Can we apply science to the supernatural?

In a recent post about Sam Harris’s new ideas about morality, Massimo Pigliucci decided to take a few shots at the “scientism” supposedly espoused by Richard Dawkins and me.

As it turns out, there is much that Harris and I agree on, but I think his main target is actually moral relativism, and that he would get more mileage out of allying himself with philosophy (not to the exclusion of science), rather than taking what appears to be the same misguided scientistic attitude that Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne have come to embody so well.

I’m not exactly sure what Massimo’s beef is with Richard and me, but it seems to have something to do with our presumed lack of respect for philosophy:

I don’t have a copy of the God Delusion with me at the moment, but both Dawkins and Coyne have repeatedly made disparaging remarks about philosophy during talks I’ve seen. Coyne even did it while giving a research seminar at Stony Brook a few years ago (I was in the audience), and Dawkins made a joke during a talk about having to hold back from criticizing philosophy because Dennett was in the audience…

I don’t remember what I said at Stony Brook, but I clearly don’t dismiss all philosophy—just what I see as bad philosophy. (Yes, there is some:  for a specimen, see What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini).  I have enormous respect for the kind of philosophy which, as Russell Blackford points out, can approach science in its ability to find truth through reason. (One example that I cite constantly is the demonstration by Plato and others that much of morality doesn’t derive from religious dogma but is antecedent to it.)

But I don’t want to talk about Harris’s take on morality here  (see the bottom of this post for a few comments). Instead, I’d like to address Massimo’s notion that the supernatural is simply impervious to scientific analysis.  As he said in a comment on his own post:

. . . my problem with Dawkins and Coyne is different, but stems from the same root: their position on morality is indeed distinct from Harris’ (at least Dawkins’, I don’t recall having read anything by Coyne on morality), but they insist in applying science to the supernatural, which is simply another form of the same malady that strikes Harris: scientism, the idea that science can do everything and provides us with all the answers that are worth having.

Okay, let me get one thing clear at the outset.  I do not believe, nor have I ever asserted, that science provides us with all the answers that are worth having.  Some answers worth having involve subjective taste:  which bistro should I eat at tonight?  Should I go out with Sue or with Megan? Is Joyce’s The Dead truly the best story ever written in English? (The answer to that, by the way, is “yes”.)  Why does Beethoven move me to tears while Mozart leaves me cold?  And there are the moral questions, such as “Is abortion wrong?”

Now some of these questions are at least potentially susceptible to empirical investigation and falsification (I may find, for example, that I first heard Beethoven during a really good time of my life, and that this somehow conditioned my neural response to the music.)  But science certainly can’t “do everything.”  It can’t relieve the tears of a bullied child; it can’t bring civil rights to blacks and gays; it can’t bring peace to Israel and Palestine. Still, many of the answers to these questions can be informed by scientific analysis.  If our answer to the question about abortion involves knowing whether a fetus can feel pain, well, that can—in principle—be studied scientifically.

Dawkins, too, is not immune to the blandishments of art and literature, as you can see by simply reading his books.  I suspect that both Richard and I are advocates of “scientism” only to the extent that when questions are amenable to logic, reason, and empirical investigation, then we should always use those tools.  If that’s “scientism,” then so be it.

But Pigliucci is off the mark, I think, when insisting that we can’t apply science to the supernatural.  We’ve gone around about this before, but I want to make the point one more time.  This view is pretty common; it’s held not only by Massimo, but also by people like Eugenie Scott, who once told me that the supernatural is simply immune to scientific analysis.

Here’s the point. Virtually every religion that is practiced by real people (as opposed to that espoused by theologians like Karen Armstrong) makes claims that God interacts with the world.  That is, most religions are theistic rather than deistic.  And to the extent that a faith is theistic,  it is amenable to empirical study and falsification—that is, it’s susceptible to science.

Here is a short (and very incomplete) list of all the ways that science already has tested the supernatural assertions of faith:

  • The earth was suddenly created, complete with all its species, 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.  This was falsified by science.  The falsification likewise goes for other religions’ creation myths, like those of Hindus and the Inuits.
  • God put the earth at the center of the solar system and the universe.  Also falsified.
  • God is both omnipotent and benevolent.  Falsified by the data.
  • All humans descend from Adam and Eve, who also lived a few thousand years ago.  Falsified by genetic data.
  • Praying for sick people makes them better.  Falsified by the intercessory prayer study.
  • People who lived in the past can be reincarnated as modern people, complete with their earlier memories.  Investigation has shown no evidence for this.
  • Jonah was swallowed and regurgitated by a giant fish (or whale).  Probably impossible; nobody has survived such an occurrence.
  • God confounded all the languages at once at the Tower of Babel.  False: languages diverged gradually from common ancestors.
  • Tribes colonized North America from the Tower of Babel several thousand years ago. (Book of Mormon).  No evidence.
  • Faith by itself can cure dire diseases and medical conditions, which result not from organic conditions but from imperfect belief. (Christian Science).  No evidence for such faith healing.
  • U.S. soldiers will return to South Pacific islands bearing wonderful goods for the inhabitants.  False: won’t happen.

