On vampires and ways of knowing

Jerry Coyne is nervous. He isn’t sure if NCSE’s Genie Scott will sit next to him at lunch, and he’s not sure if he wants to sit next to her, when you get right down to it.

Why? Because in a talk at DragonCon (a talk Jerry didn’t attend and only has second-hand information about), Genie said that there are “ways of knowing” other than science.

This is all part of the long and tedious battle between a clique of atheists who seem intent on enabling creationists in their muddling of the nature of science (enablers) and people who think it’s possible for science and religion to exist without meaningful conflict (so-called accommodationists). Jerry is in the former camp, Genie is in the latter, and this gives Jerry lots to write about.

He is sure that he and his allies have:

dispell[ed] the soothing idea that ?science has nothing to say about the supernatural.? That is, of course, hogwash. Science has plenty to say about the Shroud of Turin, whether faith healing works, whether prayer works, whether God seems to be both beneficent and omnipotent, world without end. Science can, as we?ve repeated endlessly, address specific claims about the supernatural, though it?s impotent before the idea that behind it all is a hands-off, deistic Transcendent Force.

Which is true. He has repeated this endlessly, wrong though he is. He wrote in support of this claim in The New Republic, stating that: “if a nine-hundred-foot-tall Jesus appeared to the residents of New York City, as he supposedly did to the evangelist Oral Roberts in Oklahoma, and this apparition were convincingly documented, most scientists would fall on their knees with hosannas.”

But no. That would be silly.

If lots of people saw a 900-foot tall apparition, one hopes that scientists would start by looking for the mirrors and projectors. Then they’d want to take samples for gas chromatography (if the giant where material), or take spectrographic readings if it were noncorporeal. If DNA were present, we’d sequence it. If not, that would raise other questions, and lead to other interesting studies. But none of those tests could prove that the object was the son of God, that it is part of a triune entity, etc. Nor would any of those tests tell us whether that being had died for our sins. In other words, the natural aspects of the entity (size, shape, reflectance, chemical makeup) would be scientifically testable, and the supernatural aspects would not be. I’d consider it more likely that the object was an elaborate hoax, or, failing that, an alien come to earth, than to sing hosannas. Christians would be welcome to attach theological meaning to that entity, as would Jerry Coyne, and I’d be free to exercise skepticism. This is just one of the ways he and I differ, and on matters of supernatural revelation, there’d be no way to falsify his claims to the entity’s divinity. (All of which ignores that Oral Roberts didn’t claim to see a corporeal Jesus, a physical Jesus striding fathoms above the prairie. That he had some sort of vision doesn’t seem worth disputing, though the meaning of such a vision is certainly open to disagreement. In any event, there would be no way to scientifically show that the vision wasn’t caused by divine influence, even if it could be shown to have some natural explanation also.)

On an unrelated note, I wonder if Jerry finds the David Copperfield’s documentation of a disappearing Statue of Liberty sufficiently convincing? How convincing must the evidence be? Evidence sufficient to convince me would essentially be evidence that naturalizes a phenomenon, a process which actually happened with gravity, among other scientific concepts.

Jerry also cites the Shroud of Turin and faith healing as examples where the supernatural is testable. However, I’d quibble and argue that neither of those is a fundamentally supernatural claim. The Shroud of Turin is claimed to be the actual cloth used to wrap Jesus. Nothing supernatural about that claim at all. When faith healers or advocates of intercessory prayer claim that there are predictable consequences of their actions, they are not making supernatural claims, they are making claims about some regularity ? some law of nature. This gets into the philosophical weeds a bit, but basically, the supernatural is something beyond nature, which is to say, unbound by natural law. The point of something being supernatural is that it is not restricted to natural law, that it is irregular in some important way. If faith healing or intercessory prayer works consistently, it’s not supernatural. Since the consistency of the process is precisely at the heart of these claims, it doesn’t seem fair to call them supernatural. Paranormal might be better.

The paranormal encompasses these sorts of phenomena which are meant to be bound by regularities, but which are beyond our usual experience. They are not supernatural because they are bound and regular, but they are certainly not natural. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and faith healing all fall into that odd middle ground. These are distinguished by the fact of a claimed regularity, a regularity which makes the claim amenable in principle to scientific testing. Supernatural claims are of a different sort. The supernatural claim that God created the humans in their present form 6,000 years ago is a claim that the laws of nature were suspended. Indeed, this irregularity is central to creationist claims. Theistic evolution distinguishes itself from young earth and old earth creationism precisely because (to simplify rather grossly) it posits that God acts through natural laws, rather than suspending them, to effect the creative work.

Jerry tends to blow past such nuance, as he does later in his piece when he insists that:

empirical claims derived from revelation form the basis of nearly every faith.

This is an odd claim. From what I know of religions like Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, empirical claims are not so central (unless you think reincarnation, kharma, etc. count as empirical claims, which I don’t). Nor do I think that’s a fair assessment of Judaism or Christianity. It’s certainly true that the Jewish Bible can be read as making a number of empirical claims, for instance about the timing of human origins, whether bushes can burn without being consumed, that thousands of people wandered the Sinai for decades without leaving any obvious archaeological evidence or human records in nearby civilizations, etc.

But that’s not how Jews have understood the Bible for the last couple thousand years. Maimonides, writing well before any of the modern squabbles over evolution, explained:

Ignorant and superficial readers take them [certain obscure passages] in a literal, not in a figurative sense. Even well informed persons are bewildered if they understand these passages in their literal signification, but they are entirely relieved of their perplexity when we explain the figure, or merely suggest that the terms are figurative.

Augustine of Hippo has made comments similarly supportive of non-literal (non-empirical) readings of the Bible. For more on this topic, NCSE has a nice article on the history of non-literal Biblical interpretations.

To call these “empirical” claims then seems to miss the point. They are certainly truth claims, but not claims about what literally happened. I like to compare this to the non-literal truth claims of good novels, or good stories more broadly. I think we can all agree that literature offers a different “way of knowing” than science does.

Jerry Coyne has either not considered literary truth as a different entity (a different way of knowing) than literal truth (plausible) or he doesn’t think it’s different (troubling). Consider his questions:

As for ?ways of knowing,? my response is always, ?What do you find out? What do you ?know?? And how would you know if you were wrong? Was Jesus the son of God? Christians? ?way of knowing? tells them, ?Yes, of course!? But Islamic ?ways of knowing? say, ?No, of course not, and you?ll burn in hell if you believe that.? Revelation, dogma, and scripture are not in fact ways of knowing; they are ways of believing. There are no ?truths? that religion can produce which are independent of truths derived from secular reason.

It hardly bears mentioning that truth claims can be wrong, and it very well could be that Muslims are right about Jesus and that both Christians and Muslims are wrong to restrict women’s ability to lead congregations. And they could all be right about the Golden Rule.

But there’s a deeper error here. The ever-excellent slacktivist offers a counterpoint regarding vampires:

It’s a well-established fact that vampires can’t abide crosses. There seems to be some confusion, however, as to why this is so.

I should note here, before we go on, that I believe in vampire stories. I don’t mean that I believe these stories are “literally” true — they’re not that kind of story. But I believe they are true stories — stories by which we tell ourselves true things so that we do not forget them.

Vampire stories tell us, for example, than any of us can have great power if only we are willing to prey on others. Feed off the blood of others and great power will be yours. This is demonstrably true. It’s how the pyramids were built. And Standard Oil.

The stories also tell us that there’s a downside to this predatory choice. You become a creature of the night, unable to stand in the light of day.

And crosses will confound you.

Some mistakenly think that this is because the cross is a holy symbol, imbued with religious power. But this is wrong. The symbol, like the thing itself, is powerless. And that’s the point. That is why vampires can’t tolerate it.

Vampires don’t exist, and slacktivist makes it absolutely clear that he knows this. But telling stories about vampires is a great way to convey certain truths about the world we all live in. These aren’t truths that science can independently verify, but they are still true in a meaningful way.

No one should watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer they way they would watch a documentary, but they should certainly watch the show. It’s brilliant, and it uses this exact sort of literary truth to tackle tricky subjects like drug addiction, spousal abuse, peer pressure, bullying, and the challenges of adolescence in late 20th century America with a sophistication and humor that would be impossible in any other form.

Slacktivist, himself an evangelical Christian, truly does seem to read the Bible through the same literary lens that he uses for vampire stories. For instance, he has offered a sensitive reading of the story of Noah’s flood, again making the point that it is not true in the sense of actually having happened, but it is still true in an important and interesting sense.

I think those two posts (and many others) give a pretty good example of what one might mean by a “way of knowing” other than science. Is it literally true that “selfishness is destructive” (slacktivist’s summary of the story of Noah’s flood)? What would it even mean for that to be “literally” true?

It is certainly a truth claim, but not one we can test in the lab. Sometimes selfishness pays off, sometimes it’s harmful, and through evolutionary game theory you can show how certain settings will discourage selfishness. But that doesn’t mean selfishness is destructive, let alone that it is, in some grand sense, bad. Badness is not a literal concept. It’s a moral concept, an aesthetic one, a literary one.

We judge the truth of a novel differently than the truth of a documentary. Nothing that happens in a novel need ever have happened, but a novel must hang together in a certain way for it to feel true. Fictional characters can feel false or true based only on how they are written. Even though they have no empirical, objective reality, they have a reality that readers can use to measure the characters’ validity, the truth of the story, and the truth of the author’s underlying intent. To top it off, different readers can react very differently to a story, or to a character in a story, despite working from the same source material.

The peculiar irony here is that the talk Jerry is complaining about was delivered at DragonCon, a science fiction/fantasy convention filled with people celebrating the truth of unreal things. I didn’t see Genie’s talk because I was manning NCSE’s booth, watching a parade of costumed fans wait in line to get autographs from William Shatner (James T. Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek Voyager’s Capt. Janeway), and Patrick Stewart (Jean-Luc Picard). These fans are devoted to the various incarnations of Star Trek, and were willing to spend $40-75 for just one signature from one of the Star Trek captains. And they don’t all want the same signature. Some think Picard is the greatest captain in the Star Trek Universe, some think Kirk is the better captain, and a few prefer Janeway.

These, again, are truth claims, but none of those fans is objectively, empirically wrong, nor are any of them objectively right. Even for real captains of real ships, deciding who is better or worse has a big element of personal taste, and when we aren’t even dealing with a living person or an actual ship, the evaluation is even harder. Not only must we ask which (fictional) captain performed better under (fictional) pressure, we have to ask which one is written better, which one solves problems in the most self-consistent ways, which one has the most emotional range and the most emotional growth. Could Picard be a better captain because Stewart is a better actor than Shatner? Is Kirk a better captain because he transcends the weakness of his actor? These are all fine questions, questions that demand truth claims in response, but none of the answers come from any empirical reality.

Jerry Coyne writes that he wants Genie to say that “the other ‘ways of knowing’ don?t produce truth.” Which is an odd sort of claim for him to make. Part of the trouble is that “truth” is a concept that philosophers have been utterly unable to nail down. Some have simply tossed their hands up in despair and declared truth to be nonexistent, while others work to fix the flaws in existing concepts of truth (discussed, for instance, in this New Yorker review). It’s not entirely clear that the philosophers’ methods would count as a “way of knowing” in Jerry’s scheme, a topic he may want to take up with his colleagues across the quad.

In any event, science as a “way of knowing” does not produce truth. People have known that since the failure of logical positivism in the early 20th century; science can lead us away from untruths, and lets us narrow in on the truth, but science can only approach truth asymptotically, and rarely as any sort of smooth function. Furthermore, the truths that other “ways of knowing” aim to provide are of a different sort than scientific claims. As a scientific claim, “vampires fear crosses” is as meaningless as “Picard is a better captain than Kirk” or “The Cubs are the greatest team in baseball’s history,” and none of those is any more scientifically meaningful than “Jesus is my personal savior.”

I write this not to defend the latter claim, but to defend the worthiness of non-scientific enterprises. I like novels. I like TV. I like art. I like baseball. I think there is truth to be found in such endeavors, and I think any brush that sweeps away the enterprise of religion as a “way of knowing” must also sweep away art and a host of other human activities. I’ve tossed out the comparison before, and have yet to get any useful reply to it. I could, as Jerry does, complain that the enablers are therefore dishonest in repeating claims, that “[he]?s heard the counterarguments, but not only has [he] failed to answer them, [he] ignores them.” But that would neither be productive nor polite. We disagree, and differ in our assessments of the matter for any number of reasons. There may be some value in exploring these issues, and perhaps even common ground to be reached. I don’t know if Genie will go to the prom with Jerry, and I don’t know if these two smart people can find a common ground. I do know which of those questions actually matters.

Comments

  1. #1 Sigmund
    September 15, 2009

    “I think any brush that sweeps away the enterprise of religion as a “way of knowing” must also sweep away art and a host of other human activities.”
    Yes, but changing ones favorite painter from Picasso to Salvador Dali doesn’t generally result in you being condemned to death as an apostate.
    I’m afraid a lot of typing has gone to waste Joshua when all you’ve managed to create is a strawman of ‘Wickerman’ proportions. The major religions have spend thousands of years saying that their books tell a physical truth about the natural world – creation, miracles, timelines etc.
    Even today theistic evolutionists like Francis Collins accept miracles like the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus. I’m not 100% sure about Ken Millers views but I think he has a similar acceptance of miracles associated with Jesus. Collins explanation of miracles on Biologos was that they are acceptable so long as they don’t happen very often (in other words the hundreds of thousands of miracles that happen in other people religions must be false as miracles of such frequency would make the laws of the universe ungovernable. Having a few miracles happen to Jesus exclusively would probably be OK so long as this was the only time the laws of the universe were broken)
    These days some more liberal members of these congregations get around the fact that the stories don’t fit in with what we know about the natural world by explaining them as metaphors that can give us some insight.
    You seem to think that the new atheists have a problem with that. Its obviously news to you Joshua but they don’t. In fact treating the holy books as entirely metaphorical is probably the ideal solution to the accomodationist debate. If the religious can do this then they can use the Torah, Bible and Koran alongside other fictional books like War and Peace, Wuthering Heights, Lord of the Rings, Love in the Time of Cholera or King Lear as a means of gaining insight into the human condition. Metaphors are not a problem to atheists. Many of the greatest artists and writers of the past few centuries were atheists.
    The principle objection to scientific accomodationists is that they misuse the term ‘science’ to mean a ‘collection of facts about the world’ rather than a ‘methodology to determine whether an idea about the world is incorrect’ – the way working scientists think of the term. Religion is certainly compatible with the former definition but NOT with the latter.
    By the way, the vampire analogy fails because the crucifix needs to be consecrated before it has an effect on the vampire, thus symbolism is not the point, rather it is supernatural effect of consecration that gives the cross its antivampire power. And yes, I know vampires arent real but I can also appreciate the stories and metaphors without believing in the supernatural.
    And as for this sentence:
    “When faith healers or advocates of intercessory prayer claim that there are predictable consequences of their actions, they are not making supernatural claims, they are making claims about some regularity – some law of nature.”
    What?
    Really Joshua……What?

