The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

On Science and Religion


In the previous discussion, Derek Jarvis asks about the “side issue” I mention there, concerning the relationship between religious thought and politics.  I’ve been scowling at my computer, trying to decide if I want to go there; it is going to get messy, and very likely in a way I won’t enjoy.  On the other hand, it is a valid question, and it was a little unfair of me to bring it up and then ask people not to talk about it.

So I’ll make this as concise as I can, then dive into the nearest foxhole.

Some believe that science and religion have separate “spheres” and can comfortably co-exist. I do not; I believe the methods are in conflict, even if, at a given point, an individual may be unaware of the conflict.  I further believe that scientific analysis is the only way to understand society well enough to consciously change it, and that conscious change is objectively necessary.

Another aspect can be expressed by example. The Eighth Commandment forbids stealing.  I believe the only way to save civilization will require at some point (at some not very distant point) that we expropriate the means of production. As Engels said, expropriate is another word for steal.  Someone who believes in the Eighth Commandment, when faced with that sort of crisis, must make the choice between rejecting an element of theological principle, and rejecting a social necessity.  I make no claims about which way a given person will jump; only that the choice will be there.

Does that help clarify matters?



Author: skzb

I play the drum.


  1. My thinking is that the “spheres” of science and religion are in no way incompatible, and have come into conflict only because of the primitive, indeed amateurish methods employed by religion to date.

    Basically, science is about understanding how shit works. Religion is about converting humans into components of macro-time-scale machinery.

    Our first actually scientific religion will be our last.

  2. I’ll quibble with your example: Theistic commies argue that everything is God’s, and therefore nothing can be “stolen” from those who hoard it from God’s people.

    But we also need to separate “religion” as a hierarchical belief system that’s almost always used to rationalize rich people exploiting poor ones from theism or spirituality in general.

    And I would argue that there are many secular religions.

  3. skzb

    Will: That was one example of the sort of conflict that can occur in some theists; it wasn’t intended to mean something that will happen in all of them.

  4. “Some believe that science and religion have separate “spheres” and can comfortably co-exist. I do not; I believe the methods are in conflict, even if, at a given point, an individual may be unaware of the conflict.”

    Science is about finding reproducible patterns in the world. Sometimes we come up with simple ideas that explain the patterns. Sometimes we don’t.

    If we can decide that religion is not about observing the patterns or explaining them, then we have a role for science that religion does not encroach. People who persist in looking for religious explanations of the material patterns in the world, will have a problem with science.

    If we agree that science is not about choosing a morality, about deciding what ought to be, then we have a role for religion that science does not encroach. Various atheists try to encroach on that. They look at things like repeated prisoners dilemma games and say they show morality created out of nothing. But not really. When you play the game, you don’t have to accept the generally-agreed definitions about what it means to win. That’s just something that people agree on because it’s part of the game. There’s nothing scientific about how you choose what you want.

    Well, but maybe some objectives promote survival and reproduction for the entities who choose those objectives, and then particular strategies tend to win according to those objectives, and we wind up with whole moral systems created out of nothing. But something can be selected by the system, and that does not make it right. You have to choose whether you want it, regardless whether it promotes your survival. If you decide to do whatever increases your survival, that is a moral choice that science did not force on you.

    Science does not dictate morality. It just doesn’t. So there’s a possible role for religion that science does not truly encroach. Some people who want to make a religion out of science do encroach it, but they aren’t being scientists when they do it. They are sheep in scientists’ clothing.

    Science does have moral rules, like you do not fudge your data. But these are rules for how to do science. They aren’t rules for how to live apart from doing science.

    Sometimes people think their religion has told them The Truth. Sometimes people think science has told them The Truth. When that happens they have monumentally missed the point of science. Science finds patterns and looks for explanations. At any time we might find other patterns we like better. The patterns we play with are not The Truth. People who take today’s science and try to use it to satisfy their thirst for The Truth are likely to be disappointed. But the more stagnant today’s science is, the more likely they will die before their beliefs get upset. So that’s OK.

    There may be other areas where science and religion encroach on each other. I expect it’s possible to decide which if either of them is valid in each area.

    What if scientists study religion and explain the patterns they find? What if they find mundane explanations for the moral choices that religions condone, for example? Does that mean there is something wrong with religion? Maybe. Or maybe if you like opium, and science can explain all the physiology of how it works, you might still like it. Religion could be the same way. If someday science can explain how you make your moral choices, it still does not tell you what moral choices you should make, and you might keep making them the same old way.

  5. skzb

    “If we agree that science is not about choosing a morality, about deciding what ought to be, then we have a role for religion that science does not encroach. ”

    Certainly. It just so happens that I don’t agree.

  6. Science tells you what is and worldview (or religion, if you must) tells you what it means. We must differentiate science from the utilitarian/humanist/empiricst/materialist (or theist, deist, polytheist) worldview that gives meaning to what science tells us.

    Scientific inquiry assumes some aspects of a worldview (that the world is real or real enough, that cause and effect exist, that we can trust our perceptions to at least some extent) but those presuppositions are not enough to make a worldview.

  7. In principle you can imagine a religion that made sense, and which did not fly in the face of science and everyone’s personal experience of the world. In practice, not.

    It’s not that there’s any inconsistency between any particular religion and any particular ideology. That doesn’t bother me. It’s that the existing world religions make no sense at all, have no evidence to support their ludicrous and counterfactual claims, cause widespread pain and suffering, repress billions and kill millions more, stand in the way of progress at every turn, and generally impose almost psychotic blinders on believers, factionalizing and tribalizing humanity.

    So yes, of course, there are kind, virtuous, and sympathetic believers and even religious leaders. I don’t care at all. No doubt those people would have been kind, virtuous, and sympathetic without their obviously false beliefs.

    If you as an individual want to believe an angel helped you to win the big game or the world was created 6000 years ago or you will get to come back in the next life as a man if you were a sufficiently virtuous and submissive woman, I won’t stand in your way. But I would argue against giving groups of such believers any privileges whatsoever, and I want to remove children from enforced indoctrination into these absurd notions.

    So despite that militant talk, I’m an agnostic, of course, not an atheist, because there is obviously no possible evidence that can demonstrate or falsify the notion of a transcendent (or immanent for that matter) creator of the universe. And for that matter, the apparent improbability of basic universe conditions that lead to the organized order of matter and energy might plausibly suggest some sort of intentionality to manifest existence. But I think the world would be an enormously better place if everyone made atheism their default assumption, anyway.

  8. skzb

    ” It’s that the existing world religions make no sense at all, have no evidence to support their ludicrous and counterfactual claims, cause widespread pain and suffering, repress billions and kill millions more, stand in the way of progress at every turn, and generally impose almost psychotic blinders on believers, factionalizing and tribalizing humanity.”

    Well, sure. But aside from that, what’s wrong with them?

  9. What, are you saying that science can be used to choose a morality? I don’t understand how.

    To my limited understanding, science is about observing and understanding: results, consequences, etc. As such, science can tell you what will happen and why and how, but not whether it should – just what the result will be if it does.

    It feels like you want science to make empiric judgement calls, when I think of judgement as the reason for people. Am I being too simple?

    I would add that my personal beliefs account for what (I think) you are saying will be problematic for religious people, so if you feel like it is safe to continue, I’d love to be educated further.

  10. Not all ethical systems are religions for the same reason that not everything you wear on your wrist is a shackle.

    I mean, fuck, “binding” is three fourths of the word.

    It does seem to me, though, that as thoroughly as the implications of an ethical system might be worked out scientifically, it has to rest on some kind of value judgment that isn’t and cannot be scientific in nature. Not that it wouldn’t be interesting to hear otherwise.

  11. Morality and ethics are the result of programs genetically wired into us, because evolutionarily the survival of a group of weak little hominids or primates is advanced by cooperation, the resolution of conflict, etc. Hence notions of “fairness”, “equity”, “justice” and so on. We observe primitive forms of these ideas in groups of apes and monkeys and in other less intelligent social animals.

    I don’t deprecate these concepts merely because they emerge from primate behavior patterns. They make us what we are. Moreover, we now have the biologically unprecedented ability to reprogram ourselves — not through science-fictional (for the moment) genetic alteration, but even through simple conscious choice and deliberate action.

    What I object to, however, is the idea that morality is somehow something that is higher and purer than humanity, or the idea that ethics are indeed transcendent and universal, when in fact both these intertwined principles derive from successful herd behavior in animals.

  12. Miramon, I’d say that you’re feeding into the beatification of the concept of ethics when you construct it as about things we socially consider “nice”.

    “Murder any fucker who crosses you” is an ethic. So is “party ’til you puke” (the foundation of the Cyreniac school, Epicurus’s main competitors).

    Not to mention my favorite: “Appropriate action means to advance your own goals, without unintentional harm to anyone else.”

  13. “If we agree that science is not about choosing a morality, about deciding what ought to be, then we have a role for religion that science does not encroach. ”

    “Certainly. It just so happens that I don’t agree.”

    I accept that. So your idea about what is science is different from mine.

    I want to describe what science means to me, and if you want to you can describe what it means to you. If we get it clear where the difference is, that still doesn’t say that one of us is right and the other wrong, but it does give each of us a better sense of what the other means.

    I say that science is about observing how the world works.

    It concentrates on things that are repeatable because that’s what is easiest to get clear about.

    Scientists try to be clear about bias. When you repeatedly measure the relationship between some things, try not to assume that the relationship is the same under conditions you have not measured, as it is in the conditions you did measure. We fall down on that a whole lot, particularly when we think we have found fundamental relationships that are true everywhere. But we try to notice bias and fix it as opportunities arise.

    There is nothing in this about how the world ought to work. Scientists can have morals. They can decide that genocide is bad, or that food aid to the starving is good, etc. They don’t get their morals from their science, though.

    They can have morals informed by science. Like, Darwin did not know about mendelism, so he assumed that there are huge numbers of mutations which are selected a little before they blend into the mix and disappear. Various people took this incorrect science and decided that the poor contain a giant mixture of deleterious mutations, and the only way to keep the mutations from swamping the whole gene pool was to subject the poor to lots of selection that would kill off the weakest of them. Providing medical care to the poor resulted in weak mutants surviving long enough to reproduce. They campaigned for things like bad sanitation and poor food for poor people so that humanity could survive.

    That is, they found science that seemed to fit their previous beliefs, and used it as a prop to do what they wanted to do already.

    Usually when people use science to influence morality, that’s what they are doing. First they notice what they want, then they notice that they can interpret some science to fit that, and after that they try to persuade people that science says they are doing the right thing. YMMV.

    It is possible to use science to show that a particular moral stand is likely to have unintended results. This usually is done by people who are already opposed to that moral stand. Etc.

  14. Yeah. Science can tell you whether a course of action will result in pan-galactic obliteration, but it can’t tell you whether you prefer pan-galactic obliteration or something else.

