In Which I Disagree with Jerry Coyne

On Monday I posted a reply to Jerry Coyne’s clique-ish and philosophically naive report on a talk he didn’t see. I thought this would be a useful exercise because:

  1. Coyne is a former professor of mine, I respect him, and don’t want to see him embarrass himself.
  2. High school-level cliqueishness seems unbecoming in a tenured professor.
  3. Philosophically naive claims about the nature of science are unbecoming in a tenured biology professor.
  4. Launching invective-laden attacks on a talk one hasn’t seen is entirely unbecoming.

I reply again because efforts to address some of the issues underlying the accommodationist/enabler spat seem to fallen on deaf ears in Coyne’s case (not so with commenters on that post!) and I hope to actually have a discussion. Furthermore, I think Coyne’s ad hominem attacks and transparently false statements about me require some response.

My goal then, is to correct the record and elevate the discourse a bit, a somewhat different approach than I took last time I went after Coyne. At this point, the level of discourse is rather low, with serious intellectual disagreements being sidelined for namecalling. Coyne’s reply to my comment, calls me a “flea” and a “faitheist,” mocks the theft of my computer, personal files, and Professor Steve Steve, outsources any substantive reply to Ophelia Benson (with whom I’ve been having a civil discussion in the comments here), all the while equivocating on the meaning of terms like “truth” and “ways of knowing,” and misrepresenting my views.

Most bothersome is the fact that his reply here, like so many of his replies to critics, is basically an extended attempt at psychoanalysis. Replying to a post I wrote some months ago, he dismissed my arguments with a wave, saying “Of course you must adhere to your party’s line.” What party? What line? Even if it were a party line, that doesn’t invalidate the argument. Claiming Genie had slighted his book in a review (a rather positive review, actually), Coyne wrote: “I suspect that one reason for this [tepidness] is that I have angered the National Center for Science Education (Genie Scott is its executive director) by claiming that science and faith are largely incompatible.” That topic came up nowhere in the review, nor in the book, making this speculation utterly evidence-free. The major criticism offered related to his use of out-dated terminology for certain fossils, a point he himself describes as trivial. No doubt it’s easier to address imagined motives than to address substantive critique, but he should be able to handle it.

Despite that fact, his current post invests more effort speculating about extrinsic reasons why I might disagree with him than actually addressing my rather lengthy explanation of those disagreements. We are told that my reaction is “visceral,” he speculates that I’m traumatized by the theft of a puppet, claims I am a “diehard” in my position, suggests that I’m simply out to defend a colleague (not an intellectual position), and implies I’m only trying to piggyback on his blog’s success.

In calling me a “flea,” he’s either playing to the non-biologist’s stereotype of parasites as icky, or he’s evoking Richard Dawkins’ evaluation of “‘parasitic’ authors [who] have released books which use Richard’s name or titles to sell their own books.” If the latter is the intended comparison, it is false on several grounds. First, I’m not trying to sell a book. Second, I didn’t use Jerry Coyne’s name or a reference to him in the title, as I was focusing on the ideas, not the man. Third, in the meaningless pissing contest assembled by Wikio, TfK is the 28th top-ranked science blog, while Coyne’s is the 1610th. Who’s parasitic on whom? And who cares? Is there any evidence that I care about this blog’s traffic?

He claims my reasoning is poor, without actually engaging any of it or pointing out any errors of fact or logic. Would he truly become a Christian if a 900-foot tall humanoid appeared in Central Park? Does he really think science is the only way to produce truth? Is he really claiming that all religions make empirically testable claims? I posed those questions to him in my post, but no answer has been forthcoming. How can he know I’m a “die-hard” if he makes no serious effort to change my mind? Why impute motives to me without engaging what I actually said about my motives?

Indeed, for someone concerned with empiricism and being precise about ways of knowing, he’s shockingly inaccurate about most of his factual claims.


For instance, am I a “faitheist”? No. Coyne defines the term as: an “atheist[] who [is] nonetheless soft on faith.” First, I’m not an atheist and have never claimed to be one. I am an apathist agnostic (Cf.), and have said so on many occasions. Had Coyne invested the modest effort to either ask my religious views, or checked my archives (as I’ve done to find how he defines this term), he would know better. Second, I don’t know what he means by “soft on faith.” If he means that I don’t think faith is ipso facto bad, then yeah. By that standard I’m also soft on dance but not on mushrooms (yech). If it means that I think faith is inherently good, or worth promoting, then no, that’s not my position at all.

Then Coyne claims that my argument “confuses ‘truth’ (whose existence he [I] denies), with ‘ways of knowing’ and ‘knowledge’.” First, I never denied that truth exists. I did write 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.” Observing that others deny the existence of truth is hardly an endorsement of such a claim, and nothing I wrote could be construed as saying truth doesn’t exist. Nor do I think I confused “truth” with “ways of knowing” nor with “knowledge.” I rooted my discussion of those terms in Coyne’s own writing, using them as he seemed to be doing, and he ought to either say how I misconstrued him or accept that the muddle is on his end of things.

Indeed, I said relatively little about truth, except when quoting Coyne. I did discuss “truth claims,” which strike me as a more useful term for this discussion. Truth is, at best, hard to nail down; it’s easier to know when someone is presenting a claim they think is true.

Coyne also claims that my discussion of vampires was irrelevant, which suggests that he missed my point. I’ll accept that I may have been unclear about the relevance, and will explain that in more detail shortly. Before that, I will respond to Coyne’s only attempt at a reply to anything I actually wrote (a reply not to anything I said to him, but to a comment I left in response to Ophelia Benson).

I noted that it is just as bad to read the Bible as a history of the Bronze Age as it would be to read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as an historical account of the French Revolution. The truth of either document would not lie in “literal truth” (however we construe that phrase), but in a level of literary truth.

Coyne replies:

I wasn?t aware that there was a movement to replace the teaching of European history with the view given in Dickens?s novels, nor a push to deny people contraception because that?s what Dickens would want, or to keep women subordinate because Mrs. Micawber would never desert Mr. Micawber.

True enough, though irrelevant to the point at hand. The point I was making is that the sort of knowledge or truth claim involved in religious “ways of knowing” is different than those made by science (just as knowledge and truth claims derived from literature are different than those from science or religion), and the sort of evidence involved in supporting those claims is correspondingly different. Showing that the Bible’s account of the flood is ahistorical means as much as showing that Dickens mangled the history of the French Revolution, or that Star Trek is bogus because of the show’s many violations of physical laws. To Coyne’s point, though: Yes, religious people who deny contraception or try to force their beliefs onto other people through the public schools are wrong: wrong morally, wrong scientifically, and rightly opposed by all people of good will. I oppose them. Nothing I’ve ever done could be taken as supporting or condoning these authoritarian actions of those particular religious groups.

I have been aided immeasurably in those efforts by religious people who agree that religion should not be forced on others, that knowledge about evolution, contraception, or any other topic, should never be denied to anyone based on someone else’s religious biases. I have no reason to oppose those people’s religious faith. In Jefferson’s immortal words, “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Why should I care one way or another about it?

Coyne’s argument seems to be that this sort of religious belief is still bad, even if it leads people to march against segregation, distribute condoms to at-risk populations, rally in support of evolution education, and oppose religious groups who seek to impose their beliefs on others. Even Christians who reject the naive literalism endorsed by creationists (and some atheists) are swept into Coyne’s opposition to religion. No one in the accommodationist/enabler spat is arguing about the authoritarian religious people (all agree they are bad), the disagreement is over the other group. Some (atheist or theist) regard them as either false in their theism, pr as meaningfully indistinguishable from creationists, while others (theist and non-theist alike) think they provide a powerful force of opposition to religious authoritarianism, and see value in helping their efforts toward a religiously neutral society.

Near as I can tell, Coyne’s view is that science is the only path to truth (a problematic claim and one I hope I’ve misunderstood), and that any other enterprise which purports to produce truth is therefore in competition with science, and ought to be opposed as such. My view is that science has no monopoly on truth claims nor on knowledge, and that other ways of evaluating truth claims are not problematic so long as they are not imposed on others, and don’t interfere with anyone’s ability to pursue their own course. I oppose authoritarianism, a phenomenon which occurs in some religious communities (but not all), and in various other political and cultural contexts.

Coyne and I disagree. That doesn’t mean we have to impute devious motives to one another. We draw on different experiences, we may have different visions of the good life, but we share the same world and ought to be able to support our claims without reference to untestable claims about motives or state of mind.

As for the relevance of vampires, it gets to the central claim Coyne seems to be making about knowledge. Coyne quoted Russell Blackford’s argument that religion doesn’t produce knowledge because knowledge must be justified belief. Blackford (and Coyne) sort of assume that religion has no way to justify belief, and so cannot produce knowledge. They don’t explicitly address the issue of justification of knowledge, and this is a large topic, disputed extensively by philosophers, and well beyond my area of expertise. In my readings on epistemology, though, I’ve not found the claim that only scientific experimentation can produce justification for knowledge.

