Wednesday, January 22, 2014

William Reville attacks scientism

John Wilkins linked to essay by someone named William Reville on "Philosophers must oppose arrogance of scientism." Reville is not a philosopher—he's a retired biochemist and Public Awareness of Science Officer from the University College Cork in Ireland.

He writes a regular column for The Irish Times on the relationship between science and religion. He's a Roman Catholic.

I'm interested in the conflict between science and religion and I usually pay attention to anything that John Wilkins recommends so I looked at this article. I think it might be fun to examine it to see how some theists think about the issue. Let's see how he starts out ...
The modern world runs on science-based technology, and nobody seriously disputes the importance of science.

This importance has tempted many eminent scientists to adopt a dismissive attitude called "scientism" towards other disciplines. Scientism applies science to address questions in areas where science has no competence. But scientism is simply wrong, and might have disastrous consequences for science if allowed to develop. Philosophy has an important role in identifying areas where science has competence, but, by and large, philosophers are not confronting scientism.

Scientism comes in stronger and weaker forms. The robust form claims that science is the only valid way of seeking knowledge. The weaker doesn’t go that far, but it inappropriately applies science to a wide range of questions.
Oh dear, that's not a very good beginning. Science is a very important way of knowing that's proven to be highly successful. As far as I'm concerned, there are no rules that say what questions we can and can't address using the scientific way of knowing.

William Reville thinks there are, and he obviously thinks these questions are self-evident because he doesn't bother to tell us about the "areas where science has no competence." Apparently, those of us who try to use the scientific way of knowing (rational thinking, evidence, healthy skepticism) to ask questions about the protected areas are guilty of "scientism."

"Scientism" is almost always uses as a pejorative term.

I happen to believe that the scientific way of knowing is the only way of knowing with a proven track record. I'm willing to consider examples of knowledge ("truth") that have been obtained without resorting to evidence and rational thinking but so far nobody has been able to give me an example [Who's the Grownup in the Science vs Religion Debate?].

I use the broad definition of science as a methodology. The narrow definition restricts "science" to the traditional disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology etc. I think William Reville is using the narrow definition.

Philosophers have been grappling with this problem for years. It's called the "demarcation problem"—how do you distinguish science from pseudoscience and science from any other way of knowing? There are many prominent philosophers who use a broad definition of science and who claim that there are no questions that science can't address. William Reville seems to be unaware of those philosophers. Perhaps that's because he only reads Catholic philosophers. He should read Philosophy of Pseudoscience to learn about sophisticated philosophy [see Science Doesn't Have All the Answers but Does It Have All the Questions?].
The strong form is a ridiculous claim espoused by few scientists. One scientist who does espouse it is biologist Richard Lewontin, who has said: “In order to properly understand the universe, people should reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world and accept a social and intellectual apparatus, science, as the only begetter of truth.” (New York Review of Books, 1997.)
That's it? That's all he has to say about the subject? It's "ridiculous"?

Now, I realize that William Reville is not a philosopher. That's a damn good thing because, if he were, he would be giving philosophy a bad name. As it is, he's only giving biochemistry a bad name.
The weaker form is frequently directed against religion by prominent scientists. In a BBC2 Newsnight TV programme in 2009, Richard Dawkins made the ignorant statement: "God has the same status as fairies." In other words, according to Dawkins, belief in God is childishly unreasonable. But Dawkins doesn’t enlighten us as to what aspects of the fairy philosophy of life rival the mature philosophy of Christianity. It is, of course, reasonable to be a Christian – anybody who doubts that should read, for example, the books written by the mathematical physicist and Anglican theologian John Polkinghorne, such as "Quarks, Chaos and Christianity."
I don't see what this has to do with "scientism." The evidence for god(s) is no different than the evidence for fairies and you don't have to be a scientist to recognize that.

And if you think, as I do, that it's silly to base your life on believing in the existence of something that's only imaginary then "unreasonable" isn't a bad way of describing that belief.

William Reville doesn't really have an argument. He falls back on the Courtier's Reply (Myers, 2013: see The Emperor's New Clothes and the Courtier's Reply). The Coutier's Reply goes something like this ...

Lots and lots of books have been written about fairies. You can't just rely on Celtic folk tales and Hans Christian Anderson because the mature philosophy of fairy tales is much more sophisticated than that.

Many theses have been written on the subject of fairies and they are even mentioned in the Bible. They've been around for a long time and millions of people believe in them. That is, they believe in the sophisticated fairies described in scholarly works and not the strawman fairies of Disneyland. The sophisticated fairies are wise and powerful. They aren't the ones that appear in the bottoms of gardens. In fact, they are often so clever that they don't appear at all. They just communicate emotively.
I could go on and on but you get the picture. Reville could probably make a similar case for believing in the Roman Catholic gods. In fact, I'm sure he does make such a case ... with just about as much credibility as the defense of fairies. The point is that almost every widely held belief has volumes of literature justifying it in more or less sophisticated ways. Just because there's a complicated apologetic by a "mathematical physicist and Anglican theologian" does not mean that it's true. I'm sure there are equally "sophisticated" books defending Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. That's not an excuse.

If you have evidence for your belief then you'd better produce it instead of passing off the question to others. If you can't defend your belief in the face of challenges then you have no business attacking your accuser for not understanding the "mature philosophy of Christianity." That's always going to be seen as a cop-out.

The important point is that we are almost half way though William Revilles article and he still hasn't said anything.
I think the extreme stance of Dawkins and others against religion stems from the fact that these scientists are fundamentalist materialists. Materialism is the philosophical belief that nothing exists except the material: that is, matter and energy. Therefore the supernatural doesn’t exist and religion is nonsense. However, materialism is a philosophy that has not – and probably cannot – be proved.
If you don't believe in fairies or gods, then "materialism" is the only other option. It's important to understand that people like Richard Dawkins don't just arbitrarily decide to adopt a belief in materialism leading them to reject the existence of gods and fairies. Instead, they examine the extraordinary claims that fairies and gods exist and reject them for lack of evidence. The scientific way of knowing requires evidence. If you don't have evidence then it ain't scientific.

You can never prove that fairies and gods don't exist so that means that "materialism" is always a tentative position; albeit, one that looks very strong to millions and millions of nonbelievers.

