Physicist and atheist Alan Lightman goes accommodationist

Physicist Alan Lightman is one of the rare breed of working scientists who is an engaging and prolific popular writer. I loved his book Einstein’s Dreams. But now he proves to be somewhat of an accommodationist (and “somewhat” is being charitable). And Lightman’s arguments for accommodation, laid out in his longish essay at Salon, “Does God exist?” (subtitled  “The case for reconciling the scientific with the divine—and against the anti-religion of Richard Dawkins”), are not only unconvincing and unoriginal, but embarrassing.

The piece is distressing from the very first paragraph:

Ten years ago, I began attending monthly meetings of a small group of scientists, actors and playwrights in a carpeted seminar room at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Our raison d’être, broadly speaking, has been an exploration of how science and art affect one another. As we drink merlot and munch on goat cheese and crackers, with the late afternoon sun draining from the room, we discuss topics ranging from the history of scientific discovery to the nature of the creative process to the way that an actor connects to an audience to the latest theater in New York and Boston.

Oy, gewalt! If they’re gonna have goat cheese, they should at least be serving a good white wine like a sauvignon blanc!  Or even something sweet, like a Sauternes.

At any rate, Lightman’s “salon,” which includes physicist Alan Guth and biologist Nancy Hopkins, often discusses science and religion.  After much deliberation, Lightman declares:

As a both a scientist and a humanist myself, I have struggled to understand different claims to knowledge, and I have eventually come to a formulation of the kind of religious belief that would, in my view, be compatible with science.

His reconciliation involves first defining the main principle of science, what he calls “the central doctrine of science.”

All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe.

And then God:

For the purposes of this discussion, and in agreement with almost all religions, God is a being not restricted by the laws that govern matter and energy in the physical universe. In other words, God exists outside matter and energy. In most religions, this Being acts with purpose and will, sometimes violating existing physical laws (i.e., performing miracles), and has additional qualities such as intelligence, compassion and omniscience.

And the big reconciliation? Just garden variety deism (or “immanentism,” which Lightman defines as the idea that “God created the universe and the physical laws and continues to act but only through repeated application of those fixed laws”):

Tucking these axioms under our belt, we can say that science and God are compatible as long as the latter is content to stand on the sidelines once the universe has begun. A God that intervenes after the cosmic pendulum has been set into motion, violating the physical laws, would clearly upend the Central Doctrine of science. Of course, the physical laws could have been created by God before the beginning of time. But once created, according to the Central Doctrine, the laws are immutable and cannot be violated from one moment to the next.

Lightman, who claims he’s an atheist, then cites religious scientists like Francis Collins and Owen Gingerich as examples of those who have achieved a fairly reasonable form of reconciliation, although they do accept the existence of miracles.

Lightman then adduces a form of reconciliation that might well have come from John Haught. It’s the “other ways of knowing” argument combined with the fact that his central doctrine of science (“All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe”) can’t be rationally supported;

However, I certainly agree with Collins and Hutchinson and Gingerich that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations. Obviously, vast territories of the arts concern inner experiences that cannot be analyzed by science. The humanities, such as history and philosophy, raise questions that do not have definite or unanimously accepted answers.

Finally, I believe there are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof. We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us. We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of our child. We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong.” We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but, in the end, we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing. These are questions for the arts and the humanities. These are also questions aligned with some of the intangible concerns of traditional religion.

As another example, I cannot prove that the Central Doctrine of science is true.

This somehow makes room for God:

But artists and humanists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions. Ideas in a novel or emotion in a symphony are complicated with the intrinsic ambiguity of human nature. . . .Then, there are questions that have definite answers but which we cannot answer. The question of the existence of God may be such a question.

Just like the question of the existence of Zeus, Wotan, or garden fairies.

Lightman then defends the possibility of deism against the arguments of New Atheists like Dawkins:

As a scientist, I find Dawkins’ efforts to rebut these two arguments for the existence of God — intelligent design and morality — as completely convincing. However, as I think he would acknowledge, falsifying the arguments put forward to support a proposition does not falsify the proposition. Science can never know what created our universe. Even if tomorrow we observed another universe spawned from our universe, as could hypothetically happen in certain theories of cosmology, we could not know what created our universe. And as long as God does not intervene in the contemporary universe in such a way as to violate physical laws, science has no way of knowing whether God exists or not. The belief or disbelief in such a Being is therefore a matter of faith.

(Note that he says this holds as long as God doesn’t intervene in the contemporary universe. Apparently God might have in the past, as with the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, and that’s okay, even though those events blatantly violate physical principles.)

So what’s Lightman’s real beef with Dawkins? That Richard is dismissive of faith:

What troubles me about Dawkins’ pronouncements is his wholesale dismissal of religion and religious sensibility. . . In my opinion, Dawkins has a narrow view of faith. I would be the first to challenge any belief that contradicts the findings of science. But, as I have said earlier, there are things we believe in that do not submit to the methods and reductions of science. Furthermore, faith, and the passion for the transcendent that often goes with it, have been the impulse for so many exquisite creations of humankind. Consider the verses of the Gitanjali, the Messiah, the mosque of the Alhambra, the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Should we take to task Tagore and Handel and Sultan Yusuf and Michelangelo for not thinking?

I believe Dawkins has extolled the beauty of cathedrals and other religiously inspired art. But that doesn’t in any way justify the claims of religions. And then, like John Haught, he simply redefines “faith” in a way that gives all of us—religious folks and atheists alike—that quality (at least, those of us who are moved by art or literature):

Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.

Umm. . . note to Lightman: when I’m moved by Beethoven, and carried away by his music, that does not somehow vindicate religion.

He then makes The Argument for Faith from the Good Stuff that Religion has Done and the Bad Stuff that Science has Done:

Scattered throughout Dawkins’ writings are comments that religion has been a destructive force in human civilization. Certainly, human beings, in the name of religion, have sometimes caused great suffering and death to other human beings. But so has science, in the many weapons of destruction created by physicists, biologists and chemists, especially in the 20th century. Both science and religion can be employed for good and for ill. It is how they are used by human beings, by us, that matters. Human beings have sometimes been driven by religious passion to build schools and hospitals, to create poetry and music and sweeping temples, just as human beings have employed science to cure disease, to improve agriculture, to increase material comfort and the speed of communication.

Lightman then recounts a story of watching two baby ospreys fled on his property in Maine:

When they were within 20 feet of me, they suddenly veered upward and away. But before that dazzling and frightening vertical climb, for about half a second we made eye contact. Words cannot convey what was exchanged between us in that instant. It was a look of connectedness, of mutual respect, of recognition that we shared the same land. After they were gone, I found that I was shaking, and in tears. To this day, I cannot explain what happened in that half-second. But it was one of the most profound moments of my life.

Almost every biologist who watches animals in the field has had an experience like this—an experience of either feeling kinship with nature or awe of nature. But in what sense does that vindicate either religion or faith?  We are creatures of emotion, but that hardly proves that God exists, or constitutes some kind of reconciliation between God and science.

The subheading of Lightman’s title is “the case for reconciling the scientific with the divine—and against the anti-religion of Richard Dawkins.” Let us summarize Lightman’s case for such a reconciliation:

  • There could be a deistic God, or even one who, in the past (but no longer) performed miracles that violate the laws of physics.
  • There are questions science cannot answer, like these: “We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all.  We all know that these are not questions that have an objective scientific answer, or perhaps any answer at all.
  • We cannot prove that physical laws are true and obeyed everywhere in the universe. But surely Lightman is aware that we see no exceptions to this.  Maybe he can’t prove that somewhere, in some corner of the universe, these laws are violated. But experience gives us no evidence that they are. He might as well say he can’t prove that invisible fairies guide his actions.  Science works—and it has always worked without assuming the existence of the supernatural. We don’t have to justify the existence of physical laws on first principles.
  • Religion is still with us, and has created nice works of architecture and art, like Notre Dame and the paintings of Giotto.  So how does that reconcile science and God?
  • Science has done bad stuff, like making atomic bombs. The bad stuff, of course, comes not from science itself, but from extra-scientific motivations applied to the products of science.
  • Lightman was once moved to tears by watching the first flight of two young ospreys.

