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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Massimo Pigliucci tries to defend accommodationism (again): result is predictable

Massimo Pigliucci is an atheist who thinks that science and religion are compatible because they rule in different domains. He takes a very narrow view of "science"— one that excludes the work of historians and philosophers who are presumably using some other way of knowing. (He doesn't tell us what that is.)

I prefer the broad view of science as a way of knowing that relies on evidence, rational thinking, and healthy skepticism. This broad view of science is not universal—but it's not uncommon. In fact, Alan Sokel has defended this view of Massimo Pigiucci's own blog: [What is science and why should we care? — Part III]. According to this view, any attempt to gain knowledge should employ the scientific worldview. Historian and philosophers should follow this path if they hope to be successful. Pigliucci should know that there are different definitions and any discussion of the compatibility of science and religion must take these differences into account.

Pigliucci thinks that religion is about ethics and the question of meaning and these cannot be addressed using science—his definition—as way of discovering truth. He thinks that it's okay to believe in supernatural beings because that doesn't conflict with his narrow view of the domain of science.

That's fine, he's entitled to his opinion and to his restrictive definition of science. I'd like to know what other methods he would use to answer questions about meaning and ethical behavior if they are not evidence-based and rational but that's a question for another time. For now, let's just agree that Pigliucci can define science in a way that excludes philosophy, religion, history and a host of other disciplines.

But here's the problem, Pigliucci would like to refute all those people who maintain that science and religion are incompatible using the broad definition of science. He doesn't do this by discussing what they actually say about science, instead he applies HIS definition of science to those others and declares victory.

Given Pigiucci's stance on accommodationism, you can be sure that he hates Jerry Coyne's latest book Faith vs Fact. You would think that he probably bought a copy right away and read it thoroughly, but he didn't. He still hasn't read Jerry's book. That doesn't stop him from criticizing Jerry Coyne indirectly by challenging the views of his philosophy colleague, Russell Blackford, who wrote a favorable review of Coyne's book.

Let's look at Pigliucci's defense of accommodationism in: In Defense of Accommodationism: On the Proper Relationship Between Science and Religion.1 He makes five points,
i) We need to make a distinction between “religion” in the sense of any particular organized body of beliefs and practices, such as Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, etc., and a more general belief in some sort of transcendental (i.e., non-material) entity. Specifics claims about the world of individual religions — when they do make them — may or may not be in contradiction with scientific findings, and this needs to be verified claim by claim. It is a good general bet, though, that whenever a religious claim about reality is at odds with the corresponding scientific claim, the latter will turn out to be closer to the truth.
We all agree that whenever a belief system makes claims about specific facts and events that conflict with science, by any definition of science, then the belief system invariably can be shown to be a false way of acquiring true knowledge. As a general rule, faith doesn't produce true knowledge whenever it can be directly tested. Religion has a very poor track record in this area. Maybe it works better in another area?

I agree that we should not get dragged into silly debates about the particular practices of Catholicism, Hinduism etc. The real question is whether a transcendental (non-material) entity actually exists. Is the belief in such an entity compatible with science?
ii) Religions, and religious belief, however, are primarily not about cosmogonies, but rather about ethical teachings and questions of meaning. Whether those ethical teachings are sound, or the answers provided to the issue of meaning satisfying, needs to be assessed depending on the specifics. But such assessment is a matter of philosophical discourse, and perhaps of human psychology, certainly not of natural science.
Jerry Coyne has already pointed out the flaw in Pigliucci's argument. The facts clearly show that religions are very much about cosmogonies. That's what people actually believe.

But let's go along with Pigliucci and see where it takes us. Let's agree with him that the important point about religion is the belief that ethical teachings and questions of meaning can be answered by a transcendent, non-material, entity—a supernatural being or gods. Can we ever decide whether this is true or not?

You bet we can. We look for evidence that ethics and meaning come from gods and can't be explained by human behavior. That evidence is lacking so the hypothesis is rejected. Jerry Coyne, Alan Sokal, and many others (including me) think this rejection is due to scientific thinking. Therefore, the belief in supernatural beings that give us ethics and meaning conflicts with science as a way of knowing.

