Can philosophy or religion alone establish facts?

About two weeks ago I discussed an article in the Guardian by Keith Ward.  Ward’s assertion was in the title of his piece, “Religion answers the factual questions science neglects“, and I questioned Ward’s contention that faith or other non-empirical “disciplines” could establish facts about the world or universe. Those facts, I contended, could be established only by science “broadly construed,” that is, via reason and empirical observation:

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.

Now I didn’t contact Ward to issue this challenge directly.  Perhaps I should have, but I was really asking my readers to think of responses.  Now, over at Talking Philosophy, Jim P. Houston takes me to task for not asking Ward directly—he calls my failure to do so “distinctly shabby”—and took the liberty of asking Ward himself.

In Houston’s piece, “Keith Ward & the Jerry Coyne challenge,” Houston gets his licks in about my “shabby” act, calls me “the New Atheist blogger-in-chief” (my vocation is a scientist, and has he never heard of P. Z. Myers?), and even implies that I was intellectually dishonest by not contacting Ward directly (really, did Hitchens write to all religious leaders asking them to produce an altruistic act that only believers could have committed?). Nor does Houston provide his own answer to the question, for he’s more concerned with showing me up than with tackling the substantive question. More important, however, is that Houston gives Ward’s response, which I quote in full:

I have been told that Jerry Coyne has challenged me to cite a “reasonably well established fact about the world” that has no “verifiable empirical input”. That is not a claim I have ever made, or ever would make.

What I do claim is not so controversial, namely, that many factual claims about the world are reasonably believed or even known to be true, even when there is no way in which any established science (a discipline a Fellow of the Royal Society would recognise as a natural science) could establish that they are true or false.

Here is an example: my father worked as a double-agent for MI6 and the KGB during the “Cold War”. He told me this on his death-bed, in view of the fact that I had once seen him kill a man. The Section of which he was a member was disbanded and all record of it expunged, and all those who knew that he was a member of it had long since died. This is certainly a factual claim. If true, he certainly knew that it was true. I reasonably believe that it is true. But there is absolutely no way of empirically verifying or falsifying it. QED.

The possible response that someone could have verified it if they had been there and seen it is one that A. J. Ayer rightly rejected as allowing a similar sort of claim about (e.g.) the resurrection of Jesus. When, in my Guardian piece, I described the resurrection as a ‘hard fact’, I naturally did not mean that it would convince everyone. I meant that it entails some empirical factual claims (so it is not just subjective or fictional). But those claims are not verifiable by any known scientific or historical means. That is why we make judgements about such claims in the light of our more general philosophical and moral views and other personal experiences- (i.e.) whether we believe there is a God, whether this would be a good thing for God to do, and whether we think we have experienced God.

Jerry Coyne and I seem to have different views about this, but neither of us have access to direct empirical evidence. We both think some empirical claims are relevant to our assessment of such claims. But as Ayer said, the concept of “relevance” is so vague that it does not settle any real argument.

“There it is.” concludes Ward: “It is interesting (and slightly depressing) that readers can exaggerate claims beyond any reasonable limits, so that they become ’straw men’, easily demolished. Closer attention to exactly what is said, and to the long philosophical series of debates about verification – on which subject Ayer wholly recanted his famous espousal of the verification principle – might prevent such an ‘easy’ way with philosophical questions which are both profound and difficult.”

If that’s the best that Ward can do, then I claim victory.  A “fact” is not a fact if all the evidence supporting it has vanished or is inaccessible.  It’s the same as my baby sister’s claim that my father (whom she worshipped) could fly if he wanted to, but “he simply doesn’t want to.”

Ward and Houston should know better: a “factual claim” is not a “fact” unless there is evidence to support it. It is a “factual claim” that some people have seen fairies, or that the Loch Ness Monster swims in the vasty deep.  But empirical investigation hasn’t supported these assertions.  Think of all the factual claims made by  those who are delusional, or mentally ill!

In science, there are plenty of “factual claims” that don’t turn out to be facts. Cold fusion is one, the claim that bacteria cause cancer (for which a Nobel prize was awarded) is another.  That’s why factual claims require verification, and why string theory, which also makes factual claims, is still in the hinternland of facthood: there’s no way we’ve yet discovered to test those claims.

I repeat again for philosophers like Ward and Houston: factual claims are not facts.  It is possible that Ward’s father was a double agent, but I won’t accept its truth until there are independent ways to show that.

Increasingly, I find philosophers like Houston presenting claims of theologians like Ward sympathetically.  It’s almost as if there’s a bifurcating family tree of thought, with philosophers and theologians as sister taxa, and scientists as the outgroup.  That seems strange to me, as I understood that most philosophers are atheists.  I’m not clear why I’m attracting increasing opprobrium from philosophers, though one reason may be their irritation that I am encroaching on their territory.

Back in the old days of the Greeks, philosophy was supposed to be part of a well-rounded life; now any scientist who engages in the practice is criticized for treading on the turf of professional academic philosophers.  Suck it up, I say to these miscreants.

And I invite readers again 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.  By all means, ask your friends in philosophy and theology!

414 Comments

  1. Kulgur
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 1:55 am | Permalink

    “Ward and Houston should know better”
    Why should they? They’re philosophers, reality and facts aren’t a part of their area of expertise.

    It’s like asking an electrician about astronomy – he may know the answer, but you wouldn’t expect him to.

    • Bernard Ortcutt
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      Calling Keith Ward a philosopher rather than a theologian seems to be stretching the term badly. Looking at the titles of the 20 books he has written, it sure looks like theology rather than philosophy to me.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keith_Ward

      As for Jim P. Houston, I haven’t the slightest idea who this person is. Does he hold any academic position anywhere?

      The thing I find really irritating is that no one would take it seriously if Ken Ham described himself as a biologist, and nobody would make sweeping statements about biology on that basis, but people regularly do so about philosophy.

  2. Posted November 18, 2011 at 1:57 am | Permalink

    The problem is assuming philosophical intuition is a black box that reveals accurate truth, rather than something that can itself be analysed as the product of human cognitive biases.

    Dennett goes on about this sort of thing quite a bit. It’s one of the known problems with intuition pumps.

    The problem is that our philosophical intuition is what we actually use to analyse these things. However, we can compare its results to – ahahaha – the real world, and thus reveal its flaws in a way that we can see. And, hopefully, compensate for.

    (Links are to RationalWiki articles I’ve worked on trying to explain these things from a sceptic’s perspective.)

    • BSN
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      Nice. Agreed.

  3. Jim P Houston
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:10 am | Permalink

    “Now I didn’t contact Ward to issue this challenge directly. Perhaps I should have…”

    Yes. You should have.

    “but I was really asking my readers to think of responses.”

    Then that is what you should have said.

    Alernatively you could have said ‘I would challenge Ward but…’ or better still, ‘I don’t challenge Ward’.

    I took ‘the liberty’ of giving a man the right to reply. I didn’t present his arguments any more nfavourably than I did yours. I witheld from criticising the substance of your arguments. I only had objection to you saying that you were issuing a challenge when you hadn’t the courtesy to inform the man you said you were challenging.
    If it had be a reliogous believer with a blog who had ‘issued a challenge’ to an atheist academic I would have done the same thing.

    And I maintain that your behaviour was indeed ‘shabby’ – you can do much better than that.

    Jim P Houston

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:32 am | Permalink

      Sorry, Mr. Houston, but you´re just repeating here the stuff I already reported, accurately, in my post above. You don´t want to deal with the question, but only show your superiority in having contacting Ward. Actually, you seem like a bit of a pompous jerk to me.

      • Jim P Houston
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:18 am | Permalink

        Ah the question none of us has asked and none of has made a claim that would invite such a question? No I don’t have an answer to it. What else can I say? Its pretty much unanswrable by defintion, unless we start talking about qualia as far as I can see.

        If you’d been challenged to show the logical impossibility of God existing (a claim you don’t make as I understand it – unless you’ve moved from Dawkins to Grayling) I’d have contacted you. I don’t feel ‘superior’ about it. I just genuinely think in this instance you behaved below par and tthat Ward wa due a reply.

        I should have given you credit for your many achievements in science. It is indeed the case that you re not only a blogger.

        A pompous jerk? I daresay I can live witht that deeply cutting remark.

        • CJ
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

          I’d also acknowledge his commitment to education and his contributions to the intellectual blogosphere.

        • chance
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

          You don’t have an answer to it? You don’t have ONE example? Doesn’t that trouble you a bit? I mean… the implications are pretty obvious. If Ward can’t submit one example of a fact not derived empirically it pretty much obliterates any reason to support him in this case.

          “Its pretty much unanswrable by defintion, unless we start talking about qualia as far as I can see.”

          So much for intellectual honesty. You can’t possibly be serious trying to backpedal out of this one.

          Ward says: “many factual claims about the world are reasonably believed or even known to be true”

          Two problems:
          1.) It may be reasonable to believe your dad in your story, but to say it’s a fact is beyond reasonable, as Jerry demonstrates.

          2.) Many factual claims about the world are known to be true? Wait, what? How? Empirically? Did Ward forget what we’re talking about? Cuz that isn’t even a response. Of course many facts are known to be true. We know them through empiricism. Are you trying to distinguish factual claims from facts? If so Jerry even covered you there.

          I feel like I wasted my time typing this actually. I could’ve just gone up and pasted Jerry’s own responses. That’d be a bit redundant I suppose. Maybe you need it drilled in from multiple angles ;)

        • Kharamatha
          Posted November 19, 2011 at 3:41 am | Permalink

          “… show the logical impossibility of God existing …”

          Which god would you like to hear about?

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

        Tsk! Tsk!

        Jerry; shame on you. Or are you the exception to your own rules?

    • Ray Moscow
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:59 am | Permalink

      I read Jim Houston’s blog post.

      I’ll grade him rather ‘shitty’ on his level of reading comprehension and ‘clueless’ in his netiquette.

      I just want to call everyone’s attention to my assessment.

      • Jim P Houston
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:22 am | Permalink

        Its duely noted Ray – I may even use it as an advertising slogan.

        • Marta
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:00 am | Permalink

          You misspelled “duly”. Please have your advertising department proofread your work.

          • Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

            Oh dear. There is no need for such an empty and mildly childish response.
            We all *know* what he meant.
            You can do better than spell-trolling.

            • Kharamatha
              Posted November 19, 2011 at 3:39 am | Permalink

              +1

          • chance
            Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

            demolished

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:17 am | Permalink

      Keith Ward made his assertions in a newspaper blog. The publication of those views is uncontrolled. There were no arrangements for measured debate other than comments by people who chose to say something. Talk of an obligation to reply to Keith Ward is, frankly, overblown.

      The difficulty I have with theology, philosophy, politics and economists is that practitioners make some base assumption and then elaborate it into some towering construct which is a Good Thing For All People. But the construct of ideas is unconstrained. There are typically no checks back with reality about whether Christianity, Postmodernism, Libertarianism or Monetarism (as examples) are as Good a Thing as the proponents believe. To imply casually that claims are facts doesn’t help.

      • Marella
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

        And often the base assumptions are demonstrably false, as in economics. Read Steve Keen’s “Debunking Economics” if you like.

        http://www.debtdeflation.com/blogs/

    • TJR
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:24 am | Permalink

      You seem to be taking the phrase “I challenge Ward” very literally. Surely most people reading it understood the sense in which Jerry meant it?

      Hmm, is that a factual claim without empirical input?

    • Brian
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:43 am | Permalink

      Dude, get a life. Jerry admitted that he probably should have contacted Ward. Clearly this was a minor and unintentional oversight, not some deliberate ploy. In any case, you have Jerry’s admission in his blog, which you quote above, and what’s done is done. Move on with your life.

      Jerry calling you a pompous jerk I think is putting it very mildly.

      Jerry should have contacted Ward and didn’t. You should drop the issue. Why you are complaining about Jerry’s etiquette given your lack of etiquette is bewildering. Just drop it.

      • Jim P Houston
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:51 am | Permalink

        “Jerry admitted that he probably should have contacted Ward” – he only says perhpas he should have.

        Jerry should have contacted Ward and didn’t – agreed.

        You should drop the issue – agreed.

        • Rudi
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 5:33 am | Permalink

          How old are you? 6?

        • Posted November 18, 2011 at 5:43 am | Permalink

          Jerry challenged a guy – he responded. The only thing Jerry didn’t know was who this month’s mail monitor is.

        • Ravi Venkataraman
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

          Prof. Coyne,

          I am a daily visitor to your site, and agree with you on most issues. I do agree that the example given by Ward does not constitute a fact.

          On your dealing with Mr Houston, though, I have to say that a bit of politeness on your part would have helped. Calling somebody a pompous ass, while justified in many cases, does not seem to be justified here.

          Ravi

          • Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

            First of all, I called him a pompuous jerk, not a pompous ass. But that was after he called my behavior “shabby” and accused me of intellectual dishonesty. Had he not levelled those baseless accusations, I wouldn’t have used those words. So why don’t you reprove him instead of me? He does have a website where you can do that, you know. . .

            • Ichthyic
              Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

              why don’t you reprove him instead of me?

              lol.

              why are you even concerned about what these people have to say to begin with?

              Why even pick up what Houston wrote?

              it was utter twaddle.

        • Kharamatha
          Posted November 19, 2011 at 3:47 am | Permalink

          ” “Jerry admitted that he probably should have contacted Ward” – he only says perhpas he should have. ”

          What do you mean? I must assume that your wording is hasty, and you mean something else.
          As it stands, there is madness.

          “… he probably should have…”
          “… perhpas he should have.”

    • Dominic
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:45 am | Permalink

      Any comments made in a public forum are there for the world to see. If for example every time one criticised a politician one had to contact them there would be no end to it. Using the term ‘shabby’ indicates an initial hostility on the part of JP Houston.

      • Marella
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        Indeed, this is a public website, anyone can join in the fun.

    • MosesZD
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      No, it was a rhetorical device via the postulation of a mental exercise to the posters of this blog. Really easy to understand in the context of things.

      Which you blithely ignored while getting on your pontificating high-horse.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:13 am | Permalink

      I don’t see the problem here. A challenge unknown is (if it is a valid challenge) a challenge unmet. This happens all the time, and doesn’t reflect badly on either party. It is a form of valid criticism.

      Yes, it would have been better for both parties to test their positions by direct interaction. But making a challenge is enough. If Ward is interested in his position he can track it on the web (by googling, say).

      Its pretty much unanswrable by defintion, unless we start talking about qualia as far as I can see.

      Qualia doesn’t help as they have no empirical value (substance), you can’t observe them. They are made up just so stories in the context of experiences.

    • Marta
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:40 am | Permalink

      Say it is admitted, for the sake of the argument, that Dr. Coyne “should have contacted Ward directly”.

      And say it is admitted, for the sake of the argument, that you see it as your responsibility to rectify Dr. Coyne’s “oversight”, so you contact Ward to put Ward fully in the picture (which you did.) Your work here is done.

      So what’s the rest of your business about? Did someone here ring your doorbell or something?

    • Dan L.
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink

      Second Jerry on “pompous jerk.”

  4. Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:27 am | Permalink

    Sorry Jerry, I can’t help you in working out a widely held well known fact that is not empirically known: I guess it is a definition thing.

    I like your win (self declared, but I agree with it) stating that a fact can only be agreed to be a fact if there is evidence. This runs into the assertion from Ward that a fact is something about which he says “I reasonably believe that it is true.”

    It is the word “reasonably” that I take issue with. Ward’s father being a double-agent is assumed to be a fact by Ward because at the time that his father was alive, there existed such objects as the KGB, MI6, the Cold War, double-agents, and his father was capable of killing someone and Ward had seen it. These overlapping sets of entities allow some plausibility to be given to the claim of double-agency as they are known to exist, and there is evidence for them. So the story is plausible, but, as you say, still not a fact; it is only a claim. Alternative interpretations to the claim can exist, such as delusional or mental breakdown during the dying process, or last minute boasting, or Ward mis-hearing or even mis-remembering what his father said. Any of these are plausible, so any could be true. I am sure that Ward would be less sure of the fact of his father’s statement if he said that he was a double-agent for The Knights Who Say Ni.

    In the same vein, the resurrection is only “reasonably” taken to be a fact if the set of other supporting assertions and classes of entities also exist (deities, the ability to resurrect, miracles, hearsay stories handed down for 40 years being accurate before being written in the gospels etc). These supporting elements are of small and even smaller probability, so highly unlikely. Some of the classes of entities in the factual claim only have one instance in the universe (eg: god, son of) of which there is no supporting evidence either, so the probability of the claim having a factual basis is vanishingly small. Therefore the resurrection cannot be “reasonably” assumed to be true or factual.

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:56 am | Permalink

      As Hume points out, Ward’s belief may also be ‘reasonable’ because of Ward’s belief in the reliability of his father’s testimony, which is also subject to (some) empirical verification. If his father has a history of being truthful to his son, and Ward has confirmed this, then this will count toward the truth of what he says. Of course, if his father has continued to behave like a double agent toward his family too, then it would not be reasonable to believe this story.

      The testimony for the resurrection is far removed even from this anecdote.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:05 am | Permalink

        Heh, that is a good point. “Trust me, son. I have been a professional liar for quite some time.”

        As to reliability of testimony, I have doubts about that too, as memories, perception and rationalisations are too interwoven and plastic in human brains to be sure of any testimony of significance without other supporting empirical evidence (See The Invisible Gorilla)

        • sailor1031
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:55 am | Permalink

          Ward makes the crucial mistake of failing to distinguish between “factual claims” and mere claims. He also moves the goalposts a long way in mid game when he refers to ‘miracles’ of Yeshue bar Yussef as ‘hard facts’ simply because there is no scientific disproof of them.

          But then, it is optimistic in the extreme to expect a prof from Heythrop to play by the rules and not push his own personal orthodox catholic agenda.

    • Ken Browning
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      ‘Reasonably’ is a substitution for the intuitive ‘feeling of knowing’ and is exactly where the problem will be found in these types of deductive arguments when the arguments may or may not match up to reality. In day to day life we seem to use deduction as a short cut reality nav system when time is pressing or the stakes are low. However, if at some point Ward found some mysterious person following him around trying to kill him, then digging out the truth of his father’s life would gather enormous value and he would be well advised to find all the evidence he could. And his reliance on the deductive assumption about his father’s story would then be a valid starting hypothesis for evidence based assessments upon which his life might depend. But when he equates the term ‘fact’ to ‘reasonable (short-cut) assumption (about a low stakes issue)’ and makes an implied comparison to claims about a crucially resurrected savior, he’s making a classic error.

  5. Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:36 am | Permalink

    Is this the best Ward can do?

    He is claiming that is is now a ‘reasonably well-established’ fact that his father worked as a double-agent?

    Which part of the word ‘established’ would Ward like help with?

    Is Ward also claiming he did not obtain this knowledge by empirical observation of events happening in this world ie he did not observe his father talking about it?

    My father on his death-bed claimed that Professor Ward owed him 10,000 pounds.

    As this is now an established fact, can I have the cheque owing to my family now please?

    I don’t want to have to take Professor Ward to court.

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:39 am | Permalink

      Mind you, courts are now going to be in big trouble if university professors of philosophy are going to start claiming that hearsay evidence is enough to produce ‘reasonably well-established facts’.

      Thank God Ward was never made a judge, as there would be so many travesties of justice as he ‘presided’ over the court, allowing hearsay evidence in.

      I am frankly astonished that Ward expects hearsay evidence to be evidence, when any 1st year law student would tell you that hearsay evidence is not evidence.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        To play devil’s advocate here: There are at least two forms of evidence.
        * That which will satisfy a judge.
        * That which will satisfy scientists.
        The two are almost completely unrelated.

      • irritable
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

        I’ve been a trial lawyer for 32 years and I’m telling you that hearsay evidence is, in fact, evidence. There are circumstances, usually governed by statute, in which hearsay evidence must be admitted. There are also several non-statutory exceptions, in various court systems, to the hearsay rule – including evidence about dying declarations.

        Hearsay is often relevant. It is plainly evidence, ie information which has rational probative value about the existence of a fact in issue. Admissibility is restricted, substantially because the probative value of hearsay evidence is reduced by reason of its limited testability. The result: judges and juries are required not to take it into account in many, but not all, situations.

        Ward is plainly wrong and naive in his opinions about evidence and provability. I don’t know why some philosophers are so pig-ignorant about fact-finding processes which scientists and lawyers have spent centuries attempting to improve.

        However the fact is that it can be reasonable, though potentially risky, to base a conclusion on hearsay, inside or outside a courtroom.

    • Jim P Houston
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:59 am | Permalink

      “He is claiming that is is now a ‘reasonably well-established’ fact that his father worked as a double-agent?”

      No.

      • Jim P Houston
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:01 am | Permalink

        As in repsonse to Steven Carr:

        He is claiming that is is now a ‘reasonably well-established’ fact that his father worked as a double-agent?

        No. He isn’t.

        • Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:23 am | Permalink

          Amazing.

          Coyne challenged Ward to produce a reasonably-well established fact.

          Ward takes time out to duck the challenge head on.

          And Mr. Houston takes time out to confirm that the challenge was not met by Ward.

          So why did Ward waste everybody’s time with his pseudo-reply which failed miserably, as confirmed, documented and agreed upon by Mr. Houston?

          • Jim P Houston
            Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:36 am | Permalink

            He takes the time to point out that he makes no such claim. The question doesn’t merit an answer only a reply. The challenge can’t be met, nobody suggested it could be and only Jerry thought it needed to be.

            • Brian
              Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:22 am | Permalink

              I thought Mr. Ward said the Resurrection of Jesus was a “hard fact”. I have know idea what this “hard fact” gibberish means, but I would hope that at the very least it refers to a fact, in particular a well established fact. Otherwise these hard facts seem rather wishy-washy. In particular, it would seem that Mr. Ward is just BSing about facts. I certainly would never refer to a death bed confession of something as fantastic as “I was a double agent” as a hard fact, might not even refer to it as a fact, it’s just WAY too wishy-washy and dubious. Am I to understand that Mr. Ward is now admitting that the Resurrection is not a well established fact? Is Mr. Ward conceding that he doesn’t know if Jesus was resurrected?

              Also, if Jerry’s challenge can’t be met, are you conceding that philosophy doesn’t establish facts?

              Honestly, it seems Mr. Ward and yourself just took some time to explain to us there are certain things you take as fact that you don’t at all know.

              • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
                Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:36 am | Permalink

                I don’t think it is a conscious bait-and-switch as it looks to empiricists.

                Faithists (and philosophers) do this all the time because they are taught that “facts” are confirmed beliefs. In their minds faith or other experience is “pre-fact” that only waits for confirmation or rejection. So it seems to be as good as a fact as long as it is unconfirmed or can’t ever be confirmed.

                However a scientist looks at such experience claims and note that they don’t constitute fact. They can never be invalidated by observation.

                And this, the outsider’s test of religion, is valid: does or doesn’t it work. And the answer is: no.

                Note that you can in some cases invalidate the context of the experience. But that doesn’t invalidate your experience such as it was. (Hence the reflexive mentioning of “qualia” above as a defense for the “fact” strawman.)

