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On the edge...
From the discussion on science and religion over at The Edge

Steven Pinker comes closest to saying what I think, though I would not use 'belief' in the way he does...


"Science cannot be walled off from other forms of belief. That includes meaning and morality – reason connects them all. The same standards of evidence that rule out unparisimonious, unfalsifiable, or empirically refuted hypotheses in science also rule out crackpot conspiracy theories, totalizing ideologies, and toxic policy nostrums. Moral systems depend on factual beliefs, informed by psychology and biology, about what makes human beings suffer or prosper. They depend on standards of logical consistency that make it possible to apply the principle of fairness. And they depend on meta-ethical propositions about what morality is, and on how we can decide what is moral in particular cases. Just as coherent biological reasoning cannot proceed under the assumption that God can step in at any moment and push the molecules around, coherent moral reasoning cannot proceed under the assumption that the universe unfolds according a divine merciful plan, that humans have a free will that is independent of their neurobiology, or that people can behave morally only if they fear divine retribution in an afterlife.

"Reason is non-negotiable. Try to argue against it, or to exclude it from some realm of knowledge, and you’ve already lost the argument, because you’re using reason to make your case. And no, this isn’t having "faith" in reason (in the same way that some people have faith in miracles), because we don’t “believe” in reason; we use reason."


Incidentally, Sam Harris's exercise in sustained irony is very funny.

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(Deleted comment)
I was struck by the following, from Patrick Bateson:

If you live comfortably and are surrounded by good friends and endless opportunities for a stimulating and interesting life, then your need for belief in an omniscient and all-caring being is not great. But if you have a wretched life with nothing to be happy about, you may well want something to cling onto, some conviction that you can look forward to conditions that are never likely to exist in the real world.

It seems staggeringly insensitive to tell such people that they are fooling themselves and that, since they only have one life, they should get out there should enjoy it. No amount of science is going to help them to perceive the world in a way that is helpful to them. Science can be applied to relieving the conditions that oppress them—but that is a different matter. Telling them to be rational will only compound their misery.

It seems even more staggeringly callous (to me) not to explain to them how the real-world people most responsible for their misery USE their faith as a lever to keep them convinced that (1) they can't do anything constructive to alter their situation and (2) putting up with suffering in this life gains them merit after they're dead. This is flat-out perversion of something intended to help people into something intended to harm them.


"Religion is the opiate of the masses" is the core of Patrick Bateson's argument (and that is the way, apparently, Marx meant it), while you are pointing out that there have to be dealers in the drugs enjoying the profits.

No-one would deny morphine to a seriously ill person - but would they give it to a child to addict them?

A friend once argued that my belief in science is no more than an alternative way of looking at the world, and that religion was equally valid. To me, that seems like comparing apples and the colour blue. I asked her if she could justify the case by making the lighting, or my car, work by religion instead of applied science. Long silence and cross expression.

OTOH, there is probably still more that we don't know, than the sum total of what we do know. For example, a good case can be made for us living in a computer simulation...

But Occam's Razor applies, and so does Russell's teapot. The simplest explanation that fits the evidence is usually right, and it is far, far harder to prove a negative than to prove a positive.

That's an interesting collection of comments. Without trying to pick a favorite while just skimming, I like Smolin's commentary.

Some of the commentators continue the mistake of trying to allocate spheres to faith and to reason. Patrick Bateson calls them different categories, like "chalk and cheese." What he's saying, in effect, is that many people are so miserable that you should lie to them to make them feel better. "Telling them to be rational will only compound their misery." Once you believe that of some people, you no longer regard them as human beings. You end up regarding them as permanent children, as brain-damage victims who can only be pitied.

This is dear old Stephen Gould's 'different magisteriums' rearing its head yet again, when he was trying to be nice. It has become plain that this just encourages the buggers.

Now logic can be applied to evidence that may or may not be valid. Note the author's use of the word crackpot above. This use of the word is judgemental, and if we could probe this man on the subject we might find his evidence threshold very high, excluding for instance, all those conspiracies in the past our governments have already admitted to.