Pigliucci may agree with us that there's a conflict but he thinks that the important questions can't be addressed by the scientific way of knowing. Instead, it belongs to the philosophy and human psychology ways of knowing. We don't know how those ways of knowing are defined but they aren't part of the "natural sciences" so there's no conflict with science according to Massimo Pigliucci.

As I said earlier, Pigliucci is entitled to his definition of science but when he criticizes others who use a different definition2 he has to recognize that distinction. He doesn't do that. I can't decide whether he just doesn't get it or whether he is deliberately obfuscating.
iii) There is no logical contradiction between accepting all the findings of modern science and believing in a transcendental reality. Which is why lots of intelligent people, including lots of scientists, do in fact accept science and believe in a transcendental reality.
This is only true for his definition of science as a collection of facts. It is not true for the broad definition of science as a way of knowing. Many of us think that questions about the existence or non-existence of a "transcendental reality" are are perfectly valid questions that can be addressed by a scientific way of knowing.

The answer is "no, there is no evidence of a transcendental reality." Thus, if you continue to believe in such a superstition, it conflicts with the scientific way of acquiring truth and knowledge. Like most accommodationists, Pigliucci wants to protect religion from such questions by enforcing methodological naturalism [What Kind of Knowledge Does Philosophy Discover?].
iv) “Science” is a particular type of human epistemic activity, with a specific history, cultural setting(s), social structure, and so forth. As such, it is not co-extensive with “reason and evidence,” and it does have proper and improper domains of application (as well as some domains where it is pertinent but not decisive — a philosopher would say domains in which scientific evidence underdetermines the question at hand).
This is one definition of science but it's clearly not the only one. It's not the one Jerry Coyne uses.

If Pigliucci wants to quibble about the meaning of science then why doesn't he tell about the other ways of knowing and how they help us discover truth and knowledge? Do any of those other ways conflict with religion and faith? Or does Pigliucci really think that belief in a transcendent reality that gives us ethics and meaning is consistent with at least one other successful way of knowing that yields truth and knowledge? Does religion conflict with the philosophical way of knowing, for example?3
v) Specifically, issues of ethics and meaning are outside the proper domain of science, though they are in fact beneficially informed by the best science available (i.e., these issues are good examples of the above mentioned underdetermination).
If I understand him correctly, he's saying that a question like, "Does the universe have purpose and meaning?" is a question that cannot be addressed by the science way of knowing. Apparently we can't get an answer to that question by gathering evidence and applying rational thought.

Does that mean we just have to arrive at an answer by faith alone? Atheists answer "no," based on the lack of evidence of purpose and meaning, and believers answer "yes," based on what their gods say. There's no way we can decide who's right? That doesn't make sense to me.

What about ethics? Let's say a society of atheists wants to reach collective decisions about abortions, capital punishment, slavery, and jay-walking. How do they do it? Do they collect evidence and apply rational thinking to come up with a proper code of ethical behavior that's best for their society? Or do they consult the religious leaders of the neighboring country?

What if they decide that women should be treated as equals in spite of the fact that their religious neighbors insist on the superiority of men? Is there no way to decide who's right because the question is outside of the purview of evidence-based rational thought? I don't think so.

Ethical behavior does not fall within the exclusive domain of rationality and evidence-based reasoning, although it should be. That's because lots of modern "ethics" is irrational. That does not mean that correct ethical behavior is determined by transcendental beings who cannot be challenged. That's absurd.

If religion says that we should behave one way and evidence and rationality say that another way is better for society, then the religious view conflicts with the scientific way of knowing. In modern industrialized nations the religious view usually gives way to the more rational view. Religion doesn't get a free pass on ethics or meaning. It loses the battles in that area just as it loses in cosmonogies.
Finally, let me add a few words on the nature of science. Again from Blackford’s review: “[Coyne] favors a concept of ‘science broadly construed.’ He elaborates this as: ‘the same combination of doubt, reason, and empirical testing used by professional scientists.’” But this has it exactly backwards: it is professional scientists that use that same combination of doubt, reason and empirical testing that Homo sapiens has been using since the Pleistocene, and that has made us the dominant species on planet Earth (for good and, mostly, for bad, as far as the rest of the biosphere is concerned). To refer to the application of basic reasoning and empirical trial and error as “science” is anachronistic, and clearly done in the service of what I cannot but think is a scientistic agenda.
Pigluicci loves to accuse us of scientism [Territorial demarcation and the meaning of science]. See the cartoon from his blog.

