Christian physicist Ian Hutchinson criticizes scientism

A while back reader Sigmund wrote a guest post about a BioLogos series by MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson, who was going on about the dangers of “scientism.” Hutchinson is of course a Christian: you won’t find many atheist physicists getting their knickers in a twist about scientism.

According to alert reader Michael, Hutchinson delivered a related 70-minute public lecture four days ago at (surprise!) The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. His topic: “Scientism: how much faith should we put in science?” (The Faraday Institute is an embarrassment to an otherwise estimable university; I’m surprised Cambridge tolerates it.)

You can watch the whole lecture here (click at upper right) if you have the stomach.   I need to do that, but I put it on hold after 15 minutes due to temporal and gastric constraints.  But below is a short (7-minute) interview with Hutchinson made right before he gave the longer talk. He’s apparently written a book about scientism that, sadly, I now need to read: Monopolizing Knowledge.

Hutchinson begins by defining scientism as “the belief that science is all the real knowledge there is.” He considers this something that “pollutes the discussion between science and religious faith.”

He claims that “there is real knowledge is history, philosophy, economics, and jurisprudence,” and that knowledge is acquired by methods different from those used by the natural sciences. He’s wrong: the knowledge is acquired by empirical observation and testing, unless he’s claiming that moral dicta or legal principles are ‘knowledge’, in which case he’s not talking about knowledge but opinions. (Note that here he leaves out religion—he’s softening up the viewer so he can drag Jesus in later.)

The touting of religious “knowledge” begins at about 4:30, and includes this statement:

“The ways that it [scientism] often arises, particularly in talking about religious questions, are in statements such as those which are commonplace in some of the anti-theistic writings of this century, where people talk about the question of God being a scientific question. That kind of assertion is very widespread in anti-theistic writing.  And really, in a sense it’s a remarkable idea—that the idea of the existence of God would be a scientific question, in the sense of a natural-sciences question, because if one can think of almost any question, of all the questions we could ask ourselves that might not be a scientific question, it seems to me that a metaphysical question about the existence of God is a prime example of a question that is not a scientific question.  So to insist that it is a scientific question, can make sense or can go by, can be accommodated, can be allowed, only in an intellectual environment that is saturated with the most implicit [word obscure] that science is all the real knowledge there is.”

Well, if the existence of God is not a scientific question, at least in the broad sense of “science” as “seeing if something really exists using the methodology of repeatable observation and verified prediction,” then it’s not a question that can be answered one way or another.  How does Hutchinson, a Christian, know that Jesus existed, was the son of God, and was resurrected—as opposed to the hundreds of other conflicting religious myths that beset the world? Scientists agree that a water molecule has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, and that chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, but you won’t find near that kind of agreement on which religion is “true.”

Hutchinson has no convincing way of deciding either whether a supernatural God exists, or, if it does, which kind of God it is.  So he has no knowledge—only revelation, which reader Raven characterized on this site as just one of many voices in peoples’ heads.

Revelation, dogma, or personal feelings do not constitute knowledge, at least not knowledge about what really exists in the universe apart from our thoughts and wishes.

I suspect that Hutchinson is bucking for a Templeton Prize. As one might expect, he’s already on the Templeton Gravy Train, participating in the Faraday’s odious “Test of Faith” project. which is funded by a $2,000,000 grant from Templeton. Once you’re on the Templeton Gravy Train, you tend to ride forever, like Charlie on the MTA.

72 Comments

  1. Posted October 20, 2012 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    I agree. The true nature of God is not a scientific one.

    It’s a literary one.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Greg G
      Posted October 20, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      I was too slow. Your first two sentences were essentially what I intended to reply but the third sentence is verbatim to what was in my mind.

      I feel smart when I channel Ben Goren.

  2. andreschuiteman
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    “How do you know that?” is always the most devastating question you can ask a theist who is peddling his beliefs.

  3. Posted October 20, 2012 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    I bet Ian Hutchison would give his right arm to be able to wave around some real evidence in front of atheists.

    But he has no evidence of his god’s existence, even though he claims his god will punish anybody who does not believe that Jesus is their Saviour.

    Frustrated by his inability to contribute any evidence, he claims the game is fixed by people who wrongly insist that beliefs should be backed up by facts.

  4. Posted October 20, 2012 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    ‘“How do you know that?” is always the most devastating question you can ask a theist who is peddling his beliefs.’

    Oh yes, that drives them wild with anger and they will instantly accuse you of having nothing other than mockery and insults.

    • Matt G
      Posted October 20, 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      The follow-up question is: “since you can’t know that, then why do you believe it?

