An Earthquake Of Another Sort Rocks My House.

By The Intersection | August 25, 2011 10:42 am

This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., a research scientist, policy analyst and science communications strategist, who encourages the scientific community to get engaged in the policy-making process

I woke up this morning to an unexpected jolt, and I don’t mean another earthquake shake.  Nope, this was a little more invigorating. It seems PZ Myers didn’t like my post about Richard Dawkins and he has decided to turn me into a pinata.  I rather enjoyed his piece. He makes some interesting and entertaining points (some well-founded, some…not so much). I don’t mind taking some heat for my opinions. We all know it’s part of being a blogger, right?

I’ve always been amazed by the mob that he unleashes on unsuspecting religious fanatics.  They are quite effective at taking down their prey.  I wish I had been given more notice, I would have at least done my hair and makeup before the party.  I sincerely welcome all the new commenters to The Intersection.  I hope Chris doesn’t mind that I’m wrecking his house while he’s away.

If you don’t know Mr. Myers, he’s an atheist blogger who takes a zero tolerance stance against religion.  Personally, I think he’s an entertaining character, sort of like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity…Ed Schulz, even.  To me, what he does is entertainment, not science communication, but that’s another story.  It’s a story I’ll try to come back to later. Today, I have to do some science and I really don’t have time for a cage match with the Pharyngulites. But, don’t worry folks, I’m here and I’m listening. If you get unruly, though, I’ll have to put you in time out.

What?! It works for my 2 year old.

If we all step back and take a deep breath, we might be able to have a conversation. We might actually learn something from one another.  After all, we speak the same language.  Yelling is not a more effective way to make your point. After I do some work, perhaps I’ll have some time to share my thoughts and I’ll listen to yours, Mr. Myers and Pharyngulites. Even with our differences, I know we’re on the same team.

In the meantime, take a look at this video, and I think you’ll get my point:

Follow Jamie Vernon on Twitter, Google+ or read his occasional blog posts at “American SciCo.”

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Comments (45)

  1. Jim Johnson

    The link to PZ Meyers’ piece goes to a 404 file not found error.

  2. The Intersection
  3. idahogie

    There’s an unruly elephant in the room. A few responsible people are taking action, while the vast majority are just not really paying attention (perhaps they don’t realize there’s a problem yet).

    Some of the activists are trying to gently persuade the elephant to calm down and stop trashing the place. Others are trying to use nets and tranquilizers on the elephant, and are also trying to warn the oblivious people about the danger. And, in fact, there are quite a few activists who have joined the effort against the rowdy elephant because they were aroused from their state of oblivion by the shouting. All well and good.

    However, there’s a small group of activists who spend their time lecturing the other activists about how nets and tranquilizers and public shouting won’t work. No real evidence supporting their point is ever provided. In fact, they are contradicted by the number of people who are wrestling with the elephant problem because of the yelling and shouting. But they really, really want everybody to go back to quiet persuasion. So they spend valuable time lecturing the rest of the activists to be more polite and understanding.

    Wouldn’t we be better off if they’d just go about their quiet, civil, polite discourse? I appreciate that effort. It might just calm down the elephant.

    But it might not.

  4. The Intersection

    #3 idahogie
    This would be a convincing metaphor if large groups of people behaved like “unruly elephants,” but unfortunately it’s not that simple.
    Thanks for commenting.
    Jamie

  5. idahogie

    I don’t understand your objection at all. There are, in fact, an unacceptably large number of people who are behaving like “unruly elephants” and rejecting science like climate change and evolution. They are trashing our country’s science education infrastructure and putting our very survival at risk by clouding the debate over responses to climate change.

    But that’s beside the point. The elephant in my analogy stood for an idea. Not a single person.

    My point remains. When you spend your time lecturing other activists about how to behave without having a strong body of evidence to back you up, that’s time wasted. And further, when you use the same exact “bad communication tactics” that you lecture others to avoid (like calling Richard Dawkins names), then you are doing worse than wasting time.

    Go back to polite and civil discussion with those who need science communication. Like I said — it might just work.

  6. Alex

    Dr. Vernon, I love and appreciate calm, quiet, rational discourse. I’m guessing you do too. But you’re mistaking your preference for conversational style for being the best conversational style. Not everyone responds to it. Many people, if not most, require the verbal equivalent of a 2×4 upside the head to dislodge their engrained, illogical dogmas. I hate the yelling, and you won’t find me doing it, but I’m glad someone is because I hate ignorance more. And though Myers’ analysis of your piece was shrill I think he got it more or less right.