His stance is based entirely on his restricted definition of science.

Fine, ... whatever. I'd love to ask him if he has a word for the application of reasoning and evidence as a way of knowing and whether that thing—whatever it is—conflicts with faith. That's the real question that Jerry Coyne is asking. And the answer is "yes."

1. Jerry Coyne has already covered Pigliucci's remarks in: Massimo Pigliucci takes out after Russell Blackford and me. (Thank-you, Jerry, for using "me" instead of the incorrect "myself" that's creeping into our language.)

2. Science as scientia [Territorial demarcation and the meaning of science] [Sean Carroll: "What Is Science?"], or science as Wissenschaft [John Wilkins discusses the "Demarcation Problem"].

3. If it doesn't, then that's one reason for rejecting philosophy as a way of discovering truth and knowledge.


Unknown said...

"I prefer the broad view of science as a way of knowing that relies on evidence, rational thinking, and healthy skepticism."

I, and I think a lot of other people, take a narrower view as to what constitutes as evidence to science. To me, experiments are required for the sciences. Historians can't really run experiments, so I wouldn't classify that as science, even if it evidence based.

Larry Moran said...

So, what word do you use for the general idea that knowledge is based on evidence and rational thinking? How do you describe the historian's way of gaining knowledge? How many different ways of knowing can you name? Which ones actually work?

Is religion one of them?

Unknown said...

Not sure if I have a term for it. There are different ways of gathering evidence, and experimentation (the scientific way) is just one of them. I'm not sure if I have a term to describe a historian's evidenced-based way of gaining knowledge. Maybe evidenced-based reasoning is the superset, and science is a subset of that?

I don't think religion is an evidence-based way of acquiring knowledge.

Aceofspades said...

Is the word you're looking for not one of the epistemologies?

Aceofspades said...

Or perhaps the term you're looking for is scientific skepticism or otherwise known as rational skepticism

Jass said...

I prefer the broad view of science as a way of knowing that relies on evidence, rational thinking, and healthy skepticism. This broad view of science is not universal—but it's not uncommon.

This is interesting. I'm just curious on what evidence did professor Moran rely on in his view of the origins of life when he made up his mind that it created itself?? Was it his religion or rather belief? Not bad for a scientists who accuses others of practicing religion while doing it himself. How much different are you from the religious professor Moran unless you have at least piece of evidence that supports your view?

How about the origin of eukaryotic cell? Does't that view require a lot, a lot of faith professor Moran?

phhht said...


I don't think anyone knows how life originated.

Of course, we know quite a lot about how it COULD have originated, but nobody knows for certain how it happened.

So what? Do you mean to suggest that therefore, gods did it?

Shamelessly Atheist said...

"Historians can't really run experiments, so I wouldn't classify that as science, even if it evidence based."

Neither can paleontologists, but I would definitely class paleontology as a science. What they do is test hypotheses. Laboratory work is not the only way to accomplish this.

AJR said...

Although I agree with many of your points, I think you commit to the naturalistic fallacy when you say:
"If religion says that we should behave one way and evidence and rationality say that another way is better for society, then the religious view conflicts with the scientific way of knowing."

Evidence and rationality may say what is 'better for society' however you define that (not trivial). But it doesn't tell you that this is what SHOULD be done. I think you are implicitly assuming that "whatever is better for society" is what should be the ethical choice. But what scientific fact or rational and evidence-based arguments tells you that this is so?

Bjørn Østman said...

Agree with your major points totally. But let me ask about this one:

"Ethical behavior does not fall within the exclusive domain of rationality and evidence-based reasoning, although it should be. "

Do you not agree that ethics, being shaped by our morality, is in part irrational? In other words, that what we think is right and wrong are based on our instincts/emotions? If you agree, do you find that to be problematic?

Bjørn Østman said...

There is evidence that the origin of life is from natural processes. Are you saying you don't know any such evidence?

SRM said...

