Mixing Memory

A Quick Explanation

Because some people seem to be misinterpreting what I was saying in the last post, and even arguing against it by suggesting that I should have taken the position that I did, in fact, take, let me summarize my points in a few sentences.

The main point is that because I don’t feel like I can be objectively certain about things about which there is so much more that we don’t know than that we do, and which are incredibly complex even in their simplest forms, like religion, truth and falsity seem like poor measures of belief in assigning respect to them or their holders. What’s more important, then, is how people get to their beliefs, how they promote them and/or force them down people’s throats, and most of all, how they act.

So, I’m not arguing that we should respect blatantly false beliefs like flat earth, because these are blatantly false, but in most cases (e.g., the basic tenets of most monotheistic religions), “blatantly false” is an entirely subjective judgment. It’s better, then, to look at whether people believe them for honest, even if not carefully thought out reasons (most people don’t carefully think out much of anything), and whether the beliefs lead them to act ethically. If people are honest about their beliefs, they treat them appropriately given the level of reflection with which they’ve arrived at them, and their beliefs lead them to act ethically, then I think their beliefs are worthy of respect, as are the belief holders themselves. In fact, for the most part I only care whether people behave ethically (i.e., consistent with my basic, immutable values), because otherwise, the truth or falsity of another person’s beliefs won’t affect me in any way.

Oh, and one more thing: I don’t call “New Atheists” fundamentalists because they’re loud, critical, or what have you. Then I’d just call them loud and critical. I call them fundamentalists because I think the content of their beliefs, and the ways in which that content causes them to behave, is analogous to religious fundamentalism in many ways. Of course, I’ve explained that many times before, but every time someone gets angry about me calling them fundamentalists, they say something to the effect that just because someone’s loud and critical doesn’t make them a fundamentalist. Well, let me reiterate: duh!

Comments

  1. #1 Derek James
    March 13, 2008

    How about basing the amount of respect for another’s belief system based on the evidence used to justify those beliefs, the reasoning behind them, and their logical consistency?

    If someone worshiped a giant piece of candy corn and it made them the nicest person in the world that’s not a valid reason to respect their belief. I would be relieved that their poorly-substantiated beliefs led to socially beneficial behavior, but there’s no way in hell I’d respect those beliefs.

    And what the heck to you mean about by looking at whether or not people believe things for “honest” reasons?

  2. #2 Chris
    March 13, 2008

    Derek, you might try reading the discussion in the last post. At the moment, you’re expressing exactly the view that I absolutely do not respect, and am, quite frankly, getting sick of engaging. For one, your own views on this matter have little if any relationship to “logical consistency” or reflexive reasoning.

    By honest reasons, I mean reasons that don’t involve self-deception or deceiving others. Think, for example, of many young earth creationists for self-deception, and Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor for deceiving others.

  3. #3 Richard
    March 13, 2008

    I call them fundamentalists because I think the content of their beliefs, and the ways in which that content causes them to behave, is analogous to religious fundamentalism in many ways.

    Can you clarify precisely what ‘ways’ those are? Because it seems to me that most people who make this charge (maybe you’re an exception) are simply responding to one or more of the following features:

    (1) New atheists believe that their opponents are objectively in error.

    (2) They hold this belief with a high degree of confidence. (But not, I take it, dogmatically. Their confidence would be revised in face of contrary evidence, were such ever to appear.)

    (3) They are outspoken in voicing their belief, and hope to persuade others to see the error of their ways.

    None of these features warrants the term ‘fundamentalist’. So I’m wondering what else you have in mind.

  4. #4 Chris
    March 13, 2008

    Richard, part of it’s their religious adherence to science as the source of Truth. Part of it is their black-and-white thinking: you are either with them or against them, in essence, and in particular, all religions are ultimately the same on the only dimensions that matter, which is their irrationality. Part is the anti-intellectualism I keep talking about. Much like, say, fundamentalist Christians with atheism or Islam or science, they don’t feel the need to actually research religion, because it’s clear from their own position that religion is irrational and absurd. In fact, if you go back and read comments on this site or PZ’s, you’ll find many of them claiming that the scientific study of religion is pointless, because we already know that religion is just the product of irrational thinking. Yet, despite not feeling the need to study it, they have no problem writing entire books on its history, its logic, its psychology, and even its theology, much as creationists feel that modern biology is wrong for reasons make studying biology pointless, but still have no problem writing books about evolution without having actually researched it.

    To summarize, then: “New Atheist” naive scientism/positivism:fundamentalist literalism;

    “New Atheist” black-or-white thinking (overgeneralization, lumping all religion together):fundamentalist ideas about salvation and true believers;

    “New Atheist” anti-intellectualism:fundamentalist anti-intellectualism.

    When you combine these with zealous proselytizing, they look a lot like fundamentalist Christians to me.

  5. #5 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 13, 2008

    Chris-

    I’ve spent a lot of time attending gatherings of fundamentalist Christians and also a lot of time attending gatherings of atheists and secular humanists. There is simply no reasonable comparison between the two.

    First, you compare “naive scientism” to fundamentalist literalism. I’m not sure what you mean by that former term. But whatever you mean by it, it is a specious comparison. New Atheists are saying that fact claims about the natural world need to be justified with reliable lines of evidence. Fundamentalists say the assertions in their holy books are the inerrant word of God and cannot be challenged without risking your eternal soul. You really see comparability there?

    Next, even if New Atheists were systematically guilty of overgeneralization (a claim I do not concede), there would still be no comparison between what they say and fundamentalist views on salvation and true believers. There’s a big difference between making simplistic arguments based on a failure to appreciate nuances and fine distinctions (again, I do not believe that New Atheists are generally guilty of this) and saying that anyone who does not think like us will spend an eternity in Hell. Even accepting your version of things this is a very weak comparison.

    Your third point is also a gross mischaracterization of what New Atheists believe. I have no doubt you can find some irate commenters at PZ’s site, but someone accusing others of overgenarlization should not be basing his opinions on such scant evidence. Daniel Dennett wrote a whole book endorsing the idea of studying religion scientifically. Dawkins praises such research in his book, and Harris calls for the scientific study of Eastern mysticism in the much maligned final chapter of his book. What they (especially Dawkins) deride is the importance of academic theology. They are quite right to do so, since such theology has little to do with the way religion is actually practiced.

    But even if it were true that New Atheists deride the idea of studying religion scientifically, you would still have a very weak point of comparison. New Atheists routinely argue that an understanding of the world’s major religions is an important part of being educated. Fundamentalists, by contrast, do not argue that a deep understanding of science or of humanist thought is important to being educated. You may feel they have not attained such an understanding themselves, but the fact remains that they are not being anti-intellectual in their approach to religion. Anti-intellectualism is when you are suspicious of people who think too much or who analyze things too deeply. That is precisely what Christian fundamentalists do. New Atheists do not do that.

    As I recall you were one of those who got very annoyed with Richard Dawkins for using the expression “Neville Chamberlain atheists.” You forfeit your right to take the moral high ground on such things when you cavalierly throw around loaded terms like “fundamentalist.” Your last comment was itself a gross distortion and overgeneralization of New Atheist thought. Even taking your pairings at face value they amount to a very weak comparison between Christian fundamentalists and New Atheists.

  6. #6 Derek James
    March 13, 2008

    For one, your own views on this matter have little if any relationship to “logical consistency” or reflexive reasoning.

    How so?

  7. #7 Chris
    March 13, 2008

    Jason, on scientism. I mean a belief that science is the one route to Truth, with a capital T, and the belief that its standards are the only proper standards for assessing truth — any truth, not just “natural truth” (though positivists these days are almost always physicalists, so it is the only type of truth, by faith). I do, in fact, think this is similar to fundamentalist literalism, because it is, in a sense, a literalist interpretation of science — as the giver of absolute truth by its findings, and the only giver (if it’s not in there, it’s not true).

    On overgeneralization: the overgeneralization is gross, it glosses over endless nuance (nuance that Myers, for example, believes does not exist, or is irrelevant at least), and makes it impossible to be rational (a true believer, say) unless one is an atheist. This looks just like the “true believer” status of fundamentalists to me.

    And on the anti-intellectualism, there may be some “New Atheists” who believe that studying the world’s religions, the history of religion, the psychology of religion, etc., are important, but there are just as many who explicitly deny that these are important, and people like Myers, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens belie any claim to believe that it’s important to study these things in their writings, which show a deep lack of intellectual engagement with them. Creationists often claim to have studied biology, but their writings make it clear they haven’t. I see the behavior of “New Atheists” who claim that they have or that we should study religion, but then show no real effort to actually do so, while they continue to write on the topic, as a pretty close analog to the fundamentalist’s treatment of biology.

  8. #8 Chris Schoen
    March 13, 2008

    Richard summarized the position of the New Atheists thusly:

    (1) New atheists believe that their opponents are objectively in error.

    (2) They hold this belief with a high degree of confidence. (But not, I take it, dogmatically. Their confidence would be revised in face of contrary evidence, were such ever to appear.)

    (3) They are outspoken in voicing their belief, and hope to persuade others to see the error of their ways.

    Numbers 1 and 3 are true (though not necessarily respectable). Number 2 is not.

    There is no possible evidence that any atheist would have to unambiguously interpret as proof of a divinity. If an apparition with all the seeming properties of a god appeared to Richard Dawkins, there are at least a handful of “rational” interpretations that he would run through before undergoing a Pauline conversion: e.g., that he was hallucinating, that he had been kidnapped or placed on a holodeck, or that he was being visited by powerful beings from the future.

    How would he–or anyone–establish that the holodeck interpretation is more or less accurate than the theological interpretation? The only way to do so is to refer back to the observer’s existing metaphysical or ontological inclination. The possibility of true certainty is not available in this case.

    It’s important to note that many modern cosmopolitan “believers” would probably also presume they were going mad before they presumed they were actually being visited by their deity.

    It’s simply fallacious to state that one can be open to factual evidence regarding one’s metaphysical underpinnings. Dawkins, Harris, and especially Dennett, are learned men and should know better.

    What makes them “fundamentalist” is that they believe there is only one valid way to understand the world and one’s place in it. Assuming that everyone but oneself is mistaken, not about individual facts or theories but about unifying core beliefs, is the heart of fundamentalism.

  9. #9 Wisaakah
    March 13, 2008

    When you mention “truth” other than “natural truth”, what exactly are you referring to? I assume that you mean that there are truths which cannot be observed and quantified?

    If the answer to that is “yes”, that would also kind of answer my next question. What kind of facts can science not uncover? Science here referring to the process: observation, hypothesis, testing, revising hypothesis, and so on and so forth. How do we know anything without this process? Is it really fundamentalism to say: “I know things because I have evaluated the evidence for them” vs “I know things because of a gut feeling/they are written in a religious text”?

  10. #10 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 13, 2008

    Chris Schoen-

    There is no possible evidence that any atheist would have to unambiguously interpret as proof of a divinity. If an apparition with all the seeming properties of a god appeared to Richard Dawkins, there are at least a handful of “rational” interpretations that he would run through before undergoing a Pauline conversion: e.g., that he was hallucinating, that he had been kidnapped or placed on a holodeck, or that he was being visited by powerful beings from the future.

    Richard Dawkins has praised the writing of William Paley, has said that he thinks Paley’s argument was very strong at the time that he made it, and has claimed that it would have been very difficult to be an atheist at the time Paley was writing. Was Dawkins simply lying when he wrote that, or do you think maybe he is open to evidence on the question of God’s existence?

  11. #11 Clark
    March 13, 2008

    I have no idea what Dawkins believes could be reasonable evidence for God. My personal feeling is that questions like that are pretty poor since the typical state of affairs is that we don’t know what would persuade us. Sometimes we do know, such as in scientific experiments. Even then though it seems like evidence that is persuasive to some isn’t to others. (Look at the die hard hold outs on modern physics in the early 20th century) Often what makes something persuasive isn’t necessarily rational. (Which is not to say it is irrational)

    Having said that though I’m not sure the relevancy of Paley. Paley was writing in a time when science was fragmentary and rudimentary – especially with respect to biology. Given that Dawkins feels there is now evidence that makes delusions an especially big problem: evidence really not as strong at the time of Paley what could persuade Dawkins?

    Let’s say that 80% of scientists get visited by an angel and are convinced by this angel about God. Dawkins isn’t one of them. Would he be convinced?

  12. #12 Chris
    March 13, 2008

    Wisaakah, do you believe that there are moral truths? What about aesthetic truths? Are these discoverable through scientific methods?

  13. #13 John
    March 13, 2008

    Chris,

    Thanks for taking up this topic and this fight. As an long-time atheist horrified by the zeal of formerly religious friends who’ve fallen under the sway of the new atheists, especially Dawkins, I know exactly what you mean when you ascribe fundamentalist thinking to some of them. Fundamentalism, of course, is not limited to religion, but to anyone who believes they have access to Truth as opposed to truth.

    I can’t speak to those who have been commenting here and on the earlier post, but I’ve played devil’s advocate against a few of my Dawkinite friends and they don’t like–either refuse to understand or are unable to understand–the concept of necessary and contingent beings. Is the singularity from which the Big Bang emerged a necessary being? (Or as Chris Schoen put it in a comment to the earlier post “something from nothing” and “first causes.”) As we currently can’t scientifically observe anything outside our universe (and Quantum Mechanics suggests there’s a whole lot of reality outside of our universe), science currently can’t even come close to answering questions. As Chris Schoen wrote, questions like this drives a number of Dawkinite atheists nuts. Quite often, in my experience, they just refuse to acknowledge the issue as an issue. Generally speaking, those are atheists who are fundamentalist thinkers.

  14. #14 Chris Schoen
    March 13, 2008

    Jason,

    No I don’t think he was lying about that (though the man has had some problems with intellectual honesty in the last few years–e.g. he still maintains publicly the unsupportable falsehood that Mary Midgley reviewed TSG without reading it).

    The comparison to Paley makes my point nicely. Dawkins imagines (though he can’t know) that he might have been persuaded by Paley’s Watchmaker argument at the turn of the 19th century. But this reflects very little on what he does and might believe today. The 1802 Dawkins would have to be a different person than our model, with different parents, different colleagues, in a different intellectual landscape.

    Furthermore, Dawkins’ main objection to the watchmaker argument would have been just as valid then as now: who designed the designer? In other words, Paley’s work was effective for those already disposed to believe in God. For those who aren’t, he is easily dismissed. (Note also that a devout Hindu of 1802 wouldn’t have found the watchmaker analogy the least compelling, though he may have believed in a number of gods.)

    Again I have to ask, what would be the smoking gun for evidence of god? I think any answer would be alternately explicable by madness, time travellers, and the like. Perhaps you can think of an experiment which would rule out these other possibilities, though it’s hard to put a hypothetical through the scientific method.

    The openness you refer to is not without limit. It can only stretch so far as one is disposed to apply it.

  15. #15 Wisaakah
    March 13, 2008

    I suppose that depends on what you mean by a moral truth. Is there some kind of universal Moral Truth that comes from on high, that dictates what is wrong and right? I would say no – I see no evidence for any such moral force. Morality comes from people. I’m not saying that it’s all relativistic – there are good and bad approaches to developing a moral code, both on an individual and societal level, and this is evaluated by the outcome. What is best for the individual and society as a whole? What is the best balance between these two “goods”? These are very real things that have very real consequences – morality is complex, but it is in no way ineffable. It is thus available for observation, and I think that, all of that together, meets your definition of a natural truth. I would say the same applies for aesthetics, but I won’t belabor the point further.

    I think that you perhaps have a more narrow view of what the scientific method is than I do: it is organized and thoughtful observation, which can be objectively (in the best case scenario) analyzed. In that sense, it really does apply to everything that we can observe in any way.

  16. #16 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 13, 2008

    Clark-

    I also have no idea what Dawkins would consider to be persuasive evidence of God’s existence, but that was not the question at issue. Chris Schoen said flatly that no evidence would persuade Dawkins that God exists. I showed that to be false, unless you believe Dawkins was lying when he wrote those nice things about Paley.

    Chris-

    If practitioners of scientism are people who think moral truths are among the things that can be discovered via science, then Richard Dawkins, for one, does not hold that view. In an essay for Free Inquiry a while back he said this unambiguously.

    You gave a definition of scientism a few comments ago that described a view held, as far as I know, by precisely no one. Can you give a specific reference to either Dawkins, Dennett, Harris or Hitchens defending such a view?

    And while we’re at it, what do you mean by an aesthetic truth?

  17. #17 Chris
    March 13, 2008

    Jason, I know Harris is not even a positivist, given his flirtation with new-age nonsense. Hitchens, I’m not sure, because his writings on religion are barely readable.

    Dawkins, however, I’m all-too-familiar with. While it is true that he has stated that morality should not come from science, he hasn’t given any evidence a.) that he believes there are moral truths, b.) that he has any other way of getting at them if they exist. Dawkins I would characterize as a rationalist or positivist (perhaps verificationist). His followers are, by and large, scientistic, and you would only have to go back through the comments to my posts to see people arguing with me over whether there is anything else other than the sorts of truths that science can discover. I believe Wisaakah is coming pretty close to doing that right now.

    Wisaakah, the two things that I think science requires are quantification (or operationalization, which ultimately amounts to the same thing) and observation. Without those two things, or at least the possibility of them, what you have is not science. Ultimately, what lies outside of the realm of science is not only that which can’t be quantified and observed, but that which doesn’t fit a scientific model of causal relationships (or systematic relationships, as in some physics). There’s actually a fair amount of discussion of this sort of thing in 20th century philosophy. See, for example, this book, or for a historical look at the sort of scientism/positivism I’m talking about, check out this book.

    I actually think there are all sorts of truths, everyday truths and grand ones, that science has nothing to say about, but that’s just me.

  18. #18 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 13, 2008

    Chris Schoen-

    Sorry, I hadn’t noticed your comment when I posted my last one.

    There is no discussion here about a hypothetical Dawkins of 1802. I’m talking about Dawkins of today. By praising Paley he has shown that he is open to the idea of revising his assessment of the likelihood of God’s existence in the face of evidence from nature. Since you agree that Dawkins was not lying when he wrote this, I don’t see how you can persist in saying that Richard said something that was false when he wrote:

    (2) They hold this belief with a high degree of confidence. (But not, I take it, dogmatically. Their confidence would be revised in face of contrary evidence, were such ever to appear.)

    Notice, incidentally, that Richard was not talking about logical certainty, or Pauline conversions or anything silly like that. He was talking about a level of confidence based on the evidence at hand.

    You are simply mistaken when you say that Dawkins’ main objection to the watchmaker argument is to ask “Who designed the designer?” In reality his main response to the watchmaker argument is that Darwin and others brought to light certain facts about nature that were unknown to Paley, and which showed that the facts Plaey pointed to could be explained without recourse to a supernatural designer. Prior to Darwin, sure, any sensible person would wonder who designed the designer. But that would not change the fact that complex organisms were here, had to have come from somewhere, and were so far beyond what people thought natural forces could explain that supernatural design would have seemed (and in fact did seem) to most people to be the most reasonable explanation.

    The who designed the designer question serves an entirely different function in Dawkins’ argument, but I won’t go into that here.

  19. #19 Clark
    March 13, 2008

    Jason – I think you missed my point. Dawkins seems to be setting up the situation where what is rational is situationally dependent but does so in a fashion that given his situation one can’t conceive of a way he could be convinced. Therefore we end up with a position where the Paley analogy is irrelevant.

    Ultimately my point is to suggest that questions of persuasion are much more about psychology than reason. I suspect nothing would convince Dawkins as well. But given my limited knowledge of the man it’s hard for me to make that assertion with much confidence.

  20. #20 Clark
    March 13, 2008

    To clarify, given your last comment. It’s easy to speak in the abstract of being open to nature convincing one. However in a more practical way if ones stance is such that one doesn’t expect such evidence and has extensive tools to be able to deny such evidence it seems at best lip service.

    Basically everyone says they are open to evidence. The question is whether in reality they are. That’s why I bring up the issue of psychology. Even if we can, via Dawkins stances, show that it’s unlikely he’d accept evidence, it’s irrelevant. That’s because Dawkins, like all of us, isn’t perfectly rational. Persuasion is often not a matter of reasons.

  21. #21 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 13, 2008

    Clark-

    Basically everyone says they are open to evidence.

    No! Not everyone says that and that is precisely the point. Christian fundamentalists do not generally claim to be open to evidence when the subject is “the fundamentals” of the faith. They say that such things are beyond question and that if some piece of evidence seems to contradict one of these essential points then you have in some way misapprehended the evidence. Richard Dawkins and the others do not say this, and that is one of the reasons it is so absurd to describe them as fundamentalists.

    And you’re talking through your hat in your speculations about Richard Dawkins’ psychology. I have no doubt that Dawkins thinks it’s unlikely that we will find new evidence of God’s existence, and that if any such evidence does appear his first reaction will be to look for a natural explanation for it. That makes him a fundamentalist? That implies that as a practical matter he is not open to evidence on the question of God’s existence?

  22. #22 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 13, 2008

    Clark-

    Sorry, one more point. You wrote:

    But given my limited knowledge of the man it’s hard for me to make that assertion with much confidence.

    Chris Schoen was not as reticent as you. He said flatly that it was false to say that Dawkins would change his level of confidence in atheism based on new evidence.

  23. Jason,

    I posited an 1802 Dawkins for 2 reasons: (a)That’s the implication of his own statements on Paley: that he would have found him persuasive if he’d been his contemporary; and (b) if your position refers to modern-day Dawkins it makes no sense.