  15. “It’s that the existing world religions make no sense at all, have no evidence to support their ludicrous and counterfactual claims, cause widespread pain and suffering, repress billions and kill millions more, stand in the way of progress at every turn, and generally impose almost psychotic blinders on believers, factionalizing and tribalizing humanity.”

    And they might possibly have allowed us to survive.
    There could be genes that spread through a population and then kill it off. There’s a lot of reason to expect such genes in humans, they have been found in rats, fruit flies, corn, and pretty much everywhere they have been look for.

    The obvious way to slow the spread of such things is to divide the population into small factions or tribes, with strictly limited immigration allowed. If new tribes split off faster than old tribes get infected, the population can survive.

    Religions that got people to divide into small groups that tended not to interbreed, could have helped us survive. We might find better ways to get that effect without the bad side effects of religion. But we’d better make sure they work.

    Or maybe the science is somehow wrong.

  16. Religion and Science both make assertions of fact.

    Some religious claims pertain to things of which Science cannot speak — such as “God exists”, or “There is a mystical place where our consciousness continues after our bodies die”.

    For such things, Science can only shrug and say “we have no evidence to suggest this is so”. Of course, there are an infinite number of nonsensical statements that can be asserted to be true, and we do not generally believe everything we might hear, just because someone says so.

    Then there are those occasions where religion makes claims pertaining to things of which Science *CAN* speak — such as the age of the Earth, or how Man came to be. On these occasions, Science often disagrees with Religion — and what then?

    Many people desperately want to hold Science and Religion in equal regard — but they do not have equal track records.

    Gods do not drag the sun across the sky; they do not send comets, create volcanoes, send lightning to punish the wicked. The earth is not the center of the universe.

    In every case, Science finds the truth, and Religion only comes around, kicking and screaming, decades or centuries later.

    It bears repeating: When Science and Religion come into conflict, it is always Religion — which claims to be based on an infallible source — which always turns out to be wrong, and must eventually back down. Not once have we improved our understanding of the universe by saying, “You know what? You were right. God DID do it.”

    Science doesn’t always get it right the first time — but it is always the engine by which we eventually get it right, in the end.

  17. > “Murder any fucker who crosses you” is an ethic.

    No, it is not.

    Chaosprime, I think your usage of “ethic” is mistaken. There is no such thing as an “ethic” in the sense of a single moral rule. Ethics by definition — check any dictionary — are a complete system of moral rules or behaviors. Whether you think they are transcendent and objective or relative and personal or biological and programmed, the thing that is being talked about is a complete system.

  18. A set of cardinality one is a set.

    That isn’t really the point, anyhow; the point is that systems for deciding what to do (that being what the field of ethics studies) can be and have been worked out which are not “nice”.

  19. IMO tribes did not arise because they had different religions. The existence of tribes predates religion because tribes are just herds or packs given a humanistic nomenclature. So really tribes arose because of the limits of herd foraging ranges.

    Cooperation at primitive tech levels has diminishing returns as the population rises, so separate populations have to calve off and move away to be successful. Increasing tech level increases the maximum size of successful cooperating groups.

  20. “Cooperation at primitive tech levels has diminishing returns as the population rises, so separate populations have to calve off and move away to be successful. Increasing tech level increases the maximum size of successful cooperating groups.”

    Yes, exactly! As the size of groups *could* increase, and *tended to* increase, we needed new mechanisms to keep them small. Religious and other groups that split smaller and kept apart could fill in some.

    I’m not sure this actually fits the history. I read that before the invention of the bicycle most marriages were between people who lived less than 1000 feet apart. If mere distance was enough to usually keep the breeding populations small and separate, that would do it. But then there were wars….

  21. Ah, what was the question? As to the last part, many people, religious or not, have no problem with throwing morality, legality or religion out the window, when it serves their purposes. I don’t know if this is getting worse, or if we are just more aware of all the crap going on. Part of it seems to be that it feels like nobody in power goes to jail, ever, regardless of their crime. They almost flaunt it.

  22. I believe that the role religion plays at the micro level, at the personal level, is the reason why it can’t just be done away with. At the macro level, it is harmful. It seems everyone here agrees, except for those who simply argue for the sake of arguing.

    But the role religion plays in the life of a single believer is, on average, helpful. At its most basic, it provides structure and a sense of familiarity. Gathering to practice it intrinsically provides like-minded peers. The act of praying is the most basic form of meditation, which can help ease the pressure of everyday life and help the believer cope with tragedy.

    Now, bring in a scientist saying that some or all of the religion that the believer has found helpful in their life is wrong, and the believer defends their religion with the usual claims of ‘faith’ and ‘God did it’ and ‘immaculately true’ because they don’t know how to rationally argue their point that, at the personal level, religion has been positive in their lives, and that they just want to be left alone with it. This creates tension and, to the point of the original post, the religious and scientific spheres can’t coexist.

    There are several follow up ideas here:

    It’s pretty obvious, but is yet unsaid; the mentality described leaves the believer highly susceptible to manipulation if a religious leader is inclined to abuse the power he has.

    Miramon’s course of action, “I want to remove children from enforced indoctrination into these absurd notions,” seems to be the best way to slowly lesson the number of people who fall prey to belief and therefore not be lead them to a position of confrontation with science.

    Also, the positive psychological and social effects of religion can be gained without belief, without the structure, and without many of the negative effects. The act of praying, or meditating, or reflecting in some way, can be done without a deity involved. A firm agnostic, I pray the serenity prayer just because it’s calming (although I admit, I do replace ‘God’ with ‘Devera.’ She seems like the kind of being I would worship were such beings to exist). But the name of the deity does not matter, the reflection and meditation that is incorporated in prayer does.

    A side note that is off topic, but Miramon, you’ve put forth an idea of what makes humans ‘Human’ that is the best I’ve ever heard. “Moreover, we now have the biologically unprecedented ability to reprogram ourselves. . . through simple conscious choice and deliberate action.” I find that fascinating. Thank you for this gem of an idea.

  23. You assert a conflict without explaining exactly what it is, but you imply that the conflict is over “understanding society in order to change it”. There’s no requirement that religion change society; a Deist would probably argue that while God created the universe, he intended for us to operate on scientific principles. And your argument about the 8th commandment ignores the fact that the bible also specifies taxes, charity, and obedience to government, all of which can provide religious justification for expropriation.

  24. skzb

    David Karger. Thanks for your remarks. You say that I assert a conflict without explaining it. I beg your pardon. To explain, then, I believe that science involves deducing the processes of the real world from facts, whereas religion involves imposing a schematic view of real world processes on the facts. Science seeks to observe and draw conclusions from nature; to believe in God is to believe nature is endowed with consciousness. These methods seem in conflict to me. Or have I failed to answer the question?

    You say, “There’s no requirement that religion change society.” My apologies if I wasn’t clear. I had not meant to imply there was; the requirement to change society is something I believe, it is not inherently part of a religion (indeed, a belief in *not* changing the world is explicitly part of some religions). I happen to think I am right. If I am wrong, well, certainly, that would mean I’m wrong about the entire problem, and socially progressive theists need never fear having to make such a choice as I describe.

    Your interesting remarks about the 8th Commandment make me curious. Were you unclear that I was giving an example, rather than an exhaustive list? You find biblical justification that a theist might use to solve that problem. And yet, I never denied that, in a given case, a given theist might find a way around a given conflict. Indeed, there are theists who do not believe in the 8th Commandment at all, and they would certainly never have that problem. But it does, I confess, make me wonder if you hold that everyone who believes in the 8th Commandment would agree with your interpretation of taxes and charities and obedience to government; and, if not, it makes me wonder why you even brought it up.

  25. “I believe that science involves deducing the processes of the real world from facts, whereas religion involves imposing a schematic view of real world processes on the facts.”

    I think animism is supposed to involve something like that. People imagine that the weather represents somebody’s feelings, and they predict it the way they’d predict an emotional person. That kind of thing. Sometimes people do that today, like imagining an automobile like they would a horse. “Oh Ronny, I know you need me to take care of you, I’ll get your oil change right away.” That’s probably harmless if it gets the oil change on schedule.

    Christians don’t particularly do that, do they? All the emphasis on miracles assumes a world that operates in known predictable ways, that would require a miracle to change, and they believe in miracles that happened 2000 years ago. They don’t much ask for miracles like their car to suddenly get 100 mpg so they can go an extra 50 miles before they fill the tank. They may sometimes pray for miracles like for the stoplight to change in the next 10 seconds or for the car whose gas tank registers empty to get the last 2 miles to the station.

    If they believe the world follows predictable rules except when there’s a miracle, then science can figure out the predictable rules. I don’t see a conflict there.

    “…the requirement to change society is something I believe, it is not inherently part of a religion (indeed, a belief in *not* changing the world is explicitly part of some religions). I happen to think I am right.”

    I don’t see that this is something to be right or wrong about. You choose to change society for the better. (Or if you try to change society for the worse, it’s so that it will break and then be reborn in a better form.) You believe that without the positive changes you want, society will inevitably change in ways you consider extremely bad. You could be right about the inevitability, but the good and bad parts are all your choice. Many societies in the past have collapsed, sometimes with a lot of people dying pretty quick. I see no reason to suppose it was part of an inevitable progression toward a goal, it may likely have been just — shit happens. LIke, people find a form of agriculture that works for a few hundred years, they build up a big population and then it stops working. The population falls and starving people try to propitiate the gods or tear things up or whatever. They didn’t know the crops would fail just like we don’t know the oil will run out.

    You want a society where people can lead prosperous happy lives together. I approve of your choice. But it is your choice and not something that can be derived from any kind of science.

    Maybe I’m going on too long about something we agree on, but the way you said it …. “I believe I’m right to want what I want.” A god could tell you that you are right or wrong to want something. Without a god there is only “I will try to get what I want because I want it”. We can try to persuade or inspire people to join us in wanting things, but what we want isn’t right or wrong except in terms of what else we want.

    It looks to me like Marxism is a religion based on 19th century science. Marxists disapprove of other religions the same way that other religions disapprove of each other. That may sound like fighting words because Marxists talk as if what they do is not religion, and it isn’t my intention to insult. Just — when you consider the good things that people want religions to do, and the bad things they actually do, Marxism is intentionally designed to get those good effects without the bad ones. Carefully designed to do what a religion ought to do, instead of what older religions that came about by accident actually do….

  26. @Ryan Smith – “Thank you for this gem of an idea.”

    Of course it’s not original. I’ve seen it in a number of places before, ranging from the flaky to the scientific. I don’t remember for sure, but it’s possible the first time I saw it was in something by Robert Anton Wilson, which suggests the possibility that Timothy Leary came up with it first, if it wasn’t original with RAW.

  27. skzb, thanks for your reply. I will respond to each of your points in turn.

    1) Now that you have articulated the conflict, I respond that while *some* religions might be in conflict with science, it is not a fundamental characteristic. The creationist museum showing dinosaurs with humans is clearly in conflict; a Deist who think God made the big bang and then disappeared is not. More generally, since religions tend to be rooted in issues “beyond human understanding”, I would say that it is particular *interpretations* of a religion that can conflict with science. If that’s all you’re arguing, then I have no disagreement; there are plenty of such interpretations that I would like to wipe away.

