Sean Carroll on the nature of science

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll (the physics one) has a nice essay on the nature of a scientific question.  He begins with a discussion of the empirical content of religious beliefs, which some (including journalist Jeremy Manier, who comments on this blog) seem to find unimportant or irrelevant in discussing the compatibility of science and faith:

Some people would prefer to define “religion” so that religious beliefs entail nothing whatsoever about what happens in the world. And that’s fine; definitions are not correct or incorrect, they are simply useful or useless, where usefulness is judged by the clarity of one’s attempts at communication. Personally, I think using “religion” in that way is not very clear. Most Christians would disagree with the claim that Jesus came about because Joseph and Mary had sex and his sperm fertilized her ovum and things proceeded conventionally from there, or that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, or that God did not create the universe. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints, whose job it is to judge whether a candidate for canonization has really performed the required number of miracles and so forth, would probably not agree that miracles don’t occur. Francis Collins, recently nominated to direct the NIH, argues that some sort of God hypothesis helps explain the values of the fundamental constants of nature, just like a good Grand Unified Theory would. These views are by no means outliers, even without delving into the more extreme varieties of Biblical literalism.

Carroll then clarifies what he sees as the main endeavor of scientists; the construction of theories:

The definition of theory is also occasionally troublesome, but the humble language shouldn’t obscure the potential reach of the idea: whether we call them theories, models, hypotheses, or what have you, science passes judgment on ideas about how the world works.

And that’s the crucial point. Science doesn’t do a bunch of experiments concerning colliding objects, and say “momentum was conserved in that collision, and in that one, and in that one,” and stop there. It does those experiments, and then it also proposes frameworks for understanding how the world works, and then it compares those theoretical frameworks to that experimental data, and — if the data and theories seem good enough — passes judgment. The judgments are necessarily tentative — one should always be open to the possibility of better theories or surprising new data — but are no less useful for that.

He says this about multiverse (multiple-universe) “theories”, which theistic evolutionists like Kenneth Miller dismiss as “Hail Marys,” desperation passes thrown out by scientists to explain why physical constants appear to be “fine tuned” for the existence of life. Here is what Miller says about multiverses in his book Only a Theory:

Believers . . . are right to remind skeptics and agnostics that one of their favored explanations for the nature of our existence involves an element of the imagination as wild as any tale in a sacred book: namely, the existence of countless parallel simultaneous universes with which we can never communicate and whose existence we cannot even test. Such belief also requires an extraordinary level of “faith” and the nonreligious would do well to admit as much.

In fact, multiverses are not something concocted by scientists to save their cookies; they grow naturally out of some theories of physics.  As Carroll argues:

The same logic applies, for example, to the highly contentious case of the multiverse. The multiverse isn’t, by itself, a theory; it’s a prediction of a certain class of theories. If the idea were simply “Hey, we don’t know what happens outside our observable universe, so maybe all sorts of crazy things happen,” it would be laughably uninteresting. By scientific standards, it would fall woefully short. But the point is that various theoretical attempts to explain phenomena that we directly observe right in front of us — like gravity, and quantum field theory — lead us to predict that our universe should be one of many, and subsequently suggest that we take that situation seriously when we talk about the “naturalness” of various features of our local environment. The point, at the moment, is not whether there really is or is not a multiverse; it’s that the way we think about it and reach conclusions about its plausibility is through exactly the same kind of scientific reasoning we’ve been using for a long time now. Science doesn’t pass judgment on phenomena; it passes judgment on theories.

Carroll then explains why certain religious claims are indeed empirical claims about the real world, and in that sense are scientific:

Now let’s turn to a closely analogous question. There is some historical evidence that, about two thousand years ago in Galilee, a person named Jesus was born to a woman named Mary, and later grew up to be a messianic leader and was eventually crucified by the Romans. (Unruly bloke, by the way — tended to be pretty doctrinaire about the number of paths to salvation, and prone to throwing moneychangers out of temples. Not very “accommodating,” if you will.) The question is: how did Mary get pregnant?

One approach would be to say: we just don’t know. We weren’t there, don’t have any reliable data, etc. Should just be quiet.