What bugs me most about his commentary (judged from reading Coynes post) is the familiar claim that few religious people actually believe in literal interpretations of holy writings and:

Religions, and religious belief, however, are primarily not about cosmogonies, but rather about ethical teachings and questions of meaning.

Gee, I wouldn't have guessed that from reading the inspirational messages on signs outside of churchs (Friends don't let friends go to hell, said one baptist church sign in my city a year ago), or by listening to republican politicians trying to gin up votes from the rubes, or by reading the innane commentary from most creationist/ID proponents on this site.

SRM said...

Velhovsky has a familiar affliction. He calls any science-based understanding of natural processes a religion because as a religionist, he cannot conceive of any other way of knowing things, but through faith in the truth of revelation as it is handed down through generations. He thus assumes this is how science works.

SRM said...

How about the origin of eukaryotic cell? Does't that view require a lot, a lot of faith professor Moran?

It requires no faith. In fact, in the absence of evidence supporting the endosymbiotic origins of the eukaryotic cell (of which you have demonstrated in earlier posts your complete ignorance)the idea would not be an accepted scientific fact. Imagine that!

Please describe why your world view demands that the endosymbiotic origin of eukaryotic cells not be true, despite the evidence. Is your intelligent designer incapable of such a trick? Do you know the mind of your designer so well, that you know he would not have done such a thing? Is it because the event was not described in any holy book? Do tell.

phhht said...

What bugs me most about his commentary (judged from reading Coynes post) is the familiar claim that few religious people actually believe in literal interpretations of holy writings...

I agree.

In almost seventy years of living among Christian believers, I have never - not once - encountered a single one who took the position that the resurrection story, for example, was not literally true.

Demigod79 said...

"Neither can paleontologists, but I would definitely class paleontology as a science. What they do is test hypotheses. Laboratory work is not the only way to accomplish this."

Yup, and the same goes for geology as well (you can't put the tectonic plates in a test tube). Historians use evidence (historical documents, excavations, etc) and rational thinking to build up the most accurate picture of what happened in the past, just like geologists do with the earth. There's nothing unscientific about it.

Unknown said...

If you define experiment as a way of verifying a hypothesis then, yes, paleontologists have very well developed methodology for reconstructing past events, and they mainly rely on statistical analysis to do so, since they can't re-run hundreds of millions of years of evolution in different conditions to test their hypothesis.

Aceofspades said...

Or perhaps the term you're looking for is scientific skepticism or otherwise known as rational skepticism

Robert Byers said...

Something is true about nature etc .
So conclusions about truth must be based on methodology.
one method is the creator telling you what he did(bible). If there was a creator and he did tell us what he did(bible) then any methodology rejecting this option would be plain opposite to conclusions about truth.
Revealed religion is a option for truth.
Science is another way to truth but is not the definition of what is true.
Who decides it is?
If science says religions is wrong on some facts or religion says science is wrong then its about investigation of the facts.
Modern creationism simply says science is not opposing God/Genesis but is wrongly used. So YEC/ID is accurate science.
Creationism is not opposed to science but to errors of people using scientific methodology.
No accommodation needs to ne a factor.
Its just a contention of facts about what is true.
There is just truth and people trying to figure out what it is and DISAGREEING.
creationists don't accomadate and neither should anyone else.

This is really small circles settling that conclusions have been made about God/religion.
These small circles are taken on by creationist small circles.
Its another attempt of one side to INSIST science is on their side only.
Creationism is science too.
Thus the clash of arms.

Corneel said...

I also understood this to be the major point of Pigliucci's post. Of course, you can use evidence and rationality to decide that "behaving another way is better for society", but you only act in the interest of society because that feels like the right thing to do. That is not a scientific motivation, but an emotional one.

Alex SL said...

And round and round it goes. In my eyes these discussions always suffer from a confusion (or deliberate conflation?) of different meanings of both "science" and "religion".

1. A set of methods to generate knowledge.

Science has evidence, reason, parsimony, modelling, statistics, but really whatever can be demonstrated to work would be incorporated. Religion, by definition, has faith, personal experience, revelation, holy books. The two approaches are obviously completely different, and it seems reasonable to call that incompatible.

