Debating God: Notes on an Unanswered Question

Oct 21, 2014

By Gary Gutting

This is a concluding reflection on my series of 12 interviews with philosophers on religion. I’m grateful to all of them for the intelligence, clarity and honesty with which they responded to my questions, and to the readers, who posted hundred of comments on each interview. It seemed natural to keep to the interview format, even though I (G.G.) had no one to interview except myself (g.g.). Taking some of the recurring views and concerns expressed by the readers into account (there were too many to cite individually), I’ve tried to submit myself to what I hope was the polite but challenging voice questioning my interviewees.

G.G.: What was the point of talking to a bunch of philosophers about religious belief?

g.g.: The immediate impetus came from the poll I cited at the beginning of the first interview: 73 percent of philosophers said they accepted or were inclined to atheism, while 15 percent accepted or inclined to theism. Only around 6 percent identified themselves as agnostics. I would have expected a good majority to identify as agnostics.

G.G.: Why did you expect that?

g.g.: The question of whether God exists is a controversial one: there have been, and still are, lots of smart, informed and sincere people on both sides. So it would seem that philosophers, committed to rational reflection on the big questions, wouldn’t be atheists (or theists) without good reasons. But it is also obvious that the standard arguments for and against God’s existence — first-cause arguments, the problem of evil, etc. — have stimulated an enormous amount of debate, leading to many complications but to no consensus. (To get a sense of contemporary discussions on theism see the Stanford Encyclopedia’s articles on the cosmological argument and on the problem of evil.) Given this, it seemed to me that at least a good proportion of philosophers would be agnostics, undecided about God’s existence.


Read the full interview by clicking the name of the source located below.

44 comments on “Debating God: Notes on an Unanswered Question

  • Okay, an Catholic apologist now debates himself. I guess he is too tired of debating atheists who always ask for evidence. God may be immaterial Gutting argues. Uh huh, he isn’t real, that’s what we have been telling you!



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  • There were so many contradictions and just plain logical errors in this it’s hard to know where to start. But two things stood out for me. First, he claims that a major argument that atheists use is a psychological or biological explanation for why theists believe in religion. I think that is clearly false. First of all anyone who is a competent and honest scientist would admit that our understanding of complex human behavior is so tentative right now that such explanations can only be informed speculation at best. Having said that I think there is some very interesting speculation on the topic. I especially like the books by Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer. But none of those arguments are required to refute theism.

    The other thing is he seems to want it both ways in regard to whether religion can be evaluated rationally as a scientific hypothesis. This is the approach Dawkins takes in the God Delusion and I think he is perfectly right to do that and nothing in this article refutes or even addresses the arguments Dawkins makes that show that 1) It’s perfectly reasonable to treat “the God hypothesis” as any other empirical claim about the universe and 2) when we do that it’s obvious that the overwhelming evidence (not proof just a vast preponderance of evidence as with most well supported empirical claims) is that there almost certainly is no God.

    Getting back to the article, the author talks about how religion can’t be evaluated that way. Yet at other points in the article he says things like: “religious faith without a strong role for critical reason readily falls into fanaticism” It seems to me he is speaking out of both sides of his mouth; he both wants religion to be rational (when it suits him to distance himself from fanatics) but he feels fine discarding rationality rather than evaluating the God hypothesis.

    Finally, the last thing I noticed was the claim that “science isn’t the only form of reason”. I think this is one of the biggest impediments to true rationality in most of western intellectual discussion today. People still cling to the idea that there are some “other” forms of reason besides science but they can never really describe what those are.



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  • Red Dog Oct 21, 2014 at 9:56 pm

    Yet at other points in the article he says things like: “religious faith without a strong role for critical reason readily falls into fanaticism” It seems to me he is speaking out of both sides of his mouth; he both wants religion to be rational (when it suits him to distance himself from fanatics) but he feels fine discarding rationality rather than evaluating the God hypothesis.

    It sounds very like, “All these other religions are irrational, but on ‘critical examination’, MY religion matches perfectly with my own cognitive biases”!
    It is the usual faith-head definition of “critical logic” (ie. circular thinking), being that which agrees with their preconceived conclusions!



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  • The question of whether God exists is a controversial one: there have been, and still are, lots of smart, informed and sincere people on both sides.

    But that doesn’t translate into having smart and informed arguments on both sides. (I leave out sincere because that’s a harder thing to determine), and therein lies the problem. If Newton joins the alchemy camp, the fact that Newton was smart doesn’t mean he is, on this issue at least, any less loopy than the other alchemists.