The scientific approach is very different. We have two theories. One theory is that Mary was a virgin; she had never had sex before becoming pregnant, or encountered sperm in any way. Her pregnancy was a miraculous event, carried out through the intervention of the Holy Ghost, a spiritual manifestation of a triune God. The other theory is that Mary got pregnant through relatively conventional channels, with the help of (one presumes) her husband. According to this theory, claims to the contrary in early (although not contemporary) literature are, simply, erroneous.

There’s no question that these two theories can be judged scientifically. One is conceptually very simple; all it requires is that some ancient texts be mistaken, which we know happens all the time, even with texts that are considerably less ancient and considerably better corroborated. The other is conceptually horrible; it posits an isolated and unpredictable deviation from otherwise universal rules, and invokes a set of vaguely-defined spiritual categories along the way. By all of the standards that scientists have used for hundreds of years, the answer is clear: the sex-and-lies theory is enormously more compelling than the virgin-birth theory.

Finally, he goes into the methodological naturalism/philosophical naturalism distinction that some people, including Mooney and Kirshenbaum in their book Unscientific America, use as a stick to beat those mean atheists. As Russell Blackford has shown, this distinction is really a red herring in the discussion about whether science and faith are compatible.

Could science, through its strategy of judging hypotheses on the basis of comparison with empirical data, ever move beyond naturalism to conclude that some sort of supernatural influence was a necessary feature of explaining what happens in the world? Sure; why not? If supernatural phenomena really did exist, and really did influence things that happened in the world, science would do its best to figure that out.

It’s a nice piece, and I doubt that anyone could construe it as “militant” or “shrill”. Go read the whole thing.

55 Comments

  1. SLC
    Posted July 16, 2009 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    1. Relative to the Galilean carpenter turned preacher (as he was described by Martin Gardner), his given name was Joshua of Nazareth. Jesus is the Latinization of his given name.

    2. As has been known for a long time, the concept of the virgin birth is based on a prophecy in the Hebrew bible which has been shown to be the result of an incorrect translation from Hebrew/Aramaic into Greek. A nice discussion on this topic is given by Richard Dawkins in, I believe, an appendix to his book, “The Selfish Gene.” The proof of this is that the same Hebrew/Aramaic word is used to refer to women in the Hebrew bible who were manifestly not virgins. There was an article in Time Magazine back in the 1950s on this subject.

  2. Paul
    Posted July 16, 2009 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    More on the carpenter. People are too quick to grant that there’s historical evidence.

    http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/camel.html

    And yet, when we examine the evidence… Not a single contemporary historian mentions Jesus. The historical record is devoid of references to him for decades after his supposed death. The very first extra-biblical documents that do mention him are two brief passages in the works of the historian Josephus, written around 90 CE, but the longer of the two is widely considered to be a forgery and the shorter is likely to be one as well (see part 2). The first unambiguous extra-biblical references to a historical, human Jesus do not appear until well into the second century.

  3. Posted July 16, 2009 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    “It’s a nice piece, and I doubt that anyone could construe it as “militant” or “shrill”.”

    Sean Carroll is a credit to your side of the debate. He’s a guy who knows how to disagree disagreeably.

  4. Posted July 16, 2009 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Religion is compartmental but not compatible. An optional escape from reality.

  5. Gingerbaker
    Posted July 16, 2009 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    “There is some historical evidence that, about two thousand years ago in Galilee, a person named Jesus was born to a woman named Mary, and later grew up to be a messianic leader and was eventually crucified by the Romans.”

    -Sean Carroll

    I think it would be much closer to the mark to say that rather than accepting the premise that there is (even) “some historical evidence” of a historical Christ, that there is a a distinct and shocking lack of historical evidence buttressing such a claim.

    And that therefore, there is a third scientifically-justified theory regarding the virgin birth – it never happened, and the whole story from start to finish is fiction.

    I eagerly await the moment when Biblical truth claims, such as the historicity of Jesus Christ, are formally categorized as ‘untrue awaiting forensic evidence’ as the official default position of scientific inquiry. Such a moment seems long overdue.

    • Stephen Poley
      Posted July 16, 2009 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      I’m not completely sure about the whole of the New Testament, but certainly the nativity story is fiction. I took a close look at it a few years ago – with the result in a little essay on the Star of Bethlehem – and I was astonished at how completely and utterly it all fell to pieces.

