Is atheism scientific?

Over at Rationally Speaking, Massimo Pigliucci discusses “the scope of skeptical inquiry,” and asserts that atheism is not a scientific position but a philosophical one.  Here’s part of what he says:

First, let me define what I mean by skeptical inquiry, atheism and political philosophy. Skeptical inquiry, in the classic sense, pertains to the critical examination of evidential claims of the para- or super-normal. This means not just ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, UFOs and the like, but also — for instance — the creationist idea that the world is 6,000 years old. All these claims are, at least in principle, amenable to scientific inquiry because they refer to things that we can observe, measure and perhaps even repeat experimentally. Notice, of course, that (some) religious claims do therefore fall squarely within the domain of scientific skepticism. Also in this area we find pseudohistorical claims, such as Holocaust denial, and pseudoscientific ones like fear of vaccines and denial of global warming. Which means of course that some politically charged issues — like the latter two — can also pertain properly to skeptical inquiry.

So far, so good.  But then he goes on to assert that the atheist position is not one that derives from “skeptical inquiry”:

Second, let us turn to atheism. Once again: it is a philosophical, not a scientific position. Now, I have argued of course that any intelligent philosopher ought to allow her ideas to be informed by science, but philosophical inquiry is broader than science because it includes non-evidence based approaches, such as logic or more broadly reason-based arguments. This is both the strength and the weakness of philosophy when compared to science: it is both broader and yet of course less prone to incremental discovery and precise answers. When someone, therefore, wants to make a scientific argument in favor of atheism — like Dawkins and Jerry Coyne seem to do — he is stepping outside of the epistemological boundaries of science, thereby doing a disservice both to science and to intellectual inquiry. Consider again the example of a creationist who maintains in the face of evidence that the universe really is 6,000 years old, and that it only looks older because god arranged things in a way to test our faith. There is absolutely no empirical evidence that could contradict that sort of statement, but a philosopher can easily point out why it is unreasonable, and that furthermore it creates very serious theological quandaries.

I’m baffled.  But let’s be clear about what atheism is.  I’ll call “weak sense atheism” the position that, I think, most atheists hold.  It is this:  “There is no convincing evidence for God, so I withhold belief.”  This can be further refined, as Dawkins does in The God Delusion, into the statement, “There could be lots of evidence for God, but none has appeared. Therefore I think it improbable that God exists.”  This is the stand that informs the atheist bus posters that read, in part, “There probably is no God.”

The second form of disbelief, which I call “strong sense atheism,” is the flat assertion, “I know there is is no God.”  Note that this elides a bit into the “probably-no-God” position, depending on how strong you think the evidence is.  The existence of suffering in the world, for example, convinces many, but not all, that there is not a beneficent God.

Now I don’t know anyone who is a strong-sense atheist.  Even Dawkins, as I recall, is a “70% probability” man — he thinks it pretty improbable that God exists, but adds that he can’t disprove the existence of some kinds of gods. I’m pretty much on board with him.   You’d be a fool to say that you know absolutely that there is no being up there at all, including one that doesn’t interfere in the workings of the universe.

So let’s take weak-sense atheism (WSA) as the default stance.  In its very weakest, “no-evidence-for-God” sense, WSA is absolutely scientific.  After all, what is science but the claim that one needs empirical evidence before accepting something as a reality? When one says, “I see no evidence for a god, and therefore refuse to accept his/her/its reality,” one is saying nothing different from, “I see no evidence for the view that plants have feelings, and therefore I don’t accept the idea that they do.”

What about the “probabilistic” form of WSA?  That’s equally scientific.  If there could be evidence for a phenomenon, but repeated investigations fail to give that evidence, one becomes less willing to accept that phenomenon. In this sense, being a WSA is no different from making a perfectly scientific claim like this: “I think it pretty improbable that the Loch Ness monster exists.” After all, if there were a giant reptile trapped in the Loch, presumably you could find it.  And people have tried. They’ve looked underwater with cameras, hung around the lake trying to photograph it, and conducted sonar and satellite investigations.  Nothing has turned up.  In all probability, the Monster is a myth.

Based on these searches, is it then a “philosophical position” to say that it’s highly unlikely that Nessie exists? I don’t think so.  It’s an evidence-based position — in other words, a scientific one.  Similarly, the god that many people believe in, who is said to be beneficent, answer prayers, heal the sick, come back from the dead, and the like, is contradicted by evidence: the failure of prayer and spiritual healing, the existence of inexplicable evil, and so on.  There are a million ways that a theistic god could have shown itself to us Earthlings, but it hasn’t happened.  There is no more evidence for a world-touching God than for the Loch Ness Monster.

Now of course we can’t refute, or find any evidence for or against, the existence of a purely deistic, hands-off God.  In this sense, saying that “God certainly does not exist” is a philosophical position.  But that’s not the most common form of atheism.

I’m not a philosopher, so maybe Massimo’s argument is more subtle than I perceive.  But I see my own non-acceptance of a deity as a purely scientific stance.  I believe it was Bertrand Russell who was asked, “But what if you’re wrong about your atheism? What if you die and find yourself before God, who asks you why you didn’t believe?” Russell’s reply was, “Not enough evidence, Lord; not enough evidence.”

______________

UPDATE:  Over at Sentient Developments, Russell Blackford, who is a philosopher, has a long and trenchant critique of Pigliucci’s post.

135 Comments

  1. Andrew M
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Professor Coyne,

    Does this mean that all statements of fact are really statements of degrees of probability?

    I think I have trouble coming to grips with what you wrote (and that many others have written) because it seems to reduce what should be obvious facts to … well, something less I guess.

    For instance, I’m in my office at the moment. Is it a philosophical or scientific position to claim “An invisible dragon does not reside in this room”? Any useful definition of “true” would seem to attach to that statement; but then I fail to see why it would not apply to a god?

    I’m not sure why it isn’t a scientific position to claim “A god does not exist”, in the same sort of way that it is probably a scientific position to say that Russell’s teapot does not exist. Or am I mistaken?

    • Posted October 23, 2009 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      I think it’s the “allowing for possibility” (excuse the bete noire) that makes science such a wonderfully open discourse. Nonetheless, this component is also an achilles tendon (for the sake of penultimate certainty) when it comes to others inserting unfalsifiable polyquackery.

      Theologians got hip to this years ago and continue to exploit it as an intellectual safe place.

    • Furcas
      Posted October 23, 2009 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

      “Does this mean that all statements of fact are really statements of degrees of probability?”

      Yes, that’s exactly what it means. There is not a single belief about reality that is 100% certain to be true. What we call facts are beliefs whose probability of being true is very, very, very high.

      Name any fact, and I’ll come up with an alternate possibility that contradicts it and hasn’t yet been ruled out by the evidence. This possibility might be extremely unlikely, but it will always exist.

      • Furcas
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

        … and you’re absolutely right in the rest of your post, too.

        That a thing or being might be ‘supernatural’ (whatever that means), or impossible to study, or impossible to detect, or even impossible to falsify, has no effect whatsoever on the likelihood that belief in this thing or being exists.

        The likelihood that a belief is true is a function of its _a priori_ probability (which is directly related to the specificity of the concept the belief is about), and of the quantity and quality of the evidence. If there’s no evidence either way, the belief’s likelihood is equal to its _a priori_ probability. If this probability is tiny, we know that the concept isn’t real, in exactly the same sense that we know the Earth is round.

      • Furcas
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

        Err, the end of the second sentence of my previous post should read, “…, has no effect whatsoever on the likelihood that this thing or being exists.”

    • qbsmd
      Posted October 27, 2009 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      This is what the philosophical field of epistemology is about; what is knowledge and how do we get it. The Wikipedia article describes the problems and different proposed solutions. The only one that seems reasonable to me is the skeptical epistemology, (I assume most people here would agree) which is basically that there is no absolute knowledge, no proof, beyond for mathematics. And this can be demonstrated: prove that the universe is real, that we are not in The Matrix, or that the whole universe is not a computer simulation or someone else’s dream, etc.

      • Epikkurus
        Posted November 2, 2009 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

        IMO, defining what God or a god is would be key to defining what from Atheism one claims (SWA, SSA). For example: If one asked if the Xtian God exists, I would say absolutely not. That would make me a SSA. Right?

        On the other hand, if I were asked if some Deist type Deity existed, I would say I don’t know, but most likely not. In that case I would be a SWA; at least according to your definition.

        Defining what we are being asked to believe in is critical to proving/disproving its existence.

        I do believe in little people, but I do not believe in Leprechauns. Little people exists, but little people with magically delicious supernatural powers do not.

        At the end of the day, any philosophical argument should be tested in reality to make sure the philosophical claim will hold up.

  2. Diego
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    I agree that all reasonable atheists subscribe to what you refer to as weak sense atheism. It is the most tenable position to be in. But then what becomes of agnosticism? Does it become completely synonymous with (weak sense) atheism? Is there an arbitrary line (perhaps at 60% sure) whereby if you are 70% certain there are no gods you are an atheist but if you are 50% certain then you are an agnostic? I used to use agnostic to refer to the weak atheist stance and atheist as someone with absolute belief in no god despite not having perfect knowledge. But then I found that people often interpreted agnostic to be some kind of vaguely spiritual label where agnostics believe in an ineffable “something” but don’t latch on to anything concrete, not even a deistic hands-off entity. And that didn’t fit at all. So I went with atheist. I am however annoyed to cede agnostic to them when that is not what Huxley meant when he coined the phrase. What a conundrum!

    • Ian
      Posted October 23, 2009 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      The same thing goes the other way. In my experience the majority of religious people have varying degrees of doubt. (They only admit that, by the way, if they don’t feel threatened by your atheism).

      I’ve had religious folks tell me I’m really an agnostic, because I’m not willing to say there are absolutely categorically no gods. But I tell them that if that were the criteria, then they would be agnostics too.

      The real difference between an agnostic and an atheist, is that the latter is confident enough in their belief to wear a label with a not insignificant amount of social stigma.

      • Diego
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

        Good point. I guess the thing is that we are breaking a continuum into discrete categories with all the difficulties that are entailed when you try and find break points. There is even a spectrum of thought processes– a degree of reliance on materialism/empiricism vs blind faith.

        Also… although I liked Huxley’s original sense of the word agnostic, perhaps it was a pointless neologism. If there is no need to make a fine distinction between weak atheists and strawmen strong atheists then it meant that the term was free to be co-opted for a squishier meaning.

    • Posted October 23, 2009 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      The way I see it, theism, atheism and agnosticism aren’t on a single spectrum, they are on independent axes. Agnosticism is about what you know, not about what you believe. If you claim certain knowledge, you are gnostic, otherwise you are agnostic. If you believe in God or gods, you are a theist, if not, you are an atheist. You could be any combination: gnostic theist (fundamentalist believer), agnostic theist (liberal believer), gnostic atheist (“hard” atheism) or agnostic atheist (“weak atheism”).

      Someone who claims to be agnostic, but doesn’t specify anything else, hasn’t actually told you anything about their beliefs. Sure, they realize they can’t know for sure if God exists or not, but at some point you’ll have to decide whether you’ll live your life as if he does, or as if he doesn’t exist. That’s why I usually consider people who only say they are “agnostic” to be dodging the question, or are refusing to commit themselves one way or the other. Are they an agnostic theist, or an agnostic atheist?