  2. #2 John Pieret
    September 15, 2009

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    – Arthur C. Clark

    The major religions have spend thousands of years saying that their books tell a physical truth about the natural world – creation, miracles, timelines etc.

    Then whatever science has shown to be false in those specific claims falsifies those religions not the supernatural, as Coyne claims.

    “When faith healers or advocates of intercessory prayer claim that there are predictable consequences of their actions, they are not making supernatural claims, they are making claims about some regularity – some law of nature.”
    What?
    Really Joshua……What?

    Give us a coherent definition of “natural” other than “that which occurs with such regularity that it appears to operate in a law-like manner.” If faith healers, et al. say that effect B follows predictably from event A, they are, in fact, proposing a “law of nature.”

  3. #3 Sigmund
    September 15, 2009

    “Give us a coherent definition of “natural” other than “that which occurs with such regularity that it appears to operate in a law-like manner.” If faith healers, et al. say that effect B follows predictably from event A, they are, in fact, proposing a “law of nature.”
    I disagree.
    To be included in ‘natural’ the object or event should be empirically testable. No claims of faith healing have ever been shown to be reproducible and all fail when subject to strict testing conditions.
    Faith healers frequently make the claim that one has to believe in a supernatural being before the healing will work, usually via intercession of the deity. Is this deity in nature or outside it? Either way its effects should be measurable since it is supposedly having an effect directly on a natural body (the believer in question).
    I can understand the placebo effect in terms of faith healing actually having a positive outcome for some individuals but that is NOT what they claim themselves.
    I dont think Coyne rejects the idea of a God entirely, merely those who intervene in the natural world. The idea of a non intervening deistic God is not ruled out by the evidence but is perhaps unnecessary.

  4. #4 Ian
    September 15, 2009

    Great post.

  5. #5 kevin
    September 15, 2009

    “When faith healers or advocates of intercessory prayer claim that there are predictable consequences of their actions, they are not making supernatural claims, they are making claims about some regularity – some law of nature.”

    Easy: He’s just saying that most of what yall think is religion — christianity, judiasm, and islam, to take three minor examples — are not true religions. To be a true religion, it can only say things about the world that are completely irregular. Like “the one true god (*) listens to your prayers, but only acts on them in a way that is indistinguishable from random chance”.

    (*) and by “true” we of course only mean sort of metaphorically true, in the same way that vampires and the easter bunny are “true”.

  6. #6 Ian
    September 15, 2009

    Even today theistic evolutionists like Francis Collins accept miracles like the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus.

    All that says is that Collins doesn’t appear to be a theological liberal. What’s striking about Miller and Collins is that they appear to be fairly conservative, theologically, but have no problem meshing religion and science. (Liberal Christianity isn’t especially attached to either the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection.)

  7. #7 NoAstronomer
    September 15, 2009

    Wall of Text hits you for 175,532 damage (critical)
    You have died
    Your items suffer 10% durability loss

  8. #8 Sigmund
    September 15, 2009

    “What’s striking about Miller and Collins is that they appear to be fairly conservative, theologically, but have no problem meshing religion and science. (Liberal Christianity isn’t especially attached to either the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection.)”
    All that says is that there are two ways to mesh science and religion.

    1. The liberal religion way, in which you treat all religious stories as pure metaphor and Gods existence or not as a non issue.
    or
    2. The theistic evolutionist way, in which you accept that miracles that defy all known laws of nature can and have occured at the whim of God. So long as you don’t define science as a methodology then this method also works.

  9. #9 Ray Ingles
    September 15, 2009

    Evidence sufficient to convince me would essentially be evidence that naturalizes a phenomenon, a process which actually happened with gravity, among other scientific concepts.

    So far as I can see, the operational definition of ‘supernatural’ is “something forever beyond human ken, something we will never be capable of understanding.” As soon as something becomes comprehensible to humans, it by that very fact is no longer considered supernatural.

    When I hear someone saying something’s “supernatural”, I hear them claiming “I don’t understand this, and no one ever will”. But that hasn’t held up over history…

  10. #10 scripto
    September 15, 2009

    I think Scott is saying that there is no reason to summarily dismiss anyone’s inner life. Nobody lives a life of empirical verification. I don’t use reason and logic to breathe or eat. And if I weighed the evidence too much I’d be too paralyzed with indecision to walk down the street. What she said is obviously true. There are other ways of knowing.

  11. #11 John Pieret
    September 15, 2009

    To be included in ‘natural’ the object or event should be empirically testable. No claims of faith healing have ever been shown to be reproducible and all fail when subject to strict testing conditions.

    Quite true. But that’s not the point. If the faith healers claim that healings predictably follow from the healers’ ministrations, they are making a claim that a “natural law” (as far as we can ever define that concept) is operating. We can empirically test whether such a predictable result actually occurs (i.e. whether there is such a “natural law”) but not the ultimate source of “natural law” (they are simply givens). That is (I think) what Josh was saying: testing the existence or non-existence of some “natural law” is not testing whether or not there is something that goes by the name “supernatural.”

  12. #12 Joshua Rosenau
    September 15, 2009

    Sigmund:

    Yes, but changing ones favorite painter from Picasso to Salvador Dali doesn’t generally result in you being condemned to death as an apostate.

    And my work at NCSE hasn’t gotten me condemned to death by any Jews, nor by my Lutheran family. People are entirely capable of having theological disputes without resorting to murder. Hyperbole much?

    I’m afraid a lot of typing has gone to waste Joshua when all you’ve managed to create is a strawman of ‘Wickerman’ proportions. The major religions have spend thousands of years saying that their books tell a physical truth about the natural world – creation, miracles, timelines etc.

    Since I actually responded to this claim above, I’d prefer for you to actually address what I said rather than inventing a straw man. Most religions don’t do what you are claiming.

    There are a number of ways to resolve issues like the virgin birth, resurrection, etc., in a framework that doesn’t deny science as a process. Ken Miller and others have argued that a video camera present at the resurrection would probably record nothing at all, and virginity is a notably human concept (some people think anal sex doesn’t count, or that “outercourse” doesn’t count).

    You seem to think that the new atheists have a problem with that. Its obviously news to you Joshua but they don’t. In fact treating the holy books as entirely metaphorical is probably the ideal solution to the accomodationist debate.

    Gee could that be why I keep talking about it? My point here (citing slacktivist, long traditions in Judaism and Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, is that these are fairly widespread approaches to religion. The enablers seem intent on claiming that religion is inherently contradictory with science (with the vanishingly small exception of deism, a concept distinct from the literary approach to religion).

    The principle objection to scientific accomodationists is that they misuse the term ‘science’ to mean a ‘collection of facts about the world’ rather than a ‘methodology to determine whether an idea about the world is incorrect’ – the way working scientists think of the term. Religion is certainly compatible with the former definition but NOT with the latter.

    No and no. Religion of the sort I describe above can be entirely compatible with science as a process, and that is the only sense in which I use the term. Enablers think science produces Truth (cf. my last quotation from Coyne above), while I think it’s a process for testing certain claims. There are other ways for testing other sorts of claims, and so long as those other processes don’t overlap into the claims tested by science, and don’t set out to contradict the (inherently tentative) answers offered by science, there is room for compatibility. Coyne is setting science up as a collection of facts, and in doing so is wrong as a matter of science, religion, and philosophy.

    By the way, the vampire analogy fails because the crucifix needs to be consecrated before it has an effect on the vampire, thus symbolism is not the point, rather it is supernatural effect of consecration that gives the cross its antivampire power.

    If you had actually clicked the link, you’d see why you are so very, very wrong.

    The theistic evolutionist way, in which you accept that miracles that defy all known laws of nature can and have occured at the whim of God. So long as you don’t define science as a methodology then this method also works.

    The question is not whether science is or isn’t a methodology. Had you read any of the people you are talking about, you’d know better. Science is a methodology depending on our ability to falsify a claim. You and I and Jerry and Francis Collins all know that and defend it as such. How, then, do you falsify the claim that Jesus is my Lord and Savior? Or that he was born to a virgin? Or that the universe was created last Thursday? You can’t. Each claim is either about entirely non-natural phenomena, or posits an untestable and unmeasureable suspension of natural law.

    It would be different if one were claiming that such miraculous suspensions are ubiquitous (as creationists do). In that event, they would constitute their own sort of odd regularity, and would thus be potentially testable. Consider this (flawed, but potentially useful) analogy. If I flip a coin 1000 times, but for one result I switch a head to a tail in my report, there’s no way to detect the switch based only on the recorded sequence. If I switch all the time, though, you could find suggestive statistical patterns, at least, and would have cause to watch me more closely next time. For things like evolution, geological processes, and other phenomena which creationists claim are subject to constant divine tinkering, we also ought to find current evidence of such tinkering, and creationists spend their time looking for it. Something like the virgin birth is an explicitly one-time event, a suspension of natural law never to be repeated (or perhaps to be repeated one more time). How do you test that scientifically? And if you can’t test it scientifically, how is it unscientific to believe that it happened?

  13. #13 MartyM
    September 15, 2009

    Nice post. I like to read your blog. But I have question…

    you say “Jerry Coyne has either not considered literary truth as a different entity (a different way of knowing) than literal truth (plausible) or he doesn’t think it’s different (troubling).”

    My question is, what happens to literary truth if the literature is not written? Is it still true? If the “truth” exists and someone writes about it, then you could argue literary truth, but if the the “truth” is derived from a literary source, then is it true? For example, one could argue Captain Picard is the best Star Trek captain, but what if he never existed? Could he then be the best captain?

    My line of thinking (currently anyway) is that the source of literary truth is of great importance and must be part of the investigation into what is literary truth. To believe that vampires are evil, would mean one would have to believe in evil. Then where does that truth come from? For Christians (at least), that comes from a belief in Satan, which comes from a belief in angels, which comes from a believe in what? God made angels, or some other god(s) made angels, or angels are gods unto themselves. So, if God made angels, then he also created jealousy for which Lucifer suffered and fell from grace and became evil. If Christians didn’t have any bible, would they still believe in evil? I don’t suggest to know.

    My point being; where does literary truth come from and is that source natural or not? Testable or not?

  14. #14 MartyM
    September 15, 2009

    Correction:

    My line of thinking (currently anyway) is that the source of literary truth is of great importance and must be part of the investigation into what is literary truth.

    S/B

    My line of thinking (currently anyway) is that the source of literary truth is of great importance and must be part of the investigation into what is truth.

  15. #15 Josh Rosenau
    September 15, 2009

    John: Right.

  16. #16 Sigmund
    September 15, 2009

    “How, then, do you falsify the claim that Jesus is my Lord and Savior? Or that he was born to a virgin? Or that the universe was created last Thursday? You can’t. Each claim is either about entirely non-natural phenomena, or posits an untestable and unmeasureable suspension of natural law.”
    I certainly agree that you cannot disprove the miraculous claims of religions. I also think that you cannot disprove the miraculous claim that the universe was created last Thursday, by the Flying Spaghetti Monster or a giant magic chicken named Gerald. I do, however see a problem that religious claims seem to have the same empirical backing as the magic chicken hypothesis. Not being able to disporve something is not evidence in its favor.
    I think you are factually incorrect about Ken Millers acceptance of miracles. He has admitted (in an interview on the infidel guy show) that he believes in many of the miracles associated with Jesus – and not in a metaphorical or symbolic sense.
    I already agreed that metaphorical religion IS compatible with science. I simply disagree with the examples of Miller and Collins. They are not pure metaphorical believers.
    I don’t happen to believe that metaphorical belief is compatible with religion – or to borrow your star trek analogies, “its religion Jim but not as we know it.”
    “Coyne is setting science up as a collection of facts, and in doing so is wrong as a matter of science, religion, and philosophy.”
    That is not my understanding of Coynes position on ‘science’.
    I am prepared to be proven wrong on the question.
    As for your last few lines of reply. If you change a word or two, where does it lead you?
    “Something like Noahs flood is an explicitly one-time event, a suspension of natural law never to be repeated (or perhaps to be repeated one more time). How do you test that scientifically? And if you can’t test it scientifically, how is it unscientific to believe that it happened?”
    As mentioned earlier I am prepared to accept purely metaphorical religion as compatible (or more accurately, as inconsequential) to science. Throwing in a miracle or two (are we really bargaining on how many miracles are acceptable?), however leads us nowhere. If only one miracle is allowed then why should a monotheistic religion get that miracle rather than an Aztec, Hindu or Animistic faith? As you admit we have no way of saying which one is wrong. What we do know is that all of them cannot be simultaneously true.
    All of them could, however, be wrong.

  17. #17 Ophelia Benson
    September 15, 2009

    I think any brush that sweeps away the enterprise of religion as a “way of knowing” must also sweep away art and a host of other human activities.

    Why? Why do you think that? I for one think religion is worthless as a “way of knowing” but I love many forms of art with a passion. I don’t see the necessary connection that you claim.

  18. #18 Josh Rosenau
    September 15, 2009

    Sigmund: Not being able to disprove something is surely not the same thing as proof of that claim, but in scientific terms, failing to falsify a hypothesis is often the best you can do. It can, under the right circumstances, be rather strong evidence for a claim. However, it requires that the claim make useful predictions, predictions one would not otherwise make. Religion doesn’t make those sorts of empirical claims, but that hardly means it’s bad. Art doesn’t make empirical claims either, and nor does Star Trek.

    Believing in miracles is not anti-science. I believe I’ve heard Ken Miller use this line also, but here’s Jack Haught making the point about a videocamera at the resurrection:

    If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would not see it. I’m not the only one to say this. Even conservative Catholic theologians say that. … We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable?