  6. newenglandbob
    Posted July 16, 2009 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    I read Carroll’s article yesterday and thought it to be an excellent piece.

    I would like to emphasize again the multiverse controversy that Carroll wrote about. I have seen several people try to say that these are ‘wild ass’ guesses or unsubstantiated dogma, which is far from the truth. These are predictions based on mathematics that few take as fact or even theory. Most of the theoretical physics community make that clear.

  7. Posted July 16, 2009 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    I read a book review awhile back that I would never expect anyone to find “shrill” or “militant.” However, this review touched off the latest round of accommodationist attacks on the so-called “New Atheists” (scare quotes intended). Of course the timing of said review and attacks, which were strongly pushed by authors with a book addressing shrill militant atheists as big meanies about to hit the shelves.

    I realize correlation does not equate with causation, but when there is potential financial and prestige issues thrown into the mix call me skeptical that in this case correlation and causation are not related.

    • Posted July 16, 2009 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      “Some people would prefer to define “religion” so that religious beliefs entail nothing whatsoever about what happens in the world. And that’s fine; definitions are not correct or incorrect, they are simply useful or useless…”

      I would put that a little more strongly. I think definitions are correct or incorrect when they’re used for purposes of evasion or deception – when they’re used to equivocate, in short. This tends to happen a lot in discussions of science and religion (and reason and religion, etc) – believers use the word ‘religion’ to mean one thing when that’s convenient and something else when that is – and that is ‘incorrect’ – because it’s tricksy.

      If a word is used consistently to mean X then that’s not necessarly incorrect – but on the other hand if the meaning is an idiosyncratic one then it is incorrect unless the user spells out the meaning. If I talk about ‘cats’ which I define to mean ‘oysters’ then my meaning is pretty dang incorrect if I forget to mention it.

      • Posted July 16, 2009 at 10:35 am | Permalink

        Oops – I didn’t mean to nest that. It was supposed to be a thread reply.

      • Posted July 16, 2009 at 10:42 am | Permalink

        Aww, and here I was thinking I said something someone else thought worth replying to.

      • Posted July 16, 2009 at 11:03 am | Permalink

        Well I was going to express agreement with your sly first line! That’s why I had the reply open – then I decided to say something more substantive so as not to waste people’s time with ‘yeah’. But – yeah.

  8. Posted July 16, 2009 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    I like this comment on Larry Moran’s post at Sandwalk

    http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2009/07/chris-mooney-and-sheril-kirshenbaum-in.html?showComment=1247702379584#c8621810537917973196

    “Because science and religion are only compatible if you view science as a job and not a way of thinking, i.e. you think like a scientists in the lab and you are free to indulge in whatever epistemological perversions you like outside of it.”

    • Posted July 16, 2009 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      But it’s wrong. You can think scientifically about a number of questions inside or outside the lab. The question is whether you are philosophically committed to thinking only scientifically, or if you see value in other ways of thinking as well. If it is the latter, of course, one has to have some methods for deciding between the two methods if they are applied to the same question with contradictory results – but that happens much more rarely than even Sean’s article would have you think.

      To use the emotionally laden language of the commenter you cite, the correct statement would be “science and religion are only compatible if you are not committed to the exclusive use of one, but allow for certain ‘epistemological perversions’ on some questions, largely outside the direct purview of science.”

      • Posted July 16, 2009 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

        “The question is whether you are philosophically committed to thinking only scientifically, or if you see value in other ways of thinking as well.”

        No, actually, that’s not the question. No doubt you would like that to be the question, but it’s not.

        It’s a favorite dodge of the Militant Accommodationists and their many fans and supporters to conflate religion and various other ‘different’ approaches to thinking, like literature and art and emotion. But that’s a red herring. Religion – of the type that makes truth claims about the real world, not of the type that is just an attitude – makes different kinds of factual claims from the kind that literature or art or emotion makes, and it’s those claims and religion’s method of backing them up that are incompatible with science.

