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Stanley Fish on religion and science
April 10, 2012 7:21 AM   Subscribe

Stanley Fish takes on the similarities and differences between scientific and religious evidence and gets a barrage of responses, to which he replies. Michael K. declares that “the equivalence between the methodological premises of scientific inquiry and those of religious doctrine is simply false.” I agree, but I do not assert it. Neither do I assert that because there are no “impersonal standards and impartial procedures … all standards and procedures are equivalent” (E.). What I do assert is that with respect to a single demand — the demand that the methodological procedures of an enterprise be tethered to the world of fact in a manner unmediated by assumptions — science and religion are in the same condition of not being able to meet it (as are history, anthropology, political science, sociology, psychology and all the rest).
posted by shivohum (259 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fucking Stanley Fish. I'd rather read a Ross Douthat Column than any of Fish's work. And that's saying something.
posted by Chekhovian at 7:24 AM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


Doesn't all scientific inquiry start with an assumption? And then to those assumptions you apply methodological procedures which are themselves grounded in fact - namely the fact that they work?
posted by spicynuts at 7:25 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: "This is simply what I do." - Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

Explanations must end somewhere. I'm sure this guy will get top marks in his freshman philosophy seminar.
posted by phrontist at 7:28 AM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Someone doesn't understand how science works. And yes, there are untestable assumptions in science, like "There is no trickster god who can pull the rug out from reality either capriciously or with serious intent." But that is the blindingly obvious difference between S and R.

And funny how he contrasts science with...sciences(?).
posted by Mental Wimp at 7:29 AM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


God give me strength to deal with these idiots.
posted by GuyZero at 7:36 AM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


I prefer to do my half-assed epistemological wanking in private, thank you very much.
posted by NathanBoy at 7:38 AM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


I guess his point is that for people who are neither scientists nor theologians, those people must base their understanding on trust.

One example would be: We believe neutrinos are real because people tell us that they've detected them. But we can't afford to build our own neutrino detectors, so how can we know if they're telling the truth.

But that's not really what he's saying, rather he's saying that people who aren't trained in the sciences don't have the mental ability to do the math anyway. So even if they could build a neutrino detector, they would have no way of "knowing" that the events they recorded were really neutrinos as described in the standard model of quantum physics.

I mean I understand when i see an image like this that those curves are generated by charged particles in a magnetic field. You can tell by the shape of the curve and the strength of the field what their charge to mass ratio is. But, without knowing all the mathematical formulas, how can you tell whether those mass/charge ratios indicate that some sub atomic particle theory is correct?

That said though, what difference does it make whether I personally know or not?

That is the one very important difference between science and religion. In science it doesn't matter if you believe it

Religion* says: "Belive in this or go to hell!"
Science says: "Here's how we think black holes work now. Isn't interesting!?"

There's a pretty big difference. Science doesn't demand that you trust scientists. It gives you the data, and you can do whatever you want with it.

There are only a few situations where scientists do ask for trust, stuff like vaccinations, global warming, etc. But it still doesn't matter what you believe only that you stop doing things that science says can harm other people.

*That said, though, not all religions work the same way. I think there are some religions where they only care what you do, not what you think: As long as you perform the rituals, you're fine. There are eastern religions that are more like what's considered "Philosophy" in the west then something Christianity/Islam.
posted by delmoi at 7:40 AM on April 10, 2012 [7 favorites]


He has a point. The apostle Paul was blinded by Jesus on the road to Damascus and Thomas Dolby was blinded by science on the road to celebrity and I've never met either of them.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:42 AM on April 10, 2012 [12 favorites]


Doesn't all scientific inquiry start with an assumption? And then to those assumptions you apply methodological procedures which are themselves grounded in fact - namely the fact that they work?
Science is science if scientists all agree it's scientific. I mean, if you look back through history, there are lots of things people thorough were scientific at the time, but looking back they clearly were not.

On the other hand, there is plenty of scientific work done on things that only happen once. Like we know all about the Denisovans on the basis of a single finger bone. That's not a repeatable experiment you can do. Rather, they used genetic techniques that have been used over and over again and worked in the past. It's still science.
posted by delmoi at 7:45 AM on April 10, 2012


In that case delmoi, what can happen more than once is the application genetic technique. If we found large numbers of cases where that technique did not work, we would have to second guess the conclusion about the Denisovans, right?
posted by idiopath at 7:50 AM on April 10, 2012


Delmoi, I may be too dense to understand whether you are providing a counterpoint or further fleshing out my questions.
posted by spicynuts at 7:54 AM on April 10, 2012


As long as scientists stick to their speciality, there is usually no problem. Once they start making pronouncements on matters outside their speciality, however, they try to imbue them with some kind of magisterial "sciencey" authority. Back to your labs, I say.
posted by No Robots at 7:56 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


The problem with dismissing this as "freshman philosophy", etcetera, is that a depressingly large proportion of those promoting scientific rationalism in public debate, including some people who are clearly world-class experts in (say) evolutionary biology, don't seem even to be at the freshman philosophy level themselves.

I think it's fair to say that the vast majority of the people who champion science in the public sphere don't show any indication of understanding that their faith in science as the only or best form of "true knowledge" must be based on a faith that cannot itself be the product of scientific inquiry. There are plenty of good reasons for championing science, in all sorts of contexts, but we cannot expect to win more people over to that cause using only the non-argument "because it's true".
posted by oliverburkeman at 7:57 AM on April 10, 2012 [19 favorites]


Who are three people who have never been in my kitchen?
posted by shakespeherian at 8:02 AM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


I guess his point is that for people who are neither scientists nor theologians, those people must base their understanding on trust.

Yep. As a matter of fact, this is a really significant train of thought in history of science quarters. Stevin Shapin wrote a book about it--a biologist-historian--making a persuasive and extensive argument that modern science has its underpinnings in the early-modern and even medieval concept of "credit," wherein certain people--the gentry, i.e. landed white men--were considered inherently trustworthy.

Eliminating trust from science means making all of your own tools from scratch, obtaining and refining all of your own ingredients and implements, and never accepting anything anyone else says without testing it for yourself. That's how you be a real empiricist. Everything else smuggles in a trust which is not easily distinguishable from "faith."
posted by valkyryn at 8:05 AM on April 10, 2012 [7 favorites]


And yes, there are untestable assumptions in science, like "There is no trickster god who can pull the rug out from reality either capriciously or with serious intent." But that is the blindingly obvious difference between S and R.

So the difference between science and religion, when it comes to untestable assumptions, is the untestable assumption that science is different from religion?
posted by oliverburkeman at 8:06 AM on April 10, 2012


It's kind of silly how many people dislike this fellow's conclusions and therefore came here to say "fuck this guy!"
posted by koeselitz at 8:07 AM on April 10, 2012 [9 favorites]


Humans have backbones. Fish have backbones. Therefore Fish is Human.
posted by erniepan at 8:11 AM on April 10, 2012


His point is NOT that

for people who are neither scientists nor theologians, those people must base their understanding on trust

his point actually INCLUDES people who are scientists, and specifically (there is a personal tone to the column) Dawkins.

"To be sure, those who stand with Dawkins and Pinker could also add that they believe in the chapter and verse of scientific inquiry for good reasons, and that would be true. But the reasons undergirding that belief are not independent of it."

He goes on to basically accuse Dawkins of being a tribalist snob, which is clearly a statement of fact.
posted by mwhybark at 8:11 AM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


There are only a few situations where scientists do ask for trust, stuff like vaccinations, global warming, etc.

And DDT, Thalidomide, and the industrial processes which caused global warming. And as white dude, I don't even have to deal with the hasty judgements scientists decided to levy against me based on ethnicity.

You may respond that the fact that I know that scientific racism and Thalidomide are bad is proof that science self-corrects, to which I say, "LOL." Because recognizing severe birth defects and rampant white supremacy is bad is about as self-correcting as realizing your house is on fire because your head is *also* on fire.

People who indulge in casual scientism as some kind of protection against whatever religion is bothering them with must eventually confront the fact that there are decent reasons why people don't like scientism in the first place. Sometimes, it does not fucking do what it says on the tin. Don't like the anti-vaccination crowd? Me neither. But they aren't crazy or stupid. People can be wrong, and can even distrust scientific pronouncements without being crazy or stupid.
posted by mobunited at 8:11 AM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm a believer in science. But I acknowledge that, except for a few science-class experiments, it is belief. I have no proof to support fission or that the sun is the body which the rest of the bodies orbit in the solar system. I rely on the reports of others.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:12 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


He goes on to basically accuse Dawkins of being a tribalist snob, which is clearly a statement of fact.

It pretty much is. Sorry. Once you troll a woman by describing female genital mutilation while using the term "Muslima," as Dawkins did, you engage in the kind of stupidity for which tribalism serves as the most charitable explanation.
posted by mobunited at 8:14 AM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


we cannot expect to win more people over to that cause using only the non-argument "because it's true".

What about truth, a really bitchin' laser-light show, and a coupon for 30% off their next purchase?
posted by octobersurprise at 8:16 AM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Fucking Stanley Fish.

While I try not to crap on threads, I have no problem cheering on a fellow Mefite crapping on a thread by expressing my sentiment exactly. :D
posted by Outlawyr at 8:20 AM on April 10, 2012


I was hoping he might be related to Preserved Fish, but since he does not appear to be, I will just read the Fish family wiki entry again instead.
posted by elizardbits at 8:25 AM on April 10, 2012


Fucking Stanley Fish.

Its just that everything he says is wrong. And I don't just mean in the context of this religion column, IIRC a year ago or so he was defending high college tuition prices as perfectly reflecting the value they provide. I'll have to start looking up some of his old columns, but offhand I can't remember a single sensible column he's written. I can think of some good columns Douthat has written, maybe even some sensible columns by Brooks (though that gets hazy), but nothing for Fish.
posted by Chekhovian at 8:26 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I can say that everything that I've ever read by Stanley Fish is wrong. But this subject is more important than Stanley Fish.
posted by koeselitz at 8:30 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was hoping he might be related to Preserved Fish

Thankgod Fish, the Puritan worthy, is an ancestor, I believe.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:31 AM on April 10, 2012


Don't like the anti-vaccination crowd? Me neither. But they aren't crazy or stupid.

No, sometimes they're crazy, stupid and corrupt to boot.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:34 AM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


"There is no trickster god who can pull the rug out from reality either capriciously or with serious intent."

I admire your faith.
posted by klarck at 8:36 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are only a few situations where scientists do ask for trust, stuff like vaccinations, global warming, etc.

A while back I tried to find some of the data about global warming and see if I could get up to speed on the subject as a layman. I decided it was really too complex a subject and that my only option was to decide which group(s) of people I trusted more.
posted by straight at 8:40 AM on April 10, 2012


He has a point. The apostle Paul was blinded by Jesus on the road to Damascus and Thomas Dolby was blinded by science on the road to celebrity and I've never met either of them.

If you meet Dolby on the road, kill him.
posted by Joey Michaels at 8:40 AM on April 10, 2012


Fish often makes statements which can be read in two ways: banal and true, or dramatic and wrong. It's a knowing and tiring trick.

He often pitches the dramatic and wrong angle first, but when forced to respond, he retreats into the banal and true. It is banal and true that Pinker, et al. begin with a world without God and work from there, as opposed to religious types who begin with a world with a God. It is dramatic and wrong to pretend that these assumptions are at all equivalent. It is banal and true that scientists assume, to a certain extent, that the world is basically observable. It is dramatic and wrong to say that this bedrock of assumption puts science on equivalent footing with religion, except in the trivial sense that there is some balloon knot of assumption at the base of it, even if that assumption is just a working assumption.

It is banal and true that most people will not perform, or cannot practically perform, every single experiment which underlies their understanding the world. This impossibility is pragmatic, not principled. Given enough time and money, anyone could. We can read the record to see who has done what and how. It is dramatic and wrong to say that the impossibility of one's own total experimentation means that science is on equivalent footing with religion. This is the intellectual equivalent of the old SNL skit where Chris Farley has created his own world record book, where each record must be personally observed by him.

Further, from the article:

So when you come across someone who gives the wrong kind of reasons (global-warming deniers and creationists) or subscribes to the wrong kind of belief (Holocaust deniers), you don’t give them the time of day; they are just obviously the wrong sort and you don’t have to deal with them until they have gone away and read the right books and taken the right courses and so have acquired the ability to engage with you in a rational discussion.

This is asinine. The reason why Holocaust deniers are told to either read the record or shut up is that their arguments have already been refuted a thousand times over. The arguments against them have been prepared and pre-prepared and released and rereleased. Anyone curious about the Holocaust could spend their entire life reading about it.

Besides, Holocaust deniers themselves assume that they work within the fields of history and science as we understand them. I doubt that Holocaust deniers would be pleased if you told them that their beliefs might be true, if only we were to radically, and in their favor, redefine reality and how we mediate reality.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:43 AM on April 10, 2012 [27 favorites]


It's a total strawman argument. Having "faith in science" is just a figure of speech and is not equivalent to having faith in religion. Having "faith" in global warming predictions just means accepting that, based on our current data and analysis, predictions of warming seem likely. It's not a matter of faith at all. Even the basic methodology of science is subject to change if there are ways to increase the effectiveness of our research. Science is just what seems like the best way to model and understand the natural world, and capital-F Faith doesn't factor into it.
posted by snofoam at 8:50 AM on April 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


Science is just what seems like the best way to model and understand the natural world

How do you define "best" in this sentence?
posted by oliverburkeman at 8:51 AM on April 10, 2012


Okay, so let's attack the problem from another angle. What if they're wrong?

Say religion is wrong. There is no God, and any religion asserting anything about the afterlife is, at heart, a con job. What changes about the world? Absolutely nothing. People would continue to believe exactly what they already believe. Religions would be structured in exactly the same way. No gods need exist for religion to have happened. In fact, we all agree that there are thousands of gods, once fervently believed in, that were always fantasy. They never existed in the first place, but people convinced themselves they did. Everyone, theist and non-theist alike, agrees that this is true. So stretching to say that one more god is imaginary is not a major step. But even if that last God is imaginary, people would still believe in him/her/it, just like people once really believed in Thor and Zeus, and built huge temples to them. Belief demonstrably neither implies nor requires existence of the thing believed in, so God's nonexistence wouldn't change belief at all.

Say science is wrong. Just wrong, full stop. It doesn't work. What changes? Everything. Modern civilization instantly disappears. Not only would you not have a computer to read these ramblings on, you probably wouldn't have a chair to sit in, food to put in a non-existent refrigerator, or even a house in which to store the refrigerator, chair, and computer you don't have.

Even if it is based on untestable assumptions, science delivers the goods. Real goods, you can touch and look at, as you're doing right now. If it's wrong, probably 90% of all the people alive today wouldn't be here.

If religion is wrong, nothing changes.

They are not equivalent.
posted by Malor at 8:51 AM on April 10, 2012 [27 favorites]


except in the trivial sense that there is some balloon knot of assumption at the base of it

Yes, most Dawkins-type don't understand this so-called trivial point. Which balloon knot you adopt is then not a matter of science but of faith and determines everything derived from that knot. You can say one balloon knot is obviously better but on what basis do you justify that claim? Please don't say because the evidence proves it, since this is precisely the thing the evidence cannot prove, since the standard of proof is itself a matter of what's in the balloon knot.
posted by shivohum at 8:53 AM on April 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


How do you define "best" in this sentence?

How do you define "best" in that sentence?
posted by octobersurprise at 8:55 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


some balloon knot of assumption at the base of it

Thales took care of that a long time ago. To do science you have to assume that the universe can be understood by the human mind. Sure, its an assumption, and philosophy wankers hate it, but they still get their MRIs don't they?
posted by Chekhovian at 8:58 AM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Science is just what seems like the best way to model and understand the natural world

How do you define "best" in this sentence?


I guess multiple people can test models to see how well the correspond with what we can observe in the natural world and confirm, improve or disprove the usefulness of the model.
posted by snofoam at 8:58 AM on April 10, 2012


How do you define "best" in that sentence?

Primarily on pragmatic grounds relative to human interests, as in Malor's subsequent post.
posted by oliverburkeman at 8:59 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


This argument (made by many posters) assumes that when science “changes its mind,” it is because more precise and powerful techniques have given it a better purchase on the world it had previously perceived only dimly (“Now we see through a glass darkly”). The world has stayed still; only the devices of perception have changed and brought us closer to it.

But this Baconian model of scientific progress in which data sits waiting to be revealed by superior instruments is now, the Princeton philosopher Thomas Kelly tells us, “universally rejected by philosophers” (“Evidence,” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). “It is now appreciated,” Kelly continues, “that at any given time, which theories are accepted … typically plays a crucial role in guiding the subsequent search for evidence which bears on these theories.”


Complete non sequitur. Kelly is arguing at this point that scientists do not blindly collect any old evidence in the context of discovery; they collect evidence they think might be theoretically important. What is "universally rejected by philosophers" is the idea that scientists collect evidence blindly, not that "data sits waiting to be revealed by superior instruments." (Compare: when I am trying to find my glasses, I might use memory, theory, and knowledge about my past whereabouts In order to direct my search; this does not mean the glasses aren't there to be found.)

It's both aggravating and telling that Fish tries to appeal to what an authority figure says is universally rejected by philosophers, but then reveals he doesn't understand the authority in the least.
posted by painquale at 9:04 AM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


You can say one balloon knot is obviously better but on what basis do you justify that claim?

The day anybody's religion puts someone on the moon, or hell, even in low earth orbit, will be the day I start considering that religion is even half as awesome a knot as science.

Obligatory xkcd
posted by nooneyouknow at 9:04 AM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


shivohum

I can give personal reasons (as we are not rejecting studies and statistics, we are forced to rely on anecdotes) why the balloon knot of a rational basis for reality.

I am alive (appendicitis when I was 17, the appendix burst rights after it was removed). I am not blind in my left eye (scratched cornea and pink eye, age 10). I can see more than 5 feet in front of me (I need glasses, unrelated to scratched cornea). I live in New York and can instantly talk to my parents in Boston.

I live in a world of wonder.

All of these are based on an assumption of rationality in the universe. If we reject a causal, observable, repeatable model of reality (which is all that science assumes), how were the doctors to know what was causing the pain in my side and how to fix it? How were they to know how to sedate me and prevent infection afterwards?

Science relies on the fundamental assumption that we all make that the universe isn't fake. We assume that the sun will rise in the morning, that gravity will not disappear, that things will not inexplicably change (or if they do change that way that we can later find a reason).

We are all scientists in a way. We all make predictions and test them out to see what happens. We aren't great at making sure the results are valid, so we have come up with a variety of tools to check.

And herein lies the difference. Science uses the tools to modify the next set of expected results. Religion does not. Whether it was the Greeks in Athens (where belief was not necessary, only action) or the Christians in Rome, there is very little evidence that changes doctrine (and the doctrine changed, I would argue, is of the non-crucial type).

Science while it does not change as easily as it should, does alter when it is shown wrong. Religion does only when it becomes a laughing stock (and even then, not always).
posted by Hactar at 9:07 AM on April 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


Say science is wrong. Just wrong, full stop. It doesn't work. What changes? Everything.

As much as I agree with what you're saying, I think there is a caveat that science can be wrong in some ways and still totally useful as a model. Like, our model for what an atom is like has progressed a lot since the 1940s, but the model we had back then was good enough for us to do fusion.
posted by snofoam at 9:09 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Malor: “Say religion is wrong. There is no God, and any religion asserting anything about the afterlife is, at heart, a con job. What changes about the world? Absolutely nothing... Say science is wrong. Just wrong, full stop. It doesn't work. What changes? Everything.”

When your definition of "the world" is "that which can be known by science," then of course this is true. But that's not necessarily a self-evident definition of "the world." Religion claims that there are things in the world that cannot be known by observation. Even if religion were completely wrong on everything else, I would find that claim compelling.

Moreover, you're making a mistake people often make when discussing the validity of science. One of the core assumptions of modern science is that the truth is only what can be observed. So the fact that we can still observe the things that science observes only means that science is self-consistent. It doesn't prove that science is valid except by science's own standards.
posted by koeselitz at 9:22 AM on April 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


If we reject a causal, observable, repeatable model of reality (which is all that science assumes), how were the doctors to know what was causing the pain in my side and how to fix it?

Well there is the possibility that it was sheer coincidence. Or perhaps an alien used magical powers to ensure that your appendix was healed at the same time as the doctors did their thing.

Oh, I agree that's absurd.

But from a strictly logical point of view, our mere sense that something is absurd does not prove it so. Our sense that something is absurd is not scientific evidence. It is simply our sense that something is absurd. It is absolutely a gut emotion -- faith.