  7. WashingHogs

    #4, if you don’t think it’s not that simple, then you have simply not been paying attention to congress or the Tea Party. No matter how conciliatory and compromising their opposition are they constantly push further, swarming like angry hornets destroying everything in their way.

    There’s no dealing with the radicals. We must stop hiding under rocks waiting for them to calm down; 3 decades of appeasement hasn’t worked and has gotten us in a lot of trouble.

  8. TTT

    @4: In this case, Rick Perry’s behavior is unruly and dangerous enough. No one denies that the man is an absolute scientific illiterate who ENCOURAGES scientific illiteracy in American children. And I don’t think anyone should deny that it is precisely because of his scientific illiteracy and reliance on authoritarian woowoo that his policy decisions are so bad, dangerous, and in the case of innocent Texas prisoners, fatal.

    Can you produce any evidence that being more polite to Rick Perry would produce any benefit at all? You said in your prior message that Dawkins had “violated everything we know about good science communication,” but where is this alleged good communication that has helped out any better?

  9. idahogie

    We have two groups here, both of whom are operating on gut instinct basically. Both agree that there is a problem posed by theology, but especially by fundamentalism. However there is a significant difference:

    Group A instinctively feels that aggressive responses turn off some people and do more harm than good.

    Group B instinctively feels that to remain calm and quiet is to allow that danger to advance (and this is the group to which I belong).

    How about this compromise: everybody should focus on the real problem here, not on the tactics of the other group. Let each group do what they think will work best. And to you in Group A: you are wasting your time lecturing us in Group B.

  10. TB

    TTT said: “Can you produce any evidence that being more polite to Rick Perry would produce any benefit at all?”

    That’s a strawman argument – being nice or polite isn’t the issue.

    The issue is advancing good science and good science education versus advancing a specific brand of Exclusivist atheism.

    One intent interfering with another.
    Groups A and B misidentified the issue and is another example of a non-admission admission. The example doesn’t engage with the science. You can find quite a bit of information on things like cognitive research in category links located on the sidebar of this website.

    If you’re interested in science and science education then you wouldn’t ignore that research.

    But if you’re more interested in advancing you’re own brand of atheism then you’re not going to care about this.

    And that’s fine, you’re free to do that. But Dawkins advocation of atheism has affected the way his advocation of science is perceived. And it’s advantageous to point that out, as part of science and science education advocacy, that science does not equal atheism.

  11. idahogie

    I think that our society has always agreed to behave as if science does not equal atheism, out of deference to theists.

    But science really does equal atheism. Coming out to say that might make a lot of people uncomfortable. But if some people are made so uncomfortable by that proposition that they start rejecting science, I say let them go. They aren’t worth any effort to convince otherwise.

    Rick Perry’s recent rejection of science is another beast. He is either a dominionist/Seven Mountains extremist, or is pandering to those elements in our society. He should be called out. And Dawkin’s recent WaPo piece was a model of civility and restraint.

  12. I don’t think Dawkins’s goal in that piece was really to advance understanding of science or win converts (although those are of course laudable goals). It certainly wasn’t to convince Perry, Bachmann or Palin who are beyond such convincing. His goal was simply to render an accurate description of the kind of people who run for elections in this country and point out the problems with the process that elects them. And he did succeed in doing this. Let’s not misrepresent what he was trying to do and then shoot down the straw man.

  13. Johan Fruh

    I think it’s quite important to voice with no reserve how inacceptable it is for presidency canditates to be so ignorant.
    Not as a means to persuade them to come to “our side” (which Chris Mooney has suggested is close to impossible anyhow… us being on the other side and all..)
    But as a way of reminding everyone who isn’t scientifically illiterate just how badly unacceptable this really is.

    Maybe developping a less tolerant enviroment. An enviroment in which a president as bad a W. Bush wouldn’t have been as easily possible.

    Tolerance is important. Respecting people’s beliefs, ignorance, mistakes etc.. All of this is very important. And this sort of respect should be maintained when in a discussion.

    However, when making statements about ignorance and the prospect of cultivating it, we shouldn’t be using euphemisms.

  14. Josh

    The unwashed masses who have no dog in this fight are not going to look at polite disagreement of the enlightened when compared to the hard-blowing of the ignorant as somehow a point in favor of the enlightened. Sure, those who have already made up their mind that evolution is doubtful or global warming is a swindle or abstinence-only sex education is the most effective will be put-off by someone who comes out and calls a spade a spade like Dawkins, but they’re not going to be convinced by anything in a short Op-Ed piece. Instead, what the audience Dawkins is interested in reaching are a lot of disinterested, on-the-fence, mealy-mouthed hangers-on who usually ignore the issue, but have enough education and common sense to know when someone is just plain wrong. That’s where the take-down comes into play. It forces these people to acknowledge that if they support Perry for reasons other than his ignorance of reality they have to be willing to defend their choice as there will be people pointing out that their support is objectively for someone who is actively promoting idiocy.