      • Posted July 16, 2009 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

        Religion – of the type that makes truth claims about the real world, not of the type that is just an attitude – makes different kinds of factual claims from the kind that literature or art or emotion makes,

        Also – in virtually all cases – religion makes truth claims that are different from the kinds of factual claims that science makes. For instance, where science says that primates are not, under the regular laws of nature, candidates for virgin births, religion agrees. Religion makes the further and distinct claim that the regular laws of nature are contingent upon a transcendent source, that this transcendent source is analogous to a person, and that this person chose to suspend the laws of nature in order to produce a virgin birth.

        I stress: religion agrees with the scientific statement about the impossibility of the virgin birth under the laws of nature.

        It is upon the basis of this agreement which can be, in principle, near universal – without sacrificing the major doctrines of most religions – that I assert the compatibility of science and religion (or, better stated – the non-incompatibility of the two).

        and it’s those claims and religion’s method of backing them up that are incompatible with science.

        Naturally, since the claims are of a philosophically different kind, religion has different methods for evaluating them. Personally, I find the methods of religion – most specifically “faith” – useless.

        I’m not very politically minded.

        If the facts were that there is fundamental incompatibility between science and religion, I would be the first in line to say so, and I’d be glad to call supernaturalists “anti-scientific”. And I do so call supernaturalists who adopt anti-scientific views, such as Creationism. But, having read this subject until I’ve heard every argument repeated ad nauseum, I’ve yet to encounter a defense of incompatibility that is both meaningful and correct.

      • Posted July 16, 2009 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

        “Religion makes the further and distinct claim that the regular laws of nature are contingent upon a transcendent source, that this transcendent source is analogous to a person, and that this person chose to suspend the laws of nature in order to produce a virgin birth.”

        In what sense is that a distinct claim? That just looks like protective hand-waving. How does religion know there is such a ‘transcendent source’ and how does it know anything about what it does?

      • Posted July 16, 2009 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

        In what sense is that a distinct claim?

        In the sense that it is not the same as the physical claim.

        It is a claim about what is possible in a hypothesized ‘larger’ universe where the physical laws that prevent virgin birth are contingent – not on a hypothesized closed universe where the physical laws that prevent virgin birth are absolute.

        How does religion know there is such a ‘transcendent source’ and how does it know anything about what it does?

        I don’t think it does know that there is such a transcendent source. I think religion is wrong about that point. And that’s quite irrelevant, because our question at this point is not “is religion correct in its claim”, but “is the religious claim distinct from the physical one?”

        Depending on what religious person you ask, the methods for “knowing” in a religious sense may differ. Frankly, it’s irrelevant, unless you think you are interested in becoming religious and want to hear more about it.

        Frankly, it doesn’t make a whit of difference to the question of compatibility whether religion is right or wrong, or whether its methods of knowing are reliable or unreliable. I can imagine a mode of thinking which is right but and incompatible with science. I believe that religion is wrong, but that doesn’t help me decide whether it is compatible with science or not. The sole determining factor is whether, in principle and without sacrificing a core element, the religion can accept that science’s methods are proper for understanding the natural world and its conclusions are reasonably certain.

        I’ve yet to see any strong evidence that this is not the case.

      • Gingerbaker
        Posted July 16, 2009 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

        “I stress: religion agrees with the scientific statement about the impossibility of the virgin birth under the laws of nature.

        It is upon the basis of this agreement which can be, in principle, near universal – without sacrificing the major doctrines of most religions – that I assert the compatibility of science and religion (or, better stated – the non-incompatibility of the two).”

        -Smijer

        Sorry, Smijer. No matter how fine you slice it, that is still special pleading for magic. Until we observe Zeus or Ra or Jesus H. Christ performing such miracles, they are not a part of our universe, only (y)our imagination.

      • Posted July 16, 2009 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

        Until we observe Zeus or Ra or Jesus H. Christ performing such miracles, they are not a part of our universe, only (y)our imagination.

        Their imagination. Of course, here we are expressing our own justified beliefs about the reality of the universe – not the reality of the universe itself. Finger pointing to moon / moon & all that, you know.

        And, of course, we (you) are no longer talking about the compatibility of science & religion. That’s fine. Your statement is a fair expression of philosophical materialism, a position which you and I share… but one which has nothing to do with the subject of compatibility that Ophelia & I are discussing.