Science uses the tools to modify the next set of expected results. Religion does not.

That's to be expected, since religion operates at the level of faith -- in other words, at a philosophical level. Science basically operates at a material, results-based level.

The point is that science TOO rests on a faith-based foundation. It cannot supplant it; it cannot do without it. Religion and atheistic materialism are true ideological competitors which can appropriately be compared. Whereas science competes mainly within itself.

Moreover, as Fish points out, even between different scientific theories there is a strong element of faith. You could have a theory that your experiments repeatedly DISprove. And every time you could invent an excuse. "Oh, my instruments were off." Or you could add repeatedly add assumptions. "Oh, my theory's true except on Tuesdays when it's a full moon." Or you could say that the experiments disprove some other part of your scientific system, not your theory. "Oh, that only proves that the theory of gravity has to be reformulated, not that my theory is wrong."

When do the data REALLY show that a theory is false? People ultimately rely on gut feeling. Faith.
posted by shivohum at 9:26 AM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


You could have a theory that your experiments repeatedly DISprove. And every time you could invent an excuse. "Oh, my instruments were off." Or you could add repeatedly add assumptions. "Oh, my theory's true except on Tuesdays when it's a full moon." Or you could say that the experiments disprove some other part of your scientific system, not your theory. "Oh, that only proves that the theory of gravity has to be reformulated, not that my theory is wrong."



what
posted by beefetish at 9:34 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


People ultimately rely on gut feeling. Faith.

Cite?
posted by ODiV at 9:34 AM on April 10, 2012


koeselitz: "One of the core assumptions of modern science is that the truth is only what can be observed."

If you take a strict materialist view, other things can be true, though fully unobservable, but it would be scientifically irresponsible to make assertions of their truth. And you need to qualify that quite a bit. For example if we can observe many similar events to the one not observed, we can probably make a good inference about it. But if the event is categorically such that nothing like it can ever be observed, and it furthermore has no observable or testable consequences, the only reasonable conclusion is that it would be foolish to assert such things in a scientific context. And one can reasonably be a bit less cautious and assert its nonexistence - because as long as the non-observability condition holds, the negative consequences of such a denial are tautologically nonexistent.
posted by idiopath at 9:34 AM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


One of the core assumptions of modern science is that the truth is only what can be observed.

Well, to be fair, most of small particle physics is inferred from observations, not directly observed. But there is a rigorous framework under which these inferences are made, unlike the helter-skelter that theologians pretend is rigor.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:38 AM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


...it would be foolish to assert such things in a scientific context.

Right, but scientists do make such assertions as a matter of fact (e.g. in string theory). Further, and more to the point, there's a meta dispute about when a scientific context is and isn't appropriate. No one thinks that a scientific context/perspective is always appropriate in life; the question is when and where it is.
posted by smorange at 9:50 AM on April 10, 2012


If you take a strict materialist view, other things can be true, though fully unobservable, but it would be scientifically irresponsible to make assertions of their truth.

Well, actually, a lot of science is just that--organizing theory that isn't observable but holds what is observable together in a way that Occam wouldn't be embarrassed about.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:51 AM on April 10, 2012


Obscure Reference: "Well, actually, a lot of science is just that--organizing theory that isn't observable"

Strictly speaking, all that is observable is photons. Or if we allow for other senses, maybe some oscillations in the air and excitations of various other sensory neurons. But we regularly make the jump from the photons to the things which emitted the photons etc. etc., so in that sense saying something is observable and saying it has observable consequences are identical.
posted by idiopath at 9:54 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


What always perplexes me in these threads is that most of the anti-realist pushback doesn't seem to come from theists frantic to defend their mustard seeds, but rather from people claiming to be atheists. As near as I can tell, their motivation primarily seems to be putting forth the relativist/solipsist worldview.

Theist push back makes sense. Gould's non-overlapping magisteria claim is withering away, so we're left with an inevitable conflict, but as for the atheist/relativists...what's going on you guys?
posted by Chekhovian at 9:57 AM on April 10, 2012


Some of us are spiritual atheists. Look it up.
posted by No Robots at 10:15 AM on April 10, 2012


Chekhovian: “... anti-realist pushback...”

Part of your confusion might stem from the fact that you seem to assume that anybody here is arguing against reality. If you reread this thread, I think you'll find that isn't the case.
posted by koeselitz at 10:16 AM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Chekhovian: "what's going on you guys?"

I would hazard a warranted disgust for past excesses aided by science, in other words the fact that science is a tool of those who have the money and power to direct it. To many the dignity of a human life is more important than empirically testable truth, and I can't really deny them that.
posted by idiopath at 10:18 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


... anti-realist pushback ... seems to be putting forth the relativist/solipsist worldview.


Garbage in, garbage out.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:24 AM on April 10, 2012


The either / or here may well be a false dichotomy.

For example, "the method of science; the aim of religion".
posted by bukvich at 10:24 AM on April 10, 2012


Fish is an idiot, but Dawkins isn't much better.

People like Dawkins strut around shouting "SCIENCE SCIENCE SCIENCE!" at everyone, seeming to presuppose that science is entirely unproblematic, and the only intellectually respectable endeavor. He specifically denigrates philosophy, when philosophers could explain to him very clearly why his presuppositions are foolish, and why the epistemology of science is damn problematic. He's a second-rate intellect who writes sophomoric books about God that make even atheists--if they actually know some philosophy--cringe. He's about 75% blowhard, and often just doesn't really know what he's talking about.

Fish is a sophist who has been beating the same postmodernist/relativist/skeptical drum for thirty years. His only decent point (well-known to every undergrad philosophy student) is, basically: science and religion are in the same boat in at least one respect: neither seems to have a good response to the most extreme skeptical arguments. That's an important point, but it doesn't go very far. He's entirely wrong to assert--as so many do--that you have your assumptions and I have mine, and each set of assumptions comes with its own standards of proof, and that's the end of the story. Questions about standards of proof are just more questions, and we think our way through them all the time, find out that we were wrong, change our minds, find out that we can come to agreement once one of us has understood his error, and so forth. Assumptions can be questioned and overturned. The though that maybe I ought to question my own assumptions rather than allow myself to be locked up in an unfalsifiable picture of the world is not just some new uncriticizable assumption, but a proposal that is itself fair game for criticism--though it's a pretty snazzy and virtuous thought, with much to be said in its favor.

Shorter Stanley Fish: both the humane, rationalist liberal and the Nazi psychopath just have their own different assumptions, and it's mere prejudice on the part of the former to think that he's any better than the latter.

A problem with some religious thinking is that its stupid and brutal and easily seen to be false, even though many cling to it. A problem with sophomoric scientism is that it has its own stupid (and sometimes brutal) tendencies, and it is incapable of recognizing that not all religions thought is stupid and brutal and easily seen to be false. (I'm an atheist, just for the record...)
posted by Fists O'Fury at 10:24 AM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


There is obviously a lot of nuance to this that both Fish and I will miss, given that we haven't read the right books, etc. etc. But Fish's conclusion that we dismiss global-warming deniers, creationists, Holocaust deniers, namely:

What this means is that the rhetoric of disinterested inquiry, as retailed by the likes of Dawkins and Pinker, is in fact a very interested assertion of the superiority of one set of beliefs.

merely because we are of a 'scientific faith' is a ridiculous strawman. We turn them away because they refuse adamantly to address the facts of these matter, i.e. they fundamentally refuse to engage in real discussion at all.
posted by borges at 10:29 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Scientists usually do not think of science as SCIENCE, but as science, or "let me see if I can resolve this puzzling tiny little question".

Embracing this attitude has allowed me to work in science and maintain an outward civil attitude toward religious fanatics (some of them family members). Inside I keep score: religion has yet to win any head to head battle with science, even if sometimes it takes a few centuries before science is declared the winner.
posted by francesca too at 10:30 AM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


But if the event is categorically such that nothing like it can ever be observed, and it furthermore has no observable or testable consequences, the only reasonable conclusion is that it would be foolish to assert such things in a scientific context.

True, however a "scientific context" is only a subset of the contexts in which I find myself on a daily basis. I have no problem making moral, legal, aesthetic, and mathematical claims, even though those claims are outside of the domain of what can be addressed by the scientific method. This is a good thing in many cases, as science is unable to provide better than a probabilistic answer about universals, and is even worse when it comes to singleton cases.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:40 AM on April 10, 2012


smorange: "Right, but scientists do make such assertions as a matter of fact (e.g. in string theory)."

Yes, and that is why string theory is a fucking joke.

I think there is a need for a place for "folk science", and by that I mean not the scientifying of non scientists, but the hunches or daydreams of scientists that are relevant to their field but not (or not yet) science. Something like folk mathematics.
posted by idiopath at 10:44 AM on April 10, 2012


shivohum: When do the data REALLY show that a theory is false? People ultimately rely on gut feeling. Faith.

The entire point of science is to build models on evidence, not gut feelings. If your pet hypothesis is contradicted by the evidence, it's discarded. If not by you, then by someone else who doesn't have your attachment to the idea. But if you cling to ideas in the face of contrary evidence, then you are a bad scientist.

Previously to this, you said:

Moreover, as Fish points out, even between different scientific theories there is a strong element of faith. You could have a theory that your experiments repeatedly DISprove. And every time you could invent an excuse. "Oh, my instruments were off." Or you could add repeatedly add assumptions. "Oh, my theory's true except on Tuesdays when it's a full moon." Or you could say that the experiments disprove some other part of your scientific system, not your theory. "Oh, that only proves that the theory of gravity has to be reformulated, not that my theory is wrong."

There, you're describing economics, not science.
posted by Malor at 10:45 AM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


More precisely: you're describing what economists do, when their theories are challenged. That's why it's not really science.
posted by Malor at 10:46 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sorry. My previous comment is very cranky.

Few people get under my skin more readily than Fish and Dawkins.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 10:46 AM on April 10, 2012


Malor: that and the fact that at least one branche of economics (the one driving US economic policy) doesn't even acknowledge any value of empiricism and prefer a-priori reasoning. That is decidedly not science, based on their assertions alone.
posted by idiopath at 10:48 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Actually, Fists O'Fury, I thought you were spot-on.
posted by No Robots at 10:50 AM on April 10, 2012


"Religious evidence". Oh man, that's funny.
posted by Decani at 10:53 AM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


I see the science-sneerers are out in force here. On their computers.
posted by Decani at 11:01 AM on April 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


I see the science-boosters are out in force here. Using their minds.
posted by No Robots at 11:04 AM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


Hyperbolic doubt is dumb (not to mention passe). Yes, if you raise the bar of justification high enough, you can call everything that passes underneath faith. It's easy to do too, because people can't agree on exactly where that bar should be, so you can set it wherever you like.

So, take a statement like - 'So far all information that we have observed about the universe indicates X, but when we get better information, we will reevaluate that theory.' Yes, but at a very basic level you are making some assumptions about the reliability of your senses, the foundations of logic, the consistency of the universe, and countless others.

A statement like - 'Invisible Sky Man breathes life into clay.' (Or 'we are all energy, and energy doesn't die, or whatever you want) That doesn't need the same exacting level of skepticism of basic beliefs to allow questioning. They are completely different levels and types of skepticism. Presenting them as falling under the same bar is disingenuous at best.
posted by Garm at 11:12 AM on April 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


Wittgenstein's Lecture on Ethics

it is absurd to say 'Science has proved that there are no miracles.' The truth is that the scientific way of looking at a fact is not the way to look at it as a miracle.


My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science.

--Wittgenstein
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:21 AM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


I've never had too much issue with Fish's writings, I think they are very well written and quite interesting to think about (slog through), even if they don't provide satisfactory answers (and yes he has changed his mind on things at times). It's fine with with me because that's not his job; his method is literary criticism.

What he is articulating here isn't anything unreasonable because science and philosophy do inform his point. Philosophy and psychology have tried to grapple with intersubjectivity, which is the idea that meaning only arises out of relationships with people. Similarly, scientists and linguists themselves have wondered and proposed investigation into how evolution biases the very underpinnings of rational thought itself.

None of this is outlandish. That is, if you've encountered the appropriate scientific and philosophical literature beforehand.
posted by polymodus at 11:24 AM on April 10, 2012


> yes, there are untestable assumptions in science, like "There is no trickster god who can
> pull the rug out from reality either capriciously or with serious intent."

Pleasantly, if the infinite-universes model were to turn out to be correct there would be some in which there was a trickster god.
posted by jfuller at 11:30 AM on April 10, 2012


They are completely different levels and types of skepticism. Presenting them as falling under the same bar is disingenuous at best.

In the quote at the top of this post, though, Fish explicitly does not do this. He is drawing attention to the level of skepticism on which all those claims do share the same kind of untestable assumption, not rejecting the existence of levels on which the differences arise. Given how many people in this thread seem – so far as I can tell – actually not to perceive the existence of that level at all, I think it's very useful for people like Fish to draw attention to it, even if I don't agree with every conclusion he goes on to draw.
posted by oliverburkeman at 11:33 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Golden Eternity's quotation is worth highlighting. Science can't prove ethics, which is something people like Dawkins and Harris deny. Fish is a useful corrective to their extremism. We all need morals/values/teleology, even scientists qua scientists. That's because the choice to do science is a choice to value it. That's fine in the abstract, but it gets messy when you're talking about particular choices. Why do we devote the resources we do to understanding and "treating" male pattern baldness rather than, well, pretty much anything else we could do with our time? Why do we study liberal and conservative brains to explain their differences? Lying behind these choices are values--and values are, in a sense, necessarily spiritual, as Wittgenstein said.
posted by smorange at 11:42 AM on April 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


They begin with the assumption (an act of faith) that the world is an object capable of being described by methods unattached to any imputation of deity, and they then develop procedures (tests, experiments, the compilation of databases, etc.) that yield results, and they call those results reasons for concluding this or that.

Scientists, like all other people, are a diverse lot. But it seems to me that to be a scientist, one only needs to set out with a single assumption: that there is something independent of how you or I or anyone else happens to think about it, which may ultimately be described by us if we investigate long enough. That independent something -- reality -- might or might not include a deity. The assumption of the scientist is simply that if it includes a deity, some method of investigation is bound to turn up that fact eventually.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 11:45 AM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Which balloon knot you adopt is then not a matter of science but of faith and determines everything derived from that knot. You can say one balloon knot is obviously better but on what basis do you justify that claim?

To be clear, we're not talking about one balloon-knot which indicates that scientific evidence is valid, and one entirely alternate balloon-knot which indicates that god(s) exist. There are (at least) two knots tied at the bottom of the balloon, and people can and do assume both. Very, very few religious people actually believe that science is exactly equivalent to "faith", or that it doesn't do what it says it does. Even most of those who claim this are happy to accept science whenever it doesn't directly conflict with dogma. Likewise, some scientists are religious, and are happy to endorse religious claims when they don't directly conflict with accepted scientific fact.

As Fish points out, though, assumptions like these necessarily underlie every aspect of human endeavour, including philosophy itself... so why hold up these particular two as if it's incredibly important that they are equivalent, especially when Fish himself admits that this equivalence is "irrelevant" in practice? I don't think Dawkins or Pinker are at all unaware of this equivalence -- they simply dismiss it as irrelevant, just as Fish does.

Other than that, I happen to agree with Fish on the ultimate non-impartiality of liberalism, but that makes it no different from any other system of value. Once you try to step beyond good and evil you're left with assumptions all the way down. The idea that brutal honesty and self-consistency is more important or better than the appearance of impartiality and non-partisanship is itself a value, based on nothing more than assumptions; by his own argument, Fish can never prove it.

I tend to agree with him on that, too, but it would help if he admitted that his own underlying assumptions are no less susceptible to the same argument. "Human beings should (admit that they) create their own values" is, perhaps unfortunately, no more or less valid a conclusion than "human beings should cover their ears and go la la la Nietzsche I can't hear yoooooooou forever" -- going from an "is" to a universal, normative "ought" only brings you halfway there.
posted by vorfeed at 11:53 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Some of us are spiritual atheists. Look it up.

I don't really want to play "whack-a-mole" by guessing exactly what those words mean to you. If you want to talk about it, please define your terms. Or answer my question: do things happen as a consequence of mechanistic processes or as a result of magic?

And let me throw this out there: Loschmidt's paradox. Basically what it means is that all the macroscopic phenomena involved in say, running a steam engine, are the sums of microscopic processes. The paradoxical part is that those microscopic processes seem to be time reversal invariant, so there should be no irreversibility...yet entropy happens and there is...so somehow more isn't just more, more is different. But its not 'cause of magic.
posted by Chekhovian at 12:19 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I find it fascinating that nobody has used the term "axiom" yet.

It seems that Fish is saying something simple: both science and religion are based on axioms. Axioms, by definition, are fundamental assumptions (Sticherbeast's "balloon knot of assumptions") that we have an unfounded and unjustifiable faith in. There is no way to "prove" an axiom.

In science's case, some of these axioms may be things such as "a + b = b + a", or larger meta-axioms, that "if a phenomenon appears to happen multiple times, it must be a pattern, perhaps with a cause", etc.

Arguing that "science works", or that "science makes sense", "science is real", "science is accurate", "science helped me personally" is thus irrelevant to the question of whether or not science (like any other branch of thought) is founded on axioms, and whether or not our belief in axioms are just that -- a belief.
posted by suedehead at 12:27 PM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


do things happen as a consequence of mechanistic processes or as a result of magic?

False dichotomy alert. Also, you haven't defined magic, although I have a feeling anything short of a purely mechanistic, metaphysical naturalist view - the one you appear to be taking - will be classified as magic. Which is a nice debating trick, but I'm not sure it adds up to much more than that.
posted by jhandey at 12:36 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Decani: I see the science-sneerers are out in force here. On their computers.

Actually, very little about how computers work is based on science. You see, as a computer programmer, I can say:

f(a) = b for the infinity of real numbers a.

As a scientist, I can't responsibly say that. I'm forced to say:

f(a) = b +/- β extrapolating from a sample with size n collected and measured by...

If I don't explicitly describe β and my sample collection process, I'm acting irresponsibly as a scientist and making bad scientific claims. Now it's usually the case that we're not very interested in b, we're more interested in:

f'(b) = c
f''(c) = d
f''(d) = e

As a scientist, I'm forced to either multiply my errors β, γ, ε, δ at each step or conduct an entirely new experiment to test each new relation. As a programmer, I can just skip the intermediate steps using little more than high-school algebra to show that F(a) = e for the infinity of real numbers a. It's not sneering at science to demand that it either be practiced properly or admit that the claim wasn't a scientific one to begin with. Thus far, we've seen 0 ± 1 scientific claims fielded in this discussion. I don't see a problem with that.

(As an aside, I'm always amused when people use computers as an example of irreducible design, knowing that the atoms of a computer program are an order of magnitude less numerous than those of organic chemistry.)
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:42 PM on April 10, 2012


I might've once considered myself a "spiritual" atheist. Not any more.

One thing common to philosophy and the sciences is that progress in understanding depends in part on clear, agreed-upon terminology. "Spirit" and "spirituality" do not seem to meet this criterion. "Spirit" - what is that exactly? Of what is it comprised? What is its relation to matter? To energy (and this is where a lot of New Age thought really goes off the rails, in abusing a word)? It has no referent that I can detect or infer (and I've seen none put forth by any other thinkers I respect) and thus no meaning or utility to me, beyond a loose poetic utility. In its ancillary meanings ("in good spirits", "the spirit of the age", etc.), there are perfectly good alternatives to use. Same for "spiritual". If one means "open to a sense of wonder about the unknowns of the world" or "concerned with connection with and ethical behaviour towards others" or similar normative motivations, surely there are other terms which don't open the door to positing a non-material-stuff homunculus (driver of the body-as-passive-automobile.)

I'd prefer not ever to use these words, in favour of more rigorous terminology.

Language, unexamined, can perpetuate misconceptions; this was one of Wittgenstein's main themes: that many questions might be dissolved, rather than solved, by a hard look at the words we use, since the questions were misconceived, sometimes to the point of incoherence, in the first place.
posted by Philofacts at 12:47 PM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


do things happen as a consequence of mechanistic processes or as a result of magic?

Does science show that the world works like a machine? Which science? Physics or ecology? Starhawk (who you should discount without even reading further if you believe that only atheists are capable of saying anything worth listening to) says it much better than I could:
Industrial agriculture comes out of a mechanistic model. A plant is seen as a product, needing specific inputs of various chemicals and soil as a stabilizing base to hold it up. Anything in that soil that is not the desired product is seen as competition, to be eliminated. ...It's a worldview of simple causes and effects: Bug A eats your plant, kill it and your plant will grow...