2. A system of beliefs about the world.

Science has, well, "the current state of knowledge", textbook facts, mainstream-accepted theories, etc. Religion has whatever the founders and authorities of a given religion said or wrote down, or just what people happen to believe. It could be anything really. So in this case it becomes an empirical question, examining one claim after the other. Religious tenet could accidentally be compatible with scientific knowledge. Mostly it doesn't seem to be.

3. A community of practitioners and their institutions.

Science construed in this way consists of universities, institutes, researchers, professors, students, journals, etc. Religion accordingly of clergy, temples, believers, and much more. The two are trivially compatible in that a scientist could at the same time be a believer, or a church could run a university. (Whether that does or does not make sense intellectually is another question.)

What counts for me is #1. But that is just me.

Faizal Ali said...

That's an example of a claim that is empirically testable, and the evidence demonstrates Pigliucci to be wrong. Unless, that is, he's using one of those "other ways of knowing" he's always talking about....

judmarc said...

There is evidence that the origin of life is from natural processes. Are you saying you don't know any such evidence?

He's frequently made it plain that he considers any naturalistic, "random" origin of life impossible due to numerous instances of what he calls "chicken and egg" problems, for example where one requires a cell to do X, but X is a prerequisite for the cells we know of. According to him, science is helpless before such problems (with the possible exception of someone taking him back in time and showing him the actual occurrence, step-by-step).

Thus his ignorance of much of the evidence causes him to discount the rest.

judmarc said...

To me, experiments are required for the sciences.

So for 50 years prior to the construction and operation of the Large Hadron Collider, theoretical predictions of the existence of the Higgs boson were unscientific?

Joe Felsenstein said...

... and all the people reconstructing evolutionary trees from published data aren't doing science?

Larry Moran said...

Good summary.

We could have a discussion about whether #3 is useful or not. I would begin by making an different comparison. We could compare the community of scientists and the community of homeopaths.

According to definition #3, homeopathy and science are compatible because they are from different communities and it's possible to be a (bad) scientist and a homeopath.

That doesn't make a lot of sense, does it?

Larry Moran said...

@Bjorn Østman

Yes, I agree that all kinds of thing are irrational. It's irrational to believe that vaccinations cause autism and it's irrational to believe that praying to some god will cure you of cancer.

Lot's of "ethical behavior" is irrational because it's controlled by irrational emotions.

That's not my point. My point is that we could, in theory, reach decisions about ethical behavior based entirely on evidence and rational thought. But more importantly, there's no evidence that the will of the gods is a requirement for ethical behavior. Religion does not have an exclusive handle on ethics.

We have no need of religion in order to make ethical decisions. There is no such thing as a "domain" or a "magisterium" where religion is required and where is can't be subjected to evidence-based, rational, analysis.

Larry Moran said...


I suppose we could all do whatever we want whenever we want but I think there are rational reasons why such behavior is unacceptable if you are living with other people.

I don't think it's a "belief" to try to make for a better society. I think it's common sense based on evidence. The evidence suggests that more people are happy if we have a stable society with certain standards of behavior.

The only "belief" in such a position is the assumption that happiness is preferable to unhappiness but even that belief is supported by evidence and rational thinking.

Don't forget the main point. Supernatural beings are not necessary in order to determine ethical behavior. Atheist societies are just as ethical as religious ones.

Corneel said...


Sorry, but that is ridiculous. The "assumption" that happiness is preferable to unhappiness is NOT based on rational thinking. Everybody simply WANTS to feel happy.
The reason why you and me act like decent people may be partly due to social conventions, but I believe the major reason is that we simply want to, because it feels like the right thing to do, and doing the right thing makes us feel good. I don't know about you, but I have certainly not given a lot of thought to the question whether my behaviour will result in a stable society.

Corneel said...

For clarification: I am not arguing against your main point (I am not religious). I am arguing against the notion that ethics and morality can somehow be completely determined by evidence and rational thought.

Faizal Ali said...

I disagree. It is an empirically verifiable fact that people, by an large, do not want to be subject to physical pain and violence, have their possessions stolen, etc. On that basis, we forumulate moral and ethical principles. If people didn't mind having pain inflicted upon them without their consent, then there would be nothing immoral about doing so.

judmarc said...

lutesuite, there are many well known experiments contra your view.

