Guardian writer foolishly claims that religion answers factual questions

About two weeks ago Julian Baggini wrote a nice piece for the Guardian explaining why science and religion are incompatible.  Now, over at Comment is Free, Keith Ward—a retired professor of divinity at Oxford and now a research fellow in religious philosophy at London’s Heythorp College—responds in a piece called “Religion answers the factual questions science neglects.”

Now that title is bizarre right off the bat.  What factual questions has religion ever answered?  It turns out that Ward wants to limit “science” to those questions that can be tested in the laboratory:

Many religious statements are naturally construed as statements of fact – Jesus healed the sick, and rose from death, and these are factual claims. So Stephen Gould’s suggestion that religion only deals with value and meaning is incorrect, though it is correct that scientists do not usually deal with such questions.

A huge number of factual claims are not scientifically testable. Many historical and autobiographical claims, for instance, are not repeatable, not publicly observable now or in future, and are not subsumable under any general law. We know that rational answers to many historical questions depend on general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment. There are no history laboratories. Much history, like much religion, is evidence-based, but the evidence is not scientifically tractable.

There is always argument about what “science” means in cases like this. When trying to deal with factual claims about the universe, I would use the definition of “science” as “a combination of empirical investigation and reason.” That is, if you want to see if Thomas Jefferson had six children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves (he did), there are multiple empirical avenues of research, including letters, accounts of contemporaries, and, of course, DNA evidence (check out much of this evidence at the Monticello website).  There is no notion of “repeatablility” or “direct observation” here, any more than there is about whether birds descended from dinosaurs. What we’re looking for are multiple lines of reliable empirical evidence that converge to the same conclusion.

To say that human history is “not scientifically tractable” is just about as dumb as saying that evolutionary history is not scientifically tractable.  It baffles me when I hear this accusation leveled so often, as if the same methods evolutionists use to uncover the origin of birds differ fundamentally from the methods linguists use to uncover the origin of new languages, or historians use to determine how much Churchhill drank (a lot).

And, of course, even if such denigration of empirical study outside “traditional” science were correct, that doesn’t say anything about the ability of religion to uncover truth, which doesn’t rely on empirical study at all!

I do not see why Baggini says that religions “smuggle in” agency explanations where they do not belong (for instance, claiming that the cosmos exists because it is created by a God with a purpose). That seems to be a perfectly acceptable factual claim that no known scientific technique can answer. The physical sciences do not generally talk about non-physical and non-law-like facts such as creation by God. That does not mean that such questions are meaningless, or that there are not both rational and silly ways of answering them.

Saying that God created the universe is no more a “perfectly acceptable factual claim” than is “the universe was created by a giant turtle” or “invisible and undetectable fairies move the pistons of my car.”  A factual claim is “acceptable” when it is both testable and doesn’t violently contradict what we know of the world.  And if “no known scientific technique” can answer the question of whether some deistic act ultimately stated the universe, then, contra Ward, there is no “rational” way to answer such a question. 

But not all facts are scientific facts – the claim that I was in Oxford last night, unseen by anyone, will occur in no scientific paper, but it is a hard fact. So it is with the miracles of Jesus, with the creation of the cosmos and with its end. The interesting question is not whether religion is compatible with science, but whether there are important factual questions – and some important non-factual questions, too, such as moral ones – with which the physical sciences do not usually deal. The answer seems pretty obvious, without trying to manufacture sharp and artificial distinctions between “hows” and “whys”.

No, not all facts are “scientific facts” in the sense that a). they’re investigated by scientists, b). they’re studied in the laboratory, c). there has to be “repeatability” in the scientific sense; that is, you get the same result when you do the same experiment.  But all “facts” must be empirical facts, susceptible to empirical investigation, confirmation by several lines of evidence, and the possibility that the claim can be falsified.  That goes for the claim that Ward was in Oxford the night before he wrote this.  There are many ways to investigate that question, including eyewitness accounts, travel receipts, videos, and so on.

This kind of denigration of “science”—with science defined so narrowly that it comprises only “the things that laboratory scientists do”—takes place for only one reason: to justify religion.  But Ward’s line of analysis is so palpably weak that I’m surprised anybody would accept it.  According to his definition, much of evolutionary biology isn’t science because the subjects are “not publicly observable now or in future, and are not subsumable under any general law.”