                This is why Coyne notes that religion is incompatible with science. The first is based on misunderstanding facts in the use of faith, the latter is based on an understanding of facts.

                I submit that philosophy is doing the same error as religion. This is why theology is presumably compatible with philosophy, as a philosophy of religion.

              • Brian
                Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

                Torbjorn,

                “I don’t think it is a conscious bait-and-switch as it looks to empiricists.”

                Never said it was. It probably isn’t, they’ve gone to great lengths to deceive themselves in order to believe. But that’s the move, they bait you with something that seems true at first glance and isn’t so they can switch in their religion. Interesting how they only ever switch in religion.

                I do agree with your overall point.

                “I submit that philosophy is doing the same error as religion.”

                Sometimes philosophy is. Other times the philosophers are trying genuinely hard to understand what is going on and not assert more as fact rather than speculation than they honestly can. I think one issue is there is no check or foundation (axioms, evidence, otherwise) to stop you when you commit the error.

            • Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:23 am | Permalink

              He might not make any such claim, but the whole point of Jerry’s challenge is that philosophy is worthless because it is incapable of making such claims.

              You are doing nothing here but putting several exclamation points on this now well-established hard fact.

              My opinion of philosophy and philosophers has been on a steady and rapid decline of late — not that it was very high to begin with. I’m not even halfway through the comments in this thread, and I’ve realized that the fundamental problem isn’t so much that theology is godly philosophy, but that philosophy is godless theology.

              Philosophy truly is no different from astrology or alchemy. Sure, centuries and millennia ago, it was the best we had. And many modern disciplines trace their roots directly back to philosophy. But modern philosophy is as useless as its fellow travelers of astrology, alchemy, and theology.

              If you’re pining for the old days, forget the philosophers and go directly to a logician, an ethicist, or a cosmologist or theoretical physicist, for the philosophers will do naught but waste your time with meaningless bullshit.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Peter Beattie
                Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

                Hard though it may be to make out in the sometimes rather murky bathwater, there is a baby there. As I argue below, what Houston and Ward engage in is not (good) philosophy.

              • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
                Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:39 am | Permalink

                Ack! Cross-post. So I can’t but agree and go: +1.

              • PoxyHowzes
                Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:33 am | Permalink

                Kind of off topic here, but two things:

                (1) in my first year post-baccalaureate (B.S. Physics) I took an elective from the “Humanities” school at my university called something like “Great Philosophers of the Western World.” My take-home from that course would probably have astounded the Professor then as now. It was: “Wow! ANYbody can do this, no matter what prior education they may have had. (Incidentally, I was too callow then to know the “great” from the “not nearly quite so great.”

                (2) In later life, I have studied that most penetrating philosopher, William Schwenk Gilbert:

                • When Your Majesty says “Let a thing be done…It practically IS done, since Your Majesty’s *word* is *law.*

                • And if [a thing] is practically done, then why not say it *is* done?

                • That is entirely …satisfactory

                Poxy

              • Scott
                Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

                An “ethicist” is a type of philosopher. It’s always helpful when dismissing an entire field to first make sure you know what you’re talking about.

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

                Philosophers claim all knowledge-gathering endeavors as philosophy. Yes, a philosopher will claim that ethics is a branch of philosophy. He’ll also claim that logic, math, and all the hard and soft sciences are branches of philosophy.

                A definition that encompasses everything defines nothing. That philosophers resort to such cheap rhetorical tricks to defend their turf is of no more importance than the Catholic troll we had here yesterday who was similarly appropriating all of science into his theology.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

                “A definition that encompasses everything defines nothing.”

                Great, a deepity. Let’s take it to bits.

                A definition that encompasses everything – the universe.

                defines – is exactly equal to.

                nothing.

                Therefore: the universe is exactly equal to nothing.

                Startling conclusion, it’s worse than the there’s only one human problem.

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

                Great, a deepity. Let’s take it to bits.

                A definition that encompasses everything – the universe.

                defines – is exactly equal to.

                nothing.

                Therefore: the universe is exactly equal to nothing.

                Clap.

                Clap.

                Clap.

                b&

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

                @Pogsurf:
                Most modern cosmologists agree that the Universe, when summed up, comes to precisely nothing.
                I’m not sure if that helps or hinders your thesis.

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

                Not my thesis here. Just trying to make sense of Ben Goren’s deepity.

                Ben, I should get that clap looked at, if I were you.

              • sasqwatch
                Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

                A true Zen saying, “nothing is what I want”.

              • Kharamatha
                Posted November 19, 2011 at 3:59 am | Permalink

                A distinction which encompasses everything on one side distinguishes nothing. Over there, on the other side.

    • PB
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:20 am | Permalink

      What Ward said about his father was a double agent is a simple circumstantial allegation. Assuming his father is a white caucasian american (possibly with russian background) then it is somewhat plausible that he is a double agent. Still it needs to be proved, possibly with other (circumstantial) evidences. Before that happens, it is not a fact, just allegation.

      It will be less plausible if president Barack Obama similarly claimed that his Kenyan father is a Russian (or Argentinian) double agent, even if this is not impossible, Barack needs to show more .. :D

      I think this is totally no-brainer, and I do not see any connection with the issue of proving a fact without science (or faith or whatever), since these allegations of being a double agent is just that, an allegation.

      For all I care, Ward’s father could be a Chinese insurance agent working for North Korean.

      • Brian
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:32 am | Permalink

        I think it’s pure trickery. It’s a bait-and-switch (bait the double agent story, switch in Jesus). He is trying to sneak the Resurrection in as a fact. First you establish that in principle you don’t need evidence or any sort of support for a claim for it to be a fact. And you don’t need to convince others using support that your claim is a fact. Introduce some misleading example about a double agent father (the bait). Then conclude: “Ah ha! Some facts don’t require to be well supported or convincing to be facts.” And then you switch in the Resurrection or whatever your favorite religious belief as something that can be called a fact with no one blinking an eye as, after all, facts don’t need justification.

        Of course, it is NOT a fact that someone’s father was a double agent, it is as you say circumstantial. And religious beliefs are not facts, actually they are just silly.

        But those who want to believe and are less educated in things like logic won’t see where the argument is wrong and will eat it up. Heck, a few well-educated atheists might be stumped by this.

        • Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

          +1!

          Is not one of the most common approaches when trying to establish a “factual” basis for a religious claim to first casually tear down all other claims and counterclaims to the same level?

          If radiometric dating isn’t reliable, then the world can be 6,000 years old. If there are gaps in the fossil record, life can all be specially created. If some things in some books are not true, then the Bible can be true.

          It’s easy enough to climb a mountain if it’s flat and at ground level.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:33 am | Permalink

        Ward is British, not American. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keith_Ward Though that Wikipedia article says nothing about his parents.

        • Dominic
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:49 am | Permalink

          “in view of the fact that I had once seen him kill a man” – sounds as if he should be speaking to the police.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink

      And it’s not a reasonably established fact at all. It seems plausible to me that Ward’s father wasn’t a secret agent at all, and just cooked up some lie to explain why he had murdered someone.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

        “He told me this on his death-bed, in view of the fact that I had once seen him kill a man.”

        Keith Ward just confessed to helping cover up a murder. He doesn’t say how much time elapsed between witnessing the murder and the alleged death bed confession. How long did he conceal the murder before getting this “explanation?” Why on God’s name should we trust a man who gleefully helps his father conceal a murder with no apparent explanation, keeping the secret until his father has passed away and offered an evidence free, hand waving excuse of “Oh, I was in the CIA, so it’s OK.”

        Under the law, helping a murderer cover up a murder makes you culpable.

        Whose murder is Keith Ward keeping secret? Was an innocent man accused, imprisoned or executed for the crime? Keith Ward must out a very low value on human life if he considered his father committing murder to be nothing more than fodder for a philosophical debate.

        • Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

          Damn ethnocentrism. Ward is using an unverifiable claim of working for MI6, NOT the CIA, to justify his father committing murder. I guess Ward’s confession of helping conceal a murder got me a bit hot under the collar.

  6. Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:39 am | Permalink

    Galileo overcame Aristotelian physics about heavier bodies falling faster by thought experiment alone. It helped that he verified it by rolling balls down an incline, but his “proof” was purely philosophical.

    • Doug
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:00 am | Permalink

      How is rolling balls down an incline not a valid experiment used to confirm a theory?

      • PB
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:22 am | Permalink

        Ballsy philosophy?

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:53 am | Permalink

        Not saying it isn’t. But the rolling the balls down an incline wasn’t what caused the shift away from Aristotelian physics. I thought that was the challenge.

        Doesn’t mean theology is anything other than bunk. Just that thought experiments and coherence can play a role in helping to understand the world.

        • Gary Allan
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:36 am | Permalink

          Certainly experiments in thought can advance ideas and move science ahead; Einstein employed them of course and his celebrated debates with Bohr were of that nature. But his theories were only accepted when real experimental work was done and repeated.

    • Sigmund
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:46 am | Permalink

      The trouble with that sort of claim is that it runs the risk of ‘proving’ something in theory that doesn’t fit in with the empirical facts of the world.
      For instance quantum mechanics can be ‘disproved’ by philosophical thought experiment alone yet empirical evidence tells us another story.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:59 am | Permalink

        That may be so, Sigmund, but I thought the point here was to demonstrate the role of philosophy in being able to discern something about the world. It doesn’t matter if it’s good practice or not, or that it should be believed a priori. But the fact that Galileo worked out about the world came from thinking about the contradiction of Aristotle’s model – not by performing an experiment.

        • Posted November 18, 2011 at 5:39 am | Permalink

          No, the point is that without the experiment, he wouldn’t have known whether he was right.

          • truthspeaker
            Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

            Exactly.

            The thought experiment alone didn’t prove anything.

        • Coel
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 5:56 am | Permalink

          I thought the point here was to demonstrate the role of philosophy in being able to discern something about the world.

          Philosophy gave Galileo a hypothesis to test; it was the experiment that told us whether it was indeed true about our world.

          If we’re talking verified or verifiable facts about our world, philosophy cannot do it alone; only empiricial investigation (science) can.

          • Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:03 am | Permalink

            Yes. The purpose of sitting and thinking is to come up with a hypothesis that’s worth testing. (Whether you do said thinking off the top of your head – treating your intuition as a black box to generate ideas – or methodically.)

            • Sigmund
              Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:28 am | Permalink

              Indeed. One of the problems with a philosophical thought experiment is that you are limited to the number of experimental variables you ‘think’ exist in the world. You may carry out the thought experiment perfectly but you cannot be sure that there is not some other unknown factor that will affect the real world application of the experiment. The classic example is using thought experiments based on classical physics to describe quantum level events.

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

                Fair enough. It seems I’ve misread the situation. I wasn’t here to deny the role of experiment, only to give an example of the power of thought and conceptual analysis in advancing science. The latter is often neglected, and it’s worth making the point that there is power in conceptual analysis.

    • sailor1031
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:07 am | Permalink

      Bullshit! His hypothesis was developed perhaps purely by philosophy. But the fact was established by scientific experiment.

    • Dan L.
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:20 am | Permalink

      Feser’s crowd really likes this line of argument. They go on and on about all these medieval philosophers figuring out scientific facts from “first principles.”

      The problem is that there are multiple possible sets of “first principles.” How do you know which are the correct first principles?

      By doing the freakin’ experiment, pretty obviously.

    • gr8hands
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      Kel, you are incorrect. Galileo did not state as a fact that he’d overcome “Aristotelian physics about heavier bodies falling faster” by thought experiment alone. He may have questioned the accuracy of Aristotle’s physics by thought experiment alone, but he only overcame it by physical experiments.

  7. That Guy Montag
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:39 am | Permalink

    To be fair on Ward he’s not completely wrong on the philosophy. The challenge which generally gets made to a strict empirical theory will be along the order of: well how do you know that this particular piece of evidence is say, red. If all you were appealing to was your individual experience then all you could say is this particular patch at this particular time is red. Everything else would have to be inferred from your experience at that time so that even your knowledge that it is the colour red as you saw it five minutes ago is an inference based on your immediate experience of the colour and other beliefs. People who accept this, and these include some of the most pro-Science philosophers of the 20th century such as Quine, then tend to argue instead that you know every particular fact because you have a background of other beliefs to appeal to in order to fix the information in that belief.

    Now I grant all this might lead us into a position of arguing for some of the more silly kinds of relativism but there is however a more scientifically legitimate argument. Take Steven Novella’s Science Based Medicine movement. His argument is basically the one I’ve sketched above: if we simply concentrate on evidence and ignore the broader background of beliefs that it’s reasonable for us to have we will forever be forced to say that Homeopathy needs more study whereas if we accept that its premises are spectacularly implausible given what we know about everything else, it’s not hard to reject it as bunk. It’s this kind of thinking too that stands behind Christopher Hitchen’s famous “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Ultimately this is also where Philosophy as a discipline can come into its own because it’s precisely the study of the theory making and concept using parts of our minds that form that background of beliefs.

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:06 am | Permalink

      That Guy Montag quote:

      Ultimately this is also where Philosophy as a discipline can come into its own because it’s precisely the study of the theory making and concept using parts of our minds that form that background of beliefs

      That’s a very complex statement with a lot going on in it. I’m having trouble making sense of it & the fault could easily be with me & not with the statement :)

      I don’t see how philosophy can tell us anything about how the human brain (or any brain) thinks. In what way can philosophy make any useful contribution towards “the study of the theory making and concept using parts of our minds”?

      IMO a genuine area of philosophical inquiry might be about whether scientific results are actually a study of truth. But, I bet alien philosophers will still be arguing about that one when our galaxy is busy colliding with Andromeda. In the meantime scientists will get on with DOING science.

      “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds” Richard Feynman [Disclaimer: Feynman’s birds being real birds as found in the world & not made up philosopher superbirds with the intellect to do ornithology]

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:10 am | Permalink

        When we compare it to reality, using cognitive psychology, we can see the defects in our reasoning so clearly that even said defective reasoning. Of course, this does require the “checking against reality” step. But quite a lot of “problems” in philosophy are actually that philosophers won’t be convinced there isn’t a problem; cognitive psychology can usefully explain what’s going on in their perceptions.

        The trouble with that Feynman quote is that Feynman then went on to give quite a lot of advice on how to do science that would quite definitely count as “philosophy of science.” But then, there’s a lot of useless rubbish that is labeled “philosophy of science.”

        • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:10 am | Permalink

          “that even said defective reasoning” finds clear enough to understand.

          • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:23 am | Permalink

            David. I haven’t a clue what the below means & I can’t see how it improves on your comment within which it’s nested:

            David quote:

            “that even said defective reasoning” finds clear enough to understand

            • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:31 am | Permalink

              Making our cognitive stupidities clear enough to us that we can understand their stupidity, even filtered through said cognitive stupidities.

              c.f. “You Are Not So Smart” and so forth.

              Many philosophical conundrums can be dissolved by, instead of asking “Why is this this way?”, asking “Why do I think this is this way?” The latter question is directly susceptible to science.

        • Dan L.
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

          I don’t think there’s actually trouble with the Feynman quote. He wasn’t anti-ornithologist which implies he wasn’t anti-philosophy-of-science. He was just pointing out that to philosophers of science, how-to-do-science is a philosophical question whereas to scientists it is a practical question.

          That he goes on to treat it as a practical question and inadvertently steps into philosophy of science in the process is irrelevant. He wasn’t “doing philosophy.” He was talking about a subject (how-to-do-science) that overlaps with philosophy of science. Obviously, how-to-do-science is something scientists need to worry about whether or not they’re actually writing philosophy papers about it.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      I take it you are saying that 2 millenniums of philosophy has been meaningless. But when neuroscience can be used to define individual experience, philosophy can suddenly explain “meaning” of experience, whatever observation that is supposed to connote.

      Yeah, we will wait with bated breath. Or not.

    • That Guy Montag
      Posted November 19, 2011 at 4:24 am | Permalink

      It is a complex statement, and I am sorry about that, but it was as brief as I could be about one of the problems which philosophers raise about a sort of naive sense-datum theory which attempts to build everything we know out of direct experience. Basically it’s the point I make that each individual piece of data needs to be explained in terms of the broader set of beliefs we have, even just to know that we’re naming it correctly, that it actually is the same sort of thing we experienced previously.

      What I certainly don’t think is that philosophy can replace Neuroscience. Philosophy is however a bloody important tool for Neuroscience. There was a point I removed from the post because it made the argument noticeably more complicated. The thing is only part of the way an experiment works is by explaining new data. An experiment also works by confirming a prediction. In order to make a prediction however we necessarily need to go beyond the evidence we have. This is roughly Hume’s Problem of Induction, with a bit of a gloss that’s not terribly important. The point is that studying the way we describe our previous data, being rigorous about it, and then being consistent and rigorous about how we build our theories precisely uses sets of cognitive tools that are rightly called philosophical.

      • Posted November 19, 2011 at 4:32 am | Permalink

        The actual process that’s happening is the opposite, i.e. neuroscience, up to cognitive psychology, dissolving philosophy, i.e. reducing philosophical intuition from a black box to understandable components.

  8. Alexander Hellemans
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:52 am | Permalink

    “Ward and Houston should know better: a “factual claim” is not a “fact” unless there is evidence to support it.”

    These people call themselves philosophers? What is a “non-factual claim”? If there is no evidence, a “factual claim” is a “non-factual claim.”

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

      (I guess this remark can go just about anywhere …)

      Bunge makes the important distinction between facts, which are nonlinguistic and simply are what is the case.

      Fact statements are statements whose reference makes them “about” facts (this can be made more clear in a theory of reference). These can be true or false to varying degrees (or, if you’re not convinced about partial truth, either true or false.)

      To conflate facts with fact statements is a root of a lot of subjectivism.

  9. Gary Allan
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:16 am | Permalink

    Really, this highlights the gap between two groups of humans, those who subscribe, imperfectly perhaps, to the concept that verification by others is necessary before even their own ideas may be taken seriously, let us call them scientists, and those who consider their own powers of reason sufficient to discern reality, let us call them philosophers, for want of a better word. A good example would be the recent “debate”, Coyne and Haught: consider the difference in styles, the presentation of fact on one side and the obfuscation of fact on the other.

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      The most profound difference is displayed in the effectiveness of either approach.
      Science generates results.
      Philosophy generates confusion.

  10. Dominic
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:17 am | Permalink

    How can claims of a resurrection be possibly compared with claims that someone now dead was a traitor? The latter is clearly within the realm of possible human BEHAVIOURS while the former is a claim that goes beyond all known physical laws. Absurd.

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:07 am | Permalink

      A more equivalent claim would have been that Ward’s father was a double agent who could read minds and walk through walls, and is still spying from beyond the grave.

  11. Gordon
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:40 am | Permalink

    When I studied Philosopy I had a clear distinction in mind between practical philosophers with something interesting and exciting to say – like Daniel Dennett, and empty noise.

    It is a shame to see a subject I enjoyed so much squatting down with theology!

    • PB
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:29 am | Permalink

      Agree. Reading Dennett is like a course of interesting modern philosopy. Concise and logical.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:37 am | Permalink

        He believes in free will. I struggled with his book twice ~ where he explained his reasoning & I failed completely to grok his argument. Suspect it’s his fault, but I might give the book a third try soon.

        • rick longworth
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink

          Michael, I read Dennett’s book as well. It was a confusing to me too. But what I think he is doing is redefining free will to be other than the sort implying a ghost in the machine or soul making non-physical choices. He is essentially saying, no, we can’t have THAT kind of free will. We can, however, have another kind of free will. One that is really worth having and that is consistent with our materialism. Simply note that through our capacity to consider our situation, we can consider many conceivable options. While the outcome of a decision is under the control of physical things, we have evolved to create a complex space in which to live deterministically. We don’t choose, but we behave as if we choose. I could be wrong.

          • Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:05 am | Permalink

            (Assuming here that Elbow Room is the book we’re talking about—)

            I get the impression, further, that Dennett is arguing that the “magic” version of free will isn’t just factually wrong but logically incoherent and unhelpful even as a definition (what use is an incoherent definition?). At least that’s what I felt I got from the book—determinism or non-determinism, that kind of “freedom” makes no sense.

            It also seemed that he was aiming more to refute than to propose; to clear up a lot of irrelevant bugbears that cause people to cling to that incoherent concept.

            I need to re-read that book, though.

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:51 am | Permalink

      Not all philosophers are squatting with theologians. Jerry keeps talking about philosophers as if they’re all the same and even engaged in these conversations.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:35 am | Permalink

        Too many philosophers are. None should be IMHO.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        Lori Anne,

        Yes, you’re right—not all the philosophers are squatting with theologians. It’s just that a lot of philosophers that I hear from seem to be, including atheist philosophers like “Camels with Hammers” and Michael Ruse. I don’t know Houston’s religious beliefs so I can’t comment there.

        Maybe I’m just hearing from that small section of philosophers who believe in belief.

        • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

          I say the following as someone who has degrees in philosophy but who doesn’t do much work in it anymore (and none professionally).

          The problem is that philosophers deal with the hypergeneral *and* are also trained to be “historically senstive”. On the other hand, some philosophers regard science and technology as appropriate constraints because we are, as we believe scientists to be, in the truth business. This metaphilosophical position is only justified by its fruits and its contribution to an unfragmented intellectual culture.

          Subsequently, the theologically inclined philosophers, the postmodernists, and many others are seriously wrongheaded in my view, because they refuse to accept the appropriate constraint.

          Consequently, in a science oriented philosophy, like the one I advocate, even abtruse fields like metaphysics are on topic, but that’s because I recognize that there are very general principles and features of reality that can be systemically analyzed, the views of which synthesized into theories, and eventually spun into more directly scientific theories. The dividing line, however, is arbitrary. C. S. Peirce pointed out that metaphysics even makes use of observation – albeit of a general sort.

          The historical record shows that this is precisely what happened; whole fields began in the “trunk of philosophy” and some had some origin there and some in a craft or trade (chemistry, for example). Even today, much work in computing that is coming even in commercial applications has been, in part, developed or at least adumbrated by philosophers. Bayesian networks, belief revision (e.g. for databases), modal logic in compiler design, etc. all are examples.

          Lesson, then, is for philosophers to learn (some – it is, admittedly hard to say how much) science and technology – it touches all their fields.

          • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

            “Even today, much work in computing that is coming even in commercial applications has been, in part, developed or at least adumbrated by philosophers. Bayesian networks, belief revision (e.g. for databases), modal logic in compiler design, etc. all are examples.”

            That’s a bit of an ambit claim – you’ll find that even though such work can sensibly be described as “philosophy”, the people doing it were specialists in the fields in question, not professional “philosophers” per se.

            • Posted November 19, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink

              The people in question had or have an affiliation with philosophy departments, teach courses in them, publish some of the aforementioned work in philosophy journals …

  12. MadScientist
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:42 am | Permalink

    I wonder how Ward’s response establishes a ‘fact’ via religion or philosophy. Ward gives a classic example of an unverifiable claim – but what has that to do with these claims of unverifiable truths discovered by religion or philosophy?

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:53 am | Permalink

      This is an excellent point. Two different types of claims are happening here.

