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“Science and Religion are Not Compatible” — Discover Magazine

Posted on Jul 11, 2009 by Tom Gilson

Sean Carroll, physicist at CalTech, says science and religion are incompatible—not that they couldn’t be compatible, somewhere, though:

It’s not hard to imagine an alternative universe in which science and religion were compatible — one in which religious claims about the functioning of the world were regularly verified by scientific practice. We can easily conceive of a world in which the best scientific techniques of evidence-gathering and hypothesis-testing left us with an understanding of the workings of Nature which included the existence of God and/or other supernatural phenomena. (St. Thomas Aquinas, were he alive today, would undoubtedly agree, as would many religious people who actually are alive.) It’s just not the world we live in. (That’s where they would disagree.)

[Link: Science and Religion are Not Compatible | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine]

Bravo! And Well Done!
Carroll makes some important and useful points in this article. He raises a warning against the Stephen Jay Gould mistake of “Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA),” which suggests that science and religion can get along because they never discuss the same matters. A magisterium is an area of authority to teach: religion has authority in one realm, science in another, says Gould, and the realms are so distinct from each other, there is so little overlap between them, the two could never really contradict one another. Carroll explains it this way.

One strategy to assert the compatibility between science and religion has been to take a carving knife to the conventional understanding of “religion,” attempting to remove from its purview all of its claims about the natural world.

That would be the strategy adopted, for example, by Stephen Jay Gould with his principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria.

The problem with that is plain to see, and Carroll gets it right:

It’s utterly at variance with the meaning of the word “religion” as used throughout history, or as understood by the vast majority of religious believers today. Those people believe in a supernatural being called “God” who created the universe, is intensely interested in the behavior of human beings, and occasionally intervenes miraculously in the natural world.

There are other misuses of the term “religion” that Carroll corrects:

Of course, nothing is to stop you, when you say the word “religion,” from having in mind something like “moral philosophy,” or perhaps “all of nature,” or “a sense of wonder at the universe.” You can use words to mean whatever you want; it’s just that you will consistently be misunderstood by the ordinary-language speakers with whom you are conversing. And what is the point? If you really mean “ethics” when you say “religion,” why not just say “ethics”? … If you hold some unambiguously non-supernatural position that you are tempted to refer to as “religion” — awe at the majesty of the universe, a conviction that people should be excellent to each other, whatever — resist the temptation!

To this I say bravo, and well done, sir! What’s the point of watering down a word so it doesn’t mean anything anymore?

Science Disproves Religion?
If only he got the rest of it as right as that! The quote I opened with could have been interpreted rather mildly and uncontroversially as “science and religion are incompatible simply in that because science doesn’t provide proofs for religion.” I could get along with a conclusion like that (though it’s stretching the meaning of “incompatible”), but that’s not what Carroll meant. He thinks science has disproved religion:

The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions. It’s worth noting that this incompatibility is perfectly evident to any fair-minded person who cares to look. Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” [sic] or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.

But science does not say those beliefs are false (except for the six-day creation, of course, which continues to be a bone of contention). Consider his final example, “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” I disagree with this belief as strongly as I possibly could disagree with it. But I can’t think of any scientific reason to disagree with it. My disagreement is based in God’s word, the Bible, which says it is appointed to all to die once, and then comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27). Could Carroll offer one scientific reason to find reincarnation false? Does he have a test for transmigration of souls? Is there a journal article on it? Does he know of an experiment showing that souls don’t exist, and has it been published in the peer-reviewed literature?

What about “Jesus died and was resurrected,” or “Moses parted the Red Sea”? Does science say that didn’t happen? No. Some scientists say it couldn’t happen, but all they’re saying is that the regularities of nature they’ve seen have never ever been broken, and therefore their limited sample of reality rules all of it. They have a decent statistical case, perhaps, but every statistician knows that the tails of the bell curve never touch the x-axis. Statistics can’t prove an outlier (a statistically improbable event) is impossible. Even Carroll insisted in his article that science never proves anything.

No, the reason Carroll thinks these things are impossible is because he has invested natural law with metaphysical absoluteness. It is a metaphysical position, not a scientific one. The Biblical view is that miracles are statistically improbable (otherwise they wouldn’t be miracles) but nevertheless possible under God’s intentional direction. Natural law is not the ultimate or the absolute that Carroll thinks it is, and science cannot prove that it is; or if can, where then is the article in Science or Nature that actually does prove it?

Not the Only Way of Knowing
You might think that the above, Carroll’s view that science has disproved religion, would be my point of greatest disagreement with an article like his. Close, but not quite. Look again at this:

We can easily conceive of a world in which the best scientific techniques of evidence-gathering and hypothesis-testing left us with an understanding of the workings of Nature which included the existence of God and/or other supernatural phenomena.

And

Scientifically speaking, the existence of God is an untenable hypothesis. It’s not well-defined, it’s completely unnecessary to fit the data, and it adds unhelpful layers of complexity without any corresponding increase in understanding.

What’s the problem there? It would appear that Carroll thinks the methods of science rule knowledge. God doesn’t work as a scientific hypothesis, therefore the kind of world that has a God is “just not the world we live in,” and we know for sure that resurrections can’t happen and the Red Sea will never part. Because only science can speak, and science says no to those things. It’s not only that it’s obviously wrong. It’s that this muscle-bound, “you all shut up, I’ll do the talking around here!” attitude about science is a very dangerous approach to knowledge in general.

If it really were the case that only science can produce knowledge, we would certainly lose knowledge of God, because God’s clearest self-revelation has not been through nature. It has been through his personal interaction with real individuals, recorded in the Bible. He continues to relate to persons and communities, and we continue to acquire genuine knowledge of God, through his Word and through his Spirit. Science won’t find that.

In fact it’s astonishing that Carroll would think the things he does about science being able to speak to the religious topics he mentioned. He says the incompatibility of science and religion is “perfectly evident to any fair-minded person who cares to look,” but he backs up that “perfectly evident” conclusion with examples that completely fail to address (much less prove) his point. In fact, they illustrate precisely the opposite: that science is the wrong approach to these questions.

Even those who doubt that there is any way to get good answers to those questions must admit that science can’t do it. Why would anyone think otherwise? In part it is because science has been so successful where it has been successful. Where science is competent it is very competent. This has led to a stunningly unaware kind of hubris regarding what science can accomplish—that science is the only route to genuine knowledge.

That’s what bothers me more than anything else in Carroll’s piece. For under that principle we would lose even more than knowledge of God. We would lose all knowledge about value. Science doesn’t speak to value. Science says what the world is like, but as science it does not know what the world ought to be like.

Undermining Science With Scientific Hubris
We would even lose science itself under that principle of knowledge; for the belief, “the methods of science rule all knowledge” is not a scientific belief. You won’t find this one demonstrated by experiment and reported in a scientific journal, either. If all knowledge must come through scientific methods, then there is no way we could know that all knowledge must come through science, for that is the kind of information science can’t produce.

So under this principle we would lose science. That would be a terrible, tragic loss. I don’t think we would ever actually see that happen, though, because the scientific enterprise would continue to run, in spite of false beliefs held by its practitioners, including Sean Carroll. After all, as he said himself,

There is no problem at all with individual scientists holding all sorts of incorrect beliefs, including about science.

57 Responses to “ “Science and Religion are Not Compatible” — Discover Magazine ”

  1. Doug says:

    Very well thought and written. Bravo.

    As soon as folk take the God-imaged step from the pedestrian magisterium of science, i.e., “what it is”, to the remarkable (and wholly-beyond-science, but intensely human) “what it means”, they forfeit their claim on science!

    Meaning is not something that science manages particularly well. Science can (and does) refer meaning to the “context” of the situation, but that “context” inevitably finds its foundation in yet another vital (literally!) human concept that is wholly beyond science: self-awareness.

    dp

  2. Bravo indeed. You nailed this one, Tom.

    I find it curious how often scientists step outside the bounds of science, make pronouncements of a philosophical nature, and then seem to expect the rest of us simply to accept what they say because of their authority within science.

    I find Carroll quite philosphically naive. How could he not realize that the attempt to make science the gate-keeper of all theoretical knowledge self-refutes in the way to detail in the last section?