    2) Specifically as regards the 8th commandment, a literal reading of that commandment is in conflict with various other commandments (e.g. the commandment to tithe to the priests). Thus, one is immediately forced to interpret. Some interpretations would forbid redistribution as a form of stealing, but I venture that most would not (since there is so much biblical “evidence” on the other side). Since I would posit that most such interpreters continue to “believe in the 8th commandment”, I disagree with your assertion that all believers in the 8th commandment would have to make overturn a theological principle.

    I consider it a hallmark of “rational religions” that, when faced with facts that contradict the religion, rather than rejecting the facts, they look for the errors in interpretation that led their religion into contradiction with them.

  28. > a Deist who think God made the big bang and then disappeared is not.

    Yes, but there’s no organized religion that has that dogma, even if there are a number of people who have that personal belief. The religions with buildings and funny outfits and fancy leader titles and tax-exempt status are pretty much all anti-scientific.

  29. > a Deist who think God made the big bang and then disappeared is not.

    > Yes, but there’s no organized religion that has that dogma, even if there are a number of people who have that personal belief.

    I want to repeat, the Christian ones almost all have the concept that God can and will do occasional “miracles”, and that when he is not doing miracles he is not actively intervening.

    Today God seldom raises people from the dead, or helps them walk on water. He does not turn water into wine, and for that matter he doesn’t make the earth stop rotating for 24 hours so an army can better exterminate its foes. Nobody expects to see that happen, and they don’t.

    They have a pretty clear idea what to expect when God is not working miracles, and they have no objection to science codifying that stuff.

  30. J Thomas:

    I have to ask — don’t you find it at all suspicious that all of God’s “best work” happened in an era when there was no ability to scientifically test the claims?

    We have evidence that, far more recently than 2000 years ago, there have been occasions where folks would think a person was dead, and bury him, only for the person to awaken from his coma and find that he had been buried alive!

    Can we be SO sure that the person Jesus supposedly raised, was actually dead in the first place?

    And now that we have the technology and scientific expertise to test claims of “miracles” — NOW, God decides to go dormant?

    This doesn’t strike you as even slightly curious?

    The world today is full of people who claim supernatural abilities. Yet James Randi’s $100,000 prize for PROOF of supernatural ability goes unclaimed. The few folks that try, always seem to lose their abilities the moment the anti-fraud checks are in place, and the cameras start rolling.

    Quantum theory aside, things that vanish when you start actively looking for them, were generally never there in the first place…

  31. The basis of Christianity seems to have been as some have described: the world has a natural order that requires the intervention of God via various miracles for the fantastic.

    However, current US Christian philosophy (I apologize for giving it such dignity by using the word philosophy) seems to be pretty close to “God made the lightning strike that house because those people are sinners”, and I think if that is the basis upon which Mr. Brust is basing his concerns, I guess I feel like they’re pretty valid.

  32. “I have to ask — don’t you find it at all suspicious that all of God’s “best work” happened in an era when there was no ability to scientifically test the claims?”

    For that matter they tended to happen when there was no one particularly literate to give a first-hand account. My point is, though, that even around 0 AD people had a strong sense of what was a miracle and what wasn’t. They believed they knew what to expect normally. So they could have done science in terms of studying carefully what to expect normally, apart from miracles, if they had the idea of doing science.

    And they DID have the idea of scientific method! See for example Judges 6:37-40.

  33. J. Thomas: “It looks to me like Marxism is a religion based on 19th century science.” A very valid point, provided you know little of 19th century science and nothing of Marxism.

    David Karger: Thanks for the thoughtful replies. ‘More generally, since religions tend to be rooted in issues “beyond human understanding…”‘ I think we need go no further than this. The notion that there are things “beyond human understanding” indicates a method in conflict with science, which admits no such barriers to human understanding.

    “I disagree with your assertion that all believers in the 8th commandment would have to make overturn a theological principle.” Ah. That makes it clear. I ought to have said explicitly, “some of those who believe in certain interpretations of the 8th commandment.”

  34. Judges 6:37-40: Ha ha, said Gideon’s little brother, we’re going to totally mess with him tonight. Like, a dry fleece. That would prove the existence of God for sure.

  35. J Thomas:

    I guess that puts the 0 AD folks ahead of some modern Christians, who imagine they see pictures of Jesus or Mary on a toasted bagel, and immediately proclaim, “it’s a miracle!”.


    The only people who believe that Jesus’ “miracles” had perfect witnesses, who maintained a perfectly unmodified, unexaggerated oral history for the decades before anyone wrote it down, are those who simply WANT it to be true.

    Without miracles, Jesus is in question. Without Jesus, Christianity is in question. Without Christianity, you don’t get to live forever in the clouds with your loved ones when you die.

    It’s totally understandable why people would want religion to be true. It can be very comfortable and reassuring, in what otherwise appears to be a cold, heartless world.

    All atheism can give you is… the truth. It’s up to each of us, which we value more…

  36. My own experience/view:

    Most debates (and/or spirited discussions) will, at some point resort to fallacious “Appeal To Authority,” that is, insisting something is true that you lack the evidence or understanding to defend, and using an unchallengeable reference to defend it.

    I believe that, the longer this takes in a discussion, the more productive and worthwhile the discussion can become.

    As it happens, one can reasonably say that the principal goal of science is to push “Appeal to Authority” as far out of the discussion as possible.

    And, alas, for the kinds of religions thriving today, one can reasonably say that the principal goal of religion is to apply “Appeal to Authority” as widely, and early, as possible.

    The two spheres are incompatible because those goals repel each other like magnets.

  37. One interesting story from `1997 tells about the construction of a religions (the article says “mythology”) among homeless kids in Miami.

    This story really fits with a certain beared white male’s assertion that religions is the opium of the masses, a heart in a heartless world. It is fascinating how this particular mythology takes off from Christianity, but transforms it to fit the harsh live experience of the homeless kids. God was driven out from heaven and heaven destroyed by a successful demon attack. No one has heard from him since. An army of angels and spirits of the dead fight a rearguard battle against the devil, but have no leaders and no real hope of success. The devil rules the world and is friends with the rich. In addition to the angels and good spirits, there other protective forces out there who try to help people, (such as the Blue Lady), but they have to invoked, and while they may win battles, they are weak compared to the Devil’s forces. The kids still take it for granted that they don’t want to be on the Devil’s side, even though there is almost no hope of defeating them. (They totally reject the idea of a judgement day. There will never be a moment of justice when the wicked are judged and the good rewarded.)

    The nice thing about this particular religion is that it is not one anyone on this board shares (wel lprobably) we can discuss it without having to pretend it is likely to be true. But think how well it makes sense of the lives of these homeless kids – whose lives are ones of deprivation and victimization, who – if they have adults who love them – see from an early age that those who love them and try to protect them can’t. It is actually a pretty smart way of making sense of a hopeless situation, with the added comfort of believeing that at least someone is fighting for you, that you can win some of the battles even if you lose in the end, and that you can occasionally protect yourself for at least a moment.

    Note that this religion has value even though I think most of us would agree it is not true. It reflects important truths that are painful to voice directly. It provides comfort and a way for people living with horror to make sense of the world. It is really hard for naked truth to compete with that. There is an old Jewish story about how Truth can’t get anyone to listen to her when she is walking in rags, that to get a hearing she has to dress in the fine velvet and silk of Parable. A story about storytelling.

    I wonder if the positive things about religion could be saved without the negative by dropping the pretense that religions are true in any way but metaphorically. That is they are good stories that comfort us and help us think about the world without pretending that gods and demons and reincarnation and karma and all that actually happening. Just as Truth is not actual physical woman, and Parables are not literally clothes of silk and velvet. I’m sure this suggestion will in no way offend religious people who do believe the literal existence of God or Jesus, or the Triple Goddess, or Krishna or whatever …

  38. Oh and should be aware that anytime a journalist covers something like the story I linked above I can pretty much guarantee that they got a great many details wrong. I’ve never read coverage of a newspaper story I knew something about firsthand where that did not happen.

  39. Miramon: “Ha ha, said Gideon’s little brother, we’re going to totally mess with him tonight.”

    More likely Gideon was in on it.

    Look at the context — he wanted to fight the nomads who had been harassing his people. He needed to persuade people he could win. So he did a series of splashy things to get people’s attention, and he announced that God talked to him and personally told him he would win. Well, but anybody could say that. So then he asked God to do something other people could tell, something inside a locked and guarded winepress. Get a lambskin wet. Not that impressive, but it happened. Maybe it was some natural phenomenon? So he asked God for the opposite to happen. No changed variables except his public request to God, and the opposite happened.

    So it almost certainly was not a natural phenomenon. Presumably he had a way to cheat, to do something inside a locked and guarded winepress. But it got him thousands of volunteers, who believed they would win.

    He did a controlled experiment. He changed only one variable. People understood what he was doing. Sure, it was a cheat, but it was scientific method he was cheating at. And if people didn’t understand why it mattered, he wouldn’t have bothered.

    “A very valid point, provided you know little of 19th century science and nothing of Marxism.”

    Steven, did you read the rest or did you stop there? It’s OK either way, but I want you to know that my purpose is not to offend you. From my point of view Marxism is a *great* religion. Not to say I’m right about anything….

  40. Let me come out with a different perspective.

    Let’s pretend for a minute that you are God. Would you want to respond to every request for a miracle? Do you want to be personally responsible for every grain of sand in the universe and all the conflicts and all the atrocities and all the unintended consequences? Why would some believers as well as atheists think that is God’s function? To be the red-haired stepchild that does all the dirty work and gets blamed for what goes bad. Not a very dignified job for a God. One wouldn’t think a God would be that stupid.

    I believe in God or perhaps call it the supernatural (testable miracle). I don’t believe in creationism or most of the stuff in the Bible. They are stories, politics, rationalizations and attempts to try to explain what is going on by people without the tools to understand. So don’t ask me to defend it.

    Religions are an invention of people and seem to be largely an attempt to exploit God for largely personal or tribal reasons. It can give comfort and help to many, as well as causing conflict and suffering. But that is religion, not God as it were. People confuse the two. Often on purpose. I have respect for people trying to get comfort and help wherever they can as long as it doesn’t harm others.

    Politics seems to have much the same function as a religion. It is based on belief and words more than on testable history or science. A politician can get away with saying one thing and doing the opposite and not be questioned because of it. Or to support failed policies that are known to fail every time. Because his believers have faith in him and because we are still tribal.

    Speaking of which, the ‘invisible hand of the free market’ sounds like a religion to me. Especially, since it doesn’t work that way at all.

    I will throw Tea Party, Libertarians, GOP, many Democrats and Socialists into the religion category. If we had less ‘religion’ in politics, we could probably do some good things in this country. Unfortunately, powerful entities know how to exploit this aspect fully and use our tribal nature against us. It becomes ‘us against them’, often with both sides losing. But that can’t be seen because the goal is for the other side to lose, not win-win.