I don’t think I need to go on.  The point is that all of these assertions dealt with supernatural claims that were part of mainstream or widely-practiced religions.  They were disproved by science, and many (but not all) of the faithful have discarded them. This shows by itself that Pigliucci is wrong: science can be applied to supernatural claims.

Now there are other supernatural claims that haven’t yet been disproven by empirical tests but could be, at least in principle. Here are a few:

  • Performing special dances to propitiate the gods will bring rain for the crops.
  • Likewise, sacrificing animals will propitiate the gods and bring good fortune.
  • Mary’s body was taken directly to heaven, with no bones remaining on Earth.
  • The cloth that covered Jesus’s body miraculously retained his imprint.
  • Praying to God can help cure cancer.

I’m sure all of you can considerably expand this list.

Now maybe Pigliucci’s definition of “supernatural” is this: the supernatural is that which cannot be studied by science. In that case his assertion is merely a tautology.  But I think most people conceive of the “supernatural” as something more than this: something numinous, beyond our normal experience (that’s what most of us would call “preternatural”); something like the dogmas espoused by religion.  As my friend Russell Blackford has pointed out, the definition of “supernatural” is pretty slippery, and varies from person to person. I claim that in its common usage, in which miraculous events occur on Earth through the intercession of gods, the supernatural can often be tested with science.  Any philosophy that claims it cannot is either espousing a tautology or is misguided.  And that is a kind of philosophy I cannot get behind.

______

Footnote: I’ve watched Sam Harris’s Ted video about his forthcoming book, and tried to keep up a bit with the ensuing debate, but there’s simply too much to cover. I feel better withholding judgment on Sam’s ideas until I read his book.  So far I think that Sam’s detractors invoke the naturalistic fallacy too quickly, and that there may indeed be something about “is” that can be transferred to “ought.” Suppose, for instance, that we really do find that nearly all human judgments about morality rest on a common denominator of increased well-being? Wouldn’t that give us some guidance toward “ought?”  I do appreciate the opportunity that Sam has given us to ponder all this.  On the other hand, I’m not yet clear what Sam means by “well-being”?  Does he mean the well-being of humanity as a whole, or of (as John Rawls might say) the least advantaged individual?  Would it not be possible to commit palpably immoral acts and still increase the world’s net well-being, or would the mere occurrence of such acts (say, of torture) inevitably reduce overall well-being by eroding standards? And aren’t there different acts that have identical effects on well-being (say, Marc Hauser’s railroad-track question) but which we judge as morally non-equivalent?  There’s a lot to think about here, and I want to read Sam’s book before weighing in.

68 Comments

  1. Posted April 13, 2010 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    I mostly agree with this post, but there is a slight caveat: When talking about the supernatural, there is a tiny (though very stupid) loophole that allows virtually of the religious claims you list to escape the claws of science, and you need a smidge of philosophy to plug that loophole. SMBC Theater has the best take on it. Such claims are philosophically retarded, but don’t violate empiricism per se.

    (This does not mean that science can’t investigate the supernatural, it just means that it requires the teensiest bit of help from philosophy to make supernatural claims vulnerable to the razor of science)

    Regarding bad philosophy, even many philosophers recognize that the public reputation of their profession is in some ways well-deserved, i.e. there is WAY too much bad philosophy being paraded around as exemplary of the field.

  2. Posted April 13, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    “So far I think that Sam’s detractors invoke the naturalistic fallacy too quickly, and that there may indeed be something about “is” that can apply to “ought.” Suppose, for instance, that we really do find that nearly all human judgments about of morality rest on a common denominator of increasing well-being? Wouldn’t that give us some guidance toward “ought.” ”

    No. I would be interesting, but it would be quite possible that all human judgements about morality could, in fact, be just plain wrong.

    I’d also say that your questions about “well being” are pretty much my entire motivation for ignoring Sam Harris until he does define it. After all, as varied philosophies as Kant (“Do your duty”), Mill (Utilitarianism), the Stoics (live rationally) and the Hedonists (increase your personal pleasure) all, technically, used the idea of that being the “well-being” of a human.