I hope that William Reville isn't going to insult us by claiming that it's reasonable to believe in fairies and gods because you can't prove they don't exist.
Science studies the natural world. It is materialistic in its method but not in its philosophy. Science does not deny the supernatural, it simply has nothing to say about it. Science and religion address different aspects of reality and do not contradict each other, as noted by the eminent science writer Stephen J Gould in his book Rocks of Ages. It is not necessary to be a materialist to be a scientist. Most of the great scientists in history were Christians and, today, about 40 per cent of scientists believe in a personal God.
Oh, I see where he's coming from. He's going to insult us in a different way. He's telling us that science has nothing to say about the supernatural. That's bullshit. Every claim that's ever made about the supernatural can be examined using the scientific way of knowing. We can ask whether the claim is logical and we can ask if there's any evidence to support it. So far, all those claims fail the test. The scientific way of knowing has said a lot about the supernatural.

It's true that science and religion address different aspects of the world but it's not true to say that they address different aspects of "reality." Reality lies in the magisterium of science and religion doesn't belong there. Religion lies in the magisterium of superstition, imagination, and fairy tales. You can play around in that magisterium all you want but don't pretend that what you imagine to be true is actually knowledge. So far, the scientific way of knowing is the only way that has produced true knowledge. No religious claim of true knowledge have been proven. So, right now, science and religion are in conflict as long as believers make claims about knowledge or existence.

William Reville also insults us by telling us that lots of scientists believe in various gods.

Lot's of scientists reject gods. I wonder what that means to William Reville? One of those groups has to be wrong.

Lot's of Roman Catholics believe in fairies—especially in Ireland. I wonder what that means?
It is reasonable to be a materialist. But, since materialism is unproven, materialists must accept that, no matter how improbable it seems to them, there is a possibility they might be wrong and a supernatural dimension might exist. Materialists are therefore obliged to respect the position of religious people who believe in the supernatural but accept all that science has and will discover. Of course, religious people have an equivalent obligation towards materialists.
I'm beginning to wonder why John Wilkins linked to this crap. These are kindergarten arguments. Just because you can't prove the nonexistence of something does not mean that it is reasonable to believe in it. And there's no logical reason why I'm obliged to "respect" the position of people who believe silly things just because I can't prove definitively that they are wrong.

I don't respect people who believe in homeopathy or astrology although I can't prove for certain that homeopathic remedies never work or that the stars don't have some influence on your future. I don't respect people who believe in Bigfoot or in space aliens who kidnap people in order to study their body parts. I don't respect people who believe in fairies or leprechauns (see picture on left). Why must I respect people who believe in supernatural beings who talk to you in your sleep (or however else they communicate their plans)?

It's a kindergarten arguments, to be sure, but it's made much worse by hypocrisy; " Of course, religious people have an equivalent obligation towards materialists."
Those who espouse scientism are scathing not only of religion but of philosophy in general. For example, the eminent chemist Peter Atkins says in his article Science as Truth (History of the Human Sciences, 1995): “I consider it to be a defensible proposition that no philosopher has helped to elucidate nature; philosophy is but the refinement of hindrance.” And Stephen Hawking, in his book The Grand Design (2010), says: “We wonder, we seek answers: What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science”. One would imagine that such comments would cause a storm of public protest from philosophers, but no such storm has arisen. Why not?

Throughout the 20th century, philosophers have been content to politely applaud science from the sidelines. Science now thanks philosophy by declaring it dead. One very important function of philosophy is to identify scientific questions. This is important in order to keep science from going off the rails. Philosophy is not doing its job.
I'm one of those people who criticize philosophers for not getting their house in order. This is a perfect example. Are there any philosophers out there who want to defend William Reville?

Many philosophy departments are dominated by theologians who call themselves philosophers. It's time for real philosophers to take back their discipline. It's time for real philosophers to admit that that they also use the scientific way of knowing to arrive at truth and knowledge.

I'm delighted to see that in the past ten years there are more and more philosophers admitting the science and religion are in conflict and religion is losing. I have no idea why William Revillle thinks that "Philosophers must oppose arrogance of scientism." Instead, they should be embracing it because it's true.


78 comments :

  1. Larry:

    What do you think about Aquinas' First Way as an argument for God's existence?

    In what way does it resemble the argument for the existence of fairies?

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    1. I have no idea what you are talking about. I don''t make a habit of reading Thomas Aquinas before I go to sleep and even if I did I don't plan on memorizing the first way or any of the other ways. How many are there?

      If you think you have a good argument for the existence of one of the gods then let's hear it.

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    2. Now after you have given us the link, please elaborate on:

      1) Why we should consider an authority someone living in the pre-scientific era, with completely wrong understanding of very basic physics, let alone modern cosmology rather than modern physicists who know all of those things and pretty much none of who takes this argument seriously? For comparison, no serious evolutionary biologist takes Darwin seriously as an authority on evolutionary biology in the 21st century (that creationists like you live under the false impression that scientists are somehow worshiping Darwin is only a testament to the stupidity of creationists, nothing more than that). We have enormous respect for the person for his contributions in the past, but we do not derive our understanding of how the world works based on his writings, we do that based on all the research done up to date. Shouldn't we invoke the same criteria for people who lived in the 13th century?

      2) How is it an argument in support of the existence of the Christian God? Even if assume the truth of the argument, it has absolutely nothing to say about the specifics of the God - it is just as compatible with the Christian God as it is compatible with Allah and as it is compatible with a God that has zero involvement in the creation of human beings and zero interest in their affairs, in which case praying to him is completely meaningless and you may just as well be an atheist. Also, how is it evidence for the existence of immaterial souls, afterlife and all the other religious nonsense? None of those things follow...

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    3. I claim that each atom in the universe has its own prime mover. The prime mover argument never establishes that there can be only one; if there can be one, there can be any number. So I claim that there is a separate little god responsible for each atom in the universe. Can you prove to me otherwise?

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    4. It doesn't even prove a god, it just concludes there's a "prime mover". Egnor then jumps to conclusions and declares it's a being, "the god of classical theism", instead of just another force of nature.

      What is worse, the "god of classical theism" that mr. Egnor thinks this prime-moving-force is, also has all these weird attributes that have been explicitly made up for the purpose of shielding this entity from evidential and logical falsification. There's nothing that merits believing there's an entity in existence which actually has this collection of attributes.