I challenge Ward to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input.

84 Comments

  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Check with the water company records and the power company records t see if Keith Ward was in Oxford that night. Ask the neighbors if any lights were on, etc.

    I guess , Keith Ward is a master at begging the question. He assumes there is a god and then talks about ‘facts’ that derive from that premise. I am sure that other people with the “Professor” designation are cringing at having this guy associated with that honorable word.

    • Posted November 6, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      Oh, I don’t know NEBob. A professor (one who professes) of divinity has little to do with eg. a professor of biochemistry (visible, material, chemical and physical with all research tests repeatedly attested and peer reviewed).

      It boggles me that the religites think that accruing to their wonkiness the titles given to those who actually produce some new, innovative and intellectually rigorous research that is capable of progressing our understanding of our situation, gives them any intellectual credibility whatsoever. It doesn’t.

      A professor of divinity? I mean, WTF? What does that mean? That someone is so entrenched in his fantasies that his co-enablers grant him a title? That he is so wholly devoted to the fantastical study of his fantasy that he needs academic accolade? And that gives him credence?

      Sorry, I don’t get it. And I know you don’t either. It is called bollocks.

      • Posted November 6, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink

        He was a professor of history too, and history is a field that tries to ascertain and describe actual reality. That’s what really had me boggling about his piece. He should know what he’s saying in throwing the entire process of history and historiography under the bus like he did.

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 7, 2011 at 2:24 am | Permalink

        Doesn’t have to be just divinity. Jerry’s alma mater is (in)famous for the psych prof who believes in alien abductions.

        And let me tell you about some of the pomo crap my daughter is suffering through at the moment in uni. . .

    • gillt
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      This whole “can’t prove I was in Oxford” jeer is either poorly thought out or intellectually dishonest.

      If the stakes were raised and Keith Ward came under suspicion by the authorities for the heinous crime of micturating on the Alice Tree in the Christ Church garden the very night he claims to have been in Oxford, I’m certain he would be a little more forthcoming with verification, and more geographically specific, on his Oxford whereabouts that night.

      • Posted November 8, 2011 at 3:41 am | Permalink

        Now you’re just taking the piss… ;-)

        /@ / Barcelona

  2. Posted November 6, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Letting anti-science folks use the term “science” is a rhetorical mistake. Never let your opponent frame you position and beliefs and label (tag) you using their categories and words.

    That should be the first item debated.

    In fact, there is no such thing as “science.” There is only data from specific studies.

    There really isn’t even a “scientific method” as Thomas Kuhn misrepresented and why philosophy of science is so silly and unproductive (but a successful marketing ploy), since methodology is always changing and specific to each discipline and sub-specialty.

    Pro-science folks have to stop accepting the labels and tags of the anti-science folks — right now!

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      +1.

      Except I do think of science as a field, social endeavor, et cetera. But inside, vive la différence!

  3. ManOutOfTime
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    I for one have grave doubts about whether the author was indeed in Oxford the night before he wrote his essay, not because I have no direct observation or proof beyond his assertion – but because everything else he writes is such utter claptrap and nonsense I fear he is either deluded or a liar and of course possibly both. God shmod – I cannot believe grown men waste their breath on these fairytales!

    • BradW
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      Oooohhhhh! You must be living on my planet or one similar!

  4. Jackie
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    whoops: Gray –> Ward

  5. Posted November 6, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    This guy is one of the leading lights of theology in Britain, and after forty years all he can come up with is God of the gaps?

    The truly boggling thing about this piece is that Gray was also a professor of history.

    The comments on the original piece in the Guardian were great. Everybody shredded his idiocy. I particularly liked the comment from the person who posted a link to a Cambridge textbook on historiography, and suggested he read up on Bayesian inference.

  6. Posted November 6, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Fact – what Ward’s arguments lack
    I wonder if he read this back to himself before sending it off for publishing. I’d be really embarrassed to publish such weak arguments…
    He’s practically said science is just a mimicking lab game and that an individual DECIDES what is factual…

  7. Tom Stewart
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    “Saying that God created the universe is no more a “perfectly acceptable factual claim””

    Yes it is a perfectly acceptable factual claim, in the sense that it’s a claim. But Ward is equivocating throughout his piece by equating factual claims with facts. In a sense, a fact is a factual claim that has overcome epistemological and rational hurdles.