    One reason the questions about the non-existence of God have led to an enormous amount of debate is simply the same as the reason why global warming and evolution are considered “controversial”. The other side had a head start (were the majority and had the most social, economic, political, and media control) when the position was raised, has an interest in opposing that position, and uses dirty tactics against that position. Those tactics range from repeating fallacious arguments to obscurantism to emotional manipulation, sometimes all at once. Philosophers have wasted a lot of ink trying to uphold armchair fantasy, under the misapprehension that there’s more to it than there really is. Theism hasn’t been laid to rest, despite its weaknesses, and that’s because the theists refuse, against all argument, to let it rest.

    Next week, Debating Homeopathy: Notes on an Unresolved Practice.



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  • “People still cling to the idea that there are some “other” forms of reason besides science but they can never really describe what those are.”
    What about logic? It’s not the same thing as science. Science uses it, but science is not logic.

    If you think science really is the only form of reason, would you please show scientifically how you came to this conclusion. Ta.



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  • Alien Oct 22, 2014 at 6:31 am

    What about logic? It’s not the same thing as science. Science uses it, but science is not logic.

    Logic is part of science. Scientific deduction is logical and mathematical – after starting with objective evidence.

    If you think science really is the only form of reason, would you please show scientifically how you came to this conclusion. Ta.

    Scientific deduction is reasoned logically.

    Anyone suggesting there are “other methods” of producing reliable answers, is free to explain demonstrate how their “alternative thinking methods” work, and what sort of reliability rating their results have been shown for these on objective retrospective examination.

    So far none have been shown to produce reliable or consistent answers.



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  • I think this is the geezer that Douglas Adams was thinking of with his brilliant “and then goes on to prove black is white and gets run over on the next zebra-crossing he encounters…..”
    He should use his intellect to try and improve the world around him, rather than putting on his physics-envy cloak of scientific invisibility and spouting woo-woo whilst claiming that scientific/empirical evidence proves nothing…..Another prime example of post-modern horse-shit!



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  • Logic is part of science. Scientific deduction is logical and mathematical – after starting with objective evidence.

    Agreed. That is what I wrote (or, at least, what I meant 🙂 )

    Scientific deduction is reasoned logically.

    Yes. Same as above.

    Anyone suggesting there are “other methods” of producing reliable answers, is free to explain demonstrate how their “alternative thinking methods” work, and what sort of reliability rating their results have been shown for these on objective retrospective examination.

    So far none have been shown to produce reliable or consistent answers.

    We seem to be agreed that using logic is part of being scientific. However, unless you are arguing that science is the only way of using logic, then you have not yet shown that science is the only way of “producing reliable answers”. Reliable answers to what? Knowing when my wife will bring our car back this afternoon? Knowing what is the best translation of the word “suis” from French to English. Knowing whether a particular Norwich City football player was racially abused by a Leeds player last night.

    There are shedloads of examples of problems where science is the not the best way of producing reliable answers.

    I’m still hoping that you will show scientifically that science is the only means of producing reliable answers. Was there meant to be anything specifically scientific about your previous post?



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  • Alien Oct 22, 2014 at 7:40 am

    We seem to be agreed that using logic is part of being scientific. However, unless you are arguing that science is the only way of using logic, then you have not yet shown that science is the only way of “producing reliable answers”.

    Science is the only way of using objective evidence as a starting point on which to base logic which has a connection to material reality.
    Logic can be used, without an evidenced basis to produce self consistent fantasy “castles in the air” – as illustrated in many works of fiction.

    There are shedloads of examples of problems where science is the not the best way of producing reliable answers.

    No there are are not, unless you can produce a method which gives more reliable answers than scientific methodology.
    That is not to say there are no questions to which neither science nor any other method has answers.

    I’m still hoping that you will show scientifically that science is the only means of producing reliable answers.

    Science demonstrably works in the real world, so that is a default position unless you can produce an alternative, which beats science as providing reliable explanations of the workings of the physics and biology of the universe – or indeed any alternative method which gives positive above random results on test.

    Was there meant to be anything specifically
    scientific about your previous post?

    Yes! It explained scientific methodology and deductive processes! – The very essence of science!



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  • 11
    inquisador says:

    There are shedloads of examples of problems where science is the not the best way of producing reliable answers.