    I suspect that he would find the parallel with literature entirely acceptable. The resurrection’s truth is not an empirical matter, or at least not a scientifically measurable matter. It is a literary truth, a truth of a different sort than the claim that it is raining outside. And I think you’ll find that quite a lot of religious people do hold that sort of faith, and that they are not setting up a conflict between science and religion. What do we benefit by attempting to force that conflict on them?

    As for whether Coyne treats science as a collection of facts, consider his treatment of science and “truth.” Science as a process does not produce truth. It winnows away falsehood, but it does not produce any collection of truths. Coyne contrasts religion with “truths derived from secular reason,” i.e., science. Maybe I’m misreading him, and I await his reply, but this is at least a reasonable reading of what he says, while there is no reasonable way in which I or Collins or Miller could be construed as endorsing science-as-encyclopedia (in fact, I know I invest a lot of effort in dispelling that notion, and have seen Miller do the same in his public talks).

    You ask “If only one miracle is allowed then why should a monotheistic religion get that miracle rather than an Aztec, Hindu or Animistic faith? As you admit we have no way of saying which one is wrong. What we do know is that all of them cannot be simultaneously true. All of them could, however, be wrong.”

    They could all be wrong, and they could all be partly wrong and partly right. Indeed, certain claimed miracles seem to be in the eye of the beholder, making such claimed miracles both true and false, depending on your perspective. To return to Coyne’s example, he would see a 900-foot humanoid apparition as a miracle, while I would tend not to. De gustibus non est disputandum.

  19. #19 M
    September 15, 2009

    This is all part of the long and tedious battle between a clique of atheists who seem intent on enabling creationists in their muddling of the nature of science (enablers) and people who think it’s possible for science and religion to exist without meaningful conflict (so-called accommodationists).” (emphasis mine)

    It’s pretty telling when right at the very beginning of your argument you proceed to radically stereotype the opposing camp. Very little after that is likely to be said in good faith. What, exactly, has this “clique of atheists” suddenly enabled creationists to do that wasn’t exactly the same as what they have been doing for the entire history of civilization?

    Nothing. That’s right, not a damn thing! Creationists don’t simply make claims about the ethereal, but also direct testable – and therefore falsifiable – claims about the nature of the universe and about history. This tactic long predates the so-called “new atheism” movement, and nothing has changed in light of it except for an increase in the pseudoscientific language of the faithful (a sign that scientific validation is now seen as important). It is disingenuous to the extreme to suggest that drawing a line in the sand, when they openly proclaim a testable tenet of their faith as fact, is somehow “enabling” them.

    My point here (citing slacktivist), long traditions in Judaism and Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, is that these are fairly widespread approaches to religion. The enablers seem intent on claiming that religion is inherently contradictory with science (with the vanishingly small exception of deism, a concept distinct from the literary approach to religion).

    When claims are made that fly in the face of all available evidence (and reasonable plausibility), that is anti-science. If there were evidence for Noah’s flood or for the efficacy of intercessory prayer, fine, but instead we have evidence aligning uniformly in the other direction. The proponents of those and many other failed religious hypotheses worked from their desired answers backwards, which is contradictory to how science works and ignores the reasons why science does so.

    You went to great length to point out groups of Jews that don’t believe the Torah is literal. What about those that do? For that matter, what about the Christians and the Muslims that believe in literal interpretations of their texts? That accounts for a sizable chunk of the religious world. Should we not point out when they are simply flat-out wrong for fear of offending?

    But more specifically, you seem to be saying that because there are so many smaller faiths that we shouldn’t criticize because these smaller ones don’t make so many assertions of the natural world. Here’s the problem:

    – Most faiths do make a variety of testable claims. If those claims go against the empirically verifiable, the religion is anti-scientific. The fact that some adherents don’t take their own faith seriously is not a matter of strength for the religion.
    – Some religions recede to only the ones that would be near impossible to test (such as Mary’s virgin birth). If these claims are not reasonably plausible or probable, then the religion is un-scientific.
    – Those few that recede a bit further turn to a sky-daddy that is entirely non-interventionist (deism) or to one that works through the laws of nature in a way that mysteriously coincides with what you would expect if they did nothing (or didn’t exist). The best you can say about this is that it is a-scientific, wishy-washy, and utterly worthless to waste time with.
    – Any further and it ceases to be a religion so much as a moral philosophy of life.

    So, at their worst, they are rabidly anti-science and at their best they are meaningless constructs that make people happy while wasting resources. This is all a side note, however. What really bugs me is the way you use and abuse the concept of “Truth.”

    I’m used to this from religious circles. Apologists regularly use language such as “The Truth of God’s word.” The problem is that using it that way diminished the meaning of what truth is. Truth is one half of a binary state. True/False, 1/0, Yes/No, etc. It is a probability assessment of “1”. In that, it is a label meant to be used in an objective manner. The way you (and religious apologists) are using it makes it a subjective thing. That is what I suspect is the problem seen in Eugene Scott using the other apologist line, “ways of knowing.” Like hell is religion a way of knowing! “Ways of believing” really is more accurate. “Ways of contextualizing the unknown” perhaps. “Ways of perpetuating stone-age mythologies” more likely. You try to get religion off the hook by comparing it to literature, but that isn’t a way to know anything, either. Literature may act as a fable, moral guide, allegory, or just good entertainment, but it doesn’t add to the body of knowledge. There’s no standard, and rightfully so, because there is no methodology to refine conjecture into meaningful data and eliminate as much bias as possible. Sounds like religion and literature have a lot in common, but literature isn’t trying to pass itself off as being “True.”

  20. #20 Josh Rosenau
    September 15, 2009

    Ophelia: I don’t care for golf, nor do I find dance terribly meaningful either as a spectator or a participant. I also don’t personally find religion to be useful in my life. I know, however, that other people get great meaning from golf, from dance, and from religion. How is your indifference to religion any different than my indifference to dance? Would I be wrong to claim that dance is incompatible with science since the insights dance brings to dancers are not empirical in nature? How do we decide that some non-empirical ways of knowing are OK, while others are incompatible with science?

    The only basis Coyne offers, and the only one I can recall being offered by other enablers, is that religion and science are incompatible because religions can make false empirical claims.

    But so can art. I think that people who would read A Tale of Two Cities as an historical account of the French revolution are being just as bad as those who read the Bible as an historical account of the Bronze Age. It’s perfectly possible to read Dickens or the Bible as true, but not as empirically true. And if the battle is between people who read the Bible in a non-empirical sense and those who don’t, then it seems like we should strengthen the hand of moderate theists, not disparage them.

  21. #21 Josh Rosenau
    September 15, 2009

    M: It’s telling that, before you actually make any argument, you already are diverting into factual errors. Creationism is a movement that started in the late 19th century, after much of the history of civilization had already taken place. I suspect reading on will prove no more illuminating.

  22. #22 Ophelia Benson
    September 15, 2009

    Josh,

    Well, first, art doesn’t make empirical claims and religions do. Check out Saddleback Church’s ‘What We Believe’ –

    http://www.saddleback.com/aboutsaddleback/whatwebelieve/index.html.

    Novelists really don’t expect readers to think the novels are making truth claims. Many clerics really do expect members of their congregation to think their religion is making truth claims. There are of course some religious people who don’t see their religion that way – but it’s pointless to pretend that all religious people are like that.

    And second, even apart from all that, I don’t see how you get from that to “any brush that sweeps away the enterprise of religion as a “way of knowing” must also sweep away art and a host of other human activities.” I just don’t see why that brush couldn’t sweep away the one and not the others. (Do you know of any atheists who are urging the sweeping away of art and golf and dance?)

  23. #23 Josh Rosenau
    September 15, 2009

    Ophelia: I don’t know any atheists trying to sweep away art and golf and dance. But I think their arguments against religion apply equally well to art and golf and dance, so I think there’s an inconsistency here, either in their reasoning, their explanation, or my understanding. One could construct a more selective brush, but the argument seems to be that one can only be a scientist if one applies the scientific method exclusively, and I see no arguments advanced which limit that exclusivity from sweeping out all non-scientific ways of knowing. I certainly see nothing like that in Jerry Coyne’s post under discussion here, where he makes clear he is attacking all ways of knowing other than science.

    Yes, some religions make empirical claims. Some don’t. Then again, some literary works (seem to) make empirical claims. Dan Brown has made a tidy fortune off of such books. There are whole books about space aliens visiting earth, an entire genre of alternative history, and tales of how King Arthur brought peace to a clean and civilized England, one which wasn’t plague-ridden and muddy, but which had a surprising number of damsels in distress.

    When people present Arthurian legend as history, I oppose them, but I support reading about Arthur and his knights. When people try to claim that religion is empirically testable (whether they are theists or atheists) I oppose them for the same reason, and I support people who interpret religious texts in ways that do not interfere with science, that are not authoritarian, intolerant, or otherwise morally repugnant, and who recognize that religion, like science, has limits. I’m not religious, and I’m not pro- or anti-religion in general. Some religion is bad, some is good. I oppose the bad parts and wish more people would switch from bad religions to good ones.

  24. #24 Sigmund
    September 16, 2009

    Joshua, there are sound arguments for testing the empirical claims of religion.
    Imagine it this way for a second – lets take God out of the picture and use a hypothetical case of a non-supernatural, non miraculous religion based on a wonderful philosopher who lived a few thousand years ago.
    All we know about him at this stage is that he lived a good life, enlightened many people and gave hope to their difficult lives by his example and teachings. These teachings are now believed by the followers of this religion to be the most important moral lessons anyone can ever learn and are the ultimate guide on how to live the good life.
    OK, all well and good – until we bring in some extra factors.
    First, our philosopher never wrote down his guide.
    In fact nobody wrote it down during his life and the first evidence we have of it comes from about 100 years after he died – and that text is only fragmentary. The major writings attributed to him only appear several hundred years later when the religion associated with him is adopted as the official religion of the Empire. Curiously the Empire forces are not portrayed as particularly oppressive in the official text. Even more curiously there appear to be insertions of new stories and teachings that weren’t in the original fragmented text.
    Now from a scientific viewpoint one might say that some of the current teachings in the official text look like being insertions – possibly by mistake and possibly for political purposes.
    As a scientist who believed in the story of our wise philosopher how should one approach the issue?
    Is it not reasonable to do ones best to find out the true teachings of the philosopher?
    Even if this is ultimately impossible to achieve it is surely possible to remove the later interpolations.
    Why on earth should you accept the text as it is now rather than defining the ‘believable’ parts from the questionable?
    That essentially is why I have problems with theistic scientists who accept some physical truth in holy books.
    If its all metaphor then fine, treat it as a fictional tale with metaphorical lessons to be learned from it.
    If there are real historical events and stories that are part of the moral lesson to be learned then it surely behooves us to define these accurately and remove the erroneous parts.
    The two ways of treating religion are not compatible.
    By the way, Joshua, I understand what you mean about two people seeing the same event as miraculous or non miraculous (say, survival from a plane crash, or recovery from aggressive cancer). These things are not really a problem compared to the sorts of resurrection miracles in the bible. These stories were written at a time when ‘life’ was seen as a sort of spark given by a creator to an inanimate object. Resurrection of a body, dead for two days, raises a different question – namely how do you overcome the laws of thermodynamics to undo the molecular effects involving the necrotic cell death of several trillion cells.
    Some theistic scientists clearly believe this happened and if it did it certainly wasn’t a ‘miracle’ of the type mentioned previously, it was an old school parting the Red Sea, to hell with the laws of nature, miracle.
    Thats not to say that the resurrection story has no metaphorical value. I come from Ireland and the idea of death and rebirth inherent in that story was a key factor in the Easter 1916 rebellion, that ultimately led to the foundation of the Irish State. Indeed the idea of martyrs dying for a cause and inspiring others is a pretty common one in may religious and political situations.
    As for your final sentence above:
    “Some religion is bad, some is good. I oppose the bad parts and wish more people would switch from bad religions to good ones.”
    I think its somewhat problematic that the exact same statement could be made by a liberal believer or by the most rabid fundamentalist around.

  25. #25 Deen
    September 16, 2009

    @Josh:

    Yes, some religions make empirical claims. Some don’t. Then again, some literary works (seem to) make empirical claims.

    But people don’t usually argue that we can’t verify those claims. I don’t think you’d have any problem comparing any of the claims in the tales of King Arthur to actual historic evidence. Or with arguing that the scientific implausibility of the existence of a Lady in the Lake would indicate that she was likely made up – either by Arthur or by the storytellers. Any factual knowledge the legends contain can only be knowledge to the extent that it can be independently verified.

    However, while you argue that religion is in some way equivalent to fiction, it seems that fiction is perfectly open for analysis of its knowledge content, whether using science or otherwise. Yet you seem to argue that religion for some reason isn’t. Why is that?

    I think what you are missing is that people read the Arthurian legends not because they are true, but because they appeal to human emotion in a certain way. I suppose that you could say that the insight into human experience that the storytellers show is a kind of “knowledge”, and that you could learn about that from reading the stories, but that’s about as far as it goes. There doesn’t seem to be any deeper truth there. The same is true about sports, art and religion: they appeal to certain human emotions, and that’s what makes them worth while for people. Not because they contain any “deep knowledge”.

    Unfortunately, many will argue that religion does contain knowledge – and above and beyond the knowledge that people would assign to fiction, or sports. However, usually their “knowledge” can’t be independently verified or falsified, which makes it questionable that it is genuine knowledge. In those cases that an item of knowledge can theoretically be independently tested and falsified, then of course it would be totally valid to use science for that purpose.

    Nor does religious knowledge stem from a process that can be independently verified – in the end, the only sources that religion has are visions and revelations. While religion appeals to human emotions, and in that sense may be said to contain knowledge about the human condition, it is highly unlikely that religion contains any more knowledge beyond that.

  26. #26 Cheryl Shepherd-Adams
    September 16, 2009

    Thanks, Josh, from the trenches.

  27. #27 Wes
    September 16, 2009

    There are a number of ways to resolve issues like the virgin birth, resurrection, etc., in a framework that doesn’t deny science as a process. Ken Miller and others have argued that a video camera present at the resurrection would probably record nothing at all, and virginity is a notably human concept (some people think anal sex doesn’t count, or that “outercourse” doesn’t count).