      • andreschuiteman
        Posted October 20, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink

        It’s always some variant of “because reality is not enough for me.”

    • Posted October 20, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

      Personally, I’m fond of pointing out their claim of the authority of the Bible is philosophically dependent on the existence of the Bible, and and thus in turn the absolute acceptance of any premises needed to determine whether or not the Bible exists.

    • articulett
      Posted October 20, 2012 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

      When they disagree with science, I like to ask them about their alternative explanation.

  5. stevezara
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    There was a great talk by Sean Carroll recently at TAM, which is directly relevant to this. Carroll shows that when it comes to our everyday world which includes us as humans, physics is sorted. There is no room for any other physics than gravity and quantum field theory. If there were any other magic we would see its effects and our theories would not be accurate to something like 1 part in 100000000000.

    So, someone can’t consistently be a Christian and a physicist, as there is no room in physics for a soul, an afterlife or absolute morality (let alone a god).

    In a sense, then, scientism is true. This is because there is a physical narrative for everything we humans do. It may be an unintelligible and useless narrative (we don’t use quantum mechanics to discuss art), but it’s still there. There are no aspects of human life and thought which aren’t open to science; anyone who insists otherwise is mistaken, and any scientist who insists otherwise just doesn’t understand current science.

  6. Veroxitatis
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Extraordinarily woolly thinking. The evaluation of any historical period will rely on a rigorous examination of primary source material aided in many cases by scientific methods. Inks and writing styles used in documents may require analysis. Archaeological excavation and relevant dating methods, pollen analysis and comparison studies of building and fabrication methodologies may be a considerable aid to understanding. Mere opinion is usually bad history.

  7. Posted October 20, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Religion has always been a roomfull for opportunists. Science not. However, when you try to do both, there is always opportunity (FOR A TEMPLETON PRIZE!!).

  8. darrelle
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    “And really, in a sense it’s a remarkable idea—that the idea of the existence of God would be a scientific question, in the sense of a natural-sciences question, because if one can think of almost any question, of all the questions we could ask ourselves that might not be a scientific question, it seems to me that a metaphysical question about the existence of God is a prime example of a question that is not a scientific question.

    It is fascinating to see someone who is so well educated say something so obviously ridiculous. The idea that empirical investigation is not an appropriate method to use to try and figure out if something exists is laughably irrational. That a scientist, a physicist even, could support this claim is a glorious tribute to the power of the human mind to deceive itself.

    All of theology, the entire bloated mass, has been, is, an ongoing effort to attempt to make this very claim seem reasonable. It has taken such great effort because an unconditioned 8 year old could tell you that this claim is just plain silly.

    • Tulse
      Posted October 20, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      Oddly enough, the Old and New Testament claims that its god routinely provided objective empirical evidence of its existence, often in a very spectacular fashion: parting seas, flooding the Earth, destroying cities, resurrecting the dead, turning people into pillars of salt, enacting various plagues, etc. etc. etc. Why is this god now so shy, and its defenders now so circumspect about providing objective proof?

      • Marella
        Posted October 20, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

        If every plague or flood is evidence for god then we’ve got plenty of that. It isn’t though, it’s evidence for microbes and weather.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 20, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      Yes. Ask them this: in theory, could God provide (or have provided) strong, clear scientific evidence of its existence? If God wanted?

      There’s a serious problem here. If God could not, then it’s not omnipotent. Nor is it very imaginative. We atheists could easily think of things that would at least make it — or have made it — much more plausible.

      But if it could, then let’s drop all this nonsense about how the question of God’s existence isn’t a scientific sort of question. Sure it is.

      “God wants to hide, though” is an immunizing strategy. It’s not inherent in the basic definition.

      • Marella
        Posted October 20, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

        I have always felt that if the earth really were the centre of the universe in the old Ptolemaic way, then I would have been more inclined to believe in gods.

        • Posted October 20, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

          Well, technically, in an expanding universe, the Earth is in the center.

          …but so is everywhere else…which would have either really upset or really fascinated Ptolemy, not sure which….

          b&

          • Sastra
            Posted October 20, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

            No, let’s go with the Biblical view of heaven and earth — the earth as a flat disc or square underneath a “firmament,” a solid dome separating the “waters above” from the earth below, with the stars stuck on like pasted jewels. And just for fun let’s add in astrology being true — the lights move to both reflect and effect events below. And all of life appears at once, poof, in many forms. Nothing “got that way,” it always was. No evolution. Magic. Yeah, add in magic working, with spells and incantations and precognition and ESP and PK being as common and unremarkable as sneezing. Prayers really work, severed legs regenerate … hell, severed heads regenerate, if you pray fervently enough. Not that we need heads, mind you. The brain is only for cooling the blood. We think with — well, nothing attached to our body, that’s for sure. Pile it all up, we’re doing a thought experiment.