  13. Sigmund
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    I suspect there is a problem with the way scientists and philosophers deliberate in their arguments.
    A logical answer to a philosophical argument can easily be narrowed down to two choices: true or false. In other words you can reach 100% certainty.
    Scientific arguments tend to use a form of bayesian inference where we weigh the liklihood that a claim is true based on the available evidence and the plausibilty of the claim based on previous evidence about similar events. We never reach certainty in science – just different degrees of probability.
    In the case of Ward’s father we do have some evidence – Ward’s eye witness account – and we do have some plausibility – Ward’s father would have been the right age and lived in the appropriate place where proven spies have been described.
    It is still a claim, however, with little evidence to support it, but it is in a different category of claim to one in which a highly implausible event is claimed (say if Ward’s father claimed to be the son of God or an alien in human form).
    As bayesian inference is based on evidence, the availaility of new facts can change our certainty of Ward’s claim. For example, despite the fact that all records of the MI5 office has been expunged, there may still be living eye witnesses or perhaps some KGB files exist that supports his fathers story.
    Lack of plausibility, by itself, does not rule out religious claims. Rather the difficulty faced by those making religious claims is that, without suitable supporting evidence, we are left with an alternative explanation of far greater plausibility – that the original witnesses were mistaken, were lying or are fictional characters created by a later proponent of that religion (all of which alternatives have known precedents with supporting evidence).
    It is not true or false we should be emphasizing in the religion science – religion debate, rather it is degrees of probability.

    • TJR
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:31 am | Permalink

      Indeed. This is all well established in areas like forensics, the following looks like a good introduction:

      • TJR
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:32 am | Permalink

        Oops, sorry, was expecting it to be just the link.

    • Dermot C
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink

      “It is still a claim, however, with little evidence to support it, but it is in a different category of claim to one in which a highly implausible event is claimed.” – Sigmund

      “But those claims are not verifiable by any known scientific or historical means.” – Ward

      Bart D. Ehrman always amuses me about the resurrection. Have you heard his schtick quoting the Syriac Christian tradition of Jesus as an identical twin? It goes something like this:

      “The Syriacs explain the hundreds of persons who saw Jesus after his crucifixion as somehow mistaken; that it was actually his twin brother they saw. Is this plausible? No, I don’t believe it. Is it more plausible than the resurrection story? Yes, it is!”

      That is an example of what the study of history can do for your belief in the resurrection story; to confuse, as Ward does, theological and historical enquiry when analysing the story is plain dishonest. To say that you believe in the resurrection because you believe a priori in God is infantile.

      Why doesn’t Ward bother to research the documents? You’d think that anyone making such “extraordinary claims” would go into it in depth. It doesn’t seem to be the case.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

        Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it from Syriac Christianity that Islam cribs from?

        That might explain Islam’s treatment of Jesus if the twin story were common myth at the time in that area.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      Scientific arguments tend to use a form of bayesian inference

      Um, no. There is no correlate between bayesian probability and statistical probability, so it can’t be used to assess uncertainty. (You can use bayesian methods on statistics, however, see bayesian models et cetera.)

      Conversely, if bayesian methods were valid we should be able to assess both parameters and variables with bayesian weighting. We can’t, because theories makes us note that there are universal facts or in other words observable parameters. (Say, cosmological redshift.) Those wouldn’t be universal (or even have a measurable uncertainty) in a bayesian world.

      It is a good analogy for some forms of appraising of hypotheses. But it is a mere analogy (no uncertainty ever quantified) and it isn’t universal. (I see you don’t claim that, you say “tend”.)

  14. J
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:00 am | Permalink

    Don’t forget to send this to Ward (& Houston)! Or neglect to send it, out of mischief :P

  15. Brian
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately I can not answer Jerry’s rather interesting challenge as it is impossible for philosophy or religion to establish genuine facts. I can however explain why that is.

    The issue is you have to get your facts from somewhere. What philosophy can do well is show how various concepts are related and one logical proposition (a conclusion) can follow from one or more logical propositions (premises) and the rules of logic. But but you need to get those premises from somewhere. With science the premises come from looking at the world, from evidence obtained using the scientific method. With mathematics you start with very basic premises called axioms, for example the axioms of the real numbers, and also your theorems usually have some assumptions. Now because the premises come from somewhere, things are either true or false based on those premises. Either evolution is a fact, i.e. is supported by the evidence, or it isn’t. Either the fundamental theorem of calculus is a fact, i.e. follows from the axioms, or it isn’t. You can’t make a career out of just making a bunch of deep sounding stuff up, you have to explain how you know things and what you claim is either right or wrong.

    I have never heard of the philosophers explaining where they get their premises from. It’s not from evidence and I’ve never heard of any axioms of philosophy. Given the philosophers are using logic, they really ought to have some axioms. Also, of what philosophy I’ve read they make clever distinctions and arguments about very complicated things like free will and ethics with a very simple set of premises without ever providing nearly the number of premises they really need to get beyond mere handwaving. There are roughly 14 axioms of the real numbers, the philosophers should be listing somewhere well over 20 assumptions for say compatabilism or Kantian ethics to be nearly rigorous.

    The fundamental question is not just “What do you know?” (i.e. Jerry’s challenge) but “How do you know?” The philosophers don’t know.

    Regarding the “my father was a double agent” thing, maybe the father knew that. But the whole point is know one else knows that. There is no way for them to know the father was a double agent. And similarly, no living being knows whether Jesus’ was resurrected, they have no ways of knowing (though some good reasons for doubting). The Resurrection is in no way, shape, or form a “hard fact”.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:11 am | Permalink

      Wow. I seem to have assumed that philosophy has axiomatic underpinnings since they use axiomatic methods. And that they don’t usually state them (besides the “validated belief” fact definition you see so often) because as in the math you mention it takes ~ 14 axioms to state Peano’s definition of the number system.

      It never occurred to me to ask if they had sorted their mess out! Maybe I was thinking the answer would be “read these 5 books and get back to us in a year”.

      Philosophical handwaving, who knew!

      And they have gotten away with that for 2 millenniums? Something doesn’t smell right here, but for once it doesn’t have to be the handwaving claim. Nothing around beliefs surprise me anymore.

      • abb3w
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:51 am | Permalink

        The usual gold standard foundations for math these days are the ZF axioms, which only require eight. (The Axiom of Choice is commonly taken as well, for a ninth; however, some prefer the Refutation of Choice, and some prefer to see what can be done without having to deal with the annoyances of either Choice positon.)

        My impression is that many contemporary academic philosophers have lost the ability to follow the math, and even more are unable to use what math they follow as a tool. Gödel broke their brains permanently, so the philosophers have been unable to work onward from Chomsky and Shannon.

      • Brian
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink

        “And they have gotten away with that for 2 millenniums?”

        Brief remark about this. 2000 years is forgivable. Math and science has been around in some vague form for millenniums and only got their act together in the last few centuries. But they’ve gotten away with that for the past century and STILL get away with it, which I find inexcusable.

    • Jamie
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      Brain post # 14:

      There are roughly 14 axioms of the real numbers, the philosophers should be listing somewhere well over 20 assumptions for say compatabilism or Kantian ethics to be nearly rigorous.

      A small quibble: Studies of complexity have shown that one or two very simple rules can produce complex and unpredictable behavior in some systems. So, while I like your post, I am calling you on the above. You are confidently asserting what can only be an intuition on your part. Else, give some supporting argument showing precisely where your number 20+ comes from.

      I think the most you can rigorously say is that ‘some number’ of premises underlie all philosophical systems. Guessing at the number by analogy with various axiomatic systems of math is not rigorous.

      As I said, a quibble. I do not object to your main point.

      • abb3w
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

        Several of those 14 are routinely explored in refutation as well as assertion; Axiom of Choice, the Continuum Hypothesis, and a few others. IIR, the eight ZF axioms are sufficient to define the reals and address the central properties.

        Simpler rules can produce recursively enumerable complexity, but in cases may be too limited to describe the reals (although they may be able to describe theorems about the reals).

        The lower of premises can probably be related to the lower limits on universal Turing machines; the recent work of the Irish mathematician Turlough Neary would probably be abstrusely relevant.

        My suspicion is that the guess of 20ish is also high, provided you don’t count as axioms any definitions that merely label a property or relation that can be shown to exist from prior axioms. It’s also pretty easy to reduce the number of axioms required if you phrase combinations via logical conjunction.

      • Brian
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

        Fair point.

        In fact it is really good given you only need a handful of axioms (and honestly a huge number of definitions) to yield a whole bunch of mathematics. Once you set a few axioms, they take on a life of their own.

        By complicity I wasn’t necessarily referring to the complexity of the phenomenon of say ethics. The complexity of the phenomenon obviously could be the result of a relatively small number of axioms. The issue is the complexity of what they are describing. They are trying to describe something about reality, which entails a whole bunch of objects and nuances. To cover every little nuances they are assuming when for example one says “abortion is immoral”, they a lot of axioms, or a few really clever axioms with a lot of lemmas building up a lot of basic facts from there. Think of all the little nuances that go into a discussion of something like ethics. What they have put down as premises doesn’t nearly cover all the (relevant) assumptions of what they are talking about.

        It’s like trying to do geometry with the Euclidean axioms. There are a lot of little assumptions that you need more axioms (Hilbert axioms) to cover, like how lines are continuous.

        The issue is proportionate to what they seem to want to describe and assume, they don’t seem to have enough axioms to dot their i’s and cross their t’s.

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      There are axiomatic theories (and semi-axiomatic ones) in philosophy. See, for example, the work of M. Bunge or E. Zalta. Like in factual fields (or even mathematics) the axioms are chosen based on various desirata; in Bunge’s case, they are for their heuristic importance in scientific research.

  16. Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:25 am | Permalink

    I’m afraid this smells of double standards.

    You ask for 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”.

    Then your own test for a “fact” as opposed to a “factual claim” is that a fact must have verifiable empirical input. You have set up a test that is impossible to complete by its own definition. tsk tsk

    Here’s one to get you going.

    “There is more to heaven and earth than meets the eye.” I think that is a reasonably well established fact about the world and universe – it is bigger than we can measure and more complex than we can understand and we cannot “see” it all with our senses. By definition that “fact” cannot be proven by empirical evidence because any evidence to prove it automatically disproves it and it has not been disproven but is reasonably well established. (Unless of course you believe by blind faith alone that all things fall within the realm of our 5 senses, but what place has blind faith in this discussion?)

  17. Chinahand
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:25 am | Permalink

    For me this is debate is mainly about doubt and its pervasive influence.

    Gould defined a fact as something ‘confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent.’

    There is a huge amount of wriggle room in that definition and this entire debate would seem to boil down to the “reasonableness” (whatever that means) of provisional consent and the meaning of perversity.

    I think Prof Coyne is correct to point out that there is, in fact, alot of room for doubt about facts. I cannot “know” what my wife had for lunch, no matter how much I might empirically examine it.

    Because this level of doubt exists and cannot be denied in a contested environment even for very mundane issues (what someone ate for lunch yesterday – let’s pretend my wife is on a diet and insists she ate salad, even though a cake has disappeared from the fridge) then using the example of having a father being a double agent (and a killer as well) is taking things to an unnecessary extreme – such a claim has to be viewed with genuine uncertainty. Religious claims of miracles and reaminated corpses etc take this to a whole other level.

    Why should such claims be accepted, when we are doubtful about so many far more mundane issues?

    I feel Mr Houston’s argument weakens religious claims, highlighting the fundamental uncertainty we face.

    Religions tell us to ignore doubt and accept on faith. But in doing that how do you know you aren’t fooling yourself.

    Feynman was right, and I suspect that point is the basic core of the New Atheists argument; with the religious and accomodationists refusing to engage with the feet of clay at the base of any religious argument.

  18. Posted November 18, 2011 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    Some philosophers seem to think that reasoning, while our primary tool of analysis, is actually our primary tool of discovery. They are mistaken. Unless one reject’s evolution we can only conclude that we are experiential, empirical beings who acquired reasoning late in the day. It may be true that our reasoning provides us with far more than our sensory bumbling through life alone ever could. But it’s an even greater mistake to think that reasoning alone could do anything – especially since without sensory experience there would be no stimulus for neurons to evolve with which we could do any thinking. Some philosophers have it arse about face.

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

      See Bunge’s _Treatise on Basic Philosophy_ (vol 5 and 6) – science at least is about equally rationalist and empiricist. (And in the opposite way to Kant’s view, too!)

  19. Posted November 18, 2011 at 5:24 am | Permalink

    I think I have “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”.

    The “fact” is that there is more than one human in the world. I think that most of us establish this fact through personal experience and judgement at around age 3. Those of us who do not grasp this “fact”, to whatever degree, are given the label autistic.

    Personal experience tells us that we can live a better life if we acknowledge that other people around us are in fact individual human beings in exactly the same way that we ourselves are. But, as far as I am aware, there is no way of empirically establishing that anyone else is not a figment of one’s imagination, an automata or a zombie, or indeed that we ourselves are not a brain in a jar somewhere, imagining we have a body and a life in the outside world.

    We hold on to the idea of “not being alone” because we believe there will be somewhat dreadful consequences if we tried to live without it, not because it has ever be empirically proven.

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 5:52 am | Permalink

      Uhm, you still fail the “without any verifiable empirical input” part of the challenge. As you yourself point out, the fact that there is more than one human in the world is obtained by simple observation, i.e. empiricism.

      We do not have to establish with 100% certainty that we don’t live in the Matrix or part of some other great deception to accept the existence of other human beings as a well-supported fact.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 5:56 am | Permalink

        When you say “We do not have to establish with 100% certainty …” I take it that you mean you can’t, thus agreeing with my original assertion.

        • Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:54 am | Permalink

          Indeed, we can’t establish with 100% certainty that we don’t live in the Matrix. But that doesn’t make “there are humans other than me” a “reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment without any verifiable empirical input”. The fact of the matter is that observation has established that there are other humans besides myself. Until we find more evidence that we do live in the Matrix, or that all other people are androids, we can safely assume that this is a well-established fact.

          Maybe you need some philosophy to convince you that it is a reasonable assumption to accept your observations until proven otherwise, or that you can safely ignore alternative theories that produce the same outcomes with more unwarranted assumptions, but you still primarily rely on the observation itself to tell you what to believe. And you could even argue that empirical experience tells you all of this works quite well in practice.

    • Brian
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:04 am | Permalink

      On, the contrary, I think you named an empirical fact.

      Firstly, suppose my experience was that there was only one human being, myself. Just working with pure logic, it is possible that the world as I observe it would have no other human beings. You can’t prove this isn’t so by mere philosophy, you have to observe there are other humans in the world.

      We know humans aren’t automatons because we can interact with them and see that they share, or at least report, similar experiences, emotions, sensations, etc in a way no automaton would. Now I grant you that there are some clever computer programs that can mimic a person having a conversation. But those programs seem to repeat and never report for example similar feelings of love or pain and such. Humans **act** like they are not automatons. This is a purely empirical fact. To deny it would require a rather elaborate figment of my imagination or automaton etc.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:17 am | Permalink

        A few questions:

        At what age were you when you first discovered there is more than one human?

        When did you first see a formal proof that there is more than one human, thus proving your initial supposition?

        Who wrote that proof, or were you the author?

        Can you pass on that proof to others, it would be a handy one to include in the school curriculum?

        These questions could easily be answered, if such a proof existed. But I don’t believe it does.

        • Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:56 am | Permalink

          You seem to have misunderstood the argument we’re having. We’re not arguing whether you can establish facts on empiricism alone, we’re arguing whether you can establish facts without empiricism.

          • Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:04 am | Permalink

            So growing up at age 3 is exactly the same as doing science? I wish I had built a Large Hadron Colider with my Lego bricks now.

            • Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:22 am | Permalink

              No, but the two are continuous. Growing up involves lots of trial and error, and so is science – just a lot more rigorous and more advanced. But what does that have to do with anything I said?

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:33 am | Permalink

                So your claim is that there is a rigourous and advanced experiment which has demonstrated that there is more than one human? If so please cite and I will withdraw my claim.

          • Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:24 am | Permalink

            A far less sarky answer is that I am talking about the ‘other minds’ problem.

            From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

            “The problem of other minds is the problem of how to justify the almost universal belief that others have minds very like our own. It is one of the hallowed, if nowadays unfashionable, problems in philosophy. Various solutions to the problem are on offer. It is noteworthy that so many are on offer. Even more noteworthy is that none of the solutions on offer can plausibly lay claim to enjoying majority support.”

            • Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

              It just seems funny to argue with other minds on a comment thread about the “other minds” problem.

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:49 am | Permalink

                Worse still, I’ve just realised how old fashioned my thinking is. What a bummer.

            • Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:01 am | Permalink

              Then why are you arguing that philosophy has reliably established the “fact” of the existence ‘other minds’, even though this quote quite explicitly says otherwise?

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink

                I’m not.

                Jerry’s phrase was “… comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment”” and the bit I am claiming it comes from is personal experience. This why I specifically referred to the experience of being a 3 year old.

                As an adult it does inform our general philosophical view, our moral views and our judgment, dreadful baseless supposition though it is.

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:40 am | Permalink

                Why do you keep ignoring the bit where Jerry says “without any verifiable empirical input”? Do you seriously think the experience that a 3-year-old has about being around people just came about without the 3-year-old observing its surroundings? Without it prodding and poking around in it? That this experience of other people somehow just spontaneously formed in his or her mind? Of course not.

                And anyone can make the exact same observations of people acting around us as the 3-year-old.

                I think you’re intentionally being dense. You’re boring me.

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

                You seem to be making two claims here:

                1, You can verifiably test my experience at age 3.

                2, You can design an experiment to test modern day 3 year olds, but this experiment does not the include the a priori assumption that there is more than one human.

                Personally I don’t believe either stands up. All I am asking for is evidence in the form of a scientific paper which backs up the claim that there is more than one human. I’ve asked for evidence for your belief, why won’t you supply it?

                “You’re boring me” – aha another subjective claim you present without any evidence. I see you have a bit of record here.

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

                All I am asking for is evidence in the form of a scientific paper which backs up the claim that there is more than one human.

                Really?

                Nearly every paper in every medical journal involves investigation of multiple human subjects.

                Nearly every paper in every discipline has multiple human authors.

                Your question is as idiotic as a child demanding a scientific paper “backing up the claim” that the Earth orbits the Sun.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

                Bizarre that you think that budding astronomers are “idiotic” Ben, but I suppose it is an opinion and you are entitled to it.

                Given the same question from a 3 year old I think I would start with Galileo or Newton. I’m not an expert, but I am fairly confident that scientific papers exist that show the Earth circles the Sun.

                On the other hand, the longer this conversation goes on, the more certain I am that no paper exists that shows that there is more than one human. Simply asserting it as a fact just doesn’t cut the mustard Ben. If there is no paper as such, why should that be?

                Is it an idiotic question, or one that has actually flummoxed people for centuries? I’m not surprised that people get annoyed when their long held beliefs are challenged, but skeptics asserting “facts” without evidence, shocking!

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

                Pogsurf, If you’re too lazy to do a random PubMed search and click on the first link you find, I ain’t got nothin’ for you.

                Sorry.

                b&

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

                Wow! All you have to do is a random search of a database and you’re doing science. What a doss.

                Let’s say your thesis gains wider credibility and becomes known as the Standard Goren Test for the Existence of Other Humans (SGTEOH). Then disaster strikes, the entire human race is struck dead in a sudden way. Except one. Mysteriously power and the internet keeps running. The last human, notices he no longer has any colleagues, but remembers the SGTEOH. He tries it and it throws up a paper which mentions people and has several authors. Phew, the last human says, I’m not the only one. Poor chap, how’s he to know the SGTEOH is entirely faulty?

        • Brian
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:01 am | Permalink

          “At what age were you when you first discovered there is more than one human?”

          Before elementary school, probably well before. I don’t remember the exact age, I was quite young. But based on the current research of Theory of Mind, rather young (I don’t remember the age exactly).

          “When did you first see a formal proof that there is more than one human, thus proving your initial supposition?”

          Obviously people don’t often write down formal proofs of such things. The closest we have is some philosophers studying such issues. Outside of philosophy, most people don’t worry too much about such things. My interest in philosophy was in my late teens, so I was relatively old before I heard a philosophical argument for their being other minds, in particular the one I gave above I heard while in my twenties.

          Most things I “know” I don’t bother with formal proofs of. No one does. Formal deductive or empirical proofs take a lot of time and isn’t worth the effort for everyday things. Some of it I have some ideas how to write a formal proof if I so wished, but I don’t wish to waste time writing the proof down. If I could sketch the proof of an everyday matter, that MORE than makes me happy. Given all the fascinating things on the boundary of what we know, I tend to focus my intellectual efforts on such things.

          “Can you pass on that proof to others, it would be a handy one to include in the school curriculum?”

          It would be a profound waste to put such a proof in a school curriculum. As any teacher knows, you have only a little time to convey a bunch of information. There are far better things to teach in school than such mundane matters.

          “These questions could easily be answered, if such a proof existed.”

          And if anyone cared to write down the proof, which frankly they don’t. Why do you assume something as silly as the existence of a proof being equivalent to the ability to write down a proof? There are lots of things that no one cares about proving in any way, by reason or empiricism or otherwise.

          • Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

            Well done Brian. I’ve always subscribed to the maxim “If you don’t know a fact, make one up”. This is a great example.

            No idea why it’s “obvious” that a formal proof is not needed. Perhaps science and philosophy are disciplines like fashion modelling, you just dress up as fancy as you please. Who cares, you can just cast off any unfashionable ideas when a new philosophy season comes up.

            “It would be a profound waste to put such a proof in a school curriculum.” Citations, please!

            Best you drop a line to the Stanford Encylopedia, telll them the matters all cleared up, but no one can bothered to write anything down. I’ll give you a £100 for the original of the reply.

            • Brian
              Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

              “I’ve always subscribed to the maxim “If you don’t know a fact, make one up”.”

              I never said that.

              You completely misunderstood what I wrote! And you are being a darn fool! You have this profoundly ridiculous that we have to prove every fact out there. In an ideal world maybe that is so. But we don’t live in an ideal world. The hard fact of the matter is you can’t know everything and you can’t rigorously prove everything, there just isn’t enough time in the human life span. Why the heck would I waste my less than a century of life on some stupid proof that there are minds other than mind?! Do you have any idea how juvenile you sound?! I have just enough time on this earth to, if I am lucky, spend some quality time with loved ones and make some new contributions to human knowledge. I’m not going to waste an iota of that precious time proving something that is accepted as fact and I can think of a sketch of good justification for why it is true. That means less time with loved ones and less time learning new things.

              Similarly, kids should not waste time learning why their are other minds when they could be learning English, French, algebra, trigonometry, physics, biology (including evolution), history, and so much more. Kids don’t have a billion years to learn EVERYTHING in school, they get 12 years + college and we teach them what we can.

              There are millions of things that we all take for granted in our lives as facts or ways of doing things without rigorous proof. That’s fine, no one has the time to sort through all that and nor should they waste time on that.

              The unexamined life is totally worth living! Try as you might, you will have millions of things left unexamined. Examine what you can, learn what you have time for, and live. If you try examining everything, you will have spent an entire life accomplishing nothing worthwhile.