      • Ian
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

        In my experience they are most likely to be an agnostic atheist, in your terms, because I think your observation is right that the crucial thing is how you live you life: as if your particular god or gods exist or as if no gods exist.

        Interesting model of the choices. I normally like adding dimensions like this, but I do feel that intuitively ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’ (both as verbs) are gradations of roughly the same kind of thing, along with verbs like “I think that…” and “I suspect that…”.

        There might be another interesting axis with “I hope that…”

      • Diego
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

        Great points, Dean and Ian!

      • articulett
        Posted October 24, 2009 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

        In my opinion, all people are agnostic about things that are undetectable and immeasurable by virtue of the fact that such things are indistinguishable from non-existent things.

        But “agnostic” has come to mean “on the fence” about something–as though the agnostic thinks there is a 50-50 chance for that something is true or false.

        I ask those who are agnostic about gods if they are equally agnostic about fairies and demons. I am. They are not. I think Dawkins is clear that he is equally agnostic about all unfalsifiable notions.

        And that IS scientific, in my opinion. It also helps to keep your science bias free if you don’t have a belief in such things. Lack-of-belief should be the default position for a scientist until the evidence accumulates to warrant a provisional conclusion. If gods ever had as much evidence going for them as evolution, then I couldn’t help but believe in them. But, as of yet, I can’t tell one invisible entity from the myriad of other invisible entities humans have “believed in”.

        I’m a fan of Massimo, but I’m not a fan of this latest post.

      • Posted October 27, 2009 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

        I actually wrote a blog post (linked on my username) drawing those axes a while ago. Although I disagree with using agnostic theist or agnostic atheist: you can’t be absolutely certain, and if you believe there’s a better than 50% chance of something, i.e. that it’s the most probable scenario, then you believe in it. If you don’t believe there’s a better than 50% chance of any one of a set of alternatives, then agnosticism is an appropriate label because there is no “most probable” any more, or at least what is most probable changes depending on how the alternatives are grouped.

    • Posted October 23, 2009 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

      a- is a prefix meaning “without”

      “theism” = belief in god or gods

      “gnostic” comes from a term referring to “spiritual knowledge”

      So the first is about belief, the second about knowledge.

      An a-theist is without belief in gods
      An a-gnostic does not have spiritual knowledge (i.e. doesn’t know if there are any gods)

      the two are not mutually exclusive – “weak-form” atheists (a term I despise) are both atheist and agnostic.

      [A strong-form agnostic refuses to take a belief position.]

      I know quite a few agnostic theists, actually – they believe but don’t claim to know for sure.

      • Ian
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

        I think I’m missing something then. Efrique, you obviously also feel there is an obvious qualitative distinction between belief and knowledge. i.e. A distinction that isn’t just about how sure one is of something.

        Can you describe the difference?

      • Peter
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

        Ian, if you take knowledge as something like justified true belief, a person could express belief in something while thinking that their justification for believing it doesn’t exclude all possible alternatives.

      • Ian
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

        Yes, That to me would put knowledge beyond justification on a continuum, not as separate things.

        So I can suspect something, then I might say ‘I think that …’, then I might say ‘I believe that …’, then ‘I know that …’, then ‘I am certain that …’.

        And I traverse that series as I gain more evidence for the thing, from a vague intuition through to a mountain of evidence.

        I don’t get the idea that belief and knowledge are different kinds of thing, that one could put them as different axes.

  3. Posted October 23, 2009 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    It always seems to me that those who claim atheism is a philosophical position misunderstand the word atheism. This isn’t really shocking; I think the common notion (at least this is how I grew up understanding the terms) is that an atheist believes there absolutely and certainly is no god, where an agnostic entertains the possibility but takes no definitive stand. When one stands with this definition, then yes, unquestionably, atheism is a philosophic stance.

    However, when one stands with the more current terminology (Weak Sense Atheism and Strong Sense Atheism), Massimo’s assertion that atheism is a purely philosophical position bears no weight whatsoever; it cannot hold any weight, given that by it’s nature, WSA is a position driven by skeptical scientific inquiry.

    As much as I hate to say it, I think this cooks down to a semantic question (the meaning of ‘atheism’).

  4. Posted October 23, 2009 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think there is any position that is purely scientific, since science is affected by philosophical judgments. But then I also don’t think there’s any purely philosophical position, since any existential claim is in some manner based on empiricism.

    Pigliucci only asserts that the question of god is philosophical, thus supposedly broader than science. Well, is that true of unicorns, too? Ents are entities “broader than science” (being fictions), so is the question of their existence automatically beyond the purview of science?

    The truth of philosophy is that most of it understands very well that if you’re talking about “existence” (phenomenology, or whatever), you’re depending upon what is sensed, generally upon that which is sensed by many people who are in agreement regarding those perceptions. God is thus not necessarily strictly a matter of science (empiricism is broader than science, too), but is a proper subject for investigating science claims.

    Pigliucci is thus doing what nearly all apologists for religion do, automatically privileging it and pronouncing it to be beyond “mere scientists.” This plays into the hands of IDists and the like, because on the one hand it’s a claim that certain claims regarding existence is beyond science (not true, insofar as humans are able to know), and that supposedly we are unwilling to consider certain investigable truth claims in science. Also, it suggests that “it all depends upon worldview,” a frequent creationist claim.

    Except that we are willing to consider theism’s predictions, and ID always fails when it makes entailed falsifiable predictions. I don’t doubt that Pigliucci would agree with the foregoing sentence, but the problem with NOMA and like claims is that it always plays into the (false in most cases) statements that we won’t consider ideas that open the door to theism.

    We’re quite happy to do so, actually, because it’s so easy to slam the door shut on theism. We do not privilege our god claims by placing them beyond science, it’s the theists and their apologists who must do so.

    Glen Davidson

    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

    • newenglandbob
      Posted October 23, 2009 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      I concur with Glen Davidson’s analysis in comment #4.

      I also reject Massimo Pigliucci assertion that logic and more broadly reason-based arguments are outside of science and strictly in the domain of philosophy. How could science operate without logic and reason?

      • Ian
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

        A implies B does not mean B implies A.

        Because logic and reason are applicable to non-scientific questions shouldn’t imply that science operates without logic and reason.

        Mathematics is applicable to questions outside science, but science doesn’t operate without mathematics.

    • articulett
      Posted October 25, 2009 at 12:56 am | Permalink

      This plays into the hands of IDists and the like, because on the one hand it’s a claim that certain claims regarding existence is beyond science (not true, insofar as humans are able to know)…

      I agree. And I think it’s worse than that. Pigliucci’s apologetic approach implies that there are other ways of knowing… as if some holy book or guru could have the answer that isn’t available to scientist and others who use empirical means for measuring phenomenon or understanding reality. Or at least, that is the message a believer is invited to “hear”.

      As mentioned by others, it privileges one type of superstitious claim (that of an invisible creator) above all others (for example, the Scientology claim that “thetans” cause “engrams” (psychic blockages) that can be “cleared” via “e-meters”.) What valid reason can there be for this bias? Is his lack of b-elief in Scientology a “philosophy” to Pigliucci too?

      Atheism makes no claims to privileged or special knowledge; whereas, theism is nothing BUT such claims.

      Certainly this makes atheism more “scientific” than theism. I think scientific naturalism might be the philosophy that goes best with atheism. But atheism is just the lack of belief in gods– a perfectly valid (scientific) conclusion given the utter lack of evidence or even a coherent definition of “god”.

  5. Ian
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Erm is it really that hard to understand. Surely not.

    Scientific questions deal with the material world. Religion posits a non-material world. Atheists claim that there is no non-material world.

    Scientific atheists like Dawkins and you, (and me incidentally) claim there is no non-material world.

    But by definition one can’t reject a non-material world by recourse to a methodology that only applies to the material world.

    What we can do is to point out when religion makes claims about the material world and we can show (as we universally have so far) that those claims are false.

    But of course it is a philosophical position to say that the lack of material evidence leads one to the conclusion that there is no non-material world.

    In my experience many atheists are just so out of the practice of thinking in terms of non-material realities that they just can’t conceive of how anything could possibly be non-material.

    Philosophers are quite happy to use non-material realities as axioms in an argument and see where that takes them. As in the original article, this often means they can see the absurdities in faith positions in a more acute way than folks who won’t engage and just stand there saying “but there’s no such thing as non-material reality.”

    • Posted October 23, 2009 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

      Atheists are more out of the practice of asserting that personal revelation can be generalized to a broad objective reality absent any corroborating data.

      Massimo is finer pointed in his positions than I can grasp, perhaps because my own training in philosophy is limited to undergrad courses. He has a doctorate and is better at splitting hairs on this issue.

      I agree with Jerry on this, because reality is not absolute nor are facts. They are granted high probabilities because objective realities are measurable to a high degree of certainty, but as Des Cartes pointed out, there could be demons deceiving us all. But that’s just not likely.

      • Ian
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

        “But that’s just not likely.”

        On what basis can you do that calculation?

        Of course the ‘how do you know that’ stuff is just pissing into the wind. But that’s really the point.

        At some point you make a non-scientific claim about what grounds for understanding reality you have. And I (and I assume you too) choose a scientific materialism. But that is not and could not ever be a scientific choice.

        That seems pretty obvious to me.

        Also, the technique of bashing people who’ve got higher degrees in a subject with the kind of insinuation in your post is exactly what I read in anti-evolution blogs all the time. “Of course he’d know more about that, because he has a fancy doctorate in biology and I just have a high-school diploma. Haw Haw Haw”.

      • Posted October 23, 2009 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

        @Ian: actually, I think the choice would be for scientific empiricism, not scientific materialism. Materialism is a conclusion from empiricism: no proper empirical evidence for anything non-material appears to exist, and the universe appears to not need anything non-material to function.

        Therefore, assuming no non-material world exists is a perfectly valid scientific assumption, based on the empirical evidence we have.

      • Ian
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

        I think you’re getting muddled.

        Empirical in the scientific sense (which is, I think, how you’re using it), isn’t quite the same as its meaning in philosophy.

        Scientific empiricism presupposes materialism.

        Philosophical empiricism does not entail materialism.

      • Posted October 23, 2009 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

        Ian: “In my experience many atheists are just so out of the practice of thinking in terms of non-material realities that they just can’t conceive of how anything could possibly be non-material.”

        What’s a non-material reality? How would one hypothetically go about defining it…by what it isn’t, by analogy to material objects? Maybe I’m not being fair here since such concepts are only known through revelation, a subjective experience, which apparently defies explanation.

        However, we should consider the likelihood that supernatural and non-material are nonsense concepts. On a purely practical level what are we to do with something that can’t be communicated in any meaningful or useful way? Perhaps it’s irrelevant.

      • Posted October 24, 2009 at 10:07 am | Permalink

        I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I am bashing Massimo. I am conceding to his expertise, and begging off the idea that I can trump him. I am still trying to understand what he is saying, in other words.

    • Norm
      Posted October 23, 2009 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

      Atheists do not claim that there is no non-material world, just that such a world, if it existed, would be completely beyond our ability to detect (by definition), so what’s the point of even considering it? Let’s focus on the material world, which not only definitely exists, but is more than sufficient.

