Monday, March 14, 2011

Five Things that Cannot Be Justified by Science

Bill Dembski thinks that in this video William Lane Craig makes a very good case against science. This is from 1998. (The other two people are atheist Peter Atkins and William F. Buckley.) Posted on Uncommon Descent: Oldie but goodie: William Lane Craig vs. Peter Atkins. Craig list five things science cannot account for. Do you believe him?

I'd probably have the same look on my face as Peter Atkins. It's not that these five things are devastating arguments against the power of science, it's that each one would take at least an hour to explain. The audience isn't going to wait that long so you know you're going to have to pass and leave Craig (and Dembski) to smugly assume that he's won.

It's typical anti-science trickery and Atkins probably wasn't expecting such a cheap shot in that environment.


  1. Of course there are things that science can't adequately deal with. So what? Who cares? Was anyone stupid enough to suggest that science is everything? It's just a tool and immensely useful one. Is that not enough?

    (Note to Craig: "rational" does not means "scientific"; it merely means reasonable. Big difference).

    This is why debating religious nuts is a waste of time. They should simply be ignored.

  2. A little story about the late and unlamented William F. Buckley Jr. Back in the 1990s, he hosted a debate on evolution, which he rejected, between Michael Behe and Ken Miller in which Prof. Behe was buried. After the debate, Buckley and Miller had a short conversation, where the former complemented the latter on his performance. Miller later remarked in an interview that Buckley seemed to be very intelligent and quite polite, but was obviously completely ignorant of biology.

    This reminded me of a comment made by a nuclear physicist to me at the school where I was a graduate student. He had received his PhD from Princeton and belonged to the same synagogue there as Immanuel Velikovsky. He had several conversations with Velikovsky and characterized him as a very nice man, very intelligent, and totally ignorant of physics.

  3. There is so much wrong with that litany of claims that science is inadequate to address certain areas of inquiry. I don't accept any of the claims, but one in particular is typically used by deniers to claim that science is not omnipotent (I also would not stake the latter claim and merely agree with DK that the utilitarian value of science is enough to justify its status as the most effective "way of knowing".

    No, the one that bugs me-- and it may have slipped in more times than that-- is the notion that Science ever "proves" anything. Dembski raises the claim that science is unable to distinguish between a perceived past that is based in reality and shared experience, and a past that was instilled by some sleight of hand some 5 minutes ago. Let's not be strayed by the fact that a natural means to achieve such a feat does not exist, not even in the hypothetical sense; it is enough to note that there is no evidence proffered to support such a claim and, as such, there is no basis for testing those nonexistent hypotheses.

    For me, the properly humble and tentative conclusions arrived at by proper application of a scientific way of knowing is sufficient to rid the mind of the cognitive dissonance that infests every alternative philosophy.

  4. Don't make me watch the damned thing. What are the five things?

  5. It's only three minutes, John, and I could never do justice summarizing the arguments of a famous philosopher like William Lane Craig.

  6. Ugh. Craig is such a charlatan. It's gonna take a lot of willpower to sit through three minutes of his rubbish.

  7. Arabiflora got the gist of it. It isn't just justifying, because we can do that adequately; Craig shifts the goalposts and demands that a lot of metaphysics and speculative philosophy must be proven, and science doesn't deal in proofs.

    So sure, I can't prove I'm not a brain in a vat that was created 5 minutes ago with memories of the past 50+ years. So? That is not a useful hypothesis.

  8. Alright, I suffered through it. I'm a bit mystified by Peter Atkins' statement that science is "omnipotent", but whatever.

    Craig's first two points are tautologies; the validity of the laws of logic and mathematics, as well as our knowledge of an external reality, are observations, not assumptions. We know them to be true because they can be demonstrated as such through empirical tests of predictive utility. That goes back to his fourth point, in which he erroneously claims science cannot be justified by its own methodology. To quote Hawking, "science will win because it works."

    The third point, ethics, is simply a failure to distinguish between abstract concepts and metaphysical realities. But, per Sam Harris, for concepts of morality and ethics to be of any utilitarian value, they must ultimately relate back to objective facts about the human condition, which can be traced back to the science of the brain.

    And he's wrong about the theory of special relativity. The fixed speed of light has been demonstrated as a fact. However, this also shows that he simply doesn't understand how science works. Even if it were merely assumed, we can test the validity of the assumption by testing what we should expect to observe if the speed of light is constant – much in the way cosmologists predicted that we should expect to observe the cosmic microwave background if the Big Bang is true. And we did.

  9. Debating is as much a performance art as anything else and, like it or not, Craig comes across as a better speaker than Peter Atkins - certainly more glib and facile and a better tactician

    Of course there are answers to each of Craig's points but what does it matter if his opponent cannot articulate them simply, clearly and persuasively?

    It is also tactically inept to gift your opponent easy targets by making wildly extravagant claims about science being "omnipotent" and able to "explain everything".

    People underestimate Craig. He is very good at what he does and it takes more then being a crusty old curmudgeon or gnu atheist to beat him.

  10. Sometimes, you know, Larry, you've just got to say: "Whateva!"

    I'm imagining Jonathan MacLatchie saying that with the inflections of a teenage schoolgirl. It's strangely satisfying.