    So, what was the question? Does science and religion conflict? Yes for most religions. Does science and God conflict? I don’t think so, at least for the big picture.

  41. Gar, I love your story about the Miami religion. It sounds like some of the TV shows that are on the air these days. It makes for an interesting story.

  42. skzb

    J. Thomas: I was not offended; I have come across that argument so many times in so many forms, it just bores me now. The point is, 19th Century science was based on Empiricism on the one hand, and mechanical materialism on the other; two approaches to truth antithetical to Marxism. If you want to consider the Enlightenment’s belief in rationality uber alles to be a religion, that is entirely fair, but I don’t think terribly useful; and, in any case, that is an aspect of the Enlightenment explicitly rejected by Marxism, which holds that human thought is a product of material conditions.

  43. Miramon: I disagree most religions are anti-scientific. Per J Thomas I’d say most modern religious consider science to be the “regular order of business” that happens if God leaves things alone. Thus, perfectly happy to accept anything science says.

    skzb: I said “issues beyond human understanding” not “methods beyond human understanding” and was speaking in the present tense, not the indefinite. So science has no position on where the big bang came from. Religion does. Are these in conflict? No, because science has no position on the issue. Some day we might figure out that X preceded the big bang. At that point, the question “beyond human understanding” will be “what came before X”.

    skzb (and Chris). Science (and math) recognizes the necessity of axioms; things taken as given before you start deducing. Religion provides a particular set of things taken as given; science does the same. And per J Thomas, while I might not call Marxism a religion, I think it’s clear that it comes with its own unproven axioms just like religions (and science) do.

    8th commandment: I completely agree that there are certain *people* who are in conflict with science, but I ascribe this to the people not the science. Just reasoning statistically, The “vaccines cause autism” crowd are anti-science, regardless of whether they are theists or atheists.

    Reed: 2 simple alternative answers (i) God stopped working miracles once the scientific method began to evolve, so as not to interfere with it. (ii) God’s stopping working miracles allowed the scientific method to evolve as it begin to work. Not taking a position on this but just pointing out there are consistent alternatives. Also, atheism is just as axiomatic as theism—one cannot prove existence OR nonexistnce of God. It’s the agnostics who are truly avoiding making assumptions.

  44. Is every wrong set of beliefs a religion? Can’t an idea or even an approach be mistaken without being a religion?

  45. skzb

    David Kargar: There are, in my opinion, no “issues beyond human understanding.”

  46. I think it depends on how the idea is used. If it is assumed the idea is true and cannot be questioned and that all information to the contrary is automatically wrong – that sounds a bit like a religion to me. UFOs sound like a religion to me. That doesn’t mean there aren’t flying objects we can’t identify, however. ;>)

    As I said, a lot of politics sounds like a religion to me, especially when anyone in a different political camp is considered evil.

    The present NSA surveillance seems to be based on faith and fear rather than reality. So maybe that qualifies as a religion?

    skzb, that doesn’t mean we understand everything. I’m not sure that will ever happen. I think that back in 1800 or so, someone declared science dead because we already understood everything. We figured out a few things since then.

  47. skzb

    David: It is, of course, possible to expand the definition of “religion” almost indefinitely. But once we’ve done that, it is still useful to have a word that refers to a system of beliefs involving supernatural elements. And if you’re going to take “religion” and use it for something else, maybe you can supply us with a replacement?

  48. skzb: I didn’t say marxism was a religion; I said that like religions it was axiomatic I’d agree religion has a narrower meaning focused on deities, afterlives, morality, etc.

    I also don’t equate religion and supernatural. I’d characterize (belief in) magic or ESP as supernatural but not religion.

    Conversely, it seems to me that “spooky action at a distance” might qualify as both scientific and supernatural!

    As for “beyond human understanding”, consider for the axioms we start with. We don’t have reasons for them (else they wouldn’t be axioms). Why did we start with them? We can’t explain; we just did.

  49. “Is every wrong set of beliefs a religion?”

    Let me tell a story. I got this from Herodotus but I’m saying it from memory so I could have things wrong.

    Herodotus visited Egypt, and saw that some towns would have religious festivals. Groups of people would travel to a neighboring town where some of their young men would perform a complicated ritual with some of the local young men. Everybody would watch with excitement. The crowd yelled and danced. Sometimes women in a frenzy would expose their breasts and dance, yelling. After the ritual they would have a procession, the crowd would carry platforms with people on it in poses of various sorts.

    As he described the scene I had no doubt he was talking about religion. And I could see it, it was very similar to my own town’s football Homecoming.

    We don’t usually talk about football as religion, or we do it is only metaphorical. But in old egypt something similar was. It wasn’t primarily about what you believed. It was about what you did along with your community.

    It looks to me like christianity — particularly modern christianity — is special about belief. You’re supposed to believe a lot of things that are hard to believe, whether you do that or not is what decides whether you are Christian.

    Other religions I think have somewhat less of that. Hindus have so many gods, some of them with conflicting stories. It doesn’t matter so much what you believe, it’s whether you are Hindu or not. You can join if you want to, and you get a big buffet of things you can choose to worship, and even if you marry a hindu woman you’ll never really get it because you weren’t born to it.

    Similarly, you don’t stop being Jewish no matter what you believe or don’t believe. People might tell you you’re a bad Jew.

    Religion is a kind of inclusive thing. It can mean lots of things. It isn’t always about believing. And you can believe wrong things without it being connected to religion.

    I think sometimes religion acts as a sort of storeroom for ideas that are not currently useful. Like, there were religions with pinwheels for many centuries before people built useful windmills. Christian monasteries kept various occult knowledge and played with things like weird plows and crop rotation. Old egyptian religions played with lots of magic tricks to impress the peasants. They could predict eclipses. They could put a staff on the ground and it would turn into a snake. Sometimes they could build an altar on a high hill and douse it with salt water, and call down lightning. They could do surveying and some geometry and trigonometry. Lots of occult knowledge and some of it was useful, while other parts waited for uses. Now we do a lot of that with universities, which we don’t think of as religious….

  50. Damn good question. I was going to ask you.

    I suppose the broadest term would be a ‘faith based belief system’. Which still sounds like religion. The word ‘religion’ has the connotation of some supernatural connection, maybe a god, but not necessarily. Mostly strong beliefs.

    Things like the ‘stock market’ believe some higher power (invisible hand) will intervene and correct things (it doesn’t). It is a story told to the suckers to make them more comfortable with risking their money. So religion works there. (I generally make money on the stock market, so it isn’t sour grapes).

    I’m not sure that ‘religion’ doesn’t apply to many political beliefs. Though it certainly is less direct and more messy than I (we?) would like. Except when a party says ‘God wants you to vote this way.’ ‘Religion’ has the right kind of emotional impact and is word economical. There aren’t many rational political systems, when the rubber hits the road.

    I’m open for suggestions. ‘cult’?

  51. skzb

    David Karger: Embarrassed apologies; the part about religion was an answer to J. Thomas, not you. As for the comments you do me the honor to make, I believe we are now at the point of each having made our positions clear, which ought to be enough.

    David: We may need to invent something.

  52. After reading the initial skzb comment and skimming the others, I believe my initial thought was correct, I do possess a different set of assumptions as to the nature of divinity, and the nature of the relationship between humanity and deity, than those who have commented. To reply to the initial skzb: 1) The scientific method and faith are the same thing. Now, I realize that what you all seem to contemplate by the word “faith” (an irrational belief in random intervention in the progress of reality by only occasionally interested, all-powerful and completely capricious being, no?) has nothing to do with science. However, I posit that true faith involves the formation of hypotheses, testing same, analyzing the results, forming theories from those results, acting upon those theories, etc., etc.

    2) It wouldn’t be stealing. They are just holding on to them for us. Or, put another way, they have either been given or expropriated a stewardship over them (by God, some would say, at least in some instances) and having proven themselves incapable of adequately managing that stewardship, are now subject to forfeit of same. We wouldn’t be stealing from them. We’d by firing them.

    Or, looking at it more pragmatically, for the vast majority of those who own the means of production, either they are some ancestor took them by theft, violence, or in the course of committing some other crime or crimes, and thus, do not technically own them by any rational legal theory other than societal acceptance of their right of title in order to establish a baseline and avoid chaos.

    You may say this is rationalizing. I say it is looking at it from the same less constricted point of view that allows me to have a conception of Deity that is fundamentally different than the conception of Deity that has been drilled into most people’s (not just Christians, or even “theists”) consciousness so deeply they can’t imagine any one fundamentally different, even while rejecting the conception they have allowed to be forced upon them.

    Re-reading all that to myself I realized that most if not all religions were revolutionary in their conception, in the sense skzb speaks of as being an attempt to change the nature of existence, and that only a few, if any, (though I would argue at least one) have held on to that revolutionary zeal.

  53. Okay. I take that back. Some were probably reactionary.

  54. skzb

    Derek: Exactly where I part company with most militant atheists is at the point of, “religions are reactionary, period.” As a rule, most major religions were progressive at the time they first appeared; certainly monotheism brought advances with it in human freedom and understanding of the natural world, and Protestantism permitted greater freedom in exploring science as well as permitting and encouraging more individual expression, and so on. Religion, like anything else, ought to be studied historically, scientifically. To say, “Religion is evil,” and stop there, is unscientific.

  55. 1) The scientific method and faith are the same thing.

    No, they aren’t.

    People sometimes use scientific method, because they believe it will give them results they want. Sometimes they have experience — they have used it before and occasionally got good results. Sometimes they believe claims by other people that all of modern technology came from science and without science we wouldn’t have any of that. They have faith in the method. This is different from having faith in God, or faith in religious dogma.

    I’ll figure out just what the difference is later.

    2) It wouldn’t be stealing. They are just holding on to them for us.

    That was the rationale we used for kings. They thought they owned whole nations, and all the people in them, because God said so. In many cases we took everything from them, land, armies, navies, ownership of the means of production, ownership of the working class itself, often their own lives. We didn’t really think it was stealing.

  56. This will be kind of long. It’s how I got religion. If it gets boring, skip it. Or skip to the next section which I hope will be more interesting.

    I was programming, and I heard about a language named Forth that was designed to be simple. I wanted to try it, and I found a compiler for it.

    I read the 12 page instruction manual. It was simple. Then I tried to program in it. That was incredibly hard.

    The central problem was that I was used to tucking all my data into variables. With most computer languages there’s no alternative to that. You declare a variable, a name for a place in memory, and then you put data in it and take it out whenever you need it.

    But Forth encouraged people to leave data on a stack. The most recent data is always available. Once that’s taken away, whatever you earlier left on the stack is available. Some ways using the stack is simpler — you don’t need many variables, and when you have finished using that stack all traces of what you did have vanished with no need for memory management etc. But I found that I would save something I’d need later, and then save something else I’d need later, and after awhile it got hard. In one of my first programs I had 17 things on the stack, and I couldn’t keep track.