      • Posted July 17, 2009 at 9:09 am | Permalink

        Sorry, I forgot to give the source – that’s the famous Pew report –

        http://pewresearch.org/pubs/578/how-the-public-resolves-conflicts-between-faith-and-science

        – the one that M&K cite as evidence that religion and science are compatible.

      • Posted July 17, 2009 at 9:20 am | Permalink

        nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding

        I appreciate that… I agree that this is a huge problem… And I think that the correct statement to make about this 64% group is that they are antiscientific.

        I do think it’s wrong to generalize to all of religion. If my points above are correct, then the remaining 36% are taking advantage of the real possibility of reconciling science and religion in a non-contradictory way.

        When I hear that science and religion are “incompatible”, I understand it to mean that the 36% are necessarily holding two mutually exclusive claims as true.

        And, let me stress again, since GB still seems not to get it – I am an atheist, an anti-supernaturalist, and a philosophical materialist. I don’t make these arguments to defend my own need to reconcile science and religion. I make them to acknowledge that the program of reconciliation important to others is not logically doomed.

    • Posted July 16, 2009 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

      “It is a claim about what is possible in a hypothesized ‘larger’ universe where the physical laws that prevent virgin birth are contingent – not on a hypothesized closed universe where the physical laws that prevent virgin birth are absolute.”

      Yes I understand that – but one can hypothesize any number of things, which (of course) cannot be proved to be false, but that is not a reason to believe they are true. Believing such hypotheses are true in the absence of evidence is incompatible with science.

      • Posted July 16, 2009 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

        Believing such hypotheses are true in the absence of evidence is incompatible with science.

        I’m very interested in hearing how you define compatibility such that holding such extra-scientific beliefs is “incompatible” with science, and how you justify your position.

        Let me ask this: If I fail to make up my own bed in the morning is that “incompatible” with me being a very good valet for Mary, who likes her bed made up every morning?

      • Posted July 16, 2009 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

        Better yet – let’s say that I believe that there are infinitely many primes, p, such that p + 2 is also prime, and that though it is yet unproven, I am confident that I or someone else eventually will prove it. Is that “incompatible” with mathematics?

      • Posted July 16, 2009 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

        “Let me ask this: If I fail to make up my own bed in the morning is that “incompatible” with me being a very good valet for Mary, who likes her bed made up every morning?”

        Sure, go right ahead and ask. It’s got nothing to do with anything, but ask away.

      • Posted July 16, 2009 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

        Well, if neither of my questions helps you define what you mean by ‘incompatible’ or justify the remark that it is incompatible with science to hold extra-scientific beliefs that do not conform to scientific standards, then maybe you could just out and define and justify your claim.

      • Posted July 17, 2009 at 8:21 am | Permalink

        Well it has occurred to me that you’re saying the belief itself is not necessarily incompatible – and I don’t disagree with that. One can have compartmentalized beliefs that don’t leak into other beliefs (though one can also have illusions about how tight the compartments are). But that isn’t the issue here, which is perhaps why it took me awhile to realize that might be what you’re saying.

        Is that all you’re saying? If so – sure, up to a point, but not the issue.

      • Posted July 17, 2009 at 8:54 am | Permalink

        Well it has occurred to me that you’re saying the belief itself is not necessarily incompatible – and I don’t disagree with that.

        More specifically, I am saying that there is rarely or never any core belief that conflicts with any scientific finding. It might seem that the virgin birth conflicts with knowledge about human reproduction at first blush, but on closer examination we find that it is a different kind of claim – one that acknowledges human knowledge about reproduction and does not contradict it.

        I’m saying that this is generally the case. There are “creationism”, and other currents in fundamentalist religion that do directly contradict science… but very large numbers of people don’t engage in that type of religious thinking. Instead, they do their best to be sure their beliefs are non-contradictory with science. Sometimes they do a terrible job of this – Collins with his fine-tuning argument, Miller with his God as quantum-tweaker argument – and sometimes they fail entirely and make an embarrassment of themselves in the process. But, in principle it can be done successfully for virtually any doctrine that is generally held to be important.

        If you disagree with that assessment then we probably need to work on hashing out our differences over it more. But if you agree with it (to a point) but do not think it is relevant… then I would like to know how you define “incompatibility”, and what you think *is* relevant.

