Two philosophers defend the indefensible, try unsuccessfully to pwn me and my readers

Sometimes people become so bound up in their own career paths that they’ll defend anyone who’s walking a similar path, even if they’re doing it rong. Two philosophers have just done this, guarding their turf without realizing that some dog has deposited a large poop on that turf.

Remember last week when I singled out a California graduate student who was doing a Templeton-funded postdoctoral fellowship ($81,000 a year for two years, with $5500/year for travel)?  The subject of study was ludicrous: it was an investigation of how an omniscient God could both know everything we’re going to do and yet still allow us free will to make new choices. That, of course, means that God couldn’t know anything in advance. And that’s a big problem!  Time reversal!  Process theology!

The student was, as you recall, going to investigate how to deal with this problem:

His postdoctoral research project, “Divine Foreknowledge, the Philosophy of Time, and the Metaphysics of Dependence: Some New Approaches to an Old Problem,” assesses a core Ockhamist thesis about foreknowledge. William of Ockham was a 13th century philosopher.

“The central contention of the Ockhamist concerns a point about the order of explanation. According to the Ockhamist, it is because of what we do that God long ago believed that we would do these things. That is, God’s past beliefs depend in an important sense on what we do, and thus, says the Ockhamist, we can sometimes have a choice about God’s past beliefs,” he explained. “The overarching goal of this project is to develop and assess this core Ockhamist thesis along two underexplored dimensions: the philosophy of time, and the metaphysics of dependence – both of which have seen an explosion of recent interest.”

Now I hate to pwn other freethinkers, but philosopher Daniel Fincke at the Freethought blog Camels with Hammers has decided to go after my dismissal of that Templeton-funded Travesty.  His post is called “Jerry Coyne’s scientistic dismissiveness of philosophy,” and he defends that student’s proposal as being philosophically useful. Verbose Stoic does the same in a similar post called “Coyne (and his commenters) don’t know philosophy.

One of my several objections to that stupid project was that we shouldn’t worry about how God would handle free will if there isn’t a God in the first place.  Fincke takes issue with that:

In short, it does not matter whether there actually is a God. There is still philosophical illumination from exploring the implications of a hypothetical omniscient knower for our understanding of things like the connections between belief, causation, and time.

Verbose Stoic agrees:

So, that’s the translation of what Coyne calls “gobbledygook”. Now, does it depend on, as he puts it, “three completely unsupported premises”? Not if one understands philosophy, it doesn’t, because the question and the theory is philosophically interesting even if God does not exist. There’s a reason I talked about concepts above. If we have the concept of an omniscient being, we have the concept of something that clearly knows (okay, okay, that’s debatable, but grant it for now) everything that we will do before we do it. If it is conceptually consistent with our notions of time and dependence that any knowledge of that sort would involve the determination of a belief in the past by an action in the future, that would have very interesting consequences for the concepts of time and dependence, even if no such entity existed.

Well, these folks may be philosophers (I’m not sure about V.S), but they’re dead wrong here.  The theory is NOT philosophically interesting in the absence of an omniscient being.  If there isn’t one, as I presume both of these folks agree, then the project becomes an exercise in mental masturbation, musing about what something nonexistent would do if it existed. Why is that any more valid than wondering how an omnimalevolent God could allow good in the world, or why an omnibenevolent God allows evil?  Or, for that matter, how fairies would keep their wings dry in the rain, or how Santa manages to deliver all those presents to billions of kids in only one evening. And what if you assume that God isn’t omniscient? Then the whole project is moot.

That exercise is not philosophy, it’s theology. And it’s a waste of money, for it accomplishes nothing.

Both Fincke and Verbose Stoic claims that I’m opposed to philosophy in general, and V.S. accuses me of—horrors!—scientism. Fincke Verbose Stoic:

The first [reply to Coyne] is that he has no idea if these concepts will have applications in “the real world” anymore than he can say what portions of abstract mathematics will. The second is that while he may not care about concepts, philosophy does, and unless he wants to take away all funding to philosophy and give it to science — which, I’m afraid, would definitely be scientism — it seems odd to protest funding given for post-doc work that’s relevant to philosophy just because he doesn’t personally care about the results … or, rather, because it uses a concept that he doesn’t like.

Verbose Stoic Fincke:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: atheists need to take philosophy seriously.

My response:

1. I do take philosophy seriously, but only serious philosophy.  The kind of mushbrained lucubrations embodied in the Templeton proposal may be meant seriously, but they’re not to be taken seriously.  They involve spinning out the consequences of a nonexistent omniscient being. What’s the point?

The kind of philosophy I do take seriously is ethical philosophy—or any kind of philosophy that gives us logical tools to think about our beliefs, getting us to examine them closely and pointing out their fallacies.  In fact, one of my favorite colleges courses was a philosophy course in ethics, taught by a student of John Rawls.  And I’ve read and appreciated a fair amount of philosophy.  But I’ve studied philosophy, I know some philosophy, philosophy is a friend of mine, and, Dr. Fincke, that proposal is not philosophy.  It’s addled theology.

2.  I do indeed advocate scientism, if by scientism you mean “we accept no truths about the world that aren’t derived by logic, reason, and empirical observation.” That’s construing science broadly, but I think it encompasses what is meant by the term “scientism”. I’m proud to take that stand, though philosophers like Fincke and V.S. use it in a pejorative way. Philosophy alone cannot tell us what is true about the world.  It gives us tools to help us find what is true about the world. But that Templeton-funded Travesty tells us nothing about the world. It’s a waste of money that could be used to do something constructive, like funding scientific research.

I don’t need to go on because, if you look at the comments on Fincke’s post (there’s none on Verbose Stoic’s), nearly all of them take him to task for defending that postdoctoral proposal.  I find it very odd that a skeptic would defend a proposal to study what a nonexistent God would do if he existed. That defense can only be seen as a wider defense of the value of philosophy, and I don’t disagree that some philosophy has value.

Oh, and I’m not the only one taking flak from Verbose Stoic: so are many of you who commented.  So, stooshie, Mattapult, Parick, 386sx, jer, sally, Dominic, Tulse, and Andrew B., go over to Verbose Stoic’s post and see which of your comments have make the Stoic want to ” tear out his hair in frustration”. (I’m guessing that V.S. is male because he says he implies that he doesn’t have much hair left, but since he’s pulling the cowardly trick of attacking people under a pseudonym, I can’t be sure.)

403 Comments

  1. Posted October 29, 2011 at 5:11 am | Permalink

    “There is no reason to think that dualism is incompatible with evolution. Physical faculties might have to evolve to use the mental, and mental faculties may be able to evolve themselves depending on how that all works.” – Verbose Stoic

    I think it’s safe to say that Verbose Stoic is a really bad poster child for the value of philosophy.

    • Posted October 29, 2011 at 5:21 am | Permalink

      “Especially since, as you know, my opinion is that my argument is proven sufficiently?

      Here’s the summary: My argument — and Platinga’s — is that utility and reliability are not sufficiently linked to trust that evolution produced reliable mechanisms because we know that useful beliefs can be false and true beliefs in certain circumstances may be detrimental or at least not useful.” – Verbose Stoic

      Again, another poster child moment for the value of philosophy: this time Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism. No need to look at data, no need to run simulations, no need to make predictions for experiment, just armchair philosophy!

      • Posted October 29, 2011 at 6:38 am | Permalink

        I think VS is maybe technically correct that evolution doesn’t rule out dualism, but it does the same thing to dualism that it does to a Creator God: Make it completely unnecessary and twisting in the wind without a shred of evidence going for it.

        You’ve hit the nail on the head with the last couple of sentences though. Arguments based on reason and logic alone don’t have a great track record. Which is not to denigrate pure reason, obviously! That’s often where good ideas start. But it’s too easy for there to be hidden assumptions baked into such arguments, which are later uncovered by further evidence. We (and that includes us skeptics, too) should be careful about the confidence level we assign to conclusions based in logic but not in evidence.

        (Which, by the way, is one reason I won’t quite go as far as PZ and say that there is no evidence that could convince me of a triple-omni god. I can’t imagine any evidence that would convince me of such, because there seems to be just way too many logical impossibilities involved… but that logic could be resting on false assumptions. I can’t say what would convince me of such a deity, but I won’t say that nothing could — just as scientists in the late 19th century probably could not have said what would convince them there was no aether.)

        • BradW
          Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink

          Well said.

          Almost every time a scientist, particularly, makes an unqualified statement of certainty, I shudder.

          No matter how fruitless a particular thought process might seem, it is probably a good idea to keep in mind that we might be shown later to be wrong; the probabilities in any given instance might be infinitely small, but that doesn’t mean that the possibility doesn’t exist.

          I think it is pretty well established that almost any exercising of the brain is most often beneficial to the brain and therefore to the biological entity carrying the brain.

        • Tom
          Posted October 29, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink

          I think PZs problem with evidence for god is that the concept is so badly formed that it is “not even wrong”, so evidence for it doesn’t apply.

          • Bruce Springsteen
            Posted October 29, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

            Agree with Tom. Every attempt to define what is meant by “God” that I have seen immediately fails at the moment of “definition,” before we can propose any examination of evidence. All the candidate definitions are quickly shown to be incomprehensible, inconsistent, and/or inconsequential. I can reasonbly say that I will never be convinced of the existence of a married bachelor who muggwams for the grobleys and is indistingushable from a toaster. PZ can do the same for the tri-omni bafflegab God who reliably evades all description and reason, let alone empirical examination.

          • MadScientist
            Posted October 29, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

            I think it is the shifting goalposts problem. There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the god of christianity is non-existent. All-powerful and loving? Bullshit. And from there the conversation moves on to “can there be any sort of god at all?” which is utterly meaningless because the religious don’t care about any god at all but the specific non-existent god they worship.

            • Kharamatha
              Posted October 30, 2011 at 6:28 am | Permalink

              This is an important point that’s often glossed over.

              There can be evidence for and against “some guy stole my apple pie.”

              That issue is separate to “the guy who stole my apple pie was mysteriously mysterious in some way I will never elaborate.”

            • Posted October 30, 2011 at 6:54 am | Permalink

              I think pointing out that clearly there is strong evidence against an all-powerful and loving god somewhat misses the point. If I asked you what kind of evidence we’d expect to see if the Milky Way were an elliptical galaxy, surely you would not reply “No evidence ever could show that!” and point to astronomical observations showing that we are living in a spiral galaxy?

              Yes, we are clearly living in a universe with no god — at least not one resembling the Abrahamic God, yeesh, what an absurd proposition! The evidence is very strong on this, just as the evidence is very strong that we are living in a spiral galaxy. The question is if we could say what evidence there’d be in a different hypothetical universe.

              (To be clear, I can’t say either… am closer to PZ on that issue, though as stated in my other comments, I stop short of his strongest assertion. But saying that the evidence is against is answering a different question.)

          • Posted October 29, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

            Agreed, Tom. Another problem is that there’s never going to be evidence that could demonstrate an infinite being with those omni-properties to finite beings such as ourselves. We could see that there’s something, but what criteria would we use to establish any of those properties? Omnipotence would simply be: “that which seems miraculous to us”, omniscience would be: “that which seems impossible knowledge”. And so on.

            The point being that even if we could establish something, we could never establish omni-God. Michael Shermer summed it up well when he formulated: “any sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God”. There could be plenty of evidence for something god-like, but not for God.

            • Kharamatha
              Posted October 30, 2011 at 6:39 am | Permalink

              I have always interpreted the stories such that the God character is a space alien. Basically Anti-Galactus. :\

          • Kharamatha
            Posted October 30, 2011 at 6:33 am | Permalink

            Much like lalilulelo.

            Can there be evidence that lalilulelo?

            Is there some potential experience that could make you believe, even provisionally, lalilulelo?

            Would you ever accept lalilulelo as the best possible explanation, a good explanation, or an explanation at all?

          • Posted October 30, 2011 at 6:40 am | Permalink

            I think PZs problem with evidence for god is that the concept is so badly formed that it is “not even wrong”, so evidence for it doesn’t apply.

            I understand that objection and agree, but I still stop short of asserting that there could not possibly be evidence that would change my mind about that.

            Let me give an example: I had gotten the mistaken impression from a 7th grade film strip that all Einstein was trying to say with “E=mc2″ was that matter contained a whole heaping lot of energy, i.e. I had been led to believe he chose the speed of light squared because it was a big number, rather than because of some literal mathematical relationship between the two. I was like, “Well that’s not so impressive! That doesn’t even make a lot of sense…” Later, of course, I understood that it was in fact a precise mathematical relationship and that there was a lot of profundity in that very simple equation.

            I can’t rule out the remote possibility that the reason all definitions of god I have encountered are “not even wrong” is because of some misunderstanding on my part, that if another piece of the puzzle were filled in, I’d say, “Oh, I get it!” I don’t consider that possibility to be any more likely than that this table I am sitting it will suddenly transmute into a pig and run away down the hallway…. but I still prefer “I cannot imagine evidence that would convince me” to “no evidence would convince me.”

            My position falls somewhat in between PZ’s and Jerry’s, as I’m sure is clear. I find the examples of possible evidence that Jerry provides to be unimpressive: In most cases, “Somebody is impersonating our mythologies” or “Oh shit I’ve gone mad” would remain my preferred explanation. But I won’t go as far as PZ, because there’s always the possibility that I have mistaken assumptions based on a lack of data.

            I will say: I think every definition of god I have heard is impossible; I think this table turning into a pig is impossible. I cannot imagine what evidence would convince me that a god existed; I cannot imagine what evidence would convince me this table is really a pig (if I witnessed it transform into a pig and go squealing off, I’d guess that I was hallucinating or something). But I won’t go as far as to say no evidence could ever convince me this table is not a pig. It’s so implausible as to be effectively impossible, though.

          • Posted November 1, 2011 at 2:07 am | Permalink

            The more I think about the concept of a disembodied mind, the more I find it untenable. We are as we are and we perceive the universe – including our own sense of ourselves – because, and only because we inhabit the meatware that we do. The God that the latest Templeton grant is being paid to study can only predict our behaviour (always truly, if he can retrofit his predictions to fit what we freely choose to do) if he can perceive it, and so we have to imagine a disembodied mind with disembodied senses, sight without eyes, hearing without ears, etc. Such a being, as Dawkins points out, must be (infinitely?) more complex than anything S/He/It perceives and has hopes for and expectations of.

            The concept of God arose out of an enhanced man (via rather less-enhanced men and women with wished-for superpowers – local gods and goddesses), but without any understanding of how culture-bound our concept of self is. We can only imagine God having hopes for us, being disappointed in us, wanting to “save”/”redeem” us etc., based on a Great Big Father. It is time we grew out of the concept.

            • Posted November 1, 2011 at 2:25 am | Permalink

              …and we perceive the universe – including our own sense of ourselves – as we do, because, and only because…

              …any understanding of how culture-bound - and material-bound - our concept of self is…

        • Posted October 29, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

          “I think VS is maybe technically correct that evolution doesn’t rule out dualism, but it does the same thing to dualism that it does to a Creator God: Make it completely unnecessary and twisting in the wind without a shred of evidence going for it.”
          Agreed. It’s technically correct, but speaks for the poverty of the belief. Dualism was seemingly compatible with everything, even though Verbose Stoic could not and would not explain what the mental was.

          “Arguments based on reason and logic alone don’t have a great track record.”
          Indeed, especially when the domain in question is where empirical study has had so much success. That Plantinga (and Verbose Stoic) can sit in an armchair and claim they’ve got in their possession a fatal problem for evolution (Verbose Stoic thinking it’s proven sufficiently) when neither of them has even bothered to put forward experiment proposals to demonstrate it… that’s not the value of philosophy!

        • truthspeaker
          Posted October 29, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think evolution rules it out, I think biology in general rules it out.

    • Badger3k
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      So much for Freethought Blogs being a bastion of skepticism like some think it is. Dualism? Seriously? I guess there’s another blog that can be safely ignored.

      • Zagabu
        Posted October 29, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

        VS isn’t on Freethought Blogs and as far as I know Daniel Fincke at Camels With Hammers hasn’t ever advocated dualism.

        • Posted October 30, 2011 at 6:29 am | Permalink

          That is correct. Verbose Stoic is most certainly NOT an FTB blogger and never would be. I’m feeling a little guilty making such a punching bag of him here, but his beliefs would not be compatible with the tone of FTB, and IMO the quality of his reasoning is not up to snuff either.

          Daniel Fincke OTOH is a perfect fit for FTB. He brings the viewpoint of a professional philosopher to the table, while being very much a “New Atheist” in values, beliefs, and tone. He’s the guy on our side who will engage seriously with these ludicrous “sophisticated” philosophical arguments. And he’s not a dualist. :)

  2. Gib
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 5:16 am | Permalink

    Personally, I think everything is philosophically interesting, to some degree, whether the premises are true, or even if they’re false.

    I’m happy to have a philosophical discussion on the right of the watchers to bestow special powers on a girl (called the Slayer) in each generation. Or the internal politics of the Q Continuum.

    I think it’s interesting to posit some alteration in the axioms of mathematics, and to see what the implications would be.

    I don’t think that something has to be real for it to be interesting. There’s nothing wrong with masturbation, mental or otherwise.

    I do think though that it should be real to get funding…..

    • Frank
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:33 am | Permalink

      Shouldn’t it also be NOVEL to get funding (as well as real)? Are these lame philospohers allowed to reinvent the wheel, perhaps because we must keep proving that wheels exist? One of the best (but ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to reconcile omniscience with free will was given by Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy around 524 AD! I see no indication that this jargon-filled postdoctoral project has even a chance of adding something significant – a complete waste of money and an insult to better thinkers that tackled the question at a time when a belief in a deity was more understandable.

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

      So since one of my favorite games is Dragon Age, can I apply for a grant to study the following very interesting questions? Questions such as: how to construct a peaceful society with mages and templars? Is it moral to remove the freedom of mages because they have been born with the ability to do magic and thus be possessed by demons and unleash a massacre? Is it moral to leave them to their own despite what they can unleash? Do Fereldians deal with the problem of mages in a humane way? What about Orlesians? Or Tevinter Imperium? What about the grey wardens? Don’t they have too much power? Isn’t their ritual of joining immoral or is it just a necessary evil? What should be done with the self-conscious darkspawn? Was the architect truly immoral? How about Anders? How about Morrigan? How does fade interact with the physical world? How does magic work? Clearly magic has rules and it could even be investigated scientifically so what is the mechanism behind magic? How does mental possession work?

      I could go on forever. I’m sure for almost everyone here, it feels like a serious gobbledygook but a lot of fanatics of the game do actually discuss these issues extensively. And observe that this is all about the events in a video game, a game that might not even be internally consistent. So what makes these discussions useful?

      And that’s how religion looks to me. It’s a big “video game” made up by some and probably not very internally consistent either. The fact that it is more popular than Dragon Age does not make the discussion of its non-existence entities more useful.

      • Gib
        Posted October 29, 2011 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        My point was just with regards to whether or not such things are “interesting”. I disagreed with Jerry on that.

        I agree it’s probably not useful, although you never really know what’s going to end up being useful.

        I certainly agree it shouldn’t get funding. But Templeton can decide who to pay for a handjob if they like…

        • Lotharloo
          Posted October 29, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink

          Hahaha, I agree with that statement.

        • Tim
          Posted October 29, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

          Exactly…and we can decide whether we think that a guy who chooses to do a postdoc giving handjobs is someone we can take seriously. Who knows, maybe he’s punking them. He’ll have a good time vacationing for a couple of years and then he’ll have fun making shit up that purports to address questions about whether god now knew he was going to do that, but didn’t knew that before – errr… after

          Wow, the Templeton foundation funds some deep shit doesn’t it? Pass me that joint, will ya?

          • Gib
            Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

            Yeah, there’s got to be a few people who would love to take Templeton’s money and then extend the middle finger. Someone who wasn’t planning on ever trying to get funded by anyone again of course….

    • abb3w
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      Alterations in mathematical axioms mostly just result in differences akin to switching from English to French. Mathematicians have played pretty thoroughly with trying options over the last century.

      I think there’s still some room to supplant ZF with a more fundamental starting point, but on the one hand I expect it will make no more difference to practical mathematics than the development of set theory as a way to prove 1+1=2 made to practical mathematics, and on the other I’m probably just a kook.

    • Posted October 29, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      “I think it’s interesting to posit some alteration in the axioms of mathematics, and to see what the implications would be.”

      Isn’t that what non-Euclidean geometry does? Postulate a breach of the parallel postulate, generating an elliptical or hyperbolic geometry?

      (If Wikipedia is to be believed, this idea was explored by both Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky and Omar Khayyám ! And yes, I know FitzGerald’s “translation” is a mashup.)

      But it seems that the thing we’re talking about should be disposed of in a few paragraphs near the beginning of a phil 101 textbook.

      “Omniscience through time is incompatible with free will, because prior knowledge by the omniscient implies lack of choice for the actor. If, as some have suggested, the future can change the past, so that an omniscient being (a “god”) can always have known what a truly free agent would do in the future, then it can no longer be called ‘the past’.”

  3. NewEnglandBob
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    I commented over at Camels with Hammers but Verbose Stoic was too bizarre to bother about.

  4. Posted October 29, 2011 at 5:25 am | Permalink

    I love the way you spell “rong”; it is so right.

    • Claimthehighground
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 6:34 am | Permalink

      Rite!

  5. Posted October 29, 2011 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    “Why is that any more valid than wondering how an omnimalevolent God could allow good in the world, or why an omnibenevolent God allows evil?”

    Absolutely. Stephen Law has written some stuff on this with the purpose of showing the theist’s arguements are not supported http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/search/label/The%20God%20of%20Eth

  6. Steven Carr
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    We can change Allah’s past beliefs?

    I thought this god was supposed to be timeless.

    Oh, this theology is too hard for me.

    It looks to me like they just make it up as they go along.

    • Claimthehighground
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 6:44 am | Permalink

      Since we are neither Imam nor Ayatollah, we are apparently not qualified to comment on such weighty matters.

      • MadScientist
        Posted October 29, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

        Nor can you make such statements unless you’re a sophistimacated philosopher.

    • Badger3k
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:42 am | Permalink

      Well, since they have that “get out of jail free” clause in the Koran (the one that states that Allah can change his mind and render previous verses/suras/whatever-it-states null and void….perhaps we really can.

    • dunstar
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      lol. We should just give philosophical and theological subjects about God to kids to think about. I’d bet the basic framework of the argument will come out the same way! lol. And it’ll be a heckuva lot more interesting what children will come up with versus what “sophisticated” theologians philosophize about.

  7. sailor1031
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 5:46 am | Permalink

    First off this isn’t philosophy it’s theology. It’s about what some deity would or would not think or believe. Then it’s about thinking you can go backwards and change that deity’s thinking by your current acts. If this were true it would blow causality out of the universe……with devastating consequences. As for the deity, in order to go back to the past and change its mind it would have to exceed the speed of light and then we could ID it by the trail of tachyon pulses it left. We haven’t seen the tachyon trail therefore no deity. Therefore William of Ockham was either a medievel wingnut or just trying here to pull someone’s pud…..either way it ain’t philosophy!
    And even if it were what possible value does it have except maybe to another theologian?

  8. Posted October 29, 2011 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    Omniscience? Really? Philosophy is still beating that dead horse, even after Turing’s Halting Problem and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem? And that’s ignoring the whole matter of how this idiotic postdoc’s formulation of time travel blatantly violates the laws of conservation.

    Damn. Teh stoopid! It hurts! Make it go away! Make it stop!

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Steven Carr
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 6:02 am | Permalink

      It seems this alleged god is omnscient, but apparently it might believe today that somebody will try to run on 4th and 30 in Sunday’s game, and that person will actually punt the ball instead.

      Until this god’s knowledge is changed to reflect what does happen, it believes things which will turn out to be false.

      While still always being omniscient, of course.

      And all this gets funding….

      Hey, Mr. Templeton, if you haven’t noticed, there is still no cure for cancer. How about a few bucks for that?

      • BradW
        Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

        But doesn’t their dog take care of that? Aw shucks!

    • aspidoscelis
      Posted October 30, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      Turing and Gödel don’t address whether omniscience can exist. Both show that in certain contexts it is theoretically impossible to derive complete knowledge from incomplete knowledge. At most, this indicates that a non-omniscient being cannot become omniscient by means of computation and mathematical logic. Whether an omniscient being could exist is beyond their scope.

      • Posted October 31, 2011 at 6:02 am | Permalink

        Sorry, but that’s nonsense.

        In the most simplistic of terms, they demonstrated that “the set of all knowledge” and “the set of all power” is as meaningless a concept as “the set of all sets.”

        “Tell me, God, ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ will you answer, ‘No’?”

        All but God can prove this sentence true.

        Diagonalization is a most powerful tool, the one most suited to analyzing the infinite. And it’s an excellent first assumption to make that the infinite is generally quite limited in reality. In contrast, the whole point of omni-gods is that they are limitless.

        Of what use is a Jesus who can’t square the circle or a Quetzalcoatl who doesn’t know how naughty you’ve been?

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Al West
          Posted October 31, 2011 at 6:14 am | Permalink

          It’s interesting that Goedel was a Christian. While I agree with what you say, it seems that Goedel did not, and seemingly had little problem reconciling his positions, at least to himself. Strange indeed.

          • Posted October 31, 2011 at 6:28 am | Permalink

            I chalk it up to cognitive dissonance of one flavor or another.

            If you want a bit of fun, look up Gödel’s unpublished formalization of the Ontological Argument. It’s easy to spot where it goes off the rails.

            Gödel considered it a work in progress, which is why he never published it. What puzzles me is that is seems so obvious that any solution he would have been able to apply to his ontological proof would have been equally applicable to invalidate his Incompleteness proof. They’re two sides of the same coin.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Posted October 31, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

              We bash philosophy. It’s dum. It’s just ideology and wishful thinking wrapped in a natural language wrapper.

              If you don’t buy into the foundational, and largely silly, notions of school — the output is nonsensical.

              If any natural language utterance can have evidence applied and predict anything is not philosophy.

              When self-talk was all we had to make sense of experience, it was fine and mainly harmless and uninfluential.

              Now engaging in philosophy like speaking Latin. It’s ability to say anything predictive or interesting has been wiped away by brain science, mainly.

          • Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

            Gödel was a Christian? Theist, yes …

        • aspidoscelis
          Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink

          On what grounds, exactly, do you assume that the knowledge of a hypothetical omnniscient being must fulfill the various requirements necessary for diagonalization to work?

          We’d have to assume that the knowledge of an omniscient being consists of an infinite set of infinitely long numeral strings, that the components of those strings can basically be swapped around to form new strings that should also be included in the set of all knowledge, yadda yadda yadda.