      I've asked Egnor several times how he knows that his god has all these incredible attributes, he's egnored me every time.

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    5. Steve and Mikkel:

      The issue at hand is whether belief in God is akin to belief in fairies-- that is the thesis of Larry's post.

      The Prime Mover argument is not the same as an argument for the existence of fairies. I would presume no disagreement with that.

      Whether the Prime Mover is the God of Classical Theism is another issue, one addressed at great length in countless places-- much of Summa Contra Gentiles is devoted to it.

      First, please tell me if you agree with the Prime Mover argument. If not, what is the flaw?

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    6. How did Aquinas account for principles of modern physics, such as Bell's Theorem in his argument? Oh, that's right. Aquinas had never even heard of Bell's Theorem. In fact, he did not even know the earth revolved around the sun. If he were to travel by time machine to a modern 3rd grade science class, he would be by far its stupidest student. The teachers would marvel that someone so pig-ignorant managed to even tie his shoes in the morning, then shuffle him off to the remedial class.

      So why should we pay any attention to the opinion of such an ignoramus on arguments regarding physics, which is what the Prime Mover attempts to be?

      However, you know of Bell's Theorem. So why are you still pimping Aquinas' antiquated argument, which is based on a model in which the universe operates like a series of billiard balls interacting with each other in a strict, chronological sequence, and which we now know is likely incorrect?

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    7. First, please tell me if you agree with the Prime Mover argument. If not, what is the flaw?

      The premises are either false or too vague to be meaningful

      1) The universe is eternal in the past.

      False (and yes, I read the clarifications below it).

      2) Motion means change

      This was written before Galileo and Newton. Before thermodynamics. Before relativity. Let alone modern physics. What is meant by "motion/change" is largely meaningless in the modern context as it is completely divorced from those disciplines.

      3) Change in the natural world is hylemorphic, meaning that natural change involves a transition from potency to act

      See above. This is complete BS that only makes sense within the warped worldview of medieval scholastic philosophers.

      4) Cause is by priority, not by time.
      5) Essentially ordered casual series vs accidently ordered casual series.


      And here we go again and again - this is utter, meaningless, irrelevant BS.

      Let me state these once more:

      1) arguments rooted in completely wrong from modern perspective understanding of time and space (note: this does not mean we have a correct understanding of time and space, just that we know for sure that the understanding of time and space of ignorant medieval monks was wrong) can not be taken seriously. The same goes to all arguments from authority (which is what this essentially is - nobody would be taking Aquinas seriously if he hadn't been enshrined in the pantheon of the Catholic church for so long), especially thousand-years old authorities. We base our worldviews on what we have learned up to now. Based on what we have learned about the world we live in up to now, these premises, and the whole worldview that produced them, make absolutely no sense.

      2) Why should we even bother to listen to such arguments if they have zero relevance to the God that the people promoting them actually believe in and are equally applicable to an infinite number of deities, an infinite number of which are, from a human perspective, equivalent to there being no deity at all? BTW, this is the problem with all philosophical arguments for the existence of God (note that the philosophical arguments against it do not have that problem). So eventually it all has to come back to the claims in the holy book, and holy books have a disastrous track record when it comes to the factual reliability of their claims

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    8. Anyway, what the Prime Mover has in common with any arguments for the existence of fairies: They are all fallacious arguments designed to demonstrate the existence of something for whose existence no evidence exists.

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    9. Incidentally, Dr Egnor, casual and causal are two different words with completely different meanings. You consistently misspell causal and refer to "casual chains" or "casual series". Not just in the post about Aquinas's First Way, but also, many times, elsewhere on your blog.

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    10. Pitor:

      I'm too casual about spelling causal. Thanks for the correction!

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    11. Actually, Aquinas was much smarter than mregnor. Aquina's "ways" are not proofs for the existence of "God," but attempts at describing what Christians think their god was involved in doing. Aquinas understood perfectly well that there was no reason at all to think that any of those things was actually about his god unless you believed that this god is out there. Later apologists have transformed those things into "proofs." This only means that this old-timer was much starter and honest than apologists are today.

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    12. mregnor asks:

      What do you think about Aquinas' First Way as an argument for God's existence?

      In what way does it resemble the argument for the existence of fairies?


      That's simple. Just change the last statement in the argument:

      7) This Pure Act-- Prime Mover-- is what we call Fairies.

      Voila! Proof of Fairies that's exactly as strong as your proof of God.

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    13. Einstein showed that all motion is relative in the sense that Aquinas meant. Thus there is no physical "prime" mover, any more than there is a physical centre of the universe.

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    14. First, please tell me if you agree with the Prime Mover argument. If not, what is the flaw?

      The flaw is that it claims only one prime mover. If they are possible at all, then any number of them is possible. I, as previously stated, think there is a separate one for each atom in the universe.

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    15. "Einstein showed that all motion is relative in the sense that Aquinas meant."

      And provided an alternative model to (this is a polite way of saying 'debunked') hylomorphism.

      The 'prime mover' is nothing more or less than saying 'look, OK, it's a chain of dominoes, but dominoes don't knock themselves over, someone's finger had to flick the first one'. And, simply put, no, we now know it's not a chain of dominoes.

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    16. The old notion of "cause", to begin with, is pretty outdated. Anything -- literally anything -- inside the past time come of an event may qualify as its "cause". Of course the contribution of various past events to the explanation why something happened is highly uneven, but still causation is not a linear sequence where A causes B, B causes C, C causes D, etc., and the rest of the Universe can be ignored.

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    17. "The old notion of "cause", to begin with, is pretty outdated."

      It's not a stupid idea, and it wasn't solely formulated or refined or believed by stupid people. There are better models now, though.

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    18. Note that the First Cause argument introduces the assertion that without a Prime Mover, there is an infinite regress; and since there cannot be an infinite regress, there must be a Prime Mover. This involves about three non sequiturs.

      First, it's not really true that without a Prime Mover you get an infinite regress. That ignores the problem of induction as pointed out by Hume, because rules of the form "Every event has a cause" are inductive rules, generalized from a finite set of observations. Inductive rules can never be known with enough certainty to justify applying them to an infinite number of entities and concluding zero exceptions. If you apply any inductive rule to an infinite number of entities, the correct expected number of exceptions to the rule is non-zero, possibly infinite.

