Does theism matter?

A few days ago I was over at Jerry Coyne’s blog and got into some conversations that regular readers here might be interested in. In the course of one of his regularly scheduled whinefests about how people are too mean to gnu atheists, Coyne wrote:

we’re not McCarthyites with a secret “list”. Here are some professed atheists who have been unusually (and I’d add unreasonably) critical of Gnu Atheists: Julian Baggini, Jacques Berlinerblau, Andrew Brown, R. Joseph Hoffmann, Jean Kazez, Chris Mooney, Massimo Pigliucci, Josh Rosenau, Michael Ruse, and Jeremy Stangroom.

There were two things that struck me about this comment. First, the problem with McCarthy was not that he kept his list secret, but that he made a list. To the second point, I commented:

Simple fact check: where, exactly, am I supposed to have “professed” to be an “atheist”?

There was an exchange in which people tried to turn the issue around, and have me restate my position rather than have Coyne support his claim about who professed what, but ultimately, Coyne replied:

Okay Josh, I correct myself. You’re not an atheist, but an “apathist agnostic.” I will call you that from now on. 

Happy now? Although under my definition of atheism I’d consider your stance “atheism,” I won’t quarrel about semantics. You have the right to be called anything you want, although I suspect that your adopting that pretentious label is simply a way to make your nonbelief look presentable to the public, and to duck the question about whether you believe in god.

I’ll note that the post still asserts that I’m a professed atheist, so the “I correct myself” bit is not what you’d call “true.”

Anyway, I responded with some snark about the propriety of having personal definitions of words, the dubious claim of pretentiousness, and the observation:

Your attempted mindreading notwithstanding, my issue here is not whether my views are “presentable,” it’s about the importance of being accurate, honest, and clear in describing myself and others.

I qualify my agnosticism as “apathist” because I don’t think the question “do you believe in god” is that important. It’s not that I’m dodging the issue of whether I believe in god(s), it’s that I think the question is as relevant as whether I prefer basketball or baseball, and I’d rather people would ask about things that really matter. I’d rather society were focused on things that really matter, too.

You, clearly, think this is a question that really matters. I find your arguments uncompelling (more on that anon). And that’s where things stand.


Commenter Miranda Celeste Hale asked “what do you think ‘really matters’?” and Jeanine suggested that the question of whether someone believes in god(s) or not:


is one of the most important questions of our times. …If there are more of our [atheist] mindsets out there than not, perhaps we have a chance to defend our children’s educations…to defend our personal rights…to defend and demand reason in all political discourse. Whether or not you play basketball has a much different effect on society than if you were to vote against abortion or gay marriage based on what your bible tells you.

And Ophelia Benson called my dismissal of the theism question as “odd, because if you did believe, you would be believing in someone who might torture you for eternity for some trivial action or involuntary belief. Basketball and baseball don’t have consequences of that kind.” I don’t find Pascal’s Wager any more compelling when offered by an atheist than when it’s offered by a theist, so I’m not entirely sure what that’s meant to prove.

I posted a comment in reply, but three days later, it’s still in moderation, so I’ll just post it here:

Miranda: I think what really matters is how people behave. Do they, as Jeanine puts it, “vote against abortion or gay marriage”? Do they stand up for honest science education? Do they look out for their neighbors and raise their children to care for those around them? Do they vote, and take the franchise seriously?

Contra Jeanine, I don’t think it’s important whether someone “were to vote against abortion or gay marriage based on what your bible tells you.” [emphasis added] I don’t think it’s worse that one votes against gay marriage because of a religious motive than that one votes that way from some other source of anti-gay bigotry. Nor would I condemn someone for voting for gay marriage because of their religion’s teachings (as some people do).

Voting against gay marriage or abortion is bad for the same reason that voting to ban particular items of clothing (e.g., the French ban on the niqab) is bad. These are acts that restrict another person’s rights. They are illiberal impositions of one person’s untestable metaphysical beliefs on another. And that authoritarianism is a problem regardless of whether it originates in religion or in some other force. Some religions do feed into authoritarianism, but others drive their followers to oppose such authoritarian acts, to oppose torture and war, to fight for civil rights of members of other religious groups. Why treat the (untestable) religious belief as the problem (even though it isn’t always problematic), rather than focus on the definitely problematic authoritarianism?

Ophelia: If I were to believe, I wouldn’t worship that particular god. Even if such a god exists (which is not a testable claim, so not interesting to me), it wouldn’t strike me as worthy of worship. There are significant numbers of Christians who reject the doctrine of hell, too.

But here’s the issue: would I behave differently if I believed in hell? I don’t think so. I don’t need that particular stick to force me towards good behavior. I try to be a good person now, and if I believed in hell, (I hope) I’d still be a good person. Which is why I say it doesn’t matter.

I wrote about this before.

After I’d posted that (though it never cleared moderation), Hamilton Jacobi wrote to argue:

If you think the question of whether the putative omnipotent ruler of the universe exists or not is as important and relevant as whether you prefer basketball or baseball, you’ve already made your decision. You’re an atheist — you just don’t want to admit it.

I disagreed:

I don’t know, and don’t care, whether you have a 1976 bicentennial quarter in your pocket. You might, you might not. Saying I don’t know and don’t care does not imply that I think you haven’t got one.

For the same reasons, saying I don’t know and don’t care whether god(s) exist doesn’t mean I think gods(s) don’t exist.

Ultimately, claims about whether a god exists are untestable. The universe is as it is. The parts that are measurable and observable and about which claims can be tested are as they are. If certain other, untestable claims are also true, that doesn’t change any of the observable, testable parts. A deity might have created a world of the sort we see around us (omnipotent beings can, after all, do anything, including make a universe exactly like ours). But I gain nothing by tacking on assumptions about whether or not various untestable things are or aren’t there, and I don’t think anyone else really gains much by tacking those assumptions on, either.

If people like making those assumptions, they’re naturally free to do so, as long as in doing so they don’t infringe on the rights of other people to assume other things, or to ignore the question entirely. 

When y’all folks insist that I have to have some opinion, I feel like you cross that line, and I object. Not as much as I object when some jagoff knocks on my door and asks if I’ve found Jesus, but the important thing is that everyone, even you, stop crossing the line.

Commenter Wowbagger objected to the claim that existence claims about a god are untestable: “Are they? Why, exactly? I know this is asserted by the religious (and their sympathisers), but I’ve never heard any particularly good explanation – as opposed to it being as a rather transparent goalpost-shifting tactic to justify why they’ve never found any evidence to support the existence of any gods – for why that’s the case.

I tried to post a reply, but it got eaten by the system:

Wowbagger: Are you counting Karl Popper as a religious sympathizer now? The falsifiability criterion was his baby, and has served philosophy of science pretty well over the years.

Heck, are you counting Jerry Coyne circa 2007 as a religious sympathizer? He wrote: “Science simply doesn’t deal with hypotheses about … supernatural phenomena like miracles, because science is the search for rational explanations of natural phenomena. … Where are faith’s testable predictions or falsifiable hypotheses about human origins?”

See also PZ Myers (not a notable sympathizer of religion) on the unfalsifiability of theism.

I’m sure this isn’t the end of the discussion, but I didn’t want that discussion to be arbitrarily cut off by Jerry Coyne’s questionable moderation decisions. The discussion drew out some important points about the different way I view the relevance of religion to our society and how this subset of gnu/New atheists view it. I’m guessing that other people on the “accommodationist” side of this squabble would not agree with me, but I’d be interested in hearing a wider set of responses.

Nothing above is meant to suggest that these questions should not be important to individuals. If someone personally believes in god(s) or personally finds the idea offensive, that’s certainly their right. I just don’t think it has any relevance to public discourse. And I don’t think, at the end of the day, that those beliefs have much impact on how people actually behave and interact, and that’s what I really care about.

But how can we tell whether it really matters? Coyne offered one angle on the question earlier this month, asking “What does it take to blame faith?” The standard Coyne offers is: “Would those acts have still been committed had there been no religion?,” or more succinctly “Would the amount of evil in the world be reduced if there were no religion?”

He notes that we can’t “rewind the tape of history, and … do controlled experiments in which we can insert or remove religion like a chemical in a test tube,” and so leaves us with no particular procedure for assessing these questions. Coyne acknowledges “other factors, like politics, personality disorders, civil strife, and so on, that are ’causes’ in the same way,” but gives no suggestion about how to separate those out. But that’s exactly the challenge, because removing religion wouldn’t remove those other causes, and so wouldn’t necessarily prevent wars on the scale of the Crusades, or suicide attacks on the scale of what we see in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, or the Palestinian territories.

Under those circumstances, Coyne’s attribution of various historical events to religion strikes me as a set of untestable claims, and the attitude that religion must be to blame is (for the moment) as unfalsifiable as Marx’s attribution of historical events to class warfare and Freud’s attribution of all behavior to the repressed unconscious.

It turns out, there are ways you can do this sort of work. A while back, I noted work by Coyne’s University of Chicago colleague Robert Pape, who assembled a dataset of every suicide attack since the early 1980s, and determined that neither religion nor mental illness are adequate to explain them, but that political factors - foreign troops in the bomber’s native land – were.

Similarly, Tom Rees at Epiphenom recently discussed research into the factors that make people willing to help a stranger. He describes an experiment where researchers told students one of two stories about a female classmate whose class notes were stolen. One group of students was told that the woman is a feminist (a way of marking her as an outsider to fundamentalists and right-wing authoritarians), while the other group wasn’t told anything else about her. Then both groups were asked a series of questions to gauge how willing they’d be to help the woman.

Before the story, the students were all asked about their own religious views (including an assessment of their fundamentalism), and given a questionnaire that assesses right-wing authoritarian tendencies. More religious students were more willing to help a stranger in need, but not when she was described as a feminist. Fundamentalists showed the same pattern, with no more and no less generosity than seen for comparably religious non-fundamentalists. Authoritarianism, which generally correlates closely with fundamentalism, but can be teased apart with enough data, was not associated with any increased generosity in general, or any decreased generosity toward a feminist.

Rees adds that according to the researchers:

what this means is that religious fundamentalism is not simply right-wing authoritarianism in religious clothing. Fundamentalists, unlike right-wing authoritarians, are more pro-social to friends and non-threatening people who could be considered members of their own group.

Blogowska and Saroglou also found another interesting gem. They asked their students straight out whether they practised universal love – whether they were willing to help all people, regardless of who they were. Of course, both the ordinary religious and the fundamentalists were more likely to say that they did.