It is this precise point at which vampires become relevant. By reading vampire stories, watching Buffy, etc., I can gain knowledge about vampires. My belief that vampires fear crosses is not just plucked from the ether, it is justified by reference to literary works.

This knowledge is clearly of a different sort than my knowledge that evolution produces the diversity of life on earth. It is a truth claim, but not a truth claim about the natural world we all share. It is a claim about a particular literary world (which is why the origin story for vampires in Buffy can differ from that of Blade without rendering the entire notion incoherent).

The digression on vampires emphasized how slacktivist was able to use this knowledge about vampires to extract certain truths about the world. Not physical constants, or knowledge about evolution, but a deeper sense of why groups like the political cult called The Family are morally suspect, to be avoided and opposed. The Family, of course, is a fundamentalist sect, slacktivist is an evangelical Christian. He opposes them, and I support his opposition to The Family. I also support his distaste for creationism, and I wish more people shared his ability to distinguish literary truths from literal truths. I’d like to live in a nation of people just like slacktivist, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Slacktivist’s post was meant to show two things. First, how claims about the paranormal/supernatural can yield knowledge about the world (in a way that science simply could not). I don’t know if Coyne disagrees that these claims are knowledge, that literature is a way of knowing, or if he is simply disputing that those are truths. His ad hominem attacks don’t really advance that. And without any discussion in support of his claim that I “confuse[] ‘truth’ ? with ‘ways of knowing’ and ‘knowledge’.” We may mean very different things by all three of those terms, and Coyne hasn’t offered any definitions for them to root our discussion. Neither he nor I was present at the talk which spurred this discussion, and Coyne shows no evidence of having asked the speaker what she meant by the terms. Thoughtful discourse might tease out some areas of agreement, and lead us to a deeper and more productive understanding of our disagreements. Alas, all Coyne has offered thus far is name-calling. I think there’s some sort of progress underway in the comments to my original post, though.

My reference to slacktivist was also meant to show what sort of people I’d have to throw under the bus if Coyne had his way. Smart people capable of integrating knowledge from multiple disciplines, equipped with a healthy skepticism about all claims (especially religious claims), and a healthy respect for science as an enterprise. Why should I care if they’re religious? Why should Coyne? As I recall, these are exactly the sort of people that the University of Chicago, a school founded by a religious group, aims to create. I like to think they succeeded with me, and that Coyne and other professors there are still dedicated to that mission. I thus hold out hope for a more reasoned discussion.

Comments

  1. #1 Ophelia Benson
    September 16, 2009

    Nor do I think I confused “truth” with “ways of knowing” nor with “knowledge.”

    Well, I beg to differ, Josh. (Thanks for the bit about civil discussion though! But I still wish you would explain the passage about golf and dance and the rest of it.) That was part of what made the vampires post so hard to understand – that is, what made it so hard to figure out exactly what you were claiming. You did keep going back and forth between knowledge and truth and other related terms as if they were interchangeable – and the result was that I really wasn’t sure what you were saying at times, which is why I asked for elucidation.

  2. #2 Ophelia Benson
    September 16, 2009

    “My view is that science has no monopoly on truth claims nor on knowledge, and that other ways of evaluating truth claims are not problematic so long as they are not imposed on others, and don’t interfere with anyone’s ability to pursue their own course.

    Really? Not problematic at all? No matter what the situation or setting or context? In education, in scholarship, in journalism? If so, by “other ways of evaluating truth claims” do you mean religious ways and other kinds of spiritual insight and so on? Or do you mean other rational ways of evaluating truth claims?

    It’s all still very unclear, in spite of all the words.

  3. #3 robotaholic
    September 16, 2009

    “other ways of knowing”

    ???? name ONE! Just ONE. ??

  4. #4 CW
    September 16, 2009

    My view is that science has no monopoly on truth claims nor on knowledge, and that other ways of evaluating truth claims are not problematic so long as they are not imposed on others, and don’t interfere with anyone’s ability to pursue their own course.

    Where exactly have you been living? Well, everywhere else it’s not that the “knowledge” obtained through “evaluating truth claims” by religious interpretation might be occasionally imposed upon others, that is the default and on-going state of affairs and has been since time out of mind. This entire soi-disant “new atheist” fiasco is due to some of us finally standing up and demanding exactly what you so cavalierly toss off as acceptable; that the people who have “other ways of knowing” stop imposing their “knowledge” on us and stop interfering with our ability to pursue our own course.

    What’s more, while science may not have a monopoly on factual claims I do not think that this is quite the issue at hand. The issue is not that “nobody but science” is allowed to make claims, it is that anyone who offers a factual claim that is in conflict with scientific findings must be expected to justify that claim with something better than po-mo hand waving and obfuscation about “other ways of knowing”.

  5. #5 John Pieret
    September 16, 2009

    “other ways of knowing”

    ???? name ONE! Just ONE. ??

    Let’s see … do you has a “significant other” … a person you love? How do you know that you “love” that person? Note that I am not asking about hormones or brain chemistry (unless, in fact, you have measured your hormone levels or your brain chemistry in order to decide if, in truth, you “love” that person … in which case, I feel very sorry for you). The question is how YOU know you love that person.

    There are many things that normal human beings decide on that are not decided or decidable by science … not least of all, how much credence we should assign to science. It is perfectly possible to assign science a high level of credence without being certain it is absolutely the only “true” measure.

  6. #6 Michael Fugate
    September 16, 2009

    You don’t care if they are religious as long as they accept evolution, but if they don’t, then disrespect is in order. Or maybe it is as long as they don’t believe in any direct intervention of their god in the universe – no Moses parting the Red Sea or accepting the the ten commandments, no virgin birth or resurrection. If you take revelation out of “religion as a way of knowing”, then you are left with something closely resembling philosophy. Maybe in this sense religion is compatible with science, but it is not the religion of many/most of the people in the states.

  7. #7 TheBlindWatcher
    September 16, 2009

    >>High school-level cliqueishness seems unbecoming in a tenured professor
    In my opinion, you’re embarrassing yourself.
    This snide, arrogant side-swipe seems to assume that said “tenured” Professor (glad you pointed that out) is actually guilty. Why not claim he might be guilty and then make a case in the body of the post?
    This would seem to be the respectable way of doing it.

  8. #8 Bob O'H
    September 16, 2009

    My view is that science has no monopoly on truth claims nor on knowledge, and that other ways of evaluating truth claims are not problematic so long as they are not imposed on others, and don’t interfere with anyone’s ability to pursue their own course.

    Uh oh. Accusations of post-modernism coming in 3, 2, 1…

    Could you un-pack this a bit (it might take another blog post, though)? I can see it making sense if (a) you’re suggesting that these other ways evaluate non-scientific truth claims (e.g. that Picard was the best captain), or (b) that you are happy with people using (say) divine revelation to decide if evolution is true (this makes sense if you are happy for them to be wrong, and discover for themselves the consequence of being wrong. I’m not sure I’d agree with that, but I think it’s defensible).

    I also think there are some subtleties in here about literary “truths” being more about ways of explaining and encouraging understanding: we have to explore what the work is trying to say in order to get to the truth. Actually, it’s interesting that the debate has focused on truth and truth claims, rather than on understanding and explanation: is science more about understanding the real world, as opposed to creating truth claims?

  9. #9 Chicago Typewriter
    September 16, 2009

    This discussion has enlivened what was otherwise a dull day.

  10. #10 J.J.E.
    September 16, 2009

    @ John Pieret | September 16, 2009 9:09 PM

    I think you conflate “belief” and “opinion” with “knowledge” and “truth”. No scientist or so-called “new” atheist claims that they themselves are without beliefs that may be false, and we welcome challenge of those beliefs. We don’t even claim that all of our opinions are justified or that we even are willing to subject them all to testing. Sometimes these beliefs can’t be meaningfully challenged at all, like my opinion that the Tennessee Titans are a bunch of losers that have no right to win a single game.

    But so what? Beliefs of many people don’t necessarily have a tie to the empirical world, and it need not be the case. But let us be clear, we are not claiming that our opinions about our emotions, hobbies, etc. constitute justified “ways of knowing”.

    Religion is different, and it is precisely this difference that warrants our challenge of the proposition that religion provides any unique “way of knowing”. Beliefs? Sure! Opinions, of course! Delusions? The examples are legion. But unique, justified belief? I can’t think of any. Can you?

    In fact, quite a large proportion of religious people DO claim that an important subset of their beliefs are grounded in reality and they have a unique “way of knowing” to support such claims. But when such claims are held up to casual scrutiny, many of the most cherished beliefs are found to be qualitatively indistinguishable from beliefs we are comfortable calling “insane” and which we don’t normally defend as constituting a different “way of knowing”.

    How is Christ’s divinity, Mohamed’s prophety-goodness, Mary’s chaste fertility, and Lazurus’s zombiness any different from claims made by Scientologists, Mormons, Pagans, Raelians, or future residents of insane asylums who wear metal head gear to keep the alien signals out?

