Pharyngula

What is science?

Vox Day asks a question: what is my definition of science? It’s a bit weird coming from him — he is not usually that lucid or civil — but OK, I’ll take it seriously.

Unfortunately, “science” is one of those hugely polymorphic terms that carries a tremendous amount of baggage, and any one definition is going to be inadequate. This is one of those subjects where a smart philosopher (Janet? John?) could go on at amazing length, and even then, everyone will argue with their summaries. I’ll just charge in, though, and give a couple of shorter definitions off the top of my head.

This first one isn’t entirely satisfactory to me, since there’s too much implication that science is a thing that can be examined and treated as an at least briefly static object, but it probably accords better with most people’s naive concept of science.

#1: Science is a changing and growing collection of knowledge, characterized by transparency (all methods are documented, and the lineage of ideas can be traced) and testability (prior work can be repeated or its results evaluated). It is an edifice of information that contains all of the details of its construction.

When I teach introductory biology, a substantial part of it addresses this definition: there are conventions of the scientific literature that a new student must learn in order to be able to efficiently extract information and follow the chain of evidence, and also in order to some day be able to add to it. To the novice, science can appear to be a huge database, and what they have to figure out is how to tap into it.

If you’ve been in science for a while, you know there’s another pragmatic definition:

#2: Science is what scientists do. We have institutions that train people and employ them in the business of generating new knowledge — contributing to that edifice in definition #1 — and we have procedures like the bestowal of degrees and ranks that certify one’s membership in the hallowed ranks of science.

This is science as a social construct, a tradition, a meat grinder, a tool that shapes people into useful configurations for churning out new data and ideas. It isn’t pretty (any grad students or post-docs or struggling faculty out there? Yeah, you know it’s ugly) but it’s part of the reality of science.

There is also an ideal of science that we try to live up to, and which is the other significant component of our introductory biology courses here — it’s what we aspire to in good science.

#3: Science is a process. It is a method for exploring the natural world by making observations, drawing inferences, and testing those inferences with further experimentation and observation. It isn’t so much the data generated as it is a way of thinking critically about the universe and our own interpretations of it.

A more philosophically inclined writer could then go on at length about induction and reductionism and materialism and the scientific methods and so forth; they’d all be part of that definition if made more thorough. I suspect the commenters here will cheerfully expand on everything and tell me where I’m wrong — and that’s part of it, too. Science is a matter of throwing out ideas and refining them in the crucible of reality.

Comments

  1. #1 G. Tingey
    March 6, 2007

    THIS (below) is what I wrote – I would welcome impovements from anyone, or post yourseleves ….

    VERY provisional …..

    “Scientia” in- the original Latin word just means knowledge.

    Science is the process of acquiring that (extra) knowledge, and organising it in a coherent, logical, ordered form, accessible (in theory) to all. This last can be difficult, because of the depths of specialisation that we have now got to.

    There is a famous statement by Poincare – a mathematical contemporary of Einstein et al: “Science is built of facts, the way a house is made of bricks, but a random accumulation of facts is not science, any more than a pile of bricks is a house.”
    Which should give people an idea or two.

    Practice: Science rests on a tripod of theory (ideas), observation and experiment. Ideas emerge, or a re discussed, or someone has a brain-wave, and then, if it seems that the idea might have merit … tests for the idea (technically “an hypothesis” at this point) are devised, and experiments are performed, and observations made as to the outcome.
    A huge number of hypotheses fail right there, because the tests clearly show that the idea was wrong.
    However, if the tests are passed, it doesn’t “prove” the hypothesis “right” or “true” or “valid” – it just shows that so far, so good …..
    What then happens is that other tests are made, often by other people, to validate what is going on.
    Then it gets interesting.
    More work is done, and if the idea is still unfalsified, it may become a provisional small theory.

    A theory is NEVER (strictly speaking) “Proven” – this is where the physical sciences differ from Mathematics, where theorems can be proven, and remain, thereafter, immutable.
    So, as an example, Newtonian Gravitation remains “true” and valid for all normal uses, UNLESS ….
    you are very close to a deep gravity-well, or travelling at velocities greater than 0.1%C ( ~=3*10^5m/sec) at which point you have to use Einstein’s relativistic version. But Newton wasn’t “wrong” – in all normal cases you don’t have to bother with the relativistic “bits”, and at low speeds/low gravities, the Einsteinian equations reduce to Newton’s.

    This is important: Any new explanation for any set of observed phenomena must take account of all previous observations. A classic example of this is the “big bang”. Any new theory must be able to accept and give a coherent, consistent explanation that includes the 3-degrees-Kelvin background radiation, for instance.

    A counter-example was the revolution in Geology during the late 1950’s-early 60’s which produced Plate Tectonics.
    Everyone could see that Wegener had a point about the continental jigsaw-fits, but there was no theory or mechanism to explain it. The moment the patterns shown in the base rocks either side of the mid-Atlantic spreading ridge became obvious, particularly with the fossilised magnetic reversals in the rocks, it became clear (VERY quickly) what was going on. A new mechanism ( movement of the mantle, carrying the lighter crust-rocks on top with it) fitted everything together, and gave a coherent explanation for many things: subduction zones and their associated earthquakes, vulcanism is specific areas, etc ……

    The other vital point, which I have deliberately left until last, is something that has a horrible name, because no-one has yet come up with a better one:
    Metaphysical Naturalism.
    Science assumes, indeed MUST assume, that only natural forces are at work, and that there are no special cases or exceptions.
    There is the assumption of spatial and temporal uniformity of “the rules”, and that these are the only (i.e. Natural) forces at work.

    Take it away people!
    This is the most powerful tool for examining the universe that has been developed.
    Don’t knock it!

    A last thought.
    “Technology” is something else entirely, even though a lot of engineering requires a really good scientific grounding.
    A scientific discovery may be turned into an engineering product very quickly – think of the development of Radar 1937-45, or it may take a very long time – current X-ray telescopes depend on work done on (would you believe) crustacean sight, some of which is over a century old.
    Or the laser, which was a laboratory curiosity, used a lot by scientists for about 15-20 years, and THEN suddenly became a very useful industrial tool.

  2. #2 Coathangrrr
    March 6, 2007

    Science is a matter of throwing out ideas and refining them in the crucible of reality.

    I like that. Simple and to the point.

    I should mention, in my studies the last three semesters I have had science defined to me no less than 5 times, each time differently. It’s at the point where I just kind of sigh when a teacher asks what science is.

  3. #3 Jeff Hebert
    March 6, 2007

    Science is “That which the Discovery Instituted does NOT.”

    I like your three definitions, PZ. I suspect, though, that like the term “evolution”, the fact that one word can have multiple meanings is going to be beyond Mr. Day.

  4. #4 The Science Pundit
    March 6, 2007

    I would say that there is no one science, but rather many sciences. Sciences are disciplines where knowledge is gained by testing ideas. Science would then be the collective of the sciences (or rhetorically speaking, the accumulated knowledge from the sciences.)

    My two cents.

  5. #5 DrNathaniel
    March 6, 2007

    I once heard the scientific method described by a more senior physicist as “using your noodle,” and that has always stuck with me, even though it is woefully inadequate.

    I think Tingey has the right notion: science is the way of looking at the universe under the assumption that it is regular. That is, if I drop an apple and it falls, and if I drop it Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday and it all falls the same, I have a reasonably good expectation that it will fall the same on Friday.

    If it doesn’t do the same thing on Friday, that doesn’t mean mean my assumption of regularity was wrong, it was just incomplete. It means that either something new was influencing the experiment on Friday, or that there is a random factor and I just got lucky. Either way, this behaviour is still ‘regular’ in some sense.

    I like the word ‘regular’ because it doesn’t imply ‘deterministic’, which gets hairy when you get to quantum theory. Plus, people get antsy around determinism because they think (erronously in my view) that it plays havoc with free will.

    —Nathaniel

  6. #6 Steve_C
    March 6, 2007

    Wait, I thought science was simply the work of satan to lose faith in god.

    Science=Satan’s Work

  7. #7 Ric
    March 6, 2007

    Granting all the complexeties and difficulties in formulating an easy definition, if pressed, I would simply saY that science is a method of knowing that involves employment of the scientific method. The scientific method then needs to be defined, but this is perhaps a bit easier.

  8. #8 gg
    March 6, 2007

    Nicely described! I tend to think that science is hard to define because different fields and subfields have limitations on them that require subtle or not-so-subtle differences in methodologies.

    Astrophysics, for instance, is different from lots of tabletop physics in that we can’t set up a repeatable experiment in a controlled environment. One must rely on the abundance of observational data in the cosmos. String theory is even more different, teetering on the edge of what many would consider the boundary between science and philosophy (and many would say it’s fallen off that cliff).

    The ‘soft’ sciences are even more restricted. Anthropologists must rely on the limited batch of historical data uncovered to make conclusions. Sociologists are faced with the daunting challenge that their conclusions may only apply under certain social and cultural conditions, and that control experiments are extremely difficult to achieve.

    In the end, though, all these fields require that conclusions be backed up with evidence, and be changed if the evidence doesn’t fit. That’s about as good a definition as I can imagine.

  9. #9 Dave
    March 6, 2007

    This is a trick question intended to force you to be narrowly precise, reductionistic, and verifiable. Fortunately, you are not falling for it, and you are letting science be whatever you want it to be. How very postmodern!

  10. #11 Mike Kelly
    March 6, 2007

    science is investigating reality using observation as your criterion for truth

  11. #12 CCP
    March 6, 2007

    “The only requirements of scientific method are honest observation and accurate logic.”
    -R. MacArthur, Geographical Ecology

  12. #13 Ian Menzies
    March 6, 2007

    I rather like those three definitions, though they may not be the best ever made. The main thing I would change about your definitions is the order. I would put #3 first, because that is the science that the others are, ultimately, derived from.

  13. #14 D.D.
    March 6, 2007

    Science is knowledge. Period. It’s the definition of knowledge we should be bickering about.

  14. #15 The Physicist
    March 6, 2007

    Good job PZ

  15. #16 llewelly
    March 6, 2007

    Oh look, PZ has admitted science is inadequate:

    … science … is not usually that lucid or civil …
    science … carries a tremendous amount of baggage, and … is … inadequate.

    Separately – I was wondering if anyone had more info on crustacean vision. Specifically – do they not use lenses? I ask because of the connection with X-ray optics, which to my understanding often use mirrors rather than lenses.

  16. #17 Hal
    March 6, 2007

    I liked Feynman’s version: science (or the scientific method) is a way of not fooling yourself.

  17. #18 RLaing
    March 6, 2007

    Science is a tool to see the world as it is.

    Religion is a tool to see the world as we wish it.