Even though they had just given the game away in the answers they gave just moments before!

It’s a fascinating bit of research that does let us assess whether religion or authoritarianism is more important in shaping people’s social behavior. And in this case, religion matters more (though it’s always possible there’s some confounding factor driving religiosity and lack of generosity towards an outsider that the study didn’t consider). With enough similar studies, we could start to make sensible generalizations, even about historical events. But starting with grand historical events, or broad social phenomena before we’ve developed a more detailed understanding of how religiosity influences people’s behavior just seems like putting the cart before the horse, privileging assumptions over data. Maybe, when the data are gathered and analyzed, it’ll be fair to say that certain conflicts would not have happened, or certain social problems wouldn’t have developed, but for religion.

Comments

  1. #1 Greg
    April 21, 2011

    Does evolution matter to atheism?

    No.

    More theists than atheists maintain evolution. Pope John Paul II supported evolution.

    The evolution vs creation debate is in it’s entirety a strawman argument by young earth creationists and most muslims and no-one else. To learn all about evolution is utterly useless in the promotion of atheism. Hindu gods do not violate the principles of evolution. Atheism is the belief, a position (and a lack of belief is not a position, or anything…. there is no such thing as a lack of something BEING something) that there is no god. Atheism is resolved at it’s best with inductive logic, and although we can prove certain gods do not exist (logically and not scientifically) we cannot prove all proposed gods do not exist and thus there is “probably” no god. The possibility exists and by admitting atheism is a belief we admit that possibility.

    Atheism is not science. Scientists that attempt to promote their science because it offsets small minorities of theists have fallen for the pitiful logic of theists and believe their science matters to atheism. False. They use “atheism” as a tool to promote their science when atheism has nothing at all to do with any science.

    Over 50% of the US supports evolution and less than 15% are atheists. Evolution supports atheism about as much as robotics supports poetry.

    This article uses the term “nonbelief” which shows a misunderstanding of NON, which is a set theory term and refers to a complement set. Belief is not a set. Nonbelief is semantic nonsense. “Your nonbelief” even moreso, since while milk is nonalcoholic, it has no property “nonalcohol” and neither does the atheist have a property called “nonbelief”.

    These and other confusions lead me to conclude the author struggles with what atheism even is in the first place. While I am sure he is competent at biology, I have no reason to suggest the same on atheism. Certainly not due to being an evolutionary biologist. This leaves him as qualified to write on atheism as any cab driver, with all due respect for his scientific proficiency.

  2. #2 Ian
    April 21, 2011

    I think that God exists because there is a range of human experience that people see as being experiences of the “divine”. It doesn’t mean that the supernatural exists any more than does the experience of love mean that Cupid exists.

    I don’t whether “God” exists outside of human experience. And I don’t particularly care. I have no real use of a supernatural God in my worldview, in my experience, in my life. But I consider myself a Christian, and I am an active member of a mainline church. And no, I’m not just a ‘cultural Christian’ – I spent almost two decades describing myself as an atheist (or sometimes an agnostic, since I said that I could not believe in the non-existence of something that I can’t conceive of).

  3. #3 one true
    April 21, 2011

    there is obviously no god, using the normal meaning of the word ‘god’, ie some kind of supernatural being, “outside” of our (real) time/space/dimension. as to any/all specific man made religions and god, ala jebus/allah/ad naseum/christianity/islam/etc anyone who would even take seriously any of their propositions is a delusional moron, too stupid to deserve an answer.

  4. #4 Lesley Fellows
    April 22, 2011

    Thank-you for this post Josh – I am with you on all of it. I agree about authoritarianism shaping our behaviour. Have you seen this TED video? I would be interested in your thoughts.

  5. #5 Anthony McCarthy
    April 22, 2011

    Whether or not you play basketball has a much different effect on society than if you were to vote against abortion or gay marriage based on what your bible tells you.

    First, my ex-legislator told his colleagues that he voted in favor of gay marriage and gay rights because his parents raised him in the Catholic social justice tradition. From just about the beginning of the Gay rights agitation, there has been religious support for it as well as religious opposition to it. I’m old enough so I remember there was considerable opposition to gay rights from atheists who were psychologists. In fact, one of the more prominent proponents of “curing” gay folks is an atheist. Many of the atheists of my youth were macho men who were decidedly oppressive when it came to gay folks. Harry Hay was kicked out of the old CP for being gay. It wasn’t on the basis of “theism” or The Bible. He wasn’t the only one. If you’re not familiar with Hay, his biography is interesting reading. Grandpa Walton was his lover, for Pete’s sake.

    The Bible is silent on the question of abortion. Many Christians and Jews support the right of women to choose safe, legal abortions or not. I haven’t looked at the survey numbers and don’t have time to right now but I’d guess that most of the people in the United States who support access to safe, legal abortion are religious, most of them Christians. It’s generally a safe assumption that any issue that gets close to a majority of support or over, in the United States, most of those people will be Christians and members of other religions. I think it’s generally a safe bet in most countries that the majority will be religious.

    And Ophelia Benson called my dismissal of the theism question as “odd, because if you did believe, you would be believing in someone who might torture you for eternity for some trivial action or involuntary belief.

    “Theism” doesn’t necessarily mean a belief in eternal damnation. In history, I’ll bet that eternal damnation is a minority belief among “theists”. I doubt most of the Catholics I know believe in eternal damnation and I know a lot of Catholics. I’ve heard some argue that Paul said “Jesus came so that all would be saved,” and to believe that even one person was eternally damned would mean that Jesus failed in his ministry.

    Though, belief in eternal damnation isn’t an argument about whether or not God exists. No more than a belief in universal salvation is one in favor of it. If that was not the case than O.B. would have no logical alternative than to become a Universalist.

  6. #6 whyevolutionistrue
    April 22, 2011

    The absence of your post was not due to “questionable moderation decisions”. It was automatically held by WordPress, and I check held comments only every two days or so. It has in fact just been approved.

    You might have asked before making your unwarranted assumption.

  7. #7 Jean Kazez
    April 22, 2011

    As another person on The List, I thought I’d respond to part of your post. Coyne asks “what does it take to blame faith?” and suggests a counterfactual test. We should blame faith if such and such bad things wouldn’t have happened, without faith. Okay, but it’s only fair to credit faith too, using the same test. It gets credit, if such and such good things wouldn’t have happened, without faith.

    I have a very hard time seeing what the ratio is between blame for bad and credit for good–is it 50-50, or 70-30, or 30-70, or what? I just honestly don’t know. I think any of those ratios is possible. For that reason, I don’t find myself constantly preoccupied with how we can get rid of religion.

    I think new/gnus tend to downplay the whole issue of credit (Coyne didn’t even mention it in that post about blaming faith, as I recall). It’s as if you could evaluate religion after considering the blame side of the ledger, and just ignore the credit side. That’s like assessing sports after considering the harm it does, and leaving aside the issue of benefits. Or like assessing urban living based on the congestion and smog, and not considering the parks and museums.

    Plus, when crediting religion for good things is at issue, there’s a tendency (among new/gnus) to be stingy about it. The credit counterfactuals are dealt with differently than the blame counterfactuals. “If Texans weren’t religious, they wouldn’t donate as much money to charities.” To evaluate that, you should actually just consider Texans as they are, but without faith. I think it’s true they wouldn’t donate as much money. To avoid that conclusion you might imagine a very distant scenario in which Texas is a lot like Denmark. That way, Texans would still donate a lot, and religion in the real Texas gets no credit. But that would be a sleight of hand.

    You can pull the same trick when you’re looking at a blame counterfactual. “If Texans weren’t religious, there wouldn’t be as much opposition to gay marriage.” Now you can imagine a distant scenario in which Texans have a non-religious but still anti-gay culture, like probably exists somewhere or other (China?). Of course, those who want to blame religion for things aren’t going to do that.

    If we handle credit and blame evenhandedly, we get a picture of religion as deserving both, and in no clear ratio. So–at least as far as impact is concerned–I don’t find myself thinking I have any reason to care much whether people are religious, per se. So I’m with you on this, but perhaps for somewhat different reasons.

  8. #8 Sergio
    April 22, 2011

    Of course theism matters. Any rudimentary understanding of Christian theology indicates that it is authoritarian at its core – a megamaniacal dictator that demands that you submit to him and constantly praise him, under the penalty of eternal torture. This is why its so easy to vote to restrict the rights of others when the jealous magic skyman tells you its neccesary. Anyone who says otherwise is simply ignoring what the Bibles says, including these Christians who reject the doctrine of hell.

    Also, an “apathist agnostic” doesnt believe in any deities, therefore this person is an atheist. Lets not kid ourselves.

  9. #9 Anthony McCarthy
    April 22, 2011

    Sergio, do you have any appreciation for the discrepancy between the first paragraph in your comment, alleging that Christianity is a totalitarian system and then you joining in with those who believe they know what agnostics conclude about their own minds than they do themselves.

    I hadn’t looked at Coyne in a while. I guess he finds what’s clearly a bizarre parody of pre-civil rights black dialect is the height of hilarity. I guess this is evidence that the new atheism is a development from the “anti political correctness” non-humor of the 1980s. Gnasty as the want to be, indeed. Coyne has gone round the bend.

  10. #10 abb3w
    April 22, 2011

    I’d also disagree with your assessment on “untestable”, in that I think you are making an implicit assumption on what “test” may encompass. To wit, you appear to posit that a “test” must involve the design and running of a formal experiment, followed by analysis of the evidence resulting, yielding a statistical confidence of (say) p≥0.95 as to the nature of the result.

    I would argue that the scientifically essential part is not the design and running of the experiment, but the running of the analysis for the results. As a matter of practice, the design is to make the analysis easier; however, this is merely to improve computational efficiency, not whether the computation is effectively possible. The actual test (with apologies to zombie Feynman) and the core of science is not the experiment, but the bookkeeping done afterward.

    As such, competing hypotheses may be tested against the body of evidence thus far available. This may not (and in some philosophical sense, cannot) allow a p≥0.95 confidence conclusion, especially given multiple competing hypotheses; however, it may allow identifying a MAX(pi) conclusion over the set of i hypotheses. (Cue the Vitanyi/Li paper I periodically mention….)

    While I agree that the 0.95/experimental method is within science, I do not think this gives the philosophical demarcation thereof. Thus, while God may not be testable by the former, it does not mean that God is not testable at all.