    A bunch of smart people said it was easy. I couldn’t do it. I thought I was as smart as them but my brain wouldn’t stretch far enough. I started breaking the problem up into little pieces. I’d write a routine that did one thing, using 2 or 3 items from the top of the stack and returning usually just 1. And then I’d link those little routines up into bigger ones, that would copy a couple of stack items and pass them to a little routine, and so on. I never had to think about very much of it at once. And then it turned simple.

    After awhile I learned to program bottom-up. Given what the computer could already do, I wrote little routines that served as tools to do things more like what my problem needed. Then I’d use the tools to build tools that were still more aligned with the problem. At each step it was simple. Sometimes I’d find I had built tools that I didn’t actually need, and I’d put them aside. Eventually I had tools that were powerful enough to solve the original problem in a few steps.

    The compiler had an interpreter that let me try things out with no fuss. When I made mistakes I usually found them right away, I’d build a tool and then test it. If it did what it was supposed to, I’d go on to the next tool. It was all easy.

    The language itself was designed to make it easy to write short pieces of code. A good routine had no more than 7 actions or function calls, and there was no clutter. With other languages I’d call a function with the names of the data structures it used in a list inside parentheses. Calling a function could take a whole line of text. With Forth I’d just write the name of the function. The data would be on the stack, and the function would take as much as it needed. If it did wrong, I found out when I tested it. Everything was built around the idea to make it simple and easy to write simple, easy code.

    Then I started to notice when I was getting in trouble. When I felt confused, when I wasn’t sure what to do, it meant I had already taken a wrong turn and I was doing something complicated. Instead of trying to fix what was wrong, I’d throw away everything that felt confusing, and start over with a simpler approach.

    Forth did not have complicated debugging tools. I didn’t need them. When you do it simple and test as you go, that’s all you need. When it’s hard to find your mistakes, your first mistake was to write code that was hard to find mistakes in. Fix that.

    It all fit together. Part of the reason it worked so well was that Forth was designed as the best tool to use to write Forth compilers. So it evolved fast.

    I tried to get all my friends to use Forth. Some of them tried it and said it was way too hard. Some of them said it looked like a neat toy but there were no jobs. I started to see that I had become a believer. I was convinced this was THE best way to solve problems. You build simple tools and fit them together in simple ways. Minimise complicated interdependencies, where some little change HERE causes unexpected changes THERE. Obviously we needed to do all the programming in Forth.

    I kept looking for ways to persuade more people to use Forth. And I kept solving problems with it. Then I had a wonderful opportunity. I got a contracting job using Forth. A company that used Forth was working on a giant project and they needed more people, and I looked like the guy for the job. I studied the specs on the flight to California. There were hundreds of sections, broken down to minimise dependencies. They had done that by first getting one Forth programmer to build a prototype, and he kept asking the customer what exactly they wanted until he figured out how to break it down into pieces. It took him a year. This was the second year, where they had 50 Forth programmers redo all of his pieces. Parts of it were also being duplicated in C.

    I was assigned 3 small pieces. I got the work done in a day, and checked it over the next couple of days. It was clearly right. My supervisor told me to keep working on it. After 2 weeks he said to send in what I had. Based on that, they announced that I was half as productive as my supervisor, and they billed my work at $150/hour. Oh! If he had let me send it in after 1 week, they might have thought I was as good as he was.

    Forth programmers claimed they were 4 to 10 times as productive as programmers in other languages. It was true for me. After a little while I noticed that this had implications. Namely, instead of spending 1/4 of my time programming, 1/4 debugging, 1/4 writing documentation, and 1/4 going to meetings, instead I spent a tiny fraction of my time programming, and about 1/2 writing documentation and 1/2 going to meetings and monitoring the changing specs. WTF?

    The company seemed lopsided. They had a few programmers and a lot of support staff. They needed a whole lot more effort spent on marketing and getting the jobs, and a whole lot less effort on actually doing the work. When the job turned permanent I spend most of my time doing documentation. They needed somebody who could understand the code to write about it, and the code took much longer to document than it did to create in the first place.

    The documentation had to be in Microsoft Word. Industry standard. I was given documents that other people had put together, with pieces written in Word for Windows, Word for Mac, Word for Windows 3.2 etc. It had a collection of self-incompatibilities. The computer I was supposed to use was old and slow. That was not a problem for my work with Forth, which ran fast and compact. And if east european customers had problems with it, I would find out first. Word had problems. I told my manager that Word needed at least 8 megabytes of memory. The company president came to my office to ask about it. That resulted in a lot of swearing. “Utter bloatware! Disgusting! They’re blackmailing us into buying hardware!” But I got my 8 megabytes. And I noticed that when Forth code had to interact with Windows, 90% of the code was the code which dealt with Windows complexity. It was far easier to solve the original problems than it was to handle the man-made complexity.

    I got assigned to help the main marketing guy. He started by checking to make sure I didn’t have moral issues that would interfere with marketing. The company charged an arbitrary hourly rate for programming time, and then didn’t charge at all for other services. So they charged a little extra, more than the actual number of programming hours, to make up for it. Some of it was payment in advance for later tech support. (We had minimal tech support expense both because the stuff mostly just worked, and because customers who accepted Forth in the first place tended to figure things out OK.) Some programmers thought it was immoral to charge for hours not worked. I pointed out that charging for programming hours and only programming hours was arbitrary and the price for the hours was arbitrary, and the important thing was that the customer was satisfied with his product at the final price.

    He told me about some of the difficulties of marketing. I asked why it was hard, when the programmers were 4 to 10 times as productive. “Ah, we don’t want to believe our own propaganda, do we?” I thought about that. I did believe it. But I was spending all my time doing documentation, where I was no more productive than anybody else. It turned out that if he quoted a price more than 10% lower than the competition, his bid would be thrown out because they thought it was fake. If he promised quick results likewise. What he had to do was make a bid that was pretty much like the competition and win, and then the company would pocket the extra money. Oh. Every month an accountant would leave financial statements at the copier so everybody could look at them. It listed how much money each programmer brought in that month. I was officially half a programmer, and so I brought in each month only 20 times as much money as I was paid. There were lots of programmers who wanted the few Forth jobs. I was happy to take the job at that price. The owners were getting richer pretty fast, but they ran a small shop and couldn’t make it bigger, and it was a constant struggle to find work.

    A small niche. If they found an opportunity to expand, to get more work at lower rates and hire more programmers, would they do it? The more Forth programmers who got hired, the more expensive they would turn. And it would be harder to manage more people. Profitability might even go down.

    Forth was an ideal tool for programming. It did not fit the market.

    I started to notice something about maintenance. With other languages, maintenance took different skills from writing original code. The idea was that to make a change or fix a problem, you would figure out just the one spot that needed the change, understand that, and do it. Sometimes fixing one bug would create a new one, and fixing the new one would bring the old one back. When you try to zero in on one tiny piece of code without understanding how it fit into the whole, that could happen. But this was the skill in demand.

    But Forth programs involved small tools that built bigger tools etc. You couldn’t just look at one place, you needed to understand what the tools did. It was very good at avoiding weird interdependencies, but to change it you had to understand what you were doing. Maintaining Forth code took the same skills as writing it, plus some extra. You could write your own code without understanding the special tricks somebody else used. Some managers said that Forth was unmaintainable. Meaning it was more expensive to maintain Forth code well than to maintain other code badly. A manager made a big public splash (among Forth coders anyway) when he fired his two Forth programmers and replaced them with 2 C programmers. “They couldn’t read their own code!” If you have a C routine that takes 32 lines, and it says at the top what it’s supposed to do, you can just look at it and map out what it’s doing. If you have a Forth routine that takes one line and it calls 5 other routines, how do you just look at it and say how it works? Unless you remember it. You look at the first routine and see what it does, then you look at the second one, and you work it out. If you have a manager standing over you saying “Tell me what this does” that can be hard. (Later the 2 C programmers became 4, and then 6, and eventually 12. Because they wrote a lot more code.)

    Forth turned out to be very good for writing webservers. You take data, wrap it in headers, and send it out. No problem. But I didn’t hear that anybody even seriously tried to write a Forth web browser. There were many interlocking protocols, which the other browsers only sometimes followed. People created web pages to work on real browsers, not standard ones. And that was a moving target. To write a web browser that web publishers didn’t target, you had to reverse-engineer the mistakes of a successful browser. Meanwhile you needed to arrange plug-ins for Java, Javascript, Flash, etc. It was too big a job. Forth got used for internet data transfer — send or receive blocks of data and do things to them. The military did that kind of thing a lot. Forth was not used for looking at web pages. Simplicity is good, but when 95% of the problem is dealing with complexity that somebody else has invented at random, it doesn’t help.

    I eventually stopped using Forth. Now to solve physics problems etc on my own time, I use Python. It’s a normal language that was carefully designed to avoid the worst of the usual problems. It has lots and lots of add-ons already designed by other people to do complicated things so I don’t have to think about them.

    I still believe that if you want to create something that works, you mostly have to do it with simple parts connected in simple ways. Anything else will give you results you don’t want and can’t understand. The alternative is to wait through thousands of generations of redesign for something to evolve….

    I *believed* in Forth. It worked for me, and I was sure it would work for other coders better than what they were doing. Maybe I was right about that, but still it did not work well as a way to make money.

  57. Derek: I can relate to what you’re saying. A good deal of my confusion when I’m lurking on skzb’s blog arises from the fact that when most contributors say “God” or “religion” or “faith,” they’re talking about something much different from my understanding of it. The willingness to discuss until we find the point of disagreement is heartening though.

  58. I’m gonna go with Omar Bradley, Uncle Joe, and Vizzini.

    From General Bradley we get the observation: We live in a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.” Science deals with observable (or, increasingly in certain areas of physics, inferable) facts. Something as simple as “Thou shalt not kill” (grammatically, a simple imperative and on its face absolute) works for some ethicists, religious and otherwise, but could never work for a scientist — where’s the evidence for the assertion? If you believe God said it, that’s good enough. Absent God peaking to you, nothing is enough. (Seriously, there was really good evidence for a flat earth phlogiston and a bunch of other cool stuff at one time but new evidence, new theories and new observational tools doomed so many hitherto “factual” theories.) Science cannot provide much in the way or morality or ethics.

    Which brings me to Uncle Joe who apocryphally once asked: “The Pope? How many divisions does he have?” Just as the whole world is not subject to military force analysis, nor is it subject to scientific analysis. I truly love my wife, and that is pretty much the dominant reality in my life, fact or no. Science must be silent or be silly.

    The Eighth Commandment, as any good Pharisee could gave observed, refers to a very particular type of taking. As Vizzini put it: “You’re trying to kidnap what I’ve rightfully stolen.” Appropriation by the working class is only theft by the definition of the regime that viewed capitalist appropriation of the surplus product of labor as legitimate. Under capitalist ethics, theft; under working class ethics, rightful action.

    Is grammar a science?