...This model is being widely sold to us as "science." It's high tech, it's post-modern, it's the cutting edge, it will feed the world, and anyone who objects to it is accused of clinging to some romantic past.

But in reality, this model is nineteenth-century science. Science itself began to move beyond it somewhere back in the 1920s, when Heisenberg discovered the uncertainty principle and Einstein began cooking up his theories. Actually, many nineteenth-century scientists, Darwin for one, were already far beyond this kind of thinking.

...[There is another] world view being articulated by twenty-first-century science. Systems, complexity, chaos, and Gaia theories are some of its manifestations, but it is also much older, akin to the way indigenous peoples have always experienced the Earth. This view sees the world as a complex and dynamic web of relationships. There are no simple causes and effects: any change in the web will reverberate and affect the whole. Small changes can become amplified to have large effects that cannot be predicted: this is sometimes called the "Butterfly Effect" of chaos theory...

In this model, a plant is part of a living community of relationships, that includes billions of soil micro-organisms, worms, insects, other plants, birds, predators, and humans, all of which interact together to create a network of dynamic interactions. A crop can't be seen in isolation -- it is part of the web. ...This model looks at systems, not isolated elements. ...In the dynamic web model of the world, we understand that every action or change has a myriad of effects, intended and unintended. The world is not completely knowable or controllable -- it's filled with complexities that go beyond our comprehension, with wonder and mystery. And because it is complex, because causes and effects are linked in networks not simple lines, the same act will not always produce the same effect.
posted by overglow at 12:54 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Science can't prove ethics, which is something people like Dawkins and Harris deny.

I don't think Dawkins and Harris actually deny this -- they simply dismiss it as unimportant. After all, religion and philosophy cannot "prove" ethics, either. Harris claims that the scientific method can be used to develop and justify a set of ethical values; he also argues that this provides "better" values than religion, given certain assumptions (namely, that the goal of morality is to maximize the wellbeing of conscious creatures). None of that requires an absolute proof, any more than Kant required one for his categorical imperative.

I'm not a huge fan of normative science-of-morality arguments, myself -- it's almost impossible not to beg the question regarding what "wellbeing" is, which is why it always ends up looking a lot like some idealized version of our own culture rather than the one next door -- but the fact that science cannot prove a set of ethics has very little to do with whether science can be used to explore ethics.

Frankly, anyone who claims that science can't shed any light on philosophy is way behind the current state of both science and philosophy (neuroscience is a factor in the debate over free will, for example). The question of whether scientific findings can be relevant to the study of ethics has already been solved in practice, even if we seem to have a reluctance to admit that it holds in theory; when there's such a thing as a Neuroethics Society, the horse has long since left the barn.
posted by vorfeed at 12:55 PM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


There are two ways to conceive reality: as a multiplicity of inter-related material phenomena, and as a single mind. The second view has no practical advantage in itself. In fact, by itself, it is inimical to practical existence. However, there are advantages to contextualizing the practical, relative, material world within the framework of the principle of unified mind. Thus we are, in Constantin Brunner's helpful phrase, absolute idealists and relative materialists.

Religion, unfortunately, takes the abstract principle of absolute mind and concretizes it into a god-thing. Scientism dismisses the idea of absolute mind altogether. Recommended reading on this subject includes the aforementioned Brunner, as well as Hegel and Spinoza.
posted by No Robots at 1:09 PM on April 10, 2012


Does science show that the world works like a machine? Which science? Physics

Mechanistic != machine, but rather that the fundamental processes at work are governed by equations. Are things made out of atoms? Do those atoms follow quantum mechanics? Now you put 10^23 of those things together, and things get tricky, but that doesn't mean magic enters the picture.

But in reality, this model is nineteenth-century science. Science itself began to move beyond it somewhere back in the 1920s, when Heisenberg discovered the uncertainty principle and Einstein began cooking up his theories. Actually, many nineteenth-century scientists, Darwin for one, were already far beyond this kind of thinking.

That sir, is some ripe bullshit. Quantum Mechanics does give you a license to sell what ever stale new age pablum you've dug up. Heisenberg's matrices were not based on eastern mysticism. Schroedinger's wave equation does not come from transcendental meditation.

Systems, complexity, chaos, and Gaia theories are some of its manifestations, but it is also much older, akin to the way indigenous peoples have always experienced the Earth. This view sees the world as a complex and dynamic web of relationships. There are no simple causes and effects: any change in the web will reverberate and affect the whole. Small changes can become amplified to have large effects that cannot be predicted: this is sometimes called the "Butterfly Effect" of chaos theory...

Yes, nonlinear dynamics are very hard to model. But that doesn't mean they're magic.
posted by Chekhovian at 1:14 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Quantum Mechanics does NOT give you a license to sell what ever stale new age pablum you've dug up.
posted by Chekhovian at 1:14 PM on April 10, 2012


I eventually decided that, when one is arguing about whether or not a particular epistemological framework was or should be privileged, there is no (god I can't believe I'm about to write this) meta-epistemological framework with which to assess both rendering it at best a singular and personal pursuit.

So for me it came down to simple Utilitarianism: which framework, religious or scientific, has and currently provides the greatest daily and long term happiness to people. And I decided that I'd rather "trust" my internal combustion engine to get me to work than to trust that God will provide me with free money if I only pray hard enough.

So the science framework wins. And, yes, I do think people who would claim that the religious framework provides them greater happiness are wrong, but that's only because I've chosen to adopt the scientific outlook :)
posted by digitalprimate at 1:17 PM on April 10, 2012


In this model, a plant is part of a living community of relationships, that includes billions of soil micro-organisms, worms, insects, other plants, birds, predators, and humans, all of which interact together to create a network of dynamic interactions.

The view of a plant as part of a massive system of physical processes is no less mechanistic/materialist than the 19th century view of a plant in isolation, unless you're positing that the "web" the plant exists in is made up of mystical connections rather than physical ones. Which scientists don't.
posted by vorfeed at 1:20 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


unless you're positing that the "web" the plant exists in is made up of mystical connections rather than physical ones

Were you not paying attention in Avatar?
posted by Summer at 1:32 PM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


Frankly, anyone who claims that science can't shed any light on philosophy is way behind the current state of both science and philosophy (neuroscience is a factor in the debate over free will, for example).

I don't think anyone here would deny this. But ethics presupposes free will; as human beings, we presuppose free will. I don't believe that neuroscience--or any science--can erase those presuppositions because they're fundamental to what we are as human beings. Science can't answer the practical question of ethics, i.e., what should I do? That question asks for a meaningful answer, and science can't answer it because meaning is normative.
posted by smorange at 1:46 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


As Fish points out, though, assumptions like these necessarily underlie every aspect of human endeavour, including philosophy itself... so why hold up these particular two as if it's incredibly important that they are equivalent, especially when Fish himself admits that this equivalence is "irrelevant" in practice?

Well, because the Dawkinsians keep putting forth the idea that religion ALONE takes things on faith. Fish punctures the basically puerile idea that science is the only reasonable way at arriving at a belief. That can matter if you want philosophical justification to explore non-scientific ways of finding truth. It stymies the tyranny of this brand of strident, evangelical atheist over public discourse and private thought.
posted by shivohum at 1:54 PM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


Chekhovian: “Quantum Mechanics does NOT give you a license to sell what ever stale new age pablum you've dug up.”

Oh. I see. Darn.

*reburies stale new age pablum*
posted by koeselitz at 1:57 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


It stymies the tyranny of this brand of strident, evangelical atheist over public discourse and private thought.

Lol. I wish we strident atheists had any sort of impact on public discourse. As it is we're hard pressed to get any news coverage.
posted by Chekhovian at 2:00 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Dawkins has a high profile, no?
posted by No Robots at 2:03 PM on April 10, 2012


*reburies stale new age pablum*

Anyone here ever heard of The Secret? My old burned out hippy neighbor is constantly recommending it to me. The premise is that:

Step 1. Quantum Mechanics
Step 2. Positive Thoughts
Step 3. Wealth and Happiness

Its basically the new age equivalent of the prosperity gospel.

Just because something is hard and you don't understand it, doesn't mean you can use it to justify whatever you want. Quantum Mechanics is very good at calculating energy levels in a hydrogen atom, or tunneling rates in a junction, not at "attracting positive flows from the universe".
posted by Chekhovian at 2:04 PM on April 10, 2012


Dawkins has a high profile, no?

All of the new atheists are at most fringe players in the public discourse. Much to my regret.
posted by Chekhovian at 2:05 PM on April 10, 2012


The Secret is the most evil book I've ever read, and I don't say that lightly. I genuinely believe that it represents the very worst things our society has come up with as far as moral thought and rational contemplation are concerned.
posted by koeselitz at 2:08 PM on April 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


The view of a plant as part of a massive system of physical processes is no less mechanistic/materialist than the 19th century view of a plant in isolation, unless you're positing that the "web" the plant exists in is made up of mystical connections rather than physical ones. Which scientists don't.

Right, I don't think Starhawk is trying at all to deny the physicality/material nature of the web of ecological relationships. Or even to try to say that science is wrong. But it seems like people often use the metaphor of a machine as a quick way of conveying the scientific worldview. This implies more of a simple cause and effect scenario than it seems like actually exists. Like, it's a lot easier to diagnose a problem in a car than in a human body. So why don't we talk about the world as a body? Or as an ecosystem, which it actually is?

I think part of the reason is because there's a lot of money and vested interests in creating the--scientifically incorrect--impression that we can treat complex, living systems like simple input, output machines and, for example, use tons of pesticides without causing any damage to the ecosystems (and by extension, because we eat the food and drink the water and breathe the air, ourselves). Both sides of political arguments about pesticides try to use science to bolster their case.

So Starhawk is talking here more about the ways that scientific knowledge gets deployed and used in political/cultural conflicts. And the implicit values and understandings that get communicated by the language and metaphors we use.

I mean, not to pick on you, but you used the word mechanistic as is and put the word "web" in quotes. Was that just to indicate that you were using her word? Or because the word web seems to have New Age cooties? Why is that? I mean, if you were going to draw a diagram of the relationships--the actual, physical, in no way disputed by science--interactions between a plant and other organisms and features of the environment it would look a lot more like a web than like any kind of machine, right?

I'm realizing that this argument, and Starhawk's line of thought, is pretty orthogonal to the main thrust of this thread. But I do think that the idea that the only conflict that is important is the one between science and religion is leaving out a lot of important things.
posted by overglow at 2:11 PM on April 10, 2012


It's kind of silly how many people dislike this fellow's conclusions and therefore came here to say "fuck this guy!"
posted by koeselitz at 5:07 AM on April 10 [6 favorites +] [!]


Nonsense. They're saying 'fuck this guy's conclusions'. Because they are stupid.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:19 PM on April 10, 2012


Chekhovian: “Quantum Mechanics does NOT give you a license to sell what ever stale new age pablum you've dug up.”

Oh. I see. Darn.

*reburies stale new age pablum*


Hold on, now. Sale of stale new age pablum only requires a license in certain jurisdictions. Where are you?
posted by The World Famous at 2:26 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Chekhovian: “All of the new atheists are at most fringe players in the public discourse. Much to my regret.”

I'm not really sure there is a unified thing called "the public discourse" any longer, if there ever was one. There seem to be many different realms where various things are discussed. It is true that, in many of them, the new atheists are spoken of frequently. Metafilter seems to be one of these realms, although it's still up for debate how people think of them. At the same time, I would agree that more often than not atheists in general are marginalized.
posted by koeselitz at 2:32 PM on April 10, 2012


Hold on, now. Sale of stale new age pablum only requires a license in certain jurisdictions. Where are you?

I'm in the state of, "fuck, I wish I could drink again" myself.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:37 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


But ethics presupposes free will; as human beings, we presuppose free will.

No, we don't. Many religions and philosophies teach that there is no free will, or that free will is an illusion, or that free will exists but is highly constrained. These are nowhere even close to new ideas in human ethics.

Science can't answer the practical question of ethics, i.e., what should I do? That question asks for a meaningful answer, and science can't answer it because meaning is normative.

Why can't science answer this question? If a human being can look at a passage in a holy book and ask him-or-herself "based on this wisdom, what should I do?", then why can't he or she look at scientific studies and ask the same question? Are you really suggesting that science can never influence the answers we give to these questions, much less the specific questions we ask? To me this seems insane. The idea that science can never speak to ethics is a taboo, not a reflection of the way we actually experience science or ethics. Many ethical questions are discussed in scientific terms these days; religious pro-lifers did not start talking about fetal viability and brain-wave formation because they forgot how to spell "soul", for instance.

I'll admit that science cannot answer the entire question of ethics in and of itself, with no further human input... but then, neither can religion. We interpret religion, and the way we do it is a result of our existing ethical assumptions as well as a potential source of new ones. Our ethics are the result of a very, very, very long feedback loop which has shaped-and-been-shaped-by all the things we and our ancestors have ever thought and experienced... and one of the input/outputs in that loop is science, whether we like it or not.
posted by vorfeed at 3:06 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Why can't science answer this question? If a human being can look at a passage in a holy book and ask him-or-herself "based on this wisdom, what should I do?", then why can't he or she look at scientific studies and ask the same question?

You're not answering the question you asked. You have substituted science (or a holy book in your example) answering the question with the notion that an individual can answer the question themself after considering information gathered from either a scientific source or a religious one.

Are you really suggesting that science can never influence the answers we give to these questions, much less the specific questions we ask?

If you'll go back and read both what you're responding to and your own initial restatement of it (i.e. "Why can't science answer this question?), you'll note that the assertion was that science, by its own terms as a methodology (because that's what it is, no?) does not purport to offer the answer to normative questions.

I may be misreading the comments to which you are responding, but it does not look to me like anyone here is asserting that ethics and normative questions cannot be informed by scientific inquiry or rely on information and analysis gathered through scientific means.

I'll admit that science cannot answer the entire question of ethics in and of itself, with no further human input...

OK. Nevermind. You answered your own question.

We interpret religion, and the way we do it is a result of our existing ethical assumptions as well as a potential source of new ones.

Indeed. Religion as a human institution typically tends to be open (to varying degrees) to consideration and incorporation of principles and observations from numerous sources, including, to an enormous degree, science and philosophy. By its terms as a methodology, science technically is, as well, to the extent that such sources and information are relevant to the inquiry at hand, whatever it might be.

That said, I think science can answer certain well-defined, discrete ethical questions, but only if they are correctly framed in terms to which the scientific method can be applied. Unfortunately, discussions of religion versus science seem more often than not to abandon the very scientific principles advanced in those discussions.
posted by The World Famous at 3:17 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


smorange: “Science can't answer the practical question of ethics, i.e., what should I do? That question asks for a meaningful answer, and science can't answer it because meaning is normative.”

vorfeed: “Why can't science answer this question?”

Because it's a question about something that is flatly not observable – namely, what is the good?

“If a human being can look at a passage in a holy book and ask him-or-herself ‘based on this wisdom, what should I do?’, then why can't he or she look at scientific studies and ask the same question?”

Well. I don't think most people who look at passages in holy books and think about what they should do are coming to some deep and significant enlightenment about what the good is. They are certainly allowed, but they're either relying on faith about the good to guide them or they're basing their conclusions on their own assumptions about what the good is. I suspect that it's usually the latter; that is, I suspect that a lot of these things don't even rise to the level of explicit faith, and in most religious people they're just unquestioned and unconsidered assumptions.

The trouble is that, as I said, I don't think science can do anything to put a foundation under those assumptions. Nor would it want to try. How do you observe the good? How do you do an experiment with the good? I'm not sure those things would be meaningful.

“Are you really suggesting that science can never influence the answers we give to these questions, much less the specific questions we ask? To me this seems insane. The idea that science can never speak to ethics is a taboo, not a reflection of the way we actually experience science or ethics. Many ethical questions are discussed in scientific terms these days; religious pro-lifers did not start talking about fetal viability and brain-wave formation because they forgot how to spell "soul", for instance.”

I guess I think I agree with you here; I'm not sure what smorange meant, but it seems like science can have some things to say about ethics once you've chosen what you believe the good to be. It's that first step, the foundation of ethics, that science isn't much good for.

I mention all this because I really believe that there are a lot of people who believe it is possible for science to speak about what the good is – or rather, that there's no reason for science to have to. The tradition of British rationalism stretching back to utilitarianism is (in my rough reading) caught up in the idea that the good is a simple and self-evident thing. Creatures act for their own benefit. Benefit can be defined simply in obvious materialist terms: plenty of food, shelter, a median of pleasure, etc. Morality consists simply in maximizing these things for oneself and, by extension, for others.

But I am skeptical about this definition of the good. Why is this in particular what is best for us? Why is pleasure good? Sure, it feels good, but maybe that's not the same thing. Lots of people seem to disagree. And 'benefit' – is that really so simple as a list of needs and wants? What if 'benefit' is the opposite of those things? Are there situations in which it's better to die than to live? There are a lot of difficult questions that can be raised here.

Again, I think the tradition of British rationalism would probably scoff at all this and suggest that I'm engaging in spiritism and superstitious nonsense.
posted by koeselitz at 3:23 PM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


vorfeed: “Why can't science answer this question?”

Because it's a question about something that is flatly not observable – namely, what is the good?


But it is testable, both in small scale economic type experiments and in large scale simulations of agent interactions. So what is the good? The maximum positive non-zero gain from interaction between players ie society. And you know what strategy seems to win? Tit-for-Tat. Business class morality as Wright called it. The expansion of the definition of the term "human" is the great theme of civilization.

And that's what we see looking back through history, human societies becoming more and more organized to produce more and more non-zero gain from cooperation. And the glue that fosters that gain is in-group trust and communication. The prisoner's dilemma isn't a dilemma if the two parties trust each other and can communicate. The tragedy of the commons can be avoided if people realize the problem and communicate about it to best sustainably manage the resource. Done.
posted by Chekhovian at 3:35 PM on April 10, 2012


So what is the good? The maximum positive non-zero gain from interaction between players ie society.

Can you demonstrate the scientific process you followed in order to reach that answer to that question, including defining all your terms?

Reading over your comment, I'm not seeing a whole lot of science there.
posted by The World Famous at 3:38 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Too bad this comment system doesn't support Tex input. Then you would be awed by the apparent science of my shorthand comment. The formatting alone would totally awe you.
posted by Chekhovian at 3:42 PM on April 10, 2012


I agree with the other responses, especially this:

...it seems like science can have some things to say about ethics once you've chosen what you believe the good to be. It's that first step, the foundation of ethics, that science isn't much good for.

and this:

I mention all this because I really believe that there are a lot of people who believe it is possible for science to speak about what the good is – or rather, that there's no reason for science to have to.
posted by smorange at 3:43 PM on April 10, 2012


I am in awe anyway. And whenever I'm in awe, I believe.
posted by The World Famous at 3:44 PM on April 10, 2012


So what is the good? The maximum positive non-zero gain from interaction between players ie society.

You're begging the question. "Good" and "gain" are synonyms in that statement. The question is "What counts as a gain/good? How do you choose between qualitatively different goods/gains?"
posted by straight at 4:00 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


"What counts as a gain/good? How do you choose between qualitatively different goods/gains?"

That all depends on the game you're playing, what the "score" is so to speak. But what's wonderful is that this sort of analysis can draw universal conclusions...that's math at work baby. And the lesson is that in systems where people can gain from cooperation, then truly enlightened self interest means taking care of the other people too. It ends up that the quality of your own well-being generally correlates with that of the other players. I'm not talking about games like Chess here, where one person wins and one person loses. Those are zero sum games. But in non-zero sum games like a real economy, this growing web of complexity and interconnectedness reaps huge dividends.

Note, this doesn't mean that those dividends will be fairly distributed, or that some degree of exploitation won't occur, or that everything will be some sort of panglossian utopia.
posted by Chekhovian at 4:14 PM on April 10, 2012


I may be misreading the comments to which you are responding, but it does not look to me like anyone here is asserting that ethics and normative questions cannot be informed by scientific inquiry or rely on information and analysis gathered through scientific means.

I'm responding to smorange's claim that "science can't prove ethics, which is something people like Dawkins and Harris deny". My point is that Harris doesn't deny this (and Dawkins' POV on this comes largely from Harris), nor does he claim that science can answer The Question in and of itself. His book made it very clear that the whole thing depends upon assuming that the point of morality is to maximise well-being, and that well-being can be at least loosely defined -- and yes, if you accept those moral axioms then the scientific method can obviously help us decide what we ought and ought not to do.

I think those axioms are open to question, to say the least, but Harris' ideas are still quite some distance from a denial of the fact that science can't "prove" ethics. His ideas are really nothing new (and rather widely accepted; see koeselitz's comment about "British rationalism"), which is why it's so funny to watch people rush to denounce them just because they came out of his mouth.

