John Pieret – who is to blame for the recent kerfuffles here – surveys the trouble he started:

As usual, there is much talking past each other.

I think Russell Blackford has, perhaps unintentionally, hit on the problem that we “accommodationists” see with the “incompatibleists.” In defending Coyne, Russell says: the “anti-accommodationist camp … see a genuine and serious difficulty in reconciling a worldview based on science and reason with worldviews based on religion.” I agree!

But the question really is whether “a worldview based on science and reason” is the same thing as “science.” I fully accept that the worldviews of Coyne, Blackford and the other Gnu Athiests are incompatible with religion of any sort … and will fight for their right to express it. They do not, however, have a right to identify, particularly in public schools in America*, their worldviews with “science” … any more than the IDers do.

(His asterisk goes to his discussion of Michael Ruse’s silly and wrong claim that gnus could cause constitutional problems for evolution education. That’s for another day.)

I think his broad point here is right, and it’s a useful distinction to draw between science and a scientific worldview. It’s one that also jumped out at me in reading Massimo Pigliucci’s review of Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape. Pigliucci notes that he agrees with various elements of Harris’s agenda – moral realism, religion having “absolutely nothing” to do with morality, opposition to moral relativism – but then explains where Harris goes wrong:

I do not think that science amounts to the sum total of rational inquiry (a position often referred to as scientism), which he seems to assume. I do think that science should inform the specifics of our ethical discussions, and hence is in an important sense pertinent to ethics, but I maintain that ethical questions are inherently philosophical in nature, not scientific. Ignoring this distinction, I think, does a disservice to both science and philosophy. Finally, as a corollary of my rejection of scientism above, I do think that there are significant differences between science and philosophy…

In the second note to the Introduction, he acknowledges that he “do[es] not intend to make a hard distinction between ‘science’ and other intellectual contexts in which we discuss ‘facts.’” But wait a minute! If that is the case, if we can define “science” as any type of rational-empirical inquiry into “facts” (the scare quotes are his) then we are talking about something that is not at all what most readers are likely to understand when they pick up a book with a subtitle that says “How Science Can Determine Human Values” (my italics). One can reasonably smell a bait and switch here. …

Harris’ chief claim throughout the book is that moral judgments are a kind of fact, and that as such they are amenable to scientific inquiry. First of all, the second statement does not at all follow from the first. Surely we can agree that the properties of triangles in Euclidean geometry are “facts,” in the sense that nobody who understands Euclidean geometry can opine that the sum of the angles in a triangle is not 180° and get away with it. But we do not use science, or any kind of empirical evidence at all, to arrive at agreement about such facts.

Read the rest! It’s good!

Two things to note here. First, Harris appears to be attempting the same shifting of baseline that Pieret notes in Blackford’s post. It’s one thing to defend science as an institution, as a body of knowledge, or as a process that can answer certain sorts of questions. It would quite another to declare that any worldview based on claims not amenable to scientific testing is incompatible with science.* After all, Isaac Newton created the framework of modern physics while also pursuing alchemy and a flawed Biblical chronology. He did not have a purely scientific worldview, but he tried to apply his scientific approach to his unscientific enterprises (with predictably miserable results), and he did exceptional science when working within the bounds of science. Many people with worldviews that are less bizarre than Newtons do the same.

Indeed, as Pigliucci argues compellingly, it would be wrong to expect science and reason to provide the sole basis for any worldview at all, as individual values inevitably shape the way one uses science and reason. Our values serve somewhat like axioms do for mathematicians or logicians, and good logic is only as valid as its premises. Recall that Ambrose Bierce defined logic as: “The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.” Which brings us to the second point, which is the dangerous game Harris and other gnus play in trying to redefine science.

Standard definitions of science emphasize not only logic and reason and empiricism, but also a set of processes, some specific to an investigator, and some dependent on a community of scholars. Those processes impose some limits: an inability to evaluate claims that either produce no empirical results (e.g., the purely supernatural), or whose results are entirely personal and available only to introspection (e.g., literary quality). Those processes also exist to weed out inappropriate reliance on unjustified axioms or assumptions, to minimize the impact of value judgments on results reported as much as is humanly possible. Sometimes that’s important to do, but sometimes it isn’t. Elections in a representative democracy are a time when values are probably the most critical matter, and a value for empirical evidence is only one of the things I look for in a candidate.

Now Harris might insist that he isn’t redefining science, just blurring the lines between science and other fact-based enterprises, but even this is not without its problems. For instance, literary criticism, art history, and indeed other forms of history are all “intellectual context[s] in which we discuss facts” about the contents of various books, paintings, or historical records, but I don’t think Harris means to toss them all into the hopper. Or maybe he does! Certainly other gnus have been less cautious. Larry Moran, for instance, says “science is a way of knowing based on rational thought, skepticism, and evidence.” And Jerry Coyne takes it as “rational and empirical investigation.” It should be noted that Russell Blackford, a philosopher, takes a stance more in line with standard philosophy of science, and PZ Myers has disavowed this overly-broad definition as well. Contrast those views with the definition offered by the National Academy of Sciences: “The use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena, as well as the knowledge generated through this process.” This definition is offered after a longer paragraph emphasizing the interplay of observations and theories, the iterative process of refinement of theories as new data arrive, and the new sorts of data gathered to evaluate those revisions, and also the importance of having “other scientists confirm the observations independently and carry out additional studies.” “In these ways,” NAS explains, “scientists continually arrive at more accurate and more comprehensive explanations of particular aspects of nature.” Scientific knowledge is not “complete and final,” in the way that Pigliucci’s example of triangle geometry is.

Setting aside the various philosophical problems with the attempted re-definitions†, I’m troubled by any effort to redefine science to serve a political or religious agenda, and I can’t see what other purpose is served by the redefinitions. I opposed it when creationists tried to redefine science in Kansas science standards, and I’ll oppose political redefinitions of science elsewhere, no matter the source. That’s what I think it means to defend science, and that’s my calling.

Obviously, the definition of science has changed over time, and will surely continue to. I’m not opposing any redefinition, only political or religious redefinitions. Defining science is notoriously hard, and it’s sensible for scientists to be examining philosophers’ attempts to systematize what they do. So it’d be one thing if working scientists like Coyne and Moran were engaging with the extant literature in the philosophy of science, finding problems with standard approaches to demarcation of science, or with accounts of scientific processes, and then publishing in the philosophy literature to propose a superior approach. But if they’re engaging that literature on any but the most cursory level, I don’t see it. And that’s fine, too. Birds can benefit from the existence of ornithology even if they don’t study it.

But what’s troubling is the dismissive attitude to the extant literature on philosophy displayed by, for instance, Sam Harris. Pigliucci notes “in the first footnote to chapter 1,” Harris quipping: “Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy … I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’ … directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.” Pigliucci replies: “That’s it? The whole of the only field other than religion that has ever dealt with ethics is dismissed because Sam Harris finds it boring?” He goes on to note – as we did at TfK – “The most convincing reason why gods cannot possibly have anything to do with morality was presented 24 centuries ago by Plato, in his Euthyphro dialogue (which goes, predictably, entirely unmentioned in The Moral Landscape),” and adds “Moral relativism [a bete noir of Harris's book] too has been the focus of sustained and devastating attack in philosophy, for instance by thinkers such as Peter Singer and Simon Blackburn, and this is thanks to the large metaethical literature that Harris finds so increases the degree of boredom in the universe.”

When I raised Euthyphro, and took on an earlier iteration of Harris’s dismissal of the field he purports to be revolutionizing, I concluded:

Serious people who want to advance a field of study may arrive at their conclusions without having a deep knowledge of the field’s history, but before taking that argument to the public, they first present it to the experts for what scientists call “peer review,” and what Harris seems to think is just boring jabber.

It would be a respectable position to argue that some fields of philosophy have become so esoteric and jargon-bound as to be uninteresting to the general public. But it is not a respectable position to simultaneously argue that such a field is crucial to all society and is to be your own life’s work. If it’s important enough to write a book about, it’s important enough to shop around to relevant experts for peer review – ideally through the formal channels created by journals [and relevant experts] – appropriately citing prior work on the problem and engaging with the responses of professionals. That’s how science works, and it’s how philosophy works, too. [I'd add now that it's what anything resembling a "scientific worldview" ought to demand.]

There is a name for people who declare that their ideas are too important and earth-shattering to be reviewed by relevant experts, or even to bother situating in the contexts of historical dialogue on their topic, and that they alone are brilliant enough to develop the pearls they now offer. The name is “cranks.”

Those cranks include perpetual motion advocates and creationists. This suggestion of crankery – it should be clear – is not a personal judgment about people, but about particular sets of claims and behaviors. Linus Pauling was not a crank when he was hunting for the structure of DNA, or when he developed the concept of electronegativity, or when he identified the mechanism behind the sickle cell anemia (the first time any genetic disorder was mapped in such detail). He wasn’t a crank in his work on the nature of chemical bonds (which won him a Nobel Prize in Chemistry). He also wasn’t a crank in his work for nuclear disarmament and for world peace (which won him a Nobel Peace Prize). But he was a crank in his work on vitamin C. Sam Harris’s behavior around The Moral Landscape has been cranky, but that doesn’t mean his neuroscience research is anything but top notch.