  59. J. Thomas: Except that, yes, they are. It’s the exercise of faith that eventually leads to the aligning of the will with that of the divine. Trusting in what you don’t really know, or haven’t become at least somewhat familiar with, is not the point of faith. The point of faith is to get to know God, so that hope becomes belief becomes faith becomes knowledge which then becomes the kind of FAITH that motivates constant and consistent positive action (to change the world), which, in a universe in which “God” desires only that “His” children attain all that “He” has, results in never-ending progression (which never devolves into reaction). Of course, all this assumes “a” “God” that is not fundamentally different from humanity, but rather, is simply beyond superhuman, or put another way, a perfected being of the same original nature as humanity, not a being that is completely other than human, with whom our only connection is of “His” choosing, and not innate.

    Side note: I tend to admire more those who hit triples over those who are born on third. Thus, I find a God who has progressed to “its” state of magnificence and desires the same for others, far more admirable, and believable, than one who was simply “born” “above” humanity, and wants everyone to know it.

  60. To skzb: My kids gave me “Tiassa” for Father’s Day. Loved it. Thank you. Still have a soft spot for “Agyar,” though, and I’m sorry, but I also like “Cowboy Feng’s.”

  61. Derek, I like your take on that. I think mahayana buddhism has a similar concept. Some people advance through repeated rebirths until they see through the illusions and could achieve nirvana. But instead they choose to remain behind and help others advance.

    Some of them design whole other universes, and when a person asks them to they may let that person be reborn in their universe where they can advance faster.

    The Christian God fits into that story easily. He has created a Purgatory and a Heaven where people can grow out of their sins faster than rebirth here. He sent a messenger to tell people they can enter his Heaven at their next rebirth mostly if they just ask. He is one of a few bodhisattvas who approached people in the western world outside India and points east.

    But what you call “faith” I think I might call “dedication”. It may matter less that you *believe* than that you persist in becoming what you know you should become.

    After all, if time is one of the illusions, you could be reborn in the world at any era of human history or prehistory. You could in fact be the one who has (and will) progress to become God. Faith that God exists etc would then be far less important than the unswerving duty to create Him.

  62. skzb

    Thank you all for the remarks. I’ve seen some comments like this: “Science deals with observable (or, increasingly in certain areas of physics, inferable) facts.” and, I might be full of shit here, but I’m slowing getting the impression that theists (I hope that is a correct and non-inflammatory term) are saying, “You are too narrow in your definition of religion,” and, “if you use the word science, you must mean exactly THIS.” I find a certain irony in the combination.

    Derek: Thank you. You ought never to feel the need to apologize for liking something I’ve written. If it was one I liked, my reaction is, “Cool! I liked that one too.” If it was one I didn’t like, my reaction is, “Cool! I’m glad I can still please people when I’m not at my best.”

  63. To follow the derailment: I liked Cowboy Feng’s myself, too, but I had the weird feeling I was reading a pastiche at times, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Elements of people like Robinson, Varley and Heinlein and maybe even Haldeman seemed to be manifesting throughout. Was there any intention to emulate any of them? Or is it just my imagination?

  64. Science (how I was trained) is supposed to be able to test an hypothesis. Some of the stuff they are doing now (dark matter, etc) is not testable as of now, at least. So the borders between hard science and belief get pretty fuzzy some times.

  65. “Science (how I was trained) is supposed to be able to test an hypothesis. Some of the stuff they are doing now (dark matter, etc) is not testable as of now, at least. So the borders between hard science and belief get pretty fuzzy some times.”

    If you have multiple hypotheses and you can’t at present test which of them are definitely false, still you can explore just what it is the hypotheses predict. Some of them might seem better because they fit more stuff together and appear to be simpler.

    The farther you explore their consequences, the more likely you find things they predict differently. They may become testable as we learn better what they actually predict.

    In the short run, when you have multiple hypotheses that predict the same things, there is no operational difference among them. You might prefer to use the one which is computationally easiest.

  66. skzb

    Miramon: Nothing conscious.

  67. Our ethics aren’t absolute – whether we are religious or not. Thou shalt not kill – unless we have a good reason. Or capitalism/communism is bad/good – except when we have a good reason. Of course “good reason” is quite variable.

    War is bad
    peace is good
    Never use plastic, if you can use wood.
    Be kind to strangers, give good jobs to vets
    recycle glass bottles, spay neuter your pets.

  68. Fascinating thread. I have several comments. First, let me observe that probably 90% of the inhabitants of the planet hold some religious belief that includes that all those who hold a different belief are mistaken (and maybe evil). And at least 3/4 of them are wrong. Think about that.

    By knowledge I am an agnostic, but by belief I am an atheist.

    A friend of mine observed that before Darwin, religion had a good point. After Darwin, that question disappeared. There is still the question how life originated, but that seems much more tractable than assuming that man somehow appeared.

    In my mind, nationalism is a much worse scourge than religion. Hitler’s system was not overtly religious, but it was overtly nationalist. Now many religions turn nationalistic. I just read about how Buddhists (normally we think of them as peaceable live-and-let-live folks) in Burma are going on rampages murdering Muslims. They are led by a Buddhist monk. They are going after a minority that they think are an evil influence in their country. My real problem with religion is that it encourages this “us vs. them” mentality. Also religious people tend to be absolutist. I was fascinated by J. Thomas’s story because I was once a Forth programmer (for myself, not commercially), loved the language, and wrote a small tex interpreter in it, for my own usage back in the early 80s. But Forth eventually morphed into a religion and the high priests destroyed it. (How? Forth lacked string handling entirely, floating–or even fixed point–arithmetic, integers only and these were decreed to be not to be part of a standard Forth distribution. Sure you could add them yourself but they were painful and there were no standards.)

    But here is the thing about religion, small scale, that I find interesting. Leave aside all the fancy buildings, priests in funny clothes, the hierarchies, it definitely seems to give aid and comfort to the believers. You keep reading stories of criminals, sometimes even violent, who got religion and became model citizens. I don’t understand it, but I cannot deny it happens.

    I also have to recognize that I have some unjustified beliefs. I believe that gods don’t exist. I believe that murder is wrong (take that Vlad!) And theft, including by the capitalist class. And, being a mathematician, my most important article of faith is that mathematics is consistent. I don’t think any of those beliefs can ever be verified and I KNOW that the last cannot be.

  69. “But Forth eventually morphed into a religion and the high priests destroyed it. (How? Forth lacked string handling entirely, floating–or even fixed point–arithmetic, integers only and these were decreed to be not to be part of a standard Forth distribution. Sure you could add them yourself but they were painful and there were no standards.)”

    I think you’re talking about the Forth-83 language standard. They tried to say what you could expect from a Forth compiler, so you could write programs that were guaranteed to run on all standard Forth systems. That experience may have helped people who were making other standards, as they saw the horrible results.

    Forth-83 was better in many ways than the incomplete Forth-79, but it created lots of incompatibilities. Old code didn’t run on new Forth systems. About half the Forth programmers quit then, and new ones slowly took their places. Among other things every Forth-83 standard system had to be 16-bit.

    Eventually many Forth programmers agreed to make a new standard. They did it under ANSI, and it took something like 4 years. Instead of trying to make every Forth compiler alike, they tried to make it possible to tell exactly what was nonstandard about a particular piece of code. It was a communications standard and not a compiler standard. They made a strong effort not to make existing code or existing compilers more nonstandard than they already were.

    So there were many levels of compatibility allowed among compilers. Things like floating point and string handling were added as extra extensions, which a given compiler could support or not. If you wanted a program to be maximally portable you wouldn’t use any of that. Or you could use whatever you wanted and document what it was your program needed.

    Small Forth systems could include even most of the core commands as source code, to be loaded when needed.

    Since Forth was used on tiny microprocessors, big desktops, mainframes, even 1’s-complement mainframes and computers that ran on compressed air which targeted ICBMs, it was very hard to make a standard which could apply to everything. But they eventually reached consensus on most things. The core concept that worked was that when they had two or three competing approaches that were all in common use, instead of choosing one of them they would standardize simple tools that could be used to build any of the competing more complex tools. People could agree on the core tools when there was no possibility they would agree that somebody else’s way would be standard.

    The two big failures there were OO — there were at least 8 incompatible object systems in reasonably common use, and they got tired first — and multitasking, where the underlying methods were themselves so incompatible there was no way to paper them over.

    The new Forth-1994 standard was a giant document compared to previous Forth standards, but small compared to other language standards. A lot of Forth programmers were upset about it. They thought it would get in their way. The large majority of commercial Forth compilers could be declared standard with it, which made some difference to customers. It was possible to declare most Forth code standard, with a lot of documentation. But Forth programmers got upset anyway. They didn’t want any standards at all. Also, the document got written in a sort of technicalese derived from other ANSI standards. You had to learn the language to even read it.

    You might like new Forths. It’s still weak about interoperating with other languages (no standard way to do that, different for each compiler), it’s weak on GUI stuff (no standard way), and it’s weak for internet clients though fine for internet servers.

  70. I was thinking about this thread as I was walking to lunch, and was struck by the recollection of various mentions of the answering of Big Questions as the *purpose* of religion. What’s striking about this is its adorable goofiness, like people who think that the advertisements on network television are there to support the programs, as opposed to the programs being there to get you in front of the advertisements.

    Religion answers Big Questions so as to use the answers it provides to compel your obedience. That’s the beginning and the end of its concern with them. The cute story where it starts with people wondering why the sun does what it does, from which they decide there must be a man operating it, who must be appeased? lol. It starts with some guy deciding that people need to act in X way, so they need to be scared of something, from which point the man operating the sun, since he does not exist, must be invented.

    Ask: have you ever seen a religion answer a Big Question in a way which supports the idea that maybe you shouldn’t do what the religion says?

  71. Well, the Dalai Lama has made a few remarks about using reason to determine for yourself the truth or falsehood of a religion, which would naturally tend to cause anyone to reject the dogmatic and mythological elements of Buddhism in both major branches. But of course you don’t expect an organization to reject its own purpose for existence as part of its normal practice. A religion won’t do that any more than a political party will.

    Imagining for a moment that the leaders of a given religion are honest faith-holders — well it’s conceivable, anyway — naturally they will have considered and rejected the notion that their religion is wrong about anything. It’s a kind of psychosis that warps all of reality to fit a certain set of axioms, even if the axioms are clearly inconsistent or even antinomies..

  72. The reason people watch advertisements is not the same reasons advertisers place them. I think this is much more strongly true of religion. Religion fills a real need in peoples lives, and those of us who reject it need to find ways to replace the valid functions it fills.

  73. skzb

    Chaosprime:”various mentions of the answering of Big Questions as the *purpose* of religion.” Been thinking about this. Here are my issues with it.

    1. You emphasize “purpose” instead of “the.” When speaking of a set of beliefs, it is reasonable to use such terms as, “is used by,” or “the most significant effect of,” or “results in.” To say, “The purpose of,” seems to oversimplify to the point where it becomes wrong.

    2. Effect by itself does not establish intention. One effect of the American Civil War was to create a lot of national parks; but it would hard to argue that that was why it was fought.