    You could also say that science places the facts first, to which theories must adapt, while religion places the theory first, to which the facts are adapted.

  18. #19 Hank Fox
    March 6, 2007

    G. Tingey said:

    “Technology” is something else entirely…

    I agree. When we hear the word “technology,” we tend to think of computers or fiber optics, but it can be simply “the application of knowledge for practical ends.” For instance, there might be a “technology” to digging a hole in sandy soil – a set way of doing it to achieve a specific useful goal.

    I got to see an Iroquois Longhouse a few years back, an apartment-building-sized (big enough for several families to live in, anyway) dwelling made of poles and tree bark. The darned thing was totally waterproof, and fairly complexly divided inside. It was NOT something a group of Boy Scouts could knock together in a couple of hours.

    Seeing it, I realized that it was built according to an actual technology – a body of knowledge aimed at a practical end.

    Chipping flints to achieve a useful arrowhead or spear point was technology. So, in my mind, at least, Technology preceded Science by many thousands of years.

    (Ugh. Come to think of it, there’s probably a 20,000-year-old “technology” to gulling witless victims out of their lives and wealth by getting them to believe en masse in the local god stories.)

  19. #20 CCP
    March 6, 2007

    “The only requirements of scientific method are honest observation and accurate logic.”
    -R.M. MacArthur, Geographical Ecology

    Sez it all, for me.
    method = process, a “way of knowing”
    observation = physical reality
    accurate logic: hypothesis testing is a particularly powerful form; experiments build the logic into the observing, etc.
    But biodiversity surveys and taxonomy are also science–hypotheses are not necessary.

  20. #21 Michael
    March 6, 2007

    I’m not a scientist, I’m a sales guy with an interest in science. Is anyone, other than me, seeing that this discussion explains why it’s so difficult to convince evangelical Christians that science is a good way to examine reality? Science really, really needs a solid elevator pitch.

  21. #22 Steevl
    March 6, 2007

    I like your #3 best; it does the most to remove the idea that science is one body of knowledge, which scientists have arbitrarily chosen to accept. People need to know there are very, very good reasons why scientists do things the way they do, and that “other ways of knowing” fail by ignoring those reasons. I’m a complete layman, but fwiw, here’s how I’d put it:

    Science is the practical application of the notion that one can only gain knowledge about something by observing and examining it.

  22. #23 Hank Fox
    March 6, 2007

    PZ, just FYI, I notice my comments are apparently now being listed in this section according to my own time-zone clock, rather than yours. In other words, my comments now appear to be jumping ahead of some of those already posted, rather than being appended onto the end of the comment queue.

  23. #24 JavaElemental
    March 6, 2007

    SCIENCE: A way of finding things out and then making them work. Science explains what is happening around us the whole time. So does RELIGION, but science is better because it comes up with more understandable excuses when it is wrong. There is a lot more Science than you think. (From A Scientific Encyclopedia for the Inquiring Young Nome by Angalo de Haberdasheri)
    — Terry Pratchett, Wings

    Never miss an opportunity to quote Terry Pratchett. 😉

  24. #25 Patness
    March 6, 2007

    I once tried to decide what the simplest definition (in practice) of science was. I came up with two.

    The first was “Be honest and be careful about it”. The second was “always question, never jump to a conclusion.”

  25. #26 aweb
    March 6, 2007

    In #3, the “natural” world part bothers me. Which part of the world isn’t natural? (Or the universe for that matter. ) Inserting natural world into the definition seems to be setting aside a non-natural world that something else is concerned with. A false dichotomy I’m surprised you imply here.

    Make no mistake, delusions, folk tales, states of mind, literature, these are things that scientists can and do study.

  26. #27 PZ Myers
    March 6, 2007

    Got a good elevator pitch for “Christianity” or “religion”? The fact that those concepts sell well despite being vast and convoluted and hard to define and with many counter-examples to any definition you might come up with suggests that simplicity isn’t a prerequisite for popularity.

  27. #28 Bob O'H
    March 6, 2007

    OK, time to be contrary. PZ’s first definition would include things like mathematics, history and music, and exclude a lot of commercial R&D.

    His second definition begs the question: what is a scientist?

    His third definition is better, although I wonder where the natural word stops: do agricultural systems count as being natural? Human behaviour? Human society?

    If you include enough of the world in the natural world (i.e. human behaviour and technology), you end up finding out that organised crime is a science. As Feyerabend pointed out, they even did experiments (and possibly still do!).

    Bob

  28. #29 Dave
    March 6, 2007

    The fact that science sells well despite being vast and convoluted and hard to define and with many counter-examples to any definition you might come up with suggests that simplicity isn’t a prerequisite for popularity.

  29. #30 Blake Stacey
    March 6, 2007

    Alan Sokal:

    The word science, as commonly used, has at least four distinct meanings: it denotes an intellectual endeavor aimed at a rational understanding of the natural and social world; it denotes a corpus of currently accepted substantive knowledge; it denotes the community of scientists, with its mores and its social and economic structure; and, finally, it denotes applied science and technology.

    It’s trivial to construct bad arguments by taking a valid critique of one sense and applying it to another. For example, the military (dominated by men) often uses technology for destructive ends. Therefore — switching from definition 4 to definition 1 — the method of hypothesis, experiment and cross-criticism is nothing but a tool of the patriarchy.

  30. #31 Russell
    March 6, 2007

    PZ, I like your definitions, but the one thing I would emphasize a bit more is that science, as a process or body of knowledge, reflects on its own methods, continually refines understanding of the limitations and scope of those methods, and evaluates primary claims on that basis. It’s important in these definitions to include what makes astronomers scientists, but neither astrologers nor haruspicers.

  31. #32 Leni
    March 6, 2007

    I like #3 the best as well. The body of scientific data and results commonly called science is a result of that process.

    I would only like to mention that the process does not have to be as formal as we expect it to be today. I suspect it is part and parcel of having a big brain, as the general process of testing ideas is something we do all the time, often accidentally. When we use a process of elimination to determine the cause of something, for example. This is something our ancestors had to do a great deal of. How, after all, did they figure out what was poinonous? What worked as medicine, etc. How did they learn how to build homes and cook food except by doing it and refining the process, over and over and over again?

    In that respect I’m not so sure technology is terribly different.

    I don’t want to be too fast and loose with the term, but I don’t think it would be a bad idea to mention the more informal, less transparent processes of learning about our world that we all use, almost unconsciously. Or perhaps it is best to restrict it to the formal for the purposes of this discussion (and clarity). It’s just that the definition of science as a process always makes me think about that.

  32. #33 QrazyQat
    March 6, 2007

    I like Ken Norris’ statement: “The scientific method is nothing more than a system of rules to keep us from lying to each other.”

    The self-correcting part of science is the key, I think. You don’t have to have any knowledge there to start doing science. You don’t have to have correct ideas about how things happen and work. You don’t have to have correct information about what exactly is happening. But you do have to do the “not lying” part, the self-correcting part. When you do this, the other parts happen — you get accurate info, you drop inaccurate ideas in favor of accurate ideas. Science then happens.

  33. #34 frog
    March 6, 2007

    I think we should go the route of the kind of explanations and authority that are acceptable. Such as: 1) All explanations are natural principles 2) Universality 3) Predictability 4) Primacy of observation. Some set of principles of knowledge of what is acceptable avoids the problem of how you get there, but it gives you a way of differentiating say, religious knowledge or philosophical knowledge from scientific knowledge. It clarifies what are the necessary assumptions for science – and that’s what they are, our assumptions or axioms that glue the entire enterprise together. It also makes clearer that other systems also have principles of rationality – they are just different principles, often principles that lead to making any thesis provable.

  34. #35 CCP
    March 6, 2007

    “The only requirements of scientific method are honest observation and accurate logic.”
    -R.M. MacArthur, Geographical Ecology

    That sez it all, for me.

  35. #36 DouglasG
    March 6, 2007

    People, people, people… Science is just applied mathematics. [ME}Duck and cover[/Me]

  36. #37 chuko
    March 6, 2007

    A pretty good definition for “the natural world” is the subset of things which one can experiment on or observe.

  37. #38 chuko
    March 6, 2007

    This is fun! Can we define life next?

  38. #39 The Physicist
    March 6, 2007

    Got a good elevator pitch for “Christianity” or “religion”? The fact that those concepts sell well despite being vast and convoluted and hard to define and with many counter-examples to any definition you might come up with suggests that simplicity isn’t a prerequisite for popularity.

    Not to be contrary PZ, But Chistianity, is popular, because of its simplicity, not its complexity. But one would have to be a Christian to know this. Things that are as simple as a blink of an eye for you in Biology, would strain my brain, unless you taught me those things.

  39. #40 Dave
    March 6, 2007

    But Chistianity, is popular, because of its simplicity, not its complexity. But one would have to be a Christian to know this.

    Mr. Dawkins is on line 1. He has a bone to pick with you.

  40. #41 steppen wolf
    March 6, 2007

    I agree with the last post of The Physicist.
    I would like to shift the attention for a moment to cultural connotations of science. As scientists, it is simple for us to refer to it as both a body of work, and as a method (though I personally think science really is a method, more than a list of auctoritates).
    There is however another way we can look at science as a whole when we think of the scientific paradigm, and its cultural connotations (for more on paradigms, check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradigm_shift).
    I have had this discussion before with East Asian friends: the scientific paradigm has for most of the world a Western connotation – let’s not forget that unfortunately the idea of scientific advancement and education has been used by Western countries as PR alibi for colonization in the past. Moreover, this “Western” paradigm has been perceived to clash with culturally-bound “traditional” methods – now incorporated, wrongly in my opinion, into the bunch of questionable “alternative medicine approaches”.
    Although I oppose the idea of science as culturally bound to the West – as science is in my humble opinion a method more than a collection of knowledge – this seems indeed to be the main perception in the East.
    This is also why, paradoxically, many “alternative medicine” MLM companies thrive in the East, where they can claim that their products have “natural” origins while being “tested scientifically”: the concept of natural recalls the traditional, and it is therefore more acceptable to an audience skeptical of the “Western” paradigms.

  41. #42 The Physicist
    March 6, 2007

    Dawkins is now a Christian? Will wonders never cease?

  42. #43 steppen wolf
    March 6, 2007

    Precisation: I agree that Christianity (well, whatever we mean by that…) is easier to understand than a scientific explanation. However, one does NOT need to be a Christian to know that – most of us are probably aware of that.
    Christians (especially evangelical) seem to be having more money and more PR at work to spread their demented and “simple” ideas, something the scientific community does not have. They sell DVDs, books, pamphlets, all based on the Bible. We base most arguments on Charles Darwin’s work – which may I note, is not as discussed in churches 🙂
    Add to this the ideological battle of East vs. West, “natural” vs. “scietific”, and you get a warzone.
    However, I think sometimes people oversimplify: not all Christians (in the wide sense, ie those who believe in Christ) are complete idiots – though I must admit that news coming especially from the US might make people think the opposite.
    Personally I am non-religious and atheist, but my cultural background is Catholic, and I was tought in my religion classes that science and religion need not clash, as they answer different questions – a teaching that seems to be absent from US and religious schools.