              Go back to your formal proofs. Best of luck wasting your life away. I have friends and discoveries to attend to and can’t be bothered with juvenile fantasies of intellectual perfection.

            • Brian
              Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

              By the way, the existence of other minds doesn’t require proof primarily because it is BORING. Like mind numbingly BORING. No other reason required.

            • Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

              No Brian, you are boring. You don’t actually have an argument, yet the verbiage just keeps coming.

              I take it you won’t be taking up my offer of £100 for you to confirm your idiocy?

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:01 am | Permalink

        I had a strange dream last night where I encountered someone selling a collection of East European military uniforms from a market stall.

        Today I am having a strange dream where someone claims that more than one human is an empirical fact.

        Which one of these “facts” is the most reliable?

        • gr8hands
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:29 am | Permalink

          Pogsurf, you are confused about the difference between “experiencing”/”observing” something, and empirically validing it.

          You may “experience”/”observe” unicorns — but empirical validation will probably show you are dreaming, hallucinating, or are insane.

          You may also mis-remember what you “saw”, or it may be an optical illusion, or a trick of viewing angle, or some anomoly of your visual processing. There are many reasons why your “experience”/”observation” may be faulty and not correspond to reality.

          The 3 year old in your questioning may “experience” other humans, but until they interact with them, it has no more reality than a dream/hallucination. It may be a video they are watching, but until it is interacted with, or some other EMPIRICAL TEST is done, it remains a non-fact.

          3 year olds are in the process of constantly empircally testing just about everything they encounter — to build up a proper model for what is real, what the properties are, etc.

          Please don’t lapse into an argument about solipsism at this point.

          • Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

            “… you are confused about the difference between “experiencing”/”observing” something, and empirically validing it.”

            I don’t think so. I don’t think 3 year olds are doing empiricism, hence my sarcastic comment about Lego bricks. Yes 3 year olds are experinecing the world, but the articles I read about empricism talk about it being a philosophical discipline related to gaining knowledge about the world through sensory means.

            Para 2 of the Wikipedia article says:

            “Empiricism in the philosophy of science emphasizes evidence, especially as discovered in experiments. It is a fundamental part of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world rather than resting solely on a priori reasoning, intuition, or revelation.”

            I simply don’t believe that small children are doing the philosophy of science.

            I am rather hoping that someone can say what the “EMPIRICAL TEST” is, that we, adult scientists and empiricists, could do to prove the existence of other humans, but it is not forthcoming. But remember, the test that we do must not rely upon an apriori belief that other humans do exist. It’s a big ask, and I don’t believe it has ever been acheived.

            “Please don’t lapse into an argument about solipsism at this point.”

            I’ll take the argument to wherever it logically goes, but I won’t rule out an avenue because of special pleading or tone trolling.

            • gr8hands
              Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

              Pogsurf, while YOU may not believe 3 year olds are doing empiricism, they are. (Not everyone is using the definition as it relates to collegiate level philosophy of science courses. In fact, it appears only you are, in this thread.)

              However much YOU may not believe 3 year olds are doing philosophy of science, some philosophers have posted on this website to the effect that all gathering of data and evaluation of said data is “doing philosophy of science” — which 3 year olds clearly do.

              Your 3 year old experiences something unknown. It then goes about determining what that unknown is — often by grabbing it, putting it in its mouth, etc. By 3 years old it has already experienced and verified the existence of other humans (initially the mother who fed it, as an example) via tactile/olfactory/visual feedback. This is clearly “gaining knowledge about the world through sensory means” which you gave as a definition of empiricism.

              You seem confused about what an a priori belief is.

              Solipsism isn’t logical, so logic will not lead you there. You are also confused about what a special pleading is.

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

                Utterly bizarre answer. I now have a vision of a philosophy professor chewing a pacifier, crawling around the room, licking and tasting various objects. What are you up to sir? Nothing, just a bit of empiricism I get paid for.

                If you can spot some philosophers using a different definition of empiricism could you kindly name them?

                Similarly, what is wrong with my use of a priori?

                I haven’t mentioned solipsism, so I have no idea what your statement about solipsim and logic is meant to mean. Could you please clarify, and relate it to the discussion in hand?

                If you believe I am confused about the meaning of special pleading, could you please say why, instead of just asserting it as a fact?

                Are you sure you are not just a bit upset because I have challenged one of your strongly held beliefs and you are finding that you cannot substantiate it with sound evidence? Would you kindly take a look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for ‘other minds’. Can you explain why they describe this as a long held problem, but that you can so easily dismiss it out of hand?

              • gr8hands
                Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

                Pogsurf,

                It isn’t bizarre to point our your errors, or show through your own quotes that you are incorrect.

                I don’t think babies have a priori beliefs, so your use of that phrase in a discussion about babies is “bizarre.”

                I asked you not to lapse into solipsism at the point I did, because that is frequently when people in the internet do so, not realizing that it is illogical. Your response was that you will go where the logic takes you, and my response is that logic will not lead you to solipsism.

                I state your confusion about the meaning of special pleading in the hopes you will take the time to research the meaning of special pleading. I do not feel compelled to provide you with online instruction in your many areas of confusion.

                Of course, feel free to ignore me.

                No, don’t flatter yourself. You don’t upset me in the least. You’re insignificant to me. I only respond in the hopes of educating you, and providing accuracy to someone else reading this website who might prefer accuracy.

                Sheesh!

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

                Do go somewhere else with your silly ad homs.

                You are making a prize arse of yourself, even if you lack the self awareness to notice it for youself. It’s not my job to ask you to substantiante your feeble claims, the fact that I did and yet you still failed to substantiate confirms to me you lack any intellectual rigour. Do find another target for your tone trolling and lame-arse logic.

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

                Just to correct and clarify something here. I am not making any claim about 3 year olds a priori beliefs, as gr8hands wrongly asserts.

                I am saying that for any scientist to try conduct an experiment to prove the existence of more than one human, they would have to avoid any a priori assumption that there was more than one human, according to the norms of empiricism. I think that this alone is too great a hurdle to overcome in order to design any such experiment.

                Elsewhere Ben Goren did come up with a test (SGTEOH) which I don’t think made such an a priori claim. However the test itself proved faulty.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      You are confusing human individuals with minds. Both are routinely observed, in fact you have to do both currently, in neuroscience.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

        “Minds” are routinely observed by neuroscientists? How fascinating! What do they look like?

        Please don’t show me one of those zombie brains all lit up, or even those fancy automata they have these days. I want to see a mind. And just for clarity it’s got to be not yours, and not mine. And no dreaming too, it’s got to be real life to count.

        • gr8hands
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

          Pogsurf, what do minds look like? Exactly like brains. Neuroscientists observe them all the time. In fact, they never observe them without looking at a brain.

          Sheesh!

    • Posted November 22, 2011 at 5:58 am | Permalink

      I now realise that my claim:

      The “fact” is that there is more than one human in the world. I think that most of us establish this fact through personal experience and judgement at around age 3. Those of us who do not grasp this “fact”, to whatever degree, are given the label autistic.

      is faulty, because I did not have a complete understanding of what a “fact” is. Having looked at others discussions on the subject, and thought about what it means to claim that something is a fact, I now realise that I should respectfully withdraw my claim.

      Thank you Jerry, for an interesting challenge.

  20. Rudi
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    Ward: “Don’t you see? If I utterly change the meaning of words, but pretend i haven’t, I can demonstrate that black = white!”

    Liar or moron? You decide.

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:38 am | Permalink

      Houston describes Ward’s response as “philosophically literate and intellectually honest”. Philosophically literate maybe, but intellectually honest?

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:39 am | Permalink

      Either way, he should probably stay away from zebra crossings.

  21. David Leech
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    Jerry, can you fix this typo as it is giving me disturbing visions:-(

    ‘and has he ever hard of P. Z. Myers?’

  22. Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    But Ward actually does have empirical data on his father. He has his observation of his father killing a person, and he has his observation of his deathbed confession. He may well have other empirical data that makes the story more believable to him. This includes empirical observations of the general trustworthiness of his father.

    Similarly, whether we accept Ward’s story about his father or not will depend to a large degree on empirical data as well. Some of Ward’s data may be available to us as well. In other cases, we can ask: How reliable has Ward proven to be in the past? We can also look for more data on our own, such as: How likely is the story, given the known numbers of WWII agents and double agents? Is there historical data that could corroborate the story, or that disagrees with it? Etc.

    In the end, it may still take a subjective judgment to weigh all the evidence. But the more evidence there is, and the higher its quality, the less room there should be for personal preferences and moral views. That, of course, is a moral preference as well (I said “should”), but I would hope that Ward isn’t really willing to argue that personal preference takes precedence over empirical evidence.

    • Tim
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:40 am | Permalink

      Exactly. Here’s what I suspect: Ward knows that hearsay evidence is legally regarded as “inadmissable” (in the US, at least), so he adds the fact that he saw his father kill a man. Furthermore, Ward knows very well that we don’t know his father at all, but is counting on us to be polite and not come out and say, “Well, I think your father could very well be a liar.” I mean, who insults a guy’s father – a fellow whose deathbed we’ve just visited? Of course, he acknowledges this – but hell, it’s good enough for him, ’cause he knows his father was an honest man. His father’s deathbed statement is evidence – Ward’s hearsay rendition of that statement is evidence – lousy evidence, but evidence.

      What a lightweight.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:57 am | Permalink

        Indeed. His father’s story may well be fact, but it’s not well-established fact until we get more evidence.

    • MosesZD
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:37 am | Permalink

      But Ward actually does have empirical data on his father. He has his observation of his father killing a person, and he has his observation of his deathbed confession.

      No, Ward CLAIMS to have seen his father kill someone. Ward CLAIMS that his father told him this double-agent story.

      Those are just claims of claims.

      And that anyone believes this for a minute… I hope you don’t, because the story makes no sense.

      Was Ward’s father taking his kids on spy missions? Really? There’s such a thing as “OpSec” and your kids don’t go on missions.

      And if the event happened, was it really how his dad described it? Or was it prosaic, like a mugger? A drunked bar fight? Self defense against an irate husband?

      But I don’t trust anything Ward says and he’d have to prove his father killed someone in front of his eyes. Because, frankly, it sounds like a puff claim, if not out-right delusion in the category of ‘big lie.’ Some famous examples of this kind of easily verifiable bullshit include:

      Ronald Reagan, in the early stages of his Alzheimers made a numspeechesspeechs where he falsely claimed to have helped liberate the concentrationtration camps during WWII. The guy never left Hollywood!

      Joe McCarthy completely lied about his military service. He claimed 12-combat missions when, in fact, he never flew and was a BREIFING OFFICER in the Marines. He later claimed 32 missions and forged a letter from his Commanding Officer to get a recommendation for the Distinguished Flying Cross. And his ‘war wound’ (for which he had many stories) was self-inflicted during a ship-board traditional Navy ceremony for the first time you cross the friggin’ equator…

      Or, more prosaic:

      Rick Duncan was a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq. Wounded in battle, he received a Purple Heart and a Silver Star. Then he came home and told his story, over and over again, so everyone would know the truth about the war.

      But Duncan never won a medal; indeed, he never served in the military. And his name isn’t even Rick Duncan.

      It’s Richard G. Strandlof. You’ll be hearing that a name a lot over the next few months. Strandlof was arrested two years ago for violating the Stolen Valor Act, a 2006 law making it illegal to falsely claim a military decoration. Now he’s challenging the constitutionality of the measure in a federal appeals court, arguing that freedom of speech includes the freedom to lie.

      So, no, I don’t believe Ward’s story. Not in any way. It sounds as phoney as a 3-dollar bill.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink

        Yes, for the sake of argument I have assumed that Ward did see and hear the things he describes. Doesn’t mean I believe him, definitely doesn’t mean I believe his father. Let’s just say I’m skeptical.

      • abb3w
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink

        Of course, in your case, the empirical input is reading an account attributed to Ward about his father. Still has empirical input, however.

    • abb3w
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      On that key point, agreed. If he experienced hearing his father’s confession, the claim is grounded in experience, and thus empirical. In so far as it is based on verifiable empirical input, it is consequently reasonably well established; in so far as the input is not verifiable (IE: is his account reliable) or based on experience, it is disestablished.

  23. Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    There seems to be something missing in Houston’s definition of “fact”. Oh yeah, that’s it. Objectivity.

    When most people talk about facts, they talk about objective facts. Not subjective facts, like a claim made by Houston’s father that cannot be verified objectively.

    It’s a subjective fact that last night I had a dream about talking to someone on my cell phone. There’s no way to verify this; it’s only a “fact” in my own personal universe. But this is not the common definition of “fact” which means some “fact” that is “out there” that other people can verify.

    According to Houston’s definition of “fact”, it’s a “fact” that Jesus preferred goat-milk over cow-milk. I think we actually have another word for that sort of “fact” – it’s called bald assertion.

    • Sigmund
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

      Its the old problem of where you attribute the burden of proof. Ward is essentially saying that so long as a claim can be made with even the slightest proof (his eye-witness claim about his fathers deathbed confession), or even slighter ‘proof’ (the gospel story about Jesus rising from the dead) then it is up to others to prove that it is not true.
      That is why I prefer to deal with probabilities rather than ‘yes or no’ proofs.
      Ward’s story about is father is possible – although one must be skeptical as there could be other explanations for his father to make the claim (delusion, joke, lie, etc) or for Ward to make the claim that his father told him this (the whole story is meant to be a hypothetical example rather than a real event.)
      Ward’s attempt to put the onus on us to disprove Jesus rising from the grave neglects the fact that we have much more plausible explanations to explain the gospel stories rather than assuming they are accurately telling real history.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink

        His story is possible, but there’s absolutely no reason for people in general to “believe” it. I think that makes it a hopeless example of what he wanted to demonstrate.

    • Bernard Ortcutt
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      It’s really important that people keep facts and claims separate. This distinction ought to be as well-known and as basic as use-mention distinction but for some reason it isn’t. If facts are states-of-affairs, then “objective fact” is just saying the same thing twice. The problem with Houston’s bald assertions is that they are claims not facts and unjustified claims at that, as you say “bald assertions”.

  24. Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    calls me “the New Atheist blogger-in-chief” (my vocation is a scientist, and has he ever hard of P. Z. Myers?)

    Not to mention, WEIT isn’t even a blog, amiright????

  25. Nicolas Perrault
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    Theologians (and many philosophers) can’t distinguish fiction from reality. Even more so when the fiction is theirs. They lie in a state of confusion precisely because they don’t grasp the importance of evidence.

  26. Peter Beattie
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    First, who exactly is Jim P. Houston, and why does he think he has to take it upon himself to avenge imagined slights to random theologians?

    Second, for somebody blogging at TP, he seems to be rather clueless about philosohpy. He says about Jerry’s challenge that “it’s a matter of being serious and intellectually honest”—where the canonical definition of the latter is “specifying precisely the conditions under which one is willing to give up one’s position” and the former is Houston just about running with the first interpretation of “challenge” that popped into his head, with exactly no thought as to specifiable conditions under which he would give it up.

    Houston also says that Ward’s reply is “philosophically literate”. It is no such thing. Ward says that he “reasonably believe[s]” that his father was a double agent—without citing a single reason for this preference. What’s more, Ward can of course choose to uncritically believe his father, but that would fly in the face of “reasonable belief”; or he could try some critical rationalism. This, however, would necessitate the assessment of an alternative explanation for his father’s claim, so as to be able to make an actual choice. But Ward doesn’t even consider the possibility that his father, who was on his deathbed, mind you, was delusional, suffering from dementia, trying to get in one last (rather weird) joke, etc. So, even on his own terms, Ward’s example implodes.

    And then there is this in Ward’s reply:

    When, in my Guardian piece, I described the resurrection as a ‘hard fact’, I naturally did not mean that it would convince everyone. I meant that it entails some empirical factual claims (so it is not just subjective or fictional). But those claims are not verifiable by any known scientific or historical means.

    Apparently, Ward’s language, if not his thinking, is pretty confused. In his Guardian piece, he actually calls his “claim that I was in Oxford” a “hard fact” and includes in that category “the miracles of Jesus”. Taken literally, this is of course absurd—and Houston, who ostensibly is very concerned about word usage, should have called this out even more than Jerry’s “challenge”. Of course, Ward isn’t trying to say, or so I can only charitably hope, that his claim to have been in Oxford establishes the fact that he was there. Rather, he is saying that he can reliably know what he experiences. Which, speaking of philosophical literacy, is less than nuanced, to say the least. Contrary to his assertion, of course there are possible alternative explanations for his experience; maybe he was the subject of one of Derren Brown’s brilliant mind tricks. What makes Ward’s relying on his subjective experience irrational is that he doesn’t even consider any alternative explanation.

    As for his second sentence, it is just bizarre to say that because something “entails some empirical factual claims” that means it is “not just subjective or fictional”. Here: unicorns are pink and hollow on the inside. This is a factual claim and therefore not fictional. Remind me to talk to you about that bridge I’m selling…

    And the third sentence is just a baseless assertion. Not giving a reason is about as un-philosophical as you can get; not stating conditions under which you might be convinced otherwise is certainly not an example of intellectually honesty. Ward and Houston are talking through their hats.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

      You are in effect asserting the observation that there are different philosophies. That doesn’t mean that any of these arrive at facts anymore than the similar observation on religions do.

      In fact, the existence of such pluralities in the same area makes us think not only that most are erroneous but that _all_ are.

  27. Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    Philosophical facts:

    -There can be no clear line drawn between analytic/synthetic distinction
    -Inductive reasoning is not formal in the way deductive reasoning is formal (the premises do not guarantee the conclusions)

    Two that immediately come to mind.

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:01 am | Permalink

      Are those “facts about the world or universe”, or facts about human constructs and abstractions?

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

        Human constructs and abstractions are part of the world, so any truth about the latter is necessarily truth about the former. Facts about beaver dams are facts about things beavers construct; that doesn’t make them not facts about the world. Human judgments exist and have logical forms, and philosophy can make true claims about those forms.

        Also, to fix the mistake, my first should be:

        -There can be no clear line drawn between analytic and synthetic claims

        • abb3w
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:40 am | Permalink

          Human conceptions of abstractions are not the same thing as the abstractions themselves.

          The G(64) number is part of the set of natural numbers; and (via Von Neumann construction) all smaller numbers are part of it. However, not all those numbers are instantiated in the world. (This is without even dealing with the abominations allowed by the Power Set and Choice axioms. The Banach-Tarski dissection is not a truth about the world, but an abstraction that can be linguistically expressed in the world which nonetheless appears unlikely to be about any aspects of the world.)

          Philosophical discussion on abstraction-versus-instantiation usually degrades into a reprise of the Cave and the extent to which some parts of Platonic abstraction are and aren’t bull.

          • Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

            I can’t claim that I understand everything you’re saying, but you seem to be suggesting that my position requires reifying human abstractions. I don’t think it does.

            If “truths about the world” is restricted to precisely the domain about which science gives knowledge, then this discussion is pointless. Science rules in its domain, clear and simple.

            If “truths about the world” isn’t so restricted, then I think that truths like “induction is in certain (non-trivial) respects informal” can be established philosophically.

            To head off any misunderstandings before they start, I don’t intend this as a free for all with non-scientific truths (e.g. religious truths).

            My apologies if I’ve misunderstood what you’re saying.

            • abb3w
              Posted November 20, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

              My position is more that science presupposes some abstract truths — particularly, mathematical — which are not necessarily restricted only to the domain of “about the world” (IE: as it is/was/will-be) and “part of the world” (IE: having material instance), but are more general (EG: what might have been instead, or might “exist” as abstract relations among entities uninstantiated except as abstractions).

              It’s more a habitual insistence as precursor to formalizing a basis for resolving Hume’s problem of induction.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink

      Careful, logics isn’t only part of philosophy but a math discipline. If it is constructs we don’t use in math, they are human abstractions.

    • Dan L.
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      How can you demonstrate that there CANNOT be a distinction between analytic and synthetic truths? I personally don’t believe there is but I wasn’t aware that such a thing could actually be demonstrated. Are you sure it’s not just a philosophical intuition that the distinction can’t be made?

      Inductive reasoning is not formal by definition of “formal” and “inductive reasoning.” That’s a fact completely on par with “bachelors are unmarried.” Obviously philosophers can generate trivial tautologies, I think we’re wondering if they can figure out anything interesting using no empirical methods.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        Well the spectacular failure of any sort of theory of meaning that would allow for such a distinction I take to be a very strong indication that such a distinction isn’t possible. I suppose there is the possibility of blind faith in the existence of some as-yet-undiscovered theory of meaning that does allow for such a distinction, and which is tenable, but I don’t think blind faith goes over so well around these parts. In short, I think the impossibility of such a distinction has been established with the same sort of fallibility inherent in judgments of a scientific nature. And thus I think that’s a truth about human language (which is a feature of the world) that philosophy has established.

        I was foolish in the way that I talked about how induction isn’t formal in the way deduction is, because while what I said is true, I think it’s at least plausibly arguable that you’re right that that’s a trivial, paltry truth. What I should have talked about was Goodman’s problem of projectibility. It is certainly not trivial that any predicate can be the subject of deductive inference, but not any predicate can be the subject of inductive inference. Two inductive inferences with the same form (all emeralds are green, all emeralds are grue) are not equally valid. That is not trivial, and is a philosophically established truth about induction.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

        Also, for the record, I think my second example (about induction) is much stronger than the first, because I think that sort of “informality” of induction is hardly disputable, whereas “the spectacular failure” of these various theories of meaning is rather more disputable.

    • Bernard Ortcutt
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      I’m willing to believe that both of those claims are true, but also that both require empirical justification and are thus don’t meet Jerry’s challenge.

  28. Torbjorn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    Laudem scientiae! That is a _good_ question.

    Much as I sympathize with the alignment of atheist and empiricist philosophers, the answer is: no.

    The basic reason is that without testing you can only ever form equally valid “just so” stories. There is no valid fact (sometimes called Truth in this context) in philosophical truth.

    But even if you take empiricism aboard by aligning with its result in some form of external testing, philosophy can’t advance. There is no universal coherent philosophical system.

    And we know since the discovery of emergence and effective theories that there can be no such thing. For example, superconductor Cooper electron pairs are bosonic pseudoparticles which you wouldn’t expect getting out of interacting fermionic electrons in the underlying physics.

    Besides the inconsistency of axiomatics as applied on empirical facts, we now know from math of computer science that axiomatics are small volumes in the vast universe of algorithmic methods. So axiomatism as in philosophical systems could never keep up with empiricism anyway.

    • Occam
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      Torbjorn, could you please make this comment a sticky and re-post it every time someone comes up with axiomatism?
      I think this point can’t be repeated often enough. With “axiomatics are small volumes in the vast universe of algorithmic methods” printed in bright fluorescent characters, please.

  29. Jean K
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    ” A ‘fact’ is not a fact if all the evidence supporting it has vanished or is inaccessible.”