What a puerile and unoriginal defense of faith—especially by a renowned physicist and thinker! Each of these arguments has been made by theologians like John Haught, and none are convincing.  Perhaps Lightman has not gotten out enough, for what is contained in his essay is simply a warmed-over hash of arguments for faith that have long been dismantled.

152 Comments

  1. Matt G
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 4:53 am | Permalink

    He praises Collins, whose BioLogos Foundation is not willing to take a stand on whether Adam and Eve existed? Not a good sign.

    • leebowman
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      Maybe they feel that they’d be damned if they do, and damned if they didn’t. For a TE and a scientist, the literal Bible stands between a rock and a hard place.

  2. Jonathan Smith
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:01 am | Permalink

    “Lightman was once moved to tears by watching the first flight of two young ospreys.”

    Reminds me of Francis Collins epiphany where he came upon three frozen waterfalls and fell to his knees knowing he had found Jesus and the Trinity.
    Talk about cognitive dissonance.

    • Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:22 am | Permalink

      Animals are cool; therefore, Jesus.

      Yeah, it works for me, too. Where’s my damn Bible?!!!

    • Claimthehighground
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

      But, but, there are times in our lives when we feel so, so, so damn… moved. QED, god.
      This is a broken record.

    • Tulse
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      And presumably bouts of depression prove the existence of Satan?

    • PB
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

      Yes. I’ve personally heard stories like these (on mountaintop, beach at dusk/night/dawn) that moved people toward deistic gods, and more rarely monotheistic god(s).
      I believe this is a kind of modern god-of-gaps, emotion is not fully acknowledged as part of brain activities nowadays …

  3. Marella
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    So apparently stupid is catching.

    Clearly it should be the sav-blanc!

  4. robinb333
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:03 am | Permalink

    I find this an interesting article, however, I do believe in God. I believe Scientist are too consumed with “rationalization” and unwilling to even consider the possibility of God. Maybe they would find “Enoch the Prophet” book interesting. Enoch is from the Bible. He received visions and was brought before God and shown the secrets of the universe. In his vision he gives specific information regarding the sun, stars, moon, wind etc. They may find it interesting…

    Anyways, very interesting article and definitely enjoyed my read….Robin

    • Matt G
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:11 am | Permalink

      You have it backwards. Scientists reason ; it is the religious who rationalize.

    • Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:25 am | Permalink

      The book of Enoch didn’t quite make it into the western Bible, although it is cited by Jude. Perhaps you’re using the Ethiopian Bible?

      And its cosmology is pretty crazy.

    • Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:33 am | Permalink

      I’m not trying to sharp-shoot you here, but . . .

      We have dedicated facilities for people who frequently see things the rest of the world doesn’t. Just go to any old random state home for the mentally bewildered and you can be regaled of tales profound and majestic, by living people. You can actually talk to them. Today. They walk among us. There is a greater reason to believe these people as we can conclusively demonstrate that these people necessarily exist.

      But no one believes them. Why? Too recent? Doesn’t have the mystique of classical antiquity? For some reason the same stories we can hear from living people this moment are dismissed by everyone while ones told in books before there was any reliable way to document the events (say, an iPhone would have been handy back then for its camera) are believed by billions of people.

      You know, we scientist type people are extremely easy to convince of almost anything, no matter how bizarre the claim is. All you need is just a little bit of evidence to indicate it’s true (and no evidence to indicate it’s false). As Lewis Wolpert retorted when asked what kind of miracles would convince him: I think a few resurrections would do the trick.

    • Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:44 am | Permalink

      I believe Scientist are too consumed with “rationalization” and unwilling to even consider the possibility of God.

      Considering many scientists are in fact religious, this is patently false. And you can’t even claim that scientists who are atheists are “unwilling to even consider the possibility”. Many of them, like Coyne and Dawkins, clearly considered it at length and in great detail.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 6:32 am | Permalink

      What a non-starter. It isn’t even trolling. =D

      • Matt G
        Posted October 14, 2011 at 8:38 am | Permalink

        Drive-by poster. Too bad. Robin could have benefitted so much from the collected wisdom of this virtual community.

    • Filippo
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      Do you use the word “God” as a general descriptor, a metaphoric umbrella under which one finds Zeus, Wotan, Mithras, the main Aztec god?

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted October 15, 2011 at 1:47 am | Permalink

      I looked at The Christian CoffeeShop ~ the place is empty. I see this as very encouraging because I hate everything that you & your-serving blog stands for

      In other sections of your blog I notice that you have posted your prophecies ~ they are all about disaster & how you & your husband are saved

      You claim that some of your prophecies have come to pass ~ you compare some of your ‘visions’ with recent events & claim that you saw it coming. The proofs you offer are vague or after the fact. The usual trickery.

      You also sell merchandise & have click-throughs to Amazon

      Why do the living, blogging prophets, such as you, have such good commercial instincts Robin?

      Is it because it’s all about the money vile little Robin?

  5. Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    What is it with their inability to see the difference between what motivates someone to do something horrible (like religion) and what just gives them the tool but is not the motivation (like science)? If 10,000 years ago one human killed another with his bare hands because he thought his local god told him to, would these accommodationists blame science? That would not make sense. If we fast forward several thousand years and someone kills another with a sword for the same reason (“becausegodsaidso”) would the fault for that be science then? No. Fast forward some more and people have bombs and pathogens and missiles and such, is it then the fault of science? No, it is not. Seems rather simple, but they have to obfuscate it.

    Brian

    • Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:23 am | Permalink

      At what point in human history then does the blame shift from religion (or whatever other emotional motivation they had) to science? Before the invention of technology [x], religion or whatever other emotion is at fault, but after [x] then science has to take some of the blame too for motivating the person?

      Brian

      • Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:47 am | Permalink

        Probably around the time of the invention of the club. We all know that religion is only to be credited with all the good art and all the good deeds in life, and that everything bad comes from being non-religious/of the wrong religion/satanist, after all.

  6. Simon
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:11 am | Permalink

    The piece is by Lightman but the above entry makes it look as if parts are by Guth. Maybe a mistake?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:16 am | Permalink

      Yes, they are Lightman’s words. I’ve corrected it; thanks!

  7. Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:12 am | Permalink

    “After much deliberation, Guth declares:” » “…Lightman declares”

    “The subheading of Guth’s title” » “… Lightman’s title”

    /@

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:18 am | Permalink

      Yes, corrected (see above)

      • Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:42 am | Permalink

        The second one remains uncorrected!

        /@

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted October 14, 2011 at 6:32 am | Permalink

          Whoops, didn’t see the second one. Also corrected, thx.

  8. Occam
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    Division by zero. Yet again.

    • Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:36 am | Permalink

      Careful. That kind of talk can start a ‘Chuck Norris can’ conversation!

  9. Observer
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:22 am | Permalink

    It supposedly offers a critique of Dawkins, but it’s as if he’s never actually read Dawkins.

    Somewhere there is a parody of Dawkins walking around that all these guys are reading.

    • Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:27 am | Permalink

      Somewhere there is a parody of Dawkins walking around …

      One is tempted to name names.