      Consider how inductive rules derive from finite observations: the sun rose Monday, it rose Tuesday, it rose Wednesday. If you generalize this to "the sun always rises", you can't apply that rule to infinite days and conclude "the sun rose forever in the past, it will rise forever in the future, there was and there never will be a day without the sun rising."

      Since the rule "the sun always rises" was drawn from a finite set of observations, it's only known with finite certainty. You can't say it has 100% probability, you can only say "the sun always rises" is true with probability 99.99% or higher.

      Normally this distinction is trivial, because normally we're applying such inductive rules to a finite number of entities: e.g. the sun will rise all the days of my limited life. But the distinction between 99.99% and 100% probable becomes infinitely large when applied to an infinite number of entities.

      The difference (let's say 0.01%), while normally "small", becomes infinite when the difference is multiplied by an infinite series of events. That is, 0.01% times infinity is infinity. And the alleged problem of "infinite regress" requires that there be no exceptions to the rule.

      Thus, rules of the form "every event has a cause", because they are inductive, cannot be applied to an infinite series of events, then concluding zero exceptions. In reality, the expected number of exceptions is infinite, thus no eternal regress.

      Next, we must note how the apologist invokes special pleading to escape a conundrum that only results from his own fallacies. When your "logic" leads to a conundrum, it is evidence that your logic has a fallacy, not some kind of ticket that you get to start special pleading, and pull some nonsense out of your ass to save your desired conclusion. You don't get to suddenly make claims like "God is the only Uncaused Cause" which are not supported by evidence just because you need all-new rules and conditions to evade the conundrums that resulted from your other blunders.

      The theologian has no evidence for his assertion that deities are uncaused causes. His only evidence is that he needs it to be so, to "save" his logic. This means the theologian's assertions, including "God is an uncaused cause" or "an infinite regress is impossible" cannot be arrived at unless he assumes his conclusion is true. It's circular logic.

      In addition, there's no logical reason to say that an infinite regress is impossible. Even if time were finite, an event at time 1/n could be caused by an event at time 1/(n+1), so there's an event at times 1/4 sec, 1/5 sec, 1/6 sec, etc. Theologians hate it when we tell them there is no logical reason why an infinite regress is impossible. They never had a good reason why, except that it's counterintuitive to stupid people.

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    19. Even if time were finite, an event at time 1/n could be caused by an event at time 1/(n+1), so there's an event at times 1/4 sec, 1/5 sec, 1/6 sec, etc.

      Make it 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, etc. (or something similar). The series 1/4 + 1/5 + 1/6 +... diverges to infinity.

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    20. Piotr: The series 1/4 + 1/5 + 1/6 +... diverges to infinity.

      But I'm not adding them; my times are relative to t=0. Your version would be better if we were referring to intervals between events.

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    21. Jem: It's not a stupid idea, and it wasn't solely formulated or refined or believed by stupid people.

      It isn't stupid, it's simplistic. Take any phenomenon which involves a nonlinear relationship between (an idefinitely large number of) "causes" and an "effect". Let's suppose a tornado hits Kansas. What caused it? A butterfly flapping its wings in Ghana two weeks ago? Why not, "other things being equal" (that is, if all other variables are excluded). The trouble is, those "other things" aren't equal; they vary a lot, and each of them, no matter how tiny, may vastly influence the outcome. There are billions of seemingly insignificant events collectively triggering a tornado. The identification of a single cause is often justifiable, but there's something anthropocentric about it -- little wonder that if we do so consistently, we end up anthropomorphising the "first cause". More often than not, however, causality is distributed (not to mention quantum events that aren't triggered by anything).

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    22. Diogenes: Oops, sorry, it escaped me that you meant points in time, not intervals. Of course, as you approach the Planck time, physics as we know it breaks down, and causality fades away too. ;-)

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  2. I'm not opposed to the idea of 'other ways of knowing', I've just never heard a good example of 1) what one of those 'other ways' has told us, or 2) how to recognize a question science can't address.

    I've never heard why, philosophically, it makes sense to acquiesce that disease is natural and able to be studied scientifically while [souls/free will/whatever] are not. Any explanation seems to boil down to, "Well, science found evidence for the pathogenic theory of disease, but since science hasn't found evidence for [souls/free will/whatever], it's CLEARLY that it's outside the bounds of science!"

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  3. If you have evidence for your belief then you'd better produce it instead of passing off the question to others. If you can't defend your belief in the face of challenges then you have no business attacking your accuser for not understanding the "mature philosophy of Christianity." That's always going to be seen as a cop-out.

    That's exactly how it is. However, what do you do with people who deny the basic premise of that argument - that evidence and proper reasoning matter? Which is what I see an increasing number of believers resort to (and which is the essence of the "other ways of knowing" fallacy, even if not explicitly stated). Once someones has crossed that line, there is no arguing with him.

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    1. what do you do with people who deny the basic premise of that argument - that evidence and proper reasoning matter?

      The scientific way of knowing requires evidence and rationality, by definition. If you believe in something that is irrational and lacks evidence then it is in conflict with the scientific way of knowing.

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    2. Larry:

      Is the assertion that everything came from nothing rational and based on evidence?

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    3. Smegnor: Is the assertion that god came from nothing rational and based on evidence?

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    4. mregnor asks,

      Is the assertion that everything came from nothing rational and based on evidence?

      Yes, when Lawrence Krauss says it.

      No, when you say it.

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    5. I've got another question for Smegnor: what's your definition of "everything"?

      You mean the set of all that exists, I suppose?

      Is God

      1. inside that set-- or

      2. outside it?

      If 2, outside, then God doesn't exist.

      If 1, inside, then some things do come from nothing. You have attempted to mock that claim because such an assertion is not "rational and based on evidence", you say.

      Since you are making fun of #1, you are left with #2. I think this Smegnor's eight or ninth admission that God doesn't exist.

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  4. I happen to believe that the scientific way of knowing is the only way of knowing with a proven track record. I'm willing to consider examples of knowledge ("truth") that have been obtained without resorting to evidence and rational thinking but so far nobody has been able to give me an example.

