Calamities of (super)nature

By Phil Plait | June 19, 2011 7:00 am

Calamities of Nature is a webcomic that frequently has skeptical and scientifiic themes. A recent one deals with ghosts and the soul, and it hits on a message I’ve said many times: there’s no such thing as the supernatural. Either something is natural — that is, part of the Universe — or else it doesn’t exist.

If you posit some thing that has no perceivable or measurable effect, then it may as well not exist. And as soon as you claim it does have an effect — it can be seen, heard, recorded, felt — then it must be in some way testable, and therefore subject to science. You can’t claim ghosts are supernatural, beyond the realm of science, but also claim they show up on a freaking thermal camera!

Well, you can claim that, but you’d be wrong. So there you go.

[NOTE: In a funny coincidence, after I drafted this post but before I published it, my fellow Hive Overmind blogger Sean Carroll posted a link to this same cartoon using almost exactly the same post title! COINCIDENCE? Well, yeah, actually. Great minds and all that. I’ll add we chose different panels of the comic to post though.]


Related posts:

The supernatural does not exist
Calamities of (human) Nature
Something smells fishy
Calamities of Nature

Comments (81)

  1. IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE

    [Rant]
    Why is it that most people believe in some form of the supernatural without questioning it, but whenever you put up a sign that says “WET PAINT”, they feel compelled to come and touch the bloody paintwork?!
    [/Rant]

  2. Excellent comic. The “there is no scientific evidence of *magical phenomena of choice* because it exists/operates outside the realm of science” type arguments are rather annoying.

    Just recently I had a proponent of psychic powers twist a similar argument to an astoundingly stupid degree. When I asked them for scientific evidence (their first attempt to address this request was to post a link to a timesonline.com article and refer to it as a ‘peer reviewed article’) they eventually argued that said powers exist outside of science and cannot be proved. They then argued that the existence of psychic powers is a scientific theory because scientific theories also cannot, by definition, be proved. They concluded from this that I must deny theories like evolution because they are also theories, and I must reject all scientific theories on the basis of my request for evidence of psychic powers. After all, why would I bother to request evidence for something that can’t be proved? The mental gymnastics of the whole thing was extraordinary.

  3. Msafwan

    You CANNOT test for the presence of a rat (or supernatural being) or any intelligent evasive species if it refused to appear on sensors!

    And from the perspective of science: “if a phenomenon cannot show up repetitively: then it doesn’t exist, or is a mistake/noise in data” (for example: rat is a good evasive species. You may saw a GLIMPSE of something but you CANNOT be sure if you saw anything! -you are left with self-doubt).

    Supernatural and spirit is about ‘a living magical entity’, it is not about a physical law or a machine that which can be tested repetetitively. (I’m just pointing out this possibility. I myself didn’t trust in supernatural claim. -Because, IMO supernatural claim is usually caused by delusion or is symptom of mental illnesses/cognitive dissonance)

  4. “If you posit some thing that has no perceivable or measurable effect, then it may as well not exist.”

    Yep. There are two other common arguments I frequently come across, but are fallacious:

    1.) “Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean its not there.”

    Proper response: “If you can’t see something (or, otherwise sense it with scientific instruments), you have no way of knowing that it IS there.”

    2.) “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

    Proper response: “Absence of evidence means you have no evidence.”

  5. Actually, there is a major flaw in this logic if you understood religion the way a lot of people believe it.

    Many, if not most Christians, view this world as a place where we are being allowed to decide whether we want to serve God or not without Him interfering. If He interfered it wouldn’t be a valid test just as if your professor helps/hurts your performance during the middle of a final it isn’t a valid final for a school course. It is in *the next life* that God gives out the awards and/or punishments.

    So, this comic is funny and witty on one hand but it also shows that common atheist misunderstands religion as much as Ken Ham’s followers misunderstand science. (But the jokes each side makes are always funny to their own tribe. :) )

  6. Whomever1

    If the big guy with the beard (or his minions) intentionally interfered whenever you tried to weigh a ghost, then you could say the ghost was outside the realm of scientific investigation. But presumably God is so sneaky you’d never know that.

  7. Digital Atheist

    According to the “bible”, you do NOT have the choice of whether you will follow god or not. He decided before you were even born whether you would follow him or not, and even if someone decided that the wished to follow him, he would harden there heart so that they would not be able to accept him.

    Believe it or not, you average atheist DOES understand the “bible” because of growning up and being exposed to it is what drove many to decide to stop following the fairy tale.

    Some questions to be answered are: why should reward/punishment be awarded in some “next life” that no one can prove actually exists? How can anyone with any true compassion look at a new born baby and honestly believe that it is born bearing the sin of some fabled ancestor? How can anyone honestly believe that (s)he is born bearing the sins of the previous 6 generations before they were even conceived?

    My father was a soldier in WW2. Do we bear the sins of those because they were commited to a cause that might take a human life? How about our children? Their children? Their grandchildren? And on and on with each new generation bearing more and more of the load of guilt?

  8. Charlie Prime

    Ghosts probably exist in one of the magical 11 dimensions of String/M theory. We may never know because according to the people who run the Large Hadron Collider, people from the future are thwarting our attempts to break through to these other dimensions.

    If stupid religious taxpayers weren’t so ignorant, we could make them pay for a 274 TEV collider and meet these people from the future.

  9. Joseph Smidt (comment 4), that analogy doesn’t exactly fit. If Christians want to argue that their god purposefully doesn’t provide any physical evidence of his existence as a test, a more appropriate analogy would be that of a professor who doesn’t even tell the students that they are in his class until the exam begins … and failing the exam meant an eternity in hell. It wouldn’t be a fair test. :P

    Also, I don’t think it is a misunderstanding on the part of most atheists – such an argument about ‘god testing us’ is very common. I think it’s just that a lot of us don’t find it convincing. It seems to be a very hand wavy way to explain away a lack of evidence (and in some cases I’ve seen it border on ‘a lack of evidence is evidence that he exists’). I’m generally a little skeptical if someone tells me that a lack of evidence is no problem for said belief, and that it is actually somewhat required. ;)

  10. Jim Baerg

    I don’t think that is what people really mean when they speak of something being ‘supernatural’.

    For an excellent discussion of ‘supernatural’ & ‘paranormal’ see:
    http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2007/01/defining-supernatural.html

    To quote from that essay:
    “In short, I argue “naturalism” means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, “supernaturalism” means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things.”

    By that definition there could be something ‘supernatural’ but it could be investigated by science. There just isn’t any good evidence for the existence of something ‘supernatural’.

  11. abadidea

    Joseph Smidt: A lot of us American atheists happen to be ex-Christians. In fact, I am quite versed in theology. I studied the church fathers, Koine Greek, etc.

    The “can’t detect God because free will” claim is buuuuuuuuuuuuull… shevik. It’s a lame apologetic tactic that desperately tries to line up their BS religion with stark reality. I should have listened to my common sense at age 6 that something wasn’t quite right.

    We don’t misunderstand religion. Just because they claim something as an article of faith doesn’t mean it’s not *stupid.*

  12. Your Name's not Bruce?

    Joseph Smidt @#4 said:

    “Many, if not most Christians, view this world as a place where we are being allowed to decide whether we want to serve God or not without Him interfering. If He interfered it wouldn’t be a valid test just as if your professor helps/hurts your performance during the middle of a final it isn’t a valid final for a school course. It is in *the next life* that God gives out the awards and/or punishments.”

    Many, if not most Christians pray to their god to change the natural course of events to produce better outcomes for themselves or their loved ones. They are asking and counting on this god to have an actual, measurable impact on the real world of flesh and bone and blood and lottery tickets. If their prayers are answered (and there are some who do indeed make this claim, though this god does not seem to see fit to restoring the limbs of amputees….), does that nullify their faith? Is their faith at risk? Is this how those praying actually see this?

    Many, if not most Christians believe the stories in a book that shows constant interference in the world by the god they worship. Clearly, according to this book, this god is (or at least was) capable of producing causal effects in the physical world. Look at all those miracles-and smitings. Would not such interference run counter to this faith “test”, spoiling the results? Could Moses (assuming he even existed) be said to have had faith if he actually witnessed what it he is claimed to have witnessed? Belief in such a god would not be a matter of faith but the simple result of observation of events in the real world. Why do we no longer find such divine interference currently in operation? Is this god now hiding? If it was okay for this being to intrude upon the world in the past, why not now? You can’t have it both ways.

    What is the difference between an invisible, undetectable god an a non-existent one?

  13. Anchor

    Joseph Smidt #5 says, “Actually, there is a major flaw in this logic if you understood religion the way a lot of people believe it…So, this comic is funny and witty on one hand but it also shows that the common atheist misunderstands religion as much as Ken Ham’s followers misunderstand science.”

    Ah, so naturally BELIEF in supernatural shennanigans is exempt from belonging to natural reality.

    Nice to know that selective bias so conveniently comes to the rescue. Just believe it and the OBJECT of the belief is elevated to existence and cannot be investigated by science, such examination being hobbled by the real-world necessity for tangible interaction.