        If it is that the rules of faith are different from and sometimes contradictory to the rules of science – I concede this ahead of time. It just seems obvious and trivial to me – In much the same way that I could say the same thing about the rules of checkers and the rules of chess… I wouldn’t apply the term “incompatible” to them.

        If it’s that supernaturalism believes some things that can’t be verified scientifically … well, again I agree. But again, that seems trivial and obvious to me, and I wouldn’t apply the term “incompatible”.

        And apart from the notion (that I think is mistaken) that religion must always* make claims contradictory to the findings of science, or one of the two meanings I mentioned separately – that don’t seem relevant to me – I can’t imagine in what relevant sense one would say that religion and faith are incompatible.

        * last thing – I know that religion sometimes makes claims that are contradictory to the findings of science… but that isn’t enough to support a general claim about religion. Of course those contradictory claims are incompatible with science. On those points religious people must decide whether to abandon their view or abandon science.

      • Posted July 17, 2009 at 9:07 am | Permalink

        “But if you agree with it (to a point) but do not think it is relevant… then I would like to know how you define “incompatibility”, and what you think *is* relevant.”

        This, for one thing –

        “When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.”

        That’s a lot of people who have holes in the way they think.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted July 17, 2009 at 9:24 am | Permalink

        smijer,

        Your words are torturous and contort the issue of compatibility. Any religion beyond Deism is incompatible with science – that includes all Abrahamic religions. Individuals can compartmentalize all they want but belief in woo conflicts with science.

      • Posted July 17, 2009 at 9:30 am | Permalink

        I misplaced a comment that belongs on this thread Here responding to Ophelia’s last.

      • Posted July 17, 2009 at 9:38 am | Permalink

        Dang it gets hard to remember to nest these properly!

        In reply to smijer at 9:20 today –

        “I appreciate that… I agree that this is a huge problem… And I think that the correct statement to make about this 64% group is that they are antiscientific.

        I do think it’s wrong to generalize to all of religion. If my points above are correct, then the remaining 36% are taking advantage of the real possibility of reconciling science and religion in a non-contradictory way.”

        Whereas I was thinking they were the ones who accepted the scientific findings despite whatever their religious beliefs might be – the ones who let the science trump the religious beliefs rather than the other way around. (Yes, they can do that by resorting to the transcendent, or going up a level, or whatever – but then of course they’re resorting to deism – which just gets us back to where this always ends up. A god active in the world we know, not compatible with science; a god on the next level – not the god most people mean by ‘God.’)

  9. benjdm
    Posted July 16, 2009 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    I doubt that anyone could construe it as “militant” or “shrill”.

    Really? You really doubt that?

  10. Posted July 16, 2009 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    The easy way to shoot down virgin birth or the like with rational folk is to point to the decided lack of credence or accommodation of the miracles of competing religions.

    Rarely, though, are you dealing with rational folk (at least in this area) when you’re so arguing.

    Some of your more sophisticated theists would allow for the possibility of the miracles written in Herodotus, or in Egyptian papyri. So the problem wouldn’t wholly go away if the absurdities of denying certain miracles while accepting others could (miraculously?) be put across to unwilling subjects.

    What we’re dealing with is certainty vs. uncertainty, only with the added dimension of human psyches which did not evolve to deal well with the very distant past, or with probabilities. Obviously science can’t completely rule out some vanishingly small probability that Jesus was born of a virgin (parthenogenesis by a rare woman with y-chromosome genetic material in her), but in any practical sense it does. If it came up in the judiciary, likewise it would be ruled out by any impartial judge or jury.

    One thing discussed in philosophy perhaps gives away the problem, this being the fact that the past does not exist at all (some physicists might question it, but phenomenologically it is considered a reasonable conclusion). So how do you assign probabilities to a non-existent time? If this were merely philosophical pondering, well, what of it? But it’s not, for even the philosophical judgment might be partly psychological, and, psychologically, people have a problem with the non-existent past, something that in some sense can never be investigated (non-scientists often don’t know how well science can do in that respect).

