, then maybe you’re in the wrong field.)

    A working definition would be: “God interacting with the physical realm (therefore detectable) through a short-term suspension of the natural laws.”

    Presupposes the existence of “God” without providing a definition thereof. Again, you’re just begging the question. Defining “miracle” as “miracle maker interacting with the short-term suspension of the natural laws” is circular unless you can tell me something definite about the miracle maker.

    And no, it doesn’t necessarily cover walking on water. I can imagine scenarios in which someone walks on water but:
    -God is not involved
    -natural laws are not suspended
    in which case, there is a possibility of someone walking on water without the intercession of a “miracle,” as defined.

  42. #42 Owlmirror
    April 15, 2010
    but they might be misunderstood natural phenomena. Or in some cases, deliberate tricks by other humans, also misunderstood. There’s a rather broad class of things that are or were called miracles.

    That’s true–test them! If you can explain them, they are definitely not miracles. If you can’t, they are potential miracles.

    Hmm. The problem with calling them even potential miracles is that the very concept of a miracle — as something which, by its definition, must be the deliberate action of an intelligent entity that is outside of our reality, and is itself not detectable by any means other than deliberate actions that it takes which are the miracles themselves — is a question-begging special pleading argument from ignorance.

    It implies that lack of knowledge about something at least potentially fits in with a presupposed mythology.

    There’s lots of things that are not explained — would you call all of them potential miracles? Really?

  43. #43 heddle
    April 15, 2010

    Owlmirror:

    There’s lots of things that are not explained — would you call all of them potential miracles? Really?

    No, I don’t consider anything that I don’t know (in the physical realm) a potential miracle. In my model God used miracles sparingly, and they always had a clear purpose in his redemptive plan, a plan which from the viewpoint of the Christian is finished.

    If God did miracles willy-nilly, then that would be an issue. But God gave no sign that he’d do something like: “Heh. Let’s put a peak in heddle’s data. He’ll be all excited and publish that he has discovered an exotic new particle.”

    As a believing scientist, I’d go to the grave trying to explain any interesting phenomenon by natural causes. If it were actually a miracle I’d have no chance to succeed, but I’d never stop trying. (Because–religion and science are compatible!)

  44. #44 Dan L.
    April 15, 2010

    Incidentally, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen heddle criticize “new atheists” for a lack of philosophical sophistication.

    Apparently, that criticism only has teeth when it’s someone else’s arguments being criticized.

  45. #45 Owlmirror
    April 15, 2010

    No, I don’t consider anything that I don’t know (in the physical realm) a potential miracle. In my model God used miracles sparingly, and they always had a clear purpose in his redemptive plan, a plan which from the viewpoint of the Christian is finished.

    So it certainly sounds like nothing that occurs now is actually a potential miracle…

    And “using miracles sparingly” certainly makes them sound so rare that a disbeliever would be entirely justified in not believing that it was a miracle, even seeing them directly.

    Hm.

    Hypothetical question:

    If someone invents a temporascope, a device which allows you to look back at any point in time, and you look back in time at the supposed life of Jesus, and either don’t see Jesus at all (and you do see the people making up Jesus as a character in their stories and writings), or you see Jesus, but you see that the miracles are tricks (or made-up stories, and again, you see the stories being made up), including the purported resurrection being either a trick or a made-up story or a medical anomaly (he looks dead on the cross, but you can put the field of the scope inside his chest and see his heart still beating weakly, and so on), or some other naturalistic explanation …

    Would you consider Christianity to be entirely falsified?

    Just curious.

  46. #46 heddle
    April 15, 2010

    owlmirror,

    Would you consider Christianity to be entirely falsified?

    Yes

    Dan L,

    -God is not involved
    -natural laws are not suspended
    in which case, there is a possibility of someone walking on water without the intercession of a “miracle,” as defined.

    That’s why you investigate. You may be able to prove that walking on water is a parlor trick.