    The vast majority of philosophers will reject this. They’re all going to come up with something like this– On Socrates’ 10th birthday, he may have eaten 3 olives. That could be a fact, even though all evidence has vanished. To think otherwise is just to confuse facts (out in the world) with human beliefs and evidence. Likewise: Steve Jobs was in fact thinking about this or that, when he said “oh wow oh wow” on his death bed. There’s a fact of the matter about what he was thinking about, whether we can know it or not. You have to accept the difference between facts (out there) and evidence (in our heads), or you’ll wind up with a very spooky, weird view of the world like Berkeley’s phenomenalism — which says all of reality is literally mental or mind-dependent.

    • Sigmund
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink

      It seems to me that what you are talking about (the Socrates ate three olives on his 10th birthday) would be regarded by scientists, not as a fact, but as a plausible claim.
      Ward seems to be arguing along the lines that a claim about Socrates and his olives is in the same ballpark of plausibility as claims about religious miracles that occurred in the distant history.
      Maybe Socrates (if he existed) did eat three olives that day.
      We don’t know if he did. What we do know is that he (given that he existed!) could have done so. Olives are OK. Olives exist.
      How about three unicorns?
      Ward assumes it is reasonable to assume miraculous events are ‘facts’ because we haven’t proven that it didn’t occur. It’s just a shift in the burden of evidence.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

        But there is a fact of the matter about what Socrates ate on a particular day. Nobody knows it, but it’s still a fact. (The same is true of you, and me, and everyone.) It’s a mildly interesting game for off moments, thinking of facts that are unknowable.

      • Marta
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

        “It’s just a shift in the burden of evidence.”

        It’s also a category error, isn’t it?

        It’s entirely possible that Socrates ate 3 olives, less possible that he rose from the dead when he choked on one of them.

      • Jean K
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

        I wouldn’t conflate facts and claims. Facts are what make claims true or false, surely. They’re out there in the world and don’t change just because evidence changes or claims. It would be seriously spooky to think otherwise. Socrates eats the three olives on his 10th birthday. Everyone finds this interesting for 3 weeks, and gradually they stop thinking and talking about it. The evidence thus evaporates and people lose access to the fact about what he hate. Does it stop being a fact? Of course not. If you’re a realist and you think there’s mind-independent stuff really going on out there in the world, you’re not going to conflate facts with evidence or with claims.

        Ophelia–Yes, it’s quite fun to make up these things. Personally, I’m very fond of facts about how many olives Socrates ate on various days.

        • Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

          Heh. I like to think of things like what’s on the far side of the moon, what’s on some other moon in some other galaxy far far away, etc. Also the exact number of blades of grass on that lawn, and the exact number of leaves on that tree, etc. Hours of fun.

          • Jean K
            Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

            Ha. By the way, I think you did a nice job dissecting Ward at your blog today. I didn’t have the patience to really think through what he was up to, but you did, and put your finger on lots of subtle, under the radar mischief.

            • Posted November 19, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

              Thanks! I didn’t have the patience either when that piece first appeared, but his reply to Jim got me motivated.

  30. vel
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    this has to be one of the funniest things I’ve read in a while. I’m sorry, but this philosopher and this theologist are just more of the same idiots who want to redefine words so their nonsense can be considered true. They both seem to be taking tips from WLC, in their claims that lack any evidenec whatsoever.

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:41 am | Permalink

      If only they were idiots… but I doubt they are. They just don’t know what intellectual honesty is. Which is not surprising for a theologian but one might expect better from a philosopher.

  31. MosesZD
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    Here is an example: my father worked as a double-agent for MI6 and the KGB during the “Cold War”. He told me this on his death-bed, in view of the fact that I had once seen him kill a man. The Section of which he was a member was disbanded and all record of it expunged, and all those who knew that he was a member of it had long since died.

    I call bullshit. I’m not swallowing this load of crap without independent proof. He saw his dad kill someone?

    He was taking his kids on spy missions? Is that it? That I’m supposed to believe this outrageous claim is laughable.

    Ward sounds like he’s gone nuts and suffers from delusions.

    • Sigmund
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:27 am | Permalink

      It’s not as if he is unused to making incredible claims:
      “I am a born-again Christian. I can give a precise day when Christ came to me and began to transform my life with his power and love. He did not make me a saint. But he did make me a forgiven sinner, liberated and renewed, touched by divine power and given the immense gift of an intimate sense of the personal presence of God. I have no difficulty in saying that I wholeheartedly accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour.”
      and
      “There may be discrepancies and errors in the sacred writings, but those truths that God wished to see included in the Scripture, and which are important to our salvation, are placed there without error… the Bible is not inerrant in detail, but God has ensured that no substantial errors, which mislead us about the nature of salvation, are to be found in Scripture.”

  32. Brian Utterback
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    I think that Jerry’s challenge is a logical impossibility. Since Jerry has defined a “fact” as something that has evidence, but the challenge is to find a fact produced by philosophy that has no evidence. Thus the only way to meet the challenge is to produce a philosophically derived statement that both has no evidence and is backed by evidence. No fair!

    Not that I don’t agree with Jerry’s basic premise. History has many cases where progress is impeded by the great thinkers that “decided” that things worked one way when in reality they worked another.

    Besides, as was pointed out above, there is evidence in the case of Mr. Ward’s father, namely his own observation that he had killed a man and (possibly unreliable) eye witness testimony (by the dying father) that is consistent with the facts and context of the times. Since there is no evidence that in any way contradicts either, it is not unreasonable to adopt it as a hypothesis for the time being. And certainly most historical facts come into being in exactly this manner. Nothing in this story has anything to do with philosophical reasoning and facts.

    No, a better analogy would be if Mr. Ward had indeed seen his father kill someone, and then, after his father had died and based solely on the historical context, decided that his father must have been a secret agent for the government. Now, in this case the hypothesis is much less likely, even though the eye-witness testimony in the previous case must be deemed unreliable.

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

      I can’t speak for Jerry, but personally, by now I would already be satisfied with any fact that could be considered “well-established”, even if it weren’t supported by evidence, but by something else. The person who takes up the challenge in that would of course still have the burden of proof to show how that “something else” supports the fact, and how it leads the fact to being commonly accepted.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

        You actually point to something more important.

        People have been dedicating their lives for millennia to proving that various gods are real, and none have even come close to succeeding. That alone right there is amazingly powerful evidence that there are no gods to be found.

        Similarly, philosophers have been dedicating their lives for millennia to unearthing new truths about the universe. The only ones to succeed did so through rigorous analysis of empirical evidence — and, in so doing, stopped being philosophers and became scientists (or mathematicians or ethicists or logicians).

        In both cases, the experiment has been run, and the error bars are infinitesimally minute. There are no gods, and philosophy is intellectual masturbation. Anybody who insists otherwise should be dismissed with the flat earthers, the young earth creationists, and the alchemists.

        Cheers,

        b&

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      No fair, you say, but this is how fact is defined and used in science. The question was if philosophy can handle empirical facts, and by your own claims it can’t.

      The empirical state of history can be argued, but Coyne has described his position in another recent blog post. In effect, there are historical facts. But anecdote isn’t “fact”.

      Lastly you confuse hypotheses, which can be tested, with ideas, which unless they are hypotheses can not.

      • Brian Utterback
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink

        “No fair, you say, but this is how fact is defined and used in science.”

        Indeed. It is the challenge that is unfair, since it is impossible to carry out, bu definition. Forgetting the philosophical part, it boils down to “show me a fact that is not a fact”.

        “Lastly you confuse hypotheses, which can be tested, with ideas, which unless they are hypotheses can not.”

        I am using hypothesis more colloquially than scientifically here, although supporting evidence could still come to light, even in this case. By which we can see that historic “facts” are scientific only in the sense (as Jerry says) of science “broadly construed”.

    • Brian
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      “Since Jerry has defined a “fact” as something that has evidence”

      I don’t think Jerry ever defined what a fact was nor would he restrict well established facts to those with empirical evidence. I think Jerry would accept most mathematical theorems as well-established facts (just facts about mathematical concepts and not the real world). Jerry didn’t seem to be being rigorous in defining “well-established fact” nor should he, he was just talking casually. Any sort of half-way reasonable support of something somewhat factual should be admissible for consideration.

      I agree with Jerry’s challenge. And I would gladly be surprised by any answer one might raise to it. It’s a good intellectual practice to be open to surprises.

      Just answer the question. Casually speaking, no prior restrictions on what qualifies as a good answer, give some fact reasonably well-established with some reasonable support of ANY form you wish that was established by pure philosophy.

  33. Jim Mauch
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit. A teapot too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. Since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it because the existence of such a teapot is affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of our children at school. Your hesitation to believe in its existence shall become a mark of eccentricity and entitle you to the attentions of a philosopher. (thx to BR)

  34. Sastra
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Jerry’s challenge:

    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.

    Ward’s rephrasing of the challenge:

    I have been told that Jerry Coyne has challenged me to cite a “reasonably well established fact about the world” that has no “verifiable empirical input”. That is not a claim I have ever made, or ever would make.

    The disagreement may hinge on that word “verifiable” in the phrase “verifiable empirical input.” Jerry is talking about public knowledge and Ward is talking about private knowledge. After all, Jerry includes “personal experience” in his list so he’s not rejecting the idea that someone can know something they can’t demonstrate to skeptics. He’s rejecting the idea that religion can somehow put ‘private knowledge’ on a firm foundation so that the believer is justified in considering his belief a “hard fact.”

    I see Ward’s point as just another variation of the standard apologetic tactic of “all beliefs are based on faith so my religious faith is no different than ordinary faith.” Believing that Jesus rose from the dead because you read it in a book is just a matter of taking someone’s word for something — and we do that all the time.

    Let’s use casual, everyday standards of evidence on claims of the supernatural, shall we? Please?

    No.

    Atheists sometimes like to call faith believing in something without evidence. This is a mistake, because people of faith don’t think of it that way. They DO have empirical evidence for their beliefs — but it’s what skeptics would consider poor evidence. Thus they think a moral component comes into it, an ethical obligation borrowed from the asserted fact being true. This jumps ahead and begs the question.

    Bottom line, they’re saying they believe religious fact X on evidence that is sufficient for THEM, but not for others. And they believe there is something noble about this. It says something important about their attitude, character, and sensitivity. It says something about their affinity with and closeness to God.

    For those who believe no (more) evidence is necessary; for those who don’t believe no evidence is possible.

    Ward assumes he is in the elevated situation of having insider knowledge –reliable private knowledge — because believers-in-God get to take on some of God’s virtues for themselves. But you can’t jump over human fallibility like that — not as an individual and not in groups — and Jerry is right to call him on it.

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      An insightful analysis, as always! I hope it’s not too strange to say I’m a fan of yours!

      This is exactly right: “Bottom line, they’re saying they believe religious fact X on evidence that is sufficient for THEM, but not for others. And they believe there is something noble about this. It says something important about their attitude, character, and sensitivity. It says something about their affinity with and closeness to God.”

      Of course, this willingness to believe on insufficient evidence does say something about them. It’s just that it says the opposite of what they might imagine.

      Now, for the average (and even not-so-average) believer I can accept that what it says is that they are mistaken, misled, indoctrinated etc. When it comes to theologians and religious apologists however, I find it difficult not to include the idea of intellectual dishonesty. To put it more plainly, I have a low opinion of theologians and apologists.

      Do you think I am being unfair? Do they deserve just as much sympathy as other believers?

      • Sastra
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:05 am | Permalink

        No, I don’t think you’re being unfair because Religion and Spirituality not only don’t play fair — they brag about it. They are faith beliefs. Reason and evidence aren’t enough: the person doing the evaluating has to be receptive in a very special and positive way. You have to be motivated to believe.

        In other systems this is a bug, not a feature. And there’s not the same sort of moral onus on non-belief — even when the issue is contentious. Could you imagine someone in a heated argument about, say, global warming saying

        “Look, I will admit that the facts appear to be on your side. Looking only at the studies and evidence an intelligent person would agree that you were right. Sure. But …. not a person with heart. Because when it gets down to it, this is really about love. It’s a choice. I could no more use reason to compel someone to change their mind on global warming than I could rationally force them to care about the sick and handicapped if they didn’t. When you are transformed by love — then the hard facts about global warming will be apparent. My position on global warming is a faith belief

        Uh huh. Wouldn’t doing that just make the global warming debate* fly along smoothly?

        And that’s why I find it hard to give religious believers much sympathy. They try to special plead their special facts into being like values, remove the common ground of reason, and then compare those who dissent with people who are heartless, perverse, or immature.

        *I just picked global warming at random to represent an empirical issue people get angry over: not trying to imply anything about the state of that particu8lar ‘debate.’ You could substitute any other empirical issue — though note that proponents of “scientific creationism” or ID actually DO start to pull this emotion-laden “need to have faith” perspective crap when they get pushed to the wall (ditto for alt med.)

    • Newish Gnu
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      I wonder if Sastra could be persuaded to collect, edit, and publish her (IIRC that is the correct personal pronoun) postings on various websites and blog.

      I, for one, would gladly pay good money for “The Collected Wisdom of Sastra.”

      • Sastra
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:06 am | Permalink

        Heh. Thanks, but if nothing else I’m far too lazy.

        • Newish Gnu
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink

          You are welcome. I do make a point of looking for your comments as I scroll along.

          As for the laziness: I’ve always wanted to have written a book but it became clear to me years ago that I had no interest at all in writing a book.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

        Good to know I’m not the only fan! And I don’t believe her about her laziness! :)

        • Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

          Well not lazy as normally understood but she does like her freedom. I know this, I’ve tried to persuade her to blog!

  35. Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Methinks someone is trolling for blog traffic. Or maybe that’s just giving Houston the benefit of doubt and he really believes those arguments. I’ll go with the former to maintain a civil tone.

  36. alopiasmag
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    “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.”

    There is none. QED.

  37. Kevin
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    1. What everyone here is doing is philosophy.

    2. Ward’s philosophical argument, to be blunt, sucks.

    3. Houston’s philosophical defense of Ward’s philosophical argument, to be blunt, is nonsense. His high dudgeon over what he believes to be some sort of sleight against Ward is, frankly, unconvincing. Where’s the sleight? An internet exchange of ideas took place. Ward’s beliefs were right there in front of everyone, there was no expectation that any challenge to those beliefs needed to be directly asserted.

    4. Perhaps Houston doesn’t get around the internet much. Ivory towers being so isolated from the real world.

    5. Ward’s reply, as so many others have pointed out, lacks substance. He concedes Coyne’s point, then tries desperately to pull it back. Sorry, either you can vouchsafe a well-regarded “truth” that was derived at only through logic or you can’t. You can’t.

    6. Of COURSE you can subject the claims of the resurrection to scientific and historical examination. Of all the statements Ward made, that’s the silliest. What do you think all those archaeologists and historians are doing with the Dead Sea Scrolls, digs all over the Middle East, and on and on and on and on and on. Ward in one fell swoop denigrates the hard work being done by perhaps hundreds to thousands of scholars. It’s not their fault that no direct evidence of the resurrection is forthcoming.

    That’s likely because it never happened. And it probably never happened because the individual in question is most likely nothing more than a myth. At best a concatenation of First Century messianic preachers. At worst, a whole-cloth Hellenic fiction in the finest tradition of Hercules and other half-gods with superpowers. One does not take the claims of the Labors of Hercules at face value, either. One assesses them within the context of the time. At one time, Greeks believed there was a real Hercules who performed factual labors. How does Ward (or Houston) dismiss those accounts as mere myth-making and not use the exact same rationale for the myths of Jesus?

    I apologize for the length of this; I did not have time to write it shorter.

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      “Where’s the sleight? […]

      4. Perhaps Houston doesn’t get around the internet much. Ivory towers being so isolated from the real world.”

      I think that may well be the answer to the question. Perhaps a simple misunderstanding of netiquette through a lack of internet experience? Unfortunately, it does make Houston come off as a “pompous jerk” when he may not be at all.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

      What everyone here is doing is philosophy.

      No more than any such analysis in a science paper would be philosophy and not science.

      This is an old religious, theological and philosophical ruse: “your position is a belief too”.

      No.

      • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:33 am | Permalink

        Oops, I forgot why: no more than not collecting stamps is a hobby.

      • Kevin
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

        Jerry’s philosophy, as is yours and mine, can be described as model-dependent methodologic naturalism.

        That’s as much a philosophical pursuit as the wooly headed theological musings of Ward, et al.

        It just so happens that your particular branch of philosophy is the one that relies on empirical data in order to make claims, and provides society with a hell of a lot more practical benefits than other branches of philosophy.

        But it’s still a subset of the whole. Not a separate entity. Philosophy being generally defined as: The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, esp. when considered as an academic discipline.

        Just saying.

      • Posted November 19, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

        Philosophy is thinking about thinking.

        This can be a productive enterprise because humans are really bad at thinking coherently. There is a serious theory that our huge brains evolved for the purpose of convincing our fellow apes to give us the fruit. That is, they grew to convince others of a proposal, not to ascertain unpleasant truths. Learning to do that is learning how to think, and how to think about thinking, despite our many, many blithering stupidities.

        It can, of course, be an unproductive enterprise, such as when you’re Keith Ward or Jim Houston.

        But I think it’s fair to say there’s a lot of philosophising going on in this thread. Of either sort.

    • Occam
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      Small problem with resurrection: it’s a Cheshire cat argument.
      Ward writes that factual claims in favour of resurrection “are not verifiable by any known scientific or historical means.”
      Kevin responds that archaeologists have not found any direct evidence for it. Well, they couldn’t, could they?

      The problem is that, as far as archaeology is concerned, factual claims for resurrection are not even falsifiable: the only direct archaeological consequence of a hypothetical resurrection would be an empty tomb, which of course would prove strictly nothing: “Macavity’s not there!” The falsification criterion would be a tomb with a corpse/skeleton inside. This in turn would require unambiguous proof of the identity of the deceased. Unless independent material documents could be unequivocally related to the corpse, of which hitherto zero extant, there would be no positive identification.
      Empty tomb: you can’t prove resurrection. Full tomb: you can’t prove identity (and, by the same token, existence). This is worse than Schrödinger’s cat: it’s neither here nor there.

    • Brian
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

      1. Umm… we are just having a conversation. If you really want to call that philosophy, then I think your definition of philosophy is rather vague and could apply to a lot of weird things. It’s a bit like saying talking about Steven Hawking’s a Brief History of Time and how cool curved time-space is is doing science. If what we are doing while talking as laymen is philosophy, that discipline is in trouble. Academic disciplines should excel beyond the BS of laymen on the internet. But, hey, if you really want to call this philosophy…

  38. anonymous
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    My understanding is that philosophy leans towards hypothesis making, while science establishes the hard facts. Now, some things can not be verified by current methods (science) but are still interesting to discuss (philosophy). Of all of my philosophy friends, I have never had any of them contend that their discipline can establish hard facts.

    Also, there are rotten apples in all disciplines. Some philosophers say stupid shit, and some scientists publish shitty papers and waste grant money.

    Yet the earth keeps spinning.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      I would sympathize with that if it was merely hypotheses that comes out of philosophy. But the fact is that without a striving towards testability what we see are ideas at large.

      And that is confusing, not helping.

  39. CJ
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    “I’m not clear why I’m attracting increasing opprobrium from philosophers, though one reason may be their irritation that I am encroaching on their territory.”

    I suspect that this may also stem from a bit of hard science envy.

    I like Dan Dennett’s description of the job of the philosopher:

    “To clarify the conceptual innovations that come along as a result of the development of knowledge. Not just science, but knowledge in general. The philosopher’s job is to help formulate the best questions to ask – and that’s not easy.”

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      Okay, that is … um. No, I have no problem with that. =D

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      To validate “not easy” and to problematize Dennett’s claim at the same time: Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist, has declared that “Philosophy is dead”.

      ““Most of us don’t worry about these questions most of the time. But almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead,” he said. “Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.”

      Prof Hawking went on to claim that “Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.””

      • Sastra
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

        My understanding is that science is technically a sub-set of philosophy. Which is why I think the “science vs. philosophy” debate makes no sense.

      • Occam
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink

        I think it’s about time to read again a small volume by Jean Piaget, who was first and foremost a biologist, besides pioneering developmental epistemology: “Sagesse et illusion de la philosophie” (1965), imprecisely translated as “Insights and Illusions of Philosophy”.
        In it, Piaget describes how the domain of philosophy diminished since the beginning of the scientific age, at an ever increasing rate. And not only the domain: the types and scopes of questions accessible and amenable to philosophical inquiry were getting ever fewer and narrower, as scientific insight progressed. Moreover, Piaget insisted that, in order to be able to help at all in the formulation of relevant questions (cf. Dennett!), philosophers must not only acquaint themselves intimately with scientific methods and knowledge: they must also integrate what he termed the “internal epistemology” of the subject matter. What Piaget implied all along, whithout saying it in as many words: to the extent that philosophical questions were still relevant to science, scientists were better equipped to ask them than philosophers.
        Needless to say, the essay provoked a prolonged turf war and brought philosophers to the barricades…

  40. Jim Mauch
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    The religious and in some cases the philos respond to the scientist’s appeal for evidence with the answer that their evidence is the inner wisdom they have to divine the truth. The number one thing the scientist knows is that dressing your intuition in a fancy name like rational thought or revelation does not hide the fact of what it is. Arriving to an answer without testing your conclusion with empirical evidence will result in mere conjecture, or worse.

  41. Torbjorn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    That’s why factual claims require verification, and why string theory, which also makes factual claims, is still in the hinternland of facthood: there’s no way we’ve yet discovered to test those claims.

    Actually it is more complicated, and interestingly gets to the issue of the difference between fact and faith.

    String theory _has_ been tested a number of times. The problem is that it makes the same predictions that simpler effective theories do.

    String theory was devised to describe “flux tubes” seen in theoretical descriptions of nuclear force experiments, IIRC 1973. The year later QCD was accepted, which did the same prediction by way of “asymptotic freedom” as far as I understand it. (Not a student of quantum field theory.)

    Later they have teased the same prediction on black hole entropy out of string theory which comes out of semiclassical field models.

    So as a theory it is (somewhat) validated, but it fails in the competition. Some call predicting already predicted observations “consistency”, because a new theory has to be consistent with old ones to be considered as a competitor in the first place. But put in other words, without those other theories we would use string theory now.

    It is believed for good reasons that the regime where string theory latest can be tested is the Planck regime. Until lately it was believed those regimes were outside verifiability, since you would need an accelerator large as the Milky Way (IIRC) to reach those high energies.

    But it turns out nature is lenient, and supernova timing results makes us observe spacetime interact with photons with a resolution well within the Planck time scale.

    Those results seems to indicate that there is no quantum fluctuations of spacetime (smooth spacetime background), which is a problem for eternal inflation and hence string theory both.

    We will have to see if* and how that constrains string theory, undoubtedly there are ways around, But it would be “the next string theory” as I understand it.

    Now, if we were discussing faith, there is no such thing as “consistency” between beliefs! Younger beliefs have to portray old beliefs as invalid and vice versa.

    ——————
    * Thsoe observations have been deemed “not conclusive” by some theoreticians, on grounds that are unclear to me. But there will be more supernovas.