    Catholics claim it is immoral to use contraception, even condoms. Muslims claim that a woman who refuses to cover her hair (and sometimes the entire body save a single eye slit) is immoral. These beliefs, for which religions are adduced as explanations, cause untold harm to untold billions of people the world over, ranging from inconvenient pregnancies and oppressive wardrobes to the rampage of AIDS and violent oppression of women. And this is only to name a few examples…

    Do any of the examples above constitute different “ways of knowing”, or religious NOMA if you will? They are certainly beliefs and opinions of the arbitrary and unjustifiable variety, but are they really “ways of knowing”?

    If so, what does that say about knowledge? That knowledge is simply relative to any arbitrary belief system you are willing to concoct and spread, a la Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, or Bobby Henderson? And again, please point out to me a so-called “new” atheist that claims that all beliefs are and MUST be ground in mutually agreeable epistemology?

    The two important points are:

    1) The vast majority of religious people insist on the objective reality of at least some arbitrary beliefs that cannot be justified. These beliefs repeatedly result in human misery.

    2) Skeptics/free-thinkers/”new” atheists/whatever, do not insist that all of their beliefs are justified or are even justifiable. As a consequence, such beliefs do not contribute to human misery. The beliefs that they believe are justified are subject to modification.

    It is perfectly possible to assign science a high level of credence without being certain it is absolutely the only “true” measure.

    This isn’t the point. The point is: it is reasonable to claim that religion cannot distinguish justified belief from opinion. Opinion is not knowledge.

  11. #11 windy
    September 17, 2009

    The question is how YOU know you love that person.

    Empirically. It’s not science, but it uses the same way of knowing.

  12. #12 Drosera
    September 17, 2009

    I think it is intellectually dishonest to compare a Dickens novel with the Bible and then say that both have a level of literary truth rather than ‘literal’ truth.

    It is evident that the authors of the Bible and Dickens had completely different truth claims regarding their works. If I’m not mistaken some of them even claimed that they were speaking the word of God. Most of the readers of these works would also make this distinction.

    I have never heard of anyone ‘believing’ in a novel of Dickens. As for the Bible, surely I don’t have to remind you that there are those who think that the Flood actually happened and that the Snake really talked to Eve. Even moderate Christians tend to believe that there are quite a few literal truths in their Bible, for example the existence of a character called Jesus of Nazareth. On the other hand, did you ever meet a person who was convinced that David Copperfield once walked around in London?

    I find it curious that someone with your, in my mind almost anti-scientific, views should work at the National Center for Science and Educations of all places. It is as if a person who doesn’t care about dancing, either passively or actively, becomes a spokesperson for an organization that promotes the art of dancing.

  13. #13 Richard Wein
    September 17, 2009

    Josh, I’m going to let you in on a secret. Vampires do not fear crosses. Vampires don’t even exist! OK, I’m being facetious. I know you don’t really believe in vampires. My point is that you are committing a subtle equivocation. There’s a significant difference between the following propositions:

    A. Vampires fear crosses (in the real world).
    B. Vampires fear crosses (in Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

    A is not a true fact. B is a true fact about a real-world fictional work, and we can rationally infer its truth, based on real-world evidence (recordings of the TV series). (Whether we can refer to that rational, evidence-based inference as “scientific” is a question which I won’t address here.)

    Literature is not a different “way of knowing” from rational, evidence-based inference. If the reader learns anything from a work of literature, he is either the recipient of facts already known to the author and communicated to him by the author (either consciously or subconsciously), or else he is inferring something new, based on evidence contained in the work. The facts he learns may be facts about a fictional world (as in the case of vampires), or they may be facts about the real world, possibly conveyed by means of metaphor. Metaphor is a not a different “way of knowing”. It is just one way in which an author may communicate facts to the reader.

    Literature may also be used to influence a reader’s values (aesthetic, moral, etc). Since values are not facts, one cannot know them. So literature is not another “way of knowing” in this sense either. (One can know what a person’s values are, but then we’re back to matters of rational, evidence-based inference.)

  14. #14 Sigmund
    September 17, 2009

    Josh, when in a hole, stop digging.
    Please.
    There are obviously areas of discussion around the clear disagreements we see on these threads. How should one define the terms ‘science’, ‘religion’, ‘truth’ and ‘knowing’ but starting off the way you did in both posts is hardly going to engage your opponents in a positive way.
    I work in the laboratory and all I see in this debate is too many variables. People are obviously arguing completely different meanings of the terms in question and you have not spelled out what YOU mean by those terms.

  15. #15 Richard Wein
    September 17, 2009

    P.S. I implied above that a reader may learn in two ways: he may be the recipient of facts already known to the author, or he may infer something new (not known to the author) based on evidence contained in the work. But both of these can be thought of as being inferences from evidence. Even if I simply accept a claim on the authority of the author, I am making an inference based on the evidence that the author makes that claim together with whatever other evidence leads me to take the author as authoritative.

  16. #16 Sigmund
    September 17, 2009

    Wait a second, I’ve figured out a way of knowing that is independent of the scientific method.
    Take ten fortune cookies, only one of which contains a message, and throw them into a chicken pen. Having chickens randomly peck at the cookies is a way of knowing which one contains the message.
    It’s no better than random guessing and wont help us to make future predictions or sense of the world, but what the hell, neither does ‘knowledge’ gained from religion.
    Religion can certainly provide about the world, life and philosophy but its major flaw is that it has no mechanism for determining which of those ideas are wrong.

  17. #17 Pablo
    September 17, 2009

    Josh,
    It seems to me that you are trying to convey something incredibly obvious in an incredibly convoluted way. This is the gist of your argument: “Works of FICTION can provide valuable insight into human nature”. Fine. We can all agree on that and move on to the next page. There was no need for all the “truth” and “ways of knowing” muddle to make such a straightforward point. Now go tell your average religious folk that his sacred text and beliefs are truly insightful works of fiction and see how that works for you.

    As for the whole Coyne incident, I think you make some valid points. His response was rather unseemly… Just so you know I don’t have a dog in this fight.

  18. #18 John Pieret
    September 17, 2009

    J.J.E.:

    I think you conflate “belief” and “opinion” with “knowledge” and “truth”.

    But that is the very issue being discussed … the nature of “knowledge.” Simply declaring that your version is knowledge and your opponent’s is not is not much of an argument.

    Religion is different, and it is precisely this difference that warrants our challenge of the proposition that religion provides any unique “way of knowing”.

    That’s the very point I think Josh is making … it isn’t a unique “way of knowing” … it is a very common way of “knowing” shared by all human beings, including atheists.

    In fact, quite a large proportion of religious people DO claim that an important subset of their beliefs are grounded in reality and they have a unique “way of knowing” to support such claims.

    If you are correct, any criticism of that “way of knowing” should then be limited to that portion (large or small) of religious people who make the faulty knowledge claim (and to the subset of their beliefs they make it about), not a blanket claim that all of religion is incompatible with science … again, Josh’s point.

    How is Christ’s divinity, Mohamed’s prophety-goodness, Mary’s chaste fertility, and Lazurus’s zombiness any different from claims made by Scientologists, Mormons, Pagans, Raelians, or future residents of insane asylums who wear metal head gear to keep the alien signals out?

    … or atheists’ claims about love, or art, or, for that matter, the truth-content of science? They are all claims that are not subject to scientific confirmation. No one, least of all Josh, as far as I can see, is claiming that you can’t or shouldn’t make your arguments against those beliefs … just that you should understand the limitations of those arguments.

    These beliefs, for which religions are adduced as explanations, cause untold harm to untold billions of people the world over, ranging from inconvenient pregnancies and oppressive wardrobes to the rampage of AIDS and violent oppression of women. And this is only to name a few examples…

    Which is why Josh stated that religious “truth claims are not problematic so long as they are not imposed on others.” I would not want your ideas of what love or good art is, or should be, imposed on me either and for the same reasons. For that matter, I wouldn’t want your ideas of the truth-content of science (even though I agree with them) imposed on me for the simple reason that, if you can impose those ideas on me, so can anyone else.

    You are free to point out that you are not attempting to do that and that some portion (large or small) of religious people are, on the other hand, doing so. But then your argument should be limited to those who are trying to do that and not be made a blanket condemnation of religion … which, yet again, is Josh’s point. A failure to make that distinction is the same sort of extremist position that Ed Brayton pointed out just yesterday:

    scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2009/09/frum_vs_horowitz.php

    And again, please point out to me a so-called “new” atheist that claims that all beliefs are and MUST be ground in mutually agreeable epistemology?

    Any “New Atheist” who claims, as Coyne has,

    dododreams.blogspot.com/2009/06/coyne-buys-back-store-sort-of.html

    … that science is a “worldview” or an “attitude” that anyone who is called a “scientist” must apply to all aspects of his life and beliefs is doing exactly that.

    Opinion is not knowledge.

    And yet, Windy says, about “how YOU know you love that person,” with no little justification:

    Empirically. It’s not science, but it uses the same way of knowing.

    So is the case when someone says they have “experienced” god. Every “incompatibilist” seems to forget Hume’s point that empiricism is not, and can never be, “objective.” Science is, without any question in my mind, our best way of “knowing.” But it is not our only way.