    3. It smacks of being a-historical. Religion, by any reasonable definition, has gone through immense changes; some in accordance with changes in the society that produced it, some according to it’s own internal laws. But it seems to me that one must either believe that the development is religious thought somehow falls outside of the historical development of society and the ideas that reflect it; or one must try to understand the progression of religious thought (including it’s rejection in atheism) as part of history. If you believe it falls outside of the historical development of social Man, then you must answer where it did come from; and from there it is difficult to find any answer except “from God,” which I don’t think is where you want to go.

    To make that last point a *little* more concrete: I believe that monotheism permitted an expansion of knowledge that was denied to polytheism, by making the connection between the divine and natural forces more distant and abstract (cf the growth of science in Islamic countries, and in early monasteries). In the same way, Protestantism permitted an expansion of scientific knowledge over Catholicism by freeing science from domination of the Church, and by a further removal of the role of God in natural forces.

    Uh…did that make sense, or have I muddled it? In either case, thanks for making a comment that required me to put my brain in gear; I enjoy that.

  74. skzb: You emphasize “purpose” instead of “the.”

    This is a very good point. So for example, it should be clear that Moses created his religion very much to stay in control of his people. He repeatedly killed priests who tried to compete with him.

    But his people didn’t accept his religion so that he could stay in control of them. They had a variety of reasons to accept it, not least that he put on a good show with occasional slaughter of priests etc.

    When a bunch of people each have their own purposes, it may not make sense to talk about THE purpose.

    If we think about the purpose of the system as a whole, then usually THE purpose is to survive and expand and encroach. This is what systems tend to do. Systems tend to operate to further their own survival, because systems which don’t do that tend not to survive as long.

  75. Wait, did I just see several arguments that a work’s purpose to its consumer is at least as important, if not moreso, than its purpose to its creator? That we shouldn’t privilege authorial intent? Y’all so pomo up in here! I’m so proud. *sniffle*

    But yeah, that’s true, the reason the fish swallows the hook is definitely not the same reason the fisherman baited the hook.

    (Hunh, it’s almost like I’ve heard a metaphor in this context to do with fishing before.)

    Steve: 1) My approach was teleological, not consequential. Or, to talk less like a jackass, by purpose I meant what the people who wrote the books and built the organizations were trying to do. 2) Yup. 3) I definitely place religion in the historical development of social Man; specifically, I place it as the predominant form of competitive sport in the area around of fucking around with the historical development of social Man.

    I don’t even mean that entirely as a metaphor. We have Christianity because at that time and in that place, competitive cult-founding was what the kids did because they didn’t have football. Jesus got his start in John the Baptist’s gang, then ripped off half the guy’s shtick and followers like a shitty comedian.

  76. Forth is a peculiar sort of religion. It’s about the right way to do something.

    The argument is that the right way to build computer programs is to simplify everything you can, pretty much as far as possible.

    Use simple compilers because they don’t have as many bugs and they’re easier to understand.

    Use simple interpreters because you get immediate results and you can test your ideas quickly.

    Use simple subroutine calls because complications are inefficient and, well, complex.

    Use simple syntax because the less you type, the fewer typos you’ll make. And the less code you have to look at at one time, the easier it is to understand. Also that lets the compiler and interpreter be simpler.

    Use lots of tiny subroutines because it makes the whole thing smaller, and each little idiomatic phrase that turns into a named routine makes your source code and compiled code both shorter.

    Use the same language at all levels. High-level code consists of commands that each do one thing — at a high level. Low-level code is made of commands that each do one thing at a low level. Use a simple assembler if you need to extra-efficient code for lowest-level functions.

    It all made sense and it worked. A C programmer who wrote 30,000 lines of code always had bugs somewhere. A Forth programmer who wrote 100 lines of code might possibly get it right. Not that 100 lines of Forth could do the same things as 30,000 lines of well-written C. But it was very very hard to create 30,000 lines of well-written C….

    It wasn’t about God. It wasn’t about how the world was made. It was only about workable ways to get things done. But we treated it like a religion. It was a religion.

    Forth programmers felt a certain kinship just because they were Forth programmers, because we knew the truth together that the bigger community missed.

    Even in a small community we had terrible schisms. People got into some ugly fights about the right way to do Object Oriented programming. They were all basicly doing the same things, but they wrote it down differently. I myself felt like for reasonably simple projects it was better to just organize your source code as if things were objects, and think about things as if they were objects, and not clutter your compiler with actual code to enforce objects. If you actually needed OO, probably your code was too complicated, you had already made your fundamental mistake.

    It was like a religious faith. But we each had our repeated miracles to justify that faith. When you are working hard on something that takes more than 50 lines of code, and then you see how to throw away most of it and do everything you really needed in 2 lines, that’s a blessing. It takes a certain quality to feel smart for seeing it, and not stupid for not seeing it earlier.

    I eventually quit partly because there wasn’t enough free software that other people had done. If I did something great, it was one great thing done in Forth, and then I could start working on the next one. Other languages had lots and lots of buggy free stuff I could use, that was compatible with complicated standards which were partly unwritten. But other people kept going. They started designing Forth computer chips. The lowest level of Forth is like the assembly language for a simplified computer chip. Why not actually build the chip? They made tiny chips that were insanely fast. And of course Forth tended to run fast on PCs, too. When your whole program and much of your data fit into L1 cache, you don’t generate so many cache misses.

    It was a small group of bright people who got incredible results. But no matter how well they did, they would always be a small group that would mostly get ignored by the world. And the rest of the computing world was getting so big and complicated that they would not be able to track it. They could accomplish so much only because they ignored complicated standards and just did what it took to get results. That made them incompatible with everybody else and therefore ignored.

  77. I’ve been seeing an oddly inconsistent position propounded here. To assert evil motives to a historical religion’s central figures (moses, jesus) appears to simultaneously accept and reject the axioms of that religion. The two logical positions appear to be acceptance of the religion or its rejection as myth. If it’s true, then clearly the central figures were not evil. If it’s myth, there’s no reason to believe that its central figures existed in any form related to their portrayal in that religion. If I’m going to disbelieve the bible’s story of miracles, why should I believe it’s story of Moses?

    Obviously a different standard can be applied to modern “religious” figures such as David Koresh.

  78. skzb

    Chaosprime: “wrote the books and built the organizations were trying to do” Okay, that makes sense.

    David Karger: If you’re referring to Chaosprime, he spoke of the leaders of certain religions, he did not specify Jesus and Moses, who may or may not have actually exhisted, but rather those who wrote the texts and created the organizations. If you mean someone else, I missed it.

  79. J Thomas: Right. Religion is about controlling behavior. If the behavior being specified weren’t *better* for some purpose, nobody would bother specifying it.

    David Karger: Historicity can be evaluated separately from extraordinary claims. For my part, review of primary sources (I spent a couple years learning to read Torah in Hebrew, possibly applying a different sort of reading than typical) definitely left me with the best-guess evaluation that Isaac, Abraham and Jacob are made up and Moses was an actual human (of the bloodthirsty authoritarian social engineer stripe). If you’ve ever read a text and spotted where an awkward or mistaken edit was made, you have a basic idea of my methodology.

  80. I mean, having a bunch of nonsense attributed to you doesn’t make you stop existing. I’m pretty sure the historicity of Muhammad is undisputed, innit? But then again, there is an interesting hint of phase transition there. Is there some point where the structure of made-up wackjobbery surrounding one reaches the point where one is, for all purposes, a made-up person, even though one existed? Hell, when people think Jesus was from Nazareth because they don’t know what a Nazirite was, how much can we even say the actual human has to do with the conceptual human? Yet there are probably traces of what the mooted actual human said and did left suspended in the corpus of the conceptual human, like insects in amber, so the actual human doesn’t seem to be gone either.

    Mmm, delicious epistemic ambiguity. It’s what’s for breakfast.

  81. Oh, right. Of course there’s such a point. It’s called “apotheosis”.

  82. I think David K’s comment is to the effect that some people feel that a religious history must be either accepted totally as true or else rejected totally as false.

    I think that is a temperament type characteristic. Some people cannot handle ambiguity. Unfortunately, history of any type, is full of ambiguity, fabrications, distortions and lies as well as truth. Kind of hard to sort through all that stuff with any kind of confidence. Easier to just declare it all true or false.

  83. Oops, I guess I let slip which side of the ambiguity fence I come down on.

  84. chaosprime, did you really hope to keep that ambiguous?

  85. Maaaybe I did, maaaybe I didn’t.

  86. Huh.

    If science is not something that traffics in empirically and/or inferably verified stuff, what is it?

    Observe, hypothesize, test — science, or scientific method by which we know science. If it is not subject to measurement directly or indirectly, hard to hypothesize in a falsifiable way. If it is not subject to measurement, absolutely no way to devise a repeatable experiment. Where the scientific method cannot go, science cannot (at least at that time and at that state of knowledge) go, either.

    At least that’s what my science teaches rather insisted on.

    It’s not me being a theist that has trouble with applying to the scientific approach to a variety of human conditions, it’s me being a guy with degrees in political philosophy. I just see it as boiling down to this: meaningful hypotheses can be proposed and tested with things that can be measured to some fine degree and which are subject to known or also hypothesized physical laws. Hydrogen atoms, for example, are predictable in any given state that we now about, though down near zero Kelvin lots of things get weird.

    But no hydrogen atom has EVER been observed to do something completely out of the blue totally unanticipated and unanticipatable. People, though, do that with alarming frequency. Science, as a tool, is not optimal here.

    I wonder what it is that I fail to understand about the capacity of science.

  87. I agree. Science is a method. By itself, it has no say in what should be done (value judgments and morality). Religion has a lot to say about that stuff, but doesn’t have a good method to get there (God said it, typically doesn’t allow much room for analysis).

    I personally see no conflict between science and the possible existence of God. I see lots of conflict between religion and science. But most of that is really some form of politics when you get down to it.

  88. “But no hydrogen atom has EVER been observed to do something completely out of the blue totally unanticipated and unanticipatable.”

    Yes, they do and often. But it doesn’t affect the average behavior very much, so people tend to ignore it.

    Or if it’s important, they figure out how often to expect it and just take it from there.

    Tritium atoms do radioactive decay and there’s currently no hint of a way to predict which atom will do it or when it will do it. But after much study the rate can be predicted and so with large amounts of tritium the average results are predictable.

    Humans are the same way except we care about the details. Since we pay attention to so many more details, we see a richness of behavior that we don’t bother to look for from hydrogen atoms.

    Probably if we observed hydrogen atoms closely we would find that they are not as complicated as human beings. But we haven’t looked….

  89. Sounds like you’ve been talking to Hari Seldon….

  90. J Thomas is pointing out the problem between individual events and statistics (the bastard child of mathematics and science). I would have if he hadn’t. We like to pretend that science is exact as opposed to people things which are not. But as we see more detail now, the fine details of physics are fuzzy dice. Science News has an article on Neils Bohr. It’s been 100 years since he figured out atomic structure. Science is still fairly new.