  3. I don’t think he’s saying that science/empirical evidence is the only way to know things—there are some things that are known by other means. But God, like all other independently existent beings, isn’t one of them.

    I don’t think any philosophical argument for God’s existence works in the least (many theologians have thought much the same) and its not a self-evident tautology like principles of logic. I don’t see any reliable way to know God exists other than through empirical evidence. Good empirical evidence would do vastly more to establish the existence of God than 10,000 philosophical arguments or mystical/religious experiences.

    The only reason religious people put down empirical evidence as a basis for belief is that they don’t have it. If angels and spirits of the departed regularly visited earth performing miracles and preaching the Gospel you’d be happy to rely on this empirical evidence as the reason why nonbelief was utterly irrational. Since no such evidence is available believers downplay its importance and say things like Tom said: “that science is the wrong approach to these questions”.

    Its the wrong approach only if one has a pre-selected conclusion and will use whatever rationalizations one can to reach it.

  4. Tom Gilson says:

    @david ellis:

    If angels and spirits of the departed regularly visited earth performing miracles and preaching the Gospel you’d be happy to rely on this empirical evidence as the reason why nonbelief was utterly irrational.

    Well, of course we would! But would that make that evidence scientific? I know, the definition of science is problematical. But what kinds of regularities are you talking about? What kinds of laws? What kinds of predictions? If the phenomena were as regular as natural law, and therefore as susceptible to a scientific approach, what kind of impersonal God would that imply?

    A God who acts in nature but not so mechanistically is the kind of God we believe in and follow. We believe in him because of his revelation in history, primarily—because of observation, in other words. The philosophical arguments are considerably better, in my opinion, than you say they are, but they’re not the main way in which we know God either. It’s largely empirical, but as history, not as science.

    Science alone does not rule epistemology. Where it’s competent it’s very competent, but when people try to pronounce “scientifically” on areas outside science’s competence, they don’t reflect very knowledgeably on themselves, and they embarrass science.


  5. Well, of course we would! But would that make that evidence scientific?

    It would be empirical evidence. Recall I specifically said “scientific/empirical evidence” because while science deals in empirical evidence not all empirical evidence sufficient to warrant belief is the result of scientific experiment. I think what the writer probably had in mind is the broader sense of that which is subject to scientific study—things that are empirically observable. Besides, in the scenario I proposed there would be plenty scientists could investigate. Miraculous healings, for example. Especially if the supernatural beings were cooperative.


    We believe in him because of his revelation in history, primarily—because of observation, in other words.

    The historical evidence for Christianity is clearly paltry at best. If I was to accept Christianity on the basis of evidence this weak I don’t see how I could consistently apply such a standard of evidence and not believe mountains of other supernatural claims—most of them inconsistent with Christianity. This is so obvious that I don’t think historical evidence could be the actual reason for your, or any other Christian’s, belief. Its almost certainly mere raitonalization.

  6. Tom Gilson says:

    Let me add that you’re right, Sean Carroll did not explicitly say he denies all other sources of knowledge. It’s implicit there. Other people have made claims of that sort, and I’ll acknowledge that I read that in to what he said.

    What he explicitly did say, however, was that there was no religious knowledge unless it was scientific knowledge. Given that knowledge of values has historically come from religion in the Western world, and from non-scientific sources everywhere, I think it’s entirely appropriate to conclude that his saw cuts off knowledge of values as well.

    And if it cuts off knowledge of values, then it cuts off knowledge of values like progress, discovery, honesty, sharing of information, quest for knowledge, and the betterment of humankind. How well do you think science will stay attached to the tree when those limbs are removed?


  7. What he explicitly did say, however, was that there was no religious knowledge unless it was scientific knowledge. Given that knowledge of values has historically come from religion in the Western world, and from non-scientific sources everywhere, I think it’s entirely appropriate to conclude that his saw cuts off knowledge of values as well.

    I don’t think we can reasonably conclude this from his comments. It seems clear to me that when he says religious knowledge he’s talking about knowledge of the existence or nonexistence of God, gods, angels, demons, reincarnation, an afterlife and other supernatural beings and phenomena.

    Not about values. Obviously, if he doesn’t believe in the supernatural he doesn’t believe real knowledge of values is derived from supernatural claims.

    What his actual views on values are we can’t reasonably conclude from his comments. Too many possibilities are consistent with what he said to think otherwise.

  8. Tom Gilson says:

    Do you think he is looking to science to provide him knowledge of values? He seems to be saying science is where knowledge comes from, after all.

  9. Tom Gilson says:

    Regarding historical evidence, I really don’t know what to say to this, David:

    If I was to accept Christianity on the basis of evidence this weak I don’t see how I could consistently apply such a standard of evidence and not believe mountains of other supernatural claims—most of them inconsistent with Christianity.

    That’s obviously wrong, and it’s surprising to see you suggest it. There just aren’t any other religions with historical claims like those of Christianity. I don’t think that’s the least bit controversial. I mean, there aren’t any others that even claim to ground their beliefs in historical events, the way Christianity does. (Judaism is the only exception, but Christianity shares its Old Testament claims.) So if there aren’t any others that even try to make historical claims like Christianity’s, how could they produce equally credible historical evidence for their claims?

    “Clearly paltry at best,” you say. Clear to whom?? If it was that clear, don’t you think there would be consensus among historians about it?

    I think the historical evidence is strong. That, I’ll admit, is controversial. But to call it clearly paltry is to display ignorance of the field, or else hubris.

    Someday, ideally, I’d love to see you agree that the evidence is strong, but I recognize that’s a long stretch from here. I’ll try something more reasonable: I’d like to see you own up to the fact that “clearly paltry” is clearly, uncontroversially wrong.


  10. I’ll try something more reasonable: I’d like to see you own up to the fact that “clearly paltry” is clearly, uncontroversially wrong.

    I’m sure you’d like that. But its not going to happen (barring some new major discovery providing new evidence). Even in the days when I believed in Christianity I found these claims about good historical evidence for Christian beliefs to be utterly absurd.


    I mean, there aren’t any others that even claim to ground their beliefs in historical events, the way Christianity does. (Judaism is the only exception, but Christianity shares its Old Testament claims.) So if there aren’t any others that even try to make historical claims like Christianity’s, how could they produce equally credible historical evidence for their claims?

    First, what I said wasn’t limited to the major modern religions. I said supernatural claims in general. If I applied a standard of evidence so low as to accept christianity on the basis of historical evidence and the strength of the testimony made in the documents recording these claims then I can hardly think what supernatural or extraordinary claim I WOULDN’T accept. Claims by people who claim to have remembered recent past lives and then investigated those lives and find them to be true, as just one example among thousands one could choose from. Plenty of those people are still alive today. One doesn’t need to rely on documents of uncertain authorship of which we don’t have the original. One has the direct testimony of living persons. Same goes for alien abduction (not supernatural, but sufficiently out there). Or the claims of people that they’ve seen yogis and psychics who can perform supernatural feats.

    Really, with standards that low what wouldn’t one believe?

    About the only things that wouldn’t pass muster are those claims that have been definitely proven false—like the various sects (Christian and otherwise) who’ve claimed that the world was going to end on a specific date and when the date came the world went right on same as ever.

    But I’m not interested in going back and forth with you about it. This is something so obviously false as to not be worth my time debating—like when Muslims claim that the Quran exhibited advanced scientific knowledge impossible for the time—no one not already a believer in Islam and willing to accept almost any apologetic argument for their faith would accept the ridiculous arguments they make for this claim.

    And the claim that we have solid historical evidence for the supernatural claims of Christianity is, to be blunt (and I don’t really know any other way to be), of exactly the same sort—the kind of thing only a believer willing to accept almost any rationalization would buy.

  11. Tom Gilson says:

    Really, with standards that low what wouldn’t one believe?

    Agreed. Wholeheartedly. I certainly wouldn’t set my standards that low. What on earth causes you to think Christianity sets its standards that low????