    Paley is one man, making one argument, 200 years in the past. How does Dawkins’ praise of him make him open to evidence for god? He unambiguously rejects Paley’s argument. Where are you locating this “openness”?

    The larger point is of course there can be no “evidence” for god. Evidence is not analyzed in isolation, but in terms of pre-exisiting organizing ideas. Religious people have different organizing worldviews than non-religious people (there’s substantial overlap, but the differences are enough to matter.) Looking for god within the existing atomist-materialist causal model of the universe that science is founded upon is like looking for a spot of darkness with a flashlight. It’s a search misguided by at least one order of magnitude.

    I’m sure you’re aware of Wittgenstein’s remark about “what the world would look like if it looked like the earth was circling the sun.” The same principle applies here. What would the world look like if it looked like there was a god?

  24. #24 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 13, 2008

    Chris Schoen-

    Oh for heavens sake! Suppose evolution as we know it came crashing down in the light of some shocking new discovery. Not just Darwinian evolution but any naturalistic theory of evolution any one has ever dreamed of. Are you seriously claiming that if that happened Dawkins’ confidence in his atheism would not be diminished?

    His praise for Paley shows that he is open to the idea of looking at nature and concluding based on what he sees there that it is likely that God exists. He does not dismiss Paley out of hand or call him a fool or say the whole idea of finding evidence for God is absurd on its face. He says Paley took the best facts that were available to him and came to the most reasonable conclusion he could. I call that being open to evidence. That subsequent discoveries showed that Paley was not in possession of all the relevant facts does not reflect badly on Dawkins’ open-mindedness.

    The fact is you can’t point to anything in Dawkins’ writing or public statements to justify your assertion that he is unwilling to revise his level of confidence in atheism in the light of new evidence. In fact, his writing provides considerable evidence that he sees atheism not as some position that simply must be true but rather as the most reasonable conclusion to draw from the facts of nature as we currently understand them. You and Clark have been reduced to arguing based on a lot of silly psychologizing about how you think Dawkins would react to some hypothesized future event or discovery. This is pretty thin gruel for pinning a label of fundamentalist on him.

  25. #25 Chris Schoen
    March 13, 2008

    Jason,

    Let’s back up a minute. I never linked atheism to Darwinism, or asserted that theists must take issue with evolution (some do, some don’t.)

    I agree with you that Dawkins sees atheism as “the most reasonable conclusion to draw from the facts of nature as we currently understand them.” My question is, what is the nature of any potential evidence that might change his mind? Challenges to neo-Darwinism don’t really apply; there are a growing number of plausible amendments and appendices to natural selection and gene-centric theory that have no recourse to anything divine, as I’m sure you are aware. If Dawkins were somehow forced to backtrack on his biological precepts (hard to imagine) there are any number of non-theistic avenues for him to embrace. So this whole evolutionary line of argument is a nonsequitur.

    What continues to make no sense is the idea that praising Paley for what is praiseworthy in his writing is somehow tantamount to being “open” to his argument on a theological level. Dawkins doesn’t call Paley a fool, because Paley wrote before Darwin published his theory of natural selection. If there was a hypothetical Paley writing at any time after 1859, it is very reasonable to presume Dawkins *would* call him a fool, as he essentially has for more recent arguments from design. Dawkins is very unambiguous about this point, writing, in TSG, that any non-Darwinian ontological propositions after 1859 are meaningless. So, again, on what statements do you rest this idea of “openness”?

    You have not engaged my argument about the nature of how we interpret data. I don’t mean to psychologize; the examples I gave are hypothetical and Richard Dawkins is free to respond to an apparent divine encounter however he chooses. In fact that’s exactly the point. I don’t want to overwrite the Dawkinsian experience with one that I prefer he might have. Why does he want to demean and ridicule an entire class of experiences, many of which are not in conflict with the naturalist view, by insisting that they are delusional? What does he know that religious adherents don’t know about their own experience and the way they contextualize their place in the world? I mean know, not suspect, not probabilistically predict, but really know, to the degree of certainty with which one might be justified in essentially calling the greater portion of the world’s population a bunch of rubes and suckers?

  26. #26 Clark
    March 14, 2008

    And you’re talking through your hat in your speculations about Richard Dawkins’ psychology.

    Umm. My point was I don’t have a clue about Dawkins’ psychology and thus can’t say anything with any confidence whatsoever. That was the whole point of my comment.

    Not everyone says that and that is precisely the point. Christian fundamentalists do not generally claim to be open to evidence when the subject is “the fundamentals” of the faith.

    My point is that these are merely words: whether uttered by the fundamentalist denying they accept evidence or the atheist who says they do. Whether they do or not is really a completely separate issue of whether they would or not. That’s my whole point.

    By taking the fundamentalist and Dawkins at face value you’re demonstrating the exact problem I see.

    That makes him a fundamentalist?

    Umm. I think you’re confusing me with someone else. I never called him a fundamentalist. I never use the term as I think it’s one of those terms that ends up being so vague, muddled and pejorative that it’s useless. (Sort of like postmodernist) I only use the term occasionally in a very loose sense when talking about certain communities.

    While I understand the point Chris is making I tend to think zealotry rather than fundamentalism is a much better term. I’d probably say a combination of zealous zeal and identity politics.

  27. #27 Clark
    March 14, 2008

    Whoops. Typo in that last comment. In case someone didn’t figure it out.

    “Whether they do or not is really a completely separate issue of whether they would or not.”

    That should read, “whether they they actually do or not is really a completely separate issue from whether they say they would or not.”

    Perils of writing fast.

  28. #28 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 14, 2008

    Chris Schoen-

    Let me remind you of how we got to where we are. Richard wrote this:

    (2) They hold this belief with a high degree of confidence. (But not, I take it, dogmatically. Their confidence would be revised in face of contrary evidence, were such ever to appear.)

    You replied with this:

    Numbers 1 and 3 are true (though not necessarily respectable). Number 2 is not.

    You followed this up by referring to Dawkins specifically. That sure looks like a clear statement on your part that Dawkins is dogmatic in his atheism, and would not revise his confidence in atheism regardless of what evidence came to light.

    I replied to this by pointing out that Dawkins has strongly implied, in his writing, what sort of evidence would shake his confidence in atheism. He did that by praising Paley’s argument as entirely reasonable and based on the best science of his day. Our modern situation differs relevantly from Paley’s only in that we have a viable naturalistic theory of evolution and he did not. The crystal clear implication is that if all modern naturalistic theories of evolution came crashing down as the result of some shocking new discovery, then Dawkins would revise his confidence in atheism. (Incidentally, notice that in my last comment I did not just refer to Neo-Darwinism, but to all naturalistic theories of evolution).

    It is not difficult to imagine discoveries that would have that effect. Suppose over the next year scientists discovered dozens of new species and found that their genetic codes were entirely different from one another, and entirely different from the codes found in any other known organisms. People have proposed a great many naturalistic accounts of evolution, but I am not aware of any that could explain such a finding.

    You agreed that Dawkins was not lying when he wrote praisingly of Paley. This writing strongly implied a concrete example of the sort of evidence that cause him to revise his confidence. How then can you persist in your claim that Dawkins holds his views dogmatically, and would not revise them no matter what happened?

    That is the issue here. Your other points about what would constitute evidence for God or how religious people contextualize their experiences or why Dawkins feels he can write with such confidence against the views of so many people are fascinating topics for another day. They have nothing to do with whether Richard Dawkins is dogmatic in his atheism or whether there is any conceivable evidence that would cause him to revise his views.

    In other words, for the moment I am not interested in a philosophical discussion on the nature of religious experience or the possibility of evidence for or against God. I am interested in having you defend a specific and demeaning statement you made about Richard Dawkins, one that is directly contradicted by Dawkins own writing.

  29. #29 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 14, 2008

    Clark-

    I am pleased to hear that you do not think Richard Dawkins should be described as a fundamentalist. I had simply assumed that you were supporting Chris’ position on that question, so I apologize for misunderstanding your intention.

    But I still disagree with your last comment:

    My point is that these are merely words: whether uttered by the fundamentalist denying they accept evidence or the atheist who says they do. Whether they do or not is really a completely separate issue of whether they would or not. That’s my whole point.

    See my earlier comment re silly psychologizing. Yes, I tend to take people at their word when they tell me why they believe what they believe, and what sorts of things if any would change their minds. What else can I do? What other basis can there be for a discussion of these issues?

    But let’s suppose you are right that Richard Dawkins on the one hand and fundamentalist Christians on the other are fooling themselves about their treatment of evidence. We would nonetheless be learning something significant about what they value from the claims they make in this regard. Dawkins thinks open-mindedness and a consideration of evidence are very important in forming opinions, especially about the natural world. Perhaps he is not as open-minded as he thinks he is but that is not relevant. Fundamentalists believe an unswerving faith in certain fundamental principles, drawn from their reading of the Bible, is critically important. That is a clear difference between Dawkins (and New Atheists generally) and Christian fundamentalists.

    As for the word `fundamentalist,’ I certainly agree it gets thrown around entirely too casually. See Chris’ rather insipid use of the term, for example. But in the context of Christianity it has a precise meaning, and it has reasonably been applied to certain unsavory modes of thinking and behaving that are common among people of such unserving faith. Zealotry is not really an adequate substitute term. You can be zealous in the pursuit of some goal without being dogmatic or intolerant or anti-intellectual, three traits typically encompassed by the term fundamentalist.

    Zealotry is not necessarily a bad thing while fundamentalism is.

  30. #30 Chris Schoen
    March 14, 2008

    Jason,

    I have no wish to paper over my opinion of Richard Dawkins as dogmatic. It’s no great sin in the scheme of things, and he is in the good company of most of humanity.

    It is going to be difficult for me to answer your request that I defend this opinion to your satisfaction, because I still don’t understand the point you are trying to make vis a vis Paley. Walking through it:

    1. Richard writes that the New Atheists in general are open to scientific evidence, were there any, affecting the confidence of their atheist stance.

    2. I reply that it is hard to suggest what that evidence might be, using Dawkins as a rhetorical example (which seems fair enough because he has claimed on several occasions that he is open to dissenting evidence on the matter). I don’t claim to know how he would actually respond to, say, a burning bush; the point is to answer the logic of what sort of evidence might really make a difference, ceteris paribus. It is by necessity a philosophical point, since it involves separating truth claims from the metaphysical scaffolding which supports those claims.

    3. You reply that Dawkins praised the rhetorical argument of William Paley, made 200 years ago, though you note that Dawkins doesn’t actually accept the argument, he just praises it. It is obvious then that Dawkins is considering Paley in the context of his time, and that as such he hardly constitutes a challenge to all of the thinking and observing that has happened between Paley’s time and our own. How could he?

    4. I reply that Dawkins’ putative “openness” to Paley is a non-sequitur, chiefly because a rhetorical argument is not evidence, but rather an appeal to consider existing data in a specific way. There are no observational facts in Paley’s argument that would be at odds with post-Darwinian science, and the argument is not hard to refute, given the right cast of mind, even without taking Darwin into account.

    That brings us up to the present I think.

    You have now suggested that if all naturalist theories of evolution were toppled–for example by the discovery of species with different nucleotide bases or differently constructed genetic codes altogether–that Dawkins would be forced to revise his confidence in atheism. This does not follow, for the reason that it presumes that there is some kind of inviolable logical link between our present biological science and atheism. There’s a lot of common ground, to be sure, but neither requires the other to be plausible. There were atheist doctrines long before Darwin, and likewise there are millions of people who find no logical contradiction between theism and evolution.

    By the same token, there’s no reason to conclude, upon the discovery of strange new life forms: “therefore God.” If you would be tempted to draw such a conclusion, I’d be tempted to tell you that you give up too easily!

    The point, again, is that it is easy to say that the right evidence would change your mind about something as profound as atheism vs. theism. In reality the way we form our understanding of the world is more complicated. That understanding is composed not just of facts, but also of deeper premises about the nature of things. You don’t want to engage that, which is your prerogative, but it’s my answer to your request that I defend my remarks about Richard Dawkins, whom I’ve read widely, and which I consequently do not take lightly.

  31. #31 decrepitoldfool
    March 14, 2008

    How would he–or anyone–establish that the holodeck interpretation is more or less accurate than the theological interpretation?

    Please throw us a hard one: a holodeck is just advanced technology. You don’t have to screw with natural reality to postulate one.

    I studied fundamentalism in church history class in college. It was a specific movement in Christianity that was started to respond to “modernism” and the “social gospel”, which in that context meant the textual reinterpretation of Christianity for modern times. (“Modern times” being about 1880 to 1920) Fundamentalists sought to re-establish certain “fundamentals” and to close off debate about them. The slogan was “God says it, I believe it, that settles it.” God, of course, spoke perfect King James English.

    So I thought I knew what a fundamentalist was, but it was just an historical abstraction. All the Christians I personally knew were sweet, tolerant, reasonable people who believed in evolution and wanted socialized medicine and an end to war.

    Then came two eye-opening encounters; Pharyngula followed by some real Christian fundamentalists.

    I was taken aback by the Myers camp’s stridency and it didn’t make sense to me. I left a few comments to the effect that they were shooting themselves in the foot, and was promptly called a hypocrite and told to bugger off.

    Wow… those guys are jerks, I thought. Then I began to encounter some of the extraordinarily stupid, Ray Comfort variety of fundamentalist, and began to see the Myers approach in a new light. Sheesh, I thought, if I had to put up with that corrosive sludge all day, I’d have a short temper too.

    On a superficial level the fundamentalists and the Pharyngulites sort of sound alike, and that may be why the label is so often applied to the latter. But unless the fundamentalists are hiding a vast body of solid empirical evidence somewhere (perhaps waiting for the right time to release it) then it isn’t the same thing at all.

  32. #32 Dan S.
    March 14, 2008

    I’ve decided there is a God, and this thread is Hell.

  33. #33 Dan S.
    March 14, 2008

    In fact, if you go back and read comments on this site or PZ’s, you’ll find many of them claiming that the scientific study of religion is pointless

    This has gone back and forth a bit, so – unless you’re implicitly retracting it with the claim that well, it’s obvious that many New Atheists haven’t bothered to scientifically study it, so there! – perhaps you could:

    a) cite – ideally, quote or link – one such comment,
    b) do so with three such comments,
    c) identify some such remark by any New Atheist with an intentional, rather than incidental, audience.

    ——

    I actually think there are all sorts of truths, everyday truths and grand ones, that science has nothing to say about, but that’s just me.

    OK. Can you expand on this? And why does science have nothing to say about it then? And how would you define or describe moral and aesthetic truths?

    I dimly think there’s a bit of an odd issue here: we can say, ok, science can potentially explain how and why we have a moral or aesthetic ‘sense’, and how and why we judge specific things moral/immoral or pretty/ugly – but it can’t ever say that something is moral or beautiful. But since I believe that such things don’t make sense outside the moral and aesthetic senses potentially explainable, it gets a bit loopy.

  34. #34 jo5ef
    March 15, 2008

    I think a useful way to regard science is as a group of interconnected models, developed through reason and experimentation, that represent our current best approximation of, and can be used to predict and explain, natural phenomena in the universe we inhabit. Predicting and explaining natural phenomena has enabled mankind to control the natural world to a degree which has led to great success for the species so far. Science can thus inform our understanding of the world enormously, and what we understand about the world around us influences how we live our lives.

    As far as I know there are virtually no generally accepted scientific models that have helped us develop improved moral codes, whereas religions based on belief in supernatural beings that have influence in the everyday world are models that an individual can use to understand how to live ones life in the moral dimension. However just because science cannot generally help us to make moral decisions, that doesn’t mean that an appreciation of modern scientific understanding of the world cannot inform the creation of non religious moral codes, or that secular moral codes are necessarily worse (or better) than those informed by religion.
    I concede that, as an individual whose understanding of the universe is based on science and whose moral code is based on simple principles developed without recourse to religious doctrine, I do find it difficult to imagine any evidence obtainable in the course of my life that would convince me of the existence of the supernatural beings described in any of the religious traditions.

    There is of course one final test which will prove the issue one way or another to everyone’s satisfaction eventually ie death. If I die and find myself before one or another of the gods of judgment I will freely concede to being mistaken and may face grave consequences as a result of my atheistic world view (The annoying thing of course is, if I’m right I’ll never know!).
    As it’s a chance I’m betting my immortal soul on, why not simply take Pascals wager? One reason only, which is ironically based on the very morality I’ve developed without recourse to belief in the supernatural: intellectual honesty. If I stated to all I believed, in order to hedge my bets and stand side by side with the smug believers, I’d be lying to them and myself.

    Does this mean I am as much a fundamentalist as one of the muslim or xtian variety?
    I don’t think so, given that my world view is arrived at in accordance with modern scientific understanding, and is therefore constantly updated as new evidence comes to light, but I have to admit that I may have something in common with those that genuinely believe.
    I reckon the evidence is on my side though.

  35. #35 Eric Thomson
    March 15, 2008

    Chris’s claim that the “New” Atheists aren’t open to data, to revising their atheism, is silly. We atheists could come up with a long list of evidence that would make us seriously revise our take on things. I don’t know any atheist who wouldn’t crawl away to think for a week if there were miracles on a massive scale, people coming back from the dead all over the world, all independently giving similar stories about an afterlife, some good some bad. If that happened, there would be few naturalists left, and those that were left…well, now they would be the fundamentalists.

    As a side comment, while I generally agree with jo5ef’s last comment, I think he underestimates the power of psychology in helping us develop techniques for living a better life. E.g., there are lots of studies on the psychology of self-control, on what techniques tend to work for people (for instance, if you want to not eat that piece of pie, imagine yourself eating something that you like even more than pie: for some reason, this just works). So given a goal (e.g., to not eat the pie), science can help.

    The problem is that science can’t tell us what goals to have (at least the more general goals, of course given the goal of building a plane, subordinate goals can be generated with the help of science–e.g., the goal of building an engine with such-and-such weight and power).

    Luckily many major moral disagreements come about due to disagreement on matters of fact. E.g., is a two-hour fertilized egg a person? Others are just not (e.g., should the US try to impose democracy, feminism (i.e., the idea that women are equal to men and should have the same rights), on other countries)? That’s where things get tricky.

  36. #36 windy
    March 15, 2008

    It’s simply fallacious to state that one can be open to factual evidence regarding one’s metaphysical underpinnings.

    Then how do you explain people like Glenn Morton and others who have abandoned creationism because of factual evidence? Or do you not consider YEC a metaphysical stance?

    (Morton, of course, was not initially open to evidence, but it seems a mistake to assume that everyone’s metaphysical views are as closed to evidence as his were)

  37. #37 MH
    March 15, 2008

    Chris, you said “…do you believe that there are moral truths? What about aesthetic truths? Are these discoverable through scientific methods?”

    Can you give us some examples of moral and aesthetic truths?

    Thanks.

  38. #38 windy
    March 15, 2008

    Dawkins, however, I’m all-too-familiar with. While it is true that he has stated that morality should not come from science, he hasn’t given any evidence a.) that he believes there are moral truths, b.) that he has any other way of getting at them if they exist.

    So someone that doesn’t believe in moral truths is a fundamentalist? :)

    See, for example, this book, or for a historical look at the sort of scientism/positivism I’m talking about, check out this book.

    Both links point to the same book.

  39. #39 Dan S.
    March 15, 2008

    I should add, I’m not necessarily opposed to the ideas of independent ‘non-scientific’ truths (frankly, most of this is rather above my head), but I think this whole debate suffers from – among other things – a serious case of failing to define terms up to and including religion.

    I do agree that many NAs show what seems to be a rather stunted and tone deaf way of looking at religious practices – in part, no doubt, because they’re making an argument against religion – although one also has to add that many theists share a somewhat similarly cramped view, not just about every other religion, but also their own. And I’ve noted before that one tends to find a very different view among (although certainly not exclusively, of course) those ‘academic atheists’ with a background in the social sciences: it’s no coincidence that Atran, Boyer, and King are all anthropologists, nor that while Dawkins and Dennett &tc. certainly do engage with their work, that the two groups tend to line up on different sides of some of this silliness. (at least Atran and King, dunno about Boyer). Probably cognitive persons also tend to clump here.

  40. #40 Dan S.
    March 15, 2008

    I think razib gives a good gloss and extension of Chris’ argument and his own ideas (re: the ‘respect’ post) here.

  41. #41 J. J. Ramsey
    March 15, 2008

    “do you believe that there are moral truths?”

    Depends on what you mean. I certainly don’t think that morals exist as abstractions out in the either, but rather are ways of allowing us to work together as social animals.

    “What about aesthetic truths?”

    As other commenters have pointed out, it is hard to understand what you even mean by that.

  42. #42 Chris Schoen
    March 15, 2008

    Example of an aesthetic truth: “My six-year-old could have painted that.”

  43. #43 Chris Schoen
    March 15, 2008

    Please throw us a hard one: a holodeck is just advanced technology. You don’t have to screw with natural reality to postulate one.

    Decrepit, I think you are misconstruing me here. If you read my original comment, in response to Richard, I was using a holodeck as an example of a “rational” explanation for deeply weird phenomena, so that one need not resort to supernatural ones. The point being, what sort of evidence could we suggest that might undermine one’s confidence in atheism? Most seemingly supernatural data could be easily attributed to more natural causes–”an undigested bit of beef.”

    Having said all that, I have serious doubts that a convincingly realistic holodeck could be developed, for reasons that are too involved to go into here.