            Now, given this situation — would science be helpless at deriving any conclusion about the existence of God? The plausibility of God? The existence of a ‘supernatural’ category (or whatever it would be called, we know what it is)?

            Of course not. But God didn’t want it that way so that we would have to use faith. When they make that excuse, they’re admitting that they NEED it.

            • Posted October 21, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

              You know, it’s fascinating — so many of those examples you give are “merely” specific examples of a violation of conservation.

              I still think that the single fact that matter and energy are always observed to be conserved still constitutes the best empirical evidence against all forms of supernaturalism, especially including the religious varieties.

              b&

              • Bebop
                Posted October 21, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

                God has no choice to be an uncreated phenomenon. That is why it escapes our radar. We can’t detect what has no beginning and no end. We have some echoes about it, consciousness, morals, and beauty to name a few but since what makes us aware has an uncreated source, it is not possible for us to realize it. We can follow the physical traces it leaves but our finitude prevents us to get the uncreated nature of our self.

              • Posted October 22, 2012 at 4:43 am | Permalink

                @ Bebop

                Poop!

                /@

              • Bebop
                Posted October 22, 2012 at 7:20 am | Permalink

                I think you love what I’m saying. But you didn’t realize it yet. ;)

              • darrelle
                Posted October 22, 2012 at 7:22 am | Permalink

                “We can’t detect what has no beginning and no end.”

                Why not?

                Regarding everything you wrote here, if you want anybody to have a chance at understanding what you are trying to say you need to define your terms and explain how each of your claims leads to the next.

                For example, what is an “uncreated source” and how does that make it impossible for us to realize . . . well, whatever it is you are saying we can’t realize?

                And, if we are incapable of realizing any of this stuff, how is it that you are explaining it all to us here?

    • Posted October 21, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink

      I also repeat for the sake of newcomers.

      Metaphysics can be made consistent with science – it is a choice to adopt a nonscientifc, or worse, an antiscientific metaphysics. IOW, this guy doesn’t seem to know anything about metaphysics either.

  9. Posted October 20, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    All knowledge that is not the real product of observation, or of consequences deduced from observation, is entirely groundless and illusory.
    ~ Jean Baptiste LaMarc

    Surely the good Dr. Hutchinson is aware of LaMarc’s reality insights.

    Perhaps his memory is failing?

    Oh, what’s wrong w/ me. Of course it’s the dinero!

    Other than this being solid evidence that his branial cavity has been infected w/ a virus or a parasite, the only other possible explanation is that he desperately needs the dough.

    Shameless behavior. Just shameless.

  10. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    I wonder if folks like this who want to limit the boundaries of science would also admit to limiting the boundaries of religion. As is, to complain of “scientism” really is only half of Gould’s flawed NOMA scheme.

    There’s not only the question of the God of which religion do you believe in- there is the question of which school about God within a religon do you believe. Not only within Christianity, but even within the Bible, there are conflicting concepts of God.

    Once in while, Templeton seems to work in real science as in here
    http://www.newfrontiersinastronomy.org/index.html
    but that seems to be due to the fact that the one area of real science Templeton was personally interested in was astronomy. I’m also encouraged by the fact that the original Templeton was not committed to any religious creed, more of a “belief in belief” guy, but I understand that his son is a much more traditional evangelical Christian, and when you opt for “belief in belief” you sort of covertly admit that you may never get a definite answer to your “big questions”.

  11. Posted October 20, 2012 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    “Hutchinson begins by defining scientism as ‘the belief that science is all the real knowledge there is.’”

    Well, that’s naively wrong for a start: science isn’t knowledge, it’s a way of ascertaining and corroborating knowledge. And as we know, the only reliable way.)

    And to say it is all the real knowledge there is is to say that science knows everything. Which it doesn’t. Else it would stop. (Tip o’ the hat to Dara Ò Briain!)

    /@

    PS. “Scientists agree … that chimpanzees are our closest living relatives.” I thought it was a toss up between chimps and bonobos… ?

    • Posted October 20, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      * (And as… [pesky unpaired parens!]

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted October 20, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      Ian Hutchinson starts off with an Abuse of Language, in his definition of “scientism”.

      Knowledge: Which countries were victorious, and which countries suffered defeat, in World War II?