  47. #47 Wowbagger
    April 15, 2010

    heddle wrote:

    Fortunately as A Christian I don’t have that problem since the biblical God is clearly not omni-benevolent nor does he claim to be. For crying out loud, he promises to send people to hell for eternal torment–which in no manner can be described as “for their good.”

    I think you mean ‘fortunately, my denomination’s interpretation of scripture means I don’t have that problem – since the original statement is far more in line with what a lot of Christians – and certainly the majority I’ve encountered online – appear to presume about their god. How anyone can read the bible (or just look at the world) and think ‘created by an omnibenevolent god’ is just mindboggling.

    While I think of it: kudos on having chosen the sect with – as far as I can tell – the least intellectually indefensible position on such things. It really cuts down on the amount of inconsistency you have to contend with.

  48. #48 Owlmirror
    April 15, 2010

    That’s why you investigate.

    Wouldn’t investigating what you think is — or might be — your regeneration involve a CAT scan or similar? Which is probably time-consuming, and expensive (and potentially uninformative), especially if you’re otherwise neurologically OK, but that still is the direction an empirical investigation would take…

  49. #49 Rob Jase
    April 15, 2010

    heddle – just which amputated limb did you regenerate anyway?

  50. #50 Tacroy
    April 15, 2010

    You know, one thing I’ve never seen explained by a theologian: science, which is based on the truth, has a habit of combining – because all scientists are studying the same truth, eventually all science reaches a consensus. As time goes into the future, scientific theories end up converging.

    Newton and Leibniz both came up with calculus at almost the same time, because they were both looking in to the same fundamental truths; Einstein and Poincare both published papers on Special Relativity within months of each other; Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics and Schroedinger’s wave mechanics were basically the same theory, expressed differently.

    This is, in fact, the driving force behind our modern search for a Grand Unified Field Theory – it offends our sense of scientific aesthetics to have such disparate fundamental forces as gravity, electromagnetism, and the atomic forces.

    Religion, on the other hand, has a habit of splintering. Why would the study of an eternal and unchanging Being not converge? Why is it that as time goes on, all religions diverge? Even heddle’s precious Calvinism is an offshoot of an offshoot of an offshoot.

    I just don’t get it; what explanation do you have for this obvious dynamic difference?

  51. #51 Tyler DiPietro
    April 15, 2010

    This is a good example of why philosophers often irritate the hell out of me. The issue isn’t whether science could explain miracles, by definition it couldn’t “explain” something without an appeal to some natural mechanism. Whether we can observe miracles and become rationally convinced that they occur is a separate matter. There is no reason to believe, a priori, that such events don’t or can’t happen. To claim that there couldn’t be evidence for them is absurd. But philosophers like Pigliucci just love muddying the waters and conflating these separate propositions.

  52. #52 JimC
    April 15, 2010

    Because–religion and science are compatible

    Clearly as many people believe both, but it is not a rational position.

    don’t. I believe it was a miracle. One day I didn’t believe in God, the next day I did. I could have been some sort of episode. I have no way of knowing. I have know way of knowing that my Christianity isn’t some sore of delusion. But in principle you could test–look for brain damage, etc.

    Or you simply changed your mind. Wanted to belong. Nothing remotely strange about that at all. Very common in fact. Certainly not miraculous. Maybe in the ‘Hey it’s a miracle’ sense. Don’t need brain damage for this one, although eventually it does seem to waste allot of good minds.

  53. #53 J.J.E.
    April 16, 2010

    @ Heddle

    You are an interesting one. You freely acknowledge that miracles are rare and that you’ve never seen one. You also say that you aren’t trying to convince anyone of anything within the “supernatural” realm though you yourself believe. As such, you imply that it is rational for others to fail to accept the claims that you yourself accept.

    Am I right that if you were so inclined (I know you aren’t inclined, but I’m just asking you to do the thought experiment), you wouldn’t claim to be able to rebut someone who made the following comments about the evidence for Christianity:

    1) it is insufficient or at least extremely limited (~100 total miracles millennia in the past with no more forthcoming);
    2) it is historical in nature (miracles cannot be repeated and can only be viewed through the filter of human communication);
    3) it is insufficiently distinct from lies or delusions spread by other non-Christian parties (many cults and real religions make claims of resurrection, healing, walking on water, magical plagues, that have the same limitations as points 1 & 2 above).