  43. #44 Craig
    March 6, 2007

    “But Christianity, is popular, because of its simplicity, not its complexity.”

    Christianity is simple in the same way that “because I said so” is a simple explanation… its no explanation, its just a way of saying “sit down, shut up and stop asking questions.”

    If it works, its a simple solution to the problem of bothersome people asking questions. It’s not a solution to the question, though.

  44. #45 Dave
    March 6, 2007

    Dawkins is now a Christian? Will wonders never cease?

    Mr. Dawkins asserts that it is not necessary to know anything at all about Christianity in order to disprove it, other than the fact that it is based on belief in a supernatural being. Therefore, it is invalid. QED.

  45. #46 The Physicist
    March 6, 2007

    Christianity is simple in the same way that “because I said so” is a simple explanation…

    Out of the mouths of babes… No offence meant, just a little retro humor. You win the one hundred thousand dollar question (fill in personal game show preference here). You are not just right, you are exactly right. The answer is now known, but do you know what the answer means? Not asking, just rhetoricaly speaking.

  46. #47 Michael
    March 6, 2007

    Got a good elevator pitch for “Christianity” or “religion”?

    Well, I think so:

    [insert name of religion here] has the answers to all of the important questions in life and they’re written down in a book called [insert name of book here]. If you read the book and follow the instructions you are guaranteed eternal happiness.

    I’m not, of course, claiming religions live up to the pitch but it’s a caveat emptor world out there.

  47. #48 frog
    March 6, 2007

    ThePhysicist explains it more politely than Chris did upstream. Steppen wolf, it’s not that Christians, as a class are any stupider than any other class. It’s that they begin with insane principles, from an outside point of view. They will inevitably sound like idiots, except from a select few with the rhetorical skill of ThePhysicist, but they here the exact same thing in reflection. The chasm is wide and few can yell across.

  48. #49 frog
    March 6, 2007

    What is not science: http://www.jhuger.com/kisshank.php “Kiss Hank’s Ass”. Quite humorous, particularly useful for Christians who just don’t get how we see them.

  49. #50 Jason
    March 6, 2007

    The premises of Christianity are not “insane,” but they are irrational and unjustified. I have no problem with characterizing the premises as “stupid” or “idiotic.” I don’t believe all Christians are idiots (although some are) but all subscribe to an idiotic belief system.

  50. #51 steppen wolf
    March 6, 2007

    I agree that believing in resurrection might be idiotic. However, not all the principles of Christianity are necessarily religious – from that, my comment that not all Christians are idiots.
    Sure, how they reconcile their religious belief with science is puzzling, but what I meant is that not all of them will blindly accept whatever “religious authorities” will tell them, nor will all of them swallow BS because it has the words “Christ” or “Holy Spirit” in it.
    I understand that many of you are in the mood for some bashing, and often so am I: but try convincing a Christian telling him/her that s/he is an idiot, and see what your success rate is.

  51. #52 Craig Ewert
    March 6, 2007

    G.Tingey:

    Science assumes, indeed MUST assume, that only natural forces are at work, and that there are no special cases or exceptions.

    Not true. Anthropology, economics, and forensics deal well enough with human intervention (here using the human/nature divide). Similarly, Science could handle divine interventions and miracles, if there were any. There happen to be none.

    There is the assumption of spatial and temporal uniformity of “the rules”, and that these are the only (i.e. Natural) forces at work.

    Again, not so. Over long years, we have observed uniformity across space and time in the way the world behaves. If it didn’t, the theories and body of knowledge would be different, to account for the disuniformities we saw. I recall a SF novel series by Mercedes Lacky and someone where the world was just that way.

    I’m in the camp that thinks PZ’s #3 definition is primary. That is your elevator pitch.

  52. #53 frog
    March 6, 2007

    Craig,

    Natural includes human intervention. Natural here is opposed to supernatural, not humanly contrived – different usage. So, anthropology, economics and forensics deal with natural activity of a human kind – they don’t accept ghosts as explanations in and of themselves, but merely as natural entities (eg, ideas which are in and of themselves natural, even if their referent is not).

    Jason,

    The premises of Christianity are not irrational. They accept revelation as a primary source of knowledge. Science does not. All else flows from that. Premises can not be rational or irrational – they are premises, from which we construct rationality; they are logically prior. But the system that comes out of accepting revelation is a closed system, rather than an open system like science where knowledge can progress and universalize. With just revelation, no computers, no cars, no oil refineries, etc; you get 4th century Rome, or 15th century Spain, with Christianity as your logical system. Not irrational, just plain backwards, unprogressive and ultimately insane since the systems evolution is completely tied to the inside of people’s heads, with little tie to the outside reality.

    In point of fact, a Christian world-view ultimately rests on an illusionary quality to this world. The true objects of knowledge, “God,” is only poorly reflected in this lower world. As I said, insane if insane means untied to our physical environment.

  53. #54 Jason
    March 6, 2007

    frog

    The premises of Christianity are not irrational. They accept revelation as a primary source of knowledge.

    It is irrational to accept revelation as a primary source of knowledge. What rational basis is there for believing any variety of religious revelation to be true, let alone the particular revelation of Christianity? Why not Islamic revelation or Hindu revelation or Zoroastrian revelation instead?

    Science does not. All else flows from that. Premises can not be rational or irrational – they are premises, from which we construct rationality; they are logically prior.

    Of course premises can be irrational. Any premise that involves the rejection of rationality is irrational by definition.

  54. #55 frog
    March 6, 2007

    Craig,
    Again, not so. Over long years, we have observed uniformity across space and time in the way the world behaves. If it didn’t, the theories and body of knowledge would be different, to account for the disuniformities we saw. I recall a SF novel series by Mercedes Lacky and someone where the world was just that way.

    No, miracles are disqualified as explanation a priori in science. You must have a theoretical, ultimately mathematical explanation that links your observations to universal physical laws – some fields are farther from that goal than others, but it is the goal of scientific work. Miracles are by definition a lifting of natural law, unexplainable by natural law – they are from God’s grace, and therefore outside the realm of nature. We observe black holes, but don’t just say – well, non-uniformity. They are part of general relativity, becoming part of the uniformity of physical law.

    Without uniformity, in a deep sense, you can’t have physical laws, because the kind of non-uniformity posited by religion is not predictable. In apocalyptic language, predicted the date of Christ’s return is a sin in most Christian theologies. In science, you put error bars on it.

    Without understanding the deep, epistemological differences in world-view, the Christians are gonna get you every time, because their top brass does understand this. Don’t underestimate them. It’s equivalent to thinking that New Guinea highlanders are stupid or irrational because they believe that dancing can change reality; they aren’t stupid, they are premodern. If we are aware of this, we have the advantage, because science can continually grow; but if we dismiss them as simply being irrational, then they’ve got the advantage because we underestimate them.

  55. #56 frog
    March 6, 2007

    It is irrational to accept your sensory input as a basis for knowledge. For all you know, reality is illusory; every sensation is crafted by a malevolent being, and by believing them, and ignoring that little voice in your head, you are dooming yourself to an eternity of suffering.

    That is the religious premise. You can logically deduce a system of belief from it. The premise is just that: a premise. The base of a syllogism. The base is not a logical premise itself – it is a premise where logic is applied to it. The limitations in a post-Aristotelian world is that the system can not be self-contradictory; Christian apologetics have spent centuries rooting out all the self-contradictions, even though a few can be found. That portion is left to “mystery,” or pre-Aristotelian logic. You can call that irrational; I don’t see what that gains you in explanatory power. It’s a system of thought that works in a certain way, holding itself together by its own internal laws, just like a reproductive system, or a star.

    They don’t reject rationality. See Aquinas. They just reject the basis for knowledge – what we see, here, taste and feel. They accept primarily revelation and authority. That is not inherently irrational, it’s just closed. We don’t accept empiricism out of rationality – we accept it as a premise itself, and its history of being “useful.” It’s clearly the better system, over the centuries, but its premise is not “logically” more sound, just inductively so.

  56. #57 Steve_C
    March 6, 2007

    “Miracles are by definition a lifting of natural law, unexplainable by natural law – they are from God’s grace, and therefore outside the realm of nature. We observe black holes, but don’t just say – well, non-uniformity. They are part of general relativity, becoming part of the uniformity of physical law.”

    There is no proof of any miracle… ever. Even if they were outside the realm of science (which they can’t be because they take place in the natural world) someone would have to prove that the miracle happened.

    Religion cannot back up it’s dogma because it doesn’t even have facts on it’s side.

  57. #58 steppen wolf
    March 6, 2007

    frog, I agree, world views are very important.

    Also, we must not forget that entire cultures (and national histories) often have strong links with religion. Religion often becomes almost “embedded” in a culture over time: this is a sensitive issue – one cannot just discard the entirety of a religion (be it Christian or not) as stupidity, nor can we do that for its believers. Moreover, religions were often historical catalysts, as they promoted social values different from the accepted norms (at the time).

    There are believers out there doing relevant science: guess who they side with in a debate where one wants to dismiss religion and culture from the debate? The answer to that question has ruled a recent Italian referendum on stem cell research – if you want to know, the pro-research side was the one that failed.

    When trying to open a (constructive) dialogue across believers and non-believers, keep in mind your history, philosophy and literature lessons. Only then will scientific logic be in context, and reason prevail.

    Unless, of course, we are talking to buyers of “bottled holy water”.

  58. #59 Jason
    March 6, 2007

    frog,

    It is irrational to accept your sensory input as a basis for knowledge. For all you know, reality is illusory; every sensation is crafted by a malevolent being, and by believing them, and ignoring that little voice in your head, you are dooming yourself to an eternity of suffering.,?I>

    It is not irrational to believe our sense perceptions are a basis for knowledge. We have no reason to believe they are illusory, and lots of reasons to believe they are mostly reliable indicators of the nature of the world. In contrast, we have no reason to believe that revelation is a basis for knowledge at all.

    You now seem to be arguing for what Sastra calls the “Everything is Faith” position, the idea that there is no knowledge, merely belief, and that all belief is ultimately a matter of preference. I very strongly doubt you really believe this. Do you really think there are no justified true beliefs? Do you really think that all beliefs of truth are equally justified?