      Where did I grow up?

      Knowing these facts are certainly examples of “knowledge” (along with trillions of like examples) and they are facts not derived through any methods of science, simply a recording of passing events.

      “False Knowledge” would be the pursuit of constructs of language particulars that have no meaning, such as ‘Why are we here? What is our purpose in being here?’ These are types of language constructs as valid as the following question:

      “979389893993000021995983! -89348923 ?”

      • Sastra
        Posted October 20, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        Science would only be brought in on those questions if there was an honest dispute. It’s a method of resolving disputes by eliminating bias as much as possible.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted October 20, 2012 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      And to say it is all the real knowledge there is is to say that science knows everything.

      No, it’s to say that science knows everything known. “Knowledge” includes only what we know. It does not include facts that we have yet to discover.

      • Posted October 20, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        Well, that depends on what your definition of “is” is. Or “knowledge”. ;-)

        OK. Yours is the more parsimonious reading.

        /@

    • Matt G
      Posted October 20, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      Humans are equally related to common chimps and bonobos. The chimp lineage split after the split from the human lineage.

  12. Scott near Berkeley
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Ian Hutchinson’s mental gymnastics can be distilled into a single sentiment that he holds:

    “I am so, so awesome intellectually, that the consciousness peering out of me own two eyes, richly deserves, and demands, to exist somewhere, somehow, for eternity.”

  13. Matt G
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Funny how they talk about science and religion when they really mean science and MY religion (which is almost always Christianity).

  14. bric
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    There is Real Knowledge in economics? Pity no-one currently seems to have much access to it . . .

    • MadScientist
      Posted October 20, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      Economics is such a vast field which ranges from the entirely sensible to the outright delusional. Unfortunately the delusional seem to be better rewarded. One of the news items this week was that the “Wizard of Oz”, a hedge fund manager, had quit the game at 41 and is retiring to a life of luxury. I read the story as “the rats are leaving the ship”. It is utterly bizarre to see the praise and adulation heaped upon that gambler, and yet when you look at how he really performed, it doesn’t match up at all to what people claim. It was a case of a problem gambler in which the people associated with the gambler were the ones crowing most about how good he is and how he’s beat the system. And don’t get me started on the global pyramid scheme known as the ‘stock exchange’.

    • Posted October 21, 2012 at 7:06 am | Permalink

      Moreover, to the extent that there is (which is little) it is also gathered in the same way as physics: theorizing, careful testing, consilience with other fields (which, incidentally, is where economics really falls flat), etc.

  15. James Chalmers
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    First-past-the-post electoral rules make a two-party system possible.
    Proportional representation guarantees a multi-party system.
    Hitler’s killing of the Jews was unjustified.
    In an unregulated market, under most conditions, an increase in supply of a good drives down its price.
    King Lear is a better play than is Two Gentlemen of Verona.
    Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812.
    In the Pacific theater, both armies exhibited racist behavior.
    In 1942, Japanese Americans saw their civll liberties violated.
    Jesus was born in Nazareth and was crucified by Pontius Pilate.
    The minor differences can be taken to show that Luke had Matthew.
    The Industrial Revolution in England resulted in a rise in population, and, after some delay, an increase in the standard of living.

    Mere matters of opinion all. So those teachers who’ve been marking students down for not knowing that they’re true are being unfair and presumptuous.

    If I had had more time, I’d collect several quotations from Jerry Coyne’s blog and suggest that if there’s not truth in them– if they’re merely and entirely matters of opinion–then perhaps they’re not worthy of our consideration. That is, (to look at it one of many possible ways) if “opinions” are subjective–just reflections of what goes on in another person’s mind–and not objective–tell us nothing about states of affairs in the external world–then unless we dote greatly on Jerry Coyne, we really should find something better to do than to read reports about his mental states.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted October 20, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      If you’d had more time, you might have read Jerry’s post more carefully, and noticed that he applies the “opinion” label to “moral dicta or legal principles”, not to empirically-derived facts of history, economics, etc.

    • Marta
      Posted October 20, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      “Hitler’s killing of the Jews was unjustified” is “mere opinion”?

      Because there may be justifiable reasons for killing them we can’t objectively know? Six million people, including infants, did something so criminal that gassing ‘em all was justified?

      Why, this is excellent. Do come back when you have more time.

      • derekw
        Posted October 24, 2012 at 9:50 am | Permalink

        Well..scientism doesn’t give us the answer to the justification question. So what ‘knowledge’ does (and take the answer out of ‘mere opinion?’)