One of the problems I often encounter in my work is the unfounded, almost religious belief, in computer simulation. Show any number of apparently intelligent people a carefully thought through logical statement on paper and they will disagree with it, ignoring its logic. Wrap it up in a graphic display and it becomes gospel. This is an example of, how we weigh the evidence before us is as important as the evidence itself.

For the truly religious, they have observed the universe and have found evidence in it that points to the existence of a creator. This is, in its own way, just as logical and reasonable as science. It is all in how you weigh the evidence around you.

Scientists look for patterns and then tests those patterns by experiment. They then form theories that best fit those patterns. Along the way they tend to 'park to one side' anything that doesn't fit their belief. Note the pathological clinging to 'General Relativity' despite the hundreds of known holes in it.

Don't confuse science and engineering in this discusion. Most every time the engineering came first and the science followed. Flying buttresses, powered flight, transistors, electric light bulbs, steam engines etc were developed by trial and error and not by scientists. Engineers cludge it together until it works, scientists then form theories as to why it works.

Reason and logic are good things, but they are just as misused in the science camp as in the religeous one. Looking out on a bright spring day and concluding 'This can't have come about by natural selection' is slightly more evidential based than the 'that's because of the Associated Wave Function' I once got from a physicist when I asked for an explanation for the defraction of particles. The physicist had confused a mathematical model that simply describes an effect(approximately) with its causation.

Thinking is good, we should all do it more often.

I disagree with you very strongly about this, as you are already aware, and I am not at all sure what conspiracy theories you think governments have admitted to!

There is nothing at all 'evidence based' about thinking 'goddidit' - and you are missing out the important "we don't know - yet" that all good scientists are well aware exists.

Some engineering may have come about by trial and error, but science is about "Why?", which engineering is not. They are different things.

If you think at any time about any living thing on this planet that, "This could not have come about by natural selection," then you do not understand natural selection - and just because your imagination or understanding fails you does not mean that you are right. Now, if only I could get that across to the idiots...

And, incidentally, arguing from anecdote ("I met a scientist who was wrong, and engineering does much better by trial and error" - despite the number of disasterous errors made by engineers in the past because of said approach) is not going to convince anyone who knows anything at all about the scientific method, the history of science, or simple logic.

Edited at 2009-02-06 03:42 pm (UTC)

Conspiracies admitted to, in no particular order:
UK involvement in US renditions, first totally denied
Cover up at Windscale (scale of fire and impact)
UK pretending to have invented nuclear fusion 1950's
UK/US destabilisation of Iran 1953 setting off bombs killing children while pretending to be communists
NATO involvement in similar bombings in Italy (not yet totally admitted by all involved)
More plans to kill Castro than I can be bothered to name
Injecting Utah schoolchildren with Plutonium to see what happens
US Letting black men die slowly from VD to see what happened
Oliver North et al regarding South America arms, but also selling drugs to US citizens
My favourite: USAF admits that everything it said for 50 years about Roswell was a complete lie. Now they say: no aliens, but a project that didn't start until 5 years after Roswell incident was behind it. Believe us this time, we wouldn't lie to you.
And so on.

Making a value judgement about what you see with your own eyes is 'evidence based'. I didn't say it was strong evidence but what I did say was it was better evidence (qualitatively) than my physicists answer to diffraction.

The French Academy of Science denied that rocks could fall from the sky despite thousands of eye witness reports. They only gave in on the point when a shower of rocks from space bounced off the roofs of Paris for hours.

My point about engineering is that what most claim as a benefit of science is actually a benefit of engineering and I agree with your analysis.

Note that much of the work done in the money making end of universities claims to be science but is actually engineering.

For example: superconductors.

The guys who won the Noble prize for physics with their theory on superconductors were wrong. Their theory actually rejects as impossible the superconductors being used in the super collider. (They operate at too high a temperature). Those 'scientists' who spend their days baking different mixed of ceramic in the hope of finding room temperature superconductors are engineers not scientists. Of course, they will make a fortune when they succeed.

The religious (not me) might say that your failure to see God's hand in the world is a limitation of your imagination.

One man's evidence....