    Even reading the original post, it really does seem to me like Sam Harris’ view of what is moral is basically just what he thinks is moral, and so in trying to refute relativism he ends up invoking it.

    • Posted April 13, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      I’d also say that your questions about “well being” are pretty much my entire motivation for ignoring Sam Harris until he does define it.

      The purpose was not to solve the problem but to set out a baseline of agreement that a nuanced conversation could proceed from. There is no definition of well-being in use anywhere that would suggest that, for instance, a miscarried baby has a higher wellbeing than michael phelps.

      Refraining from entering the discussion because Harris can’t be more precise than that, is like refusing to believe that a tree fell on your car until someone provides you with a molecule-by-molecule description of how it happened.

      • Posted April 13, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

        I have perfectly good moral models that go into more detail (see the ones I listed) and that we can — and have — argue over. Until he starts building a model or starts criticizing those directly, I really don’t see what he could be saying that could be interesting.

        I think it is reasonable that until he differentiates his view from all of those radically different ones or picks one of those, I’m not going to worry too much about what he says. Well, maybe the “science can study” part, if there’s an argument there.

        See, I’m not just saying that I’m ignoring him because he doesn’t have all the answers. I don’t have them either. But so far I haven’t even seen a starting point. At least I can stand up and say that I think the only possible fully justified moral code has to be one that follows from that it means to be moral analytically, and not descriptively.

        After all, if he’s going to say that things that other people think are right — like burkas — are wrong because of well-being, he’d better have some actual idea of well-being in mind before he does that.

        And that puts aside the fact that I might well disagree with him that morality is determined by well-being, depending on, say, whether or not he considers Kant’s or the Stoics’ views of human well-being as being valid and potentially correct views.

        • Posted April 13, 2010 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

          To clarify this even more, when Harris was basically talking about “Reduce suffering”, I thought he was worth discussing with, even though I thought he was wrong (there’s a post on my blog about how that simple notion doesn’t work).

          Now that it seems like he’s backed away from even that to something far more vague, I don’t feel it worth discussing his view until he can tell me what it is. Which his book might do, and so I might buy it when it comes out.

  3. NewEnglandBob
    Posted April 13, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I have collected 15 links to Sam Harris’ TED talk and the back and forth of several blogs. It is a lot to digest, not including the user comments which blows it up to a huge amount of discussion.

    I ordered Harris’ book. It is still months away from publication.

  4. Steve Knoll
    Posted April 13, 2010 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    http://www.samharris.org/page/ted_talk/

    The spare the rod, spoil the child argument is quite interesting

  5. oldfuzz
    Posted April 13, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    “…falsified by science…for…creation myths…”

    There is no need for falsification of creation myths by science. Every myth is false. It is only those who do not understand the difference between logos and mythos who believe mythos to be true.

    There is a place for scientists and mythologists to remind creation myth believers of this fact, but they won’t listen.

  6. jdhuey
    Posted April 13, 2010 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Somewhere (I wish I could give attribution) I read an observation that Philosophy never really answers any question, it simply determines that some questions are no longer interesting. I suspect that the recent effort to apply the tools of Scientific analysis to some very narrow questions (How do people actually make moral judgments? etc) will, sometime in the future, not answer the Philosophical questions but will render them uninteresting.

  7. Posted April 13, 2010 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    While much of human experience is not quantifiable, science provides empirical restraints for the components of existence that are quantifiable to avoid experiential interpretations from being adversely exploited at the expense of others.

  8. Posted April 13, 2010 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    This is just a quibble, but Massimo says:

    and Dawkins made a joke during a talk about having to hold back from criticizing philosophy because Dennett was in the audience…

    I happen to remember that. But it wasn’t Dawkins. It was Lawrence Krauss in his 2009 AAI talk “A Universe From Nothing.”

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted April 14, 2010 at 3:35 am | Permalink

      Actually, it was Dawkins, in his introduction to Daniel Dennett at AAI 2009:

      “I’m sometimes tempted to wonder: what’s the point of philosophers? And then I remember Dan Dennett. And all is revealed, all is answered.”

      • Observer
        Posted April 14, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink

        But that doesn’t support the idea that Dawkins is holding back on criticism for the sake of Dennett. Instead, supports Jerry’s assertion that both he and Dawkins are critical of “bad” philosophy, not of philosophy in general.

      • Posted April 14, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        That’s a pretty forced interpretation. Lawrence Krauss made a comment that was pretty explicitly anti religious, and he was just about to lump philosophy in, but stops himself says “well Dennet is in the audience I guess I shouldn’t say that”.

        Whereas your Dawkins quote is giving credit to philosophy for Dennett’s membership. Dawkins wasn’t stopping himself from making a joke at the expense of philosophers. Krauss was.