    Mathematics is the obvious one: it produces knowledge without empirical evidence, and I think it would rather stretch the definition of science to include a discipline into it that doesn't work empirically.

    Of course, that doesn't change anything. Theism is a claim about empirical reality, and those fall squarely into the area of science.

    I think when people claim that science has nothing to say on supernatural claims they are playing a trick: the point of methodological naturalism is that a scientist is not allowed to invoke spurious supernatural explanations. The point of methodological naturalism is NOT that the scientist isn't allowed to tentatively reject something for whose existence or happening there is no evidence. Big difference.

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    1. I'm not sure if Larry adopts this position, but some people who view science as an evidence-based investigation of everything around us, with an elaborate system of peer-review, would consider mathematics a scientific discipline. Lawrence Krauss adopts and defends this position here in this discussion with with Daniel Dennett and Massimo Pigliucci:

      Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss and Massimo Pigliucci discuss The Limits Of Science @ Het Denkgelag

      Pigliucci and Dennett do not entirely agree with this really wide and all-encompassing definition of science, especially when it comes to discussing morality and ethics @31:20.

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    2. Well yes, but where exactly does the evidence come in? Mathematics works in a completely different way. One could actually say that what is mathematically 'true' would be equally 'true' if the universe were completely different. 1+1=2 even if no two particles exist.

      As such, I have a hard time calling it a science.

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    3. "Mathematics is the obvious one: it produces knowledge without empirical evidence."

      Aha, a chance to espouse another one of my pet ideas. I claim mathematics evolved as a system of knowledge in the same way that science in general did, and that it started from empirical observations (if I have five goats and eat two of them I always have three left) and still benefits from empirical observations, such as the role of the Taniyama-Shimura Conjecture (all elliptical equations have a modular form - based on the empirical observation that every characteristic number of an elliptical equation was also the characteristic number of some modular form, and vice-versa) in Andrew Wiles's proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. (Source: Simon Singh's "Fermat's Enigma".)

      Playing around with numbers and equations and observing patterns has been the starting point of many mathematical theorems. To me, this corresponds closely with observing nature in other scientific research.

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    4. Yes, and systematic botany evolved out of medieval herbalism, that doesn't mean it still follows the same principles.

      If mathematics is an empirical science, what experiment does it use to determine Pi? The problem starts with the fact that perfect circles don't actually exist anywhere in the universe and only gets worse after that.

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  5. There are no fairies in the bible?? Oh brother.
    The world is not built on science. its built on intelligence. science is a word to describe methodology controlling conclusions drawn from apples falling on the head.
    I say there is no such thing as science. Just people thinking.
    If someone claims science methodology proves this or that wrong about GOd or the bible then make them prove it.
    CReationism exists famously for debunking claims that "science" proves us wrong.
    Very few people do science. Its not science to shoot off the space shuttle. All the work is done. Its just reading the manuel.
    Science is a tool in discovering things. Its not a recipe for later copyists of the discovery.
    Its a verb and not a noun.
    its silly to call modern tech science. Its just a few inventors and then the rest repeat and rinse.

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  6. Reville is perversely ignorant, of course, straying far beyond his competence. But, unfortunately Moran's response is also ignorant, and likewise exceeds his experience. He enjoins us to "use the scientific way of knowing to arrive at truth and knowledge", and repeatedly mentions "evidence" as a prerequisite. Though he does not say so clearly, I assume he is relying on intersubjective agreement to validate such evidence, but this already makes unwarranted assumptions about subjectivity. It is perfectly possible, though arduous, to conduct an empirical investigation into the nature of one's own subjectivity; but plainly Moran has not done this, and I have some sympathy for the term "scientism" to describe ignoring (or pretending ignorance) of such subjective enquiries. Be assured that I make no claims regarding objective reality which are not evidenced in exactly the way which Moran is comfortable with. But the existence of objects implies a subject who is conscious of them, and the failure to adequately characterize this subject seriously undermines any claim to "truth and knowledge". Specifically, the working assumptions invariably made about consciousness: that it is local, limited, and personal; these are not ultimately supportable.

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    1. I have no clue what you're talking about. Are you a theologian?

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    2. Re Laurence A. Moran

      This "argument" by Vijen sounds a little like an argument once facetiously proposed by the late physicist John Wheeler. Wheeler stated that: "does the universe exist if there is no sentient being around to observe it"? Something of an extension of the argument as to whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound if no one is around to hear it.

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    3. From the comment and the profile I would guess that Vijen is one of those new-age mystics who thinks that we have shared consciousness and such mumbo-jumbo. Calling everybody else an ignorant is classic among them.

      I might be wrong, but sounds so like that ...

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    4. He's referring to some basic epistemological concerns with science. I fail to see why that would make him either a theologian or a mystic.

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    5. I believe it was the unclarity of his post, a characteristic shared by theologians and mystics, that might have made the connection. The smugness might have helped too. Would you care to explain, in English -- even Australian would be acceptable -- what he meant.

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    6. ""But the existence of objects implies a subject who is conscious of them..."""

      Could you please clarify this statement?

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    7. Mysticism was not invented in the "New Age", but earlier mystics have generally been mislabelled philosophers (like Socrates), or religious leaders (like Gautama Buddha) – they were neither; nor is it a synonym for obscurantism: if you can't understand what I'm saying, then do the work necessary to catch up. Many readers and commenters of this blog have been studying and doing (objective) science for many years, if not decades – so could they fully explicate what they know to Moran's 4-year-old granddaughter? A comprehensive understanding requires a further significant investment in subjective science (aka mysticism/meditation/advaita/whatever), otherwise your “science” excludes the most interesting aspect: the scientist.

      Someone is conscious, incontrovertibly (whatever Dennett’s opinion). We might say “I’m conscious”, but this is neither more nor less informative than other statements of identification like “I’m a man”, or “I’m British”, or “I like chocolate.” If you wish to know the ultimate source of all these disparate identities, start with a daily meditation practice.

      The scientific method facilitates the recognition of false beliefs about objective reality, but in fact this method is a special case of a much broader discipline which also allows the recognition of false beliefs about subjective reality. And virtually everyone is indeed bedevilled by several such false beliefs, to which I have already alluded. Until you know who you are, “your” knowledge will remain dubitable.