  59. #60 frog
    March 6, 2007

    No, I am explicitly not arguing that all is faith. Let’s say I believe in this context that there are relatively true beliefs – beliefs are comparable and can be judge in comparison. “All is faith” is just nihilism.

    I am saying that we can compare systems over time on their empirical results, and sometimes even rationality. But we have to be very careful when slinging around rationality or intelligence as the basis for our beliefs. The basis for believing in empiricism is solely inductive, which already assumes a certain super-class of empiricism. In the same way, once you assume revelation, it’s quite easy to interpret all “evidence” as supporting revelation.

    This is why rational argument, by itself, can’t convert someone from an oracular viewpoint to an empirical one – because you can’t attack the bases of a certain rationality by rationality itself; you fall into a recursive problem here. The Christian understand this, and apply apologetics primarily as a means to suck people in, so they can undergo a “conversion” “born-again” experience. It’s like the old psychology class trick, with the painting that looks like an old lady and simultaneously a young girl – it’s difficult to point out until you see it.

    The buddhist approach to this problem was simple: try the system, see how it works. At the end of the day, to convince people to apply empirical methods, that’s what you have to do. Have them do science, not just read about it. Get kids to poke at ants, breed rabbits, use a telescope and search for comets. That’s what will bring people away from revelation, when they feel the advantages it gives them, rather than reading about it.

  60. #61 frog
    March 6, 2007

    A mathematical metaphor. It is possible to construct a number theory where the successor number to 1 is 3 (and 2 simultaneously): 1+1=3. Once you assume that axiom, you can build a perfectly rational number theory. The downside is that the number theory is also perfectly trivial, because every well-formed statement is true. You can not use that system to disprove itself (it is a self-consistent system, outside of its axioms): all you can say is that it is trivial and dismiss it as a waste of time.

  61. #62 kmarissa
    March 6, 2007

    “They don’t reject rationality. See Aquinas. They just reject the basis for knowledge – what we see, here, taste and feel.”

    I think it’s relevant that believers *don’t* reject the basis for knowledge, not for most of the things in their lives. They see the ground in front of them and assume that it is solid. They drink the water in a glass and assume it’s actually going into their bodies. They process these *as* bases for knowledge by and large like anyone else; there’s no way a person could get through a day without at least to some degree accepting sense perceptions as accurately depicting reality. The difference is that, for the religious, sense perceptions accurately depict reality in all other areas EXCEPT where religion is involved (or where astrology is involved, or where aliens are involved, etc. etc.). In the area of religion, exceptions are made. If there’s no logical reason to make an exception in this one particular area, then is that rational? Isn’t the whole point of faith that it’s supposed to defy logic and reason?

  62. #63 Jason
    March 6, 2007

    frog,

    No, I am explicitly not arguing that all is faith.

    Yes, you are. You just said that the premises of science are irrational. If the premises are irrational then any conclusions derived from those premises are also irrational. By your argument, the scientific belief that the Earth is billions of years old is no more rational than the religious belief that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. According to you, both beliefs rest on premises that are not rationally justified but merely “accepted” by the believer. They’re just a matter of preference. Can’t you see the absurdity of that position?

  63. #64 frog
    March 6, 2007

    Jason,

    Once again, that is not what I’m saying. Both positions are not equally justified. The premises of empiricism and oracularism are not irrational or rational; they are outside the bounds of that particular argument. Therefore, the arguments stemming from them are not irrational in either case, if by rational we mean self-consistent. Science is true-er, but not more rational; they are distinct concepts, because truth is not just a logical category in action, it is also a historical category, which we use continually in science as a basis for inductive reasoning.

    Given that one accepts biblical revelation, it is perfectly rational to believe that the earth is 6000 years old, but that doesn’t make it true. All the truths that come from revelation are trivial, they simply reiterate the revelation over and over. It’s a closed system – the revelations are automatically supported by evidence a priori, making it a very boring and fairly useless system for doing interesting things, like building computers or carbon nanotubes. That is the argument for the truth of science – it’s a damn sight more interesting, productive, rich. That is how you get around the problem of logical systems – by facing how the system is lived in fact.

  64. #65 JS
    March 6, 2007

    A) The following easy steps:

    1) Model part of the world

    2) Derive testible predictions from your model

    3) Test predictions derived in step 2)

    4) Revise model based on results from step 3, keeping Ockham’s Razor in mind.

    5) IF remaining_funding > 0 GOTO 2) ELSE END

    B) The models produced by A)

    – JS

  65. #66 Pseudonym
    March 6, 2007

    I like the definition of science as a process. It’s definitely my favourite. It’s the reason why creationist questions like “Do you believe in science?” simply make no sense.

    As for religion, that’s going to be hard to summarise in one sentence.

    Like science, philosophy can be thought of as a process. It’s the process by which we develop knowledge about anything which isn’t testable. That might include morals and ethics (how could you test whether or not murder is wrong?), and it also includes meta-knowledge about science itself. What constitutes a valid scientific experiment, for example, is not something that science can itself test for the most part. (If different types of “experiment” consistently produce different results, we would, of course, have to question if some of the experimental methodologies are wrong.)

    Religion is many things, but we can think of theology as one family of philosophical schools of thought. Like any philosophical school of thought, you can really only understand it historically.

  66. #67 Jason
    March 6, 2007

    frog,

    Once again, that is not what I’m saying. Both positions are not equally justified. The premises of empiricism and oracularism are not irrational or rational; they are outside the bounds of that particular argument.

    Well, make up your mind. You just said: “It is irrational to accept your sensory input as a basis for knowledge.” Empirical knowledge is based on observation, i.e., “sensory input.” So do you think this is irrational or don’t you? Your conflicting statements are confusing.

    Therefore, the arguments stemming from them are not irrational in either case, if by rational we mean self-consistent. Science is true-er, but not more rational; they are distinct concepts, because truth is not just a logical category in action, it is also a historical category, which we use continually in science as a basis for inductive reasoning.

    Rational does not mean merely “self-consistent.” What do you mean by “true” (or “true-er?”) What do you mean by “knowledge?” You seem to be using these words in uncoventional ways.

  67. #68 frog
    March 6, 2007

    And here comes the punch-line: According to you, both beliefs rest on premises that are not rationally justified but merely “accepted” by the believer. They’re just a matter of preference.

    There is a deep fallacy in the idea that preferences are incomparable, and a dangerous one at that. Some things are more beautiful than others, some things are more elegant. These are principles applied every day in science, just as important as Ockham’s razor – they are the bases for that same razor. Yes, they may be culturally conditioned, but they are not incomparable. Beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder, because the beholder herself is part of that order.

    Yes, in some sense oracular knowledge and scientific knowledge are “preferences”, but they are not just preferences. They are comparable aesthetic systems, with science the clear winner as the preferable one, from its inherent growing complexity.

    A metaphor: any one can “prefer” one wine to another, but there do exist experts, who can compare and justify a better wine to another. You can dismiss this as “just preference,” but I disagree – there are wines that are better than others, there are expert palates that can distinguish the two, and most people can develop the ability to make that discernment. There is music that is more complex than others: Beethoven is better than Britney Spears. That’s not just a matter of personal taste, but a reasonable aesthetic judgment, if not a purely rational one.

  68. #69 frog
    March 6, 2007

    Jason,

    Well, make up your mind. You just said: “It is irrational to accept your sensory input as a basis for knowledge.” Empirical knowledge is based on observation, i.e., “sensory input.” So do you think this is irrational or don’t you? Your conflicting statements are confusing.

    Sorry if I was unclear. I was presenting the religious position, not mine. I was not implying that it actually is irrational – I was presenting that as a common premise from religion, the definition of acceptable bases for knowledge. My premise, and that of science, is the opposite.

  69. #70 Jason
    March 6, 2007

    frog,

    Please explain why you think the claims of science are more true (“true-er”), or more justified, than the claims of religion, if both sets of claims are based on premises that are neither rational nor irrational but merely “accepted” by those who believe them. Why is “accepting” the premises of science more justified, or more likely to lead to true beliefs, than “accepting” the premises of religion, if neither set of premises is rational?

  70. #71 frog
    March 6, 2007

    What more than self-consistent does rational mean in a philosophical sense? It means that you can apply syllogisms, that you go from some well formed symbols and derive more self formed systems. That you’re applying computable algorithms. If you involve much more than that, you start to beg any question you want to answer.

    True is a nasty one. It has to come logically before rationality, since rationality depends on truth. It involves corresponding with reality, but that by itself is nasty – how do you define corresponding to reality? The mathematicians prefer to leave it as just a basic symbol, but that’s not very satisfying. Maybe an ostensive definition is best? Or an aesthetic one, where truth involves both matching with reality, and being productive? The last would be my favored, because it both allows comparison and involves beauty (matching).

    Finally knowledge. Well that’s the linchpin, ain’t it? It should be something more than simple bits, but whatever it is, it’s presupposed to everything, including beauty, truth and rationality. Maybe that one really is best left ostensive, even if that isn’t quite satisfying.

  71. #72 frog
    March 6, 2007

    Jason,

    Science is better because: it grows, with a gain in knowledge over time. It includes the concept of falsifiability; most religion does not include such a concept, replacing it with contradiction against revelation. It includes Ockhams razor; most religion does not, with complex entities producing simpler entities (logical entities, that is). It is productive: over the history of science, we have built more and more complex machines, developed predictive systems of unrivaled power, scanned deeply into the universe; religion has done neither, with at best some predictive ability into human behavior.

    Most religion asks me to avert my eyes, and whittle down my mind. The elegance of Einstein as compared to Aquinas, is like comparing Picasso to a beer commercial. We’re peering into the bases of rationality and epistemology here, so I’ve got to spout poetry – but that’s the kind of argument appropriate at this level.

    The beauty of a space nebula outshines the glory of God as a column leading the Israelites. He is but a flaming torch, while Hubbles’ images touch an infinity and bring it to my fingertips. I Am What I Am is just mutterings compared to Gdel’s proofs. Biblical numerology is just a child’s game when placed next to finite state automata. DNA peers to the beginning of time, a conversation over eons, spreading over geological time and space, while scripture is just scraps of paper babbling time-worn gossip. The physics of relativity and quanta connects scales from the atomic to the super-galactic and time scales from the femtosecond to the tetrayear, while creationism gives me a puny world with a puny god, who tells me that a Zebra is a Zebra because Adam said so, but can’t tell me why I look like my mother.

  72. #73 David Marjanovi?
    March 6, 2007

    Practice: Science rests on a tripod of theory (ideas), observation and experiment.

    No, experiments are just a way of arranging opportunities for observation whenever and wherever you want to have them. Observations made elsewhere can suffice, however. Astrophysics and geology are sciences.

