Pharyngula

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.

Comments

  1. #1 David Marjanovi?
    January 22, 2007

    Xi Gong

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

  2. #2 David Marjanovi?
    January 22, 2007

    Xi Gong

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

  3. #3 MarkG
    January 23, 2007

    “Thanks for the encouraging words. Do you have any reading suggestions how to improve my reasoning? Maybe a philosophical handbook for a non-philosopher? :-)”

    You’re welcome. I don’t have any recommendations, but one of the main things you are going to have to learn is how to search for information yourself, and how to distinguish between good sources and not-so-good sources. Perhaps most importantly, try to fully understand the scientific method. In particular, understand WHY it is regarded as the best way of understanding reality.

    As far a web fora are concerned, richarddawkins.net is worth checking out, though I’m sure there are better.

    Aim to be independent, and be critical of every belief you hold, especially the ones you hold dear. Remember that the current Dali Lama (who I think you will agree is regarded as a very ‘spiritual’ person) has said that if science is shown to be in conflict with with Buddhist teachings, then the Buddhist teachings should be changed.

  4. #4 Sastra
    January 23, 2007

    Theistic scientists can be excellent scientists. I think the difference between them and their naturalistic counterparts isn’t so much the way they understand and do science, but the way they categorize God. They don’t think of it as a scientific hypothesis.

    Instead of classifying “there is a living intelligence which exists prior to and apart from matter, and which creates and acts upon the physical world through intentional force” with claims like “ESP exists” and “people can bend spoons with the power of their mind,” they seem to classify it with assertions similar to “I love my mother” or “this sunset is beautiful.” The first two can be tested and falsified, or measured against the background of evolutionary theory. The second two aren’t really science claims.

    If you are a scientist and take the concept of God seriously, you will probably view it as a scientific hypothesis, take it apart, and examine it for consistency with what else we know. If, on the other hand, you spend a lot of time denying and explaining why no, no, no, God is not anything like a science hypothesis, it is much more like the feeling of hope we see when we gaze up at the stars, then you will likely consider yourself to be open, deep, and perceptive — and the other scientists will likely see you as being evasive and rather good at kidding yourself.

  5. #5 mtraven
    January 23, 2007

    Actually it isn’t so surprising that we should see the strident faction try to read people out of the church of science for the sin of heresy.

    Richard Dawkins and others have taken the tack of telling people who attempt to develop a view of religion that is in harmony with science (like Ursula Goodenough) that they aren’t really religious. So if the have no qualms about adjusting the meaning of term “religion” in order to prove their argument by definition, then we shouldn’t be surprised if they do the same with the term “scientist”.

  6. #6 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…

  7. #7 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…

  8. #8 Ced
    January 25, 2007

    Squeaky wrote:

    I could be reading into his statement as well, but don’t assume he thinks the world sucks because he has bought into a theological ideal that “the world sucks because it is bound for destruction and the only thing worth living for is so we can die and go to Heaven.” I don’t believe that is what he meant. Try to compartmentalize your bias against religion from this discussion so that you don’t inadvertantly put words into another’s mouth.

    Thanks very much for clarifying my point. It’s exactly like you wrote in the post. No theological reasoning involved. Just a general observation that mankind has much room for improvement.

    David Marjanovic wrote:

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

    I don’t know? Conciously of course no! But maybe I have an unconscious urge to believe which I am following. What does it change? But maybe someday I will discover it and loose my faith. Maybe faith is just an illusion anyway. Or reality. Or the universe. Well, you get my point :-)

    Krystalline Apostate wrote:

    This is where the New Agey wonks get it wrong.
    It’s just your body’s ‘energy’. That’s all. Bio-electric impulses, if you prefer. Breathing patterns can alter your consciousness. ‘Qi’ roughly translated means ‘breath’.

    Exactly. Most people do not realize that spiritual techniques are in first place a method to change levels of awareness, or modes of conciousness. There is a lot of scientific evidence for that. No supernatural “energies” involved at all.
    But then there are alot of (less educated?) people who build a supernatural belief around those system and thus mislead critisizing observer into thinking the systems are based on supernatural premises.
    From my point of view, spiritual techniques are training of your mind.

  9. #9 Scott Hatfield
    January 31, 2007

    Hi squeaky! The answer, of course, is that (whether or not compartmentalization is desirable) it doesn’t appear to affect the conduct of science for a lot of folk.

    What it affects is the conduct of those who would just as soon equate science not with the suspension of belief, but with active disbelief. The existence of believing scientists is a counter-example to their rhetorical excess, and they don’t like it. Some of the more tightly-wound appear to deal with this by adopting a personal definition of ‘science’ and ‘scientist’ that excludes the behaviour they don’t like.

    I’m amused by those folk, because it’s easy to demonstrate via either the history of science or common present usage that their definition fails. The fact that they cling to it in the face of evidence tells us something about their position: whatever it is, it isn’t science.

    I would be at pains to remark, however, that I don’t think PZ Meyers, Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris fit into that category, and those of us who are believers can take little comfort in the fact that some of us are scientists, too. Big deal! That says more about the openness of science than the truth of our beliefs.

    At the end of the day, science as practiced is an atheistic enterprise by definition and so we should not be surprised that the percentage of non-believers in science is so high; the fact is, atheism is consonant with the practice of science in a way that theism is not….SH

  10. #10 Scott Hatfield
    February 1, 2007

    This is the thread that wouldn’t die, but also my last post here.

    Ken: You don’t appear to be all that interested in the structure and function of MT arrays such as the centrosome. Instead, you repeatedly feign personal incredulity at a speculative, but entirely naturalistic account of how their information storage might have been coopted for higher levels of information processing, where consciousness emerges. I would’ve thought after reading Dawkins you would avoid the ‘argument from personal incredulity’, which is what your replies amount to.

    I can’t decide why you would make that choice. I can say that I much prefer the bracing clarity of Caledonian’s ‘follow-the-logical-trail-wherever-it-leads’ reply above. The question remains, of course, as to whether belief impacts the conduct of science. No matter how risible, faith in either Santa or Jesus only becomes an issue when it constrains or seeks to replace naturalistic accounts.

    So, from my point of view compartmentalization is about doing the opposite: we set aside our personal beliefs as much as we can, in order to not limit the growth of scientific knowledge (and explanation).

    To the extent that those of us who are believers do this, we remain scientists. Those who habitually fail to do this deserve censure, and I will concede this much to Caledonian: at some point, such creatures (Jonathan Wells comes to mind)do cease to be scientists. I just blanch at the notion that we can define ‘scientist’ in advance purely by reference to prior belief.

    SH

  11. #11 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.

  12. #12 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.

  13. #13 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.

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