  11. #11 Josh Rosenau
    April 22, 2011

    Jerry (whyevolutionistrue): You say you check the moderation queue every two days (which is a long time if you hope to maintain the flow of discussion), and that comment had been waiting a day and a half longer. That same day, I posted a different comment, noting that I had a comment caught in moderation. You had notice. What else should I have done?

  12. #12 Josh Rosenau
    April 22, 2011

    Sergio: “an ‘apathist agnostic’ doesnt believe in any deities, therefore this person is an atheist.”

    An apathist agnostic doesn’t deny that deities might exist, but doesn’t find the question interesting enough to feel a need to adopt any belief on the matter. That’s not atheism.

  13. #13 Josh Rosenau
    April 22, 2011

    abb3w: There’s no doubt that some sorts of gods could well be testable. If you go to the top of Mt. Olympus and don’t find a guy with winged shoes and another with a bucket of lightning bolts, you’ve probably falsified Greek gods.

    But an omnipotent, omniscient deity is untestable. It can do anything, so no observation is inconsistent with its existence. If it doesn’t want to be detected, it can tweak enough events that its actions do not upset any statistical norms, or show up in any effort at statistical testing (like an omnipotent, omniscient version of Stephenson’s Detachment 2702 from Cryptonomicon).

  14. #14 Wowbagger
    April 22, 2011

    Josh,

    Thanks for responding. My question was a genuine one, and looking at it now I realise it comes across more snarkily rhetorical than I intended.

    Yes, obviously an omnipotent being that didn’t want to be discovered would be unfalsifiable; that’s not what I consider to be the issue – it’s the presumption that not finding anything can’t possibly mean there’s nothing there, and must mean there is something there – but that that something a) doesn’t want to be found and b) has the power to hide itself.

    That’s the part that I’ve never heard a good explanation (but no shortage of rationalisation) for: why a non-deist god wouldn’t want to be detected – particularly the Christian’s god, who (supposedly) wants us to believe in him so we can be good and go to heaven when we die.

    When you also consider that the bible is full of stories of this god interacting with the Israelites, to turn around and claim that their god is somehow unavailable and undetectable by any means seems at least a little inconsistent.

  15. #15 Josh Rosenau
    April 22, 2011

    Wowbagger: There are any number of explanations offered for why such a deity might wish to be undetectable. Modern theologians often work in the tradition of process theology, which essentially extends free will to all of nature, meaning that the deity cannot or chooses not to directly force events one way or another, but can only nudge one way or another (this is a gross oversimplication, but will suffice for our immediate purposes).

    Why might an omnipotent god, one capable of resurrecting dead demi-gods and raining manna down on a desert and heck creating the universe choose not to use that power? The general argument is that free will is an ultimate form of good, and that miraculous interventions (i.e., interventions that simply violate natural law) would take that choice away. If a 900 foot tall Jesus started wandering through Oklahoma, healing the sick and raising the dead and so forth, it’d be kinda foolish for anyone not to start taking Oral Roberts seriously, and reviewing his ideas about the good life. Which means that it’d no longer be an act of free will, and that removal of free will would outweigh whatever good a more overtly interventionist deity might be able to do.

    I should say that I don’t take this theology any more seriously than any other. Natural law theology gets at a lot of the same issues and is (AFAIK) the official Catholic view. Other people get at this by other avenues. Ultimately, they all converge on the point that the natural processes science can study and codify are real and predictable phenomena that we should study and base our planning on. Whatever metaphysic gets people to that point doesn’t really matter to me, as long as they take science seriously.

  16. #16 Al West
    April 23, 2011

    I have no dog in this fight, and I read both your blog and Coyne’s. I am fine with anyone not caring about the existence of deities – that seems to be the norm in the Scandinavian countries – and of course, it’s a reasonable position to some extent, especially due to the lack of falsifiability when it comes to deism (not theism, perhaps). Personally, however, I’m interested in metaphysics. I find the truth or falsehood of ideas about the universe in which we live to be a vital topic, an important one in and of itself. It is up to you whether you share that view, and it seems as if you don’t.

    But then the question becomes: if you don’t care about the metaphysical question itself, why do you care about the people who care about the metaphysical question? Why bother arguing with atheists, gnu or otherwise? Other apathetic individuals don’t spend any time either caring about the question or caring about the people who care about the question. And if metaphysics isn’t important to you, if extrapolating from the findings of science to more encompassing facts about the nature of the universe isn’t important to you, then why is science important to you? What’s the point? Technological advancement? And are there limits on science? Clearly there are limits on what you believe can be extrapolated from scientific data with regard to important questions about the universe. Why stop there? Why bother with science in the first place?

    I’m a social scientist – an anthropologist, in fact, the branch of science most plagued by poor metaphysicians and external-reality-deniers. But even excluding the pomos and ultra-epistemological relativists and the Latourians and so on, religious belief is another obstacle to the scientific study of humanity. The entire idea of scientifically investigating humans is something that religious people (including, IIRC, Francis Collins) frequently express distaste towards. Scientifically investigating humans is not something approved of by many religious organisations, including the Catholic Church, and such organisations deny that even evolutionary science can apply to human beings. What, in the end, is the difference between that position and out-and-out creationism? It’s a difference of degree, not kind.

    Basically what I’m saying is that your view,

    Whatever metaphysic gets people to that point doesn’t really matter to me, as long as they take science seriously

    is sufficient only if you draw science incredibly narrowly, so as to exclude science concerned with humans. And, in the end, it matters what position you take with regard to metaphysics.

  17. #17 Sergio
    April 23, 2011

    “doesn’t find the question interesting enough to feel a need to adopt any belief on the matter. That’s not atheism.”

    That absolutely is atheism. If you do not have any belief on the matter, you are an atheist. You are narrowing down the definition to one that is only outright denial of theism. Agnosticism only emerges as a “third” option when you restrict the definition of atheism in this way – but the true definition is broader than this. Any person who is without belief in god, for whatever reason, qualifies as an atheist.

    I actually agree with you when you say you don’t find the question interesting enough. There is no real definition for what “God” actually is, so when someone asks me if I believe in “God” and they are unable to give a coherent definition of what they are talking about the conversation must stop right there.

    My point is that the difference between atheism (as you define it) and agnosticism is so trivial that to try to distinguish yourself from atheism really IS skirting the issue, and I suspect its to try to separate your attitude towards believers from that of the “new atheists”. Seems kinda ridiculous given that there is essentially no difference between your worldview as an “apathist agnostic” and me or Jerry Coyne or Richard Dawkins as “atheists”.

  18. #18 Anthony McCartny
    April 23, 2011

    Al West, I’m sure it might come to a surprise to people in anthropology departments at Catholic universities and colleges that the Catholic Church is the enemy of anthropology.

    If you mean that Catholics and other religious people refuse to adopt your materialist dogma and the program of explanatory myths based in Sociobiology envy, that’s hardly a matter of rejecting science. Now that even E. O. Wilson is rethinking the bases of that ideology, maybe you should consider the criticism of it will become ever more common, ending, I’d guess, in the eventual junking of it. Just as previous ideologies in the social sciences have been junked as their scientific lapses cease to be covered up.

  19. #19 Anthony McCartny
    April 23, 2011

    Al West, I’m sure it might come to a surprise to people in anthropology departments at Catholic universities and colleges that the Catholic Church is the enemy of anthropology.

    If you mean that Catholics and other religious people refuse to adopt your materialist dogma and the program of explanatory myths based in Sociobiology envy, that’s hardly a matter of rejecting science. Now that even E. O. Wilson is rethinking the bases of that ideology, maybe you should consider the criticism of it will become ever more common, ending, I’d guess, in the eventual junking of it. Just as previous ideologies in the social sciences have been junked as their scientific lapses cease to be covered up.

  20. #20 Al West
    April 23, 2011

    If you mean that Catholics and other religious people refuse to adopt your materialist dogma and the program of explanatory myths based in Sociobiology envy, that’s hardly a matter of rejecting science.

    Materialist dogma? What actually exists in the universe is what we might call ‘material’, or at the very least, ‘physical’, in that matter may be meaningfully counterposed to energy, making ‘physical’ more apropos. If you disagree with this basic idea (that what exists in the universe is real, physical, and effectively reducible to matter and energy), then, politely, fuck off. If you think it is the job of social scientists to dismiss physics and chemistry, then you have it all wrong, and you have nothing to add. To understand and explain humans in any meaningful sense, the physical universe, and the physical nature of all phenomena, must be taken into account. It’s a shame that people like you are scared of this, but this fear is certainly sufficient to explain the inadequacy of anthropology departments at doing what they are supposed to do (ie, explaining human cultural diversity) and it’s also sufficient to explain the fright they feel when data from other relevant disciplines (notably, primatology, which has added much to the understanding of human kinship but remains very much untouched by typical anthropology departments – see the general lack of interest in Bernard Chapais’ seminal Primeval Kinship, for example).

    But physicalism is a different issue to sociobiology. Sociobiology is not a productive approach to human behaviour. It is not necessary to be a sociobiologist to take a scientific (viz, empirical, rational) approach to the issue of humans and their behaviour, and it is not necessary to be guided by E.O Wilson and Dawkins in utilising a range of extra-disciplinary studies of relevance to the study of humans. No, the sociobiology stuff – while not totally irrelevant – is really insufficient (at best).

    Al West, I’m sure it might come to a surprise to people in anthropology departments at Catholic universities and colleges that the Catholic Church is the enemy of anthropology.

    Oh, I’m sure the Catholic church is not opposed to the pseudo-journalism and ridiculous, posturing, so-called ‘humanism’ that socio-cultural anthropology has become, especially in the USA (but really, all over, even where I am). But this is not a productive thing at all, and this kind of ‘anthropology’ (ie, journalism) has become the Don Quixote of academia, trying to do exactly what should not be done: questioning physics and chemistry without ever understanding them (not explicitly, of course – always implicitly), and asserting that the subject is not epistemological but ontological. Somehow.

    And that… that’s risible.

  21. #21 Al West
    April 23, 2011

    My first reply did not appear – I assume it was because I used an expletive/was rude – but here is a mildly modified form.

    If you mean that Catholics and other religious people refuse to adopt your materialist dogma and the program of explanatory myths based in Sociobiology envy, that’s hardly a matter of rejecting science.