  12. Joseph A. says:

    As an aside, just because someone of a different faith makes a claim about some encounter with the supernatural doesn’t mean a Christian has to automatically reject it as complete bunk, or even mostly bunk. Just as the event of a Christian making a claim about the supernatural doesn’t mean other Christians have to (or even have warrant to) accept the claim wholeheartedly. Christians aren’t obligated to believe that every non-Christian claim about the supernatural or nonphysical has no basis in reality – they can simply question the nature of the claim.

    Either way, Tom is right: Carroll’s argument against religion here is tremendously sloppy to say the least. “Science” doesn’t say “none of that is true”. If anything, the reply is “science can’t verify or falsify that claim”. Really, not much more needs to be said on that front – Carroll tried to give a scientific response to such claims and utterly whiffed it. Most of his argument collapses on the spot due to that alone, and his claim of across the board incompatibility of science with religion goes right down the toilet as a result.

    But I’d disagree with Tom and David both on one point: The idea that one can “reliably know God exists” through empirical evidence alone is a laugh. Just think about what you’re talking about: Empirical evidence for an eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, immaterial being who is also the ground of all existence. If you’re lucky, empirical evidence can provide compelling truth that you’re dealing with some being of considerable power – and even then, once you hit a certain assumed level of power, any “empirical evidence” becomes untrustworthy towards a definite conclusion. Philosophy, faith, personal experience – sorry, neither science nor empirical evidence can replace these things.

    And, while the topic of the validity and trustworthiness of the gospel is tremendously important, let me repeat this one important point related to the OP: Carroll’s argument fails terribly, and obviously. It’s really /that bad/. This point should not be forgotten, given that A) Carroll is a scientist of some note, B) He’s an atheist, and C) He unwittingly highlights a truck-sized hole in what is one of the most popular new atheist arguments. Even if someone insists that Carroll’s atheism can be justified in other ways, that failure should not be forgotten.

  13. Tom Gilson says:

    Joseph, thank you for that word of encouragement. And I agree, if I said that one can have knowledge of God’s existence through empirical evidence alone, I misspoke, and I would not want that statement to stand. Empirical evidence is one of many ways we gain information/knowledge about God. Understood broadly, to include the evidence of history as recorded in the Bible, it is probably the most important ways we know about God. Understood narrowly in terms of scientific method it is practically irrelevant. In any event it is just one among many avenues to knowledge of God.

  14. Tony Hoffman says:

    Daniel Dennett recently wondered aloud what questions theology answers that science does not. The criticism here, of course, is that theology doesn’t really answer questions in a meaningful way — it speculates, stipulates, etc., but it doesn’t provide us with knowledge of the same quality that science has given us.

    I can’t think of anything that a specific religion can offer me that I can’t find somewhere else – either another, competing religion, with no practical way of distinguishing between the competing claims available to me (how do judge which religion is actually saving souls, for instance?), or through reason, or history, or institutions, etc.

    I am not saying that religion is per se destructive, should be stamped out, etc. I think it serves a valuable purpose for many people, in many societies, etc., that many critics are too quick to dismiss. But I have always thought too many people give theology a free ride when they acknowledge that science can’t answer certain kinds of questions that theology does – I’d say that (the field of) theology often guesses where (the field of) science acknowledges there are no means to determine the answer.

    Tom,

    I have to second David Ellis’s comments on the historical claims of Christianity. I don’t want to take up too much space, but if you thought it would be helpful I’d be happy to list what I think are the problems with regarding Jesus’s resurrection as a historical truth, for example.

  15. Tom Gilson says:

    Sure, Tony, go ahead and provide us that list, please. I’ll probably “hijack” it to another post when I have time to do that…

  16. Tom Gilson says:

    @Tony Hoffman:

    Daniel Dennett’s answer to his own question about theology is understandable on the one hand, and ludicrous on the other. I’ll start with the ludicrous, and I think you’ll agree with me on this. Theology answers a whole raft of questions science doesn’t answer: why there are values, what happens to souls after they die, why the universe exists, and much, much more.

    The understandable part of it for someone like Dennett is that he wasn’t talking about answers, he was talking about answers that he could rely on, answers that were clear and incontestable.

    The Christian response to that is that even though there are competing answers from other religions, where those answers contradict the biblical one, the biblical one is right and they are wrong. (Biblical Christianity takes an unabashedly firm stance on exclusive truth.) There is a reliable, trustworthy set of answers, and they come from one world religion. The answers given by biblical Christianity aren’t guesses, they’re knowledge, except in the case of some doctrines we freely understand are guesses, or some disputed doctrines (the proper mode of baptism, for example) that most recognize are not at the core of Christian belief.

  17. ordinary seeker says:

    Tom, you wrote, “In fact, they illustrate precisely the opposite: that science is the wrong approach to these questions. Even those who doubt that there is any way to get good answers to those questions must admit that science can’t do it.” Aren’t you actually agreeing here with what you said you disagreed with, Gould’s NOMA? You can’t have it both ways.


  18. What on earth causes you to think Christianity sets its standards that low????

    The “that low” in my statement was referring to a standard low enough to regard the evidence for the historicity of the New Testament’s supernatural claims as sufficient to be rationally persuaded they’re true. Why I think you set it at that level is BECAUSE YOU SAID YOU DO.

    My point (and where we probably disagree) is that if one accepted NT claims on such evidence then, if one actually applied such a standard consistently (something I think no Christian does—and which is precisely my point), then there’s little one wouldn’t accept as fact.


    Joseph: Christians aren’t obligated to believe that every non-Christian claim about the supernatural or nonphysical has no basis in reality – they can simply question the nature of the claim.

    Yes, I recall one encounter with an enthusiastic Christian evangelist at college in which, when I made a point about the claim many have made to have seen yogis with supernatural powers, her first reaction was not to recognize my point about how easily people are deceived and self-deceived, but to assume that the yogis were possessed by demons who gave them supernatural powers.

    I really wish more religious people read James Randi’s books and website. Or Skeptical Enquirer. Or at least had some passing acquaintance with the debunking of the claims of psychics and other frauds.


    But I’d disagree with Tom and David both on one point: The idea that one can “reliably know God exists” through empirical evidence alone is a laugh. Just think about what you’re talking about: Empirical evidence for an eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, immaterial being who is also the ground of all existence.

    Really? You wouldn’t consider the people who observed Jesus’ miracles and resurrection to have pretty sound empirical evidence of the existence of God? Nor those who witness his second coming?

    Sure, we wouldn’t have specific exacting confirmation of his omniscience or omnipotence. But to require such is setting the standard artificially high—higher than even we nonbelievers typically set it.

  19. [...] I’m working on making the notes web-friendly. In the meantime you can see or join in a discussion begun yesterday on one of the talk topics, Sean Carroll’s claim on the Discover Magazine blog that religion is incompatible with science. [...]

  20. Tom Gilson says:

    @ordinary seeker:

    NOMA says there is no overlap. My position is that there is some overlap. There are matters of fact and knowledge on which both science and religion speak. Therefore NOMA is incorrect. But the overlap is not 100%; there are matters on which science speaks and religion is essentially silent, and some on which religion speaks but science has nothing to say.

  21. Tom Gilson says:

    @david ellis:

    I’m still wondering the same thing as before.

    Earlier you said that my (and other Christians’) standard for testimony was as low as standards for accepting (for example) stories of past lives. I asked why you would say that. My assumption was that you actually had some description of what those standards were, and how they failed to pass muster. Now you say this:

    The “that low” in my statement was referring to a standard low enough to regard the evidence for the historicity of the New Testament’s supernatural claims as sufficient to be rationally persuaded they’re true. Why I think you set it at that level is BECAUSE YOU SAID YOU DO.

    You’re scoffing at me for accepting a supernatural claim, just on the basis of its being supernatural. The question had been, why do you consider my standards to be as low as the others that you had mentioned? In the process of answering you’ve dropped any pretense of an actual standard, other than this: any claim that accepts that the supernatural has occurred is using laughably low standards.

    So let me ask, does evidence enter into your standards, or is it automatically “that low” if one accepts a supernatural event? More plainly: is your standard one that cares about evidence, or is it evidence-free?