  8. jose
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    So a historian is a scientist? Shouldn’t there be a difference between science makers and science users? An economist uses statistics. A javelin thrower uses physics. They are science users, not scientists.

  9. Saikat Biswas
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    ..the claim that I was in Oxford last night, unseen by anyone, will occur in no scientific paper, but it is a hard fact.

    No it’s not. It’s just a claim unsupported by any witness (unless of course by facts you mean things you personally know to be true).

    The interesting question is not whether religion is compatible with science, but whether there are important factual questions – and some important non-factual questions, too, such as moral ones – with which the physical sciences do not usually deal.

    Interesting indeed. Are there?

    The answer seems pretty obvious, without trying to manufacture sharp and artificial distinctions between “hows” and “whys”.

    Far out! Care about spelling out what the `pretty obvious’ answer is? And how exactly does religion help you in figuring that out?

    • Posted November 6, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      I would take his non-visibility in Oxford a step further. Even though he claims that his temporal existence from the period of 6:00pm to 6:00am was in Oxford is a fact, it is not 100% certain. What he has is a memory of being in Oxford, and a rationalisation for being there. The rationalisation is what his mind uses to verify the memory. However these are just mental constructs in his mind. Alternative hypothesises are that he could have dreamed he was in Oxford, oris misremembering the day before by forgetting the events of the day, or was drugged and kidnapped then returned when no-one paid the ransom.

      Just because the first thing that pops into a head is the most obvious, it is not necessarily the correct hypothesis. As quoted by others, one of the first jobs of science is to give you the tools to not fool yourself.

  10. gillt
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    This kind of denigration of “science”—with science defined so narrowly that it comprises only “the things that laboratory scientists do”

    As a laboratory scientist I’m both offended and honored at this stereotyping of all scientists as limited to those who don lab coats and latex gloves.

  11. Doc Bill
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Ward got pounded pretty hard in the comments for writing something so idiotic. Now, the only person remaining is a True Believer whose every “argument” is deftly swatted down, not that it matters. True Believers “know” there’s a Higher Plane of Understanding out there, ain’t that right Haught and Deepak?

  12. Posted November 6, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    “Julian” Baggini

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      Oops! Fixed, thanks.

  13. agentwhim
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    The Guardian now has a special place for people like Keith and Andrew Brown: Guardian Beta is for “half-finished ideas” (that’s a quote FROM THE SITE!). http://www.guardian.co.uk/info/series/guardian-beta

  14. FootFace
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    I’ll never understand the value of “facts” that can’t be examined or verified. I say that, through the special way of knowing that religion affords me, God behaves like X and wants Y. You say you disagree.

    Now what?

    On what basis can we determine which of us is most likely to be right? How can we evaluate my claim? We can’t, so what’s the point?

  15. Torbjorn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    The “no history laboratories” got me too. Beside biology, we have many fields that are entirely historical (cosmology) as well as mostly so (astronomy). They do very well with repeated observation and testing!

    In fact, I don’t think it makes sense to make a qualitative distinction of “historical” science. In a very factual way, all of science is “historical”, only able to see the light cone of the past.

    What happens as we move observations further out in space/back in time is that resolution suffers. Data changes (redshift, fossilization), becomes noisy (molecular clouds, metamorphosis), suffer from incomplete statistics (observable universe, tectonics). But it is gradual and understood, not a drastic change.

    Yet it is viable, and seems to answer all interesting questions. Even, I would maintain, potentially about such things like, say, abiogenesis and eukaryogenesis. They are both tentatively testable.*

    I would give Ward an F- in history (of science).

    And if “no known scientific technique” can answer the question of whether some deistic act ultimately stated [sic!?] the universe, then, contra Ward, there is no “rational” way to answer such a question.

    Methinks BioLogos poisons everything it touches.

    ————–
    * Wäschterhäuser’s abiogenesis hypotheses were so. And now some, likely controversially so, claims that NCLDVs evolved from early eukaryotes, and the recent sequencing of a Mimivirus relative seems to agree.

    Interestingly enough I can’t see any mitochondrial genes in the cell-like gene core set while I would naively expect ~ 3 (out of 44 so far), a mere ~ 10 % likelihood event. But there is a Golgi-associated protein, so perhaps endomembranes and phagocytosis (of NCLDVs) existed before the mitochondrion endosymbiosis. (But I am a just a layman with an astrobiology interest. I haven’t checked the genes relationship as needed.)