  42. eric
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Ward: What I do claim is not so controversial, namely, that many factual claims about the world are reasonably believed or even known to be true, even when there is no way in which any established science (a discipline a Fellow of the Royal Society would recognise as a natural science) could establish that they are true or false.

    That someone came back from the dead is not “reasonably believed or even known to be true.”

    As others have pointed out, Ward’s claim may be true for some, plausible, statements – like “I’m wearing a green shirt.” But his claim is not true for events or occurrences that past empirical experience tell us are highly implausible.

    I think the pratical way to approach whether religious claims should be believed without empirical support is to simply change the protagonist to someone recent, and ask whether you’d still believe it. Did my grandmother turn over tables in the church when she got angry? Maybe that’s not a “fact,” but most people would be okay tentatively accepting that it happened without proof. Did my grandmother rise from the dead? Most people would call bulls**t on that.

    Rather than this being an issue of defining “fact,” its really an issue of special treatment. I.e., why do some theologians and philosophers treat certain historical figures with less scepticism than they would anyone else?

  43. Myron
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:42 am | 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)

    What exactly does this mean?
    Is the following a proper paraphrase?

    “I challenge Ward to mention just one (contingently? contingently or necessarily?) true proposition whose truth is known by me/your/us and hasn’t been ascertained by means of any intersubjectively comparable or repeatable (external) perceptions/observations.”

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      You are getting into philosophical definitions of “facts”.

      Coyne was discussing empirical, knowable, fact. (Knowable because they are the only known facts that can be ascertained with statistical certainty.)

      • Myron
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink

        Well, some use “fact” in the sense of “contingent fact”, some use it in the sense of “contingent or necessary fact”, some use it in the sense of “true proposition”, some use it in the sense of “actual/obtaining state of affairs”, some use it in the sense of “true proposition known to be true”, and some use it in the sense of “actual/obtaining state of affairs known to be actual/to obtain”. That is a cause of confusion and misunderstanding!

        • Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink

          Ward’s usage of the term “hard fact” for something that was quite definitely nothing of the sort, however, is just pretending words can mean anything he wants them to mean even when he knows damn well the people reading don’t use them the way he just did.

          • Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

            Yes – that very slippery place where he jumps from the “hard fact” that he was in Oxf last night to “So it is with the miracles of Jesus.” No it isn’t! Not So at all. Yes it’s So that both are unverifiable (assuming no one can confirm Ward’s presence) but no it’s not So that the miracles of Jesus.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      WTF is “intersubjectively”? Is it “agreeable by virtue of faith”?

    • Myron
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      What about egocentric propositions and introspectively gained self-knowledge, such as ? I know for certain that I am tired now, but the source of my (self-)knowledge isn’t any intersubjectively comparable or repeatable external perception/observation.

      • Myron
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

        What about egocentric propositions and introspectively gained self-knowledge, such as “I am tired now”? I know for certain that I am tired now, but the source of my (self-)knowledge isn’t any intersubjectively comparable or repeatable external perception/observation.

        • Myron
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:57 am | Permalink

          Egocentric facts are facts about the world, since I am part of the world.

  44. Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Other have already said versions of this, but I want to say my version.

    Ward’s example is completely hopeless because he said his claim was “that many factual claims about the world are reasonably believed or even known to be true, even when there is no way in which any established science could establish that they are true or false” and by that he has to mean generally believed – and it’s not a bit reasonable for everyone to believe his claim about his father.

    Under certain circumstances it might be reasonable to do what’s called taking his word for it, but that’s not the same thing as believing it – for the very kind of reasons he seems to be trying to evade. In these circumstances, as an example of a factual claim about the world that is “reasonably believed,” it’s not remotely reasonable to believe it.

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

      I see Benjamin Nelson made the same point in a comment on Jim Houston’s piece:

      http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=3657#comment-39851

      “But here are two points against Ward. Presumably, Ward would agree that it is not a ‘well-established‘ fact that Ward’s father was a double agent for MI5 and the KGB. Hence, strictly speaking, Ward’s rebuttal doesn’t meet the Coyne Challenge.”

      I don’t know if Ward would agree or not, but I suspect he hoped no one would notice.

      • Myron
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

        What exactly is the difference between a “(reasonably) well-established” fact and an “ill-established” fact?

        • Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink

          Well Ward said “reasonably believed,” so I’m not sure why Ben said “well-established.” Anyway I said rb, not w-e.

          • BSN
            Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

            I was pulling from Coyne’s ‘challenge’ with my phrasing (since he used the words “reasonably well established”).

            • Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

              Gotcha. Ward oscillates between terms all over the place, which doesn’t help.

  45. Michael Sternberg
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    The only discipline that generates abstract knowledge appears to be mathematics. But even there, the axioms are rooted in facts.

    BTW, Hinternland of facthood has a Freudian ring to it, for in German, Hintern (with terminal “n”) is a colloquialism for one’s bottom.

    • eric
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      IMO, math and symbolic logic are interesting cases.

      On one hand, they only tell you what a set of axioms or definitions will deductively entail -“Given A, B, C, then D” types of things. Without any empirical validation, they are agnostic on whether A, B, C, or D represent anything real or are just fanciful notions. You can, for example, create complex symbolic logic statements about unicorns – that doesn’t mean they exist.

      On the other hand, the human mind is limited and math and logic help us exceed those limitations. Let’s face it, most of us do not instantly intuit every single deductive relationship between a set of axioms when we see them. So math and logic as systems or methods of investigation can certainly produce knowledge we didn’t have before. If I didn’t know without working through the math/logic that A, B, C deductively imply D, that is an interesting “fact” to learn.

      I think the latter definition of fact can be useful in some discussions, but is probably not what Jerry meant by the word.

    • Myron
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      The claim that there is mathematical knowledge presupposes mathematical realism/platonism. But for mathematical antirealists/antiplatonists there is no “Platonic heaven” populated by abstract mathematical entities such as numbers and sets; and if there are no such entities, then (positive) propositions about them are false. And if a proposition p is false, then one cannot know that p.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

        Only if you think there is one notion of truth. There’s a case (see Bunge, Treatise on Basic Philosophy volume 1-2) that “mathematical truth” (i.e., satisfiability in a model, for example) is an “honourific” of sorts – Bunge is a mathematical fictionalist.

  46. Robin Ducret
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    “When, in my Guardian piece, I described the resurrection as a ‘hard fact’, I naturally did not mean that it would convince everyone. I meant that it entails some empirical factual claims (so it is not just subjective or fictional). But those claims are not verifiable by any known scientific or historical means.”

    Just one point here. If the resurrection is supposed to be a “hard fact” then the assumption must be made that the observers were disinterested parties. This is very much not the case. The Israelites were fighting for not only their religion but for their deliverance from the tyranny of Rome. Jesus carried all their hopes of ending this oppression and his death would have been a mortal blow to their cause. So what to do? Why, with a stroke of genius, make up a story of his resurrection and voila! Job done.

  47. Jeremy Nel
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    This whole thing makes me laugh. Uncontrollably. Well done, Jerry, for calling bull on this whole thing, both in the your first post about the issue, and in this one. As you correctly point out, this issue is that religion has NOTHING to offer the world of facts. Behind the smokescreen ad hominems, behind all the verbiage, behind the special pleading and idiosyncratic definitions, THAT’S the issue. And I’m glad more people are saying it.

    • Jeremy Nel
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      It can make factual-sounding CLAIMS of course. Anybody can, including a paranoid schizophrenic, a charlatan or the “postmodernism generator” computer program. But, like with all these examples, it gives us no reason to take any factual-sounding claim seriously. And that’s because it’s methods for generating these claims aren’t truth-generating by their nature. (They rely on bogus techniques like “authority” or “personal revelation”, all long-since discredited.)

      Perhaps that’s a better way of phrasing the challenge: “Why should I take the factual claims of religion any more seriously than those of the paranoid schizophrenic?”

  48. Chris Booth
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    To say that Ward’s thinking is poor is to flatter his ratiocinatory powers.

    There might not be a paper trail to his father’s secret agency, but a serious historian would have many lines to approach investigating that claim.

    For example, there IS an MI6; that is verifiable; there was a KGB; that is verifiable. Now verify God. From the get-go, there is more plausibility that a man of a particular generation might have been a Cold War double agent than that “God” exists. But an ambitious historian could dig deeper. How about KGB records? If they have him as a British agent, half of his claim is verified. Now verify any aspect of “God”. OK, how about payroll records for MI6? An expunged department would show up as a gap. What about others in the group? Were there other death-bed confessions? And on the former-KGB side? If they thought Ward’s father was one of their boys, there would be a record somewhere of monies allocated and moved overseas. Etc. Etc. His claim that there is “absolutely no way of empirically verifying or falsifying it” is a self-serving claim completely lacking in intellectual rigor. I suspect, too, that there is someone out there keeping records on the records that have been destroyed–what if one of those “forgotten” agents goes rogue, is actually a triple agent, gets drunk and blabs, is tracked down by the Other Side (or Another Side, or was also an agent for Another Power), becomes senile, has information that becomes important years later, etc. So, there should be some way of pinning down at least a strong plausibility that it was not just some grandiose statement at a moment of near-death delirium.

    But we know that memory and personal interpretation of experience can be fractious and unreliable. Blood sugar imbalances, hunger, exhaustion, ‘shrooms, peyote, whirligigging about, senility, suggestion, alcohol, selective memory, etc., etc., etc., and not least, mental illness all can lead us to conviction of unexperienced experience. Duh.

    And, as to Ward’s statement: “When, in my Guardian piece, I described the resurrection as a ‘hard fact’, I naturally did not mean that it would convince everyone. I meant that it entails some empirical factual claims (so it is not just subjective or fictional).” The Ramayana entails empirical factual claims, so is equally “not just subjective or fictional” (and the same can be said for the story of Isis and Osiris, Dionysus, and even the writings of Erich von Daniken or T. Lobsang Rampa). And why we should accept the story of the resurrection as being more than a very easily repeated, small-time conjuring trick by a baker’s dozen of confidence tricksters who had a vested interest in the story Ward does not establish (and resurrection is stock-in-trade for deities, and was all the buzz in the Middle East and Mediterranean for thousands of years prior to the Passion, anyway).

    So, does Ward give equal credence to the actuality of Rama? There is a great deal of historical support of the Ramayana–why, there is a temple at the place of his birth! The very place of Rama’s birth! One can go and see it! Ecco! Voila! There it is! We don’t even have a birth-site for Abraham Lincoln, so there! And the ways of personally knowing Rama are the same as his ways of personally “knowing” God/Jesus; or Krishna or Hanuman or Guan Yin or Allah (alhamdulilla) or Coyote or the Thunderbird or abductive aliens or ghosts or leprechauns (there are more documented stories of the Little People of various kinds and vastly more for ghosts than there are credible manifestations of Jeebus since the assumption; there are many photographs of faeries). I have hear Thor manifest in snowstorms here in Brooklyn twice in this calendar year, and others heard him, too. Though some might have heard Zeus, who was also a thunderer.

    Ward has no intellectual rigor or integrity. He just wants to be important. “I’m Special! [Mel Blanc voice]’I know something you don’t know, I know something you don’t know!'[/Mel Blanc voice] I know God, we’re like this, and you don’t, so there, nyah!” When the light is turned on and he is caught mid-declamation, he has to claim facts that are not facts but are facts and so are more than facts, nyah!.

    But all he really has is a variant of the Emperor’s New Clothes: He wants to be the birthday-girl with the biggest bow at the birthday-party, and he’s claiming to have the biggest bow; so when you point out he is naked he’s pretty miffed. Oh, and by the way; all the religious people, of all the religions are also claiming the biggest bow; it’s quite a clamor. No wonder God has to cover His Ears. Atheists are the ones pointing out they are all as naked as the Emperor: not only do they not have the biggest bow, they are not wearing a bow…or anything else.

    And that’s why they are so mad. [Pout and flounce, now he’ll sniff and leave the party.]

  49. Myron
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Generally speaking, testimony is one of our sources or grounds of justification and knowledge; but its reliability is epistemologically problematic:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/testimony-episprob/

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      Which is why his claim about his father is such a hopeless example. It’s testimony, and not even sworn testimony! (Not to mention the fact that it’s in the service of an agenda.) (In one sense I’m perfectly willing to politely take his word for it, but in another sense I’m not willing at all. Socially I’m willing; epistemically I’m not.)

    • JBlilie
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      If his father had claimed to have been a 747 pilot (all records were lost in a fire and all his colleagues are now dead) would he have believed that?

      How about if his father had claimed that he had seen Jesus in the bottom of the garden and Jesus had told him that the Bible was true. Would that make it a fact that Jesus met Dad at the bottom of the garden?

      Sheesh!

  50. eric
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Ward: “When, in my Guardian piece, I described the resurrection as a ‘hard fact’, I naturally did not mean that it would convince everyone. I meant that it entails some empirical factual claims (so it is not just subjective or fictional).”

    He seems to be using “hard” to mean “objective,” and the term “hard fact” to mean soemething like “hypothetically possible objective fact.”

    I would guess that most people use the term “hard fact” to imply a level of verification or validity missing from both Ward’s use of the term, and from the biblical ressurection story.

    • Bernard Ortcutt
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      The big problem is that in everyday discourse the word “fact” flip-flops over the claim vs. state-of-affairs distinction.

      Philosophers generally use the term “fact” as equivalent to “state of affairs”, the way the world is, and use “claim” for linguistic items. Facts are what make claims true, i.e. facts are “truth-makers” and claims are “truth-bearers”. “Objective fact” is saying the same thing twice, and bringing in modality by talking about possible facts is really beside the point. We’re interested in what the actual world is like.

      That Ward gets this in a terrible muddle shows just how little justification there is in calling him a “philosopher”.

  51. KP
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Can philosophy or religion alone establish facts?

    NO. End of blog website post.

    Footnote: Establishing facts requires providing evidience. Philosophy usually discusses (or should discuss) evidence. Religion provides no evidence, and therefore, cannot establish any facts.

    • KP
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      I was trying to strike out “blog” on that but seem to have screwed up the code…

  52. Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Clearly, one must have empirical evidence for stuff….

    http://www.satireandcomment.com/0208toast.html

  53. Brian
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Okay Jerry, I have a positive answer to your challenge. (I don’t think there are many answers beyond this answer.) Let’s see what you think of this answer…

    Philosophy has established the rules for logic, such as propositional logic and modal logic. And various theoretical results such as the soundness and completeness of predicate logic.

    Does this meet your challenge?

    (Note I think someone must have answered with this before me, the answer is rather obvious in my view. And I don’t think say any facts on free will or ethics have similarly been established in philosophy. But in case you are still awaiting answers and no one mentioned this, thought I better put it on the table. :-) )

    • Brian
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      No, wait. Your challenge is to find examples of facts ABOUT THE WORLD. I just presented an example of facts about concepts. Well-established facts, but having more to do with man-made concepts than the world. This was a bad answer and doesn’t answer your challenge.

      • JBlilie
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:30 am | Permalink

        Also: How do you know these concepts (ideas in persons’ brains) exist? By empirical evidence.

    • Teemo
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      Philosophy can only determine what is internally consistent. If A, then B. But it can’t prove A directly. That requires empirical evidence. Sometimes philosophers forget that, and believe they have created a fact. That is the main problem with theology, as well.

    • Bernard Ortcutt
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      The problem is that the justification for rules of logic is a very tendentious topic in philosophy. We are taught that that you can infer P v Q from P, but why is that the case? Since Quine, it’s been hard to understand how something like P -> P v Q can be analytic and thus known without observation. You might say, well, there are at least results in mathematical logic like the Completeness of First-Order Logic, but the justification of mathematical claims is an equally hard problem. When you get down to the details, it seems possible that all justification might ultimately require empirical justification of some sort or other.

      • eric
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

        We are taught that that you can infer P v Q from P, but why is that the case?

        Because it’s inherent in the definitions of “P,” “v,” and “Q.”

        Since Quine, it’s been hard to understand how something like P -> P v Q can be analytic and thus known without observation.

        I am not sure what’s hard about it. One only needs an understanding of the meaning of those symbols and the brainpower to analyze the string. No emperirical observation of the sun, my desk, etc… is needed.

        Now, if you are saying that sometimes we lack the brainpower to analyze deductive proofs – i.e. it is “hard” to see some deductive conclusions – then I agree. If it was easy, we wouldn’t need mathematicians; all proofs would be obvious. But we lack “perfect” brainpower.

        Or, are you saying that if we raised a person in a box without any (empirical) stimuli, they wouldn’t know P -> P v Q? This is also probably true, but is more a statement about education and brain development than the nature of symbolic logic. Computers can test symbolic logic just fine even when “empirical” stimuli is limited to just what is needed to program their functions.

        • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

          It is important to distinguish what a statement is about vs. how you’d come to know it.

          A sensory-deprived brain is a hallucinating, useless one – so it would not come to know logic. (I.e., “radically a priori” is useless as a category.) The relevant matter is that the statements of a pure logic (the “theorems” of a logic) are not about the world; they are purely formal. (This, BTW, pushed appropriately, also shows why the whole bit about analytic/synthetic is a mistake.)

          • Bernard Ortcutt
            Posted November 19, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink

            If they are “purely formal”, are they still true? I think they must be true, and true in the same way that other claims are true, in virtue of correspondence to the world. So, they are about the world.

            • Posted November 27, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

              No, they are true based purely on logical form, or in the case of the “truths” of mathematics, by honorific (or by “definition of terms”, if one prefers.)

  54. JBlilie
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Yeah, I love that: Daddy said it, and that makes it a fact!!! That would make perfect sense — to a theologian, whio is used to taking daddy’s word as fact.

    How can he possibly put that foward as a proof? Goodness, my opinion of philosophy just dropped several notches. Seriously, he needs to make a shamed-faced public retraction of that whopper! And the philosopher just passes it along like it’s a knock-down proof!

    It beggars my imagination: A PhD makes the public claim that an assertion = a fact. Wow, wow, wow! QED, baby!

    When, in my Guardian piece, I described the resurrection as a ‘hard fact’, I naturally did not mean that it would convince everyone. I meant that it entails some empirical factual claims (so it is not just subjective or fictional).

    Holy hoppin’ Hank!

    Empirical factual claim Ͱ Fact

    In fact:

    Empirical factual claim often Ͱ Fact (easy to think of a huge number of examples)

    And: Empirical factual claim often = subjective or fictional in detail

    In fact, he believes exactly that about the religious claims of much of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Keith Ward is not a philosopher!

      I put that in italics because a lot of people have referred to him as such. But he’s not. He’s a professor of divinity.

      • Myron
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        Read “theology” as “theistic/religious philosophy”!

      • JBlilie
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        I agree, I should have been more specific.

        I was nailing Houston, who is, in addition to Ward, who isn’t. I should have made the distinctions clearer.

      • gr8hands
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

        Ophelia Benson,

        Keith Ward’s c.v. lists him as having been “Professor of History and Philosophy of Religion”, therefore he is a philosopher.

        • Alexander Hellemans
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

          A philosopher of religion? Are there also philosophers of astrology?

          • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

            Actually, yes, and as far as I can tell, a lot of them are actually unbelievers.

            (I have never actually seen figures, so take it with a grain of salt.)

        • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

          And, aside from Alexander’s point, I’d note that Jerry’s diploma certifies him as a doctor of philosophy. I think he’d be a bit peeved if you were to therefore refer to him as a philosopher.

          b&

          • Alexander Hellemans
            Posted November 18, 2011 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

            Why? The Wiki definition seems to me quite applicable to someone investigating the phenomenon of life, but not to someone calling himself a theologian or astrologer:
            “Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.[1][2] Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument.[3] The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek φιλοσοφία (philosophia), which literally means “love of wisdom”.

            “Rational argument” seems to be the fundamental principle.

            • Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

              Why would Jerry object to being tarred with the “philosopher” brush?

              Simple.

              Though philisophers may give some mighty fine speeches about what it is they do, an empirical analysis of what they produce nearly always reveals it to be composed of equal parts bullshit and self-aggrandizing pomposity. The only time philosophers ever produc anything worthwhile is when they move away from “pure” philosophy and adopt the practices of one of the well–established disciplines that has evolved from it.

              An astrologer may spot a new comet, but that doesn’t give any more validity to astrology than a philosopher stumbling upon some new logical or ethical principle validates philosophy or an alchemist discovering a new pigment validates alchemy.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

                Without philosophy, all thinkers would be like Ben Goren. Quite a frightening thought really.

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

                Quite.
                I like how Prof. Peter Atkins internally divides a room in to philosophers and scientists.
                The ones who are speaking in a pessimist gloomy manner (usually about the logical impossibility of getting anything done) are the philosophers, and the scientists are those who are being optimists and bursting with real-world solutions to problems.

              • Alexander Hellemans
                Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

                I don’t know the present situation in the US (based on what you say, philosophy seems to be equated with theology, the opposite from Europe), but when I was a physics student in Utrecht (a long time ago), you could not even think of getting a degree in philosophy without getting an advanced degree in a scientific discipline first. And philosophy courses where available for science students. In fact as soon we make general statements about what we should consider a scientific fact, we make a philosophical statement. And don’t forget, the destruction of the position and power of the Catholic Church, and the rise of atheism during the Enlightenment in Europe was the work of people who called themselves “natural philosophers.” The bad name philosophy has in the scientific community in the US is probably caused by the activity of the Templeton foundation and other groups who try to not only blur the distinction between religion and science, but also between religion and philosophy (here the strongest enemy of religion). “I cannot accept the existence of a deity because I don’t seen any evidence of a deity” is a philosophical statement, while the statement: “There is no scientific evidence of a deity” is a scientific statement. The reason why some scientists, even with an excellent scientific reputation, claim to be theists is that they never take this second step. Probably this is prevented by early religious indoctrination at school–brainwashing.

  55. JBlilie
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    html fail:

    Empirical factual claim ≠ Fact

    Empirical factual claim often ≠ Fact (easy to think of a huge number of examples)

  56. David S.
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    The following statement expresses a fact I take to to be true and unsupported by empirical research: “It is possible that evolution is false.”

    (Of course, I don’t think evolution is false, but – as with all inductively supported enterprises – it is logically possible that it is. While a totally uninteresting fact, I take it to be, nevertheless, a fact.)

    • Myron
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      Evolution is a natural process that cannot be true or false. Only statements/propositions such as “Darwinian evolution takes places in reality” are bearers of truth-values.

      • David S.
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

        You are correct. I was speaking imprecisely. So, modify my claim accordingly.

      • gr8hands
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

        Myron wrote: “Evolution is a natural process that cannot be true or false.”

        Your statement appears to be linguistically incorrect, although David S. is quite kind in his rebuttal.

  57. Andrei Anghel
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    My answer to Jerry’s challenge:

    I believe personal experience and judgment have concluded me to establish this fact:

    “Theology alone cannot establish any facts”.

    You may say, this is only speculation. By I contend this is a fact in the same way as anything which may be called a scientific fact.

    First of all, it is highly falsifiable. You only need one counterexample to prove it is not true. In this sense, it is even more general a fact than “Things fall when you drop them”. Things only fall when you drop them in a reasonably strong gravitational field. In outer space, they don’t fall.