          If we apply the (unjustifiable except on grounds that its hard to talk about otherwise) simplifying assumption that said omniscient being’s knowledge exists in the form of sentences using English words and Arabic numerals, here’s a thought experiment:

          Create a set of all true statements you know about cats. Now diagonalize it. What happens?

          • Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

            Oh, come on.

            Really?

            The decimal expansion of π is an infinitely long numerical string. Same with e. There’re an uncountably infinite number of other irrational numbers, all of which have infinitely long representations as numerical strings.

            Not to mention, of course, that all rational numbers have infinitely long representations as numerical strings as well.

            In order to know everything — the very definition of omniscience, after all — the being in question would need to have complete knowledge of all such infinitely long numerical strings. And we already know that these strings can be swapped around to form new ones.

            Unless your definition of “omniscient” includes “knows fuck-all about introductory set theory,” I fail to see how you could claim that diagonalization is an inappropriate tool for analyzing claims of omniscience — even using only the criteria you just laid out.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Al West
              Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

              This thing that you’re doing right here – using rational, non-empirical argument to make a metaphysical point – is called “philosophy”.

              Does set theory rule out god? Not directly; it’s not an experiment that permits you to look at the universe and say, “huh, this proves that there’s no god”. It is just ratiocination and nothing more. Even if it were based on experiment – and it isn’t – it would still be an extension of that into a non-empirical arena. It would still be philosophy.

              But oh yeah, I forgot. You can’t be a philosopher. Philosophers have beards, smoke pipes, and never venture into the outside world…

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

                If you think that’s philosophy, then algebra homework is philosophy.

                Which would be yet another data point pointing to the worthlessness of the concept.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Al West
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

                Algebra homework and set theory can both provide proofs. Fantastic. When algebra is used to understand the real world by plugging in variables, it is part of the scientific process – a process of using empirical observation combined with the best methods of reason to find out about reality. But when you use set theory to try to prove that omniscience doesn’t exist, that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. We’re talking about metaphysical beliefs, not verifiable ones; we can verify whether algebra homework works through using it in the world. We cannot test your idea about set theory disproving omniscience; we can only suppose it. I suppose that it is right, but it can’t be checked empirically.

                And even if “philosophy” is a meaningless concept, what you are doing is what you explicitly claimed you didn’t want to associate with: armchair theorising instead of engaging with the world. So either way, you’re in a state of some confusion, it seems. Contradiction, even.

                Why are you bending over backwards into this silly pretzel to avoid accepting that you indulge in philosophy? It’s not something horrid. Literally everybody does it at some point, and you seem to do it a lot.

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

                I fail to see how using simple set theory to demonstrate that the concept of “the set of all knowledge” is exactly as incoherent a concept as “the set of all sets” or “the (countable) number of real numbers)” rises to the level of metaphysics — unless, of course, Euclid was making a metaphysical claim when he proved that there is no such thing as “the largest prime number,” either.

                And it’s still an eminently empirical claim as well. Along with wizards and leprechauns, many have claimed that there are all sorts of omniscient critters running about, yet none has ever managed to produce positive evidence supporting the existence of any of them. Just like the Aether and the angry flock of velociraptors rampaging through the room as I type, we’ve looked and found no evidence where evidence must need be.

                Why are you so eager to claim for philosophy the fruits of empiricism — in a manner strikingly similar to that of the Church?

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Al West
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

                I’m not “claiming for philosophy” anything. There is no abstract entity called Philosophy that subsumes under it all manner of things in some nefarious way. I’m simply saying that you are interested in topics that are discussed by philosophers, that are clearly within the remit of both traditional and modern philosophy, and that you employ some lines of reasoning that could be improved by a better understanding of philosophy.

                When you start asserting that something outside the bounds of observation can be studied by logic and arrive at a conclusion as certain as if it had been observed, you are making a ridiculous leap. Logic is far more fallible than observation, frankly. Yes, logic may be tested and obviously, logic can be reasonably useful in understanding our world, when combined with observation. But you are trying to prove that there is no such thing as a deity through sheer, a priori judgment on the basis of no observation, and then trying to claim that what you are doing is simple, empirical, and science, rather than philosophy.

                Perhaps you would like to claim the parts of philosophy you like for science, instead, since it seems you hate the word and idea of philosophy more than its substance.

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

                When you start asserting that something outside the bounds of observation

                Squeeze me? Last I checked, it was the godbots who insisted, without supporting evidence nor reason, that their gods, though omnipresent, are unobservable. It’s certainly not us rationalists who think that something that’s everywhere is nowhere to be found.

                can be studied by logic and arrive at a conclusion as certain as if it had been observed, you are making a ridiculous leap. Logic is far more fallible than observation, frankly

                In case it’s not clear, I’m not making any existence claims. Rather, it’s my point that the words being tossed about are meaningless.

                Look. If you came to me to tell me about your new friend, a married bachelor, I’d ask you what you’re smoking. You may well have a friend. He may well be married. He might be a bachelor. But, whatever he is (or isn’t), he’s not a married bachelor. How are we to even discuss your friend if I have no clue what the hell you’re trying to say?

                Now you start telling me about how your friend has found the largest prime number. Never mind that we haven’t even established who or what your friend is supposed to be (let alone gotten to the point that we can begin to determin if he exists outside your fevered imagination), now I know that you’re smoking something, because “the largest prime number” is just so much meaningless gibberish.

                Can you begin to understand my exasperation when you now start to insist that I have to seriously consider your friend’s taste in wine, because musicololology is such an ancient and respected profession? Especially when you try to claim that all academis are really musicololologists, even if they won’t admit as much?

                No joke, that’s the level of surrealism going on here.

                Cheers,

                b&

            • aspidoscelis
              Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

              Oh, come on.

              Really?

              Funny, that’s my response as well. :-)

              The decimal expansion of π is an infinitely long numerical string. Same with e. There’re an uncountably infinite number of other irrational numbers, all of which have infinitely long representations as numerical strings.

              So, if I know a fact X, but I cannot express it in language Y… does that mean I don’t know it? Presumably it would be sufficient for me to know the thing that I can express it in some language, not necessarily in language Y.

              I’m not sure that omniscience requires… “omnicommunication” or whatever we might call it.

              So, please demonstrate that there is no possible mathematical system in which pi or e (etc.) can be expressed finitely…

              OK, I don’t really want to dive into the various sinkholes that present themselves at this point. Suffice it to say–there’s a whole slew of complicated assumptions involved here involving the relationship between knowledge, language, and communication and I am not convinced by the simplistic account in which diagonalization must apply to the knowledge of an omniscient being.

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

                Why is it that religious apologists do their damnedest to limit the unlimited?

                I mean, really? An all-knowing entity that doesn’t know how to count in French? Are you kidding me?

                An entity that knows everything would know the proper way in any language to express its knowledge. In this particular example, it would know the shape of the glyph for the nth digit of the decimal expansion of any transcendental number.

                And there are an infinite number of mathematical systems in which π can be expressed finitely. Duh. π in base π is 1. Extrapolation is left as an exercise for the reader. That does not, of course, address the matter of the alleged omniscient entity’s knowledge of the nth digit of π in base 10.

                Why are you so eager to make excuses for how stupid and weak your genius muscleman imaginary friend is?

                b&

              • aspidoscelis
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

                Uh, hate to break this to you, but I’m an atheist. :-) I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I’ve stated repeatedly in this thread that god doesn’t exist, that I consider the role of god in philosophy to be strictly as a potentially interesting hypothetical construct, yadda yadda.

                As for an omniscient entity that “doesn’t know how to count in French”, if certain things cannot be done in a certain form of expression (i.e., the limits to known mathematical systems that Gödel demonstrated), why would we fault a hypothetical omniscient being for not being able to do it? The limitation here is apparently not in the knowledge of the hypothetical omniscient being, but in the capacity for expression of a particular mathematical system. As I mentioned, there is a rather complicated quagmire if we try to sort out precisely the relationship between knowledge and the ability to express that knowledge; but I think it is fairly safe to at least say that “not expressible in language X” is not equivalent to “not knowable”.

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

                [I]f certain things cannot be done in a certain form of expression (i.e., the limits to known mathematical systems that Gödel demonstrated), why would we fault a hypothetical omniscient being for not being able to do it?

                Isn’t it obvious? Because that’s the whole point of omniscience.

                Omniscience, by definition, like any other miraculous power, is a magical get-out-of-jail free card.

                The whole point of miracles is to do the impossible.

                Walking on mud isn’t that amazing — most people can manage it. But walking on water? Impossible! Which is why Jesus was able to do it.

                It’s the same thing with omniscience. Of course it’s impossible to know everything. If it were possible to know everything, then it wouldn’t be all that remarkable for Jesus to know everything, now, would it?

                There is a rather complicated quagmire if we try to sort out precisely the relationship between knowledge and the ability to express that knowledge

                No, there isn’t. All that Jesus has to do is use his magical omniscience decoder ring to learn exactly the right words to use to express what he’s thinking. Either the ring will reveal the right words, or it’s broken and it won’t. But we know the ring can’t reveal the right words because the words don’t exist. And, since the ring can’t reveal the right words, the answer isn’t some sort of sorry apologetic about how it’s not Jesus’s fault that he doesn’t know everything 00 the answer is simply that the ring is a scam, that it’s a perpetual motion machine, a married bachelor.

                You want another example of how silly omniscience is? An omniscient entity would know exactly what it would need to do to forget something. But if it forgot something, it wouldn’t know everything any more. But if it doesn’t know how to forget something, then that’s something it doesn’t know, meaning again that it doesn’t know everything.

                See? No matter where you turn, omniscience (just like all the other omni-properties) instantly leads to logical absurdities. That’s not a sign that you need to try harder to square the circle — it’s a sign that you’re barking up the worng tree.

                Your problem is that you’re engaging in magical special pleading. The omni-properties, by design and by their inescapable fundamental nature, are noting if not all about having your Kate and Edith, too. It’s the silly nonsense of Jesus making a rock too heavy for even himself to lift, and then going on to lift it anyway. It’s meaningless bullshit, incoherent babble.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • aspidoscelis
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

                Omniscience, by definition, like any other miraculous power, is a magical get-out-of-jail free card.

                Your problem is that you’re engaging in magical special pleading.

                Just thought I’d place those two sentences next to each other to enhance the irony. :-)

                I’m not sure what exactly my error is supposed to be at this point. That I’m “engaging in magical special pleading”, or that I’m not engaging in the magical special pleading that you insist must be part of any concept of “omniscience”. Whatever, I don’t think this is going anywhere so I’ll leave it be.

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

                I’m not sure what exactly my error is supposed to be at this point. That I’m “engaging in magical special pleading”, or that I’m not engaging in the magical special pleading that you insist must be part of any concept of “omniscience”.

                The magic bit is where you insist that we take seriously the modern “sophisticate” equivalent of the Oracle at Delphi or the “Power” that drives palmistry and astrology.

                The special pleading comes from your insistence that the All-Knowing Overmind still knows All despite your long laundry list of things that it doesn’t know.

                Don’t know how it can get any clearer.

                b&

            • Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

              Actually, π is a finite string, if you represent it as a suitable program to calculate it. But your point stands if you pick an uncomputable number.

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

                Always a joker…you’ll notice that I wrote, “The decimal expansion of π is an infinitely long numerical string.” I’m sure we’ll both agree that the decimal expansion is infinite, even if you can pen a one- or two-character glyph to represent it.

                (And sorry about the formatting fail on my note above. Jerry, if you feel so inclined, I wouldn’t object should you decide to fix it.)

                Cheers,

                b&

            • Al West
              Posted November 1, 2011 at 3:57 am | Permalink

              You are making an ontological claim. Just because you reject the existence of something because it is incoherent doesn’t mean that you don’t reject it. If someone said, “do you believe Yahweh exists?” You would say, “the concept is incoherent”; it would be inferred that you do not believe Yahweh exists because it cannot exist, according to your logic.

              Even if you’re not making an explicit ontological claim, you’re making a logical one, and not an empirical one. The fact that set theory invalidates Yahweh is hardly immediately obvious; it is an abstraction to make a metaphysical point. And you can just redefine the terms, if you like. I could say that I have a friend who is a married bachelor. He lives like a bachelor – messy, sloppy, wears boxer shorts and a dressing gown while eating cereal from a giant bowl and watching cartoons. But he’s married. I humourously refer to him as a ‘married bachelor’. Your point relies on all of the terms used having their conventional meanings, and that omniscience as an attribute of a deity has a conventional meaning that is invalidated by set theory. I don’t see any reason why anything unconstrained by physical law – something ‘outside the universe’, whatever that means – could not conceive of infinity.

              So you’re making a logical point to make an ontological claim – that something cannot exist because it violates a logical, mathematical principle. This is not empirical, however you swing it.

              I’d also point out that it is very similar to A.J Ayer’s reasons for rejecting deities. Ayer would presumably be quite surprised to know that he was doing science the whole time, and that the point he was making was an empirical one…

  9. bensix
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    I’m guessing that V.S. is male because he says he implies that he doesn’t have much hair left, but since he’s pulling the cowardly trick of attacking people under a pseudonym, I can’t be sure.

    Unlike stooshie, Mattapult, Parick, 386sx, jer and Tulse? (Where does the name 386sx originate? Is it Japanese?)

    • Steven Carr
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 5:59 am | Permalink

      Wasn’t there a computer chip called 386sx?

    • PhiloKGB
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 6:11 am | Permalink

      386 is short for 80386, one of Intel’s early 32-bit CPUs (mid-1980s IIRC). The SX variant was limited by a 16-bit data bus.

    • Posted October 29, 2011 at 6:31 am | Permalink

      I think VS’s name is Alan something-or-other. IIRC, he got some shit over at Butterflies and Wheels for being pseudonymous, and he said he just liked the name and wasn’t trying to hide anything.

      Not that it matters. I can’t follow anything VS writes, so I just don’t try anymore. heh :)

      • Matt Penfold
        Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:31 am | Permalink

        I do not know enough about him to know if the Stoic part of his name is accurate, but Verbose is certainly an apt description.

        • randyextry
          Posted October 29, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

          on his “About” page it says:

          “So, this is where I talk about me, I guess.

          My name is Allan Cybulskie.”

          I don’t think he’s hiding behind a pseudonym. Maybe he should be, though.

  10. Al West
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    1) You clearly do not only appreciate moral and ethical philosophy, nor simply studies of belief, but metaphysics, too. The question (answered question, in my book) of a deity’s supposed existence is a metaphysical one; clearly, you take metaphysics seriously, as do I, and as do all atheists, necessarily. The student’s project was a metaphysical project. While it may not be a project I’d be interested in conducting, it is not ludicrous just because it rests on some unproven assumption. Think of it as a thought experiment. The logical implications of beliefs are very important, and I don’t think that this project, while ludicrous on the surface, warrants specific derision.

    2) Scientism does not refer to that specific position in philosophy. But it’s an arcane point; you are otherwise correct, and I think most philosophers would agree with your view about what constitutes reasonable justification of belief.

    Philosophy is science, and science is philosophy. They are not separable. The implications of scientific investigations on which our beliefs rely are not isolable from other kinds of philosophical enquiry, or a different kind of thing from metaphysics.

    Well, the project looks horrid to me – dull and unnecessary. But I don’t think anyone could have a problem with it. It won’t be expensive, and it stops Templeton from funding truly nutty things that might have a real implact. I say let this happen.

    • Dominic
      Posted October 30, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      The question of a fairy’s supposed existence is also a metaphysical one. Do you cover fairies?

      • Al West
        Posted October 31, 2011 at 2:00 am | Permalink

        Uh, what?

        Jerry frequently discusses the issue of whether god exists or not. This is a metaphysical issue. That is the entirety of my point. It doesn’t seem like Jerry is interested in fairies – are you? I don’t really get why you’re asking this. Clearly, Jerry Coyne, owner of this website, is interested in some metaphysical issues, or he wouldn’t be an atheist, which is a metaphysical position. But he does not include metaphysics on his list, above, of approved philosophical topics.

        That’s all I’m saying.

  11. ManOutOfTime
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    This is just NOMA in atheist drag. Wonderful lack of self-awareness on the part of the philosophers: the “so-and-so doesn’t understand [insert non-scientific field here]” tack sounds like something a believer, faitheist, or apologist would say. I wonder what they think when some jive theologist says that Dawkins “doesn’t understand” religion? First of all, yeah he does and secondly, fairy wings and Santa. I am unimpressed with their premise, so i guess it doesn’t matter, but their rhetoric is lame!

    • Al West
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 6:18 am | Permalink

      In this case, I think it would be quite fair to say that Jerry does not understand philosophy as well as a philosopher, and that, unlike theology, philosophy is worth studying. Neither of those statements should be controversial. In philosophy, completely unreal things are supposed all the time – like Laplace’s demon, for instance, which Dennett refers to in several of his works – for the purpose of making a point. While this student may be proposing the study for the purposes of bolstering their beliefs, and while Templeton may be funding it for that reason, that is in itself not a reason to find it ludicrous. Proposing the existence of a god with certain (seemingly impossible) beliefs is a useful way of examining belief, and finding out just why Occam went wrong (for instance).

      So it could be useful. It doesn’t look like it would be to me, but it’s also not entirely ridiculous. Some of the most interesting developments in logic occurred through formally analysing similar problems, and while that is unlikely to happen in this case, there’s no reason why this kind of study should be considered inherently absurd.

      Although, of course, the brief does look a tad silly.

      • Posted October 29, 2011 at 6:28 am | Permalink

        Your last sentence: Exactly. See my comment #13 below.

        I’ll agree with Daniel insofar that if all Jerry had said was, “God doesn’t exist, so spending one instant thinking about philosophical questions relating to a hypothetically existing God is a waste of time,” that would be totally wrong. Perhaps Jerry’s original post was a little too flippant and implied this in places.

        But I think one will have a very difficult time justifying this particular project and the monetary and temporal expenditure involved. It’s a silly idea, and while good thought-provoking stuff can occasionally fall out of domain experts playfully applying their knowledge to a silly idea, it doesn’t tend to be the only thing they work on for two straight years. Or well, when it is, it’s shitty.

        Let’s not be too cruel to philosophy and theology here, by the way. (Well, maybe to theology…) I work as a research software engineer. I’m looking into new projects for 2012. I can’t tell who is full of bullshit and who isn’t because of one fucking awful word that has invaded cutting edge software in the last several years: CLOUD. Bah! My nemesis!

        There are some people doing fantastic, forward-looking work that they describe using the word “cloud”, but the term is just so nebulous, just so, er, cloudy, that I can’t fucking tell if someone is full of bullshit or if they have an exciting idea anymore.

        So even highly technical fields are not immune from people spending multiple years and unconscionable sums of money on what is essentially made-up bullshit. We should remember that when we pick on the philosophers :)

        • Al West
          Posted October 29, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink

          I have seen your comment and agree with it. Yes: the project may not in itself be awful (on the other hand, it could be!), but it certainly doesn’t warrant the money. That I agree with.

          And I agree, of course, that obscurantism is a problem in many fields, and that some (theology, continental philosophy) largely consist of it. But modern analytic philosophy is supposed to use a set of tools to eliminate obscurity and obscurantism, and if you know the history of argument in it, philosophical proposals are just as lucid as they are in hard science (I promise!).

          I cannot agree with Jerry, however, that there are only a few legitimate kinds of philosophy, or that science sits separate from philosophy to the extent that we can make epistemological and metaphysical claims on the basis of scientific knowledge without ever having to dabble in “philosophy”.

          Take this, for instance:

          The kind of mushbrained lucubrations embodied in the Templeton proposal may be meant seriously, but they’re not to be taken seriously. They involve spinning out the consequences of a nonexistent omniscient being. What’s the point?

          Well, that’s exactly what Dennett does in one chapter of The Intentional Stance, except that Dennett doesn’t call it ‘god’, and phrases it as a thought experiment. And the point in that case was to advance a metaphysical point – an ontological claim about the universe in which we live. There’s nothing objectionable about that at all, and on its own, it isn’t a reason for finding anything ludicrous.

      • Tulse
        Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:52 am | Permalink

        it’s also not entirely ridiculous

        For what value of “ridiculous”? You did see where this fellow is proposing time-travelling causality, right?

        When one starts with an incoherent set of premises, one can derive all sorts of nonsense (just as when one postulates both p and not-p in logic, or define divide by 0 as 128.73 in math). I’d argue that if the only way you can reconcile the combination of omniscience and free will is to postulate that causality goes backward in time, that’s a reductio indicating that at least one of your premises is incoherent.

        • Al West
          Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink

          Oh, sure – I think it’s silly. But this is not the same as proposing both that p and that not-p. While the premisses are not justified, the conclusions do flow from them – and while they seem ridiculous (are ridiculous, indeed), the conclusion that they necessitate is not unexpected. Occam already believed that God is outside of time, and not beholden to the laws of physics, and all this thought experiment says is that given free will and omniscience, God must not be beholden to the laws of physics. So it’s a useless, stupid, boring, arcane, moronic thought experiment, and it doesn’t warrant any amount of advanced study. I don’t support it, and I would prefer the money to go elsewhere, but it’s Templeton’s money – and they’ve decided to fund something stupid.

          My only other objection here is that Jerry’s objection to the study – that it posits a hypothetical, non-existent being – is true of many thought experiments, including legitimate and important ones like Laplace’s demon or Putnam’s ‘twin earth’.

          • Badger3k
            Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

            I doubt Dennett received 170K+ to perform a thought experiment. I also doubt that he took two years to work it out (I would hope), and I don’t believe that Dennett thinks that his thought experiments reflect an actual physical (ok, may not be the best term but I think it is understandable in context) reality. That’s a big difference to me.

            All fields of study do thought experiments all the time. Only theology pretends that they really happen (at least, as far as I am aware).

            • Al West
              Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

              Right. I agree with you. Theology is bullshit, and this Templeton idea is bullshit. We agree.

              But I don’t agree with Jerry’s position vis-a-vis philosophy as a whole. Positing non-existent things is useful, and not just for abstract logic, but for solving metaphysical problems – including, for instance, the question of the existence of deities in the first place.

          • Posted October 29, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

            But this is not the same as proposing both that p and that not-p. [...] Occam already believed that God is outside of time, and not beholden to the laws of physics, and all this thought experiment says is that given free will and omniscience, God must not be beholden to the laws of physics.

            This is the heart of the problem.

            Asserting any of the omni-properties is exactly equivalent to asserting both p and not-p. And, since so many of the laws of physics are nothing more than observations of the geometry of the universe, asserting that an entity can violate said laws can only mean one of two things: the geometry of the universe isn’t what we understand it to be, or the entity in question can draw square triangles (and, please, everybody, spare me the bad jokes about white bears). If you can explain to us how “transcending” Euclid won’t get you killed at the next zebra crossing, I’m sure we’d all be most uninterested.

            What’s worst of all is that this is all very, very old hat. Fantasizing about omnimax gods is precisely as immature as fantasizing about the kryptonite content of Superman’s condoms. It’s fun for shaggy dog stories about the thermodynamics of Hell, but should be cause for acute embarrassment if seriously considered or proposed.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Al West
              Posted October 29, 2011 at 10:29 am | Permalink

              You are, I hesitate to ask, familiar with the concept of the thought experiment? And you have read the thread such that you understand the purpose of my comment?

              Good. Then understand this: my point is that philosophers regularly ask questions about hypothetical scenarios and hypothetical objects.

              These hypothetical objects do not need to follow the laws of physics. No one is saying anything about the laws of physics actually being broken or different. No one is saying that these things actually exist.

              What they are saying is that perhaps we can examine an issue like reductionism/holism through thought experiments. Philosophers do this all the time.

              Some of those thought experiments involve hypothetical beings with well-defined properties.

              One of these thought experiments is that of Laplace’s demon.

            • Al West
              Posted October 29, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

              Originally, Laplace’s demon referred to a hypothetical being offered as an example by the atheist physicist Laplace: if the demon knew the momentum and position of every particle in the universe at time t then it would be able to know the position at momentum at any time T. There is no such thing – indeed, it is an impossibility within the universe to know the position and momentum of every particle, as this requires a representation of every particle as well as its properties, and this would require more matter than there is in the universe. It’s impossible; no one is saying it’s true.

              This has been changed in modern philosophy into a being that knows the position and momentum of every particle in the universe at any time without Laplace’s Newtonian determinism.

              The point is to ask the question, what would Laplace’s demon be able to perceive? And would it be what we perceive? And would it, then, miss out on anything, like consciousness, or society, or some other quality/pattern, etc?

              The utility of these question should be obvious, especially with regard to, say, the anthropic principle or some other hogwash.

              My point is this: to disregard any philosophy – and here we may include that of Dan Dennett and Hilary Putnam and many others – that uses hypothetical beings is mad. It doesn’t make sense.

              If we put a corollary on it, it might be reasonable: any philosopher who supposes the existence of a hypothetical being that breaks reason and the laws of physics, and takes that being to be real, is a bullshit-merchant. That is probably how it is in this Templeton case.

          • Tulse
            Posted October 29, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

            But this is not the same as proposing both that p and that not-p. While the premisses are not justified, the conclusions do flow from them

            My point is that any conclusion can flow from conceptually incoherent premises, and that is what the notion of omniscience is (and likely the concept of free will as well). For this project to make even a modicum of sense, it needs to explicitly justify the premises. This is not ruling out thought experiments, but rather ensuring that one’s terms are sufficiently clear to constrain one’s conclusions.

    • PhiloKGB
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 6:23 am | Permalink

      Dawkins’ critics are not just denigrating Dawkins, either. They’re denigrating anyone who doesn’t have a PhD in theology or significant journal publications. It is literally the case that, when credentialed theologians declare that only “sophisticated” arguments matter, they’re saying that 99+% of the religious masses are doing it rong.

      • Christian
        Posted October 29, 2011 at 6:27 am | Permalink

        And interestingly, they never communicate that to the 99% of the religious masses. They seem to be absolutely fine with the fact that the average believer is doing it rong.

        • Al West
          Posted October 29, 2011 at 6:30 am | Permalink

          That’s probably the thing that differentiates theologians from religious radicals. Whenever a radical gets it into their head that 99% of believers are doing it rong, they rush about amassing co-cultists and forcing change. When a theologian thinks that, they look at the believers and say, “meh”, and use their sophisticated new set of beliefs as a shield against criticism. It’s a bit dodgy, is what it is.

          • Jolo
            Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:27 am | Permalink

            Is that a long winded way of saying “Theology, it’s a bit dodgy”?

            • Matt Penfold
              Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink

              Yeah.

              West, like Verbose Stoic seems incapable of being concise.

              • Al West
                Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

                Penfold, I’m capable of being concise. But when you have to explain basic ideas to an idiot, you have to explain them well, so as to avoid confusion.