    Imagine some mild-mannered bureaucrat in Cleveland or St. Louis or Denver thinking that he or she isn’t sure whether she likes what Obama has done for the last two years. Now imagine that this person is trying to decide whether throw their hat into the ring for Rick Perry. Being polite about this indecision and avoiding the nettlesome aspects of the ignorance of Perry isn’t going to convince these people that they should hold their nose and support calm reason. Making them take a stand and explain why they are supporting an ignoramus is politically more effective at preventing them from rallying to the Perry-camp. They aren’t going to be convinced by people who don’t do knock-down drag-out rhetoric. Overton windows need to be moved away from it being a requirement for Republicans to pay homage to creationist lunacy.

  15. TB

    “But science really does equal atheism. ”

    Thanks for being honest about your beliefs, idahogie

  16. 1985

    Once again and for the n-th time, we have people who claim to be experts on science communications and who, after being asked countless times to show that their supposedly proper strategy actually improves the state of scientific literacy, have fail to do so every single time. As a result all we have is the empty assertion that we can somehow fix the problem with ignorance and illiteracy by never even saying there is such a problem because if we do we will offend someone….

    This post is yet another example of the same phenomenon – I didn’t see a single proper argument there, just empty talking

  17. 1985

    15. TB Says:
    August 25th, 2011 at 4:37 pm
    “But science really does equal atheism. ”
    Thanks for being honest about your beliefs, idahogie

    It’s not a belief. Any belief (i.e. taking something to be true without evidence) is unscientific; there is zero evidence backing up any of the religions that have ever existed; therefore science indeed equals atheism.

    Atheism is not a fact that science can establish with 100% certainty, but science is by its very nature atheistic

  18. 1985

    11. idahogie Says:
    August 25th, 2011 at 2:51 pm
    I think that our society has always agreed to behave as if science does not equal atheism, out of deference to theists.
    But science really does equal atheism. Coming out to say that might make a lot of people uncomfortable. But if some people are made so uncomfortable by that proposition that they start rejecting science, I say let them go. They aren’t worth any effort to convince otherwise.
    Rick Perry’s recent rejection of science is another beast. He is either a dominionist/Seven Mountains extremist, or is pandering to those elements in our society. He should be called out. And Dawkin’s recent WaPo piece was a model of civility and restraint.

    Cosign

  19. TB

    1985 said: “Atheism is not a fact that science can establish with 100% certainty, but science is by its very nature atheistic”

    On the other hand

    “The restriction of science to natural cause is sometimes referred to as “naturalism.” That term generates confusion, however, because there is also a philosophical view called “naturalism,” according to which the supernatural does not exist and reality consists only of material (matter and energy) causes. The philosophical view is a claim that is logically independent of science because science cannot say whether supernatural causes do or do not exist. In the attempt to avoid confusion, philosophers of science often refer to the restriction of science to natural causes as “methodological naturalism,” and the philosophical view as “philosophical (or metaphysical) naturalism.”[24]”

    http://dododreams.blogspot.com/2006/12/science-and-philosophy.html

    When I say “belief,” I’m referring to the belief in a particular philosophical view – and to be clear, I wasn’t being snarky. I wasn’t equating belief with faith. But I’m also not going to accept that someone’s belief is automatically scientific.

  20. 1985

    I am familiar with the difference between philosophical and methodological naturalism, no need to repeat it here.

    It does not change at all what I said.

  21. It would be helpful if someone from the Vernon/Mooney camp could explain how Dawkins could have made his article more effective, how we are to communicate the disastrous ignorance of people like Perry, instead of complaining about “exclusionist atheism”.

    Readers of the Intersection and Pharyngula generally share a laundry list of concerns about the ideology that Rick Perry represents. If you asked us, we could provide you with an exhaustive rebuttal to his positions. But “rebuttal” and “reasoned debate” are not going to cut it in the public sphere. Those things make for a snooze-fest, as well all know very well.

    What you need instead is to get people’s attention and then appeal to their values. I can imagine a successful campaign of articles vitiating tea-party ignornace whose primary tactic was to make them appear like clowns. If you can make their views appear nutty, then average people will say, “that’s not for me, that’s crazy”.

    What’s wrong with a strategy like that?

  22. Methodological naturalism as described in #19 is not an accurate description of how science works. I don’t think that methodological naturalism is really a part of science, despite what philosophers tell me.

    When you do a prayer/health outcome study, you are not assuming that the supernatural doesn’t exist. You’re testing a supernatural claim, which means that you’re testing the hypothesis that there is a supernatural effect. If you assume that there are no supernatural effects, then you can’t test hypotheses premised on them.

    So, either science doesn’t obey methodological naturalism or prayer studies are not science.

    Which is it?

    What’s more, whether you’re willing to call the prayer studies “science” or not doesn’t impact whether the results of the study are reliable or not. If you want to declare that applying techniques of science to supernatural claims is not “science”, fine, but the conclusions we render as to those claims will remain valid.

    When people talk about methodological naturalism, the speak as though the use of scientific techniques to judge the supernatural involved some sort of circular logic or failure to remain consistent as to what constitutes evidence. As though atheists just “don’t understand science well enough” or something. Well, whether you want to call it “science” or not, please show us where the actual content of our arguments goes wrong.

  23. Duane

    #17 1985

    “Atheism is not a fact that science can establish with 100% certainty, but science is by its very nature atheistic”

    I think science is more agnostic than atheistic. Why? Because the question of God never arises to begin with, whether it’s science, or (to use Dr. Dawkins’ metaphor) a detective gathering evidence of a crime committed. Neither situation relies on the premise that “there is no God.” One simply gathers evidence, forms hypotheses, then tests them to destruction.

  24. Peter

    #21 Duane: This has been emphasized many times in other places, but atheism does not necessarily entail belief in the statement “there is no god”, merely the lack of belief in gods. What you are referring to–which I have seen referred to as ‘strong atheism’, ‘positive atheism’, or ‘contratheism’–is a proper subset of atheism. Examining the etymology of the word, we have ‘a-‘: not, without; and ‘-theism': believing (at bare minimum) that there exists at least one entity that may be meaningfully termed ‘god’. As belief in gods is not a part of science, science is indeed implicitly atheist, simply by virtue of being without belief in gods (again, ‘a-‘=’without’).

  25. Noah the epistemic pinata

    #23 Duane:

    Unless you are using a colloquial, church-approved definition for atheism, it doesn’t rely on the premise that “there is no God.” This particular definition fails on two accounts: (1) a sloppy monotheistic bias, and (2) an attempt to push the burden of proof on nonbelievers. Also, you may want to review your Huxley and Bertrand Russell: agnosticism is not a middle-ground between atheism and theism.

    And yes, science is by its very nature atheistic; it doesn’t require belief in any gods. In fact, when supernatural claims are introduced, they tend to get in the way of the truth.

  26. Nullius in Verba

    “This has been emphasized many times in other places, but atheism does not necessarily entail belief in the statement “there is no god”, merely the lack of belief in gods.”

    That sounds more like agnosticism. a-gnosis – no knowledge – versus a-theis – no god.

    Although as you indicate, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

    The belief that a specific god doesn’t exist is different from the belief that no gods exist. The religious often hold a positive belief in the non-existence of other religions’ gods.

    There is a distinction made between a personal god who intervenes directly and constantly in the world and a vaguely defined generic god who sets the whole thing going and then simply watches it. The latter is sometimes called deism, to contrast with personal god theism. So atheism could mean non-belief in a theist personal god, and you would have to call non-belief in the latter sort of god “adeism”, or something.

    Some people declare real physical objects in this world to be gods. Animism commonly treats animals, plants, rocks, etc. as representatives of the spirit world. Certain people declare themselves to be gods. Pantheism extends this to the whole world, declaring the universe itself to be god. Fairly obviously, one cannot easily deny that such entities exist – so atheism would have to be modified to a belief about the definition of a god, and whether the universe or anything in it could be said to meet it. And there are dualist and natural monist versions of pantheism to disbelieve in, so categories could be subdivided further.

    There is the belief that gods used to exist but were destroyed, that gods could exist but don’t, that gods could not exist, that gods might not exist (i.e. a theist who considers an atheist universe theoretically possible), that gods only exist as psychological phenomena (like ‘happiness’), that gods exist in other universes but not in ours, that gods are a primitive misinterpretation of something that does exist and has god-like properties but is not actually a god (e.g. space aliens), and so on.

    If gods existed and intervened in the world, there’s no reason science couldn’t study them – although it may be a bit limited in what it could achieve. You could ask questions like “what is the temperature of god’s thunderbolts?” and things like that. The conceptual problem only occurs for trying to study an entity for which there is no evidence, playing a game where there are no rules – no limits or patterns you can rely on to deduce what you cannot see from what you can. If you can just make it up as you go along, science cannot follow you there.

  27. AJKamper

    I don’t understand how science could be construed to be “atheistic.” Or “agnostic” for that matter. That’s like saying figuring out what to have for breakfast is atheistic. Science is a process, not a belief system.

    As stated above, you’re looking for methodological naturalism, not science.

  28. TB

    24 Peter said: “As belief in gods is not a part of science, science is indeed implicitly atheist, simply by virtue of being without belief in gods (again, ‘a-’=’without’).”

    No, science doesn’t exclude belief in gods, it simply assumes that – whether or not there are gods – they do not interfere with what we discover about the natural world. You’re free to assume that there are no gods, which gets you the same results but isn’t the same assumption.

    If science does exclude or not believe in any gods, it’s a trickster god who might cause us to see one thing when what we should see is another. Put in mathematical terms, simply add “infinity” to any problem you might have and that solves it, which is very unsatisfying to say the least.

    You could say that if a god exists, it seems to be one that will not interfere with our discover of the natural world.

    Atheism is a philosophical position – a position on the metaphysical or supernatural. Science can and has excluded many ideas about gods, mainly because of the claims that those gods have acted in the natural world in a way in which we can discover them. But it hasn’t excluded all claims and can’t, even as right now we can’t build an accelerator the size of a galaxy to study multiverse theory.

  29. @Nullius #26
    “That sounds more like agnosticism. a-gnosis – no knowledge – versus a-theis – no god.”

    Atheism: no belief in God. Agnostic: no claim to knowledge of God. Agnostic atheist: no belief in god, no positive claim of God’s absence.

    http://www.lousycanuck.ca/wp-content/uploads/atheist_chart.gif

  30. Nullius in Verba

    #27,

    Science is a process for finding out about the world. The existence or non-existence of interventionist gods is a fact about the world. Science is therefore applicable; it can rule out certain theistic hypotheses if they predict consequences at variance with observation.

    The only sort of god that science has nothing to say on is one that has no effect on the world, so that the world with/without the gods are exactly identical. Science rejects the unobservable-in-principle on aesthetic/practical grounds of parsimony and efficiency. (Unless they make prediction/calculation easier, in which case they’ll sometimes be tolerated as a convenient fiction.) There are an infinite number of unobservable hypotheses I can come up with, but with no way to distinguish between them, what’s the point? No information is available, and speculation wastes time that could be more usefully applied.

    So science picks out the model of the world that fits the facts most efficiently, which therefore generally excludes unobservable entities. Science is only inherently atheistic about unobservable gods. (Although a soft sort of atheism that doesn’t insist on it, and allows for alternative views.) The observable variety have been rejected only on the grounds that we haven’t seen any.

  31. @TB #28
    “No, science doesn’t exclude belief in gods, it simply assumes that – whether or not there are gods – they do not interfere with what we discover about the natural world. You’re free to assume that there are no gods, which gets you the same results but isn’t the same assumption.”

    Again, please explain how this quote is consistent with a scientific study of hypothesized interactions between God and humans (e.g. prayers effect on complications of surgery). (see #22 for fuller explanation of what I’m saying.)

    Either that assumption you mention or studies on the efficacy of prayer are not part of science. Which is it?

  32. AJKamper

    #29:

    Exactly my point, thank you. I was just trying to cut through the technical language with a more intuitively graspable metaphor.

    Science can speak to the existence or nonexistence of gods, but it’s not a belief system, so to apply words to it that talk about belief is nonsensical.

    One caveat to your post: I don’t think science could very well handle gods that act unpredictably. It would be difficult to test and reproduce.

  33. Nullius in Verba

    #29,

    “When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain “gnosis,”–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.

    So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic.” It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant. To my great satisfaction the term took.”
    Thomas Henry Huxley.

  34. TB

    @ 31

    You mean like when I said this in the very same comment that you quoted?

    “Science can and has excluded many ideas about gods, mainly because of the claims that those gods have acted in the natural world in a way in which we can discover them. ”

    Prayer studies are interesting only in that we’re testing some assumptions about prayer. Other assumptions hold that prayer isn’t meant as a venue to ask for direct action here in the material world, and so of course we’re not going to see resullts in the natural world.

    But I’m not really worried about that assumption. It’s when someone assumes that prayer is a good alternative to professional medical help. And I think that even many people we could describe as fundamentalists accept that.

  35. TB

    That final sentence should read “And I think that even many people we could describe as fundamentalists accept that as wrong.”

  36. TB

    Nullius said “The only sort of god that science has nothing to say on is one that has no effect on the world, so that the world with/without the gods are exactly identical.”

    Not quite true. There’s also the idea of a god whose actions are indiscernible from the range of natural possibilities. For all practical purposes untestable

  37. TB

    Nullius said “The only sort of god that science has nothing to say on is one that has no effect on the world, so that the world with/without the gods are exactly identical.”

    Not quite true. There’s also the idea of a god whose actions are indiscernible from the range of natural possibilities. For all practical purposes untestable.

  38. @TB #34

    You say that science can test hypotheses/assumptions about prayer, but you’ve also said that science assumes that gods do not interfere with nature. Such an assumption precludes science from testing the hypothesis of a god that interferes with nature. My point was that these two ideas you’ve expressed are mutually exclusive.

    “Prayer studies are interesting only in that we’re testing some assumptions about prayer.”
    Wouldn’t it be fair to say that they test hypotheses about an interventionist God?

    “But I’m not really worried about that assumption. It’s when someone assumes that prayer is a good alternative to professional medical help. And I think that even many people we could describe as fundamentalists accept that.”

    I agree that this is a more important issue, but the question of whether methodological naturalism is a necessary part of science or not is also worth our attention. I assert that it does not. I assert that if it were, prayer studies would be unscientific. Whether they are “scientific” or not, they are rigorous and trustworthy and demonstrate that methodological naturalism is not necessary to produce rigorous and trustworthy results using the techniques of science.

  39. Abeo

    I can see good points from both sides, but honestly — the American civil rights movement needed MLK Jr. and Malcolm X. Rosa Parks and the Black Panthers.

    Pick the tactic that works best for your personality and resources and go for it. Tut-tutting that one faction is being noisy and rude, or berating another faction for being quiet and wimpy is just a waste of time and bandwidth. We all want the same basic thing, right? Act from the overlap.

  40. Nullius in Verba

    #38,

    Prayer studies are “naturalist” in the sense that they hypothesise a law-like relationship between a natural cause and a natural effect. Pray, and they get better, don’t pray, and they don’t. The fact that it is hypothesised to go through a supernatural agency in between cause and effect doesn’t stop you testing the parts you have access to.

    If on the other hand you ask why some of those people you prayed for didn’t get better, and the answer offered was that the god in question just didn’t want to, there’s no way to test that. The cause is now in the supernatural realm (what the deity decides) rather than the natural (whether you prayed or not). It’s not something you can predict, control, or independently measure. You can’t eliminate it as an explanation, but you can’t confirm it either. The hypothesis is unfalsifiable. There is no universal law governing it for you to test.

    The term “natural” in this sense – contrary to the common usage – does not actually exclude non-material entities. Science had no problem with things like the electromagnetic field permeating a vaccuum for the many years before we had an explanation, for example. “Naturalism” is meant in the sense of being ruled by natural laws: rules and relationships affecting what we can observe that apply universally, by the nature of things. If interventionist gods follow rules, they’re a part of nature, and we can find out what those rules are.

  41. AJKamper

    Nullius:

    What if the rules are, “You obey god’s laws out of love for other human beings?” (This corresponds with the old theological idea that God was absolutely good and thus, in that sense, absolutely predictable.)

    Naturalistic or not naturalistic? If it is naturalistic, then does that turn morality into a form of a natural law?

    This question was posed to me when I had put forth the idea above–that the Christian God was inherently unpredictable and therefore inherently unreachable by science–a phenomenon that, if it were to exist, science could not test. I still haven’t found an answer with which I’m entirely comfortable.

  42. Nullius in Verba

    #41,

    I will say right at the start – some people don’t like their faith to be challenged. I intend no offence, but if you’re easily offended, you might want to give the rest of this a miss. I treat religion as just an interesting philosophical thought experiment, and talk of it that way. I only say this because in the past some people have got upset and things have got unpleasant. I don’t want that to happen here.

    What if the rules are, “You obey god’s laws out of love for other human beings?”

    That particular rule doesn’t make any testable predictions. As I read it, it’s a moral imperative about what people should do, not a rule describing what they do do. You can’t deduce an “is” from an “ought”, as Hume said.

    Nor could it be a universal rule – different gods/goddesses had different rules, sometimes changing the rules at different times, a lot of them had nothing obvious to do with love, and the classic, most common reason given for obeying them was so as not to get smited. (Or tortured for eternity in the afterlife.)