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      That was a lot of errors in one comment! Some of them:

      – It _gets_ me too, not having seen it before.

      – “Interesting” questions is parochial, of course. No doubt there will be questions that falls outside of what we can resolve. (And that is endlessly interesting too.)

      The point can be better seen along the lines of that some vital questions are resolvable, so again no qualitative “curtain” against facts.

  16. Jordan Bissell
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    1)The Holocaust was bad.
    2)It’s wrong to strangle babies.
    3)Truth is to be preferred to falsehood.
    4)Life is worth living.

    All of the above claims are rational, and all are reasonably well established, but none of them have or ever could be established by empirical means. Moreover, the claim that “Certain knowledge can only be derived by emipirical means” is not a claim that could ever be confirmed by empirical means–and so we should discard it, no?

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      Are you taking this from Haught’s crib sheet? This site has presented a lot of response to these questions the last couple of days, see the recent discussion on above person’s claims.

      A quick, but I think fair, summary would be that science is in the business of replying to empirical questions.

      As for the last of Haught’s verbal tricks we know by the success of science in doing the above and no other means having been capable* that yes, “Certain knowledge can only be derived by emipirical means” is precisely empirically tested.

      * I call that observation “scientism”, before you bring up Haught’s last, undefined and untested, verbal claim. I think it is pretty clear that scientism is why we can and continue to do science.

      • Jordan Bissell
        Posted November 6, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

        Hello Torbjorn,

        Thanks for your response. No, I was not alluding to Dr. Haught. I was just making the point that we do have certain (moral) knowledge which is not of itself susceptible to empirical investigation, but which is no less rational thereby. Presumably you think it’s wrong to remain a creationist in light of good evidence to the contrary: one ought to accept the overwhelming evidence and become an evolutionist. That would be an example of preferring truth to falsehood; but that we ought to prefer truth to falsehood is not a fact which can be empirically demonstrated. In fact the whole cosmos which the word “ought” designates is not accessible through empirical inquiry, though it’s no less certain than that I had hot cocoa for breakfast this morning.

        “Certain knowledge can only be derived by empirical means.” Not sure I followed your response about this claim. That proposition is a metaphysical one; there’s no empirical test that could verify it, and so it defeats itself. To show that the empirical method works, or even that it works splendidly, is not to verify that the empirical method is the only way we can arrive at certain knowledge.

        Cheers, jb

        • Posted November 6, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

          Er, that’s completely wrong. We prefer truth to falsity for precisely empirical reasons: it works better. That’s the whole point of science. It certainly isn’t because science is comforting, because it isn’t – it’s because it works.

          • Jordan Bissell
            Posted November 6, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

            On the contrary, David; anesthesiology not only works but is extraordinarily comforting!

            In any case, my claim was not concerned with why we prefer truth to falsehood, but that we ought to prefer truth to falsehood.

            Cheers, jb

            • Posted November 7, 2011 at 3:27 am | Permalink

              I’m not sure that’s even a question. What do you anticipate the answer to the question being useful for?

          • Diane G.
            Posted November 7, 2011 at 2:35 am | Permalink

            It can in fact be very discomforting. The definition of a scientist includes being able to accept that which you’d rather not, at times.

        • Myron
          Posted November 6, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

          “I was just making the point that we do have certain (moral) knowledge[.]” (Jordan Bissell)

          I deny that there is such a thing as moral knowledge, because I deny that there are moral facts. That moral knowledge exists is anything but a “reasonably well-established fact.”

          “‘Certain knowledge can only be derived by empirical means.’ Not sure I followed your response about this claim. That proposition is a metaphysical one; there’s no empirical test that could verify it, and so it defeats itself.” (Jordan Bissell)

          No, it doesn’t, because there is a difference between “Certain knowledge” and “all knowledge”.

          • Jordan Bissell
            Posted November 7, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

            Fair enough, Myron: “All knowledge” would be self-refuting, whereas “certain knowledge” would merely mean that you could never have certain knowledge that the proposition in question is true. jb

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      D’oh! “I call that observation “scientism”, before you bring up Haught’s last, undefined and untested, verbal claim.”