Maybe the gnus are mounting the sort of thoughtful, considered critique of philosophy of science that I describe above, and I’ve just not been reading the right journals. Or maybe their intent isn’t to redefine science, and I’m getting hung up on informal comments that are meant to refer back to the consensus view on the nature of science. But it sure doesn’t seem that way. It seems like – through the effort to establish a “scientific worldview” and the related effort to redefine science – they’re trying to annex science for their own political and (a)theological agenda, and I have a problem with that.


* Blackford leaves a way out of that objection by saying that the worldview should be “based on science and reason,” and not “based only on science and reason,” but that only gets us so far. After all, theology is a field typically defined as a rational and systematic study of religion. Its discourse proceeds using standard rules of logic and derives evidence from a variety of empirically measurable sources, including scientific findings facts about the contents of various books, among other inputs. Which is to say, it is based on science and reason and other things. But if we accept this as sufficient to make a worldview “based in science and reason,” we wouldn’t be arguing about the compatibility of a worldview based in science and reason with a worldview based in religion.” To distinguish those, we’d need to exclude sources other than science and reason, which is why I treat it as if he meant something like “…based only on ….”

† The problems include the standard attack on logical positivism and the overbroadness of these definitions. Not only might theology fit under these umbrellas (see note above), but pseudo-sciences including astrology and creationism could, too. Any pseudoscience will at least purport to be based on empirical evidence and reason, with sophisticated ones crafting self-consistent logical frameworks from incorrect premises, then fitting evidence into that framework. The evidence is usually heavily edited and the logic contorted to reach predetermined conclusions, but focusing only on logic and empiricism doesn’t get you a clean demarcation of the issues most in need of being demarked.

Comments

  1. #1 Hammill
    February 2, 2011

    “Maybe the gnus are mounting the sort of thoughtful, considered critique of philosophy of science that I describe above, and I’ve just not been reading the right journals. Or maybe their intent isn’t to redefine science, and I’m getting hung up on informal comments that are meant to refer back to the consensus view on the nature of science. But it sure doesn’t seem that way.”

    After the last few days’ posts, I’m unsure if even the gnus are settled on what position they’re trying to promote. There have been several completely differing “positions” that the gnus have stated over the past few days:

    1.) Coyne argued that the gnu atheist position isn’t defined by what it is but what it isn’t: it has nothing to do with being uncivil. (It’s worth noting that commenters later modified this with caveats that some gnus are uncivil but only with those they think “deserve it,” apparently decided via some unspoken value judgement, and that some gnus just buck that entire position and act uncivil, anyway.) I suppose the salient point is that the act of incivility is not what they’re rallied around.

    2.) Blackford states that the gnu position is simply an issue with claims of compatibility, an issue that argues instead for scientists to “say that science tends to undermine all or most traditional forms of religion, making them less plausible, putting pressure on the religious to thin out their supernaturalist, providentialist views of the world, and so on.” IMO, this is a dressed-up position statement equatable to gnus saying they won’t settle for less than scientists owning up, openly confronting religion and declaring it false and is the closest to the “annexing science” you mention in the OP.

    3.) Still other commenters on these posts, in partial contradiction to Blackford, have claimed that the gnu position isn’t really just about philosophical compatibility at all but about a larger societal goal of defeating faith or enhancing politics or about freeing up space for general criticism of religion.

    4.) I suppose a fourth gnu position could be characterized as “I hate you and you’re an idiot, Josh Rosenau.” (But these can’t be gnu positions because it’s unfair to say that gnus are uncivil – see #1!)

    I realize that the above is all a bunch of snark, but I think it has a relevant point, which is why I mention it. Gnus appear to simply be people with loosely similar opinions on science and religion that are grounded, as you note in this post, in a strict empiricist philosophy. That nebulous gathering around the same philosophy seems to be the true “gnu position” (if there is a real one, anyway), and I don’t think that’s necessarily bad, even if I disagree. I do think, however, that the scatter muddles things when a debate like this comes up. Someone from position 3 might get upset if you criticize gnus on the basis of position 2, because that’s not their position. And so on to all the possible combinations of these different positions. I’d wager that’s the source of most of the hubbub and “talking past one another.”

  2. #2 Pseudonym
    February 2, 2011

    So where does this leave Richard Dawkins’ claim that the existence of God is a scientific question? Is it also a crank claim, or is there some important differences?

  3. #3 Josh Rosenau
    February 3, 2011

    Pseudonym: He’s hedged that claim in various ways. He’s still wrong, but in a carefully hedged way that at least seems to acknowledge criticisms and that there are reasons he could be wrong. I’m not prepared to call that cranky.

  4. #4 John Pieret
    February 3, 2011

    … who is to blame for the recent kerfuffles here …

    Since I bill myself as “a professional loudmouth and troublemaker,” I take that as a compliment.

    I think Hammill is right that there is no consistent Gnu Atheist position because it isn’t a philosophical position as much as it is a social movement. Gnu Atheism isn’t defined by what it is for but, rather, mostly by what it is against.

  5. #5 Larry Moran
    February 3, 2011

    Congratulations, Josh, you are making a bit of progress.

    At least you took the time to try and figure out what your opponents are saying. You have correctly discerned that part of your problem is that you don’t understand the nature of the controversy. In this posting you recognize that you are using a different definition of science than others. We’ve been telling you that for years.

    Now, there are few more small steps you need to take. Here’s two that you should think about.

    1. Recognize that your OPINION about the definition of science is just that, your opinion. My opinion is different. Do not assume that you are correct just because you can find some authorities that agree with you. We can all do that.

    2. Show a little respect for those who have a different opinion. Do not assume that we are idiots who have never read anything about the history and philosophy of science just because we disagree with you. You would be very upset if I made that claim about your opinion.

    In every legitimate controversy there’s a majority opinion and a minority opinion. It is not wise to assume that the majority opinion is the correct one and the minority opinion is incorrect. And it is dishonest to tell people outside of your field that your opinion is the only possible opinion. That’s what you and many of your allies are doing when you express your preferred definition of science and its limitations.

    All we ask is that you recognize that there’s a legitimate controversy even if it makes your own opinion look less certain. I know it’s hard to admit that you might be wrong but I recommend that you try it. I’m told it’s good for the soul. :-)

  6. #6 Hammill
    February 3, 2011

    “Someone from position 3 might get upset if you criticize gnus on the basis of position 2, because that’s not their position. And so on to all the possible combinations of these different positions. I’d wager that’s the source of most of the hubbub and “talking past one another.”

    Let me add an addendum to the above quote from #1 since it seemed to be placing blame on one side for the talking past one another. I think that this difference in positions can lead to talking past one another on both sides. I think that a non-gnu, for example, can give an honest critique of position 2 and have a gnu genuinely mistake it as a false critique of them, because to them “gnu” means position 3. I think gnus also occasionally use the diversity of opinions as a smooth arguing maneuver, i.e. a non-gnu might critique position 2 and a gnu, knowing full well that they’ve argued for position 2 in the past, will erect position 3 in its place and claim intentional dishonesty on the part of the non-gnu for addressing position 2.

    I suppose the biggest question should be how to address a movement that willingly shares the same name but nowhere near shares consensus of opinion.

  7. #7 Josh Rosenau
    February 3, 2011

    Larry, I always knew that you and others were operating under an overly-broad definition of science, I’ve always rejected it as philosophically naive and useless to scientists and philosophers and without any justification. I also think you’re wrong to say that’s what the conflict is about. Russell and PZ, as I note above, do not share your scientism, and it isn’t clear to me where Dawkins falls. Thank you for acknowledging that I’ve heard what you’re saying though, and I look forward to your returning the favor. Much of your argument is actually addressed in the OP.

    Nor do I think telling me what I “need” to do, or “what I should think about” is going to make this conversation any friendlier.

    As to the bulk of your comment, are you really arguing that the definition of science is simply a matter of personal “opinion”? You say you can find an expert to back your opinion, and I look forward to seeing that; better yet, I look forward to seeing you cite some consensus among philosophers to back your points. Offering some citations to the philosophy literature would be a step forward, and away from the crankiness I discuss in the OP.

    “All we ask is that you recognize that there’s a legitimate controversy even if it makes your own opinion look less certain”

    I don’t take that style of argument seriously from creationists, and I don’t take it seriously from you. You’ve yet to demonstrate a “legitimate controversy,” which would require citations to the literature, and engagement with the scholarly discourse in the field. You and Coyne and Harris arguing on blogs and in mass market books (without citations to relevant literature) doesn’t demonstrate a legitimate controversy about the definition of science, any more than Dembski and Nelson and Behe arguing on blogs and mass market books demonstrates a legitimate controversy about evolution.

    “It is not wise to assume that the majority opinion is the correct one and the minority opinion is incorrect.”

    Thankfully I didn’t do that.

    It’s downright foolish to assume that the consensus view of relevant experts is the incorrect one, and that the views of nonspecialists who disagree with the experts are correct. I acknowledged above that the definition of science will surely change, and I also described how it would happen. Carping on blogs is not the path.

    You seem to think I’m being dogmatic about a single preferred definition of science, but I don’t know how you’d square that with my saying the definition has changed and surely will again, my clear statement that “I’m not opposing any redefinition,” my repeated references to the “definitions” (plural!) in use by philosophers, and my observation that “Defining science is notoriously hard.” None of that seems to justify a charge of absolutism or a failure to acknowledge that I might be wrong.

  8. #8 Larry Moran
    February 3, 2011

    Josh, look on the Wikipedia site for an interesting explanation of the difference between the older general use of “science” (knowledge) and the newer more restricted use. Both definitions are in play.