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    8. Looks as if Wilkins was wrong about what Vijen was saying. He is a mystic.

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    9. Vijen: "Someone is conscious, incontrovertibly"

      I see. "Your" assertions are incontrovertible.

      "Until you know who you are, “your” knowledge will remain dubitable."

      I see. "Our" knowledge is dubitable, yours is incontrovertible.

      How, O great sage, may we obtain incontrovertible knowledge like yours, instead of our shitty "dubitable" knowledge like E= mc^2?

      "If you wish to know the ultimate source of all these disparate identities, start with a daily meditation practice."

      Sounds great. Let's meditate together.

      Repeat this mantra after me, starting out slow and going faster and faster:

      Ohwa... Tajer... Kyam... Ohwa... Tajer... Kyam... Ohwa... Tajer... Kyam... Ohwa... Tajer... Kyam...

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    10. Vijen, consider your proposition: "the existence of objects implies a subject who is conscious of them"

      Call this proposition S. Does the existence of propositions like S imply a subject who is conscious of them? Would they be true if no subject were conscious of them?

      I make no claims regarding objective reality which are not evidenced in exactly the way which Moran is comfortable with

      Your proposition S is presented as a claim about objective reality. Is S evidenced in exactly the way Moran's are?

      and the failure to adequately characterize this subject seriously undermines any claim to "truth and knowledge"

      Does your own failure to adequately characterize "this subject" undermine your claim of truth in proposition S?

      It is perfectly possible, though arduous, to conduct an empirical investigation into the nature of one's own subjectivity

      I'm sure it must be "arduous" gazing at your navel. Clearly, you have earned our respect and admiration with your years of navel-gazing, Mr. Miyagi. Tell us more.

      I have some sympathy for the term "scientism" to describe ignoring (or pretending ignorance) of such subjective enquiries.

      So you have sympathy for bullshitting. Many do. Is that what years of "arduous" navel gazing gets you?

      I think his point is that the absolute, incontrovertible truth of a statement should be judged by whether or not the person making the statement has spent years gazing at his navel.

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    11. @John Wilkins,

      Could you please explain this in English (I don't understand Australian).

      The scientific method facilitates the recognition of false beliefs about objective reality, but in fact this method is a special case of a much broader discipline which also allows the recognition of false beliefs about subjective reality. And virtually everyone is indeed bedevilled by several such false beliefs, to which I have already alluded. Until you know who you are, “your” knowledge will remain dubitable.

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  7. Steve Gerrard said: I claim that each atom in the universe has its own prime mover.
    Not only atoms, we all have!

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  8. On the subject of philosophy, Richard Feynman was once quoted as saying that, "philosophy is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds". Nuff said.

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  9. I typed out a long and witty reply, but then your comment system ate it. So a brief recap:

    I don't always agree with what I post so long as it triggers discussion [check]. I agree that "scientism" is an insult, not an argument: knowledge is or could be scientific, but some think that all that matters is science. Some scientists go so far as to say that philosophy is dead and science has all the answers (and then do bad philosophy - Krauss, Hawking and Mlodinow). Philosophy would benefit from more public engagement.

    And Feynman never made the birds quip:

    Most likely due to Steven Weinberg although it may have been coined in a review by McHenry 2000, summarizing Weinberg. In any case it is a reuse of a much older saying about aesthetics and artists by Barnett Newman:
    “I feel that even if aesthetics is established as a science, it doesn’t affect me as an artist. I’ve done quite a bit of work in ornithology; I have never met an ornithologist who ever thought that ornithology was for the birds.” He would later hone this remark into the famous quip, “Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.”
    See . [From my latest book]

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    1. The link was deleted by Blogspot.

      See www.barnettnewman.org/chronology.php

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    2. John Wilkins says,

      I typed out a long and witty reply, but then your comment system ate it.

      Thanks for letting me know. I wasn't sure if the witty detector was working. :-)

      Some scientists go so far as to say that philosophy is dead and science has all the answers ...

      Not me. I say, along with many philosophers, that valid philosophy has to use the scientific way of knowing. We don't understand why the discipline tolerates philosophers who disagree (e.g. theologians).

      I also say that, so far, the scientific way of knowing has generated all the valid answers (knowledge). Philosophers using any other way of knowing have, so far, generated none. On the other hand, they are pretty good at coming up with questions.

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    3. [I say, along with many philosophers, that valid philosophy has to use the scientific way of knowing.]

      What is the scientific basis for that assertion?

      Science cannot validate itself, because the assertion that the scientific way of knowing is necessary to philosophy is not a scientific assertion.

      Your viewpoint is a variant of positivism, which is self-refuting.

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    4. What is the scientific basis for that assertion?

      The short answer is "pragmatism."

      A somewhat longer answer requires that you present an alternative. All you have to do is come up with an example of true knowledge that was arrived at using a completely different way of knowing that doens't involve evidence and rational thinking.

      Waiting .....

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    5. Re John Wilkins

      That statement or something of the sort is generally attributed to Feynman. However, if it should really be attributed to Weinberg, that's fine. I once took a course from Weinberg. I knew Weinberg. You ain't no Steven Weinberg.

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    6. Smegnor: what kind of assertion is "the assertion that the scientific way of knowing is necessary to philosophy is not a scientific assertion"?

      What is the evidence for this assertion? Experience? Induction? Pure reason? If it's reason, let's see the syllogistic logic.

      Over at your blog I asked you many times to support your premises, which allegedly lead to god, with some evidence. You refused to support your premises with evidence or even hint at what kind of evidence might support them; nor did you address the contradictions resulting from your premises.

      So I'll ask for the (I think) fifth or sixth times.

      Consider this statement: "If God did not exist, no rules would be possible anywhere in the universe." Call it S.

      The two questions are:

      1. Is the above statement "S" a rule? To be specific, is it a metaphysical rule, which applies in all conceivable universes?

      2. What kind of evidence supports the above statement "S"? Is it an ordinary claim based on induction from past uniform experience; or is it an extraordinary claim supported by extraordinary evidence-- that is, is it needed to produce testable predictions that match observed properties? What sort of evidence could support this statement?

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    7. If I read you charitably, Larry, you mean that a valid philosophical argument relies upon scientific method (let us leave to one side for now what that might be – my academic grandfather, Paul Feyerabend, suggested that if you think there is a method, then an empirical review of science will tell you that what that method is, is "anything goes"]. Now the claim "valid philosophy is based on scientific method" is a claim of truth. How was it arrived at? You suggest that philosophy has never achieved any knowledge on its own (this is itself arguable, because there was no clear distinction between philosophy and, say, physics, up until after the second world war, or generally in science until the 19th century. So your claim must mean no knowledge was garnered by philosopher-scientists until then). But the real problem is that your argument is circular: no knowledge is garnered by philosophers because all knowledge that has been garnered is scientific, therefore philosophy is only valid when it is scientific. How do you know this? Because if knowledge is garnered, then it isn't philosophy. This reminds me of the famous epigram by John Harrington:

      Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason?
      Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

      I think things are a little more complex than that, both at the philosophy end and the science end.

      A little history of philosophy will reveal the logical positivists, who, in the early part of the 20th century, and involving several scientists, argued that any knowledge that is not based on empirical science is nonsense. Of course, as was soon pointed out, the arguments for the claim that any knowledge that is not based on empirical science is nonsense is not itself based on empirical science. Hence, it is self-defeating. That was the end of logical positivism (although it modified itself and became logical empiricism, which was not self-defeating; the point is that this was a philosophical move, not a scientific one).

      Philosophy is not about the generation of knowledge, any more than music is. If you (philosophically) assume that what matters is knowledge, and only knowledge, then you circularly argue, and at the same time self-defeat. But if you are saying that knowledge is only garnered by science (or something that could, with time and effort, be converted into science), then that philosophical claim is reasonable, in the sense that it is not self-contradictory. The exclusionary approach is positivism (and philosophy), but the inclusive one is not (but still philosophy). I think we can rightly say the exclusionary view is scientism.

      Everyone does philosophy. The only question is whether they do it well or badly, and aware of the fact they are doing it or not.

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    8. John, I do not believe in anything that could be called "the scientific method."

      I DO support the working hypothesis that all claims of truth and knowledge require evidence to support them before they can be accepted as knowledge. I'm looking for ways of falsifying that hypothesis by finding examples of true knowledge that weren't arrived at using logical thought processes and evidence.

      If you have any examples, I'd love to discuss them. Otherwise, my tentative conclusion, and working hypothesis, is that science (scientia) is the only proven path to knowledge.

      Now, philosophers may have a word for people who think like me but I'm not that intetested in discussing it because I find that labels are often associated with a lot of baggage and I don't have time to read the history of philosophy. I think we are both "pragmatists" and that seems like a good label.

      You say that my position is philosophical because I can't prove that logic and evidence are the only paths to truth. I think that might be true if I made the dogmatic claim that I had to be correct and there was no other possibility. In that case I might be some evil positivist and I might be open to discussing it. But I don't make that dogmatic claim so I'm not interested in discussing whether it's logically defensible ... because it ain't.

      If you want to claim that philosophy is not about generating knowledge or truth then that's fine with me. It means that philosophers can use whatever methods they want to publish their papers as long as they don't pretend that it has anything to do with reality.

      A lot of philosophy papers do, in fact, look like they have nothing to do with reality. I'll take your advice and enjoy them the same way as I enjoy country music and Wagnerian operas. :-)

      I agree with you that "everyone does philospophy" and that's why I think every university student should have to take a course on logic. That's one of the most important tools we have in the quest for knowledge.

      BTW, do you think that William Reville is doing philosophy well or badly? How about Pigliucci?

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  10. That type of attack on 'scientism' is fairly widespread, and it attracts plenty of money

    There is a large program investigating 'scientism' at the Free University, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, funded by the Templeton Foundation. Well funded: 2.4 Million Euro for Research into ‘Science beyond Scientism’! See:

    http://www.wijsbegeerte.vu.nl/en/news-events/news-archive/2013/2400000-Euro-for-Research-into-Science-beyond-Scientism.asp

    http://www.abrahamkuypercenter.vu.nl/en/research/request-for-proposals/index.asp

    http://www.abrahamkuypercenter.vu.nl/en/events/conference-on-scientism/index.asp

    http://www.abrahamkuypercenter.vu.nl/en/Images/Program_tcm175-369607.pdf

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    1. There are interesting questions in the philosophy of science, although they do tend to get a little navel-gazy for my taste.

      There's sleight of hand, here, though. Yes ... science is a 'local practice', it's people in labs doing very limited experiments, and a mechanism to put those in a matrix that people can trust. Its findings are always provisional.

      Templeton don't want us to ask the next question, which is 'well, hang on, are you saying that a fragmentary collection of witterings all from a fifty mile radius of Jerusalem and all dating to a five hundred year period in the bronze age contain the "universal, non-local truths" science doesn't hold?'.

      And they don't claim that. This is about dragging science down. They want to position science as merely a 'modern religion'. A 'grand narrative'. And that's why they call it 'scientism', to make it some 'belief system'. One of many such belief systems. 'Meh ... scientism, Protestantism, Catholicism, Marxism, Fascism, they're all -isms'.

      So here's the questions they should be asking: does what they are proposing have more robust explanatory power? Why have 'scientific' answers *always* overwritten 'religious' ones? (One close to my heart) What do medical statistics teach us about 'real world' applications of science versus religion?

      And the killer one: why are religious manifestations around the world closely aligned to the local culture - Hindus never get visions of Mary - but the atomic weight of hydrogen isn't? Water is sacred to many cultures, in many different ways, expressed in many different religious rituals. And in every single one of those places, it's H2O.

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    2. Jem: "why are religious manifestations around the world closely aligned to the local culture - Hindus never get visions of Mary"

      Well, you have to have faith to see the irrefutable evidence for your faith. You don't have to have faith to see the evidence against other faiths that are not your faith.

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    3. I think, to some extent, science is local. It's a particular set of tools emerging from (mainly) the modern, industrial, post-Enlightenment West. It's a product of culture. The questions science asks is dependent on culture, if only because it's dependent on funding. We are constrained by ethics, thankfully (one of the reasons the human brain has been so 'mysterious' is pretty obvious).

      But what's absolutely inarguable is that all religions aren't just that, they're little more than that. You can take every single religion and pinpoint where it was founded, why it spread, how the particularly bizarre and idiosyncratic beliefs (Mary's virginity say) accreted and were discussed and enforced.