        What a strange thing to offer an erroneous correction on.

        • Peter Beattie
          Posted April 14, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

          Of course, I know all that, since I have seen the talks. And, of course, it was only to draw attention to the fact that not even Dawkins said anything like what Pigliucci thinks he said. Or somebody else. Pigliucci sure seems like one hell of a confused man. Get it? ;>

  9. Insightful Ape
    Posted April 13, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    My favorite “supranatural” claim that is definitely NOT beyond examination by science is the “soul”. Short version: it doesn’t exist.

  10. Sean
    Posted April 13, 2010 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Great post Jerry. I think you will find the post of April 8 at the apple eaters website very interesting.

    http://theappleeaters.wordpress.com/

    The author puts together a exposes the flaws in Pigliucci arguments well

  11. Werther
    Posted April 13, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Mildly off-topic, but read this: theological seminary fires professor because he said he believes in evolution. So, Templeton Foundation to the contrary notwithstanding, I suppose science and inerrant scripture are NOT compatible:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/13/bruce-k-waltke-resigns-af_n_535776.html

    • oldfuzz
      Posted April 13, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

      The Reformed Theological Seminary’s motto is “A mind for truth. Ajheart for Got.” If they reject science, that’s blasphemy.

      • oldfuzz
        Posted April 13, 2010 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

        edit: “A mind for truth. A heart for God.” The unbelievability of it shook me up.

  12. Posted April 13, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Technically, Rawls talked about the least advantaged group in a political system, not the individual and not from a moral perspective, but that’s just picking nits.

  13. mk
    Posted April 13, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Carl Sagan… There is no Supernatural or Paranormal. There is natural and there is normal.

    Tim Minchin… You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? (pause) Medicine!

  14. GM
    Posted April 13, 2010 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Suppose, for instance, that we really do find that nearly all human judgments about morality rest on a common denominator of increased well-being? Wouldn’t that give us some guidance toward “ought?” I do appreciate the opportunity that Sam has given us to ponder all this. On the other hand, I’m not yet clear what Sam means by “well-being”? Does he mean the well-being of humanity as a whole, or of (as John Rawls might say) the least advantaged individual? Would it not be possible to commit palpably immoral acts and still increase the world’s net well-being, or would the mere occurrence of such acts (say, of torture) inevitably reduce overall well-being by eroding standards?

    Let me elaborate on this and suggest a somewhat different point of view regarding this:

    Let’s begin with the quite obvious statement that we would not be discussing any of this if the human species went extinct. Therefore everything that threatens the species with extinction should trump any considerations about individual well-being, simply because if we go extinct, there will be no individuals whose well-being to care about. From which it follows that in a situation in which something very good for the individual jeopardizes the survival of the species as a whole, it should not be given as a right to the individual.

    Of course, coming back from the abstract and to the very real and practical, the above concerns the most the subject of abortion and reproductive and consumption rights (and pretty much everything we would call freedom in a modern democracy) – it is good for each and every one of us to have as man kids as possible and consume as much as possible, however, it is a death sentence to the species as a whole.

    Unfortunately, most of what people call “moral philosophy” is completely uninformed by basic scientific truths in physics, biology and ecology, so the above point is completely missed. And you end up being accused in scientism, fascism, etc. any time you dare to point it out.

  15. MadScientist
    Posted April 13, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    There’s a hell of a lot of crap out there that passes for philosophy – anyone for Thomas Aquinas? There’s also a lot of contemporary crap passing itself off as philosophy just as there’s a lot of snake oil being passed off as cure-alls. If Pigliucci wants anyone who claims to be a philosopher to be exempt from criticism then he’s an idiot. Good philosophers are very critical and they can take criticism well too. I have no idea what Pigliucci’s talking about when he writes “scientistic” – it sounds like another type of casual dismissal such as “Darwinist” which is typical of the religious. Speaking of which, Pigliucci uses another common tactic of the religious: straw man arguments. He certainly doesn’t make it clear what he is criticizing because, whatever it is, it doesn’t really exist.

    • Posted April 15, 2010 at 6:15 am | Permalink

      Aquinas is not *crap*, merely a genius who has almost all of his premisses currently falsified. On the other hand, that makes contemporary Thomists (e.g. the official Catholic viewpoints) crap, since to hold to massive amounts of falsified hypotheses is ridiculous.

      He’s also quite honest – he says somewhere that basically he’s baffled by the trinity and doesn’t really get it.

  16. Posted April 13, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    This commentary will almost certainly be poo-poo’ed away, since you’re not a philosopher and obviously don’t understand the nuances of philosophy.