  19. #19 Jean Kazez
    September 17, 2009

    I also wonder what all the name-calling Jerry Coyne goes in for is all about. Only his psychoanalyst knows for sure.

    I think your point could be made more effectively if you didn’t use the phrase “ways of knowing.” It comes up just because somebody said that somebody said that somebody said that there are different ways of knowing. Not much of a reason. The crucial thing for your purposes is just the idea that fiction tells us truths. You’re right about that. For example, to understand the psychology of love and obsession, there are scientists you could read, but you could also read Tolstoy. So if religious scripture really is (at bottom) fiction, then you might ask–why should people give up religion to gain science. That would mean the loss of truth. Why not have all the truths–the ones in science and the ones gained from religious fictions?

    How about it–is that the argument? That’s how I interpreted it. Without calling you any names whatever, I think there’s this problem with the argument (so stated): when people don’t realize X is fiction, they confuse what’s true in the fiction with what’s conveyed about the real world by the fiction. If you didn’t know Anna Karenina was a novel, you might go around looking for Anna’s grave, instead of just deriving from the novel some general truths about human psychology.

    Most religious folk don’t see scripture as fiction. They don’t sort out what’s true in scripture (God created the world in 6 days) and the various general truths about life that are conveyed by scripture. The net effect is that religious people, get some truths from scripture, but some falsehoods. The more fundamentalist they are, the more the balance is unfavorable.

    You might, though, stress the liberal religionist, who sees scripture as a little fact and mostly fiction. You might say that this person is better off coming to science without giving up religion. The net effect is more truth. After all, that person retains a respect for scripture (and other elements of religion), while an anti-religious atheist turns his or her back on all such things.

    The anti-religious atheist is going to be very unhappy with the thought of people entering into the temple of science without first cleansing themselves of every last shred of the supernatural, but it’s a good question why they must. It’s good to raise it, even if it makes some people very mad.

  20. #20 Richard Wein
    September 17, 2009

    After re-reading Josh’s post, I realise I misread part of it, and need to retract part of my criticism. Josh was actually making the very point that I accused him of missing, namely the distinction between claims about fictional worlds and claims about the real world.

    Josh, I think it would be clearer if you used the expression “fictional truth” in place of “literary truth”, because the latter tends to suggest real-world truths that one might learn through reading literature. Indeed, in your previous post you used the term in the latter way too:

    “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.”

    (Incidentally, I quite agree with you on the merits of the show.)

    So, yes, one can make a distinction between claims about fictional worlds and claims about the real world. But how germane is that to the discussion at hand? Both sorts of claims are matters of rational inference from evidence. We might not choose to label the inference that vampires fear crosses (in Buffy) a “scientific” one, but it fits into a broad continuum of rational inferences that includes science. It might even be appropriate to use the word “scientific” in some such case. Suppose we weren’t told explicitly that vampires fear crosses, but instead we inferred it from a statistical analysis of Buffy episodes, which showed a statistical correlation between use of crosses and success in fighting off vampires. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to call that a “scientific” inference.

    More generally, we tend to divide rational (empirical) inferences into a number of subsets: science, history, geography, practical reasoning (e.g. diagnosing why a car won’t start), etc. Each of these subsets has a number of identifying features, but they also share much in the way of underlying logic. Moreover, the boundaries between them are fuzzy.

    Russell Blackford has a much better discussion of this subject here:
    http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2009/05/nas-on-compatibility-of-science-and.html

    When supernaturalists claim to have “other ways of knowing”, they are not normally referring to other categories of rational inference apart from those that are specifically labelled “scientific”. They mean non-rational ways.

  21. #21 J.J.E.
    September 17, 2009

    @ John Pieret | September 17, 2009 5:37 AM

    Science is, without any question in my mind, our best way of “knowing.” But it is not our only way.

    Tell me, what is knowledge? And what knowledge does religion provide?

    I spent over an hour going over every point in your post, but to be honest, I’m losing the thread. We would need to do this over beer. But briefly (as an alternative to simply remaining silent), here’s my contention:

    1) Knowledge is justified belief;
    2) Religious faith, for whatever else it may do, seeks to actively spread unjustified (and in many cases, unjustifiable) beliefs;
    3) Science seeks to avoid spreading unjustified belief, though it may often fail. Science also much more, but I’m sticking just with the incompatible bits.

    The difference is that the goals are incompatible. As I allude to above, certain parts of theology (apologetics and indoctrination in particular) ARE ways of knowing. They are justified beliefs in spreading and defending unjustified beliefs. But the underlying core of religion is a desire to spread unjustified beliefs.

    And all those other “ways of knowing” don’t have as their core the desire to spread unjustified beliefs. Art appreciation, literature, etc. are all like apologetics and indoctrination: they are justified beliefs conditional upon interacting with some substrate. In the case of religion, the underlying substrate itself contains unjustified beliefs. Art, literature, and love do not. Which is why Josh’s post misses the point.

    Anyway, I feel guilty about ignoring so much, but unless we Skype or we overlap cities, I don’t think I can respond fruitfully. I’m at a 12-15 hour lag to most people on this blog, and to be honest, if I wanted to respond adequately in text, I’d have to do so on my own blog, because taking over the comments of this one is rude. And in any event, I’m simply to lazy to write the requisite 5,000 words. So, unless you’re in Taipei, I guess that’s it for now.

  22. #22 Ray Ingles
    September 17, 2009

    Jean Kazez – I think I can make a pretty good case that religion and science don’t mix well in general. That’s not quite the same thing as “people entering into the temple of science [must] first cleans[e] themselves of every last shred of the supernatural”, but it’s in that general direction.

    I define ‘religion’ as “a worldview or belief system that contains supernatural elements”. (And in practice that seems to be how just about everyone else treats the word, too. Look at Confucianism and certain types of Buddhism – they are very likely to be called ‘philosophies’ instead of ‘religions’, in direct proportion to how few supernatural elements they include.)

    And, again in practice, and as I said before,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.

    Saying that something is ‘supernatural’ is, quite explicitly, saying that it can never be understood scientifically. Neil deGrasse Tyson has pointed out a lot of cases where this notion impeded the progress of science. I can provide a few more if you’re interested.

    Of course, you can be a good scientist and still be religious. But I’d argue that you can’t be a good scientist about a topic where you think the supernatural makes a contribution, or at least that that belief is very likely to impede your effectiveness. I’d argue that, in general, increasing religiousness correlates with decreasing effectiveness in pursuing science.

    Now, whether people who just think that their religious texts are cracking good stories with lots of insight into human nature are ‘religious’ is a separate question. I’d say no, and a whole lot of definitely-religious people agree with me – see here and here.

  23. #23 TB
    September 17, 2009

    @ J.J.E.

    I appreciate the point you’re trying to make about religion, but art (and literature) can certainly advance “unjustified” beliefs.

    http://www.vegansoapbox.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/lab-posters.jpg

    And, depending on what you mean by “unjustified,” I think it’s fair to say that religion can advance justified beliefs as well.

    Personally, I’m not that worried about “unjustified” beliefs (in the way that I understand the term) as long as they’re not also harmful ones. But, I concede that the devil is in the definitions.

  24. #24 Charlotte
    September 17, 2009

    John Pieret @18:

    I would not want your ideas of what love or good art is, or should be, imposed on me either and for the same reasons. For that matter, I wouldn’t want your ideas of the truth-content of science (even though I agree with them) imposed on me for the simple reason that, if you can impose those ideas on me, so can anyone else.

    I agree with you and Josh about the existence of ‘other ways of knowing’, when ‘knowing’ is defined in the way Josh clearly intends. However, I think you go too far in the above paragraph. I would love to impose my ideas on the truth-content of science on you and everyone else when it comes to vaccinations, aircraft safety standards, school curricula, and many other things – because any intellectually honest person is free to repeat the calculations or experiments and try to change the accepted ‘scientific truth’ if their results differ. Unless you’re going to go deep into solipsistic uselessness, then ‘scientific truths’ are true for everyone, and there can only be one version to be ‘imposed’ on you.

    This is where, to my mind, the ‘ways of knowing’ diverge. Scientific knowledge is by definition reproducible, but no-one expects to come away from experiencing art with precisely the same ‘knowledge’ as another person might have gained from it. Religion becomes a problem when adherents think that the personal knowledge they’ve gained from it is universal.

  25. #25 Tulse
    September 17, 2009

    I used to think that PZ Myers was being somewhat alarmist about the NCSE’s relationship to religion. Judging from Josh’s comments, though, I’d have to go farther than him — I can’t see myself supporting the organization if this is representative of its level of “sophistication” around this issue.

  26. #26 Ophelia Benson
    September 17, 2009

    I also wonder what all the name-calling Jerry Coyne goes in for is all about. Only his psychoanalyst knows for sure.

    Oh yes? Do you wonder the same thing about Josh Rosenau? That post in August for instance when he called Jerry Coyne’s review of Unscientific America “bullshit”?