    It’s difficult to tell exactly what definition of science you are defending but you mention two characteristics. One seems to require empiricism—whatever that is. Can you explain? Are physicists working on string theory doing science? How about historians who take a scientific approach to studying the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire? What about political scientists? Is Sarah Palin just an elaborate experiment? :-)

    You also mention that preventing science from investigating the supernatural is part of your definition. Why does your definition impose restrictions on what questions we can ask using science as a way of obtaining knowledge? Are there any other restrictions that are part of your definition? Some people say that God created the Earth with the appearance of age. Can science address that claim?

    As you know, I define science broadly as a way of knowing that involves rational thinking, skepticism, and a reliance on evidence wherever possible. My version of science is not restricted to any one discipline and no questions are forbidden. Does your definition differ in any substantive way from mine other than: (a) you insist on empiricism, and (b) you restrict the scientific way of knowing to the study of the natural world?

  9. #9 Josh Rosenau
    February 3, 2011

    Larry: Wikipedia is not a specialist source. There’s a philosophical literature, and that’s the relevant place to cite. Yes, as I said in the OP (dunno how you missed it, really) “the definition of science has changed over time, and will surely continue to.” But Michael Behe was rightly mocked for saying that astrology is science because it would’ve been considered science 400 years ago, and I’m not going to take that kind of argument seriously from you, either.

    By empiricism, I mean a reliance on empirical evidence that can be obtained in a manner repeatable (at least in principle) by other investigators. I didn’t make a point of this above, but testability (at least in principle, and subject to various caveats philosophers have tagged onto this principle) is also an important aspect of science. String theory produces predictions that can (in principle) be empirically measured (though existing technology doesn’t get us the data we need to test it yet, we know what we need to do to test it when we have the technology), so that’s not a problem. Nor is it a problem for political science, which uses experiments and observational data the same as other sciences. Why do you think those are counterexamples?

    Furthermore, you misread the plain meaning of my comment about the supernatural. What I said is that science is defined in part by its processes, and that those processes have no way to evaluate claims about things that leave no empirically measurable evidence. The purely supernatural is one such thing. This is not an arbitrary rule a priori, it is a consequence of scientific processes, so I did not “impose restrictions on what questions we can ask using science.” I described the limits that science actually faces.

    “Some people say that God created the Earth with the appearance of age. Can science address that claim?”

    How about you put some skin in the game and tell me what you think of this. You want to redefine science, so why don’t you offer a defense? And why are you interrogating me about this stuff, rather than a philosopher of science who specializes in this issue? I’m just reporting the consensus of experts. You’ve got a whole department of philosophers of science on campus who would surely be willing to discuss this with you.

    If you don’t insist on empiricism, how exactly do you keep to your definition’s “reliance on evidence”? And if you do insist that we rely on evidence, what evidence do you think lets us test purely supernatural claims? Or, in the case of a not-entirely-but-largely supernatural claim like omphalism (created appearance of age), what evidence would you propose to let us test that claim? Is math, which doesn’t require empirical measurement, still fall within your definition of science? What about literary criticism, which uses books as evidence? In your “reliance on evidence,” are there any limits on the evidence you accept? Is “I feel like this is true” a legitimate sort of evidence? If not, why not? Is “the Bible says so” a form of evidence science can rely on? If not, why not? The standard definitions of science all have ways to deal with these questions, and again I refer you to professional philosophy texts if you want to learn more about that.

  10. #10 Josh Rosenau
    February 3, 2011

    John Pieret: I figured you’d appreciate my saying those things about you. I agree that Gnuism is more a social movement, but social movements will still have some sort of consistent core, and you only get so far as a social movement being just against. They’re for something, but can’t seem to agree on what (other than platitudes like: “We’re for truth!”).

  11. #11 Justin Topp
    February 3, 2011

    Wonderful post, Josh.

  12. #12 John Pieret
    February 3, 2011

    All we ask is that you recognize that there’s a legitimate controversy

    Um … “teach the controversy”?

  13. #13 Larry Moran
    February 4, 2011

    Josh, you say,

    By empiricism, I mean a reliance on empirical evidence that can be obtained in a manner repeatable (at least in principle) by other investigators. I didn’t make a point of this above, but testability (at least in principle, and subject to various caveats philosophers have tagged onto this principle) is also an important aspect of science. String theory produces predictions that can (in principle) be empirically measured (though existing technology doesn’t get us the data we need to test it yet, we know what we need to do to test it when we have the technology), so that’s not a problem. Nor is it a problem for political science, which uses experiments and observational data the same as other sciences. Why do you think those are counterexamples?

    That’s a pretty broad definition of “empiricism” because it seems to include “observational data” and “predictions.” The good news is that there’s very little difference between your definition of science and mine on this point. I say that the scientific way of knowing relies, in part, on “evidence.” You say it requires empiricism and testability. I don’t think there’s a difference now that you have explained your broad definition of what “empirical” means.

    If you don’t insist on empiricism, how exactly do you keep to your definition’s “reliance on evidence”? And if you do insist that we rely on evidence, what evidence do you think lets us test purely supernatural claims? Or, in the case of a not-entirely-but-largely supernatural claim like omphalism (created appearance of age), what evidence would you propose to let us test that claim?

    This is mostly quibbling. From what you’ve said I don’t think that “requiring evidence” is substantially different than your version of empiricism.

    Now let’s take your specific example—omphalism. I maintain that there’s no evidence to support a belief in omphalism and, furthermore, it conflicts with what we do know about the universe and how it came into being. Thus I reject that belief and maintain that it conflicts with the scientific way of knowing. Note that I applied the method to the claim and found it wanting.

    What’s your take on omphalism? I assume you don’t believe it. If so, how did you arrive at that decision? What procedure did you use? If it wasn’t “science” by your definition then do you have another word that describes your way of knowing?

    Do you believe that omphalism is compatible with “science” as you define it?

  14. #14 Larry Moran
    February 4, 2011

    Josh, please don’t take this as a “gotcha” but I really think it’s important for you to answer my last question as honestly as possible.

    “Do you believe that omphalism is compatible with “science” as you define it?”

  15. #15 John Pieret
    February 4, 2011

    I’ll take a stab at it Larry:

    Omphalos is incompatible with science because it denies the underlying philosophy and method of science: that knowledge can be gained by observation. When Gosse proposed Omphalos, it was rejected outright by the scientific community (as well as by theologians) without any need for testing and observation or even any need to cite to how the universe works (which after all, would always be consistent with Omphalism). In short, Omphalism was rejected by scientists on philosophical grounds because it could not be science as they understood and defined it.

  16. #16 Mike from Ottawa
    February 4, 2011

    I maintain that there’s no evidence to support a belief in omphalism and, furthermore, it conflicts with what we do know about the universe and how it came into being.

    Unfortunately “what we do know about the universe and how it came into being” is based on the apparent age of the universe being real and that the universe came into being by natural processes over that time, which means you are, a priori, assuming the result you are to establish.

    Or if you are going to hang your hat on a literalist version of “omphalism” (not, I think what Josh intended), then how about trying on Last Thursdayism, that is that the universe was created last Thursday, at, say, 2:00 pm EST, in exactly the same state it would be in at that time if it had had the long and eventful history we observe and from there on, it’s up to nature. Now, show how you’d use science to test that hypothesis without having to assume from the get-go it is not true.

    “Do you believe that omphalism is compatible with “science” as you define it?”

    Depends on the definition of “compatible”. If it turned out that Last Thursdayism were true, one could continue to do science as if it were not true with no discernable difference to its ability to make predictions and to provide useful results. In a certain sense in that case, LTism would be compatible with science.

    One certainly can’t have a more rigorous answer to the question of whether omphalism (or LTism) is compatible with science without a rigorous definition of “compatibility”. Is there one floating about?

  17. #17 John Pieret
    February 4, 2011

    Oh, and as for your next question, no, the types of religion we’re discussing do not violate the underlying philosophy of science because it is not a necessary requirement of science that it will be able to observe everything … only that what we do observe is a source of knowledge.

  18. #18 gillt
    February 4, 2011

    Omphalos is unverifiable. It can be rejected by scientists on practical grounds.

  19. #19 Josh Rosenau
    February 4, 2011

    Larry: I’m happy to answer your question, if you’ll kindly answer mine, which you quoted and then ignored. To repeat: “what evidence do you think lets us test purely supernatural claims? Or, in the case of a not-entirely-but-largely supernatural claim like omphalism (created appearance of age), what evidence would you propose to let us test that claim?”

    I also can’t answer your question until you clarify what you mean by “compatible,” but that isn’t relevant yet.

  20. #20 Mike from Ottawa
    February 4, 2011

    Omphalos is incompatible with science because it denies the underlying philosophy and method of science: that knowledge can be gained by observation.

    But Last Thursdayism is not incompatible with science on those grounds because under LTism, you can, for instance, gain knowledge from subsequent observation of the light from a star that went nova ‘before’ Last Thursday but whose light would not have reached us before then. The knowledge gained would relate to the universe subsequent to its creation Last Thursday and to the virtual universe that would produce the state of the universe at the moment of creation Last Thursday.

    For another example, if the Thursday in question were, unbeknownst to them, the Thursday before it occurred to Neil Shubin and his colleagues to look for fish-amphibians on Ellesmere Island, their observations would be observations of a faux universe, but nevertheless, would have yielded the same insight and produced the subsequent discovery of Tiktaalik. That yields knowledge that is true of our post LT universe and true of the virtual pre-LT universe.