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted April 13, 2010 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

      Care to educate us? Does “science should stay silent on the supranatural” fall under the “nuances of philosophy”?

      • Posted April 13, 2010 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

        I think he was actually making a jab at philosophy. As a philosopher, though, let me tell you that I find the assertion that science can say nothing about supernatural claims is only true if those claims stay supernatural and never touch the natural world in any way. And even if science per se can’t touch such claims, though, reason certainly can.

  17. Art
    Posted April 13, 2010 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    Joyce’s “The Dead” is a very fine short story, but the best one ever written in English is “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin.

    Otherwise, an excellent post.

  18. Omniscient
    Posted April 13, 2010 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of giving philosophers their due, “Marc Hauser’s railroad-track question” isn’t really Marc Hauser’s. The British philosopher Philippa Foot came up with it. Marc Hauser’s subsequent use of it is a good example of fruitful interaction between philosophy and science.

  19. Posted April 13, 2010 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    “I do not believe, nor have I ever asserted, that science provides us with all the answers that are worth having.”

    I said I was pretty sure neither you nor Richard believed that, a couple of days ago. I find all this inaccurate unfair slanging really…not good.

  20. Posted April 13, 2010 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    But the idea that the supernatural even exists is nothing more than an assertion, completely unsupported by anything more compelling than wishful thinking, sophistry and gap-theology.

    We should even bother asking the question ‘can we apply science to the supernatural?’ before it’s demonstrated that there is such a thing as ‘supernatural’ in the first place.

    • Janet Holmes
      Posted April 13, 2010 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

      There is no such thing as ‘supernatural’. Either a thing is a genuine phenomenon or it isn’t. If it is then it’s natural if not it’s imaginary.

      • Posted April 14, 2010 at 12:30 am | Permalink

        Trying getting a woo-meister to agree to that.

  21. Posted April 13, 2010 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    Should I go out with Sue or with Megan? …(The answer to that, by the way, is “yes”.)

    Well, which one is it? ;)

  22. Posted April 13, 2010 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    Sue AND Megan just might be another possibility, depending on how they feel about each other.

    • Janet Holmes
      Posted April 13, 2010 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

      Good luck with that one!

      • Notagod
        Posted April 14, 2010 at 8:34 am | Permalink

        Mormons have said they like it like that. Though, for them at least, there is a delusional prerequisite.

  23. Neil
    Posted April 13, 2010 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    Science is not obligated to disprove anything. Surely, it is the obligation of those putting forth supernatural claims to provide the evidence. But then again, if they could do that, the claims wouldn’t be supernatural, would they?

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted April 14, 2010 at 7:22 am | Permalink

      Yes, this is a gaping hole in Pigliucci’s argument. He says nothing about the presumption of atheism or the burden of proof.

  24. Posted April 14, 2010 at 1:14 am | Permalink

    In some ways I can sympathise with what Massimo is saying, in the end some of the best tools we use when looking at the “God” question are not scientific but are philosophical in nature. Science can explain a particular conjecture without needing to appeal to the miraculous, but philosophy itself can show why the miraculous is an incoherent concept to begin with.

    That being said, I agree with Jerry that the kinds of gods that are being espoused are interventionist deities – deities that are operating within our world in some capacity and interest in the trials and tribulations of humanity. Can one even talk about God without giving a posteriori attributes to the concept and thus making God completely anthropomorphic? What does it mean to say God loves you? Can God love? Does got have a neurochemical signal in its brain? Can God even think? These are processes we know about empirically that are being attributed to a being that is completely unempirical. If consciousness is an emergent property of brain activity, then on what grounds can we say that God is conscious?

    To my mind, science and philosophy (along with many other disciplines) all that their place when looking at this question. The theory of evolution is fantastic for demonstrating that the teleological argument is unnecessary, but it’s David Hume’s argument to me that savages the very concept.

    • pyridine
      Posted April 14, 2010 at 1:39 am | Permalink

      Why can’t science show why the miraculous is an incoherent concept to begin with? It appears to me that scientists are at least as good as philosophers when it comes to dissecting incoherent concepts. It’s not like philosophers have developed specialized tools or instruments for detecting incoherence.

      • Omniscient
        Posted April 14, 2010 at 2:57 am | Permalink

        Except philosophers have developed specialized tools for detecting incoherence. Predicate logic, for instance. These tools aren’t some kind of closely guarded secret, of course, so there’s nothing preventing non-philosophers from using them. But philosophers are specifically trained to evaluate the logical validity of deductive arguments. Scientific training, on the other hand, focuses on developing expertise in ampliative inference.