  27. #27 Tulse
    September 17, 2009

    So let’s take this “fiction as a way of knowing” seriously — how do we know when what we’ve learned is true? Are we the sole arbiters of our assessment of this truth? If I say that reading Dickens taught me some deep truths about particle physics, by what criteria would you say I am wrong?

    And, for that matter, what criteria should I use to determine if something has conveyed “knowing” to me? Surely I can only recognize a literary truth as true only if I already know it in some fashion. If I were a goatherd in Mongolia, Buffy would tell me nothing about the horrors of high school, since I would have no experience with that world. Oh, sure, I could use it as possible information about what American high schools are like, but then I’d be using it in exactly the way that someone would use Tale of Two Cities to understand French history. I would argue that fiction only conveys “meaning” to those who, in some sense and by other ways, already know that meaning. In other words, it is not conveying “knowledge” in any real sense.

    And what of people who draw profound truths from works that we find abhorent? If someone says that Mein Kampf was their “way of knowing” that Jews were subhuman, how would you counter that claim of real knowledge? Why would that not be a truth on the same level as Buffy teaching about the horrors of adolescence?

    I just find this whole “ways of knowing” talk to be appallingly vague and fuzzy — it sounds all humanist and warm, but in the end there is no there there.

  28. #28 Peter
    September 17, 2009

    When I did the wikio comparison, I found WEIT at 1610, but it’s not counted as a science blog. TkS was listed at 28th among science blogs, and at 1468 overall. I’m a little confused on why Josh would compare the TkS ranking as a science blog against WEIT’s ranking among all blogs.

  29. #29 scripto
    September 17, 2009

    Tulse @24

    NCSE’s accommodationist strategy will play well in a multiplex near here. I don’t know what level of “sophistication” you require but I just want help in keeping the yahoos from screwing up my kid’s education. The NCSE can count on my support.

  30. #30 Ophelia Benson
    September 17, 2009

    I also wonder what all the name-calling Jerry Coyne goes in for is all about. Only his psychoanalyst knows for sure.

    What was it all about when Josh Rosenau called Jerry Coyne’s review of Unscientific America ‘bullshit’? For that matter, what’s it all about when you imply that Jerry Coyne needs a shrink?

  31. #31 Tulse
    September 17, 2009

    I don’t know what level of “sophistication” you require

    What I “require” is that an organization claiming to support science not make such idiotic claims. What I “require” is that it not delve into theology and stake a position that is by no means the consensus in either science or religion. What I “require” is that the NCSE educate about science, and leave religion out of it, period. I do not “require” that it be explicitly atheist, just that it not take sides either way.

  32. #32 Josh Rosenau
    September 17, 2009

    Ophelia: For what it’s worth, I didn’t call Coyne “bullshit,” I said he was engaged in bullshit, and I offered evidence-based, empirical grounds for drawing that assessment. However, in saying I’m taking a different approach here than I had previously, I think there is an implicit acknowledgment that the use of that sort of invective is unlikely to be productive.

  33. #33 Josh Rosenau
    September 17, 2009

    Peter: I didn’t notice that Wikio switched categories when I searched for WEIT. My mistake. I don’t think that the revised numbers change the argument, FWIW.

  34. #34 ckc (not kc)
    September 17, 2009

    Since values are not facts, one cannot know them.

    Are values real? Then, if one cannot know them, one can at least know of them.

    So literature [[which]…”may also be used to influence a reader’s values”] is not another “way of knowing” in this sense either.

    If values are real, knowing (or knowing of) values is surely a “way of knowing”.

  35. #35 Badger3k
    September 17, 2009

    John @ 6 – How do I know if I love my significant other? Leaving aside brain chemistry and homrones that make up our emotions, since you blithely want to ignore the reality underneath the poetry, what is love? What do we call love, and how does anyone know they are feeling it? Over thousands of years, we humans have come to a consensus as to what love is, what it’s effects are, and what are symptoms, so much so that many people can tell when they are in love. Without those standards, which try to be objective, anyone, even the guy who kills and eats his now-deceased “girlfriend” can say they are in love and no one could say otherwise.

    But we can look at such situations, and even ones less extreme and say “it’s only infatuation,” and the like. We know love by comparing our feelings (caused by biochemistry and stimuli) with the accepted standard. Or at least we should. The fact that we are so often confused suggests to me that we mostly don’t do the reflection, but just assume that what we might feel is love. If that’s what you do, then I pity you. I know I feel an emotion, but it is our culture that has named it and determined what it is. Feeling is not Knowing. However, as I alluded before, people choose to act on feelings rather than knowledge quite often, and some learn from their mistakes, some don’t. But that isn’t the issue.

    As an aside, the fact that our emotions are biochemical in nature doesn’t make them meaningless or not real. Mother’s have genetic tendencies to love their children, humans generally have the genetic trait to be protective of children. Doesn’t mean that the feelings they evoke, or the actions that we take, are meaningless. It just means we know how they arise. I’m not sure if this is what you think, but I’ve heard it before and wanted to make my comment.

    I’m not sure why you think that the fact that people decide things without empirical justification is something that is praiseworthy and worth the same respect as decisions based on rational evidence – even though in the “love” example, you are still using some form of evidence to make the determination. However, if I wanted to tell people that I loved somebody it would be up to me to provide evidence to support that, assuming anybody cared. That whole bit about claims and evidence, you might be aware of. That is such a simple claim that most wouldn’t even bother (assuming this is not the show “Cheaters” or Jerry Springer).

    Josh:
    I still can’t get the stupid vampire reference. It’s a fiction that has certain conventions to it, mainly brought on by the writers of the tales, but they are in no way bound by those conventions. If I read a tale and they tell me something, then I know that, for that story, those are the conventions that they follow. It may or may not have any bearing on reality. I have to agree with Ophelia when she talks about getting “understanding” as opposed (IIRC) to “Knowledge” in those cases.

    I’m not sure why you’d have to throw anybody under a bus, or even what that means, to be honest. I like his work, even though he suffers from a lack of critical thinking in at least one area of his life. I’m not sure how he can be said to look at claims critically when he leaves a huge, gaping hole in the shape of his imaginary friend. If the University teaches people to leave aspects of their lives unexamined, then they pretty much fail in my books.

    I still can’t read more than a few comments here. Has something changed in the coding, or is it Firefox acting up? I can read older posts (such as a Deltoid one I’m following) with no problem, but can’t see more than the first few comments. Anyone else have a problem – assuming I can read any replies, that is.

  36. #36 Jean Kazez
    September 17, 2009

    “Of course, you can be a good scientist and still be religious. But I’d argue that you can’t be a good scientist about a topic where you think the supernatural makes a contribution, or at least that that belief is very likely to impede your effectiveness.”

    Agreed. But I was wondering why a liberal religionist has to give up every last shred of the supernatural. By that I mean the sort of person who doesn’t think of God as a constant meddler in the natural world. If the supernatural is extremely circumscribed, it’s not quite clear why it needs to be actually eliminated. One might think people who believe in such things are not being wholly rational, but it would be paternalistic to be concerned about it, if their beliefs are doing nobody else any harm.

  37. #37 Tulse
    September 17, 2009

    If the supernatural is extremely circumscribed, it’s not quite clear why it needs to be actually eliminated.

    The philosophical problem is that if you can’t completely rule out miracles, you have no principled way of knowing when empirical observations are being “meddled with”. If some supernatural being(s) can violate physical laws, how can we even determine how infrequent such violations are, much less when they occur? If god can part the Red Sea, why can’t he mess with your supercollider’s particle detector? (As to why he might do that, well, we are constantly being told that his ways are mysterious, no?)

  38. #38 Jean Kazez
    September 17, 2009

    True, once you’ve got supernatural entities in the picture, it’s hard to say what they will get up to. But in point of fact, the contemporary liberal religionist has (rationally or not) views on this. He/she thinks God stays out of things. Thus, you have believers who do fine as doctors and lawyers. They do not wait around for God to cure the infection or give the jury an epiphany. Likewise, the liberal religious scientist doesn’t think God’s messing with the supercollider. I might be able to find philosophical fault with this outlook, but it’s not clear why I should be concerned if people have it.

  39. #39 Matti K.
    September 17, 2009

    Jean: “Likewise, the liberal religious scientist doesn’t think God’s messing with the supercollider. I might be able to find philosophical fault with this outlook, but it’s not clear why I should be concerned if people have it.”

    Well, some “liberal religious scientists” think that God messes with evolution, hiding behind quantum mechanics:

    http://biologos.org/questions/evolution-and-divine-action/

    I think this kind of wishfull thinking might actually be counterproductive for someone doing research on evolution.

  40. #40 windy
    September 18, 2009

    And yet, Windy says, about “how YOU know you love that person,” with no little justification:

    Empirically. It’s not science, but it uses the same way of knowing.

    So is the case when someone says they have “experienced” god. Every “incompatibilist” seems to forget Hume’s point that empiricism is not, and can never be, “objective.” Science is, without any question in my mind, our best way of “knowing.” But it is not our only way.