              • whyevolutionistrue
                Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:29 am | Permalink

                Okay, Mr. West, you will apologize for calling Penfold an idiot and refrain from doing it again. I’m not going to have my commenters calling each other names.

              • Al West
                Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

                I apologise, Mr. Penfold.

                And to you too, Prof. Coyne.

              • Zagabu
                Posted October 29, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

                Anyway, if brevity really were the soul of with, the phrase would just be “brevity is wit.” Or maybe just “Brevity!”

  12. leebowman
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    One of the big problems with philosophy is reconciling it with established theological philosophy, in this case Christian theology.

    My take is that much of what St Augustine, and later Calvin concluded by their interpretations of scripure [primarily], but colored with their own brand of reason [or lack of it]. The hard Calvinist line of predestination does not fit with reality, regardless of rationalities that he claimed to be in support of it.

    And sin transmitted via semen?! Augustine deduced this from Romans 5:12, having mistranslated it with the Vulgate version of Latin, rather than its Greek connotation. His deduction that there was no physical death prior to Adam’s sin violates physical laws as well.

    But back to Calvin, the precept that God or gods would know everything in advance would make life nothing more than a puppet show, or watching reruns of movies ad nauseum.

    Free will, at minimum, and to the limit of one’s ability, IS a reality, regardless of our origins or possible duality.

    So even if funded by Templeton, if he is truly a freethinker and rationalist, then I give him at least some credit for perhaps revising some misconceptions of early theologians and scholars, if he has the courage to do so.

    Now as to the issue of whether or not there is any validity to scripture, this is and will remain faith based.

  13. Posted October 29, 2011 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    Finke is essentially asserting intellectual privilege. This is the same sort of position that religious accommodationists take. In just the same sense that any criticism of any religious idea is taken as an attack on every idea that’s been even peripherally associated with religion, any attack on any “philosophical” idea (and neither Finke nor The Verbose Stoic make much of a case that Todd’s work has any serious philosophical importance) is an attack on philosophy as a whole.

    Sometimes an atheist is a person with one less stupid idea than a theist.

  14. Teemo
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    I’ll raise my hand to say I think philosophy is entirely useless. If an argument/hypothesis can be applied to the real world, then it would be science; if not, then it’s useless, no?

    Any question about the nature of time and reality is a scientific question and can be answered scientifically. Questions about brains in vats don’t help us in any way.

    Also, philosophy doesn’t get to claim the fields of Logic and Ethics as their own, despite usually being taught by the Philosophy department. Logic has apparent uses and is foundational of science. Ethics is a valid study for a society to function, but doesn’t require philosophical reasoning to approach it.

    Theology is just the “philosophy of god.” That is, it uses purely philosophical reasoning to determine how a made-up god thinks. Even if a god existed, you couldn’t reach any conclusions about it through theology. It would be like trying to study physics with philosophy.

    • Outlaw_Philosopher
      Posted October 30, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

      “Any question about the nature of time and reality is a scientific question and can be answered scientifically” is a philosophical position (and not, honestly, a very plausible one. Consider the question “does science describe reality?” Any scientific answer to this will be question begging, and surely you concede that it both has an answer and is a question about reality.)

      In fact, “philosophy is useless” is itself time-honoured philosophical position.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 2:56 am | Permalink

      I’ll raise my hand to say I think philosophy is entirely useless.

      Seconded.

      • Al West
        Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:01 am | Permalink

        Seconded.

        I take it you’re not an atheist then? Or an agnostic? I take it, then, that you have no opinion either way, and couldn’t care less about the efficacy of science, or logic? And, moreover, that you have no position on what constitutes valid, justified belief?

        • Dan L.
          Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink

          There are some people who drive cars who cannot explain how internal combustion engines work. There are some people who live in houses who cannot design or build them.

          Mechanics and general contractors do not usually get angry about this or take it personally.

          • Al West
            Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

            Uh, right…? Except that there’s nothing more to atheism than a philosophical position. That’s what it consists of; it is philosophy. “I believe that p on grounds x” is philosophy, and “I believe there is no god”, or any similar belief (the definition of atheism being, after all, absurdly contentious), is clearly metaphysics. If you are an atheist, then you have taken a philosophical position, and you are doing philosophy. It is in no way analogous to mechanical engineering or any product where there is a division between the work and functioning of the thing and its use. If you are an atheist, there’s not one thing called “being an atheist” that is separate from having certain metaphysical beliefs.

            Atheism just is a set of metaphysical beliefs.

            So your analogy is rubbish, frankly.

            • Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

              Is not believing that there are faeries at the foot of the garden a meaningful metaphysical or philosophical position?

              Is rejecting the notion that waving a magic wand can turn a frog into a prince a meaningful metaphysical or philosophical position?

              Is dismissing Peter Pan as a childish fantasy a meaningful metaphysical or philosophical position?

              No?

              Then why should it be a meaningful metaphysical or philosophical position that angels are no more real than faeries, that Christian prayers are as pointless as Pagan spells, and that the magical beings described in the Bible are as imaginary as those in Peter Pan?

              Or are you somehow privileging one set of imaginary friends over another? If so, on what basis should we be taking your favored imaginary friends (whether or not you believe in them) more seriously than somebody else’s imaginary friends?

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Al West
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink

                The reason that the distinction is made is because there is, apparently, a community or movement of people who call themselves atheists and make it a central part of their beliefs, and this website is a hub for those people. Either way, if you do explicitly say, “I do not believe in fairies” – and frankly, Ben Goren, you seem to say it an awful lot, using it frequently in examples – then you have made a metaphysical, ontological statement, and can’t claim that you’re not interested in philosophy.

                In any case, I note that you’ve focused on the atheism part of my comment, but there is more to it. You and I and everyone here, it seems (fortunately), have certain standards by which justification of beliefs may be judged. We have certain beliefs about the content of the universe. Those are philosophical positions. Your entire comment was philosophical in nature.

                Oh, and by the way, I said nothing about Christianity or Yahweh or anything similar, so asking if I privilege Christian prayers over pagan ones in my rejection of them is a little pointless.

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

                If your definition of “philosophy” is so broad as to include literary analysis, then I’m afraid the term itself is useless. Is a geometer a philosopher — is pondering the sums of the angles of triangles philosophy, since a perfect triangle can’t be constructed in the real world? How about musicians?

                What isn’t philosophy, according to your definition?

                And you might not have named Jesus by name, but he is the most popular omni-mumble god these days, and the one whose worship Templeton is trying to promote with their “research” grant to the student in question. Or did you have some other omni-mumble god in question? Brahman?

                And, again, why privilege omni-mumble gods as opposed to rain gods or rainbow leprechauns? What makes the study of one particular incoherent magic power more worthy of respect than the study of some other incoherent magic power?

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Al West
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

                And, again, why privilege omni-mumble gods as opposed to rain gods or rainbow leprechauns?

                And again, what gave you the impression that I was doing that? You made a ridiculous assumption: that I somehow privilege Yahweh above others in my rejection. That actually isn’t true. Most of the people I meet on a daily basis are Hindus, including my wife.

                In any case, the point you make refutes itself. Why would others privilege Yahweh in their rejection? Because, like you say, he is most frequently invoked. But I did not mention it, don’t care about it, and simply pointed out that atheism – as in the rejection of any deities, great or small, ancient or modern – is a philosophical position, which it is, no matter how narrow your definition.

                Well, philosophy does incorporate science and every other form of study in one way of another, but that is not relevant to the point I’m making. Define philosophy narrowly as incorporating only epistemology, metaphysics, logic, and ethics, and you will still find that atheism is inherently under the rubric of philosophy, and that making discriminations about what constitutes justified belief is not just philosophy, but the very core of epistemology. So… I’m not sure what you’re arguing here.

                For someone who has taken a clear epistemological and metaphysical position to say that they don’t care about philosophy is absurd.

          • Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:09 am | Permalink

            The would if people said that engineering and architecture, mechanics and builders, were entirely useless!

            /@

            • Al West
              Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:10 am | Permalink

              Quite!

      • Al West
        Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:02 am | Permalink

        This is sounding just like those ignorant folks who say things like, “I don’t care about politics, but I think Britain should be out of the EU”.

  15. Posted October 29, 2011 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    So, I think that Daniel can make a reasonable case that the question is interesting philosophically, but I think he will have a much harder time justifying why somebody should get paid almost 90 grand to work exclusively on this problem for two years…

    You mentioned working out how Santa can visit all the houses in one night. I’ve heard physicists playfully try to work out the constraints here. It’s a fun exercise. And you never know what thought-provoking stuff is going to come out of such a fanciful and playful application of one’s domain knowledge.

    But nobody is shelling out a lucrative two-year grant for a post-graduate physics student to work on that shit. That’s the problem: not so much that philosophers think about this stuff, but that this seems like a rather dubious project to be devoting all of that time and money to.

  16. Claimthehighground
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    The debate on how many angels could dance on the head of a pin lasted centuries. Perhaps there is a Templeton grant possibility here, to answer that question once & for all. Of course, even if it is meaningless, look at the enormous value the research will have to the advance in philosophical thinking.

  17. Mirik
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    The philo’s are probably making a convoluted ‘ it’s art’ or ‘entertainment’ argument here. It’s fine if they do it & someone wants to wastel it’s money on it, it’ll just rot unread or be abused by a moron like William Lane Craig to confuse more people in believing something stupid.

    Eithe way, Jerry never says it lust not be done, just that it’s useless, which is self evident. I don’t see many ‘if unicorns exist’ suppositions in philosophy, therefore this is NOT informed by the freedom to explain properties of the non-existant, it’s informed by something which is socially accepted, but equally wrong.

    Score 1-0 for scientism. Which I think encompasses al interesting philosophy, of which I am a great fan.

  18. Jonathan Smith
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    The question of a deity’s existence is not only a metaphysical one, but also a logical, empirical, or subjective one. Most thiests will agree that the existence of their particular diety rests primarily on faith alone. Studying the nature of “God” is nothing more than a theocratic “smoke and mirrors” ploy to offer some form of validity to thier easily refuted claims.

    • Al West
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:08 am | Permalink

      Well, the question of a deity’s existence is an entirely metaphysical one, but as with every single claim ever, we obviously have to use observation and reason to come to conclusions about it.

      And I don’t think that this project – silly though it seems – is what you think it is. It seems to me that it is this: there is a strange inconsistency in Occam’s position. Is this inconsistency logical in any sense? That seems to be the basic premiss, not ‘studying the nature of god’. This could be a thought experiment for all we need care.

      But it is still a dumb thought experiment that I doubt will be revealing. Arguing against the pecuniary aspect is much more tenable than the idea that the project is just straight up dumb or, ahem, “theocratic”.

      • Matt Penfold
        Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:28 am | Permalink

        How can observation be used to come to conclusions about something that does not exist ?

        You really are not making any sense when you say things.

        • Al West
          Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:41 am | Permalink

          How can observation be used to come to conclusions about something that does not exist ?

          Obviously to show that it doesn’t exist. The only way we can know whether something exists or not is through observation, and a negative conclusion is still a conclusion. Observation has shown a lack of god; that is a conclusion about the issue of deities.

          Based on observations and rational inferences on the basis of those observations, we can come to conclusions about metaphysics – including the issue of deities. One of the conclusions that has been arrived at on the basis of scientific observation of every facet of the universe is that there is no god.

          Does that make it clearer for you?

          • Matt Penfold
            Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

            It is clearer, but it also makes your position more confusing.

            If there is no evidence gods exist, then why are you trying to defend a study to understand how these non-existent gods behave ?

            You seem to have some weird idea that you reason your way to understanding the nature of reality without bothering to look out the window.

            • Al West
              Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:52 am | Permalink

              You seem to have some weird idea that you reason your way to understanding the nature of reality without bothering to look out the window.

              No.

              I’m ‘defending’ the study by placing it on the same level of a study of Superman’s flying ability? Well, okay.

              Based on observation of our universe, we know that it consists of 12 particles in various quantities acted on by 4 forces, and that these have formed certain combinations – atoms, the elements, and chemicals, and from those, cells, bodies, and so on. If everything reduces to those 12 particles and their properties, then how can we talk about bigger things, like tables? How can there be a correspondence theory of truth if truth consists of sub-atomic particles but our concepts refer, the vast majority of the time, to rough, abstract collections of them?

              Your unimaginative brain may not find these problems particularly compelling, but they are very important. How do we try to come to terms with them?

              Often, through thought experiments.

              One important thought experiment on this theme is Dennett’s version of Laplace’s demon, which posits a hypothetical being – ‘omniscient’, in that it knows the position of every sub-atomic particle ever – in order to understand the nature of the universe and knowledge.

              Do you get it now?

              • Matt Penfold
                Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:00 am | Permalink

                No.

                You are wilfully conflating scientific thought experiments that attempt to explain real observations with philosophical thought experiments that are divorced from reality.

                Not very honest of you.

              • Al West
                Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink

                No, I’m not.

                You don’t understand – or you’re trying not to understand. Most philosophers take it as axiomatic that sub-atomic particles exist, and most – most that I know, at least – are materialists or physicalists of one stripe or another. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t distinctions between philosophical positions that accept these things as true. I think the majority of analytic philosophers are scientific materialists, but Churchland’s eliminative materialism with regard to the problem of consciousness is not the same as Searle’s biological naturalism with regard to the same problem, and they came to those positions on the basis of thought experiments and scientific investigations. Such positions are the subjects of heated debate, but no one doubts the scientific veracity of atomism.

                There is no real difference between scientific and philosophical thought experiments. It’s a division you’ve dreamt up. Any thought experiment is a hypothetical, but you’ve decided that some hypotheticals, even those that would illuminate philosophical and scientific problems, are somehow beyond the pale. It’s strange.

                I agree that this particular ‘Ockhamist’ thought experiment is probably claptrap, but the idea of proposing a hypothetical deity is not bad in principle.

              • abb3w
                Posted October 29, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

                How can there be a correspondence theory of truth if truth consists of sub-atomic particles but our concepts refer, the vast majority of the time, to rough, abstract collections of them?

                For a start, by distinguishing relational, lexical, and correspondence truth. (Potentially also “moral truth”, but that’s a fourth can of worms needing a fourth can opener.) Note:

                * at the relational level, non-binary boolean lattices allow abstract algebras fully consistent with the explicit Boolean axioms, but allowing “fuzzy logic” ideas such as “nearly true” or “approximating true”
                * sub-atomic particles aren’t “truth”; rather, “sub-atomic particles” refers to a (class of) model(s) that appears to CORRESPOND to experience
                * at the lexical level (“truth” as a language’s “grammatical”), self-symmetry to substructures is old news — Turing showed how you could use computation to model computation, Gödel showed how this applied to mathematics, and Chomsky showed how this relates to language — and so self-symmetry to substructures should not be inherently surprising in a correspondence case

                The fundamental difference between scientific and philosophical thought experiments is the extent to which you have to deal with all the evidence from real-world experience before you make a conclusion. Proposing a deity is fine; but if you’re not dealing with the heavier problems of how the resultant model relates to experience, and moreover how it comparatively relates to other models’ ability to do so, it seems that scientists will tend to consider you an intellectual lightweight.

                Oh, and philosophers who take it as “axiomatic” that sub-atomic particles exist are sloppy; more properly (as in science) it’s taken as an inference from more basic axioms, not a primary axiom itself.

              • Al West
                Posted October 30, 2011 at 11:45 am | Permalink

                Proposing a deity is not fine in my book; proposing a thought experiment involving a hypothetical “deity” for some purpose, and, as in all logical thought experiments, examining the implications of that on all beliefs, is. But I don’t think you understand the point of the Laplace’s demon thought experiment. The point isn’t to test anything about the demon itself, or the particular variables of the universe – so we’re not looking to see whether god’s existence has an effect on ‘all the variables’. All we want to know is whether we can make a reasonable argument for holism, or whether everything reduces, including things like consciousness.

                Try reading The Intentional Stance, or Zawidzki’s Dennett. Both discuss the thought experiment and its purpose.

                And I think philosophers take it as axiomatic that sub-atomic particles exist not because they don’t think it could be wrong (clearly, it could be) but that they are not in a position to falsify the notion but do nonetheless have to deal with it. Instead of treating it as merely plausible or possible that sub-atomic particles exist, for the purpose of metaphysics, it is generally taken as axiomatic. It’s not sloppy – just sensible, and exactly what you’d expect of people trying to work out the implications of ideas while remaining deferrent to science.

                But the point is, if modern physics is correct, then the universe – reality – consists of particles in various quantities, and everything that has ever existed has consisted of a particular, absolute combination of particles in various positions and with certain properties. This is what reality is, it seems; and if truth is the same as reality, then even fuzzy logic is off in a different league from truth. The truth, or reality, would be the position and momentum of every particle ever in the universe, and as any language would find it impossible to express this, or anything remotely close to this, even the notion of ‘nearly true’ is so far off being true that it might as well be considered absolutely false. Except that that is not useful.

                The only solution is pragmatism; that statements can only be ‘true’ or ‘false’ inasmuch as they are useful. Pragmatism has many advocates these days, so citing Chomsky and Boole is a little useless; I think Hilary Putnam and Susan Haack are well aware of both.

        • Rob
          Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:54 am | Permalink

          Do differentials exist? What about imaginary numbers?

          How can a differential exist when things start getting wonky below 10^-44? What’s the physical representation of i?

          (not saying this study isn’t bunk, but a lot of science is based on things that, strictly speaking, don’t exist)

  19. Gregg Baker
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    The proposed topic of the student’s research reminded me of an article I read recently, found here: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2011/09/19/free-will-and-quantum-clones-how-your-choices-today-affect-the-universe-at-its-origin/
    This philopsopher’s idea, arising from his view of quantum mechanics, is about how our decisions now could change the prior history of the universe. Without invoking any deity he seems to be studying a similar question. A quote from the article illustrates:
    “This is where we get into the second big point that Aaronson made in his talk, about just how creative an act it was. Even if the influences producing a free choice have never interacted before, they can all be traced to the initial state of the universe. There is always some uncertainty about what that state was; a huge range of possibilities would have led to the universe we see today. But the decision you make resolves some of that uncertainty. It acts as a measurement of those countless influences.
    Yet in a deterministic universe, those is no justification for saying that the initial state caused the decision; it is equally valid to say that the decision caused the initial state. After all, physics is reversible. What determinism means is that the state at one time implies the state at all other times. It does not privilege one state over another. Thus your decision, in a very real sense, creates the initial conditions of the universe.”

  20. Matt Penfold
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    Daniel Fincke suggests that investigating what a god might be like is good philosophy even if there is no evidence to support the existence of such a god. He says this is because we might gain valuable philosophical insights in doing so.

    What I do not understand is how he can know whether insights gained in examining a make-believe world can be applied to the real world. How can he know the any insight is not contingent on a property of the make-believe world that does not exist in the real world ?

    • Al West
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:20 am | Permalink

      Okay then, ask yourself this question: if a deity did exist, what would it see?

      It is claimed, for instance, that “God” is everywhere, and sees everything. As this is identical to Laplace’s demon (in modern formulations, not Laplace’s original), let’s use the less controversial notion of Laplace’s demon instead.

      We live in a universe consisting of sub-atomic particles, and every phenomenon we are aware of appears to reduce fundamentally to the properties of these particles in combination.

      So if Laplace’s demon knows the speed and position of every single particle in the universe from beginning to end, as is claimed, then does it know what a table is? Or, does it recognise consciousness?

      And what does this mean for the study of those things, and of the physical universe in general?

      …………………………

      Do you really not think that examining the properties of non-existent hypotheticals is an entirely useless thing to do? I don’t, and neither do most atheist philosophers. To reiterate a point I made further up the thread, neither does Dan Dennett – or at least, he didn’t in 1989, when The Intentional Stance came out.

      • Matt Penfold
        Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:26 am | Permalink

        If you are playing let’s pretend then a deity can see whatever you want it to see.

        That is what happens when you make up your own rules.

        • Al West
          Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:34 am | Permalink

          No, if we are playing ‘let’s pretend’ then we need to pretend something clear – and that, it seems, is what this proposal intends. It does not say “God is totally flexible in every way, and Occam’s view needs no justification – it could simply be so”. So even if this chap is a theologian who is pretending, he is doing it precisely and quite sensibly, just as someone trying to work out whether Superman’s flying is a feat of strength or not has to be precise in what they mean by each variable. Now, this proposal is just as ludicrous, probably, as discussing Superman’s flying capabilities, but it is clearly possible for some hypotheticals to illuminate certain points and to further our understanding of the universe.

          Laplace’s demon can see only elementary particles, but it can perceive them all – all of them, ever, at once. If all phenomena reduce to these particles, then Laplace’s demon misses out on nothing. If Laplace’s demon misses out on anything, even possibly, then not everything reduces.

          Can you really not see the utility of this line of thinking? Dennett – hardly a faitheist or theologian – thought it quite useful.

          • Matt Penfold
            Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:38 am | Permalink

            Sorry, but the concept of god does allow for anything goes.

            Once you detach yourself from reality that is what happens.

            Can you really not understand this ?

            • Al West
              Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink

              Sorry, but the concept of god does allow for anything goes.

              In your world, perhaps it does, and perhaps you are simply not imaginative enough to come up with some hypothetical, non-existent constraints that could illuminate certain problems in philosophy and science. But this chap’s proposal clearly contains notions of constraints on the deity, so your point does not apply, and has nothing to do with anything. It’s just an arbitrary reason to justify your disdain.

              But the point here is not “imagine there’s a god of any description – then what?”

              The point is, “imagine that there is a totally hypothetical object with properties x, y, and z. What are the implications of those properties?”

              Are you really so unfamiliar with the notion of the thought experiment?

              • Matt Penfold
                Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:54 am | Permalink

                I understand the concept of a thought experiment just fine thank you.

                Scientists have used them to understand difficult concepts in relativity and quantum physics, but where they differ from your concept of a thought experiment is that the scientists ground their experiments in reality. They were attempting to understand very real observations. Scientific hypotheses do much the same, but again they needed to be grounded in reality.

                The thought experiments you are defending do not have that grounding in reality. They start with a premise that is not grounded in reality and go from there. There is nothing in them that would allow you to draw any conclusions from them that are valid outside the experiment.

                You cannot get to the truth about reality unless you have some point of contact with reality.

                Really, how you you in all seriousness carry on defending this stuff ?

              • Matt Penfold
                Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:55 am | Permalink

                I would also point you to the mathematical concept of formal systems. Formal systems are a form of thought experiment, and often have no basis in real world. However mathematicians make no claims such formal systems tell us anything about the real world.

              • Al West
                Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:05 am | Permalink

                The thought experiments you are defending do not have that grounding in reality.

                First of all, yes they do. While this chap’s study might not, Dennett’s thought experiment certainly does. It begins with the idea that the universe is a certain way: consisting of sub-atomic particles with certain properties, and void, with certain properties. So it is grounded in reality, and if you don’t think it is, then that’s your problem, and neither Dennett’s nor philosophy’s. Other thought experiments of this type include Davidson’s ‘swampman’ and Putnam’s ‘twin earth’, among others. They need no defence, and you are reacting against them arbitrarily.

                Secondly, not all thought experiments need to be ‘grounded in reality’, as such. These are thought experiments in logic, which is not what I’m particularly interested in. These ask about the possibility of logical contradiction given a set of beliefs. They can tell us about beliefs, logic, and the nature of contradiction – and while these are arguably part of reality, they are not the same kind of thing as science of other kinds deals with. For a number of these kinds of thought experiments, you could try Graham Priest’s Very Short Introduction to Logic.

                I would also point out that mathematics and philosophical thought experiments differ in their intentions. Mathematicians do not necessarily intend to tell us things about the observable universe; philosophers do.

              • eNeMeE
                Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:10 am | Permalink

                “imagine that there is a totally hypothetical object with properties x, y, and z. What are the implications of those properties?”

                Physics breaks down completely and we have no way of knowing how the world works. Next!

                Could I sit around for a few hours discussing this sort of thing with my friends and have fun doing it? Sure. Is it at all useful, except as entertainment? No.

                What might possibly (though unlikely) be useful would be an expert physicist positing and exploring the implications of the existence of such a being, but it’s not possible for such a being to exist (unless you claim that the universe itself is that being, and has no effect whatsoever on itself, and is therefore not worth calling a ‘being’, imo) according to physics (by which I mean both the set of theories and the set of observations which constitute the field (and you could throw chemistry in there as well)).

              • Matt Penfold
                Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink

                OK.

                I was not talking about Dennett, but about the experiment being funded by Templeton. At least you have finally admitted it may well have no basis in reality. Not sure why it took you so long.

                Oh, and logic would be part of reality.

                It seems you are just playing silly games. Well, toss yourself off if you like. I will not be helping you anymore.

              • Al West
                Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

                Can I just make an important point here?

                *megaphone*

                NO ONE IS CLAIMING THAT LAPLACE’S DEMON ACTUALLY EXISTS.

                And, if it did “exist”, whatever that means, it would necessarily break the laws of physics. But that’s moot. The question is, ‘does everything that exists reduce entirely to elementary particles, and if so, how?’

                That’s basically the fundamental question in modern metaphysics, and especially philosophy of mind. Yeah – you know that free will we’re always talking about on Jerry’s blo–, uh, website? That is entirely connected to Dennett’s thought experiment. And I’m amazed at this strange reaction to the possibility of proposing a hypothetical deity in order to make a point about such things. It isn’t that anyone is suggesting that these things actually exist – you know that, right? It’s the suggestion that given certain properties (and as far as I know, eNeMeE, x, y, and z are not properties of things, and so can’t on their invalidate the laws of physics) we can explore the implications of ideas. That’s all.

              • Matt Penfold
                Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:20 am | Permalink

                eNeMeE,

                Well physicists have had fun examining the physics of Santa Claus. I believe there is even a book on the subject.

                Of course physicists who do that do not think they get any interesting insights from the examination of the hypothetical Santa. They just find a bit of fun, and useful took for explaining some tricky physics. For all I know someone may have even been given a grant, but if so it would almost certainly have been funded for the education possibilities rather than for any possible scientific insights.

              • tomh
                Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink

                Al West wrote:
                Are you really so unfamiliar with the notion of the thought experiment?

                It seems to me that a thought experiment is quite different from a two year “study” that requires a large amount of money and travel expenses to go somewhere to study things. Just what are these objects that will be studied, and where are they, that one needs to travel to study them?

              • Al West
                Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:23 am | Permalink

                @Matt Penfold,

                I don’t get why you’re so hostile to the position I’m espousing here, which is that proposing hypothetical objects can be useful in thought experiments (just not necessarily in the one Jerry has highlighted). I’m not saying, “hooray, Templeton! Well done! This looks great.”

                I’m saying that one of Jerry’s objections to the thought experiment’s existence – that proposing a hypothetical being is always useless – is wrong. And no, I’m not playing games.