        • pyridine
          Posted April 14, 2010 at 3:36 am | Permalink

          Scientists use all kinds of logic. Predicate logic is not a specialized tool of philosophers. I learned predicate logic in math classes. Yes it was from a math department but it’s very common for scientists to take math classes which are all about evaluating the logical validity of deductive arguments.

          • Omniscient
            Posted April 14, 2010 at 4:51 am | Permalink

            I’ve taken a statistics class. This does not make me an expert on statistical argument. Most scientists have a far more rigorous training in statistics. Statistics is in fact, a specialized tool used by scientists for ampliative inference.

            Now when I say statistics is a specialized tool, I don’t mean only scientists know anything about statistics. Quite a lot of non-scientists know a fair bit of statistics, just not nearly enough to qualify as experts.

            A Ph.D. in philosophy usually involves taking at least 3 classes in formal logic. More importantly, it involves the constant use of formal logic in formulating and testing arguments. This is the kind of thing that confers expertise, not taking one undergraduate class.

            By the way, I am certainly not claiming that scientists don’t use logic. That would be foolish. An illogical scientist wouldn’t get very far. I am talking about a particular tool – the predicate calculus – that allows for a more careful analysis of logical argument than is required for most scientific purposes.

            You would be hard pressed to find a scientific paper (excluding computer science) which makes non-trivial use of the predicate calculus. Open a philosophy journal pretty much at random and chances are you’ll come across just such a paper.

            • pyridine
              Posted April 14, 2010 at 5:06 am | Permalink

              Ok I’m convinced. You’re right.

            • pyridine
              Posted April 14, 2010 at 5:14 am | Permalink

              On more thing. How about math? Many scientists come from math background which does include very rigorous logic training and constant use of logic (ie. doing proofs, not solving equations). Non-theoretical scientists, like biologists, don’t prove theorems but the majority can follow them and can prove basic theorems if required. Doesn’t that indicate scientists are as strong as philosophers in logic?

      • Posted April 14, 2010 at 4:44 am | Permalink

        Limitation of the methodology.

        Agreed that scientists can be as good as philosophers at dissecting incoherence, just that the means to dissect incoherence more often than not are using philosophical tools such as occam’s razor or logical fallacies.

        It’s not that one needs to be a philosopher to do so, just that one is using philosophical tools that are at the heart of reason. Be wary of equivocating between the profession and the methodology. To think about it another way, scientists more often than not use mathematics but that doesn’t mean that 2+2=4 is a scientific truth.

        • pyridine
          Posted April 14, 2010 at 5:03 am | Permalink

          What make occam’s razor and logical fallacies philosophical tools, instead of scientific tools? If scientists use those tools regularly in their day-to-day work, they are by definition scientist’s tools, aren’t they?

          Scientists send students to statistics department to learn stats, computer department to learn programming, but not to philosophy department to learn occam’s razor and logic. It seems to me that scientists (for example, biologists) can teach their students logic and occam’s razor on their own. Doesn’t that demonstrate that logic isn’t philosopher’s exclusive expertise?

          • Posted April 14, 2010 at 5:39 am | Permalink

            Doesn’t that demonstrate that logic isn’t philosopher’s exclusive expertise?
            You’re making an equivocation between the discipline and the professional. This is not to say a scientist can’t use them, this is not to say one needs to be a philosopher to use them. It’s to say these are philosophical tools, that’s all.

          • Omniscient
            Posted April 14, 2010 at 11:42 am | Permalink

            Replying here to your comment about math above because we seem to have run out of space up there.

            It’s true that learning math equips people to follow/construct proofs. In this respect formal logic is just another axiomatic system and doesn’t involve much special training.

            But when I speak of expertise in logic, I’m not primarily referring to the ability to derive consequences from premises. The “specialized skill” I was speaking of is the ability to formalize natural language arguments in order to examine their validity. This is something philosophers do all the time, and isn’t a skill that you pick up when mastering calculus.

            To take a simple example, any philosopher worth her salt will look at the sentence “The king of France is not bald” and realize there is an ambiguity in the scope of the negation operator. The sentence can be formalized in two different ways, one of which would render it true, the other false. A natural language argument might fail by equivocating between these two interpretations, but this sort of equivocation is often hard to detect without formalization.

  25. pyridine
    Posted April 14, 2010 at 1:58 am | Permalink

    What is so strange about Massimo Pigliucci is that he repeatedly claims that science cannot step outside its epistemological boundary and cannot address issues such as Last Thursdayism. Apparently it takes a philosopher to deal with those properly. But when he addresses those issues in his blog, his reasoning is just common sense. The same line of reasoning, when delivered by a philosopher it is sophisticated and legit but when formulated by a scientist it is naive and arrogant. Philosophy is like some kind of a labor union. You can’t claim to disprove things if you are not in the union, even if you have the skills.

