Must we assume naturalism to do science?

Yonatan Fishman sent me a paper  (free online) that he’s just published with Maarten Boudry (they’re both philosophers, and we’ve discussed Boudry’s work before; see here and here).  The topic is of interest to both secularists and scientists: the claim that science can study only “natural” phenomena, and is powerless before supernatural ones.

If you’ve followed the science-vs.-creationism debates, you’ll know that they often involve disputes about the importance of “naturalism” in science. There are two brands of naturalism under discussion:

Methodological naturalism (MN): this is, as Fishman and Boudry (F&B) define it, “the view that science, by virtue of its methods, is limited to studying ‘natural’ phenomena and cannot consider or evaluate hypotheses that refer to supernatural entities.”

Ontological naturalism (ON; sometimes called “philosophical naturalism”): this is, as F&B note, “the metaphysical thesis that supernatural entities and phenomena do not exist.”

As you know if you’ve read this site before, I don’t adhere to the view that science should be wedded a priori to either of these views.  Although we do use the methods of reason, experimentation, replication, and so on to study phenomena in nature, we aren’t limited to studying purely natural phenomena—that is, unless, you define “natural phenomena” as those amenable to scientific investigation, in which case the claim becomes a tautology.

And indeed, scientists have studied “supernatural” or “paranormal” phenomena before, including ESP, intercessory prayer, and so on.

F&B agree, and argue in the paper that science can indeed study supernatural phenomena if one adheres to their definition of the supernatural:

Thus, for the sake of argument, we will adopt a working ‘umbrella’ definition of ‘supernatural’ as referring to entities or phenomena that possess one or more of the following characteristics: (1) They operate in ways that fundamentally violate our current understanding of how the world works, (2) they exist outside the spatiotemporal realm of our universe (though they may still causally interact with our universe), and (3) they suggest that reality is at bottom purposeful and mind-like, particularly in a sense that implies a central role for humanity and human affairs in the cosmic scheme. We neither expect that this definition will encompass all uses of the term, nor do we expect complete agreement on the characteristics we have included under it.

Their paper is a critique of an earlier paper in the journal by Martin Mahner (reference below), which argues that the supernatural is immune to scientific study.

Now some of you will argue, perhaps, that once a phenomenon is studied and confirmed by the methods of science, it must be natural rather than supernatural.  But, as I noted, that’s tautological, and untrue if one defines the “supernatural” as do F&B. Their definition of course includes religious assertions, so that stuff can indeed be studied by science. And it’s undeniably the case that science can and has studied things like PSI phenomena and intercessory prayer.  Science could study other supernatural phenomena, like miracles, rain dances, witchcraft, and so on, so that religious claims are not off limits. According F&B, science studies not what is natural, but what is real, and they prefer the term “ontological realism” to “ontological naturalism”. I agree:

However, we maintain that ontological realism, while it may partly explain the success of science, is a defeasible conclusion of science—one that is arrived at by consideration of the evidence. What makes something ‘real’, and not just a figment of our imagination or a social construction, is that it exhibits a consistent pattern irrespective of (or indeed in spite of) our subjective beliefs, thoughts, biases, or desires. Whether or not there are phenomena that fulfill this criterion is empirically discoverable through science. Ontological realism about the entities described by science is the conclusion of an inference to the best explanation on the basis of the available evidence, not a presupposition of science.

There are two important points here.

First, phenomena traditionally seen as “supernatural” and “religious” clearly fall within the ambit of science. Why is that important? For two reasons. First, it makes religious claims about what is “real” directly amenable to scientific study.  Granted, testing things like the Resurrection is difficult since they’re one-off claims (indeed, that’s why Christianity ultimately rests on that claim rather than other scriptural claims that can be easily refuted), but science has already tested and refuted other religious claims, like the instantaneous creation of life, the Great Flood of Noah, the Exodus from Egypt, the young age of the Earth, the existence of Adam and Eve, and so on. What are those besides supernatural claims?

This makes hash, then, of an important accommodationist argument: science and religion study different things, and science has nothing to say about religion. That’s the trope employed by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the National Academy of Science (NAS), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). But—pardon my French—that claim is garbage.  Many theologians (including Haught, Polkinghorne, and Swinburne) argue that religion does indeed make truth claims about reality, and thus these epistemic claims can be addressed by ontological realism.

Accommodationist organizations like the NCSE and NAS argue that science can’t address the supernatural for one reason alone: they want to show that religion and science can coexist harmoniously. If religious claims can be defined as outside the ambit of science, that makes it easier to accommodate them.

This is all very NOMA-esque, but it’s wrong.  Science has, can, and will continue to address the supernatural.  What else was the Templeton-funded study of intercessory prayer (a study, by the way, that showed no effect of prayer)?

I once discussed this issue with Eugenie Scott, head of the NCSE, and she had no response. She kept insisting that science can’t address the supernatural, despite my demonstration to her that it can and does. In fact, her claim is based on politics rather than on science or philosophy: the assertion that science assumes MN is meant to immunize religion from scientific study, and thus keep the faithful happy. And when the faithful are happy, perhaps they’ll join us in opposing creationism.

Second, science has never assumed methodological naturalism as an a priori dictate of how to operate.  Science is simply a method of studying what’s real, and finding the best explanation using observation, prediction, replication, experimentation, and so on. There’s nothing in that method that dictates “study only natural phenomena.”  The fact that we’ve provided natural explanations for what is real is simply a result of using the method, and suggests that there are not in fact any supernatural phenomena. But science could have detected such phenomena had they existed. F&B provide a list:

1. Intercessory prayer can heal the sick or re-grow amputated limbs
2. Only Catholic intercessory prayers are effective.
3. Anyone who speaks the Prophet Mohammed’s name in vain is immediately struck
down by lightning, and those who pray to Allah five times a day are free from disease
and misfortune.
4. Gross inconsistencies are found in the fossil record and independent dating techniques
suggest that the earth is less than 10,000 years old—thereby confirming the biblical
account and casting doubt upon Darwinian evolution and contemporary scientific
accounts of geology and cosmology.
5. Specific information or prophecies claimed to be acquired during near death
experiences or via divine revelation are later confirmed – assuming that conventional
means of obtaining this information have been effectively ruled out.
6. Scientific demonstration of extra-sensory perception or other paranormal phenomena
(e.g., psychics routinely win the lottery).
7. Mental faculties persist despite destruction of the physical brain, thus supporting the
existence of a soul that can survive bodily death.
8. Stars align in the heavens to spell the phrase, ‘‘I Exist—God’’.

Some of you will say that these phenomena could be caused by space aliens and the like, and thus could be “natural” phenomena. But I, for one, would regard some of these as support for religious truth claims (e.g., #2 or #3), and provisional evidence for a divine being.

Because of the repeated success of science in explaining reality as a result of natural and not supernatural phenomena, we have eventually come around to ON as an empirically-based philosophical position: since there’s been no evidence for anything supernatural (as F&B define it), we can provisionally assume that supernatural entities and phenomena do not existAs philosopher Barbara Forrest has pointed out (much to the chagrin of the NCSE, I suspect), ON—she calls it “philosophical naturalism”—is a worldview that’s grown out of the repeated application of science, and not from a priori rumination. ON is thus a coherent worldview that can be justified from experience, not from philosophical premises.

Finally, F&B note (and again I agree) that claiming that the supernatural is off-limits to science, while seemingly useful for accommodationism, is actually inimical to science in an important way. That’s because the program of intelligent design creationism (ID) includes criticizing scientists for being “close minded” by ruling the supernatural out of court.  We scientists, they say, are biased by our adherence to MN, and thus sworn to ignore the supposed evidence for intelligent design. (This argument is also made by advocates of paranormal phenomena like ESP.)

F&B’s claim, and mine, is that we shouldn’t rule the supernatural out on first principles. Creationism and its gussied-up cousin ID shouldn’t be dismissed because they invoke the supernatural, but simply because there is no evidence for them. After all, it’s theoretically possible that all life appeared in one instant six thousand years ago and has remained unchanged ever since. That’s a religious view, but also a scientific one. And it’s wrong.

I’ll give F&B the last word:

Our examination of the scientific testability of supernatural hypotheses and, more generally, of the issue of whether or not science presupposes ON has direct implications for science education policies. If, as we have argued, the scientific enterprise does not require an a priori commitment to methodological or metaphysical presuppositions, in particular Mahner’s ‘nosupernature’ principle, then scientists and science educators should not reject supernatural explanations out of hand. Rather, they should be rejected on the grounds that they fail to satisfy general criteria of good explanations in science. For instance, Evan Fales writes:

The reason that ID is not good science is not because it invokes a supernatural creator. ID is not good science because the empirical arguments it provides fail on their merits—e.g., because the criteria for irreducible (or ‘‘specified’’) complexity are defective, question-begging, or not demonstrably applicable to any known organism. (Fales 2009)

Thus, ID should not be taught in science classes as an alternative to Darwinian evolution not because it may make reference to a supernatural designer, but rather because its claims do not meet the standards of good explanations (see also Clark 2009; Laudan 1982). In agreement with previous authors (Martin 1994), we believe that teaching science students how to think critically and how to evaluate hypotheses according to the criteria of good scientific explanations (perhaps using the Bayesian and information-theoretic frameworks outlined above) is as important as teaching them what to think. Accordingly, except for the purpose of teaching critical thinking skills and the history of scientific thought, science educators need not waste their (and their students’) time considering discredited theories such as old earth creationism, phlogiston, disease as due to demonic possession, dowsing, psychic surgery, spiritualism, psi, flat earth theory, homeopathy, astrology, phrenology, or Ptolemaic astronomy. Again, rejection of these theories is not based on a priori methodological or metaphysical presuppositions of science, but on the grounds that they make predictions that conflict with the available evidence or they are unparsimonious.

________

Fishman, Y. I. and M. Boudry. 2013. Does science presuppose naturalism (or anything at all)? Science & Education, published online, DOI 10.1007/s11191-012-9574-1.

Mahner M. 2012. The role of metaphysical naturalism in science.  Science & Education 21:1437-1459.

228 Comments

  1. gbjames
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    sub

  2. Somite
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    Great post. Sadly I would add the JREF to the list of organizations that has concluded science and skepticism can not address supernatural claims for political expediency.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      Do you have a cite? My understanding is that the JREF — particularly the $million challenge — cannot address claims which are vague, garbled, incoherent, or open to any interpretation. Doesn’t matter if it’s the paranormal/the supernatural — or a perpetual motion machine or magnetic bracelet. If you can’t clearly state what you can do under what conditions you can do it and with what amount of accuracy, then out you go.

      So my guess is that the JREF would be pleased as punch to test a supernatural claim like “God exists.” But they have rigorous standards for doing what they do.

    • madscientist
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      No, the position of the JREF isn’t that science can’t investigate religion – it’s simply that the JREF will not waste time addressing wishy-washy religious claims. Anyone can put a religious claim to the test with the million-dollar challenge. As for direct confrontation of religions, the folks at the JREF have decided that they’d rather concentrate on other claims since tackling religion would be a guaranteed waste of resources – besides there are other groups who address the problems of religion.

  3. Posted April 1, 2013 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    There’s no reason that the supernatural is outside the realm of science. I tend to go with Fishman and Boudry’s third bullet for the definition of the supernatural, “that reality is at bottom purposeful and mind-like, particularly in a sense that implies a central role for humanity and human affairs in the cosmic scheme.“. Supernatural beings are fundamentally mental in nature; from a reductionist standpoint they can’t be reduced to anything lower than the mental.

    With that said, if science couldn’t study mental phenomena, then this would relegate fields like sociology, psychology, or economics into the study of the supernatural even though they would be science.

    The most parsimonious explanation for why science has been unable to confirm anything supernatural is because the supernatural doesn’t exist.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 7:28 am | Permalink

      Agree. If we focus on what “supernatural” claims have in common — and where they differ from idle speculations in physics or disconfirmed pseudoscience — we get the irreducible mental aspect. Look at what that third bullet includes:

      disembodied souls, ghosts, angels, ESP, psychokenesis, magical correspondences, “luck,” vitalism, karma, prana, God, cosmic consciousness, reincarnation, precognition, remote viewing, mind as “energy force,” a universal tendency towards the harmonic balance of Good and Evil, progressive evolution towards Higher States, mind/body substance dualism, holistic nonmaterialistic monism, dual-aspect monism.

      The world could have been this way — and if so then science could and would have figured it out. It didn’t because it isn’t.

      • Tulse
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink

        The problem for science is not the supernatural per se, but omnipotence (or “mega”potence). If a being can literally do anything, then all objective observations are up for grabs, since any empirical finding could be the result of undetectable supernatural manipulation.

        The supernatural can be an object of science to the extent that it exhibits lawful behaviour, and is thus theories about it are falsifiable (e.g., vampires fear sunlight, can’t be seen in mirrors, can be killed with a stake through the heart, are preternaturally inclined to fall in love with Slayers, etc.). In other words, such beings are limited and constrained, and science can thus determine those constraints.

        Once you get the Anselmian omnipotent Christian god, however, all bets are off, at least logically, since such a being can order the physical world however it chooses.

        So science can study the supernatural, but it can’t study omnipotence.

        • DiscoveredJoys
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 9:05 am | Permalink

          True, but by the same argument a religion cannot claim to explain its omnipotent (or ineffable) god(s) with certainty either.

        • Sastra
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 9:40 am | Permalink

          I once had a Catholic meet this objection against “omnipotence” (all lab results are now questionable) with the introduction of a sort of law which constrained an omnipotent God: God would only do a miracle — in lab or elsewhere — if it strengthened someone’s faith. That’s His motivation — and we can trust Him to stick to it.

          Therefore, we have a way to be secure that all our empirical findings are not up for grabs. Undetectable supernatural manipulation does not happen willy-nilly. Miracles are rare. Just look around to see if there’s a faith-strengthening POINT to an unexpected result.

          No this doesn’t work. Damn it, EVERYTHING and ANYTHING can “strengthen” the faith of a believer. God works in silly, stupid, pointless little ways to make sure whoever kinda feels like maybe they will find evidence of God does find evidence of God. “It’s a rainbow! It’s my lost pair of glasses! It’s a face of Jesus on a tortilla! It’s an unexpected result in a laboratory! Praise the Lord!”

          If miracles are assumed to be very rare then an intervening God might be constrained as much as we can constrain invisible pixies. After all, presumably even invisible pixies would not be completely random in what they do and they wouldn’t bother with boring stuff. Scientific discoveries and findings might not be so much thrown out as they would be considered even more tentative than they are.

          • Tulse
            Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

            If miracles are assumed to be very rare

            Of course, we could never have empirical justification for that assumption, since the issue is that miracles undermine empiricism itself.

            • Sastra
              Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

              Yes; we’d have to trust God’s word on when He did or didn’t do a miracle.

              At least that would be easier to do if we had good evidence that God exists.

              • darrelle
                Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

                And that he is trustworthy.

              • Vaal
                Posted April 1, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

                Indeedy.

                I got into this issue of whether the existence of a God undermines our empirical inquiry, in my post lower in the thread – post # 25.

                Vaal

              • Tulse
                Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

                Do not be deceived by the Prince of Lies when he appears to you as God and says he did not do a miracle!

                But seriously, if at least one extremely powerful being exists, how can we know that other similar beings wouldn’t appear as that one and make false claims. Christianity has Satan, and various other pantheons have trickster gods — how can we even know that we’re speaking to the same being?

              • Vaal
                Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

                Tulse,

                We’d “know” via the same method of inference we use everywhere else. We look at what the evidence we have implies about any Being.

                If we are talking specifically about certain Gods, like the God of the Bible, then I agree there are reasons not to trust that God.

                But *in principle* a God could impress us as a trustworthy character, and if that God promised not to screw with our empirical inquiry into how nature operates, we could proceed.

                The reason we wouldn’t have to consider any other mischievous “supernatural” entities into the bargain is the same old parsimony we used for any other inferences. No evidence for them? No reason to include them into the equation.

                Vaal

  4. Posted April 1, 2013 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    Finally, F&B note (and again I agree) that claiming that the supernatural is off-limits to religion, while …

    Typo? I think you mean off-limits to science?

    Anyhow, I agree with you entirely, and have argued myself that science can deal with the supernatural.

    The only point on which I’d disagree slightly is that I don’t think it makes sense to try to define the “supernatural”, it isn’t well enough conceived to have an actual definition.

    • Posted April 1, 2013 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      I think their Point #3 effectively defines the core of the idea, even if there may be some “fuzz” around the edges.

      • Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

        Their point 3 is much too monotheism-centric. “Central role for humanity and human affairs” is a property of the Abrahamic religions but not of folk religion and supernatural notions in general.