      • Observer
        Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:36 am | Permalink

        Then please do.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted October 14, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

          that list would be long. I believe he meant it rhetorically, but really if you just search here using the word “accomodationist”, you would be able to compile a decent list of the poor thinkers that have been batting around this parody of Dawkins for years now.

  10. Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    Huh, I’d say that by these two premises:

    1) All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe.

    2) God is a being not restricted by the laws that govern matter and energy in the physical universe.

    it should follow that God does not exist in our physical universe. They could’ve stopped right there!

    Note, by the way, that their “central doctrine of science” sounds a lot more dogmatic than any description of science by New Atheists that I have seen.

    And as long as God does not intervene in the contemporary universe in such a way as to violate physical laws, science has no way of knowing whether God exists or not. The belief or disbelief in such a Being is therefore a matter of faith.

    No, science says that in the absence of evidence, belief in such a Being isn’t warranted at all. That’s where the incompatibility is!

    And if you somehow think that belief in such a Being is warranted, you’re going to have to anwser questions like why you would prefer such a belief over a belief in two such Beings. Or three, or millions, or an infinite number of them.

    • Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:44 am | Permalink

      Because all of the cool exceptions with integer properties happen with 0, 1, or 2 of course. And, of course, we know it can’t be two because of that online proof running around that 2 = 1. QED.

    • Peter B
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 6:48 am | Permalink

      … that God does not exist in our physical universe
      What is actually what the modern theologians are saying.

      • Posted October 14, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

        I’m sure there are some that say this. I wonder how many people actually believe in a God that doesn’t exist in our physical universe, though. What would be the relevance of such a God to us physical beings, who are constrained to the physical universe?

        • Posted October 21, 2011 at 12:07 am | Permalink

          He’s relevant to keeping said theologians active dispite their retreat from philosophy departments and the rest of academia.

    • Myron
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      “[I]t should follow that God does not exist in our physical universe.”

      That does follow and is exactly what theists and deists claim: God is transcendent in the sense of not being part of the spatiotemporal world.

      • Posted October 21, 2011 at 12:33 am | Permalink

        Nobody cares about that god unless he inserts feelings and thoughts into living brains.

    • Dan L.
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      Note, by the way, that their “central doctrine of science” sounds a lot more dogmatic than any description of science by New Atheists that I have seen.

      It seems like generally NAs push for more open, less precise definitions of science and accomodationists and theists push for very restrictive definitions. I suspect that this is precisely because there are literally more answers that science can’t answer under restrictive definitions of “science.” For example, I don’t think any of us have a problem with neuroscientists investigating esthetics as a brain phenomena — but many accomodationist definitions of science explicitly exclude this sort of investigation as “science.”

      I think the open, less restrictive definitions come from an appreciation of how general science really is. Some of my favorite examples are the genetic studies of human head and pubic lice that attempt to find an approximate point in human evolution that humans lost most of their body hair. You can’t shoehorn science into some definition that is motivated by the physical sciences without losing a lot of the complexity and subtlety of real scientific work being done.

  11. Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    Also, I’ll never understand why someone would criticize someone else for not believing a proposition that they too don’t believe in, defending a belief that they don’t share, using arguments that they too didn’t find convincing.

    • Marta
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      +1

    • Funk
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      I could win every argument or debate I engage in if I am allowed to define words as I see fit. The word “faith” has a definition and in the context of this article “faith” means belief that is not based on proof. There is nothing in Merriam-Webster about the ability to honor stillness, etc.

  12. Coel
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    Lightman may well be a Dogmatic Scientist who clings “on faith” to the Central Doctrine of Science that he outlines, even though he can’t prove it: But I don’t, I simply evaluate the extent to which the doctrine is or is not true according to the evidence we have.

    Second, Lightman is horribly confused when saying: “I believe there are things we take on faith without physical proof … We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us”.

    He is confusing the statement “the novel’s ending haunts me” with the question “Why does the the novel’s ending haunt me?”.

    It is only the first of these that he asserts, and for *that* he does have physical evidence, namely his knowledge of his own experience. Granted, he may not have evidence about *why* he is haunted, but then he is not “taking on faith” any statement about that. And his other examples make exactly the same confusion.

    • Dan L.
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      And if he thinks about it, he can probably figure out why the ending haunted him without resorting to any supernatural explanations. I’ve really never understood this. “Fiction, therefore God.” No, the argument goes more like “God, therefore fiction.”

  13. TJR
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    He doesn’t seem to grok that absence of evidence *is* evidence of absence, though not proof of course.

  14. Torbjorn Larsson, OM
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    He doesn’t seem to mention Hawking and his claims that dis-empowers deism even. Another to mention in the context may be Guth, IIRC a hard atheist.

    However, he mentions testing:

    However, as I think he would acknowledge, falsifying the arguments put forward to support a proposition does not falsify the proposition.

    You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

    Lightman equivocates between facts, that we can have degrees of certainty of, and truths, that we can’t be certain of outside the narrative that uses them, as Haught and every other theologian does.

    More precisely he argues for a gap between “tested beyond reasonable doubt” and “fully certain” to stuff his accommodationist gods in. That gap may be taken on faith, however it isn’t reasonable.

    Certainly, human beings, in the name of religion, have sometimes caused great suffering and death to other human beings. But so has science, in the many weapons of destruction created by physicists, biologists and chemists, especially in the 20th century.

    Quick fact check:

    – Has religion been used as a reason for war? Yes, the many crusades, and the list goes on.

    – Has science been used as a reason for war? Um … no …?

    Further, I think one may make a good case that science has been a major force for the 20th century and ongoing lowering of number of wars and proportion of people participating. (Re Pinker.) By making away with poverty and helping ushering in democracy (by elucidating its mechanisms, say), science is a major contributor to well being.

    Religion, not so much. (Say, as in “not helping”.)

  15. rich sammons
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    The more I read this stuff, the more I appreciate having been raised with the arrogance/ambivalence of agnosticism. Though my own life is defined by my dependence on empirical evidence, and the use of human logic to meet my needs, I accept the limitations of that experience re: defining either scientific or spiritual absolutes.

    God, etc. has been created to meet the needs of those who need God – I argue against God’s existence because of the absence, at this point of time, of evidence to support such a concept. However, the need to believe is obviously an emotional reality, and faith by definition, though illogical, therefore is beyond any explanation other than it meets one’s needs.

    The common ground for believers and non-believers is just that – it meets a need, and if there is one absolute, that may be it: There is no behavior other than that which meets a need, all of our needs being highly individualized and evolving out of our own very unique set of experiences (both nature and nurture). The very notion that morality even exists in either the secular or spiritual world presupposes the existence of something beyond needs, and there is certainly no empirical evidence at this point that that is true. Moral beliefs are merely the means by which individuals and social units describe their individual and group needs – they are ever evolving, and serve to both provide answers, and create more questions. For those of us in the secular world that provides for exciting exploration in all areas. Unfortunately for many in the religious community it is only a threat, and thus they are often prone to meet their needs with simplistic, and often aggressive, attacks on others.

    Time to move on to ?’s of free will!!??

    • FaithInDialogue
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 7:36 am | Permalink

      “I argue against God’s existence because of the absence, at this point of time, of evidence to support such a concept.”

      I’m curious, what would be evidence sufficient to support the concept of a supernatural being?

      I’d be equally interested to know the counter perspective: what would be evidence sufficient to convince a religious person that God does not exist? (Can you disprove deism?)