      • Ian
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

        Well, I’m uncomfortable playing devil’s advocate for theists, but as far as I can tell they do claim to be able to detect the non-material world, and therefore it seems a topic of great consideration for them.

      • J.J.E.
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

        If you can sense something does that not make it material? Why are theists the only ones permitted to posit non-material observations? It seems like an oxymoron to me.

      • Ian
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

        Well the fact that you see it as an oxymoron just begs the question.

        Also I don’t think they’re “allowed” to, whatever that means. If you (as I do), think there’s no such thing as a none material world, then you’d have to conclude they are wrong.

    • Posted October 27, 2009 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      “In my experience many atheists are just so out of the practice of thinking in terms of non-material realities that they just can’t conceive of how anything could possibly be non-material.”

      I don’t believe the idea of a material- non-material distinction is coherent. If something can effect something in our universe that we can sense and record, then we can study it scientifically. If we can’t detect it, then there is no reason to believe it exists.

      I think there might be some confusion about indirectly versus directly detecting things. As an engineer, I’ve measured a pressure by using my eyes to detect photons from a computer screen, which was representing binary data which was converted from an analog voltage which was related to a resistance in a wire which changed based on the strain in that wire which was determined by the pressure difference I was interested in. All of that depends on understanding the operation of each component though.

      Once we have the ability to measure the position of individual neurotransmitters and ion channel states in real time, we will be able to predict exactly how a human brain will behave for at least some length of time in the future. With that knowledge, we would be able to detect whether something other than of chemistry was altering that behavior and thereby detect something like a soul interacting with the brain. The lack of such observations would conclusively falsify the idea of a soul. How would the concept of non-materiality of a soul effect that conclusion?

  6. Posted October 23, 2009 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    The problem of evil presents traditional philosophical theism (tri-omni God) as empirically significant: i.e., observationally testable. The theory predicts that there will be no gratuitous evil. We observe gratuitous evil.

    Now, contrary to crude falsificationism, it’s fairly well established that even the most scientific hypotheses aren’t straightforwardly falsifiable. (See the holism endorsed by Duhem, Einstein, and Quine in opposition to logical positivist/empiricist philosophies of science.) Grant me enough ad hoc epicylces and I’ll keep the earth at the center of my Ptolemaic universe.

    Science, it seems to me, is at least partly distinguished from philosophy by its intolerance of ad hockery. So the epicycle-mongers have long since been banished from astronomy departments whereas philosophy keeps around its theists and their theodicies. Nonetheless, I would press the point that by scientific standards each theodicy is as ad hoc as any epicycle.

    Furthermore, theism is not redeemed of its anomalies by any kind of fruitfulness. What recent advances has teleology brought us? Squat.

    The Aristotle/Aquinas research program is as dead as the Ptolemy/Bellarmine research program. The hypothesis is disconfirmed by the evidence and the maneuvers to rescue it from outright falsification are unmotivated by any theoretical virtue. I, for these scientific reasons, believe the hypothesis is false.

    • Posted October 23, 2009 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

      Nice comment. I think I agree with it, but it’s nice anyway.

      • qbsmd
        Posted October 28, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink

        “Science, it seems to me, is at least partly distinguished from philosophy by its intolerance of ad hockery.”

        If this is true, then religious people have a valid point when they say that science is biased against religious explanations a priori. What is a miracle if not a non-repeatable ad hoc explanation? And if a miracle actually occurred, would scientists be able to detect it?

        I would argue that ad hoc explanations do exist in science, they just get replaced by simpler, more useful (i.e. can actually make predictions) explanations once those become available.

      • Posted October 28, 2009 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        “What is a miracle if not a non-repeatable ad hoc explanation?”

        It is not even that. To say “it was a miracle” is equivalent to saying “I don’t know how it happened.” It is not an explanation. I have a longer treatment of this at http://yashwata.info/2009/10/14/on-miracles/ .

    • Posted October 23, 2009 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

      I agree with Russell.

      • mk
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

        I agree with Yashwata.

  7. Posted October 23, 2009 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Consider again the example of a creationist who maintains in the face of evidence that the universe really is 6,000 years old, and that it only looks older because god arranged things in a way to test our faith.

    It seems to me that in the scientific method it is perfectly valid to reject the theory that God wanted the universe to look old, and go with the evidence that the universe in fact is old. The way I see it, it’s the people who think God is a good explanation for the apparent age of the universe who are leaving the bounds of science, not the people who think the evidence points at an entirely material universe.

    Then again, I’m not a philosopher either, so what do I know?

  8. Thanny
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Theism is a positive claim. Atheism is a rejection of that claim. It’s that simple.

    More to the point, if you posit a god which influences the world, that is not a non-material belief. It’s a material belief, which is subject to scientific inquiry. If you posit a completely non-material god which has no influence on the material universe, your claim is not subject to scientific inquiry. Nor is it deserving of consideration by any reasonable person.

    It’s like Sagan’s invisible dragon. What’s the difference between an entity that has no measurable effect on reality and no entity at all?

    The real problem is not that materialists don’t consider non-material ideas worth thinking about, it’s that those who do consider non-material ideas worthy of attention don’t understand what they are actually doing. A non-material idea can have no reality outside of the brain in which it is housed, by definition. Otherwise it would be material.

    In summary, any claim that involves any influence whatsoever on reality is subject to scientific inquiry. All non-material claims are exempt both from scientific inquiry and interest by anyone but psychologists.

    • Ian
      Posted October 23, 2009 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      Erm, not really. How would you scientifically distinguish between a universe that is billions of years old, and a universe that is 24 hours old, but created in a perfect simulacrum of a universe that is billions of years old?

      The conclusion that the second explanation is obviously daft and peurile is not a scientific one.

      • The Swede
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

        You “scientifically distinguish” them by following the evidence, as that is all which science is – hypothesize, test, refine, repeat.

        Anyway, the second explanation isn’t daft; your example is daft, since if a universe is created 24 hours ago yet artifically aged to billions of years of age then it IS billions of years old. There is no difference to detect, making your example vacuous.

        And btw, atheists do not reject non-material claims because of lack of material evidence. We reject non-material claims due to lack of non-material evidence. If you have any, feel free to share it.

      • Posted October 23, 2009 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

        The conclusion that the second explanation is obviously daft and peurile is not a scientific one.

        Not exactly true. The claim that the universe was created 24 hours ago, but created to look billions of year old, can be rejected on basic scientific principles. The claim posits an unknown event for which there is no evidence. This event was according to our current understanding of the universe unnecessary for the universe to look like this. Furthermore, the hypothesis that such an event took place adds nothing to our understanding of why the universe looks like it does today. It definitely does not have the explanatory power that the currently theories of the history of our universe have. And finally, there is no known mechanism which could have caused such an event. Clearly, the hypothesis that the universe was created 24 hours ago can (almost trivially) be rejected in favor of our current theories.

        All of these are types of considerations that are used all the time in science to reject hypotheses.

        I can also refute your point by arguing that the notion of a universe that was created 24 hours ago wasn’t a scientific proposition to begin with. After all, it can’t be verified nor falsified. Science can simply reject it as on these grounds alone.

      • Ian
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

        I think you’re making my point for me a fortiori.

        I wasn’t commenting on the rules that science uses to determine truth, I was commenting on the choice of rules itself.

      • Posted October 23, 2009 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

        @Ian: then you have to be more clear, because to me you clearly said “science can’t do this”, even though it clearly has rules that allow you to do exactly that. Where these rules come from is an entirely different matter.

        But since the results of the scientific method are always subjected to empirical verification, the scientific method itself is constantly being tested against reality as well. And it appears to work reasonably well. So it seems that the choice of rules wasn’t so bad.

      • Ian
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

        I’m sorry I’m not clear. I’ve been fortunate to know quite a few talented philosophy educators, enough to know how lousy I am at communicating ideas.

        I’m asking you to distinguish between the criteria you use to determine truth, and the way you come to those criteria.

        You might choose, for example, that truth is the prediction of communal observation. Then you find the scientific method kicks ass. And you send men to the moon and cure Smallpox, and produce digital watches.

        But if you chose, for example, that truth is that which most aligns your soul with God. Then science wouldn’t help, and crucially, you wouldn’t care two figs about science. And, as it happens, many theists don’t.

      • Ian
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

        @Swede

        I think you’ve missed the point. Your response is a series of non-scientific (i.e. non-falsifiable) statements. Which, of course, just make my point.

        For example:

        “if a universe is created 24 hours ago yet” [replacing for my actual statement not your misquote] is a perfect simulacrum of a universe “billions of years of age then it IS billions of years old”

        It seems to me that you’re thinking something like “if two things are materially indistinguishable, then they are the same”.

        This is a statement of ontological equivalence, it is not falsifiable and cannot be determined scientifically.

        “We reject non-material claims due to lack of non-material evidence. If you have any, feel free to share it.”

        What would constitute valid non-material evidence for you? Can you describe a non-material test in scientific terms? I’d be impressed if you can.=

      • Peter
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

        Of course the 24hr ago–well, now it’s 29 hours ago, isn’t it–explanation is obviously daft to science. Why is the 29 hr ago explanation especially more interesting the the 30 hr ago explanation? Or the 5 hr ago explanation? Or the 6000 yr ago explanation? Etc. All of those possible explanations are equally daft to science. If any of them are daft, then they all are. If none are daft, and all need to be seriously considered, then any useful standard of knowledge is impossible.

        The approx 14bya explanation is especially interesting because it has the benefit of not being made up just to prove a point in an argument. It has multiple lines of evidence and observation behind it.

      • Ian
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

        “The approx 14bya explanation is especially interesting …. It has multiple lines of evidence and observation behind it.”

        What would it look like if the 24h explanation had evidence behind it?

        Of course this is bullshit. The point is that we don’t (in fact can’t) use science to tell it is bullshit.

        [And 6000yrs was clearly not made up in an argument to prove a point.]

      • Peter
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

        I guess I don’t understand, Ian. If science is so impotent that it can’t identify obvious bullshit like the idea that the universe might have been created 24hrs ago to look just like it had been created 14bya, then it’s not clear to me that science could be good for much of anything.

      • Ian
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

        That doesn’t strike me as impotent.

        Any more than mathematics is impotent because it can’t (on its own) differentiate between a correct and incorrect equation of motion.

        It just means we need to bring in other tools to help us think about those things.

        In the case of ontology (what is reality made of), we use philosophy alongside and informed by science.

        There may be very good arguments why the universe is not 24h old (Swede alluded to one that has a good philosophical pedigree, for example). But they won’t be scientific.

      • Peter
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

        If the hypothesis is that the universe is actually age T but just happens to look exactly as if it is age 14Gy, then, scientifically, it’s standard to make a symmetry argument that all T are equally likely.* Then the probability that the universe was created between 24hrs ago and 25hrs ago, is (25hrs – 24hrs) divided by infinity basically.

        Physics makes lots of symmetry arguments. If they don’t count here, then maybe they don’t count anywhere, and physics is actually useless.

        Scientifically, it’s completely daft to claim that the universe might have been created 24hrs ago in such a way that it looks like it was created 14Gya. Sure, you can argue it’s daft for other reasons that might not be scientific, but the 24hr old universe hypothesis looks daft to science, too.