    We may all therefore rest assured nobody can deny any belief or challenge the idea that one’s belief is identical to the object of that belief. Belief is untouchable, therefore the object of the belief must exist. (For extra credit, plug thumbs in both ears, wiggle the fingers, stick out your tongue and whine: “nyaa, nyaa, nyaa-nyaa! Take THAT, you abominable disbelievers!”). Why, its so easy any 6 year-old child can do it.

    You know, I’ve been wondering for ages just where precisely atheists so grievously ‘misunderstand religion’. Thank you for the insight pointing out the “major flaw in this logic”…um, “if you understood religion the way a lot of people believe it.”

    [Also nice to see you repeating your post on both sites, so I thought I’d help contribute to that over-magnification.]

  14. Jay Fox

    Well, they’ve posited both dark matter and dark energy, but haven’t actually detected them. They detect the EFFECTS produced by them.

    What else is “out there” that we cannot yet detect.

    The term “supernatural” is a bit off. Paranormal fits better, as it implies something outside our normal understanding.

  15. PayasYouStargaze

    I’m just disturbed by the character in the green jumper. Is he wearing earmuffs? Is that handle thing part of his head?

  16. Annexian

    Plenty of supernatural events happen. They just don’t happen frequently and predictably enough for the standards “Professional De-bunkers” set. People with just as much respect and “Science” backing them used to prove that people couldn’t go faster than 60 mph and all sorts of other stuff.

    But, find a “Cryptid”, (Cealocanth, Giant Squid) prove things like using the skin to read via heat sensitivity, etc. it no longer becomes “the paranormal” so in essence they’ve set a standard of “Proof” that can never be met.

    The strictest application of the Scientific Method you could say it’s “Inconclusive” that the sun will “Rise” (Relative to the Earth’s rotation, Mr Wizard) tomorrow because it “Might” (very unlikely for a long time, then a near certainty, right?) go Red Giant overnight and fry us. This last bit some companies that made a certain plant product used forever since the connection to cancer was “Inconclusive”… Nice the FAITH you have in vaccine corporations, but oh, well…

    Take note also that all modern science sprang from Sorcerers and Alchemists. Even the major players, like say Newton who read and wrote more on Alchemy than Astronomy – most had big ties like going to seances, magick cult clubs, etc. And I don’t just mean the 1800s or earlier, try Jack Parsons:-) Furthermore it was mystical thinking and some wild tryings that led to most early major discoveries and I’d bet most modern ones too… (they are just afraid of being “Discredited” so easier to hide behind “The Groupthink”) “If my lab was like these modern ones I’d have never discovered penicillin” is a quote I believe from it’s discoverer, Alexander Fleming and I heard it in a science class, not some “Supernatural” book.

  17. Annexian

    Plenty of supernatural events happen. They just don’t happen frequently and predictably enough for the standards “Professional De-bunkers” set. People with just as much respect and “Science” backing them used to prove that people couldn’t go faster than 60 mph and all sorts of other stuff.

    But, find a “Cryptid”, (Cealocanth, Giant Squid) prove things like using the skin to read via heat sensitivity, etc. it no longer becomes “the paranormal” so in essence they’ve set a standard of “Proof” that can never be met.

    The strictest application of the Scientific Method you could say it’s “Inconclusive” that the sun will “Rise” (Relative to the Earth’s rotation, Mr Wizard) tomorrow because it “Might” (very unlikely for a long time, then a near certainty, right?) go Red Giant overnight and fry us. This last bit some companies that made a certain plant product used forever since the connection to cancer was “Inconclusive”… Nice the FAITH you have in vaccine corporations, but oh, well…

    Take note also that all modern science sprang from Sorcerers and Alchemists. Even the major players, like say Newton who read and wrote more on Alchemy than Astronomy – most had big ties like going to seances, magick cult clubs, etc. And I don’t just mean the 1800s or earlier, try Jack Parsons:-) Furthermore it was mystical thinking and some wild tryings that led to most early major discoveries and I’d bet most modern ones too… (they are just afraid of being “Discredited” so easier to hide behind “The Groupthink”) “If my lab was like these modern ones I’d have never discovered penicillin” is a quote I believe from it’s discoverer, Alexander Fleming and I heard it in a science class, not some “Supernatural” book.

    Let me add two more things:

    First, though it seems the “Science Programmers” go over this part the “Discovery” by mathematical proof that the Earth revolves around the Sun was done not by some lone paleo – “scientist” in the dark ages, it came directly from the “Philosopher’s Stone” quest of Astrology: That is, they were looking for a “Working mathematical model” that would predict reliably all the positions of the “Wandering Stars” so you could predict things like eclipses. Predict things others can’t by this method you keep mostly secret, you get to be the dandy of the Kings and are able to always have an explanation for this and that so you are protected from the Church that frowns on Astrologers… Astrologers could -literally- lose their heads if they failed to predict an eclipse or other patterns and something bad happened, like the Alchemists who ended up staking their “Careers” on making Gold but didn’t move on in time.

    In trying to find a working model, Copernicus was basically tearing his hair out because he had a model that almost worked…then he switched the Earth and the SUN…just to test the math to try to find what he’d done wrong… And that was territory he dared not go so he died without revealing (or even using it) but then his assistant published his works and got burned for it…

    Oh, and Sudoku… Probably never heard of Ahmed Al Buni… The RL inspiration for some of Lovecraft’s works, the original “mad Arab Sorceror”… He made what now is the game of “Sudoku” as a mathematical way of working out “Magic Squares” for clients;-)

    Science is wonderful and I like it too. But it’s started to become a “Belief System” of it’s own with “Priests” and “Heretics” in part because it’s acted in opposition to many earlier stupid beliefs. (like the Lightning rod was banned in many countries as an attempt to interfere with God’s will) A flood of “Publish or Perish” information and increasing dependence on corporate sponsorship and appearances backed by “Proof” it risks turning into a rut where it works against new innovation and “The Truth” versus expectations.

  18. noen

    The first dogma of atheism:

    “there’s no such thing as the supernatural. Either something is natural — that is, part of the Universe — or else it doesn’t exist.”

    Which is of course either a tautology, all events must be natural events in the same way that all unmarried men must be bachelors, or else it is unfalsifiable in which case it is simply an article of faith that one must accept dogmatically.

    The second dogma of atheism:

    “atheism can never fail, it can only be failed.”

    The third dogma of atheism:

    “Two legs good, four legs bad!”

  19. PayasYouStargaze

    Oh no. The idiots are back!

  20. Digital Atheist

    The first dogma of religionists:
    “gods” and the like exist because we say the do.

    Of course the fact that you can find absolutely no evidence to prove a “god” exists–except in imagination–is just more proof that some “god” somewhere has to exist. Circular logic is circular, especially when it comes to a “god”.

    Second dogma of religionists:
    Religion can never fail.

    Never mind the honest sincere prayers of devout believers that are never answered, no matter how godly they truly are. Lose an arm or leg and ask for it to be replaced. After all, if you are a devout X-ian, any thing you ask of “god” or “christ” will be granted unto you. If you don’t get the limb back.. well it means you aren’t devout.. yes? So I’ll meet you in a hell that doesn’t exist. You can buy me a tequila or bourbon and I’ll buy you whatever wish to drink/smoke/inject/swallow.

    Third dogma of religionists:
    If it doesn’t walk on two legs it is fair game to be slaughtered. If it does walk on two legs it is fair game to be slaughtered if it believes in a different “god” than us. If it walks on 2 legs and believes in the same good it is fair game for slaughter if we say it is.

    As an atheist, I came to realize that there are creatures on this Earth with much more intelligence than we–as a “god”-fearing bunch of uninformed savages–ever realized. That “bible” says that rabbits chew their own cud, that fowl go upon four legs, and that humans have the right to slaugher at will. Hell, “god” demands slaughter of men, women, children, unborn, and livestock on more than one occasion. Two legs and four legs.

  21. noen

    Digital Atheist Says:
    “According to the “bible”, you do NOT have the choice of whether you will follow god or not. “

    No, there is no such thing as “according to the Bible”. Only atheists and fundamentalists believe that. It is an illegitimate inference to conclude that the theology you were raised to believe is necessarily everyone’s theology. The belief that there is one and only one correct message contained in an sacred text is called fundamentalism. Not everyone is one.

    This may shock you but not everyone is a Calvinist, not even Calvinists.

    “Some questions to be answered are: why should reward/punishment be awarded in some “next life” that no one can prove actually exists?”

    Similarly, not every theology accepts the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. My guess is that you’ll simply dismiss out of hand those theologians who hold a different belief because 1). that is what you were raised to believe so it must be true and 2). it is a belief you reject and have arguments against and admitting that other interpretations are possible threatens your belief system because it’s very important to rage rage against daddy.

    “How can anyone with any true compassion look at a new born baby and honestly believe that it is born bearing the sin of some fabled ancestor?”

    Again, not everyone believes or interprets the concept of original sin in that way. Some do, some do not.

    “My father was a soldier in WW2. Do we bear the sins of those because they were commited to a cause that might take a human life?”

    And here I thought you knew what you were talking about. Are you confusing original sin with the Old Testament “the sins of the father are visited on his children”? Ya know, you aren’t required to avoid shrimp either. The Bible is not a book to be interpreted literally. That is in fact a form of idolatry. A trait that atheists and fundamentalists share.

    Heathens ;)

  22. Digital Atheist

    Oh believe me, I understand the concept between “original sin” and Sins visitied upon the generations. It is nitpicking to pretend there is a difference between the two. Something that is visited upone following generations for 7 generations or all eternity is still a moral pile of crap regardless of how you try to word it. No one is guilty of the crimes committed by their ancestors… ever.

    According to “jesus” he was not here to supplant the law but to fulfull it. You are still required to follow all of the old testament laws, so that means you are not allowed to eat shrimp, nor are you allowed to wear clothes of two different fibers. Unless you are saying that “jesus” is not the true messiah (and to be honest he actually meets NONE of the original OT requirements for the messiah). In that case, anything he says–even though some of it really are good ways to treat each other–does not matter.

    You are trying to pussy-foot around the issue. If–as most religionists try to argue–the “bible” is INFALLABLE then yes, every thing ever written in it is the absolute never changing word of “god”… who says that he has already decided who will follow him and who won’t. If you don’t believe it, go crack open your bible (a collection of books) and start reading.

    As for bibles, I have the commonly accepted KJV, Al Qu-ran, and more apochryphal, heretical, and pagan texts than you can shake a stick at.

    Religionists love to say that their bible is infallable, then try to say that everything they don’t agree with was nullified by the newish testament (pseudogriphica that it is). This is no different at all from the law of abrogation applied to Al’ Quran when trying to explain the different teachings of “muhammed”.

    You say that the bible is not to be interpreted literally. So, you believe that in some cases the bible fails. If you truly believe this, then according to most biblicval scholars you will be joining me in hell… so tell me what you would like to drink as we discuss our disagreements. :D I’m willing to buy. ;-) Peace

  23. noen

    Digital Atheist Says:
    “gods” and the like exist because we say the do.

    Oh. I see you’re here, good, maybe we can even talk a little. *I* don’t say that gods exist. I just happen to actually know a thing or two and so I correct mistakes when I come across them. If you were a theist I would correct any errors you made from that world view also.

    “Of course the fact that you can find absolutely no evidence to prove a “god” exists–except in imagination–is just more proof that some “god” somewhere has to exist.”

    Evidence can never confirm a theory, it can only disconfirm one. As an agnostic I don’t believe that god has to exist (I don’t even know what that would mean), I simply doubt that atheism is true, same for theism.

    “Never mind the honest sincere prayers of devout believers that are never answered”

    Sincere prayers are always answered, I do believe that. By whom, well… that’s a different question. Here is a related question. Suppose that I write a letter, not addressed to anyone in particular, and then I put it away, say in a shoebox in my closet. So here is the question, “Does my letter arrive at it’s destination”?

    I say it does.

    “If it doesn’t walk on two legs it is fair game to be slaughtered. If it does walk on two legs it is fair game to be slaughtered”

    “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”

    “As an atheist, I came to realize that there are creatures on this Earth with much more intelligence than we”

    I’m pretty sure there are no other intelligent life forms on this Earth other than ourselves so I must assume that you are speaking from a place of despair. You were raised a fundamentalist, you discovered the world is bigger than that and now you have a sad. This happens to tribalistic cultures when they encounter modernity. It’s destabilizing and disorienting. So you search for and find another absolute authoritarian belief system into which you can hide and lick your wounds. The other solution is alcohol, that’s why you’ll find many aboriginals and natives turn to alcoholism. It’s because their life world was taken from them.

    The trick is to live with uncertainty and doubt and to not try to find security in Truth on either end of the theist-atheist dialectic. There is nowhere to stand, no solid ground, no one true representation of the world.

    All that is solid melts into air, as it should.

  24. Your Name's not Bruce?

    noen:

    So which parts of the bible are supposed to be historically, factually accurate and which ones are open to other interpretations and how does one distinguish between the two? It would be helpful if the symbolic, metaphorical bits were italicized or in a different colour to allow people to distinguish them. Is this how it works: things that have now been explained better by science (the six honest to goodness, literal 24 hour days of creation in Genesis) are now to be interpreted symbolically and metaphorically, whereas in the past it was okay to read them as literally true? If this is the case, this means that the “true” portions of the bible will tend to get smaller and smaller over time as people learn more about the workings of the natural world and no longer need to believe the statements made in the bible regarding said workings.

    Of all the thousands of variations of Christianity from which one might choose, how does one determine which one is correct? How do you know that your interpretation is correct over anyone else’s? How do you know that Christianity is the correct description of how the universe works and that all the other religions are wrong? What are the consequences, if any, of choosing incorrectly? Just curious.

  25. abadidea

    noen, you sound like your theology is so vague (and therefore useless) that trying to argue any point with you is like nailing jello to more jello. Are you a lawyer?

    And how can there be no such thing as “according to the Bible”? It’s a book. There are words in it. Those words have meanings. There are MANY things which are according to the Bible.

    Now, granted, the Bible is self-contradicting in a few hundred places – but that’s because it’s essentially just a very very long fan fiction about someone’s ancestors, with someone’s acid trip tacked on to the end for good measure.

    edit: noen’s most recent comment was posted while I was writing this.

  26. PayasYouStargaze

    @23 neon

    Way to misquote someone for you own ends. DA said “I came to realize that there are creatures on this Earth with much more intelligence than we ever realized” which has a completely different meaning to what you responded to.

    But then I know from our “conversation” the other day that you misrepresent the views of others as a matter of course. In fact your first post in every comments section is just blasting your strawman view of atheism. This despite our attempts to teach you what it really means.

  27. noen

    try this again

    Digital Atheist Says:
    “Something that is visited upone following generations for 7 generations or all eternity is still a moral pile of crap regardless of how you try to word it.”

    I like how atheists are almost all moral realists. It’s cute. Who’s a cute moral realist? It’s you!

    “You are still required to follow all of the old testament laws”

    Still with the fundamentalism? Really? You know, just keep repeating it over and over, someday it’ll be true!

    “You are trying to pussy-foot around the issue.”

    Which is better than p@nis-footing around issues. Because it’s *manly* to be tough, and hard, and rigid, and firm, and erect and….. oh my!

    “If–as most religionists try to argue–the “bible” is INFALLABLE”

    I was not raised to believe in the doctrine of biblical infallibility. I’m a Lutheran! ;)
    (come on….. this is funny stuff)

    Did you know that? I’m going to guess that according you we weren’t “real” Christians either. Yes, as a child in sunday school I was specifically taught that we did not believe the bible was INFALLABLE! (apparently atheists also believe that all caps makes things really true.)

    …then yes, every thing ever written in it is the absolute never changing word of “god”

    Contrawise if you don’t accept the doctrine of biblical infallibility then one is not required to hold that every statement is absolutely true. See??

    “As for bibles, I have the commonly accepted KJV, Al Qu-ran, and more apochryphal, heretical, and pagan texts than you can shake a stick at. “

    Yes but can you understand them? There is a reason why just reading a book is not enough and why if one’s sole mode of learning is through books only then one is not really educated at all.

    “You say that the bible is not to be interpreted literally. “

    I’ll go one better. I’ll say that we do not have unmediated access to truth.

    “If you truly believe this, then according to most biblicval scholars you will be joining me in hell…”

    So? I’m not seeing an actual argument here. 1). I don’t think your claim is true that most biblical scholars insist on biblical literalism (in fact I know it to be false) and 2). I don’t care.

  28. Hey Msafwan (#3)

    You may never actually see the rat, but there’s probably lots of other evidence. Do your ghosts/souls leave little piles of crap everywhere?

  29. PayasYouStargaze

    @27 neon

    How’s your crusade going? Who’s a cute crusader? It’s you!

    Yes, it’s time to start mocking you. You insist on ignoring what atheists actually say, attributing characteristics and flaws to us that we do not have. This is not the same as what you claim we are doing. In each of our arguments, we use the position given by a theist somewhere, even if it is not your particular version. But in fact, the details of the religious belief are irrelevant, because it is faith itself that we are arguing against.

    I shouldn’t need to say this again, but atheism is a lack of belief in gods, not a belief in the lack of gods, and as such is a rational position.

    As I told you the other day, everything you said is wrong, but now it’s obvious that you won’t let anyone teach you what is right either.

  30. Digital Atheist

    So, you chose either chapter 1 of Genesis which says that animals were created before humans, or Chapter 2 which says humans were created before animals? Which is truth and which is allegory? How is any human supposed to decide which is truth and whish is fairy tale?

    By the way, nice way to misquote me as to “I came to realize that there are creatures on this Earth with much more intelligence than we ever realized”.

    So which are you going with? Is the “bible” the inerrant word of “god”, or is it a collection of tales that may be true, allegory, or parables, depending on who deciphers the sections or not? hmm? Peace. :D

  31. Grimbold

    @29 Payas-

    To be fair though, noen isn’t the only one setting up straw man caricatures of other peoples’ beliefs.

  32. noen

    Your Name’s not Bruce? Says:
    “So which parts of the bible are supposed to be historically, factually accurate and which ones are open to other interpretations and how does one distinguish between the two? “

    I’m not defending the bible or any particular theology. I’m just providing a counter to the atheist strawman that all religion must necessarily be fundamentalist. It need not be and I just point out the mere fact that other traditions do exist.

    Things…“have now been explained better by science”

    Religion isn’t about facts. Science tells us what is in fact the case. Religion, or “metaphysical/philosophical traditions” tell us how we should live.

    “Of all the thousands of variations of Christianity from which one might choose, how does one determine which one is correct? “

    They are of course all true. All of them, even atheism.

    “How do you know that Christianity is the correct description of how the universe works”

    There is no correct description of how the world works. All we have are descriptions, nothing else. All of them are true and all of them contradict one another. That description is true.
    ——-

    abadidea Says:
    “your theology is so vague (and therefore useless)”

    What would you have it do? Theology is the study of religion so I don’t see where utility enters in.

    “And how can there be no such thing as “according to the Bible”? “

    The same way that there is no such thing as “according to Dostoevsky”. He also used words, which also have meanings. There is no single meaning for any given text because there is no author who can give one absolute meaning to any text.
    ——-

    PayasYouStargaze Says:
    “This despite our attempts to teach you what it really means.”

    I disagree with you about what it really means. You have a strange idea of what a conversation is. Apparently to you it means you dictating to me. That’s unlikely to pan out for you.

  33. PayasYouStargaze

    @32 neon

    You might disagree with what it means, but we have repeatedly told you what it means because it is the position we hold. At least you could attempt to hold the high ground and present our position honestly. When we argue against theists, we always use try to use the positions that they themselves have told us. I admit that because we are not perfect, we might confuse them from time time to time and get them wrong. But we are happy to be corrected. You have yet to acknowledge our corrections of your view of our position.

    In a conversation, both parties talk and listen. You have not listened yet.

  34. Digital Atheist

    So noen, one question: is the “bible” inerrant (every thing it says is the absolute word of “god”) or is it errant (the “bible” contains a mixture of allegory (fiction) and truth? There is no pussy-footing around this. If it is a mixture then there is no way you can ever know which is truth and which is fiction. If it is inerrant, then you are doomed for hell because you you do not follow every law of the old and new testaments (even if “jesus” and “paul” disagree more than once about what is proper for an Xian).

    So, again, is the “bible” inerrant or errant? There is not other proper answer to this. No weasle words allowed.

    My answer: the “bible” is so errant that if it were to be submitted for publication today it would never see print.

  35. Sam H

    “Either something is natural – that is, part of the Universe – or else it doesn’t exist”

    Don’t many legitimate cosmologists currently disagree with this notion? (although I know all multiverse hypotheses aren’t empirical, and probably can’t be by definition, but anyway…)

    “If you posit some thing that has no perceivable or measurable effect, then it may as well not exist”

    For all matters of practicality it’s pretty hard to argue with The Invisible Pink Unicorn, Russell’s Teapot and the dragon in Sagan’s garage. However, it’s still impossible to conclusively disprove their existence, so as usual the most logical position to take is agnosticism on all unknown matters. This of course comes back to the old rule that science can’t prove or disprove anything conclusively – the ghosts may be completely isolated in their own separate plane of existence, or God may be completely indifferent to the human race and the workings of the universe – what science can do is observe how much of an effect they have that exists in the observable world. One may say that Occam’s razor (or by extension Hume’s fork) cuts away what is not purely empirical or logically simple and renders it nonexistent, but one thing that some seem to forget in these matters (especially in the question of God or the supernatural’s existence) is that Occam’s razor is not and never was an inalienable law of the universe – it’s only a scientific and logical rule of thumb, and in the absence of empirical evidence it’s conclusions are not absolute.

    As for all the rants from digital atheist and others that popped up: while atheists can certainly have a good understanding of religion, most are simply incredulous to the religious experience. It’s hard to clearly explain, but basically those who are religious don’t need an explanation in rational, scientific terms – the experience of their lives is proof enough. Regardless of whether or not God is real, or whether or not spiritual experiences, NDEs and seeing divine action in the happenings of everyday life are simply effects of the lens of the human psyche (which they very likely could be), the experiences of our lives are impossible for us to totally deny – especially when these experiences impact us emotionally at the core of our being. I am reminded of Ellie Arroway, who – despite being a diehard atheist/agnostic who held a disdain for religion – could only depend on faith and her human experience as evidence for her amazing voyage, when everyone else saw her pod fall straight through the Machine (18 hours of static/lost time doesn’t apply here; the novel made clear there were explanations that didn’t involve a trip to the galactic core & thus were in line with Occam’s razor). And while I haven’t had any amazing experiences myself, my own example includes my father (a lifelong Christian who firmly believes that he touched Jesus’ garment in a parallel of the gospel account of the shy bleeding women who was healed in the same manner, which resulted in the end of the bleeding of his own infection) and my amazing Drama teacher (not Christian, but she believes her mother communicated with her posthumously in an intimate manner), and others. I didn’t have their experiences, but I can’t doubt their sincerity – Whatever science may say it just feels wrong to think of them as being deluded. I don’t lose sleep over things like this (well, not usually) but rule still applies.

    If anyone wonders as to my viewpoint, I would say I’m agnostic at the moment. But due to my religious upbringing part of me will always be Christian. This can get annoying sometimes (whatever logical fallacies they may have I unfortunately succumb quite easily to the “authority” of creationists, and it’s quite hard to think clearly when assessing their arguments), but I don’t mind – far from being “child abuse” my upbringing has given me the gift of living with the Christian experience, giving me deeper insight into the nature of Christianity that outsiders don’t often possess. Like most things, my opinions are subject to change during these tumultuous, hormone-spiked adolescent years regardless of the evidence, but thankfully this has truly taught me how to keep an open mind.

    /end of line.

  36. Steve Metzler

    If stupid religious taxpayers weren’t so ignorant, we could make them pay for a 274 TEV collider and meet these people from the future.

    Wins the thread, no contest.

  37. Duff Smith

    I get the whole scientific reductionist thing and it’s a useful point of view to consider when seeking fact on almost anything.

    Then sometimes, police investigators have to assemble a body of established facts that at least begins with anecdotal witness testimonies. They might find themselves in pursuit of a suspect that tampers with evidence, interferes with witnesses, etc. Sometimes it’s a human organization run by people smarter than the investigators themselves, who have an entire public relations department at their disposal.

    You see where I’m going here. You know what humans are capable of, but you put it right past entities such as God, aliens, or ghosts which could be smarter than humans. In the case of non-supreme entities such as aliens or ghosts, they may be subject to forms of governance that prohibit them from revealing themselves to the masses.

    Have you seen the Fox News video of the scientist who’s trying to figure out how to send information back through time? Do you think it can ever be done? If so, what are the implications? If you don’t like the way paranormal investigators go about their work, why don’t you step up and come up with what you think is a better approach? You know, besides the dissmissivist thing.

    My recent interview on Spiritually Raw:

    http://spirituallyraw.podomatic.com/entry/2011-06-06T09_09_50-07_00

  38. Digital Atheist

    @Sam H

    I used to be a Souther Baptist. Belive me, when I say I believed without questioning everything that was taught to me. I consider myself lucky in that I had a pastor who honestly tried to live a life as defined by Christ, not the “bible”. He was the kind of man who would loan you his car if yours was in the garage. He was also the kind of person who would tell yiou if he discovered later that he was wrong, or that he had been unclear or had misspoken. I wish truly and honestly that the majority of people that I had to deal with (who claim to be X-ians) were the same. He also was the type of person who would tell you to read for yourself and decide for yourself and would listen to (and actually consider) what you had to say… and if your arguments made since, would admit it.

    I don’t dislike anyone because of their chosen religion. If I did, I would have to disapprove of my parente, both of my nieces (who are two of the prettiest and smartest ladies I could ever ask to know {my oldest is as much my sister as my niece]), my two nephews (both of whom have been willing to risk life and limb for people they never, nor ever will, know), my sister (who is as much a second mother as is possible), and my brother (who once said I was his best friend and who is mine), not to mention numerous cousins and friends who are X-ians and Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans, and numerous other flavors of religions.

    However, I can say this: None of them, as far as I know, has been told that they deserve to die because of what they believe. I have. The funny thing is that while I spent 9 years in the Army protecting others’ right to speak out about their religion, I still get threatened with with death or hell because of my religious (or lack there of) beliefs.

    I wish no evil upon anyone except those who do evil to others. I don’t care what religion a perswon follows as long as they follow one rule: “Do no harm to others.” Once you do harm (unprovoked) then you open yourself to the rule of law. I do not blindly follow the death penalty, although there are people (like the people who willingly and enthusiastically murdered my best friend and then tried to plead having become X-ians) who deserve punishment beyond the norm. And I will say that like all humans, I am human (in the case of my friend as an example), I also hope I can grow beyond that.

    Do not ever believe that I do not know about X-ianity or its beliefs. I grew up with them as my bread and butter… but I also strived to grow beyond them… else I would have had to publically stone several of my friends as gay/ lesbian/bisexual, and kill several more because they believed in different “gods”. No thanks. Each and every one was a precious part of my life that i will never want to have been absent because of who they were or what they believed.

  39. abadidea

    Sam H: Everything I’ve read about multiple universes hypotheses lays it out pretty clearly that, as far as we know, the idea is inherently untestable and if the other universes do indeed exist, our universe is not *one iota different* than if they didn’t, meaning that their existence *does not matter* in any tangible way except as an exciting thought in the human mind which goes on to inspire cheap Saturday morning superhero cartoons. Which brings us right back to the point of the comic that if it “exists”, but is utterly incapable of interacting with the matter and energy of our universe, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist.

    Also, again, a very large portion of American atheists are ex-Christians – we know exactly what those “religious experiences” are that the religious go on and on about like we’re incapable of understanding. I’ve experienced them in spades. You know what? The human mind is a horrible mess, shaped like putty by outside influences, that constantly tricks itself and fabricates things outright. (One word for anyone who disagrees: dreams.) I never saw any ghosts. I didn’t have astral projections. I never talked with my guardian angel. It was all in my head, and my personal investment in believing myself firmly held down the little voice in the back of my head saying “you’re exaggerating what you felt and acting like dreams really happened” for years.

    The most powerful and wonderful “religious experience” I ever had came not from the cheap parlor tricks of the local church, but from pointing a radio telescope at the Milky Way at 4am in an underground bunker, and watching the little ticker tape register the signal of hydrogen, and all at once my mind was blown with “HOLY FREAKING HECK THERE REALLY IS AN INFATHOMABLY HUGE CLOUD OF HYDROGEN AND DUST SPINNING AROUND IN SPACE AND WE’RE A MOTE SUSPENDED IN A SUNBEAM AND FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF WHOOOOAAAAA.” The night I finally ditched the squalor of religion and embraced being honest with myself :)

    Quoting *fiction* as a testament of an atheist feeling That Amazing Faithy Feeling seems rather pointless by the way, no matter who wrote it.

  40. PayasYouStargaze

    And in the same way that Digital Atheist used to be a Southern Baptist, I used to be a Catholic. In fact I was confirmed Catholic and I believed everything I was taught until I learned to think critically. I used to pray with all my heart because I was told god would listen. Then I noticed it didn’t matter if I did or not. I stayed “on the fence” until university, when I met a Catholic Irish girl. As lovely as she was, I suddenly got a new perspective on what were exactly my own beliefs. So you see, it’s not just American atheists who were once religious.

    I will not have people telling me what I believe. Which is why I object to neon’s strawmen so much. You’ll notice that all my replies to neon have been on this subject.

    But in other cases when I do argue against religion, I generally do so against my own past beliefs. This is advantageous as Catholicism is quite a common form of Christianity around here, followed by the almost identical Anglican. I do this unless I have been given a particular argument.

  41. Digital Atheist

    @abadidea:

    while I don’t have a radio telescope, I do have a Celestron 114mm reflector. I know that it isn’t all that powerful, but I do recall one night years ago when I was able to observe Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and the Gallilean moons, Saturn and Titan, and Uranus (as a very small speck of brightly colored light). If I was a religionist i would say it was a religious experience. As is, I will say it was an eye opening experience that proves that the world and the universe is more beautiful that any ancient text can even pretend to explain.

    I have seen stars and nebulae with that little scope, but the things that draw me back are the planets and Luna. I can seriously gaze at those all night long. I know that stars and galaxies, nebulae and such should grab my attention, but the planets of our Solar system… when I look at those orbs I can sympathize with religionists on a certain level. They take my breath away, and just knowing that some of them may either harbor life, or the precursors of life is one of the most astounding things I can imagine.

  42. PayasYouStargaze

    @41 DA

    (Didn’t like that wording)

    Yeah, looking up at the stars is always amazing for me. It’s a chance to think deeply about the universe. I don’t even have a ‘scope or anything.

  43. Jonathan

    Discovery Canada channel is where it’s at tonight.. Bad Universe marathon!!

  44. Digital Atheist

    I bought my first telescope, a 60mm refractor so long ago I can’t remember. Then I gave it to my oldest nephew right after I bought my 114mm. I love looking at stars, hence the different sets of binoculars and such that I own, but if I had to choose a field, I would have been a planetologist. Don’t get me wrong, I love black holes, quasars, nebulae and the like, but when it comes to our own neighbors, the likenesses and the differences are what thrill me. To me there is nothing more exciting than seen the bands around Jupiter, or the rings of Saturn. Ice caps on Mars… count me in. The almost visible to the naked eye phases of Venus… Heck yes! I can even drag my telescope out in the day time, and use a piece of paper to see sunspots. And don’t get me started on Luna. One of the most fun times I ever had was teaching my oldest niece how Luna could always show the same face to Earth, and still revolve at the same time. I started a few little experiments/lessons then that I called back yard science.

  45. PayasYouStargaze

    Wait a second. By Luna do you mean The Moon? You fancy astronomer types always confuse me with your fancy names for things.

  46. Digital Atheist

    @44

    Yes, in my case Luna=Moon. Don’t ask when the change occured. It is just my way of seperating Our moon from the the moons of the other planets. For me it is very hard at times to seperate Luna from Titan, Io, Callisto, Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Triton, Phobos, Deimos, etc. All are moons/satellites, whichever you prefer. While I’m am no fancy astronomer ala our beloved Dr. Plait, Over the years, certain names stuck with me. Luna, for whatever reason, is the name that stuck with me for our own moon, a beautiful, glorious object in its own right. Even more beautiful is watch the Gallilean moons of Jupiter perform their own dance around their planet on subsequent nights. (At this point I truly hope that other amateur/backyard astronmers will back me up… even if it is only a little bit). Call me a backyard planetologist I guess.

  47. Zathras

    @39 Sam H
    To quote the original badass Jaffa warrior Teal’c:
    (as he blasted an alternate universe Teal’c to smithereens)
    “Ours is the only reality of consequence, O’Neill”

  48. RaginKagin

    You a skeptic or something?

  49. noen

    PayasYouStargaze Says:
    “You might disagree with what it means, but we have repeatedly told you what it means because it is the position we hold.”

    The position you hold is irrational. Let’s recap. It is my understanding that you hold that atheism is the absence of belief in god. Therefore, according to you it is the theist who assumes the burden of proof. However this will not do. Consider the contrary case. If we define an anti-theist as someone who denies that god exists then a theist is someone who lacks that belief. She need only fail to have that anti-theistic belief that it is not the case that god exists and so the burden of proof falls upon the anti-theist. She is within her intellectual rights for refusing to become an anti-theist. If your argument holds then my counter also holds.

    The problem is that the terms we are talking about here are very ambiguous. The statement “S does not believe in god” can be understood as “‘god exists’ is not in the set of all beliefs held by S”. It can also mean that S does have a belief about god, namely: “god does not exist” or “it is very probable that god does not exist”. In the latter case then the atheist bears as much a burden of proof as the theist does. There are few to none atheists who have no belief of god whatsoever, therefore the atheist claim that the theist bears sole burden of proof is false.

    Finally, the case is made from etymology that the particle “a” means “without” and does not mean “not”. But the original root is theos not theism. I don’t think the Greeks attached “a” to English words. Moreover the Greek Stoics formed words by negation of assertables. If “theos” is the assertion it is the case that God then “A-Theos” must be it is not the case that god.

    Finally, the assertion is made that in order to be justified in believing something one needs an argument or evidence supporting one’s belief. Faith does not rest on evidential grounds, therefore it is unjustified and irrational to believe something on faith. This principle was first advocated by W.K. Clifford. Let us assume that it is correct, that before we can be justified in a belief we must first have evidence in support of that belief. But what evidence is there for Clifford’s principle? None is given, one assumes that it is meant to be adopted axiomatically. But I can think of no reason why, if some particular view seems plausible to a person that it must necessarily be irrational for her to accept it.

    How is it irrational to violate an unsupported principle? Refusing to entertain counter arguments is one thing but it is not irrational in itself to hold a belief without sufficient evidence. In the face of massive countervailing evidence yes, otherwise, I don’t think so.

    Hence:
    Atheists and theists alike bear the burden of proof for their respective claims.
    Atheism is not the absence of belief but a positive assertion of god’s non-existence.
    Belief without evidence or argument is not irrational.

  50. noen

    Digital Atheist Says:
    “So noen, one question: is the “bible” inerrant … or is it errant?”

    I am now all done growed up now but as a child I was taught that God speaks through the Bible but is not to be confused with the Bible. This is standard Lutheran theology and consistent with Catholicism too. You heathen Baptists! ;)

    Some dude, you may have heard of him, wrote a book about Either/Or and the fallacy of thinking that everything reduces to binary decisions. You sh0uld look him up. Even better, do so under the tutelage of someone who knows more than you do. Otherwise you’ll get nowhere.

    “So, again, is the “bible” inerrant or errant? There is not other proper answer to this. No weasle words allowed.”

    Your faith that there is “no other proper answer to this” is in fact exactly what I object to. I suspect this is a foundational issue and I just don’t see it your way. You demand a Yes or a No —

    My answer is Po.

    PayasYouStargaze Says:
    “And in the same way that Digital Atheist used to be a Southern Baptist, I used to be a Catholic.”

    Since we’re being all confessional an stuff I was raised Lutheran ALC, about as liberal as you can get before Unitarianism (there is not enough coffee in the world….) Then as a youngin’ I read Ayn Rand and joined Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s atheist cult. Then I grew up. Now I consider myself an agnostic who strongly rejects both atheism and theism. But I always doubt. And I doubt my doubt.

    I come here because I respect Phil Plait, truly, and because there are smart people who don’t freak out tooooooo much when I push boundaries. I think of the mental world as a landscape and I’m looking for a path no one has even been down before. I am no where close but, there it is.

    It’s been real, I appreciate the replies, honest.

    (btw, if someone sets me up I must complete the joke. It’s a law of the universe. I can’t help it, I’m just drawn this way.)

  51. Ema Nymton

    Damn, noen!

    You’re a moron!

    For proof, refer to your posts.

  52. Cynthia

    I understand this. But I do watch ghost hunters for serious entertainment.

  53. AJKamper

    Noen:

    I find your posts interesting and don’t at all feel attacked, but I think you’re missing the boat on the nature of atheism. I agree with you that the religion most atheists attack is fundamentalist religion, for the simple reason that fundamentalists are the only ones that really feel the need to tell atheists that we’re wrong and reshape the nation in their own image so that we’re forever sidelined. But I digress.

    No, I think your idea of what an atheist is is awry. To illustrate, let’s take “God” out of the occasion and replace it with, say, nerve-gas-farting dragons, specifically 20-foot-long ones that live in your closet but are very good at hiding. Now, unless you’ve read a certain Neal Stephenson novel it’s unlikely you’ve ever considered the existence of these dragons, much less that they’d roost in your closet. In effect, you didn’t believe in them, but without ever asserting that belief. Nonetheless, a believer in such things wouldn’t hesitate to consider you an asarindraconist.

    Similarly, consider a society of people for whom the “god” concept never even existed; they had a purely naturalistic view of the world and never thought anything else. They’d undeniably be atheists, but to say that they carried some burden of proof would be nonsensical. They would prove specific statements–say, the existence of the Big Bang–but would never try to prove the nonexistence of God, because they wouldn’t have to.

    The point is that this society, like you with respect to nerve-gas-farting dragons or a baby with respect to everything would be described as not having a belief without ever needing to actively reject that belief. In my view, what every atheist is really saying is repeating Laplace’s statement: “I have no need of that hypothesis.” Some people go further, and I think that’s a mistake, but one doesn’t need to in order to be an atheist.

  54. Thameron

    “it can be seen, heard, recorded, felt — then it must be in some way testable, and therefore subject to science. ”

    There you have it. String Theory is not science. Time travel is not science. Wormholes are not science. So it begs the question – why do the champions of science speak about these things as if they were?

  55. Wzrd1

    Thameron, not only that, gravitons don’t exist, nor do gravity waves. I can name hundreds of things currently untestable, but firmly believed by scientists, so those scientists are heretics to the holiest of holies, EXPERIMENTAL PROOF.
    Of course, we’ve already known this, after all, it’s well established that string theory is black heresy. ;)

  56. Patrik

    @Thameron 54

    They do? Scientists are often imaginative people that sometimes speculate, it is often confused with science by people that doesn’t know better.

  57. PayasYouStargaze

    @49 neon

    “[waffle]

    “Atheism is not the absence of belief but a positive assertion of god’s non-existence.”

    No neon. This is wrong. Atheism is an absence of belief, for myself and millions of others. Why can’t you understand that? No amount of word games will changed that. I’m tired of you telling me what I believe when I don’t! This is ironic because that is what you accuse atheists of doing yourself.

    I do not claim that there are no gods. I claim that I don’t believe in gods because there is no evidence for them. It is not rational to entertain the possibility of existance of a being if no evidence for it has ever existed. The burden of proof is on those who assert that something exists despite the lack of evidence for it. Do you understand?

    Now if you want to talk about anti-theists, fine. They assert that which they cannot know in the same way as theists. You talk about faith. The rationalist will reject faith entirely out of principle. When you do that, atheism is the only rational conclusion because it does not require faith.

  58. harry tuttle

    No physicist believes any current version of string theory to be ‘true’ as it is an incomplete mathematical progression that is worked on purely because it has promising looking avenues to explore that might present us with testable predictions if we hack at it long enough. Or then again it might not. So it goes.

    Time travel exists and is testable with atomic clocks, at least in the forwards direction. Getting back is a bit of an issue admittedly.

    There is currently little or no direct evidence for wormholes. However given they are not a theory in and of themselves, but rather are a predicted phenomena of a theory that in other phenomena has made many valid predictions, they are a reasonable thing to work out how to look for.

    As far as gravitons and gravity waves, I am glad that someone is certain that they don’t exist. I can’t think of a single physicist who is absolutely sure that they do. If physicists were sure they existed then it would be fairly pointless spending extremely large sums of money trying to find out if they exist or not and instead the money could be spent investigating things that were in doubt.

    You do of course realise that research scientists don’t generally research things that they already believe to be completely true, as it kind of misses the point of the entire exercise.

    Oh, and Ema Nymton – I second you on that motion…. ;]

  59. Nigel Depledge

    Chris (9) said:

    It seems to be a very hand wavy way to explain away a lack of evidence (and in some cases I’ve seen it border on ‘a lack of evidence is evidence that he exists’).

    I think Adams (1979) gave us the best formulation of this argument:

    “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says god, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”

    “But,” says man, “the babelfish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It proves you exist, therefore, you don’t”.

    “Oh dear,” says god, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

    Many leading theologians consider this argument to be a load of dingoes’ kidneys . . .

  60. Nigel Depledge

    Jim Baerg (10) said:

    To quote from that essay:
    “In short, I argue “naturalism” means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, “supernaturalism” means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things.”

    By that definition there could be something ‘supernatural’ but it could be investigated by science. There just isn’t any good evidence for the existence of something ‘supernatural’.

    Unfortunately, this assumes that there is something qualitatively different about mental experience as opposed to physical processes. And yet all mental phenomena should – in principle – reduce to physical processes. Even such things as dreams and hallucinations.

    Additionally, this idea gives us no way to distinguish any “supernatural phenomenon” from an hallucination. Both are mental things that cannot be reduced to nonmental things.

    Finally, this argument also implies that all supernatural phenomena arise within the mind alone, and this does not fit with all of the claims that are made for ghosts and suchlike (aura photography and similar such tricks that supposedly provide “evidence” for the supernatural).

  61. Bob_In_Wales

    Re the Neon vs Others debate. Reading through all the posts in order it seems to me the reason no one is agreeing on anything is that half a dozen points are being stirred into one big pot. They need to be teased out. I’m going to pick one point.

    What is an atheist? Is it someone with no belief in God/gods or it it someone who has a belief that there is no God/gods?

    Really guys, come on, we all know this is a silly / non question! Neon – you’ve said repeatedly that different Christians believe different things and that atheists should not attack one Christian for holding the different beliefs of other Christians. Fine. You’re right.

    But please, understand that atheism is a fast growing belief system and is probably comparable to 1st, 2nd and/or 3rd century Christianity, that is a huge developing mix of different people and groups thinking different things. Hell, I would call myself an agnostic atheist under current conventions but would have to say in the last 20 years I’ve been an agnostic, an atheist, a don’t care, a born again Christian, a simple Presbyterian and possibly several other things as well as my thoughts on the subject have developed.

    And really, your attempt to create a single homogenous group of “atheists” and to define what they believe by going back to the root of the word is simply – and I’m sorry to have to say this – embarassing. It’s a bit like saying a phobia is a fear of, and a phobe therefore someone who has a fear of, something and homo as in homogenous means the same, hence a homophobe is someone who has a fear of the same rather than how it is used to mean, a hatred of the different.

    As for the comments disagreeing with Neon. Come on people, you’re accepting his preconception / strawman by trying to tell him “this is what an atheist believes”. No it isn’t. We’re not a group with a centrally defined set of opinions and views and approaches, we’re a heterogenous group defing a new world view which is a work in progress. Some people call themselves atheists because they have no belief that there is a god, others call themselves atheists and do actively believe that there is no god. The word hasn’t been copyrighted and so is used by different people to mean different things.

    So whose side am I on? Both and neither. As some Russian once said – “I subscribe to no man’s opinion, I have some of my own”. And perhaps that is the base start point of most agnostics, atheists and all the 1,001 other flavours of non-religionsist.

    But I’d have to say that my biggest beef is this. If I believe anything it is this. Nobody gets to tell anybody else what it is they believe. So Neon, get off your high horse and stop telling atheists what atheism is or is not. WE define that. When we know, we’ll let you know. And everybody else, perhaps we could extend religionists the same curtesy and disagree with what the people we are arguing with believe and not some crude approximation thereto.

    P.S. Sorry for the lecturing, knows best tone. Big character flaw I’m working on.

    P.P.S. I’m posting this before a mixed group of intelligent, argumentative, opionated people. Yikes! I wonder just how badly the arguments will be ripped apart? I have to say posting ones opinion before a group like this with an open invitation to be … ahem … corrected, is a scary thing to do and certainly a way of honing ones own thoughts if one is prepared to take points made on board! I’ll check back in later!

  62. Nigel Depledge

    Jay Fox (14) said:

    Well, they’ve posited both dark matter and dark energy, but haven’t actually detected them. They detect the EFFECTS produced by them.

    Yes. And?

    Dark matter and energy are hypothetical substances posited to explain measured effects that defy our previous understanding of the way gravity behaves. But that understanding has stood up to all the tests it has been put to in the preceding 80 years or so, so we know it cannot be grossly wrong.

    What else is “out there” that we cannot yet detect.

    Ah, the old “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio” argument. Sadly, this is hogwash. It doesn’t matter what else might be yet undiscovered. If a postulated phenomenon has no effect on the real world, then it might as well not exist. Even dreams and hallucinations exist as patterns of electrical activity in a person’s brain that can be measured.

    The term “supernatural” is a bit off. Paranormal fits better, as it implies something outside our normal understanding.

    What difference does it make what you call it? Until a phenomenon has been shown to have a real effect that can be measured or recorded, then it is just black-magic mumbo-jumbo.

    People might say the same thing about the boundaries of theoretical physics such as M-theory and string theory, but these at least incorporate our current theories of (respectively) cosmology and particle physics, so they do make predictions that can be verified. It is just that the data we have at the moment does not allow us to distinguish M-theory from Big Bang theory; nor string theory from the Standard Model.

    By contrast, all claims about the supernatural violate known physics. They often require the existence of “realms” to which we do not have access, except occasionally. Or the existence of “energy” that can only be detected sometimes or by some people. Or of “forces” in addition to the known four, but that have never shown up in any controlled experiment.

  63. Sarah

    This sort of coincidence happens frequently enough, it has a name:
    http://www.damninteresting.com/the-baader-meinhof-phenomenon/

    For some reason, this tends to show up in the comic pages a lot. You will see different artists suddenly use the same idea, meme or reference … I guess it’s a cultural gestalt.

  64. Nigel Depledge

    Annexian (16) said:

    Plenty of supernatural events happen.

    Such as what?

    How about you cite one event that was unequivocally supernatural?

    They just don’t happen frequently and predictably enough for the standards “Professional De-bunkers” set.

    What does this actually mean, though?

    Jusrt because something isn’t predictable doesn’t mean it cannot be measured. Look at earthquakes. We’re rubbish at predicting them but they are nevertheless real. They don’t happen all that frequently either (well, large ones don’t) but that does not stop us from measuring them and recording them and formulating theories about how and why they occur.

    Look at the atmospheric phenomenon known as sprites. These were doubted until fairly recently, because there was no evidence for them apart from hearsay. Then someone succeeded in recording them happening and they are now a part of mainstream scientific investigation.

    It’s not a question of anyone setting unreasonable standards. It is a question of the claimed supernatural phenomena not meeting any reasonable standard of evidence at all.

    Your “argument” is nothing more than a plea for special treatment. Why should “supernatural” phenomena be held to lesser standards of evidence than anything else in science?

    People with just as much respect and “Science” backing them used to prove that people couldn’t go faster than 60 mph and all sorts of other stuff.

    So?

    They were wrong, and their claims were not necessarily widely accepted at the time anyway. More often than not, their claims were pure speculation.

    In what way is this an argument for the existence of supernatural phenomena?

    But, find a “Cryptid”, (Cealocanth, Giant Squid) prove things like using the skin to read via heat sensitivity, etc. it no longer becomes “the paranormal” so in essence they’ve set a standard of “Proof” that can never be met.

    Eh?

    Does this sentence actually mean anything?

    The strictest application of the Scientific Method you could say it’s “Inconclusive” that the sun will “Rise” (Relative to the Earth’s rotation, Mr Wizard) tomorrow

    Now you touch on the nature of knowledge, and this is an important question.

    We know that the sun exists, and we know that it and the Earth both orbit the barycentre of the solar system. We can have a great deal of confidence in the prediction that the sun will rise tomorrow, but we cannot know it in any absolute sense of the word. We can, however, know beyond reasonable doubt that it will do so.

    Now, ask yourself: is it reasonable to doubt that the sun will rise tomorrow? No. Is it reasonable to doubt the existence of ghosts or spirits or what-have-you? Yes. Why? Because there exists for the former a reliable record of its existence and past behaviour, coupled to a strong theoretical basis for expercting it to continue said behaviour. For the latter, there is no evidence that such things exist at all, there is no logical argument that predicts their existence or postulates their properties, and there is no reason to assume that such things exist.

    because it “Might” (very unlikely for a long time, then a near certainty, right?) go Red Giant overnight and fry us.

    It will take years for the sun to turn into a red giant. It won’t be an overnight process.

    This last bit some companies that made a certain plant product used forever since the connection to cancer was “Inconclusive”…

    I have no idea what you’re talking about here.

    Nice the FAITH you have in vaccine corporations, but oh, well…

    I have every reason to have confidence that the risk of being harmed receiving a vaccine is far outweighed by the risk of being harmed by not doing so. I have an 8-week old son, and he is to receive his first vaccinations this week.

    You, OTOH, have never explained why you doubt the integrity of the manufacturers of vaccines and the regulatory bodies that exist to protect the populace of nations in the civilised world from purveyors of quack cures.

    Take note also that all modern science sprang from Sorcerers and Alchemists.

    Now you’re just making stuff up.

    Modern science has indeed received contributions from people who believed some strange stuff. Aristotle, for instance, had some ideas that crippled our understanding of the world for nearly 2 millenia. But most of modern scientific knowledge sprang from people doubting the sorcery and alchemy of received or revealed “wisdom”.

    Even the major players, like say Newton who read and wrote more on Alchemy than Astronomy

    Newton is probably the most famous example. His faith in alchemy was wrong, but that did not prevent him from formulating some good science. Can you think of any others?

    – most had big ties like going to seances, magick cult clubs, etc. And I don’t just mean the 1800s or earlier, try Jack Parsons:-)

    Who?

    Furthermore it was mystical thinking and some wild tryings that led to most early major discoveries and I’d bet most modern ones too…

    What rubbish.

    Did Faraday deduce an understanding of electricity by trying magic, or by rational experiment? Did Maxwell formulate his famous equations based on careful consideration of experimentally-acquired data or by magic ritual? Did Galileo conclude that not all solar-system objects revolve about the earth by careful observation or by wishful thinking?

    (they are just afraid of being “Discredited” so easier to hide behind “The Groupthink”) “If my lab was like these modern ones I’d have never discovered penicillin” is a quote I believe from it’s discoverer, Alexander Fleming and I heard it in a science class, not some “Supernatural” book.

    Yes, because if he had been more careful, he would not have left plates of bacteria where they could get contaminated by molds. THis does not support your thesis in any way.

    No-one will deny that serendipity has played a role in scientific discoveries, but that is completely different from suggesting that magical thinking has achieved any improvement in our understanding of the universe.

  65. Astrobot

    Gah. Thank you Bob_In_Wales for injecting some sanity into the Neon vs all ‘debate’. I was beginning to fear not a single commenter could string together a coherent argument.

    Further to Bob’s comment: The only defining feature of all atheists is the lack of belief in any gods. Just as the only defining feature of Christians is the belief in a God and his son, their savior, Jesus. Beyond that, the various shapes of belief (and lack thereof) and lifestyle are as varied as they come.
    Both Neon and everyone else was making the same ridiculous mistake of arguing against something that wasn’t being defended by the other side.

    What should be said against Neon, however, is that the burden of proof is ALWAYS on the one who is saying a phenomenon is real. If I claim I have an invisible pink unicorn hovering above my head at all times, the burden of proof is most definitely on me to show the truth of my claim, not on the rest of the world, no matter how adamantly they may believe there is no invisible pink unicorn. It is impossible to prove a negative because we cannot know everything. Hence the burden of proof is on you to provide evidence of the interactions you are claiming God has with the world.
    If you are claiming God has no interaction with the world, why the heck would you believe in it? If the only thing the Christian god provides the world is a moral code by which to live, why not just believe Jesus was a wise philosopher instead of the son of god? Why does he need to have been resurrected for all the good advice he gave to be meaningful?

    PS. Nigel Depledge you’re awesome :)

  66. Nigel Depledge

    Noen (18) said:

    The first dogma of atheism:

    “there’s no such thing as the supernatural. Either something is natural — that is, part of the Universe — or else it doesn’t exist.”

    Which is of course either a tautology, all events must be natural events in the same way that all unmarried men must be bachelors, or else it is unfalsifiable in which case it is simply an article of faith that one must accept dogmatically.

    Eh?

    So, what are you saying here? That the supernatural really does exist, but that it can never be measured or reproducibly observed? Or what?

    It seems to me that it is not dogma to demand that something must be observable to be considered real!

    The second dogma of atheism:

    “atheism can never fail, it can only be failed.”

    What makes you think this is dogmatic?

    Atheism can very easily be failed, by any god suddenly revealing their existence. Then (I would bet) pretty nearly all atheists will suddenly become religious. Because religion will have suddenly become the rational thing to do.

    The third dogma of atheism:

    “Two legs good, four legs bad!”

    No, no, that’s “four legs good, two legs better”. Or were you deliberately misquoting Orwell?

    And what exactly makes you think this has anything to do with the discussion at hand?

    PS, Woof, woof!

  67. Nigel Depledge

    @ Noen (18 et al.) –
    So, how come you disappeared off the previous thread on which you were posting about atheism?

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/06/10/how-to-be-inoculated-against-antivax-conventions/#comments

    What it looks like is that you made some unsupported assertions, dismissed some of the refutation of your argument (again, without any logical or evidentiary basis) and then slunk off with your tail between your legs when your arguments were shown to be the emptiness that they are.

    You have still not made a convincing case to aupport any of the assertions you made on that thread.

    And yet here you seem to be making similar assertions, again without any actual support.

    Hey, maybe I can try that game, too! What do you think? Here goes:

    Religious people are all purple!

    People who believe in ghosts don’t wipe their bottoms after defaecating!

    Wow, this is really liberating. You can say just any old crap if you don’t have to support it with evidence.

    So, Ms Noen, are you going to engage in a debate and actually support what you have claimed, or are you merely going to fire off a few more blanks and then slink back into the undergrowth? Again.

  68. Nigel Depledge

    Noen (21) said:

    The belief that there is one and only one correct message contained in an sacred text is called fundamentalism.

    Wowe, so, what you seem to be saying here is that the bible can say anything you want it to say, and you can ignore anything in it that you don’t like. Is it?

    Because, if that is the case, what good is it at all?

  69. Nigel Depledge

    Noen (21) said:

    Similarly, not every theology accepts the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.

    Such as what?

  70. @Nigel Depledge,

    In Annexian’s defense, many of the early scientists were alchemists. Of course, back then, prevailing theory was that you could turn lead into gold (and various other transformations) if you could just find the right sequence of steps. Examining the elements to figure out this sequence led to discoveries about the elements and their true nature. Yes, they were alchemists, but they were also alchemists whose work eventually disproved alchemy.

    Had they known then what we know now, I doubt any of them would waste time trying to turn lead into gold. Hindsight is 20/20 and it is easy to mock people in the past for not knowing what is common knowledge today. I’m sure scientists 300 years from now will mock scientists of today for believing Theory X to be true when Theory Y (figured out 200 years in our future) explains the world so much better.

  71. Jim Baerg

    #60 Nigel

    I think Richard Carrier covers your objections quite thoroughly in the essay I linked to in comment #10.

    He uses examples from fiction like ‘Forbidden Planet’ & ‘Harry Potter’ to show how one could determine whether a natural or supernatural theory would best explain the observed phenomena.

  72. Jay

    Phil Plait you can’t even see the entire universe yet label it as all there is. What exists does not depend on whether or not you have laid eyes on it or seen empirical evidence for it. To say nothing exists with such surety is pretty close minded for a scientist. Perhaps you can follow this article up with unquestionable proof that this is the only universe by drawing circles in the CMB.

  73. Tim

    It seems to me that if you equate “supernatural” with “Inaccessible (or unknowable) from our plane of existence,” then there certainly could be such a thing as the supernatural. E.g. It’s certainly possible that a supernatural deity that somehow intervened in our natural world would have the appearance of natural law. That is, the effect would be measurable, but the cause (the “Why did this happen?”) would not be.

    Isn’t it true that much of science has given up explaining “Why” Mother Nature behaves the way she does? In other words, our natural laws could be nothing more than a supernatural creation. Once you have identified all the natural laws, there’s just nothing more to be learned.

    Tim

  74. Brian

    Josh Rosenau has posted a short and semi-reasonable rebuttal here: http://scienceblogs.com/tfk/2011/06/the_nature_of_the_supernatural.php

    I agree with Phil, though. :)

  75. Nigel Depledge

    @ TechyDad (70) –
    While you are correct, I’m not sure how important your points are.

    Annexian’s error (in my view) was apparently to suppose that modern science owes some kind of debt to the magical thinking of alchemy and so on. And that therefore there might still be some merit to magical thinking.

    Plus, Annexian’s comment started out with a blatantly wrong statement.

  76. Nigel Depledge

    @ Astrobot (65) –
    Aw, shucks [blush]!

  77. Nigel Depledge

    Jim Baerg (71) said:

    I think Richard Carrier covers your objections quite thoroughly in the essay I linked to in comment #10.

    The demonic firewall where I work would not let me follow that link.

    He uses examples from fiction like ‘Forbidden Planet’ & ‘Harry Potter’ to show how one could determine whether a natural or supernatural theory would best explain the observed phenomena.

    I still have a problem with this.

    If a supernatural “explanation” is going to be of any use, it must be verifiable. If it is verifiable, it must make some predictions that can be tested by experiment or observation. And if it is accessible to such testing, then the phenomenon is a part of the world and therefore not really supernatural after all. Do you see?

    In the world of Harry Potter, for example, magic is a real part of the world. It has real consequences, and it follows a real set of rules. Its existence is open to verification, so magic in that milieu is (effectively) just another natural force. And if it is real, and predictable and bound by rules, then it can be investigated by science.

    So, in terms of arriving at a theory that best explains a phenomenon, I don’t agree that the supernatural (i.e. that which defies or transcends natural laws) gets us anywhere. When a supernatural phenomenon is shown to be real, it becomes natural.

  78. Nigel Depledge

    Jay (72) said:

    Phil Plait you can’t even see the entire universe yet label it as all there is.

    Not really. There are plenty of things awaiting discovery. However, claims of supernatural stuff influencing the world in which we live don’t hold water. Claims of “relams beyond” or whatever are mere excuses to avoid having to provide actual, y’know, evidence.

    But, in the end, anything that doesn’t impact on the real world that we can see and measure might as well not exist at all.

    What exists does not depend on whether or not you have laid eyes on it or seen empirical evidence for it.

    True, but irrelevant.

    To say nothing exists with such surety is pretty close minded for a scientist.

    Not really. Maybe Phil’s reasoning eludes you, but he states it pretty clearly. If something has an effect on the real world, then it is natural. If something does not have an effect on the real world, then it is no different from something that does not exist.

    Perhaps you can follow this article up with unquestionable proof that this is the only universe by drawing circles in the CMB.

    If other universes exist, they are irrelevant unless we can observe them or unless they exert some influence on our universe.

  79. Nigel Depledge

    Tim (73) said:

    It seems to me that if you equate “supernatural” with “Inaccessible (or unknowable) from our plane of existence,” then there certainly could be such a thing as the supernatural.

    How? If something is inaccessible and exerts no influence over our universe, how can we ever know it exists, and how is its existence any different from it not existing?

    E.g. It’s certainly possible that a supernatural deity that somehow intervened in our natural world would have the appearance of natural law.

    Only if said deity set up all the laws at the beginning and then exerted no additional influence over anything. The universe looks exactly the way we would expect it to look if it had evolved from its beginning according to natural laws.

    If a deity intervened in the universe after its initial laws were set in place, then such intervention should be detectable, at least in principle.

    That is, the effect would be measurable, but the cause (the “Why did this happen?”) would not be.

    And a measureable effect with a hypothetical cause is still a genuine part of science. There is no reason to believe that the cause could not one day be measured in some fashion, unless one indulges in magical thinking.

    Isn’t it true that much of science has given up explaining “Why” Mother Nature behaves the way she does?

    Erm … no, not really.

    One of the main drivers in theoretical physics today is that some of our current theories (such as the Standard Model) are mainly descriptive. New, better, theories are being sought to oncompass not only the descriptive theories we have now, but also to explain how and why (for instance) subatomic particles have the properties that they do.

    In other words, our natural laws could be nothing more than a supernatural creation.

    In principle, this is true, but only in a way that is entirely untestable. If the laws of nature that we observe today were magicked into existence at the beginning of the universe, we would have no way of distinguishing this from some exotic quantum phase-change arising from a random fluctuation of whatever it was that existed at the time.

    Once you have identified all the natural laws, there’s just nothing more to be learned.

    What, you mean apart from gaining an understanding of how those laws gave rise to the diverse and complex universe that we observe today?

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