      • rich sammons
        Posted October 14, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

        In order for me to become a believer, it would take a series of events (miracles?)that would undermine my dependence on all previous sensory experiences that have laid the foundation for my present skepticism. For example, I have never considered the sun rising to be a miracle since it has risen every day of my life. Were it not to rise, and a voice told me “today all natural laws that I have created are on hold”, I would initially assume that I was hallucinating or that there was indeed a power out there greater than the laws of nature. To check this out (empirical evidence?), I would then attempt to initiate a dialougue – perhaps starting with “So what was the rationale behind the potato famine”, or “what’s the real purpose of erectile tissue on female’s breasts”. If a genuine Socratic give and take evolved I would eventually become enraged and accuse this omnipotent whatever of being a sadistic meglomaniacal motherbleeper! Me thinks hallucinations and delusions are to be preferred.

        As for the religious person being convinced there is no God: Just continue the tenacious pursuit of rational exploration, keep a sense of humor, try to keep sarcasm to a minimum (really hard for me), and understand that the process of cause and effect that evolved with them is no different than mine. And there but for the grace of bleep go I!

        • Sastra
          Posted October 14, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

          Very good, but I think your specific example has a flaw: it’s still too personal, too internal, too subjective. Have these phenomenon and this ‘voice’ connecting intersubjectively with millions of people over extended periods of time, open to demonstration, test, and confirmation to reasonable skeptics — and the burden of proof is now tipped on top of the now-unlikely hypothesis that this is a all a “hallucination” or “matter of faith.”

      • phhht
        Posted October 14, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

        I’m curious, what would be evidence sufficient to support the concept of a supernatural being?

        I’d need something like this: scientific publications which show 1) a number-theoretical proof that three gods (not one) are one god (not three); 2) a paper which explains how to reproduce the chemical and physical events that occur in the transubstantiation of water to wine; and 3) a dictionary which translates from Tongue to English.

        I’d insist on a rational explanation for how miracles fit into the world as we know it.

        Enough hand-waving and bullshit assertions!

      • Marta
        Posted October 14, 2011 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        For Pete’s sake. If God, by any definition, by any manifestation, is there, why doesn’t it just show us? Galactic skywriting might do the trick. Or, you know, some sort of unavoidable shout out. Anything would probably work, really, since so many of us are so staggeringly gullible.

        But no. There’s nothing. Nothing at all.

        Instead we’ve got a fat lot of theologians and a few scientists who think that frozen waterfalls and orgasms are evidence. Really?

        If God has the power to poof us all into existence, and cares so much that we all know it, what the hell is the problem with providing some proof? And why do so many people with otherwise good minds work so hard to take what is essentially nothing and blow on it to make is something?

      • Ichthyic
        Posted October 14, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

        I’m curious, what would be evidence sufficient to support the concept of a supernatural being?

        did you miss the threads on this topic and back and forth with Pharyngula a couple months back?

        start:

        http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/10/its_like_he_was_reading_my_min.php

        jerry’s first reply:

        http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/10/11/can-there-be-evidence-for-god/

        responses:

        http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/10/eight_reasons_you_wont_persuad.php

        http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/10/there_arent_any_zogweebles_eit.php

        …have fun.

        • Diane G.
          Posted October 16, 2011 at 2:32 am | Permalink

          So glad you keep the archives, Ich. I sometimes feel like we’re caught in a whirlpool of regurgitation.

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted October 16, 2011 at 5:04 am | Permalink

            I’m getting disturbing imagery here.. [In U.S. terms think student spring break]

      • Tulse
        Posted October 14, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

        Can I disprove deism? No, but why would anyone want to worship something which has not interacted with the universe for the past 14.8 billion years? That doesn’t answer prayers, or provide love or even personal interest for its believers? It’s like basing a religion around Maxwell’s equations.

        In other words, “deism” isn’t a religion — it’s at best a vaguely philosophical belief.

        • Posted October 15, 2011 at 7:16 am | Permalink

          Actually, in a way you can (Smolin’s blackhole-manufacturing ETs in another hubble volume are not gods): just show that the universe (not the local hubble volume) has no beginning and hence nothing to create it.

          • Diane G.
            Posted October 16, 2011 at 2:26 am | Permalink

            just show that the universe (not the local hubble volume) has no beginning…

            Child’s play…

  16. Steve Smith
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    If they’re gonna have goat cheese, they should be serving a good white wine like sauvignon blanc! Or even something sweet, like a Sauternes.

    The meetings were at MIT, not Harvard.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      ha!

    • Filippo
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      What would be the libation at Texas A & M?

  17. Darrell E
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    However, I certainly agree with Collins and Hutchinson and Gingerich that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations.

    So? This is obvious, cliche, and has no bearing whatsoever on the veracity of religious beliefs.

    Obviously, vast territories of the arts concern inner experiences that cannot be analyzed by science.

    For a scientist this person demonstrates a serious lack of imagination. This idea is also cliche, a standard talking point, but it is so obviously false. The methods of science can absolutely, and in fact have been, and are, used to inform us about exactly these types of inner experiences. Why do believers and accomodationists continue to spout this so obviously false line? Perhaps they are desperate to convince themselves that it is true?

    The humanities, such as history and philosophy, raise questions that do not have definite or unanimously accepted answers.

    So? What is your point? It sure sounds like you are hemming and hawing your way to saying that because we don’t know, therefore we must respect the concept of transubstantiation. Or is it only deists that we need to respect? Well, if deists are in any way supporting theists, then they will just have to put up with having their precious beliefs debunked, and when appropriate ridiculed, right along with the theists.

  18. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe.

    I would have thought a ‘proper’ scientist would have qualified the ‘central doctrine’. I know of no way we can currently be certain that there are universal laws, although I accept that it is a very strong probability that this is true. (Side issue: does this ‘doctrine’ apply to the insides of Black Holes?)

    I suspect that Alan Lightman believes in absolutes (which probably don’t exist). This is probably a faith position.

    • Myron
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      Laws of nature are universal by definition.

      See: http://www.iep.utm.edu/lawofnat/

      • Dan L.
        Posted October 14, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

        Fallacy of definition. Meanings of words are determined by usages, not by dictionary entries. This makes precise use of language difficult. But the only alternative is to make any use of language impossible (you need to be able to read English before you can use the dictionary).

        However, you do make a good point that the precise usage of “laws of nature” has to be clarified before we can have debates about them. What precisely does Lightman, in particular, mean by “laws of nature”?

        I think trying to make an ontological category especially for things called “laws of nature” is really a mistake since there are many different observations called “laws” that are not particularly important or universal scientific observations. Best to drop the notion of “laws of nature” and to try to explain what it is we’re actually talking about (specify “general relativity and QM” instead of subsuming them into a nebulous “law of nature” category).

        • Ichthyic
          Posted October 14, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

          you need to be able to read English before you can use the dictionary

          that’s poor both literally and metaphorically.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted October 14, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

          Best to drop the notion of “laws of nature”

          it’s an old term, but it DOES work.

          you would indeed include as a subset of “laws of nature” the laws of thermodynamics, for example, since they are universally applicable.

          I think trying to make an ontological category especially for things called “laws of nature” is really a mistake since there are many different observations called “laws”

          uh, that’s why the qualifier “of nature” is added – it implies universal application.

          and it IS both the common usage of the term, as well as being the dictionary definition.

          • Dan L.
            Posted October 14, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

            Sure, it CAN work as long as you qualify how you’re using “laws of nature” very carefully. To some people, “evolution” is a law of nature, but it’s not strictly comparable to universal laws like “thermodynamics.” Even “thermodynamics” isn’t a law like “general relativity” because it’s an argument from probability theory at the very bottom.

            uh, that’s why the qualifier “of nature” is added – it implies universal application.

            and it IS both the common usage of the term, as well as being the dictionary definition.

            “The Law (of Nature) of gravity”

            “The inverse square Law (of Nature)”

            “Boyle’s law (of Nature)”

            No, sorry, that’s not really the case at all. It’s not clear which scientific principles are to be included by the phrase “laws of nature.” It’s simply not. That’s why none of us understands exactly what Lightman is saying, because he doesn’t qualify his use of the phrase and it is ambiguous.