    No. Science is a reliable process that, when correctly used, given enough empirical information, can always produce reliable answers.

    Unfortunately, if that information is incomplete, the answers may be qualified hypotheses or ‘we do not know’, which is the only reliable way to go; at least until that time when we can know everything.



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  • Alan4Discussion,
    Am I right in thinking this board only allows a small number of levels of reply. I wanted to click on Reply to your post, but it hasn’t come up. Anyway….

    Alien-There are shedloads of examples of problems where science is the not the best way of producing reliable answers.
    A4D-No there are are not, unless you can produce a method which gives more reliable answers than scientific methodology.
    That is not to say there are no questions to which neither science nor any other method has answers.

    No, it isn’t. I’ve given you some examples of where science is not the best way of “producing reliable answers”. For example, the best way of determining when my wife will bring back the car is to remember that she agreed to bring it back before I am due to go out at 3.30pm and that she is very probably going to keep to her word. How does that fall under your science label?

    How do we best translate “suis” from French to English scientifically? We don’t need science to realise that “suis” has at least two distinct meanings in French, i.e. “am”, as in “I am” (je suis anglais), and “follow”, as in “je suis la voiture”. To know how to best translate it, we don’t need science; we need to know the context of the use of the word.

    How do we best find out whether a particular Norwich City player was racially abused? I don’t know this one 🙂

    So here are a couple of examples where science is not the best means of “producing reliable answers”, let alone the only one.

    Science demonstrably works in the real world, so that is a default position unless you can produce an alternative, which beats science as providing reliable explanations of the workings of the physics and biology of the universe – or indeed any alternative method which gives positive above random results on test.

    Ah, so we have now moved onto providing “reliable explanations of the workings of the physics and biology of the workings of the physics and biology of the universe”. That was not what was claimed and is actually a truism. What, apart from physics, would be the best way of understanding the physics of the universe?

    Yes! It explained scientific methodology and deductive processes! – The very essence of science!

    So what? You can hardly sensibly claim that it is best to justify scientific methodology by using science. That’s circular reasoning!

    Why the worship of science amongst some atheists here? Science has let to some marvellous things and, in its own realm of expertise, is great, but some here seem to be followers of scientism.

    Sad and intellectually naive.



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  • Inquisador,

    Alien – There are shedloads of examples of problems where science is the not the best way of producing reliable answers.

    Inquisador – No. Science is a reliable process that, when correctly used, given enough empirical information, can always produce reliable answers.

    Agreed.

    Unfortunately, if that information is incomplete, the answers may be qualified hypotheses or ‘we do not know’, which is the only reliable way to go; at least until that time when we can know everything.

    So how is science the best way of producing a reliable answer to the question of when my wife will come back with our car this afternoon?



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  • From the OP. g. g. on God:

    g.g.: There’s no scientific evidence, but there are other sorts of evidence.

    Really ? Bring ’em on !

    My personal revelation of experiencing no God, is just as powerful as the theists’ personal experiences of their God.



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  • So how is science the best way of producing a reliable answer to the question of when my wife will come back with our car this afternoon?

    By assessing all the observable evidence, seeking corroboration where needed. (She said this to me, so what did she say to you?) By analysing her reliablility of behaviour under similar circumstances. Looking for unusual psychological aspects to the rest of her behaviour in the recent past. Has her passport been taken? Has the bank account taken a serious hit? Form a series of hypotheses for other possible scenarious that fit the facts better than her return with the car. Why was she on the Expedia.com website last night? Am I asking the wrong question here?

    We don’t call it science but thats exactly what we do if we want most reliably to predict the future.

    Hunches are mere hunches.

    WLC’s claims are specious. I’ll come back later to these, but for now Ramachandran’s hypotheses concerning the nature of beauty seem deeply rooted and testable to me.



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  • Alien Oct 22, 2014 at 9:16 am

    To – Alan4Discussion,

    Am I right in thinking this board only allows a small number of levels of reply. I wanted to click on Reply to your post, but it hasn’t come up. Anyway….

    There is a limit on the chain of replies.

    Alien-There are shedloads of examples of problems where science is the not the best way of producing reliable answers.

    A4D-No there are are not, unless you can produce a method which gives more reliable answers than scientific methodology.
    That is not to say there are no questions to which neither science nor any other method has answers.