  11. The five points:

    1) Logical and mathematical truths
    2) Metaphysical truths
    3) Ethical beliefs (moral absolutes)
    4) Aesthetic judgments
    5) Science itself

    I would deny the existence of 3) and 4) beyond what can be scientifically demonstrated to exists and thus be explained. 5) can be split up into 1) and 2) and these two things can probably not be justified by science.

  12. People underestimate Craig. He is very good at what he does and it takes more then being a crusty old curmudgeon or gnu atheist to beat him.

    Exactly the opposite. The vieux atheists overestimated him, and treated the guy with kid gloves, avoding stinging repartee. That's why you have the Gnu Atheists, who simply shoot back, asymmetrically. F'instance that stupid jibe about reality being created just five minutes ago, would be countered with a jab like, "That's right you made up the book out of whole cloth in just five minutes. Explains why it is such poppycock."

    Craig is a one trick pony and a cheap confidence trickster. You fight him by keeping him off balance and ripping off his mask to expose his fraudulent self.


  13. @Naon Tiotami Sometimes, you know, Larry, you've just got to say: "Whateva!"

    It's like picking a scab and I keep telling my self I'll stop doing it, but I followed the link.

    Whenever I do this I'm always reminded of the Sam Harris comment:

    ... is one of many embarrassing signs that he has lived too long in the echo chamber of Evangelical Christianity.

    He was referring to Francis Collins but I think it's more generally applicable to the fan boys at the various IDiot sites.

  14. Dr. Craig is mistaken about a couple of his examples. He mis-understands what a scientist has in mind by an assumption, and he is mistaken about Einstein’s postulate that the speed of light (really electromagnetic radiation) in a vacuum is the same to all inertial observers. He doesn’t understand the role of mathematics and logic in empirical investigation either.

    A reader of Einstein’s great 1905 paper about special relativity will see that Einstein did not just invent the idea that the speed of light is a constant. He says that all measurements so far made of the speed of light yield the same value, so he will take this to be a fact of nature, a postulate, that will necessarily continue to be confirmed by future measurements he predicts. His postulate was a summary of the experimental evidence of his day. Nor have subsequent researchers taken the postulate as a matter beyond question. All subsequent measurements of the speed of electromagnetic radiation in a vacuum, from gamma rays to radio waves, have confirmed that postulate. Contrary to Craig’s assertion, scientists justify their assumptions based upon evidence.

    He is also mistaken about the role of mathematics and logic in empirical science. Mathematics is itself open to empirical investigation by scientists, and scientists only use mathematics and logic as tools of their investigations because empirical investigation shows them to be helpful. If mathematics didn’t work to describe nature, we wouldn’t use it. Consider the discovery by mathematicians of non-Euclidean geometry. With this mathematical discovery, the geometry of space became a subject for empirical, physical investigation. Kant believed that the fact that space was Euclidean was an a priori (and obvious) fact. Gauss tried to measure the sum of the angles of a great triangle from Alpine mountaintops, and today we know that the geometry of space, really space-time, is non-Euclidean. The same is even true in the case of logic, as quantum mechanics has led to the discovery that logic’s law of the excluded middle is inadequate to describe nature.

  15. Well, there's also the obvious point that 'religion' not only can't answer them, it claims it can but the answers it comes up with are objectively false.

    Science can offer evidence. Was the universe created five minutes ago? That is a possibility. The universe doesn't *look* like it was. If it was created five minutes ago, or indeed six thousand years ago, it was created by a being of such immense ability it was able to *flawlessly* create a universe that looks older (or, I suppose flawlessly fool human beings, which must be far easier).

    Are we living in a simulation? We can - and have - come up with ways we might be able to detect that.

    Can we 'scientifically' determine whether the Nazis were evil? (Note that he talks about Nazi scientists specifically, not Nazi priests - cough - or Popes).


    We can agree definitions, then assess them. Personally, I think 'evil' is a weasel word that presupposes a theistic universe. Did the priests, bishops, archbishops and Popes who happily saluted the Nazis have any problem answering that question using their finely honed religious skills? No, to them 'evil' was Protestants and Communists. Heil Hitler!

    Call it 'suffering' instead. Did the Nazis cause suffering? Duh.

  16. If mathematics didn’t work to desribe nature, we wouldn’t use it.

    But there is a lot of mathematics now that does not describe nature at all, yet mathematicians still "use" it. (Use in a sense of develop it).

  17. "Craig shifts the goalposts and demands that a lot of metaphysics and speculative philosophy must be proven, and science doesn't deal in proofs."

    Yes, and it's an astonishing double standard - where's even one data point supporting the theory that God exists?

    If we accept, for sake of argument, that nothing can completely describe itself ... then the Christian God necessarily can't exist.

    Except, of course, when theists invoke these rules and say 'no exceptions, absolutely no exceptions', there's always the 'God's an exception' small print.

    There are givens in any model of the universe. Basic logic things: 'a thing is identical to itself', '2 has a constant value', 'a thing can't simultaneously have and not-have a property', 'at least one thing currently exists'.