  44. #44 decrepitoldfool
    March 15, 2008

    OK I see what you’re getting at – the clarification of ‘undigested beef’ helps.

    My own bias toward naturalism (that eventually led me to atheism) is admittedly anecdotal. That is, not once have I ever seen a violation of natural law. The few weird things I’ve seen did turn out to have naturalistic explanations and were, in principle, reproducible. So my own threshold for evidence of the supernatural is extremely high.

    I also find it curious that the bible is stuffed full of supernatural events, suggesting that the frequency of such events dropped off drastically around the time of the enlightenment.

    In that frame I’d have to say there are no sensory experiences that would lead me to believe in the supernatural, because convincing perceptual delusions are, in principle, reproducible and many people have them. Religion had its chance to convince me, and didn’t.

    I am, however, open to suggestions as to what sort of evidence would outweigh every single thing I have ever seen and known.

  45. #45 Chris Schoen
    March 15, 2008

    Windy wrote:

    Then how do you explain people like Glenn Morton and others who have abandoned creationism because of factual evidence? Or do you not consider YEC a metaphysical stance?

    (Morton, of course, was not initially open to evidence, but it seems a mistake to assume that everyone’s metaphysical views are as closed to evidence as his were)

    Windy, I didn’t mean people can’t change their minds. Obviously they can and do. I’m trying to establish that the complexity of mind-changing is more than suggested by the hypothesis-evidence model, which was never intended to apply to frames of mind.

    Cognitively, one’s world-view precedes the hypothesis-making process, which is then (ideally) evaluated according to evidence. In other words, hypotheses are re-arrangements of existing concepts, both conscious and unconscious. Evidence can validate or invalidate those rearrangements, but not the underlying concepts (for one thing, if those concepts were evaluable by evidence, we would run into a regress).

    The question that arises is, why do people change their minds about things based on something other than evidence? Why do people cross the atheism-theism divide, and back again? It’s a good question, and I don’t have a well developed answer, but it’s probably instructive to look at the way we change our minds about what music and books we like, who our friends are, what our ideals and politics are, and the like. Observation and factual data play a role, to be sure, but we don’t embark on new tastes, preferences, and opinions based on the hypothesis that they have evidentiary support.

    The case of Morton is interesting. He has developed the term “Morton’s Demon” (a play on Maxwell’s Demon) to describe the mentality that enabled him to maintain his YEC worldview for so long. In a crude way, he is describing metaphysics, except that this mechanism is not actually a demon one can exorcise; rather it’s a necessary function of symbolic understanding. Data must be filtered and interpreted to be useful. It should be obvious that that same data cannot inform the filtering and interpreting processes, which precede its integration into our thinking!

  46. #46 Eric Thomson
    March 15, 2008

    decrepitoldfool: Above I gave an example of what would give any but the most stupid atheist pause. If gross undeniable miracles happened regularly any reasonable person would become a non-naturalist. The problem for the theism is that such things don’t happen. Ever.

    Careful. Some people come off as saying no evidence can convince them their atheism is wrong. If that’s the case, then you might as well be a Creationist and we are as different as you think you are from the Creationist.

    As mentioned above, multiple people came back from the dead, independently giving similar messages about an afterlife, it was reported by all the major news outlets, I met dead relatives, etc etc and I had every reason to think I wasn’t dreaming or deluded, I would be stupid to not seriously reconsider naturalism. You could say “I might be dreaming or delusional”: fine, you could say that now, but you have reason to think it isn’t true. There are ways you could check that. That’s a philosophers’ quibble, not a good point.

    I am a naturalist because the evidence suggests that’s what I should be. If the evidence changed, I would happily concede I was wrong.

  47. #47 Eric Thomson
    March 15, 2008

    Third para of previous should say if multiple people came back from the dead etc…

  48. #48 decrepitoldfool
    March 15, 2008

    Careful. Some people come off as saying no evidence can convince them their atheism is wrong.

    I’m probably one of them, when what I really mean is not that there’s no conceivable evidence that would change my mind, but that I have difficulty conceiving what it might be. The consistency of the natural world has been absolute so far, so if I suddenly started seeing multiple instances of dead people coming back, it would be simpler for me to think that I’d lost my mind than to think that absolutely everything had changed. That one man’s brain suddenly went haywire violates none of the consistency I’ve observed in the past.

    It does come down to what one might accept as evidence; theists I know accept everything around them and everything they’ve ever experienced as evidence of not only god, but their God. The difference as I understand it is that my standards of evidence are transferable: I can in principle describe experiments to reproduce it. I don’t know how to transfer feelings, gut instincts, and interpretations.

  49. #49 RBH
    March 15, 2008

    Dan S wrote

    I should add, I’m not necessarily opposed to the ideas of independent ‘non-scientific’ truths (frankly, most of this is rather above my head), but I think this whole debate suffers from – among other things – a serious case of failing to define terms up to and including religion.

    “Truth” is getting a workout here, too, with at least three different senses going.

    Chris wrote

    Cognitively, one’s world-view precedes the hypothesis-making process, which is then (ideally) evaluated according to evidence. In other words, hypotheses are re-arrangements of existing concepts, both conscious and unconscious. Evidence can validate or invalidate those rearrangements, but not the underlying concepts (for one thing, if those concepts were evaluable by evidence, we would run into a regress).

    I suspect (but have not thought it all the way through) that Chris just established that “truth” is idiosyncratic to individuals, with no universals or shared basis for agreement among those individuals; that evidence is irrelevant to evaluating basic assumptions (what Chris calls “underlying concepts”); and that no learning associated with those “underlying concepts” is possible. In other words, I think the last sentence in that quotation is pure pomo bullshit.

  50. #50 Chris
    March 15, 2008

    Windy, oops, sorry, the second link should be to Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World.

    Dan, check the comments to my last post on religious cognition, which is here, and you’ll find just such comments. And if you go back to any of my posts on the topic in the last year or so, you’ll find more.

    Moral truth: harming innocent human beings is wrong. I know “innocent” and even “harm” and “human being” are contentious concepts, but you get the point.

    By aesthetic truth, I mean a truth disclosed through art. If you want an example, read a poem or look at a sculpture. We can debate over whether aesthetic truths are specifically aesthetic, but if a poem can disclose a truth, then science is not the only truth-giver.

    But, for those of you who doubt that we’re dealing with people who are, deep down, scientistic, just read the comments questioning what possible sort of truth can’t be discovered by science. Those are the people I’m talking about.

  51. #51 Eric Thomson
    March 15, 2008

    decrepit: there are two issues. Let’s say you the scenario I describe did in fact happen. Would that make you doubt your atheism? If not, then you are no more intellectually respectable than a fundamentalist who clings to his little seven day creation despite all the evidence to the contrary.

    Now, the previous paragraph is different from the question of whether, if it actually happened, you would trust yourself to believe the data. Of course most atheists at first would think they were dreaming, that they were hallucinating or something. Over time, multiple days, as you checked the internet and realized everything else was working just fine, and especially as many independent people corroborated your perceptions, psychiatrists, other skeptics, people you respect saying “Yep, I see that ugly thing walking toward us” you would basically have no choice but to believe it. And when it tries to kill your dog and eat it, well, I sure hope you stop it.

    If the only way to maintain a view is to repudiate one’s perceptual and intellectual faculties, essentially voluntarily crawling into a solipsistic bubble, then something is seriously wrong.

    I take it that decrepitman is an exception.

  52. #52 Eric Thomson
    March 15, 2008

    Chris: Since there are aesthetic truths, are there aesthetic falsehoods? What are the truth conditions for an aesthetic truth?

    And more generally, what type of thing can have the property of being an aesthetic falsehood or truth? I ask because ‘True/false’ are properties of the contents of sentences (or for those into folk psychology, propositions).

  53. #53 Clark
    March 15, 2008

    Yes, I tend to take people at their word when they tell me why they believe what they believe, and what sorts of things if any would change their minds. What else can I do?

    I think that especially in these matters one ought adopt a healthy skepticism. For a wide variety of reasons I don’t think we know our own psychology that well. To take folks at their word when they state what in the future would persuade them in extreme matters is always a matter of psychologizing. To take them at their word is to engage in the very psychologizing you were condemning me for purportedly engaging in.

    My point is that this whole line of inquiry is unknowable without considerable investigation. Investigation that none of us have done.

    Rather than the default value being a literalism of people’s spoken work (which is characteristic of fundamentalism) I simply suggest we acknowledge the limits of our knowledge.

    It’s not as if there isn’t considerably more we can say about other aspects of the issue.

  54. #54 Clark
    March 15, 2008

    Chris: By aesthetic truth, I mean a truth disclosed through art.

    How is this different from truths disclosed through language or any other sign-system? What make ‘art’ aesthetic whereas language presumably entails propositional truths?

    I know you know your Heidegger so I suspect you see where I’m going.

    RBH: Chris just established that “truth” is idiosyncratic to individuals, with no universals or shared basis for agreement among those individuals; that evidence is irrelevant to evaluating basic assumptions (what Chris calls “underlying concepts”); and that no learning associated with those “underlying concepts” is possible.

    I’ll let Chris explain himself, but I’d be very, very surprised if that’s what he meant. (I’d also be cautious even calling that position ‘pomo bull****’ since one can strongly argue that a strong subgroup within postmodernism is extremely anti-relativism and strongly about universals in a fashion perhaps even stronger than you accept.)

    decrepedfool: It does come down to what one might accept as evidence; theists I know accept everything around them and everything they’ve ever experienced as evidence of not only god, but their God. The difference as I understand it is that my standards of evidence are transferable: I can in principle describe experiments to reproduce it. I don’t know how to transfer feelings, gut instincts, and interpretations.

    I think this an important point. Evidence doesn’t interpret itself. Clearly there are better interpretations of what evidence signifies and worse interpretations. The question is how to determine the significance of any evidence.

    There’s no doubt that a lot religious people call evidence isn’t.

    At the same time though to assert that evidence must be transferable to be evidence seems difficult to accept as well. How do I know I love my wife? The main evidences of this I can talk about but I don’t see how I can possibly transfer them. Does this mean I don’t really know I love my wife?

  55. #55 Clark
    March 15, 2008

    Jason: You can be zealous in the pursuit of some goal without being dogmatic or intolerant or anti-intellectual, three traits typically encompassed by the term fundamentalist.

    It seems to me that the technical sense of fundamentalist as used in social science is not the sense being used in this discussion (nor discussions like it). Rather it is an allegorical expansion of it, typically limited to religious people. When the metaphor is expanded more folks get upset. I suggest we just abandon the metaphor. If you want to talk social science that’s fine but then let’s limit ourselves to that framework.

    As to the meaning of zealot, I’d suggest the term always has the connotations you see it not having. That’s why I picked the term. A zealot is always strident, intolerant of opposing views, and so forth. I’d also be cautious about the term anti-intellectual since zealots can be very intellectual (look at the whole history of scholastic philosophy) but are unwilling to entertain certain classes of evidence or ways of thinking. That’s characteristic of zealots but I’m not sure is necessarily anti-intellectual. Although it can be.

    Consider for instance zealots on both sides of the string debate. Are they anti-intellectual? I don’t think so.

  56. #56 Chris
    March 15, 2008

    Eric, certainly, you can lie with art.

    Clark, yeah, that’s part of why I added the qualification that the existence of specifically aesthetic truth is debatable. I think you could argue, in the way that someone like Schopenhauer argues, that there are truths art can point to that you can’t point to with ordinary signs like those used in language. But I’m somewhat ambivalent. I’m not sure you can say anything with art that you can’t say with language. But propositionally? I’m not sure. One can at least imagine truths that don’t easily admit descriptions that involve the sorts of predication you need for propositions. And it may be that art is particularly good, if not exclusively capable, of getting at that sort of thing. I’m thinking of cases in which, perhaps, metaphor or music or painting or whatever place us in the vicinity of a truth that, propositionally, we simply can’t get to. Examples are tough, but since we’re referencing Heidegger, I have in mind, at least in part, something like his discussion of No theater, and the role of subtle gestures in No plays.

    Also, just so there’s no confusion, I think RBH’s comment was directed at the other Chris, though I have been accused of being a relativist already in this discussion, so who knows?

  57. #57 decrepitoldfool
    March 15, 2008

    Well Eric that’s a pretty hypothetical case and as far as I know it involves changes in the physical reality that appears to have governed my world for the duration of every experience I have ever had.

    If people hypothetically started coming back from the dead and other people appeared to be reporting that they saw it too, and nobody was telling me I was crazy for seeing it, (an important point, because it’s unlikely that everyone goes crazy at once though it has happened in small communities) then yes, I’d doubt naturalism or at least decide that there was a huge area of the natural world that had changed or needed to be explored. I might, after doubting, still conclude I’d just lost my mind given the consistency of experience I’ve had so far.

    I base this on my experience of a couple people with Alzheimer’s whom I knew. They had lucid moments and bad days, and both told me frankly; “I’m losing my mind”. One of them was terrified by it.

    If resurrection happened all the time, then it would be a research specialty. Scientific papers would be written about it. If lots of miracles happened all the time and were associated with religious expression – figure every third New Scientist cover would be about that instead of about string theory or some other weirdness – then it would have been that way my whole life and the experience I’d rely on to frame reality would make for another reality that kept breaking through into this one.

    As for me being an exception, my wife has told me so on many occasions but it may not have been a compliment.

  58. #58 Chris Schoen
    March 15, 2008

    RBH,

    I missed your comment, thinking you were replying to M.M. Chris.

    I don’t think I established any of the things you attribute to me. It seems clear to me we wouldn’t have any concepts at all if we had no language to express them in, and since language needs to be transmitted, I think there’s a whole hunka hunka “shared basis for agreement.”

    The question is not whether people are reachable, it’s whether we can reach each other at the correct level of understanding. As Clark just wrote above, evidence doesn’t interpret itself. This presents a problem for the notion that all ideas or beliefs are subject to revision upon new evidence: when the process of interpreting data precedes conscious conceptual awareness of that data as evidence (as it logically must), then by definition there is a type of knowledge or belief that is not visible to evidence.

    This doesn’t mean it is immutable, it just means we may not be able to directly access it, in the same way a flashlight cannot locate a patch of darkness. Obviously people change their minds all the time, though the reasons are not always clear. Close study of language and culture can provide insight into what we believe and why, if we’re willing to look. If that’s pomo bullshit, so be it. It seems a lot more plausible to me than the idea we can purify our senses to such a degree that we are able to gather knowledge unconditioned by our histories as indviduals, families, nations, civilizations, and species.

  59. #59 J. J. Ramsey
    March 15, 2008

    Moral truth: harming innocent human beings is wrong. I know “innocent” and even “harm” and “human being” are contentious concepts, but you get the point.

    Careful here. As uncomfortable as it may be, it isn’t that clear that “truth” is a concept that is easily applicable to “ought” statements. If you are saying that science cannot decide our values for us, that’s fine, but moral values and moral truths are not necessarily the same thing.

    By aesthetic truth, I mean a truth disclosed through art.

    But how do we determine whether a claim made by art is true? We still need reason and evidence to decide if it is or whether it is merely a nice-sounding platitude. Depending on how expansively one defines science, that is arguably a case of using science to determine truth.

    As far as I can tell, Dawkins and the “New Atheists” are saying that we cannot determine what is true without reason and evidence. This much I wouldn’t call scientistic. They may be overconfident in how well we can wield science and reason, and that may be scientistic, but that is far from their biggest problem in how they deal with religion. The main fault of the “New Atheists” that I see is not with their cheerleading of reason and evidence, but their failure to practice what they preach.

  60. #60 Chris
    March 15, 2008

    What sort of “reason and evidence” do we need, J.J. Ramsey? If you mean experience, then I’m fine with that, noting of course that art is experienced as well, and that people have religious experiences. As for “reason,” you’ll have to be more specific about what you mean by that. I’m not certain whether the reason we are thinking of when we consider logic or even science is necessary. Though of course, even with that sort of reasoning, you can make arguments for truths outside the scope of science, and perhaps even supernatural. So I’m not sure what it buys anyone to say that reason in the sense of, say, Aristotelian logic, buys the “New Atheist” here. If you don’t go with scientific reasoning, you’re left stuck with valid (though perhaps unsound) arguments for the existence of God, for example, that can’t be evaluated through scientific evidence.

  61. #61 jo5ef
    March 15, 2008

    Is this an aesthetic truth?
    “Songs in a minor key sound sad”
    (I’m sure everyone knows what i mean without me having to define “minor key”, “songs” and “sad”)

  62. #62 J. J. Ramsey
    March 15, 2008

    “As for ‘reason,’ you’ll have to be more specific about what you mean by that.”

    Usually some combination of logic and inductive reasoning.

    One big catch here is what you even mean by “science.” Most of the confusion here centers around that.

  63. #63 Dan S.
    March 15, 2008

    Dan, check the comments to my last post on religious cognition, which is here, and you’ll find just such comments.

    You’re entirely correct – there are a number of such comments there, each and every single one by a character who calls themselves ‘PhysicistDave’ (and who, to be fair, epitomizes a certain view that makes me want to hurl heavy cookware at its proponents: that ‘religion’ is entirely and simply a kind of bad or primitive science, or, in slightly more complex form, a collected set of logical propositions). No other commenter agreed with him.

    Is your argument that this is explicitly a common, significant, or important (even in a very minor way) theme among NAs, or that one can, if one digs diligently through all the comments to all your posts on the subject over the past year, find such comments? (I haven’t, so far . . . )

    And yes, I’m pedantically fixating on a rather minor and unimportant aspect of what you’re arguing. What can I say, I’m a horrible person . . . .

  64. #64 Dan S.
    March 15, 2008

    One big catch here is what you even mean by “science.” Most of the confusion here centers around that.

    I was thinking that as well . . .

    Hmm. Are we talking about different (and separate) kinds of truth (each reached via a different (and non-interchangeable) method?), or of different paths to a single body of truth (whatever that means)?

    Perhaps we (ok, at least me) need to start from a different place in talking about this.

  65. #65 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 15, 2008

    Chris Schoen-

    This does not follow, for the reason that it presumes that there is some kind of inviolable logical link between our present biological science and atheism. There’s a lot of common ground, to be sure, but neither requires the other to be plausible. There were atheist doctrines long before Darwin, and likewise there are millions of people who find no logical contradiction between theism and evolution.

    I think you’re confusing “revise his level of confidence” with “forced to convert from atheism to theism.” I never claimed there was an inviolable logical link between atheism and modern biology. The issue here is evidence, not logical proof. Dawkins does not believe that Paley’s argument was logically definitive even at the time that Paley made it. He merely thinks it is a strong argument and one that would lead most people, himself included, to assign a high probability to the proposition that God exists.

    The point, again, is that it is easy to say that the right evidence would change your mind about something as profound as atheism vs. theism. In reality the way we form our understanding of the world is more complicated. That understanding is composed not just of facts, but also of deeper premises about the nature of things. You don’t want to engage that, which is your prerogative, but it’s my answer to your request that I defend my remarks about Richard Dawkins, whom I’ve read widely, and which I consequently do not take lightly.

    So your argument is that Richard Dawkins is dogmatic because you do not believe there is any sort of evidence that would persuade him to revise his confidence in atheism, and you believe this even though Dawkins himself has given us a concrete example of something that would cause him to revise his level of confidence in atheism, specifically complex life-forms in the absence of a viable theory of evolution.

    It’s not as if we are talking about subtle points of interpretation here, which is one of the reasons I’ve been ignoring your arguments about how different people contextualize data. The heart of Paley’s argument is that if we find something in nature that is far beyond what natural forces can explain, we are justified in thinking it likely that God, or at least some sort of higher power, exists. That’s not an assertion that most people, religious or not, are going to have a problem with. Provide enough miracles and anyone will believe in God.

  66. #66 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 15, 2008

    Chris-

    Moral truth: harming innocent human beings is wrong. I know “innocent” and even “harm” and “human being” are contentious concepts, but you get the point.

    By aesthetic truth, I mean a truth disclosed through art. If you want an example, read a poem or look at a sculpture. We can debate over whether aesthetic truths are specifically aesthetic, but if a poem can disclose a truth, then science is not the only truth-giver.

    Disclosing a truth is not the issue. People have been pointed towards truths from experiences they had in dreams, but I don’t think you would call dreaming a legitimate truth-giver. The question is how do you establish what is true. What science offers that nothing else does is a set of methods that essentially everyone accepts as legitimate. People might reject certain mainstream conclusions of modern science, but they never argue that the whole method is fundamentally flawed. Moral truths aren’t like that.

    That said, I still have no idea what you mean by an aesthetic truth. Can you give me an example of a truth that was disclosed to you from a poem or a sculpture? Or, in response to an earlier commenter, can you give me an example of lying with art?

    Questioning the status of moral and aesthetic truths does not make you a follower of “naive scientism.” There are difficult philosophical questions there, and I think your comments on this to this point have been way too casual.

  67. #67 Dan S.
    March 15, 2008

    Is your argument that this is explicitly a common, significant, or important (even in a very minor way) theme among NAs,

    I should say that by ‘this’ I mean the explicit claim that there’s simply no point in academically studying stupid ol’ religion. I’d again have to agree that there’s a fair chunk of atheists who clearly don’t, as you claim – well, I was going to say, ‘ actually show much regard for it in practice’, but I’m not sure that’s exactly true. After all, most of the atheists, of whatever vintage, who hold forth online do put at least some effort -in some cases, almost obsessively – into researching religion. Some tend to do so in an extremely narrow and parochial way, sure – and perhaps not far, at worst, from creationists pawing through another IDist tome, to continue that analogy. But I dunno, this ends up in a place where we’re demanding rather more – and rather broader – knowledge about religion from the average atheist than from the average theist – which on one hand is entirely fair, but . . .