It's that first step, the foundation of ethics, that science isn't much good for.

What is good for that first step, then? You admitted that religious ethics are usually just "unquestioned and unconsidered assumptions" (and I'd call faith an act of assumption, too, albeit of a different kind). Same with secular ethical systems like utilitarianism and libertarianism -- they follow from a handful of basic axioms, but there's no provable foundation beneath those, either. From God to Platonic Forms, from the rational actor to karma, you can't have a system of ethics without one or more initial assumptions, first-principles from which the rest follows. And then the question naturally becomes: if that's the foundation, then what's beneath that? Where'd it come from?

IMHO, seeking the "foundation" of one's ethics is like seeking the foundation of a river. It's a feedback loop, an emergent property of its environment; it doesn't have nor need a foundation, and any foundation we happen to choose for it will necessarily involve a large degree of post-hoc rationalization. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me to hear that people will be having this same discussion in two thousand years, only with science as the thing which is supposed to be at the heart of all ethics!
posted by vorfeed at 4:23 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Fish has gone wrong in assuming that science has foundational tenets which must be taken on faith in the same way that (Protestant, evangelical) religion does, and that the choice of these a priori tenets must then circumscribe everything that follows (e.g. "They begin with the assumption (an act of faith) that the world is an object capable of being described by methods unattached to any imputation of deity, and they then develop procedures... that yield results, and they call those results reasons for concluding this or that.")

This doesn't seem right, though it's an argument that is popular with both people like Fish and with more sophisticated religious apologists: see Konrad Talmont-Kaminskiresponding to Alvin Plantinga, for example.

Fish then works this into an argument which gets close to global scepticism but then in the second article, he backs away to merely saying that science does not offer truth unmediated by theory (something which he rightly says few philosophers of science would dispute). Stephen Law's excellent Believing Bullshit book calls Fish's sceptical tactic going nuclear: it's worth reading that chapter to see various ways both religious apologists and relativists like Fish can use the tactic.

Yudkowsky's Where Recursive Justification Hits Bottom and Chris Hallquist's comments on scepticism seem relevant too.
posted by pw201 at 4:27 PM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


CBrachyrhynchos: "as a computer programmer, I can say: f(a) = b for the infinity of real numbers a."

I was under the impression that computer science is applying discrete mathematics, which explicitly does not include the real numbers.
posted by idiopath at 4:27 PM on April 10, 2012


" 'What counts as a gain/good? How do you choose between qualitatively different goods/gains?' "

That all depends on the game you're playing, what the "score" is so to speak. But what's wonderful is that this sort of analysis can draw universal conclusions...that's math at work baby. And the lesson is that in systems where people can gain from cooperation, then truly enlightened self interest means taking care of the other people too. It ends up that the quality of your own well-being generally correlates with that of the other players. I'm not talking about games like Chess here, where one person wins and one person loses. Those are zero sum games. But in non-zero sum games like a real economy, this growing web of complexity and interconnectedness reaps huge dividends.


Problem is, this just begs the philosophically interesting questions, or presupposes answers to them, as straight points out. Sam Harris makes a similar mistake, when he basically says "What? Science can tell us what maximizes happiness. So moral questions can be settled scientifically." That presupposes that the right is that which maximizes happiness...which is *precisely* the thing that cannot be presupposed here.

Science can't show what goals are worth pursuing, nor can it tell us what to do if, say, A's freedom and B's welfare come into conflict. Nor that enlightened self-interest is better than the unenlightened kind. Nor whether we ought to take care of other people at all. Science can't even show that science is worth doing, nor that we should seek the truth.

You don't have to be some kind of theist or Luddite or kook to admit that science can't answer every question. Quite the opposite.

The cure for blind religious faith is not blind scientistic faith.

Of course, none of this means than Fish is right about any of the other stuff.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 4:28 PM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Science can't show what goals are worth pursuing, nor can it tell us what to do if, say, A's freedom and B's welfare come into conflict.

This game theoretic analysis stuff is more like stat mech, it gives you answers for the aggregate macroscopic ensemble (society in this case), but applying it to a single "particle" isn't really possible, unless you have rigorously defined conditions.

A's freedom and B's welfare come into conflict. Nor that enlightened self-interest is better than the unenlightened kind. Nor whether we ought to take care of other people at all.

As I said this doesn't really give you detailed answers if you only given it generalized inputs. But given general inputs you can get pretty strong general answers. Like say you had two societies of equal population, A where its individual members are essentially isolated individuals off on their own, and B, where people can collaborate, freely develop economic relationships etc. Roughly you might compare this to the USSR A, and USA B during the cold war, but I'm speaking loosely here.

So given your society that enables cooperation and complexity and your society that tamps down on that sort of thing (FAX MACHINES ARE FORBIDDEN!), the economy of B is going to progress much more quickly than that of A. More gain is going to be realized in B than in A. B will be more than the sum of its parts.
posted by Chekhovian at 4:50 PM on April 10, 2012


So that's the point. What is enlightened self-interest really? The enlightened part of that means looking out for other people, because their welfare directly and indirectly affects you. This is an inductive proof, which always rankles some, but it works.
posted by Chekhovian at 4:53 PM on April 10, 2012


His book made it very clear that the whole thing depends upon assuming that the point of morality is to maximise well-being, and that well-being can be at least loosely defined -- and yes, if you accept those moral axioms then the scientific method can obviously help us decide what we ought and ought not to do.

I don't think this solves very much. Whose well being? Does this mean I should maximize the well being of strangers over my friends and family? And what if "well being" turns out to include spirituality or religion?

What is good for that first step, then?

That's the question that religion, philosophy, literature, and life all help us answer, and there is no answer to the question of what's best. But the answer isn't the point; trying to figure it out is what life is.
posted by smorange at 5:11 PM on April 10, 2012


Pleasantly, if the infinite-universes model were to turn out to be correct there would be some in which there was a trickster god.

No, there wouldn't. Whatever you're referring to would be explainable within the laws of that universe. See how that works.
posted by Mental Wimp at 5:47 PM on April 10, 2012


No, there wouldn't. Whatever you're referring to would be explainable within the laws of that universe. See how that works.

How can you say what is or is not explainable within the laws of a universe without first knowing and understanding all the laws of the universe?
posted by The World Famous at 5:54 PM on April 10, 2012


idiopath:
Strictly speaking, all that is observable is photons. Or if we allow for other senses, maybe some oscillations in the air and excitations of various other sensory neurons. But we regularly make the jump from the photons to the things which emitted the photons etc. etc., so in that sense saying something is observable and saying it has observable consequences are identical."

That jump isn't a deterministic one. It's a cultural one, assuming you make the same jump as those who share the current theories. And those theories aren't themselves observable. If you lived back when they believed that there was an ether which carried electromagnetic waves, you would be asserting that you observed that ether in motion when observing light. But now you observe photons. Science rearranged the non-observable theory to better accommodate new data.

This may seem like quibbling to you, but the complicated deductions that take place when you observe are not themselves observations. They are ways of organizing observations and are distinct from what is being observed. The reason Korzybski bothered to say "The map is not the territory" is not because he's a troll, but because the distinction is actually important.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:04 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you lived back when they believed that there was an ether which carried electromagnetic waves, you would be asserting that you observed that ether in motion when observing light. But now you observe photons. Science rearranged the non-observable theory to better accommodate new data.

Did you know Michelson was basically distraught about his failure to find the ether during the Michelson-Morely experiment? He basically spent the rest of his career trying to find it, looking on mountain tops, where maybe the ether wasn't pinned or something. Didn't do anything useful afterward.

That's the thing about science, it does what's its going to do no matter what your cultural filter does to obscure it. You can rail against it, but eventually you will lose. Or you will die. They say science advances one funeral at a time.
posted by Chekhovian at 6:30 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


They say science advances one funeral at a time.

Don't say that too loud. Some science fanatic will start killing scientists just to advance science faster.
posted by The World Famous at 6:32 PM on April 10, 2012


Some science fanatic will start killing scientists just to advance science faster

I've often wished that arcane PDE solving skills could be transferred in a highlander-quickening-like fashion. Would need to work on my sword play though...and conferences...they would be very different.
posted by Chekhovian at 6:35 PM on April 10, 2012


I'm a little confused by some of the arguments here.

The statement "Religion requires faith" is incomplete. When it comes to Christianity the statement is actually "Christianity requires faith in order to get into heaven"

If you say "Science requires faith", what are you saying science requires faith to do. What doesn't happens if you don't have faith?

In other words, if you think science requires faith, what do you think science says happens to you if you don't have it? What does science say you should do to people who don't?
Arguing that "science works", or that "science makes sense", "science is real", "science is accurate", "science helped me personally" is thus irrelevant to the question of whether or not science (like any other branch of thought) is founded on axioms, and whether or not our belief in axioms are just that -- a belief.
No, because you do not need to believe an axiom to use an axiom, If I write down the equation "x2 = 4" and then go on to calculate that
x is 2 or -2 that doesn't mean I truly believe that "x2 = 4", the same way a Christian believes in god, I'm simply exploring the consequences of x2 being 4. Now, maybe I've made some measurement such that the square of something is probably four. Then, I might believe that said thing is 2 or -2, But in that case, I believe it just the same way I believe the sky is blue: because I see it all the time and it looks blue.

The "science works" is just based on observation. We see science working all the time, so in our experience it seems to work. Not perfectly, not all the time, but most of the time (and some sciences do better then others. I.e. physics vs. psychology)
I see the science-boosters are out in force here. Using their minds.
??? I don't understand this at all. The human brain is well explained by science. Not fully explained but while not using science would preclude using a computer, using science does not preclude using a brain.
Actually, very little about how computers work is based on science. You see, as a computer programmer, I can say:
Try programming a computer without making use of quantum physics. Oops no microchips or transistors. Enjoy your relays and punch cards. Oops, except relays require you know the equivalence between electricity and magnetism. So I guess you're boned.

Programming computers does not require science. Building the physical object that actually runs your programs? Kind of science-y
And DDT, Thalidomide, and the industrial processes which caused global warming. And as white dude, I don't even have to deal with the hasty judgements scientists decided to levy against me based on ethnicity.
Well, there are also scientists who argue against global warming and also against vaccinations (I.e. Andrew Wakefield)

I'm sure there are religious leaders who made "theologically dubious" claims for personal gain.

But you're kind of missing the point. I'm not saying people don't try to sell things on the basis of dubious scientific claims, but the important thing is that "science" doesn't actually ask or request or admonish you to actually believe. It gives you facts, and you can chose to ignore them if you want. It doesn't claim anything bad will happen to you if you don't believe in dinosaurs or black holes. (n fact, science says bad stuff will happen to you even if you do believe)
posted by delmoi at 6:36 PM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


If you say "Science requires faith", what are you saying science requires faith to do. What doesn't happens if you don't have faith?

That depends on what you mean by "faith." The proper application of the scientific method requires confidence or trust in the efficacy of the method sufficient to motivate you to correctly employ the method.

But it's been my observation that, in MetaFilter discussions about religion, science, etc., very specialized and narrow definitions of "faith" tend to be used, often for rhetorical effect.
posted by The World Famous at 6:42 PM on April 10, 2012


That depends on what you mean by "faith." The proper application of the scientific method requires confidence or trust in the efficacy of the method sufficient to motivate you to correctly employ the method.

Sure, but that can simply mean "There's a good chance this is true" rather then "I am 100% certain this is true"

But also, that only applies to actual scientists. What about non-scientists?
posted by delmoi at 6:50 PM on April 10, 2012


The reason Korzybski bothered to say "The map is not the territory" is not because he's a troll, but because the distinction is actually important.

Seems to me the definition of science should be to create the most accurate map possible, and it should be left at that. i.e to best describe the world with the tools at our disposal (language, logic, mathematical models). Scientific theories can be tested by seeing how well they predict future events. I don't see that faith is required in this process. Faith, maybe, is required if trying to explain why the world is the way it is, why the gravitational constant is what it is. why the speed of light is what it is. Or better yet why does the world exist at all? But this is would be a mistake, and is where science comes to an end.

Science is not ethics. There is no "good" or "bad" or "right" or "wrong" or "well-being" in it at all, other than perhaps describing the brain mechanisms that produce these types of experiences and how they developed.
posted by Golden Eternity at 6:56 PM on April 10, 2012


Or better yet why does the world exist at all? But this is would be a mistake, and is where science comes to an end.

So here's the amazing thing. It seems as if science can explain why there is an anything rather than nothing now too. And not through some weak anthropic principle BS. This is pretty new, but here's the broad outline. If you carefully measure the positive kinetic energy from the expansion of our universe and the negative gravitational energy...the amazing thing is that it all adds up to zero to the best of our ability so far.

Now, reverse time, go back to the big bang, what you have is a singularity. Scientists have been stymied for a long time as to why that singularity went boom, what was the prime moving cause of it all...well you need to be more careful. It turns out that in singularity time is nonexistent, so you can't have cause or effect.

Next step: remember that the total energy of the universe is zero. Well it turns out that a quantum mechanical fluctuations can happen, and very easily when the energy cost is zero. And more over, these sort of fluctuations can happen from nothing at all. So you don't even need the singularity. Time, Space, Matter, Suns, Blackholes, cats, dogs, all from nothing, randomly.

FUCKING WILD huh?

And moreover, it seems likely that if such a picture is true, then our universe is probably embedded in a quantum mechanical foam of other universes.

So no faith required. No prime mover required. No gaps left for god at all. If its the theory holds further scrutiny of course.
posted by Chekhovian at 7:07 PM on April 10, 2012


Sure, but that can simply mean "There's a good chance this is true" rather then "I am 100% certain this is true"

Indeed. Confidence or trust sufficient to motivate to action. That's a pretty good definition of faith right there, and pretty much exactly how my religion defines faith. But it's not the one that people in MetaFilter discussions about science and religion seem to use.

People in MetaFilter discussions seem to tack on the requirement that, in order for something to constitute faith, it must be unsupported by any evidence whatsoever. That modification of the definition of faith serves a useful rhetorical purpose, in that it defines the target of common anti-religion arguments to exclude anything that might not be effectively attacked by the arguments. But, other than that rhetorical purpose (or others), I'm not sure it's particularly useful to define terms in ways that intentionally or unintentionally determine the outcome of the analysis before the discussion can even get underway.

You can see a pretty good example of that happening in Golden Eternity's comment, proposing that "the definition of science should be to create the most accurate map possible," - a definition that then allows for any example of religion doing that to be dismissed as merely an example of religion conceding that science is superior (which is not what Golden Eternity is doing, by the way).


But also, that only applies to actual scientists. What about non-scientists?

I'm not sure I know what you're asking.

So here's the amazing thing. It seems as if science can explain why there is an anything rather than nothing now too. And not through some weak anthropic principle BS. This is pretty new, but here's the broad outline. If you carefully measure the positive kinetic energy from the expansion of our universe and the negative gravitational energy...the amazing thing is that it all adds up to zero to the best of our ability so far.

I'm not sure we're all seeing eye to eye on what we mean by "why."
posted by The World Famous at 7:11 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


The World Famous: "Confidence or trust sufficient to motivate to action. That's a pretty good definition of faith right there, and pretty much exactly how my religion defines faith."

WIth science, all I need is the motivation to replicate an experiment. I can shout loudly about how much I hate science while I do it, I can double check every step to look for contradictions of science itself, I can despair at the thought of science, but the experiments will still be replicable.

Does your religion work that way? Can you curse your god and hate your religion, pick every nit, question every holy word and look for a way out the whole time and still call that faith?
posted by idiopath at 7:24 PM on April 10, 2012


Does your religion work that way? Can you curse your god and hate your religion, pick every nit, question every holy word and look for a way out the whole time and still call that faith?

Sure. Absolutely. We're talking about the definition of a word here, not some sort of magic.
posted by The World Famous at 7:26 PM on April 10, 2012


WIth science, all I need is the motivation to replicate an experiment. I can shout loudly about how much I hate science while I do it, I can double check every step to look for contradictions of science itself, I can despair at the thought of science, but the experiments will still be replicable.

Right. Because you have confidence and trust in the process sufficient to motivate you to the relevant action. Since abstaining from loud shouting is not generally part of the scientific method (though it certainly is sometimes), your refusal to so abstain has no bearing on the question of whether you have confidence and trust sufficient to perform some different action.
posted by The World Famous at 7:34 PM on April 10, 2012


delmoi: ??? I don't understand this at all. The human brain is well explained by science. Not fully explained but while not using science would preclude using a computer, using science does not preclude using a brain.

The point is that you (along with everyone else in this discussion) have yet to make a single scientific claim. What does science do? It:

A) makes tentative inferential claims
B) from a significant number of explicitly-described cases
C) with explicit statements of the boundaries, limits, and potential error for those claims.

And you know what? There's nothing wrong with that as long as you're honest that your claims are not remotely scientific. Claims don't need to be scientific in order to be reasonable.

Try programming a computer without making use of quantum physics. Oops no microchips or transistors. Enjoy your relays and punch cards. Oops, except relays require you know the equivalence between electricity and magnetism. So I guess you're boned.

The application of scientific claims to the construction of technology is also, not science. Neither is the application of scientific claims to law or ethics.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:42 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


The World Famous: "Because you have confidence and trust in the process sufficient to motivate you to the relevant action."

The reason I asked is because most versions of Christianity (the faith of choice for the vast majority around here) actually make a big deal about your feelings, motivations and intentions. Given the capriciousness and not wholly voluntary aspects of thought and emotion, there is a distinction between needing to be motivated enough to carry out a physical procedure, and being motivated enough to do it with a "pure heart". In fact, the concept of a "pure heart" is just fuzzy enough to exploit the doubt most of us have, and is used by unscrupulous figures to manipulate people into inventing experiences they never had (vis. "the emperors new clothes").
posted by idiopath at 7:46 PM on April 10, 2012


idiopath: Does your religion work that way? Can you curse your god and hate your religion, pick every nit, question every holy word and look for a way out the whole time and still call that faith?

I think there's entire books of the Bible devoted to this. And other religions are pretty explicitly agnostic.

But I'm ignostic about faith for many of the same reasons I'm ignostic about god, and the whole discussion of spirituality above. There's too much rhetorical hokey pokey for me to say that faith, god, or spirituality are worth having.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:46 PM on April 10, 2012


The human brain is well explained by science. Not fully explained but while not using science would preclude using a computer, using science does not preclude using a brain.

Materialist scientism doesn't explain mind: it explains it away. Science explains mind in terms of physical processes, just as it explains everything else in nature. The remainder, ie. that which we experience inwardly as consciousness, is a mysterious "emergent" property, which we deny to every thing but ourselves and those most like us, like a child trying to solve a math problem:
Teacher: You have five cookies, and you must divide them equally between four people. How many cookies does each person get?

Pupil: One.

Teacher: That only accounts for four cookies. What happened to the fifth?

Pupil: I ate it.
Mind is only really explicable on its own terms, as a universal property of the whole of nature. Of course, saying this will in no wise deter our scientistic friends from insisting that mind is a function of matter. But there will always be those who refuse to see things that way.
posted by No Robots at 7:58 PM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


The reason I asked is because most versions of Christianity (the faith of choice for the vast majority around here) actually make a big deal about your feelings, motivations and intentions.

If the action to which you refer when discussing faith in a particular principle happens to be feeling, intending, etc. a specific way, then yes, by definition, faith in that principle would be confidence and trust sufficient to motivate to the action of feeling, being motivated, and intending in that specific way. But again, we're talking about the definition on the one hand and the application of that definition to specific circumstances on the other.

Given the capriciousness and not wholly voluntary aspects of thought and emotion, there is a distinction between needing to be motivated enough to carry out a physical procedure, and being motivated enough to do it with a "pure heart". In fact, the concept of a "pure heart" is just fuzzy enough to exploit the doubt most of us have, and is used by unscrupulous figures to manipulate people into inventing experiences they never had (vis. "the emperors new clothes").

Yes, you're right. But I'm not sure what that has to do with the importance of using a workable, standard, and agreed upon definition of the term "faith" in order for the discussion to go anywhere.

