Friday, 27 August 2010

Bishop of Durham doesn't believe in command from on high

This made me giggle; in an interview with Jim Naughtie, Tom Wright said, in response to a question about the problems the CofE were having sorting out their views on sex:
We don't believe, as some churches do, in saying, right, the big man at the top has decided, now bang, that's it, you've all got to come into line.
So, there you have it, no commands from on high; these liberal Bishops are certainly coming round to the secular way of doing things, aren't they?

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Saturday, 21 August 2010

More Accommodating

Part of Image:Planetary society.jpg Original c...Image via Wikipedia

I discussed Massimo Pigliucci's attack on Jerry Coyne in my last blog, and coincidentally listened to Pigliucci's talk from last month on Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot, discussing his new book Nonsense on Stilts. It includes a lot of interesting stuff on his speciality, the Philosophy of Science, and most of it seems eminently sensible.

He and the interviewer unfortunately go off the rails at the end when talking about the new atheists; a problem too many people have, it seems! Here's what is said, starting at 47:20:
...I find myself, on the one hand, being put into the so-called accommodationist camp - those are people who actually think that science and religion are compatible, and I don't. I absolutely do not think that they're compatible (....)
...I don't think they're compatible as a matter of approach, as an intellectual approach.
This surprised me a *little* since Pigliucci had said that Coyne was wrong to call theist scientists 'philsosophically inconsistent'. I guess if he had called them 'intellectually inconsistent', that would have been fine, since that is clearly what Pigliucci is calling them here. And he reinforces this by explaining that scientists should change their mind as the evidence comes in, whereas religion is about faith; in his book, believing things regardless of the evidence.

[Incidentally, accommodationism has come to have two meanings:
1) That science and religion are compatible worldviews.
2) The tactical view that religious believers being treated with civility at all times will achieve a better result in the public sphere for science and reason.
Pigliucci has denied he's one of the first, but I think agrees with the second stance.]

He points out that there is nothing new about the new atheism, which I certainly agree with. Their arguments are often centuries old. What makes it new is the social impact, which, he says, may be a fluke. This seems to me to be quite possible - such social movements are emergent phenomena. Pigliucci continues:
The thing that I really don't particularly care for is the strident tone (...) you can be firm about your criticism of somebody else without necessarily calling them a bunch of idiots. I think that once you start calling people names, you lost the high ground, the high moral ground. And so when Dawkins goes around saying that every religious person is stupid, er, that doesn't help.
Well I'm *pretty* sure Dawkins has never said that every religious person is stupid. He's friends with religious people who are demonstrably clever, for goodness sake. On the whole he thinks they are mistaken, although inevitably many of them are also stupid. Inevitably lots of atheists are stupid too. So Pigliucci identifies name-calling as losing the moral high ground, but is happy to misrepresent Dawkins' view of religious people. An insight into his moral standards, I suppose. It's not clear also what he means by 'the strident tone', other than name-calling - so perhaps that is all he means. But that isn't *tone*, but *abuse*. Curious. And, as I've pointed out before, Pigliucci has been called out on his tone too - "Tone matters. And sarcasm is not science.". Which leaves one wondering just what it is he wants of the new atheists, and thinking that he needs to chillax a bit over insults. For all I know it's possible that a good insult could oil the wheels of discourse, and he doesn't produce any evidence to disabuse me of this. Further, I don't like his tone! But a sarcastic, sneering tone is simply not the sort of thing that puts theists off atheism, that much should be obvious. Anyway, he moves onto another concern:
...I think that Dawkins and more recently Jerry Coyne are epistemologically naive (...) they fall into something that is called 'scientism', that is the idea that science is equated with reason, that the two are one and the same thing.
This is his accusation, but it doesn't seem to stand up, to my mind. I don't interpret Dawkins' and Coyne's comments as equating reason and science. Reason is surely part of science, and surely you can reason without doing science. But the best method of understanding the world around us is through the use of reason and evidence, which is commonly identified with the scientific outlook. If Pigliucci wants to draw an arbitrary demarcation line between philosophy and science to allow philosophers a lot more reason, and scientists a lot less, then fine; who's stopping him. But to call out Coyne and Dawkins based on his own demarcation (or, to be fair, the demarcation posited by philosophers of science) is pretty self-indulgent and, er, pointless. Well I say pointless, but it comes over as point-scoring frankly. It doesn't change the fact that the best way to discover what *is*, is through reason and evidence, and this is commonly known as the scientific outlook.
I do think that science, for very good epistemological reasons, has nothing to say about the supernatural; it can dismiss specific claims that supernaturalists make, but it cannot dismiss the God hypothesis.
This is Hume - " cannot dismiss the God hypothesis" is just what Dawkins has always said (including in The God Delusion), and Coyne, as far as I know, so one wonders what his beef is with them.
... so those are my disagreements.
But the second is patently not an area of disagreement; Dawkins and Coyne would surely agree to that statement? One has to assume he concludes that because science can say nothing about the supernatural, that somehow means it's not incompatible with the supernatural.