    Going back to your original statement of the point:

    What I said wasn’t limited to the major modern religions. I said supernatural claims in general. If I applied a standard of evidence so low as to accept christianity on the basis of historical evidence and the strength of the testimony made in the documents recording these claims then I can hardly think what supernatural or extraordinary claim I WOULDN’T accept. Claims by people who claim to have remembered recent past lives and then investigated those lives and find them to be true, as just one example among thousands one could choose from. Plenty of those people are still alive today. One doesn’t need to rely on documents of uncertain authorship of which we don’t have the original. One has the direct testimony of living persons. Same goes for alien abduction (not supernatural, but sufficiently out there). Or the claims of people that they’ve seen yogis and psychics who can perform supernatural feats.
    Really, with standards that low what wouldn’t one believe?

    You’re saying that my standards for historical investigation are as low as the standards employed by people who believe in past lives and alien abductions. That’s quite simply wrong. There are tests for documents and testimony, and Christianity has been facing those tests for thousands of years, and there are still boatloads of scholars, and reams of scholarship, to show its credibility.

    To place it on the level of past lives testimony is absurd.


  22. Earlier you said that my (and other Christians’) standard for testimony was as low as standards for accepting (for example) stories of past lives…..The question had been, why do you consider my standards to be as low as the others that you had mentioned?

    Its pretty simple and obvious. We have more and better evidence for reincarnation (despite the evidence for reincarnation being nowhere near sufficient for a reasonable, unbiased person to be convinced) than we do for Christianity.

    Whereas the Christian believer has mostly anonymous documents, not many of those, and not the original, for reincarnation we have the testimony of many living individuals (and far more of them). I’m not going into great detail on this because, frankly, it’s too bloody obvious that we have grossly insufficient grounds for believing the claims of christianity on the basis of the historical evidence to be worthy of debate. Not to mention that I have better things to do than outline the evidence claimed to provide rational foundation for belief in reincarnation. You’re free to read up on that at your leisure. Its merely an example of the countless supernatural or extraordinary claims at least equally, and in many cases far better, supported by the evidence—and yet which probably neither of us would find the evidence sufficient to for a reasonable person to be convinced by .


    There are tests for documents and testimony, and Christianity has been facing those tests for thousands of years, and there are still boatloads of scholars, and reams of scholarship, to show its credibility.

    If you wish to go into detail on these tests that the supernatural claims of Christianity pass then bring it on—I’ll be happy to give my refutation when you attempt it. Until then I’m not going to waste my time refuting an unsupported and obviously ridiculous assertion.

  23. Sorry about the delay in contributing: I spent the weekend flying to Shenzhen, China. So I missed these oddities:

    Daniel Dennett’s answer to his own question about theology is understandable on the one hand, and ludicrous on the other. I’ll start with the ludicrous, and I think you’ll agree with me on this. Theology answers a whole raft of questions science doesn’t answer: why there are values, what happens to souls after they die, why the universe exists, and much, much more.

    Science certainly answers “why there are values”, and goes further, to explain why those values are the way they are. Perhaps you should read up on evolutionary psychology. Science doesn’t say anything about souls, except to ask what you mean by the word; since there is no good evidence for the existence of such supernatural entities, and profound problems with even the metaphysical idea (see below), it seems churlish to expect science to answer such a question. And as for “why the universe exists”, science happily acknowledges that there are good information-theoretic reasons why the question is unanswerable. Not all questions that can be asked have answers, you know. (Of course science also rejects the equivocation on “why” which religious types so often inject at this point.)

    The understandable part of it for someone like Dennett is that he wasn’t talking about answers, he was talking about answers that he could rely on, answers that were clear and incontestable.

    That’s overstating it a bit. Having studied with Dan, he certainly wants “clear”, but “incontestable” is to much to ask for. What he wants are answers that are, in principle, independent of the observer and derived by repeatable methods. That rules out any kind of appeal to authority, and strongly encourages experiment.

    I remember attending a class with Dan in which he was discussing Descartes. There has always been this big problem with the causal relationship between a putative “soul” and the human mind. We all agree that physical phenomena (drugs, injury, hormones, etc.) affect the mind, but how does a non-physical supernatural entity like the soul do so? If it induces physical changes in the state of the brain, what’s the causal connection, and doesn’t this violate the conservation of energy? Descartes postulated that the pineal gland was the brain-soul interface. Does that solve the problem? If the pineal gland is a physical system, the answer is clearly no.

    There were several (younger) students in the class who were clearly uncomfortable about this: was Dan saying that souls, and the afterlife, didn’t exist? Dan made it clear: he wasn’t making an argument about this one way or the other. What he was saying is that if someone believes in souls, and believes that souls have a causal effect on the physical world (the brain), they have to explain this relationship in such a way that anyone examining the workings of a brain could observe the effects. Otherwise there was nothing that science could (or should) say about souls.

    The Christian response to that is that even though there are competing answers from other religions, where those answers contradict the biblical one, the biblical one is right and they are wrong. (Biblical Christianity takes an unabashedly firm stance on exclusive truth.) There is a reliable, trustworthy set of answers, and they come from one world religion. The answers given by biblical Christianity aren’t guesses, they’re knowledge.

    So you agree: science and religion are not compatible. Because you clearly believe that an argument from authority (your particular authority) trumps any evidence, reason, or analysis. So why aren’t you congratulating Sean Carroll for stating as fact what you believe to be true?

    Oh, wait. You say “competing answers from other religions”. And science isn’t a religion: it’s simply an epistemological stance. But it’s a stance which absolutely rejects arguments from authority. So I repeat: why aren’t you congratulating Carroll for making your case so well?

  24. Tom Gilson says:

    @david ellis,

    Since you’re not providing evidence with any substance to support your claim, I’ll let it drop.

    @Geoff Arnold:

    Oddities? How droll.

    I’m quite familiar with EvoPsych, and your timing is impeccable. EvoPsych is non-science. For years it has been the classic example of a theory that could explain everything, and therefore explains nothing. Why are men faithful to their wives? EvoPsych. Why do men run around? EvoPsych. Why do men practice chivalry? EvoPsych. Why do men rape? EvoPsych.

    That’s the surface answer, and I think though it’s a surface answer, it survives diving to the depths. I have a different depth answer on a related topic here.

    Science doesn’t say anything about souls, except to ask what you mean by the word; since there is no good evidence for the existence of such supernatural entities, and profound problems with even the metaphysical idea (see below), it seems churlish to expect science to answer such a question.

    Thank you. Was that directed at Sean Carroll who expected science to answer such a question (he said science had disproved it), or at me who said that was the wrong thing to expect from science?

    And as for “why the universe exists”, science happily acknowledges that there are good information-theoretic reasons why the question is unanswerable.

    I beging to wonder whether you missed the question that Tony raised (from Dennett), which was, are there questions science can’t answer that theology can.? Theology can answer that question. Science can’t. Whether science is “happy” with that situation is a different issue. If you meet “science” in some conference somewhere, please ask.

    See further here, on Dennett and the metaphysics of the soul.

    I’ll respond to the authority question in another day or two. Interesting stuff, thanks for the conversation.

  25. Geoff,

    You fail to make a pertinent distinction. You say:

    Science certainly answers “why there are values”, and goes further, to explain why those values are the way they are.

    Science might perhaps explain why we hold the values we do. But it cannot by itself explain which are the correct values among those that are held.

    That we hold a certain value is (let us say) a physical state within the brain. Science can then look into its genesis and perhaps tell a plausible story about how it came to be. But the values themselves are not physical states. Values don’t tell us how things as a matter of fact are; they tell us how they ought to be. And it’s quite possible that a certain fact of the matter is not as it ought to be. (Infant abandonment has been quite common throughout history. Science can perhaps explain why this has been thought permissible. But this does not imply that it is actually permissible. I would think it indisputable that at least some cases were not permissible. The scientific explanation can only tell us why what is is. It can never tell us whether what is should be that way or not.)

    Science reveals facts, not values. It tells us what is, not what ought to be. Though science might reveal the why of values in a sense – why we hold them – it cannot reveal why the correct ones are correct. From science, morality does not come.

  26. Tom Gilson says:

    Thank you, Franklin. I’m embarrassed I missed that!