Tangentially, however, I would note the prevalence in both religious and non-religious communities of the notion that, by engaging in virtuous (or other) conduct, one can gradually change one's attitudes about such conduct (Try it, you'll like it! Fake it 'til you make it! Don't knock it 'til you try it! Etc.). A fantastic example of this is this brilliant comment by MetaFilter's Own asavage, a noted and prominent public atheist. What he's describing is a leap of faith - not a leap of religious faith, but a leap of faith nonetheless. In religious communities like my own, we often talk about the notion that faith precedes the miracle and that our hearts become more "pure," to use your terminology, as we exercise faith by acting virtuously. In my own religion, our scriptures even refer to this principle as an "experiment," whereby the individual needs only to have the absolute minimum amount of faith necessary to motivate them to make a minimal attempt, and that as the predicted results of the experiment unfold, the individual's faith will be increased by the accumulation and observation of the evidence of its efficacy. As I said, though, that's just a tangent, related less to the question of what we in this thread mean by the word "faith" and more to my earlier observation about the tendency of people in discussions like this one to define all such notions in a way that favors their own argument from the beginning.
posted by The World Famous at 8:00 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


This thread is particularly painful to read but I would like to point out that:

I'm not saying people don't try to sell things on the basis of dubious scientific claims, but the important thing is that "science" doesn't actually ask or request or admonish you to actually believe. It gives you facts, and you can chose to ignore them if you want. It doesn't claim anything bad will happen to you if you don't believe in dinosaurs or black holes.

is a very dangerous idea and is not at all how real science occurs in the real world as done by real people in real places. It is very much not true that scientists are indifferent to personal beliefs and it is very much the case that a given scientist who announced a personal belief in some lunacy would ever be taken seriously by the scientist establishment regardless of the correctness of her methodology. Sorry, but again, you may be describing the scientific process in some fantasy world where scientists are robots and science itself claims no normative power... but that is very much a fantasy world.

I get the feeling that if the "science boosters" in this thread ever got some real insight into how the proverbial sausage is made they would be a lot less smug in their defense of science. The awful truth is that when you really examine science what you find is an intensely political enterprise whose claims are very often basically incoherent. Combine this with what appear to be enormous operational flaws in your average labs and it rapidly becomes clear that not onl yare most scientific findings not findings of fact but, on a deeper level, that science is very much a, shall we say, creative enterprise. I could go on but there is a lot of available literature about the fragility and instability of the modern scientific enterprise and those who really care will find it if they like.

But look, science is not an end game. Speak to real scientists and they will be the first claim that not only is much of what they think they know probably not true but that better tools and procedures are desperately needed.

As for comparisons of science and religion, really people, you might as well compare jet planes and psychoactive drugs. Yes, I suppose both will take you places but they're really not the same thing. Fish provides a very basic critique of modern science but he falls down where so many others fall down when he makes the erroneous claim that both science and religion are focused on finding some abstract "true reality." This is not the case with science. Again, science is not concerned with some abstract true reality nor does it claim to produce ahistorically true knowledge. (The popular internet saw about science being reinvented when civilization reboots is obviously silly.) In fact the best description for modern science is precisely that which Wikipedians often use to describe their own enterprise: an elaborate, self-reinforcing database of citations that anybody can edit.

That's it. Really.

Once people really get this then we can in fact move on and stop making these nonsense comparisons of science and religion which are the result of the most basic kind of category error.
posted by nixerman at 8:00 PM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


The World Famous: "Confidence or trust sufficient to motivate to action. That's a pretty good definition of faith right there, and pretty much exactly how my religion defines faith."

I'd like to vouch for this definition. You'll hear something very much like this in Evangelical pulpits all over America. You'll find it in lots of books in the "Christian" bookstores.

Given the capriciousness and not wholly voluntary aspects of thought and emotion, there is a distinction between needing to be motivated enough to carry out a physical procedure, and being motivated enough to do it with a "pure heart".


"Love is not a feeling, it's an action." - this is a cliche in most Evangelical churches.
posted by straight at 8:17 PM on April 10, 2012


There's nothing wrong with that as long as you're honest that your claims are not remotely scientific. Claims don't need to be scientific in order to be reasonable

I would also add that this is just sophism. If you want to understand why science has the influence it has then you must necessarily understand that it's not simply a matter of dismissing some claims as not "scientific" and revering others as "scientific." This is especially important because in real science a lot of very non-scientific claims do and must get made. And if a group of scientists make the claim that, say, global warming is a threat to our civilization, then this is, depending on how much you really want to play the game, strictly speaking, not a scientific statement -- but does that mean it'd be wise to simply dismiss such a statement? Only if you're a fool.

Whether a statement is "scientific" or not is irrelevant because there is no legalistic mechanism for distinguishing such statements from other statements. But certain statements do carry the "weight of science" of behind them and they are clearly made within a scientific context and these statements must generally be given the same weight and respect as all other scientific claims.

(Though, indeed, there is a very interesting game scientists play: when scientist A claims that A' is true and it later turns out that A' is not in fact true then some error is presume to be found in A's method. But when it turns out that A' is shown to be true it is presumed to be as true as every other scientific claim ever made. Now scientists will dispute this and say, really, some theories are more true than others but again, this is why context is so vital when evaluating the claims of scientists.)

But again this is all to say that attempts to reduce science to just a small set of narrowly defined "scientific claims" is fail both from a historical perspective but also from a simply practical perspective. If we only allowed the oh-so-true "scientific claims" then we'd probably still be leeching each other to "purify the blood of sickness."
posted by nixerman at 8:24 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Part of the problem here is that we don't have a solid (some might say axiomatic) definition of either "belief" or "requires"
Next step: remember that the total energy of the universe is zero. Well it turns out that a quantum mechanical fluctuations can happen, and very easily when the energy cost is zero. And more over, these sort of fluctuations can happen from nothing at all. So you don't even need the singularity. Time, Space, Matter, Suns, Blackholes, cats, dogs, all from nothing, randomly.

So no faith required. No prime mover required. No gaps left for god at all. If its the theory holds further scrutiny of course.
Well, that may explain why there is matter and energy in space, but does not explain why there is space, why there might be a vacuum filled with quantum fluxuations and so on.

In other words, once you say 'this universe is a universe in a foam of multiverses' then you have the question 'where did the multiverse come from'?

The other problem with that is, obviously, it's not testable. There is no way to see beyond the cosmic horizon.
Indeed. Confidence or trust sufficient to motivate to action. That's a pretty good definition of faith right there, and pretty much exactly how my religion defines faith. But it's not the one that people in MetaFilter discussions about science and religion seem to use.
Sure, but there is one very important difference. Science does not require that you believe, only that you do the math on the basis that that those things are true. If you look at someone like Hilbert, for example who was a mathematician who enjoyed doing math. He was actually working on a general relativity theory the same time Einstein was, and actually put his paper out right after his, crediting him.

But part of what Hilbert was trying to do was try to create a more 'purely mathematical' formulation of physics. Now, we don't know what Hilbert actually thought, but it's conceivable that he was only looking at it as an interesting math problem, rather then for something to 'believe' in.

It's especially tricky with quantum physics because all you really have are equations, normally the equations signify physical things but in this case we have no idea what these equations actually signify.

(And other then that, it could simply be that you want to get a good science job so you can get money and get a nice car and a nice girlfriend. There is no requirement in science that scientists have firm epistemological underpinnings for what they do. Real scientists never even really have to think about this stuff.)
I'm not sure I know what you're asking.
Well, some religions require their adherents believe, have faith, etc, even if they are not priests. On the other hand, science makes no requirements on non-scientists. Hard-core atheists may have opinions on what you should think, but that's not SCIENCE.
The point is that you (along with everyone else in this discussion) have yet to make a single scientific claim. What does science do? It:

A) makes tentative inferential claims
B) from a significant number of explicitly-described cases
C) with explicit statements of the boundaries, limits, and potential error for those claims.


Except the problem here, like most claims about what science is, is that your statement does not meet it's own criteria.

I gave a definition of science upthread: " Science is science if scientists all agree it's scientific."

Is that statement scientific? Unlike your definition, mine is self-hosting, and testable under it's own rule. Just go ask a bunch of scientists if they agree it's 'scientific', and if so, my definition would be self consistent. If they disagree, of course, then it would be non-scientific by it's own definition, but no worse then any other definition of science.

The other thing, though is my main thesis isn't to make a claim, but rather to say a claim is not true, or that there is no evidence for it, whatever.
A fantastic example of this is this brilliant comment by MetaFilter's Own asavage, a noted and prominent public atheist. What he's describing is a leap of faith - not a leap of religious faith, but a leap of faith nonetheless.
You could also describe that as coming up with a hypothesis, testing it, and finding out it had been correct.
is a very dangerous idea and is not at all how real science occurs in the real world as done by real people in real places. It is very much not true that scientists are indifferent to personal beliefs and it is very much the case that a given scientist who announced a personal belief in some lunacy would ever be taken seriously by the scientist establishment regardless of the correctness of her methodology.
Well, what does that have to do with people who are not scientists? (some) Religions expect everyone to believe, not just priests.

Which is another important point. Science requires, if you are a scientist, to follow the scientific method. However, if you are not a scientist science requires nothing. Stuff like trying to prevent global warming is really more of an application of science. It's not so much "Science says have to belive X" but rather "I did some science and it turns out if don't all do X we're all fucked, so I'm going to force you to do it whether you believe it or not"

But again, three key definitions are needed to have a discussion

1) What does it mean to say someone has faith in something or believes something.
2) What does it mean to say that something requires something?
3) Does science place the same requirements on non-scientists as it does on scientists?

3 is an important point people are missing. If you're not a scientists trying to get papers published, you don't need to follow the scientific method. It might be a good idea, but it's not necessary

The other problem is that for 1 or 2, it differs between religions. There might be some religions where the 'belief' in god required is equivalent to empirical beliefs based on everyday observation.
posted by delmoi at 9:15 PM on April 10, 2012


I'm not sure we're all seeing eye to eye on what we mean by "why."

I'd say the meaning of that word is pretty clear and commonly agreed upon. But just for you I'll rephrase. How about this?

What was the first cause? We see in our daily lives that effects happen because of causes. The existence of the human race, the world, they're all effects. Presumably then there was a cause for those effects. Perhaps a whole chain of cause and effects pairs all the back in time. You do agree that time moves forward and causality exists, right? We don't have to waste our breath arguing about that do we?

So presumably then there must be either a first cause...or something entirely different. That is the point of asking "why?". Don't you want to know? How can anyone not care about such a question? Have you forgotten the questions that you asked as a child?
posted by Chekhovian at 9:19 PM on April 10, 2012


but does not explain why there is space, why there might be a vacuum filled with quantum fluxuations and so on.

Forgive me, I should have explained that the space and vacuum and everything all originated with that fluctuation. The proper picture isn't the galaxies expanding outward into vacuum from a giant explosion, rather its that all of space time is expanding outward from all at once from nothingness.

In other words, once you say 'this universe is a universe in a foam of multiverses' then you have the question 'where did the multiverse come from'?

That's exactly the point. The multiverse didn't have to come from anything. You have effect without cause.

The other problem with that is, obviously, it's not testable. There is no way to see beyond the cosmic horizon.

There are lots of scientific questions that aren't directly testable. A lot of creationists would argue that speciation isn't really "testable". But the vast preponderance of scientific evidence points in this way.

This effect without cause stuff is real new, so much is subject to change. But that we could even have a way to resolve the origin of everything from nothing for no reason, that's breathtaking.
posted by Chekhovian at 9:26 PM on April 10, 2012


nixerman: I would also add that this is just sophism.

I was not aware that a call for rigor was sophism.

You can't even begin to judge the quality of the claim without understanding exactly what kind of claim it is. As I've made clear multiple times in this discussion, non-scientific claims are often equally valid and relevant to scientific ones. Science can't tell me whether a theorem is true, whether an aesthetic is consistently applied across a work, or whether fair use exemption to copyright applies to a specific case. But those are the kinds of problems I work with on a daily basis.

This is especially important because in real science a lot of very non-scientific claims do and must get made.

Methodological transparency (another ideal of science) demands being honest about the necessity of those claims and their justification. Otherwise you're likely to get garbage results. And that is what happens when, to cite an ubiquitous example, people improperly apply parametric tests to non-parametric data.

Perhaps I give too much of a shit about my work, but when I'm making those kinds of data-analysis decisions, I start teaching myself the maths needed to have a handle on those decisions. When people get sloppy about understanding the methodological roots of the tools we use, we start publishing sloppy and biased results. And that's not good for science either.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:28 PM on April 10, 2012


Sure, but there is one very important difference. Science does not require that you believe, only that you do the math on the basis that that those things are true.

I keep reading over my proposed definition of the term "faith" that you quoted and I can't find the word "believe" anywhere in it.

On the other hand, science makes no requirements on non-scientists.

As far as I'm aware, the scientific method is exactly the same whether the person employing it is a scientist or a non-scientist. In either case, in order to proceed according to the method, the individual must have confidence or trust in the method sufficient to motivate to the action of testing the hypothesis and correctly applying each part of the scientific method. I'll grant you that that level of confidence of trust may be, in certain cases, an extraordinarily low bar. Nevertheless, science - as a method - makes exactly the same requirements on non-scientists that it makes on scientists. It is no respecter of persons, as it were.

You could also describe that as coming up with a hypothesis, testing it, and finding out it had been correct.

Indeed. Now we're getting somewhere.

Religions expect everyone to believe, not just priests.

I'm afraid I'm not following the parallel you're trying to draw between priests and scientists as distinguished between the congregation and those persons in society who are not employed as scientists.

Which is another important point. Science requires, if you are a scientist, to follow the scientific method. However, if you are not a scientist science requires nothing.

Poppycock.

If you're not a scientists trying to get papers published, you don't need to follow the scientific method. It might be a good idea, but it's not necessary

This is just completely ridiculous. Regardless of whether you're a scientist trying to get a paper published, the scientific method only works if you actually follow the scientific method.
posted by The World Famous at 9:32 PM on April 10, 2012


delmoi: Except the problem here, like most claims about what science is, is that your statement does not meet it's own criteria.

Of course not. Methodological claims are non-scientific.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:35 PM on April 10, 2012


I was not aware that a call for rigor was sophism.

Rigor is overrated. Besides the fact that attempts to make science 100% rigorous inevitably fail and that they generally hinder science-as-a-social-enterprise -- the reality is that rigor is not critical to science's success. The sloppiest scientists in the world will, if they practice in good faith, eventually arrive at equally well-supported "truths." So any attempt to subject scientific claims to 'rigor' must happen within a social context and, then, really, well you're right back where you started.

However, if you are not a scientist science requires nothing.

Again, this is just not true. Non-scientists must still evaluate the claims made by scientists. In order to do this they must often, both implicitly and explicitly, compare the claims against their own knowledge and accept or reject them. Science does in fact make all sorts of claims on everybody because it does not take place in a vacuum, it requires an enormous amount of socio-economic infrastructure and even once this infrastructure in place it absolutely requires a certain mindset among the host culture to actually thrive.

Again, frankly, I think you and many others in this thread have a very simplistic, almost algorithmic model of science. It's not how science works and it's not why science works. And this mistake leads you to keep arguing about faith but, frankly, it's a path to nowhere. I would suggest what really distinguishes science from religion is not faith or the lack thereof in scientists or not scientists but the operational reality. Scientific institutions are just very plainly very different than religious institutions -- they tend to be open, transparent, and much more numerous and competitive. This alone provides a rich ground for doing what you want to do without making any nonsense appeals to 'faith' or 'belief'.

But again I fear that many science boosters aren't willing to take a hard look at how science really happens and so we end up with some very pernicious nonsense. I mean, look at all the comments on Fish's column that claim science is getting more "accurate" and more "true" over time -- as if we have some way to measure the error spread on our theories! I understand this is partly due to modern religon's "fundamentalist turn" but the correct response to fundamentalism is not to meet one set of nonsense/ahistorical claims with another set. If you insist on arguing that scientific claims are "more true" than religious claims (something not worth arguing frankly as any honest person should readily admit this) there's no need to appeal to some ideal model of science. Just take a look around you.
posted by nixerman at 10:08 PM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


I understand this is partly due to modern religon's "fundamentalist turn" but the correct response to fundamentalism is not to meet one set of nonsense/ahistorical claims with another set.

You've got that backwards. Fundamentalism is a recent modern phenomenon that is an extreme overreaction to that very simplistic view of science you're talking about.

People overawed by the technological achievements of science without really knowing much about how the institutions of science actually work started saying crazy stuff like, "It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles." (Rudolph Bultmann, a theologian, not a scientist). As if the light bulb was proof that Science was inexorably unveiling the Fundamental Truth about Reality.
posted by straight at 2:42 AM on April 11, 2012


I mean, look at all the comments on Fish's column that claim science is getting more "accurate" and more "true" over time -- as if we have some way to measure the error spread on our theories!

Huh?

Maybe I'm just being uncharitable, but it seems to me that ...

General relativity gives a more accurate account of celestial mechanics than does Newton's theory. (Among other things, it correctly models the orbit of Mercury, where Newton's does not.)

Oxygen theory gives a more accurate account of combustion than does phlogiston theory. (Among other things, it correctly models the weights of reactants and products in combustion, where phlogiston theory does not.)

Quantum theory gives a more accurate account of the electron than Thomson had to offer. (Among other things, it correctly models the behavior of electrons in double slit experiments, where Thomson's theory does not.)

Harvey's theory gives a more accurate account of the circulatory system than the Galenic theory. (Among other things, Harvey correctly models the system as circulating the same blood, rather than producing and consuming blood along two one-way paths.)

Steven's law gives a more accurate account of the relations between physical stimuli and sensations than does the Weber-Fechner law. (Among other things, it correctly models the sensation of brightness at large intensities, where the WF law fails.)

Tswett gave a more accurate account of chlorophyll than Marchlewski did. (Among other things, Tswett was correct about the number and color of the main components of raw chlorophyll, where Marchlewski was not.)

Selection theory gives a more accurate account of speciation than does creation theory. (Among other things, it explains patterns of geographical distribution of species, where creation theory does not.)

...

These are just a few cases, very much off the top of my head. And they don't begin to touch the explosion of real, useful knowledge since Galileo. How can we know so much more and yet not have a more accurate science than we did in the 1600s?

Moreover, what is the objection to using predictive success and technological/environmental control as a way of measuring the error in our theories -- maybe not in absolute terms but relative to the theories that have been superseded?
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 3:35 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Strictly speaking, all that is observable is photons.

ITYM "neurological changes in the brain doing the socalled observing."

Which is roughly the level of snark Fish operates at, a slightly more wordy and erudite way of saying "that's just your opinion". Which is trivially true, but neither particularly interesting or productive and just plain wrong to argue from the idea that both science and faith have certain axiomatic truths at their base that therefore they're identical -- all the interesting stuff happens when these axioms are further extended.

Let's not even argue that to talk about "science" or "faith" is in itself objectively wrong as there are no such entities and any talk of them is best left to the first years of primary school, if that.

Even talking about e.g. Christianity or physics is problematic,as in both cases the next question should be which kind you're talking about in which context.

In both cases neither "scientists" (of the Dawkins kind, evolutionary biologists turned religious critics) nor theologicans/practising religious people, let alone philosophers are best suited to understand how either "faith" or "science" operates. Leave that to the anthropologists, historians, psychologists and other people actually trained for investigating such subjects.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:01 AM on April 11, 2012


I will definitely take a scientist turned commentator over a psychologist or historian on the nature of science. Thomas Kuhn is a giant in the field of scientific history, and was a PhD physicist.
posted by karmiolz at 7:08 AM on April 11, 2012


Though, if you watch the Hilary Putnam philosophy of science videos (linked in other FPPs) he points out that most scientists know as little about the logical underpinnings of their own field as non-scientists.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:07 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


No, there wouldn't. Whatever you're referring to would be explainable within the laws of that universe. See how that works.

How can you say what is or is not explainable within the laws of a universe without first knowing and understanding all the laws of the universe?


We're still talking about the "no trickster god" assumption, right? If not, then I'm lost. Under that assumption, the apparent trickster god behavior would be explainable under the laws of that particular universe. Since the "infinite universe" theory is generated under the ground rules of science, that would have to be the case. If you're operating in a different space, then all bets are off. You're outside the realm of what most people call science.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:35 AM on April 11, 2012


We're still talking about the "no trickster god" assumption, right? If not, then I'm lost. Under that assumption, the apparent trickster god behavior would be explainable under the laws of that particular universe.

Indeed. By someone capable of accurately observing and understanding the laws of the universe. I suppose in the context of the hypothetical "trickster god," we would have to have a concrete idea of what we mean by "trickster." To the extent that part of that definition is unknowability, then that becomes problematic.
posted by The World Famous at 10:40 AM on April 11, 2012


This effect without cause stuff is real new, so much is subject to change. But that we could even have a way to resolve the origin of everything from nothing for no reason, that's breathtaking.