    And then there’s also the issue of internally varied personal experience within atheism – I’m thinking of Altemeyer and Hunsberger’s little and quite explicitly preliminary study of American and Canadian atheists, which found the majority coming from households without little religious indoctrination, but also a minority who had had an extremely and often sincerely religious upbringing (and, they argue, may have ended up as atheists because they took religion so seriously).

    I’m wandering far off topic, but now I’m interested – what are y’all’s – atheist and theist, if any – experience researching (academically or experientially) religion? (Obviously, this isn’t part of an argument over whether there are, somewhere out there, some non-trivial number of New Atheists who advocate anti-intellectualism towards religion – I’m just curious). Personally, I’m sitting a few feet away from a copy of Karen Armstrong’s A History of God. Back in college, majoring in anthro, I tended to focus on things like Native American religions, spirit possession in various cultures, and West African ideas about creation, power, and cosmology; took a fascinating religious studies course about ritual; soaked up lots of ideas about Buddhism and Hinduism (and to a lesser degree, scholarly approaches to studying the Bible) from folks actually studying ‘em. Besides what’s out on the bookshelf, I have at least two big boxes of books about religion (one of the first gifts the woman who would inexplicably end up being my wife gave me was Wendy Doniger’s book “Other People’s Myths, which she viewed as an obvious and easy choice) . . .

  68. #68 windy
    March 15, 2008

    Chris, since you have previously written on the science of aesthetics, it’s interesting if you don’t think aesthetic truths could in principle be uncovered by scientific methods. I guess you mean the personal experience rather than the generalities that (possibly) explain those experiences? But is this really a different category of “truths”? For comparison, isn’t a single apple falling from a tree under the category of “facts explained by science” even if ‘science’ was not there to observe and predict the fall of that particular apple?

  69. #69 RBH
    March 16, 2008

    Chris Schoen wrote

    I don’t think I established any of the things you attribute to me. It seems clear to me we wouldn’t have any concepts at all if we had no language to express them in, and since language needs to be transmitted, I think there’s a whole hunka hunka “shared basis for agreement.”

    Um, we’d have no concepts if we didn’t have language to express them in? Boy. That’s a whole lot stronger a ‘language-first’ position than I’ve heard since 1967. I’d do some hard thinking (and maybe even some reading) about that. “Mental representational system,” sure. But “language” in the sense of the syntactic communication system we’re using here in this thread? Pretty doubtful, in my view.

    Chris Schoen wrote

    Close study of language and culture can provide insight into what we believe and why, if we’re willing to look. If that’s pomo bullshit, so be it. It seems a lot more plausible to me than the idea we can purify our senses to such a degree that we are able to gather knowledge unconditioned by our histories as individuals, families, nations, civilizations, and species.

    No one I know (and I knew Herbert Feigl) argues that “knowledge unconditioned” by all that is possible. I doubt that there’s anyone arguing that we have access to raw sensations. But we do have access to a multiplicity of interpretations of raw sensations, and can assess the degree of consilience of reports across interpretative frameworks. One of the core strengths of science is that we pay attention to the multiplicity of interpretations and attempt to resolve the mutual contradictions, often by adding new ‘raw’ material — new data/evidence. We pay explicit attention to the points of difference and have some agreed methods for resolving conflicts.

    The main difference I see between scientific ‘truth’ claims and the ‘truth’ claims of, say, esthetics, is that in science we have a more self-conscious conflict resolution enterprise. (That enterprise has other desirable characteristics, but self-consciousness is an important one.) I know (at least in principle) how to resolve conflicting truth claims in science. I don’t know how to do that in the esthetic realm. Should I mention that I’ve had a sculpture in a curated show, and the interpretation I had in mind when I made it bore almost no relationship to that of people viewing it, and I didn’t care because there was no principled way to choose one over the other? In Piagetian terms, science is self-consciously skewed toward accommodation.

    Sure, study language and culture — anthropological linguists have been doing it for a long time. But my main memory of my graduate advisor in that general domain (a department I left for another after a year) was that he asked neat questions but wouldn’t recognize an answer if it bit him on the ass. And whilst you’re studying language and culture, don’t mistake the map for the territory.

  70. #70 Tulse
    March 16, 2008

    Moral truth: harming innocent human beings is wrong. I know “innocent” and even “harm” and “human being” are contentious concepts, but you get the point.

    And how is that “truth” arrived at? How do you know it is true? What process is there for determining its truth value? If that process involves rationality and the evaluation of evidence (even if the evidence involves some sort of internal “moral sense” a la Hume), how is that different from the basic process of science? If there is no evidence for this claim and it cannot be assessed rationally, then how can it possibly be evaluated?

  71. #71 MH
    March 16, 2008

    “Moral truth: harming innocent human beings is wrong.”

    If you can’t think of any scenarios where harming innocent human beings is considered right, then I must conclude that you are very…. naive.

  72. #72 J. J. Ramsey
    March 16, 2008

    “Jason, on scientism. I mean a belief that science is the one route to Truth, with a capital T, …”

    Where do the “New Atheists” show that they believe in scientism as you have described it? Why not show us quotes of them affirming this scientism?

  73. #73 Chris Schoen
    March 16, 2008

    RBH,

    Your condescending tone notwithstanding, I am happy to be discussing this with someone conversant with what’s under the hood (or under the bonnet as I think you call it over there.)

    I’m aware that language-first is not the vogue, but the argument for pre-symbolic (if not pre-linguistic) thought is not at all compelling to me. “Mental representation system” works just fine for me, for these purposes. It’s not fully articulated language I’m referring to, but symbol manipulation. At any rate, if we are to posit some kind of cognition beneath the level of symbols (mentalese), it seems to me we run into a black box condundrum no more permeable than the one suggested by theology.

    Since we’re talking about some pretty high-level stuff here (no matter how crude or wrong Paley or even Augustine might have been, their thought is several magnitudes more sophisticated than, say, Polly want a cracker) the distinction between rough symbol-concepts and a nuanced syntactic language isn’t really our concern for the moment. My original point to Windy, which I don’t think you’ve responded to directly, was about the problem of self-reflexivity. Systems cannot evaluate themselves. It is paradoxical to expose to scrutiny the very thing that is doing the scrutinizing. As the Buddhists say, you can’t lick your own tongue, or bite your own teeth.

    But we do have access to a multiplicity of interpretations of raw sensations, and can assess the degree of consilience of reports across interpretative frameworks. One of the core strengths of science is that we pay attention to the multiplicity of interpretations and attempt to resolve the mutual contradictions, often by adding new ‘raw’ material — new data/evidence. We pay explicit attention to the points of difference and have some agreed methods for resolving conflicts.

    I completely agree. However we can only “assess” that which we are aware of. Your argument presumes that all of the important information is available for conscious reflection. That’s not something we can take as given. The question is not whether it is meaningful to refine data, resolve conflicts, or assess the consilience of our explanations. These are valuable things. But I suggest we need to guard against the alluring myth, or superstition, that rationality can transcend our subjective nature. This is why I keep referring back to metaphysics: one has to start somewhere. Everything that follows will relate to that starting point.

  74. #74 Tulse
    March 16, 2008

    I suggest we need to guard against the alluring myth, or superstition, that rationality can transcend our subjective nature. This is why I keep referring back to metaphysics: one has to start somewhere.

    And what criteria does one use to determine the metaphysics of choice? Does determination of such metaphysics itself involve rationality, or is it too mired in our “subjective nature”? If the former, how can you justify that use of rationality prior to that metaphysics, and rationally argue against those who have metaphysics you dislike? If the latter, how can you possible say that someone who argues for objective truth is objectively wrong, if your metaphysics is subjective?

    Again, this just re-iterates a point I’ve made a few times, and have yet to see you give an explicit response, namely, that many of your arguments seem to rest on claiming that some variant of relativism is absolutely True. That, it seems to me, is self-refuting.

  75. #75 Chris Schoen
    March 16, 2008

    Jason,

    Dawkins does not believe that Paley’s argument was logically definitive even at the time that Paley made it. He merely thinks it is a strong argument and one that would lead most people, himself included, to assign a high probability to the proposition that God exists.

    I still think this is logically muddled. You say that (Dawkins says) the watchmaker analogy would lead him to revise downward his confidence in atheism. Would; conditional. That condition being, if Dawkins and Paley were contemporaries. Or if Darwin had not come along. Neither of which are actual.

    This line of reasoning is sort of like saying that reading (and praising) Pliny the Elder’s Natural History shows I’m open minded to alternate theories of ethology, even if I reject all of his conclusions. I may or may not be open to new evidence about animal behavior, but surely showing admiration for a 2,000 year old book has little bearing on that fact.

    Pliny, by the way, wrote viciously about people’s beliefs in personal gods, without any need for a “viable theory of evolution.”

    So your argument is that Richard Dawkins is dogmatic because you do not believe there is any sort of evidence that would persuade him to revise his confidence in atheism.

    No. My argument is that it is facile to say that there is specific evidence that would change one’s mind about theism-atheism, for the reason that evidence is at least partly interpretive; that is, it’s contextual (in the scientific method) to a specific hypothesis. If it were reported in the papers tomorrow that new forms of life had been discovered with no genetic relationship to any other known life forms, which hypotheses or theories would we have to revise? It seems to me that Neo-Darwinism could remain relatively intact, except that it might no longer be said to account for the origin and persistence of all life. Perhaps these new forms arose in a different planetary system, according to different mechanisms than the ones we have studied to date.

    Likewise, if any atheist were walking down the street and suddenly confronted by a talking, burning bush, or a flaming cross in the sky, what are the hypotheses that our atheist might have to revise? Possibly the hypothesis “I am sane,” possibly the hypothesis “There are no visitors from the future with grand powers of deception.” Possibly others. Possibly, “There is no god.”

    It’s really a modest argument I’m making, but an important one. I’m not trying to speak to the truth or falsity about claims about god, and I’m not trying to question Dawkins’ (or anyone’s) sincerity in his reliance upon the scientific method. I’m just saying that the reasoning that specific evidence would necessarily undermine an atheist position is faulty. The reason this is important is that it provides a much less sound basis for declaring some 99 percent of humanity as “delusional.”

  76. #76 windy
    March 16, 2008

    The case of Morton is interesting. He has developed the term “Morton’s Demon” (a play on Maxwell’s Demon) to describe the mentality that enabled him to maintain his YEC worldview for so long. In a crude way, he is describing metaphysics, except that this mechanism is not actually a demon one can exorcise; rather it’s a necessary function of symbolic understanding. Data must be filtered and interpreted to be useful.

    Are you saying that Morton is wrong to think that he is now more open and objective about evidence than previously, and in ‘fact’ he has simply exchanged the fundamentalist demon to an equally biased rationalist demon?

    It should be obvious that that same data cannot inform the filtering and interpreting processes, which precede its integration into our thinking!

    Not necessarily – otherwise there wouldn’t be cognitive dissonance.

  77. #77 Chris Schoen
    March 16, 2008

    J.J. writes:

    Where do the “New Atheists” show that they believe in scientism as you have described it? Why not show us quotes of them affirming this scientism?

    “Science is the only way we know to understand the real world.” –Richard Dawkins.

    This is about as concise a statement of positivism as you’re likely to get. It’s a bit of a tautology though, since it only admits as “real” that which science can study–the physical, tangible or material. Is money real, for example? Money, that is, as separate from colored pieces of paper and stamped metal.

  78. #78 JimV
    March 16, 2008

    “Moral truth: harming innocent human beings is wrong. I know “innocent” and even “harm” and “human being” are contentious concepts, but you get the point.”

    I came over here on a link from “EvolutionBlog”, and that statement caught my eye. It has already been commented on, but I’ll add that (to my surprise) all the good, religious people whom I know and have discussed it with, consider that the U.S. was justified in dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Obama’s pastor Rev. Wright seems to be an exception to this, but I note his statement to that effect has raised a firestorm of criticism.) My point is that it is not obvious that religion has brought people to the moral truth that you cite.

    Personally, I feel the concept of symmetry is closer to a moral truth: whatever I am justified in doing to someone else, they would be justified in doing to me under similar circumstances. To the extent which that is accepted by all “reasonable” humans, the existence of mirror neurons as part of our brains may be responsible – or not, I am not expert in these, or most of the matters discussed here.

    I would also like to add my voice to those who have said something like this: that my views of reality were, to the best of my knowledge, entirely formed by the observations I have made over my lifetime with the senses I have and the means I have of interpreting those senses. As best I can recall from my childhood, I would have found a world of miracles, demons, angels, answered prayers, and so on just as either reasonable or as beyond my capacity to understand, as I now consider evolution, the Big Bang, black holes, dark matter, and so on.

  79. #79 Ponder Stibbons
    March 16, 2008

    Those objecting to Chris’ offering of “harming innocent human beings is wrong” as a moral truth are missing the point. You could add all sorts of qualifiers and conditions to that statement to fit your favourite moral intuitions, and still end up with a moral truth — something of the form “X is wrong”. Ultimately, if you’re not a moral relativist, then you do accept some moral truths. And I haven’t seen anyone here suggest how science can reveal moral truths to us.

    So, let’s get away from science for a while. Consider the broader statement (made above by Jason Rosenhouse) that “claims about the natural world need to be justified with reliable lines of evidence”. The New Atheists, we are told, accept this. Religious fundamentalists don’t. But I’m not sure that it’s as simple as that. It seems to me that fundamentalists would agree with that statement. It’s just that they regard religious texts (say) as extremely reliable lines of evidence. Now, there are good arguments for why we should not regard religious texts as reliable lines of evidence for claims about the natural world. But if I’m reading Chris correctly, he thinks that on this methodological count (evaluating the reliability of lines of evidence), the New Atheists are as sloppy as fundamentalists — they too have not thought carefully about what constitutes reliable evidence. I myself am inclined to think that on average New Atheists are slightly more thoughtful than fundamentalists about the reliability of their lines of evidence, but I think that many commenters in this thread have missed this point entirely.

  80. #80 RBH
    March 16, 2008

    I don’t mean to seem condescending. It’s just that this is an issue that has a history that I (partly) lived through: I got my degree in what would now be called cognitive science back when the so-called “cognitive revolution” was going on, when Neisser and Miller and Chomsky and Jenkins and their colleagues were reformulating cognitive psychology, when Allen Paivio was arguing for a dual representational system and Newell and Simon were pushing their physical symbol system approach and not long after Miller, Galanter and Pribram published Plans and the Structure of Behavior, which impressed me greatly, particularly after I spent a day as Pribram’s host in 1968 or 1969. I had representatives from both sides of that divide on my committee, which made for interesting prelim and final orals. :) (I should add that I left cognitive psych almost two decades ago; this thread is resurrecting some long-dormant memes.)

    Chris Schoen wrote

    My original point to Windy, which I don’t think you’ve responded to directly, was about the problem of self-reflexivity. Systems cannot evaluate themselves. It is paradoxical to expose to scrutiny the very thing that is doing the scrutinizing. As the Buddhists say, you can’t lick your own tongue, or bite your own teeth.

    OK, let me address it directly. A couple of assumptions. First, I assume that our cognitive system has evolved to build models of the (relatively) low-level representations of phenomena generated by our sensory systems. That is, the mental representations map in some non-random way to the incoming stimuli generated by energy impinging on the transducers (sensory elements) as transformed in the (early-ish) sensory pathways into brain. (Yes, I know there are top-down pathways that alter the incoming stuff as a function of ‘higher’ processes, but I’m skipping over that now.)

    Second, I assume that the exigencies of selection imposed a requirement for at least some minimal veridicality of those representations. That is, I reject Plantinga’s argument that the probability that mental representations are reliable must be low if evolutionary theory is correct, for the purely pragmatic reason that critters whose mental representations of the world are too faulty tend to become lunch for critters who have more veridical representations.

    Third, in humans at least, and probably in at least some other vertebrates, those mental representational systems have acquired the capacity to model subsets of themselves. That is, put in the simplest terms, we can think about our own thinking. Put somewhat more elaborately, our representational system can build models that take into account (i.e., include representations of) its own activity. I am perfectly comfortable with the notion that a mental system like that which we carry around between our ears can model (parts of) itself. That in fact is what cognitive psychology is: a system of symbolic (linguistic) representations of the activity of our mental representational system.

    Now, you seem to be arguing for some variety of a Newell-Simon-ish Physical Symbol System. 35 years ago I was pretty sympathetic to that view. But I’ve been persuaded (by folks like Rodney Brooks, among others) that it is at best incomplete. However, even in its original Newell-Simon form, a physical symbol system could have representations of (parts of) itself, and could invoke processes by calling representations of (parts of) itself.

    Further, the physical symbol system of our heads is not static. We can add and delete “concepts” (symbols) and we can alter the designations of those symbols. Further, we can alter the rules that govern the ways in which symbols can be combined and transformed, equivalent (roughly) to altering our theories of the domain of application of the symbols. That’s not merely “learning” in a static framwework, but is learning that can alter the framework. Glenn Morton is an excellent example of one whose mental representational system changed radically.

    How does this relate to the topic at issue? This way: in science we pay explicit attention to conflicts among interpretations, which maps to paying attention to different ways of combining and transforming (and adding to or deleting from) the symbols of our mental representations. By finding conflicts we have access to the differences in interpretive frameworks — differences in theories of some substantive domain of inquiry. And the conflict resolution apparatus of science is explicitly directed at resolving those differences, as you agreed.

    The metaphysics involved in this discussion are essentially about the conflict resolution apparatus. In science we have agreed ways of resolving conflicts. In ethestics, theology, and the like, we do not. In science we therefore have some reason to believe that “progress” is possible, in the sense that our interpretations can come to more and more reliably map to the “real” world — the world of physical and mental phenomena. If we did not believe that, cognitive psychology would become just another exercise in esthetics, with no assurance at all that we have learned anything veridical about our mental systems. There is nothing comparable to the conflict resolution apparatus of science in those other enterprises — esthetics, theology, etc. — and therefore no assurance at all that “progress” is possible. In Lakatos’s terms, they are degenerate research programmes.

    Chris Schoen wrote

    However we can only “assess” that which we are aware of. Your argument presumes that all of the important information is available for conscious reflection. That’s not something we can take as given.

    Oh, I don’t at all take it as a given. What I am asserting is that science specifically and deliberately focuses on dragging the “important information” into awareness so that it can be reflected on. It’s a painful and halting process, but it has clearly borne fruit in the form of a progressive research programme that has demonstrably increased the veridicality of our mental representations of the physical (and mental!) world. That esthetics, theology, and other “subjective” enterprises have not done so is an indictment of their methodology for putatively discovering “truths.” They’ve had a multi-millenia run at it with no visible progress.

  81. #81 J. J. Ramsey
    March 16, 2008

    Chris Schoen quoting Dawkins: “Science is the only way we know to understand the real world.”

    Thank you. It would help to have a book reference or a link, though. It would also help to know the context of the quote, so that one could figure out what the heck Dawkins means here by “science,” or even if he himself isn’t too clear about what meaning he is using.

  82. #82 J. J. Ramsey
    March 16, 2008

    You could add all sorts of qualifiers and conditions to that statement to fit your favourite moral intuitions, and still end up with a moral truth — something of the form “X is wrong”. Ultimately, if you’re not a moral relativist, then you do accept some moral truths. And I haven’t seen anyone here suggest how science can reveal moral truths to us.

    True, science cannot pick our moral values for us. However, one can rephrase “X is wrong” as “To do X would run counter to our moral values.” The latter is still a moral truth, since it merely a long way of saying “X is wrong,” but it is also an empirical statement. Furthermore, science, especially sociological and psychological studies, can potentially help us figure out why our moral intuitions are the way they are, which can help us clarify what our values really are.

  83. #83 Clark
    March 16, 2008

    but I don’t think you would call dreaming a legitimate truth-giver.

    What does it mean to be a truth-giver? If, in a dream, I remember a past event, isn’t it acting as a truth-giver? Now if you mean, can it act as an epistemic justification to others to establish a proposition as true, of course it can’t.

    But we ought be careful with our terminology here and consider the place of memory in presenting truth to ourselves. If what we say doesn’t apply to memory then something is seriously wrong with our analysis.

  84. #84 Clark
    March 16, 2008

    J. J. I’d be careful there as well. If we say there is some ‘ought’ cosmically independent of humans as a whole then certainly it’s difficult to see what role science can play. If we see moral values as found within humanity (which it seems they must be if they are our values) then I don’t see why science can’t find them. It may be difficult and I’m somewhat skeptical of some evolutionary psychologists and their claims to have done this. But the basic psychological approach seems fair.

  85. #85 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 16, 2008

    Clark-

    There’s a reason “overzealous” is a word but “overfundamentalist” is not.

    Chris Schoen-

    Where did you find that Dawkins quote? I suspect that in context it is clear he is talking about the physical world. Also notice that he is talking about understanding, not capital T truth, which is the view Chris attributed to people like Dawkins.

    My argument is that it is facile to say that there is specific evidence that would change one’s mind about theism-atheism, for the reason that evidence is at least partly interpretive; that is, it’s contextual (in the scientific method) to a specific hypothesis.