  27. On values: try substituting, mutatis mutandis the word “language” for “values”. Then your paragraph reads in part:

    That we speak a certain language is (let us say) a physical state within the brain. Science can then look into its genesis and perhaps tell a plausible story about how it came to be. But the languages themselves are not physical states

    But the last sentence doesn’t follow. In fact, languages are precisely physical states: patterns of utterance and interpretation replicated (with variations) in millions of brains, and transferred from brains to brains by socialization and education. Some have speculated that there are a set of “hardware” mechanisms which facilitate (and, presumably, constrain this process, but that’s relatively unimportant.

    Nobody argues about which the “correct language” is. (Well, no sane persons.) We can’t say whether French or English is more correct. We can debate the origins of each, and the relative effectiveness of each in expressing certain things. And we would certainly note the existence of deep commonalities between different languages.

    Well, values are languages. They are languages that we use to talk about patterns of behaviour that we collectively approve or disapprove of. Like language, values are contingent, in space and time. Just as it would be difficult to speak with an Elizabethan Englishman, because of the evolution of language, it would be difficult to communicate about values with an Elizabethan Christian, for who slavery, burning heretics at the stake, and treating schizophrenia with exorcism were perfectly Christian values.

    Your values are patterns in your brain which influence your response to certain stimuli. Nothing magical, supernatural, or un-scientific about them. Values are not extra-human things that tell us the way things ought to be: they are linguistic expressions that we use to tell each other how we imagine things ought to be.

  28. Tom Gilson says:

    Nobody argues about which the “correct language” is. (Well, no sane persons.) …. Well, values are languages. They are languages that we use to talk about patterns of behaviour that we collectively approve or disapprove of.

    That’s a strong, definitive statement. What’s your evidence for it? Is your evidence scientific evidence? Do you have an empirical demonstration of it? In other words, how do you know it’s true, and how do you know contrary opinions are not?

    If I said that the values of honesty in science, or seeking knowledge for its own sake, or seeking knowledge to improve the human condition, were not things any sane person could actually argue about since there are no “correct” values to be found there, would you argue with me anyway?

  29. Geoff,

    So, I take it that you think it impossible for anyone to be incorrect in the values they hold.

    Second point: science itself is a value-driven endeavor. It values truth above all else. Moreover, in the construction of scientific theory, you’ll find many values called open: value is placed in simplicity, explanatory power, predictive power, etc.

    Lots of value is non-moral in nature. The values I’ve described above are epistemological in nature, but they are values nonetheless; and like all values, they don’t simply describe how things have gone, rather they describe how things ought to go.

    Thus, if all value is contingent and culture-relative (as you seem to wish to say), so too is science. On your view, science, just like morality, would come to be one of a plethora of ways in which one might come to the world, with no objective reason to prefer one over the other.

    I take it that most scientists reject this. The values that science exemplifies are quite objectively good, they would say; and if you disagreed, they’d think you were just flat wrong.

  30. Tom Gilson says:

    I see we’re on a similar track here. I would apply the old saying, “great minds think alike”–and the description may fit Franklin perfectly–but I know better than to take that kind of credit for myself. I don’t think the question we’re asking requires a great mind. It seems rather obvious.

    Geoff, if you have an answer that actually makes sense in view of your overall position, I’ll be very interested to read it.

  31. SteveK says:

    Geoff,

    Your values are patterns in your brain which influence your response to certain stimuli.

    If values ARE physical brain patterns, then please explain how you obtain knowledge of your own values when you don’t have access to them via the 5 senses? What other physical things do you have knowledge of that you cannot see, touch, hear, smell, or taste?

  32. [...] Sean Carroll, a physicist at CalTech, says science and religion are incompatible. And here’s a response to the article from Thinking Christian. [...]

  33. A quick pass through @FranklinMason’s piece; @SteveK’s “magical thinking” about the 5 senses isn’t worth discussing.

    So, I take it that you think it impossible for anyone to be incorrect in the values they hold.

    Incorrect according to whom? Flip back to the language analogy, and remember “My Fair Lady”. To be an accepted member of a social group is, in part, to use the language of that group. In school children learn what is, and is not, “correct” spelling, grammar, and usage. Same with values.

    Second point: science itself is a value-driven endeavor. It values truth above all else. Moreover, in the construction of scientific theory, you’ll find many values called open: value is placed in simplicity, explanatory power, predictive power, etc.

    Yup. Science is a human endeavor, and as such we use the language of values to express many aspects of it.

    Lots of value is non-moral in nature. The values I’ve described above are epistemological in nature, but they are values nonetheless; and like all values, they don’t simply describe how things have gone, rather they describe how things ought to go.

    Let’s correct your drift here. We use the language of values to describe how we think things ought to go. Values (and language) are not free-floating absolutes; they are aspects of human thought and communication.

    Thus, if all value is contingent and culture-relative (as you seem to wish to say), so too is science. On your view, science, just like morality, would come to be one of a plethora of ways in which one might come to the world, with no objective reason to prefer one over the other.

    You know, people seem to think that as soon as something is described as “contingent”, all bets are off: that it could be not just different, but anything at all. But “contingent” means “dependent”, and things like language and culture – and science – are strongly constrained by the facts that they depend on. Case in point: our eyes evolved to be sensitive to particular wavelengths of light and particular types of visual stimuli: they’re good at detecting vertically symmetrical patterns, not so good at horizontal or rotational patterns. There are good adaptive reasons for this (e.g. threat detection), but it’s not the only kind of vision, as a quick trawl through the evo-devo literature will explain. It’s contingent: it could have been different. We could have evolved as nocturnal creatures, in which case we might have large eyes like Tarsiers with increased sensitivity to infra-red.

    Now the point about this is that while the form of our vision is contingent, it’s not random. We didn’t get to choose our vision. We could tweak it a bit (with glasses), but we couldn’t rewire it. (More on that carefully-chosen verb form later.) And the same is true of things like language and values – and science.

    Our language and values are contingent on our biology. If we had evolved with enhanced infra-red vision, we would be able to directly sense many more physiological phenomena – we might be able to “see” certain kinds of emotions and pains. Our languages would reflect this. Or if, as nocturnal creatures, we had evolved an enhanced sense of smell, we might rely on olfactory evidence and prefer it over visual. Now think about all of the ways that vision, and metaphorical uses of “see” and “perceive” crop up in your language – and, yes, in your values. “Seeing is believing”. How about “smelling is believing”?

    And of course you use the “objective” word, which suggests that you hold true to the obsolete dichotomy that everything is either objective or subjective: absolute, or personal. Sorry: those words don’t really mean very much. They are just another piece of the language of values: ways that we communicate about social preferences.

    I take it that most scientists reject this. The values that science exemplifies are quite objectively good, they would say; and if you disagreed, they’d think you were just flat wrong.

    Scientists are human; scientists use human language to communicate about science; when that communication involves “how” and “why”, scientists use those aspects of language which evolved to talk about such things, which is the language of values.

    No scientist would say that there are no values. They would (mostly) say that they aren’t what you seem to think they are. Scientists have arrived at the “rules” and “values” of science because they work: they lead to repeatable results, and minimize the likelihood of fraud and deception (especially self-deception!).

    I said earlier that I would comment on the “we couldn’t rewire our vision” thing. Well, of course we are now getting close to the point where we can, and things are going to get quite interesting. Will our values change as we change? They always have in the past.

    We are, understandably, parochial creatures. We pay lots of attention to the time and space around us: the recent past (say, the last couple of thousand years, the next century), and the planet which we inhabit. These preferences are, of course, contingent: contingent on our physical size, our senses, our environment, our natural (i.e. evolved) life span, and historical factors like the invention of writing and social institutions. Humans had a long, rich history stretching over hundreds of thousands of years before writing emerged, but of course we have almost no record of their lives, their societies, their gods, and their values. From this point of view, the last two thousand years is just an historical blip. And if we take an even longer look, we’ll realize that this whole human thing is just a contingent blip; when the next cosmic collision wipes out 90% of life on the planet, as has happened many times in the past, what survives and flourishes isn’t going to be human. But that’s OK.