Chekhovian, can you provide a reference for this effect without cause discovery? It sounds interesting, though I'm sure it is probably beyond my understanding. Since I have such difficulty responding intelligibly to this in my own words, I will again use Wittgenstein:


If I say 'I wonder at the existence of the world' I am misusing language. Let me explain this: It has a perfectly good and clear sense to say that I wonder at something being the case, we all understand what it means to say that I wonder at the size of a dog which is bigger than any one I have ever seen before or at any thing which, in the common sense of the word, is extraordinary. In every such case I wonder at something being the case which I could conceive not to be the case. I wonder at the size of this dog because I could conceive of a dog of another, namely the ordinary size, at which I should not wonder. To say 'I wonder at such and such being the case' has only sense if I can imagine it not to be the case.
....
Now when this is urged against me I at once see clearly, as it were in a flash of light, not only that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value, but that I would reject every significant description that anybody could possibly suggest, ab initio, on the ground of its significance.


The previous line makes me wonder, what if there were a hipster god?
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:45 AM on April 11, 2012


The previous line makes me wonder, what if there were a hipster god?

He would make a stone so heavy that he couldn't lift it - but ironically, not paradoxically.
posted by The World Famous at 10:49 AM on April 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


can you provide a reference for this effect without cause discovery?

There is Stephen Hawking's book on it: The Grand Design.
posted by Chekhovian at 11:06 AM on April 11, 2012


Except the problem here, like most claims about what science is, is that your statement does not meet it's own criteria. -- me
Of course not. Methodological claims are non-scientific. -- CBrachyrhynchos
Okay but what's the point of saying "everyone in this thread is being unscientific" in an unscientific way? It's also kind of ridiculous to claim (unscientifically) that one particular definition of science is the correct one even though it isn't a really a philosophically settled question.
What was the first cause? We see in our daily lives that effects happen because of causes. The existence of the human race, the world, they're all effects. Presumably then there was a cause for those effects. Perhaps a whole chain of cause and effects pairs all the back in time. You do agree that time moves forward and causality exists, right? We don't have to waste our breath arguing about that do we? -- Chekhovian
Well, there's no way to ever truly know what the 'first cause', is there? Especially since at the quantum level there are new 'first' causes all the time - stuff happens randomly, things pop in and out of existence. It would be interesting if people could figure out the exact quantum situation that brought about the big bang.

Second, the 'time moves forward' thing doesn't actually work at the sub-atomic level. If you look at the paths of just a few particles over time, there's not really any way to tell which 'way' time is going. That's the arrow of time question.

Think about a star floating in space coming near a black hole. It's path would curve around the gravitational field. But given the path and the curve, you would have no way of knowing which way time was 'going'.

On a macro level, what ends up happening is that entropy increases. So if the star fell into the black hole, you know which direction time was going because a black hole is a maximally entropic object, and if it gets bigger that means entropy increases (it meaning the event horizon). A whole star can't just pop out of a black hole.

Anyway, you have to be careful not to confuse various hypotheses out there with what scientists are "sure" about. Stuff like M-theory is, right now, just one model. It's an attempt to unify a bunch of different string theories, but the problem with string theory is that it's just a mathematical model, not something that makes new predictions. It's just saying "hey, that quantum stuff? You can model it using things that behave kind of like strings vibrating in 11 dimensions" There may be at some point some kind of experiment that you can do to test it.

I think also you have to be careful about the word "Nothing" I haven't read that book, but a book about quantum physics that doesn't have any equations isn't really going to tell you that much. I think when a scientist might say "something from nothing" they mean "Something from the vacuum of space", which isn't truly empty because stuff is popping in and out of existence all the time. Saying the big bang can happen in a vacuum of space doesn't answer the question of why that vacuum with that stuff popping in and out of existence is there. There's this whole concept of a false vacuum where perhaps what we consider a vacuum actually has more 'stuff' in it (in this case they mean energy, but that's actually the same thing as energy anyway)
I keep reading over my proposed definition of the term "faith" that you quoted and I can't find the word "believe" anywhere in it. -- The World Famous
Okay, that's nice, but I'm pretty sure that most Christians, for example, think they "believe in god" One annoying thing about religious debates is that you get religious people who have a very different epistemological basis for their views, and then demanding that you argue with them about their 'philosophy' rather then make general points about how most people view religion (at least mainstream religion in the US/Europe)
This is just completely ridiculous. Regardless of whether you're a scientist trying to get a paper published, the scientific method only works if you actually follow the scientific method. -- The World Famous
Right, but I think for most Christians "faith" means more then just "engaging in some method", If it doesn't mean any more to you, personally, so what? How does that matter in the general case?

Science works if you follow the method of science, not if you 'believe' in science.
Though, if you watch the Hilary Putnam philosophy of science videos (linked in other FPPs) he points out that most scientists know as little about the logical underpinnings of their own field as non-scientists. -- Obscure Reference
Part of that, I think, is that the ideas and philosophy of science is so ingrained that people think in a 'scientific' way without really being aware of it. Given that, you don't really need to think about the philosophy of science on a day to day basis.
posted by delmoi at 3:44 PM on April 11, 2012


Right, but I think for most Christians "faith" means more then just "engaging in some method", If it doesn't mean any more to you, personally, so what? How does that matter in the general case?

When seeking a workable definition of the term "faith" for the purposes of a fruitful discussion that includes the concept, the idea is to settle on a definition. In spite of the fact that you put "engaging in some method" in quotes, that's not actually the definition I proposed. If you'd like to propose some alternative definition - preferably one that closely resembles the generally-accepted definition of the term - you're welcome to do so.

Science works if you follow the method of science, not if you 'believe' in science.

If you have confidence or trust sufficient to follow the method, science works. If you don't "believe" in science enough to be willing to follow the method, it won't work.
posted by The World Famous at 3:51 PM on April 11, 2012


Well, there's no way to ever truly know what the 'first cause', is there?

The point isn't that we would "know the first cause". Rather its that a first cause can be rendered unnecessary. Effect without cause. Its that last gap for god to squeeze into being filled up.

various hypotheses out there with what scientists are "sure" about. Stuff like M-theory is, right now, just one model.

Sure. What's exciting though is that this idea results in a totally new thing...effect without cause. The existence of the universe without a prime mover to get things started. That was always the major question from the big bang theory...what made it happen? What was there that banged, etc?

I'm sure this isn't the final answer. And experimental confirmation is the real work of science, not theory. But that such ideas are even possible is going to be sort of phase transition in how we approach these sorts of science questions.

I think also you have to be careful about the word "Nothing"

Sure, finding the proper words to describe something that is outside of spacetime is pretty hard. Even with thousands of years of English language usage we're still arguing what "why" means in this thread. Crazy.

a black hole is a maximally entropic object, and if it gets bigger that means entropy increases (it meaning the event horizon). A whole star can't just pop out of a black hole.

So the point of this theory isn't that black holes spit out stars and shit. Its that a spontaneous big bang can happen from nothing, at random, without even a black hole as a "seed". Now if you talk about the Mtheory at work behind the scenes there's a whole extra set of issues about different sheets colliding and bouncing apart, with ripples in the sheets bouncing around but eventually being stretched flat again by dark energy, before the sheets collide, etc.

But the point isn't the specific details of this probably wrong approximate theory, the point is that its the first ever real sign of "path" forward to a universe with no need for any higher power at any level of abstraction. This is the coffin nail.
posted by Chekhovian at 4:46 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


with ripples in the sheets bouncing around but eventually being stretched flat again by dark energy, before the sheets collide, etc.

Oh and the really interesting thing about MTheory is that it solves the "entropy problem" as well. You say time moves forward and entropy always increases, right? Yes, totally, but the interesting effect of dark energy causing the the universe to expand exponentially fast is that all that localized entropy gets diluted down to nothing as the sheets stretch tight again. So you can have a cyclical series of bangs and expansions and effectively hit the reset button before each collision of the sheets.

Its just early work, and probably wrong, but cool, huh?
posted by Chekhovian at 5:11 PM on April 11, 2012


Its just early work, and probably wrong, but cool, huh?

One huge (and, for me, frustrating) difference between science and religion is that science always says that but religion almost never does.
posted by The World Famous at 5:15 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


that's not actually the definition I proposed.
As far as I can tell your definition is this:
Confidence or trust sufficient to motivate to action. That's a pretty good definition of faith right there, and pretty much exactly how my religion defines faith. But it's not the one that people in MetaFilter discussions about science and religion seem to use.
Yeah, but that's a completely ridiculous definition. As long as the expected reward is greater then the expected cost, a rational actor would act.

An example would be paying a dollar to roll a dice where you get $10 if it lands on six, and $0 otherwise.

In a formal mathematical sense you take the cost cost of loss ($1) the probability (p=1/6) and the potential reward (net, $9). You figure the expected value as p*reward - (1-p)*cost = (1/6)*$9 - (5/6)*$1 = $0.66.

If I take that bet, I don't have "faith" that I will, I think I will probably lose, but I also think I'm better off if I take the bet. The "Reward" in Christianity is eternal life, something with a nearly infinite value, so the belief needed to act would only need to be slightly more then zero. That's the basis of Pascal's wager, but my impression was that under the wager you "chose to believe" rather then continuing to think the odds of god's existence being vanishingly small.

I think if you asked most Christians to assign probability to the existence of god, they would not tell you "almost zero", and in fact would tell you "near certainty" or even 100% certainty.

The basic problem here is that while Christianity supposedly requires "faith" there isn't really a clear definition to begin with. You can theoretically define faith in a way that science requires it -- for example, that you must remain "faithful" to the scientific method is something most scientists would agree on, I think.

Now that I think about it, I suppose you could say that science requires faith in the scientific method, but not faith in any of the conclusions. You could even say there is a (metaphorical) "Science god" who rewards people who stay faithful to the scientific method by giving them knowledge of the universe (or getting papers published) if they stay 'true' and punishes them with false knowledge (or not getting tenure) if they do not. But false knowledge of the universe feels just as good as true knowledge, so it's not really much of a punishment.

Since we don't really have a true philosophically sound definition of science, that 'theory' is just as good as any other, I guess. But I don't really see what the point is. "The Science God" is not something scientists spend their time thinking about. Science, IMO is baked into the mindset, and people don't spend a lot of time thinking about the underlying philosophy of science as they work with it.

I think when people who are not religious hear statements like "Science requires faith, the same way religion does" they think that a person is talking about faith in specific things science says, like dark matter or something.

Simply pointing out that the scientific method requires "faith" in the method itself is not really much of a statement. In fact, I would say it's not much of a statement because scientists have so much faith in the scientific method that they aren't even aware of it - so even discussing it makes no sense.

And on top of that, most non-religious people think of religious people as having as much faith in their god as scientists have in the scientific method. That it's something that underlies their entire system of thinking about the world.

I said earlier you can still 'do' science without really 'believing' in the scientific method. That's still true, as long as you appear to following the scientific method to other scientists, you're fine. There are religious scientists for example. So long as you don't get religion into science with stuff like Intelligent design. You can be a chemist and still think the earth popped into existed 6,000 years ago, along with all the rocks and everything put in place to look as if existed forever.

In other words, you can "apply the scientific method" and come up with conclusions like "given the scientific method, we think X is true with 99.9% confidence". That doesn't really mean you believe the scientific method, just that you're making a logical implication between the scientific method and your result. Most people just leave that part off.

But most Christians wouldn't agree that someone who says: "If the bible is true, you're going to hell if you don't repent" without stipulating that the bible is true is a 'real' christian.
posted by delmoi at 5:22 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


If I take that bet, I don't have "faith" that I will, I think I will probably lose, but I also think I'm better off if I take the bet.

You don't have faith that you will win. You have faith that the risk of playing is worth the potential for reward, according to your own personal values.

Now that I think about it, I suppose you could say that science requires faith in the scientific method, but not faith in any of the conclusions.

I would agree with that statement.

You could even say there is a (metaphorical) "Science god" who rewards people who stay faithful to the scientific method by giving them knowledge of the universe (or getting papers published) if they stay 'true' and punishes them with false knowledge (or not getting tenure) if they do not.

Sure. But I'm not sure how useful it is to start adding metaphors to the discussion here.

"The Science God" is not something scientists spend their time thinking about.

Of course not. How could they if you just made it up as a metaphor just now?

Simply pointing out that the scientific method requires "faith" in the method itself is not really much of a statement.

I agree. That's why I didn't simply say that, but instead provided a working definition of the term and then explained, in detail, the application of that defined term in that analysis.

I said earlier you can still 'do' science without really 'believing' in the scientific method. That's still true, as long as you appear to following the scientific method to other scientists, you're fine. There are religious scientists for example. So long as you don't get religion into science with stuff like Intelligent design. You can be a chemist and still think the earth popped into existed 6,000 years ago, along with all the rocks and everything put in place to look as if existed forever.

I agree. But I don't know that a scientist who is also religious in some sense is necessarily an example of someone who does science without really "believing" in the scientific method. I know a lot of religious scientists, and they all "believe" in the scientific method.
posted by The World Famous at 5:33 PM on April 11, 2012


Its just early work, and probably wrong, but cool, huh -- Chekhovian
One huge (and, for me, frustrating) difference between science and religion is that science always says that but religion almost never does. -- The World Famous
First of all, it depends on the religion. Look into Zen Buddhism, for example.
The point isn't that we would "know the first cause". Rather its that a first cause can be rendered unnecessary. Effect without cause. Its that last gap for god to squeeze into being filled up. -- Chekhovian
Right, except it's been known for a long time that, on the quantum level, you can have events without causes.
Sure. What's exciting though is that this idea results in a totally new thing...effect without cause. -- Chekhovian
Yeah, except: it's not. That's the point. Your claim that m-theory is the first thing that allows events without causes is just not correct at all. On a quantum level, there are effects without causes all the time.
Sure, finding the proper words to describe something that is outside of spacetime is pretty hard. -- Chekhovian
That's why you use math instead of words.
Now if you talk about the Mtheory at work behind the scenes there's a whole extra set of issues about different sheets colliding and bouncing apart, with ripples in the sheets bouncing around but eventually being stretched flat again by dark energy, before the sheets collide, etc.
Yeah, I kind of doubt you really understand the math behind m-theory. These mathematical models can be described using words, but just knowing the description isn't the same thing as knowing the theory. Right now, we consider empty space to be a vacuum, but we know stuff is popping in and out of existence. Did that vacuum exist before the big bang? We have a concept of "nothing" but that concept doesn't map to empty space in the actual universe. If M-Theory is proven somehow, then we might explain why the big bang could happen, but it wouldn't answer 'every' question, even if we can have an effect without a cause, you still have to have to have an 'environment' where that the event can happen in. The question would just become "How did that environment get there? Was it always there? Created by something else?" You still have the "turtles all the way down" problem.
posted by delmoi at 5:56 PM on April 11, 2012


First of all, it depends on the religion. Look into Zen Buddhism, for example.

Yes, that and other examples are why I said "almost never," and not "never."
posted by The World Famous at 6:01 PM on April 11, 2012


You don't have faith that you will win. You have faith that the risk of playing is worth the potential for reward, according to your own personal values.
Right, but that just means having "faith" in math. The difference between math and the "real world" (or science) is that you don't need any external knowledge.

In this example, you need the external knowledge that the guy will actually pay you if you win, and that the dice isn't loaded. So that would be an example of a belief.

But mathematics itself does not require any 'external' beliefs, other then trust in your own brain to have done it correctly - this is different then religion and science.
I agree. That's why I didn't simply say that, but instead provided a working definition of the term and then explained, in detail, the application of that defined term in that analysis.
But the point is, in the end if all you're saying is that scientists have faith in the Scientific Method then you are not really making much of a statement at all.

You can prove that the scientific method "works" scientifically, but that would only be compelling to people who already believe the scientific method. Obviously you can't "prove" it to people who don't believe it. It's such a non-statement that it's kind of confusing what the point of making it is.

If you just argue about the definition of terms, then you don't really settle an argument, you just change the linguistic expression of the argument.

People who are atheists who believe in science would say that, under those terms, it's correct to have faith in the scientific method, but not correct to have faith in religion, if you want to know what's really true (or, at least arrive at the closest approximation to the truth).

Normally that's stated in a way that assumes the scientific method is correct and doesn't bother to specify it.

But what's the point in arguing for one expression of the argument over the other?
posted by delmoi at 6:15 PM on April 11, 2012


That's why you use math instead of words.

This site will take a level in badass when this comment box accepts Tex commands. I don't see that day being close though.

Yeah, I kind of doubt you really understand the math behind m-theory

True, not my area of expertise. My friend that simulates colliding black holes probably couldn't talk about it with any significant depth either. But does that mean that only the 4 people in the world who could should be the only ones mentioning it?

These mathematical models can be described using words, but just knowing the description isn't the same thing as knowing the theory.

Even knowing the mathematics doesn't make it easy to describe with words. Physics beyond that which we have daily experience with is pretty weird. As Dawkins says, it may be weirder than we can understand, what with our brains optimized for the savanna and all that. But clever math allows us to beat back those evolutionary constraints. We can calculate energy levels in QM systems and do all the math we need to talk about entanglement, without being able to put in a easily understood English sentence.

Did that vacuum exist before the big bang?

See, that's the thing, there wasn't existence before the big bang. There was no time, no space. No vacuum.
posted by Chekhovian at 6:26 PM on April 11, 2012


But the point is, in the end if all you're saying is that scientists have faith in the Scientific Method then you are not really making much of a statement at all.

I'm not saying anything about scientists. I'm pointing out that a working definition of the term "faith" is necessary in order for any productive discussion that includes that term to take place. And, as I said above, I think it's important to use a standard definition that is not tailored for rhetorical purposes.

If you just argue about the definition of terms, then you don't really settle an argument, you just change the linguistic expression of the argument.

I'm not arguing about the definition of any terms. I'm asking that uniform, workable definitions be used in order to have a productive discussion.
posted by The World Famous at 6:28 PM on April 11, 2012


'rational actors' are fictions, metaphors, not facts. using the concept to butress an argument about faith versus non-faith is specious. imho, ymmv, etc.
posted by mwhybark at 6:46 PM on April 11, 2012


Okay but what's the point of saying "everyone in this thread is being unscientific" in an unscientific way?

To use an analogy. What I see "advocates" of science doing, (with dumb-as-fuck comments about computers being common), is rather like declaring yourself to be a vegan and protesting the terrible inhumanity of the modern agricultural system, while chowing down on a Big Mac with extra meat. As a philosophical omnivore, I just shake my head at the attempts to rationalize away the need for other forms of knowledge claims.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:24 PM on April 11, 2012


Chekhovian, The World Famous, could you expound on what you mean by effect without cause. Give an example maybe?

Sure, finding the proper words to describe something that is outside of spacetime is pretty hard. i.e. Time, Space, Matter, Suns, Blackholes, cats, dogs, all from nothing, randomly.

If by "nothing" you are referring to "something that is outside of spacetime", does this not leave a pretty big explanatory gap? (unless the equations describe what is happening outside spacetime?) Could "effect without cause" be described as something moving from "outside spacetime" to within spacetime?

"at random" also seems to leave a troublesome gap to me. I found the Philosophical Implications section in wikipedia interesting. It says multiverse theory removes the non-deterministic problems in quantum mechanics.

M-Theory doesn't say anything about consciousness, which seems like another gaping hole to me, although it has already been explained by Daniel Dennett ;)

If M-Theory is supposed to be removing explanatory gaps, it is not very encouraging that "Witten has since stated that the different interpretations of the M can be a matter of taste for the user, such as magic, mystery, and mother theory."
posted by Golden Eternity at 8:01 PM on April 11, 2012


could you expound on what you mean by effect without cause. Give an example maybe?

Well, I don't want to get in trouble with delmoi for not using any imaginary time integrals or creation and annhilation operators or what-have-you...

The problem is that there really isn't another example to give other than the one I've described, you know the rough outline of this theory of the universe happening. So there aren't really scores of examples to choose from, at least that are known to me. The theory isn't predicting that effects happen without cause while you're walking your dog in the morning or anything.

If by "nothing" you are referring to "something that is outside of spacetime", does this not leave a pretty big explanatory gap?

No, the point is that there simply wasn't a spacetime to be outside of. This is where language gets hard. But think about the inside of blackhole...time doesn't go forward. And all space is compressed to one singular point. So do time and space exist inside of a blackhole?

M-Theory doesn't say anything about consciousness
Its not a swiss army knife theory that fixes everything. But what it does fix is the prime-mover problem. So remember the big bang theory right? The catholics got big erections over it because they thought it proved christianity right? Basically let there be light = big bang right?