    But that is not the argument you started with. You started with a specific claim about how Dawkins treats evidence. You called him dogmatic. The fact that people interpret evidence within a specific context is trivially true but totally irrelevant to that claim. Dawkins knows what context he is working in, and he knows what he would find convincing, or at least what would alter his level of confdience. You’re basically arguing that you know better than he what would change his mind regarding the relative merits of theism and atheism. You could defend any smear against anyone with the sorts of arguments you are making.

    And while it is all well and good to talk about interpretation and social context, the fact remains that at some point there is sufficient evidence to convince everyone. If my example of the genetic codes did not impress you, just pick something more flamboyant. How about a flying, talking rock that reads minds and solves any math problem you put to it? That would certainly get me thinking about higher powers.

    Ponder Stibbins-

    Consider the broader statement (made above by Jason Rosenhouse) that “claims about the natural world need to be justified with reliable lines of evidence”. The New Atheists, we are told, accept this. Religious fundamentalists don’t.

    I never said that fundamentalists don’t accept this. I agree completely with you that fundamentalists simply have different views about what constitutes a reliable line of evidence. I was responding to Chris’ charge that the “naive scientism” of the New Atheists is comparable to the Biblical literalism of Christian fundamentalists. I was pointing out simply that there is a big difference between saying that the Bible can not be challenged on any point it addresses and anything the New Atheists are saying regarding the role of science in understanding the natural world.

  86. #86 J. J. Ramsey
    March 16, 2008

    Ponder Stibbons:

    But if I’m reading Chris correctly, he thinks that on this methodological count (evaluating the reliability of lines of evidence), the New Atheists are as sloppy as fundamentalists — they too have not thought carefully about what constitutes reliable evidence.

    That, though, would be saying that they aren’t doing very good science, that they aren’t practicing what they preach.

  87. #87 Tulse
    March 16, 2008

    Chris Schoen:

    It’s a bit of a tautology though, since it only admits as “real” that which science can study–the physical, tangible or material. Is money real, for example? Money, that is, as separate from colored pieces of paper and stamped metal.

    Are you suggesting that we cannot have a rational understanding of economics, based on evidence and the forming of hypotheses? Just because “money” is an abstraction does not mean that we cannot have a science of it, unless you want to remove as “sciences other disciplines that study non-physical abstractions, such as anthropology, sociology, linguistics, etc.

    You seem to conceive of science in a very narrow fashion, and for the purposes of the contention between science and religion, that narrowness is, I think, inappropriate, since the issue is not so much the specific content of science, but the approach, which can be applied to understanding money, or traffic patterns, or marriage rituals, or various other “abstractions” of the physical world.

    Ponder Stibbons:

    Ultimately, if you’re not a moral relativist, then you do accept some moral truths. And I haven’t seen anyone here suggest how science can reveal moral truths to us.

    I haven’t seen anyone here suggest any process for revealing moral “truths”, or for that matter a process for just demonstrating that such things exist, nor has anyone even provided any basic criteria for determining their existence. You can toss around the notion of moral truths all you like, but at least be clear as to what you mean, and how they are defined, or we can’t have a discussion.

    And even if such criteria are provided, as I noted earlier, surely the way we understand morality is through moral reasoning. In other words, we are rationalists about morality — we determine what the moral principles (or “truths”) are, presumably through some sort of observation or introspection (in other words, evidence, such as those derived from “thought experiments”), then apply them in a rational fashion. In other words, saying that science doesn’t get to moral truths is not the same thing as saying that rationality isn’t intimately involved in getting you moral truths — unless you are indeed a moral relativist, which you seem to reject.

    And once again, all I think that needs to be defended here is rationality, and not the physical sciences as narrowly construed. So unless you think that we don’t actually use reasoning and evidence (as broadly conceived) to determine moral truths, and that we don’t demand that moral reasoning based on those truths is done in a rational fashion and is not arbitrary, talking about moral truths is not an argument opposing the broader defense of rationality against the arbitrary, non-rational beliefs of religion.

  88. #88 JimC
    March 16, 2008

    The case of Morton is interesting. He has developed the term “Morton’s Demon” (a play on Maxwell’s Demon) to describe the mentality that enabled him to maintain his YEC worldview for so long.

    Reading Motons webpage one quickly concludes that he is not at all rational about many,many things. It is not suprising he bought YEC for so long.

    Moral truth: harming innocent human beings is wrong. I know “innocent” and even “harm” and “human being” are contentious concepts, but you get the point.”

    The entire moral argument is relatively stupid. ‘Morals’ don’t exist per se. Behaviour exists. All morals are in reality are opinions on natural human species behaviour trying to pretend they are more than that always leads to these type of discussions.

    Realizing different human groups value various behaviours differently explains the ‘moral’ differences from culture to culture.

  89. #89 Ponder Stibbons
    March 16, 2008

    Tulse wrote:

    I haven’t seen anyone here suggest any process for revealing moral “truths”, or for that matter a process for just demonstrating that such things exist, nor has anyone even provided any basic criteria for determining their existence.

    Chris’ mention of moral truths was in response to Wisakah’s asking what truths could not be revealed by science. I’ve merely been trying to defend Chris’ offering as moral truths as an example of such truths. As to whether they can be revealed by other methods, who knows.

  90. #90 Ponder Stibbons
    March 16, 2008

    J. J. Ramsey wrote:

    True, science cannot pick our moral values for us. However, one can rephrase “X is wrong” as “To do X would run counter to our moral values.” The latter is still a moral truth, since it merely a long way of saying “X is wrong,” but it is also an empirical statement. Furthermore, science, especially sociological and psychological studies, can potentially help us figure out why our moral intuitions are the way they are, which can help us clarify what our values really are.

    I completely disagree that “X is wrong” means the same as “to do X would run counter to our moral values”. That’s because I’m not, and I suspect most people aren’t if they think carefully about it, a moral relativist. I do not think that whether an act is morally wrong is determined by the moral values of the actor or whatever society he happened to be living in at that time. Science can help us find out what moral values different people hold, but it’s not going to tell us which of two conflicting moral values is the better one, which is what you really need to know to decide most moral truths (since the variation in human moral codes is such that you can almost find people somewhere who think X is not wrong).

  91. #91 Chris Schoen
    March 16, 2008

    Jason,

    You started with a specific claim about how Dawkins treats evidence. You called him dogmatic.

    I’ve said numerous times I was using Dawkins as a rhetorical example and that I don’t claim to know how he would actually respond to any specific phenomena. I do think he’s dogmatic, but that’s hardly a “smear.” I notice that you don’t seem to object to the factual claim I make (and document) that he has lied about the actions of two of his fellow academics, as well as a noted journalist. Dawkins gets called dogmatic as a matter of course almost every day. Why get so bunched up about that, and let the factual allegations slide by?

    You’re basically arguing that you know better than he what would change his mind regarding the relative merits of theism and atheism. You could defend any smear against anyone with the sorts of arguments you are making.

    Now how about treating my quote in context. I’m not saying I know better than he; merely that it’s easy to say, as a generality, that one is open to new evidence. In practice, neither you nor he can point to a datum that would unambiguously be interpretable as a challenge to atheism.

    I’m an atheist, and I confess that I cannot imagine what might persuade me of the reality of a personal god. I suppose if I woke up and found myself in a chapter of the Left Behind series that it would cross my mind that the Rapturists were right. But there are, as I have mentioned, several other explanations that would be more plausible to me, given my understanding of how things are, such as the fact that I was not sane, or that, perhaps, some beings with more technology that I am aware of existing were able to manipulate my sense data, as in some sort of “holodeck.” I hope in such a case I would have the fortitude to continue to look for ways to understand what was happening, but I know of no way, once the possibility arises that my sense data is unreliable, to evaluate which one of these explanations is the right one. I have to resort to the one that makes the most sense to me–that “seems” right.

    I was brought up in a nice liberal middle class Protestantism, and I was probably 8 or 9 when I decided there was no god. It wasn’t a hypothesis so much as an insight. In fact I have never treated my ontological beliefs as a proposition subject to scientific verification. Perhaps you have, in which case I give you credit for follow-through. But it doesn’t change the fact that prior to an evaluation of facts on their merits, we have to make a decision about where we are coming from. As I’ve written in other threads on this topic over the last few days, a system can’t evaluate itself.

    If my example of the genetic codes did not impress you, just pick something more flamboyant. How about a flying, talking rock that reads minds and solves any math problem you put to it? That would certainly get me thinking about higher powers.

    Ye of little faith!

    Weren’t you just saying a moment ago that given a sufficient level of ignorance, anything can seem supernatural?

    The Dawkins quote is from here. I’m afraid there isn’t much context to speak of; just a lot of fluff about what science may or may not discover in the future.

    Tulse,

    There have been several competing definitions of science over the years, and I favor the one that refers generally to a systemic body of knowledge, which would include history, psychology, literary criticism, and much more.

    Such a definition is not compatible with the widely held conception of science as an instrument of certainty. I don’t want to set up a straw man here, so let me acknowledge that disciplines like linguistics and anthropology are considered legitimate by people in the “hard sciences” community. But the disposition toward what M.M. Chris calls here “scientism,” or positivism is real. Chris’s latest post about brain imaging is, I think, a good explication of this issue.

  92. #92 RBH
    March 17, 2008

    Chris Schoen wrote

    There have been several competing definitions of science over the years, and I favor the one that refers generally to a systemic body of knowledge, which would include history, psychology, literary criticism, and much more.

    That definition is foreign to me; I’ve never heard or read it before, and I cannot see how it could be defended. Literary criticism as a scientific enterprise? Gimme a break!

    Chris Schoen wrote further

    Such a definition is not compatible with the widely held conception of science as an instrument of certainty.

    Nor is it compatible with everything I’ve learned and done over 45 years of working in academic and applied science, moving back and forth between them in chunks measured in decades. That’s a cosmic oddity shop model of science — collections of facts stashed in disciplnary piles. If there is a philosopher of science in the last 75 years who doesn’t treat science as a process I’d like to hear who that might be.

  93. #93 Eric Thomson
    March 17, 2008

    Chris said:
    “Science is the only way we know to understand the real world.” –Richard Dawkins.

    This is about as concise a statement of positivism as you’re likely to get.

    I have a somewhat pedantic quibble with this. Positivism and scientism are not the same thing. If he had said “A statement that is either not a claim about relations among concepts, or verifiable via experience, is literally meaningless”, now that would be a concise statement of positivism. Many people believe what Dawkins wrote that are not positivists (e.g., pick up any work by a contemporary naturalistic philosopher of mind).

    For instance, Wilfrid Sellars, one of the greatest post-positivistic philosophers in the 20th century, wrote, “in the dimension of describing and explaining the world, science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, of what is not that it is not” (1971 reply to Cornman). It doesn’t get much more scientistic than that, but Sellars was no positivist.

    Anyway, not a major point but to call someone a positivist, when positivism is a pretty much abandoned school of philosophy from the early 20th century with a bunch of specific claims about meaning, grounded in a beaten upon analytic-synthetic distinction, and a crazy sense-datum theory, seems a mistake.

  94. #94 Tulse
    March 17, 2008

    Chris’ mention of moral truths was in response to Wisakah’s asking what truths could not be revealed by science. I’ve merely been trying to defend Chris’ offering as moral truths as an example of such truths. As to whether they can be revealed by other methods, who knows.

    That doesn’t answer my question — presumably if you’re going to defend moral truths, you have some notion of the process by which they are revealed, or otherwise the concept is completely empty. And just to reiterate, for the purposes of this discussion, the key issue is whether rationalism and evidence is involved in the determination of such truths. If that’s the case, then I think that’s enough for the position I want to maintain. If that isn’t the case, I’d like an explanation of how we can have any sort of moral system that we would recognize that doesn’t rely on reasoning, logic, and evidence.

  95. #95 Richard Wein
    March 17, 2008

    Tulse:

    I haven’t seen anyone here suggest any process for revealing moral “truths”, or for that matter a process for just demonstrating that such things exist, nor has anyone even provided any basic criteria for determining their existence. You can toss around the notion of moral truths all you like, but at least be clear as to what you mean, and how they are defined, or we can’t have a discussion.

    Well said. I would say that the concept of a moral or aesthetic truth is incoherent. Statements about the real world are true or false in so far as they correspond to objective reality. In what sense can a moral statement be true or false? Moral values are subjective judgements, not statements of fact. “Murder is wrong” is shorthand for “murder is wrong as far as I’m concerned“. We can, however, make factual statements about people’s moral values, such as “most people think murder is wrong”. Much the same is true for aesthetic values.

    I agree with Dawkins’ statement that “Science is the only way we know to understand the real world.” I don’t mean by this that science can decide issues of moral and aesthetic value, since those are not matters of fact about the real world. Moreover, I would define science as “the process of making rational inferences about the real world”. So Dawkins’ statement could equally well be expressed (as far as I’m concerned) as “Rational inference is the only way we know to understand the real world”.

    N.B. Besides statements about the real world, there is another type of statement that can have a truth value, namely abstract logical statements, including mathematical statements. Obviously, these too can be addressed by rational inference, but it’s a different sort of rational inference to those of science.

  96. #96 Chris Schoen
    March 17, 2008

    RBH,

    I admit I threw lit-crit in there to be provocative, but I can defend it. It’s true that over the last couple of centuries the term “science” has constricted to its present sense of “exact science.” I don’t argue there’s nothing different between say, chemistry and anthropology. But they are both, after all, systems of knowledge, which is all that was meant by the term “science” up to and following the Enlightenment. Whatever the excesses of literary criticism may have been, it is still a system of knowledge–unless you want to say it is a discipline which yields only falsehoods.

    The “natural sciences” have the distinction of a refined method based in empiricism, but this does not bestow them with a unique avenue to knowledge. What it affords is a greater level of certainty. In engineering certainty is of considerable importance, and to an extent likewise in medicine. But certainty is something we over-exalt in our culture, which discourages us from exploring the world in all the ways available to us, and thus actually decreasing our level of knowledge and understanding.

    Not to be too pedantic; I’m not going to start going around calling Proust scholars “scientists” or anything. But in my conversation with Tulse I thought it important to respond to the idea that I had an “overly narrow view,” and also extend my point that our methods of evaluation are many.

  97. #97 Chris Schoen
    March 17, 2008

    Eric Thompson,

    Yes, it is more accurate as scientism. I think I was shying away from that term because it is generally considered a slur. No one embraces scientism, just like no one calls himself a yuppie. A better word would be something like verificationalism, metaphysical naturalism, or logical empiricism.

    But positivism is not entirely incorrect. Implicit in the Dawkins quote (if we can get past the tautology) is a dismissal of metaphysical concerns, and an embrace of the correspondence theory of truth, each of which was a major feature of logical positivism.

  98. #98 RBH
    March 17, 2008

    Chris Schoen wrote

    Whatever the excesses of literary criticism may have been, it is still a system of knowledge–unless you want to say it is a discipline which yields only falsehoods.

    Is there any realm of human inquiry that is not science on your definition? Can you name three or four? “System of knowledge” is so broad as to be meaningless, IMO. Hell, Tarot reading is a “system of knowledge.” Does one really want to call it “science”?

    Once again, I know of no philosopher of science in the last 75 years who has treated science as some sort of body of knowledge rather than as a collection of particular sorts of systematic processes for testing knowledge claims. LitCrit ain’t in that domain.

  99. #99 windy
    March 17, 2008

    But the disposition toward what M.M. Chris calls here “scientism,” or positivism is real. Chris’s latest post about brain imaging is, I think, a good explication of this issue.

    What is it about that study that you find especially scientistic or positivist? Looks like it’s just bad science.

  100. #100 Chris Schoen
    March 17, 2008

    Does one really want to call it “science”?

    RBH, I was being rhetorical. I do understand and more or less abide by the conventional definition.

    The issue I was trying to highlight is that the fact that some knowledge is not testable in the same way as claims within the natural sciences are does not mean that this knowledge is less valid or less important. It’s fair to say that most scientists don’t waste much time verifying the frivolous, but we all know cases to the contrary, which is to say that nothing inherent in the process of science makes its findings important. Truth can be trivial.

    By the same token, the sorts of questions that get asked in the humanities can be frivolous, but are more often not. This is relevant in a discussion about “scientism,” which is an outlook that privileges a certain process over all others not based on what it yields but how it yields it, which is like the man looking under the lamppost for his keys because that’s where the light is.

    All things being equal, you could say that being testible is better than not being testible, or than being testible within a too-broad margin of precision. But all things are not equal. Not everything we want to know (speaking for myself at least) has the benefit of being subject to quantification or considered from an objective perspective, but that’s no reason not to try to know it.

  101. #101 Tulse
    March 17, 2008

    Not everything we want to know (speaking for myself at least) has the benefit of being subject to quantification or considered from an objective perspective

    Sure, and I doubt that anyone would disagree — I don’t see Dawkins saying that we should replace art critics with scientists, or Dennett suggesting that how yummy a dessert is should be measured by a dessertometer. But to return to the original subject of this thread, that has absolutely nothing to do with the issue of religious claims that are subject to quantification and objective perspective (like humans were created separate from all other species, or that the earth is 6000 years old, or that there was a world-enveloping flood). As I see it, all that is necessary to argue against the charge of New Atheist “fundamentalism” is to acknowledge that, in those domains, the answers given by religion are simply false (or at least “less true” than those of science). And I still haven’t seen anyone here willing to take that route. So I really don’t see what the issue is.

  102. #102 Tulse
    March 17, 2008

    Preview is your friend — lemme try that last bit again:

    As I see it, all that is necessary to argue against the charge of New Atheist “fundamentalism” is to acknowledge that, in those domains, the answers given by religion are simply false (or at least “less true” than those of science). And I still haven’t seen anyone here willing to argue against that. So I really don’t see what the issue is.

  103. #103 Chris
    March 17, 2008

    Tulse, I suspect that you and I are actually closer on these issues than our rhetoric would have us believe. There are two things to say here. 1.) I have nothing wrong with pointing out that claims about the natural world (including historical claims, e.g., about the existence of particular persons in particular places at particular times) are subject to the same sorts of evidentiary standards as any other claims about the natural world. That is, they’re subject to scientific standards. In fact, I’d argue that to believe in a natural-world claim made by a particular religion (e.g., that the Earth is 6000 years old) in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is, I believe, only a product of dishonesty or profound ignorance (for adults, at least). 2.) This isn’t the limits of what most new atheists argue. They argue that supernatural beings, most specifically “God” in the monotheistic sense, is a failed or falsified hypothesis. That is a patently absurd claim, and I would argue can only be the product of dishonesty or profound ignorance as well.

  104. #104 RBH
    March 17, 2008

    Chris Schoen wrote

    This isn’t the limits of what most new atheists argue. They argue that supernatural beings, most specifically “God” in the monotheistic sense, is a failed or falsified hypothesis. That is a patently absurd claim, and I would argue can only be the product of dishonesty or profound ignorance as well.

    Have you in fact read The God Delusion? That is emphatically not what Dawkins argues. He is very clear about the specific God hypothesis against which he is arguing, and it is not a generic “God in the monotheistic sense.” See, e.g., page 31 of the hardback, where he writes

    Instead I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.

    The critical word there is “deliberately.” That means the super intelligence had to have an elaborate cognitive apparatus capable of holding a representation of the universe and everything in it, a representation containing a point-for-point map of the universe before the universe existed. Further, it had to have the necessary additional capacity to manufacture that representation in matter and energy. Dawkins’ argument is that such an entity, far from being an explanation, is itself a more complicated and less probable entity than the universe it is invoked to explain. His alternative hypothesis is

    … any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it.

  105. #105 Chris Schoen
    March 17, 2008

    RBH,

    You are cross-quoting me and the other Chris.

  106. #106 J. J. Ramsey
    March 17, 2008

    Ponder Stibbons:

    I completely disagree that “X is wrong” means the same as “to do X would run counter to our moral values”. That’s because I’m not, and I suspect most people aren’t if they think carefully about it, a moral relativist. I do not think that whether an act is morally wrong is determined by the moral values of the actor or whatever society he happened to be living in at that time.

    No, you just judge an act as morally wrong when it conflicts with your values–and the rest of us do similarly. You don’t have to be a moral relativist to say that “X is wrong” means the same as “to do X would run counter to our moral values.” Rather it is an acknowledgment that whoever is saying that “X is wrong” is making a judgment based on standards that he/she holds. Someone who makes such a judgment may embrace such standards because he/she thinks that they came from God, or because of tradition, or because they have perceived practical value. Even a moral relativist judges based on his or her own values; it’s just that for the moral relativist, tolerance and not being judgmental are valued particularly highly.

  107. #107 Tulse
    March 17, 2008

    In fact, I’d argue that to believe in a natural-world claim made by a particular religion (e.g., that the Earth is 6000 years old) in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is, I believe, only a product of dishonesty or profound ignorance (for adults, at least).

    Of course, if Dawkins were to call the religious “dishonest or profoundly ignorant”, people would accuse him of disrespect.

    Once again, I will suggest that if the religious weren’t making dishonest or profoundly ignorant claims about the physical world, the New Atheists wouldn’t care. Dawkins attack on religion is almost solely based on the scientific implausibility of a supernatural entity anything like the monotheistic god of the Bible. In other words, he attacks religion’s natural world claims.

  108. #108 Eric Thomson
    March 17, 2008

    Chris said:
    correspondence theory of truth, each of which was a major feature of logical positivism.

    Logical positivists tended to not believe in the correspondence theory of truth, especially given their sense-data theories (a theory is better if it is better verified by sensory experience). They were closer to van Frassen in this aspect. The term ‘correspondence theory of truth’ wasn’t around back then, though, so they didn’t talk about such things, but they probably would have dismissed it as “literally meaningless” or some such.