        *except of course T around 14Gya, which should look much more likely than other possible times.

      • qbsmd
        Posted October 28, 2009 at 10:33 am | Permalink

        “How would you scientifically distinguish between a universe that is billions of years old, and a universe that is 24 hours old, but created in a perfect simulacrum of a universe that is billions of years old?”

        Tautologically, you could not determine it without information obtained from outside that universe. We would go with Occam’s Razor: if a universe is “perfectly” consistent with being 15byo, then that is the simplest explanation. Scientists would only consider alternatives if imperfections were detected.

      • ritebrother
        Posted October 30, 2009 at 7:41 am | Permalink

        It appears that parsimony is being claimed by philosophy (purely by authority, in my view), despite the fact that it is integral to the process of forming scientific hypotheses, and I would argue thus operationally scientific.

  9. Posted October 23, 2009 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    This is my view:

    Science is a set of heuristics. You can make scientific statements of the sort that “god is unsupported”.

    Atheism can be supported by a philosophical position that scientific support is the sole correct heuristic for deciding belief or disbelief in god.

    That position, stated somewhat more generally, is called philosophical or metaphysical naturalism or materialism.

    Religion, on the other hand, rarely embraces this philosophical position. So, while most religious people will agree that god is scientifically unsupported (at least on some level), they nevertheless claim reason to believe. They are expressing support for the validity of another heuristic, one under which belief in God is justified.

    So, to say that my atheism is strictly scientific stems from my inattention to the unspoken philosophical position that science is the correct heuristic for deciding theological questions.

    • Ian
      Posted October 23, 2009 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

      +1

  10. Posted October 23, 2009 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    “You’d be a fool to say that you know absolutely that there is no being up there at all. . .”

    That’s not correct. What we do know is that the *description* of this putative being makes no sense. Do we know *absolutely* that there is no Flying Spaghetti Monster? Yes, we do. Same with all the other gods. Their attributes are unphysical and their description is incoherent. Like irresistible forces, immovable objects and married bachelors, they have never existed and they still don’t. This is a fact.

  11. Posted October 23, 2009 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    Haha! I blogged about this first. See over at Sentient Developments, where I sometimes guest-blog.

    http://www.sentientdevelopments.com/2009/10/pigliucci-on-science-and-scope-of.html

    It’s very long, and I may yet polish it a bit more – was tired by the time I finished it last night my time.

    Okay, I’ll now read Jerry’s piece and see whether I agree with it. I don’t fully agree with Massimo’s piece, but what I do think is that questions about the division of labour between the sciences and the humanities are a bit complicated, and maybe a bit arbitrary, being more matters of what, historically, was convenient than anything else. I certainly don’t think you can blow Dawkins (or Jerry) out of the water simply by complaining, on some a priori basis, that science can’t come up with arguments that settle the God question (or some variant of it). Whether or not it can is going to depend on the arguments, and can only be seen AFTER the particular arguments are made.

  12. Posted October 23, 2009 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    I’m still absorbing this, but here’s something I disagree with. Jerry says: “After all, what is science but the claim that one needs empirical evidence before accepting something as a reality?”

    Well, that sounds to me like a claim ABOUT science, not a claim that arises WITHIN science. Hence, I’d say it is an epistemological claim (which is a sub-set of philosophical claims). I do think that when scientists step back and make claims about science itself they are doing scientific epistemology (and they may be very well qualified to do so, just as lawyers may be very well qualified to step back and engage in philosophy of law).

    Although I don’t entirely agree with Massimo, I can see that I won’t entirely agree with Jerry either.

    But we need to be careful. I think that the disagreements among the three of us are likely to turn out to be mainly semantic. One problem with Massimo’s piece is that, while he makes some semantic points that are interesting (and possibly even true), he words some of it in a way that can be used as a stick to beat people with whom pretty much agrees in substance, i.e. Jerry and Richard.

  13. hazur
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    I would object to Jerry’s definition of strong atheism since is creating an empty set which I don’t find productive. I don’t see a problem in defining strong atheism in a non-absolute way to include ‘new’ or highly confident people on the atheist position.
    Hugo

    • Posted October 23, 2009 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

      Well, I am a strong atheist about certain gods and kinds of gods. I can’t deny that there is anything at all, somewhere, that might qualify as a god by some definition. But I do believe I am justified in positively denying the existence of Zeus as described in Greek mythology. Likewise for Yahweh as described in the Old Testament. Likewise for the omni-this, omni-that God of the Abrahamic philosophical theologians.

      I think we have good grounds to make the positive claim that these gods don’t exist. It’s not just a matter of lack of belief. Surely this is obvious in the case of Zeus. No sensible person that I know claims to be merely a “weak atheist” about Zeus.

      Whether we can assert CERTAINTY is a separate point. A knowledge claim is not the same as a claim of certainty, only of fact, supported by some kind of justification.

      • hazur
        Posted October 23, 2009 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

        Russel, I think we agree that strong atheism is an appropriate label to group people with positions similar to what you express, and I would refer as ‘absolute atheism’ what Jerry calls strong.
        Cheers,
        Hugo

  14. Occam
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    … stepping outside of the epistemological boundaries of science…
    What a custard pie!
    More than forty years ago, Jean Piaget, the biologist turned developmental psychologist turned epistemologist, wrote a little treatise which few people read, and which everyone should: Sagesse et illusions de la philosphie (English version “Insights and illusions of philosophy”, but more properly translated as “Wisdom and illusions of philosophy”).
    Therein, Piaget shows how entire classes of problems, hitherto considered in the realm of speculative philosophical enquiry, have entered the scope of hard scientific research, once science has turned its focus towards them.
    Interestingly, this includes the ever shifting boundaries of epistemology, the subject field central to Piaget’s oeuvre.
    Dawkins, for one, would have eminently profited from Piaget’s insights: he should have found that his point had been already made in a clear, cogent, succint, and literate way.

  15. mk
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    I do not believe in a god (or gods) of any kind. In fact, I will state now, positively, that there are no such things/beings as gods. I will state positively that I can prove there are no such things as gods and never have been any such things as gods by pointing to the fact that nobody can prove that there are or were ever any such things as gods.

    Humans are clever animals. We look for and create and find patterns. We are able to talk ourselves blue in the face about the meaning of existence and the impossibility of proving a negative, and so on… but in the end I think we all know perfectly well that we humans created gods ourselves, that humans all around the globe did the same thing in one form or another, that the stories aren’t even that original or all that different from each other and that at some point we need to be brave enough to just fucking say it. And deal with it.

    We created the entire idea of a god. It is painfully obvious… and the rest is just semantic mumbo-jumbo BS.

    (Of course, that’s just my opinion… I could be wrong.) ;^}

  16. Furcas
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    I know that God doesn’t exist. By “God”, I mean what most people who use the word mean by it. And by “know”, I also mean what most people who use the word mean by it.

    So “God” does not mean “the ground of all being” or “the laws of nature” or even an evolved species of aliens who are running our simulation on a computer. And “know” does not mean “believe with 100% certainty” or “believe because I have mathematical proof to support my belief”.

    I shouldn’t have to specify all this, but for some reason, people (even agnostics and atheists) forget all the accepted rules of communication when the God topic is broached.

  17. mpzrd
    Posted October 24, 2009 at 12:29 am | Permalink

    I am really, really confused by a thread that shows up Massimo Pigliucci as an apologist for religion, some kind of **accomodationist**.

    …If you only think that god “probably doesn’t exist”, then why should you object if some other people want to do some thought (and other) experiments on the assumption that some god does exist?

    Ian:
    Scientific questions deal with the material world. Religion posits a non-material world. Atheists claim that there is no non-material world.

    I would rather say that Religion deals with the world in a non-material way. You could consider the synthetic vs. the analytic. Or the geisteswissenschaft vs. the naturwissenschaften, the mind-affected world vs. the natural world. Popper’s World 2 (or World 3). And so on.

    • bad Jim
      Posted October 24, 2009 at 3:47 am | Permalink

      Science deals with the world as it is, whether material or not. It’s a question of what works, of what describes experience most accurately.

      Supernatural explanations are explicitly not excluded preemptively, and I doubt that there are many experimenters who have never felt the hairs on the back of their necks rise over some set of results which could only be the fault of some malign influence. These demons are usually contained when the experiments are refined; in industrial settings, when at first it’s a miracle if something works, and eventually it’s unusual that something fails, it’s called process control.

      It’s a fact that we don’t need to invoke supernatural causes for anything we observe. Methodological naturalism is not an a priori assumption, it’s a common bit of practical knowledge. If there are gods they always stop fucking with us once we get our act together.

  18. Posted October 24, 2009 at 3:08 am | Permalink

    I have a question for those of you who have been defending the claim that the recently-created-universe hypothesis can be scientifically refuted.

    (Incidentally, this hypothesis also originates from Russell, who in The Analysis of Mind wrote: “There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that “remembered” a wholly unreal past”)

    The question is — do you think that Cartesian scepticism about the existence of the external world can also be scientifically refuted?

    Note that if it is required that a scientific refutation involve making a testable prediction that discriminates between the hypotheses, then the two hypotheses are alike in being simply defined so as to be irrefutable in this sense. So I assume that by scientific refutation we mean something like “refutable by applying the evidential standards of science”.

    Two additional comments.

    First, while I am sympathetic to the idea that broadly scientific evidential standards can be leveraged into a reply to Cartesian scepticism, it is one thing to say that the sceptical position is obviously false (most philosophers agree), and quite another to say that it is obvious why it is false (I have never met a philosopher who thought that). So don’t confuse your certainty that the hypothesis is false with certainty about what it is that justifies your certainty.

    Second, the distinction between scientific and philosophical reasons in Massimo’s post is a little confusing to me — and I’m a philosopher. He writes that certain things are “amenable to scientific inquiry because they refer to things that we can observe, measure and perhaps even repeat experimentally”. This makes it seem as if Massimo is understanding the distinction between empirical reasons and philosophical reasons to simply consist in something like testability. And that in turn makes it look like Massimo can agree with Jerry that the evidence suggests there is no God, while denying that this is because the hypothesis can be tested. But later in the post he characterises the distinction as follows: “philosophical inquiry is broader than science because it includes non-evidence based approaches, such as logic or more broadly reason-based arguments”. Surely Massimo can’t mean that philosophical arguments do not provide evidence for their conclusions. He must mean that they not provide empirical evidence for their conclusions. But then what is the nature of this non-empirical evidence? I speculate that he really means something more like direct empirical evidence, that is, something more like testability, where hypotheses can be discriminated on the basis of empirical tests. But then we are back to the position on which it seems there need be no real disagreement between Massimo and Jerry.

  19. Eric MacDonald
    Posted October 24, 2009 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    There’s far too much here to catch up on, though I think Brad’s recent post is a closer reading than I have given Pigliucci’s reasoning. But I’ll stick my comments in here anyway, just in case they resonate with someone.

    A couple simple points to start with. Pigliucci is simply wrong about scepticism. Scepticism, in itself, has nothing at all to do with the para-normal. Trace it back to Sextus Empiricus, for instance, and most sceptics throughout history, and it has to do with our everyday beliefs, and whether we have any reason for holding them. Lately, scepticism is what you might call the ground floor of epistemology. We begin by subverting knowledge in order to place it on firmer foundations. (See Grayling on this.) Pseudo-historical claims do not belong here, since this is not scepticism as such; it is simply a kind of ideological deformation of ordinary historical understanding. This is most clearly evident in people like David Irving, because you can watch him (see Richard Evans’, Lying for Hilter) playing around with what he does know, in order to make it say what he wants, for political reasons, to be able to say.

    As for atheism stepping outside the epistemological boundaries of science, it all depends. Some religious beliefs do make scientific claims, or at least claims about what the world would be like if a god, described in particular ways, existed. Hence the intelligent design crowd. And let’s not make Karen Armstrong’s mistake of believing that this is merely modernism run riot. It’s not. Until Darwin, the design argument had a great deal of plausibility for most people, including most scientists. Hume, though he would like to have been able to subvert the design argument, in the Dialogues grudgingly accepted its force. Was he doing philosophy then? Or was that science? I don’t think Hume knew the difference, and I’m not convinced that we do.

    Certainly, there are senses in which, as Pigliucci points out, there is an overlap amongst critical disciplines. That’s probably why we are beginning to see philosophers try their hand at experimentation and observation, instead of staying in their studies simply thinking. Indeed, the boundaries, as Pigliucci indicates, are not clear, so we can make interesting Venn diagrams to show how they might be related. Physics was, until a couple hundred years ago, natural philsophy, and Hume, to take but one example, felt qualified to write on mathematical subjects, though a mathematician friend convinced him (perhaps fortunately) to suppress an essay on mathematics. And we now are treated to the regular spectacle of theologians making political claims. Knowledge – or the claim to knowledge – does not organise itself into neatly labelled boxes.

    So, is atheism philosophy, physics or biology? Well, most physicists mention God, if only in a figurative way, as Einstein or Hawking do. Arguably, as Dawkins points out, until Darwin, the apparent design of living organisms seemed to point to a designer. So, perhaps we have a bit of tension here, physics pointing one way, biology, now, another. But what we don’t have, as Pigliucci would apparently like things to be, is a clear distinction between the realms of physics, philosophy and biology, so that atheism could be neatly pigeon-holed in only one of them. But surely, in some respect, taken one at a time, each of these disciplines, and others besides, are relevant to the question of whether there is or is not a god who can be described in particular ways. And the answer, at least the answer given by many theologians, seems to be no.

  20. The Moiety
    Posted October 24, 2009 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    “Now I don’t know anyone who is a strong-sense atheist. Even Dawkins, as I recall, is a “70% probability” man — he thinks it pretty improbable that God exists, but adds that he can’t disprove the existence of some kinds of gods. I’m pretty much on board with him. You’d be a fool to say that you know absolutely that there is no being up there at all, including one that doesn’t interfere in the workings of the universe.”

    Oh, balderdash! Well, at least I think it’s balderdash, although I must admit there is a slim possibility that it is not balderdash. After all, I can’t be absolutely sure there isn’t a teensy tiny bit of non-balderdashness hiding in there.

    Let me argue for the strong atheistic stance. If you would be a fool for not admitting that there might be a god up there somewhere, how can you truthfully tell your child there are no monsters under her bed? How do you dare to leave your house in the morning, because as Bilbo Baggins implied, you may wind up anywhere at all? There is a finite chance creatures from the 12th dimension may cause the molecules in your left nut to shift one inch to the right. Are you agnostic, weak atheistic or strong atheistic about that possibility?

    Nobody lives their life in such a philosophical quandary, outside, perhaps, of the eerie confines of a philosophy classroom or while under cross examination by a wily lawyer. We operate our lives quite securely without 100% certainty about anything, happily making decisions, predictions and bold out-on-a-limb assertions about whether the sun will come up tomorrow.

    On what scientific evidence is Dawkins’ 30% uncertainty level based? (I don’t believe that number for a minute, btw) Answer: likely none. The evidence is all to the contrary, the indecision is based not on pure rationality, but because of the nagging inherent quality of the imaginative human brain to believe in, and want to believe in, magic. The man writes 10,000 pages on the lack of evidence of god, the absurdity of the concept, the strength of the scientific method, and then chucks it all out the window by being intellectually “honest” and granting the small but “reasonable” possibility of magic? Stick to your guns, sir!

    It’s time to either fish or cut bait. Stop acting like the Absent-Minded Professor as played by Jerry Lewis. Is the answer to the question “Do you believe in the Easter Bunny” really need to be different that the answer to “Are you sure the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist”?

    Use the same confidence limit you employ for anything else in the world. There is not a single bit of evidence for any god, the entire concept is incoherent in almost all cases, there is no bloody reason to believe at all. To allow for the possibility of magic is a betrayal of your scientific principles! So say “NO. I don’t believe in gods, and I am as sure of it as anything else in this world. There are no gods.” The sun will rise tomorrow.

  21. Jean Kazez
    Posted October 24, 2009 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I haven’t read the comments above, so I might be repeating what someone else said, but here’s a problem I see with your argument that WSA is scientific, rather than “philosophy informed by science” (as Piggliuci says).

    “There is no [empirical] evidence for God, so I withhold belief” is a bad argument unless supplemented by claims to the effect that belief in God is the sort of thing that must be supported by empirical evidence. Compare–

    “There is no [empirical] evidence that it’s right to feed our children, so I withhold belief.” (Bad argument.)

    “There is no [empirical] evidence that Shakespeare is a great writer, so I withhold belief.” (Bad argument.)

    If you think the reasoning about God is better than the last two bits of reasoning, it’s because because of philosophical background assumptions you’re making. If you defended them, you’d be doing philosophy, not science.

    (Then again…does it matter what we call it?)

    • Posted October 24, 2009 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      Well said, Jean. A couple of others have made similar points.

      I think it is important what we call it if for no reason than to not incorrectly create the notion that there is controversy between *science* and religion. In fact, there is controversy between philosophy well done and religion. But a lot of people don’t care about philosophy in the first place. They like science, they like religion, and you tar the reputation of science when you wrongly tell them that science says their religion is wrong.

      And, it helps us remember the nature of the questions we are asking. Should God be analyzed by the same methods as Nature? That’s a philosophical question, and no amount of experimental observation will shed light on it. But it’s also a good question that helps us create a better philosophy. The answer is not just “no”, but it is “no” because God is conceived as being the creator of and therefore external to the regularity of nature. So heuristics designed to understand nature *shouldn’t* help us deal with questions about God. And that fact leads us to better questions about how we should deal with those questions. That leads one to a broader and deeper philosophy (which, at the end of the day, is very likely to remain atheistic).

    • Posted October 24, 2009 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      If you think the reasoning about God is better than the last two bits of reasoning, it’s because because of philosophical background assumptions you’re making.

      It’s also because of background knowledge, isn’t it? ‘God’ is a particular kind of being, so the other two bits of reasoning aren’t exact parallels. ‘God’ has a lot of baggage, much of it highly implausible, so ‘God’ is more of a kind of thing that requires empirical evidence than the other two bits of reasoning are. ‘There is no evidence for God, so I withhold belief’ is shorthand for ‘There is no evidence for God and God as commonly understood has many characteristics which are highly implausible, so I withhold belief.’ I think the background knowledge of what is meant by ‘God’ is at least as weighty as the philosophical assumptions (such as ‘we need good reasons to believe there is a hidden supernatural being who created the universe and answers prayers’).

      • Jean Kazez
        Posted October 24, 2009 at 11:24 am | Permalink

        Some sort of reasoning is going on in the background when the “God” argument makes sense to us and the “feeding children” and “Shakespeare” arguments don’t make sense. Maybe some of that is just a matter of background understanding of words and concepts, but when you start making it all explicit and explaining the differences between the three arguments, in order to defend the “God” argument, that starts to be what philosophers do (and not what scientists do).

      • Posted October 24, 2009 at 11:45 am | Permalink

        And then sometimes the two can interact, and better understanding is achieved.

        The children example interests me, because I got in a very similar dispute last year some time. I claimed that it’s cruel (and bad) to threaten children with eternal torture in hell, and an opponent demanded my evidence for that claim, and I was flummoxed. I don’t think one needs evidence for a claim of that kind, and I strongly think one should not wait for it before making the claim. I think we have to use our judgment about what is cruel, and (if anything) err on the side of caution. It’s cruel to call people certain things (ugly, fat, stupid), it’s cruel to threaten people with certain things (I will find your children and hurt them, I will get you, you will go to hell and be tortured in fire forever), it’s cruel to do certain things (torture, enslavement, starvation, neglect), and we mustn’t demand evidence before accepting that.

        That’s not an argument, it’s just some assertions. But…I think they’re peremptory. [shrug]

    • newenglandbob
      Posted October 24, 2009 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      Not well said at all, Jean Kazez:

      “There is no [empirical] evidence that it’s right to feed our children, so I withhold belief.” (Bad argument.)

      “There is no [empirical] evidence that Shakespeare is a great writer, so I withhold belief.” (Bad argument.)

      Except there is ample evidence for feeding children and ample evidence that Shakespeare is a great writer. Not only that, there is evidence of the the corollary for the former that shows it wrong to withhold food.

      These are not close to being equivalent.

      smijer, your accommodationist paragraphs are nonsense. People make up the shit that passes as religion. It does not deserve greater respect, it deserves no respect at all. Horseshit is never a broader and deeper philosophy. A god or a fairy or the spaghetti monster or mental illness generated woo should all be dealt with for the nonsense it is.

      • Posted October 24, 2009 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

        Is there really ample empirical evidence that Shakespeare was a great writer? There’s ample empirical evidence that lots of people have thought so, of course (and I’m one of them), but that’s not the same thing. What would empirical evidence that X is a great writer even look like?

      • Posted October 24, 2009 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        Ophelia, I can imagine definitions for “great writer” such that one could adduce empirical evidence for it. It might even be helpful from a literary standpoint to quantify greatness such that it could be empirically measured. But, I think that there are elements of what we really mean by “greatness” in literature that are so dense and subjective that empirical evidence would be useless.

        And you are definitely right that the statement that we shouldn’t be cruel to children cannot be empirically verified.

        Both examples are really value claims rather than truth claims. They tell us what we approve of and disapprove of. So they are treated differently than truth claims.

        God claims are usually an odd mix of truth claims and value claims. But even the truth claims aren’t necessarily subject to empirical reckoning sense they are claims about what transcends the regularity of nature which empirical reckoning is adept at sussing out.

        Recognizing this helps answer the philosophical questions about God satisfactorily and create a more compelling rationale for atheism than “science does not verify God”.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted October 24, 2009 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

        Ophelia, it is a statistical observation just like many others, including those made within scientific observations. Quantum Mechanics can be used as another example.

        Many people have thought so and said so over hundreds of years. Many have discussed the ramifications of his writings and their effects on civilization.

      • Posted October 24, 2009 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        NEB, I bet you are a hoot at dinner parties!

      • Posted October 24, 2009 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

        smijer, sure, I too can imagine definitions such that one could offer empirical evidence for them – but I don’t think they can simply be assumed ahead of time, and that seems to be Bob’s claim.