    If you agree that there’s justification for saying that love and science use the same way of knowing, I’m not sure how you arrived at those two last sentences?

    And what exactly do the “incompatibilists” forget? If the people experiencing god are not mistaking something else for god, then that would be an example of the supernatural having detectable effects on the natural. And the knowledge gained from these experiences would be gained using the same imperfect way of knowing we use for everything else. It’s the “compatibilists” who inexplicably want to claim that it’s real knowledge but yet involves no claims about what happens in the real world.

  41. #41 Sigmund
    September 18, 2009

    I can tune into right wing radio and find out that Obama is just as much a communist as Josef Stalin and that he was definitely born in Kenya, rather than Hawaii.
    There is nothing scientific about the way I have gained this information.
    If, however, I want to find out if the information is false then I have to resort to empirical evidence (what defines being a communist like Stalin – does Obama fit with this definition of communist, are there witnesses and official documentation of Obama being born in Hawaii).
    “Different ways of knowing” if defined as different ways of gaining information or ideas is certainly a valid point.
    Knowing whether those ideas are correct or not requires a means of external validation and the best method we’ve come up with to date is the scientific method.

  42. #42 John Pieret
    September 18, 2009

    J.J.E.:

    Sorry, I’ve been under the weather and have fallen behind here. I’ll try to get as much in as I can.

    Tell me, what is knowledge?

    Philosophers have been trying to figure that out for millennia and the answer still eludes them. “Justified true belief” has been tried but has been found wanting as a definition. But you’re right, that subject is to convoluted for blog comment sections. For purposes of this discussion, I think the way Josh and I are using it is more along the lines of ‘information gleaned from one’s environment that is useful to the individual’.

    Religious faith, for whatever else it may do, seeks to actively spread unjustified (and in many cases, unjustifiable) beliefs

    Now you’ve switched from “what is knowledge” to the social motivations of some group. Certainly, Ken Miller, as far as science goes, doesn’t seek to actively spread unjustified or unjustifiable beliefs. Wouldn’t you say that lumping people into categories that they do not belong in is spreading unjustified beliefs?

    As TB @ 23 points out, are “Love thy neighbor” and “Do onto others” unjustified beliefs?

    Charlotte:

    I would love to impose my ideas on the truth-content of science on you and everyone else when it comes to vaccinations, aircraft safety standards, school curricula, and many other things

    There is a distinction (in a democracy) between imposing a social policy on someone and imposing the justification for that policy on that person. We can (and hopefully will) impose health care reform along Democratic party lines rather than Republican party ideas (which is to kill it all together). That does not or at least should not mean that all Republicans have to become Democrats in order to engage in the debate.

    Unless you’re going to go deep into solipsistic uselessness, then ‘scientific truths’ are true for everyone, and there can only be one version to be ‘imposed’ on you.

    That wasn’t the “truth-content” I was speaking about, which goes to how much of “reality” science covers, as opposed to how correct science is in areas it clearly does cover, but I didn’t make that clear. Still, even in those areas that science does cover, there can be disputes about the nature of the evidence and the inferences to be drawn (or there wouldn’t be so many disputes within science). It is generally an unrealistic view of science to hold that it can be applied with mathematical precision.

    That’s all I have time for. I’ll try to get back to this tonight.

  43. #43 Jean Kazez
    September 18, 2009

    Before you get torn limb from limb and fed to the lions (on other websites), I thought I’d reiterate what I said above. I think your point can be made simply, and without wading into deep waters. The kernel of your argument is: (1) Fiction transmits some truths (like truths about human psychology), (2) Religious scripture is (at bottom) fiction, (3) Setting ourselves in opposition to all of religion would result in loss of truth, so (4) We should not set ourselves in opposition to all of religion.

    Note, there’s nothing in the argument that dallies in some new notion of truth. The truths transmitted by fiction are just the familiar sorts–like truths about human psychology, etc. The argument also doesn’t require you to make any sophisticated claims about epistemology. When we read and write fiction, we don’t know about things in some out of the ordinary way. I think this debate is generating some obscurantism on both sides.

  44. #44 Ray Ingles
    September 18, 2009

    Jean Kazez – But I was wondering why a liberal religionist has to give up every last shred of the supernatural.

    Well, as I noted, there’s some dispute even in the religious community as to whether such people actually count as ‘religious’. But as you yourself admit: True, once you’ve got supernatural entities in the picture, it’s hard to say what they will get up to.

    Once you start saying that there are things you can’t ever comprehend, once you start allowing for ‘unknowable stuff’ in that sense (and that’s what ‘supernatural’ seems to mean in practice)… Well, it’s the epistemological equivalent of dividing by zero. At that point, nothing is out of bounds.

    ‘Liberal religionists’, as you term it, might in practice not ‘divide by zero’ everywhere. And to the extent that they don’t do so, bully for them. I’m not asking for ‘loyalty oaths’ to be a scientist. But it’s not a good sign. Most smokers won’t get lung cancer, but I can still say smoking isn’t a great idea.

  45. #45 Jean Kazez
    September 18, 2009

    Ray, Nothing is out of bounds, but does it really worry you to fly with a religious pilot, be operated on by a religious surgeon, get represented by a religious lawyer?. I’m betting: no, no, an no. Which shows that we all really understand that religious beliefs have a very limited and constrained place in educated minds. Even religious folk have been thoroughly secularized over time. The remnant of the supernatural that remains may not impress me philosophically, but it’s hard to see why it should concern me. There’s a difference.

  46. #46 Sigmund
    September 18, 2009

    “does it really worry you to fly with a religious pilot, be operated on by a religious surgeon, get represented by a religious lawyer?. I’m betting: no, no, an no.”
    It would worry the crap out of me if I thought they were using religion in the critical decision making part of their jobs!
    It is the fact that most religious people ignore ‘other ways of knowing’ and stick to scientific facts in their work that we tend to have confidence in their abilities.

  47. #47 CW
    September 18, 2009

    1) Fiction transmits some truths (like truths about human psychology), (2) Religious scripture is (at bottom) fiction, (3) Setting ourselves in opposition to all of religion would result in loss of truth

    No, it would result in the loss of one mechanism to “transmit” or express truths. The truths themselves aren’t going anywhere.

    Since religion is never the only mechanism for expressing any given truth, I think we can safely fall back on “regular” fiction and art for expressing ourselves.

  48. #48 Matt Penfold
    September 18, 2009

    For instance, am I a “faitheist”? No. Coyne defines the term as: an “atheist[] who [is] nonetheless soft on faith.”

    First, I’m not an atheist and have never claimed to be one. I am an apathist agnostic (Cf.), and have said so on many occasions. Had Coyne invested the modest effort to either ask my religious views, or checked my archives (as I’ve done to find how he defines this term), he would know better. Second, I don’t know what he means by “soft on faith.” If he means that I don’t think faith is ipso facto bad, then yeah. By that standard I’m also soft on dance but not on mushrooms (yech). If it means that I think faith is inherently good, or worth promoting, then no, that’s not my position at all.

    Why not be much clearer and just come out and say you believe in god ?

    If you are a theist, say so. Stop the prevarication. You think Coyne, is making himself look foolish ? Well look in the mirror. Deal with your own foolishness first.

  49. #49 Ray Ingles
    September 18, 2009

    Jean Kazez: but does it really worry you to fly with a religious pilot

    Well, actually, just a little bit: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/mar/25/tunisian-plane-crash-pilot-prayed

    Like I said, most smokers don’t get lung cancer, and most religious types don’t “divide by zero” everywhere… but each are risk factors.

  50. #50 Benjamin Nelson
    September 18, 2009

    I suspect that once we tease out Jason’s argument, there won’t be much left to dispute. He’s interested in truth-claims, not truth, and knowledge, not necessarily knowledge of the real.

    My criticism to you, Jason, is that you’re not succinct enough to make this clear. In fact, that (above) is just my interpretation of you — I could be entirely wrong. Though going by the evidence, it seems at least like a plausible interpretation. Have I got it right?

    I must say, if I have you right, then I don’t think you’ve got the more useful account that you could have. When we talk about “ways of knowing”, we emphasize the wrong thing (the “means” or “ways”), when we ought to emphasize the fact that our ends are distinct too. If it helps to make this point using ontological metaphors, the moral “world” isn’t the same as the real “world”. It’s not just “ways of knowing”, it’s also aims of knowing.

    Moreover, while this talk about “ways of knowing” might be technically acceptable, it’s obscuring the kinds of things that most people want to talk about by misleading us into thinking we’re doing real epistemology. What we’re really doing when we talk about “ways of knowing”, so long as we’re interested in revealing something new and interesting about the real world, is coming to pick out what we consider relevant by concocting these metaphors and stories in unreal universes and applying them to the real one. For this can be done just as adequately by using literal phrasing, albeit maybe not as quickly or intuitively.

    On the other hand, if it turned out that metaphors really can capture reality more accurately than literal phrasing ever could, then things might break in favor of a stronger interpretation of “ways of knowing”.