  34. Geoff,

    And why am I supposed to care about repeatable results? Why should I care whether I avoid self-deception or not?

    You seem to assume that I do. You seem to assume that I ought to. But on your account of value – that it’s a contingent matter wholly dependent upon the particular details of our species and cultural history – that I do care about them (on the assumption that I do) is simply how things happened to have gone, and they could have gone quite differently. I could have valued falsehood; and if I did, that’d be just fine. For on your view, there is no perspective-independent, that is objective, way in which to locate value. (Take objective to mean that which obtains regardless of point of view. “The Earth orbits the sun” is quite objective, for no matter who you are it is true for you (even if you do not know or believe it). “Chocolate is tasty” is subjective. It is true for some, false for others. This is the standard way in which the distinction is made; the distinction is not obsolete but is I think really quite clear.)

    Here’s how the matter looks to me. You gave me a long argument (I’ll be charitable – some might say that it’s not an argument but rather a longish series of unargued assertions, and I have to admit that I see their point). As you gave that argument, you seemed to me to draw upon certain principles of rationality. But the very conclusion of the argument is that any such principles must be relative, and that saps the argument of any probative force. If principles of rationality are contingent upon history in the way to suggest, I can think of no reason why I’m obligated to buy them. I can take or leave them as I like.

    (Assume in the future that I know how to use such words as “contingent”. I know that it does not mean “random”. I took it to imply “potentially different”, and this indeed it does. That which is dependent will vary its nature with variation of that on which it depends.)

  35. SteveK says:

    Geoff,

    @SteveK’s “magical thinking” about the 5 senses isn’t worth discussing.

    My question is a serious one. I never said thinking was magical, I just took what you said and formulated a question based on that. If I misunderstood your comment then now is the time for you to clarify. Did you really not mean to say that your values are exactly the same thing as your physical brain pattern?

  36. Tom Gilson says:

    Geoff, there’s another statement of the problem still out there awaiting your response. I’ll repeat it:

    “If I said that the values of honesty in science, or seeking knowledge for its own sake, or seeking knowledge to improve the human condition, were not things any sane person could actually argue about since there are no “correct” values to be found there, would you argue with me anyway??

  37. In haste, because I have to head off to work. (It’s 7:18am here in China).

    @FranklinMason: writes: And why am I supposed to care about repeatable results? Why should I care whether I avoid self-deception or not?

    Why do we have scales in markets, and authorities to enforce the uniformity or weights and measures? You care about repeatable results, whether it’s weighing apples or measuring brain function, because you (presumably) want others to accept your apples or results. A solipsist need not care; someone trying to influence others must necessarily care.

    You write: I could have valued falsehood; and if I did, that’d be just fine. Unpack these two distinct points. I take your first to mean that it is possible that you (i.e. an arbitrary human) could have valued – held as important – some false assertion, some untruth. Well, yes, you could. And people have. Take astrology, for instance. People have placed great value on the idea that planets and stars influence human lives. This idea is false: the propositions of astrology are false.

    “If I did, that’s just fine”. Fine to whom? It’s an historical fact that many people, from Roman emperors to Nancy Reagan, believed in astrology. They were deluded, they were wrong to believe that. However my approval (“that’s fine”) seems neither here no there. Now if you proposed that we should take a course of action and offered as justification the language of your horoscope, I wouldn’t find that “fine”. I’d argue against it.

    An argument based on relative contingent factors only “loses probative force” to someone who believes that there is an alternative. (I almost wrote “under the delusion that there is some alternative”.)

  38. One final point on contingency and relativity, before I leave for work. It’s one of my favourite quotations:

    “It will not be humans who witness the demise of the Sun six billion years hence: it will be entities as different from us as we are from bacteria.” – Sir Martin Rees

    Ponder on that.

  39. @TomGilson:
    “If I said that the values of honesty in science, or seeking knowledge for its own sake, or seeking knowledge to improve the human condition, were not things any sane person could actually argue about since there are no “correct” values to be found there, would you argue with me anyway??

    I don’t understand this. Your grammar is garbled. Values are held to be “correct” by a society. They hold these values for contingent, adaptive reasons; they are not capricious or arbitrary. This is as true of science as it is of medical ethics, social institutions, and so forth. These values include emphases on consistency, predictability, and rationality.

    If you disagree, there’s probably not much point in me arguing with you.

  40. Tom Gilson says:

    No, Geoff, I don’t disagree. Not with what you said most recently, that is. I’m trying to show the implications of what you yourself said. I’ll try again, maybe I really was unclear.

    You compared values to language. Strongly compared, them, actually. You wrote,

    Nobody argues about which the “correct language” is. (Well, no sane persons.) We can’t say whether French or English is more correct. We can debate the origins of each, and the relative effectiveness of each in expressing certain things. And we would certainly note the existence of deep commonalities between different languages.
    Well, values are languages. They are languages that we use to talk about patterns of behaviour that we collectively approve or disapprove of

    What you are saying is that values should be regarded the way languages are, and that there is no “correct” or “incorrect” language, and that no sane person would argue over which language is correct. I have concluded then that you believe that no sane person would argue over which values are correct.

    So I proposed a test. Suppose I took up a position such as the one I stated before: that these values:
    — honesty in science
    —seeking knowledge for its own sake
    —seeking knowledge to improve the human condition

    … were the sort of things that no sane person could argue about. That seems to be the conclusion to be drawn from your statement.

    Suppose I explained further, on the basis of your stated position, that this was because there were no “correct” values, and that if there are no values that are “correct,” then these values held so dear by science are not correct.

    Suppose I further said that since there is no such thing as a “correct” value, then the person who affirms these values is no more correct than the person who denies them; or conversely, that the person who advocates dishonesty, who disregards the value of knowledge for its own sake, who scoffs at the value of knowledge for furthering the human condition, is just as correct as the person who disagrees with him.

    Suppose I also said that society holding these values for “contingent, adaptive reasons,” means nothing to me and it should also mean nothing to you, because “adaptive” is also a value that “no sane persons” should or would argue about.

    Suppose I took the position thus stated. Would you argue against it? You shouldn’t, based on what you have said above, because “no sane persons” do that, you say. But if you don’t argue against it, then what do you believe, and what do you care about?

  41. Geoff,

    I’m not sure what precisely you propose. You hint at an historical/causal account of the values present in the sciences and elsewhere. Does that account draw upon evolutionary history, cultural history, personal history, . . .? I’d like to have a clear target.

    Small point: I didn’t mean for us to consider this or that particular bit of science (or pseudo-science). I meant instead to consider those values that drive the construction of scientific theory – like, for instance, the value of truth and of simplicity. No doubt astrology is false; I did not mean to dispute that. What I did mean to say is this: it seems quite possible that, had the history of our species been different, we would have valued something else. And if as you say there is no fact of the matter about which is the best set of values among all possible, if the set had been different, there’d be nothing wrong. This seems profoundly strange to me, so strange that I must reject any view which implies it. If by some circumstance our (or another) species were to have come to value falsehood just as we value truth, they’d have a faulty value set.

    You might reply that contingency does not in all cases imply potential variability. Perhaps evolution could not have produced a species that valued falsehood as we value truth. If so, my argument above would be undercut. But then the onus would be upon you to prove that evolution is circumscribed in this way.

  42. @FranklinMason: there’s a fascinating equivocation in your core position which deserves a little consideration. You said:
    And if as you say there is no fact of the matter about which is the best set of values among all possible, if the set had been different, there’d be nothing wrong. This seems profoundly strange to me, so strange that I must reject any view which implies it. If by some circumstance our (or another) species were to have come to value falsehood just as we value truth, they’d have a faulty value set.

    How do we determine which set of values is “best”? Is it a value judgement? That would seem to introduce a vicious circularity. And “nothing wrong” implies another value judgement, doesn’t it? It’s not clear how you could “step outside” the context of your own values to compare one set of values with another, since the act of making such an evaluation is simply a result of your values.

    Both Aztecs and medieval Christians burned people to death for various reasons. Today, we (well, most of us) regard these practices as abhorrent and barbaric. This attitude is derived from our shared values. We speak the same “values language” in this regard. From the perspective of an Aztec priest or a Spanish inquisitor, our values would be deeply wrong: impious, offensive, and so forth.