    Bwahahahahahahahaha…

    Oh, wait, you were serious?

  28. #28 M
    September 16, 2009

    M: It’s telling that, before you actually make any argument, you already are diverting into factual errors. Creationism is a movement that started in the late 19th century, after much of the history of civilization had already taken place. I suspect reading on will prove no more illuminating.

    Nice way of avoiding the issue altogether. Too bad it’s entirely transparent. Not addressing critic’s points sounds an awful lot like the tactics of the pseudo-scientific and, dare I say it, religious.

    As for your specific statement, it would take an incredible historical myopia to deny that some form of literal creation that is at odds with the evidence has been touted by every major religion for millenia. The modern creationism movement (which is primarily, but not exclusively, Christian) did get its start in the mid-19th Century, but it was merely the counter-reaction by the existing religious – and creationist – establishment to the encroachment of scientific advancement.

    Since then, the only change in creationist tactics has been to steadily increase the pseudo-scientific language in order to battle the encroaching tide of good science. The “New Atheists” you despise and so wrongly label as “enablers” have done nothing to change the overall tactics, but they have added new and recognizable faces to the pro-science side.

    Unfortunately for you, the period since those voices became prominent coincides strongly enough with the increased awareness (and self-identification) of atheism (according to various polls) as well as increased awareness of Evolution to suggest a reasonable likelihood of causation. You just continue to attack a method that seems to be working and gaining traction simply because it isn’t how you want to go about it. Go ahead and be an accomodationist (since you seem so determined) but don’t tell others how they must go about it until you have data to back up your assertion that your way is actually better.

    I expect it’s much more likely that you’ll continue to mirror the anti-science crowd some more, though, and utterly ignore criticism.

  29. #29 Lorax
    September 16, 2009

    I know, however, that other people get great meaning from golf, from dance, and from religion.

    Meaning? Please elaborate, because I think you are comparing apples and, I don’t know, charm quarks here. I know my 6 year old gets great meaning from the booger he picked out of his nose. Are you suggesting this is the same as the “meaning” or “way of knowing” as many people feel religion has? If so, I guess we kind of agree. If not, should I be worried about the big mean Jerry Coyne coming to take away my kid’s booger?

    I don’t know any atheists trying to sweep away art and golf and dance. But I think their arguments against religion apply equally well to art and golf and dance, so I think there’s an inconsistency here, either in their reasoning, their explanation, or my understanding.

    While I found your post and comments well written, it seems to be an extremely superficial set of comparisons you’re making. So Im going to vote for the last choice: your understanding. (By the way, I think by your rationale you can’t disagree with me. I made a truth claim and if you wash that away, you might as well wash away religion too.)

  30. #30 Tulse
    September 16, 2009

    ” If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would not see it. I’m not the only one to say this. Even conservative Catholic theologians say that. … We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable?”
    I suspect that he would find the parallel with literature entirely acceptable. The resurrection’s truth is not an empirical matter, or at least not a scientifically measurable matter. It is a literary truth,

    So if we had checked Jesus’ tomb, his body would still have been there??? What about those soldiers who reported that the stone had been moved — would a camera have shown the stone there, and the soldiers appearing to be hallucinating? Only his apostles could see him? Does that mean others would have seen them talking to nothing? What about the other people who are said to have seen him?

    I’m sorry, but this ex-Catholic knows damn well that the claims of the Resurrection, at least in the Catholic Church, aren’t “literary” truth claims, but literal truth claims — Jesus’ body was literally resurrected, the stone from his tomb was literally moved, he was literally seen by his followers and others. To suggest that these are jjust “literary” or “artistic” truths is simply nonsense by the lights of Catholic theology.

  31. #31 gillt
    September 16, 2009

    In the two terms, figurative and literal truth, Josh noticed how they share the same last word and so wrote a lengthy extrapolation from the false assumption of what is a very superficial similarity.

    Perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Josh for this smoke and mirrors semantics. A figurative truth is so far removed from literal truth that they should probably not both be called truths. But then moderate theologians would be out of a job.

  32. #32 Ophelia Benson
    September 16, 2009

    I don’t know any atheists trying to sweep away art and golf and dance. But I think their arguments against religion apply equally well to art and golf and dance…the argument seems to be that one can only be a scientist if one applies the scientific method exclusively, and I see no arguments advanced which limit that exclusivity from sweeping out all non-scientific ways of knowing.

    Josh – Are you seriously claiming that you think people who belong to what you call “the clique of new atheists” would argue that art and golf and dance should be swept away because one cannot “apply the scientific method” to them? I’m sorry, I can’t even make sense of that. The “new” atheists that I know claim, rather, that religions make strong truth claims for which there is no evidence and that that way of proceeding is in tension with the way science inquires into things and that that is why religion and science are not epistemically compatible in the broad sense that many accommodationists like to claim. I cannot see how that is relevant to art and golf and dance at all. What truth claims does dance make?!

  33. #33 Michael Fugate
    September 16, 2009

    Could someone please outline what all of the “ways of knowing” are?

  34. #34 Josh Rosenau
    September 16, 2009

    Tulse: You write that “this ex-Catholic knows damn well that the claims of the Resurrection, at least in the Catholic Church, aren’t “literary” truth claims, but literal truth claims.” You make this argument as a way of disagreeing with Jack Haught, a Catholic theologian at a Jesuit school. This seems, then, like a disagreement within the Catholic church, and as a non-Catholic, I won’t comment on which of you represents the truth of Catholic doctrine. I will, however, note that I prefer Haught’s approach to theology over yours.

  35. #35 M
    September 16, 2009

    Could someone please outline what all of the “ways of knowing” are?” – Michael Fugate

    Well, if we accept Josh Rosenau’s assertion that religion is a “way of knowing” along with art and literature I would define it thusly:

    1. Philosophical knowledge – This pretty much dead-ends at Rene Descartes’ assertion of “Cogito ergo sum.”

    2. Mathematical knowledge – We typically call this a “proof.”

    3. Methodological knowledge – a.k.a. “Science.” Of importance is to note that all knowledge in this category exists on a probability curve, and is never considered absolute.

    Now, I stop the list here, but for Josh I would add:

    4. Social/Cultural knowledge – This is where I would fit art and literature. This is meant for things that enlighten our perception, touch our emotion, or teach a lesson.

    5. Assumption/Assertion – Here’s religion.

  36. #36 Tulse
    September 16, 2009

    You make this argument as a way of disagreeing with Jack Haught, a Catholic theologian at a Jesuit school.

    I make this argument based on what I was taught in the actual world of 8 years of Catholic elementary school and 4 years of Catholic high school, as well as brief summer seminary trips. Whatever Haught as a lone theologian may say, his views as you’ve presented them are not at all representative of mainstream real-world on-the-ground Catholic teaching. Indeed, in earlier, simpler times, I’d suggest that such notions would have been considered heretical (see, for example, docetism, for a marginally similar but heretical view).

    I will, however, note that I prefer Haught’s approach to theology over yours.

    Pardon my language, but what the fuck do your preferences have to do with the truth of the claims made? I’d prefer a universe in which Natalie Portman wanted to have wild monkey-sex with me, but that doesn’t make this that universe.

    And I’ll note that you failed to address the substantive questions I raised about Haught’s position, such as was the tomb actually empty and was the stone actually moved. I don’t see how these are at all “literary” claims, or how such a position is in any way coherent, but presumably you can clarify this point.

  37. #37 windy
    September 16, 2009

    When people present Arthurian legend as history, I oppose them, but I support reading about Arthur and his knights. When people try to claim that religion is empirically testable (whether they are theists or atheists) I oppose them for the same reason

    But the reason for not considering the Arthurian legend history is that there is a lack of corroborating evidence – the claims have been tested against the empirical record. It’s not some a-priori judgment that says ‘this is a myth, and should never be tested’ – even if it’s prudent to start from a position of skepticism regarding ancient legends. Or do you oppose telling people about the archaeological evidence for ancient Troy, because the Iliad should not be interpreted literally? Does anyone claim that Camelot really existed, but not in an empirically testable way?

  38. #38 NeverTheTwain
    September 16, 2009

    Josh-

    To quote you, “…telling stories about vampires is a great way to convey certain truths about the world we all live in. These aren’t truths that science can independently verify, but they are still true in a meaningful way.”

    This reminds me of Stephen King’s famous aphorism, “Fiction is the truth within the lie.” Great, but it behooves one not to get the “truth” and the “lie” parts confused. In the vampire tales you refer to, ethical concepts such as “the high price of feeding off others” are the truths of the story…but human truths; truths about our species’ mental and emotional interactions. The vampires themselves are the scientifically testable part–the deliberate lie. Unlike greed and victimization, there is no evidence that vampires exist in the real world.

    Now take the famous story of this guy who gets killed because of his big mouth and unpopular beliefs and then rises from the dead to prove he was right after all. One can perceive all sorts of human truths in this tale–the value of standing up to authority, the price and reward of being true to oneself, etc.–but that doesn’t make the “rising from the dead” part any less of a pure narrative lie.

    Unfortunately, millions of people see no such distinction. They don’t consider any part of the Bible (or Koran, or Upanishads, or any other “sacred” text) as fiction or allegory; they believe these stories to be pure–the truth within the truth, you might say.

    And that’s a big problem.

    It’s also why attempts like yours to meld the two concepts into one are misguided, confused, and unfortunate.

  39. #39 gillt
    September 16, 2009

    As an ex-Catholic, I’ll be backing Tulse here. Please look up Transubstantiation, Rosenau. Notice where it says literal not symbolic. You should also consult the Catholic Catechism, or for a summary of non-negotiable Catholic dogma, the Nicene Creed.

    Btw., isn’t Haught an academic? I think you’re cherry picking those who agree with your position.

  40. #40 Tulse
    September 16, 2009

    [Reposting -- I presume the original got hung up in moderation because of one naughty word...]

    Tulse: You write that “this ex-Catholic knows damn well that the claims of the Resurrection, at least in the Catholic Church, aren’t “literary” truth claims, but literal truth claims.” You make this argument as a way of disagreeing with Jack Haught, a Catholic theologian at a Jesuit school.

    I make this argument as someone who went through 8 years of Catholic elementary school and 4 years of Catholic high school, as well as several summer seminary and monastery trips, and who has two devout Catholic parents. Whatever Haught may say in his Georgetown offices, what you’ve presented as his position is not at all what was taught to me in real-world, on-the-ground Catholic education. Indeed, in simpler times, views that Jesus was just symbolic or allegorical or some sort of non-physical illusion (such as docetism) would have been seen as heretical.

    I will, however, note that I prefer Haught’s approach to theology over yours.

    I can’t believe that someone who works for the National Center for Science Education thinks that personal preference affects the truth of a claim. I too have lots of things I’d prefer — I’d prefer a universe in which Natalie Portman wants to make wild monkey-love to me, but my preferences don’t in least affect the universe. Likewise, whether or not you prefer Haught’s theology doesn’t impact at all on whether that theology is the one actually taught to and believed by Catholics. Honestly, I’m rather disturbed that you would think this type of comment even relevant to the discussion.

  41. #41 Sigmund
    September 16, 2009

    Another ex-Catholic voting with Tulse. I went to mass every week until I was about 16 and every time the whole congregation recited the Nicene creed which is rather explicit in what it states. I have to this day never heard a single priest suggest that the contents of that statement is to be read metaphorically rather than literally.

  42. #43 Stephen P
    September 16, 2009

    I like to compare this to the non-literal truth claims of good novels, or good stories more broadly.

    That’s rather strange, because that is what the people who you insulted in your third paragraph like to do too. The bible, non-canonical gospels, hagiographies etc are fiction (I’ll skip over the question as to what extent they are good fiction) with a smattering of historical fact, but you and your colleagues seem to object when people point that out.

    We judge the truth of a novel differently than the truth of a documentary.

    And therein lies the rub, because the majority of religious people do insist on viewing their religious texts as a documentary (some of them admit to a degree of artistic licence, but no two groups agree on where it occurs and to what extent). And people like yourself seem to see no problem with that, diverting attention – as you do here – by pointing to the minority who have a somewhat more realistic view.

  43. #44 Peter Beattie
    September 16, 2009

    Seriously, Josh, which part of “convincingly documented” do you not understand? How can your flogging of the 900-foot Jesus not be a gross misrepresentation of Coyne’s idea?

  44. #45 Peter Beattie
    September 16, 2009

    “This seems, then, like a disagreement within the Catholic church”

    Josh, go see what for example one Eugen Drewermann said about these things and what the Catholic Church did to him for his trouble. If you knew of such cases, that statement of yours would be disingenuous; if you didn’t, you’d be pretty ignorant about the subject matter and really shouldn’t bother writing about it as though you did.

  45. #46 Badger3k
    September 16, 2009

    Josh – “Tulse: You write that “this ex-Catholic knows damn well that the claims of the Resurrection, at least in the Catholic Church, aren’t “literary” truth claims, but literal truth claims.” You make this argument as a way of disagreeing with Jack Haught, a Catholic theologian at a Jesuit school. This seems, then, like a disagreement within the Catholic church, and as a non-Catholic, I won’t comment on which of you represents the truth of Catholic doctrine. I will, however, note that I prefer Haught’s approach to theology over yours.”

    It’s a shame that what you prefer has no meaning whatsoever. I learned in Catholic School (Archdiocese of Chicago, Our Lady of Grace grade school) that Jesus was, literally, resurrected. There may be disagreements now, especially since the Catholic Church is hemorrhaging believers, but that’s been the party line for ages – going back to the Nicene Creed (here’s part of one version).

    “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
    the only Son of God,
    eternally begotten of the Father,
    God from God, light from light,
    true God from true God,
    begotten, not made,
    of one Being with the Father;
    through him all things were made.
    For us and for our salvation
    he came down from heaven,
    was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
    and became truly human.
    For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
    he suffered death and was buried.
    On the third day he rose again
    in accordance with the Scriptures;
    he ascended into heaven
    and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
    He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
    and his kingdom will have no end. ”

    Nothing about not being a literal reality. This is what we swore on, what we believed, and what the priests, nuns, and brothers taught. I’m sure the apologists will back peddle even more as time goes on, retreating to the philosophical handjobs like Ken Miller’s beliefs. The line about video at the Resurrection was hilarious. Do you really treat that as something serious? It’s like the dragon in my garage. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Seriously?