    But biodiversity surveys and taxonomy are also science–

    Biodiversity surveys are the gathering of data — that’s a prerequisite of science, but not the whole thing. Taxonomy is an art, and that’s why it has started dying out.

    Similarly, Science could handle divine interventions and miracles, if there were any.

    Only if they were predictable. (If a miracle is predictable, is it still a miracle? Or does it become just another law of nature?)

    Never miss an opportunity to quote Terry Pratchett. 😉

    Well said!!!

  73. #74 David Marjanovi?
    March 6, 2007

    Practice: Science rests on a tripod of theory (ideas), observation and experiment.

    No, experiments are just a way of arranging opportunities for observation whenever and wherever you want to have them. Observations made elsewhere can suffice, however. Astrophysics and geology are sciences.

    But biodiversity surveys and taxonomy are also science–

    Biodiversity surveys are the gathering of data — that’s a prerequisite of science, but not the whole thing. Taxonomy is an art, and that’s why it has started dying out.

    Similarly, Science could handle divine interventions and miracles, if there were any.

    Only if they were predictable. (If a miracle is predictable, is it still a miracle? Or does it become just another law of nature?)

    Never miss an opportunity to quote Terry Pratchett. 😉

    Well said!!!

  74. #75 Jason
    March 6, 2007

    frog,

    What more than self-consistent does rational mean in a philosophical sense?

    “Rational” means, basically, consistent with rationality. A theory may be “self-consistent” but irrational by virtue of contradicting existing knowledge, for example.

    The last [definition of trueth] would be my favored, because it both allows comparison and involves beauty (matching).

    Then why is science “true-er” than religion? By your definition of truth, the Genesis creation story is more true than evolution if it is more “beautiful” or more aesthetically satisfying. You also mention a criterion of “being productive,” but I don’t know what that means. Productive of what?

    The basic problem with your argument is that you provide no clear reason to favor scientific claims of truth over religious ones. You say that both rest on premises that are not rational and not irrational but merely “accepted.” So why “accept” the premises of science rather than the premises of religion? If this is not just a matter of preference, or “faith,” what is it a matter of?

  75. #76 David Marjanovi?
    March 6, 2007

    The elegance of Einstein as compared to Aquinas, is like comparing Picasso to a beer commercial.

    Great quote except for the extra comma. I need to remember it!

    (And to find an image of one of Picasso’s early paintings, from when he didn’t make fun of his customers yet.)

    DNA peers to the beginning of time

    It won’t get you farther than the beginning of life.

    Why is “accepting” the premises of science more justified, or more likely to lead to true beliefs, than “accepting” the premises of religion, if neither set of premises is rational?

    Let’s save frog from his poetry here. :o)

    Hypotheses derived from the premises of science are testable. Whether they correspond with reality can simply be observed. Hypotheses derived from the premises of religion are usually not testable — and therefore useless, because they can explain everything and its opposite.

  76. #77 David Marjanovi?
    March 6, 2007

    The elegance of Einstein as compared to Aquinas, is like comparing Picasso to a beer commercial.

    Great quote except for the extra comma. I need to remember it!

    (And to find an image of one of Picasso’s early paintings, from when he didn’t make fun of his customers yet.)

    DNA peers to the beginning of time

    It won’t get you farther than the beginning of life.

    Why is “accepting” the premises of science more justified, or more likely to lead to true beliefs, than “accepting” the premises of religion, if neither set of premises is rational?

    Let’s save frog from his poetry here. :o)

    Hypotheses derived from the premises of science are testable. Whether they correspond with reality can simply be observed. Hypotheses derived from the premises of religion are usually not testable — and therefore useless, because they can explain everything and its opposite.

  77. #78 tigtog
    March 6, 2007

    Got a good elevator pitch for “Christianity” or “religion”?

    There was quite a good one upthread [#47], but it was still a bit too long. Here’s my short, sharp version:

    Ya wanna live forever? We can show you how.

    Wrap a bit of peace, joy, freedom from suffering/want, reunion with loved ones and a hint of promised enlightenment around there and you’re done.

    No matter what culture you’re in, spruiking appropriately tailored versions of that pitch to people seeking certainties gets you enough takers to result in a cushy (obPratchett) “inside job with no heavy lifting”.

  78. #79 Jason
    March 6, 2007

    frog,

    Science is better because: it grows, with a gain in knowledge over time. It includes the concept of falsifiability; most religion does not include such a concept, replacing it with contradiction against revelation. It includes Ockhams razor; most religion does not, with complex entities producing simpler entities (logical entities, that is). It is productive: over the history of science, we have built more and more complex machines, developed predictive systems of unrivaled power, scanned deeply into the universe; religion has done neither, with at best some predictive ability into human behavior.

    But these are all rational reasons to favor science over religion. And yet you deny that the premises of science are more rational than the premises of religion, or that they rational at all. Once again, it’s hard to know what you mean by “rational.”

  79. #80 frog
    March 6, 2007

    Jason,

    Yes, you are correct about being consistent with other knowledge. I wasn’t talking about just internal self-consistency of a particular theory, but the self-consistency of the entire system of knowledge, which includes other facts that are part of that system. So, we are not in disagreement there.

    But for 2) The Genesis creation story is not more aesthetically pleasing than evolution. Its small, boring, and repetitive. The implications in it are just iterations of the same damn thing. There are no surprising implications that return in “experience” – it’s all fairly obvious and dull in comparison to evolution. And you can’t take any particular part in isolation – it’s the difficulty of trying to talk about this level of reality. Believing the scriptural accounts means agreeing to an entire system of knowledge that is small and unproductive. By productive, I mean productive in a kind of grammatical sense. The “sentences” of science are constrained but infinite. The “sentences” of religion are smaller and less complex. I can use scientific language to talk about mollusk embryology, match it to microscopic data, and development in mammals; religion has nothing to compare with that.

    The reason I give no clear reasons, is because we are talking about reason. It’s one of those damn recursive problems, that we can’t assume what we want to set up to prove. We can’t hang ourselves on our own petard, but somehow we have to bootstrap ourselves from something antecedent to reason. And that makes it very hard to formalize, particularly as a concise, rigorous, rational argument, which is of course preferable, but I doubt that it is possible.

    At the bottom, we are talking about an aesthetic experience, what in religion is the moment of faith. I say that the empirical moment of “faith” (for want of a better term) is superior, simply more beautiful, more complex in almost every dimension, covers vastly greater scales of experience, is practically more useful, and “matches” the experience of life better (too many scare quotes – lacking in language without lapsing into poetry).

    There’s a reason that Wittgenstein just shut up for several years. Maybe I should on this line of reasoning – but I’m a babbler.

  80. #81 frog
    March 6, 2007

    Jason,

    I really wouldn’t call that paragraph rational. I can’t go from some kind of universally accepted set of axioms and prove those statements. They are aesthetic statements. Ockhams razor isn’t itself proven from some other set of principles – it is itself a principle, and primarily an aesthetic and practical principle. It’s not rationally derived. You could build a rational system that doesn’t allow that argument; the bible does. But that system has problems developing predictions, which is another principle which has much to say for it.

    For example: two parallel lines will never converge. That’s not a derived, rational statement. It’s an assumption of Euclidean geometry. Once you accept that, you can derive rational statements from it. It’s also quite untrue in many spaces, particularly the space we inhabit. But it is the basis for a rational system, one that matches experience at a human scale. I’m not saying that it’s irrational, but that it derives from an aesthetic and practical sense that is fairly limited.

  81. #82 Jason
    March 6, 2007

    frog,

    I really wouldn’t call that paragraph rational. I can’t go from some kind of universally accepted set of axioms and prove those statements. They are aesthetic statements.

    I think I’m going to just give up on you. It’s hard to extract any clear argument from your meandering posts and conflicting statements. The statement I quote above, from your latest post, seems to confirm that you think the difference between science and religion boils down to preference, to a matter of “aesthetics.” That’s how I originally understood your position, but you denied it, and now you seem to be confirming it. You’ve offered no clear definition of the terms “rational” or “knowledge” as you have been using them, and your vague description of “truth” appealed to the “beauty” of a belief rather than to its coherence, or correspondence to reality, or other conventional conceptions of truth. Frankly, I have no idea what you even mean by “rational” as you are using the word here.

  82. #83 Jason
    March 6, 2007

    frog,

    For example: two parallel lines will never converge. That’s not a derived, rational statement. It’s an assumption of Euclidean geometry.

    No, it’s a perfectly rational statement. It’s not an assumption. It follows logically from the definitions of the words “parallel” and “converge.” Two lines are parallel if the distance between them is constant. If the distance between them is constant, then they will never converge, since convergence requires the distance to change.

    Again, you seem to be using the word “rational” in some bizarre sense that has little to do with rationality as that concept is usually understood.

  83. #84 frog
    March 6, 2007

    So, Jason, you get my point. There is no clear argument for a simple reason. Argument is rational. We are trying to make a foundation for reason. We can’t use reason to do that! The way I’m using reason is fairly simple: algorithmically computable. That’s it. But you can’t argue for one using itself – that’s cheating. So I try poetry, with all the problems that has.

    Now, once again, aesthetics and “preference” is not “irrational”. It’s non-rational. We have to start outside of rationality to support a particular kind of rationality, or otherwise we are begging the question.

    But aesthetics is not purely subjective – it involves a matching of the subject with the perception, and the subject is a certain kind of subject: at minimum a self-aware entity. But everyone nowadays thinks that beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder. That is pure, unadulterated bullshit. Fallacious. Absurd. Kant had his categorical imperative. I say that there does exist an aesthetic imperative, tied to the nature of being a self-aware entity. That’s why we have math.

    As long as you’re coming at it from that angle, you will conflate personal preference (I like Sprite rather than Coke) with aesthetic judgment. There are standards, but at bottom, they can’t be coded without assuming them. And then the rest of my rant becomes senseless. I deny that choosing the underlying principles of rationality are merely personal preferences; I don’t deny that they are aesthetic in essence, though. Two different concepts.

  84. #85 frog
    March 6, 2007

    or example: two parallel lines will never converge. That’s not a derived, rational statement. It’s an assumption of Euclidean geometry.

    No, it’s a perfectly rational statement. It’s not an assumption. It follows logically from the definitions of the words “parallel” and “converge.” Two lines are parallel if the distance between them is constant. If the distance between them is constant, then they will never converge, since convergence requires the distance to change.

    Oh, Jason, but you are wrong. There exists Riemann space were parallel lines do converge – that is the geometry of relativity.

  85. #86 frog
    March 6, 2007

    To be more precise, parallel lines converge in a space on a hypersphere. They diverge on other manifolds.

  86. #87 jokermage
    March 6, 2007

    “Science is what we do to figure what isn’t true.”

    It covers the process thing, falsification and it rhymes.

