Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Accommodationist Position at NCSE

 
The March-April issue of Reports of the National Center for Science Education contains an interesting article by Daryl P. Domning, a Professor of Anatomy at Howard University in Washington DC (USA). The title of the article is "Winning Their Hearts and Minds: Who Should Speak for Evolution?"

This is an article about whether atheists or theistic evolutionists should take the lead in opposing Young Earth Creationism. Domning is the co-author of Original Selfishness: Original Sin And Evil in the Light of Evolution and he has written many articles in support of a Christian view of science and evolution.

Before I quote from his article in Reports of the National Center for Science Education, can you predict what it will say? Of course you can. Downing is a theist and of course he thinks that evolution should be described from a theistic perspective and not from an atheist perspective. Duh!

Here's the bottom line.
Moderate views on creation-vs-evolution are not in short supply. Yet despite the Gallop polls consistently showing 35-40% of Americans somewhere between the poles of special creationism and striclty materialists evolutionism (with only 9-15% for the latter view), this reality is studiously ignored both by creationists and by materialists like Dawkins (and others). This not only polarizes the debate unnecessarily, but fundamentally misrepresents it. To break this impasse and move toward defusing evolution as an explosive social and educational issues, I propose the perhaps shocking idea that it is time for theistic evolutionists to take over from atheists as the public face of evolution advocacy.[my emphasis]
This is hardly a shocking idea since NCSE, along with major scientific organizations, have been promoting exactly that sort of strategy for many years. The key question is, exactly how are theistic evolutionists going to take over from atheists? Are they going to shout louder?
In this asymmetrical warfare, the secularists make easy, static targets. They fruitlessly deploy ponderous scientific artillery against the light-weight arguments of "scientific creationist" guerillas, and wonder at how the latter blithely dance aside to fight again another day. But the creationist leaders and their lay followers are clearly motivated by those existential and theological concerns and not by science, so the scientific arguments do not lay a glove on them.
This is completely wrong. The atheists are the ones who recognize the real problem. The real problem is not science or the law and the problem won't be solved by winning a scientific debate or a trial in Dover.

The real problem is superstition, often masquerading as religion. As long as people continue to believe that superstition can trump science then no scientific argument will convince them to abandon creationism in its various manifestations—which includes theistic evolution, by the way. The atheists are aiming their artillery at religion.
As long as the secularists insist on prosecuting the war unilaterally in this way, they will not prevail. The only hope for a successful outcome lies with a coalition: the secularists must ally themselves with—indeed yield leadership to—theistic evolutionists, who understand the creationist's religious culture, speak their religious language, and can engege them on their home turf.
Now that's a shocking statement. It's not shocking because it's so stupid, it's shocking because the author clearly has not been listening to the debate. The reason why theistic evolutionists speak the same language as the creationists is because they are creationists. Almost all religions spawn creationism and the rejection of at least some aspects of science. (Strict deism is the only exception.)

The reason why atheists won't ally with theistic evolutionists in a fight against religion should be obvious to anyone who has followed the debate over the past five years. Daryl P. Domning has not been paying attention.

Before the publication of the latest round of atheists books, the fight against creationism was almost entirely led by accommodationists and/or closet atheists. It's reasonable to ask whether they were successful. To ask the question is to answer it. The number of Americans clinging to superstitious beliefs hardly changed for five decades. That's not a success by any stretch of the imagination.

To his credit, Domning seems to glimpse part of this when he says ...
Finally, is my proposal basically a tactical one? Of course it is—because the old tactics have failed to achieve more than a courtroom stalemate, while the soul of creationism is marching on in churches, classrooms, political campaigns, and the rest of society. We have been fighting the wrong war with the wrong weapons. If we are content to rest on our courtroom victories, as the winners of every stand-up fight, we will end up as we did in Vietnam: or as Sitting Bull supposedly said after the Little Bighorn, we will have "won a great battle, but lost a great war."
I'm glad that Downing and I can agree on one thing. Court victories are a mirage.

My solution to the problem of superstitious belief is to challenge it head-on. I presume that Downing wants to fight another battle and continue losing the war. That's understandable since he and I are not on the same side in the battle that I want to fight.

Atheists are directly addressing the real problem, religion. If there are theists who want to join us then they are welcome to do so but they will have to abandon all forms of creationism, including theistic evolution.

The National Center for Science Education is aware of the fact that Domning's article is controversial. In their editorial they state that "NCSE, of course, has a clear policy of religious neutrality." In order to preserve the illusion of balance, NCSE asked three other people to comment on Domning's article.

Sheldon Gottlieb says ...
Considering the complexities introduced by religion, any evolutionist, therefore, could lead the discussion on [science vs religion] and evolution-creation with one proviso: there is no need for atheistic evolutionists to be strident about the non-existence of God, despite the fact that fundamentalists have inexplicably bound the two. The emphasis should be placed on explaining what science is, what is religion, and the differences between them, and framing all [science vs religion] creation/evolution discussions from a scientific perspective (natural explanations of natural phenomena) and not a theistic prespective (untestable and unlimited imaginations about the supernatural).
This is the soft version of accommodationism. It's the failed version. I can't imagine how Gottlieb would want an evolutionist to behave while explaining religion and the differences between science and religion.

Keith1 Miller says ...
As Domning says, being public advocates for the compatibility of evolutionary science and religious faith is not about injecting religion into science. Far from it! It is simply presenting the true face of science which practiced by individuals representing a very wide range of theistic and not-theistic views.
This is interesting logic. Some of those scientists are Intelligent Design Creationists. Does that mean that NCSE should publicly advocate the compatibility of evolution and Intelligent Design Creationism? Of course not. The decision to pick and choose which religious scientists to support is a conscious one and it means that NCSE takes a position on good religions vs bad religions.

Erik B. Pietrowicz says ...
The public is not generally concerned with making the distinction between scientific evidence and religious belief. In practice, then, the nature of the theological opinions that are commonly associated with evolutionary biology is important, as they can end up driving a false wedge between religion and science in general. Thus, evolution education (and religion?) suffers as atheism and evolutionism become synonymous in the public mind.
This is another example of soft accommodationism. He advocates that we should stick to science and not drag religion into the debate. That's the same old strategy that has failed in the past. This is not a debate about science. It's a debate about superstition.