    If someone wants to believe that, fine for them, but if they want their idea to be given respect or consideration within the community of humanity, then they need to provide evidence to back up their claims. What someone may believe, or prefer, has no bearing on what is true, unless you do as you did and render the word “true” to be meaningless. I’ll stick with “conditional but supported by evidence.”

    As for the “vampire” stuff, as I posted on his blog, what is “factual” in the literary sense on vampires depends on who is doing the writing – there are no “truths” about vampires, although there may be truth statements about what people believe about vampires, depending on the wording.

    I guess this counts as my fifth rewrite – I tried to write four times last night but kept erasing it, trying to wrap my head around the drivel and get to what I think you meant to say, but this post almost (to me) qualifies as the Shark Jumping episode. I like your stuff, and read it a lot, but this one sounds like some post-modern, relativistic, reduced-to-the-point-of-nonsense thinking. Sorry, but that’s my thoughts on it.

  46. #47 Ophelia Benson
    September 16, 2009

    I don’t know any atheists trying to sweep away art and golf and dance. But I think their arguments against religion apply equally well to art and golf and dance…the argument seems to be that one can only be a scientist if one applies the scientific method exclusively, and I see no arguments advanced which limit that exclusivity from sweeping out all non-scientific ways of knowing.

    Josh, please do explain that passage, because I really either can’t understand it or can’t believe you mean it. Please explain why I have it wrong.

    You could just explain this bit for instance – “the argument seems to be that one can only be a scientist if one applies the scientific method exclusively” – exclusively to what? You can’t think that the “new” atheists are arguing that one can only be a scientist if one applies the scientific method exclusively to everything, including golf and art and dance – and love and sex and eating and beauty and play and grief – just everything. So what do you mean that’s what the argument seems to be?

    Don’t just stonewall. That’s so tiresome.

  47. #48 Janus
    September 16, 2009

    I wish scientists would wise up and accept Bayesian reasoning and its implications already. This nonsense about what science can and cannot study, address, or “prove” is so fucking ridiculous.

  48. #49 Charlotte
    September 16, 2009

    Deen said:

    The same is true about sports, art and religion: they appeal to certain human emotions, and that’s what makes them worth while for people. Not because they contain any “deep knowledge”.

    Actually I’m with Josh as far as literary/social knowledge being a different thing from scientific knowledge – and I do think that art etc can tell us things about life and how we want to live it. These things will, of course, be different for each of us – one difference between the two forms of knowledge I don’t think anyone’s really pointed out yet is the reproducibility that’s key to scientific discovery.

    But I would argue that there’s another fundamental difference between the two forms. I’m not a fan of dance either, but as I understand it dance has it’s own ‘language’ and traditions. I’m fairly sure that if I sat down with a fan of dance, and had them explain some of this to me, and I explained football and the offside rule to them, then we could each gain an appreciation of the other’s ‘truth’ and more enjoyment of each other’s preferred sport. Do you really believe that sort of mutually productive conversation is possible in a religious context, Josh? I don’t. If two people from different religions talk about their beliefs they may find much to admire in each others’ traditions, but belief is not the same as knowledge. Most holy books claim to be the final word on truth (whether you view that truth as figurative or literal) so if it came to a conflict then they would have to choose just one of the claims.

    In other words, I could be a football fan who liked dance, but I couldn’t be a Christian who’s also a bit of a Hindu. Perhaps it’s possible to combine other religions, but certainly not the ‘big three’ monotheistic ones. And if you’re going to find knowledge of the purely literary sort in the many beautiful myths of this world, then you’re not a believer.

    You also fail to recognise the reasons atheists have for challenging religion – such as the enormous damage the Catholic church does in undermining contraceptive provision and education worldwide. Literal interpretation of holy texts kills people, and needs to be challenged. Maybe I’m an angry atheist. You think that’s unreasonable?

  49. #50 JoshS
    September 16, 2009

    @ Charlotte

    You also fail to recognise the reasons atheists have for challenging religion – such as the enormous damage the Catholic church does in undermining contraceptive provision and education worldwide. Literal interpretation of holy texts kills people, and needs to be challenged. Maybe I’m an angry atheist. You think that’s unreasonable?

    Nope, you’re an eminently reasonable person. Josh Rosenau has fallen victim to a problem plaguing the rational/academic left: the willful disbelief that anyone could be so crass, so vulgar, as to believe in the literal truth of these theological claims. That most believers are really gentle, reflective souls, trying to pursue their personal epistemologies unmolested, in a contemplative, non-threatening way. That Bad, Mean, Shrill New Atheists are just making up a bogeyman.

    Deep down, I’ve got to believe Rosenau, Eugenie Scott, and the rest of them know this isn’t true. They know full well that the average believer in the pew – and in the voting booth – very much believes they have literal instructions and history from their holy books. Even if they’re willing to interpret these allegorically, they still believe they have divinely inspired messages that compel them to vote/act in a certain way, and that this is a virtue .

    Trouble is, the NCSE has chosen a political path of accommodation it believes will win the day. This requires them to pretend publicly that they really have no opinion on these things, and that they can’t possibly see any conflict between science and religion. This is what explains the convoluted, contradictory, evasive, and epistemologically unsound contortions you see coming from people who know full well that belief in the resurrection is daffy. (And yes, Josh Rosenau, you know this while you’re reading this post, though you won’t admit it out loud. Don’t think anyone here is foolish enough to believe that you really think “a camera wouldn’t record it” is a sound get-out-of-epistemological-jail-free card).

    Fine. But don’t expect the rest of us to happily go along pretending we don’t notice your intellectual duplicity. We do. That’s not a lack of sophistication, it’s disgust at the lack of intellectual integrity displayed by a group of people that know better.

  50. #51 The Other Josh
    September 16, 2009
    It's certainly true that the Jewish Bible can be read as making a number of empirical claims, for instance about the timing of human origins, whether bushes can burn without being consumed, that thousands of people wandered the Sinai for decades without leaving any obvious archaeological evidence or human records in nearby civilizations, etc.
    
    But that's not how Jews have understood the Bible for the last couple thousand years. 

    And that’s completely irrelevant. The problem is that there are tens of millions of people in the United States who believe that the claims made in the bible are empirical and factual. They vote. They intimidate school teachers. They get on school boards with the intent to derail public education. They even infiltrate our military.

    Sitting down for tea and crumpets with the moderates and with out-of-touch theologians isn’t going to solve the problems that the fundamentalists are causing.

    The biggest advantage the that the fundamentalists have is the undue respect our culture grants to religion. That’s why we don’t accommodate them. If we can show people how utterly ignorant the fundamentalists are, they’ll lose their seat at the grown-up table and the rest of us can focus on solving the problems our country faces.

  51. #52 Pablo
    September 17, 2009

    I’m sorry Josh. Your post is laden with ignorance and wishful thinking. For one thing I’ll have to side with my fellow former catholics on this thread when they tell you that the resurrection, the transubstantiation, the virgin birth and other ridiculous claims about reality in Catholic theology are meant to be taken *literally*. Of course you’ll find some dissenters here and there (jesuits are notorious for that) but they remain on the fringe and I can guarantee you that their opinions will never go mainstream because those postulates are NOT matters of opinion. It’s dogma, pure and simple. It’s their way or the highway (to hell). That is true religion for you. Your view of religion as a “way of knowing” is so removed from reality that it would be laughable if not for your position at the NCSE.

  52. #53 Darth Dog
    September 17, 2009

    This is absolutely the worst post you have ever written. Rather than go into detail, let me just say that I have my own way of knowing.

    Can’t touch me now.

  53. #54 Dan S.
    September 17, 2009

    . . . your flogging of the 900-foot Jesus

    I’d totally watch that movie.

  54. #55 Hypocee
    September 17, 2009

    If you had actually clicked the link, you’d see why you are so very, very wrong.

    No, man, see, you’re wrong, I mean, literarily right, right, because *fffffFFFFFFP*…see, he’s not wrong, man, he’s just a different kind of right you know? It’s his truth, not yours…

    I don’t know any atheists trying to sweep away art and golf and dance. But I think their arguments against religion apply equally well to art and golf and dance…the argument seems to be that one can only be a scientist if one applies the scientific method exclusively, and I see no arguments advanced which limit that exclusivity from sweeping out all non-scientific ways of knowing.

    When I’m killed, beaten, fired, robbed, slandered, shunned, mistrusted by billions of otherwise decent people on the streets of every city in the world for not appreciating Pollock or playing golf or dancing, then this won’t be a laughable strawman. The implication – I wonder why you didn’t state it explicitly? – is that religion is just another hobby, like knitting. Exactly the state of affairs that firebreathing arch-enabler PZ Myers claims to want to progress to! Maybe he just hasn’t noticed, or can’t accept, that it’s already the way things are. He even makes up death threats to further his delusion, the poor man.

    I’ll be charitable here and assume you meant that to be literarily true, but I must admit it didn’t move my other ways of knowing. I can’t see the metaphor. I guess there’s no accounting for taste.

  55. #56 IST
    September 17, 2009

    After reading one of Padian’s diatribes earlier this year, I made the assumption that the attitude towards accomodationism at NCSE was due to some misguided, disingenuous attemppt to bring more theists into the fold for popular support on teaching evolution. After reading this, I revise that assumption to that attitude being the result of some horrendous postmodernist thinking that asserts that other “ways of knowing” are as valuable to discerning information about the real world as science. Lest I be dismissed for scientism, as the New Atheists often are, let me append that remark with the statement that art, music, and literature are certainly important to how people derive meaning for their lives. Claiming that ‘literary truths’ are ways of gleaning actual real-world information (apart from the author’s opinions) is nothing short of ludicrous.
    That view being exposed, I question why, and for how long, NCSE will actually continue to defend the teaching of science in science classes. As an organisation you’ve done an incredible amount of important work in that realm, but resorting to helping people resolve their cognitive dissonances in relating science to religion is something their (insert term for priest here) should be doing, not science educators. I suppose the point of this last bit is: If you really don’t agree with what you’re defending, why are you defending it at all?

  56. #57 FastLane
    September 17, 2009

    Josh, if you are going to pretend to take the high road, you should not call those who disagree with you ‘enablers’, then use ‘so called accomodationists’ when describing ‘your’ side.

    It smacks of dishonesty. If those who disagree with you are enablers, then you are an accomodationist. At least try and appear fair.

    I think Coyne is more right than you on this one, but there is a lot of things that seem to be missed because everyone is so damn convinced that thier way of dealing with cretinists is the only way

  57. #58 Hypocee
    September 17, 2009

    Now now, let’s not jump to conclusions about Ms. Scott’s or the entire NCSE’s motivations from just this one postmodernist. I’m still of the opinion that it was a matter of playing perceived politics – Disingenuous? Hell yes. Dishonest? Probably. Immoral? Hmm, arguably. Misguided? In the practical sense that it did or did not advance the organization’s remit of promoting science education? Well… hard to say. If I were good enough at predicting politics and society to state that with certainty, I’d be ruling the world. Do you rule the world?

  58. #59 Mike Olson
    September 17, 2009

    This is a very well written article. One of the biggest problems I’ve had, particularly online, with both creationists and hard core atheists, is that essentially they share the same personality. Meaning simply at their core, they both believe only in physical, concrete, demonstrable concepts that they can see, feel, taste, touch or experience. When things become abstract one group falls to a very literal interpretation of science and the other a very literal interpretation of theology. Neither group is good at abstract understandings which allow for the enjoyment of fiction. I’d also point out that abstract, intuitive thinking(having hunches, “feelings”) while unprovable, initially, by the scientific method, have led to many great scientific discoveries. Electro-magnetic forces were initially unseen and intuitive ideas came up with the means to test for them, the same is true of atmospheric gases. Feynman invented a symbolic system to understand and more appropriately explain QED. If you “believe” pop psych he was an ENTP…which would indicate he thought intuitively about a problem first, then applied logical methods for resolution….My whole point is that some folks can understand the abstract without a need of absolute concrete “proof,” before proceding. Theoretical math can’t be proven in the “real” world…but it has logic, is not concrete and explains realities we don’t understand. There are different ways of “knowing.” I really enjoyed this article. It articulates a number of things I “know.”

  59. #60 Tulse
    September 17, 2009

    Neither group is good at abstract understandings which allow for the enjoyment of fiction.

    Oh please — I enjoy fiction just fine, but I don’t believe that it necessarily tells me any deep truths I don’t already know.

    I’d also point out that abstract, intuitive thinking(having hunches, “feelings”) while unprovable, initially, by the scientific method, have led to many great scientific discoveries.

    And there are vastly more hunches that turned out to be wrong.

  60. #61 Ophelia Benson
    September 17, 2009

    Neither group is good at abstract understandings which allow for the enjoyment of fiction.

    Absolute nonsense. Have you ever read any of Christopher Hitchens’s many reviews and review-essays for example?

  61. #62 IST
    September 17, 2009

    Hypocee>
    I’m not judging the entire NCSE on just one of Josh’s posts, and I’m inclined to agree with my original surmise (that you so aptly stated in your post). I don’t recall calling thier position ‘immoral’, just disingenuous and misguided. Misguided in the sense that they assume it is more important to defend the teaching of evolution in schools than it is to support rationality as a whole… my political crystal ball is a bit fuzzy though. And I clearly don’t rule the world because there isn’t yet an international mock Fred Phelps day. To my original charges however, I might add the term ‘mercenary’, by enlisting the help of Collins and his ilk. Strangely, Miller doesn’t bother me because despite what he claims to believe, he doesn’t actually come out in support of much apart from deism. That I can stomach.

  62. #63 Deen
    September 17, 2009

    Charlotte wrote:

    Actually I’m with Josh as far as literary/social knowledge being a different thing from scientific knowledge – and I do think that art etc can tell us things about life and how we want to live it.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that literature can’t contain knowledge. Of course it does. For instance, it can do so in the obvious sense: a story can contain factual details, for instance. But you only know that they provide knowledge if you can verify these independently. I don’t think this is being disputed by anyone here.

    I also don’t disagree that a story can contain knowledge in the form of a strong commentary on social or moral issues, for instance. But, just like factual content, such commentary must relate to actual issues in the real world before it can be considered “knowledge”. That means that you should be able to discuss these issues independently of the context of the story.