For example:

Scenario one, a train is barreling down a railroad track on its way to hit 5 workers. You can save them by moving a lever to switch the train to a siding where there is unfortunately another worker.

Scenario two, generally the same, except now you are standing on an elevated scaffold next to the track and the only way to save the 5 workers is by pushing a large worker standing next to you onto the track into the path of the oncoming train.

Identical outcomes - as a consequence of your actions in each case, one person dies and 5 are saved.

When people are surveyed about these scenarios, huge majorities say they would pull the lever in the first scenario, and equally huge majorities say they would not push the worker to his death. Identical results of the two scenarios, but diametrically opposed views of the morality of the two courses of action.

Corneel said...

The question is: why do YOU refrain from hurting other people? My guess is that that is because of empathy, not rational thought.

Alex SL said...

No, to me it doesn't, but a surprising number of accommodationists point out that there are religious scientists and then smugly consider the whole discussion settled. (Is not Massimo Pigliucci's argument though.)

Faizal Ali said...

@judmarc and Corneel,

You are both confusing motivations for people's actions with knowledge. That I might make a particular moral decision for particular reasons does not mean I know what the correct moral decision would be in that situation.

Corneel said...

But you base your moral decisions on your knowledge of what is right and wrong. True, that knowledge does not come from a divine source, as Larry correctly points out, but it is not scientific knowledge either.

Faizal Ali said...

I don't have knowledge of right and wrong. I have opinions. The validity of those opinions, however, is based on how well they can be supported by evidence and logic. i.e. by the scientific method.

Robert Byers said...

Your argument breaks down in modern origin contentions.
ID insists it is doing science for its conclusions. YEC is doing science for its debunking of errors of the other side. Assertions only are from revealation but even here are backed up by as much science as you can.
organized creationism is not a faith community as you define it.
its a insistence that the evidence of nature, by scientific methodology, backs up iD/YEC claims and is against opponents claims.
Thats why there is no conflict between religion and science.
There is a conflict of conclusions where religion is said to be wrong and those defending religion, by science, are saying people on the other side are wrong. not science is wrong. Nobody says that. We say we do science. WE are NOT in conflict with ourselves by doing science and with conclusions that agree with religion.
Creationism does not say there is a conflict. Its the opposition AND anyone, in religion or the public, who think its a conflict only of conclusions from two different communities.
its about truth. We assert our truth/debunk the others by using natures evidence. YEC also revelation.
No conflict except different conclusions on the same raw data.

Alex SL said...

Yeah, and flat earth is also compatible with science. Same data, different conclusions!

Unknown said...

Judmarc, that doesn't make sense, at all. Of course it's scientific because it's possible to conduct an experiment to test it. The person who came up with the idea doesn't have to be the exact person to test it.

Unknown said...

Paleontology is a conglomerate of geology and biology. They absolutely do all kinds of statistical analyses and rely on other things like being able to date the Earth via radiometric dating.

There is no way to conduct an experiment to validate whether or not George Washington existed.

Corneel said...


And by what measure do you decide that your "opinions" are valid, when your sense of justice is what you're trying to establish? That is circular reasoning. No, those opinions are the standard by which you judge your and other people's actions. The rationalising usuallly comes afterwards.

SRM said...

Jai, in essence an experiment is just a means of collecting information that will ultimately be used, generally, to help construct a model that best explains or describes some circumstance or event.

Here is an experiment for you: collect the writings of 10 people who should be contemporaries and associates of one hypothetical George Washington. Do they refer to GW as they would if he was a real person in actually existence, or do none of them refer to such a person? This experiment will not prove or disprove the existence of GW, but your findings will probably contribute to one or another model: that GW did likely exist or did not likely exist.

judmarc said...

In fact, emotions are an essential component of all decisionmaking, even decisions we regard as quite prosaic and subject to rationality. People with brain damage to centers governing emotion are nearly incapable of basic decisions involved in everyday activities like grocery shopping. Pure rationality, however much it may appeal in the abstract, in practicality simply cannot support even such ordinary prosaic decisions, let alone decisions about anything as fraught and difficult as moral questions of any significance.