  54. #54 Ivan
    April 16, 2010

    I’ve been telling the people who believe in multiple universes that for a long time–but they don’t listen.

    Um… I thought you (heddle) were a physics professor. Two words: universal wavefunction. Also see

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiverse#Occam.27s_Razor

  55. #55 eric
    April 16, 2010

    Heddle: BTW, some Grand Unified Theories suggest, roughly speaking, there could be exactly one (one!) magnetic monopole per universe. I’m curious if you think that means “upon investigation, magnetic monopoles don’t seem to exist” or if you would choose language like: “it would be very difficult to detect a magnetic monopole if these theories are true.”

    I think if a scientist wants to look for a magnetic monopole, he/she presents the hypothesis on which his search is based to a funding agency; why that hypothesis is reasonable, what it predicts and what he intends to search for. He demonstrates that he has a solid plan for the research and a reasonable chance of experimental success, and his peers decide whether the effort is valuable enough to spend resources on. If he’s already got a grant, maybe the investigator makes that decision himself – but some scientist or group of scientists always makes this decision; its part of the process.

    And the same is true if someone wants to search for a unicorn. Or study a guy who walks on water. Where I think I disagree with you (and I’m not even sure I do), is that I don’t think science philosophically rules out studying the latter two examples. There is no metaphysical commitment in science to saying these things don’t exist. There is simply no good reason to expect such research to yield results, so the research isn’t done, isn’t funded. If, tomorrow, some new bit of data made the existence of unicorns much more credible, I’m sure the NSF would fund game trail cameras looking for them. But they won’t do it now, because there’s absolutely no good empirical reason to think such research is worth doing.

    So, IMO and contra to what I think is your opinion (though I’m really not sure), science’s practice of ignoring or discounting miracles and the supernatural is an empirically-based, tentative decision. Its not philolophically verboten, its not impossible or unscientific. Its just, in our best judgement, not worth doing at this time.

  56. #56 RickK
    April 16, 2010

    Tacroy asked: “I just don’t get it; what explanation do you have for this obvious dynamic difference?”

    Simple – science converges because there is something to actually measure, to actually prove. If a theory makes good, useful predictions, people accept it as working, and science builds on it, moving on to the next problem.

    Reglion has no proof. There’s nothing on which to converge. You can interpret the Bible to say “love thy neighbor” or you can interpret the Bible to say “eradicate thy enemy”. Which is right?

    That’s why in the realm of science (or natural philosophy), we’re arguing about very different things now than we were arguing about 1000 years ago. But in religion, the arguments are basically unchanged in the past 1000 years. If we maintain civilization for another 1000 years, our understanding of the universe and nature will have expanded tremendously, but people will still be arguing over the same scripture.

    Religion has no laboratory. Religion cannot be tested. It is just opinion, and so has no basis on which to reach agreement.

  57. #57 RickK
    April 16, 2010

    eric said: “science’s practice of ignoring or discounting miracles and the supernatural is an empirically-based, tentative decision. Its not philolophically verboten, its not impossible or unscientific. Its just, in our best judgement, not worth doing at this time.”

    Bingo. It’s all about evidence. The supernatural has failed as an explanation thousands and thousands of times. It has never actually succeeded in any provable way. By contrast, natural causes successfully explain natural phenomena trillions of times every day.

    When you apply methodological naturalism to the selection of a world view, the clear answer is philosophical naturalism. That’s where the evidence leads.

  58. #58 Jud
    April 16, 2010

    Yah, I know it’s troll-feeding, but couldn’t resist a little tweak:

    dmab writes -

    Atheists,

    but you have NO ANSWER TO DEATH

    I’d say atheists would see a belief in eternal life as not even having the courage to ask the question, let alone claim an answer.