    Of course, it probably depends on what you mean by things like “knowledge” and “true”. I had a classics prof who described the philosophy department at Carleton University as a place at the top of the (then) Arts Tower where men stroke their beards and say ‘But what do you mean when you say “no”?’

  21. #21 John Pieret
    February 4, 2011

    Omphalos is unverifiable. It can be rejected by scientists on practical grounds.

    But those “practical” grounds just reflect the philosophy and method of science that observation produces knowledge … Omphalos is unverifiable because, by its very terms, no observation can give knowledge about it.

  22. #22 gillt
    February 4, 2011

    I don’t need to assume observation produces knowledge to reject Omphalos. I can say observation produces pink elephants and still reject Omphalos, because Omphalos, by definition, precludes observation. Maybe that’s not a practical reason, but it’s also not the philosophy of science you described.

    Notably, theistic evolution rests on the same unobservable observation premise.

  23. #23 Michael Fugate
    February 4, 2011

    “I’m troubled by any effort to redefine science to serve a political or religious agenda, and I can’t see what other purpose is served by the redefinitions.”

    So you will be criticizing Biologos in your next post?

  24. #24 Josh Rosenau
    February 5, 2011

    Michael: I haven’t read a ton of stuff from Biologos, so could you point out where they’re offering a non-standard definition of science? Assessing motive can be tricky, too, so feel free to offer specific evidence that this redefinition (once you’ve shown that it exists) is motivated by their political and religious agenda. No doubt they have a religious agenda (and maybe a political one, too), but proving that it inspired their adoption of a nonstandard definition of science would seem key.

    Poking around quickly turns up things like Steve Benner’s blog series here which seems to take a mainstream approach to the definition of science, as does this essay on the relationship between science and religion (though I think it gets a little wiggy in its definition of religion, which is a different matter). Note especially that they rightly reject NOMA as inaccurate and untenable, and that Benner’s essays focus on scientific processes and the importance of community interactions to science, which I too treat as crucial to the definition. It looks like a fairly standard account of current thinking on science demarcation and philosophy of science.

    If there’s something specific you have in mind, feel free to cite it.

  25. #25 John Pieret
    February 5, 2011

    I don’t need to assume observation produces knowledge to reject Omphalos. I can say observation produces pink elephants and still reject Omphalos, because Omphalos, by definition, precludes observation.

    I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you are saying here.

    Maybe that’s not a practical reason, but it’s also not the philosophy of science you described.

    Of course, I wasn’t describing the philosophy of science in a sentence or two. The point was that science depends on observation and anything that denies the value of observation is “incompatible” with with science.

    Notably, theistic evolution rests on the same unobservable observation premise.

    No. As I pointed out before, there is a differnce between saying that observation is valueless (Omphalos) and saying not everyting can be observed (miracles). Notably, “theistic evolution” doesn’t claim to be science. It is, as its label clearly states, a theological position that argues in favor of evolutionary science. Importantly, it accepts the results of science and, what’s more, is willing to adjust its view as new results come in. In that respect, it is similar to science, without being science.

    I’m not defending theistic evolution, I’m trying to clarify what science is while asking, as Josh is, what is “incompatible” with it. You have to know what something is before you can say what conflicts with it.

  26. #26 Larry Moran
    February 5, 2011

    Josh asks,

    To repeat: “what evidence do you think lets us test purely supernatural claims? Or, in the case of a not-entirely-but-largely supernatural claim like omphalism (created appearance of age), what evidence would you propose to let us test that claim?”

    That’s a complicated question because it has a built-in assumption that I don’t necessarily share. The assumption is that “testability” is a requirement for the way of knowing that I call “science.” I don’t accept that limitation.

    Having said that, most claims of supernatural events DO depend on observation of some sort. After all, there’s no point in claiming a miracle happened if it’s completely undetectable. Those claims can all be examined to see if they make sense according to the accepted way I go about gaining knowledge. If they do then I’m willing to accept them.

    Let me make that clear. If someone claimed that praying to a dead Pope cured them of a fatal disease and all the evidence supported that claim then I have to give some serious consideration to incorporating this into my view of the universe. If, at the same time, I became convinced that Gods existed—based on rational thought, evidence, and in spite of appropriate skepticism—then that would become part of my worldview. Under those circumstances, omphalism becomes a much more viable proposition because I already know that there are Gods who can do anything.

    Let me make my point more clear. I do not subscribe to the view that some some subjects are off-limits to my methodology for discovering truth (knowledge). Furthermore, I do not subscribe to the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” except for the fact they are convenient handles during discussions about religion. In my view, if gods exist then they are every bit as much a part of the “natural” world as DNA, philosophy, and volcanoes.

    In most cases, of course, there is no obvious “test” that can be applied to miraculous claims. There may be no real evidence one way of the other. I’m thinking of claims that Aphrodite was the son of Zeus, for example, or that Jesus was the son of the Hebrew God. In those cases I reject these claims because they don’t meet the criteria needed for true knowledge—and I see no need to invoke another way of knowing just in order to give some validity to Aphrodite’s parent. That’s not rational. Besides, there are other, more reasonable, explanations for these “beliefs.”

    I think the difference between us is that I call that methodology “science” and you call it “philosophy.” Furthermore, you seem to think that “philosophy” allows for miracles and belief in gods. Or do you claim that religion and “philosophy” are not compatible?

    (“Compatible” is a term I use when there’s no conflict between reality and my worldview. Some people hold two different worldviews, say, science and religion. The question is whether, in those cases, the two worldviews conflict or whether both are compatible with reality. Restricting them to different domains is one way of making them compatible by fiat. But if you’re an atheist then one of those “domains” is a null set. What’s the point?)

  27. #27 John Pieret
    February 5, 2011

    The assumption is that “testability” is a requirement for the way of knowing that I call “science.” I don’t accept that limitation.

    Really, Larry? When’s the last time you submitted a paper or wrote a textbook where the claims weren’t testable? I thought that was the specialty of the IDiots. Pray tell, what is the difference between your “science” and the IDiots’ version?

    Let me make that clear. If someone claimed that praying to a dead Pope cured them of a fatal disease and all the evidence supported that claim then I have to give some serious consideration to incorporating this into my view of the universe.

    Wait a minute! You just told us your “science” doesn’t rely on testability. Why, then, do you insist that all the evidence support the claim before you’ll believe it? Do I smell a double standard coming?

    In my view, if gods exist then they are every bit as much a part of the “natural” world as DNA, philosophy, and volcanoes.

    Yes, we know your “worldview” is philosophical naturalism. Would you care to defend the claim that “science” is coextensive with philosophical naturalism, instead of just asserting it? Hint: you can find lots of the same assertions in the IDiot literature. Maybe they can help.

    In most cases, of course, there is no obvious “test” that can be applied to miraculous claims. There may be no real evidence one way of the other. I’m thinking of claims that Aphrodite was the son of Zeus, for example, or that Jesus was the son of the Hebrew God. In those cases I reject these claims because they don’t meet the criteria needed for true knowledge—and I see no need to invoke another way of knowing just in order to give some validity to Aphrodite’s parent. That’s not rational. Besides, there are other, more reasonable, explanations for these “beliefs.”

    Wait a minute (again)! You just told us that testability (i.e. evidence, observation, etc.) isn’t a criteria for your “science.” What the heck, then, is “the criteria needed for true knowledge” … assuming it is something other than “what Larry thinks”?

    “Compatible” is a term I use when there’s no conflict between reality and my worldview.

    Opps! I guess “the criteria needed for true knowledge” is merely “what Larry thinks”!

    Some people hold two different worldviews, say, science and religion.

    Um … does “begging the question” sound familiar?

    The question is whether, in those cases, the two worldviews conflict or whether both are compatible with reality. Restricting them to different domains is one way of making them compatible by fiat. But if you’re an atheist then one of those “domains” is a null set. What’s the point?

    Thinking about your and other people’s “worlviews,” Larry. Unless thinking isn’t one of the criteria needed for “true knowledge TM.

  28. #28 gillt
    February 5, 2011

    No. As I pointed out before, there is a differnce between saying that observation is valueless (Omphalos) and saying not everyting can be observed (miracles)

    No it’s not. Both Omphalos and Theistic Evolution assert that observation is valueless whenever it suits their needs (e.g., perfectly hidden miracles)

  29. #29 John Pieret
    February 5, 2011

    Both Omphalos and Theistic Evolution assert that observation is valueless whenever it suits their needs (e.g., perfectly hidden miracles)

    Heck, even Larry Moran admits “there is no obvious ‘test’ that can be applied to miraculous claims.” But, go ahead, give me an example of where, say, Ken Miller, asserts that observation is valueless.

  30. #30 Michael Fugate
    February 5, 2011

    Josh, How stupid of me not to realize that cramming science into an atheistic worldview is wrong, but cramming into a theistic worldview is just fine and dandy as long as you say you accept evolution. I wonder which worldview is closer to science?

  31. #31 gillt
    February 5, 2011

    But, go ahead, give me an example of where, say, Ken Miller, asserts that observation is valueless.

    Miller is a Catholic, right? Then there is a whole superstitious cornucopia of past and present phenomenon to choose from: transubstantiation, virgin birth and resurrection from the dead of an entire city depending on the Gospel, water into wine, afterlife, etc.

    Then there is Francis Collins.