              • Posted October 29, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink

                NO ONE IS CLAIMING THAT LAPLACE’S DEMON ACTUALLY EXISTS.

                …except, of course, for the postdoc who was awarded the grant, the Foundation who gave it to him, and each and every Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or other person who believes in an omniscient overmind….

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Al West
                Posted October 29, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

                Well, I don’t think they believe in Laplace’s demon, which is unemotive and entirely non-human, and according to its properties lacks the ability to recognise properties that we recognise, such as a collection of matter being a table or a set of actions being a murder. So it’s quite safe to say that no one believes in Laplace’s demon even if they believe in an omniscient whatsamajigger, as the demon’s omniscience, if that is what it be, has zero moral, human, or personal content.

            • Matt Penfold
              Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:30 am | Permalink

              I have no problem with thought experiments.

              I have a problem with thought experiments that ignore reality. They are useful if you take reality as your starting point. If they have no connection to reality then they cannot tell you anything about reality. There is nothing that allows you to connect the real world with the make-believe world.

              That is why I introduced the concept of formal systems. A formal system may tell you something about reality, if your starting axioms are grounded in reality. If they are not, then it is foolish to take any insights gained and try to apply them to real world.

              How are philosophical thought experiments that do not start with reality any different ? If your starting premises are not based in reality, then how you can claim your conclusions are ?

          • Matt Penfold
            Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:41 am | Permalink

            Also, how do you know you gain any understanding ?

            You cannot simply take an insight from the made-up world and apply to the real world, since the rules are not the same.

      • Al West
        Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:27 am | Permalink

        Edit: do you really think that examining the properties of non-existent hypotheticals is an entirely useless thing to do?

        • Matt Penfold
          Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

          Well I suppose some people might find it fun. So not totally useless.

          But as for coming to any meaningful conclusions about reality ? Yes, totally useless.

        • Insightful Ape
          Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink

          Well sometimes the answer is yes. That includes when a corrupt organization with ideological motivations tries to buy itself credibility.

        • Diane G.
          Posted October 31, 2011 at 2:58 am | Permalink

          Yes.

      • Dominic
        Posted October 30, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        “if a deity did exist, what would it see?” it has eyes? To see you need eyes. This is where it gets silly.

        • Al West
          Posted October 31, 2011 at 2:08 am | Permalink

          Then let’s change the language. What would it perceive? What would Laplace’s demon perceive, if it knew the position and momentum of every particle in the universe?

          If you can’t grasp the point of this thought experiment, then seek it out at its source – Dan Dennett’s book, The Intentional Stance. Or, as I suggested elsewhere, try reading Zawidzki, Dennett, which is also an excellent overview of Dennett’s philosophy.

          The point of the thought experiment is to ask: if Laplace’s demon knew the momentum and position of every particle in the entire universe, would it miss anything? ie, would it lack knowledge of consciousness, or pain, or something along those lines?

          It’s not a hard thought experiment, and you’re talking about it like Christians talk about atheism. “How can something come from nothing? See, atheism’s stupid.”

          “How can a hypothetical being ‘see’ anything? See, philosophy’s stupid.”

          I honestly believed that this group of people on this blog, ostensibly more rational than the rest of the population, would be more receptive to philosophy, especially if it came from someone like Dan Freakin’ Dennett, but apparently not, even though they engage in it at every turn.

          • Dan L.
            Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

            BTW, Putnam’s “Twin Earth” thought experiment is fatally flawed (Dennett doesn’t see it, but that’s because he’s a philosopher). “Twin water” in the thought experiment has to be exactly like water in every macroscopic regard but have a different molecular formula. But molecular structure determines macroscopic properties. “Twin water” is impossible in any possible universe where chemistry works like it does here, and this is exactly the problem with philosophy that everyone is trying to point out to you: thought experiments in philosophy can become disconnected from reality in subtle ways that invalidate the thought experiment, but do not do so “loudly.”

            People take “Twin Earth” very seriously, but they shouldn’t unless Putnam can answer some tough questions about how “twin water” can interact with human physiology exactly as water does despite being chemically different. (There are many other problems — how does the mixture of H2O and “twin water” work? Is each soluble in the other?) And he can’t. Philosophers, even atheistic ones like Dennett, are fine thinking about their fantasy worlds but they seem to have some trouble keeping grounded in the theories which are actually applicable to the real world.

            (People shouldn’t take Twin Earth seriously anyway. There’s no golden thread of miracles joining the referencer to the referencee — meaning IS inside the head. Obviously, since everything we know and experience are models created inside our heads. Another straight-forward fact about the real-world that philosophers can’t seem to internalize.)

            • Al West
              Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

              Yes, I’ve always had problems with the ‘twin earth'; I was simply saying that thought experiments involving extravagant hypotheticals are quite normal in philosophy, and if Jerry has such a problem with this proposal, why doesn’t he point it out for other proposals, many of which are certainly valid (including, btw, Dennett’s version of Laplace’s demon – although certainly not his Martian invasion thought experiment, with which I have a lot of trouble).

              But I disagree that “meaning” is “inside” the head. People mean things; words don’t; and the meanings of words are not contained in the head. In order to be precise, we use the word intentionality to refer to what people mean, but the meaning of words is, for most intents and purposes, out there in the world. Obviously not metaphysically, but practically. I can be wrong about the meaning of a word. I don’t think Twin Earth shows that well.

              In any case, that’s one thought experiment. Many thought experiments are nuts, and you must know what Dennett’s name for them is: intuition pumps. They make you think, and not a lot more. And importantly, they are not the whole of philosophy. My point hasn’t been to say that philosophical thought experiments, which it seems very few people here really understand, are some infallible magic that deserve $170,000. My point is just that many of the methods of philosophy – perfectly reasonable ones – would be outlawed if many of the posters here had their way, and the world would be a poorer place for it.

  21. Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    And yet Templeton arbitrarily turned down my proposal to study if virginity can be restored with unicorn tears. Tsk.

  22. Skeptico
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Jerry:

    You had me, right up until “…cowardly trick of attacking people under a pseudonym.” As a skeptic, you need to stop these ad hominem attacks. Attacking the arguments is enough.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      I don’t need to stop anything on that advice. I have always thought that it was cowardly to have a website and go after people without revealing who you are. Anonymous comments I can tolerate (though I’d prefer people use their names), anonymous bloggers I can’t. And it’s not an ad hominem attack, which is trying to dismiss the substance of an argument by impugning the arguer. I didn’t do that. I dismissed the argument because it’s useless and uninformative. I merely pointed out that it’s cowardly as well to attack someone without giving your name.

      • Posted October 29, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

        Just on this point, my name is clearly stated on the second line of the “About” page.

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted October 30, 2011 at 6:42 am | Permalink

          Sorry, I didn’t see that when I clicked on the post. You have to click on the title to see the “about” link. Apologies.

      • Skeptico
        Posted October 29, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        OK fair point, you also rebutted his arguments so it wasn’t ad hominem. (You didn’t reply on it to refute the arguments.) It was just a gratuitous insult then. Which is your right. So I will just point out that it is cowardly for a tenured professor to criticize someone else, who doesn’t have such protections, for wanting to write a blog without broadcasting their real identity. This is a blind spot you have. It diminishes you, in my view.

        • CJ
          Posted October 29, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

          it’s certainly not cowardly to use a pseudonym online to criticize people and their ideas. There’s some crazy’s out there who don’t take well to criticism.

          It’s nice to know there’s blog out here where i can be tolerated.

  23. Mattapult
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Well, he did get it right that I meant omniscient.

    But, I think the point still stands, there is no uncertainty in what an omniscient being would know. Not only would an omniscient being know what I’ll have for lunch tomorrow, he would know how many bites, what temperature the food is, and if I’ll bite my tounge or not. Somehow, I don’t get an absolute lack of uncertainty from the definitions V.S. provided. Or maybe I don’t have the right definition of uncertainty.

    I wonder if there is a glossary in the Templeton grant to explain who’s definition of “believe” they are spending their money on?

  24. Mattapult
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    I wonder if they would find philosophical value in researching the beliefs of Mother Nature.

    After all, we use Her name as if She were a real person, or even a deity. We pay for a lot research into the effects She has on us and the planet. We can even predict her behavior with pretty good accuracy in the short term. Why not learn what is in Her mind?

    • Badger3k
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      We also know it’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature. We learned that from experiments in the 70s, I believe. Saw it on TV.

    • Matt Penfold
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

      Mother Nature is real!

      I know this because I saw her in a TV ad in the UK selling tampons. And menstruation is real, so Mother Nature must be as well.

      I am getting this hypothesising stuff wrong ?

  25. Insightful Ape
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    So throwing away hundreds of thousands of dollars for “studying” something that likely doesn’t even exist is not a bad idea? Is that what passes for “philosophy” sometimes? And a corrupt organization with bottomless pockets spending money on a purely ideological matter is somehow good news for all of us?
    There are plenty of great philosophers whose works l love (Rebecca Goldstein is a good example), and I have always been a fan of Spinoza and Hume. But the post on “camels with hammers” was downright stupid.

    • Matt Penfold
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      I did bring up the ethical issue of accepting Templeton money on Dan Frinke’s blog. No one seemed to pick up on it.

  26. 386sx
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    I don’t think Templeton could care less if analytical philosophy disproves whatever it is they’re analyzing. They’re just hoping it proves it. They’re throwing the proverbial stuff at the wall and hoping something sticks. What could anyone possibly come up with that isn’t the same old rehashed stuff anyway.

    • Badger3k
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      I don’t think they even care if it proves anything. They hope it will give the appearance of proving something and give them a propaganda edge.

      • 386sx
        Posted October 29, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink

        They would be better off spending it on scientific analysis rather than on philosophical analysis. Just kidding! No they wouldn’t!!

        “Tis nobler to spend on fruitless philosophy than on fruitless science, but for the life of me I dunno why.” –William Shakespeare

  27. Drosera
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    There are some mildly interesting questions floating around here, such as:

    Can an omniscient god create beings displaying truly unpredictable behaviour (aka free will)?

    Is an omniscient god actually or potentially omniscient? (For instance, can it decide not to watch a repeat episode of Top Gear?)

    Can an omniscient god prove to itself that it is omniscient?

    Can two omniscient beings play poker against each other?

    Etc.

    If someone kindly donates a few hundred grand I’m willing to give it more thought.

    • Outlaw_Philosopher
      Posted October 30, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      Well, at a glance, the third version might require a strengthened form of Godel-Lob logic, which, if it were original, might actually be worth a few hundred grand. The 3rd one would probably involve some advances in game theory, or at least be an interesting problem (I’m no expert in the field), though I doubt it would be a bunchahunnerdthousand dollar thing.

      Sadly, I don’t have that kind of money, nor am I completely confident in your credentials as a logician or mathematician, but I don’t know that it would be a total waste.

      PS: I really haven’t thought about these, so if they’re actually totally trivial, I’m sorry.

      • Drosera
        Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:43 am | Permalink

        I suspect the problems are trivial, involving some version of Russell’s paradox. But since I’m a mere biologist, I can’t prove this. At least not without a generous grant that enables me to read up on this stuff.

  28. Hempenstein
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    If some Federal agency had funded that postdoc instead of Templeton, would Michelle Bachmann have taken exception?

    • Kevin
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

      I certainly would have!

  29. Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Coyne blogged:
    Why is that any more valid than wondering how an omnimalevolent God could allow good in the world, or why an omnibenevolent God allows evil? … And what if you assume that God isn’t omniscient?

    What if God’s main action were mediated by (his/her most elevated creation): people like you and me? And that even he/her has to cope with things like earthquakes, evolution, nuclear fall out, creationists, genocide etc – in the only way he has available: the good will he can muster in the people available to him at the time and place – those that chose to with free will to do good works.

    Does that not sketch out a half-way house between omnimalevolent and omnibenevolent – it’s the way I perhaps better understand the universe. St Augustine put it this way:

    “the efficacy of Divine grace impairs neither the freedom of the human will nor the meritoriousness of good works, but that it is grace which causes the merits in us.”

    which is a kind of a comfort, for some of us.

    (Ducks down!)

    • Badger3k
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      Well, for starters, you need to present evidence that this god-thing actually exists. Otherwise it doesn’t explain anything. It’s like reading Harry Potter to understand how magic affects the universe, or figuring out gravity through Marvel’s Graviton. The understanding only applies to the fictional universe, not reality. Without evidence that any such being exists, how can you be sure that it helps with any understanding of the real universe?

      • Posted October 29, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink

        Badger3k wrote:
        Well, for starters, you need to present evidence that this god-thing actually exists.

        I don’t need to present evidence to myself – I see an evidence in people I meet.
        I guess you don’t.
        I doubt I’ll convince you – if you demand scientific, third person perspective, statistically significant evidence.

        But if you are prepared to accept part of the first person perspective within you – and grasp the contingent miracle that is presence of the others about you … then I might be able to assist.

        At least that was the approach Ivan Illich (1926-2002) developed from the parable of the Good Samaritan.

    • Dan L.
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      So you’re proposing that God exists, but that all actions of God are mediated through the actions of other people.

      Alternative hypothesis: there is no God, but there are people.

      How would you rule out the alternative hypothesis?

      • Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

        Hi Dan,

        As I said above I can’t rule out the nihilist hypothesis – certainly not in the third person sense demanded by science. But that doesn’t invalidate evidence available in the first person – does it?

        Plus recall that first-person faith is reckonbed to be devalued when not in the company of a personal doubt (Kierkegaard).

        So even if we managed to use science to prove the existence of god amongst us scientists – we would simultaneously undermine the faith necessary to sustain belief in god.

        It would be something like Heisenberg’s principle that prevent us getting too close to untangling matter & energy.

        But please do help me out here: what would be the null hypothesis necessary to indicate the god probably exists?
        If it is a scientific problem I would be handy to for me to know the formulation.

        In the absence of hypothesis we still exist.
        – as the poem starts.

  30. Posted October 29, 2011 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    One correction: in the second set of quotes, you list Fincke as giving the first and me as giving the second, when I was the one who made the first comment (and he the second, obviously [grin]).

  31. Myron
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    For “mental masturbators”:

    FOREKNOWLEDGE AND FREE WILL

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/free-will-foreknowledge/

    http://www.iep.utm.edu/foreknow/

  32. Posted October 29, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    who farted?

  33. Der Zed
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    philosophers in this discussion come off like defenders of a flagging musical sub-genre proclaiming ever more emphatically and unrealistically the merit of their favored clique. yes philosophy is often interesting and occasionally important but only about as often as big band swing at best and at worst jazz fusion.

  34. sailor1031
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    A sometimes interesting, sometimes irritating discussion. But the chance of this study to show that time travel to the past may be possible is nil. It is merely flying in the face of physical reality.

  35. dunstar
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    lol. Well I’d be on board about philosophizing about how the other Magic Bearded Man can deliver all the presents to little kids around the world in one night simultaneously. At least it’s a useful exercise the outcome of which people can tell their kids about. The Templeton foundation can come up with a “Standard model” for how Santa can do this so that the answer of every parent to their kids would be consistent across the globe just in case kids started comparing notes of the explanations they hear from adults of this mysterious event.

    lol

  36. will
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I’m reading a book called “The Closing of the Western Mind” and it’s true that Christian doctrine has made mushbrains out of many centuries of philosophers. In fact the entire concepts of philosophy and learning almost shut down in the 4th & 5th centuries when Christianity became the dominant religion. After 1000 years of Christianity all of Aristotle had vanished from the western world except 2 works of logic. The only work of Plato known in the west by the twelfth century was his dialogue “Timaeus” and only because it supported the idea of an orderly universe created by God. There are still Christians that hold the idea that God is the beginning and end of knowledge and therefore reading anything else but his revealed text is irrelevant. If it weren’t for their preservation by Arab translators in the 13th century, we’d have lost a great deal of Greek literature & the Greek intellectual tradition. A staggering amount of secular learning was burnt after Christian thought took hold.

    “Restrain our own reasoning, and empty our mind of secular learning, in order to provide a mind swept clear for the reception of divine words.” – John Chrysostom, 4th century CE

    “Let us Christians prefer the simplicity of our faith to the demonstrations of human reason. For to spend much time on research about the essence of things would not serve the edification of the church.” – Basil of Caesarea, 4th century CE

    • Al West
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 1:04 am | Permalink

      It’s not quite as simple as that. First, the Arabs weren’t the only ones to preserve Greek knowledge. The Greeks in the Byzantine empire had preserved plenty of things. On top of that, we are aware of many presocratic and Hellenistic philosophical fragments because of later commentators who noted down the fragments in order to comment on them. The early Christians were no different from the Platonists and Epicureans in this regard, and St Clement of Alexandria, in particular, preserved much presocratic philosophy.

      And very useful it is too.

  37. Dominic
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I stand by my view that mind is a quality that can only be associated with animal/human brains. (Perhaps we could have computer minds but that is yet to happen.) Why wouldn’t I think that? t is surely absurd even to crazy theologians to think that god would have a brain. If Mind cannot exist without brain because all mind is is a projection of the electrical activity of the brain. If anyone can show me evidence that it is something that can exist outside of a brain I would love to see it, just as I would love to see the evidence – EVIDENCE – for fairies or a god.

    • Dominic
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      IT is surely absurd…

    • Dave Ricks
      Posted November 5, 2011 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

      I agree with your first sentence or two, that in reality:

      mind is a quality that can only be associated with animal/human brains. (Perhaps we could have computer minds but that is yet to happen.)

      But about your call for EVIDENCE in all caps: When you took calculus, did you derail your class — like a creationist — by interrupting the teacher and demanding EVIDENCE for their infinitesimals and infinities? And don’t tell me mathematical proofs are EVIDENCE, because proofs in calculus are conclusions that follow from constructing relationships between infinitesimals and infinities, which are unreal and unsupported by your call for EVIDENCE.

      No, you learned calculus like this: You accepted their unreal infinitesimals and infinities for the sake of argument, and you learned a system of thought that followed from these unreal concepts. And that’s how I see the philosophical research we’re arguing about. Given some premises — whether real or unreal — the research will look for systems of thought that can follow from them. I’m surprised anyone who took calculus has trouble with this.

  38. Terry
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Hey, if someone wants to pay me $81,000.00 a year, plus $5500.00 a year in travel expenses, (that’s a lot of trips to CERN,) I’ll tell’m anything they want to hear.

    How does one sign up?

  39. Dominic
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Without reading allll the above comments -his comment on Stooshies jam point – “more likely that our present choices determined the past event of that sort of belief formation.”
    So if our present choices ‘determine’ past events of that sort of belief formation, then our future choices must determine the present event “of that sort of belief formation.”

  40. Terry
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Can’t help myself, I’ve gotta add this to my previous post.

    I applaud this California grad student for fleecing the Templeton outfit out of let’s see, $5500.00 + $5500.00 + $81,000.00 + $81,000.00 = $173,000.00, if my math’s correct.

    The guy spends 10 minutes a day generating a couple of pages of bullshit for Templeton, and the rest of his/her time doing meaningful research. And only people who can read between the lines really understand what a glorious con this was.

    • Achrachno
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      I think the $173,000 is before campus overhead, no? I think c. 55% is going to go away before he writes his first word.

      Maybe some of that will go to the library, or to keep the lawns mowed.

      • Terry
        Posted October 29, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

        Still a great con on Templeton, even if the student just ends up with milk money.

        • Achrachno
          Posted October 29, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

          Yes. I wasn’t really trying to argue, you just got me thinking about side benefits. The con may have downstream benefits we’ve not been thinking about.

  41. MadScientist
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    As a scientist I just laugh at these two philosophers and say they’re nothing but bullshit artists. There isn’t much “serious philosophy” out there and much of what there is tends to be introspection. Philosophy has never produced the predictions of science nor the rigid framework of thinking which has guided mathematics. Compared to mathematics and science, philosophy is amateur conjecture.

    • Posted October 29, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

      I hope it is one of those manic ‘mwah ha ha haaa” type laughs then, appropriate to your nom de keyboard! ;)

    • Outlaw_Philosopher
      Posted October 30, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

      Well, you know, other than producing both science and mathematics [Arguable, but consider Descartes, Frege, Carnap, Godel...] themselves. The problem is that when Philosophy produces anything that works, it ceases to be called philosophy.

      • Drosera
        Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:45 am | Permalink

        So, philosophy is like alternative medicine?

        • Al West
          Posted October 31, 2011 at 1:29 am | Permalink

          No. If this analogy were accurate, then philosophy would be all medicine, including ‘alternative’ medicine, proto-medicine, poison, food, and scientific medicine. Philosophy generates the ideas from which science comes, and just because over the past couple of centuries we’ve used different words for science and philosophy that doesn’t mean that they are truly different.

          Where did atomism, the idea at the base of our understanding of the universe, come from? It came from philosophical speculation, in particular by Leucippus and Democritus. Epicurus picked up the idea and, through Lucretius’ 1st century BCE Epicurean poem, De Rerum Natura, which was rediscovered in Europe in the fifteenth century, atomism ended up widely known among the educated during the Renaissance. As the universe was further examined scientifically, atomism gained respectability as more than just a hypothesis that made sense of logic and basic observations.

          2,500 years ago, people would have said to Democritus, “your ideas are worthless, impractical, undemonstrated, and count as nothing more than mental masturbation”. Imagine if he had stopped, and not propagated the idea. I’m not comparing this Templeton project to Democritus and atomism, but rather the whole of philosophy.

          Science has taken over many fields of philosophy, and this has been a dominant trend in philosophy for many decades. Quine in particular believed that philosophy and science were or should be effectively the same thing. We no longer have to prove atomism in philosophy; it can be assumed, although not without caveats. So what is there for philosophy to do?

          Plenty. The philosophy of society – just what a society is, how social facts work, what the formally necessary properties of law are – is now booming, and rightly so. Social scientists are seldom concerned with these things, because the question of what actually exists in the universe is seldom what they got into social science to do. Physicists are not concerned with such questions because it seems so far removed from physics. But these questions are not irrelevant. They’re just conceptual. They seem wanky and stupid, but they’re not.

          Anyway, bash this Templeton funded project all you like, but please refrain from bashing philosophy.

          • Drosera
            Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:07 am | Permalink

            I was just paraphrasing what I believe Outlaw_Philosopher said. Besides, it is impossible to bash philosophy, since bashing philosophy is itself philosophy.

  42. Posted October 29, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    sbscrbng

  43. raven
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Not seeing how this project is any different from studying the mind of Batman, Superman, Spiderman, or Thor.

    They are as real as the various xian gods.

    IIRC, bot Superman and Thor are aliens living on earth for different reasons.

    If anything, studying aliens with superpowers would be a lot more interesting.

    • Posted October 29, 2011 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

      Or literary characters e.g. Harry Potter.

    • Posted October 30, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      I strongly suggest that you look into the various series looking at the intersection of Philosophy and Popular Culture. I have on my shelf “Batman and Philosophy”, “Supervillains and Philosophy”, “Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy” and “Star Wars and Philosophy”. They’re entertaining introductions to the philosophical issues raised in those works, and can get into some surprising detail (the “Batman and Philosophy” book, for example, goes into a lot of detail on Virtue Ethics).

      So, yes, those sorts of things can be of interest. You may not get grants to study these specific examples due to a bias against pop culture, but if you can link it to William of Ockham — a quite famous philosophical mind — that tends to be overcome.

  44. raven
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    From reading the various threads, it seems like the Templeton Foundation has over 1 billion USD and gives out 70 million bucks a year.

    That is a lot.

    My impression is that they have a hard time finding worthwhile projects to spend that $70 million on. Just about everything they fund seems either marginal, silly, or both.

  45. MH
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    In other words, you thought a philosophical project was philosophically uninteresting and so you attacked it. Then a bunch of philosophers tried to explain that it really was philosophically interesting and not a bunch of nonsense. And your claim is basically “Philosophers! What do they know about philosophy!” Basically the position here is that you respect philosophy a great deal but see no reason to take seriously what philosophers have to say about it?

    I would think a biologist of all people would recognize this sort of position. It seems to be exactly how the discovery institute treats biology.

    • Dominic
      Posted October 30, 2011 at 12:30 am | Permalink

      It does not seem to me that Jerry is saying that about philosophy. His views appears far more nuanced than how you represent them. The point for me is that money spent ‘investigating’ god, is money wasted. You do not need grants of money to devote time to thinking about the world as a philosopher. This particular ‘investigation’ is theological, and Jerry has made his views about theology clear on plenty of occasions. I think those views are probably shared by a lot of the readers of these pages. Perhaps you think theology a worthy subject – I think it of less value than study of mythology. Mythology is rooted in human culture and experience, whereas to me theology is only an unsuccessful attempt to justify the truth of those religious myths.

      • Dominic
        Posted October 30, 2011 at 12:32 am | Permalink

        “views appear” – changed to plural!

      • MH
        Posted October 30, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink

        But of course what the philosophers are pointing out is that precisely none of that is true. The project is a philosophic and not theological one. And his claims to the contrary, in the face of repeated explanations by people who are actually knowledgeable about how these lines are drawn, is what is arrogant, dismissive, and dishonest.

        • Tulse
          Posted October 30, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

          The project is a philosophic and not theological one.

          And just how do you figure that a project that is attempting to make the notion of omniscience less incoherent isn’t theology? Do you find the concept of omniscience very current in contemporary academic analytical philosophy? How many philosophy departments at secular universities teach courses that involve that concept?

          It is absurd to suggest that this is anything more than an attempt at apologetics, funded by a religious organization. It is at best “philosophical theology”.

  46. raven
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    “I would think a biologist of all people would recognize this sort of position. It seems to be exactly how the discovery institute treats biology.”

    No.

    The Dishonesty Institute pretends to be doing science, while doing nothing but attacking real science and scientists.

    They also pretend to be nonreligious while incessantly babbling like the fundie xian cultists they are about jesus, god, satan, demons, hell, and the inerrant literal bible.

    There ultimate goal is to overthrow the US government which they hate and set up a theocracy. They are funded by xian Dominionist money from some rather ugly christofascists, Ahmanson being one of them.

    • raven
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      The analogous position for Dr. Coyne would be to claim to be doing real philosophy while accusing those Templeton fundees of being agents of satan who are all going to hell.

      Or a slave labor camp if the Real Philosphers manage to take over the government soon.

      • MH
        Posted October 29, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

        And setting himself up as the arbiter of what is and isn’t actual valuable philosophically in the face of actual philosophers saying otherwise, and accusing those philosophers of being obscurantist dupes is different enough that there isn’t any particular problem with it?

        Accusing philosophers of doing nonsense is one (foolish) thing. Accusing them of doing nonsense while simultaneously claiming to be defending real philosophy from the people who do it? That’s another, less honest thing.

        • Dominic
          Posted October 30, 2011 at 12:35 am | Permalink

          “Accusing philosophers of doing nonsense is one (foolish) thing.” – but what if it IS a foolish thing? Theology? Do you think theology is a valid subject?