    Then, my conjecture has been tested against reality many times – every time a theologian has made a factual claim.

    It is of course preliminary, but then again so are all scientific “facts”. Phlogiston was replaced with oxygen combustion and Ptolemaic astronomy with Copernican astronomy. The fact that my fact is not 100% proven right makes it no less of a fact.

    So there you have it. Theology has taught us something: that theology cannot teach us anything real.

    • Bernard Ortcutt
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      Simple empirical observation, not theology, has taught us that theology does not teach us anything true.

  58. Jayso
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I’m a first-time poster (who loved WEIT). Here’s an attempt to meet Jerry’s challenge: I think Jerry has said that he admires Tom Stoppard. So do I. In fact, I think I can state, as a fact, that Tom Stoppard is a better writer than Dan Brown. But what objective evidence there is on the matter suggests the contrary. Dan Brown is way more popular. The vast majority of readers would prefer him to Tom Stoppard, given a choice. But those people are wrong! I like to think that my faith in Tom Stoppard’s superiority is more real than someone else’s faith in God. Am I wrong?

    • JBlilie
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      Better for what?

      Always ask that question …

      • Jayso
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

        Better at producing great literature, I guess, which I know leaves more room for definition. But in the end we either have to accept such assertions as fact or admit we have no basis for them. And then we’d have to admit that Shakespeare is not necessarily superior to Nicholas Sparks. I think I’d rather become a Mormon.

  59. Bernard Ortcutt
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Many philosophers agree with the claim that there is no knowledge without empirical observation, i.e. they reject a priori justification. Michael Devitt of CUNY Graduate Center has been arguing this for years. He has three papers, “Naturalism and the A Priori”, “There is No A Priori”, and “No Place for the A Priori” which argue for this claim. I tend to think he makes a good case.

    http://web.gc.cuny.edu/philosophy/faculty/devitt/published.html

    • Myron
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      For example, no empirical evidence is required in order for the belief that zero-dimensional objects are colourless to be justified.

      • Bernard Ortcutt
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

        What is a zero-dimensional object? I failing to see how this claim is even true, let alone justified.

        • Myron
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

          A 0D object is an object with the size of a mathematical point. That such volume- and surfaceless objects cannot be coloured is self-evidently true.

          • JBlilie
            Posted November 18, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

            Mathematical points are imaginary, by definition.

            • Myron
              Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

              Firstly, the predicates “imaginary”, “fictional”, and “nonexistent” are not to be used in definitions.
              Secondly, that all 0D objects are uncoloured is necessarily true independently of the real existence of 0D objects.
              Thirdly, quite a few philosophers and scientists do believe in the real existence of point-particles and space/spacetime points.

              • gr8hands
                Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

                Incorrect.

                Nothing imaginary exists. By definition.

              • Myron
                Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

                The point is that points (0D objects) aren’t imaginary by definition.

              • gr8hands
                Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

                Myron, I was only commenting on your statement: “Firstly, the predicates ‘imaginary’, ‘fictional’, and ‘nonexistent’ are not to be used in definitions.”

                Your 2nd statement makes no sense. Try substituting this sentence: All pink unicorns are nessarily pink independent of the real existence of pink unicorns.

                Your 3rd statement carries little weight, for the same reason as “quite a few philosophers and scientists do believe in the real existence of god.”

                That being said, the mathematical concept of 0D objects exists, whether or not they actually exist in the physical world. Just like imaginary numbers as a mathematical concept exist, but not in the physical world.

  60. Myron
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    “[F]actual claims are not facts.” (J. Coyne)

    Of course, for a proposition to be asserted as true is not necessarily for it to be true.

  61. lkr
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t it pretty likely that a person who tells his son the secret-agent story to explain an observed homicide is a psychopath and a liar? I’d take the availability of spy stories and the convenience of unverifiability as telling against its truth.

    As the availability of resurrection and convenience to Jesus’ later adherants tell against the “truth” of the resurrection story.

  62. Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    I think of all the awesome WEIT comment forums, this is my favorite.

    Also, here is a gif of a kitteh running up a slide:

    • Dave Ricks
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

      Kitteh is cute — Fact!

    • Potsmaster
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

      Nicely done.

  63. Lee
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Wikipedia: “A fact (derived from the Latin Factum, see below) is something that has really occurred or is actually the case.”

    Sorry I haven’t read all the comments. This bothered me: ‘A “fact” is not a fact if all the evidence supporting it has vanished or is inaccessible.’ Did I miss reason for the quotes? If Ward’s father was an agent, that’s a fact (but maybe not a “fact”?), but not a fact that we can know (right now). The universe is full of facts like that. That’s just another way of saying it exists, which is a hypothesis which has served us pretty well so far. And when we study it we use lots of facts that weren’t derived empirically, e.g. the fact that 2+2=4.

    • Myron
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Should read “A fact is not a known fact if there is no accessible evidence for it”.

      • gr8hands
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

        Should read “an assertion is not a fact if there is no accessible evidence for it.”

  64. Myron
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    “Ward and Houston should know better: a ‘factual claim’ is not a ‘fact’ unless there is evidence to support it.”

    The testimony of Ward’s father is evidence: it provides a reason to believe that Ward’s father was a double-agent (unless there are stronger reasons to believe that his father was a liar).

    • JBlilie
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      What if he said he had been a 747 pilot (all records lost, colleagues dead)?

      He could also have been deluded or dreaming (deathbed and all).

      • Ken Browning
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

        The testimony of Ward’s father is evidence: it provides a reason to believe….

        It’s very weak, nominal evidence. All of us use such things to navigate reality when the stakes are low. However, when the risk rises to important levels or the claim is highly incongruent with previous experience, then the usefulness of such weak evidence is (one is wise to presume) not compelling.

  65. Gareth Price
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    I am kind of thinking aloud here and hopefully someone can correct my thinking.

    Maybe there are facts which are sort of self-referential, that the person himself can know to be true but can not prove. Coming back to “fact” of KW being in Oxford one night.

    Suppose I claim to have been at home at the time a crime was committed. Unfortunately for me I have no corroborating evidence to support this; and there is a grainy video apparently showing me robbing a store. From the police’s point of view the relevant question is whether or not I am lying. From my point of view, the question is whether or not I am mistaken in believing that I was at home. Anyone who could be certain that I am telling the truth would probably cast doubt upon the reliability of the video before questioning whether I was mistaken in believing that I was at home. It would take quite unusual circumstances for me to believe I was at home when I was, in fact, robbing a store.

    In other words, I myself can know that I was at home with as much certainty as I can know any other fact. I can’t demonstrate it to anyone else. It would take quite exceptional circumstances for me to genuinely believe I was at home when I was not.

    Once I start making claims about something that I know but can’t prove and it is not about myself, then the opportunities for deception seem to increase enormously. If I claim that I saw Jesus at the bus-stop but can’t prove it to anyone else, there is a lot more scope for me being deceived.

    I think I am saying that self-referential facts can be known to you with the sort of certainty that is attached to empirically- tested facts. But once they are not about yourself, there is a much greater element of uncertainty.

    Tell me why I am talking nonsense!

    • JBlilie
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      Why would anyone else believe you?
      How sure are you that you didn’t sleep walk?
      How sure are you that you didn’t dream it up?
      How sure are you that you are not hallucinating?
      How can you be sure you’re not a brain in a vat.

      In real life situations like this, who do people end up believing? The evidence or the bald statement of the person? Many people have gone to jail (or the scaffold) for this reason. Shows where people usually come down on. Criminals are often arch-manipulators.

      • Gareth Price
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

        I agree. Why should anyone believe me? When someone sees the video of me apparently robbing a shop at the time I claim to be at home, they will have their doubts. But should I share their doubts at that point?

    • gr8hands
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      Gareth Price, insomniacs claim up and down that they’ve been awake all night during sleep studies, yet the videotape repeatedly shows them falling asleep. (you can do a Google search on this)

      We see again and again why personal eye-witness testimony is inherently not valid evidence, because of the frailty of our perceptions and memory.

      It would be better to use “assertion” rather than “fact” most of the time.

    • Ken Browning
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      The key here is that you are basing your conclusion to yourself empirically (or not). How widely the evidence can persuade depends on how widely the said evidence is distributed.

  66. paul fauvet
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Despite Ward’s denial, the claim about his double-agent father is, in principle, verifiable.

    After all, espionage agencies keep archives, and somewhere in Moscow there may be a letter incriminating Ward’s father. Ward has no way of knowing that all evidence of his father’s supposed activities has been expunged.

    Furthermore, no spy acts alone. They have contacts, some of whom may, many years later, remember Ward’s father.

    In short, if a historian or journalist wanted to investigate Ward’s claim about his father, if would be quite possible to do so.

    With the resurrection story, matters are very different. First, there are no confirmed reports of any human being ever rising from the dead.

    Second, the only evidence for the resurrection are four accounts written decades after the event by people whose identities are unknown. Why should we believe their stories?

    We can choose to believe Ward because he knew his father, and we can, if we like, contact Ward and talk to him about it.

    There are no such checks we can use to verify the Resurrection.

    It would be a different matter if some reputable Greek or Roman historian had mentioned the resurrection, but none of them did. The only mention of Christ in ancient literature is by Tacitus, and is distinctly hostile, referring to the crucifixion, and saying absolutely nothing about the resurrection.

    Such silence is telling. Jerusalem was not an obscure backwater, and if something extraordinary happened there, such as a crucified criminal coming back to life, and being seen by thousands of people, then the news would certainly have travelled quickly to Greece and to Rome.

    We can draw our own conclusions from the fact that no Greek or Roman writer mentions these supposed events.

    • Posted November 18, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      RationalWiki again! Evidence for the historical existence of Jesus Christ. Tacitus is a terrible source too – the copy we have was clearly tampered with.

      (That page asserts that historians have no problem saying a troublemaking preacher named Jesus may well have existed in Jerusalem around 30AD. I’m not personally convinced, but the contributor responsible for that bit is an atheist who has studied this stuff in depth. Further informed contribution is most welcome.)

      • JBlilie
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

        If any prominent Roman or Greek had mentioned it, rest assured that the church would have preserved such a testament.

        • JBlilie
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

          Even if they had to fake it, such as Josephus.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        That page, believe it or not, as skeptical as it presents itself, is chock full of Christian apologetics.

        For example, it uncritically accepts a mid-first century date for the authorship of Mark. We know that’s bullshit because Mark references events that didn’t happen until the 70s — Mark 15:38 is the classic example. The only reason that’s the commonly-accepted date is because Christians are assuming their conclusions and building a chronology from it. Specifically, that gospels were authored by the men whose names are at the top, that some of them were eyewitnesses, and that there was so much time between when each of them wrote the works.

        Once you take an empirical approach to dating the Gospels, the party line quickly becomes apparent as the wishful thinking it is.

        The oldest physical evidence we have for anything in the New Testament — the Pauline epistles included — is a tiny fragment of G. John that, based on handwriting analysis theologians have dated to the middle of the second century. They’ve refused to provide dust samples for carbon dating.

        As soon as you bring up such an inconvenient fact, theologians and historians alike start doing this song and dance about how, if we required solid empirical evidence to know anything about history, we wouldn’t know anything about history. What they conveniently overlook is that, in many cases, we really don’t know anything about history and they’re just fooling themselves (and much of the rest of the world) by pretending they do.

        The short version is that we do have lots of contemporary local evidence of the period, especially in the form of the Dead Sea Scrolls but also in well-provinanced copies of Philo, Pliny the Elder, the Roman Satirists, and others, and none of them even vaguely hint at anything that could remotely possibly be mistraken for Jesus even if you squint really hard at it. And the documentation we do have of the origins of Christianity, including the works of Justin Martyr and Lucian of Samosata, unambiguously establishes it as a fraudulent pagan syncretism — which, oh-by-the-way, is exactly what it appears to be.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

          Oooh, thank you! If you have suitable cites to hand, please do put ‘em on the talk page so I can work them in. I was just looking over it and thinking, “so, how do we know those dates?” …

          • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

            Sorry, I don’t have a library of these things outside of my remembery. But the “oldest fragment of John” is known better as Rylands P52, and that should set you on the proper path.

            And don’t make the Christian mistrake of only considering those documents that mention Jesus — look at the whole picture. Everybody who was writing in the Mediterranean in the first century is game. And not just documents, either. You can buy a coin with a Caesar’s picture on it minted during his reign; where’s the physical evidence for Jesus?

            What you really want is a Theory of Jesus. Was he some random schmuck not worthy of mention by the Romans? Then don’t pretend that he was the living incarnation of the creative force that brought the universe into existence. Did he wander Jerusalem for a month and a half after being publicly executed, with his wounds still gaping and bleeding? Then don’t pretend that nobody in Jerusalem would have noticed. Was he something radically different, like a rebel Jewish commando? Then why does everything we do have say something completely different?

            Do that, and you’ll find the “Jesus was just another made-up pagan syncretic god” to be the only theory that fits all the facts.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

              Well, yeah. Trouble is most of the scholarly sources are Christians. (As noted in “common objections”, “scholar” is a weasel word in this area.) It’s been a painful article to get into shape.

            • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rylands_Library_Papyrus_P52 is the beast. I’m basically cribbing references from Wikipedia at this point, as refs that would have been battle-tested.

              • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

                I wouldn’t trust Wikipedia for anything related to Christianity. It’s all very heavily policed by unapologetic apologists. The chances of you reading anything on Wikipedia that contradicts what you’d “learn” in a seminary are close to nil. About the most you can hope for is pointers to original sources — but, again, it’ll just be the sources that bolster the party line. You won’t find any mention of any of the Roman satirists in connection with Jesus, even though the humiliation he is said to have heaped upon Pilate and the Sanhedrin was their stock in trade.

                And even the original sources that they do point you to will be filtered. Justin Martyr wrote entire chapters equating Jesus with the “sons of Jupiter,” making what’s now derisively dismissed as the “mythicist” position a mere century after the alleged date of the Crucifixion. But Martyr is a saint, and you’ll find no mention of his theories accounting for the similarities between Jesus and all the other pagan gods of the time. Similarly, apologists point to Lucian of Samosata’s account of the passing of Peregrinus as evidence for an historical Jesus, all the while hoping you won’t actually read the (short and entertaining) story, for it describes exactly how these sorts of new religions got invented — and it ain’t pretty. The good news is that translations of those sources are easy to come by on the ‘Net.

                Let me toss out a couple more things for you to do your homework on. Sticking with Martyr, there’s his dialogue with Trypho in which prophetic apology for the virgin birth gets demolished and ignored, exactly the same way it does on the ‘Net today. And Martyr also explains the origins of the Eucharist. Hint: what’s the most detailed account Paul gave of Jesus’s life, where was Paul’s home town, and where did Plutarch say the Mithraic mysteries were practiced?

                Philosophy, too. Christian philosophy originated with Philo of Alexandria, who was prolific and the brother-in-law of Herod Agrippa, king at the alleged time of the Crucifixion. Never mind Philo’s silence on Jesus; what does it mean that all those philosophical bits can be traced back not to Jesus but to Philo?

                If you really want to do this right, find some of the more prominent figures, places, and events in the Gospels. Find the contemporary sources that best describe them. Make note of how those sources (don’t) describe Jesus’s role. Philo and Josephus both wrote of Pilate; why didn’t they mention what Pilate did to Jesus?

                And also compare the “case” for Jesus against a well-established contemporary historical figure, like Julius Caesar.

                None of this is rocket science, but there’s lots of grunt work to do. More than enough for a few dissertations.

                b&

              • Posted November 19, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

                Ben – yeah, that’s the sort of stuff I’m looking at. Today’s work has been a slight improvement. Note the direct historian-baiting. I expect I’ll add more when I have sources good enough to bat down an idiot.

              • Posted November 19, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

                I must note that even as it stands, snuck-in apologia and all, it’s enough to make a reasonable case that this is entirely myth and the written history is fog with nothing to support it. Remember that at least some of the intended audience is believing Christians who’ve decided to actually go so far as to learn something about their Bible. This is part of why the article is so long.

              • Posted November 21, 2011 at 10:52 am | Permalink

                Looks better, David.

                Some years ago I got in a Wikipedia edit war with some apologists. I archived off one of the revisions in my own user space here:

                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:TrumpetPower!/Jesus_as_Mythical_Creation

                You’re of course welcome to steal from that as you see fit, though that article itself needs a lot of work.

                Cheers,

                b&

      • yesmyliege
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

        “(That page asserts that historians have no problem saying a troublemaking preacher named Jesus may well have existed in Jerusalem around 30AD.”

        They have no problems saying it, because it is absolutely true. There is good documentation that there were at least six “troublemaking preachers named Jesus” in Jesrusalem around 30 ad.

        The problem for the Biblical ‘scholars’ is that none of these six was THE Jesus Christ of Galilee. Six guys doing that rap, none of whom amounted to more than a hill of beans historically – yet they WERE noticed and written about by the historians of the times.

        That’s a big frackin’ problem, don’t you think, for the Historical Jesus?

        • Posted November 18, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

          There is good documentation that there were at least six “troublemaking preachers named Jesus” in Jesrusalem around 30 ad.

          I have not uncovered any such thing, in over 40 years of searching.
          Reliable link, please! If what you say is true, then it is far too important to pass off without attribution.

          • Posted November 19, 2011 at 8:25 am | Permalink

            I agree with you about “six troublemaking preachers named Jesus” being rather over-the-top.

            I know you have no problem with a generic claim that there were a metric buttload of Jesuses in the period. And some of them shared some important characteristics with the missing Jesus. But six troublemaking preacher Jesuses? I don’t think so.

            Jesus ben Pandira was a miracle-working apocalyptic preacher hung on a tree a century before the Christian Jesus.

            Jesus ben Ananias was an apocalyptic godfly who died in the Siege of Jerusalem. At the same time, Jesus ben Gamala was a politician who advocated peace. Also at the same time, Jesus ben Thebuth was a priest who bought his own neck by selling precious artefacts from the Temple.

            And in the second century, the Romans crucified Jesus ben Stada for being an agitator.

            I don’t think any of these five qualify for yesmyliege’s statement, but if those were the Jesuses in question, they’re close enough to consider granting an absolution.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Posted November 19, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink

              One more Jesus to round it out to an even half-dozen: Jesus ben Damneus, a high priest at roughly the same time as the Christian Jesus was doing his hijinks, had a brother named James.

              Cheers,

              b&

          • yesmyliege
            Posted November 19, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

            Michael

            I can’t find the annotated list I was looking for – it was in a thread in the Biblical Criticism section of the Freethought and Rationalsm discussion board and it went into details of the trouble that they caused, which was usually small-scale stuff.

            Here is a link to a less scholarly site which asserts that Josephus “mentions no fewer than nineteen different Yeshuas/Jesii, about half of them contemporaries of the supposed Christ” (http://www.jesusneverexisted.com/surfeit.htm)

            Among them are:

            Jesus ben Phiabi
            Jesus ben Sec
            Jesus ben Damneus
            Jesus ben Gamaliel
            Jesus ben Sirach
            Jesus ben Pandira
            Jesus ben Ananias
            Jesus ben Saphat
            Jesus ben Gamala
            Jesus ben Thebuth
            Jesus ben Stada

            And, lest we forget, Jesus Barabbas to name a few

            • Posted November 19, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

              Josephus is about as reliable forensically as OJ Simpson in regard to the history of christianity. For, as has been acknowledged by Christian scholars since the 19th century, lumps of Josephus are in fact much later crude forgeries & elisions. (Executed by christian zealots).
              Thanks for trying, though. My heart can calm down now.

              • yesmyliege
                Posted November 19, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

                WTF?

                So, is it your hypothesis that Josephus or Eusebius, or their later interpolators, in order to more perfectly advance their Christian zealotry (despite the fact that Josephus was a Jew) gave false accounts of rabblerousers named Jesus so that skeptics could use these examples to undermine the historicity of Jesus Christ?

                So, you have studied the issue of the historicity of Jesus Christ for 40 years, and never heard of Jewish rabblerousers named Jesus in Jerusalem in that time period. And being presented now with this information, you blithely dismiss it because some of it is from Josephus, and because it may be tainted by, of all things, Christian zealotry. LOL.

                Tell me, do you think Jesus Christ of Nazareth was a historical person?

              • Posted November 19, 2011 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

                @yesmyliege

                So, is it your hypothesis that Josephus or Eusebius, or their later interpolators, in order to more perfectly advance their Christian zealotry (despite the fact that Josephus was a Jew) gave false accounts of rabblerousers named Jesus so that skeptics could use these examples to undermine the historicity of Jesus Christ?

                Not the authors themselves but later forgers, yes.
                It is not a solitary opinion, by the way. It has been shared by biblical scholars since at least the mid-to-late 19th C.

                So, you have studied the issue of the historicity of Jesus Christ for 40 years

                Yes.

                and never heard of Jewish rabblerousers named Jesus in Jerusalem in that time period.

                I have read of people speaking of them, but with precisely zero contemporary evidence.
                “Yeshua”, perhaps, but “Jesus”: no.

                And being presented now with this information

                I am being presented with nothing of the sort.

                you blithely dismiss it because some of it is from Josephus, and because it may be tainted by, of all things, Christian zealotry. LOL.

                I do not “blithely” dismiss it. I do not accept it for the reason that it is entirely unsupported by contemporary facts.

                Tell me, do you think Jesus Christ of Nazareth was a historical person?

                No. Utterly impossible. Nazareth did not exist at the time of his supposed birth.
                And I’d be pleased if you should choose to reply, that you might provide actual facts to support your thesis, rather than snide remarks.

              • yesmyliege
                Posted November 20, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

                “Thanks for trying, though. My heart can calm down now.” is not a snide remark?

                Please.

                “I have read of people speaking of them, but with precisely zero contemporary evidence.
                “Yeshua”, perhaps, but “Jesus”: no.”

                Josephus is not contemporary evidence? Really?

                And of course their mane was “Yeshua” – Jesus is the contemporary moniker. Are you making an informed point here is that just a snide remark?

                “I do not “blithely” dismiss it. I do not accept it for the reason that it is entirely unsupported by contemporary facts.”

                Except for Josephus, the source, who would have no reason, that I can think of, to lie about such a thing. You claim the accounts of these rabblerousers are interpolations. Based on what, may I ask, besides what at first blush appears to be wishful thinking on the part of apologetic Christian conspiracy theorists? First time I have heard of a anti-apologetic interpolation smuggled into Church-controlled material, btw, although I am certainly no expert. That seems to me an extraordinary claim.

                ” Tell me, do you think Jesus Christ of Nazareth was a historical person?

                No. Utterly impossible. Nazareth did not exist at the time of his supposed birth.”

                Cute. I think you bloody well know the man I was talking about, so your answer is not generous, but is, may I borrow the term… snide?

                Once more, for the old college try, do you believe in the Historical Jesus Christ?

              • Dermot C
                Posted November 20, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

                I don’t think it necessary to the anti-theists’ case to reject the historicity of Jesus. Is the resurrection plausible? No. Christianity falls.

                That’s not to say that the analysis of the documents is not an interesting question.