    He believes that morality is not an evolved trait and will remain unsolved by science. This is an excellent example of an a priori rejection of observation.

    Collins’ speculation that god may work through quantum mechanical fluctuations that cannot be directly measured again devalues observation.

    Evidently this ties in with is belief that there is evidence for god but somehow it’s not testable. It appears he disagrees that observation leads to knowledge.

  32. #32 Josh Rosenau
    February 5, 2011

    Michael Fugate: I fail to see how your latest comment relates to your previous one (the one I was responding to). Could we leave the goalposts in place for a moment?

  33. #33 Josh Rosenau
    February 5, 2011

    Larry: John Pieret said pretty much what I would, so I’ll just emphasize a few points.

    1) How do you justify excluding testability (or something like it)? Testability is a topic much debated by philosophers of science, and this would be a place where a familiarity with the philosophical literature would help you push back. But instead of offering any basis for rejecting testability (and apparently replacing it with nothing), you just offer a bald assertion that you don’t think testability matters. Why not? Are you basing this on a published work I can examine for more details? Or are you just making it up a you go? To be blunt, why should I take your handwaving attempt at redefining science seriously?

    2) “the accepted way I go about gaining knowledge”

    Which is…? And which doesn’t involve testing because…?

    3) “If…I became convinced that Gods existed—based on rational thought, evidence”

    What evidence could convince you? How would you go about evaluating that evidence? Again, it’d help if you situated your response in the philosophical literature on this issue, or at least if you addressed PZ Myers’s several explanations of why there’s no evidence which would convince him to reject atheism.

    4) “I think the difference between us is that I call that methodology “science” and you call it “philosophy.””

    This reminds me of a classic scene from Apocalypse Now:

    Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?
    Willard: I don’t see any method at all, sir.

    All you gave was a rambling account of why you might accept omphalism as scientifically valid, but then would actually reject it. If there was a clear method described there, I don’t see it, let alone any way to generalize it. How would I apply that account to a situation that we’d both agree was scientific? Whatever that was, I wouldn’t call it science or philosophy.

    5) “you seem to think that “philosophy” allows for miracles and belief in gods.”

    I think concepts like “miracle” and “belief in gods” and “gods” are within the scope of philosophy, which doesn’t mean that there are actually miracles, gods, or beliefs in gods. Philosophers have not – to my knowledge – ruled out the possibility of “miracles,” “gods,” or “belief in gods,” and I don’t know how they’d do that, really. But maybe that’s not what you meant, since you seem to have an idiosyncratic definition of philosophy. Again I recommend your colleagues in the department of history and philosophy of science, who can surely clear up the matter.

    5) “‘Compatible’ is a term I use when there’s no conflict between reality and my worldview”

    As John notes, this is an inadequate definition. I’m guessing that there’s a conflict between your current views and omphalism, by which definition it must be incompatible with science. But what could I do if you were not available to confirm my intuitions about what is or isn’t in conflict with your worldview? Assuming that you meant “compatible is a term I use to indicate that two concepts are not in conflict,” I’d have to say that this seems to simply shift the question from “what do you mean by compatible?” to “what do you mean by conflict?” Are two “worldviews” (a term undefined as yet, which may need future clarification) in conflict if they use different methods, but arrive at the same results? What about if they use different methods and arrive at results that are different but non-contradictory? What if they use similar methods, but arrive at results that are different but non-contradictory? What if they use similar methods but arrive at results that are contradictory? Are all of those incompatible? Only some?

    Because your definition of “compatible” was less than helpful, and because past attempts at defining the term have led to no resolution, I tried finding examples of people talking about compatibility of science and anything other than religion. The results don’t really help. It’s a term that seems only to be used in contexts where people are trying to get at the relationship between science and religion, so maybe we can just drop the ill-defined talk about “compatibility” and address the broader question of how science and religion interact.

    Anyway, you gave a shot at answering my questions, so I’ll try answering yours about whether omphalism is compatible with science. “Compatible” being ill-defined and, in my experience, useless in these discussions, I’ll start with a modified form: Is omphalism a scientific claim?

    And the answer is … No. By assumption of omphalism, nothing about omphalism can be tested or evaluated in any way using any sort of empirical evidence. It isn’t science by any standard definition.

    Indeed, if we take omphalism to claim that the universe was supernaturally created relatively recently, and created so as to appear in every way to have originated at a single time far earlier, and that therefore all physical evidence will be consistent with that natural origin 13.7 billion years ago, the nature of the claim insists that physical evidence of any sort will always refute it (which fact will, paradoxically, validate it for believers, again emphasizing the importance of a clear standard of testability that involves falsification, rather than mere validation).

    To get at something like “compatibility,” I’d add that one could presumably hold omphalism to be true while simultaneously applying standard scientific processes, and accepting standard scientific knowledge (with an asterisk). An omphalist could be an astronomer, studying the Big Bang, not because he thinks it happened, but because the evidence for it was nonetheless created to seem as if it had happened, and to be so perfect as to make no difference. An omphalist could conduct standard astronomy research and give standard astronomy lectures. In thinking about astronomy, in making predictions of astronomical events, and in all other relevant scientific contexts, an omphalist would act like a non-omphalist. The asterisk being that he would be asserting standard astronomy while believing all of this evidence and all of these facts were a fiction crafted to fool unbelievers, and that scientific methods only worked to show these falsehoods because the falsehoods had been crafted by an omniscient, omnipotent, omnicompetent being who wanted to mislead people.

    I don’t know what it would mean to say that omphalism is compatible with science. I can say it is not science by standard definitions of the term, but that, with minor mental gymnastics, someone could apply science as a process (and accept its legitimacy in some plausible sense) and still adhere to the truth of omphalism. There are various extrascientific principles one could apply to reject omphalism (e.g., Occam’s razor: omphalism and standard astronomy give the same results, but standard astronomy has fewer causal principles at work, hence it’s better to accept only standard astronomy; rejecting the existence of appropriate creator(s) either by asserting there is no supernatural, by believing supernatural beings exist but lack key traits like omnipotence of omnicompetence, or by believing the supernatural beings have those traits but are also omnibenevolent and hence wouldn’t lie, etc.), but those are irrelevant to the immediate question.

  34. #34 John Pieret
    February 6, 2011

    … transubstantiation, virgin birth and resurrection from the dead …

    Funny, I don’t remember those as being part of “theistic evolution” that you specified but, okay, now comes the hard part. What scientific observations do those deny? Believing that there are some things that can’t be observed (i.e. denying philosophical naturalism) is not the same as saying that science should accept those things (as Omphalos claimed). Im sure Miller would agree that, by every scientific test, the host is a piece of (very bad) bread.

    Francis Collins … believes that morality is not an evolved trait and will remain unsolved by science.

    And if it is solved? Do you have any evidence he would reject those observations are scientific? What scientists think the observations will show is not the same as denying the observations.

    Collins’ speculation that god may work through quantum mechanical fluctuations that cannot be directly measured again devalues observation.

    Goalpost movement noted: “assert that observation is valueless” has become “devalues,” by which I take you mean “fails to assert that only that which can be scientifically observed is ‘real’.” But that is a philosophical assertion, not a scientific one.

    Evidently this ties in with is belief that there is evidence for god but somehow it’s not testable. It appears he disagrees that observation leads to knowledge.

    You have that exactly backwards. It is a suggestion (not a truth claim … especially not a scientific claim) that a god could act within the natural world without leaving observable evidence of that action. That doesn’t deny the value of observation of quantum mechanical fluctuations or anything else. It is, at most, a denial that everything can be observed. The only way to deny this possibility is to deny that there is anything that can’t be observed, which is philosophical naturalism, itself not a scientific claim.

  35. #35 Larry Moran
    February 6, 2011

    Josh,

    Thanks for answering my question about omphalism. If I understand you correctly, you say that one can be a scientist and still accept omphalism as the best explanation of the universe. You say this because according to your definition of science omphalism is not science. Thus, in theory, there’s no serious conflict between ompahlism and science that would cause a scientist to reject one or the other.

    As you know, my definition of science is much broader than yours so I believe there is a conflict because omphalism requires a suspension of reasonable skepticism, it’s not rational, and there’s no evidence to support it. Even though it’s not “testable,” it’s not science by my definition.

    Can we can agree to disagree about definitions of science? I still think your definition leads to logical absurdities like the one we just discovered but you are entitled to your opinion. The fact that so many philosophers might agree with you seems to give you great comfort. It’s not the sort of comfort I seek.

    Many miracles are one-off events that can’t be “tested” in any meaningful sense of the word. Does that mean they are compatible with science by your definition?

  36. #36 J. J. Ramsey
    February 6, 2011

    Larry Moran minus a strawman:

    If I understand you correctly, you say that one can be a scientist and still accept omphalism as the best explanation of the universe. You say this because according to your definition of science omphalism is not science “one could presumably hold omphalism to be true while simultaneously applying standard scientific processes, and accepting standard scientific knowledge.”

  37. #37 Josh Rosenau
    February 6, 2011

    Larry: I said that omphalism is not science, and I said it again, so why are you now claiming some distinction between us by saying it is “not science by my definition”?

    “Does that mean [miracles] are compatible with science by your definition? ”

    As I made clear, I find the term “compatible” useless in this context, and don’t think it has a clear definition. Can one do science, accept the results of science, behave as a good scientist in every measurable professional sense, and believe that miracles happen? Sure, and there are lots of examples of people who do just that. Are miracles science? No, absolutely not, because they are untestable by assumption. If there’s another meaningful definition of compatible that those two answers don’t cover, offer the definition.