          • MH
            Posted October 30, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink

            I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about theology. But of course that’s irrelevant since theology is not involved here. This is a philosopher, pursuing a philosophic project. Calling it theology is just ignorant nonsense, and continuing to call it that in the face of multiple philosophers explaining otherwise is simple minded ignorance.

            • Dominic
              Posted October 30, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

              Oh MH, I love it when you get masterful!
              Dominic the Mindlessly Ignorant.

              • Dominic
                Posted October 30, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

                oops! Simple mindedly ignorant!

  47. Wim V
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Hi,

    I haven’t read your critic’s blog posts, but I would have to slightly disagree with you.

    If you look simply at the attributes of this proposed entity – things like omnipotence, omniscience, atemporality, non-spatiality, omnipresence, omnibenevolence – each of those in itself presents great avenues for thought, let alone when you combine them.

    It’s too bad their combination (i.e. what the religious will then call “God”) suddenly results for you in not being worthy of philosophical contemplation.

    Even scientists like Steven Novella, Lawrence Krauss and others can find intellectual stimulation in talking about what it would require for zombies to be real, the physics of science fiction, or which superhero would win over which other superhero. They’re not talking about something real, but it’s a great way to exercise your grey cells and relate to matters that are real in a creative way.

    I think the same exercise, to an even larger extent, would apply to a being that encompasses the above attributes.

    • Wim V
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

      * your critics’

    • Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

      It would be easier to think about the OP’s example in the same way as your own examples if only questions about omnipotence and freewill and reverse causality were given the same academic attention as questions about zombie anatomy.

      • Wim V
        Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

        “if only questions about omnipotence and freewill and reverse causality were given the same academic attention as questions about zombie anatomy.”

        Don’t you think things like free will and retrocausality are worth much more serious consideration and study than zombie anatomy?

        • Posted October 29, 2011 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

          I think all things that can be studied should be studied. What I’m not so sure about is whether the grad student in question intends to *study* those things or merely Think Very Hard about them. For instance, there are obvious implications for physics. Do you think this fellow intends to do physics experiments with his money?

          • Posted October 29, 2011 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

            Good points.

          • Wim V
            Posted October 30, 2011 at 2:56 am | Permalink

            “Do you think this fellow intends to do physics experiments with his money?”

            No, why should he? He’s not a physicist. However, he could take recent conclusions or theories from physicists’ research into the nature of time and space and apply them to the proposed philosophies of time (A-theory and B-theory, I think) to see which is more likely given these new conclusions, for example. (I believe William Lane Craig himself has said that, besides God, his favourite topic of study is the nature of time.)

            If by “intends to *study* those things”, you only mean the person himself generates empirical data from observation, then that would not really be studying it, no. However, that does not preclude that he makes use of data and theories from physics to apply to the philosophy of time, causality, free will, metaphysics, etc.

            • Posted October 30, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

              I’d imagine that any physics findings on retrocausality are going to be cutting-edge or thereabouts. There are precious few non-physicists whose interpretations of others’ work carry a prima facie veneer of authority; random theology grad students are not among them. And even if the prospective author does his physics homework, is it likely that theology journal referees will have the necessary expertise, let alone any physics background whatsoever?

              • Wim V
                Posted October 30, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

                “And even if the prospective author does his physics homework, is it likely that theology journal referees will have the necessary expertise, let alone any physics background whatsoever?”

                I don’t know. I have no real idea what goes into being, for example, an expert in the philosophy of time and how much you know about current physics if you are.

        • Posted October 30, 2011 at 5:54 am | Permalink

          Don’t you think things like free will and retrocausality are worth much more serious consideration and study than zombie anatomy?

          Not hardly. “Free will” is incoherent nonsense and time travel is exactly as much a violation of conservation as corpse reanimation. Makes for entertaining storytelling, to be sure, but serious consideration? Only if you still think the Jesus Fairy leaves coins in your sock drawer at Easter.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Wim V
            Posted October 30, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

            Thanks for your input, I guess.

          • Posted October 31, 2011 at 5:03 am | Permalink

            So would you rule out time travel and zombies a priori? Surely if they existed, that would be cause to revise our understandings of conservation? ;-)

            /@

            • Posted October 31, 2011 at 6:22 am | Permalink

              By now, it should be obvious that time travel and zombies are no more real than magic spells and proctologists from Uranus. I no more anticipate nor give serious thought to any of that than I do the possibility that the latest zero-point energy scam artist has developed a perpetual motion machine.

              There could have been evidence for time travel or zombies. But the universe would have been a radically different place were either possible. Just as the universe would have been a radically different place were there omni-whatever gods mucking about.

              You’re welcome to worry about what it would mean if one were to show up tomorrow. I’ve got bigger fish to fry.

              For example, I still haven’t brushed my teeth yet this morning….

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 6:47 am | Permalink

                But the universe would have been a radically different place were either possible.

                Exactly!

                So, with the universe as it is, if then there were a zombie, what label would you slap on it?

                /@

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 6:54 am | Permalink

                Seriously? You’re wanting a label to use for the things that (don’t) go “bump” in the night?

                I’d call it storytelling if done reasonably well, and an hallucination if sincerely believed real.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Tulse
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 6:54 am | Permalink

                The problem is that we can never be certain we fully know the universe “as it is” — we can never be certain our epistemology is complete, and so we can’t rule out “natural” zombies a priori. We can say that, given what we know, they are extremely unlikely, but we can’t rule them out without claiming…omniscience.

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 7:16 am | Permalink

                @ Ben

                No, I’m looking for a label for “impossible” things if they did, nevertheless, go bump in the night… and you know what that label is…

                @ Tulse

                Yes, we can, if they violate conservation or any other very well established law, theory or model. We can, for example, rule out quotidian, terrestrial matter that isn’t composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons, just as certainly as we can rule out evolution not being true.

                /@

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 7:35 am | Permalink

                Zombies are a perfect example of the violation of the law of conservation of energy.

                What, you think there’s sufficient energy available to the body to permit it to prey on the ultimate apex predator while its skin is sloughing off and its intestines are dangling, just waiting to be fondled?

                If the body had that kind of energy reserves, it wouldn’t have died in the first place.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 8:01 am | Permalink

                No, I don’t think that at all. But what I think (and what actually is) is irrelevant to the question as posed.

                /@

              • Tulse
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

                Yes, we can, if they violate conservation or any other very well established law, theory or model.

                There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now; All that remains is more and more precise measurement. — Lord Kelvin, 1900

                The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote. — Albert Abraham Michelson. 1903.

                These quotes were said just years from the quantum revolution, where the behaviour of matter and energy routinely violated the then-understood and well-established laws, theories, and models.

                Does that mean that, at that time, quantum phenomena were actually supernatural?

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

                So, which well-established laws, theories and models do you think quantum phenomena violated?

                /@

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

                So, which well-established laws, theories and models do you think quantum phenomena violated?

                Seriously?

                Before the quantum reevolution and lacking evidence, atomic diffraction, superconducting (and all related phenomena, such as levitation and locking), Einstein-Bose condensations, lasers, teleportation, entnglement, and more all would have violated all sorts of the then-well-established laws, theories, and models of the time.

                Yes, yes. Today we know those are all perfectly natural phenomena. But, before QM, they’d have been indistinguishable from black magic. Indeed, many of those phenomena are indistinguishable from what once was claimed as black magic (even though we know that such claims were universally fraudulent).

                That’s the problem with your definition. It depends on current understanding. Today, superluminal neutrinos (if demonstrated real) would be supernatural, but they’d suddenly become natural as soon as somebody figures out what’s going on. But a GPS receiver remains supernatural to everybody who doesn’t understand general relativity.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

                Before the quantum reevolution and lacking evidence, atomic diffraction, superconducting (and all related phenomena, such as levitation and locking), Einstein-Bose condensations, lasers, teleportation, entnglement, and more all would have violated all sorts of the then-well-established laws, theories, and models of the time.

                So you keep saying. But which ones?

                /@

              • Tulse
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

                So you keep saying. But which ones?

                Well, there were Kelvin’s “two dark clouds over physics”, namely, the problem of understanding the medium of the transmission of light, and accurately modelling black body radiation. Kelvin’s clouds were supposed to be mere bits to tidy up in what was otherwise a near-complete physics. There was just the niggling problem of not being able to account for the medium through which electromagnetic waves passed (since of course, it was known at the time that all waves travel through a medium), and not being able to model black body radiation when energy is treated as varying continuously (since of course, it was known at the time that energy is infinitely variable). The solutions to these problems overthrew classical physics and the understanding of the time. Waves floating through nothingness? Energy fundamentally limited to pre-established tiny packets? What absurdity!

              • Posted November 1, 2011 at 2:41 am | Permalink

                OK… So which then well-established laws, theories and models were violated in each case? Conversely: Which prohibited the propagation of waves without a medium? Which demanded that energy varied continuously?

                /@

              • Tulse
                Posted November 1, 2011 at 6:17 am | Permalink

                Which prohibited the propagation of waves without a medium?

                The luminiferous ether was a concept that existed since Newton. It seemed necessary to give the absolute frame of reference that Newtonian physics required — once it was determined that light moves at a fixed velocity in a vacuum, satisfying Maxwell’s equations required presuming an absolute reference frame for which this was true. In addition, Maxwell’s conception of light as electromagnetic waves required an electrically charged medium through which to propagate.

                It was only with the advent of Special Relativity, and elimination of the need for an absolute frame of reference, that ether could be eliminated (and of course the Michelson-Morley experiment demonstrated the problem with ether empirically).

                In other words, ether was an accepted fundamental aspect of physics since at least Newton. And it took Special Relativity, and a radical reconception of how the universe works, to overthrow it.

                Which demanded that energy varied continuously?

                Classical thermodynamics and electromagnetic theory.

                I don’t think it is controversial to say that these two examples, among many many others, radically overthrew the existing understanding of science. Heck, scientists at the time on either sides of these issue essentially said this.

              • Posted November 1, 2011 at 7:20 am | Permalink

                I would agree that these two examples, among many many others, radically changed the existing understanding of science. But, overthrew? No.

                Yes, aether was an accepted hypothesis. But was it really “well established”? Who had validated the hypothesis? Michelson-Morley would have falsified it even if special relativity hadn’t already been formulated. (Although, admittedly, the results might not have been as readily accepted.)

                And do classical thermodynamics and electromagnetic theory really demand that energy vary continuously? For example, now that we know that energy is quantised, in what way is classical thermodynamics no longer a valid description of the states and processes of thermodynamical systems, using macroscopic, empirical properties directly measurable in the laboratory?

                This is an important point: I’m fully aware that quantum theory, relativity (special and general), and so on revealed that classical, laws theories and models were incomplete, that they didn’t apply at all scales, that (for example) they were macroscopic or low-energy abstractions of what was going on at a quantum and relativistic scales.

                But I’m being very strict about what I mean by “violation”, a point I made several times the other thread, that would indicate something supernatural; viz. something that contradicted a well-established scientific law, theory or model in the regime where it had been established.

                General relativity, for example, doesn’t change the fact that apples fall on lazing scientists’ heads, or the force with which they fall.

                So relativity and quantum phenomena would not have qualified as supernatural, because they departed from classical laws &c. only at different scales.

                /@

              • Tulse
                Posted November 1, 2011 at 7:53 am | Permalink

                Ant Allan, I think there’s some hair-splitting in your response. Clearly the notion of luminiferous ether was presumed for nearly 200 years in physics, and played a key theoretical role in explicating how Newtonian physics worked for light. So yes, it was well-established, and I think very well fits the criterion of “model” or “theory” that you laid out earlier.

                And:

                now that we know that energy is quantised, in what way is classical thermodynamics no longer a valid description of the states and processes of thermodynamical systems, using macroscopic, empirical properties directly measurable in the laboratory?

                That would be black body radiation, which was routinely experimentally observed, and was found to vary from classical explanations at the higher frequencies.

                I guess we can debate over the meaning of “radical” and “overthrown”, but again, I think that is hair-splitting. I think we both agree that Special Relativity and quantum mechanics introduced a way of viewing the foundations of the universe that were hugely at odds with the view of classical physics.

                But I’m being very strict about what I mean by “violation”, a point I made several times the other thread, that would indicate something supernatural; viz. something that contradicted a well-established scientific law, theory or model in the regime where it had been established.

                The qualifying phrase at the end is a reasonable limitation, but I think it just moves the debate to what it meant by that regime. For example, Newtonian gravity’s regime certainly included planetary orbits, but once Mercury’s orbit was measured precisely, it clearly did not fit. Getting black body spectra was an extremely easy lab task for 19th century physicists, but the spectra produced did not match the otherwise well-established physics of the time.

                And pinning the supernatural on how “well-established” something is within a “regime” is a purely epistemological criterion — if history had worked out differently, if something had been discovered later, or certain instrumentation not been available, then what phenomena would fit as “supernatural” would change. It seems to me that we want our definition of supernatural to rely on features of the phenomenon and not of our science. In other words, we want an ontological definition of supernatural that defines its qualities directly and timelessly, and not an epistemological one that defines it by exclusion, and relative to our current understanding. Our science might help us determine whether a particular phenomenon fits the category of supernatural, whether it has the defining features or not, but it seems silly to define the supernatural purely by our current scientific understanding.

    • raven
      Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

      “They’re not talking about something real, but it’s a great way to exercise your grey cells and relate to matters that are real in a creative way.”

      OK, you’ve convinced me. Sign me up immediately.

      Templeton is paying that graduate student 81,000 USD a year. I assume that this is the going rate, deposit it in my bank account.

      I’ll do Superman and Thor, the minds of aliens with superpowers exiled on earth.

      As you will note, this is twice the work of that California graduate student. What a great deal.

      • Wim V
        Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

        If you can find private funding for your book on Superman vs. Thor then go for it.
        Maybe you’ll make a bestseller like Lawrence Krauss’ book on the physics of Star Trek, or other books on the physics of superheroes.

    • Posted October 30, 2011 at 12:13 am | Permalink

      Wim V – if what you are saying is that thought experiments can be interesting ways for philosophers to explore ideas that is one thing, and I for one am quite happy to learn from philosophy about ideas and ways of looking at ourselves and our problems. Yet if I want to know about how the universe works I will consult a physicist, biologist or a chemist or one of their ilk. This Templeton money would have been better spent on any number of literary analyses.

      • Wim V
        Posted October 30, 2011 at 3:02 am | Permalink

        “Yet if I want to know about how the universe works I will consult a physicist, biologist or a chemist or one of their ilk.”

        His study doesn’t preclude the student from using data and results from physics about their current views on time, causality and the like.

        The fact that he’s stuyding the implications for the nature of his god with it, doesn’t preclude either that he may make general contributions to the fields of philosophy of time, philosophy of causality, etc.

    • Dan L.
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      Ah, new trope.

      Wim V, the “zombies” you might read about in papers on philosophy of the mind are not the same as the “zombies” you read about in ethnologies of Haitians or postmodern discourses on 1950’s pop culture. Instead, they’re hypothetical entities which act like humans but do not have the subjective, internal life of a human. Such a construct is pretty much the first thing you’re going to want to talk about if you’re investigating the nature of consciousness — we don’t have to call it a “zombie” if it’s confusing to you to do so.

      The physics of science fiction is usually based on real-world physics, e.g. faster-than-light travel in sci fi is usually explained with reference to gravitational wormholes or Calabi-Yau manifolds or what have you, theoretical entities straight out of the physics textbooks. Discussing the physics of science fiction is interesting because it is the same as talking about real physics.

      • Wim V
        Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        “The physics of science fiction is usually based on real-world physics”

        Well, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, omniscience, omnipresence, timelessnes, spacelessnes, infinity, etc.
        are also based in reality, in that they take real things like force, ethical actions, knowledge, presence, time, space and push them to ultimate limits.

        I’m not saying this requires the allocation of enormous funding, but they are worthwhile concepts and combinations of concepts to do some deep thinking on.

  48. Kevin
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    1. There’s nothing wrong with philosophy, even if it’s mental masturbation of this kind. Science uses the philosophy of model-dependent methodological naturalism. We don’t have any problem with that brand of philosophy.

    2. There’s nothing wrong with a grad student fleecing some sucker for a couple of years of decent living, as long as that money comes from a private source. I’d be pretty honked off if it were government funding, but it’s not. I’m sure the pope or the Mormon pope or the Baptist pope has funded some looney stuff in the past and will in the future. Their money. Even if it ultimately comes from fleecing the sheeple.

    3. The issue, of course, is using money for this purpose versus other more-worthy purposes. One could easily see Templeton using those billions of dollars to fund research into Parkinson’s disease, or Alzheimer’s, or non-carbon-based energy sources. It’s an insult to humanity, not just to science, to fund this kind of nonsense when there are so many, many real-world problems out there.

    I sense Dr. Coyne is more offended by the pure waste of time and money than of the actual philosophical/theological exercise.

    4. Oh yeah, it’s not philosophy. It’s theology. Period. Which in this context means an a priori assumption that an ‘omni-something’ exists. The output will be worthless — at a cost of $173,000.

    Of course, the student has already set himself up as the next William Lame Craig — his career as a god apologist is made on the basis of this grant alone. Which is a waste of a human brain and human hands. Another tragedy.

  49. Nick Andrew
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    What’s that you say, Fincke? “take away all funding to philosophy and give it to science”?

    Alright … if you insist. The world will thank you for it.

    Still, I’m unconvinced with your line that Philosophy is entirely the kind of advanced mental masturbation which we could do without. There must be a kernel, a smidgin, a grain which is actually useful to humankind. Not this “study” though; it belongs in the 95% majority of useless cogitation.

    To clarify, I do think there is some use for philosophy, but this study doesn’t strike me as one. I’m more amenable to arguing from premises which are likely to be true. In this study, not only are the premises overwhelmingly likely to be false, but when the subject is an omnipotent deity, one can draw no firm conclusion as the gawd may choose to respond in any way at all.

  50. Kharamatha
    Posted October 30, 2011 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    “If there isn’t one, as I presume both of these folks agree, then the project becomes an exercise in mental masturbation, musing about what something nonexistent would do if it existed. Why is that any more valid than wondering how an omnimalevolent God could allow good in the world, or why an omnibenevolent God allows evil? Or, for that matter, how fairies would keep their wings dry in the rain, or how Santa manages to deliver all those presents to billions of kids in only one evening.”

    And what’s wrong with that?

  51. Posted October 30, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Philosophy is a dead language. They are right to be worried. What has philosophy predicted, in the lase few hundred years. In fact, philosophy is pretty much ideology, wishful thinking and a bunch of indefensible ideas.

    It’s core problem is trying to come up with anything useful or even interesting using consciousness and natural language. Good luck with that.

    • Al West
      Posted October 30, 2011 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      That is an astonishingly ignorant post. The bulk of this website’s content is philosophy – mostly philosophy of religion, but there have of course been forays into free will and other important philosophical topics. If you think science isn’t philosophy, or has no philosophical implications, or that its only topics are consciousness and language, or that it’s “pretty much ideology”, then I’m afraid by having those thoughts, you are engaging in philosophy, whether you like it or not. And on this website, where arguments against NOMA are so common and discussions of the lack of validity of religious claims are the daily norm, it is an absurdity to claim that philosophy is in any way dead.

      Even if academic philosophy has the problems you suggest, and it doesn’t, that still says nothing about philosophy as a whole, which includes any rumination on almost any topic. Descriptive linguistics – clearly scientific – began as the philosophy of language. Cognitive science began as an off-shoot of philosophy of mind. Physics began as the basis of metaphysics, and not in some haphazard way, but as a logical and empirical process aimed at finding the truth – a philosophical goal.

      • winwar
        Posted October 30, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

        And you’ve provided many excellent examples why many consider philosophy no longer useful. It’s been incorporated into other fields and applied in practical ways.

        How exactly is a philosopher doing a thought experiment superior to a specialist doing the same? Especially when the specialist can actually apply it?

        I assume that there is still a place for straight philosophy at universities, although defense of crap like this makes me reconsider. Hopefully this doesn’t involve teaching intro courses on the great philosphers that were really wrong but that we pretend were really awesome.

        • Outlaw_Philosopher
          Posted October 30, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

          Well, philosophy seems mostly useful in that it can provide the seed from which actually useful fields can grow. In some areas, there really isn’t a good systematic science yet, and maybe by philosophical thought we’ll eventually get one.

          And maybe not, of course, but to pass judgement in advance, on less than no evidence, is…

        • Al West
          Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:33 am | Permalink

          I assume that there is still a place for straight philosophy at universities, although defense of crap like this makes me reconsider.

          Fortunately, you don’t get to decide.

          Philosophical thought experiments have different purposes from what we think of as scientific ones. We already know that the universe is made up of elementary particles – or we may at the very least reasonably assume it. And we already know that *some* things entirely reduce to the properties of these particles – chemistry, for instance. How much can we say is reductive? Is consciousness, for instance, something that could potentially be reduced to the properties of elementary particles?

          I expect so. Dennett and Jerry Fodor and others don’t agree with that. One of the ways in which we tussle over the question is by using thought experiments. They have no practical application as of yet – if they could be tested, then no one would bother with an abstract thought experiment, but it appears to be the only tool we’ve got.

          And philosophy provides the seeds of subjects – that was my point. It’s not that philosophy has been superseded, it’s just that what began as rather abstract thought developed over the course of 2,500 years into more concrete understanding. That concrete understanding still has philosophical ramifications that biologists, for instance, are too busy to uncover. And rightly so. Academia has a division of labour for a reason.

          Chill. Your disagreement with “philosophy” (which for you appears to be the world’s most ridiculous strawman) is an absurdity on a website almost entirely devoted to the implications of science on metaphysics and the question of god’s existence.

  52. aspidoscelis
    Posted October 30, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, Jerry, those folks did pwn you. So far as I can tell, you’re engaging in the same kind of reasoning as the Republican anti-intellectual, anti-science crowd. “I don’t understand field X, and I can’t figure out how it could possibly be useful, therefore any funding for the field is illegitimate and should be ceased immediately.” Do you think this is reasonable when applied to your field? Would you like your next grant proposal to be evaluated by economists, literary critics, and political scientists? Or open to veto from bloggers in other fields? To the average non-biologist, research on fruit fly speciation is arcane and useless, and I suspect you would be defunded in short order. If that doesn’t strike you as a great way of running your field, why do you want to subject other fields to this kind of absurd non-peer review?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted October 30, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      Sorry aspidoscelis, but I don’t buy your argument. What you’re saying is that nobody but other English critics can go after postmodernism, so Alan Sokal’s hoax and books about the stuff are misguided.

      I can point to TONS of fruit fly research that has had practical results. I doubt that anything useful has ever come out of speculating how a nonexistent omnisscient God would deal with free will.

      Besides, other philosophers have found that stuff stupid as well.

      • aspidoscelis
        Posted October 30, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

        Sorry aspidoscelis, but I don’t buy your argument. What you’re saying is that nobody but other English critics can go after postmodernism, so Alan Sokal’s hoax and books about the stuff are misguided.

        If people outside the field take the time to learn it and can make a compelling critique from a thorough understanding of the field, yes, absolutely, outsiders can have valid critiques. OTOH, your approach here is “I don’t know anything about it and I don’t want to. Nonetheless, let me tell you why it’s wrong…” With all due respect, that’s BS.

        I can point to TONS of fruit fly research that has had practical results.

        Yeah, well, Sarah Palin is happily ignorant of your research and disagrees with you. Let’s just take her word for it.

        • Drosera
          Posted October 30, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

          There is a slight difference between studying Divine Foreknowledge and fruit flies, in that one subject is accessible by the methods of science, the other not so much. Please inform us how one could possibly gain ‘thorough understanding’ of a field that deals with something as vapid as Divine Foreknowledge? Philosophers are not doing their profession a favour by legitimising such trash. It comes across as astronomers defending astrology.

        • Dan L.
          Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink

          Yeah, well, Sarah Palin is happily ignorant of your research and disagrees with you. Let’s just take her word for it.

          Trying to intimidate people into agreeing with you by comparing them to Sarah Palin?

          I love these philosophy fans. They discredit themselves before you even get to respond!

          • Al West
            Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

            I don’t see what’s intimidating about comparing someone to Sarah Palin. And no one is saying that Jerry Coyne actually is Sarah Palin, only that the arguments he put forward in the post are as anti-intellectual as those Palin makes about studies of volcanoes and other such things. The proposal is a bit rubbish, and certainly not worth the money, but saying that proposing hypothetical beings is somehow inherently ridiculous and not philosophical is moronic.

            • Diane G.
              Posted November 1, 2011 at 2:32 am | Permalink

              …saying that proposing hypothetical beings is somehow inherently ridiculous and not philosophical is moronic.

              Oh? Name one good reason for proposing hypothetical beings.

              • Al West
                Posted November 1, 2011 at 3:34 am | Permalink

                Well, like I said: for thought experiments. As long as you say that the hypothetical being is just that, hypothetical, and not real, I think you’re okay to hypothesise whatever you like. And they can be very useful. Laplace’s demon in its original formulation has been useful to both physicists (less so now, of course – but it was an inspiration to critique the Newtonian, mechanistic picture of the universe, so…) and philosophers, who still find it useful.

                As long as we’re clear that the beings we propose to use for thought are not real, we’re okay. And I don’t know why anyone would object to that. Laplace’s demon certainly doesn’t legitimate Yahweh.

          • aspidoscelis
            Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

            My comparison was intended to make this point:

            It is self-defeating to endorse in one context a line of reasoning that acts directly against your interests when applied to other contexts.

  53. tomh
    Posted October 30, 2011 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    There is a slight difference between studying Divine Foreknowledge and fruit flies…

    Exactly. And “studying” is the wrong word to use for anything to do with theology, or deities, or Divine Foreknowledge, for that matter, since there is nothing to study. To study something there has to be something to actually study, (like fruit flies). Everything to do with the “study” of god, is imagination, and making stuff up.

    • aspidoscelis
      Posted October 30, 2011 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

      Though you intend your criticism only against theology and particular areas of philosophy you don’t like, it is also lethal to logic (a subfield of philosophy), math (and its subfields like statistics), and all theoretical endeavours generally… including most of evolutionary biology and population genetics. Even the most purely empirical studies in biology require a sound conceptual framework to mean anything.

      Whether this particular study will yield useful results I do not know; but if it doesn’t, it won’t be because concepts rather than physical things are the primary object of study… and attacking it because it is conceptual is anti-intellectual in the extreme.

      • tomh
        Posted October 30, 2011 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

        Ah yes, making up some random absurdity, like a god, or divine foreknowledge, and then claiming to study it is the epitome of intellectualism.