        Richard Carrier’s definition (along these lines) is simpler and better: supernatural = mind without a material substrate. I still think, however, that “supernatural” is too ill-conceived to have a proper definition.

        While I’m on:

        phenomena that possess one or more of the following characteristics: (1) They operate in ways that fundamentally violate our current understanding of how the world works, …

        So did quantum mechanics when it was developed.

        (2) they exist outside the spatiotemporal realm of our universe (though they may still causally interact with our universe), …

        This would make multiverses and various physics theories that invoke extra dimensions “supernatural”.

        • Sastra
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

          Your last two points are why the 3rd prong is so important. If quantum mechanics, multiverses, or superstrings end up being fundamentally connected to “love” or “intention” — then they’ve stepped over the line from weird to woo.

          I disagree that point 3 is too monotheism-centric. “Central role for humanity and human affairs” is broad enough to include pretty much every version of religion I can think of — including “spiritual but not religious.” Just having Consciousness or some other form of mental or moral property central to the universe places humanity closer to the meaning of reality.

          “Everything happens for a reason.” Unless this is the first sentence of a lecture on physics, the general sense is that this reason is a moral one, one we can recognize, familiar to social animals. Eastern religions seem little different than western ones on this point.

          • Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink

            Suppose our universe were a bubble created by an alien civilisation in a multiverse? That “connects the multiverse with intention”, but IMO would be a natural, not supernatural, hypothesis.

            As for the “central role for humanity”, it’s possible to envisage supernatural sprites or demons which don’t particularly care about humans, but have their own affairs.

            • Sastra
              Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

              I agree that your alien thought experiment would be natural, but that’s because it does not “suggest that reality is at bottom purposeful and mind-like, particularly in a sense that implies a central role for humanity and human affairs in the cosmic scheme.” The first part seems more important to the definition than the second part.

              While I can also envision supernatural sprites or demons which don’t care about humans, these supernatural people seem suspiciously human-like. Being supernatural, I think it very unlikely that they wouldn’t be considered to be “higher” than us — which then places us in a position on the cosmic great chain of being. Maybe a low place on the totem pole isn’t precisely giving us a “central role” — but it is giving human-like qualities a central place. Great Chain of Being is a supernatural concept.

            • Posted April 2, 2013 at 5:55 am | Permalink

              On the other hand, if Vic Stenger and co. are correct, it may be nomologically impossible to know if one is in an artificial hubble volume. And conversely; creating one would result in an experiment one couldn’t check the details of the results from.

  5. Sastra
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    Excellent post; it hit most all of my usual talking points on this subject! Definitions of “supernatural” which focus on being “outside of nature” (where do we draw that line?) or “untestable by science”(where do we draw that line?) only manage to create a special niche where religious claims deserve special treatment. This is where we are allowed to use faith.

    Nonsense. Faith is an immunizing strategy which is dragged in ONLY when the empirical case fails. People who believe in God may be following their emotions or their tribal loyalties or their preferences to arrive at the conclusion through irrational or nonrational means, sure — but they don’t really believe this. They don’t want that to be true because they see how weak it is. Instead, they think they believe in God because they see evidence, they have experiences — and “God exists” is the best hypothesis to explain this. They want a “rational” faith. It is their undoing.

    The other day I argued that all of the identifying aspects of gnu atheism — the attitude, the distinctions, concern over the morals of religion — fall out of one basic premise: the existence of God is a hypothesis and it needs to be treated like one. It needs to be taken seriously.

    How ironic that it’s considered “mean” or even “shallow” to do this.

    • Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      [T]he existence of God is a hypothesis and it needs to be treated like one.

      It seems to me that the God hypothesis needs to be taken seriously by scientists only when and where there are those who do harm with it. Thus, in the US, there is a point to testing the healing power of prayer. Not so much in Scandinavia, I think.

      • Sastra
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        The God hypothesis needs to be treated seriously by everyone, not just scientists. Concluding that there is no good reason to take the hypothesis seriously is — ironically — an example of taking the hypothesis seriously.

        I think most people take themselves too seriously — and inject this self-concern into their evaluation process. They want to be the kind of person who believes in God. They have faith in faith … and mistakenly assume this shows they’re taking God seriously.

        • Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

          “Concluding that there is no good reason to take the [God] hypothesis seriously is — ironically — an example of taking the hypothesis seriously.”

          As cleverly phrased as that is, it isn’t true. There are a multitude of hypotheses that most of us believe there is no good reason to take seriously—unicorns, leprechauns, Easter bunnies, to name just a few—and just because we have concluded that, does not imply that we ever took them seriously. What makes the God hypothesis different, and why it might occasionally justify investigation using scientific methods, is that belief in the hypothesis has caused, and continues to cause, harm.

          • Sastra
            Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

            By “taking a hypothesis seriously” I mean considering it on it merits — and not being distracted by moral, personal, tribal, or other considerations. If I were to ask you why you don’t believe in unicorns you could no doubt give me a series of very good reasons. If I paid you money for it, it might be a masterpiece of elegant reasoning.

            What makes the God hypothesis different is that it’s treated differently by other people. You and I approach it as a truth claim — like evolution or leprechauns. We take it seriously not in the sense that we entertain it seriously and believe it, but that we consider it empirical. It doesn’t matter what we want. No ‘faith’ allowed.

            Many people approach the existence of God as a truth claim which is ALSO a moral claim, or commitment, or some other value-laden, emotion-laden expression. They get side-tracked away from examining it objectively and think it somehow does matter what they want. Faith is not a vice: it’s a virtue for which they ought to be commended.

            The minute you add in a ‘faith’ commitment you’re not taking a claim seriously. You’re subjectively validating. The gnu atheists say to the faithful “Don’t do that. Naughty. You know better.”

  6. MAUCH
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Apologetics or rather the attempt to find validation for the supernatural and the devine is a colossal waste of ones life. In the end after we strip away the mumbo jumbo it seems that the supernatural and the devine is simply another word for the unknown. Why would one need a fancy diploma to find an imaginary explanation for our own ignorance.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

      The supernatural and the divine are NOT “simply another word for the unknown.” This is the bait and switch they use — oh, everything is mystery we are simply embracing the unknown. We are being humble.

      They are not. They are making specific claims and statements about that “unknown,” and invoking mystery in one breath only to solve it in the next. If the supernatural really was just another word for the unknown then every scientist would believe in the supernatural because they all agree there are definitely things they do not know and probably things they never will know. Scientists though don’t use this as an excuse to make stuff up and declare it safe from scrutiny because it is a Great Mystery.

      • Posted April 1, 2013 at 7:49 am | Permalink

        Exactly right!

      • Posted April 1, 2013 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

        I agree wholeheartedly, the “supernatural” and the “unknown” are not identical categories, nor even equivalent. What we know about the universe plays a huge role in how we decide what gets put in the supernatural category. I might go so far as to say our knowledge is really the only determining factor. Those other definitions are interesting but superficial distinctions that reduce to “does this alleged phenomenon violate something basic we know about physics?”

        Which is why I maintain that the category “supernatural” is subsumed by the category “impossible.” This is not to say that things like ESP should be excluded from possibility a priori, only that if ESP is ever demonstrated it will necessarily have to be admitted into the natural, possible world. The “supernatural” is therefore only populated with (what we take to be, at the moment) impossibilities. The supernatural will forever exist only in our imaginations. This is what we anti-supernaturalists mean when we say “there is no supernatural.”

        I think “supernatural” is a silly category. In the same way that agreeing to debate creationists makes them look like they’ve got actual arguments, going along with the term “supernatural” makes it seem legitimate to espouse this idea that impossibilities are possible. Let’s just test all those claims. Of course science can be brought to bear on whether ESP is a real phenomenon. That’s a separate issue from the semantic/philosophical/tactical one I’m raising.

        • Posted April 2, 2013 at 5:58 am | Permalink

          I think there’s also an important part to be played by the (implicit) lesson from early Scooby Doo episodes, too. That is, crooks and such can often appeal to people’s tacit fears and apprehensions about the supposed mysteries in order to gain, profit, or exploit unjustly.

        • Sastra
          Posted April 2, 2013 at 8:25 am | Permalink

          I think your approach (throw out the category called ‘supernatural’) is wrongheaded for several reasons.

          For one thing, it simply moves around words. So if God is demonstrated to exist then God is not “supernatural” but “natural.” Big deal. Do we only have problems with the term? Or do we have concerns with the actual claim?

          It also makes it impossible for the naturalist to ever admit they made a mistake and have had to change their mind. “I wasn’t wrong: I was right. There is no such thing as the supernatural by definition.”

          Public debates on evolution may or may not be a wise idea, but the debates that go on in peer-review science journals are absolutely critical for making our case that creationists are wrong. We did pay attention to their argument. It doesn’t work. Here is why.

          And by the same token we need to pay attention to what the supernaturalists are claiming and demonstrate how and why they are wrong on the evidence and reason — not just play a lot of verbal tricks to move the disputed area back into what looks like “our” territory.

          What you’re doing here would be the equivalent of an evolutionist insisting that creationists are wrong because even if God created all species in their present form 10,00 years ago, we would still have to call that “evolution.” Because “creationism” is a fake category. It’s bizarre, pointless, and simply looks like someone is trying to avoid argument and sneak a fast one.

          • HaggisForBrains
            Posted April 2, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

            Or do we have concerns with the actual claim?

            whether or not science can investigate the “supernatural” is irrelevant. The point is that science can always investigate supernatural claims, provided that they are clearly defined. So far, it seems that such claims, when investigated, prove to have natural explanations (eg lightning), or are falsified (eg efficacy of prayer, regrowth of missing limbs).

  7. Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    This makes hash, then, of an important accommodationist argument: science and religion study different things, and science has nothing to say about religion.

    I’m inclined to think that’s a misunderstanding of NOMA. The claim, as I understand it, is that science and religion have non-overlapping domains. There is no claim that they actually confine their study to what is within their domain.

    • gbjames
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:17 am | Permalink

      What does “non-overlapping” mean to you?

      • Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:32 am | Permalink

        As a mathematician, I’ll go with the set theory meaning of “non-overlapping”.

        I am not an advocate of NOMA. My point is that I don’t see it as an assertion about what religion and science actually do. Rather, it attempts to define some sort of ideal where they would find a way of avoiding stepping on each others toes. I see such an ideal as unworkable, because people cannot be so easily constrained. NOMA is contrary to human psychology.

        • gbjames
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:35 am | Permalink

          Strikes me as a distinction absent a difference.

    • darrelle
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:20 am | Permalink

      I am not quite sure that I understand your distinction. But, NOMA is absolutely invoked for the purpose of protecting religious claims from investigation by science. And what believers and accommodationists really like about it is that it was coined by a famous scientist.

      • Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

        It seems to me that NCSE is mostly concerned with keeping religion from meddling in science (as with creationism, ID, etc).

        • darrelle
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:55 am | Permalink

          That could be. But I think they are mostly concerned with persuading believers to accept some form of Evolution. And when they invoke NOMA they are doing so in an attempt to persuade believers that accepting some form of evolution does not entail that they give up some of their god belief. That it is not a slippery slope to atheism. That science can not take away there religious beliefs. That it is okay to believe some form of evolution AND believe in god, and that there is no conflict between the two.

          And really, it is a lie that would make me feel ashamed. If you accept scientific evolution, you are by definition giving up some of your religious beliefs. If you can not accept scientific evolution, but can only agree to believe in some form of evolution that includes god somewhere somehow, then your religious beliefs are getting in the way of accepting scientific evolution. Telling believers they can have it both ways, by invoking NOMA for instance, is both dishonest and takes advantage of the understanding most believers have of the term. That it means that science can’t prove their religion wrong.

    • Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      I think you’re on the right track here. For Gould, NOMA was a prescriptive view of the science-religion relationship. My copy of Rock of Ages is strewn with marginal comments such as “If only!”, as Gould states what he thinks religion should be like (rather than the way it is). Followed as a prescription, NOMA might define separate “magisteria”, but as a descriptive matter, most religions trespass into areas which Gould disallowed to them (as Gould himself occasionally noted).

      • Posted April 2, 2013 at 6:01 am | Permalink

        And the important thing as far as I am concerned is to figure out why.

        It seems pretty clear to me that many religious make appropriate factual claims because they always have; to say to a believer that one’s faith cannot therefore include these components doesn’t solve the conflict. In fact if anything it makes it more acute by drawing attention to it. Also, they make factual claims because one cannot simply have an ethical system of the sort Gould described – a metaphysics and epistemology (in part) come with it, because they explain (if poorly or nonsensically) how we morally learn and reason, what the nature of humans are, etc.

  8. darrelle
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    “What makes something ‘real’, and not just a figment of our imagination or a social construction, is that it exhibits a consistent pattern irrespective of (or indeed in spite of) our subjective beliefs, thoughts, biases, or desires. Whether or not there are phenomena that fulfill this criterion is empirically discoverable through science. Ontological realism about the entities described by science is the conclusion of an inference to the best explanation on the basis of the available evidence, not a presupposition of science.”

    I can’t count the number of times I have tried to explain this myself, though admittedly not as well. What usually happens at this point though is that people start arguing over what “real” means. At which point I start getting disgusted. Especially when the people arguing that what is real is unknowable or some such, which may be a useful idea in some contexts but is at best a diversion in this context, are themselves science minded people.

    One such person argued tenaciously that science does not reveal useful information about what is real, because they felt that going down that road, making that claim, would lead to, has in the past, hubris inspired misuses of science. While I think avoiding that is very important, quibbling over the meaning of a perfectly good label for “that which we use the methods of science to interrogate,” that most people understand in the proper context, even when they argue against its use, does not help with that.

    And, just to be clear, when I use “science” in the context of methods of finding things out, I mean it in the most general sense, not just formal science.

  9. Stephen P
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    I certainly agree with you when you say that science can disprove purported phenomena that are traditionally seen as supernatural or religious – no problem there.

    But what would it mean to assert that science can confirm (however provisionally) a supernatural phenomenon? Fishman and Boudry talk about phenomena which “exist outside the spatiotemporal realm of our universe (though they may still causally interact with our universe)” – but what, if anything, does that mean? Apparently that some portion of the phenomenon does take place within “the spatiotemporal realm of our universe” and some portion does not. As far as the former portion is concerned, it isn’t clear to me why it would not be considered natural. As far as the latter portion is concerned, I don’t see how science would confirm its existence.

    To put it another way: suppose careful scientific work confirms, to a high degree of confidence, the existence of a highly surprising phenomenon. What do we actually achieve by attaching the label “supernatural” to that phenomenen?

    • darrelle
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      I think the issues you point out with the term “supernatural” are clearly understood by the OP and the linked paper authors. I think it is only in the context of arguing against people making claims about the “supernatural” that they consider it useful to use, and therefore try to define the term. The suggestion to change from “naturalism” to “realism” seems to indicate that the paper’s authors think that “supernatural” is not a valid term.

      • Stephen P
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

        It’s awfully difficult to discuss these things briefly.

        In essence I am taking issue with the OP sentence “But … that’s tautological, and untrue if one defines the ‘supernatural’ as do F&B.” I’m not yet convinced that F&B have come up with a definition that makes the assertion referred to untrue in any useful way (as opposed to merely playing with terminology).

        Can science study claims which are often labelled as supernatural? Yes.

        Can science study the supernatural as such? I don’t think that is a meaningful question – and I don’t think F&B’s definition makes it any better.

    • Tulse
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:43 am | Permalink

      Yep. We can certainly rule out supernatural claims empirically, but I think it’s incorrect to argue that we can “confirm” supernatural claims.

    • Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink

      Perhaps most generally the label “supernatural” refers to some basic ontological division of reality, where the supernatural holds sway over the natural, is not subject to natural laws, and has its own possibly inscrutable powers and intentions. It seems conceivable that science could produce evidence of such a division, but should supernatural laws, powers and intentions ever be revealed to us, then we’d have a unified understanding of reality encompassing the supernatural, and we might want to revert to calling that (single) reality “nature.” But of course there’s no current indication that reality is divided in the first place, which is why naturalism is the best empirical bet going by far.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      Stephen P #9 wrote:

      To put it another way: suppose careful scientific work confirms, to a high degree of confidence, the existence of a highly surprising phenomenon. What do we actually achieve by attaching the label “supernatural” to that phenomenen?

      Whether we label it “supernatural” or not would depend on what sort of highly surprising element the highly surprising thing had. If it reeks of some sort of Pure Mentality, then it’s likely we’d call it “supernatural.”

      Keep in mind, the “supernatural” doesn’t really have to be “outside” of nature. If you want to equate reality with nature, then the supernatural could be considered a higher level of nature. We talk about the “quantum level” of nature. You could talk about the “spiritual level” (or supernatural level) of nature as well.

  10. Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    I have never thought that methological naturalism is a requirement for science. It seems to me that science studies whatever it can study. There is no a priori limitation.

    On the other hand, I do not think that science can study the supernatural. And that’s because the supernatural is an entirely artificial category which, roughly speaking, consists of that which cannot be studied by science. So if science ever studies something that is supernatural, it will quickly find that the elusive category of the supernatural has been changed to exclude what science has just studied, so science will not have studied anything supernatural after all.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      How then do you deal with all the supernaturalists who either think

      1.) science HAS confirmed the existence of the supernatural/paranormal through positive studies on NDE’s, ESP, PK, ghosts, prophesies, etc.

      or

      2.) Oh, boy, science is right on the VERGE of confirming the existence of the supernatural/paranormal thought positive studies on NDEs, ESP, PK, ghosts, prophesies, etc … and you materialist atheist scientists are going to be feeling damn sheepish any minute now, you wait.

      If science ever CONFIRMS the supernatural then nobody is going to be whining that science went out of its jurisdiction. They only bring that up when they’re trying to save face with a failure — and they’ll discard it in a heartbeat.

      Don’t confuse an immunizing strategy with a feature of the claim. When dowsers fail at Randi’s Million $ Challenge they ALWAYS start coming up with excuses. That does not mean you can’t test dowsing. You can. It only means dowsers are dishonest little gits.

      • Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

        If I hear that sort of claim, I ask for a citation. They usually cannot provide one.

        I don’t hear that very often. What I mostly hear, is the charge that science is biased because it is committed to MN (or, to atheism or to materialism or to reductionism – the charge varies).

        • Sastra
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

          Yeah. And if they do provide a citation it doesn’t stand up under a rigorous scientific scrutiny. And then the charge that science is too narrow and needs to include our “spiritual” ways of knowing (such as what yogis learn while meditating.)

          My point though is that in theory the claims could meet scientific standards. And if all phenomenon which rely on mind/body substance dualism started being accepted into the scientific mainstream on good merit — then the current model of reality changes and the ‘supernatural’ is added in. Scientists are not dishonest little gits.

      • Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

        I would say that they aren’t thinking clearly about what it would mean for science to confirm their theories.

        They would be trying to have their cake and eat it. The thing that makes ghosts and all that jazz so exciting is the impossibility of it all. It should’nt work! They’ve been possesed by the imp of the perverse, to borrow a phrase.

  11. Aron
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    I am slightly confused.

    First of all, ‘Methodological naturalism’ and ‘Ontological Naturalism’ are completely separate categories, so one can be a ‘methodological naturalist’ yet be an ‘ontological supernaturalist’ ie believe that supernatural entities and phenomenon exist.

    Science cannot truly comprehend ‘non-natural’ phenomenon; science is limited to an empirical outlook on reality, everything must be from sensory experiences and be testable. So for example the claim that ‘angels exist’ is outside the scope of science, one would have to deal with this argument philosophically, as ‘angels’ in the monotheistic traditions are non physical beings so science cannot test them.

    The prayer experiment etc are all inferences from physical experiments, that science can do, but then this inference is outside the scope and ability of science as science only ‘tests’ things, not infers (see cognitive approach in modern psychology) so with my angels example, if you were to ask a priest to demonstrate that angels exist, and the priest says that somehow the angel will knock over the flower vase on the table, then to test the vase falling would be in the scope of science, but any inferences about an angel would immeidately render it outside science. But that is because there is an inference from a ‘physical/empirical’ experiment.

    I myself am an atheist, however, I think a lot of new atheists conflate the role of science too much, they adhere to ‘scientism’, which is completely self refuting and erroneous. Science alone cannot disprove theism, both philosophy and science are needed, as science is methodologically natural and can only acquire insight into testable, falsifiable and empirical phenomenon. Which is why science cannot ‘test’ God, but can infer from ‘seemingly’ god like hints such as the fine tuning of the universe that theists so constantly overuse and cling on to as their ‘trump card’, which is then philosophy and not science.

    But science can have many things to say regarding religious claims, such as the age of the Earth which science has certainly proved to be over 4 billion years. Which then refutes the claim made by creationists. Or the fact of Evolution by natural selection. But we need to make sure not to adhere to ‘scientism’.

    So in all, to do Science, one MUST assume Methodological Naturalism, the systematic approach to gathering knowledge from the ‘natural’, ‘physical’ world. But one does NOT have to assume ‘Ontological Naturalism’, that ‘natural’ and ‘physical’ phenomenon are all that exist. Scientists can use inference, but that then is NOT scientific. So all in all the New Atheists cannot rely on only science, but are dependent on philosophy as well, which is a good thing, as the narrow scope of science would not allow one to refute theism comprehensively.

    • darrelle
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      “Science alone cannot disprove theism, both philosophy and science are needed, . . “

      How can philosophy disprove theism, theistic claims or theistic beliefs? Or rather, how can philosophy prove or disprove anything?

      “. . . as science is methodologically natural and can only acquire insight into testable, falsifiable and empirical phenomenon.”

      Could you please give an example or two of phenomenon that do not meet those criteria, and explain why they do not?

      Since when are scientists not allowed to use inference, and why would the use of inference not be scientific?

      I thought it was explained quite well in the OP and linked paper why MN does not need to be assumed to do science or for science to return useful information. Science evolved without any such assumptions. Philosophizing about such assumptions came along after science was already well on its way. In fact many earlier scientists were eager to figure out how god, or the gods, had/were doing it. MN is a result of the long term success of the practice of science, a post hoc rationalization.

      • Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:33 am | Permalink

        I recently participated (as a commentator on a paper) in a recent conference devoted specifically to the history of MN: http://hps.fsu.edu/News-and-Events/Ron-Numbers-Conference

        MN has been an *assumption* on the part of natural philosophers, perhaps since the Babylonians and definitely since the Greeks. It is treated as an *assumption* limiting the scope of scientific inquiry for a very long time. Whatever else one might say about MN, I urge caution in drawing conclusions that are not consistent with what I just said.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

          As I noted on a comment below (that you have responded to), scientists hashed this out with thermodynamics, they had to understand what a closed system is then. Thereafter what philosophers call “methodological naturalism” and I call “the local absence of magic” was an observation, not an assumption.

          In that sense MN is in modern times based on a science template of a known result (conservation of energy, aka lawfulness, aka “permitting the science method”).

        • darrelle
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

          Unfortunately your link leads only to the conference schedule. I was hoping for some interesting reading.

          Based on many things I remain a bit skeptical. The assumption that “the universe is understandable by humans” is not the same as MN.

          • Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

            It would be great if there were papers to read online, but that isn’t the case. Drafts of the papers were circulated to participants, but as far as I know they won’t be made available online at any point. The conference is intended to produce a print book. In many humanities fields, the best stuff still comes out only in books–either print books or else very expensive electronic versions of print books. That might sound wrong, but it’s right.

            That is also true of other literature about the history of MN. I am aware of just three (historical) articles covering a wide chronological range, and none one of them is available for free on the internet, although one of them (by philosopher of science Robert Bishop, in the Dec 2012 issue of Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith), should be accessible in about 6 months.

        • darrelle
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

          I don’t know if it is coincidence or not, but trying to search for “science history MN assumption” returns lots of hits, including the first three, from religious organizations known to be anti science, like AIG and IRC.

      • Tulse
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        How can philosophy disprove theism, theistic claims or theistic beliefs?

        If your theistic beliefs involve a logical contradiction, then philosophy can disprove your beliefs. See the discussion about whether the god concept is even logically coherent — that’s a philosophical discussion.

        Or rather, how can philosophy prove or disprove anything?

        If you want formal proof, philosophy is the only thing that can “prove”. Science certainly doesn’t “prove” in the formal sense — rather, it tests hypotheses and determines which ones best fit the available evidence (or, even more accurately, which ones don’t fit the available evidence).

        • darrelle
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:48 am | Permalink

          Yes, the issue of proof is what I was aiming for. I wanted to see Aron’s responses and compare them to how they differed from what science gives us i.e., an accurate and useful picture of some aspects of reality.

          Methods of discovering how reality works is what the original discussion was about, so Aron bringing proofs into the discussion seemed like something worth commenting on because, as you point out, science is not in the business of proofs.

          A logical proof can demonstrate that your logic is wrong, but it does not necessarily demonstrate that the general phenomenon in question does not exist.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      Aron #11 wrote:

      Science cannot truly comprehend ‘non-natural’ phenomenon; science is limited to an empirical outlook on reality, everything must be from sensory experiences and be testable.

      You forget that human beings in general are limited to an empirical outlook on reality, and that everything we know (or think we know) must ultimately be derived from sensory experiences. This holds true for people who believe in the supernatural. If someone believes in angels they do not do so for no good reason: they have evidence, they have experience, they have some reason which makes sense to them and they’re using the same ordinary methods and physical senses they use all the time to conclude this.

      Theists will only want to test their belief if they are honest and concerned that they might be mistaken. Most believers I’ve run into say that they HAVE tested their belief. They’ve tested it very badly, however. They don’t know what they’re doing and they minimize how profoundly error-prone people are … especially when they’re highly motivated. They mix up a conclusion with a moral imperative.

      Sure we need to use both science and philosophy. If nothing else, science is a branch of philosophy. But I think you underestimate how critical occam’s razor and consistency are towards forming a working model of reality. Naturalism is a highly confirmed though tentative theory. It can be falsified. Assuming it as a scientific conclusion isn’t arrogant. It’s not scientism. The theory could be changed, revised, or discarded.

    • Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      Science alone can disprove theism. If there is no afterlife, no meeting with the Maker (or Lord), religion is superfluous, kind of like Astrology. We know Astrology has no scientific basis (since gravity and the effects of gravity over distance is well known, easily calculated) yet newspapers still publish horoscopes, books and charts are published, but there is no known “Church of Astrology” attacking atheists in a struggle for existence.

      Science alone disproves theism by the simple fact that the bio-mechanisms for memory have been fundamentally established, though not thoroughly explained. By analogy, imagine an automobile presented to a primitive tribe. At first the car seems to be “supernatural”. They might eventually understand that gasoline must be put in the car, that exhaust gases come out, and that the car will transport people from A to B, if fuel is provided, and all of that without ever opening the hood and understanding the engine. The tribe understands the real world conditions by which the vehicle works, and “prayer” won’t make it work. They don’t have to understand the engine and the science behind it to make the car function as transportation. Similarly, memory is a fantastically-complex biological process (previously, in the 19th century, relegated to a theistic process, a supernatural process off-limits to science) that is like the automobile amid a primitive tribe: its elements and function are known in a functional and large-scale manner. So much is known, that it is firmly established that when you die, your memory (like your nose, toes, large intestine, hair, fingernails, etc.) , your memory, dies with you as your neurons die, and they do NOT travel to a fifth dimension, a supernatural realm. The chemical compositions, the hundreds of enzymes of those neurons are never nohow no way, ever transported anywhere. If your memory goes nowhere, how is there afterlife? Nothing, nada, after you die. With no afterlife, religion becomes like astrology, or bowling, or trainspotting: perhaps very engaging or fulfilling to the participant, but without any supernatural aspects. No deity.

      • PascalsGhost
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

        Hi. Do you have a source for the claim that memory was considered supernatural in the 19th century? Many thanks

        • Kevin
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:56 am | Permalink

          Look up substance dualism…the philosophical position that there is something outside the brain that interacts with the brain in the thinking process. That “something” being “the soul”.

          The soul being supernatural.

          • PascalsGhost
            Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

            I’m familiar with substance dualism, but was hoping that o2generate was talking about something more specific.

            • Kevin
              Posted April 2, 2013 at 8:12 am | Permalink

              Yeah, I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.

  12. Tulse
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    science has nothing to say about religion. That’s the trope employed by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the National Academy of Science (NAS), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

    That’s what these organizations say their position is, but that’s actually not true — they are instead taking very clear theological positions about what religious beliefs are “acceptable” (namely, those that accord with, or at least do not conflict with, science), and those beliefs that are not (e.g., Young Earth Creationism). They may try to frame it as “science and religion are separate”, but the actual argument, especially from the NCSE, is that only the religions that make no scientific claims (at least none contrary to reality) are acceptable. That’s a theological claim, and clearly one that it driven by the way they think science should inform religion.

    So don’t let these organizations get away with appearing to be namby-pamby accommodationists. They should be forced to acknowledge that their positions are not so kumbaya fuzzily accepting of whatever one happens to believe, but are instead theological statements about what limited forms of religious belief are acceptable. In other words, their position really is very close to the New Atheist position, just dressed up in more acceptable clothes.

  13. Posted April 1, 2013 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    “ON is thus a coherent worldview that can be justified from experience, not from philosophical premises.”

    Right, naturalism is entailed *if* one makes the (rational) choice of empiricism as one’s epistemology. That choice is rational since the way things are is independent of “our subjective beliefs, thoughts, biases, or desires” so we need intersubjective, public evidence to validate factual claims. Should evidence for the supernatural accumulate (and there’s no suggestion it will), then empiricists would cease being naturalists. This is why naturalists tend to be (or should be) non-dogmatic about naturalism, while at the same time insisting on the virtues of empiricism unless and until a better way of knowing facts about the world is demonstrated.

  14. Kevin
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Contra to what Aron says above, it’s not JUST science that is fisking the claims of religion.

    Religious claim: The Jews were lead out of bondage in Egypt by Moses.
    Historical/archeological claim: Nope.

    Religious claim: There was a census during Augustine’s reign as emperor that required all persons to return to the town of their ancestors’ “house”.
    Historical/archeological claim: What nonsense! Utter rubbish!!! It runs completely counter to any reason to hold a census (which would be to count not only the people, but their taxable items).

    And on and on. There are extremely few historical claims made in the bible that stand up to scrutiny — not from “science”, but from historians.

    History/classics also provides us with rich veins of ore with which to compare the development and spread of individual religions and religious belief in general. For example, we know from history/classics that Yahweh was once one of several deities, had a “consort” (female deity), and all the rest. The notion of an all-powerful, all-anything deity is a fairly recent development. In short, the god of Jews, Christians, and Muslims is nothing special from a historical/classics perspective.

    Unless you start lumping all of the academic disciplines (less theology) under the “science” umbrella, I think it’s clear that “science” alone isn’t the only discipline that finds religious claims false.

    And then there’s philosophy:

    Religion: One can prove the existence of a non-existent being by the use of “arguments”.

    Philosophy (including the philosophy of religion): With polite respect, one cannot definitively establish a truth claim for that which there is not evidence and is based only on argumentation for the quite simple reason that arguments can be “argued” and therefore can never be truly proven.

    You can “argue” all you want about the existence of angels, demons, gods, demi-gods, heaven, hell, souls, conscious after-death experiences and the like. Philosophy definitively states you cannot prove them. At best, you can use Bayesian techniques to establish the likely probability of their existence. Which, when you get down to it, is pretty darned unlikely.

    By the way, it’s not just me who says that. No less a religious authority than the good Catholics who run aquinas.org agree. Arguments cannot prove anything because they can be argued.

    Which directly leads to:
    Religious claim: “Well, you just gotta have faith.”
    Me: Um…no.

    • Posted April 1, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      “Unless you start lumping all of the academic disciplines (less theology) under the ‘science’ umbrella, I think it’s clear that ‘science’ alone isn’t the only discipline that finds religious claims false.”

      In several previous posts, Jerry has talked about “science ‘broadly defined’” which encompasses all “ways of knowing” that are based on empiricism and rationality. History falls into this category.

      /@

  15. Ray
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    “Now some of you will argue, perhaps, that once a phenomenon is studied and confirmed by the methods of science, it must be natural rather than supernatural. But, as I noted, that’s tautological, and untrue if one defines the ‘supernatural’ as do F&B.”

    It seems that whether this is true under F&B’s definition depends what they mean by “current” in: “1) They operate in ways that fundamentally violate our current understanding of how the world works”

    If current means, “at the time of the writing of F&B’s paper” I’ll agree with you, but current could also mean “at the time of the hypothetical we’re considering” Supposing a phenomenon which would be considered supernatural today was confirmed by the methods of science, F&B’s definition, freed of the context of a specific paper published on a specific date, would no longer apply to the phenomenon.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      Rainbows were once considered supernatural (sign of god’s promise not to kill all the bunnies and kitties and children in their mothers’ wombs).

      Thunderstorms were considered supernatural.

      Earthquakes.

      Sunrise.

      Sunset.

      The seasons.

      The problem is that science keeps moving things from the “unknown, therefore supernatural” bucket to the “known, very natural” bucket. So much so that science has shrunk religious claims so far down that they can be drowned in a bathtub.

      • Sastra
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

        Rainbows, thunderstorms, earthquakes, etc. were not considered supernatural because they were unknown. They were considered supernatural because they were thought to be connected to invisible intentional agency (or agencies.)

        People who today think a particular rainbow in the sky was created as a special sign to them that God/Spirit approves of their actions are adding a supernatural component to a natural phenomenon. They think they can have science …. plus.

        The real danger to religion is coming from what we’re discovering about the brain. Most people think their own minds are magic and they analogize this into a cosmic mind. Neurology will strangle what doesn’t drown.

  16. Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Re: “Granted, testing things like the Resurrection is difficult since they’re one-off claims (indeed, that’s why Christianity ultimately rests on that claim rather than other scriptural claims that can be easily refuted), …”

    Christianity does indeed rest on the truth of the Resurrection, Jerry, but you have the logical order reversed. It’s the truth of that event that led to the existence of the church in the first place, not any subsequent desire to make some claim that would be difficult to refute. Indeed, the available evidence (the biblical stories) indicate that those who made this claim knew that it was an empirically-testable claim. They knew it would be contested—and had already been contested. They also knew that it had been publicly attested, or they wouldn’t be making that claim–which had implications (as they realized) that took them far outside of their own prior expectations about who Jesus was, and is.

    You seem to imply here, Jerry, that Christians deliberately claim that Christianity rests on the Resurrection, precisely b/c we (apparently) know that such claims are difficult to refute, in order to make their faith immune from refutation. You are *partly* right, Jerry: it’s very hard to show that Christianity is false or stupidly held, if in fact Christians base their faith on the Resurrection. In fact we do base our faith in that, and we always have.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      If you’re wrong and the Resurrection didn’t happen — what would it take change your mind?

      • Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:42 am | Permalink

        Convincing evidence that Jesus’ bones have been found would do it for me, Sastra. (I’m not one of those “spiritual resurrection” believers; that simply wasn’t what second Temple Jews understood “resurrection” to mean.

        Just to be clear, let’s turn the question around: If you’re wrong, Sastra, and the Resurrection *did* happen — what would it take to change your mind?

        • Kevin
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:58 am | Permalink

          So, you’re saying that because we have no bones of a mythical creature, that means they must have existed?

          Um…Hercules?

          Gad, theists are dumb.

          • Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

            I would never draw the conclusion from one conversation with you, Kevin, that atheists are dumb.

            But, if a very large number of atheists were to believe that Jesus was not an actual historical person, some might be tempted to draw such a conclusion.

            • Kevin
              Posted April 1, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

              The evidence for Jesus’ existence is not forthcoming from you, apparently.

              So, I’ll just have to be comforted by the fact that I can still place him in the bucket with Hercules, Osiris, Krishna, Quetzalcoatl, and thousands of other gods and half-gods.

              You’re a failure; you realize this, right?

              I opened the door. Save my soul, I said. Bring me to Jesus, I said. All you have to do is prove to me that Jesus existed without using your book of magic juju.

              You can’t do it.

              • Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

                Kevin,

                Your tone is that of an attack dog, not that of an open-minded inquirer. I will say only this, not so much for your benefit but for those who are actually interested in the truth rather than winning some silly challenge.

                Half an hour ago I ran into a biblical scholar in the grocery store. I will call him “Smith,” and he is an active scholar with a doctorate from here: http://huc.edu/.

                This is how it sent down:

                DAVIS: Are there any biblical scholars who argue that Jesus never existed? I sometimes get questions about this from students. (This is actually how I put it, Kevin, b/c I did get just such a question last week.)

                SMITH: No. At least none I can think of.

                DAVIS: I do sometimes hear claims that there is no evidence that Jesus actually existed.

                SMITH: There is actually more evidence for the existence of Jesus than for a few Roman emperors.

                DAVIS: Thank you.

                End of conversation. If you can give me any names, Kevin, I’ll pass them on to “Smith.”

                If you are a biblical scholar yourself, Kevin, please take off your mask (i.e., state your full name and qualifications) and give us a few sources we can check. Otherwise, I think we should pay attention to what “Smith” told me. At least he has a basis for his answer.

                If you doubt the story I just told you, Kevin, contact me privately (tdavisATmessiahDOTedu) and I’ll give you the real name of “Smith,” so you can ask him yourself.

              • Posted April 1, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

                I’m afraid SMITH is mistaken. Just because he can’t think of any, doesn’t mean there are none.

                Nor is there any reason to limit the discussion to biblical scholars; we should consider the views of all historians covering that period and that geography.

                The historicity of Jesus is by no means certain.

                /@

              • Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

                I can’t find a Reply button under the post below by “Ant,” so I’ll put a short reply here.

                Ant may be right, that there may be at least one (or two?) biblical scholars who claim that Jesus never existed. I stand corrected. I’ll be sure to give their names to “Smith.”

                The wiki http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus-Myth gives a bunch of names, many of them dead (I wasnt’ counting them), and several of the modern ones aren’t biblical scholars–e.g., I know Ellegard’s work on the reception of Darwinism, and he absolutely was no biblical scholar. Price counts. Doherty doesn’t count, even though his work is mentioned somewhat favorably by a very good historian of science, here: http://www.bede.org.uk/jesusmyth.htm

                Incidentally, some here will know that James Hannam’s book is criticized on some humanist web sites, but it was a finalist for a prize from the Royal Society for good reasons. I differ somewhat from Hannam’s view of the “scientific revolution” (he doesn’t like that term and concept where I mainly do), but for the most part this is an excellent book. Edward Grant (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Grant), one of the greatest living scholars of medieval natural philosophy, wrote a very positive review in “Metascience” (Sept 2010). Grant has no ideological axe to grind here; he’s Jewish, and to the best of my knowledge not very religious (perhaps an agnostic). Hannam’s reply to the claim that Jesus never existed, including the claim that Josephus said nothing about him, is relevant to this conversation.

              • Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

                I think the existence of Jesus is a reasonable assumption, based mostly on Paul’s epistles. Paul supposedly talks with some of the apostles who were eyewitnesses to his life. Now this isn’t proof, and Paul could be lying, or his letters could be forged (if I recall correctly it is widely accepted that some of them actually were forged). But the letters are there, and they would be accepted as evidence (though not proof) of this person’s existence if they were about anyone else but Jesus. Furthermore, something really did impel a bunch of people to risk their lives to talk about Jesus.

                The important point is not whether Jesus existed but whether he was someone connected to (or coincident with) a god. That claim requires a higher standard of evidence, since it contradicts everything we know. And this is the point where the evidence fails us.

        • Sastra
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

          You mean your entire case for the supernatural rests only on a single story? This is an entire category of existence — and its implications are monumental. There’s a problem.

          As you know, it’s very unlikely that any particular set of bones from a 1st century Mideast corpse could or would be discovered. And yet you’re drawing extremely sweeping cosmic conclusions from an ancient anecdote regarding one incident. Do you think this is reasonable? Doesn’t it place your own conclusions on too firm a basis?

          As for what would change my mind on the Resurrection, I think it would need to involve a cumulative case built on a series of scientific discoveries which succeeded not just in changing my mind on this matter, but the minds of scientists as well. After all, anything less would be unethical. I don’t hold my personal judgment in such high regard. Just to be clear.

          • Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

            Just to be clear–my “entire case for the supernatural” does not rest on this. Given all month with nothing else to do, I could elaborate on that. Just to be clear.

            • Sastra
              Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

              Yes, I assumed your entire case for the supernatural didn’t really rest on just one case — and that one inside self-admitted religious propaganda. Absent a prior belief in supernaturalism there would be no reason to pick out any of the thousands of paranormal claims and anecdotes and say “this one is true.” And the others, not.

              So, if there is no such thing as ‘the supernatural’ and you have been mistaken — what would it take to change your mind?

              • Kevin
                Posted April 2, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

                You probably don’t care — but Ted spectacularly flamed out on my challenge. See below.

                As I knew he would.

                I dangle the carrot because I know it’s out of reach. There is no evidence of the existence of a single-corporeal Jesus tried and executed in Jerusalem.

                The best argument I’ve ever heard for the existence of a single-human source of the mythologies comes from Christopher Hitchens.

                He argues that there’s no prophetic reason for the “savior” to be a Nazarene. So, the whole birth story invented to get Jesus of Nazareth to Bethlehem for his birth speaks to the need to create a prophetic “back story” for a real person.

                But, of course, that’s an argument. Darn good one — but an argument nonetheless.

              • Posted April 15, 2013 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

                Kevin,

                Ted didn’t flame out at all. He posted the URL for a solid reply below, and he’ll post it again here: “Refuting the myth that Jesus never existed,” (http://www.bede.org.uk/jesusmyth.htm)

                As he says below, the author of this reply (James Hannam) is an expert on medieval natural philosophy and author of a book that was a finalist for a book prize awarded by the Royal Society.

              • Posted April 16, 2013 at 3:26 am | Permalink

                “(James Hannam) is an expert on medieval natural philosophy and author of a book that was a finalist for a book prize awarded by the Royal Society.”

                But it shouldn’t have been.

                Hannam is an unreliable witness.

                /@

              • Posted April 16, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

                Hannam is hardly an unreliable witness, Ant. One can always disagree with some aspects of any given interpretation of an historical episode; I disagree myself with Hannam’s view of the Scientific Revolution, which downplays discontinuities with the medieval period (IMO). Freeman’s critique of Hannam, however, is simply off base, for it fails entirely to come to terms with the fact that the Middle Ages was not the “Dark Ages,” as Freeman believes it was. Medieval historians of all stripes gave that up many years ago, for good reasons.

                I don’t expect you to accept my observations, Ant. I don’t expect you ever to agree that Hannam’s book actually merited consideration for that award. It would be too challenging to your world view to grant that Christianity has actually contributed anything positive to modernity. It would be too challenging to accept the insights of many leading historians of science–it’s always the historians, so it seems, who put too many barriers in the path of the classic “warfare” view of the history of science and religion, isn’t it?

                Let’s get my views out of this, then, and yours, too. Instead, let me quote from Edward Edward Grant (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Grant), one of the greatest living scholars of medieval natural philosophy. Freeman juxtaposes selected quotations from Grant’s work in the review you linked, using them against Hannam–as if Grant would have much disagreement with Hannam. That would be an erroneous conclusion, the result of Freeman putting his views into Grant’s words. Instead, let’s see what Grant himself said in his very positive review of Hannam’s book in “Metascience” (Sept 2010). Grant’s review is not accessible for free on the internet, but I’ll quote the final paragraph in full, from p. 190:

                “Despite my few disagreements, Hannam has written a splendid book and fully supported his claim that the Middle Ages laid the foundations of modern science. He has admirably met another of his goals, namely that of acquainting a large non-academic audience about the way science and various aspects of natural philosophy functioned in medieval society and laid the foundations for modern science. Readers will also learn much about medicine, magic, alchemy, astrology, and especially technology. And they will learn about these important matters in the history of science against the broad background of the life and times of medieval and early modern societies. Although it was intended for a non-academic audience, this book would prove quite useful as a text for a university course in the history of science.”

              • gbjames
                Posted April 16, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

                Statements like:

                “It would be too challenging to your world view to grant that Christianity has actually contributed anything positive to modernity. It would be too challenging to accept the insights…”

                are just about as pompous and arrogant as they come. When I encounter things like this I know that what follows isn’t likely to be worth the effort to read.

              • Posted April 16, 2013 at 11:19 am | Permalink

                @ Ted

                Jerry’s roolz forbid me from committing to this website my initial response to the remark in your second para. that G.B. highlights. In fact, I would never deny that Christianity has actually contributed anything positive to modernity.

                I don’t see anything in Freeman’s piece that supports you assertion that he believes that the Middle Ages was the “Dark Ages”. On the contrary, the only time he uses the phrase, he puts it in scare quotes, showing, I think, his distain of the notion.

                Regarding your quote from Grant, I’m not sure that we’d have the same criteria for what qualifies as splendour, or that we’d agree on the suitability of texts for undergraduates, but I don’t otherwise see anything objectionable in that.

                However, saying, “[he has] fully supported his claim that the Middle Ages laid the foundations of modern science” is quite different from saying, “fully supported his claim that Christianity laid the foundations of modern science”.

                That people who were Christians contributed to this I do not dispute.

                /@

              • Posted April 17, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

                Thank you for the clarifications, Ant. My comments (with the quotation from Grant) were in reply to this of yours: “Hannam is an unreliable witness.”

                As I said, I have some disagreements with Hannam’s book myself (which I won’t detail here). I took you to be implying that Hannam doesn’t know what he’s talking about, in general, when in fact he does–as the paragraph from Grant indicates.

              • Posted April 17, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

                For GB:

                You’re right–those two sentences were pompous. I should have made my point more respectfully, and I apologize.

                In fairness, however, there are several other places on this thread where pomposity and arrogance are no less evident. I gathered that was the norm here, and I wasn’t sufficiently gracious in my reply. My bad.

                I’ve seen entrenched ideological responses to Hannam’s book in some places, a prominent example being this: http://blogs.nature.com/soapboxscience/2011/05/18/science-owes-much-to-both-christianity-and-the-middle-ages
                That sort of bias does exist; if it’s behind what was said about Hannam here, all well and good.

              • Posted April 17, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

                Correction: I meant to type, “if it’s NOT behind what was said about Hannam here, all well and good.”

              • Tulse
                Posted April 17, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

                there are several other places on this thread where pomposity and arrogance are no less evident. I gathered that was the norm here, and I wasn’t sufficiently gracious in my reply.

                You’re still not.

              • Posted April 17, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

                @ Ted

                Hannam does know what he’s talking about; that doesn’t make him reliable! ;-)

                /@

    • Kevin
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      Show me evidence that the Resurrection occurred.

      Show me the evidence that the crucifixion occurred.

      Show me the evidence that a man named “Jesus” really and truly lived in that time and place.

      If you need a definition of the word “evidence”, I’ll provide it — but it doesn’t include writings in a book of myths that is jarringly inconsistent, and never corroborated by contemporaneous eyewitness accounts.

      BTW: It’s like that with every miracle. The resurrection is the last in a long, long line of “the dog ate my homework” miracles. If my goal as a god is to demonstrate my existence to mankind in order to “save it from sin” or whatever else strikes your theological fancy, I could have come up with a thousand better demonstrations that those used by Jesus in the myths.

      * Where’s the wine?
      * Loaves and fishes?
      * The healed sick?
      * The risen Lazarus?
      * The resurrected Jesus?

      All of the answers are the same … not subject to empirical investigation. Why? Did god really intent to PROVE its existence by leaving behind precisely and exactly zero tangible evidence? Would you do that if you were a god and DEMANDED that we believe in you or else suffer eternal damnation?

      Peddle that fish somewhere else. It stinks.

      • Kevin
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

        BTW: To show you how easy it would be to leave permanent, tangible evidence…consider this as what a “real” god could have done:

        * Where’s the wine? Well, if you go to this place and pray this prayer, then you’ll get a glass of wine from the jug. If you don’t pray the prayer, or if you pray and don’t believe, then what will come out is water. The jug continuously replenishes itself, but what comes out is based on your prayer and belief in that prayer.

        Simple, right? So simple a non-god could think of it. Why didn’t god?

        • Kevin
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

          …and if you hand it to someone else, it’s water. It’s only wine if you drink it. And only 1 cup per person per lifetime.

      • Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

        I can understand skepticism about the Resurrection, Kevin, but skepticism about the actual existence of Jesus is simply ridiculous. That dog won’t hunt.

        • Tulse
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

          Really? What independent evidence is there of Jesus’ existence?

          • Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

            You seem to think, Kevin, that the requisite experts on the relevant literature (i.e., the Bible) tend to doubt that Jesus existed. (And keep in mind, please, that many of those experts are not Christians or even theists.) Please show me support for your position, among those who actually know what they are talking about.

            There must be thousands of individuals who are mentioned just once or twice–not the subjects of entire books, but simply mentioned once or twice–in many other writings from the Roman world. Should we conclude that they were all figments of someone’s creative imagination, given that the evidence for their existence is vanishingly small, compared with the evidence for the existence of Jesus?

            • Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

              I’m sorry, I meant this for Tulse as well as for Kevin.

            • Kevin
              Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

              Surely you’ve been keeping up with the modern classicists, haven’t you?

              The case for the historicity of Jesus was never more tenuous than it is today. 20 years ago, it was just a presupposition. Today, no longer.

              But I believe I stated that the null hypothesis is in play. It’s not up to me to disprove the existence of a fictional character. It’s up to you to meet the challenge and show that he DOES exist.

              Do that and I’ll convert. Simple as that. Prove it with evidence not taken from myth. There are tons and tons of writings of that time and place. Not Josephus, mind you. He wasn’t born until after the alleged events, and certainly wasn’t an eyewitness (besides which, those passages are most certainly late insertions).

              Where’s the contemporaneous eyewitness corroboration of his triumphant entry into Jerusalem? Or the multitudes who saw his Sermon on the Mount? Where’s the evidence of his trial? His execution?

              One single shred of non-religious-based evidence from eyewitnesses of the day is all that it would take. One scrap of something.

              You’re letting your argumentation get in the way of your evangelizing, I’m afraid.

              Next post, EVIDENCE, please.

              • Sastra
                Posted April 1, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

                Kevin wrote:

                It’s up to you to meet the challenge and show that he DOES exist.
                Do that and I’ll convert.

                Wait … what? Are you really saying that evidence for an historical Jesus would convince you that the resurrection happened and Christianity is true? How does that follow?

                Even if you grant an historical Jesus for the sake of argument — or because you think it’s a solid case — there is a HUGE gap between “he existed” and “He is God.” I think you’re letting your argumentation get in the way of your reasoning here.

              • Kevin
                Posted April 1, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

                Sastra: I’ve made that challenge to theists of all stripes, including learned professors like Ted. None has even come close to meeting the challenge.

                Why? It’s quite simple. No such evidence exists.

                If it did, I’d know about it. And so would the entire world. You don’t hide evidence of the existence of your savior, nor is is something that you hold behind your back until the appropriate “AHA!” moment.

                The entire “gospel” enterprise was designed to provide “evidence” of the existence of the half-god, son of a ghostly sexual predator (really, did Mary give consent? No. She was just told she was preggers.)

                If there were evidence, then “faith” would be a sin. The entire story of doubting Thomas, fondling intestines and all, would not be in the canon.

                If there were evidence, there would be no need for faith.

                Now, I do admit that I’m torn between the idea that Jesus is an entirely mythical creature, or that he’s a concatenation of the various Messiahs floating around Jerusalem at the time. I think the story of turning over the money changing tables sounds very human, frankly. As do the stories of him running away and hiding from the mobs trying to stone him to death.

                It’s just that there’s no reliable historical records of those events (which would be akin to someone spray painting the Sistine Chapel today — BIG NEWS that certainly would not have gone unnoticed by the many chroniclers of the time.

                And as for the rest of it…no historical accounts anywhere.

                I think my risk of being converted by the likes of Ted is completely safe.

              • Sastra
                Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

                Kevin wrote:

                I think my risk of being converted by the likes of Ted is completely safe.

                I’m not worried about the “risk” you’re running. Nor am I really concerned with whether or not there really was an historical Jesus.

                If you’re agreeing to slide from “Jesus really existed” –> “Jesus was God” then you’re promising to agree to a BAD argument. It doesn’t follow even if you’re right. You should know that.

            • Tulse
              Posted April 1, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

              There must be thousands of individuals who are mentioned just once or twice–not the subjects of entire books, but simply mentioned once or twice–in many other writings from the Roman world. Should we conclude that they were all figments of someone’s creative imagination

              That claim merely says that a lack of evidence doesn’t prevent Jesus’ existence, and is not a claim that actual evidence exists. In other words, all it does is establish the logical possibility of his existence, which is profoundly weak tea indeed.

              I’ll remind you that this is an individual who allegedly produced food de novo for “multitudes”, who allegedly appeared after death to large numbers of his supporters, and whose death was accompanied by earthquakes and the rising of a zombie horde who invaded Jerusalem. Surely these events are rather notable, and surely it would be hugely odd if no one contemporaneously reported them.

              • Kevin
                Posted April 1, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

                Weak tea, indeed.

                It’s the illogic of it that offends me.

                Here’s the alleged son of god. Sent to Earth expressly to prove once and for all that god exists and loves us and wants us to live with him in heaven.

                And what do we get as proof? Contradictory mythologies, all of which speak only of a primitive knowledge of the world.

                In Mark, he’s be worthy of a Joss Whedon series. “Jesus the Demon Hunter”. Casting out demons to cure the sick everywhere he went…

                Except we know that’s not how it works. In First Century Jerusalem, sure, disease was evidence of demons. They didn’t know what caused disease.

                There’s nothing in any of the gospel writings of Jesus that says that anyone involved had more than a primitive understanding of biology, cosmology, physics, medicine, chemistry — you name it.

                Sorry, I’m ranting. Guys like Ted frost my chaps.

        • Kevin
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

          Seriously?

          Then perhaps you can prove it by showing me the contemporaneous eyewitness corroboration?

          Prove it or STFU.

        • Kevin
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

          You don’t even have to start with the resurrection.

          Start by proving this person was executed…you know, there are a lot of documents from that era by authors living there. Some of them took great pains to list all of the doings of all the messiahs. Not one single word of Jesus.

          Prove this person actually existed. Go on. I DARE you.

          In fact, I’ll offer this challenge. You prove to me with evidence that Jesus of Nazareth actually existed as a real person — never mind the miracle claims — and I’ll convert to your brand of Christianity.

          Go ahead. Make my day.

          Again, we can discuss what “evidence” means. But it’s not stories in books of myths.

          The null hypothesis is now in play. No such person as Jesus of Nazareth existed.

          I invite you to disprove the hypothesis.

    • H.H.
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      …it’s very hard to show that Christianity is false or stupidly held, if in fact Christians base their faith on the Resurrection.

      Well, it is impossible to show that the resurrection didn’t happen. However, we have good reasons to assume it did not occur and only bad reasons assume it did. So even if it did happen, it would still be illogical (your term: “stupid”) to believe so on the current evidence. A thing doesn’t need to be shown absolutely false before believing in it becomes a bad idea. That’s a ridiculous standard and one which I doubt you apply to any other area of your life other than your religion.

      • Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

        To the contrary, H. H., there are very strong reasons to believe that the Resurrection occurred. If this interests you (from the a priori nature of your claim, I doubt that it does, but perhaps I am mistaken), I recommend skimming chapter 18 (“Easter and History”) in http://www.amazon.com/Resurrection-Christian-Origins-Question-Vol/dp/0800626796

        • Kevin
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

          Oh good grief…NT Wright? That old fraud?

          That doesn’t even qualify as a “sophisticated” theologian.

          • Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

            This is what is called an ad hominem argument, Kevin. You should know better.

            • Kevin
              Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

              You should know that it’s NOT an ad hominem to claim someone’s a fraud if the ARE a fraud.

              Seriously, this is how you earn your living?

              Wow. Just. Wow.

            • Kevin
              Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

              Don’t think I didn’t noticed that you dodged the challenge to complain about my treatment of NT Wright.

              You should have the evidence at your right hand. Cut and paste. Copy/pasta as they say in the internets.

              EVIDENCE next, please.

              • Posted April 1, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

                I provided an excellent source you can consult, if you wish, Kevin. So can anyone else. Something called copyright prevents me, you, or anyone else from putting an entire chapter of his book here. Perhaps you can find isolated pages on google.books or somewhere similar. The chapter I cited is on pp. 685-718.

                As I say, follow up if you wish; everyone makes their own decisions about what to do with their time.

              • Kevin
                Posted April 1, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

                Ted: You don’t have to copy his works to summarize his EVIDENCE.

                You have the book in front of you, I presume? Excerpt away.

                What pieces of EVIDENCE can I study?

                Here’s a quick working definition of evidence: That which disproves the null hypothesis without supporting an alternative conclusion(s). It’s not the greatest, but it’ll do for now.

        • H.H.
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

          It’s not an a priory claim, it’s the studied conclusion. Why do Christians always assume people who reject the authenticity of their miracles just haven’t read enough feeble apologetics?

          Christians are incapable of being objective about their faith, and you are no exception. Otherwise, you’d realize that Christianity is no more credible than any other revealed religion which rests upon dubious claims from unenlightened eras. Of course you can find authors willing to reassure you that your belief in magic is reasonable, because that’s what you pay to hear! Their arguments aren’t convincing unless you are desperate to believe them, however. In reality, Jesus rising from the dead is just as silly as Mohammed rising into the sky on horseback, but you’ll accept one as absolutely true and reject the other as preposterously false on nothing more than your own biases. That’s not being reasonable, Ted, that’s delusional thinking.

        • Posted April 2, 2013 at 1:54 am | Permalink

          Historians consider sources unreliable to the extent that they contain implausible reports of events. That’s why we don’t now think that the events in the Odyssey are likely to be literally true. How kind of evidence would you need to believe that Odysseus escaped from a one eyed giant whilst dressed as a sheep?

          In reality there’s always going to be some explanation for miraculous events in the distant past that involves collaboration, exageration, fraud etc. And that kind of explanation is far more probable than that a miracle occurred. This is, of course, Hume’s point in his critique “of miracles” and it’s a very powerful one.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

      It’s the truth of that event that led to the existence of the church

      It’s the myth of that event that lead to, or came out of, the sect in question. Or do you think that sect is privileged compared to other similar?

      Then you need to find a test for that fact, and also establish causality. Are you sure there where no christian sects before the mythical event in question? They wouldn’t be the first to make up their myths as they go, compare with Smith (Mormons) say.

      • Kevin
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

        Or $cientology.

      • Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:37 am | Permalink

        Lots of groups make up myths as they go, Torbjörn. We agree at least on that. For a pertinent recent example, see the “historical” portions of this: http://www.amazon.com/Atheist-Universe-Thinking-Christian-Fundamentalism/dp/1569755671

        Or, for that matter, this superb example of historical fiction: http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/andrew_white/Andrew_White.html

        • Kevin
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

          Oooo. A tu quoque logical fallacy. Been a long time since I heard that one…

          Or at least a claim of a tu quoque.

          You’ll have to do better than that “professor”. Specifically, what parts are errant and why?

          Citations, please. You wouldn’t accept such sloppy writing and careless thinking from your own students, would you?

          D-

          • Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

            Try this, for starters, Kevin:

            http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1987/PSCF9-87Lindberg.html

            (And please don’t dismiss the article by dissing the journal in which it’s published. It’s simply an expanded version of the introduction to a book they edited for the U of California Press.)

            Or try the opening chapters in this: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/science-and-religion-gary-b-ferngren/1110858121?ean=9780801870385&itm=1&usri=9780801870385

            • Kevin
              Posted April 2, 2013 at 8:22 am | Permalink

              I read the Lindberg article. Actually re-read it, since I had come across it many years ago.

              I think you need to look up the definition of “category error”.

              The argument that science is incompatible with religion is not reconciled by the fact that some scientists were (are) religious.

              The facts also are wrong. Plenty of people after Galileo were burned at the stake (more blood sacrifice to appease an angry god, I’m afraid) for expressing scientific truths that ran counter to church dogma. So the claim that the church basically ignored the controversy is laughably wrong.

              • Posted April 15, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

                EVIDENCE, please Kevin? Who are some of those people you are thinking of here?

    • Tulse
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      They knew it would be contested—and had already been contested. They also knew that it had been publicly attested, or they wouldn’t be making that claim

      What exactly had been publicly attested to? The accounts of just the visit to the tomb are radically different in major point. For example, only one involves a “great earthquake”, and only one claims that the graves of various other holy people opened, and that they too were resurrected and went forth into the city.

      Given these discrepancies regarding accounts that were written decades after the event, how are these supposed to count as evidence?

      • Kevin
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        And written down by people who not only weren’t there and don’t claim to have been there, but in one instance acknowledged openly to be a “historian”.

        Gad.

    • Vaal
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      Ted,

      I think the point is that in terms of Christianity today the Resurrection functions not only as an inspirational narrative, but as the “go-to” miracle that unites even “sophisticated” and “liberal” Christians with the rest of Christianity.

      The reason being that it became increasingly untenable to hold to many of the bible miracles that Jerry mentioned because science can show evidence they are false. But when it comes to the Resurrection Christians will say “Well…for this miracle you can’t shoe me scientific evidence it didn’t happen! It’s a one-off that wouldn’t necessarily have left the necessary empirical evidence. And since you can’t marshal a scientific case against it, I get to still believe it!”

      Even otherwise sophisticated believers allow themselves such a position, which I believe is what Jerry means when he appeals to the unfalsifiable nature of the Resurrection claim.

      Vaal

      (BTW, I think there are good scientific reasons to dismiss the Resurrection claim.
      It’s not that science can in that instance prove no God resurrected via a human being.
      But, rather, there are good science-based reasons to reject the type of “evidence” used to support that it happened).

      • Posted April 1, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

        Thank you for the reply to my point, Vaal. One reason (I think) the Resurrection is the focus of so much of the controversy is that it’s not only the centerpiece of Christian belief (IMO and that of many others), but also b/c there’s quite a bit more said about it in the Bible than for most other “miracle” stories (perhaps all of them, but I haven’t tried to do the calculation). Now, of course, if one simply dismisses all of those stories, even all of the Bible, as non-historical “myth” (I gather this is Kevin’s position), then it doesn’t matter which “miracle” story we pick for consideration–they are all presumably false. That is not the position you have stated, of course.

        Many would no doubt agree with you, Vaal, that there are good scientific arguments against the truth of the Resurrection. I am guessing that a majority of scientists would say that, though a substantial minority (at least in the USA) would disagree. The question does indeed come down to evaluating the plausibility of a “one-off” event, and that’s really more of an historical matter than a scientific matter, IMO. It may well be that a majority of historians would agree with you as well, but I don’t. IMO, several features of the Resurrection narratives strongly suggest an historical kernal rather than simply accumulated “myth.”

        I lack time to develop this here, but we will be talking about this in coming months (probably late this month and in May), as part of a series on “motivated belief” that I’m doing for BioLogos: http://biologos.org/blog/series/searching-for-motivated-belief

        I invite participation from you and anyone else here.

        • Sastra
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

          I’m curious: what is the difference between “motivated belief” and “subjective validation?”

  17. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    “the view that science, by virtue of its methods, is limited to studying ‘natural’ phenomena and cannot consider or evaluate hypotheses that refer to supernatural entities.”

    A) “I claim that astrology works.”

    B) “Cool. I’d like to investigate that. Let’s et up an experiment.”

    A) “Sorry, I am claiming that the mechanism is supernatural, so you are forbidden by the rules of Teh Science to investigate. Sucker.”

  18. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    This is why I detest philosophers trying to comprehend science. Despite good intentions and a good societal program, they make an easily seen stew of the science.

    Their claims are both too constrictive and too open. Taking the constrictive part first, they make unnecessary claims on the ‘supernatural’ in order to frame it under an ‘umbrella’.

    This was hashed out in the 19th century, with the understanding that necessitated and came from thermodynamics. A system that is closed from outside action is also closed against magical action. Hence all we need to observe magic by (its breaking) energy conservation is causality and the energy principle.

    That their umbrella has a problem can be seen in that if it were true science couldn’t study inconsistent notions of, say, “outside the spatiotemporal realm of our universe” which still are claimed to causally interact. Yet science can exclude those too as seen from the above.

    The too open part is when they get to philosophical notions of realism. This was by necessity hashed out early too, in the 17th century, with the understanding that came from mechanics. An existing system will interact and can thus be observed.

    So instead of a mere existing and anything-goes pattern match, to observe reality we need again causality and observational constraints. The latter means specifiable constraints on the action and reaction that constitute the observation, i.e. robustness (specifiable repetitiveness) and uncertainty (specifiable uncertainty).

    More precisely, this means that there is a scientific, testable definition of realism. They should use that one when they discuss what reality implies vs magic.

    • Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      In short (I gather), “reality” cannot ever surprise us, by going against what we already know is “real”?

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

        Energy conservation of local, closed systems in the vacuum could easily break down. I don’t know the physics for that, but I imagine the universe would “heal”. Thermodynamically it is a connection with a third heat bath, which shouldn’t be a problem in principle.

        As for causality, that is an iffier proposal. AFAIK the universe would unravel wholesale, akin to what has been claimed will happen if wormholes could be used to make closed timelike curves.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

          I meant “another” heat bath here.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

        See, here is the problem, now accentuated by the test of standard cosmology that WMAP 9 year and Planck 4 year managed to do:

        We don’t know how to make universes without spacetime. And we don’t know how to do those without them being zero energy so spontaneously formed according to thermodynamics, and homogeneous and isotropic so naturally becoming lawful and large enough to last for at least seconds).

        And WMAP and Planck showed us that such a spontaneously formed Friedmann universes is what we live in. (Cf Krauss’s book on the spontaneous universe.)

        But it seems to me energy (as in the integral of action, the amount of heat, the volume of state space a system lives in) in and of itself is not as vital for a universe as spacetime (causality). But I’m no theorist, maybe you can’t touch energy anymore than you can touch causality.

        On the other hand, it was religion that claimed “fundamental” surprises. And as the house physicist Sean Carroll notes, we are no longer surprised by everyday physics on that level. The laws underlying it are now completely understood (standard particle theory living in a standard cosmology universe, and what that implies for chemistry et cetera).

        And if energy can’t be touched, well then – the case for physicalism becomes well tested with WMAP and Planck. Then we know there is no magic simply because the universe exists. It didn’t start out that way, ask Newton, but here we are.

        • Sastra
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:19 am | Permalink

          People who believe in the supernatural are not going to care about your line of argument because they divide reality into the physical and the mental. They think the Mind doesn’t follow the laws of physics.

          Evidence? Imagine a unicorn violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Ta da! See? It’s a different realm. A higher one.

          Yes. I’m sorry. It really is that stupid. I’ve been much clearer than they usually are and therefore the problem shows up better. All the science in the world will not be enough to refute a really, really bad intuition which flies around on the wings of unicorns, spitting on the Higgs. Painfully bad.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

            No one have high hopes to convince fundamentalists.

            What my analysis turns up is that the religious cause is educationally doomed, ref my next comment:

            “Also, religion have better start digging graves for their magical claims. If physics can reject magical actions wholesale, and the reality of magic with it, who is going to take them intellectually seriously?

            I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, they can retreat to deism and claim “somebody had to make laws”. But they will likely get just 1-2 decades of mileage out of that non-potent claim. (From “omnipotence” to deism – not much of mileage with the devout.) We have started to confine the conditions under which laws were originating. (Such as inflation et cetera.)”

            With more functional societies today, education makes these results affect the next generations more than the current. So it is about the theist agenda, not about them as such.

            If we are going to discuss styles of argumentation: unicorns – been there, done that. But I don’t see many that embraces the revolutionary physics results that have come in recently. The experts like Carroll and Krauss, to some degree, certainly.

            Something similar is happening with respect to astrobiology, both from the perspective of exoplanets and from successful digging into the roots of cellular life forms. (Seems all evidence converges on that alkaline hydrothermal vents is where life started.) That is eventually bound to hit the creationists agenda with their “explain the first cell” tedium.

            So I prefer to root about where my current interests are, until I find that tedious. And hey, at least someone read and responded. :-)

  19. Myron
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    I fully agree with Coyne that, basically, science should be conceived of as Realwissenschaft, real science rather than only as Naturwissenschaft, natural science, i.e. the science of the natural (and nothing but the natural).
    Anything for which there is or could be direct or indirect empirical evidence is in principle accessible to scientific investigation.

  20. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    I decided to make this separate, but it is still a criticism on F&B’s erroneous description of science:

    As a side note, their idea that science makes a conclusion of an inference to the best explanation on the basis of the available evidence doesn’t work. That is tantamount to using Hidden Markov Models on exactly the evidence.

    But statisticians can patch model observations into insufficient amounts of data to reconstruct uncertainties, i.e. go outside the available evidence. And if all we can do is bayesian inferences on reality, how come we now have three independent experiments that within a couple of weeks have tested whether the universe contains any traces of magic or not?

    First, WMAP 9 year and Planck 4 year data releases managed to test that the whole universe is a result of a spontaneous process. Observing inflation, which only can proceed if all volumes of the universe is zero energy, guarantees that from thermodynamics.

    Second, the completion of the standard particles with the Higgs field, whether or not it is a standard Higgs boson involved, means the electrochemical sector of a few eV is protected by many orders of magnitude up to 100’s of GeV interactions. The vacuum allows everything that isn’t expressly forbidden, and the 11 significant digit precision of QED guarantees there is nothing in between.

    Yes, we can be affected by high energy cosmic rays or slightly heated by dark matter colliding with nuclei or slightly warped by gravitational waves. But no magic actions reach down to the everyday world to make something noticeable, or we would have seen it in the vacuum.

    So again, F&B are easily seen to be wrong by demonstration.

    Also, religion have better start digging graves for their magical claims. If physics can reject magical actions wholesale, and the reality of magic with it, who is going to take them intellectually seriously?

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, they can retreat to deism and claim “somebody had to make laws”. But they will likely get just 1-2 decades of mileage out of that non-potent claim. (From “omnipotence” to deism – not much of mileage with the devout.) We have started to confine the conditions under which laws were originating. (Such as inflation et cetera.)

  21. Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Jerry wrote:

    Science could study other supernatural phenomena, like miracles, rain dances, witchcraft, and so on, so that religious claims are not off limits. According F&B, science studies not what is natural, but what is real…

    The second sentence glaringly contradicts the first, so perhaps we have to say that science studies things that could potentially be real. That leads to the question of whether studies of things like psi, even if done using randomized controlled trials by people with science degrees, is science. I don’t think it is; that is, I don’t think it is scientific to study hypotheses that have been ruled out by science (or, to be a stickler, whose prior probability science has reduced to practically zero).

    But that entails ontological materialism, which is a good thing, in my opinion, because all the evidence points to the non-existence (or non-detectability) of anything else. So, while it is possible to perform a well controlled experiment to test an immaterial hypothesis (eg, dogs are psychic, human intention can affect random number generators, etc.), I don’t think doing so is science.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      Were such studies once scientific — but no longer? I’m not sure the status changes.

      Though I agree with you that it’s rather pointless, like wasting money testing homeopathy when we should be moving on to something more practical and fruitful.

      • Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        “Were such studies once scientific — but no longer? I’m not sure the status changes.”

        I think they can and do. To cite a clear-cut example, science has definitively determined that it is the earth which revolves around the sun and not the other way around. Therefore, the hypothesis that the sun revolves around the earth is no longer a scientific hypothesis, and so conducting experiments to test the hypothesis is no longer doing science—although at one time in history it was. Any “scientist” today who seriously entertained the possibility that the sun might actually revolve around the earth would be immediately recognized to be a pseudo-scientist, no matter how rigorously designed his experiments were.

        What about parapsychology: is it fundamentally different from “geocentrology”? I don’t think so. The quality of experimental design and analysis is (as far as I can tell) similar in parapsychology and ordinary experimental psychology. But methodological rigor isn’t sufficient—I don’t think—to qualify a field as science. The existence of ghosts, ESP, telekinesis, etc., are not scientific hypotheses, because they have been ruled out (to an infinitesimal probability) by physics. The difference between geocentrology and parapsychology is that it is easy to comprehend the evidence that has disproved the geocentrist hypothesis, whereas it takes considerable effort to understand the evidence that has ruled out paranormal hypotheses.

        • Sastra
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

          We may have a semantic disagreement here, since I think that students who learn the scientific method by testing the hypothesis that the sun revolves around the earth are indeed “doing science.” It’s just not the sort of science which is relevant to today’s discoveries. I suppose that could change if either the earth stopped rotating around the sun — or we discovered that we are all in the Matrix. I’m not holding my breath.

          One of the problems with using physics to refute paranormal/supernatural claims is that by definition such phenomenon are not supposed to fit in with standard physics. To the woo-sters, it would be like using Newton to refute Einstein. But the claims clearly rest on empirical evidence and such evidence is either testable — or we have a moral obligation to assume personal error.

          That last part is what trips them up. Big time. They think it’s the other way around.

          • Posted April 1, 2013 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

            We may have a semantic disagreement here, since I think that students who learn the scientific method by testing the hypothesis that the sun revolves around the earth are indeed “doing science.”

            Yes, I agree. I was actually trying to exclude such didactic exercises when I wrote, “Any “scientist” today who seriously entertained the possibility that the sun might actually revolve around the earth would be immediately recognized to be a pseudo-scientist, no matter how rigorously designed his experiments were.”

            One of the problems with using physics to refute paranormal/supernatural claims is that by definition such phenomenon are not supposed to fit in with standard physics.

            It depends on what you mean by “refute.” If you mean “convince them they’re wrong,” then I agree. However, I would say that physics has already refuted the paranormal, regardless of the opinions of believers in the paranormal.

            To the woo-sters, it would be like using Newton to refute Einstein. But the claims clearly rest on empirical evidence and such evidence is either testable — or we have a moral obligation to assume personal error.

            That last part is what trips them up.

            Except that they (proponents of psi) have empirical evidence, which if taken at face value—that is, without due consideration of scientific plausibility—can lead to the conclusion that some psi phenomena are real. The canonical case is ESP tested under Ganzfeld conditions (partial sensory deprivation). Many Ganzfeld experiments have been conducted and published (primarily in parapsychology journals) which, on paper, appear to be rigorously designed, executed, and analyzed. Several meta-analyses have been conducted (some restricted to the highest-quality experiments) and have found highly significant effects of non-trivial magnitude (just Google “Ganzfeld meta-analysis”).

            Although skeptics have published criticisms of the research, the criticisms overall have not, in my opinion, been especially convincing. In fact, I would say that the experimental evidence for Ganzfeld ESP is greater than for many (probably most) findings from mainstream experimental psychology that we accept at face value. But mainstream experimental psychology findings don’t violate well-established conclusions from physics, whereas parapsychological findings do.

            So no one has really convincingly refuted this body of evidence on methodological grounds. What has refuted it is physics: if the Ganzfeld experiments are valid, then the best physics experiments in the world are not. But the wildly successful theories of physics are enormously more likely to be “true” than the Ganzfeld experiments. Therefore the Ganzfeld experiments must (up to a very small probability) be biased, even though critics have been unable to pinpoint the biases (though I have my own hypotheses, based on observations of mainstream experimental psychology.

            Of course, none of this will convince proponents. However, most scientists will reject the Ganzfeld evidence because they believe that the laws of physics must be obeyed; and why do they believe that? Because they are ontological materialists. We should stop paying lip service to this notion that we’re not.

        • Posted April 2, 2013 at 6:11 am | Permalink

          Good examples might come from the history of alchemy. Before it was understood how matter was composed and interacted, it might be plausible to think of matter getting “corrupted” and “degraded” by various non-material forces; no longer.

  22. Myron
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    If supernatural objects exist, they are either spiritual objects (souls) or abstract objects (e.g. numbers, sets). So if mathematics is a science, then, from the point of view of mathematical realism/platonism, it is a supernatural science. However, of course, if mathematics is a science, it is a nonempirical science, since mathematical abstracta, which are essentially inactive due to their lack of causal powers, are (both directly and indirectly) imperceptible/unobservable in principle.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      Are you implying that mathematics “suggests that reality is at bottom purposeful and mind-like, particularly in a sense that implies a central role for humanity and human affairs in the cosmic scheme?”

      If not, then it fails Fishman & Boudry’s definition of “supernatural.” Even if it is a science, it wouldn’t be a supernatural science.

      If so — then I’m curious as to how you got there.

      • Myron
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

        So much the worse for Fishman&Boudry’s definition. It is inadequate exactly because it doesn’t take into account that supernatural entities are either abstract or (irreducibly) mental.

    • H.H.
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think you are going to find many people who think that numbers are supernatural.

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted April 2, 2013 at 8:26 am | Permalink

        Only numbers greater than 3.

  23. Richard Wein
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Claims that science “assumes” or “presupposes” some proposition seem to be based on the misguided idea that there is some formula or algorithm for doing science, and this formula must include the alleged proposition. On a more realistic view, scientific inference necessarily requires judgements to be made, and good judgement cannot be reduced to a formula.

    Proponents of methodological naturalism tend to be demarcationists. They want to be able to draw a formulaic line between good science and bad science, or between science and non-science. This was the hope of Karl Popper. The idea of such a formula is very seductive, because we have a strong desire to support our beliefs with unimpeachable justifications. But this is a forlorn hope. We cannot escape the need for fallible judgements.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      From a hypothesis testing view, the constraints that are used to formulate the hypothesis (the experiment, say) is tested with. They are, as you say, “fallible” and that is how we eventually see that.

      So in the end we don’t use assumptions or judgments. They are scaffolding, working assumptions and working judgments.

      Science is a tool. Does it help if we assume in the store that the hammer head is well connected with the grip? No, we need to hammer to find out if the hammer works together with whatever house project we are working on.

      Inference is seductive for the theological hopes of agnostics and theists alike. It keeps the semblance of provisional insecurity. But that is a forlorn hope. We have known knowns, such as the universal speed limit.

  24. Vaal
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    To Prof. Coyne’s excellent post I say “Hear Hear!”

    Prof.

    • Vaal
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      ^^^ whoops, messy editing on my part

      Vaal

  25. Vaal
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Today’s post reminds me of the claim made by some of my fellow atheists: that the mere existence of a God would *in principle* undermine empirical science. The reasoning being that if there is a God who can alter the universe as he pleases, then we can never know that results obtained today will predict what will happen tomorrow (because God may miraculously change things tomorrow), and that we could never know if yesterday’s’ results were born of natural processes, whereas the previous days results were born of some sneaky miracle-wielding of God.

    I’m not convinced this is a strong argument. It seems to fall to some special pleading.

    Strictly speaking we can’t have Absolutely Certainty in our empirical inquiry to begin with. Previous experience with water suggests that it’s boiling point will be
    100 C at sea level, but we can’t “know” some absolute certainty we’ll find some water behaving differently tomorrow or in the future. Neither can we “prove” with absolute certainty that none of our lab results have been due to influence of Beings from another dimension, or the products of forces that we have yet to uncover.

    The reason we eschew such claims is that, while not strictly disprovable, there are also no reasons to think they are true, and
    principles like “parsimony” and “inference to the best explanation” and “things are as they seem to us unless we have other reasons to doubt” help guide the rationality of our explanations.

    And this logic doesn’t suddenly stop when it comes to our interactions with other personal agents (e.g. other people). My wife is a doctor. It’s *possible* she has been planning to secretly poison me. Hey…she has access to all sorts of ways of doing so. But does the fact this *possibility* can be raised therefore entail that I can no longer trust my wife, that it’s irrational to think she actually cares for my welfare?

    Of course not. This is because we apply the same reasoning to dealing with the existence of personal beings as with anything else: all evidence indicates my wife desires my well-being, none indicates she is of such a deceitful nature.

    Why would the logic change when introducing a God? The fact that it would be *possible* for a God to screw with our lab results doesn’t entail it would be most reasonable to worry that He has. If it turned out there were a God who made the universe to run “on it’s own” as we have understood it to this point, and this God tells us He has no intention of performing sneaky, unannounced miracles to undermine our investigation of the universe, then *in principle* this would leave our empirical inquiry good to go. It would of course require that God give us some good evidence of his trustworthy nature to go on, but our inferences would follow in exactly the same way we draw inferences about the rest of the empirical world, including why we decide to trust other human beings.

    Vaal

    (Again, I’m addressing the “in principle” arguments given by some atheists. There are plenty of reasons to evaluate the Biblical God as untrustworthy).

  26. Posted April 1, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never had any use for the term supernatural. Anything that has a causal effect may as well be considered natural, anything that doesn’t is exactly the same as non-existent. ‘Supernatural’ seems to be a pigeon hole in which we put things-that-look-exactly-like-they-don’t-exist.

    If prayer worked we’d have prayer wards in hospital, if ghosts existed they’d be unremarkable. It’s only because the contrary appears true that we call them supernatural.

    This naturalism/supernaturalism dichotomy is a nonsense and a sop to those who would like to believe things that appear untrue. Down with that sort of thing.

  27. Kevin
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, Ted. Meat space calls.

    Use this to excerpt NT Wright’s “evidence” that the resurrection actually occurred, if you wish.

    I’m quite sure you’ll find that none of what you find in that book constitutes evidence of anything other than the process of myth-making at its finest.

    And by the way, I hope you’re bringing the best evidence you have. Because I don’t want to get into a Gish gallop here. Either this proves it, or you have to admit that it can’t be proved. One or the other.

    You’re placing a lot of hopes on a second-rate apologist, Ted.

    Here’s one critique of Wright’s claims I found in 10 seconds of Google:

    http://www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/rev_ntwrong.htm

    Not that I agree with Price on everything, but his review of Wright do as a starter. According to my reading of Price, Wright seeks primarily to use the myths as his proof — which is exactly the same as me using Gone With The Wind as proof that Rhett Butler was rakishly handsome. Using the bible to prove the bible? Bad form.

    Take your shot Ted. But make it count.

    • Posted April 1, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

      Forgive me, Kevin, if I approach Robert Price’s profound skepticism with profound skepticism about the objectivity of his review of Wright’s book. I have no problem with Price or anyone else rejecting Wright’s conclusions (any of them) or putting arguments back at him. What leads me to take his comments with a few tons of salt is his blanket dismissal of Wright’s work: “What we have in this book is not a contribution to New Testament scholarship, any more than Creationist “Intelligent Design” screeds are contributions to biological science. Both alike are pseudo-scholarly attempts to pull the wool over the eyes of readers…” He is also simply dismissive of some other scholars whose work I know quite well (historian Edward Yamauchi and philosopher William Craig) and that I am probably more qualified than Price (a biblical scholar) to evaluate. A reviewer who compares Wright with Chick cartoons isn’t likely to persuade readers who don’t share Price’s own personal story of an embittered, headlong flight from fundamentalism to atheism.

      • darrelle
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

        Would the philosopher William Craig be William Lane Craig by chance?

        • Posted April 2, 2013 at 6:37 am | Permalink

          Yes

          • Chris
            Posted April 2, 2013 at 7:51 am | Permalink

            Ah, that would be the philosopher William Lane Craig who has gone on record saying that no quantity or quality of evidence presented would ever outweigh the “self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit”.

            Or, in other words, the voices in his head telling him that he’s correct.

            Dismissing WL Craig is a perfectly reasonable thing to do as he himself does not rely on reason, however he dresses his arguments.

          • Kevin
            Posted April 2, 2013 at 8:24 am | Permalink

            Oh good grief. William Lane Craig is the most egregious abuser of the facts of science in service of his god than any man alive.

    • Posted April 1, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      Wright’s overall argument is best summed up in his own words (The Resurrection of the Son of God, (p. 717):

      “The claim can be stated once more in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. The actual bodily actual bodily resurrection of Jesus (not a mere resuscitation, but a transforming revivification) clearly provides a sufficient condition of the tomb being empty and the ‘meetings’ taking place. Nobody is likely to doubt that. Once grant that Jesus really was raised, and all the pieces of the historical jigsaw puzzle of early Christianity fall into place. My claim is stronger: that the bodily resurrection of Jesus provides a necessary condition for these things; in other words, that no other explanation could or would do. All the efforts to find alternative explanations fail, and they were bound to do so.

      Many will challenge this conclusion, for many different reasons. I do not claim that it constitutes a ‘proof’ of the resurrection in terms of some neutral standpoint. It is, rather, a historical challenge to other explanations, other worldviews. Precisely because at this point we are faced with worldview-level issues, there is no neutral ground, no island in the middle of the epistemological ocean, as yet uncolonized by any of the warring continents. We cannot simply arrive at a topic and make grand declarations, as in Francis Drake’s celebrated annexation of California, and suppose that all the local inhabitants will take them as binding. Saying that ‘Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead’ is not only a self-involving statement; it is a self-committing statement, going beyond a reordering of one’s private world into various levels of commitment to work out the implications. We cannot simply leave a flag stuck on a hill somewhere and sail back home to safety.”

      For a longer, more informal presentation (a lecture at St Andrews University), see http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~jglectures/downloads/Tom_Wright/lecture/Tom_Wright_Lecture.pdf

      Just as you had to make dinner, Kevin, I also have other things needing attention. I’m signing off, at least for the time being.

      • Posted April 1, 2013 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

        “… the bodily resurrection of Jesus provides a necessary condition for these things; in other words, that no other explanation could or would do.”

        Clearly, this Wright of yours has not read Hume.

        /@

      • darrelle
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

        That is really a pretty poor line of reasoning on Wright’s part. I can only conclude that anyone believing that no other explanation could “fit the historical accounts” is lacking in imagination.

        It is interesting that you would base your beliefs on such hugely important matters on such limited and questionable evidence. Most people, even committed believers, would not willingly cross the street on such evidence. It seems more likely that your religious beliefs are not based on the evidence.

        • Posted April 15, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

          You ought to read more of Wright before coming to such a conclusion, Darrelle. I gave basically an abstract of his whole book. As I’ve said, you can’t reproduce any lengthy excerpts, and an argument constructed in more than 700 pages is hard to reduce to a few hundred words.

          All religious beliefs, including those of Dawkins (who has them, even though he denies this), go beyond evidence to some extent; but, many religious beliefs (including this one) are based partly on evidence. The root cause of disagreement(s) in conversation(s) like this one, is whether faith has a rational component. Dawkins and some others define faith in such a way that it can’t have a rational component, but that flies in the face of the way in which many religious people reflect on their faith. It’s no accident (e.g.) that theology–the “rational” component of theistic faith–was integral to advances in logic and natural philosophy in the medieval universities, advances that helped lead to the Scientific Revolution.

          • Posted April 15, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

            What evidence do you have that Dawkins has any religious beliefs?

            /@

            • Posted April 15, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

              According to Gordon Kaufman (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_D._Kaufman), a leading scholar of religion, religion provides a story of how things got here (a creation story), locates humans within the larger story of the universe, and provides a moral code. I see Dawkins and other prominent “new atheists” doing exactly these things, among other things. Would you agree, Ant, that Dawkins and others do any of these things?

              • gbjames
                Posted April 15, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

                Oh, for cryce sakes, Ted. That’s pathetic.

                I see you write using the English language. I see that Dawkins and other prominent “new atheists” write in English. You must therefore be an harboring atheist tendencies.

              • Posted April 16, 2013 at 3:17 am | Permalink

                What G.B. said!

                Those things may be what religion provides but they do not specify religion completely.

                Science provides a (true!) story of how things got here (cosmology) and locates humans within the larger story of the universe (evolution); philosophy provides a moral code (ethics).

                /@

      • Kevin
        Posted April 2, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

        Well, that was certainly … inadequate.

        You should first learn the difference between evidence and argument. What Wright provided in your excerpt was, as I prophesied, an argument. He even says so right in the text you quote.

        I do not claim that it constitutes a ‘proof’ of the resurrection in terms of some neutral standpoint.

        I wasn’t even asking for proof. I was asking for evidence.

        Wright basically is discounting the alternative — naturalistic — explanations for the “empty tomb”.

        Which is more likely, do you think?

        1. The guards fell asleep or were diverted elsewhere and someone took the body.

        2. There were no guards — they were added to make the story more credible.

        3. There was no tomb — like all crucified people of that era, his body was left to rot on the cross and then his bones were dumped in Gehenna. Seriously, you think I don’t know the history of that era? The whole POINT of crucifixion was to leave the body on display as a warning. Not to allow people to lovingly care for it. The practice continued for millennia in the form of “the gibbet”. Why in the world would they take him down? The Jewish authorities thought him a blasphemer — surely they didn’t care whether or not the body was left up over Passover (assuming an exception was ever made for that holy day by the Romans — there’s no evidence for it).

        4. There was no tomb — because there was no crucifixion. The resurrection story was appended to the “life” of a collection of Messianic Jews of the era when the Hellenes thought up the mythology.

        5. There was no tomb — because there was no Jesus. After Paul, the gospels were written by the Hellenistic Jews to put an earthly Jesus in the myths, just like all the other “risen” gods. Osiris, Baal, Dionysus, many others. Early church fathers used this similarity with the other religions to “sell” Jesus. Again, you think I have no idea of the history of Christianity? Paul, however, claimed that the Jesus who visited him in a vision was a spirit, and also claimed that all other early church leaders saw him as a spirit also. What, you think I haven’t studied this?

        6. Someone after a day and a half of decomposition arose in perfect mental order, but with holes still in his hands, feet, and side. Because of magic.

        Sorry. Of all of the explanations listed — and those are the ones just off the top of my head — the last one is by FAR the least likely.

        Why? Not just because it’s a “miracle” and miracles don’t happen. But because of the illogic of it. The mind-numbing stupidity of the very concept.

        1. If a god wanted us to know that he existed, loved us, and held a place for us in heaven if only we believe in him, why erase ALL evidence of his existence save for the mythologies? See my earlier list. It would be dead simple for a god to have a permanent record of his existence that would satisfy even the most hardened skeptic. In this case, absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Just like it is for Hercules, Dionysus, pixies living up my nose, and anal-probing aliens.

        2. Why would a god REQUIRE a blood sacrifice of himself to himself to “atone” for the world’s sins? That makes no sense whatsoever. It does harken back to the human sacrifice practices of the Ugarits, from which Judaism is derived. And of course, the Jews weren’t all that adverse to human sacrifice — see Jephthah, for example. Blood sacrifice is a howlingly primitive practice. Why would Jesus be required to do this in order that god be allowed to forgive mankind’s sins? You’re putting quite a limitation on the powers of your god when you go down that road.

        Sorry, but if an apologists arguments are the best “evidence” you have, then you’ve got precisely and exactly squat.

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted April 2, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

          I like.

          • Kevin
            Posted April 2, 2013 at 10:33 am | Permalink

            Thanks. I think the thing that frosts my chaps the most is that this guy is actually paid real money to teach impressionable young adults.

            And this is the best he can come up with.

            I suppose the whole “faith” thing will come up next — if he hasn’t flown the coop.

            Which I should pre-empt with the statement that there is no such thing as “faith”. What religious people (especially Christians) display is credulity. Swallowing as true fairy stories.

            Might as well have faith that pixies live up my nose.

            • Posted April 15, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

              And thank you for the warm welcome, Kevin. I must buy you coffee some time–after I’m done teaching some of those impressionable young adults, who are always encouraged to think for themselves, which means not necessarily like me–or like you.

        • Posted April 2, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

          Jesus was the ultimate scapegoat, in its historical meaning, I guess.

          scapegoat
          |ˈskāpˌgōt|
          noun
          (in the Bible) a goat sent into the wilderness after the Jewish chief priest had symbolically laid the sins of the people upon it (Lev. 16).

          In light of that tradition, it’s not hard to see the Easter story as a confection.

          /@

          • Kevin
            Posted April 2, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

            I just bit the ears off a chocolate rabbit.

            Confection, indeed.

            In my neck of the woods (Billy Graham territory), it’s the positively sadistic emphasis on blood that creeps me out the most. One of the local churches at the following on its ‘reader board’ the past week.

            “Jesus built a bridge with two boards and three nails.”

            To which, every time I passed it, I would invariably go, “Ewwwww. Disgusting.”

            How people can think this to be a positive thing — something to revel in and celebrate — is absolutely beyond my ken.

            • Posted April 2, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

              A very deliberate word choice!

              I’d have been tempted to add to that reader board, “… but it failed to comply with local building regulations”! ;-)

              /@

        • Posted April 15, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

          What, you think I haven’t studied this?

          What, you think Wright hasn’t studied this? Almost certainly, Kevin, Wright has studied this far more than you, or me. You don’t agree with his assessment of the evidence. Fine. All of these questions have occurred to him, and to many others as well. The second paragraph in the excerpt I quoted pertains here, I would say.

  28. Ken Pidcock
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    In fact, her claim is based on politics rather than on science or philosophy: the assertion that science assumes MN is meant to immunize religion from scientific study, and thus keep the faithful happy. And when the faithful are happy, perhaps they’ll join us in opposing creationism

    The lies of Scott et al. are meant to shield American science education from well-funded efforts to undermine it. Between compromising philosophical integrity and compromising science education, I’d say they’re making the choice I’d want them to make. It ain’t beanbag, as they say.

  29. Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    While I certainly agree that supernatural claims fall firmly into the realm of scientific examination, please count me among those who do so because they have never found a coherent and convincing definition of “supernatural” in the first place. As far as the part cited above from the paper goes, it is:

    (1) stuff we do not understand yet (so two thousand years ago chickenpox would have been supernatural?)
    (2) stuff that exists in a parallel universe (but why is that parallel reality not part of nature?)
    (3) stuff that “suggest[s] that reality is at bottom purposeful and mind-like” (but why should minds not be part of nature? Ours are!)

    I am not a philosopher of course, but it appears to me there are basically only very few definitions of supernatural: That which isn’t natural, an obvious tautology. That which exists above and beyond nature, an obvious case of begging the question. And that which does not follow the laws of nature (ie physics), in which case either supernature would be a synonym for randomness or we are dealing with another case of begging the question. So far, not convinced.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      You’re not engaging well with that third point, which could be summarized thus: in a natural universe everything mental is ultimately dependent on/reducible to the nonmental; in a supernatural universe, at least one thing does not. In other words, skyhooks vs. cranes.

      That’s a significant difference.

      • Posted April 1, 2013 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

        But I do not think that the question of skyhooks is really relevant for whether science can examine the supernatural. Of course one can define supernatural in many possible ways if one wishes to, and just like a possible definition would be “everything that is yellow”, so “an eternally existing immaterial mind” would also be a coherent definition.

        But there is nothing in either of these two definitions that makes supernatural a concept of any practical utility, nothing in them that would justify such a definition with the implicit understanding of being equal to “not-nature”, and nothing in them that would imply science to be incapable to infer something about items of that color or about such a mind. Scientists study minds all the time, after all. At worst we would fare about as well as in sociology, psychology, ethnology, etc.

        But really the most important point for me is the second: to have a justification to use the word supernatural, one would first have to explain why the things falling under it are not better seen as nature, which I would define either as “all that really exists” or as “all that has not been manufactured or thoroughly transformed by intelligent beings”. (Note that under the second definition of nature the world would not be natural if it was created by a god, but there would still be no reason not to see the god as part of nature. What is more, the world would then not be supernatural either – the right word for it would be artificial.)

        • Sastra
          Posted April 2, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink

          Again, there is no reason why something as significantly different from our present view of reality as “an eternally existing immaterial mind” couldn’t be placed into a familiar and recognized category called “supernatural.” If nature is defined as “all that exists” then the supernatural is a level of nature. Ta da. Problem solved.

          If we define our position as the only possible true position then all we do is move the dispute over and make ourselves look bad in the process.

  30. Myron
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    As for 1: “supernatural” is surely not synonymous with “scientifically unexplained/unexplainable”.
    As for 2: Other physical worlds or parallel physical universes are surely not supernatural, not even if the physical laws therein are different from the ones in our world.
    As for 3: “Mind” is ambiguous between “mental substance” and “(set of) mental attribute(s)”. Naturalism is incompatible with the belief in mental substances (souls/spirits) but compatible with panpsychism, the belief that all material objects, including all microphysical ones, have mental properties in addition to their physical properties.

  31. Aron
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Hi all,

    My original point was to try and demonstrate that the role of the scientific method is being slightly overstated. The German Philosopher Jürgen Habermas says ‘Scientism is science’s belief in itself: that is, the conviction that we can no longer understand science as one form of possible knowledge, but rather must identify knowledge with science’ (Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests. Tr. Jeremy J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971, 4)

    My concern as a philosopher and an amateur physicist, is the trend of New Atheists to promote scientism, which philosophically does not make sense. I do agree that the systematic method of science is the optimal way of enquiry in describing our natural world, but I fear that New Atheists, by clinging to scientism are making science prescriptive for all of reality, which is in all intellectual honesty, not right; see the above quote of Habermas.

    Darrelle – Philosophy can prove and disprove by means of logic, rationalisation, dialectics etc. For example, some theologians prior to Kant held the concept of ‘God’ to be logically foundational and necessary; Kant came and disproved this by use of logic (see Kant’s discussion on the logical necessity of God, and also the take of post Kantian philosophers on this). And my point of saying that science can only test empirical claims – I meant that science can only directly test ‘physical’ things (see the modern label of ‘physicalism’ used by scientists) for example, in current times a ‘God’ is a ‘non-physical’ being, so a scientist cannot ‘test’ God, as science is empirical, but can infer from other experiments and data to disprove the existence of a deity. I did not say that scientists cannot infer from data, drawing conclusions from data is what scientists do; rather my point was of ‘indirect’ inferences, for example see the cognitive method in contemporary psychology and discussions on it. These indirect inferences are unscientific, and if logicians and philosophers of science such as Karl Popper are to be believed, then there is a scope in which Science can be called ‘Science’, criteria such as objectivity, falsifiablilty, replicability etc. And the point I was trying to make – albeit I may be wrong – is that indirect inferences are not Science i.e. abductive reasoning is not science, rather, science is inductive reasoning (see David Hume). And yes one can only ‘prove’ something with logic, Science gives probability, BUT science CAN disprove with certainty, as Prof. Lawrence Krauss has so aptly mentioned in some talks (an example of disproving something could be Medieval Aristotelian theories of motion)

    Kevin – I agree with your analysis, especially that philosophers’ argumentation is just argumentation, however, that’s not to deny the extreme usefulness, and reliablity on logical and mathematical truths, and the clarifying capabilities of philosophy, although science is just a branch of philosophy.

    Sastra – You say ‘everything we know (or think we know) must ultimately be derived from sensory experiences’ I disagree, not ‘everything’ we know is from sensory experience; we have a-priori disposition, logic, maths, yes we generate further on these from learning using our cognitive faculties, but they are still innate and not acquired through experience. Same goes with generative grammar as outlined by Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. For further insight into innate and a priori knowledge, see the biological approach in psychology, see Chomskian linguistics, see the cognitive approach in psychology (some aspects) philosophical discussions on logic and mathematics

    Interestingly, some modern philosophers and scientists are I think, looking at how evolution affects the scientific methodology, us being evolved higher primates, how would this mould our neocortex when for example a Scientist is making judgements on Quantum Mechanics, do the restraints on our brains mean that our outlook on ‘scientific’ reality is ultimately subjective in a sense.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      You’re right, I should have made it clear that I was talking about empiricism. If the definition of “science” is made broad enough then it would include anything which is capable of objective verification — math, history, etc. It might include morals (I think not) or art (I hope not.) But extending definitions just get in to semantic debates. I wouldn’t argue against the importance of philosophy: science itself is a form of philosophy.

      But it’s very easy to argue against ‘scientism’ because everybody knows that it’s bad. What we don’t all know is exactly what “scientism” means — and general definitions don’t really cut it. My own favorite definition is one that equates scientism to the pie-in-the-sky someday everybody will upload their memories into self-replicating robots and we will become immortal through science form of scientism. That one is bad. Don’t do it. It’s just so implausible.

      The real argument against scientism in new atheism isn’t whether math is a science or linguistics is innate but science as relates to religion. Is the existence of God basically a hypothesis, an empirical claim — or is it something else: inner knowledge, an expression of love, an experience of mystery, a moral commitment, a metaphysical imperative, a personal relationship, or a series of vocal rituals which binds together a community.

      Dawkins stated the God hypothesis as: “… there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it.” Theists screamed and howled in anguish, ostensibly over the use of the word “superhuman” but mostly because it was just a little bit too clear, I think.

      Do you think it is scientism to approach the existence of God as an empirical hypothesis? Or do you think this is only scientism if you refuse to let philosophy take potshots at it too?

      • Aron
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

        Hi Sastra,

        I agree that you can broaden the definition of science to include every endeavour of human knowledge, but the scientific methodology as used by the natural sciences would still be distinguishable; and I see it as a negative in trying to make everything into a ‘science’ (e.g. contemporary debates on making economics into an actual natural science shows) although it is extremely important to make all subjects as objective and verifiable as possible, some things just cannot come under the term ‘science’, such as morality and history (data regarding history can be scientific but not history as a whole, in my honest opinion). A concise definition of science has been accurately stated by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, ‘The attempt to discover, by means of observation and reasoning based upon it, … particular facts about the world, and the laws connecting facts with one another’ (Bertrand Russell. Religion and Science. Oxford University Press. 1935, p. 8.) so clearly one cannot observe moral realism, or one cannot observe the past, as it is gone and can only infer from historical evidence.

        And I take the definition of scientism to be what I quoted in my previous post from Habermas, I haven’t found a philosopher so far disagree with that definition; scientism being the belief or assertion that ‘science’ (what is generally conceived as science, that is, the systematic use of the scientific methodology) is the ONLY way to acquire knowledge.

        While I agree with Dawkins’ classification of the existence of God as a hypothesis, I do not agree with his reductionism. I don’t personally think it to be scientism if someone approaches God as an empirical hypothesis – because you would have to look at if they accept other means of acquiring knowledge – although it is nugatory to approach the question of God as solely an empirical one, theists argue using rational premises so they must be refuted using rational premises as well as empirical. And I’m not arguing only for philosophy, I believe that to get a holistic outlook on reality one has to embrace all forms of truth and knowledge, so for example I would say that my atheism is supported by moral, scientific, historical, philosophical perspectives. Other forms of knowledge would be literary criticism, some would say social science, humanities etc.

        • darrelle
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think the typical New Atheist believes or is in danger of coming to believe that science is the only way to aquire knowledge. The problem that I typically see is not scientism on the part of a New Atheist, it is typically a mistaken categorization of the paritcular bit of knowledge in question, often seemingly willfully mistaken, on the part of the accuser.

          Why all the concern about New Atheists maybe slipping into scientism? There does not seem to be justification for such fears. I think New Atheists are just as aware of the dangers of hubris in the pursuit of science as any other group. I think it more likely that such claims are driven more by uneasiness due to seeing long respected religious claims directly and unapologetically refuted. Where is all the concern about the methods that religions use to support their empirical claims about reality? Justifications for fearing the results of that abound.

          • Aron
            Posted April 2, 2013 at 3:19 am | Permalink

            You’d be surprised how many New Atheists take the word ‘evidence’ to be synonymous with only empirical scientific data. Including many of the intelligentsia.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 2, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      Aron: As I said, I am not one who argues that philosophy is not a fellow traveler with science. It’s deficits in helping us understand the natural world in the absence of evidence, however, are well known.

      Frankly, if I had a time machine and wanted to benefit mankind the most, I would go back and strangle Aristotle in his crib. Then we wouldn’t have the whole “reason alone” arguments of theology.

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted April 2, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink

        You think the influence of Plato, without Aristotle, would have been better for helping us understand the world?

        Colour me skeptical.

        But maybe, without Aristotle, Plato would have been less influential. It’s possible.

        • Kevin
          Posted April 2, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink

          Without Aristotle, Plato is a bee keeper.

  32. madscientist
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    This MN and ON have always appeared absolutely ridiculous to me. How about what we have in reality: science can study claims of the supernatural and so far no supernatural claim has stood up to scrutiny, but supernatural claims are consistent with stories which were simply made up.

  33. monaalbano
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    No, no, no! Science can draw conclusions only about things that are reasonably consistent. It simply turns out that the things that are consistent are not magical. If we could consistently summon magic or prayer or miracles, we could study them; but all of our studies show that there is no magical effect of prayer, that ghosts are indistinguishable from imagination, and that miracles never occur in the vicinity of recording devices.

  34. Diane G.
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    sub

  35. Patrick
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    “Some of you will say that these phenomena could be caused by space aliens and the like, and thus could be “natural” phenomena. But I, for one, would regard some of these as support for religious truth claims (e.g., #2 or #3), and provisional evidence for a divine being.”

    If such phenomena can be regarded as provisional evidence for a divine being, why not phenomena like the fine-tuning of the universe or well-documented miracle accounts? Usually when one points to such evidence there is the charge that it amounts to a God of the Gaps argument. But is it possible to draw a borderline between a legitimate evidential argument for God’s existence and a God of the Gaps argument that is not arbitrary?

    “F&B’s claim, and mine, is that we shouldn’t rule the supernatural out on first principles. Creationism and its gussied-up cousin ID shouldn’t be dismissed because they invoke the supernatural, but simply because there is no evidence for them. After all, it’s theoretically possible that all life appeared in one instant six thousand years ago and has remained unchanged ever since. That’s a religious view, but also a scientific one. And it’s wrong.”

    Your objection here only applies to Young Earth Creationism, but not to Old Earth Creationism and ID.

  36. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 2:29 am | Permalink

    (2) they exist outside the spatiotemporal realm of our universe (though they may still causally interact with our universe),

    Hmmm, which makes me think of that mysterious dark spot in the Planck data. Some people think it might be the sign of the early universe being “in contact” with a separate universe.
    “Supernatural”, yes ; there’s nothing in our physics that requires another universe to have the same laws of physics as us, it is very much outside our nature. But it’s entirely amenable to scientific investigation.

  37. Leigh Jackson
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    “The sciences of observation describe and measure the multiple manifestations of life with increasing precision and correlate them with the time line. The moment of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation, which nevertheless can discover at the experimental level a series of very valuable signs indicating what is specific to the human being. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-awareness and self-reflection, of moral conscience, freedom, or again of aesthetic and religious experience, falls within the competence of philosophical analysis and reflection, while theology brings out its ultimate meaning according to the Creator’s plans.” Pope John Paul II, to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 1996.

    The AAAS and NAS are, shamefully, complicitors to this classic piece of NOMA/RC dogma. There is no scientific reason to doubt that self-awareness, self-reflection, moral conscience, free will, aesthetic and religious experience are not capable, in principle, of being scientifically explicable, in terms of physical mechanisms entirely derived from the physical mechanisms of evolution.

    Philosophical/semantic questions relating science to naturalism/ supernaturalism/religion are a luxury that the AAAS and NAS should absolve. Just give the public the science, guys.

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted April 2, 2013 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

      Oh yeah; religion is welcome to claim “metaphysical knowledge” all to itself.

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted April 3, 2013 at 5:41 am | Permalink

      “The moment of transition to the spiritual” means the moment of en-soulment. The soul is supposed to be the likeness of God (supernatural) within the body; not the body iself (natural). And the soul is delivered to the human body directly from God in the second supernatural creation event – the first being the creation of the universe.

      The list of mental qualities supposed to belong to the supernatural spirit/soul can all be studied by the empirical sciences as physically determined attributes of the brain’s interaction with the body and its environment.

      Which gives the lie to RC/AAAS/NAS/NCSE NOMA-dogma.

      From the scientific point of view God and the soul are entirely superfluous explanations – if they be explanations at all – for how human beings got here and how they function. They are flagrant violations Occam’s Razor.

      The AAAS etc. do not have to spell all this out; they only have to stop spouting NOMA nonsense and simply talk science.

  38. Posted April 3, 2013 at 2:46 am | Permalink

    Science, at heart, is the measurement and correlation of observations. A measurement is just a measurement, the impact of some event on a measuring device. There are no natural measurements or supernatural measurements, there are just measurements. A phenomenon is detectable, if it can be measured or is required/suggested by other detectable phenomena. If it is detectable, then it can be studied, otherwise it can’t.

    So, the question can science address the supernatural, requires a definition for supernatural. If that definition implies that some supernatural events are detectable then they can be addressed by science, if not, science can’t address them. Consequently, the debate is just a semantic one.

  39. Martin Mahner
    Posted April 8, 2013 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne wrote “Their paper is a critique of an earlier paper in the journal by Martin Mahner (reference below), which argues that the supernatural is immune to scientific study.”

    Regrettably, this statement indicates that JC has not even read my paper, because it is not my claim that science cannot study the supernatural. Rather, I distinguish several concepts of the supernatural. And some of them can be studied by science, but not all of them.

    Also, the point of my paper is that scientific methods like measurement and experiment do have metaphysical presuppositions in the sense that they could not even work unless the world had certain properties in the first place. The success of science is a symptom that this metaphysics is correct. If the world had entirely magical properties, science would not be possible. Unlike F&B who seem to work from conclusion to premise, my hypothetico-deductive approach works from premise to conclusion (evidence).

    Go to your lab and do some experiment. Assume that the result of your experiment is the product of a supernatural manipulation. Does your experiment then yield genuine scientific evidence? It does not. You get genuine evidence only if your experiment works lawfully and naturally, that is, without supernatural interference. So in any experiment you always presuppose that it works without supernatural interference. In other words, it presupposes metaphysical naturalism. Of course, science could fail and metaphysical naturalism could be wrong. But without metaphysical naturalism you have no scientific method and no evidence. Thus, the very concept of scientific evidence presupposes metaphysical naturalism. Radical empiricists like F&B, by contrast, seem to believe that the concept of evidence is a metaphysics-free lunch.

    • Aron
      Posted April 20, 2013 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

      Hi,

      I completely agree with your arguments; is there somewhere from where I could acquire your paper?

      Regards,
      Aron

      • Martin Mahner
        Posted April 21, 2013 at 4:51 am | Permalink

        Thanks. I´ll be happy to email you a copy. Send me your email address via this contact form: http://www.gwup.org/kontakt

    • Posted April 20, 2013 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

      What is your definition of “genuine scientific evidence”? If you do an experiment you get a result, which is a correlation between the measuring device and what that device is measuring. All that experimental science does is to report such correlations, but it can never explaining the underlying reasons why particular correlations occur. If you were just a brain in a bottle and some Descarte’s Demon was fooling you into believing that the world it portrayed to you was real, you could still do science – it’s just that in that case you would be describing the world that the demon had invented rather than… rather than what? Science measures things, measurements are just measurements, there’s no so such things as a natural or a supernatural measurement.

      • Martin Mahner
        Posted April 21, 2013 at 4:56 am | Permalink

        You appear to have an ultra-empiricist view of science. ;) A measuring artifact or a forged datum does not yield evidence. If the “correlcation” you mention is the result of a supernatural manipulation, it is a falsified datum, hence no evidence.

        And if your demon argument were true there would be no difference between science and religion: both would engage only in fantasies.

        • Posted April 21, 2013 at 6:56 am | Permalink

          When you do an experiment such as measure the force of gravity at different points on the Earth’s surface, the results fit into a pattern. It makes no difference to our ability to detect those patterns whether this is due to the force of gravity being a “natural” (whatever that means) phenomenon or whether gravity is caused by “angels”, which you would presumably describe as a “supernatural” phenomenon. So no – supernatural does not imply erroneous data points.

          The only time we can’t do science is when the data points are too random for a pattern to emerge, and then only to the extent that they can’t be correlated. But the point about supernaturalism as envisaged by religious people is that it *isn’t* random: Believers claim that God is good, for instance. If this was the case then we *could* detect supernatural effects using science, since results would be biased to those having a beneficial effect and that could be detected.

          Finally, in your last para, we use Occam’s razor not to disprove that a particular reality is the one we are in, since we can’t determine that, but to render some realities unlikely – for instance solipsism is consistent, but not very plausible, since it introduces further layers that would require their own explanations. But, the point is that science is *compatible* with any underlying reality, where regularities can be observed.

          • gbjames
            Posted April 21, 2013 at 7:04 am | Permalink

            One minor quibble here, Roq…

            Science regularly deals with random processes. Brownian motion comes to mind… the random movement of particles in a fluid. Point mutations, which enable evolution, are random as to which single base pair on a DNA molecule is affected.

            • Posted April 21, 2013 at 7:57 am | Permalink

              Yes, you are right, of course. But those types of random processes have regularities that can be expressed as probabilities: For instance you can calculate the likelihood that a particular stretch of DNA might be subject to a mutation in a certain time period. But if a god (something inaccessible to our experience) decreed that tomorrow there will be no point mutations, we couldn’t have predicted that in advance, so any randomness of that sort would act to make science ineffective to the extent that such interventions happened: airplanes might suddenly not fly etc. This is all related to the problem of induction, of course.

          • Martin Mahner
            Posted April 21, 2013 at 8:11 am | Permalink

            >It makes no difference to our ability to detect those patterns whether this is due to the force of gravity being a “natural” (whatever that means) phenomenon or whether gravity is caused by “angels”, which you would presumably describe as a “supernatural” phenomenon. So no – supernatural does not imply erroneous data points.<

            It´s not so much about the object of measurement: your measurement device needs to be free of supernatural (or any other) manipulation. Likewise, our cognitive processing of the results must be manipulation-free too. Unless of course we are doing just fantasy science as brains in vats.

            • Posted April 21, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

              The point you were making in your original post was that: “the very concept of scientific evidence presupposes metaphysical naturalism.” But here you are saying something entirely different, that it doesn’t matter whether the evidence itself is of supernatural or natural origin, but whether some supernatural entity is fiddling with the measuring apparatus or your brain and presumably replicating that so that other scientists get the same invalid results.

              And sure, if a God, or a child for that matter, interferes with your equipment (or messes with your brain), then the results of your experiments are random to the extent of that interference. But, in that case your science isn’t going to work: planes aren’t going to fly etc. However, planes do fly and that obviously depends on the science being correct and gives us good reason for believing that supernatural entities aren’t influencing our experiments to the extent of making them invalid. So since we have reasons for holding such beliefs, it isn’t necessary to presuppose them in order to justify the validity of science.

              • Martin Mahner
                Posted April 21, 2013 at 11:27 am | Permalink

                >he point you were making in your original post was that: “the very concept of scientific evidence presupposes metaphysical naturalism.” But here you are saying something entirely different, that it doesn’t matter whether the evidence itself is of supernatural or natural origin, but whether some supernatural entity is fiddling with the measuring apparatus or your brain…<
                No, I am not. It seems you are mixing up the object of study, that is, the referent of scientific discourse, with "evidence". But evidence does not exist in itself but depends on some hypothesis or theory, as well as on the people handling all this.

                As for the second paragraph, I disagree too, but I simply can´t rewrite my paper here. ;)

              • Posted April 21, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

                All observations are theory laden as Popper put it. Perhaps, but if you extend the argument along those lines you are going to get back to some Descarte’s Demon type scenario, which you were so derisory about earlier :). Of course, I can’t argue with a paper I haven’t read, I was just responding to the arguments that were presented here.


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  1. […] Ah, off on that silly, and dishonest, trope: Science as ideology – that is neatly disposed here – http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/must-we-assume-naturalism-to-do-science/ […]

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