    These things aren't proved, or provable. It's just that it would be impossible for them not to be true. These are not secret rules laid down by God - they would necessarily have to predate him, he would be bound by them. If that's not the case, it's not just science that doesn't work.

  18. Thank God for materialists who can't keep their feet out of their own mouths. Atkins got owned, and rightly so. "Science is omnipotent...." Doesn't he mean omniscient?

    Mike D. Without the utility of mathematical values that always hold true, science doesn't work. Therefore, trying to prove math by a scientific method which is dependent upon math is going in circles. Thus, Craig's point.

    Hawkings claim that "science will win because it works" certainly falls short of proving anything about the omniscience (much less omnipotence) of science. Science makes I-pads and vaccines pretty well; but it is fairly autistic when it comes to art and beauty. Science is useful, but your buddies make it a tautology.

  19. "the omniscience of science"

    ... no scientist claims to be omniscient, or that science could make you omniscient, or even that science could be 'completed'.

    Science can't judge art. Even if cognitive science developed to the point of perfection, it would only be able to tell us exactly what people find beautiful. In practical terms, I'm not sure what the difference is between that and 'judging' art. But leave that aside, let's say you're right.

    You're presumably not offering 'religion' as an alternative system for judging art. Because you'd be mad if you thought that.

    So, OK ... God? You're saying God is the ultimate source of art judgment? He is omniscient, after all. Even though, oh hang on, you said that it was impossible for something to be ... omniscient. Oh, never mind, let's just allow you that one.

    Here's how crazy that is, and here's why what you believe is crazier still:

    If you are right, God can tell us, as an objective fact, what the best Marlon Brando movie was. Not only that, his ruling would be binding. If God said Superman Returns was better than The Godfather, he'd be right. He's omniscient. He knows his stuff better than anything else. There are moral absolutes, and he's the arbiter of them. So he knows what the best Brando movie is.

    'Oh, oh, that's absurd'. OK, Zack, thing is, your God is meant to be able to judge Brando's *life*, to assess his *soul* and to assign him to the fitting afterlife.

    Does the idea that God can't make a definitive judgment on Brando's *movies* but he can of his *eternal soul* make any sense at all? No.

    Science might not have the right answers, but at least it hasn't settled on one wrong one.

  20. Zack, you have it backwards. The validity of mathematics does not need to be assumed, because it can be demonstrated. If we could not derive reliable, empirical tests of predictable utility with it, we could discard it.

    I don't know what Atkins meant by "science is omnipotent" and it's not a statement I would make. But you just fall back on the old theistic canard of confusing conceptual abstractions that are arbitrarily defined, like "beauty" and "love", with metaphysical realities.

  21. It's odd that Craig lists mathematical truths as something that cannot be explained by science, since he DENIES THE EXISTENCE OF MATHEMATICAL TRUTHS.

    (That was a bit of hyperbole. No one who has read much of Craig's work would consider the above fact odd.)

  22. It's funny that of all the comments no one can refute what William Lane Craig stated. Either you dismiss him as a religious or say he doesn't understand. Perhaps learning the rules of logic, one would understand that what Craig says is valid and proves to this Physics and Mathematics scientists that he understands that there is a difference between science and scientism (faith in science).

  23. Inductive reasoning. Science cannot explain the success of inductive reasoning. Still, it's not let us down so far...

  24. Can William Lane Craig prove the rules of logic? No? Therefore, we can ignore him.

  25. "It's funny that of all the comments no one can refute what William Lane Craig stated"

    Well, I don't 'refute' the idea that science can't prove the idea dinosaurs died on a Wednesday, either.

    Craig's implication is 'science can't describe everything ... therefore belief in Jesus can'.

    And I can refute that. Christianity is fucking useless at getting people to act in accordance with basic Christian teaching, let alone some framework for grounding logical truths.

  26. AM wrote: "Inductive reasoning. Science cannot explain the success of inductive reasoning. Still, it's not let us down so far..."

    In fact us computer scientists *have* already mathematically proven the optimality of inductive reasoning. *smug grin*

    See chapter 5 of "An Introduction to Kolmogorov Complexity and it's Applications".

    To surprise you even more, some philosophers (!) also have come to similar results:

    And no, they're not using unproven premises. Those are verified mathematics. Disputing them puts you in lala-land immediately. Finally similar findings have been found in current research on statistics.

    You can stop hedging. If it's not science it's inferior.

  27. I'm not sure how you can characterize Craig's response as a "cheapshot" especially since Dr. Atkins asked him the question.

  28. I'm an atheist but I actually think Craig makes a good case in the debate.

    Besides, if Craig used "a cheap shot in that environment," then it could be argued Atkins did so in other parts of the debate too. It cuts both ways.

    The truth is debates aren't like journal articles or papers let alone books where one can take the time to make a cumulative and considered case for one's position. Debates aren't the best places for this sort of information. Debates are too give and take, too showcasey. Some people are better suited to the debate format than others. It doesn't mean those who aren't suited to the debate format are less intelligent or more importantly less veridical. Rather it just means they aren't suited to debating.

    In any case, here is a better article on the topic of this post.