    I think this is where the disconnect is: a story is not a way of knowing, as it’s not a source of knowledge, but a medium to communicate a message. The storyteller who put the message in must have gotten it from somewhere else – from life experience, science, philosophical reasoning, or some other source. The author could have also written a non-fiction book to communicate the same message. Fiction just tends to be a more entertaining and engaging medium than most non-fiction, and might therefore be more effective.

    Religion, on the other hand, does claim to have a special source of knowledge: divine revelation. By the way, there is no reason that such a source should be limited to moral or social knowledge, and exclude knowledge about the natural world. Most smart believers nowadays have left the latter to science, though.

    Unfortunately, the source of divine revelation is not accessible for independent verification. Furthermore, the many contradictions between the different religions and factions, even on moral and social issues, shows us how unreliable this source is.

    I don’t think many atheists will object if you say that religious texts should be treated as fiction. Treated as a story that may or may not contain factual claims, or commentary on relevant moral and social issues. I do think many believers will object, though.

  63. #64 Hypocee
    September 17, 2009

    Neither group is good at abstract understandings which allow for the enjoyment of fiction.

    It’s so, so true. Science nerds hate fiction. Just ask William Shatner, Patrick Stewart or Nathan Fillion. They can hardly walk down the street, it’s like a pogrom.

    IST: Ah, sorry to misrepresent you. I was thrown by “I revise that assumption”, thought it was a statement of a new position, rather than an account (with typo?) of a reaction. And I didn’t mean to put word [sic!] in your mouth; I built off your list up to a six-step rhetorical progression but it was crap, so I trimmed it back down to my taste…unfortunately close to the original!

  64. #65 Josh Rosenau
    September 17, 2009

    Tulse: I’m not Catholic, and I’m not a theologian. I honestly don’t know how Haught deals with the content of the tomb or the movement of the stone. Not being Catholic, I don’t have any opinion on the matter, and tend not to think anything special happened to the body of Jesus, and that the various aspects of the story surrounding the resurrection tale are the sorts of embellishments common in storytelling. We see that happening in lots of fields, including in popular science history, so I don’t regard it as a mark against the broader enterprise of Christianity.

    As for the value of my preferences, the issue I was addressing was the hermeneutic used in examining religion. A hermeneutic that requires us to investigate the disposition of Jesus’ body seems less useful in religious terms than a hermeneutic that allows us to treat aspects of the story as … well, as aspects of a story. A number of leading religious thinkers do that, which tells me that the problem isn’t religion per se, and that it is just as useful to help those people rein in religious extremists as it is to work with atheists to rein in religious extremists.

  65. #66 IST
    September 17, 2009

    Hypocee>
    It’s my fault, I was inexact and you aren’t familiar with me at all. And not a typo, an Anglicised spelling… damn my parents and teachers! Anything I write in standard American english has gone through a spell checker to catch -ise endings, extra ‘u’s, etc.

  66. #67 IST
    September 17, 2009

    Nevermind, I read my first two posts and there are definite typos… I was attempting to pretend to be interested in a conversation while posting. Perhaps not such a great idea.

  67. #68 Tulse
    September 17, 2009

    I honestly don’t know how Haught deals with the content of the tomb or the movement of the stone. Not being Catholic, I don’t have any opinion on the matter, and tend not to think anything special happened to the body of Jesus, and that the various aspects of the story surrounding the resurrection tale are the sorts of embellishments common in storytelling.

    …a position which in earlier ages might have had you burned at the stake, the point being that almost all practicing Catholics don’t hold that view. You can talk about storytelling all you want, but a lot of religions view the claims of their holy books as fact claims about the real world, and not plot points. (And I think you know that Haught’s view, when pushed on its real-world implications, falls apart into nothing more than mythology.)

    The real issue is that your position is a theological claim, and I can’t for the life of me understand why the NCSE is making theological pronouncements.

  68. #69 Dave W.
    September 18, 2009

    Josh Rosenau wrote:

    I think we can all agree that literature offers a different “way of knowing” than science does.

    No, we can’t. Literature sometimes conveys truths, but it is not method of determining knowledge, if for no other reason than it often conveys falsehoods. There is no “literaturic method” for determining what is probably true or false.

    For example, for every book you can name which attempts to convey the truth that homosexuality is acceptable, I’m sure that a corresponding book that attempts to convey the truth that homosexuality is evil can be found. Literature cannot be used to discern the truth of either position, and so it cannot be used as a “way of knowing” anything about the moral status of homosexuality (or anything else).

    But telling stories about vampires is a great way to convey certain truths about the world we all live in.

    Oh, okay, you do understanding the difference between conveying truths (literature) and attempting to discern truths (science).

    These aren’t truths that science can independently verify, but they are still true in a meaningful way.

    You’re kidding, right? Name one “literary truth” that science cannot verify. I’m sure sociologists and psychologists will be very interested to hear that they cannot empirically determine that (for example) “any of us can have great power if only we are willing to prey on others” or “selfishness is destructive.” Coming up with real-world experiments to test these hypotheses should be child’s play to an experienced behavioral psychologist.

    These are all fine questions, questions that demand truth claims in response, but none of the answers come from any empirical reality.

    Only because you have failed to strictly define the requirements for rating the different fictional captains in ways that all concerned can agree are appropriate.

    Besides which, if you’re going to define “literary truth” so broadly as to encompass what you acknowledge to be matters of personal taste, then you may as well say that if something feels true, that’s just as good as a scientific truth (they’re just different “ways of knowing,” after all). And then why would you ever work for an organization like the NCSE, which has a mission of denying that truth by asserting the primacy of science in the empirical realm?

    In other words, if literature tells us that the Earth in 6,000 years old, and literature is just a different “way of knowing” than science, then how can anyone assert that young-Earth creationism is “wrong?”

  69. #70 Sean Wills
    September 18, 2009

    Exactly what ‘truths’ does one get from art that would be unavailable elsewhere? To use the slacktivist example, a novel about vampires might give us the author’s opinions on corruption and the symbolism of the cross (for example), but that would still not mean that vampires exist in any way, shape or form. Saying that ‘vampire novels are true’ and then directly comparing this with saying that ‘divine inspiration (or what have you) is a source of truth’ is a cheap rhetorical trick, nothing more.

    As is, now that I think about, the idea that intercessory prayer is something other than supernatural. Are you really saying that the actions of a divine being to cure sickness, if such action occurred, would be anything other than supernatural?

    Notably, slacktivist says that the ‘truth’ of vampire stories is demonstrably true. But if a truth is demonstrable, how is it any different to plain old empirical truth? We still have to go out into the world and verify whether it’s correct, which in turn gives us some obvious insight into how the author obtained that truth in the first place (ie he went out into the world and had a look around.) What ‘other way of knowing’ is at work here?

  70. #71 Tulse
    September 19, 2009

    The truth that Buffy teaches is quite clear to those who are sensitive to that way of knowing: a group of brave young white people use religious imagery to fight against a threat unrecognized by the rest of society, a pernicious evil that is infiltrating their community and threatens to suck the life out of all good and decent folks.

    It’s clearly an allegory about Aryan pride and immigration, right?

    Can you prove that “knowing” is wrong?

  71. #72 Mike
    September 20, 2009

    In any event, science as a “way of knowing” does not produce truth. People have known that since the failure of logical positivism in the early 20th century; science can lead us away from untruths, and lets us narrow in on the truth, but science can only approach truth asymptotically, and rarely as any sort of smooth function.

    Is this true?

  72. #73 Skeptico
    September 20, 2009

    I note that you refer to the non-accomodationists as “enablers” – a term you never define or justify.  The word “enabler” is a specific one with a specific meaning.  I looked it up in several places – This one is fairly typical, where it defines enablers as people who:

    …allow loved ones to behave in ways that are destructive. For example, an enabler wife of an alcoholic might continue to provide the husband with alcohol. A person might be an enabler of a gambler or compulsive spender by lending them money to get out of debt.

    In this fashion, though the enabler may be acting out of love and trying to help or protect a person, he or she is actually making a chronic problem like an addiction worse. By continuing to lend money to the gambler, for example, the gambler doesn’t have to face the consequences of his actions. Someone is there to bail him out of trouble and continue to enable his behavior.

    Looking at that explanation, it seems to me that if anything, accomodationists such as you are the enablers here.  You (the accomodationists) tell the addict (religious believer) that their religious delusions are OK and totally not inconsistent with science at all.  You (the accomodationists) are the ones who actually do enable the addicts (religious believers) by providing them with their drugs (reasons why religion and science are compatible).  I realize you are acting out of love for the religious people you come into contact with, but in reality, you’re making the problem worse.  That’s up to you, but you really should stop this dishonest labeling of the non-accomodationists with what you are actually doing yourself.

    It’s called projection.

  73. #74 MPL
    September 20, 2009

    Completely off topic, but I’m glad I’m not the only non-theist (by which I mean anyone who does not assert belief in supernatural beings) who reads and enjoys Slacktivist.

  74. #75 Tulse
    September 21, 2009

    Count me in on that too, MPL — I greatly look forward to Slacktivist “Left Behind Fridays”, and generally appreciate his profoundly thoughtful postings.

  75. #76 Anna K.
    September 21, 2009

    Dave W. wrote: “You’re kidding, right? Name one “literary truth” that science cannot verify. I’m sure sociologists and psychologists will be very interested to hear that they cannot empirically determine that (for example) “any of us can have great power if only we are willing to prey on others” or “selfishness is destructive.” Coming up with real-world experiments to test these hypotheses should be child’s play to an experienced behavioral psychologist.”

    Eh — not so fast, Dave W. Literary truth is not just descriptive. It also involves value judgments. I agree that we can use behavioral psychology or even other social sciences to describe actions and consequences. But science can’t make value judgments, and your statements are based on them.

    “Preying” is quite a loaded word. Is preying on others necessarily bad? It certainly enhances one’s advantages for survival. So is accumulation of power bad or not? It’s usually good for the powerful, isn’t it?

    Is selfishness destructive? Often it’s very useful. If it’s useful, can we also say it’s destructive?

    To decide whether something is good or bad, constructive or destructive, you have to go outside of science entirely for those standards.

  76. #77 Tulse
    September 21, 2009

    Literary truth is not just descriptive. It also involves value judgments.

    What if I garner from Mein Kampf some truths that others don’t agree with — what determines who is correct? Even presuming that literary truth does convey values, how do you determine which of possible competing interpretations of that truth are correct (e.g., Buffy as a White-Power, anti-immigration screed)? And finally, how do you determine whether the values conveyed are true, without reference to some non-literary, external evaluation, which would render the need for a “literary” source of that truth moot?

  77. #78 Dave W.
    September 21, 2009

    Anna K. wrote:

    Eh — not so fast, Dave W. Literary truth is not just descriptive. It also involves value judgments. I agree that we can use behavioral psychology or even other social sciences to describe actions and consequences. But science can’t make value judgments, and your statements are based on them.

    Anna K., you seem to be confusing the goals we strive for with the rules we follow to get there. Value judgments are entirely empirical once the context is defined, and we define it in reference to the goals we have. As a pragmatist, if my morals fail to move me towards my goals, then those morals are objectively failures for me. Any outside observer could say, for example, “well, Dave’s goal is to increase happiness throughout the world, and yet he thinks that stealing from children is a good thing, despite all these studies which show otherwise.”

    The goals are not scientific, but then they aren’t “truth claims,” in any way, shape or form, either. In their barest form, they are nothing more than “I want _____” statements. But once those statements are well-defined, there is nothing to stop us from objectively measuring whether our actions move us towards or away from those goals, at least in principle.

    “Preying” is quite a loaded word. Is preying on others necessarily bad? It certainly enhances one’s advantages for survival. So is accumulation of power bad or not? It’s usually good for the powerful, isn’t it?

    Of course if you leave out the context, nothing is falsifiable. And obviously, we would need to define the context further than Rosenau’s quote from slacktivist (necessarily with slacktivist’s help) before actually doing any experiments to determine the truth value of slacktivist’s alleged “truth,” which Rosenau implies is not scientifically verifiable. Hell, slacktivist must know, because he says, “This is demonstrably true.” He must already have done the experiment!

    Is selfishness destructive? Often it’s very useful. If it’s useful, can we also say it’s destructive?

    Again, we would have to turn to slacktivist’s “sensitive reading of the story of Noah’s flood” to get the context in which to develop an experiment to test whether that “truth” is correct or not. My point was that Rosenau’s conclusion, that these things cannot be scientifically tested, appears to be false on its face.

    To decide whether something is good or bad, constructive or destructive, you have to go outside of science entirely for those standards.

    By analogy, we would then also have “to go outside of science entirely” to say whether a dessert has 5 grams of fat or not, because that unit of mass is simply defined, and not determined scientifically. I hope you see the absurdity.

    To decide whether something is good or bad, we need only measure the consequences in light of the goal. Sociologists and psychologists are having a fine time, these days, devising ways to measure people’s happiness, satisfaction and other “squishy” attributes. So as soon as we can quantitize all of the characteristics of human experience needed to measure whether some moral rule or other works (in that it moves us closer to its stated goal instead of further away), then I say we should do it and determine whether it ultimately is good or bad.

    Whether the goals themselves are good or bad is another subject entirely, but not one in which the word “truth” (literary or otherwise) should crop up in a discussion. Again, “I want to make the world safer for my children” is not a truth claim, while “making the world safer for our children is a good thing” can only be determined to be true or false in the context of some goal or other, but it can be determined (probably).

  78. #79 Dave W.
    September 21, 2009

    Oh, one more thing: I imagine if we were to get into a discussion of the goodness or badness of various goals, we would find that “good” goals are those that are consonant with our own, and “bad” goals would be ones that conflict with our own.

    Again: no science or “truth” to be found there, just personal desires and frustrations.

  79. #80 Josh Rosenau
    September 24, 2009

    Ophelia asks: “You could just explain this bit for instance – “the argument seems to be that one can only be a scientist if one applies the scientific method exclusively” – exclusively to what? You can’t think that the “new” atheists are arguing that one can only be a scientist if one applies the scientific method exclusively to everything, including golf and art and dance – and love and sex and eating and beauty and play and grief – just everything. So what do you mean that’s what the argument seems to be?”