1. I misidentified this person as "Ken" Miller in my original posting. This was stupid and embarrassing.

66 comments :

  1. When you see so many otherwise very well educated people failing to see how outrageously silly and useless the very concept of God is, it is very hard to have any hope anything will ever change.

    People who think religion is THE PROBLEM and it has to be attacked head-on seem to be the minority among the tiny minority.

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  2. I presume that Downing wants to fight another battle and continue losing the war. That's understandable since he and I are not on the same side in the battle that I want to fight.

    This is really the crux of the biscuit: we're fighting a different battle — indeed a completely different war — than the accomodationists. Why should we abandon our war for theirs?

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  3. So if strict Deists do not hold beliefs that are in conflict with science, does that mean that religion and science of at least this sort do not conflict? Or do you have to take Richard Dawkins' route and treat Deism as not really a religious viewpoint?

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  4. Is there a link to this NCSE report? Is it March/April 2009? Because the last link on their site is 2008. Thanks.

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  5. This is not a debate about science. It's a debate about superstition.

    Since you admit that you're fighting for atheism and not science, what possible complaint can you have with the National Academy of Sciences or the National Center for Science Education taking a different position than yours? If you find an atheist organization pushing accommodationism, then you have a complaint.

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  6. Some of the comments above nicely illustrate what I pointed out in the first post...

    P.S. I don't think any religion would view strict deism positively.

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  7. Georgi, I suspect that at least some Deists view Deism positively...

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  8. I have never heard of the Church of Deism though

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  9. Oh, I didn't realize that you were defining religion as synonymous with churches! ;-)

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  10. You know very well what I wanted to say with "I don't think any religion views strict deism positively"

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  11. Instead of your last comment, you could have just said what you originally wanted to say in a more precise form, rather than telling me that I already know. You still seem to be assuming that "religion" and "Deism" are non-overlapping categories. If so, then I don't know what you meant...

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  12. First, I was referring to strict deism and second, when I said "religion" I meant "religion" in the way it is understood by the majority of people (i.e the people we are talking about when discussing the battle between reason and superstition). I do not refer to the theologians who make a living out of bending backwards and twisting things in their holy book in such way so that it seems like it has not been totally discredited by science. In this case religion is definitely not compatible with strict deism, because if God is never intervening in human affairs, then why praying to him and why have churches, religious institutions, holy books and all the crap that comes with them to begin with.

    If you ask me whether I view deism positively, the answer is that I don't because it is useless. But I don't think that baptist ministers like it either

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  13. John Pieret: "Since you admit that you're fighting for atheism and not science, what possible complaint can you have with the National Academy of Sciences or the National Center for Science Education taking a different position than yours?"

    The fight is for rationalism, and I take my science straight, not watered with accomodationism.

    On a more general point, the accommodationist strategy, that of NOMA, is hopelessly flawed. What person of faith is going to listen to the NCSE instruct them on where god fits into the whole picture, or where their religion begins and ends?

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  14. Georgi Marinov and James F. McGrath

    The problem with, "I don't think any religion would view strict deism positively," seems to be sentence structure - the placement of the adverb positively

    Georgi, is the following sentence what you want to say? James, does the following sentence allow you to understand Georgi's point?

    "I don't think any religion would have a positive view of strict deism."

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  15. This is not a debate about science. It's a debate about superstition





    Something I would like to add to this and that I may catch a lot of heat for, but I think is very important and unfortunately usually overlooked even by the people who correctly identify the war as a war between reason on one side and superstition on the other. The battle over specific scientific issues is part of that war and science should be defended by all means any time it is attacked. And because religion is a bunch of nonsense it has to be exposed for what it is any time someone refers to it as something meaningful.

    However, few people, even among those who most openly attack religion, dare to point out how huge of a threat it really is. A lot of the dimensions of that threat remain left out of the discussion, which is typically confined to how bad Islam and terrorism on one side and Christian fundamentalism on the other are.

    The connection between the sustainability crisis and religion is very rarely mentioned. David Attenborough mentioned the "be fruitful and multiply" line as one of the ultimate reasons behind it a few months ago but public statements of that sort have been very rare. Which is very sad because whether evolution is thought or not in the Bible belt or whether several thousand people died because some fanatics crashed a few planes into some skyscrapers are really trivial issues compared to what is in store if we don't solve the sustainability problem. And whoever thinks that religion (especially the ones belonging to the Abrahamic lineage) has nothing to do with the sustainability emergency has his facts or reasoning (or both) not completely in order.

    Of course it can be claimed that in reality we are religious and we are destroying the world we live in for the same reasons having to do with our behavioral characteristics as a species, but we will never take care of the problem if we do not get completely rid of religion first. For the simple reason that solving the problem requires such a radical rethinking of the basic values on which Western civilization is built on that even the moderately religious would never accept it. Those values mostly originate, or are at least perceived to originate from the Abrahamic religions.

    All of that means that accommodationsm is a tragically wrong strategy, but in the same time I am not sure that all of the people who stand for an open attack against religion are ready to go as far as it is really needed.

    In other words we are wasting our time with pointless debates that we really should not be having.

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  16. Veronica, no, I don't think that rewording it in the way you suggest is the solution. Georgi's last post shows what the hear of the matter is. For him, all religion is irrational, but historically Deists tend to be rationalists, ergo Deism is not a religious viewpoint.

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  17. Yet despite the Gallop polls consistently showing 35-40% of Americans somewhere between the poles of special creationism and striclty materialists evolutionism (with only 9-15% for the latter view), this reality is studiously ignored both by creationists and by materialists like Dawkins (and others). This not only polarizes the debate unnecessarily, but fundamentally misrepresents it.



    Maybe it's too early in the morning or maybe I need more coffee or something, but I'm really having a hard time following those couple of sentences up there. Something somewhere is screwy somehow. Or something!

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  18. Maybe I should go read the whole article for context and then it would make more sense. (Not.)

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  19. What person of faith is going to listen to the NCSE instruct them on where god fits into the whole picture, or where their religion begins and ends?

    Well, some preachers might listen, and then they in turn might instruct the sheeples on how to think.

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  20. gillt:

    The fight is for rationalism, and I take my science straight, not watered with accomodationism.

    But, as Dawkins has told us, rationalism and science cannot rule out the existence of god(s). The only reason then for saying that accommodationism waters down science is if you hold that it requires philosophical materialism, not just methodological naturalism ... which is a perfectly fine philosophical position to take but which, as philosophy, is not part of science itself.