      I mean that he can’t test what he can’t or won’t define. With my definition scientism is an observable fact. (That Haught could revise if he gets theology to compete with science.)

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 7, 2011 at 2:43 am | Permalink

        If I’m understanding you correctly, I like the idea of ‘reframing’ scientism as a positive rather than negative term. It’s certainly a battle that other “isms” are constantly fighting (environmentalism & feminism, e.g.), justifiably so.

        Though my knee-jerk response to the charge of scientism as is usually employed pejoratively would be to turn the tables with accusations of “philosophism,” “theologism,” etc., as needed. Two can play this semantic game.

        • Posted November 11, 2011 at 1:35 am | Permalink

          Diane,

          I’m all in favour of reclaiming perjoratives, but the problem with “scientism” is that it is a lie. In all my life I have only met one or two people whom I would say believed in something like “scientism.” And there are plenty of existing words you can choose that are not deliberate concoctions to allow strawman arguments.

          Having said that, I very much like your second idea. “Oh, so you’re into superstitionism, then?”

          • Posted November 11, 2011 at 1:37 am | Permalink

            As far as I can tell, the functional definition of “scientism” is:

            1. Thinks science works.
            2. Gored my personal ox.

    • Ruth
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      None of those four are factual claims. They are all subjective value judgements. They are only ‘well established’ according to those who agree with them.

      If it was a ‘well established fact’ that life was worth living, no one would ever commit suicide, assisted or otherwise.

      • Jordan Bissell
        Posted November 6, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

        Hi Ruth,

        Thanks for the response. You write:

        “If it was a ‘well established fact’ that life was worth living, no one would ever commit suicide, assisted or otherwise.”

        But if that were true one could say on the same grounds:

        “If it was a ‘well established fact’ that life was evolved, no one would be a creationist.”

        Doesn’t work, does it?

        Cheers, jb

        • Marella
          Posted November 6, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

          Being a creationist in the face of the established facts is not the same as committing suicide because you’ve decided that your life is not worth living. The first is about denying reality, the second is about assessing your own reality and coming to a conclusion about its value. The facts about evolution are not subjective, they are the same for all of us, but not all of us have the same life. Some of us have painful terminal diseases which make our lives worthless, but we have to decide for ourselves whether this is the case because we are the only person living our life. This sort of confusion is common amongst religious people because they make a point of encouraging it, religion thrives on error.

          • Posted November 6, 2011 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

            Excellent reply.

          • Jordan Bissell
            Posted November 7, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

            Hi Marella–Glad to see you agree that a fact can be well established without being universally assented to.

            Cheers, jb

    • Bernard Ortcutt
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      Those are four normative claims. The only thing I can tell you is that you need to read up on contemporary meta-ethics before dismissing the possibility of reducing the normative to the natural.

      • Myron
        Posted November 6, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

        See: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/naturalism-moral/

        • Jordan Bissell
          Posted November 7, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

          Hi Bernard and Myron–Thanks for the fascinating references, I’ll have a look. Nevertheless, and maybe the above link will disabuse me of this notion, but I don’t see how it’s possible to affirm moral absolutes apart from some transcendent ground of value, and I repose in the fact that not a few atheist philosophers agree with that assessment: Ruse and Mackie, Sartre, Russell and Nietzsche, to name just a few.

          Cheers, jb

          • gr8hands
            Posted November 8, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

            Jordan Bissell, please provide citations for Ruse and Mackie, Sartre, Russell and Nietzsche agreeing that it is impossible to affirm moral absolutes apart from some transcendent ground of value.

            • Jordan Bissell
              Posted November 8, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

              Hullo gr8hands,

              Have a look at Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, or just about any summary of Nietzsche and his thought in any history of philosophy; see Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism, or the relevant section in Copleston’s History of Philosophy, or read Nausea; see the first sentence of Mackie’s work on ethics; see the exchange between Russell and Coplesteon on the question of morality, see especially the exchange between Russell and Copleston on morality; see Ruse’s work Biology and the Foundation of Ethics, and other stuff he’s written on the subject.

              Cheers, jb

    • Old Rasputin
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

      Hmm… bad, wrong, preferred, worth. Wow. Why not just write:

      1) Van Gogh was the best painter ever!
      2) My ex-wife was a really mean lady.