    Does Pigliucci really believe that scientists are confused by Last Thursdayism?

    • Brian
      Posted April 14, 2010 at 3:15 am | Permalink

      Any resident philosophers or critical thinkers care to comment on John Pieret’s take?

      http://dododreams.blogspot.com/

      From what I can gather, he draws an equivalence (analogy?) between the god of theologians and the science of scientists v the god of the ordinary devotees and science of layperson. To my not so critical mind there is a disanalogy in that laypeople know they’re not scientists, well most do, whereas the average devotee believes they know about god and he’s agrees with them.

      • Omniscient
        Posted April 14, 2010 at 4:30 am | Permalink

        Pieret’s argument ignores the classic philosophical distinction between concept and conception. One can have an analysis of the concept “supernatural”. This will tell one what it is for a hypothesis to count as supernatural. In addition, one can have a conception of the supernatural – a commitment to some particular supernatural hypothesis.

        For instance, Karen Armstrong would, probably agree that the physical resurrection of Christ is a supernatural hypothesis. It qualifies as supernatural according to her understanding of the concept. However, the resurrection is not part of her conception of the supernatural; it is not a hypothesis she actually accepts. Her conception of the supernatural is way more nebulous.

        Now, Jerry’s point is that many supernatural hypotheses are amenable to scientific testing. The concept “supernatural” does not preclude scientific engagement. He is explicitly not claiming that every specific conception of the supernatural is scientifically testable. Sophisticated theologians may have developed conceptions of the supernatural that are immune to empirical refutation. But I’m guessing even those theologians would agree that the claims Jerry lists are in fact supernatural claims. You would be hard pressed to find an expert in theology/philosophy/whatever who would deny that the claim “Intercessory prayer is effective” qualifies as supernatural.

        In other words, Jerry is making a point about the concept “supernatural”, not about all conceptions of the supernatural. So Pieret’s evolution analogy would only work if the concept of supernatural Jerry is using here is significantly different from that employed by experts in the field. It is not. Experts would agree that most of the claims on Jerry’s list are in fact supernatural claims. It’s true that many theologians would deny that their particular conception of the supernatural does not involve commitment to any of those claims, but this is really orthogonal to Jerry’s point.

        • Brian
          Posted April 14, 2010 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

          I’ve been trying to learn philosophy from books at home and via the internet and can’t say I’ve come across this classic philosophical distinction. Certainly I’ve come across a priori – a posteriori, analyticsynthetic, Hume’s problem of induction and Hume’s fork, Quine’s bending of Hume’s fork (Two dogmas of Empricism) . Both terms are very familiar though, so perhaps I’ve just been looking in the wrong places. Thanks, I’ve got something new to investigate! Then I can come back and better judge Pieret’s thingy. Thanks.

          • Omniscient
            Posted April 14, 2010 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

            The distinction is mainly employed in political and legal philosophy. Rawls, for instance, emphasizes the distinction between the concept of justice and particular conceptions of justice.

            • Brian
              Posted April 14, 2010 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

              Thanks, I just found a paper by Walter Gallie ‘Essentially contested concepts’ doing a quick search. Rawl’s name came up too. I’ll check out his work if I can.

    • Sigmund
      Posted April 14, 2010 at 4:20 am | Permalink

      Pigliucci’s use of the Last Thursdayism argument is akin to him using the noodly appendage argument of the FSM. In theory there could be a God who has a prime objective to provide evidence seemingly showing he doesn’t really exist but no major religion teaches about such a deity. It reminds me of the fact that the statement “religion is compatible with science” can be true for some small subset of religion is frequently used as cover for the many religions that are based on stories that are not compatible with science.

    • ritebrother
      Posted April 14, 2010 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      No, but he insists that they are not confused by it because of philosophy. As has been stated by others, its merely a dispute of definitional boundaries. Massimo’s position seems to be that when a scientist applies maximum parsimony to formulate a hypothesis (which is always an implicit part of the process), he/she has tread into the domain of philosophy. So, in discounting Last Thursdayism, a scientist is doing philosophy, not science as a specifically material/empirical subset of rational inquiry (according to Massimo).

  26. Peter Beattie
    Posted April 14, 2010 at 3:14 am | Permalink

    » Jerry Coyne:
    Why does Beethoven move me to tears while Mozart leaves me cold?

    Because you’ve never heard him being played by Horowitz?

    Try this: Rondo K. 485 live in Vienna. The whole concert seems to be available here.