    Either way, I think you had an interesting point here, and would encourage you to develop it.

  51. #51 scripto
    September 18, 2009

    Tulse @30
    “What I “require” is that the NCSE educate about science, and leave religion out of it, period.”
    That would be great if the other side was playing by those rules and not successfully tying atheism to science. It’s politically idiotic to let that go unanswered. Statements like this from the NAS:
    “Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith. Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible.” are not only helpful but true.

  52. #52 Ophelia Benson
    September 18, 2009

    Jean -

    Nothing is out of bounds, but does it really worry you to fly with a religious pilot, be operated on by a religious surgeon, get represented by a religious lawyer?. I’m betting: no, no, an no. Which shows that we all really understand that religious beliefs have a very limited and constrained place in educated minds. Even religious folk have been thoroughly secularized over time. The remnant of the supernatural that remains may not impress me philosophically, but it’s hard to see why it should concern me. There’s a difference.

    But you can’t guess (or bet) what someone’s response will be and then immediately say “which shows” what we all really understand. A guess doesn’t show anything unless it’s right, and it doesn’t work to assume it’s right for the sake of claiming that it shows something.

    In my case, you bet wrong. It does worry me to fly with a religious pilot! – precisely because I can’t know how thoroughly that pilot walls off the religious beliefs. The same applies to the surgeon, though not so much to the lawyer (unless perhaps the lawyer is representing me in a capital case – but even then there seems to be less scope for religious beliefs to interfere with doing the secular job). Granted I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about this – or in fact any – but if a pilot got on the intercom and said something religious, that would worry me.

    So what you bet doesn’t in fact show that we all really understand that religious beliefs have a very limited and constrained place in educated minds, because we don’t know how that cashes out in particular cases, and some of us really understand that it’s credulous and naive to just assume that all “educated minds” are exactly as rational or compartmentalized as we want them to be.

  53. #53 Jean Kazez
    September 18, 2009

    I’m just talking about doctors, lawyers, and pilots who are members of our secular culture. I had also narrowed it down to “liberal religonists.” (So Ray’s link, though very interesting, was not officially relevant.) So I’m wondering if your religious pilot (who you say you don’t want to fly with) is in the right category.

    You’re right, I anticipated a certain answer to my question without actually getting it…but I’m not averse to being proven wrong. I would be very happy to know if folks like PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, etc etc have the slightest worry about going under the knife, on the basis that the surgeon is a reform Jew.

  54. #54 Peter Beattie
    September 18, 2009

    It is this precise point at which vampires become relevant. By reading vampire stories, watching Buffy, etc., I can gain knowledge about vampires.

    If that’s you talking seriously about knowledge, then as Jason Rosenhouse has said “the phrase has truly lost all meaning.” By all means, go on talking to yourself about knowledge, but don’t expect anyone else to take you seriously.

  55. #55 Dave W.
    September 18, 2009

    I really don’t understand how Joshua can say that he’s just fine with all sorts of different “ways of knowing” so long as their believers don’t try to impose them on others, while working for a group which seeks to impose its favored “way of knowing” on schoolkids all over the U.S. Isn’t this just hypocrisy on a grand scale? Doesn’t this demonstrate all the philosophical dressings to be nothing more than obscuring pretensions, and the critique of philosophical naivete to be particularly obscene?

  56. #56 Jean Kazez
    September 18, 2009

    Ophelia, Somehow my reply to you got gobbled up by “moderation”–so here’s the short version. Yes, I just predicted what people would say about doctors, lawyers, pilots who believe (in the manner of “liberal religionists” in secular countries). I could be wrong–and I guess I am (though I’m not sure what religion you’re imagining your pilot as having), in your case. Let’s see if this gets gobbled too.

  57. #57 Michael Kingsford Gray
    September 18, 2009

    Most religions rely absolutely demonstrably false claims that are totally incompatible with science.
    Most followers of religions follow these bogus claims with fervor, and often lie outright about reality to justify their irrationality.

    No religion has ever discovered any form of reliable knowledge that might not have also been uncovered in its absence.

    Science & Religions are wholly incompatible.

  58. #58 articulett
    September 19, 2009

    How can a believer justify their “other ways of knowing” when people that have conflicting beliefs (or beliefs that many think are crazy) are using an identical “other way of knowing”?

    If you are talking about objective reality–the reality where all the answers are the same no matter what you believe (e.g. the shape of the earth, whether consciousness can exist absent a material brain, the sum of 2+2, etc.)then there is only one right answer– and only one way to know that answer– empirically, scientifically, physically.

    Faith and feelings are not a means of knowing any objective truths. But people who rely on such things often seem unable to distinguish faith and feelings from facts. Moreover they tend to confuse correlation for causation when it enables a belief they want and then confirm their biases over time without a means of correcting them.

    This fuzzy nonsensical claim that there are “other ways of knowing” is a lie. People might FEEL like they have some “inner knowingness”, but unless there is objective measurable evidence outside their thoughts, then this doesn’t count as objective knowledge–no matter how high or transcendent or deep or “right” the person feels!

  59. #59 articulett
    September 19, 2009

    Jean, I’d prefer not to know what imaginary beings or supernatural thingies people “believe in”… in this way, I can presume they are rational like I am. I prefer rational people and not people who feel saved because they fervently believe some brands of some untestable, immeasurable, unbelievable story.

    What wouldn’t a person do if they believed that doing so ensured the ETERNITY of them and/or their loved ones? We are all at the mercy at what such peoples’ imaginary friends’ “tell them” to do. The more strongly a person believes in such things, the less I trust them. The more they profess their beliefs publicly, the crazier I think they are.

    I imagine I feel the same way towards a loudly professing Christian surgeon, pilot, etc. that they would feel towards a loudly professing Scientologist. And for the same reasons. Who wouldn’t? I don’t find “traditional religions” any more “trustworthy” or knowledgeable than the religions others call cults. I’m not sure anyone would want a pilot who seems very eager to start his imagined “happily ever after”.

  60. #60 MPL
    September 20, 2009

    For instance, am I a “faitheist”? No. Coyne defines the term as: an “atheist[] who [is] nonetheless soft on faith.”

    You know an argument is going nowhere fast when somebody gets accused of being “soft on X” (e.g. “soft on crime”, “soft on terrorism”, etc.). That’s a phrase from the vocabulary of political invective, not reasoned discussion.

    So in other other words, the definition of “faitheist” is “someone who is less of a dick about religion than Coyne is”?

    I could live with that.

  61. #61 Ray Ingles
    September 21, 2009

    I had also narrowed it down to “liberal religonists.” (So Ray’s link, though very interesting, was not officially relevant.)

    Actually, it’s quite relevant. How do you tell the difference between someone who’s ‘liberally religious’ and someone who’s more ‘hardcore’? I know of nothing short of extended interaction or a brief but detailed interview – I’m not telepathic. As Ophelia notes, “I can’t know how thoroughly that pilot walls off the religious beliefs.”

    So, like her, “if a pilot got on the intercom and said something religious, that would worry me.” Precisely because the line between a “liberal religionist” and someone less pragmatic is so fuzzy in practice. To reiterate: “most smokers don’t get lung cancer, and most religious types don’t “divide by zero” everywhere… but each are risk factors.”

  62. #62 Josh Rosenau
    September 24, 2009

    Ophelia: “Not problematic at all? No matter what the situation or setting or context? In education, in scholarship, in journalism?”

    Fair enough. Not problematic when pursued honestly, and without efforts to impose them on others or interfere with others’ ability to enjoy their own pursuits. To choose an example, Behe is free to pursue his absurd program. He’s not free to claim that it’s science and belongs in classrooms (teaching being inherently a form of imposition and interference, and redefining science being a form of imposition as well). He’s free to publish crummy books that mangle science in silly ways. He’s not free to sneak those books into classrooms, or otherwise require people to take those books seriously. I’m all about the marketplace of ideas, and I think we’ve seen his work largely rejected in the marketplace. I think he and other IDolators have been dishonest in ignoring critics, in repeating falsified claims and failing to address substantive response. But I don’t think it’s problematic that someone, somewhere, is wrong. I’m on the board of a local skeptic group, and certainly work to keep people from getting involved in woo, but I wouldn’t try to put an acupuncture center out of business, just make sure their ads are accurate and people know what they’re getting. Some will want it anyway, and that’s not my problem.

    CW: “while science may not have a monopoly on factual claims I do not think that this is quite the issue at hand.” It is when Jerry Coyne demands that others in this spat state that “the other ‘ways of knowing’ don’t produce truth.” That’s a stronger claim than yours, and I suggest you take it up with Coyne.

    Fugate: “You don’t care if they are religious as long as they accept evolution, … [snippage expanding this claim to all supernatural intervention] … Maybe in this sense religion is compatible with science, but it is not the religion of many/most of the people in the states.”

    Fair enough. Maybe it should be. Nor do I think it’s necessary to reject all miraculous intervention, there being interpretations of miracles that don’t cause problems for the practice of science.