      • Jordan Bissell
        Posted November 7, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink

        Hello Old Rasputin,

        Because I’m not sure they’re true.

        Cheers, jb

    • RFW
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

      All four of those statements feature subjective assessments, viz. “bad”, “wrong”, “prefer”, and “worth living.”

      They are not fact-like assertions because their truth depends on who you are talking about. The Nazis thought the Holocaust was good. The Carthginians thought it right to burn babies (instead of strangulation – same difference). Many people consider that white lies – falsehoods – are often preferable to the hard, unpleasant truth on occasion. Some people think their lives are not worth living and commit suicide.

      The difference between those assertions and fact-like ones is that fact-like assertions are truly universal. Those four assertions are not of universal truth, though they may be true in some people’s minds at some times and places.

      • Jordan Bissell
        Posted November 7, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

        Hi RFW,

        Thanks for the response. I would just point out that if someone got their multiplication table wrong, it wouldn’t follow that mathematics wasn’t universal. In the same way, if someone gets a moral judgement wrong, it doesn’t follow that there aren’t universal moral truths.//I’m skeptical of the subjectivism of any professed moral subjectivist. Imagine your professor assigned a paper on the moral absolute/relative question. You write a very eloquent paper in defense of relativism, while another student writes a poor defense of moral absolutism. You get an “F” and he gets an “A” because his views, although poorly articulated, agree with the professor’s; your views, although well articulated, conflict with the professor’s: that’s unfair, no?

        Cheers, jb

        • gr8hands
          Posted November 8, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

          You seem terribly confused between opinions and facts.

  17. MadScientist
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    “That seems to be a perfectly acceptable factual claim that no known scientific technique can answer.”

    Poor Ward; I would not be so generous and say that a fool made foolish claims in the guardian. I find it incredulous that universities would still have such mush-brained professors of bullshit. Science sees no evidence of any god creating the universe – Ward merely assumes that there must be because someone told him that fable. Science *can* test the question “did god create the universe” and based on all available evidence the answer is “no”. Ward conveniently misses the fact that his much loved “claims of fact” in the bible (and in any religion for that matter) are contradictory and there is no evidence for anyone to consider before rejecting the ridiculous claims. Jesus and god are as much a claim of fact as Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

  18. Llwddythlw
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of divinity, here’s a limerick that I learned as an undergraduate:

    There was a young fellow from Trinity,
    Who ruined his sister’s virginity,
    He buggered his brother,
    Had twins by his mother,
    But still got a first in divinity.

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 7, 2011 at 2:49 am | Permalink

      That’s a perfect limerick. Scans well & delivers the punchline in the very last word of the last line. This is actually a rather tough form of verse to do well.

      Oh, and, LOL!

      • Llwddythlw
        Posted November 7, 2011 at 7:04 am | Permalink

        I wish I had written it. It’s one of those things that’s transmitted from one generation of students to the next.

  19. Myron
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    “I challenge Ward to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from ‘general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment’ without any verifiable empirical input.” (J. Coyne)

    The challenge should be put more precisely as follows:

    “I challenge Ward to give me just one reasonably well established (logically/ontologically) contingent/non-necessary fact about the world that…”

    • Posted November 11, 2011 at 1:40 am | Permalink

      Ward is a buffoon. This is an empirical fact derived from the empirical fact that I believe Ward to be a buffoon.

      It should be amusing to see Ward’s counter-argument.

  20. Posted November 6, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    @#17 Mad Scientist: “Jesus and god are as much a claim of fact as Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”
    Actually, Goldilocks and the bears have a better provenance. Robert Southey apparently adapted a tale about a vixen and three bears to an old woman and three bears c 1831. Joseph Cundall turned the woman into a pretty girl c1849, and her name evolved from Silver-hair to Goldenhair to Goldenlocks to Goldilocks by 1904.

    • Posted November 6, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      So a vixen ate the baby bear’s porridge?

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 7, 2011 at 2:51 am | Permalink

      The things one learns at WEIT!

  21. RFW
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    Keith Ward is turning a blind eye to an important distinction. Just making an assertion (“God created wombats with wings”, for example) does not make it a fact. One still has to test fact-like assertions against evidence, both pro and con.

    The historical and autobiographical claims which he puts on a par with the fables of the Bible can be investigated on an evidentiary basis. We may never know the truth of such claims absolutely, but we can come to a reasonable conclusion about their truth or falsity on the basis of evidence.