    “Can we agree to disagree about definitions of science?”

    I think that it’s important to get this right, especially for people communicating science to nonscientists. I don’t think, as you seemed to above, that the definition of science is a matter of personal opinion. I think science is something real, and it matters how we define it. That’s a big part of my motivation for fighting the creationists. You and other gnus also seem to think the definition matters, and it seems like a big part of the reason why you fight folks like me. In that context, it’s hard to see how “agree to disagree” will work.

    “The fact that so many philosophers might agree with you seems to give you great comfort. It’s not the sort of comfort I seek.”

    I could give a crap about which people agree with me. I care about the process they use to arrive at their answers. I gave my assessment of your “methodology” above, and you’ve offered no new clarity since then. Philosophy is a system with clear, consistent rules that have been found to be effective at winnowing out bad ideas and refining decent ideas into better ones, so I’m inclined to accept a consensus of philosophers about the results of their processes for the same reasons that I’m inclined to accept a consensus of scientists about the results of their processes. In neither case is the consensus necessarily perfectly correct, but it’d be foolish to reject that consensus without first becoming familiar with its content and basis, and then developing a clear alternative that was backed by appropriate evidence and convincing to the community of relevant experts (almost always via peer review). All I see from the gnus who wish to redefine science is intuition and handwaving, which are not substitutes for evidence and peer review.

  38. #38 gillt
    February 6, 2011

    Goalpost movement noted: “assert that observation is valueless” has become “devalues,” by which I take you mean “fails to assert that only that which can be scientifically observed is ‘real’.” But that is a philosophical assertion, not a scientific one.

    Not really. Both ideologies deny, devalue and challenge certain observations held by science (speed of light as a measurement of time, the unobserved/unobservable divine component to human evolution). You seem to think observations happen in a vacuum where devaluing a few of your choosing has no affect on the rest or the ability to do science. This is the flawed thinking Omphalos makes apparent. Remember, theistic evolution offers a mechanism for evolution in addition to those offered by science.

    As I said before there is no practical difference in science between saying observation is valueless all the time (omphalos) and observation is valueless some of the time (divine intervention).

    And if it is solved? Do you have any evidence he would reject those observations are scientific? What scientists think the observations will show is not the same as denying the observations.

    It’s a reasonable assumption that Collins would come up with a reason to deny those observations through some other god-of-the gaps rationalization.

    Collins:

    But to fully account for the full-blown version of altruism that we see in human beings is, I think, a fascinating and challenging and difficult problem for the evolutionary biologists. And I don’t believe they’ve solved it. And I think it’s unlikely that they will. If they do, would my faith be shaken? No.

    But that is a philosophical assertion, not a scientific one.

    Did I just wander over the stark and apparently obvious line you drew in the sand between philosophy and science?

    It is a suggestion (not a truth claim … especially not a scientific claim) that a god could act within the natural world without leaving observable evidence of that action. That doesn’t deny the value of observation of quantum mechanical fluctuations or anything else. It is, at most, a denial that everything can be observed. The only way to deny this possibility is to deny that there is anything that can’t be observed, which is philosophical naturalism, itself not a scientific claim.

    Yeah, it’s not scientific claim but a faith claim, which makes it likely more true or meaningful. And speculating that god operates just past the fringes of our current awareness and understanding of the universe is a classic god-of-the-gaps argument, a wager against future empiric observation.

  39. #39 John Pieret
    February 6, 2011

    Both ideologies deny, devalue and challenge certain observations held by science (speed of light as a measurement of time, the unobserved/unobservable divine component to human evolution). … Remember, theistic evolution offers a mechanism for evolution in addition to those offered by science.

    Again, the latter only matters if you assume that anything that is unobserved/unobservable by science is not “real.” Certainly, that is not a scientific “result.” The only way you can reach that “result” is to make an extra-scientific claim. How is that claim any different than the extra-scientific claims of theists … especially when they are careful not to claim they are making scientific results?

    As I said before there is no practical difference in science between saying observation is valueless all the time (omphalos) and observation is valueless some of the time (divine intervention).

    “Practical difference” is a way of denying thinking about all the ramifications of your position. It’s not unlike the IDiots saying there is no “practical difference” between science and atheism. The simple fact that there is a clear conceptual difference between denying the value of scientific observation and the possibility that scientific observation is not all-encompassing.

    I’m not defending the theistic evolution position, I’m asking for the same commitment to rationalism that Gnu Atheists so proudly allege. That includes acknowledging the valid weaknesses of your position.

    Yeah, it’s not scientific claim …

    That’s a start. Now think about the ramifications.

    It’s a reasonable assumption that Collins would come up with a reason to deny those observations through some other god-of-the gaps rationalization.

    Ah! Prospective ESP as a “scientific position”!

  40. #40 Larry Moran
    February 6, 2011

    Josh says,

    Larry: I said that omphalism is not science, and I said it again, so why are you now claiming some distinction between us by saying it is “not science by my definition”?

    Because by my definition the omphalism claim is not something that is outside of science. It is a claim that can be examined by the scientific way of knowing. When we apply the methodology—using my definition—omphalism is found wanting because there’s no evidence for it (or it’s premises) and because it conflicts with what we already know. It’s not outside of science, it’s bad science.

    Your definition of science doesn’t allow this, if I understand you correctly. The reason you reject omphalism is for “metaphysical” (philosophical?) reasons. Apparently the methodology of philosophy is much more flexible than that of science because it’s quite possible to arrive at entirely different conclusions (e.g. there is a god; there isn’t a god) without calling the methodology into question.

    As I made clear, I find the term “compatible” useless in this context, and don’t think it has a clear definition. Can one do science, accept the results of science, behave as a good scientist in every measurable professional sense, and believe that miracles happen? Sure, and there are lots of examples of people who do just that. Are miracles science? No, absolutely not, because they are untestable by assumption. If there’s another meaningful definition of compatible that those two answers don’t cover, offer the definition.

    When people say that there’s no conflict between religion and science I interpret that to mean that religion and science are compatible. In other words, it is possible to believe in miracles etc. without abandoning the goal of obtaining knowledge using science. You maintain that such a position is logical because there are certain areas of knowledge that cannot be questioned by science. That’s why belief in gods is compatible with science (your definition). It’s because science is forbidden to say anything about the matter.

    I’m raising questions about the validity of such a position. It seems to lead to some curious conclusions. For one thing, it means that atheists have to accept the conclusion that there is a way of knowing that’s completely forbidden to them because they don’t believe in supernatural beings.

    I maintain that I can apply the scientific way of knowing to any problem at all—not just those in physics, biology, and chemistry. When I apply that methodology to the possible existence of god the hypothesis fails the test (except in the case of strict deism).

    Philosophers are well aware of the fact that restricting “science” to only a particular set of questions is a form of question-begging. Some of them are troubled by it and some are not. I think they should all be troubled by the attempt to divide the world into several ways of knowing (e.g. science and faith) because it creates a special kind of “knowledge” (existence of god, miracles) that depends largely on your culture and the religion of your parents.

    If we equate knowledge with “truth,” as many philosophers do, then that creates a situation where there are several different kinds of truth. It means that the “knowledge” of the ancient Greeks about the parenthood of Aphrodite is just as true as the knowledge of Christians about the parents of Jesus or the knowledge of people like you and I about evolution.

  41. #41 Michael Fugate
    February 6, 2011

    “Again, the latter only matters if you assume that anything that is unobserved/ unobservable by science is not “real.” ”

    What is it then? imagination? How can it be real? Why would you believe in a nonmaterial world inhabited by nonmaterial entities that can impinge on the material world without a trace? This is real? Do you spend this much energy trying to justify everything that doesn’t have a rat’s ass chance of being verified?

    Art, music, literature, and history are all part of the material world – they may not be science, but they are part of the material world with material explanations. Why are you holding out any hope for a nonmaterial world? Infinitesimal is worth worrying about?

  42. #42 TB
    February 6, 2011

    “Art, music, literature, and history are all part of the material world – they may not be science, but they are part of the material world with material explanations.”

    But history isn’t like the other three, and it certainly isn’t always observable by “science.” And yet we generally assume what we know about history is “real.”

    That’s not unreasonable, but it’s also not necessarily “science.”

  43. #43 gillt
    February 6, 2011

    Again, the latter only matters if you assume that anything that is unobserved/unobservable by science is not “real.”

    Again, no. The aftermath or affects of miracles fall into science’s “real” category. Claimants then assert that the mechanism of said miracle is unobservable. Concerning this cause and effect it seems inconsistent to use the methods of observation for the later then devalue those same methods for the former. That’s a weakness in their argument.

    The simple fact that there is a clear conceptual difference between denying the value of scientific observation and the possibility that scientific observation is not all-encompassing.

    You think scientists factor in the possibility that scientific observation is not all-encompassing or are you defending what you think scientists like Ken Miller believe?

    That includes acknowledging the valid weaknesses of your position.

    Since you’re familiar with my position name the weaknesses and I’ll decide whether they are in need of acknowledging.

    Ah! Prospective ESP as a “scientific position”!

    What part of “If they do, would my faith be shaken? No.” didn’t you understand?

  44. #44 Ender
    February 7, 2011

    “I maintain that I can apply the scientific way of knowing to any problem at all—not just those in physics, biology, and chemistry.”