    Today’s naturalist tends to like realism/correspondence though.

  109. #109 Chris Schoen
    March 17, 2008

    I don’t see Dawkins saying that we should replace art critics with scientists, or Dennett suggesting that how yummy a dessert is should be measured by a dessertometer.

    You might be surprised. Peter Atkins is an extreme example. He writes that the poet’s craft is “akin to entertaining self-deception.” Dawkins is a little more of a humanist than that, but his complaints in Unweaving the Rainbow that more poets should write hymns to the glory of science show that he too misses the point on just what it is poetry (for example) contributes to the culture.

    As for Dennett, the man denies the existence of subjective experience for crying out loud. His adoption of meme theory is inherently antagonistic to humanistic efforts to engage and understand ideas. Ed Wilson’s consilience is just a nice word for the hostile takeover of the humanities, and Steven Pinker thinks the function of Hamlet is to provide a set of Do’s and Don’ts, just in case the reader should have his uncle usurp his father’s throne. Don’t you kind of feel sorry for these guys?

    As I see it, all that is necessary to argue against the charge of New Atheist “fundamentalism” is to acknowledge that, in those domains, the answers given by religion are simply false (or at least “less true” than those of science). And I still haven’t seen anyone here willing to argue against that. So I really don’t see what the issue is.

    But the NAs do not limit their critique to NOMA-type concerns. They very explicitly assert that any belief in a personal god, even without any corresponding beliefs that are contradicted by science (ID, YEC, etc.) is a form of delusion. Dawkins asserts that acts of faith are literally “evil.” Calling somewhere between 80 and 99 percent of the world’s population–some 5+ billion people–delusional and evil: it’s a tad bit fundamentalist.

  110. #110 Tulse
    March 17, 2008

    Chris, I think your characterization, or perhaps “caricature”, of the philistine nature of “New Atheists” is rather excessive. I thought the issue was whether they explicitly and formally argued that science was the only source of knowledge, and I really don’t see them saying that even in the extreme portrayal you give.

    But the NAs do not limit their critique to NOMA-type concerns. They very explicitly assert that any belief in a personal god, even without any corresponding beliefs that are contradicted by science (ID, YEC, etc.) is a form of delusion.

    As I read Dawkins, the claim is that any personal god, who allegedly intervenes in the physical world, does contradict science (or perhaps more accurately is vastly improbable). So one can be a Deist and avoid this charge, but pretty much most other religions are subject to it.

    As for your specific claim that Dawkins calls acts of faith “evil”, I don’t recall this quote — do you have a citation?

  111. #111 Chris Schoen
    March 17, 2008

    Tulse,

    I came across the “evil” quote very recently somewhere on the web. I don’t remember where, but I’ll trace my steps and see if I can get a cite for you.

    I think the standard of formal claims is a little high seeing as how none of the major NAs are philosophers of science. But you can’t say the quotes I’ve supplied so far aren’t explicit. If you require more, I’ll see what I can dig up.

  112. #112 Clark
    March 18, 2008

    Eric, while I understand what you are getting at, don’t you think the correspondence rules in logical positivism ended up getting them fairly close to a correspondence theory of truth?

    I recognize correspondence rules are frequently misunderstood. Properly they link theories to observational terms but not necessarily individual terms. (Which is what a proper correspondence theory of truth would appear to do)

    I should also note that the earlier view of theoretical terms having meaning by reduction to observational terms is much, much closer to correspondence theories of truth – albeit with an empirical rather than realistic thrust.

  113. #113 Clark
    March 18, 2008

    To add, I think it unfortunate that positivism has become such a boogey-man with it reduced to a caricature of itself. While I prefer Heidegger to Carnap, I think it undeniable that the positivists are too easily discounted. There’s a lot valuable there.

  114. #114 Richard Wein
    March 18, 2008

    Chris wrote:

    They argue that supernatural beings, most specifically “God” in the monotheistic sense, is a failed or falsified hypothesis. That is a patently absurd claim, and I would argue can only be the product of dishonesty or profound ignorance as well.

    I’m pretty sure they don’t claim that the existence of God is a falsified hypothesis (in the Popperian sense), since that hypothesis is clearly unfalsifiable. But what is “patently absurd” about the claim that the existence of God is a failed hypothesis (which I interpret to mean a hypothesis we can reject)? Personally, I would prefer to put it like this: it is rational to infer that God does not exist. Do you think that claim is patently absurd? If so, do you also think it is patently absurd to infer that the Tooth Fairy does not exist? If you think it is rational to infer that the Tooth Fairy does not exist but not to do the same for God, then what is the essential difference between the two cases?

  115. #115 Tulse
    March 18, 2008

    They argue that supernatural beings, most specifically “God” in the monotheistic sense, is a failed or falsified hypothesis.

    In Dawkins case, his claim is that a god that intervenes in the physical world is, in principle, a scientifically testable hypothesis, and one for which the evidence that we have is overwhelmingly negative, making the truth of that claim extremely unlikely. I don’t see how that is patently absurd.

  116. #116 Chris Schoen
    March 18, 2008

    Tulse,

    These are just from the first few pages of hits for the google search: Dawkins faith evil.

    I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.

    I think there’s something very evil about faith, where faith means believing in something in the absence of evidence.

    http://www.salon.com/books/int/2006/10/13/dawkins/

    Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument.

    http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article2717498.ece

    It is easy for religious faith, even if it is irrational in itself, to lead a sane and decent person, by rational, logical steps, to do terrible things. There is a logical path from religious faith to evil deeds. There is no logical path from atheism to evil deeds.

    http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/richard_dawkins/2007/10/for_good_people_to_go_evil_thi.html

    I’m not the first to point out the irony that none of these statements are based upon evidence in any stringent sense (in fact what evidence we have contradicts them), and in some cases the claims aren’t even logical. In the broad, non-religious sense, faith is an essential component of human sanity. We take for granted an incalculable quantity of facts “on faith” every day.

    (The counter argument to this is that we usually have “good reason” to believe our orange juice isn’t spiked or that our airline pilots aren’t drunk. Perhaps we do, after the fact. This doesn’t mean we have rationally evaluated all the presumptions that might adversely affect us if false. That would be a quick road to paranoia.)

    If the NAs want to oppose obstinance, arrogance, or intellectual and moral laziness, let them do so. I’ll get my hat and coat and join them. But to paint the world as consisting of two camps, those who operate by reason and evidence, and those who operate by faith, is a self-serving fantasy, with no social or intellectual value.

    As I read Dawkins, the claim is that any personal god, who allegedly intervenes in the physical world, does contradict science (or perhaps more accurately is vastly improbable). So one can be a Deist and avoid this charge, but pretty much most other religions are subject to it.

    This qualification of worldly intervention is missing from the large majority of Dawkins’ statements about religion. As the quotes above show, it’s faith and irrationality that are Dawkins’ biggest concern, and these things do not at all map cleanly to the theist-atheist dichotomy, or the religious-irreligious dichotomy.

  117. #117 Chris Schoen
    March 18, 2008

    Windy asked:

    What is it about that study that you find especially scientistic or positivist? Looks like it’s just bad science.

    I’m referring to the bias toward allegedly objective data in cognitive science. The “physicalization” of science, what some people have called “physics envy,” derives from the “scientistic” notion that only when an object of study is reified can we understand it. This is a big part of the reason for the centrality of brain imaging in studies like this.

    The irony of course is that we don’t really care about blood flow in the brain except to the extent that it helps us understand our subjective experience. Without correlating brain scan data to subjective reporting those expensive machines would be relatively useless, except, I guess, as a revenue stream for the medical industry.

  118. #118 Chris Schoen
    March 18, 2008

    Windy asked:

    What is it about that study that you find especially scientistic or positivist? Looks like it’s just bad science.

    I’m referring to the bias toward allegedly objective data in cognitive science. The “physicalization” of science, what some people have called “physics envy,” derives from the “scientistic” notion that only when an object of study is reified can we understand it. This is a big part of the reason for the centrality of brain imaging in studies like this.

    The irony of course is that we don’t really care about blood flow in the brain except to the extent that it helps us understand our subjective experience. Without correlating brain scan data to subjective reporting those expensive machines would be relatively useless, except, I guess, as a revenue stream for the medical industry.

  119. #119 Tulse
    March 18, 2008

    we don’t really care about blood flow in the brain except to the extent that it helps us understand our subjective experience

    I share your skepticism of the utility of many imaging studies (even though I did some PET scan research myself). That said, I think your definition of psychology is too narrow — we care about the neural correlates of experience and behaviour. Indeed, most of psychology doesn’t care terribly much about subjective experiences qua experiences, but only how they manifest themselves.

  120. #120 island
    March 18, 2008

    Chris said:
    “I call them fundamentalists because I think the content of their beliefs, and the ways in which that content causes them to behave, is analogous to religious fundamentalism in many ways.”

    And Richard asked him:
    Can you clarify precisely what ‘ways’ those are? Because it seems to me that most people who make this charge (maybe you’re an exception) are simply responding to one or more of the following features:

    (1) New atheists believe that their opponents are objectively in error.

    (2) They hold this belief with a high degree of confidence. (But not, I take it, dogmatically. Their confidence would be revised in face of contrary evidence, were such ever to appear.)

    (3) They are outspoken in voicing their belief, and hope to persuade others to see the error of their ways.

    I would word it more honestly:

    (1) New atheists believe with “dogmatic”, righteous ferver that their own interpretations of evidence do not include an equally dishonest and antifanatical predispositioning, BECAUSE “they believe that their opponents are objectively in error”, so they react without concern for their own absurdities.

    (2) They hold this belief with a high degree of confidence, (“dogmatically”; the strong pejorative connotation), so their confidence is not revised in face of contrary evidence.

    (3) They are outspoken in voicing their belief, and automatically reject any and all valid science that a creationist may be waving around, rather than to look for other plausible science that doesn’t include “chance occurrence”. (They hold-up equally speculative and equally absurd cuttting edge theoretical extensions that only support their worldview, and they hold righteously to unproven or partially proven theories as something that we *know* becausee it’s “all but proven”.

    4) They beleive that they win debates when they “groupthink” an opponent into silence, even though the opposite would be obvious to anyone who did not dogmatically adhere to their non-agnostic predispositioning.

  121. #121 Tulse
    March 18, 2008

    they react without concern for their own absurdities

    Which are?

    their confidence is not revised in face of contrary evidence

    There is evidence for the existence of powerful supernatural beings? What is it?

    They are outspoken in voicing their belief, and automatically reject any and all valid science that a creationist may be waving around, rather than to look for other plausible science that doesn’t include “chance occurrence”.

    Do you have examples of such valid science waved about by creationists?

    They beleive that they win debates when they “groupthink” an opponent into silence

    How many atheists are there? How many religious adherents? Who is the larger group?

  122. #122 island
    March 18, 2008

    “i” said:
    “they react without concern for their own absurdities
    Which are?”

    Just couple of examples among many, like clinging to random chance at all costs to causality and first principles, in lieu of having to face the obvious implication for inherent information content:

    1)
    http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2007q.bio…..1023K
    Eugene Koonin writes:
    “Evolution of life on earth was governed, primarily, by natural selection, with major contribution of other evolutionary processes, such as neutral variation, exaptation, and gene duplication. However, for biological evolution to take off, a certain minimal degree of complexity is required such that a replicating genome encodes means for its own replication with sufficient rate and fidelity. In all existing life forms, this is achieved by dedicated proteins, polymerases (replicases), that are produced by the elaborate translation system. However, evolution of the coupled system of replication and translation does not appear possible without pre-existing efficient replication; hence a chicken-egg type paradox. I argue that the many-worlds-in-one version of the cosmological model of eternal inflation implies that emergence of replication and translation, as well as the major protein folds, by chance alone, as opposed to biological evolution, is a realistic possibility and could provide for the onset of biological evolution.”

    WHAT?!?

    2)
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071113132255.htm
    Michael Deem writes:
    “The existence of such structure need not necessarily rest on intelligent design or the anthropic principle.”

    Uh, no, the AP does not equate to ID and contrary to your cosmologically ignorant statement, the AP is all about environmental enablement, so… [DING DING DING goes the antifanatic alarm!]

    “i” said:
    “their confidence is not revised in face of contrary evidence”
    There is evidence for the existence of powerful supernatural beings?

    I didn’t say that, and no, I do not see any such evidence.

    “i” said:
    “They are outspoken in voicing their belief, and automatically reject any and all valid science that a creationist may be waving around, rather than to look for other plausible science that doesn’t include “chance occurrence”.
    Do you have examples of such valid science waved about by creationists?

    Yes, I would hold up the same evidence that makes atheist, Leonard Susskind, say that “We will be hardpressed to answer the IDists if the landscape, (the unobservable theoretical multiverse) fails.”

    http://www.newscientist.com/channel/opinion/mg18825305.800.html

    Speaking of reaching to absurdity… but I don’t make Lenny’s unfounded leap of faith when it is much more probable that there is simply some good physical reason for why we are somehow necessary to the physical process.

    However, were I an IDist, I’d damned sure put Lenny’s expert opinion on the witness stand, and then I’d laugh right in the face of the atheists who think that these absurdities are more plausible than EXACTLY WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE.

    “The appearance of design is undeniable”
    -Lenny Susskind, Richard Dawkins, Paul Davies, and very “few” others.

    “i”
    “They beleive that they win debates when they “groupthink” an opponent into silence”
    How many atheists are there? How many religious adherents? Who is the larger group?

    From the debates that just took place in Florida over the inclusion of the term, “evolution” in the science standards, I’d say that the real question is, ‘who is the noisiest’… and “the reactionary ideology” win that one, hands-down… ;)

  123. #123 island
    March 18, 2008

    Test… just checking to see if my last post got moderated because I included numerous links. If so, then be patient like I’m not… ;)

  124. #124 Tulse
    March 18, 2008

    So “inherent information content” is not Intelligent Design? Just what position are you advocate for, island?

  125. #125 island
    March 18, 2008

    Tulse, if you can’t fathom that for yourself, then you are a part of the problem.

  126. #126 island
    March 18, 2008

    To be more clear:
    How the obvious solution for inherent information content ,(that is even noted and autorejected by the author of the paper), can equate to ID, I’ll never know, but I do note that you’re conditioned to be too quick to believe exactly what creationists want you to believe, Tulse, so have a nice religious experience on me… lol

  127. #127 Chris Schoen
    March 18, 2008

    Indeed, most of psychology doesn’t care terribly much about subjective experiences qua experiences, but only how they manifest themselves.

    John Watson’s legacy lives on.

  128. #128 Tulse
    March 18, 2008

    island, do you wish to bandy words about, or do you wish to make a coherent argument? In what sense is “inherent information content” not ID? And what position are you advocating?

  129. #129 island
    March 18, 2008

    Tulse, I cannot for the life of me see how evidence for inherent, (or as the next paper notes, “environmental coding”) information content can possibly equate to ID without a LOT more than that.

    So you tell me how you see ID in the science, and when you became a creationist.

    I am literally amazed by your ability to make my point for me, without appearing to realize it.

    This is highly indicative that you are afflicted by all four listed “qualities” of the antifanatics.

    Don’t worry Chris, I do this all the time, and I have three hundred and seven valid examples that you can use to make your point, in spades… but beware the labels and false accusations that you will bear, which wouldn’t be so bad if they were ever validated by anything more than groupthink and rhetoric… ;)

  130. #130 island
    March 18, 2008

    Oh, and it’s always important to note stuff like the fact that Tulse skipped right past a bunch of important cited information that is directly related and relevant to the point, in order to hone-in on something that causes Tulse to find god… that I, as an agnostic atheist, don’t have, since I don’t automatically see god in evidence for non-random occurrence in nature.

    In doing so, he blew right past the part that actually addressed his misdirected question, where I pointed out that it will always be more probable that we are simply necessary to the physical process unless you have a heck of a lot more than evidence for non-random occurrence in nature, so god or other forms of ID can never be implicated by such evidence… UNLESS you are pre-conditioned to believe it!

    And therein lies a problem that reaches right to the highest levels of science and is begrudgingly known to scientists by the name that a scientist gave it… “anticentrist dogma”.

    Now, watch somebody will quote the first half of my last sentence and call me a “notorious crackpot”.

  131. #131 windy
    March 18, 2008

    I’m referring to the bias toward allegedly objective data in cognitive science. The “physicalization” of science, what some people have called “physics envy,” derives from the “scientistic” notion that only when an object of study is reified can we understand it.

    I don’t think that’s what is usually meant by “physics envy” – that refers to the desire to describe fundamental laws and principles.

    As for Dennett, the man denies the existence of subjective experience for crying out loud.

    No, he thinks that we are mistaken about the nature of subjective experience.

  132. #132 Tulse
    March 18, 2008

    As much as I think Dennett may be right on religion, I think he is profoundly confused on subjective experience — his book was quite rightly referred to as Consciousness Explained Away.

  133. #133 Chris Schoen
    March 19, 2008

    Windy,

    I think Dennett has been pretty clear on this in his writing, particularly about qualia.

    But my point to Tulse was not to correlate any particular scholars with particular doctrines. It was to defend against the charge of having setting up a straw man when I wrote: “not everything we want to know has the benefit of being subject to quantification or considered from an objective perspective.”

  134. #134 windy
    March 19, 2008

    I think Dennett has been pretty clear on this in his writing, particularly about qualia.

    In “Quining qualia”, Dennett writes:

    Everything real has properties, and since I don’t deny the reality of conscious experience, I grant that conscious experience has properties. I grant moreover that each person’s states of consciousness have properties in virtue of which those states have the experiential content that they do. That is to say, whenever someone experiences something as being one way rather than another, this is true in virtue of some property of something happening in them at the time, but these properties are so unlike the properties traditionally imputed to consciousness that it would be grossly misleading to call any of them the long-sought qualia.

    Either he doesn’t deny conscious experience, or at the very least he’s not being clear about it.

    It was to defend against the charge of having setting up a straw man…

    …not by setting up a few different ones, I hope?

  135. #135 Chris
    March 19, 2008

    Dennett doesn’t deny conscious experience, but he does deny that its existence is a unique or particularly difficult problem, because as he sees it, conscious experience is only problematic (for non-dualists, that is) when we treat qualia as something uniquely different from other aspects of experience, including the physical aspects.

  136. #136 Chris Schoen
    March 19, 2008

    I think this is hair-splitting. What does it mean to say that subjective experience is “real,” when its features are all declared illusory?

    Whether Dennett denies subjective experience, or just qualia, the project is the same: privileging knowledge we can corroborate over our actual experience.

  137. #137 windy
    March 19, 2008

    I think this is hair-splitting. What does it mean to say that subjective experience is “real,” when its features are all declared illusory?

    Didn’t you criticize reification a few comments ago? :) The point of the argument seems to be that qualia may not be “real” features of subjective experience.

    Whether Dennett denies subjective experience, or just qualia, the project is the same: privileging knowledge we can corroborate over our actual experience.

    Some of Dennett’s arguments about consciousness may seem perverse, but some are rather down-to-earth – pointing out how our experiences develop over time, for example “learning” to like beer, is hardly a denial of our actual experience.

  138. #138 J. J. Ramsey
    March 19, 2008

    Chris Schoen: “the project is the same: privileging knowledge we can corroborate over our actual experience.”

    Is this really a bad thing, considering how unreliable our personal interpretations of our experience are?

  139. #139 Chris Schoen
    March 20, 2008

    Windy,

    This is my point. Qualia are the only elements of subjective experience that distinguish it from objectively confirmable observation. If we declare them as unreal, then we reduce the status of subjectivity itself to irrelevance.

    J.J.,

    I think you are operating under the exact bias I’m talking about. Scientific knowledge has its role, but something dangerous happens when we abdicate our ability to make judgments based on our personal experience. (Not to mention the inherent illogic in putting all our eggs in the “objectivity” basket, when whatever objective knowledge we gain still has to pass through subjective experience to be contemplated.)

  140. #140 windy
    March 20, 2008

    Qualia are the only elements of subjective experience that distinguish it from objectively confirmable observation. If we declare them as unreal, then we reduce the status of subjectivity itself to irrelevance.

    I’m not so sure – does describing life in terms of non-life reduce life itself to irrelevance?

  141. #141 Tulse
    March 20, 2008

    Qualia are the only elements of subjective experience that distinguish it from objectively confirmable observation. If we declare them as unreal, then we reduce the status of subjectivity itself to irrelevance.

    My objection to Dennett is very different, namely, if we declare qualia as objectively unreal, that still does not address the fact that individuals do indeed experience them. In other words, they aren’t “unreal” in a very real sense — arguably, they are the only thing that any given individual can be certain of (as was stated as early as Descartes, as as lately as The Matrix). Just because qualia are not veridical does not mean they aren’t real.

    Scientific knowledge has its role, but something dangerous happens when we abdicate our ability to make judgments based on our personal experience.

    In many domains, I would argue the reverse — something very dangerous happens when we abdicate making judgements based on objective criteria. Just look at the kerfluffle around vaccination and autism, or homeopathy, or Bible-based mental health treatments, or a host of other non-scientific approaches to the world. In these cases, the abandonment of objective science causes real, serious harm.

  142. #142 J. J. Ramsey
    March 20, 2008

    Chris Schoen: “Not to mention the inherent illogic in putting all our eggs in the ‘objectivity’ basket, when whatever objective knowledge we gain still has to pass through subjective experience to be contemplated.”