    So, we're back in the same place: why do you have a complaint with science organizations taking a different position than yours? If you find an organization of philosophical naturalists who support accommodationism, then you have a complaint.

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  21. The Barefoot Bum wrote:

    This is really the crux of the biscuit: we're fighting a different battle — indeed a completely different war — than the accomodationists. Why should we abandon our war for theirs?

    The defense of science education, the paramount goal of the evolution vs. creation war, is shared by those in the war against religion. The fight shouldn't be abandoned by those who are in the latter camp or by those exclusively in the first camp. I could do with a lot less internecine warfare.

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  22. John Pieret asks:

    "[W]hy do you have a complaint with science organizations taking a different position than yours?"

    Speaking for myself, it's because I don't think a science organization should be taking any position on a religious or philosophical issue.

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  23. John Pieret says,

    The only reason then for saying that accommodationism waters down science is if you hold that it requires philosophical materialism, not just methodological naturalism ... which is a perfectly fine philosophical position to take but which, as philosophy, is not part of science itself.

    Let's, for the sake of argument, assume that any discussions about the existence or non-existence of Gods falls under philosophical naturalism and, as such, it has no place in science.

    Doesn't it follow that scientific organizations should take no position, for or against, religious or atheist scientists? Doesn't it mean that promotion of religious scientists and criticism of atheistic scientists is inappropriate behavior for a scientific organization?

    My position is that scientific organizations should stay completely out of the debate about religion. That includes overt accommodationism. What's your position, John? Do you think it's permissible for scientific organizations to take a stance in support of religious scientists just because they are religious?

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  24. James,
    Thank you for your reply.

    Larry Moran said...

    "My position is that scientific organizations should stay completely out of the debate about religion."

    I agree and said so in the poll, "What should scientific organizations . . . say about religion? - Nothing.

    However, could we stop using the war and battle metaphors; they have been used and reused so many times that they are no longer meaningful or effective.

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  25. "I agree and said so in the poll, "What should scientific organizations . . . say about religion? - Nothing."

    But saying nothing is as dishonest as saying that science and religion are perfectly compatible with one another. Why?

    Because science really does have something to say about religion.

    Archaeology and historical forensics tell us that it is highly unlikely that Jesus, Moses, or Muhammad ever existed. And therefore the Abrahamic religions are lies warp and weft.

    Modern physics has a lot to say about the virtual impossibility of miracles, demons, heaven and the human soul.

    There results are what science really has to say about religion. And yet, why is it that not a single scientific organization says anything like this?

    The argument over accommodationism misses the point entirely - Big "s" Science is already effectively mute on what science actually has to say about religion.

    The accommodationists are merely arguing over to what degree Science should perjure itself.

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  26. Gingerbaker wrote: "Archaeology and historical forensics tell us that it is highly unlikely that Jesus...ever existed".

    That is the archaeological equivalent to saying in biology "Real science disproves evolution".

    I continue to find it astonishing how many people who claim to be "freethinkers" and "rationalists" and who criticize creationists for rejecting the overwhelming evidence of mainstream science, then go on to buy into pseudoscholarly forms of mythicism about the figure of Jesus.

    It might be fair to say that the existence of Jesus is less certain than that of other ancient figures for a number of reasons. But to claim that archaeology shows he doesn't exist is to fail to understand why the vast majority of historians, regardless of what their religious affiliation might be if they have any at all, believe it probable Jesus existed.

    In other words, when it comes to history, you are, alas, the equivalent of a creationist...

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  27. James McGrath said:

    "But to claim that archaeology shows he doesn't exist is to fail to understand why the vast majority of historians, regardless of what their religious affiliation might be if they have any at all, believe it probable Jesus existed."

    First of all, James, I never said what you just accused me of saying. Please read with more attention to detail.

    Secondly, your statement above is irrelevant. The vast majority of Biblical scholars are not historians, and nearly all are/were faculty at Seminaries, where their believe in the truth of Jesus as the Son of God is a requirement of their tenure.

    The fact is that there is not a single shred of historical evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ. Not one. Not a single artifact. Not a single manuscript from an eye witness. And evidence is to be expected.

    Historical forensics indicates that the only sources which Biblical scholars have used over the ages are replete with deletions and apologetic interpolations. Not a single original contemporary manuscript can be produced within several hundred years of the existence of the supposed Jesus of _____ ( fill in your own blank, there are about eight supposed home towns of J.C.)

    In short, what science has to say is that the Jesus of the Bible who performs miracles is scientifically impossible, and that any actual human being upon which these myths were based is is completely invisible to the many prolific historians of his own time who would be expected to write volumes about him, but who ALL are strangely silent.

    And, finally, that all apologetic manuscripts about him are no where near contemporary, are non coherent, and display evidence of rampant historical revisionism.

    You really need to bone up on the contemporary historical analysis of the origins of Christianity before having the temerity to assert the preposterous claim that a skeptic is equivalent to a 'creationist'.

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  28. I teach religion, not at a seminary but at a private university with no religious affiliation. Lots of Biblical scholars do.

    Your apologetic rhetoric notwithstanding, it is you that needs to bone up on contemporary historical scholarship.

    Would you care to specify which mainstream historians (not conservative Bible scholars, apologists, or that sort of author, and neither pseudocritical mythicists) you've read on this subject?

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  29. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  30. James F. McGrath said...
    I teach religion, not at a seminary but at a private university with no religious affiliation. Lots of Biblical scholars do.




    You know, I have often had that thought, and I have seen the same idea expressed otherwise, but shouldn't theologians know better than anyone else how loose the ground on which the card house of religion is built on really is? After two millenia of researching the subject, debating how many angels can fit on the head of a pin, and everything else?

    Or maybe they do realize it but they prefer not to talk about it for obvious reasons?

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  31. Setting aside the various errors and misrepresentations here (which I lack time and inclination to address, though Pieret is basically right, and Moran's reply to him clumsily conflates an article in RNCSE with NCSE's official stance), I note that the article had nothing to do with the minds of the Hearst family, but rather with "hearts and minds." Furthermore, you are confusing Keith Miller with Ken Miller.

    Hope that helps.

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  32. Josh Rosenau says,

    Setting aside the various errors and misrepresentations here (which I lack time and inclination to address, though Pieret is basically right, and Moran's reply to him clumsily conflates an article in RNCSE with NCSE's official stance), ...