    TheBlindWatchmaker: “This snide, arrogant side-swipe seems to assume…”

    It actually repeats a case I built in the previous post, which I didn’t want to repeat as this one was plenty long on its own.

    J.J.E.: “But let us be clear, we are not claiming that our opinions about our emotions, hobbies, etc. constitute justified “ways of knowing”.”

    As I’ve made clear elsewhere in this discussion, I don’t think that’s quite true. For reasonable definitions of “ways of knowing,” literature or dance can be ways of knowing (for some people, and not for others). There are religions which try to impose their beliefs on others, and I think that’s wrong, and that should be opposed, and it can be opposed without opposing religion in general. Indeed, the attack is stronger, as it says “You shouldn’t do that because it’s a jackass move, and you aren’t just doing what your religion says because lots of your co-religionists don’t do that nonsense.” Cuts them off at the knees.

    JJE: “The vast majority of religious people insist on the objective reality of at least some arbitrary beliefs that cannot be justified. These beliefs repeatedly result in human misery.”

    My aim is not necessarily to defend some majority of religious people, but to say that there may be value in religion and that it is not worth throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Furthermore, we all believe things that cannot be justified. John Pieret’s example of love is not the perfect one, IMHO, but my belief that free speech is a good unto itself is certainly not an empirical claim nor one justified by empirical evidence alone. If we concoct various measures for the quality of a society, we might be able to say that societies with free speech are better than those without, but that metric-selection process is itself non-empirical. So I don’t think this dichotomy is accurate.

    Drosera: “I think it is intellectually dishonest to compare a Dickens novel with the Bible and then say that both have a level of literary truth rather than ‘literal’ truth. It is evident that the authors of the Bible and Dickens had completely different truth claims regarding their works.”

    It is not evident that the authors of the Bible regarded their work so differently than Dickens did. It’s rather hard to know what anyone thought about their writing process several thousand years ago, in any event. It’s pretty much impossible to read the Book of Job, for instance, as an historical account. Who is the omniscient narrator? Why is he portraying God as a bit of a jerk, and a liar to boot? Maybe the error of over-literalizing the Bible came later. Or maybe the authors were wrong about how to interpret it. Maybe, just as we can read Freudian psychology into Shakespeare, it’s fair to apply modern analytic techniques to pre-modern writings.

    Richard Wein: “values are not facts, [so] one cannot know them.”

    There’s a lot of philosophy to be unpacked there. Not least the claim that knowledge can only apply to “facts.” By that sense, I don’t know anything about gravity, evolution, or plate tectonics, as they are theories which act to explain and interpret various facts. I don’t think that’s a useful way of talking about things, and without that distinction, I think your point comes unstuck, values can be knowledge, and literary evocations of emotion and value judgments are valid forms of knowledge communication.

    I also think that “literary truth” is better than “fictional truth” because “fiction” has a connotation of “untrue” (to me at least), which makes the phrase seem to be self-contradictory. No point multiplying confusion if we can avoid it.

    Jean Kazez: “Most religious folk don’t see scripture as fiction. They don’t sort out what’s true in scripture (God created the world in 6 days) and the various general truths about life that are conveyed by scripture. The net effect is that religious people, get some truths from scripture, but some falsehoods. The more fundamentalist they are, the more the balance is unfavorable.”

    I think that’s all correct (as I agree with pretty much all that you wrote). You seem to think I’d disagree with this, or that it problematizes my claims. I don’t see exactly why. Most religious folks do, I think, accept that there are literary aspects to their religious texts, but think that they are more than just literary truths (whatever that means). I’m sorta aiming at a lower limit, not a total description of religious faith. I don’t think I could possibly describe the experience of religion, since I don’t really feel what religious people seem to feel. But at a minimum, the literary level of religious texts is available to us all, and that, if nothing else, gets at Coyne’s demand that “accommodationists” assert that “other ‘ways of knowing’ don’t produce truth.” If we can get past that, we can get to something productive about what religious truth might be in addition to literary truth.

    J.J.E argues that religious beliefs are “unjustified” and thus not knowledge. As I explain elsewhere, I think religion offers a different basis for justifying beliefs, just as literature does, and as other human enterprises do (math, philosophy, and courts of law all use different standards of evidence than science or literature, so that doesn’t inherently distinguish religion).

    Matt Penfold: “Why not be much clearer and just come out and say you believe in god ?” Because I don’t. I also don’t believe god doesn’t exist. I refuse to take sides on this question, as I find it meaningless and useless. I’m an agnostic, and I’m surely not going to be bullied into adopting or rejecting your religious beliefs. I’m happy where I am, so bugger off.

    Benjamin Nelson: “I suspect that once we tease out Jason’s argument, there won’t be much left to dispute. He’s interested in truth-claims, not truth, and knowledge, not necessarily knowledge of the real. My criticism to you, Jason, is that you’re not succinct enough to make this clear. In fact, that (above) is just my interpretation of you — I could be entirely wrong. Though going by the evidence, it seems at least like a plausible interpretation. Have I got it right?”

    First, I’m Josh, not Jason. Rosenau, not Rosenhouse, FWIW (blame our parents). But yeah, truth is a sticky concept, but truth-claims seem like a more useful point of discussion. And yeah, I’ve been wordy, as I confess I’m putting some of this in words for the first time and can’t anticipate where people will get hung up. I take your and Jean’s point under advisement that “ways of knowing” probably isn’t a useful place to get hung up. Thanks.

    Dave W: “I really don’t understand how Joshua can say that he’s just fine with all sorts of different “ways of knowing” so long as their believers don’t try to impose them on others, while working for a group which seeks to impose its favored “way of knowing” on schoolkids all over the U.S. Isn’t this just hypocrisy on a grand scale?”

    No. Science is different from other ways of knowing in that its methods are rooted entirely in our shared reality. Literature roots itself partly in the shared text, but is about our differing reactions to it. Philosophy and religion at times delve entirely out of touch with anything empirical. But science operates under rules that restrict it to observations and investigations that deal only with what we all can experience and evaluate. So it isn’t that I’m imposing my beliefs on others by advocating for evolution education. I’m simply asking that people look at the evidence we find in our shared world, and interpret it in terms of our shared reality. If a student wants to forget everything from science class, I can’t stop them, and if a school district wants to cancel science classes, that’s a different kettle of fish. But if a district wants to teach science, they don’t get to redefine it or ignore parts of it. That would be them imposing their beliefs on the students and, in a sense, on the wider world.

    MPL: “So in other other words, the definition of “faitheist” is “someone who is less of a dick about religion than Coyne is”? I could live with that.”

    Ditto, I guess.

  63. #63 Dave W.
    September 24, 2009

    Joshua Rosenau wrote:

    No. Science is different from other ways of knowing in that its methods are rooted entirely in our shared reality.

    This is philosophically sloppy. The assertion of the existence of a “shared reality” requires a method of escaping solipsism that seems to be absent from the discussion of “ways of knowing” so far. How does your method differ from those of religions so that science is somehow more robust?

    Literature roots itself partly in the shared text, but is about our differing reactions to it. Philosophy and religion at times delve entirely out of touch with anything empirical.

    It is still my contention that these things have never once provided any “systematic methods of evaluating truth claims against new sources of knowledge.” The key word is “systematic,” because “making stuff up,” which abounds in literature, religion and philosophy is not a “system.”

    But science operates under rules that restrict it to observations and investigations that deal only with what we all can experience and evaluate.

    I completely agree, which is why it is systematic, and thus a “way of knowing.”

    So it isn’t that I’m imposing my beliefs on others by advocating for evolution education. I’m simply asking that people look at the evidence we find in our shared world, and interpret it in terms of our shared reality. If a student wants to forget everything from science class, I can’t stop them, and if a school district wants to cancel science classes, that’s a different kettle of fish. But if a district wants to teach science, they don’t get to redefine it or ignore parts of it. That would be them imposing their beliefs on the students and, in a sense, on the wider world.

    This reads as a science apologetic when we consider that the context is “My view is that science has no monopoly on truth claims nor on knowledge…” Playing Devil’s Advocate, it seems to me that the only proper response, from an anti-science point-of-view is that teaching Christianity in school wouldn’t be “imposing” it on the students for the exact same reasons.

    Of course, the First Amendment prohibits this, but that’s beside the point: if the First Amendment were repealed tomorrow, would you be okay with school districts requiring a certain number of Christian classes for graduation, as they do now for science? Requiring, not requesting.

  64. #64 Diego
    September 27, 2009

    JR:”Because I don’t. I also don’t believe god doesn’t exist. I refuse to take sides on this question, as I find it meaningless and useless. I’m an agnostic, and I’m surely not going to be bullied into adopting or rejecting your religious beliefs. I’m happy where I am, so bugger off.”

    You don’t believe that god exists but you don’t believe that he does not? Both p and -p?

    I’m aware that the law of the excluded middle can be used as the disguise for false dichotomies, but something cannot half exist so I do not see the middle ground here.

    Presumably, you don’t care for Santa Claus either, it’s a non-issue. Do you believe he exists or do you believe he doesn’t?