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted October 21, 2012 at 12:20 am | Permalink

      Some of those sentences are not like the others:

      Some are matters of recorded historical fact;

      Some are matters of near-consensus in specialised areas of scholarship that fully respect the roles of evidence (which exists in abundance), theory, and criticism;

      One comprises two claims regarding a literary character (usually asserted to have been born in Bethlehem) that haven’t been substantiated by any contemporary evidence or coherent theory.

      Anyone who can lump those things together as “mere matters of opinion” quite possibly has no opinion worth attending to.

  16. MadScientist
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    “Monopolizing knowledge” huh. Well, it’s not the fault of any field of study that its adherents actually know something while religion knows nothing. Goddamn religion needs to put in an honest effort to actually learn things.

  17. James Chalmers
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    stephenlaw.blogspot.com/
    In the video at his October 17 entry, at :39, Stephen Law argues that conceptual reflection can solve puzzles of some importance that empirical inquiry (“the scientific method”) cannot.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted October 20, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      If that’s the best Law can do, I’m not impressed. He gets the mirror “puzzle” completely wrong. The correct answer (given by the laws of optics) is that the mirror reverses images front to back, not left for right. If you’re facing north when you look in the mirror, your reflection will be facing south. The axis of inversion is the one perpendicular to the mirror.

      Now it so happens that when you invert a human front-to-back, the left hand ends up looking like a right hand, and vice versa. But if we were built like fiddler crabs, with one hand much larger than the other, no such illusion would arise and it wouldn’t occur to anybody to suggest that mirrors exchange left for right.

      So the upshot is that Law’s armchair reasoning fails miserably (at least in this example), and the correct answer comes from observing how light rays and mirrors interact to form images in the real world.

  18. kelskye
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Of course God is not a scientific idea, God is much too vague and incoherent to be able to be taken seriously as a scientific hypothesis. It’s nonsense, it’s just not scientifically nonsense. If only God were able to be explored by science…

    • Sastra
      Posted October 20, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      I think God gets concrete enough when people think of what prompts or compels them to believe it exists.. It only gets all vague and incoherent and hand-waving mysterious when a skeptic is around — and they don’t want to sound stupid.

      It’s a Ghost in the Universe.

      • kelskye
        Posted October 20, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

        I’d take ghost as another thing that’s not really something concrete enough to apply any sort of scientific investigation to the concept. Anything that can be classified as paranormal or supernatural has that problem of not being defined suitably enough in order to be able to detect it. Ghosts may be something that people can intuitively grasp, as we have agency-wired brains, but it falls apart long before one can use scientific investigation to rule on it.

        I think the same applies for God, the concreteness of the idea doesn’t fall away out of not wanting to sound stupid, it falls away out of not needing to be sufficiently concrete in order to be believed in.

  19. Sastra
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    People believe in God because of experience, evidence, and reasoning towards an explanation. It’s a hypothesis with testable predictions. Science is a method of inquiry which is very strict about eliminating subjective bias and prejudice as much as possible.

    Could we do scientific tests for ESP? PK? NDEs? Dualism? Sure. God is in the same general category.

    Hutchinson, however, like all theists, want their empirical claim to be treated not like an empirical claim, but like a MORAL assertion. Or like a value. A feeling. A personal preference.

    They conflate God’s existence with the “fact” that is it good, or awe-inspiring, or loving, or satisfying, or comforting — and then proceed as if it’s now in the same category. It’s gone from objective to subjective. It’s “the same as” or even “made of” these measures of worth.

    If you wouldn’t use science to demonstrate what is objectively good, awe-inspiring, loving, satisfying, or comforting — then you can’t use science on God. ‘Cause you can’t see “Love” with a microscope, or hold it in your hand, or some other banal appeal to how we FEEL about things.

    Bait ‘n switch. An empirical claim … but let’s approach it like it’s a moral claim. It’s like trying to say that nobody could ever establish that your mother exists scientifically because only YOU know how much you really love her.

    Shallow thinking.

  20. Randy
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Seems to me that scientism as Hutchinson describes it is a strawwman. Am I wrong in stating that no one who supports science has argued that it is the only way to acquire knowledge about all matters and issues? What scientist or supporter of science has argued that only science can provide us knowledge about history or economics?

    • raven
      Posted October 20, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      You have it right.

      Scientism is a strawperson.

      The religious excel at beating up and torching strawpeople. One of their other ones is “scientific materialism”. Which only exists in fundie’s heads. It is an attempt to conflate science with atheism.