        • aspidoscelis
          Posted October 30, 2011 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, this study involves a hypothetical situation in which not all of the components have real-world analogues. Physics is absolutely full of that sort of thing, and biology has its share as well. “Infinite frictionless planes”, “spherical cows”, the infinite, mutationless, selectionless, randomly mating population of Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, etc. What, exactly, is wrong with logical analysis of such hypothetical situations?

          Sure, this kind of study can’t tell you anything about god (but, really, you’re not going to hold that against it, are you?), but it might tell us something about those aspects of the hypothetical situation that do have real-world analogues (things like time, knowledge, etc.).

          • aspidoscelis
            Posted October 30, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

            Also, I’m guessing that you’re under the impression that once we’re dealing with hypothetical scenarios and dare to admit things that can’t exist in the real world through the hypothetical door, we just kind of throw logic out the window and meander unconstrained about in the hypothetical landscape smelling flowers and making up any damned thing we please. That isn’t how it works. Looking at how hypothetical scenarios function in science should make that clear (infinite frictionless planes can’t exist… but they still follow the laws of physics). Philosophy does not differ in this respect. We can let god into the hypothetical world, but we can’t kick logic out.

          • Dan L.
            Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

            “Spherical cows” is from an actual, factual joke about physicists. It does not strengthen your case when you cannot tell a joke from an actual scientific principle.

            “Infinite frictionless planes” are often good approximations. For example, the behavior of the humble capacitor can be modeled to a good first approximation as an infinite frictionless plane. What if you want to study something in the gravitational field “above” the disk of a galaxy? You’ll probably want to model the galaxy as an essentially infinite frictionless plane (granted, the frictionless-ness doesn’t really matter here).

            Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium describes something that you can point to in the real world and say, ‘Hey, that’s an example of Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium.’

            So yeah, you’re pretty bad at this. No wonder you’re not a scientist.

            • aspidoscelis
              Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

              Forgive me for using a humorous example. I don’t think this detracts from the fact that people in science do indeed consider hypothetical scenarios that include things that don’t actually exist.

  54. tomh
    Posted October 30, 2011 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    Sure, this kind of study can’t tell you anything about god

    Why not? If one can study divine foreknowledge one can certainly learn something about god.

    • aspidoscelis
      Posted October 30, 2011 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

      Well, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but god doesn’t exist.

      If you want to be picky, this study might end up giving insight on how omniscience could work if there were a god, but since there ain’t… (similarly, we know a great deal about what would happen on infinite frictionless planes, how Hardy-Weinberg populations would behave genetically, etc., but those things don’t exist, either).

  55. tomh
    Posted October 30, 2011 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    You keep trying to equate theological maunderings with math or science. It doesn’t work.

    • aspidoscelis
      Posted October 30, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

      If conceptual or theoretical investigations and analysis of hypothetical scenarios work in science, then the fact that some other thing you don’t like happens to use those tools is not a solid basis for rejecting it. You’ll have to come up with something else.

      For instance, if we found out that the results of this study used scripture as a source for “truth”, made logical errors in the service of a Christian viewpoint, or posited god as an actual existing thing rather than part of a hypothetical scenario, we’d have good grounds for calling it “theological maundering” and rejecting it. That it involves a counterfactual hypothetical situation doesn’t get you there. And that you don’t like anything that (even hypothetically) involves god isn’t an excuse for sloppy, half-assed, or anti-intellectual criticism.

      • Tulse
        Posted October 31, 2011 at 6:19 am | Permalink

        So let’s say the Islamic Accommodationist Foundation provides a two-year post-doc on how to understand the nature of flying horses. Would you say that such a project is free from any theological maunderings?

        Or say the Irish Leprechaun Research Foundation gave a post-doc a lot of money to ponder in what way rainbows could emanate from pots of gold stashed by fey folk. Would you describe such research as purely philosophical?

    • aspidoscelis
      Posted October 30, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

      Compare this discussion with the following hypothetical scenario:

      A: I don’t like bananas.
      B. Why not?
      A: Because they’re yellow.
      B: But you like corn and yellow bell peppers, and those are also yellow.
      A: But… bananas and corn aren’t the same.
      B: Yeah, but they’re both yellow, so that can’t be why you like corn but not bananas.

      • Dan L.
        Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

        Look, we understand perfectly why we talk about infinite frictionless planes, etc. It’s because they’re fruitful approximations — models — of real-world behavior. We can use them to do useful calculations about entities whose form approximates the hypothetical ones — the surface of the earth, at a certain scale, looks and behaves a whole lot like an infinite plane and that is why kinematics courses include the derivation of the G field due to an infinite plane (it’s how we get 9.8 m/s^2 acceleration at the surface of the earth — which isn’t literally true but it’s much more useful than the equation that is literally true).

        What we don’t understand is what “God” is supposed to be an approximation for. So your hypothetical conversation is not really representative. It’s more like:

        A: I don’t eat daffodils.
        B: Why not?
        A: They’re not food!
        B: But bananas are food and bananas are yellow!
        A: Yes, bananas and daffodils are both yellow, but the yellow-ness is irrelevant to whether or not they’re edible. Daffodils are not edible so I don’t eat them.
        B: But! Banana peppers!

        • aspidoscelis
          Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink

          Well, if you know how infinite frictionless planes work in physics, you know how god works in religion. The difference is that in physics you’re hypothesizing a counterfactual situation to shed light on the physical behavior of matter under normal circumstance, while in philosophy you’re hypothesizing a counterfactual situation to shed light on the normal behavior of concepts.

          So, we’ve got these everyday concepts of time, causality, and knowledge. The question this dude is investigating, AFAICT, is, “OK, how could those concepts interact in a hypothetical scenario in which we allow omniscience?”

          And if we’re going to modify my hypothetical conversation to account for your comments here & my response, I would suggest the following:

          A: I don’t like bananas.
          B. Why not?
          A: Because they’re yellow.
          B: But you like corn and yellow bell peppers, and those are also yellow.
          A: But… bananas and corn aren’t the same.
          B: Yeah, but they’re both yellow, so that can’t be why you like corn but not bananas.
          A: No, corn isn’t yellow.
          B: Yes it is.

          • aspidoscelis
            Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink

            Christ, stupid typo, not enough sleep. Correct as follows:

            “Well, if you know how infinite frictionless planes work in physics, you know how god works in philosophy of religion.”

            • Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

              The difference is that we can build finite low-friction planes that actually behave as the equations predict, within the limits of measurement error for those with the type of equipment typically available to undergraduates. And we have similarly-excellent equations that take into account the friction, resulting in models that exceed the measurement error for any available lab.

              Your gods, on the other hand, aren’t only nowhere to be found, but as incoherent as married bachelors to boot.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • aspidoscelis
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:58 am | Permalink

                We do have beings with limited knowledge available for study. Omniscient beings are just a hypothetical endpoint of knowledge, in the same way that infinite frictionless planes are a hypothetical endpoint of finite planes of varying friction.

  56. Drosera
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    Yeah, this study involves a hypothetical situation in which not all of the components have real-world analogues. Physics is absolutely full of that sort of thing, and biology has its share as well. “Infinite frictionless planes”, “spherical cows”, the infinite, mutationless, selectionless, randomly mating population of Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, etc. What, exactly, is wrong with logical analysis of such hypothetical situations?

    The difference is that ‘infinite frictionless planes’ are well-defined abstractions with precisely known properties. Physicists would not refer to ‘planes with properties subject to divine interventions’. Not every hypothetical situation is a fruitful starting point for logical analysis. If everything goes, as you seem to suggest, you would perhaps support funding a study about the mating behaviour of unicorns. Or wouldn’t you?

    • aspidoscelis
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 1:22 am | Permalink

      As I’ve mentioned to tomh above, philosophy involving hypothetical scenarios isn’t just an “anything goes” venture. God in this context is stipulated to have precisely defined properties. You don’t just toss an undefined and unpredictable god in there. That those properties are divine is beside the point; for the purposes of philosophical investigation, they have to be well-defined and to follow the rules of logic like everything else.

      The kind of thing you’re imaging would be as if physicists dealing with a hypothetical infinite frictionless plane decided, “Hey, so long as this is hypothetical, let’s just turn off the normal rules of physics and let random stuff happen.” It may be worthwhile to modify the rules of physics to see what that would imply, but if you just throw them out and operate without any solid rules, you’re doing it wrong. Same with philosophy.

      “Hypothetical” and “divine” in this context do not mean irrational and inexplicable.

      • Tulse
        Posted October 31, 2011 at 6:23 am | Permalink

        God in this context is stipulated to have precisely defined properties.

        But the property of “omniscience” has been argued time and again to be incoherent. And once you start with an incoherent premise, then indeed “anything goes”.

        The problem is not that this is a thought experiment — the problem is that the terms are so loose and incoherent on their own, that any result is possible. In other words, this is not a good thought experiment.

  57. Drosera
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    God in this context is stipulated to have precisely defined properties.

    That’s not what I read in the research proposal as quoted by Jerry. All I see there is a vague reference to what I presume to be the Christian God. That, however, is supposed to be a real entity, so you can’t ‘define’ its properties, anymore than you can define the properties of a rabbit without actually examining a rabbit.

    What this study will lead to is equivalent to a description of the behaviour of rabbits by someone who has no clue what a rabbit actually is. What possible insights might this produce? Who cares?

    • aspidoscelis
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:55 am | Permalink

      Wait… what?

      We’ve got an object that doesn’t exist being investigated in a hypothetical scenario, and you’re saying that… this nonexistent object is actually real and so it should be investigated empirically?!

      All I can figure is that you’re having trouble with the idea that “philosophy” isn’t, and isn’t supposed to be, a synonym of “science”. So you’re trying to imagine in what context scientific investigation of god would be reasonable, and then faulting a philosophical inquiry for not matching that imagined situation and being unlikely to give the kind of results you want from science. I’m not sure what to suggest to remedy this confusion beyond taking a course or two in philosophy so’s you’ve got some idea how it actually works.

      • Drosera
        Posted October 31, 2011 at 4:06 am | Permalink

        I’m merely describing what this Templeton study is supposed to be about. The existence of the Xian God is treated as a given (read the proposal). It is not pure philosophy (more like pure BS). That’s why I don’t quite understand why you and others are so eager to defend it.

        • aspidoscelis
          Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

          “Treated as a given” just means “assumed for the sake of argument”, not “definitely true, and with the stipulated properties verified empirically”. Again, cf. “assume a spherical cow”.

          As for why I’m defending this study–I’m not. There are more reasons to reject bad argumentation than disagreement with the intended conclusion. In this particular case, a lot of that bad argumentation amounts to a general rejection of the legitimacy of any rational inquiry that isn’t narrowly empirical. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of a cluster bomb–it might take our your intended target, but there’s a hell of a lot of collateral damage. Modifying slightly my earlier comments: That you don’t like anything that (even hypothetically) involves god isn’t an excuse for sloppy, half-assed, or anti-intellectual criticism of philosophy and abstract reasoning.

          • Drosera
            Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

            Yes, I know what ‘treated as given’ means, thank you very much. But unlike a spherical cow or an infinite frictionless plane, the Xian God is not an entity with known properties. How would you base a useful argument on such a vapid concept?

            I’m all for abstract reasoning. But start with well-defined concepts, otherwise it will be a case of garbage in, garbage out.

            • aspidoscelis
              Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink

              Well, in the context of philosophy of religion god does indeed have the same status as a spherical cow in physics. It is a taken as a hypothetical entity with certain defined properties. Whether an entity with those defined properties actually exists is not part of the issue. God in this context is not treated as a thing that may or may not exist and whose properties are completely undefined except in the case that god exists and his properties are known empirically. That would be a reasonable conceptualization of god from the point of view of strictly empirical science, but not in a philosophical context.

              If you don’t want to take my word for it, Verbose Stoic & Fincke have said the same thing at more length, and probably written it much better. And, while I’m just a guy with an undergrad philosophy degree (as well as training in biology), they’re actual honest-to-god philosophers…

              • Drosera
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

                You are, perhaps unwittingly, employing the same rhetorical trick as certain religious apologists. That is, when challenged about the theistic god they actually believe in, they switch to a deistic perspective and vocabulary. While I have made it abundantly clear that I am referring to the specific Xian God, entirely in line with the Templeton-funded project under discussion, you insist on focussing on some abstract entity with defined properties. You are creating a straw man, which in my book is a sign of “sloppy, half-assed reasoning.”

              • aspidoscelis
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

                Basically, I’m giving the guy the benefit of the doubt and assuming that, as someone with multiple degrees in philosophy, he’s probably doing philosophy. Hence, I’m discussing how the kind of investigation described briefly in Jerry’s original post would proceed “in the context of philosophy of religion”.

                Maybe I’m wrong to give him the benefit of the doubt. I don’t know. In either case, I’m not about to jump on the “philosophical inquiry into hypothetical scenarios can’t possibly be legitimate” bandwagon.

              • Drosera
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

                In either case, I’m not about to jump on the “philosophical inquiry into hypothetical scenarios can’t possibly be legitimate” bandwagon.

                Neither am I. So let’s agree on that.

          • Drosera
            Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

            Let me put this slightly differently. A spherical cow is something you define. It doesn’t exist but it still has properties. The Xian God, on the other hand, either exists or it doesn’t. If it exists it has certain properties, which we cannot define but which must be established empirically. If it doesn’t exist it has no properties. Either way, it doesn’t make sense to treat the Xian God as a given in a purely philosophical argument.

  58. Diane G.
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:09 am | Permalink

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: atheists need to take philosophy seriously.

    Or what? You’ll throw a tantrum?

    • Al West
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:45 am | Permalink

      What if you said to a religionist, “religionists need to take science seriously”, and then they responded in the same way you have?

      Atheists obviously need to take philosophy seriously because their position is a philosophical one. If you don’t think that is the case, then you’re being irrational.

      • Posted October 31, 2011 at 4:28 am | Permalink

        +1

      • Dan L.
        Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink

        Sorry dude, you can’t make people interested in things they’re not interested in just because you think they should be. You physically can’t and ethically you shouldn’t try.

        • Al West
          Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

          If someone is an atheist, then they have a philosophical position. If they are posting here, they likely have a philosophical position, especially when they reject certain ideas and support others. Rejecting philosophy is a philosophical position. Saying that only science can find out about the world is a philosophical position. Proclaiming your support for reason is a philosophical position. Saying that religion is wrong because we know enough to reject it is a philosophical position.

          Atheism in particular is philosophy. It’s not something other than philosophy.

          Do you really not get it? Atheism is a set of metaphysical beliefs. It is not something other than that. If someone says, “I’m an atheist, but I don’t care about philosophy and don’t consider it interesting”, that’s identical to saying “I think we should scrap the federal reserve, but I don’t care about economics or politics”, or, to use your earlier ridiculous example, “I drive a car, but I don’t really care about how to steer”.

          • tomh
            Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

            Al West wrote:
            Atheism is a set of metaphysical beliefs

            You certainly have your own definitions – philosophy you define upthread as, “any rumination on almost any topic,” not to mention, “philosophy does incorporate science and every other form of study.” In other words, no one can argue that any topic isn’t philosophy if someone, somewhere has ruminated on it or studied it. Very convenient. Now, atheism becomes a “set of metaphysical beliefs.” Nonsense. My atheism is a single opinion, there is no “set” involved. Any beliefs you think are tacked on have nothing to do with the atheism.

            • Al West
              Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

              The reason I said that atheism is a set of metaphysical beliefs is because the definition of atheism is contentious, and if I say that it is one belief (god does not exist; denial of god’s existence; lack of belief in god), then someone will complain. Obviously, it refers to a single belief in each instance.

              But it still metaphysical. Obviously. If you believe something about the universe that no amount of empirical investigation could prove and which will, however likely it becomes, always be an extrapolation from the evidence, then you believe something metaphysical.

              Your belief about atheism – is it about deities? Their lack of existence? Denial of their existence? Something along those lines? If yes, it is a metaphysical belief. If instead you have taken your belief about the beauty of Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine and decided to label it “atheism” instead, then no, it’s not metaphysical, but it’s also not what I or anyone else would recognise as atheism.

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

                I don’t know what Tom’s position is, but mine is that “god” is a self-containt contradiction. I truly have no idea what is meant by the term (ignoring idols for the moment) because nobody has ever been able to present to me a coherent definition of the term.

                That is, I no more believe that there are gods than you believe that there are married bachelors, square circles, or gleeblefarbs. That nobody in all of history can point to something and state, “that, that right there, is (the work of) a god / married bachelor / square circle / gleeblefarb” is yet more empirical evidence of the usefulness of logic in evaluating the likely merits of a claim.

                Is that a philosophical position? Are etymologists philosophers?

                Cheers,

                b&

          • Diane G.
            Posted November 1, 2011 at 2:09 am | Permalink

            Al West, you’re playing the ol’ semantic switcheroo, here. There are many definitions of “philosophy,” and in the colloquial understanding of it, that of one’s general life view, I, too, see my atheism as a part of my personal philosophy. That has absolutely nothing to do with the narrow field of academic philosophy with all of its arcane jargon and huge amounts of off-putting superiority, not to mention ludicrous leaps of “reasoning” based on absolutely nothing concrete. To the extent that any of that tradition is at all necessary, you will find that scientists are using it. Otherwise, all the importuning you can post provides no actual reason for us to accede to your claims.

            • Al West
              Posted November 1, 2011 at 4:04 am | Permalink

              First of all, atheism has a lot to do with academic philosophy. If anyone studies atheism – not as a social movement, but as a conclusion reached after thought – who does it? I can tell you: philosophers. Specifically, philosophers of religion, like Robin Le Poidevin. So atheism obviously has something to do with academic philosophy in every meaningful sense. And it has been part of philosophy since Xenophanes! I’m just amazed that anyone could consider atheism to be something other than philosophy. This is not a contentious point – it just seems that every atheist here hates philosophy. As an atheist, I find this strange. Atheism is part of philosophy. It is a philosophical position, and there are no semantic games going on.

              But if your atheism is just some life-choice, some part of your “personal world-view”, then I don’t think you’ve considered it properly, frankly. Is it a position about the non-existence of deities, or is it a guiding principle in your life? If someone says, “does god exist?”, and you say, “nope”, then you’re making an ontological claim – a metaphysical claim, a claim about what exists and what doesn’t. To claim that this isn’t philosophy is just… it’s like saying that the study of bats isn’t part of biology because bats are really important to you. Bats are part of my personal philosophy, so they can’t be part of biology, because biology is icky.

              That is basically what the reasoning about philosophy on this page has consisted of. It’s ludicrous.

              • tomh
                Posted November 1, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

                But if your atheism is just some life-choice, some part of your “personal world-view”, then I don’t think you’ve considered it properly, frankly.

                You actually think that the proposition of a magic man in the sky is deserving of proper, serious thought? You asked somewhere about my atheism, so I will tell you. I was raised in a household without religion. If the subject of the supernatural came up, (rarely), the idea that adults could take seriously, and actually believe they were true, fairy tales that included ghosts, or angels, or gods, was simply met with head-shaking and wonder. Now, nearly 70 years later, I still feel the same way. Yet, to you, this is philosophy. Incredulity becomes philosophizing. Nonsense deserves serious consideration. And, of course, this would make it philosophy, since, according to you, anything that anyone has ever ruminated about becomes philosophy. Even to you, this must sound a little silly.

              • Al West
                Posted November 1, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

                Atheism is not the position that there is no such thing as so-called ‘supernatural stuff’. You could be an atheist who believes in ghosts – and yes, the issue of ghosts is a philosophical one, of course, as well as a scientific one. And yes, ghosts are rejected, but this still required investigation. You can’t just reject it a priori as impossible, but only after empirical investigation. Ghosts are much easier to falsify than deities.

                One could also reject the supernatural and still be a deist. There’s nothing ridiculous, prima facie, about the notion of a first cause, although it is in principle unknowable, and moreover a ’cause’ somehow ‘before’ time seems to be an absurdity, as causation requires time. But this is a logical and not empirical topic, and one that it has taken a very long time, and an awful lot of mental effort, to get to.

                To say that atheism requires no real thought, that it just involves rejection of the supernatural, is simply wrong. It requires a good deal of thought to reject all possible alternatives. Rejecting religion – sure, that’s easy. Believing that there is no deity of any kind among those described by philosophers and religionists for the duration of recorded history is a somewhat harder endeavour, although atheism does seem to be the most reasonable answer, by far.

                And yes, it is philosophy, although being raised to believe something is less rigorous than most philosophers or scientists would like in terms of belief justification. Nonetheless, justified atheism is a philosophical issue. Specifically, it is an ontological question.

              • tomh
                Posted November 1, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

                And yes, ghosts are rejected, but this still required investigation. You can’t just reject it a priori as impossible, but only after empirical investigation

                Ridiculous. Describe the empirical investigation that falsified ghosts.

                Ghosts are much easier to falsify than deities.

                Nonsense, they are both part and parcel of fairy tales and equally easy to reject.

                One could also reject the supernatural and still be a deist.

                Wrong. The most common definition of a Deist is one who “believes in a God who created the world but has since remained indifferent to it.” Other definitions include things like, “belief in the existence of a God on the evidence of reason and nature only, with rejection of supernatural revelation.” Belief in God requires acceptance of the supernatural.

                Atheism is not the position that there is no such thing as so-called ‘supernatural stuff’.

                Gods require the supernatural so rejecting it is a good start.

                To say that atheism requires no real thought, that it just involves rejection of the supernatural, is simply wrong

                You are wrong. I am living proof that it is easily done.

                It requires a good deal of thought to reject all possible alternatives.

                You are wrong. All possible alternatives are equally silly and they can be rejected with little thought.

                Believing that there is no deity of any kind among those described by philosophers and religionists for the duration of recorded history is a somewhat harder endeavour,

                Nonsense. Every deity ever described is exactly the same as far as I am concerned. To believers, no doubt, they seem different, in the same way that sheep seem different to other sheep. To a reasonable outside observer they are identical. People just invent different fairy tales to surround them.

              • Posted November 1, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

                The “Scientism” Thang

                This is the same rhetorical. straw man trick the theologians use with evidence-based arguments. The trick is clever since it plays to human thinking weaknesses and hyper-personalization of everything.

                It is an attempt to reframe evidence as a belief system/ideology/”ism”. Once a belief system or “ism,” any evidence is immediately discounted and just another person’s opinion.

                It is the “ethnic food defense” — everyone like different kinds of ethnic foods and they’re all good. It’s just a matter of personal preferences/tastes/feelings/moods/etc.

                Lots of people fall for this trick and end up defending the opponent’s straw man — thus, they win.

                Factually, there is no such unified belief system or set of precepts or even methods that we can call “science.” Journalists can make something up, but it’s a straw man again, even if used for complimentary purposes.

              • Al West
                Posted November 1, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

                Belief in God requires acceptance of the supernatural.

                No, it doesn’t – at least, not if you’re a deist. The notion of a first cause is not supernatural. It’s not within the confines of the universe (whatever it means for that to be the case), and so there is no physical law to break, no nature to exceed. Deism does not require belief in the supernatural. All it requires is belief in what was once a very commonly held notion: the first cause. Most people still have a problem with the idea that something can “come from nothing”, but of course, when that something includes the principles by which something cannot come from nothing, there is no reason to believe in a first cause.

                But that’s a complex argument. How did you come to reject the first cause so easily? How powerful your mind must be, to not even have to bother with reason!

                Your rejection of deities appears to be based rather more on emotion than good sense.

                And there was, by the way, no single investigation that proved the non-existence of ghosts, partly for the simple reason that proving non-existence is very difficult. No; the reason we can say ghosts don’t exist is because they make no sense given what we know about the nature of the human body and the nature of life, which is no longer held to be vitalistic. Ghosts have also never been encountered.

                But just because it has never consisted of a single scientific experiment, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t empirical. If you reject ghosts outright without doing any investigation, then you’re a crap thinker and not a scientific, rational person.

              • tomh
                Posted November 1, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

                I said, “Belief in God requires acceptance of the supernatural.”

                Al West replied:
                No, it doesn’t – at least, not if you’re a deist. The notion of a first cause is not supernatural. It’s not within the confines of the universe …”

                So you imagine that there is someone, somewhere, who calls himself a Deist, and believes that God caused the universe to begin, but it was all natural. And that this proves that belief in God doesn’t require acceptance of the supernatural. Is this what passes for rigorous, philosophical analysis these days? I’ll grant you that person might exist somewhere among the 7 billion on the planet. For the other 99.999% of God believers, belief in God requires acceptance of the supernatural.

                And there was, by the way, no single investigation that proved the non-existence of ghosts,

                Then surely you can list a few of the multiple investigations that you are implying.

                the reason we can say ghosts don’t exist is because they make no sense given what we know about the nature of the human body and the nature of life, which is no longer held to be vitalistic. Ghosts have also never been encountered.

                So when you said, “ghosts are rejected, but this still required investigation. You can’t just reject it a priori as impossible, but only after empirical investigation” you were just making stuff up. You didn’t reject them after “empirical investigation” because there never was any empirical investigation. Now you reject them simply because they make no sense and we’ve never seen one. I can reject fairies and elves and gods all for the same reasons.

                And yet you still try to save your argument with,
                just because it has never consisted of a single scientific experiment, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t empirical. If you reject ghosts outright without doing any investigation, then you’re a crap thinker and not a scientific, rational person.

                In other words, even though we can’t investigate them, and don’t need to since they make no sense and we’ve never seen one, we can still call it empirical and we have to investigate them. Give up the ghostbusters routine, you’re floundering. It’s pathetic.

              • tomh
                Posted November 1, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

                Oops. The third paragraph, from “So you imagine” to “of the supernatural” shouldn’t be italicized. That’s mine.

              • Al West
                Posted November 2, 2011 at 2:21 am | Permalink

                It doesn’t matter whether deists exist or not – although they do. What matters is whether the idea of deism is a legitimate possibility. It is, clearly, and it has one argument in its favour that was not overturned until fairly recently. Jefferson, Voltaire – the Enlightenment was replete with deists, and they all believed in an essentially mechanistic, natural universe without any intervention from their deity, which they only saw as a necessity to get the universe started a la the first cause argument.

                As for ghosts, it was after empirical investigation that they have been rejected. They could still exist, but it seems extremely unlikely given that every investigation of so-called “hauntings” has come up negative (it’s not like there haven’t been plenty of those, and they are empirical) and given that empirical investigation of human beings has shown that there is no vital principle within them that could plausibly survive death. Ghosts cannot be rejected without empirical investigation of the universe, and your claim that they can is bizarre.

                Check out Randi’s site for investigations of ghosts. It’s not my forte.

                The validity of an argument doesn’t depend on how many people believe it, and deism could still be a legitimate possibility that needs refuting even if only one person believed it.