    No, it isn’t. I’ve given you some examples of where science is not the best way of “producing reliable answers”. For example, the best way of determining when my wife will bring back the car is to remember that she agreed to bring it back before I am due to go out at 3.30pm and that she is very probably going to keep to her word. How does that fall under your science label?

    Using scientific methodology, you would look at the history of her previous reliability in meeting stated targets.
    This should give a statistical basis to estimate probable outcomes. – Or you could contact her for an up-date!
    What alternative would you show as being better? You have not offered any!

    How do we best translate “suis” from French to English scientifically? We don’t need science to realise that “suis” has at least two distinct meanings in French, i.e. “am”, as in “I am” (je suis anglais), and “follow”, as in “je suis la voiture”. To know how to best translate it, we don’t need science; we need to know the context of the use of the word.

    Scientific method would require looking it up in a dictionary or textbook from a reputable publisher who had based the text on objective observations.

    To know how to best translate it, we don’t need science; we need to know the context of the use of the word.

    Using an objective source based on observed practice IS science. Intuitive guessing without objective evidence of usage is not!

    How do we best find out whether a particular Norwich City player was racially abused? I don’t know this one 🙂

    You could look for video evidence or ask witnesses. Do you have other non-scientific methods to offer?

    So here are a couple of examples where science is not the best means of “producing reliable answers”, let alone the only one.

    This is nonsense! There may be no evidence found, but scientific investigative methodology is still the best way of looking for an answer!

    Science demonstrably works in the real world, so that is a default position unless you can produce an alternative, which beats science as providing reliable explanations of the workings of the physics and biology of the universe – or indeed any alternative method which gives positive above random results on test.

    Ah, so we have now moved onto providing “reliable explanations of the workings of the physics and biology of the workings of the physics and biology of the universe”.

    That is what reality is made of – matter and energy, so if it happens in the real world, it affects matter and energy – governed by the laws of physics.

    That was not what was claimed and is actually a truism.

    Could you explain that in English?

    What, apart from physics, would be the best way of understanding the physics of the universe?

    That is the question you have failed to answer. What other methods of understanding the universe besides science exist? The evidence so far is NONE!

    Alan – Yes! (My earlier post was scientific) It explained scientific methodology and deductive processes! – The very essence of science!

    So what? You can hardly sensibly claim that it is best to justify scientific methodology by using science.

    You justify scientific methodology by the historical record of the vast number of reliable answers it has produced which actually work predictably in the real world of technology which we use every day.

    That’s circular reasoning!

    Of course it isn’t! Circular reasoning would be whimsically deciding without prior evidence by “faith” or “intuition” how machines should work. This “faith-thinking” occasionally has random success, but usually results in utter failure and disastrous crashes.

    Why the worship of science amongst some atheists here?

    Nobody “worships science”. Science is a reliable tool to aid understanding of nature.

    Science has let to some marvellous things and, in its own realm of expertise, is great, but some here seem to be followers of scientism.

    Ah! the comical claims of undefined “scientism” by those with nothing to offer to support their own positions!

    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/scientism


    1. The collection of attitudes and practices considered typical of scientists.

    2. The belief that the investigative methods of the physical sciences are applicable or justifiable in all fields of inquiry.

    Sad and intellectually naive.

    Very much so in those who confuse definition 2, with definition 1, and think that is an answer to scientific refutations of their claims!

    So! After a string of posts – . . . . . Your explanation of how alternative faith-thinking processes consistently produce reliable or dependable answers is: – .. . . . . . . . . . ????????



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  • <

    blockquote>By assessing all the observable evidence, seeking corroboration where needed. (She said this to me, so what did she say to you?) By analysing her reliablility of behaviour under similar circumstances. Looking for unusual psychological aspects to the rest of her behaviour in the recent past. Has her passport been taken? Has the bank account taken a serious hit? Form a series of hypotheses for other possible scenarious that fit the facts better than her return with the car. Why was she on the Expedia.com website last night? Am I asking the wrong question here?

    We don’t call it science but thats exactly what we do if we want most reliably to predict the future.We don’t call it science, because it isn’t science. You seem to have come up with a fuller method of basically what I came up with, but have just renamed it “science”. On your terminology people working in police detective work are scientists. They are not. They are detectives. You seem to have just added anything that works to your definition of what science is.



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  • 19
    inquisador says:

    Alien,

    Firstly, we do not worship science. Science is a tool that we use to gain greater knowledge and understanding of what exists. If it turns out to be a flawed method then it can be regulated or adjusted in order to be more reliable.