      If there is a hell, they will be repetitively lit on fire by the ghosts of all the strawpeople they’ve burned up.

  21. Brian
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    I get the feeling that this charge of scientism is a bit like asking “When did you stop hitting your wife?”. To my knowledge, no atheist, Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris or Jerry or anyone else, has began any public discussion or investigation into what sort of things qualify as true knowledge or not. The boundary problem for science remains open. No atheist is getting into discussions of whether or not law or music theory are knowledge. At most it has been claimed that a few narrow topics such as the existence of god can be investigated using the scientific method to determine if evidence you expect to be there is actually there. This notion that there is a dichotomy between science questions and other types of questions such as philosophical questions and metaphysical questions seems to me to be purely an invention of the religious and some philosophers with no such discussion on the atheist end. Moreover, the notion of categories of questions is conceptually nonsensical as the approaches of various disciplines overlap. Law uses science and empiricism in addition to legal precedent, which is not science, for example. It’s particularly interesting how Hutchinson’s has to appeal to people implicitly claiming scientism, he has to read into people’s statements to accuse them of scientism, hardly anyone is explicitly espousing scientism (there are a few, but mostly as political strategy). Maybe rather than responding to this scientism BS point by point or by defending science, perhaps we should simply point out that we never seriously adopted the philosophical position of scientism in the first place and we’d appreciate it if they’d stop putting words in our mouths.

    • Posted October 20, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

      Actually, I think something looking like the boundary problem for science has quietly been solved by the mathematicians. Neither the scientists nor the theologians have paid much attention; the former because it makes little practical difference for most funded scientific research, and the latter because the math is both inconvenient and difficult.

      There actually seems some validity to some category distinctions — particularly though not only Hume’s “is” versus “ought”. Most of the others have fuzzy edges, and even some answers in one category may be dependent on answers in the others.

      • Brian
        Posted October 21, 2012 at 5:39 am | Permalink

        “Actually, I think something looking like the boundary problem for science has quietly been solved by the mathematicians.”

        How? I work as a mathematician and have never heard of any such thing. The boundary problem is the problem of defining science and contrasting it with other forms of inquiry, in particular pseudoscience. There are no axioms on which to base doing that. It’s just a conceptual question about definitions, more philosophy than math. It has nothing to do with sets or groups or manifolds or anything else mathematicians typically study. I don’t even see how mathematicians could study the boundary problem, let alone settle it. It’s just not the sort of thing mathematicians tend to study.

        Maybe you are thinking Bayesian statistics. That would to some extent settle the problem of induction, but that’s different from the demarcation problem.

        • Posted October 22, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

          I’m thinking of a Bayesian-based paper, yes; (doi:10.1109/18.825807). In so far as “what sort of things qualify as true knowledge or not” is central to the boundary problem, that seems relevant, though building on earlier work. (Marginal further generalization is possible.) Something strongly resembling science results as a direct consequence pseudo-algorithm. This in turn appears to distinguish pseudosciences from the lack of the pseudo-algorithm’s use. It would appear be an outgrowth of set theory (incidentally, independent on Zorn’s Lemma) by way of model theory, computational complexity and probability.

          On the other hand, you have a point with definitions; it’s possible to go completely Humpty-Dumpty on those. In that sense, it’s only something that looks like the boundary problem that they’ve resolved.

  22. Dawn Oz
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    This belongs to an earlier discussion on the medical fellow who had a ‘afterlife’ experience. This author calls his, ‘Heaven is real and it is a Schlep’.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/danweiss/heaven-is-real-and-its-a-schlep_b_1949918.html

  23. Posted October 20, 2012 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    I have nothing against huddling in a circle for some religion bashing, but your definition of knowledge is unreasonably and boringly narrow. Under your definition, mathematicians acquire no knowledge and study nothing. Now surely this is kind of silly. I think most educated people would agree that mathematical truths are some of the most reliable sources of knowledge. However, your ontology does not permit this.

    If you are going to attack or debunk something, at least give it a fighting chance by forming a reasonable-ish ontology. I am not trying to defend religion, I am just trying to encourage a more interesting argument. At the present, your hard empiricist stand is bordering on silly. Are mathematical truths knowledge?

    If they are, then you will need a more subtle argument then your current one. Such an argument would be much more interesting to read, and I hope you provide it or at least reference one of the many great philosophers that have.

    • Brian
      Posted October 21, 2012 at 5:48 am | Permalink

      Um, where specifically did Jerry explicitly define the term “knowledge” or did Jerry try to lay out an ontology? I did not see it. You seem to be ASSUMING Jerry thinks certain things by trying to read into what Jerry said. This is the whole implied scientism gig that Hutchinson was trying to play.