                Further, your statement “belief in God requires acceptance of the supernatural” is evidently false. One could be a deist, someone who definitely believes in something for which the term “God” legitimately applies, and not believe in the supernatural. And in any case, you can’t reject deism outright without any grounds. It seems like you just rejected it without thinking. That is not rational or sensible.

              • tomh
                Posted November 2, 2011 at 8:58 am | Permalink

                Al West wrote:

                “they all believed in an essentially mechanistic, natural universe without any intervention from their deity,”

                The supernatural does not require an intervention from a deity. To posit a creator god, outside the universe, not subject to natural laws of physics, able to do things like create a universe, is to invoke the supernatural. Supernatural simply means, “being above or beyond what is natural; unexplainable by natural law or phenomena.” A God would certainly qualify.

                “Check out Randi’s site for investigations of ghosts. It’s not my forte.”

                Obviously. You’re talking about a magician exposing a charlatan’s tricks. It has nothing to do with an empirical investigation of ghosts. The whole idea is ridiculous, yet you cling to it like a drowning man to a lifeboat.

              • Al West
                Posted November 2, 2011 at 9:15 am | Permalink

                You appear confused as to what exactly constitutes empirical investigation. No one is asking, “what are the properties of ghosts?” They are instead asking, “do ghosts exist?” The conclusion thus far reached to the latter question is, “no”, and to the former, “none; or non-existence”. But they are both empirical questions. It just so happens that one is essentially unanswerable and the other has ended in a negative conclusion. That doesn’t make it a non-empirical matter.

                To posit a creator god, outside the universe, not subject to natural laws of physics, able to do things like create a universe, is to invoke the supernatural.

                No, it isn’t. You appear to be confused here, too. If all you are proposing is a creator god – a first cause with no other attributes – then you aren’t proposing anything supernatural. Before there is a universe (whatever that means), there is no physical law, no nature, to break, so a first cause outside the universe cannot be supernatural by definition.

                But you also appear to be making a really dumb argument. Even if we arbitrarily extend the category of “supernatural” to include the argument of the first cause, that doesn’t invalidate the notion of the first cause, which appears to be your claim. If you can’t invalidate it on its own terms, and choose to do so only because you have arbitrarily included within a category that you have rejected, then you’re not thinking. You’re not rational.

                If you called yourself an atheist before thinking about and rejecting the argument regarding the first cause, then your atheism was not fully justified, frankly, and simply deciding to include under the category of “supernatural” does nothing to change that situation.

                You’re embarrassing yourself.

              • tomh
                Posted November 2, 2011 at 10:33 am | Permalink

                The only embarrassment is you claiming that there have been empirical investigations of ghosts. Because a magician performs a trick and then claims “the ghost did it,” you think that by exposing the trick one has made an empirical investigation of ghosts? What’s next, you’re going to reference the TV shows that have haunted houses in them? The movie Ghostbusters? Exposing bogus claims, made for fun or profit, does not equal an empirical investigation of ghosts. Give it up, it can’t be done.

              • Al West
                Posted November 2, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

                I’m mystified by your inability to grasp basic concepts. If you investigate a claim using observation and your senses, aided in this by machines and implements, then you have conducted an empirical investigation of that claim. If a magician claims that ghosts caused the effects the audience has seen and the claim is investigated, and no ghosts are discovered, and instead a natural, physical explanation is uncovered, then the specific claim of ghost involvement has been falsified through an empirical procedure.

                I don’t know how you could have a problem with that, or even why you think it’s important. What is important is the fact that you don’t think atheism is a philosophical issue – and more to the point, that your atheism appears to be emotional rather than rational. This is the problem with any ‘movement’ or group based around belief; some people just believe the right thing for the wrong reasons. You cannot reject the first cause argument out of hand simply because you see it (erroneously) as supernatural after having rejected all other supernatural claims. You must have a better reason behind it, or your position is simply not thought through well enough.

                If you are just emotively attached to the idea of rejecting the supernatural and deities of all kinds, even the simple first cause argument, now refuted, without thinking about them first, then I’d prefer the views of someone like Voltaire who, although a god-believing deist, was at least someone who had thought in advance about his views.

              • tomh
                Posted November 2, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

                As for you saying that I can’t be a “fully, justified” atheist, a real, true atheist I guess, without considering abstruse philosophical arguments about first causes, or imagining what came before the universe, not to mention considering all the deities that have ever been invented, well, actually, I have done these things, for about one minute. I put all deities in the same category as Bugs Bunny, and the abstruse philosophical arguments in the same category as empirical investigations of ghosts. I guess that makes me not a real atheist. I’ll just have to live with it.

              • Al West
                Posted November 2, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink

                It’s not about identity. It’s not about “real atheism”. It’s about whether you have fully considered the issue or not. Your atheism is not justified by reasonable standards; you have no reason to prefer atheism over deism, so it is arbitrary and therefore irrational to go for atheism. You may be fine with this, but then you are fine with being an irrational person with beliefs that are not justified.

                And if you spent one minute alone on all possible claims of deities, then you are not a reasonable thinker or a scientifically-minded individual. If atheism is a “movement” and if “we” atheists are supposed to stand for reason (and I certainly don’t have the group-forming sentiments to make this so on my part, although I am not directly opposed to it), then I’m a little ashamed on behalf of what is supposed to be our cause. I much prefer thinkers to reactionaries, and you have decided to react rather than think, tomh. It’s not edifying to see.

              • tomh
                Posted November 2, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

                Godchecker.com lists over 3,700 different Gods. Unless you have carefully considered each and every one, and found a good reason to reject each and every one, you are not a “reasonable thinker or a scientifically-minded individual,” and certainly not a fully justified atheist. I’m ashamed to even be talking to you.

              • Al West
                Posted November 2, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

                @Sastra

                Perhaps that is so – certainly, most deists that I’ve ever heard of have extrapolated various attributes from the first cause argument, just as theists do. The idea of the universe as an act of will by the deity seems quite prevalent, and is unwarranted, but nowadays so is the entire argument. Either way, if the first cause argument is not dealt with, then one must remain to some extent agnostic, as there would be little to choose between atheism and deism.

              • Sastra
                Posted November 2, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

                Al West wrote:

                The idea of the universe as an act of will by the deity seems quite prevalent, and is unwarranted, but nowadays so is the entire argument. Either way, if the first cause argument is not dealt with, then one must remain to some extent agnostic, as there would be little to choose between atheism and deism.

                My point is that there is little to choose between deism and theism, since both involve some sort of Mind or mind properties with causal powers — and thus both fall subject to the same sort of philosophical and scientific objections.

                A First Cause Argument which introduces an attenuated deism sans mind-like properties is I think irrelevant to the atheist position, since as far as I can tell such a deism isn’t really deism at all. It seems to be a sort of place holder under which one can try to sneak in deism if people aren’t paying much attention to what concepts are supposed to be about. A mindless value-less flutter in the quantum foam of a twisted superstring (or whatever) is not going to be considered a version of ‘god’ no matter how primary or crucial it is or was.

            • Al West
              Posted November 1, 2011 at 4:07 am | Permalink

              That has absolutely nothing to do with the narrow field of academic philosophy with all of its arcane jargon and huge amounts of off-putting superiority, not to mention ludicrous leaps of “reasoning” based on absolutely nothing concrete.

              And again, put this into the mouth of a religionist. “That has absolutely nothing to do with the narrow field of academic science with all of its arcane jargon and huge amounts of off-putting superiority….”

              Seriously, you’re acting just like a theist. “Science is so arrogant and superior. It’s off-putting.”

            • Al West
              Posted November 2, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

              If someone says, “that house is haunted”, then we can empirically investigate that claim. Just because the answer is almost 100% certainly going to be “nope, that house is not haunted” does not mean that the investigation is neither an investigation nor empirical. To disabuse yourself of the notion of ghosts, you can’t just say “nah, ghosts don’t exist because they’re supernatural”. If you do that, while you may be right, your belief is simply not justified. By investigating the universe, and especially human beings, we can say that some phenomena exist and others don’t, and that ghosts appear not to.

              That is empirical. And you can’t just reject claims that you put into the category of “supernatural”, especially if they are not really supernatural by any reasonable definition, like the idea of a first cause.

            • Al West
              Posted November 2, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

              Oh, I’m sure there are far more gods than that! Such a short list.

              But, of course, I’m not referring to every proposed deity. There’s not all that much to distinguish between those that have names. No: the necessary thing to do is to examine all of the proposed logical kinds of deity and the arguments in their favour. Yahweh is one kind of deity with particular characteristics; it doesn’t actually exist, but the logical characteristics, including personability, emotion, creator of the universe, moral arbiter, etc, are still things to be examined. I think they can be rejected after only a short time of thinking, and science invalidates most of the attributes straight off. No, only deism – the notion of a first cause deity – provides any kind of intellectual meat, and only because it’s not an empirical topic.

              Given certain assumptions, the first cause argument works. It’s the assumptions that turn out to be wrong – ie, that everything that occurs requires a cause, and that that must include the universe. It doesn’t, for the reason that I mentioned: time is part of the universe, causation cannot occur without time, and in absence of the universe, there is no reason to believe in any form of causation. That is the logical argument – physicists often propose other ones. But you only need one to show it to be wrong.

              But if you have never considered the first cause before, never really rejected it except by hand-waving as “supernatural”, then your atheism is not justified. You would have nothing to choose between atheism and deism until the first cause argument is shown illogical.

              I’m not ashamed to talk to you, and I’m not interested in your identity as a “real atheist” or otherwise. Metaphysics isn’t about identity, and neither is reason. What I am talking about is your lack of sense, and your emotional rather than rational rejection of deities. That is not something to be proud of, and your continued effort to find something objectionable in my reasonable words is a little strange.

              • Sastra
                Posted November 2, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

                No, only deism – the notion of a first cause deity – provides any kind of intellectual meat, and only because it’s not an empirical topic.

                The difference between a “first cause deity” and a more generic first cause is that the deity really has to have at least some attributes of mind — or nobody would call it a “deity.” I think that then makes Deism subject to many of the same objections which can be made against both the more specific named theistic gods and the New-Agey consciousness-energy gods.

              • Posted November 2, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

                Al, I’ve been fully in agreement with you for most of these arguments, but I don’t think your premise “time is part of the universe” is necessarily true, if I understand some cosmological theories correctly.

                /@

              • Al West
                Posted November 2, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

                Sorry Sastra, just posted in the wrong place.

                @Ant Allan,

                That is a crude phrasing, intended to make the argument into an easily digestible syllogism. What it might be preferable to say is that there is no reason to believe that there is any time “before” the universe, as it were. The first cause argument depends on making ordinary physical law apply “before” there is a universe, and I see no reason to make that judgement. All causation we’ve ever known is within the universe. It is a leap, and not an ordinary logical step, to suggest that physical law applied before the universe existed. That is the real point.

            • Al West
              Posted November 2, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

              The first cause is not about the first thing that happened in the universe – and any strings or particles or anything that we would recognise would not be consider as part of the notion of a first cause in Aristotle’s sense. It refers instead to a cause of the universe itself that is not part of the universe, and that is held to imply intention by just the same line of reasoning that sees the first cause as a reasonable argument in the first place.

              Your point is reasonable, though, and I see it as invalid as you do. I wouldn’t call it irrelevant to atheism, but it’s certainly not the best argument for a deity. It is ubiquitous, though, and the notion of a creator deity is pretty much the only remaining semi-respectable argument in favour of any deity. It’s necessary, at least, to examine it.

              • Posted November 2, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

                Oh, come on.

                Anybody who thinks the First Cause is anything other than an introductory-level textbook example of faulty logic is an uneducated idiot, right up there with those who think that division by zero results in a super-ultra-mega big number.

                Sorry.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Al West
                Posted November 3, 2011 at 2:22 am | Permalink

                It’s funny, Ben Goren: I’ve read many introductory level books on logic, and many at higher levels, and while I can’t claim to have read the entire literature, or that I’m a genius at philosophical or mathematical logic, I can say that I’ve never seen the first cause used as an example – probably because it isn’t an introductory problem of any kind, and requires a great deal of thought. In order to realise that it is false, a person has to be aware of the notion of possible worlds where there need be no truth – ie, no reality, and no physical law, and therefore no contradiction, no necessary conclusions, etc. If you think that that is introductory logic, then you’re a genius!

                It also seems a bit strange to say that it’s somehow ‘faulty, introductory’ logic, given that some of the most famous names in logic – indeed, its creators, including Aristotle, Leibniz, and even Goedel – accepted it as valid, and given that the vast majority of people, even the majority of atheists, have not considered the problem as a logical one.

                You seem to believe that a sufficient level of disdain is all that is required to see off philosophical claims. This is not the case.

              • aspidoscelis
                Posted November 3, 2011 at 2:54 am | Permalink

                Al West–

                FWIW, the intro. logic course I took did include some discussion of the Cosmological Argument(s).

                Also, I’ve been tending to agree with your statements in this thread, but then I see this:

                In order to realise that it is false, a person has to be aware of the notion of possible worlds where there need be no truth – ie, no reality, and no physical law, and therefore no contradiction, no necessary conclusions, etc.

                I find this unintelligible. Perhaps you could explain? So far as I can tell, at least the better forms of the Cosmological Argument are perfectly valid. The problems (which I assume are what leads Ben Goren to call it “faulty logic”) enter when we consider the soundness of the premisses (some of which are obviously speculative and unjustifiable) or whether the conclusion actually has anything to do with the Judeo-Christian god (AFAICT, it doesn’t; at most the argument establishes a uselessly vague deism).

              • Al West
                Posted November 3, 2011 at 3:15 am | Permalink

                I’m trying to say that the background assumptions are false, making it impossible to say anything logical about it. What the first cause relies on is the assumption that not-universe has the same properties as universe. Causation occurs in the universe; assuming that the universe itself needs a cause is an unwarranted leap, resting on the assertion that even if there is no universe (whatever that even means), there is still causation. That is wholly unjustified.

                We aren’t dealing with the universe, and there is no reason to believe that anything we know applies in any form; nothing could be logically shown to be true or false, or even coherent, or sensible, or anything, about not-universe. Not only is it not possible to empirically investigate, there is no reason to believe that there is anything at all, or even that ‘anything’ or ‘nothing’ is coherent regarding not-universe. You could believe anything you like about not-universe, including contradictions, because there is no reason to believe that any restraints exist, as all restraints that we are aware of on logic, sense, and investigation are from in the universe itself.

                You would be as justified to say that there is a cause as to say that there isn’t, as to say that both are true, or both false, as to say that a pile of ground up teacup dust generated the universe, as to say that RoboCop did, as to say anything, even something wholly incoherent – because unless you can show that any property of the universe also somehow applies outside of it (and I’m sure no one can do that, whatever it means to say “outside the universe”), there is no reason to believe that the possibilities are not infinite and that any conclusion is based on spurious premisses.

                It’s a head-bending problem, and not a piece of elementary logic. It is also important to note that the conclusions do flow from the premisses, it’s just that, as you say, the premisses are flawed.

              • Al West
                Posted November 3, 2011 at 3:30 am | Permalink

                Anyway, it’s been an interesting discussion, and it has been a productive way to spend a few days off (alongside other things, of course). But as of this afternoon, I’m busy again, and will not be able to continue the conversation until Sunday at the earliest.

        • Al West
          Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink

          Also, dude, if we followed your advice, then we should not do science outreach or try to convince anyone that they’re wrong. Apparently, “ethically” we “shouldn’t try” to interest others in new things or intellectual developments.

          Sounds like bullshit to me.

      • tomh
        Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        Al West wrote:
        Atheists obviously need to take philosophy seriously because their position is a philosophical one.

        Only if you define philosophy to encompass any and all opinions about every possible subject – a silly and worthless definition. My opinion is that there are no gods – that somehow becomes philosophy? Ridiculous.

        • Al West
          Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

          Wtf.

          I honestly cannot believe that you are serious. On the assumption that you’re not some postmodern trickster trying to make WEIT look ridiculous, I shall answer you.

          When you say that there is no god, or make any statement even approximating to anything close to that, you are making a statement about the nature of the universe that goes beyond what can be simply and easily be proven by experiment but which is sensible on the basis of the knowledge that we have. This is not scientific, therefore, but it is reasonable and rational. It is not just an opinion like “lightly browned toast is my favourite kind”. It is a metaphysical statement – exceeding or going beyond (meta) what can be totally demonstrated of nature (physin). It is reasonable, and based on logic and sense, and science. It is philosophy.

          I’m not saying that out of academic territoriality. It’s just that it is philosophy. It seems absurd – it is absurd – to even have to show it.

          • Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink

            It’s also my position that there are no square circles. Is that a philosophical position? How about my position that there aren’t any married bachelors, monsters under my bed, or sane Republican presidential candidates? Philosophical positions all?

            b&

            • Al West
              Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:33 am | Permalink

              Well, yes, they are. But they are also scientific positions, most of them, and logical ones. A square circle is a contradiction, because that which has the properties of a square does not have the properties of a circle; and even if it were hypothetically possible, induction has shown to my satisfaction and yours that square circles don’t exist. So that’s an entirely empirical topic that requires no real extra thought or a going beyond of what we can simply demonstrate. Although, having said that, unless you have solved the problem of induction, experience will not be enough to show that square circles don’t exist – and therefore, you are making a philosophical point, that also happens to be a scientific one.

              I think you are mistaken when you try to impose such rigid categories in an attempt to differentiate science and philosophy. Do you really hate the idea of philosophy so much that you can’t bear it that one of your (clearly primary) beliefs is an evidently philosophical one?

              In any case, the question of god is not wholly empirical. We must exceed what can be shown by experiment, and thus we are in the realm of philosophy.

              Like it or not.

            • Tulse
              Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink

              How about my position that there aren’t any married bachelors

              Actually, Ben, your position on married bachelors may not be “philosophical”, but the notion of analytic truths certainly has received a lot of attention in philosophy, and many argue that the analytic-synthetic distinction is untenable.

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink

                Wow.

                Talk about having too much time on one’s hands. Philosophical arguments over the precise reason why there aren’t any married bachelors? Damn.

                Maybe that’s an appropriate definition of the term, “philosophy”: that which one practices when one has too much time on one’s hands.

                b&

              • Al West
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

                *facepalm*

                How about a thought experiment? Let’s say that someone somewhere, possibly in a shack in Wyoming, the following question:

                “Investigating the evolution and speciation of fruit flies? Why the heck would you do that? That’s something you do when you have too much time on your hands.”

                Check your zipper.

                Your anti-intellectualism is showing.

                Anyway, I don’t think you’re really hostile to philosophy. You just don’t like the idea of being associated with those lazy philosophers, perhaps, or find their work less aesthetically appealing than what we think of archetypal science. Philosophy is, after all, mostly quibbling.

                But man, get over it.

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:05 am | Permalink

                I’ll give you an example from today’s headlines as to why we should care about fruit fly genetics and evolution.

                It’s not yet fully understood how DEET repels mosquitoes. It had been thought that they found the smell offensive, but new research in fruit flies — which share the same olfactory mechanisms — has demonstrated that it instead confuses the sense of smell. Once we understand how DEET works in fruit flies, we will understand how it works in mosquitoes and we may well be able to develop a safer, more effective, and cheaper alternative. By studying fruit flies, we may well reduce the incidences of malaria.

                Philosophy, on the other hand, as has been correctly observed elsewhere on this page, is to science what alternative medicine is to medicine. Philosophy that has any bearing at all on reality is simply known as, “science.”

                b&

              • Tulse
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink

                Philosophy that has any bearing at all on reality is simply known as, “science.”

                That’s just silly, Ben. Political philosophy has had a huge impact on the modern world. Moral philosophy has played an enormous role in various social movements (and Harris’ arguments about human well-being are essentially just moral philosophy). The whole foundation of science rests on deep arguments about what science actually looks and what it can and can’t claim. It’s absurd to say that philosophy is just “science”.

              • Al West
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:30 am | Permalink

                I can’t believe that you just made that argument. Should all research that serves no obvious practical benefit be halted? Should any fruit fly research – including boring old speciation stuff! – be stopped if it doesn’t help solve mosquito problems?

                Of course, I don’t think you’d assent to these things. I expect that, like any sensible human, you like learning as an end in itself – joie de vivre is just as much motivation as anything else.

                But now, here’s the crux of it: you routinely make statements that rely on an understanding of philosophy. Your questions about squares and circles, and married bachelors, are questions that have direct relationships to linguistic philosophy, logic, and epistemology. Your statements about the non-existence of deities are the very heart of metaphysics. Why not just accept it instead of bashing philosophy? Your evasions, misconstruals, and sophistical pseudo-arguments are becoming silly. You like philosophy, and science, whether you think you do or not.

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:43 am | Permalink

                How are political and moral “philosophy” not empirical disciplines — except, of course, to the extent that they’re mere masturbatory philosophical exercises in building fantastic and unrealistic sky castles?

                If your political philosophy tells you that centralized economic planning is the best thing ever but your workforce finds no inspiration in trusting the central planners to plan properly, wouldn’t the scientific, empirical response be to abandon central planning while the philosophic response would be to insist on milking the spherical cows?

                If your moral philosophy tells you that prohibiting alcohol will cure many of society’s ills, when implementing your philosophy turns out to do the opposite, wouldn’t scientific empiricism demand the repeal of prohibition? Yet why should your philosophy change?

                And the scientific method itself is constantly subjected to refinements based on empirical observation and analysis. Or how else did you think the peer review system came about in the first place, or why there’s a major shift now away from paywalled journals? Do you really think that either is the result of a bearded man in an easy chair with a pipe philosophizing away?

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Al West
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink

                Do you really think that either is the result of a bearded man in an easy chair with a pipe philosophizing away?

                en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straw_man

                Stop it. You’re being very, very silly.

                Again, this is the amazing thing about all of this discussion. You claim that philosophy has no bearing on anything in the real world. You live in the real world and made statements which are necessarily connected to problems like the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements; the distinction between empiricism and rationalism; the non-existence of god….

                You make philosophical statements practically non-stop. And it’s very fucking annoying to see you do this while saying, “philosophy? rubbish”.

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:56 am | Permalink

                I see I’m still not getting my point across.

                Philosophy is bullshit because it’s in no way tethered to reality.

                As Hawking so brilliantly put it, science will win because it works. That’s the whole point of empiricism: test your ideas, show your work.

                Philosophy is worthless because it never gets its hands dirty, never goes out and tests anything.

                When it does, like alternative medicine put through a solid double-blind trial, it either works or it doesn’t. What works stops being philosophy, just as the medicine that works stops being alternative.

                Remind me again, what’s the common name of empirical philosophy?

                Oh. Yeah. That’s right — I forgot.

                It’s, “science.”

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Al West
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

                You’re getting your point across alright. You’re just too stubborn to admit that you hold a large number of positions that are not empirical, like atheism. That simply isn’t empirical. Neither, by the way, is the question of square circles; it is logical, not empirical.

                We all hold a number of beliefs that cannot be empirically verified, but which are consistent with observations and empirical investigations of every kind. You have demonstrated that you hold many such opinions. Faffing around, trying to somehow prove the superiority of empiricism – that’s hardly necessary, as for a start, the vast majority of philosophers accept that. Yes, science is amazing, empirical investigation covers the vast majority of discussable topics, and there is a limit to what can be done through deduction, thought experiment, and simple thinking. But where empirical investigation cannot go, reasonable inductions on the basis of observation must, and that is precisely what philosophy is.

                If you truly follow the position you have espoused in that comment, then you must renounce any atheism that you have.

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

                You’re just too stubborn to admit that you hold a large number of positions that are not empirical, like atheism. That simply isn’t empirical. Neither, by the way, is the question of square circles; it is logical, not empirical.

                On the contrary. As noted by Hawking, it’s entirely empirical.

                The conclusion that logic is useful is based on an empirical observation: real-world examples of that which logic indicates should not exist (etc.) universally have not been found to exist. If logic were invalid, then we perhaps could actually find married bachelors and square circles. But we don’t.

                Show me an instance where logic fails, and I’ll empirically evaluate whether or not my faith in it is justified.

                Philosophy, on the other hand, as you go to such great lengths to point out, insists that one can know things about the unknowable. You’re no better than the “historian” who insists on gleaning meaningful information about the life of Jesus from the Gospels because, if we toss out the Gospels as unreliable, then we wouldn’t know anything at all about him otherwise. Or the drunk who looks for his keys under the streetlamp rather than in the alley where he dropped them “because that’s where the light is.”

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Tulse
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

                How are political and moral “philosophy” not empirical disciplines

                What “empirical” result tells you that some people should not be enslaved, or that everyone should have a say in their governance, or that people accumulating wealth by force is wrong? Not that it leads to bad outcomes for some, but that it is wrong?

                And if you think political philosophy didn’t lead to the American and French revolutions, you should really brush up on history.

                Philosophy is bullshit because it’s in no way tethered to reality.

                Much of theoretical mathematics is similarly “untethered”.

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

                What “empirical” result tells you that some people should not be enslaved, or that everyone should have a say in their governance, or that people accumulating wealth by force is wrong? Not that it leads to bad outcomes for some, but that it is wrong?

                That would be exactly why I don’t worry about religious concepts such as “good and bad” or “right and worng.”

                For me, morality is an optimum strategy for living. It “just happens” that societies free of slavery and theft thrive, prosper, and generally outcompete those that aren’t. If your goal is to live a prosperous and productive life, it would behoove you (in the aggregate at least) to eschew slavery and other forms of oppression. If such isn’t your goal in life, one might place bets on how many more generations your genes will survive.

                On the surface, it may sound cold and dispassionate, but the instant you scratch the surface, you discover that those “moral” qualities we cherish most are actually the ones best suited to ensuring peace and prosperity for all.

                All empirically and logically derived, free of pollution from either religion or philosophy (though I’ll admit to certain amounts of intuition filling in the gaps I’ve yet to have a chance to rigorously close).

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Tulse
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

                For me, morality is an optimum strategy for living.

                Optimum for you, or for society? There are plenty of dictators, slave owners, and sweatshop bosses who believe their strategy for living is optimal, and have the wealth and happiness to demonstrate the truth of that objectively.

                It “just happens” that societies free of slavery and theft thrive, prosper, and generally outcompete those that aren’t.

                In biological terms, you’re making a group selection argument when the unit of selection is the individual. Why should I care whether my society thrives? If I can grab power and wealth by causing others profound suffering, why shouldn’t I do it? Why can’t I cheat and steal and kill and rape and torture, as long as it benefits me in the end? And since nothing is optimal for me after I’m dead, why shouldn’t I use up as much of the planet’s resources for my own comfort, irreversibly polluting the landscape if necessary, even though such actions may have terrible outcomes for those who follow me. Heck, why can’t I rig a nuclear bomb to go off in a major city at the moment of my death? What principle of self-interest would prevent that?

                those “moral” qualities we cherish most are actually the ones best suited to ensuring peace and prosperity for all.