      We're seeing a classic example of a campaign in which one side declares that their main weakness is shared by the other side. 'I'm an adulterer? Yeah? Here's the other guy's mistress'. Religion doesn't actually have any 'eternal truths', it's just a bunch of meaningless rituals. So ... let's accuse the other candidate of that, too.

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    4. Jem says,

      ... science is a 'local practice', it's people in labs doing very limited experiments, ...

      For another definition of science see: Science Doesn't Have All the Answers but Does It Have All the Questions?. I use the broad definition of science. Keep that in mind as you read my comments.

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    5. "I use the broad definition of science. Keep that in mind as you read my comments."

      Oh, I agree with you, don't worry. I think science is basically asking questions and it's hard to think of a question that isn't 'scientific' as I define the term.

      I think 'science' as practiced is actually about the establishment of a network of trust. A transparent way of sharing information and assessing that information. That's the difference between science now and alchemy then - it's not (generally) about coded secret journals. It's making sure that we're talking about the same thing, using precise terms.

      A lot of the elements 'discovered' in the 1700s and 1800s were very well known from ancient times, it's just that every alchemist had their own name for it and didn't always share information about their experimental data. That's all I mean by 'local'. The scientific method is, at heart, just a way of making sure we're talking about the same thing and that we can check someone else's working for ourselves, and that we can quickly work out how reliable the information is likely to be. And that's not just a good way of answering questions about things that happen in test tubes, obviously, it's a much broader approach.

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    6. Re Peter

      Funded by the Templeton Foundation; already a source of suspicion.

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  11. Dr Moran

    So your view is that science is the only way to knowledge? How do you test that claim?

    How would you scientifically test this "I love blue"
    How would you scientifically test beauty?

    If you argue that logic and reason is the tools you used how did you scientifically test that your logic and reason is correct?

    I'm baffled by the fact that people think science can answer everything, It's the silliest notion ever and it closes people down by being narrow minded in our search for knowledge, to say that only science can do so is not critical thinking its utter stupidity.

    Lastly the usual retort is to follow, so go ahead.....

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    1. If you argue that logic and reason is the tools you used how did you scientifically test that your logic and reason is correct?

      They work. Medicines cure people, prayers don't. You can communicate with us using the Internet, but not telepathy or magic crystals. You can predict solar eclipses accurately using maths and astronomical observations, but not by asking an oracle, or by fasting and meditating until you experience a prophetic vision; nor can you cause an eclipse by invoking a demon snake that swallows the Sun.

      Did anyone here say that science "can answer everything"? Where?

      Do you love blue, by the way?

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    2. Why couldn’t you scientifically examine the concept “Andre loves blue”? An admittedly crude initial experiment (with apologies to actual neuroscience) would be to test whether the concepts of “I” and “love” and “blue” have any material requirement for the brain by keeping your body alive while we remove and incinerate this organ. We could ask whether these words or concepts have any meaning to you and you could tap out your answers with your fingers. Of course most of us know that this experiment is doomed to failure, but a person with such an open mind as yours might hold out hope that your soul could still tap out some answers.
      By the way, Andre, just to take one of these elements: What is “blue” anyway? Beyond answering: “it is the colour of the sky” or “the colour that I love”, neither of which define or explain blue, please provide even a partial explanation of “blue” that is not wholly and uniquely dependent on science-based knowledge.
      You have 3 weeks to answer this question: time enough to search your bible for the answer or to hope for a burst of revealed knowledge.

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    3. Hm... Of the 51 occurrences of the word "blue" in one English translation of the Bible (New International Version), only one (Exodus 24:9-10) "defines" it via comparison:

      Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky.

      So we learn from this particular Bible that blue is the colour of the mineral lazurite and the bright sky. But the Authorised Version does not mention any colour term explicitly, and neither does the Latin Vulgate (note, by the way, that they both refer to sapphire rather than lapis lazuli):

      Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel: and they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness.

      Ascenderuntque Moses et Aaron Nadab et Abiu et septuaginta de senioribus Israhel et viderunt Deum Israhel sub pedibus eius quasi opus lapidis sapphirini et quasi caelum cum serenum est.

      So "blue" is rather obviously a modern translator's interpolation, not the Word of God. Logic and reason suggest so.

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    4. Nice. I see there is reference to "his feet" upon the "paved work of a sapphire stone" and "as it were the body of heaven in his clearness". Really quite magnificent text, perhaps much lost in translation.

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    5. The second "his" would be "its" in modern English (referring to the sky, not God). The neuter possessive pronoun was still his in 1611 at least in formal styles (its does not appear in Bible translations until 1660).

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    6. Ah, for me, this changes the meaning entirely. It is "the body of heaven in its clearness" in addition to the "work of a sapphire stone" that is under god's feet or perhaps “the body of heaven in its clearness” is an attribute of the “paved work of sapphire stone” itself where “its” refers to the sapphire. Not, as I supposed from the earlier mention of "his feet" and the second use of "his", the rest of the image of god himself that encompassed "the body of heaven in its [his] clearness".
      Well, I am prepared to understand that this is still an incorrect interpretation on my part, or that there can be different interpretations of that passage.
      It’s interesting to me because I am always curious to know what the original text author (whoever that might have been) actually meant when writing a passage, and how that meaning might change through many subsequent translations. Beyond that, I don't suppose it would much matter, given that the account was likely preceded by many oral variations (I would imagine).

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    7. Tha Latin text of the Vulgate says simply et quasi caelum cum serenum est 'and like the sky when it is clear'. The Old Testament in King James's Bible was not translated from Latin, though, but from the Hebrew original, which reads וכעצם השמים לטהר 'and [like] the substance of the heaven, in clarity' (more or less). As you can see, translators allow themselves a lot of freedom.

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    8. Yes, great, thanks for your comments.

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  12. A person asks a question and as always the first people to grab a bible and quote from it is our atheist pals for people that don't believe God exist you guys sure quote him allot.....

    The point is science is not the answer to all knowledge was never and will never be. But the main point here is how does Prof Moran trust his logic and reason what standard is he using to trust them? And how does he scientifically conduct that his logic and reason is sound at all?

    But thanks for the bible lesson!

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