    “God created the universe”, a fact-like assertion, suffers from the problem that there is NO evidence for it beyond other fact-like assertions unsupported by evidence.

    Contrast that with the Big Bang, a favorite straw man among the religiously afflicted. The hypothesis was first erected as an explanation of observations (evidence!) that anyone with the knowledge, skill, and apparatus can repeat at will, though perhaps not easily. As time went on, more and more observations accumulated that could be easily and straightforwardly explained by the Big Bang. In the process, the Big Bang hypothesis was refined to a considerable degree.

    On the other hand, contemplate, say, classical Greek mythology, a glorious mishmash of fables that are far from consistent. No one in his right mind accepts those as facts, though they are “fact-like assertions.” Cripey, even the more thoughtful Greeks of the day admitted they were fables! Compare that to the Old Testament, which arose out of a society that, if anything, was less advanced than classical Greek civilization. If the Greek fables were to be held true because of supporting evidence (they aren’t, btw), then that would indeed be support for the hypothesis that the Old Testament, or at least parts of it, were true.

    In the other direction, some parts of the Old Testament are indeed accepted as having a historical basis thanks to archaeological evidence, though the details in the accounts are pretty badly garbled. This does not lend support to the mythological portions of the OT, however, which are a horse of an entirely different color.

    Keith Ward really needs to wake up to the realization that he spent his career pissing his intelligence down a rat hole of ignorance and superstition.

    • Posted November 7, 2011 at 12:51 am | Permalink

      Which parts of the Old Testament checked out as true? ‘Cos as far as I knew, none of it did. Archaeologists started out checking it out and expecting to be famous, but found it such a relentlessly unreliable source that “Biblical archaeology” has changed its name to “Syro-Palestinian archaeology” and pretty much written off the book in question.

      • RFW
        Posted November 7, 2011 at 9:11 am | Permalink

        I may have been led down a primrose path of falsehoods, but didn’t Yigael Yadin, the Israeli defense minister and archaeologist, use the bible as a source of pointers to potential archaeological sites?

        Of course, the obviously fabulous [in the old sense] parts of the OT are just myth, but at least some of the quasi-historical books reflect, though not accurately, real events. Or so I understand.

        And in many respects the OT faithfully reflects the local geography, no?

        The point is that the OT isn’t entirely a bunch of made-up fairy stories. Mostly, perhaps, but not entirely.

        Correct me if I’m wrong.

    • Posted November 7, 2011 at 3:25 am | Permalink

      For an example of the problems with the Old Testament as archaeological source material, consider the Exodus, which is now accepted by mainstream archaeology as completely fictional:

      http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Evidence_for_the_Exodus

  22. sasqwatch
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    I really don’t see the problem with that Guardian article. Religion answers farcical questions ALL the time. ..uh.. whazzat? factual? Oh.

    Nevermind.

  23. Max
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think Ward was ever a history prof. He once held a chair in the history and philosophy of religion, but that was probably one of those arrangements where the position could go to a specialist in one field or the other.

  24. Posted November 6, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    I think that Keith Ward is barking up the wrong tree, but my reasons would be a bit different from Jerry’s. I can feel a post of my own coming on…

  25. Tim Harris
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    What amuses me most is Keith Ward’s assumption that the question of his being or not being in Oxford on a certain evening is no different from the questions as to whether or not the Resurrection took place or as to whether the Christian’s god created the universe.

    • Posted November 11, 2011 at 1:51 am | Permalink

      1. I am typing these words on my computer.
      2. The sun is a flame carried by Helios in his chariot.
      3. 1 and 2 are both statements that people have held to be factual.
      4. Thus 1 and 2 are epistemologically equivalent.
      5. It is empirically verifiable that I am typing these words on my computer.
      6. Thus the sun is a flame carried by Helios in his chariot.
      7. Profit!!!

  26. Tim Harris
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    christians’

  27. TJR
    Posted November 7, 2011 at 3:23 am | Permalink

    Part of the problem is that “science” is one of those words that not only is used to mean different things by different people, but is also used by the same person to mean different things at different times.

    When we say/write “science” we sometimes mean just lab-based experimental science, we sometimes mean any rational empirical enquiry,
    we sometimes mean something inbetween.