    And that is where you make the mistake that colours your entire position. This above statement is trivially false. Suggest a scientific method for investigating the Sum of the internal angles of a triangle in Euclidean Geometry. Can’t do it? That’s because your above statement is false.

    “When I apply that methodology to the possible existence of god the hypothesis fails the test (except in the case of strict deism).”

    Given that you don’t seem to understand the limits of the domain it seems unlikely that you’ve applied this methodology correctly. You’ve probably applied metaphysical naturalism instead of methodological naturalism.

  45. #45 Larry Moran
    February 7, 2011

    Ender says,

    Given that you don’t seem to understand the limits of the domain it seems unlikely that you’ve applied this methodology correctly. You’ve probably applied metaphysical naturalism instead of methodological naturalism.

    That’s not helping. We’re discussing different definitions of science and whether the restriction you approve of is reasonable. We know what definition you prefer. Trying to win a point by just restating it isn’t useful.

    Instead, why don’t you explain the difference between using “methodological naturalism” and “metaphysical naturalism to address a question? Take the possible existence of the tooth fairy as an example. How do you go about deciding whether the tooth fairy actually exists?

    Is it possible to believe in the tooth fairy and still be thought of as a rational, skeptical, person who bases their conclusions on evidence?

  46. #46 TB
    February 7, 2011

    “Again, no. The aftermath or affects of miracles fall into science’s “real” category. Claimants then assert that the mechanism of said miracle is unobservable. Concerning this cause and effect it seems inconsistent to use the methods of observation for the later then devalue those same methods for the former. That’s a weakness in their argument.”

    No, it’s a weakness in yours. It assumes that all miracles are creates equal, that all religious people believe every claim of a miracle. Some don’t even believe in a literal virgin birth for Jesus. So in terms of miracles, modern claims can certainly be examined, maybe even explained by science if someone takes the time.
    Claims from history can’t – for all practical purposes, they’re unobservable by science. It’s fine to assume that there’s a natural explanation for something in the past, or that something is simply not true. But that’s an assumption, not science.

  47. #47 J. J. Ramsey
    February 7, 2011

    Larry Moran:

    omphalism is found wanting because there’s no evidence for it (or it’s premises) and because it conflicts with what we already know. [emphasis added]

    The part I emphasized seems to indicate that you don’t know what omphalism is, or perhaps you are using a non-standard of the word “know.” Omphalism is unfalsifiable, so there’s no way that it can conflict with what we know (or at least what we think we know).

  48. #48 Michael Fugate
    February 7, 2011

    But it ain’t science the pedants cry. But it certainly isn’t religion and it certainly doesn’t provide any support for religion. If I were to read any book on methodology of history, would I find any advocacy for interpreting past events as the result of nonmaterial entities interacting with the material world?

  49. #49 TB
    February 7, 2011

    “But it ain’t science the pedants cry. But it certainly isn’t religion and it certainly doesn’t provide any support for religion.”

    I’m not claiming it is or does. And I’m not arguing against your own personal assumptions – as far as I know it’s completely valid to assume natural explanations for past events as well.

    But those are assumptions – reasonable ones, but still assumptions. And they’re among the assumptions that allow someone to do whatever it is we call science. But that doesn’t mean they’re science.

  50. #50 John Pieret
    February 7, 2011

    What part of “If they do, would my faith be shaken? No.” didn’t you understand?

    What part of it did you understand?

    A scientist might say “I expect future evidence will show that birds evolved ‘from the trees down’ instead of ‘from the ground up’. Does that imply that s/he will deny the value of future observations or stop believing in evolution if s/he is wrong? Collins is clearly saying he doesn’t see the cause of the ‘moral sense’ as a critical test of the existence of god. You are reading your own biases into what Collins said, which is hardly fair or rational.

    You think scientists factor in the possibility that scientific observation is not all-encompassing …

    Given the Uncertainty Principle, yes.

    As for the rest, what TB has already said.

    I certainly can’t stop you, Larry or anyone else assigning their own personal definition to “science” that, not-so-surpringly comports with your personal “worldviews”. I can only point out that you are doing the same thing as the IDers are doing … and for much the same reasons.

  51. #51 gillt
    February 7, 2011

    Claims from history can’t – for all practical purposes, they’re unobservable by science. It’s fine to assume that there’s a natural explanation for something in the past, or that something is simply not true. But that’s an assumption, not science.

    Science has nothing to day on whether there are natural causes for past events?!? Suddenly the fossil record isn’t science! Wait, is this an argument for the aliens designing the pyramids? At least Pieret thinks you’re on to something.

    Collins is clearly saying he doesn’t see the cause of the ‘moral sense’ as a critical test of the existence of god. You are reading your own biases into what Collins said, which is hardly fair or rational.

    Collins said

    I don’t believe [evolutionary biologists] solved [the evolution of human morality]. And I think it’s unlikely that they will.

    Do you know why he thinks human morality isn’t an evolved trait? It’s because of the Bible.

    Btw., this addressed your asking for evidence whether Collins, a theistic evolutionist, would deny, devalue and/or reject any forthcoming empiric observations for faith-based reasons. It’s a reasonable interpretation to say he would in this particular situation.

    Given the Uncertainty Principle, yes

    Ah yes, misappropriating a scientific concept to prop up the principle of supernatural claims. How very hypocritical and theistic of you.

    I can only point out that you are doing the same thing as the IDers are doing … and for much the same reasons.

    Saying I’m a poopy-head would have been more effective.

  52. #52 Josh Rosenau
    February 8, 2011

    Larry: J. J. Ramsey’s point above is exactly right. The point of claims about appearance of age is that, by assumption, empirical evidence of an older world will exist. Thus, any evidence you find which points to that older world will only further validate an omphalist’s belief – it’s exactly what they’d expect to find!

    You keep referring to “the methodology” as if you’d specified one, and you haven’t. If you are using the sense of scientific processes/methods that I use, as described at Understanding Science, for instance, then you get yourself in trouble. Those methods cannot examine all claims. Omphalism is a claim that is simply not within the capacity of scientific methods to evaluate. We can reject it based on other principles, including parsimony or a theological assumption that a creator god will not engage in such deception, but without stepping outside of scientific methods, we cannot rule out supernatural interventions followed by perfect track-covering by an omnipotent deity. If we can, it’d help if you published that result in a philosophy journal and see what people who deal with these issues professionally think about it. Convince them and you’ll convince me. At this point, you haven’t made enough of an argument for me to even evaluate.

    “belief in gods is compatible with science (your definition)”

    No. That isn’t my position. At best my position is that the existence of certain sorts of gods would not be scientifically testable, and that one could believe in certain sorts of gods (perhaps a different subset) without that interfering with one’s ability to accept conventional scientific knowledge or with one’s ability to apply scientific processes in one’s life, teaching, or professional scientific contributions.

    “science is forbidden to say anything about the matter.”

    No, science is incapable of saying anything about some matters. This is not some arbitrary imposition by an external force or fiat, which “forbidden” implies. It is an intrinsic limitation on scientific methodologies, imposed by requirements of empirical measurements, replicability (at least in principle), basing judgments on intersubjective experiences of reality (not intrasubjective experiences like: “this is pretty”, or “this feels wrong”), etc.

    “I maintain that I can apply the scientific way of knowing to any problem at all”

    Yes, but you haven’t shown it even informally, let alone scientifically (as you should be able to do if that claim is right).

    “When I apply that methodology to the possible existence of god the hypothesis fails the test”

    Earlier you rejected testability as a criterion of science. Is it back now? And what test lets you exclude the existence of a trickster god who creates with the appearance of age? Or one who adjusts scientific instruments and your memory and your perception of the scientific literature to make you think your results match those from other labs?

    “Philosophers are well aware of the fact that restricting “science” to only a particular set of questions is a form of question-begging.”

    Can you point me to the work of these philosophers?

    You refer to philosophers equating knowledge with “truth,” but the philosophy of truth and of knowledge is hardly so simple. Again, citations to a review article or other item aiming to represent a professional consensus would be handy.

    You express concern that allowing science to have limits would permit the existence of other “ways of knowing.” You don’t quite articulate a reason why this is bad or even “curious.” Nor does saying that you don’t like the implications of an idea constitute a good argument against it. Surely your “scientific worldview” ought to oblige you to accept the evidence wherever it leads, not to reject certain findings because we find the results unpalatable.

    “It means that the “knowledge” of the ancient Greeks about the parenthood of Aphrodite is just as true as the knowledge of Christians about the parents of Jesus or the knowledge of people like you and [me] about evolution. ”

    It may mean that the Greek myths about Aphrodite are as true as Christian myths (construing myth here in the technical sense, not in any normative sense), if we grant that religion is a single monolithic way of knowing o that myth is a single way of knowing. But saying that there are multiple ways of knowing does not require that the results of different ways of knowing be “just as true.” Science is rooted in intersubjective reality and empirical evidence, and so there’s no basis for claiming that its results are just as true as conflicting results from other “ways of knowing.” The knowledge of Greek oracles is not accessible to all, nor are the revelations of the New Testament. I’d only have a problem with this outcome if the groups involved tried to impose their intrasubjective truth claims on people with a different set of intrasubjective truth claims, and it would be the social conflict that would trouble me, not any epistemic conflict.

    The knowledge of science is intersubjective, it is accessible to all equally, and that should matter to us all where scientific claims contradict claims from an intrasubjective “way of knowing.” Such conflicts can happen within science, too, as when standard relativistic gravity cannot be applied at quantum scales, and science has a method of resolving those conflicts (through improved theory and further testing). We are still working on methods to resolve those social conflicts when they occur between proponents of different “ways of knowing,” but many religious leaders and religious thinkers have found ways to resolve them without redefining science. I think you can do the same.

  53. #53 TB
    February 8, 2011

    “Science has nothing to day on whether there are natural causes for past events?!? Suddenly the fossil record isn’t science! Wait, is this an argument for the aliens designing the pyramids?”

    There’s the gilt I know! Tell me, how does the fossil record make claims? Did it write something down? Did it pass things on through oral history? Is there something it claimed that has somehow passed down through the ages and into the hands of historians and theologians, who can exmine other claims and written records and decide what it intended to communicate and how?

    No? Then maybe we’re not talking about things like the fossil record.

    The rest is just restating an argument that was already addressed. Saying it again without providing evidence doesn’t make it true.

  54. #54 Michael Fugate
    February 8, 2011

    “But those are assumptions – reasonable ones, but still assumptions. And they’re among the assumptions that allow someone to do whatever it is we call science. But that doesn’t mean they’re science.”

    Any evidence that they are not true?

  55. #55 TB
    February 8, 2011

    What do you mean by “true?”

  56. #56 Anton Mates
    February 8, 2011

    Any evidence that they are not true?

    What would such evidence look like?

  57. #57 Michael Fugate
    February 8, 2011

    So the answer is no – and you wonder why I don’t think philosophical naturalism is basically any different than methodological naturalism.

  58. #58 Josh Rosenau
    February 8, 2011

    Michael: No and yes, respectively.

    I think that Anton and TB were trying to get at the point that philosophical naturalism is partly premised on a certain conception of truth, a conception which isn’t required by methodological naturalism (though MN does not preclude the PN conception of truth), and they’d like you to tease that out to avoid mere questionbegging.

  59. #59 TB
    February 8, 2011

    I don’t know what you mean by “true,” and I don’t know what specific assumptions you’re refering to. I know the ones I was thinking of when I wrote what you quoted, but I don’t think you’re refering to those, so I can’t answer your question specifically.

    It may have come off that way, but I didn’t intend to be flippant when I asked what you meant.

  60. #60 gillt
    February 8, 2011

    It’s fine to assume that there’s a natural explanation for something in the past, or that something is simply not true. But that’s an assumption, not science.

    It’s not really my problem that I’m given a choice on whether to respond to bad writing or poor thinking.

  61. #61 Ender
    February 9, 2011

    I notice that you have not defended your statement below:

    Moran: “”I maintain that I can apply the scientific way of knowing to any problem at all—not just those in physics, biology, and chemistry.””

    Ender: “And that is where you make the mistake that colours your entire position. This above statement is trivially false. Suggest a scientific method for investigating the Sum of the internal angles of a triangle in Euclidean Geometry. Can’t do it? That’s because your above statement is false”

    “Instead, why don’t you explain the difference between using “methodological naturalism” and “metaphysical naturalism to address a question?”

    After this you tangent by suggesting a question that would not differentiate between them.
    Here’s the difference:
    Methodological naturalism: You do an experiment, analyse the results and come to a conclusion about the natural world
    Metaphysical naturalism: You do an experiment, analyse the results and come to a conclusion about the natural world. You also believe that there is nothing else that exists.

    “Take the possible existence of the tooth fairy as an example. How do you go about deciding whether the tooth fairy actually exists?

    Simples. You take a definition of the tooth fairy, e.g. “Takes teeth and leaves cash” then you design an experiment that falsifies that conclusion e.g. “Test whether it is really parents leaving the money”

    Is it possible to believe in the tooth fairy and still be thought of as a rational, skeptical, person who bases their conclusions on evidence?”

    It depends on what your definition of “The Tooth Fairy” is. If there is evidence that falsifies your definition then you are not someone who bases their conclusions of evidence.

  62. #62 Ender
    February 9, 2011

    Damnit. There should be a break after the first two paragraphs in italics.

  63. #63 Anton Mates
    February 9, 2011

    So the answer is no – and you wonder why I don’t think philosophical naturalism is basically any different than methodological naturalism.

    There’s no evidence that Omphalos isn’t true, either. Does that mean that Omphalos is basically no different from methodological naturalism?

  64. #64 Michael Fugate
    February 9, 2011

    Semantic word games indicate to me that you don’t want to answer the question.

    And this unmentioned or unmentionable conception of truth is?

    Do nonmaterial entities capable of influencing the material world exist? Yes or No.

    Do you know of any instance where assuming methodological naturalism gives one an incorrect result? Not just hypothetically.

    Why shouldn’t I be a materialist? Why is nonmaterialism a valid alternative.

  65. #65 TB
    February 9, 2011

    “Semantic word games indicate to me that you don’t want to answer the question.”
    Such demands, like he’s entitled or something.

    “And this unmentioned or unmentionable conception of truth is?”
    No, that was my question to you. What do you mean by truth? Is it ultimate? Exclusive (Can two things be true at the same time?) etc.

    “Do nonmaterial entities capable of influencing the material world exist? Yes or No.”
    I have never claimed to know of any evidence for nonmaterial entities. But I don’t know everything and neither do you.

    “Do you know of any instance where assuming methodological naturalism gives one an incorrect result? Not just hypothetically.
    Why shouldn’t I be a materialist?”

    Where do you see me arguing against any of this?

    “Why is nonmaterialism a valid alternative.”

    Why shouldn’t I respect the views of others who may believe things without scientic proof who nonetheless support and defend good science education as I do? And how do you know that the people I’m referring to here don’t include philosophical naturalists?

  66. #66 Anton Mates
    February 9, 2011

    Semantic word games indicate to me that you don’t want to answer the question.

    Have you stopped beating your wife?

    You tell me what evidence against philosophical naturalism would look like, I’ll tell you if I’ve seen any.

    Do nonmaterial entities capable of influencing the material world exist? Yes or No.

    Don’t know, can’t know.

    Do you know of any instance where assuming methodological naturalism gives one an incorrect result? Not just hypothetically.

    You mean “philosophical naturalism,” right? You can’t assume methodological naturalism…it’s a method, not a claim or worldview. You just use it or you don’t.

    And no, I don’t know of any instance where assuming philosophical naturalism gives one an incorrect result. Just like assuming deism, theism or Omphalos.

    Why shouldn’t I be a materialist?

    Who said you shouldn’t? AFAICT, everyone on this thread is fine with you being a materialist .

    Why is nonmaterialism a valid alternative.

    Do you know of any evidence against nonmaterialism?

    Do you know of any instance where assuming nonmaterialism gives one an incorrect result?

  67. #67 Michael Fugate
    February 9, 2011

    Still no answers. Still no answers.
    Why are you afraid to answer? Why are you afraid to commit?
    You guys are jokes right. So sure that you know nothing and can know nothing. How do you ever make a decision when you can’t tell if a nonmaterial entity will intervene? You never know these entities may make the sun not come up tomorrow – so why plan.

    Why shouldn’t everyone be a materalist?

  68. #68 Josh Rosenau
    February 9, 2011

    Michael: If you’re going to get uppity about other people not answering your questions, it’d really behoove you to answer theirs. The other option would be to accept that no everyone has to answer everyone else’s questions, and that deciding not to answer is not an admission of error.

    “Why shouldn’t everyone be a materialist?”

    Because not everyone is sure that it is demonstrably true that nothing but the material world exists, even if they are not convinced that any particular claims about the supernatural are true.

  69. #69 Ender
    February 10, 2011

    I would go with: “Because it is not demonstrably true that nothing but the material world exists, nor even conceivably demonstrable, even if they are not convinced that any particular claims about the supernatural are true.

  70. #70 TB
    February 10, 2011

    I don’t think he understands that we’re not arguing against his personal view, but that other views can be just as valid. Or maybe he does understand that and has a problem with his assumptions being treated as assumptions instead of as the one true fact he seems to believe they are.

  71. #71 Anton Mates
    February 10, 2011

    Why are you afraid to answer? Why are you afraid to commit?

    You’re not seriously calling us out for insufficient faith in materialism, are you? That would be hilarious.

    How do you ever make a decision when you can’t tell if a nonmaterial entity will intervene? You never know these entities may make the sun not come up tomorrow – so why plan.

    Unpredictable material entities may keep the sun from coming up tomorrow too. Are you held back from making decisions by the terrifying prospects of miniature black holes and strangelets and hostile aliens? Neither am I.

    So why would I be paralyzed by the prospect of sun-devouring demons? They’re just another candidate for the “stuff I can’t disprove but don’t have time to worry about” bin.

    Why shouldn’t everyone be a materialist?

    Because not everyone wants to be one, and materialism is neither demonstrably true nor necessary for rational/ethical behavior?

    If everyone did want to be a materialist, that’d be fine too.

  72. #72 matt
    February 11, 2011

    Maybe a little off topic, but Josh brought up peer review in the context of philosophy. I didn’t even know philosophy had peer-review. What is the peer-review process in a philosophical paper? I assume it’s loosely the same as scientific papers. What gets reviewed? Do people check for logical consistency, or what? What gets you rejected? Can later philosophical papers overturn earlier ones, like in science? Do they have abstracts?

    I promise this question is honest and not rhetorical. It is asked out of sincere ignorance and I would appreciate a non-snarky answer. Although a snarky one is cool too, as long as it’s funny.