        I didn’t exactly say ‘that the statement that we shouldn’t be cruel to children cannot be empirically verified’ – what my opponent in that dispute asked was what evidence there is that frightening children with threats of hell is cruel. So the dispute wasn’t over ‘it’s wrong to be cruel’ but over ‘it is cruel to frighten children with threats of hell.’ So in fact it was a dispute over facts, not values – so I was confronted with the difficulty of backing up a claim of what kind of thing is cruel. The value I guess comes into it with my conviction that one shouldn’t require evidence before refraining from cruelty of that kind. That’s absolutely what I think – I think it’s wicked (because cruel) to tell people ‘you’re ugly’ or ‘you’re going to hell’ and that we should and must say that with or without studies that show that cruelty of that kind is harmful.

        I have also had to ponder the fact that even if there were studies that showed that telling people ‘you’re ugly’ or ‘you’re going to hell’ is actually good for them in some way – I would still think it’s cruel and wicked and must not be done. (That is perhaps dependent on the fact that the only kind of ‘good’ I can imagine is some kind of toughening up – and I don’t think it’s worth it.)

        But anyway – the issue was more about a certain kind of truth claim rather than the difference between is and ought.

      • Posted October 24, 2009 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

        Damn, I forgot to thread the reply.

        Bob, what is ‘is a statistical observation just like many others, including those made within scientific observations’? The ‘fact’ that Shakespeare is great? No it isn’t!

        Many people have thought so and said so over hundreds of years. Many have discussed the ramifications of his writings and their effects on civilization.

        I know. I said that, just above. But that is not empirical evidence that Shakespeare is great. (Just for a start the word ‘great’ has no precise meaning there!)

      • newenglandbob
        Posted October 24, 2009 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

        smijer, once again, you hide into ad hominems. I guess that is your way.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted October 24, 2009 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

        Ophelia, as many have pointed out here and elsewhere, there is nothing definitive about any ‘fact’ in this universe.

        I am using this definition of empirical:

        The word empirical denotes information gained by means of observation, experience, or experiment.

        A central concept in science and the scientific method is that all evidence must be empirical, or empirically based, that is, dependent on evidence or consequences that are observable by the senses.

        I think that makes the Shakespeare case qualify even though the term ‘great’ is subjective.

      • Posted October 24, 2009 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

        Bob, the fact that no fact is certain is independent of the fact that value judgments are not empirical.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted October 24, 2009 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

        Ophelia, granted. I concede that the Shakespeare analogy is value judgment.

  22. articulett
    Posted October 24, 2009 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Atheism is as scientific (or unscientific) as lack of belief in gremlins or Xenu. It works well with science in the same way the latter “lack-of-beliefs” do.

    We know humans are prone to invent supernatural entities to explain various puzzling phenomena and to seek control over others; we have no evidence to tell whether such entities exist and no tools to tell one from any other should such an entity exist. God is, therefore, on par with belief in the IPU (invisible pink unicorn) both scientifically and philosophically.

    (It’s easy to sort the fatheist pedantry from a decent argument when you plug in a less revered invisible immeasurable entity.)

    “Feeding children” and “Shakespeare” are opinions… they require an “according to” and/or a “for what”.

    Asserting that something (god) exists is a fact-based claim that is no more or less valid than the claim “gremlins exist”.

    I do get peeved the way the faitheist confuses fact with everything else (opinion, conjecture, belief, mottoes, descriptions of feelings, etc.) They use so many words to keep their brain from understanding that the god they believe in is no more evidences than all the gods they don’t believe in.

    • articulett
      Posted October 24, 2009 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      –Actually, most faitheists claim not to believe in god… I should have said “the god they imagine they are defending or are ‘on the fence about'”.

      To me, it’s as silly to defend any god belief as it is to defend belief in gremlins.

    • articulett
      Posted October 24, 2009 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      “Shakespeare existed.” That’s a fact.

      “Many people consider him to be great.” This is also a fact-based statement with qualifiers in regards to the word “many” and “great”.

      “Shakespeare is great.” THAT is a statement of opinion. It might be the opinion of many or the opinion of a few, but it requires a human mind– an “according to”.

      (Faitheists cannot seem to tell the difference, and I sometimes think the problem is willful ignorance.)

      • Posted October 24, 2009 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

        Well, what does “great” mean? It might mean something like “very influential on what followed” or “admired over many generations”. In that case, it is an empirical claim, albeit one that would be complicated to sort out. But if it means something like “aesthetically (very) good” we are going to have to ask “by what standard”, and we may ultimately end up in arguments about standards. Those arguments may end up with an irresolvable residue of disagreement about values by people who are making no mistakes about the world.

      • Posted October 24, 2009 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

        Just so. With Shakespeare it’s comparatively easy to collect empirical evidence for the influence-widely admired claim, diversified with amusing snippets from Pepys and Johnson and Tolstoy among the nay-sayers, not to mention a comparative study of Ben Jonson in petulant jealous mood and Ben Jonson in hyperbolic admiring mood. One can stroll contentedly from Goethe to Austen and from Keats to Dickens, then quote Ben Kingsley or Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen from the John Barton series. One can even quote oneself.

        But that works only for the external version of “great” – the reputation, the reception. Other than that – one can give reasons, but not empirical evidence.

        Until someone invents the GreatOmeter of course.

      • Posted October 25, 2009 at 9:12 am | Permalink

        Here’s a simple argument for the claim that there can be empirical evidence for value claims, if we allow value judgments to count as empirical evidence. For e to be evidence for H requires that p(H|e) > p(H), that is, the evidence must raise the probability of the hypothesis being true. Now assume that people are generally reliable in their value judgments, where again reliability can be cashed out in probabilistic terms, that is, p(V|j) > p(j), where p(V) is the probability that something is valuable and j is the observation that someone judges it to be valuable. It follows, straightforwardly, that judgments of value are evidence for value. And this, clearly, fits with our practice here. We are inclined to raise our estimate of the value of something if someone tells us it is valuable, and if very many people think something is valuable then we have very good evidence that it is (though, as history frequently shows, very many people can be wrong). There isn’t anything peculiar about value here. Most of us believe that quantum mechanics is true because people we judge to be reliable have reported that it is true.

        Of course, evidence of this kind is second order evidence, in the sense that it is evidence that there exists (first order) evidence for the claims in question. The interesting question isn’t whether there can be empirical second-order evidence for value claims — it is whether there can be empirical first-order evidence for those claims.

      • Posted October 25, 2009 at 9:13 am | Permalink

        Oops, I meant p(V|j) > p(V), of course.

  23. Posted October 24, 2009 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Bob, what is ‘is a statistical observation just like many others, including those made within scientific observations’? The ‘fact’ that Shakespeare is great? No it isn’t!

    Many people have thought so and said so over hundreds of years. Many have discussed the ramifications of his writings and their effects on civilization.

    I know. I said that, just above. But that is not empirical evidence that Shakespeare is great. (Just for a start the word ‘great’ has no precise meaning there!)

  24. simbol
    Posted October 24, 2009 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Consider two types of Gods:

    1)There is a God that created the universe and its natural laws. After that, God doesn’t intervene in the universe. We don’t know its nature, how it creates the universe, and if its creation had a purpose.

    2) There is a God who is perfect, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omni present and omniscient. He creates the universe, life and men with the purpose of testing that men love Him, as is their duty. He gave men Free will. He rewards an punishes us depending on our behavior.
    The evil in the world is caused by man using his free will. He answer prayers and make miracles. His son died for redeeming us because our grandfather committed a terrible sin. He is trinitary, He is spiritual and He exists out of space and time.

    Most atheist affirm that God # 2 doesn’t exist for these reasons:

    The proposition in itself contains fatal contradictions, so He cannot logically exist. The only way for He being tenable is to demonstrate his existence empirically, and the Onus Probandi is in the shoulders of those who proposes this god. But you cannot expect this proof because 1) the “nature” (spiritual, or non-material) of this God preclude a empirical direct detection . 2) The indirect detection of this god would be trough his actions in the material world, and this interventions must have the form of miracles, otherwise they would not be possible to differentiate his actions from natural occurrences. Until now there is not even one miracle which is beyond a reasonable doubt, and his existence implies a lot of miracles since it is said He intervenes in our lives in a daily basis. As a result, you can dismiss him and affirm with 100% certainty that He doesn’t exists.

    With God # 1, the task is more difficult because you can’t attack him logically. He doesn’t present logical contradictions. But his fortitude is his weakness.The only information available is that he is the creator of the universe. Of course and by default the onus probandi is on the shoulders of the proponents. But you can also say that this is a fallacious argument which is: “Since the universe exists there must be a creator”, because there is not only one option (god) for creating the universe, there is also the option of a natural process which seems more plausible. In this way all boils down that God #1 is not even an scientific hypothesis (requires testability), but a mere uninformed opinion.

    BTW. Perhaps there is a confusion in quoting Dawkins telling he is a 70% atheist. What I remember is that in one of his books he said he was an atheist # 6 in a scale from #1=total believer to 7=total unbeliever, he not being number seven because he can’t affirm with 100% certainty that something resembling a god could not exist.

    I don’t speak English, so excuse my poor writing.

  25. Sonic
    Posted October 24, 2009 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    Is atheism scientific? The question has only three words, which helps us focus on lining up the concepts we might be using. Here I’ll riff on some verbs, and I’ll do this to highlight the concepts and how our minds use the concepts.

    Atheism is often defined in terms of whether a theistic god “is” or “exists”. But I am an atheist in more than one sense of the word. For example, I am an atheist in the sense I say, “Gods are imaginary”. This popped into my mind after The God Delusion covered the cargo cults at length, and nothing has displaced the image from my mind since then. So I am a strong atheist by some definitions using verbs like “is” and “exists”. But I am also an atheist in the sense I say, “gods are not explanations” or “gods explain nothing”. And now that I am using the verb “explain” (instead of “is” or “exists”), now I can try my alignment of this view with what is scientific.

    Science can be defined as a method (the definition I use most often) or the present state of findings (a definition I use less often). I mean, when I say “television”, do I mean TV the technology (always improving) or the TV the programming (not so much)? Words can be conflated to mean more than one thing. To me, the word “scientific” means more about method, or how we proceed.

    My atheism (in the sense “gods explain nothing”) is scientific (in terms of method).

    To put this another way, “it is a fact about God that he has never proved Himself a viable cog, nut, or bolt in any theory of how the world is” [Daniel Harbour, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Atheism, p. 19].

  26. Posted October 25, 2009 at 12:13 am | Permalink

    I think the dichotomy between philosopher and scientist implicit in Pigliucci’s argument – that there are things that philosophers do and things that scientists do – is false. The difference between scientist and philosopher is in emphasis.

    Philosophers focus on logical argument, and critique arguments based on problems in the logical structure of the argument. Scientists, on the other hand, focus on evidence, and critique arguments based on problems in the evidence behind the argument.

    But, obviously, scientists aren’t forbidden to point out logical problems in arguments, and philosophers aren’t forbidden to discuss issues of evidence. Science used to be called “natural philosophy”, after all. Almost every single piece of science or philosophy worth its salt includes both logical argument and evidence.