            • Posted October 15, 2011 at 7:31 am | Permalink

              I use the phrase (following Bunge and Armstrong) to mean the objective patterns in the universe. Law statements (e.g. the axioms and theorems of thermodynamics) are the approximate reconstruction in thought of these patterns. No universiality is needed; as a matter of fact the only universal patterns that seem to exist are the conservation laws.

  19. NewEnglandBob
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Alan Lightman is very confused. Sad to see on someone who is in his early 60s. We’ll have to watch and see if it deteriorates in his future writings.

    Besides the wrong wine, goat cheese does not belong on crackers. It is better used in salads or within cooked main or side dishes.

  20. Posted October 14, 2011 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    [subscribing]

  21. Posted October 14, 2011 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    Obviously, vast territories of the arts concern inner experiences that cannot be analyzed by science.

    I’m pretty sure we can come up with multiple examples of this same sentiment spoken by other scientists in the past who were subsequently shown to be wrong.

    There was one that said that current science says that it was impossible for man to travel faster than 35 mph. Others that said that science will never be able to analyze the mechanisms for heavier-than-air flight.

    This is why we should be arguing from trends in science/scholarhip, not from a current consensus. Lightman’s fallacy is thinking that science is not progressive but static. It’s similar to how Creationists take a snapshot of current human history and then conclude that humans and chimps don’t share a common ancestor.

    Scientific knowledge continues to expand. So it’s a bit beyond Lightman’s statement to assert that science can never understand why people will like certain forms of art. I’m relatively confident, based on the track record of scientific progress, that why we like certain forms of art will be explored and uncovered by future gains in neuroscience and psychology. Lightman has no data to back up his assertion. So to quote Hitchens, something that is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

  22. astrosmash
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    “However, I certainly agree with Collins and Hutchinson and Gingerich that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations.”

    uhhh…ok…Who said there weren’t? But at some level are are interesting and vital things to address using the scientific method. There seems to be a problem wsith these people in understanding that even the sublime subjective experiences we have are still operating at the level of the brain. What? When were we not allowed to talk about that?

    “Obviously, vast territories of the arts concern inner experiences that cannot be analyzed by science.”

    Except that to a degree they can. Read Steven Pinkers chapter on the arts in The Blank Slate. As an example, we could discuss the limits of meaningful narrative in literature constrained by the way our brains make sense of the world. How is that an un-fun demeaning question to ask?

    “The humanities, such as history and philosophy, raise questions that do not have definite or unanimously accepted answers.”

    And never will? Even then, o what? And Isn’t the entire enterprise of history and the humanities meant to give us as accurate a representaion of “the truth’ (lower-cap t) as we can?

    Booooring….

    • astrosmash
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 7:11 am | Permalink

      I thought I lnew how to spell…What a surprise

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted October 14, 2011 at 7:22 am | Permalink

        Correction: iNew. Has everyone seen the cartoon of Job’s casket, the RiPod?

        • astrosmash
          Posted October 14, 2011 at 7:31 am | Permalink

          oy! Oh well, I guess it had to be said. Too soon, too soon….

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

      Except that to a degree they can.

      And to the extent they can’t, or that there are other “avenue[s]for arriving at knowledge,” I question whether what’s arrived at is actually knowledge or simply opinion. (If you care to substitute “philosophy,” I won’t stand in your way…)

  23. Posted October 14, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    I was writing up a storm, but realized I just felt sad for Alan Lightman.
    Great man made art as “proof” for a goddish creature? GAH!
    Too much wine already!

  24. astrosmash
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    Jubus, every sentence here is a mega-fail

    “Finally, I believe there are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof.”

    yeah, they’re called heuristics. Or ‘if it worked those other 57 times I did it, it’ll probably work again

    ” We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us.”

    Yeah but we can guess. I’m assuming that something happening in our brains is what gives us that haunted feeling. That’s actually a fun question? why not ask it honestly and in good faith?

    “We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of our child.”

    PROVE? I thought you were a scientist. And even so, we could explore the conditions that could lead to such an abominable act. I’m sure there is some very interesting statistical data out there just ripe for the picking

    “We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong.”

    Why do we have to agree on a definition of “right” of “wrong”? I would steal to feed my family…A no brainer. What’s to “prove” anyway. again, we can certainly analyse the conditions that would lead to that, and as a society try to figure out how to prevent that necessity. duh dude

    We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all.

    gee, I guess I’ll just go hang myself then. I sure am gonn miss playing the piano and going to the awesome Virginia Museum 2 blocks from my apartment. But since it’s meaningless I have no choice but to take the gas pipe

    “For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but, in the end, we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing.”

    ohhh. that’s the problem. Read up on more biology. I think the clean elegance of physics and math has you confused about how the other half lives, as it were. Biology and therefore life are very sloppy kludges with wobbly vectors darting about everywhere.

    “These are questions for the arts and the humanities. These are also questions aligned with some of the intangible concerns of traditional religion.”

    So science isn’t “allowed” to address them?

    Every point a miss.

    • abb3w
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

      In addition to heuristics, there’s also mathematical axioms. On the one hand, physical proof is irrelevant, since without the validity of mathematical abstraction there can be no abstract language to describe the physical and allow “proof”. On the other, the reason there’s no methodology for proof is that axioms are taken when there’s nothing around that would allow taking it as a theorem — which mostly means that it’s also possible to take the Refutation instead of the Assertion. (Getting any theorems afterward may be tricky, of course.)

  25. dunstar
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    lol. I guess I too have “other” ways of knowing and it’s when I make stuff up. Maybe if I make enough stuff up I’ll get so confused that I’d forget that I made up that stuff to begin with and then if that thing that I made up sounds waaaaaaaay too awesome to not be true, my faith in it will kick in because it’s simply to good of a thing to not be true.

  26. Jim Shine
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    [quote]Consider the verses of the Gitanjali, the Messiah, the mosque of the Alhambra, the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Should we take to task Tagore and Handel and Sultan Yusuf and Michelangelo for not thinking?[/quote]
    Surely the problem with lumping all these works under the term “faith” is that it ignores the possibility that there might have been wholly different motives underlying their creation. Handel’s “Messiah”, for example, was described by its librettist Charles Jennens as “a fine entertainment” rather than a religious work. And we can hardly say that the four faiths that produced these four works are, to their practitioners, interchangeable.

  27. Neil
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    “No, if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!”

    Miles Raymond in Sideways

  28. Myron
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    “I certainly agree with Collins and Hutchinson and Gingerich that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations.”
    (A. Lightman)

    This is such a bloody strawman! How many naturalists are there who don’t use their senses “unscientifically” and instinctively in everyday life outside the laboratory or the observatory in order to find out what’s going on or is the case?! And how many intelligent naturalists are there who claim that the “soft” sciences, e.g. history, and philosophy, art, music, literature, poetry are worthless parts of human culture and education?!

    But when it comes to “avenue[s] for arriving at knowledge”, naturalists do deny that there are any sources of justification and knowledge available to us apart from the following natural ones:

    * experience: (sensory) perception + introspection
    * reason (rational insight or intuition)
    * memory
    * testimony

    Supernaturalists claim that there are additional epistemic sources:

    * extrasensory perception (clairvoyance, precognition, or telepathy)
    * mystical apprehension or intuition (distinct from rational intuition)
    * revelation

    If Lightman’s statement that “science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge” means that we can also arrive at knowledge through these alleged epistemic sources, then naturalists certainly do deny that this is the case.