So there was always one confusing point about big bang theory, if you ran time backward everything would collapse back to a big giant blackhole right? Now there is no time in a black hole, so with no time progress, how could you have change? Why would that cosmic egg ever crack? Why would it happen on tuesday and not saturday? etc etc etc?

So these sorts of theories, and I use the plural because there are a whole bunch of different ideas, well the core point of excitement they produce is two-fold. First of all, that starting black hole, well it didn't have to be a giant blackhole. It could have been nothing. NOTHING. Energetically, the creation of the universe is free. And second of all, that egg could have been cracked by a quantum mechanical fluctuation, one that doesn't require the progression of time to happen.

Now you could go on and talk about more advanced details of certain Mtheories, like perhaps there are multiple membranes and collisions between in higher dimensions produce this big bangs, but that's all stuff that's outside of our own universe. So how do we test that?

That's a very good question.
posted by Chekhovian at 9:58 PM on April 11, 2012


Why would that cosmic egg ever crack?

And for a lot of religious types, clearly this was where god jumped in with a giant spoon. What these theories say is that you don't need an egg, and the cracking of the egg you don't need will happen spontaneously.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:01 PM on April 11, 2012


The trouble with the whole "effect without a cause" thing supposedly eliminating the need for a God as a first cause or whatever is that a lot of us don't really believe in God as that kind of cause. Hell, not even Aristotle argued for the Prime Mover as that kind of cause. The sort of god that eliminates is almost as simplistic as the beardy-guy-in-the-sky model of god.
posted by koeselitz at 10:18 PM on April 11, 2012


The set of incoherent, simplistic, and obviously nonexistent gods is provably infinite. Any refutation or criticism, no matter how well reasoned, fails to address an uncountably infinite number of possible wrong beliefs.
posted by idiopath at 10:46 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


So what?
posted by The World Famous at 11:27 PM on April 11, 2012


a lot of us don't really believe in God as that kind of cause
{"Tired? Of course not, don't be absurd. The Emperor himself said I would only be allowed to leave over his dead body. I said: Well, how strange, Mr. Allen said I would only be allowed back on to Babylon 5 over his dead body. With my very busy schedule I can only accommodate so many requests. I know it's a burden, but you will simply have to wait your turn."}

Here's how these dialogs seem to go
Atheist: "Religion A is bad for reason X"
Theist M: "But reason X doesn't apply to my religion B"
Atheist: "Okay, religion B is also bad for separate reason Y"
Theist N: "But reason Y doesn't apply to my religion A"
...repeat...

And whats weird is that sometimes M = N and I yet the program still runs.
posted by Chekhovian at 11:52 PM on April 11, 2012


The sort of god that eliminates is almost as simplistic as the beardy-guy-in-the-sky model of god.

The whole point of the effect without cause argument is to eliminate that last stubborn stain from a god that intervenes in the material world in anyway. It was always the hardest one to get rid of, despite however many washings you used. Now maybe you don't believe in the god that intervenes in the physical world. There are other detergents perfectly suited to dealing with those beliefs too.

But I do wonder why anyone would believe in a god that doesn't do anything...that wouldn't be a hipster god, it would be a slacker god.
posted by Chekhovian at 11:56 PM on April 11, 2012


This site will take a level in badass when this comment box accepts Tex commands. I don't see that day being close though.
If you really wanted to use mathematical notation you can type things like "∫(f(x)= y2) from 0 to 10" or whatever. If you really have to use tex you can just type the tex in as plain text. People discuss math on the site all the time.
See, that's the thing, there wasn't existence before the big bang. There was no time, no space. No vacuum.
Except, obviously, you have no way of knowing that.
I'm not saying anything about scientists. I'm pointing out that a working definition of the term "faith" is necessary in order for any productive discussion that includes that term to take place. And, as I said above, I think it's important to use a standard definition that is not tailored for rhetorical purposes.
Except your definition "Confidence necessary to cause someone to act" or whatever is absolutely tailored to an argument. It's not even close to what people usually mean.
What I see "advocates" of science doing, (with dumb-as-fuck comments about computers being common), is rather like declaring yourself to be a vegan and protesting the terrible inhumanity of the modern agricultural system, while chowing down on a Big Mac with extra meat. As a philosophical omnivore, I just shake my head at the attempts to rationalize away the need for other forms of knowledge claims.
Too bad that doesn't make any sense. I proposed a scientifically testable definition of science.
posted by delmoi at 1:02 AM on April 12, 2012


delmoi: Until you reduce your rhetorical handwavium of "scientists," "all agree," and "scientific." I'm not obligated to accept it as a testable definition. As stated, it's trivially false if even one scientist disagrees that you've made a scientific claim, and I do. So you're choices are:

1: admit it wasn't a scientific claim to begin with
2: change the parameters of the hypothesis to make it a better claim
3: reject it as falsified.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:45 AM on April 12, 2012


"Good Christian" = "Betting Man (or Woman)"

Yeah, I kinda like that.
posted by Mental Wimp at 8:01 AM on April 12, 2012


that egg could have been cracked by a quantum mechanical fluctuation

This is hard for me to comprehend. The equations permit this fluctuation to occur at random? Is there a known probability distribution of a random variable in the equation or something? This still seems like a gap to me, and anywhere else randomness is being used for that matter.

allan
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:17 AM on April 12, 2012


This is hard for me to comprehend.
Its real damn hard. That doesn't mean its wrong though. And expecting things occuring at scales wildly different from that of 10^23 atoms bouncing around at 300K is just plain silly. Common sense only works in common circumstances.

anywhere else randomness is being used for that matter
What do you make of the uncertainty principle then? QM just has randomness built into it. Generally speaking this stuff is part of the unification of Gravity and QM, so randomness goes in, randomness comes out.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:37 AM on April 12, 2012


Chekhovian: “The whole point of the effect without cause argument is to eliminate that last stubborn stain from a god that intervenes in the material world in anyway.”

No, it gets rid of a god that intervenes in the material world with observable and quantifiable results. But...

“Here's how these dialogs seem to go”

Indeed. Which is why I tried to avoid saying anything. Perhaps I should keep trying.
posted by koeselitz at 10:38 AM on April 12, 2012



What do you make of the uncertainty principle then?

This many worlds interpretation as described on wikipedia, does give me the sense that that we could measure randomness in quantum parameters because we always see a particular superposition of a multiverse--a superposition of so many billions and billions, etc, of quantum states that it essentially appears random, while the multiverse itself may actually be fully deterministic. I don't see how I can get this sense from a quantum mechanical fluctuation occurring out of non-existence. And a non-existence that permits the birth of existent phenomena, doesn't seem like a non-existence at all.

The Everett many-worlds interpretation, formulated in 1956, holds that all the possibilities described by quantum theory simultaneously occur in a multiverse composed of mostly independent parallel universes.[40] This is not accomplished by introducing some "new axiom" to quantum mechanics, but on the contrary, by removing the axiom of the collapse of the wave packet. All of the possible consistent states of the measured system and the measuring apparatus (including the observer) are present in a real physical - not just formally mathematical, as in other interpretations - quantum superposition. Such a superposition of consistent state combinations of different systems is called an entangled state. While the multiverse is deterministic, we perceive non-deterministic behavior governed by probabilities, because we can observe only the universe (i.e. the consistent state contribution to the aforementioned superposition) that we, as observers, inhabit.
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:57 AM on April 12, 2012


I don't really follow how you seem to using the many worlds interpretation but talking about measuring those effects in a single world...the whole point of that idea is that conventional QM still does the same thing it always does (so that the theory still agrees with experiment of course), but the collapse problem just gets shuffled into parallel realities. You can't measure anything from those parallel realities. At least so far as we understand.
posted by Chekhovian at 11:10 AM on April 12, 2012


Indeed. Which is why I tried to avoid saying anything. Perhaps I should keep trying.

I rather liked your christian ontology comments a couple threads back. I'm not really sure I understand the point of ontology in this discussion, but damn, is it a sexy word to throw around.

What's funny is that this topic is nominally supposed to be whether "science is the same as religion" more or less. And rather than answering that, we seem to have reached a point where no one can agree with anyone else on either a definition of religion or of science to even begin to have that debate.
posted by Chekhovian at 2:40 PM on April 12, 2012


No, it gets rid of a god that intervenes in the material world with observable and quantifiable results. But...

Kinda takes all the wind out of "intervenes" sails, doesn't it?
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:35 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


No, it takes the wind out of the "observable and quantifiable world" sails.
posted by koeselitz at 12:00 PM on April 13, 2012


Well, then what does intervene mean in that circumstance?
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:07 PM on April 13, 2012


BTW, even David Brooks managed to write a fairly reasonable oped today. So even a more or less total fuckhead like Brooks can bang out something not terrible once in a while. Fish, the ball is in your court.
posted by Chekhovian at 12:51 PM on April 13, 2012


koeselitz: "No, it takes the wind out of the "observable and quantifiable world" sails."

Without observability and quantifiability, everything is real. Your gods can get in line with the millions of millions of gods that rejecting observability makes possible. I vote we start with unicorns, because unicorns are kind of cool.
posted by idiopath at 4:06 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


idiopath: “Without observability and quantifiability, everything is real.”

That only follows if your definition of "real" is "observable and quantifiable."
posted by koeselitz at 4:08 PM on April 13, 2012


(Besides which it would not bother me one whit if everything were real. I'm just not sure it follows from what I said.)
posted by koeselitz at 4:08 PM on April 13, 2012


Without some ability to observe and quantify, there is no such thing as knowledge. At the very least you need to be able to distinguish the difference between a statement and its contradiction (which is both an observation and a quantification - you have counted two opinions). This may seem silly, but I have talked to spiritualists who categorically reject the possibility of difference or contradiction.

If reality is unknowable, then I can have no evidence of the truth or falsehood of my statements.

Without evidence of the truth or falsehood of my statements, I can have no criteria for choosing one assertion before another. Anything which would help me justify or refine my beliefs would contradict the assumed unknowability of reality.

In this case, pragmatically speaking, you can just go with what feels right, your beliefs can have no justified relationship to reality. Since any belief is basically a non-sequitor, they are all equally (un)justified, so you can just go with whatever.
posted by idiopath at 4:23 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


From the article:
The argument is circular and amounts to saying that the chapter and verse we find authoritative is the chapter and verse of the scripture we believe in because we believe in its first principle, in this case the adequacy and superiority of a materialist inquiry into questions religion answers by mere dogma.

Franky, I don't understand the objection expressed in the article and this thread to the adequacy of materialist (scientific) inquiry into materialistic questions (such as nuclear physics, biology, Newton's laws of motion, etc.) The only objection I can see is if someone were to suggest the "laws of physics" etc might change overnight so we shouldn't trust them. And I personally would not find any "religious" or "dogmatic" answers on these types of questions to be useful or valid.

I'm sure there are problems with modern scientific claims because they are exceedingly complicated, and supporting data is not easy to obtain, and possibly only indirectly. And, it is done by humans and therefore plagued by problems of human behavior including tribalism, narcissism, group-think, etc. It seems like most of the objections to science are actually objections to statements by scientists that are not very scientific. But it doesn't follow that science is therefore relying on dogma and "faith" in the same way as religion. Modern science is ultimately still attempting to make predictions or statements of "knowledge" based on quantifiable data.

Likewise, I personally think that scientific or materialistic inquiry does not do well at answering questions that are not materialistic or scientific. And there are experiences such as experiencing the beauty of nature, or wondering at the existence of existence, that to me seem beyond what can be described scientifically, or possibly at all.
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:28 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


That only follows if your definition of "real" is "observable and quantifiable."

Vagueness doesn't qualify as reality.
posted by Mental Wimp at 7:34 AM on April 14, 2012


"laws of physics" etc might change overnight so we shouldn't trust them

You know there are whole subfields of people looking for that. As you might imagine its real hard, but there have been ideas about how those sorts of effects might come across in supernova observations and such. No luck yet.

No one has really mentioned the vast difference in incentive structure between science and religion. In science, you get fame and fortune by proving your predecessors wrong. In mainstream religion, you rise up through the ranks by adhering to tradition as strongly as possible, see Benedict IV. I'm generalizing here, I'm sure there some anarcho-wiccan-buddhists out there that don't, but for the religions that matter, huge breaks in tradition aren't generally appreciated.

And I agree that I don't really understand Fish's objection: the chapter and verse of scientific citation is based on facts and evidence.

At its core any proof in science is inductive. This stuff works because its worked for a long time in many different circumstances and scales. And proof that it works is right in front of everyone typing comments into this site. Of course hating on induction has a long history in philosophy.

The scientific response to that is say, well you this one thing that doesn't have any ties into effects that can be observed and measured, and you have this other thing that has a long history of study and experimental proof, so if the former disagrees with the later, then its time to get rid of the former.

In short, if a philosophy disagrees with science, well its time to get rid of the philosophy.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:05 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


In short, if a philosophy disagrees with science, well its time to get rid of the philosophy.

See, but your conception of "science" doesn't describe the work that scientists actually do. "Science" doesn't say much of anything; scientists do, and yours is both a simplistic and naive view of what it is scientists say, and why they say it. Even if your conception were accurate, science still couldn't answer lots of meaningful questions, and that's because there are other valuable explanations besides scientific explanations.
posted by smorange at 2:35 PM on April 14, 2012


Even if your conception were accurate, science still couldn't answer lots of meaningful questions

If you look back the history of progress in science is really about the sundering of those "meaningful ideas", and discarding of what seem like naturally true ideas. Its been a bonfire of our vanities, so to speak.

The Copernican revolution Maybe our world isn't the center of everything*
The Newtonian Revolution: Maybe the Aristotelian way we're inclined to view the world isn't the natural things work.
The thermodynamic Revolution: Maybe there just is no such thing as a free lunch (perpetual motion)
The Einsteinian Revolution: Maybe our perspective on time and space isn't the only way to view things.
The Quantum Revolution: Maybe the way things we see things behave in daily life isn't really the way things work when you go down to fundamental level.
The Biological Revolution: Maybe we have much more in common with most other forms of life than we would have ever imagined.
The Cosmological Revolution: Maybe the universe hasn't always been, maybe it will end, and maybe it didn't need to happen for any particular reason.

So when you look back, doesn't it seem natural to ask if maybe all the questions we've thought were so important, well maybe they were just childish assumptions that we need to let go of too.

You're right, science can't tell you the meaning of life. But maybe it can say that there is no point in even asking the question. And blah blah blah, yes science itself doesn't "talk", but there are some points of common consensus in the scientific community. You can't be a good scientist if you don't believe in the conservation of energy for instance.
posted by Chekhovian at 3:13 PM on April 14, 2012


oh and forgot about the star*

*When people thought we were the center of the universe, it wasn't out of hubris. Rather it was because we were the closest thing to hell, and so very far from heaven. So the popular understanding of that point is completely wrong.

And now we've learned that we're just fairly typical world around a fairly boring star, in one galaxy of many, possibly surrounded by infinite multiverses. Some people might take this to be depressing. I find it exhilarating.
posted by Chekhovian at 3:16 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


You're right, science can't tell you the meaning of life. But maybe it can say that there is no point in even asking the question.

No, it can't, because life is just is our attempt to answer that question. From the point of view of "science," there's no point in asking the question, but from that point of view, there's no point (i.e. value) in anything. From the point of view of a human being, it's the only question that matters because nothing could matter at all if it didn't. Everything you do, think, and feel is an assertion of value. My life is immeasurably better because of my experience of art, love, nature, and a great many things. And the scientific way of thinking isn't the only way I approach those things. A life entirely devoted to experiencing the world scientifically would be a poor, shallow life. That's the point many have tried to make in this thread.
posted by smorange at 3:38 PM on April 14, 2012


You're right, I should have said: But maybe [science] can say that there is no point in even asking the question....and expecting an objectively true answer. Which is what religion is really meant to provide.

my experience of art, love, nature, and a great many things. And the scientific way of thinking isn't the only way I approach those things.

Sure, science doesn't replace any of those things. But it is the only path to get what is "True", that being objective and measurable.

That's the point many have tried to make in this thread.

Some have hinted at that, but rather poorly and indirectly and with the completely unnecessary inclusion of some bullshit supernatural nonsense. Even the nominally scientific atheists still call themselves "spiritual", as if one needs to have some fuzzywuzzy mumbojumbo in the depths of your being to appreciate art and everyone else is some sort of robotic automaton.

The greater problem here is the general human tendency toward "guilt by association". Let me provide an example. You've probably seen the polling that suggests that religiosity amongst the younger generations is lower than its ever been before, correct? Its come up many times in prior threads on this issue. And the general belief is that this is blowback from the marriage of public religion and conservative economics.

Basically people have seen religion become an excuse for attacking gays and pillaging the environment, so they're rejecting religion. While this consequence pleases me, its gotten at by faulty means. There are plenty of ways religion could be changed to prevent it from being used for hate (Now I think you'd have to erase much of the primary texts for the primary faiths out there, but that's a side issue).

There's no reason in principle that you couldn't be religious and not spew hate. And there are many religious leftists (though they come of as rather flaccid), but the primary face of public religion these days is a regressive, vile thing.

So the analogy here, the people criticising science in this thread are making the same sort of illogical leap. Science has been used as advertising for many vile things in the past, like DDT and nuclear everything, but that doesn't mean that science is wrong and has to replaced with retrograde mysticism, rather it means that those in power who have used the veneer of science to cover up heinous deeds must be dealt with.
posted by Chekhovian at 5:11 PM on April 14, 2012


You're right, science can't tell you the meaning of life. But maybe it can say that there is no point in even asking the question.

No, it can't, because life is just is our attempt to answer that question. Everything you do, think, and feel is an assertion of value.


Like I said before, the idea that there isn't any "meaning of life" is very, very old, as is the idea that the question is meaningless in itself. This was part of philosophy long before the scientific method. Even two thousand years ago it was clear to some that life is what it is, no more and no less. If Yang Zhu can say this in 300BCE, why can't this be a valid way of interpreting science? For that matter, if one of the world's largest religions teaches that the search for "meaning" in life is an attachment to be overcome, why can't science lead us to the same conclusion?

You keep saying that we can't have an ethical system which doesn't presuppose free will or value, but you don't seem to get that our current conceptions of free will and value didn't even exist until recently; believing these things is obviously not a necessary condition for human existence. In particular, the idea that "everything you do, think, and feel is an assertion of value" is quite new. This is not the only way we can view our lives, and I wouldn't bet that it'll stick around forever. Future discoveries may challenge all of our assumptions about how and why we perceive value, to the point where the ethical systems of coming centuries may have as little to do with today's meaning of the word as they do with the four humors. Time will tell...
posted by vorfeed at 5:31 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


So I heard about this wonderful poll. One of the questions was "Do you support government funding of basic research?"A large majority of americans answer No. When they asked followups, it turned our that that same large majority was in favor of supporting advanced research.So the people were answering out of some misbegotten definition that was entirely contrary to what was meant. Now that's really the fault of the scientific communities historically poor advertising.

We have the same problem when it comes to "spirituality". By default even people that don't believe that the earth is 6000 years old or that Jesus road a TRex with a saddle, will say that they are "spiritual".

Why?

Well they associate being spiritual with being a good person and not some culture-less rube that only eats bigmacs and only watches Michael Bay movies and probably kicks puppies.

We need to fix that.
posted by Chekhovian at 5:33 PM on April 14, 2012


You keep saying that we can't have an ethical system which doesn't presuppose free will or value, but you don't seem to get that our current conceptions of free will and value didn't even exist until recently; believing these things is obviously not a necessary condition for human existence.

I don't think you're quite understanding what I mean by "value." It is not an "idea." It's an activity. And it's simply not true that free will (i.e. the idea that one could have done otherwise) is a new idea. It's been around for as long as civilization has existed. Indeed, free will is an idea that everyone everyday assumes, perhaps not intellectually, but practically.

Future discoveries may challenge all of our assumptions about how and why we perceive value, to the point where the ethical systems of coming centuries may have as little to do with today's meaning of the word as they do with the four humors.

Future discoveries may challenge all of our assumptions about value, and they may challenge the content of our values, but they will not change our actual valuing of things without changing, fundumentally, what it means to be human. The way I've been using the term, ethics is a practical, not a theoretical, activity. This is also a very old idea, by the way.
posted by smorange at 7:00 PM on April 14, 2012


"...expecting an objectively true answer. Which is what religion is really meant to provide."

this is an inaccurate definition of religion.
posted by mwhybark at 7:31 PM on April 14, 2012


Postscript: Ethics isn't reducible to science because it's a different kind of activity. But both ethics and science are better conceptualized as activities than ideas. That helps us to understand how criteria for validity in ethics and science just aren't the same, and not just contingently, but structurally. They can't really, meaningfully, talk to each other. I absolutely do not believe that ethics (the process of justifying ourselves and asserting our values) will ever disappear any more than I think science (the process of figuring stuff out by experimenting in the world) will. I believe that anyone who has ever watched or raised a child knows this to be true.
posted by smorange at 7:35 PM on April 14, 2012


this is an inaccurate definition of religion.