  87. #88 frog
    March 6, 2007

    David,

    Thanks for your cogent summarizing. But
    DNA peers to the beginning of time

    It won’t get you farther than the beginning of life.

    That depends on your TOE. If you go with Max Tegmark’s TOE == Ultimate Ensemble Theory, you might interpret it to mean that time outside of self-aware entities isn’t quite the same as observable time.

    You could also go with a biological panspermia hypothesis that could push you pretty close to the Big Bang.

    But yeah, it’s pretty bad poetry. I’m not an artist – and this kind of talk is artist stuff, not scientist stuff and definitely not philosopher stuff – they always screw it up the worst.

  88. #89 frog
    March 6, 2007

    kmarissa,

    You are right that empirical knowledge is accepted by the religious for work-a-day stuff. But the explanation for what they perceive itself doesn’t necessarily come out of the work a day stuff. People change jobs because their dead grandma told them so, they believe nutty stuff about the geology that resolves itself to the geology that the rest of us believe. There isn’t a clear line between the religious and the work a day. But you don’t see many seriously religious scientists or engineers – those guys generally have a religion so amorphous that the real believers disrespect them more than the scientists.

  89. #90 Caledonian
    March 6, 2007

    We can build a rational description of why rationality is useful and correct, but it will never be an argument that induces us to accept rationality.

    So what?

  90. #91 Amit Joshi
    March 7, 2007

    I think I read in one of Feynman’s books this definition: experiment is the sole arbiter of truth.

    Succinct, yet complete.

  91. #92 Kevembuangga
    March 7, 2007

    G.Tingey: Science assumes, indeed MUST assume, that only natural forces are at work, and that there are no special cases or exceptions.

    Very nice but quite useless if you cannot provide a RELIABLE method to sort out “natural forces” from (hypothetical) “non-natural” ones.
    Can you elaborate on your Metaphysical Naturalism?

  92. #93 SEF
    March 7, 2007

    I’m another one who was expecting the 3rd definition first, PZ – and was almost getting ready to rant about it by the time you got round to that one (and it turned out to be something very close to the one I had prepared in my head anyway).

  93. #94 Greg Byshenk
    March 7, 2007

    FWIW, Sam Harris presented a pretty good one-liner in his discussion with
    Andrew Sullivan

    Science is the one endeavor in which we have developed a refined
    methodology for separating what a person hopes is true from what he has good
    reason to believe.
    (from http://www.beliefnet.com/story/209/story_20904.html)

    FWIW, I agree with aweb above that the “natural” in #3 doesn’t
    belong. It adds nothing except possible confusion, and the definition is
    better without it.

    And pretty much the same is true regarding “Metaphysical Naturalism”
    (from G. Tingey above). “Science” requires that “the universe”
    (whatever it might be) is coherent and consistent. That is, if I do X
    under Y conditions with the result Z, then doing the same thing under
    the same conditions tomorrow will produce the same result, and doing the
    same thing under the same conditions on the other side of the world will
    also produce the same result. Further, this is an “assumption” that is
    unproven (see the problem of induction), but not without
    evidence; indeed, pretty much all of the evidence we have
    suggests that the assumption is valid.

    And adding “naturalism” or “natural” actually adds nothing. If “the
    supernatural” actually worked — if one actually could perform
    “magic”, summon demons, or cure by the laying on of hands (or any one of
    the host of other “supernatural” things in the world), then such “supernatural”
    things could be studied scientifically. The problem is not that there is some realm that is “beyond” the ‘natural’ that is inaccessible to science, but that ‘supernatural’ seems to be a synonym for “wishful thinking” or “no evidence that it even exists”.

  94. #95 frog
    March 7, 2007

    Caledonian,

    Well, if part of the problem is convincing others, the fact that you can’t form a rational argument to argue rationality to those who don’t accept your premise, then the conclusion is that you’re best methods aren’t rational arguments themselves. Narrative and art probably are better methods. That’s why the Christian conversion experience is not structured primarily as a rational argument, but often relies on feeling and on community.

    Science can’t do exactly that, but we can focus on bettering scientific education, by improving the experience – as I said earlier, have the kids poke at ants, breed flies, grow plants, look in telescopes rather than feeding them some data and “The Scientific Method,” which anyhow is pretty far from the actual “Scientific Method.”

    By teaching evolution first as a theoretical construct, without exposing them to the natural world from an evolutionary perspective, you are likely to do no good to those from dogmatic backgrounds.

  95. #96 frog
    March 7, 2007

    Greg,

    If magic worked, in a scientific sense, predictable with a physical theoretical construct underlying it, it wouldn’t be magic – anymore than an eclipse is magic. “Natural” is essential, it’s the nature of the scientific explanation.

    Psychologically, magic does work; that’s been know for at least a century. But I can’t posit that when I do X, Y happens due to magic fairies that are otherwise unknowable. That is not a scientific explanation – it begs the question. That is the not a scientific explanation. You’re allowed in religion to beg the question – that is a big difference.

  96. #97 Greg Byshenk
    March 7, 2007

    frog, I think you are mistaken. If “magic” — or anything else in
    the supposed realm of “the supernatural” — “worked” at all, then it
    could be studied scientifically. It doesn’t require a pre-existing “physical
    theoretical construct”, although very likely some such “theoretical construct”s
    would be suggested; after all the history of science is full of instances of
    some sort of thing happening, and scientists then figuring out how it happens.
    If “the supernatural” worked, then it would have effects in the world, and these
    effects could be studied. It is not a problem of “I can’t posit that when
    I do X, Y happens due to…” whatever — but the problem of you can’t show that
    “when you do X, Y happens” full stop. If someone could get even that
    far
    with “the supernatural”, then it could be studied scientifically. But
    is seems that no one can get even that far: someone posits that some “supernatural”
    thing happens — but it doesn’t happen.

    And I am not sure what “Psychologically, magic does work” is supposed to mean.

  97. #98 Christopher
    March 7, 2007

    I just read Jacob Bronowski’s essay “The Creative Mind” in his 1956 book Science and Human Values. I read it quickly and probably need to revisit it but an interesting notion jumped out at me. He imagines a scenario where someone has collected twenty years worth of measurements and ‘facts’ about the world around him (temperature, sunrise/sunset times, etc.). In short, he has amassed discriminate facts about the world around him and written them down in a book. Bronowski then wonders whether or not the Royal Academies would accept his book as a contribution to science…and his answer is a resounding NO. Science, for Bronowski, is much more than a collection of facts about the world around us…it is an attempt to find unity in variety. Science then, is not just finding the pieces of the puzzle, but also the act of putting the pieces of the puzzle together.
    I dont have the book on hand, so maybe someone else would care to chip in…

  98. #99 Caledonian
    March 7, 2007

    the fact that you can’t form a rational argument to argue rationality to those who don’t accept your premise

    No, you fool. Such arguments can be formed and made – it’s simply useless to do so.

  99. #100 frog
    March 7, 2007

    Caledonia,

    Yes, you can make a well-formed argument for rationality. And as you point out, it is useless. But neither fact lessens the reality that in making a useless, trivial point, you prove that you are a pedantic prick.

  100. #101 frog
    March 7, 2007

    Greg,

    Science is not just correlating data. It must have a theoretical construct to interpret that data. Saying that the Sun rises every morning is just the bare beginning of science.

    What I meant by magic being psychologically true is that, for example, you have the placebo effect: laying on of hands worked. And there is a naturalistic explanation, which fits with the our physical understanding of the world. Also, in some traditional societies, shamanism works as a treatment for mental disorders; in developed society, Freudian psychoanalysis also works for some mental disorders. Both internally have “magical” theories of function, but scientifically we can study them as effects on neurological systems.

    Alls I’m saying is that if goblins and ghosts were predictable, they’d become natural objects just like echinoderms and platypuses. What makes something supernatural is that they don’t respond to laws tied to the natural world – they are unpredictable. The theory of prayer says that God responds to prayer out of his grace – by definition, you can’t treat it as an experimental procedure. That’s something supernatural, and that kind of explanation/theory is ruled out by science as just not useful.

  101. #102 David Marjanovi?
    March 7, 2007

    We are trying to make a foundation for reason. We can’t use reason to do that!

    Maybe not, but we can make a really beautiful argumentum ad lapidem about it. In some medieval caliphate (sorry — I’ve forgot the century and the names of the protagonists) there was a discussion whether philosophy should be done at all or whether religion should be left alone. An advocate of the latter view wrote a book “The refutation of the philosophers”. An advocate of the former answered in a book called “The refutation of the refutation” which makes the basic point that you can’t argue against reason — if you use reason to argue against reason, you’re contradicting yourself; if you don’t use reason, you are unreasonable.

    That’s the beauty about methodological naturalism. I haven’t put enough thought into it, but I think it makes argumenta ad lapidem work. =8-)

    DNA peers to the beginning of time

    It won’t get you farther than the beginning of life.

    That depends on your TOE. If you go with Max Tegmark’s TOE == Ultimate Ensemble Theory, you might interpret it to mean that time outside of self-aware entities isn’t quite the same as observable time.

    Philosophers have no right to make stuff up and call it a TOE. That’s what physicists are for — the important difference being that their TOE will hopefully be testable.

    You could also go with a biological panspermia hypothesis that could push you pretty close to the Big Bang.

    If a couple hundred million years (and that’s optimistic) are “close”…

    I think I read in one of Feynman’s books this definition: experiment is the sole arbiter of truth.
    Succinct, yet complete.

    Too narrow. Exchange “experiment” for “repeated observation”. (And maybe “truth” for “reality”.)

    G.Tingey: Science assumes, indeed MUST assume, that only natural forces are at work, and that there are no special cases or exceptions.
    Very nice but quite useless if you cannot provide a RELIABLE method to sort out “natural forces” from (hypothetical) “non-natural” ones.

    Interesting question, but I think it has a very simple answer: if we observe it so regularly that we can develop a hypothesis that successfully predicts it, it is part of reality — of nature — natural. If it can’t be predicted, it’s a miracle… or we just need to look and think harder. Greg Byshenk is right (both times).

    Can you elaborate on your Metaphysical Naturalism?

    That’s the methodological one.

    Science is not just correlating data. It must have a theoretical construct to interpret that data. Saying that the Sun rises every morning is just the bare beginning of science.

    Well, we come up with hypotheses, and use data to test them. Whether we gather the data first (as in your example) or last doesn’t really matter. (Gathering them first may save us a lot of time otherwise spent speculating idly, but it’s more boring.)

    The placebo effect can be studied scientifically. (Of course hypotheses have already been suggested that it boils down to hormones and the like.)

  102. #103 David Marjanovi?
    March 7, 2007

    We are trying to make a foundation for reason. We can’t use reason to do that!