  29. Posted October 14, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    It all comes down to warm fuzzy feeling and scary feelings of the individual, of the moment — anything that sooths the brain is OK.

    Logic, reason, evidence, common sens are irrelevant beside brain brain soothing.

    Heard Collins on uTube, he is as mad as a hatter.

  30. Bernard Ortcutt
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    This question about the possibility of knowledge outside science is tiresomely imprecise. Obviously, there is knowledge outside science conceived of as a particular human social activity. I know there is a table in the room I am in, but that hasn’t been the subject of any colloquium or published in a scientific journal. The interesting and likely true claim is that there is no knowledge without evidence, observation, and theorizing, where that observation is properly causally related to the things that the observation is of. Only mathematics seems to be problematic, but the ontological status of mathematics is so disputed that I’m not too worried about that at the moment.

    • Myron
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      What does “there is knowledge outside science” mean exactly? If it means that “scientific perception”, i.e. methodically and intersubjectively controlled observations in the laboratory or observatory, isn’t the only possible way of acquiring knowledge, then it’s a truism.
      My knowing that there is a bottle of beer in my fridge is grounded in a simple “unscientific” perception. And my knowing that everything is identical to itself is grounded in pure reason.

      • Bernard Ortcutt
        Posted October 14, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

        I agree with you mostly. I don’t know whether I believe there are any a priori justifications, but if there are their scope is small enough that they won’t epistemically ground substantive religious claim.

    • Dan L.
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      Well said. Don’t worry too much about “mathematical knowledge.” Mathematics proceeds by declaring axioms and definitions and then proceeding to reason out the logical consequences of the axioms and definitions — and this absolutely involves evidence (complete proofs), observation (investigating the consequences of a particular definition or axiom, perhaps with respect to other entities), and theorizing (metamathematics is a well-developed field investigating the logic underlying mathematics and the constraints it places on the mathematical systems that may be studied).

      In other words, mathematics is a sort of science of logical relationships between assumed entities. Mathematical knowledge isn’t knowledge about the world, it’s knowledge about the nature of information. Or, if you like, it’s an empirical investigation of an abstract domain rather than a physical one.

      • Tulse
        Posted October 14, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

        Mathematical knowledge isn’t knowledge about the world, it’s knowledge about the nature of information.

        But isn’t that nature part of the world (or at least the way the universe works)? Are you excluding the structure of logic and math from “the world”?

        My point is essentially a modal one — the universe has certain features, and those include supporting certain types of maths and logics. While we may not be able to conceive of other possible maths and logics, that doesn’t mean that others could not exist in radically different universes (where “universe” is not just the physical world, but includes the foundations of that world as well). Indeed, we have already conceived of certain consistent varieties of logical relations in this universe (for example, consider non-Euclidean geometry).

        • Dan L.
          Posted October 14, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

          Yes, I think I agree. I was hedging in my earlier comment because I’m not sure everyone else would agree, including maybe a lot of actual mathematicians and logicians with whom I’m not qualified to argue. The point is at least arguable — I can’t really imagine how you might go about settling it empirically.

          I don’t think it’s even clear whether the constraints in mathematics are imposed by metaphysics or the physiology of the brain. That’s why I tried to keep it general — it’s the investigation of an abstract domain, one which might exist entirely within minds or might not. I lean towards the former but I think a lot of working mathematicians might disagree.

        • abb3w
          Posted October 14, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

          I’d slightly disagree; while mathematics pretty much necessarily has the ability to describe the world, it’s not nearly so limited. The Banach-Tarski sphere dissection “paradox” doesn’t seem to have much to do with the real world.

          While certain aspects of math and logic correspond to features of reality, those are mainly a subset of the more general case, or perhaps echoes of the self-reflective nature of some forms of abstract math.

          • Posted October 15, 2011 at 7:35 am | Permalink

            Actually, there are a large number (arguably an illdefined collection, so I cannot say how many) of logics right in this universe. (I don’t know what another universe is supposed to mean, so I’ll ignore that.) The problem for the mathematical realist (I’m a fictionalist) is justifying one rather than the other. For me, the answer is simple: whichever one(s) allow the best factual science, technology and science-oriented philosophy to succeed.

            • abb3w
              Posted October 17, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

              In some sense, the number is an arbitrarily large cardinal, and possibly may be a proper class. However, in many cases, justifying one over the other is moot. Many can be shown equivalent to each another, such as vNBG versus ZF; or are able to model one another to make them reducibly equivalent; and many of the differences may be moot with respect to the “real world”, such as some views of ZFC vs ZF¬C.

              This is fortunate, as “best” requires creating an ordering relationship on the set of choices, which means a poset and more math….

    • Ichthyic
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      I know there is a table in the room I am in, but that hasn’t been the subject of any colloquium or published in a scientific journal.

      interesting.

      how do you KNOW that?

      It’s safe to say you ASSUME there is a table in the room.

      likewise, people *knew* that the earth was flat, and *knew* the sun revolves around the earth.

      what changed those perceptions?

      • Bernard Ortcutt
        Posted October 14, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

        How do I know it? Because I’m perceiving a table through multiple sense modalities, sight, touch, hearing. I’m not assuming it. I know it.

        No one knew that the Earth was flat. You can’t know something that is false. They made a mistake.

        • abb3w
          Posted October 14, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

          …in which case, the existence of the table is rather an inductive inference from your experience attributed to the table.

          Inductive inference can potentially be mistaken, whether as to the earth being flat or whether the “table” is actually a cleverly camouflaged Himmit. That said, I suspect it’s more likely a table.

          • Ichthyic
            Posted October 15, 2011 at 1:09 am | Permalink

            abb3w has the sense of it, which is why i used the word “perception”.

            I was trying to get you to realize how we figured out that the world isn’t flat.

            and, you can apply those same techniques to support your perception that there really is a table in the room.

            • abb3w
              Posted October 17, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

              I’d note the difference between “Assume” and “Infer”; but that’s merely a semantic fetish of mine. Though it’s often of significance for religious debates, colloquial usage isn’t precise in distinguishing the two.

  31. Myron
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand why so many highly intelligent scientists readily and naively accept the possible or even actual truth of spiritism, the view that there are spiritual beings (pure minds/souls/spirits), i.e. (self-)conscious beings with subjective, mental properties but without any (intrinsic) objective, physical properties. Even according to deism God is an extraspatiotemporal immaterial person, the concept of which appears totally absurd and nonsensical to me. How could such beings possibly exist in reality?!

    The crucial question is whether the belief in the actual and/or possible existence of ghosts, i.e. of supernatural, spiritual agents, is compatible with the scientific attitude and the scientific manner of belief-formation. My answer is: No!

    • Sastra
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      My answer is also “no” — but apparently the religious think that a belief in ghosts (whether it’s ghost ghosts, ghosts-in-the-machine, or Ghost-in-the-Universe) is compatible with science as long as the believer agrees that when they believe they do not do so in the role of scientist, but in the role of ordinary-folk-who-doesn’t-think-too- hard. That role has relaxed standards. It’s apparently like putting on slippers.

      • Myron
        Posted October 14, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

        This is what I call “intellectual schizophrenia”.

      • Posted October 15, 2011 at 7:36 am | Permalink

        Compatible in the same way that smoking is compatible with being a physician, but not with health.

        • Diane G.
          Posted October 16, 2011 at 2:24 am | Permalink

          Like!

  32. Myron
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    It is beyond me how a mentally normal scientist can seriously accept supernaturalistic pseudo-explanations à la “It happened because an imperceptible ghost with magical powers performed a miracle.”

  33. Posted October 14, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Came across this “Engineering Professor” meme image yesterday.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

      LOL!