    One of the first things a scientist would note if they were to study divinity seriously is that there are lots of different gods and goddesses, and the information available about them is inconsistent. Their creation stories are inconsistent, ranging from the Mbombo story of the Kuba, in which the world and the nine different sorts of animals were vomited up by god, to the Yoruba version, where god lowers himself from heaven on a dangling chain carring some iron, earth, and a chicken. They likewise have a variety of different and inconsistent rules, ranging from which hand to use when going to the toilet through to the proper method of human sacrifice.

    It’s very easy for people who believe in one particular god (or goddess) to assume it as the sole context for any question about religion – when asking whether god exists, for example, they tend to wind up asking whether their god exists, and assume gods must necessarily have the properties their own god supposedly has.

    But any scientific answer has to be generally applicable, if it is to seek out universals. So whatever test we apply to Allah, or the Christian god, we must also apply to Odin, Shiva, and Tlaloc. What reason do we have for picking any one of them over another? If we find scientific reasons for rejecting one, we would have to try to apply those reasons to all the rest. And if we show that we have to take any one of them seriously, why would we not have to take all the rest equally seriously? They can’t all be true.

    Considering your specific question – whether we follow rules out of love for other human beings – I would think that as a description of how people work, it fails the test of history. Religious warfare has been rife, even in Christianity, and personal observation suggests that tradition, fitting in, fear of persecution, feelings of guilt, maintaining the social order, and the desire to feel morally superior to their fellows are bigger motivators. Love of humanity does come into it, but you can love humanity without religion, or in several different religions to varying degrees. Atheists feel love and compassion, too. There doesn’t seem to me to be any obvious connection.

    Your implied question as to whether the absolute goodness of god enables predictions is a very interesting one, and has indeed been followed by some earlier thinkers. You may have heard Darwin’s famous comment: “What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature!” This is essentially following this argument that god’s goodness allows us to predict that god’s creations would all operate in an essentially good (and competent) way. So examples of obviously bad design, and the existence of certain insects and other parasites with lifecycles that can only be described as pure evil, act as a scientific falsification. (I can give examples, but they’re unpleasant.) Of course, the “problem of evil” has a long history in Christian theology, so I won’t say there are no answers on offer, but I will say that trying to make falsifiable predictions from God’s essential goodness is fraught with difficulty.

    (Other religions, where the creator is neither necessarily good nor competent, don’t have that difficulty. Their other predictions are not noticeably better, though.)

    That’s why many Christian theologians have stated that God’s purpose surpasses all human understanding. As such, science necessarily excludes it. There are no fixed and simple rules – regarding the Christian god at least – for us to find.

  43. TB

    38. George Locke Says:
    “You say that science can test hypotheses/assumptions about prayer, but you’ve also said that science assumes that gods do not interfere with nature. Such an assumption precludes science from testing the hypothesis of a god that interferes with nature. My point was that these two ideas you’ve expressed are mutually exclusive.”

    I don’t see why. Take the question of the age of the earth, or the universe. Science finds their age numbers in the billions.
    One set of theists accepts the findings and understands it as their god letting nature take it’s course. After all, their god is infinite and why shouldn’t a perfect god be able to create a universe sufficient to evolve life without interference?
    Another set of theists say, no, that’s false. God created everything 6,000 to 10,000 years ago and it’s the devil who planted evidence in such a way as to make us turn away from the bible.

    But somewhere along the evolution of science, a consensus was reached that that if there was a god (and let’s remember that the road to scientific methodology that we have now did go through religious scientists) then whatever god there is does not lie to us and does not allow other supernatural beings to lie to us.

    Because, after all, if you allow for a trickster god or a powerful demon, nothing we perceive, nothing we touch, taste or experience, can be taken as real. Theologically, that’s a dead end because that would allow for the bible to have been written by demons.

    Another assumption is that there is no supernatural, there are no gods or demons to interfere. Still another, what I ascribe to, is that we can’t know either way.

    Those three assumptions get you to the same place: What we discover about the natural world using the scientific method is reliable. And over time this common assumption has proven not only reliable but successful in all kinds of ways. Scientifically, we can’t really test for any of those. What kind of experiment can you design for a god or a devil? (Well, not quite true – agnosticism is most consistent with science. :) )

    So if we consider the claim that the age of the earth is is 6,000 to 10,000 years old, we can say that science shows that if you want to claim this age of the earth, what you’re claiming is a conspiracy of demons so complete, so pervasive and consistent across incredible broad spectrums of scientific findings that the only conclusion is that this god is lying to us – either directly or de facto by allowing demons to mess with the natural world to the extent they would need to.