    This situation is perfectly understandable if values are simply contingent expressions of collective societal attitudes. We, naturally, think that our values are best – that’s what makes them our values. You seem to want more: some external warrant that our values are, in fact, the best, according to some external standard. I think people crave this because they are dimly aware of the contingency of values, and they want to bolster their particular set of values with an external authority. But I’m sure that the Spanish inquisitors felt exactly the same way, as will the people living five hundred years from now looking back on us. It’s a historical certainty that they will view some of our values with the same horror that we apply to burning heretics or plucking out hearts from sacrificial victims.

    Remember my quotation from Sir Martin Rees.

    But there’s another bit of what you said which is problematic. You say that ” to value falsehood just as we value truth” would be evidence of a faulty value set. But how would “valuing falsehood” arise? Do you mean believing that 2+2=3, or that the moon is made of green cheese? How would such faulty beliefs arise?

    Let’s go back to one of my favourite cases: schizophrenia. A medieval Christian probably held as a true statement that the symptoms of schizophrenia were due to demonic possession, or something like that, and that it was a good thing to try to exorcise the demons. This was a process that often resulted in death, a pattern that we still see today, unfortunately. Today we have an imperfect but functional account of what causes schizophrenia, and we treat it as a medical problem.

    So, “demons cause schizophrenic behaviour” is false, and “schizophrenia is a medical condition” is true. Fair enough? So what you are saying is that some members of our species, a few hundred years ago, had a faulty value set. They valued falsehood. Yet this is the situation which you seem to view as “profoundly strange”. Why? It seems like a perfectly ordinary thing: collective values changing over time under the influence of new and better information and models about the way the physical world works.

    Five hundred years from now, some of the things that we, today, believe to be true will be viewed as false. No big deal.

  43. Geoff,

    I suspect that we’ll never agree. You find it quite plausible that there are no values except those that reflect the contingent and thus variable interests of some social entity.

    I on the other hand find it plausible that there are truths – like, for instance, that to torture a child for pleasure is wrong – that are in no way variable; they are true, and cannot have been false.

    Here’s where I find myself. Your view seems to me to have an absurd consequence. Moreover, I know of no good reason to hold your view. And views like that – ungrounded and with absurd consequences – I reject. Not likely to convince you, I know; but nothing you’ve said is at all likely to convince me. You’re really only articulated a view (one that I was quite familiar with before). I’ve found nothing to really challenge me.

    (Do you mean to argue that there are no objective values because humans have differed about what they are? I hope not. That’s a faulty inference. Why suppose that such difference is impossible if values are objective? Some truths of science are it seems quite objective, and the fact that someone somewhere might disagree about them does nothing to show otherwise. The world was always round even when consensus held that it was flat; and I say that human sacrifice was always wrong even as an Aztec priest cut out a heart.)

  44. Tom Gilson says:

    Geoff, regarding cultural differences you wrote,

    This situation is perfectly understandable if values are simply contingent expressions of collective societal attitudes.

    It’s also explained perfectly well by the Christian account of morality based in God and communicated to humans, whose understanding and application of it are marred by sin. On that, our views are at least at parity.

    You went on to tell Franklin,

    You seem to want more: some external warrant that our values are, in fact, the best, according to some external standard. I think people crave this because they are dimly aware of the contingency of values, and they want to bolster their particular set of values with an external authority. But I’m sure that the Spanish inquisitors felt exactly the same way, as will the people living five hundred years from now looking back on us.

    The Spanish Inquisitors’ values, then, were equally honorable as yours and mine; for there is no standard.

    But you seem to want to make this about moral values. Franklin and I have been asking you about bedrock values of science (truth, simplicity, quest for knowledge, etc.), which you seem to be saying are no better than their contraries. Like Franklin, I find this strange.

    Further, let me ask in what sense what you have written could be a true statement. It rests on a long history of philosophical inquiry, interrelated with centuries of scientific discovery. That is to say, it rests on a long history of cherishing values like truth, simplicity, rationality, quest for knowledge, and so on. Yet it produces the conclusion that these values are merely contingent, no better than their contraries. No conclusion resulting from such a haphazardly chosen set of values could be true except by accident—which is more than passing strange.

    Also strange is that you drew this conclusion from Franklin’s prior statement:

    So, “demons cause schizophrenic behaviour” is false, and “schizophrenia is a medical condition” is true. Fair enough? So what you are saying is that some members of our species, a few hundred years ago, had a faulty value set. They valued falsehood.

    More than obviously, that does not follow. Ernest Rutherford had a false belief: the planetary model of the atom. Was that because he valued falsehood? Some of our current medical theories about schizophrenia are certainly false. Is that because medical researchers value falsehood? I could multiply examples forever. People who value truth don’t always land on it in their search.

    Rees’ quotation has nothing to do with whether truth is to be valued, by the way.

  45. Tony Hoffman says:

    Tom,

    Sorry I haven’t had time to list what I think are the problems with the claims of Jesus’s resurrection as historical.

    I’m sure that this list is incomplete, but I’d start with these things:

    - Motives of Jesus’ ancient “historians”
    Those who promulgated the story of Jesus were religious zealots, motivated by the desire to convert, with something to gain (more converts, authority, a stronger community with which to protect their loved ones, etc.). This is similar to accepting as true all information about cigarettes if the only information we were able to get would come from the cigarette companies, or the history of the Russian Revolution as told by the Politburo, etc.

    - Implausibility
    The resurrection is probably the least implausible event in human history. It’s never happened before or after. But that’s not the only problem, by any means. Why did those who had the best look at Jesus determine he was not who he said he was? Why did he even get a tomb following his modest background, advocacy of poverty to his followers, and unseemly death? Why did his followers suddenly act bravely and nobly after he was killed and not during his trial? Why are the stories in the four gospels concerning the resurrections so different? There’s a lot more here, but I find myself forced to suspend everything I know about human behavior in following the actions of Jesus’s followers, accepting the unlikely instead of the probable many times over. In other words, I find this more probable:

    - Explanation of Differences
    Don’t the differences in the stories make more sense as answers to questions faced by those trying to convert in different communities? Is it possible that the Gospels were written exactly as the most credulous Christian accepts them? I suppose. But I think that the better explanation is that each Gospel was based on Mark (and Q) and represented a “work in progress,” like a perfomer working out new material in front of live audiences (the differences in the Bible always remind me of the professional comedian going over his act post performance, noticing what bits worked, which ones flopped, etc.). Doesn’t the fact that the earliest of the known Gospels not contain passages with Jesus physically appearing here on earth incline one to believe that that the bodily resurrection was developed over time, inserted later into Mark, and developed more effectively in the later dated Gospels?

    I’d say that the history of Jesus as detailed in the Gospels must compete with this:

    Jesus was a wandering charismatic who attracted a doomsday following that challenged Jewish doctrine, forced a confrontation among the keepers of his religious background, and disappointed his followers when he was allowed to be killed and the end of days did not soon follow. After some time, the scant facts of Jesus’s life and death were improved with layers of mythical elements that proved powerful in recruiting and retaining a self-sustaining community from those badly in need of cooperation and social support. (Everything we know about the order of the Gospels, and the changes between them, supports this explanation very well.)

    Those are the basics. I have to say that these are criticisms so obvious that George Carlin et al. have done a much better job of demonstrating the need to suspend anything like healthy skepticism when accepting them. And that inescapable conflict is why they laugh.

  46. Tom Gilson says:

    Thanks, Tony. It will be two to three weeks before I have time to respond to this, though, because I have quite a series of meetings and deadlines between now and then. Let me just quickly respond that objections on a George Carlin level do not pose insuperable challenges, for they have indeed been met before and they do have solid answers.

  47. Jacob says:

    Franklin Mason #34 -

    Forgive me for not reading this entire thread, as I don’t understand the full context of what’s being discussed. I’ll only respond to a few posts.

    One can see from an evolutionary perspective that valuing falsehoods would not be very useful, for it would increase the chances of being wrong and decrease survival. However, the notion of survival of the fittest is relative, as “fittest” only means “fitter than everybody else”. Thus, better truth-valuing species does not equate to great truth-valuing species.