None of this brings religion into play. Scientific experiments show various moral precepts are inborn (e.g., newborns as young as can indicate preference have been shown to like and trust those who behave nicely toward others, and dislike/distrust those who are cruel to others). Religious moral precepts follow from internal morality (plus a liberal salting of religious tribalism), not the other way around.

Faizal Ali said...

@ Corneel

I don't think your getting my point. The question here is whether there is another method besides science (in the broad definition favoured by Larry) that can lead to the acquisition of knowledge. I fail to see how the fact that people's decisions and judgments are often guided by their emotions addresses that question.

The point you actually seem to be making, whether or not intentionally, is that moral judgments often do not qualify as "knowledge."

Corneel said...


I fully understand your point. The issue seems to be that, unless information was gained by the scientific method, you don't want to call it knowledge.
But as judmarc has rightly remarked, certain moral precepts are inborn, and our moral decisions are informed by emotions and empathy. In my book that counts as knowledge, even though it is outside the realm of rationality.

Faizal Ali said...

So, by the same token, my preference for chocolate ice cream over vanilla would constitute "knowledge". That seems to me an overly broad use of the term, but have it your way.

Unknown said...

What is right or wrong depends on the goal one is attempting to achieve.
If one is attempting to kill another person, then shooting that person with a gun would be a right thing to do.
If one says there is ‘no purpose’, then there can be no right or wrong because right and wrong are judged by if they aid the purpose or not.

Humans look to those who know the purpose of the universe for guidance into what is right and wrong because only those who know the purpose will be able to judge the rightness or wrongness of something.

If you say you have studied the universe and concluded the universe has no purpose, then people might assume your methods of inquiry are incomplete.

If it is true that the universe has no purpose, any ‘purpose for humanity’ will be arbitrary to the truth about the universe. If we make the ethics based on common emotional responses, then only psychopaths will not understand the system. A person can ‘follow his conscience’ and fit in fine in most cases.

Corneel said...


I like pistache flavour :-)

Yes, that is knowledge, although personally I would have picked a less trivial example:
-The "Mona Lisa" is a great piece of art
-It is wrong to kill another person
-I love my children
Those things are important.

Faizal Ali said...

So how do you determine any of those besides using evidence and reason?

Corneel said...

Oh, come on. Nobody uses evidence and reason to learn these things. You look at a painting and you think: "that is amazing". You think of killing somebody and your stomach turns. You look at your children, and you feel warm and fuzzy inside.
I imagine you do it the same way.

Faizal Ali said...

And that's not evidence? I would say it is.

But then you still have to apply reason. Some people's stomach's turn at the idea of a same sex couple having sex. But then you have to also employ reason to determine if this is then a good reason to deem the behavior immoral. That's using the scientific method. There are those who propose "other ways of knowing" and would say that homosexual activity is wrong, because God order's it. That is not using the scientific method.

Anonymous said...

I think that the basis for morality involves unreasoned, emotional feelings; empathy, fairness, wonder, awe, an appreciation of beauty, a desire to do as others to (or to have them do as we do), an unreasoned horror of killing other humans, etc.

Those feelings lead to contradictions. Those feelings also contradict other needs and wants. So we have to reason about them. Our "final" moral system may be so thoroughly thought out that it seems like it's rational to the base, but I don't think it is. And that's OK. We reason about how to accomplish our (moral and other) goals, but I think our goals are set somewhere far below reason.

Faizal Ali said...

Don't misunderstand. I'm not saying that morality is rational at its base. I'm sayng that the emotional basis is part of the evidence we use to rationally derive moral principles. Simply acting on our emotional impulses without any reflection would not be using the scientific method. Neither would believing that moral truths have been revealed to us by God (unless that claim is itself verified thru the scientific method.)

Robert Byers said...

Case in point. Nobody does say its a flat earth today or for the longest time. It makes our point.
Yet on origin data there are different conclusions.
Yet its not faith verses science. Its conclusions verses conclusions where both sides say they do science and one side says the other side does not.
It will never be a faith/science conflict until creationists admit/surrender to the claim they do are not doing science for theiir conclusions.
AGAIN the media attention about faith verses science is founded,by the media, on the REJECTION that iD/YEC are scientific investigations.
The very issue is a attack upon creationism. Also just clumbsy journalism etc.