    And if god lies or allows lies of this magnitude, then nothing can be considered true and that includes the bible. If god were testing us, then the test was rigged from the beginning. I don’t know why anyone would worship such a god.

    So the findings of science help us reject a specific claim about god, and one reason we reject it is because not to do so would undermine all assumptions about reality – gnostic, agnostic and atheist. We accept these findings as true because they are consistent with our common notion of reality.

    38. George Locke Says:
    “Prayer studies are interesting only in that we’re testing some assumptions about prayer.”
    Wouldn’t it be fair to say that they test hypotheses about an interventionist God?”

    They could test some hypotheses about an interventionist God. But remember, at least for the Christian god, you’re not supposed to test him. So, since god knows everything, even in double blind tests there’s always a chance that he’s not going to participate. In which case, the results don’t matter.

    Again, I’m not worried about people praying. Frankly if one of my children was endangered and there was a microscopic chance that prayer might help save them, I’ll pray. I love my kinds, I’m not proud and I’m not a doctor. If I’ve done all I can do and that’s all that’s left, I’d probably pray.

    You might not in that situation and I don’t have a problem with that.

    38. George Locke Says:
    “(snip) but the question of whether methodological naturalism is a necessary part of science or not is also worth our attention. I assert that it does not. I assert that if it were, prayer studies would be unscientific. Whether they are “scientific” or not, they are rigorous and trustworthy and demonstrate that methodological naturalism is not necessary to produce rigorous and trustworthy results using the techniques of science.”

    Well, you’re free to make that assertion but I don’t have to buy into it.

    As for prayer studies, I don’t know what you mean by “scientific,” but they can’t account for a deity who A) acts in such a way that’s indiscernible from what you would expect to find in the natural world; B) won’t participate in the study; or C) responds to prayer in ways other than what the study accounts for (which goes to the question of what is the purpose of prayer?).

    So sure, their findings can be rigorous and trustworthy, but findings aren’t the same as conclusions. And if you’re concluding something about god from these studies, then you need to account for at least those three conditions. I have yet to read of a prayer study that successfully does so. If you have, please point that out.

    As for the idea that “methodological naturalism is not necessary to produce rigorous and trustworthy results using the techniques of science,” I defer to Barbara Forrest who wrote: “Methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism are distinguished by the fact that methodological naturalism is an epistemology as well as a procedural protocol, while philosophical naturalism is a metaphysical position.”

    Does this bother you? I mean, I’m not challenging your philosophical stance, which I assume is atheism. But, while a person’s philosophical assumptions may allow them to do science, those assumptions are not in themselves science. Or, is that your philosophical stance – that philosophical naturalism isn’t just a metaphysical position, it’s the scientific method?

    If that’s the case, the existence of religious and agnostic scientists who do good science does successfully challenge that assumption.

  44. AJKamper

    Nullius:

    Ow. There’s nothing quite like inducing a lengthy, well-thought out and presumably time-consuming answer to entirely the wrong question because one didn’t express oneself clearly. Sorry about that.

    (And no, your answer wouldn’t have offended me anyhoo. Indeed, I’m sort of curious what you imagine my faith to be.)

    At any rate, let’s try again:

    Say that there exists a god, with all three omni’s, who has a full-fledged conception of what is “good,” and that the god only behaves in accordance with that conception. In that sense, this god’s actions are entirely circumscribed, regular, and predictable. Further suppose that, for the purposes of this hypothetical, that this god does intervene in the world–that god’s good nature doesn’t require it to butt out.

    Now, if this is the case, I’d argue that (weirdly) morality becomes a sort of natural law! It’s in theory testable, though the actual test would be so hideously complex that it would be quite outside our actual capabilities, and might even be tied to a physical state of the universe (though it would be obviously nonlocal). We could conceivably experiment on this god, though that seems, well, fraught with danger to say the least.

    Now does this make the study of this god compatible with methdological naturalism? (Also, doesn’t it arguably make an “is” out of morality, since this concept of goodness becomes basically a feature of the system itself?

  45. Nullius in Verba

    #44,

    Suppose “good” was defined as “conserves angular momentum”. In other words, it’s good to leave it unchanged, and bad/wicked/evil to create angular momentum out of nothing. (Without balancing it with it’s negative.)

    Now the law of angular momentum conservation becomes a commandment from the Goddess, and with her omnipotence she makes sure nobody can break it.

    It’s certainly a natural law, it’s certainly testable. Does it fit with what you meant, though?

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