    I don’t think all the “new atheists” think that. They tend to say things that seem to imply that, but when pressed they back off of it. In the post I was responding to, Coyne writes that “other ‘ways of knowing’ don’t produce truth.” Which I take to be a claim which applies equally to golf and dance and novels and poetry just as much as it does to religion.

    Consider M’s approach above (comment 35). He separates math and philosophy out as valid sources of knowledge outside of science, then in deference to me adds two more: religion and “Social/Cultural knowledge,” a category including art and literature. This is meant for things that enlighten our perception, touch our emotion, or teach a lesson.” Why that should be separated from religion, I don’t know. Does religion not seek to enlighten our perception, touch our emotion, and teach lessons? By what non-arbitrary standard do we separate religion from both philosophy and social/cultural knowledge? If the strike against religion is that it fails to provide scientific truths, then lots of other things don’t do that either. Maybe that’s bad, maybe that’s OK, but if it’s bad for religion, it’s also bad for art and dance and philosophy and so forth. You can’t draw clean lines.

    Stephen Jay Gould pointed out that, “if we laugh with derision [at religious ideas], we will never understand. Human intellectual capacity has not altered for thousands of years so far as we can tell. If intelligent people invested intense energy in issues that now seem foolish to us, then the failure lies in our understanding of their world, not in their distorted perceptions. Even the standard example of ancient nonsense — the debate about angels on pinheads — makes sense once you realize that theologians were not discussing whether five or eighteen would fit, but whether a pin could house a finite or an infinite number.” This sort of argument brought us the calculus. It is theology (are angels corporeal or noncorporeal), philosophical, and mathematical (can an infinite number of objects fit in an infinitely small space?).

    And so we come back to demarcation issues. Demarcation of science is hard, and demarcation of religion is hard. In painting with a broad brush, comments like Coyne’s are sure to be wrong in at least some cases, and that means that it fails as a generalized condemnation of religion (which is the new atheist goal, AFAICT). One can be a pro-science theist, though not all sorts of theism are compatible with all understandings of science. For reasonable definitions of each, compatibility is possible in principle, and I’m not going to pick a fight over the matter with anyone just because of theism. What people do with their theism matters, and Coyne’s sort of argument just steamrolls over meaningful distinctions.

    The problem I have with the latest iteration of the framing/appeasement/accommodationist wars is that it feels like an effort by atheists to force their definitions of science and of religion on everyone else, and especially on me. And I mind that. It’s one thing for Coyne to say he disagrees with me or with Genie, and quite another to say that NCSE should change its policy, or that I or Genie ought to do our work differently, based on his personal opinions. At least when Mooney and Nisbet issued their framing recommendations they backed it with data and a well-developed theoretical framework. Coyne just has armchair philosophy, philosophy which ignores the last century of philosophy of science.

    Charlotte: “I’m fairly sure that if I sat down with a fan of dance, and had them explain some of this to me, and I explained football and the offside rule to them, then we could each gain an appreciation of the other’s ‘truth’ and more enjoyment of each other’s preferred sport. Do you really believe that sort of mutually productive conversation is possible in a religious context, Josh?”

    Yes. I also happen to think that it’s hard (nigh impossible) to convey the essence of dance to a non-dancer, or the essence of music to someone who is tone-deaf. You can get some sort of vague intellectual sense of what it’s about, but ultimately these things are tactile, kinesthetic, emotional experiences that can’t be shared through words. Same with religion. Discussion is possible, but experience is necessary for full comprehension. Which, naturally, is part of the problem. Try as one might, you can’t just write a book about what it feels like to be Christian. It feels different to everyone, and feeling translates incompletely to words.

    Charlotte: “Literal interpretation of holy texts kills people, and needs to be challenged. Maybe I’m an angry atheist. You think that’s unreasonable?”

    I challenge literal interpretation, too. I think it’s the wrong way to read the Bible, but I don’t think that means no good way exists within the religious context. It’s wrong, IMHO, to claim that no god exists because some account(s) of religion strike you as false. That’s why I’m an agnostic. Maybe there is no god, maybe god(s) exist. I don’t know and don’t care, and don’t understand why religious people would get so het up about proving their faith to others, nor why atheists get so het up about proving religion is false. If faith is simply irrelevant, then treat it as irrelevant and spend time on other things. Why does it matter so much?

    Other Josh: “Sitting down for tea and crumpets with the moderates and with out-of-touch theologians isn’t going to solve the problems that the fundamentalists are causing.”

    I disagree. I certainly agree that it’s a problem that anti-science folks try to work their dogma into public policy. That’s why I came to work at NCSE! And one of the things I’ve found is that there is a large chunk of the population who thinks that voting for the moral choice means voting for a Christian, and that the only True Christian™ is the one who opposes evolution. Helping people see that being a Christian doesn’t require opposing evolution has actually defused conflicts I’ve been involved with, solving problems caused by the fundamentalists. It was true in Kansas, it was true in Dover, and it’s true in dozens of other situations I’ve worked on with local teachers and parents. Your position is simply refuted by empirical evidence, and I’d hope that would cause you to reevaluate it.

    IST: “Claiming that ‘literary truths’ are ways of gleaning actual real-world information (apart from the author’s opinions) is nothing short of ludicrous.”

    Wow, that parenthetical sure does cover a lot of territory. The author, after all, is a part of the real world. The author observes others in the real world, and forms opinions about how things work. Not just how science works, but why people make the choices they do. Annie Proulx tries to understand what it would be to discover one’s homosexuality while herding sheep in total isolation, and then to bring that private change back into a deeply bigoted world. It expresses her opinions. Yeah. And by seeing what she thinks that experience would be like, we learn something about ourselves, even if we, like her, are not gay cowboys. Maybe that’s a useful sort of “real-world information.”

    IST: “resorting to helping people resolve their cognitive dissonances in relating science to religion is something their (insert term for priest here) should be doing, not science educators. I suppose the point of this last bit is: If you really don’t agree with what you’re defending, why are you defending it at all?”

    What if their cognitive dissonances are what keep them from accepting science, and from accepting the usefulness of evolution as a science? Doesn’t that require either that NCSE directly engage such people, and also perhaps engage religious leaders and give them resources to help them talk about these issues with their flocks? In my experience, this cognitive dissonance is the single largest obstacle to acceptance and understanding of evolution in the US. NCSE would, IMHO (and as always, I’m writing only for myself, not on behalf of NCSE), be abdicating its mission of defending evolution of it ignored that component of evolution-rejection.

    Tulse: “I enjoy fiction just fine, but I don’t believe that it necessarily tells me any deep truths I don’t already know.

    OK, but sometimes it does. Or it illuminates something you sorta understood. Science doesn’t necessarily tell you any deep truths that you didn’t already know, either. Some scientists go a lifetime in science with only a couple of moments that absolutely knock their socks off in the lab.

    Tulse: “And there are vastly more hunches that turned out to be wrong.”

    Sure. And there are lots of scientific experiments that tell us nothing new. Truth claims can be wrong, and any systematic, self-consistent method of generating and evaluating truth claims will inevitably produce some errors. Most scientific ideas ever produced were, at least in part, wrong. So what?, I say!

    Dave W.: “Oh, okay, you do understanding the difference between conveying truths (literature) and attempting to discern truths (science).”

    This is an odd demarcation. Science which goes unreported is worthless. Science is about evaluating and reporting certain sorts of claims about the world in certain consistent ways. I think a parallel description of literature would not be unreasonable. The rules of literature and of science are different, the sorts of claims being evaluated are different, as are the modes of evaluation and the conventions of reporting. But science does possess a non-trivial communication component, just as literature requires a non-trivial investigation before publication.

    You quibble that we could settle whether Picard or Kirk were a better captain if only we introduced a universally agreed upon metric for science fiction captains. Duh. Normative and aesthetic judgments, however, are topics beyond science, making it hard to test the claim that one such metric is better than another. Similarly, the claim that “anyone” could have great power is inherently hard to test, and the definitions of “prey on others,” “destructive,” and even “great power” contain just such normative and aesthetic judgments. We could reduce those questions to problems testable through sociology or psychology, but doing so would involve various value judgments, some of which would not be subject to scientific testing.

    DaveW: “you may as well say that if something feels true, that’s just as good as a scientific truth (they’re just different “ways of knowing,” after all).”

    No. First, something feeling true doesn’t make it true, it makes it at best a truth claim (I think it’s less than a full truth claim, but I’ll concede that for discussion purposes). And saying it’s “just as good as a scientific truth” is just odd. Is F=ma “just as good” as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”? The first is more useful if you want to put a ship in orbit, the latter is more important if you want to grow up as a productive member of society. Sometimes you need to put stuff in orbit, and sometimes you need to be a good citizen. Can we say they’re both important and not worry about what metric we can use to measure incommensurable things?

    You later justify these moves by advocating a pragmatist moral philosophy. Fair enough, so long as you don’t try to impose it on others. How do you justify it as superior to other ethical systems?

    Tulse asks how we’d evaluate the claim that Buffy is an allegory for Aryan pride. We could note that Buffy refers to Nazis as unpleasant, we could look to Joss Whedon’s decidedly liberal political views, especially to his feminism and his anti-authoritarianism. We could examine how those themes develop in his shows and movies, especially the negative portrayal of the vaguely fascist Alliance. Naziism is defined by, among other things, macho anti-feminism, conservatism, nationalism, and strong central authorities, none of which Whedon’s work can be read as endorsing. Note also that Willow (part of the nominally Aryan gang) is Jewish (and gay), and that we meet black Slayers who share Buffy’s mission.

    Tulse again asks: “What if I garner from Mein Kampf some truths that others don’t agree with — what determines who is correct?”

    Good questions. Partly, we deal with disagreements by not trying to impose our views on others – by respecting them as people, presuming they hold those views for good cause, and seeing what we can learn from that disagreement. Trying to impose one’s view on others is, IMHO, wrong, even if they are a minority (as religious people who see religion as I describe above may well be, as atheists surely are, etc.). Assuming we’re not relativists (see here for more on that: http://web.archive.org/web/20061114081838/http://left2right.typepad.com/main/2005/04/what_moral_rela.html), my perceptions ought to match up with other people’s, and rational discussion, even if rooted in personal feelings, ought to bring us to some productive consensus. The various -isms described in that link complicate such discussion. But if we think our moral and aesthetic claims reflect some deeper truth about our universe, we ought to be able to lead others down that path, and justify our judgments through such non-empirical (semi-empirical?) means.

  80. #81 Dave W.
    September 24, 2009

    Joshua Rosenau wrote:

    Dave W.: “Oh, okay, you do understanding the difference between conveying truths (literature) and attempting to discern truths (science).”

    This is an odd demarcation. Science which goes unreported is worthless. Science is about evaluating and reporting certain sorts of claims about the world in certain consistent ways.

    I shouldn’t have to explain this to someone who is lecturing on the importance of analogy. Science as a “way of knowing” is a method for evaluating truth claims. It is entirely independent of the method of conveying the results, be it in a scholarly language in a journal for scientists or in iambic pentameter in a book of poems for laypeople. Unreported scientific results aren’t worthless if your goal is nothing more than personal use of the knowledge you gain from the method. Science as a social endeavor requires communication only because it seeks to gain knowledge for the whole of humanity, and to do so more robustly and quickly than one guy plodding away in his basement laboratory. If he succeeds in his quest to (for example) turn grass clippings into gasoline overnight for pennies per gallon, it certainly won’t be worthless to him.

    I think a parallel description of literature would not be unreasonable. The rules of literature and of science are different, the sorts of claims being evaluated are different, as are the modes of evaluation and the conventions of reporting.

    One of the reasons I’ve been leaving the comments I have been is to try to find out what the “rules” of literature are without begging, since at least one person here appears to think that they are self-evident. I haven’t seen any written out by you or other commenters. Perhaps I’ve just missed them.

    But science does possess a non-trivial communication component, just as literature requires a non-trivial investigation before publication.

    I know of no such requirement for literature. Uninvestigated stories are capable of conveying truths just fine. I look on my bookshelf and see lots of fantasy and science fiction which couldn’t have been investigated outside of playing “what if” games based upon daydreams, but which I think are fine stories. And had the authors had different daydreams, or come to different conclusions after their introspection, they would have conveyed different and quite possibly contradictory “truths,” but may have been just as good.

    You quibble that we could settle whether Picard or Kirk were a better captain if only we introduced a universally agreed upon metric for science fiction captains. Duh.

    Thank you for keeping this discussion at such a high level of respect and politeness, Mr. Rosenau.

    Normative and aesthetic judgments, however, are topics beyond science, making it hard to test the claim that one such metric is better than another.

    Yes, I understand that you believe that “normative and aesthetic judgments… are topics beyond science,” I am waiting for you to actually defend and support that truth claim, rather than just repeat it. It seems to be one of the foundations for your truth claims about there being different “ways of knowing,” so I cannot reasonably just accept it when it appears to contradict what I know about science. Normative and aesthetic judgments are a part of the natural world, and serious scientists appear to spending a lot of time studying how such judgments are made, what biases them, etc.

    Similarly, the claim that “anyone” could have great power is inherently hard to test, and the definitions of “prey on others,” “destructive,” and even “great power” contain just such normative and aesthetic judgments. We could reduce those questions to problems testable through sociology or psychology, but doing so would involve various value judgments, some of which would not be subject to scientific testing.

    Can I help it that slacktivist offers such a vague “truth claim” that you think it is scientifically meaningless at the same time that he declares it to be “demonstrably true?” Or do the words “demonstrably” and “true” carry such normative and aesthetic judgements that they cannot carry any scientific meaning, either?

    DaveW: “you may as well say that if something feels true, that’s just as good as a scientific truth (they’re just different “ways of knowing,” after all).”

    No. First, something feeling true doesn’t make it true, it makes it at best a truth claim (I think it’s less than a full truth claim, but I’ll concede that for discussion purposes).

    Now who’s quibbling? Didn’t you recently get done telling us all that scientific “truths” aren’t really truths, but are truth claims also? That’s philosophically sound. If you’d prefer I not use that shorthand (“truth” for “truth claim”), that’s fine, but since “truth claims” are all we have, it seems a bit pedantic.

    And saying it’s “just as good as a scientific truth” is just odd. Is F=ma “just as good” as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”?