    So, when Pigliucci makes a distinction between a scientific position, and a philosophical position, he is making an error. Any scientific position is also a philosophical position. So, there are no errors.

    Pigliucci, however, is correct that there are areas of inquiry that scientific investigation is not well suited to. Science is not only about evidence, but is fundamentally mathematical (though not always explicitly so). Society and culture is the outcome of so much complexity that the maths become misleading. I suspect that Pigliucci’s complaint about atheism as a philosophical position is directed at people using the authority of science to argue about matters of society and culture.

    • Posted October 25, 2009 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      To clarify the point I made way up (21) (because some of the comments above make me think I’ve been misunderstood)– what I said is that there’s philosophical work to be done by the person who thinks it’s reasonable to withhold belief in God, based on lack of empirical evidence. A science-based argument like that is not complete as is. You can see that when you consider that seemingly parallel moves, when beliefs are about moral and aesthetic matters, don’t make the same sense.

      There are lots of philosophical moves you can make to distinguish God-beliefs from moral and aesthetic beliefs. Some are more convincing than others. But my point doesn’t hinge on either accepting or rejecting any of these moves. The point is just that the moves are philosophical. I don’t think you’re going to see these things hashed out anywhere in academia but in a philosophy class on metaethics or metaphysics.

  27. Posted October 25, 2009 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I’m afraid this is what happens when a good scientist plays at being a philosopher. The distinction you make between weak and strong atheism is irrelevant to my argument, your example of Nessie is inappropriate assuming that Loch Ness monsters are not supernatural phenomena, and your epistemology of science is really simplistic. You may want to take a look at http://www.amazon.com/What-This-Thing-Called-Science/dp/0335201091/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1256470076&sr=8-1 to get you started.

    • Sonic
      Posted October 26, 2009 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      Science can ask, “Does the Loch Ness monster exist?”

      Philosophy of science can ask, “If Jesus Christ had a fight with Superman, who would win?”

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted October 26, 2009 at 6:56 am | Permalink

      Sorry Massimo, but that’s an incredibly pompous and condescending reply, and one that’s not informative, especially given that other philosophers have criticized your post on similar grounds.

    • Posted October 26, 2009 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      Oh dear oh dear oh dear, Massimo – that’s the kind of thing that gives philosophy a bad name. It looks more like territory-defense or boasting or both than an argument.

      And anyway it doesn’t work – not least because it’s so asymmetrical. Believers aren’t told off for believing (whether they offer anything that looks like a good reason or not), so why are unbelievers told they can’t offer reasons for not believing unless they have a PhD in philosophy?

      God-belief is eminently public and there are no barriers to it (except perhaps for converts); why is the bar so much higher for God-unbelief?

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted October 26, 2009 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

      Jerry, I’m afraid this is what happens when a good scientist plays at being a philosopher.

      Jerk.

      The distinction you make between weak and strong atheism is irrelevant to my argument

      Oh, you mean that Jerry’s actually taking the trouble to define a term relevant to the discussion kind of makes your post look bad? Because you didn’t even bother to do that? You were “attempting … a serious discussion of the differences and commonalities among … skepticism, atheism, and political philosophy”, yet a proper definition of one of the terms to be used is “irrelevant to your argument”? Are you insane?

      your example of Nessie is inappropriate [sic] assuming that Loch Ness monsters are not supernatural phenomena

      Look, everyone, it’s the Genie Scott defence of miracles. If you’re proposing that your fairy-tale uses natural processes, then science can investigate; if your fairies are miracle-workers, then it’s hands off for scientists.

      And you said what to Jerry?:

      and your epistemology of science is really simplistic.

      Yeah, right. That from the guy who doesn’t even seem to appreciate that science is about making probability statements and instead insists on his epistomological ideas to remain separate in neat little boxes. That is so not simplistic.

      You may want to take a look at What Is This Thing Called Science to get you started.

      Okay, I was wrong. Fucking jerk.

    • Posted October 26, 2009 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

      your example of Nessie is inappropriate assuming that Loch Ness monsters are not supernatural phenomena
      What exactly counts as supernatural phenomena? Does the “creation” of spacetime count as a supernatural phenomenon? Does the origin of life? Does divine intervention in evolution? Is human morality? Consciousness?

      I’m really having trouble reconciling that supernatural phonemena and natural phenomena are distinguished when I hear arguments time and time again regarding the existence of God whereby the evidence is always what I would consider either natural phenomena or empirically observable.

      I’m not trying to be dismissive or looking for a gotcha argument, I’m really just having trouble distinguishing between the natural and supernatural in terms of claims I’ve heard philosophers / theologians and non-philosophers make in support of theism. And on that, I feel that it’s approprate to use science in order to address such claims.

      • Posted October 26, 2009 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

        Yikes! For Massimo to take Jerry to task for being a scientist playing at philosophy has got to be an all-time award winner for chutzpah and lack of self-awareness. Before looking for the philosophical mote in your colleague’s eye, you might want to check a mirror for the beam in yours.

  28. Posted October 25, 2009 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Agh–I didn’t mean to put that in the last thread. Let’s try again…

    To clarify the point I made way up (21) (because some of the comments above make me think I’ve been misunderstood)– what I said is that there’s philosophical work to be done by the person who thinks it’s reasonable to withhold belief in God, based on lack of empirical evidence. A science-based argument like that is not complete as is. You can see that when you consider that seemingly parallel moves, when beliefs are about moral and aesthetic matters, don’t make the same sense.

    There are lots of philosophical moves you can make to distinguish God-beliefs from moral and aesthetic beliefs. Some are more convincing than others. But my point doesn’t hinge on either accepting or rejecting any of these moves. The point is just that the moves are philosophical. I don’t think you’re going to see these things hashed out anywhere in academia but in a philosophy class on metaethics or metaphysics.

  29. simbol
    Posted October 25, 2009 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Of course the existence of a god or gods is a scientific issue. To falsify this proposition one needs to test the consistency of this proposition through “rational thinking” which includes Logic, and it is in the basis of science and its method. And for proving if miracles occurs, since them occurs in the material world you need to test them through emprirical methods.

    If the proposition is a god “without” predicates like certain type of deist gods you can call the bluff opposing this opinion to scientific hypothesis, in this case about the “origin of the Universe”

    Can atheism be sustained wiht a high grade of confidence? I think the answer is a resounding yes. At least until there is a very deep “game changer” in the realm of science. And this game changer must be very special, e.g. that there is a proven violation of basic assumptions never disproven like “nothing comes from nothing”. But his game changer is not sufficient for opening the door to god. It is necessary also that you demonstrate that the probability is Zero that this fact could occur through nature and its laws (quite difficult because for doing this you need to know ALL the natural laws, bar none). But you are not finished. You also need to demonstrate that there is an agent of this occurrence and how he did the trick. And finally, that this guy resembles the one you are proposing if that is the case. I don’t see any candidate in our landscape able to meet these tough conditions.

  30. Posted October 25, 2009 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    The greatest objection to charecterising atheism as a philosophical position is that many of the theist claims are scientific in nature. They make specific claims about the nature of reality, posit god(s) who are meant to routinely interact with nature, yet we can’t use science to negate theism?

  31. Peter Beattie
    Posted October 26, 2009 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    Well said, indeed, There is one sentence, though, that really doesn’t sound right:

    I’m not a philosopher, so maybe Massimo’s argument is more subtle than I perceive.

    Why do you have to show this kind of deference to what I assume can only be interpreted as the authority of a ‘properly’ credentialled ‘expert’? Pigliucci’s post is a joke of a shoddily argued, incoherent, and badly written piece of piffle. No one’s writing deserves respect because of who the author is; what does deserve respect is a well-employed argument. The puffed-up prose of self-regarding philosophers mustn’t be casually bowed to, it must be casually punctured. Again, and again.

  32. articulett
    Posted October 26, 2009 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    If it is scientific (rather than philosophical) to say that sound cannot exist in a vacuum, then why is it not similarly scientific to conclude that consciousness cannot exist absent a material brain?

    This is the basis for my disbelief in gods, ghosts,souls, demons, and the rest of the invisible hordes people have believed in. Consciousness seems as dependent on matter as sound is.

    I don’t know much philosophy, but I understand, that if there was ever was anything REAL to understand about “spirits”, the knowledge could be explored and expanded upon via science.

    Atheism is a subset of a naturalistic world view and, as such, it seems much more scientific than supernatural explanations. I don’t understand Massimo’s point nor his Venn Diagram even has he states his case over and over.

    Is being a gentile a philosophy? How about being a non-believer in witches?
    Is it more scientific or philosophical to lack a belief in miracles or magic?

    • Posted October 29, 2009 at 4:55 am | Permalink

      Articulett@26, sound doesn’t exist in a vacuum because sound works, in a reasonably uncomplicated way, via waves of vibration in atoms (whether in air or water, etc).

      In contrast, because it’s difficult to reconcile our experience of consciousness with the neuroscience at present, it’s not immediately clear what consciousness is. And though it is very likely that consciousness is something that happens when brains do their thing – that spirit plays no mind – it’s not an open and shut case like it is with sound.

      • articulett
        Posted October 29, 2009 at 7:33 am | Permalink

        I don’t think you need to know everything about consciousness to understand that it is intimately tied to a material brain. This is how we know (using our material brains) the difference between conscious and unconscious things. We also know which drugs and injuries can render a person unconscious. We know that plants and rocks are not conscious. We define the term conscious in our brain.

        So what in the world could a disembodied form of consciousness be and how would anyone know about it or distinguish it from an imaginary entity?

        A person can hallucinate a sound using their brain, but to say there could be consciousness without a brain would mean that “someone” could hallucinate without a brain.

        I understand that consciousness is not easy to understand as “sound”– but I think it’s accurate to say that we have no more evidence that consciousness can exist absent matter than we do that sound can exist absent matter. When we break the understood components into parts, they both (sound and consciousness)are dependent on the movement of matter over time.

      • articulett
        Posted October 29, 2009 at 7:41 am | Permalink

        I’d add that science deals that which is distinguishable from the imaginary. Religion deals with that which is indistinguishable from the imaginary.

        As such, atheism is more “scientific” than theism and no more a “philosophy” than a lack-of-belief in gremlins.

      • articulett
        Posted October 29, 2009 at 7:43 am | Permalink

        From evolutionary theory, we can extrapolate that consciousness evolved to help the carrier’s of consciousness spread their genes.

        Of what use could that be to a “gene-less” entity?

  33. Posted October 30, 2009 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    Articulett@32:

    This is how we know (using our material brains) the difference between conscious and unconscious things.

    If the last 50 years of philosophy of mind is anything to go by – Searle, Nagel, Dennett, the Churchlands, etc. – it is really very contentious as to what is a conscious thing and what is not.

    We also know which drugs and injuries can render a person unconscious.

    A Cartesian dualist would suggest that these, in some way, severe the connection between the non-material mind and the material body.

    We know that plants and rocks are not conscious.

    We do? How? Some have argued that plants are conscious. Plants certainly seem aware of their surroundings – they rise to the sun, react to invasions by insects, etc.

    I understand that consciousness is not easy to understand as “sound”– but I think it’s accurate to say that we have no more evidence that consciousness can exist absent matter than we do that sound can exist absent matter.