Are those conspiracy theories? Who were the various governments conspiring with? Seems just like the usual cock-ups hidden away to me. There's nothing particularly science based in that list either, except the H-bomb thing, and no-one is suggesting that H-bombs per se don't work or that the science behind it is totally wrong. (Despite what you said earlier about Einstein's General Theory, it has, like Newton's not been set aside but added to. There is plainly truth in it, because it works predictively.) As for Roswell... oh, come on.

The whole point about science theory is that, if it is proved wrong it will be discarded or changed to accept the new data. The first thing that happens when someone publishes a new theory that seems out of left field (such as cold fusion) is that various labs try to replicate it. Wenger's theory of Continental Drift was rejected at the time because there was no mechanism - you couldn't test it. As the evidence built up a mechanism - plate tectonics - was proposed, and tested and was found to work. It may not be entirely accurate or complete, as Newton and Einstein's theories were not complete, but it can be used. It is predictive.

Let's take evolution as another example. That has been changed a good deal, but Darwin and Wallace's insight remains intact, because it is also predictive. I am about to start reading Shubin's Your Inner Fish. Shubin and Co looked at the fossil record and worked out precisely what a the transitional animal between fish and land dwellers would have looked with, when it would have lived, and what type and age of rock such a fossil would have been found in - they found precisely what they predicted they would find in Tiktaalik roseae. No religious insight has ever been able to do anything of a similar nature. That is the difference.

Furthermore, it must be pointed out that those French scientists changed their minds in the face of the evidence. It is what scientists should do - change their minds when they are wrong. Nor do they threaten people who do not believe them with punishment (in an afterlife or otherwise).

Being wrong is a major part of science. I also seem to recall you arguing on the basis that the current hypotheses about string theory and the multiverse were correct. Now, I don't know much about field theory, but I do know that one of the problems with string theory is that is cannot, currently, be tested. It may or may not be correct. Also, in respect of sub-atomic and quantum physics - the whole point in building the collider is to find out if current hypotheses are correct. If they don't find the Higgs Boson they will have to go back to the drawing board, and they are well aware of it.

Have you ever heard of a religious organisation actually conducting experiments to find out if they are right or wrong? Observation, as you are well aware, is only the first part of the scientific method, and the hypothesis is the second - but your example does not go on to a collection of evidence, repeatable experimentation or testing. It ain't science.

And engineering, as you very well know, is mainly based on the consequences of scientific theory. There would be no DNA testing without the work of the scientists who worked on genetic theory, and discovered DNA and its structure. I have high respect for engineers, but you push this argument too far.

Gosh, to me a conspiracy in this context is where elected officials lie to everyone to achieve a hidden agenda. The point about Roswell is the USAF admitted to a 50 year cover up, not what actually happened there. They lied about it for 50 years for god's sake.

What I was trying to say in this comment was not that the scientific method is a bad idea. I'd like to see it used a great deal more by scientists.

I was trying to say that logic and reason are applied to evidence and that all evidence is subjective. Change the way you look at the evidence and you change the outcome of the logic and reason.

Look at the Michelson Morley experiment. These liars and cheats had so much hubris they actually gave their detailed notes to scientific libraries. Notes that showed they only used data that corresponded with their beliefs. Special Relativity was constructed entirely on that experiment. Lucky they cheated right (maybe). I have to rely on the word of people just like them, people who have a strong vested interest in maintaining the status quo. (The experiment was repeated recently when the cheating came to light)

I'm quite fond of Taoism as it was preached but not as it is practised. I have the same problem with science, good method, slightly flawed philosophically, like to see it practised as it is preached.

The point about science is that the lies do, eventually, come to light.

I understand that there is a lot of evidence for special relativity. And you only have to look at quantum mechanics to realise that science will accept experimental evidence even it defies all sense.

The scientific method is a way of examining the world.

Funny, I always thought that a conspiracy required several parties to conspire (see definition of the word) but that's just me (and the Oxford English Dictionary.)

I think you'll find that there are more people in the USAF than Al-Qaeda and that even the Oxford English dictionary concedes that an organisation can conspire. (It just needs plural people)

Oh and that's Albert Michelson and Edward Morley

Amusingly, the UK conspiracy law has convicted and upheld the convictions against single people where all others were found innocent. In UK law it is not necessary for all the conspirators to be aware of the conspiracy, one will do.

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