    “Just as good” meaning “just as reliable, justified and true.” If different “ways of knowing” are equally valid, this should have been obvious. But…

    The first is more useful if you want to put a ship in orbit, the latter is more important if you want to grow up as a productive member of society. Sometimes you need to put stuff in orbit, and sometimes you need to be a good citizen. Can we say they’re both important and not worry about what metric we can use to measure incommensurable things?

    They are both important, but that doesn’t make the Golden Rule a truth claim any more than the rules about jail in Monopoly are truth claims. You imply that following the Golden Rule will lead to good citizenship, and that’s a hypothesis that is scientifically testable in principle (just like we can hypothesize that landing in jail in Monolopy is a detriment to players). It may not be as easy to test the Golden Rule for efficacy as it would be to test whether jail hinders Monopoly players, but that doesn’t mean it’s not testable at all.

    But this is beside the point. To change the example you used, if you define “way of knowing” so broadly as to include personal tastes, as you did above, then F=ma is no more or less valid than “Picard is the greatest Star Trek captain ever.” Of course, you’ve clarified the definition since then, so this whole point may be moot.

    You later justify these moves by advocating a pragmatist moral philosophy. Fair enough, so long as you don’t try to impose it on others. How do you justify it as superior to other ethical systems?

    It appears to me to work better than other systems in terms of reaching my goals. I’m actually a pragmatic evidencialist, but picked the wrong words. I really should have said “Empircally” instead of “As a pragmatist…” One more edit (after a dozen or more), and I may have had it.

    Hey, isn’t “so long as you don’t try to impose it on others” an attempt to impose your values on me? After all, that’s not polite disagreement, it’s an implied threat that you’ll judge me less favorably if I don’t conform to your standards (with the further implication that I care about how you think of me, regardless of its truth).

  81. #82 Tulse
    September 25, 2009

    We could note that Buffy refers to Nazis as unpleasant, we could look to Joss Whedon’s decidedly liberal political views, especially to his feminism and his anti-authoritarianism. We could examine how those themes develop in his shows and movies, especially the negative portrayal of the vaguely fascist Alliance. Naziism is defined by, among other things, macho anti-feminism, conservatism, nationalism, and strong central authorities, none of which Whedon’s work can be read as endorsing.

    So now you are saying that we shouldn’t just look at the one specific series, but also consider the author’s intent, and their other works as well. This makes nonsense of the notion of some kind of “direct” instruction from a piece of fiction — you can’t tell me that it is somehow “easier” or “more direct” to learn something by reading an author’s entire oeuvre and studying their real-life comments on politics and philosophy than it would be just to read a statement like “high school can be a trying time for adolescents”.

    But, I’ll also note that what you are doing in your defense above is seeking external, objective, independently verifiable data for your claim. That is, you are not restricting yourself to the text of the work, but are essentially gathering data to support your hypothesis, which is what most atheists would say needs to be done for religious claims.

    Note also that Willow (part of the nominally Aryan gang) is Jewish (and gay)

    And which of the Scooby gang turned incredibly evil during a notable arc, arguably the most dangerous adversary Buffy faced? Which one proved to be the internal threat to the stability of the otherwise straight Anglo-Saxon group? It was her lesbian Jewish friend (who only turned evil after she had become a lesbian, of course!).

    In any case, arguing the specifics of this example are silly — the point is that, as literary scholars have long known, there are various ways to interpret a work, and in some cases even contradictory ways of understanding a piece of fiction. There are arguably no ways to resolve these disputes without recourse to data outside the specific work, which is exactly what atheists have said.

  82. #83 Josh Rosenau
    September 25, 2009

    Tulse: I commend you for demonstrating a point I never disputed, nor ever would have disputed. Yes, literary truth claims can be evaluated by comparing multiple works. One can look at the author’s intent (though critical schools exist which largely ignore authorial intent, and get interesting and useful results). Furthermore, I think the Aryan Buffy line collapses even if you look internally to the series (I don’t think Aryans would have let Jewish Willow into the gang in the first place!, nor is it consistent with black Slayers, the show’s own anti-authoritarianism, feminism, liberalism, etc.). So I agree that it’s fair to ask about authorial intent, and to look at other works by the same author or by similar authors. It’s not necessary, though. And comparing one’s reading of two books is hardly introducing “external, objective, independently verifiable data.” You could, after all, point out that Firefly lionizes Brown Coats, clearly a reference to the Brown Shirts who swept Hitler to power. We could then argue that point, and use it as an external data point that isn’t independently verifiable (in that one’s experience of literature is inherently subjective).

  83. #84 Josh Rosenau
    September 25, 2009

    Dave W.: Science as a process is both a way of testing claims and of disseminating knowledge. Contemporary philosophy of science regards the community interactions of science as a key component, and not one that can be sloughed off so easily. I’ve had professors insist that “if you don’t publish [or communicate other ways], it’s not science.” See also the discussion of “what science is” at Understanding Science: http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/whatisscience_03

    You ask for the “rules” of literary interpretation. That being outside of my professional training, I don’t think I could formulate them, but I certainly felt like my English teachers from grade school through college were instilling certain fairly standard principles of literary interpretation, and I’d probably be able to name them had I majored in literature. I’m actually working on a post getting into this a bit more, but it awaits some library materials I don’t have at hand just yet.

    Why denigrate “playing “what if” games based upon daydreams”? That’s how Einstein got started on relativistic physics.

    “I understand that you believe that “normative and aesthetic judgments… are topics beyond science,” I am waiting for you to actually defend and support that truth claim, rather than just repeat it. … Normative and aesthetic judgments are a part of the natural world, and serious scientists appear to spending a lot of time studying how such judgments are made, what biases them, etc.”

    I haven’t tried to justify it because it struck me as a fairly basic concept in philosophy of science and didn’t want you to think I was talking down to you. Yes, you can put me in an fMRI and tell whether I’m judging a story or a picture as morally good or bad. But that doesn’t address the question of whether what the picture depicts is actually good or bad. What if I judge it good and you judge it bad? If there’s an objective truth to morality, we have to think that either one of us is wrong and the other right, or that we’re missing something important. And all the fMRIs in the world won’t tell you whether my judgment is right or wrong. It’s not a plebescite. How do you falsify the claim that it’s good to follow the Golden Rule?

    In practice, you impose a definition of “good” based on outcomes, without explaining what “good citizenship” means or acknowledging that people seem to mean very different things by it. I suppose that cuts the Gordian knot, but all it leaves us with are little bits of string. I think we can do better.

    You ask: “Hey, isn’t “so long as you don’t try to impose it on others” an attempt to impose your values on me?”

    Hilarious. I wonder if anyone ever made a joke about people being intolerant of intolerance before. And … yeah: http://www.google.com/search?q=intolerant+of+intolerance Check especially this result: http://www.cogitamusblog.com/2009/04/tolerantly-intolerating-everyones-intoleratude.html Or this page, which I’ve referred to repeatedly: http://web.archive.org/web/20060508114638/http://left2right.typepad.com/main/2005/04/what_moral_rela.html

  84. #85 Dave W.
    September 27, 2009

    Joshua Rosenau wrote:

    Dave W.: Science as a process is both a way of testing claims and of disseminating knowledge. Contemporary philosophy of science regards the community interactions of science as a key component, and not one that can be sloughed off so easily. I’ve had professors insist that “if you don’t publish [or communicate other ways], it’s not science.” See also the discussion of “what science is” at Understanding Science: http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/whatisscience_03

    So you are telling me that you’re only arguing about some sort of “true” science, a more nuanced form, just like some people suggest the “New Atheists” should be arguing against the more nuanced forms of religion, because fundamentalism is too easy a target. I suppose there really are no true Scotsmen.

    You ask for the “rules” of literary interpretation.

    No, I did not. You said that there are rules to literature, and now you’ve simply moved the goalposts. The rules of literary interpretation involve each reader generating and testing hypotheses against a tumuluous sea of ideas that go on for page after page, but with unlimited personal baggage throughout. What a reader gets out of literature may very well be nothing that the author intended (witness the cult of Heinlein), and so has little resemblance to any “truth” that’s systematically tested against a more-or-less permanent background reality.

    That’s why I’ve been discussing literature as a way of conveying truths. I’ve been looking at this subject from the author’s point-of-view, which seems the only sensible way to go since readers are free to read whatever they want into a novel. If it’s been your intent for us to think about the reader’s experience, then sure: literature is a “way of knowing” that’s almost entirely dependent upon readers reading what they already want to know. Literature is so personal in this regard that reader X can have a totally different “way of knowing” than reader Y, and get contradictory “truths” even when they read the same book at the same time.

    In other words, I still fail to see how literature is a “way of knowing” by your own stated definition.

    That being outside of my professional training…

    Your admitted lack of expertise certainly doesn’t impress me as a foundation upon which to build an argument.

    Why denigrate “playing “what if” games based upon daydreams”? That’s how Einstein got started on relativistic physics.

    Again, that wasn’t your point, and it certainly wasn’t denigration unless you begin with the idea that science is superior to other “ways of knowing.” In other words, it seems you couldn’t defend the ideas you were putting forward with anything more than a personal attack and an appeal to Einstein. I am unmoved.

    I haven’t tried to justify it because it struck me as a fairly basic concept in philosophy of science and didn’t want you to think I was talking down to you.

    Well, since you seem to be getting other basic philosophy wrong, your fear is unjustified.

    Yes, you can put me in an fMRI and tell whether I’m judging a story or a picture as morally good or bad. But that doesn’t address the question of whether what the picture depicts is actually good or bad. What if I judge it good and you judge it bad? If there’s an objective truth to morality, we have to think that either one of us is wrong and the other right, or that we’re missing something important. And all the fMRIs in the world won’t tell you whether my judgment is right or wrong. It’s not a plebescite. How do you falsify the claim that it’s good to follow the Golden Rule?

    Good grief, man! I’ve already addressed these basic ideas. The rightness or wrongness of your choices depends upon your goals. Your goals can’t be scientifically determined (outside some trivial adjustments), but how well you try to meet those goals by following certain rules certainly can be.

    In practice, you impose a definition of “good” based on outcomes, without explaining what “good citizenship” means or acknowledging that people seem to mean very different things by it. I suppose that cuts the Gordian knot, but all it leaves us with are little bits of string. I think we can do better.

    “Without?” No, quite the opposite. The only way to measure the outcomes is with a precise definition of what “good citizenship” means. If people want to argue the defintion, that’s a very different matter, but science can’t operate at all within a sea of vague terms. That seems to be your only defense, however: simply making whatever it is that you wish to be protected from the prying eye of science so vague that, like tarot cards, astrology or tea-leaf reading, anyone can get whatever “meaning” out of it that they want.

    You ask: “Hey, isn’t “so long as you don’t try to impose it on others” an attempt to impose your values on me?”

    Hilarious. I wonder if anyone ever made a joke about people being intolerant of intolerance before.

    While the page to which you have “referred to repeatedly” appears to be dead, you seem to have missed my point. I think it’s hilarious when people suggest that they can avoid imposing their philosophy on others. For people who aren’t hermits, I think such claims are in the top-ten list of failures of self-awareness. For someone who works for a group dedicated to defending a particular philosophy within an institution that isn’t strictly voluntary, it reaches the acme of hypocrisy.

  85. #86 Tulse
    September 28, 2009

    Yes, literary truth claims can be evaluated by comparing multiple works. One can look at the author’s intent (though critical schools exist which largely ignore authorial intent, and get interesting and useful results).

    Yes, and results that are often at odds with the claims of other critical approaches. Honestly, if you want “truth”, I really wouldn’t hitch yourself to literary criticism (and I speak as someone with a Literature major as a spouse).

  86. #87 IST
    September 29, 2009

    What if their cognitive dissonances are what keep them from accepting science, and from accepting the usefulness of evolution as a science? Doesn’t that require either that NCSE directly engage such people, and also perhaps engage religious leaders and give them resources to help them talk about these issues with their flocks? In my experience, this cognitive dissonance is the single largest obstacle to acceptance and understanding of evolution in the US. NCSE would, IMHO (and as always, I’m writing only for myself, not on behalf of NCSE), be abdicating its mission of defending evolution of it ignored that component of evolution-rejection.

    Well Josh, I certainly agree that you need to address those people and educate them with regards to evolution. That appears to be the primary mission of the NCSE, and it’s useful. What I disagree with are the attempts to reconcile the science with their faith, as this oversteps even your stated bounds of science. The bottom-line here is that although many people hold both beliefs simultaneously, that doesn’t make them logically compatible without some serious bending on one end or the other. If you’re willing to twist your definition of religion to pick and choose what parts of the dogma you accept, or (as seems more likely in the case of liberal believers) to insert your deity where the idea of one is not logically coherent or tenable, that isn’t the problem of someone who wishes to communicate evolution. Rather, that issue is better addressed by the religious authority to which that person subscribes. You may well perceive that the “New” Atheists are attempting to force their views of science and religion on you, as your (popular Christianity’s) views have been forced upon the masses for quite some time. The difference inherent in that is that, despite your accusations of “armchair philosophy” aimed at Coyne, the popular view hasn’t a leg to stand on other than its popularity. If it did, I imagine you might have attempted to present a coherent defense of that view by now rather than simply sniping and logical fallacies, but please do consider and present one if you have it.
    All in all, I fully support the mission of the NCSE; I simply don’t agree that you, Genie, Kevin Padian, or any of the rest have the responsiblity to help relgious believers save their illogic in the face of reasonable scientific concepts. It’s that illogic that should then give way, if something has to, rather than your reliance on reason and scientific evidence (or the lack thereof). Clearly we don’t agree on this matter… FYI I’m not a huge fan of Coyne’s arguments either.. I don’t know what’s with the name-calling and sniping, but he needn’t resort to such methods (or if his grasp of the argument is so weak that he needs to resort to such measures, perhaps he needs to leave that debate to people who are more capable. I’m not inclined to think that’s the case, given his demonstrated ability on other topics.)
    As others have addressed the “literature as truth” argument, I’m not going to bother with that one. I do appreciate the reply however.

  87. #88 dguller
    November 16, 2009

    The bottom line is that there is no such thing as non-empirical evidence. However, there are INFERENCES from empirical phenomena to SUPERNATURAL phenomena. The question is upon what valid basis is this inference made? How does one go from an emotionally salient spiritual experience to the existence of a supernaural Deity? The problem is that all such inferences are logically suspect and empirically questionable, based upon all our other knowledge about ourselves and the world.

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