    Maybe not, but we can make a really beautiful argumentum ad lapidem about it. In some medieval caliphate (sorry — I’ve forgot the century and the names of the protagonists) there was a discussion whether philosophy should be done at all or whether religion should be left alone. An advocate of the latter view wrote a book “The refutation of the philosophers”. An advocate of the former answered in a book called “The refutation of the refutation” which makes the basic point that you can’t argue against reason — if you use reason to argue against reason, you’re contradicting yourself; if you don’t use reason, you are unreasonable.

    That’s the beauty about methodological naturalism. I haven’t put enough thought into it, but I think it makes argumenta ad lapidem work. =8-)

    DNA peers to the beginning of time

    It won’t get you farther than the beginning of life.

    That depends on your TOE. If you go with Max Tegmark’s TOE == Ultimate Ensemble Theory, you might interpret it to mean that time outside of self-aware entities isn’t quite the same as observable time.

    Philosophers have no right to make stuff up and call it a TOE. That’s what physicists are for — the important difference being that their TOE will hopefully be testable.

    You could also go with a biological panspermia hypothesis that could push you pretty close to the Big Bang.

    If a couple hundred million years (and that’s optimistic) are “close”…

    I think I read in one of Feynman’s books this definition: experiment is the sole arbiter of truth.
    Succinct, yet complete.

    Too narrow. Exchange “experiment” for “repeated observation”. (And maybe “truth” for “reality”.)

    G.Tingey: Science assumes, indeed MUST assume, that only natural forces are at work, and that there are no special cases or exceptions.
    Very nice but quite useless if you cannot provide a RELIABLE method to sort out “natural forces” from (hypothetical) “non-natural” ones.

    Interesting question, but I think it has a very simple answer: if we observe it so regularly that we can develop a hypothesis that successfully predicts it, it is part of reality — of nature — natural. If it can’t be predicted, it’s a miracle… or we just need to look and think harder. Greg Byshenk is right (both times).

    Can you elaborate on your Metaphysical Naturalism?

    That’s the methodological one.

    Science is not just correlating data. It must have a theoretical construct to interpret that data. Saying that the Sun rises every morning is just the bare beginning of science.

    Well, we come up with hypotheses, and use data to test them. Whether we gather the data first (as in your example) or last doesn’t really matter. (Gathering them first may save us a lot of time otherwise spent speculating idly, but it’s more boring.)

    The placebo effect can be studied scientifically. (Of course hypotheses have already been suggested that it boils down to hormones and the like.)

  103. #104 Chuck
    March 7, 2007

    The problem is that different branches of science are different. For example, Paul Davies gave a good definition of physics: the algorithmic compression of data in search of patterns. Using such a definitio is a good way to generate mathematical models based on a few equations that describe and predict the data. This is not an adequate definition of biology, however, as Ernst Mayr points out in What Makes Biology Unique. Biology is really two radically different sciences – one made up of a describing complex biological systems in materialist (reductionist) terms, which is what I as a molecular biologist does, and one accounting for the natural history of life on this planet, which is what the evolutionary biologist does. The second branch of biology is actually the interesting part, since the former just reduces to chemistry and physics. Natural history is impacted by the fact that life is shaped by a changing genetic program. Evolutionary biology does fall outside of the physics/chemistry/molecular biology scheme of reductionist hierarchy, but is still entirely concerned with natural phenomena. That’s one of the reasons it is so misunderstood.

  104. #105 frog
    March 7, 2007

    David,

    Max Tegmark is a physicist. He’s got a paper playing with the idea that mathematical reality and physical reality are the same thing. It’s fairly well worked out, but preliminary because the whole thing revolves around the mathematical structure of self-aware entities and what that means for the mathematical structures they inhabit. He tries to set up probabilistic tests for such a TOE. It’s in the Annals of Physics – “Is “the theory of everything” merely the ultimate ensemble theory?” Annals of Physics, 270, 1-51 (1998).

    “Well, we come up with hypotheses, and use data to test them.” I’m sure that’s how you write it up in your grant applications. But in practice, there is no sharp delineation between the two. It’s an iterative process between data and theory, and there is no data free of theory – pure sense perception without interpretation is not science. If you just gather data, how do you choose that data? Of course, you have data. Most scientific work isn’t even really hypothesis testing at all, since most of it is doing controls; and even when hypothesis testing, in most cases when the hypothesis doesn’t pan out initially, you throw out the data and repeat. You can’t even get a grant in biology if the results aren’t pretty close to being predetermined and merely confirmation (and pretty damn boring for that reason!)

    If your responding to me, yes the placebo affect can be studied scientifically – that was the point of my statement. When it is studied scientifically, the answer is/must be naturalistic; that’s the nature of a scientific explanation. I think we agree on this point; I may have been unclear. What can’t be studied scientifically is that an omnipotent being is causing the placebo effect, because an omnipotent being is inherently unpredictable – he’s not omnipotent if he’s bound by laws.

    The practical point of my statement regarding rationality “proving” rationality is not for a scientific audience per se. It is for a scientific audience that is interested in expanding their ideas outside of their audience. If people are just going to sit around anc call Christian morons and madmen, well that doesn’t bode well for a democratic enlightenment society. You can’t argue the Christians into agreement, by the very nature of rational argument. Even the arguments denuded beauty (which may be helpful) is insufficient. Practical steps must be taken. You can only convince someone of the power of science by having them actively take a part in it, which current science education does not do, in many fields up to even the level of undergraduate studies (in some, the graduate studies themselves are iffy on this point, with grad students washing dishes).

  105. #106 Caledonian
    March 7, 2007

    How ironic that a person making a verbal argument is indifferent to sloppy thinking and imprecise statements. Without rigor, reason does not exist. If you tolerate such errors, you’ll rapidly find yourself falling into fallacy – which is most likely your intention in the first place.

  106. #107 frog
    March 7, 2007

    And how ironic that someone accusing another of fallacy adopts ad hominem.

  107. #108 Kevembuangga
    March 8, 2007

    If people are just going to sit around anc call Christian morons and madmen, well that doesn’t bode well for a democratic enlightenment society.

    Beyond the “ethical” or “strategic” concerns underlying this remark doesn’t this mean that you have to convince a MAJORITY about the benefits of rationality in order to reach “democratic enlightenment” ?
    Hmmmmm…

  108. #109 SEF
    March 8, 2007

    I’ve just realised I’d forgotten to tell you the 4th (UK) definition of science, PZ:

    Science is that which gets its allegedly “ring-fenced” funding stolen when the government has blown money in failing somewhere else entirely.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/6419261.stm

    An astronomy friend of mine says that this is likely to result in many of his team no longer being employed, with the knock-on effect that they won’t reach a pre-agreed deadline for their part in a project. That’s going to look mighty stupid if it happens. Eg things like rovers going off to other planets but without any instruments on board.

  109. #110 Caledonian
    March 8, 2007

    And how ironic that someone accusing another of fallacy adopts ad hominem.

    You don’t even know what that is.

  110. #111 frog
    March 8, 2007

    Caledonia: “No, you fool. Such arguments can be formed and made – it’s simply useless to do so.”

    Ad hominem: an attack against the character of person making the claim in order to undermine the claim.

    If you were actually proposing that I was a fool, far greater evidence than one simple statement would be required. For example, if I were to try to argue that person A is a fool, a catalogue of incorrect statements would be required: A said B, C, and D, which taken together show a pattern of foolishnes; but to say that A said B, which, arguendo, is foolish, would not show that A is a fool, since the possible explanations are manifold from a simple mistake to a miscomprehension of context. Your claim that that it is not ad hominem is equivalent to the statement “I saw John smile. Therefore, he is a happy person.” I’d expect such a statement from a moron, a small child or a drunk.

    Assuming that you don’t belong to that class of individuals, another possible explanation is that your statement is a personal attack on character intended to undermine my claims – classic ad hominem: “Bob is a fool. Solar surface temperatures are not 10k K. Ignore his theory of solar eclipses.”

    The final possibility is that you simply spew random venom, and the first sentence is just disconnected from the second – that is, it neither follows from, nor supports, the second sentence, or the referenced context of the second statement. That would not be a traditional fallacy – it’s simply be a sign of mental disorder: “Bob eats ice cream. The Sun is yellow.” Verbal diarrhea is often a sign of incipient schizophrenia.

    So, which is it, simple mental incompetence, ad hominem, or full blown neurological dysfunction?

  111. #112 frog
    March 8, 2007

    Kevembuangga: Yes, I agree – you have to teach the benefits of rationality (and empiricism) in order to have a meaningfully democratic society. The question, is how do you teach it? My argument is that doing so polemically won’t work, that rationality and empiricism are skills (procedural knowlege), not domains (declarative knowledge).

  112. #113 Keith Douglas
    March 8, 2007

    I’ve always been fond of using Bunge’s characterization as a starting point:
    Bunge’s characterization involves representing a scientific research field as an ordered ten-tuple of the form R = . He explains each component as follows “[…] where at any given moment: (i) the research community C has the same general characteristics as those of any other research field; (ii) the host society S of C has the same general characteristics of any other research field; (iii) the domain D of R is composed exclusively of (certified or putatively) real entities (rather than, say, freely
    floating ideas) past, present or future; (iv) the general outlook or philosophical background G of R includes (a) an ontology of changing things (rather than, say, one of ghostly or unchanging entities); (b) a realistic epistemology (instead of, say, an idealistic or conventionalist one), and (c) the ethos of the free search for truth, depth and system (rather than, say, the ethos of fatith or of the bound quest for utility, profit, power or consensus); (v) the formal background F of R is a colllection of up to date logical and matheamtical theories (rather than being empty or formed by obselete formal theories); (vi) the specific background B of R is a collection of up to date and reasonably well confirmed (yet corrigible) data, hypotheses and theories, and of reasonably effective research methods, obtained in otheer research fields relevant to R; (vii) the problematics P of R consists exclusively of cognitive problems concerning the nature (in particular the laws) of the members of D, as well as problems concerning other components of R; (viii) the fund of knowledge K of R is a collection of up to date and testable (though not final) theories, hypotheses, and data comptible with those in B, and obtained by members of C at previous times; (ix) the aims A of the members of C invluding discovering or using the laws of the D’s, systematizing (into theories) hypotheses about D’s, and refining methods in M; (x) the methodics M of R consist exclusively of scrutable (checkable, analyzable, criticizable) and justifiable (explainable) procedures, in the first place the scientific method; (xi) there is atleast one other contiguous scientific research field with the general characteristics noted with reference to research fields in general; (xii) the membership of everyone of the last eight components of R changes, however slowly at times, as a result of scientific research in the same field as well as in related fields of scientific enquiry.”