    Materialist dogma? What actually exists in the universe is what we might call ‘material’, or at the very least, ‘physical’, in that matter may be meaningfully counterposed to energy, making ‘physical’ more apropos. If you disagree with this basic idea (that what exists in the universe is real, physical, and effectively reducible to matter and energy), then, politely, sod off. If you think it is the job of social scientists to dismiss physics and chemistry, then you have it all wrong, and you have nothing to add. To understand and explain humans in any meaningful sense, the physical universe, and the physical nature of all phenomena, must be taken into account. It’s a shame that people like you are scared of this, but this fear is certainly sufficient to explain the inadequacy of anthropology departments at doing what they are supposed to do (ie, explaining human diversity) and it’s also sufficient to explain the fright they feel when they encounter data from other relevant disciplines (notably, primatology, which has added much to the understanding of human kinship but remains very much untouched by typical anthropology departments – see the general lack of interest in Bernard Chapais’ seminal Primeval Kinship, for example – and just look at the pack ice that has developed between every anthropology department in the world, and every cognitive science department).

    But physicalism is a different issue to sociobiology. Sociobiology is not a productive approach to human behaviour. It is not necessary to be a sociobiologist to take a scientific (viz, empirical, rational) approach to the issue of humans and their behaviour, and it is not necessary to be guided by E.O Wilson and Dawkins in utilising a range of extra-disciplinary studies of relevance to the study of humans. No, the sociobiology stuff – while not totally irrelevant – is really insufficient (at best).

    Al West, I’m sure it might come to a surprise to people in anthropology departments at Catholic universities and colleges that the Catholic Church is the enemy of anthropology.

    Oh, I’m sure the Catholic church is not opposed to the pseudo-journalism and ridiculous, posturing, so-called ‘humanism’ that socio-cultural anthropology has become, especially in the USA (but really, all over, even where I am). But this is not a productive thing at all, and this kind of ‘anthropology’ (ie, journalism) has become the Don Quixote of academia, trying to do exactly what should not be done: questioning physics and chemistry without ever understanding them (not explicitly, of course – always implicitly), and asserting that the subject is not epistemological but ontological. Somehow.

    And that… that’s risible.

  22. #22 Anthony McCarthy
    April 24, 2011

    Al West, obviously, you don’t like Catholics, it colors your statements about Catholics in ways that if it was Jews or Black People or gay folk you were railing about, instead of a group it’s not unacceptable to be bigoted against, people would understand not to trust your characterization of their work. In fact, it sounds exactly like some of the things that have been said about “Jewish science” in the past two centuries. Then, it was frequently Franz Boaz who was held out as unreliable, it was sometimes Einstein. Why don’t you tell us exactly who in anthropology you find unreliable because they are Catholic? Where is your evidence that the Catholic Church exerts determinative pressure on Catholics who are anthropologists? those teaching at Catholic institutions and those who don’t? I could name Catholic theologians who dissent from official Catholic teaching. Until recently, several who taught at Catholic institutions but most of whom have been silenced by the Vatican.

    Materialism is an ideological dogma, it makes statements about, not the physical universe, but about the nature of reality, that are entirely apart from science. It is especially problematic for those who propose to study human behavior because so much of human behavior is not known to be the product of physical laws. There is no physical law that could produce a belief that the material universe is all that is really there. You can’t even produce your own ideological stand with science, you have to add belief in the comprehensive nature of your understanding of the universe, an understanding that, when questioned very closely and very hard, even materialists among physicists have to admit is not known but is merely believed. Honesty requires agnosticism about the ideology of materialism as much as it does the belief in any aspect of super-naturalism. Science can’t support either one.

    Anthropology is a real mess, as are all the social sciences. It’s often the pretenses of materialism as well as the impossibility of applying the most basic requirements of science and mathematics to the study of behaviors that are that the root of it. As those are rampant in the so-called sciences, they’ve got problems far deeper than an infection of papists.

  23. #23 Anthony McCarthy
    April 24, 2011

    This should read:

    several who taught at Catholic institutions but most of whom have NOT been silenced by the Vatican.

  24. #24 Al West
    April 24, 2011

    You have deliberately misunderstood my position. I’m not anti-Catholic on a personal level, and I’m certain that most Catholics are capable of being as scientific as anyone else. I am, in fact, the product of a Catholic family, and my father was a physicist. But that doesn’t change the fact that, officially, the Catholic church believes that human beings are different in kind from other animals by dint of having been imbued with a “soul”, whatever that is supposed to be, at some (undefined, imaginary) point in the past, unequivocally (and arbitrarily, it seems) separating them from their previous generations. The official position is that studying human beings in a scientific way, concordant with the understanding we have of physics and biology, is degrading, and even evil. And that is absolutely ridiculous. Fortunately, Catholics, like everyone else, are perfectly capable of disregarding the commands of the church and continuing to try to understand human beings in a scientific way.

    As for your statements about physicalism: you are correct in asserting that we cannot currently prove that all phenomena are physical. But that is precisely why we should study human beings in as great a detail as possible. We may even find evidence of your supposed ‘non-material’ element! It seems absurd to believe that there is a non-physical element to anything (what does that even mean, anyway?), but it’s especially absurd given the lack of evidence for that. There is none in favour of that, after all, and lots (hydrogen bombs, the case of Phineas Gage) on which to base belief in the inverse.

    You assert that it isn’t possible for beliefs to result from matter, but that is an incredibly simplistic notion. Why is it that you believe human brains are so mysterious? Information-processing, which is essentially what belief is (if it isn’t that, then please explain what you mean it to be), is not a mysterious process – computer science is predicated on this, as is most of the philosophy of the mind. Saying that the grey matter of the human brain is not capable of beliefs about metaphysics is like saying that the circuits of a computer are not capable of storing a Jimmy Buffett song. It doesn’t mean that the computer has an intuitive feel for Jimmy Buffett, and it doesn’t mean that metaphysical beliefs are intuitively understandable by the brain. I can tell myself that the universe is physical – it is – and that the table on which my computer rests is made up of atoms, but that doesn’t mean I can perceive those atoms. Belief is an emergent, surface phenomenon, not a metaphysically-troubling essence. Plato’s forms aren’t really the way we conceive of things, and neither are ‘clear and distinct ideas’.

    As for the deeper problems of the social sciences, they actually result from the physical facts of the universe. The universe is made up of elementary particles, energy, space. At the level of electrons and nucleii, physicists can make perfect, accurate, mathematical statements about what will happen in any given scenario (see, for instance, quantum electro-dynamics). Put a bunch of particles together, and the predictive capability is stretched a little – the maths gets complicated and prediction is not precisely accounting for each atom, but is instead statistical, for practical reasons. Put a load of particles together in chains of molecules, such as chemists study, and the predictive capacity is stretched further. And then look at biology, where molecules interact in extremely complex ways. Absolute, precise prediction is impossible at this stage, although retrodiction is possible, and some tendencies (like natural selection) are able to be induced.

    But then take something like an organism with a complex brain, which is susceptible to an enormous number of influences that influence its behaviour. The arrangement of neurons, axons, prions, etc, in an average human brain can be arranged in an enormous number of configurations – a number exceeding the total number of elementary particles in the universe. These arrangements come about through genetics, environmental stimuli beginning in the womb, all kinds of unpredictable things that can be imprinted in early childhood, and so on throughout life. This means that not only is the number of variables enormous, it is sometimes not even possible to predict what the variables are. And then you choose to complicate this already absurdly-complicated reality by imposing an arbitrary and evidence-less idea of something non-physical, which is absolutely unnecessary.

    All the evidence points to the physical nature of the universe, and the emergence of complex behaviours from a physical brain. Your view that that isn’t true is the result of dogma, not evidence. Which means that, despite all of the evidence being against your position, and despite your position being philosophically unsophisticated, you won’t even consider changing your mind and assessing the arguments of neuroscientists and philosophers of mind, who have all, by the way, considered your view in great detail and found it to be wanting.

  25. #25 Anthony McCarthy
    April 24, 2011

    , the Catholic church believes that human beings are different in kind from other animals by dint of having been imbued with a “soul” Al West

    You, as every scientist and just about every other person does, believe that human beings have an accurate view of the material universe unavailable to any other known species, that our very human view through logic and mathematics and the formal mechanisms of science provide us with direct knowledge of the fine structure of the universe. It’s an absurd position to hold that materialists don’t believe they are different from other animals by dint of that peculiar ability. No other animal we know of has anything like a human language or culture.

    The pretense that even the most fundamentalist of Darwinists don’t continually appeal to uniquely human thinking and points of view couldn’t be more clearly false.

    I’d love to go through your post piece by piece to show that it is full of ideology dressed in the language of science but without the basic prerequisites of science. Your bringing up poor Phineas Gage is a case in point. Other than his shattered skull there is no physical evidence on which to base anything said about him. What “evidence” there is about his behavior, the basis of the string of babble told about him, couldn’t be less suited for science, since it is less than second hand testimony, lacking any rigor kind of scientific rigor. Any subsequent, alleged, changes in his behavior uniformly disregard the personal trauma of going from being a whole, handsome man to being disabled and disfigured, apart from the reaction to the experience of possible difficulties in his social life, not to mention transient episodes of cognitive difficulty, ignores him as a living, thinking, feeling human being. It is the reduction of him from being a living person changing in response to his experience to a schematic diagram used to further a philosophical ideology. That it is essential to ignore those aspects of human life and experience in order to further that form of materialism, for its advocates to emotionally insist that those aspects are irrelevant to human personality seems to show that it can’t succeed when more of the total reality is considered. That an anthropologist wouldn’t consider those issues in addressing the allegedly scientific use of him doesn’t speak well for anthropology as a science.

    I will address more later.

  26. #26 Al West
    April 24, 2011

    ignores him as a living, thinking, feeling human being.

    This is, simply, bullshit. The story of Phineas Gage and his unfortunate fate is tragic, and we can all accept that. I would not have wanted to be in his shoes, and it is terrible that it occurred at all. And of course, I would be fine, as most would be, simply speculating about the brain and its works if it meant that Mr Gage had not had to have a long iron rod zip through his head. But now that it has happened, it has enabled us to learn about the brain – perhaps not the original case notes, but the desire to learn more about the brain and its potential modularities. This research has, by the way, not only revealed knowledge in a philosophical sense, but also helped people with brain injuries and unfortunate genetic abnormalities like Broca’s aphasia. Read any book on modern neuroscience and you will see that sensitivity to people is very important. Ramachandran’s work is full of such work, and such sensitivity.

    But at the same time, if an iron rod went through my head, the silver lining on the cloud would be that research on me could help people in the future, and that it might help with philosophical quandaries – certainly an important thing. That may not have been Gage’s view – it almost certainly wasn’t, although he did carry the tamping iron with him wherever he went – but it goes to show that even when you decide to treat people as “living, thinking, feeling human being[s]”, you can’t actually predict what, if anything, a person is feeling about any particular issue, unless you’re a rank behaviourist, and are therefore imputing a content that isn’t necessarily actually there. That approach to humanity is not academic. It’s fine in normal life, but it renders the social sciences impossible. If that is what you believe, then fine, but that makes you a perfect example of my original point about religious opposition to science concerning humans.

    our very human view through logic and mathematics and the formal mechanisms of science provide us with direct knowledge of the fine structure of the universe.

    Oh, on the contrary, that knowledge is quite indirect. It is impossible to intuitively grasp such things – you and I and everyone else can only do it through indirect, rational, external media, and express only marginally well in words. Think of mathematics: look at a bowl of four M&Ms, and you’ll probably have no problem simply seeing, directly, that there are four. But put sixteen M&Ms in a bowl and you will, unless you’re different to the vast majority of humanity, have to subdivide the M&Ms – either count them by ones, divide into four fours, and so on. Now imagine that there are Graham’s number of M&Ms. You will absolutely 100% certainly not be able to say how many M&Ms there are in this (obviously totally hypothetical) bowl. There are limits on the brain, and we have to use indirect methods to find things out. This is because, intelligent as most of us are, we are still just animals with big brains. We are not incredible, super-animal beings imbued with an ability for certain knowledge that corresponds absolutely to the universe. We are just smart animals, and if we weren’t, we wouldn’t need a scientific method. There would be no biases to eliminate.

    And no, language does not mean a difference in kind, especially since categorisation – the very basis of language, a necessary part of it – is clearly something done by most non-human primates. Signalling is also performed by non-human primates, too, and that easily satisfies Peirce’s definition of a ‘sign'(“a sign is something by knowing which you can know more”). So non-human organisms can categorise and use signs to tell each other things. Human language, then, is not a difference in kind. Even if it were – even if there were no evidence of these traits in any other species – it still wouldn’t mean that the human species presented a totally new phenomenon: it would be reasonable to assume (much more so than for the “soul” position) that it came about gradually rather than that it represented an absolute, qualitative difference between two generations down the line (that being the only way that a difference in kind is tenable). Can you imagine that one day, some hominids are sitting around and an arbitrary subset of them, a certain generation, just starts communicating with fully-developed human language?

    Neither can I.

  27. #27 Anthony McCarthy
    April 24, 2011

    As for the deeper problems of the social sciences, they actually result from the physical facts of the universe. Al West

    That credo, that the various phenomena AND EXPERIENCES of consciousness follow physical law, has been an explicitly stated assumption since the beginning of formal attempts to establish psychology as a topic taught in universities. William James stated that assumption as a given, but that assumption was based in a total of no evidence that thinking follows anything like physical laws or that it is the product of them. I believe the adoption of that assumption was entirely political, done in order to adopt the prestige of the physical sciences for an area of study which would have naturally aroused opposition from other faculties resistant to novelties and a possible need to share resources and students. It has persisted through the inertia of the formal edifice built by psychology, and later, other associated departments. That it persisted through the crackpot absurdity of Freudianism, the lapses and troublesome history of Behaviorism and many, other associated schools of psychology, even as they violated the most basic requirements of science, turns it into a holding of scholastic faith instead of a fact. I look at the almost century and a half effort, the huge junkyard of decommissioned “science”, which is, nonetheless, still taught and still “practiced” and I doubt the entire effort is anything like science.

    Science was invented and developed for one reason, to produce more reliable information about the physical universe. I see nothing reliable in the body of holdings in the social sciences. I look at the newest attempts with fMRIs and similar technology and I see the rapid, enthusiastic embrace of them and the building upon the original assertions of what these wonderful pictures show without, first, ascertaining that those assumptions were reliable and I expect another cathedral of “science” built on sand to come crashing down. One of the biggest problems with even that sciency practice is the reliability on tiny samples of volunteers whose testimony about their mental state and perception aren’t much of an advance over what went before. There is no way to get beyond those problems. You can’t know anything about someones’ experience without them telling you what they perceive that to be and your taking their testimony as being reliable. That is about as far as the observation of physical entities, their quantification and objective analysis of them as you could get. I haven’t gone into the ideological predisposition of the researcher as a source of pollution in the effort, though that is demonstrably relevant due to its prevalence in the history of the debunking of overturned “science” of that kind.

    That it is highly desired to be able to make reliable conclusions about behavior and consciousness doesn’t signify much. Hope doesn’t make a good substitute for information of demonstrable reliability. Your contention that someday, somehow, it will all come together to attain the status of a real science is of exactly the same status as anyone who would contend that someday theology or history could become legitimate branches of science. As of today that rapturous dawn is no where in sight, it’s as probable that it will never happen as the belief that it will.

    I know many physical scientists who will, in private, make these and similar criticisms of the so-called sciences.

  28. #28 Al West
    April 24, 2011

    I have responded to the first part of your post, but it has been swallowed by the system, so I shall respond to the second and hope that my reply turns up.

    There are problems with the human sciences. This is certainly true. But your disdain for neuroscience shows your apparent lack of familiarity with it. It does not consist simply of fMRI brain scans and verbal reports. In fact, some very surprising methods have been employed: direct electrical stimulation of certain parts of the brain have been used to find areas of it associated with the movement of different muscles, for instance, which is hardly behaviourist, even in its fundamentals. And if you read even a popular account – such as the books of, let’s say, VS Ramachandran – you will find that neuroscientific procedures are actually quite honed, and can even be used for therapeutic purposes.

    It’s interesting that you talk of things like Freudianism as crackpottery. Undoubtedly the case, I’d say, but that’s rather problematic for your point. If you can actually dismiss – that is to say, falsify – ideas concerning human beings and the brain, then there is at least something scientific that can be said of human beings and the brain, even if it can at this point only be phrased negatively (although I would disagree, and say that we are well beyond that point).

    And yes, it might be difficult to compile all of the knowledge gained through cognitive psychology, linguistics, cross-cultural studies, neuroscience, and so on, to produce an airtight account in the same way that physics is airtight (even if you don’t think it is). And social science can never be perfectly predictive; to expect that of organisms of such complexity is to expect too much. But the idea that humans can’t be studied at all, or that somehow your lack of familiarity with and distaste towards the fruits of the scientific method as applied to human beings is proof of their lack of validity – those things are wrong.

    It’s fine if you don’t want to learn about people. You can try to appreciate them as the incredible, super-animal beings that they apparently are. But you should do this outside of the academy, especially if you are going to doubt the physical reality of the universe, or continue to believe in supposedly non-physical things.

    It isn’t so much that the researchers have ideological objections to certain things; it is that people like you have ideological objections to all of the overwhelming evidence that exists showing that everything that has ever existed has been physical. It is a bit much to claim that other people are ideologically biased when you are claiming, against all of the available evidence, that humans, because they haven’t yet been totally unified with the rest of science, must be in part non-physical.

  29. #29 Anthony McCarthy
    April 24, 2011

    But your disdain for neuroscience shows your apparent lack of familiarity with it.

    Neuroscience of the kind that purports to reveal the kind of information you express faith in has more than just a few problems. How do you get past the problems of relying on the accuracy of people reporting on their state of mind? How do you know that those reports are accurate or are clean of information leakage, either actual or presumed by the subject? How do you get past the ideological expectations of researchers contaminating the results? I don’t have any faith in the reliability of it.

    And if you read even a popular account – such as the books of, let’s say, VS Ramachandran – you will find that neuroscientific procedures are actually quite honed, and can even be used for therapeutic purposes.

    From what I’ve seen of him, he is pretty dependent in his thinking on materialist ideology, I would expect he routinely omits any part of phenomena that can’t fit into it, that’s what is usually done. I doubt his methodology escapes the general problems that I mentioned above. I’ll look more closely but I’m doubtful.

    Neuroscience that isn’t dependent on unreliable methodologies is not the same kind of thing as what you are talking about. It is far less ambitious in its claims, which is also an important consideration. The more florid and complex the claimed phenomena studied, the less likely it is to be adequately addressed.

    The evidence that Freud was a crackpot and a pseudo-scientist are contained in his writing. I’m looking at his “study” of President Wilson which, as the Nazis were taking over, is literally insane.

    http://www.amazon.com/Thomas-Woodrow-Wilson-Psychological-Study/dp/B000GLKCWY

    There is nothing at all in what he promulgated that is based in anything like science, it is as absurd to have believed that it is science as it would have been to believe that Franz Kafka was writing accurate journalism. About the only useful thing about Freud and his line of acolytes, continuing down to today, is as a demonstration of how skimpy the trappings of science need to be to make fools of the most eminent of universities, entire societies and legal systems. Not to mention entire schools of “social scientists”.

    or that somehow your lack of familiarity with and distaste towards the fruits of the scientific method as applied to human beings is proof of their lack of validity

    Ah, it was always a major feature of the meta-dishonesty of the Freudians that any criticisms of them could be explained away as being evidence of some conveniently invented neurosis or other, that the rejection of their insane and presumptuous diagnoses was, of necessity, confirmation of them.

    It’s exactly because I respect the reliable products of the honest methods of science, which are so notably unlike the product of the social and behavioral sciences in their reliability, that I am skeptical of the scientific nature of the effort. I doubt that something as complex as human society can be studied, honestly, with science, though I would have no problem with trying it on the basis of standards something like history. Though the basic subject matter of history is usually more reliable in its actually having happened and in the nature of its results than the subject matter of just about any behavioral science. History is a far more successful attempt to study human societies, though it doesn’t produce anything like the product of science. Maybe if anthropology limited itself to recording what could actually be observed without pretending it could divine an underlying scientific substrait it could at least make an honest discipline of itself.

  30. #30 Al West
    April 24, 2011

    Ah, it was always a major feature of the meta-dishonesty of the Freudians that any criticisms of them could be explained away as being evidence of some conveniently invented neurosis or other, that the rejection of their insane and presumptuous diagnoses was, of necessity, confirmation of them.

    That’s not what I wrote. Read it again; there are two negatives. To re-phrase: “Your lack of belief in it does not demonstrate its invalidity.”

    From what I’ve seen of him, he is pretty dependent in his thinking on materialist ideology, I would expect he routinely omits any part of phenomena that can’t fit into it, that’s what is usually done. I doubt his methodology escapes the general problems that I mentioned above. I’ll look more closely but I’m doubtful.

    And again, here you demonstrate your opposition to materialist explanations even without demonstrating any kind of alternative. What other kind of explanation is there? I mean, seriously – qi, chakras, mana, what? All you’re doing is confirming my original point, which was that religious believers are frequently opposed to the human sciences. If you have another methodology, or another kind of explanation, then please explain what it is – don’t just rubbish explanations that try to correlate the existence and behaviours of a certain class of organisms with the findings of physics and chemistry. And if you have no other type of explanation, and are instead just opposed to the investigation itself, then, again, leave the academy, if you are in it, and find something else to do.

    Maybe if anthropology limited itself to recording what could actually be observed without pretending it could divine an underlying scientific substrait it could at least make an honest discipline of itself.

    Far from it. If anthropologists did that, then you’d complain that the humans they study have been reduced to zombies without thoughts, feelings, or anything beyond the external appearance of their actions, these being the only things that can actually be observed. And that would be quite useless, frankly. It would be like asking a linguist to stop believing that the speakers of a language have any mental actions going on when they employ that language – you’d end up with a really weird, skewed view of what language is. And the success of linguistics testifies to the ability of studies that don’t just rely on unsystematised observations to explain phenomena.

    Neuroscience of the kind that purports to reveal the kind of information you express faith in has more than just a few problems. How do you get past the problems of relying on the accuracy of people reporting on their state of mind? How do you know that those reports are accurate or are clean of information leakage, either actual or presumed by the subject? How do you get past the ideological expectations of researchers contaminating the results? I don’t have any faith in the reliability of it.

    What you could try to do is to actually investigate, say, cognitive psychological methodology. There are some good textbooks on the market, and some great handbooks for students – the Eysenck and Keane editions (any from the last couple of years, going cheap on amazon) are pretty good. Because, of course, cog sci and neuro sci researchers have asked exactly these same questions, although they wouldn’t expect a single type of investigatory procedure (ie, verbal reports and fMRI scanning). There are other methods, and they correlate together. Work on memory, in particular, can be investigated non-invasively and without the biases of self-reporting or investigator confirmation bias. This work has also proven useful in explaining phenomena found in ethnographic fieldwork. For an example of this, try Harvey Whitehouse’s book, Inside the Cult, which is a gripping account of an eastern New Guinea splinter from a mainstream cargo cult. The phenomenon is explained in terms of cognitive psychology (semantic and photographic memory) without, I might add, dehumanising the very-real-and-very-human figures encountered by Whitehouse.

    You seem to have a strawman view of neuroscience and psychology. I suggest a bit more research into those fields, as that might divest you of the misconceptions you currently carry around.

  31. #31 Anthony McCarthy
    April 24, 2011

    Because, of course, cog sci and neuro sci researchers have asked exactly these same questions, although they wouldn’t expect a single type of investigatory procedure (ie, verbal reports and fMRI scanning). There are other methods, and they correlate together.

    I can’t see how the reliance on people describing their experience can be anything but a factor in contributing to the unreliability of the attempt. You are assuming so much, that words and phrases used by even two people would be based in similar physical conditions in their brains (assuming the unproven, unprovable “brain only” dogma) that similar words or phrases could reliably be assumed to represent the same experience. That cultural or educational conventions couldn’t account for deceptive similarity. I don’t see any way to get past the fact that a person is the only, possible witness to their subjective experience and that they might not deliver an accurate description of it. And that’s only part of one aspect of the problem.

    The unreliability of fMRI interpretation or even production has been a topic within science for a number of years now, the wishful thinking of researchers has been discussed as has the technical problems of producing them etc.

    I don’t think a + b = increased reliability if a and be are of doubtful or unknown reliability.

    If anthropologists did that, then you’d complain that the humans they study have been reduced to zombies without thoughts, feelings, or anything beyond the external appearance of their actions, these being the only things that can actually be observed.

    Passing up a discussion of your assuming you can read my mind….

    That would depend on whether or not the written account began with the assumptions that the people being described were presented as having individuality instead of as stereotypes without feelings, archetypes, examples of types. I don’t see how an honest portrayal of human activity can be made without attempting to account for the feelings of the people involved.

    None of which is an excuse for the presentation of what doesn’t begin or finish within the standards of science as being science. If you want to push it that far, I’d have to say that the product of a good, fair and sensitive novelist within any particular population is probably more reliable than an outside view intent on shoehorning an abstracted collective experience into a precooked, academic ideology. Which is what generally has happened in anthropology.

  32. #32 Al West
    April 24, 2011

    The first part of your last reply was mistaken. I was not saying that verbal reports and fMRI scans were two different things – they are the same method, in that such scans rely on self-reporting. Apologies for the ambiguity in my phrasing of it. But that method, of fMRI scans and self-reporting, is only one of many. Psychological studies typically use several methods, and are generally well-designed. Psychologists – most of them, anyway – are not naive, and are not ignorant of the concept of science or the double blind or anything like that. At Cambridge, psychological testing methods are taught as part of the natural sciences degree, so it’s not like psychologists don’t know science. Believing that self-reporting and fMRI are the whole of psych/neuroscience, and that therefore the whole of psych is deeply flawed, is wrong.

    If you want to push it that far, I’d have to say that the product of a good, fair and sensitive novelist within any particular population is probably more reliable than an outside view intent on shoehorning an abstracted collective experience into a precooked, academic ideology. Which is what generally has happened in anthropology.

    First of all, that assumes that human life can be reduced to a narrative – which isn’t the case. It also assumes that all human populations produce novelists – which they don’t. And it assumes, ethnocentrically, that all knowledge, cultural or otherwise, can be represented in written or generally verbal form without changing what the knowledge is – and that is not necessarily the case, as plenty of studies of literacy and ritual show. See, for instance, Fredrik Barth’s Cosmologies in the Making, or the Whitehouse book I mentioned earlier, or Jack Goody’s studies on the division between literate and non-literate society. The fact is, too, that novelists are far more biased than academics, the vast majority of the time. They may not necessarily be biased ideologically (although that is also possible, and without peer review problems might arise, especially given the position of the novelist within the society itself – ever do source criticism in history at school?), but they will be biased to produce the novel in the form of a strong and not-boring narrative. In reality, most of human life is quite dull, even with the best prose. Novelists certainly wouldn’t produce an account with the depth of an ethnographic monograph, and would leave a lot unsaid. Balzac’s novels are not academic texts.

    Importantly, there would be nothing to learn from such an endeavour. It would just make you feel warm and fuzzy, perhaps, and you might like the capacity for armchair travelling that it would give you. But it just shows your hostility – irrational hostility, in my view – towards what you have derisively labelled the ‘ideology’ of the academy, which is in fact a very well-supported, oft-questioned, rational position derived from an enormous mass of evidence. You would rather believe anything than the position best-supported by the evidence – physicalism.

  33. #33 Anthony McCarthy
    April 24, 2011

    At Cambridge, psychological testing methods are taught as part of the natural sciences degree, so it’s not like psychologists don’t know science. A.W.

    So, they’ve solved the issues surrounding the self-reporting problems I’ve talked about, the problems surrounding the unreliability of such reporting or the certainty that reports that appear to be similar are, in fact, produced by similar mental states. Not to mention the problems of professional, ideological contamination of observations or analysis. Are you claiming that they’ve managed to do that at Cambridge? That the psychology produced there will stand longer than what’s gone before or what’s produced in other places? You will excuse me if I wait and see. The history of psychology has given people more than valid reasons to be skeptical.

    Is it your position that psychological testing at Cambridge has the same status as testing in the physical sciences? I wonder, is there any critique by anyone in the physical sciences that says as much?

    Just as an aside, in a quick look, I see that Britain retains a Rorschach Society, A psychotheraputic society, …. I’d expect it to have Jungians, behaviorists and a full range of other “therapeutic” establishments, all, most likely, supported by university departments or their equivalents.

    I have been rather shocked how many people who practice science don’t understand that it can only deal with a limited amount of the physical universe for which the prerequisite observations, measurement, and analysis are possible. So many figure you can just plug in a bit of materialist dogma for the gaping chasms of the universe for which that isn’t available.

    First of all, that assumes that human life can be reduced to a narrative – which isn’t the case. A. W.

    I would never assume that human life can be reduced to anything, not a novel and not a mass of social science scribbling. I just said that an honest novel by someone with personal knowledge of a milieu was more valuable than an ideological production claiming to be a scientific representation of a culture but deficient in the most basic requirements to be science. I most certainly don’t believe that science is able to encompass the experience of one person, nevermind a society or culture.

    It also assumes that all human populations produce novelists – which they don’t. A.W.

    I assume that any human population could produce novelists, or the equivalent in other literary forms. That any population hadn’t produced a novelist is no indication as before the first novel was written, none had. You do know that culture isn’t a fixed entity, I hope.

    Novelists certainly wouldn’t produce an account with the depth of an ethnographic monograph, and would leave a lot unsaid. Balzac’s novels are not academic texts. A. W.

    So, you hold that the fact that something takes the form of an ethnographic monograph that it would, necessarily be more valid than what a novel says. You’re claiming that all ethnographic monographs are accurate or even honest? I doubt that’s what you meant to say but it seems to be what you did say.

    I would trust what Balzac said about his time in the society he lived in than I would what any anthropologist not of it did.

  34. #34 Al West
    April 25, 2011

    You’re claiming that all ethnographic monographs are accurate or even honest? I doubt that’s what you meant to say but it seems to be what you did say.

    Not all – far from all. But ethnographic monographs are much more reliable than a novel – but they also try to encompass more information than any novel about the societies in question, and due to that, they are inherently more worthwhile. They are also seldom explicitly ‘materialist’ – while I think the vast majority of social scientists would accept physicalism, it isn’t necessary to do so to produce, for example, an analytical study of the categories of Malay magic or something along those lines. But I would say that a well-produced ethnographic monograph is infinitely more valuable than a novel. Some are written in the style of a novel, in parts: the Whitehouse book that I referred to earlier is about the development of a splinter cult from an existing cargo cult, the Pomio Kivung, and how it occurs is documented in actually quite an exciting way. But it then fuses this with the understanding of memory that has been gleaned from cognitive science.

    Just as an aside, in a quick look, I see that Britain retains a Rorschach Society, A psychotheraputic society, …. I’d expect it to have Jungians, behaviorists and a full range of other “therapeutic” establishments, all, most likely, supported by university departments or their equivalents.

    Yes, and that’s a shame. These ideas have been falsified, although I would note that your position is similar to that of a Jungian, asserting the non-physical nature of humans. And these ideas have been falsified, how? Through the development of sophisticated techniques for investigating memory and thought. Cognitive psychology is not reducible to verbal reports, as I have repeatedly stated, and as you have repeatedly ignored. The fact is, psychological studies often have ingenious methodologies – you can read up on them in a large number of publications, many of them free.

    Instead of fashioning a strawman out of your wish for psychology to be somehow invalidated by trying to make it coherent with chemistry, biology, and physics, you might try to investigate psychology in greater depth. The Eysenck and Keane student handbook sets out a great many ways in which cognitive psychology has developed in lucid and easy-to-understand language. I suggest reading about psychology, in any case, because you don’t seem to know what it is.

    I would also point out that science has only developed by taking into account the flaws of humans. The scientific method is only really there because people aren’t very good at being objective, and their lack of objectivity is characterised by a number of traits common to, it seems, all members of the species. Investigating this in greater detail can only help science in other areas, frankly, and your claim that science – that is to say, the alliance of empirical observation and rational inference – can only be used to investigate certain phenomena is rubbish. Your reluctance to endorse the scientific study of humans is testament to the fear that the religious feel when their worldview might be shaken, as it has been by every scientific advance.

  35. #35 Al West
    April 25, 2011

    I assume that any human population could produce novelists, or the equivalent in other literary forms. That any population hadn’t produced a novelist is no indication as before the first novel was written, none had. You do know that culture isn’t a fixed entity, I hope.

    No need to be so patronising, especially coming from someone who thinks a novel is a good enough account of life in a society despite the obvious drawbacks. Culture isn’t static (obviously!), but the fact of introducing the idea of a novel would have a profound effect on the society. Here’s the thing: if you wanted to represent a society that didn’t have novelists, which is to say, the vast majority of all societies ever, then you wouldn’t be able to do it by introducing literacy and novels. A huge amount of information on the way people live and have lived for millennia would be lost if studies of socio-cultural diversity were based only on emicly-produced novels. We would, in fact, have no real understanding of cross-cultural diversity, and nothing would result from it.

    It seems like you need to do more thinking and less pontificating about things you don’t know about.

  36. #36 Anthony McCarthy
    April 25, 2011

    Al West, you would seem to not be able to understand that I’m distinguishing between the reliable products of science, which cover a limited number of phenomena for which the necessary observations, measurements and analyses which are the basic requirements of science are possible, and the larger part of the universe for which those aren’t possible. I don’t think it’s legitimate to pretend that you can have knowledge of those which which is falsely identified as science, enjoying expectations of reliability which can’t be had through that false identification. History is usually based in documented events which are reliably known to have happened and many details of which can reliably be identified, generally far more reliably known to have an objective existence than much of what the social sciences peddle. But they are sufficiently complex so that much of what would be necessary to understand those events isn’t available in the detail necessary for a scientific result. While science can inform history, the ultimate results don’t measure up to the reliability of real science. You can insist that nothing but scientific standards of evidence and analysis are good enough but history is far too useful to forgo what honest historians can produce to wait for what will never be had. The “scientific” study of history, as was pretended by Hegel didn’t produce much of anything good. I don’t think that pretending that things that are too complex to be studied with science, can be or have been will produce anything better.

    I would note that your position is similar to that of a Jungian, asserting the non-physical nature of humans.

    It has ceased to surprise me when materialists jump to conclusions about hidden, ulterior motives behind the skeptics of materialism. Daniel Dennett’s constantly looking for “sky hooks” even in the criticism of hard core atheist critics of his insane version of Darwinism was enough to make me unsurprised at that. All I’ve done here is point out that the true believers in the “brain only” dogma and other forms of materialist dogma as applied to human beings, have been substituting that dogma as a simulation of science for a couple of centuries, now. That they and those who accept what they say don’t seem to notice that there is no actual science there, doesn’t speak well for their standards of evidence and their analysis of what is presented as science. I would say that, outside of fundamentalist religion, the major locus of blind faith in Western societies is in and around the social and behavioral sciences. A century and a half of failure after failure has done nothing to quell the fevered will to believe in both the latest thing, superseding the last latest thing in the mythical “zeitgeist” and the basic faith that behavior and consciousness are the product of chemistry and physics, following physical laws.

    I look at that long history of failure and the most basic and unaddressed problems of the proposed study of consciousness and behavior and I am skeptical. That would be skeptical as doubting it instead of “skeptical” as in the group think of the disciples of Paul Kurtz and other professional “skeptics”.

    your claim that science – that is to say, the alliance of empirical observation and rational inference – can only be used to investigate certain phenomena is rubbish

    Your belief that you can perform science in the absence of adequate observation, accurate and relevant measurement and disinterested and rigorous analysis of the results is poppycock. Most of human experience doesn’t allow those necessary prerequisites of science to be done, you can’t do real science in their absence.

    Your reluctance to endorse the scientific study of humans is testament to the fear that the religious feel when their worldview might be shaken, as it has been by every scientific advance.

    My refusal to go along with the failed attempts to study human behavior is the result of witnessing the history of the past century of that failure and of the disasters of eugenics and other “scientific” applications of that kind of “science”.

    You would seem to be making recourse to the “sky hooks” dodge mentioned above. Which seems to be the ultimate refuge of scoundrels in the so-called sciences. I haven’t made a single religious argument in the matter, I don’t believe that I’ve mentioned morality even once in talking about this, yet you make recourse to an appeal to an anti-religious prejudice you hope will enough to carry you through. I have no doubt that’s frequently the case.

    The social and behavioral sciences have been getting away with practices that fall far short of science for so long, the training of their professionals is so steeped in cutting corners and sweeping discrepancies under the rug that I doubt you comprehend those criticisms without some kind of emotional crisis. You might be able to gull people who are impressed with the trappings of science, without the substance to back it up but not everyone will make believe they can’t see what’s right in front of them.

  37. #37 Anthony McCarthy
    April 25, 2011

    Oh, and if you missed it, I’m far more skeptical of the scientific study of animal behavior. People can at least articulate something about their experience and motives, though of unknown and indeterminable reliability. Animals can’t do that and can’t challenge what’s said about their behavior, almost uniformly produced by as ideological a bunch of “observers” as has ever existed. I’ve learned a lot from the Marc Hauser scandal in which even his “coauthors” apparently took his word for the existence of nonexistent “behaviors”, whose nonexistence was known to people working his lab. But which didn’t stop his stuff from being published and becoming a part of other “research” and evo-psy dogma.

    My Bio Anthropology teacher said a few decades back, scratch an ethologist and you’ll find a Nazi. By the way, I only missed one question on the final. As I recall it was a trick question about the physical evidence of Ramapithicus.

  38. #38 Al West
    April 25, 2011

    History is usually based in documented events which are reliably known to have happened and many details of which can reliably be identified, generally far more reliably known to have an objective existence than much of what the social sciences peddle. But they are sufficiently complex so that much of what would be necessary to understand those events isn’t available in the detail necessary for a scientific result. While science can inform history, the ultimate results don’t measure up to the reliability of real science.

    You are speaking as if somehow science can only deal with certainties – that knowledge is only scientific if every single thing in the assessment has to be absolutely known. But that would make evolutionary biology unscientific. It is not possible to know when every organism over the past four billion years spawned its offspring and precisely what the genes and chromosomes of each were. It isn’t even possible to know that for the past five generations of human beings, let alone the octillions of bacteria that inhabited and inhabit the planet. If we went by what you think science is, rather than by the notion that things should be investigated through empirical observation and rational inference with the observations and inferences correlated with others so as to provide a reasonable if not precise picture of the universe, then we’d be limited *only* to particle physics – and not even statistical mechanics at that. I am sure that this is not what you believe, and so your position is incoherent, and likely a post hoc rationalisation for your desire to see human beings in a nice and possibly spiritual, rather than scientific, light.

    It is also evident (yet again!) that you know nothing of methodology in the social sciences or in psychology. History *is* social science; social science uses historical materials for an enormous part of analysis. If you think that somehow there is a separation between them, you are dead wrong, and if you think that historical material is too scant to be able to say *anything* scientific about humans, then you are wrong there too. We can also add to historical understanding through analyses in geology, palynology, and other scientific methods employed in archaeology. Correlating documentation and these methods can provide a fantastic level of understanding on which to base theoretical propositions, and with which to falsify them.

    All I’ve done here is point out that the true believers in the “brain only” dogma and other forms of materialist dogma as applied to human beings, have been substituting that dogma as a simulation of science for a couple of centuries, now.

    It is NOT a dogma. If you have some evidence that you can point to that somehow human life transcends physics and the laws of the universe, then please, do so. Until then, stop pontificating. If we had any reason to believe that people are partly non-physical, then we’d obviously take that into account, but we don’t have that evidence.

    You evidently know nothing about the social sciences – you seem to know less than any undergrad in any social science or psychology department – and yet you feel fit to decide what is and what is not a reasonable position to take. That is as ludicrous as Deepak Chopra telling people that they can influence the universe through acts of mind, and that quantum physics supports him. In a phrase, your view is ignorant nonsense.

    The social and behavioral sciences have been getting away with practices that fall far short of science for so long, the training of their professionals is so steeped in cutting corners and sweeping discrepancies under the rug that I doubt you comprehend those criticisms without some kind of emotional crisis.

    Yes, you’re right – it’s me who is afraid of ideas, not the chap who thinks that all attempts to correlate the existence of humans with the principles of the universe will lead to Nazism. You know, in social science, the questions of what is and what is not science, and what is and what is not valid in terms of understanding human action, are the main questions that get asked on a theoretical level. You’re pontificating as if somehow you’ve figured it all out, while demonstrating a profound ignorance of social science methodology and the debates surrounding it. It makes you look stupid.

    The “scientific” study of history, as was pretended by Hegel didn’t produce much of anything good.