    I'm well aware of the distinction between an article published in RNCSE and NCSE's official stance. I'm quite sure the fact that the two opinions coincide is nothing more than a remarkable coincidence. (Not!)

    I'm really looking forward to more articles in NCSE that disagree the organization's official position.

    BTW, Josh, do you know why NCSE didn't publish any rebuttals from atheists who are strongly opposed to the accommodationist position? Couldn't they find any?

    I note that the article had nothing to do with the minds of the Hearst family, but rather with "hearts and minds."

    Thanks for catching that typo. I fixed it.

    Furthermore, you are confusing Keith Miller with Ken Miller.

    Oops. That was a very stupid and embarrassing mistake on my part. Thank-you very much for pointing it out. I fixed the posting.

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  33. James McGrath said:

    "Would you care to specify which mainstream historians (not conservative Bible scholars, apologists, or that sort of author, and neither pseudocritical mythicists) you've read on this subject?"

    Would you care to posit a single piece of non apologetic evidence that speaks to the historicity of Jesus Christ?

    Just a single peer-reviewed piece of evidence? Anything at all. Perhaps a previously undiscovered chapter by Philo? An inscribed coin or pot contemporary to JC? OK - within a hundred years of JC.

    BTW, how many other men, roughly contemporaneous to the supposed JC, who went by the name of Jesus and were completely unimportant to religious history DO we know about from non apologetic sources? Three? Five?


    How about a single treatise by any scholar at any time in history that attempts to give justification of the historicity of JC using non apologetic evidence not deemed to be interpolation?


    You said:

    "I continue to find it astonishing how many people who claim to be "freethinkers" and "rationalists" and who criticize creationists for rejecting the overwhelming evidence of mainstream science, then go on to buy into pseudoscholarly forms of mythicism about the figure of Jesus." (emphasis mine)

    Where is your "overwhelming evidence" for the historicity of JC needed to fulfill your analogy?




    That you teach religion and are yet under the misapprehension that there is evidence of the historicity of JC does not, unfortunately, surprise me bit. And "pseudoscholarly forms of mythicism"? Kettle, may I introduce pot.


    Can you imagine a scientific theorem that generated a million pages of published research, none of which were devoted to establishing evidence that the underlying premise had any basis in reality?

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  34. Thank you for illustrating my point so nicely. You didn't answer my question (presumably you haven't actually read anything on this subject by a mainstream historian). Then you asked where the evidence is (echoes of the creationists). And you rather laughably asked for peer-reviewed material (are you even aware that there is an academic journal, The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus?)

    Finally, to clinch my case, you assume that most experts in this field can be ignorant of the information (the "truth") that you've gleaned off the internet but which we stubbornly refuse to believe because we've been indoctrinated.

    Am I the only one who sees the resemblance to the way creationists approach evolution here?!

    Anyway, I commend to you the many peer-reviewed books and articles on this subject. That's what I'd do with respect to evolution if dealing with a creationist. There are also plenty of popular treatments for a more general audience, to make the scholarly discussions more accessible (as in the case of biology, where likewise there are many top-notch scientists who've attempted to present the relevant scientific data for a general audience). Perhaps you'd find E. P. Sanders, or Geza Vermes, helpful, just to mention a couple of excellent authors who are clearly not apologists.

    Once you can actually say you've familiarized yourself with mainstream historical scholarship on this subject, I'd love to continue the conversation, if there's still a need. And I've discussed mythicism before more than once on my blog, in dialogue with mythicists, if you're interested, as well as posting a video on YouTube on the subject. But I'd suggest that perhaps my blog would be a better place for that conversation, should you want to continue it, since I doubt Larry wants the comment sections of his posts filled with discussions of Jesus! :-)

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  35. James F. McGrath said...

    ....




    You talk about creationists, but aren't you one yourself?

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  36. Then does it follow that you:

    A) are defending the historicity of Jesus but you don't think he was God / the son of God / whatever

    or

    B) you think that Jesus is some of the above, but somehow fail to realize that theistic evolution is also creationism?

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  37. I'm going to express cautious agreement in response to the first question, with the disclaimer that I cannot in good conscience agree that anyone was or was not "whatever". :)

    As for the second, I will point out that "creationism" is used both in a broad sense (anyone who believes in creation) which includes Deists as well as the Baptist ministers you seem to dislike, and in a narrow sense (young-earth creationism and other forms that involve specific divine/intelligent tinkering/interventions). I do not subscribe to the latter, and as for the former, I can only claim agnosticism. It is possible that there was always a universe of some sort. It is possible that at the big bang, or at some previous big bang on an oscillating universe scenario, something that already existed caused the universe to come into existence. I honestly cannot say, and I don't think anyone, scientist or religious believer, who claims certainty about this is being entirely honest.

    When it comes to my own religious beliefs, I find the models of process theology and panentheism helpful, and they are compatible with (and in the case of the former, assume) that there was always some sort of universe.

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  38. So how do you reconcile process theology and panentheism with what the Bible tells us?

    Of course, I have always preferred learning about things that are actually true rather than spending time researching each and ever subtlety of the various visions of what God is that philosophers have made up after it became clear that what the Bible says about him is indefensible. But from what I know about those they don't seem very compatible with the idea that Jesus came here to save our souls and we have to pray to him...

    As far as certainty about what happened 13 billion years ago is concerned, I think that everybody who has spent years studying religion should have asked himself the question whether we would ever debate the role of God in this world if we were not living in a society and culture so permeated with religion.

    In other words, of course we don't know what exactly happened, but the only reason God is ever mentioned is that this is imposed on us by the vast ignorance that dominated (and still does for most people) human existence until a century or two ago. Otherwise he is completely unnecessary.

    Of course this argument is irrelevant to those who think that the Bible is the word of god, but those are by definition creationists because if this is the case, God is actively intervening in human affairs.

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  39. I don't reconcile it. I'm not inclined to pretend that science has not made advances that render the cosmological descriptions found in the Bible and other Ancient Near Eastern texts obsolete. And when young-earth creationists single out evolution for attack, they are being dishonest not only about the scientific data but about the Bible. A true Biblical literalist would not only object to evolution being taught in public schools. They would also refuse to use cell phones, since Genesis 1 refers to a dome separating the waters above and waters below. Clearly the cell phone companies are involved in a conspiracy to undermine people's confidence in the Bible, by claiming that rockets are sent up carrying satellites and they never bounce off the dome.