  59. #59 Tyler DiPietro
    April 16, 2010

    Ivan, the content you reference is why I’m always hesitant to cite Wikipoopia. This reasoning is just wrong.

    “The algorithmic information content in a number is, roughly speaking, the length of the shortest computer program that will produce that number as output. For example, consider the set of all integers. Which is simpler, the whole set or just one number? Naively, you might think that a single number is simpler, but the entire set can be generated by quite a trivial computer program, whereas a single number can be hugely long. Therefore, the whole set is actually simpler.”

    Of course, you could simply enumerate all the integers up to that number with the same algorithm.

  60. #60 J.J.E.
    April 16, 2010

    Tyler, I’m not sure that you want to simply poo-poo that citation so cavalierly. Your critique, unless specified further, doesn’t even make sense. How would you know to stop at that one integer? Surely that requires some information, right? Forgetting about how you figured out to stop there, simply picking an arbitrary point in the output is a non-zero amount of additional information. Added to the information required of the algorithm itself, it requires more information to specify a single number than to specify them all.

    And besides, you can use the citations on Wikipeedia as a time-saving heuristic to deterime if the statements are somewhat reliable. If you’d checked, you might’ve considered this:

    http://books.google.com/books?as_isbn=0955706807

  61. #61 Ivan
    April 16, 2010

    Tyler: what JJE said.

    I might add that Tegmark is an MIT professor, not as an argument from authority (though I admit I’m biased in favor of my alma mater), but just to point out that This reasoning is just wrong is probably a hasty conclusion. Occam’s razor again. ;^)

  62. #62 Tyler DiPietro
    April 16, 2010

    J.J.E.,

    If a computation doesn’t terminate then by definition it doesn’t have an output. The difference between recursively enumerable sets and non-recursively enumerable sets is that all individual members in the former will eventually be enumerated in some finite recursion, while the latter at least contains members that won’t be. Tegmark’s claim simply doesn’t make any sense.

    It’s also worth pointing out that it isn’t simply “the set of all solutions” to the Schrodinger equation that is considered in quantum theory, AFAIK, but a linear combination of all solutions. A linear combination of solutions is surely more Kolmogorov complex than an individual solution.

    Ivan,

    I’m aware of Tegmark’s stature in physics, but he’s not a theoretical computer scientist. His reasoning in that paragraph is just sloppy.

  63. #63 Tyler DiPietro
    April 16, 2010

    There is a missing sentence above to the effect that an indefinite induction of the integers doesn’t terminate, therefore talking about the Kolmogorov complexity of “the set of all integers” isn’t theoretically coherent.

  64. #64 Ivan
    April 16, 2010

    the Kolmogorov complexity of “the set of all integers” isn’t theoretically coherent

    If you go up one meta-level, as it were (think Gödel numbering), then the KC of the integers could be the length of the shortest program which outputs the code for a program which implements a computer algebra system for the integers (after fixing a notion of what this should entail).

  65. #65 Tyler DiPietro
    April 16, 2010

    Ivan, I think at that point you would be outputting a set of axioms, not a set of integers.

  66. #66 Ivan
    April 16, 2010

    Tyler: Basically, yes! Kinda.

    But if you prefer to stick to programs that output numbers, then let the KC of the integers be the length of the shortest program that outputs the code for a program which enumerates the integers.

  67. #67 Tyler DiPietro
    April 16, 2010

    If I’m reading you right, you’re talking about something like Haskell-style lazy evaluation. I suppose that gets around the problem I’m describing if you consider a list of the form (x : xs) to be a full description of the integers.

  68. #68 Tyler DiPietro
    April 16, 2010

    I also think we’re missing the forest for the trees. The question your link was supposed to address was whether multiple universes were really an implication of quantum theory. Well, the question is why measurement operators only yield a particular eigenstate with a given probability when a closed quantum system is described by a state vector. Everett essentially suggested that all eigenstates are realized in orthogonal universes. That seems to me to be a rather radical departure from basic quantum theory and not the kind of evidence heddle is asking for.