      I’m very sorry, but the answer to your question about when did Jerry stop hitting his wife is that Jerry is a good husband who never hit his wife. That is, Jerry did not actually define “knowledge” explicitly or lay out an ontology, he simply criticized the video and he only sketched the criticism anyways. Stop critiquing things that weren’t even asserted.

      • Dave Ricks
        Posted October 21, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

        Your first paragraph is invalid because regular readers of WEIT have seen Jerry’s position of “science broadly construed” spelled out over the last year or two.

        Your second paragraph is invalid because it repeats your first paragraph but adding the ugly rhetoric of wife beating and telling Artem what to do as your maneuvers to bully his claims off the table. As Jean Kazez wrote about these maneuvers on blogs,

        The point of it is not really personal, but to quickly excise certain claims that are deemed “beyond the pale.” To accelerate the excision, the usual methods of persuasion — argumentation, evidence, reasoning — are set aside, and new methods are employed.  To bully a claim off the table, you do things like: … mocking, straw-manning, piling on, insulting, and generally making life unpleasant for the person who made the claim.  They then withdraw, and the claim vanishes. Wonderful.

        Personally, I score your refusal to engage Artem’s claims as scoring in Artem’s favor. Because I assume you’re smart, you know what’s going on, you gave it your best shot, and you got nothing in this case.

        • Brian
          Posted October 23, 2012 at 8:21 am | Permalink

          If Jerry has at any point given an official definition of “knowledge” or tried to carefully lay out an ontology, THEN CITE THE NECESSARY BLOG. Don’t call me disingenuous, back it up with quotes.

          The fact of the matter is Jerry hasn’t been attempting to answer deep questions of epistemology on his blog. Jerry has advocated for scientific literacy. But casual talk of needing evidence for claims and science construed broadly (which is the most I’ve really seen from Jerry, Dawkins, or any other well-known atheist) is not equivalent to providing a clear and complete epistemology or ontology which provide a starting place as to whether in Jerry’s view mathematics in knowledge.

          I shouldn’t have to point this out, but: Jerry is a scientist, not a professional philosopher. He is approaching these issues from the perspective of a scientist and understanding his points require baring that in mind. Also, you can’t defend religious BS or anything else from reasonable criticism of lack of evidence by mere philosophical nitpicking.

          “Your second paragraph is invalid because it repeats your first paragraph…”

          So what?! In fact, where has anyone established a standard for what is “valid” to say in a comment section? I’ll repeat myself in different language if I darn well please!

          “…but adding the ugly rhetoric of wife beating”

          Oh for goodness sakes! It’s a COMMON example of “When did you stop beating your wife?” The point of the question is not to raise “ugly rhetoric” but rather raising the example of a question that one needn’t ever answer, namely the question of when one stopped beating their wife when they never beat their wife in the first place. Now this is a COMMON example, you are either a sophist or fool to play ignorant of what I was obviously saying.

          “To bully a claim off the table, you do things like: … mocking, straw-manning, piling on, insulting, and generally making life unpleasant for the person who made the claim.”

          I didn’t mock, use straw-men, piled, or insulted Artem. What on Earth are you talking about. This is precisely the sort of “When did you stop beating your wife?” BS I am criticizing. I never bullied Artem’s claims off the table in the matter you described here. You belief that I did seems to hinge on an ignorance of what “When did you stop beating your wife?” means and I don’t have to dignify it.

          “Personally, I score your refusal to engage Artem’s claims as scoring in Artem’s favor.”

          I didn’t know we were trying to score points here. If we were, could you point me towards the score board? I refused to engage with Artem’s claims because they don’t deserve responding to, to engage his claims is basically admitting to asserting something stupid that to my knowledge atheists aren’t typically asserting. I’m not admitting to crimes I and other atheists haven’t committed. Artem’s claims don’t deserve to be engaged with.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 21, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      - I don’t think this blog or its commenters “huddle”, seeing how often they engage in the outer world (as here), let other commenters in (as here), and plan to and many times do make a considered and public response (likely what Coyne is planning above, or at the very least he is engaging further with the topic).

      And this site has WEIT as premier example of public action. So if you want to huddle, this may not be the best place.

      - As Brian notes, there is not enough of description of knowledge here to criticize it. I know from Coyne’s earlier descriptions that I can largely agree with his, but the details differ.

      Which brings me to this:

      “I think most educated people would agree that mathematical truths are some of the most reliable sources of knowledge. However, your ontology does not permit this.”