      Reminds me of the immediate problem I had with just about every secondary teacher my kids had who claimed they were intent on teaching critical thinking. Yeah, right.

  34. Sastra
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Religion turns category error and special pleading into art forms — and faitheists let them get away with it. The belief in a pre-existing “Intelligence” which creates and/or moves matter and energy using some form of psychokenesis or intentional force is not the kind of belief which doesn’t intersect with science, as if one was admiring a sunset or doing a good deed or writing poetry. It’s a hypothesis and it’s based on evidence and reason same as any other explanation about the world we all live in.

    Hey, I wonder if Lightman would agree to bend over backwards about something like homeopathy being compatible with science as long as its proponents always hasten to reassure him that their belief in the truth and effectiveness of the Law of Infinitesimals is just like their feeling of joy when they listen to music.

    Sloppy, sloppy category errors.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

      Religion turns category error and special pleading into art forms — and faitheists let them get away with it.

      One for the ol’ quote file.

  35. Ken Pidcock
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Ten bucks says he has no direct experience with any religions, and hence no sense for the messed psychology involved in thinking that critical thinking is immoral.

    Most religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism, subscribe to an interventionist view of God. Following the discussion above, all of these religions, at least in their orthodox expressions, are incompatible with science.

    ‘Nough said.

  36. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Way to go JC, now they’re sure to add wine snobbery (oenophile elitism?) to their list of grievances against the Gnus.

    • tomh
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      Wine snobbery is a feature, not a bug.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted October 14, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

        because it’s not snobbery, it’s “a different way of knowledge”.
        ;)

  37. Myron
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    What the accommodationists more or less explicitly claim is that the beliefs in the existence of divine or nondivine spirits and the veridicality of so-called mystical or religious or spiritual experiences by virtue of which one can allegedly get into contact with a hyperphysical realm are scientifically respectable beliefs that should remain untouched by scientific criticism.

  38. Doug
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    See, I think this is where we need to more sharply define what our perceived incompatibility is. It is plain that the IDEA of a deistic God can be 100% compatible with our scientific knowledge and even our scientific practice (i.e. one can MAINTAIN such a belief and it would have zero effects on how they view or practice science). Once we are already at this “maintaining belief” stage there isn’t even any cognitive dissonance, and the belief is fully compatible with a natural worldview at all moments except the very earliest.

    The incompatibility comes in HOW we arrive at such a belief in the first place. In the case of deism, saying “God did it” is truly nothing more than saying “it was magic.” Deism is the ultimate non-explanation; the ultimate non-answer to a profoundly difficult question. There’s simply no rationale for reaching this belief, regardless of how compatible the idea is with modern scientific thought. This is the incompatibility: the formation of a belief without adequate evidence or justification.

    Scientists don’t invent new entities without evidence for them, or without their having some sort of explanatory power. That is why all religious beliefs are incompatible with science.

    • Myron
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      “It is plain that the IDEA of a deistic God can be 100% compatible with our scientific knowledge.”

      No, it is not at all plain that our scientific knowledge is 100% compatible with the belief that mental properties don’t depend for their existence and instantiation on physical things (bodies/organisms). (This belief is implied by deism/theism.)

      • Ichthyic
        Posted October 14, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

        “It is plain that the IDEA of a deistic God can be 100% compatible with our scientific knowledge.”

        The idea that there is a god that acts as if it doesn’t exist is surely compatible (and with just about anything, not just science), but is just as surely entirely vacuous.

        To think of it as some kind of insight into anything is utterly inane.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted October 14, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

          I meant to add that as an addition to myron’s critique, not in response to myron.

          damn nested commentary.

        • Doug
          Posted October 14, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

          Absolutely. I didn’t mean to imply anything to the contrary in my post. Just because something is compatible in theory doesn’t mean it is a good idea.

      • Doug
        Posted October 14, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

        I take it you like changing people’s arguments just so that you have something to disagree with?

    • Ichthyic
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      Deism is the ultimate non-explanation

      exactly.

      just to be clear, this is what I’m agreeing with.

      It’s easy to make something that explains and predicts absolutely nothing compatible with just about anything one wishes.

    • abb3w
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

      “Anyway, I have to argue about flying saucers on the beach with people, you know. And I was interested in this: they keep arguing that it is possible. And that’s true. It is possible. They do not appreciate that the problem is not to demonstrate whether it’s possible or not but whether it’s going on or not.” — Richard Feynman

  39. pjmad
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    This seems to be a problem with having a ‘salon’ at a technical university with an underdeveloped humanities program. Most of the philosophy and musicology professors I had would’ve laughed him out of the room for this gibberish.

    Humanistic questions are difficult and sometimes impossible to answer because they happen within a human system composed of extraordinarily complicated and chaotic human beings interacting with each other.

    The other problem is incomplete information. In history the people and events in question are often long gone and unavailable for study. Even in a contemporaneous situation, neuroscientists will be happy to explain that we’re not actually consciously aware of everything that goes on in our brains, even when it weighs on conscious actions. You may not quite know why that novel haunts you but the answer probably has more to do with the interaction of cultural tropes and your own personal quirks than it does with gnomes.

    Instead of trying to spread this confusion by deistically anthropomorphizing the entire universe or simply spouting these vapid ‘questions’ like they’re somehow profound, good humanists try to be all the more careful about backing up their assertions and checking their methodology. I’ll readily admit there isn’t exactly a surplus of good humanists.

    • Bernard Ortcutt
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      Lightman’s group was made up of “scientists, actors and playwrights”. Maybe they did a dramatic reading of the question or something like that.

    • Posted October 15, 2011 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      The way I see it (as someone with humanities degrees) is pretty much exactly this. Qua systems of knowledge (as opposed to emotional expression, etc. – performance whatever it involves) the humanities are simply about much more complicated areas of study than the natural sciences (with the social and mixed sciences, such as they are in the middle). But they preserve and nurture (at best) these areas of concern, and once in a while, one partially leaves the nest and takes flight as a new field – but sometimes has to return (as no field and no bird is autonomous). Chemistry is an exception: one of its parents was a purely practical matter (of sorts) in a way that is not found elsewhere. Robert Boyle’s genius was realizing the philosophers and the “chymists” should talk.

      This is not to say there will ever be no humanities; in fact, due to the technologies (including social technologies) created as a “result” of the science, what humans are and how they live changes (obviously) so the unknowns about ourselves change too. Hence the need for protofields, etc. – the humanities.

  40. Ichthyic
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    …there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations

    To see Lightman strawman not just religion, but SCIENCE as well is just… sad.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      I see Myron nailed it at 28:

      This is such a bloody strawman!

  41. DV
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Lightman = a believer in belief!

  42. pittigemaki
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    in my country a wellknown atheist who stands now with one leg in the grave write a few weeks ago in “Knack” a weekly : ” an atheist is a man who shoot holes in his own boat ” and ” now that i am old i wish God should exist”. I think these man was never an atheist or he fears death like everybody of us without really admit that he loose faith and was pity about it.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted October 15, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      Thanks Pittige Maki I looked him up & found this which I hope is translated properly: Knack.be woensdag 27 juli 2011: “Een atheïst boort constant gaatjes in zijn eigen boot”

      Hubert Dethier quote (via Google translate):

      …there’s a form of atheism that simply states that God is a kind of Santa Claus & that belief is in fact something for children, that religion belongs to the childhood of humanity. This is the atheism of Richard Dawkins [...] There is often much insight in religious texts, so much suffering – I had always had a lot of interest. It is not easy to be a radical free spirit. A free spirit, in fact, seems a bit like Captain Haddock in Tintin: constantly putting holes in his own boat. Does an atheist at times actually sabotage his own boat? [...] It’s not easy being atheist. It gives you a clear view. But you are obliged to look at things without illusions, without expectations, without anything to convince

      According to the same article Dethier is struggling with his own health.
      His ex-wife has been admitted to a nursing home & so he now has to get more involved in the care of his 52 year old severely mentally handicapped son. Luckily(?) Dethier has daughters, to care for him. His atheist friend Jaap Kruithof became desperate in the last few weeks of his life finding no consolation in being illusion-free.