So I think he draws the wrong conclusions from this sensible statement; as I've said before, the reason science has nothing to say about the supernatural is because the whole notion invalidates the scientific method. Therefore, the supernatural is incompatible with science. I cannot see how it could be anything else; obviously Pigliucci doesn't think they're compatible ("I absolutely do not think that they're [science and religion] compatible"), but he also seems to be saying they're not incompatible. so he seems to be angling for some kind of agnostic compatibility status midway between compatible and incompatible; well, I have no idea what he's angling for.

The interviewer, Luke Muehlhauser, then says:
...a lot of people have said that not only could the new atheists take a different approach and not name-call everybody, but also maybe they're not really putting forward the best intellectual case for atheism or naturalism that they could, and that wouldn't be that surprising because none of them are scholars of religion or these arguments, but I wonder if you might say a few words on how you think atheists in general might make a better intellectual case for atheism or naturalism.
A high error count; First, Pigliucci has already pointed out that the new atheists are only using the old arguments, so how could they *not* be putting forward the best intellectual case? The matter's been settled for the vast majority of intelligent thinkers. Second, again, they *don't* name-call everybody. Third, they plainly *are* scholars of 'these arguments', as much as anyone, including Pigliucci, is. How much theology does one have to suffer before one is allowed to say 'enough, already'? There's no evidence for it, so any theology is *arbitrary*.

It's disappointing to see this; these assertions seem to have become an article of faith amongst accommodationists - they simply don't entertain the idea that they might be mistaken, and glibly carry on as if they're a given.

And indeed, Pigliucci does glibly carry on, overlooking the contradiction to his earlier statement.
... I don't think that religion is the root of all evil, as Dawkins famously said., that's another example of an exaggeration that doesn't help anybody...
Well, quite the opposite, actually, so ...'that's another example of an exaggeration that doesn't help anybody':
(Dawkins - "I do not believe that religion is the root of all evil, thank you Channel 4. Religion is the root of quite a lot of evil, but that didn’t make for a catchy title.")
Pigliucci then goes on to make the bogus comparison between atheistic Stalinism and Maoism 'group-think' and religious ideologies, which makes one question how much he's really thought about this subject. He then  makes vague accusations that some atheists aren't very clever or thoughtful, which seems to be stating the obvious, as well as irrelevant. Oddly, he then points out, correctly, that atheism isn't a positive thing, but an absence of belief, which renders his previous ramble about atheist group-think incoherent. And this is confirmed when he compares atheism to a-unicornism.

So he points out the positive *philosophies* that arise from the evidence based worldview, such as secular humanism and naturalism, but is keen to emphasis that they are *philosophies*, even if they are informed by science. But the whole point of them is that they are informed by science; that is their defining feature, and why they're *compatible* with science, and other philosophies aren't. And we are back wondering again, just what his beef is, and how such a scholar could make such basic errors.

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Saturday, 7 August 2010

Nature and Supernature

There is a common disjunct between scientists, philosophers and theologians about the purview of science; can science pass judgement on matters religious? Massimo Pigliucci has attacked Jerry Coyne in a blog post comparing a comment of Coyne's from 2007 to a more recent one:
Science simply doesn't deal with hypotheses about a guiding intelligence, or supernatural phenomena like miracles, because science is the search for rational explanations of natural phenomena. We don't reject the supernatural merely because we have an overweening philosophical commitment to materialism; we reject it because entertaining the supernatural has never helped us understand the natural world.
A typical acknowledgement of Hume's analysis Of Miracles; that no evidence *could* be presented that a reasonable person *should* accept for a miraculous event. Compare with:
Anybody doing any kind of science should abandon his or her faith if they wish to become a philosophically consistent scientist.
Pigliucci considers this 'naive and pretentious', perhaps because of the 'philosophically' that Coyne has added. Coyne is a scientist and not a philosopher, like Pigliucci. He thinks Coyne is overreaching too, I think. And he also sees a contradiction with the first statement. So is there a contradiction? It's something that has given me some trouble over the years, so I'm hoping to be able to organise my thoughts on the subject in this piece.