    Except that the metaphor of putting all our eggs in the ‘objectivity’ basket is misleading. Science is at its core falliblist, and the point of the discipline of science is to find ways to at least partially compensate for our everyday biases by pitting them against outside tests and people who don’t necessarily share our particular biases. If you’ll pardon the abuse of the eggs-in-the-basket metaphor, the idea is to not rely on one particular basket, which may be weak or hole-filled, but to nest multiple baskets into each other so that they can plug each other’s holes and reinforce each other.

  143. #143 dorid
    March 20, 2008

    I think you’re all missing the point, and the use of the word “fundamentalist” is a pretty sloppy use of language. If you’re meaning to describe a similarity of behaviors or be insulting towards Dawkins, I’m sure there are more accurate ways to do it. If you’re meaning to show that Dawkins is unlike his religious opponents, it seems your missing the point. This has become one of the silliest arguments on the web, and surprisingly lacking in the niceties I’d expect from commentators involved in the sciences.

  144. #144 Chris Schoen
    March 20, 2008

    Windy writes:

    I’m not so sure – does describing life in terms of non-life reduce life itself to irrelevance?

    Yes! without reservation, if that description is the only one we permit ourselves. I like the way Tulse puts it: “Just because qualia are not veridical does not mean they aren’t real.” Or as Souljerky puts it: “Just because it’s not real doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”

    Tulse,

    I agree that we shouldn’t abdicate making scientific judgments either. You preface your remark with “in many domains,” which is the key. There isn’t a unitary system we can apply to all aspects of our lives.

    J.J. Ramsey,

    The fallibilist model is noble, but it doesn’t address the issue I am raising. No human knowledge can exist outside the biases of being human: relying on certain sense data, living a certain span of time, and so forth. No matter how abstract or objective our knowledge becomes, it must be conveyed in relational metaphors arising from the specific way we experience the world.

  145. #145 Chris Schoen
    March 20, 2008

    btw, Tulse, in case you stopped checking, I responded to you on the other thread. I know you said you thought we’d reached an impasse, but I thought I’d give it another shot.

  146. #146 Tulse
    March 20, 2008

    And I’ve replied.

  147. #147 Eric Thomson
    March 20, 2008

    Ugh it’s degenerated into arguments about qualia, which always means two groups throwing intuition pies at one another. I’ve thrown my share of pies, as seen here.

    Sidestepping the pie, above I said positivists weren’t using the term ‘correspondence theory of truth’ yet. I was wrong, as evidenced by this article by Hempel in 1935 explicitly saying that positivists used a coherence theory of truth as opposed to a correspondence theory. My apologies for my sloppy history there.

    Chris said:
    Eric, while I understand what you are getting at, don’t you think the correspondence rules in logical positivism ended up getting them fairly close to a correspondence theory of truth?

    No, I think they are different. The rules of correspondence linked different terms in different theories. Some terms in their theory were ‘observation’ terms and some were ‘theoretical’ terms. So the correspondence was just a mapping between theories, and these could be between theoretical terms or observational terms. Correspondence theories of truth are all about theory-world relations, not theory-theory relations.

    The positivists, if memory serves, tended to be fairly circumspect in their discussion of truth, often equating ‘truth’ with ‘verifiable by experience’ which really doesn’t address the additional questions about whether ‘verifiable by experience’ means ‘true’ in the correspondence sense. My hunch, from memory and the above Hempel article, was that they thought such talk was silly as there is no way to compare the world to the theory directly to see if they match up. Most modern-day naturalists/scientistic types are realists who buy into correspondence theories of truth.

    Cutting to the chase, I think the term ‘scientism’ is much better for the things you’ve been saying. Calling it positivistic is sort of anachronistic, and brings up all sorts of exegetical issues that are a garden path.

    Again, this is just a little semantic quibble and I hesitated to bring it up, but then I noticed you all were arguing about qualia so I thought it couldn’t hurt.

    I also agree with the person who said the positivists had some really good things to say. Logical positivism (and logicial empiricism) is much more than Ayer’s manifesto.

  148. #148 Eric Thomson
    March 20, 2008

    Yes! without reservation, if that description is the only one we permit ourselves.

    But that likely wouldn’t happen. We haven’t stopped talking about temperature because it has been reduced to mean kinetic energy in statistical mechanics. When something is reduced, it is not eliminated, but simply explained in terms of the operations of simpler parts. The original, reduced, thing, is still considered perfectly real and talk-about-able.

    Phlogiston, on the other hand, well we don’t talk about that anymore because it was rightly replaced (eliminated) by a better framework.

    It is so early in the science of consciousness that confident pronouncements (except this one) on its ontology (by anybody on any side of any -ism) are simply silly and premature. With consciousness, I don’t even think we are as far along as the Greeks were with respect to explaining matter or perhaps better, the Krebs Cycle. That is, the problem isn’t even clearly conceptualized yet and likely more pieces of the puzzle are required from psychology, neuro, perhaps (but hopefully not) even phenomenology.

    That’s why I avoid throwing pies as everyone ends up all messy looking silly.

  149. #149 Eric Thomson
    March 20, 2008

    Err, that comment about pies in the last post would have made sense if my comment-before-last weren’t sucked into a spam filter. :)

  150. #150 J. J. Ramsey
    March 20, 2008

    Chris Schoen: “No human knowledge can exist outside the biases of being human: relying on certain sense data, living a certain span of time, and so forth.”

    Errm, that’s pretty much what falliblism is about.

  151. #151 Chris Schoen
    March 20, 2008

    J.J.,

    Yes, that’s what it is about. When I said it doesn’t address for the issue I was raising, I just meant it can’t fully correct for it–as you yourself suggested when you referred to a “partial compensation.”

    Multiple baskets are a good way to reduce bias, but bias correction can never be exhaustive. For one thing we can only address the biases we can anticipate. If we are wise and insightful this may be a significant amount, but there’s always going to be an unknown unknowns problem.

    On top of that there’s the problem of symbols. Subjective experience can precede, transcend, or evade conceptualization, but objective experience cannot. This is to say that it relies upon a mapping of reality that can never be more than symbolic.

    I’m not knocking science here, just pointing out what I think is a fairly obvious limitation of its power.

  152. #152 Chris Schoen
    March 20, 2008

    Eric,

    I can’t agree. There is a distinct tendency among reductionist scientists to assert that their bottom-up atomistic descriptions are not only more real than the descriptions we derive from everyday experience, but that they are exclusively real. The Selfish Gene is the example that springs first to mind.

    The irony is that these descriptions, in time, always turn out to be, at best, incomplete, if not altogether untenable. (Again, ahem, Selfish Gene).

    I’m not by any means saying that subjective reality is more real than objective scientific models. I’m just saying there’s no standard to appeal to privilege objectivity as “more” real.

  153. #153 Eric Thomson
    March 20, 2008

    Chris S:

    The facts about how scientists operate don’t support you. Here are some things we (scientists) think are real but which are also reducible to other things — lungs, proteins (enzymes, prions), hair, digestion, hearts, clouds, ATP, bricks, EEG signals…etc.

    The lower-level descriptions are often more useful and revealing than the higher-level (e.g., by considering the structure of a particular protein novel manipulations such as genetic knock-outs suggest themselves). But sometimes the higher-level description is more useful. It depends on what your goals are. Now, of course we think that the higher-level properties supervene on the lower-level properties (e.g., if two hairs are different, that means they have a different arrangement of keratin or different pigments giveing them different color). This is all quite different from saying that hair doesn’t exist or that someone who knows the molecular biology of hair would be tempted to say hair doesn’t exist. Hair is not phlogiston.

    There may be some exceptions among scientists for certain examples, but in general I don’t see this tendency at all.

  154. #154 Chris Schoen
    March 20, 2008

    Tulse,

    (from the other thread)

    When I say that all language is metaphorical, I don’t mean there were no first words. Logically there had to be at least one.

    I think this set of words or names that directly corresponded to perceived objects was exceedingly small, so much so to make it essentially irrelevant in the context of our present notion of language. But even if I’m wrong about this–even if today we still had a large store of words that referred to perceived objects without recourse to other words or concepts–these words would still be metaphorical in another sense: the sense of the symbol as placeholder, or obscurant of the perceived object.

    I think we can easily establish there are no two things in the world that are identical. Given any two objects–vases, say–which are alike in every detail, down to their atomic structure, we can still differentiate between them by their location in space. Differentiation is the standard by which we identify objects as separable; if two things are in no way different, then they aren’t two things, they’re one.

    Following from this, any “thing” we can think of must be in some way unique. When we talk about names of things then, we are talking about shared properties. It would be meaningless if everything we delineated from something else had its own name. Names, to have any value, must be relational. Naming, in this regard, is an act of unifying disparate objects.

    There is really no such thing in nature as “a” vase, or “a” bird. There are only classes of objects–abstractions–that we identify by their shared properties. These shared properties are logical and meaningful to us, but they are nonetheless abstractions; that is, they are not intrinsic to the objects themselves.

    Whether consciously, unconsciously, or arbitrarily, we choose the properties of things that matter to us, and use these properties as shibboleths of similarity and difference–of classification–to stand for the thing itself. But choosing these properties–making concepts, and symbols to communicate them–is a creative act, not, strictly speaking, a representative one. The naive correspondence view overlooks this fact, and conflates the the symbol with the thing itself. In fact it is a form of magical thinking, which we may never fully be able to be free from, so long as we manipulate symbols to represent the world.

    You write that ‘if we have no literal conception of “red” and “roses”, how can “love is a red rose” have reference?’ But I don’t argue that we have no literal conception of red and rose. Language would have no value if it were not a medium for communication. The concept is exactly what we do have. What I argue is that language by its very nature distances us from apprehending the actual world, which is the price we must pay to share our experiences with each other. Sad, ain’t it?

    Also from that thread:

    But what you are missing is that such biases in science hinder access to the truth.

    I’m not missing it at all; it’s the heart of my position. My argument, humble at that, is only that our desire to transcend these biases altogether is a dream.

  155. #155 Chris Schoen
    March 20, 2008

    Eric,

    It sounds like we are in pretty close agreement when you write this:

    The lower-level descriptions are often more useful and revealing than the higher-level … But sometimes the higher-level description is more useful. It depends on what your goals are.

    I suppose what we do not agree on is the extent to which various scientists “operate” on this level, or on some other. It seems like an over-generalization to put it that way. I’m making my judgment on assertions made to the lay public (which are the ones which matter most), such as the idea (to return to Dawkins) that the notion of organisms as individuals is an illusion, but the notion of genes as individuals is real.

  156. #156 windy
    March 21, 2008

    Chris Schoen wrote:

    I can’t agree. There is a distinct tendency among reductionist scientists to assert that their bottom-up atomistic descriptions are not only more real than the descriptions we derive from everyday experience, but that they are exclusively real. The Selfish Gene is the example that springs first to mind. The irony is that these descriptions, in time, always turn out to be, at best, incomplete, if not altogether untenable. (Again, ahem, Selfish Gene).

    and

    the idea (to return to Dawkins) that the notion of organisms as individuals is an illusion, but the notion of genes as individuals is real.

    1) Nowhere in the Selfish Gene does Dawkins claim that individuals aren’t “real”. He says that from an evolutionary point of view, individuals are best thought of as ‘vehicles’ and genes as ‘replicators’.

    2) Your description of the selfish gene model as ‘altogether untenable’ is ignorant, since the existence of genetic conflict is now widely accepted; how do you explain that if not by gene-based selection? (To be fair, even many biologists make the same mistake and claim that the selfish gene model has been ‘abandoned’)

  157. #157 Chris Schoen
    March 21, 2008

    Windy,

    Dawkins doesn’t use those actual words, but it’s far from ambiguous that he intends this meaning, as when he writes, in the chapter on bodies as survival machines, that though we feel like individuals, colonies of genes is what we actually are. And further that the reason we experience the illusion of individuality is that it serves the genes’ purposes to do so.

    Your description of the selfish gene model as ‘altogether untenable’ is ignorant, since the existence of genetic conflict is now widely accepted; how do you explain that if not by gene-based selection?

    Genes have nowhere near the prominent role Dawkins assigns them in determining traits. There’s no such thing as a “master molecule;” DNA without a cell is just as inert as a cell without DNA.

    The metaphors of genic “control” and of DNA providing “information” on how, where and when to structure cells, tissues and organs are undoubtedly useful for scientists engaged in genetic research. But as an explanation for how living structures form and grow these metaphors are deeply inadequate (which is why I wrote “incomplete, at best.”) This has been amply shown both by empirical research and logical exploration of the metaphors, which in the end amount to a type of bootstrapping.

    I don’t think anyone would argue that genes influence phenotypes, but the notions of “programming” and “exerting ultimate control” that ones find in Dawkins’ books on evolutionary theory are not supported by modern genetics and genomics.

    I’m not going to reply to your remark about intragenomic conflict–a topic I’m not well-versed in–except to say that it is not specifically the level of selection question I am responding to in Dawkins’ work. It has been pointed out that there is no logical reason to presume there can only be one unit of selection; I consider our thinking on this aspect of evolution overly stratified. But where I think Dawkins is weakest is in his treatment of the genome as singularly responsible for the varied forms of life.

  158. #158 Tulse
    March 21, 2008

    notion of organisms as individuals is an illusion, but the notion of genes as individuals is real

    Chris, you’re missing the point (as windy suggests) — whether or not an organism is “real” depends on the perspective one is taking. From the perspective of certain theories of evolution, the individual is not the important vehicle of selection, but it is also true that the individual qua individual is also not important for theories of macroeconomics, or for understanding traffic patterns, or for predicting patterns of migration, yet this state of affairs does not mean that somehow the notion of personal identity is lost. If you genuinely think the only thing defining the “individual”, with all the socio-cultural, political, ethical, and philosophical implications that has, is whether they (along with all other non-human organisms) are the primary vehicle for genetic selection, then you are profoundly confused.

    And, further, you once again seem to be arguing against scientific theories on the basis of their implications, rather than whether they are true. That’s simply backwards.

  159. #159 windy
    March 21, 2008

    Dawkins doesn’t use those actual words, but it’s far from ambiguous that he intends this meaning, as when he writes, in the chapter on bodies as survival machines, that though we feel like individuals, colonies of genes is what we actually are.

    Dawkins wrote in SG: “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” That makes no sense if your interpretation of Dawkins’s intentions is true.

    And further that the reason we experience the illusion of individuality is that it serves the genes’ purposes to do so.

    Is it possible you have Dawkins confused with Dennett here?

    …which is why I wrote “incomplete, at best.”

    All science is incomplete, so that is not in itself a huge warning sign.

    I don’t think anyone would argue that genes influence phenotypes, but the notions of “programming” and “exerting ultimate control” that ones find in Dawkins’ books on evolutionary theory are not supported by modern genetics and genomics.

    I know that some modern evolutionary biologists disagree with those metaphors, but some don’t (including myself). In an evolutionary biologist’s ‘ultimate’ sense (bit different from regular usage), genes may exert ultimate control over most features of organisms.

    I’m not going to reply to your remark about intragenomic conflict–a topic I’m not well-versed in–except to say that it is not specifically the level of selection question I am responding to in Dawkins’ work

    The existence of intragenomic conflict pertains directly to the supposed poverty of the selfish gene metaphor.

  160. #160 Chris Schoen
    March 21, 2008

    Tulse,

    I agree with you that “whether or not an organism is “real” depends on the perspective one is taking.” And in fact this is just what I’ve argued, consistently, thoughout this thread. But that isn’t the argument Dawkins puts forth in TSG. For example,

    Subjectively I feel like a unit, not a colony. This is to be expected. Selection has favoured genes which cooperate with each other… Nowadays the intricate mutual co-evolution of genes has proceeded to such an extent that the communal nature of an individual survival machine is virtually unrecognizable. (pp. 46-47, 1999 printing)

    What follows this passage is seven pages of descriptions of machines that act as though they had their own volition (hay balers, steam engine governors, missile guidance systems, computers). Then comes the famous quote about genes as “master programmers.” Are you really prepared to argue that this selection does not advance the notion of genes as being the “true” determinants of behavior, whereas volition on the organismic level is an illusory determinant?

    Here’s how Mary Midgley sums up this effect:

    The reader is told that all his natural feelings – but particularly those outgoing ones which seem to link him with others – are false and misleading guides. They are not really aspects of himself at all, but devices placed in him by alien beings in order to manipulate him. Or, less mythologically, but no less alarmingly, they are the physical effects produced by parasites which have lodged irremovably in his body, and whose chemistry continually distorts his mental processes in a way adapted only to secure their own survival.

    You’ll perhaps argue again that I’m confusing, in backwards fashion, the truth of a science and the implication of that science. But I am not. I’m arguing against the two separately: on the grounds that the science is wrong (see below), and the corresponding implications are misleading.

    Windy,

    Dawkins wrote in SG: “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” That makes no sense if your interpretation of Dawkins’s intentions is true.

    It makes no sense in either case. Dennett makes the same mistake in Breaking The Spell. You can’t simultaneously argue a biological determination of behavior, and a cultural transcendence of that determination. Especially if you are going to suggest that culture itself is made of replicators (memes) that follow the same laws as selfish genes.

    In an evolutionary biologist’s ‘ultimate’ sense (bit different from regular usage), genes may exert ultimate control over most features of organisms.

    This is somewhat cryptic. Can you elaborate on the definition of “ultimate” that doesn’t mean ultimate but also does? There are two ways I take “ultimate” to be understood in context of genetics:

    1) Located at the beginning of a causal chain. This makes little sense because genes themselves are reducible to constituent organic compounds, to atoms, and finally fundamental particles.

    2) Unconditioned or unconstrained. This we know to be false. There are several influences within and without the cell with which genetic influence must contend; e.g. so-called environmental influences (diet, climate), microindeterminacy (embryology), principles of form and organization (protein folding, spacial cell patterning), canalization, and alternative splicing.

    If you have some other definition of ultimate I hope you’ll share it.

  161. #161 Eric Thomson
    March 23, 2008

    Chris: ultimate as opposed to proximate. Selectionist explanations are historical explanations, not proximal causal explantions. This is an elementary distinction discussed in any elementary book on the evolution of behavior. E.g., Alcock’s book. Dawkins talks about it in the selfish gene, but usually doesn’t use that language.

    Forming confident views about a science from a popular science book is a mistake, the seeds of sophomoric prattle.

  162. #162 Chris Schoen
    March 23, 2008

    Eric,

    I understand the distinction between ultimate and proximate. The point I am making is that genetics and genomics do not support the model that puts genes in an “ultimate” position, even from an ethological view. The entire concept of an ultimate cause is misleading; genes are part of a system at every point within the life cycle, in which they are subject to influence as much as they are responsible for it. The reconciliation between this and strong adaptationism remains unarticulated, as far as I know.

    Whether or not it is “sophomoric” to form confident views based on popular science, it happens all the time, and probably always will. Most people are non-scientists, and must rely on popular science to develop their ideas about what is true and what is real.

    This makes the translation of scientific understanding into lay terms a crucial juncture in the acquisition of science by the culture as a whole. I don’t see any reason by popular science should be set aside as not fit for intelligent conversation on these grounds. At any rate the original question was does TSG assert a primacy of gene-level reality. Responses in the negative should, I think, account for the effect of the passage I cited for Tulse.

  163. #163 Eric Thomson
    March 23, 2008

    Of course such popular works are very important, and should spur conversation, but assuming the role of pedant or pedagogue based on such work is the mistake (especially work so laden with interpretive excesses as Dawkins). You have made many confident pronouncements about how science works in this thread, thrown around a lot of philosophy jargon that you obviously don’t understand, so it is obvious your air of breezy confidence is unjustified. If you had an air of humility people wouldn’t be reacting like this to your comments.

    OK, enough ad hominem. I hope the above isn’t too offensive.

    As for the topic, nobody has said genes are sufficient for fixing phenotypes. Phenotypes emerge from a complicated interaction between genes, environments, and the phenotype itself of the containing organism (the relative weights of these components, and their interactions must of course be determined empirically).

    But getting to the point, ultimate explanations are simply natural-selection based explanations, which is all about genes and how they are inherited. This isn’t panselectionism. If X has a selectionist explanation, then that explanation of X is an ultimate explanation, and will involve reference to genes. Unless the antecedent of that conditional is empty, then the concept of an ultimate explanation (or cause if you must) is reasonable, and not particularly mysterious even if there are still lots of details to be worked out.

    I agree that Dawkins sometimes goes a bit far in what values of X are germane, but the “concept” of ultimate explanation isn’t the problem.

  164. #164 Eric Thomson
    March 23, 2008

    One addendum, and then I’ll stop.

    Ultimate explanations of behavior are not only done via natural selection explanations. We also give ultimate explanations of behavior in terms of history of reinforcement. For instance, “Why did the rat push the left lever?” “Because of such and such history of reward.”).

    Such explanations ignore the internal, proximate, mechanistic explanation of how brains cause muscles to cause arms to push levers. They focus on a selectionist explanation using the history of the organism (that particular behavior via oprerant conditioning in a way analagous to how natural selection picks out genes).

    This is discussed in many places I assume, but it receives a lot of attention in Baum’s delightful book Understanding Behaviorism. (Note I am not advocating philosophical behaviorism, so please don’t start that discussion). So natural selection explanations, in terms of genes, are a subset of ultimate explanations used in psychology.

    More generally, many other nonselectionist types of explanations can be considered ultimate explanations. E.g., your answer to my question “How did you get that scar?” would probably not refer to the molecular mechanisms of scar formation, but would provide a historical account of what, ultimately, caused the scar to appear in the first place.