Schenck said...

"science as a way of knowing that relies on evidence, rational thinking, and healthy skepticism[...Pigliucci's defintion of science] excludes the work of historians and philosophers"

Don't you agree that what historians do is different from what biologists do in terms of handling evidence? Yes they all try to be reasonable and skeptical, but the use of evidence is very diferent in those fields no? The historical sciences often only have a distribution of pottery sherds to work off of, and yet from that we've seen theories built up that describe and explain history. Arguably these theories go a bit further from the evidence than molecular biology does, no? Consider the building up of Indo-European linguistics, it was based on a lot of bad ideas, certainly at the start, like the Aryan invasion theory. And even today there are multiple competing theories about the 'homeland' of the original indo-european speakers, the theories really aren't all that 'falsifiable' and they all tend to explain the evidence equally well. So is a person supposed to not have a working theory in the field, because it's too much of a leap? And if you side with a theory for 'bad reasons' and it ends up being right, that's not justifiable true knowledge right? But then what about other correct results that come out of it? They're not scientific because 'by most estimates' there wasn't enough evidence to support them at the time, iow, they went too far beyond what the evidence should support?
Or is there something going on besides your 'broad definition' of science which says that history and particle physics are the same sort of thing?

And if that's true it's also true of philosophy no? Lots of philosophy isn't based on physical evidence, and instead is based solely on logic, yet it seems to be perfectly true no? And a lot of mathematics is also based more in logic or built up from supposition rather than physical evidence.
So is it really wrong to distinguish between these modes of thought? Even if we agree in the end that they're rational?

Further, if history and mathematics are allowed to 'go further' with the evidence than we'd allow in chemistry, why isn't theology? Theology can also be a fairly reasonable, skeptical, and evidence based process.

And failing that it's at least as 'knowledgeable' as the 'pure' humanities no? There's no rationality, evidence, of skepticism in the arts. But you don't think the arts have ever informed you about the world around you or what any of it means? You take no meaning at all from the arts other than 'this is pretty, this is not'?

Larry Moran said...

I might help if you could provide a brief description of the ways of knowing used by historians and philosphers. Make sure your description conflicts with the science way of knowing where the search for knowledge relies on evidence, rational thinking, and healthy skepticism.

Your other ways of knowing have to conflict (be different than) science because if they don't then philosophers and historians are seeking truth in the same basic way as physicists and biochemists.

There's no rationality, evidence, of skepticism in the arts. But you don't think the arts have ever informed you about the world around you or what any of it means?

We could quibble about exact meanings but the best answer to your question is "no." Fine arts have not contributed to knowledge (truth) about the world. They might illustrate and reinforce true knowledge but they could just as easily do the opposite. For example, all those pretty paintings of angels don't mean that angels are real but they do make believers feel really good about their superstitious beliefs.

You take no meaning at all from the arts other than 'this is pretty, this is not'?

I know it's fun to think that paintings and music convey deep meaning about the mysteries of life but that's not correct. They may reinforce your non-scientific beliefs and they may even challenge your beliefs but they don't create knowledge all by themselves. For that you need evidence, Paintings and songs aren't evidence.

B.o.B. can rap about a flat Earth until the cows come home but the Earth is still round. ABBA can sing a beautiful song about angels ("I believe in angels") and I can be moved to tears but it doesn't mean angels are real. Ludovico Mazzanti can paint a beautiful picture of St. Joseph of Cupertino floating in air but that doesn't mean that the monk actually levitated.

Faizal Ali said...

I suppose one way in which the arts can be said to lead to "knowledge" of a sort is by impressing upon us the reality of a situation by engaging our emotions. I'm thinking of the example of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian child the picture of whose dead body on a beach galvanized world attention and prompted action on a crisis, even though the nature of that crisis was already long been known to all. If one doesn't want to consider a news photograph a work of "art", the same could have been accomplished thru a drawing or a fictionalized story or film.

I don't know if that would invalidate the claim of science as the only way of "knowing", but I thought it was a point worth considering.