Philosophical naturalism is almost *forced* onto non-theists, since there appears to be nothing else for them to adopt, but I don't really like it; it's an unhelpful concept. In fact, Hume's point renders *naturalism* unfalsifiable, just as much as supernaturalism, for if one could prove naturalism false one would presumably have to provide some evidence for supernature which, as Hume shows, we cannot. I see no great need for a *philosophical commitment* to materialism either; I would think immaterialism *could* be part of reality - we just have no evidence for it, but could have, surely? I think Carrier argues quite convincingly along these lines. But he defines the supernatural as immaterialism, which doesn't seem right to me either; consider these points by commenter bart_klink:
In fact, multiple studies on the effect of intercessory prayer have been published in respected journals, for example this one. What if this study showed a (huge) effect of prayer? And what if other studies confirmed these results? A naturalistic explanation would be very improbable indeed. The most reasonable conclusion would be that some supernatural force, probably (a) God, did interfere in our world.
Other examples could easily be given. What if, after saying some Christian prayer, water could be really turned into wine? This also could be scientifically demonstrated, one could even do chemistry experiments. Again a natural explanation is very unlikely and a supernatural one, presumably the Christian God, is likely. Or what if it could be scientifically demonstrated that the mind could function in separation form the brain, as many people of faith claim? The experiment is not hard to set up, but the results would be hard to explain naturalistically, and a supernatural explanation would be reasonable.
But this is very problematic; if prayer showed a huge effect, a naturalistic explanation would be very improbable? Compared with what? If water was turned to wine, would a natural explanation be very unlikely? Compared to what? Even if one did accept a supernatural explanation as reasonable (again, how??), why would one then 'presume the Christian God'? If one is accepting a magical effect, then one is allowing for *anything* to be possible, in principle, so there could be any number of magical explanations, regardless of the Christian God.

Last Thursdayism is often cited as an example of something that science cannot pronounce on, and that's true. But the reason it's true is because methodological naturalism would be invalidated, since evidence would be meaningless. But what would that mean? Simply that we would have *no way* of determining the nature of reality, and this would apply to theists as much as atheists. We would all simply have literally no reason to believe anything.

So I think if someone is claiming that the supernatural exists, in the way that it is commonly claimed to work -that is, a separate realm that can interface with the natural and allows for the breaking of the accepted laws of nature - that, to me, is simply self-refuting, because it disallows the possibility of establishing any reason to believe. I mean, if you believe that, you will believe anything can happen, so you have no reason to prefer *any* explanation to any other. One's beliefs are therefore arbitrary.

However, going back to my dislike of naturalism as an ontology; I really don't see why one has to commit to a particular ontology just because you accept that evidence is required to believe something - quite the opposite, in fact. One's ontology is necessarily a moveable feast because of that. So, for example, I think it's possible to imagine a reality which includes gods within it, and allows for their interaction with us. And of course that's partly what theists believe in. And we can test for *that*. So far the tests show there aren't any of these much vaunted gods interacting with us.

I don't see these ideas as a contradiction; just two different scenarios for what actually exists. I see Coyne's second statement as saying something along the lines of:

1) A scientist will use evidence to determine what *is*.
2) If a scientist posits the supernatural, he is disallowing that evidence can be used to determine what *is*.
3) So, he would have no reason to believe.


1) A scientist will use evidence to determine what *is*.
2) If a scientist posits the God as part of reality, interacting with us, then tests would show what *is*. None show the existence of God, or gods.
3) So, he would have no reason to believe. 

Either way, if a scientist believes despite not having any reason to believe, he's being philosophically inconsistent. I think!

UPDATE: A lot of interesting further discussion has arisen from Pigliucci's post, in the comments section.

I think Pigliuci's position is a natural (whoops) follow-on from Hume's observation that a reasonable person *cannot* accept evidence for the supernatural, therefore, as he keeps saying, science can have no position on it. This seems fair enough, but I think this natural follow on needs more analysis, in line with what I say above.

If a person posits a worldview including a supernatural realm, which effectively means they think it's possible for *anything* to happen in the natural world, they are positing a world where evidence is meaningless, because:

1) Magic could happen at any time, rendering laws, regularity and induction unreliable, and
2) Re supernatural events - belief in these *must* be arbitrary, since there is no way to distinguish between supernatural claims.

I think it's hard to argue that these beliefs are *compatible* with the scientific project, and as such a scientist who believed them would be philosophically inconsistent. At the risk of putting words in his mouth, Pigliucci would probably agree that they're incompatible with science but not 'philosophically' inconsistent, since the supernaturalist will ignore the above when being scientific - iow, assume science is just a tool to determine the putative *natural* world. *If* that's his position, I think it's wrong, just because the above two consequences render the use of the tool of science problematic, as well.

One more thing; a number of commenters have made the assertion that certain things are supernatural, because they violate the laws of nature; e.g. Pigliucci "Ghosts can be thought of as supernatural entities (they violate the laws of nature), so they are no different from gods, in my book.". To my mind, this is unhelpful. We don't *know* all the laws of nature, so we can never say this about a discovered phenomenon. Obviously, if someone says "Imagine something that violates the laws of nature.", then one could assign that to the supernatural, but that is not about something real.

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