    And here’s where we need to define falsehood. The idea of any group willfully valuing falsehoods seems ridiculous for the prior reasons I stated about evolution. But creating some sort of false reality in one’s head due to faulty reasoning is, I’m afraid, quite common. This suggests to me that we have a tougher time handling indirect consequences and complex or abstract reasoning. This makes sense, as such things would be harder to select for and evolve. So we’re not as great as we could be. However, so many of our latest advancements have been made because we’ve tended to value truth via scientific inquiry.

    Now I would say that religion isn’t necessarily compatible with science because one explains reality well and the other doesn’t. Holding to the truths in science has been spectacularly successful. Holding to the truths that religion purports, however, only leads to ambiguous conclusions. In other words, belief in any single God doesn’t give us any greater results in this physical realm. Of course, Christians will say that it is the spiritual benefits that religion brings, but the Bible tells the story of a God interacting physically with the world, and I see no evidence that any specific belief entails any sort of great God or spiritual beings who will intervene for the sake of his children in a way that totally transcends the natural. Faith healing, miracles, transformations of one’s nature, and prophecy all have had spotty track records, as far as I’m concerned, and the actual claims made seem arbitrary and random for a variety of reasons. So perhaps science cannot prove something like a miracle either way, but science and facts do make them far less likely. Logic takes care of the rest. Whereas religion speaks of a world in which all of these should blend together to form one cohesive reality of God’s creation.

  48. Dave says:

    Hi David

    The only reason religious people put down empirical evidence as a basis for belief is that they don’t have it. If angels and spirits of the departed regularly visited earth performing miracles and preaching the Gospel you’d be happy to rely on this empirical evidence as the reason why nonbelief was utterly irrational. Since no such evidence is available believers downplay its importance and say things like Tom said: “that science is the wrong approach to these questions”.

    While I would disagree with Tom and his assertion “that science is the wrong approach to these questions” – given the naturalistic bias of modern science, I can understand the reason he and many other Christians discount the pronouncements of ‘science’ vis a vis Christian theism.

    I heard this fellow, Randall Sullivan, being interviewed on the radio and was intrigued by his story. A contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine, he heard a story about an apparition witnessed by nearly 1000 people. Intigued, he decided to write about it, and then expanded the scope of his investigation to include miracles generally, and the process the Vatican uses to confirm a miraculous claim. The outcome was a book titled “The Miracle Detective”, part of which you may read online.
    http://books.google.com/books?id=o3QX8Xhc9x8C&dq=miracle+detective&printsec=frontcover&source=bn&hl=en&ei=98dgStqjMpGCmQfT08jJDA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4

    Excerpt from a review at The Paragraph Farmer
    http://paragraphfarmer.blogspot.com/2005/10/miracle-detective-review.html

    One gets the impression by the end of The Miracle Detective that Sullivan’s own perception of the miraculous is changing in ways that scare him a bit. He puts Groeschel’s parting advice on the last page because it’s useful for believers and unbelievers alike.

    Here’s that last paragraph:

    He wanted to leave me with two pieces of counsel, Groeschel said in conclusion. “One, I believe that you will serve God and yourself best if you end your book by leaving the question open. Don’t try to answer it, because you never will. Two, I hope you come to understand that even if you were capable of making an airtight case about Medjugorje, that wouldn’t result in true belief. True belief is a decision. It’s also a gift. Accept the gift and you will make the decision.”

  49. Jacob says:

    I’ve always thought of miracles as a kind of confirmation bias. I’m even going to give theists the fact that miracles do occur (or at least something so incredibly improbable that it might as well be). My question is a very basic one: what do miracles actually say? I see leaps in logic: miracle happens, therefore Christian God, Bible is true, etc, without examining each thing on its own. Is it possible to say miracles happen, but the Christian God is incorrect? Of course. Even that book, I presume, is written with the Christian God in mind. I actually stumbled upon it some time ago, and that’s what it seemed like to me. But has anyone investigated miracles that are supposedly from Allah? Do they hold up in the same way? What if the new age folks claim a miracle event? Are they Catholic in nature or Protestant? The only time they seem to be exact is when people claim to see Jesus in toast or the Virgin Mary or some sort of Islamic vision, but these are the height of confirmation bias and even more dubious.

    Furthermore, are there any legitimate faith healers? What if they’re not predictive at all? Does it say anything that God doesn’t seem to work through anybody? What number of miracles should we expect? For instance, hundreds of millions have visited Lourdes, but only a thousand have even tried to claim an actual miracle. Would God go about giving miracles in such convenient ways? How would he do it? What are they supposed to say? Are they “rewards” for faithfulness? Are they attempts to convert others? What should we say if one doesn’t happen? So there are a thousand different questions to ask.

  50. Tom Gilson says:

    @Jacob:

    I’ve always thought of miracles as a kind of confirmation bias.

    Luke 17:31

    If they will not believe, then they will not believe.

  51. For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary; For those who don’t believe in God, no explanation is possible.

  52. Are comments #50 and #51 intended to develop the discussion, or are they simply expressions of frustration? There are still several angles that we haven’t developed. Pre- and post-humans; what the “local” position is on the Flood and other bizarre bits of the Bible, whether you really believe that all of the Biblical contradictions can be tidied up under with a bit of creative “interpretation”, and so forth.

    I also wanted to comment on Tom’s odd assertion in #44:

    Geoff, regarding cultural differences you wrote,

    This situation is perfectly understandable if values are simply contingent expressions of collective societal attitudes.

    It’s also explained perfectly well by the Christian account of morality based in God and communicated to humans, whose understanding and application of it are marred by sin. On that, our views are at least at parity.

    Does “parity” mean simply counting explanations, and observing that we each have one? I would have thought that plausibility, consistency with observed facts, parsimony and verifiability might be relevant. I’m just sayin’….

  53. Tom Gilson says:

    Parity means that we both have explanations that work from within our respective sets of overall assumptions. I’m also in favor of plausibility, consistency, etc., but I suspect that means for you things like plausibility and consistency in the context of a non-theistic worldview. The Christian view is not intended to be consistent with non-theism. Hope that’s obvious.

  54. david ellis says:

    And I suspect he means plausible in the eyes of a rational being viewing the rationale for both worldviews without bias.

  55. Dave says:

    Hello Jacob

    My question is a very basic one: what do miracles actually say?

    Not much in themselves, unless you subscribe to the worldview of ‘scientism’ which is utterly physicalist in its outlook. Then miracles become a severe challenge to your entire worldview.

    As far as I am concerened, the miracles investigated in “The Miracle Detective” need have nothing to do with Christianity per se – perhaps they do, perhaps they don’t – but they falsify the worldview of the philosophical materialist whom David Ellis apparently misidentifies as “a rational being”.

  56. david ellis says:

    A. I’m not a materialist, and

    B. Miracles only verify the existence of the supernatural to the degree that the miracles are themselves beyond reasonable doubt.

    Can you present for us the strongest claims of miraculous events so that we can see if they rise to such a level?

  57. Jacob says:

    #50 and #51 don’t really help. The fact of a miracle wouldn’t change two crucial things: whether they’re proof for Christianity or whether Christianity is in other respects true. The former is important because miracles could be coming from Allah, thus proving Islam, and the latter is important because, say, if I prove that the Bible has massive problems, then it would seem to be false, thus contradicting the existence of the God that Christians say the miracles are from. Believe it or not, the mere fact of a miracle is not self evident for anything.

    #55 has the right argument, but I would not call it a challenge to my worldview, as I never ruled out the possibility of something supernatural. I may like materialism but only because I find the proof elusive for anything beyond this physical world. This is an important distinction: if the supernatural doesn’t effect me, then belief doesn’t necessarily matter. For all I know it’s a glitch in the matrix. I’m being glib, but I’ll grant mysteries and utterly improbable circumstances. There always seems to be a little room for something else. But I don’t think that the God who made the sun stand still in the sky would be the cause of the very physical existence I do lead. If he is responsible, then he likes to live on the very fringes, and that’s just not something that I would expect from him.

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