    Because of this ubiquity of ultimate explanations in psychology and everyday life, I guess I don’t see a big issue here.

  165. #165 Chris Schoen
    March 24, 2008

    Eric,

    I can understand how my comments could be construed as over-confident, so let me apologize for that impression. I admit that I earlier used the term “positivist” in too casual a sense–I was following up on, and defending, Mixing Memory-Chris’s usage of the term (is he too a “pedant”?) I may, in fact, be insufficiently humble, which in my book is an abrogation of good character, but my intent in this is trying to argue against certain excesses in what I guess we are agreeing to call a “scientistic” viewpoint. At any rate, regardless of your annoyance of my perceived agenda, I would appreciate less ad hominem, and more attention to my actual argument. Whatever my faults, I am writing in good faith, and I am open to reason, logic, and factual argument.

    You write that “no one has said that genes were sufficient for fixing phenotypes.” I agree that even the most ardent panselectionists give lip service to epigenetics, but as far as I am able to determine the adaptationist view relies on a stronger correspondence between genotype and phenotype than genetics of the last 20 to 40 years would support. If, as you write, “phenotypes emerge from a complicated interaction between genes, environments, and the phenotype itself of the containing organism,” then “ultimate” is not a word we should use in reference to any one participant in that interaction. Explanation “in reference” to genes is a much different thing than ascribing heredity an “ultimate” role.

    It has been amply documented, as I’m sure you are aware, that there are a number of phenotypic characters that arise in spite of, rather than in accordance with, an organism’s genome. This is not to deny selection, but to attribute it to a broader palette of influences than heredity alone. In other words, more than being “all about genes and how they are inherited.”

    In a behaviorist context, to say that a rat pushes a certain lever because of a history of reward is to presume behaviorism a priori. This is not directly comparable to asking how either I (or a rat) got a certain scar, which is both historical and also (presumably) non-volitional.

    In other words, I agree with you that history matters. What I don’t agree on is what we can take for granted in assessing that history.

  166. #166 Eric Thomson
    March 24, 2008

    Let’s be mroe concrete, as all this general speak is giving me vertigo. Perhaps you can make your points with this example, the sex of turtles (which is determined by egg temperature, as discussed here).

    I don’t know much about how this happens proximally. Let’s assume it is relatively easy to give a molecular account of this phenomenon (e.g., at a certain stage in development, some transcription factor present in the embryo is activated if a temperature threshold is crossed, and this confers femaleness upon the embryo).

    Then we could ask why things were set up like that in the first place, that is, ask for an ultimate explanation. A panselectionist would assume it was actively selected for (perhaps we need only a few females, and since eggs already occur in clusters there is a natural temperature gradient in whicih only a few eggs are warm). But we don’t even need to assume it was actively selected. Perhaps there was genetic drift in an ancestral species or something. This seems unlikely, but it is possible. By simply assuming that the ancestral state is to have “purely” genetic sex determination (something we can determine empirically), the ultimate explanation will have to incorporate genetic elements. Without genetics, there is no explanation of how a trait is fixed in a population.

    So yes, of course evolution is complicated and natural selection isn’t the only game in town. But in any account of how a phenotype became fixed (or high frequency) in a population, the genes will be very important. Almost by definition, any ultimate explanation will have to include genetic elements.

    It is interesting, though, the question of which phenotypes require ultimate explanations in the evolutionary sense. E.g., the phenotype of homosexuality in humans. To ask for such an explanation assumes it is a phenotype that evolved, rather than some cultural thing. If it is cultural, then the proper ultimate question is “Why did we evolve to be so plastic and for our nervous system to be so easily shaped by experience?” So one must be careful of asking too specific of a question.

    Explanations in terms of histories of reward don’t really require behaviorist assumptions. I train rats every day to move to the left or right depending on the reward given. If you come and ask why a particular rat ran to the left, I can explain this in terms of its history, of rewarding the left turning behavior and not the right-turning behavior. This obviously isn’t the whole explanation, but it is one (true) explanation, and an ultimate explanation as it tells you why this (and not some other) behavior is expressed. The analogy with natural selection operating over genotypes is fairly close. Given a different history, I guarantee it will behave differently.

  167. #167 Chris Schoen
    March 24, 2008

    Eric,

    I don’t have easy JSTOR access but this topic was just in the news; In January, you may well be aware, two researchers at the University of Sydney (Rick Shine and Dan Warner) published a paper in Nature demonstrating the Charnoff-Bull theory of the evolutionary advantage of temperature selection versus chromosomal selection in reptiles.

    Aromatase, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen, is temperature-sensitive in reptiles. By suppressing this hormone the researchers were able to hatch male Jacky lizards at (lower) temperatures that would normally produce females, and compare their fitness with males who developed at higher temperatures. The males produced without hormonal interference left more offspring, vindicating Charnoff-Bull.

    Humbly untutored as I am in herpetology or cladistics, I’m not qualified to offer an informed critique on the Shine/Warner research, but it still seems a lot less iron-clad than they’re presenting it. The questions that remain for me are:

    1) How do you isolate the selection pressure that favors males incubated at the normal temperature over those incubated at the lower temperature? Shine/Warner replicated the nature environment of Jacky lizards as much as practicable, but as the experiment was controlled, and no one as yet knows exactly what pressures were operational in evolutionary history, no actual correlation is established by the experiment. All that was really shown is that the lizards whose natural development was interfered with were less hardy than the ones who were left alone. That’s the kind of finding even a creationist could love.

    2) The earth’s climate has changed radically in the 200+ million years these species have been around. It is probably safe to presume from the fact they are not extinct that their sex ratios have remained more or less stable over that time, which would imply that the trigger point for the operation of aromatase is variable. If so, this changes the fitness picture, since there would be no constant for selection to act upon. Is selection favoring the lizards who regulate sex ratios by temperature instead of chromosomal inheritance, or lizards who can adapt the temperature point of aromatase activation? Or both? Or neither? The Charnoff-Bull theory does not address this.

    This is to say there is no “first place” where things were “set up,” from which we can draw ultimate explanations. Every historical moment has contingent preceding moments. Which ones were the critical ones? How can we know?

    If I were arguing that genotypes had nothing to do with phenotypes that would be one thing. But I’m not. I agree with you that genes are “very important” in accounts of how phenotypes persist over time, and that any ultimate explanation “would have to include genetic elements.” This is different than what Windy wrote: “In an evolutionary biologist’s ‘ultimate’ sense (bit different from regular usage), genes may exert ultimate control over most features of organisms.” She hasn’t piped in to clarify that remark, but whether she meant merely non-proximal, or actually

    So it seems to me use of the word “ultimate” is misleading in at least two senses. Among biologists, it allows questions to be posed that oversimplify the relations between organisms and environments (ultimate explanations can never resolve to a specifically genetic answer, and it may be that we can never fully untangle the environmental and formal influences from the genetic ones.) Among lay readers it suggests a near-fatalistic genetic determinism.

  168. #168 Eric Thomson
    March 24, 2008

    This is to say there is no “first place” where things were “set up,” from which we can draw ultimate explanations.

    As I mentioned, if the ancestral form didn’t have this trait, then selection provides a plausible account of how it became fixed. That is the ‘first place.’ The point before which the character in question diverged.

    I guess I don’t see the big deal here. Comparative data amongst many species helps you reconstruct the ultimate genetic story of how the feature evolved (e.g., selection of alleles, gene duplication, etc), it tells you who is related to whom. But you are right that such phylogeny reconstruction based on molecular evidence leaves a hell of a lot out of the story, and evolutionary biologists need to seek other lines of evidence from paleontology, paleoclimatology, physiology. It sounds like that paper you cite (which I haven’t read) is a nice start on filling in some of the story. But of course there should be some open questions. You might write the authors and ask them your questions, as I am sure they would have interesting and honest answers.

    The word ‘ultimate’ is here to stay I think. It’s just a bit of jargon that has a fairly specific meaning which I believe dates back to the old school ethologists like Tinbergen. If we didn’t use that term, we’d just use another, and I don’t really care what word is used.

  169. #169 windy
    March 25, 2008

    If you have some other definition of ultimate I hope you’ll share it.

    Sorry, I was not online during Easter, but thankfully Eric picked up the slack :)

  170. #170 windy
    March 26, 2008

    Some further answers, if anyone’s still reading this… Chris has raised some interesting points, but unfortunately the details seem a bit muddled. I agree with Eric’s excellent explanation of ultimate explanations so I’ll only add this: the difference of proximate and ultimate explanations can be like finding that someone died of blood loss vs. finding the motive for the murder. Although you can find more “ultimate” explanations going back the causal chain, all the way to quantum events, there are some ultimate interesting explanations (similar to what Dawkins has said about the importance of selection).

    You write that “no one has said that genes were sufficient for fixing phenotypes.” I agree that even the most ardent panselectionists give lip service to epigenetics, but as far as I am able to determine the adaptationist view relies on a stronger correspondence between genotype and phenotype than genetics of the last 20 to 40 years would support.

    Adaptationism requires a statistical association between genotype and phenotype, not genetic determinism. Extreme adaptationism is silly, but not primarily because there isn’t a “strong enough” correspondence between genotype and phenotype.

    Furthermore, it is not true that ascribing most organismal features to genetics implies panselectionism: Lynch and Nei have recently promoted very genome-based ideas on most phenotypic evolution being neutral.

    Still further, the recent excitement over epigenetics is largely due to ideas that there could be other important forms of heredity besides DNA. This would hardly reduce the importance of heredity in explaining things.

    It has been amply documented, as I’m sure you are aware, that there are a number of phenotypic characters that arise in spite of, rather than in accordance with, an organism’s genome.

    How does a trait arise in spite of an organism’s genome, exactly?

    This is not to deny selection, but to attribute it to a broader palette of influences than heredity alone.

    How? (Evolution by) selection requires heredity.

    This is different than what Windy wrote: “In an evolutionary biologist’s ‘ultimate’ sense (bit different from regular usage), genes may exert ultimate control over most features of organisms.” She hasn’t piped in to clarify that remark, but whether she meant merely non-proximal, or actually

    Actually, what? Was the alternative too horrible to spell out? :)

  171. #171 Chris Schoen
    March 27, 2008

    Windy,

    Sorry, I nodded on the that last sentence of the next-to-last paragraph. The words after “actually” should have been something like “literally ultimate,” but you’ve answered that.

    I still think it’s a mistake to use a word so contrary to its literal meaning. I recognize that the way evolutionary biologists use it is more precise and specific than the general definition, but it makes for tricky communication with the lay public, and I’m not at all convinced that the scientific sense is cleansed of all connotations of “ultimateness.”

    Still further, the recent excitement over epigenetics is largely due to ideas that there could be other important forms of heredity besides DNA. This would hardly reduce the importance of heredity in explaining things.

    This surely comprises some of the “recent excitement” but not all of it. At any rate I’m not as concerned with what excites people in this case as with what should excite them, which is that non-genetic (and non-heritable) factors are an influence on traits and development.

    How does a trait arise in spite of an organism’s genome, exactly?

    Good question, that I can’t give a very specific answer to. But it happens all the time. Phenotype variation in clones, for example, is a well studied phenomenon. I can give you the vague and general answer that genes interact with environments, sometimes to the extent that certain genic effects are nullified, but you already know that.

  172. #172 Eric Thomson
    March 28, 2008

    The trait of having one eye can arise if the environment plucks out my eye.

    The way this is usually discussed is in terms of the degree of ‘openness’ of the genotype to phenotype connection (or the ‘genetic program’). Eye color is a relatively closed genetic program, as it would take rather severe negative inputs from the environment to make an iris not conform to the hue specified by genetics (e.g., extreme malnourishment). Turtle sex is more open, as turtle sex determination requires temperature to interact with the molecules in the egg that determine sex.

    At the far end of the open genetic programs, it almost seems strange to talk of genetic programs (e.g., it would be a stretch to say there is an open genetic program for preferring Obama over Hillary). Luckily the evolutionary psychologists, for all their bullshit, do take culture pretty seriously (though often with superficial meme theories that, not surprisingly, ignore psychological mechanisms the same way that people that construct evolutionary just-so stories ignore physiological mechanisms).

  173. #173 windy
    March 28, 2008

    Good question, that I can’t give a very specific answer to. But it happens all the time.

    I disagree with that to an extent. I was questioning the use of “in spite of” here. As Eric describes in the previous comment, it’s more a question of phenotypically plastic vs not so plastic traits. All organisms have a range of viable phenotypes that their genomes are capable of producing, and this plasticity itself is often under genetic control. Phenotypes arising “in spite of” the genome sound strange, unless you are talking about phenotypes like Michael Jackson’s.

  174. #174 Chris Schoen
    March 28, 2008

    Windy,

    Yo’re right that plasticity is a better way of looking at it than spite. But if we’re going to talk about plasticity, I think we have to be careful not to try to have it both ways.

    If you recall, I was responding to your remark about genes “exerting ultimate control.” We’ve bandied that word “ultimate” around a bit, and I recognize that it has a legitimate usage as a way of explaining traits through an historical account. But even this is not the same thing as saying that genes exert control–as I think you would admit, given that we are now talking about plasticity.

    The thing to emphasize is that plasticity is phenotypic, not genotypic. It is not really sensical to say that plasticity itself is under genetic control. No matter how many regulator genes and cytoplasmic genes and so forth that we add to our model of genetic control or genetic programs, the fact remains that there must still be other influences outside of genetic control, otherwise all identical genotypes would yield identical phenotypes, which is not the case.

    Taking the example of plant clones, the Clausen/Heck/Hiesey studies in the 30s showed that identical genomes can exist in a marked phenotypic variation depending on environment–in this case planting yarrow clones at different altitudes. The important finding was that there was no correlation of traits across environments. Similar studies have been done with animals as well, e.g. fruit flies. When you graph genotypes against phenotypes there is no meaningful correlation across environments.

    On top of this there is the question of the physics of biological development, often described in terms of self-organization or “autopoesis.” For example, proteins are essentially crystals, and observe the same kind of regularity as other types of crystals. Genes determine (usually) the peptide chains, but not the proteins themselves. This is a young science, and very little is known about how order arises and is maintained in a cell, but it’s fairly certain that genes can’t do it alone.

    My point is not to replace the gene as the master of biology with some other master. It is just to say that organisms arise out of a relation between genes, environments, and physical laws. Phenotypic plasticity is a function of this relationship, not of the genes alone.

  175. #175 windy
    March 28, 2008

    But even this is not the same thing as saying that genes exert control–as I think you would admit, given that we are now talking about plasticity.

    Not quite, since…

    The thing to emphasize is that plasticity is phenotypic, not genotypic. It is not really sensical to say that plasticity itself is under genetic control.

    Yes, it is, since “evolution of phenotypic plasticity” is an existing subject of study. So is evolution towards less plasticity (developmental canalization).

    Of course genes don’t control anything independently of the environment, but I think that goes for most examples of ‘control’ in the natural world. Some predators are said to control prey populations and no one raises a fuss.

    When you graph genotypes against phenotypes there is no meaningful correlation across environments.

    Never? That’s wrong – if there were no meaningful correlations between animals having the same genotype, “norms of reaction” could not be calculated.

    For example, proteins are essentially crystals, and observe the same kind of regularity as other types of crystals. Genes determine (usually) the peptide chains, but not the proteins themselves.

    This is a bit muddled. Afaik crystals are defined as a structure where the same basic unit is periodically repeated. This is not necessarily true of proteins unless they polymerize. Protein folding is not well understood, but genes can be seen as utilizing these unknown rules to (usually) consistently produce the same protein.

    I would compare this to the relationship between your behaviour and the brain. The brain is capable of a range of behaviour, and the possible behaviours are constrained and regulated by the environment, but yet it’s not outrageous to say that the neurons in your brain control your behaviour to a significant extent.

    (PS: I don’t know if I’ll have time to respond after this, but thanks for the discussion anyway :)

  176. #176 Chris Schoen
    March 29, 2008

    Windy,

    The notion of non-uniform variance expressed in reaction norm calculations is exactly what I’m talking about. My point is not that there is a complete absence of pattern in reaction norm graphs, just that there is (in certain, specific cases) no direct correlation, so that stalk height or flower size in yarrow clones or bristles in drosophila don’t directly correlate to environmental parameters like temperature or altitude.

    This is well documented–in fact it was the rationale for the invention of the term reaktionsnorm in the first place, as a means to more accurately describe heritability where standard heritability analysis had failed. To my mind if we want to preserve any meaning in the word “control” we should use it to describe relations that have far stronger demonstrated causality. (Regarding predators and prey, the word can apply equally in both directions. Prey exert just as much control on predators as vice versa.)

    Also, I don’t think canalization and plasticity should be viewed as opposite sides of a polarity. Plasticity is one of the attributes that canalization relies upon to maintain phenotypic integrity and coherence. It may sound like a paradox but consider two lengths of tubing, one made of aluminum, one of firm rubber. If we strike them each hard against the edge of a table, the aluminum tube will be bent or dented, but the rubber tube will retain its shape. It is the flexibility–the plasticity–of the rubber tube which makes it more resilient.

    Many crystals are polymorphic, with a structure influenced by their environment. I believe that biochemists talk about protein crystallography as a matter of course. At any rate, there’s no argument that innate structures like proteins are “utilized.” The point is that whatever “information” peptides use to fold into proteins, genes themselves don’t participate in that process; the form comes from the environment of the cell.

  177. #177 windy
    March 29, 2008

    Ok, maybe I can manage a bit more…

    just that there is (in certain, specific cases) no direct correlation, so that stalk height or flower size in yarrow clones or bristles in drosophila don’t directly correlate to environmental parameters like temperature or altitude.

    This sounds like a red herring wrt whether there is genetic control. Genes produce different phenotypes in different environments, but they still produce them.

    To my mind if we want to preserve any meaning in the word “control” we should use it to describe relations that have far stronger demonstrated causality. (Regarding predators and prey, the word can apply equally in both directions. Prey exert just as much control on predators as vice versa.)

    This is a bit self-contradictory. Surely you are not saying that the ecological control of prey populations is causally stronger than the control genes exert on phenotypes? So why such a reluctance to use the word for genes if it’s OK for populations? And we can still use the word even if predators are in turn controlled by prey and other factors; that’s the point.

    Many crystals are polymorphic, with a structure influenced by their environment. I believe that biochemists talk about protein crystallography as a matter of course.

    Yes, and the proteins are artificially crystallized! The protein is not the crystal, the proteins make up the crystal.

    The point is that whatever “information” peptides use to fold into proteins, genes themselves don’t participate in that process

    This is kind of myopic. If a golfer hits a ball, he doesn’t participate in the ball’s flight after that, but that doesn’t mean that he has no control on where it lands! (or pick an example with a non-sapient actor if you prefer) And the cellular environment is produced largely through the expression of other genes.

    Anyways, this is getting quite far from any original subject. Let’s not go back and rehash any of it, but I think some evidence has been offered against your assumption that modern biologists don’t like to talk about traits being under genetic control.

  178. #178 Chris Schoen
    March 30, 2008

    Windy,

    I still don’t see why after all this you (or any other biologist) would still want to use the word control, instead of something like “influence,” which is both more accurate and less susceptible to misinterpretation.

    When the word control is associated with genes but not environments there is an unfortunate tendency to consider the genetic forces as the more primary or Platonically pure factors, and environments as secondary or corrupting influences. In truth the two are inter-reliant, like predators and prey, and neither is more important than the other. The mythology of genetic “information” is taken quite literally by scientists (witness Dawkins and Ventner at the DLD). Why wouldn’t we expect the public to take it literally too?

  179. #179 Chris Schoen
    April 25, 2008

    RBH,

    I don’t dispute that our representations of the world refer to our stimuli from the world. And certainly these representations have veridical value (to the best of our ability to determine–after all, nothing can be demonstrated outside of these representations, since they are the currency of our mode of communication.) But this leaves abundant wiggle room. As you point out, pre-scientific human cultures adhered to a number of representations (myths) that starkly differ from the metaphysics of the present day. Subjecting these myths to the evolutionary test yields no worse a result than we find with science. If they had failed to keep these cultures alive and vital there would have been no chance of our species developing rationality and scientific method. In fact, if we use the survival of our genetic heritage as the proof of the veridicality of our metaphysics, pre-scientific civilization may end up coming out ahead. There was little immediate danger of global cataclysm in 1750, which is not something we can say about the next 100 years. Plantinga may have more going for his argument than you credit. (Though I need to be clear I reject his theism).

    I also have no quarrel with your assertion that “representational systems have acquired the capacity to model subsets of themselves.” Subsets being the operative term. Your discussion of the role of science as arbiter among competing interpretations strongly implies that it somehow resides outside the framework of representations it purports to evaluate. Of course no such thing is possible: science is a social endeavor, whose worth relies on repeatability by others, and communication with others. It is not outside of culture or physical reality and therefore can never occupy an objective vantage point from which to evaluate them. Science–like all conceptual endeavors–cannot help but be constrained by the medium it employs: namely language and symbols.
    This is not to undermine the value of science altogether. Science works. Its predictive power is real. The point is merely that science is not self-sustaining. It rests on an immensity of cultural accretion whose origins are very murky to us. More than one sociologist has made important observations about the way our science has labored under damaging biases (Evelyn Fox Keller is a great example). It’s the humility that attends this recognition that I, and others, have been arguing for in this thread when it comes to ridiculing religion for being so wrong.

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