    Then science (at a given time) is simply the collection all scientific research fields R.

    Hank Fox: It is, however, useful (at least sometimes, as when deciding on their justification) to distinguish crafts – however wonderful and useful – from technology proper – or if you prefer, science based technology.

  113. #114 Keith Douglas
    March 8, 2007

    ack, the greater than less than got cut out:

    <C,S,D,G,F,B,P,P,K,A,M> is the ten-tuple for the previous message.

  114. #115 Greg Byshenk
    March 9, 2007

    frog wrote (#99):

    Science is not just correlating data. It must have a theoretical
    construct to interpret that data.

    Of course, I neither said nor suggested that “science” is “just correlating
    data”; rather, I said that, if there actually were some “data”, then it
    could be studied.

    What I meant by magic being psychologically true is that, for
    example, you have the placebo effect: laying on of hands worked.

    Which is just gibberish. Yes beliefs may have measurable effects. But this
    does not make the beliefs “true” — “psychologically” or in any other way. Indeed,
    “the placebo effect” is defined in relation to beliefs that are demonstrably
    false
    .

    What makes something supernatural is that they don’t respond to
    laws tied to the natural world – they are unpredictable. The theory of prayer
    says that God responds to prayer out of his grace – by definition, you can’t
    treat it as an experimental procedure. That’s something supernatural, and that
    kind of explanation/theory is ruled out by science as just not useful.

    More gibberish. What makes something “supernatural” is that it doesn’t
    “respond” at all. If “prayer” had any effects — even “unpredictable”
    ones — then its effects could be analyzed (statistically, for example). The problem
    is that “the supernatural” has no effect whatsoever, and is therefore indistinguishable
    from “the nonexistent”.

  115. #116 frog
    March 9, 2007

    Greg,
    What makes something “supernatural” is that it doesn’t “respond” at all. If “prayer” had any effects — even “unpredictable” ones — then its effects could be analyzed (statistically, for example)

    Now there’s gibberish. If something is unpredictable, it is not analyzable statistically. What make something analyzable statistically is that it is predictable, it follows a law which may include stochastic processes. That’s what statistics is about: making predictions. They can involve stochastic systems, where our predictions are limited to error bars, but those errors are predictable, the mean is predictable. That is completely different from a prayer to God.

    The result of a prayer can not be analyzed statistically, because the response from God completely depends on his “Grace.” Even if the rate of cancer recovery of prayers vs. non-prayers is indistinguishable, that is easily explained away by the magical power of prayer – “He” responds as he will, he can give miracles to those “He” wishes, when “He” wishes – we cannot pin him down. Prayer is not cause-effect – those who treat it as such are superstitious, not religious – just ask any competent priest. Each is a one shot event, which puts it outside of statistics, and therefore scientific theory.

    If you could pin God down, he wouldn’t be omnipotent now, would he?
    He would behave according to a law, which limits “Him”. Read Job, then come back with a better understanding of the religious mindset.

    That applies also to “data.” Data interpretation is not independent of theory, which is why fields such as anthropology distinguish between emic, subjective, truth and etic, objective, truth. The placebo affect refers to the effect of subjectively true beliefs, that are objectively false, but efficacious, which implies that there is some objectively true statement that corresponds to the subjective belief. The ability to contextualize statements is a minimal requirement for literacy beyond the functional.

    I’m starting to see why religious folks see us as insufferable: an utter inability to recognize the subjective reality of other people that verges on the autistic, by some folks in the non-religious crowd. If you want to do anything more than simply congratulate yourself on your own enlightenment, you have to get inside the minds of your neighbors, rather than peremptorily dismiss them as irrational, and their beliefs as false.

  116. #117 Owlmirror
    March 9, 2007

    Each [prayer] is a one shot event, which puts it outside of statistics, and therefore scientific theory.

    I’m not sure that this makes sense. What is statistics, if not the analysis of a collection of one-shot events?

    Or are you referring to the general perception of prayer by those who believe in it? While I agree that some would reject any sort of analysis, I think it’s useful to have such statistical studies of prayer, in order to refute any general claim of utility. Just as it would be useful to have a reasoned response to any superstition: People who break mirrors or own black cats are not any unluckier than those who don’t. And so on.

    More sophisticated religionists might well argue that prayer has no utility outside of strengthening their own personal relationship with their God; this, I would agree, would be impossible to analyze statistically.

  117. #118 frog
    March 9, 2007

    Yes, owlmirror. Exactly, I’m talking about what (most) prayers are thinking. Scientific data is not one-shot, in the sense that I am using it; the data follows a law, linking it to other events. The data belongs to a class, so I can predict the probability distribution of coin flipping. But prayer, to (most) prayees, is more like the Big Bang – a single event without any probability distribution (at least in some possible physics).

    I agree that it is useful to debunk the scientific efficacy of prayer – people who have a foot in this world might be drawn in, and it takes a tool away from those who are trying to pull people away from empirical thought. But, for the mass of folks, science can’t do it rationally – see the success of “The Secret”. But what may work to draw some people in is art: literature, movies, etc. You can probably credit sci-fi with converting more people to empiricism than Newton’s laws did directly. More evolution sci-fi that excites people to the possibilities in this world view might be the more efficient method…

  118. #119 Caledonian
    March 9, 2007

    I’m starting to see why religious folks see us as insufferable: an utter inability to recognize the subjective reality of other people that verges on the autistic, by some folks in the non-religious crowd.

    I can’t get into your head because I couldn’t live in something that small.

    Your earlier point is also incorrect. Godly intervention that is indistinguishable from godly nonintervention is by its nature nonexistent. “Subjective reality” is irrelevant: we all live in the actual reality – at least, those of us strong and smart enough not to fall into delusional fantasy worlds.

  119. #120 frog
    March 9, 2007

    Subjective reality is irrelevant? So I guess no history, literature, or art for you. You’re an objectivist, ain’t cha? You know, recognizing subjective reality is one of the primary differentiators between human beings and other animals (the case for chimps is ambiguous).

    Yeah, just tell yourself that your strong and smart and live directly in an unmediated reality. You don’t need no steenkin’ culture. Your eyes directly perceive reality with no filtering. You have no subconsciousness distorting your thoughts. You speak the Ur-Language that equally exposes all facets of reality. Caledonian, you really are indistinguishable psychologically from fundamentalists. You do spell better however when angry – kudos must be given when due.

    Seriously, get a check for autism. Autism by definition is the inability to recognize other people’s subject reality, and an inability to distinguish between one’s own subjective reality and objective reality. Autistic individuals have a tendency to lash out aggressively, violently or verbally, when confronted by others because of the frustration produced by that inability. It’s also called mind-blindness.

  120. #121 Caledonian
    March 9, 2007

    No, mindblindness is an inability to model others’ mental states and intentions, not “failing to recognize others’ subjective reality”.

    We can understand the perspective of theists just fine. They’re wrong. They’re also stupid, self-deluded, arrogant, and delusional. Recognizing them as such is not a failure on our part, nor is being willing to openly describe them as such.

  121. #122 David Marjanovi?
    March 9, 2007

    Thanks for the explanation of Tegmark’s idea.

    On science, I was being prescriptive, not descriptive. Having only just started the Ph.D. program, I have never written a grant application. 🙂

  122. #123 David Marjanovi?
    March 9, 2007

    Thanks for the explanation of Tegmark’s idea.

    On science, I was being prescriptive, not descriptive. Having only just started the Ph.D. program, I have never written a grant application. 🙂

  123. #124 frog
    March 9, 2007

    Caledonia, you do know what recognize means, right? “To show awareness of.” If one can not model others’ mental states, then one cannot show awareness of their mental models (“subjective reality”) in any meaningful way.

    So we kill them all? Outbreed them? Really now, how do you suggest we deal with the deluded? Will they just wither away, like Jefferson expected? We know how well that worked. Maybe we can just enslave the weak and make them our vassals – I’d bet on them winning that fight.

    If they’re so stupid, how come they’ve managed to grab the levers of power in the US? Is it that you’re weaker than them, with a less firm grip on reality? Or that maybe, just maybe, a lot of folks didn’t even see them coming, thought that they were simply deluded and stupid, and dismissed them out of hand.

    We’ve seen church attendance rise for the past century, religiosity has been increasing in the general population and so has magical thinking, so my bet is that we’ve been deluding ourselves, and dismissing them has been a massive strategic failure. This has happened before. Greece and Rome developed a highly empirical culture that was dragged down by many of the same problems facing us – and retreated from the fear and alienation by giving up empiricism in exchange for a totalitarian religious state. The Stoics and Epicureans dismissed the Christians as deluded low-class ignorants – we’ve already seen the end of that movie, haven’t we?

    Ready for a repeat of the dark ages, Caledonia?

  124. #125 Caledonian
    March 9, 2007

    So we kill them all? Outbreed them? Really now, how do you suggest we deal with the deluded?

    Wu wei.

  125. #126 Ken Cope
    March 9, 2007

    In an effort to model others’ mental states and intentions, my attempt to understand why anybody in this era of cut and paste would so consistently truncate the letter “n” when addressing their correspondent leaves me stymied.

    Perhaps it is a question better asked of Michael Egnor.

  126. #127 Caledonian
    March 9, 2007

    It’s most likely either an attempted insult, or sloppy reading.

  127. #128 Owlmirror
    March 10, 2007

    Wu wei.

    While I am very much in favor of allowing flawed logic to return and consume those who wield rhetorical hammers, one needs to be part-Asian, and wearing the pendant of Laozi, before one can cast that.

  128. #129 Greg Byshenk
    March 12, 2007

    frog:

    What make something analyzable statistically is that it is
    predictable, it follows a law which may include stochastic processes.

    No.

    If for example, the average number of cars failing to finish a NASCAR race over
    the last 5 years is two (a totally made up statistic), then one cannot predict which
    cars will fail to finish the next NASCAR race, or even that some two cars will fail
    to finish the next race, and (at least so far as we can tell) there is no “law”
    governing such results.

    To be sure, any measurable effect or correlation may lead one to suspect that there
    is some sort of lawlike behaviour or causation at work, and very often such suspicion
    turns out to be well-founded. But that there is measurable effect does not in itself
    rely upon the existence of any “law”.

    Even if the rate of cancer recovery of prayers vs. non-prayers is
    indistinguishable, that is easily explained away by the magical power of prayer –
    “He” responds as he will, he can give miracles to those “He” wishes, when “He”
    wishes – we cannot pin him down.

    Again, no.

    One can respond in that way, if one wishes, but the response is nonsense. This
    “response” is saying: “yes, prayer does have effects, it is just that they
    are indistinguishable from it having no effect. Which is only a different
    way of saying that “the supernatural” is indistinguishable from “the nonexistent”.

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