                One thing that surprised me about an earlier comment was that Nazareth did not exist at the time of Jesus. According to Robert M. Price, this is not strictly accurate; it was NO LONGER inhabited during Christ’s lifetime. A few decades later it was re-occupied. So, it looks like an atavistic error on the part of the Gospel writers.

                Secondly, I have read in Biblical scholarship that ‘Jesus’ is simply the classical Greek rendering of the Aramaic name ‘Yeshua’ and I assume (my not having any Aramaic or Greek) a Biblical scholar of forty years could confirm this.

                Nevertheless, it does seem plausible to me that the Jewish proselytiser Jesus existed; he is attested to in Paul (admittedly, second-hand), but within twenty years of JC’s death, also in Mark, Matthew, Luke, the Q document, the M document (Matthew’s special source) and the L document (Luke’s special source), all within 55 years of Golgotha. For an obscure, low-born preacher, this is pretty good evidence. And I have omitted John’s gospel from the end of the first century.

                That said, it seems pretty clear what Jesus was and, rather surprisingly, Albert Schweitzer agrees. Look at Jesus’ first utterance in Mark, `The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent ye, and believe the Gospel.´ And later on, `Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.´ This is not cherry-picking; I could quote loads of similar examples. That seems quite straightforward to me. He thought that his generation was living in the end times. He was an apocalyptic Jew. He was no more than another deluded necrophile, promoting a death cult amongst the gullible, Bronze Age disenfranchised in a backward region of a minor outpost of a vastly more cultivated civilisation. Plain, commonplace, dull and disappointingly bathetic.

                The cleverness of those early Christians lay in how they wriggled out of the prediction of the Day of Judgement coming in their lifetimes, and in how they built a Church based on a completely different theology.

              • Posted November 21, 2011 at 12:58 am | Permalink

                “Nazareth” is mentioned only in Mark, and Mark couldn’t possibly have been a Palestinian native, or have even visited, as is clear from his extensive basic errors of geography and Jewish customs. (Some of these were fixed in Luke and Matthew’s versions of his tale.)

              • yesmyliege
                Posted November 21, 2011 at 6:57 am | Permalink

                :That said, it seems pretty clear what Jesus was and, rather surprisingly, Albert Schweitzer agrees.”

                I’m not sure what you mean by this, but I can tell you that Albert Schweitzer did not believe that that the evidence for the historicity of Jesus Christ was persuasive enough to allow even a positive assertion of his existence:

                “Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even be raised so high as positive probability.

      • paul fauvet
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

        Why would any later christian forger have tampered with Tacitus in order to include a derogatory remark – “abominable superstition” about his religion?

        • Posted November 19, 2011 at 12:08 am | Permalink

          Incompetence?
          An outright fraudulent lie.
          Plausible deniability?
          A mistake?
          A lie designed to perpetuate a convenient myth.
          A joke?
          A scam fabricated in order to prolong one’s parasitic life-style as a priest.
          The “truth”? (Ha!)

          Of course, such never occurs in the real world, when one’s personal credibility is at stake!
          Which is more plausible, ah?

        • Posted November 19, 2011 at 1:48 am | Permalink

          Because, if you read the link, they changed an “e” to an “i”, changing “Chrestus” to “Christus”.

          • Posted November 19, 2011 at 2:18 am | Permalink

            And, of course, “chrestus” merely meant “trusted slave”, or near enough.
            In Greek.
            Not Aramaic.
            Not Hebrew.
            Not plausible.

            In addition to the clear fact that “Christus” also only (at best) implied “annointed” (with oil).
            A truly ludicrous and pathetic over-reaching stretch toward “Yeshua” (by those who are adept at enormous wishful thinking), let alone the then non-existent moniker “Jesus”.

            Honestly, if only those adherents of this fabricated garbage took a few moments to investigate these claims…

            • Posted November 19, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

              What amazes me is that this sort of blithering rubbish is the very best the apologists can come up with. It’s absolutely terrible and really obviously epistemologically garbage – that they have nothing better in the last 1600 years is pretty strong evidence there is nothing better. Eusebius has a lot to bloody answer for.

        • Dermot C
          Posted November 21, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

          Apologies if this posting ends up out of sync but I wish to reply to:

          yesmyliege
          Posted November 21, 2011 at 6:57 am | Permalink

          Quoting me,

          “That said, it seems pretty clear what Jesus was and, rather surprisingly, Albert Schweitzer agrees.”

          on which yesmyliege commented,

          “I’m not sure what you mean by this…”

          Apologies, if I was not clear, but the point, rather minor and parenthetical to the main theme, was that AS considered Jesus’ teachings to have been those of an apocalyptic Jew.

    • eric
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      Meh. The “it would’ve been reported” argument has never seemed that strong for me. Why? Why would the ancient equivalent of NBC report on some faith healer from podunk nowheresville?

      Certainly they would report it if they took it seriously, but why assume that they would?

      Maybe the reason Pliny etc… didn’t mention it is because this was one of many, humdrum, “yet another yokel claims to have risen from the dead” stories circulating at the time.

      The fact that one historian (Tacitus) but not many of them mentions it is fairly consistent with the idea that it was not news. “Not news” doesn’t mean there wasn’t a guy, it just means not many Greek/Roman historians thought this particular “miracle face on toast” story was worth their coverage.

      • gr8hands
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

        eric, according to scripture, the crucifixion of jesus was BIG NEWS! King Herod was involved, the High Priest was involved, the Roman Governor was involved. There were crowds lining the street on the way to Golgatha. He was brutally put to death in a very public way. His tomb got a Roman guard.

        To have him (and according to Matthew 27, many others) come back alive and walk around, seen by many — well THAT would have been BIG NEWS. (Yet, somehow not a single person wrote in their diary, or in letters to anyone, or historian wrote about all these zombies walking around back from the grave. No mention by anyone of an earthquake.)

        The Jews were looking for an invincible messiah to rise up against the Romans. What better than someone they could not kill? It would have immediately provoked revolution.

        The lack of any contemporaneous information speaks to it not having happened.

        • Dermot C
          Posted November 20, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

          Much as we would want Jesus to have been a proto-socialist advocating revolution against the Roman occupiers, there is little evidence that this was the case.

          Didn’t he say, “Render unto Caesar…”? Whether he said it or not is irrelevant, the fact is that his followers believed it. The Christ figure was an apocalyptic Jew, not interested so much in improving social conditions, but in preparing the downcast for the Day of Judgement. His generation, he thought, was of the worst, mired in the sin of adultery and so on; who was responsible for the degradation of this world? The powerful. Therefore the meek, the powerless were the ones who could get into heaven, and they needed to prepare themselves for that, not for an anti-Roman uprising.

          In this, aside from his willingness to work in the world , rather than to retreat, monk-like from society, he resembles the ideology of the Essenes, the presumed collators of the Dead Sea Scrolls, by whom he is never mentioned, but with whom he shares an apocalyptic theology.

          The very earliest versions of Christianity we have, the early works of Paul and the Mark Gospel, are concerned, broadly, with the meaning of his death and how to live in the light of his apocalyptic world-view.

          Jesus was not in the very earliest days viewed as a social revolutionary (not in the 1917 Russian sense!) but as an apocalyptic theologian. The theology and mythology of Christianity evolved extremely quickly from C.E 30 up to C.E. 100 and even beyond, to something much different.

          I think it reasonable to asssume that the epic stories about his final days are later mythological additions to the Passion. Read the earliest account of the Calvary story in Mark: it is minimalist, surprisingly ambivalent, and Jesus says 3 words during the trial and death scene; in reply to Pilate’s question about his divinity. “You say so.” The man is presented as being in shock and completely overwhelmed, as you would expect from a peasant provincial in the majesty of his country’s capital.

          But at the core of the story is a man put to death by an insouciant, corrupt Roman governor; if you ignore all the magical elements, which are later, theologically inspired, additions, it is not difficult to believe that a minor trouble-maker was hurriedly and illegally done away with. And, rather like fossils, independent, contemporaneous, corroborating documents no longer exist.

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

        If “Jesus” was “some faith healer from podunk nowheresville,” then that’s not the Jesus of the New Testament. Even ignoring all the miracles, the Jesus of the New Testament rubbed shoulders and butted heads with all the most famous and most powerful people in first century Judea.

        “Jesus” was a very popular name in first century Judea. Josephus tells of a dozen or so different Jesuse. The reason nobody mentioned the Jesus of the Gospels is that that particular Jesus is an unabashed fiction who couldn’t possibly have ever lived or done the things he is said to have done.

        I understand I’m sealing from Dennett with this: “Santa is real! He lives in Florida year-round, his name is Harold, he hates kids, and he’s never given anybody a Christmas present in his whole life. But he’s the real Santa!”

        Cheers,

        b&

      • yesmyliege
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

        See my post just above. :D

  67. Myron
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    I think Coyne’s real question is:

    Are there any non-egocentric/non-self-referential contingent/non-necessary propositions whose truth/falsity is known/knowable by virtue of epistemic sources other than external sense perception, i.e. by virtue of rational reflection/intuition or introspection or memory or testimony?

    • Myron
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      …or extrasensory perception or mystical apprehension or divine revelation?

      • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        … or referring to Things that can’t be Seen but are Known through Higher Learning, the Self, the Cosmic Self and the Quantum Self or ordinary Words that are Mysteriously Capitalized.

  68. hiero5ant
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    “And I invite readers again 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.”

    It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.

    What’s my prize?

    • JBlilie
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      Observe the people smiling, the people crying, and the personal feelings recorded by multitudes. Hence the bite of the sentence. If not for the evidence, the saying would be without impact, we’d go “huh?”

    • gr8hands
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      hiero5ant, what evidence to you have that it is better?

      • hiero5ant
        Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

        I have none, because it is not the sort of thing one adduces evidence for or against. That’s kind of the whole point.

  69. yesmyliege
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Ophelia Benson said:


    Which is why his claim about his father is such a hopeless example. It’s testimony, and not even sworn testimony! (Not to mention the fact that it’s in the service of an agenda.)…”

    Self-incriminating death bed confessions are admissible – they don’t have to be ‘sworn’. But Ward’s analogy is irrelevant anyway, for when he says:

    “When, in my Guardian piece, I described the resurrection as a ‘hard fact’, I naturally did not mean that it would convince everyone. I meant that it entails some empirical factual claims (so it is not just subjective or fictional)…”

    he makes the assertion that the Resurrection is a nonfictional empirical factual claim. But the event is almost certainly fictional, and on many levels. The most relevant, of course, is that it is simply impossible according to every precept of modern science. This makes it categorically a very different claim than whether his Dad did wet work for MI6.

    These apologists get quite upset when they get caught trying sneak the historicity of the Resurrection in under the table. It is the most staunchly-defended and dissonantly irrational miracle left to them these days, which may explain why this fellow Houston acts such an aggresive schmuck in Ward’s defense.

  70. Myron
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Moral realists hold that there are moral facts, and according to them moral claims are factual claims. And aesthetic realists hold that there are aesthetic facts, and according to them aesthetic claims are factual claims. So, we’d better distinguish between descriptive claims and normative claims (= moral/legal/aesthetic claims). All descriptive claims are factual claims, and whether or not normative claims are factual claims depends on one’s meta-ethical or meta-aesthetic position.

    • Brian
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      No, actually, as someone who disagrees with moral realism and aesthetic realism, if the philosophers can establish normative claims as well-established facts via philosophy, I’d want to hear it. That somewhat is at the heart of the dispute. I deny moral and aesthetic realism for similar reasons I don’t think philosophy produces facts, including for example that I don’t think moral philosophers produce any moral facts and the moral philosophers have no foundation for their claims.

      Keep Jerry’s challenge as open-ended as possible. I welcome the attempt for philosophers to answer it with moral facts.

  71. Posted November 19, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    There’s certainly a difference between a factual claim and a fact.

    A factual claim is, roughly, a claim that could, in some sense of “could”, be either true or false.

    A fact is a proposition that actually is true.

    Religion can make all sorts of factual claims without providing us with any actual facts, and certainly without doing so via some spooky, yet reliable, “way of knowing”. On that, we agree.

    But I don’t agree with the claim that: A “fact” is not a fact if all the evidence supporting it has vanished or is inaccessible.

    That sounds like a rather extreme theory of what a fact is and of what truth is. It makes the truth of a proposition dependent on whether it can be justified to human beings by evidence that happens to be available here on Earth in the twenty-first century. That seems almost mystical, as if we create our own reality.

    E.g., there are all sorts of true propositions that describe the thoughts and experiences of individual foot soldiers in the Roman army in the 3rd century CE (e.g. propositions like, “During the Palmyra campaign, Sextus thought a lot about his wife and children back in Italy”), but which we cannot verify in any way because the historical records are simply not that detailed.

    But that’s only to do with our current epistemic situation. Those soldiers still lived their lives, thought whatever it was that they thought, had various experiences, and so on. We can be confident of all of this in general terms. What we can’t know is which specific propositions about what individuals thought, experienced, and so on, are actually true. But some doubtless are. There are facts about these matters, even though they are not now accessible to us.

    • Posted November 19, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

      Or, as Jean Kazez said above, Socrates ate 3 olives on his 10th birthday (or not).

      People keep saying philosophers are useless, I keep saying nuh uh.

      • Posted November 19, 2011 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

        First of all, I have never said that all philosophers are useless, and I don’t believe that. Some are, especially ethical philosophers. I have made this point a number of times. But of course I regard some philosophy as a waste of time as well.

        Re Russell:

        E.g., there are all sorts of true propositions that describe the thoughts and experiences of individual foot soldiers in the Roman army in the 3rd century CE (e.g. propositions like, “During the Palmyra campaign, Sextus thought a lot about his wife and children back in Italy”), but which we cannot verify in any way because the historical records are simply not that detailed.

        But that’s only to do with our current epistemic situation. Those soldiers still lived their lives, thought whatever it was that they thought, had various experiences, and so on. We can be confident of all of this in general terms. What we can’t know is which specific propositions about what individuals thought, experienced, and so on, are actually true. But some doubtless are. There are facts about these matters, even though they are not now accessible to us.

        Russell, yes, some of that stuff might be true, but how do we KNOW it? I guess what I’m driving at is this: “how do we know now what is a fact about the world and what is not”? If we are in no position to verify things that might have been true, or might not, then how can we regard them as facts? And how do we KNOW that Sextus thought a lot about his wife and kids? There’s also a lot that could be said about what soldiers thought that ISN’T true. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff? If we can’t, then we can’t regard that stuff as true. What am I missing?

        • Jean K
          Posted November 20, 2011 at 7:27 am | Permalink

          Jerry, I think three things need to be distinguished.

          (1) Facts–they’re out there, not dependent on what evidence is available, or to whom. Some are known, some are unknown. Philosophers uses the word “fact” like they use the word “event”. Events are out there, of course. They’re not in the category that includes beliefs, claims, evidence, sentences, or other human concoctions. Likewise, facts. (I like everything Russell said above, except when he calls facts “propositions”.)

          (2) Knowledge possessed by limited numbers of people-maybe even just one. Socrates knew the facts about what he ate on his 10th birthday, and some number of people may have known them as well, but now that knowledge has vanished. The facts, however, have not changed. I know many things that “we” do not know and cannot collectively “establish”– and so does each other person. This is because each person has access to a somewhat different body of evidence, and there isn’t perfect transmission of evidence from person to person.

          (3) Knowledge that “we” possess–well enough established and transmitted that it’s now available to anyone.

          • Dave Ricks
            Posted November 20, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

            Jean, listing (2) was helpful. Some people make their self-knowledge of their internal states their life’s work. In the performing arts, I knew a professional actress Denise who could cry tears on cue (on stage, twice on Saturdays). She knew facts about how she did it — facts that only she knew.

        • Posted November 20, 2011 at 10:05 am | Permalink

          Jerry, I didn’t mean you by “people”! I meant commenters, and not just here – I see it in a lot of places.

        • Posted November 20, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink

          About facts and knowing. As neither a scientist NOR a philosopher, I’ll offer a layperson’s understanding.

          If we are in no position to verify things that might have been true, or might not, then how can we regard them as facts?…How do we separate the wheat from the chaff? If we can’t, then we can’t regard that stuff as true. What am I missing?

          I think it turns on how we use the word “fact.” If we don’t know it’s true then we don’t get to claim it is a fact – which is something Ward did do at least once. But our not knowing doesn’t mean there is no fact.

          This distinction is actually one that a lot of “postmodernists” exploit to make large claims about “truth” – they muddle the distinction between what is true and what humans know to be true. Susan Haack is very good at nailing this down. I always recommend her Defending Science – Within Reason. I just saw someone else citing her in this discussion…maybe at Eric’s.

        • Posted November 20, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

          We say all philosophies are useless for empirically useful statements. What has anyone of them ever predicted in human history — independent of data collection, which is anti-philosophical.

          Plus, philosophy is confined to natural language and we all know how useful that is for sending a communications satellite into orbit, or designing a bridge — less than zero.

          Philosophy is just a dead language. But it, cleverly (but dishonestly) adopts pop and marketing emotional hooks, like “justice” “ethics” “love” etc to try to burrow legitimacy — that’s just intellectually dishonest but a very effective tactic to make money. Economics does the same thing.

          You see it in the comments all over this blog. What a bunch of playing to the cheap seats. The NYT is dishonest in the same way.

          Robert Triver’s new book on deceit has some great dismissal of all this foolishness.

          • Posted November 20, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

            Exactly, thank you, a perfect example of the kind of thing I meant.

  72. Charles Sullivan
    Posted November 20, 2011 at 12:14 am | Permalink

    @Russell: Yours below is a ‘factual claim”. Any proposition is a factual claim. And if “A fact is a proposition that actually is true” then we can’t call it a fact if we don’t know if it’s true.

    “During the Palmyra campaign, Sextus thought a lot about his wife and children back in Italy”

    This is a confusing way to argue about propositions and true propositions, Russell.

  73. dephlogisticated
    Posted November 21, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    “When, in my Guardian piece, I described the resurrection as a ‘hard fact’, I naturally did not mean that it would convince everyone. I meant that it entails some empirical factual claims (so it is not just subjective or fictional).”

    First off, why would he use this?

    Has he even read the bible? Does he know anything about it?

    Not one of the writers of the first four books of the NT were even around (born or cognizant of the event) when this event supposedly occurred.

    The book of Mark did not originally include any description of the resurrection. It was added on, after it was determined to be worthy of canonization.

    If you read about the resurrection side-by-side, they aren’t even consistent with each other.

    A lawyer, ‘on the other side of the aisle’, would have a field day with that kind of testimony.

  74. Posted November 23, 2011 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    Aha, finally got there.

    Everyone knows that God is male.

  75. Posted November 25, 2011 at 1:45 am | Permalink

    Oh, everybody knows that celaphapods are marine animals, yet here is a clip of an octopus predating a crab on land:

    http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/video/virals/animal-virals/

    This is problem that is at the heart of my big dispute with Professor Myers, miracles, or in my terms, one off occurences of data collection, do occur, it is just no one was around to spot them at the time.

    Another quick philosophical fact is that time travel is impossible. Why ever not, I went back in time to veiw some of Da Vinici’s sketches a little while ago!

  76. Super
    Posted November 25, 2011 at 4:01 am | Permalink

    “[A] “factual claim” is not a “fact” unless there is evidence to support it.”

    If by “fact” you mean “an actual occurrence,” then this isn’t true. Plenty of facts–for example, the fact that yesterday I thought of a green elephant–will never be supported by evidence but they are actual occurrences nonetheless. It’s possible for a fact to have no empirical evidence. Evidence doesn’t make hypotheses facts; it simply confirms them.

    I’d suggest revising your statement to “[A] “factual claim” *should not be considered* a fact unless there is evidence to support it.”

    “And I invite readers again 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.”

    Slavery is immoral; Fermat’s last theorem is true. Countless mathematical, logical, or atomic ethical (pertaining to the rightness of actions or states of affairs) statements are considered true even though we can’t confirm them with empirical observation.

    This is true of math mainly because it falls under deductive reasoning: reasoning from a set of axioms that we simply take to be true. Therefore an empirical observation wouldn’t confirm Fermat’s last theorem, even if it were consistent with it; only a proof (which does not depend on empirical observation) could confirm that.

    Same for atomic ethical statements, because it’s impossible to observe rightness or wrongness independent of actions or circumstances in the natural world. You could argue that slavery is immoral because of what it does to the enslaved, but that would be built on a hidden premise that what it does to a fellow human being is immoral, and I could ask you what empirical observation confirms this beyond dispute. And so on, to infinite regress.

    This reveals that one’s ethical conclusions result from a projection of one’s own values onto the situation rather than the discovery of such values in the natural world.

    Alternatively you could discard the notion of “moral” and say that by “immoral” we mean something else, like “I don’t like it”; or that morality’s relative; or you could choose to be a fictionalist about morality (that is, talk like it exists while believing it doesn’t). But even if these conclusions were obvious, they could only be confirmed by an argument, not by empirical observation.

    In conclusion I agree with you to an extent but you don’t have to defend the above two erroneous claims in order to take down Ward.

    • Super
      Posted November 25, 2011 at 4:16 am | Permalink

      To clarify some things I said:

      If I asked you why slavery is immoral you would cite some empirical fact about slavery that you think makes it immoral, but no matter what fact you cited, the inference “this fact makes it immoral” could never be conclusively proven with empirical data alone. Therefore many solutions to ethical questions (like “x is wrong”) can’t follow solely from empirical observations because there’s no “wrongness” out there, separate from yet accompanying the action, to be observed.

      And even if you believed in moral relativism or didn’t believe in morality, none of these alternate conclusions follow solely from empirical observations. Again you’d have to make an argument based on what should be the case, and such arguments don’t follow solely from what is the case (that is, what can be or has been or conceivably could be empirically observed).

      (BTW I think slavery is disgusting; this is just an example.)

      • Posted November 25, 2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink

        Calm down dear, with all your ‘disgusting’ talk.

        No one thinks that slavery is disgusting when adults demand that children tidy their bedrooms. There can be other rewards in life, which are not financial, such as learning how adults do things in a better way, without too much coercion or drama.

        Anyone would think you have never had that short-changed sort of feeling, when direct orders insist you must do something and you cannot resist.

        Sheesh, you Yanks are money mad!

        • Posted November 25, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

          Technically #77 is a reply to #76. I must have hit the wrong button, as Obama said to the Director of National Security.

  77. Posted January 20, 2013 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    Terrific post however , I was wanting to know if you could write a litte more on this topic?

    I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Thank you!


4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Coyne posted: Can philosophy or religion alone establish facts?, commenting specifically on Keith Ward and Jim P. Houston’s response, and in turn Keith […]

  2. […] interesting discussion at Why Evolution is True about the necessary distinction between facts and factual […]

  3. […] “challenge” was obviously rhetorical. To this Jerry Coyne replied with his post “Can philosophy or religion alone establish facts?” I’m not quite sure what Jerry decided to include philosophy either in his original […]

  4. […] question in a number of posts: “Brother Blackford and Other Ways of Knowing,” “Can philosophy or religion alone establish facts,” and “Guardian writer foolishly claims that religion answers factual questions,” […]

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