    As for the question of why one should continue to use religious language, the answer is that many of us are persuaded that descriptions of the world are merely part of the assumptions of religions formulated in this or that historical context, and should never become part of the dogma of religion itself. And religious language still helps some of us ponder the mysteries of existence, to leave room for transcendence, values and various aspects of life that are not addressed by the natural sciences, but are the realm of philosophy, metaphysics, and theology. But I would add emphatically that such religious language, when used, should not be used in a way that either ignores or opposes the best scientific knowledge currently available.

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  40. I was not talking about religious language, I focused on the very idea that a creator is necessary to explain the world

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  41. Something just is, whether "God" or "the universe" or "the multiverse" or something else. And of course, there are religious views in which "God" and "the universe" are not ultimately separate (including not only pantheism but also some forms of panentheism, and the whole range of non-theistic forms of Judaism and Christianity). I don't have an explanation for why something rather than nothing exists. I don't think anyone does. That's why, when it comes to the brute fact of existence, and questions about the meaning of existence, I respond with awe and wonder as well as analysis.

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  42. So just because something exists there must be intelligence behind it? I don't see the logic.

    And how does Jesus fit in the whole story? You still haven't answered that.

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  43. I didn't say that because something exists there must be intelligence behind it. I said that something, ultimately, just exists, and I respond "religiously" and "theologically" to that mystery.

    Talking about "intelligence" sounds like it could be a reference to "intelligent design". But there are plenty of other ways that one might think of there being "intelligence" behind the universe, depending what one means by intelligence. The Stoic view of the logos as a sort of "world soul" that brings order to the universe is ultimately a form of pantheism, but it might involve "intelligence behind the universe". And it is worth noting that this pantheistic view was found helpful by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, as well as the author of the Gospel of John. There is a lot more interaction and cross-fertilization between different religious and philosophical streams of thought that the conservative religious voices are usually willing to admit.

    As for Jesus, I didn't realize you had asked about him. And since he was born, according to most estimates, roughly 2,000 years ago, I didn't see the need to bring him into a discussion of the origin of the universe, which is much older than 6,000 years, never mind 2,000! :)

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  44. This is what you said a few minutes ago

    I'm going to express cautious agreement in response to the first question,

    The question was about the divine nature of Jesus

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  45. Sorry, I should have worded what I wrote more clearly. What I tried to say is that you are right that I wouldn't say "Jesus is God", but that I refuse to either affirm or deny that "Jesus is whatever". I guess the attempt at humor got lost in the process. Sorry!

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  46. OK, I think I understand your position now regarding the divinity of Jesus.

    However, I still don't know what you think about the origins of religion and how, depending on what think on the subject, this relates to the proper epistemological approach to the questions of existence

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  47. Larry, I don't know why NCSE didn't include responses by atheists. Perhaps you should submit one.

    You replied to John Pieret, critizing NCSE for: "tak[ing a] position, for or against, religious or atheist scientists," for "promot[ing] religious scientists and criticism of atheistic scientists," etc. You did this on the basis of an article in the newsletter, an article which you yourself note the editors flagged as controversial and restated the organization's commitment to religious neutrality. This is why I wonder if you fully appreciate the difference between publishing an article and endorsing all of its contents. Bear in mind that NCSE published "Creation/Evolution Journal" (which RNCSE continues), which provided a venue for advocates on both sides to make their case. Author instructions for RNCSE (http://ncseweb.org/media/authors-information) do not include any statement of belief, nor is there any presumption that NCSE endorses what writers say, only that NCSE finds the article topical and well-written.

    Finally, you wrote to John: "My position is that scientific organizations should stay completely out of the debate about religion." This is either exactly what NCSE does or it is logically impossible (depending on what you mean). If you mean that NCSE should not endorse atheism or theism, then NCSE doesn't so we all agree. However, it's an impossible demand if you think NCSE shouldn't address religious claims about science (using "religion" broadly enough here to encompass atheism). Creationism, NCSE's raison d'etre, is a religious claim about science, and it is NCSE's job to get involved in that debate. To be effective and well-informed in that effort, NCSE engages people across the wide range of theological views which accept science and evolution. If you think NCSE should not do that, then it seems you are needlessly hamstringing the work NCSE does.

    Consider something quite simple. You quote Domning (not, as you write, "Downing") saying: "the secularists must ally themselves with—indeed yield leadership to—theistic evolutionists." NCSE's leader, Eugenie Scott, is a secularist and an atheist. She has no imminent plans to hand the reins to anyone, nor do I know anyone who thinks she will consider theistic evolutionist beliefs as a qualification for her successor when she does. In short, that line clearly doesn't represent NCSE policy, nor is it advice NCSE seems likely to take internally, let alone to encourage for other groups.

    It's an interesting recommendation, and Domning is surely entitled to his opinion. I disagree personally (and FWIW, nothing I'm writing here is done in my official capacity as an NCSE staffer, and may not reflect official NCSE positions. On the blogs, I'm just as a guy who is deeply involved in the conflict). You disagree, also. If you or others want to draft an essay describing the role you would like to see atheists play in this debate, or the role you want religion to play, you are free to submit it to RNCSE.

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  48. James McGrath said:

    "Thank you for illustrating my point so nicely. You didn't answer my question"

    Nor you mine. And mine was the more salient question.

    Tell me, in the The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus has there been a single publication providing a shred of non apologetic evidence for the historicity of JC?


    Has there been a single author published in the The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus who started with the position that the reverberating Argument from silence of JC demands that his historicity must be assumed invalid until evidence is discovered otherwise?

    Just wondering.

    "Am I the only one who sees the resemblance to the way creationists approach evolution here?!"


    I think your analogy is stretching things, to say the least.

    On one hand, science has thousands of fossils, evidence from geologic strata, the entire genomic record, development studies and on and on that provide tangible evidence for evolution.

    On the other hand, all that the Biblical Studies professors, clerics, archaeologists, and historians of all stripes have found over the past two thousand years in the way of actual evidence is.... bubkes.

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  49. You are in precisely the position that creationists are in. You don't read anything by people with actual expertise in the field, and yet you claim that all that is in their peer-reviewed publications is apologetics, and that in terms of evidence there is "bubkes".

    The analogy is not a stretch, and with every comment you leave, the similarity grows.

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  50. James F. McGrath said...
    You are in precisely the position that creationists are in. You don't read anything by people with actual expertise in the field, and yet you claim that all that is in their peer-reviewed publications is apologetics, and that in terms of evidence there is "bubkes".


    Two things:

    1) If there is evidence, gives us some references where we can find it

    and

    2) http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2009/04/on-existence-of-god-and-coutiers-reply.html

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  51. We're not talking about the existence of God, we're talking about the existence of a human being named Jesus at a certain point in history. And if certain contemporary authors did not mention him, all that shows is that he was not as significant in his own time as the movement that looked back to him was later on.

    When it comes to the Gospels, we honestly have no certainty about who wrote them. In two instances the author to whom the work was attributed later is historically plausible - why attribute the works to Mark or Luke, neither of whom was an eyewitness, much less a part of the authoritative inner circle of Twelve? But the consensus is that they were written several decades (Mark) or more after the events.

    Nevertheless, the Gospels are not our earliest sources. The letters of Paul were, and although we have no reason to think that Paul was an eyewitness, he does acknowledge that he persecuted the early church (and thus had some knowledge of it within a few years after the crucifixion), and met not only individuals like Peter but also James "the Lord's brother", i.e. a member of Jesus' family.

    Beyond the rather contorted scenarios one must posit in order to explain James inventing a non-existent brother for himself whose existence is then accepted even by a former opponent of the movement, the fact that the early Christians spoke of Jesus as "Messiah" and as crucified is crucial evidence. A crucified Messiah was a more-or-less nonsensical idea, essentially oxymoronic, like saying the 'conquered victor'. Saying that someone invented a figure, claimed he was crucified by the Romans, and then also claimed he was the anointed one who would restore David's kingdom, is far less likely than that the early Christians were struggling to make sense of the crucifixion of a real historical individual whom they believed to be the Messiah.

    Is it possible to doubt this? Yes. It is also possible to doubt evolution. That people can come up with alternative scenarios is not the point. The weight of historical evidence is decisively in favor of Jesus' existence. In history, things are only ever probable, never certain, but the existence of Jesus is very very probable, since alternative scenarios involve serious historical implausibilities.

    I think this has gone on long enough. Larry hasn't said anything, but I really don't want to turn this comment thread into a discussion something other than the subject of his post, and so I will once again invite those interested in discussing the existence of Jesus to do so on one of the recent posts about Jesus or Christianity on my own blog.

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  52. At least the latest RNCSE has sparked some good debates! I just wanted to drop in a couple points.

    Part of the problem with debates such as these is that people seem to have very different interpretations of what science and religion are. For instance, as Pieret pointed out, methodological naturalism (i.e. science) is often conflated with philosophical materialism, though they are by no means synonymous. Likewise, philosophical accommodation does not inevitably lead to undermining methodological naturalism. It doesn't "water down" the science; saying so is nothing more than a non-sequitur insult. Other other end, I have repeatedly observed that many, if not most, people on both sides appear to have a very narrow, almost tunnel-vision view of religion, usually thinking solely about American Conservative Christianity, which is perhaps not surprising given the context of the issue.

    Second, it's interesting that "gillt" referred to NOMA as the accommodationist strategy, when in the RNCSE I specifically called invoking NOMA naïve, in the sentence immediately before the passage Larry quoted.

    On a lighter note, Larry- I used your biochem book a while back (as a student), so I was amused to find my name on your blog. Small world!

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  53. Erik Pietrowicz says,

    Part of the problem with debates such as these is that people seem to have very different interpretations of what science and religion are. For instance, as Pieret pointed out, methodological naturalism (i.e. science) is often conflated with philosophical materialism, though they are by no means synonymous.

    That's a common argument but it doesn't cut the mustard as far as I'm concerned. I'm well aware of the distinction that many people like to make between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism.

    My beef is usually with those people who want to abuse methodological naturalism by saying that miracles, for example, are compatible with science.

    But let's, for the sake of argument, assume that you can draw a nice neat box around the two forms of naturalism. I think we can all agree that those who believe in the existence of supernatural beings have definitely crossed the line into philosophical naturalism, right?

    The position of NCSE is that it is acceptable to endorse a subset of these people who are philosophical naturalists; namely, the ones whose belief in God doesn't interfere too much with science.

    On the other hand, whenever atheists object to this accommodation they are accused of arguing from a philisophical naturalist position and not methodological naturalism. Sounds like you want to have your cake and eat it too!

    Likewise, philosophical accommodation does not inevitably lead to undermining methodological naturalism. It doesn't "water down" the science; saying so is nothing more than a non-sequitur insult.

    A statement like that is virtually meaningless without examples. All religious people that I've ever encountered believe in some things that conflict with science. Whenever a scientific organization endorses these versions of philosophical naturalism they are, ipso facto, watering down science by restricting its magisterium.

    The implication is that there's no conflict between science and the views of Ken Miller, the Pope, and Francis Collins but, on the other hand, there is a major conflict between science and the views of Michael Behe and Michael Denton.

    That kind of hairsplitting is indefensible. Care to give it a try?

    On the other end, I have repeatedly observed that many, if not most, people on both sides appear to have a very narrow, almost tunnel-vision view of religion, ...

    This is another example of the kind of false logic that comes up often in these debates.

    I'm an atheist. I'm not an expert on the views of every single religious cult that exists on this planet. The onus is on the believers to explain what beliefs they hold and why they don't conflict with science.

    I can't read their minds.

    I've been involved in these debates for more that twenty years and I've yet to encounter one of these mythical cults that make the conflict between science and religion disappear. (Strict Deism is a hypothetical example but I've never met a strict Deist.)

    Erik, do you know of a cult whose beliefs are so "sophisticated" that it avoids conflicting with science? You could do all of us a huge favor by actually identifying this cult instead of always alluding to it obliquely.

    It's hard to deal rationally with the views of opponents who constantly remind us that we are attacking strawmen yet never give us a real target.

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  54. Josh Rosenau says,

    This is why I wonder if you fully appreciate the difference between publishing an article and endorsing all of its contents.

    Of course I see the difference. I addressed the specific arguments in the paper and not the perceived position of NCSE.

    But I'm not stupid. I know that this debate takes place in a larger context. I also challenge the logic behind the official position of NCSE and scientific organizations. It's possible to switch back and forth between the actual article and the NCSE position when responding to questions from you or John Pieret.

    Most people can follow this without too much difficulty.

    Finally, you wrote to John: "My position is that scientific organizations should stay completely out of the debate about religion." This is either exactly what NCSE does or it is logically impossible (depending on what you mean).

    Allow me to clarify.

    1. NCSE is a political organization, not a scientific organization. I think that scientific organizations like AAAS and NAS should stay out of religion.

    2. It is decidedly NOT what NCSE does. The purpose of NCSE is to get mixed up in the debate about religion.

    3. It is not logically impossible for scientific organizations to avoid taking sides in the disputes between atheists and theists, and between various religious cults.

    If you mean that NCSE should not endorse atheism or theism, then NCSE doesn't so we all agree.

    I don't count NCSE as a scientific organization and the distinction between how an organization of scientists should behave and how a group of politically-minded educators should behave is important to me.

    I'm sorry if I haven't always made this distinction clear.

    We can certainly agree that NCSE does not endorse atheism as a preferred philosophy. Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact. It tends to view vocal atheists as an impediment to its political objectives.

    Genie makes this very clear in her recent interview in Science when she says,

    What university scientists should not do is to force students to choose between religion and science. If a professor were to say that evolution proves there is no God, that's not just bad philosophy of science, it ensures that a significant number of students will stick their fingers in their ears.

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  55. James McGrath said:

    "And if certain contemporary authors did not mention him, all that shows is that he was not as significant in his own time as the movement that looked back to him was later on."

    All that shows? The Argument from Silence is a HUGE problem for the historicity of JC. The contemporary authors wrote about much less auspicious events and personages than JC, who supposedly walked around reviving the dead, throwing priests out of the temple,and gathering thousands of people to hear him speak. They should have been writing volumes on the guy - he would have been a sensation.

    Your responses are entirely typical of the standard apologist discussed in the Courtiers reply. You argue historicity by assertion, and claims of enormous evidence for the historicity of JC are never produced, just a reliance on apologetic sources, none of which are from even second-hand witnesses or free from suspicion of revisionism.

    Essentially your claim is that the historicity of JC is true because the Gospels or Paul's letters say it is true and these sources are true because they are true.

    A reference to John being Jesus' brother is definitive for you? This and the other points of 'evidence' you list have been dismissed as others far more erudite than I as spurious to the case. (Many other people are said to be "brother" to JC, for example, as it simply means they were believers).

    And the letters of Paul show that his only experience of JC comes from dream revelations, and he refers to JC as the form of a "God" and having a only a "human likeness". Relying on Paul to assert historicity of Jesus is doomed to failure.

    You are correct that we should not pollute this thread any more, and I shall end here. Please reconsider your aspersions of creationist tendencies to those who question the historicity of JC. Such charges are insensitive and quite baseless, as has been proved quite dramatically, I believe, by your replies.

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  56. "I think we can all agree that those who believe in the existence of supernatural beings have definitely crossed the line into philosophical naturalism, right? "

    Crossed the line into naturalism? Not by any definition I can find.

    "On the other hand, whenever atheists object to this accommodation they are accused of arguing from a philisophical naturalist position and not methodological naturalism. "

    Because they are. It may be an direct metaphysical extension of methodological naturalism, but since when is "God doesn't exist" a scientific statement? It is a philosophical disagreement, not an empirical one. That's not to say that the accusers aren't being hypocrites themselves if they claim science supports the existence of God.

    "The implication is that there's no conflict between science and the views of Ken Miller, the Pope, and Francis Collins but, on the other hand, there is a major conflict between science and the views of Michael Behe and Michael Denton.

    That kind of hairsplitting is indefensible. Care to give it a try?
    "

    Actually no, since I didn't (and wouldn't) make that claim. The only actual problems are those beliefs that do directly conflict with established science. It's not a wholesale all-or-none. Those aspects of belief that do not overlap with methodological naturalism are philosophical, and therefore can only be attacked at a philosophical level- thus my previous point. Recognizing the limits of science and acknowledging the existence of beliefs that do not fit its philosophical extensions do not in any way require compromising science itself. It's only those beliefs that do conflict with science that can be refuted on a scientific level.

    "...I've yet to encounter one of these mythical cults that make the conflict between science and religion disappear."

    Speaking of straw men, where did I claim such groups existed? (I did not.) You made my point for me by implicitly treating the inverse as true- that all aspects of religious belief conflict with science- thus the narrow view I alluded to.

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  57. Erik Pietrowicz says,

    When I said, "I think we can all agree that those who believe in the existence of supernatural beings have definitely crossed the line into philosophical naturalism, right? "

    Erik replied,

    Crossed the line into naturalism? Not by any definition I can find.

    My mistake. I meant to say that they had left mechanistic naturalism and crossed the line into the philosophical realm.

    Because they are. It may be an direct metaphysical extension of methodological naturalism, but since when is "God doesn't exist" a scientific statement? It is a philosophical disagreement, not an empirical one.

    I try not to ever make the claim the gods don't exist. Most of my atheist friends avoid that statement as well.

    Nevertheless, I agree, in part, with your statement. When I say that I have not accepted the existence of supernatural beings, that's arguably a philosophical position. It means that I have not bought into superstitious beliefs.

    I suppose that when I say I don't believe in the tooth fairy that's also a philosophical statement, by your definition. Same when I say that I don't believe in Santa Claus.

    The only actual problems are those beliefs that do directly conflict with established science. It's not a wholesale all-or-none. Those aspects of belief that do not overlap with methodological naturalism are philosophical, and therefore can only be attacked at a philosophical level- thus my previous point. Recognizing the limits of science and acknowledging the existence of beliefs that do not fit its philosophical extensions do not in any way require compromising science itself. It's only those beliefs that do conflict with science that can be refuted on a scientific level.

    And there's the rub.

    Most of my debates are directed at religious claims that DO conflict with science, in my opinion. As far as I'm concerned, the discussion about the efficacy of prayer, the existence of a soul, the resurrection of Jesus, or the existence of miracles is entirely within the realm of science and methodological naturalism.

    I admit that we get closer to the borderline when we discuss purpose. I claim that available evidence indicates a universe without purpose and that humans are neither pre-ordained nor special. I claim that anyone who believes otherwise is promoting a religious belief that conflicts with science.

    The response from theists is usually dismissive. They claim that I have stepped over the line into philosophical naturalism. They claim that the belief in purpose and the uniqueness of humans is perfectly consistent with science.

    Actually, it's a debatable point and to simply dismiss my view as out-of-bounds isn't going to make it go away.

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  58. Larry Moran

    I claim that available evidence indicates a universe without purpose and that humans are neither pre-ordained nor special. I claim that anyone who believes otherwise is promoting a religious belief that conflicts with science.

    Your claim sounds rational and seems to reflect a logical and acceptable scientific view.
    It is not, however.
    For this universe in its true form, being without purpose and very inhospitable to humans, is a world that presents itself exclusively, and necessarily, by human-body-mediated conscious observation. This simple fact was understood by the early sceptical philosophers, elegantly phrased by Kant and supported by famous modern thinkers such as Quine. They all drew the right conclusion. True reality is a hidden metaphysical space. That space includes our bodies. We will never know its metaphysical laws, but these very laws (lacking a better word, because nothing can be said about it) are fundamental to our nature and our being. To equate this hidden reality to observed, matter-made reality is a blatant error.
    Somehow this message, relayed to us by highly esteemed western philosophers, doesnot seem to settle down in the scientific mind. Yet it is a purely logical, scientific conclusion concerning the nature of the human condition. Moreover, even if one is willing to accept the existence of hidden reality it is being treated as if that fact does not influence scientific claims. Yet the very object of methodological naturalism is a human-body-produced image (again, lacking a better word). In the formula
    Or=B[R]
    Kant’s truth is simply reflected. Or is observed reality, B is the true human body and R is true reality. B is part of R and both are in metaphysical space. The brackets in the formula symbolise some human-body function on R. Or is all we know. R and B can be literally anything as long as B[R] produces Or. R nor B can be dismissed as irrelevant because they are fundamental to our very universe. B[R] gives us matter, space and time. It also gives us consciousness, for Or is a conscious observation.
    It means that, although we will never know its influence, we can nevertheless be sure that the influence of metaphysical reality is pivotal, not only to human behavior, but also to all knowledge humans can scientifically acquire.

    I am not promoting religious belief. I promote the logical, scientific view that our matter-made world is a conscious phenomenon grounded in a completely unknown reality, here and now.

    Dick Mesland
    The Biological Misconception
    http://www.strategicbookpublishing.com/TheBiologicalMisconception.html

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  59. The "highly esteemed western philosophers" were in many aspects just as ignorant about the world around them as the cavemen who created religion were.

    I will remind to those who like to point out what does and what does not settle in the scientific mind that they themselves seem unable to understand that there was the world before Darwin where it made sense to ponder on the nature of human existence and the world after Darwin where it mostly didn't.

    In other words, once it was realized (although by few) that man is nothing exceptional, the answers to a lot of the questions that all those great thinkers asked were irreversibly transferred from the domain of philosophy and its quote data-poor methodology go the domain of science.

    I can also remind those who like to hide their so much loved "supernatural" in the safety of the philosophical fog that despite all the millenia that philosophers have been thinking hard on the questions of the purpose of human existence, the nature of reality, morality, etc., the only real progress toward answering these questions has been made by physicists and biologists.

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  60. Georgi Marinov

    Apparently you seem to completely ignore the specific point I am making. Either that, or you are missing it in your response, which stands out for its ease of generalisations. I am not addressing morality, ethics, purpose or meanings. I am addressing a scientific observation that has been shared by genuine thinkers, at present and in the past. Once it was realized (although by few) that man is the mediator of its own perceived reality, all those great thinkers tried to have that insight settle in the minds of scientists. The insight has profound consequences for understanding the domain of questions in which science can search for answers. More important however, it clearly points to another domain, lying at the basis of the former, which appears to be completely inaccessible to scientific investigations. This point has absulutely nothing to do with pre- or post Darwin times.

    Referring to the formula I gave, Or=B[R], you are addressing Or exclusively, the universe we observe. Consider B[R]. Its existence can be denied, but that would be far from scientific. R could be considered equal to Or, which is what most people seem to favor. That would not be scientific either, because out of the myriad of possibilities that R (and B) could be (namely anything as long as B[R] gives Or) why pick just R=Or leaving a strange task for B? Hence, R (including B) is an unknown metaphysical reality and fundamental to the universe observed, is the only valid scientific conclusion.

    You may miss the point again, but don’t come back with “those who like to hide their so much loved "supernatural" in the safety of the philosophical fog”.

    Dick Mesland
    The Biological Misconception
    http://www.strategicbookpublishing.com/TheBiologicalMisconception.html

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  61. What exactly is your definition of Or?

    Is it just the things we can directly perceive with our body and senses or it also includes the things made accessible by science?

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  62. stillGeorgi Marinov

    Or indeed stands for the whole observable universe, thus everything science has access to, in priciple.
    In pre-instrumental times we could only use our senses, while during our cultural evolution we developed tools and instruments, as a consequence of empirical experience combined with mindwork.
    Nevertheless, if one gives it proper thought, Or remains equal to B[R], and that is the clever thinking one has to attribute to these philosophers (the early ones uttering these thoughts were called sceptics, by the way). I rediscover this fact in my book.
    There have been very clever minds in human history that deserve better than being dismissed as relics of their times.

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  63. Aristotle was a very clever man, that doesn't make most of what he was thinking less wrong (and, in retrospect, outright silly). We will probably look similarly in the eyes of people 500 or 1000 years from now (in the unlikely event that our civilization survives by then)

    Also, I am not at all sure that at the time your arguments were developed, instrumentation was had in mind. I myself don't even have instrumentation in mind, a lot of the biggest breakthroughs in modern theoretical physics are achieved by purely mathematical methods. Of course, this means they are not considered true until experimentally tested, but still, the claim that reality is somehow unaccessible to objective scientific study because this depends on our senses is something I can't find convincing.

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  64. Georgi Marinov

    “… but still, the claim that reality is somehow unaccessible to objective scientific study because this depends on our senses is something I can't find convincing.”

    This may not be the place to offer you the argumentation for that unescapable fact (unless you insist). In the book I wrote I develop the reasoning from different points of view (by means of dialogues) for the very reason that the simple formula Or=B[R], and all its consequences, are not at all immediately obvious. Yet, it is purely logical and therefore I think it deserves much more serious consideration than science has given it so far (referring to those philosophers again).

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  65. Again, I don't see how developing physical theories through the use of high-level mathematics and only then testing them experimentally (if this is possible), which, as it seems, will be the way to go in the future in physics, classifies as B(R).

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