    We usually assume that the readers/listeners understand which one we mean from the context, but religites et al have a clear incentive to deliberately misunderstand this and hence often do just that.

  28. FormerComposer
    Posted November 7, 2011 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    As I wrote on another post which linked to the article, “Muddled is as muddled does.” (Apologies to Forrest Gump, I guess.)

  29. abb3w
    Posted November 7, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    I’d say that while the claim that God created the universe is a grammatically acceptable claim, it’s not an empirically acceptable claim.

  30. Peter Beattie
    Posted November 7, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    “Churchhill”? Calling Dr Freud…! ;)

  31. Peter Beattie
    Posted November 7, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    A factual claim is “acceptable” when it is both testable and doesn’t violently contradict what we know of the world.

    There is something else to being scientifically acceptable: explanatory power. The best text IMO to explain why science’s primary business is in explaining things is David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality:

    In general, perverse but unrefuted theories which one can propose off the cuff fall roughly into two categories. There are theories that postulate unobservable entities, such as particles that do not interact with any other matter. They can be rejected for solving nothing (‘Occam’s razor’, if you like). And there are theories, like yours, that predict unexplained observable anomalies. They can be rejected for solving nothing and spoiling existing solutions. It is not, I hasten to add, that they conflict with existing observations. It is that they remove the explanatory power from existing theories by asser­ting that the predictions of those theories have exceptions, but not explaining how. (p. 160-1)

  32. Carlos Del Prado
    Posted November 7, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Scientists tell us: you are the product of evolution.

    Our evolved brain asks: Why?

    Scientists tell us : for no reason!.

    Our evolved brain using reason asks: can no-reason evolve into rationality and find truth?, –evolved rationality wants knowledge for a reason. — Is no-reason, rationality?. Can no-reason find scientific truth?. What is the purpose of rationality?

    Mysteriously rationality came to be, and we use it to find truth, and to serve our desires. –Why?

    And if rationality came to be, and we are using it right now, to discern the truth of our statements, then rationality asks: why is it for many evolutionists on this blog to ridicule Keith Ward? Why is it that Mr. Ward wants to enlighten a type of evolutionists? –what is in it for the common good? why are you giving truth so much importance? –Is the answer for no-reason?

    Rationality says:on this corner “no-reason” on the other corner “intentionality.”

    However, there is no need to fight, there can be a compromise:The intrinsic “law-information”that made human rationality possible can produce it out of randomness, and put together a coherent reality where science is possible.

    I know some will say: So, “there is No-God”
    You judge it.

    • SAWells
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      Open a window and let the fumes disperse, you’ll feel better.

  33. Posted November 12, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    “I challenge Ward to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input”

    Did you email and ask him? It’s just I don’t imagine he reds your blogs.


8 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] questions science neglects did not receive a warm welcome over at New Atheist blogger-in-chief, Jerry Coyne’s place. Running with the headline “Guardian writer foolishly claims that religion answers factual […]

  2. […] Coyne wrote a piece responding to Ward’s. Jim Houston wrote a piece at Talking Philosophy responding to Coyne’s, with a response […]

  3. […] Coyne wrote a piece responding to Ward’s. Jim Houston wrote a piece at Talking Philosophy responding to Coyne’s, with a response […]

  4. […] Struggles with the Facts.” Jerry Coyne responded on the 6th of November with his post “Guardian writer foolishly claims that religion answers factual questions, in which he makes the following challenge: I challenge Ward to give me just one reasonably well […]

  5. […] Ways of Knowing,” “Can philosophy or religion alone establish facts,” and “Guardian writer foolishly claims that religion answers factual questions,” to go no further than three, and we should include Jim Houston’s Talking Philosophy […]

  6. […] (or current) debate throughout the intertubes that has involved contributions from Keith Ward, Jerry Coyne, Jim P. Houston, Ophelia Benson, Jean Kazez, and the gods alone know who else, actually began with […]

  7. […] the video yet but i would like to point out that Jerry Coyne is not impressed with Keith Ward: Guardian writer foolishly claims that religion answers factual questions Why Evolution Is True […]

  8. […] Jerry Coyne (11/6) reacts very differently.  Stage 1, check.  Stage 2, groan.  Stage 3, groan. […]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 30,610 other followers

%d bloggers like this: