Somebody gets it.

Now what are we to think of a scientist who seems competent inside the laboratory, but who, outside the laboratory, believes in a spirit world?  We ask why, and the scientist says something along the lines of:  "Well, no one really knows, and I admit that I don’t have any evidence – it’s a religious belief, it can’t be disproven one way or another by observation."  I cannot but conclude that this person literally doesn’t know why you have to look at things.  They may have been taught a certain ritual of experimentation, but they don’t understand the reason for it – that to map a territory, you have to look at it – that to gain information about the environment, you have to undergo a causal process whereby you interact with the environment and end up correlated to it.  This applies just as much to a double-blind experimental design that gathers information about the efficacy of a new medical device, as it does to your eyes gathering information about your shoelaces.

Maybe our spiritual scientist says:  "But it’s not a matter for experiment.  The spirits spoke to me in my heart."  Well, if we really suppose that spirits are speaking in any fashion whatsoever, that is a causal interaction and it counts as an observation.  Probability theory still applies.  If you propose that some personal experience of "spirit voices" is evidence for actual spirits, you must propose that there is a favorable likelihood ratio for spirits causing "spirit voices", as compared to other explanations for "spirit voices", which is sufficient to overcome the prior improbability of a complex belief with many parts.  Failing to realize that "the spirits spoke to me in my heart" is an instance of "causal interaction", is analogous to a physics student not realizing that a "medium with an index" means a material such as water.

It’s like asking someone if they understand science, and they can recite a string of facts at you … but they haven’t absorbed the concept.


  1. #1 David Marjanovi?
    January 22, 2007

    Xi Gong

    Add a [t] sound in front: Qi Gong.

  2. #2 David Marjanovi?
    January 24, 2007

    This implies that religion is nothing more than a bad form of science, which is an incredibly blinkered view of what religion is about.

    It is the view that Biblical literalists and other creationists seem to have about their own religions. Those people are what most people think of when “religious” is mentioned in this blog; I think this has produced a couple of misunderstandings.


    Methodological naturalism clearly suggests metaphysical naturalism, but it doesn’t even try to prove it. What follows logically from the success of methodological naturalism is not metaphysical naturalism but, if anything, apathetic agnosticismprecisely your “radical uncertainty”. It seems you, Caledonian, only trust the principle of parsimony more than I. :-)


    Ced, just one question: Do you only believe because you want to believe?

    Because that would be a very bad reason for faith, IMHO…

  3. #3 Torbjörn Larsson
    February 5, 2007

    Occam’s razor is not the end for scientists, it requires a scientific justification

    Occam’s razor is better motivated in science than in philosophy.

    First, it has turned out in practice that the simplest theories often are the correct ones. Second, using parsimony minimizes reversals in theories (changes) or of theories (replacements). This is of practical importance in science, but not so much in philosophy which have no tests that motivates change. Third, the simplest theories off-load more complexity on the applications, all else equal.

    How do you avoid the problem of induction?

    If you mean aspects of potential infinite regress when improving models towards describing reality, this is again less of a problem in science than in philosophy. It turns out in practice that theories works as limits; the first theory explains the basics, the next improves, and so on, as our knowledge improves. It is a win-win situation.

    For example, classical mechanics introduced forces, field theories improved the understanding of forces, quantum field theories improves even more, and string theory promises to do it again. It is also expected to be the fundamental theory for reasons of quantization, so further understanding of forces is most likely elaborations of effective theories.

    If you mean using induction to get quantitative approximations of undefined quality, science doesn’t do that. Induction can motivate hypotheses and support theories. However theories must be tested on predictions.

    Hypothesis testing respective theory testing is using contradiction with data respective falsification (denying the consequent) with data. This means the approximations must have certain standard qualities to pass.

  4. #4 Torbjörn Larsson
    February 5, 2007

    I should also note on parsimony that scientists tries to find “beautiful theories”, both for the reason that it moves them, and for the reason it seems to work best in practice.

    This is hard to define, and surely scientists can have differing opinions on what this beauty is; though more seldom on which theories are beautiful. However, some forms of parsimony (minimizing free variables, (and in a sense throwing out false theories)) are accepted to be part of that. which brings us back to the first point in my previous comment.

  5. #5 Torbjörn Larsson
    February 8, 2007

    I have been remiss in answering here:

    The subjective recognition of a correlation between successful theories and simplicity in the past does not justify adopting simplicity as a heuristic maxim.

    That is not a problem since the method is tested on predictions along with the theories, as I described above.

    I appreciate these reasons, but the fundamental issue is whether or not even scientists with a naturalistic worldview actually have scientific justifications for all their beliefs.

    Here you are referring to infinite regress. I have described the situation above. This time it isn’t a tested method – but it isn’t induction either since we observe a limit process. As I said, we have established definitive limits for fundamental theories.

    The skeptic uses the regress argument to demonstrate that we know nothing,

    Not so. One person can be a skeptic, a scientist and a realist.