    There’s a disconnect between the past and the present that seems psychologically not to justify the application of science to the past. God “transcends time,” though, and either god or religion is a psychological certainty for many, so why not just believe god? Why shouldn’t things have happened magically in the past, when a human’s consciousness simply emerged without apparent cause out of the non-existent past?

    I quite evidently agree with Carroll’s point (might dispute a few terms and what-not if I were feeling pedantic), although the obviousness is so great that there are even a number of theists who do as well. What’s weird is that science basically doesn’t allow for miracles, but the fact that there is any room for belief plays into the psychological view of the past that people have to allow minds to think that miracles that would be disbelieved in the present are thought by many to be quite allowable in the past, the true black box, psychologically.

    Beliefs are in the present, and are often strong. The past is non-existent, and science in some real sense doesn’t apply to it (what’s easy to overlook is that in most important senses (especially in general terms) it very much does). It’s all very well, then, to tell a mind that “magically appeared” out of the nothingness of the past that miracles are not reasonable in the past any more than in the present, but there’s a very good chance that it won’t understand the point.

    Glen Davidson

    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  11. Gingerbaker
    Posted July 16, 2009 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    “Of course, here we are expressing our own justified beliefs about the reality of the universe – not the reality of the universe itself. Finger pointing to moon / moon & all that, you know.”

    -Smijer

    Begging the question, of course, of exactly how you know that there is any difference between our “justified beliefs about” and the “reality” of the universe, beside moonshine and unicorn kidneys? Is it that special ‘religious way of knowing’ or is it something that pertains to our universe?

    “And, of course, we (you) are no longer talking about the compatibility of science & religion. That’s fine. Your statement is a fair expression of philosophical materialism, a position which you and I share… but one which has nothing to do with the subject of compatibility that Ophelia & I are discussing.”

    -Smijer

    Then perhaps you should not have brought up the idea of religious miracles being compatible with science. For you seem to have forgotten that the truth claims of religion occur allegedly occur in our universe, not a specially-pleaded universe off-limits to the laws of Nature and observation.

    Allegedly, Jesus was resurrected on Earth, Muhammad rode Burak into the skies above the Mideast, and Moses received the ten commandments on a mountaintop in Egypt. Prayers are not answered on this planet, time-space does appear to be affected by any supernatural will, and the dead still stay dead.

    If you think that your whimsical god performs whimsical miracles in your whimsical universe, yet that somehow all that applies to us, in our real world that shows no trace of any real god performing any real miracles, then you are simultaneously eating and having a whimsical, not real, cake.

    Science does not allow for magical cake, and is therefore still incompatible with (your) alternate universe religious claims.

    • Posted July 16, 2009 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

      Ginger, I apologize for not writing more clearly. You obviously have not understood what I wrote at all, and I’ll take responsibility for that as a poor writer. I’m sorry we were not able to communicate.

      • Posted July 16, 2009 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

        That’s the most obnoxious example of an insult with a phony apology attached that I’ve seen in a long time. Yuck.

      • Posted July 16, 2009 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

        I’ll try again, then.

        Ginger, I’m sorry that you ranted on and on without the courtesy of even acknowledging my arguments, much less addressing them, and obnoxiously insinuated that I was a religious believer despite my clear statements to the contrary.

        Better?

      • Posted July 16, 2009 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

        oops. This time I am genuinely sorry- I mistook that last post as another volley from Ginger and responded in kind.. I really don’t want any further escalation – it’s enough that Ginger clearly doesn’t want to communicate with me, and that therefore, I don’t want to communicate with her.

        Ophelia, I note your objection to my style of communicating the above. If you care to continue the discussion we are having upthread, I’d just as soon do it there without furthering this distraction.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted July 16, 2009 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

        smijer said:

        “I don’t want to communicate with her.”

        You mean this is not the Ginger Baker who was the drummer for Cream and Blind Faith?

      • Posted July 16, 2009 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

        Sure… next you’ll be telling me that Jayne is a boy’s name.

        Feel free… to correct me if I’m mistaken on that.

  12. Gingerbaker
    Posted July 17, 2009 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    “oops. This time I am genuinely sorry- I mistook that last post as another volley from Ginger and responded in kind.. I really don’t want any further escalation – it’s enough that Ginger clearly doesn’t want to communicate with me, and that therefore, I don’t want to communicate with her.”