      As you say this Dethier seems to have lived a lie all his life. Is his ‘job’ philosophy? I have a real downer on philosophers ~ few of them are ‘grounded’ & so when reality smacks them in the face they crumble. A touch of war reporting in his youth [à la C. Hitchens] would have served him well in his last self-centred days. Pathetic.

      What is a Maki ?

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 16, 2011 at 2:11 am | Permalink

        I have a real downer on philosophers…

        We have too much in common…

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted October 16, 2011 at 4:43 am | Permalink

          In Sam Harris’ The Mystery of Consciousness ~ I fouid this in footnote 1.

          It’s true that some philosophers and neuroscientists will want to pull the brakes right here. Daniel Dennett, with whom I agree about so many things, tells me that if I can’t imagine the falsehood of the above statement, I’m not trying hard enough. However, on a question as rudimentary as the ontology of consciousness, the debate often comes down to irreconcilable intuitions. At a certain point one has to admit that one cannot understand what one’s opponents are talking about.

          This is where Dennett & philosopher-in-training Harris bloody annoy me. Yet they are among the more comprehensible of the philosophers.

  43. Filippo
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    “But so has science, in the many weapons of destruction created by physicists, biologists and chemists, especially in the 20th century.”

    Whenever I see a comment in the ballpark of this, without exception the word “politician” is never mentioned.

    • Posted October 15, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink

      Or the word “technologist”, which is crucial.

      Physics tells us that one can release a large amount of energy and such with atoms in such and such a way. Engineering can then build a bomb, a fallout shelter, etc. etc. with that. Knowledge of a law (or approximately same) is always usable at least two ways: to prevent or to provoke. The technologist is thus the one ethically embedded – as are of course his managers, be them politicians or financiers or all of us.

  44. leebowman
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    “When they were within 20 feet of me, they suddenly veered upward and away. But before that dazzling and frightening vertical climb, for about half a second we made eye contact.”

    Eye contact? Reminds me of something that happened last week. I let my cat out, and it immediately ran towad a bird under a large shade tree. The bird, who was not able to fly, attempted to flee. I, who am pretty quick myself, ran ahead of the cat and got between them, then picked up my cat and took it back inside.

    Returning to the yard, I saw that the bird had some feathers missing, (they were scattered areound the tree), and may have been attacked previously. I considered helping the bird, but decided to let nature takes its course, so I returned to the house.

    It was late afternoon, and after several hours, around ten PM, I returned to the yard. If the bird was still there, I reasoned that I’d find it in the yard’s furthest corner. I went to that corner, turned on my LED flashlite, and voilà, there it was!

    It was facing the corner of the block fence, quivering somewhat, and when I was about five feet away, it turned its head toward me, and yes, we made ‘eye contact’. And then, like the plethora of biologists and zoologists who have (I suppose) “had an experience like this — an experience of either feeling kinship with nature or awe of nature” , I had a distinct and perceptible feeling of mental contact as well. What I perceived was of course fear, but also one of ‘what are you going to do to me’.

    I stood there for a bit, the eye contact persisted, and I felt that I could sense cognizance, and an awareness that the bird knew that perhaps its fate lay in my hands.

    I returned to the house, and next morning the bird was gone; nowhere in the yard. Guess I’ll never know its outcome …

  45. Ichthyic
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    I stood there for a bit, the eye contact persisted, and I felt that I could sense cognizance, and an awareness that the bird knew that perhaps its fate lay in my hands.

    empathy and projection.

    nothing more.

    • leebowman
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      Nothing more? I never said that it was a raven …

      Empathy, perhaps to a degree, but I already knew its situation, had chalked it up to mere happenstance, kind of an ‘oh well’, or what-will-be position.

      So no, I feel that my perception was more than that. I know, I know, in todays materialist climate, any intuitive sensation is thought to be purely internal, or cognition based on synaptic function. I’ll well aware of that form of sentience, since I use it all the time. Even now.

      But I feel that our communicative abilities go much further. Once eye contact is made, there can be a form of mental contact that transcends body language or verbiage. Not always, but at times. And I distinctly felt it that night.

      • Posted October 14, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

        All of which can be explained by empathy and projection. No mystical eye-based telepathy required.

      • tomh
        Posted October 14, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

        leebowman wrote:
        Once eye contact is made, there can be a form of mental contact that transcends body language or verbiage.

        So blind people are excluded from this sort of transcending mental contact? That doesn’t seem very fair.

        • leebowman
          Posted October 14, 2011 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

          Actually, a blind person may be even more into transcendental perceptions. Physical perceptions diminished, inner ones more emergent
          perhaps.

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted October 15, 2011 at 2:05 am | Permalink

            leebowman:

            …a blind person may be even more into transcendental perceptions. (Physical perceptions diminished,) inner ones more emergent
            perhaps

            I understand the bit I’ve put in brackets, but can you rephrase the bookends for comprehensibility please?

            • Michael Fisher
              Posted October 15, 2011 at 2:09 am | Permalink

              Forgottosubscribe

          • tomh
            Posted October 15, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

            Actually, a blind person may be even more into transcendental perceptions.

            Oh, those lucky blind folks. Imagination is a wonderful thing though yours seems a bit overactive.

          • Ichthyic
            Posted October 16, 2011 at 12:46 am | Permalink

            transcendental perceptions

            gack.

  46. tdraicer
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    I think the explanation for articles like that is simply that the author believes that in a battle between the religious and the rational, since there are more of the former, the rational will lose, and so our only choice is to pretend to accept religion in order to save science. And from that pov someone like Dawkins is suicidal. Not saying I agree, but I think that is likely the real motivation among atheist scientists who attack people like Dawkins.

  47. BradW
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Why do so many accomplished scientists insist on using phrases like, ” . . . science can never know . . .”?

    Wouldn’t they have to be around forever in order to know that science will never know?

    • Neil
      Posted October 14, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

      Science *may* never know, but at least with science we have a chance of knowing. With faith we have no chance of knowing. Just thinking that we know.

  48. Rick A
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    “All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe.”

    That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

  49. Dave Ricks
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    Through MIT alumni channels, I know Lightman has an interest in questions that have no answers. OK by me, except for this: Why does he support religion, when religion answers questions he says have no answers?

    Lightman wrote:

    I believe there are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof [my bold and italics]… We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong.” We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but, in the end, we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing. These are questions for the arts and the humanities. These are also questions aligned with some of the intangible concerns of traditional religion.

    OK by me (science isn’t everything), but we could write:

    Religion cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong.” Religion cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all.

    TL;DR: Lightman questions the scope of scientific methodology (OK by me), but then he hands the realm of morality to religion (why?) without questioning the validity of religious methodology (why not?). Why his double standards?

    In other words, Lightman reinvented Hume’s is/ought distinction, therefore he thinks religion is valid — wat? That needs some peer review — cleanup on Aisle 21 (Humanities).

    Note to Lightman about the “intangible concerns” of religion: Africans die of AIDS because the Pope answers questions you say have no answers. Fuck your “intangible concerns” and your double standards.

    Welcome to the restoration of normal transmission of questioning and criticism.

  50. john
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    “However, I certainly agree with Collins and Hutchinson and Gingerich that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations.”

    Please provide data to support this claim. What knowledge have you specifically gained without using science?


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