      Only if you assume that the popular position of mathematicians, which I believe can be described as philosophical platonism, is correct.

      A cursory observation of mathematics and its methods shows that we can safely reject that. Mathematics, its development and use, is based on empirics of what works and is used. Reversely physics shows that reality is based on observation, meaning platonic objects has no real existence.

      This is why we use integers instead of other equally powerful systems, or how we choose factual geometries to use in applications. That is why axiom choice, proof heuristics and computer proof and proof checking is done. There are entirely empirical mathematical methods such as Monte Carlo methods. As Chaitin points out, there is even mathematical objects that admit an empirical definition (Chaitin’s constant, et cetera).

      Even so mathematical truths as such are not factual, see how we have to use observation to choose between them (say, geometries). It is specious, even strained, to argue equality between logical truth values and empirical facts. At the most we can observe that knowing what mathematical truths can be derived is knowledge. Useful knowledge at that.

      Besides all that, “sources of knowledge” is very weak. As Kekulé showed, even dreams are sources of knowledge if you apply and test them correctly. I think mathematics is a bit stronger than that though.

      As I noted empiricists differ in analysis, so I don’t know whether Coyne would or would not agree with my analysis. But I don’t think we can claim that knowing that (used as generic methods) the existence of mathematical truths are knowledge, causes problems for empiricism as such.

      • Dave Ricks
        Posted October 21, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

        Torbjörn, this WEIT thread is an example of what Artem said — about WEIT commenters forming a circle bashing religion — and Artem said he has nothing against that. So it’s doubly weird if you deny this behavior exists, since he doesn’t mind it, and you joined that dogpile as comment #36. Are you really nitpicking about the choice of word “huddle” versus “dogpile” or some other form of mass agreement?

        To rephrase Artem’s point in your terms, if you want to form a circle bashing religion, WEIT may be the best place.

      • Brian
        Posted October 23, 2012 at 8:31 am | Permalink

        “Only if you assume that the popular position of mathematicians, which I believe can be described as philosophical platonism, is correct. ”

        I’m a mathematician. Most mathematicians don’t think a whole lot about the philosophy of mathematics, issues of philosophical Platonism vs the alternatives. They are too busy doing mathematics.

        “Mathematics, its development and use, is based on empirics of what works and is used.”

        Um, a lot of mathematics currently isn’t based in empiricism, not unless you mean mere experience in writing proofs and working with examples. A lot of mathematics is very very abstract, long since removed from application to practical problems and empirical study, and math proofs are pure deductive reasoning with no appeal to empirical evidence. Again, I’m a mathematician, the only empirical work I do in my own research is looking at examples. What you are saying isn’t quite correct, it’s at best only half right.

  24. Kevin
    Posted October 21, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    unless he’s claiming that moral dicta or legal principles are ‘knowledge’, in which case he’s not talking about knowledge but opinions

    That is right, but bear in mind that it also applies to your statements to the effect that God is “cruel”, for example by not preventing childhood diseases.

  25. Mr. X
    Posted October 21, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    “He claims that “there is real knowledge is history, philosophy, economics, and jurisprudence,” and that knowledge is acquired by methods different from those used by the natural sciences. He’s wrong: the knowledge is acquired by empirical observation and testing,”

    Really? So, if I wanted to find out whether, say, colonial rivalry was a cause of the First World War, what empirical test could I do?

    • darrelle
      Posted October 22, 2012 at 7:53 am | Permalink

      You would analyze relevant historical accounts, data, and objects. Presumably, if you were an intellectually honest historian, you would attempt to verify to what extent any accounts or data you are considering are derived from actual observation of the events. And then weight the accounts by, among other things, how close to the actual events the source was.

      In other words, any history that could be considered to be an accurate account of reality, which is the goal of historical studies, is based on empirical observations, or rather data that is an account of empirical observations. And a large part of the practice of historian is finding and vetting such accounts for likely accuracy, and finding other such accounts to corroborate data. Not to mention all the empirically derived data from related disciplines like archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, etc.

      History not based on verified empirical observations is fictional story telling.

      • Mr. X
        Posted October 22, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

        Historians’ approach to evidence is different to scientists’. For one thing, each historical event, unlike each scientific experiment, is unique, so you can’t test things through repeatable experiments and manipulating variables. The two disciplines have fundamentally different approaches to evidence.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted October 22, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink

          I don’t see that what historians do is fundamentally different from what cosmologists or paleontologists do. The ability to perform repeatable laboratory experiments is not the make-or-break definition of science.


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