  69. #69 Tyler DiPietro
    April 16, 2010

    Erm, I mean a closed quantum system is described by a “state space”. And eigenstate is an eigenvector in state space, AFAIK.

  70. #70 Tyler DiPietro
    April 17, 2010

    JUST LOOKED IT UP. Eigenstates are eigenvectors of the observables as represented by the measurement operators. The measurement of an observable yields a certain eigenstate with a given probability.

  71. #71 Bob Carlson
    April 17, 2010

    One day I didn’t believe in God, the next day I did. I could have been some sort of episode. I have no way of knowing. I have know way of knowing that my Christianity isn’t some sor[t] of delusion. But in principle you could test–look for brain damage, etc.

    Amnesia? I can’t otherwise imagine a change so profound that you (heddle) would have no inkling of the cause. Up until I read Darwin’s Origin, I guess there had been nothing in my environment that had been sufficient to cause me to doubt the beliefs that had been drilled into me from childhood. In the case of Francis Collins, he indicated the cause of the change in the other direction to have been the site of a profoundly beautiful frozen waterfall. I wouldn’t suggest that Collins simply imagined the frozen waterfall as a consequence of hypothermia that resulted from his winter mountain hike. The sight of a frozen waterfall in winter makes sense, and I have no reason to doubt Collins’ honesty about it even though I have to doubt his rationality. You also seem to be an honest sort, but I, nevertheless, can’t help thinking that there is something you are not admitting to yourself.

  72. #72 Owlmirror
    April 17, 2010

    Amnesia? I can’t otherwise imagine a change so profound that you (heddle) would have no inkling of the cause.

    But the problem is that the operation of our brains and minds is far more complex that we realize. It isn’t always accessible to us, and the fact that a change has taken place in the mind as a result of a change in the brain also isn’t always available to us.

    I’ve read a lot of popular works and seen some documentaries on neurological cases by Oliver Sacks and V. S. Ramachandran, and there are a lot of things that can go wrong with the brain, sometimes in very limited and specific ways — and the brain is also capable of having workarounds for problems; secondary and tertiary systems that become apparent when the primary ones are damaged. So I have a lot of general examples in mind when I discuss the possibility of something having potentially happened specifically in the temporal lobes of people who have had a religious experience — brain “damage” can sometimes mean something very slight and very specific, and very very subtle.

    The mind also has problems resolving emotional and intellectual conflicts and problems — for example, with Capgras delusion, the connection between facial recognition and emotional response appears to break down, such that people who experience it recognize faces, but have no emotional feeling for the person recognized. This leads them to rationalize the problem not as something wrong inside their brains, but as something wrong with reality: They claim that people they recognize, but feel nothing for, even though they should — as with family members and friends — have somehow been replaced with impostors.

    That’s just one example, and I don’t think it’s necessarily something that severe in the cases of profound religious experience. But my point is that people can also have something happen inside their brain that has a strong positively emotional component — and they might well confound that feeling with something outside themselves. People have panic attacks, and in other cases, what might be described as the opposite of panic attacks; periods of feeling extreme joy or peace or acceptance or oneness with the world.

    I think that something like that is what happens inside of people’s brains when they have religious experiences, and that it’s certainly the most parsimonious explanation. But people who aren’t aware of all of the possible things that can happen inside their own brains might well make the mistake of thinking that the period of profound emotion(s) results from something outside of themselves (or thinking that that interpretation is “better” despite being or becoming aware that it’s less parsimonious) — and might have other psychological reasons for defending this interpretation, even if they are otherwise intelligent, or even very intelligent.

    And I just want to conclude with the warning that I am not a neurologist; for specific neurological answers, read the primary works of neurologists or ask a neurologist directly.

  73. #73 Ivan
    April 17, 2010

    Tyler:

    If I’m reading you right, you’re talking about something like Haskell-style lazy evaluation.

    Kinda. At any rate, the basic point is that, for any fixed system of description, there necessarily exist particular integers whose simplest description is more complex than the simplest description of the ring of integers.

    The question your link was supposed to address was whether multiple universes were really an implication of quantum theory.

    No. I intended it to address heddle’s absurd insinuation that the multiverse is a very tall claim which is accepted irrationally and without question. My point was that applying Occam’s razor is not an irrational thing to do, even if there may be disagreement about the way in which it should be applied.

    Everett essentially suggested that all eigenstates are realized in orthogonal universes. That seems to me to be a rather radical departure from basic quantum theory

    At first glance, yes. But it’s not as radical as it seems. The many-worlds interpretation is a way to get rid of the ugly ad hoc notion of wavefunction collapse. Basically it says that quantum superpositions still persist after measurement; it’s just that the observer and object are in a superposition of correlated states afterwards. There’s only a single “wavefunction of the universe”, even though we like to speak of it as entailing multiple separate universes.

    Mathematically, MWI is very nice because it says that the evolution of a quantum system is always unitary and deterministic.

  74. #74 Tyler DiPietro
    April 17, 2010

    Ivan,

    “At any rate, the basic point is that, for any fixed system of description, there necessarily exist particular integers whose simplest description is more complex than the simplest description of the ring of integers.”

    But my question is whether a description of the ring counts as a literal description of the integers. To me it seems a bit like sleight of hand, though I admit I can’t exactly figure out why.

    “The many-worlds interpretation is a way to get rid of the ugly ad hoc notion of wavefunction collapse.”

    But it replaces it with an exfoliating universe. I don’t see why that isn’t at least equally ad hoc. There is also the fact that we’ve directly observed quantum decoherence.

    “Mathematically, MWI is very nice because it says that the evolution of a quantum system is always unitary and deterministic.”

    Basic quantum theory only suggests that closed quantum systems evolve unitarily. Quantum systems that interact with each other exhibit docoherence. Granted, we don’t fully understand that effect, but it does rather change the game a bit.

    Even if we didn’t observe docoherence, we would still have to reconcile the fact that measurements only yield a single eigenstate for an observable with the theory. That seems to me to be rather undesirable, just going with the basic postulates is nicer.

  75. #75 Bob Carlson
    April 17, 2010

    I think that something like that is what happens inside of people’s brains when they have religious experiences, and that it’s certainly the most parsimonious explanation.

    Owlmirror,

    I would agree that the brain is so complex that some of the things we think are real, are not. That is surely the case with free will and may even be the case with consciousness. But I find it difficult to imagine heddle having had some sort of religious experience causing his conversion without remembering having had it and seeing it as the cause of his conversion. Religious experience or not, I find it difficult to swallow the idea that one could remember being a nonbeliever and then a believer without remembering anything about the circumstances that brought about the change.

  76. #76 Ivan
    April 17, 2010

    But my question is whether a description of the ring counts as a literal description of the integers. To me it seems a bit like sleight of hand, though I admit I can’t exactly figure out why.

    Well, the argument doesn’t really depend on what properties you demand for a true description of “the integers”. As long as a description exists, there exists a particular number having greater complexity.

    I mean, most of us carry a description of the integers in our heads, but there are plenty of particular integers which we couldn’t hold in our brains even if we wanted to.

    But it replaces it with an exfoliating universe. I don’t see why that isn’t at least equally ad hoc.

    By exfoliating I presume you mean the idea of a universe that continually splits into multiple branching universes. I’m not sure that’s the best picture, because it makes it sound like the number of universes is continually increasing.

    There is also the fact that we’ve directly observed quantum decoherence.

    Are you suggesting that decoherence is a problem for MWI? I’m not sure I follow you.

    Basic quantum theory only suggests that closed quantum systems evolve unitarily. Quantum systems that interact with each other exhibit decoherence.

    Yes, I should have said “the evolution of the universe as a whole“.

    we would still have to reconcile the fact that measurements only yield a single eigenstate

    It’s a philosophical question, I guess– why don’t we personally get to see all of the outcomes? But again I don’t see how this presents a (mathematical) problem for MWI.

  77. #77 Owlmirror
    April 17, 2010

    But I find it difficult to imagine heddle having had some sort of religious experience causing his conversion without remembering having had it and seeing it as the cause of his conversion.

    He remembers the events (possibly) surrounding whatever it was, and described them briefly. It doesn’t sound particularly profound or moving in itself, since we don’t have the actual experience, but there it is.

    And maybe minor amnesia was in fact involved. How are we to know?

    Religious experience or not, I find it difficult to swallow the idea that one could remember being a nonbeliever and then a believer without remembering anything about the circumstances that brought about the change.

    I find it difficult to swallow that people could be blind and yet not be aware that they are blind, and yet, Anton–Babinski syndrome appears to be something real.

    The brain is not just weirder than we imagine; it is weirder than we can imagine. And there are many possible ways that the brain can hiccup or malfunction, some of which are very weird indeed.

  78. #78 Owlmirror
    April 17, 2010

    By exfoliating I presume you mean the idea of a universe that continually splits into multiple branching universes. I’m not sure that’s the best picture, because it makes it sound like the number of universes is continually increasing.

    Do I correctly infer that many-worlds posits that every single universe in which a quantum interaction of any sort with our universe already exists?

  79. #79 Owlmirror
    April 17, 2010

    Do I correctly infer that many-worlds posits that every single universe in which a quantum interaction of any sort that ever has happened and ever will happen with our universe already exists?

    Fixed, sort of.

  80. #80 Bob Carlson
    April 17, 2010

    The brain is not just weirder than we imagine; it is weirder than we can imagine. And there are many possible ways that the brain can hiccup or malfunction, some of which are very weird indeed.

    Well, I have watched various presentations of V S Ramachandran, so have some idea of the sorts of things you are alluding to. I wonder, though, whether there are any cases where an observed neurological hiccup has resulted a nonbeliever suddenly becoming religious.

  81. #81 Tyler DiPietro
    April 18, 2010

    Ivan, I bring up decoherence because it provides an actual mechanism for the loss of unitarity. MWI is one of many attempts to derive one postulate of quantum mechanics (that a system being measured is not necessarily unitary) from another (that the evolution of a closed quantum system is described by unitary operators). Once you have decoherence, a big part of the need to invoke some new unseen phenomenon in quantum mechanics goes away. Once again, decoherence doesn’t yet explain why we only measure one eigenstate per observable, so the measurement isn’t solved. But I see “interpretations” of quantum theory becoming increasingly unnecessary.

  82. #82 G Felis
    April 24, 2010

    Why is anyone willing to argue with heddle? The man’s first comment in this thread was an admission that he willingly and knowingly worships a God who is tyrannical and cruel – infinitely cruel, in fact, in that He purportedly damns people to eternal torment! With that admission, heddle demonstrates himself to be so far around the bend from reason that there is clearly no possible gain to be made by engaging in reasoned argument with him. If I shared the same physical space with him, I would react to such an admission with a reassuring smile as I backed away slowly, making no sudden moves.

    heddle is Exhibit A for my oft-argued position that faith by its very nature makes those who embrace it moral idiots: The faithful are capable of sound moral reasoning exactly and entirely to the extent that their faith plays no substantial role in it, beyond the after-the-fact endorsement faith sometimes (quite unreliably) grants to sensible and rationally defensible moral conclusions which can be or have been reached by reasoned consideration. What’s most interesting about heddle’s particular pathology is that he’s capable of genuine moral reasoning – he does more-or-less admit that his God is a cruel tyrant, after all – but eschews the conclusions of reason in favor of embracing the worship of this tyrant, and insists that the commands issued by the tyrant define moral behavior despite the fact that his own reason tells him otherwise. Fascinating – but also frightening.

  83. #83 Owlmirror
    April 26, 2010

    Why is anyone willing to argue with heddle?

    Because figuring out the nature and boundaries of his mental compartmentalization is an interesting puzzle for some of us.

    The man’s first comment in this thread was an admission that he willingly and knowingly worships a God who is tyrannical and cruel – infinitely cruel, in fact, in that He purportedly damns people to eternal torment!

    And that’s better — more honestly consistent — than those who willingly and knowingly worship a God who is tyrannical and cruel, but deny that the tyranny and cruelty is tyranny and cruelty.

    Those who claim that everyone suffering in Hell deserves to be there forever for their sins, and/or that God is nevertheless gooddespite torturing them forever — these are, in my opinion, inconsistent about what “good” means, and are thinking and arguing dishonestly.

    With that admission, heddle demonstrates himself to be so far around the bend from reason that there is clearly no possible gain to be made by engaging in reasoned argument with him.

    Given that he used to argue that God is good, despite knowing how God treats humans in his theology, I think he can be usefully argued to greater honesty.

    If I shared the same physical space with him, I would react to such an admission with a reassuring smile as I backed away slowly, making no sudden moves.

    I’m pretty sure that in person, he’s pretty normal. He has never made any sort of claim that I am aware of that God‘s behavior is any sort of excuse for humans to behave violently or cruelly.

    What’s most interesting about heddle’s particular pathology is that he’s capable of genuine moral reasoning – he does more-or-less admit that his God is a cruel tyrant, after all – but eschews the conclusions of reason in favor of embracing the worship of this tyrant, and insists that the commands issued by the tyrant define moral behavior despite the fact that his own reason tells him otherwise.

    No, I’m pretty sure that he has not done that. Acknowledging that God is or can be cruel is a rejection of divine command theory; it implicitly distinguishes ethical behavior towards others from having anything to do with God’s will.

  84. #84 acai
    April 27, 2010

    I ‘think’ if you go full-screen on the porolfsfelli cam, you can see the lava channel. It certainly looks to me like there is a gully developing.

  85. #85 naturalist
    May 5, 2010

    How sad when a person who formerly embraced the rationality and openended approach of science becomes infected” with the delusional virus of obnoxious and self-absorbed religious certainity. Fundamentalism is a mental illness.

  86. #86 Joe
    February 17, 2012

    A quick comment to heddle:

    What a shame when one doesn’t understand the very nature of the God they worship. If you are reading the the bible you will see that God never intended for man to spend eternity in hell. Hell was made for the devil and his angels. Why? Because they have seen God and know his very nature. Their choice was in direct rebellion. Man was given a choice to obey him or defy him without knowing, first hand, of His nature. We are given explanations of his nature and choices to make. He has given us a way out (Jesus). He is your pardon from the fire. It’s your choice. Let me give an example to help. If you don’t have any children, then this may still be hard to understand. A love for one’s child goes way beyond any person’s understanding.

    Say you have a son or daughter that is going out one night and you tell them not to drink and drive. You can show them all the evidence of where it will lead them (death, jail, etc…). They defy your warning and they die in a fiery car accident. Did you have a way of stopping them? No. They had the choice to do what they did and they ended up that way because of their choice in ignoring you.

    There are alot of things I don’t understand about God. One thing I am sure of is that Our physical death means nothing to him. It’s our eternal death that he cares about. i’m not trying to sound rude about death. i am just saying that there is a bigger picture and in His eyes we may lose our bodies, but our soul lives on. I am sure I will get slammed about this from the evolutionist camp. It always happens since they have made their choice! Take note heddle that when you go against the grain of the world, you will get slammed and (I have noticed) that when they run out of arguments, they resort to getting very angry and chastise you to become nasty with them. Then they can say you are no different than them. In no way am I saying we are better than the non-believer. We have a better hope and a list of morals that make this world a better place to live in.

    My decision was simple and it went from there. If I’m right, I live forever in paridise. If they’re right and we just cease to exist, who is going to chastise me when we die….LOL

  87. #87 Wow
    February 17, 2012

    “No. They had the choice to do what they did and they ended up that way because of their choice in ignoring you.”

    However, if this were an analogy of God and Hell, this would be followed with: “So you drove your car at them and killed them to show them they were wrong!”.

    Most parents don’t actually kill their children in a fireball of death for disobeying their advice on avoiding drink-driving…