  27. Posted April 14, 2010 at 3:38 am | Permalink

    Jerry: “Now maybe Pigliucci’s definition of “supernatural” is this: the supernatural is that which cannot be studied by science. In that case his assertion is merely a tautology.”

    Yep, you nailed it. If something actually exists in this universe, in principle it can be studied by science.

  28. PeterKarim
    Posted April 14, 2010 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    If Massimo’s and Eugenie’s supernatural being is not intervening in our our space and time. That being is by definition outisde the realm of science… but it is also outside the realm of religion!
    No church-goer or mosque-goer will recognise Massimo’s strawgod as the god they worship… and indeed what would the point of worshipping it be ? If on the other hand his supernatural being does intervene, then those interventions are, in principle, within the realm of science. Therefore he cannot logically claim that the god most Muslims and Chritians call God is compatible with science. He is as far as I can judge, just betting on the ambiguity of “Supernatural” (deism vs theism). A lie by obfuscation, but a lie none the less. I do understand why he tries to do it though: for political and tactical reasons. Is any cause furthered by dishonesty worth fighting for ?

  29. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted April 14, 2010 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    I saw Pigliucci speak in a university setting and was not impressed. He said that Dawkins claimed in The God Delusion to have conclusively proven the nonexistence of God. Everyone who has actually read TGD knows this is a misrepresentation.

    • Posted April 14, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      Dear oh dear – he keeps doing that – misrepresenting. Which makes one wonder, why? Dawkins and Coyne and Hitchens don’t do the things he angrily accuses them of doing – so why is he so angry at them?

      • Khalid
        Posted April 15, 2010 at 2:08 am | Permalink

        Because Massimo is scared of science encroaching on the first culture (the humanities) and destroying it. This is happening.

        It is scary, so expect a lot of reaction from the first culture. Do they have a point? They do, but its not what they think it is. Would they play fair? No – don’t expect fairness from this crowd.

  30. Posted April 14, 2010 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I would recommend Sam’s longer talk that he gave at TED on the same subject. It addresses a few of your concerns. I think that the TED talk has too much of a time constraint. The Google talk is 1:15. http://www.atheistmedia.com/2010/03/authorsgoogle-sam-harris.html

  31. articulett
    Posted April 14, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    So long as believers in the supernatural believe the supernatural is different than the imaginary or mythological, there should be something to test which reveals this difference.

    If not, I think it’s safe to treat them identically.

  32. poke
    Posted April 14, 2010 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    The way I feel about philosophy can be summed up by taking the famous Keynes quote and replacing “economist” with “philosopher”: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct [philosopher.]” Usually people who reject philosophy are simply taking some particular philosophy to be too obvious to require argument (this tends to be particularly true of internet fans of Karl Popper for some reason). There’s something to be said for at least knowing which defunct philosopher you’re a slave to.

    On the other hand, all the best philosophy (IMO) rejects the philosophical tradition to some degree. Quine wanted to replace epistemology with an empirical account of how we acquire knowledge and, although the naturalists who followed have retreated from that position somewhat, modern naturalistic philosophy tends to be about minimising the philosophy and maximising the science. Anybody who wants to get up to date on the various different forms of naturalism available should read Jack Ritchie’s recent “Understanding Naturalism.”

    Myself I favour Huw Price’s distinction between “subject naturalism” and “object naturalism” and his emphasis on the primacy of subject naturalism (and his rejection of representationalism). It’s a much more nuanced view than traditional naturalism and much more in keeping with avoiding “first philosophy.” He has a good explanation in “Naturalism without representationalism”:

    http://www.usyd.edu.au/time/price/preprints/naturalism-final.pdf

    It’s also quite relevant to the issue of morality and where it fits into a naturalistic outlook.


7 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] and Can we apply science to the supernatural? [...]

  2. [...] Pieret put Jerry Coyne (and way too many critics of religion) in his place: If the ad populum understanding of religion [...]

  3. [...] some theists object to subjecting the existence of supernatural effects to scientific study. But that is too bad: Here’s the point. Virtually every religion that is practiced by real people (as opposed to that [...]

  4. [...] that one of the claims that some religious people make about the world is wrong. (As I argued in a recent post, because these are empirical claims derived from ideas about the supernatural, testing them is in [...]

  5. [...] begins by recognizing there are limitations to [...]

  6. [...] make empirical claims that are in principle testable? That’s just wrong. In April I gave a list of empirical claims made by religious people.  These claims are either testable and have already been disproven  [...]

  7. [...] tested the assertions of supernatural faith Posted on May 23, 2010 by Michael Hawkins Via Jerry Coyne: * The earth was suddenly created, complete with all its species, 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. This [...]

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