    So long as the scientific method can be seen to actually work: by planes flying, freezers freezing, sub-atomic particles smashing in the LH Collider, you finding out what time your wife will return with your car, anything that can be discovered by scientifically sound, rational inquiry, all validates the scientific method, millions of times over, every day.

    If praying was actually more reliable, rather than less, then we would do that instead. It’s all about results.



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  • Alien Oct 22, 2014 at 10:27 am

    On your terminology people working in police detective work are scientists.

    Otherwise known as “forensic investigators”!

    They are not. They are detectives.

    A detective does not cease to be a detective when employing scientific methods! You are just playing with words.

    You seem to have just added anything that works to your definition of what science is.

    Science is methodology which produces or explains “anything which works” in the real world!
    It is an evidence and reasoned understanding of the workings of the real world, which can be used for investigations in other subjects! – such as investigations of history or crime!



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  • 21
    inquisador says:

    Detection of crime is a fine example of how science works. Modern forensic science, with DNA evidence, fingerprinting, computer science and so on, is way ahead of Poe’s Monsieur Dupin, brilliant as he was.

    We need some understanding of science in whatever we do, be it civil engineering, erecting fences, building walls, garden ponds, bakery, butchery, car mechanics? No?



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  • Scientists are detectives. What a curious idea you have of science. How is science not detective work? How is detective work not what you do yourself to find out things reliably. Why are the skill sets and processes of scientists, refutable hypotheses, corroborated evidence and reason not what you use to find things out most reliably?



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  • 23
    inquisador says:

    Alien,

    So how is science the best way of producing a reliable answer to the question of when my wife will come back with our car this afternoon?

    Sorry I overlooked this question before. I should have said that if scientific inquiry cannot answer this, then nothing can.

    Until, that is, fresh information comes in; such as, you see the car turning into your street, or you receive a message from her, such as a cellphone call or a postcard from Hawaii.



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  • “The question of whether God exists is a controversial one: there have been, and still are, lots of smart, informed and sincere people on both sides”

    comments like this make me claw the furniture

    BOTH sides?! there are not two side, there are many many more. I’d like to hear from those who believe in 2 gods debate with the believers in 1 god and none. and those who believe in 3 gods debate with the 2 god believers, monotheists and atheists…ad nuseam

    of course most think there are only 2 sides because only 2 sides are arguing currently but the thinking is so lazy here that concepts not tabled by current debaters are assumed not to exist.

    no i didn’t read the full article. no i’m not going to



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  • Gary Gutting states: it seemed to me that at least a good proportion of philosophers would be agnostics, undecided about God’s existence.

    I’m surery a philosopher “committed to rational reflection on the big questions,” My reflections (and studies) offerd me the following insight about the existence of God.
    It depends on what you mean with ‘God’.

    Do you mean the One, True God of the monotheisms? This God is a patriarchal invention of the Levantine late Iron Age. This God doesn’t exist, sorry.

    But if you feel “there has to be something”, then I say: that makes sense. That is the feeling which even the most pristine people such as the San Bushmen or the Pygmies have. They say to be sure that somewhere high in the sky dwells the creator of all things. But this Highest Being doesn’t interfere with the humans. They don’t worship this Being , they worship things that are of direct importance for their daily life. The Pygmies worschip The Forest, the Provider of all goods, and the see themselves as its children. The San Bushmen know CAGN as the supreme god, the first being and the creator of the world. The San say: CAGN received so much opposition in the world that He moved his abode from the earth to the top of the sky.
    The priest/anthropologist Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954) found out “that almost all tribal peoples began with an essentially monotheistic concept of a high god — usually a sky god — who was a benevolent creator. Schmidt theorized that human beings believed in a God who was the First Cause of all things and Ruler of Heaven and Earth before men and women began to worship a number of gods. (Wiki)”

    The origin of this Creator God can be seen in the creation stories of the Australian Aborigines. Anthropologist Ad Borsboom of the Nijmegen University (Netherlands) recognizes in these stories the first colonization some 65.000 ya of Australia, and in the Big Ancestor JAREWARE the first little group of women, children and men that were the first people to give names to the things of the new ‘world’. For humans, things only exist if we have a name for it. So giving names to the things feels as ‘creating’ those things: bringing them into existence. For their offspring this first little group survived as The Big Ancestor, whose creative acts they danced/sung evening after evening around the camp fire that kept the predators at bay.

    This way of experiencing their world characterized humans perhaps a million of years or longer, and has become part of our hereditary behavior, as our religious inclination.

    So, if if you feel “there has to be something”, then I say: that makes sense.



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  • …and I agree with Kitcher that the greatest obstacle facing
    atheism is its lack of the strong communal practices that characterize
    religions. People need to believe something that provides a satisfying
    a way of living their lives, and most people need to find this in a
    community. So far atheism has produced nothing like the extensive and
    deep-rooted communities of belief that religion has.

    Yes, lets make more isolated and isolating communities because…er…?

    Art lovers not a passionate enough group? Science lovers? Political activists? Eco warriors? Beer lovers? Swingers?

    No. The group apparently must be oppositional to be meaningful.

    Religions grasp at meaning and fail spectacularly.



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  • g.g.: The immediate impetus came from the poll I cited at the beginning of the first interview: 73 percent of philosophers said they accepted or were inclined to atheism, while 15 percent accepted or inclined to theism. Only around 6 percent identified themselves as agnostics.

    Only 15% accepting or inclined to theism!!!

    I would have expected a good majority to identify as agnostics.

    That’s what faith-thinking preconceptions do to your intellect – producing unrealistic expectations!

    g.g.: The question of whether God exists is a controversial one:

    Really???

    It appears less so in the sample of philosophers, as well as in leading scientists in the National Academy of sciences and the Royal Society!

    G.G.: I suspect that most atheists think scientific evidence — evidence that ultimately appeals only to empirically observable facts — is the only sort of evidence there is.

    This side of the split personality got it right!

    g.g.: That may be their assumption,

    But then the lower-case gg got it wrong, in claiming that was an assumption, rather than, the whole of observable evidence.

    but how do they show that it’s correct? It certainly isn’t supported by scientific evidence, since that tells us about only what is empirically observable.

    Well actually it is, regardless of appeals to the negative proof fallacy! Absence of evidence is evidence of absence, (where evidence should be found), so the default position is scepticism, not assumed credulity.

    The question is whether there is anything else.

    It’s a question, – just like, “Do Klingons and invisible pink unicorns actually exist”, – But without supporting evidence it is just a vacuous suggestion of no substance.

    Why is there no evidence of nothing? ? ? – It should be self evident!



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  • What about logic? It’s not the same thing as science. Science uses it, but science is not logic.

    When I say “science” it’s a shorthand for “science and math”. If you are interested in details of philosophy of science the two need to be separate because mathematical truths tend to be proofs and don’t depend on evidence where as scientific truths tend to be empirical and do depend on evidence. It’s an important distinction because empirical claims can never be 100% certain. It’s why Dawkins says “almost certainly there is no God” rather than “I have proof there is no God” or “certainly there is no God” because he is treating the God claim as an empirical claim.

    And of course Logic is part of math.

    As for why math and science are the only things I consider worthy to be called knowledge that’s a fairly lengthy discussion. But I would summarize it by saying just look at the history of Western thought. (I pick western because I’m most familiar with it but I think you would find the same looking at Eastern or other forms) The only discipline that shows steady in fact amazing progress at actually finding results that build on other results, that have real world applications, that make predictions which are verifiable is math/science. Religion, Fredianism, Marxism, Postmodernism,… I could walk you through detailed discussion of how each one ends up making pronouncements that sound like knowledge but that fail on all those criteria.



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  • Detection of crime is a fine example of how science works.

    So true. For some reason I never got around to reading Conan Doyle until fairly recently. Actually it was thanks to Kindle and downloading lots of free public domain books. I think it’s really not emphasized enough that Holmes is really a very scientific detective, really the first one and probably one of the only ones. He develops hypotheses and then tests them out and then develops new ones based on the data.



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  • I think it’s really not emphasized enough that Holmes is really a very scientific detective, really the first one and probably one of the only ones.

    You might find this an interesting read. As one who has done a bit of Forensic Science, this guy is considered the father of rational evidence collection. A real life Sherlock.

    Locard’s exchange principle. Paul L. Kirk[1] expressed the principle as follows: Herever he steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as a silent witness against him. Not only his fingerprints or his footprints, but his hair, the fibers from his clothes, the glass he breaks, the tool mark he leaves, the paint he scratches, the blood or semen he deposits or collects. All of these and more, bear mute witness against him. This is evidence that does not forget. It is not confused by the excitement of the moment. It is not absent because human witnesses are. It is factual evidence. Physical evidence cannot be wrong, it cannot perjure itself, it cannot be wholly absent. Only human failure to find it, study and understand it, can diminish its value.”

    More here.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Locard%27s_exchange_principle



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  • Unfortunately, I think the good Alien is making the (far too common) mistake of confusing “science” (what we did in high school science class) with “Science” (the methodology of evaluating evidence, formulating hypotheses, etc).

    As with the old “theory/Theory” problem, what Joe Average thinks a word means, and what some-one working in a field intimately related to that word thinks it means, can be quite different. As usual, education is the answer!



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  • 32
    inquisador says:

    Red Dog,

    I agree that Sir Arthur’s Holmes was a great pioneer in scientific detection. Having avidly read many of his books from an early age, I’ve always been intrigued that such an apparently rational author would become convinced of spiritualism and the existence of fairies, elves and goblins (The Coming of the Fairies) Although he seems to have believed in a scientific approach to such things, and acted accordingly, I think his error was in accepting the testimony of believers at face value and confusing that with hard evidence; in a similar way that some people today credit numerous tales of alien abduction.

    By the way, I can recommend a couple of Doyle’s historical novels as of fine quality, The White Company, and Sir Nigel; both set during the ‘Hundred Years War’ in the 14th C.



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  • couw Oct 22, 2014 at 12:47 pm

    So, if if you feel “there has to be something”, then I say: that makes sense.

    It certainly makes sense of a psychological need for a mythical parent figure, and the anthropomorphic view of nature, but it provides no evidence for the claim beyond the existence of god-delusions in some brains, gap-filling the shortcomings of their understanding.



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  • Hi couw. It’s possible to stretch the definition of ‘God’ so far that it would be virtually impossible to disagree. I watched a fellow in a panel discussion last week give his definition as being everything in the universe! With such a broad definition who could possibly disagree? By so doing would you be saying that you didn’t believe in the universe?
    I agree that the word needs to be defined first, but I suggest it should be in the realms of the supernatural otherwise it’s just…..well, nature! I can imagine sitting in a church, singing the hymns and going through the motions when you are in fact an atheist, or at least agnostic.



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  • Has it ever occurred to anyone that there may well be something else under all of this. Plato wrote about Atlantis as a fiction. Is it possible, therefore, that all the Greek mythologies were as real to the people of ancient Greece as Star Wars, the Avengers and the X-Men are to us? They are just a fantasy, a set of fantastical ideas that usually feature a saviour of some description. Is it then possible that all religions, to some degree, at least, contain such fantasies and should not be regarded as truth.
    Wise words and ideas have often been communicated through fiction, but assuming that only facts can be used to represent or express truths is (probably) folly.



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  • Adam Oct 29, 2014 at 8:48 am

    Wise words and ideas have often been communicated through fiction, but assuming that only facts can be used to represent or express truths is (probably) folly.

    For fiction to represent “truths” about reality, it has to be based on objective observations. Accepting fictitious claims without backing evidence, IS folly – and frequently disastrous folly!

    The problem with fiction, is distinguishing “facts” from stuff that is just made up by the author.
    That is why science uses investigative methodology and multiple checks.

    Folk myths may give clues to possible historical events, or they may simply be dreamed up or wildly exaggerated, in some story-teller’s imagination.



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  • I don’t understand what you are saying. So you want to just abolish the distinction between fiction and fact? I think the standard Dawkins reply about aircraft maintenance applies here. If you had two planes and one of them had gone through the standard best practice engineering checks before flight but the other one had the pilot make sacrifices to the Gods and say a prayer first which one would you want to take. Keep in mind that the pilot of each plane has supreme confidence in their various methods. So for each one the maintenance process was “equally valid” since they both believe in their respective methods with equal strength. In fact the religious pilot may have much stronger belief that the prayers and sacrifices work than the pilot who believes in good engineering. If anything that pilot’s maintenance prayers were more real to them than the engineering checklists are to the other pilot.

    What is folly is to say that because there are lots of things we don’t know and lots of hard questions where we barely know what the right question is that the proper response is to just throw up our hands and say all truth is relative or to reject the idea that “only facts can be used to represent or express truths”.