    No. Because it wasn’t actually scientific! It overstepped the bounds of the evidence and made inferences that were far from rational due to ideology. Social science today is much more conservative and scientific, and the only reason for the ‘materialist dogma’ that you love to rubbish is that physics shows us that the universe consists of matter, and no other substance seems to exist. Do you really think the study of history and human beings has not progressed since Hegel? Well, it would seem to fit your strawman, and the rest of your ignorance. I suppose if neuroscience consists entirely of fMRI and verbal reports, and if cognitive psychology consists entirely of self-reporting and ideological bias in favour of simplistic ‘materialism’, and if a novel is as accurate and in depth as an ethnographic report, then I suppose it makes sense that history would just be a matter of applying Hegelian dialectic.

    I have given some good pointers as to where to begin your studies so as to improve your view – or at least give you a better and more realistic understanding of what the social sciences, psychology, and neuroscience actually consist of. I shall reiterate: try the Eysenck and Keane student handbook for cog psych; ‘Inside the Cult’ by Harvey Whitehouse; some of those popular Ramachandran books, like ‘Phantoms in the Brain'; and maybe a classic study like ‘Political Systems of Highland Burma’ by Edmund Leach. And then, perhaps, you’ll have a bit more to go on when you decide to pontificate, and your ignorance will not be so evident.

    As for the notion that social science causes Nazism, that’s nonsensical in the extreme. It was known in the social sciences by the 1930s that race was not an important variable in determining anything, and that it probably didn’t exist, certainly not in the simplistic way the Nazis and other racialists believed (Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas were prominent advocates of this view, for instance, as were many non-American scholars). It was known then that autarky was not a good idea for an economy, that closing off borders to trade was not going to help anything. In fact, it had been observed in the early 19th century, by Bastiat IIRC, that closing borders to trade increased the likelihood of war emanating from the closed nation. It was also far from orthodox that there was an ‘Aryan’ nation, or ever had been – that was a myth perpetrated by unscientific nutjobs like Himmler. Everything the Nazis believed was lacking in empirical or rational support.

    Social science, just like evolutionary biology, was in no way supportive of the Nazis, even in terms of its supposed scientific basis, and blaming social scientists for Nazism and eugenics, the latter being an idea which have been debunked through scientific investigation of humans, is just as dumb as blaming Darwin for Auschwitz. Again, your argument here is post hoc. You already believe that humans should not investigated scientifically (it might cause some deep and uncomfortable metaphysical speculation on your part, and you can’t have that), and therefore must believe that social science = Hitler.

    And that’s absolute tosh.

    /thread

  39. #39 Anthony McCarthy
    April 25, 2011

    Al West, I’m happy to see you appreciate the enormous size of the chosen subject matter of evolutionary biology. That the enormous size of that subject, the evidence for most of which is and almost certainly always will be unrecoverable, guarantees that it will always be known in only a tiny fraction of the whole. Which is good news for evolutionary biologists as The End of Biology is a book which will not be written any time during the reign of our species. That fact doesn’t change for a single second that to know something to the level that you can honestly call the results “science” you have to observe it, you have to verify its reality in enough detail to have an accurate and adequate knowledge of it. To pretend that you can know something on the basis of no knowledge if it is absurd. What you can do about such things is called “to believe”, if not “to speculate” or, in the case of so much of evo-psy and the social sciences, “to make it up”.

    Even if your silly and, excuse me, rather frantic claim that observing the simple fact that you can’t practice science when there is an absence of adequate evidence “would make evolutionary biology unscientific,” was true (which it isn’t) that would not make it possible. It’s absurd to think you can have a comprehensive and complete knowledge of evolutionary biology, but its an absurd idea that scientific knowledge is ever complete. As you belong to a tradition that is always making premature syntheses of complete systems on the basis of the flimsiest body of knowledge, I’m not surprised you might make that mistake.

    It is NOT a dogma. If you have some evidence that you can point to that somehow human life transcends physics and the laws of the universe, then please, do so.

    This is remarkable considering your first sentence “You are speaking as if somehow science can only deal with certainties”. Science can only deal in physical evidence, it can’t go farther than physical evidence can take it, it ceases to be science as soon as that’s done. There is no possible physical evidence of any non-physical mind, if there is one. There is also no evidence that there is no non-physical mind. I would like to know how you propose such a thing could be looked for with the legitimate tools of science. The belief that the inability of science to find something means that it can’t possibly be real is not science, it’s the ideology of materialism, which generally turns into scientism, to answer your accusation that I am the one in danger of pretending that only scientific knowledge is legitimate. It’s especially dishonest considering the rest of our exchange in which I endorse history as being a better way to study human societies than the “social sciences”.

    Back when I was attending a university it was explained to me that whether or not history is considered to fulfill a humanities requirement or a social science requirement depended on university politics. History has always been considered part of the humanities, though in some cases some people want to appropriate the glamor of the word “science” for it. As I said with the beginnings of psychology as a university subject, that doesn’t make it true.

    Deepak Chopra, really, you will insist on that old attempt to impose guilt by associating what I said to things I’ve never so much as touched on. That’s a sure sign of dishonest polemics. I could point out that I’ve been the one that insists on physical evidence whereas you’ve been speaking up for speculation and pretending that what’s not available can be filled in somehow.

    The rest of your screed is bizarre, considering such things as that I was the one who pointed out that your first statement sounded remarkably like the dismissal of Franz Boaz because he was producing “Jewish science” and that I’d rejected Hegel as an absurd attempt to turn history into science. By the time you get to implying that I’d blame Darwin for Auschwitz , you’ve pretty much pulled every trick of dishonest argument out of a very worn out bag.

    I did speculate that you’d have a strong emotional reaction to my skepticism. Though I wouldn’t call the success of that prediction science.

  40. #40 abb3w
    April 26, 2011

    @13, Josh Rosenau: But an omnipotent, omniscient deity is untestable. It can do anything, so no observation is inconsistent with its existence. If it doesn’t want to be detected, it can tweak enough events that its actions do not upset any statistical norms, or show up in any effort at statistical testing (like an omnipotent, omniscient version of Stephenson’s Detachment 2702 from Cryptonomicon).

    The catch being, if one philosophically allows such entities, the problem of induction becomes utterly unsolvable, as any appearance of pattern may be the result of an entity’s caprice. Contrariwise, any philosophy that pretends to the possibility of telling a hawk from a handsaw relies on assumptions reducible to those necessary for construction of means of testing.

    @37, Anthony McCarthy: Science can only deal in physical evidence, it can’t go farther than physical evidence can take it, it ceases to be science as soon as that’s done.

    Rather, science can only deal in experiential evidence. If it manifests in experience, then regardless of whether or not it meets whatever criteria you associate to “physical”, science can deal with it. Contrariwise, entities with no manifestation whatsoever in experience exist in at most the sense that any self-consistent linguistic abstraction exists, rather than the sense in which grilled cheese sandwiches exist.

  41. #41 Riman Butterbur
    April 27, 2011

    Al West, that was an amazing performance. I don’t know how you managed to keep your cool thru all that idiocy.

    It was a fascinating, and very enlightening, tour thru modern behavioral science, a subject I am deeply interested in but have never had the time to study. This is just to let you know that your effort is appreciated.

  42. #42 Anthony McCarthy
    April 27, 2011

    abb3w, first, there is a vast difference between something being manifest in the world of experience and being able to know it through science. Of course there is the nature of time which is an intrinsic part of our experience in the physical world but which has no explanation. Consciousness, as basic to our experience, the constant feature of our being which would seem to be the basis of our experience, has no real explanation that will stand longer than the current fad in cog-sci. I doubt it ever will, that it is too subtle to be explained. The typical practice of the social sciences is to try to cut down something so they can seem to be doing science around it and to sell the results as the real, true explanation of something. Only to have someone notice later what was chopped off and their competitors try to knock them off.

    You, as all materialists do, pretend that our knowledge of the universe is sufficiently comprehensive so as to fill in unknown parts of it with materialist conjecture, though, as with the current string-M theory part of that conjecture, it’s possible to come up with competing candidates with which to fill that in. The history of the social “sciences” are filled with competitions among current models, at times bitterly fought over, before one of them wins out for a time and is then also scrapped.

    Science gained its reputation through its production of reliable knowledge, it’s reputation, ultimately, rests on that. If it settles for that kind of conjecture, its reputation will suffer, I think that it already has through this kind of would be non-metaphysical speculation and, especially the ideological wars promulgated by some pretty minor scientists. If scientists would rather indulge the materialists and lose credibility for the whole of science, that’s up to them.

    Riman, just what did I say that was idiotic? The great “skeptics”, so many of whom are in and around the so-called sciences can’t stand for their faith to be questioned. I’ve always wished someone would question Ray Hyman about the psychology that has been held to be valid science during his long career, which he, no doubt, has taught and exactly what part of it stands up to his methodological criticisms. I doubt much of any of it could. When you throw in Randian debunkery, I’m absolutely sure none of it would, lots of the real sciences couldn’t either. Yet their fans don’t want anyone to mention the discrepancies.

  43. #43 Riman Butterbur
    April 27, 2011

    Anthony, I can only remember ever seeing one or two things in your comments that were not idiotic. But as I said, I don’t have Al West’s patience, so I’m not going to stay on this topic long.

    I have no idea who these people are you call ‘the great “skeptics”‘. Anybody who “can’t stand for their faith to be questioned” hardly fits the usual definition of “skeptic”. And “fans” of science who “don’t want anyone to mention the discrepancies” must be really weird, frustrated people. Since science is all about studying discrepancies, I wonder what part of science is left for them to be fans of.

    But I don’t expect you to understand any of that. You’ve made it abundantly clear that you don’t understand science at all, and even worse, you think you understand it better than it’s practitioners.

  44. #44 Anthony McCarthy
    April 28, 2011

    Anybody who “can’t stand for their faith to be questioned” hardly fits the usual definition of “skeptic”.

    Oh, but it does these days, since the rise of organized “skepticism” which isn’t skeptical, it knows exactly what people are and, especially, aren’t supposed to believe. Marcello Truzzi was one of the early people to point out that form of “skepticism” was really pseudo-skepticism.

    I named Ray Hyman as an example of someone who has been the minutest outside critic of very controlled research in PSI but who seems to be blind to the horrendous standards of research in his own field. If he has been nearly as critical of the wretched standards that prevail in psychological research, not to mention in virtually every other one of the so-called sciences, I’d like citations.

    That you don’t care for what I say is no more than I’d expect, at this point.

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