                And why ultimately should I care about “all”? Is there anything other than “morality” that can answer that?

              • Al West
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

                May I suggest, Ben Goren, that you read a little Hume?

                Don’t be afraid: you might like it. And it might dispel you of the ridiculous idea that your values are somehow empirically gleaned.

              • Posted October 31, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

                Optimum for you, or for society?

                In general, both. As with anything statistical, there are always and will always be local abnormalities.

                There are plenty of dictators, slave owners, and sweatshop bosses who believe their strategy for living is optimal, and have the wealth and happiness to demonstrate the truth of that objectively.

                First, there are fewer of all those nasty people today than before. Their numbers have been in a steady decline throughout all of recorded history — though, to be sure, there have been the occasional noteworthy localized upticks.

                But more to the point, it should be self-evident that, while it may be in the best interests of the exploiters to exploit others, it’s in the best interests of the exploited to not be exploited, and the sheer numbers of the exploited far outweigh the exploiters. Therefore, while the exploiters gain a disproportionate advantage by parasitizing the exploited, they also must devote a disproportionate amount of their own resources to protecting themselves from the exploited.

                The ultimate net effect is that you’ll live a far more luxurious life as a member of a healthy, free Western-style middle class than you will as the absolute tyrant of a Somali province. By behaving morally, you effectively use the entire society as a force multiplier for your own benefitm with all the members of the society collectively working together for the greater good. The despot, on the other hand, can only use a limited portion of the society’s power, as significant portions are played against each other to destructive ends.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Tulse
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

                As with anything statistical, there are always and will always be local abnormalities.

                Sure, but what if I am certain that I am such a n anomaly? By your argument, as long as it is reasonable certain that I can get away with it, I should commit crimes.

                there are fewer of all those nasty people today than before

                That is completely irrelevant to whether their actions were moral at the time.

                The ultimate net effect is that you’ll live a far more luxurious life as a member of a healthy, free Western-style middle class than you will as the absolute tyrant of a Somali province.

                That is a purely empirical claim, and certainly is not a necessary truth. Are you saying that it would OK to exploit people if it would lead to a more luxurious life for you?

                There’s also the scenario I mentioned earlier of moral actions towards the future — why shouldn’t I set up a nuke to go off in New York immediately after my death? That won’t harm me at all, so what’s my self-interest in doing do? Why not pollute all I can now, since I won’t have to worry about it after I’m dead? Why not use up all the resources now — as long as I’m not around to endure the consequences, why shouldn’t I take everything, and not leave anything for future generations?

                You seem to be arguing for some sort of ethical equivalent to Smith’s “invisible hand”, that somehow it is in everyone’s enlightened self-interest to act in a manner we would call “moral”. But I think that’s a big claim that is empirically undercut by history (just look at the “1%” currently). And even if historically it were true on average, it doesn’t address specific cases where that’s not the outcome — the dictator who lives to a ripe old age, the financier who embezzles and is never caught, the murderer who eludes capture. You seem to be arguing that it is only the consequences which should determine our actions, and if we are certain that we will be better off, then I guess it’s OK to kill, steal, torture, and rape.

                I’m sure I’m misunderstanding you, since you’re usually an extremely thoughtful poster here.

              • Diane G.
                Posted November 1, 2011 at 1:55 am | Permalink

                Ben wrote:

                Maybe that’s an appropriate definition of the term, “philosophy”: that which one practices when one has too much time on one’s hands.

                Works for me!

              • Al West
                Posted November 1, 2011 at 3:47 am | Permalink

                The ultimate net effect is that you’ll live a far more luxurious life as a member of a healthy, free Western-style middle class than you will as the absolute tyrant of a Somali province.

                This may be true, but if you became warlord of all of Somalia, or were King of Ethiopia, or Shah of Iran, you’d have a level of luxury unattainable for any but the top 1% of society in the developed world. And, perhaps more importantly, you’d also have unimaginable power, and that apparently feels good to some people. Not to me; as Democritus is reputed to have said, I’d rather discover a single causal connection than become King of Persia.

                In any case, your points about moral philosophy are astonishingly naive. You cannot derive what you ought to do from the way the world is. That is simply the case. You must already value things, think of functions – extrinsic, subjective qualities. Now, these extrinsic qualities may be obvious to most humans, but that doesn’t resolve the problem, and it is possible for people to value different things; and there is no simple way to prove that one set of values is superior. That’s just the way it is, I’m afraid. Get to the bottom of any moral statement and you’ve got some subjective, unprovable value. That’s alright. It doesn’t mean we should act in some other way. It just means that morals are not simple empirical matters.

                I’d also point out that any discussion of ethics just is philosophy. Ethics has been a branch of philosophy since Socrates. It effectively is what philosophy is to most people. So, please, stop claiming that you don’t do philosophy.

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 1, 2011 at 2:49 am | Permalink

        What if you said to a religionist, “religionists need to take science seriously”, and then they responded in the same way you have?

        Is this supposed to be a tough question? Simple–I’d ask them to try foregoing the fruits of science for a while and see how that works for them.

        Go ahead; ask me to forego the fruits of philosophy…

        • Al West
          Posted November 1, 2011 at 4:15 am | Permalink

          Go ahead; ask me to forego the fruits of philosophy…

          Okay. Throw your computer in the bin – who needs formal logic, after all? It’s just wanky. I mean, it must have been scientists and not philosophers who developed the idea of the logic gate? Right?

          The truth is, it was both. Because there isn’t really a division. It’s all in your head.

          And if you were to give up the ‘fruits’ of philosophy, I suppose those would be the ability to make abstract claims. So you’d have to give up atheism, because that makes a not wholly empirical claim.

          This retarded notion that philosophy is some great house of abstract wankery and deceit based on thin air is just plain wrong. You do it, I do it, we all do it, and your objection to it – that it is ‘superior’, and that it has somehow given you nothing – is just dumb. It’s really, really dumb.

      • Dave Ricks
        Posted November 5, 2011 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

        Al West wrote:

        Atheists obviously need to take philosophy seriously because their position is a philosophical one.

        This thread in one sentence.

    • Posted October 31, 2011 at 4:31 am | Permalink

      So, what’s you opinion of Dennett among the Four Horsemen and Grayling among the cohorts of gnu atheism?

      /@

      • Dan L.
        Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink

        Dennett has the same blind spots most philosophers do: he thinks his little thought experiments are actually normative w/r/t how reality works.

        I liked Fodor’s response to Dennett’s response to Fodor’s attacks on evolution. (Though I very much disagree with Fodor on evolution.) Something like:

        “Does Dennett even do philosophy any more? All I ever see out of him these days is intellectual posturing.”

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 1, 2011 at 2:26 am | Permalink

        I find Dan Dennett delightfully witty and approachable in person (mostly from attending the FFRF convention at which he received the “Emperor has no clothes” award). I find his books a mixture of enlightening and inspiring ideas when he emphasizes his not insignificant grasp of science, in particular biology; and murkier, harder-to-stay-interested-in material when he goes into philosophy.

        That said, I reluctantly agree with him more than Dawkins when he cautions that before we advocate the abolition of all religion we should spend some time thinking about just what might rush in to fill the vacuum.

        While the concept of the Four Horsemen has its plusses, I am too old to desire rock-stars. As with everyone else who has the guts to put themselves out in the public eye, I think they all have strengths and weaknesses, and am of course enormously grateful for anyone who’ll do so, including the host of this website; but I stop short of hagiography. (As I know you do, too!)

        • Posted November 1, 2011 at 4:00 am | Permalink

          So, do you think Dennett thinks he’s doing something other than philosophy when he he’s discussing science in general and biology in particular? Or when he’s discussing what might fill the vacuum once people abandon religion (rather than religion being abolished; I’m not sure who among us is seriously advocating that)?

          /@

          • Diane G.
            Posted November 2, 2011 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

            Al West notwithstanding, I am not completely anti-philosophy. The further it drifts from empiricism and science, though, the harder it is to distinguish from simply fancified opinion. Like many of the liberal arts, the prevailing school du jour seems based as much on charisma or who shouts loudest than on any hard ground.

            I simply think that sufficiently intelligent people can reach their own conclusions about most philosophical (small p) matters that are important to our lives.

            I’m glad we have Dennett to address the capital-P Philosophers.

            (Yes, of course, “abolition” was not at all the right word.)

            • Al West
              Posted November 3, 2011 at 2:00 am | Permalink

              I am not completely anti-philosophy.

              Even though you think it’s entirely useless, a waste of time, and something you do when you’ve got too much time on your hands? Gee.

              Well, philosophy isn’t one of the “liberal arts”. It’s not lit crit, and it’s not art history. As you don’t even seem to know what it is, and dismiss it out of hand because you don’t understand it and have no inclination to study it, I’m afraid I find your opinion to be, simply, moot.

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 1, 2011 at 2:28 am | Permalink

        Oh, and Grayling; have to say, I haven’t paid that much attention to him. From the little that I have, he seems a bit smug and pompous…

        • Posted November 1, 2011 at 4:03 am | Permalink

          No more so than Dawkins, I think. :-O

          /@

          • Diane G.
            Posted November 2, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

            I’ve felt that way about him, too. . .

  59. TJR
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    When I saw the Camels with Hammers post on Friday I thought it might prompt a bit of discussion.

    I can see where Daniel is coming from, thought experiments are perfectly valid etc, but I think he’s chosen the wrong example with which to defend Philosophy. The proposed project is just the sort of thing that brings Philosophy into disrepute.

    The project should be pretty short after all:
    Xian God ==> contradiction
    ==> NOT Xian God
    (if you accept proof by contradiction).

    Don’t let this put you off Camels with Hammers, which has had many good articles and IMHO been the most interesting thing on FTB thus far.

  60. gr8hands
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Al West, you should do us all a favor and define what you mean by “Philosophy” as it is blatantly obvious that there is not a consensus as to the definition.

    • tomh
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      Well, so far he’s defined it variously as, “any rumination on almost any topic,” and “philosophy does incorporate science and every other form of study.” I’m sure he has more definitions at the ready, though.

      • Al West
        Posted October 31, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        No, those are not definitions. They are simply possible ways of looking at it. Anything can be considered philosophically, including nothing, so there is no real boundary to it. Any definition of philosophy is necessarily arbitrary. A lot of people go with the etymological response: philosophy is love of knowledge, and anything pursuant to formal understanding of any topic is philosophy. In large part it refers to fairly abstract thought about things – so taxonomy is not usually considered philosophical but scientific. But that’s also largely arbitrary.

        On the other hand, we could talk about academic philosophy, which clearly has certain specialisms. No one in a philosophy department is all that interested in human kinship or number theory or the Hymns of Zoroaster or amoebas, unless those things can illuminate certain abstract problems they deal with. The traditional divisions of philosophy are metaphysics, ethics, natural science, logic, mathematics, and epistemology; that is to say, what the world is like in its most abstract sense, how we should act, empirical investigation, how arguments are or are not valid, mathematics (needs no introduction), and how beliefs may be justified. The study of language has more recently become a true part of the philosophical stage, and so has the formal study of human society – ie, what it necessarily consists of.

        I don’t know what else you’d demand. Any definition I give is pretty pointless. Philosophy is concerned with any abstract problem, and it generated science – until very, very recently, the two were identical, and scientists were “natural philosophers”. The rise of empiricism and the greater specialism in the sciences has given rise to disdain on the part of scientists for the abstract problems philosophers deal with. Well, fine. But what irks me is not scientists hating philosophy, but atheists professing that they do. That’s a contradiction. If you have staked out a firm metaphysical position, or a firm epistemological one in Ben Goren’s case (ie, logic = firm knowledge, equal to the empirical), then you have taken a philosophical position necessarily. You may not like this, but that’s irrelevant. By any reasonable standard, atheism is a philosophical position, and it is absurd to suggest otherwise. In fact, it is stupid.

        • Posted October 31, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

          A definition that encompasses everything defines nothing. When my cat licks his hinders, he’s philosophizing. At least he engages in useful (if distasteful) hygenic activity when he does so.

          It would seem that the very word, like the activity it encompases, is useless.

          b&

          • Al West
            Posted November 1, 2011 at 3:40 am | Permalink

            It doesn’t encompass anything. And your focus on having such precise definitions betrays your lack of education in the philosophy of language. Philosophy is not useless; you engage in it all the time, and even if we define philosophy narrowly – in terms of its traditional spheres, epistemology, metaphysics, logic, and ethics – then your thoughts on deities, logic, and empiricism are certainly included. Feel free to find the word distasteful, but your very statements and actions show that you do not find the actual idea of philosophy to be distasteful. It seems to me that you’re just more aesthetically attracted to the idea of science, even thrusting it where it can’t go – empiricism cannot investigate morals, nor judge what is right or wrong. Even if we can find out everything there is to know about pain, we still have to make a judgement that pain and death are bad things, and that can come from nothing empirical. That is obvious to anyone with a rudimentary philosophical education, and your incredibly naive statements about trying to close the intuitive gaps in your morality really made me laugh.

            You need some philosophy, of the ethical kind. Try Mackie, Ethics. I have no doubt at all that you would like it, especially as Mackie was an atheist for similar reasons to yours.

            • gr8hands
              Posted November 1, 2011 at 7:35 am | Permalink

              Al West, here’s a good quote for you:

              “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds,” according to physicist Richard Feynman.

              Your definition of Philosophy appears to use one word merely to say “thinking about things.” Which is hardly useful, or deserving of much.

              By the way, many of us posting here HAVE taken philosophy courses at the university level, or may even have degrees in philosophy. We are not speaking from utter ignorance. Even Sam Harris, who has a degree in philosophy, and doesn’t claim to be a philosopher, and is often accused (wrongly, it is obvious) by philosophers of not knowing what he’s talking about.

              It also appears that you keep dancing around the fact that discussions about the thought processes of something that doesn’t (and can’t) exist cannot have anything to say about reality.

              “Let’s discuss what rocks would think about if they could think.” This is also a silly topic of your “Philosophy.”

              • Al West
                Posted November 1, 2011 at 8:00 am | Permalink

                If I were to define philosophy, it would be simply thinking about fundamental problems. If you think that’s useless, then you are entitled to, but I don’t know how such a view is tenable.

                It also appears that you keep dancing around the fact that discussions about the thought processes of something that doesn’t (and can’t) exist cannot have anything to say about reality.

                I’m dancing around nothing. And the point of thought experiments is to succinctly reveal what is already known, effectively. Laplace’s demon is not positing that something exists. Laplace was saying that, given that the universe is determined by a set of reasonably simple laws and consists of particles, if there were some hypothetical being that knew the position and momentum of every particle in the universe at any given moment, it would also be able to know, given knowledge of physical law, the position and momentum of every particle in the universe at any other given moment.

                The point was to sum up the implication of physical law as known to Laplace. It’s a useful way to think about it.

                In modern philosophy, what Laplace’s demon would perceive is shorthand for the idea that everything in the universe consists of elementary particles.

                My point has never been that the Templeton proposal is reasonable or that hypothetical beings can tell us things about reality better than scientific experiment. The point is that the philosophical implications of scientific knowledge are often best grasped through thought experiments, many of which invoke totally hypothetical entities. If you think there’s something objectionable about this, could you tell me why? All I’ve heard so far is that everybody hates the idea of hypothetical entities being invoked just because they hate the idea of hypothetical entities being invoked.

                Also, please refrain from ipsedixitisms, even if they come from someone as great as Feynman.

            • Diane G.
              Posted November 2, 2011 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

              . Even if we can find out everything there is to know about pain, we still have to make a judgement that pain and death are bad things, and that can come from nothing empirical.

              Nonsense. You’re getting perilously close to the idiotic canard that it’s possible to boil a frog without it noticing if you just do it slowly enough. Frogs that feel pain that leads to behavioral thermoregulation live to produce a lot more tadpoles . . .

              So pain is actually a good thing. It alerts animals to dangerous situations and provokes actions that enhance survival. Death, in an evolutionary sense, can also be seen as good. What you may have meant is “causing pain and death are bad things.” I think that’s pretty easy to answer too, and the fact that Philosophers have to come up with absurd fat-man-and-trolley situations to carve out their niches show how desperate they are to be taken seriously.

              • aspidoscelis
                Posted November 3, 2011 at 12:20 am | Permalink

                Frogs that feel pain that leads to behavioral thermoregulation live to produce a lot more tadpoles . . .

                So pain is actually a good thing. It alerts animals to dangerous situations and provokes actions that enhance survival. Death, in an evolutionary sense, can also be seen as good.

                Yeah… that’s philosophy. It’s just really bad philosophy.

              • Al West
                Posted November 3, 2011 at 2:05 am | Permalink

                You don’t understand the point. Yet again.

                The point is that moral judgements are not empirical. Even if you say that something is good because it allows a particular member of a species to reproduce – as you claimed – that is still an unproveable judgement. (Why on earth do you consider evolution the arbiter of good and bad here anyway?) And likewise with pain; saying that causing pain is bad is still a moral judgement that is not empirical, and cannot simply be derived from reality.

                I’m not coming up with a fat-man-and-trolley situation, nor am I somehow boiling a frog. I’m simply saying that Ben Goren’s absurd assertion that morality can be empirically derived is just that: absurd.

  61. gr8hands
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Also, Laplace’s “demon” is not about the supernatural, but was about a data container — because Laplace didn’t have computers. If computers had existed when he was alive, he would have used them as his data receptical of all information rather than a “demon.”

    • Al West
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      Laplace’s ‘demon’ is about something completely non-existent that is an impossibility in the universe. So, no, it’s not about the supernatural, and I don’t think Laplace used the word ‘demon’ to name it. But he also wasn’t talking about a computer, of any sort. The thing he was talking about would know the precise position and momentum of every particle in the universe; a computer of any kind existing in the universe would necessarily consist of matter that it was supposed to know about, and if it were made of matter, including its information storage, that would also have to be logged somehow and known about, and that too, and so on. So either way, Laplace’s demon is an impossibility. The point of the thought experiment wasn’t to consider the properties of the ‘demon’, but to consider the properties of the universe – logical ones, and nowadays properties with regard to reduction.

      • gr8hands
        Posted November 1, 2011 at 7:39 am | Permalink

        Al West, you are incorrect about the problem with Laplace being recursion.

        Did your philosophy training and processes reveal this conclusion to you?

        • Al West
          Posted November 1, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

          No, you’re misconstruing what I said because you find my position objectionable, for, as far as I can tell, no reason whatsoever. You’re just leaping on the “fuck philosophy” bandwagon.

          The point is not that Laplace’s demon is “wrong” because of recursion. It is not nowadays considered accurate for other reasons. What I was pointing out was the simple fact that Laplace would not have used a computer as an example because of recursion. The point was to give a simple, succinct way of showing the implications of a mechanistic universe. It wasn’t to talk about data storage, so even if Laplace had been aware of computers, he would still have proposed a hypothetical being whose only attribute is that it knows the position and momentum of every particle in the universe. Whether you like to picture that as a demon or a computer or – I don’t know – a possum is up to you. But certainly picturing a computer inside the universe, made of matter, would have complicated and defeated the purpose of the thought experiment in the first place.

          • gr8hands
            Posted November 1, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

            Al West, your philosophy conclusions really are quite erroneous. I suggest you switch to something that might arrive at correct answers.

            I am not putting philosophy down — I just believe that you are in error trying to puff it up as some all-encompassing thing. It is not. You seem to think it does much much more than it does. It does not. You seem to think it frequently arrives at useful/accurate conclusions, the evidence suggests otherwise.

            Everyone, and I mean 100% of the people I have spoken to, in academia and around my community, who actually does something in a field (math, science, language, etc.) looks with disdain on people who merely have a philosophy of math, philosophy of science, or philosophy of language degree as their sole or main credential. They think even less about people who have merely philosophy degrees and attempt to have something meaningful to say about any other discipline. The consensus is that they are not to be taken seriously. “Mental masturbation” is a phrase used frequently.

            • Al West
              Posted November 1, 2011 at 8:41 am | Permalink

              I am not putting philosophy down — I just believe that you are in error trying to puff it up as some all-encompassing thing.

              Well, yes, you are putting philosophy down. And it’s common to do that. But it’s also a contradiction if you’re an atheist or take an interest in science for science’s sake, or actively promote a rational approach to the universe. Those are philosophical positions, and you are putting philosophy down, something that doesn’t seem to make sense. All these people trying to prove that atheism is somehow not a philosophical position are embarrassing themselves; it is a philosophical position, and it is a contradiction to hate philosophy and be an atheist, unless you’re an atheist for no reason whatsoever. If your reason for being an atheist is that the implications of scientific investigation of the universe suggest this conclusion, then tah dah! Welcome to philosophy. It’s not science; it’s not a straight empirical matter. It is about the implications of ideas on the fundamental questions of the universe. If there is a better summation of philosophy than that, I’m not aware of it.

              Anyway, my primary training is in anthropology, not philosophy. I just hate it when people with very obvious philosophical interests put philosophy down, because it shows a lack of clear thinking.

              Your posts have largely consisted of logical fallacies. “Look at what Feynman said” (ipsedixitism); “everyone looks on philosophy with disdain” (argumentum ad populum); “Laplace’s demon is not wrong because of recursion, so you clearly don’t understand it” (well, you just misconstrued what was said – less a logical fallacy and more a desire for me to be wrong). Perhaps, had you taken a course in philosophical logic, you would not make such elementary errors of reasoning.

              • gr8hands
                Posted November 1, 2011 at 9:09 am | Permalink

                Al West, correcting your inaccurate puffing up of philosophy is NOT “putting philosophy down” regardless of how much your bruised feelings want it to be.

                You claiming that atheism is a philosophical position, without any evidence, is an example of your definition of ipse-dixitism (making you a hypocrite).

                The only logical fallacies in our exchanges are in your statements. You clearly misunderstand the terms. I did not state that BECAUSE so many people felt philosophy of topics was not terribly important THAT means it isn’t (which would have been an argumentum ad populum). I merely was pointing out that others have independently come to the same conclusion based on their own review of evidence. It was a report of the evidence I gathered, an informal study (so not suitable for scientific publication).

                You should review logical fallacies, as you have some serious misunderstandings about them — particularly how to identify them.

                But enough about this, it’s boring.

              • Al West
                Posted November 1, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink

                You claiming that atheism is a philosophical position, without any evidence, is an example of your definition of ipse-dixitism (making you a hypocrite).

                No, you’re right. It’s obviously not a philosophical position. Obviously.

                I mean, it must be science. Right? It’s an empirical point. Of course!

                /snark

                Where is the issue of atheism discussed academically? Ask yourself that question. It’s very easy to answer.

                It is discussed under the auspices of philosophy of religion.

                To claim that atheism is not a philosophical position is moronic. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

                I’m also not “puffing up” philosophy. It’s not a thing to be puffed up; it just happens to be the word we use for highly abstract thought about anything. It definitely includes the topic of the existence of deities, which is not an empirical matter and thus clearly under the purview of science.

                I’m amazed that anyone is blockheaded enough to claim that atheism is not a philosophical position.

                Anyway, my claiming that atheism is a philosophical position is not an ipsedixitism, as I made the claim, and did not make it using someone else’s name as authority. It’s the height of absurdity to make such a basic error and then claim that I’m the one who needs help identifying logical fallacies.

  62. gr8hands
    Posted November 1, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Al West, you are confused about “ipse-dixitisms” (among other things).

    “You are fat” is not an ipse-dixitism, or claim of authority. If someone is a recognized authority of fatness and says “You are fat” — it is still not an ipse-dixitism.

    • Al West
      Posted November 1, 2011 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      “You are fat” would be an ipsedixitism if you put it like this:

      “You are fat.” Abraham Lincoln.

      See? Lincoln said it, so it must be true!

      And that’s exactly what you did with Feynman. “Look, the great Feynman disliked the philosophy of science! Clearly, all of philosophy is a bit crap.”

      That is an ipsedixitism, a form of argument from authority.

    • Al West
      Posted November 1, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      Unless you need further argument on the point, Feynman only referred to philosophy of science – which is mostly bunk, except, at least, for the very philosophical basis of science itself (methodological naturalism, physicalism, realism, etc). He did not say, “all philosophy is bunk” or even “all philosophy is useless”, so you can’t argue against the whole of philosophy on the basis of one part of it being not great.

      And secondly, Feynman may have been an authority on physics, which he obviously was. But he was also a philosopher, even while he disdained the term and many philosophers, including philosophy of science. He may not have been an academic philosopher, but if “The Meaning of It All” is not a work of philosophy, then nothing is, frankly.

      • Max
        Posted November 1, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

        Did Feynman really say that? Wikiquote lists it as “unsourced.”

        I like it either way, but I don’t think it does much for the anti-philosophy or even the anti-philosophy-of-science cause. Ornithology may be useless to birds, but it’s useful for anybody who wants to understand birds. Analogously, scientists may not need philosophy of science to do what they do, but philosophy of science may be very helpful to others who want to understand science. And, leaving the bird analogy behind, it may be helpful to scientists who want to understand themselves and what they’re doing.

  63. AJMOBLEY
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    <>

    The theory remains philosophically interesting provided only that perfect foreknowledge of any event is possible. An omniscient being is not necessary.

    <>

    Also false. See above. Given the POSSIBLITY of perfect foreknowledge of even a SINGLE event, the theory remains philosophically interesting. God is not necessary, let alone an omniscient one.

  64. AJMOBLEY
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Guess I can’t use angle brackets as quotation marks. Full post:

    “The theory is NOT philosophically interesting in the absence of an omniscient being.”

    The theory remains philosophically interesting provided only that perfect foreknowledge of any event is possible. An omniscient being is not necessary.

    “And what if you assume that God isn’t omniscient? Then the whole project is moot.”

    Also false. See above. Given the POSSIBILITY of perfect foreknowledge of even a SINGLE event, the theory remains philosophically interesting. God is not necessary, let alone an omniscient one.

    You clearly just don’t have the philosophical wherewithall to conceive of the possible scenarios in which this is a philosophically interesting area of inquiry. Even if you’re an atheist, like I am, and even if you do not believe that there is any such thing as an omniscient being, as I do, this is still a philosophically interesting question. The question is whether or not free will is compatible with perfect foreknowledge of a “free” agent’s actions, and perfect foreknowledge does not require God or omniscience.

    • AJMOBLEY
      Posted November 2, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      That said, no one needs $80k+ a year to investigate this issue, interesting as it is. I certainly would not have approved such a sizable grant, even though I acknowledge the value of the inquiry.

  65. Al West
    Posted November 3, 2011 at 4:13 am | Permalink

    Before I go, the philosophy-bashers out there might like this article for a collection of links as to why philosophy is not rubbish, is not inane, and is actually extremely useful and important.

    http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2011/03/why-philosophy-degrees-are-among-most.html


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