    Although that last statement is not a proper description of most science anyway. Good science doesn’t just rely on facts to “express truths”. Theories often rely on metaphors, analogies, etc. Meme theory for example is built on an analogy, that ideas may mutate and evolve the way genes do. Or the atomic model of matter was at one point based on an analogy with the solar system. In more mature science analogies eventually break down and are replaced (as happened with the atom model) with more rigorous models with strong mathematical foundations but “only facts” is hardly a complete description of science. But to go to the extreme of saying all facts are relative or that there is no truth only “true for person X” just opens the door to all sorts of postmodern gibberish.



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  • I never said that fact cannot represent truth. I never suggested breaking the fact/fiction barrier, if there is such a thing. If you have a bible (admittedly, I don’t, but I don’t believe in any of it anyway) you might find lessons that are worth remembering and applying.
    Truth in respect ideas such as ‘being nice to other people is a good thing’ could be expressed through real experiences or fictional ones. (I am not sure that I need science to back me up there, as such) Look at Aesop’s Fables – clearly they didn’t really happen, but they express great truths about life. What I am really suggesting is that religiously hanging on to every word of scripture (or whatever) as if it was actually true and actually happened means missing the point of the lesson (not identifying the ‘truths’) that are held in them.
    I have heard that children can learn a lot about how to conduct themselves from Harry Potter, but it is easier to identify the truths about life in those books and separate them from the (obvious) fiction.
    I don’t believe that any characters from religious texts need to be real, actual people for the lessons in the text to be valid and meaningful. It doesn’t make them right, necessarily, but at least some ideas are interesting and useful.



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  • Well said. However, I was thinking of Aesop’s fables when I said that. They do represent truths after a fashion, but clearly never happened.
    Thank you for your response.



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  • My main thrust was to suggest that Mythologies contain ‘comic book’ characters, or wildly exaggerated versions of real people. They events described are, likewise, either entirely made up, or, again, wildly exaggerated.
    That doesn’t mean they cannot contain a valuable meme or idea that could improve your life.
    The point is that it makes sense to consider the value of such lessons, taking into account their validity in the modern world, rather than simply following them blindly.
    To make a comparison, in the US, as I understand, there is a constitutional right to bear arms. When that was written down, most guns were single shot affairs. To say that the same rule applies now, what with automatic rifles and 30 rounds in a magazine and so on, does no Justice to the original idea. It isn’t as valid as it used to be, and should be reconsidered, revised, disputed or even overturned.
    I hope that makes it clearer.



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  • Adam Oct 29, 2014 at 11:25 am

    Well said. However, I was thinking of Aesop’s fables when I said that. They do represent truths after a fashion, but clearly never happened.

    I like Aesop’s fables for children too.

    If you have a bible (admittedly, I don’t, but I don’t believe in any of it anyway) you might find lessons that are worth remembering and applying.

    You might, – but you would have to cherry pick them from the genocides, rapes, and murders, which are equally exalted in that self-contradictory book of fables.

    I think what you have picked up on here, is the “nicey image” of the bible put about by Christians who have also not read it!



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  • How negative is the effect of fanciful pseudoscience on actual academic science.

    I heard this idea some time ago about Ancient Aliens and Paleocontact – the idea appears to be that ancient humans were visited by extraterrestrials, who they immediately thought were gods. After all, to quote Arthur C Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    Well, it sounds like a good, fun hypothesis, and could be used for a work of fiction quite easily, but my questions are as follows:
    – Does such an idea cause damage to one’s ability to understand serious scientific research?
    – What variations – from most viable to most ludicrous – have you heard?



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  • …you would have to cherry pick them from the genocides, rapes, and murders… You have to sift through a lot of shite to find diamonds, but lots of people do it.
    (I am an atheist because of the excessive shite – I don’t rate the ‘nicey’ image either.)



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  • Adam Oct 29, 2014 at 12:08 pm

    How negative is the effect of fanciful pseudoscience on actual academic science.

    It has very little effect on academic scientists, who easily recognise it is nonsense.

    Where the damage is done is where it is proliferated by scientifically illiterate journalists looking for sensational stories, gullible members of the public, lazy politicians, and children.

    I heard this idea some time ago about Ancient Aliens and Paleocontact – the idea appears to be that ancient humans were visited by extraterrestrials, who they immediately thought were gods.

    This is nonsense from people whose attempts at research are comically inept, and fanciful.

    After all, to quote Arthur C Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    Competent speculative developments of innovative future technologies are a different subject.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Interplanetary_Society

    The science writer Arthur C. Clarke was a well-known former Chairman of the British Interplanetary Society.



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