    -Smijer

    Smijer, you really are a piece of work.

    I’ll try this one last time, and then leave it up to god to communicate with you, as you seem impervious to non supernatural supplications:

    Your argument that religion and science are compatible falls flat on its face because your assertion that religion truth claims are relegated to the supernatural (the “extra-scientific”) is patently false. Christianity plucks the supposed ‘soul’ out of this world and into the next. In fact, ‘heaven’ was not even deemed supernatural by the church – it existed just above the clouds, and required support, interestingly enough, by a set of columns.

    Science does not find occasional suspensions of physical laws due to Biblical whimsy. Science does not find any indication of your bashful supernatural entity. Science does not countenance that such an entity exists at all until it bloody well sees evidence of such.

    Until then, your proposed entity is a creature of your imagination or religious fervor only, as likely as Russell’s teapot, and as compatible with science as unicorn kidneys. It may feel comfortable with the laws of nature, but Science most emphatically will not return the favor.

    • Posted July 17, 2009 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      I’ll try one more time, too – very briefly.

      It may feel comfortable with the laws of nature, but Science most emphatically will not return the favor.

      The claim of compatibility – as it is made by the NCSE and others who hold the accommodationist position, myself included, is that religious people need not abandon their religion in order to accept science.

      It is emphatically *not* that science must endorse any religious doctrine whatsoever.

      So, as long as religion is “comfortable with” (and accepting of) scientific work on the laws of nature, then the issue is settled. Of course science won’t return the favor, and anyone who asks it to do so is dreaming.

  13. Posted July 17, 2009 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    “The claim of compatibility – as it is made by the NCSE and others who hold the accommodationist position, myself included, is that religious people need not abandon their religion in order to accept science.”

    But what they are accepting is not science. It is science-except-when-it-conflicts-with-anything-we-want-to-believe. That’s not science.

    • Posted July 17, 2009 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      That’s what we are discussing up-thread. I agree it is sometimes that. Other times, it is a bit more nuanced.

      • Posted July 17, 2009 at 9:26 am | Permalink

        Yes, same discussion, but the quoted sentence was a useful focus.

        Well I think we see where we disagree, at least.

      • Posted July 17, 2009 at 9:35 am | Permalink

        Well I think we see where we disagree, at least.

        At least that’s something.

      • Posted July 17, 2009 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        Yeah. And something is better than nothing!

        I rather suspect that is your point…

        :- )

      • Posted July 17, 2009 at 9:45 am | Permalink

        Yes, and I think we’ve both said our peace… If you agree, then this would be a fine time to let the discussion rest.

    • Posted July 17, 2009 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      Yup, I agree – our peace and also our piece!

      • Posted July 17, 2009 at 10:30 am | Permalink

        “piece”… ok – I have to give you that one. I enjoyed talking to you :)

  14. Posted July 17, 2009 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    That’s kind of like crossed-fingers science. Or purely nominal science. Or (science). Or science with big holes cut out of it so that beliefs can be wedged in. Or “science.” That’s not really accepting science – it’s pretending to accept science while actually carving out giant exceptions. It’s accepting the word while rejecting the substance.

    Which is pretty degrading, if you think about it. It’s degraded science and it’s degrading to tell people “Oh sure you can do that.” Yeah of course they can do it, but they’re left with a husk if they do. It’s not really doing them a favor to assure them that it’s perfectly all right.

  15. Posted July 17, 2009 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Nice post, Jerry. Carroll’s analysis is stimulating, even if I find him a bit soft on the multiverse idea.

    But it’s slightly sloppy of you to say that I view the empirical content of religious beliefs as “unimportant or irrelevant.” On the contrary, questioning the empirical content of religious beliefs is essential. But I do think some religious beliefs, such as deism, make essentially no empirical claims that science can test. And in general, as I said in an earlier comment, I’m unsure “whether religion is more like a scientific field or one of these wooly subjects [like art or ethics].” That doesn’t mean religion is off-limits for empirical conversation, just that it may be a weird empirical animal.

    For the record, though, I don’t believe in virgin births. There, I said it. Now Notre Dame may revoke my degree.

    (And nice job on “faitheists.” Made me laugh.)


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