    The sticking point for some philosophers is the existence of the individual first-person point of view consciousness, of qualia. It’s not ultimately clear what this mysterious qualia stuff is made of, and it could well be made out of non-material stuff.

    I think this is unlikely, and that it will turn out to be entirely material. But “once we know more about the brain, we can prove that consciousness is purely based on matter” isn’t quite as convincing as “consciousness is purely based on matter”. (I think the issue is the reification of consciousness, but these are questions of logical structure of argument, rather than questions of evidence.)

    • articulett
      Posted October 30, 2009 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      I think I agree. It appears that all movement forward regarding neurology and consciousness is through a monist view.

      When I was a kid, I figured that if anyone could tell us anything about eternal souls and what we need to do to ensure their happiness, it would be scientists. I couldn’t make sense of the different religions and the assorted rubrics their afterlives depended upon. But I figured scientists could test purported prophets and infallible leaders to see which ones were the most accurate or most divine or whatever and then hone that information.

      Later, I started following the case of Clive Wearing. He’s a man whose hippocampus was destroyed, so he cannot form new memories. He is everlastingly in the present imagining that he is just waking up from a coma. He cries when he sees his kids because he missed seeing them grow up–only he didn’t. He just can’t remember. He keeps a journal where he writes over and over, “I am now fully awake for the first time.” (Youtube has documentary clips from 2 films about him.)

      I started wondering why the “soul” didn’t step in when the brain was so damaged as it was in Clive Wearings case. And if a person couldn’t remember anything without a working hippocampus, what could a person be with no brain at all? What are we without memories connecting us to who we’ve been?

      I wanted very much to believe in souls and afterlives and mystical realities, but every time I sought to learn more, it seemed there was nothing there– I was just fooling myself. There was an example like Clive Wearing illustrating just what wishful thinking it was.

      It was disappointing in ways, but ultimately empowering, because no one could manipulate me with claims of “higher truths”. If scientists didn’t have the information, then it was safe to assume that neither did gurus and assorted religious leaders. They were just fooling themselves and others the way humans had been doing for eons.

      Now, there is just no way to me to make sense out of a “ghost in the machine”– not gods, souls, or any other invisible form of consciousness– they all seem PHYSICALLY impossible. I would need to see evidence that such a thing is possible before I’d be interested in hearing what someone thinks they know about such an entity.

      In that way, my atheism seems intimately tied up with my scientific worldview; whereas, theism is the opposite. It posits that something physically impossible is possible… and then claims to have information on this impossible subject.

      This raises a question… if scientists are increasingly coming to understand that dualism is a delusional way of thinking, then what is their duty to the truth and future humanity regarding this understanding. To many such scientists, accomodationism feels like enabling.

      At one time scientists were in the position to inform the masses that the earth was not the center of the universe… it wasn’t the center of anything and that our sun (responsible for all life on our planet) was just another star. Now scientists are in a similar position regarding gods and souls.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted October 30, 2009 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        Monism – that is a new word for me. Thanks articulett.

        As far as the rest of your comment:
        My atheism came from a very different place than yours but I like what you said about Clive Wearing. I especially like your 5th and 6th paragraph above.

        As far as scientists duty – I think it is to report the observation and the evidence. That is all, as a scientist. As a human being, whether atheist or agnostic or whatever, those same individuals may have a philosophical duty to help humanity understand.

      • Posted October 31, 2009 at 2:10 am | Permalink

        I agree. I had been an agnostic for my teen years, and it wasn’t until I read “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat” by Oliver Sacks that I became an atheist – Sacks has written about Wearing in fact – learning about neuropsychology, and the reliance of the mind of the brain, does make it hard to believe we have souls.

        I’m actually quite surprised that more academic psychologists, people like Steven Pinker, for example, are not vocal atheists – psychologists are more atheistic than even biologists.

      • Posted October 31, 2009 at 8:17 am | Permalink

        Well Pinker is a somewhat vocal atheist.

      • articulett
        Posted October 31, 2009 at 9:36 am | Permalink

        I guess it is sort of backwards to lose belief in souls and then extrapolate that to a god. But god never made sense to me. New Agey beliefs “felt” right– more fair. I would say goofy things like they “resonate” with me. But they did give me that feeling that other peope seem to get from religion… at least for a while. I wanted them to be true. I wanted to be a soul on a journey picking various lives to test out like one would pick a college to attend. Who hasn’t lost a loved one and wished for such a thing?

        Sometimes when I don’t want to inspire the reaction that people get when they declare they don’t believe in gods, I’ll tell people that I wish there was enough evidence for me to believe in souls. I really do.

    • Posted November 8, 2009 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

      A Cartesian dualist would suggest that these, in some way, severe the connection between the non-material mind and the material body.

      I can see what you’re getting at, but this still is a kind of begging the question in regard to Cartesian dualism. You could pretty much say that anything happening in a brain would be consistent with dualism, but it’s completely ignoring the fact that there’s no reason to assume dualism in the first place.

      I think this argument in terms of thinking is highlighed in Intelligent Design. That is no matter what structure you can point out, it could be said to be consistent with a designer. It ignores the obvious point that while the means by which DNA changes have been well observed, not a single instance of a designer interfering in the process has ever been seen.

      Dualism for me has that kind of problem. It could be that the mind is dualist in nature and that there is an interface in the brain between mind and body, but without showing the interface in the brain the hypothesis is useless. Especially now with technology quite clearly showing different areas of the brain for different tasks, what could fit into a dualistic model could only really be salvaged by demonstrating that dualism actually exists. The mind is evidentially material, just like the rest of us.

      Though I think in this I’m conceding somewhat to Massimo’s argument. For me to argue this, it’s hard to argue against dualism from a purely scientific perspective beyond saying it’s an unparsimonious hypothesis lacking in any serious evidence. Nor is the science right now convincing enough to defeat dualism. Would it be more effective to argue against dualism philosophically where the science informs the philosophical argument in the absence of any clinching observation?

  34. articulett
    Posted October 31, 2009 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    I think he meant that he was surprised that more people aren’t vocal atheists the way Steven Pinker is. I’ve heard Steven Pinker on a couple of atheist podcasts.

    I had just learned that the psychologists are the most atheistic of the sciences; it makes sense. I think it’s harder to lie to oneself when one is aware of how readily humans lie to themselves. (I am reminded of the way James Randi tricks people to illustrate how easily one can be tricked and how certainty of not being tricked is no shield against trickery.)

    Oliver Sacks is an outspoken atheist as well. I think some people are just more “demure” in their atheism because of the strong reaction it inspires in believers as well as “defenders of the faith”.

  35. Evan Keeling
    Posted November 1, 2009 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Interesting discussion here. I find myself somewhat sympathetic with both sides of this debate. I certainly don’t think philosophers should try to draw a line around their discipline and say that non-philosophers can’t say anything. So,even if atheism is a philosophical stance, I certainly don’t begrude Coyne or Dawkins or anyone else talking about it. (Oh yeah, I’m a philosopher.)

    As for the question of whether atheism is a philosophical or a scientific issue, it obviously depends on what you mean to these terms. But I don’t think that means that the dispute is ultimately verbal. Coyne is right to point out that his atheism is an example of scientific enquiry par excellence, given that the only thing that matters to him is evidence. It is also clearly true that there are certain beliefs which would be irrational if the believer didn’t have evidence for them.

    But there also seem to be beliefs that we all think are rational, but it’s not at all clear that we need evidence (or even whether evidence is possible). A classic example (and this is not at all original to me) is belief in other minds. What evidence do I have that other people have minds, in the sense that they have feelings–that there is something it feels like to be them? Of course, one could claim that we know this because they have brains and everything with a brain as complex as a human’s will have experiences. But this is actually just an assumption. Since I have feelings and I have a complex brain, I assume that others with similar cognitive equipment have similar feelings. So this seems to be an example of something for which we have no evidence.

    But of course it would be absurd to think that I am the only mind in the universe (and probably also morally monstrous). So here is an example of a rational belief that requires no evidence. Is belief in God relevantly similar? That’s the question now.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted November 1, 2009 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      So this seems to be an example of something for which we have no evidence.

      I completely disagree. What about all the observations one can make and the evidence of what these other minds do and say. There is ample evidence.

      • Evan Keeling
        Posted November 2, 2009 at 9:53 am | Permalink

        I agree with you, newenglandbob, that that we can observe what these other minds do and say. My point, and again this is not really mine, is that this doesn’t show that there they’re not simply automatons. We could construct an automaton that would be behaviorally indistinguishable from a human (such as in A.I.). Would such a creature feel anything? Would there be anything it’s like to be that creature?

        It seems we can’t tell. So, the analogy goes, we can’t tell in the case of other humans either. Do we know that every biological brain with a certain degree of complexity gives rise to feelings? The only evidence we have is behavioral. And that’s perfectly compatible with no feelings whatsoever.

        Maybe this is a bad example. Dan Dennett, for example, has argued that there’s no such thing as these ‘feelings’ I’m referring to. I don’t think his arguments are any good, but if you do you won’t be persuaded.

    • Sonic
      Posted November 1, 2009 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      If you are a philosopher, then don’t you need to define what you mean by the word “God” before you use it? My understanding of the respect philosophers earn from each other is they expect each other to define what they mean by their words, then use the words consistently in an argument. Writing the word “god” with a capital “G” doesn’t define what you’re talking about. So my understanding is your post isn’t philosophy yet.

      Or is philosophy free from both evidence and definitions?

      • Evan Keeling
        Posted November 2, 2009 at 10:03 am | Permalink

        I think you’re right, Sonic. I should have defined ‘God’. ‘God’ tends to be defined as a being with all perfections. These would include omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence, necessity, etc. It’s of course very hard to say what all these are and how they relate to one another. I think that’s how I was using the term.

        By the way, I don’t think it’s fair to say that philosophers are free from evidence. We use evidence all the time. Some of it is the results of scientific enquiry, but most of it is what we think most people will agree with or what seems correct to us. (This is a very rough way to characterize it, and not entirely accurate, but I can’t think of a better way at the moment.)

        You might criticize this by saying that if it’s not the result of scientific enquiry, it’s just guessing. But not every piece of data can come from scientific enquiry. If it did, we’d have precious few beliefs.

        Perhaps a humble way to look at it is that philosophy can tell you what follows from the beliefs you have, i.e. what other beliefs you’re committed to. It’s a lot of conceptual analysis. But unlike science, there are of course many different conceptions of philosophy.

  36. Brad
    Posted November 1, 2009 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    14 Billion year atheist:

    Yes, of course there’s many, many things we don’t understand about the reality we inhabit. But, I think we can say with much more confidence than is being discussed here that there has been no meaningful metaphysical intervention into our universe since the Big Bang. That’s the root of my atheism.

  37. sharmak
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    I don’t think Dawkin’s said that there was a 70% chance that any God exists! He said that it wasn’t zero but just as likely as having fairies at the bottom of the garden, which in my books is practically zero.

    Please post evidence of where you got that number.

  38. KIRK
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Dawkins actually has said that he is a “6.9” on a scale of 1-7. That’s a 96% atheist.
    Just an FYI. If you need the link, let me know
    kirk lynn
    kirkl66@yahoo.com


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