I will retract it when every bible and every koran and other miscellaneous holy book comes with a big sticker on the front saying:

"WARNING, the contents of this book should not be considered to be True. Generally about 70-80% of it should be totally ignored. The remainder should be considered to be at best a parable that might bear some relationship to things to actually happened. And it must be strongly noted that many of those stories were in fact included only centuries after they are purported to have occurred by authors who stood to reap significant wordly benefits from their inclusion."
posted by Chekhovian at 7:41 PM on April 14, 2012


ethics and science just aren't the same

Isn't ethics informed by science? I gave up eating octupus when I read about their apparent remarkable intelligence; opening jars, entering dream states during sleep, generally being sneaky smart bastards, etc. More testing is necessary of course, but the point is that the methods of science push us toward ethical conclusions.

Most people would agree that its ethically wrong to harm other people, but how does one define person? Isn't that more of a scientific question than an ethical question?
posted by Chekhovian at 7:46 PM on April 14, 2012


I don't think you're quite understanding what I mean by "value." It is not an "idea." It's an activity.

Yes, and the idea that we ourselves undertake this activity -- as opposed to expressing absolute values which exist outside ourselves -- is new. This is not the way people have always viewed ethics, to say the least, and our experience of ethics in a few hundred years may or may not be mediated by it.

Future discoveries may challenge all of our assumptions about value, and they may challenge the content of our values, but they will not change our actual valuing of things without changing, fundumentally, what it means to be human.

I think these discoveries will change, fundamentally, what it means to be human. We've done that before and we'll do it again; you're the one who seems to think that "what it means to be human" is and always has been static.
posted by vorfeed at 7:58 PM on April 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


By the way: by "new" I don't mean to say that no one ever had this idea before the Enlightenment. I happen to think that skepticism regarding absolute ethical values is a very old idea. But it's certainly of-its-time as a majority viewpoint, and that time is pretty damn recent. You can't just talk about it as if it was assumed by every human being who ever lived.
posted by vorfeed at 8:07 PM on April 14, 2012


Most people would agree that its ethically wrong to harm other people, but how does one define person? Isn't that more of a scientific question than an ethical question?

Here's the thing. The premise is obviously untrue without heavy qualification, and only recently would it be considered true even with qualification, assuming such qualification could even be made, and assuming that our ethical judgments are or should be coherent or consistent--dubious assumptions, all. So, no, "science" (in the ideal sense you're using the word) can't tell you what a "person" is. You might be able to give a value-neutral description of a person, but that description won't be useful. Definitions are only useful with respect to particular purposes, and purposes are normative. So, even if we could agree on a definition of a "person," we would then go back to debating whether the proposition is true.

You can't just talk about it as if it was assumed by every human being who ever lived.

I think we've reached the limits of our ability to communicate. I understand what you're saying, but I'm making a more metaphysical point, one that's true regardless of whether moral realism or antirealism is true, a point that's unchanged by that debate--which has changed, I agree--but it's something I just can't get you to see or agree with.
posted by smorange at 8:58 PM on April 14, 2012


Of course hating on induction has a long history in philosophy.

I don't think "hating on" is the right description here. The problem of induction is about theoretical justification, not our ordinary practices. Remember (as I have said before), philosophers often want to know whether what works in practice also works in theory.

Also, it is worth noting that many very good scientists have taken the problem of induction seriously. I point out to my students that statistics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is well-described as a sustained attempt to solve the problem of induction. There is good evidence that Bayes was responding to a passage from Hume's Enquiry, and Price -- who wrote the introduction to Bayes' posthumous paper -- had several exchanges with Hume about induction, miracles, and laws of nature. Laplace was similarly concerned with the problem of induction. He thought his rule of succession provided a solution.

Other philosophers, like Peirce, Reichenbach, Carnap, Williams, Stove, and others, haven't so much hated on induction as attempted to show how it might be justified formally. And philosophers who have hated on induction, like Popper, have been at least partly motivated by the fact that a simple inductivist model of scientific practice is not a very accurate model.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 8:59 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


"...expecting an objectively true answer. Which is what religion is really meant to provide."

Religion is meant to provide a subjectively true answer.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:06 AM on April 15, 2012


Religion is meant to provide a subjectively true answer.

Explains why there are so many of them, why they have such bizarre beliefs, and why they ignore objective reality.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:24 AM on April 15, 2012


Religion is meant to provide a subjectively true answer.

And Jesus answered, "I am the way [unless you prefer something else] and the [subjective] truth and the life [unless you have some other preference]. No one comes to the Father except through me [though many other faiths also contain this same nugget of wisdom in different forms].

[Corrections added]
posted by Chekhovian at 12:59 PM on April 15, 2012


Clearly, your subjective take on that differs from mine.
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:06 PM on April 15, 2012


Really, just how high is the color red?
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:27 PM on April 15, 2012


Clearly, your subjective take on that differs from mine.

Thanks OR, this is way metafilter religion discussions are supposed to be, not philosophy professors making erudite points about the motivations of 19th century thinkers, just yahoos and sophists saying neener-neener to reasoned discourse.
posted by Chekhovian at 2:26 PM on April 15, 2012


Well ... um ... don't I feel a bit ... awkward.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 6:30 PM on April 15, 2012


The way some people deprecate the subjective makes me wonder if I'm among philosophical zombies, or, perhaps it's just that sometimes those emergent properties refuse to emerge and we get 6 more weeks of winter.
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:04 PM on April 16, 2012


Braaaaaains....
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:07 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think that if your argument depends critically on denying the sense, sensibility, or sanity of the other people involved, it's probably one not worth making.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:34 PM on April 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


some people deprecate the subjective
I have no complaints about subjective judgments in poetry, literature, art, or music. But using the defense of "subjective truth" to justify lopping off parts of newborns, or denying medical care to children because prayer should cure their sicknesses, well that is objectively evil.
posted by Chekhovian at 5:39 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Chekhovian: “And Jesus answered, "I am the way [unless you prefer something else] and the [subjective] truth and the life [unless you have some other preference]. No one comes to the Father except through me [though many other faiths also contain this same nugget of wisdom in different forms].”

Incidentally, this is one of the most persistently misread passages in the Bible. The difficulty about Christianity is that it inverts the outer and the inner constantly. This passage means something like "the immanent crystallization within a limited, finite moment of the absolute and infinite is the only conduit for mortal beings to touch the divine and the true," and it is consistently read to mean "you only get to heaven if you join our club, so SUCK IT."

“Sure, science doesn't replace any of those things. But it is the only path to get what is ‘True’, that being objective and measurable.”

Hrm. Where exactly does objectivity stand in the light of how we've pretty much moved beyond the Cartesian model in the scientific realm? I thought most scientists solved this with a kind of positivism that eschews ‘truth’ and claims to adhere instead to experiential utilitarianism – that is, ‘we're not looking for Truth, we're just experimenting to see what works, and Truth doesn't matter to science at all.’ (That approach always seemed a bit cowardly or maybe a bit deceptive to me, since I felt like science had higher aspirations than that, but it does solve certain difficult problems that seem to have arisen surrounding objectivity.)

All that aside, of course, religion generally does in fact claim to present objective truth, not subjective truth, as far as that distinction even makes sense. That is: counter to what I think a lot of 'soft' religionists would like to say these days, religion has traditionally not been about what is 'true for just you,' and 'true for just me,' and we all get to 'find our own truths.' That in itself is absolutely contradictory and nonsensical. And in fact for this reason I wonder what 'subjective truth' might even be; 'truth' implies universality, whereas 'subjective' appears not to.

And, again, this is aside from the very real difficulties that we're presented with when we try to say that the world is an object or a collection of objects and our abstract and detached minds are subjects and that the old Cartesian dream that we can really purify our experience completely so that we can observe things as they really are without our observation itself adding something into the experience. Descartes pictured the mind as an eye looking upon reality, and we've stuck to that model; that's why we talk like this about 'objective' and 'subjective.' But it seems to me that even (perhaps especially) in the hardest sciences, the idea of this relation has fallen out of favor.
posted by koeselitz at 7:01 PM on April 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


me: “I thought most scientists solved this with...”

By this, of course, I really mean "most scientists today" – meaning, of course, most scientists I have personally met. I clearly haven't done any kind of survey or anything, but some of my best friends are scientists. (!)
posted by koeselitz at 7:02 PM on April 16, 2012


koeselitz: "‘we're not looking for Truth, we're just experimenting to see what works, and Truth doesn't matter to science at all.’ (That approach always seemed a bit cowardly or maybe a bit deceptive to me, since I felt like science had higher aspirations than that, but it does solve certain difficult problems that seem to have arisen surrounding objectivity.)"

I would say cautious rather than cowardly. Certainty is the domain of math, philosophy, and religion. I don't think that the reluctance to declare Truth is in any way dishonest. On the contrary it tends to make dishonesty impossible ("there may be a monster in the closet" may be misleading, but is not strictly false).
posted by idiopath at 8:25 PM on April 16, 2012


And in fact for this reason I wonder what 'subjective truth' might even be; 'truth' implies universality, whereas 'subjective' appears not to.

"Pizza is the most delicious food" is both a truth (to many) and entirely subjective. So's "jazz is the highest form of music". None of us find this to be all that contradictory, yet when it comes to moral value many of us suddenly want to pretend as if our own personal preferences must necessarily apply to everyone. I would suggest that this is due to certain cultural assumptions, not due to anything which is inherently implied by the concept of "truth"... and this is pretty well supported by the existence of religions which really do not believe that their teachings are universal outside of The People they're meant for.

And, again, this is aside from the very real difficulties that we're presented with when we try to say that the world is an object or a collection of objects and our abstract and detached minds are subjects [...] Descartes pictured the mind as an eye looking upon reality, and we've stuck to that model; that's why we talk like this about 'objective' and 'subjective.' But it seems to me that even (perhaps especially) in the hardest sciences, the idea of this relation has fallen out of favor.

I would tend to agree with you on that... but again, unless you're going to be a hard solipsist you've got to acknowledge that degrees of "objectivity" and "subjectivity" are a valid way to describe the human experience. If so, then we can discuss these differences; if not, there's no reason to even assume that there's anyone outside ourselves to discuss them with.
posted by vorfeed at 8:32 PM on April 16, 2012


This passage means something like "the immanent crystallization within a limited, finite moment of the absolute and infinite is the only conduit for mortal beings to touch the divine and the true"

Is there a passage that explains what that means? Its quite pretty, but that's about all I can say.

I thought most scientists solved this with a kind of positivism that eschews ‘truth’ and claims to adhere instead to experiential utilitarianism – that is, ‘we're not looking for Truth, we're just experimenting to see what works, and Truth doesn't matter to science at all.’

Here's a parable about conservation of energy: Its generally regard to be True. Its survived countless high precision experimental tests. As a conceptual tool its been used to unlock and explain many difficult phenomena. And its not just an ansatz, Noether's theorem describes why it happens in explicit and beautiful mathematical detail, as the natural consequence of a continuous symmetry in a variable.

And if you tried to publish a paper about how your gizmo violated conservation of energy you would be laughed out of the profession of science.

Its also Wrong. On cosmological scales energy is not conserved. If you need some help undropping your jaw, I managed to ferret out a relatively mass-readable explanation of it, here. Energy isn't conserved in an expanding universe. And this has been experimentally verified too.

So, I wouldn't call that rich tapestry of analysis and difficult experimental work cowardly or deceptive. Its beautiful and full of meanings on many different scales without resorting to vague poetry.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:50 PM on April 16, 2012


Is there a passage that explains what that means? Its quite pretty, but that's about all I can say.

The Bible. Not read literally, obviously, but metaphorically, with an understanding of the philosophical tradition it springs from and emerged from it. You get the same sort of idea in Eastern philosophy/religion, like Taoism.
posted by smorange at 12:05 AM on April 17, 2012


The Bible. Not read literally, obviously, but metaphorically, with an understanding of the philosophical tradition it springs from and emerged from it

The world would be very different if any significant number of people did this. Its sort of like gun control, guns don't kill people, people do, and all that jazz. But that doesn't mean that everyone should be allowed to have an assault rifle. Messianic desert religions seem to be like AK47s in that sense.
posted by Chekhovian at 4:20 AM on April 17, 2012


The world would be very different if any significant number of people did this [rather than reading it as if god itself had whispered it in the ear of the translator for each new edition]. But we're in luck, in that the younger generations seem to be ready to just give up the bible entirely and put "jedi" down as their religious affiliation, before they give christianity the extremely charitable soft focus consideration you're suggesting. Something something reaping the whirlwind I guess.
posted by Chekhovian at 4:31 AM on April 17, 2012


Chekhovian: “So, I wouldn't call that rich tapestry of analysis and difficult experimental work cowardly or deceptive. Its beautiful and full of meanings on many different scales without resorting to vague poetry.”

Well, look. Let's be clear on this. I never called science (or rich tapestries, for that matter) cowardly or deceptive. In fact what I meant was that to say science doesn't care about "the Truth" is selling out science itself, which I happen to like a good deal. But you can forget I said those two words if it helps.

Regardless of all that, I'm still not really sure what your 'parable' means. You seem to be emphasizing that lots of people think one thing is true according to science, whereas those people are wrong. Given that statements about falsity generally imply statements about truth, I guess you're saying you disagree with those scientists who are positivists about it, and claim that 'science isn't about finding truth?' That is, it sounds like you ascribe to what I would call the 'classical tradition' of science: that science is a search for the truth about the world.

I don't have any problem with that, mind you. That's the version of science that is most beautiful to me, and the one I find most compelling. But it seems like there's still a problem with what objectivity means. And I think that has to be resolved before we move on to any claims about knowing the truth.
posted by koeselitz at 6:50 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


You seem to be emphasizing that lots of people think one thing is true according to science, whereas those people are wrong.

Sorry for the confusion, I wasn't saying that conservation of energy is False, just that its True, but under certain circumstances. And under those circumstances, its Very True, to add another level of fuzziness. Those circumstances happen to be essentially all relevant circumstances, just like Newtonian physics is True, provided you don't make things too small or too fast.

I never called science cowardly or deceptive

Also sorry, I wasn't trying to put those words into your mouth.
posted by Chekhovian at 7:20 AM on April 17, 2012


So I guess we all agree, then. Science is looking to explain and predict reality, not trying to find "Truth" (whatever that is), and some people are disappointed with that cowardly and perhaps deceptive goal.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:14 AM on April 17, 2012


to explain and predict reality, not trying to find "Truth"
Wait what? If "Truth" doesn't already mean something that explains and predicts reality, it should be redefined to mean that, and whatever mystic hoodoo definition there was before needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history.
posted by Chekhovian at 11:20 AM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


One of the core assumptions of modern science is that the truth is only what can be observed.

The assumption of the scientist is simply that if it includes a deity, some method of investigation is bound to turn up that fact eventually.

If "Truth" doesn't already mean something that explains and predicts reality, it should be redefined to mean that, and whatever mystic hoodoo definition there was before needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

You're right, science can't tell you the meaning of life. But maybe it can say that there is no point in even asking the question.

Perhaps we can only understand the tip of the iceberg reality scientifically. The vast majority of the mystery of our existence will remain hidden to us forever. The main objection I have to science is the way it seems to be used to explain away this mystery, and devalue things like art and literature and religion that perhaps add to a more fulfilling and connected experience of life.
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:49 PM on April 17, 2012


Good science will be happy to assert that it has nothing to say about what it cannot measure. As long as art deals in some way with immeasurables it will be beyond reduction. The one downside is if you prefer to explain your art with pseudoscience (or a pseudoscientist gets reductionist about your art). But pseudoscience is weak, and you deserve to be corrected when you indulge in it (and others will only accomplish so much using it to reduce your art). Similarlly science canot deny or eliminate your transcendental experiences qua experiences. But once you translate it to mundane logical sounding explanations, it has every place to question those.
posted by idiopath at 7:22 AM on April 18, 2012


The vast majority of the mystery of our existence will remain hidden to us forever. The main objection I have to science is the way it seems to be used to explain away this mystery, and devalue things like art and literature and religion that perhaps add to a more fulfilling and connected experience of life.

It saddens me to hear that science does this to someone. I consider myself a hardcore scientist (I have over 130 peer-reviewed publications, e.g.), yet knowing how things work enhances good art and literature for me. And the mystery? Science values it so much that it delves deeper into them than all your religions combined. Albert Einstein, among other eminent scientists, implied that his scientific efforts were an attempt to know the mind of the Old One. Doesn't get more deep than that.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:02 PM on April 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


"...delves deeper into it...", dammit.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:03 PM on April 18, 2012


science is the way it seems to be used to explain away this mystery

Did you know that all the non-hydrogen atoms in your body had to made in the bellies of stars? And some of the higher Z ones had to be made by supernovas during the death of stars?

No, religion is what trivializes existence. You can look at your hand and realize that those bits of you were once incandescent star stuff, or you can say, "Eh, Gawd did it".
posted by Chekhovian at 1:57 PM on April 18, 2012


No, religion is what trivializes existence. You can look at your hand and realize that those bits of you were once incandescent star stuff, or you can say, "Eh, Gawd did it".

Or, if it appeals to you aesthetically or philosophically, you can say "Gawd made me out of stars in an amazing sequence of events full of beauty and wonder, including having some stars explode in blinding light and immense fire."

You don't have to eliminate a god, but if you include one, you have to acknowledge what is known about reality.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:36 AM on April 19, 2012


You don't have to eliminate a god, but if you include one, you have to acknowledge what is known about reality.

Science doesn't disprove god, it just eliminates any logical need for his existence in the first place. God is an extraneous assumption.
posted by Chekhovian at 4:51 PM on April 19, 2012


Science doesn't disprove god, it just eliminates any logical need for his existence in the first place. God is an extraneous assumption.

Well, I guess one could argue "first cause" and all, but, yes, as a practical concept relevant to human life, it's pretty useless. That's why I mentioned philosophical or aesthetic appeal, rather than utility.
posted by Mental Wimp at 6:09 PM on April 19, 2012


one could argue "first cause" and all

See that's the amazing thing. This recent Mtheory stuff is first time science has ever been able to attack that point. I'm not saying that this new theory is complete and proven or anything, but its a logically consistent and mathematically rigorous way to get effect without cause. More salvos will come in the future, but this is the first.
posted by Chekhovian at 6:38 PM on April 19, 2012


Math isn't science. M-Theory isn't science (at least according to your definition up-thread).
posted by smorange at 6:45 PM on April 19, 2012


I think you have me confused with Delmoi perhaps? Science isn't strictly math. Math operates under a closed system. You start with something you assume and work forward. Science starts somewhere in the middle and simultaneously works backward and forward and sideways and up and down. Its a mess. But it works, because it uses math to maintain self-consistency.

And this theoretical work isn't just some higher level math scribbles. There's a lot of work that's gone into it. Experimental measurements of the geometry of the universe, observations leading to the positing of dark matter, etc.
posted by Chekhovian at 6:54 PM on April 19, 2012


You're going to have to explain what you mean by "science" because you've said that it's at its core inductive, and you've questioned why people would believe in a god that doesn't do anything. But M-Theory is not inductive, makes no useful predictions, and doesn't do anything.
posted by smorange at 7:11 PM on April 19, 2012


But M-Theory is not inductive, makes no useful predictions, and doesn't do anything.

Umm, it offers a way to explain the reason the universe happened? The theory work behind the big bang doesn't strictly do anything either, except offer explanations. There's nucleosynthesis issues and such that work as proof that it had to happen that way etc, but its exactly "testable" if that's what you mean by "do something".

And what do you mean its not inductive? I suppose I'm not using it the careful philosophy professor way, but you don't really want to argue those sorts of semantics do you? The point is that it builds on well established theoretical and experimental ideas and extends those in mathematically rigorous ways to reach new conclusions. That's inductive science.

And its real damn new, so its probably very incomplete, and probably even wrong to a large degree. But its a first major step. Planck created quantum theory just by postulating that things had to be discrete in order to make an integral not diverge. Matrices and wave eqns and such all came later. But he planted the seed. This is that same sort of seed.
posted by Chekhovian at 7:43 PM on April 19, 2012


Ah, okay. It remains to be seen whether M-Theory can make useful predictions. That, it seems to me, means that while the theory might be interesting, it's basically mythology, at least for now.
posted by smorange at 8:06 PM on April 19, 2012


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