  91. Let us not consider quantum events such as radioactive decay that are consistent with theory and whose probabilities can be calculated and measured as “unanticipated and unpredictable”. Of course they are both anticipated and predictable; it’s just that without a hidden variable, the predictions are probabilistic.

    Actually it was Rutherford who figured out atomic structure.

  92. Miramon, in the individual case you can’t predict when an atom will decay, not at all.

    And you can’t predict what an individual human will do.

    But humans and atoms are both predictable within some limits, in mass. You can largely predict how many people in DC will go which directions on the Beltway at rush hour. Is this qualitatively different from predicting how many atoms will decay in a given time, out of millions?

  93. Actually, you can predict an individual atom’s decay. You just have to express it in probabilistic and temporal terms, e.g. “The atom will decay in the next second with p=0.99+” — let’s say it’s an atom of Livermorium. The accuracy of that prediction is rather greater than that of most “deterministic” experimental results throughout history. And the same thing applies to a much more stable atom. A statement regarding the decay of a U-235 atom’s decay in the next second can also be quite certain: “with p=0.99+ the atom won’t decay”. You may be surprised if it does; but then you will also be surprised if various commonplace macroscopic events with rather lower probabilities take place or fail to take place. For that matter, even a single-photon two-slit experiment with two solutions each of which has p=~0.5 is just as amenable to analysis; and with p=0.99+ you can predict the photon shows up in one place or the other.

    Of course you can also predict what an individual human will do. As I’m sure skzb would point out, this is the essence of success at poker, but there are many other less technical situations in which you can be quite confident of a given person’s behavior.

    Unless you want to say that nothing in the world can be expected, anticipated or predicted if a p less than 1 is associated with them — a reasonable philosophical position but not a very practical one — I think that essentially all events have to be considered as potentially subject to analysis, though certain of their properties may not be accessible in any given experiment.

  94. I agree with J. Thomas. Even if some event has a well known probability distribution, you cannot predict individual events within that distribution with accuracy. Otherwise the very concepts of distribution and probability are meaningless. You are throwing the terms out there, but have you actually done experiments? You can only predict trends and distributions. Even in poker, the better player sometimes loses because his predictions do not work out. You can only play the odds.

  95. > You can only play the odds.

    Certainly; but this observation applies to all events in the universe. No events are deterministic, all are probabilistic. Therefore, by your and J. Thomas’s arguments, nothing can reasonably be predicted, and all events are unexpected and unanticipated. But perhaps you have some cut-off Bayesian assessment level for a probability which should make for an anticipated and expected event? If so, then my Livermorium example stands, because the probability of that example statement being true is very close to 1.

  96. Miramon, by your radioactive decay example, humans are far more predictable than uranium or livermorium. The probability that one individual human being — say you personally — will die within the next 500 years is higher than the probability that a particular atom of livermorium will decay within the next 500 years.

    Radioactive decay appears to fit an exponential distribution, while human death appears to follow more a weibull or gompertz distribution.

    Anyway, my point is that we predict natural phenomena basicly the same way we predict mass human actions, and our methods don’t work on individual natural events much better than they work on individual human events.

    The difference tends to be that we care more about the complexities of human events than we do about the complexities of natural events, and we pay more attention to those complexities. Also we attribute free will to humans and not to natural events.

  97. I understand what you’re saying, I just think you are hugely overstating your case re both individual quantum events and individual humans. Of course statistical predictions over large samples are safer and more reliable, but there can be no reliability at all for such prediction unless there is also a certain base reliability to predictions for the individuals in the population. Otherwise there would be no distribution at all, and a sample or even a whole population would just be pure chaos bearing no information or shape.

    Also, just to nitpick, I’d say you’re clearly wrong about livermorium vs. human death. It’s enormously more likely the atom will decay than that anyone will die in 500 years, despite the fact we have no evidence of anyone living even 150 years. It’s a lot less likely a Livermorium atom survives 5 minutes.

    Let’s say for the sake of argument your chance to survive a year at age 100 is 50%, and this base p is multiplied by .5 every year thereafter. I just pulled that out of… thin air, but it’s vaguely plausible and you might even believe me if I told you it was based on actual data. Compare the chance of living to 500 on that basis to the chance of a Livermorium atom decaying in the same time, given that the half life of a Livermorium atom is 60 ms or so….. p(decay) has vastly more 9s in the .999… figure than p(death).

    See Dennett re “sorta” free will, by the way. He argues that the illusion of free will is good enough for any conscious actor, which is just as well, because that’s all there is.

  98. Miramon, I find your arguments strange to say the least. First you say individual events can be predicted accurately, then you say nothing can be predicted. Then you put out straw-man arguments which you say Thomas put forth. Do you have some point or do you just like to argue?

  99. That’s insulting, David. I’m trying to extend your and J Thomas’s arguments to their logical conclusion, but apparently either my point is not clear, you didn’t grasp my attempt to do that, or you are just trolling yourself.

    1. J Thomas seemed to me to say that individual events cannot be predicted at all, only distributions and populations in aggregate. He said specifically that individual human behavior cannot be predicted.

    2. I said in contradiction that individual events can be predicted with various probabilities, and that individual human behavior can also be predicted, with some accuracy. Obviously the accuracy of individual predictions is lower than the accuracy for statistical aggregations both for quantum events and for human behavior, but the accuracy is always less than perfect for any prediction, so that doesn’t seem very significant, philosophically.

    3. My point, which you seem not to have understood, is that if you consider individual quantum events or human decisions to be unpredictable simply because they have probabilities associated with them, then you must consider all macroscopic events to be unpredictable and all collections of human behavior to be unpredictable for the same reason. I however, do not agree with this position, as you seem to think, but I’m claiming it’s consistent with your position.

    Now if you’d like to discuss this notion, feel free, but if you’d rather insult me, I have better things to do than debate you on skzb’s blog.

  100. If I chose to insult you, you would know it. There would be no doubt. Probability = 1.00.

  101. skzb

    Those who believe that the scientific method only applies to what they call the “hard sciences” will never understand what they call the “hard sciences.” Every discipline of science was once soft, pliable, malleable until we understood it better. Then we gain a deeper understanding and rigid, inflexible rules appear. Then we gain yet a deeper level of understanding, and the complexity of contradiction within and the interpenetration between disciplines becomes apparent; at which point the very borders between disciplines become open to question.

    None of this means we cannot understand the world in a scientific manner; indeed, it is exactly how we do so. Being aware of these changes, and attempting to understand them in all of their complexity is how the scientific method changes.

    Because the “scientific method” is no more static and immutable and perfect and given for all time than is the discipline of biology, or the processes biology attempts to describe.

    But the argument that began this latest round–the old chestnut about humans making arbitrary, meaningless decisions–cannot be made by someone who has given the least thought to the matter. Every human decision is made for a reason. If we do not yet understand the social pressures that are at work on a given individual, and the material defects in his brain that might cause certain actions, and the emotional pressures he may be operating under, that does not make it unknowable. Human beings are part of objective reality, hence they are a fit study for science. A “scientific method” that denies this is far, far too rigid to adequately describe anything in today’s world.

  102. You are, of course, completely right. But it could make an interesting story line or subplot for a person’s choice or an event to happen that is totally unexplainable by normal reasoning processes. At least initially.

  103. Miramon, you could easily be right. Maybe when people are 100 years old their chance of survival is 50% per year from then on.

    i doubt this. There’s nobody documented living much over 120 years old, and old people seem to keep getting frailer. I think it’s quite plausible that the probability of survival decreases each year above 100, and it decreases faster each year, to the point that somewhere around 150 or 200 or 250 it becomes zero. Not “you have one chance in 100,000 of living another year”. Zero. Of course I could be wrong.

    But if I’m right about that, then there is a chance for a livermorium atom to last 500 years because it fits an exponential distribution, while there is no chance for a human to last 500 years.

    But there is no statistical evidence for my claim. The number of human beings who have died may be less than 10 billion. No matter how many of them there were, there’s no statistical proof possible that humans can’t live for 500 years. A proof for that would have to come by some other method.

  104. Miramon, on review I find that JP claimed human beings are qualitatively different from hydrogen atoms because human beings do weird stuff that cannot be predicted or understood, while hydrogen atoms are almost completely understood except at very low temperatures and no hydrogen atom ever does anything unexpected.

    I claim this is not certain, and I present arguments why humans might seem to be qualitatively different and yet not be.

    I’m not clear yet quite how my disagreement with you came about. I’m not clear what you are saying or what you think I’m saying.

    Individual human events can be predicted with probabilities, and a probability is an estimate of how much you don’t know. Maybe it’s possible to know more and get a better prediction with that knowledge.

    Here’s a specific example. If an election is coming up and you do a poll, with some uncertainty you might estimate that 60% of the population will not vote, 20% will vote for a democrat, and 19% will vote for a republican. You can use that information to predict that there is a 60% chance that I will not vote, a 20% chance I will vote for a democrat, and 19% chance I will vote for a republican. Then I do something and whatever I do is consistent with your claim.

    But suppose you get to ask me a question, and I tell you that I hate republicans and will do whatever I can to keep them from being elected. That changes the odds. I will probably vote for a democrat. Or I could tell you I hate republicans. Or maybe that I think they are all crooked and there isn’t a dimes worth of difference between them. Or I’m a dedicated Libertarian and there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between republicans and democrats.

    Or I might think that they’re all crooked and it’s good to switch around the vote so that new faces get a chance at the trough, and anyway they’ll pay more attention to what I want if they think I haven’t already decided. Then my answer might not help you much.

    With more information, people on average get more predictable and some people get more predictable than others.

    Now imagine that people had firm political opinions that they had never really thought about. And any time you ask them what they think, they blurt out whatever they believe and then they start thinking. As if every poll was a highly-effective random push poll. Then the very act of getting more information about an individual would make that information obsolete. You could still sample individuals to get information about the mass of people you hadn’t sampled, but you couldn’t really predict individuals beyond figuring that they’re part of the average.

    That’s where physicists think we are with physics. They assume there is no possible way to get information about an individual hydrogen atom that lets you predict it better. And it’s a reasonable assumption since currently there is no known way to do that.

    And if you’re asking when an individual tritium atom will decay, we don’t even know what to look for. Is there some observable behavior that tritium atoms do that tells you a second in advance that it’s likely to decay? I haven’t heard of it. Can you do anything to make it more likely to decay? Maybe if just the right neutrino hits it at just the right time…. put it next to a neutrino source. But you can’t aim neutrinos. Get it to absorb a neutron. But you can only statistically aim neutrons.

    Meanwhile, JP says that if you can’t measure something you can’t do science on it. I think he’s right about that. He says we can’t measure the totality of human behavior so we can’t do science on the totality of human behavior, with current methods. Right again. I don’t see any theoretical reason we can’t someday understand human behavior as thoroughly as hydrogen atoms, while he seems to think that everything about hydrogen is understood and humans can never be understood. I don’t see that there has to be a qualitative difference. But at the moment he’s right that moles of hydrogen are easier to predict than all the details of an individual human.

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